FLARE 3, 3-5 May 2017, Vane, Newcastle upon Tyne

FLARE 3 was a three-day event exploring different approaches to understanding connections between the mind and body through live encounter. It was organized by three artists undertaking PhDs at Northumbria University, Helen Collard, Denys Blacker and Harriet Plewis, who established FLARE (Forum for Living Art Research and Education) in 2015. This third annual event spread the exploratory activities across three days, hosted by Vane contemporary art gallery. Each day was led by one of the organizers to investigate via the participation of artists, scholars and members of the public the broader themes and issues involved in their research projects. In this written response, I reflect on the activities that most (re)ignited my curiosities.

Unfortunately, I could not attend the first day, Sync-Down, led by Harriet Plewis. The day’s focus on ‘sly, dormant and illicit research methods’ and its workshop exploring visualization by drawing on the principles of ‘lucid dreaming’ sound fascinating to me and I was sorry to miss it, particularly as I find images more vivid than sound and verbal language. Even still, Harriet was integral to my involvement. 

My time-keeping has not been what it used to be due to health issues I’ve experienced this year. I arrived around halfway through the daily morning practice of Six Healing Sounds on day 2, Co-Arise. The Tai Chi breathing exercises led by Denys marked a serene beginning to each day, and for me neutralized any tensions felt from engaging in new activities with strangers.

Upon arrival, I peeked in, but didn’t want to disturb anyone, so I slipped out again. Harriet came after me, and after quick introductions she invited me to join in, if only to observe. I immediately felt welcome, at ease, and under no pressure. Most importantly, I felt that my presence was desired. 

During the session, I recognized some of the fundamental movements of Tai Chi. I enjoyed courses in it that I had taken in my late teens. I should have found a way to keep it on to help manage stress. (Although, perhaps we ought not to be so frequently the sources of others’ stresses. How we cope and respond when this is, often unintentionally, the case arose indirectly on day 3.)

I quickly relaxed into the communal atmosphere. There were people I recognized but had not seen for a while, plenty of smiles, and the group consisted mainly of women.

The first exercise in the Co-Arising workshop, co-led by Denys and the Ocells al Cap group (the Barcelona-based Birds), was challenging for us all, but helped us connect and empathize with one another. Before beginning the non-verbal activities, Denys explained the importance of consent and agreement, and the ways these are attained through feeling (‘con-sentment’). Knowing we were free to go and that no expectations were imposed helped. Our task was to engage in non-verbal encounter, to be close enough to sense or perceive something from each other, but to not invade space or feel discomfort. Eye contact was encouraged, but we could opt out if it was too uncomfortable. One participant found it too difficult and instead made welcoming hand gestures.

Being on the road to recovery from debilitating mental health issues, I felt safe enough to test my limitations. I was self-conscious and worried that my smile was too forced, or I looked too awkward. I ought not to have tried so hard to hold a smile, but I think it was more of a shield. When I found my anxiety rising, I contented myself by imagining everyone else feeling similar and focused on what I could sense of the lives of the people before me. I wonder, then, did I begin to reflect them back on themselves? Sometimes I sensed deep sadness or pain and wanted to offer an embrace. Sometimes I imagined an incredible life story behind world-weary eyes that in turn searched me so deeply they seemed to pierce through my protective exterior.

In a separate space, we reflected on the exercise, and introduced ourselves for the first time. We largely agreed that the eye-contact was difficult, but it was nice to move around each other in the space. Denys suggested we try again, but with eyes shut. York-based artist of Oui Performance Victoria Gray suggested using caretakers – people spotted around the walls making sure we kept safe. It was fascinating and fun. Many of us felt relaxed about being ‘blind’, knowing we were likely to be stopped before walking into a wall or person. 

It was more affectionate this time. Many of us found that we bumped into the same few people. I repeatedly encountered someone shorter than me with very small, soft hands. It was suggested that we try to sense who we found. Some people made this a kind of game while others liked the anonymity. I couldn’t remember everyone’s name, and liked the idea of never being sure who all took my offered hands or arms with affection. It was funny, though, when Lesley Yendell placed your hand on her distinctive spiky hair.

