Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Gargling with stingrays, and other pastimes

I've come back from my fortnight away (in Edinburgh and then Portishead) with a to do list that, even written -- as it is -- in barely legible minuscule, takes up almost every inch of a page in my working notebook and looks pretty daunting to me in my late summer bleariness. So, for one issue only (ha!), let's pretend this blog is actually called Franklin's Department Store of Pusillanimous Displacement Activity. -- Oh, wait, hang on: in fact, I think if I look carefully enough, I'll be able to find the word 'blog' on the to do list somewhere. In which case this all becomes legitimate -- responsible even. ...Ugh, I'm not sure I approve of that either. Anyway, it would obviously be the height of uncricket not to post an account of this year's adventures among the Edinbourgeois, and far be it from me &c. So, stick this in yer Reekiepedia, innit.

A word first, I suppose, about Forest Fringe, which hosted -- and whose sublime generosity made possible -- the three readings I was doing. From what I could tell, the whole Forest Fringe project, propelled by the literally incomprehensible drive and vivacity of Andy Field and Deborah Pearson, could hardly have gone better. This hardly needs spelling out -- press support has been astounding (indeed for a while the Edinburgh page at the Guardian web site seemed as though it might actually have become a sort of surrogate marketing department for them: and why not?), and the size of the audience for the last night of FF's particular jewel, Paper Cinema & Kora's exquisite The Night Flyer, was ample testimony to the success of the enterprise as a whole. Here was a company making its first visit to Edinburgh, having spent nothing in venue fees and nothing (as far as I know) on advertising and PR, achieving standing-room-only status on the strength of quality work and the extraordinary buzz around the venue. The official fringe likes to think it can still make these sorts of fairytales happen but it really can't: if you flog off your garden, you won't get fairies at the bottom of it any more, end of story.

The end-of-festival highlights lists have now emerged and it's good to see Forest Fringe being recognized as an undoubted star in an otherwise rather gloomy sky this year. On the other hand, these accounts tend to elide Andy and Deborah's project with the rest of the festival's activities -- with which of course it was in many ways continuous. But it seems to me that every way (and there are many) in which Forest Fringe was distinctive and important this year in the ecology of the festival had to do with its adamant and furious refusal of the practices and the ethical subtexts of the official Fringe. The models it has created (including a valiant element of self-reflection) and the energies that it has unleashed are valuable in themselves, but they're significant only in so far as they continue to be resistant. I'm saying "continue" I suppose because before the Forest Fringe was even into its final week I was hearing Andy being asked about what might happen next year, and this of course is a salient question, though one that I hope none of the parties involved this year will start to consider for a few days yet... Perhaps the most important indicator so far has been the expression of the curators' desire that Forest Fringe should inspire other refusenik projects to proliferate next August: and that has to be right, doesn't it. Forest Fringe has shown what is possible (though I hope no one will underestimate the incredible amount of work and imagination that went into making it happen; even during the five days I was there, Andy seemed to be visibly depleting before my very eyes, as if he was in urgent need of some of that mysterious weightlifting powder that always sits so incongruously on the shelves of Holland & Barrett in buckets the size of fat children). Its principal gift to Edinburgh has been the jemmying open of that skylight. It's up to others to riff on the air currents that have started to flow as a consequence. (Because, obviously, you can riff on air currents, I checked in my copy of The Observer Book of 101 Things To Do With Air Currents.) What's needed at the same time is a real vigilance in monitoring the assumptions that swarm around any such project, particularly when it's been so self-evidently successful. It's curious and in a way slightly disappointing to see even the biggest fans of the Forest Fringe sounding off excitedly about how it must return "bigger and better" next year. I suppose "better" is not in itself an injurious aspiration to harbour, but why bigger? Do we really have no other benchmark for continuing success than inflation? Should it even "return"? What would that, or could that, look like? Could Forest Fringe's most progressive legacy perhaps be not in returning but in enabling other quite separate outcrops of lo-fi innovation? Could its grassroots model not outdo itself most hopefully by refashioning itself plurally and vigorously and even unpredictably? How many fringes am I holding up?

Well, we'll see. For now, I simply hope the whole experience was as rewarding for Andy and Deborah and everyone else who gave time and talent to it as it was for me. I was astonished to get more than respectable audiences every night for each of the three readings, and only slightly regretful that the smallest was for the last and probably most successful of the events. (Even that number dwarfed some of the audience figures for my show last year, which I've only fairly recently finished paying for.) I won't detain you with a blow-by-blow account but I was really chuffed with how the readings went and how the work was received. Delighted especially I think with the reception to the first programme, which left people talking about the poems rather than about the performances -- which, those who've been exposed to the fullest throbbings of my ego may be surprised to hear, is always the outcome I'm hoping for. In particular, Geoff Ward's brilliant versions of Rilke's Duino Elegies seem to have struck a deep chord with many. I was pretty happy also with how the last programme went -- a viciously steep compendium of Cathy Berberian's Stripsody, which I'd never performed before; a truculent blast of Bob Cobbing, which was like gargling with stingrays; and the whole of Schwitters's Ursonate, which is very rarely performed in full -- and, believe me won't you, there are reasons for that. All things considered, it all went off really well and there were encouraging responses from folks like Peter Manson and Tony Paraskeva who were kind enough to make the journey and whose opinions on this kind of stuff are credible to say the least.

