I had written to four galleries asking for a placement as part of my course requirements, and two had gotten back to me with positive results. The curator of the exhibition Modern Panic V, also the director of a gallery and events producer, Guerrilla Zoo, then invited me for a short, rather informal interview, and I signed on to volunteer for 10 shifts across 2 weeks.
Shortly after agreeing to do that, I heard back from Fringe! Queer Arts and Film Festival, which I applied to because of my own interest in gender/sexuality issues and because, judging by the looks of their website, the organisation seemed fairly well established, professional and full of fun events. For this I only took up 3 shifts, as it coincided with my other placement.
Both of these positions were thrown onto me on fairly short notice, and my calendar was soon full of work shifts. Duties listed by both placement providers included installation/take down of work, invigilation, running of a shop, and other small admin/hospitality tasks. I tried to keep invigilation to a minimum and rather offer my help with more interactive tasks so as to further or learn new skills.
Fringe! Queer Arts and Film Festival
I was quite disappointed with this position, and barely learned anything. After attending a briefing with other volunteers, I was reassured that the tasks I had in mind would be the tasks I’d set out to work on. I then arrived on the day of installation, and was puzzled to find that I was the only person at the venue. The venue itself, although in an attractive neighbourhood in Hackney, was rather out of the way and, being otherwise a community centre, looked rather like a high school gym, which didn’t work for the exhibited works. The organisers, who were supposed to let us in, were late, and I had to wander around until they showed up in a flurry and I happened to bump into them. They seemed stressed – and rather lost in their own venue – which was a bit of a maze. Then a couple of other volunteers showed up, and we idly watched the organisers argue about how the cleaners had not been in yet to clear out the venue etc. We then learned that the technician (who had access to all the technical equipment) had overslept, and being unable to start without him, we were told to just wait around until he showed up. This didn’t happen until some three hours later, by which time the other volunteers and I had engaged in a lot of debate, shared our life stories, and had a cup of coffee – but did absolutely nothing else. Meanwhile the organisers fiddled with their laptops and eventually sent (all three of us!) to print some A4 signs (directions/toilet signs) at a nearby shop. Finally the technician woke up and arrived, and took the other two volunteers with him to collect all the speakers, cables, etc that were necessary for video installations. I was told to remain so that I could help an artist who was coming to install a group exhibition by the Queer Society at the Royal College of Art. He came, but had no need for my help at all, and sometimes I felt I was more of a nuisance to him because he had to invent tasks for me to keep me occupied. Furthermore, I was shocked at the quality of the work, I thought it was truly awful. With not much to do, I waited until the other volunteers arrived with the equipment a whole 2 hours later. According to our shift agreements, we were supposed to be free by then. But because it was now evening and the equipment had only just arrived, the organisers evidently began to panic. They were hissing at each other and blaming each other while huffing and puffing over speakers and cables that we all hauled into the building. One of them apologetically asked if we could stick around a bit longer just to get everything inside (it was a lot of things), and that took an extra hour. Having done virtually nothing that day, I went home rather empty and disappointed. The other two volunteers had MAs, and one was starting a second. They are remarkably young – only 21 and 22 – and seemed so qualified and interesting, I was worried about the idea that there might not be a job market to accommodate those people. Hopefully it is only a matter of time before more interesting opportunities turn up for them.
I agreed to do one session of invigilation for this festival. To my dismay, absolutely nobody turned up during the four hours I guarded the work. It was a large basement space, and I remember thinking: this is an exercise in not existing.
Guerrilla Zoo Exhibition Assistant
Guerrilla Zoo produces exhibitions, immersive theatre experiences, performances, parties and other art events, but has no gallery of its own. It operates in different locales each time and aims to be “provocative and controversial”. I had checked out the artists listed to be in the fifth annual exhibition of its kind, and found most of the work to be rather kitsch and detestable. Of course I would have liked to work in an environment with work I enjoyed and that interested me, but I went for this anyway because I thought the technical experience would still be relevant, and wasn’t sure how long it would be before I found another opportunity.
This time my impression was accurate: I did indeed dislike the work, but I got a lot of hands-on knowledge, and a bonus insight into a subculture I am not a member of myself. The work had dark themes, but was blatant, obvious, and juvenile in its rebelliousness. There was blood, sex, nudity and dead stuff (what IS it with all the taxidermy these days??) but nothing truly subversive, in my opinion.
