Grace Schwindt: Tenant ¦ Photo: Grace Schwindt

My journey through SPILL began on Thursday 1 November, and my first port of call was the SPILL Study Café inside SPILL Central. The space was welcoming, warm and served a lovely cup of tea; it was a good base for the festival. From here I could head up to the Ipswich Art School Gallery or down to the Jerwood Dance House.

SPILL has held three previous festivals in London, in 2007, 2009 and 2011, so this was the launch of SPILL in Ipswich, Robert Pacitti’s hometown. From now on SPILL will be an annual event, alternating between London and Ipswich. SPILL in Ipswich utilised a number of spaces across the city so you did need to be prepared to walk, but the programming meant that you didn’t feel as if you were missing too much whilst hotfooting it from one side of town to the other.

According to the programme, the theme this year was ‘notions of proximity’, further asking the question, ‘What does it mean to put experimental performance in a town like Ipswich?’

My journey through SPILL began on Thursday 1 November, and my first port of call was the SPILL Study Café inside SPILL Central. The space was welcoming, warm and served a lovely cup of tea; it was a good base for the festival. From here I could head up to the Ipswich Art School Gallery or down to the Jerwood Dance House.

My first foray into the programme was Alan Delmar’s Monument. This was a durational performance, developing over three hours and using a selection of objects to trigger actions and ideas. Stepping into Delmar’s space in the Ipswich Art School Gallery was a little like stepping into Doctor Who’s Tardis. The modest double doors through which you enter hide the large light space of the Atrium behind, and it is a space of opportunity, potential and history. The space doesn’t seem to belong to anyone, artist or spectator, yet it is welcoming, daring you to engage.

And for a while that is just what Delmar did; moving from scattered objects to suspended objects to elevated objects Delmar explored not just the floor but also the walls and the very air inside the space. It looked chaotic yet Delmar’s movement through the space, his interaction with his objects, was not. His purposeful and considered movement opened up a narrative that extended far beyond his actions; there was a negotiation between artist, object, spectator, space and time that created a monument outside of the work. There was a gentle rhythm to the piece that created a strong undercurrent: difficult to pull away from, easy to get sucked into. This rhythm continued throughout the piece, there was no obvious crescendo, which suggests that somewhere, sometime, this monument continues to exist.

In contrast John Boursnell’s 5 actions / 5 texts / 5 songs took place in one of the smaller rooms in the gallery. We were invited in, in small groups, where a quietly charming Boursnell greeted us. This was a place of order and purpose. Using specially commissioned text by Faber poet Sam Riviere, ball bearings, lo-fi sounds and Polaroid picture taking, Boursnell created a sound piece in front of us but we shared that experience; we even shaped the outcome in a way that was personal and specific to those people present in the room. Boursnell provided the tools and the materials to create a sound that was the culmination of the journeys travelled by each individual to that room at that time, a merging of the solo into the collective. Short, succinct, beautiful and evocative.

Home sweet home by Subject to_change extended the opportunity to create to the spectator. Situated in Jerwood Dance House and accumulating throughout the festival, this was a cardboard community just waiting to be owned and loved. On arrival you were given a choice of plot and a flat-packed house (you can upgrade for a small fee), then you let your creativity go wild. Renovations varied from simple paint to more extravagant sequined affairs; this was the place where you could really stamp your personality on your house. Inside the community there was an industrious air as people focused on their own home creations, heads down, scurrying from plot to supplies to home. But to prevent you becoming too insular there was also a community DJ playing requests, a noticeboard, a postman and a councillor to remind you that you belonged to a bigger picture. On the first day it’s all fairly harmonious. By the second day there was a porn shop, a missing woman, rubbish building up, an overnight incident, and an encouragement to throw off the shackles of property ownership. This was an installation not to be missed; it quite literally was art in the community and the sense of ownership, pride, creativity and sometimes decent rebellion certainly makes you think differently the next time you pass an estate agent’s window.

