Becoming Constellation: An Interview with Benjamin Sebastian

Benjamin Sebastian, Becoming Constellation (2017).
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

By Daniella LaGaccia

I was first introduced to the performance work of Benjamin Sebastian during their stay in New York back in September, 2012. Visiting from London, Sebastian performed along with Bean and Poppy Jackson at Grace Exhibition Space for the “Alien(s) In New York” three-day guest curator performance series and later at Panoply Performance Laboratory. Sebastien would later write about this experience as well as Jackson’s WIN performance for this magazine. Benjamin Sebastian and Bean currently run ]performance s p a c e [ in Folkestone’s Creative Quarter.

Becoming Constellation (2017) is Sebastian’s new continuing performance project that looks at expanding definitions of queerness, or as it was stated in the press release, “what it feels like to live through queerness and make new worlds.” The project has ten collaborators from many different backgrounds, and includes, Keijaun Thomas, Dani D’Emilia, Bean, Alicia Radage, JD Meilling, Andre Braga Verissimo, Jade Montserrat, Esther Neff, Ryan Burke, and Fabiola Paz. The project held an exhibition at Space 7 Gallery last March in Folkestone, Kent, and will be opening a new exhibition this Friday at Lubomirov/Angus-Hughes Gallery in London from from May 26th to June 18th.

Daniella LaGaccia: You stated in your press release that “Queerness is not and can never be an identity. It is a current, or imperative.” Why do you feel that way? Why do you feel that queerness can never be an identity?

Benjamin Sebastian: For me, I guess it’s coming through my relation to queerness, which has always been both a bodily and conceptual frame. I get uncomfortable when through language we conflate the concept of queerness with the concept of being a LGBTQI+ identity. I think queerness is a strategy or a methodology or a conceptual and theoretical framework that can never actually be plastic or cement, and I feel because of that, it is not an identity-based notion.

Concepts of gay and lesbian and transsexuality and all of these, I feel that these are all identities that people have written themselves and anchored themselves in, but I feel there’s a dissonance within language that conflates queerness with identity when actually I’m trying to separate that and actually explode the concept of identity.

D: When did you start playing with this idea of queerness?

B: I started to figure this out when I as maybe in my early teens. I had gay older brothers and sisters, step-siblings. I started to notice how friends and family and society related to them, and I think at that young age, I really understood that I had something in common with them. But I didn’t think about it in terms of sexuality or gender, I just didn’t think like that at that age.

It’s a retrospective knowledge for me. I very much wanted children when I was a little little child, and I actually thought that I could become pregnant and give birth, but it wasn’t until my mum talked me through that and it was heartbreaking, I remember how devastated I was. I started to understand concepts of gender. I think from a very very young age there was this position of queerness or maybe I was living through queerness, but it’s only retrospectively that I’ve come to understand those things.

D: I can say from the perspective as someone who identifies as transgender that I sometimes have misgivings of having the LGBT or queer label placed on me, because it implies that I’m different or that I’m not normal, when I feel my sexuality and gender feels completely normal to me.

B: Me too, I find most labels in relation to identity politics somewhat problematic. At best, I’ve always had a strategic approach. I don’t identify in terms of gender or sexuality. I identify in terms of sex now, but that’s a new thing. I didn’t identify as a man until recently. For the last ten plus years, it’s been very clear in my mind for me personally moving through the world that anything in relation to identity, particularly mine and the people I want to commune with, needs to be strategic.

In one particular setting, I will adamantly and radically identify as a gay man. In other settings, I will use that identity position entirely. At other points, I will identify through language as non-binary or gender fluid, and I will shift amidst those things because one, I personally need to, because that’s how I am in the world, and secondly, it’s very much a political stance as well, because I think as soon as we reduce something to a parameter box, we’re losing something’s potential. I’m trying to explode that so we have the ultimate potential.

D: Let’s talk about queerness in relation to your project Becoming Constellation. For this project, do you necessarily have to be “queer” to participate in this project, or are there a number of varied people of different backgrounds or identities participating?

B: Again, we come back to this notion of what queer is or isn’t, or can or cannot be, and for me the whole stance is one cannot be queer, one can only live through queerness or engage in queered acts or relations. The people I’m collaborating with initially come from really broad demographic and positions in life. I feel that some of the collaborators may be seen from the outside as not queered or living through queerness, because one of the elements of their position in life is that they do sleep with the opposite sex or opposite gender.

So, for me queerness is not rooted in sex, gender or sexuality. It’s rooted in so many other nodes of being and existence such as class and race and ability. I’ve been working with people who identify themselves as living through queerness and may not identify as queer and particularly may not identify as a position within the LGBTQ+ community.

