Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Aerschot Performance Division

“A very slight dent”: a partial history of the Aerschot Performance Division 1976-9

compiled by Richard Warren, with input from Robert Worby

[All images are thumbnails – click for enlarged gallery view]

(For collages by Peter Hatton, go here.)

(For a reminiscence of Peter Hatton, go here.)

Not a great deal has been written about UK performance art in the ‘seventies, though a number of participants have catalogued their activities online in recent years. But it was an interesting time. The Aerschot Performance Division was a small collective based in Wakefield, Yorkshire, that operated from 1976 to 1979. The group’s name, picked at random from an atlas, turned out to be that of a Belgian town where atrocities against civilians were allegedly committed by German forces in 1914.

Core members were Peter Hatton, Richard Warren, Jez Welsh and Robert Worby, augmented for static shows (supposedly as the “Aerschot Graphics Division”) by Simon Poe, Richard Wright and later Peter White. Today Robert Worby, composer and sound artist, presents “Hear and Now” for Radio 3. Jeremy Welsh is Professor of Fine Art at Bergen Academy of Art and Design, Norway. Simon Poe writes on Victorian art. Peter Hatton taught at a Special School in Wakefield and died in 1998.

“Their purpose … is to foster widened aesthetic perception … holding a pen or opening a door can be seen contemplatively. They have no central ideology … have a network of agreements … They meet frequently, discuss; and then do …” [Stephen Chaplin]

“They are gentle, sympathetic young men, pursuing an extreme of art with the minimum of ostentation.” [Philip Norman]

Performances were often in a cabaret format that could include pairings or solo pieces, though more extended events involved all four performers working together. Welsh (a pioneer video artist) and Worby (an experimental musician) brought to performances a measured approach influenced by their particular understanding of conceptualism. Hatton (primarily an experimental film maker) and Warren (here the contributor of spoken texts), both trained in improvised drama, could draw on a more mannered theatricality. It was a useful blend. Performances involved sound, action, the spoken word and projected film. Despite an awareness of other performance artists, Aerschot’s approach was not derivative; we worked it out for ourselves, though in a climate informed by Dada and Fluxus. Audiences seemed substantial; there was certainly plenty of interest about.

Robert Worby:

“Some of these images still look extraordinarily radical. Quite what it was we thought we were doing, I have no idea and I had no idea then although we sort of pretended we did, especially when it came to making applications for money. We just did it. We took the materials – images, objects, sound, light, costumes, props, a defined physical space (enclosed or not) and, most importantly, time – and we messed with these things in front of an audience. We never rehearsed, although we knew the materials with which we were working very well and, over time, ‘routines’ (in that Burroughs sense of the word) emerged and evolved.

I think it’s important to mention how much our work with Aerschot was rooted in materials. It was all so very concrete. I considered my work to be musique concrète and, although I had heard about the work of Pierre Schaffer done at the GRM studios in Paris in the late ‘forties and ‘fifties, I really didn’t know enough about it for it to have a direct impact on what I was doing. I’d never heard any of his work, I’d only read about it. I worked with sound, I captured and recorded it. I worked with tape recorders and tape. And although I often worked with pitches, notes and note patterns, vis-à-vis some early minimalists, I wasn’t composing tunes, I was trying to make good, interesting sound.

Today, so much so-called art (and some music and certainly a lot of sound art) is rooted in a lazy, laissez-faire notion of conceptualism with very little attention paid to materials, even ideas as material. In the Aerschot days, Jez and I certainly had an interest in, and respect for, some of those ‘seventies conceptual artists like Jan Dibbets, Joseph Kosuth and even Michael Craig Martin … although some of these artists were certainly conceptual artists we respected their relationship with materials. When we were lads, we messed with stuff, we did the stuff, we produced stuff. Generally speaking, the quality of stuff in the last decade or two has been quite poor …

And you’re correct, there is a great sense of the absurd about what we were doing. It’s not necessarily comedic or intentionally funny. That’s not to say we didn’t howl with laughter when something ridiculous bubbled to the surface, but we were funny in the same way that Hugo Ball, dressed in his costume at the Cabaret Voltaire, was funny. Or maybe it’s particularly English. You know, that peculiar twist on Surrealism … that two fingers up to everybody and everything … a kind of professional amateurism that is so very English.”

