Sunday, March 11, 2007

"The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?"

OK so Jean Baudrillard and John Inman arrive at the Pearly Gates at the same time, and... if you can complete that joke in 30 words or less, please let me know. There's something in there somewhere. I suppose an argument ensues as to whether Mr Humphries is actually free or whether he merely experiences a simulation of freedom whose limits are coterminous with the parameters of consumption. Drat, still can't quite get to a punchline.

What a week, my friends. On Friday afternoon I finally got to a point where I felt so exhausted and run-down that I honestly didn't know what to do with myself -- I was out and about in town, with lots to do, but I couldn't even take the decision not to do any of it and go home because I really couldn't face the journey home either. Things have been really busy from the moment I got back from Sydney and I think I've been stressed out by that more than usual because I was trying so hard to preserve a little bit of quiet time in this February / March spell, before everything kicks off in April.

I'm also sleeping really badly, which is not like me -- as Ralph Wiggum says, "Sleep! That's where I'm a Viking!" In fact it wasn't until yesterday, by which I was feeling quite a bit better, that I made the connection I'm always slow to make. Early March and early October are the two periods in the year where I'm most vulnerable in my bipolar cycle, and though I don't generally get seriously depressed now without a specific trigger (unless I don't have much else going on, in which case it's likely to seep in), I very often at these times experience sleep disturbance and fatigue and a few other dodgy signals, like a furiously short temper and a real pall of misanthropy. (As Dorothy P said of Calvin C: "How could they tell?")

Fingers crossed I'm over the worst, and if that's the case then I've got off pretty lightly. I really should try to reclaim weekends. Yesterday was the first day since January 24th that I wasn't, essentially, at work pretty much all day. I just hung out at home, perversely enjoying not making the most of the sunshine, and falling deep into a YouTube catatonia. Actually to be honest I spent quite a bit of time working on An Apparently Closed Room too, but it's hard to think of that as work.

Anyway, here are a few nutshells with bits of my past week in them. I hope you'll forgive the lack of grand narrative.

(Actually slightly more than a week ago...:) Jeppe Hein's Distance at the Barbican Curve. Hein's Appearing Rooms, his fountain installation for the South Bank Centre, was my favourite piece of public art last year, and has been frequently on my mind in thinking about rooms for AACR. I didn't enjoy Distance as much, but it's worth seeing. It's basically a big one of these (though without the music, regrettably). It takes about five minutes to follow a ball around the whole circuit, and because the course runs the length of the Curve (and back again) you can't see the whole of the thing at once, which is neat. There are some nice moments in the plot of it, delicate and funny and occasionally surprising. Honestly, I think I was expecting more, and never quite stopped wanting more, but more what?, I couldn't tell you. It runs till April 29th and it's certainly worth a quick visit; take kids if you can, but don't nick any if you haven't, it probably doesn't make that big a difference.

I spent all of Monday (and most of Tuesday) getting ready for Tuesday, giving my paper to the Research Seminar at CSSD. I'm kicking myself a bit, I kind of underestimated my audience (and kind of overestimated myself), in that I thought I might need to pitch the thing at, like, postgraduate students who might not have spent much time thinking about the territory I was exploring (liminality and, for want of a better luggage tag, post-liminality), might not even know their way around the basics terribly well. As it turned out, my audience -- I think we call this one a select gathering, it wasn't the kind of size of turnout that makes you want to bathe in its rosy glow -- were all, or very nearly all, faculty, and had mostly turned out because they're already thinking in some detail about this stuff. Everyone was very kind and courteous but during the Q&A I started to feel like a fraud, really. I know I'm not, I'm just at the edge of my thinking capacities, and I never pretended to anyone that I was an academic. But I didn't have cogent answers to most of the questions, and though it was nice to feel stretched (and friendly enough company in which to do so), I did start to hanker for the sort of reaction I normally get when I start going on about post-liminality: polite smiling and a change of subject. On the whole it was a good experience and it certainly showed up the faultlines in my thinking -- in particular, it's incredibly difficult to separate out liminal aesthetics from liminal form, and liminal form in the artwork from liminal structures at the wider cultural level. Also, the event came with a nice bonus of dinner with the brilliant Simon Shepherd and a youngish scenographer called Simon Donger who was immensely engaging and attractive company. And pretty decent food, too: starting with a beetroot tarte tatin that definitely had me at hello... -- Unfortunately I can't share the grub with you but if you want to take a look at the paper I gave, you can download it here. There'll be nothing new to most Thompson's regulars or anyone who's tried to have a conversation about theatre with me in the past four years, but if you want to take a look, be my guest. Actually, I did manage to whip up an accompanying PowerPoint presentation that was, may I say, kind of tasty. But I'll keep that to myself.

