Saturday, September 26, 2009

The best point for reception

On Tuesday I received an email from Julia Lee Barclay, the London-based writer and director whose company Apocryphal Theatre, earlier in the year, presented a new piece, Besides You Lose Your Soul; or, The History of Western Civilisation, at Camden People's Theatre. I posted a short response to the piece in these pages and also wrote a review of it for Total Theatre magazine. One striking element of the piece -- which, like all Apocryphal's work, has at its core a highly disjunctive text which the performers negotiate afresh each night in a largely improvised encounter -- was its set: performers and audience shared a space which was littered with hundreds of books, many from the Western literary / philosophical tradition; at points both we and they turned to these books in a desperate search for 'answers' to the profound ethical questions posed by the unfolding piece itself.

More recently, in writing about Dylan Tighe's Medea/Medea at the Gate, I mentioned Apocryphal in passing in the following terms:


...All of us who work in theatre get asked the same question over and over: Why on earth would you work in such a medium? It turns out a lot of practitioners don't have an answer to that question, and so they embed it self-regardingly in their work. Even companies I really like and admire -- Apocryphal comes to mind -- fold into their work a kind of pre-emptive admittance of failure and absurdity. This is more or less what intellectual practice in theatre now means (part of the large shadow cast by Forced Ents): a kind of (supposedly) candid despair at the preposterousness of the theatrical response to the world around it. In terms of the experience of individual makers, there may be a certain honesty in the presentation of that despair; but in terms of the wider culture, it seems to me sort of unscrupulous in its insistence that no more than this can be done. There is something kind of tyrannical about its narcissistic pessimism. Every criticism made of it is already located somewhere in the piece or in the expectations of the people making it. When people behave like this, it looks a lot like childish sulking.


Julia's response this week to these remarks was the beginning of a brief but wide-ranging and ultimately (I thought) quite interesting exchange of emails, and I'm very grateful to her for agreeing to let me publish the correspondence here. Please remember that even the later emails were not written with such public airing at the front of our minds -- had we been consciously writing for an audience I dare say the breezy informal tone of the back-and-forth here would been somewhat moderated. (I have edited / corrected next to nothing in preparing the text for posting here.) Hopefully there's something useful in seeing this exchange unfold in its raw state.

It might go without saying -- but doesn't, I guess -- that further comments on any of the issues touched upon here will be very welcome.


* * *


Hey Chris,

hope you're well. I'm in some weird post-PhD wandery phase... and was reading your blog and saw your comment about Apocryphal and failure, etc... and just wanted you to know that we don't, from our point of view, set out to fail (even if we do sometimes) and the goals are a 
lot larger than cynical moaning.  That we can't reach those goals a lot of the time is probably obvious and may in fact be inevitable but the goals are there and include reaching the 'reality grid' of the moment, which is a complex thing to do but can create a kind of music and a moment of re-seeing when it does happen, for us and anyone who happens to be there.  Like I said before, we don't do it all the time because it's casting out for the big fish, but it's not cynical.  If anything, as Karen Jurs-Munby says in her forthcoming article about us, amongst others, it's utopian...which of course makes me cringe (the idea of utopia) but it's not cynical anyway, and so I said sure, if that's what you see, go ahead and use the word... and as you see 
what you see in Apocryphal I don't expect you to change your POV based on what I've said, but I do want you to know 'failure' is not our motive or desire, even if it can happen, like a lot.

be well,
jx

* * *

Hi J --

nice to hear you. Post-PhD! Imagine...

I need to re-read what I said in that piece but if I'm remembering it correctly then I don't think I was suggesting you (pl.) were setting out to fail. I wouldn't like you (pl.) at all if I thought that was what you were up to. What I think I was suggesting -- and you should feel free to reject this too! -- is that the systems you create allow for failure (and for a kind of self-consciousness in the moment that can arise as a sort of embarrassment or bathos -- "what the fuck are we doing?") in a way that, at the same time as it's generous and pragmatic, also minimises the harm that those moments of 'failure' or self-conscious lapse actually do to the activity of the work.

My experience of this is that (a) I'm not sure how else you can do what you do without it becoming colossally humourless and constrained, but (b) the effect of the provision for failure (etc.) in the operation of the work, the inscription of the lapse within it, has a kind of pre-emptive effect wherein a lot of the discriminations that we habitually make as audience members are neutralised. So at the most basic level (which is not where most of it happens, obviously!), we go "well that bit didn't work" and you (pl.) go "yeah no it didn't did it?". Which is great in one way, but in another way it's a technology of diminution and risk-aversion. (The same paradoxical risk-aversion that characterises the whole idea of Scratch performance, or a related species of it.)

