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Monthly Archives: March 2013

Tilda, John, Yoko, Tracey, Ron and me

In my recent interview about Bedding Outfor BBC Ouch!* , I was asked “So is this a sort of John and Yoko for PIP [Personal Independence Payment] or more a sort of Tracey Emin-related activity?”

When I began to dream up Bedding Out, I kept bumping into John and Yoko and Tracey and began to wonder how many other have made art based on the bed. Quite a few, it turns out, though not many actually inhabit their beds or convey a sense of their bed as occupied.

This week, though, actor Tilda Swinton has hit the headlines, sleeping in a glass box in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, in a reprise of her 1995 performance The Maybe. You only have to read the comments sections in the press to know that this is the marmite of the art world, and whilst I can’t abide marmite, I find something deeply tender in this sleeping form made public, this voluntary act of vulnerability. Asleep in the gallery for several six-and-a-half-hour stints*  over the year, the audience can linger as long as they choose in the privilege of the gaze.

Even as the act of sleeping is so familiar, perhaps because we all know it so well, or maybe because we are never conscious in the experience of it, The Maybe can touch profoundly. How often are we invited into such close proximity to a stranger captured in the act of sleeping, to be able to look in our own time, to respond and contemplate?

In The Maybe, Tilda Swinton makes public the familiar, private intimacy of sleep. Both of our performances are the private made public, but for very different reasons. In Bedding Out, I shift focus beyond the figure in the bed and onto the bed-life, making public its careful concealment. For me, it is a revealing of that side of my self that wins neither friends nor accolades, and which I learned so early to keep so carefully out of the public gaze.

When I performed last autumn’s version of Bedding Out, I found that the more people were willing to slow their pace to mine, the more took from the work. When people refer to the bed, they invariably speak of being born, of sleeping and dreaming, of the disruption of short-term illness, of having sex, giving birth, of dying. They speak of being in bed in terms of occasion and event, but rarely do they speak of the sustained bed-life as integral to life. The bed-life that I convey is beyond the experience of most; it requires time and stillness to imagine.

In Tracey Emin’s installation My Bed, chaos and crisis lie tangled in the sheets showing the aftermath of the artist’s nervous breakdown. The artist is as present in that empty bed as if she were there in the gallery. In contrast, even as I occupy my bed throughout the 48 hours of performance, I am scarcely there. In the thrashing of bed sheets and the detritus of empty booze bottles, fag ends, stained sheets and worn underwear, Tracey’s bed is all activity, whilst mine is a process of silence and of making myself absent from activity and interaction. Where Tracey’s bed is often seen as confession, mine is a reveal of life hidden from view.

“But what will you do for all those hours in the bed?” I am repeatedly asked, as though to do nothing is unthinkable. For me, the bed is that still, quiet place where I piece myself together again. For the hours of performance, mostly I will zone out, sleep, keep silence, try to disconnect even from myself. The more I can disengage,, the more this bed-life serves its function in making me well-er and connecting me back in to the peopled world. So I will observe the opposite of the public me that works so hard to appear energetic and busy and doing.

Ron Muerk’s sculpture In Bed is typically approached with a sense of awe, as audiences gaze at his three-times life-sized figure in her bed. Where the ordinariness of the human body is made strange through sheer scale, I see mine more as a peeling away of mystery. Like Tracey’s bed, I’m portraying life as I know it, as messy fact not neat and comfortable fable. Life has loose ends and complexity and I like the honesty of making them visible.

I feel close in spirit to Ron’s In Bed, mirroring the sculpted woman’s deep contemplation. Just as, within my bed, I turn my own gaze inwards, we cannot know another’s inner existence. Neither can we know their internal living of, and with, impairment, most of all when it cannot be seen. Some things cannot be measured from the outside. If it cannot be seen, then it can only be known through my account of it. To have a possibility of knowing, you must trust me in my telling of my self, my needs, the messy complication of my life. Just as every time I venture out, it is by a leap of faith in those around me, it is a faith that needs returning.

In a photograph of a lone audience member alongside that outsized bed, the focus of the work shifts to the onlooker. It is in relation to people that the figure in the bed gains her impact. In bringing audiences to my bedside conversations about the work, its backdrop and its politics, in connecting to them through social media, I hope for that same shift, where the onlooker becomes an anchor for Bedding Out in the wider world.

Of the four historical pieces of art based on the bed, and the oldest of the four, John & Yoko’sBed-In is the most immediately recalled, the most often emulated, and the most overtly outwards-looking. Theirs was a bed-in for peace, whilst I am bedding out for justice; it is the other side of the same coin.

Theirs was a riotously active week of activism – wide awake, making phone calls, giving newspaper and broadcast interviews, making banners, bicycle on the bed, making music. WithBedding Out, I am looking to another kind of activism, exploring whether it can be done from a place of stillness.

