WRITE YOUR MANIFESTO IN MARKER PEN ON THE WALL

Written by Beth Bramich, METAL Southend and at home in London

December to February 2019

Documentation from Guttural Living residency: METAL Southend, December 2018. Credit: Sophie Chapman + Kerri Jefferis.

Sophie + Kerri write manifestos. They write in marker pen on walls and on sugar paper sheets, all caps: statements, questions, quotes. They also write rules, for each other and other people, provocations and terms of engagement. There are schedules too, and to-do lists and in-jokes and scores. It’s a part of externalising their process — a necessary one when working together as a pair or in larger groups — and it significantly shapes what is to come. These texts and diagrams are preparatory materials, scores for activity, but sometimes after the fact, they are one of just a small physical trace of actions that involve a handful to a hundred or more people.

Still from Fuck it, Let's Make a Band: Hope Play space, Antiuniversity June 2016. Credit: Katherine Fishman.

Let’s start with an early work. Fuck It, Let’s Make a Band took place in the context of Antiuniversity Now Festival (2016). It was a provocation — a useful term that S+K use to distinguish actions that take the form of workshops, a significant but distinct side-hustle from their art practice. Turn up at this time on this date in this part of Finsbury Park and we’ll form a band. Bring an instrument if you have one, bring something for lunch if you can. The gathering of around 30 people over the course of an afternoon wrote a song, choreographed a dance routine, made costumes, rehearsed, performed and made a music video. From this event their band, molejoy was formed, a much smaller formation of S+K and Giles Bunch, but taking energy directly from what came out of this DIY/DIWO/DIA* experience.

Let’s move forward a little. Kerri + Sophie exclusively work together, but their practice is anything but exclusive. Private Insurrections to Loosen Public Ground started as Mum’s Qs, a call for submissions circulated through an online residency with The White Pube and fly-posting across South London. The invitation was to write a question, or questions, that you would like to ask your mum. The responses, offered and gathered anonymously, were startling. Or at least, they startled me. In number, and in their sincerity, humour, pain, confusion and understanding. ‘Have you ever worked out what makes you happy? I’m worried you’ve forgotten.’ ‘Why do you tell yourself your life is about someone else?’ ‘Would you be heartbroken if you never had grandchildren?’ A question that you wanted to ask, had never asked, or never thought to ask, suddenly articulated. Part of the invitation, once your question was written, was the now open option to ask this question of the person (if they are present or contactable) or to hold on to it, and to reflect on why.

Pages from Private Insurrections to Loosen Public Ground: Self published artist book August 2018. Credit: Sophie Chapman + Kerri Jefferis.

S+K saw this as a way of archiving social time and a consciousness-raising exercise. Especially in encouraging questions of the difference and similarity between generations, including self-examination. For S+K, the work explored how we make ourselves through other people, and how we understand ourselves through oral histories and counter-narratives. It also raised questions of the personal and political and other scales of value — micro, fleeting, day-to-day concerns — brought together to reckon with – macro, cultural — shifts within and between generations. These questions became a document of a previously undocumented network of conversations that had not taken place. The questions, in order to do something ‘more tender with them’, were then collected into a book, ‘Private Insurrections to Loosen Public Ground’, self-published in 2018.

Documentation from For Stanley Green in Honour of Your Dedication: Oxford st March 2017. Credit: Ellie Wyatt.

A seed of this work can be seen in a performance action on Oxford Street. K+S stood on Oxford Street with a placard that read ‘PURPOSEFUL MOVEMENT STOPS INVOLUNTARY GESTURE,’ splitting the flow of people and handed out handwritten flyers. Inspired by activist/evangelist Stanley Green (1915-1993), they stood and proselytised in a place that he had. This work, For Stanley Green in Recognition of Your Dedication, explored the relationship between artists and activists. It also tested something for S+K about unproductive actions, which they have returned to a number of times in thinking about the potential of poetry or poesis. The small handwritten notes handed to passersby confused, irritated and started conversations on Oxford Street. They were fragments of texts: small, inconsequential, funny, meaningful excerpts from S+K’s studio notes. The title of the work was inspired by a film installation work by Pauline Baudry and Renata Lorenz, To Marilyn Monroe and Valerie Solanas in Recognition of their despair (2013), which S+K cite as an inspiring act of reperformance, generosity and acknowledgment.     

