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Drafting - Baltic 39, Newcastle upon Tyne, 20-21 March 2015

The following essay was commissioned in response to two evenings of exploratory performances which took place in Baltic 39 just over two years ago. The publication for which it was intended was never published, so I give it life here. Further information and images of some of the work can be found at http://drawingne.org.uk/whats-on/drafting/.


The act of drafting involves: creating an initial version, having a practise run, making a plan, drawing a sketch. Every time we recount memories, our histories are redrafted. The Drafting event which took place in Baltic 39 in March 2015, involved around twenty artists exploring the performativity of drafting and drawing.

The daily workshops and two evenings of public performances were made possible through a joint venture between Northumbria University and University of Sunderland, and were brought together by organizers Sandra Johnston, Mike Collier, Sally Madge, Lily Mellor, Esen Kaya and Megan Fell.

It was the first attempt at live art for many of the participants, with some as early in their careers as foundation level performing alongside established practitioners. In exploring forms of marking, drawing and repetition, the traces that formed from many of the actions meant that they became instantly – if temporarily – self-documenting. 

This response identifies common themes which emerged across the artists’ acts of tracing, together with ruminations on the subjective experience of performative witnessing.

Art-in-life

Alastair MacLennan made a performance installation that brought various disparate elements into dialogue with one another: stillness and movement, painting and sculpture, creating and being art, death and renewed life. In his practice, and as noted in the catalogue designed by Megan Fell and Erin Blamire, MacLennan considers his role to be more of a facilitator of elements which combine on their own terms with some guidance from him. 

MacLennan often uses the detritus of once living organic matter in his work, and SIDE CIDE involved him walking along a long, white, dampened strip of paper dropping leaves coated with black paint. In repeated actions, he poured more water over them, causing the paint to disperse. In such a work, stillness and movement and living and dead matter are not placed in opposition, but form alliances – collaborations across space and time.

The smaller details in this large work draw a range of subjective experiences from different proximities that produce different ways of seeing the same event. The photographic documentation taken only by participating artists is interesting considering this; close-ups of the leafy paint-infused water pooled on the white paper appear as textured, abstract images at once separate from and connected to the full work with less discernible boundaries than the photographic frame. The stilling of passing time and framing of expansive space, which occurs in images such as Denys Blacker’s documentation series, creates abstract works while evoking memories or impressions of the whole live audiovisual action in which viewers also became sculptural elements in the piece.

Given that the physical traces were washed away after the performances ended, the photographs quickly became traces of a ghostly past. MacLennan’s ritualistic ‘walking through’ the work carrying a glass of water and balancing a tree branch on his head at the end further enabled this cohesion of space and time, and the fusion of the animate with the inanimate. In facilitating movement and change by combining the detritus of once living material with liquids and acts of re-placing, these elements surged with a new kind of living in death.

Lee Hassall’s Fettle consisted of another ritualistic kind of walking and the re-placing of objects, which, in a different way to some of MacLennan’s practice, include the detritus of once organic matter. Only for the specific arrangement, his materials placed across the back end of the largest exhibition space would have resembled debris and driftwood washed ashore. The uncanny items included rounded iron weights, loose plaits similar to rope fragments, tarnished but carefully shaped wooden sticks and poles, some standing perpendicular to the floor by themselves or balanced in an iron disc, and some enhanced with metal heads or shaped into paddles. 

Over the durational performance throughout the second evening, Hassall would select an artefact from a sack resting near the corner of the space, cup it carefully in his hands, and walk around, inviting each spectator to regard the object closely and exchange a look or smile with him. From a distance, they seemed to be small birds, but upon close inspection, they were often the wings of dead birds combined with other materials.

Hassall himself became a re-presented sculptural item when he lay face down near the unmarked periphery of his workspace, or squatted in the corner with his back to the room. When he walked through the items to select something to reposition or work with, attention was drawn to the empty spaces between them, begging the question of what is missing or cannot be seen in this constructed landscape of disparate elements drawn together in space and time.

