Sunday, November 30, 2008

Guess what they're selling at the happiness counter

Brrrrr. Winter draws on, as they used to not be allowed to say on the Home Service, and thoughts here at Thompson’s Bank -- we’re still waiting for our bail-out money, by the way, Mr Darling -- turn towards the year’s end. With the coming fortnight promised pretty much exclusively to the making of At Home, my project with Lucy Ellinson for Threshold, I fear the blog’s present somnolence is unlikely to be shaken overmuch between now and the end of the year. I’m planning a couple of substantial posts: one on the concept of sexual orientation (both in and out of artistic contexts), and one in commemoration of a personally significant anniversary, or more accurately the basically insignificant anniversary of a personally momentous event. That’ll take us to Christmas, I guess (unless Mr Pete Postlethwaite is of the contrary opinion, in which case, we might have to think again).

I’m in two minds about attempting a Furtive 50 this year (for new visitors: in previous years such as 2007 and, oh, let's see, 2006, I’ve posted during December a feature on favourite albums from the preceding twelve months); these posts have received gratifyingly warm responses and even helped with readers’ Christmas shopping a time or two, I believe – but it’s disproportionately time-consuming to do and I’ve had much less of my attention on new music in the second half of this year. It would be nice to have a pressing reason to catch up on all the stuff I’ve missed: but I’m also stymied by the woeful wireless connection here at home these days. It’s never been great but at the moment it’s next to useless. We’ve upgraded to something which BT tells us is called Home Hub 2.0. The evident advance on the last model is that, with the eyes of its NPD department apparently fixed on the looming Singularity, BT has made its new equipment artificially intelligent. Not really intelligent, you understand, just intelligent enough to react to its domestic data-transferral function with a kind of nihilistic despondency. The wireless signal is strong enough now but the hub really can’t be arsed to actually do anything. It needs to be manually rebooted every few minutes, giving a tiny window of usable time before it once again loses interest and forgets what it was doing. So getting anything done -- including this -- is a bit like trying to train seeing-eye cats for the blind.

Anyway, time will tell (and let’s factor in also my susceptibility to public opinion, on the slender offchance that any actually reaches me) what shows up here in due course and what doesn’t. For now, mindful that yr devoted but seldom gruntled Fat Controller has hardly radiated Olafur Eliasson levels of sweetness and light here -- or, in fact, anywhere -- in recent weeks, here’s a post full of things that I think are worth mentioning because they are, or might be, good, and deserve your attention over the next couple of weeks while I’m busy making my last (and smallest -- and that’s saying something...) show of the year.

Opinions may divide -- even within individuals -- on its subject, but Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms seems to me to be the best curated, best designed single-artist show at the Hayward since their brilliant Bruce Nauman retrospective several years ago. The rooms of the downstairs gallery (the upstairs is given over to the South African artist Robin Rhode) become quite distinctly organised zones, given queasy but hardly inapposite names such as ‘Cosmos’ and ‘Filmscape’: all of these regions are designed to induce in the visitor a strong feeling of immersion which is brightly suggestive of one of the exhibition’s apparent arguments. We tend to associate with Warhol a kind of disinterested flatness or remoteness, evidence for which is constantly presented throughout the show’s trajectory (which is not chronological but rather implies a sequence of unfolding ideas about the perception of depth and relational indices in different media). But even as we are asked to consider the nature of that distance and superficiality, we are experiencing a quite contrary sensation, of walking inside a much more dimensionalised portrait not of Warhol himself but of a whole milieu that we’re essentially being asked to think of as itself possibly his most significant work.

For example, the first room, ‘Cosmos’, presents, side-by-side, prints and works on paper, but also merchandise (we encounter the famous soup cans first as paintings and then reproduced in t-shirt form), documentation, press cuttings and other achival materials, books... -- in fact a whole yard sale of Warhol bric-a-brac, including the entire contents of one of his time capsules, full of publicity photos of the Beatles and correspondence from ingenuous young men asking to be cast in his movies. Whole arrays of Polaroids and contact sheets, showing stills from endless celebrity performances (not least Warhol’s own) which seem both staged and ad hoc, are viewed and re-viewed as participants in a kind of parallax play: when are they art, when are they not? Do we have a name for the middle ground? Is it something to do with culture, perhaps? (See, by the way, Alison Croggon’s quite brilliant recent post on the operations of culture -- amongst other things -- which was a really useful portable frame through which to trace the slippages and eddies in which this profoundly mischievous show narrates itself.) Perhaps it’s something to do with the way the marketplace barely sustains, or is interested in, a distinction between art and corollary artefact. Interestingly, those items which seem most incontrovertibly to be artworks rather than documentary effects, such as the Marilyns and the soup cans, are mostly placed highest in the room, way way up towards the ceiling, so that they can barely be seen and certainly not scrutinised. (The exceptions are the less iconic gold-leafed drawings, which would disappear at that distance.) It seems an almost preposterously literal response to Factory associate Rene Ricard’s injunction, in his brilliant and seminal essay ‘The Radiant Child’, that artists have a responsibility to “raise” their work “above the vernacular.” Perhaps there’s some truth in it -- though one would probably want to quibble with ‘responsibility’ -- but the feeling is that the mise en chambre of ‘Cosmos’ almost pokes fun at this attitude. The art that rises (like hot air, perhaps) out of the demotic hubbub starts to feel like a barely relevant by-product in a complex process of fractional distillation where the real action, the real information, is on the floor, at eye- (and ear- and mouth-) level. (Ricard ultimately knew this better than anyone, carefully positing a crucial distinction between “work that is information [and] work that is about information”; on these terms, Warhol’s signed, sealed, delivered art products are merely about the information that circulated so cogently within the cultural milieu of Warhol’s Factory.)

