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As part of the performance footprint network event on 20 May 2011, in the former Anatomy Theatre and Museum of Kings College London, Illinois-based performance artist Julie Laffin was commissioned to present a performance-lecture. The objective was to present a more personal set of reflections on the connected themes of performance site, environment, and toxicity — to follow on from that morning’s presentation by the London-based activist collective PLATFORM, who had focused their attention on the oil corporation BP (see the blog entry “Oily Anatomies and Toxic Landscapes” for details).

Laffin, who for years specialised in making performances for public spaces, now suffers from acute environmental illness (EI), which prevents her from making any contact with members of the public. She lives in her home as if in a bubble, rigorously screening out external chemical contaminants. During the summers, owing to agrichemical crop-dusting, she is forced into exile from her rural Illinois home, seeking refuge in the relatively clean air and high altitude of the American Southwest.

Laffin’s presentation for Kings, created in collaboration with event organiser Steve Bottoms, consisted of three parts. For the first and third, she sent video letters from footage shot in New Mexico the previous summer (2010). These are reproduced below. For the second part, a live Skype video feed from her Illinois home showed viewers aspects of her daily domestic circumstances, while Steve read out a letter of his own, addressed to Julie. The connecting thread across the three parts is that of domestic spaces/sites that are – owing to Julie’s particular condition – of varying habitability. The triptych presentation was followed by an open Q&A session in which Julie appeared via Skype link.

It should be stressed that the first location, a rented house, had been prepared by its owner with scrupulous concern for the needs of those suffering from forms of environmental illness. However, given the highly variable, idiosyncratic nature of individual chemical susceptibilities, Julie herself was unable to stay there.

Part 1: House

As the audience enter the Anatomy Theatre space, they are followed by a giant eye, peering at them from the giant projection screen. This is Julie, on a live Skype feed from her home in Illinois. She does not speak. When the audience is in, Steve hits play on the following video:

Part 2: Home

On the screen, on the live Skype feed, we see roaming shots of the interior of Julie’s Illinois home – as picked up by the small webcam she is manipulating manually. The effect is like a tiny helicoper surveying a strange landscape. The desk, the walls, the shelves.  The roaming shot picks up Julie’s laptop screen, which is showing Steve’s face on the Skype feed. It zooms in close on Steve’s mouth. The fed-back image looks weirdly degraded on the giant screen in the Anatomy Theatre at Kings College,  where Steve is reading out a letter:

Dear Julie,

Hi. How are you doing?

I hope you got home from New Mexico OK, and that they’ve stopped bombing the crops near your house by now.

I’m writing to you from Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal – our local “World Heritage Site” about an hour North of Leeds. I’m sitting in the small hermit’s grotto that the 18th Century landscape gardeners built into the hillside here, looking out at the reflecting lake that curves around to face the Abbey ruins. I guess the ruins are supposed to function as a sort of giant garden folly, and the hermitage as some comment on humility and frugality. As built by millionaires.

This place isn’t much more than a small, square rain shelter with a gently arching, brick-vaulted roof. I can’t stand up straight in it, but there are some low wooden benches to sit on. Last autumn’s dead brown leaves are still covering the floor, along with one or two bright green ones that must have blown in this year. Looking oddly out of place. There are birds singing and chirruping outside, punctuated by the sound of echoing hammering somewhere in the distance. The gentle babble of the water cascades at the nearby “Rustic Bridge” – another bit of faux-archaic garden design. Right outside the arching entrance of the hermitage I can see the thick, imposing base of a giant redwood tree  – a Sequoia from the Pacific coast of America – towering, majestic…  Perhaps relocated here to render added constrast with the mouth of this squat little hovel.

Didn’t you mention that you researched actual hermitages, in the Desert Southwest, when you were looking for refuge a summer or two ago? What happened there? Not viable, I guess. . . I’m sure you wouldn’t last three seconds in here. There’s a rank smell of damp and mould – the vivid green shade of some kind of moss creeping up the rough stone walls from the floor, and occasional outbreaks of white-ish and even yellow-ish substances on the rougher stones that jut out furthest from the walls.

            The Moss his bed, the Cave his humble Cell

            His Food the fruits, his Drink the Crystal well. 

Nobody could live here, but then as far as they know, nobody ever has. This place is purely decorative. Apparently the eighteenth century vogue for garden hermitages was taken a bit more literally in some other places: there are records of home-owners advertising for people to live in these hovels, as if undertaking some kind of durational art performance. One of these hired hermits kept the act up for fourteen years.

He must wear a camel robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of [the] grounds, or exchange one word with the servants.  

I cut my hair, didn’t I. Shaved it all off while you filmed me. Shaved my beard off. Wore your husband’s clothes. Just so I could be around you that time I visited you out in Snowflake, Arizona. I’d been washing only in hemp soap for a week before I even came out, but still the trace shampoo scents in my hair were causing you to react to me. Forcing you to wear a breathing mask in my presence.

I remember feeling an intense sense of relief when I left you that summer. Relief that I wouldn’t have to go through any more of those stringent tests just to be tolerable to you. Relief that I could leave you to your isolation and rejoin the “real world” again. Spray on my deodorant.

So what exactly am I trying to do at Alan’s Anatomy Theatre? Engineering a voyeuristic glimpse into your home – your enforced retreat —  from a safely unaffected distance? So that we can all feel abstractly concerned about the environment?  John Dixon Hunt writes of 18th century horticultural literature that

Poets, like landowners, announce their commitment to philosophical retreat by displaying the emblems of hermit and hermitage instead of thinking for themselves.

But perhaps I’m indulging in self-flagellation here. Like some theatrical anchorite. Perhaps “retreat” is the wrong word anyway – with its connotations of backing away, hiding from the world. You’re not hiding from anything, are you? Just trying to deal with the facts. Perhaps we need a different military metaphor completely. Perhaps retreat is the new avant-garde.

Part 3: Van

Following the screening of this second video, the audience finally sees Julie’s face ‘live’ on the Skype feed, looming large over the Anatomy Theatre. There follows a question and answer session between Julie and the audience. Questioners have to come down to the front of the space in order to be heard by Julie, through Steve’s laptop. As they speak to her, they crane their necks upward to look at the big face on the big screen…

She looks like a goddess.


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