You can't buy it off the shelf

Helen Cole

Over recent years, Australia has played host to some of the UK’s most acclaimed artistic innovators: Blast Theory, 32000 Points of Light, Dan Belasco Rogers, Forced Entertainment, Duckie and curious.com. At a time when artists considered to exist on the experimental edges of British culture are being welcomed worldwide, it seems timely to contemplate their origins. What brought them to where they are now? How much further than mere physical distance have they come to meet you? Who will follow in their footsteps and what will they leave in their wake?

In February this year, hot on the heels of recent Edinburgh and London success, Duckie presented C’est Vauxhall in the unlikely surroundings of Sydney’s Opera House Studio. Believe me, to our tired British eyes, it is hardly possible to find a more glamorous location. Duckie’s home from home is a pub in the backstreets of London’s Vauxhall, its regulars used to a bewildering diet of showbiz wannabes and live art show-offs performing amidst the lager and crisps. Over the years, Duckie have produced ice extravaganzas, arty discotheques, sleepovers and sideshows in the nomadic, entrepreneurial spirit of old-style, cockney entertainers. Duckie have earned their stripes! Now they coyly giggle as they are invited into the Pit at the Barbican in London, knowingly kick up their heels as they infiltrate the Opera House, and let out a rude laugh as they accept a string of Fringe Firsts, Olivier and Total Theatre Awards. The truth is Duckie have always been sprinkled liberally with stardust and it is easy to understand why our colleagues in the artistic mainstream are utterly seduced by their dirty turning of tricks. Duckie are sublime because they emanate from that dingy pub in Vauxhall and can’t and won’t deny their roots.

Forced Entertainment have become one of the world’s seminal theatre companies, working from their small studio in the Yorkshire steel town of Sheffield. Their work is often grimly undercut with failure, risk, doubt and questioning. The individuals in the company continue to put themselves in real, awkward, ridiculous situations before an audience who are both attracted and repulsed. As UK Theatreland desperately grasps at survival by shrugging off its conservative mantle, major institutions are on the prowl for elusive innovation. In the wake of this new interest in the radical, Forced Entertainment is a prime target. Artistic Director Tim Etchells has recently said it would be death if they ever allowed themselves to be absorbed into the mainstream. Lucrative residencies at major national venues continue to beckon, but to encase themselves too far within the institution would be to cut off their life blood. They cherish their position as outsiders. Their blend of interdisciplinarity and experimentation belongs in the twilight. Faded theatres, intimate venues and forgotten spaces are their home.

In the UK, on the eve of 2000, as fireworks and street parties celebrated the coming of the new millennium, a remarkable project marked an alternative passing of time. Small Acts for the Millennium brought together artists, producers, curators, scholars and audiences, each with the credentials of the proud innovator coursing through their veins. Co-curated by Lois Keiden and Tim Etchells, and edited by Adrian Heathfield, the project presented a collection of ephemeral acts of passing. In a small town in the British Midlands, in his old primary school hall, Alex Kelly of Third Angel retold the life stories of his fellow classmates of 76. Bully boys squeezed into the front row where they once sat, the chairs now too small for their 30-something backsides. A couple of weeks later, in an unknown city, in the function room of a hotel, Kira O’Reilly celebrated her birthday with a group of strangers, who each received a cup marked with her blood and etched with a different story of survival. These were performances in extraordinary/ordinary, unlikely, uncomfortable and unattractive spaces: collieries, motorway junctions, car parks. Shy and meaningful, intimate and universal, these acts were witnessed only by a few, but they resonate powerfully within the pages of the publication and are set to do this for many years to come.

Innovative work needs an audience instinctively drawn to the singular pleasures of the outsider. In the UK, as in Australia, innovative work is often seen as inaccessible, difficult or challenging. At the recent TBA Festival in Portland, Oregon I was surprised and enlightened by an audience who described themselves as ‘truth seekers’ seeking a restless/unrestful place. In the US, a country that is increasingly seen by the outside world as myopic and arrogant, this audience sought artists who refused to entertain, comfort or shield them, but helped them face up to the difficulties of a shifting world.

How do we create these meeting points for artist and audience? Are they venue, postcode or artform specific? In my view they are not. They come about in a silent contract between artist, producer and public, in the uncertain, in-between spaces. They are created by remarkable, driven individuals, not major institutions. In the UK they can be found in rare contexts such as Inbetween Time, Fierce and the National Review of Live Art. As a Portland audience member memorably explained: “I have been steered to not bother if I like something or I don’t. I don’t have to find what I see beautiful. I have been helped to take risk.” As a regular visitor and collaborator I already know that in Australia you are also lucky enough to have such contexts and people. If you are a fellow innovator, you will know who and where they are.

In their desire to remain outside the mainstream, Duckie, Forced Entertainment and Small Acts sum up for me the essence of the radical act and underline a series of unique collaborations steeped in innovation. If we were to psychometrically test our innovators what would we find? A pinch of deviousness, a drop of provocation and equal measures of tenacity, evangelism and irritation. You can’t buy innovation off the shelf. You cannot engineer the original, you have to invest in its early steps. So Lady Mainstream you can embrace the avant-garde as you always have, you can even have a piece of it, but you can never ever own it. Here in the UK, the roots of innovation, its heart and soul, are alive and kicking in the backstreets of London, Bristol, Birmingham and Bridgwater. Despite the glittering tights and the high kicks, Duckie’s makeup is slipping and the dark room of the pub in Vauxhall is beckoning them to return.

Footnote: Some must-see wannabes, the innovators’ legacy—a non-comprehensive list of some of the new UK generation. Richard Dedemonici’s controversial contemplation on terrorism using the cannons of Edinburgh Castle trained on the site of Scotland’s fledgling independent parliament building. Jon Fawcett drilling a hole in the wall of the Arches in Glasgow and filling it with pure, spun gold. Paul Morley’s series of unbearable, touching works: Becoming Sparrow, Becoming Snail, Becoming Worm. Yara El-Sherbini standing in a public space in Cairo, singing Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More Time into a toy plastic gun with “God Bless America” spelt out in sequins on the back of her burkha. Kate Stannard’s duet with a plucked chicken. Phil Stanier’s opening apology for a bad show we will never see. Grace Surmon’s bunny costume with bracelets made from toasted white bread. Tom Marshman’s bitter chocolate box lament.

Arnolfini/IBT: www.arnolfini.org.uk/inbetween

Duckie: www.duckie.co.uk

Forced Entertainment: www.forced.co.uk

NRLA: www.newmoves.co.uk

LADA: www.thisisliveart.co.uk

Guardians of Doubt: www.guardiansofdoubt.org

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 42

© Amanda Cole; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2004
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