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Poses past, part IV – Existere

10 November 2012

On 16, 17 and 23 July 2011, JocJonJosch – a London-based Anglo-Swiss-Slovakian art collective – presented three large-scale living performance sculptures at Testbed1 in Battersea. Together with around 70 naked collaborators, their aim was to create a work that represented “ideas such as the unknown and intangible fears that exist outside our protective structures”.

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I joined the collaboration for its two rehearsals and three performance days. Multiple performances were presented each day, each one in front of a different live audience. In performance the naked artists and naked volunteers emerged from concealment in three corners of the performance space. We drifted slowly between diffuse standing audience members towards a blue square canvas under a skylight, assembled in tiers as a closed circle of bodies, and held for five minutes before softly dismantling and dispersing. The circle was made of units; the units were built of six bodies:

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It was a conscious decision of the artists that there would be no photographic or video record of any performance. They would be preserved only in the minds of participants and the live audience for each unique event. Only the performance space is preserved in pictures:

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In March 2012 the artists posted to Facebook asking participants to share their recollections in a book to document Existere’s existence. The following questions were posed, and a short deadline set for responses:

  1. There was a lot of naked people, in close approximate. Can you write something about the erotic aspect of the performance?
  2. Did the performance make you think about the body, your own or in general in any way?
  3. Did you see the performance as a collective or individual / existential piece?
  4. How did you interpret the performance, did it symbolise anything to you?
  5. What motivated you to take part & what were your expectations?
  6. How did the performance experience differ from your expectations?
  7. (a) You were asked to be in extremely close contact, whilst naked, with the other participants. Were you comfortable with this and why? (b) Did you feelings change during the course of the experience and if so why?
  8. How do you remember and reflect on the experience now; is there something in particular that remains with you from the performances and if so why do you think it remains with you?

Abroad at the time, I jotted down the questions and arranged some thoughts that evening over a meal. The next morning I posted this:

Reflections on Existere, posted from an Internet cafe in Athens, March 2012

The passage of time works quickly on memory, like a spoon stirring sugar into tea. Or dozens of naked bodies slowly coalescing, holding, trembling and finally fragmenting, drifting, disappearing. I was one such body, a performer of Existere, clothed or naked, participant in all rehearsals and performances. The memories remain but have started swirling.

Rehearsals clothed, limbering and loosening before practising, establishing roles, discovering strengths and weaknesses. Positioning the individual within the mass.  Knowing one’s place in an intimate society with no predetermined hierarchy. And at last undressing for the undress rehearsal. Camaraderie in nudity and silence till the work was done, when laughter and smiles could quickly resurface.

Performances naked, with the essential extra ingredient: an audience. A clothed audience to undress us further, peeling back naked body parts to contemplate minds and perhaps ponder finding their own place in the larger organism. Perhaps some of them wandered in seeking erotica. They were surrounded by full-frontal nudity, layers of bare skin upon bare skin, but is this alone erotic? As a performer in the intensity of the moment this felt a wholly sexless show.

Thoughts of the body were focused on whether my body and the bodies of those around me would make the performance a success each time. Was the timing right? Is the positioning correct? How long could we hold? The concentration needed at these moments left little time for sexual self-contemplation or the appreciation of others. Concentration was divided equally between my own performance and that of the whole. I was determined that I should not fail; determined that no performance would fail. It never did.

For me there was no need to seek symbolism in the performance. This was Existere. It was enough that it existed. And more than that, it existed because a concept had been made reality by a set of strangers from wildly differing backgrounds and with wildly differing personalities, and probably wildly differing motivations for taking part. My own motivation was the new challenge of bringing my body out into the open. And the reason for seeking the challenge was the simplest of all reasons – it has become something I enjoy.

Having such a light motivation probably eliminated the need for expectations. It was understood that no photographs or film of the performances would ever be published, so this made each moment “of the moment”, and only for all time in the swirling memories of the performers and audience members. I expected to be clothed and directed, and then unclothed and trusted. And I expected to be trusting of others. That mutual trust was perhaps the greatest beauty of Existere.

The close physical contact necessitated by Existere presented no great concern as Existere was an anonymous mass of contact. It was never personal. Oddly perhaps, I felt more painfully self-conscious during the fully-clothed warm-up routine when random pairings would provide mutual support. This sensation became more vivid with each new day until by the last day I felt compelled to step outside until it was over. But nudity and contact within the piece: never a problem.

I am happy to have been a part of Existere. If the cry went up for a reprise, I would do all I could to be a part of it again, although in my heart I know we could never relive our finest hour: that grey afternoon when naked bodies assembled beneath a glass roof and the only sound was a drumming of rain and the sudden boom of thunder overhead. We never saw the lightning. It was within us.

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