Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Consider a large patch of decrepit urban land. To a British audience, it is that place where teenage hoodlums hand out, and mug you for your purse, poor grandmother that you are; or, a deserted space upon which a new Tesco will soon be built.

In America, such a patch of decrepit urban land is potential in rough concrete. In other words, it is apt for a piece of performance art.

This cultural distinction became apparent to me, when over the weekend I went to see a piece of performance art that artistically braver people than myself tell me is "site-specific." The site in question is the McCarren Pool, a massive building whose history reads like American history in microcosm: an F.D.R New Deal project (one of eleven pools built that year, all of which every new model citizen would presumably use in the same day), the pool fell into postwar disrepair, subject to the humilation of graffiti, weeds and oxidised ironwork.

I walked around it one day, before the art came to down, and it was a truly eery experience. For it is a frighteningly empty big place: measuring, to be exact, 50,000 square feet. You have to take your hat off to a nation that conceives of a public swimming pool three times that of standard Olympic size.

The name of this artwork was Agora. The agora, as every self-respecting classicist will hastily inform you, was the civil focal point of the republican Athens, which they will also inform you was wonderfully pure. I suppose that these notions of civil participation and local memory are explicitly referenced in the choreographed piece, but it was also an opportunity for gloriously nonsensical dance routines. As a young child, my sister and I would regularly watch Top of the Pops; when the featured song became too painful or inane, we would manipulate the television so that the image of the backing dance troupe remained, but the sound was teken from another channel - dialogue from Heartbeat, or the last night of the Proms. If only we had, at the ages of 10 and 7, have realised we were cultural montage artists: we could have marketed ourselves as precocious, the avant-garde Hansen. No matter, it made our infant faces smile, and the effect was curiously similar to Agora.

Before the show began, a man reclined on a sofa in the corner of the pool, watching television. As the action unfolded around him, he slowly began to push the television screen to the opposite corner, oblivious to the high-kicking breaking out either side of him. The music modulated between the unspecific bass hum that gets mistaken for challenging music, and scraps of melody from old blues or samba records. The dancers jostled, filled paddling pools with water, swam, rode bicycles, staged pillowfights, pushed one another on skateboards tied to their backs, and, in those bursts of melody I just mentioned, danced very beautifully. The crowd must have numbered a thousand, divided between "stationary" and "floating" audience members. The latter had freedom of movement, which was designed, I suppose, to efface the division between performers and audience. I was a "floater", and had high hopes for my engagement. Yet, as a British man, I felt unsure as to how to begin to involve myself in art, and continually guilty for not doing so. Nonetheless, for a British man in particular, the whole unaccustomed effect was quite overwhelming.

The end of the performance is somehow triggered by a sign for the audience to clamber down into the pool; and clamber down each member does, some sprinting towards the center, where the numerous dancers seem mysteriously to have vanished into thin air. People mill around under the spotlights, smiling, greeting friends, scrutinizing one another in a bid to discover whether they might have just been dancing. Then, again out of nowhere, the performers appear in rank file at the rear of the pool and, en masse, perform a strangely conventional curtain-call. As you slowly file out from the venue, it is for a while very difficult to separate the reality of the outside world from the spectacle just enacted in front of your eyes. Regular people walking on the sidewalk seem as though they could possibly have some artistic merit to their movements; and if a toddler where to collide into you, or a car mow you down, you would swear it was down to some larger artistic scheme.


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At 3:57 PM, Anonymous ali said...

well done bro! Liked the reference to totp, they were classic times...

At 2:30 AM, Anonymous sarah said...

That sounds wonderful! I would love to see the swimming pool. Seems as if you're having an interesting time m'dear x

At 11:21 AM, Anonymous Tractor boy said...

Nice portrait son - troubled by the historical accuracy of the totp incident...was it technically possible to perform that type of mix on the hardware of the day?...or was it simply a curious by-product of some pretty faulty equipment? I think we should be told.


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