David Parkin’s piece, Good Friday: The Clinical Depression Concept Album Show was presented in a more formal style at SPILL Central. Parkin was on the stage with two very talented musicians and we sat, watched and listened. Yet the subject of Good Friday confronted us all with a stark reality that forced us to accept our complicity in society. For although clinical depression may be incredibly isolating and lonely it has a place in our society just as much as our home does. In this way, proximity can be quite uncomfortable as we acknowledge our responsibility, not just as an individual, but also as a group. The piece is built on a layer of social embarrassment; this isn’t the easiest of subjects to deal with, yet Parkin does it with humour, openness and an appealing awkwardness. Parkin’s Good Friday is a grown up version of show and tell. He has written some songs, which he plays to us and then chats about. The songs chart his depression and his road to recovery; we travel with Parkin from Crawley, and the dark depths of depression all the way Up to Thailand, stopping off for a spot of Scrabble for Beginners, a Killing Spree, and a visit to a Sweet Heart. The songs are haunting and enveloping. They are easy to listen to, which might fool you into a false sense of security, for like depression itself, the deep dark grit is smouldering within. Simple, direct, honest and brave; there is a real sense that Parkin’s road to recovery hasn’t ended yet, but he’s getting there.

Friday 2 November started off with a challenge. Tenant by Grace Schwindt was presented in SPILL Central. An 81-minute film, with scripted dialogue, set in a surreally constructed version of a family home, Tenant‘s starting point is a story about a lodger who lived with the artist’s grandfather, Mrs Schumacher. The film is slow, melodic and methodical. It creates a tension between language and perception that explores the continuity of history, the fragility of memory, and the substitution of objects as carriers of memory. The pace underlines the often slow and ponderous recall of memory. At times the slowness and the muted pallet work against the piece: it can be hard to engage for such a sustained period, although the intermittent flashes of sudden and violent actions arrest you, returning to the idea of fractured memory. There is a surreal, dada-esque feel to the film – it could be a memory, it could be a dream, or it could be a painting. Tenant is poetic, unforgiving, challenging.

Jarideh by Tania El Khoury was a secret one-on-one encounter in a café. The audience member had to follow a series of instructions given by the performer. This piece was inspired by crime films, operations made by militant women in the past, and the Metropolitan Police’s terrorism awareness strategy, which is terrifying in itself. My response to Jarideh was physical and visceral; I had a real sense of anxiety, panic, fear and paranoia. Sitting in a festival that has felt largely cerebral, this reminded you that the body is where it begins. Tania El Khoury cleverly plays straight to your very core: suddenly you are in that crime film as both the victim and the perpetrator, and when the panic subsides you are left with strong visual memories and a feeling of relief, tinged with guilt, because that’s how some people feel every day. I also know now that I would make a rubbish spy.

Notebook by Neil Luck was an exciting look into a beautiful mind. The piece cascaded intricately throughout the space, mixing fragments of text, sound and actions. It was immersive and humorous. Notebook was a busy, focused and vibrant snapshot of the meeting point between the live and the recorded – between sound, body, mind and performance – and at points it really did feel as if I had had a sneaky peek at Luck’s notebook. This is another work that transcends a purely intellectual response, for the sound resonates in the body, and proximity becomes introspective. However, I did find it was best to allow my response to stay with the body, as I became a little lost when I tried to think about it too much.

Forced Entertainment: The Coming Storm ¦ Photo: Hugo Glendinning

In the evening Forced Entertainment presented The Coming Stormin The New Wolsey Theatre. Often humorous, this was a web of relationships and stories. The stories were a collection of personal fragments, half-remembered films, books and fairytales, presented in a variety of styles. The performers moved and interacted with grace and confidence; they were comfortable on stage and this gave their performance a foundation over which they weaved narrative, action and layers of energy. Sadly I felt they relied too much on their comfort, and at times it came across as a little bit too contrived to be fresh, too rehearsed to be risky. The blurb promised it would be too big for the stage and unfortunately it was. Slightly too long, there was no real sense of danger in the coming storm, although the undercurrent has stayed with me even after I left my theatre seat. And the length of the piece challenges you as an audience member: what will you put up with? How long will you stay with it? Forced Entertainment ask what makes a good story and, for me, the high point was in the raw and primal response to what they had agreed not to put in the show. A good story is not always about the headlines, sometimes it’s about what’s on the edge, what you don’t say and what you try not to acknowledge. This performance played with proximity in terms of time: what stories make up me? What is my part? What will my part be in the future?

