I went to the Battersea Arts Centre – or BAC, as they like to call it – last Saturday. It is on the opposite side of London to me and I’d never been before but, for some reason, I’d got it into my head that it would be a 1970s municipal box. In fact, although it is a municipal building, it is situated in the old town hall which was opened in 1893. It is an absolutely wonderful space and I’m sure I will be schlepping over there in future.
I was there to see Trilogy which, as the name suggests, is a performance in three parts. It was created by Nic Green (whose website is unfortunately bloody Flash) and she describes it as “a celebratory venture into modern-day feminism [which] examines and interrogates the joys and complexities of being a young woman today, whilst driving steadfast into the future with commitment and hope.” Right enough. The celebration centres around women’s bodies in their range and variety, independent of media images. The interrogation around what it means to be a young feminist in 2010 (the performers were all born in the early Eighties).
Part 1 is certainly celebratory. Green and the other lead performer (sorry, I’ve forgotten her name) come on, do an energetic and eclectic dance, before stripping off and continuing. They are then joined by fifty volunteers, similarly naked. There was a lot of joy in the room but, as a companion remarked, there was something of the Dove advert to it, and it is hardly revolutionary. In this context it was interesting to read Germaine Greer’s latest column for the Guardian on elles@centrepompidou earlier in the week:
Some of the younger women artists in the show may turn out to be discoveries, but too many of them are making the kinds of female body art that have been doing the rounds for years. Innocents may be excited by Sigalit Landau’s Barbed Hula of 2001, a video showing her full-frontal naked doing the hula with a hoop made of barbed wire, but only if they were too young to see Marina Abramowic´ slicing into her naked belly in the 1970s, or Orlan on the operating table in the 1990s.
More on Greer later. Part 3 moves the performance out to the audience. The show itself becomes interactive but more importantly it acts as a shop front for a collaborative website, Make Your Own Herstory (bloody Flash again). A key aspect of this is climbing up a hill, taking your clothes off and singing Jerusalem (an anthem for the suffragettes) then uploading the video to the website. This was recreated inside the BAC and again there was a great deal of enthusiasm from the participants, although again it is hard to be sceptical about how far this gets us.
And Part 2? This is the heart of the performance and makes extensive use of footage from Town Bloody Hall – I would have linked to the wikipedia entry but it doesn’t have one (a point raised in Part 3) – a panel discussion with Norman Mailer, Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston and Diana Trilling which took place in New York in 1971. Green and her fellow performers interact with footage from this event but really it is the film clips from the discussion itself which are the star. Trilogy transfered to the Barbican on Friday and to coincide with that they were also showing Town Bloody Hall so yesterday I went along to see the whole thing. It is bloody brilliant.
Calling it a panel discussion makes it seem rather more staid than it is. From the opening shot there is a palpable charge to the atmosphere, it is not so much that the event is history in the making but that the whole world is at a point of revolutionary change. The four panelists represent different parts of the women’s liberation movement (with Trilling the most removed). Mailer, on the other hand, had just published The Prisoner Of Sex along with an attendant (and controversial) article in Harper’s and, despite his protestations to the contrary, it is a bit like Mailer versus the feminists. He obviously revels in this and lives up to his reputation as a misogynist: throughout he is half prick, half pedant and although some of this is clearly deliberate, quite a lot of it obviously isn’t.
The four ten minute talks are all excellent from Ceballos (representing NOW) giving a straightforward presentation on the need for change to Trilling (literary critic for The Nation) questioning not only Mailer’s assumptions but those of the women’s movement with a wonderful digression on the female orgasm. It is Greer and Johnstone who are the real stars though. Greer, wearing a fur wrap and an expression of unrelenting disdain, mixes literary and social critique to confront the notion of the great male artist, as represented by Mailer. She is alternatively scathing and heartbroken and it is hard not to fall a bit in love with her. In the following discussion, despite being tetchy to the point of petulant, she gets all the best lines. Johnstone takes a different approach, launching into a structure free-association poem which starts hesitantly but builds into a torrent. She is cut short, mid-flow, by Mailer for having overrun (“slopped over” he later describes it). This marks the point where it becomes all about Norman and the evening gradually descends into a slanging match. A wonderful slanging match; they might make little progress on any of the big questions – although how could you expect them to? – but the mild anarchy and intellectual jousting is a joy to watch.