2020 Bermuda Biennial Performance

Centipede Art Movement

The Power of Performance Art

Centipede Art Movement is a grass roots collaborative conceived by staff and students at the Bermuda College. The guerilla movement, which was founded in 2014, aims to promote contemporary Bermudian art and create a space for local artists to work together.

With a focus on performance art, Centipede Art Movement aspires to disrupt what it describes as “Bermuda’s culture of censorship.” Their work is often both a feat of endurance (performances last between 8 and 24 hours in duration) and a testament to the power of repetition and shared labor in building a community.

Much like their namesake, Centipede describes itself as existing “under the rocks and between the ideals of Bermuda.” We spoke to the group, who exhibited in both the 2018 and 2020 Bermuda Biennials, about disruption, the perils of unconscious conformity and how “performance art invites us to be present in the moment.”

Top: Centipede Art Movement’s inaugural performance Working For Nothing, 2014. Above: 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork 100 Cuts by Centipede Art Movement, 2020. Wood, performance. Photograph by Maetog.

BNG: The Centipede Art Movement was founded in 2014. Why did you decide to create a collaborative and how was it established?  

CAM: We were hanging out in the Bermuda College Art Department, joking about having a “team of super heroes” or a “secret society” to help us create all the bizarre, provocative, physically impossible, and ridiculously expensive art we dreamed of. We were a group of nerds playing chess and arguing about cartoon characters, but we recognized a need; contemporary Bermudian art needed to be championed.

Where is the Bermudian art that illuminates our fears and failures? Where is the art that celebrates our unique character and triumphs? Where is the art that calls us to action? Where is the art that incites us?

The world is insular. Capitalism isolates us. We are inundated with the expectation to win, to be the best, to be the only winner. We are fed the tempting fantasy that any one of us could have everything, as long as we work harder, outcompete, and manipulate, everyone else. This is especially apparent in a hyper-capitalist society like Bermuda’s. It is very difficult for us to support each other because we are programmed to defend ourselves by defeating each other.

Collaboration is the only antithesis to the isolation imposed by our need to be the winner. Imagine what would be possible if we worked together instead of putting so much energy into making sure others don’t get what we have.

BNG: Why Centipede? 

CAM: We chose to be centipedes for the same reason Batman became a bat; because we are afraid of them! Fear is the inspiration for bravery. If we are ever going to challenge anything we need the courage to face it.

That’s where the name started, but it solidified as we realized how well it described us. Centipedes are very Bermudian. They are ingrained in our social consciousness as dangerous, unwanted, resilient, powerful, and reclusive. We exist under the rocks and between the ideals of Bermuda.

BNG: The movement aims to “support art and artists that might not otherwise have expression”. Which artists are you referring to and how does Centipede give them a voice? 

CAM: Bermuda has a culture of censorship. As embarrassing as it is that police removed Manuel Palacio’s painting from Harbor Nights, the truly terrifying thing is our self-censorship. We have a deeply ingrained compulsion to “not rock the boat”.  We only feel safe when accepted by the status quo. Where is the art that expresses the individual Bermudian experience? It is aborted in the hearts of Bermudian artists by the fear that our perspective is invalid without acceptance.

Our dream is to support truly contemporary Bermudian art; art that is so personal and conscious it becomes globally and historically relevant. Who are the artists that are brave and aroused enough to make that art? Good question.

BNG: How many members are there? How do you recruit artists to the movement? 

CAM: We are not that organized! We don’t have meetings, or members really, or a budget, or even a manifesto. To be totally honest, we exist less as a “movement” and more as a hope. We hope that Bermudians can find the courage to make relevant avant-garde art.

If you want Bermudian art to pull back the curtain on our systemic compliance, if you want to make art that will shake us until we are awake, then you are a Centipede.

2018 bermuda biennial labour agreement by centipede art movement
2018 Bermuda Biennial artwork Labour Agreement by Centipede Art Movement. Performance.

BNG: You have said that Centipede was conceived as a guerilla movement “which means that we can operate within or without the validation of galleries or social expectations.” Why is this important? 

CAM: Obviously we aren’t invading public spaces and staging happenings with any regularity, but we are in pursuit of liberty. We need the capacity to act. Action (or creation) is the tool people use to establish their place in the world. Your actions prove you are present.

