A leisure complex
The easiest way to do this is to tell you what happened. Because things happened. Each at a certain moment, in a specific way, one after the other. Probably many more things than those which I perceived happening happened. But the ones that happened to me are the ones I’m best placed to describe. I entered a leisure centre late in the evening. Outside darkness. Some shrubbery. An entrance door around the corner. I was glad to be out of the wind. Carnoustie is a coastal town. The wind is really in your face. Indoors was too-bright and evidently often used. A well-worn foyer floor. Notice boards with tennis team timetabling and swim hats for sale in case you forgot yours. Also some very distinctive floral displays that I can only guess had been brought in by some green-fingered horticulturalist especially for the performance. There were people I didn’t recognise, smiling at me or chatting amongst themselves. One took my name and handed me a rectangular grey bar of extremely lightweight material. Not knowing what it was, I put it in my pocket for safekeeping. My glasses were fogged up and speckled with rain so I headed for the bathrooms to tidy my face. I accidentally walked into the darkness of an empty changing room. After faffing around for a bit, I regrouped with the group of over a dozen who had been collecting beside the vending machines. I chatted awkwardly to people I didn’t know. After the exact right amount of time a stranger, who looked like she knew what she was doing, raised her voice above ours and beckoned us this way. We gladly relinquished conversational duties and followed singularly, but together, as a group. I guess we were the audience. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard tell of Dennis McNulty’s performance works before. In fact I had been given step-by-step accounts of them by on-the-scene witnesses. The way they were always described was as a sequence of events. And so that’s the way I imagined stepping into one. This happened, then this happened, then this happened. But the difference now was that it was happening to me – first hand. I couldn’t help but feel implicated in the peformative swing of things. The first room into which we were ushered was dark and rectangular. I tried to notice things like the height of the ceiling and the fabric of the floor. But I was distracted by my own careful manoeuvres to stand outside of what I imagined might be the space where something might happen – that is to say, I was deeply entrenched in avoiding the point in the room where I thought the next phase of action might unfold. The group, of maybe two-dozen people or so, formed a natural kind of oval shape in the space. Most people faced the centre of this cell-like circle. I dallied around the edges trying not to catch the light. At a certain moment, a curtain opened.
The building stays still, but the world rotates around it.
What I thought had been a regular side-wall was in fact a stage curtain. Heavy, velvet, you know the type. It split and slid sideways to reveal a stage – not beyond it – but within it. The rectangular room upon which we the audience had gathered, was in fact the stage. We re-oriented accordingly. We looked out across a dimly lit sports hall. It felt familiar like childhood dance-halls or school gyms or scenes from movies I can’t remember or American high-school encounters I can remember but which never actually happened to me. I pushed myself to the front of the stage to get a full view. It was beautiful, spread out under us like that in the low-light. My eyes drifted around the room to settle on a teenage girl, standing alone, just to the right of the centre of the hall, wearing roller skates. Her hair is short and she has on a belly top and sweat pants. She skates over to a flat-screen TV on a stand, and plugs it in to turn it on. The monitor flickers with a hexagonal shape, moving and morphing against a blue background. The girl glides back to her original spot. A light lifts up the contours of her frame and I can see that she is tapping a rhythm and rolling her feet to a beat that I just now realise I can hear. She stays where she is, but moves to the music. Now I see there’s a spotlight. I also see, on this vast sporting court, there’s a spotlight operator. Maybe the music changes, but a familiar song pans into my zone of recognition. One More Kiss, Dear. The skater begins to dance – to move away from that one spot. It’s with a kind of magnetic energy now.