I don't think it's cynical (though I can imagine I might have used that word in relation to some of the other people I was thinking about) and I certainly don't think it's moaning, nor do I remember saying that; I think actually it's the opposite, but that that too could be seen as the misapplication of a virtue, as it were. It's similar -- not the same -- to what seems to have happened to the idea of sincerity over the past decade. When I was starting out, I was desperate for a theatre that was driven by sincerity, because the prevailing models in British experimental theatre --  which basically meant Forced Entertainment and their progeny -- were so mired in (not, I think, cynicism but) a kind of stultified irony, where you couldn't just "do" beautiful or lyrical or ambitious, it located those qualities in disguise inside carefully pitched performances of failure and mediocrity (which actually weren't those things), and I felt like I wanted to open a window and that sincerity was a good name for the air I wanted to rush in to that self-denying territory. But we're now on the far side of a decade in which sincerity has been (ab)used as an ethical indicator in the most atrocious of circumstances -- that we were to first of all trust and then afterwards forgive Bush and Blair because their belief in the invasion of Iraq, the existence of WMD etc, had been 'sincere'. And now I see that sincerity vs irony -- as I narrated it in my own mind -- was not simply a question of tone but a question of structure, much closer to indicativity vs subjunctivity, a question about how theatre uses fiction and what else it might use instead.

But now I'm wandering too. But perhaps what I'm talking about in relation to your work is -- to borrow your language -- the cringe that goes along with the idea of utopia, and how strongly you signal that cringe, and how that undercuts a really important challenge to us -- all of us -- to not cringe, to be able to imagine the social function and ethical applications of Apocryphal's models straight up without any pre-embedded recognition of the pitfalls of pretentiousness or preposterousness. But perhaps that would be a kind of dishonesty.

It occurs to me as I write this that what I'm objecting to is part of the courtesy of this kind of exchange. "But now I'm wandering too." That's the eye that Apocryphal's work seems to keep trained on itself and perhaps it has to but I guess sometimes I wish it didn't, that's all.

saluti!
Ch.x


* * *


Hey Chris, 

thanks for this and yes I think there is something in what you say but in the blog post (in which you were refering to Medea/Medea) you lumped us in with the 'moaners' and 'sulkers' in a sense so this level of precision was not there, and so I felt the need to respond.  I will check out the 'politeness' factor tho as that is possibly a real problem.  I think my aversion to utopia, well actually a confusion about it (as manifest in text of Besides... - you may or may not remember - it's one short section so can completely understand if passed by without you taking note) is that it can be used to set up a 'we're not there yet' aspiration that can be used to de-value what is happening at any moment.  On the other hand, as said in besides, it can signal a new place to go, somewhere better... so it's complex I think.

My artistic history includes working for some time with someone who was hell-bent on 'getting somewhere' and had very little sense of humor about it... so [...] I therefore have an aversion to humorless explorations, hence perhaps an over-reliance on a certain self-deprecation; but I also think that is part of the reality... Don't know if I'm making sense here but it seems important.

I am not, nor ever have been a fan of easy irony which I think is rampant nor, being an American, am I a fan of 'sincerity' as a virtue as that has been abused for years (way before Bush & Blair) so where does that leave us?  Exactly... and that is the place I try to inhabit, this impossible middle ground between the two.  Maybe this is just stupid, sometimes I think it is. But the fact is, I don't feel I have any other option, I can't seem to blinker myself to one reality or the other and so find myself in the 'both-and' school a lot.  I wish at times it was simpler, I wish that a lot.  Maybe I will eventually find a way to simplify this exploration so it seems less explicitly self-conscious (which seems to be your issue with it at core), but what is most important to me, regardless, is that the work be true to where I am and where whomever I am working with are and embrace this multiplicity - which, as we have talked about before - can create at times a somewhat disturbing cacophany.  I think if anything, this is where my idealism lies, and overtly so, in trusting multiple voices, ways of going, etc. and allowing for those conflicts even if they are messy.  However, if there is some allowing us 'out' of the traps as you say and making it somehow easier on us and the audience in a bad way, then that is something to absorb as interesting and useful criticism.  Not sure what to do about it precisely but will mull.

Anyway, hope this is useful in return and that you yourself are well and happy,

Julia x


* * *

[Dear J:]

OK, thanks for that.
 
Well, hm, the word 'moan' doesn't occur at all and the reference to sulkiness is an attempt to indicate a parallel use of the same pre-emptive technology: I think it's pretty clear that I'm not calling Apocryphal, to whom I refer only in passing, "sulkers". But I appreciate the post is a bit imprecise in what exactly it's saying about whom. That's the downside of the quick and dirty blog mode I guess.
 