In the face of a benefits onslaught which threatens many with poverty and disenfranchisement and with a propagandist campaign that has doubled disability hate crime, urgency seems to call for loud and direct action. Yet as we confront a system that requires us to parade our hidden, most carefully concealed selves to justify the state’s support, I wonder whether it is possible to thread another, contrasting colour into the weave of activism.


Watch Bedding Out
Tweet    @RGPLiz Crow  #beddingout
Text    07784 899514
Visit   Salisbury Arts Centre


* Show number 95

* I’d call six-and-a-half-hours amateur next to my 48, except that I get to take loo breaks.

Mental gymnastics and TV soundbites

Towards the end of last week, I was asked to do an interview this Thursday for regional television news, who are doing a series of reports next week on DLA/PIP, bedroom tax, council tax, etc. I’m under the duvet as I write this, my words slurring, sentences resisting the keyboard; not the best week. I pushed the interview as late in the week as possible, trusting that adrenalin would kick in enough that I can deceive the onlooker.

And there is the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ at the core of Bedding Out. When adrenalin serves me well and I can muster enough coherence to explain PIP – if I can set it within the complicated context of ESA, ILF and local authority cuts to services, of broken promises and political manoeuvring, if I can even hint at the terror it strikes, if I can be thatcoherent – then I’m going to look and sound as healthy as the healthiest of viewers and those healthy viewers may well be left doubting my claim. And if I present as ill as I am, then there will be no possibility of my bringing coherence to the discussion.

The job – in interviews, protests, grassroots research, art-activism – is to reach the general public, again and again, until they discover their own outrage at what is being done in their name. And in the impossible trade off between stereotypes, I opt every time for the line of best coherence, knowing all the while that that lies about how it really is to be me, about how it is to be so many of us. Whichever way I act risks undermining our claims for support.

As the week unfolds through emails, I realise that my assigned role in this interview will be to provide the ‘human angle’ on the benefits onslaught. It feels a risky game in which my ability to convince the viewer that I am ‘deserving’ will reflect on the validity of every other claimant and every other disabled person. This is a medium that relies on symbol and soundbite, on two-dimensional versions of who we really are. It is a style of reporting that almost guarantees I will be seen as either ‘saint or scrounger’ (to echo a current programme title), but almost never that more complicated, contextualised, living whole.

So what if, instead, I used my own story in context, as a way into the bigger picture and its impact on all of us? What if, for once, we tried a different kind of reporting? It’s not that the producer didn’t get what I was saying, more that she didn’t want the story I was offering, and I couldn’t give her the story she wanted. It’s funny because I just might have been able to speak quite persuasively. In turning to the work of others, I can see how, in the right circumstances, it is entirely possible to do. Penny Pepper and Laurence Clark’s recent interviews on ILF and DLA/PIP have the context and complexity of real life woven right through, and they speak volumes more than the usual individualised ‘human interest’ or distanced analysis. They have succeeded in converting the story that most of the press wants to tell into the story that most needs to be told.

In the end I realise that, this week, this ‘not best’ week, I haven’t the brain capacity to do such gymnastics. In a week where these 600 words take five days to compose, to be asked one question but answer another takes a dexterity beyond me. So the producer and I agreed to differ (for now) and part ways. I don’t know whether this counts as failure or whether a little bit of me is proud for allowing myself, for once, to be as ill as I truly am.

Reflecting from the Bed

My latest project is barrelling its way towards the start line.

This week, the brilliant CoQuo, my production team have been at Salisbury Arts Centre putting the finishing touches to my Bedding Out installation that forms part of the People Like You exhibition showing work by Gini, Sue Austion and me, and which  launches tonight (8 March). At the beginning of April, I will be moving body and soul into the exhibition space for 48 hours, but more on that soon…

Bedding Out comes out of my performance at last autumn’s SPILL Festival of Performance in which I took to my bed in a gallery for three consecutive days in response to the current welfare benefits overhaul. It was one of eight DAO Diverse Perspectives commissions (thank you DAO!).

The work looks at the way I live a life in two very separate parts. There’s a public self that tries to be outgoing and happening and changing the world, and most people assume because that’s what they see of me, that’s how I am in the rest of my life. But then there’s the private self, which wins no friends or accolades, in which I spend most of my time at home, a lot of time lying down and quite a lot in bed.

This is the self that I have become very expert in concealing. And whilst that has kind of worked for the past 30 years, in the face of benefits changes, it no longer does. Instead, this new system demands that I reverse myself, parading the private me to justify support.

In the performance I take this private self and make it public, performing my bed-life. Since the public me is so carefully constructed, this is a kind of un-performing of my self. I want to make visible a twilight existence shared by thousands of us. But even more, I want to show that what so many people see as contradiction – what they call fraud – is just the complexity of real life.