Wednesday was the opening of the Petra's Pulse show Donkey Shadow at the Shunt Vaults, in a new reworked version featuring, for the first time in a PP show, a third performer: my old mucker Tom Lyall. I loved Donkey Shadow to bits when it was at CPT last year, though it was pretty clunky and needed a bit of further tinkering to really take off. Well it had quite a lot of tinkering (including the co-option of Tom and also of Wendy Hubbard, who turned my Kiss of Life into a functional theatre show just in time for its Australian outing), but it really struggled in a very curious and difficult performance space. (I was talking today to Shunt's Gemma Brockis about it and she said she agreed how ironic it was: Shunt held up as these exemplars of experimental practice, particularly in their use of space, and yet there in the space that Donkey Shadow was being performed, you have probably the stonkingest proscenium arch in all of London!) There was still plenty of gorgeous imagery and Selina in particular gave a beautifully nuanced performance, but the clunks were clunkier than ever, the longeurs more painful, and the ambitious length of the piece began to seem like a self-indulgent misjudgement. So it was kind of a disappointment and I also have to say I don't really care for the atmosphere of the Shunt Lounge, it's already feeling kind of cliquey and self-important, as if it no longer wants to exist in any kind of quizzical or subversive relation to the grandiosity of its surroundings. So it wasn't a fun evening. But the word from the front line is that the remaining performances of the show were way better, the clunks became clicks, the pros-arch was overwhelmed, in general everything was more tickety than boo. So, good.

Two nice items came in the mail on Thursday, both postmarked HomoLand. (You know, where the KLF were all bound for.) The new Semiotext(e) publication David Wojnarowicz: A definitive history of five or six years on the lower east side is a fascinating collection of interviews, mostly conducted by the estimable and never-less-than-shrewd Sylvère Lotringer, of Wojnarowicz's friends and collaborators (an unsustainable distinction), as well as a couple with the man himself. Wojnarowicz is a relatively recent enthusiasm of mine, partly because his work is not that widely known here -- perhaps it was more visible ten or fifteen years ago, but actually at the moment this period, the late 80s and early 90s, seems surprisingly remote; perhaps it's about now that its histories can start to be figured out -- in which case this volume has already done a fantastic job. It's a great book, an easy but by no means dumb read, with tons of great photos (including a stunning Nan Goldin pic of Rene Ricard and Jacqueline Schnabel standing either side of John Sex, which seems to say everything all by itself) and some pretty fine reproductions of DW's work. Vital stuff.

And a modest but sincere woo yay for Amnon Buchbinder's movie Whole New Thing, fairly new to DVD I think, in which a precocious hippie teenager called Emerson falls for his (male) English teacher -- a story that you'd think would have been told over and over again in queer cinema but I can't think of any other examples right now. It's a very neatly managed and sweetly pitched film and the leads, Daniel MacIvor (who also co-wrote) as the bemused and struggling teacher, and the heartstretchingly beautiful Aaron Webber as the kid, are basically perfect. Also, in line with the new generation manifesto for gay film (not so much Dogme as... no, I won't go there), the soundtrack is wall-to-wall Hidden Cameras, which always helps. I just hope all the Emersons all over the world, wherever they are tonight, get to see Whole New Thing. They're probably much too smart for it, but it would make me feel better.