On the installation day I met my colleagues and got on really well with all of them. I realised however that there was a degree of competitiveness when it came to the distribution of tasks: the male volunteers were typically more hands-on with tools and offered themselves up quite readily, and I realised I had to be careful not to end up being passive and miss out on opportunities to make things. I was hesitant because I didn’t know where things were, what I should or shouldn’t touch, but once I understood the system of things, I let myself take initiative on various tasks. I started by unwrapping work, and moving it where the curator wanted it. I painted some plinths, and helped the artists that were present with their tools, holding things, and watching them work. I had a good intuition for calculation and geometry and could quickly work out where holes needed to be made in the walls. When I saw how people had drilled into the wall, used raw plugs and screws, spirit levels and hooks, strings and nails, I felt increasingly confident in doing those things myself. We generally worked on one artwork in two’s, and I hung paintings, assembled sculptures, helped set a performance stage, made foam board plaques for the works. One of the pair would hold the ladder securely and pass up tools while the other would do the drilling, hammering and screwing standing on the ladder, and then we’d switch. On my break I met some artists who work in studios above the venue itself. I made some contacts, and saw a particularly interesting series of videos on one of the artist’s computers. It was a good 11 hours’ work that day, and we were all quite exhausted, but satisfied with ourselves, by the end.
There was still some emulsion painting left to do, in addition to some light installation, and setting up of the shop. I arrived in work clothes but brought with me something smarter as I would be assisting at the opening event as well. I began with some rather mundane tasks (cleaning, erasing pencil marks on the wall, making more plaques), and felt I wanted to help in a more interesting way. Some of the volunteers were setting up a shop: hanging prints, displaying fashion pieces that were on sale, and other trinkets designed by the artists such as key rings made of felt fashioned to look like iconic anti-depressant/erectile dysfunction pills such as Prozac and Viagra. There were some glamorous shoes embezzled with frills and feathers and jewels, a headpiece of sparrow feathers and jewels, and a great feathery, armour-like shoulder piece to match. An old back-stage mirror table was decorated with merchandise, and along with an old organ piano and palm plant, the shop began to look like a very attractive entrance to a show. In the galleries, a man was up high on top of a ladder and appeared to be installing spot lights by himself. He looked like he could use some help, and he was working on something I know nothing about, so I asked if I could help him, saying that it would be useful to me because then I could learn about lighting.
He didn’t talk much, and I had to prove my usefulness before he would actually give me any tasks, but every now and again he would stop while he was unscrewing a plug or angling a light bulb, and go out of his way to give me a brief technical explanation of which wire goes where, and which should by no circumstances touch the other. That was the thing that assured me I wasn’t a nuisance, and I even think he was pleased to have someone assist him and take an interest in how it worked. I began to understand the network of wires above our heads, and how the technician was strategizing a way to the mains. Slowly, we began to highlight the art works and create something of an atmosphere. Initially I was just passing him tools, but then he all of a sudden handed me some raw wires, plugs and bulbs and asked me to connect them while he did something else.
This is essentially quite a simple task, but having not done this before it was important to have to opportunity to handle these components. I was nervous at first, and when I asked what exactly I needed to do he said, “just look at how the others are done, and copy it”. So I got it, saw it was simple, and felt disproportionately proud of myself when I connected them… after that he kept giving me more tasks and I actually became useful, especially as we became pressured for time. At around an hour before opening, we went upstairs to make sure the performance equipment was working. We installed a series of larger lights with colour filters that are controlled by nodes for dimming and RGB values – and again – I got to handle cables and equipment that previously would have been mysterious to me. And then we were finished.
As my colleagues and I (who had by now become friends) took a little break and got changed for the event, we admittedly were rather doubtful that the turnout would be that great, as the entry tickets were £10 and none of us were big fans of the art in there. The curator had assured us that the door would be difficult to manage and that the place would be full (he had to apparently place a cap on the amount of guests), but amongst ourselves we agreed that none of us would really have paid to see this show(!)
There were then three tasks: Running of the shop, management of the door and guest list, and invigilation. We were to split those tasks among us and perform them in rotas, while also relaxing and enjoying the show ourselves. Half of the works shown would in fact be a series of spontaneous performances throughout the gallery and upstairs in the little theatre booth we set up, so there was a lot of elements to the show that we (the volunteers) had in fact not yet seen.
