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Overview: The mortality manifesto

Tim Atack

Tim Atack is a musician, performer and writer living and working in Bristol. His band angel tech can be found at

A big red Routemaster bus–the double-decker type recently rendered obsolete in London—sits incongruously outside the Arnolfini throughout the Inbetween Time festival. On one side, its advertising banner reads “DR ROBERTS AND THE SPAGHETTI CLUB” in large bold lettering, referring to bus owner Anthony Roberts (programmer/curator/general layabout at Colchester Arts Centre) and his collaborators on this vehicular installation, the Bristol artists Elaine Kordys, Tom Marshman and Alex Bradley. On the other side of the bus, facing out across Bristol harbourside towards the opulent, almost Speerian offices of a major financial institution and the trendy wine bars alongside, the typeface is similarly bright and brash, but it says something different. It says “KILL YOURSELF.”

Over the 5 key days of the Inbetween Time festival of “Live Art And Intrigue” we’re treated to a great many deaths. One performer alone, Miguel Pereira, gives us 10 of them (some would say 11, as it doesn’t seem to have been a very popular outing for the Portuguese artist). Uninvited Guests wound each other with plasticine scars. (nobleandsilver) self-destruct their own performance, met by what seems like a grand chorus of shrugs from festival-goers. Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment gives us—amongst other delights—the text image of Arnold Schwarzenegger trapped in a room slowly filling with human excrement. Gob Squad make monsters of us all, turning quotidian mall shoppers into vampires, zombies and ghosts, creating a world where security guards calmly detail in lilting Bristol accents how exactly they will capture you, imprison you and drink your blood. Animals die too: oysters meeting their maker in the stomach acid of IBT audience members in Swallow, an intimate piece by Paul Hurley. But perhaps this fascination with mortality is to be expected: by attending a festival of Live Art we are subjecting ourselves to numerous examples of a discipline which holds close to its heart the importance of failure, of regularly barking up the wrong tree, of seriously getting it wrong, watching the artwork die before your very eyes. “KILL YOURSELF”, says the bus, and maybe you could look at it as a manifesto rather than a misanthropic exhortation.

Although misanthropy is probably exactly what Anthony Roberts and artist/writer Richard Dedomenici intended to transmit when they erected the banner. Refreshingly unconcerned with theoretical rigours, Dedomenici and his unlikely Colchester muse have, for several years, been poking fun at political/cultural institutions and the art world in equal measure. “So”, Roberts says to me, “You’re reviewing all this, are you? I hope you give it the severe fucking panning it deserves.” Fair enough, Dr Roberts. Check this out: your bus is a disgrace. It’s a redundant novelty item in a festival which eschews purely cosmetic novelty, it’s a boring, depthless cultural symbol, placed randomly alongside an otherwise finely tuned programme in order to function as some sort of lazy, easy filler, and what’s more it doesn’t even go to Marble Arch. What use is that? I hope you’re happy now.

Actually, I really like the bus. And (yeah, wussing out here, sorry) I don’t at all think it functions solely as novelty filler: there’s a precedent for this big colourful extravagance, and it weaves directly into Inbetween Time’s curatorial history. At the last festival in 2003, a work called 32,000 Points Of Light was placed in a similar position by the water’s edge. It took the form of a bulky fairground-style motion simulator adapted to contain a complex multimedia experience by Alex Bradley, Andy Gracie, Duncan Speakman, Jessica Marlowe and Matt Mawford. Despite its abstract nature 32,000 Points Of Light drew large audiences from beyond the usual IBT demographic, and it was not unknown for Disneyland scale queues to form up to its entrance as viewers clambered into the vehicle over and over again. Two years later, this type of multimedia investigation is a central strand of IBT in the shape of This Secret Location, presenting further work by Bradley and Charles Poulet alongside that of Ryoji Ikeda, George Poonkhin Khut and Lynette Wallworth. So in 2006, the Routemaster Bus fulfils the function that the motion simulator did in 2003: it announces the festival to the outside world, ‘nurturing intrigue’, drawing in passing groups of people who otherwise wouldn’t touch Arnolfini content with a bargepole. Combined with the arts centre’s recent renovation, these tactics have one particularly positive effect: the Arnolfini is full of children. Kids clamber all over the place, wide-eyed at the bus, swimming like fishes in Bradley and Poulet’s Whiteplane_2, giggling uncontrollably at Charlie Murphy’s snog collection Kiss-In.