We should all be aware that communication is navigation. In order to share your point of view with someone you need to understand where they are coming from. You need to know what they fear and what excites them. We also need to be conscious of, and responsible for our own motivation. That’s a lot of moving and subjective parts that need to be piloted to make communication possible. It requires a lot of courage and empathy. If you are arrested by the need for validation, or afraid to operate outside what is expected, you are conforming not expressing. New ideas exist outside current philosophies.

BNG: Centipede Art Movement has now exhibited in 2 Bermuda Biennials (2020 and 2018). How does this impact on the sentiment above? In what ways? 

CAM: We are not accusing any galleries of censorship. We are not looking for enemies, quite the opposite, we are looking for people to support. An individual gallery, auction house, or critic could operate as an authority or a gatekeeper. It is possible for any institution to be corrupt, but that corrupt governing body exists within, and is victim to, the larger system of validation and expectation we all conform to. 

Centipede is most afraid of self-imposed censorship, especially unconscious conformity. The Bermuda Biennial is a valuable opportunity to publicly share artwork that exists outside local expectation. Of course, there are issues of validation in anything juried, but these are the issues we need to navigate if we want to communicate.

BNG: Your inaugural work, Working For Nothing, was a 24-hour performance piece that looked at the impact of shared experience and its role in creating community. Could you please tell us about the performance and why you choose it as your first artwork.  

CAM: Six of us went to Warwick Long Bay one day in 2014. We dug a hole in the beach above the high tide line. For the next 24 hours we took turns walking back and forth to the ocean with two bright yellow buckets, diligently trying to fill that hole with water. It was a futile mission by design. The task was to fill the hole, but our goal was to commit to the task.

It was backbreaking work. The buckets were heavy. The water drained away almost as fast as we could pour it in. The sun was blistering, but the night was shockingly cold. Waiting for your turn was somehow more exhausting than doing the work. The sand shifted under our feet, in fact the footprints of the person before you made the trek uneven and difficult.

It was a grueling task, but our commitment endured and we flourished. At some point someone must have shuffled their feet and the erratic, treacherous foot holes coalesced into a clear path. Someone lit a fire to huddle around sharing stories while we cheered on our team. Visitors joined in while they could, some carrying water, some making the fire, others cooking us food. Some worked with us for hours, deep into the night, suffering our futility with us just to be a part of something.

It was beautiful. Only a handful of people were aware of what we were doing, but for those of us involved it was a powerful experience. We felt a part of something very old and true. It was the formation of tribe. We were a band of souls collaborating to give our fleeting and futile experience meaning. 

Working for Nothing by Centipede Art Movement, 2014. Performance.

BNG: Your performances take place over a long period time – Working for Nothing continuously over 24 hours, while Labour Agreement (2018 Bermuda Biennial) and 100 Cuts (2020 Bermuda Biennial) each took 8 hours. All works also involve repetitive action. Why are these two elements important and how does the experience – for both the artists involved and the audience – change over such an extended period of time? 

CAM: One of the goals of endurance work is to invite the participants to consider their experience of time. Someone famous said “music is the decoration of time”. You could extrapolate that idea to your entire life. You could see your life as time to decorate with experiences. The question is, “What is the value of decoration?” If the things we fill our lives with only have relevance to us individually, and only while we are experiencing them, do they have any meaning?

Another goal of endurance work is to explore resolve. Resolve is the desire to do something fused with the determination to do it. Resolve is the evidence you truly believe something is worth doing.

In any endurance piece, the futility and repetition of the task (the futility of your existence) is being contrasted with your resolve. We are asking you if you matter. 

BNG: How is performance art, which is rarely seen in Bermuda, embraced by the local community? 

CAM: Performance art is often used as an antiestablishment tool. The idea is to take the art off the “sanctioned and revered” space of the gallery wall and bring it into the “real world” where it can immediately affect circumstance. Performance art invites us to be present in the moment. It can be terrifying and dangerous in the safest and most progressive environments; in fact it is usually designed to be shocking and provocative.

It’s no surprise that in a society of taboo and self-censorship, performance art is largely ignored, disqualified, and misunderstood. Many people don’t see it as art, or even notice it. During Labour Agreement a lot of people believed we were genuine City of Hamilton workers and ignored us as they would ignore any custodian.  

