Block Universe

Alice Hattrick reflects on the London performance festival in the midst of the country's election week

By Alice Hattrick

Zadie Xa, Crash, Boom, Hisssssss. Legend of the Liquid Sword, at Somerset House, London, 2017. Photo: Arron Leppard. Courtesy Block Universe Rory Pilgrim, Software Gardens, at the Light, London, 2017. Photo: Arron Leppard. Courtesy Block Universe Will Rawls, Q&A, at the Asylum Peckham, London, 2017. Photo: Arron Leppard. Courtesy Block Universe Nicole Bachmann, I don’t want your whispers, at Kachette, London, 2017. Photo: Arron Leppard. Courtesy Block Universe

Various venues, London, 29 May – 4 June 2017

For three years running, Block Universe has commissioned and staged new performance work across venues in London. Over the course of a week, I’ve seen works presented in a range of spaces: an artfully decayed room at Somerset House, the archway of Kachette in Shoreditch, and the lantern-like Light Space at the (Quaker) Friend’s House in Euston. The overarching aim of this year’s festival, comprising of 14 events, has been to look at ‘networked communities and the power of collective voices’, championing work that ‘questions the status quo in divisive times’. The work certainly explores this territory: Zadie Xa’s performance questions the authentic in relation to the Asian diaspora, while Rory Pilgrim’s Software Garden imagines a world in which humans and machines might care for each other.

In order to see Canadian-born artist Zadie Xa’s performance Crash, Boom, Hisssssss. Legend of the Liquid Sword at Somerset House, I am ushered out of the sun and inside a dark space, sparsely lit with pink and blue. The rest of the audience files in with me, directed to stand, or sit, around the room: we make up a kind of stage. Drumming starts, and water plays over the sound system. Coastal scenes are projected onto the wall. The Lancaster Room has been transformed from its bright, columned space, with views out to the Thames. Beyond the drummer and the artist/narrator, wearing a nightmarish mask with teeth that looks like they’ve just bitten into something still breathing, two performers are playing the roles of an octopus and a Manshin, or Korean shaman. Words like ‘DANGER’, spoken by the narrator/artist, become instructions that only the other two performers seem to fully understand, pre-empting an abstract narrative that emerges out of, and then falls back into, water. “I heard you weren’t feeling well”, the octopus says – a real octopus appearing in the projection above (in Korean tradition, shamanism makes you sick.) The piece was inspired by Pasori, a form of Korean storytelling, but fed through the mind of Xa, a Canadian-born artist seemingly more versed in US hip hop (GZA’s album Legend of the Liquid Sword came out in 2002, when Xa was a teenager). The performers – four, including the drummer – wear full-length jackets, covered in intricate patterns of shining fabric and fur, or at least that’s what they looked like. It was pretty dark, so maybe in the harsh lights of Fashion Week (also at Somerset House) they would have looked garish and cheap, but no less desirable. In much of the projected video, Xa appeared unmasked and beautiful, until her bow, which was glorious. Everyone clapped and whooped, happy. The exact narrative was hard to follow, at times because the sound wasn’t clear enough, which made me feel less engaged in what should have been a wholly immersive environment.

Nicole Bachmann, I don’t want your whispers, Block Universe 2017 review
Nicole Bachmann, I don’t want your whispers, at Kachette, London, 2017. Photo: Arron Leppard. Courtesy Block Universe

At Kachette, Nicole Bachmann presents her new commission I don’t want your whispers. This time, there are two performers, a speaker who was kind-of-also dancing, and a dancer who is kind-of-also speaking. We are ‘in the round’ in a dark space again, but this isn’t an immersive show – there are no coloured lights and video projections, no elaborate costumes. “I don’t want your whispers,” says the speaker, with her hands and chest moving too. “SEE. SO. SA.,” she continues, “PAH. PAH. DO. DAH. DAH. SHUT.” Something inside her is trying to escape: her voice. The dancer seems to exhaust herself trying to speak and dance at the same time. At one point in the script, silence seems to be equated with abuse, but it sounds less like the ACT UP slogan ‘SILENCE = DEATH’ (abuse), and something closer to ‘abuse causes silence’. Eventually, a slogan does emerge: ‘Don’t shut up,’ spoken on repeat in the performer’s own voice, unconstrained but not forced. As a slogan, I’m not entirely convinced by it. I wasn’t aware we were shutting up, or that a whisper can’t be powerful. As a work exploring the ways women can find a voice within discourse, and the constraints of the body, it was successful – I would like to see a work that explores silence as a form of power, too.

