Performances on the Underground

Whilst the mid twentieth-century urban theory of Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer and Georg Simmel explored the sociological and psychological implications of urbanization and the potential disruption of the ‘self’, commuting must have become the contemporary equivalence of psychic pain. Travelling by train into London’s St Pancras on the ‘High Speed 1’ route, is a particularly harrowing experience. Moving through the endlessly unresolved meta-urban landscape of the desert-like building site of ‘King’s Cross’, which one assumes is the intention to ‘re-brand’ some way down the line, is an exercise of self-control. The experience never seems to disappoint as an example of what Anthony Vidler proposed in Warped Space: Art, Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture, of how the void of uncertainty and estrangement of the ever-evolving metropolis has become a sign for the inner pain and projection of fear, anxiety and neurosis. The area of this embryonic yet limitless megalopolis accurately embodies Vidler’s idea of the ‘landscape of fear and topologies of despair’ of capitalist development and urban utopianism.

View of King's Cross that greets the traveller from Kent

View of King’s Cross that greets the traveller from Kent

In the spirit of Vidler, where ‘…warpings of the normal to express the pathological become the leitmotivs of avant-garde art’ I propose a methodology or tool with which to deal with the subsequent scenes which await arrival at St Pancras. The scrum in both directions through the Albert Speer-inspired concrete platforms and security gates notwithstanding, survival behaviours of a different register are required to negotiate the teeming underground labyrinth to arrive at the Victoria Line. Confronted from the opposite direction by the multitude like herds of buffaloes fleeing a burning forest, I reflected that a poststructuralist position was required here: an improvised site-specific performance or even a kind of flâneurie or wandering to intercept this disintegration of space and time. In the 1960s artists such as Daniel Burren, Paul Thek and Lucas Samaras called for artists to abandon their studios and work site-specifically. Their strategies to create anxious-making environments provoked the shock of the unexpected, forcing the viewer into the position of participant. In Essays on the Blurring of Art & Life Allan Kaprow proposed art as a process of ‘interruption into everyday consciousness’ and from the 1950s, ‘Happenings’ took place in the street and other public places to rupture and destabilize the viewing experience. The Surrealist, André Breton proposed art as a psychologically disturbing encounter, collapsing happiness, anxiety and panic in a form which later, feminist theory of the 1980s incorporated into a place of jouissance.

More vistas of King's Cross

More vistas of King’s Cross

Drawing on this rich provenance of twentieth-century art, I propose that the journey between the HS1 escalator and Victoria southbound platform could be considered as a form of ‘sketchbook’ in which to test ways to activate and de-centre the viewing subject and explore relationships between visual production and reception. ‘The crowd’ has been a subject of consideration from the nineteenth century onwards: Baudelaire first coined the term, ‘modernity’ and the responsibility of art to articulate the ephemeral experience of urban life. Durkheim’s concept of anomie regarding the fragmentation of social identity can be usefully applied to the experience of travelling on Transport for London. Turning alienation into presence through which to bring about an ‘activated spectatorship’ sometimes requires the smallest gesture, as numerous artists from Yoko Ono to Marina Abramovic have demonstrated.


Phenomenological options which may be available include forms of counter-alienation through which to explore the ‘viewer/participant’ relationship: merely standing still perhaps or to assume the role of the ‘platform maître d’ taking up position at the base of the steps between levels and soundlessly greeting by eye contact each individual of the teeming masses. Or, more ambitiously, assembling an imagined tableau in the spirit of nineteenth-century studio photography or as a space in which to practice yoga poses.

Public sculpture by Knut Henrick Henriksen discovered in corner of Northern line recess

Public sculpture by Knut Henrick Henriksen discovered in corner of Northern line recess

These performative interventions have brought various forms of heightened consciousness from various perspectives. Issues of proximity, encounter and serendipity are often provoked via the processes of art. Between a performance of stillness and a poster of Die Zauberflöte at Covent Garden, for example, I felt a momentary confluence with the queen of the night in the wind-tunnel recess of the platform of the northern line: a shared energy of recalcitrance, contempt and confrontation that defied our environment. On another occasion, there was a sense of distant objectivity to the collective shuffling stampede towards the exit sign, comparable only to the experience of insight gained from the concentrated and sustained process of looking in observational drawing. Or could these proposals be considered as a form of audience interaction in the context of experiential or immersive theatre? Punchdrunk’s recent piece, for example, subjects its audience to a maze of corridors: it’s all about shifting perspective, participation and presence.

The long march to the Victoria Line

The long march to the Victoria Line

The tube of course has been a subject for artists from Henry Moore to Chantal Ackerman to Jenny Holzer. Its subterranean order is dependent on codes of social behavior observed daily by millions maneuvering through its networks of tunnels via an architectural mechanism of control. It literally and symbolically constitutes a form of institution for capillary forms of power – and also, I suggest, a space for reflection. Artists like Pilvi Takala, currently showing work at Frieze London, question convention and society’s unspoken rules and value systems and the tube’s architecturally-prescribed power infrastructure presents ample opportunities for aesthetic discursive investigation.


 A student adapted an exercise from Georges Perec’s Species of Space and Other Pieces to map an audio tour of the ‘journey to the bottom of the stairs and a little further’. It involves passages, objects, passing places and participation and practical exercises of careful observation. The work proposes that we banish the void and recognize that we live in an endless series of relationships  – with objects, the environment, history, culture and others.  Perhaps without complicity these methodologies would be just alternative states of de-realisation to be considered with caution, but forms of systematic noting have useful applications: as an anti-intrusive approach they offer real strategies through which to consider these relationships.


Related links:

Frieze London, Jenny Holzer, Die Zauberflote, Pilvi Takala, Siegfried Kracauer, anomie, Henry Moore, Punchdrunk, Daniel Burren, Paul Thek, Lucas Samaras, Albert Speer, Georges Perec, Allan Kaprow, Chantal Ackerman, Marina Abramovic