Well, after skirting round the issue for a considerable period of time, with many stories about what happened to Mike and me as we practised the form of art which seemed to get us into arguments and trouble the world over, I’m now going to try to explain what we meant by the term “Situation Art”, and why we were so attached to it. When I have had my say, you might still respond (as a one-man-band of our acquaintance once did) with the immortal words of our title above. But I hope not.
I shall take the argument through the following steps: a brief history of the involvement Mike and I had with the traditional culture of broadsheets and busking; a contemporary analysis that we arrived at of what we were doing, introducing the idea of Situation Art; a look at the problem of the non-recognition of Situation Art as a “self-standing” category, and the misunderstandings this causes; further definition of Situation Art, by comparison with a classical music performance and a theatrical performance; and a brief study of the meaning and value of Situation Art in today’s cultural context, along with some consideration of official attitudes to it.
But first a word of caution; the problem today is that there has been a partial acceptance, not to say adoption, of the style – everything’s “street” this and “site specific” that and “accessible” the other, and “pop-up” yet another — and you find yourself saying, wait a minute, we were doing all that way back, before there were any prizes given for it….. in the days when the best you could hope for was a free ride to the Police Station in a Black Maria!
So I’m handling today’s post with care – over the course of a lifetime a lot of things change their shape. You have to be careful that you’re not just continuing with yesterday’s battles after they’ve ceased to be relevant, and yes, sometimes you have to know when to back down. But I think it’s also good that someone keeps an eye on whether real progress is being made in relations between artists and authorities, despite the apparent blooming of interest in public place art.
Consider poetry, for example. It sometimes looks as if any poet these days who isn’t published by Faber and Faber can call themselves a street poet. But what does that actually mean, indeed does it really have a meaning at all? I’ve reproduced below an article from the London Evening Standard of May 1973, called – funnily enough – “Street Poets”, which is mainly about Bongo Mike, and which I think gives quite a reasonable account of what you might expect the life of somebody calling themselves a street poet to be like. As the journalist Angus McGill wryly comments, “the life would not have appealed to Alfred Lord Tennyson”.
Now, there was a performance element to our street poetry (I say our, because I joined Mike out in the street, from Spring 1974 until we wound the operation down four years later) – or perhaps it could better be described as an interactive element. Anyway, if we take a close look at a few memorable lines from the celebrated poem “The Waste Land”, by T.S. Eliot:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.…
(from The Waste Land, Part I. The Burial of the Dead)
we can then consider that some fifty years after this was published, street poets were entering the scenario, distributing poems (or at least attempting this feat) to those apparently undone by death.
Towards the end of the 1970’s we decided that living solely from poetry was getting tough: inflation similar to today’s was making it difficult to set a realistic-sounding price on the sheets we were offering the public, and it was starting to seem like a misfiring idealistic venture rather than a joyous celebration. Though it must be said that in general – albeit not everywhere – we had been free from interference or harassment by police etc.
As street poets, operating frequently in London’s West End, we were of course acquainted with the characterful collection of buskers who were also around: Ronnie Ross and his Sand Dance, Don Partridge and his associate Alan Young, Scotty, Herman the German, the Earl of Mustard (otherwise known as Jumping Jack), Old Meg Allan and Paris Nat Schaffer (whom sadly I never met, on account of his early death, but still heard all about from Mike and others)… It was an inspiring bunch of people. And with encouragement particularly from Ronnie Ross, we set out to develop our own individual musical act, as what we hoped would become an alternative to – if not a huge step from – poetry as a mode of income.
Street music, or public place music might be a better way of putting it, happens in a large-ish variety of situations. After a couple of false starts, we found our first success in Green Park Underground Station, by the side of the passageway joining the Piccadilly Line and the Victoria Line, at Easter 1978. The song which resonated with the passers-by was one of Mike’s compositions “Kilburn Station”, a slow moody song which sounded perfect in the subway. (We’ve since recorded a version of it with a slightly expanded musical arrangement.) But from what I remember, we saw little chance of earning a living, performing in an environment replete with “No busking” signs on the walls, and where, away from Easter, many other players would be jockeying for a pitch.
Our next success was on the street outside Earls Court Underground Station in the early evening, featuring a song called “Midnight Special”. Unfortunately we didn’t last long there – after a few days the friendly local police put a stop to the party.
On the third attempt, we found a pitch we could call our own – Coventry Street, in the evening, outside what was then known as “Bernard Delfont’s London Experience”. A song we wrote there had a peculiar origin: it was a quiet night, not many people out, and we were in a creative sort of mood; I was playing a repetitive riff on the guitar, and Mike was starting to sing extracts from one or two of his poems, to the rhythm. Suddenly two police officers walked up to us and – as usual – ordered us to stop playing. We packed up and went home in disgust, but the following day one of us said “Well if that’s what they want, that’s what they can have!” – we picked up the rhythm again, but in place of the planned mellow poetic lyric, we put a court case where a musician is arrested and tried in a Magistrates Court, and found guilty of busking. (I have described the scenario, including a later electric version of the song, in an earlier post The Professor of the University of the Street.)