Other zones bring together Warhol’s films -- nineteen of them, all playing in loop on large-ish screens -- and, fascinatingly, videotapes of the cable TV shows he helmed in the early 80s for various channels including the nascent MTV. This array of suspended television screens rather beautifully spatializes a grammar of spectation that MTV is more or less credited with inventing or ushering in – a much more disjunctive, fast-cutting, alogical, multilayered style than heretofore, which anticipates and mimics the way in which having a short attention span would become a sort of prestige value in that decade: the viewer is both less and more engaged -- less prepared to sit passively in front of whatever she’s given, readier to flip channels or (all together now) go out and do something less boring instead; but inclined also perhaps to premature judgement, seeking immediate gratification or easy stimulation. In this so-called “TV-scape” (yuck, but yeah, OK), you hop from seat to seat, finding what somebody else is watching at the edge of your field of vision suddenly more intriguing than the programme you’ve just plugged into. There are odd glimpses of, say, pre-stardom Pee Wee Herman, or Nick Kamen months before the stopwatch starts on his own fifteen -- OK, eleven -- minutes of fame, or Rockets Redglare on the door at the Red Bar, or the debut of Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot (the ludicrously skinny and limber lead singer with Warhol proteges Curiosity Killed the Cat), or (most bizarrely) a young Kevin Spacey in weird stand-up/performance art mode; and of course there’s Philip Glass, there’s Debbie Harry, there’s Divine... And then there’s countless more-or-less interchangeable male models and female dancers, and lots of weird segments of Warhol himself being made to do aerobic exercise by some fearsome trainer. It’s enthralling: but what does it all add up to? Well, it adds up to itself, I guess, and the movements that it implies. Its unspoken slogan is perhaps that peerless, quintessential 80s couplet: “Keep feeling fascination / Looking, learning, moving on.” In other words, it wraps what seems like a nearly devotional concern for haecceity -- and, indeed, for beauty, whatever that may mean at any moment -- with a powerful, self-defeating restlessness that sits acutely and not unintelligently in a hard-to-discern interzone between inquisition on the one hand and acquisition on the other. What intrigues particularly is how this trigger-happy, gregarious, nearly (though seldom quite) dilettante aesthetic sits alongside the films: their slowness, their staticness, their restraint -- not least the early apogee of the eight-and-a-half hour Empire. In a way the TV shows simply make pornographically explicit what the early films erotically implied: never really expecting the spectator to slow down their perceptual relations with the work to match the velocity of their self-divulgence, those movies seem to me simply to present sites for an order of speculative proliferation that is deeply subjective. What changes in the ensuing twenty years is the reproductive technologies that will exteriorise and limitlessly broadcast that same quasi-frictionless traversal of a self-assembly conceptual field, powered and reframed by the emphases of privatisation and deregulation that the dispassionate self-regard of the earlier work is already incubating.

There is absolutely nothing to be gained by noting here, as everybody presumably does for themselves anyway, that despite the hundreds of representations of Warhol in this show, not only in publicity shots and portraits and press cuttings but also in seemingly endless reels of self-archiving documentary video, we never get closer to him, blah; maybe there’s no “there” there, blah encore. It’s kind of true: but additionally and contrarily an implied portrait emerges of an extremely smart, switched-on artist and thinker, and a generous and engaged man for whom -- as is the case for present-day luminaries such as Dennis Cooper and John Waters -- kindness, graciousness, and a sincere interest in what others have to say are fundamental operating principles which by informing the moment-to-moment interaction with others necessarily inform by consequence the emergent work, even that part of the work that rises most airily (and, in Warhol’s case, lucratively) above the melee of the vernacular. Warhol has always, more or less inevitably, come to mind whenever I recall Iain Sinclair’s brilliant encapsulation of celebrity (in Suicide Bridge): “The act of stardom is to ... spray anonymity in gold light.” The pleasure in Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms is in how obvious it becomes that Warhol was quite actively seeking that light, in order to use it to illuminate others. In a way, he is a perfect theatre director, a brilliant maker of performance spaces and of opportunities for human encounter; only his attachment to the archive rules him out. (Even so, without Warhol, there is probably no his horses on my own CV, and no Hey Mathew -- though he wasn’t at all a conscious influence on either.)

