Art My afternoon, or at least the second half of it, was spent at the press preview for Fact Liverpool’s new show The Humble Market: Trade Secrets, a collaboration with Abandon Normal Devices, Derry City of Culture and We Play Expo, created by contemporary theatre company Zecora Ura - a collaboration between the artists Persis-Jade Maravala, Alatair Eilbeck, Jorge Lopes Ramos and James Bailey and part of the London 2012 Festival.
If that opening paragraph seems long on exposition but strangely low on detail, it’s because like last September’s AND collaboration ZEE, it’s best experienced with as few preconceptions as possible so if you are planning to attend stop reading now. Or at least the end of this paragraph. Trust me, you’ll thank me. All I’ll say is that like ZEE, it’s an exciting, psychologically profound adventure during which we’re forced to question our entire state of being, what makes us who we are. Now, stop!
For everyone else? Well, where to begin? How about with the intent. The artists say that their objective is to “challenge mass consumerism and the economic institutions of our time”, inspired by the Olympics as the biggest marketplace in the world, both in London and Brazil its future base of operations in 2016, a country who’s economic power has risen exponentially in the next few years. On a personal level they’re asking, “What do we really trade?” and what do we value?
Their process is to take the visitor through a series of tests or experiences to make us consider these themes and our place within them. When psychological testing began at the turn of the last century, the motives of scientists was to gaze into the human soul for philosophical reasons and as part of the process leading to the development of treatments (the wikipedia entry on psychometrics covers most of the key concepts). It’s one of those interesting bisection points between arts and sciences.
What I think the artists have identified is that such tests are now employed for political and consumerist reasons so that life and our opinion of it becomes one giant film preview screening so that those asking the questions can edit themselves accordingly in the hopes of fitting in with whatever opinion we may have, assuming they're not also employing the results to sneakily guide that opinion towards what they want, to the point that those opinions we have are not necessarily our own.
I think. Because this whole work is about how I think. Or you think and why we think that, but it’s sneaky. That there now exists in the world a photograph of me wearing a carnival hat that makes me look like a cricket playing Roman centurion, standing in front of Brazilian taxi exuberantly offering jazz hands, demonstrates just how sneaky it is. But also entertaining, oh so very entertaining, and not something for people who value too much their inhibitions.
Because of the nature of the press view, the hats and taxis were still in our future. For the purposes of, I don’t know, clarity, I should explain I quickly discover that for a large constituency of the press preview, FACT is just one section of a wider exploration of the AND festival, most having been bussed in from Manchester, so with some time constraints we experienced the whole thing in a slightly different order to the normal visitor so everyone can have a turn.
Which means that we begin, the five of us, five strangers, in the second act which starts with removing our shoes and crawling through a small dark fabric tunnel to sit in a large, dark tent. This is the opening section of the piece is Philosophy Hill and it smells exactly like the tent we used to put in our back garden every Summer when I was a child. Not having smelt this fragrance of aging canvas in over twenty-five years, I giggle. Then we're directed by the person guiding us to breath deeply, calm ourselves.
Beyond the tent is the Philosophy Hill, an Astroturfed floor with pillows and blankets and on the far wall a sort of shrine arrangement filled with all kind of idols, which is a bit vague in my memory but only because we’re quickly asked to lie on the blankets, heads back looking at a circular screen on the ceiling and given headsets and goggles and to fix our gaze there watching for a series of questions which collectively we're meant to answer.
The questions are of the aforementioned psychometric nature, about our views on the afterlife, the nature of God (assuming we think God exists) and the nature of our own existence. Given the week I’ve had, thanks to my filmic choices (Barney’s Version), television viewing (Buffy’s The Body), the news as usual and trying and failing (so far) to learn Hamlet’s To Be Or Not To Be, such questions aren’t entirely out of the blue. I was already considering these issues. I’m so much fun.
Which isn’t to say I have any answers. Far from it. But as the five of us rest there, something interesting begins to happen. Without much prompting we begin to offer some insights, discussing them, even questioning each others beliefs like old friends. Somehow, in the dark, not facing one another we feel like we can open up about well, stuff that people probably don’t talk about enough, and certainly not outside university seminars and gloomy Channel 4 studios after dark in the 1980s.
At one point I begin quoting Hamlet and it feels perfectly natural, well as natural as that can be. At another I become oddly quite cross with someone who has the audacity to think they’re more important than an ant. Sometimes I shut up and just listen to what other people are saying and quietly wishing they would come home with me because this is just the sort of discussion I wish I could be having all the time. Again, like I said, I’m so much fun.
Then, before long, too quickly, the questions end and we all sit up and look around and there’s a strange atmosphere of having experienced something really simple, but unforgettable, the kind of experience which is impossible to describe to anyone who hasn’t been in the room. We leaving that room and enter a secret corridor at the back to retrieve our shoes and no one really knows what to say, which is of course the opposite of what we’d been like only seconds before.
Our group are then taken into a lift and up to the first floor gallery spaces and into the “Intimatron”. That’s “Intimatron”. I accidentally called it the “Orgasmatron” when chatting to the artists later and they didn’t seem too impressed, even after I explained the Woody Allen / Sleeper reference. But the name is important because after a relatively public ransacking of our psyche, the process now becomes as intimate as a push button.