Friday, as I say, I felt terrible, but I still hauled myself not-unhappily around the Gilbert & George show at Tate Modern. The only big surprise is early on -- I never realised how big those early charcoal drawings (sorry, "sculptures on paper") are. Wow, they're really terrible at that size. All the reproductions I've ever seen really don't do them justice. Or rather, what they do is extend them clemency. After that, it's pretty much what I've always thought: they had a fantastic decade, from 1975 to 85, but there's basically nothing here that's useful or interesting or even attractive to look at after that point, with the exception of the lovely and quite anomalous THERE (1987). The performance and film works are underrepresented and badly staged, which makes a really accurate assessment of their development immensely hard. I also don't honestly know how reliable is my judgement of their early/mid 80s work: I love the double bind of social realist and homoerotic iconographies all through that period, but I suspect that's as much my sentimentality dovetailing with theirs, as a sober assessment of their work of that period. Certainly all through that time, though, they come across as genuine visionaries, and as much more tender and more engaged than they are sometimes credited for. At any rate, it doesn't last. You can more or less see the exact moment where they lose the plot: it's pretty much the moment when the heart finally went out of the 80s, round about 1986, when the promise of post-punk and the widescreen posturing of New Romanticism finally capitulated under the weight of Thatcherite ugliness and the chronic depletion of the left. After that, there was nothing for it but the hell-for-leather retreat into the liminal self-sufficiency of Acid House and what Baudrillard certainly would have recognized as an entirely simulated and self-regarding fiction of social desire in absentia. The sole cultural carriers of the 80s qua 80s after that point were the Pet Shop Boys. Gilbert & George meanwhile sunk into a depressing and turgid series of as-new executions, which were now about nothing more than refreshing the brand. It's like looking at a series of Guinness commercials. There are still moments of very fine commercial design, as in the series NINETEEN NINETY NINE which I hadn't seen before, but nothing that looks like or resounds like art. Still, the first half of the exhibition is worth the admission price on its own -- I think if I hadn't been feeling so lousy I might have experienced an odd frisson or two of actual rapture. The CHERRY BLOSSOM pictures from 1975 are a particular revelation, and the DUSTY CORNERS series from around the same time. And LIFE WITHOUT END is clearly the work of artists -- sorry, an artist (I still have, and treasure, the letter G&G sent me, declining to take part in a symposium on collaboration because "we are two people but one artist") -- at the zenith of their/his powers.

I nearly didn't make it, physically, to the last appointment of the week, but I'm so glad I did, it was the most restorative event I've been to in ages. This was 'if the route: the great learning of london', a collaboration between the artist Beatrice Gibson and the musician Jamie McCarthy, at
Studio Voltaire in Clapham. An ensemble comprising four improvising string players (including my friend Susanna Ferrar, holidaying on viola) and ten trainee black cab drivers, all testing each other on 'The Knowledge'. This was an obvious (stated) homage to Cardew, and its proximity on every level to its grateful audience would surely have tickled C.C. no end. Beardy improv types (and the epically clean-shaven but honorary-beardy Peter Blegvad) mingled happily with the excited cheerleading families of the participating cabbies; I bet ACE are pretty chuffed with it too. I think it was being recorded for Resonance -- not sure of the details but keep an eye out: it was good to see the performance (and great theatre in some ways), but interesting also to shut the eyes and just listen, so I should think a radio version would work well. -- Also I ran into good folks: the brilliant young live artist Tim Jeeves, full of the loveliest ideas as always; Viv Corringham, not often seen in London these days and much-missed, but on good form; and Elizabeth James, who had a CD for me, Adam Bohman and Roger Smith's Reality Fandango, new out on Emanem, for which she's written some gorgeous sleeve notes. A quite astonishing album, thrilling and exactly matching my mood. (Which is, roughly, Septimus in Mrs Dalloway.)

So, yknow, in summary it doesn't sound like the listless and fractious week it felt like. I suppose that's a good sign. It's not that everything is all right, but it is that everything is all right enough, except, for the moment, me. Which is an old song to sing, in Klaus Nomi register and, ideally, at the top of one's voice. There's a lot to be said for basic, unglamorous persistence, sometimes.

I'm off to bed; if you read this in the next 24 hours it may be mostly hyperlink-free: I can't face that slog now, I'll do it tomorrow. Check back in after Monday night and, hopefully, the appertaining exits will be here, here, here, and here.


TS said...

