Linder Sterling

The legendary punk artist talks about creative karma, orgasm addicts and orchestrating 13-hour performance art interventions

Oh Grateful Colours, Bright Looks IV,2009; Image c
Oh Grateful Colours, Bright Looks IV,2009; Image copyright Linder, Courtesy Stuart Shave/Modern Art
Radical feminist Linder Sterling has worked in and around the music industry since the late 70s. After meeting Jon Savage in 1976 at an early Sex Pistols gig in Manchester she created the magazine Secret Public with him. The juxtaposed images from porn and women's domestic magazines meant that the magazine was deemed pornographic and some left-wing bookshops wouldn’t stock it, in some kind of beautiful irony, for being too ‘sexist’. She is perhaps most famed for creating the Hand Iron-headed lady who graces the cover of Buzzcocks' "Orgasm Addict". We caught up with her last saturday to find out about collaborating with Richard Nicoll and Stuart McCallum in a mind-bending 13-hour live performance at the Chisenhale Gallery entitled The Darktown Cakewalk: a performance combining performance art, fashion and music

Dazed Digital: How did you come up with the idea for the performance?
Linder Sterling:
As I advance in years, I become more and more fascinated with time. In the west, we live in an accelerated culture of constant stimulation and there is a contemporary anxiety about the experience of boredom or any sense of a gap, space or void in time. For The Darktown Cakewalk: Celebrated from the House of FAME,I wanted to use time in the same way that Michaelangelo used a slab of marble. It’s a collaborative piece so we all have our hammers and chisels, and for 13 hours the audience, musicians and dancers all became Michelangelos: it was a democratic sculpture.

DD: How did the collaboration between the three of you come about?
LS:
I had collaborated with Richard Nicoll on his A/W 09 collection, and we've maintained that creative dialogue ever since. Likewise, I've been working with Stuart McCallum on a series of compositions and recordings – yet to be released – for a similar amount of time. I wanted to test our mutual chemistry and begin to the blur the boundaries between our disciplines. I was lucky because the chemistry worked.

DD: How does the fashion element come into the performance? What was it like working with Richard Nicoll?
LS:
Dancers have to wear something – or at least mine do. Without even thinking twice, Richard was the only designer that I wanted to work with on this ambitious piece. I knew that he'd get all the nuances of character and narrative. We were both equally curious to see how Richard's designs emigrated from the catwalk to the Cakewalk. The Cakewalk dancers are all different shapes and sizes and they use their bodies in very different ways too. It’s one thing seeing a model walking up and down a catwalk but for the Cakewalk, Richard's costumes had to withstand 13 hours of wear. We were none of us quite sure if they would survive, thankfully they did.

DD: To what degree was it improvised?
LS:
I seem to see the term 'improvisation' being used more and more frequently but it can cover a multitude of sins. For me, improvisation is a paradoxical act in which you have to forget everything you’ve ever known and at the same time, remember everything you've ever learned. You need strong musicians who are not afraid to explore their own vulnerability in public. I like the "not knowingness" of improvisation and I told everyone involved to stay still and be silent whenever they were in any doubt. In The Darktown Cakewalk, the improvisational climate includes both dancers and musicians, each equally influences the other. It’s a continuously evolving democracy: egos are eroded and at the same time, stars are allowed to shine.

DD: What were the aims of the performance?
LS:
The word 'entertainment' divides into two parts etymologically. You have "enter" meaning "between" with "tenir", which means "to hold". Entertainment is about "holding between" and I'm intrigued to know what is being held between what. We talk about holding someone's attention and can experience anxiety when we fail to do so. The Darktown Cakewalk could be said to induce anxiety in all who participate, because we deliberately do not try to hold the audience's attention over the 13 hours. There will be gaping holes, things left unfinished, things left unsaid, songs left unsung.
When I was in St. Ives, I visited the Barbara Hepworth sculpture garden and I contemplated her pierced forms. I felt a cosmic penny drop: to show the void, the space, the gap, something physical has to be put in place to hold that. In The Darktown Cakewalk we all become Hepworth sculptures, feminizing and localizing Michaelangelo's ambition.

DD: You continue to use the juxtaposition of opposing images in your performance work and in your collage, does all your work carry the same themes?
LS:
Jung talked about "holding the tension of the opposites" – being aware of oppositional forces, but not being swayed too far off centre by either of them. Life is a perpetual balancing act, we are born not knowing and will probably die the same way. I myself still haven't got the hang of it all. Collage is a great way to deconstruct how others say the world should be seen and also to experiment with new ways of seeing. And yes, much as I try to run away from myself, thirty-five years later I bump into myself all the time.

DD: Your early work has been much imitated. How do you feel about this?
LS:
As I get older I begin to realise there's a great difference between influence, homage and plagiarism. I have been guilty of all three and now I am the recipient of all three. Creative karma deals the deck continuously. 

DD: What will you do next?
LS:
Have my cake and eat it.

Linder 'The Darktown Cakewalk: Celebrated from the House of FAME', 13 hour performance, Courtesy the artist and Sorcha Dallas, Glasgow. Photographer Jannica Honey
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