When performance spaces change and develop performer’s adapt and creative teams use their skills and training to collectively move work forward. A small work space, a lack of funding, a problem in locating equipment can all lead to problems, but sometimes these things can also lead to the development of successful work, usually a great deal of work – and sometimes creative success appears in the smallest or simplest of things.
Costume design is never just about the clothing that a performer wears, it’s about understanding where and how the performer interacts with different spaces and the role that costume plays in this game. It’s about understanding how the performer moves and how costume can influence this movement.
See top menu for examples of work.
Sun, 05 Aug 2018
When choreographing costume references the relationship between theatre and fashion…. notably M.Vionnet, Westwood and Bausch. And the images reflect current issues relating to sustainability and up-cycling
Fri, 20 Jul 2018
At its core costume is about the clothes worn by a performer whilst they are on stage, there is an important discussion regarding the point at which costume stops and the performer begins.
A performer will need to find a neutral position – leaving their own persona behind and allowing space for the development of a character – a layering of sorts, of one person over the top of another. Costume forms another layer, and another meeting place for an existing ‘real’ character and a fictional one.
That point of connection between the two however is complex and with a range of examples from both within and external to the field of theatre, it is argued that this dialogue first occurs between the real clothing – which could be described as the skin of a performer – and the fictional clothing; the costume. Both layers – the skin and the costume – create their own movement and this too is for the designer to get to know, negotiate and apply within the design process. Although designers have always worked with this movement it’s not always a formally acknowledged part of the design process.
The costume designer therefore sits in a position in which, whether in the dressing room, the rehearsal room or the auditorium, they are the negotiator between two different forms of costume. One foot in the real another in the fictional, constantly treading the line between the two alongside the journey of the performer.
The director should help guide the two roles towards a positive outcome. However, up until fairly recently the part of the designer’s journey that is shared with the performer has not been formally acknowledged. The hierarchy of director/performer/designer has been a long established path. Although this may work well for some productions it’s also a situation that breeds bullying, poor working conditions and a working environment that doesn’t encourage creativity. A designer simply can’t be in all places at once, responsible for every element, without opportunities to develop their ideas in an environment that caters for their practice as well as the performers.
Thankfully this situation is no longer common, and the designer’s ability to apply their drawing and modelling skills to a rehearsal room is now much more prominent. Here, through observation and dialogue the designer can explore, in perhaps what might be a much healthier way, the spaces between the different layers of costume.
Researching through costume
The inevitable proximity between the cast and the designer; the performance and design process makes a practice as research approach within costume design by a costume designer, particularly difficult. The skills of the costume designer are key to effective research practice, their skill set a key part of locating and revealing new information that is a relevant and real account of a process that is, over a period of time, embodied.
To minimalise the subjectivity that is an inevitable part of this process there needs to be some kind of boundary placed between the design/performance and research processes; a factor that removes the designer from their process and places them at a distance from the role of creator so that they can analyse and evaluate research data whilst limiting researcher bias.
A Grounded Theory approach may help at this point, so too will sharing data with external researchers. However I suggest that a play and replay approach is also valuable. This approach is based on the repetition of the first stage of a creative process and occurs at a later date and time. My research specifically worked on the basis of a drawing approach and established the relevance of re-creating drawings made in the moment of a (rehearsal) performance.
This used drawing – a key part of a designers tool kit – as method to close the gap between the way that a performer works and develops their understanding of a character and narrative and the way that a performer works to develop their character and performance. This process is useful to the design process and facilities a research process that acts as a shared physical language between the designer and the performer, where the designer performs as they draw, and the performer draws as they perform. However this shared language inevitably brings the designers/researcher much closer to the research subject and increases the likelihood of research bias and over-identification with the research subject.
