Art in the dock: Clare Bayley visits a law court in Nottingham. Inside she finds a judge in a glass house and Virgil Tracy taking visitors' fingerprints

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Some people think that performance artists should be locked up, but shut them in a law court for a few weeks and what do they do? Transform it into art. Nottingham's Now '93 festiva1 has commissioned four artists, Alistair Maclennan, Virgil Tracy, Jordan MacKenzie and Tom Hackett to make installations in the disused law courts under the collective title Rites of Conviction.

For the first time in its history the holding cell beneath the main courtroom will be open for inspection by visitors who will have more than a 50-50 chance of walking free at the end of their visit. In situ will be Alistair Maclennan, a doyen of British performance artists, along with three greenhouses, a judge's hammer, a collection of sharp pebbles, a lot of sand, a transparent glass vases and a judge's wig. Maclennan's performances and interventions span nearly 20 years, and he is prolific in his work: this year alone he has been seen with 24 prams in Ferens art gallery, Hull, conducting a 24-hour vigil in a monk's cowl in a gallery in Poland and tying ribbons to the trees in a London park for the Woodwork event.

Maclennan is understandably reluctant to talk in detail about his holding cell piece for fear of spoiling the effect. The three inverted greenhouses and the pebbles, however, bring to mind the saying, 'People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones'. 'It relates to the circumstance of being on trial and being in judgement,' he concedes, and continues, 'as it concerns an art work or an individual, or the law or the culture, and the various interfaces between them. A whole range of ironies and doubles entendres come into play.'

His chosen title, Am No, sheds little more light on the event, until you start to think about it. 'I wanted a title which seems simple but awkward, possibly bad grammar, like two words in the middle of a sentence, the start of which isn't given and the end of which isn't given . . .'

It is a sentence which must remain unfinished, even upstairs in the courtroom, where Jordan MacKenzie's installation Godwall will be playing. To be viewed from the dock, it consists of a brick wall placed in front of the judge's bench into which video monitors have been set, drawing links between the law and religion. 'The seat of judgement is symbolic of God,' says MacKenzie, 'and the courtroom mirrors the organisation of heaven. But I feel at the moment there's a real crisis in both these systems. We have a schizophrenic approach to the law because on the one hand we're asking it to take over and be strong and look after us, but on the other we've lost all faith in it,' says MacKenzie.

The artist has himself seen the rough edge of the law. His last installation, Cubicle, was to be built in a men's toilet to explore the phenomenon of cottaging, but was deemed 'obscene' and banned by Nottingham council. It's ironic considering the success that DV8's dance piece, MSM, also about cottaging, is currently enjoying. 'By wanting to put Cubicle in a toilet where this thing actually happens, I was crossing some invisible barrier. If it had been in a legitimate art space it would have been different, but my work is always placed in context. I want to tap into the history of a building - the toilets or the law courts - to further and enrich that history with my work.'

Virgil Tracy is another artist who has achieved some notoriety, not least through his name. Christened David Owen, but fed up with skits about the SDP leader, he changed his name by deed poll in honour of his favourite Thunderbirds character. But it was a slippery slope from there and, having discovered how easy a legal process it was, he developed a taste for name-swapping. In a gesture of solidarity for a 71- year-old poll tax defaulter who was imprisoned for 23 days, he changed his name to William 'Des' Atkinson. And then he started doing it for art's sake.

A performance piece for the Sheffield Media show earlier this year had him sitting like a gallery attendant in a show of personal ephemera: his birth certificate, baby photos. As audience members arrived, they had to sign themselves in; by the time they left, they discovered that the attendant-artist had changed his name to their name and displayed the legal doumcent on the wall for all to see. During the course of a week he changed his name 82 times. Didn't the punters become enraged at this appropriation of their most distinguishing feature? 'Not really,' shrugs the 28- year-old artist, 'although there was one woman who refused to go in, saying 'There's only one Natalie'. People attach such importance to names.'

His performance piece for Rites of Conviction is called Index, and its aim is to draw people's attention to the amount of information we unwittingly give away, and which is kept on file without our ever being able to check its accuracy. Virgil Tracy will be collecting information from people as they arrive at the courts, and presenting them with their collated files as they leave. 'I don't know how I'm going to manage it all if there's a lot of people,' he sighs. 'I'm certain to make mistakes if I'm rushed, but then that's the point of the piece.'

Rites of Conviction at Nottingham's Shire Hall runs from 13-19 November. Now '93 festival of new art runs until 8 December. Jordan MacKenzie's Cubicle will be seen in a toilet in Manchester for the It's Queen Up North festival in June 1994.

(Photograph omitted)