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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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