In that respect it’s particularly interesting to consider what feels to me like the most successful of the films: his portrait of the great curator Henry Geldzahler. I hadn’t seen this one before, and was gripped by it, moved finally and unexpectedly to tears. It immediately (like, the next day) follows Empire in the oeuvre, but its unblinkingness is quite different, both scarier and more tender. Geldzahler is no conventional beauty (though he has a sweet, flustered voluptuousness), and as his experience of having the camera trained on him seems to turn from game to ordeal, his squirming becomes at first amusing and then deeply affecting. Perhaps we read in that discomfort what later is made clear from the accompanying text: unlike most of Warhol’s films, the artist wasn’t present during the filming of Henry Geldzahler: its subject was left alone with the camera. This loss to the exchange of the presence of Warhol as witness seems to me to deprive it of the kind of benign equity that is so important (often infuriatingly so) in coming to the artist’s other work. It’s odd, because the absence merely acts out what one takes to be Warhol’s disinterest (not un-interest); but that witnessing presence is, I’d suggest, across so much of Warhol’s work, something else before it cancels itself. It signals a desire to be present rather than not: which is either the minimum commitment required in the making of an artwork, or the whole of it, or its almost unimaginable horizon, but is anyway fundamental, and too frequently omitted in so much that is superfluously made.

This sits tellingly alongside another notable feature of the work presented in the show: how remarkably unerotic it is. I’ve always assumed that erotic attentiveness was more or less part of the architecture of the Factory, and indeed it may have been: Warhol’s own self-isolating voyeurism, which anyway is far from the whole story about his sex life, may have partly set the tone but there was clearly a hotter permissiveness at work too. (And after all there’s only a little breathing space between this work and Paul Morrissey’s Flesh, an unimpechably erotic piece of cinema – though admittedly this work is post-Warholian in more than one important sense; nor is Lonesome Cowboys in this show, which is unfortunate.) Wherever there is some sense of the erotic here it is either stifled by restraint – I’m afraid I don’t buy the received view that Blow Job is made sexier by the fixed focus on the facial expression of its blown subject – or disabled by a self-conscious silliness which barely even achieves the shagpile depth of camp. (Vide, or don’t, The Nude Restaurant; or, for that matter, the video in which Warhol, in typically benign and sanguine earnest, regards an artist drawing a portrait of him using a pencil stuck up his ass.) What we see, again and again, is a dismantling of the apparatus of eroticism in the service of the free exchange of surface and imitation. The geuinely erotic seems to incite a depth of sensation that presents a clear and present danger to the economy of the Factory and the wider circulation of Warhol as tender. As I’ve suggested, this may be a misperception brought about by the content of this show, which may in turn have been limited by Warhol’s estate, say; e.g. if I remember correctly, John Waters not so long ago curated a show of Warhol’s porn – not only that which he owned, but that which he made. So that material, were it here, might put a different complexion on things. But what we see here – and I’m inclined to trust this to a certain extent because it seems to explain so much else – is a modus operandi predicated substantially on the defusing of sexuality as a way of being able to acknowledge it without, as it were, yielding to it, and to its most radical implications in terms of its plausible threat to the series of complicities and acquiescences that Warhol himself would have to enact in order to become available (and by extension acceptable) to the widest possible audience. (I mean this not only in relation to public discomfort or disapproval of homoeroticism, but more fully with regard to the sense on which Warhol is dependent, both in his work and at the centre of his circle, that the interchangeability of elements, the tradeability of artefacts and ideas, is essentially free, and/or structured by market forces rather than specific instances of ethical or civic or historic consideration). The attachment to surface, to repetition, to the flip-flip-flip of the remote, and perhaps above all to scopophilia, is manifestly protective: but it’s incapable of closing down its own political ramifications, and can only hope therefore to be prettier than they are. (Which it mostly is.) If Warhol as theatre director – as witness and as author of spaces for encounter and contemplation – is a deeper and more provoking presence than Warhol as painter (or simply as signature), this seems to resonate with Zizek’s suggestion that, quite contrary to the widely credited assumption that we find ourselves now in an age where irony and critical distance have supplanted old narratives of value and in which “nobody believes anything any more”, in fact the strenuous contortions of our self-distancing language and our ironic remoteness only signal our terrible fear of those narratives, in which, at heart, we believe now more strongly than ever. Warhol, like Wilde, is, both aesthetically and personally, viable only if sex is reduced to decor, if death is a kind of wallpaper: otherwise, the fear of haecceity -- not its face but its fathomlessness -- rushes in as surely and as claustrophobically as it did for Hopkins, say.