EXPERT: You know what this is made of? NON-EXPERT: Coal. EXPERT: Yes. It’s made from Parrot Coal, which as far as I’m aware of is a Scottish word for Cannel Coal, which is the English equivalent … highly bitumous coal and when it burns it makes a <click, click, click> noise, and since the 17th century it has therefore been recorded as being called Parrot Coal. It’s prehistoric vegetation with a very high pollen content and because the content has allowed it to be very, almost, flexible is a silly word, you can’t bend it, but it’s very plastic, therefore very malleable, and easy in inverted commas to cut and make into objects or in this case a piece of furniture. It’s very rare. A lot of it didn’t survive. It was damaged. I’ve said it was strong, but of course it’s not. It’s like marble… it would break if you drop it fracture, splinter. Tell me what you know about it. NON-EXPERT: Well as far as we know, it was given to the Earl of Weymss on the occasion of his wedding. We’re not absolutely certain about that. Thirty years ago my husband bought it, when he was working for a coal company and when they bought over another company, everything was sold in the company, we were given the chance to buy it and that’s really all I know. EXPERT: Right, right. I mean, again, we’ve got here that you can see the signature Weymss, Parrot Coal, 1846. Ts for Thomas, Williamson, Maker. It was mined in West Weymss this type of coal, I think, not exclusively but certainly it was mined in Weymss and of course it was the Earl of Weymss, I’m not sure if that was his title at this time, but anyway, the Weymss family, mm, owned the mine and he was very much a patron of local arts and he, I think, discovered Thomas Williamson, and encouraged, in fact, patronised him to make a whole series of small little objects and very occasionally, very rarely, items of furniture. Emm, you’ll be glad to know there’s some good company for Thomas Williamson’s work. There’s a huge bench in one of the Royal Households, at Osborne, which is the fairy tale house if you like, the honeymoon house of umm, Queen Victoria and her prince consort, Prince Albert. I love this shape, it’s
again slightly old fashioned. This oval shape is a Victorian shape, we’re into Victoria’s reign now, 1846, but we’ve got somewhat of a regency shape, especially this very slender, hexagonal-I-think column, with a rather nice concave base, It’s easy, I’ve been told, to make with these lovely scroll feet here. a whole audience feel one thing. What’s You’ve got this lovely, very Regency difficult, apparently, is to create a feel. That could be 1810 easily, so situation where everyone in the audience he’s old fashioned. So we’re up in the can have a different reaction to the same East coast and he’s not got all the new thing happening on stage. I think this is design books and I think that’s rather what separates McNulty’s promenade works from more identifiably theatrical nice. You’ve got a lovely flowing line to this table. It’s the date that I find performances. In ways I read his fascinating. From my memory, and I hope choreographed ambulations more like I’ve got it right, the earliest piece ofdream-sequences through which you are lead, or the storyboard for a film, where Thomas Williamson coal furniture ever you play the part of the movie camera. recorded is 1848. so here we have on theThere’s an element of feeling like this Antiques Roadshow, yet again a discovery. thing has not been made for you, but that A table made of coal and it’s the you happen to be there having it happen earliest recorded piece of coal by the in front of you. This is a very nice feeling best maker, I mean, fantastic! How did of inconsequentiality or perhaps more specifically, invisibility. Being privy to you manage to do it?! someone’s clever and careful orchestral
manoeuvres. NON-EXPERT: I don’t know! We didn’t think At a certain moment the music was it was worth very much at all. Hnnhh!
