Kissing Performances: parallel thoughts Claire Blundell Jones & Rosanna Irvine – visual artist & choreographer

After my work Ah kissing premiered at Nottdance 2017, I heard about visual artist Claire Blundell Jones’s 2008 piece Kissing. Glimpsing the documentation of the two works they seem similar: multiple couples kissing in a public space. I decided to make contact:

Hi Claire,
I wanted to be in touch with you as I’ve discovered that you did a performance work that involved couples kissing. I’ve recently premiered a new work called Ah kissing – that involves multiple couples kissing in a public space. Someone (who didn’t see my work but who was a kisser in your piece) sent me a link to your Kissing I – the image at Tate Liverpool. I’m writing to you to acknowledge your work and to let you know that although I’d researched kissing pieces that I hadn’t come across your work. I also wanted to let you know that although both our works involve couples kissing, their premises are very different – in terms of choreographic structure and artistic intent. Hopefully our works can sit in a panoply of works that do kissing.

Claire’s reply was swift:

Hi Rosanna,
Thanks for getting in touch, yes I made the Kissing works what feels like a life time ago to interrogate intimacy and public places. It will inevitably be different. Particularly as your background is dance and mine visual arts – who suggested it? Let me know if you do want to write about it and have an interview or something.

We decided to have a parallel Q&A about our different kissing pieces: 

WHAT WAS YOUR INTENTION IN YOUR KISSING PROJECT?

CLAIRE: My Kissing works investigates whether a living sculpture can be aesthetically beautiful – or will it be repulsive, as some people perceive public affection to be. My aim was to provoke a reaction from the public and gauge people’s perception of this particular act, multiplied for visual effect. The piece explores the boundaries of personal space, alienation and restraint.

I was interested in whether these kissing performances would question and challenge public space. Taking the private act of kissing and making a public demonstration of it, making it extrovertly public, has the effect of accentuating the strange action that most commonly takes place between two people in a bedroom. How might these performances suggest ways of being together in public? Is public kissing a form of showing off? Who do we normally see kissing and where? What happens if kissing is transformed into a crowd or collective act? These questions suggest the inseparability between kissing in public and identity politics.

Claire Blundell Jones’s Kissing I at Tate Liverpool 2008. Image credit the artist

Reactions to the performance usually ranged from people feeling a sense of longing and nostalgia to feelings of tension and disgust.

Kissing was developed for Leeds’ Perambulator Live Art event in 2007. It was later performed at Tate Liverpool and various public spaces in Leeds. The performances in public spaces aimed to activate the city areas and were driven by an interest in making art outside of institutional spaces.

ROSANNA: With ‘Ah kissing’ the aim was to create a choreography of attention in a public space – a perceptually charged event that would shift the experience of time and would interfere with the brisk anonymity and consumer driven behaviours of city streets. I wanted to work with many different couples to draw out commonality simultaneously with differences in an extended moment of human affection. The intention was to hold back from an overtly erotic encounter – to constrain the encounter between two kissers in a quality of something like tenderness through a constant awareness of their attention in the kiss or towards each other. And I wanted the event to seep out of the existing environment and melt back into it – as if it arose via the people who were already passing through the environment. It was conceived as a work for a (mostly) incidental audience – in the way that a sculptural work in a public space might exist.

Rosanna Irvine’s Ah kissing at Nottdance 2017. Image credit Kyle Hough

I had been researching approaches to performing dance and choreography that involve qualities of thinking that I call ‘non-representational’. I became very interested in how frames for giving attention through perceptual awareness can augment an immersion in the ‘act’ of thinking. For performers this can be experienced as an accentuated awareness in the unity of body and mind. And an immersion in the actuality of what they are doing. With ‘Ah kissing’ I wanted to bring this approach to working with attention and perception to a very simple scenario. 

HOW DID YOU WORK WITH THAT INTENTION AND WHO WERE THE PERFORMERS?

CLAIRE: The intention was to try and get as diverse a group as possible – age /ethnicity etc. so performers from all kinds of ages, backgrounds and interests. But the ease of using certain call outs via art connections meant that the diversity was limited. Rehearsals took place prior to the performances to organise the spaces and timings. The couples kissed in close proximity to each other.

