Metal detectives

by Katherine Hall
Metal Detectives: Elana Brake. Photo Credit Katherine Hall

Metal Detectives: Elena Brake. Photo Credit Katherine Hall

If you were walking through Plymouth town centre at 4pm on Saturday 23rd, you may have noticed a group of girls clad in matching biohazard suits tapping everything in sight with a magnet: trees, bottles, drain covers, benches… you name it they tapped it! Following each of these interactions, the girls were stating aloud one of two things: “this is magnetic”, or “this is not magnetic”.

Now, anybody with any sense knows that a tree isn’t magnetic, so why were they bothering to check it for themselves? Why were they testing cobblestone after cobblestone, stating “this is not magnetic” after each one, when everybody already knows that cobblestones aren’t magnetic? What was the point of tapping each one individually? The outcome was only going to be the same as the one before it. What could possibly be the aim of this odd repetitive exercise?

The person behind this strange activity, called “Metal Detectives”, is the artist Elena Brake, and it was performed as part of the Plymouth Art Weekender. In her artist’s statement, Brake says her work “plays on the edge of boredom and expectation through exaggeration and repetition of detail.” She describes “Metal Detectives” as a “re-navigation of familiar spaces” through psychogeography. This unfamiliar term was coined by the Marxist theorist Guy Debord in 1955, and is defined as an exploration of urban environments that emphasizes playfulness and “drifting”.

Despite only graduating from her BA in Fine Art at Plymouth College of Art a year ago, Brake has already built up an impressive body of artwork. Recent works of hers include “Sowing Seeds (2017)”, a performance with fellow artists Devon Forrester-Jones and Evelina Tracuma that consisted of planting seeds in the urban landscape of Liverpool, knowing full well that most of these seeds will not germinate on concrete. This work was also published in the Dwell Collective’s debut zine at the Plymouth Art Weekender. Another work, “Tying Knots (2016)”, was shown as part of Fringe Bath Arts Festival last May.

Elena Brake:Metal Detectives. Photo credit James Wray

Elena Brake:Metal Detectives. Photo credit James Wray

Elena Brake: Metal Detectives. Photo credit Katherine Hall

Elena Brake: Metal Detectives. Photo credit Katherine Hall

Brake first performed “Metal Detectives” in Liverpool as part of The Devon Exchange with Forrester-Jones, and they decided to approach students at Plymouth College of Art to help with a scaled-up version of the work for the Art Weekender. I was one of the students who volunteered to help.
As I donned my biohazard suit and began poking at cigarette butts and dead leaves, there was a definite feeling of self consciousness and being out of place in a street of people going about their daily business. We certainly got a few funny looks, but after about 5 minutes I really settled in to the performance.

I stood up. I walked a pace. I squatted down. I tapped my magnet on a drain cover. “This is magnetic.”
I stood up. I walked a pace. I squatted down. I tapped my magnet on a discarded food wrapper. “This is not magnetic”.
I stood up. I walked a pace. I squatted down. I tapped my magnet on a lighter. “This is not magnetic”. How about the metal cap? “This is magnetic.”

As we proceeded up and down Armada Way, I found myself experiencing somewhere I had walked hundreds of times before in a completely different way. I found a rusted nail (“this is magnetic”) in a tree, the notice it had held having gone long ago. I found a ginkgo leaf (“this is not magnetic”) on the floor, but I have never noticed a ginkgo tree on Armada way – am I missing something blindingly obvious, that I have somehow overlooked for two years? Or did it blow in on the wind from elsewhere?

 

Elena Brake:Metal Detectives. Photo credit James Wray

Elena Brake:Metal Detectives. Photo credit James Wray

It is exactly these little re-evaluations of the everyday environment that Brake highlights in her work. Through her simple and accessible methods, she crosses the traditional boundaries of art and invites the viewer to follow. Several times during the performance, we were approached by curious children and teenagers wanting to borrow a magnet and join the process. Elena’s playful and friendly approach to her practice has a very important role in dismantling the rigid structure that has been set up in many art spaces, as well as encouraging a more mindful and meditative outlook to domesticity. It is in these quiet moments that one can find the magic of the everyday.

Elena Brake is an emerging artist based in Plymouth, UK. Through performance, installation and video she reimagines and enchants our everyday experiences.
elenabrake.co.uk