New years carry an energy with them which, when harnessed, can provide a positive momentum for the remainder of the year. Without the ability to harness this energy, the first week back at school in January often finds students stuck in a lethargic state. Overcoming this ennui during our year-long programme of artist-led workshops with The CE Academy requires super artist ideas – skills upon skills to capture the imagination of students stuffed with mince pie and Christmas TV.
It was Fermynwoods Director James Steventon‘s turn this year. James likes challenges. They’re a cornerstone of his existence and form the epicentre of his endurance-based artistic practice.
When travelling to our workshops each week, students always ask two questions. “Who have we got today?” and “What are we doing?” To retain an element of surprise on this occasion, staff simply answered “We have James. It is going to be something James-like, and he doesn’t want to tell us anymore”. “Ok, but can we have some toast?” “Yes, but only at the precise moment that James says we can”. Going off script and away from our established routine can be volatile. Students approached muttering expletives and threats of aggression should the toast not appear. The workshop had already started.
On arrival they were greeted by James, standing in the entrance. If you know James, you can imagine his tall, robust frame filling the space of the doorway. Then picture him cradling a tiny cup of icy water, offering it out as a gift to be consumed before entering. Student physicality immediately softened, accepting the ritualistic challenge with intrigue piqued. A tangerine was offered with instructions not to eat it until they were told. James also gave each student a scroll informing them they were to treasure it, not to lose it, and to only open it when asked.
Once inside (and discovering that all the furniture in the room had been removed), students signed contracts, with wording based on a fusion of the Tough Mudder Pledge and Marina Abramovic’s Cleaning The House workshops, confirming their full participation in the workshop ahead. Above them on the wall read the quote “If you can’t control your energy someone else will control it for you.” Continuous engagement for these students can be a challenge. James encouraged students to be mindful of this, sharing an excerpt from a film where future superheroes work to master their powers at Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
Once the delayed gratification of toast was mindfully resolved, James encouraged students to arrange a wall of images of notable endurance feats such as athletes setting world records, Japanese marathon monks, key performance art works, plus some of his own drawings. Students discussed and arranged these images into their own categories such as “Pointless”, “Pointless but good” and the ultimate compliment of “Sick”.
After one student enthusiastically sorted an image of Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano’s Rope Piece (where the artists were tied to one another for a whole year), James challenged the student to remain tied to him for the whole day (which he duly accepted).
As staff (also tied to one another) bumped into each other preparing lunch, James and the students made their own Gold Balls. The recipe of almonds, peppercorns, coriander seeds, honey and water – ground using a stone, formed into a ball and covered in edible gold leaf – is often given to children in Eastern traditions to stimulate their memory. According to Marina Abramovic’s book Student Body, the practice of eating a gold ball after a long period of fasting and seclusion dates back to the 6th Century and helps to achieve a clear state of mind. Consuming the balls back-to-back whilst sitting on the floor was one of the quietest moments we’ve ever experienced in these workshops.
Eating the tangerines came next, but with the instruction that the actions of peeling, feeding and chewing be so slow that they were to be imperceptible. One student explained later that he couldn’t slow down but instead found the solution of peeling the skin into an infinite number of crumbs so the effect was the same.
Revisiting the scrolls from the beginning of the day, students had to repetitively shade the entire surface, revealing messages written by James in wax. One student’s scroll read “What if we recharged ourselves as often as our phones?”
The original Rest Energy performance by Abramovic and Ulay (which also featured on the student curated wall of images) used a bow and arrow held by the weight of their bodies, the arrow pointed towards Abramovic’s heart. Our re-enactment involved James and a student connected by a resistance band and the student poised with a cream pie directed at James’ face.
Recreating this piece of performance art also mirrored Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces, where she recreated key performance works, such as Joseph Beuys’s How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965). Not to be outdone, the students worked with James to recreate what he called “How to Explain Pictures to a Student Excluded from Mainstream Education”. Seated and posed at a precise angle in front of the curated images from the morning, students gently covered James’ face in honey and gold leaf and took a photograph of him in the style of Joseph Beuys to document this influential and intimate performance work.
We can all be our own superhero, especially when we need to evoke levels of endurance during difficult periods of our lives, or over Christmas while navigating tricky family dynamics, or as educators in the first week of January motivating reluctant students. To endure evokes feelings of negativity but endurance changes this to a challenge to be overcome. Enduring means that a legacy has been created and this workshop created very special memories both for our students and for myself in particular.
James remarked after the workshop, “These students all have special powers. ADHD, alternative ways of seeing the world, and so on. If they can harness that energy in a positive way, then they can achieve great things.”
I think that goes for all of us.