Thomasin Sleigh talks to John Borley about his project ‘Return’ at the Blue Oyster in Dunedin.
Each morning I get up at 6:30 and I have a shower. Sometimes, spitefully the shower is cold. I can’t figure out a reason for this. Then I get dressed and make myself a sandwich and get some fruit and a treat for afternoon tea. Then I eat breakfast and have a cup of green tea. I put my book in my bag, and my phone, lunch and wallet. Then I walk to work.
This is pretty much what happens every morning during the week. Small anomalies occasionally disrupt this system. Nothing too exciting, just little fluctuations in my patterns; but I manage to cope if we run out of milk. The thing is, it doesn’t matter what I do because I am alone, there’s just Morning Report on the radio. Nobody is watching me or judging me or analyzing what I do. I don’t really think about my routine, it is just there for practicalities sake, so I don’t end up at work naked, or go hungry all day.
This is the difference between routine and repetition. Routines are patterns that you develop unintentionally so that you can operate successfully in day to day life. But to intentionally repeat something, that is intentional, you are creating your own patterns that aren’t dictated by necessity.
I talked to artist John Borley on a wintry Sunday morning. He was sad because England had just been knocked out of the World Cup by Portugal. He likes football. He played some when he was recently in Dunedin. He was down there taking part in an artistic residency at the Blue Oyster gallery, an artist-run gallery space. The residency would run like this: Borley would arrive in Dunedin and have a week meeting people, networking, learning about Dunedin and its surrounds and generally getting out and about in town. Then, for the next four weeks, he would repeat this week to the best of his ability. Try and go to the same places with the same people, try to incorporate the same elements into his conversations and the same activities in his day. The project was called ‘Return’. It was kind of like Groundhog Day, except weekly, and without Bill Murray.
During his residency, Borley decided to stay at a backpackers. In return for his free accommodation, he cleaned everyday. He changed beds and cleaned bathrooms and kitchens. This system was well suited to Borley’s plan for repetition. Domestic duties require methodical behaviour. But things become more complicated. Having deliberately chosen to repeat his activities, Borley was much more self-conscious than your normal toilet-cleaner. These repetitions were performed with an everpresent self-awareness and caused intense self-examination. “I moved towards the conclusion that repetition doesn’t actually exist,” Borley said, “it’s actually impossible. But I became aware of these almost spiritual ideas when I was cleaning, I had no one to check that I was doing things right, but I felt like there was a kind of omnipresent being watching over me. The more and more I did this, the more and more I couldn’t separate it from the way people live their lives anyway.”
We are (hopefully) free to make our own choices and determine the patterns with which we move through life. But, as Borley’s project examined, we answer not only to ourselves but also to something above and beyond. By repeating these mundane activities so studiously, Borley was able to interrogate the structures that we put in place for ourselves as individuals, either knowingly, or more often than not, sub-consciously.
Beyond his own inner examination, Borley was very interested in the way in which his repetitions could involve and challenge others. “Participants were extremely important,” says Borley, “that was the justification to myself as why this project could be read in an an artistic context, because I was looking at how an art audience can be manipulated, but also what function it might have, and why it should even be there.” To do so Borley set up meetings with people that he hadn’t met before he went down to Dunedin. He sought out people who he thought would be interested by his project and challenge the ideas that he was presenting. The art school at Otago Polytechnic was an obvious to find these people. Borley attended weekly criticism sessions and got to be known about the campus. He made himself most obvious when he chose to arrive to a class late each week. At twelve minutes past three every Wednesday Borley would walk in to Room 201 at Dunedin Polytech and say, “Do you mind if I sit in?” This happened at exactly the same time and place for five weeks.
This repetition was obviously more performative and blatant than cleaning toilets in a backpackers. And this is, I think, one of the most interesting parts of this project. It cannot be easily categorised. While many of Borley’s repetitions were distinctive walking into a classroom late, or buying a single tulip everyday from a florist shop – repeated five times over, many of them were of the most mundane activities. He would go to Countdown three times a week at fifteen minutes past eleven at night and buy a loaf of vogels and a litre of milk, he would mop floors, and he would go to football practice. None of these actions are particularly exciting or spectacular. Actually watching someone do them would probably be quite boring. So, while a number of the chores that Borley set for himself could be regarded as a piece of ‘performance art’, (and I use those words with trepidation) they in no way characterized this project. In fact, they probably were in a minority compared to the more humdrum repetitions which took place. Return set up an inherent contradiction in that this was a performance that didn’t ask for an audience, and in many ways actually rejected it.
Borley wasn’t actually asking people to watch him. The position of the audience is problematic in Return. At many stages, Borley performed the function of both participant and audience; he was the sole member of his own artistic endevour. When he met someone for soup they would slip into the dual position of both participant and audience member; they could check if Borley was going through the motions in the correct way, but they themselves were also integral to those regulated activities. “I am really interested in the purpose and function of audience,” says Borley, “and trying to figure out who my audience might be and whether or not they are even important.” This project placed people in many roles, as artist, as participant, as audience member, as someone who had no idea what they were taking part in, but just knew that this guy came in every day for soup and always asked for a receipt. These people were integral to the project, and their response was just as valid as someone from a contemporary art perspective.
And Borley felt a certain accountability to these people, “I was responsible to the people, like the person who served me soup. I had to have the same process of doing things, because even though they weren’t aware of what I was doing, they could measure my activity.” So while the work often caused introspection in the artist, Return also took shape through outsiders’ responses and their interactions with Borley. This project was all about these dichotomies and disjunctions. I have only briefly outlined the premise in this article and some of the most evident issues that arose. I think John Borley is an artist who raises intriguing ideas, not only for those involved in contemporary art, but about the way we live our lives and function in society.