Compass – a Live Art Festival in Leeds has been running for a few years now. Lead by Annie Lloyd, it in some way goes towards plugging the gap left by the loss of the much loved, much missed Leeds Met Studio. This year it ran over 11 days with around 20 different performances and events (if I’ve counted correctly). Unfortunately, there was no way I could get to all of it, so to get something of a feel for what’s going on I and my intrepid co-critic (Katarina aged 5 minus 5 days) set off to see as much as we could on Saturday 22nd November.
The adventure started at home. Forced Entertainment, long term friends and collaborators with Annie, were performing and live streaming Quizoola from Sheffield that day. So I had it on the tablet as we went about normal Saturday morning chaos. If you’ve not watched a Forced Ents show in the company of small children I thoroughly recommend it – it’s even more entertaining than Twitter. This brought out to me just how much of my normal home life resembles Quizoola (all quotes taken from my imperfect memory).
Scene: the bathroom. Me attempting to get dressed. Toma (aged 3yrs 8 months) wanders in.
Tim Etchells: What did Goldilocks do in the bear’s house?
Toma: When Goldilocks went into the house what did her blue do?
Jovan (also 3yrs 8 months) through the door: What does DNA do?
Leaving home and Quizoola behind, Katarina and I caught the bus into town. Our first appointment was with Quarantine’s Between Us We Know Everything which was in residence in the outdoor section of Leeds Market. As well as a live art tour, our odyssey was also a tour of the different shopping experiences of Leeds. The Market, if you’ve not experienced it, is literally and metaphorically the heart of Leeds. Bounded about now by high end developments, “the largest covered market in Europe” is an oasis of cheap fruit and veg, hairdressers, white goods and every culture and cuisine known to Leeds. The outdoors part, known as the ‘Tatters Market’, is where we found Quarantine’s black van and three slightly chilly knowledge gatherers. It is a very simple deal – they record you saying something that you know. The recording then goes on the website www.betweenusweknoweverything.com if you want to look for Katarina and me – she talked about Saturn and I did how to say hello in five different languages. This is a very similar concept to Slung Low’s Emporium of Knowledge but without the boiled sweets and natty waistcoats (though we did get free chocolate fingers). It is a lovely idea and Quarantine are a very welcoming and engaging crowd. Maybe one day they should get together with Slung Low and create an uber library of everything. Or cancel each other out in a Leeds-Manchester matter/anti-matter clash.
On then to Munro House and Helen Cole’s We See Fireworks – a sound and light installation in the part of the building that houses the very hip Cafe 164 and Colours May Vary art and bookshop. This felt like the most consciously ‘arty’ of the experiences – in the most consciously arty of the environments. You enter into a completely blacked off space with only different patterns of dimly lit bulbs against total dark. In this you hear recordings of people recalling performances, or performative experiences. Definitely one I enjoyed more than Katarina (she’s not so keen on the dark but liked the flicker light bulb). We stayed in long enough to hear the title story of a couple watching New Year’s Eve fireworks across the city. As the voice described being surrounded by a free display of neighbourhood fireworks there was a shared snort of recognition from myself and another couple in there (having just come out of firework season): a nice communal moment in an otherwise very individual experience.
From there we walked the short distance over to Selina Thompson’s Pat it and Prick It and Mark it with B at the Corn Exchange. When I arrived in Leeds the Corn Exchange was filled with independent shops selling goth clothes, Nirvana hoodies and skull jewellery. Every Saturday the goth kids gathered on the steps and just hung out. Then the independent shops (and kids) got cleared out and the whole thing taken upmarket. Since when it has seen the coming and going of various posh shops and restaurants. This Saturday it was filled up with a crafty, arty fair and stuffed to the gunnels with a pre-pre- Christmas shopping crowd, including a woman posing with a very sleepy owl. We wove our way through the shopping hordes looking for the live art, which we found tucked away in a little vault on the bottom floor.
I was looking forward to this: Thompson’s It Burns It All Clean, based on job centre experience, was my favourite piece of Transform 14. In Pat It and Prick It and Mark it with B Thompson and her able assistants make a dress out of cake, constructing it around her. Entering the little, floodlit vault, the air is thick with icing sugar dust – you breath in sweet. Co-critic Katarina has never seen quite so much cake – and thoroughly approved of being given a taste of the dress material. We were invited, as is everyone, to help build the dress, placing cake ‘bricks’ mortared together with jam on a wire frame. This is a great, and very sticky, sensual experience as everything, feet, hands, clothes, nostrils, tongues become coated in layers of sugar and jam.
Thompson, her body and her relationship to it and food are very much part of her art. She is big and beautiful, with full round glorious curves. Surrounding this gorgeous physicality with layers of fat and sugar and colour and curls suggests all the joy and pleasure of consuming. Placed within the confection of the Corn Exchange in the midst of heightened shopping frenzy, it asks us to consider the point when celebration of consuming becomes self-harm. The title traces the relation of sweet, cake, bodies and love back to childhood. When does pinching a baby’s adorable chubby cheeks become anxiety about eating too much? When and how do we pass on that anxiety? Pat It and Prick It and Mark it with B is a brilliant, thoughtful, intelligent piece about the pleasures and pains of consuming. And besides it is dress made of cake. How can you not love it?