There are, incidentally, crappy but conceivably serviceable recordings of Ginsberg's Howl, from the first night, and the whole of the Berberian/Cobbing/Schwitters programme, so I'll clean them up as best I can and probably upload them here: for promotional reasons, apart from anything else -- I'd love to get more gigs along such lines: I like doing them -- more than I actually like doing, y'know, most performancey stuff; and the work also ought to be out there, being done: not just sitting in textbooks or getting jostled in the cathedral-bazaar that is Ubuweb, but running up to people and twatting them in the ear. ...Oh, oh, I've done it again, I've recast myself as Tango Man.

As for the rest of Edinburgh, there's not an awful lot to tell. I hardly saw any theatre: only Paperweight, which worked like a dream in its little office setting and very richly deserved its eventual Fringe First: but a (peculiarly badly-worded) quote from my previous post on that show is already been used as part of its promotional campaign so I probably need say no more; and Pornography, Simon Stephens's play at the Traverse. I'm a little abashed to say I've never seen or read any of Stephens's work before. On this evidence, he may well be as good as they say. Certainly the writing was extremely beautiful and careful and intelligent, gorgeously weighted and poised -- he ends speeches with particular elan. I'm not sure the play was as good as the writing, and I'm not sure the production was as good as the play: though both went up in my estimation when I bought the playtext and realised the extent to which the particular production creates the play: the six different blocks of material that the production intercuts are printed as separate sections, preceded by the injunction: "This play can be performed by any number of actors. It can be performed in any order." -- Actually, neither of those statements is true, obviously: this is hardly so Cageian as all that. But it does strongly imply a kind of modernist approach that seems quite in keeping with present day London. It's a good way of staging the city. Perhaps fittingly, the performances are rather various and there seems to have been little attempt to reconcile the different languages that these actors bring, one consequence of which is that it takes an awfully long time (I find) to tune in to the actual pitch of the production. Sheila Reid is luminous, as near as dammit literally so; Jeff Rawle terrifically, seductively watchable as always; and I very much warm after a while to Billy Seymour in the excruciatingly difficult role of the strutting and desperate Jason. I haven't read any reviews of the production, by the way: presumably there's been chuntering from some quarters about how Amanda Hale, hugely charismatic but frequently completely inaudible from halfway back in the auditorium (at least at this slightly unfair 10am performance), is a recent Katie Mitchell alumna and has obviously been brainwashed into nonprojection...

I suppose the two big highlights for me this year were art shows: Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller at the Fruitmarket, and the Tracey Emin retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art: chalk and cheese in some respects but both valorizing the engagement of the viewer in startlingly effective ways.

The Cardiff & Miller show places six installations across the two floors of the Fruitmarket, using a variety of resources and producing a remarkable range of tones and performative conundra. Most, in some way, use, both mechanically and thematically, automation and triggering as a way of (non-invasively) highlighting the role and authority of the viewer in not just completing but actually initiating and narrating the works as outwinding durational experiences. The most impactful is probably the horrifying The Killing Machine (2007), in which, in a human-scale skeleton room two spindly robots operate on an implied figure in a reclining chair, their movements and the scenario suggesting both dentistry and torture, while a mirrorball revolves incongruously above our heads. The chilling sensation it educes is all the more freighted because the whole 'performance', lasting just a few minutes, has to be started each time by a spectator pressing a big red button. As a mutely simple diagram of our complicity in torture and capital punishment carried out "in our name" whether or not we perform its renunciation, it's a real smack in the chops, and its lyricism and ingenuity and even its cold humour make it even more so. In common with all the installations in the show, particularly the (apparently) breezier interactive adventure of The Dark Pool, the devil is in the incredible level of detail, and in the absolute finesse of the scaling.

(A quick word in passing about the nifty catalogue to the exhibition, too, which comes in two slipcased volumes: a companion to the show itself, and a second, fatter book collating notes and sketches for installations and other pieces that for whatever reason never came to be made. I love the candidness of this coupling, but also its emotional resonance, which retroactively suffuses the show itself -- the six pieces in the exhibition become haunted by the phantoms of all those that never made it, and the question of what we, as viewers, produce art out of becomes all the more vexatious and fascinatingly nebulous.)