Reading this last reply and your sense of "what else can I do?" very helpfully brings back to mind my sense, which I remarked on in my Total Theatre review of Besides..., of the piece -- and Apocryphal's work more generally, perhaps (only perhaps) -- being "low on desire". It's like that moment in Sondheim's Company where one of the friends of the central guy implores him: "Want something! Want something!" I can totally understand your sense of being held in a not-quite-dialectical tension between being here vs. getting there: and maybe frustration (strictly speaking) is a valid and valuable experience to have -- but in a sense it's here that the sense of diminution resides because in the absence of a maybe corny or self-indulgent sense of your (pl.) desire I lose the ability to participate intimately, which is to say meaningfully. (Which is why our searching for passages in among the books feels like a game rather than a task.) In other words, until I understand what you want (period) I can't know what you want from me, from my presence in the room. Or else I'm incredibly indistinct there: I may love the aesthetic of your multiplicity, but your cacophony literally crowds me out, crowds out even my ability to bear witness to these laminar dissonances except in the most superfluous ways.
 
I'm every bit as much a fan as you are of recognizing the vortical complexity of the questions you're engaging with and the social and cultural fields you're attending to -- but I do think (and I think you think) that complexity is worth analysing, that it's the beginning of the conversation, not (or not only) the end. (*shrug* "It's complex.") And self-consciousness of course has to be the platform from which that analysis is essayed; and humour is a good tool to have there -- I'm not arguing against any of that. I don't know, I mean I really don't know, how much that self-consciousness has to be signalled in order for an audience to be contacted as part of that analytical process. But where it comes to occlude a sense of motion, we end up with a rejection of what I take to be a basic ethical (and political) responsibility, to move through and beyond liminality, even if that movement never resolves into arrival.
 
Btw I'm sure you can't actually mean "nor, being an American, am I a fan of sincerity as a virtue..." -- If being an American made you immune to that pecadillo neither of us would have heard of Kevin Costner, innit.
 
I'd have wished we were having this conversation in the comments field on the blog, where it might have been a useful corrective to my carelessness, but of course it's your prerogative to respond back-channel and I'm grateful for the chance to amplify and clarify.
 
Let me know when K J-M's article hits the newsstands, would you? I'm very interested to see it.
 
bests as ever

Chris
x


* * *


Hey Chris,

thanks for responding so thoughtfully and passionately, it means a lot to me that you care enough to do so.  What I meant by 'being an American' is - and should have been more precise - 'being an American who finds the whole American tendency towards sentimentality (which parades as sincerity) loathsome...etc...see in re: Tears of Manipulation (Terms of Endearment) etc...'

And as for the 'desire' thing, I had wanted to respond to that back when with disagreement, because the desire is linked into the books and the searching therein.  As to 'what do I want' as Chaikin said beautifully in The Presence of the Actor, the question which is more important than 'what do I want' is 'what makes me want what I want'...and from this question onward, confronted in 1983, have I gone forward.  I do agree and know in my deepest soul, yes there are aspects of the 'what do I want' bit that I can avoid or seem to avoid, but I also know that a deep part of 'what I want' has to do with this allowance of multiplicity and the searching in the books, for me anyway, is not just a game and definitely not without desire.  If that is how it appears, then I suppose it does, and therefore there is something I am not communicating well enough, which is obvious from what you are saying... - However, my friend and colleague Kelina Gotman (who interviewed me on ResonanceFM, which you can probably track down if you want), said what she liked the most about Besides..., and what speaks profoundly to the ethics idea, is the fact that in allowing so many ways in which to view and experience it, it is profoundly non-violent and that, when she said it, made me cry with happiness because if there is anything I have been seeking in the world, it is a way to live in a real way that is non-violent. Not in avoidance but neither imposing on others a POV, allowing real moments of becoming to become possible as it were...or as Cage says "theatre is continually becoming that it is becoming; each human being is at the best point for reception."

I did this 'back-channel' again because I didn't want to seem like I was calling you out in any way but maybe too because I'm a bit wimpy, not sure which in all honesty, a mixture of both most probably...however, if any of it is of interest to the 'blogosphere' you can feel free to excerpt and put in, don't understand the ethics of blogging, etc. so apologies if I am botching this horribly.

Most important to me is our communication anyway, as I think you are one of the very few people in this city who cares about Apocryphal's work, so I take your ideas quite seriously, as I know they are coming from a good place not a destructive one.

be well,
jx

* * *


O, J, I love talking with you about this stuff! & I hope we're having this conversation (at this point) as two artists -- having the blog, and occasionally doing the Total Theatre pieces, can I know make me look like a critic -- like all this is "critique"...
 