As part of last autumn’s performance, members of the public gathered around my bed forBedside Conversations, talking about the work, its backdrop, its politics. Reflections from the Bed is short audio-visual slideshow (with captions) that tells more about the work and why it feels so necessary.

Prayers to the Tech Gods

Just four weeks to go now until myBedding Out performance gets underway and the nerves are definitely kicking in.

Last week, thanks to the wonders of Skype, I directed the technical fit of the installation from my bed, and technology is looming large in this project in ways I never predicted when it started out.

Last autumn, at a previous version of the work, several people got in touch, really excited that it was making them more visible, but unable to attend in person because of their own bed-lives. This time, Bedding Out is using social media in a big way to bring absent people into the performance.

First of all, the 48 hours of the performance will be livestreamed throughout (such a great idea when I thought of it, but never having felt an urge to be in the Big Brother house, my trepidation is increasing by the day!)

As part of the performance, I hold a series of Bedside Conversations, with people gathered round the bed to talk about the work, its background and its politics. Previous conversations ranged far and wide across benefits, newspaper propaganda, hate crime, art as activism, and much more, with people going surprisingly deep and trustingly into the issues. This time, the conversations will be livestreamed with audio, British Sign Language interpretation and live captioning.

The second social media element is the #beddingout twitter feed that is already well underway. I’m working with the wonderfully creative Dawn Willis as ‘tweetmeister’, using twitter not just to publicise the work but to bring people into the bigger conversation and encourage them to make the project their own. One of the Bedside Conversations this time will be solely twitter-based, with over 50 people already signed up to take part. The twitter feed will continue in the lead up to the performance and throughout the 48 hours, feeding into the other Bedside Conversations and displayed live in the arts centre alongside the performance.

This is such an experiment, something that makes my heart soar and my stomach lurch in equal measure. It’s a prayer to the tech gods and a fervent hope that people do pitch in and make the work do something.

I’m beginning to hear from individuals and groups internationally making plans like these:

• To pitch in to the twitter feed: to give their response to the work, talk about the issues raised and join in the twitter Bedside Conversation
• To stream the work at their event or conference
• To watch the performance in a disabled people’s organisation, campaigning group, student seminar, etc: to tweet it, blog it, and keep the conversation going
• To use the work as a trigger to produce their own art-activism.

So here’s how you can join in:

Via the web: You can watch Bedding Out throughout its 48 hours at

Bedside Conversations (duration 40 minutes) will be live streamed with audio, BSL interpretation and live subtitles: Wed 10 Apr 2.00pm and 6.00pm, Thu 11 Apr noon (via twitter) and 3.15pm, Fri 12 Apr 10.15am.

On Twitter (@RGPLIzCrow #beddingout):
You can follow the work – and join in! Tweets will include live updates on the performance, audience reactions and Bedside Conversations, as well as responses to individual tweets. Tweets will be fed into conversations and there will be an all-twitter conversation on the Thursday at noon.

Anyone not on twitter can text us: 07784 899514 (outside the UK take away the 0 and add +44) and we can upload what they say to twitter. Typing ‘MySecret’ before the text, means we will tweet messages anonymously.
@RGPLizCrow   #beddingout   07784 899514

Some thoughts on Art as Activism

Sometime soon I’m going to embark on a project as light as air, if only for myself, for the sake of my own grey hairs and deepening frown. It will be a project to make me laugh (and maybe other people too), something not even the tiniest bit hardcore.

“No more Nazis,” I tell myself.

It’s just there are still so many Nazis and art is a great way to greet them head on.

There are activists who think that art is a diversion from the single-mindedness of a campaign. But activism succeeds or fails on its ability to communicate, which is what art does best. Some of the best direct action, whether or not its participants call themselves artists, has been pure theatre (the bus blockades created images that communicated the issues in an instant), and music (such as Johnny Crescendo’s Choices and Rights) has provided anthems that have united a movement.

Art can encapsulate ideas, asking questions and presenting viewpoints not seen elsewhere. It can give glimpses into other people’s lives and broaden our view of the world. Artists are good at raising difficult questions, and exploring creative alternatives.

Art can make an emotional connection to audiences and go on working long after the piece is officially over. We can only make change for the things we know about; for me, the most exciting art brings to light lives on the margins and compels the onlooker to become a part of creating change.

Someone asked me recently how I would want them to approach my work. Mostly I hope people don’t get caught up in what they’re ‘supposed’ to think or say or understand! Relatively direct in its meaning, my work is also there for the audience to take from it whatever is useful to them and this will be different for different people. It might be a keyhole to another life, their own experience made visible, or a way for them to make links to parts of their lives they’d never connected before.

I hope it raises questions for audiences, gets them talking, making connections with each other, maybe shifting how they behave or motivating them to take a stand. In the end, I put the work out there, hoping that it will give something of value to other people and that, in their own lives and campaigns, they will use it.