This borrowing of terms and text from other artists, writers, musician, thinkers and activists is littered throughout their practice. Private Insurrections engaged with women’s histories, in particular through auto-fiction and auto-ethnography, for which they reference Chris Kraus and Charlotte Cooper respectively. It also put me in mind of Nell Dunn’s recently republished ‘Talking to Women’ (1964)*, a book in which the author records conversations with several contemporaries, some of whom are similarly engaged in literary work and others who are pursuing different lifestyles. The conversations range fluidly from children to creative work, sex to class, and are frank and funny and of their time, but also feel of our current time in how unreservedly opinions and insecurities and passions are expressed. Sophie responded to this by linking Private Insurrections to the idea of re-performing history by occupying your past — your relationship with your mother, your family, other people, then and now. Kerri related it to their engagement with histories of punk, trying to understand the power and rawness by writing and performing punk songs now.

Installation of What Happened Between? Lewisham Arthouse, May 2017. Credit: Sophie Chapman + Kerri Jefferis.

A book that became a key reference point for S+K is architect Celine Condorelli’s ‘Support Structures’ (2009)*, which informed and underpinned a method of hosting and presenting collaborative work and ‘valuing that which might be invisible. i.e. atmosphere, environments, infrastructures, undercurrents or what we have been calling recently ~~~~ underscores.’ S+K are based at Lewisham Arthouse, a co-op run studio complex in South East London, and began their time here through a year-long graduate residency award in 2016–17. The culmination of their residency was an exhibition, ‘What Happened Between?’ Their aim for the exhibition was for it to be a context and platform for the people that they had collaborated with over 12 months in order to further explore conversations about ‘prefiguration and places that court the social imaginary’* (Graziano, 2017), such as intentional communities and activism — in particular their relationship with art. The full list of collaborators: Jessica Worden, Susanna Worth, Rosalie Schweiker, Suzanne van Rossenberg, The White Pube (Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad), Chloe Cooper, Phoebe Davies and Nandi Bhebhe, Zuleika Lebow, KINSINSKINS (née Best Praxis), Scrotum Clamp, Rainham Sheds, Julia Star and NX Panther.

The end of their residency bringing to mind temporary (autonomous) spaces, K+S began to question what is sustainable and how can we be critical of structures we are outside and inside of. Some of the questions they addressed were: Where do/should/can you put your energy? What is productive? What do you have to sacrifice? The exhibition took the form of a series of discussions, performances, a video, a library and a gig, all hosted within a re-structured gallery space. Key to this idea of a ‘platform’, was the floor work Plunge, i.e. a set of cushions that acted as props and infrastructure (drawing from Condorelli) for collective engagement. ‘We wanted people to be comfortable and to own the space in a certain way.’ These cushions, often spread out in a circle for discussions or set around a small television monitor for comfortable viewing, were fabricated by S+K to fit in the spaces between bodies, and themselves had a quasi-organic form.

This 2017 exhibition leads on to a wider concern in K+S’s practice: if you are trying to undo structures, you need to create alternatives and alternative spaces. But, on the other hand, this focus on creating a new form can distract from the content, which can become, in their own words, ‘wishy-washy’, and in mine, perhaps only an extension of the existing structure. On a third, conceptually-linked, hand, what is the point of making anything at all? Creating frameworks for hosting, influenced by Condorelli, the curatorial practice of Eva Rowson, the workshop facilitation of artist Alex Martinis Roe, amongst others, have shaped S+K’s practice of inviting people into what they do. They quoted Chris Kraus in the exhibition text: ‘Because they were listening to each other the room felt small.’