The re-play element within the drawing approach acts as a type of boundary – placing a distance between the design and research process, whilst still maintaining the application of an embodied set of knowledges that comes from the designer/researcher as they draw. The drawing skills the designer/researcher brings to this process is key in revealing data that is relevant to the application of the research within the field. They are also key to the creation of data that relates to and arguably even recreates to a certain degree the experience of a performance. This is relevant to the costume designer because the designer has a key role in using and working with this experience to develop designs that enhance and even facilitate further character development.
Triangulating drawings – It’s unlikely that one set of drawings will produce enough data for the examination of the original research subject. This research subject may be the creation of character, the experience of performance or the way in which performance is created. Yet the number of drawings created, the people assigned to this task or the way in which the drawings are used for each subject still needs further research. Digital analysis is one method of analysis – noticeable in sports research focused on the movement of the body during performance. The digital medium creates a useful boundary between the researcher and the practitioner, yet problematically removes the direct act of mark making that connects the two and usefully reveals and applies embodied understanding.
A costume designer can perform through drawing and the performer can draw through performing. These acts create a shared physical language that connects the two roles and can be used to enhance collaboration.
The drawing practices of the designer are key to the development of ideas, but also the embodiment of understanding of the way in which a performer moves and creates performance.
The drawing process is subjective and requires a structure through which researcher bias can be limited.
A re-drawing process can help to limit subjectivity and provides, at least in part, a structure through which a more objective process can be created.
Sun, 17 Jun 2018
Sometimes you go back to an old work and see it with fresh eyes. Sometimes it takes your breath away when you see it.
Mon, 16 Apr 2018
When to scenography is also to choreograph.
Reading Pamela Howard’s, What is Scenography? helped me to make sense of my role as a theatre designer – or at least how I could develop my practice. It connected with something that although I felt strongly about until that moment I had no vocabulary to describe or makes sense of. Howard defines scenography as a ‘seamless synthesis’ of theatre materials. I don’t think she meant that this synthesis must flow without issue or in a continuous, unnoticeable stream of data, but just that the materials within theatre must form a complete whole that effectively communicates an overall meaning or joint objective. She suggests that students who want to work in this role rather than as a specialist designer may need extra training to manage this task.
Although I can’t claim to be this qualified I did begin my research in theatre as a designer with an unusual combination of skills having trained in design but also in movement through dance/sport. This seemed an unusual place to start my main research project. At the time a designer who wanted to explore the training practices of both dance and theatre design was unusual and the insight that dance gave me into the costume process fascinated me. I think this background explains why I was always keen to work with performers and their physicality not just the fabrics and costumes in isolation.
A collaboration between performers/choreographers and designers won’t always be a relevant way of working. It may not always be necessary, but it was the way I wanted to work. Through my research I found that drawing was a useful way to bring my experience of dance and design together with the movement and experience of the performer, without needing to join in with the actor’s exercises. As a result of the overlap I found between dance, choreography, drawing and design I was able to address, at least in part, the synthesis between the three main scenographic components I most often dealt with; the costume, the performer and the performance space.
For me this overlap occurred through a shared physical vocabulary between different scenographic elements. In each I found rhythm, pattern and shape, and by exploring these shared qualities through drawing and re-drawing their interactions I developed a better idea of how the overall scenography was created and how it might be developed to enhance the synthesis of multiple scenographic elements. As a dancer I recognised these rhythmic interactions as a type of dance; my drawings as a kind of dance notation. These sketches began to help me to explore new ways to bring the scenographic elements together and gave me a better understanding of the overall composition of the performance. From this perspective, my role as a scenographer echoed that of a choreographer, not in its entirety, but certainly enough to make me question my role. I now questioned the kind of new dialogues and tasks that might be necessary to work as a scenographer, the time required, the associated costs and the different training approaches that could be used.
Mon, 16 Apr 2018
Mon, 16 Apr 2018
Mon, 01 Aug 2016
It was a co-incidence that my research paper on scenography, dance, choreography and drawing overlapped with the development of my performance for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But I’m extremely thankful for the timing. My performance is now almost ready and it’s taken me this long to realise that the work is a direct result of my paper, and how I now see and think about scenography.
