"So what will you do on the plinth?”: A Personal Experience of Disclosure during Antony Gormley’s "One & Other" Project

Jill Francesca Dowse

Abstract


Who can be represented in art? How can we make it? How can we experience it? [...] It has provided an open space of possibility for many to test their sense of self and how they might communicate this to a wider world. (Gormley)

On Friday 17 July 2009, from 12.00 am to 1.00 am, I was on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London, as part of British sculptor Antony Gormley’s One & Other project. Over a period of 100 days, 2,400 people were randomly selected (from 34,000 applicants) to occupy this site for sixty minutes each. Gormley’s sculptures have mostly focused on explorations of the human form in relation to memory, environment and community and the questions they raise about existence, mortality and metaphysics resonate with my own personal concerns and performance work (see: Gormley). One & Other (2009), a participatory incarnation of his work, was, he claimed “about the democratisation of art.” It was also video-streamed live over the Internet and it became, particularly due to Sky Arts’s involvement as a project partner, a media event (Antony Gormley’s ‘One & Other’).

Ever since I can remember, I have had a fear of heights. Without a sturdy barrier I either retreat rapidly to a safe distance, freeze or drop to the ground. The relationship between my private sense of self, myself as performer, an iconic public space, an unpredictable (and partly unseen) audience, the critical gaze of the media, and, not least, the artist’s intention, quickly became a complex web to negotiate. How much was I prepared to risk, reveal, or mask in desiring to serve another’s artistic purpose?

This article explores the invitation to disclose/expose set against this set of circumstances, focusing on the tensions between the desire to perform, my deep personal fear of heights (acrophobia), the media’s greedy commodification of disclosure and the complicity of the participant. Also considered is the unstable notion of communicating authentic disclosure(s) within a performative framework, and, finally, the transformational possibilities of such disclosure. While recognising that claims to truth and authenticity—and to some degree transformation—within solo (autobiographical) performance are problematic (Heddon 26), I do not see my phobia as culturally-produced here; I use these terms to signify the actuality of a significant shift in levels of personal fear experienced whilst on the plinth. As a performer with a background in devising, acting, biographical theatre and site-specific performance, the framework for discussion centres on writing from these fields, and also draws on performance art, particularly Eelka Lampe’s examination of the work of Rachel Rosenthal (291), an interdisciplinary performance artist whose work has drawn significantly on autobiographical elements and on both Western and Asian performance trainings and vocabularies. Media sources directly relevant to Gormley’s project are also considered.

Congratulations!

Participation in One & Other was a matter of luck, offering a unique opportunity to become part of Gormley’s oeuvre. I placed myself in the draw and was thrilled when, on 6 June 2009, the congratulatory e-mail arrived. However, the reality of what I was to participate in soon began to dawn upon me. An hour, at midnight, on a plinth 4.4m x 1.7m at a height of 8m. Although there would be a safety net, there would be no barrier. Every move or sound that I made would also be watched by Webcams and transmitted live to unknowable individuals. The peculiarity of this event was bewildering, but I put my misgivings aside and focused on the question everybody asked me, “So what are you going to do?” (see fig. 1).

 Fig.1. Image: Adam J.Ledger. Performer: Jill Dowse. One & Other. 2009.

Figure 1. Image: Adam J. Ledger. Performer: Jill Dowse. One & Other. 2009.

Resorting to habit, I immediately regarded the opportunity as an artistic endeavour and started to create a performance piece, layering site- and time-specific discoveries with personal associations, memories and jokes about acrophobia. The use of autobiographical material as an aid to both understanding and devising biographical theatre is not foreign to me, but using it as a primary source was new, and I was wary of the potential for appearing self-indulgent, for the performance to be, to use Howell’s terminology, “ego show” rather than revelation (158). My first two ideas, which were subsequently abandoned, appear to me now as attempts to deflect the content of my performance away from myself, thereby resisting disclosure.