Markos Sotiriou’s I Am Talking saw him repeat during night two an action which incorporated the space separating the main exhibition rooms – a rectangular perimeter surrounding the building’s stairwell. Placed at adjacent corners, one in each of the two large galleries, were young potted olive trees. Sotiriou began by removing one from its pot and, staying close to the wall, carrying it to the other to transfer it to the other’s pot. This cycle of continual displacement and replacement between walking/carrying actions provided a rhythm to the night’s proceedings and left traces from the soil dropping from the roots that marked a trail as Sotiriou’s bare feet ground it into the floor and scored his legs with earth.

Denys Blacker’s Mnemosyne involved her crawling under a large arrowhead-shaped canvas under which blunt hooks were attached, making it cling to her clothes as she edged across a line of circular handmade bone China ceramics. Resembling a winged creature consuming a row of food, revealed in her wake were the shattered remains of the round plates that she had cracked underneath her body.

When Blacker had progressed along the full row to reach the dividing wall, she wrapped herself in the canvas and rolled sideways over the fragments. This was repeated back and forth with her often ramming into spectators and the walls. The space was initially arranged like a sculptural drawing of a large arrow with a dotted stem, and by the end, the fragments of light-coloured ceramics appeared as a fractured, splintered mosaic on the grey floor, calling to mind the relationship between acts of creation and acts of destruction.

In Mean, Nathan Walker explored his interest in ‘writing by voice’, and given his description of this in the catalogue, his practice demonstrates conceptual links to Dadaist performative poetry and the Surrealists’ interests in Freudian psychoanalysis.

Sitting on a stool, Walker shouted a string of monosyllabic words, the idea being to ‘redraft’ the words through their repetition until they break down and shift into another word, or even a word-like sound. The words he shouts are unplanned, meaning that he engages in ‘live, unsighted automatic writing’ – a kind of sonic poetry emerging from the role of chance in everyday living.

The domestic, the everyday, and play

An important aspect of Sandra Johnston’s live art practice is the use of found, often discarded, objects which she works with and through over time in a space. In Intercede she used an old strip of carpet, some seeds and a shoebox full of charcoal. Initially, Johnston ripped off a length of the carpet laid with its underlining facing up, and discarded it, then placed a seed on the floor, after which she painstakingly folded the carpet into a small bundle using only her feet while clenching a handful of seeds. She returned to the discarded strip and scored its underlining with her toes, leaving crumbs of it on the floor.

Moving to the shoebox, she unravelled then rolled the larger patch of carpet, and kneeling down pressed her head into the charcoal. Taking chunks in her mouth, she scored arcs with it across the floor as far as she could reach, and, upon finishing, positioned the carpet sections in a sculptural dialogue with the floor markings and collapsed shoebox. These interactions again evoke the fine line between construction and destruction, and invite inquiry into the tensions between domestic and gallery spaces in which the performative reconstitution of objects occurs.

Gillian Dyson’s Withdraw involved her full-bodily interactions with a wooden table and a single-bed mattress. At times, she was aggressive with the mattress, and at others, playful. She jumped on it in a childlike fashion, flung it around the space, wrapped herself in it, poked holes in it and kissed it around the edges. The performance introduced notions of having and discarding, giving and taking away, and the sense of ‘withdrawing’ domestic objects from action while ‘drawing with’ them.

In Retread, Ricky James appropriated objects associated with the home and play in repetitive actions which simultaneously wear down and build up, as he explains in the catalogue. He undressed to his briefs and socks and folded his clothes. He put on a pair of trainers and, sitting on a high stool, chewed gum and dribbled glue-like saliva into a jar.

James performed actions related to skipping, such as stepping back and forth over a skipping rope hanging slack from his hands, skipping rapidly backwards and forwards, and swinging the cord violently back and forth between his legs, leaving red marks on his front and back. He skipped on or near a mound of milk powder, which spread across the floor and became scored with arced lines from the impact. James poured lines of the gum-spittle across the powder to further mark shapes and traces in the material and its changing consistency.

The repetition of each action became a form of redrafting while the elements brought together in the work were reconfigured by the exertions of the physical activity effecting shifts in the arrangement of the objects in relation to one another.

