The Electric Fence Needs You: This isn’t just a snappy title, it really does need you, it doesn’t come to life until it has been touched by a human. The Electric Fence an installation work by Annabel McCourt, is to be found inside Hull Minister (formerly Trinity Church) confounding visitors with its monstrous presence.
It doesn’t work if you touch it with an inanimate object I’ve tried. I spoke with one of the Reverends and they concluded it was something to do with the human body being the earth, thus completing the circuit. So you see it really does need you. When you think about the use of fences in internment camps, you can’t help but see pictures of people. Knowing the installation only reacts when I place my finger on the wire suddenly becomes a much more loaded act.
The design is stark and oppressive the heavy steel arms reaching into the interior, the single light that speaks of interrogation and harsh conditions, the wires wound on ceramic discs that become both barrier and a doorway into the work.
During a three hour vigil I observed many visitors happening upon the Electric Fence for the first time: some visitors looked at it sternly from a distance daring to go no closer, unsure as to its purpose or what the hell it was doing in their church. Others came closer and touched the wires, the looks on their faces as they realised they could interact with it.. I could have watched that all day, which I inevitably did.
The sounds that emanate when you interact with The Electric Fence might be described as industrial, there are buzzing sounds, eerie moans, white noise, dark noise, voices distorted and scratched, sounds like dull bells ringing: a death knell.
It was the words described as the ‘final solution‘ for ridding the world of the LGBT community, suggested by the U.S. Pastor Charles L. Worley in a hate speech in 2012, which provided the spark for artist Annabel McCourt. Worley’s words echoing similar genocidal solutions from Nazi Germany and preceding the reports of Gay men being sent to internment camps in Chechnya, not to mention more recently; the daily attacks, stoking fires of hatred and division; the calls for the removal of basic human rights for the LGBT community under Trump.
For some The Electric Fence is just about Hate Crime in the past: I now view it as a monument to anyone who has faced persecution in whatever form, be that racial, political or spiritual.
Annabel chose to site the work inside the Minster, because it was the place of baptism for William Wilberforce who fought to abolish the trade in human misery: the Electric Fence stands against a curtain of light and colour from the stained glass scenes in the Freedom Window echoing the eternal desire to be free.
As I am reminded during the day, the desire to be free and the persecution of others are both eternal, we as humans do not seem capable of allowing freedom for all. Instead powerful organisations continually find ways and means to implement restrictions on freedom, rules and regulation to govern behaviour; manipulate with fear and insidious lies to justify human rights violations, imprisonment, torture and death.
The Electric Fence also asks questions about borders, responding to the migrant crisis, those fleeing war-torn Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Chad, Somalia, the list of failed or failing states is endless. Those who don’t manage to reach their destination, may get turned back by border authorities, perhaps after days spent clinging on to hope behind a fence just like this one: or maybe their destiny lies at the bottom of the sea, just another number in the mass grave known as the Mediterranean.
When I really think about the human suffering that the work is responding to, my initial desire to go inside the installation, to go behind the wire, becomes almost crass, maybe the point is we shouldn’t go beyond… ‘the horrors inside must never be on show’ If we were to go inside, that would somehow diminish what happened within.
I owe it to my fellow-dancer Mandy Lee from Into the Light – ‘a fast forward version of LGBT history told in words, music and dance’ who helped to drive this point home. ‘It [the Electric Fence] sits upon gravestones,’ she said and suddenly I was able to connect the work to life and death, in the most simplest of terms.
As the strains of Amazing Grace played around the stone pillars and floated to the vaulted ceilings I’m reminded of another prison, the prison of not hearing, the prison that leaves you lost: locked out of a conversation. Another interpretation of the work came from someone who works with those facing dementia, suggesting the fence was like the barrier to reconnecting with memories and the sense of self, yet someone else suggested The Electric Fence was a celebration of all that unites us, rather than that which divides us and that it is the human connection, that brings all that to life.
Some responses to the Electric Fence would seem be less forgiving, some have felt that talk about equality and freedoms for the LGBT community have put the Christian message on the back foot, suggesting that Christians are being penalised for having a traditional view; that of the sanctity of a male/female union.
Another suggested it was a ‘brave’ move by the church with the interventionist aspect to the work being situated not just in a public place, but inside a place of worship. And yet the Electric Fence as this piece suggests, asks for that same moment of reflection from the visitor, searching for answers to those big questions about how we should live our lives: it is all about freedom, tolerance and loving one another.
During my three hours I was fortunate to speak with people from all over the world. I was particularly taken with an Australian lady called Gaye who was visiting friends in the city, on her first ever trip to the U.K. She told me about how since retiring from teaching, she was now engaged in finding out more about her ancestors, she described visiting villages and towns near Beverley, in order to reconnect with her past, reconnect with her roots.
We talked about the Electric Fence how it might be viewed in connection to the plight of indigenous people in Australia, in particular the mass removal of Aboriginal children from their parents: the Stolen Generation, and more recently Australia’s controversial responses to the migrant crisis. Gaye told me about a guy called Stan Grant, a journalist and broadcaster who shone a light on the indigenous community, who was welcomed and greeted warmly in every country of the world except his own.
Sharing my new passion for dance she insisted I check out Bangarra a dance company that is keeping the indigenous arts alive. I described to her about taking part in Sea of Hull and LGBT 50 about performing poetry and writing and experiencing art in the city and it struck me, as we chatted like old mates, that this kind of exchange, would have been so very vital behind the wire, and absolutely the kind of thing that went on.
Perhaps telling stories and sharing culture, precious moments of human connection, are the very thing that keeps the spirit alive.
The Electric Fence was fashioned by Sally Staff of the Strata Group, the sound design was by Interact and Connect and powered by Feonic speakers. The Electric Fence at Hull Minster is part of the Hull 2017 UK City of Culture Creative Communities Programme