Wednesday 28 July 2010

Psalter Lane, two years on

So, it's gone. Well, a lot of it.

Two years ago I posted this entry about Psalter Lane Campus in Sheffield, and the neon pink message painted above its closed doors: You'll Miss Me When I'm Gone.

One year ago, I posted this update along the lines of: still here, but empty.

This Summer, as I've been walking past on my way to work, I've seen Psalter Lane slowly dismantled - all but the old library building. Here are some photos I've taken over the last six weeks.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Do You Mind If I Ask You a Few Questions?

We get the cheap suits and matching haircuts in Sheffield.

The hairdresser – my hairdresser – is visibly distressed when I tell her what we want. She’s been slowly nursing me away from my very long hair for several years now, with the promise that she will eventually get to cut something other than ‘not short’ into it. But this isn’t what she was hoping for: short back and sides, side parting; the squarer we look, the better. She cuts me first. I look suitably geeky. The she gives Jerry exactly the same cut. He looks cool.

The suits are £40 each, machine washable. We want to look like we are at work. Dressed for work. The regular discussion about outfits and clothes instead of costume. Our reference point is the people who stop you in the pedestrianised bit of the city centre with a clipboard, who want to know if you wear deodorant or like crisps. It’ll only take ten minutes. They are mostly women (on Sheffield’s Fargate, at least), and the few men amongst them are a bit stuck as to what to wear. A suit, in order to look smart – they’re Dealing With The Public, after all – but they’re outside all day, might need a coat over the suit, it’s going to start to look shabby. They don’t want to wear their best suit, or buy a new expensive one. So forty quid machine washable is just the job. I look like an estate agent. Jerry looks like a spook.

Glasgow. We set up our research space downstairs in the Arches, in a pair of rooms I think of as Franko B’s rooms, having taken part in one of his one-to-one performance experiences in there the year before (with Aktion 398). We kit the space out on the Thursday: table, two chairs, desk lamp, evidence book, questionnaire forms (duplicate), mini-disc recorder. On the walls are a series of blown up A-Z map squares with a single red dot on each one: This Is Where It Happened.

Our research project is called Where Have They Hidden All The Answers? We start work on the Friday. Wearing our suits, carrying clipboards through the Arches café bar, I am surprised by how much attention we attract. Lois Keidan, who I will later watch painting Michael Mayhew in his own blood (in A Sequence of Actions That Matter), looks genuinely shocked by our attire. How do you cause a stir at the National Review of Live Art? Turn up in suits and ties.

Downstairs we get to work. One of us out in the corridor, marshalling our participants, managing the list; the other, in the second room (the first room acts as a sound lock), conducting ten minute interviews. We are sharing stories: trying to convince our participants, who experience the work one at a time, that a particular urban legend is true, then recording an urban legend from them, or, in fact, any story that they want to tell us.

I am often struck by how keen they are to get the story right; taking a moment to think it through, correcting themselves, retelling a key moment. After we have taken their story they sign the questionnaire and take the top copy for themselves. We show them out of the room through a different door, into a narrow corridor that leads them back to the café bar.

We find out later that on at least one day, our interviewees gathered around a table in the bar; you weren’t allowed to join them if you hadn’t ‘been in yet’. An evolving group, sharing their experiences. What story were you told? What story did you tell? Of course we never see this group. But it is gratifying to find out afterwards that not only were we collecting stories, we were helping to spread them, too.


We made Where Have They Hidden All The Answers?, our first one-on-one performance, for the National Review of Live Art in 2002. This year we were honoured to be asked to contribute something to the NRLA 30th Anniversary Catalogue, which is what the text above was written for. The Catalogue itself is a thing of beauty, edited by Dee Heddon, Nikki Milican and Jennie Klein, with contributions from so many massively influential makers of Live Art it would be churlish to mention just a few. Originally available only at the NRLA earlier this year, the last few copies are available online from the New Territories website.


We went on to present Where Have They Hidden All The Answers? at several UK venues, and remade it in Portuguese for the Site Festival in Coimbra, and in French for Center Culturel Suisse in Paris.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Learning to Drown (Part 2)

[see previous post for Part 1]

Dear Paula

There’s an interesting thing I forgot to mention earlier. The “quick” in quicksand does not mean “fast”. It means “alive” – as in the phrase “the quick and the dead”. That feels important to know.


The man shouts for help. He is panicking, shouting as loud as he can, suddenly and unexpectedly; very quickly his throat is sore and he is out of breath. As he stops to breathe he realises that this is stupid: it is the middle of the night and there is no-one around to hear his cries. If he loses his voice from shouting now, he won’t be able to call for help later, when someone might be awake to hear.

So he waits.

How long, he wonders, should he wait. It is Sunday morning – when will people be around? Not early, he thinks. He is aware that he is still sinking, just very slowly. He tries not to look at his watch. Despite his discomfort, the tiredness begins to set in and he even feels his head nod a couple of times, and he has to jerk himself awake.

Slowly the sky brightens he can gradually distinguish between the sky and the sand, and between them, a thin sliver of sea, a long way away, across the vast, puddled expanse of beach that stretches out in front of him. He is completely sober now. He thinks about time, and about tides, and he realises what is about to happen. He begins to shout again.

