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Actress's trans-world collaboration

Speaking to Actress, live artist Eddie Peake and videographer Nic Hamilton about their dizzying new live project

“Everything in music is instantly consumed and then you move pretty much swiftly onto the next thing. An album can be big for a couple of weeks and then completely disappear. You wouldn’t even realise it had happened, y’know?” Darren Cunningham, better known as avant-garde music artist Actress, is telling it like it is. It was a sense of needing to “add an extra dimension” to what he did that inspired him to take on the most ambitious project of his career to date: a collaboration with White Cube-backed artist Eddie Peake and Melbourne-based CG artist Nic Hamilton. Produced by Cunningham’s Werkhaus creative group, the three artists will perform a collaborative piece at St. John’s Church in Hackney as part of the venue’s St John’s Sessions. Titled ‘A shared cultural memory’, the piece will explore the “decomposition of faith and truth” in a multidisciplinary performance featuring music, performance art and visuals. It’s not only a first for Cunningham but for Peake and Hamilton too: neither have collaborated in this way - and this work is all about way. Over the past couple of months, this triangle of artists have exchanged ideas and references remotely - with Cunningham based in London, Hamilton in Melbourne and Peake currently on the road in America. Following one week of rehearsals, they will open the doors for a one-off live performance in which chance and improvisation will play a major role. Dazed caught up with each of the three artists separately mid-collaboration for a glimpse into the eye of the storm.

THE COLLABORATION: “No one person is leading the other.”

Actress: “I got asked to do something at St. John’s Church and it felt like a good opportunity to do something a bit more than just another Actress live performance. I’ve always wanted to add an extra dimension to what I do somehow. I’d been working with Nic and I’d been to one of Eddie’s performances and left feeling inspired. That’s how we came together. It seemed like a good symmetry of interesting visuals, performers and myself. No one person is leading the other person really.”

There’s the dramatic element, the performative element, the musical element, there’s the set element

Eddie Peake: “Darren had been talking to me prior to this about wanting to do something based on an opera. Though I don’t specifically think about opera in relation to the performances that I make, I do like to think about there being some crossover there in the way that opera will have all these different artistic registers going on simultaneously. There’s the dramatic element, the performative element, the musical element, there’s the set element. These high theatrics going on.”

Nic Hamilton: “My main interest was in creating an environment with people. Having Eddie involved is great - he’s got such strong, specific ideas about the human body - and it lets me think about making a setting for the night, an environment. I love the idea of being able to inhabit a mindset or space that you’ve made up in your head - and being able to have other people inside that space as well, and then have Darren wash the space with these waves of concrete noise. It’s as physical as I could hope to have my work.”

THE DYNAMIC: “It had a very visceral impact on me.”

Actress: “I really liked Nic’s attitude and the way he initially approached me. It was one of those ones where it was, hey I’m really into your music and I’d like to give you a video that I’ve made. He sent me something that was pretty much what I was thinking but so much better. He obviously knows what he is doing; it’s a technique that had been honed and completely 100% nailed. It wasn’t futuristic, it wasn’t sci-fi, it just had a strange organic-ness about it.

I’ve always been interested in chemistry and alchemy and science – the science of the reaction

The slightly uncomfortable thing of investigating how the body reacts if we were to turn it inside out – it just really touched that spot in the nervous system. Yes, this is what happens when you don’t just hear something as a piece of music. Whenever you hear a sound it triggers a reaction in the body; there’s a reaction within your ears, and that reaction - if you were to look at it - is quite something. The inside of our body is like a condensed version of the planet, y’know what I mean? I’ve always been interested in chemistry and alchemy and science. Not the science of putting music together but the science of the reaction and then the chain reaction. If you understand that or if you have a grasp of it then when you look to create something out of sound or visual manipulations, you’ve got an understanding of how it’s interacting with the body as well. As much as people have been saying my music is for the mind, I wanted to add that bodily element and how the mind trigger the mechanics as a function to operation.”

Nic Hamilton: “There’s some trace of someone making something in Darren’s music. As weird as that sounds, it feels like there’s much more hands-on feel. I quite like the unfinished digital feel of it. It really resonates with me and my interests in doing rougher digital work: the process of making it and finishing it and that being it, rather than with a lot of animation and video art that either gets done really roughly and cast aside or it gets polished to high hell and turned into a mobile phone advert or something. I don’t feel there’s any trace of a person of a lot of digital work I’ve seen. It’s either got a great idea behind it but looks boring or something that looks amazing but is in essence to me a car advert.”

I love techno music but I don’t respond to his album in that way

Eddie Peake: “‘R.I.P’ is the Actress album that I know best. The thing that I found really exciting about it, and this is something that I think I am interested in in general, is something about it transcending both genres and a verbal language. It’s got a lot of entirely abstract sounds. I’ve read a few things that speak about him in terms of techno music. I love techno music but I don’t respond to his album in that way. In my work I really like the idea of inventing a language that is transcendent of verbal language or transcendent of anything we could reduce to words and just existing as a language unto itself. In the case of my work, using movement and sound and music and imagery and bodies as a means to create a language unto itself. I respond to the work of Actress in those terms as well. He does a really great job of making a sonic aesthetic that exists as a language until itself. I really found it an exciting possibility that we could work together on something.”

Actress: “I’d met Eddie a couple of times via a friend and I’d heard he was doing a performance at the Tate. It was the first time that I’d seen a performance which didn’t seem to have any particular structure to it but was magnetic at the same time. It was a performance that contained a lot of nudity but the way that it was broken up and the way that the performances were led was just really cool. I was going in with no idea of what to expect and it had a very visceral impact on me. It made me feel a certain way that I’d never felt before. I liked that.” 

