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For the sake of form

Notes on the first PROFORMA by Chris Bailkoski


As the smoke from the machine was clearing, it drifted into the 80-year-old art deco auditorium of the theatre that had housed the makeshift gallery on its stage. This residual energy clinging to the once seated audience as an ephemeral souvenir of the performances and artworks they had witnessed over three acts. The first edition of PROFORMA existed for 3 ½ hours and signalled the birth of a new annual contemporary art festival for the Greater Manchester region. This is a festival born from a belief that artists expand our understanding of the world around us and that their art can challenge and question our perceptions of this world. The region's vibrant artist-led exhibition culture provides an essential platform for these artist dialogues, and PROFORMA is a new addition to this culture where, as we will see, the urgency of time and the enquiry of the non-gallery site are also fundamental to its structure.    


The commonplace practice of using non-gallery spaces and time restricted frameworks provides many artists and curators economic and institutional freedom with the opportunity to subvert orthodox exhibition structures into an exhibition-as-event model. In contemporary history, the event has been used by many curators such as Walter Hopps, Nato Thompson and Hans Ulrich Obrist as a way to radically alter our understanding of the exhibition. Hopps’ democratic approach for the exhibition Thirty-Six Hours (1978) was in exhibiting any artwork brought to him by any artist on a first come first served basis until 36 hours expired or the space was full. Here, artists of any background and standing were given an equal opportunity to exhibit and the exhibition was held in the ironically titled repurposed shop, Museum of the Temporary.  


Working with the artist and activist Suzanne Lacy, Nato Thompson curated Between the door and the street (2013), a collaborative art-as-social-practice project that centred on organising diverse groups of activists from across New York City. Culminating in performances and sound installations presented over the course of a day with 60 stoops activated as galleries on a street in Brooklyn, performers would generate unscripted conversations with the attending public, stimulating discussions across a range of issues, ranging from gender to race. While both examples have wildly different agendas and outcomes, they present ways of disseminating artworks in time restricted formats. They also highlight the importance of site, whether shop or street, through utilising their inherent associations, the sale of goods or community neighbourhoods, to encourage artist development, in these cases through breaking down perceived hierarchies or encouraging debate and collaboration.


Delving into Manchester contemporary art practices, the region has its own rich history of collaboration and exhibiting art as an event. The contemporary roots of this can be traced back to the punk and post-punk period of the 1970s with performance artists such as Linder Sterling and art rock groups like The Fall. In the 1990s, there was a relatively microscopic but highly active artist-led exhibiting culture that included exhibition series such as The Annual Programme organised by Martin Vincent and Nick Crowe. T.V.O.D and The Savage Club by Laurence Lane and Paulette Terry Brien and Kunstlerpopp by David Mackintosh. These exhibitions offered a solution to economic restraints by occurring in pubs, clubs, shops, homes – anywhere – utilising each of the sites attributes to inform the work and develop artistic practice. They also situated Greater Manchester artists within the wider art world conversations that were occurring at that time through exhibiting nationally and internationally, laying the foundations for future artistic endeavours in the region. From this local foundation the region has developed a vibrant artist-led exhibition culture with current studio galleries such as Caustic Coastal and Paradise Works, both in Salford, and the New Art Spaces project instigated by Castlefield Gallery that have helped foster a region wide community of highly productive and active artists and curators.


Through active experience and lived research, the desire to create an artist-led festival in the North West region had been percolating for a long time. In the crisp winter of 2018, fortuitously, there was an urgent spark to ignite this desire from concept into practice. The spark was initiated with artists Lizz Brady and Rory Mullen over drinks in a local pub (like so many great ideas), each of us sharing a common interest in exhibiting art outside of traditional gallery spaces. Brady was keen to collaborate long term to create a new festival and Mullen wanted to collaborate with a curator to present an evening of performance in a theatrical setting. 


There has been a long tradition of artistic movements exhibiting in theatres, from the nonsense cabarets of the Dada movement to the D.I.Y performances of the Fluxus group. Closer to home, at the 2007 commissioning festival Manchester International Festival, the Opera House became a gallery for Il postino del tiempo. Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Phillipe Parreno, and translating as the postman of time it was an exhibition that would occupy time rather than space. Here the exhibition followed a format of each artist performing for 20 minutes maximum and exhibited the work of international artists ranging from Douglas Gordon, Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler. For their performance, Barney and Belper presented a burned-out car with a live bull attempting to fornicate with an effigy of a cow sprayed with hormones all of which proved somewhat controversial at the time.


Drawing on this research and the history of exhibition-as-event, we unanimously agreed that the beautiful and iconic Dancehouse Theatre would be the perfect institution to activate as a gallery for one night only. As we set about organising the first event, writing seemingly endless pro forma for funding applications and other standard documents relating to the beginning of most ventures, the name PROFORMA was taken for this thing we were creating with equal amounts of seriousness and irony. Literally translating as for the sake of form, PROFORMA has become a mantra for the festival, exhibiting for the sake of form with the main aim of reflecting the creative diversity of the artists in the region and promoting the dynamic art forms they produce. While this diversity informed the artist selection process, research of the site specifically and theatre in general was also a factor in selection with the building and Epic Theatre informing curatorial strategy. 


