Adam James, The Mudhead Dance workshop, 2013.
Traction talks shamanism, anthropology, and live action role-play with London-based artist Adam James.
You have just finished a major project for the inaugural Jerwood Open Forest exhibition. Can you tell us a bit about the six month period of work this entailed?
This project was preceded in early 2013, by artsadmin (bravely) supporting me in researching Larp (Live action roleplay) methodology over an 18-month period.
I’d been looking at the forms of British forest-based Fantasy Larping and the more progressive Nordic Larp to see if either could in some way be interweaved with my plans to create a fictional society living in a forest? I’m interested in complex play systems, collaborative storytelling and the ‘mask’ and at the time had been thinking about what would happen if you took a group of performers and temporarily isolated them from civilization? If you removed language and prescribed loose characters what systems, behaviors, and beliefs would naturally begin to occur? To this end, I asked the Jerwood Gallery if they let me take 9 people (and a baby!) to a forest for 8 days to see if we could start a new religion.
They said yes…
So, before I packed my sleeping bag and corralled the test subjects, ahem participants, I paid a visit to the Larpwriters summer School in Lithuania to polish up my GM (games master) skills, of course.
Armed and ready for whatever the forest would throw at me, I set off to Sherwood Pine with three dancers, an actor, musician, artist, builder and a professional larper. My plan was to use a variety of improvisational games, non-verbal communication methods, pre-larp workshop and meta-play to create a shared fiction, micro-culture and new relationship to the forest.
Using the Sherwood Pine bushcraft center as our HQ, we built a small encampment of shelters using bracken, fell wood and branches. These served as a stepping off points, portals through which we shook off the real.
Adam James, Untitled, 2014.
Over the eight days, two narratives formed, the shared interpretive fiction in which we explored the site at various fictional time-jumps and the meta-narrative of us living under wooden shelters, endlessly chopping firewood and open fire cooking. I borrowed from the Nordic Larp tradition by trying to encourage bleed between the real and the imaginary, to play with how this would affect our experience and subsequent creation of characters. Lars Nerbak (the larp expert) and I ran a series of larps each loosely connected to the surroundings, quests for magical mushrooms (no, not that kind), failed artist camping holidays and various dystopian futures.
Where possible I chose a non-prescriptive approach, opting instead to let things form intuitively collectively and in response to our surroundings. This led to lots of risk-taking with not everything always working out as planned. Along the way, we managed to form a new language, developed ways to create anthropomorphic animal characters and created the Sanctuaries ritual; a game which uses spirit guides and kinesthetic devices to divine new meaning and mythology from the woodland.
We returned to London, smelly, exhausted, inspired and energized all at the same time. Extracting the essence of what we had learned in the forest, we expanded from 9 to 23 members before visiting Epping Forest to repeat a streamlined version of the process.
A new tribe had been formed, the “Oller Oller’s”. Aided with the sage wisdom of the Forest Elders they would communicate something lost to the people of London.
For the Jerwood Open forest exhibition, we presented “Oh-ni-tisha-rrr-zwu-ci-ma” (a word the 9 of us created in the last minutes of our time in Sherwood forest together). The piece was a culmination of 5 performances, 23 clay totems, 23 masks, a sound piece and large a charcoal wall drawing. The primary focus of the show was the Sanctuaries performances in which 7-9 performers took turns to use each other and the space to perform improvisational tableaux each reflecting on a personal aspect of Epping Forest. The show ended with a group naming ceremony and ritual de-masking before exiting the gallery as a human tumbling wave.
Language is a recurring theme in many of your performances; why is it so significant to your practice?
It’s funny because in many ways I have avoided the use of language within my performances. Something I felt was necessary, at least until I had sorted out the physical side of things. But as someone recently pointed out to me, by removing language you give focus to it. So, it’s really by accident, like the best things often are, that it has come to be so significant. My interest in ‘outsiders’ led me to first ape them through performances in which I clumsily imitated real people appropriated from the streets of London. When I was making these early pieces, language tended to be an afterthought, my focus was on the masquerade, habits and gesture that define someone as being outside of the whole. If there was any language use, it was usually monosyllabic and Dadaist in that it was repetitive, nonsensical or fragmented. As a dyslexic, dyspraxic, Steiner child I have a shockingly bad short term memory and tend to forget any lines I need to remember, instead I rely on bits of paper in pockets or text taped to walls. When I expanded my performances to include others, I prescribed the same treatment; no speaking - emphasis on physicalizing character.
After a while, I decided my rather slapstick imitations weren’t getting me where I wanted to go, and often left me feeling hollow. So, I decided to create my own group of outsiders.
I can probably trace my current exploration of language to the birth of these people. Specifically, the Mudheads and their inaugural outing in which naked dough heads performed a fictional cave painting by walking in circles. The Mudheads were partly inspired by the Pubelo Indian Mudhead Clowns, whom I was looking to for cultural equivalents of western outsiders/clowns/fools and poets.
Adam James, ‘OH-NI-TISHA-RRR-ZWU-CI-MA’, performance still, 2014.