A memorable moment for me was connecting with someone who held my hand lovingly against her cheek while someone from behind found my shoulder and we held on together for a few moments before I led their hands to one another. I felt such comfort and safety, and will never know from whom. There were outbreaks of laughter at times. It turned out that a few people found themselves in a clump in the middle of the room. Denys also revealed it was her we could feel when someone on the floor brushed against our ankles.

We discussed overriding the natural impulse to grasp and reach out, particularly the one man who participated (the only other man there during this exercise acted as a caretaker), for fear it was too aggressive. I had been mindful of the same, so tried a compromise of turning my hands slightly palm up and open rather than feeling directly outwards. There were times when we could sense through sound or a change in light that someone was near but we couldn’t quite find each other. At times, I made contact, but it was not reciprocal, so I moved on without troubling the person further. It was an excellent exercise in consent and raising awareness of personal space that I would recommend to anyone.

The rest of the workshop involved actions of leading and following. I like to absorb and settle into things more often than jumping straight in. It was relatively early in my ongoing recovery and I hadn’t participated in live performance for some time, so I was perhaps more hesitant than usual on top of this. I slowly realized while sitting watching others’ actions that at least two people were aping my positioning and body language. My spectating had been incorporated into the group performance. I became an active follower after this, copying hand slaps and ways of moving in the space. 

I tired quickly and at times went back to experiencing everyone’s co-operation from the periphery. I was joined in my perching at the wall by Marta Vergonyós of the Birds who later told me she was drawn to my stillness that made it fine to participate quietly and subtly and be a kind of present witness taking it all in. (Her documentary work is a topic I would like to explore at length sometime.)

That evening, Ocells al Cap led ‘We Were Waiting For You’ in which audience-participants were invited to pose them a question that, without seeing it, they would respond to with an improvised group performance using materials they had each brought in suitcases. During each performative response, the questioner and another participant were asked to write a description of what they witnessed. 

My sense of my new limitations arose here, as this is the sort of activity in which I would normally be keen to engage. For example, I try different approaches to live performative writing/documentation when I manage to attend Bbeyond’s monthly meetings. At FLARE, I felt no compulsion to take notes or write during the event; I wanted to remain on a threshold between witnessing and participation. It would become clearer while watching the films Helen showed the next day (particularly Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk ‘My Stroke of Insight’) that the connective, present left side of my brain had taken over from the analytical, rational right side. I enjoyed the images and sounds developing around me and the ways others poetically articulated them, but understanding them and defining them myself with written language was not within my grasp that day.

Possibly because I had opened up so much the previous day and was tired, I found the final day of FLARE tougher. The non-verbal interactions during day 2 had led to fervent discussion and I spoke with quite a few people on a deep, personal level. Co-Arise had had a powerful effect on me, and I was ready for more, and should have been more mindful that this left me vulnerable.

Listen-In began with a different tone and group dynamic. The morning workshop facilitated by Dawn Felicia Knox titled ‘The Echo Chamber’ involved aural/oral exercises that some of us with anxiety disorders found difficult. Concentrating on the sonic life and capacity of the space was interesting and worth probing further. However, when Dawn encouraged us to exert ourselves sonically in the space, problems arose, and raised issues around gender and awareness of others’ limitations. The shared nature of the same space which emerged the day before seemed to disintegrate as people either asserted themselves through noise creation or recoiled inwardly to shield themselves from these projections.

Only three out of perhaps twenty participants were men, yet male voices managed to dominate during this exercise. Quite a few people became loud, but one person let out a crescendo primal scream from his boots that lasted for an uncomfortable duration and managed to shut down many of the other voices/noises. I had been trying to stay near the windows and Siobhán Mullen’s interactions with the space during her durational ‘Velocity at Zero’ performance to remain calm, but the noise proved too much for some of us. When Dawn called us together, one of the Ocells/Birds, Marta, who had been near me asked if I was all right. I lost composure. Speaking quietly with Victoria Gray later, she pointed out that the question granted me permission to admit that I was not ok.

Marta gently reminded me that we’re all free to leave at any time. I explained to her later that I was trying to tolerate the noise because in life there’s no escape; we cannot shut our ears and choose not to hear with the same ease that we can shut our eyes or turn our heads to choose not to see. Someone becoming expressive to that degree in what was otherwise a space of sharing was unexpected. I wanted to slip away when the yelling began, but froze; a common response to anxiety triggers. Also, given where I was positioned in relation to those whose voices rose from the foundations, I would have had to walk directly past them, and I felt that I could not cope with the increased intensity at a closer proximity. I was later told that others in the post-exercise discussion admitted to finding it aggressive and had to leave. Apparently, it could be heard from down the long nearby corridor.

