Aaron Williamson’s Unlimited-funded (administered by Shape and Artsadmin) Demonstrating the World is a performance art piece that utilises bespoke ‘absurdist furniture’ and was unleashed on the unsuspecting public on London’s Southbank 10 September and Glasgow city centre 16-17 September. Review by Colin Hambrook.
Having followed Aaron Williamson’s live art performance since the mid-90s, the one thing that can always be said of his oeuvre is to expect the unexpected.
Aaron’s wry take on the world, within his own performance and alongside his Disabled Avant Garde partner in crime, Katharine Araniello is a subversion of disability stereotypes, playing with the absurdity of attitudes towards disability.
Fundamental to Williamson’s work is the question of access and how we live in a world that isn’t designed for disabled people to be able to negotiate as easily as it is for the mainstream.
Demonstrating the World is an intervention into public spaces that takes the idea of inaccessibility by presenting a mystifying version of what we expect to see in a shopping centre: the ready commercial presentation of how to do mundane things like sit in a chair or iron a shirt, with the usual expectation that we will be sold something that is probably entirely unnecessary.
However, as consumers we will acknowledge and often hand over the readies without thinking too hard about whether it’s something we actually need or want. We flock in our thousands to these spaces and seem to welcome the banal and accept that this is a necessary part of modern life.
The irony Demonstrating the World plays to, is that these displays never afford any concession towards access for disabled people.
With a 1950s visual aesthetic and taking place on a commercial trailer with diagrams of hand positions at either side, Aaron set himself up within his domestic interior and an array of odd household furniture to astonish passers-by in Glasgow city centre’s busy shopping area.
More of an un-spectacle, Williamson demonstrates a range of everyday tasks such as ironing a shirt, turning on a radio, opening a cupboard, removing a jacket or sitting on a chair.
Each act involves detailed step-by-step instructions, illustrating various hand positions: an amalgam of ergonomic shapes and sign language designed to baffle and provoke the audience; a mix of shoppers passing by and individual festival-goers with some previous idea of what to expect from publicity on the Tramway’s website.
The durational performance took place over two days, involving six hour stints of repeating mundane acts, illustrated by using, for instance the Diving Board hand to close a unit or a Paddle Hand coming around from the shoulder evolving into a Crab Hand to grasp a handle, to extract a vacuum hose from a trap door or to pick up a non-functional iron.
A master of the ridiculous, Williamson often blows repeatedly on to the iron’s surface with a loud exaggerated gesture to demonstrate how, for example, to heat the iron’s surface.
With no contextual information to guide a would-be audience other than a discreet Ikea-like wall hanging with the words: ‘Even miracles take a little time’.
Through much of the performance Williamson is looking for ways to entertain himself. He does a robot wars action with colliding pieces of dancing furniture, dances or sings along with a near-by busker or simply toys with the passers-by letting them know which way they are already going.
Flipping the circular mirror that turns into a clock he references ATV’s Action, Time, Vision. But the point of this performance-cum-exhibit that unfolds throughout the day is not to be entertaining or to reveal anything particularly − other than the absurdity of our consumerist culture.
A lot of the time Williamson is people-watching whilst holding a copy of Desmond Morris’ 1978 Field Guide to Human Behaviour, which made an attempt to use scientific methods to explain apparently illogical behaviour. Quite what the scientist would have made of Williamson one can only conjecture.
Humour comes to the fore at moments in the performance when the sign language interpreter was also prepared to interact (quite a big ask, all things considered) with Williamson’s requests for knowledge of his surroundings.
I am not sure whether or not I got all the subtleties of what Williamson was attempting to achieve. Billed as ‘an absurdly elaborate live take-off of YouTube how-to videos’, any interpretation from screen to street performance wasn’t obvious other than as an emulation of the absurdity of the phenomenon.
It struck me that the interesting part of this performance largely rests with the performer and his crew − and their engagement with the audience seeking to ask questions, buy elements of the display or to talk about sign language.
It would, perhaps, make a fascinating piece of reflection on the ridiculousness of daily mundane concerns that the culture we live in imposes on us.