Claire Blundell Jones’s Kissing II on Ilkley Moor 2008. Image credit the artist

There were ten couples in total, which included two ladies kissing and two men. Both these homosexual couples got quite a lot of abuse verbally and in gestures when the piece was performed in public space. I had not anticipated this but the couples in question walked out and away from the rest of the group as we had discussed if anything like this occurred. I was deeply shocked that in 2008 there was this kind of abuse in public spaces. It felt to me that WHO is kissing almost became more important than WHERE the kissing happened. 

ROSANNAI firstly choose a site for the presentation of the work. Then there is a public call out for participants – people of all ages, genders, sexualities, ethnicities and abilities – who are asked to come with a kissing partner. I do two workshops which draw on mindfulness practices and martial arts practices – particularly ki or energy extension. These practices develop both mind and body awareness, connection to breath, centredness and strength. We also work with gazing and slow walking – and with kissing within a simple choreographic structure of kissing, holding and gazing.

Rosanna Irvine’s Ah kissing Nottdance 2017. Image credit Kyle Hough

The work is performed by local – to the context – participants. In wanting the work to emerge out of the existing environment it makes sense that the work should be performed by people who are (in a sense) of that context. After two performances of the work it’s really clear that the context has a big impact – including on who comes forward to participate and on how the work is received by an audience.

WHAT CONTEXTS DID YOU PRESENT THE WORK IN – AND HOW DID THESE IMPACT THE WORK?

CLAIRE: Kissing I was presented as part of Leeds’ Perambulator Live Art event, at Tate Liverpool and then I invited new couples to perform the piece (Kissing II), across various public spaces around Leeds which was sponsored by Arts Council England. The various public spaces in Leeds in which is was performed included Millennium Square, outside the City Art Gallery, the train and bus stations. It was also performed on a train journey, the front row of a cinema and on Ilkley Moor. Permissions were sought for the use of public spaces.

Claire Blundell Jones’s Kissing I at Tate Liverpool 2008. Image credit the artist

The performances, as a means to sculpturally explore different contexts transformed the public places in varying ways. Spectators described how different their experiences were – when the nine kissing couples were in a lift, their kissing sound was amplified and made the piece quite disgusting whilst witnessing it from a far on Ilkley Moor it became quite beautiful. When Kissing was presented in an art context, such as Tate Liverpool it was received with less reaction. I concluded that it was more electrifying and transformative when displayed in non-art institutions.

When Kissing II emerged seemingly spontaneously in a public space it received a whole host of reactions including making the whole area silent. Most of the performances occurred in the public realm to unsuspecting audiences. The specific places were chosen for their contrasting natures, such as the train station, where large numbers of people pass through, in contrast to Ilkley Moor, a quiet, desolate location.

ROSANNAI first presented ‘Ah kissing’ in March 2017 at Nottdance festival in a busy pedestrian intersection of a shopping area in the centre of Nottingham on a Saturday afternoon. One month later it was presented at BUZZCUT Festival in the pedestrian approach to Govan subway station, an area of Glasgow just outside the city centre, again on a Saturday afternoon.

The pedestrian intersection in Nottingham was so busy with shoppers that that the bulk of the audience was that passing public. The audience who had come along to see the work as part of the programme of Nottdance festival was absorbed into the site. There was a lot of  reaction from the passing public – watching awhile, avoiding, smiling, videoing on smart phones, asking watchers what was going on (‘is it speed dating?’), some people joining in briefly – and a fair bit of quite loud and (to my ears) aggressive-sounding shouting (‘get a room!’). For the Nottdance audience there for the duration of the piece, the reactions of the passing public became part of what they were experiencing as the work. In Nottingham, despite efforts to reach out to diverse participants through community and arts organizations and through social media, the participants were all able heterosexuals couples – six in total. I didn’t think this was ‘wrong’ for the work; I felt it was how the work emerged in that context at that time.

