It beats bingo!
In 1978, punk band the Cramps played a gig at a mental institute. Iain Aitch witnesses an extraordinary attempt to re-create it.
At most theatres, the interval affords the audience the opportunity to drink a G&T, powder their nose and swap opinions on the first act. Not so at the theatre in London's ICA. At least not today. One member of the audience is throwing up in the corner, while another is asleep near his feet and in imminent danger of being engulfed by the rising tide of bile. Thankfully, someone rouses him just in time - by emptying a glass of lager on his face.
The performance they're all here to see is the latest historical re-enactment from artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. Re-enactment, traditionally more associated with weekend Roundheads and Crimewatch UK, made a splash as an art form in 2001 with Jeremy Deller's film The Battle of Orgreave. Forsyth and Pollard have been working in the area for some time: their last re-staging, 1998's A Rock'n'Roll Suicide, minutely reconstructed the flamboyant final concert of David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust persona.
Their new work is far less controlled and far more controversial. File under Sacred Music is a re-enactment of a gig by New York punks the Cramps at the Napa Mental Institute, California, in 1978. And the audience drinking, sleeping and puking its way through the interval at the ICA is largely made up of psychiatric patients.
The Cramps' Napa concert has achieved near-mythic status, thanks to a poor-quality bootleg video that still changes hands at record fairs and on eBay. The shakily shot, one-camera film shows patients swinging their arms at the side of the stage, grabbing the microphone from vocalist Lux Interior and even ignoring the whole spectacle in favour of reading a newspaper. Despite the degraded footage, you can tell that the gig had a raw, untamed energy, of a sort that the ICA hasn't seen since someone attempted to chew off Shane MacGowan's earlobe to the backing of the Clash in 1976.
As Forsyth and Pollard's Cramps re-enactors ran through their first set, there was the same mix of rhythmic dancing, over-exuberance and mild disinterest from the audience as there had been in Napa. Some spectators caught the primitive garage beat, others threw half-full beer cans at the stage or smashed them over their own heads. Quieter onlookers shuffled to the back of the theatre, partly out of fear and partly to grab a beer or another handful of popcorn.
Amid the chaos, the small group of invited journalists and friends of the band shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. Should they laugh, join in the dancing or just try to find out who was in charge and get them to break up the fight that was about to happen in front of the stage? There was no established code of etiquette to follow. After all, these are the people most of us sidle away from at bus stops. Few of us have experience of dealing with them in the context of social interaction, especially when they're behaving like... well, like mentally ill people. Is it OK to photograph them writhing half-naked in a pool of beer? Should they really be drinking anyway? And wouldn't they rather be in a nice, comfy lounge somewhere playing board games?
Such unease is the reason that Forsyth and Pollard have had to put a lot of planning into the event since its inception last August. In fact, it's the reason that the project nearly never happened at all. Some at the ICA were worried that they may be accused of exploiting those with mental health problems; mental health charities were concerned that they might be renting patients to the art world; and the artists themselves were wary of getting out of their depth.
"When we first started thinking about it seriously, we thought that maybe this is something we shouldn't do without a deep personal understanding or experience of those types of issues," says Forsyth. "But that just felt really wrong. It felt really weak to go, 'This is not something I have a close affinity with myself so I can't deal with it.'"
Someone who does have a close affinity with the subject of mental health is Paul Monks, artistic director of Core Arts, an east London arts centre for users of the mental health system, whose members made up part of the audience. "There's something to get out of this," says Monks. "Not only the offer of a day out. They know what the score is, we laid it on the table. They know in exactly what context they're doing it." The involvement of his group, alongside related organisations Mad Pride and Sound Minds, helped to persuade the ICA that the project was a viable one, leaving Forsyth and Pollard free to recruit London garage-punk mainstays to play the Cramps. These included Holly Golightly and Bruce Brand, both past bandmates of anti-conceptual artist Billy Childish.
The band's hair, outfits and guitars were
copied from what little can be made out in the bootleg video, but the
audience were free to dress, act and dance as they wished. The overall
"realism" is in the documentation, with the artists' video
being scripted to ensure the same pulls, camera jumps and lack of focus
as the original. The film will later be re-shot from a TV screen and
copied from videotape to videotape until the desired breakdown in quality
By the time Forsyth and Pollard's Cramps took to the stage for their second and final performance of the eight songs that featured in the original, things were becoming clearer for everyone concerned. The first time around the band had tried to closely ape the Cramps; this time they just let rip, broke strings and pulled audience members on to the stage to dance. More beer cans flew, a roving moshpit invaded the stage and everyone forgot that it was only 3.30pm.
Alfonso Pinto, frontman of the Parkinsons , who begged Forsyth and Pollard to grant him the part of Lux Interior, is used to dodging flying beer cans on stage but admitted that he was nervous at a gig for the first time in ages. "We knew it would be a challenge with the mental health patients and to see them enjoying themselves was great. The second time people really got into it, so it was like, 'Let's do it.'" As a result, the band's versions of Human Fly and The Way I Walk were every bit as charged as the originals. Audience members even began to shout requests, lost in the moment. Next to the video monitor Forsyth jigged on the spot, while Pollard looked on beaming, fully aware that what was going on to tape would have the live quality the pair had strived for. Even the music journalists were dancing.
The spirit of the afternoon carried through to the evening's lively discussion. Glasses and insults were hurled across the room amid discussion of exactly which part of the whole process constituted the art. Was it the gig, the film or the whole thing? And were the audience viewers or participants?
The artists, alongside poet Frank Bangay and psychiatrist Dr Estela Weldon, made a decent fist of analysing the re-enactment, but most of the insight came from the floor, where those who'd drunk and danced the afternoon away put paid to any accusations of exploitation. One man explained that it was the best fun he'd had in years; another pointed out that it made a welcome change from the kind of entertainment we might expect would make mental health patients happy. "After all," he declared, "it beats fucking bingo."
It beats bingo!
This article originally appeared in The Guardian, Monday March 17, 2003.