The Royal Standard Live! Take the time

Chris Fagan
Image of person in a black box, with a cardboard box beside

A box with legs and timed toilet breaks have both featured in this trilogy of live art performances. Our reviewer got involved.

Is it going to be worth it? It’s a question I often ask myself – but especially in situations like this one, when I’m heading towards The Royal Standard to see the first of three live art events taking place this summer. Will it be worth the physical effort getting there?

The initial performance in the trilogy is Rachel Pursglove’s The Struggle. This is a live enacting of a video piece that attempts to make literal the creative struggle. I’m wondering how that concept will manifest itself as I study the large, person-sized cardboard box sat in the sparse Royal Standard exhibition space.

Then, without fanfare, two people draw a large banner in front of the box. They drop it, and the performance starts. From the cardboard box emerges another more solid box, heavier than the first it falls onto the floor. Next, a pair of legs, which have been powering the appearance of this second box. They are the engine for this seemingly aimless hybrid of flesh and MDF. Watching this creature struggle in its apparently unending and unknown task, I begin to consider how long I can keep watching.

I can’t imagine the strain – and I don’t want to imagine the sweat

Eventually, a breakthrough is made and the hybrid gets to its feet. I can’t imagine the strain – and I don’t want to imagine the sweat – going on under that opaque blackness of that box.

Once upright, this freshly born thing stumbles and shuffles around, wary of its newfound position. It attempts to move around the space, only to bang into the walls. Eventually it returns awkwardly into the large cardboard box it first emerged from. Perhaps this was its ultimate goal all along. There is something within the performance that hints at the cyclical nature of creativity, suggesting that art is only the end of part of a struggle, which leads to another struggle. Then the part that the audience plays in witnessing this occurs to me.

Two weeks later I return, repeating the same journey to The Royal Standard. I turn the differences over in my mind and keep seeing the repeated posting on Facebook and Twitter of a CGI toilet, accompanied by the muzak used by my local GP while on hold.

This video acts as a primer (of sorts) for the next in The Royal Standard’s Live! Season. Toilet time-compression is durational piece by Jake Laffoley that explores the regulation of time. Specifically, this performance deals with the idea of timed toilet breaks, something that many large companies introduce to get the most money out of you.

Again, I find myself asking how this is going to manifest itself as performance; I imagine being made to sit on a toilet by a surly guard with a stopwatch.

On arrival, the gallery is as sparse as before. There’s a speaker announcing the recording of the arrangement of tonight’s guard (bouncer? Extreme Toilet Attendent?) and a video monitor displaying a fuzzy image of the Royal Standard’s toilets. I’m handed a rank-tasting cocktail, disturbingly called a “Harvey Bowel Banger” and a tartlet. I have concerns about the effects that these will have on me.

It soon becomes clear that the performance takes place within the toilets

It soon becomes clear that the performance takes place within the toilets themselves and, eventually, a strange combination of curiosity and bladder pressure send me towards them. Inside the toilet there’s a guard, puffer-jacketed and holding clipboard and stopwatch. “Two minutes then I’m banging on the door,” he tells me. I’m slightly intimidated as I set off to my stall, but sense of fear is dissipated when, mid-stream, I realize that he has to listen to me wee. I guess this puts us on an evenish keel.

I return to the non-toilet world and watch, via the monitor, other people spend a penny. My role in the performance is largely passive now that I no longer need the bathroom. Have I experienced the work enough though? There is no restriction on the time I stay, and maybe there should have been. I leave feeling not unhappy, but wanting there to have been more pressures put on my time.

Overall, the two performances feel connected by themes, including the value of labour, and perhaps the worth of art. But were they worth the journey? Well, certainly both could only be experienced by being there in the moment. With Pursglove’s The Struggle, being in the presence of the performer (rather than watching a recording) heightened the sense of pathos.

Equally, I would have not been able to experience the strong conceptual underpinnings of Laffoley’s Toilet time-compression from a distance. Admittedly, I did feel a little lost waiting for my own bladder to fill up, but this may be the fault of my impatience – and was definitely tempered by amusement watching assistants hand out prune based cocktails in order to hurry things along.

So, will I be heading for the final performance – an exploration of self-identity and inheritance by Louisa Martin – on Friday, 10 July? Yes. And so should you.

This article has been commissioned by the Contemporary Visual Arts Network North West (CVAN NW), as part of a regional critical writing development programme supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England — see more here.

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