Yeah, that's very interesting -- the Chaikin thing -- I had better read that book! I know that's basically right -- in my case it's locked in me not from him but from the (predominantly Marxist) poets I've hung out with and worked alongside. I just think it gets passed over -- I mean I still think the statement is worth making before it gets dismantled -- because the absence is heavy: and it's in that absence that I look at the searching in the books. It's the answer that's (possibly) in the books somewhere, being scrabbled for; but can the question itself be stated in terms of desire? Could we not stand up and say it out loud somehow, even a bit? Because the lack of that testimony, the denial of a POV (which actually I think is as much an impossibility and an evasion as Brook's wretched and obnoxious "empty space"), can make it look as if theatre's what we do instead of getting our hands dirty: whereas you and I know it's actually where (we believe) the real dirt is. And that we want to make politically engaged theatre in the first place suggests that there are ways of wanting that are not wholly subsumed by the baleful mechanics of capital.
 
I can understand what a relief it is to hear somebody talk about the non-violence in the work. In an interview a few weeks ago I was asked what the most urgent task now facing theatre makers was and that precisely was my answer, pure and simple (though of course neither): the exemplary practice of non-violence, without which effort, none of this work is worth doing. And I recognize the sense of non-violence in the aesthetic and tone of the spaces that you create with Apocryphal, especially in Besides... Without wishing to detract in any way from that, let me say that what ultimately worries me is that theatre work that depends on liminality for its ethical vigour might in the end fail to distance itself sufficiently and, as it were, categorically from the systematic violence of a wider culture that precisely depends on the terms and conditions of liminoid multiplicity for its sustenance. This is not I think a situation that applied until the mid/late 80s and neither Cage nor Chaikin really had to confront it. Not that I disagree with the substance of either of the things you quote. But the whole meaning of cultural dissidence has changed and my fear is that a concertedly liminal theatre, far from eschewing that larger violence, is condemned to re-enact it, but endlessly defers the harm in it -- and therefore the responsibility for that harm. -- Though I should hurriedly say that I don't think your work with Apocryphal is, actually, concertedly liminal. I'm currently rethinking a lot of my ideas around liminality and postliminality in the light of Bourriaud's propositions around altermodernism and I suspect in many ways Apocryphal looks in that context like the ideal ground -- in ways that recall exactly the process you (via Cage) describe. (I wonder if you saw my piece in Total Theatre about queer theatre, titled [after Martha Graham] 'Endless Becoming'?)
 
I wonder if the word that needs most unpacking in all of this is "imposing", as in "imposing on others a POV". What, I wonder, is the nature of that imposition? What is the difference between imposing and, for example, expressing or articulating? In a theatre structure in which the power differentials are as minimised as possible, how could I as an artist "impose" on you as a spectator a point of view? In saying what I think, or what I think I think, am I inevitably imposing? Or is it the POV in itself that is to be distrusted, rather than the imposition of it on others? Does POV sound indivisibly single and stable? I guess so. Does the whole of Besides... not add up in itself to a POV, or at best a series of POVs?
 
I don't know, I'm just thinkin' aloud!
 
I have to run to an appointment now but happy to keep talking later if you like -- and perhaps we might think about putting a version of this correspondence on my blog, if you think you wouldn't mind? I really think it could be useful.
 
Drat -- late now -- sorry!
 
Cx


* * *


[Hey Chris:]

I like you love this conversation!  It is important and as I was prepping my book for The Jesus Guy rehearsal tonight (oh, yeah, Him again?!), I came across this poem which someone gave me as I was writing No One, which was written as you know a month after 9/11 and which event brought about the current way I do theatre in part as a response to a personal desire to 'disinvest from the patriarchy on a molecular level' (which phrase came to me after re-reading Gandhi as I had found myself a month after 9/11 yelling at someone about non-violence - in defense of it! - and realized, shit, I am doing something wrong here...what is up wit that...what's up with me, etc...)

Anyway, this poem feels right again, a reminder of what you are saying and the core emotional base of what I do - and it is emotional and full of desire, believe me, even if it doesn't appear that way on the surface... what you say near the end of your post about POV does capture some of what I am getting at, and yet yes I am very aware of what you mean by liminality as the last resort of post (sic?) late-capitalist scoundrels, etc...but that doesn't mean I am going to go all Zizek and get sentimental about Stalin or Lenin or whatever (OK that's an incredible reduction of him, I know, I know, but still...)

And then, basta, and here is this poem which somehow seems to get to something (though completely - kind of refreshingly - without theory):


The Invitation

 
It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.

I want to know what you ache for,

and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are.

