Sunday, 9 December 2007

Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre: Politics of intimacy and risk on The Long and Winding Road

I have been working on a performance lecture on the art of driving and auto-recovery which I delivered at Manchester Metropolitan University in October and York St. John University in November. This month I attended INTIMACY Across Visceral and Digital Performance at Goldsmiths University of London. I was invited to speak about The Long and Winding Road in relation to notions of intimacy and risk. I took my rear view mirror and offered members of the audience a travel sweet before showing films of the journey to Liverpool on 17 May 2004 and the one-to-one performance. This is what I said:

The Long and Winding Road began on 17 May 2004 when I embarked on a journey in a graffiti covered car from Nottingham to Liverpool. The car was packed with 300 items wrapped in brown paper and string. The journey lasts until 17 May 2008 when I drive the car into the River Mersey.

This is my car. This is my car history. This is the film of the journey I made on 17 May 2004 and those were the first words from a one-to-one performance in the car. Passengers are invited to fasten their seat belts and join me for a travel sweet as I share the reason for the journey and the story of the journey so far via the rear view mirror. This is my car. This is my car history. This is my rear view mirror. And this is the reason for the journey. The mementoes in the car are items that belonged to my brother who died in Liverpool on 17 May 1998. The reason for the journey is best explained in the one-to-one performance in the car, parked in the direction of Liverpool, looking in the rear view mirror, wearing a seat belt, sucking a travel sweet, surrounded by mementoes on The Long and Winding Road.

This year, I was commissioned by Fierce! Festival in Birmingham to create the one-to-one performance. It is an invitation to remember and an act of repair. The narrative of the performance is the journey of auto-recovery as the car is painted, dented and damaged, and towed from galleries to garages. The car has made pitstops at the Ikon Gallery and the Mac in Birmingham, the ICA in London, X-Trax Festival and the inaugural Art Car Parade in Manchester. I have become fascinated with the notion of intimacy exchanged by sharing a car with someone and the transaction that takes place via the rear view mirror. For Intimacy, I ask Where does the intimacy reside - in the mind or in the mirror?

It feels the most appropriate method to share material of an intimate nature. To reflect the raw emotion of a description of death. I don’t describe feelings only the details of the day my brother died. The blu tac left behind on his walls when we took down his posters. The wall chart that has nothing on it after the 17 May 1998. The mirror manages to issue an invitation to be intimate, to make eye contact, to engage, to receive, to relive, to help me to remember. The mirror doubles the distance between driver and passenger, performer and audience to make the experience both intimate and detached. I am always conscious of how the passenger is sitting and adjust how I sit accordingly. One passenger spat out their travel sweet and I performed an emergency stop. Others stay to talk. The mirror is our driving instructor. These are the politics of intimacy on The Long and Winding Road – to look in the mirror before every manoeuvre. To be aware of the passenger and how they feel. Sometimes I follow the two second rule – inviting passengers to ask me questions by leaving pauses in the text. Creating a space for interaction via the mirror. To frame the past in the present. To be aware of the baggage I carry and how I share it. This is my car. This is my car history. At this crossroads, I will misquote Marshall McLuhan;

We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We drive backwards into the future.

This is the Mirror in Mirror-Signal-Manoeuvre, I always look into it before I set off. I am documenting The Long and Winding Road using a blog ( This is an online space for mirror-signal-manoeuvre style reflections and creative sliproads. A space where the road behind you constantly foregrounds the road ahead and the past is always present in the future. A space that both the driver and passengers can visit in between pit stops to reflect on the journey. A space which asks when does the documentation become the artwork and does it matter. A space which asks How does the one-to-one performance replace or repair? The passenger seat could be a space for my brother. Two of us driving nowhere. Spending someone’s hard earned pay. Mementoes create a physical and emotional trace of him. Representing him in his absence. And as we crane our necks beneath his belongings we are conscious of his presence. I often reflect on how different performances have different tones, different energies, depending on the mood or the moment. I have performed as hail has rained down on the roof and had to shout as if I was screaming at the heavens. I have a steering committee guiding me on the journey who act as an outside eye ensuring I stay on the straight and narrow of The Long and Winding Road, making the project for others as well as myself. There is a road sign in New Zealand when two roads approach a junction where both have right of way. It reads ‘Merge like a zip’. The project attempts to ‘merge like a zip’ the experience of driver and passenger via the mirror, past and present, subjective and objective, research and practice, cultural theory and popular culture. From Marshall MacLuhan to Meatloaf.

Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are

This is the main risk on The Long and Winding Road – intimate work brings with it its own baggage. What is the risk of sharing a personal loss? Am I too close to the material? And how much do I tell people? I didn’t mention the reason in the abstract because it feels like over-sharing. You are artists and academics who don’t need to know about my loss. I remember sitting there as someone was talking about work that paid tribute to a loved one or reading about work that became lost in its own grief and I know how awkward it can feel. The interflora school of art. But art history is littered with examples. William Blake was inspired by the loss of his brother. The hooded figures in Magritte’s paintings recall seeing his mother being fished from a river, drowned, with her nightgown over her head. The installations of Felix Gonzales-Torres commemorated his lover. I think also of Ron Mueck’s Dead Dad. Popular music commemorates loss all the time. Julia and Let it Be. John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s odes to lost mothers. The Beatles The Long and Winding Road speaks to me when I am driving about my brother’s loss.

Many times I’ve been alone and many times I’ve cried. In many ways you’ll never know how many times I’ve tried. But still they lead me back. To the long and winding road. You left me standing here. A long long time ago. Don’t leave me waiting here. Lead me to your door.

The project began when I started to realise that a song I had always listened to from my point of view could be listened to from his. It was an attempt to turn the subjective experience into an objective experience. This film ends with me walking up to the door of the house where my brother died and posting the keys to the car through the letterbox.

This is the signal. A signal of my intent. The mileometer went to zero at the Cavern Club and that was a signal too. A sign. I am keen to give passengers in the car the right signals through how the experience is framed, in what context and with what interpretation. I don’t want to invite people into the car without them knowing about the content of the performance. This isn’t therapy. If anything it’s a sort of anti-therapy. Immunising myself to loss through repetition. Making a mantra of a moment in my life where the landscape changed irrevocably. I resist calling the project cathartic. Catharsis means a release of emotions and an evacuation of the bowels. At the same time, I am on a journey of auto-recovery and I use the car as a metaphor for my experience of loss – and the language of driving to describe it. I am a driver not a performer. The audience is a passenger. The Long and Winding Road is a journey not a performance with breakdowns, slip roads and pit stops. There is an electrical car component designed to kick in after an accident called the ‘Keep Alive Memory’ and that is what I am doing on The Long and Winding Road. This is my car. This is my car history. To quote David Savlan, in Breaking the Rules;

It performs the inability of historical discourse to comprehend and describe the feelings aroused during several hours of unfamiliar experience. It performs the fact that history, like theatre, is always a dance of absence and substitution, a dance of death.

I now want to show you the film of the one-to-one-performance in the car. It was difficult to film a moment of intimacy so I decided that I was secondary to the experience. The car is the focal point. Filmed by a camera that doesn’t know. Each performance lasts five minutes and each is different as every audience member meets me to different degrees in the mirror. This is the manoeuvre. This is my car. This is my car history. Thank you for joining me on The Long and Winding Road.

Michael Pinchbeck
December 2007