My scenography is what I do when I create a performance. It’s a document; a drawing; a design; a performance; a piece of choreography. There are lines between each of the theatrical elements, but my job is to bring them together. Just as I must do when I skate. Scenography is a similarly creative and choreographic process; it needs a starting point and sensory inspiration, it needs a wash of vague ideas and plans to stem the fear of the blank space, like an artist starting a painting. And it needs a structure that involves creative play in order to explore how the different elements of this space/painting work together.
This is what I have written about in my research paper – now handed in – and which I hope will be published in the near future. When I worked on my PhD I felt like a mis-fit. A skater who wanted to say that her performance training and sports practice influenced her take on theatre design? Too strange. Too left field.
I wish I had had the confidence back then to push things further. To stand up for what sport, not just dance could bring to the table. But we’re nearer now and I hope that dance will be just the start. With the Olympics approaching it’s a great opportunity to watch how the different teams create their performances; to see which contributors could offer an insight into how scenography is created and performed.
My performance at the Fringe doesn’t fit any specific category. I find it hard to call what I do dance, and I can’t really call it skating, perhaps it’s a little of both. But what I know for certain now is that what I am doing is scenography.
Fri, 15 Jul 2016
Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Things have finally started to come together. I won’t lie, it’s been a little tense. The venue has confirmed the performance site, the design is a reality, I’ve chosen my music and choreography is starting to take shape. Although I’m looking forward to performing this Summer,I’m also looking forward to seeing some great shows. The problem is choosing which ones.
Tue, 21 Jun 2016
The relationship between technology, clothing and costume is developing at an unbelievably fast rate.
This garment design by Behnaz Farahi is both spooky and fascinating and opens up a wealth of new possibilities. I argue that as these developments build, the gap between costume, set and the body diminishes. The three have merged and separated before, and always will do, but with current technological developments this exciting wave of change impacts not just the final and realised designs but also the way in which designers work with, utilize and affect the spectator.
Sat, 21 May 2016
Admittedly in the section where it’s not banned. This crazy rule needs to go. On one level to draw is to learn not simply to copy – as if it’s ever just a copy in the first place. On another level, it makes the strange assumption (given that this museum displays an amazing array of art works) that drawing is one particular thing…not a range of different things. Drawing is mark making, it’s writing, note taking, sculpture, painting, textiles, performance …the list is huge. Would they stop me embroidering onto fabric my interpretation of a ticket-only exhibition?
And I wasn’t taken in by the free note book being handed out either.
Thu, 14 Jan 2016
Look Mr Big up there can you stop taking these glorious, inspiring people from the world. It sucks.
Fascinated by the subversive I was always going to be a fan of team Slytherin in the Harry Potter films – a fan of Alan Rickman’s performance in particular. But then I was hooked ever since I saw his performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood and delighted in his delivery of lines in the ‘spoon scene,’ ….in the same way I enjoy Snape’s delivery of the word ‘obviously’ in HP. Repeatedly, every time I watch it.
There are so many great Snape moments in the Potter films it’s hard to pick one out, but one of my favourites is Rickman’s part in the satisfyingly dark melee at the Shrieking Shack in the PoA (left). A relative of mine is a big fan and I know her heart will be breaking right now – she saw Rickman perform a reading a few years ago and was captivated. Few seem to make that cross over between generations. He clearly did. RIP Rickman. ALWAYS.