I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love,

for your dreams, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon.

I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow,

if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or

have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain!

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own,

without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine and your own;

if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you

to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful,

to be realistic, or to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you’re telling me is true.

I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself,

if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul.

I want to know if you can see beauty even when it is not pretty every day,

and if you can source your life from God’s presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine,

and still stand on the edge of a lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have.

I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair,

weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done for the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you are, how you came to be here.

I want to know if you will stand in the center of the Fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or with whom you have studied.

I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself,

and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

 

Oriah Mountain Dreamer, Indian Elder *



something like that??
xx

p.s. yes, feel free to put version of correspondence on the blog (only the High Points...!...you know the parts where we both sparkle with insouciant brilliance, effortlessly of course, etc...yes, that is a joke)


* * *


Hey J:
 
Well it's fascinating and kind of ironic that we arrive at 'The Invitation', which I know only because, as you may know, she [Oriah Mountain Dreamer] later expanded it into a fully-fledged self-help book, which I bought when I was at a particularly low ebb about ten years ago. One such book among many from those times -- and so we fade out on a flashback of me desperately searching for answers in an array of books scattered over the floor... which is more or less where we came in...
 
I feel like I might have inadvertently caused you to imagine that I wanted you to prove to me that you're an emotionally sentient being, which is not at all what I was challenging! I know you're someone who feels stuff very deeply and for whom the tracing of the intellectual and philosophical trajectories of those emotional responses is no more or less than part and parcel of the task of feeling as an artist, i.e. in a civic context. So it's not, like at all, that the intellectual acuity of your work makes me suspicious -- on the contrary I find it incredibly stimulating and generous.
 
I suppose what I was initially expressing in talking about what I take to be a kind of self-consciousness within your work about the possible (let alone the traceable) efficacy of the work, was an anxiety about the possibility of a self-perpetuating impulse away from a kind of cultural and political saliency that I, contrarily, and perhaps much less realistically, nonetheless feel we can only attain if we lay ourselves open to it. I think actually the only real difference between us on these questions is that you distrust closure -- you more precisely recognize your take on things in the process of holding us (lovingly and unviolently) in a place of not-knowing; of not pretending to arrive at answers when it's always actually more complicated than that, when the instability and flux of the spaces you create have the ring of truth about them. Contrarily, I think I want to posit an answer, or arrive at some kind of landing stage, even if that's just a stage from which the next set of questions is announced. Even if I know that the answer is partial, or compromised, or an attempt to occlude for a few moments some of the complexity that continues to obtain. It's the movement from liminal to post-liminal (or incorporative); it's how we claim, albeit spuriously, some palpable consequence for our art.
 
"Theatre can't change the world," says Michael Billington about My Name Is Rachel Corrie -- and the theatre where it's playing stick the quote up on a board outside. I've never understood what he means. My response to it has always been two-fold. For one thing, theatre changes my world, and the world of the people who are moved by my work, however few in number they may be. But more importantly: not all the results are in yet. That, too, is the truth, just as much as there's a working fidelity in your reluctance to prematurely close down the conversation and by doing so risk bearing false witness. And 'risk' I think is the right word: we're talking about two species of risk. Do we risk being wrong; do we risk being right? (Do we risk 'right' and 'wrong' in the first place?) Do we dare to tell the truth about not knowing; or do we stand up in a public place and dare to suggest that, right there in the middle of the theatre, there in the place we go to in order to think these things through, we might be on to something?
 
I think I'm going to post all this now; it's been great talking with you.
 
much love as ever
Chris


* * *


Yes, and if you want a final word from me, it is this:

Good question.

love you back,
jx


* * *


* Googling 'Oriah Mountain Dreamer' for this post, it turns out she's dropped the "Mountain Dreamer" bit of late, and certainly isn't (and never was) an "Indian elder" -- actually she looks a bit like the young Joni Mitchell and is married to a bloke called Jeff.

Friday, September 25, 2009

And the things you can't remember tell the things you can't forget...


Well now, my lovely chickadees, I'm very much afraid this is going to be one of those slightly lame "What I did on my holidays" posts that for some reason I feel compelled to offer after any lengthy break in transmission, lest you should think I've spent the last month languishing in a hopeless K-hole lavishly surrounded by toothless catamites and gameshow hosts and a bevvy of fascinated hens that I accidentally ordered off the internet.