Participant is a term that K+S use less often in their collaborative work, as opposed to their ‘provocations’ such as public workshops. Their practice is inherently collaborative, starting from a framework of a two-person practice and expanding, rapidly, from there. But they have problems with the participatory. An example of this is a workshop in 2018 where the invitation written by S+K was reformulated by an arts organisation. It was this re-writing that made K+S realise the importance of the tone of their invitations. It is a formative and fundamental part of the structure. This also caused them to reflect on the tension between ‘antagonist spaces’ (taking a lead from Chantal Mouffe) and ‘nice spaces’, where little agency is really afforded to people/participants. Antagonistic spaces can invite people to find meaning, to find uncertainty unproductive, but more than this, by not catering but listening, they might create situations which are ‘tender and inclusive... but still hold the potential of being dissonant or anarchic where in most cases (esp. in 'arts inst/orgs') the will or drive is towards aesthetic, resolution or product.’      

Another consideration is the history and context of social practice. This history allows S+K to build on and reject or resist what has come before. They cite social practice that pays lip-service to agency and rigid activist structures as precedents they actively avoid replicating. They describe how this informs their critical social practice, where the social can be broadened to include life-wide social encounters that shape what they do. For example, how engagement with writing and thinkers can mean that the voices in the text are as significant as the people in the room. This is an attempt to remain porous while having a strong conceptual framework. They reference Martinis Roe’s workshops around transgenerational feminism that explicitly consider the role of singularity and collectivity. Through Martinis Roe, they encountered the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective and their 'practices of doing', ‘linking to our draw to action, acts, verbs, proposals and propositions as active. Like: rather than art that solely comments on politics, one that looks at the material conditions of its making, showing and its purpose. Basically, 'if you show your feminist work in the Zabludowicz Collection - it isn’t feminist and by adopting the aesthetics of protest your work doesn’t instantly become political.’ This, in turn, draws on the idea of difference as a strength, while also questioning a given idea that collectivity is better, as well as Kyla Wazana Tompkins statement that 'we are not here to learn what we already know'*. K+S relate this to the potential limitation of exiling themselves to an intentional community outside of a wider social-economic situation, versus cultivating others.

At this point, I’ll mention Samuel Beckett’s warning about ‘the dangers of the neatness of identification’, which I have lifted directly from the text for Oisin Byrne’s Goldsmiths CCA 2018 exhibition, ‘Glue’. This is pertinent, for me, because it describes an understanding of humanness that is absurd and retains the internal multiplicity and contradiction. This leads on to poetry. S+K’s 2018 work Habits was a scripted performance. Written on a train to Scotland, it is set in toilet queues at clubs and bars, the internet, the train and the doctors waiting rooms. These heterotypic spaces are the sites of conversations from which lines have been lifted and reformed into a script that was performed by two actors, Patrick Bayele and Eleanor Roberts, directed by K+S.

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*Support Structures is a a co-production by Support Structure: Céline Condorelli and Gavin Wade

with James Langdon, and was published with a red cover in 2009 and a green cover reprint in 2014

Documentation of Habits: Performed by Patrick Bayele and Eleanor Roberts, Lewisham Arthouse May 2018. Credit: Sophie le Roux.

Scripting and directing allowed S+K to step away from their own words by having others embody them. It’s starting point was Sara Ahmed’s writing in ‘Queer Phenomenologies’* on putting narrative around disorientation. It also allowed them to capture social time. This connects back to the oral histories explored through Private Insurrections, while moving forward into something that S+K can nuance for themselves about their own stories — what is happening now, how is it being framed, and how could it be re-framed. In conversation, we talked admiringly about Maggie Nelson’s ‘Argonauts’ and how her floating citations ran alongside her text, acknowledging what has informed her without the interruption of direct, formal quotation.

K+S’s work has a similar structural porosity, and in scripting they also began to consider their role as the directors of performance more closely, reflecting on other works in which their provocation had set the tone, duration, conditions of actions. This put me in mind of scores, and in particular, the scores featured in a 1975 publication, ‘Womens Work’, shared by Irene Revell through the exhibition ‘ORGASMIC STREAMING ORGANIC GARDENING ELECTROCULTURE’ (2018) and elsewhere, which I had had the chance to enact a handful of during a workshop Revell led at Chelsea Space. Graphically represented by text, diagram, musical and choreographic notation, these scores by women (including Alison Knowles, Annea Lockwood, Pauline Oliveros) had been published with the possibility that they could be performed. They were prompts and provocations, much like the writing and diagrams that S+K produce as they work with each other and other people.

