Sunday, November 02, 2008

Stick it in the shredder marked 'douchebag'

CARTMAN: I dreamed I was standing out in a field, and there was this huge satellite dish stickin' out of my butt. And there were hundreds of cows and aliens, and then I went up on the ship, and Scott Baio gave me pinkeye.
STAN: That wasn't a dream, Cartman. That really happened.

Yeah, so, that's the reason I'm not going to say anything much about Hey Mathew, which is over and not over in roughly equal measure and which I'm not sure I can write about rationally yet. I'd sound like I was gibbering about being abducted by aliens. What shall I say? There were, in total, five performances, and two of them (the first, in Bradford, and the last, in London) were, for me, overwhelming in the way that they not only matched but exceeded my aspirations for how the piece we'd made might sit in a room with a group of people encountering it live for the first time. Every performance was interesting and I was always proud of the work but those couple of shows transported everything in to a different register for me. I dare say there will be folks who attended one or the other and were left cold or ambivalent. Only one person has said directly to me that they didn't like it (he was perfectly respectful and it was fine, though disappointing); quite a few people have not wanted to say anything, or at least to say anything yet. It was, by the time it was in the room, an unusually frank piece of work, not only in its sexual explicitness but also in its emotional rawness and its personal exposure, and I'm sure if one of my friends had made it I might be reluctant to talk to them about it. Even the people who were apparently deeply moved by it -- of whom I'm pleased to say there were very many -- would quite often come up and touch my arm and cock their head to one side, as if to say "poor you". It was rather as if someone had died. ...I hope it was me.

Today's been harsh, though: the steep, steep comedown: I overslept, it was gloomy, it rained, I put the radio on and everything was horrible trivial middleclass crap, I went to the supermarket (the most disconsoling place it's possible to imagine on a rainy Saturday afternoon -- is there anything more hateful than choosing a bunch of bananas while listening to Seal on the instore PA?), I slept some more, I couldn't read, couldn't listen to music... It's been like having awful toothache but without any actual toothache. I could easily sleep again now but of course it's firework season, so the neighbourhood gets to dictate the parameters.

Yesterday was pretty cool, the Cambridge reading went well in every respect except one, which was that I didn't read at all well. The rest of the bill was mighty: Mike Wallace-Hadrill came up from Brighton and managed to throw some seriously scalene triangles despite the worst efforts of bronchial malcontentment and yucky Benylin; teenage dream Tomas Weber, in honour of whose fleeting mainland expedition I conceived the whole event, delivered a genuinely remarkable performance of some bountifully promising work; and Nick Potamitis stepped up with aching nonchalance to the quilted oche and laid down a whole Mexican waveful of arms -- slippy, skippy, full of surprising jags, like a boxful of polystyrene chips packed out with bone china for maximum transit damage. I then was for some reason a bit fake and listless, or I felt so, and I can't lay the blame entirely at that vampiric drama studio space, because I've read there before a couple of times and never felt so distant within myself. Actually I think the real problem is I've started drinking wine a lot more, under Jonny's balefully sybaritic influence, and in comparison with my usual pre-match tipple (normally a vodka or three, though I do remember before a previous Cambridge reading getting half-wasted on M&S Harvey Wallbangers), I was probably left a bit woollier than I had reason to be. So that's a lesson learned, albeit one that most people have figured out by the time they're, like, ten. 

So anyway I was a bit deflated afterwards and headed straight back to London, alone and really feeling like I'd been in a five week fight. Which seems like a preposterous way to describe the process of making this most recent piece -- of which I am inexpressibly proud: of the piece, but also very much of the process -- nothwithstanding some sad and disappointing ructions within the team towards the end, which kicked my heart in a bit. But also, anyway, looking back at it, and at all the things I've done over the last month which I hadn't for a long while -- drinking till I threw up; crying myself to sleep; playing air guitar to the Longpigs in the middle of the street not long after nightfall; feeling like I wanted to kiss practically everybody; dancing in public (not too visibly); making a den; kicking the fuck back; reading poetry aloud for the sheer sensual pleasure of it; screaming the place down at the Klinker; living mostly on three hours' sleep a night; one or two things I'd better not even say here (three if you count having lunch with a Bishop); and, can you guess what it is yet?, falling Captain Batshit crazy-in-love (albeit the kind of love whose requitedness isn't always easy to put one's finger on) -- I guess it's hardly surprising I've needed a day for quiet whimpering and milk and cookies and invertebrate despond.

