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Cross Channels: Performance And Ritual At Wysing Polyphonic
Augustin Macellari , July 16th, 2016 11:52

At Wysing Polyphonic, Augustin Macellari finds a curious mix of memories, expectations, and personal uptightness marring his appreciation of an otherwise bold line-up of cutting-edge performance art

Photo: Mike Cameron Courtesy: Wysing Arts Centre

I’ve been to Wysing before. I grew up in a gently arty family in Cambridge, with gently arty family friends; at least one childhood visit to Wysing was inevitable. My memories of the place are, patchy but I have a residual image of being young and deeply confused by some kind of neo-pagan ritual – burning sculptures and huge blocks of ice, positioned to track the intensity of the blaze.

My expectations of this year’s festival were coloured by this juvenile confusion, when art rituals were observed without context or knowledge.

Wysing Arts is a residency centre for contemporary artists, near Bourne, about ten miles outside Cambridge. Now, I find my personal memories of the place have been all-but eclipsed through familiarity with the artists it has hosted – Bedwyr Williams, Joey Holder, Andy Holden.

Andy Holden had inaugurated the annual music festival in 2010 in collaboration with Wysing, as part of his residency there. He’s something of a contemporary art polymath. Based in Bedford, his practice spans performance, lecture, music, installation. He’ll at times take a craft-based approach to a project, although his foundations are fiercely conceptual. (He strikes me as exactly the sort, in fact, to stage an event like this – pushing out in either direction from that tricky interstitial space between music and art, and capable of playing it as both.)

It’s obviously changed a great deal since the few times I went in the late 1990s or early 2000s, as has my understanding of what actually goes on in these sorts of art places. Throughout the day I was hit by wave after wave of the uncanny, no doubt stemming largely from frustrated nostalgia. This was compounded by surprise – my own fault – at the dearth of visual art (read: objects, images, installations); this is a festival definitely committed to performance.

The day itself really kicked off at Kings Cross, two-coach-loads-worth of people, many in knitted jumpers that seemed slightly too hot for the day, waiting for the day-trip lift up to the country. When we disembarked, it became clear that as many passengers were performance as audience; this 150-or-so strong crowd seemed to form the bedrock of the day’s temporary community, although it filled up as the day progressed.

Probably as a nervous response to my frustrated (but also incorrect) expectations, I spent most of my time in the Amphis pavilion, a post-apocalyptic looking shanty amphitheatre designed by German artists Folke Köbberling and Martin Kaltwasser in 2008. It sits in the middle of a slightly unsettling medium sized paddock, over which an incongruously tall beehive looms – the work of Welsh art-comedian Bedwyr Williams – and looks like a cross between a Thomas Hirschhorn installation and a Phyllida Barlow sculpture.

Dancer and artist Florence Peake kicked things off in there, with an intense performance flecked with moments of humour. Dressed all in red – leggings and a kind of smock – with her hair up and nails painted in a sort of glossy apricot colour, she told us that her performance would be loosely segmented, that after settling the space she would begin “channelling,” and that we would be invited to ask questions.

As she started, stretching and contorting and doing a bit of writhing (though all very gracefully), finding and establishing a kind of spiritual and physical context in the space with her whole body, her collaborator Catherine Hoffmann stood sternly above us, spitting a weird one-sided stream of new-age consciousness, the hyper-austerity of her demeanour jarring comically with her faux-American spiritual diatribe.

In light of this speech, Peake’s talk of channelling began to make sense – channelling in the psychic sense, her performance situating itself in that strange artspace that explores the para-, at a pitch somewhere between wry knowingness and open credulity.

Peake’s performance continued: now plonking three large, wet and slimy lumps of clay on a table, and massaging them into phallic points as if in a trance. She tore blobs off them and rolled these out before sticking them back on, in this way sculpting two small icons, with holes poked out for eyes like two of the sad, rough creatures from Antony Gormley’s Amazonian Field.These, she said, were the audience.