I think you're being rather trigger-happy harsh on the Shunt Lounge. The flipside of any space where a particular community hang out - a Wednesday at Shunt is top-heavy with the 'experimental theatre gang' for lack of a better name - is that it can feel cliquey. But fundamentally?

I tried and failed to get into Donkey Shadow on Thursday because it was full, with a really significant proportion of audience I'd guess going in because they were already inside the Lounge and someone was offering them a piece of work for free (yes after they'd paid to enter the Lounge) not because they'd ever heard of or seen Petra's Pulse or knew any of the company. That's not common for any venue showing early-stage performance? And it's really exciting, surely. I guess it changes the social and creative dynamic for the better because it's easy to watch simply from curiosity and the usual 'tyranny of niceness' is maybe dissipated a little.

And it's early days for the space. It is a growing and diverse membership and the avowed intention of Shunt is that all the membership have a stake in what happens in the Lounge. How that grows remains to be seen. But any moments now feeling cliquey/self-important might just be momentary reflections of a crowd on a given night rather than a fundamental attribute, no?

Chris said...

Not really, no. -- I mean, yes, I think it's fundamental.

The cliqueyness isn't particularly located in the people in the room. There were plenty of people there that I knew, and those that I didn't looked interesting and vivacious and not especially intimidating: this isn't a tantrum about feeling like I wasn't in on something, it's about feeling that I didn't want to be in on what I was in on.

The cliqueyness is sited in how the Shunt Lounge stages itself. It's yet another marshalling of prestige connotations in the service of authorized performance. Yes it's probably a different crowd than might normally come across PP's work for example, but it doesn't offer them a way of relating to performance, or to each other, that's structurally any different than what happens in any of a dozen venues in London, so the same problem gets shifted around to different people and different locations, and we all get freshened-up, that's the best we can hope for.

Sure, it's relatively early days, I guess they're still figuring out what they want the Lounge to be, what they can use it to think about. Do I trust Shunt collectively to work it out? Not especially, I have to say. They still haven't discovered, or at any rate disclosed, the logic of the Vaults. -- Nor have I, I hasten to add. But in the meantime, it's just another different execution of the aesthetic and relational signs that have caused their work to stall since they took occupancy of the new location. They're really great at saying "Look at this", they always have been. I'm sure the curated artists have a good experience. Beyond that, I dunno. As you say, "early days", "remains to be seen", etc etc. Everyone should see it for themselves, really; obviously a lot of people recognize themselves and their aspirations in that environment. I don't. Is that harsh? Sorry if you think so.

Anyway, you know my problem, I'm in thrall to the "tyranny of niceness". In fact, I'm the Tyrant of Niceness. So fuck off. ;)

TS said...

Sure yes there may only be one difference in the way that performance is presented to the Lounge audience compared to other performance venues - that the emphasis is the social space that has performance attached rather than the other way around. Independently, social and performance spaces may not be themselves so structurally different than their counterparts but that relational change alone I think has provoked a significant proportion of new audience for what has been a wide variety of curated work. And that work ultimately has its own structural responsibility for how it engages its audience? (If Donkey Show is pros arch then that's how they chose it to be)

I'd question whether - if their work has stalled since moving, and I don't agree - there are pragmatic reasons to do with the monster occupancy rather than philosophical. Although perhaps the pragmatic is itself philosophical. (I'd half-challenge you to expand upon those, the specifics of aesthetic and relational signs, but since neither of us is in Shunt, it doesn't seem relevant or fair.) The Vaults is a monster and there are so many different logics to discover.

In which kind of environment would you recognise your aspirations? Which is an invitation to iiluminate a utopian set-up for a space for work to meet an audience. If you want, I'm interested to listen. I'm about to have to think hard about it, partly thanks to you, and I'd relish some debate.

(and I wasn't suggesting you are in thrall to the tyranny. far from it, clearly :)

Chris said...

