A photo of a hand held lighly against the front of a tshirt.

A reflection on CHASM:
Live Art in isolation

Amy Lawrence, still from ‘softWHILSTblack’, 2020.

CHASM is a series of live artworks and performances searching for intimacy in a time of social isolation that premiered online in October and November 2020. Curated by Jessica Sweet, Artistic Director of the Centre of Live Art Yorkshire (CLAY), it included works by Amy Lawrence, Ellie Harrison, Jo Hauge, Mystical Femmes and Nando Messias. The works were co-commissioned with East Street Arts, selected by open call and assessed by a panel of four artists and programmers. This text explores the curatorial thinking behind the programme and descriptions of commissioned works.

CHASM as an idea

I didn’t want to write about COVID. I just wanted to write about the work, as though it were suspended from everything outside, and stick to my story that I wasn’t changed by it (because I was). I’d hoped that the writing would be held in the white cube in my head, that part of myself that doesn’t want to see the work as a product of anything or anyone – the voice of the ‘new normal’.

The CHASM is the gap or the little slither we have rolled into. Here, we can pull the cover over to hide, shield our heads from the rain, get cosy and take a minute. But it can also describe the distance that we can’t jump over. There is effort, some filling material or an act of God, needed to close the gap – and a willingness to do so. But what about those of us who like to have some space around us? CHASM doesn’t give definite answers but it tries to ground artists, audiences and art institutions in conversations around what we need for ourselves, and from others.

In writing I’ve tried to touch all the walls of CHASM, the edges of the space, the chair legs of the audience – like a barometer for what happens next. In the process I’ve positioned myself as a spectator, researcher, audience member, participant, potential collaborator, co-performer… and with each piece the poetic of the term ‘CHASM’ is widened from a slither to a canyon. I have used parts of Jess Sweet’s early notes and intentions as openings to each section.

Transportation out of a world that they can’t usually escape

In many of these works there is an opportunity to vacate a context, place or moment where we (the audience) or they (the performer) are kept. For example, Jo Hauge’s ‘kiss&cry’, is an intimate space for bodies to meet under the sombre lights of deep blues, electric pinks and the sharp glow of the projection screen. This hybrid web performance to camera, devised and performed by the artist, includes live scrolling subtitles and intermittent videos cutting into the performer’s rendition of various encounters that a character named @torvil&dean69 navigates. Borrowing from the surnames of celebrated British ice skaters Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean, @torvil&dean69 becomes a device through which an imagined sense of embodied experience, vacating the flesh and ‘entwined bodies’ are shared with the audience. 

an artist sits in a dark room speaking into a microphone with a video screen above her
Jo Hauge, ‘kiss&cry’, 2020. Photo credit: Julie Howden

Hauge’s use of rolling and tangential delivery is the kind that puts me in a haze or a pile, in a similar way to Nando Messias’ pieceAurora’, which rolls us in the subject of hair and keeps opening out the possibilities of the metaphor. ‘Aurora’ is a sumptuous performance to webcam, where the edges of Zoom frame fluid articulations of the body, choreography of the hands and the voice. The narrative meanders around hair-related mythology, poetic imagery, history, personal snapshots and truths in a way that grips like an ASMR video. 

However, what we’re transported from varies. It could be that we’re willing a vacation from ourselves, our bodies or Covid quotidian. It could be that we’re sick of our own thoughts, unfinished projects and a tired routine. At times the works offer an opportunity to be yanked or to float in and out of ourselves. At times the artist offers us an object, either physical or metaphorical, to facilitate this process of transportation. In the case of ‘kiss&cry’ and ‘Aurora’ the device is metaphorical and narrative-driven while Ellie Harrison’s ‘Loose Ends’ invites us to enter into ourselves, facilitating us to reconsider and identify our familial constellations. In the lead up to Harrison’s one-to-one performance, each audience member is posted four red envelopes that are rich in colour, weighted and labelled with the following prompts: 

An image of four red envelopes with red labels and printed titles.
Ellie Harrison, envelopes from ‘Loose Ends’, 2020
  1. The Art of Adventure is Travelling Safely in Dangerous Places
  2. Invitation from Ellie
  3. Family Tree Kit and Instructions
  4. For When We Speak

Within each envelope is a personal photograph of the artist, a list of Leeds-based support services and glimpses into the artist’s thinking. There are also various prompts that invite us to create a family tree and consider times when ‘sisters become fathers, carers become the people needing care and friends become vital to our survival’. The paper feels substantial and the envelopes precise, loved into the world and considered. Having engaged with Harrison’s work in the past, I recognise something typical of her practice: the objects pre-empt the kind of encounter that the audience will later have with the artist.  

Mystical Femmes returns to the metaphoric ‘dimble’ for their contribution, a malleable otherworldly object that can be projected onto (whilst escaping a concise definition). ‘<A lecture on how to be intimate online = With a focus on exploring humans>’ is a surreal work that tiptoes the line between grotesque and cutsie. A mashup of an absurd self-help lecture to camera, interspersed with a series of adverts for dimble and other equally obscure products. Dimble is a small part of their perfectly confected world, expressed in a visual, comedic and spoken language that is familiar, sickly sweet, slimy and fascinating. Aided by their complex web of graphic sets, scenes, camera closeups and props, I was lured out of the beigeness of my front room and into a world of dimble and elegant slugs. 

A still schene of plasticine snails and slugs on a green ground
Mystical Femmes, still from ‘A lecture on how to be intimate online = With a focus on exploring humans’, 2021.