I first took my place behind the desk, feeling quite relieved at no longer looking scruffy, and ready to welcome guests. Beside me was another assistant whose job it was to count the guests with a little ticket counting machine, and opposite me was the bouncer (that’s right, we had a bouncer) with a limp leg, a bejeweled walking stick, and a fedora, who claims to be an ex gangster from LA. It seemed to me unnecessary to have 3 of us standing by the door but I was soon proved wrong. There was an onslaught of people at the door thumping to get in by the time the clock struck 7 and we opened. I all of a sudden felt flushed, as the bouncer challenged each person to show their tickets or present their names, and he’d cross them off the list and send them to me to get a stamp. As the visitors entered I began to see that this show was attracting a particular demographic. A lot of them were dressed eccentrically, with massive platform boots, and an abundance of piercings, or faces painted like Kiss guys. People in chains and people in full latex. Men with shaved eyebrows and women with tangled moustaches. But it wasn’t only that, the majority of them seemed to be rather of the BDSM/fetish persuasion, so to speak…
I wouldn’t have expected this, but it seemed that our curator (himself always dressed perfectly neutrally and with a shy disposition) was catering to a niche, and that that might have had something to do with the choice of work and the success of ticket sales.
Some 300+ people came, barely accommodated by the limited space, and I struggled at the cash register to cater to those who wanted to buy admission at the door. Of these included a very tall man clad in full leather biking attire with a tattoo on his face and violent eyes. He was agitated and expressed his frustration at me when I demanded £10 from him. When he didn’t have enough cash, he got more irritated. When I failed to take a payment from his card, he blew a fuse, and by this time I was quite flushed and terrified. Even then, however, he left to take out money from a cash machine and return, to my astonishment.
The alleged ex gangster gentleman made casual conversation with me in between, and revealed himself to be a pastor. I then took note of his white collar. He said, “Listen, I’ma ask you one question darlin,'” and continued, “who’s the boss here?”
As I hesitated to answer he suddenly burst out with, “YOU are! Got that? Rule number 1: You’re the boss here. Ain’t nobody getting’ through that door without your consent.” It was both intimidating and encouraging…
When a colleague came to relieve me from my duties I grabbed a beer and took in the atmosphere. In one gallery room, a pale, naked, hairless woman lay on something like a surgical table, as a performing artist carefully painted her body. In the other room, a girl began making a large abstract drawing from ink on the floor, and it looked like smoke.
A performance was announced to take place upstairs and I went with friends to watch. The room was dimmed red, and people settled into old red theatre seats placed around the centre, or they lay sprawled like decadent 60s hippies on beanbags. A man with a sparkling silver face and suit introduced us with a brief theatrical monologue on the exhausted topic of media-contrived beauty ideals and the pressures on our individual image. Still a valid topic of debate, I am aware, but one that seems to be dealt with repeatedly in the same manner, with the same words and images.
But then a faceless doll appeared on stage, which 3 neutrally dressed performers animated: two holding the doll by each arm and one on the floor operating its legs. The faceless doll, with short black hair and a red velvet outfit, began to move to a burlesque themed song and became eerily alive. In fact, this funny little doll began to put on a very sexualised performance. It was surprising to see such an unconvincing stitched up rag operated by three fully exposed performers become so animate through choreography. She hitched up her skirt and moved gracefully around the stage, teasing the audience and stroking their faces. The voice on the background track seemed to be hers. Next thing you know she was on the floor, taking her clothes off, writhing and touching herself in a way that seemed rather forbidden. It brought back the spell of childhood, when toys played with become so alive that they even convince the child puppeteering them that they are autonomous beings. Except this creature was performing all these sexually explicit actions, and revelling in it: I must say it felt embarrassingly real. The performance then takes a more surreal tone, as the doll crumples to the floor and acquires a dull black cloak: she turns into a croaking old woman with a violently shaking head. Ignoring the overriding theme of ‘fleeting youth” and “withering beauty” that seemed somewhat tedious to me, the vision of the doll was impressionable. She tumbles and withers and fades, until out springs a body of bones that once again dances to an upbeat swing song.
As the flow of people entering died down (somewhat), I returned to my post at the desk, and as the night progressed began selling prints and postcards rather than tickets. I was kept constantly busy, as tipsy women offered me their opinions of the work without realizing that they were shrieking and blinking much too often. They invited me, without realising who I was, what I was doing there, or which planet I came from, to this party and that private view and in a blissful cloud of unawareness, they wandered off and forgot about me, leaving me with their money which I stored away in the register and noted on receipts. Suddenly a man, pointing a finger and shouting something unintelligible, was being led away by four other men, who were pushing him out. I found out later that he had insulted and sexually harassed one of the artists in quite a serious way, and we didn’t hear more from him. Meanwhile, one of the artists fainted after having had a lively discussion with one of the sculptures, and the invigilators rushed to revive him. Clearly there were a number of guests under the influence of drugs at the event, and I caught an expression of anxiety on the face of the curator when the man fainted for a second time and was ushered outdoors into the fresh air.
