Jo Verrent witnesses Rita Marcalo's live art performance at Bradford Playhouse on 12 December 2009
11.45pm Okay. This feels strange. I’m at Bradford Playhouse waiting for Rita Marcalo to have an epileptic seizure and witness it as a dance event. I’m late. The event started at 1pm and it’s now midnight. I couldn’t get here earlier as I was at a disabled artists residency in Dundee. Trains and travel being what they are I didn’t get home until 11pm, but instead of packing myself off to bed, I headed into town with a blanket and a couple of bananas.
I’d got an email before I headed in… "…Just to let you know, Rita hasn’t had a seizure yet…" I’d asked to be kept informed as I know many people with epilepsy sleep for a while afterwards and I’d thought if something had happened then I’d catch some sleep at home before coming over. A strange email to receive. Driving here I caught myself thinking "I hope it’s not happened yet" and then immediately feel guilty. Interesting.
12.15pm Rita works to induce a seizure. She’s drinking wine and has just had a strobe light flashed in her face in short bursts. She seems almost apologetic not to ‘fit’. People applaud. She laughs – and she is right, it is funny people applauding her efforts to please us, to give us what we came here for.
Who is here? Who has come to watch such a spectacle? It seems a young arts crowd. As someone with an invisible disability myself, I know it is hard to identify who is and isn't ‘disabled’ – but there are no visibly disabled people here.
It’s a physically inaccessible venue so that might rule out those of us with mobility impairments (there were problems with risk assessing such event and I know a number of other venues felt unable to host it). I feel old; I reckon only the three guys from St Johns Ambulance are older than me.
12.45pm Had a chat with the paramedic and the guys from the ambulance crew. They reckon Rita is one of the most knowledgeable people they’ve come across in relation to her condition. They find it intriguing and seem to be having a good time. One of them said the best comment he ever came across about epilepsy was from a nine year old. He asked what his family should do if he had a seizure in the bath. The paramedic gave all the standard responses – pull the plug, support the head… The boy said ‘nah, they should put the washing in with me…’
The paramedic said that for some, seizures are the only thing that works every single muscle in the body. Some people would pay good money for a workout like that, he added. No wonder people are tired afterwards.
1.06am Couple of beers in now and I’m feeling introspective. I keep mulling on stuff from the residency where some artists were expressing their frustration with the ‘boundaries’ imposed by their imagined Disability Arts Rulebook. ‘Thou shalt only produce work that relates to your experiences as a disabled person according to the social model of disability’, ‘thou shalt not produce work that relates to pain or fatigue or anything that speaks of disability in a way that could be interpreted as weakness…'
Rita has gained great media interest in this work; tabloid fever about how ‘irresponsible’ she is and how public money (her work is funded by Arts Council England) is being wasted.
People are thinning out now. 40 people paid to come to the event. The piece is 24 hours long with no guarantee. One of the provocations behind the piece is the number of videos posted up on YouTube of people having seizures, taken without the person’s consent. So there is a market. We have been actively encouraged to film Rita’s seizure on our mobile phones and to give the footage to the organisers. If it happens.
1.31am Have I mentioned that Rita is in a cage? She usually takes herself to a confined space if she feels she will have a seizure, so the piece is staged with her in inside a large dog cage. She is fenced off from us, the door occasionally opened to pass her through a glass of wine.
2.05am Just got my camping mattress out, and my blanket. Might as well get a few hours sleep…
5.15am Nothing yet but I’ve dozed on the floor about 2 metres from Rita’s cage.
7.28am There about eight or so of us left now. Mostly asleep; plus staff and the paramedics/ ambulance drivers. And still 5 and a half hours to go. The thing with the time, it makes me examine my motivation. Am I here as a witness, a voyeur, a supporter, a dance audience, a disability arts audience?
8.35am Just had a chat with Rita. She’s frustrated and disappointed. Why has her body not done what she imagined it would? How will people respond if ‘it’ doesn’t happen? She has drunk coffee, eaten dark chocolate, had no medication, not eaten and, of course, had a strobe light fired in her eyes. She’s never seen herself as she seizes. She only has the witnessing of others. This would be her chance to have the experience recorded on film, her cameras and the mobile phones of others.
9.10am Is it art? Many artists have focused audience attention on the human, the spectacle of ‘the normal’ (Kafka’s story ‘The Hunger Artist’, Sam Taylor-Wood’s video of Beckham sleeping shown at the National Portrait Gallery). This is different in that there is this thread of anticipation, therefore the spectre of disappointment. At this point, it seems to matter less. It is enough to be here. Art should challenge, make you think and rethink, give you new insights and this does. Is it disability art? Was viewing Merrick? If Rita does have a seizure, will I watch? Or will I watch the people watching? More people arriving now.
9.45am At ten Rita will find and watch the ‘malicious programming’ she first found at 3 this morning (I was asleep). It’s a programme a computer hacker has placed on an epilepsy support forum that flashes the word ‘epilepsy’ in a way designed to induce seizures. It’s real, not an urban myth. When they launched the London 2012 logo ident, it is reported that it had a similar effect unintentionally. Humans. Strange creatures.
11.36am Looking unlikely now. I feel relief. A sense of protection – for myself, Rita and the rest of the audience. In the past, Rita has locked herself in toilets and chosen to have a seizure next to the toilet bowl rather than to tell people about her epilepsy. If she had had an attack during the performance ironically it would have been one of the safest spaces she could have been in.
1.00pm All finished now. No seizures, lot of tired smiles and congratulations and I’m off home.
Carpe diem – seize the day.
Jo Verrent, 12/12/09
Rita Marcalo's Involuntary Dances was a one-off performance at Bradford Playhouse on December 11/12, 2009. More information here: http://www.bradfordplayhouse.co.uk/mainfs.html