Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Can you guess which kid is doing his own thing?


Before the main event (which I fear won't be up to much, but I hope you'll indulge me, given that I'm still supposed to be on sabbatical, and am here only because I can't face doing most of the other things I'm supposed to be doing this evening), a quartet of housekeeping announcements:

One. The History of Airports: Selected texts for performance 1995-2009 is back in stock, though nearly all the new copies were swallowed up straight-away in fulfilling back-orders. So I have literally a handful still for sale -- order now to ensure disappointment -- after which I'm not anticipating having any more until the summer -- at which point, all being equal, Ganzfeld (with whom I remain on surprisingly good terms...) will also be bringing out a volume of plays; I'm not sure which yet -- certainly Speed Death of the Radiant Child and King Pelican, and possibly Napoleon in Exile and/or Weepie -- I'm not too proud to take requests, if anyone has any strong opinions, though I'm intending to keep the solo plays separate for yet another volume, probably for this time next year. Anyway, that's for time and/or my executors to decide; for the moment, please buy HOA so that I can stop tripping over the box. Provided you're at home to PayPal, you can order via the button in the sidebar; if you're a UK resident and you'd rather pay by cheque, or you have some other arrangement to propose, feel free to email me instead.

Two. At long last I'm in a position to update the account of upcoming gigs, because, finally, there are some. In particular can I coax your attention towards my upcoming solo piece for Tate Modern: 'Who You Are' is a short piece I'm making for blackout performance actually inside the Miroslaw Balka installation How It Is. It's early days for the making process but it's already interesting how not being visible seems to completely reframe the idea of liveness and how it's signalled. 'Who You Are' also has a twin, albeit one that will be entering the world some two months later: 'Where You Stand' will be a short solo piece for Queer Up North in May -- probably quite different in some ways, but perhaps similar in tone, and both pieces are exploring (at least in part) some ideas around 'orientation' -- how we 'find' ourselves and each other... Keep an eye peeled also for updates around a couple of poetry readings I expect to be doing in the spring -- I'm writing poetry again, with enthusiasm, for the first time in ages (due mostly, the enthusiasm if not the poetry itself, to shifting from Palatino to Georgia, which appears to have changed everything), so I'm looking forward to having some new stuff to read after several long years of not much. And, if you can spare it, you could keep the other eye peeled for an announcement, pretty soon I should think, about the project that's going to be keeping me busy through the second half of the year. It's an unexpected and highly delightful turn-up, which I'm excited to share with you when the time comes.

Three. I'm among the contributors to a new blog called Transductions, curated by the estimable David Rylance, who under his nom de screen Slatted Light has long been one of the brightest of the many points of light that besprinkle the starcloth backstage at Dennis Cooper's blog. My posts so far are limited to a weekend's outburst of image/caption fictions on February 6th/7th, the most popular of which seems to have been a set called 'Goodbye to the Circus'. At any rate there are some fine writers and artists hanging out there, the quality of thinking and finding-out seems to me remarkable, so I'd recommend bookmarking it and peeling yet another eye to boot. I want to put things there more often than I probably will: but if I know you're watching, it might encourage my concentration.

Four. As a direct consequence of a session convened by Tassos Stevens at Devoted & Disgruntled #5, a campaign, spearheaded for the moment by the startlingly dynamic Jonathan Holmes of The Jericho House, has got underway to help shape and focus our advocacy for the value of the arts -- a constellation of economic, social, political and philosophical arguments -- in the run-up to the general election later this spring. The arts sector clearly faces tough times whatever happens, and the purpose of the campaign is to attempt to exert some influence on the climate in which manifesto policies are drawn up, rather than simply protesting at whatever point (presumably pretty early) in the next parliament that the cuts start coming. There's an as yet largely untouched campaign blog here and next month there'll be a special Devoted & Disgruntled event devoted to discussing the issue and moving things forward: as soon as I know more details, I'll update this post. Personally speaking, I'm not a natural lobbyist on this sort of topic as, though I appreciate the strength of the economic argument for investment in the arts, and the argument for using the arts as delivery routes for policy around social inclusion and cohesiveness, those things don't have much to do with my sense of myself as an artist. Maybe they should, I dunno. On the other hand, I don't subscribe to the glib view that it makes no difference whether we return a Conservative or Labour government this time (notwithstanding the point that, as the saying goes, I wouldn't start from here...), and it seems sensible therefore to make an effort to engage more pragmatically over the next few weeks, both in terms of speaking up for the arts and more widely in getting to grips with what we as artists might be able to do by way of targeted activity to try and keep the Tories out.

