Smelly, Tasty Art

I’ve got so much to report on, the last few weeks have been so busy and full, not to mention the fact that I find myself settling into a new city (London! Eek!) this morning.
But, I’m going to try and confine myself to the making of ‘Hungry Tea’ at Cork Midsummer Festival for this post and move on to my ‘oh my god oh my god oh my god I’m in London’ discussion for another day.

‘Have Pass. Will Art.’

After I rushed home to Ireland from Valdez, Alaska so quickly I wasn’t even certain that it had happened (seriously? I was in Alaska? WTF is that about?), I jumped straight on a bus to Cork and got settled into my digs at University College, Cork. As an ‘artist’ with the festival, I was being put up in my own little apartment, given gifts of food like Cornflakes, milk, bread and tea as well as my most prized possession: an artist pass.
Nothing like a little bit of laminated cardboard on a string to make you feel like a legitimate human being. Mine’s now on my (London) wall, to remind me of this feeling should I happen to forget it in the coming months. 
Anyway, after a day of extreme jet-lag, in which I actually thought it would be a good idea to watch an afternoon reality TV show called, ‘May the Best House Win’ (I fell asleep), I managed to sleep a good 10 hours and headed into the derelict house that we were doing up for the Midsummer Festival. I knocked on the door. No one answered. I looked inside. I couldn’t see anyone. I had no-one’s number. One of the men who lived next-door told me that the people working on the house had just gone into town. I already felt a little guilty and anxious having been away from the group for two weeks and I started to feel worse now that it appeared I actually had absolutely no idea what was going, what we were up to or what we were supposed to be doing.
I walked back into the city to try and get someone’s number, but when no-one got back to me, I ended up sitting on the internet in the Cork library for a few hours and then eventually giving up and going home. I had a short rehearsal/meeting for ‘No Matter Where You Go, There You Are’, which we were bringing back for two nights only and then saw a wonderful show called ‘Berlin Love Tour’, in which you got a ‘tour’ of Berlin (similar to all those walking tours you can do in any tourist city worth its salt), but with another city (this time Cork) standing in for Berlin. It was a gorgeous and interesting idea, using the scars of Berlin’s past to talk about the scars of a past relationship for our guide. I did get rained on though. But, hey, it’s Ireland, I try not to take these things personally anymore.
Thursday started better. I got to the house extra early, brought a book and waited until the first person arrived to let me in, so I could be certain no-one would walk off and abandon me again (still not certain they had abandoned me – it was possible they were out the back, or up the top and the house wasn’t even locked if I had just given it a proper shove on Wednesday, but, never mind).
When I got inside, the house was already starting to take shape, in particular, the Africa room and the upside-down room. Both these rooms are pretty much exactly what they sound like. The Africa room was the front room of the house and was covered in a series of constantly enlarging maps of Africa. The floor would later be covered with a giant map of Africa and then covered over with dirt. Two of the African women in our group were going to be stationed in this room and would be greeting any visitors and telling them the story of how they arrived in Ireland, about their Congolese homes and anything else that the visitor might like to ask, or they might like to share.  In the end, we only had one of them as the other was admitted to hospital, but the room stayed the same.
The upside down room was straight out of your childhood dreams. This room was on the top floor of our three-storey townhouse and when we first walked into it, it had given all of us a sense of unease. This room actually made you feel sea-sick. The floors were slightly warped, pitching towards the ground and making most people fell like there was something definitely not quite right about the space. Instead of getting upset about that, we decided to embrace it and make everything ‘not quite right’. A carpet was stapled to the roof, a sofa chair, two lamps and a tea-table (complete with flower vase and two cups) were also attached to the roof/floor and then the walls and floor were covered with loose tea for an extra-sensory/unbelievably headily toxic experience. In the corner of this room was a little cupboard which would later house white gauze curtains, behind which my beautiful friend Eadoian would be encased in a white sheet looking like innocence and calm personified, smelling of lavender and holding burning sage. Around her, on the cupboard shelves would be arranged little glass and crystal bottles, herbs and oils of all different types, bits of lace and other various beautiful things.
Now might be a good time to attempt to explain what exactly it was that we were doing. But, the fact of the matter is that I can’t really explain it. The piece was a combination of visual art installation and site-specific theatre performance. We got a derelict house in the middle of Blackpool (a reasonably poor area of Cork) and then did it up. We had been sharing our stories with our guest artist, Mark Storor over the past 6 months in a variety of different ways, through art, through story-telling, through photography, through adventures in Cork city. And, somehow, we were going to reduce, intensify and contain those stories within this one house.
