Camden Arts Centre resurrects an oath sworn by visitors to Highgate’s pub

The swearing on the horns tradition, which died out in 1875 is being performed once more as part of an exhibition investigating rituals and rites

�A farcical oath once foisted on visitors to Highgate inns and the working songs of Hampstead tradespeople are both given new life in artist Laura Eldret’s performances in A New Ceremony For Hampstead in the summer events programme at Camden Arts Centre.

The oath – known as The Swearing On The Horns – originated in the 16th century and had many versions. One included these stanzas: “You must not drink small beer while you can get strong, except you like the small the best. You must not kiss the maid while you can kiss the mistress, except you like the maid the best, but sooner than lose a good chance you may kiss them both.”

In 1832, the Penny Magazine of the Society of the Diffusion of Knowledge described the ceremony as “mummeries of a past age, when boisterous merriment was mistaken for happiness”. It provided sport for pub regulars and other witnesses but, by 1875, the tradition had almost died out. A 1906 staging, by the Hampstead Antiquarian and Historical Society, is pictured.

Eldret’s adaptation of the oath will be performed at The Wrestlers, 98 North Road, Highgate, at 2pm on Saturday followed by the first part of A New Ceremony For Hampstead at 2.30pm.

For the second part, Eldret has explored her interest in how art and life can mirror and enrich each other. She set out to recruit Camden plumbers, plasterers, carpenters, electricians, etc, willing and able to perform a new folk song combining issues of contemporary life and trade. A Song For A Tradesman’s Choir will be performed at CAC on Wednesday at 7pm.

Eldret took as her starting point for these performances one of CAC’s current exhibitions, Necklace Of Fake Teeth by French artist Mathilde Rosier, who is fascinated by rituals and rites. At the preview, curious masks resembling a beaked mollusc and made by Rosier were worn by a group of participants carrying out an enigmatic initiation ceremony in the gallery overlooking Finchley Road. I found the film of this event – like a surreal cocktail party – the most engaging work in Rosier’s exhibition of paintings, sculptural assemblages and film.

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There are richer pickings to be had in The Disorientation Scientist, the first UK solo exhibition of work by Canadian artist David Askevold. He was a pioneer in experimental video, sound, photography and text who was drawn to the world of arcane knowledge including the occult. This survey brings together seminal pieces from the 1970s with documentation of later performances and collaborative works made with better known artists who were once his students – Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler.

The exhibition starts with a zing – with an artwork that came out of one of Askevold’s early 70s projects involving snakes. This one went badly wrong, as might have been expected. At a junction in a town in New Mexico, a large circle was drawn and six volunteers posted on its perimeter armed with bushy branches. Two cameramen on nearby roofs began filming as six rattlesnakes were released in the centre of the circle.

The plan was to beat them back with the branches so they coiled up in the centre. But one volunteer dropped his branch, a snake bit him and, in the ensuing commotion, a cameraman knocked his equipment off the roof. The volunteer was rushed to hospital and survived but the camera didn’t. Taming Expansions 1971 consists of Askevold’s typed account of the event, a photograph of the location and a diagram of how the snakes should have acted had all gone to plan.

A second reptilian artwork – Kepler’s Music Of The Spheres Played By Six Snakes – is a recording of sounds made when six snakes were given metal balls to coil around. In a pamphlet accompanying the exhibition, Notes On How To Look At A(rt)skevold, Oursler introduces a worrying idea: “Are snakes below the foundation of the exhibition?”

n Until September 25. Camden Arts Centre is at the junction of Arkwright Road and Finchley Road, near Finchley Road tube station. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm and on Wednesdays until 9pm. On September 11, Eldret’s New Ceremony For Hampstead will performed hourly between 2pm and 4pm. If you would like to join in or share your stories of Hampstead rituals, contact Laura Eldret through CAC at info@ or 020-7472 5500. For online booking of events, visit