I’ve now been back to this exhibition four times, and I suspect I may catch it again before it closes on January 18th. Before it is everything else that it is, it is exciting, stimulating, wildly productive, and -- as my repeat visits perhaps suggest -- ultimately profoundly unsatisfying. But I choose that ‘profoundly’ with care.

Nothing else will detain us quite so long: no reflection on it, only on my own stamina.

A quick round-up of other worthwhile art stuff should begin with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s delightful and unsettling Frequency and Volume, at the Barbican Curve also till January 18th. The concept is high, not complex but effective: walking into the gallery, your shadow is cast large on the white wall; your shape, your outline in silhouette, is analysed by computer and translated into a particular radio frequency; that frequency is then played back into the room, meaning that, as you walk through the gallery, your movement becomes the action of tuning and retuning (and volume-controlling) a radio.

The pleasures of this are initially simple: it’s fun to throw shapes (and to watch others doing so too) and interesting to move through the different stations that are activated as a result. I quite quickly found myself adopting a compositional relationship with the room, trying to locate the most satisfactory sound layers to add to whatever was already being produced. (Which is how I came to find myself protractedly tuned in to a harp recital on Classic FM, a station I normally can’t abide.) The idea of the body as tuner is also nicely suggestive on a not-too-precise metaphorical level: we all seem to have this vague sense of receiving signals, of being constantly bombarded with voices which we pick up or tune out (I’ve always loved the typo on the original sleeve of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon which inadvertently retitles the song ‘Road’ as ‘Radio’); and in fact I was reminded of the suggestive thesis that Nigel Kerner airs in his hysterical Song of the Greys, a book about alien visitation with which I was much taken at the time that we were making The Consolations several years ago, that the human skeleton, ‘designed’ as it is partly for the efficient conduction of sound in utero, is a perfectly shaped aerial “for transmitting and receiving the radio wavelength equivalent of the pre-electromagnetic spectrum i.e. Thought”: which is one of those varieties of bullshit that nonetheless seem to tell us something quite usable about what we want to do with ourselves.

After a while, darker resonances start to emerge. For a start, certain of the identified transmissions cannot, after all, be heard: we can tune ourselves in to the sound of satellites (gorgeous!) or radio astronomy but – “owing to UK legislation” (presumably the purview of Ofcom?) – no sources that aren’t intended for public use: so, no air traffic control, no navigation channels, no emergency services: these are censored. Furthermore, one’s sense of the whole experience shifts, for example, on seeing (as I did) somebody walk straight through the gallery completely unaware that she was being tracked by motion sensors and surveillance technologies. Suddenly, the space that Lozano-Hemmer has created feels much more complicatedly wrought, much more hemmed in by the kind of authoritarian encroachment on our private movements and communications to which we have now become accustomed and more or less resigned, if we are aware of it at all: and, to that degree, it’s kind of a trivial playground response to that invasive pressure. But the artist is at least consciously folding these questions into the mix, and in terms of the kinds of gallery behaviours that it encourages, Frequency and Volume is probably my favourite interactive artwork since I first encountered Jeppe Hein’s still-matchless Disappearing Rooms.

If you didn’t catch it then you’ve missed Roberto Cuoghi’s sound installation Šuillakku at the ICA. Well, no matter. This was an impressive but unproductive piece, a quarter-hour audio loop of arguably overemphatic and at times drearily figurative exotica, attempting a sort of imaginative reconstruction of ancient Assyrian ritual. My students were blown away by it but I found it pretty unengaging, except at a technical level (a really sharp eight-channel mix full of clever spatial ideas): but then I have no imagination. They closed their eyes and imagined themselves in dark and spooky spaces surrounded on all sides by gibbering glossolaliac bogeypersons. I sat on the floor and enjoyed looking at the eight vaguely anthropomorphic speakers on their speaker stands, like bargain bin Giacomettis out of Maplins. Afterwards I recalled a music lesson at infant school: being played (aged seven), by a pretty progressive teacher it now strikes me, the first half of The Rite of Spring, and asked to draw whatever pictures were evoked by the music in my young mind. Completely uncomprehending of the task, and in some desperation, I drew a tree – having some sense that classical music was generally about trees, as was spring – and received a very low mark for it. Well, sorry, but the music didn’t remind me of anything: it was just itself, speaking for itself, arguing with itself. Of course the Rite is programmatic enough that I’m on shaky ground here: so, OK, more fool me. I just don’t get pictures when I listen to music. Cuoghi’s installation interested me mostly because it was only sound and entirely that. In a drab white-walled carpeted room we sat surrounded by speakers whose cables weren’t even primly tidied away. It’s quite rare to visit a gallery-based sound installation that makes no concessions whatever to the usual visual tropes of a gallery: there’s almost always some element of design, even if it’s just about low light or suspending the speakers or something. Here there was nothing but raw materials, and I rather liked that. Whether Cuoghi will turn out to be interesting, I’ve no idea; at a rough guess I’d say probably not, though this sort of overheated pictorialism certainly seems to be staging some sort of comeback.

