Art correspondent William McCrory participates in a discussion on live art and artificial hells - and experiences one himself...


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Artificial Hells by Claire Bishop (image: William McCrory)

Artificial Hells by Claire Bishop (image: William McCrory)

In Between Time (14th- 17th February) is an international festival of contemporary performance, held in Bristol, U.K. It was initiated by Simon Faithfull’s Fake Moon, a compelling visual spectacle whereby a ball of light gradually ascended to dominate the city skyline. Each day, brunch conversations were held in the main hub in order to collectively explore the thematic issues that emerged in relation to the festival.

Simon Faithfull's Fake Moon

Simon Faithfull’s Fake Moon (image: William McCrory)

The first of the brunch conversations focused on Artificial Hells: Live Art and Participation, one of In Between Time’s three central themes. The conversation was insightful but could have been framed with greater clarity. We were told that the inspiration behind it was Claire Bishop’s recent text Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship – but not that Bishop borrowed the term from Dadaist and Surrealist André Breton. Breton used the term in his description of The Dada Season of 1921, in which he argued ‘for the exquisite potential for the disruption of the public sphere’.

It is true that the brunch developed nicely without this additional information, until a member of the audience posed a question: why are we talking about artistic processes and not actual hellish experiences? His brazen interjection felt flippant to me, but was he making a serious point? If he was suggesting that the practices being discussed seemed too safe and sanitised, or that performances lacked actual hellishness, what sort of creative experimentation could he be after? And is terror ever a desirable reaction?

One answer to these questions can perhaps be found within the exhibition Version Control (an exhibition being held at the Arnolfini in conjunction with IBT13), and particularly Melvin Moti’s fictional interview with Surrealist Robert Desnos. The conversation revolves around the Dadaist and Surrealist milieu’s collective experimentation with self-hypnosis and trance like states. Breton once again is crucial, as he is portrayed as a grand-master, regularly arranging opportunities to new initiates to enter the dark side. As the interview unfolds, it’s revealed that one of these Artificial Hells almost resulted in a collective suicide attempt. Breton temporarily lost his tripping troupe of prophecy-gargling guinea pigs, and found them attempting to hang themselves with a discarded rope.

André Breton

André Breton (image: Bravo -Ras Marley/ Flickr)

Such extremity is clearly undesirable, and that raises an ethical question about the artist/audience relationship. Can we always assume benevolence on behalf of the artist? Should participatory processes always be positive? If so, would artist/audience contracts render artistic experiences standardised and banal?

Another answer to the initial question of whether a contemporary live art practice can create an Artificial Hell was offered by Extraordinary Rendition, situated in a shipping container outside the Arnolfini. It is facilitated by Action Hero, and centres around songs used for torture of ‘enemy combatants’. I know this now, but I sauntered down to the Arnolfini oblivious to this fact. So what followed was of the greatest surprise.

Waiting in the queue I had an indication of what was to come. A guy emerged from the container visibly shaken, and when asked if he was scared, replied: “I wasn’t scared because I know the limits of IBT”.

Ushered into the container, wrists bound together, hood placed on head, the aesthetic projected and feeling experienced is Guantanamoesque. The music starts and it’s A Bullet in Your Head. The sensation felt verged on panic, this followed by a strong impulse to resist the experience, to shirk off the cable ties, to remove the hood and to leave. I acquiesce. “Just ride it out” I tell myself and try with vague success to do some yoga breathing exercises.

The profound claustrophobia subsides, maybe because I’m breathing properly again. The song performed by an unknown and unseen individual runs its course, emerging disgruntled the hood is removed, as my cable tie is cut I’m visible to passers by, a woman exclaims, “**** me!”. Indeed, pictured on the right is the indent left by the cable tie after the ‘performance’.

Extraordinary Rendition

Extraordinary Rendition (image: William McCrory)

Why as a live art collective would you create such a scenario and why would you endure it as a participant? Retrospectively the unanswerable questions become: What kept me there? Was this a pedagogical experience or a political lesson? Did I just momentarily experience (albeit with the certainty of a swift exit) what forgotten prisoners experience for months or years? Do you stay because you think you might be putting yourself in the shoes of somebody else? Or do we simply crumble when our hands are tied and our vision removed?

Rancière, one of the leading commentators on the politics of aesthetics writes that ‘there is no straight path from the viewing of a spectacle to an understanding of the state of the world, and from intellectual awareness to political action’. He is highlighting the limitations of lens based geo-political practices to have transformative political effect, arguing that receiving information in isolation is not innately politicising. This leaves the question, what types of practice can produce transformative politics? Does this undoubted artificial hell encountered with Extraordinary Rendition begin to provide an embryonic response to this question?