Commissioned writing for PROFORMA at The Dancehouse
Lasting all of thirteen seconds, Jonathan Whitter opened the first edition of Proforma with his video Note 01. Constructed from dense layers of imagery, Whitter ‘zooms in’ on an initial kaleidoscopic pattern to reveal a gridded mass of pixelated images, from religious iconography such as the crucifixion, to water droplets and more abstract forms, before ‘zooming out’ to revert to the initial pattern. Its runtime and structure seems to reflect the inhale-exhale deep-breathing practiced in meditation or yoga, and in this instance, Whitter acts as a prologue reminding the audience to take a deep breath as the show begins.
Following this, Nightshift International – made up of artists Sarah Boulter and Elliott Flanagan – begun their role bookending the night’s three act structure, with their films Traces, Sets, Interiors, Animalism and By the Lake slotting in at the beginning and end of each act as a sort of amuse-bouche for the audience. A sort of chintzy muzak scores their work throughout, lending the work an ironic type of glamour, like chancing on a repeat of a cheap 80s TV show at 2am, something with aspirations above its budget. Lying by the pool drinking wine from a box; drinking champagne in the bath while eating Viennetta and smoking a cigarette; posing for the camera with a tray of cheese and pineapple cubes on cocktail sticks, such humorous attention to detail sells this atmosphere of decadence and glamour on a budget, a type of aspirational glamour.
These brief episodes allow Nightshift International to create daydream fantasy interjections throughout the evening’s proceedings. In one instance, Boulter leads Flanagan through the woods using a trail of sweets, another uses sporadic injections of production credits to feel like a TV intro that runs for too long, ending on Flanagan silently eating a sandwich as if to acknowledge this test of the audience’s patience.
With Chalk Music Lee Patterson literally delivers on his title, smashing a lump of chalk with a hammer, and then manipulating a recording of this act to make music. What begins as abrupt impact becomes drawn out, as the chalk is broken so too is the recording, disassembled into its component parts to create a deep, detailed soundscape of beeps, rustling, whistles and other fragments that gradually slow down and quieten until silent. This silence has a palpable impact, an equal and opposite reaction to the initial hammer blow, enveloping the room of listeners who have been collectively straining their ears for the minute detail.
A slice of pure absurdity follows, as Iranian artist Omid Asadi presents his film Last Kite, where he and an accomplice repeatedly try and fail to fly a kite made from sheet metal. It’s an idyllic scene, set amongst a lush, verdant park, with mock-Tudor buildings in the background, and scored by birdsong. This picturesque snapshot of Britain is then punctured by the thud of the kite as it hits the floor, and continues to hit the floor over and over again. The two men repeat their Sisyphean task, launching the kite again and again even though it’s doomed to fail, continuing past the point of humour into boredom, then back around to humour again as their impossible effort continues.
The work seems almost a rebuttal to ‘Let’s go fly a kite’ from Mary Poppins, with Asadi even wearing a similar flat cap to Dick van Dyke. Mary Poppins presents the impossible ideal of the UK, while Asadi deals with its reality, as it clashes with his Iranian heritage. He clashes with an idea of Britishness that does not allow him to participate within it, but tries anyway, and keeps trying, because that’s the only option.
A shredder takes centre stage in Rory Cook’s Detachment, as he performs various brief texts, immediately shredding each piece of paper as he finishes. The rhythmic whir of the motor and the rustling of the paper as it’s disassembled provide a satisfyingly tactile sound to accompany Cook’s readings, while also giving a rather definitive ending in each instance, as the paper is destroyed, lending each text a moment of urgency by making it ephemeral.
Presenting as almost a caricature of the Modern Artist, with his deep German-accented voice reverberating around the room, his long grey beard and his choice to read from Bertolt Brecht, Helmut Lemke lends a gravitas to Proforma. However, this seriousness is punctured and toyed with throughout his performance, such as his choice to read Brecht’s ‘Legend of the Origin of the Book Tao-Te-Ching on Lao-Tsu’s Road to Exile’ set to the blues, as played by Lemke on an accompanying homemade, one-string slide guitar. Lemke induces a state of abrasive cognitive dissonance, with such a delightfully absurd combination of blues-guitar and German accented delivery of Brecht writing about classical the classical Chinese text the Tao-Te-Ching.
