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Ouroboros – JocJonJosch in Sion, 2013

3 August 2014

I pass through curtains to enter a dimly-lit, windowless room. It has stone walls, stone floor, a stone ceiling. I am naked. An audience of strangers stands in the shadows. At the centre of the room I press into four other standing naked bodies: compact, turning, shouldering, agitating, seething against one another.

More bodies join until we are a mass of more than 20. As we continue to press, a lone body struggles to escape from the core. Once free, it rejoins the mass while within the centre another body begins its journey towards fleeting freedom. The cycle of struggle continues until, at a subtle sign, one by one we peel away and slowly exit through the curtains till none remain.

This was Ouroboros, a performance by JocJonJosch. It debuted in Sion, Switzerland on 29 November, 30 November and 1 December 2013 for the opening weekend of their Hand in Foot exhibition at the Musée d’Art du Valais.

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In the beginning

My journey to Switzerland started on a bicycle. It was a warm June day in the UK and I had just crossed the finish line of the London Naked Bike Ride 2013. There, in the shadow of Wellington Arch, I found fellow nude performer Chas. We set to reminiscing about past glories.

Most fondly remembered were the Existere performances of 2011 for JocJonJosch – the Anglo-Swiss-Slovak collective of Jocelyn Marchington, Jonathan Brantschen and Joschi Herczeg. We agreed it would be a fine thing to work with them again. And, lo, as fate sometimes has it, two days later Chas emailed to say he’d just encountered Jon entirely by chance, and was given news of a major forthcoming performance:

At Brighton yesterday, I bumped into Jon from JocJonJosch, who told me they are reviving a new, bigger (90 people?) ‘Existere’ later this year; Fri 29 Nov – Sun Dec 1. Sion, Switzerland.

Accommodation might be free (in a castle.)

This is not an official notification, but they should be e-mailing us soon. (However, I have thrown the pebble into the pond, and the ripples are spreading rapidly.)

This was a mouth-watering prospect. It wasn’t long before a Facebook group had been created for the new ‘UNTITLED’ performance, and a call-out for participants followed.

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As the two things I love most in life are travel and participation in the arts, I needed no persuading to sign up. Even before the end of June I’d already bought tickets for return flights between Luton and Geneva.

In London

There are creative reasons why working for JocJonJosch is such a real pleasure, and also personal ones: the trio are never less than considerate, engaging, generous and all-round nice guys. It was first shown to us on this project when they offered to meet potential participants in London to explain their vision and answer questions.

The meeting took place at the British Museum on 19 July. Only about half a dozen of us were able to join Joc and Jon (Joschi was working on the Swiss side), but it was a great way to whet the appetite and explore ideas. I posted my notes to the Facebook group for those who couldn’t make it:

A handful of us met with Jonathan and Joc at the British Museum this evening. I scribbled a few notes as we were going through. Some of this you’ll already know, but here’s the whole lot anyway.

EVENT STATUS:
Funding is secured. The dates are 100% confirmed. This exhibition will definitely go ahead. The museum (venue) is expecting it to happen.

THE PERFORMANCE:
Currently called ‘UNTITLED’, it will get a proper name in due course. It will take place in a large stone room – stone floors, stone walls – with high ceiling arches but otherwise undecorated; free of furniture and wall-hangings. The piece is to be an exploration on the theme of searching.

In performance we will be huddling very tightly together – assume a single group for now – as a kind of human herd or cell-like organisms. One person at the centre of the group will struggle to get free while the rest of the group moves to prevent them doing so. That person will try to get to the edge of the group. If they make it, their struggle ends; alternatively they may have to give up before they get to the edge. When their struggle ends, another person at the centre of the group will begin to struggle, and so on. In this way over time the group shifts and shuffles around the room, continually re-folding in on itself.

That’s the basic conception but there are still many refinements to explore. For example, will each day be a number of separate performances with breaks in between, or will it be one continuous performance that individuals can leave and rejoin? Will the group stay as a single mass, or might sub-groups break away and reform? The trigger to determine which person begins their struggle when the previous one ends also has to be worked on.

This performance is expected to be far less physically demanding than Existere (which only now do I find is pronounced ‘Exist-array’, not ‘Exist-air’!) Also, there is not expected to be any choreography involved but there will be rehearsals (more of this below).

