The final ABOUT DANCE weekend of 2021, hosted by Jeremy Wade and a cast of colorful characters, took a unique approach to the forum structure. The first day took on the themes of artistic precarity via a performance by Puddles the Pelican and their cruiseship band. The second day, guided by the Battlefield Nurse, tackled the discussions, thoughts and ideas of the forum by turning them into song.
Unable to attend this forum in person, I sent on-the-ground correspondent, Cathy Walsh, in my stead. Cathy was there on the front lines for Saturday night’s performance and smack in the middle of the discussions and musical compositions on Sunday. Cathy interviewed forum participants about their experience during the event and then I interviewed Cathy about her experience after the event. Below is a transcription of my interview with Cathy, including some of Cathy’s notes from the event itself. Please note that parts of the interview have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Captain’s Log (From Cathy’s notes)
Yesterday at 2000 hours there was a cabaret concert on board. The one eyed pelican, Puddles, accompanied by four other creatures from the deep, played their songs, riffing off Bauhaus they played melodies and electronica, with synth, drums, bass guitar and keyboard. The collected group of onlookers enjoyed it thoroughly – waiting for permission or an invitation to applaud, then whooping and hollering when it was granted. I could see the sea behind them through the porthole window, as the band played.
A concert on a pile of floating trash. The pain of a gas station tuna sandwich that’s been left out in the sun for a few days. You don’t need to suffer each time you perform, you can also sing songs about the beauty and mystery of all things. ADVICE: don’t lose your sister and don’t get stuck in an oil spill. It’s painful.
Jessy: Had you been to an ABOUT DANCE forum before?
Jessy: Did you have any expectations for this weekend?
Cathy: Well, I expected a certain amount of performativity … or performance, I mean, from Jeremy, but I didn’t know that there was actually going to be a performance.
Jessy: So starting with Saturday night, could you describe the atmosphere?
Cathy: It was very porous as people arrived slowly slowly … and it started a little bit late so there was a porous feeling with people milling about, waiting in the garden, the performers not yet ready … and then at eight o’clock it started and, yeah, right up to that point it was like slowly kinda getting exciting as we realized there was going to be this concert and Jeremy’s make-up was done! Yeah, it was a very porous atmosphere to start.
Jessy: How many people were there that night?
Cathy: There were about 10 … or 14 … somewhere between… I’m going to say 12, 12 people.
Jessy: So how did Jeremy, or should we say Puddles appear?
Cathy: Puddles began by inviting us into the big studio, we entered and sat down, and then a concert began. We were introduced to Puddles the Pelican and the Creatures from the Deep [the band], aaand, minus level nine. And really what happened is that we were allowed enough space for things to be created in our imagination. So there was no clear description of the setting that we were supposed to be in, there was just enough to give us a landscape to work with. So I had this feeling we were maybe at the cabaret on a ship. And it was mentioned that they do this every night, again and again and again … every single night they do this gig. Then behind them on the wall there was a beautiful painting of waves, so it gave me this feeling of a port-hole window out into the ocean, as if we are below deck and this is the little window out into the darkening sea. And it’s funny because Puddles the Pelican is in full make-up, child-like make-up with big lip stick, purple and black and gray hair, and a swishy green top, and then all the rest — the Creatures from the Deep — are just in their regular skivvies. Musicians, they were dressed like musicians!
Jessy: What’s this minus, or deep, level nine?
Cathy: Minus level nine was mentioned. So I decided this was the ninth level down below the deck. Though that was not clearly stated.
Jessy: So how did this concert unfold?
Cathy: Well, it was songs interspersed with stories. Puddles told us about their sister. They grew up together in Florida in an amusement park town, it was a real shit hole, but he loved his sister and then he lost her. So really it was the journey of Puddles …losing their sister, a dream sequence, flying off to the South Pacific trash pile and hanging out on this floating island of trash. It was very beautiful. And the songs were also the stories, so it was in that style of musical where, what’s the word … recit? … where they do the talking bit and then song, then talking, then song … and it was mostly original songs, but they borrowed from things, like one of the first songs was the rhythm, not the lyrics but the tune, of Bauhaus’ Bela Lugosi’s Dead. But it mostly seemed like originals.
Jessy: Was it emotional?
Cathy: Umhm, yes.
Jessy: Did you cry?
