- Gallery 1:
'The Bear Pit'
- 21 July to 17 October 2015
‘The Bear Pit’ is a purpose-built installation, which simultaneously operates as both studio and exhibiting space. Visitors are restricted to a raised gantry which surrounds and creates a viewing point for an enclosed area below. Three artist-run spaces from around the UK have been invited to curate a programme of events, exhibitions or residencies for a period of three weeks each.
The design for the construction is drawn from a student facility at Middlesex University, which was formerly based in an old industrial building in Wood Green, London, during the late 1990s. Nicknamed for its formal resemblance to the 19th century bear enclosures in parks and zoos, the space consisted of a series of raised walkways over a studio and performance area. This intimidating environment reinforced an intense interaction between audience and performer, shifting the power relationship more typically assumed.
This exploration of the conjuncture between institution, audience and artist will be further unpacked through Focal Point Gallery’s installation, which will also provide access to the
developmental stage of the projects – inviting viewers to observe development, rehearsals and set-up from the gantry. A live-feed from the space will be displayed on the external Public Screen in Elmer Square, adjacent to the gallery.
‘The Bear Pit’ programme:
Slot 1: 20 July to 8 August
Grand Union, Birmingham: Residency | Alice Theobald
Event date: Saturday 8 August
During her three week residency in ‘The Bear Pit’, Alice Theobald will draw from research on ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’ a term coined by critic Martin Esslin in a 1960 essay. The term references a style of theatre associated with the work of a group of playwrights in the late 1950s, which cohered with philosopher Albert Camus’ existentialist view that the human situation is essentially absurd in its struggle to find purpose and to control its fate.
For Theobald’s project in Southend-on-Sea, the locality becomes a source of material and inspiration, while ‘The Bear Pit’ itself emerges as a site for experimentation, process, and performance. The space will simultaneously host the production and ‘the production’ itself. This paradox is relished, denying a sense of finality or ‘end product’ while, at the same time, presenting and playing itself out as something
staged and worthy of observation. Plot will be eliminated through the use of dislocated language, word-play, clichés and repetitions allowing potential for a timeless, nonsense and circular quality to emerge.
The project will continue Alice Theobald’s interest in live performance, video, installation and music as a means to actively explore the division between stage and life, alongside the discrepancy between expression, appearance and feeling. Borrowing from the vocabulary of cinema, television, theatre, literature and musical scores, Theobald is interested in the make-up and construction of performance, the challenges of acting and the blurring of character creation on and off ‘stage’. Questions of representation, manipulation, sincerity and genuine behaviour circulate the action. Layered wordplay, gesture, repetition and double-entendres accumulate to multi-faceted compositions, which reflect and loop back on themselves – becoming slippery, tragicomic truths about relationships, everyday life and typically introspective paranoia and doubts.
Slot 2: 10 August to 29 August
OUTPOST, Norwich: Residency | Lucky Dragons
Our Sun and the True Sun
Event date: Saturday 22 August
Lucky Dragons’ three-week residency at Focal Point Gallery will make use of The Bear Pit as an experimental site for the study of long distance communication, co-location, and time-shifting. Streaming images, sound, and language in an array of feedback loops across a variety of scales, Fischbeck and Rara will open a direct channel of communication between Southend-on-Sea and Los Angeles, as well as testing out new forms of exchange between audience and performers within the gallery itself. Layers of live and delayed transmissions accumulated during the first half of the residency—video chats, webcam feeds, radio broadcasts, audio loops, etc—will be presented as unstable documents of uncertain origin, culminating in a focused performance that explores our sense of simultaneity, being-together, and common frames of reference across physical and temporal distance.
Following the performance, collected material will be translated, stored, and made apparent as residual effects: delayed sounds return, analysed and re-synthesized; video images, converted to electricity through photovoltaic cells, begin again as generative patterns of light. Forms of display, performance, and interactivity will be found through on-site experimentation, taking shape, breaking down, and recombining over the course of the residency.