At this point, the first of two intermissions punctuated the night’s schedule, and on both occasions, the intermission itself was not wasted time, but the format was given over to Stina Puotinen to toy with, and as the house lights turned on, she played her sound piece Do You Want Some Nuts? As the audience vacated their seats to get refreshments, Puotinen played what sounded like the visceral crunching and popping of breaking glass. As such, the intermission acted to set people on edge rather than let them slip into comfort.
Nicola Dale’s Escapism positioned the artist, and her accompanying performers Riikka Enne and Laura Weaver, within a clockwork-like structure, as the three figures took their places on stage in matching boiler suits and modernist face paint, with Dale taking centre-stage in an emerald-green cape, the edges of which were lifted rhythmically by her assistants as if they were wings. However what began with machine-like precision, is gradually revealed to be vulnerable and unstable throughout the duration of the performance, as the motion of the ‘wings’ becomes increasingly un-uniform. While the performers can pose as machines, their humanity makes them fallible, and rather than precise clockwork, this may be considered as social structure, as we see a live hierarchy, with the Artist in prime position, but unable to function without support.
John Powell-Jones tells a grotesque, abstract parable with his film Worm Food, screened with an ominous, droning live score from the artist. His narrative tells of a tribe who stack themselves into a pile for security, allowing the top person to see a great distance and scan the horizon for potential threats. The stack grows higher over time, as new people are born, and its structure is reinforced by the flesh of those who die. In between screens of narrative-delivering text, we see various scenes of a man with a melting, pig-like face, and writhing white worms which he stuffs into his mouth. Powell-Jones tells a tale of the failings of becoming insular, his gruesome scenario generating a forceful delivery of the message.
Something humorous, yet no less affecting, follows, as Rory Mullen delivers his brand of performance art/narrative reading/stand-up comedy with Glorious Is The Thing That Can Be Found, followed in act three by A Trip To Newbridge. Mullen’s naïve, tense delivery sets the audience on edge, knowing that there is something more behind this jumper-wearing façade of harmlessness. In his first tale, Mullen visits the library, looking for a purportedly mystical drawing, which he then destroys. A Trip To Newbridge recounts a visit to the Job Centre, and the frustration that develops when encountering such mundane unpleasantness. Mullen builds tension throughout, releasing with humorous interjections of absurd detail, childlike bluntness and secretive expressions of repressed anger.
Experimental musician No Mercury (Raphael Mura), accompanied by projections from Lizz Brady, performed stripped down, twenty-minute composition Seahorse Skeleton. Performing solo, Mura constructs his soundscape with few elements – a guitar, a drum, a looping system and vocals – blending them together to achieve a meditative state. This patient performance provided a change of pace, a moment for reflection or the chance to let the music carry you away.
GO AWAY presented what appeared to be another solo musical act with It’s Alright (Round A Circle), as performer Karl Astbury, suited and serious began an emotionally raw performance, chanting repetitive variations of ‘please, please, please, it’s alright’ accompanied by droning guitar. However, this act quickly turned towards the surreal, as Rory Mullen joined the stage in a homemade, horrifying Mr Blobby costume, offering guttural howls as backing vocals, effectively puncturing any airs of pretension or seriousness.
The penultimate act saw both Astbury and Mullen return, for Mullen’s live film Drawing On A Cave Wall With The End Of A Shitty Stick. Far from the stony-face of his previous performance, Astbury adopts the persona of a slightly manic Attenborough-type TV presenter/explorer, as Mr Blobby is present once again, this time as a series of cave drawings that are ‘discovered’ by Astbury. Mullen joins as a semi-verbal, semi-nude ‘native’, accelerating this into pure farce as he describes the violent regime of My Blobby.
Describing themselves as a raw soul power rock and roll ministry, Manchester band Lost Under Heaven closed Proforma with a short set. Bringing volume, Lost Under Heaven brought the evening to a soaring crescendo.
With this, the first edition of Proforma was brought to its conclusion and the audience could exhale. For one night, art became theatrical experience, something akin to a deviant variety show, an unexpected series of happenings that provided a unique art-viewing experience. Let’s see what they can do next year.
Tom Emery is an independent writer and curator, regularly writing for Art Monthly and Frieze