Tue, 12 Jan 2016
(Below: Video link. David Bowie & La La La Human Steps)
Not that I have any deeply reasoned claim to this response, or any real connection to Bowie’s music, but I feel desperately sad about the news of his death. It’s just not fair – it sounds selfish and childish and ineffective, but it just isn’t fair. Music, dance, film, fashion, art – is all brighter, more challenging, thoughtful and more exciting for his input. I am lucky to have seen him gig at Wembley but I wish I’d gone to more, seen more and experienced more of his work live. When I was 11 Labyrinth was my ‘watch a million times’ movie and at 11 I fell in love with the Goblin King. Fantasy costume, theatrical sets, dance and puppetry….It was my kind of film and probably always will be. But really, it was all about Bowie. Bowie was devastatingly attractive, in spite of the costumes that were undeniably situated heavily in the fashion of the time. His character’s relationship with Sarah was subject to endless on-line analysis….yet it pretty much always came down to the same dialogue and the same conclusion – most fans of the film would have told Sarah to take the wrong turn, open the wrong door, eat that peach and spend a happy eternity in the arms of this beautiful Goblin King. Long live King Bowie x
Mon, 11 Jan 2016
Eddie Redmayne is one of my favourite actors and I’m unashamed in saying that this is partly because I worked with him early on in his career. Since then I have enjoyed watching him soar to the level of a beautiful and globally successful actor. As Tony in West Side Story at the Cambridge Arts Theatre Redmayne was remarkable not only because he was a talented actor and singer, but also because his approach was so understated. He was extremely easy to costume because of this. Polite and professional he made my life as costume designer a great deal easier.
Watching him as Einar/Lili in The Danish Girl was a joy. I hadn’t anticipated how emotional the story would turn out to be, or how convincing Redmayne would be in the leading role. The fragility of the body, mind and movement was clearly studied and I found myself focused on Redmayne’s movement as he dressed, undressed and moved in Lili’s newly acquired clothes. However, above all I was fascinated by his hands. Lili’s hands are elegant, elongated and carefully placed by the body in the way I remember the hands of the subjects of Egon Schiele’s paintings.
And like the hands in these paintings they narrate the life and emotions of their owner. It’s a skilled study in movement that demonstrates the interlocking mix of pain, love and confusion felt during the transitions between Einar and Lili. In fact this study of hand movement and gesture does just as much in communicating the complexity of this transition as Redmayne’s still, yet moving facial expressions.
It’s unfair not to credit Alicia Vikander for her performance within this drama, since it is thanks to her compassionate performance as Gerda that Redmayne’s character shines. We learn more about Einar and Lili because it is drawn upon and from Gerda and her own journey, during which she grows in confidence as an artist, and determination as a wife. Yet it is her commitment to love, regardless of gender that is truly moving and that by the end of the film dominates over everything else. And for that I am glad.
I feel privileged to have seen this film – it’s one of those films that changes how you see people – both the actors and the people they portray. Thank goodness for the writers, directors and actors that take on this kind of elegant, subtle and creative work.
Mon, 04 Jan 2016
With my Parkour paper finished I’ve spent some time exploring different interactions between scenography and dance. This week I came across a different type of Pas de Deux. Daniel Wurtzel’s video provides a contemporary example of a performance that does not need or feature the movement of a human body. In this video fabric performs and I find the form, shapes and rhythm of this performance beautiful. However, it’s not a continuous motion that I look for and enjoy but the moments in which there is a noticeable change in the relationship between the two materials – from division to reunion and vice versa. This shifting balance within the duet reminded me of the air bound duelling scene from Harry Potter – but for this dance there’s no CGI, just a well designed piece of scenography.
Fri, 20 Nov 2015
In the last few years Parkour has grown in popularity and accessibilty. It has become less the skill of the Bond bad guy and more the activity of young and old aiming for mental and physical fitness. With these changes comes ShecanTRACE, the exciting new women only training sessions developed and run by Parkour Generations.
This work is not entirely new. In 2014 I investigated the training and creative practices used by Parkour Generations at the Chainstore in London for a journal paper I was writing.
I was impressed at the inclusive approach taken by this organisation. Whatever age, gender, nationality, Parkour Generations will embrace your goals and help you to achieve them. The women I met at the Chainstore were just as able as the men. They are empowered, physically strong and agile, and it is thanks to their input that PG has, and is, successfully impacting upon women’s mental and physical health.