Slot 3: 1 September to 19 September
M-E-X-I-C-O, Leeds: Residency | ‘Zero Moments of Truth’ Inc. Jennifer Chan, Jaakko Pallasvuo and Ilja Karilampi
Event date: Saturday 19 September
‘Zero Moment of Truth’, a marketing term, refers to the behaviour of potential customers who have a question, need or interest. This moment is followed by the customer undertaking a period of research, comparison and awareness, as a means to decide upon which action may next be taken. ‘The First Moment of Truth’ is the point at which a product is purchased, or a decision made.
Being ‘interested’ in something positions us between these two points. A half-knowledge, initiated by curiosity, is sustained through indecision, non-commitment or dissatisfaction with the options.
For their residency at Focal Point Gallery, MEXICO will develop their current method of programming to investigate the points at which something becomes ‘interesting’, and the activity which satiates that moment. At what points can we plot our investment
in something peaking and troughing? Why should interest be converted into another action?
A group of artists, including Jennifer Chan and Jaakko Pallasvuo, who have consistently been referred to throughout Mexico’s activity, although not directly shown before, will contribute to a series of works which will change over the duration of ‘The Bear Pit’ residency. Alongside this, a further group of artists and producers will act as a wider research group, feeding into the project remotely with material, opinions and ideas.
29 September to 17 October
Focal Point Gallery is pleased to present 'Southend Sessions' in 'The Bear Pit'. This series of short residencies will make place over the final month of 'The Bear Pit' project and include four artists who's practice is based in Southend.
Each of these projects investigate the spatial make-up of 'The Bear Pit' structure itself. The interventions that are produced will continue through all three projects, finally disrupting and dismantling the structure from within.
29 September to 3 October
Event: Friday 2 October, 6.00pm to 8.00pm
During his residency, sound artist Stuart Bowditch will employ elements of his recent experiments with the resonant qualities of objects and spaces, to explore the auditory profile of 'The Bear Pit' structure.
Sampled sounds collected throughout the residency will be used in a live performance in the space at 7.00pm on Friday 2 October.
Severed, "returning your love" - a play
6 to 10 October
Event: Friday 9 October, 6.00pm to 8.00pm
Paul Eastwood’s sculptural assemblages, videos and performance work stems from the artist’s interest in historical objects, popular culture, sci-fi ephemera and British television sitcoms. Elaborate display structures provoke notions on narrative and performance. The work appears to offer a snap shot or glimpse into a specific time, hinting at a future that has already taken place.
Eastwood’s shifting installation will reimagine ‘The Bear Pit’ structure as an incomplete site of excavation, in which the moment between remnant, production and performance are no longer distinguishable.
A performance by the artist will take place at 7.00pm on Saturday 17 October.
Dave David Productions
The Butler's Portion
13 to 17 October
Event: Saturday 17 October, 6.00pm to 8.00pm
Dave David Productions is a collaboration between Southend-based artists Josh Langan and David Watkins. For their residency, the two artists will inhabit 'The Bear Pit' 24 hours a day, de-constructing and re-constructing the structure, to reimagine how the public interact with the space.
A closing performance, involving artist Stuart Bowditch will take place at 7.00pm on Saturday 17 October.
What is ‘The Bear Pit’ and what does it do?
Richard Whitby 2015
What is ‘The Bear Pit’ and what does it do? A bear pit is a sunken enclosure for the presentation of captive bears, common in European cities through the 18th and 19th century. The visitor to a bear pit would look down into the pit, perhaps coaxing the bears to climb up wooden poles where they safely could be fed sweet buns from long sticks. The bear pit is also inextricably linked to the practice of bear baiting, where spectators would watch bears fight other animals, typically dogs. This trope was eventually folded into the complex codes of zoo architecture.
The zoological garden as a whole evolved from an extremely old tradition of display of wealth and power through ownership of expensive, exotic animals. In the time of the European empires they became displays of imperial dominion. The figure of Carl Hagenbeck is central in the history of American zoos, a trader who was equally happy to display human
‘savages’ as he was captive animals. Zoos today, despite conservation and educational work carried out in many today, are a hangover from this age of lesser moral concern over the highly visible mistreatment of members of other species, or cultures.
