Oily Anatomies and Toxic Landscapes (Part 1)

The “performance footprint” network held its third and final scheduled meeting in London on May 20th/21st. At our second meeting, in Scotland at Cove Park, the emphasis had been on network members themselves making work in situ, but since this was always going to be difficult in central London (we didn’t exactly have “the run of the place”), our meeting here adopted a more “curated” approach. Three commissioned performances, prepared in advance — by PLATFORM, Julie Laffin, and network member Phil Smith — were presented as catalysts to further discussion and reflection. In what follows below, I will attempt to summarise these presentations from my own perspective, before going on in a subsequent posting to consider the other, more discursive components of the weekend.

Day 1 – Friday 20th May

Network members met bright and early at 8.50am, Liverpool Street Station. We were met by Mel Evans and James Marriott (above), of the activist/performance collective PLATFORM, who proceeded to conduct us on a walking tour of the City of London’s backstreets. Aesthetically speaking, the walk was “cool” to the point of chill: Mel and James studiously avoided engaging us in chummy conversation as we walked, and for the most part avoided pointing out what was around us. It was for each of us, as pedestrians, to use our own eyes, draw our own narratives, from the spaces and architecture around us. Periodically we were stopped, arranged into neat lines of “audience”, and told the next chapter in the story of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — which began exactly one year and one month ago (20 April 2010). Our first port of call, pictured above, was along a corridor backing onto RBS’s central London offices – where we were reminded that the Chief Executive was probably just sitting down at his desk. RBS, mostly owned by us, the UK taxpayers, is a major investor in BP – and a key player in having kept it afloat during last year’s post-spill crisis of confidence. As we peered through two layers of glass (from very different historical periods) into Liverpool Street Station, we were informed that the Deepwater Horizon rig would have just about fit inside the main terminal building… A useful reminder of scale.

Looking through windows, and at our own reflections, became a bit of a theme on this walk. Here we are, outside the building occupied – until recently – by the credit ratings agency Fitch, a key player in BP’s financial survival last year. I was particularly struck by the utter impassivity of the security guard in that window, who didn’t blink or move a muscle the whole time we stood there. Even when I moved in for a close-up…

That kind of impervious indifference says something about the financial sector’s performance of rock-like inevitability (this system is here for all time!). Yet in their discourse on BP, James and Mel gave us a compelling summary of the ways in which confidence in a corporation and its stock can bleed away in moments. This entirely fictive, subjective commodity has to be managed, bolstered, through performative interventions by financiers and politicians. Walking around these streets, watching people coming and going to their places of work, was a powerful reminder that the seemingly transcendental mechanisms of international capital may in fact be more vulnerable than we often assume – managed by human beings who, in times of trouble, get by a little (well-staged) help from their friends…

Another aspect of this city landscape that I particularly noticed was the recurrence of corporate art. You can see it on the walls behind the security guard above, and all over the lobby walls of the next building we visited — which houses (among others) the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Mel and James informed the desk people here that we were a bunch of academics having a seminar, and we proceeded to sit around a peculiar goldfish bowl arrangement – to be told how deeply dependent our own USS pension plans are on BP stock. No surprise there, perhaps, but in this context the point served as an unnerving reminder of our own complicity in – and indirect responsibility for – that corporation’s global environmental impacts. And the banal corporate art has something to do with manufacturing that complicity. I was reminded strongly of Tim Crouch’s play for white-walled art galleries, ENGLAND, and its emphasis on “all those clean lines” in modernist architectural spaces. In some ways it doesn’t matter what the art on the gallery walls is; it’s the impression of light, space, airiness in spaces like this that seems reassuring, even uplifting. Later in the day, when reflecting on the walk – in dialogue with PLATFORM – geographer Doreen Massey reminded us that the financial cost of keeping a space this large and empty in a corporate building in central London would be huge. This setting has been very deliberately chosen and laid out to communicate particular impressions and information – like a highly expensive stage set. And it’s not just the corporate lobbies that adopt this strategy — the (quasi-) art was everywhere, even in this underground walkway with its sub-Dan Flavin flourescent tubes. This particular path led us to a food court, featuring Starbucks (naturally), and situated beneath the central offices of Aviva – another corporation heavily bound up with BP, (and the provider of life insurance for several of us present).

