Beyond the fringe: What happened when an art collective invited children to take over a Newcastle hair salon?

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Did the kids make the cut? And what exactly is the serious message behind those Day-Glo do's?

Sunday afternoon in the fashionable Saks hair- dressing salon on Newcastle's Market Street, and a team of stylists, concealed slightly by a thick fog of spray-on hair colour, are busy snipping away. One customer nervously inspects his new look. It's a daring two-in-one hairdo featuring a sleek monkish bowl on top and a patchwork of wobbly tramlines below. Another client removes his gown to find a thick trickle of turquoise colour rolling down the back of his neck. And a woman, who comes in requesting that they turn her into the tousled model of the photograph in the salon's window, walks out with a look that can best be described as asylum chic.

Still, they only have themselves to blame. Each one voluntarily booked in to have their hair cut by a child (average age nine-and-a-quarter), so the liberal use of colour and unpredictable results is hardly something they've grounds to complain about. "When we advertised that we were doing free haircuts by children, the phone started ringing off the hook," says Saks' owner, Adam McMenamin. "Every slot was snapped up; we've done around 50 clients in two days." Yesterday, such local luminaries as the leader of Newcastle City Council John Shipley and Gateshead councillor Mick Henry dropped in. Henry bravely let two nine-year-olds loose with a pair of clippers on his beard, while Shipley left the salon sporting a flourescent orange star stencilled on his head.

The idea for Haircuts by Children comes from renowned Canadian art collective Mammalian Diving Reflex (MDF), which specialises in creating unusual social situations between children and adults as a means of subtly examining issues such as trust and perception. The first Haircuts by Children was held in Toronto in 2006 and was such a success it has since been exported to salons all over the world, from New York, Portland and LA to Milan, Vancouver and Sydney. It's come to the north-east this weekend as part of a new arts festival called Wunderbar. "We create environments where ordinary social dynamics have kind of been derailed a bit," says artistic director Darren O'Donnell. "Initially we used it as a way of looking at the simple issue ' of children's rights and the fact that there are so many things that kids are not allowed to do these days. But it has developed into something much more."

All the Saks stylists this weekend are pupils from Walkergate Primary School, which lies a few miles north of the city centre in an area of high unemployment and economic deprivation. There are 24 of them and each one is taking it very seriously. MDF representatives, along with local stylist Lisa Whitlock, have been going to the school every afternoon for the past week to teach the children how to deal with tricky customers and, more importantly, how to cut hair.

The training has clearly paid off. Andy Wilson, who came in with a long blond ponytail, leaves with a fine green mohican. "I'm well impressed," he says, "it's exactly what I asked for. I'm going to see if Shannon, my stylist, can do my hair again next time." Another customer, 27-year-old John O'Shea, is equally upbeat. "I don't often get the chance to have a designer hair-do – normally it's just a number-three [shave] all over," he says. "I've got some important meetings tomorrow and I'm looking forward to making a good impression."

Unintentionally, it seems a lot of cutting-edge styles are being created in the salon today. Kate Metcalfe, who leaves with a short, scarlet fringe, loves it so much that she wishes she'd dared to be more radical. A cry of, "It's the Beckham look!" comes from another happy customer across the ' salon. Rapturous applause breaks out as the eight-year-old responsible carefully places her scissors aside with the kind of gravitas that comes of an epic 40-minute cutting session.

"Lots of people let the kids do something they wouldn't ordinarily do and actually end up liking it and keeping it," says O'Donnell. "There was one guy in Vancouver who'd had the same ugly haircut that everybody had hated for years and he let the kids do whatever they wanted, and they gave him something that he's since kept and that everybody now compliments him on."

It's a scene that reminds me of an installation that took place in Dazed & Confused magazine's gallery space in the mid-1990s. Madcap hairdresser Jonny Drill was given a residency there and he invited members of the public in, on the condition that he could do to them whatever he liked – no mirrors allowed. He sent his victims screaming, crying and laughing back on to the street with elongated foreheads where he'd shaved along the hairline, anarchic tramlines and every stage of mohican going. A precursor, perhaps, to some of the unfathomable looks deemed trendy today.