Cake made us late for our next appointment so we dashed across town to Merrion Centre to Sylvia Rimat’s Imagine Us. Unfortunately we managed to miss most of this and arrived only at the end where a lady in bright red jacket and shoes and a bear’s head waltzed in the natural courtyard between Morrisons and the old cinema. The Merrion Centre is one of the oldest and least glitzy of Leeds shopping centres. The shops (with several empty spaces) are at the cheaper end, there were far fewer people and less money around. What was joyous was that in this far less arty crowd several people happily and spontaneously joined in the dance. So did we – Katarina because she’ll dance anytime, anywhere (you can when you’re 5) me because I enjoy it too. There was a text too playing on a screen above our heads but I’m afraid I missed most of that. Still it was a special moment- several of us, no connection to each other, dancing with a bear in the Merrion Centre. For the record, Katarina said afterwards dancing with the bear was her favourite piece despite then falling over and having to be revived with a sandwich from Morrisons.
Lastly, we went over to the Trinity Centre to have a go at Invisible Flock’s If You Go Away – Chapter One. This is a work in progress of an interactive experience using your phone or tablet. The Trinity Centre is (currently) the newest and shiniest of Leeds’ shopping ‘destinations’. I have to say in the couple of years it’s been open this is the third time I’ve been in, and the second time for a performance. The other time I went to find the Apple Store and spent 5 minutes cursing I couldn’t find it before realising I was standing right in front of it …
You start If You Go Away in the very swanky Everyman cinema. You get given a device and headphones (if like me you are too antediluvian to have adequate version of either). The tiny text (maybe have a larger text format as well?) leads you outside to a tiny booth. On your device a vinyl record spins. Inside the booth there is a record player which doesn’t spin. This bothered co-critic Katarina a lot. It then shows you a faint map and little glowing point which takes you through the (unbelievably crowded) shopping centre to some quiet benches outside Trinity church. Text comes up about characters sitting on the bench, who they are and what they see. My problem was that there is so much you have to do to access this – swipe, tap, twist and turn that I entirely lost what I was being told – it is also a very distracting environment which means any story has to work harder to latch onto your attention. I think if it had been goal orientated, i.e. if there was a mystery to solve or a treasure to find, we would have been more motivated to navigate our way through. As it was the story was hard to engage with – too many tiny snippets of information – and not really connecting you with or enclosing you from your surroundings. This is fairly new use of the technology and an early draft of the concept with very interesting potential. As it was I’m afraid we gave up (co-critic Katarina was quite tired with all the walking) after a couple of stops on the journey but would probably go back for more if I had a device that worked!
As we were going around, I was struck by how much performance there was going on in Leeds. There were buskers, young music students, aging rockers and Roma accordionists; there was a hula hooping lady in white who had Katarina captivated for ages, a Brazilian style drum and dance troop, a rock choir. That was in addition to the performance of market traders, students in fundraising duck outfits and the usual performative display of Leeds citizens out for a good shop. (Alan Read has a very good, if dense, book on Theatre and Everyday Life). Compass doesn’t so much bring performance to the shopping experience as bring a different, valuable, layer to that which is already there. All these layers are complementary not antithetical. In other words, there’s room for arts and shopping.
Though that was the end of the odyssey, it wasn’t quite the end of the festival. On the Sunday I came back for Forced Entertainment’s That Night Follows Day at Howard Assembly Rooms, performed by 16 children and young people aged 8 to 14. I really wanted to bring my co-critic to this too, but it said suitable for ages 16 plus so I didn’t, though actually she would have loved it.
Written by Tim Etchells, this was a rehearsed reading of a text already produced with and by Flemish theatre company Victoria. The text is Etchell’s created after workshops with the original young performers. It is not a surprise to see in the influence of the Flemish company which is very honest and direct in its engagement with young performers and audiences, and challenging for adults and young people alike. Like so much of Etchell’s work, it uses a repeated trope as formal and structural device to examine and engage with a topic – in this case the relationship and language between adults and children. The children address us, the adult audience, each line starting with the word ‘You…’ listing the actions, instructions, lies, hypocrisies, half-truths and manipulations that go from adult to child.
“You feed us. You wash us. You dress us. You sing to us. You watch us when we are sleeping. You explain to us the different causes of illness and the different causes of war. You whisper when you think we can’t hear. You explain to us that night follows day.”
Like all of Forced Entertainment’s shows, listening is a personal experience, as you relate what you are seeing/hearing to your own life. In my case this meant checking off the statements against what I do: “You teach us words like … prestidigitation and somnambulism” – yup, done that.The cast start out speaking as a chorus, then split into smaller groups, pairs and individuals. The young people are brilliant performers in the way children are as a natural part of their communication. There was a great eye roll and flounce from one young man – I recognised that move. They mimic and mock the intonation of parents and teachers. It is powerful and moving because this is us adults watching the children’s perception and imitation of us.
Their most angry moment comes in an extended section of “You say no not now. You say no, maybe later. You say no, when you’re older. You say no. You say no. You say no.” Yes I do that and that and that. There was palpable shock on our row at the use of ‘fucking’, admittedly by older company member. And I have to say I loved the gleeful use of ‘arsehole’ and ‘motherfucker’ by one boy – remind me of this when I’m correctly my kids’ language. In its simplicity it is the deepest, most profound and purest piece you’ll ever encounter on the relationship between adults and children. And all power to the fabulous 16 young performers who clearly owned their words and performance. It ended on a note of hope and love: “You tell us it is all going to be alright.” Grown-ups trying their best to be good enough, create a world safe enough for their kids. And the kids appreciating the effort. We have all been there.
Just a final thought. This was very much a ‘text based’ piece – the text, with the choice of statements, choice of words, is at the heart of the performance. Yes, who is performing and their choices made a big difference, but the import of the performance is in the text. Yet if I was to say ‘text based’ performance, Tim Etchells and Forced Entertainment are not what would first spring to mind. Maybe a reminder to rethink those labels.