Experimentica - Day 1

I’m Theron Schmidt, a writer with Live Art UK’s Writing from Live Art initiative. James and Cathy at Chapter Arts have invited me to Experimentica as writer in residence, to act as an outside eye and also – as I intend to see as much of the festival as I can – to have something of an overview of the whole festival.

In this first day, I am reminded that experimentation involves looking backward at the past as much as it involves looking forward for the unknown. There are certainly plenty of echoes of early twentieth century Dadaism and performance art in this early twenty-first century festival, from goodkopbadkop’s absurdist posturing, to electronic music collective Submotion’s reference to Erik Satie in their programme notes, to Mr & Mrs Clark’s wonderfully provocative cabaret.

goodkopbadkop’s ‘A late change to the advertised programme’ is a tribute to pre-World War One Welsh entertainer and filmmaker William Haggar. While a video screen shows predominantly static images reduced to indistinct, monochrome blobs, two performers give alternating one-sentence descriptions of film scenes, presumably from Haggar’s work. These descriptions seem typical of early cinematic melodrama or comedy, such as ‘a man is chased into a pond and tarred and feathered,’ ‘the funeral of six lifeboatmen,’ or ‘a fight between a knight and a tramp.’ There’s an obvious refusal of the expectation to entertain – highlighted by the room’s decoration with tinsel curtains and the performer’s ridiculous make-up – which becomes entertaining in its own way. But I also wonder how much is forestalled by this insistence on an alienating experience, in which even the performer’s voices are electronically distorted to become at times indecipherable.

By comparison, Anthony Shapland’s film exhibition elsewhere in Chapter Arts (simultaneous with Experimentica) similarly plays with the relationship between events and their description, but to different effect. ‘Last Dance’, for example, shows a repeated loop of the film of a seemingly forgettable and hapless last dance before the lights are turned on in a mediocre nightclub. Each loop features subtitles describing the actions of a different pair of actors in the event. Written in present-tense and using references to stage positions, these descriptions are also instructions, as in a film script, and the end result is not just comical but also increasingly engrossing, as the viewer is drawn more and more into the action.

Gareth Llŷr and Louise Ritchie’s ‘On Running’ also works with the tension between description and event, beginning provocatively with an audio recording of the performers describing in future tense the way they imagine the show will begin, while they physically prepare the real space in ways which both do and don’t mirror their prediction. As the show’s music begins, the performers create a series of stationery but dynamic dances in response to video stimulus from small TVs they carry, and over time prepare the space for a final series of running back-and-forth to exhaustion before a large video projection. In another language in which it wouldn’t be such an odd phrase, this piece might equally be called ‘On Lapping’, as it evokes the circular, repetitious movement of running laps but also a complex structure of overlapping: of the performance space and the outer world, and of the space of preparation for the piece and the piece itself. As stimulus and response are folded back into each other, the description of the event supplants the event itself. In a way it feels as if the piece never happens, but also never stops happening: the final words of the piece are ‘he begins’. But with all these experiments into form, it’s hard not to leave the piece without wishing there had been more content – it’s a clever structure, but one not made to bear too much weight.

Finally, Mr and Mrs Clark’s ‘Cabba Hey’ is a crowd-pleasing closer to the day. Framed within the cabaret format, the audience expectation is that this is comedy, and this frame allows ‘the Clarks’ to be as experimental as they want without ever worrying about being labelled pretentious. They start with bags over their heads, and in a series of musical skits strip them off only to reveal or assume more and more masks. Disavowing the seriousness of what they do, they can actually be increasingly serious: upon closer study, their piss-take choreography is more choreography than piss-take. When they perform a ventriloquist act with live dummy, it is both absurdly hilarious and heartbreakingly earnest, a balance that has everything to do with their detailed attention to their performance. If cabaret (in the Dadaist tradition) is insurrectionary theatre, then this is insurrectionary cabaret, in that what makes it pleasurable is its more and more clever deferral of pleasure. And so, one of their closing numbers does literally what the Dadaists attempted metaphorically, flicking off its audience – and the audience loves it.

Theron Schmidt has been writer in residence throughout Experimentica 07, and is part of Writing from Live Art (www.writingfromliveart.co.uk), a Live Art UK initiative.

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