When last we met I was gearing up for Glass House at Deloitte Ignite: and I freely confess to being chuffed aux mintballes at how it all turned out in the end. Making it, in the day-to-day producery sense of working with the Royal Opera House to get it to happen at all, was, if not the worst experience I've ever had as a professional artist, then certainly in the top two. Everyone we dealt with was more than friendly and receptive in person, but actually getting things to happen, and even keeping track of the conversations around getting those things to happen, was like having a long inebriated dream of using a rubber pencil to fill out the necessary forms for planning permission to build a candy-cane cathedral in cuckooland. Even at these few weeks' distance I can hardly believe that it was as bizarre as I'm saying, but it really was, I promise. I'm sure if you direct there -- like, opera -- with their accustomed four-year lead times and such, the ROH may perhaps be a model of efficiency and supportiveness. If, on the other hand, you're a smallscale experimental theatre maker trying to get an installation up together, the experience is kind of like trying to explain the rules of croquet to Helen Keller from inside a chest freezer. Whilst wearing oven mitts. -- And before you chalk this up to me being my usual difficult and paranoid self, please ask around for reports from the other participating artists -- I'm pretty sure you'll find it wasn't just me this time. (I particularly liked / boggled at the story I heard of a lighting designer with another of the companies who had to break into the building early on the morning of the first performance because they hadn't been allocated any tech time...)

Nonetheless -- and I'd anyway better not lay it on too thick as they still owe me a bit of money -- the end result was amazingly pleasing, and not for the first time I was immensely grateful to have a team around me who were so on it that we were far less vulnerable to the vagaries of in-house weirdness than we'd otherwise have been. Arriving ten minutes before the opening of the first performance (that was all the get-in time we had), I hadn't at that point seen the set and lights all up-together, & nor had the performers -- so it's astonishing that it all fell in to place: but it did. A quick Cliff's Notes for those who haven't been following: the piece, which ran three hours each day, placed four male performers from different artistic and cultural backgrounds each in a kind of dressing room, with the following: a dressing table and mirrors; a rail of female garments borrowed from the ROH dead costumes store in Aberdare; someone to help them in and out of those costumes; and several sets of headphones transmitting an interview with that performer (about performance, 'cross-dressing' etc.) intercut with music of the performer's choice. Audiences could wander in and out of the rooms: some got round all four in ten minutes and then skidaddled; many more stayed for longer periods, including a few who lasted close to the whole three hours.

On the Sunday I wandered around with a video camera and I've made the little video below which captures some little glimpses of what happened -- as with all documentation you barely get an idea of what it all actually felt like but it's better than nothing.

Before you click on 'play': please note that this video contains Jonny Liron, and, consequently, nudity.


video


My fondest love and grateful thanks to Andrew O., Andrew R., Anna, Gerard, Harold, Jonny, Lucy C., Lucy E., Naomi and Sebastien, who were all awesome in their respective roles and a true, sanity-preserving pleasure to work with.

Thankfully, Jonny and I went straight from the second day of Glass House to a week away in the countryside of southwest Wales: here, to be precise: where we spent an amazing week poaching eggs, walking in the woods, playing with the dog (not me so much), swimming naked in the lake (not me either), working in the studio, throwing ourselves a memorable little party and generally breathing the big air and doing the big love; it wasn't the easiest thing in the world to come back. To Eeva, Andy, Angus and Meriel, should they see this: thank you so much, & we'll see you again soon, I'm certain. (Not least as we started hatching ideas for a new piece which we're hoping to start developing next year for the spring of 2011, and which cries out to be made in such radically unmetropolitan surroundings.)


By the lake at Pen Pynfarch
-- a still from home video


The week of our return was a momentous and, in the end, dreary one: I was knocked back by the Arts Council, to whom I'd applied for funding for a big project for this November. Some remnants of it will survive -- for which, keep an eye on the upcoming gigs list opposite -- but it's a shame not to be able to think (or, rather, make) a bit bigger, and kind of dispiriting to find that Hey Mathew was not, after all, the beginning of a more productive relationship with ACE. As usual the rejection letter indicates how steep the odds are -- only about a third of applications to Grants for the Arts are currently successful; but my record is now (if I'm counting correctly) one yes and eight no's over the past twelve years, which seems to suggest that my work is of way below average interest to them. I know, I know it's more complicated than that, and things are possibly tricker just now than they've ever been; well, it will be interesting to see what impact the imminent overhauling of GforA will have. In the meantime, much of the work I'm showing this autumn will be at my own expense, which is the kind of thing you do in your early twenties in the hope that, once you've been producing consistently OK work for ten or fifteen years, you won't have to do any more. C'est pour rire, innit.

