Block Universe 2017

The third edition of the London performance festival makes the case for collective action in an age of political frustration

In a climate of socio-political precarity, there has been a renewed focus on ideas of inclusivity and collective ownership in the arts. From 29 May to 4 June 2017, the London-based performance festival Block Universe returned for a third edition, unpacking the relationship between power, collective action and community. Taking place in a number of institutions across London including The Showroom, Somerset House, Chisenhale Dance Space and The Royal Academy of Arts, the festival questioned the ways through which we can confront the political present. How can performance art respond to the environment in which it is created?

arronphoto-block-universe-political-therapy-024.jpg

Liz Magic Laser, Political Therapy, workshop at the Showroom, London, 2017. Courtesy Block Universe; photograph: © Arron Leppard, 2017

Liz Magic Laser, Political Therapy, workshop at the Showroom, London, 2017. Courtesy Block Universe; photograph: © Arron Leppard, 2017

The week began at north London gallery The Showroom with Liz Magic Laser’s Political Therapy (all works 2017), a curative drama workshop led by Louise Platt, which wove participants’ personal feelings about politics into a shared, lived experience. An assortment of grey stuffed objects scattered across the floor, created by Laser, symbolically denoted political party insignia from both the UK and US: the Conservative Party’s scribbled oak tree, Labour’s red rose, and the Democratic donkey. These became props for participants to discuss their hopes and fears for the future. Writing the names of political figures on pieces of paper, participants were prompted to vocalize their feelings regarding the current political parties and their opposing agendas. An individual and collective vulnerability began to emerge. By envisioning individuals working as a collective body, it affirmed that participatory action can function as a site of solidarity.

arronphoto-block-universe-shapes-of-states-015.jpg

Stina Nyberg, Shapes of States, at the Tabernacle, London, 2017. Courtesy: Block Universe; photograph: © Arron Leppard, 2017

Stina Nyberg, Shapes of States, performance documentation, the Tabernacle, London, 2017. Courtesy: Block Universe; photograph: © Arron Leppard, 2017

In the theatre of the west London arts venue The Tabernacle, the use of the body as a reflexive political tool was also asserted in Stina Nyberg’s dance piece Shapes of States. The body was portrayed as a malleable form to contrast the rigidity of professional training within the Swedish health sector. Upon arrival, a white curtain dominated the stage. A figure dressed in a blue satin outfit, looking like hospital scrubs, began to describe the theatre’s physical space. Dancers appeared in front of the curtain, and the character in blue moved on to talk about a series of fantasy situations, the dance itself, the audience, histories of Meyerholdian biomechanics and the system of scientific management known as Taylorism. The dance progressed in fluid form, the dancers entangled and interchangeable. The movements of the performers were precise, emotive and sharp, manifesting a feeling of frustration – interrogating predetermined behaviours and how society disciplines our bodies.

arronphoto-block-universe-crash-boom-hisssssss-036.jpg

Zadie Xa, Crash, Boom, Hisssssss. Legend of the Liquid Sword, performance documentation, Somerset House, London, 2017. Courtesy: Block Universe; photograph: © Arron Leppard, 2017

Zadie Xa, Crash, Boom, Hisssssss. Legend of the Liquid Sword, performance documentation, Somerset House, London, 2017. Courtesy: Block Universe; photograph: © Arron Leppard, 2017

In the Lancaster wing at Somerset House, storytelling and its ability to revise previous narratives  functioned as a tool to reimagine cultural histories and identities. Zadie Xa’s immersive environment Crash, Boom, Hisssssss. Legend of the Liquid Sword created a space that was oceanic, dreamlike and alluring, demonstrating that the body can exist in a multitude of cultures, identities and situations. The performance was compelling in its creation of multi-dimensional atmospheres, blending a myriad of costumes created by Xa in textiles of blues and greens (one perfomer wore a mask and a pair of shoes designed by Benito Mayor Vallejo), alongside fragmentary films projected onto the walls. An eclectic use of colour and medium – films of the ocean and landscapes, Korean pansori music and allusions to shamanism – contributed to a feeling of being submerged underwater. Most notable was the music: gentle percussion progressing to deep bass and melancholy wave sounds, marking the changes in atmosphere throughout the performance.

img_6220.jpg

Rory Pilgrim, Software Gardens, performance documentation, the Light, London, 2017. Courtesy: Block Univers; photograph: © Arron Leppard, 2017

Rory Pilgrim, Software Gardens, performance documentation, the Light, London, 2017. Courtesy: Block Universe; photograph: © Arron Leppard, 2017

Finally, at The Friends House – the central offices of the British Quakers – Rory Pilgrim’s dance, music and film work, Software Garden, confronted questions of government cuts and radical technological proposals for care. The piece is based on a series of poems written by Carol R. Kallend, whom Pilgrim commissioned to reflect on her experience after losing her Disability Living Allowance (DLA), when social security benefits were replaced by the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Kallend documented her experience and the effects of austerity, imagining the possibility of having a robotic carer instead. A robot named Pepper took centre stage as an avatar for Kallend, prompting visions of a technological future that seemed compassionate. The robot spoke of love (alongside work, leisure and healthcare) throughout, examining its political potential with phrases such as ‘a world programmed to love by the young’. As Pepper’s hands moved, a group of young performers responded, like a flock of birds moving instinctively together. Just as the performance appeared to finish, the audience was invited to dance with the performers in the centre of the space. Able to implicate those watching as participants through compassion, cultural commentary turned into collective action.

Hatty Nestor is a writer based in London.

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018