5th - 12th November 2008
by Malte Roloff
In October 2008 the artist-run project residence invited thirteen artists and art students from Belfast, Glasgow and Hildesheim into an uninhabited house in Belfast to work around the theme of HOUSE/HOME. The whole project was very much based on the idea of working collaboratively, discussing ways of making art in a collective, realising individual works and having dinner together. The latter went pretty wrong. And was art.
The black face-paint does not really want to stay on my sweatty forehead. The spotlights, which turned the small room into a temporary changing-room, evaporate a dry, hard heat.
Dinner is supposed to be ready in ten minutes, at 8.30 pm. Quickly, we all cover the still visible parts of bare skin with black make-up. The rest is covered in black clothes or black bin-bags. No one recognises the facial expressions of any of the other people in the room anymore, hidden under layers of black paint. Everyone is wearing black bin-bag hats to cover blond or brown hair, hands are being covered with woolen gloves.
We are helping each other by applying the finishing touches to the skin behind the ears or holding mirrors. Textile and plastic are being tightened and fixed with sticky tape. Even too lightly colored shoes are wrapped in black socks.
All of a sudden it is time for dinner. A short signal, the ringing of a bell, and all of the twelve especially invited guests go into the room next door.
Chairs, table and cutlery, the walls, windows, ceiling and floor, food and drinks, everything is black. And now all the guests as well except their eyeballs, teeth and tongues. A small lightbulb is spreading a dim light over all the black funiture and seatings arranged across the room. There are seats fixed to the floor, chairs screwed to the table or attached to each other. The big table has been cut into two halves, there is a little group of chairs and seats in the gap in the middle. The first people entering the room take their seats there, on the floor, the rest of the group is spreading out around the two halves of the table.
Communication with the people on the other side of the room is difficult, even talking to your neighbour costs quite an effort. At first, no one dares to talk in a raised voice or to laugh, no real conversation seems to be possible in all this blackness, every bite and every word are hard work.
A smell of mold and decay lies over the whole table, a mix of burnt food, sweet icing and salty sauces. One by one singular dishes can be distinguished from each other. The black coloured rice must have been slightly burnt or the soy sauce has gone bad.
Together with a deep loud humming coming out of the two big speakers, each in one corner of the room, the smell and taste of the food creates a very uncomfortable atmosphere.
I would like to vomit, to smoke a cigarette, to leave the room. But maybe this would destroy or put an abrupt end the dinner, the whole piece of art. My chair is attached to the one of another guest in such a way, that I am facing with my back to the group around the table. I stare towards the mirror and sink in the corner. I can see: black.
We are handing each other dishes on black plates, are passing on black drinks, in black glasses and bottles. It is a little less quiet than in the beginning, but a real dinner-table atmosphere with small talk and a relaxed feeling of being part of the party just doesn’t want to arise. If there is any conversation, it’s comments on the smell and taste of the food, little details of the black room, or on the difficulties eating with gloves on hands and bin bags on the head. Every now and then a shrill laughter cuts through the up and down of murmurs and mutterings on each side of the table.
Relatively soon after we’ve all settled down, helped ourselves to some drinks and food, the noise begins.
Some people on my end of the table have discovered that there a little contact-mics attached to our plates and glasses, connected to the two big speakers in the corners. Every little scratching of the plate with a fork or knife, every moving of a plate or lifting up and putting down a glas is being heavily amplified and played back into the room. After a little while, a small percussion-group has formed itself and they are drowning every conversation with their rhythmic banging and drumming. At first, this feels like a very welcome change from the silence and monotonous humming sound before. But after a little while, more and more people from the other side of the table ask for a halt to this noise. It all ends with a shrill feedback and the microphones being detached from the plates. After the sound has died, the silence is almost unberable, made even worse by someone turning off the little light. It is now almost completely dark, pitch black, since the windows have been sealed and there is hardly any light coming in from the outside streetlights.
I try to get up and accidentally reach into a bowl of black beans salad. Someone shouts "Food Fight!“ and everything that is within reach is flying through the air. The two halves of the table bombard each other with the leftovers. I get a good share of rice into my face and manage to hit someone with a handful of seaweed.
In next to no time the two parties have found shelter under their half of the table, the people in the middle crawl to either side. The unpleasant smell has increased considerably. It is very quiet except for a quiet murmuring and people breathing in the corners of the room and the noise from the street outside.
Someone is trying to open one of the windows.
Eventually, the door is being opened.
It had not been locked thoroughout the whole time of the dinner.
Light is falling onto overturned chairs and broken plates, the floor is covered in chocolate souce, guinnes beer and mashed olives.
One after another we are all leaving the room to remove our make-up.
Psychology of space
In the work DINNER by Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell, the five human senses and the social event of a dinner in a big group of people, who know each other more or less well, become the artistic material.
The deformation of all the furniture, the preparation and colouring of all the dishes, the setting-up of a feedback curcuit between plates and speakers, amplified sounds and the group-atmosphere in the room, all this sets the parameters for a social experiment.
The respectively individual experience of the space, the interaction of every single participant with his or her surroundings and with all the other people in the room, all this is subject to chance and accident.
Through the disorientation and challenge of smell and taste, the complication of communication and the frustration of too much comfort and ease, the artist constructs a very strong environment, an irritating keynote to this dinner, which becomes manifest in the loud drone of the speakers.
The colouring of the entire room and furniture in one, rather the dark colour, black, which is connotated negatively in most cultures, deprives the guests of their visual perception and focuses on sound, smell and the haptic qualities of the surroundings.
The actual absence of the artist herself during the whole history of events, from changing into black clothes and putting on make-up together, to the collective dinner, for which there were given no instructions of how to behave or what to do, all this throws the group and every single member of it back onto itself.
The outcome of the event was open, at any given moment, only the participants themselves never felt like they were able to change anything about the situation or to decide for themselves.
The break between the initial feeling of togetherness, in combination with an excitement similar to preparing for an appearance on stage behind the scenes, and the following tension in the room, could not have been any bigger.
As if we had all stepped onto a stage together to find that we were both, spectators and actors at the same time. Only that the spotlights were out and the largest part of what was happening went on in the dark.
The guests of this dinner went through a borderline experience in which, even though the whole event had been labelled as a possible piece of art beforehand, the boundaries between social interaction and aesthetic experience were blurred.
In this way, DINNER combines many of the aspects Susan Sontag acknowledged for the happenings of Allan Kapprow and others in New York in 1962.
There is no stage, no actors, no fixed plot. Duration and content of the event are solely bound to the ideas and movements of the participants/spectators. They are finding themselves not in front of a piece of art, which has been made beforehand to be looked at, but within the piece of art. The artwork only becomes what it is through the people and the improvisations and reactions of them.
The presence of the artist as artist, e.g. in the role of the host, serving and instructing people, performing in front of them, would have made her the central point of attention and given the others the opportunity to sit back and watch, instead of having to act and interact.
The setting and naming of the whole event as a dinner was chosen deliberately by the artist. It resulted from a general discomfort of she has with these kind of social experiences and an interest in the mechanisms and rules behind an everyday experience like this.
But the work, differently to most of the Happenings from the 1960s, was not finished with the actual end of the dinner.
The artist left the room and everything in it just like it was after the participants had left that evening.
It was opened again for visitors a few days later for the closing event of the residence group at Shore Road.
During the closing event, the sound recordings of the past dinner were played back into the room through the two big speakers. The recordings of the dinner night were brought back to the place they originally came from.
The audience to these recordings and the visitors of the room felt very similar to the dinner guests a few nights earlier: uncomfortable and separated from what was actually going on.