The silent aftermath was worse. Presentness during acts of conflict, violence or aggression is consumed with survival and getting through it. When it stops, the sting of processing what happened begins. How do you reclaim the space when it has been disrupted so thoroughly? How can women compete with the grain, pitch and volume of male yelling?

I thought to myself, I could scream like that too, but the male voices would only drown me out. And, why should I? I am a quiet person; yelling like that is rare and out of character for me. It would only rile me up and make me feel aggressively defensive, which is counterproductive and would undo all the gentleness and healing from the previous day. The challenge of choosing to walk away and when to do so is important. It was more difficult at the time as I was still raw from a prolonged period of heightened anxiety and my cognitive faculties aren’t what they were. Dawn spoke with me afterwards and said that as the facilitator she should have seen it coming and put measures in place. Contingency isn’t as straightforward as that, though.

There are informative discussions to be had about the articulated understanding of shared space, and how best to respond when someone through no fault of their own has an empathy blocker and a need to express. In trauma studies, there must be a negotiation between those who need to tell and those unable to listen. This performative example embodied this tension well in the clash between those who needed to express, and those who needed not to hear that expression, raising further points of investigation around shared and contested spaces at all kinds of levels. It reminded me that examining the micro often helps us understand the macro, and provided a useful if disruptive learning curve after the relative ease of the silent communication and respect for personal/physical space the day before. It is not the fault of others that some of us suffer from hypersensitivity and misophonia. Until such conditions are taken seriously, there is little that can be done about attaining similar respect for one’s sonic space.

Decompressing over a quiet lunch alone and joining Helen’s pranayama session was a tonic. It was great to learn more about breathing, a fundamental process many of us tend to take for granted through not having to think about it. Having experienced severe panic attacks this year, I have better awareness of what it is like to need to focus on getting through each breath, and it was useful to consider breathing from a range of perspectives. For instance, guest speaker Magdalena Górska’s Breathing Matters research included case study participants such as a former coal miner suffering with black lung disease and a phone sex worker empowered by and earning a living from her performative breathy voice.

That evening, Francesca Steele’s performance installation ‘Auto-oscillate’ and Laurel Jay Carpenter’s durational performance ‘I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end’ each took place in Vane’s two larger gallery spaces. Steele’s work deals with trauma and this performance involved autobiographical spoken memory. For me this again brought up the issue of being able to listen, and at the time I could not listen to graphic accounts of rape. (However, it is likely I could have found reading her notes easier.)

Laurel’s much more intimate and quiet approach drew me in. In contrast to the neon lights and electronically enhanced soundscape next door, Laurel’s movements were barely perceptible as she swayed slightly and periodically pulled small pins from the bunch gathered on the magnet she held, eventually letting them drop to the floor. Given the noise around the space, I sat nearby her for a long time straining to listen for the tiny sounds of the pins on the floor and seeing the patterns they made. I felt the sense of longing over time passing emanating from these repeated actions. Although the action was uniform, the pins fell and landed uniquely each time, which could only be perceived at close proximity.

From my choice of spectatorship arose more food for thought. Likely given my upset that morning, people were concerned that I was ok during this performance. I mostly sat hugging my knees, worrying a little that I was too close to Laurel, but feeling sure that this level of intimacy was welcome, otherwise how could the details of the performance be perceived? Speaking with Laurel much later, she confirmed this, and was glad that my presence drew in a little crowd sitting around her in a circle for a time. I had to explain that I was fine, I was merely concentrating on hearing the pins drop; the day was about listening after all. Bringing acts of witness under scrutiny as another form of performance is worth considering in depth - the faultline between spectating and participating.

Overall, it was an incredible couple of days that came at a significant time for me, and I am grateful to have been welcomed into FLARE 3. The company, the food, the experiences were wonderful, and I hope to continue remembering and making sense (and, indeed, enjoying not making sense) of it all. Bringing such a broad range of artists, theorists and members of the public together for three days was a fantastic feat and its success a testament to Denys, Helen and Harriet for making it happen. 

(I took a few photos, but they're stuck on a broken phone. *Always back up*)


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