Part of Dear Serge, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill UK. Devised by Claudia Kappenberg. Performed by Andrew Barker, Kate Brown, Andrew Downs, Andrew James, Katy Pendlebury, Nic Sandiland, Andre Verissimo.
Slow Races (5 July, 2014) continued the exploration of the use of uselessness through a series of performed and participatory interventions. Conceived originally for the Dear Serge programme at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill, Slow Races played on Bexhill’s history of motor racing, a passion of the 8th Earl De La Warr. Traditionally a ‘Day at the Races’ showcases the speediest cars or the fastest horses, celebrating speed as the principal achievement of modern times. Slow Races inverted these values, inviting passers-by and spectators to observe, or take part in, games and projects which facilitated different kinds of slow movement and offered a means to step back from Modernity’s obsession with speed, mobility and utility. The interventions were designed to constitute an inclusive programme which brought together professional performers, different parts of the local community and visitors to the gallery.
Parts of the project have subsequently been restaged in other contexts, i.e. at St Leonards Warrior Square Train Station, St Leonards-on-Sea UK (November 2015), Acts Re-acts 3, Wimbledon School of Art, London UK (May 2016) and at Hastings Fringe, Hastings Pier, Hastings UK (September 2016).
The central project Slow Races #1 consisted of a group of seven performers dressed as garden gnomes, who undertook an infinitely slow race lasting five hours. Wearing their distinctive red hats, they loitered in loose configurations that gradually with no clear objective moved through the public spaces of the De La Warr Pavilion. The seven gnomes were simply present: observing, listening and celebrating their perfectly useless selves. This durational and minimalist mode of performance celebrated the here and now, in resistance to the ubiquitous expectations of productivity and spectacle. The work reclaimed the right to dawdle, to ‘waste time’ in the middle of the everyday.
The project drew on a number of historical figures and traditions, such as the court jester, the joker, the trickster, the angel, the mute, the foreigner, the tourist and the explorer. Borrowing from all of these, from both mystic and folkloric traditions, the dawdling meandering garden gnomes took on the role of the fool, constituting a presence without necessity. The costumes offered a certain familiarity, but the live presence and the inactivity created a strangeness that was enough to unsettle the visitors and to provoke many questions. If asked where they come from, the gnomes pointed to the space behind them. If asked what they were doing they replied: “Slow racing.”
The work critiques the kind of subjecthood that is available to the modern individual, and aims to disrupt the false homogeneity that is enforced through cultural norms and its discourses. Constituting a quest for some kind of individual freedom, totality and sovereignty, the work sits at the crossroads between a critique of rationalist traditions and a critique of modernity. But Modernity’s gains masks the effects of the relentless drive for production and productivity. According to philosopher Georges Bataille,
We should calmly ask ourselves […] if the world we have conceived in accordance with reason is itself a viable and complete world. It is a world of the operation subordinated to the anticipated result, a world of sequential duration; it is not a world of the moment. (Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share II & III, New York: Zone Books 1991, 227.)
Bataille describes a Faustian universe in which subjects lead a homogenous, servile existence in the service of capitalist regimes. Bataille’s plea for the necessity of waste, loss and non-productive expenditure was designed to break the stronghold that industrial productivity has over contemporary lives. Celebrating their useless selves, the gnomes were a reminder of this other kind of expenditure.
In comparison with the aesthetic of renunciation that is prevalent in much of contemporary art the garden gnomes propose a different approach and a different kind of stillness: the gnomes do not conform, are sensuously engaged with the environment, they are not alone and hold no classic poses. Derived from folklore, kitsch and popular culture they constitute an anti-figure with regards to the classicist, idealised art object. The stillness of the garden gnomes is not self-fashioning and no exercise in restraint or asceticism. Perhaps surprisingly they are exempt from these pressures, and their stillness is pure immanence.
Slow Races #2 was a participatory game aimed at passers-by and visitors of the gallery. A ‘race course’ was set up on one of the terraces with poles as markers, taking participants on a large circle and back to the starting point. Participants were given beakers filled to the brim with water and asked not to spill any water while walking the designated pathway. Assistants were on hand with watering cans to top up the beakers if any drops were spilled. The task led to participants focusing intently on their cargo and walking as if in slow motion, absorbed by their activity. The balancing activity derived from an exercise used in professional performance workshops, and was adapted for the DLWP by framing it as a race and providing the structure of a racecourse. There was however no competition and no prizes to be won, and participants seemed content to take part for the sake of the experience. The game attracted people from all ages, from the very young to, and including, the elderly.
Slow Races #3 was a second, cross-generational project and brought together mixed groups of local, elderly mobility scooter users with students from the University of Brighton, who had the use of rented mobility scooters. Everyone was introduced to the rules which structure bird behaviour during starling murmurations, a familiar sight on the South Coast, and participants rehearsed driving and turning alongside one another, swooping and looping over the extensive terrace of the DLWP.
The project drew on the bird formations for their democratic and communal organisation, as every animal of a flock can lead at any one time and all members of a swarm communicate with about seven others whilst keeping equal distances between each other. The rules were easy to remember and allowed for maximum flexibility within the group: whoever was in front could decide on the next direction, and the joint movement created high levels of shared pleasure. The group also drove in and through the entrance hall of the DLW Pavilion, taking some of the participants into the building for the very first time. After three rehearsals the group performed and improvised a scooter murmuration as part of Dear Serge.
The works under discussion here, Scooter Murmuration, the slow race with beakers and the slow race of garden gnomes, performed an expenditure that is disconnected from the ubiquitous concerns with productivity and outcome. People knowingly participated in pursuit of the inconsequential, and for a positive exercise of freedom. The interventions embraced chance, excess and loss in difference to the world of sequential duration. Furthermore, the different projects used sparing means to facilitate new experiences and the expenditure for materials for Slow Races was minimal: the materials deployed were more or less borrowed from the everyday, such the plastic beakers and the mobility scooters which were the participants’ own or hired from a local hire service. This approach was an extension of earlier performances like Flush, which used the local river water, and Extreme Ironing which used either autumn leaves or discarded newspapers. This approach and the recycling of materials came out of a concern with a holistic, Bataillean ecology in which both expenditure and loss are regarded as essential and constitutive parts of a wider system, but which differentiate those from the enormous amounts of waste and redundancy that are produced, and justified, by the dominant modern economies. The ‘low-key’ approach to materials supported the intention of the practice to sidestep the entertainment industry. Slow Races deployed ‘poor’ means and offered an alternative, sensorial engagement with the immediate environment, intensifying people’s attention to the moment, rather than providing spectacles that invite passive forms of consumption.