This, together with other edgy songs we composed while playing there (“It’s A Crime to Play Music in the Streets” and “Family of Freaks and Schizophrenics” come to mind), fitted very well the context in the West End; and if it weren’t for the fact that we were spending more time in Bow Street than Coventry Street, we might have continued there for many years, instead of heading off for a nomadic life on the Continent, where we became café and terrace players, delved into Mike’s jazz heritage to develop our “Spasm Band” act – and acquired the freedom of approach to take on playing on moving trains and trams, something which we then brought back to London, on occasional visits “home”.
But in every country we went to, whether the act of performing in a public place were illegal, semi-legal or broadly tolerated, we found that street musicians were exploited and relatively down-trodden. This is not to say that we were treated uniformly badly- there were great times, and golden memories. But we were always conscious of something missing. Artistic acceptance. We had come off the pedestal of poetry, don’t forget, in our attempt to find a better way to relate to the public place audience; we had developed a populist act, built around original musical material; but we were not taken seriously, by comparison with either classical artists or pop artists.
Then one day in early 1981 we had our “lightbulb moment”, as described in the first post I published on this site, Welcome , when we saw that there was a specific artistic identity that ran through all the different types of performance we did in all the different towns we visited (including street poetry in London, as we realized at this point) – and Mike gave it the name Situation Art.
As we developed this idea of Situation Art, we realized that it represented an artistic perspective in its own right, quite separate from the conventional skills (be that musical proficiency, quality of voice, excellence of repertoire etc.) exhibited by the performer. It had to do with the appropriateness of the performance to the situation – and thereby brought the situation, with all its diverse possibilities, into the equation. And it seemed to us, that it was only by an idea of this sort being accepted, at an intellectual level, that buskers would ever be recognized as artists in their own right, and so be elevated above the degraded level at which they were generally valued in the days when we were active – e.g. as some kind of traditional “folk hero”, or maybe as a music student getting some practice while studying, rather than a particular type of performer, doing something with its own timeless validity.
Musical buskers tend to get judged by so-called experts on the basis of how good a musician the expert considers them to be. Yet some of the most memorable buskers might be hardly musicians at all, in the conventional sense. For example “Coneman” (as he was affectionately christened), who would somehow acquire a traffic cone, and by blowing through a hole in the top of the cone would turn it into a kind of wind instrument with its own distinctive sound; or Victoria the Comb Lady (see below), a Dixie-style soloist who played her comb with us a few times outside Brixton Station where she was generally to be found.
And it is widely held to be part of the history of Jazz, that street bands in New Orleans, known as Spasm Bands, playing music of uncertain origin on homemade instruments, as the 19th century morphed into the 20th, were one of the founding pillars of the new culture. Early critics of jazz were not especially impressed, and could find quite negative things to say about it, e.g. “It is not music at all. It is merely an irritation of the nerves of hearing..” – this from a Professor Henry van Dyke of Princeton University. Of course, Jazz later became much more accepted, but as the intellectual heavyweights moved in, the Situation Art aspect of its early days was almost entirely phased out of the picture. (See Herbert Asbury, “The French Quarter” and Robert Goffin, “Jazz: from Congo to Swing”.)
That is not to say that Situation Art theory necessitates a conflict with conventionally proficient performance – of classical music, for example. But we only have to look at the experiment carried out by the famous American violinist Joshua Bell, as reported in the Washington Post article Pearls Before Breakfast, to see that a virtuoso performance of some of the greatest pieces of music from the western tradition doesn’t necessarily work in every location at any old time of day. Art which requires such a degree of worship, it seems, needs a suitable temple; but places need to be respected too; a player dressed as a clown doing a simple bit of juggling might have been more in keeping with that draughty passageway than Mr. Bell. And further, what sensible busker would choose the early morning rush-hour? !
ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE
In a foretaste of today’s discussion, I quoted – in an earlier post – from a book written by Peter Brook called “The Empty Space”:
“I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
I mention this because I came across it after many years of being fascinated by the experience of sitting on the westbound District Line platform on the London Underground, at Victoria or Embankment Station, watching the eastbound platform slowly fill up with passengers after being emptied by the departure of a train. Like in a conventional theatre, some actors appeared from a staircase at the back, others from what seemed like the wings, at the side; and of course some were static on the platform already, the departing train not having been theirs.
Snatches of conversation might waft across, though a little indistinct, but one could exercise some imagination.
So… a conventional playwright might be inspired by the scene depicted above, and go away and write a play about it. A situation artist would be more likely to get on the next train with them and sing a song – or indeed recite a poem. (See picture below.) More interactive, more direct… But I’m not saying that the world should have either one or the other. I’m just making a case for what I’ve spent my life doing.
And, it being a quite different kind of thing from conventional, organized artistic events in which London abounds, it requires a different skill-set…Situation Art, as I have been calling it.
