Bryony Kimmings seven sheets to the wind
PUBLISHED: 09:51 18 July 2011
Alcohol has fuelled many artists, musicians, writers and performers throughout history, but is booze really good for the creative process? To find out Bryony Kimmings went on a seven day bender and the results make up her latest show. SIMON PARKIN reports.
Bryony Kimmings is not an alcoholic. But she has always had a rocky relationship with alcohol. It seems intrinsi-cally linked to her confidence as an artist as well as to blame for her most genius and most hideous creations.
From Jackson Pollock to Amy Winehouse, Oscar Wilde to Charlie Sheen, artists have long had a complex rela-tionship with alcohol, and drugs in general. Everyone’s on something, but why? What is it about alcohol that moves artists to create?
For her latest one-woman show, 7 Day Drunk, which is being previewed at Norwich Arts Centre next week ahead of the Edinburgh Festival, Kimmings decided to put her liver on the line to investigate the historical links between artists and mind-enhancing drugs.
For seven days in June, the performance artist was put into a state of controlled intoxication under the supervision of a team of scientists, doctors and psychologists.
Breathalysing at regular intervals to ensure a steady blood alcohol level on different days — ranging from tipsy to paralytic —she then attempted to make work in the studio.
The show is made up solely from material made over that seven-day period of intoxication in collaboration with filmmaker Nick Vass who recorded the results.
“This is really a show based on an experiment,” she said. “Most of the work I do is based on social experiments. This one is more scientific than normal. The idea came from the fact that a lot of artists seem to credit mind-enhancing drugs as fuel for some of their creative processes and that’s kind of an accepted meme.
I just wondered if there was anything in it really and whether young artists simply use drugs simply because their predecessors did. Does it make you more creative or less creative?
“I embarked on this seven day experiment in a controlled environment and the show is about the conclusions and about the science but the bigger picture about alcohol and it’s bigger dangers and also about why artists make art.
“The show is not a lecture about the process, it’s more it’s own kind of experiment between the audience and the artist. I didn’t want it to be just this happened and this is what we found out, it’s more about putting questions out there and fishing for answers.” Kimmings turned to the science charity the Wellcome Trust to research the project and to recruit experts to help her.
“I contacted a lot of people mainly because I didn’t know a lot about the science,” she said. “The ones that we’ve worked with were really up for it. There are a lot of scientists that work with alcohol and creativity already. So, although they are quite nerdy about the science, they were kind of art sympathetic. At first they were kind of ‘what the hell is this’, but then they thought it sounded quite interesting.”
And getting drunk involved more than just downing her favourite tipple. “It was much more scientific than that,” she explains. “The psychologist we worked with worked out the levels of alcohol that would be needed. Then there was a preparatory diet and then a diet during the week. Then there were different formulas of the right amount of alcohol and when to top it up during the day to keep me at a certain level.
“I wasn’t allowed to drink just what I wanted I had to be at a certain blood alcohol level each day and that increased each day. We also had a make a baseline where I created art while completely sober.”
Although she was essentially drunk for seven days, there was no avoiding the dread hangover however. “There were hangover each day,” she recalls. “Because it was quite large amounts of alcohol I was drinking I’d get a hangover normally about 10pm because I had been drinking since 10am and stopped at 5pm. But I was also living in the studio I wasn’t allowed out, so I was going stir crazy too and being filmed for every second. It was like be-ing in prison.”
In the sober light of day some of the resulting work she produced under the influence has surprised her. “A lot of the material I made while I was drunk I have a funny relationship with,” she admits. “First, I don’t remember a lot of it. Second, if I had been writing sober I certainly wouldn’t have written some of the stuff. That means there is this question of how to use material that you don’t particularly like. The show seems to be about chaos versus control and creating moments of chaos and moments of complete control.”
The experiment has certainly made her rethink her own relationship with alcohol. “I’ve always had that as a question mark throughout my artistic career just because I’m quite a drinker. This project came about because I said to my partner that I thought I was better as an artist when I was hung over. I seemed to be most creative on a Sunday morning after we’d been out the night before. But his response was that I was mad and that there was no way you could be more creative because you’re brain would be slower and full of toxins. So I thought how am I going to prove this?
“I think a lot of artist have this kind of relationship with alcohol but I do think it’s to do with historically what is expected of an artist.”
She is keen to stress that she will be performing the show sober. That is not the case for the audience however. “There will be one person selected from the audience who has to drink through the show,” she reveals. “I thought it’d be interesting to get someone to the levels that I got to and just monitor them through the show. Your body and speech become very different. I’ll be sober, but I’m interested to watch someone else getting drunk.”
7 Day Drunk has been supported by Arts Council England and Escalator East to Edinburgh and the artist was keen to preview it at the Arts Centre.
“One of the earliest incarnations of my previous show Sex Idiot was staged there and the Arts Centre have always been very supportive of me,” she said. “It’s a venue I really like where there is always a good appreciative crowd not as in some venues where there is no reaction and you wonder ‘what am I here for, am I wasting my time?’.
“Because I’m an east region-based artist I think for people across the UK to see my preview is in this region is important. It’s sort of showing off the fact that we’ve not lots of good talent in this region. Plus I think Norwich, it’s a good drinking town!
n Bryony Kimmings: 7 Day Drunk is at Norwich Arts Centre on July 20, £7 (£5 cons), 01603 660352, www.norweichartscentre.co.uk