Over the course of five evening events between 31 May and 10 June 2017, Jerwood Visual Arts hosted the ‘Jerwood Staging Series’ – a lively and thought-provoking programme of film screenings, performances, readings and discussion. There was no single unifying theme other than that of diversity. The third event, Louisa Martin’s ‘Siren’ (2017), combined orchestrated sounds, light interventions and an energetic dance co-choreographed and performed by Masumi Saito. The final instalment of the programme, ‘Rushes, Sketches and Schemes’, could not have been more different. Christian Nyampeta presented a live audio-visual session, featuring excerpts and rushes from an ongoing project called ‘Our Common Ghost’ (2015 - present), exploring themes of community, identity and erasure.
Gareth Evans, writer, producer and Film Curator for the Whitechapel Gallery, organised the second event, where here and elsewhere across the series artists demonstrated a strong engagement with transgressive politics. ‘Slant - for the Unsettling’ proffered a selection of films and performances inspired by the socially progressive writing of American author Thomas Pynchon (who celebrates his eightieth birthday this year). In a period of conservatism and isolationism in both US and UK, Pynchon’s anarchic writing provoked artists to explore alternative, more socially democratic narratives, like Andrea Luka Zimmerman, who showed a film commissioned for Channel 4’s ‘Random Acts’ entitled ‘More Utopias Now’ (2016) in which a feisty group of London primary school kids voice their hopes for the future.
The fourth in the series of events, called ‘The fin comes a little early this siècle’, investigated repetitions in history but also in film and performance, interrogating whether its ever really possible to recreate the original circumstances in which an event was experienced. Richard Whitby’s 10-minute slideshow lecture (2017) reflected on US politics and the echoes between Barack Obama’s media coverage when he was in office and that of the current president, Donald Trump. Whitby first played a well-known clip of Obama swatting a fly in an interview; he then showed footage of Trump’s notoriously corrosive campaign; and concluded the performance by beating a papier-mâché fly – a kind of piñata and implicit reference to the diatribe Trump launched against Mexico in the run-up to his election. The first fly killing is light-hearted, apolitical; the second highlights the vicious racism that is institutionalised at the top of the American government, not only showing the American media as the circus act it is but also that both political and artistic acts are always changed by the circumstances in which they are repeated.
In a markedly different way, ‘The Harry Meadley Show’ (2017), the first event in the series, also examined the fundamentals of performance art. In a small room of about 30 people, the artist of the same name presented a remarkably funny and candid account of the highs and lows of his life and career in the style of a late-night talk show. The audience chuckled as Meadley recalled an installation he made from KFC buckets for which he was “cyber-harassed” by alternative art critics White Pube. They deemed the work excessively socially apologetic and branded Meadley a “beta-bro” (defined as a man raised without a male role model, who is empathetic to feminism and a social apologist) - a label that Meadley gladly accepted and after which issued a tongue-in-cheek apology for any offense the work might have caused. Meadley’s wit is undeniable but because his attention is split between the “live studio audience” and a film camera, the former were constantly vying for Meadley’s attention with exaggerated outbursts of laughter. The same is true for chat shows as artist performances: spectating is much about seeing as attempting to be seen.
Altogether, at every one of the five iterations of the ‘Jerwood Staging Series’, the artists displayed unique, powerful and often transgressive work, and all irrefutably added to the discussion of what it means to connect with an audience in specific place, in a specific time.