Review by Maggie Gray
Unobtrusively signposted in one of Toynbee Street’s shop-fronts, ‘The Haircut Before the Party’ epitomizes the ideology behind Artsadmin’s Two Degrees Festival, operating somewhere ‘between art and activism, performance and protest.’ In situ for six months, the collective offers free haircuts in their curious, informal salon space. All that Richard and Lewis, the pair behind the project, ask in exchange is that people share ideas and strike up conversation. As an experimental space in the heart of a city in economic strife, it quietly challenges our relationship to the capital; to the formal and informal networks that structure society; and to each other.
The initial idea evolved, partly out of necessity, in a squatters’ community in London, where everybody ‘looked after each other in different ways’ as a matter of course. Members of the community started cutting hair as a practical favour, but their tentative and experimental approach made it actively creative as well. The haircutting area became a respected space - ‘a bubble in the corner’ reserved for concentration and discussion - and they had the idea of rolling it out to the public to see how such a gesture might be received.
Opened up in this way, the emphasis has shifted to a wider reassessment of the function of urban public space. London’s public areas are dictated predominantly by commerce, to the extent that many people are uncertain, even actively mistrustful, when confronted with spontaneous free events. In a commercial space, rules are set and familiar codes of exchange govern our actions, making it easier to cross the threshold and enter into a role. ‘The Haircut Before The Party’ ignores these structures, removing commerce and profession from the equation to see what else might be achieved in a public exchange.
It makes for a peculiar experience. The functional space contains two haircutting stools, bounded by curved benches where guests and waiting ‘customers’ are invited to watch and converse. On a table by the door loose hand-made prints show the reverse image of the cut hair scattering the floor. The atmosphere is quiet and unhurried, more reminiscent of a gathering of friends than a salon or shop.
The project operates along undisguised leftist lines. A series of events in July will tackle the theme of ‘debt,’ and the salon will close this Thursday in support of the public sector strikes. Our conversation moved from the situation in Greece and the informal communities and economies that repeatedly frustrate attempts at heavy taxation there, to the pros and cons of the internet as a tool for political organisation. But the place does not force politics upon its visitors. The point is something looser, moving away from centrally organised and often rather anonymous structures of political opposition and towards something more personal; communities of individuals offering support locally and according to their own abilities. The project reminds us that ‘friendship has a currency in itself.’
Many exhibitions in London operate, on some level, as an economic as well as cultural exchange: we pay our taxes, or the cost of a ticket, and expect certain things as a result. ‘The Haircut Before the Party’ echoes another art project currently confusing gallery-goers - Christoph Büchel’s transformation of Hauser & Wirth into the Piccadilly Community Centre. In both projects, art collides and fuses with communities. In fact, the art is the communal participation and social exchange that can be fostered simply by making space for it.