Others planned a plinth-as-soapbox approach, drawing attention to various charitable and socio-political causes (“Participants, Oliver”; “Participants, Bushewacker”; “Participants, RachelW”). These seemed worthy and worthwhile, and forced me to re-consider my approach and examine my own ideals and concerns, but I was reluctant to advocate for a single cause. This reluctance was compounded by several further factors—the live coverage threatened a post hoc call to account for anything I might say or do, leaving me open to misinterpretation and criticism from the public or media. The experience of TV’s Big Brother participants, to which Gormley’s project has often been compared and criticised as a cheapening of cultural values (Brooker), is called to mind. Despite its limitations, however, one of the attractions of the soapbox performance is that it does at least refract attention away from the individual and onto the cause. The consideration of my acrophobia was renewed, leading me to consider withdrawing from the project. Gormley’s desire to “make a portrait of the UK now” is a complex proposition (qtd. in Antony Gormley’s ‘One & Other’).  How might it be possible to be myself on an illuminated plinth, for a full hour, in public? Gormley, while acknowledging the performative nature of the project as “a combination of the stocks and the stage” also asserts that “whether acted or real…the inner condition of the individual will be revealed” (Gormley). While his point is debatable in a general sense, for me it was not the possible disclosure of this inner condition (via words) that was traumatic but the prospective public personal humiliation of both my private self (via irrational conduct in a public arena) as well as professional humiliation (an inability to perform) as a result of unforeseeable and potentially debilitating behavioural responses. This conflict—I “bottle out” if I withdraw, I face difficult challenges if I continue—led directly to the first consideration of tactics for survival. My notebook records, “I’d like to do something that allows me space to respond, to contemplate being up there. And something which allows me to be hidden” (Workbook 118). The paradoxical desire to be “hidden” on a raised plinth exposes the key tension within which tactics were discovered and structured. As I re-worked my first idea, I realized that I was straying once again from the theatre world I usually inhabit, which involves creating performances in which a role(s) or character is adopted, to the field of performance art, where autobiographical material and personal disclosure are often expressed and negotiated as central concerns. If acting is, as Joseph Chaikin proposes, “a demonstration of self with or without a disguise”, then my usual “disguise” of role/character would be (at least partially) shed, leaving my “demonstration of self” more exposed (2) (see fig. 2).

Fig.2. Image: Adam J.Ledger. Performer: Jill Dowse. One & Other. 2009.

Figure 2. Image: Adam J. Ledger. Performer: Jill Dowse. One & Other. 2009.

Controlling the Performance

Notions of “self” within acting and performance have been explored by many performance theorists (Schechner, Phelan and Lane, Auslander, Zarrilli, Carlson), but, here I draw on Lampe’s discussion of the work of Rachel Rosenthal, since her performances move beyond mimesis. Rosenthal often performs several “fragments” of herself (which she also identifies as differentiable personae) within a single performance (Lampe 296). These personae are at different distances from her “daily” self. Lampe’s “Model of Performing/Non-Performing” is an illustration of a matrix of performance modes which moves from the “not performing” Self which is self-contained, “feeling unobserved”, through to the “Self in Ritual”, which is also self-contained and may be observed/unobserved (Lampe 291). Lampe identifies the “not performing” self as having “least control over performative display” and the Self in Ritual as having the “most control over performative display” (300). The question of control, both of my fear and of the revelation and communication of that fear, and within an environment over which I had very limited control, was paramount. This model offers a way of understanding how and why I shifted through various modes of disclosure, creating, for example an “Aesthetic Persona,” (“performing a part of oneself”), as in the playing out of a “fantasy” of myself as a winged creature, and moving towards “Techniques of Virtuosity,” (which includes “transforming the self”) seen, for example, in my use of adornment, mask and ritualistic elements.

In exploring the elements of martyrdom in the artist Orlan’s work (an artist who has described her work as “carnal art” and who sought to reinvent herself and ideas of beauty via often unusual plastic surgery), Tanya Augsburg (298) suggests that

to be a martyr […] involves self-sacrifice and loss of social status; one undergoes humiliation, pain, even death for the sake of a higher purpose. Martyrdom as a self-conscious loss of self is nevertheless the result of free choice – even if that choice stems from a sense of obligation or duty.

