Thursday morning and I had booked myself in for the Battersea Arts Centre – a place that stands out amongst the white cubes of the London art venues for its labyrinth like corridors, the dated blue paint and mis-match of furniture; this is an Arts Centre overflowing with charm and character. However, I had not dashed across London merely to wonder at the decor – I had come to participate in a new project, The Twins Research Project: The Daughters of EW Mountford hosted by the artist collective, They Are Here.
Now like many I’m sure – I have a certain clichéd idea that pops in to my mind when someone mentions ‘performance art’. I really do try not to presume, but the fact is that performance art is in a minority against other art forms and so without yet experiencing much of it, the image of artists dressed in black leotards free-moving to modern jazz is hard to push. It is with these prejudices that I found myself sitting with one of the artists, Helen Walker at the Battersea Arts Centre. Whilst we waited for the other participants, Helen explained to me the practice of her work.
They Are Here is an artist collective, made up of Helen and Harun Morrison, which in its four years has held many projects, including this year at The Tate and Camden Arts Centre. Harun approached Helen having seen her graduate show at the RCA – head-hunted even! From this beginning they have collaborated with many others, aging from 14 – 28; their collective has expanded on occasions to as many as 25 people! The principle idea to their work is to study communication between people and systems, whilst playing with both fact and fiction.
I was certainly reassured by Helen’s friendly demeanor but slightly unnerved at what this ‘playing of fact and fiction’ could entail. Once Harun and the other participants had joined us, the artists divulged more about their project. They had been invited as residents to the Centre and whilst starting on one project, had found themselves entirely sidetracked by something unusual, something to be found, in the basement…
Certain that I was going to embarrass myself by yelping at something unexpected down in this basement, I crept down the narrow stairs to what anyone would imagine when thinking of a basement: dark, damp and dim. The basement flashed in and out of the visible as the single light bulb flickered. Now this is the point that things started to ‘become clear’ – this was the starting point of the project. Harun explained that when the two artists had first come across this occurrence they could not help but feel it was odd behavior and that it could be some form of communication.
From this we were invited to their studio – from one extreme to the other it seemed as this was housed in the attic of the building. Resembling a DCI office on the case of a crime more than an artistic hotpot, the studio had maps, charts and photographs on the walls. Once sitting down more information was divulged. Helen and Harun, with the help of the old Morse Code, had managed to decipher the basement message, it spelt out the name: 'Chotsani'. Perplexed as to this having any meaning they had checked dictionaries of different languages and names to find that this was from Malawi, meaning ‘take – away’ (not the food kind) in Lao, a local dialect. The technicians of the building, now in the-know of this finding alerted the two artists of any other questionable behavior from the building. Next up was another light that once decoded, was communicating the message, ‘Plug in to me’. With this instruction, the artists tried plugging in different appliances in to the faulty socket – ending with a television that then pictured many an odd image on its screen adding to the list of messages that had already been amalgamated.
Now I’ve brought you this far in to the story but having written this much, I realise I should hover on caution as it would be wrong of me to give the entire idea away. Let me add though that these messages eventually lead the two artists to the Library across the road, designed by the same architect as Battersea Arts Centre, EW Mountford. The concept of twins and mutual behavior is central to many other They Are Here projects, and some sort of sister-like relationship was developing between these two buildings. With similar behavior from the two, and records in the library archiving letters and documents detailing other similar odd happenings, the tale became more and more mystifying. I found myself getting rather too enthused when I spotted a flickering light in the library entrance – chance certainly was playing its part in making this experience all the more exciting.
By the end of the performance I was in awe; starting as an utter sceptic, I had in fact thoroughly enjoyed myself. Helen and Harun had delivered their ideas with an honest and simple approach that entirely avoided the dramatic and over-the-top. So, not only is it well worth keeping a listen out for any upcoming projects by the exciting artist collective, They Are Here; but I now note, this is certainly an example that moves away from the cliché of performance art and will persuade anyone otherwise.