It was soon the end of the evening after a good 13 hours work, and I rushed to catch the last performance showing that night. I entered to find a black, naked woman with turquoise eyebrows and a latex cap, strutting like an agitated animal, slowly, back and forth between a bedside table with a bottle of wine on it, and a rack of clothes, on a set designed to look something like a woman’s bedroom. When the spectators settled, a track that sounded like a beating heart began to play. The woman moved like a stag, and was powerful and fit. She then took a great big swig of wine from the bottle, and strutted towards the clothes on the rack.
Aggressively but not uncontrollably, she seized an item of clothing off a hanger and put it on, inspecting herself in an imaginary mirror. Then she’d rip the clothing off, and throw it to a side. Grunting with a kind of discomfort or dissatisfaction, she’d stride back to the wine and take another big gulp. She repeated these actions and almost consumed the entire bottle in the space of 8 minutes or so. At this point I was rather impressed with the powerful way she moved, and the subtle measure of her aggression and poise. It then got more dramatic, however. She had torn to pieces a few clothes and almost downed a whole bottle of wine, when she bent over and stuck a finger down her throat. I know of many examples of art pieces/performances involving self inflicted pain, but had never seen one myself, and I had not known prior to coming in, that that is what I would now experience. I was quite taken aback, then, when she vomited all she had just had to drink onto a piece of paper on the floor. Even more alarmingly, the sick was coloured blue, so she must have consumed some colouring or something, before-hand. She did all this with grimaces but not much sign of weakness whatsoever. I turned to look at the audience and saw them recoiling – even the most hardcore looking of the group looked disturbed. The performer dropped down and began to fingerprint in the mess like someone possessed, until she without warning dipped down and slurped some of it up. It is quite agonizing to recall it. She moved away from that and placed a crown on her head. Having torn apart some regular negligees and shirts, she now produced some transparent latex strips that looked like skin. She strapped them round her thighs like garters and then stapled them in place, directly onto her skin. She grunted and took a semicircle of the same material, wrapping it round her like a skirt and stapling it into her waist. People were horrified. She did the same with a piece that served as a top, and a strip that covered her mouth, stapled into her cheeks. At this point I couldn’t understand what this meant. Why we were in that room watching this, and why she was doing it. But knowing that shock and pain is not new in the world of art, especially performance art, I opted to not take any opposing action, such as getting up and leaving, but to instead watch it to the end and act in the way everybody else acts. Having stapled herself into this see-through, slippery outfit, she now clambered into high heeled platform shoes, and walked up to the audience, standing as if proud, before us. She stood like that, staring at us, for few intense moments, before ripping each item out of herself one by one, by which time some of the spectators began to look rather traumatised. Little streams of blood trickled from each wound and she spread out her arms so she looked like Christ. After a long solemn pause, she snapped out of character, smiled, and in a very friendly and agreeable voice said, “thanks. If anybody would like to talk to me about what I just did, don’t hesitate to come and ask!” – she was just somebody else entirely, somebody to whom nothing bad had just happened. There was a lot of clapping, and despite being undecided about what I felt about everything, I solemnly clapped along, and noticed that some didn’t join in and immediately left.
I guess one could say the opening night was eventful. I found it somehow worthy gaining an insight into a gathering and an aesthetic I would personally not partake in. I saw where the revenue was coming in, and where problems arose.
The following days were naturally quieter, but also important, because I had to face potential buyers. Of course, it wasn’t left to me to do the consulting, but I was taking payments for expensive works of art, mostly prints but also a few originals. I learned that it was customary to leave deposits, and learned more about the individual artists so that I could answer questions. I felt I could converse comfortably about the art with the visitors, and make them feel at ease and welcome. There was still an entry fee, now of £3.
The artist who was harassed at the event has decided to press charges against the man who was thrown out, and the police has been implicated, because nobody seems to know who that man was. Police officers visited the space and took statements while we took payments for entry. The general public have a curious wander, with the occasional collector stopping by.
Indeed there was even a closing night, at which there would once again be expensive ticket sales and alternative acts. An original was sold, and a lesbian couple enacted various sexual vampiric acts on one another to the delight of an ogling audience. Take down promptly ensued the next day, and I stayed in touch with the curator and fellow interns after we went our separate ways.