THE PROCESS: “I’ve brought these two guys into a world that’s just completely, ‘Who gives a fuck! Let’s just do shit!

I’m talking about vomit-inducing, belly-rumble nerves when I’m working on a performance

Eddie Peake: “The way I tend to work is that I know certain kind of skeletal framework elements but the actual work doesn’t get made until it’s actually happening. I can’t tell you the extent to which that fills me with dread. I get so nervous. I’m talking about vomit-inducing, belly-rumble nerves when I’m working on a performance piece but it’s also the thing that I feel really enlivened and emboldened and excited about. I love making work with other media but making a painting in a studio and then presenting it in a gallery doesn’t have that heightened sense of the work is only happening for this moment, all these people are here for this moment and if they’re not here they’ll never get to experience it. All of those things are really fabulous reasons why I tolerate this horrible nerves and dread. It seems like Darren and Nic are thinking about what they’re bringing to this piece in a similar way: a one-off experience.”

Nic Hamilton: “It’s quite an amorphous idea at the moment. It tends to change every week as we go through the process. It’s definitely in progress and very much an alive thing but it’s still been coherent the whole way through.”

Actress: “I’m really terrible actually, because I’ve brought these two guys into a world that’s just completely, ‘Who gives a fuck! Let’s just do shit!’ So yeah, I don’t want it to be too improvised although a big inspiration for doing this was reading a bit about John Cage and the way he worked with Merce Cunningham. I’m hoping a lot of chance occurs within the performance so that for me is part of my excitement.”

THE INSPIRATION: “I tend to get sad if I’m not making something.”

Actress: “I was sending Nic a load of 80s pop videos that I loved: Spandau Ballet videos with the water silhouettes on the back screens, that sort of technique. Soul II Soul videos when they’re dancing in this staged rainforest. But at the same time I was sending him pictures of rubbish dumps and scaffolding and just objects that have been thrown around. A piece of wood that’s been discarded on the side of the road but happens to have a blob of paint that looks so beautiful to look at. Or you’re walking around here and it’s just concrete, concrete, concrete, everywhere, brick, brick, brick. But in the middle of this brick there’s this beautiful purple flower growing out of this brickwork. It’s like, how did that happen? Where did that come from? Things like that really resonate with me.”

I’ve wanted to have an aesthetic that feels like it’s non-delineated by binary gender codes

Eddie Peake: “In the house I was brought up in there were at least ten people living in it at any given moment. There’s quite a few big personalities in my family so growing up I felt like this viewer of a soap opera going on. A real life one. That’s something I draw upon in my performances but also the tensions and dramas in a more romantic relationship, or a sexual relationship. Those are things I’ve tended to want to come up in the performances. Also I’ve wanted to have an aesthetic that feels like it’s non-delineated by binary gender codes. Those are all things that I’ve been quite particular about wanting to imbue the performances with. In the case of this piece with Darren and Nic, I’m less emphatically trying to control those things. It’s more a case of bringing something that can have a kind of narrative or conceptual element imposed onto it.”

Nic Hamilton: “My day job is a commercial CG art director person, so I do a lot of super polished work for construction architecture industries. I’m always pushed to do smoother and faster and cleaner work. My main interest is making stuff: the process of going through making it, doing it and making it as close to drawing as possible - so when you’ve finished it you can’t go back and fiddle with it. I suppose that’s where it comes from: a desire to make things rather than recursively revisit them. I think it’s the desire to make stuff that’s my own that I’m really happy with that drives me. My dad is a sculptor and I’ve watched him throughout his life make sculptures all the time and be quite successful making these giant steel things for no reason other than he wants to make something. I tend to get sad if I’m not making something. I really like keeping busy.”

I’m sampling nature and non-specific sounds, ricochets I guess, that don’t really have a tone

Actress: “I’m finding it really hard to call myself a musician these days. I just don’t think that’s what I am. I’ve always said I’m an artist. I think the way that I work more and more now is that I find myself trying to synthesise nature. I can’t work with normal synthetic sounds like sine waves or 8-bit or anything like that apart from white and pink noise. I have an aversion to it. I like listening to it but in terms of handling it and working with it, I can’t do it anymore. The sounds that I use now are so concrete and they have no tone. I’m trying to create tone out of something that has none whatsoever. I’m sampling nature and very non-specific sounds, ricochets I guess, that don’t really have a tone. Until you start pitching and re-pitching and doing crazy shit to them, reverbing them so the sound elongates and then you take a certain element of that. I’m still able to get tone out of these sort of sounds and that is still the objective, y’know what I mean. But the way that I’m working, I don’t feel like a musician. I think it is sort of musicianship but also I’ve been using the term “non-music” - it’s sort of a sculpting. Much more chipping away and sanding. The working process has completely changed for me.” 

THE PERFORMANCE: “I don’t think I’m going to hold back too much.”

Actress: “I don’t think I’m going to hold back too much. There will be aspects that will be a bit like a battering ram. I’m looking to get a sonic force that might be uncomfortable at times. Seeing how that works with performers and what Eddie has in his mind will be interesting. He has no idea what I’m going to do musically and neither does Nic really. I keep getting strange deja-vu moments and I’ve just had one just now. It’s almost like we’ve done this performance before. I’ve had a few of those recently. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing. It feels like the natural thing to do, I’ll be completely honest with you. It feels like the completely natural thing to do.”

Actress, Eddie Peake and Nic Hamilton will perform at St John's Church in Hackney, London as part of St John's Sessions on Thursday 29th August 2013.