Apart from the Africa room and the upside down room, we had a J-cloth padded cell (J-cloths are those cleaning cloths with squiggly blue and white lines, I can’t remember what we call them back home) and the lovely Elaine who ‘lived’ there had made a matching J-cloth hospital gown and J-cloth ‘Stepford wife’ dress. The Stepford wife dress hung on meat-hooks near a meat cleaver and butcher’s book in the kitchen. Also in the kitchen, you might have found me, wearing a long, black sparkly dress and black wig, either singing my heart out whilst standing on a stool, washing my feet in the sink, painting fish scales on my legs with nail polish and eyeliner or talking to an empty bird cage. Next to the kitchen was a 1970’s Irish living room, where one of the other women, Ruth, sat ‘baking’ (really just throwing flour about) and offering slices of fresh bread with jam and butter to visitors and telling them stories of her childhood.
On the second floor was a bathroom that had tea-cup saucers on the ground instead of bathroom tiles. One corner was covered in bird feathers and pictures of bird wings. If you were lucky, you might see me taking a large basin of warm water and walking precariously in bare feet over the saucers. I might even have sung you a song in the shower whilst pouring water/tears over myself.
In the grey room next to the bathroom, a woman in a Miss Havisham style dress, the wonderful Mella, could be found amongst curtains and curtains of hanging lace, her face being reflected back at her over and over through mirrors on every wall. Sometimes she might be standing in the window, eating apples or smoking. Other times you might find her desperately trying to nail down a rug over the top of a pile of ‘secrets’, using her high heel instead of a hammer. Sometimes you might find her attempting to nail Elaine under the rug instead. Or, they might be playing ‘nails’ (essentially pick-up-sticks but with nails nut colourful sticks) or with a voodoo doll. If you went back into the corridor, you might find me singing a serenade to an invisible boy on the next landing, or find Eadoain draped over the stairs (if she’d managed to make it out of the cupboard). Upstairs, outside of the upside down room, you would find a pile of suitcases, socks spilling out everywhere, or hanging from the roof, and there you might get to hear Shamso’s story of being separated from her 5 children for 5 years and how they had finally been allowed to join her in Cork earlier this year. Next to her would be a pure white room steadily being filled with charcoal drawings on the floor, walls and roof by an increasingly dirty Rachel. If you happened to look out the window, you might see Dee working in the garden and as you left you’d find Aine bending and hammering cutlery into the wall, decorating the white around them with swirls of jam, butter, charcoal apples and dripping cold coffee and Carolyn taking pictures of all the craziness she could find.
So, do you get it?
That’s ok. Most of the time we didn’t really get it either.
Rachel said something that I think was really wise the day after we finished, which was that each of us were taking a little part of ourselves that needed to be acknowledged or nurtured and showing it to the world. I think that might be one of the best ways of explaining it. But, the experience (and it was an ‘experience’, a visceral one) and the meaning of the experience was very much up to the people visiting the house to explain or answer for themselves. They often approached the imagery like a game of cluedo, ‘oh here are some feathers, and that girl has a birdcage, there must be a link, so what does it mean?’ You could hear them talking to the volunteers, ‘Did she have a fella? And then he died? Or, did she lose a baby? Or, did she murder her baby?’ They’d come out and say, ‘What did that all mean?’ to Mark and he’d turn it around and ask them what they thought it meant and they’d say, ‘I think it was a depiction of depression’ or ‘This was all the faces of a woman’, or ‘This is what womanhood used to be before feminism was ever even heard of’. We asked everyone for feedback and ended up with a shoebox full of scrap notes with wonderful things on them like, ‘FUCKING DEADLY. Wish I could have stayed longer’ or ‘Better than the cinema!’ or ‘This house is creepy and interesting.’ Some of them talked to us in our own mysterious language, when we asked for feedback they said, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’, or ‘My Mind is Clear’. The reactions of men to the space was fascinating, some said they felt like leaving any of the women was comparable to a break-up and they were worried if we would be able to survive without them there. Other men were more wary, wondering ‘what was waiting for them’ on the top floor and wanting to tell us, ‘I didn’t do it, whatever it was, it wasn’t me, I wasn’t part of it.’ A lot of the adults found the experience creepy, but many of the kids just adored it. I had a little shadow for one performance who followed me through all the rooms and she started putting her little hand into the empty birdcage I was carrying around. She seemed so confused as to why I was intent on talking to an empty birdcage that she decided there must be something there and so she put her hand in the cage to check. We had a lot of the local kids from the area come in and they all were so great in the space, had fantastic reactions to it and were, on the whole, so respectful.