Created by Erwin Pescator, Epic Theatre was a response to the political climate of 1930’s Germany, coincidentally the same decade as the Dancehouse’s art deco interior was constructed, and productions would involve multi-disciplinary arts presented as montage, often with set rearrangements in full view of the audience. The foremost progeny of this form of production was Bertolt Brecht. For Brecht’s friend, the philosopher Walter Benjamin, theatre was epic because the stage became a public platform, a dialectical tool for the performer and the use of montage to present a diverse range of practices was an illusionary strategy used to interrupt this public. 


In the planning of how the as-yet-unknown diverse range of artworks would be exhibited on the stage, the epic process of montage became the preeminent curatorial method of dissemination. In this way, every inanimate object would be exhibited on the stage at the start of the night, on display in their entirety and activated by the artists when it was time for their scene in the corresponding act. As acts progressed, these once active works would be removed, gradually revealing more of the beauty of the stage to the audience, rewarding their perseverance throughout the evening.   


With all the component parts in place, we earnestly set about selecting artists. Jonathan Whitter was the first artist to be commissioned for PROFORMA, designing Bosch Beer that was available in the months before the exhibition as a limited edition, consumable, fundraising artwork. For Bosch Beer, he referenced ‘fake news’, the Paul Manefort trial and media misinformation, reflecting epic theatre as a response to the political climate 80 years ago. Whitter is an outsider artist, and his painstakingly detailed digital animations and artworks are rarely exhibited. 


The subversive films of Nightshift International acted as interruption signifiers at the start and end of each act. The films of the artists and actors, Sarah Boulter and Elliott Flanagan, are studies of opposing notions of traditional masculine and feminine tropes that appear to be from a bygone era through their use of analogue recording equipment and dated costume. The content and production of these films, hinting at long neglected interiors and lives through glossed over sheens, reflecting the auditorium of The Dancehouse and its much-lived-in shabby beauty.  


Through conversations with artist Stina Puotinen, who creates work that incorporates the humorous and intervention, often highlighting the absurd of the everyday through manipulation and repetition. Puotinen proposed to activate the intermissions between each act, the only time the curtains were closed and visible to the audience. By amplifying inane and whispered chatter, Puotinen would exploit audience expectations during the evening. Lee Patterson amplifies the sounds of objects and the transition of states which form the raw materials of his practice. The stage would become an instrument for his performance as much as the objects Patterson employs in his work, the audience eavesdropping on the conversations between objects, states and structures. 


In a similar approach to the conversations of objects, but with wildly opposing agendas, the relationship between film and sculpture is further explored in the art of Omid Asadi. Asadi’s work fascinates due to the deceptive beauty of objects such as kites, carpets and barrels that on closer inspection hide sinister political motives in their creation. Rory Cook uses spoken word to comment on the everyday and mundane nature of contemporary life. Embracing irony, his work combines poetry with found prose including online reviews of the very equipment he brings to the stage. 


John Powell-Jones’ multi-media work, on the other hand, creates whole worlds. Often dystopian, these are worlds where sinew, blood and sweat are referenced in the ceramic sculptures he creates and often wears. As a builder of worlds, he becomes the dictator of subservient imagined people and this aspect of cruelty in the underbelly is a reflection of the real world around us. Endurance and social relationships would inform the work of Nicola Dale for the evening. Dale’s practice explores sculpture and performance, her work for the evening inspired by Brecht’s desire to promote social relations and expose the mechanics of production both as an individual and as an active sculpture.   


Lying somewhere between uncomfortable observations on human existential crisis and the Goon Show, Rory Mullen’s performances often involve physical transformations and transport the viewers to new absurd realms of the banal. In his collaboration with musician Karl Astbury they proposed to perform a heart-breaking treatise on love and affection featuring a visceral montage of moving image, costume and music tinged with a toxic nostalgia. 


With Brecht’s instruction that music should interrupt epic theatre, it was right that artists with live musical performances should close each on-stage act before the films of Nightshift International and this informed the selection of Helmut Lemke, Raphael Mura and the band Lost Under Heaven. Lemke is an artist who consistently disrupts our expectations of the possibilities of art through a sustained dynamic practice of nearly 40 years. This includes creating manifestos, sheet music for birds and environmental activism. For the evening he proposed to perform a recital of several of Brecht’s works, from poems to songs, bridging the historical significance of the past to the present. 


Lizz Brady created a collaboration with musician Raphael Mura, having worked together before on moving image and musical performances. Brady proposed to produce the visuals to background Mura’s foregrounded performance as ‘No Mercury’. The combination of film projection and the energy of the on-stage performance would provide a fitting multi-media, aural sensory close to the second act. Bringing the whole event to a close, Brady, Mullen and I wanted to showcase one of the most talented bands Manchester currently has to offer (and in the spirit of those nights 40 years ago) in Lost Under Heaven. Operating between art and music, they would bring their loved-up sensuality to the now minimal stage consisting of two guitars and a drum kit through the smoky haze that would later leave with the audience.


And so, we arrive where we began. This was a night that brought many creatively diverse artists and artworks together and showed those 188-audience members the artistic potential of the Greater Manchester region while referencing historical legacies of over 80 years. The end of this first edition of PROFORMA signals the start of many more editions to come. Embracing the specific context of each new site while exhibiting different artists and commissions, the festival will hopefully become part of the rich creative tapestry of the region, the ephemeral smoke of the first edition turning into physical threads of future festivals to create this tapestry. All for the sake of form.

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