(This really cheered me up though, this morning. I love the girl who pronounces 'Deutsche Bank' as 'Douche Bag'. Quite.)

Obviously the process of re-entry into real life (or whatever inversion thereof we're required to settle for) is barely underway but I did just want to say something brief about the microfurore that's been kicked up by the decision of the current artistic director of the ICA, Ekow Eshun, to wind up its Live & Media Arts Department. This news turned up on the Live Art discussion list in mid-October and I feared it might go more widely unremarked, but, as ever, Lyn Gardner was on the ball and an interesting if overnoisy conversation ensued at the Guardian theatre blog. I haven't gone back to that discussion in the past few days, nor read it as closely as I might have, so I might be about to duplicate a point that's already made quite adequately there, but if that's the worst harm I do today it'll be a refreshingly decent result.

Certainly I agree with those commentators, on that blog and elsewhere, who have had reason to recall the ICA's erstwhile commitment to live art, particularly during the tenure of Lois Keidan and Catherine Ugwu, with a degree of fondness and ardour that must be incomprehensible to those who've come on to the scene in recent years and found the Institute to be some kind of bad joke cross between a hall of mirrors and a puff of CGI smoke. I remember quite soon after I came to London seeing Anthony Howell and a very young Robin Deacon there, and having my first live experience of Goat Island (The Sea and Poison). These formative experiences were strong enough to imprint the ICA at the heart of my sense of the ecology of experimental performance in the capital long after the venue had ceased to deserve such an assessment.

The real problem -- which, as I say, others may by now have picked up on at the Guardian blog or elsewhere, but I can't face going looking right now -- is that a few years ago (not on Eshun's watch, it must be said, but during that of his predecessor Philip Dodd) the ICA got all hot and bothered about new media and digital arts, to the extent that this sector started to drown out the organisation's commitment to live performance and its confidence in what liveness and nonvirtual reality could actually deliver. Initially this snark-chasing paid off with some handsome adventures -- I remember seeing Evan Parker's Electroacoustic Ensemble there quite early on, when that project was still seeming to offer Parker's most vital work in a good while -- but it became increasingly apparent, not just to luddites like me, that with the exception of a few genuinely intelligent outfits working in the area of digital arts, there's almost no there there. Furthermore, the yoking together of Live and Media Arts in one department came to seem like a structural (and presumably administrative) as well as aesthetic disaster. Not even the whiff of modishness could sufficiently perfume the nastiness emanating from the ideological tension right at the foundations of that department's existence. The ICA took its eye off the ball to go chasing a shadow that it itself was casting.

In that context, Eshun's statement is worth some ever-so-slightly careful parsing. Plenty of people are (not unrightly) up in arms about his characterisation of the live art sector as lacking "depth and cultural urgency": except he very clearly doesn't do that. He's speaking quite precisely to a problem with "new media based arts practice". He does not, anywhere in his statement, address live art whatsoever, except by dint of its being tethered to new media in the structuring of the organization. I'm sure it's convenient to him to elide the two practices in terms of the deletion of the department, but I'm equally sure it can't be insignificant that his assessment of the value of the department's work focuses entirely on a failure he evidently perceives (and which, as I'm sure is obvious, I wouldn't strongly disagree with) in the level of delivery on the new media promise of which the organization has been trying to convince us for the last decade. Either he thinks the irrelevance of live art speaks for itself (which is no worse a position than the one the ICA's occupied over these past years), or he's making quite a careful point about new media arts, and the loss of live art from the ICA's programme is essentially collateral damage. Obviously it doesn't consequentially matter which it is, but I'm interested to wonder. 