Cathy: I almost cried. I would go so far as to say I began crying, but I didn’t continue. There was a moment when Puddles talked about his sister and her feathers, feathers, feathers, feathers, feathers, feathers, feathers, FEATHERS, and how beautiful she was … and Puddles gives advice about not losing your sister, about not loving people so much, because it hurts. And I love this thing of giving people advice to not get hurt, as if it’s possible. Whereas really that’s where the good stuff is, in the love and the feeling. So I nearly cried with the sister bit. And then there is this incredible moment later where Puddles meets a pigeon who offers a fresh blueberry muffin, but Puddles asks if the pigeon perhaps has a tuna fish sandwich from a gas station that has been left in the sun too long … because really that’s what Puddles the Pelican wants, and the pigeon does have one of those … but then the pigeon gives the advice that you don’t need to take the pain of the world into yourself with every song. You can just sing beautiful songs that make you feel good instead. And I just thought this was an incredible metaphor for the macrocosm of the concert … and forum … that art making can be suffering, but you can also just find a way to sing beautiful songs that make you feel good.
Jessy: Yeah, sometimes I wish more artists would just make beautiful art.
Cathy: Yes, and in that moment I was also really feeling like I want to write and sing more and then the advice that rises up out of the deep is, you CAN write beautiful songs to go through your life!
Jessy: So let’s jump to the next day, Sunday…
Cathy: Yes, there was another funny thing about the timing of the two days because we were there until 10pm and then started the next day at 10am. So there was this strange journey back home to eat and sleep and then back out again to the countryside. And it was the last summer day, so it was beautiful, and Jeremy was late.
Jessy: [laughs] doing make-up again!?…
Cathy: No, just arriving … so I chatted to people about what they thought of the performance the night before …
Some responses to Puddles the Pelican and the Creatures from the Deep’s performance:
“Oh that was really something! I really enjoyed the music and the lyrics, and Jeremy is so visceral. It was very inspiring, very juicy. I wanted to stand up. The lights were also great.”
– Mor Demer
“Thinking a lot about the music, because I make music. There was a lot of interaction between Jeremy and the band. It was interactive but there’s still boundaries, no physical border – but still feels like there’s a fourth wall. it was very prepared, packaged, rehearsed but still left Jeremy room to perform.”
“Sometimes I couldn’t follow the story, and get lost in the performativity. I wanted to hear the lyrics more, to hear the story, it was nice to sing with him. I really like the relationship created with the audience. Jeremy creates the world with his costume and persona.”
At the beginning the stage and the audience felt separate, but overtime it felt closer. It was touching, very beautiful how the voice could be soft and yet have so much energy. There were so many sudden changes emotionally. It took me on a journey and I would love to have gotten more of the text. I enjoyed the band, especially the girl on the drums and the guy on the keys.
I came with the idea of a dance performance but then it was a concert, but movement was still the most important way to say something.”
Jessy: Did the participants know each other already?
Cathy: hmmmm… there was a little bit of awkward spacing. Two people were in residency at the Lake so they were there together … and the others were there separately, but had been there the night before. And it started quite nice because Jeremy came and said “hey yeah, cool, so nice you all are here” and then he talked about precarity for a while and how the day was going to go, and then he was going to read something but then was like, “oh actually wait, who are you?” [laughter] So introductions were not the first thing that happened and we actually all really enjoyed that. There was no hard start and so we were just hanging out in a garden and then this guy also arrives to the garden and talks about some ideas he has in relation to his work and his own artistic struggles and background, and then we all introduced ourselves … and I don’t remember if Jeremy even got around to reading the thing he was going to read. It was like those first things that were supposed to happen just kept getting pushed back because we were talking, and we continued to talk … about precarity. Ah! and he introduced Battlefield Nurse of course, and showed us her hats and laid out an altar for her. I guess that’s how it really began. And it slowly became clearer to me that he is always working with these characters, that this is his way through precarity.
Battlefield Nurse (from Cathy’s notes)
She is activities director on a cruise ship (for all eternity) She was created to talk about care, and manage “The Future Clinic for Critical Care”. The archetype that has seen it all.
“Tired of dying each time we make a piece – tired of killing others” – Jeremy
Jessy: Did you feel like this focus on Jeremy’s characters and his own work, that is so personal, opens up the space for people to reflect on their own relationship to precarity?
Cathy: I think in a very clear way it opens up to people’s personal experience and puts people on the spot less talking about their own precarity because they have something clear to relate to. So to sit and talk about what makes the arts precarious or why it’s difficult to not get funding is fine, but we say the same things over and over, and somehow to relate your own personal stories to precarity makes things much more social and funny and interactive. Of course, we also bitched and moaned a bit about some institutions… and individuals [laughter] … but again it seemed more social than just talking about, say, “big business is not helping us”.
And then this conversation about precarity got interrupted by dancing. Which was a sweet surprise. Suddenly we were in the studio, stretching and working with the breath and a hiss score, and through the breath and the hiss we really warmed up and got into our bodies and were improvising and it was such a surprise. We were all wearing the wrong trousers, somebody was in winter fleece, I was in the tightest jeans I own, people were whining about wearing the wrong pants, and then Marcela was like all pants are for dancing, every pants is a dance pants, you just need to dance, and then you are in dance pants! But we were really going for it and I haven’t danced that energetically for a while. So that was a surprising moment and it was great.
