Saturday, May 20, 2006

Timecreep in Walthamstow

I walk up through the market - busy and bustling and impossible to get thru at any speed. Eventually get up to the newly refurbished bus station and the sparkly new tube station and head north to the Vestry Museum. It's their diamond jubilee open day. There are children led around by parents, old people sitting at tables proffering books on the history of Walthamstow. A nice lady greets me as I arrive. Would I like to become a member of the mailing list for the Vestry Museum? Why, yes, I would, thank you very much, ma'am. I take a look around. It's a real museum. It has glass cases with old things in them. There are ceramic pots and plates and other kitchen implements made of cast iron. There are faded and battered childrens games, an old car, a recreation of a middle class Victorian parlour from around 1850, a display of the Walthamstow Tea Service (did you know Walthamstow had a tea service?), a scale model of the area we are in and even a room housing two mannequins, acting out a scene from a prison cell some hundred or so years ago. So, like I said, it's a real museum, right here in Walthamstow.
I go for a walk in the gardens. They have an old street signpost, a mangle, an old street light, a post box, the sign from above the police station in the last century. They have a butterfly garden too - plants especially cultivated for their seductive power over butterflies...the sound of people talking and children laughing and playing comes out of the community room. There's a refreshments room. I buy a cup of coffee. Look, there are even homemade cakes: fairy cakes, chocolate cornflake cakes, and good old crumbly fruit cake. I grew up in a village and we always had an annual fete with this kind of stuff. I'd forgotten so much of this kind of thing. I am smiling like a fool, the whole thing is like going back in time. And either I smile or I crumble to the floor, weeping tears of endless pain at the terrifying loss of innocence...
I pull myself together, go back inside, smile at some old people, wave to some kids.
There's a room with a black curtain pulled across. 'What's this?' I ask the nice lady. 'It's a psychic art exhibition,' she says, as though it were the most natural thing to find here. 'You can either take part in it or just watch.'
I go in.....
There's as strobe light tickering away, about five or six chairs with adults and children sitting on them, everyone looking at some bizarre character sitting in a large glass box with the word BATTERY written on a board above them. Further back there's a bed and someone lying on it with SUBJECT A written above them. There's a microphone hanging down nearby. There are TV screens all over the place, some playing white noise, some blank, marked with a cross on the screen. And there's a NURSES STATION where two white faced nurses stand, watching the proceedings. I have no idea what to make of this at all. I wonder what all the other punters, here for the museum open day, are making of it.
I stand and watch for a bit. I notice that the figure in the glass box has a professor's coat on, a large false moustache, a tin hat with loads of string in it and is making some sort of drawing on paper with their feet. I also notice that there is a very tall guy filming this with a video cam right in front (how come I didn't notice him straightaway - he's right in the way of the audience..). There's also a guy sitting to the side with a large pair of earphones on. It might have said something like SOUND STATION above him. I think I can hear some slow whooping noises. I guess that's what he's doing.
After a while the strobe stops, the figure in the box gets out of the box and goes and has a conversation with the person at the back on the bed...It's all a bit eerie - obviously the kids watching this are arranging for the nightmares to be delivered on time tonight.
What's happening, if I can remember it, is that the SUBJECT A tries to describe an object that is hidden on another bed marked SUBJECT B. The psychic link is made with the professor making drawings with each foot to complete some sort of circuit. Or something...
OK, this is PERFORMANCE ART. I know this , because it says it on the poster outside, advertsing the museum's open day. I also know that it is the work of Ruth Calland (she's the one in the hat) because I got an email from her. And she's done this sort of thing in Walthamstow before. She plays with all that science and psychic stuff, locating herself at Vestry House, burrowed away deep inside a traditional small museum, where she bounces around her own ideas of investigation, classification, representation and authenticity. She makes a lot of the seeming ridiculousness of the whole enterprise (there's that colander with bits of string and pegs for a hat to start with, and the silly moustache) but dares to carry it through in all seriousness. It all sits very well here. The work chews over all those questions about the definitions of artefacts, what we choose to believe and not believe, our faltering ability to adequately describe things, the way we arrange history, and the adoption of glib hindsight that can make the past seem populated by ridiclous people in funny hats...
It's a fun, if spooky piece. I also think there may be a sound piece which develops out of this performance, of the people trying to describe the hidden object. I think that should be a nice piece of work... but I may have got that wrong.
I push past the black curtain again and make my way out.
The nice lady at the door smiles and says goodbye.
a few pics


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