I will be out of the office until…

Posted by: Laura Milnes on Aug 26, 2011
It’s August. The world is in Edinburgh. Laura Milnes isn’t…

Sometime a few weeks back, I forgot it was summertime. It was one of those days when that sort of thing could be overlooked (torrential downpour, miserable bus journey down Whitechapel High St, a cheeky Halloween display creeping into the window of a local shop - yes really, in July). Oh, but then I was reminded about the upcoming summer festivities in Edinburgh. “Hurrah”, I harrumphed “another year - another year of not going to Edinburgh. Great.” What ensued was a depressingly continuous migration of friends and colleagues to the UK’s northernmost transitory capital of performing arts, the Edinburgh Fringe.

I’ve never been one to holiday – not in the conventional sense anyhow. Why choose to holiday in summer, when it’s hot, when other people are off enjoying themselves, when the country grinds to a halt and 2 out of 3 Out of Office wizards are on red alert? Nah, that would be too easy...

First stop on my summer odyssey was Nozstock – a small outdoor festival in the Herefordshire countryside. Why was I there? To be a pigeon …yes, seriously. I packed my tent and trundled off to Nozstock with puppetry, theatre and walkabout performance company The Rainbow Collectors, who kindly asked me to don a ‘sexy pigeon’ costume and perform for the crowds, campaigning for pigeons’ inclusion in the London 2012 Olympic Games and encouraging participation in training exercises (most of these involved pelvic thrusting of some description). A bizarre yet strangely rewarding experience, it was fascinating to note the polarized reactions of festival-goers – it was a fight, flight or fondle response from most. As four grotesque pigeons (on leads) and their ring-master (on a unicycle) approached bleary-eyed revelers, some ran in the other direction grimacing, some fell about in fits of laughter, some grabbed a beak and some grabbed a bum-cheek. We were met with disgust, hilarity, aggression and arousal in equal measure. What fun!

Returning to London, I was forced to rediscover my poise and grace (having stooped, squatted, squawked and cooed for three days, I had to compose myself) as I was invited to a private view at the Ben Uri gallery in St. John’s Wood. Summer in the City was up-and-coming curator Nathalie Levi’s attempt to reinvigorate the London Jewish Museum of Art’s collection by juxtaposing the work of greats such as Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach with responses from seven young contemporary artists. The gallery was a wealth of information, with a huge selection of texts (could have bought them all) and a handpicked selection of some classic artworks on display. Despite the big-hitters, my favourite exhibit was a selection of paintings by lesser-known East End artist John Allin, whose mysterious and little-documented background involved being in prison for theft and running away with the circus. I enjoyed his crudely painted Whitechapel shop fronts and depictions of the Cable Street riots. The intrigue surrounding his life was further complicated by Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau’s response to it – an audio guide to Allin, weaving fact with fiction so seamlessly that it was often impossible to determine truth from painfully trendy post-modern irony. Research carried out by the artist into Allin’s history was marred by the fact that John Allin is not the most unusual of names and it would seem there are doppelgangers all over East London. Not helped by the fact that this particular John Allin also appears to have barely touched the records, choosing instead to skirt the very edges of society. The result is the most erratic biography I’ve heard to date. I made a special note of a book of Allin’s paintings – Say Goodbye You May Never See Them Again – accompanied by text from legendary East End playwright Arnold Wesker. That one’s on the Christmas list, in case anyone is paying attention.

Next on my world tour was a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. As a birthday treat, I decided to take my old dad to see The Homecoming, his favourite Pinter play presented on a stage in Shakespeare’s birthplace. Now you don’t get more theatrical than that. Having drifted away from my (cringe) drama school roots somewhat, I had to bite my lip and clench my teeth in anticipation of an overdose of theatre – something that doesn’t fill me with joy to say the least. Well, you know what? It was incredible! I’m ashamed to say that I have never delved into this particular classic text, despite endless recommendations. Here was I, expecting a regular, gritty, realistic kitchen sink drama. Oh how wrong I was! More disturbing than anything else I’ve seen, this tightly crafted play was like a punch in the face and a kick in the moral guts. Presented on a thrust stage, I wasn’t watching the action unfold, I was in it, sat with the most dysfunctional family I’ve ever met in their dingy Hackney home in the 1950s. The production was excellent, the acting so good I forgot how much I dislike acting and the story twisted, disgusting and perplexing. I’m still asking myself and anyone who’ll listen questions about the motivations of the characters, the unfathomable twists and the deep, murky darkness enveloping the entire experience. Not only am I asking the questions, I am demanding the answers (which of course, no-one can give me). It was a provocative, visceral experience that will definitely stay with me.

While at the RSC I took the opportunity to see Artsadmin artists Curious’ exhibition of photographs and accompanying performance piece. Fourteen Lines sees Leslie Hill and Helen Paris gather personal stories from locals about the people and places they love. Fourteen portraits are presented in the Swan Room, creating a visual sonnet. Slipstreaming was a site-specific performance aboard the Lotus. A journey up the River Avon with a histrionic tour director, her brooding Captain and an affable assistant (who was forced to take the reigns when it all got a bit much for our hot-flashing hostess) opened our eyes to the small moments of affection and nostalgia we passed by on our journey. Yet more bizarreness as we gained and lost a sultry siren, passed by a floating duet for cello / flute and drank to the afterlife.

It seems I enjoyed being an avian artist, as I jumped at the chance to attend another festival in my pigeon guise - this time it was Boomtown Fair, a carnival-esque festival of music, performance and circus in a secret location. Similar reactions as at Nozstock arose but this time, a fellow pigeon and I were accompanied by the Siamese Psychiatrists – a pair of bogus, time-travelling medical professionals keeping us as pets. Joined at the dress, they doled out prescriptions for lost marbles and appointments with Timothy, a beloved satin, framed kitten portrait hanging round their necks. Yet again, plenty of groping, grappling and giggling with passers-by as the pigeons discovered jungle music and danced the days away (more pelvic thrusting ensued I’m afraid).

Back in London I decided to indulge myself with a trip to Wapping Project to see Yohji Making Waves, an opulent and handsome installation in the main project space, adjoined to the old turbine hall that is now the venue’s eaterie. I didn’t stay too long; it wasn’t what I’d explain as an overwhelming experience but it was a delicately beautiful one. Appreciating every beautiful image I happen upon is something I’m making a concerted effort to do and the trembling reflection of a magnificent billowing white dress on a flooded factory floor was enough for this simple installation. Trying to make sense of the vision before me afforded me time enough not just to look but also to contemplate the incredible images that surround us daily, from opulently composed fashion photography in glossy magazines to an unexpected refraction of light through a van window on the way through North London in the rain.

It’s the end of August now. Edinburgh Fringe is drawing to a close and the long train journey back to the Big Smoke is imminent for many. I won’t deny I was jealous of those enjoying the madness of the Fringe and misplacing their summer (and their minds) on the Royal Mile. I’m certain they will have all had a brilliant time… but I’m no longer jealous. I kept myself busy.

And I won’t envy them on Monday when they open their email. Pigeons don’t do ‘out of office’.

Laura is trainee producer at Artsadmin, supported by the DCMS Jerwood Creative Bursaries Scheme.

Follow @laura_milnes on Twitter

Photo: Laura (pictured right) with The Siamese Psychiatrists and fellow Pigeon at Boomtown Fair 2011
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