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“I’d like to apologise in advance,

if when I open my mouth to speak

the words fall out in all the wrong places

and splinter on the ground into a tiny million sounds

which don’t make any sense and

all that I would ask is that you would be

p  a  t  i  e  n  t  with me.”

Jess Heritage is a CSM Fine Art 4D student currently studying her 1 year Diploma in Professional Studies. Her work exists somewhere between spoken word poetry, performance art and that of an orator as she recounts lost memories, fleeting thoughts and those questions that niggle at the back of one’s mind. Heritage has recently performed during Ai Weiwei’s current Royal Academy exhibition as one of the many “performance acts” being staged throughout the season. She is one of six “London based students and graduates who have created responses to a selection of Ai Weiwei’s blog posts and other key texts concerning Human Rights.” We catch up with her after her most recent performance to discuss how she generates her artwork.

1G: Can you tell us about how you conceive your performances?

Jess: My performances rely quite heavily on the performance that came before. I don’t want to perform the same piece twice and prefer them to evolve. There were parts of the Royal Academy performance that were direct references to my most recent performance and some passages of that performance reference the previous performance. The work is all linked like that.

It’s almost like delivering messages too. When performing, there are moments where I feel like I’m delivering messages to specific people in the space. It doesn’t matter if no one else hears or notices, but in those moments it’s as if I’m telling that specific person something I couldn’t say any other way.

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Is the work fictional?

There are moments within each text that are borderline real and borderline not. Right now, I’m not entirely sure which parts are which. I lose myself in them. There is a line about how my teeth falling out, fall on the floor and then turn into sand or how you pick them up and read them. Did I dream that? Maybe. Or is it operating as a metaphor for something? I don’t think I would be ready to say which it was, and it doesn’t matter if they’re not sure. But I hope that they understood something from that.

There are moments that reference the very moment we are in, referencing the performance as it is happening. I reference the act of speaking and my nervousness. As if to say: “I am nervous right now and you can tell that I’m nervous and we understand that this is something happening right now.”

There is a part of the R.A. performance where I wasn’t sure anymore and I happened to look over at my dad in the audience and he was laughing. When I asked him why afterwards he told me he “remembered that”. So even though I don’t strictly ‘remember’ it, there was some truth buried there. That was the first time someone has ever shared an experience with me during a performance. It was a dialogue. I shared something and someone shared information back and we connected. We start to have a conversation, I’m no longer speaking at you, you are participating in the performance too. It that moment something was validated, which was a strange feeling.

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“Dropping a glass filled with milk

when the thunder clapped

and you were scared and mopping up the mess

with your mums best tea towel and

Don’t touch that

Don’t touch that don’t

It’ll cut you and it’ll sting let me do it”


How do you go about writing your performances?

With the R.A., I have known about it for a long time. It’s actually the longest I’ve ever had to work on a single piece. I like to work on a performance for 2 to 3 weeks beforehand, because the work has to happen immediately after I finish writing it. I could never write it and then leave it for weeks or even months. I had to be working on it right up until the moment I performed, because the work has to have the honesty of thought to it, rather than rehearsed lines. The writing will always change as it happens, and it needs to. It can’t be a set thing. I’m always trying to only half learn what I was going to say, I knew if I learnt it too well it would become a monologue and if I didn’t learn it at all it would loose structure. I rewrite the text again and again and, finally, the version I wrote the night before became the version I used to perform with.

If you imagine a trampoline and you have a number of small pebbles evenly spaced out across the surface, the trampoline keeps its surface tension with these individual indentations. You can see each pebble clearly.  But if you put add a big orange to it, the trampoline would sag and draw all the pebbles towards it. I like to think: “what is in the work that is dragging everything down so you can’t see everything clearly anymore?” There are things that are so weighted that I can guarantee that you will remember, but you will not remember anything else. The ‘orange’ forces itself to become more important than anything else.

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I just think back to the very beginning of the performance when you were trying to organise people, but even this was already performance. By creating a stage, this defined your beginning.  You got under our skin.

How do you go about beginning or ending a performance? Is there a right way to enter the “performance mode”? Do you need leave and re-enter the room? You need to ease yourself to become the character or the performer? I don’t know, I just sort of start. Endings are clunkier, but I’m not sure if I mind that. The end is when when we question: “what do we all do now?” But I quite like that awkwardness that we all share. If it lost its awkwardness, I think I would feel too safe, and the performance would lose its energy. Even in terms of making something beforehand, it has to have that nervousness.

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Are you performing again as part of the exhibition?

Yes, the performance will take place at the RA as a part of their 56 hour open gallery, as a finale to the current Ai Weiwei exhibition.

The performance (or performances) should be a really different experience to the previous. I found the last performance quite a challenge in the sense that my work has always taken place in very intimate surroundings, and some of the feedback I received was that the work may have been more successful if it ‘demanded more attention from the audience’, which I’m quite hesitant to initiate. I’m adamant that I don’t want to lose the essential graceless or awkwardness of the work. The nighttime setting of these performances might make them subtler. The performances will have to rely more heavily on intimate encounters with the public. All of the dialogues and conversations within the performance have come from somewhere in the middle of the night, so the time of the performance is direct reference to the process.

I’m excited to perform in a way which I haven’t previously. The performances will be only a few minutes at a time, but for a longer duration, which will hopefully allow the work to achieve something it previously couldn’t.       

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Words and photography by Roman Sheppard Dawson

Jess Heritage will be performing:

12am – 2am 11th December Friday night/Saturday morning

12am – 2am 12th December Saturday night/Sunday morning

More information about the performances and the other events taking place can be found on their website:

www.royalacademy.org.uk/event/ai-weiwei-weekender

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