Reviews Performance Published 6 August 2013

Steakhouse Live

Rich Mix ⋄ 27th July 2013

A new approach to curating performance art.

Bojana Jankovic

As any emerging artist could testify, showing work in London is surprisingly easy – there are plenty of pop up venues, one-off events and festivals in the making to go around. But showing work in itself means very little if the curators are unwilling or unable to invest more than the bare minimum into their own programme. Money supplements aside, early career artist are often faced with a lack of commitment from early career venues,  which means no one will promote their work, invest time and energy into audience development (i.e attracting people other than friends and family) or acknowledge the importance of artist development. This state of neglect makes emerging artists a sad equivalent of that tree falling in an abandoned forest; it’s also responsible for the repetitiveness and relative predictability within in the scene – even in the realm of radical art few are willing to take a risk on the unknown, or take to the dungeons and scratch nights in search of new and exciting work.

This is often where DIY, artist-led initiatives come into play, but even within that niche Steakhouse Live, a ‘one day festival of performance and live art’, is a bit of rare sight. For one thing, Katy Baird, the solo-artist who curated and organised the event, resisted the temptation of programming her own work; instead she left the limelight to an eclectic array of performances and installations. They come loosely gathered around the notions of identity, but have far more in common when you consider the artists’ background: the complete set list has been around for several years, but no one who tends to focus on the mainstream is likely to have heard of the specific names. Normally, this kind of programme would end up as a neglected side-kick to a line of a-listers. Here, GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN and Brian Lobel are more of a bait than the main attraction. Where groups of emerging artists usually have to travel in packs to slightly remote locations with little core audience, Steakhouse took over Rich Mix. Most of all it sold out – in other words, Baird persuaded a full house to cash out for a chance to see eight hours of performance art in one day.

All this means Steakhouse was a bit of a success before it even started. It gave curated artists the promised exposure and worked hard to get the audience in. It proved that unknowns in the programme do not equal financial meltdown  – it could even be argued it proved a long line of half-familiar names spark more of an interest than a steady diet of household treasures. Finally, it fought and screamed for space and attention innovative artists and curators need, deserve and, in a world that prides itself on radical concepts, should be granted.

Steakhouse opened with Justyina Scheuring’s Welcome Home, a shock to the system the festival needed if it was to start with a proverbial bang. It’s a piece not easily confounded to tag-lines and labels; it takes from live art, visual art and performance art to create its own rules. As a result it sticks out in the crowd of performances, but at least it’s not likely to get mixed up with anyone or anything else.

The inviting connotations of the title are quickly disposed of as icy cold Scheuring offers little but disjointed sentences and a stage occupied by the unpersonable presence of nothing but cables, microphones and projectors. A lot of effort is put into disembodying the artists – she talks into the microphone, through a voiceover and without any aids, but then slips into tragic autobiographical narratives. Welcome Home could perhaps best be described as a performative version of abstraction – scattering recognisable but seemingly unconnected elements on the stage and challenging the spectators to come up with their own logically sound conclusions, or bypass the work altogether. What keeps this piece together is that despite appearances, it refuses to be random.  The only two props used  – a brick and a two pint bottle of milk – are chosen for their connotations and evocations as much as texture. Most astonishingly, for all its composure, methodical and calculated delivery, Welcome Home is a deeply intimate if formal piece about the internal mess that the concept of ‘home’ induces. This intimacy is perhaps best reflected in the fact Scheuring insists on participation, giving  audience members suitably exact instructions to act on. An average  attempt at involving the crowd it’s not, but it might just be an honest, although framed way for Scheuring to let strangers into her world.

It must be quite difficult to find a piece that would logically follow on from Welcome Home, but Pop Duo, by I’m Not Her Sidekick, is at the very least an idiosyncratic double-bill partner. In sharp contrast to Scheuring, this performance is all misguided baroque; there’s too much of it, and too many things to it. I’m Not Her Sidekick are quite angry at popular female role-models – the messages they convey, the self-image obsession they induce, the heteronormative and slightly chauvinistic relationship advice they prescribe. The trouble is, their anger is directed at everything, including but not limited to Barbie dolls, Beyonce, Spice Girls and Disney princesses; the target list is long, but it’s neither exhaustive nor focused.

Pop Duo accuses the entertainment industry of generalising and being didactic, but in trying to assert that Posh Spice and Snow White are mirror images it manages to do exactly the same. The inherent logic is faulty, and the impression is I’m Not Her Sidekick are quite aware of this: why else would they try and make Mean Girls (the subversive Tina Fey/SNL answer to the high school flick genre) reactionary? Occasional glimpses into comic potential of the company do pop up – one of the performers ponders if Beyonce would let the single ladies put their hands down, so as to avoid further humiliation and ‘I’m a Survivor’ mode breaks down to see hidden food flooding out of costumes; overall however these are just occasional breaks from a tiring and unsubstantiated pop feminist tirade that attempts to fill the many gaps with as many no 1 hits.