The surreal and deeply metaphoric subject matter of these works transport us out of our surroundings. The primary and pastel palette and augmented backgrounds of Mystical Femmes’ segments are reminiscent of an online game from the late 2000s (think Habbo Hotel or Club Penguin). Their aesthetics and offbeat tone rejig me and meld together to make me feel like I’ve been away somewhere.  

Wouldn’t it create compassion if we could just sit down and make some space to listen and contemplate?

This question is somewhere between innocently self-reflexive and rhetorical, asking us to return to questions such as: What is compassion and how is it made?; Where and how do we sit? How do we want space to feel when it’s made?; Who do we make space for?; and, What is the point of contemplation? CHASM orchestrates situations and spontaneous happenings that tug and shift answers to these questions. Messias’ piece loosely and delicately guides us through stories, fables and myths that orbit around hair. These stories teeter on truth, asking us to question their origins and veracity. But the concluding segment dispels these questions and invites us to contemplate a full, complex life that can’t be witnessed through something like hair alone. In this way it touches on the implications of a culture that prioritises visibility.

an image of a person wearing lipstick and smiling with dyed fingertips on their shoulders and eyes painted on their upper chest
Nando Messias, sceenshot still from ‘Aurora’, 2021.

CHASM gives permission to sit inwards and with others to reveal what’s on our hearts. However, some may not want to share because the perimeters of their lives has made the world weary of them. This dynamic might exist between artist, curator, art institution and audience in differing configurations. So does compassion contain a kind of trust, a voice that says, ‘I know that you might be scared and I will hold you how you ask me to’?

This self-reflexive way of working with others feels like a subtext to the work of Amy Lawrence. Her piece entitled ‘SOFTwhilstBLACK’is a semi-private archive documenting the artist’s conversation with a family in Yorkshire. Lawrence invited a family to a series of one-to-ones, group sessions, collaborative acts and a ‘soft meal’ (an online conversation about softness and a dinner, between the artist and family), with the intention of exploring what it means to be gentle to yourself and the ones you love. In a conversation with the artist, she shared that she has ‘big questions around how we establish boundaries with creative projects when inviting in voices and experiences, how we think about the public or the onlooker and what role the organisation has within the mediation and administration of boundaries’. The documentation of the work is now a series of writings, drawings and a semi-private archive made by the artist. 

an illustrated logo of the initials 'S.W.B' filled in green.
Amy Lawrence, logo from ‘softWHILSTblack’, 2020.

I’ve thought about the semi-privateness of Lawrence’s archive and how it feels like a protection of intimate moments. Perhaps it isn’t something that we need to see others do, the ‘soft’ part of the title is a call to notice the times when we are soft or need softness in our homes and lives. My housemate Orange and I had planned to apply to take part in Lawrence’s work but we missed the deadline. We lived in separate flats under the same roof and exercised tenderness when styling and maintaining each other’s hair. There were several times that we helped each other twist, plait, oil or lock hair that would have been tricky to do without the other. Usually we manage alone, holding positions like contortionists, but during lockdown when we could, we would help each other and talk. I initially thought that the title sets up ‘softness’ and ‘blackness’ in parallel or stacked, meaning that there is a relation but not a connection. For me, this has shifted to mean that softness and blackness, softness and humanity, are always running concurrently. I’ve come to see softness as something we are not always afforded and also something we don’t notice or allow in ourselves. 

I understood the phrase ‘to sit down’ as the conditions in which we engage with performance, which usually assumes that the audience or performer(s) are totally unified. Online, however, when all or part of the performance can be viewed anywhere (in the toilet, for example), this unified experience is lost. The artist has very little control over the technology that the work is mediated through (screens, speakers, etc.), and there’s a disunity, discontinuity that was perhaps always there – from our differing vision and perception (audible or not), jolts of the nervous system in response to different memories and references. Whether in our own space or shared space there are always these distractions and differing conditions. So, what it means to ‘sit down’ hasn’t changed but perhaps we’ve given up on trying to create a singular experience or in assuming a standard / universality. 

And what happened to live-art when performers took on multiple roles within small film productions. I wonder how this will translate within these artists’ practices and wider curatorial concerns in the months and years to come. 

Close the gap: I want to share the future with audiences, not get through the next act 

Sharing a future can take the form of conversations between an artist and a family that exist in an archive, that then become the basis for reimagining our engagement with one another, and/or the ways that hair becomes imbued with knots of mythology and assumption. It’s the way in which the work from this moment will appear to us in the future. So CHASM, as in ‘the space between two sides of, what was, one face’ might be seen as an analogy of our artistic considerations on either side of the pandemic, and what they gave to each other. 

I wonder how these works will develop, how they will operate now and how they will be framed (either by a camera or in a performance space)? In watching the performances, I kept returning to their form and the demands on everyone (artists, audience, tech, producers) that felt like dashing through a new territory. The artists whose work was performed to camera needed to be narrators, dancers, their own audiences, production managers, camera operators (sometimes of multiple cameras), sound recordists and so on. They undertook various tasks that would usually be carried out by several people with differing sensitivities. 

In lockdown the audience also had responsibilities to organise their viewing space, manage noise, set up the Zoom and sound tech, and maintain the internet connection. Video conferencing apps allow us to look, hear and share time with others but at some point it has to end. Often the endings feel abrupt. My bedroom is louder than before the call. There is no prolonging a goodbye, sharing a bus home or clearing up the space with another artist. The works in CHASM have value beyond the conclusion of the performance, in a black box or white cube suspended from the realities of the world.

CHASM was co-commissioned by East Street Arts with support from Arts Council England. Live iterations are currently in development, subject to funding.

Samra Mayanja is an artist and writer concerned with what moves us and what it is to be moved. 

Published 16.06.2022 by Lara Eggleton in Explorations

2,266 words