Rory Pilgrim, Software Gardens, Block Universe 2017 review
Rory Pilgrim, Software Gardens, at the Light, London, 2017. Photo: Arron Leppard. Courtesy Block Universe

Rory Pilgrim’s performance is staged at the Friend’s House in Euston. At the start, an older, female-sounding voice, played over the sound system, says, ‘I am not a dreg of society,’ and I am immediately moved, by the sentiment and the quality of their voice – broken, and strong. The performances of Pilgrim’s live collaborators were equally powerful: a singer on a stagelike platform repeats lines like, ‘Can the government be my lover, a nonabusive lover?’, while a dancer performs a range of movements, from poses and mechanical hand gestures, to an (amazing) near-strip-tease, in the space below. They are soon joined by a chorus of slightly clueless performers – a collective a bit too reliant on each other to move around the large, open space – that come off as like unnecessary extras. Pilgrim coordinates the performance – which also includes a humanoid robot reminiscent of the one used by Cécile B. Evans in her 2016 Tate Liverpool installation – from the platform. The performance evolves like a gig, a series of music tracks and choreographed dances, culminating in a dance party, which leaves me with the unfortunate feeling that it’s 5am at a party that never quite got going.

Will Rawls, Q&A, Block Universe 2017 review
Will Rawls, Q&A, at the Asylum Peckham, London, 2017. Photo: Arron Leppard. Courtesy Block Universe

I watch Will Rawls’s Q&A performance, which took place earlier in the week at the Asylum in Peckham – known as a popular wedding venue, as well as a performance space – on Facebook live. ‘This is a game,’ says Rawls. ‘We will have a Q&A about a performance, and when the timer goes off, we’re done.’ Through their questions, audience members appear to collaborate in forming what this performance ‘was’ – ‘exhausting’, for instance, or ‘autobiographical’ – even though it never happened. Rawls responds in-kind, telling anecdotes about travelling across London, working with Claudia Rankine, and seeing the Northern lights. He also reveals a biography, perhaps his own: learning Latin at school, training in painting, going on residencies and moving into performance. ‘I hope that answers your question,’ says Rawls, at one point – a perfectly-timed in-joke with his audience. ‘I don’t want to perform,’ he says at another (he didn’t – there was no performance). In my experience of attending Q&As, specifically terrible (and even offensive) questions from audience members, this one seemed to go strangely smooth.

For a festival of performance with the explicit aim to explore ‘nationhood, inclusivity and identity politics set against a changing socio-political landscape’, £150 for a festival ticket seems expensive – a luxury. The venues felt, at times, too corporate, too lacking in their own identity other than as spaces for hire, for any artist to respond to. The events were exclusive, the audience numbers limited, and contained, considering the socio-political landscape – not to mention the privatisation of space in the capital – referred to in the press release. If these spaces had felt more open, less guarded and hidden, I think I would have danced in a Quaker meeting house at 4pm, and whooped at the end of every performance. This socio-political landscape continues to change, daily. It’s been a devastating and strange week. When I cycled over Waterloo Bridge to Zadie Xa’s performance at Somerset House on 1 June, there were no barriers between the road and the pavement. It’s a week that, at the time of writing, appears to be getting stranger. The exclusivity of Block Universe seems totally at odds with the political climate the festival seeks to engage with, specifically the slogan of now: ‘For the many, not the few’.

9 June 2017