By Poppy Jackson
Last October, for the eight total hours of my performance Site, I sat astride the weighty history of Toynbee’s architecture in the East End of London, in the building then housing SPILL Festival of Performance. I was witnessed by office workers, tenants, workmen, traffic and passers by, as well as SPILL’s festival audience, remaining radically still in amongst the loud bustle and fast pace of London. My physical position followed the contours of the roof, uniting body and building within a paradoxical rite of birthing and penetration, an act of support and conquest, and a cultural critique of innocence and sexuality in relation to the female body. I believe that the body contains within it a basic set of instinctive human rights that proclaim denial of dominance and freedom of expression, this performance pared gesture and action back to these.
“While she sits on the gable for an hour or more at a time, with legs astride and her body vivid against the skyline, she seems to be staking a claim to the air itself. She is a formidable figure, not to be messed with, gazing across the contemporary city as if protecting it. Perhaps from itself.” – Lyn Gardner, “Naked Artist Poppy Jackson Straddles The Personal and the Political” – The Guardian, 2015
By sitting naked in public space, I was extending a gesture of trust out to the world in the hope that it would be reciprocated. My latest works have experimented with the poles of power and vulnerability, joined at the nexus of the self. I was definitely an unusual sight in this context, and this was also a novel experience for me to be undergoing. By breaking the invisible codes of conduct of the city I connected with the instinct of freedom deeply wired within the human body, to express my own self-sovereignty and system of beliefs. Over time the softness and warmth of my body seemed to erode the hard rules and sharp architectural lines of prescribed urban space.
The occasional physical discomfort and emotional unease from the concrete and stares on my naked body was resolved through using the cold itself as material. The low temperature had been my greatest fear in the lead up to this work, but in the process of the piece it became my ‘gateway’ in to full presence in the work and its transformative potential as I allowed it to bring full awareness to my body. In the last few weeks before Site I had grown all of my body hair so that I could provide some small barrier to the cold myself, and consumed meals high in carbohydrate to combat the low temperature. In the intensity of live performance, the will and spirit can overtake physical limits, so I had researched the early warnings signs of the onset of hypothermia. I used slow breathing techniques influenced by an inspiring studio visit from the performance artist Kira O’Reilly. My fear of heights was combated through performance artist Heather Cassils’s mentorship in rock climbing in the months leading up to the performance.
My physical position referenced two specific historical carvings. The Sheela na Gig previously adorned numerous churches in the UK until they were layered with shame and most were removed, and the painted wooden Dilukai figure (with golden clitoris that I had visited in New York’s Metropolitan Museum) removed from the Caroline Islands after missionaries also attributed shameful readings to these painted carvings. Both sexually explicit figures were bold celebrations of the life/death forces charging the female body. My live position felt powerful and even erotic at points, stating a clear invalidation of any shameful readings that could be placed upon it. My self-directed and proudly embodied physical autonomy could not be objectified, my elevated position could not be trespassed upon.
I considered my herstory that had led me here, presenting my body as an autobiographical archive. As Site progressed, many thoughts and topics crystallized at points in my mind: the moral codes of the era the building was erected as compared to the present, the female body as contemporary ‘fertility figure’ in the ubiquitous advertising of public space, and how women are so celebrated and crucified at the same time for our sexuality in our culture. I began questioning how awe for female sexuality is ironically celebrated through this ‘crucifixion’, that I felt stemmed from a frustration at the impossibility for anyone else to possess it, within our consumerist capitalist culture that promises the opposite.
As I fixed my eyes steadily on one small point in the brickwork opposite, I heard the voices of Pauline Amos and Kahlo, child of performance artists Bean and Andre Verissimo, in the courtyard below. Realizing that they were there boosted me with strength and resolve. Not only had they pushed me in the process of this specific work but in my practice for many years, particularly by making, sharing and discussing their groundbreaking work. Their voices signified the supportive community I was grateful to be part of, a community that SPILL Festival also worked to consciously extend. I have found the field of performance art to be defined by a form of companionship that intently challenges, encourages and guides artists to hone their craft and raise consciousness of their position in the world, free from any goals associated with monetary reward. The network of people surrounding me, particularly through Dartington College of Arts, ]performance s p a c e [, Grace Exhibition Space and SPILL, had enabled this performance and acted as a family.