One of the issues with Pop Duo is that it takes a general swing at a general argument, without necessarily exploring the responsibility of anyone other than the archi-villains. Rosana Cade’s My Big Sister Taught Me This Lap Dance does the contrary, developing in large part around the mechanisms that lure beyond the obvious. (Be warned: MAJOR SPOILER ALERT lights are now on.) The piece starts as a typical one-on-one –  it’s quite uncomfortable, slightly embarrassing and the rules of interaction are blurry – but on this occasion the unease is less to do with the format and more to do with the fact that the audience is treated to a lap dance, complete with striptease, private parts on display (and in close up), freshly applied scents and a generic sensual tune. Depending on personal experiences, boundaries and such,  it’s possible to imagine an audience member feeling indifferent, confident, excited, freaked out or all of the above; what’s impossible to avoid is the sense that My Big Sister… is somehow pointing the finger at the evils of the sex industry, especially once Cade takes her wig off, and reveals herself to be a head-shaving, body hair nurturing opposite of the lap-dancer stereotype. Once the lap dance is over and done with however, the involuntary participant is escorted behind the curtains – where they get to peep hole their way into the next dance, while listening to Cade’s sister talking about her generally pleasant time as a lap dancer. It’s a simple, effective and clever way to pinpoint that any problems within the sex industry are as much to do with the consumers as they are with the dodgy club owners and pimps in the making. Go on – try and not excitedly wait for your successor to touch Cade, or make a move; at the very least try not to judge.

It’s hard to consider where Maxwell McCarthy is going with Muscles + Teeth, a sentiment that’s echoed in the way he aimlessly wanders around the stage. This performance starts relatively coherently, with a short introduction on effective if repressive mechanisms of blocking and neutralising one’s thoughts. From then on however, it turns into a messy medley of bits and bobs – a bit about McCarthy pulling his own wisdom tooth out, a camp bob of talking about muscles while waggling hips; much of it through barely understandable shouting. It’s difficult to discern any semiology through what is a very good attempt at not being legible in any way, shape or form – but an educated, if not very profound guess would be that Muscles + Teeth is attempting to deal with the metaphorical issues around organic limitations, separating the inseparable, and the always popular connections of body and mind. This performance does itself a disfavour of looking like a stab at doing live art: it includes blood (a lot of fake, a bit of real),  screaming, and most of all a very tangible presence of unrendered, unquestioned instincts, that seem to be start and end point of the whole piece. Most unflatteringly McCarthy allows himself to seem lazy; no one can devote three minutes of a short piece to mumbling lyrics over a song and make it interesting – a scene needs more effort than that.

Where McCarthy gives the impression he is going through the performance art checklist, Lucy Hutson seems to have equipped herself with the kind of bullet-point assembly uber concerned marshals of political conscience often pride themselves with.  There’s so many things to consider nowadays and so many ethical labyrinths to navigate: fair trade coffee is all very well, but Starbucks still doesn’t pay corporate tax. Britney Spears Custody Battle Vs Zeus in Swan Rape Shocker takes all of the modern ethical concerns, ranging from eating meat to carbon footprint, right on and then delivers an earnest confession instead of a preaching session.

The blunt but unpretentious point, which Hutson delivers in an equally honest manner, is that ethics are most easily employed when they already fit in with your lifestyle; if you don’t drink coffee, being enraged about tax schemes is far easier than only buying organic chicken. There’s much more to this short piece in the making than the slash at personal politics – Hutson shifts her unadorned focus from religion to working as a solo artist to gender identity – but what seems the most poignant is the gentle and nonchalant assertion that being politically active has little to do with tag-lines, RTs, sharing post, liking statuses and leaving enraged comments on the Guardian website. In fact all of those things are far less political than admitting to not losing sleep over meat to a room full of performance art audience.

Britney Spears Custody Battle… hinges on  establishing a genuine relationship with the audience; the kind of rapport that leaves everyone with the feeling of knowing the performer. Louise Orwin turns this time honoured tradition on its head, challenging the audience to lead a charge against her. The basic setup of her Humiliation Piece is that of truth and dare  – audience members can dare Orwin do whatever they can come up with, but in return she gets to film them answering some of her questions.

The game is facilitated with a wide range of props, ranging from a rope to a paddling pool, many of which, like baked beans, cream and vodka, incite a somewhat slapstick approach to things. If it sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been done quite a few times before (see: Marina Abramovic’s Rythm 0 from 1974), but it’s nonetheless an interesting social experiment. What quickly and disappointingly transpires is that within the legitimacy of a performance, many will unleash the inner sadist, so Orwin is asked to cover herself with all manners of food, down a bottle of bubbly, prank call her former best friend and generally justify the name of her piece. When someone demands she gives him the bottle of vodka – an attempt to save her from stomach pumping – the rest of the crowd joins in a bit of a boo; some decide to punish the previous darers by including them in the next challenge.

Most of all, there seems to be a silent consensus that Orwin, the weirdo that she is, is challenging our cowardice and assuming there’s nothing anyone would dare say that she wouldn’t dare do. It’s possible however that she’s doing quite the opposite – checking if, with the chance, the alibi, the props and her consent all in place, anyone has the guts to resist their inner monster and not resort to violence. And while her mini interviews, in which the rare good-natured participants get treated far worse than the tormentors, seem to only serve as further motivation to recreate the Milgram experiment, Orwin leaves plenty of chances for everyone to act as decent human beings; chances that, regrettably, we seem to pass on this time around.

As the full stop to Steakhouse Live, Humiliation Piece is a decidedly good choice. It managed to turn the general atmosphere of the event, ending it on a note of suspicion, weariness, and questioning, instead of overall enthusiasm. It also left no space for complacency – which, really, is the least to hope for when it comes to radical art.

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Bojana Jankovic

Bojana Jankovic is one half of There There, a company composed of two eastern European theatre directors who turned from theatre to performance only to repeatedly question their decision. Before shifting to collaborative projects, she worked as a director and dramaturg on both classics and contemporary texts. She also wrote for Teatron, a Belgrade theatre magazine. She has a soft spot for most things pop, is surprisingly good at maths for a thespian, and will get back to learning German any day now.