One of the most striking things about this whole walk was the sense of the City of London itself mutating and growing all around us. Yes, the corporations centered here are responsible for major ecological impacts around the world (as in the Gulf of Mexico), but “environmental change” was also happening all around us. Cranes everywhere, fresh tarmac being laid down beneath our feet almost as we walked, new buildings jostling for space with old. The City of London as breathing, sweating organism…It was inevitable, perhaps, that our path would inevitably lead us, past St. Pauls, and across the Thames, to Tate Modern — that paradigmatic instance of post-industrial cultural industry — which numbers BP among its most significant sponsors. Here, the City’s equation of “art dressing up corporations” is turned inside out to “corporations propping up art” — but at both ends of the spectrum the objective is essentially the same. As James later noted in our discussions at Kings College, corporations such as BP spend huge amounts of time, money and creativity on perpetually renewing their “social license to operate.” They keep doing what they’re doing (most recently digging in Canadian tar sands – the geological equivalent of “scraping the barrel” – while abjectly failing to commit any significant resource to developing renewable energy sources) because we let them…

… And the sponsorship of art is a powerful strand in that social license. Tobacco companies can’t get away with it anymore, because social attitudes have shifted sufficiently that we tend to see their product as “dirty” – something that stains other entities by association. But, PLATFORM’s argument runs, despite catastrophic incidents such as Deepwater Horizon, BP is still having its public image cleaned and laundered through association with popular cultural institutions such as the Tate. They get by with a little help from their friends – and Nicholas Serota has publicly declared himself as one of them.

Another friend of the Tate was proudly being hailed

from its windows. “Release Ai Weiwei”, the Chinese government is instructed. A laudable sentiment, but in the context of the day I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ai Weiwei’s recent installation in the Tate’s turbine hall, which was itself something of an environmental disaster. Millions of ceramic sunflower seeds, created as an interactive installation to be walked around on by visitors (scrunch scrunch scrunch)….

… but they ended up being roped off as a “do not touch” exhibit owing to the health hazard that was being generated by the ceramic dust (including particles of lead-based paint) rising from the floor, as the seeds were ground together underfoot. You’d think that somebody would have thought of this as a potential issue when the installation was being conceived, but it seems that the shit we breathe in daily – whether inside the Tate or outside on London’s streets, from petrol and diesel fumes – comes pretty low down on the list of corporate considerations…

Anatomical impacts became something of a theme once we were safely back at Kings College for the day’s “symposium” (also attended by a number of interested parties beyond the immediate network membership). Housed in the beautiful, white-walled confines of the college’s former Anatomy Museum (“all those clean lines”), we were presented by PLATFORM with an analysis of the Carbon Web — the anatomy, James suggested, of oil corporations such as BP and Shell. Their connections with everything from raw drilling activities through to government lobbying, media interface and cultural sponsorship were laid out in persuasive detail. But James was keen to stress, too, the actual anatomical impacts of what we breathe in with the urban air, daily… and that concern was brought home forcefully during our afternoon sessions, and the presentation by Illinois-based performance artist Julie Laffin.

Julie used to make performances like this, involving wearing huge gown sculptures – whether inside gallery or theatre spaces, or outside on city streets. Since 2004, though, she has developed a form of environmental illness known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, which makes her exquisitely sensitive – and reactive – to trace levels of “everyday” chemicals found in soaps, shampoos, detergents, deodorants — and yes, to petrol and diesel fumes. As a result, Julie can no longer work – or indeed live – in public, and instead is all but housebound in her home in rural Illinois. She moved out of Chicago to find cleaner air in the country, but during the summer has to move out to the American Southwest (desert, high prairie) to get away from agrichemical crop-dusting. Her presentation for the network symposium consisted of two short films about her experiences in New Mexico last summer (as she sought to find viable shelter in an extraordinary natural landscape), which were intercut with sequences of live, online feed from a room in Julie’s home. These included a sequence of roaming webcam, like some miniaturised helicopter shot, and then – at the end – an extended Q&A discussion in which Julie spoke to her audience as a giant, projected presence on the Anatomy Theatre’s cinema screen. I find it hard to comment objectively on this experience, from a spectatorial point of view, because I was involved – myself – as the person lining up Julie’s DVDs and facilitating the Q&A. But the insight we were afforded into Julie’s isolated existence – as well as her resilience and good humour in spite of it all – served as a moving and salutary reminder that the mobility and freedom so many of us take for granted is entirely conditional upon our bodies continuing to tolerate the environmental / atmospheric conditions that humans are daily impacting upon. Julie’s very personal, even intimate narrative, operated as a striking contrast to the macro-scale concerns elucidated by PLATFORM, but in some ways both presentations were dealing with different ends of the same telescope.  Within the spaces of the Anatomy Theatre & Museum, we had moved from an anatomisation of the oil industry’s social and political reach, towards a close-up focus on one woman’s anatomy… literally so, in isolated skinscapes – a six-screen video installation that Julie had prepared for the Museum space, in which each screen presented a camera’s eye-view isolating her eyes, hands, mouth, navel, tongue… At the same time, the fact that this installation was conceived remotely, at thousands of miles’ distance from its execution, was a further reminder of the networked proximity that we all now share.

