Writing by Residence members Ella Good and Nicki Kent, about Total Eclipse of The Head: a participatory work touring this summer. Find it next in London on the 24th May, as part of a fundraiser for Forest Fringe, at The Yard.
Conversations, Time, Community, Haircuts
When we made Total Eclipse of The Head in 2011, hairdressing was something that had been in our lives for some time. Before this there had been occasions when we’d cut friends hair at parties, in our kitchens, shaved each others’ heads in our gardens during summer. When a housemate inherited her Granddad’s old barbers chair, complete with delicately embellished antique scissors, hairdressing became something that was more present, there, in the corner of the living room, a thing that might happen in an evening when friends were round. Once someone handed over his headphones with a request to listen to a particular song, and these times started to become as much about the experience as the haircut.
This time three years ago, we bought tickets to Burning Man. Burning Man is a week-long festival in the Nevada Desert with no curated programme or line-up – rather, the event is defined by the contributions that people bring. You don’t use money, and instead bring something as a gift that you can exchange. We had been making interactive work for five years, and saw the unique environment of Burning Man as a place to try out an idea that pushed the audience’s participation, that asked for a radical contribution of trust. Hairdressing seemed like a natural choice for us, so we gave free haircuts, making it clear to people that we were artists rather than trained hairdressers. We decided to make the work as ‘hairdressing inspired by music’, to create a loose structure and some kind of framework to the styles, and to make it fun so that hopefully people would want to participate. Now the work has grown and is housed in a small caravan, that tours to festivals throughout the UK, instead of inside a borrowed old American school bus with a moon-like, dusty landscape out of the windows.
It’s pretty literal. We don’t let the music guide our hands or the beat influence the lines that are created. It’s much more simple. If you listen to our 50’s Rockabilly playlist you get a quiff. If you listen to Kate Bush, we make you look like you are in a bush. If you listen to our Sci-Fi music from 70’s TV shows, you get a Spock like cut with sharp lines, or an asymmetrical fringe. We can also crimp you back to the 90’s while TLC plays in your headphones. The styles are very flexible, and are about adapting to whatever someone wants to look like, feel like, and listen to.
It’s important that:
We are not hairdressers and have had no training of any kind.
Everything is always free.
You don’t have to get your hair cut if you come in.
The structure of the performance is a suggestion rather than a rule: We suggest you listen on headphones to the music but if you’d rather chat you are free to.
There is no mirror to look in whist you get your hair cut.
We want you to look at our photo album to see the cuts we’ve done in the past.
You must have a consultation before you have your hair cut.
We want to know who you are and what you do, before we cut your hair.
We are not trying to play a trick on you.
We want you to be happy with the end result.
Our haircuts are extreme; we can’t cut you the perfect bob and we’ve been working on layering for a while, but still have some way to go until we’re perfect. We really want to learn how to shave patterns in people’s heads.
As soon as we started to take Total Eclipse of The Head to different places, it became clear that it was more about the atmosphere and the conversations, than the haircuts. The hairdressing is an offer to get people to talk to us, to create a meeting place where people can feel comfortable, engage, sit, chat.
We often think back about people we’ve met. A mother with a baby and husband at Glastonbury who wanted her whole head shaved except for the fringe. She told us she’d always had a shaved head, but had to grow her hair for her wedding. One family at Latitude Festival in 2011 who stayed with us so long that we cut or styled them all: two teenage daughters, Mum, Dad, and an uncle. The following year the two girls came back to find us. We’re now friends on facebook and we hope we’ll see them again somewhere this year. A woman in Brighton who was missing her son, who she told us had gone away to visit his Dad in another country for the whole summer. She wanted us to shave part of her head so she would feel more powerful about the situation, and like she could do something just for herself. In Darlington, a group of 10 – 14 year olds visited us, curious to see what was happening at a free arts fair next to the estate where they lived. After crimping and glittering, trying to make sense of who we were and what we were doing, they asked, ‘so, are you best friends?”
We often get whole families who come into the salon. We don’t cut children’s hair but we do style it, and we really like spending time with a whole family. It starts with the children wanting flowers in their hair or glitter, or their hair spiked up, or sprayed in the colours of their favourite football team. We’ll spend a long time talking to the whole family and by the time we’ve finished the children’s hair the parents want theirs done too. There is always laughter from the children as their dad’s hair changes colour or turns into a quiff, and the family leave as a group, having taken part in something together.
If you asked people what it was they’d taken part in, they might not call it a performance, and that’s OK. For us, meeting different people and offering space, care and attention, is important, and lies at the heart of our work; as a social practice that creates a meeting point between art and everyday life.