D: How did you initially get in contact with these collaborators? Did you have specific people in mind that you wanted to work with?

B: It was a bit of a tough one to come up with the initial test group. As soon as I realized that I needed to be working with other people, I was working with people from various positions in life to me, kind of making it sort of bureaucratic tick box list of oppression oppression states or oppression positions. I looked at the people I had met in life, and I knew it was going to be an intimate collaboration so it had people in different positions in being so that I had enough of a relationship to say, “Hey, I’m embarking on this thing that’s going to be quite intimate, would you like to do it with me? I don’t know how it’s going to go, and it’s also going to be challenging.” So, it’s a bit of a long process actually.

A couple of the people on my initial long list, I didn’t contact because I felt it would have just been difficult to get to know each other at the same time of doing this really intense and intimate collaborative work. So, everyone in the Human Constellation Group, I have met before or have had some sort of interaction with beforehand in various levels of friendship or peer network.

Dani d’Emilia, uteArus (2017). Collaborators were asked to donate artworks as part of their participation with Becoming Constellation (2017).
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: You said in our earlier talk that you wanted to make these connections and networks the work itself. You said, “nodes that make up the greater than the sum of its parts.” What do you mean by that?

B: I want to tell you this beautiful thing that has just happened. With all these collaborators we keep getting these really beautiful synchronicities and serendipitous overlaps and interlaps. So, one of the collaborators, Fabiola Paz, was born in Santiago, Chile. And, another one the collaborates, Alicia Radage, she has literally just turned up in Santiago, and Fabiola and I, eight hours away from having our sigil tattooed onto our bodies on the other side of the world. It’s a beautiful serendipitous thing. Little bits like this have happened throughout the project and I think that’s a poetic way of seeing this notion of it being nodes within a thing that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

But then also, there’s the very physical meaning to it. My body, my skin ends up holding space for all of the other collaborators, and so they extend beyond their bodily presence, but then, also, mine stands out into these other bodily spaces as well. Alicia and I were the first ones to come up with the sigil and have the first one done in the process. When I was being inked, it was overwhelming. I got tearful. In my mind, this concept was playing through, when one of cease to exist, we’re still being taken through life by the other with this mark on our body. This mark in time in us and of us.

Each collaborator was asked to design a sigil that was then tattooed on their body.
Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: It sounds like this project has the physical actions themselves, the sigils, the tattooing, but it also has these narratives that extend beyond these actions and are in consequence of it and become a part of the project as well.

B: Absolutely, the sigils, as they come into reality, I keep writing them down on a page next to each other every now and then, to take stock of them. It really is an alphabet, and it’s creating this alphabet that we have absolute ownership over. It’s bringing something into the world that wasn’t there prior. It is somehow a byproduct, this sort alphabet or new vernacular. It was always the idea to have these sigils to be a part of the collaborative work, but this whole sort of alphabet or document of these new languages is in its own right this thing that has spun off beside the whole project.

D: It’s creating this sort of human archive of this work.

B: Yes, absolutely.

D: You mentioned that when you first reached out to these participants you sent them questionnaires. Can you talk about some of the questions that were on these questionnaires?

B: For the idea of the questionnaire, I knew I always wanted to create new narratives, because this was about looking how narratives are produced. The questionnaire was like an ice breaker. One of the people in the project was the first person I met and had an enduring relationship with here in the UK. Some of us were very intimate. Others I’ve only met once before, or we’ve had some very interesting conversations at social events or we’ve collaborated in fleeting. There are varying degrees of intimacy. It was both an ice breaker, but at the same time all of the collaborators were aware that their answers from the questionnaire were going to be used to create a cut-up text-piece that will be somehow woven in the overall project.

The questions I was asking in the questionnaire alluded to identity, queerness, politics, and how people felt they were in the world. Some of the questions were as simple as, “Where are you local? What verbal language do you consider to be your primary mode of expression?,” and then, more sort of abstract questions like, “What does community mean to you?” The first question was, “How do you define queer?” or “What does queer mean to you?”

I wanted to have people give over some information of themselves, almost in the way of profiling. I wanted to have an element of the person of their identity in textual form. As well as their feelings and thinkings around of what queerness may or may not be.

Collaborators were asked to have nude portraits of themselves taken, that were then cut-up and reformed back together to create new portraits.
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: You said you were working with cut-up pictures as well?

B: Yes. The invitation to collaborate had four elements to it. It had the questionnaire; it had the invitation to collaborate on a photo montage portrait series, and then it was donating the three artworks, and then it was the production of the statement of intent which was the sigil and the tattoo.

