Commissioned Text: Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt on The Keeners

Oct 2015

Five women, each dressed in a tight black shirt and bustled black skirt, walk onto a mirrored surface and begin to silently enact the postures of deep grief – lying prone on the floor; bent at the waist; eyes covered with outfacing hands; arms aloft in supplication to an unseen power.

One of the five sits before a cello and taps a bow against its strings, inaudibly at first. As the thrum deepens, another of the five begins to speak. ‘I would keen, I would keen, I would keen,’ she intones, a feminised town crier. ‘I would keen for the loss of time and space to the entity that has been created by mobile phones and the internet. I would keen for the loss of freedom for children to play on their own and roam outside or to climb high in trees’. The tense is future conditional, but those assembled understand that the losses identified relate to the here and now. Shrouded in mustard satin, blinded, one of the five forcibly comforts the most bereft of the group, squeezing ululations of sadness from the depths of her diaphragm to humorous effect. The shroud – orange now – becomes a forensic sheet.

Two of the five lament separate losses simultaneously, competing with each other and with low-flying aircraft. Occasional phrases resolve into comprehension – the loss of dictums to consumerism, the loss of a favourite haunt to developers. The other three gouge grey clay from yellow buckets. They give form to their loss – indecipherable to all but themselves – in a bid to appease it. As words swell in the middle distance, clay slaps onto the mirrored surface and slithers for a while until three losses become one, a problem shared.

A four-part harmony bemoans the adoption of neoliberal hetero-normative ideals, the sexualisation of women in the music industry and the intimacy lost between humans in the neocolonial order of take and take. The five finally mourn in synchronicity. Skirts are rolled up, shrouds are turned pink, cast off and slammed defiantly to the floor; the mood lightens.

The performance described above took place in London Fields on a sunny Saturday in September.

In the weeks leading up to the performance, the artist Florence Peake had solicited details of any losses experienced within cultural life, in the broadest sense, on the understanding that ‘The loss can be small or large; something personal you feel has been taken over by the corporate world through commodification and/or used solely for the agenda of capitalism’. Around fifty such losses were submitted and anonymised.

The losses that flowed in from diverse sources were heartfelt and passionate; some were blunt, others lyrical. They were recited equitably, with the same emphasis being given to absent underarm hair as to the inappropriate expansionism evinced by curator Jens Hoffmann in a car advertisement. They captured the hopelessness and despair that predated the Corbyn era. They encapsulated the alienation of late capitalism, in which everything can be recuperated – even, as Peake concedes, a traditional act of mourning.

Keening refers specifically to the practice of wailing in grief. The Keeners is premised on the ancient tradition of communal mourning, which found its way into Celtic society. Carefully orchestrated and accompanied by a harp, Irish funereal keening historically combined individual chanting with a doleful chorus, becoming more improvised ­– and professionalised – but no less melancholy or musical as the years progressed.

Appropriated by the women of Greenham Common peace camp marching upon Parliament, keening is a resolutely matrilineal practice. It confers respect upon the female expression of emotion, reclaiming it from the demonisation of hysteria. It is a gesture of sharing and support, rather than delegation and exemption. It defies the dominant language of productivity to revel in the expression of collapse.

In his book, Stop Thief! The Commons, Enclosures and Resistance, Peter Linebaugh describes how almost every society was founded upon the commons – the sharing of land and labour – with commodities, and the individualism they implied, being kept at a safe distance. After centuries of enclosure and expropriation, this picture has been inverted, with tiny fragments of the commons remaining as an oasis in a sea of capital. London Fields is one such fragment, a third of its original size, having served as grazing land until being designated a park in 1540. The surrounding borough of Hackney lies at the heart of the housing bubble, with the average price of homes reaching £500,000 in December 2013. Accordingly, the demographics of the park have shifted.

The losses submitted to Peake convey the difficulty of navigating terrain in which culture and capital continually reinforce each other. This is a city in which a property company might commission artwork about empty space in a gallery attached to a marketing suite for high-end flats or a property developer might display a sculpture of a homeless person in his foyer. This is a borough in which artists have been complicit in social cleansing. And, just as the tragedy of this paradox is held in common, so too is its expression. On communal ground, we are incited to reflect upon the changes that have taken place, within society and living memory, which detract from our existence. Cutting through the cynicism of our time, Peake’s keeners personify this spiritual loss with conviction, empathy and just a hint of playfulness.