Once Upon a Time in the West


King. Novelty Peanuts. Research material for The Killers.












A service station on the A419 the Junction 13 on the M5 motorway between Gloucester and Stroud.

A disused Little Chef stands amongst a series of confusing mini car parks, entry and exit slip roads, small islands of stepped curbs and brown conifers in stone plant pots. A Shell garage forecourt and shop remain open.

A car pulls up and two men get out. One has curly hair and wears a navy blue bomber jacket. He adjusts his trousers and walks into the shop. The other man, taller, is wearing a maroon scarf fills up their small Fiat Punto. They purchase the fuel; two scotch eggs, a steak and mushroom slice, a tube of sour cream pringles and a packet of polo mints. They get back in the car and pull into a small car park to the left of the Little Chef. The engine stops.

After the recent completion of my PhD I have begun working on potential performance work to be held in a disused Little Chef. I have begun to collected visual research including images, films and objects and written a number of texts in response to them. From these materials I have started to form a structure, a shape, to what I might make. I wanted to use my talk to expose the early stages of this process, to show how my visual research, as a performance maker, informs my studio practice and how I think about all materials – objects, texts, music, films, images as ‘things to think with’ rather than just about. I want to suggest what a ‘thinking with things’ might look like. Through working with these materials, I want to propose how they have galvanised my thinking within the initial stages of making and are providing a potential a compositional logic through which the subsequent performance might be held together.




It started with a reading of Ernest Hemmingway’s short story The Killers from 1927.


Still from The Killers. Andrei Tarkovsky (1956).












In the story, two contract killers arrive at a diner an hour before an assassination. They are planning to kill a man who is asleep in a nearby apartment. After being refused liqueur they order coffee and very quickly, over the duration of an hour they terrorize the diner owner and a customer and tie up the chef in the kitchen. There is a clock in the diner, and time oddly shifts and disrupts the reading of the story. It appears to change irregularly speeding up and slowing down as the hour counts down to the inevitable killing.

Before they leave, the customer – a young boy – escapes and runs to warn the man who is due to be killed. For me, the most curious aspect of this story comes next. The the man does not panic, he does not move, but just lies back, folds his hands behind his head and accepts his fate.

I was interested in the clock, in the contortion and interplay of time.

I was interested in the acceptance of the condemned man of his fate an action that seemed to correlate with the final lines in Albert Camus ‘the outsider’: “I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself – so like a brother, really – I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.”

I was interested in the figures of the two killers – not as characters – but as assassins from a film noir or the presence of hired men in a western. Like the shadowy figures in the terrifying scene of identical men in coats continually passing the knife over the trembling body of ‘K’ in Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

I thought about the text in relation to a disused little chef just on the M5 near Gloucester. I did not want to stage the text or adapt it but to think about how the ideas of time, existential submission and the figures of hired assassins might be the beginning points for a series of objects/actions or interventions.

I started visiting the site and made drawings and texts in relation to it and became interested in the long window of the building.


Window 2
Little Chief Window, M5 J19 Stroud.


I was drawn to the sensation of seeing things partially through the glass – reflection and haze – but not being able to hear them. I started to use the window as a frame to think about how actions, objects and texts might be viewed through it. I thought of an audience sitting outside looking onto the window and seeing scenarios played out. I thought about constructing a sound envelope for the audience through which all the actions and sounds inside could be mediated, mixed live with pre-recorded sounds and contact microphones. I thought about how the site – as a disused space – and how it could take on multiple functions simultaneously. The window could act as a landscape view so that figures and sound appear and disappear within it.




Paul Graham. Image from A1 – the Great North Road (1981/1982)


I want to talk about three ideas in relation to this image.

The first idea concerns the sites and objects that accompany us in the gaps between the so-called ‘events’ of our lives. I am talking about sites such as service stations, stairwells, foyers, and the interiors of cars and also the objects you might find in there, such as biro pens, filing cabinets, notice boards and cafeteria chairs.

Then, how these sites and objects might bear witnesses to miraculous moments as well. The moment you first see the person you fall in love with – stood on some blue carpet tiles – The place you hear about getting your first job – accompanied by a cheese plant in a dentists waiting room and of course the banal surroundings that accompany so many moments of death.

The most curious aspects of life do not always happen as part of a romantic vista but sometimes within these gaps, places that are set up to service existence rather than being somewhere existence is meant to happen.

The second idea is how places like Little Chef and the paraphilia and objects that surround them – vinyl booths, candy stripe awnings, coffee counters, pancakes and cherry pie – carry approximations of American culture. These approximations were perhaps once exotic in the heyday of little chef, the 1980s, full of the promise of choice and freedom. These promises have now been obscured and faded through the long, awkward and uncertain period of dissolving late Western Capitalism.

American Capitalism was the market driven system that Britain adopted so heartily in the 1980s through Margeret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s brand of Neoliberal free market economics. This was, or so it seemed, sold through a simplified dream – the dream of the possibilities of self-interest – of goodies and baddies –– us and them. For me, Little Chef retains an idea of this particularly American Dream refracted through a 1950s nostalgia and a Bristishness that politely transforms the experience for its diners. It favours tea over coffee and an early starter breakfast over stacks of bacon and pancakes: Approximations of an American dream that perhaps never existed to begin with.


The third idea is about waiting.

Waiting for a journey to continue.

Waiting for someone to return.

Waiting until it is time to leave.




The next piece of material is the opening sequence to Serge Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

Cropped film still: Charles Bronson from Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).


The film opens at the station of an early frontier town.

The building of Modern America.

A group of contract killers arrive. And they wait for an oncoming train.

I think about rhythm and the how amplified objects might build a sound track. The water, the windmill, the knuckles, the fly the ticket machine.

I think about how the rhythm of editing expands and contracts time.

I think about how time itself becomes a character.

I think about the cross section of the station and the theatricality of the perspectives.

I think about the framing of landscapes – the anticipation of the empty train track

I think about how the scene built the figure of Charles Bronson’s character.

I think about a cowboy story set in the west of England.




A Little Chef advert from 1982


Screen Shot 2015-02-02 at 00.05.39
Still from little Chief TV Advert (1982).


With this advert I think about the appearance of ghosts – how hallucinations and phantoms can be present in the material stuff we encounter.

The uncanny sensation of seeing ‘old’ food – I always found the pictures of old food in my mums 70s and 80s cookbooks unsettling.

The terrifying prospect of men in mascot suites.

The Spectres of Marx.




This summer I intend to bring this material into the studio to test sequences of objects, actions, sounds and texts

Although I will need to look for a new location.

In January I was passing the site of the Little Chef and realised it had be purchased. It was no longer disused and in it’s place, a brand new Starbucks.