So, the photo, it’s a very simple photograph. I asked the collaborators to take a full body frame against a background, it doesn’t really matter because it gets edited out. I just wanted to have us striped back to our flesh, and then the idea was that all of these photographs, rather than just be stark photographic portrait of each member, they then get grided up and interwoven into each other. You end up with all of these hybrid forms that look somehow post-human or post-gendered actually, because the way they’re sewn back to together, you lose a little bit from each grid. So, it’s sort of makes some of the forms where the body connect look amorphous.

D: It’s like it’s creating new ways of how the human body can look.

B: Yeah, in as much as the sigils have started to create this new symbolic vernacular or vocabulary, the body that the image montages are creating this other vocabulary or vernacular of what visual references of the human body look like. If you put two of the collaborators who have penises together, you get this amorphous penis; if you put two of the practitioners with vaginas together, you get this amorphous image of a vagina, and if you get half, you get this hermaphroditic form. It’s so interesting the way they actually form, because sometimes it looks like a hybrid, other times it actually looks like there’s nothing there at all, they’re asexual. The photos are similar to the sigils where it’s a vernacular, it’s a visual reference of what the body might potentially be.

The many sigils produced by collaborators for Becoming Constellation (2016).
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: One of the main parts of this project is that you’re working with sigil magic. What role does magic play in Becoming Constellation?

B: I’ve always really believed in magic. I don’t believe in it in terms of this sort of otherworldly ethereal thing like you wish and hope for the best. I believe in magic in the physical manipulation of elements around you to bring about desired change. So, sigil craft in particular is very much a manifesting type of spell craft. You focus on a statement of intent, you cast that out into the universe, and then you can’t just leave it to hope that it does it work. You then have to put in steps to bring about that desired change. For me, it’s like anything else. I’ve always been very visual in my thinking and my feeling— I’ve always wanted to try to have a very clear image of that thing. Maybe, it’s that I want to live in the UK, or it’s that I want to unpack what it is this body is perceiving. I visualize these things and I see these as almost stepping stones in time and space to get towards those positions, goals, things. So sigil craft is very much about that for me.

We…the collaborators and I create these statements of intent. One of them is “I am patient”, another one is “bridges over walls,” another one is “I am intimate and I am resilient.” So, it’s very much about casting these intents, and then really bringing them into our bodies and make them of ourselves through the tattooing, and as we move through the world, the physical activation of those intents. So this is magic, it’s the physical activation of this more ethereal sort of spell craft. And so, I was sort of exploding histories of sigil craft, so it’s like chaos magic, taking a bit of this, taking a bit of that, and creating something that’s more potent and useful now in contemporary settings.

D: I’ve always felt like writing is kind of like a form of magic. I love the idea that someone can write down their ideas 500 years ago and 500 years later, another person can look at those same words and interact with the thoughts of a writer who has long since died.

B: And you can create worlds; this is the big thing for me. We can create worlds, we can create universes, and this is what all art is for me. Something that we want to exist we can make. Of course there is limitations, but with the advances of science, these limitations get crossed off the list. I’ve always considered all creative practices, but most particularly writing as magic, absolutely.

D: How large do you want to make this project? Do you want to make this an ongoing project? Do you want to have a definite end? Or, is this something you want to have in your life continuing on creating constellations?

B: I’ve now understood that it’s ongoing. When I initially conceived of it, I thought it was sort of a white-meated curatorial collaborative project. It would have a start, it would have an end, and then there would be this sort of performative archive that is a thing that might have other lives. But it’s not like that at all. I’ve understood the project now as a methodology which is ongoing. It is very much something I now live with and it lives with me, and we live with it together! I think that’s a really beautiful thing, because my engagement with queerness is that it is entirely multiple. So, to in order to be true to the project itself, I think it has to be ever evolving…because that’s what queerness is. If it were to stop, it wouldn’t be true to form. So there may be fallow periods of inactivity, but it’s open ended.

As it grows, the visual references of the body vocabulary grow; the symbolic vernacular of sigils continue to grow; the visual archive continues to grow, and we create this ever expanding visual textual created narrative of what it means to live through queerness in the world. I now understand that that’s what the whole thing has been about.

Becoming Constellation (2017) installation. Space 7 Gallery, Folkestone, England.
Photo: Courtesy of Benjamin Sebastian

D: There are a lot of visual elements to this project, sigils, tattoos, the cut-up text, and the photos of the collaborators… Will there be a physical archive or exhibition that people can interact with and look at to see how this project has evolved?

B: Yes, first off you have the bodies themselves. So you’ve got that, and it will always be a very physical fluid element to the archive. Quite often I get asked what my tattoos mean, and the majority of the marks on my body are from Becoming Constellation. I’ve had a few tattoos before the process, but it has been overtaken by this human constellation.