The third big lump of clay she moulded with her entire body, squashing it between her thighs and in the crook of her arms, pushing it down between her legs suggestively whilst fixing every audience member with deep and uncomfortable eye contact. This, she said, was her. Then followed a moments clowning and light relief as she manipulated each clumsy sculpture so that they were touching.

Watching someone actually channelling – a mystic, say – would stretch credulity too far. At the same time, it’s obviously a meaningful enterprise. It’s potent and different, even without any actual communion with the otherworldly. This is what makes its recontextualisation into a critical sphere so interesting. Rather than putting belief in the spiritual, it gains potency through being placed in the conceptual. As a genuine attempt at communing with some metaphysical being, channelling has no more authority than a TV psychic. But presented as artistic expression, it feels less like an active con and more like an exploration of symbolism and the unconscious.

‘Performance art’ can be a pretty divisive business, attractive to those already sympathetic to contemporary art, but potentially alienating to those less willing to suspend their uptightness (ultimately the biggest barrier). Watching Peake reaffirmed my own very boring and angsty sense of alienation – an intrinsic uptightness that almost precludes any critical engagement with works of this nature, for reason of their nature.

It struck me that the Wysing Polyphonic was filled with people I’d seen before, at galleries and openings – or else, with people I’d expect to have seen there. The art community, in other words: an extended group of people predisposed to engage. In this respect, the scale of the festival and the familiarity between the audience and performers suddenly seemed very important: the performances more significant given the pre-existing relationships between performers and swathes of the audience, the festival more interesting for the permeability of the borders between the two.

In the main gallery space, here repurposed as the main stage, Adam Bohman charmed with streams of nonsense-consciousness, conflating different vocabularies to conjure imagery sometimes funny, sometimes grotesque. He read aloud from a travel guide to Ohio, wringing laughs from the purple prose, before rounding things off with a shaggy dog story that lost its way – as I suppose it was meant to – after an overly intricate but inelegant dissection of the mechanics of its own joke took it dangerously close to the too-self-aware territory of a Stewart Lee skit.

The peripheral events, tucked in small greenhouses and gazebos, seemed interesting, but they highlighted the potential for nonsense when criticality is totally relinquished. Some ponderously read poetry accompanied by Tibetan singing bowl and accordion frightened me back to the Amphis.

David Blandy and Larry Achiampong have been working collaboratively for a while, exploring identity through shared cultural reference points and interests. Here, they assumed the role of bedroom MCs, nerdy teenagers in letterman jackets and horrible puffy Adidas hightops, critiquing racial discourse through the language of technology. Speeches read from iPhone screens, the politics of transhumanism as some kind of utopian end-point, mediated by the intrinsic racism of smartphone production (minerals essential for function soaked in the blood of West Africans who mine them).

From this into karaoke hip-hop – Wu Tang Clan delivered with almost unbearable earnestness, Blandy’s flow fully investing the character of the white, suburban, teenage rap fantasist with life. Honestly, the juxtaposition of the serious discourses laid down in the first half – race, colonial oppression and post-internety transhumanist concerns – with the deeply cringe and strangely delivered appropriated rap lyrics in the second was a little confusing.

My lift arrived, and I had to split. The artists I’d seen, though performing very different material, seemed to explore similar concerns. Peake, as well as Blandy and Achiampong, co-opted discredited ideas – whether spiritual or just embarrassing – to explore a legitimacy they might yet have. Whilst Peake arguably failed to draw any meaningful answers to the questions levelled down from the cosmos, she certainly generated a potent atmosphere, facilitating at times a kind of group empathy. Achiampong and Blandy, meanwhile, used bedroom daydreams to engage their audience, crafting a compelling narrative about race, heritage, and the morality of techno-culture.

The three performances, plus the well-meaning sideshows – poetry, accordions, and all – were only reinforced (if not actually facilitated) by the atmosphere of creative community. The performances felt almost like conversations, as productive as they were conclusive.