Day 2 – Saturday 21st May

Network members met bright and early once again, exactly 24 hours after the PLATFORM walk, to undertake a second and very different city walk with Phil Smith – network member, mythogeographer, Wrights and Sites mis-guider.  This began, for most of us, in the lobby of the Strand Palace Hotel – where we’d been staying for two nights – where Phil handed us various bits of ephemera to carry around on the walk, and then led us out and around the corner to the main entrance of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (not actually on Drury Lane), there to meet with non-hotel-residents Alan Read, Sally Mackey and (joining us for the day, the head of  the AHRC’s Landscape and Environment) Steve Daniels. I emphasise the domestic details here because – as was later noted by somebody or other – we had come in a couple of days to feel quite “at home” in this bustling part of central London, popping back and forth between the Strand Palace and Kings College, a couple of hundred yards away. This was, at least for those of us who have tended to hold the noise and scale of London at a safe distance from our daily lives, something of a surprise… But it was also this renewed sense of the human-scale and domestic that Phil very much emphasised on his walk. In striking contrast to the coolness of PLATFORM’s estranged (or, to grab another translation of Brecht’s verfremdung, literally alienated) approach to the intimidating monumentality of the City, Phil made us feel as if we’d just popped out round the corner for a bit of a chat with him. Which, indeed, we had.

Sally Mackey, Phil Smith, Dee Heddon, Helen Nicholson, Wallace Heim.. and a guest of Phil’s whose name escapes me… outside Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

The beauty of Phil’s approach is that, simply through the places in which he asks you to stand and the manner in which he addresses you, you start noticing the stranger and quirkier elements of the urban landscape around you… Look, behind Phil’s head in the picture above, for example, at this particularly grumpy looking cherub in a Masonic memorial…

On one level, this is a throwaway observation, but there were in fact a striking number of memorials and sculptures – of one sort or another – on the route Phil took us along. Again, contrasting with the contemporary art trail PLATFORM took us on in the City, we saw with Phil the outdated, the kitsch, and the downright weird. Around the corner from this masonic thingamabob, for example, at a stage door to the Theatre Royal, he pointed out the rather grandiose, golden royal crest high above – signalling that this is the route taken by Royals (as well as by the disabled) being ushered quietly in the back… We obediently created a little royal tableau by way of illustration…

Phil with his parents’ house, in front of visiting Emperor Steve Daniels, King Alan Read, Prince Aaron Franks, courtier Tim Nunn, and security knight Steve Bottoms.

The observant among you will note that the Theatre Royal is currently playing host to Hollywood, in the form of Shrek, The Musical (poor Tony Jackson was caught by Wallace Heim’s camera in this unflattering juxtaposition, right), but since at least one of the Shrek films features the Muffin Man, who of course lives on Drury Lane, then this may not be inappropriate… But OK, before I get off into a rather silly series of free-associations (Phil does this to you), let me jump-cut to another above-the-door golden portal design that Phil led us to slightly later on the walk. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of this one, since by then my camera was playing up, so anyone not on the walk will have to trust me when I say that this particular restaurant entrance featured a 3-D display of golden seraphs and cherubs engaged in what can only reasonably be described as an explicitly pornographic display (involving, as I recall, rear entry penetration and nipple stimulation). An interesting counterpoint, perhaps, to Shrek’s bum-scratching and the grumpy cherub pictured above (maybe he wasn’t getting any)…. And the reason I’m recounting all this is because, as the walk went on, an almost carnivalesque sense of the bodily – of the physical in all its variously joyous, grotesque and, yes, theatrical functions – began to push its way to the front of the jostling mental impressions that Phil was stirring up…  This was thanks, in particular, to the two most poignant stops on the tour.