So there’s that element to it. Other physical elements, there will actually be at some point a digital aspect to this whole thing. I’m actually enrolled in a course at the moment at Central State Martin’s where I’m learning to use Autodesk Maya, a 3D animation program, and it’s part of the project. What I was hoping to do was create these digital avatars that eventually the photos will cover. The idea was that the photographic cut-ups will become the skins of these 3D animated avatars, so you wouldn’t just have the 2D image of these potentials of what the body may be, but you would have them wrapped around the newly-created digital forms also. I was hoping to have at least one or two avatars created by the end of this R & D funded process.

In time there will be that digital presence, and so the visual archive itself, houses all the donated works and each sigil is printed out on a nylon flag, so it has all the sigils on the flags, all the photographic bodies, the donated objects, so yes there is quite a substantial physical archive in the objects and the bodies themselves.


Rubbish and Unwanted Things, Tempting Failure Day 4

Day 4 of Tempting Failure featured 6 artists at D:NA, a performance venue in the home of Ernst Fischer in Herne Hill, London. One performance was performed on the street, as well as a durational piece by Daniel Nicolae Djamo called Territorial marking (2015) at DescARTs in Croydon. Listed below is a recounting of the following exhibitions and performances in the order they occurred on July 24th.

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Robert Watts, Uncertainty Principle (2016), D:NA, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Robert WattsUncertainty Principals (2016)

By David LaGaccia

Music in the modern age has become an isolating experience. Ipods and smartphones keep people tuned-in to their favorite tracks, but keeps them isolated in being able to share it with others. Robert Watts’s performance, Uncertainty Principals, brought together antique and modern technology.

When invited up into the flat, each person was given a pair of headphones and a screwdriver to “draw” with. At first you don’t fully understand what this means: Did they mean to make scratches on the floor? The surreal nature of Ernst Ficsher’s house throws you off and adds a relaxed and playful atmosphere with toy hamsters in balls running around. Robert then walks in silently holding a case full of records. He makes some arrangements on a device that I couldn’t identify (it looked like an old tape recorded) then he places a record on a record player. It becomes clear that we’re all hearing the same music through each of our headphones. Watts then begins handing spectators a vintage .45 rpm record as well as a screwdriver. It becomes clear that he wants us to “draw” or scratch on the records.

Scratching the vinyl in this way effectively destroys any pragmatic use the record may have had; In general, I’m leery of the term transformation, but in this case, the destruction of the object transforms the object.  The record may have been sitting around unplayed collecting dust somewhere (which itself effectively destroys its “use”), but when it is used in this performance, it is given new purpose, and not only that, it becomes personalized to the person who created it that then can be shared to the group listening to it. This manipulation of the object is a kind of retroactive “sampling”, where the destruction of the old recording creates the new personalized recording; it can also be seen as a pun on the term “scratching”, a musical technique used on records by DJ’s , and in Rap and Hip-Hop music.

After the spectators are finished drawing, we hand the “destroyed” records back to Robert, where he begins playing them on a record player; the songs are oldies, like Hank Williams or the band ABC, and they crack and fizzle and skip, each distorted by the unique markings each person made. After he finishes all of our records, he stops, and begins to give back the records to each person. I was given a record with a picture of two elephants drawn on it. It was a simple performance, probably too simple, and I wish Watts went further with the ideas in this performance like playing with technology and art, as well as the shared experience of music. Perhaps he will revisit these ideas in the future.

Ernst Fischer,

Ernst Fischer, Toorchen Tours (2016), D:NA, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Lisa Stertz

Ernst FischerToorchen Tours (2016)

By Lisa Stertz

In remembrance and honor to friend and artist, Anthea Toorchen, Ernst Fischer invited for a walk through his neighborhood Herne Hill next to Brixton in South East London. Toorchen had been working with found materials and objects. Her recent work composed of orange- and red-colored objects that she would puzzle together to organ-like sculptures to confront and question her disease that she deceased from in 2015.

Fischer chose only a few stops for his 2-h-walk, but smartly planted several seeds of knowledge at each of them. Bit by bit these seeds grew and transmuted into a bewildered garden of consistent information around rubbish, debris and junk via locality, myths, secrecy, etymology, self-care, fantasy, camp, art, home, sociality, responsibility, the public and the personal, the unwanted and the odd and so forth. One could follow Fischer at all times, or linger in a thought that he triggered in you. He would not forget to remind you of anecdotes, he told you earlier on, weave in specificities of the spaces you visited, or name other TF2016 artist’s work, here Sue Fox’s photo series “The Forgotten”, to encompass his talking tour from always another angle. With his gentle circumspection to everything, Fischer created a satisfying, temporary whole. His enthusiasm and openness gave an easy access to listen and to be with him along this pleasing and captivating Sunday afternoon.

