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The idea before the haircut

Laura Milnes got more the average haircut when she booked an appointment at The Haircut Before The Party…

Photo by Laura Milnes

Babies haven’t any hair
Old men’s heads are just as bare
From the cradle to the grave
Lies a haircut and a shave.
Samuel Goodman Hoffenstein

As pointed out by Mr Hoffestein, our hair (or lack of it) is somewhat of an almost universal topic of conversation and human concern. It’s a basic part of the human body – whether you have it or not – which has a myriad of issues, insecurities, options and opinions attached to it. You can either choose to deal with it or not, it certainly can’t be ignored but it can be left untamed; it forms a part of a person’s identity in whatever form it takes. It’s no wonder then, that Lewis Bassett and Richard Houguez have chosen hair as their medium in their social, political and artistic experiment The Haircut Before the Party, which took place on Whitechapel High Street this week.

When I first heard that two ‘artists’/’activists’ had decided to cut the hair of the general public (for free) with no training or professional experience, I presumed that there would be very few who would willingly sign up. I definitely didn’t consider that I would end up surrendering my barnet to the mercy of these two creative maniacs. My hair has played rather a large part of my identity since I was a teenager. It started with do-it-yourself henna dye kits, moved into the perils of a ‘mild’ bleach they call Sun-In (should be renamed Ginger-Bright) and via lots of asymmetrical experimentation, culminated in an ill-judged mohawk. Aside from these disasters, for many years I have also been a demonstration hair model for some highly acclaimed salons with branches and academies around the world. Multiple five-hour stints in the chair, being poked, prodded and preened in front of international students with very expensive digital cameras has given me a significant insight into the ins and outs of styling and colouring techniques and the complicated (often perplexingly so) world of hairdressing. My hair and I have a very close relationship and despite it lying about its true colours for the last nine years, I’m quite attached to it and am finally quite willing to trust it.

But hey, this project sounded intriguing, so why not get involved – who needs hair anyway? It would seem my days of experimentation are not over and, possessing less abandon than in my youth (ha!), I’m no longer on the quest for the perfect hairstyle, instead I’m happy to take whatever I’m given. For free.

I booked my slot in the chair and ambled along to the salon early, in order to soak up the atmosphere and assess the fate of my tresses. I felt comfortable lounging on the selection of sofas facing the stylists, who were busily working away next to each other on a couple of complicated looking short ‘do’s. I anxiously spied hair clippers but I swallowed my nerves and sat tight with my Foucault. I should mention at this point that the Foucault wasn’t my own (sounds good though, doesn’t it?). There was a veritable library of insurrectionary and philosophical texts to occupy the mind while waiting for a cut. Another option to wile away the time was – get this, it’s radical – conversation. Yes, it was, actively encouraged and actually quite normal to chat away to another ‘customer’, someone doing a banner-making workshop, a guy who’d wandered in off the street. The salon became not merely a factory for hairdos but a place of interaction, discussion, connection and exchange in the most gentle and normal way imaginable – not in some enforced or melodramatic participatory situation. This is what they should mean when they say ‘interaction’. Interaction is, after all, pretty normal; it’s a human necessity and essential to our social development. Quite simply, we have a basic need to communicate with one another.

It strikes me that communication is rather important to this project. How, without some kind of negotiation, description and exchange, can the ‘hairdresser’ and the ‘customer’ come to some kind of agreement and consensus about what this particular cut will look like? I observed a collaboration taking place in each chair – a careful exchange of ideas, fears, desires and suggestions between the two participants in the experience. These hairdressers, unlike many I’ve come across, are not interested in making their mark upon their subjects. They want to know what you want and although willing to tell you what they want too, they wouldn’t dream of inflicting their ideas upon you. Their ideas, I might add, may be creative but might also be political. It’s worth noting that in this chair it’s unlikely you’ll be talking about your holidays, but you might well end up discussing your point of view on the coalition government.

These particular cuts are, after all, a response to some other cuts we’re all becoming rapidly more familiar with, as I was reminded by a poster on the wall that proclaims ‘They hold the scissors, but we hold the rock’. These artists/activists/hairdressers/people are reclaiming the scissors and encouraging a discussion. This discussion could be about anything you want, but I would hope that most have taken the opportunity to talk about alternatives, about what is missing, about how change can come from within a community, whatever that community may be. The Haircut Before the Party refers not just to a communal activity, an exchange, a declaration of identity through appearance but to the ‘party’, the political party. What comes before, or alongside, or after the party – what is the alternative? What is the other? How can an individual experience a sense of belonging, when that person does not wish to belong to a specific group with set ideals, policies and protocols?

This is the space Bassett and Houguez are trying to facilitate, these are the conversations they hope will take place. So did they? Well here’s what happened in my chair….

I had a haircut. I had a chat. I won’t go into too much detail; the experience belongs to me and my hairdresser (and anyone else who was listening in). The conversation spanned hair, social experimentation, neon flags and territories. My haircut is wonky (intentionally), modern and took a fair amount of concentration from both of us. These facts are mildly interesting.  The conversations I went on to have, now they were really interesting. The product was fine, a nice idea, a nice haircut, a nice chat but what intrigues me more is the concept, the process, the basis of the operation and I found it became all I wanted to discuss in the salon. Is that boring of me? Is that the point of conceptual art? Is this actually conceptual art? To be quite frank, I couldn’t give a monkey’s. Whether it’s art or not and what category it happens to fall into are unimportant. What is central is the space for discussion of alternatives and the conversations that really did take place. It seems so often that an open space is created and it isn’t really utilised to its full potential. This one however, with a little direction, some adjustable chairs and the background buzz of the clippers, seemed to prompt genuine exchange and engagement with the subject and the people.

In fact, it turned out to be so engaging that I stayed all day.

“Too bad all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxi cabs and cutting hair.”

George Burns

Laura is trainee producer at Artsadmin, supported by the DCMS Jerwood Creative Bursaries Scheme. Haircut Before the Party is currently looking for a new space and will be part of Artsadmin’s Two Degrees Festival in June 2011.