I suppose the common denominator between Cardiff/Miller and Tracey Emin would probably be Louise Bourgeois, and indeed one of the many sticks that critics have chosen to beat Emin with both in relation to this first UK retrospective of her work and all throughout her career is that her influences are too near the surfaces: underabsorbed Schiele, undigested Munch, misappropriated Beuys... This is, I think, contrariwise, one of the things I like most about her: as a vital part of her diaristic aesthetic and, just as importantly, her exceedingly affectionate tone (which most critics and many gallery-goers seem blind to), these references are like autographs collected, or records dedicated on the radio, or songs sung at the karaoke night. These artists are simply people, friends, with whom she's engaged in a dialogue -- and sometimes, also, quite disengaged. Some of her exquisitely beautiful drawings are more like a chat with Schiele on the phone, as informal but also, vitally, as respectful as, say, the heartbreaking collection of objects and images associated with her nan, or the names of friends and colleagues that cover the lovely applique blankets. It makes a huge difference to see all this work together, where the more notorious pieces like My Bed or the neon My Cunt Is Wet With Fear (both 1998; the even-more-famous Everyone I Have Ever Slept With of course is not here, having very sadly been destroyed in a fire at a storage warehouse in 2004) can be re-viewed in relation to the rhythms and signatures that persist throughout Emin's work. In this context, the pieces seem neither as preposterously sententious nor as cynically shallow and attention-seeking as they may do separated from the course of her life and work (a cumulatively meaningless distinction anyway for Emin); rather, their honesty and generosity and tenderness seems affecting and involving, and their self-involvement paradoxically sort of public-spirited: what, in the end, she seems to be asking, is all your precious privacy and self-protection for? Perhaps this is victim art of a kind, but in the most productive, out-turned way: she seems to have an instinctive understanding that the most powerful person in the room is the one with the least to (attempt to) hide -- a theatrical instinct, I'd call that, though many would demur.

I will admit that I went along to this show pretty well disposed to like it: I can take or leave Emin the sozzled chat-show personality and erratic newspaper columnist, but I've always liked her work and the spirit in which she undertakes it -- I think her technical proficiency is underestimated only slightly less than, as it were, her humane proficiency. However, even I didn't expect to be moved as I was: I was in tears within two minutes of buying my ticket; and yet further round I was laughing out loud, startling some of the sombre and sceptical folks around me. (I was fascinated, though, by a party of quite elderly women who worked their way around the show at about the same time and pace as me: occasionally nonplussed, they nonetheless seemed absolutely to recognize what Emin was up to and to be as touched as I was.) I can't describe my disappointment on reading, on the way out, the gallery comments book, covered in intemperate scrawl (much of it less elegant and no better spelt than Emin's own handwritten outpourings) about the death of art and "the emperor's new clothes". There is perhaps something about the way that Emin's work is slightly occluded by the hype and the Daily Mail controversy that orbits it, but "emperor's new clothes" is witless because it's exactly wrong. Emin, clothed in the best and bravest traditions of fine art, walks out insisting that she's naked, leaving the smartass little boy in the crowd with nothing to shout about except his own fear of her stark assurance. I've already had to spend a moment or two -- quite rightly -- sitting on the naughty step for saying so in regrettably immoderate terms, so I'm not going to assert this too grandly, but: it seems to me that Jeanette Winterson is right (and when have I ever thought that before?) when she says that "the question, when looking at [Emin's] work, is not how to judge it but how to feel it". This is a challenge that preys more and more on my mind: though I guess that's not the appropriate forum for it. I file it alongside the dictum of the wonderful gay American poet John Wieners: "I try to write the most embarrassing thing I can think of." In plenty of ways I'm one of the most reserved and awkward and inhibited and generally English people I know: but the last couple of years, and Speed Death... in particular (and also the new script for Queer Up North, The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley), I've started to notice the truth of this, the imperative to accurate feeling -- by which I at least partly mean feeling that isn't immediately chased down by language; feeling that we sit with, observe, and don't kneejerk-attempt to earth via the mot juste. Dennis's blog is a constant reminder of this, too. What's your privacy for? What are you building in there? I must confess I'm more and more excited about using the upcoming Hey Mathew project as a testbed for this more assertively emotional (though, I hope, no less intellectually cogent) approach.