The common ‘looping’ behaviour found amongst a wide range of captive zoo animals, in which animals repeatedly walk the same routes within their enclosures, is especially prevalent amongst bears. Behaviours such as this are called ‘stereotypies’. This behaviour is so common in polar bears that in Dutch the word for polar bear, isjerberen, can also be used as a verb, meaning ‘to pace up and down restlessly’. This behaviour is acknowledged among zoologists as being indicative of poor quality of life.
What, then, does it mean to invite artists to exist inside a structure that in its name refers us to a device of spectacularised cruelty and neglect? What does ‘being’ an artist ‘doing’ art look like here? Do artists deserve, or require, a seemingly punitive architectural or presentational machine? It’s possible
that they do – the development of the arts (or ‘cultural destinations’) as a replacement for traditional seaside entertainments has caused friction in UK towns such as Hastings, Margate and Blackpool. When battle lines are drawn along simplistic class-divisions, university educated, middle-class artists can often seem like the foot-soldiers of gentrification
Of course, the more direct architectural reference in this particular ‘bear pit’ is a structure within a specific university; Middlesex, in London – in which students presented work on a similarly inverted stage, with the performers sunk below rather than raised above their audience. Within art degrees the process of developing both specific works and a ‘practice’ are narrativised by student, tutor and peer group – each has a vested interest in displaying the process of making. But a gallery is different – the audience has no such vested interest in this process, so why present it at all?
Does this project seek to satisfy public curiosity about artistic processes – ‘what do artists do all
day?’ Or does it key in to the explicatory impulses behind ‘making-of’ features, behind the scenes interviews, etc.? Visual art seems to revere the ‘event’ more and more, so perhaps this impulse marries up with the attendant hype and build up offered to attract an audience.
Ours is a time in which labour is perceived as becoming ‘dematerialised’. As early as 1972, Reyner Banham explored Los Angeles and found artists’ workshops replacing small-scale manufacturing. This is an idea now enshrined in governmental policy, especially in ex-industrial towns such as Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds; as if because art-workers are presumed to ‘work with their hands’, there is a significant equivalence to be found between lost manual jobs and artistic production. However, art-labour is often dematerialised itself (especially for those artists without gallery representation and strong connection to the still object-orientated art market), so how satisfying is it to watch the ‘special process’ of creativity being carried out much like work is in any call centre or office
– by workers locked into RSI producing, ill-postured laptop-tapping?
Is it possible to be in, or look into the bear pit without social class or some other social hierarchy being emphasised?
Coming from within the structures of the UK art world, is ‘The Bear Pit’ a satirical exaggeration of an arts economy that already sees the larger Arts Council funded institutions such as Focal Point Gallery (with full time employees, relatively healthy budgets) feeding off of the work carried out in the ‘incubators’ of artist-run spaces, such as Mexico, Grand Union and Outpost (often under or un-funded and run by volunteers)? Does materialising these relationships as a physical structure – a gallery within a gallery – constitute a critique, or a reinforcement of a status quo? What in fact does it mean to transport a locally embedded organisation into a new context – if, indeed, we do consider another art gallery a new context at all?
What are the power relationships set up here? Is the artist in ‘The Bear Pit’
at the mercy of the audience and the pit’s administrators? Yet, this bear pit does not necessarily allow the audience greater agency either – there are no buns to offer, no dogs to let loose. Two things ‘The Bear Pit’ emphasises are separation, between audience and artist, and performance. The prior is enforced – artists working in ‘The Bear Pit’ are always definitively artists, and they are always physically separate from their audience. The latter, performance, is up for question. For me, this project actually does question whether art is made ‘for’ (i.e. in service of) an audience. What happens when the artists ignore the spectators looking down from the walls of the bear pit, and simply get on with whatever it is they wish to do; what happens to the power relationships between maker and viewer then?