One day, when I was in primary school, my mum asked if I wanted to be, as she put it, “like the girls in the hot chocolate advert.” This is how I remember arriving at the slightly unusual situation of taking synchronised swimming lessons from a Russian Olympic gymnast at Easterhouse Pool. I kept it up for a few years, but quit before we got to the actual synchronisation.
The practice of synchronised swimming begins with training in strength and flexibility. The primary pose which we took over and over again was to lie on your stomach and lift your feet up and over the top of your head. I got so good at this that my big toe would rest on my lip. I could do the pose standing or sitting. During one class, I remember a younger girl being picked up by her knees, like a handbag, while in the pose. Girls would be pushed down by their shoulders into an ever flatter set of splits. Our bodies were in service to the shape the coach wanted us to inhabit, readying us to be choreographed.
In training, swimming is secondary to flexibility and strength. You must learn to be underwater in many different poses, and to be able to breathe in such a way that a sudden move in any direction doesn’t force water into your sinuses. Forward and backward rolls were practiced with empty 2-litre milk jugs as a float in each hand. We did time trial swims, pushing off and turning under the water when reaching the wall. I remember, at least a few times, loudly cracking my head against the tile while trying this manoeuvre. It was also practiced by holding the wall, your knees holding on over the pool side while forcing yourself into the water headfirst.
During Festival 2018, the cultural program for the Glasgow European Championships, artist Janice Kerbel’s SINK takes place at The Western Baths. As we descend the stairs from the entrance, my husband turns to me and says “it smells like chlorine and chips.” By the pool it is warm and wet, and I am sitting on a long school gym bench, fully clothed. A sign says the pool is just 2 meters deep. Not a lot of room for diving. We look up at the roof which is made of corrugated iron with decorative ironwork, and my friend Tiffany says “it is like a church to swimming”, and it is.
There are changing booths either end of the pool with swing doors. As the metronome counts in 4/4, the swimmers file out from the sauna to the back of the pool wearing austere swimming costumes: a black spaghetti strap on one shoulder, a thick strap on the other. No sequins or glitter. They wear orange goggles, nose clips and white latex caps. Two get in the pool first, then four. The four lie in the pool like planks, two turning aside the other two sideways in opposite directions. Then, incrementally, more women join them until all are in the pool together.
There is no dancing or acrobatics in the routine. Some performers swim gently under poised floating bodies. At one point there is an impressive smooth rising motion, and some women appear from the depths feet-first in a diagonal ascent, as though rising from the dead. I notice the sharpness of the moves in scissor kicks and in the thrill of their tight legs splashing me at the poolside. Bottoms are bobbing out of the pool and back in again. Performers twist in and out of the water with one leg up, then twisting down and up with one leg tightly screwed to the body. There is a chaotic but organised splashing, like feigned drowning.
Ultimately it is the level of control exerted here which puts us at a remove from the otherwise exaggerated and violent motions of kicking and thrashing. In taking the form of sporting routine, we are encouraged to admire the skill and beauty of the swimmers, who, in order to throw their legs out of the water without hitting the other women around them, must be using incredible upper body strength to hold themselves aloft from the pool floor.
The end of the performance is signalled as the group splits, with half exiting at the deep end, and half at the shallow. The half at the shallow turn their backs to us and advance out, white caps bobbing. We have rarely seen the heads of the swimmers throughout the performance and the caps are reminiscent of white flags: a truce.
Janice Kerbel’s works borrow from the conventions of different narrative structures, and often carry violent connotations. Previous works have included prints of scores for a fight, and DOUG, a Turner Prize shortlisted performance of sung compositions, whose parts are named Fall, Hit, Choke, Bear, Crash, Sink, Strike, and Slip.
‘Sink’ is reused here as a title. A description of the work by The Common Guild—who commissioned the work—states that synchronised swimming is used here as a language of performance, of sporting bodies following a score. The performers can be seen like individual notes on a stave, or perhaps take on the basic visual elements of mime in black and white costumes. In breaking down gestures of violence and aggression into single motions, the affect is not frightening, but entrancing—almost therapeutic. The use of sport as form in this work doesn’t feel forced. Instead it pulls me right back in at the deep end, and to my desire to swim, not sink.
‘Sink’ was commissioned by The Common Guild as part of Festival 2018, the cultural programme for the Glasgow 2018 European Championships. Supported by The High Commission of Canada. Performed on 3 August 2018 at The Western Baths Club, Glasgow.
Emma Balkind is a Teaching Fellow in Visual Cultures at Edinburgh College of Art at the University of Edinburgh, and Associate Faculty in Curatorial Practice at Glasgow School of Art.