More broadly, I should just say that I've been having a mindblowing time at the National Theatre Studio, where my two-month attachment is nearing its end. Friends and colleagues have been unbelievably generous with their time and their smarts; and having enjoyed also a brilliant weekend at Devoted & Disgruntled, I've begun 2010 with a real sense of euphoria about what all this work is for and how up for the uphill course I am right now. It won't last, of course (especially if I keep reading the Guardian theatre blog), which is why -- in line with all of theatre's ephemeralities -- this present time feels so special.


* * *


Sometimes I think I could save myself a lot of dreariness if I just had the sense to pay attention to my own writing, where I often, without really intending to, leave myself messages: you know, the literary equivalent of the odd Post-It stuck to the fridge: don't forget to buy ammo, I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox MY BAD!!!!! LOL, that kind of thing.

In my 2008 solo play Infinite Lives, the protagonist John knowingly disables his firewall so as to be able to access the streaming video at his favourite porn site, from which his security settings are protecting him. "It's a bad idea," he says. "It’s a bad idea. But I realize there’s something about it that slightly... turns me on. Internet porn is supposed to be the safest sex there is. But this feels a bit more like... barebacking. And I’m drunk and my inhibitions are around my ankles. Fuck it, why not." And so he turns off his protection, and the next morning wakes to find that all his data has been stolen by ransomware blackmailers. (You used to hear a lot more about that kind of online crime a couple of years ago. It sounds more like an improbable fiction now than it did then.) Initially I had thought I'd just give John's computer a devastating virus but the analogy -- fail to protect yourself adequately while participating in sexual activity and end up with a virus that changes your life forever -- was just too pat, like a Hollywood sign that just says MEH.

At any rate, you'll have figured out that this next paragraph is by way of a confession. A few weeks ago, setting about my project to get back into making music, I decided I really needed a whacking great bit of software, without which what hope did I have, etc. And given that my daily subsistence budget at the moment is placing beyond my reach such luxuries as tube travel and butter (let alone the awesome lenticular picture of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany's which I saw in a shop window on Charing Cross Road yesterday, priced at £199, and for which I'm going to be seriously hankering until such time as I ever get paid for doing anything ever again), I reluctantly decided I should go the naughty route and find an illegal download. This I did: but it took ages to download, in multiple parts, so when my antivirus software detected a bit of malware in the very last part, I weighed the whole thing up and, with transcendent stupidity, decided to go ahead and install the software anyway, and clean up the bundled trojan horse afterwards. The rest of the horror story is all too obvious: the yuckiness smeared iself all over my hard drive, in ways that all three of my antivirus and anti-spyware programs failed to keep up with, until eventually, last Saturday morning, my laptop would no longer boot up, and it became necessary to destroy the world in order to save it: I had to reinstall Windows and my laptop, like some tranked-up Aaron Spelling divorcee with an expensive facelift, suddenly looked eerily factory-fresh but forgot everything it had ever known. Following a hard drive crash last spring, for which I was not so culpable, I have at least got into the habit of backing up every so often, and as a result the losses are not as bad as they could have been. For John, in the play, the novel on which he's been working for months is irretrievable; I, on the other hand, spent a few hours in fear that I'd lost all trace merely of one of my new poems, and even that was an agonising nightmare of dread and self-recrimination from which I'm still recovering.

I've never been so extensively damaged by a computer virus before, and seldom so obviously the author of my own misfortune. Any delusions about the romanticism of forgoing the appropriate protection have been squarely eliminated. And yet I find this salutory experience doesn't so much clarify as further confuse my thoughts on a topic that I was discussing with Jonny a couple of weeks ago, after I contracted this latest virus but before it did its worst.

I was recalling that about ten years ago or so, I provoked some brief grumblings by posting to one of the poetry discussion lists (those greenhouses -- or, rather, glasshouses -- of synthetic consternation) a remark to the effect that the creating of computer viruses was the most efficacious political poetry now being written. In fact I probably said -- because ten years ago I was even more given to idiot tubthumping than I am now -- that virus-writing had become the only viable political poetic practice.