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Alanna Lynch, Concealed and Contained (2016), D:NA, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Alanna LynchConcealed & Contained (2016)

By James Sherman

We walk into a room in which Alanna stands in a central position, and we are invited to take seats around her. She is crocheting her own hair around her naked body; she has started from the head down, and the laborious process taking place sees it come lower at a snail’s pace from around her shoulders. Her entire head is covered – contained and concealed – and no doubt, her thoughts are elsewhere, lost in the sway of menial gestures and muscle memory.

In this durational piece, Alanna performed over the span of an hour and the audience were able to come and go as they pleased. I came in once at the beginning for a long period, took a break, and returned for the last ten minutes to find Alanna’s back now shimmering with sweat. She has been working with her own hair for the past ten years and has begun this particular project in 2009 – only exhibiting it as a live performance once before in Sweden last year. When I asked about the possible motivations to begin this work, she told me that she had always been interested in materiality – and when the desire for materiality as a medium came, the natural choice was her own hair as she was in an environment where it stood out – perhaps acting as an emblem, at once of her dissimilarity and her identity.

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Sebastian Hau-Walker, Ausculta (Vision Serpents) (2016), D:NA, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Sebastian Hau-WalkerAusculta (Vision Serpents) (2016)

By Alicia Radage

On entering a living room in Herne Hill, we are greeted by Sebastian Hau-Walker dressed in a white shirt, white trousers and a graduation hat. He offers us a cushion, a choice of a mango, lime or orange and a pair of wireless headphones. We are encouraged to lie down. Hau-Walker presses play on a home video from 1995, which documents him as a child growing up in Mexico. The video is screened on both a TV set and a projection upon the ceiling. Through the headphones the sound of the video is amplified. We see a 6 year old Sebastian in a tinier version of his white attire and graduation hat, amongst a sea of other children dressed identically. For the duration of the piece the video spans school life, home life, trips to the sweet shop and visits to other local kids at their homes.

The artist searches around the space for a piece of fruit from an audience member. The fruit, having just been handed to them, is asked to be returned and he sinks his teeth into it. Fruit in mouth he picks up a VHS tape from a pile in the corner. He holds it in right hand and beats it against his left folded elbow until it cracks open. As though extracting a seed he snaps out a film reel, climbs up to the projection on the ceiling and sticks it upon the moving image. The film from the reel cascades down upon the audience in a rapid swirl of dark ribbon. The artist moves around the space repeating these actions,  simultaneously embodying primal actions, institutional rigidity, the foreign body, the local body, the imported, the appropriated, the obsolete. It is magical and astounding to witness their body fluidly moving between and amongst these states.

As the hour goes by, Hau-Walker buries us in tangled film ribbon and hands us back bitten fruit.

Having installed a new layer of earth out of discarded, now useless VHS tape, he tries to gather up his trails and binds them around his head. As he pulls upon the ribbons he brings everything that he’s entangled in the gradual burial. People’s toes, legs, fingers, bags, hair, fruit are pulled and the tape is slowly dragged towards a vortex where the artist is placed. He gradually moves to exit. An audience member refuses to let go of what is being pulled away from them. There is a suspended moment of tension and they both pull. Hau-Walker wins and walks out onto the street. We watch him walk away through the living room window.

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Phillip Bedwell, Echoes (2016), D:NA, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Phillip BedwellEchoes (2016)

By Daniel Holmes

A length of rope bookended by two nooses. One ensnares a mammoth block of ice. The other, Phillip Bedwell’s neck.

In Echoes, Phillip attempts, and inevitably fails, to lift and suspend the block using himself as a counterweight. He strains and adjusts as the ice dangles before him. We witness his struggle as the weight becomes too much. The ice falls. He breathes. He sets. Sometimes he weeps. Then he tries again. The cycle continues.

Phillip beautifully delves into dichotomies. Warmth/cold. Life/death. The attrition which melts the ice, making it easier to lift, simultaneously breaks his body. Mostly however, it is Phillip’s disrupted identity which captures the mind. His body is a form of hyper-masculinity, he is a Roman legionnaire, swelling and muscular, a demonstration of the power and strength conceptualised to the male form. Yet, in his struggle, he exposes his frailty, his vulnerability, his weakness. These are the antiseptic of conditioned manhood, that we have been told to be so afraid to admit.

The melting ice stains his skin as it turns to water, leaving traces of the battle in which he forges himself. Perhaps he too is changing state, defining himself a new man in the conflict.

