• Permutations in the City
    Artist : Neil Callaghan and Simone Kenyon
    Title : Permutations in the City
    Website : http://wearefierce.org/
    Credit : Photograph Meg Lavender
  • Permutations in the City
    Artist : Neil Callaghan and Simone Kenyon
    Title : Permutations in the City
    Website : http://wearefierce.org/
    Credit : Photograph Meg Lavender
  • Permutations in the City
    Artist : Neil Callaghan and Simone Kenyon
    Title : Permutations in the City
    Website : http://wearefierce.org/
    Credit : Photograph Meg Lavender

Neil Callaghan & Simone Kenyon: Permutations in the City

Fierce Festival

Various locations, Birmingham

8 - 12 October 2015

Review by Alessandro Columbano

Can we draw a line between the invisible and the
If so what does it look like? We’re deciding not to describe
the performer,
nor the spectator,
for that is for you to witness, but can something be said
if you choose to be neither?

Neil Callaghan & Simone Kenyon ask the audience, the pedestrian and themselves, to observe their surrounding space. They lie under Suffolk Street Queensway flyover, one of the defining infrastructural elements of Birmingham. It is a symbol of ambition, failure. The coloured lanterns indicate an attempt at rejuvenation but its scale is inhumane, disrespecting the urban grid generated by the former buildings. Instead, it offers a dramatic space where pedestrians carry on with their daily journey, moving to the next shopping centre.

Both the road surface above and the undercroft below is a key transient spot for the city. It is here I encounter the first permutation, interrupting this transience with a performance that suddenly makes me aware of my surroundings.

Everyone has their own time,
or understanding of it. What you have done the minute their time has been interrupted is an
act of theft.
Yet, it is a benevolent theft, for what you are doing as a
performing agent
is offering time.

Their presence slows down perceived time, forcing pedestrians to become more receptive to their faculties. What do you see in this instance? You see the performers, but then you see through them – and then the environment beyond, unsure of what it will begin to reveal. ‘Permutations in the City’ achieves what Rebecca Solnit would define as artists inviting the unfamiliar in a process to making it their own. Solnit, author of ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ proclaims “these things are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory … the unknown is the form or the tale that has not yet arrived.” For Neil & Simone, the unfamiliar is the city they find themselves in.

When two people hug ...
An embrace
A collision

Their work intervenes within the social construct of architecture and questions how society engages with spaces through a very physical act. Under the flyover, Neil’s body is wedged between the concrete column and a temporary hoarding. Behind him a ‘wet paint’ sign is taped to the floor. His ‘wedge’ is almost an embrace - he wants to explore the gap between the two structures. His face is submerged in the construction. Literally. He becomes anonymous but the way he holds the surface indicates a sense of warmth and emotion … other performers approach his body and begin an intimate embrace. As the bodies accumulate, their contact with the structure is equally as inviting as the contact with each other.

Interruptions to the public are very slight. Upon closer inspection, Neil & Simone’s intentions become more apparent; the little shuffle to avoid a stationary viewer, the quick glimpse whilst still talking on the phone, the negotiated footsteps around the performance whilst trying really hard not to look … these small incidents are absorbed into the work and are an accumulation around the ‘body’ that is wedged in the gap.

You are centralising the
within a designated space with invisible
Even rarer do we see
bodies come into
with the surfaces of an exterior space

Other permutations occur across the city as part of the annual Fierce Festival over a period of four days. Its ‘Hyperlocal. Supernow’ tagline seems even more relevant to this work. These permutations are absorbed into the everyday commotion of the city, only to reappear at key points. The performances vary in ambience and scale but are mainly set in prominent locations in the city centre. In Victoria Square, performers play with the topographical change of the public realm, rolling their bodies against the Town Hall wall like water settling at the bottom of a valley. Their position is framed between two of Birmingham’s neo-classical icons but are no less transient than they were under the Suffolk Street flyover. Again, there is an accumulation around their bodies as members of the public gather and take interest. They try to clamber on top of each other in a patient, loving motion. Civic boundaries and personal space are violated, contested or made more apparent than the roll between people. The tempo is so slow that passers by see them as motionless. It is only if you observe them for a long period of time that the movement becomes apparent. Regardless, the transience of the general public is disturbed as a rippling effect from Neil & Simone’s intervention.

Around one of the shop fronts near the main train station, they begin saturating the building envelope. They don’t want to highlight references, but when speaking to the performers, they don’t want to withhold them either. I am informed of their admiration of Joseph Beuys’ ‘Fat Corners’ (1960). This gross material was used for “people [to] instinctively feel it relates to inner processes and feelings.” The singular use of fat was significant in Beuys’s conceptual work – it was in direct reference to historical events he personally encountered. ‘Permutations in the City’ uses people in a similar manner – helping the city to reference its own past. In this example, brutalism still dominates the perception of this place. Bodies (in dull clothing) are bush hammered and homogeneous in texture just like the wall of concrete they set themselves against. Whilst we watch the performance, we are also looking at the material surface and the traces imprinted on them over time.

I was attempting to find a grid everywhere that I walked.
I attempted to understand the proportion between the
that surrounded me and the humble
pedestrian latitude.

Neil & Simone begin to realise the scale in which the city operates through their corporeal explorations. Its buildings and infrastructural works are built massive. They question how scale can allow such dramatic and divisive architectural experimentations in such a populated city, yet ‘Permutations in the City’ thrives on the drama the city throws at them. Their reading of ‘Forward’, Birmingham’s motto, is one of curiosity - astonishment even - transposed through movement to capture the emotion and comfort its spaces offer, factors all too often overlooked by its own citizens.

The text formatted in bold are extracts from a series of ongoing conversations between artists Stefan Jovanović, Neil Callaghan & Simone Kenyon. These dialogues have fuelled the making of ‘Permutations in the City’ and are revealed in order to illustrate the working process.

Created and Performed with:
Simone Arganini, Anita Konarska, Kate Nankervis, Keity Pook, Becky Pringle, Pasinee Rojviboonchai, Megan Saunders, Genvieve Say, Rebecca Thomas, Tilly Webber

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