While we were doing Working for Nothing some brave visitors participated as we said, but very few people noticed us. In fact one woman put her foot in the hole as she walked through with her friend. It was around 18 inches deep at that point, and about 5 feet across, with adults steadily walking back and forth with highly visible yellow buckets. Despite all those obstacles she stepped right in and out of the hole without breaking her stride. We ended up doing 100 Cuts in relative seclusion, so most of those visitors were actively looking to learn about or experience a performance piece.

We’ve had the full range of responses and participation you would expect for performance art and the experiences have been profound for us at the least, but we could not say “performance art is embraced by the local community.”

Centipede art movement 2020 bermuda biennial
Detail from 2020 Bermuda Biennial artwork 100 Cuts by Centipede Art Movement. Wood, performance.

BNG: Has the contemporary art scene in Bermuda changed in the 6 years since Centipede was founded? In what ways? 

Bermuda is rich and fertile. We have a deep dirty past, strong resourceful people, and a fragile tranquil veneer we’re invested in preserving. There is plenty of fuel for the art fire. There are many Bermudian artists who aren’t just talented but are also conscious and hungry. The tide is shifting, there are more and more examples of visceral and inspired local artworks. The challenge is we feel unwelcome. We feel isolated. We still feel lucky to be heard or accepted.

BNG: What is next for Centipede? 

CAM: That’s obvious. We re-read this interview. We realize we have some great ideas. We remember how passionate we are about those ideas, those hopes, and those dreams. We get inspired! We remember our resolve! Who knows, maybe we’ll even start recruiting?

Click here to find out more about Centipede Art Movement


The Spoken Word

Tiffany Paynter

Tiffany Paynter describes herself, in the words of feminist writer and Civil Rights activist Audre Lorde, as ‘a black lesbian woman poet warrior.’ The artist, who teaches poetry and creative writing, exhibited God Gap in the 2018 Bermuda Biennial What We Share.

The spoken word poem, which Tiffany performed at the BNG every week throughout the duration of the exhibition, was a response to the repeal of the gay marriage act that took place in Bermuda the previous year.

In the poem Tiffany uses the emotions that it conjured to examine “the Why where science ends and God begins.” She describes it as a medium through which she was able “to weld my joy to my pain and my love to my anger in such a way that made clear that I am a whole and hallowed human.”

In the same year, Tiffany presented the BBC documentary Bermuda’s Change Of Heart for the BBC World Service which investigates the dichotomies between our Christian and LGBTQ+ communities that led to Bermuda becoming the first country to repeal gay marriage.

Ahead of what should have been the second Bermuda Pride parade this weekend (cancelled to help prevent the spread of Covid-19), we caught up with Tiffany to discuss her experience as a gay woman in Bermuda, how the writing of Audre Lorde shaped her and how “when you sprinkle in craft with insight something powerful emerges.”

BNG: In your artist statement for the 2018 Bermuda Biennial you say that God Gap was inspired by Audre Lorde and the “comfort and discomfort experienced in her poems”. When did you discover her work and how has she impacted your own?

TP: When Lorde asked, “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own…” I felt like she was speaking directly to me. Her voice felt like it was mine; sounding out itself from the inside out. It was almost like a new me was being spoken into existence.

I was 18 or 19 when I discovered Audre Lorde in my first year of university at Queen’s. I had planned to become a lawyer and took a Women’s Studies (now Gender Studies) class and one of the assigned readings was Lorde’s Sister Outsider. After I read her essays, something inside me began to shift.

She was fearless, poetic and introspective. Lorde weaved together the spiritual, political and personal in a way that made her truth irresistible. I started to scrutinise my ideas of what life is, was and should be…to hold myself up against the light and delve deeply into what was truly me as opposed to the idea of me I had created to survive. It is because of Lorde that when I write, I strive for that same fearlessness in unveiling my inner and outer worlds.

Audre Lorde photographed by Robert Alexander for Getty Images .

BNG: You performed God Gap at the Bermuda National Gallery every week during the 2018 Bermuda Biennial. What was that experience like?

TP: Despite having the poem memorized, I was nervous every time. Sometimes when I’d get to the gallery there would be people waiting to hear me perform. At other points, I’d just start and unsuspecting people in the gallery would be startled and gather around or stop where they stood and give their attention.

It was always better when people would engage after. The best moment by far was on June 6th. I remember that date because my partner was waiting on the City Hall steps to give me the news that our Surpreme Court had struck down the ruling banning same-sex marriages. It’s hard to explain but that day the words felt more alive to me and I performed that day with so much joy in my heart.

