Truth matters to artist Oliver Beer, no matter how uncomfortable the subject, writes Lorne Jackson.
So this is what it’s like to be caught lurking in the back row of a pornographic cinema.
That was my second thought. My first was: For this kind of work I really should have worn a dirty mac. (The problem was I didn’t have a dirty mac. Plenty of dirty jackets, shirts and trousers at home. Just no Harry Palmer overcoats.)
I squirmed in my seat and tried my best to fade into the shadows and focus on the screen. But the film continued to make me feel uncomfortable. More than uncomfortable. I was disturbed.
Though it wasn’t pornography I was watching. Visually it was tamer than any dirty flick. Yet when it came to content, it was far more terrible. Heart rending, too.
On the screen, a group of young men and women sat in a room. Biting lips, twitching eyes, scratching noses, scribbling on pads, gazing awkwardly into the middle-distance. . . And listening to an audio speaker which was booming out a telephone conversation between a man and young woman. It was the conversation which made me squirm in the darkened room.
The young woman was admitting to the man that she had been abused as a child.
The abuser wasn’t a relative, although being a friend of the family she had called him ‘Uncle’.
Now the girl was saying she was afraid this man was abusing other youngsters. Over the course of the conversation – which seemed to go on for ever, though it was only about ten minutes – the man on the phone asked short, incisive questions, devoid of emotion, though not lacking in concern.
The girl answered, becoming increasing distressed in the process. Meanwhile, the listeners in the room continued to bite lips, twitch, stare, scribble.
And I lurked in the darkness, feeling as though I had no right to be invading the damaged woman’s privacy.
I felt even worse when a group of teenage girls joined me to watch the film. I was wearing ear-phones, so at first they couldn’t hear what I heard. Then they also put on ear-phones, listened for a couple of minutes, then left – bustling back into daylight and innocence.
I squirmed some more.
‘Training’ was the short film I was watching. It’s a video of a group of young adults learning to be volunteers for a telephone counselling service.
The film was made by the artist Oliver Beer, and it’s being screened in the Ikon Gallery’s Tower Room until July 11. It’s too early to tell whether a distinguished career lies ahead of Beer, who only recently graduated from art school.
But I’ll say this for the one piece of work of his that I’ve experienced. It’s uncomfortable, unforgettable and never unbelievable. After I’d wriggled through the ten minutes of trauma and tension, I met the creator of the work downstairs in the Ikon’s sun-soaked cafe.
A very different place from the one I’d just endured – a journey from darkness into light. The cafe was filled with gleaming tables, bright conversation, dazzling smiles. Oliver Beer, himself, seems to be a sunny individual. Trendy haircut, fashionable clothes, handsome and smooth features – he exudes boy-band bonhomie.
He was actually once a member of a pop band who were briefly signed by Sony, though his true calling guided him to more challenging work, eventually leading to The Ruskin School Of Drawing And Fine Art in Oxford.
Before that he studied music in Guildford. From an early age, Oliver had a passion for drawing, sculpture and composition. Though none of the above would seem to lead inevitably to the creation of the film I’d just experienced, which was also Oliver’s graduation piece.
Though ‘Training’ is shocking, Beer says it was never his intention to disturb or distress his audience.
He wants viewers to be elevated by what they are witnessing: the education of public spirited individuals who want to provide a valuable service for vulnerable people. “I actually trained to do this sort of counselling myself,” he reveals. Did he do so with the intention of researching this project?
“Not at all,” he says. “Originally I didn’t have any thoughts about turning what I was witnessing and learning into a work of art. “I just wanted to train to be a councillor because I thought it was a useful and important thing to do.
“When you’re working on something like art or music you spend a lot of time thinking about yourself. I kind of wanted to do something that was not about me and not about my work.
“Yet it’s amazing what ends up cropping-up in my work, even when it’s not my intention. “It’s just that when I encountered this form of training, I thought the people involved in it were so amazing, so precise. There was a palpable tension in the training room, because everyone wanted to get it right.
“That raw feeling was just so powerful. That’s why it eventually inspired me into re-enacting the whole process. I realised that what I was witnessing was something incredible, yet most people never get to see it.
”The piece is certainly powerful. One of the reasons it hits home is because it has the harsh smack of authenticity. Nothing appears to be dramatised. The trainees’ reactions are not overplayed or sensationalised, yet emotions of unease and discomfort constantly flicker across their faces.
The girl on the phone who claims to have been abused genuinely sounds distraught. Her hysteria raises the hackles. So is it all pitch-perfect performance, or is there something more genuine lurking behind the facade of art?
“None of the people I used in the training class were actors,” says Oliver. “All of them were friends and other students. But they’re also the kind of people who really would be interested in working as volunteers. I just asked them if they wouldn’t mind being in a film. And they all agreed to train for a day for me. But they weren’t sure exactly what they would be involved in.
“During training they were told that the person they were about to hear on the phone was either speaking from first or second hand experience.
“Of course, second hand experience can mean anything. It could mean the person on the phone has just read about the thing they were talking about in a newspaper.
“So what they were listening to could have been real – they weren’t sure. I wasn’t in any pains to tell them one way or another. ”
And what about the girl who claims to have been abused by a friend of the family? Did Beer hire a very skilled actress for the role? Not at all.
Once again the role was performed by an acquaintance.
"Her performance is amazing,” says Oliver. “Yet she’s just another student friend of mine. However, she was studying psychology and was very empathetic when it came to the role of a vulnerable individual. “She worked on ideas that I came up with, although I didn’t write a full script.
“For her to have read a full script, word for word, would have just been impossible. It would have been too clunky. So I bullet-pointed the areas I wanted her to go into really precisely, then we spent an hour going through it.
“That way, when it came to her performance, she was saying those words for the first time, and the audience can really feel that what they are listening to is real. “Without her doing such a good job, the whole thing just wouldn’t have hung together at all. ”Many artists create their work to shock or titillate.
To outrage the moral majority and madden the Middle England blue-rinse mob. But Oliver is no Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin. He isn’t seeking easy controversy or a handy tabloid headline (though he may find both those things along the way).
Even though the work deals with sexual abuse and paedophilia, he genuinely wants to uplift his audience, not alienate them. Yes, the words spoken by the girl make the listener uncomfortable. Yes, Beer’s cameras do close in on the trainees in an almost predatory manner.
But ultimately he wants viewers to come away from the work with a respect for the training that enables councillors to turn round a vulnerable person’s life. He has also made a similar film where the telephone conversation in the training room is not about sexual abuse but Alzheimer’s.
“It was the film I made following this one,” he says. “The story involves a woman whose mother is dying from Alzheimer’s. “That film was seen by people who had direct experience of the condition. It was amazing to see their reaction and how much they identified with the story.
“It was an incredibly positive response to the film. So much so that I’ve even had people from an Alzheimer’s charity asking if they could show the film in aid of their charity. That’s really quite nice.
“I love the fact that the piece can work in an art gallery, but it also has meaning and resonance in the world outside of art galleries.
“It’s important to me that it can work anywhere at all, including an Alzheimer’s meeting.
Beer is also working with the Ikon on something called The Resonance Project.
On Saturday he was using his musical education to create a sound piece and performance using the human voice in Pershore Street Car Park. Working with Ex Cathedra, his intention was to make the car park sing.
Beer has previously worked on similar harmonic pieces in a sewer in Brighton.
“You could hear the music coming through the drains at street level,” Beer says, chuckling with delight. “I kept thinking that perhaps somewhere there was an old Brighton lady flushing her toilet, then hearing this sound and thinking, ‘Where on earth is that coming from?’
“Now wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
*Training is at the Ikon Gallery until July 11.