Postcard from Bexhill
On returning to England there are some things I can always be sure of even in these most uncertain of times: poor weather and the absolute unshakable love of a hardcore of the population for the Queen are among them. The second of these phenomena – which appears as frankly bizarre to me now after spending four years living abroad – is only the most visible peak of a much wider English phenomenon. In a country where people can do and say more or less what they want, and where there are few social obligations for the individual, the power of the state and monarchy proceed somehow unchallenged as a vast array of different, and quite opposed, realities exist side by side without antagonism.
This was strikingly evident during ‘We Can Elude Control’, a day of noise performance held at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea in early June, several days after the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. The event, curated by Paul Purgas and headlined by Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti – who performed a live remix of Throbbing Gristle’s album final studio album Desertshore (2012) – marked the end of Cerith Wyn Evans’ solo exhibition, that responded with a number of site-specific works to the pavilion’s undulating 1930s architecture, which overlooks a dramatic pebble beach and grey sea on England’s south coast.
I spent the major part of my childhood in Bexhill, which was once a swinging and fashionable retreat from London. Bexhill-on-Sea’s illustrious past accounts for the location of a modern design classic such as the De La Warr in a town that is otherwise unremarkable except for its wildly disproportionate population of pensioners and for having been both home to the young conscript Spike Milligan during World War II and Eddie Izzard, who grew up there. It’s now hard to believe that Bexhill hosted the first-ever motor race in the UK, along its seafront in 1901, as young parents who forgot to leave mingle almost obliviously amongst pensioners who came to Bexhill to die, but who forgot to do so.
Looking back on the 1980s and ’90s I recall perpetual resistance to change in the town, with Bexhill’s local newspaper regularly featuring voices of dissent directed against any suggestion that it should emerge from the 1950s time warp the town had become. Nightclubs, sex shops and a much-needed bypass road were all railed against. In this light, the De La Warr’s conversion into a contemporary arts centre was met with equal expectation and trepidation from, respectively, the town’s few modernisers and its naysayers. The arts centre has hosted an impressive programme since then, drawing upon artists as diverse as British abstract painters James Hugonin and Ian Stephenson (in 2006) and Andy Warhol (2011–12). Building upon this, it is testament to the vision of curatorial team David Rhodes and Jane Won that an unlikely event such as ‘We Can Elude Control’ could be allowed to upset the peace in this sleepy seaside town.
Starting at 3pm, the first act playing on the De La Warr’s second floor – Lorrie Jayne Evans – was audible at an extreme volume from its ground-floor gallery, which featured, amongst other works, Wyn Evans’ long light tube text suspended from the spaces ceiling, reading: Permit yourself to drift from what you are reading at this very moment into another situation…Imagine a situation that, in all likelihood, you’ve never been in (2009). The piece, forming a long horizontal plane, led the viewer to reflect on the conjunction between vertical and horizontal lines formed by the De La Warr’s architecture and the view of its lawns leading on to the promenade and sea. This conjunction between interior and exterior framed the performances on the Del La Warr’s upper level – dedicated to emerging acts – drawing interesting conjunctions between the inner space and the view through its windows. At one point a Union Jack could be seen over the shoulder of Cornwall-based Australian musician Robert Curgenven, waving frantically during the tail end of that weekend’s gale-force wind, as a seagull appeared to want to mime the climax to the artist’s half-hour shifting soundscape, dipping and gliding along with the strong currents.
It would be impossible to do justice here to the level of quality and diversity spread across the ten acts who performed over the event’s seven hours, or to the brilliance and sheer gall in even trying to host such an event in such a place, which seemed somehow to be equally resistant and complimentary to its guests that day. By 6pm, revellers outnumbered the De La Warr’s usual Saturday crowd, whilst the latter – an elegant elderly mix, out for a stroll and cup of tea – seemed entirely oblivious to the billed event, as if holographically projected onto an alternative reality. The first-floor gallery at this point was host to EVOL, a duo comprising Roc Jiménez de Cisneros and Stephen Sharp, who describe their output as ‘computer music for hooligans’. Curator Paul Purgas said to me at one point prior to the performance that EVOL would refrain from amplifying football gas horns as the venue was too small. This turned out not to be the case, and the audience were subjected to an improvised play around the deafening and protracted interplay of these canisters, as their slightly differing pitches created a wildly dissonant effect. Aside from a few who left the room as the noise was so loud as to produce physical effects – turning the stomach and heaving the chest – punters sat on the floor of the upper gallery, amongst Wyn Evans’ S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (‘Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill…’, 2010). The piece comprised three cylindrical floor to ceiling lights which emitted heat and dimmed and glowed periodically at varying speeds. With canned beers bought from outside a festival atmosphere intruded upon a local institution, but did not cause upset.
Nicholas Bullen, Russell Haswell and Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti played the last three sets in the auditorium, which is soon to host concerts by Mark Almond and Adam Ant, amongst others. Haswell – who, like Chris Carter and Cosy Fanni Tutti, has previously collaborated with Wyn Evans – played an impressive visual set with a video monitor featuring scrawled luminous green graphics which responded to his jarring performance. By the time the much-anticipated Chris and Cosey played their set, a small faction of the audience had begun to dance: late teens from the town, long haired, dressed in black. My family has witnessed perhaps 15 or 20 successive generations of such ‘rebels’ emerging before moving on to leave the town or grow older and take stable jobs. The hairstyles get more conventional as they grow older, opinions on the monarchy and the national flag become ever less antagonistic. Yet all the same, for a time in one’s youth – perhaps every once in a while ever after – there is a feeling in Britain that we can elude control. This event was testament to this unwavering spirit, the essence of which must be maintained.