Whilst I recognise all these ingredients in my process, I now identify my struggle as the struggle against martyrdom, the assembling of the tactics necessary to resist and minimize the possibility and impact of any quasi-martyrdom.

Perspectives

Ekow Eshun, Artistic Director of London’s Institute for Contemporary Art and Chair of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, also acknowledged the project’s “performativity” and the media fuelled the pressure to “do” or perform (qtd. in Antony Gormley’s ‘One & Other’). Yet when the project began on 6 July and I viewed the live streaming, it became clear that this was not an easily manageable context for any kind of presentation. I realised that I could not organise my performance in any way that I am used to and that in regarding the site as some kind of stage I had earlier made several false assumptions. The spatial dynamic gives the on-site onlooker, as Patricia Bickers points out, “a depressingly foreshortened view from above or below which diminishes, in every sense, both audience and participant”, whereas the live feed offers a “privileged view” (12). In this spectatorial confusion, how would I know where to direct myself? Secondly, it would be impossible to speak to onlookers in Trafalgar Square with a conversational or natural tone—amplification would be necessary. Thirdly, I also noticed that most onlookers stayed for a short time and then left, probably at least partly as a result of these factors. Was it likely that on-line viewers would watch for a whole hour?  What, therefore, was the point of creating a dramaturgically sound piece for an audience whose presence would be so unpredictable?

Gormley’s partner in the project was Sky Arts, with the event produced by Artichoke. The weekly Sky Arts programme dedicated to presenting the week’s “highlights from the plinth” was unashamedly concerned with the level of “entertainment” offered, hosted by a condescending presenter (Antony Gormley’s ‘One & Other’). Celebrities and media pundits got their spot on the sofa to make their sound bites and choose their “Top 5 plinthers”. It was cheap TV, with participants routinely objectified, commodified and codified, labelled alternately crazy, funny, boring, and so on. This programme, as well as much of the media surrounding the project, failed to understand and respond in any meaningful way to what each individual brought to it.

Given the unconducive performance arena, I made a radical shift of emphasis from word to image, from sound to silence, from script to improvisation. Many of the personal memories and associations I had explored in my first idea were subsumed into representative (but also personally associated) objects, symbols, adornments and actual signs. Although my clothing would be my own and I would look like “myself,” I would wear a pair of wings and a sign stating, “SCARED OF HEIGHTS.” I assembled a suitcase of objects for use in possible improvisations that would be unrehearsed and responsive to the given moment. Plan B, in case of disabling fear, was to ask to come down from the plinth. The sign drew attention to my fear, thereby diminishing, to some extent, its power to humiliate. It displayed my vulnerability and invited spectators to contextualise my behaviour and perhaps even to empathise. Wings have many symbolic cultural meanings, many of which overlap with my own interest in and fantasies of flight and “winged-ness.” Although these two elements were personally relevant, I also hoped that even a fleeting glance at this figure might engage the viewer momentarily with the irony in the juxtaposition of wings, which suggests the possibility or desire to fly, with the written message indicating a fear of heights, which would thereby limit the possibility or pleasure of flight. There are various modes of disclosure. Words, gesture and expression are three. Since a camera’s tendency is to focus on the face, and in particular the eyes, as the site of reading emotion, my instinct was to have in my arsenal some means of disguising, masking or otherwise concealing my eyes, thus partially withholding the full expression of emotion. My desire to hide, which might be interpreted as a desire for privacy, could at least be partially brought about. I took a joke “disguise” mask (spectacles, nose and moustache) and glow-in-the-dark Halloween skeleton spectacles (associated with my fear of death), both of which belong to my son. I set up the potential for other small, wry acts of resistance, including in my suitcase a pair of binoculars and a Polaroid camera, for turning the tables on those who looked upon and made images of me. Rather than using these personal objects to evoke or represent emotional memory, as performance artists such as Cristina Castrillo do (Aston 177), my personal objects acted primarily as both public sign or symbol, and as a comfort blanket of familiarity for my period of extremis—literally, props.