On the opening day a forum is held where artist Robert Pacitti stresses the risks Live Art faces in terms of fading funding and folding support schemes, saying that if this surfeit isn’t regularly addressed then “we are all lost.” But at least on the issue of potential audiences, if multimedia work of abstract forms continues to captivate children—simultaneously its most fickle and receptive targets—in the manner seen during This Secret Location, then the future is bright.

I have a confession to make. I don’t actually see the children playing ‘fish’ in Whiteplane_2. Of course, nobody can paint a totally comprehensive picture of a festival as diverse and multi-formatted as Inbetween Time from their personal experiences alone and whilst I skedaddle about the place, trying to catch as many works as possible, I still manage to miss some favourite artists and, by all accounts, some incredible experiences. This is where the bus comes into its own: I catch it so as to catch up. Audience and artists alike hang out in the dodgy armchairs, drinking tea and gossiping in a way they might not do in the slightly more formal Arnolfini bar. In here I’m told the story of the children in Whiteplane_2. In here I pick up the overall sense that (nobleandsilver) divided punters on a love/hate axis, that everyone liked Grace Surman’s Slow Thinking much more than I did, that Monika Tichacek’s The Shadowers with its David Lynch-style framing and beautifully presented sadism has left a shiver running down the spine of the weekend. The bus also houses a series of informal meetings for bodies such as New Work Network, and there are regular ‘Siberian Boxercise’ sessions which feature the unlikely spectacle of various artists and administrators punching at the cold afternoon air in unison. My band, angel tech, plays an acoustic set in one of the more cramped concert conditions I’ve experienced. Then, Dr Roberts announces a performance later on Saturday by the group Extreme Noise Terror. When the hour arrives and the band doesn’t show, it emerges that Roberts simply made it all up, and we’re left hanging.

Being left hanging is a familiar motif at Inbetween Time. The themes of being incomplete, unfinished, beyond rescue or beyond recall seem to resonate through a series of otherwise contrasting works. The Special Guests’ durational performance This Much I Know [Part Two] sees them waiting for an imaginary ‘special guest’ (who may or may not turn up at all), taking phone calls, arranging meetings, enacting potential future encounters and generally never getting it right, slowly, constantly shooting themselves in the foot. The audience who sit around and about them in Arnolfini’s compact, bijou Gallery 5 are discernibly part of the show and are recognised, named if possible, looked in the eye, flirted with. Then, at 11am each morning we have the Lecturama series, most of which are performance lectures on the theme of the artist’s ongoing or unfinished work and its contexts. This includes Howard Mathew’s dry appraisal of sugar glass and exploding beds in A Working History Of Slapstick and Paul Granjon’s oddly affecting Heath Robinson robotics. After each of these lectures the audience are invited down onto the stage floor for informal questions and answers, becoming part of the discourse, part of the research.

On Sunday, Eve Dent places herself, unfinished, ongoing, amongst the audience in a very different way, by performing an interventionist piece in the Arnolfini bookshop. Shoeless, in a loose white dress, she peruses the books and posters with a slow, semi-autistic air before insinuating herself into the makeup of the environment through calm, considered movements. One moment she’ll be flicking through a poster rack, and the next she’ll be reclining inside it, angling her body in a V and remaining completely still. Dent’s work normally finds her fusing physically with solid structures, her head vanishing into the floorboards or a solitary hand protruding unapologetically from the panel of a wooden door. Here, she achieves the same ends by careful pace of performance so that she’s not quite a bookshop customer, not quite the architecture, moving ever so quietly and carefully so that you won’t notice she’s on top of a bookshelf until you reach for the authors beginning with ‘A.’ In my case, I’m at the cash register buying a book when people start to giggle. Dent has somehow crawled between me and the desk, and is hunched in the tiny space next to my legs. It’s perfectly conceivable, I reflect, that there are people currently browsing the shop who know nothing of the festival, and simply think Dent is totally insane.

