by Laurel Jay Carpenter
I rode an early morning train from Newcastle to York to arrive in plenty of time to see the whole length of Finland-based UK artist John Court’s durational performance, the full five hours.[i] As the train moved closer to my destination, the coach became more and more crowded. As every gap collapsed in what was already standing-room-only capacity, I felt stuck, almost vacuum packed in an uncomfortable stance. I could not imagine why so many people were crushing on to the train, with such loud laughter, drinking sparkling wine in sparkling jumpers with a frenetic energy I could not pinpoint nor evade. The travelers poured off the train at the station, an excited mob swarming the exits and out on to the pavement. The morning’s thick fog and my expectations called for a hush, in reverence of the looming grey silhouette of this city. Yet, the chattering travellers were unfazed, and I was vexed. I asked the quiet man next to me at the crosswalk why so many were here today, “Christmas market.” I nodded and started searching for discreet side streets to wind me toward the historic St Leonard’s Hospital.
The damp haze softened the old stones in the medieval ruins, partially open with a low vaulted ceiling in the undercroft, with several pillars anchoring the ribs. Against a central column lean two long pieces of lumber, 2x2s, painted black with white writing, a continuous string of random numbers on one, and letters on the other, covering every long surface, a measure of something immeasurable, or perhaps a code beyond my comprehension; I take this as an invitation to try not to calculate, try not to think. A man, bald and dressed in black, enters and picks up a stick to circle the axis of the pillar. He circles and circles, stick in hand, guided by rubbing against the pillar, dragging its end on the hard clay ground. He grasps the stick with might, while his other hand, in a delicate gesture, holds a permanent marker. He regularly drops one stick and bends to pick up the other, his rotations never halting. At inconsistent intervals, he begins writing on his scalp. It seems to be numbers, but they are quickly obscured into a tangle of wobbly marks, overlapping into a dense mass, dark and distressing on his head. The man does seem to be measuring something, but not regularly like the rotations of his circling. I guess that it is his “failures” as he dropped each stick, but soon recognize that I am trying to impose a pattern that is not evident. The drops and the marks do not match. I stop trying to decode it, and let myself get lost in the man’s compulsion. Circle and mark. Circle and drop. Circle, circle, circle.
The roundness of his movement continued methodically, hypnotically, leaving space for many swirling associations. I must have been lulled into a kind of liminal state; my thoughts gently tumbled. I was contemplating cycles as timeframes from short to longer, patterns and the ways we all strive to make sense of our worlds. I was considering the dark, messy inner-voices that can quickly take over as we strive to control our thoughts. I was thinking of the market crowds as compared to the passing art viewers and the gestures we use to measure and share our experiences. I was hearing the sound of the stick on the hard, gravelled ground, noticing the tilled rings it left behind. The subtle marks are made and erased and made again as the man came in close to the pillar and went out far. Even more so, I was feeling with the man and his discomfort: the cold of his body and grip of his hand. I was feeling cold and gripped myself, as my eyes and my body circled with him. Slowly, I traced his orbit, moving clockwise—or as the witches say, deosil, in Scottish folklore, sunwise—in accordance with the earth, a prosperous and protective direction. I was noticing the ritual of repetition, and the magic circle (again, a witch’s term) this man was invoking. It was as if I could feel the cycles of time, the rotations of the sun and earth, the seasons, and the moon. I was imagining many things all at once and over and over. This circling man was offering me my own circular logic, the mind’s spiral of repetition. I was meeting him in the intimate and boundless space of the circle.
A commitment to the duration, a willingness to take it all in, reveals tectonic shifts: seemingly inconsequential, yet impactful. Performance scholar Adrian Heathfield reminds us that repetition “calls attention to difference within sameness.”[ii] This also recalls, in a narrow field, Judith Butler’s theory of reiterative practice as performative. The repetitions make the cycles that make the world. Court’s long-repeating movement becomes just sloppy enough to reveal the passage of time, the story of duration. I anticipate these shifts I know well from my own performance practice. First, the performer feels strong and rigid; finding the cyclic rhythm accesses a grace that gently guides the action. Then, the performer becomes engulfed by the world created—strained but sustained by the hours of repetition, and the hours to come. Performers can feel the vulnerability as grace dissolves into surrender. As now, the man is noticeably tired. The vibrations of the stick dredging the soil are shaking his hand violently; the stick controlling more than guiding him, as his arm cannot sustain the torqueing momentum. The movement becomes a dance of equal forces, as the man begins to frequently switch directions: circling widdershins to deosil, warm to cool currents. I began to notice the subtle marks of time beyond the tilled circle: the bits of dust coating the man’s dark shoes and clothes, the ever-so-slightly sharpened point of each stick, the steam of his breath exhaled in the cold air. It is now late afternoon. More viewers begin to return; the anticipation is palpable. Without warning or any alteration in pace or intention, the man drops his stick and walks out of the circle.
The viewers remain mesmerized for some time. Silent and thoughtful, we ponder the vacant ring, surprised or perhaps saddened to feel its emptiness after so long. Everything that had been swirling in my head seems to empty then, too. There is only this: two worn sticks and their soft, coiled marks.
Later that evening, I took the train home again. A similar crowd, but louder, more drunk, more boisterous, bellowing off-key Christmas songs, rode home with me. I was amused by my fellow travelers this time. I noticed my own compassion swell, if even just a little, as I felt less separate, less out-of-place. Court’s circular rhythm became circular magic as the performance became my compass, pointing me toward the pulse of connection.
Postscript: Considering circles, in coming back to this essay, I recall this performance; my notes include synonyms for the word “circle;” one is “corona.” The arc of time swings unexpectedly back to the day of this performance, making my way through the noisy crowds, eager for the silence of a secluded solo action. Yet, that singular performance experience opens me toward an inclusive embrace; I am softened, able to connect again. Now, enveloped by self-isolation, the meanings of this performance resurge: try not to calculate, trust embodied knowledge, rediscover a deep compassion for those both in and out of my sphere.
Laurel Jay Carpenter is a visual art performer from USA currently based in Newcastle, UK. More information about her work is available at laureljay.com.
[i] Presented by OUI Performance, York, UK, 26 November 2016.
[ii] Adrian Heathfield, “Impress of Time” in Out of Now: The LifeWorks of Tehching Hsieh (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), 34.