With each subsequent performance, the clan evolved a little further. At first, these evolutionary steps were limited to the physical, featureless heads sprouted eyes and mouths, simple clothing appeared followed by ritual objects and various totemic artifacts. Dwellings followed this each activated in turn by increasingly complex rituals and ceremonies. All of which leads to now, the birth of our spoken language, the seeds of which were sewn during our time in Sherwood Forest. Which has almost brought me full circle: where once I stood alone clumsily aping the outsider, a new group of outsiders is clumsily able to ape us.
Your performers are often organised so as to be reminiscent of cults or sects - groups shaped by a shared set of social or spiritual values. Do you consider your work to be anthropological in this sense?
In a nutshell, yes. This wasn’t necessarily part of a master plan, more something that I have stumbled into. I’m driven by a desire to question the way we relate to one another. A desire, which stems partly from having never met my father, an enigmatic outsider figure suffering from mental illness and drug addiction and whom tragically took his own life. For a long time, I sought to understand and get closer to him through reenacting and embodying people whom I felt had a relationship to him, albeit fictional. This line of interrogation led me to question the whys and wherefores of various forms of exclusion, something I believe my father often suffered from. This led me to look at the means by which we form groups, cultures, and sub-cultures. What defines a group or individual as being a part of the whole?
As a former Wargamer and devout nerd, I grew up as part of a micro-culture, no doubt part of the reason I have so whole-heartedly embraced larp. I’m interested in the early pioneers of cultural and social anthropology Lewis Morgan for example; the questionable ethics, now glaring mistakes and outdated research being an abundant source of inspiration for new works. I have started to think of my performances as experiments, 9 people isolated in a forest subjugated into playing weird role-play games for 8 days being one. Currently, I’m looking at creating systems and fertile environments from which to create belief systems and language in increasingly shorter spaces of time.
The Shaman is a regular figure in your work, and performances such as ‘The Mudhead Dance’ reenact the altered states of consciousness associated with shamanism. To this end, how does the idea of the subconscious interact with that of the performance, which would generally be understood to refer to a deliberate action/set of actions?
Growing up in a Transcendental Meditation Commune in Skelmersdale, under the watchful eye of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi my childhood was very new age. Having learnt to meditate at the age of five and growing up with a cat called Rainbow obtained from the Rainbow Circle Teepee Camp, I’ve always had a close proximity to the ‘esoteric’ a foundation which has inextricably bled into my work. I am extremely grateful to my hippy Mum for bringing me up in an environment in which questioning the status quo was the norm.
I have to admit to feeling a little creeped out but also kinda loving playing the shaman within my pieces. It’s arisen through a mix of necessity and poorly thought out choreography if I’m honest. I feel an equal affinity with directors, performers, and cameramen and want to be everywhere all of the time, inside, outside, leading, following, correcting and voyeuristically watching.
Adam James, The Mudhead Dance, performance still. 2013.
In terms of the subconscious, I believe that beauty exists in the moment of enactment, in the pure, improvised moment. As both a director/performer, I have the privilege of experiencing this pure moment in my own body. It is this experiential moment that I’m endlessly trying to replicate for my performers, participants, players, and audiences.
I’m drawn to awkward encounters. I seek to replicate this through clashing of aesthetic forms, subcultures, and sensibilities. This has led me to work with a mix of community groups, movement practitioners, and dancers.
Rather than refine and polish, I want to invest time and space for the accidental, serendipitous and genuine moment to emerge from participants and audiences. My performances often rely on duration to attain certain states of immersion, not entirely dissimilar to shamanic trance induced states. It is my belief, that in order to communicate a certain state of mind or physicality you need dedicated time. Increasingly I’m finding the Nordic Larp format of intense workshops followed by a short game being the best way reach these states. The alibi provided by play and my continued desire to facilitate this for others might perhaps turn me into a shaman, or a fool?
Are there new projects on the horizon for you?
I have my first solo show coming up this July at Legion TV in Haggerston. I’m really excited about this, as unlike the Jerwood Gallery (for various reasons, it being a public space and group show primarily) I have been given completely free reign of the space for nearly 6 weeks. The plan is to create a nest or hub in which characters, costumes, and stories will be developed in situ as a continually evolving live-in installation. We will turn the gallery walls into a living map of an alternative London in which we will use to plot a series of guerilla performances on various London Wastelands.
Aside from this, I am leading a charge of a new wave of Nordic Larpers here in the UK. I believe it will be the next big thing, filling the gap between immersive theatre and cathartic play for all. It’s potential is simply mind-blowing in its capacity as a tool for play, education and new forms of movement. We are way, way behind the Scandinavians in this respect. In Denmark, there is a school in which the entire curriculum is taught through Larp!
I am extremely proud to be part of a bigger global movement and will be hosting a series of fortnightly Nordic Larp events at the Proud Archivist in Haggerston starting 27 April, as well as planning for the UK’s first ever Knutpunkt (look it up).
Finally, I’m planning a few research trips to far-flung countries and distant relatives, Papua New Guniea being first on the list!
For more on Adam James’ practice and upcoming events and exhibitions visit http://www.mradamjames.com.