Monday, February 02, 2009

A quick note on likeness

So the first day of rehearsals for King Pelican disappeared under several inches of snow. Fantastically disappointing after such a long countdown, though it's hard to be cross at the snow, which is only doing what it's supposed to do.

Time instead to start sifting through the large pile of submissions from animators who've said they'd like to work with us on Wound Man and Shirley. We did a couple of really fun readings of Wound Man last week, in London and Manchester, which only served to amplify our sense that the animation in the show is all about extending the tone of the piece into a visual language. Definitely that rather than trying to illustrate the narrative, which is a job best done by everyone's brain (and/or whatever other organs they wish to press into service).

Looking at various animators' YouTube channels this afternoon, I saw that many of them had links to a guy I'd never come across before but who is obviously pretty hot in cartoonland at the moment. (No, no, I know they're not cartoons, I'm just being naughty.) The gentleman in question is a New York artist by the name of Adam Pesapane, a.k.a PES, and I was particularly struck by his beautifully ingenious little film Western Spaghetti, which feels like a cheerful American take on classic Svankmajer:

The incredibly economical visual wit is hugely appealing, I think. But it kind of got me reflecting in a new way on the conversation that emerged, via rather a bumpy and not always good-humoured route, in response to my last post, and which has by now transmogrified into a fascinating conversation between two longtime denizens of Thompsons about ideas to do with audience roles in relation to play and/or (by which I mean as variably distinct from) performance. What I'm thinking hasn't quite formed yet but it's something along these lines.

Recovery, the improvised piece with Jeremy Hardingham and Jonny Liron that I blogged about last time, was very much concerned with the specific qualities of materials: as is Western Spaghetti. But the imaginative extensions of PES's film are all to do with (a)likeness -- that one thing can stand in for another; Western Spaghetti becomes sort of a Martian-school poem accumulating these amusing resemblances. (For some reason it's way more interesting as a series of visual propositions than it would be as, say, a Craig Raine poem.)

The total theatre of Lepage or Complicite, in its classic 80s/90s dialects (of which traces remain even in those artists' sophisticated video-heavy current works), also derives a lot of its springy energy and fluid dynamics from exactly this kind of metaphorical deployment of objects and materials, often with an upwardly-mobile junkshop aesthetic. (We can't afford to put an aeroplane on stage, and anyway it would be grandiose to do so: so here's one we made earlier -- no, here's one we only just thought of [that's the other important bit of the technology: making it feel as improvised after a year of performances as it would have felt in the rehearsal room where it was first discovered] -- created out of a colander and a shower curtain.) I love this stuff, am a big fan of it -- most recently in Akhe's constrained and uncharacteristically heavy-footed but nonetheless likeable Faust.2360 Words -- but have never really incorporated it much into my own language.

The reason for that seems to be becoming clearer of late. I find I prefer work -- in theatre and performance, at least; I don't mind so much in other media -- that sets out to say what something is, and not what it's like, or what it reminds us of, or whether we recognize it, or what else it might be. In a way this is a sort of antithesis of the pronouncement that Robert Wilson has been reiterating (with small variations) throughout his career: "My responsibility in creating for the theatre is not to say what something is, but to ask, 'What is it?'" This kind of holding-in-question seems at first glance both artistically livelier and politically more pertinent -- the ways in which even the familiar might contain multitudes of otherness, whole panoplies of potential change... But the fact is, theatre now exists within an apparently inexhaustibly liminoid culture, in which the mutability of function and identity is not only in itself a given, but also has become uncoupled from any sense of political programme or location. To be able to say what something materially or objectively is has become, post-Thatcher and mid-Web 2.0, the more radical, more dissident position than to gesture vaguely at its categorical slipperiness and its ineluctable contingency.

Of course there is something impossible in this task. The materials in Recovery included eggs, rope, wine, crepe bandage... -- it's very hard to bring any of these into play without the uncontrollable invocation of an infinite net of resonances and hidden narratives. The great materialist visual/performance artists from whom we were hoping to draw inspiration, from Beuys to Schwarzkogler to Matthew Barney, are all also inveterate myth-makers, whose presentation of the object or the substance is always also a re-presentation, and a private assertion (or half-stifled limning) of personal codes and relations which, in the multiplicating context of theatre, go reverberantly apeshit. So this is not about some kind of anti-poetic purity kick and it's certainly not about simplicity or singularity.