The book I’m buying contains photography by Manuel Vason. Vason is part of the festival programme (look, there he is, page 10) but is a significant representative of its unfinished/interactive qualities in that his work is in progress, undisplayed, and in fact completely invisible to festival-goers unless you happen to chat to him. On Thursday he sneaks up into the woods around Bristol with Monika Tichacek, taking digital snaps and stalking deer. Friday will find him suspending Alex Bradley and Charles Poulet within the framework of their own Whiteplane_2 installation. On Saturday, Miguel Pereira is covered in honey and feathers before throwing himself around the white walls of an empty studio. And in the days immediately prior to the festival, Vason has dragged a wrecked car over a beach and into the sea with Paul Hurley, wrapping the artist in clingfilm and attaching him mollusc-like to the rusty metal. The images are quietly astounding, painterly in composition, devoid of digital manipulation; allowing these strange new bodies to sing with their surroundings. Vason’s working method makes interlocked, turning cogs of the usual shooting relationship that sees artist performing in front of the camera and photographer industrious and unobtrusive behind it. He talks at length to potential collaborators, kicks ideas around, and then he and his subjects create entirely new environments in which everyone involved can generate fresh expressions of their practice.

He tells me about the role he adopts during a shoot, the camera static and clicking away every 2 seconds on a timer-release mechanism, leaving Vason free to move around the space taking polaroids which are then scattered about on the floor, scanned and appraised by the collaborators as the shoot progresses, searching, reaching for that critical moment. It almost sounds like a staged performance in its own right; but these are very private events. Ironically the same contradictions, fusions and innovations that make this work so exhilarating can be the ones that make exhibiting it difficult. The organisers of Inbetween Time have, try as they might, been unable to find a method of display that does justice to Vason’s depth of field. So instead, the project is ongoing, new collaborations in the pipeline, future exhibitions planned. And for now Manuel Vason is truly in-between.

So you see, it’s not just artists who are allowed to fail. Curators and programmers have to have a free reign too, regular access to enough rope, plenty of support structures upon which to hang themselves… Just like artists. For the last few years, The Spaghetti Club have been curating an event called Three Minute Warning (or 3MW) a platform for emerging and established artists alike where the only rule is that your presented work must not exceed 3 minutes duration. It’s a loose sort of curation in that the Spaghetti Club generally haven’t a clue as to what will find its way onto the stage, and 3MW tends to feature a shambolic scramble for stage time accompanied by frantic technical tinkering, pieces that blatantly exceed the 180 second limit and no small amount of confusion on the part of Tom Marshman, its regular master of ceremonies.

And so it is that on Friday night 3MW at the Cube Cinema takes the IBT reins for an hour, and we are treated to a consummate display of every quality listed above. It’s possible in any festival to pick at the bones of thematic strands, to mull over how and why work has been collated. But in 3MW you have no such comfort. This stuff is rough and ready, often extremely basic in concept, sometimes just a vague sketch for an idea that the artist is considering possibly having at some unscheduled point in the future. There’s the unspoken understanding that this is a forum where failure is allowed, encouraged even. We see a short film from Charlie Murphy involving glass, squeezed plastic and dribbling white liquid. We endure a horrible, pretentiously subtitled home movie which dwells obsessively on a young girl. We are told how to “forget all the horror in the world” via the medium of making a cup of tea, including a Proustian class in dunking biscuits. And some bloke with big hair stands on top of a table with a disconcerting expression on his face whilst a young girl breaks glow-sticks in the dark. This is where ideas live or die, the stumbling block, the laboratory. Those who complain that it’s work of a student quality forget that not all artists are or were students, and not all have the facilities or testing ground afforded by a university community. Sure, generally speaking, it’s a mess. But at least it’s a vital mess: the dabblers of 3MW today could well become the exhibitors of Inbetween Time 2008 or 2009, and I imagine what they might do with the outward facing sign on that big red bus. Instead of “KILL YOURSELF,” it might read “HAVE A CUP OF TEA” or “I DON’T DO TRICKS.”

What would alternative artists at the current festival print on that banner? What would sum it up? Perhaps the best option would be to take a cue from David Weber-Krebs long litany of blank assertions in This Performance, wherein a pleasant disembodied female voice informs us that “This performance is about to begin”, “This performance is about to challenge expectations”, “This performance is about to create a context”, “This performance is about to fall from grace…” and on, and on. What would Weber-Krebs put on the side of the bus? Perhaps it would say “THIS BUS IS ABOUT TO GO SOMEWHERE.” Characteristically of Inbetween Time, that would be both gospel truth, and outright lie.

Tim Atack is a musician, performer and writer living and working in Bristol. His band angel tech can be found at

RealTime issue #0 pg.

© Tim Atack; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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