BEAUTY IN PUBLIC PLACES – AN ARTISTIC DISTURBANCE OF THE PEACE
I’m turning now to an article called “Discover: A Beauty of Situation, Provisional and Lived”, which appeared in a Belgian online progressive arts magazine called Archipelago, in 2012. The writer talks about various aspects of what he calls “beauty in public places”. He considers, among other things, the work of myself and Bongo Mike, taking ideas expressed by us online over the years, and putting them in a broad art-philosophical context. The whole article is interesting, but I’m only going to quote here what is immediately relevant to my drift. (It has here been translated from the French,)
He talks about what he calls simple scenarios from everyday life, or what we would call “social situations” – eating places, markets etc. – and continues:
“strolling players” and other street artists may make interventions “in situ”, motivated by the possibility of a renewed connection with an audience, in a relationship of proximity made impossible by the usage – now normalised – of the “stage” space, to mark a distance or boundary separating the audience from an inaccessible idol.
This contextual dimension forms the basis of the practice of busking. The busker starts by looking for a spot which is appropriate for his musical intervention. The attention is therefore focused on the environment and the relationship which may be created with the audience. The buskers or street musicians therefore develop an art of attitude and of performance rather than a specific sound.…
They are often driven away and even persecuted, running the risk of prosecution, of violence from the authorities (or the public),of fines and penalties of imprisonment…Bongo Mike and Extremely Frank Jeremy… these two singular figures, whose life of discomfort on the road has led them from London to the Balkans, through Belgium, have defined their practice as “situation art”, which one could be tempted to translate as “art de la situation”.
How does one react when facing a situation? What is the difference between an ordinary situation and an aesthetic situation? If the event is recognized from the word go, as belonging to the world of art (taken in its largest sense), it will induce behaviours, which will depend on that recognition (rejection, incomprehension, contempt or conversely, fun investigation of an ‘artefactual’ situation or even an intellectualisation on the part of an informed and initiated audience.) If the event fades into the movement of the world, so that it participates in it without too much exhibition, one could believe that the reactions, less conditioned, will be more spontaneous, freer (without interference), although without being completely unconditioned (external factors always remain, as well as biological, socio-cultural and psychological causes; the eating places, the market and street animation remain coded activities one way or another).
So he’s talking here in the last paragraph about our kind of minimalism, that blends the artistic event into “the movement of the world”, as a way of eliciting a more spontaneous, unconditioned response (which does hark back to Peter Brooke’s idea of theatre as a relationship rather than a building).
Bongo Mike and I had started to think that “on-train busking” (as the official world would refer to it), being the most controversial thing we did but also the most rewarding in terms of audience reaction/participation, was probably the best demonstration we could give of what we meant by our ideas – and the official response to it maybe the best gauge of how genuinely accepted was the whole artistic phenomenon. But sadly you can’t please everyone – or at least, not all the time. And despite our view of what we were offering – the element of joyful surprise, of just being there, and maybe, out of the resulting confusion of expectations, the facilitating of “a brief parting of the curtains that keep the light of immortality out of the chamber of everyday life” (as the earnest advocate, that I used to be, did once describe it)….despite all this, as I say, our performances on trains were the one thing that has never been on the table in any discussion about better treatment for buskers in the UK.
And I want to mention here the widespread opposition, amongst buskers that I have known, to the idea of a licensing scheme as the way forward, be it on the street or on transport systems. I shall in a future post give a full run-down of the legal story as I understand it, but for now I just want to display a few articles from two issues of the Independent in 2000, covering an appearance by Bongo Mike and myself before a parliamentary Opposed Bill Committee discussing proposals for the regulation of street entertainment. The press, if not the MP’s, got what we were saying. (The article entitled Private View is couched in a style of humour fashionable in its day, which I’m personally not too fond of, but the final paragraph makes some crucial points that are not often expressed.)
“Well that’s all very well”, I hear your inner bureaucrat objecting, “but how then is the whole thing ever to be regulated to everybody‘s satisfaction?”
Let me give full disclosure here – Bongo Mike and I did once obtain a licence, in 1997, to perform on the trains of the ‘S’ Bahn system in Nordrhein Westphalen, Germany, but only as a novelty for a brief period of two weeks, and the experiment – although quite successful – was not repeated. And as I have said, such performances remain illegal on all of Britain’s train systems.
A variation in the legislation regarding street music in London and elsewhere in UK has meant that busking in the street is no longer treated as a matter for the police in the first instance – except, presumably, in extreme situations which might arise in any case. It is now a matter between the performer and the local authorities, who react in different ways, along the tolerant/intolerant spectrum. So far, so quite a bit better, and a vindication I like to think, as far as it goes, of the stand taken by Bongo Mike and myself on the whole issue – controversial though it was at the time. But uncertainties and injustices remain. Busking – to use again this word I don’t really like – is a culture in its own right, and attempts that are made to bring it out of the twilight where it has lingered for so long usually seem to go wrong. It is so much a thing of the moment, and that’s a very difficult quality to capture in any broader structure….
….and it is on this note, dear reader, that I must sadly take my leave of you – for now – pausing merely to remind you of my oft-repeated mantra, that answers concerning the right treatment of street musicians, buskers etc. will be hard to come by until Situation Art is inducted, in one guise or another, into the pantheon of intellectual respectability, and it is accepted that there is an aesthetic proper to spontaneous public place performance alone.
See you next week!