TIMING:
We must be on site at 3pm on the Friday for final rehearsal. Performance may begin around 6pm. On the Saturday, the unconfirmed estimate is that we could start performing around 10:30am and go through to 5pm. Sunday should wrap up at 5pm too. UK performers are welcome for the whole of Sunday but are not expected to stay as accommodation would only be provided on the Friday and Saturday night.

PERFORMERS:
The aim is to get roughly 70 performers involved but no upper limit has been set and no-one is being turned away. Currently about 20 of us are signed-up from the UK. Although funding is secure for the performance itself, with some more available for accommodation, the budget is not unlimited. In other words, there won’t be 70 of us living it up in five-star hotels. JJJ want to secure reasonable accommodation for the people they have confirmed with before giving definite confirmation to too many more, but they are still keen to get people interested so keep spreading the word.

Lots of options are being explored for accommodation, including hostels and army barracks. Hopefully we won’t have to take sleeping bags as that could put a lot more on the luggage cost for those flying from the UK.

In addition to UK performers, Jonathan has begun recruiting within Switzerland (Joschi is out there at the moment), targeting dance schools, theatre groups, etc. About 20 Swiss folk are also now on board. Hopefully these should not need accommodation.

THE AUDIENCE:
It’s assumed that performers are likely to outnumber audience members at any given time. The audience will be at liberty to stand wherever they please in relation to the performance but are not expected to interact with it and would be expected to move out the way of it if it morphed in their direction.

REHEARSALS:
It is hoped we can be told within the next fortnight about possible UK rehearsal dates. Indeed, we’re likely to know about rehearsals before we know about accommodation. It was suggested that a weekend near the end of August could be chosen; I pointed out that several of us have commitments to another performance on 31 August.

DOCUMENTING THE PERFORMANCE:
No decision has been taken on how the event will be documented. It definitely will be documented but the most appropriate form won’t be known until we’ve rehearsed and JJJ have a better feel for how the performance will look. All options are still on the table. My personal guess would be there will be a video record as this event must have its own identity and not be led by the decisions that were right for Existere. I stress that this one last line alone is “my guess” – it did not come from JJJ.

All the above info can be treated as public domain and be shared as you see fit. I’m sure one of the chaps will step in to correct me if I’ve got any of this wrong. It was great to see them again, and I for one can’t wait for it become real.

Our first rehearsal took place on Saturday 14 September 2013 between 3pm and 6pm at the Court Room of Toynbee Studios in east London. It was another of those nice gathering-of-the-tribe occasions at which friends from all corners of the UK converge. I had worked with many before on Existere and other performances: Andi, Carol, Chas, Chris, Clifford, Cy, Janet, Karen, Martin, Peter, Yvonne.

We were put through warm-up routines by Typh; a friend, fellow performer and regular rehearsal lead. After clothed movement and interaction work we remained dressed for several run-throughs of the performance itself. Movement was pretty straightforward, if sometimes a mite too physical at the outset, so we focused on the entrance, exit and ‘escape’.

The exchange between those who would successively struggle to escape received the most attention. In this rehearsal a small token was used – the first person would hand a token to the next before escaping; that person would then pass the token to another before beginning their own escape, and so on. Seemingly simple enough, but it took a few attempts for it to operate smoothly.

We had one last practice with all participants naked, including the artists. This set the seal on a promising session before we retired to the nearest pub. Then on 28 October, a month before the first performance, a new call-out came from Jon:

Dear Participants,
We are very sorry for the short notice but we have scheduled another London rehearsal.
It would be great if as many of you as possible could join us in London next Sunday 3rd November between 12pm & 4pm. We have another interesting venue for the rehearsal, the old BBC building in Marylebone High Street. The call sheet will follow.
Apologies again for our lateness with this rehearsal.
Jonathan

Holiday commitments meant I was unable to attend this one. In a further refinement to the hand-over between escapees, however, it was decided here that the sign would be a tap on the arm rather than the passing of a physical item.

On 8 November we learned the official name for the performance: Ouroboros. Chosen apparently because Ouroboros is an ancient symbol of the serpent eating its own tail, symbolising self reflectivity, cyclicality, and the eternal return. By general consensus, it was a most appropriate appellation.

With that decision the complete performance was defined. Next stop: Sion.

In Sion

There wasn’t a grand coordinated exodus from the UK to Sion. All manner of transport was used from various exit points, dates and times. My own departure was on the day of the performance, flying out of Luton at 06:25. I spent the night before at the Premier Inn just a stone’s throw from the airport – the happiest I’ve been in that noble town.

