I can’t believe I had to go all the way to California to see a show by UK based Marcia Farquhar. Although I met her a few years back and Marcia is well known and respected by other live and performance art practitioners, I had not previously encountered her work. This is partly perhaps because as she remarked in the course of the eleven hour durational The Long Haul, she has not been ‘written about’ and further, ‘has no archive’. As a result I am not certain how long she has been making work or exactly when (as also indicated in The Long Haul) she studied at the Slade School of Art but while information on her website refers to work made in 1996, since my guess is that she graduated around the late 1970s/early 1980s, her career as an artist must go back much further.
Marcia arrived at Psi at Stanford University in Palo Alto still breathless from the Venice Biennale, where she performed Acts of Clothing and The Long Haul picked up some material from this piece which she seems to return to and re-work fairly regularly. However, it was primarily modelled on the 30 hour durational performer she gave as part of the celebrations for the 30th Anniversary in Glasgow of the National Review of Live Art in 2010.
I do not normally possess either the mental attitude or physical stamina for the long haul of durational performances so I popped into this event, scheduled against an extremely wide choice of papers and other performances, planning only to watch an hour or so, especially since a heat wave rendered the venue extremely hot and stuffy. Unexpectedly, I found myself making it the focal point of the day so that even with frequent breaks I must have seen around half of it and I still have lingering regrets over the parts I missed.
Marcia sometimes describes herself as a conceptual artist, sometimes as a ‘confabulist’, which actually amounts to much the same thing but this latter seems more apt to me because it sounds more entertaining. The Long Haul was unquestionably a ‘confabulation’. Basically, although she made various incursions into other activities (dancing, showing a short film about an earlier performance, reading out the opening scene from Beckett’s Happy Days and an article about sleep) for most of the eleven hours (the span of her plane journey to California ) Marcia told stories. These were autobiographical and prompted/illustrated by articles of clothing from her distinctive ‘retro’ wardrobe, or the various other ‘props’ (books, photos, make- up, a sheet, torches, e-cigarettes, and her collection of vinyl ‘45’ records) that she brought with her.
I missed the very start of the show when apparently, she played the Sex Pistols version of ‘God Save the Queen’ and when I entered the space she was wearing a tartan flamenco dress in honour of her Scottish/Spanish heritage and speaking about family Christmases when she was growing up. Amongst other things, this focused on an exuberant aunt whose husband was decapitated in India and this story thread climaxed with Marcia giving a demonstration of her (very) untrained version of the flamenco; a dance she says, particularly suited to older women.
Over the course of the next few hours family stories continued to feature alongside tales of encounters with strangers at the dry cleaners or in the bus, or stories relating to people she met growing up in her mother’s boarding house in London’s then more genuinely ‘bohemian’ Chelsea in the 1970s. These figures include David Bowie , Jonny Rotten, famous psychiatrist R. D Laing, various faded and fading actors and actresses, including a bed bound ex-film starlet who passed her days smoking and drinking whisky and looking at her cuttings. These stories in turn opened up onto those involving other stars who I am not sure Marcia she did actually meet, such as Vivian Leigh and Ava Gardner. Some of the material, Marcia admits has been planned, other parts are more spontaneous and reactive. For instance, despite (again) stating several times that she dislikes ‘audience participation’, the format of the show was affected by the movement of the spectators as she stopped to greet them as they entered the space, get them up to speed on the substance of the particular anecdote she was telling, or said goodbye as they left.
Although several times she also insisted she is ‘dedicated to a punch line’, these tales unfold by means of numerous diversions, digressions and distractions producing shifts of emotional registers between the comic, the tragic and the bathetic and piling up a mass of detail but which leaves some information hanging, assumed or mentioned fleetingly in passing. This simultaneously provides a sense of contiguous connection between these stories and one of dizzying uncontrollable, complication and this is re-enforced by the process of coming in and out of the show.
The ‘story so far’ technique used when new spectators ( or returnees) entered the space actually left a keen impression that something interesting and vital has been missed but more than anything else it was Marcia’s relation to the audience which provided a structure to the piece as a whole.
However, there were also some ‘themes’ that emerged at least for parts of the day. In the morning she declared that she wanted to ‘recalibrate hope’ and this seems connected to issues of mental health and to the challenges of the (gendered) process of aging (the long haul?). Marcia, who has recently gone Monroe style bottle blonde, clearly has no intention of fading quietly into the scenery with the on set of middle age, or even at her most low energy moments during the course of this show. She is rightly annoyed to have been described in an otherwise positive review of her Venice performance as ‘bustling on’ because this implies the opposite of her charm. Encapsulated by the quality of her wonderfully rich, gravelly voice and cut glass enunciation, this arises from the fact that like many of the figures in the stories she tells, she exudes a highly theatrical glamour combined with a certain vulnerability, exacerbated in this case by the physical demands of the piece. Much of her material suggest a keen (and ‘queer’) pleasure in the superficial ruses and artifices of femininity and she hints that in the past this has made her less than popular with certain types of feminists.
However, what I think actually makes her compelling as an artist, especially a woman artist,a figure so often historically trapped and constrained by femininity and yet perhaps challenging to some feminisms is that, as signalled by her playing of the Sex Pistols at the end as well as the start of the show, she also exudes a sense of potential for anarchy. Notably, during the show Marcia sets up ‘rules’ (about the promise of a punch line, audience participation, or anonymising the names of people she discusses who are still living) and then proceeds to break them. In fact the persona that comes across in The Long Haul is one that is highly sensitive to others but who not so much refuses to play by the ‘rules’ of conventional behaviour- whether these are general social conventions, or those of the art world, or of 1970s and 1980s feminism or indeed of ‘autobiography’, which is after all an attempt to impose narrative ‘order’ on the chaos of our experience- but simply does not recognise them in the first place.
This is a source of strength and glamour and of her vulnerability and means that while there is little in the show that could be deemed shocking or ‘transgressive’ despite her warmth and humour, it is never ‘safe’ or ‘cosy’. Rather there is a feeling that she is dancing on an edge which at any moment she might step over it taking us with her into something even more chaotic and perhaps much darker yet ‘liberating’. It is this sense of a tension on the brink of getting swept away to somewhere else in this eleven hour torrent of words that kept me watching and coming back to this fabulous confabulist throughout the long hot day in Palo Alto.