Nonetheless, at base, there seems to be a fundamental difference in these two gestures, the difference between the indicative and the subjunctive, between what is and what if. And I seek to extend this concern not only to my self-presentation and my presentation of others (as in Hey Mathew, say, most contentiously) but also to my response to the presence of the audience and the negotiation of their self-consciousness. When Paul Goodman says "I'd rather have the watchers moved by what they are doing -- watching", it's difficult to know exactly which point he's making: is he saying that the value resides in watching per se -- however devalued that may be in leading-edge theatre; or is he saying that what's important is the audience's sense that they themselves are doing something that's important, and that this is true whether they're ('simply') watching or whether they participate much more substantively in the generation of the material and the pursuit of its argument. But either way, some reflection of my point can be made out there. We say who we are, not who we might be; we make a commitment that begins in an account of what is, in all the turbulence and obliquity of that matter. Until we can see who, and what, we are, in relation to each other and the objects and materials we use and the resources we share (or don't), the question of what else there could be and what the various things we call "this" or "here" might be like under other circumstances is nearly incomprehensible, except in a subjunctive, speculative fantasy that does nothing more than take us away from ourselves for a while: a pleasure, but one entirely propelled by privilege -- whether that's the privilege of leisure time, or the privilege of being a child.


simon kane said...

Yep, very interesting, I was with you all the way until those last words... which given our history makes perfect sense. Was it simply a flourish? Because of course being a child is not a privilige, is it. It's the opposite. It is the one thing everyone's had a go at. And because "I am me" is so much less comprehensive a delcaration than "That's a rope", "What am I?" is surely a very different question than "What is that rope?" (Is Hamlet actually mad? Well that depends on your definition of "is") and objects - not us - and people - potential usses - are two completely different propositions. Taking someone's clothes off will tell us more about them but it also much more won't. I mean I had enough of a trauma working out what those rabbits were in Sisters... not what they "signified", not what they were doing there, not that at all, but WHAT ARE THEY? Are they scared things? Are they oblivious things? The slight ambiguity of their consciousness made me genuinely wriggle in my seat (Kudos?). And I often think about the professed moral of Vonnegut's "Mother Night" in relationship to performing: "We are who we pretend to be." Yes, yes we are. Pretending a book is a bird doesn't stop it being a book. However pretend to be angry, your body won't be able to tell the difference, you're angry. Pretend to be possessed of an untameable libido, you will become that thing, as I found out when I'd finished some five night run of just a Jacobean Tragedy in the Playroom, it was scary, giddying. This kind of play will not change your opinions or your education but it might change you. Going back to your speech about Shakespeare and the wood, for me Feste is not walking talking theatre as much as Edgar is in King Lear (although I like that Feste's always asking people for money). Edgar is the thing, yep.
Again, I want to remind you about the people you said you found coming out of your mouth when you performed Hippo World. They were who? And you were what then? But we've been through all this before. (I don't mind. It's fun. I just don't want to bore with repitition.) Really compelling stuff this. Ta.

Oh and have you heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson? He is now my preacher. I think you might love him. Somebody put electrodes on his head.


Helen Smith said...

I love PES. Have you seen his other films? He's a genius?

Chris said...

Simon: Hello again. Most of what you say here, all of which is brilliant, needs more chewing on than I can dare to attempt this evening, so I hope you'll forgive a day's pause before I respond.

I can quickly though say, as regards the child, no, not a flourish exactly, though I meant a little weight to fall, as it did I guess for you at least. I was mostly wanting to pre-empt the objection that my prescription for indicativity would prevent a kid from using a large cardboard box as a car or a cave: which is after all a kind of play that to some will feel intrinsically theatrical. So yes I was meaning to propose that one of the things being a child means is that you don't yet have to handle the subjunctive and the junkshop-metaphorical with adult care. Sure being a child is not a privilege, but it contains privileges, in the strict sense simply of privilege as a law which applies to some people only. The 'privi' of 'privilege' -- you know this, I'm spelling it out unnecessarily because I'm obnoxious like that -- is the same as the 'priv' of 'privacy'. Children should have a real measure of privacy, far more than we afford them. The transition into adulthood, the putting away of childish things, is partly (you'd hope, you'd wish) about letting your privacy go and learning to live in an ongoing, negotiated, analytic relation with the public zone. The reason that extending that privacy/privilege into adulthood is so dangerously banal *right now* is that it's hopelessly redundant. We all already live in a yellow submarine, or at least, a giant chrysalis from which we are refusing to emerge. In that respect, and of course a thousand others, children have become the frontline victims of our failure.

But the rest, hm, forgive me, I'll come back.