Arriving in Geneva at 09:05 local time, I took a train from Genève Aéroport to Sion and got there around midday. At that time I still didn’t know where I would be spending the night, or where I should be meeting the others, but I knew where the exhibition was so I headed for the Musée d’Art du Valais.

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Arrival at Sion station

It was a bright but chilly day of clear skies and brilliant sunshine. Sion was pristine in its green valley, hemmed close on both sides by sentinel grey mountains, the highest of which were capped with snow. Weighed down with nothing more substantial than a small backpack, I soaked up the refreshing atmosphere as I strolled to the museum.

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The Musée d’Art du Valais in Sion

The Musée d’Art du Valais was not open to visitors when I arrived, but its doors were unlocked and the nice lady at the ticket desk kindly summoned Joc from deep within the bowels of the museum. He in turn called Jon, and it was established that I would be sharing a room with Chris at Hotel Elite for two nights, in the centre of town.

This was a real bonus as I’d expected somewhere remote in a village further down the valley. I met Chris at the hotel, also found Cy and together we explored some more of the town before we were due at our first Swiss rehearsal.

The museum stands slightly above the old part of town. Up to the east, along Rue des Châteaux, are the Ancienne Chancellerie (Old Chancery) and Ancien Pénitencier (Old Penitentiary): we would perform Ouroboros in the former; a small group would perform JocJonJosch’s ‘Rolling’ in the latter. Château de Tourbillon occupies a ridge a little to the northeast, while Château de Valère tops a peak five minutes’ walk to the south.

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Rue des Châteaux – the Old Chancery is the white building on the left

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Château de Tourbillon

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Château de Valère

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The Old Penitentiary

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White figure with no head at the Old Penitentiary

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And there’s me with the Hand in Foot poster at the Old Chancery

Friday performances

Participants assembled at the Old Chancery for 3pm. Including the artists themselves, my estimate had us at about 27 in number, of which at least 20 were Brits. What had happened to the hoped-for matching Swiss contingent, I know not. It’s why artists are now happy to call-out regularly to the core of our performance network, however: they know we’re reliable and have the right attitude towards artistic performance.

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Our performance space in the Old Chancery, before the lights were dimmed

Rehearsals, both clothed and naked, refreshed our memories and served to familiarise us with the environment. Afterwards we went separate ways, returning to the museum under darkness for the big opening night.

The evening started ceremonially, with JocJonJosch being awarded the Manor Cultural Prize 2013 – designed to “encourage, support and publicise young artists.” In addition to a cash prize of 15,000CHF – not to be sneezed at – it granted the first monographic exhibition at the museum, together with a catalogue. Well done, the lads!

My own contribution to festivities was confined largely to roving between gallery rooms hoovering up outrageous quantities of complimentary red wine and tarte au citron. I felt nicely relaxed when the time came for our first performance…

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Instructions for a French-, German-, Italian-, Romansh-speaking nation

Typh and four of the chaps disappeared to do their ‘Rolling’ – more of this later – while the rest of us stripped in the changing room next to our performance space in the Old Chancery. We fell silent as we heard our audience begin to enter on the opposite side of the curtains.

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The debut performance on opening night would surely be our most important. The first naked body entered the space; pause; then another; pause; then another; pause; and another; pause; and then it was my turn to step into that dimly-lit stone room.

The performance embodies JocJonJosch’s understanding of the ‘search’ as an impulsive movement forward necessitated by a desire to reach a resolution. The artists query where this search leads and whether the significance is not in reaching the endpoint but instead in the movement forwards that is perpetuated by the promise, or suggestion, of an answer.

More bodies joined us as we huddled around together: jittering, jostling and jockeying, moiling and toiling against one another. As the mass pressed into itself, the first body struggled to escape from its core. It burst free and immediately rejoined on the outside while at the centre a new struggle commenced.

The cycle continued until, all too soon, we got the signal to begin peeling away one by one, slowly to exit through the curtains. The rooms were silent. And then the audience broke into applause. It was tempting to return and take a bow, but instead we satisfied ourselves with big shared smiles at our first Swiss success.

Two more performances followed. It was a long day. Afterwards, while many hastened to Les Divins Brasseurs for pizza and lashings of late night refreshments, I returned to Hotel Elite and plunged into a nigh-unprecedented nine hours of unbroken sleep.

