John McKiernan, the creator of the “no man’s land” discusses his personal concerns and thoughts one week before the live performance across 10 London Underground tube stations.
When setting out to create an abstract event like ‘no man’s land’, one hopes that it will ascend what it set out to achieve without it turning into game play or dalliance, and something original emerges. The intention of the event was to, in some way, mimic the experiences of those creating plans and preparing to head to the trenches in World War One. It was important that this was taken seriously and not seen as ‘just playing for fun’ but a way of trying to understand the stresses and strains that may have been experienced by those caught up in this enormous human tragedy. Although it is obviously impossible to recreate the actual emotions, the last fortnight has exposed some of the strains and concerns that were probably experienced at that time, and at all times when people have to walk into the unknown.
In January 2012, a speculative email was sent to the Head of London Underground (LU) asking to create an event on a number of tube stations during Remembrance Sunday, based on Platform-7’s successful ‘Up The Line’ performances. Weeks later, a surprising positive response was received requesting details and, after sending the original outline of ‘no man’s land’, “conditional” approval to proceed was given. Some clear restrictions were spelt out, including that London Underground would not provide any financial support, and Platform-7 was given the green light to continue.
A Week To Go
Now in November, with the event a week away, there are mixed emotions that make me believe the event has already surpassed my greatest expectation in that I feel, at times, a sense of pointlessness, and by raising the question of whether it has all been a waste of time. The sculptures have all been rejected by LU on health and safety grounds (with less than two weeks to go), we are down to 10 stations due to various reasons, in addition we have only very limited cash left in the bank for an aftershow gathering.
Yet the performance is continuing, to our knowledge at least. The performers and filmmakers continuing to prepare and the majority of the sculptors, it appears, are keen to find other routes for their involvement in making this a noteworthy happening. Lenka and I, in our hearts, believe something significant will take place, but we are finding it a slog, and I suppose, nervous how it will be perceived. There are differing opinions in the cabinet regarding the sculptures and the strains and stresses on those taking part are emerging. Nathaniel on the music committee has always said for him ‘this is a back projecting project – it only begins after the 11th when we review what happened’, a view I strongly share.
The plan LU originally agreed was ludicrously ambitious. Platform-7 taking over 30 London Underground Busker Spots and having an orchestra spread out across the stations playing one single piece of music, with responses from poets and sculptors, all caught on film by an army of videographers. We had no money or any possible sources of funding to actually do it. As the months moved on the project evolved to suit the prevailing circumstances. In August, the project was rewritten, still highly ambitious but less stressful for the key individuals whose role it was to create the work. Giving away creative control, and later, day-to-day involvement meant more time for me to develop other parts of the event, the website for example, but also led to a detachment, a sense of not being part of it. Committees set up to develop different creative aspects were autonomous and little was known of what they were doing. Meanwhile artists working in performance, sculpture and film began finding their way to the project. Deliberately separated, most people who were becoming involved knew their participation was only one element of a bigger possible ‘event’ but had little way of finding out what other people were doing. Many found this difficult; some wanted to control proceedings, others were distrustful of the potential outcome. A few were only interested in having an LU gig on their CV. Arts Council England said on their assessment when rejecting our funding application, that we did not meet the management and public engagement demands by failing on all their criteria’s, and “There is no indication the activity will develop the [arts] sector”.
One of the underlying tenets behind the concept was a testing a view that artists are more concerned with exploring the process than a final piece of work. Artists who are artist’s because they do not otherwise know how to exist in the world, over those who chose to become an artist as a career choice, appear, in my view, to view their art in the way an author views a chapter of a book. It is part of a bigger work, each is a work in its own right, but it is not finished until all the chapters are complete. History is littered with examples where these chapters only come together after the artist’s death. It was these artists who I thought would be attracted to “no man’s land”, a project with no guarantees and that would require a lot of work in advance for people who they have no connection, and often, had not even met. Those deciding to become involved had to have an almost blind faith in what was being proposed.
