Gardens Speak Photo: Jesse Hunniford
It is about half past eleven on a Saturday morning and I’m knocking on a complete stranger’s door on an otherwise empty street in a suburb of Birmingham. Grey and white terraced houses and front yards of dirt or dirty grass or neat interlocking red bricks. I am wearing a yellow sash and holding a clipboard. I have been told to wait for twenty seconds after knocking because people in Birmingham seem to take quite a long time to get to the door. I’m waiting. In a quiet, understated way befitting of this quiet, understated street this is possibly the most frightening thing I’ve ever been asked to do in a performance. I was once chased by a masked man with a chainsaw through an abandoned office block in Manchester yet somehow in this particular moment the thought of an uninvited confrontation with an unknown and unknowing member of the public on their own doorstep feels to me much harder. I am almost amazed by the effort it has required for me to choose to try meet this person here, whoever they might end up being. My yellow sash is not entirely straight.
The project is called the Council Community of Conveyors and it was initiated by two artists from Calgary as a way of engaging with and perhaps interrogating the idea of neighbourhoods and neighbourliness in a modern city. The artists recruit individuals in each place they visit to join them as part of the council, and together they head out into the streets of a particular pre-selected area tasked with passing messages from one neighbour to the next. The council employs the unmistakable, unremarkable language of local community volunteers as a kind of camouflage. We are concealed in sashes and clipboards, our words costumed in the polite folksiness of a census taker or someone collecting for a bring-and-buy sale. And from the outside at least this perhaps disguises the project’s sharpness of purpose; it’s clear, unsentimental urgency. When you’re here, however, on the doorstep clipboard in hand, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like you are throwing your body at the gaps between houses, at the estrangement between neighbours. It feels like an attempt at bridging unbridgeable distance in a society having its fractures rebroken by fear and austerity and the misuse of power as a tool for cynical self-interest. Elsewhere in the city people are gathering for an EDL march, whilst others gather for a UAF march. There are more police than either group and people move between flocks of high-visibility coats with morbid curiosity and unsettled discomfort. On this doorstep I am considering the importance of sometimes simply placing your body in the path of things, and that doing so does not always need to involve the violence you imagine it should. And then there is the muffled sound of footsteps and someone inside walking towards the door.
THE THINGS BODIES CAN DO
This festival was made of bodies. White bodies black bodies present bodies absent bodies dead bodies living bodies our bodies other bodies hidden bodies lost bodies able bodies audience bodies performing bodies disabled bodies spastic bodies queer bodies cyborg bodies painted bodies tired bodies exhausted bodies walking bodies dancing bodies. There were bodies dancing. Bodies sitting on buses. On benches. Bodies standing on tables. Bodies swimming in water. Bodies lying in dirt. Bodies waiting for earthquakes. Bodies hauled away by police officers. Bodies lost in a scrum of balloons. Bodies listening to the colour of space. There was a body bending and shaking itself like the voices on an untuned radio as it tried to understand and perform and resist the expectations people might have of it. A body dressed as a chandelier, stood in the middle of shantytown that was being methodically torn apart. There were two bodies holding each other to a familiar song, erasing the differences that otherwise separated them. There was a body sitting on a cold bench opposite a job centre for hours, days even, waiting like a protest or a vigil or simply an attempt to keep open the possibility of love in the face of exhaustion brought about simply by trying to stay alive. I saw bodies throwing themselves at problems we can’t find another way of solving. Bodies wrestling with questions we’ve failed to find any answer to. I saw bodies just holding each other close when they didn’t know what else they could do. I saw bodies of water that contained more history than books. Bodies that saw further than telescopes. Bodies that spoke more eloquently than I am capable of doing here. And then there was my body. There was my body waiting nervously on a doorstep. There was my body sat in a stranger’s front room. There was my body lying in the dirt, echoing with the absence of another body buried in another mound of dirt in a very different country to this one. There was my body sitting on the top deck of a bus back from Erdington watching the greyness of the road and pinkness of the sunset and knowing that if we can survive the worst of it we’ll always have this. There was my body dancing with other bodies, some that I knew, some that I didn’t. There were all these bodies doing all these things and they made me hopeful. Many of them spoke of hard things – of war, violence, oppression, disenfranchisement, unemployment, death, disability, the past, the future – but they made me hopeful that there are simple but meaningful ways in which we can place ourselves in the breaches that such hard things open up in the world.
It’s the end of the second weekend of Fierce, the end of the festival. There is another body waiting. We are in Millennium Point – a cavernous science and technology centre that already, less than fifteen years into its life seems as much a relic of some too-hopeful past vision of the future as those pictures of flying cars and lunar colonies from the 1960s. Its cross-stitching of escalators and giant screens make the end of the 20th century seem like a long time ago; a time when our greatest collective fear was a potential glitch in our digital calendars.
Millennium Point is, as venues always are at Fierce, the perfect location for Cyborg Day – a preposterously hopeful waking dream of an evening curated by the Cyborg Foundation. Like the Council of Community Volunteers, the Cyborg Foundation is an Oz-like mirage concealing two artists in love with each other and their vision of what the world might look like. They dream of a more expansive, imaginative, beautiful future achieved through combining our bodies with machines; not the glib convenience of wearable technology but totally transformative, universe-expanding evolutions of what it is or might mean to be human.
We are gathered on the steps of the building’s enormous lobby, watching a tiny figure on a small, temporary stage. She is waiting for an earthquake. She is attached (and has been for over a year) to a device that recognises whenever an earthquake happens anywhere in the world and vibrates to a strength commensurate to the force of the earth’s tremor. Whenever an earthquake happens anywhere in the world she feels it as a bodily cry, or perhaps a whisper.
When an earthquake happens she starts dancing, and the location and strength of the earthquake is written out on a screen above our heads. It is beautiful. Before it has even begun the idea of it is beautiful. Her body translating the earth for us, translating its hugeness, its aliveness, into something recognisably human. If standing on a stranger’s doorstep made me feel the immediacy of bodies, their ability to place us in the middle of the smallest things, this made bodies feel huge. With every new earthquake the world seemed to breathe, blink and look at us quizzically. Each new earthquake made the world seem as alive and as fragile as it really is.
But we are not there yet. For the time being there have been no earthquakes, so we all wait, our breath collectively held as we wait for the earth somewhere anywhere to move.