A quick mention of Conversations at Kettle’s Yard, too (also now closed): there wasn’t much in it to get very excited about but I liked the idea – an assemblage in one space of a series curated over the course of a year by the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh, pairing older and younger artists with the broad general expectation that the younger person’s work somehow speaks to the elder’s. In practice this produces its best results when the younger artist is specifically responding to the earlier work shown: Cerith Wyn Evans makes a beautiful, and highly informed, response to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Star/Steer’; Callum Innes sensitively encounters Hiroshi Sugimoto – it’s hardly thrilling but it feels right; I don’t think Ceal Floyer’s ‘Door’ is made specifically in response to Dan Flavin but it’s a cute, funny, gently deflating comment anyway. By comparison, those pairings that are very obviously not bespoke or even authorised by the younger artist tend to misfire: most conspicuously the baffling pairing of an early Richard Serra film piece with a few of Francesca Woodman’s photographs, onto which conjunction not even the accompanying critical flatus can confer even the mildest coherence — in fact, both artists suffer from the match. Bolder inclusions are hit-and-miss in practice: it’s great to see a Howard Skempton score exhibited as a visual artwork, though the paired-up James Hugonin, attractive though his work is, has nothing to add; Robert Burns’s breakfast table, on the other hand, turns out to be, uh, pretty boring: which at least makes it consonant with the Rachel Whiteread piece alongside it. Mostly, though, I am bugged by the rubric. How are any of these pairings truly Conversations? We may be able to produce conversational readings, sure, but we’ll do this with any two items placed next to each other. The pack of tissues and box of paperclips sitting together next to my computer will produce reams of practical criticism (or sub-Hollyoaks dialogue for that matter) if I sit with them long enough. The curators behind Conversations presumably intend something more than this, something further. Well, fair enough, but what they can’t mean, surely, is ‘conversations’. There was similar nonsense around the word ‘translation’ a few years back. It’s useful to be able to use these terms to refer to quite particular kinds of transaction. For the most part, the activity that’s taking place in the Kettle’s Yard exhibition seems to me to have more to do with a kind of curatorial game of Alzheimer’s Pelmanism that’s ended too soon: which is, after all, more or less indistinguishable at a conceptual level from a game of musical chairs where there are always enough chairs. And there’s no music.

I mentioned in these pages a few weeks ago the death of the exceptionally gifted, and in a dozen other ways exceptional too, American writer David Foster Wallace: but didn’t dwell on it at the time. Probably enough has been said elsewhere now in estimation of Wallace’s work and talents to obviate my less-informed participation in that exercise. But I do want to draw to the attention of Wallace’s fans hereabout the tribute edition of KCRW’s Bookworm that’s just been released. For those who don’t know the programme -- I’ve referred to it here before, but not for a while -- Bookworm is a longrunning series (now available as a free podcast from iTunes and the KCRW web site) of extended interviews with writers (most often novelists), conducted by an amiably purring fellow called Michael Silverblatt who just happens to be an astoundingly smart and perceptive and ingenious reader of books. (Those of us Brits who live with Radio 4 may be forgiven for wondering what such a person can possibly be doing hosting a book programme...)

Anyhoo. Bookworm has marked Wallace’s passing with a re-run of an interview he did with Silverblatt shortly after the publication of Infinite Jest in 1996. The conversation is of a quite astonishing calibre and in a way the most moving thing about it is not hearing Wallace talk about his ideas and working process but hearing how surprised and delighted he is by the attentiveness of Silverblatt’s reading of his work, by how tuned-in Silverblatt is. (I quite agree, it’s incredible; I don’t subscribe to Bookworm but I’ve heard probably twenty of these interviews and I’ve literally never heard Silverblatt make a remark or observation or ask a question that seems on the wrong track.) It’s poignant in this context because we tend to think of someone like Wallace as an intellectual, game-playing writer, and perhaps underestimate his emotional and physical investment in his work: so when he actually recognizes his novel in Silverblatt’s discussion of it, he’s audibly touched. “I feel like asking you to adopt me,” he says at one point. It’s quite beautiful, oddly intimate, like overhearing two people realizing that they’ve fallen in love.

