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It was a peculiar crowd that piled on to the two-carriage train to Bexhill on Friday 29th November, a sea of beer-swigging beards mixed with gallery types making their excited way to this sleepy seaside town. The occasion was a combination no less eclectic: a collaboration between the V&A’s former resident ceramicist Keith Harrison and the infamous grindcore band Napalm Death, who share both roots in Birmingham and a notorious appetite for destruction.
On top of the tension created by the meeting of these disparate worlds was a sense of somewhat uncivilised anticipation, because the hope of most was that this night would end in a pile of rubble. Harrison had constructed enormous speakers from wood and clay and tiled them in blue and yellow to resemble the Bustleholme estate where he grew up. The band were there to launch an audio assault on the material, press releases promising that it would “slowly crack, disintegrate and explode, changing the music as it does”. In his work Float, the Carruso record from Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo vibrated cracks in the clay to unleash the potential of the previously muted speakers. This time around, the band were playing to destroy their own mouthpiece.
Vocalist Mark ‘Barney’ Greenway began by paying tribute to their shared roots, the Black Country that was birthplace to so many heavy metal bands (as well as artist Mark Titchner, known for using their lyrics in his works). Looking up at the towering tiled speakers it was easy to understand how the “shameful deprivation” that he describes has given rise to so much rage; the grim futility of those faceless expanses inspires a wild sort of appetite for violence, for cracks in the smoothness, for something to fall away. As the music began, the crowd watched in hungry anticipation.
A song or two in, the first tile fell. An inaudible frequency spat liquid clay from the top of the speakers between songs, dribbling wetly down the brilliant tiling. The band thrashed and ground through a return to their early music, pelting their decibels against the insides of the speakers with all of the relentless power of grindcore, but the towers remained curiously impervious. Tiles fell here and there, their dropping caught by dozens of hungry eyes, but the expected destruction was muted, the sound remaining faithfully reproduced by its towering vessels.
As the end of the allotted set approached, something happened in the audience. A man with a backpack broke through the metal barriers, striding briskly up to the tallest tower and bodily attacking it, kicking and clawing at the tiles with his hands. He was quickly dragged off in a hi-vis jacket bundle but soon came another, and another, throwing themselves at the speakers in a rage of frustration.
Greenway speaks of “sound as a weapon – or a weapon of change,” but the fact is that the sound was not enough. Perhaps more of those inaudible frequencies might have been, but that would have been a different and less interesting show. Though Hunter S Thompson writes of a feeling among the artists and the hippies in the 60s that “our energy would simply prevail”, the truth is that art becomes revolutionary for the reactions that it inspires and the minds that it changes. Revolutionary art is very much in the public consciousness since the incarceration of members of punk-anarchist band Pussy Riot, whose very public protests in Russia gave a voice to a dissent that is seldom heard.
The show was originally to have been held in London’s V&A museum, but was moved amid fears of damage to the structure of the historic building. In fact perhaps the damage to worry about was to the audience-artwork boundary, the picture of artwork as revered object upon which the museum as an institution is based. Perhaps Harrison was hoping for his reconstructed childhood memories to crumble and fall, but by promising a destruction that did not manifest he prompted attacks on his creations that totally trangressed all of the traditional boundaries.
Such unpredictability is built into Harrison’s work. He views his performances as experiments or investigations, each one an unknown quantity; “The pieces aren’t really tested beforehand. Although I will do some preliminary testing they’re very much, kind of, put it together and see what happens, and they’re real events in that I don’t really know what’s going to happen”. By the end of the performance the towers were somewhat battered and sections seemed to have vibrated into bulges, still standing but showing signs of wear. The real result however was not what the sound had done to the structures by itself. To watch another watcher cross the divide, move from spectatorship to action, and bodily pit themselves against an impassive structure was an affecting experience. Though fingernails and fists were no match for the smooth straight sides, a certain boundary was eroded, the wall constructed by comfortable consumption that renders us passive observers in our own lives.