In the meantime, live art could really still use a black box hub in central London; for a while I thought CPT could be positioned there, and Matt Ball seems to have continued to think along those lines, but it probably can't ever produce that gravitational pull, not least because of where it is and how little money it has. The Chelsea Theatre programmes interesting work but struggles with momentum and visibility. Shunt has developed into a crucial base for live art, and for the sustained integration of this kind of performance language into a cultural continuum: but my problems persist with that space and the attitudes and ideological positions it connotes. Great things happen under the aegis of Artsadmin at Toynbee Studios (where we just showed Hey Mathew) -- but, as our experience amply demonstrated, despite the massive enthusiasm and moral support there, practically their spaces just aren't equipped for anything more than the most provisional showings. I suppose there's an argument that live art should be fugitive, that it should pop up in unlikely places or in real-life settings where possible. But equally the fundamental problem with live art as it's developed over the last decade is the increasingly low level of craft applied to its production; of course craft shouldn't be a priority for those who are working against that sort of model, but for those who are interested in that kind of making, a fixed base can be important both as a resource and as a cultural and social signal. Eshun may actually have made a smart move in ditching Live & Media Arts if it enables the ICA to clear the air and reassess, in a little while, the fundamental and burgeoning importance of live art, and the sheer bizarreness of allowing its institutional commitment to live art to collapse when for so many visual artists questions around performance are now so central that to insist on a division between the plastic, the conceptual and the performative in visual arts practice seems quite absurd and untenable. In the meantime, I quite agree with those commentators who suggest that ACE should redistribute a proportion of the ICA's funding for reinvestment in live art elsewhere (and a fixed base, not just festival opportunities or more site-specific wheezery); and I'm sad to think I have yet another reason not to renew my ICA membership when the time comes round again. Some months I look at the programme and wonder what the place hasn't given up on. I mean they had Kula Shaker in a few months ago. What else needs saying after that?

The other topic worth a chew on over at the Graun of late is the announcement of a new fringe venue dedicated to gay theatre. This haemorrhage-inducing news becomes all the more desolate when the brains behind the operation turns out to be Peter Bull, who brought into CPT one of the most wretched, banal, insulting pieces of theatre I've ever seen, quite near the end of my tenure when I was wondering if I'd done enough to support gay-targeted work at the venue. (It turned out I had.) I'm not going to get into this now because I think it's going to sit somewhere within the turnings of the post I'm planning to get up here sometime this week, which I'd better warn you will be all of your favourite things: too long, too personal, and hardly about theatre at all; but I think I might be about to have a crack at arguing, in passing, that gay theatre is ineluctably harmful and regressive and anyway in a very real sense impossible. So, you'll want a box of Maltesers for that one.

And with that, for now I'm going to stop, as I'm in one of those frames of mind where everything I say just seems to make me sound (to my own ears, at least, and I dare say to yours) like a fucking dick.

Today was hopeless. Tomorrow: we will be heroes. The day after that: we will be heroes again. The day after that: Laundry.

p.s. If anyone's in any doubt as to where the comma ought to go in the phrase "[people] would quite often come up and touch my arm and cock their head to one side", above: it's after "arm", OK?, not after "cock". The Controlling Thompson apologises for any inconvenience caused.


Anonymous said...

you have a talent - watch my works on:

tomkendall said...

For what its worth Chris, i thought the piece was beautiful and intense and utterly resistant to the tools i have at my disposal to analyse it...which is ultimately what i want from a piece of art and may explain people's reluctance to open up about it. I felt so prised open by the piece i didnt quite know how to cross/close myself enough to express it. Or something.
btw I really,really want a copy of the text you wrote over the film as i thought that was an utterly sublime piece of writing.
Lets meet up soon and see something cool as fuck.

Anonymous said...

I would venture that tannoy broadcasts of M People (particularly Search for the Hero) are more harmful to the soul than Seal.

Anonymous said...

If you've a minute, what attitudes and ideological positions does the Shunt space connote? (Or if you've written about this before could you post a link?)

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