My own reading fancies have been most tickled of late by a small but hugely resonant book just out from Reality Street, Paul Griffiths’s let me tell you. I almost feel reluctant to appear to be plugging another Reality Street book after my keen endorsement of the Reality Street Book of Sonnets a few months ago: not least because I got my ear quite roundly cuffed by Geraldine Monk on one of the poetry listservs for giving what she felt was a partial and distorting account of that anthology’s contents. This is one of the problems with writing appreciations on a blog like this of stuff one feels enthusiastic about: one doesn’t write with the care or the calm formal attitude with which one might compose a review for print publication, say. I imagine that I’m talking to friends here, and though I’m always happy to be quoted if anything I say can be useful in putting more readers in touch with a book or whatever, it’s oddly jarring, like a category error, to then be taken to task for what I’ve said as a consequence, or at least to be so vehemently disagreed with outside of these pages. One feels a bit like an actor in a soap opera being duffed up in Sainsbury’s because of something his character did in the previous night’s episode.

Fortunately, Let Me Tell You doesn’t produce (in this reader, at least) quite such a whoosh of adrenalin, so let’s hope I can express my approval of this work in soberer and less contentious terms. Again, there’s a high concept to this book that can be simply explained: the narrative voice is Opehlia, and the author allows himself to use only those words actually spoken by Ophelia in Hamlet. So on one level this is a rare British contribution to the corpus of Oulipian literature: and worth celebrating as such. However, like all the best Oulipian or constraint-based works, it wonderfully exceeds its exact perimeter. Which is not to say that it transcends the pressures exerted by its formative constraints: that would be silly, really. The prose has just a shade of strangeness, of stiltedness about it, even at its most fluent:

Mine is a memory made, as all memory is made, of what was and what should have
been. Wish is close to memory, and will find a way in. Wish will not be denied.
We all know that. Your memory is not one but many – a long music you have made
and will make again, over and over, with some things you know and some you do
not, some that are true and some you have made up, some that have stayed from
long before and some that have come this morning, some that will go tomorrow and
some that have long been there but you will never find them, not if you look
from now to your last day, for there is no end to memory.

And of course the lexis is sufficiently small that over the course of this 130-page book, the patterns of repetition and cross-beating slowly become hypnotic, sometimes befuddling. So it is a vital part of the success of the work that it is not quite able to, presumably not seeking to, rise above its limits; it doesn’t want you to forget what shapes it. But it does exceed, lyrically, hauntingly, its limited life as a game or exercise. The breakages and small bathetic failures of its textures and materials, the gaps and fissures within which the language reverberates, start to speak for themselves, about the homelessness, the terrible wandering madness, of the disembodied voice within such an insistent text. We start to hear something almost like a computer voice -- like HAL, say, in 2001: A Space Odyssey: this artificial Ophelia likewise has just enough intelligence to be paranoid; so much of her expressivity rests on polysemy, and yet if these few words are all she has, how is she to trust them when they’re so unstable? It is a sad, beautiful, limpid book. Were he living, Edward Lear would read it and weep; Veronica Forrest-Thompson, likewise, might bat an eyelid, were she.

As ever, the greater proportion of my day-to-day reading at the moment is online. The blog I’d most like to recommend, or rather the one I’m most enjoying, is Whateverall, my friend Jonny Liron’s space. Occasionally a two- or three-paragraph post will emerge, usually teasing out some question about theatre and its audiences, or language and its users: but mostly, at least for now, the blog advances itself through single lines and phrases. This extreme fragmentation is not a model I’ve seen used before in a blog and it can be devastatingly effective, particularly given the tension between Jonny’s emotional candour and his seductive performative esprit, and also the open and apparent influence of alcohol on some of the late-night posts. It’s as if he’s fed a ripped-up assortment of journal entries, love letters and suicide notes into a shredder, and is compelled every so often to grab a fistful of the output and try to turn it back into shards of convulsive prose. Certainly it’s as close as I, or presumably anyone, will ever come to receiving nocturnal text messages from Rudolf Schwarzkogler. It ain’t always pretty but it’s always, one way or another, true, and you can’t say that about many blog writings. Unfortunately I can’t point you in the direction of Whateverall just now, as a perceived incompatibility between the content of the blog and Jonny’s current acting day-job means he’s had to move the whole thing underground for the time being. When it reemerges into the public domain I’ll be sure to let you know: though I may at that point have cause to regret one or two of my own late-night worse-for-wear comments there...

In the meantime, a couple of relatively new blogs on the block are worth making a passing fuss of. Longtime compadre Tassos Stevens, one of the undersung geniuses of British theatre and presiding godfather of the emergent performance territory of alternate reality gaming (not a satisfactory phrase but he, and you likewise, will forgive the unnicety), now has a play space where he can frequently be spotted thinking through stuff he’s seen and heard and been pondering in the rainforest depths of his winterval beard. Tassos looks more like Slavoj Zizek than anyone else I know, including Zizek himself. But that’s beside the point. (Which means it must be a rubbish point.) Well, heigh ho, what am I trying to say. Simply expressed in terms of, say, ideas per cubic minute, Tassos, and by extension Tassos’s blog, are about as good as it gets if you’re interested in where we’re going and what the top speed is of the handcart in which we’re going there. I hope he isn’t lost altogether to Theatre As She Is Spoke: we can use his brain here too. But in the meantime, you’ll want to keep one eye on what he’s up to, even – no, especially – when you’re asleep.