ShecanTRACE is a group that sits within the main PG organisation and challenges the idea that women shouldn’t or can’t get involved in physical activities simply because they might lack the confidence or opportunity. They write;
‘Fear of judgement or of failure can stop many women from taking part confidently in physical activities, fitness and movement training – but the powerful female parkour community shows that this doesn’t have to be the case.
The initiative aims to inspire more women to get moving and explore their potential, and to shine a light on the existing strong, dedicated female parkour community.’
Trained coaches working with this group take an active role in promoting women’s health and fitness, taking part in the Women’s International Parkour Weekend and travelling to different countries to develop both their training and teaching skills.
This work can only be a good thing. I hope it gets the recognition it deserves and is quickly and effectively integrated into the education system in this country.
Fri, 06 Nov 2015
‘Ultimately it’s an act of creation…’
‘What I wanted to do was create fictional characters that would collide with history.’
‘I discovered this area of east London and a really interesting group of women to focus on.’
Screenwriter Abi Morgan.6 November 2015 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-34737434)
I was not ready to like this film. It seemed too big a task to effectively represent such iconic moments in women’s history, no matter how big the budget or how many well respected actors were signed up. But beautifully costumed, shot and performed this film surprised me. I was engaged in its re-telling of well documented moments in history, such as Emmeline Pankhurst’s speech and Emily Wilding Davison stepping in front of the King’s horse. But I was also immersed in, and engaged with the smaller details of the working life of women in the 1900’s.
Watching Maud’s child wrenched from her grip, her loss, her numbness and then finally her fight was truly moving. Of course this film is about the Suffragette movement and its relevance to different aspects of women’s lives, but for me this film is also about the powerful bond between a mother and her child and the strength and courage that comes from that bond and that love.
As a turning point for both Maud and Violet, albeit in different directions, this love becomes central to the film. In my mind the ‘collision’ between cinematic fiction and historical documentation does not lessen the power of this point. On one level it serves as a lens through which to view better known players of the Suffragette movement as something other than influential historical figures. On another it raises lesser known, but just as important players into the spotlight and celebrates their bravery. As the poster for the film declares they are all, ‘Mothers. Daughters. Rebels.’
Thu, 05 Nov 2015
The memories of war retold by survivors puts everything into perspective. It’s beyond anything I can imagine; A man speaks of his experience of a bombing in which his sister died protecting him. A pilot witnesses the building of a memorial statue and stands with tears in his eyes, unable to speak as he remembers his friends who died. A POW shirt kept by a survivor represents resilience, determination and a long journey to freedom.
Even though the words don’t seem enough, I am so grateful.
Sat, 03 Oct 2015
When I was younger I would watch Errol Flynn leap, spin and parry with quiet wonder. I was in awe and would dream, not of the dresses and romances of the leading lady but of the physical dexterity of the leading man. I wasn’t interested in Take That or Robbie Williams, I was inspired by this sword fighting hero of the techni-colour era. But let me clarify….I wasn’t dreamy eyed over some kind of Disney-esque Prince figure ready to rescue a corseted, wide eyed waif …I wanted to BE this elegant witty figure (who lets face it looked damn fine in a pair of tights) leaping over steps and flying on tapestries, all whilst arching a sword through the air to out wit his enemy. Really, who wouldn’t?! Just look at the popularity of Jack Sparrow.
Many years later I would study theatre design and costume at the Royal School of Speech and Drama and would often disappear to watch with envy the actors rehearsing stage fights, sword play and quarter-staff choreography in the quad. Don’t get me wrong I loved and still love costume and it’s transformative power, but it wasn’t until discourses in the field of scenography made accessible the links between design and movement that I had the confidence to realise my real desire to combine design with choreography. Scenography not only provided a relevant vocabulary to describe and explore the way my interests and training in sport and theatre informed each other, but it gave these interactions validity as areas for further academic research.
Now here I am, going back to the beginning, investigating the performative act and pedagogical value of re-enactment, through both movement and costume using 5-point sword play and the art of Flynn.