On Saturday 3 November I headed over to HEG to watch Dot Howard’s How to Avoid Making an Entrance of Yourself. Howard used a collection of objects and memories to create an illustration of her current situation. Howard carefully avoided making much of an entrance of herself at all: she often spoke from the wings and used objects in a simple yet concealing manner. It may be said that Howard was using the past to avoid the present, yet despite never really seeing her face Howard’s presence was encompassing, and it was interesting to see how engaging a performance can be without face to face contact: how proximate can you be without really making an entrance onto the stage? This was a very clever performance that revealed the self-doubt, anxiety and questioning that creeps into the making of a piece of performance. Using cardboard, paintbrushes, a large bag and a big ball Howard built a humble yet oddly glamorous aesthetic. Modest, compelling and considered, this was a refreshingly honest piece with an unhurried and rhythmic quality. I was left wanting more.

A Volcano Perpetually Erases its Own History, by Touch and Meet (Rachael Clerke and Josephine Joy), also at the HEG, featured a small town, an exploding volcano, lots of talcum powder and a big red balloon. I struggled to connect with this at first as I felt I had seen similar work by other artists before, but then they blew up the big red balloon and showed their real strengths as they negotiated in a disarmingly honest manner with each other. This piece had some strong visual images and a diligent energy that cared about the audience, although at times I felt it even cared a little too much: I found there was too much explanation in the performance and a sense of trying to make me understand, such as creating emphasis by underlining actions with music. This approach can be a bit patronising and myself I preferred the freedom to engage that I felt with their more random actions.

Presented in SPILL Central Ira Brand’s A Cure for Ageing was a carefully timed piece (what would you have done with those minutes anyway?) that confronted the uncertainty we each have regarding the length of our life. Brand asked us to consider the question of ageing, the process of dying. She asked us what would we miss when we are dead, but she will see because she is young and still alive? Brand didn’t ask what she missed whilst we were alive but she hadn’t even been thought of. I did discover how beautiful jellyfish are and there was a simplicity in Brand’s style that allowed room for contemplation. Sitting at the back I couldn’t always hear what Brand was saying when she didn’t use the mic, though that may have been deliberate (pardon? Speak up; I can’t hear you, cries the old woman at the back). This wasn’t so much a cure for ageing as a sentimental lament for old age; a piece pitying the fact that we all have to get decrepit and die rather than a celebration of experience and change and making room for whippersnappers. I’m 37. By Brand’s calculations I have 45 years left to live, except that I’m dying already. On balance I’d prefer to say that I’m living already.

So how did SPILL in Ipswich deal with the notion of proximity? To be honest, if I hadn’t read the program I’m not sure I would have been aware of the theme of proximity, but that is partly because the performances dealt with it in such diverse ways. I felt that some of the work, like El Khoury’s Jarideh and Boursnell’s 5 actions/ 5 texts / 5 songs put me right in the centre of the piece, as a collaborator; I was proximate in the work. Others, such as Subject to_change’s home sweet home and Parkin’s Good Friday placed me adjacent to the work, allowing me the space to consider proximity in terms of personal versus community, complicity in society versus individual responsibility. Howard’s How to Avoid Making an Entrance of Yourself encouraged me to consider proximity in conjunction with engagement: how can you connect with people, not just in performance but also in life? Forced Entertainment and Ira Brand made me take a good long look, both into the past and into my future, so that I could look at proximity in terms of time, whilst Delmar’s Monument exploded the notion of proximity into an endless cycle of time and action.

SPILL festival, thanks for coming to Ipswich; I look forward to seeing you in 2014.

Vicki Weitz was at SPILL 31 October 2012 – 4 November 2012. For more on the festival see the website.