The Hour

In the “Welcome Lounge” I signed a Mephistopholean contract with Sky Arts, effectively handing over copyright of this hour of my life, agreed to an interview with an interviewer who had trouble listening, and allowed them to take photos of me, “for Antony”. The hour itself, however, proved quietly revelatory (see: http://www.oneandother.co.uk/participants/Jill.).

The first few minutes were exhausting as I acclimatised to my bizarre surroundings. But this intensity subsided somewhat as I realised my fear was manageable and that it would be neither traumatic nor debilitating. Oddly, I could not even see the Webcams out in the darkness. To return to Lampe’s analysis, I identify, throughout the hour, a shifting between different registers of performance, or personae, recognising myself as performer, my private self, my masked self (transformable) and an impossible fantasy of myself (adorned). Elements of ritual—repetition, mask, heightened awareness and responses—permeated the hour. These different registers seem to indicate different levels and means of disclosure dependent on the degree of control exercised through them. The self-contained episode of dancing while wearing the child’s disguise spectacles, while possibly amusing, might, for example, suggest an attitude towards my disclosure, an ironic stance towards the situation. Furthermore, and paradoxically, the feigning, or performing of control, in that dance, led to an actual increase of confidence. Whilst dancing, I felt a distancing between my outer, communicating self, which danced happily, enjoying the repetitive action as well as a sense of the odd figure I cut, and my private self, relieved to be behind a mask able to take this time to process and recover from what had been happening up until this point (see fig. 3).

Fig.3.. Image: Adam J.Ledger. Performer: Jill Dowse. One & Other. 2009.

Figure 3. Image: Adam J. Ledger. Performer: Jill Dowse. One & Other. 2009.

A few minutes before leaving the plinth, I took out the marker pen and added the words “A BIT LESS…” to the beginning of the sign. I realised that a real transformation had taken place, and marked it for myself, while simultaneously disclosing it to the observer. Yet after the event, I was astonished to discover that the veracity of my public self-disclosure was called into question. Some people, including the security guard who was only a few feet from me, asked me if I was really scared of heights. Clearly, my “inner condition” was not revealed, or rather, perhaps, it was not trusted because “performance is not the real world” (Heddon 28). If it is true that to act means “to feign, to simulate, to represent, to impersonate,” then mine was not a predominantly “acted” performance (Kirby 40). Claire MacDonald claims that “when a performance artist stands up in front of an audience she is assumed to be performing as herself” (189), but does that also suggest that their statements are to be believed or that their gestures might not be feigned? Perhaps this simply reveals a contemporary distrust of anyone placed on a pedestal and putting on a “show,” be it plinther or politician.

The relationship between the power and control I have over myself to the power and control exercised by other agencies remains ambivalent. At many points during the process, I was complicit in perpetuating the commodification of myself and the project: my small acts of resistance—deciding against uploading a photo to my “profile”, refusing the “Sky Arts” emblazoned umbrella offered on the day in favour of my own anonymous one (though this was partly an aesthetic choice), refusing the radio mike so that those on the Internet could not easily hear any voluntary or involuntary sound I may make—are hardly radical. It was dangerously easy, within this heightened period, for me to succumb to a carefully orchestrated media machine which performed interest in the individual while mitigating against the possibility of gaining deeper insights or connections.

I have been surprised to discover how deeply I care what others think of me. I still recognise the desire that I remember from adolescence to be, through performance, more visible, applauded, approved of. Although it is vital to learn not to attach undue importance to judgements with questionable value, the media has a certain (albeit highly contested) authority, and it can therefore be difficult to ignore opinions, and particularly negative ones, when they are broadcasted or published for anyone to hear or read. I feel fortunate that my vulnerability (and disclosure of such) was manageable, as if one willingly steps into a public arena, one must expect to be judged and be prepared not to be given a public right of reply.