We all sit on bar stools at telephone kiosks and are told to pick up the received. A sexy, sensual voice tells us that the world is to become "more Brazillian" in 2020 and that through a series of questions it's going to find out if we’re ready for it. Initially they’re tricky but humourous, our opinions of Brazil and what we’d be if we lived there. I say I’d be working with Greenpeace to save the rainforests. Which I would. Or at least the idealised version of me would.
But it’s not long before the questions become more awkward, more salacious even and that’s when bits of me start falling apart. What kind of person am I? How do people view me? Would a friend risk their own life to save mine? Do I even have friends? And for some reason I find myself answering honestly, not in an idealised sense, but in the horrible, horrific, self-pitying sense which tends to always be bubbling under the surface with me. Before too long I want to cry.
I don’t because I’m in a room with five other people, but having gone from the elation of feeling part of this small community, I’m once again alone, the only consolation being that at least I know what it is to feel sorry for myself, unlike (I discover later as in now) this guy at Yahoo Answers who even has to ask the question, because clearly someone has told them to stop it. Luckily, I’m self aware enough to generally stop myself and do as the test comes to an end, aided by the recorded actress on the end of the phone also telling me to do much the same thing.
Beyond that we’re ushered into a cooling off, literally green room in which we’re given our results, glasses of orange juice and boiled sweets and subjected to This Morning on a loop, an episode in which unfortunately Max Clifford is holding forth about something irrelevant. Luckily the sound's turned off. The five of us sit in some wicker garden furniture once more not entirely sure what to say. I expect I was smiling. A lot.
Then we’re back to the beginning or what should have been the beginning. On the ground floor near FACT’s reception where the Media Lounge used to be is an artificial hair dressing salon and those hats, the carnivals hats (see above). Truth be told I chose the one that looked like a centurion’s helmet on purpose and it did look grand, certainly better than this simpler affair at the Hat Museum in Stockport. Cue photographs which thanks to the previous two experiences I can emotionally hardly refuse.
Then through to Gallery One, in the darkened centre of which is the Carnival Taxi. More photographs, the ones with the jazz hands and then, after removing the hats, we sit in the vehicle. I’m tempted to call shotgun, but then realise I’ve never really understood what that meant so instead squeeze myself onto the back seat with some people who are fortunately thinner than I am. The doors close and we’re unable to see out through the grey, misty windows. We're in that scene in The Mist. Or perhaps parked in ZEE.
Then the taxi begins to shake and I begin to wonder if this really is that scene in The Mist and some Lovecraftian monster is going to come tip us over. But the windows are quickly replaced by images of Rio de Janeiro, and we’re surrounded by the mass of people. The radio sparks up and we’re hailed by a Brazilian DJ who has some questions for us, more in the order of market research. Are we political? Should fox hunting be banned? Do we like shopping? What about those CCTV cameras? Me? Yes, you gov.
We raise our hands when required and learning a little bit more about each other, but it’s different because we can see each other and clock our inconsistencies and we’re perhaps more self-conscious about what the others will think of us having those opinions and inconsistencies. We’re being asked whether we care how these strangers think of us. Some of us might, some of us clearly do. I warm to the person who clearly doesn’t even if I disagree with them on one or two of the fundamentals.
Then it’s over. We’re led from the car to the bar upstairs for complementary coffee and to meet the artists and I feel, well I feel changed. As anyone who’s met me at press and private previews will know (or been reading this blog to be frank) I tend to be a nervy presence around strangers at the best of times and at the worst wordless but the outspoken version of me turns up for this complementary coffee and even after most of the group has to go I sit chatting with the artists for ages.
They ask me what I thought of the piece. I ask them what they meant by it (see above) and the conversation shifts from narrative considerations to how it would work with repeat visitors and the overall experience, not that most it had sunk in yet. It has now (again see above). All along I’m thinking about what happened to me up until this point, where my confidence went and why I do feel so cripplingly self conscious all of the time. I’ve thought these thoughts before, but again I ask, internally, what happened?
The structure of the piece is dictated by the space and Persis-Jade Maravala, the writer, wonders if the sections shouldn’t be in a different order. But the order that is here seems perfect to me, as the five strangers, have their inhibitions broken down by hat wearing to giving their opinions in the car, to voicing them on the hill to having all that shut down and being forced to confront themselves in the Intimatron. It is anti-climactic, but that’s generally what life is anyway.
As I said to them it’s The Breakfast Club. It’s a group of strangers gathering together to enjoy a profound incident but in the back of a taxi rather than smoking pot, dancing to Karla Devito and being made to look like a “real woman” by Molly Ringwald. Not that this didn’t stop me from wondering who in our group was a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal and came to the same conclusion as John Hughes’s fictional students. We’re none of those things and all of them.
Is everyone’s experience supposed to be as philosophical as the one I had? I suppose it depends how willing you are to let go. Some visitors might not know quite what to do with it, their behavioural defences impregnable to its charms and a press view is artificially relaxed in that regard. But art is only as good as how much of yourself you’re willing to invest in it, and only the best art rewards that trust. I gave all of myself to Trade Secrets and was not disappointed.
Until Sunday 26th August. Tours can be booked on the day only and places are allocated on a first come first served basis.