I was asked by one of our friends after the performance whether I felt like I was performing during ‘Written in Skin’. I must admit I had gone in with the intention of performing in a way, paradoxically with the idea of anti-performance, a much less self-conscious method than if I was stepping into a character or costume as I usually do. I wanted to be as emotionless as possible and Loren and I discussed not even speaking to each other during the piece. We’d devised a series of simple gestures that could communicate if I needed a break, if somewhere was hurting too much or if I needed to readjust my position. There were many questions raised regarding the intricate simplicity of this performance beforehand. Tiny details such as would I wear make-up? Should I wear knickers? What clothes should I wear at the beginning of the performance? How these items would set the tone for the rest of the piece? Should my toes nails be painted? Should I shave my body? How exactly would I undress and with what level of intensity/vulnerability? These were all very important questions that set a mood and framed our intentions, minute details that affect the ambience in exactly the same way that the music or word choice would.
The knicker issue had been a really hot point of debate. I’d always assumed I wouldn’t be wearing any at all, that just seemed like a given. If I was going to do a piece of performance art where my body was such a focal point it seemed completely ludicrous that I would be ashamed of the most vital part of my femininity. It wasn’t until my Mum raised the question one evening and Loren over heard me telling her “Of course I won’t be wearing any” that the issue was brought into the light. As Loren quite rightly suggested it was a really important point that had to be discussed. Logistically there were a few positions necessitated in the process that were a little less than lady like without underwear. Certain members of the audiences from intimate perspectives may have seen more than they expected if we weren’t careful. I didn’t want to be splayed out like some fetishistic autopsy but at the same time I have nothing down there any different to any other woman, it’s as much a part of me as my little finger or my ankles if you’re going to be pragmatically minded and we’ve moved along way from the days when ankles were seen as raunchy ambassadors of temptation. After talking to Loren at great length we decided it would probably be best to wear a skimpy but plain thong, that would be unnoticeable. I felt a little like I was cheating but I didn’t want to compromise the piece or make other people feel uncomfortable. The hours before the event, a stubborn little voice at the back of my head (probably the same Elemental who persisted the project into being) kept asking “What would Marina Abramovic do?” I am massively indebted to Marina, after watching her film the ‘Artist is Present’ and seeing my close friend Marie Harris appear in a re-creation of one of Marina’s early works at MIF’s ’11 Rooms’ (in which performers balanced on a gallery wall for 45mins at a time with nothing but a bicycle seat to balance on between their thighs – suspended, breathless and exposed) I was entranced by the woman’s potency and ethos. Marie described Marina as her ‘Art Mum’ and I certainly feel just as inspired by her existence regardless of the fact I haven’t met her. The woman is a titan. She has never felt the need to wear knickers, so in hindsight I think she would have been proud of my final decision.
When we got to event and it was time to change into my ‘tasteful’ knickers I had another poignant pang of integrity and asked my two amazing invigilators Gemma Richardson and Sara Ellis what they thought about the knicker debate. It was unanimously decided to leave them off. Taking it as a sign I joyously did. I don’t see that response as exhibitionism; it’s a celebration of realism. Wearing knickers would have been like admitting our most creative organs are something to be ashamed of. If people can’t handle the truth they can keep their eyes closed.
When it came to undressing I had purposefully worn the most comfortable and plain garments I could, jeans and a strappy top, so the act of undressing and becoming naked was less like a grand unveiling and more a casual everyday affair. I folded my clothes up in a neat pile on the floor under the bench and unceremoniously plonked myself down on the tattoo bench. I think it was a perfectly mundane beginning to the piece, which evolved into a ritual of intimacy, struggle and truth.
Almost instantly it was apparent that Loren and I needed to be able to communicate with each other and our invigilators, so the lofty silence was soon discarded which made me instantly have to readdress my stoic expressionless ideal. The canvas of my body took control and would not be suppressed by my logical mind. We needed to be able ask the Invigilators to alter the lighting, as the soft pink and blue we had chosen was making it far too difficult for Loren to see what he was doing (hence the reason the blood-lining on my legs were much deeper than my face and chest). Loren also needed to keep checking that I wasn’t getting too cold which would have made it harder for me and increase chances of shock. I needed to be able to talk to Loren from a psychological perspective. Anyone that’s ever had a tattoo before will know how much talking can help your mind shift away from focusing purely on pain. On a very basic level I needed that human connection and on an emotional level I needed to feel connected to Loren throughout instead of being isolated by sensation. I needed to feel the warmth of our connection to know that the far reaching feat of endurance we had planned to symbolise emotional turmoil would be worth all the suffering in the short term.
I was surprised at how much my body was moving involuntarily, strange little ticks and hand gestures and facial spasms were popping out all over the place in an effort to keep my mind calm and take the focus away from the pain. I found it really important to be able to create a point of pressure somewhere on my body to deal with the pain of the needle scratching into my skin. Normally if you’re sat up having a tattoo you can clench the sides of the bench or grab your knees but lying flat on your back you can’t do so I found myself pushing down on my toes with my other foot, creating a platform to redirect attention from my mind. I suppose it’s the same logic as bearing down on a piece of wood between your teeth, creating a solid object to push the rushing energy against. Help it bleed out and disperse into something else outside of you. When I didn’t have this focal point to push against I found my toes wiggling in time to certain melodies, my fingers tapping and drumming along to rhythms that weren’t in the song but formed from a combination of the tattoo gun vibrations and my quivering nerves, my hands pressed into my stomach and rib cage, I need to open alternative channels of energy flow. I found myself wrapping my arms around Loren’s arm and squeezing his t-shirt a lot, running my hand down his back and running my fingers through my hair a lot, all these movements redirected the intensity that would have otherwise shown on my face. Breathing really helped. There were points when I was breathing really hard, long deep breaths that flooded my body with fresh will power and mental clarity. I needed to feel big and substantial and full of glorious life giving air. My stomach muscles and jaw got very tense from clenching, an inevitable side effect of pain control. Lying flat on your back all you can do is clench and tense and the tenser your muscles get the more it hurts. I remember thinking at one point that I thought labour pains would probably be easier to bear because at least you can move around and get yourself into comfier positions to help, you can squat and lean over or fold yourself into the Yogic ‘Childs Pose’ for variation. Plus gravity is on your side in that scenario. I’ll probably laugh at the naivety of that statement with hindsight in years to come.
The sensation of touch and pressure were my biggest allies in taking my mind away from the grating feeling that was becoming increasingly white hot by the second. None of this was a performance that I had planned. I had planned to be serene and in a meditative state of contemplation and restraint throughout, I wanted to contain all the sensation in a tiny box in my mind and prove to myself capable of strength of mental will power that I have never before needed to access. I wanted to be like a stone sculpture but instead I was a wriggling writhing deeply breathing body, hot and sweaty and dishevelled and real. It was raw and it was beautiful and I’m glad that’s how it manifested because it helped other people to share in the energy too and let it ripple out beyond our circle and made it much bigger than Loren and myself.
Despite my best efforts the energy flooding my body, conducted by Loren’s needles and the rawness of freshly etched flesh was spilling out of me without or without my consent and you could see people wincing and squirming along with me. I think the most interesting parts of the piece for me where when these random little ticks and movements materialised, I felt the need to constantly stretch and push excess energy out of my toes and fingertips. It was a kind of performance that was completely new to me, utterly spontaneous and completely unintentional. Energy is an immense elemental force that channels itself in some fascinating ways with or without our interference.