Actually, in terms of an emotional woosh, nothing in all the time I was in Edinburgh really outdid seeing Wall-E. (I'd decided that would be my fallback plan if I couldn't get a return to see The TEAM's Architecting -- which I'm sure I'd have loved, but I began to realise as I approached the Traverse that actually I'd be kind of disappointed if I got in and had to miss Wall-E after all.) There are huge great essays to be written about the brilliance of Wall-E, particularly its opening 45 minutes -- its art direction, its sound design, its apparently genuine anticapitalist sentiment, and perhaps most importantly its contribution to the field of machine ethics... But for once I'm going to refrain and let someone else spoil it all. Look I think it's the most impressive film I've ever seen. Sure, it takes a seriously wrong turn when it starts putting 'people' on screen, but even so, I think it's without a doubt the equal of 2001: A Space Odyssey, say, and it dwarfs even the best of Spielberg (a distant memory, admittedly) and massively exceeds the already dizzying previous achievements of Pixar. And I say this as someone who sat through the whole thing with a four-year-old boy sitting directly behind me eating Acme Extra-Loud Crisps and announcing "It's Wall-E!" every time the eponymous hero entered the shot. (Why aren't there designated adults-only screenings for the most accomplished "family" films?)

The only thing that could come close to matching that movie for basic Edinburgh thrills was an event that Andy described to me when I arrived, and which I resolved to attend and then completely forgot about: namely, the ceremonial elevation of a penguin called Nils, at Edinburgh Zoo, to an honorary knighthood bestowed by the Norwegian King's Guard. (Tbh, I initially kind of thought Andy must be kidding, or at least exaggerating: but no, here it all is. A clip of many riches, that.) But there were other no less gladdening pleasures to be had: not least, an incendiarily spicy Thai meal with Sebastien, out with whom it was a treat to hang; and a couple of great, though necessarily foreshortened, evenings with Jonny, crammed between my readings and his late-night shows. Spending any time with Jonny is like licking your finger and putting it in a mains socket. (...An image that I intended to carry only the idea of hair-raising electrification, though now I see that it's rather shadowed by a quite inappropriate sexual reading that I can assure loyal readers could not have been further from my mind. Honest.)

And I think that's all that's worth making a fuss about. Matters, inevitably, arise, as they will. I had thought to take a swing or two at Paul Arendt's Guardian blog piece about solo performance, which conflates a number of quite separate questions, not all of them totally without merit, into as slaveringly idiotic a confection as can ever have been published in that forum; but I think it was so self-evidently baleful as to need no further comment from me, and one might as well just say that as take 15,000 words to prove it. And now an argument rages, shifting in and out of focus, about the conduct of critics Chris Wilkinson and Ian Shuttleworth in their isolated resistance to the operating mechanics of Badac Theatre's promenade piece The Factory, which led eventually, days later, to Shuttleworth being stalked and Wilkinson actually being physically attacked. My own 2p-worth (yeah, tuppence doesn't buy you what it used to, does it?) nestles in there somewhere, and I won't say any more about it all here, save for the observation that, on average, those who defend the piece and its makers are worse spellers than those who defend Shutters and Wilko and deplore the actions of the company. Of course Tracey Emin can't spell either: but then, as -- who was it, Traherne maybe?, or maybe a bit later, maybe Pope, someone like that? -- so eloquently reminds us: "There is no monopoly of common sense / On either side of the political fence." (...Oh, wait...)

In summary, then: it turned out to be a lot more fun going up for a few days than staying home and writing a newspaper piece about why I wasn't going, so I'm glad that's how it worked out. I had a daily Oreo shake at Black Medicine and I walked by the Waters of Leith and I bought great Scottish cheese at Peckham's deli and I got to shout "cocksucker" in a church hall. (It's in Howl, yo, I wasn't overtaken by Tourettes during a charity beetle drive. ...Does anyone under the age of, well, exactly my age know what a beetle drive is, I wonder?) I'm pretty certain next year I won't get away with such a flying visit, but we'll cross that bridge later. Maybe by next year they'll have worked out how to deep-fry the rain as it falls. Vorsprung durch Technik, n'est-ce pas.

Back soon.


Leigh Caldwell said...

With exquisite timing I am writing this comment on a train TO Edinburgh. The Fringe is over but the Festival is (in theory) still on. Not that there are any tickets left.

Still aiming to see the Cardiff and Miller thing in the Fruitmarket, and also (if it's still open) Arturart.

Wall-E was nice, undoubtedly, and even moving in a slightly greasy way, but is it as brilliant as they all say? Suffice to say I haven't felt the need to review it on my econometric blog-of-the-future, Knowing and Making. Maybe I just take things for granted a little too much.

simon kane said...

Purely in terms of performance, I think R2D2 did more with less (as did that oven in A Grand Day Out, now I think of it), so I'm probably alone in thinking Wall-E actually picked up in the second half. But you might have to see it in a multiplex with a hole for your drink to get the full force of the argument... with Davina Silver. Can't wait to get stuck into the juvenilia. Very sorry I missed the readings. Schhah (x)