Oh, I dunno, T, is that really so different? Saturday last at the Soho for An Oak Tree -- you're not seriously trying to tell me that for the bulk of that audience the Soho isn't a recreational (and self-exhibiting) facility with a theatre attached? Sure, Shunt Lounge is more upfront, and it is a different vibe, but the question I'm stuck on is, what is that difference in the service of? Because if the curated work isn't asked to align itself with a larger argument (in other words, retains its own structural responsibilities as you say), the Shunt Lounge itself does nothing more than widen the parameters of the range within which we exercise our uesless freedom of choice.

In the hope it's at least relevant if not fair, let me mention one specific: the long entry tunnel, which is pointedly, almost aggressively, lit (or unlit) so as to dramatize a severance of the continuity of the inside of the Vaults with the outside. Which is terrifically effective in underwriting the event prestige, the "We're not in Kansas anymore" sensation. But from that moment on, I'm on an island and Shunt are its benevolent dictators. There are many attractive features to the island, it has its own mini-economy, its internal franchising, a high quotient of novelty, I may not notice that I'm stranded until much later...

The real futility of my argument is that, as the saying goes, I wouldn't start from here. I think the Vaults more-or-less inevitably imply an economy of spectacular and insulated relations, I don't know it's soluble, I sort of wish they hadn't taken it on. It was always a Land of Opportunity and probably irresistible but neither opportunity or choice is a trustworthy generator of significance.

Ideal space is a huge question because you can't start with the physicality of it, but once you occupy some physical rendering of it, your first responsibility is to its physicality. I'll try and write something more extended and hopefully useful on this in the next few days, but feel free to outline your own thoughts in the interim. At the moment most of my brain is occupied with trying to ignore my toothache and I may not be at my most generous or imaginative. So take all of the above and before with a pinch of cloves.

TS said...

I'll write more anon but some thoughts now.

There is still I think an important difference between your example of the Soho audience and that at the Shunt Lounge, even if one were to equate them on your rather Swiftian judgment of their social behaviour. The Soho crowd has decided that they will journey to see An Oak Tree and would justify their journey there so (as opposed to any other social space). The latter don't necessarily know what the work is before they go and might decide when they're there to go (or to not go). This is a really important part of the social architecture.

Here's a small specific example. I'm about to scratch something on Thursday down the Lounge, a seed of a piece with a structure quite difficult to accommodate otherwise: 20 people will essentially play a game with each other in a private space into which we'll invite them. It will only last 15 minutes so there is no way that I feel entitled to invite an audience to make a journey specifically for it. But it can only take 20 people and is too much for us to recharge and do it several times in a night to accommodate a venue-sized audience. We tried doing it last weekend as an add-on to a BAC scratch night, so we asked the audience that came down for that night if they wanted to sign up for it in the bar to come back into the studio afterwards. But that interferes with everyone’s natural desire to have a drink and talk to friends after sitting for what felt like too long already in the studio. So it’s really hard to then persuade the audience in. We did in the end, they enjoyed themselves and we learned a lot from seeing how they responded creatively to the space we’d set up. But the idea of being able to announce to a crowd of people who are already happily down at the Lounge, to attract the attention of people we don’t know to come in immediately (in every good sense of the word), well that’s exciting and scary (in a good way). The piece if it’s worth growing will become something that will be long and good and demanding to invite people to in its own right but is absolutely needs to be developed in this way. So the difference is hardly a useless widening of parameters, at least on mine own tiny patch.

That’s a valuable flexibility in the structure of the social architecture between the work and the audience, one that is facilitated by the vast empty spaces of the physical architecture of the Vaults, that you can have a myriad different performances happening in different parts of the space without (necessarily) interrupting each other, not least the big social gathering in the middle.

As for the insulating tunnel leading to an insular environment - fair point, although an open doorway that attracts a passing commuter crowd out of simple curiosity can’t be defined as isolating. I’ve always found walking the darkness an exciting inbetween space and I suspect there are practical reasons for keeping it relatively unlit.

But – although I agree my utopian question was inherently insubstantial, of course the physicality of space is a necessary starting-point – I’m not sure that any physical space wouldn’t have a significant if not equivalent drawback?

Hope your toothache passes soon.

Thomas Moronic said...

Just thought a quick note to say I've been enjoying yuour blog. There's so much stuff to get through - I like being kept busy. I hope you're feeling ok.

Warmest regards
TM x