Another hugely welcome recent addition to the blogroll is Performance Monkey, home to a brilliantly smart and engaging critic called David Jays, to whom I have no connexion to disclose save that (I think) I did We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg! in his flat one time. The scope and the confidence of Performance Monkey is really thrilling and encouraging, particularly with Postcards... so quiet and folks like Dan B and Alex F apparently missing in action. I only discovered it a few weeks ago but it’s already established itself as a must-read.

I’ve also added to the list a couple of blogs that I’d simply foolishly overlooked till now: the performance makers Third Angel (whose lovely Presumption seems to have gone down well at Southwark Playhouse – it’s there till the end of the coming week if you haven’t seen it yet); and the poet Jeff Hilson, my boggling admiration for whom has already been spelt out in these pages to infinity and beyond.

Finally, for those who get through this post in time, an interesting sounding event at the Royal Court tomorrow, trailed here by the excellent Dan Rebellato. I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it, sadly, but I’m sure there’ll be reports.

And that’s about it, I think. I mean, obviously, get the new BBC Radiophonic Workshop anniversary CD before they absent-mindedly delete it and it starts changing hands for seventy quid on eBay. And, if you haven’t already (and of course you have) you’ll want to admire the spectacle of Stephen Fry channelling Jay-Z.

Nothing, though, I have to say, has pleased me more in the past few days than discovering that this easy-on-the-eye young fellow...

-- an actor by the name of Cole Williams who plays one of the eponymous brothers in an absolutely barking, wildly incoherent but weirdly likeable American indie film from a couple of years ago called Harry and Max, which describes an incestuous relationship between two sibling popstars presumably modelled on Nick and Aaron Carter, or the screenwriter’s fantasies thereof... -- where was I? Oh yes, so the highly pleasing and estimable Cole Williams turns out to be the son of one of the guys who wrote ‘The Rainbow Connection’. Even in the small world that it undoubtedly is, there’s something so satisfactory about that, I can’t believe it didn’t come giftwrapped.

Keep warm, my dears, and I’ll see you in a while or two.


Paul Griffiths said...

Thank you for all that you say of 'let me tell you' — though I could wish you had not said O was like a man-made mind.... But thank you. I had no expectation of such a close perusal.
Yours truly, he that did it

Leigh Caldwell said...

So, like, Tassos's blog right, where is it, right? I clicked on all the links with nobody's name on them and though I now feel much better-informed (if much less knowledgeable), I don't see it. "tassos stevens blog" on Google of course returns this very page. Has he been doing the cease & desist again?

No no, I get it, it's a game. OK, tell me the rules so I can start to break them.

Guess what my captcha is today. "fockn". Beautiful.

Leigh Caldwell said...

p.s. I never write like that. What have you done to me, Chris?


Chris said...

Paul: Thanks for the visit and the comment. I'm intrigued by your aversion to my (mis)identification of a synthetic intelligence in the work. I'll happily allow that I may be barking up a deceptive tree, and I hope my remark doesn't seem to imply a lack of authorial discrimination in the detailed workings of the prose (nor in its broader operations). One wouldn't expect to pass a reverse Turing test without a very carefully attuned ear, surely. But the repetition from which the work derives some portion of its cumulative power can't help but smack of a kind of permutative churn that seems, at the level of the language only (and not its affect), quite uncannily, slightly less than fully human. Admittedly the specific identification of a computer-like voice may be an under-imaginative gloss. After all, a book quite like let me tell you could have been written eighty years ago, and I wonder what metaphor I'd have reached for then to describe the weirdness conjured by the lexical circumscription? I mean, the brain has always been described in terms of whatever the most mind-boggling technological innovation was at the time of writing -- "the brain is very like a telephone switchboard", etc etc. So, as I say, I may be quite wrong to make the specific identification with some kind of computer simulation. But I'm interested to know more about why you regret the suggestion that Ophelia here is, as you say, "like a man-made mind." I mean, isn't she, strictly speaking, exactly that? Or, what, in saying so, do we lose, that you'd want to preserve?

At any rate, I hope my admiration for the book comes through loud and clear and uncompromised! And thanks again for visiting.