The theme of consumption arose with further works which appropriated objects from quotidian spaces. Debbie Guinnane’s Numb dead arm Oh weight heavy dead fish featured domestic and childhood items. Beginning by dunking her head in one of the galvanized buckets of water lining Alastair MacLennan’s progressing work, Guinnane moved to her own set up, where she balanced a water bottle on her torso and drank from it while rolling backwards on a basketball. When the water levelled, she smeared a popular brand of chocolate spread around the crotch of her jeans. Squatting on the basketball, she rolled it so it marked the floor with crescents of the brown paste.

For the duration of evening two, Joana Cifre Cerdà stood in a nook in the split gallery where she used only her mouth to rework a roll of till paper into a conical shape.

On night one, also simultaneous to MacLennan’s performance, Rene McBrearty faced front with closed eyes as she worked methodically through a constructed system which determined her mark-making on paper taped to the wall behind her.

Performing acts of consumption and regurgitation from under a table throughout night two, Michelle [no surname given] ripped and wrote on large sheets of card paper while singing, yelling and moaning.

In her untitled debut performance, Dionne Mombeyarara crouched under a white sheet and whispered almost inaudibly. In slow, austere movements she lifted a bronzed bowl containing red wine above her head and tipped it so the dark liquid ran down the sheet. She continued to sit still and murmur as the wine pooled all around her, embodying the notion of living sculpture.

Acts of witness

The circumstances around Victoria Gray’s Ballast drew my attention to how I perform while spectating. To achieve a more intimate atmosphere during her actions in which she formed different shapes with her body, Gray beckoned the audience closer, meaning that it was difficult to see her actions at times. I caught glimpses by kneeling down and peering through the frames made by others’ legs, which shifted as people repositioned. This scenario presents an opportunity to consider the spectator as performer – a concern in Isabelle Kroese’s I Am Great Art.

I Am Great Art involved Kroese sitting at a desk in the corner of the large gallery space engaging in performative critical writing for the duration of the second night. Kroese wrote instructions and observational notes on sheets of A4 printing paper, which she then photocopied using a printer/scanner.

She made eight such sheets which acerbically documented, and, in part, controlled, the spectators’ actions while experiencing performance art, often drawing attention to the anxieties this can cause. Her honesty in pointing out awkward behaviours appears in a fragmented and austere narrative of the evening’s proceedings from the subjective perspectives she projected onto peoples’ viewing experiences.

The printer also infused the space and simultaneous happenings with a mechanical rhythm that provided a reminder of the immediacy of technological reproduction and the dissemination of the reproduced art object, which in performance usually occurs using video and photography.

Helen Shaddock inverted acts of documenting by shifting focus to the viewers using a material as impermanent as the spectators' viewing positions. As we stood, sat or crouched, she traced chalk lines around each of us, capturing the natural flow of shifting positions and the clumps of bodies watching the overlapping performances. By the evening’s end, the floor mapped our past movements. This expanded the temporary living archive of the proceedings that blurred the boundary between the event and its documentation, and affirmed the audience’s place amongst the work.

Sally Madge’s Landscope can also be read as alternative documentation with her simple yet innovative method of recording the presence of individuals and the performance spaces and materials. Throughout the workshop and public phases of Drafting, Madge used lint rollers to make ‘portraits’ of just about anybody or anything she encountered.

The process involved chatting to each person about where they had been in their outfit as she gleaned and re-presented the unique traces. She then peeled off the lint paper, finished it with a light dusting of French white chalk, and uniformly displayed the rectangular swatches in viewing cases, above which were tables recording where each patch of lint, dust, dirt, fibres and hairs had come from.

Falling between sculpture and painting, the grids of dusty swatches looked like miniature abstract experiments in texture, stilled movement, and nuanced colours, yet somehow effused individual personalities.

Re/Drafting

The performativity of acts of drafting is expanded in the artists’ textual passages in the catalogue. Indeed, this is where Lily Mellor’s performance takes place, in her redrafts of extant works such as Dan Graham’s proximity-focused textual work March 31, 1966. The catalogue demonstrates the many ways that experiments in performative drafting/drawing can be approached. Every work was further redrafted by audience members’ acts of viewing, by the exchange of experiences between viewers, artists and actions, and by the traces left in markings, photographs, writing, and in memories. This essay is my partial redraft of Drafting – a work still in progress.

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