This Summer I performed at the Swiss Consulate in Venice during the Venice Biennale. I was part of a group show involving nine artists from Switzerland, Syracuse, and the UK.
The show was called Boîte-en-Valise, after the suitcase-based work of Marcel Duchamp. All the artists involved created portable work that could be transported in carry-on luggage. The work had to be able to be installed/exhibited/performed in a number of venues, some of them unknown in advance. They had to respond to those venues and work for a multinational audience. It was expected that the artists would work together to create the group show in the various venues. This was an aspect of the show that I particularly enjoyed as I like my work to be collaborative, flexible, unpredictable (for me as well as for the audience), and fleet of foot.
I also responded to the Boîte-en-Valise theme because I have, for the past 6 years, been making work about a famous Surrealist deck of cards. In 1940 Marseilles, while attempting to escape occupied France, eight Surrealist artists, including André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba, Wifredo Lam, and Max Ernst, created the Jeu de Marseilles, a unique deck of cards featuring key Surrealist icons such as Freud, Paracelsus, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, and Hélène Smith. The deck was an attempt to encapsulate some key aspects of Surrealist thinking in a way that was easily carried and hidden from the Nazis. Duchamp made his Boîte-en-Valise work for similar reasons.
In the various performances I have created, I tell the story of the Surrealist’s escape attempts involving the gangsters of Marseilles, the encroaching Nazi forces, and the activities of the underground resistance and Varian Fry’s Emergency Rescue Committee, while drawing parallels with the current rise of the extreme right-wing and the plight of the refugee. The suitcases I have used in these performances reference those of the refugee artists (specifically Walter Benjamin’s lost valise) while playing with notions of the conjuror’s gibecière.
Alongside this historical drama, the stories of the icons in the deck are told using the deck itself, the contents of the suitcase, and a Mindreading App. The App is a development of the Resonant Bits prototype Apps, created in collaboration with the University of Bristol and Pervasive Media Studio, which utilise Automaticity and Ideomotor Responses, beloved by the Surrealists.
These performances have generally been in a theatrical setting with a seated audience but the Venice settings were gallery spaces and gardens with visitors moving around freely. An interesting challenge for me and I responded by creating continuous performances that gathered small groups of people in to play with the artworks.
The performances combined mindreading, hypnosis, magic, and games. All activities that the Surrealists loved to explore.
In Testing Surrealism, four hypnotised audience members play a game that tests Salvador Dali’s technique for contacting the subconscious, intuitive mind. A running score is kept of how well his technique works. The current score is: Surrealism 86 – 204 Not-Surrealism.
In The Maze, the blindfolded artist attempts two simultaneous feats of mental dexterity with the help of gallery visitors. A strange collaboration and competition slowly reveals itself.
These performances have been exhibited at the Swiss Consulate Venice, the gardens of a number of Venice residencies, and Aspex Gallery Portsmouth.