A series of research and development projects exploring the potential of a variety of aesthetic approaches to the human body through the creation of art, performances and discussions.
We are particularly interested in the complex relationship between body image, societal taboos and notions of containment imposed by our culturally defined beliefs and behaviours. A notion that becomes far more interesting when applied to LEVEL and our desire to explore the ‘Art that Difference Makes’ and the conditions that make it possible. In this context CONTAINER is provocative, political and to an extent, deliberately naïve – a collection of projects that can ask some interesting and some difficult questions and with permission to provide no answers.
“The body is our general medium for having a world.”
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception
It is impossible to conceive of a world in which we are not contained in some way or another. Over time sapiens have developed a variety of societal norms, taboos, laws and practices that cannot fail, in some way, to have an impact upon our personal thinking and behaviour. It is easy to conclude that we are all, to a certain extent, contained through the forces brought to bear through our education, cultural upbringing and prevalent societal norms.
These are processed and shaped individually through our thought process and manifest in our behaviours. They fuse, morph and develop to help form our perceived identity and sense of individualism. However, for the most part we are mainly happy to accept some element of containment and do not often stray too far from common societal norms. Occasionally we grant ourselves licence to operate outside of these normal parameters and the art world provides many possibilities.
Art is a human creation allowing us to express ourselves in any way we wish. It provides artists a legitimate playground to explore and push the boundaries of our societal container. Here we may choose to attempt to break free of societal pressures and without a doubt some art can be very controversial. However, art provides choice – it may present and explore something but does not have the mandate to enforce a concept or idea. The audience/viewer can reject or accept, like or dislike, as they see fit and often make these choices as a result of societal encoding and the underlying influence of contemporary culture. Generally, in western culture, we accept that art can challenge us and artists can present ideas and ways of looking at our world that provoke thought and trigger a variety of strong personal emotional responses. We also must accept that this is culturally driven and that there are several different cultures each with its own level of containment.
A Williams 2020
The seeds of CONTAINER research & development project began at LEVEL in 2016 with the Fractured Ground Project. It has developed slowly over the years and has offered a strand of on-going research and means of personal development that artists and performers have been able to dip in and out of when possible. CONTAINER is not therefore a unified project or even a single idea but a collection of material and experiences derived from exposure to different working methods, personal & artistic interests, live experiments, conversations and on occasion, strange performances. The overall project is designed to provide a space in which we can push boundaries both personally and artistically. Emphasis is placed upon experiencing, learning and reflecting rather than the need to create product. Freedom to experiment, challenge and create without any restriction is rare in our current artistic culture and while exciting it is not always an easy or comfortable process.
Output for CONTAINER is by its nature therefore varied and there are currently several strands of work. Ideas are explored initially through discussion and practical sessions and when appropriate, documented as a resource for the future or developed into new work for installations. This is what makes CONTAINER so potentially exciting as it can provide a means for artists to develop ideas for projects, exhibitions, installations and performances and at the same time contribute to a larger body of work comprising audio-visual material, images, project ideas and practical research that can feed into formal training and symposium events.
CONTAINER strands include:
- Fractured Ground (completed 2016)
- Faceless Bodies (currently an independent project by Charlotte Armitage)
- The CONTAINER (ongoing)
- CLEANSE (completed 2020)
- NUDE (completed online project)
CONTAINER has its roots in the Fractured Ground project (2016). This was a new kind of venture for the organisation, using a creative process to explore some of the existing methodology and practice developed at LEVEL to creatively engage people with profound multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) & complex needs. Fractured Ground was not directly concerned with images of the body as our research focussed upon the analysis of creative responses to somatic stimulation within sensory environments. As this is perceived through skin, the visual material did include images of the body using macro photography and some short sections comprising recorded material featuring naked performers. Inclusion of this material triggered interesting and useful conversations and discussion involving participants, carers and artists. It was clear that Fractured Ground had provided the opportunity to experience something that many participants had not been given permission to experience before. It is still the case that much controversy surrounds access to images of the naked body for people with intellectual and learning disabilities that does not apply to our mainstream society. The common acceptance of the body in art provides many opportunities to engage with this subject and explore some of these issues.
Everything is Art, Everything is Politics (Ai Weiwei)
Since 2018 CONTAINER has been the driven through collaboration, conversations and discussions with dance artist Charlotte Armitage and Andrew Williams. Starting as recognition of shared beliefs, experiences and interests it has developed to present a series of wider questions, provocations and challenges. One of the questions we began to ask of our selves was: Can art, performances and installations provide material, the setting and the permissions needed to explore some of the issues that may be difficult in many other contexts?
Our initial discussions identified several areas of potential research including:
- Finding new ways in which the body can be presented in live performance and lnstallations.