Helen: Glad you like. I looked at a couple of others on YouTube. There seems to be lots on his web site. Somewhere or other lists Western Spaghetti as the second 'biggest' viral video of 2008; what's that sound I hear, ah, it's the flapping of the coattails of the zeitgeist as it zooms off without me yet again.

simon kane said...

Similarly I took you up on that flourish and then realized I would have to think much more on't, so kind of changed tack.
What I would have to think on exactly is that being a child - while associated with its often (yeah, we'd hope) attendant priviliges (didn't know about the shared "priv", do keep throwing these things out) - is not some posh school where we are allowed to play, it is in a but not that sense THE state of play. We're not taught to play if we're lucky. We play. But what IS that... that's what I've go to mull over. Because we learn by playing, that's a trusim but also the point, which goes back to the idea of playing to find out what something is - yes? - which in the case of my last comment was ourselves. "What can I do with this?" So when I said it wasn't a privilige I meant it is crucial to who we are.
And this yellow submarine... Where does the coccoon stop then? Clearly you're saying that there is an artificial world that keeps us from the real world. At least that's how I'm understanding what you're saying. BUT but but, you probably know where this is going, well in fact I've just asked it, what delineates the reality we should be facing from the reality of the environment that's keeping us from facing that reality? Surely it's all real out there. It just is. Binary. So what is this big thing about being one of many you think we're meant to be facing? It sounds to me a bit Platonic.

Look, are you talking in fact about love?

And I'm not at all sure we should grow out of playing if playing is indeed born out of curiosity. (By the way I am far more private now than I was when a child). I also think playing is a huge part of love. Today we were all let off work and had a snowball fight. At first OF COURSE I did not participate, and then I did and there were instances of fun (ie out-of-myself-type ecstasy) and, but, all the time there was OF COURSE the deadening bilious knowledge that I was not experiencing the same childish abandon that that thing everyonelse was. But. I Can't. "Know". That.
And had I been throwing snowballs with someone I really loved, rather than knocking about with some people I might or might not fancy who might or might not fancy each other, I would have played from the off.

Clearly I need to mull more. Hope none of this has sounded dismissive. Very much looking forward x


Chris said...

Trying desperately to click 'Hibernate' but just wanting to acknowledge -- this is not the response that we're waiting for -- that I was careless in conflating play with pretending. I suppose I'm trying to shake off my buggedness about 'performing belief'. Your [one's] play with a lover, or even in playing with a kid (if one's probation officer will allow one to get up to such mischiefs), is full of curious and creative promise, exactly as you say. I wonder if there's something about instrumentality, or some divinable (though presumably unsustainable) difference between transitive and intransitive forms of play. Of play vs. playing something. No, that can't be it. Wilfulness? Oh, yuck. No. No. Hibernate. I'll try again tomorrow.

Do kids instinctively know, before they are taught it, a distinction between work and play? Presumably not. There's a whole complex of things around leisure and recreation and TIME OFF. I mean what on earth does that mean.

As the man says: "We're getting nowhere fast tonight, and a merry Christmas to you all."

Chris said...

OK so...

pretend-play as respite vs playfulness as generative engagement. (In relation to wider terms & conditions of social activity.)

That'll do as a placeholder.

simon kane said...

Just brushed my teeth and had a mull. Right I think what has to be cleared up is this:

The attraction of Play for children is NOT in the pretending. It is in what the pretending allows the child to do. Think about it, you don't actually need to climb inside a cardboard box to pretend you're in a tank. You pretend to be in a tank simply because it GIVES YOU THE EXCUSE TO CLIMB INSIDE THE CARDBOARD BOX. That's what's fun, being in a box. Should a child pick up a book and pretend it's a bird that is something different, that is a child playing with perception, but this type of play is actually much rarer. All my memories of play are very specifically of basking in the reality of my environment - that hill, those root, that adventure playground - NOT of some Muppet Babies bluescreen fantasy sequence.
Okay none of this has anything to do with the public zone so I don't know how useful you'll find it. But I do think it's crucial emphasis.

Oh you've written something. Cool. Night from me.


simon kane said...

I should just explain that I posted that last fella before I knew you'd posted yours (so my hectoring tone is symptomatic of eureka, not confused counter-attack, as might be read into it given you'd just said much the same thing).

