Thomas John Bacon’s vision, Tempting Failure, gives new and established artists the opportunity to take risks. Taken at face value this offer sounds like something we would expect from a platform encouraging live art, body modification, sound and performance art works; however genuine risk taking shouldn’t be taken for granted. The initial venue for Tempting Failure 2012 pulled out at the last minute as they felt some of the works were “unsuitable to host” compromising “the legal standing and artistic remit…”
Rejecting the censorship and sterilization of artworks, TF12 found a new home at Performance Space, London at which I was proud to be one of the thirteen performers. The offer to ‘Tempt Failure’ is not a negative challenge but a creative space in which to engage with and open new dialogues, to embrace the unexpected and allow risk and relationships to unfold.
Tempting Failure 2013 housed the same ethos. It was a bolder project in which over thirty artists took part. Collaborating with a fantastic and fully supportive, uncompromising venue, TF13 took over the former Police Station of Bristol using its cells, exercise yard, showers, tunnels, holding spaces and isolation rooms to show the work of forty national and international artists at all stages of their careers. At the start of the evening the audience was guided through the live events via a hand drawn map, passing through the dimly lit maze-like space in search of the work. The programme of actions was intense, with artists spread throughout the rooms, cells and spaces of the Police station’s basement level. With performances and actions often occurring simultaneously it was virtually impossible to experience everything.
Many of the pieces in the Cells were durational, which allowed the audience to visit and re-visit the works in-between encountering the shorter pieces in the larger space. Each work addressed the ethos of ‘Failure’ individually; from the inherent fragility and mortality of the body made manifest through penetrated broken skins to challenges of an unknown intimate encounter. Audiences were given freedom and the opportunity to choose, to select what to see. At first people clustered in groups, holding on to the map, tentatively navigating between the rooms and corridors. Initially, with no guidance on what was about to start there was a sense of anxiety and confusion, as though something might happen at any moment, or something might be ‘missed’. This left a charged residue of anticipation and excitement. We wanted to see everything and as the evening progressed we developed our own rhythm; snaking between places and spaces…each person carrying their own witnessed map of remembering’s from the evening.
I remember ……
The intimacy of Kate Spence’s Every time we say goodbye, a one-to-one dance in a red-lit cell between performer and participant or the playfully spontaneous durational piece Love letters by Yiota Demetriou. Dressed in an alluring, satin nightdress, blindfolded Kate invited an audience member to hold her in a dance embrace, pausing time in a close environment through body –to- body encounter. The work was gentle and vulnerable, altering the cold harness of the solitary space through human touch and interaction. In Yiota’s piece I encountered the intense smell of a childhood classroom – breathing in the smell of two vividly colored bags of powdered paint. The space was full of colour, instructions were casually taped to the wall inviting interactions from the audience. The air was thick with coloured dust. The artist was standing on the cell bed, barely recognizable, covered in the paint as audience members were asked to blow “love dust” onto her. Alongside this, anonymous love letters were exchanged, some read out loud. People flowed in and out of the cell, smiling, happy to give away a small part of their own love stories The intimacy of the act of reading another’s proclamation of love became contaminated by the inhalation of the dust; as the evening progressed, those audience members who had participated within the exchange bared the trace of that moment through the staining of the dust on their own hands and faces.
Jess Rose’s understated yet powerful use of text and language with projection and fire in Present Tense established a quiet air of focus and concentration in the large corridor-like main space. Jess read her fragmented text as further words were projected behind. After each paper was complete she steadily struck a match and lit the words, allowing the ashes to form on the floor; reminded relics of her frustration to articulate. This shifted with the physicality and mesmerizing control of Philip Bedwell’s body in Death is simply a matter of lying prone. His simple movements, side balancing on one arm and one foot, were slowly repeated as he looked at his own fractured reflection through a series of mirrors. Pre-pierced needles were visible in his forehead. We anticipated the moment of their removal. The release came as a gentle trickle, droplets falling onto the mirrors as he repeated his movements. As he redressed, signaling the end of the performance in a somber suit, I was left with his own questioning of his body, self, previous life as a wrestler and this newfound body in performance.
There was also an outside space linking performance areas. In a previous life this existed as an exercise yard for the cells former inhabitants, another narrow, concrete corridor which housed further work including interactive sound artist, Jas Singh. However for me this space was also a speaking space or meeting ground. Throughout the evening people gathered to drink, smoke, discuss, relive and account that which they’d witnessed, re-performing the relationship we each had with a particular work. In this space I listened to unseen glimpses of performance as my failure to see something became a positive creation and new engagement with works.
Finally I remember pain, empathy, risk and immersion; the strength, passion and focus of two female performers Hellen Burroughs and Rachel Parry. Hellen performed in the white isolation space; harsh unsympathetic light and blistering sound preempted her arrival into the space. Through a door marked “no entry” she walked in, stood in the space and carefully wrapped her wrists in white bandages. Her torso was naked and she lifted the long white skirt, already showing traces of blood, revealing eight long pins penetrating the flesh above each knee. No one moved or looked away. She walked to a wall in the space; I could see her back against the wall, arms raised and legs bent in a seated position. Her muscles began to shake as she exposed her body’s inability to sustain the pose. At the point of exhaustion she fell and returned to the centre, removing a pin from her flesh and dropping it into a metal bowl containing a white liquid. This sequence of physical endurance was repeated until all the pins were removed. I found it hard to watch. The piercings were brutal, muscular and un-cosmetic. I could imagine the unseen encounter and force required to push the sliver of metal through her tissue. However, I was compelled by her strength, determination and presence, the power in her body her refusal to stop. Commanding the audience to watch, to witness and support her through until the end and she left the space.
Rachel stood in the darkened main space, lit and facing a mirror. A figure demanding presence adorned in an elaborate headdress and patterned fabric covering her swollen stomach. With extreme care and precision she slowly removed the clothing. She turned and faced us, a prosthetic pregnancy, earth mother who tenderly etched a bloody heart into her chest. Her light movements causing the spilt blood did not resonate pain with me, rather a lament on loss, what might be and what it feels to be a female performance artist today and the complex struggles that act entails. I am left with the image of an ice head, melting and mingling with blood, soil, tears and sweat. A labor of love and process, one I understood mentally and physically and one, which made me cry. In her I saw myself, I re-felt the grief of my own losses, the recent slide into my new role as mother and the fragility, the tenuous thread, by which we connect to those we love.
Performance matters, it should awaken, prod and poke at our expectations and demand a reaction rather than a polite nod of approval. We should be challenged to feel something within the live exchange, positive or otherwise. Perhaps the true failure lies within works or events flattened and fixed by exterior demands, litigation and protocol. In a time of funding difficulty it has never been more important to “bring ideas, provocations and openness to shared working” (see recent article by Robert Pacitti).Tempting Failure 13 demonstrates that artists at all stages of their careers can and are willing to come together to create and show challenging, beautiful and provocative work for little or no financial gain. Such commitment gives me hope for the future of Tempting Failure as an idea, a platform, an ethos and a methodology for practice leaving me only to question how can we fail better next year?
For more information about Tempting Failure visit Thomas John Bacon’s site.