Hair Consultation, Richard Houguez & Rachael Young. Photo: Ben Harriott

Consultation Notes by Richard Houguez

Hair Consultation took place at Primary on 11 December as part of Richard Houguez & Rachael Young’s Intersections commission.

The consultation was an opportunity for Primary studio artists, invited guests and local public to respond to open questions relating to hair and identity. With a one-to-one setup, participants were invited to rant, challenge, and broaden our ideas of what hair is, in material and symbolic ways and the regimes of care we fashion around it. This built upon the research that Rachael Young and I have been doing for the Intersections commission, which until now, has been predominantly focused within local independent hair salons, and on the hairdressers – their approaches, rituals, tools and methods rather than a client’s perspective – in only a few cases did we get to ask the client direct questions regarding their wants and needs. Privacy within such a visible public space is something interesting to spend time with, and the kind of interactions we’ve had are also skillfully represented in Ben Harriott’s photographic series Beyond the Barber’s Blade.

When designing a space for consultations, we discussed ways in which to influence and guide the conversations. We wanted to bring in voices who could provide obtuse frames and points of provocation, split ends if you will. But not just expertise – we were interested in praxis and non-verbal gestures – in a similar way to how we observe the barber’s hand glide, pat and stroke between talking points in a salon. There were several people on our hairadar for the event, including performance artist Alice Gale-Feeny, sociologist Dr Rachel Cohen, artist and barber Faisal Abdu’Allah.

Photo: Ben Harriott

Using the well-lit, mirrored walls of Primary’s upstairs project space, we began listening and then mapping out peoples’ hairstories, tangles and tangents. Despite one or two people beginning with, ‘what can I say, my hair is just my hair’, the format accommodated discussions around childhood, natural beauty, ageing, fear, desire, patterns, habits, markers (of time, of life events), abuses, experimentation, liberation, hairdressers (good), hairdressers (bad), hairdressers (friends), sexuality, celebrity, industry, products and places of cutting. From my perspective these discussion were interesting because they were very personal, and at the same time social relevant. The pace of discussion found it’s own form, not needing to arrive anywhere in particular, the purpose of the consultation usually directed towards a service being performed. In this sense it was aiming to be clarifying but also expansive and discovering. Rachael offered a range of hair washing techniques from an inflatable sink as an additional hands-on preparation or form for the consultation to take.

Alice Gale-Feeny, A Brush is Made Up of Tiny Hairs. Photo: Ben Harriott

Being stationed in close proximity to Alice’s durational performance, I felt the influence of the deliberate pace of her performance. The way materials were handled with spoken instructions appropriate to the conceptualised idea of that activity had a parallel to the way specific hairdressing language is constructed and deployed in consultations. In a sense, it felt like Alice was asking people to look more closely at materials – to detract them momentarily from the usual schemas we have for them, and see what they might say of themselves. Rachael and I were inviting people to bring along their own experiences of hair and see how they fitted or clashed within industry ideas and terminology of what should be happening with peoples’ hair.

The performance also brought up questions of how we as a society deal with decay and dirt – the process in which precious hair that feels so much a part of who you are, becomes part of the dirt on the floor within moments of being separated from your body. What is happening within this process, and what other procedures do we have for managing our hair’s afterlife – can we imagine it as a resource, re-adornment and so on?

Before the consultation, I approached sociologist Dr Rachel Cohen, whose research into labour relations in hairdressing and observations of intimacy across different forms of ‘body work’ touch on the questions raised within the Intersections commission. These questions include what people go to hair salons for beyond hairdressing, and what is implicit in the relationship people have with a hairdresser and how different invisible structures, such as economics influence that. Rachel was unable to join for the actual event, but agreed to have her hair styled during an interview in advance, which can be viewed here.

This was played alongside a short film contribution from Faisal Abdu’Allah, an artist and barber, who’s studio is downstairs from his barbershop, Faisal’s, in Harlsden, London. The film examines the interrelated practice of cutting hair and making art, the processes which Faisal cannot extract one from the other. The dynamic environment of the barbershop is not the starting point for making art, neither is it directly the audience, but part of a circular process of how Faisal imagines, tests, and develops ideas. This was particularly useful for me, in not having to necessarily separate these two aspects of my practice and also in how artworks develop with the Intersections hairdressers. Karwan from Mario’s Barbers in town joined us for the evening’s films and discussions. It was a great opportunity for people to ask direct questions to him following discussions prompted by the films.

The consultation process showed us that people are aware of what they express and how they are read through their hair on different levels. Interactions that centre around socialised ways of displaying or concealing, grooming and caring for hair are affected by the body politic of our communities and society; including how an individual creates an image for themselves or comes to terms with being subject to an image, the structures and possibilities for intimate relationships, dominant values in our domestic and workplaces, attitudes towards death and ageing. We have cultural ceremonies and private markers around all these things, some of which are thinly universal, others very much localised and sub-cultural, both temporally and spatially. How these ceremonies happen, when they happen, who’s included, who’s excluded is not fixed. There is a tension that interests me in how this body politic affects the individual’s body and vice versa. It comes alive every time you think of what you might do with your hair, and how that might effect your relationships, your workplace and culture in general.

Richard Houguez, January 2015

Documentation of the day and the interview with Rachel Cohen can be found here.

A video of Alice Gale-Feeny’s performance, ‘A Brush is Made Up of Tiny Hairs’ can be found here.

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