Jessy: It sounds like there was a lot of … spontaneity? You know, I went to each former forum and they were all unique and stamped by the particular moderators’ personalities and modes of leading a group. But I had this sense that each moderator had pretty good notes about the schedule and what should happen, and followed it more or less. But I’m getting the sense that this final one was really following the moment?
Cathy: Yeah. And for sure that list was there at this one too because Jeremy spoke the evening before about how we were going to do this and this and this, and it didn’t seem like so many things and as if we would get through it all. But in the morning our conversation just took off and, as Jeremy said, he had all these things he wanted to do but it felt more important to be in the conversation. That that’s what the forum was intended to do. Somehow this list, or the idea of things to get through, kept coming back, and it felt like we did eventually get around to most of the stuff but with a lot of detours, and shortcuts and unexpected journeys.
Jessy: Maybe that’s a metaphor for how to navigate precarity as an artist — to follow the detours and sink in when and where it’s time to sink in.
Jessy: What was the most eye opening or surprising aspect of precarity that was brought up?
Cathy: I was surprised at how precarious precarity is. Jeremy gave these examples of precrity, like, you’re in the airport and you have seven euro in your bank account and your carry-on suitcase is too big and Easy Jet is not letting you on the flight so you have to take everything you own and wear it and get rid of the suitcase in order to get on the flight … because you have to be there the next day for your show. So sometimes precarity is not the obvious thing! Say, being poor or not having work. Instead it might be about too much work, or the things you have to do to get the job done … being overworked and underpaid … or the precarity of health. So precarity is not necessarily not having work, but might be that it is a lot of work to do the work. It gave me different windows to look through at precarity.
(From Cathy’s notes)
The politics of how we come to the industry is not often discussed.
Criticality at a level that can be crippling.
Trying to balance criticality with singing songs that make you feel good.
We dream up more inclusive and less violent futures.
We broke off into these one-on-one conversations where we told each other stories about precarity, and this brought up new ways of looking at it too. And then it was really fun to make a task out of those stories by making a song together. Since we had been in these one-on-one conversations I didn’t know what everybody else talked about, but when listening to our partners’ story we all wrote down words — buzz words or whatever felt most important or stuck out — and we put these words on cue cards. The idea was to have this iteration of their story in keywords that we then made a song out of. And it just generated this lovely mystery of I wonder what that was about? As a group we picked one person’s words and we made a little song together and sang it together as a ‘precarity choir’.
CLICK HERE to listen to a home-made recording of the precarity choir singing at the forum.
Jessy: Taking the two days of the forum together, where did the forum leave you on a scale from 1 – 10, where 1 is utter despair and 10 is full of hope?
Cathy: I would say … close to an 8.
Jessy: So towards the hope end!?
Cathy: Being in the sunshine garden of a publicly funded dance institution on a Sunday afternoon of course puts me closer to the upper numbers. But the feeling of solidarity and enjoying others company is worth a lot, and to be able to be in a situation where an institution like Lake Studios can get funding to host forums and bring people together to not only discuss ideas but dance together is very positive. And with the forum, one day was forum-esque and one day was a performance and the performance was also a sort of rehearsal because Jeremy and the band wanted to rehearse. So to use resources in order to do what you need to do rather than the inverse — to need to do something in order to fulfill the culture of the new, to overproduce new stuff to fit into the box you’ve been told to — is great. Marcela was really happy to have the chance to support Jeremy and the Creatures from the Deep to be able to rehearse and perform their work and they were really happy to be able to do so in the forum context. Rarely do you come out of a forum being like “cool, we have a result, or a solution” but actually it feels like in this situation there was already good use of resources in a way that was not moving towards burnout but was an example of good support where all parties were content about it. …and everybody seemed really happy.
It was very hopeful. Particularly coming out of dancing without too many suggestions, without a strict score, just breathing and dancing. And there was not really time to do all the stuff, but we all took enough time out of our days to be there and in the end it was enough. It was sweet. Really sweet.
Suggestions to Look Up from Jeremy:
Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning and her new collection of essays, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint
The Feminist Care Collective Berlin (influenced by the Socialist Care Collective)
Artistic Direction: Marcela Giesche
Assistance & Documentation: Maria Kousi, Jessy Tuddenham, Cathy Walsch
Camera & Editing: Noam Gorbat
Forum Participants included the following artists:
Stefanie Alf, Melissa Ferrari, Marcela Giesche, Amanda Hameline, Anna Hull, Cathy WAlksch