I realised early on in this journey that I need to get fitter. But I also admit that my dancer feet really aren’t equipped to cope with improvised movement, even with a basic technical structure in place. Improvised movement becomes particularly difficult when a helm obscures everything except that which lies directly in front of you.
When the tall, broad figure of one of the best and biggest sword-fighters I’ve seen came at me – all be it gently – I squealed. Literally squealed. I was horrified at my response, but took it as a necessary part of a steep learning curve. This is structured play and I enjoy it immensely, but it is also improvised performance and requires intuitive movement in order to create effective flow. Stance, costume, breath, position and movement are all key to achieving this goal. Although I’m nowhere near bringing them together in an effective way, my practice sessions demonstrate what I need to do to achieve this goal and the impact each element has on the other.
I enjoy this auto-ethnographic research approach but acknowledge maintaining fitness and commitment to a performance practice is sometimes tough going. I train solo with a wooden sword to build strength and I duel with a plastic coated metal one – which gets me used to choreographing and improvising with a bit more weight. I wear padded gloves which have padding on the finger-tips and of course a fairly well built helm. The group take it slow, they are kind enough to give me time to think about my next move yet I long for the day when I can move in and out of sequence fluidly and without having to pause occasionally to consider when, where and how to move. My feet and sword work are not quite balanced and I still can’t quite pinpoint key moments in a fight where I can turn defence into attack and vice versa.
But give me time and I’ll dance like Flynn.
Sat, 26 Sep 2015
There’s something about the buzz of a group of artists preparing their work for exhibition. Perhaps it’s the satisfaction that comes from seeing the evidence of many hours hard work come together.
This exhibition marks the end of my research project, or at least the end to data collection. The analysis, evaluation and write up is still to come.
The music in the background is appropriately eclectic and the supportive interest in each other’s work makes it a pleasure to be a part of the group. Today art met with sunshine, bubbles, football and games.
Our show, like the previous, is varied – Stormbeard is defined by it’s broad range of styles and approaches which I imagine is why I feel so comfortable placing my work here. For this exhibition I’m showing the prints taken from my performance at the Fringe and as of tomorrow the ‘ice’ panel will join them.
My work sits alongside the beautiful emotive tones of Magda’s paintings and a skillful and thoughtful selection of work that includes ceramic vases, intricate drawings and psychedelic montages.
Big thanks go to Ben for organising the space and collating us all at the same time in the same place.
Fri, 18 Sep 2015
Today’s research meeting offered a taste of how the broad range of disciplines that form the core of this project can intersect, inform and redefine each other. But what struck me most was how the connecting points between these disciplines could facilitate an array of different approaches to story-telling – each offering a different perspective on the theme of success.
Stories sit at the heart of this hub.
Stories are perceived and received differently by different audiences. Together these subjective interpretations increase our understanding of people, time, places and events.
Stories are told by the self and they are told by others. Sometimes these stories originate from the same time and space, sometimes they don’t. However when you place stories from the self and from the other together the dichotomy offers a powerful new and additional set of knowledges. In-between one story and another is where I like being most.
In the fantastical, dynamic and diverse world of performance this dichotomy often occurs because performance disciplines such as dance, theatre, film and music enable us to interrupt and disrupt the flow of linear time lines and movement through space. Narratives, practices and processes can be re-viewed and experienced again in parallel, in different contexts and can be interrupted to pose new questions and divert audiences to new pathways. Existing narratives of each audience member therefore mingle, connect and disconnect with new layers of externally received stories. In this unique space stories of and by the self and stories of and by others can co-exist, even if this existence is not always an easy one. The relationship between these stories and the way in which they intersect can be used to tell us more about sensory experience and empathy, and the perception and reception of different ideas.
Thu, 17 Sep 2015
With the start of new research projects and the end of those long overdue, it seems a good time to start blogging again. It’s been a year of balancing writing, reading and workshops with the more practical negotiations of developing scenography and training for various projects. One of the more difficult negotiations was with the space I used. I had no idea how physically tough skating on a reduced surface would be…my feet have only just recovered. I certainly won’t miss the panels now they’re back in storage for a bit and look forward to reflecting on the project, analysing the data and writing it up.