So actually it seems here that we're suddenly independently in total agreement: it is the playfulness that is valuable, not the pretend-play. That's what I wrote, but actually I don't quite think it. I got over-excited. No, I think pretending gives us more than the "excuse". It gives us the "means" to be inside the box - "be" in its fullest sense, or at least evinced by the vividness of my memories of those spaces in which I pretended (as I wrote before). All that you write about here, all of it, is (of course?) what I first got an inkling of when watching Jeremy's production of Lear fifteen years ago - the show that made me want to return to theatre, the show in which I saw that a "wooden performance" did not preclude great "acting" - to take your meaning - the show in which I actually saw Gloucester blinded. Yes, that changed everything. And every time I write about my love of the "amateur" here, I realize I'm actually rather unhelpfully using a catch-all expression to describe the quality of that production, and I realize exactly the quality you describe here (which finally helps me to see what Jeremy's problem was with The Empty Space: there's no such thing.)
But it was still a production of King Lear. In this case, like the act of pretending, putting on "King Lear" and having people say those lines and play those parts was not here simply an excuse to do what that production did - it was, very definitely, the means.
And that's as far as I've got. I'm not arguing for exclusivity here, just thinking 'bout those means... dusting that wheel...
As you were. N' night.


simon kane said...

Hello again. Just reading through your last strand with Tassos again, I realize "THERE ARE NO REAL SPACES" actually answers incredibly pithily my query about the coccoon... It's not that there's an artificial world keeping us from the real world, as I misundertood you, what you find so pernicious is the division of the real world INTO these artificial worlds, yes?
Block caps rule.

Parenthetically, it's now obvious to me why we feel so differently about the Shunt Lounge. My day job's right next door so of course that whole place is very much more part of my real world. (Still though, I'd argue there's nothing that goes on inside that can't be taken out. London's just full of spatial non-sequiturs. It's oddness to me is very much part of its thereness.)

simon kane said...

Ha ha! I just wrote "it's".
Its 5 in the morning, Chris, deal with it.

TS said...

I think REAL SPACES DO EXIST. They are constructed in (or through) real places through a playful live negotiation between real people.

I think half the problem is that we (myself included) are always confounding real with physical with offline with live with meaningful with functional. There is overlap between those terms but not exclusivity. I suspect that we are using different senses of 'real' here. And probably space and place.

I'd definitely agree that there is no such thing as an empty space. Because a space is always constructed in a place then there are always qualities endowed by the site and by the people constructing it, which always includes the people in 'the audience'.

I sense an interesting overlap here with your problem here C of 'performing belief'. I suspect that for you the presence of that level of play/fiction denies the level of 'real' (for lack of a better word to mind right now). I don't think the 'as if' denies either the 'as it is' or even the 'what is it'. I'd agree with S that playfulness is found in the movement between those levels.

If I ever gruntle then I think it's because I sometimes perceive an implied superiority in descriptions of modes of practice that are interrogating 'simply being' or what it is to be 'simply being'. And a sense from that that we don't know the full story about each others' thinking and practice. I'll be defensive enough here to say that a key initial stage of my practice is an observation and interrogation of how a place is, how an event is, how the people are inside and outside these, how they journey there, what they do etc etc in a never-ending list of questions and it's key to finding a play/fiction that will [and any number of verbs can go here]

I do have a problem with the notion that one can present something simply 'as it is' or 'what is it?' without recognising that if that is happening in the presence of an audience that the question of 'is it as simple as this?' will likely be present in their minds. Why, because they are aware they are there as an audience and that means they are (or might be) in a playspace as well as a place. Never mind if that place has the word 'theatre' anywhere on its architecture. I hope that makes sense. I have to get on for now.

[lionel] messi

simon kane said...

So yes just to reiterate, since you seem to be slightly wrongly co-opting me into your argument, TS, I don't think we're actually discussing movements between levels. I think there's simply in and out and that movement between *those* levels is, by definition, impossible during the course of a show since the very possibility of being "in" automatically makes you "in". I also think an audience can pick up pretty quickly on the intended reality of what it's watching.
But I totally agree, T, that there's a useful absence of trust - that's a terrible way of putting it - a presence of the possibility of the confounding of perceived reality - clearer but shitter -that means an audience will not be watching what goes on in front of them the same way they'll watch events taking place over the road (the one crucial difference in perception? They are safe). I also however really do see the value in having props that are only what they are and scenery that is only what it is and no blackouts and no exit no mime and no hidden source of sound (oh ho yes, Chris, I mean you... what is more magical than soundtrack?) and NO BLOODY BLOODY BLOODY STAGE-FIGHTS, say... and in creating a manifesto for a theatre in which this is a given. Even in such a theatre though, the question of what the performer is remains, unresolved into statement. In fact one of the values of this theatre may be that it asks the question far more clearly.


simon kane said...

My placeholder then...
Pretend-play IS generative engagement.
Evidence: memories.