Then last weekend it was back to Wales, briefly, en route to the wedding of my dear pals Emma and Fin: the perfect antidote to ACE miseries as it was, inevitably, a kind of mini-gathering of leftfield theatre clans, many of whom are also my closest friends: and everyone was beautiful and full of love and it was one of those occasions where you look around and think, wow, look at us all. Look what we did. Look who we are. The wedding was here, which, um, helped; at the groom's behest I sang a couple of songs, including what I think must be just about the most beautiful song ever written (and among the most resilient, it turns out) in duet with Jamie Wood on saw; my best man's speech hit its intended spot, partly by ripping off a lovely piece I once saw a smith do (though I did at least credit him), and despite being (only somewhat explicably) framed as a letter to the wholly unrelated Lawrence Upton; I danced like a loon; and Tom sang 'The Book of Love' (heartburstingly), and Theron read Rilke (beautifully), and Tassos turned up with the security tag still attached to his suit, and it was us, all of us, happy and hopeful and basking in the warm sunshine and the glow of each other's company.



Rare sighting of the Controlling Thompson at the pianoforte, with Jamie.
Piano by Bechstein; saw by Homebase.


Funnily enough, or perhaps not quite, I ran into a[ndy] smith just 48 hours later, at a dress rehearsal of The Author, Tim Crouch's new piece, on which he again collaborates together with Karl James. I like Andy a lot and I miss him now that he's in Oslo. The Author, which is now previewing at the Royal Court, is, I think, a really remarkable piece; the three of them are wonderful makers, joysomely intelligent and emotionally generous: and together their work just keeps getting braver and more progressive and more complicatedly beautiful. I'll say more in a while, as I'm hoping to be able to interview Tim and Andy for this blog next month. For the moment, I don't imagine there are very many tickets still available for The Author -- and there certainly won't be once the reviews start coming out, I'm sure -- so I'd warmly recommend booking.

This week's other cultural highlight for me was today's visit to the artist Ryan McGinley's first London solo show, Moonmilk, at Alison Jacques. McGinley's a photographer in his early thirties, whom I've been interested in for a few years now; even if you're not such a devotee you may know one instance of his work -- the gorgeous (and somewhat notorious) cover of Sigur Ros's album Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust -- but whether you know him or not I'd really urge you to get along to the gallery before October 8th. (If you're a long way from London -- hey, come visit!, you can sleep on my couch -- or, the whole Moonmilk series seems to be on McGinley's website and there's also a natty limited edition catalogue which I've just ordered.)

A crude but perhaps efficient description of this work might be to cause you somehow (only I don't know how) to imagine a conflation of Ed Templeton and Bill Viola. Moonmilk places however-many nice-looking, vaguely androgynous, undressed young people mostly in and around big caves, or in other natural surroundings. The natural world is tinted and saturated; the bodies glow or seem to insist on their own spectral absence. There is a slightly sentimental numinousness to these images, which has often to do with scale -- either the size of the naked figure within the picture, or the physical dimensions of the picture itself (though many of the pieces shown at Alison Jacques are surprisingly, and in some cases disappointingly, small -- presumably intending concertedly to counter the sense of secondhand sublime). But it's not a cheap or a dishonest sentimentality, it seems to me, but a genuine tenderness, arising out of a quite radical encounter between body and environment. He speaks to a question that's very much on my mind at the moment, about how queerness might be read away from the city. Only the equally talented, though somewhat lesser known, Aspen Michael Taylor seems to be dedicatedly pursuing a similar aesthetic, though without the sumptuous, occasionally slightly queasy, highly fictionalised palette that McGinley's got into here.



Ryan McGinley, 'Marcel (Hidden Reflection)'
from Moonmilk


Anyway, Moonmilk is one of the loveliest, most nakedly (no pun) ravishing art shows I've seen in a lifetime: startling, sensual, and, if you listen carefully, kind of challenging.

The other big visual pleasure of the week is a book that's been out a few months but I've only just stumbled across it: a hefty, and heavily seductive, volume edited by musicologist and composer Theresa Sauer, called Notations 21. The book comprises a wide assortment of experimental musical scores, located at various different points along the music / visual art axis, and exploring a lot of different concerns around notation and graphic authorship; Cage, Stockhausen, Earle Brown are here, and key new music figures whose notational practice might not always be considered by their listeners: Robert Ashley, Pauline Oliveros, Phill Niblock, Elliott Sharp, John Tchicai, Barry Guy, Stephen Vitiello, and Steve Roden, for example. (Also Jonathan Zorn, who turns out not to be John Zorn. What are the odds.) The book is stand-up-and-cheer exciting, and cherishable, and more than welcome; my only cavil would be that, I suppose necessarily, some of the reproductions are at a scale where they can only really be appreciated as visual works rather than actually used to perform from -- the fine detail, inevitably, becomes vanishingly small. This is kind of frustrating -- as a resource, the book holds a lot of important information just out of reach. But it's still the year's most exciting coffeetable book and seems to me to do for notated music what The Reality Street Book of Sonnets does for the old eight'n'six.