It is obvious that there are, let's say, problems with this. But I was interested in looking on the writing and distribution of viruses as a creative rather than destructive act, and as a rather exemplary instance of engagement with the networks around which information really travels. I had been impressed with Pierre Joris's 'noetics' manifesto, which argued for a nomadic poetics; again, I think there are problems with Joris's vision of noetics, which became much more apparent from the 2000 US Presidential election onwards, but I thought then and still think now that he's correct to ask us to consider where the military-industrial complex now does its thinking and through what channels imperialist interests are now hardest at work. It's still the case that avowedly and/or explicitly political poetry -- as ever, en passant we chuck in the footnote that all poetry is political, whether or not it wishes to be -- has remained perhaps too fixated on, too bedazzled by, the sub-spectacular real-world symbols of particular buildings and monuments and urban phenomena, and not agile enough to occupy, nor even to conceive of a functional mode of occupancy of, the virtual and semi-virtual networks and highways that now most assuredly connect the nodes of capitalist self-interest (including, eventually, us: which is both why it shouldn't be an impossible question and, at the same time, why it clearly is.)

In this light, I'm not sure how to characterise the virus that brought my computer to its knees. My greed was exploited, that's for damn sure. But there's an interesting ambiguity or double-bind to a lot of malware, which wreaks havoc in a manner that often has its own commercial impetus (look at the amount of spyware that exists solely to flog more-or-less specious anti-spyware applications) and could be seen to be punishing those who seek to benefit from file-sharing, but equally can look like a kind of vandalism that damages the circuits of enterprise, that makes its victims unproductive and continues to carry, from earlier in the history of computer networking, a tenor of anarchic mischief, of the prank that undermines the smooth functioning and pristine instantaneities of the information economy. There is something almost Thatcherite about the personality of the virus: it punishes piracy but endorses piratical thinking; it feeds off the permissiveness of online trading patterns, a permissiveness that can only express itself antisocially (as in "there is no such thing as..."), while hitting hardest those who venture to occupy a renegade position themselves in relation to commerce and support an essentially gift-based microeconomy. It is in a sense the paradigmatic instance of deregulation fostering racketeering and vigilantism.

All the same, and having had this annoying experience in the last few days, I remain fascinated by the virus as a kind of composed intervention. February's Wire magazine had an interview with the musician and activist Mattin, who has just released an extremely useful and provocative compendium of essays called Noise & Capitalism (download it gratis here -- I'd urge you to read it, and my copy, at least, was adware-free...), which includes unmissable writing on improvisation and noise by Eddie Prevost and Ben Watson among others. David Keenan's brief overview of the book's themes in The Wire (the magazine against which Watson acutely and hilariously inveighs in his essay -- he was of course content to take their shilling for some years) describes the contributors to this discussion of (capital-N) Noise as "rethinking it as a practice that has to do with jamming the signals and breaking down borders that exist between audience and performer, musician and non-musician, punk and experimental, life and art".

Noise is still a key concept to me in thinking about theatre and the kind of work that can most truthfully and incitingly be called theatrical, though my engagement with it (which was at its strongest I guess back in 1999, when I called my then-new company Signal to Noise) was always, I thought, quite coolly and objectively concerned with noise as an ineliminable condition of artistic production: drawing an understanding principally from rudimentary cybernetics (inspired principally by Eric Mottram's brilliant 1972 essay "The Triumph of the Mobile: The Structure of Information, the Language of Computers and Contemporary Poetry"), I sought not to valorize noise, not to fetishize it, simply to name it as an inevitable collaborator, and to point out what energies were uselessly expended on trying to suppress it. To me, noise is enriching, enlarging and corrective; I've just said, in an interview with Lawrence Upton which I'm hoping will be published online before too long, that the turbulence out of which noise arises "breaks down the signal into the hospitable mutiplicities that make art plausibly social": and that's as well as I've said that so far, I think.

Over the past few years however I've been more interested in signal than in noise, its benign corollary; interested particularly in the way we read the signal behind the signal, which I think has to do with desire. Placing a signal onstage would be -- in fact is, to some degree -- an act of heroic failure, if all that was indicated was an element already in breakdown. But the signal produces in fact (or according to my experience) two differently legible, perhaps unequally available, indications: there is the thing itself, and there is my wanting to place it there. What the best 'noisy' work does -- Forced Entertainment used to do this really well, back in the day -- is complete the unfinished sentence. "Communication is doomed to failure", for example, or "The pursuit of beauty is an act of hopeless delusion"; and the noise fetishist will stop there, satisfied with the perimeter that circumscribes this apparent insight. And we can all recognize that and sympathize with it: but oftentimes there's a pivot, which these mottos stop short of. "Communication is doomed to failure; and yet, we persist in attempting it." "The pursuit of beauty is an act of hopeless delusion; but still, we might think that that's beautiful in itself." In other words, part of the signal reads at a meta- level: we read the desire behind the act of signalling, we read whole human narratives of love and self-sacrifice, without which, our attachment to noise is not merely incomplete, it's too cheap.

