Reactor Halls E15: You can't win them all, ladies & gentlemen
The first time I met artist Jenny Moore, we were stomach-down, on the floor of Tate Britain, silently dragging ourselves in choreographed movement toward the flight of stairs she had planned for us to ‘fall’ down, our descent overseen by an entire gallery-full of ‘Late At Tate’ visitors. This was just part one of her residency, ‘Disrupt’, at Tate Britain. I’d experienced some of her work before, as the stage-presence ‘Charismatic Megafauna’, a sort of hybrid cheerleader-come-all-girls-drum-band with impressive down beats and sinister costumes. But this performance trafficked something other. Designed to interrupt a conventional gallery experience, it realised itself as a contemporary institutional critique gone ‘cultural’ and there was a reckless loudness to it. The public space had been, for a while, Moore’s studio. And in just a few unprescribed movements, she had articulated and undone the tensions its austere façade had accrued over centuries.
Moore’s portfolio is a vast collection of unselfconscious performance, of astute social observation turned musical, diffused by humour, or made sculptural. Where comedy could soften her critical bite, she is tactical. Using flawlessly composed timing within her performance to heighten impact, she redirects her own discomfort, making it yours at a syncopated pause, within a crescendo, or at the direct end of a xylophonic trill. Because the standout intent of her work is to use collaboration (whether agreed, organised, or otherwise) to provoke the sense of a ‘now’.
Important to the creation of this ‘now’ness is the phenomena of contrast. As though, in order to capture the instant, it must be set apart, securing the moment the experience attacks the senses to memory. But the meaning of a work of art or performance is rarely determined from a momentary interaction with it, but the experience as it settles, perhaps as it unravels – the work or you, yourself – like figures emerging an impressionist’s painting, suddenly isolated from their surrounding, suddenly able to be grasped. The ‘now’ becomes burdened with a lifespan beyond its instantaneity.
And it is this physical handling that understanding affords: understanding, meaning literally ‘to grasp’ or ‘to stand in the midst of’. So it makes sense then, that Moore would take on an interpretation of ‘misunderstanding’ next, as something to respond to - its timelessness, its lack of grasp, casting us into limbo; into ‘now’?
‘You can't win them all, ladies & gentlemen’ was installed at Reactor Halls, Nottingham, in May 2015. It was realised as a live radio show, within a constructed set, for which twelve different artists, writers, poets and persons were invited by Jenny Moore to contribute, responding to ‘misunderstanding’, before an audience present, and then those that might listen to the recording later – the position from which I am writing.
Upon listening, I wondered whether there was something lost by my not having been present for the live incarnation: Moore’s work so often situates the body as material, the show’s contours would undoubtedly be lost on me. A second-hand experience via podcast appeared somehow paradoxical. Pursuing a comprehension of ‘misunderstanding’, despite being fated to confusion by the lack of my immediate presence, insight informed by audio edit. But then one sure thing the digital has enabled is the option to elude time, to go back and reinterpret and, perhaps, confuse.
The project converged at the root of misunderstanding, misinterpretation and artist relationship. Much of its meaning seemed to reside in the artists’ place within a neo-liberal society, their existence as socio-cultural economy, the insistence for artists to be everywhere, be able to do everything, make, write, play, comment. And language was positioned by all as the token for exchange, manipulated and accessed to discuss sexual health, the unknown, to celebrate nonsense, and undermine business plans. The show took the linguistic principle of assemblage and undid it through intonation, suggestion, through a direct attack upon dialectic form that saw words choke and unravel over one another, becoming unfamiliar. But its main success was to expose ones desire for misunderstanding. To produce scenarios in which language engaged something so acutely uncomfortable, that belief in confusion offered a resolve.
Part of the act of misunderstanding is the audience’s discomfort in its company. Buoyed by twelve artist works, the potential to second-guess was palpable. Humour is not an argument, but it affords a powerful sensibility. It prevents the considerable absorption necessary for comprehension, reconfigures a sense of time through distraction. And it was used successfully here. Thinking back the ‘now’ness that Jenny Moore has been crafting, ‘misunderstanding’ seems somehow synonymous. Misunderstanding offers nothing to grasp, the ‘now’ offers something only momentary. Neither provide a solid level of exchange. So where do we, the artists, the audience, exist? What is our exchange? I believe I have it, and it is this: that what these artists’ take on ‘misunderstanding’ proved is that it is possible for language to be manipulated to offer an understanding, whilst denying the means to attain it.