A PROPOSAL / 1999
In the run up to the New Works Festival 1999 in Leicester for which A Proposal for the Redevelopment of Phoenix Arts was commissioned, preparations required me to set about constructing a scale architectural model of Phoenix Arts Centre, in which the performance was scheduled to occur. The following conceit was very much in the forefront of my thoughts: "A geometrician sees exactly the same thing in two similar figures, drawn to different scales."1 The following details two months of my life spent locked into an investigation of this "phenomenology of similarity." 2 But within my self-imposed penitentiary, the desire was for something that went beyond mere observation and subsequent reproduction. But how is one to observe? Michel deCerteau looks down from a height, and the complexity of the city is made readable. The trade off is one of proximity in exchange for "seeing the whole, of looking down on this most immoderate of human texts." 3 He sees Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre, whilst this writer sees the city of Leicester from the 6th floor of the multistorey car park overlooking the Phoenix Arts Centre.
(a) August 1999: The first step was to steal the soul of the building as photographs were taken and sketches made. The documentation laden return to London was triumphal, but the beginning of construction tentative. Distractions were manifold as I felt less and less like a performance artist, stumbling into the territory of the solitary artisan. This performer also became flaneur as receipts gathered for building materials became a map; routes, times, shapes and negotiations throughout the city. These materials were purchased intuitively, and the model was constructed in a similar manner. Luck and judgement played proportional roles, but to this day, I cannot even be certain what the actual scale was. Losing a sense of proportion and scale.
Perhaps a good indication of what I was trying to do is encapsualted in this passage of text from The Music of Chance, a novel by Paul Auster. To set the scene, the itinerant gamblers Nashe and Pozzi are being entertained by Flower and Stone, two eccentric millionaires. We join the story as the two of them are being shown around Stone's 'City of the World' a miniature townscape depicting an imaginary world with dystopian undercurrents: '…Nashe pointed to a blank area on the platform and asked what his plans for that section were…
"The house we're standing in now," he said. The house, and then the grounds, the fields and the woods. Over to the right" - and here he pointed in the direction of the far corner - "I'm thinking about doing a separate model of this room. I'd have to be in it of course, which means that I would have to build another City of the World. A smaller one, a second city to fit inside the room within the room." "You mean a model of the model?" Nashe said. "Yes, a model of the model. But I have to finish everything else first. It would be the last element, a thing to add at the very end." "Nobody could make anything so small," Pozzi said, looking at Stone as though he were insane. "You'd go blind trying to do a thing like that." "I have my lenses," Stone said. "All the small work is done under magnifying glasses." "But if you did a model of the model, " Nashe said, "then theoretically you'd have to do an even smaller model of that model. A model of the model of the model. It could go on forever." (Auster, P. 1991 P80 - 81)
(b) September 1999: A month of embellishment. The means and the end blurred as the Sisyphean labour of carving endless bricks and paving slabs exceeded all else; this task was the content I had been looking for, as the construction became a performance for which the audience was in absentia. Standing just a few feet away though, the scored lines vanished, becoming secrets on the white cardboard skin of the building; the evidence of an extraordinary exercise in futility that it pained me to admit not even the lucky cabal of the front row would be party to. This time lapse was something sensed as well as seen; the metamorphosis of the room where the 'new' Phoenix Arts was built, as sleeping comfort was systematically cuckolded by a mattress filled with wooden shards and splinters (rather than toast crumbs, which at least can be eaten); a deepening depression in the carpet from the sheer weight of the model measured progress; the sour, nauseous odour of fish glue emanating form the sandpaper 'paving slabs'. All conspired to generate a burgeoning and yet intangible architectural presence; perhaps what Walter Benjamin would have described as an aura. But this was an aura specific to this space and this time; again, the audience excluded.
(c) October 1999: Then came the transplantation, which saw my breaking out of this prison of mechanically reproduced and invisible detail with a prodigal return to Leicester (ostensibly) to perform. The nagging suspicion however, was that the performance, for what it was worth, had already happened. Turning the corner into Newarke Street, a sharp intake of breath was required as the building was now so much bigger than my impoverished memory would allow. I had wanted to engender the small wonder of a nesting doll that refuses further shrinkage, but set loose in the womb of the building itself (a place supposed to provide the breath of context) the model paled into Lilliputian insignificance. What had seemed a veritable paragon of Gaston Bachelard's "intimate immensity" 4 to the lone denizen of a diminutive bedroom cum studio space subsequently drowned within the visually cacophonous environs of the 'real' auditorium. The nearly forgotten requirement to perform for forty minutes was executed in perfunctory fashion, the model providing the contextual backdrop for the rather obvious descent of a Pythonesque foot. The question of "how much detail" was answered with about as much integrity as I could muster during an interlude in the proceedings where I requested that the audience follow my crassly pointing finger to the evidence of that aforementioned exercise in futility, explaining that:
"…gradually time went by and I realized I've wasted my time doing this because they're not going to see it…" But see it they did, in no uncertain terms. The meaning of the word painstaking had to be made crystal clear as I waded into the audience wielding chunks of graffiti sprayed building and waxing inarticulately about the tactile nature of "actually the correct amount" of sandpaper scored paving tiles and the raison d'etre (sic) that were the carved bricks. The secret could not be kept.
1: Bachelard, G. P149
3: deCerteau, M. P92
4: Bachelard, G. P183-211