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Ouroboros – JocJonJosch in London, 2014

7 October 2014

Ouroboros: the ancient symbol of a serpent devouring its own tail. A circle. A cycle. Birth and death. The struggle of life. Eternal return. Self begets self.

Rebirth

Ouroboros is also a performance installation by the Anglo-Swiss-Slovak art collective, JocJonJosch. I was privileged to be part of its premier at the Ancienne Chancellerie of Sion, Switzerland, from 29 November to 1 December 2013, where it coincided with the trio being awarded the Manor Cultural Prize 2013 and exhibiting collected works at the Musée d’Art du Valais.

It wasn’t until 3 August this year, however, that I published my blog of the experience and shared it with our performers’ Facebook group. A mere eleven days later, Joschi appended this mouth-wateringly enigmatic comment:

steve, thank you for the kind words, we look forward to working with you again soon

Ouroboros, as it turned out, was to be reborn: bigger, bolder and this time at the heart of London. Jon lit the touchpaper on 22 August:

Sorry for the short notice but we are happy to announce that Ouroboros will be part of Friday Late at the V&A on the 26th of September, 2014. More info in the document attached.
Ouroboros Performance – Friday late Art Licks at the V&A (PDF 36KB)

Application forms were soon flooding in to our event coordinator, Eugenie.

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Arts Licks for free at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Preparation

For the Brits who’d taken part in Sion this was not to be missed: Carol, Chas, Chris L, Clifford, Cy, Janet, Karen, Peter J, Martin and Yvonne, and I would all be reprising our previous work. We would be joined by other regular co-performers and models: Adrian, Chris A, Louise, Niv, Peter M, Robin and Toni. Many more besides.

A rehearsal afternoon was set for the Saturday ahead of our Friday night event, and there was a chance to meet the artists at the V&A on the evening before that. These were not mandatory for those who’d been in Sion but I wanted to be there. Alas, I was unable to make the meeting but I did join the rehearsals, from 2pm to 4pm in Studio 2 at the American Musical Theatre Academy of London.

Joc and Jon led us through warm-up exercises, a few clothed rehearsals and finally a complete nude practice run. It was a stiflingly warm day, which meant we were a tad sweatier than would be ideal. Matters must have seemed all the more uncomfortable for the lone woman rehearsing among 20 men, yet she glided through with unflinching serenity.

I guessed the male:female gender balance would be more like 3:1 on the night. In the event it was closer to 2:1 – of our 34 performers, including the three artists, we would be 24 men and 10 women. Achieving an even gender balance for large-scale call-out performances and photo shoots remains an elusive goal; a representative ethnic mix, even more so. Still, those willing and present can only be themselves. Commitment and respect remain the most important attributes anyone can bring.

Gathering

Friday arrived. We had been asked to gather outside the staff entrance of the V&A for 4:30pm. It wasn’t possible for everyone coming straight from work to get there quite so early but I was close enough, being only five minutes late. Eugenie took names and distributed wristbands – the latter would get us through security but be removed before performance. It became a grand reunion on the sun-soaked pavements of Kensington.

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Eugenie’s map to guide us in.

We passed a security booth and were led along back alleys, corridors and stairwells. These areas were more functional than fantastic, although one particular architectural motto caught my eye in the context of our work ahead…

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“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.”

Bad news awaited us. We had been expecting to perform in the magnificent Raphael Room (48a), but the partial collapse that same day of a vast ceiling-suspended mirror installation inside the room meant it was now strictly off-limits. The hunt was on for a suitable alternative; I waited in dread of the news that we would be cancelled.

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Mobile ceiling mirrors that got a bit too mobile.

Happily a space was found. The long, narrow wood-panelled Lunchroom was nothing like as grand as the area denied us but it introduced new possibilities for the dynamic and, most importantly, the show would go on. Our performances were scheduled for 6:45pm, 7:45pm and 8:45pm.

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Sign of the times.

Again we warmed-up, again we rehearsed while dressed. The search for a new venue meant we were running late but at last, come five past seven, we got the call to walk clothed to our stage. This was our moment.

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The programme.
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Our bit inside.

Performance

There are doors at each end of the long Lunchroom, one of which had been screened off to hide the performers prior to commencement. We entered at that end; lights were dimmed to an absolute minimum. We stripped naked and waited silently in the gloom while our public hubbubbed through the far door and began lining the walls. Already it seemed a much larger crowd than we faced in Sion.

