On my way to Fuel Cafe in Withington, the venue for this event, I discovered a man asleep in a standing position. I waited some time before stepping in, wondering if the event had already begun with a Fluxus style intervention. Eventually, I realised that this was not the case. This was just life in the malfunctioning space station that is Manchester with its crew of maddened droids plotting an inexorable course towards the heart of the sun.
This episode, however, proved to be a wholly appropriate entree. Just as I was pondering the question of where life ends and art begins, Counting Backwards reminded me that there is no distinction. The three performers were radically different from one another in aims and execution but shared the same aesthetic. Each occupied and interacted with the space so that audience members, ambient sound, shadows, angles, contingency, chance became part of the performance.
The evening began with Jennifer McDonald and Louise Woodcock. Aside from their performance, which I will talk about in a moment, they were visually brilliant, wearing identically cut dresses, Louise’s blue, Jennifer’s green. Side by side, they looked like panels from a Mondrian painting or a technicolour version of the twins from The Shining. Their performance was centred on two large, white semi-ovoid structures, one held by each woman. These were beautiful objects, like the hatched eggs of the roc, the giant bird from the tales of Marco Polo and Sinbad. These structures were brushed with fingers, scraped with what looked like a bone, drawn on with pencil in a way which suggested automatic or spirit writing and otherwise manipulated until, in a Gustav Metzger style peak of frenzy, they were shattered. The sounds were remarkable, suggesting themselves, shifting, mutating and layering and drifting away before they could be fully identified. I heard the creaking of haunted timbers, the wailing of a Poltergeist, primal simian howls. The fragments were then allowed to fall and this too was beautiful: the tinkle of glass, the slip of skree. The structures were then partially re-assembled with masking tape, held to microphones to create feedback and destroyed again. At the end of the performance, as the two women stood amongst the fragments, the loft-like upstairs space of Fuel became a Francesca Woodman photograph. Then they swept up.
Second to perform was Becky Cremin, a performance accompanied by a projection of stills showing her in a variety of London locations over a period of twelve hours with a red scarf or thick ribbon issuing from her mouth like a blood trail or inner daemon made manifest. The absence of a screen, Becky’s images projecting deliberately upon a corner space disrupted by pictures and posters hung or stuck to the walls, made them still more striking, focussing attention on what could not be seen as well as what could. This complemented Becky’s performance which was all about deliberate effacement, disjunction and the creation of lacunae as she moved around the room and out of the room, selecting seeming unsystematically from her own text which she had stuck onto the walls. Out in the passageway her voice echoed like that of Banquo’s ghost. In the room it had the beauty of a scrambled channel. Becky returned after the interval with a second piece where she read from her Knives, Forks and Spoons press collection Cutting Movement. Here, sound and image shadowed one another even more closely with a projection showing hands tearing, folding and crumpling the book while Becky did the same, cramming the pieces into her mouth, spitting them out, reading all the while, allowing her voice to be broken down, muffled, reduced to non-verbal gutturals and plosives. Her performance inspired an outbreak of origami in the room. I bought the last copy of her book from the stall. Tempted sorely otherwise as I was, I read it rather that ate it.
Last to perform was Karen Constance and Dylan Nyoukis, collectively Blood Stereo. They sat behind a table strewn with all manner of equipment, objects and artefacts, like the workbench of a mad scientist, the instrument panel of Tarkovsky’s Solaris or the contents of a Joseph Cornell box. I make no claim to know how any of it worked, which object made which sound, whether all objects were used or how they were sequenced. I can only report from a purely aural perspective and say that they made simply extraordinary sounds and, as with Jennifer MacDonald and Louise Woodcock, too numerous and molten to fully categorise. The whole performance resembled nothing so much as an exorcism in reverse, with spirits building to a cacophony rather than being banished, sweeping in with the mist from the marsh. Other impressions: the wail of a muezzin; the white noise of Eraserhead; fractured chimes; warped music boxes; the howl of tormented wookies; the underwater warbling of the birds silhouetted on the windows behind them.
More was promised after a second interval, but this did not transpire, a conclusion to the evening as apt as its opening. Counting Backwards is not about polish, product or consumption. It is far more interested in process and the opening out of that process beyond the performers and into the environment. It affirms the idea that creativity is not the quasi-mystical province of the “artist”, rather a continuous interaction, an eternal feedback loop between the individual and the world. I have been to such evenings where I have come away feeling nothing except that I had spent a few hours somewhere. After Counting Backwards I felt that I had been somewhere. Richard Barrett, Matt Dalby and Gary Fisher must be congratulated on this series. Long may it unfold.
More about Counting Backwards here.