Emily Roysdon: I am a Helicopter, Camera, Queen

Maria Walsh logs on to a live-streamed web-based performance

For her 2009 curatorial exhibition ‘Ecstatic Resistance’, Emily Roysdon wrote that this concept talks about ‘pleasure in the domain of resistance – sexualising modern structures in order to centralise instability and plasticity in life, living, and the self’. Albeit an older concept in her diverse oeuvre, it could readily be applied to her performance work I am a Helicopter, Camera, Queen, 2012, which was the third commission in the BMW Tate Live: Performance Room series, of which there are five this year. A deceptively simple idea, each invited artist stages a performance to camera in a room in Tate Modern that is aired live on YouTube and subsequently archived so that the work can be watched again, thereby removing the issue of documentation – seeing as the event is its own document. Although other aspects of performance work are also foresworn, for example the intimacy and energy of a live audience, this use of the internet as the sole interface of a performance work means that a lot more people get to see the piece – on Roysdon’s night in question there were 2,271,922 views – and Facebook and Twitter enthusiasts get the chance to send their questions to the artist in the after-performance Q&A – on this night there were 8,939 subscribers to the chat forum discussion with Roysdon and Tate curators Catherine Wood and Kathy Noble. The challenge for the artists is to make a performance that reconceives the space of performance in terms of the flatness of the online screen. While Jérôme Bal, the first commission, performed to camera much in the style of early video art, where the screen and camera act as a mirror, and Pablo Bronstein, the second commission, used mobile mirror screens to rearticulate the space of the room and thereby the flatness of the online screen, Roysdon attempted to break the mirror by filling the room with 106 participants who followed simple choreographed movements, some of which were drawn on the floor like a horizontal script that supposedly built up the space of the actual performance. In fact Roysdon prefers the terms choreography and movement to performance and event, possibly because this gets us out of the melancholic temporality of performance and into spatial practices that echo everyday life.

Logging on at the streaming time of 8pm, I found myself facing a large group of people, mostly women, mostly young, looking up at the camera to the right-hand side of the screen. Even those who were not looking directly at the camera seemed to be aware of it, but as a group formation they also seemed to have an unspoken demand that was more than simply to be looked at. Knowing that Roysdon’s ‘troupe’ was culled from an open call for volunteers who self-identified as queer and feminist, as does Roysdon, I wondered if this demand was in the name of identity politics or if something might happen to destabilise these expectations?

After holding the gaze for about half a minute, one turns and they all follow, moving in sync to face one wall, then the other, like a swarm of bees or a flock of birds. One breaks free of the crowd, twirling towards the camera to hold a cardboard placard giving the title of the work, while another lies on the floor and performs scissors movements that echo the print on the floor of a pair of spread legs, which open towards the crowd, who begin to chant ‘clock’, ‘block’, words whose ambiguity seem to empty out any demand that one could situate the work in relation to identity politics. Identity here seems to work as a ruse as well as a presence. As the crowd lines up in front of the online screen, the camera finally moves to centre, aligning itself and us online viewers with the position of the camera lens that is drawn, like a dildo, between the spread legs on the floor. This move addressed the lack of intimacy of a live audience by creating a sexualised, humorous interrelation between virtual audience and live work and vice versa, which was compounded in the final minutes of the 15-minute piece.

The formations shift into protective rows as people begin to exit the room while, from the back of either side of the room, a participant comes towards the screen giving another a piggy back, those on top holding a length of string stretched across the space, which they proceed to cut into small pieces and attach to the actual camera eye – my eye – while the last remaining row of participants line up and shout the words ‘Life’, ‘No’, ‘Now’, ‘Anyone’, ‘Time’, ‘Our Lives’, before falling to the floor to form a birth chain, head to crotch, issuing from the printed spread legs. The fringed camera moves along the chain exiting the room out into the Turbine Hall where we are presented with rows of birth chains with participants randomly shouting out words used earlier, the cacophony resounding in the space. ‘Queen’, ‘confession’, ‘block’, ‘clock’, the Turbine Hall is sexualised by this chain of human bodies whose formation is the inverse of the die- in used in anti-war and Act-Up protests. Roysdon wanted, she says, to celebrate queer bodies and it is outside the room, but inside the gallery, that this finally becomes successful as, inside the room, the constraints of movement could not break the mirror eye of the camera, but the form of the birth chain, caressed by the lashes of the dildoic camera, dismantles this to create a dynamic postural gesture that proposes a different relational space, a queer space in which resistance becomes presence rather than antagonism. When 100 queer feminists are delivered to your own device – as reads the placard that ends the performance inside the room – what we get is the proposition of protest as celebration rather than a demand for rights. This form of protest requires the solidarity of naming but it is enacted on behalf of everyone.

I am a Helicopter, Camera, Queen was performed at Tate Modern on 31 May 2012.

Maria Walsh is a writer and teaches at Chelsea College of Art & Design.

First published in Art Monthly 358: Jul-Aug 2012.

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