A Pointless Project
Many people flirted with the idea of participation but quickly dropped out for numerous reasons. Even for those close to, and often involved, with Platform-7’s odd, conceptually led events, struggled to fully understand the concept behind “no man’s land”. The idea of exploring pointlessness appeared pointless, ‘what is the point though?’ one of the cabinet members continues to ask, despite being involved with the organisation since its embryonic stage. And it is the blind faith in pursuing this question, ‘what is the point though?’ that leaves me, and now many involved asking, are we wasting our time or are we actually coming to understand the point in understanding pointlessness?
Exploring Life 1912 and Conflict in 1914
The purpose, if there is one, of art is to open a door to the world, and our existence within it, that we ourselves cannot open. Art, for me, cannot stop war or change the world, what it can do is to make us conscious of our impact in it and become more acutely aware of the future.
I am not an art historian, but I would argue that the Western art world let Europe down in the years up to 1914; it did not challenge the orthodoxy enough (or at all). The search for financial gain and the rise of the marketer dominated. The previous 19th century was relatively stable, compared to the numerous wars of the past, and people seem to have become blasé that peace was forever. Focus was so much on building a better life economically that many other aspects appear to have been forgotten.
It is not difficult to draw parallels with the modern day. Angel Merkel’s grim words in the German Bundestag (26th October 2011), “nobody should take for granted another 50 years of peace and prosperity in Europe”, echoes further than just the Euro crisis. It is the fear of entering the unknown; that people have forgotten how quickly the human world can change even without the ‘natural disasters’ of Hurricane Sandy or a Japanese tsunami.
So what is the point of “no man’s land”?
“no man’s land” is a one hour live performance art event, at 11am on a Sunday morning. It is just a fleeting moment that most who pass by will not even notice, especially now the sculptures will not be part of the performance spaces themselves. There is no press release or much in the way of promotion at all, so why the stress?
The event seems to have uncapped something that is deeper than can be answered here, now, a week before the event. It could be the same as any creative endeavour, project or undertaking, once started the need to complete the task as originally thought or planned is the priority. Yet little in life ends the way we originally intended, but society, whether in the form of the boss in the office or an Arts Council assessment officer, seems to believe that life can be predicted. The word ‘event’ has been bastardised to have almost none of its actual meaning in common spoken or written usage. For me, an ‘event’ is when a host of factors collide to create a single one off occurrence that immediately creates a new set of emotions and/or actions that did not occur/exist before the event.
Society of 1912 seemed to just walk straight into the biggest and totally pointless war of all time, with virtually nothing to gain except prestige, some ‘potential’ raw materials and inflated egos. The result of this event; many tens of millions killed, injured and displace with consequences still reverberating for tens of hundreds of millions of people a century later.
We will know next Sunday whether there is an event, and whether the energy collectively put into it was worth expending.
Email to London Underground
Sent: Friday, 13 January 2012, 15:27
Subject: Remembrance Sunday Live Performance on the Underground 11/11/12
Dear Howard Collins,
I curate live conceptual performance events during Remembrance week, in cemeteries after dark with support of The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, The Metropolitan Police, Cemetery Friends groups amongst others, and with financial support from The Arts Council England and various local authorities. With poetry, dance, classical music, film and multimedia the event encourages people to reconsider their own thoughts and opinions on war, conflict and its consequences.
For a number of years I have been mulling over such an event on the underground by using the busker spots already in place and station concourses as natural performance spaces. The underground has its own part in the narrative of war and conflict that will add a unique richness to any event.
The impact of the cemetery events on audiences has led to conversations with Arts Council England and others about potential franchising across the UK, the feedback from audience and artists since 2009 can be viewed on our blog: http://www.platform-7.com/apps/blog/tag/up-the-line
I would like to open a dialogue before forwarding a more precise proposal whether there may be an appetite to have a series of interrelated performances across the tube network on Remembrance Sunday, which this year coincides with Remembrance Day? The idea will be to encourage past and present employees of LUL and TFL surfaces, who have an artistic interest, to possibly perform.
For information of previous events, including photos and soundscapes, please visithttp://www.platform-7.com/#!events/vstc3=up-the-line-2011
I appreciate you taking time to consider this email
 See email to Howard Collins below
 To understand how the event unfolded read the ‘Phase’ pages the “no man’s land” website under ‘The Event’