ARTIST Q&A: FURTHER TO THE DANCING PLAGUE

We managed to catch up with our two artists, Nicholas McArthur and Robert Molloy-Vaughan, whom we last saw perform the wildly energetic work, The Dancing Plague of 1518 as part of the Freshly Packed / Always Check the Label series at cueB Gallery, Brockley. Now that they’ve had a chance to catch their breath, we wanted to ask them more about the work.

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SOMETHING HUMAN:  As artists, what was it that attracted you to the historical event of the dancing plague?

Robert: We coincidentally read about it around the same time! It was immediately interesting to us as a few years prior to that we had started dancing outdoors with a portable stereo as a financially constrained response to nightclubbing. That in turn led to ‘Dancing With Tears In Our Eyes’, a dance foursome we took to the grim streets of Central London and Blackpool. It existed somewhere on the fancy dressed leavers’ ball / performance art continuum. The (semi-mythic) event of 1518 gave us a springboard to (a) tell a story, and (b) try to forge a ritual.

Regarding,”as artists”, myself & Nick are in constant debate as to whether I qualify as such. He argues yes, I argue no (as I never worry about the definition of ‘art’). I fear that if I don’t outlive the bastard he’ll win by placing the word on my epitaph. A bit like Engels did with the idea Marx was a scientific socialist.

Nicholas: My work focuses on psychological states of one form or another, and the events and environments that stimulate them. I am particularly fascinated by epidemiology and books such as A Journal of the Plague Year and The Plague by Albert Camus have been very influential. What really captured my attention in the DP phenomenon, was its strong resonance with the present (as I perceived it). It has as much to do with black metal and modern Satanism as the kinds of political activism that are so prevalent today.  There seems to be something deeply spiritual or ceremonial about it as well, especially if you consider how many people were involved. It seemed so similar to the ideas behind teenage suicide pacts, some forms of occultism and ancient sacrificial religions.

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What seems to set the DP apart from countless other instances of protest, activism and religious practice is its moral and political indeterminacy. Like the riots across the UK in the summer of 2011 as well as much contemporary art, it is compelling because of the lack of any substantiated motive. There is no political direction, only an indiscriminate revolt against objects, random shops and in the case of the Dancing Plague, the body. It seems almost a protest leveled at ‘the human’ or mortality, or a mutiny of god’s kingdom.

George Bataille is an interesting person to think about in relation to the DP. His idea of a black sun seems especially relevant to its fatalistic logic- The sickness of being, vomited back as a black sun of spittle! To see the sun in this way, as a malealovent force emanating war, decease and madness, gets closer, I think, to understanding the motives for the original DP.

I used to read a lot of mental health art magazines and many of the poems featured would say the same sort of things, namely that it was not they who were mad but the rest of the world, for ignoring the grim meat hook realities of life. I suppose you could say that this position has a lot in common with, staring directly into the sun or dancing yourself to death.

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I think the DP was an attempt (however futilely) to rally against life’s very structure. Seen in the context of the hardships of the 16th century and Bataille’s ‘Black Sun’, it makes some rational sense, however oblique. The questions I see emerging from all this is, how might we constructively be mad in such a way today?- or rather, in a time where reality is so schizophrenic and mediated, what would it mean to escape or to boycott the logic of the conflicting realities of the 21st century altogether?

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SOMETHING HUMAN:  Could you please tell us a little more about your individual practice, and how it might relate to this performance?

Robert: Thinking back, South London has dominated my creative outpourings ever since I started writing fantasy stories as a child in Streatham. More recently I have performed the character of Wolfgang Moneypenny, a revolutionary transpontine nationalist turned corrupt property developer. And what I am currently most active in is the fan culture of local football club Dulwich Hamlet, where I design posters, make and organise pitchside banners and somehow getaway with dressing like this.

Therefore, to finally perform the Dancing Plague in god’s own transpontine land of South London is rather splendid. A homecoming for my plagueridden self. And given the secondary definition of transpontine, ‘lurid and melodramatic’, what could be more lurid and melodramatic in Brockley on a Tuesday evening than us, filthy and throbbing around.

Nicholas: My work focuses on individuals who are coming to terms with various forms of isolation and their journeys towards salvation, deliverance and atonement. It is a process, of cognitive mapping, of visually representing and stimulating psychological states, installation to performance. I create immersive environments, which then become contexts for events, ceremonies and narratives. I am particularly involved with post-apocalyptic visions of the near future and my work is a continuous attempt to reconstitute systems of beliefs amidst the entropic drive of the present.