There’s one other thing I should mention. We painted the front of the house pink and covered it in tea-cups. They were just hung on hooks and everyone who walked past said the same thing, ‘Aren’t you scared they’re going to get stolen? Aren’t you scared they’ll get broken?’ The area, like I said, wasn’t the best, but we kept telling everyone we hoped that the cups would stay. And they did. For a week and a half. One cup got stolen and then was brought back the next night. A couple of cups were broken, but that was by ourselves or our volunteers. The community was, on the whole, so intrigued and delighted by the house that they were nothing but respectful and welcoming of it and ourselves. They came in droves to see the performance and they told us they were so proud something like that had come to their area. It was just wonderful to be a part of and shows how unfair we can sometimes be in our assumptions and prejudices about different types of people and their willingness or ability to participate in art.
It wasn’t all amazing. The work up to the point of the house opening was physically exhausting, which sometimes felt great (I took to the stairs with a hammer, pulling out the staples and nails that had used to hold the carpet down and every time I pulled one out I felt like A WOMAN OF MONSTROUS STRENGTH AND POWER CAPABLE OF TAKING ON ANY TASK IN THE WORLD) but other times just felt.. exhausting. It ended with me, on Sunday night, at 10:30pm, scrubbing a bucket as if my life depended on it and my director telling me I had to go home because I was clearly no longer thinking rationally. I was highly insulted and almost of the verge of tears. The bucket needed to be scrubbed so it could be packed away – it seemed perfectly rational to me. It just wasn’t really rational in the context of all the other things that had to be done and the fact that I was willing to cry about it made it obvious it was time for me to go home. We had a bit of a slow start and had to cancel the first two performances due to the fact that the floor paint hadn’t dried (it was meant to take 3 hours, it took over 12 with the added assistance of some heavy -duty heater and hair-dryer action). We had to change in a pretty horrendously awful apartment down the road that was covered in mould and you could almost feel the damp getting into your lungs with every breath you took. But, when something is offered with a good will and for free you’re not really in a position to say no and I really should be more grateful. Of course I’m grateful, I’m just grateful in a skin-crawling, nose and mouth filled way. One day the key wouldn’t open the lock and we had to get the police to bust it open for us (luckily the police station was just opposite the house). We came in one morning to find the space (and the apartment) flooded, many costumes soaked in muddy water. We began to think that the ghost of the woman who had owned the house didn’t want us there and the floods and the paint and the lock were all supernatural hints telling us to get the hell out of her house with your crazy things right now. Some of the teenage boys who visited the house certainly got that feeling, and when they found a note saying, ‘I knew I had to leave’ up in the upside-down room, they came flying down the stairs saying they realised they had to get out right now too.
We did have the family who owned the house come and visit us on the final night though and they were just wonderful about it all. They really enjoyed seeing what we had done and seemed genuinely moved by certain spaces. It was interesting that each individual person had a different connection to the space, had a character they particularly liked or understood. For the daughter of the woman who had owned the house, the charcoal room was her favourite and I won’t even start to hazard a guess at the personal reasons why that might be the case.
The house was open 7:45am – 9:45am, 12pm- 2pm and 10pm – midnight Tue-Fri and then midday- midnight on Saturday. Saturday was intense (we did get a couple of breaks for food and the loo), and by the afternoon we all went a little bat-shit crazy. There *may* have been coffee on teeth and feathers in ears and impressions of the little girl from the exorcism. Not in front of the people, mind, but when they were safely in other rooms… Our director had to rein us in just a little bit. The final stretch was more peaceful, more patient, more quiet, but I still ended the night with my wig balanced on top of my birdcage, sitting in the sink (IN it, my bum was IN it), arms draped over the cupboards, body slumped over my knees, completely exhausted. I figured my performance and energy was well and truly over at that point, but I at least tried to make my exhaustion look artistic and meaningful. Well, at the very least I managed to make some people laugh.

And, look! I got flowers! Sent to the house! Just like a real artist!

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