The sound of heavy breathing from the gent’s toilet fills the dark corridor, simultaneously comical and threatening. The smell of mildew hangs in the air and the light that has stolen into the building is reflected in the inch of water covering the floor of the facing room. At one end of the corridor, grass grows from decaying floor tiles under sudden sunlight; at the other, a woman in white is dancing silently behind glass on the half-landing on the way back up to the comparative safety of the ground floor. It’s Saturday afternoon on High Street Ken.
This is Fruit for the Apocalypse’s Common Sounds, Touching the Void, a series of installations and dance pieces that for one weekend animated the disused galleries, meeting rooms and corridors of the Commonwealth Institute, ‘the most important public building in Britain of the late 1950s.’ Sitting at the bottom of Holland Park, fronting onto the High Street, the building hides behind a copse of unused flag poles and its own overgrown gardens. Although only abandoned sixteen years ago, it is already looking very dishevelled. It is soon to be reborn as the new home of the Design Museum – which makes both the Design Museum and Londoners very lucky – but for now it is deliciously derelict and the perfect setting for a series of hit and miss artistic interventions.
Perhaps very little of the art (performance and otherwise) would stand up to scrutiny in any another setting. Certainly, the opening piece, Junk Mail, was completely underwhelming, while a piece of music, hung on a guitar, a violin, a female voice and a bureaucrat with a megaphone, was pretty mesmeric to me. Some, but by no means not all, of the choreography was haphazard, although walking past a subterranean corridor and glimpsing a small group of white clad dancers moving silently in the gloom is striking no matter how accomplished or otherwise the performance. And the staged dance piece in the basement cinema was striking, even as the inky darkness of the invisible space was unnerving.
But, whatever weaknesses there were in the work on show, they could all be forgiven, since the star of the piece was undoubtedly the building itself. The central space, all tiered ellipses and floating staircases and diffused light cascading from the hyperbolic paraboloid of the roof, will make a glorious centre-piece to the new museum. It’s the kind of internal space at which Modern buildings excel (sorry, Gothic cathedrals and Victorian railway stations, but it’s not you). Even in its unkempt state, it is a magnificent building, made all the more enjoyable by the work of Fruit for the Apocalypse. If you’re interested, some photos of the event and the building interior are here.
It is always a joy when you get to see the riches of the city’s fabric – especially the hidden and forgotten – from a new perspective, but all the more so when London is not just the stage for, but a character in, the drama. The marvellous Dennis Sever’s house in Spitalfields is a captivating example, where the building itself (assisted by some recorded footsteps and muffled voices) is the only actor in a piece of immersive theatre. As you walk through the preserved/abandoned Georgian house, someone has just left the room, leaving their tea cup or needle work and the sound of their footsteps on the stair. You make the narrative by nosing around, reading the mail and studying the portraits. Without the advantage of a fine Georgian house, Punch Drunk managed to recreate a Victorian soup kitchen in a vacant shop unit on a 1960s parade in Hoxton for their latest production, The Uncommercial Traveller. A piece of immersive theatre where, in ones or twos, the punters talk to one of the characters over unpleasant vegetable soup, eliciting their stories through questions and polite conversation (since my exchange largely made me an accessory to conspiracy to murder, the conversation was painfully polite).
These things exist in other cities, I am sure. But the richness of London’s layers and scale makes the drama that emerges from its stones and concrete especially compelling, whether it is the contrived artifice of theatre groups or the accidental business of everyday life.