Cornflakes, 1996, 5 night performance, Putting on an Act, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.
At the performance art festival Putting on An Act in Perth, I carried out a piece called Cornflakes. On each of five nights, I sat on stage and ate a bowl of cornflakes in front of the audience.
The rationale for this absurd action was native to the theatrical setting itself – a setting which, by necessity, draws great attention to whatever happens on stage, heightening it and making both actor and audience hyper-conscious of every aspect of an otherwise ordinary action.
I was interested in conducting a kind of â€œconsciousness experimentâ€ on myself and the audience. My “research-proposition” was this:
Each morning, before I go to work, I eat a bowl of cornflakes for breakfast. I eat alone, in the freshly awakened state of semi-consciousness, mechanically, and with little awareness of what I am doing.
Later in the day, when I try to recall having eaten those cornflakes, I realise I have no memory of the act whatsoever – the meal had been consumed in a habitual state of mindless absorbtion. If we import this very same act – eating a bowl of cereal – into a theatrical setting, it is bound to be transformed into a highly self-conscious “performanceâ” of itself. The pouring of the milk, the journey of spoon to mouth, even without rehearsal or special preparation, become highly charged, minutely choreographed dramatic movements.
The social contract framing the relationship between audience and actor in the theatre makes this inevitable. However – and this is my question – if a bowl of cornflakes were eaten in the theatre, in front of an audience, night after night, would it be possible for me to become so relaxed and comfortable in that environment – so “at home” – that I might be able to return to my prior state of mindless munching?
Predictably, Cornflakes was a failure. My awareness of being in the presence of a crowd, watching my every move, defamiliarised the act of eating breakfast. Far from achieving the desired return to mindlessness, the repetition of the action actually made my breakfast-performance more and more tense as the festival progressed.
The conventions of the theatre require a punch line, and the failure of Cornflakes, night after night, to deliver anything resembling a plot beyond the narrative of reaching the end of the bowl and leaving the stage, made the audience believe that maybe, just maybe, tomorrow night something might happen. They became more and more concentrated, in anticipation that at any minute I might break from the banality of the performance and do something.
For the first two nights, I did what I would do at home – I read the text and promotions on the back of the cornflakes packet, ate the bowl of flakes, and then left the stage. On the third night, however, I had finished reading the box, and so I raised my eyes to look at the room around me. The tension was electric. What happened was totally unexpected.
One by one, I made eye contact with individual members of the audience. We held each other’s gaze for what seemed like an extraordinarily long time. Then I would dip back into my bowl, take another spoonful, and munch it down while I eyeballed with another audience member. This went on for as long as the bowl lasted, and then, as before, I simply left the stage. No words were spoken, nothing else happened.
In that brief period, framed by the length of time it took to munch through a bowl of cereal, there was a charged moment of being in the here and now that seemed all the more transgressive for having occurred within the setting of the theatre – a setting whose conventions usually dictate the suspension of disbelief as we travel through the fourth wall into another reality. Instead, Cornflakes drew our mindful attention to what it was for those present to be performer and audience – in this particular space and time.
Cornflakes was a companion piece to Mick Hender’s Headphones, which, similarly, spanned 5 nights of the Putting on an Act Festival. For Headphones, Hender sat on stage at a desk, selected a tune from a pile of CDs, loaded it into his CD walkman, put on his headphones, pressed play, and sat there listening to the song. He turned the volume to maximum, and tried as best he could to sing along.
It should be noted, Hender is not very good at karaoke, and terrible at remembering words to songs. The performance was a bit like watching a hippo bellow something resembling (but not quite) a pop song. Hender intended the experience to be something like being on a train, when a fellow passenger has their stereo on loud, and is completely unaware of the world around them.
Whereas Cornflakes ended up creating a charged atmosphere, a moment of shared “being-together” in the theatre, Headphones involved Hender withdrawing into himself, completely oblivious to the audience in front of him. And like Cornflakes, Headphones had an unexpected effect. The audience, realising that the performer in front of them had basically abnegated responsibility for 5 minutes or so, decided that it really didn’t matter whether they were watching “politely” or not. They began jeering, throwing scrunched up balls of paper at Hender, and even paper aeroplanes. Nothing they did could secure his attention.
Curiously, the effect that Headphones had on the audience bled into the rest of the festival – they became much more vocal, heckling and laughing out loud throughout other artists’ performances as well. It is as if Hender’s performative absence had infused them with a cheeky jacobian spirit…
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ps – there were some reviews written for REALTIME magazine during this performance festival. I really liked this one about Cornflakes: http://www.realtimearts.net/article/issue14/5771.
Cornflakes: Lucas Ihlein
(by Denis Garvey)
The table is set by two stage hands. Tablecloth, bowl, spoon, milk, sugar, Corn Flakes. The performer moves from the audience, sits down at the table, serves himself and eats a bowl of Corn Flakes, then returns to the audience.
Jiminy Cricket!! No existential dilemma here. Blocks come forward to eat. Simple as that. Betcha I can anticipate your moves! First look. Waxy inserts disappeared down cardboard sleeve. He unfolds. Rolls it up. Crinkles right. Stops moths breeding. Never had that problem at our house. Packet didn’t go right back in again. If you took it out, searching for some gun or horse to race other plastic horses your brother collected to see who crossed the table top first. Upend packet. Into bowl. Fuller than I would have thought. No poncy fruit on top. That’s right. Hey, wait a minute. You don’t have milk in fuckin’ jugs. Where I come from it’s carton or nothing. And you don’t take the spoon out if it’s already in. To put sugar on. Sugar bowl’s OK, I suppose. And a tablecloth? Nice touch, but a red gingham tablecloth? Funny, I’d have picked him for a two sugar man. It’d have been funnier if you’d kept piling the sugar on. Tablespoon after tablespoon after tablespoon. Like Buster Keaton. My Mum did for my Dad. Killed him in the end, you know. Now, the milk doesn’t have to go round the same configurations as the sugar. As the sun. Push down with your spoon! Sounds right. Now eat. Great big spoonfuls. Spoon’s full. Open wide. Lockjaw. Remove spoon. Crunch! Spoons are the only eating utensil allowed in that cavity. You put those things inside your mouth in the 1950s. Read the packet. Thiamine, Riboflavin, Niacin, Iron, Protein, Fat, Carbohydrate, Sugars. Sugar? Turn the packet around again in a wider configuration. Read the back. How nowadays you stand to win a car. The real thing. Come to think of it, wasn’t Kellogg some sort of paedophile or something? Perhaps that’s the answer. And didn’t the world war machine keep on supplying Pol Pot with Corn Flakes, guns—into the 1990s? There’s nothing to say popular culture must be original. Better if it isn’t really. Like the Marlboro man you smoke for the same taste each time. Killed you in the end. It killed him. Tilting of the bowl. Spooning up the last of the milk. Will there be a Corn Flakes Man of the future? Doing counter ads on prime time TV? This is what Corn Flakes did for me. Look away. Cutaway. Stomach. Shot. To bits of ant-like pincers putting us in stitches. You don’t think so? And wasn’t the ending a little too pat? Peremptory? The world war machine didn’t keep supplying Pol Pot with Corn Flakes into the 1990s. You deserve to flee. Escape. Your addiction. I mean back to the audience. Me. I’d have, I’d have savoured the moment. Gone. For another bowl.