Breadline Gallery, Rodley, Leeds: cabaret, June 19 1976

Breadline Gallery: exhibition, Aug 20 – Sept 15 1977 and cabaret, Sept 12

Journo and Beatles biographer Norman, prompted by a brief Guardian review of the Breadline show, travelled up North to inspect the grimness and view quaint native habits. His piece is very sympathetic, though a tad coloured by Southern condescension; the cabbages happened to be parked in the corner and were not regularly on sale. His description of Worby (continuing the vegetable theme) as a “turnip headed leader” created some amusement among the rest of the group.

2B Butler’s Wharf, London: 1977 (Hatton, Warren)

Burton Room, Oxford Playhouse, 1977

“Top Models”, spoken by Warren, was a catwalk commentary to a surrealist fashion show for which the other performers posed. It was written somewhat in the spirit, if not according to the method, of Raymond Roussel. Four models were described successively in (1) a hat crowned with a model of a fish overlaid in beaten egg-white, bearing an impossibly detailed image of an antique factory scene; (2) a “colonial style” outfit in which –

“The shoes remind us of the screeching of frightened parrots in the heights of the rain-forest, the gloves speak to us of the soft dip of the paddles in the dark green river as a canoe with a staring eye carries the district commissioner to an unknown death  … the earrings are the flight of a war-spear through the bright blue of an equatorial sky, and the hair is by Leonard at 6 Upper Grosvenor Street.”

– (3) a “conceptual” hat, of which the left corner represents –

“… a mawkish terminal dialogical analogue, a massive revision of probability theory, a discourse in epistemological-methodological preambles, a resonance between the iterated and the attached. Conversely, the right-hand corner represents the extreme joy of five dwarves banging on a drum.”

– and (4) a turban surmounted by a live and rather neurotic lobster. The whole piece was introduced by a short found text from an actual fashion magazine, and concluded by a Burroughsian cut-up of the same text.

After a performance of this piece at 2B Butler’s Wharf, I was confronted in the pub by an ardent young woman from the audience who demanded to know why we had not given it a more coherently feminist purpose. This seemed like a fair point at the time and put me a bit on the defensive. On the other hand, thinking about it now, it may have just been a pick-up line that went over my head.

Ayton Basement, Newcastle upon Tyne: performance, January 1978

“My Bleeding Heart” was a Warren solo performance in which an initially plausible but mawkish poetry reading was introduced with “Thank you. This poem is one that I wrote several years ago, just after I had broken up with my girl friend …” With successive poems, each less likely than its predecessor (arbitrary elements, a phonetic sound poem, a silent poem etc), but each introduced by the same preamble, sense disintegrated by degrees. The “reading” culminated in a conjuration in “primal” language in which the “poet”, now dressed in shamanic mask, wig and robe, waved a stuffed toy dog aggressively at the audience.

Breadline Gallery: exhibition, May 24 – June 20 1979 (Hatton, Welsh, Peter White)

White Elephant Gallery, Leeds: Sept 22 1979, performance “3/4” (Hatton, Welsh, Worby)

The end …

“Please don’t apologise for The Wordman. It’s a splendid text. We thought so at the time. But at the time, I realised it was the end for Aerschot. We’d had our day. We had been a collective of eclectic artists, we had managed to make it work and we had had some small impact. We’d had some success … Oxford MoMA, Leeds City Art Gallery, Ayton Basement, Butler’s Wharf, Breadline, etc. None of those gigs are to be sniffed at and we’d had write-ups in the Sunday Times and the Guardian as well as more esoteric journals. I suppose we made a very slight dent in the British art scene.” [Robert Worby]

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