 

A note on improvisation from Kerri Jefferis: ‘I keep thinking of the need to reference improvisation as a mode. Of not knowing and actively leaning into that in a way which gives permission for agency. Like: scores, propositions, props are all an invitation to act, to complete or play with the proposal, to bring something of yourself in. This is very important to our process. I am just reading Beatrice Gibson’s bio (someone who you mentioned to us), a line reads: “Her films are often improvised in nature, exploring the pull between chaos and control in the process of their own making." I think this is characteristic of our approach. We know that to experience something different we have to break with the linearity of logic that feels 'normal'. Sonia Boyce's ways of working with publics and collaborators is a big influence here.’

Documentation of Guttural Living: METAL Southend December 2018. Credit: Sophie Chapman + Kerri Jefferis.

Their current work has a long tail. Guttural Living (2019) has been made in stages and has passed through many hands. Stage on, at Scottish Sculpture Workshop, focused on object production, small cast and ceramic, seductive sculptures. Stage two, at METAL Southend, focused on collaborative writing, making, discussion and test filming. It relates to Desire Lines and Disorientation, a score for a 2018 workshop and performance, including quotes from Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Wanderlust’ and Ahmed’s ‘Queer Phenomenologies’, which cut new paths through fields.

The objects were created intuitively as tools for learning and unlearning, as ‘objects for disorientation’, both useless and useful. Again they follow the lines of bodies, filling spaces in between. Inspired by hinges and articulated joints, they stretch out from the human to the non-human, riffing on Donna Haraway’s ‘sympoesis’, towards intimate intersection and exchange.

 

The wider collaboration was hosted by S+K at Metal Southend, inviting different practices into a shared space in order to make work. A three-day schedule-score for the process centred around the exploration of the objects, which were made with the invited women in mind. A focus was the processes of care ‘and different physical experiences of the body. But also changing direction, of orienting and reorienting in the world.’ While some of the women had invisible and visible illnesses and disabilities, each had a relationship to care and healing, and there was an interest for K+S in their collaborative and interdependent relationships with others, for example, personal assistants.

The collaboration developed through group reading and discussion, writing and drawing exercises, and movement. The working space accumulated layers of texts and images over walls and posters and pin boards, and a gingham tablecloth that covered the entirety of the banquet scale central table. A collective reading of ‘Queer Phenomenologies’ — on how you orientate yourself in the world — led to candid sharing of perspectives and narratives about how bodies are valued and produced. Touching on how the NHS values bodies by supporting access to material medical requirements, the conversations also explored senses of heritage, belonging, culture, ethnicity, coming into contact with each other, class, spirituality, spaces of care and how these are created. These womens’ practices of care include physical therapy and witchcraft for example, massage, dance and tarot.

Documentation of Guttural Living: METAL Southend December 2018. Credit: Sophie Chapman + Kerri Jefferis.

S+K likened their sculptural objects and how they were handled during this process to tarot cards, extending bodies and brains through conscious and unconscious interaction, as tools for understanding complex internal and external situations. The footage shot during this collaborative period captured the women interacting with the objects while speaking and their improvised gestures attempting to move the objects into others’ negative space, what they group of collaborators came to call ‘intentional tangles’. Background references to the direction of these performances were Audre Lorde’s ‘Uses of the Erotic’ and Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s claim for poetry as a paradigm shifter in his a call for an ‘erotic uprising’*, but equally they utilised recent learning from a movement workshop by choreographer Charlie Morrissey on the edges of perception and body discovery, and theatrical/dramaturgy processes of creating theatre from single-person narratives reformulated and performed back to the storyteller.

Guttural Living will find its final form later in 2019. Currently, it exists as excerpts of extensive footage, a collection of books, a set of sculptures, multi-perspective memories of conversations, and a set of manifestos, provocations, quotes, questions, promises and statements written in marker pen on sugar paper.