Stephen Vitiello, 'First Horizontal'
from the book Notations 21 (Mark Batty Publisher)


And a quick snapshot of the other newly-acquired books that are piling up around me, in case anyone's interested in what I read (or, just as likely, never quite get around to reading): Nicholas Bourriaud, Altermodern; Allen Fisher, Leans; Frederic Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998; Joe Kelleher, Theatre & Politics; Michael Palin, Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-88; Simon Whitehead, Walking to Work. Worth also making a fuss about another brilliant essay by Dave Beech for Art Monthly: the September issue has his piece 'Inside Out', on "the fall of public art" -- it's every bit as good as his previous articles on participation and on radical critical art. And I'll be drooling abundantly down my chin and into my bran flakes until my copy of Keston Sutherland's newly disgorged Stress Position arrives in the mail from the Barque Cave. (This video rendition of some of it kills the time -- literally -- but only serves to stimulate further the salivatory incontinence.)

A few other incomings worth your anticipation, all coincidentally lined up along the South Bank: Werner Herzog is to be found in interview at the RFH on Saturday October 3rd: at the time of writing, some seats are still available; the same venue's Schnittke festival in the second half of November omits almost all my personal favourites but I'll be hoping to get along to a toothsome pairing of the Cello Concerto no. 2 with Haydn's Seven Last Words on the 28th; a crashingly dull programme for this year's London Film Festival nonetheless contains an interesting looking experimental collation under the deadbeat title Whirl of Confusion, which includes 'Film for Invisible Ink Case No. 142: Abbreviation for Dead Winter (Diminished by 1,794)' by the brilliant David Gatten -- that's on October 25th; and Tate Modern -- where they're currently installing the new Turbine Hall piece by one of my absolute favourite contemporary artists, Miroslaw Balka (though the Turbine Hall has so far defeated almost everyone who's taken it on; those who are, or think themselves, equal to it tend to be producing banal work anyway) -- has John Baldessari in conversation on October 8th.



David Gatten, 'Film for Invisible Ink Case No. 142: Abbreviation for Dead Winter (Diminished by 1,794)'


Elsewhere on the web: Pink Neptune [click with care -- nudity etc] est mort (again), which is a real shame -- it's long been the best of the picture blogs in my bookmark list; those whose appetite for queer-ish photography has been piqued by the discussion of McGinley above may enjoy a visit to the web site of Paris-based Norwegian photographer Markus Bollingmo, and/or his awesome (but even NSFW-er) blog; and I've been enjoying discovering the work of the Polish artist and composer Wojciech Kosma, who has a show at Image Music Text currently -- his 'Songbook' of performance scores is here and you can see videos of some performances from those scores at his web site here: including three pieces performed (last weekend, in my regretful absence) by Jonny -- "Wait" [#10], "Pieces for pulse" [#8], and "Count down, cum on one" [#2]. (This last, as you'd presumably expect, "contains adult material", though given the annoying camerawork and horrible lighting, it's probably not the most erotic wank you'll ever watch online...)

What else? There's a really great blog, to which both Ron Silliman and Harry Gilonis have recently drawn attention, featuring re-versions by various artists of the famous 'black page' in Sterne's Tristram Shandy; the trailer for Harmony Korine's new film Trash Humpers is fucking terrifying -- and, oh, wait, it turns out it's in the programme for the LFF -- I must have missed that -- I should probably go back and moderate my earlier disdainful remarks... -- nah, where's the fun in that?; and, from our Who Spiked My Chocolate Milk? department, it looks like I'm a character in the new Ridiculusmus show, Goodbye Princess...

I'll mention finally that, what with all this lovely time off that the Arts Council has so kindly arranged for me, I'm going to be catching up with some new music over the next couple of weeks, by way of early preparation for this year's Furtive 50. It's not yet October and already I have 259 albums on the longlist -- without any particular exertion on my part -- so I'm looking forward to deepening my acquaintance with all those records in the weeks between now and Christmas. As ever, if there's anything you think I ought to be listening to and fear I might have missed, do please draw my attention to it.

I'll be back here almost straight away to post an interesting conversation I've been having back-channel and which I have permission now to share with y'all. After that, who knows. Will I ever write that promised post on the Young Poets? Or the piece on Mark Ravenhill and Lucio Fontana that I trailed way back in 1956, when every Thompson's post was made out of punch-cards, string and acacia honey? No doubt time -- should it ever stop cramming its filthy gob with cormorants -- will tell; and it's time, time, time that you love...