Rosanna Irvine’s Ah kissing at Buzzcut 2017. Image credit Ian Abbott

At BUZZCUT the kissers were three  female couples, one male and three heterosexual. At least that’s how it appeared. But some of the kissers had paired up for the performance and were behaving outside of their usual ‘preferences.’ BUZZCUT is a young festival of experimental performance and live art. It crosses and pushes at all sorts of boundaries, has a very energetic inclusive ethos with BSL and audio description of performances and workshops (the performance included a deaf participant). Compared to the Nottingham site, the Glasgow site outside Govan subway station was quiet and had a slower movement of people. The very large BUZZCUT audience was quite a presence there. The passing public, and those already seated on public benches in the space, perhaps saw the audience as much part of the performance as the kissers. Public responses included just hanging around watching, hurtling a child away from the sight of it, interactions between public (an older man hanging around by the bus stop opening his arms to three approaching older women and a laughing banter ensuing) and a kind of chilled acceptance that it was all part of a sunny afternoon. At BUZZCUT it felt fitting to have bagpiper James Harper coming through the work, the sound of the pipes approaching from afar as had the individual performers, him being with the kissers awhile, and then leaving, the sound gradually dispersing as the kissers also dispersed.

HOW HAS YOUR WORK DEVELOPED FOLLOWING THE KISSING PROJECT?

CLAIRE: I have carried on making work in the public realm to unsuspecting audiences.  I continue to exploring the intimacy and alienation with strangers being close or distant, these approaches I developed through my Kissing performances.  For instance, in Norway for Veno Kunst 2015 my performance of Shipped-Wrecked of being stranded like Robinson Crusoe on a small island was only viewable for spectators through telescopes from the island opposite.

I went on to explore public intimacy through my Spooning (2010) in where I set up a bedroom for Distance Festival (in as un-seedy way as possible!), took my shoes off and lay waiting to see if any audience members would come and spoon me, as invited and described by an instruction on the door to this bedroom space. I spooned nine people across a three hour performance and all these hugs were different, telling me something about the personality of my audience member and spooner.

Much more recently I have been developing my skills in drawing and video-making and although outwardly the work looks different I’m still exploring the themes of intimacy and alienation, how we relate to one another as strangers or within our own families. I feel some of my earlier performances, such as Kissing, were much more striking but had less depth to them. I have been making work about funeral rituals and self-portraits as slugs which also have the similar themes of mixing up beauty and disgust – we think from afar kissing is beautiful but at close inspection it is a crossing, an amalgamation of saliva much like the trail of mucus and water that slugs repulsively excrete as they slime along. With this work I’m asking why there is such a hierarchy of taste in regards to the animal kingdom and there is a society wide love of speed and beauty.

ROSANNA: I’m planning more performances of ‘Ah kissing.’ I’m curious to see how it will continue to develop as it is performed in different cities, in different contexts and in different public spaces. At BUZZCUT lots of singles wanted to do the work but didn’t have a kissing partner. So we eventually facilitated people getting together for the performance. I hadn’t anticipated this – and it was a really interesting development – for me and the participants who were involved in that way. Does the act of kissing another, giving full attention to that other while remaining centred in oneself (which in a sense is the choreography) produce care? Tenderness? It seemed so. And there are more complex things in there too. I think that, in some contexts, it will be interesting to continue to develop singles partnering up. I’m energised by locating work in public spaces and working with a wider public as participants and audience. I’ve found a level of unpredictability in it that is kind of terrifying (for me) and kind of liberating (for the work).

I’m currently developing another participatory work for public spaces – ‘Breathing Line’ which I think of as a kinetic human sculpture. Like ‘Ah kissing’ it is a choreography of attention. It works with a very particular attention on the breath co-ordinated with simple pedestrian movement generating an oddly meditative and quietly rhythmic group action. I’m anticipating different versions of this work – in different public spaces – all leaving a trace of something behind that generates future action from the environment or context in which it’s performed. The first version will leave behind a trail of one thousand £1 coins – which become gifts for a public. The work questions transactional interaction and aims to generate discussion – opening issues such as our relationship to work, the value we place on time and the economy of the gift.

Link to Claire Blunder Jones website
Link to Rosanna Irvine website

 

 

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