The DP has been a bit of an adventure for us. Neither of us come from a dance background and so it was a real struggle to choreograph movement at first. This is perhaps why the performance uses very little structure and is quite fluid. Our DP has evolved very gradually over time as has our understanding of the ideas behind it.

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SOMETHING HUMAN:  What do you hope to achieve/hope to make happen, with this mode of live performance?

Robert: We want a ritual. We want euphoria. We want orgiastic celebration. We want to build one of Durkheim’s elementary forms of religious/social life there & then. It’s a tough gig, bound to glorious failure. My football fandom informs this attempt to build a ritual, and let me tell you it’s a difficult challenge in a mere 15 minutes.

Nicholas: We wanted to make something that, like a protest, is direct, immediate and arresting.  For us The Street as a performance space is defined by its relation to the gallery and institution. To escape the white walls is to offload the history and rhetoric imbedded in its culture. The street or city is a place of vagrancy pollution and rubbish, violence and urban hysteria, so it seemed like a simple choice for us.

What we are trying to do with this work is to reframe the western worlds disavowal of shit, waste, decease and struggle and to give form to a kind of instinctual revolt that is born out of anxiety, hardship and labor.  We wish to show that the psychological conditions that stimulated the first DP, far from belonging to the gruesome histories of yester year are alive and well today.

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SOMETHING HUMAN: Could you please tell us more about the kind of audience reactions you’ve had?

Robert: Discomfort, laughter, fearful desire to join in, over-educated dismissal, cheering. Perhaps the best reaction was in Nottingham once where we played a major role in getting the audience so pumped up the ‘after party’ was a mad child-like hyperactive explosion of dance and running around that was far more fun than any of the proceeding performances. Whilst our ritual never quite converts the non-believers into full debauchery, we do get people on the edge of… something.

Nicholas: It’s been very varied, although the most common is a sort of nervous laughter. People often recoil trying to get away from us but there is definitely a bit of drama on the side of the audience in this. Once when we were performing on the Southbank a man dressed in combat gear and a full face balaclava watch the performance and at regularly intervals shouted ‘go on, go on!’ We like that anyone and everyone can watch, it is important to us that our work is not elitist and we also like cheering so this was great!

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SOMETHING HUMAN: What next, for this performance work as well as your individual work?

Robert: We are talking about a follow up. We’ve moved away from the initial narrative heavy idea of a futuristic sequel that would have involved a lot of tin foil and LED lights (a case of too much style-over-substance even for me) onto an embryonic plan to build upon the successful elements of DP1518 in a optimistic attempt to chase the dream of a Nottingham-esque eruption during every performance.

Nicholas: Robert and I are in the very early stages of developing a new project called No Magic Bullet, which will not be a complete departure from the DP however we would like to see what happens when we slow down!

Robert: As for my ‘individual work’, I make no plans, I work according to whims and fancies. I’m a nightmare performance partner. My waged labour is more than enough discipline thank you very much. (I bet Nick’s answer is the polar opposite of this one!)

Nicholas: I am just starting on the costumes and makeup for a series of short films called ‘A Time To Go’ set to the music of Bird Radio .  We are shooting in a small island called Papa Westray, which is a really incredible and dramatic location off the coast of Scotland. I am also working on a new project at the moment that will explore the impact of mass media through the creation of several performative ceremonies.

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SOMETHING HUMAN: Ask yourself a question we haven’t asked and tell us the answer!

Robert: You should have asked, ‘Do you feel compromised performing a piece of art with a political undercurrent when we live in an age of genuine political crisis?’ And yes, I do, acutely. One of the messages of DP1518 is that to dance to your death in 16th century Strasbourg is more liberated than living in the bondage of what is enthusiastically called late capitalism. I find myself torn between two feelings. One that states we are merely fiddling whilst Rome burns and our efforts would be better applied to road blockades and flying pickets outside financial institutions. The performance artists have only succeeded in changing the world, the point is to change it etc. etc. etc. The other feeling, however, is that people need to have fun (and, buried beneath all these words, these references, DP1518 is a lot of fun and we wouldn’t do it otherwise) and it is quite normal that anything creative is bound to reflect our socio-economic precarity and a basic need to communicate. I am stuck in the middle.

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