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Lunchroom at the V&A, © JocJonJosch.

As audience murmurs subsided we each prepared to step forth. Peter J was to be our gatekeeper, assigned the task of releasing us one by one from behind the screens at intervals of about five seconds.

The door at far end was closed.

Settle… settle…

Silence.
Anticipation.
And then…

Joc and Jon led the way. Others followed. I was perhaps eighth to step out; solemn, emotionless, slowly pacing towards the small cluster of bodies that had begun forming at a distance. The considerable length of the room enhanced the spectacle. In Sion we each walked perhaps three paces to join the group; here it was more like twenty, trailing a comet’s tail of nude figures in our wake.

I made contact. My body pressed into other bodies, and more bodies pressed around me. We churned and turned and shuffled and milled. At the centre a lone body began its struggle to escape the throng, pushing out through the perimeter and immediately rejoining the mass. Prior to a body leaving they would tap the shoulder of a neighbour, thereby nominating them as the next to attempt escape. This was the cycle. This was Ouroboros.

We continued in this fashion for perhaps ten minutes. In wordless darkness all human senses were assailed with the muskiness of energetic skin, the light wafting breezes of our movements, the heavy slap of stumbling feet on floor tiles, and the succulent kisses of flesh on flesh.

The narrowness of our room brought an unexpected tension as it seemed we might tumble into the audience at any moment. It never happened, yet the possibility remained constant throughout our performance.

A loud double clap from Jon sounded the moment to begin our exit. From now on anyone bursting free of the perimeter would continue walking back to our screens at the same measured pace with which we’d made our entrance. One by one we left the scene. I was among the last to depart.

For unquantifiable moments, a silence reigned… and then came applause. And relief. Our first London audience had bestowed its approval on us. We dressed; the audience filtered out and we returned to our backstage room. The opening performance may have started late but it had gone very well indeed.

Our second performance began on time for what seemed like a slightly larger crowd, with slightly more lighting in the room. Perhaps because our confidence was high this one felt a bit rougher in our mass, but otherwise went equally well. Applause followed directly on the heels of the last performer’s exit, and resonated more richly. We also had our first primetime celebrity present: Graham Norton had joined the crowd and later tweeted his congratulations.

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A celebrity tweets.

We even managed to grab a few photos with him at the interval. Such shamelessness! An invitation to perform on his BBC show, however, was not forthcoming.

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Graham and Carol, with Janet and me photobombing at the back.

In my opinion the third performance was the best of the bunch. By now we were well warmed up and so were the masses. Applause at its close was almost thunderous. Such was our popularity that we were asked to follow immediately with an unplanned fourth performance to cater for the large crowd still queuing outside. In all I would say we were watched by perhaps 400 people on the night.

Come the end of our encore, the applause began long before we’d even passed out of sight. I was last to pace off the stage.

Exultation

The audience left, the lights went up, and we posed for group photos before dressing for a final time that evening. As always, JocJonJosch were not found wanting in their gratitude for our efforts. Signed photo prints were given to all participants, including a special heat sensitive print for those of us who’d been in Sion.

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30 of our 34 Ouroboros performers, respectfully blurred.

Our dispersal at the end of the evening was considerably less well coordinated than our performances. Regrettably I lost sight of several friends without saying a proper farewell. Chas, Clifford and I eventually managed to regroup in the cool night air and trek to the Hour Glass pub for celebratory drinks.

All was well in our world. After the initial setback of the room change, JocJonJosch had created performance experiences that exceeded anything we’d dared to imagine. When we remember Sion it is with an affection that can never be supplanted, but I felt these performances took us to a higher level.

In our post-event euphoria we dream of repeating the performances again and again as soon as possible. These rare installations are never recorded so they exist only in the memories of those who took part or witnessed them. Yet minimalism and exclusivity must remain if such intense physical art is not to descend into voyeuristic cabaret.

I count myself blessed to have worked with JocJonJosch three times to date: once for Existere and twice for Ouroboros. There is a purity, sincerity and thoughtful conviction in the way they’ve gone about everything I’ve seen them do.

Their art is real, it is corporeal, a precious ephemeral passage of life; to be cherished, never to be taken for granted. They deserve these big moments.

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