Art Gimp/ At the Mercy of the Young Dictator (Degree Final Year. June 2011)

Another hammer blow resounded through the chilly confines of the office. It was the signal to dunk my head once more. As I slipped beneath the numbing surface of the water, freshly squeezed from where it had lain dormant in February pipes, and heard on the recording that the whole thing didn’t really mean anything, I realised: “He’s only going to win a bloody prize for this”.

I first met Award-Winning Performance Artist Joe Frost just under three years ago, when he was still plain Joe Frost, fresh up from that London. I had no idea then that I would eventually be crouched over a box of water in a dim space on the fourth floor of Elizabeth House, having become his Art Gimp.

Grabbing onto the coat-tails of other Leeds Met Fine Art students, who had diligently applied and been accepted based on merit, a ragged handful also managed to gain entrance to the Departure Gallery Art Competition. The venue was Elizabeth House, an empty office building across the road from the Job Centre; a threat and a warning to the newly minted artist, a remedy against hubris.

Having no realistic expectation of winning myself and having continually reneged on a past offer to perform with Joe, I was first in the queue when he asked for three volunteers to help him with his piece. There was nobody behind me.

Joe’s plan was to sit behind a table, dressed in a suit, with a twenty pound note taped over his mouth. He would offer passers-by slices of cake while periodically banging a hammer on the table top. Three volunteers, crouched over water-filled containers, would submerge their heads when the hammer struck and would not raise them out until the hammer blow sounded again.

Half-an-hour is a long time to spend on your knees, shivering in your t-shirt, holding your breath underwater at the hammer-wielding behest of a besuited tyrant while everyone else gets cake.

How did he get me to agree to this? How did he manage to get a further two people to take on the Art Gimp mantle? How did he manage to persuade a fourth when, after he’d won his prize and everyone knew how cold it was, I took my leave?

Despite the lack of cake, terrible working conditions and exposure to ridicule, I’m curiously grateful to Joe. Art is not just made by people, it is made of people. Experiencing a piece of art is not restricted to looking at in a gallery; for the three Art Gimps, it became apparent that the performance did not just involve them, it was for them -there just happened to be some other people watching.

A piece written for the degree show publication, describing my experience as part of an art performance. ‘Art Gimp’ was my original and preferred title, but it was published as ‘At the Mercy of the Young Dictator’.

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