Artist River Cao talks about their series of self narrative spaces, ‘I found a dead bird’, which forms part of Ugly Duck’s 10th year and their 4th annual @Disturbance Festival

Founded a decade ago in 2012 to platform the work of marginalised artists, performance venue Ugly Duck, located in Bermondsey – South East London, has been at the forefront of working with performance artists who are not afraid of exploring lesser talked about themes. Their @Disturbance Festival, now in its 4th year specifically created to showcase LGBTQ+ artists and stories. Set to show I found a dead bird, an exploration of the marginalized queer experience of growing up in small town in southern China as part of Ugly Duck’s 10th year anniversary on the 10th,11th and 12th of November, artist River Cao tells us more about exploring the shows themes further, what it means to be a part of Ugly Duck’s 10th year celebrations and what the audience can expect!Hi River, you’ll be participating in Ugly Duck’s @Disturbance Festival from 10th to 12th November. How are you feeling ahead of the event?

Stressful!!! I know someone might say “Enjoy your practice! Enjoy the process of your work”, I actually do, but still find it stressful. I’m excited to be part of @Disturbance this year, and it’s wonderful to get support from Ugly Duck for finalising my new performance I found a dead bird. I also went to the previous Disturbance, it impressed me a lot, the artists, the programme, and the spaces, It motivated me a lot, and also make me stressed.

You’ll be showcasing I found a dead bird, an exploration of the marginalized queer experience of growing up in small town in southern China. You create a series of self-narrative spaces that rethink the emotions of grief. What has inspired the creation of your piece?

I found a dead bird is a new performance proposal following my research on mourning, lamentation, hauntology… I’m really interested in how mourning offers possibilities to be a translation strategy to build up a personal landscape, it might be helpful as a practical and psychoanalytic method of rethinking loss.

The early experiments of this project were supported by Eastcheap Projects while I was doing my residency program there in Letchworth Garden City. I made an 8 minute moving image work at that moment, it presents that I found a “dead bird” in the quiet and small town, and I’m trying to start a conversation with its spectre. The new performance will be based on this film but holding a live ceremony. The rituals will take references from the traditional funeral in southern China, and the performer will guide audiences step by step, into this vision, and into this dialogue.

The spectre and the revenant are key concepts to this practice, as this is the concept of return. Key references are Jacques Derrida’s concept of ‘Hauntology’ that he describes in Spectres of Marx (1993); Sigmund Freud’s seminal text Mourning and Melancholia (1918); I will try to relieve the grief of the marginalization of my queer identity in my native environment through mourning, I will use funeral rituals to return me to the land of memory as a dead soul, like a bird, light and flexible in passing through this landscape, revealing my thoughts.

As Anne Carson claimed in The Glass Essay (1995) :

“trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones. And there was no pain.
The wind

was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all. It walked out of the light.”

How have you approached creating the piece?

This is a 15 – 20 minute live performance combining set design and costumes focusing on funeral rituals.

The ritual contains speech, a parade, and instrument plays. The costume I worked with Leslie Tan, She is an amazing fashion designer who worked with me on the costumes for my previous film projects as well. For this performance, we had lots of exciting experiments on presenting a “dead bird” by using different fabrics and other materials. We are trying to be bold in how to use costumes to expand the character in the performance.

I am also planning to build a large-scale waters landscape for the stage, decorated by moss, which takes reference from my memory of southern China. The ceremony will happen at this stage.

Ugly Duck celebrates 10 years, with their @Disturbance Festival celebrating 4 years of championing marginalised artists. What does it mean to you to form part of this special celebration?

It’s a really special and wonderful experience to be part of the @Disturbance this year. It’s really obvious that @Disturbance is aiming to present a totally diverse and radical vision for queer artists, and being really supportive of all the artists to explore their own narratives, it’s more like a listening place, feeling safe to be here, and also working with other @Disturbance artists inspired me a lot in many ways, I am happy to celebrate this ceremony with all together

What have you learned/taken away from creating the piece?

This performance will directly help me to link my work with audiences, and it has been really playful for me as I never did a live performance before. Staging the entire structure including lighting, choreography, stage, and the costume is a comprehensive experience in terms of giving me more information and ideas on my current or future practice. It also will be a strong support for my research on mourning, I’m more than happy to see what new thoughts it will bring to me.

What can audiences expect from your piece?

An unusual funeral.

Questions by Lucy Basaba.

@Disturbance Festival will take from Thursday 10th to Saturday 12th November 2022 at Ugly Duck. To find out more about the event, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop