Over a period of five weeks, performance artist Aaron Williamson invited visitors to witness the building of an odd set of ‘absurdist’ furniture at the Shape Gallery in Westfield Shopping Centre. The pieces will become key to the performance as it becomes ready to tour later this autumn. Colin Hambrook asked Williamson and Producer Edd Hobbs about what it means to ‘demonstrate the world’.
Williamson is known for his tongue-in-cheek pieces satirizing the ‘disabling world’. Demonstrating the World takes a wry look at the things, the actions that non-disabled people take for granted; highlighting the unacknowledged barriers faced by people with different impairments in a world that isn’t designed for disabled people.
From his starting point researching the bizarrely mundane world of YouTube ‘How-To’ videos, Williamson has gone on to add layers of displacement – the glue that binds all the different elements of the project together.
“The work explores the ‘alien’ or ‘other’ through an absurdly elaborate, live reinvention of a group of bespoke, designed furniture. We were looking for ways of being inventive; creating absurd twists on everyday life. There’s no reason why a vacuum cleaner cannot become a shaving cabinet, or a closet shouldn’t be designed to allow its user to reach for the stars, or – in line with current trends – an armchair shouldn’t have a facility for taking ‘selfies’.”
“We developed a vocabulary of hand shapes for using the furniture as a starting point for the design. Once we’d identified what we were looking for in adaptable furniture we were then able to look at the hand shapes as signs in and of themselves. It took us from the world of ergonomics to the world of physiotherapy.”
“After a discussion with a neurosurgeon about the relevance for people working in Medical Humanities, I was invited to do a performance for a group of professionals in how to take a belt and shoes off, and how to pour water into a glass. The surgeons were puzzled but also knocked out: describing the step-by-step process for everyday actions is what they have to do on a daily basis. Whereas they watched the performance as an analysis of the art of proprioception or muscle memory, I am coming at it from a polar opposite: using it as a signifier of how we live in a disabling society, rather than as a tool for normalizing physical engagement.”
“Interestingly, The first sign language manual [Juan Pablo Bonet’s ‘Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos’, 1620, (‘Reduction of letters and art for teaching mute people to speak’)] uses drawings of hand shapes and has a similar convention to the one we’ve used to name signs with descriptive labels.”
“The making of the furniture in the Shape Gallery has been an artwork in its own right. Utilising the skills of Studio LW craftspeople Emma Leslie and Rhiannon Wilkey the gallery was turned into a studio where the public has been privy to the building of seven separate pieces to the design specifications of myself and architect Ida Martin. ”
“In the process of producing the blueprints, we looked at Ikea flatpack furniture, boats and caravan design to construct something people would be familiar with, that we could easily pack up and store. The design leans heavily on 1950s ideas: the launch of the Space age with its ‘otherworldiness’. In talking about the colour scheme, magnolia was the obvious choice because of its prominence in the 1950s when it was deemed to be ‘the most calming colour’.”
“Westfield Shopping Centre has been a fitting place for the construction to happen because the centre is used a lot for presentation and display. It has random stalls set out for salesmen to entice the passing public with everything from cookery demonstrations to ‘create your own deluxe trucker caps’: it seems nothing is too weird, too wonderful or too mundane to be turned into an object designed for the consumer. It presents a disorientating version of everyday life. When I first experienced it, I could imagine Coleridge’s Xanadu serving as an early blueprint for Westfield.”
Williamson’s live performance has revolved around his assuming personas delivered with total commitment, which are often strange or confrontational, if not alarming. I asked him about how he has adapted to the process of being ‘produced’ and how that has pushed his arts practice:
“I’ve taken the idea of 21st century ‘How to…’ YouTube videos back to the old-fashioned craft of live performance. I usually work in response to a situation, but Demonstrating the World has challenged me to think in new ways. We were looking at presenting a work that would chime with the experience of a disability audience, which we could present to an art audience and also deliver in front of an unsuspecting public.”
“The Unlimited commission has given me time and space to see where an idea can go. It began with performances outside the Shape gallery in how to remove cellophane from DVDs and how to eat food, and with performances at Toynbee Hall where I interacted with ordinary furniture. From there Demonstrating the World has developed into the concept of building multi-faceted pieces of art-kitsch furniture that has a range of uses.”
“The decision to take the piece of work on tour has led to us building our own roadshow that can be presented in all sorts of public situations. We talked about the ‘strangely familiar’, the ‘unheimlich’, and started thinking about the work taking place within a room arrangement housed inside a trailer, its fourth wall exposed to the public. We’ll have the option of taking free-standing units that we can take on a train on a low budget – or taking the whole structure for bigger events.”
“The first live art performance of Demonstrating the World will take place in Cardiff, as part of Chapter Arts, Experimentica Festival. Look out for subsequent performances in DAO’s listings as the project develops.”