Saying all of that I start back on ‘proper ice’ soon so I better get my feet back in shape…and get a little better at blocking at fight night! I owe a great deal to the team there – you couldn’t hope to meet a better group of people. Apparently dancers make excellent fighters, which gives me hope!
The Autumn will be a season of meetings and initial dialogues with collaborators. Interdisciplinary work brings more to the subjects I specialise in and there are always themes that overlap in unexpected ways. Expanding my research themes also means expanding my understanding of different research methodologies and this element of the work is particularly thrilling.
With new research methods comes new concerns regarding the dissemination and the curation of ‘mixed methods’ and ‘art as research’ data. Performance is ephemeral – how I document and edit it, how it sits alongside other non-visual and visual data and how it is shown and stored all impacts on how the research data is received and perceived.
The video footage of of my skating became an unintended exhibition piece and provided a different method for examining the research data. Julie Angel’s Parkour films clearly demonstrate the value of film as both a training and investigative tool, and I suspect some of my earlier digital work might tie in to how I end up using video and film.
Of course new and different interpretations are valid, and in many ways the differences between re-presentations of performance are fascinating in their own right, but researcher manipulation of the data has to be acknowledged and I’ll need to think more carefully about how I do this.
Thu, 10 Jul 2014
It’s all a bit unexpected, exciting but unexpected.
We’re greeted with a handshake from Abramović herself, who personally greets each person in the queue. I move through into a room of lockers in which I place my bag, jacket and mobile phone. Fair play, this is clearly something that is only to be shared by those participating inside the gallery space.
I am surprised by the large black headphones laying in wait for us on a small low lying bench. I’m just a little alarmed at what this might mean; either there is to be some rather loud noises, or no noise at all. Either way I know I’m going to be out of my comfort zone.
The man in front of me is encouraged to put the headphones on so I follow suit and come to the conclusion that their purpose is to cut out as much noise as possible. The muffled sounds created by these headphones are at odds with the external world of local traffic and layered voices. I am unsettled; by putting on these headphones I know I am entering someone else’s world and I am going to be playing by some else’s rules.
The next surprise is the presence of a number of figures, all dressed primarily in black, standing on a slightly raised platform shaped to form a cross. Each person on this platform is standing still, with their eyes closed, apparently unaware of our arrival.
As our crowd files in, some sitting on rows of chairs surrounding the platform, others, like me, standing behind them, the figures remain silent on their platform. After a few minutes passed one figure opens their eyes and slowly, gently steps down from the platform to move through the room. However rather than end their ‘performance’ and leave us, this figure pauses alongside a member of the watching crowd and on meeting their gaze, without emphasis or show, extends their hand to take that of their observer. Holding their hand, the observer becomes participant; a potential performer who is slowly, carefully and, with what seems to be kindness, is led away.
One by one each of the central figures on the platform move away to make their selections. Some observers are led silently to the central platform to stand alongside them, eyes closed, holding hands. Some are gently whispered to and taken to one of the two rooms on either side. Abramović joins in, leading observers away by the hand and occasionally standing with them on the platform.
My friend is led towards a room with many low slung beds formally laid out in rows and each covered with a blue or green blanket. She is encouraged to lay down and does so. I process my thoughts; I worry she’ll be so comfy she’ll fall asleep, I am aware of a strange sense of familiarity created by the clinical sheets and beds in that room and I’m ever so slightly envious that my friend has been invited to join this other world.
Turning my attention back to the central room I observe more participants meditative on the central platform. Some are stood on their own, others with their partner, still holding hands. It’s soothing and peaceful to watch.
Then a woman with a passive expression approaches me and with a gentle smile offers me her hand. It’s an inviting and generous act so I take her hand, not sure how I feel about accepting. I think quickly; I feel thrilled to be chosen, relieved to be internal rather than external to the event but acutely aware and nervous of audience and expectation. What are the rules I’m playing to?