no longer playing and the curtain was slowly closing. Maybe a door opened, EXPERT: Well. Let me consider the value or a light went on, or someone guided as we look at it. There is some damage us, in any case we understood that we to it. It’s not easy to repair, but I should move to the next location. We the pieces missing I wouldn’t bother left the stage though a side-door, down to repair anyway. Please NEVER, ever some steps, through some equipment storage rooms, and out into the cold dark touch these bubbles. I mean they’re prehistoric bubbles, they’ve been there night. The skating girl whizzed past us and we clunkily followed the person who for thousands of years, hundreds of thousands of years, I daresay millions. beckoned us into another arena. Another sports-hall, this one with bleachers set It will deteriorate, but I’m not, I don’t up in the centre of the court. We walked think it’ll deteriorate for another towards them, mounted them, sat on hundred thousand years, so I don’t thinkthem, and watched. you and I have to worry too much about In front of us, a woman is at work that sort of bubbling. It must not be at a table. She’s doing something crafty cleaned off, that’s the point. Because and engrossing with sellotape and it’s rare doesn’t necessarily mean it’s isolated measures of pencil lead. My valuable. But I find it very difficult to hand in my pocket feels for the grey stick value. I know about the Osbourne house I was handed before this whole thing began, and I realise that it’s pencil lead piece, I know about one or two other or graphite, which is also the purest pieces recorded in museums, but I do know form of coal. The woman is addressing there’s a piece in the London trade at us. Telling us about the last time she the moment, which is by the same maker was here in this sports-hall. It was to but not signed, it just comes with a record a TV show apparently. Her Dad, family provenance ... and that helps me it turns out, used to work for the BBC, arrive at a value for this. What’s did and they came here in the 90’s to shoot an episode of the Antiques Road Show. you pay for it? Locals brought their treasure, hoping for news from the experts that their junk NON-EXPERT: Well, I, I can’t honestly remember, but thirty years ago I don’t was their fortune. One woman brought a large black Victorian table. The think it was probably more than about presenter asked her if she knew what twenty pounds. it was made of? “Coal” she exalts, like a good student. “Parrot coal” says the EXPERT: Right. Well the one in London isexpert. A video of this exact extract from on the retail market at, I can’t apply the Antiques Road Show is projected that to yours but it gives an indication, onto a large screen back-dropping the speaker. As the footage plays she moves in a very high quality shop, at over out of sight, and we watch in the warmth forty thousand pounds! of familiarity as the expert antique dealer tells the regular Joe Soap that NON-EXPERT: <very long pause> Staggering. she’s in fact in possession of a priceless artefact made of a unique material of almost magical properties, and valued at <VIDEO ENDS> over forty thousand pounds.
just like any object designed for a specific use, a building always imagines the people whoâ€™ll use it.
The speaker returns, making gestures as she speaks. Her dad used to tell her, she says, about how marvellous things can come from mundane things. About how some things are always there and have been all along. We just have to find them. It’s touching. Another video, this one describing a substance called graphene, plays on the screen. Graphene is a recently discovered super-material. It comes from graphite, like the little bar I’m holding in my hand in my pocket. People know where it is, and what it can do. You can make small amounts of it by sticking sellotape onto graphite, but a solution for massproducing the wonder-substance has not yet been achieved. But some day it will be. And then we’ll be making things from coal again, says the speaker. Her circling hand gestures are making sense. I’m thinking about glitches in the Matrix. She must have planted this idea, surely. At a certain moment, we’re off! We plod en masse into a squashcourt bathed in red light. Here a guitarist with an electric guitar plugged into an extension socket is strumming in the corner. An image moves across the width of the walls, tracking lines and markings, those of this room I’m guessing. It reminds me of a road movie, but splayed out across the floor. In real life, the guitarist plays something I think I should recognise. I’m lured into a gently rockabilly sway, and I look around the room. Some people know this song for sure; others are completely bemused, not just at the sound and the visuals, but at the very fact of their own presence in this scenario. I get the good feeling, before we move to a canteen area where a spread of funereal fare is laid before us like a harvest offering.