The man’s cries are heard by a farmer, out in his field on the hillside overlooking the bay. Now, the farmer is not usually out in his fields at daybreak on a Sunday morning, and in fact, as he will later tell incredulous newspaper reporters, this is the first Sunday this year that he has been out at dawn on a Sunday. Normally he has Sunday mornings off. But he has been ill for the last few days, and has work to catch up with, and so, just by chance, he is making an early start this particular Sunday. And as he is walking across his field he hears a man’s voice crying for help, coming from the bay below him.

He makes his way down the hillside, towards the shouting voice.

The man has been shouting for some time, perhaps half an hour or more, by the time he hears the farmer calling to him. The farmer has ventured out on to the sand, following the man’s own tracks, but will still not come too close to the quicksand. When the man stops shouting, the farmer tells him that he has called for help, and that the fire brigade are on their way. The farmer tells him not to worry.

The wait begins.

They say that in Morecambe Bay the tide comes in “as fast as a horse can run”. The man watches in horror as the tide, so distant at first, rushes towards him across the vast stretch of sand. As it gets closer, he feels his body begin to struggle involuntarily, causing him to sink a few precious centimetres further before he regains control of himself.

He hears himself cry out as the first shallow waves rush around him. He begins to cry. The farmer is shouting at him, but he isn’t really listening. But a minute or two after the water has reached him, he hears the sirens piercing the air in the distance.

Exactly what happens next is unclear – jumbled, panicked memories conflict with each other trying to recall and explain it - and it all happens so fast. But piecing it together, these are the events that must happen:

The farmer runs back to the road to wave down the fire engines and point the firemen towards the stranded man.

The first fireman hauls a set of metal-work “planks” across the sand. He lays the planks down in the water and onto the sand around the stricken figure, in a triangular formation.

The water is now at shoulder level to the submerged man, and the fireman stands astride him, feet on the safety of the metal, takes his head in his hands and lifts. His job is to keep the man’s face out of the water to allow him to keep breathing. His job is to keep the man alive long enough to be rescued.

Two other firemen make slower progress across the sand with their air pumping apparatus. They get as close as they dare to their colleague and the man, the water now around his neck, the waves splashing his jaw. The pump is attached to a hose, which they stab into the sand and pump air down into the quicksand.

As the waves lap over the man’s face, the air bubbles up from the hose, breaking the viscosity of the quicksand and two of the firemen heave the man up and out. They drag him across the beach, wading knee high through the tide, half carrying him in fact, their pump, hose and other equipment lost to the incoming tide.

I often think about that man, when I am on a beach. And I wonder if he ever goes near the sea any more?

I’ll write again soon,


Friday 2 July 2010

Learning to Drown (Part 1)

Dear Paula

There’s a story I’d like to tell you. It’s a true story.

On the North West coast of England is Morecambe Bay – a large expanse of almost flat sands, surrounded on three sides by land. Because it is so flat the tide come in very fast.

But when the tide is out it is actually possible to walk across the narrowest part of the bay (about three kilometres). It is possible, but extremely dangerous. Morecambe Bay is riddled with shifting areas of quicksand. Each year the patches of quicksand have to be re-mapped, and the local guides have to learn the new routes across.

It is understood locally that you do not attempt to walk across Morecambe Bay at any time other than on a guided walk, during daylight. To attempt to cross the bay alone, particularly at night, you would have to be very foolish. Or drunk.

Summer 1992, Saturday night. It is gone midnight and a man, a holiday-maker, finds himself looking across the bay from the south, from Arnside towards Grange-over-Sands where his caravan is. He has been drinking, but the pubs are now closed, and for some reason he is alone. He could walk round the bay, but that is a walk of over six kilometres, and means walking along railway bridge. The tide is out and the moonlight reflects invitingly on the flat, wet sand. It looks solid enough. Why not walk? Surely it would be fine, it’s a clear night, he can see what he’s doing. Safer than the railway bridge. It doesn’t occur to him to stay where he is, to not make the journey.

Foolish, or drunk, or both.

He sets off across the sand – at this part of the bay it is really the estuary of the River Kent, and he is almost surrounded by land. The sea is literally kilometres away.

But, sure enough, it’s late, he’s had a few drinks, he’s tired, he’s guiding himself by moonlight and anyway, you cannot tell the difference between quicksand and normal sand just by looking it. That’s why it is so dangerous. Two hundred metres out onto the sand. His foot sinks to his knee almost instantly, and he topples forward, hands sinking into the sand, too. Instinctively he rights himself, pulling his body up, and his trailing leg forward.

Adrenaline floods his body, and that, combined with the sudden cold, helps to sober him up to some extent, and he realises that he is in danger. He knows this is quicksand, and he knows something about quicksand. What he knows is that the more he struggles, the deeper he will get. He’ll simply wriggle himself into the sand. He holds his body as still as he can, one leg thigh deep, the other knee deep, in the wet sand. He’s not sinking. Good. Slowly he tries to reach round to the solid sand behind him – it cannot be more than a metre away can it? But just twisting round that much is enough to loosen the sand around him and he is pulled deeper, the cold seeping through the crotch of his jeans.

He begins to shout for help.


We’ll have to leave him there for now, but I will write again soon.

Love from Alex