I stood outside the gallery for a few moments longer than I would have normally. I'd never been to a Reactor Function event before, and despite myself I was nervous. I'd heard stories of people being taken off by shadowy figures and having unspeakable things done to them. I don't know if I was dreading this happening to me or if I ... wanted it ...
The masked figure at the door ticked my name off the list and let me in, and I realised that the entrance space was unusually full of people. We were being herded forward with no way to escape. There was the unnerving feeling that we were cattle being led to the slaughter.
I was surreptitiously given a way out - someone handed me a card offering me the chance to take part in a cultural experience, I snuck off up the stairs to a room covered with exotic fabric to be greeted by a man speaking an Asian-sounding language. Through gestures he led me through a series of rituals, answering my questions with polite but firm gibberish. I felt out of my depth and angry that I didn't know what was going on - echoing the experience of being introduced to rigid cultural practices as a child.
By the time I emerged, everyone else had moved into the main exhibition space with AuntyNazi barking arbitrary rules at them such as only ten people being allowed in the bar at one time, and announcing that the event had 'started'. The audience stood around with almost identical expressions of mild fear. I realised I probably shared this, and distracted myself by looking around.
The layout of the show was much like any ordinary exhibition, with individual performances going on in discrete areas, and the space as a whole had not been altered. Works included a picnic where audience members read a jumbled argument from an autocue; an artist who spent most of the event on the floor, moving at timed intervals; a man standing in an alcove turning with a camera in his mouth, his body partly obscured and recreated by screens; someone explaining how their plastic polar bear was a van; a rambling talk; and a (possibly) live typed commentary.
What really brought the event to life were the complementary performances by Reactor and AuntyNazi. The latter, with crude masks and loud proclamations demanded most attention, but if you focused on the surface alone you'd miss their own subversion of authority. Every demand for obedience to Health & Safety laws was accompanied by dangerous behaviour; every announcement of a new activity from the timetable was combined with muddled flicking through notebooks.
Meanwhile, in the background, Reactor could be seen ushering people through a door, followed by disconcerting bangs and screams; and moving scary-looking objects that seemed destined for use in violence and intimidation. Finally they shepherded us into a room, built up the terror by filling the room with smoke, and eventually let us escape into the street through a window.
Gratuitous non sequitur to be used as a quote: Lies, confusion and shouting - some of my favourite media.
© Ana Milgram 2005
Every now and then, for my whole life, I got this thing where I felt odd. The best way to describe it is to say that I felt like I was detached from the world like about a foot back from where I actually was. That and feeling like I wasn't myself. Whenever it happened I'd feel like that for several weeks before it wore off.
Then a friend of mine who sticks needles in me in the name of acupuncture told me there was a reason (a husband/wife block - whatever that means) and fixed it in about an hour.
So when I turned up to Reactor's Function V event (That's V for 5), guest curated by Auntynazi, feeling all husband/wife blocky and like I wasn't myself, what happened next was quite unexpected.
As around thirty "audience" members stood around on the slipway in the entrance to Spectacle, and while a guy in a cardboard mask (Luke) crouched, tapping a twelve foot length of drainpipe with a sledgehammer, another guy in a mask leapt up on top of a ten foot high pile of packing crates while introducing himself (Daniel) and Luke and the show while giving a general health and safety talk while the pile of crates swayed under his weight. During this time Daniel popped a lens from his glasses that fell to the floor and made a big fuss about it. A friend of mine called Ed bent down to look for the lens and I went over to help too. I can only guess that this was the reason why Daniel then leapt to the floor, threw his arm over my shoulder and proclaimed to the audience that I was called Steed. And it made sense.
It occurred to me later that Ed had worked with Reactor before and may have been an undercover performer.
One rule: Ten people maximum in the bar area at any one time.
At various intervals people could be seen both leading members of the audience out of the back door (we joked that they were being led off to a gas chamber) and carrying assorted objects through the gallery and out of the same back door; fire extinguishers, ammunition boxes, etc.
I found the whole experience quite disorientating, so therefore, for clarity...
Performances I actually noticed:
1] The main AuntyNazi performance of compering involving the renaming of audience members, announcements about the show, and dangerous health & safety announcements. Also, the bit where Daniel walked up and down gesticulating wildly while shouting "This is a background performance" and variations thereof for about five minutes.
2] A woman called Tina who had two TV/VCRs set up as autocues while she and various other audience/participants ate sandwiches while reading the dialogue aloud. I was so busy trying to remember to keep my mouth full of sandwich and keep up with the text that I have no idea what any of the dialogue was.
3] There was a woman in the bar area drawing portraits of people and, I think, talking to them, then sticking the pictures on the bar room wall.
4] A projection in the bar area appeared to be a description of people passing though the space, but someone told me it was playing off a laptop somewhere and was pre-recorded. I didn't believe them.
5] A guy dressed like a tired ballet dancer looking through a toilet roll; unrolling it as he turned in quarter turns while two videos played a live rotation and a recorded rotation of the same space.
There was one scary moment when Luke put his hand on my back and asked if I was ready, several times, in the dark. I wondered what was going to come. Then he rushed off to open the lift doors for...
6] A monologue by someone in a scary mask that sounded like a cross between Alfred Hitchcock and Bill Hicks in the dark with a torch, but his mini disk broke down (on purpose?) and when he asked if it was ok I reassured him.
7] An attic space like a kind of ashram where a guy called Harminder was just ending whatever it was he'd been doing (I think Ana had seen him earlier).
I went outside to show someone what I thought was a red lynx on the building next door and noticed some reactor guys carrying the same fire extinguishers, ammunition boxes, etc. as earlier out of the back door again and putting them in the back of a van. "Oh, I see".
I pointed out to Jude (made up name) the security guard that at one point there were more than ten people in the bar area and he told me that most of them were reactor and therefore did not count.
The whole event was a very interesting experience that I still feel like thinking about more and that was a week ago. If there's ever a Function VI, I'll definitely go, but I still want to know if the woman in the red jacket who was on the phone all night was dictating what was being projected on the bar room wall.
The finale was frankly the best way of getting the audience to leave a show that I have ever seen. We were herded into a back room and locked in. There was red light, a box in the middle of the floor with hazard tape around it, and an announcer telling us there was a count down to something explosive. The box kind of exploded in a lame way, but then smoke started pouring in through a vent and I thought about the earlier gas chamber 'joke'.
Then a loading bay four feet off the ground was opened up onto the pavement outside and everyone clambered out onto the street. Baffled. I wasn't sure if I was still Steed or Stuart again.
© Stuart Milgram 2005
Reactor Function V curated by AuntyNazi at Spectacle Gallery, Works by Roman Alaska, Auntynazi, Joanna Callaghan, Tina Carter, Robin Close, Katherine Cooper, Katie Doubleday, Nick Holloway, Harminder Judge, Reactor and Jonathan Waring, Saturday 13th August 2005
Spectacle Gallery, 38 Freeth Street, Ladywood, Birmingham