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Curiously looking through the Looking Glass at the Weapons Project 2012

Traffic hums. This place is busy. People come. People go. People work. People shop. Round the corner, on my quest I pass St Nicholas markets where, conspicuously bargain hunters deftly finger market booty, they had no need of but once seen, have to acquire. Living. Life. In bars, eateries, leisure boats, I am surrounded by all the paraphernalia of contemporary city living.

No 39 High Street, Bristol is hidden away amongst a scraggle of shops, you can easily miss, for the High Street, has not yet been absorbed by the Galleries Shopping Mall or it’s newcomer, bigger, shinier voraciously tentacled, shopoholics citadel, Cabot Circus.

I eventually find it, formerly the Rummer’s Inn, now ‘The Looking Glass’, Bristol’s latest pop up performance space: heavy, dark wood and layered. There are plenty of mirrors to observe the place and oneself. Are we going back in time? How far back? 200 years is how long the Rummer Inn has been standing here, steeped in, Bristol’s maritime trade, building a wealthy, thriving port city, much of this from the brutalising mass trafficking of African people.

Nearby, Bristol ships would be loaded with copper, cloth, trinkets, beads, guns ammunition all ready to exchange for African slaves, from central Africa and the West African coast. Captured villagers, would be transported and sold to planters in the Caribbean and Americas to raise colonial cash crops of sugar, rum, coffee, tobacco, rice and cotton.

Possibilities open up, of remembering and reimagining this space in launching the Weapons Project for ceramists/performance artists trio Amber Ginsburg, Rodney Harris and Joseph Madrigal. Ginsburg and Madrigal are newly arrived in Bristol from the US, while Harris is a local.

The trio first encountered each other at a World Ceramic Biennale in Seoul, South Korea in 2011. Established artists, separately working on themes of war, expressed an interest in bringing ceramics into the realm of performance. The First Bristol Bienniale 2012 realises this ambition and brings about a dramatic reunion.

Of the space, says Harris, ‘the fact that it is steeped in Bristol’s history, fascinates me. This is the most haunted building in Bristol, and the site of a murder some eight years ago. It had been boarded up for eight years.’

Coming from America, ‘the stale, damp smell of trapped air, to my eyes, is romantic’, declares Ginsburg.

The bar divides the performance space. On one side, the manufacture and service offer by the artists trio, polite and busy, in aprons, manufacturing clay munitions, on the other side, the customer.

It is a gloomy space within which the artists’ labour, evokes a feeling of clandestine activity, but the door is always open.

‘Hello. Welcome.’

‘Can I have a drink?’

‘No, we don’t sell drinks. But you can look around.’ Ginsburg invites chirpily.

Perplexed, this customer stays to look around. Observing customers react to the installation with disappointment, amusement, or engagement preoccupies me.

You have to give something of yourself once you’ve entered this space. You become the audience, but not passively so how do you respond? Tentatively? Pruriently? Do you join a workshop to make and seed the munitions? Why? To keep yourself or a toddler busy? Why not just nod and go about your own business, minimal exchange?

You alone, the customer, decides, how much, how little and you want to engage. This is participatory theatre devised by the Weapons Project. The Looking Glass venue with it’s olde de worlde draw-you-in pub frontage serves the project well. Passers-by drop in as well Bristol Biennial programme holders, their noses pursuing the arts trail.

Ceramic artists at work in war performance, intrigues me. How does this work?

I’m interested in combined art-form projects. This project being Bristol based, at the new pop up venue, the Looking Glass, engages me. Truthfully, I am a playwright and theatre maker I’m preoccupied with crafting my own theatre animation project, a tale of two estranged, young brothers, in civil war torn Mogadishu, reunite 20 years later, only in a vastly changed and damaged landscape.

Munitions construction produces this.

I am conscious when I am crafting a scene whether it is working or not. When it isn’t it is noticeably flat. I know I’ve not got to the heart of ill-ease, that raises tension to the surface so it is palpable for the audience, an uneasiness that is, unspoken but felt. It may register in Looking Glass audience faces that look down, the avoidance of the eye, clipped tone, the swift departure.

But suppose there is no tension to the manufacture of war weaponry around us. What do we do instead?

Yes, there was that moment, staring hard and long at the munitions. I had to fight an urge. I wanted to pick one up one of those terracotta test dummies, stroke it, rock it. ‘alright you beauty?’ Ever so gently I’d nestle it back down in its crafted wooden cradle the ammunition so beautiful elegant and, smooth. Observing it being nursed and nurtured in it’s wooden cradle surround: enough, light, water, such attention to detail in this High Street space, is mesmerising.

Why am I behaving like this?

Is it because I don’t know how to react ‘properly’ in this space?

Scary.

Of course I never do pick up the munitions. Nor do I ask.

This is not me, nor how I wish to see myself.

Terracotta test bombs was they were originally designed and used, air born, exploding with baking flour across the Nevada desert, presents a powerfully arresting image. My poetic sense imagines a baking sieve, hand held high, icing sugar filled, dessert topping the desert.

This is playful seduction.

The test bomb in action re-imagined and re-appropriated with mustard, lupin, buckwheat and clover seeds seeded this project for Ginsburg.

I pay my scheduled return visit to the Weapons Project, my purpose; to inspect the growth of the seeded munitions. Two weeks later, I’m surprised to find mustard, clover, buckwheat and lupin all vigorously fighting for light in their gloomy home, their tenacity, remarkable. Forced ripe is a term my mother uses disparagingly as she bites into mangos familiar from her Caribbean homeland.

‘ Is it natural or forced?’ I ask.

‘We do leave the lights on overnight,’ Ginsburg concedes. ‘But we’re still not sure what we’ll get. It’s all a process of wait and see.’

We wait and see the results of our endeavours as artists in performance: statements we make of the world around us. Even in harvesting seeds, do we get the harvest we want? When I look closer at the seeded ammunitions, I observe that some clay is broken, some seeds dried up and sorry looking.

That night, the last one of the Weapons Project installation, serves up a farewell party. Amidst music and merriment are the weapons themselves-gifted as slices and apportioned to those of us who want them. We are instructed to do whatever we wish with them. I elect for a hand grenade plus a chunk of test dummy. I carry away my art, carefully wrapped. Sacred objects shrouded in symbolism of realisation that will become a memory, a tacit promise to myself, because of the Weapons Project and because the Weapons Project is no more, for me, let this not be the end.

I had all good intentions of planting mine in my back garden, some kind of spontaneous garden sculpture remained at the back of my mind. A thought not yet fully realised, but knowing it would take shape like a lot of my creations, on a whim, once I’d cleared out the garden. It lies much neglected on the kitchen window sill, still.

This is it’s permanent home now as I busy myself with my life.

A reminder.

How easily we are seduced, absorbing the imagery of war and weapons manufacture into the fabric of our lives. Rarely do we stop to ponder, how and why weaponry will be used or even what else could we do.

Chilling. Apocalyptic.

Ros Martin

photos by Amber Ginsburg

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