Click the image above to listen to God Gap by Tiffany Paynter.

BNG: You have described spoken word poetry as an invitation to listen and once said that ideas alone will not change the world, we have to feel our way free. Why is spoken word poetry so powerful?

TP: I don’t think all spoken word poetry is powerful. But great poetry is powerful. I think all great poetry comes from a place or space of seeing or insight. When you sprinkle in craft and mnemonic devices with insight, something powerful emerges. Power isn’t always a tidal wave. Sometimes power is subtle, like the pull of the moon at high tide. Poetry is powerful when it reaches into us and bridges that feeling of disconnection or separateness.

Nothing really reaches as deeply as sound. Spoken word poetry is imbued with this extra potency because sound is potent. That’s why so many creation stories start with it! Whether you believe that Aum was the primordial sound, or a ‘Big Bang’ created the world, or that God said “Let there be light”, there is something to be said about the power of word sounded out.

BNG: In your 2011 TED x Bermuda talk Dare To Dream you perform Daddy, an impactful piece which describes the breakdown in your relationship with your father when you came out. What has your experience been as a gay woman in Bermuda?

TP: My experience at first was very difficult because my parents kicked me out of the house. At 19 I was and felt homeless for a short period of time, before a gay couple took me in. I didn’t actually come out to my parents, my older sister outed me. I felt betrayed both by her and my parents for many years. It was rough at first, not because of how society at large viewed me or treated me, but because of my own family’s limiting beliefs and homophobia. Overtime, after several arguments and difficult conversations, stronger bridges were rebuilt over all those burnt bridges and I feel closer to my family now than I ever have.

BNG: Your 2018 BBC documentary Bermuda’s Change Of Heart looks at the strains between the Christian and LGBTQ+ communities in Bermuda that led to the repeal of the gay marriage act in 2017. Although this has since been overturned, the government plans to take it to the Privy Council. How can we overcome these differences?

TP: Let’s first define this ‘we’ as humans. It seems like as long as ‘we’ humans have lived on this planet we have created and invested in both subtle and devastating ways of making some human lives more valuable than others. Throughout every century, since before we began counting centuries, we humans have found creative justifications to oppress others.

Most often the oppressed become oppressors and while we feel the heel of oppression on our own neck we fail to ask ourselves, “Whose neck am I standing on?”. It’s a special kind of insanity that we pass from generation to generation, just like we pass down glaucoma. This inability to see. To see our contribution to the same problems we claim we wish would change. We agree to divide ourselves. Muslim – Hindu. Bermudian – Non-Bermudian. Straight – Gay. Black – White. Man – Woman. Rich – Poor.

This need to divide, define and place value on, is so deeply entrenched in human culture that we destroy our planet and ourselves. This is what we’ve done, what we’re doing and what we’ll continue to do for as long as we avoid or postpone profound, continuous and enduring self-reflection.

The Bermuda Pride parade captured by @flyinghighmedia via @bermudapride.

BNG: Last year saw Bermuda’s first Pride Parade, 50 years after the Stonewall uprising first sparked the gay rights movement. What was your experience of it?

TP: It was one of the happiest moments in my life because my younger brother and my niece walked with me. Don’t get me wrong the colours, music and energy made it an amazing event. About 5,000 more people showed up than I thought would be there! But if I had walked with 6,000 strangers without a single family member, it would not have meant as much to me. I love my family and I’ve always believed that part of showing love is showing up and my brother showed up. He was a long way out of his comfort zone and that is love. Love needs more parades.

BNG: 6,000 people turned up for the inaugural Pride parade, which equated to 1 in 10 people in Bermuda. What impact has it had on gay rights and the acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in Bermuda?

TP: I imagine that leading up to the parade, a lot of families were having difficult conversations around the dinner table and I think lasting acceptance and healing begins in conversation. For instance, leading up to the parade, I witnessed my friend and her mother have a difficult discussion about the other’s version of events surrounding her coming out. And although there were still painful memories and disagreement I felt a shift in her mom. On the day of the parade her mother, father, and brother were there in matching outfits. Her dad even donned a rainbow cape! The impact of that is beautiful and rare.

BNG: What are you working on currently?

TP: At the moment I’m working on my website and I’m trying to memorise a new poem called Ode to Kairos Lover of Dinosaurs. It’s a poem about my godchild and how she sees the world versus how the world will see her. Stay tuned for both of them.