All the same, what turns me on in the conception of noise (or Noise, which is not quite the same thing) that Keenan describes is this quite physical idea of signal-jamming, which involves, it seems to me, a paradoxical redescription or recategorization of Noise as a kind of commodity, an object-set which can be controlled, marshalled, strategically deployed. In basic cybernetic terms, noise is that which increases doubt. In that light, noise which is used as a way of suppressing or eliminating or prohibiting disapproved signals is fundamentally ambiguous in the way that the virus is also ambiguous. It is noise seeking to out-signal signal, to eat signal for breakfast. It reminds me of a test-question in the consideration of civic space: is anti-graffiti paint not itself a kind of authoritarian graffiti, an expression in fact of a permanent worst case scenario of vandalism? Perhaps all property statements are exactly the same: so, this is not cool.

Still, the direct intervention appeals, in exactly the way that the virus could be, can be, a little self-enacting poem of anticapitalist desire, a poem that reads itself injuriously into the midst of the world it despises. How slow we are, as theatre makers, to put ourselves in harm's way. Weirdly enough, this whole time, we've been edging towards David Hare: and who in their right mind saw that "and yet" coming? Just let me turn around a bit...

I wrote briefly above about the Devoted & Disgruntled conversation around the array of possible responses we might make as artists to the general election campaign that is already, to most intents and purposes, upon us. Initially the conversation focused on trying to determine how much we as individual makers knew about the likely or already actual policy differences between Labour and the Tories: wanting, in my case at least, to figure out how we might make ourselves actually useful, perhaps in marginal constituencies, by making sure that voters had the kind of information that all the media noise (which is generated as much by the parties themselves as by media commentators, and which might come to think of it be a ready instance of auto-jamming, an exploitation of the ambiguity of noise to, as it were, protect the signal from being exposed) and propaganda would drown out. I doubt I'm going to have the time over the next couple of months to actually do this, but I wondered about creating a public domain script, i.e. performable by anybody without royalty payments or rights negotiations, that could set out in an engaging narrative context the ways in which the political parties contesting the election are not "all the same".

And I remembered two things straight away. One was that I'd been pleasantly surprised by David Hare's The Power of Yes, which I saw at the National a few weeks ago; there's much that's underpowered and mishandled, but I really liked and admired its first avowed intent, to explain the apparently inexplicable, the economic meltdown of the past three years and the reasons for it, to an audience with no expertise and presumably arriving at the theatre with a wide array of political views. Hare stupidly, vaingloriously fucks it up by putting himself on stage (or rather, a figure called "The Author", played by Anthony Calf with a foppish charmlessness and inertia -- mostly he is asked to stand around with his hand to his chin and a finger to his lips, and, when he's very interested in what he's being told, to lean in a bit), as if we naturally regard someone like Hare as an honest broker, and will blandly identify with him as our representative and go-between, which probably only works if we don't already think David Hare is a tit. But all the time the players in this drama, cleverly held right at the precipitous edge of lucidity, are speaking directly to us, without Hare/Calf as nodding intermediary, something, at least, of the human behaviour that can begin to connect us to the monstrous abstractions of the global banking system is compellingly communicated. Again, some of my positive reaction is about the signal behind the signal. This is, after all, a human story, a story that can be told. That might need to be told in better ways than this, or in a thousand different ways at once, but that is a story that can reach us in human scale, rather than looming over us like some sublime cathedral of shit.

The other thing I recalled -- and this doesn't take away from my surprise at how good the good aspects of The Power of Yes were and my regard for Hare in making the attempt that he did -- was how much better the programme was than the play: and in particular, a two-page spread representing graphically some of the very big numbers through which the economic crisis would have to be described, and some other numbers, big but not that big, and the relations of scale between these different numbers. So, this box (the biggest) represents the financial cost to date of the banking meltdown in the US; and (smaller box) in the UK; and here (smaller box again) is the cost of the war in Iraq -- the balance-sheet cost, at any rate; and here (relatively tiny box) is the cost of feeding all the children in the world for one year... This graphic had a more powerful impact, for me, than any of the reportage I've seen around these questions over the past two or three years, and certainly a more powerful impact than the play itself. Wholly predictably, one thinks: why can't theatre do this? Of course sometimes it can: those who saw it will immediately be reminded by this programme graphic of the Stan's Cafe piece, Of All The People In All The World, which is most certainly theatre: for all that the actors in it are grains of rice, it would be wrong to think of it as just, say, installation art: it's a performance, it has narrative, it has a shape, there are jokes, there is cadence, there is poetry, there are unforgettable images: it's more like Shakespeare than most contemporary theatre is.