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James Shearman, IN/OUT (2016), D:NA, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

James ShearmanIN/OUT (2016)

By James Shearman

IN/OUT is a small noise piece I devised with the help of my mentor Clive Henry in the mentorship programme for TF2016. It began with noise and writing. I was doing a lot of home recording with a contact mic to amplify objects and I was using distortion/gain- and a host of other manipulations- to bring this source into its fullest noise splendour. I wanted to build a ‘noise ritual’ which could allow me to lose myself momentarily – to confront life and death and the small spaces in between. I took some inspiration from Butoh, the Dance of Darkness, in its clawing mindless atavism I saw what I wanted for the ritual – and I found a long umbilical string extending from it to my practice and scribbles with automatic writing and noise.

I think it did meet my expectations. I was meant to be responding to the theme ‘In Utero’, and I’m not sure many could guess this without being told – consciously or unconsciously I always seem to evade the very thing I want a piece to revolve around. Just because it was central in my mind does not mean it should, or has to be, in yours.

Standing Apart, Tempting Failure Day 3

Day 3 of Tempting Failure featured 7 artists at Matthews Yard in Croydon, London alternating between the two venues, Studio Theatre Utopia and descARTS, one performance that was performed on the street, as well as a video screening by Tom Cardew. Listed below is a recounting of the following exhibitions and performances in the order they occurred on July 23rd.

Rhiannon Armstrong, Public Selfcare System (2016), Studio Utopia Theatre, Tempting Failure.Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Rhiannon Armstrong, Public Selfcare System (2016), Studio Utopia Theatre, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Rihannon ArmstrongPublic Selfcare System (2016)

By Lisa Stertz

This is an invitation to stop. Out of personal experience, Rihannon Armstrong generated a one-on-one performance that offers you to rest in situ, in the here and now.

She picks you up from the clock tower in Croydon, that you are walked to by a member of Temping Failure’s production team. Then she walks with you for five minutes along and under streets, around a number of corners to a specific corner of concrete by the Croydon College. She talks you through all the steps of your time with her while you are walking. You walk quite fast to reach the point of stopping. Fast forward to pause. But you feel calm through her gentle voice. She sees her piece as a tandem exercise. She is your guide of care, pause, and hold.

Upon arrival, you will find yourself standing right next to her as a starting point of stopping. She has a cushion for your head and shawl to protect you from the sun at your leisure to feel comfortable when lying down. On the count of three you both sit down. On another count of three you lie down. On a last count of three you turn over to your right side. You breathe. She asks you to be aware of your breath, to let loose and sink into the concrete, to observe your locale and to close your eyes at your will. She asks for permission to put her hand on your shoulder and talks to you about the ok-ness to lie here and rest, to do nothing for once and feel your very bodily existence in the very place you are in. It is OK to stop. Then she leaves you. She lets you rest by yourself. This is your time. – After a moment, Rihannon’s voice arises, touching you softly out of your rest. She walks you back. You have another five minutes together. At the clock tower she thanks you warmly for resting along her and devotes herself to a next participant.

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Rebecca O’Brien, Hera (2016), Studio Utopia Theatre, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Becky O’BrienHera (2016)

By David LaGaccia

Sculpture has a deep association with performance, where artists consider the movement of the body is of the same interest with the creation of the object. Here Rebecca O’Brien presents us with a “living sculpture” for her performance. Walking in we see O’Brien eyes closed and standing still on a box in a traditional statue pose of Venus, or as the title suggests, Hera; we surround her in a circle like a monument. In the darkened theater a spotlight shines on her; her body is covered in a gray material, possibly plaster, but it looks like concrete.

She slowly begins to move, animating her body and brushing off the material revealing her white skin. Flecks of the material fall, making light tapping sounds as the pieces fall. When she begins to move faster, the tapping sounds become amplified and louder, and what sounded like falling pebbles now sound like falling stones. She begins to move more rapidly, gesturing and posing herself in traditional feminine statue poses. New sounds appear, loud hammering, drilling, construction sounds, bringing up images of a construction site, a traditionally male environment.

The classical female image was constructed by men. Using drills, hammers and other construction equipment, the image of the female body was manipulated and constructed by men to form the “ideal” beauty. Although O’Brien does not directly comment on this, the sounds of construction do sound abrasive when contrasted with the natural human body. She is making us aware of this subject, and letting us form our own opinions.


