The terms of behaviour breakdown – the memory of a Matt Henry performance

Published in: 
Mostly Harmless: a performance series
curated & edited by Charlotte Huddleston

Govett-Brewster Art Gallery
ISBN: 978-0-908848-20-1


It is often taken for granted in everyday experience that certain spaces, places and events have prescribed behaviours, expected actions and a common knowledge of proceedings. This is not always the case with performance art. Performance art could be seen as locating an uncertain frame of reference. Being a hybridised media viewed within the context of visual art but borrowing aspects from theatre, dance, music, religious ritual and sometimes adopting a blurred distinction from daily activity, how a performance begins and ends, and the particulars about how one should experience performance art is completely open. Since it does not adhere to one discipline there is no steeped tradition through which to mediate its form. For this reason attending a performance can sometimes be an awkward experience for the viewer. Unless one is familiar with a particular gallery’s house style or have prior knowledge of what to expect, it is difficult for the visitor to know how to behave. Therefore, performance art is an apt media for exploring the terms of behaviour since it both disrupts conventional conduct and involves and the display of it.  

This became evident to me when I visited the Govett-Brewster one Sunday afternoon for Matt Henry’s performance entitled Breakdown. On this occasion the narrow rectangular gallery space had been transformed into a type of makeshift theatre. At one end of the room there were a pile of red square cushions and a random arrangement of blue stools that were used as temporary seating. The opposite end of the gallery in which a lounge was set up took on the function of a stage. The lounge consisted of a vacuum cleaner, telephone, white woollen rug, an elegant 1950s style wooden arm chair with finely woven squabs and a modular wooden veneer shelving unit containing two high-end turntables, amp and speakers. Entering the gallery with a brisk and overly decisive stride Henry (a man of slender physique, tidy short dark hair, cleanly shaven, wearing black framed glasses and dressed in a fitted black sports jacket, black T-shirt, Chuck-Taylor sneakers, blue jeans, a satchel slung over the shoulder and with two records tucked firmly under his right arm) has calculated his entry precisely (or so it would seem) so not to be stalled by loitering gallery visitors. From sidewalk to stage in one action without interruption he takes a seat in the armchair with his back to the audience - who startled by his entrance finish their conversations in a whisper and find a seat of their own.  

Seated attentively Henry pulls from his satchel a pen and paper with which he begins to studiously make notes taking pause only every few seconds to study his surroundings. He then rises, adheres the paper to the wall with gaffer tape and returns to his seat. Standing up seconds later, un-sleeves his records handling them cautiously by the edges, places one on each turntable and proceeds to play a track.

A turbulent trumpet cry peals throughout the gallery followed by a euphoric torrent of snare drum coupled with a velvety dance of double base. The jazz fired a charge of life throughout the gallery, colouring the sterile white chamber. The audience, toes tapping and heads nodding to the perturbed but exuberant composition. Henry, rising suddenly, selfishly deprives the audience of hearing the remainder of the track and moves the needle back to the beginning. Returning to his arm chair and reconfiguring his posture, eyes trained on the record in captivated stare. He rises from the chair, this time adjusting the angle of the speakers slightly. Taking seat again, perhaps to analyse his new arrangement only to rise moments later for yet another adjustment.  

This process is repeated by Henry numerous times with every body movement carefully reserved. Although, at times displaying fleeting moments of an anxious fidget which he appears to tame with composure. Each new object adjustment seems to be some attempt in which to enhance the sound in some minuscule way. The preoccupation with the sound system is only disrupted by intermittent reactions to listen to the receiver of an unplugged telephone as if expecting it to have a phantom dial tone. Meanwhile, there is a slight discomfort in the audience as with each interruption they are denied hearing the entire track. 

The pensive demeanour that Henry maintains progressively degenerates after each new alteration. Unsatisfied by the speaker placement Henry’s attention is drawn to increments on the surface of the records. From his satchel he extracts, handling only by fingertips and with steady surgeon like grace, cleaning equipment including carbon fibre brushes and cleaning fluids. The domestic vacuum cleaner is also put to use on the vinyl, making certain no particle will remain to inhibit audio quality. While rearranging the sound system once more he casually starts to sip on the cleaning fluid as if it were a common habit.  It takes a moment for the audience to acknowledge with smirks, smiles and the occasional chuckle at his odd substance abuse.  

Through adjustments on the turntable the music takes on a haunted chord. The trumpet now evokes the sound of convulsing and murmuring demonic entities. Reclining in the chair for another sound analysis Henry’s intoxicated attuned ear identifies another scruple. The arm chair squabs are now removed and placed under the turntables which are transported from the shelving to the floor. In a chilling spate Henry now deals to the chair and shelving which have no functional in use in this new sound system configuration. Drawing a hammer from his satchel and with a slight sadistic grin Henry calmly but with considerable force, strikes the chair’s limbs until the structure collapses. The shelving for some reason escapes this violent fate and is rather appropriately dissected by removing the screws and the wood stacked neatly against the wall.  

The culminating scene pictures Henry robed in the white wool rug knees to chest and taking the occasional swig of cleaning fluid whilst rocking involuntary on the floor. The performance ends by Henry’s only spoken words: ‘that’s it’, as he steps to the side of the set. His announcement shatters the persona which he has painstakingly created over the past forty minutes. Now that the performance is bracketed by time the audience is given cue to chat among themselves, explore the residue and exit the liminal vacuum that the artist created.


Bruce E. Phillips