Spurred on by the lure of a high-fashion haircut, I ask the stylists if I can have my hair done. Eight-year-old Megan Leightley and 10-year-old Kyle Thompson manage to squeeze me in between appointments; I'm their sixth of the day. "It's hard," says Kyle, as he pulls the comb through my hair, "because you cut yourself a lot. I've done it three times today; you have to concentrate hard." They start randomly hacking away at the back. "Let me know if you're uncomfortable, won't you," says Kyle. But I'm not because they're gentle and sweet. They don't pull on my hair, despite the fact that Kyle informs me that it's "a bit stiff". They don't bore me with silly questions about where I'm going on holiday and, what's more, they're both the perfect height for cutting. It gets me wondering why we don't staff all our service industries with children; they're so much less rude and annoying. Then I remember that that would be illegal. The only downside to it all is the natural discrepancy that occurs from having one child working on one side of your head and another on the other. For now, I'll just call it asymmetric.

It's interesting how many customers who have booked in today find the normal salon experience unbearable – the fakery, the mirrors, the vanity. "I'm spooked by hairdressers," says Simon Turner. "I'd rather go to the dentist any day." It's not often you see a scared adult seeking solace in a child, but today there are many. Many people haven't dared set foot in a salon for years and either never get their hair cut, do it themselves or shave it off. "I can't bear the obsession with perfection," says another customer. "I've been looking for someone who wants to break the rules of hairdressing and these kids are it. I trust them way more than I would a normal hairdresser."

It's interesting too, to note the differences that Haircuts by Children has thrown up between nationalities. When MDF took it to Italy, for example, the parents of the children got much more involved. "Maybe it's the Italian mum thing. I don't know, but we were definitely having to kick a few of them out of the cutting area," says O'Donnell. When it went to Derry, there was a large uptake among the ageing population. "Tons of old people kept turning up," says O'Donnell. "Maybe it was the offer of a free haircut." The most radical styles, he thinks, came out of Vancouver and the only complaint from Norway. "Some guy came to get his haircut and he didn't know what was going on and we said it was a free haircut day by a kid and he kind of accepted this. Of course, the kid did the haircut and it was ridiculous and he was incensed and his friend was like, 'Well you have to fix that,' and the kid was like, 'There's no fixing it, that's the haircut.' So they left in a big huff."

Aside from this, though, there are many serious undercurrents to Haircuts by Children. "The more we've developed it, the more unexpected issues have come out of it," says O'Donnell. "There's so much paranoia right now about strangers and stranger danger that there is rarely any time when kids and adults, who don't know each other, get to spend time together. This project is a kind of safe, controlled environment where a small, quiet conversation can occur between a kid and an adult. It's a rare moment that crosses generations."

O'Donnell cites a book called How to Live Dangerously: Why We Should All Stop Worrying and Start Living by Warwick Cairns as inspiration. In Cairns' book, statistics show that if, for whatever reason, you wished your child to get abducted, that child would, on average, need to hang out on a street corner for 200,000 years before actually getting picked up, and even then it would be returned within 24 hours. And if you wanted to get your child abducted permanently, that would be a 600,000-year wait. "We are just trying to acknowledge in some small way that it is actually a relatively safe world out there," says O'Donnell.

MDF is currently working on another children's project called Eat the Street, where it gets a group of children to dine out in a number of restaurants and then dish out awards afterwards. "What we're essentially doing is asking the restaurants to accommodate kids and adjust their levels of professionalism accordingly," says O'Donnell. "It's surprising how this makes some restaurants very, very anxious." Next year, MDF is hoping to bring another children's project to Canning Town as part of the London International Festival of Theatre called The Night of a Zillion Parties, which will be directed and curated by the children themselves. "It speaks more when kids come in on a social scenario," says O'Donnell. "Everyone is more lenient with each other. It raises the levels of generosity."

Meanwhile, back at the salon, it's unclear how generous Jane McCourt is being to her husband Derek, as she is doubled over laughing at his new look – which, incidentally, she roped him into having. "I think it's hilarious," she says. "I love the abattoir look above his ears. He'd never in his life have chosen this haircut. I think it's fantastic someone has done this to him."

"Yes," says Derek apprehensively glancing in the mirror, "I'm off to buy a hat."

For more about Mammalian Diving Reflex, mammalian.ca. For more about the Wunderbar Festival, wunderbarfestival.co.uk

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