LUPA11 brings performance art to a garage in Bethnal Green

Pic: Richard Wilson

It is chilly as the dark falls over east London. Strange sounds are coming from the back of a council estate where a group of people have gathered, suspiciously gazing at a garage door. 

“Has it started?” someone asks, as others are hushing for the yet scattered groups to be quiet. Some seem to know what to expect, but not the group of first-comers who are looking around restlessly.

The music seems to have stopped as three people appear, one with a dog in his arms. “Welcome to LUPA11!”

Speaking are LUPA’s three organisers, Jordan McKenzie, Rachel Dowle and Kate Mahony. LUPA – which stands for ‘lock up performance art’- takes place on a Friday night once a month behind an estate in Bethnal Green.

The garage doors opens as a woman in an electric wheelchair appears. Dressed in black bin bags, her hair is a vibrant red and she is wearing goggles. There are giggles and a sense of awkwardness as she steers into the crowd, which sheepishly moves out of the way.

“ARE YOU GUYS EXCITED?” screams her companion, dressed in Olympic sportswear. A third woman is franticly placing post-it notes on people’s chests; “legend”, “commitment” and “disciplined” – there is certainly a sense of Olympic hysteria to the piece.

It gets very crowded as the audience is asked to enter the garage. While the door closes, droning music is playing loud. As the hysterical sports-woman shouts (“are you having FUN?!”) everyone acts obliged until someone panics when smoke appears from a machine. Out on the street again people laugh, perhaps out of relief.

“Performance art has an interactivity and sincerity for me” says Kate Mahony. She joined the LUPA crew after appearing in the second session in October 2011.

“We wanted to have a space where performance could be seen and encourage others that they can create and show work without the help of a gallery space. It’s quite an old punk kinda DIY ethos”.

Mahony was studying BA art practice at Goldsmiths at the time, while McKenzie and at the time member Aaron Williamsson had contacts who were more established in the art scene. “It made us able to curate a kind of inter-generational pop-up performance art show where there is no hierarchy”.

A few latecomers have now joined. There is upbeat music as a young man begins to undress. While he pours what seems to be oil over his naked torso, a second man joins in. Dressed only in shorts, they are tapping their feet whilst watching the quiet crowd. A group of local teenagers hurry past, leaving a rude comment hanging in the air.

Without warning the undressed men clash, and start to violently wrestle. It doesn’t take long until they are down on the ground – since when did the music change to a classical piece? It feels nothing but surreal. An onlooker runs out to remove a broken bottle from the ground, but blood is already trickling from their backs.

Soon one of the men is in the power of his opponent. The punishment is to get completely naked, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Perhaps it is as someone comments: “probably all a set-up”.

Pic: Joanna Kindeberg

“Performance art provokes discussion – and that is what the best kind of art is, a discursive platform to share ideas”, says Mahony.

While she arranges who will be performing, she is often clueless as to what will happen during the night. “LUPA is always a mixed bag and I like not knowing what to expect, but I love being as innocent as the audience!”

Dressed in white long shirts and clown-ish make up, “JB&the Bubbles” are a stark contrasts to the performances so far. In a grave manner the trio perform a choreography to Madonna’s “Frozen”. In the finale, colourful liquids are squirted from the inside of their shirts and as they step out to the audience it becomes clear that packs of capri-sun have been taped to their chests.

LUPA runs only for an hour and generally has four performances a night. The organisers have no money for a website but use social media and word of mouth to promote the events.

“We have had a lot of interest from people from all walks of life and backgrounds. It is great to have a fantastic pool of performance artists to work with” says Mahony.

She is clearly happy about its success, but emphasises that the most vital part is for performance art to be accessible.

“Anyone can come along, the local residents of the council estate are invited and for them it may be their first experience of the medium. The fact that it is live makes it quite fun and less alienating and cold than a lot of art I see out there at present.”

The final act is not in or outside the garage, but on top. Bill Aitchison, a slim middle-age man, is sitting next to a portable gramophone player, his legs dangling from the garage roof.

A nipping chill sets in as he plays vinyl records that have been important in his life, all followed with a personal anecdote.

As Clive Dunne’s 1971 hit “Grandad” plays, time for the evening seems to have run out. But organisers bow in for another few minutes as the audience is now shyly humming along to the chorus.

If there had been a sense of tension behind James Campbell estate earlier in the night, it seems to have faded. As LUPA11 comes to its end, and most of the crowd move on to the local pub, even the accidental audience seem happy to have been caught up in the experience.

LUPA12 is tomorrow, 19 October. For more information visit their facebook page.

Performing in LUPA11 were: Less, Katherine Araniello and guest artist Anne Redmond and Marja Commandeur, John William Fletcher and Stuart Doncaster, JB&the Bubbles (Josh Breach, Gabriel Duckles and Sorcha Mae-Stott Strzala) and Bill Aitchison.

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