- Creatively explore how our society views and perceives the body. We have developed the concept of four potential states, which while they overlap and are dependent upon context can generally be applied to most artistic material.
- Do these flexible and contextual categories help us to define and analyse audience experience? If so is this useful?
- The exploration and creation of artistic responses to the notions of containment experienced by people with a learning disability within our care culture.
- Developing artistic responses that explore notions of permission, exposure and dignity within personal care.
- Explore ways in which artists, art and philosophy can positively contribute to the social care culture and help support practice that is empowered to ensure that all people have access to social equality – including equality of information regarding intimacy and sexuality.
‘Do no wrong’ equals ‘do nothing’?
The traditional and safe to way to deal with the possible erotic desires of individuals with very limited cognitive capacities, with no or very limited movement and only very limited means of communication, is to ignore them.
(Kulick and Rydstro!m 2015, 86).
Extract from Simo Vehmas (2019): Persons with profound intellectual disability and their right to sex.
Letting go to gain everything?
At LEVEL our participants are given permission to play, explore and express themselves with as few constraints as possible. We seek creative content and behaviour that demonstrates, celebrates and is the result of difference. This process requires us to let go of our traditional forms of art and take steps into the unknown. Our work takes place within a supportive and creative environment, building a culture that is person centred and values difference. Our challenge is to remain challenged – not to rely upon our learned experience that defines art or a societally contained aesthetic. Humans are creative and our art can manifest itself in many different forms if we let it.
We also acknowledge that we (our artists and performers) need the permission of participants and audience to enable us to deliver person centred, powerful and often (due to high levels of physical disabilities), intimate experiences (using touch, smell, sound etc.). The recognition and understanding of ‘permission’ in this context is important and perhaps vital in creating the art that difference makes. The notion of permission to behave, as you would want in this creative context is a complex concept. It is contextual, personal and relies upon a sophisticated range of communication abilities and understanding of societal constraints/norms. The reality is that no matter how much we wish it didn’t, permission has limits and restrictions. However, it is clear that the less we are contained and bound by our self-consciousness and societal expectations, the more we are able to think outside the norm, the more interesting the work becomes
CONTAINER has contributed to developing and refining aspects of our specialist practice and its philosophic foundation. Some of the exercises and performances undertaken have placed us in positions not dissimilar to that of participants within sensory engagement events. In these the desire is to present strong, powerful and meaningful experiences. In many performances details of the event are found in its publicity, which normally includes written information and images. If a naked person features in this, you may expect the performance to contain nudity – if it makes claim to having a powerful and disturbing score, you should expect loud and discordant sound. During this experience you may be prepared to be shocked by a sudden event or very loud sound – and for this to happen you would not expect to be told this was going to happen just beforehand, otherwise there would be no shock. By agreeing to attend this performance or enter this space you have granted a (possibly unconscious) form of permission for this to happen. However if we are unable to communicate to you the nature of the experience prior to events we may place people in a situation of powerlessness – a place where things can happen to you without consent or warning. Loud noises, touch and strong smells are all great if you choose to experience them but many of our participants cannot access normal forms of communication or do not have the means to communicate their likes and dislikes prior to something happening. In these cases it is often only by observing a reaction to an event do we have any feedback and information. Aspects of the CONTAINER project have involved in depth discussion around this subject, exploring possible new mechanisms to allow performers to gain (or not) permission during events. This has helped to reinforce the importance ‘permission’ has within our work and our need to consider this as a requirement for all participants and audiences.
The CONTAINER project has also had some unexpected benefits for LEVEL. During our forced closure of the building due to Covid 19 we have been able to utilise interests and skills of our artists to develop a series of online projects for a wide public. These have combined performance art with life drawing to create unique creative opportunities for people during lockdown. The NUDE project is a completely new kind of project for us, and one that would not have been possible without the CONTAINER R&D. Image right by Georgia Peskett from NUDE.
Why are so many writers, artists and photographers so profoundly concerned with the subject?
What puts the body at the centre of debate is urgency. The body is being rethought and reconsidered by artists and writers because it is being restructured and reconstituted by scientists and engineers.
The body that we read or hear about in the news is necessarily a generalised construct, an abstraction. But each of us remains firmly enveloped in a specific body, subject to its own idiosyncratic dynamics, its strengths and weaknesses. There may be a tantalising future for the universal body – of youth and vitality restored to the aged, of vastly expanded lifespans, range of improvements hitherto relegated to the realm of science fiction – but ultimately each person has to confront his or her own corporal reality. This discrepancy must always be a source of great anxiety for the individual, because at its root is a certain knowledge of eventual death.
William A. Ewing 1994 (The Body)