The first of these, just around the corner from the Theatre Royal, was at a memoral garden which stands on the site of an old graveyard. Phil positioned himself at ground level (left) to emphasise the extent to which the garden has been built up from street level… A result, he claimed, of the fact that this burial site was once piled so high with the undifferentiated bodies of the urban poor that they began to block the views, and light, of the windows in the surrounding buildings. Eventually this was all capped – paved over with slabs to keep the dead down – but the raising of the floor level here literally represents “environmental change” brought about by the addition to the ground of human fertiliser. Towards the end of Phil’s tour, outside St. Clement-Danes’ Church (“oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s”), he pointed out the statue to Bomber Harris – architect of the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II – but also evoked a much older history of massacre by explaining that the “Danes” of the church’s title once referred to the bodies of Vikings that had been strung out across the walls of a previous sanctuary on this site — during the fearsome siege warfare between invading Danes and resident Anglo-Saxons that resulted in many of the local place names. Aldwych, for example, is “Auld wick” – the old town – the locality the Saxons lived until they were literally driven off it into a more fortified encampment, and which instead became the Vikings’ camp. (Phil, forgive me if I misremember any of these details, but I guess the Chinese Whispers version of history is one of the things that interests you anyway… so I’ll resist the temptation to scour Wikipedia in an attempt to check my facts.)  Phil’s narrative, throughout, came as a powerful reminder that the hugely built-up environment around us – man-made, with only a few trace glimpses of the ‘natural’ world – is nonetheless constantly ‘in process’; involved in its own (organic?) cycles of collapse and renewal; far from being merely fixed and inevitable. It’s an environment built by and on human bodies, and on the silted accumulation of history in this so-long-so-heavily populated of locations. These thoughts, perhaps, loop us back again to the fact of our location that weekend – Kings College’s former Anatomy Theatre & Museum…. and to the socially excluded body of Julie Laffin …. and to PLATFORM’s anatomisation of the oil industry, an industry which – for all the “clean lines” of its artistic and architectural investments – is also built upon squalor, degradation, and suffering in other, less visible parts of the world such as the Niger Delta…  (Network member Tim Nunn, who visited that area a few years ago as a photographer and activist, spoke powerfully during Friday’s symposium about his experiences of that environment – of leaking oil pipelines literally cutting through the middle of villages, polluting wells, posing extreme health and fire risks – and about how his own camera was confiscated by arresting police officers who were not, Shell insisted (though nobody had yet suggested it), acting at their behest…)

Hmm. I appear to have travelled some distance from the jollity of my opening reflections on Phil’s walk… He does that to you too. But I’d be doing him a disservice if I didn’t also mention that we finished on an upbeat note, parading in single file through the dancing fountains outside Somerset House, watched over by – yes – Ai Weiwei’s decapitated Zodiac Heads…

Thanks to my malfunctioning camera, I had to steal this image off the internet to illustrate… But Phil had us walking through the middle of this, a trail of motley individuals with J.D. Dewsbury bringing up the rear dragging his wheelie suitcase like a caboose. Collectively, a theatrical display of shining human promise in this palace of the arts… (Or something like that.) Almost immediately after we had performed our little show, other visitors began following suit – and having themselves photographed following suit… Human behaviour in process, a response to performed examples and physical affordances… (or just plain copying?). Some thoughts to return to – in my next posting perhaps…

And “reflecting on environmental change”…? Well, I hope I’ve done a little of that, but I’ll close this post (at long last, well done if you’ve got this far) with the last photo I was able to take with my camera before it went on the blink… A scene as seen just round the corner from the pornographic restaurant entrance… And illustrating Phil’s astute observation that all the greenery we were seeing on the streets in that area (and the foliage was not inconsiderable) was actually planted in pots, placed over paving, rather than rooted in the earth. Did we ever see any earth? At the same time, though, natural forces continue to operate even on the man-made environment, as neatly evidenced by the advanced decomposition of this hardboard table, which is gradually unfurling like the pages of a book…. As Phil might say, it’s all about the layers.

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One Response to Oily Anatomies and Toxic Landscapes (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Art and Oil in a Cool Climate (pt.3) | Site, Performance, and Environmental Change

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