Speculum Artium, New Media Arts Festival 2011

When is it not OK to dress up as a miner and stuff a microphone into a bag of coal?

(Some thoughts on site-specific performance by Awkwardstra member Dan Scott)

Trbovlje is in the centre of Slovenia, forty miles from the capital Ljubljana.  Once an industrial boom town it is now in slow decline, with some hope of reprieve via an effort to transform it into a new media hub.  We were invited to play at Speculum Artium, a new media exhibition in the town’s Delavski dom in Trbovlje.  The complex was built by coal miners in the middle of the C20th as a proletariat leisure space and includes a cinema, two theatres and a maze of exhibition rooms.

For the opening of Speculum Artium 2011, a new media festival and a figurehead for the town’s rebirth, we dressed as miners and played a set across space and time. Mining was the main employment for many local people throughout the last century.  All our noise was made of Trbovlje, in the form of field recordings, objects and resonances.  Lisa and Marc sent out recordings of the local mine, Phil vocalised in the open chamber of the theatre, Aram fed the reverb of the building back to itself and I played a bag of coal.  We told people we were mining the town for sound.

Yet, throughout the performance the loudest sound of all, for me alone, was the voice in my head, entirely foreign to Slovenian ears: “Do they think we’re taking the piss?”.  We had the idea of dressing up and mining back in London, before we arrived.  The plot thickened when we were told we could get miner’s outfits from the real mine itself.  We also learned that Trbovlje has the highest suicide rate in Slovenia, in no small part due to the decline of the area’s industry.  Furthermore the mines function was to fuel the town’s power station, a huge complex that billowed its smoke through the largest chimney in Europe, built high enough to transcend the valley, but not quite high to spare the heights of Mount Kum where we were staying for the week.  It was a troubling mix, with us in the middle stirring it all up.

I asked a few people beforehand if it was OK.  Would we be guilty of a massive misrepresentation?  Would everyone laugh?  Mining is a vocation, it’s not something you parachute into and claim victory.  It’s an ancestral job, passed from father to son.  It’s a job for the boys.  Responses were generally positive, but wry, “Yes, yes, it’s fine.”  Fine might of course mean, “Yes, yes, its fine, it will just reassert our view that Western Europe is full of ignorant, arrogant fools.”  …which is fine too.

We played spatially, occupying positions across the hall, each with our own speaker:  The performance starts in pitch-black, then one helmet light is lit and the first player begins.  The audience gather around that player.  Then, the second performer lights up and begins, behind the audience, so the audience move again, listening through space.  This continues until all performers are lit, the beam from their lamps forming lines across the darkness.  The audience is free to move between positions, listening and watching.  The performance ends in reverse.  Each performer switching off their lamp and returning to darkness, with the last to enter being the last to leave.  I only remember myself throwing coal against coal, I could barely hear the other players.  We weren’t making music after all; we were mining.

As the last of Aram’s resonant feedback disappeared between the marble pillars the audience clapped and the lights came back on.  We were back in civilian clothes by then.  I don’t know if we entertained people.  I don’t know if we offended people.  The town had experience some form of tragedy in its economic history and I don’t know how we contributed to or reflected this.  We all went back to drinking blueberry liquor and forgot about it.

Two days later we actually visited the mine.  We wore the same costumes again, this time as protection not projection.  We ended up at the coal face, where a drill called the Ukrainian Girl was primed to mine a new seam.  The guide showed us a lump of coal as big as a cricket ball, “This will power a laptop for a day.”  Our performance probably needed a small wheelbarrow load.  When drilling at full capacity that amount would be 0.0001% of a day’s extraction.  Each day the mine gouges out 2000 tonnes of coal.  The local power plant then consumes the same amount.  Equilibrium.  The mine was dark, dusty, lurching between extremes of temperature.  Its noises were deep and enigmatic.  Voices yelled through loudspeakers hanging in hollows were no one was listening.  Rattling and moaning pipes disappeared into blackness and silence.  “Srecno”, meaning good-luck, whispered between passing figures, was the mantra.  When we emerged after three hours we drank beer and smoked cigarettes.  Spat out.  The mine didn’t need us.  We could make as much noise as we wanted.

Site-specific work is problematic.  Who are you, artist, to just turn up and represent?  But equally, who are you, artist, but another voice?  Every site has enough of those.  Your voice is just another one to ignore.  Say what you like.  We said some stuff and left.  Like thousands before us.  Down that mine our vibrations would have moved nothing.  What did it matter?


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