Alicia Radage, Extension Off-Land (2016), DescARTes, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Emma Chapman

Alicia RadageExtension Off Land (2016)

By Charly Flyte

Off Land began with the artist Alicia Radage’s female naked body in a shoulder stand in the apex of a white walled studio with a wooden floor. On her feet she balances an old rusty, curled spike and from her asshole erupts nine lengths of wool attached to round mirrors spread across the room. The image is astonishing. Woolen boundaries are navigated by the spectator, the artist creating them but also being constructed by them. The lighting reflected into the mirror creating lunar shapes across the room. The work felt fiercely feminine. As the three hour piece progressed, she moved from balancing the spike on the floor to standing, the wool bursting from inside of her. She stood over the mirrors examining her vagina. Her body became fractured images in the surrounding mirrors. The nine mirrors made me think of the nine months of pregnancy and as the artist held the pit of her stomach and inhaled deeply, I felt the pain of woman as the keeper of creation.

She moved across the space dragging the mirrors presenting the image of a prisoner dragging a ball and chain. She tentatively stroked the wool and holding her waist length hair in one arm it caused me to question the weight of a woman’s hair; the responsibility, the feminine, the curse.

Her actions and stillness rippled like waves over the space injecting the most electrifying energy into the studio. The piece heightened in pace as she began spinning in circles tangling the wool, the artist becoming visibly exhausted at the velocity of the movement. Drawing the mirrors closer it was as if she wanted to somehow regain control of the extensions that ran from her own body.

The performance ended with the artist sitting, legs spread biting the wool from her attachment. Removing them by force. She gagged as the wool stuck to her tongue. The lasting image of a woman ridding that which she had loved, that which had confined her and that which was her fractured reflection.

The artist’s process gave way to my own emotional process and this work creates inner movement and shifts within those lucky enough to see it.

 Natalie Raven and Dagmar Schwitzgebel, Sackcloth and Ashes (2016), Studio Utopia Theatre, Tempting Failure.Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Natalie Raven and Dagmar Schwitzgebel, Sackcloth and Ashes (2016), Studio Utopia Theatre, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Natalie Raven and Dagmar SchwitzgebelSackcloth and Ashes (2016)

By David LaGaccia

The spectators were asked to sit in one of the four squares at the start of the performance, each separated from the long white fabric, sackcloth that formed a cross; Natalie Raven and Dagmar Schwitzgebel stood on opposite ends of the vertical line holding up their hands with palms facing out. The two walk towards each other and meet at the cross-section of the cross with their bodies contrasting in physique. Their hands meet in force with their arms raised like a steeple; they both get on their knees, pushing back and forth in opposition.

Schwitzgebel stands up and picks up the fabric cutting a hole in middle and placing it over her head and covering her body like religious robes. In the middle of the cross, a pile of ashes or soot is exposed, reminiscent of ashes normally used to form the cross on the face for Ash Wednesday. Raven picks up another piece of fabric and does same, but it becomes clear that she wears the garment looser, with her feminine body fully exposed. Both go into their actions, defining their identities separately.

Although no specific meaning was discernable from their use of Christian iconography and religious gestures, it was clear that Raven and Schwitzgebel had used this iconography for their own symbolic purposes: carefully considered actions and images of the cross, baptism, religious attire, and prayer could all be seen throughout this performance. Performances dealing with religion as their subject (specifically Christianity), tend to have a moral stance on the issue of belief or non-belief (or institution), but rarely do you see a performance show the artist expressing their own conflicted attitudes, adding their own perspective to the conversation rather than dictating it.

Raven’s actions were more sexual and opposed to the religious beliefs. Her breasts and clitoris were freely exposed for the spectators to see, making gestures in the air that suggested masturbation, slamming her head into the pile of ashes, and spitting it out when it got in her mouth.

Opposing her was Scwitzgebel, who wore the sackcloth draped over her body like a robe covering her female body. Her actions were filled with religious piety and silent prayer, kneeling and forming a cross with the ashes, gently rubbing it on her face and bringing her emotions close to tears. After the performance, one viewer asked me if there was anything personally significant about the ashes: “Was it someone she knew?”, he asked, “or something that was close to her that brought her to the brink of tears?” I couldn’t say.

When the ash pile became smaller and smaller with use until it was gone, the two women stood together on the stage side by side. Raven took a tin pale filled with water, and gently cleaned Scwitzgebel’s ash covered body and face. Scwitzgebel did the same for Raven, gently cleaning her arms and face. The performance began with the two women in opposition and open hostility towards each other, and now they end with an embrace, with the two women becoming one soul.