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Friday sunset over Sion

Saturday performances

I crawled from bed the next morning, peered out the window and was staggered to see almost two inches of snow had fallen overnight. It was a white-out, from ground to sky. The town was utterly transformed. Now we could admire its scenery all over again.

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Saturday morning, overnight snow

Our initial schedule listed five Saturday performances, but JocJonJosch were adapting according to their anticipated audiences. As performers, we merely had to make sure we were all available on time whenever a performance was expected. As it turned out, we completed four more Ouroboros cycles, taking the running total to seven.

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White figure, now with head, at the Old Penitentiary

A complimentary lunchtime feast was provided in the Old Chancery to keep us amply nourished. It was all good healthy fare, with plenty enough for everybody involved.

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Joschi starts setting the lunch table

Out and around town we savoured the joys of local glühwein and took time properly to admire ‘Hand in Foot’ at the Musée d’Art du Valais.

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Dig Shovel Dig – © JocJonJosch video, 2013

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Worstward Ho! – © JocJonJosch circular boat, 2013

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Body Cabinet 1 – © JocJonJosch C-type print, 2009

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Beast Mutation 3 – © JocJonJosch video, 2010, with me and Peter, captured by Cy

Saturday night was to be our last night all together in town. Again the lads showed us hospitality par excellence as they hired a bar and provided hot food – my first taste of glorious raclette – and a disco. All we had to do was bring a bottle and cut loose.

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Cy, Peter and me – three stooges do disco

We were well merry by the time the DJ played Boney M’s ‘Rivers of Babylon’, with the lyric: “by the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea we wept, when we remembered Zion.” For our rabble-roused version it transformed into: “…when we remember Sion.” It became our anthem.

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Clockwise from bottlehead: Janet, me, Martin, Cy, Karen, Glynis, Yvonne

Sunday performances

Come Sunday morning the snow lingered but a pure blue sky had returned. A handful of participants had left early to begin their long journeys home. Several of the ‘Rolling’ performers had gone but enough of our core group remained for us to stage the eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh performances of Ouroboros.

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Blue sky over Sion

After the eleventh we sat in our changing room, dressed or in dressing gowns, waiting to hear whether there would be a number twelve – there would not. Instead, the artists came in and told us they would like to put on one more performance of ‘Rolling’. They were lacking two performers, however, and needed volunteers.

No more than a second passed before Martin piped up, “I’ll do it!” And about a second later I said likewise. Together we were in. There would be a single rehearsal, and then a live performance in front of our last audience of the weekend. Martin and I grinned at each other like a couple of kids.

Rolling

In the Old Penitentiary we would be performing on the stone floor at ground level while our audience lined the first floor balconies, observing us from on high.

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Inside the Old Penitentiary – our Rolling floor

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Audience vantage point for Rolling

Performance time: I entered the ground floor space with three other male participants, all clothed. In the murky light we lay side by side, silent and motionless at one end of the stone corridor. Typh entered next, naked, and lay lengthwise across the four of us. Slowly we began rolling along the corridor, transporting her through the building.

As Typh travelled forward, so the person at the back of the rollers would stand, walk to the front, lay down and begin rolling again. With her highly-tuned dancer’s grace, Typh twisted and writhed as she was borne upon us, never once touching ground.

We covered the full distance, paused, and returned again. Having completed the round trip, Typh slowly rose and paced catlike from view. Rollers followed, as did applause.

After the initial thrill that came from the chance to participate, personally I was relieved to get through it. Physically this was a far more demanding piece than Ouroboros, and I carried its bruises for several days. If the chance came along to do it again, however, I like to think next time I’d take fewer than two seconds to volunteer.

Homeward bound

With performances complete and farewells said, it was time for me to begin my retreat to the UK. A train to Geneva, a bit of time at an Internet café near the station, then the last leg to Genève Aéroport. My flight back to Luton left promptly at 21:40 and I arrived home a little after midnight.

My fellow performers who’d opted for a road trip enjoyed a more sedate return, making time for a day at the Swiss thermal spa Les Bains de Lavey. Top marks for planning. They’d found a perfect way to relax and absorb the wonders of what we’d just done.

Meanwhile, early Monday morning I was back at the day job. Three extraordinary days had liberated us from the conventional, the mundane, the stern grind of reality. It’s why art exists. Why art must exist – because it elevates us and carries us to extraordinary places. On this occasion, literally.

Ouroboros. Rolling. Hand in Foot. We pass through the curtains…

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