Performance & Uncertainty

Today I attended the Performance & Uncertainty Symposium held at The Tetley in Leeds which heralded the opening of the Dora Garcia exhibition, ‘These books were alive; they spoke to me!’.

The speakers/performers included photographer Casey Orr, performer/videographer Harold Offeh, film/installation artist Corin Sworn, visual & performance artist Rana Hamadeh, artist & researcher Dora Garcia and artist/writer/lecturer Kiff Bamford of Leeds Beckett University.

The day was a combination of performances and speaker events. I caught both Rana Hamadeh’s sound-play and heard Dora Garcia speak. So my reflections are on both of these events.

I knew nothing of Rana Hamadeh’s previous work until now so I entered this performance with no previous experience of her work or preconceptions. It was an interesting set up and predominantly a sound piece, although she was clear to state that she specifically referred to the work as a ‘sound-play’ as it was intended to be a promenade performance where the audience moved around the space and there were  no areas to sit or ‘view’.

The set up from an audio/sound perspective was interesting. I counted 7 large speakers on stands all connected to amps, two vocal mic’s in different positions, one mic near the floor with a stack of metal chains next to it, one speaker facing the wall for a separate vocal channel and a laptop running Logic Pro on a mixing desk.

To be honest I found the whole performance really quite disturbing. The initial soundscape was deep, intense and loud. (earplugs were given out and I wore mine). Then Rana came into one of the vocal mice and began speaking although there was such a big level of intentional reverb effect on her vocals that the words were difficult to define and the delivery was gloomy and foreboding.

Intermittently the vocals stopped and and another soundscape brought in, then Kiff Bamford spoke a part on a different vocal mic, then it flipped back to more from Rana. I moved around the room often to get a sense of what was playing out. I noticed they also had a Zoom H4 on one speaker at the back recording the whole thing.

It was 50 minutes long and deeply intense. What was more interesting was watching how the audience responded to the space and the sound. I sensed a great uncomfortableness, a dislocation, people didn’t know really where to put themselves. Some had faces of bewilderment, others of intense concentration, some of misunderstanding, some of intellectual enquiry. Some found a spot and stayed there, others moved around often. I found myself wishing it was finished sooner because it was so so intense and foreboding but was hoping I’d discover at the end more about the work.

There was a short discussion after where Rana explained that she was in part re-enacting a Shi’ite ritual of a ceremony, Ashura, from the Sunni Muslims in Lebanon which involved ritual chanting and self flagellation.

I took the opportunity afterwards to speak with her briefly. I asked her what it was like for her to perform such a piece and more about the rituals and how they take place in Lebanon. She said for her it wasn’t too much to perform such a big piece, she was so used to it and that she wanted it to feel uncomfortable and disorientating. It was. It was made so much more disorientating given the multi channel use of speakers. She mentioned that previous performances had been done in rooms of much smaller proportions than the larger room we were in. I can only imagine the intense immersive-ness of that experience.

Dora Garcia spoke next. She was really interesting and spoke a lot about her work with performance and literature. She spoke of her alternative practices of performance, of combining audiences who have ‘inside’ information of the performance coupled with those who are not privy to such information. She spoke of exploring Argentinian art ‘happenings’ which were reported in the press but which never actually ‘happened’. And she spoke of her recent work drawn from theories by psychoanalysts Freud and Lacan and the relationships between repetition and memory.

It was an incredibly diverse afternoon. My thoughts are quite dense about the whole experience. Initially I want to document that I feel I have an issue with ‘accessibility’ in relation to sound used in an art sense. What I refer to is that to receive as an audience something which is quite deeply intense and disturbing such as Rana’s work is more difficult to relate to. On further reading of her concepts and themes (which I have done subsequently through her work with the Liverpool Biennale) I can ‘understand’ the work and it has context, relevance and meaning. Yet it was a difficult piece.

Through Dora’s talk I really had my eyes opened to the divergent practice in the contemporary art world. How so many artists are working in ways way beyond the ‘traditional’ and conventional worlds of both visual and performance traditions. It was refreshing and intriguing. I need to research further.

Sounding Leeds

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Today I took advantage of a cancelled workshop introduction at LCA to catch the remaining speakers at Sounding Leeds, a one day symposium exploring the past, present and future uses of sound, media and music in public art & social practice. It was timely as I am beginning my research into areas of sound used in art within the local geographical area as part of the Research Methods 1 module. It was equally as useful to tap into the arts networks and get a sense of what artists and educators are working on and with whom.

I found Alan Dunn’s talk particularly interesting as he’d directly worked with Chris Watson, who is primarily known in the larger world as the sound recordist on David Attenborough’s documentaries.  What I hadn’t realised is how he works on a really grassroots level. Alan spoke of bringing Chris into his work at Leeds Beckett University to engage students with the basic elements of sound recording. He takes the students to Maplins to buy a basic contact microphone and then they hunt out quiet places in the city such as tunnels. He mentioned how he uses the basis of these simple exercises to great more multi layered pieces of sound/music work.

His talk really demystified some of the areas of sound recording for me around having the ‘right’ equipment or even knowing exactly what you are doing. It made experimenting and feeling out of your depth okay and an acceptable place to start from someone so experienced and competent at the top of the industry.

Luckily I also heard James Mabbett speak. His most recently project was a sound project within Leeds Central Library which was played back to us as an audience with audience feedback voiced over the top. It sounded initially like an organ being played amongst the vaulted ceiling spaces of the library and yet I realised he had left certain instruments out for people to play themselves. An interesting concept and slightly more difficult to curate I imagine as he did find the ambience he was intending became broken when a young man started playing rock songs on the guitar!

As I’d expected somewhat before entering the Sounding Symposium it was predominantly makes in the room. There were two female speakers in Sue Ball of MAAP and Marion Harrison another Leeds artist which sadly I missed hearing. I will make this a part of my next mission to search out other sound artists in the region and try to make connections there.

I was so glad I went down though as it’s so fascinating seeing other practitioners work and to see the scope of what may be possible in terms of project funding, space acquisition, collaborative working and creative ideas sharing.