Nicola Hunter, Lost Bodies (2016), Studio Utopia Theatre, Tempting Failure.Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Nicola Hunter, Lost Bodies (2016), Studio Utopia Theatre, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Nicola HunterLost Bodies (2016)

By Lisa Stertz

You are allowed to enter a space, a sanctuary space, but spatially before, you enter through the smell of a saluting gesture. A gesture that in an instant will make you become part of the following as a witness. Burnt sage is fanned down your body. You are here for a reason. This certain, sudden companionship is a grounding to the metamorphic transformation that is about to happen. This is an impactful ritual. You can feel the supreme rightness of every material decorating the space. Everything has its definite purpose. Everything makes absolute sense. Nothing could be in another place. It all belongs together.

Nicola Hunter sits on a throne. Her head covered in a crown of red roses and a long blue veil falling down until her knees. She wears a white, silk wedding dress. Her legs are spread. Barefoot she sits. White high heels filled with a juice of blood and strawberries between her feet. In front of her a big pile of dirt covered with flowers. Everything sits quietly. A droning sound belongs to this first imagery and with a slow waving of her fingers, Hunter begins to shed. She sheds a layer of life, its influence and its lived interpretation. The ritual has begun.

An amassment of objects, actions, symbolism, and referential communication emanates, and so she weaves her materials and artistic vocabulary together to a crucial climax from which she then descents and departs. Beforehand she has been weaving multiple layers of her voice together to sonically supplement her affairs into a choir of vocalizations, screams and breaths. There is no escape from the density over-coming you: She is crawling backwards around the pile of dirt and flowers with the dress lifted to expose her ass, pulling the blood-filled high heels with her, slurping in those heels around her center installation and squeezing the strawberries, digging into the pile in search of a candle, masturbating with that candle on it, going back to the throne and cutting herself off her dress with a razor blade, throwing her crown into the fucked flower-dirt-bed, pulling the veil off that was held with needles and syringes, thus letting her forehead bleed all over her face and upper body, throwing the dress away and pulling it across the room, nailing it with the needles onto a black wooden board in opposition to the throne, finally just throwing the also blood-covered dress over the board, burying the shoes in the dirt, and starting to blacken herself out. Outrageously she lets loss, grief and frustration fight with love, life and passion. Un-, but knowingly she draws us that image of painful beauty, of a juxtaposing incomprehensibility, of the always inexplicable, and only experiential manifestation of being alive.

All this is accompanied by a shamanic figure, Alison Brierley. With numerous instruments of different sensorial perception and inclination she pulls the old, known Nicola into a new role yet to materialize, into a new purpose, yet to embody. Nicola embraces this shift and after her manifold undertakings sits kingly back in the throne, covered in black paint bedecked with a feather ruff collar. Only her face and her vagina remain in color from a before. You can’t erase your history, since you are here. In fierce grace she sits and light fades her into a wild darkness.

Anne Bean, 5 Duets with Stangers (2016), Studio Utopia Theatre, Tempting Failure.Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Anne Bean, 5 Duets with Stangers (2016), Studio Utopia Theatre, Tempting Failure.
Photo: Julia Bauer, Courtesy of Tempting Failure

Anne Bean5 Duets with Strangers (2016)

By David LaGaccia

Anne Beane began her performance 5 Duets with Strangers on the stage of Utopia Theatre, casually leaning against the wall, as if to avoid the focus of the crowd. Lucy walks in from stage right, and begins talking. It’s interesting how she immediately became the focus of the performance with Anne improvising and playing off the “stranger”. The subject of the conversation begins with Lucy’s own nervousness and her gender identity: “I don’t know how to be a woman,” said Lucy, “Don’t apologize ever!”, yells Bean into the mike. “What do I identify as? I don’t,” said Lucy. “I hate the word identity,” said Bean, “I think it’s one of the poisons of all what’s wrong.” The conversation is digressive, talking about their favorite animals, pies etc… and there is an expectation that something will happen, but it doesn’t. The lights lower and go back up, singling the end of the duet.

Dominique, a young violinist walks in next. Anne starts recounting a story about her father who played violin, and Dominique playfully improvises and reacts to the narrative. Next, a man with a guitar, plays a simple chord repeatedly, and both ask personal questions about each other: “Do you love anyone unconditionally?”, he asks. The mood suddenly shifted when a man named Richard comes out to play the piano. There is a clear uneasy tension between the two; he begins to play and stops.

Comedy in performance rarely intentionally exists I think because artists run the risk or fear of presenting their work as entertainment. 5 Duets had elements of comedy mainly from a release of tension and unease of each stranger’s duet with Bean. In each of these duets, it was interesting how each stranger led the action of the performance, and depending on their mood, controled the tone as well. This was a good example of a performance playing with the idea of entertainment, while maintaining elements of performance.Presented as a series of musical duets, each technically was unsuccessful in execution due to unpredictable interactions between the strangers.