Earlier in 2015 I performed my first rooftop performance, Hay Barn at ESSENTIAL DEPARTURES in New York, a feminist performance symposium curated by Jill McDermid, Tif Robinette and I. In this piece I sat for three hours across day to nightfall, in the heat and humidity of a New York State summer, on the building that had been the fifteen participating artists’ social space for the week. The red 1940’s hay barn was where we ate, worked, danced, and debated within Rosekill, a performance-specific venue of 100 acres of wild land, co-run by Jill McDermid and Eric Hokanson. The artists there had again provided this challenging and supportive community, with Jamie Morgan – physically demonstrating that I could fulfill my intention for the performance when my fear of heights suddenly overtook me in the lead up to the work.
Again I was positioned above a social meeting space on the Victorian architecture of Toynbee during Site, making a physical version of the ‘topping out’ ceremony, the ancient form of Christening for buildings. The building houses many community and arts organizations and has a radical history, designed as an active center for reform to bridge gaps between social groups. This time the audience (including the non-festival audience that has offices in the building) could move through this inhabited building and ascend stairs to gain an aerial view of the work and the city, using the architecture themselves to explore the work and the building.
I finished the performance action by descending from the roof at 4pm on 31st October. Whilst wrapped in a shiny thermal blanket on the mossy tarred platform below, my SPILL Festival Producer Emma Møller poured a cup of tea. As I warmed up Møller gently informed me of the viral effect of the piece, which had spiraled out from a single tweet by Raquel Rodrigues, at that time a stranger unaware of the Festival context who worked in an adjacent office. It was at that point incomprehensible to think that images of the work had made headlines around the world while I had been sitting up on the roof. I digested this in my hotel room whilst numerous messages from people curious about Site streamed into my inbox. Mixed in with this attention were remarks in some of the articles comments sections that judged my body by standards extremely alien to my own standpoint. Feeling exhausted post-performance, I decided not to read the misogynist responses that now existed in juxtaposition with my work on these media outlets webpages. The next day the performance artist Victoria Gray sent me an email with ‘With You’ as the subject line:
“I see your body on the roof as a catalyst. I sense your body as a weather vane. Like a weather vane, which revolves and points to show the direction of the invisible wind, your body in SITE has pointed to and shown the direction of the voices of violence which, like wind, are all too often invisible; invisible forces that bodies are often weathered by, moved by and shaped by — against our will. However, the words in those articles, comments, blogs, websites and online news platforms serve to make visible the violence that is always already done everyday, albeit usually covertly and silently. The power of your work lies in how it has made this insidious voice visible — it has outed it – it has made it manifest – so we can see/read what usually can only be felt. And so, it feels both painful and powerful to have this dormant violence/voice made manifest in and through your action – which is to say in and through your body.”
It remained important for me as a practitioner to not absorb any of the negativity in some of the comments intended to silence, even if they were directed at and reacted to my action. Just as I am careful not to risk my health in physically demanding works, I protected my psyche from any negative effect that could foster this intention. I returned to the experiential mix of power and vulnerability that I embodied during the piece and was then surprised at how easily I could dismiss these attempts to demolish a female perspective through attacking her body and sexuality. Initial dialogue with SPILL in 2013 included the sentence, ”society often reacts negatively to the ‘blasphemous’ appearance of a woman who acts for herself rather than at the service of others.” As the work was in part a critique of the treatment of women in our society, the misogynist responses went to prove how important the piece was. As Gray stated, Site had mirrored aspects of society back onto itself. However, the treatment of the representation of my body by the media platforms themselves already spoke of a way forwards. The majority of the tabloid headlines centered on the word ‘confused’ and raised concern only at the low temperature. Their content was respectful, citing my education and demonstrating research into my previous works.
Performance art is a genre where the body is used as a vehicle to communicate and as such is able to speak to everyone, so it can be a powerful and radical way to deliver a message. To have a genuine communal and live experience on the deep, authentic level that performance art provides is vital in our age of increasingly detached and isolated electronic communication. Furthermore, it provides clear moments of freedom in our heavily surveyed lives. Site took place in a festival and public setting to speak to both arts and non-arts audiences, and occupied virtual as well as physical space. My lasting memory of the work is the embodied feeling of being a transmitter and a receiver simultaneously. I believe in the artist’s role as a lightning rod or conductor for current issues within the collective consciousness. Being up on the roof felt at points like a defiance of gravity and above all else it has come to symbolize for me the connection we all hold to higher, larger, forces than can be contained in any one small body.