Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Save Me

Perched on top of a 1.5m high platform on Pero's bridge I can be seen from many places. Squinting across St Augustine's reach, Jodie can see me as she waves her flags from atop a similar platform on the fountain steps. I can be seen from the water that separates us, from the boats in their moorings, from the cobbled pathways, from beneath the trees and from windows of buildings on either side of Bristol's floating harbour.

The people on the boats wave as they pass under the bridge; they can see me. The saxophone player plays and the Big Issue seller sells; they can see me. The drinkers in the bars, the cyclists, the tourists, the walkers, the strollers, the parents with their pushchairs and their children; they can all see me. They haven't come here to see me, not in the first instance. They've not read the programme or browsed the website or scrolled down the mail out. They see me because they were coming here anyway, they were always going to be here, they don't just happen to stroll past – it is me and Jodie and our flags that are the happenstance, not them. We are on their patch, their turf, this is their bridge, their fountains, on their route; this is their territory.

But the over 11 days of the performance something changes. In the eyes of everyone who can see me, my flag waving on Pero's bridge, at first an oddity becomes familiar. It is this process of familiarisation; from being outsider in another's territory to becoming a part of the landscape that excites me.

It's a simple thing we're doing – talking with flags. But we're here everyday, same time, same place and perhaps it is in the repeated dipping in and out of the project that makes it seem like something bigger – a part of the furniture. And of course this is an illusion, two hours a day for 11 consecutive days is no shallow undertaking, but next to the enduring permanence of this stretch of water it is a drop in the ocean. An illusion, but a convincing one because when so suddenly we are gone there is a gap, something has changed – like when the trees lining St Augustine's Reach have been too severely pollarded, providing more light and less shade, this place feels different. Or when thousands of amateur runners are plodding round St Augustine's parade, inspired or irritated by Heart FM's cheerful pop classics, this place feels different. Like the pruned trees and the sweaty runners, us flag wavers reshape this place, in a way that is perhaps best measured by the moment of our absence.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Wunderbar 2009

It's 10am on a Sunday in December 2009 and we're in Eldon Square shopping centre, Newcastle Upon Tyne courtesy of Wunderbar festival. We've been here since Friday morning, accepting challenges and rematches from anybody who'd like to play a game of table tennis against us and in so doing become part of the team representing this city. The scoreboard bears witness to the games that have gone before, our tired eyes, our tired limbs, our fading will, testament to the hours we have spent in this spot being window shopped, encouraged, admired and derided by a steady stream of consumers.

But today is different. Thanks mainly to the footprint left by the dominant Christian ideology that has sculpted the 24 hours between the end of Saturday and the start of Monday. The shutters are down, and not just at the windows of spoil-sport Chocolatiers, Thorntons – who have made their passive resentment of our table tennis project abundantly clear. And like the empty football stadium, the empty shopping centre has a distinctly different feel, a palpable Sunday-ness. Something is missing, the people. And it is in this absence that we recognise the generative quality of the moving body in space. Without the people there is a physical transformation of the shopping centre as well as a shift in the imaginative, affective, sonic and social qualities of the space (McCormack 2008).

The stillness is disturbed by two middle aged men, tottering in a post stag-do haze past the barred windows of Claire's Accessories.

The first man says:

"What'sallthisthenI'llgiveyouagameoftabletennis I'mquitegoodme meandyoucomethen letshaveyoucomeonthen"

Or words to that effect. His mate giggles under his breath. The two men are Welsh. I can tell from their accents. The question; "where are you from?" confirms their nationhood. Our chit-chat leads us onto the question of singing, a field in which the Welsh have somewhat of a reputation.

The first man says:

"If I win, I'll sing you a song. I'll sing you a Welsh song, I'll sing Land of Our Fathers. So come on then… Let's be 'aving you."

And so it happens that a proud, half-cut, Welshman and his giggling mate take up our challenge. They represent the city of Newcastle in a first to 11 game of table tennis against a Live Art duo from Bristol – and I can't help but speculate that this wasn't originally on the agenda for the aforementioned stag-do. But here we are, and it is starting to get serious. Giggly mate is now chewing his fingers and occasionally piping up with textbook 'coach in the corner' phrases like:

            "Come on, don't let you head go down"


            "Pull yourself together"


            "What they bloody hell are you playing at, hit the bloody thing."

It's starting to mean something. Hitting this ball back and forth across a net halfway along a table, in the middle of a shopping centre means something. And maybe it only means something because we/they know how it feels for something like this to mean something. They've seen this before on the pub's big screen, or in their living rooms, huddled close on the bar stool or sofa, with glass or can in hand. But still he plays. He plays his best and is frustrated by his ineptitude. Maybe because he wanted it to be glorious,  or he wanted to show off in front of his mate or perhaps because he wanted to claim something, something here, now – to carve out his own slice of history in this place.

He loses. It's not even close. Maybe it's the booze or maybe it was always going to end this way. No-longer-giggling mate is already sauntering past HM Samuels the jewellershead down, hands in pockets when our gallant loser approaches the microphone…


Takes a moment…


Clears his throat…


And sings…

He sings 'Land of Our Father's', in Welsh (of course), at the top of his pitch perfect baritone voice into the Microphone, his song echoing around the empty passageways of Eldon Square shopping centre. And for those few minutes this place becomes his. His voice, his song, his pride and that place start to submerge into each other. We are in the Welsh mountains on a clear crisp morning, or at the opening of the Welsh Assembly, or in a packed Millennium stadium on match-day.  He is the home team; this is his turf, his patch. Eldon Square shopping centre, Newcastle upon Tyne has, for the briefest of moments, become another territory. His territory.