Pieces of Scarlet

Pieces of Scarlet, street performance, Chamberlain Square, B’ham City Centre, April 2001

Street performance made in Chamberlain Square, Birmingham in 2001. Wearing 50 layers of white underwear, each layer had a piece of scarlet cloth with a letter or symbol pinned to it. As each layer was removed a ‘piece of scarlet’ was given to a member of the public.

In past performances of working with the public on the streets, often included a interchange of some kind with the public- sometimes of gift or even simply as conversation. In this particular work the public were often surprised to be given something with no commercial value and nothing was explained.

Each piece of scarlet was a reference to the archaic tradition of women’s belief that a letter or symbol on red cloth pinned underneath clothing would keep them safe and ward off evil. As an obscure reference to women’s visibility and safety in public spaces or spheres and their position in culture and society, the performance hoped to engage audiences in visual metaphor and meaning. Not all the layers of white clothing were removed – even though a small gathered to see if all would be revealed!

Thanks to Paul Ward for filming.

Further notes:

Fascinated by gendered histories of text and image, representation and belief structures, this performance was a metaphor for the palimpsest of the self and the layers of gendered historical symbols that result in invisibility and confinement for women.

Both symbols and letters were historically believed to have magical properties if worn next to the skin. These beautiful pieces of scarlet cloth were not legible, any more than the gendered body or subject of performance. The transposition of archaic belief in text  contrasted with the modern/Victorian architectural site in Chamberlain Square and  created dissonance between the performance of gendered gift and a masquerade of femininity which shared tokens of belief with questionable magic.