I am led to the platform, step up and join the group with my partner, still holding her hand and grateful for the comfort I find in the contact we have. We are stood around the central point of the cross; a meeting of paths and of people. I close my eyes, hearing only a few muffled scrapes and bumps around me. I become aware of my partners fingers gripping mine. It’s not a tight grip but it’s not loose either. My cold hand is warming up in hers and as a result of this contact I feel safe in this unfamiliar space, surrounded by unfamiliar people. However, in spite of this support I am conscious that this sense of security is at odds with such close and random contact with a complete stranger.
I try to forget the gaze of the ‘audience’ but I’m no good at this. So I cheat; I open my eyes a tiny tiny bit and see the feet of the other participants. It’s ok I tell myself – I’ve not been abandoned – we’re still a group and that means we’re all sharing this odd experience. But why is it that this act feels like cheating? Why do I feel I’ve wimped out of this experience and let my partner down?
I close my eyes properly, and after a few minutes feel my partner’s hand loosen its grip and release mine. My warm hand feels the cold air, the warmth of my partner’s hand now transferred to my back. Her hand is resting very gently on my back by my shoulder. This is a kind act I think; she’s letting me know she’s still there. Then very slowly the warmth fades and I’m alone. I stay still for a little while longer, but it’s no good, I’m not comfortable up there on my own. I ask myself a series of questions; is it ok to leave now? Should I stay with the group? Are they still there? Why am I worried about leaving when there are no explicit rules? Is everyone else thinking the same thing? After a short while I decide to leave, and although I was glad to step back into the ‘audience’ I was sad not to be a part of whatever it was I was part of anymore. Realising that my back is aching I kneel down, relieved to rest a bit after what now felt like a physical effort.
My friend joins me, having chosen to release herself from the room and the bed. It isn’t long however before she is offered another hand and led to the opposing room, where a large group of people are slowly, almost as if freeze framed, walking to and fro from one side to the other. This performance is hypnotic to watch, with the eerie silence induced by the headphones emphasised by the lack of contact between the participants. Ghostlike, they walk, not speaking, not touching, but continuing a journey that goes nowhere in particular.
Not long after I stand up I am offered another opportunity to experience the internal world created by Abramović. A different woman approaches me this time, with an equally warm smile as the last, yet a less definite grip as she takes my hand. I am led to the platform again, where I stand, eyes closed, trying hard not to think about who is watching or what I’m supposed to do.
I surprise myself. I’m more prepared this time and I’m less nervous. My new partner doesn’t stay for long and there’s no hand on my back before she leaves. But it’s easier now, I don’t need her to stay. I don’t feel the need to open my eyes and check who is there and who is watching. Instead I think of my dance, running through each movement, and focusing on my feet as they recreate each step in my head. I do this for a few minutes, and then there’s nothing because my mind is unexpectedly blank. No visual image, no distinct train of thought, just a feeling that I can choose; I can and want to stop thinking. In that moment I know it doesn’t matter if I am observed, it doesn’t even matter if I am the only one stood in the middle of the room. I am content and happy in my own space and within the expanse of nothingness that fills it. I feel peaceful and at ease with myself. I am caught off guard by this sensation and stay where I am so I can enjoy it and explore this internal space a little more. When I do open my eyes I know I want to close them again, but the moment had passed and I step down again and away from the people in the group at the centre of the cross.
I sit down by the gallery wall, watching the others and wonder if they have found their own space and sense of peace too.
On the wall before you enter the gallery space is a short text describing the work. Within this is Abramović’s statement that in order to create this work she needed the skills, confidence and experience that everything she has done in the past, up until this point has given her. As a designer/performer/researcher I can’t think of a more valuable reflection to take away than this. Having done so much of it herself I suspect Abramović had a fair idea of what might be going through our minds as we stood there watching, being watched, walking, resting, thinking. It was framed, ready for us to step into, and draw from it as much as we wanted.