The food is getting my attention. The group politely congregate around the laden tables and I hover near the trays of sandwiches. One woman (was she the guide?) raises a cup to the cafetière. This is a signal, we can eat. I guess the performance is over. I gingerly fill my fists with little triangular sandwiches and try to stand somewhere inconspicuous. There’s tea too, and coffee, and cake, and fruit. A splendid ending to a wondrous series of events, I think. I decide between tuna and egg salad. Suddenly I hear music. Loud and friendly and familiar and coming from behind closed doors – there are lights too – disco lights! Been working, so hard, the double doors open into yet another hall, and inside a lone teenager is warming up for a dance. I hear the familiar rhythm of a Kenny Loggins classic, but it’s not quite getting to the bits I’m expecting. The teenager is wearing black spandex with pink highlights. She looks like an extra from Fame, but the leg-warmers might be my own invention. Amidst the crowd of embarrassed nibblers and snackcollectors, caught unawares while biting into their cucumber sandwiches, the teenage girl launches into the centre of the room, and starts to rehearse her routine. An upbeat, hi-energy number; the performer knows all the moves in the sequence, and goes through them duly. There is something incredibly awkward about this arrangement of people. The parish picnic helps the scene along and suddenly I’m back at the school disco. Remembering all those things that never even happened. Again. Kate Strain
A leisure complex, a promenade performance event, by Dennis McNulty, took place at Carnoustie Leisure Centre, Carnoustie on 25 October 2014. Commissioned as part of All Sided Games, by Collective with support from Creative Scotland. Dennis McNulty’s practice is supported by the Arts Council of Ireland.
Performers (in order of appearance) GREETER Frances Stacey SKATER Suzie Beith NARRATOR Caroline Deyga GUITARIST Martin Barrett TEENAGER Erin Cooper Concept and script Dennis McNulty Producer Catherine Sadler Assistant Producer James Bell Director Dennis McNulty Floral Arrangement Maureen Bremner Lighting Steve Page Lighting Additional A/V WarPro Sound Jack Coghill Video documentation Alan McIlarth & Michal Zagorski Transport Manwithvan.info Music Runaway Boys The Stray Cats One More Kiss, Dear Peter Skellern/ Vangelis (from the soundtrack to Bladerunner) Mystery Train Junior Parker Footloose Kenny Loggins (from the soundtrack to Footloose) Under PRS for music licence Copyright remains with the copyright holders
Parrot Coal sample courtesy National Mining Museum Scotland Antiques Roadshow footage courtesy the BBC Episode aired 7 February 1999 © BBC 2014 Thanks Sarah Browne | Maeve Connolly | Sarah Cook | Hazel Cook, Phil Brown and staff at Carnoustie Library | Alistair Crozier | Paul Cunningham at Monifeith High School | Dancebase | Linda Doyle | Jessica Foley | Fiona Forbes at Angus Centre for Performing Arts | Betty Gibson at Dibble Tree Theatre | Kay Grant at Angus Council | Landmarc | Lindsey Hanlon at BBC Scotland | Kirkcaldy Museum | Adam Lockhart | Dave McGurk | James McNulty | Lynsey Anderson & Alison Shepherd at National Mining Museum Scotland | Rachel Broadley at Only Lanyards | Mr Robertson | Siobhan Lawson at Rollerstop | Jacqui Ross | Harry Roy | Kaye Rudd | Steve Smith from The Accelerators | Andy Slater | The Tennessee Hotshots Special thanks Jesse Jones Extra special thanks Derek Whamond, Laura Johns, Adele Morrison and everyone at Carnoustie Leisure Centre for their incredible support Publication design: Peter Maybury
Kate Strain (b. Dublin, 1983) pursues a curatorial practice through event and exhibition making. Currently Acting Curator at Project Arts Centre, she recently completed de Appel Curatorial Programme 2013/14 in Amsterdam. She holds an MA in Visual Arts Practice from IADT Dun Laoghaire, and a BA in History, and the History of Art and Architecture from Trinity College Dublin. Recent exhibitions include Clerk of Mind, a solo exhibition by Chris Evans; and The Centre For Dying On Stage #1, a group exhibition at Project Arts Centre, Dublin; Father, Can’t You See I’m Burning? at de Appel Arts Centre, Amsterdam; and Tonight, you can call me Trish (co-curated with Rachael Gilbourne under the aegis of their joint curatorial practice RGKSKSRG) at the LAB, Dublin. On-going projects include On Curating Histories – a research project and generative lecture series supported by an Arts Council of Ireland Project Award.