Nonetheless, if one strips back the negative aspects of the media circus which surrounded it, One & Other was a meaningful event in which to have taken part. The public exposure against which I had armed myself proved unexpectedly peaceful and empowering and I experienced  Gormley’s assertion that One & Other offered participants the opportunity to “test their sense of self and how they might communicate this to a wider world” (qtd. in Antony Gormley’s “One & Other”). Artistically, I discovered that my attraction to certain performance styles and methodologies is implicitly and deeply linked to aspects of my own personality and how I desire to communicate. Finally, it has forced me to re-think and re-imagine my relationship with fear and challenge, recognising, even in the core of fear, the potential for transformation.

References

Antony Gormley’s “One & Other”. Pres. Clive Anderson. Dir. Peter Dick. Prod. Liberty Bell Productions. British Sky Broadcasting Ltd, London. 24 July, 1 Aug., 8Aug., 23 Aug., 28 Aug., 4 Sep., 11 Sep., 18 Sep., 26 Sep., 10 Oct., and 16 Oct. 2009.

Aston, Elaine. Feminist Theatre Practice: A Handbook. London: Routledge, 1999.

Augsburg, Tanya. “Orlan’s Performative Transformations.” The Ends of Performance. Eds. Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane. New York: New York University Press, 1998. 5–314.

Auslander, Philip. Performance. 2. London: Routledge, 2003.

Bickers, Patricia. Editorial. Art Monthly 9 Sep. 2009. 12.

Brooker, Charlie. “Charlie Brooker’s screen burn. Guardian Newspaper 11 July 2009. 13 Sep. 2009. < http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/jul/11/screenburn-antony-gormley >.

Carlson, Marvin. Performance. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2004.

Chaikin, Joseph. The Presence of the Actor. New York: Atheneum, 1980.

Dowse, Jill. Workbook. MS.

Gormley, Antony. “Conclusion of ‘One & Other’ October 2009. antonygormley.com 2009. 29 Nov. 2009 < http://antonygormley.com >.

Gormley, Antony. “Sculptures”. antonygormley.com. 2009. 7 Dec. 2009 < http://antonygormley.com/#/sculptures/chronology >.

Heddon, Deirdre. Autobiography and Performance. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008.

Howell, John. "Solo in Soho." Performance Art Journal IV. 1 and 2 (1979/80): 152–159.

Kirby, Michael. “On Acting and Not-Acting.” Acting (Re)Considered. 2nd ed. Ed. Phillip B. Zarrilli. London: Routledge, 2002. 40–52. 

Lampe, Eelka. “Rachel Rosenthal Creating Her Selves.” Acting (Re)Considered. 2nd ed. Ed. Phillip B. Zarrilli. London: Routledge, 2002. 291–304.

MacDonald, Claire. “Assumed Identities: Feminism, Autobiography and Performance Art.” The Uses of Autobiography. Ed. Julia Swindells. London: Taylor and Frances, 1995. 187–95

One & Other. Artichoke, Headshift and Sky Arts. 2009. 6 May 2009 < http://www.oneandother.co.uk/ >.

“Participants, Oliver”. One & Other. Artichoke, Headshift and Sky Arts. 2009. 6 May 2009 < http://www.oneandother.co.uk/participants/Oliver >.

“Participants, Bushewacker ”. One & Other. Artichoke, Headshift and Sky Arts. 2009. 6 May 2009 < http://www.oneandother.co.uk/participants/Bushewacker >.

“Participants, Jill”. One & Other. Artichoke, Headshift and Sky Arts. 2009. 6 May 2009 < http://www.oneandother.co.uk/participants/Jill >.

“Participants, RachelW”. One & Other. Artichoke, Headshift and Sky Arts. 2009. 6 May 2009 < http://www.oneandother.co.uk/participants/RachelW >.

Phelan, Peggy, and Jill Lane, eds. The Ends of Performance. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Theory. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1988.

Zarrilli, Phillip B., ed. Acting (Re)Considered. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2002.


Keywords


Performance; disclosure; Gormley



Copyright (c) 2009 Jill Francesca Dowse

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