Leigh: Yeah, I was hoping nobody would notice that, but I might have known you would. Having written the post, I then tried Googling for T's blog, which foolishly I haven't bookmarked, and it does indeed seem extraordinarily resistant to searching. Maybe, since I was last there, T has moved it into a more private realm -- in which case I probably shouldn't link to it anyway. I'll try and track down the man himself and see what's up. -- Or T, if you're here before I get to you: what's up, doc?

Someone at Captcha HQ seems to have been on the cherry brandy since mid-autumn: it serves up pronounceable (and often vaguely, or not even vaguely, indecent) word strings almost without fail these days. Still, I prefer it over the almost indecipherable cursive pile-ups of i's and j's and u's and v's to which one used to be exposed...

Delighted to think I ruin your prose, anyway.

p.s. No, I'm Duckia...

Revock said...

No, I am Duckia.

Paul Griffiths said...

OK, I'm going to have to get out of Ophelian now. The reference to HAL took me by surprise, but I suppose shouldn't have; after all, he's one of the rare characters to have a name that can be spelled with the letters of Ophelia's. It's also true, I think, that the way of putting 'let me tell you' together wouldn't have been imagined before computers were commonplace -- which is one reason why I doubt the book could have been written eighty years ago. In a sense it could have been written three hundred and eighty years ago, since everything it needs - those words - was available then (though, of course, it wouldn't have had modern locutions). You could say that any of Elliott Carter's string quartets could have been written in the eighteenth century, since all the means - the instruments, the players, the notational conventions - were already in place. But things happen when they do. Certainly a reading like yours couldn't have been written eighty years ago, and, to paraphrase your own conclusion, I am sorry I didn't voice my appreciation more clearly and strongly. To revert to Ophelian: Thank you. This is the reason one does what one does.

TS said...

Ah damn, beaten to that punch by Revock.

Tassos here. Thanks for the big-up, C. Although I wonder at the connotations of why people would want to pay attention to me when they are asleep.

I did wonder why you hadn't posted a link to the blog, whether you were being sensitive to perceived covertness. There is none. There is no game. It's And now that I know I have 2+ readers I might actually write some more.

I don't know that I can forgive the unnicety of 'alternative reality gaming' though. I think I take issue with each of the parts as well as what is generally represented by the whole. But no bugger knows what to call it, that stuff I do. I named my blog in honour of Paul Bennun's scythe through the Gordian knot of terminology - 'well its all play, isn't it?' - and then added the 'all' because I had to cos someone else had allplay.

I do like 'all play all' in the company of friends. Terms like 'interactive' and 'cross-platform' get bandied at professional strangers.

But I'm sure I'll do some 'proper theatre' again soon, C. In the meantime, link away.

Chris said...

Paul: Curses! I didn't spot that you were still in-mode last time. How foolish of me. 'Perusal', if nothing else, should have given the game away.

Point taken re time & timeliness, and having initially written "a book like let me tell you..." I did at least go back and modify it to "quite like". But the occupation with creating a plausible consciousness out of voice marks, rather than the other way about, seems like a modernist concern at least as much as a postmodern one...

Anyway I'm glad to have said something worthwhile, if I did. No doubt as a consequence lists to Santa are being feverishly rewritten all over the country at this very moment. This blog is to Reality Street as Delia is to cranberries.

All best!

Tass: Good. Ta. It's weird that Google should suddenly start ignoring you like that. A blip, no doubt. I've got to run now but will do the linky business when I'm next in front of this screen.

Allons-y! x

Paul Griffiths said...

I must say it did please me more than a little that O’s words seemed to you like mine. In a way, they are, no doubt. What of this, then? Has that ‘of’ given it away?
But I love what you say about (yes, now we’re out of Ophelian) the character coming from the words rather than the other way round, and I wouldn’t mind at all being thought of as a woolly-mammoth modernist. And just this: thanks again.

Nick Jesper said...

Hi Chris,

I regularly check in to read bits and pieces of your blog and enjoy much of what you write - though I admit alot of the theatre stuff goes over my head.

For me though my main reason for regularly coming back is to shamelessly steal your taste in music. I thought I had a pretty eclectic taste in music but apparently not! Over the last twelve months all of my most exciting discoveries have been thanks to you - Dan Deacon, Seabear and The Field to name but a few.

I work in theatre/film too and Dan Deacon's music has worked it's way into several of this year's projects.

In fact here's a trailer for a show we toured around Europe on and off this year - complete with a 'Crystal Cat' and 'Pink Batman' soundtrack:

Actually while I'm at it, I'd also be interested to know what you make of our trailer for a new TV show we're currently attempting to get commissioned:

...don't suppose you know anyone in TV that might be interested in the idea? You could message our youtube account if you have a spare few minutes - we'd be most grateful for any feedback.

Right, sorry about the shameless self-promotion. My main point was just to say thanks for all the good music and to say - for purely selfish reasons I'd be most grateful if you were to find the time to do your albums of the year.

Have a lovely Christmas.

All the best