(In a Forest of Signs)

Five Nights Beneath The Pier

The degree to which temporality and environment not only frame but acutely con- struct the art-event, was the primary rationale behind 5 Nights Beneath the Pier.  Created and presented over 15 nights, the work comprised a 5 day filmed night- walk between the Brighton Marina and the Brighton Pier, followed by 5 nights of editing and composing an accompanying soundtrack, before a final 5 nights' presentation of the film beneath the pier. By undertaking the walk at night, the impetus was two-fold. Firstly, I was interested in the type of community that forms around the beach at that hour and hoped to record the unique interactions that occur there under the cover of darkness. Secondly, I was interested in the voyeuristic nature of recording such interactions. Filming at night, it was virtually impossible to record images without some form of light source - and yet, the presence of an artificial light to the otherwise dark beach served to invert my role. Though I was a spectator to the other occupants of the beach, the addition of the light made me the most visible, spectacular thing present. As such, any attempt at voyeurism was apparently negated, a dynamic that saw the other human occupants of the beach gravitate towards me as I filmed. Furthermore, even with the light, the camera was unable to pick up images more than a few feet away - whereas the light made me visible for several hundred metres. As such, there was no clear dividing line between me and my environment, since my presence drastically changed the environment, affecting both the limits of my visibility – altered by slight changes in my angle or speed – and the actions of those Others who ran towards or away from me, simultaneously altering the limits of their, and my, perceptions.

After editing the footage, I projected the film and its accompanying soundtrack on the bottom of the pier, as a means of reintroducing the work back into the space of its creation. Crucially, however, I wanted the dissemination of the work to reflect the transitory, environmental and temporal aspects of its process of creation. With this in mind, I invited local musicians from the free improvisation scene to provide additional material each night, requesting only that they be willing to improvise not just musically, but with the environmental challenges of the site. The ‘stage’ consisted of the ground between the base of the pier and the sea, a space of anywhere between 1 and 25 metres width dependent on weather and tides. The improvisers were faced with numerous impositions, including sea-levels, the volume of the waves and wind (ranging from a quiet whisper to a howl loud enough to drown out even amplified music), and the force of the wind that could, on occasion, knock over both performers and their instruments. There were also human conditions to contend with: the sound of cars and revellers on the pier above, locals holding nearby beach parties, and the homeless community residing beneath the pier. The performers, faced with such difficulty, soon broke into two camps - those who blamed me, the instigator, for concocting such an event (acting as if I had, in my lack of clarity or instruction, fundamentally misunderstood something about the nature of music, though unable to articulate quite what) and those who enjoyed the open-handedness that such an environment required. As with previous interventions, it was the artwork’s resulting social dynamic that I sought to prioritise – the improvisers’ struggle with both their environment and the concept mirrored similar concerns in the film’s exploration of voyeurism, limitation of control, community, and use of space. The artistic material on offer was secondary to the event of ‘failing’ to successfully put on a normal musical performance/screening. This was manifest both by the impossibility of showing the work under certain conditions - on the first evening my film was nearly invisible and only barely audible such was the light and sound emitting from the pier - but also by the utility of site-specific elements beyond the pre-prepared work of the improvisers. One performer (Tom Bench AKA Hardworking Families), who had brought along a metal chair to play like a drum, ended up simply burying it, surmising that the audience could barely hear his violent actions upon the chair above the waves. Similarly, one act - Thee Bald Knobbers - that had brought along electric guitars and amplified cymbals took to ‘playing’ the metal underside of the pier, since it was far louder than their instruments.  What was produced by my performers was not a specific artefact, but a staging of the tension present between conflicting modes of being. Those involved sought to undertake a pre- emptive movement through the space – such as playing an instrument –yet the nature of the site forced them instead to respond with a primacy that circumvented any prepared response. It was for this reason I chose to work with self-declared improvisers – my interest was in highlighting the performative potential that exists in the slippage between critical and primordial responses to one’s environment.

This is not to suggest, however, that those who ‘got’ it contributed more to the event than those who did not. Indeed, it was the ensuing conflict between their different positions that defined the work, more so than any specific artefact. On the third night, instead of performing as planned, a string ensemble took the ‘stage’ to critique the lack of direction I had given them, environmental concerns, the fact they were not being paid, and a number of other qualities they were unhappy with. This resulted in a 30-minute debate amongst both performers and audience as to the nature of improvisation, artistic promotion, and site, without any musical content whatsoever. Indeed, the degree to which the event of engaging with the environment took precedence was such that the film that instigated the event was only shown on three of the five nights, the other two producing unexpected emergent qualities from the community (such as the impromptu debate) that seemed to negate the validity or necessity of actually showing an artwork at all.

The improvisers were as follows -

Hardworking families, The Bald Knobbers, Kev Nickells & Ecka Davies, Barnabas Yianni, The Hairy Kuntz, Ingrid Plum.
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