The challenge is, it seems to me, to let theatre be about a peculiarly discriminating movement between apparently contrary but actually compatible imperatives: to be specific about which signals should be rudely jammed, and which signals should be helped to blare out; about when noise enlarges the opportunities for our human contact, and when it obscures those opportunities or loses itself to the violence it might have set out to resist; about what kind of virus we can be, how we can use the channels that already exist as well as carving out trajectories of our own; about how we can voice ambiguities and share our doubt; about whether, sometimes, it isn't, despite everything, just a little bit brave to shuck the membranes that protect us from harm, to risk losing everything, in the knowledge that it can also be good to go back, once in a while, to a blank screen and start building again from scratch.


* * *


Starting to think through the upcoming creative challenge of making a piece about (dis)orientation for performance in the (almost) pitch darkness of Miroslaw Balka's How It Is, I spent some of Valentine's Day watching Derek Jarman's Blue, and it was a pleasure to hear again, partway through, the wonderful slippery contrarian song through which Jarman pins his ever-changing colours to the mast:

I am a cock sucking
straight acting
lesbian man
with ball-crushing bad manners
laddish nymphomaniac politics
spunky sexist desires
of incestuous inversion and
incorrect terminology
I am a Not Gay

There's something in there for everyone: but also, crucially, something not for everyone. In disdaining to be counted as gay, Jarman's also assiduously preserving some part of himself, as rendered in this portrait, as Not Yours, emphatically not whatever it is you think you want from me.

I was wondering how Jarman's self-identification as "a Not Gay" connects with a much later, but similarly twisting and confounding song: the early YouTube hit "The Super Bowl is Gay", which appeared initially to be the work of an obsessively homophobic and wildly confused American teenager, who later turned out to be an emerging comedy performer, Andy Milonakis. You've almost certainly seen it, but if not, here it is -- needless to say the content is NSFW:




When Milonakis sings/shrieks "I am not gay / I am not gay / I am not gay" (before finally concluding that his taste for "penis" might mean he's gay after all, and that actually, amid yelps of traumatised sublinguistic horror: "We're all gay"...), I wonder how different it is, other than in execution, from the measured smirking of Jarman's disavowal. Sure, Milonakis, as far as I know, isn't gay: but then, according to his testimony, neither was Jarman. I guess you will want this discussion immediately to take note of the shift in the demotic usage of 'gay' that occurred at some point in the mere decade that passed between Jarman's Blue (1993) and Milonakis's song (2003). For the generation that Milonakis represents, 'gay' is an all-purpose derisory term connoting insipidity and ineffectuality, and has to some extent become uncoupled from any reference to sexual orientation -- when Milonakis refers first to his dad being raped and then to his own liking for dick, these feel like absurdly over-literal incursions into the category of experience being demarked. But, again, is this very different than Jarman's usage? Like many of us who prefer to identify as queer, Jarman would place himself shoulder-to-shoulder with gay-identified people when the time came to take a stand for equal human rights and equality under British law for homosexuals. But when it mattered to him more to stand apart from the "gay community", when the nuances of that gesture would be read (even if they wouldn't necessarily be understood), there was at one level nothing tongue-in-cheek about wishing to be counted as "a Not Gay": and in insisting on that discrimination -- what a loaded word in this context -- it seems to me that he was foreshadowing exactly the playground usage that Milonakis adopts and in some ways satirises. ("The Super Bowl is Gay" ends up being a much more emphatically pro-gay song than Jarman's, in a way.) Jarman wants to be uncoupled from a 'gay'-ness that signals caution (as in the historic tensions between the assimilationist lobbying group Stonewall, whom Jarman abhorred, and the more militant activism of Outrage!, with whom he had a long and crucial association), conformity, blandness, mediocrity, superficiality, and, yes, insipidity and ineffectuality.

Which brings us neatly to Peter Brook. Readers who saw my performance lecture The Forest and the Field last November will know that I have had bones to pick with Brook, particularly with regard to the premises -- admittedly revolutionary, in their day -- of his seminal book The Empty Space. His films, and filmed documentation of his earlier stage works, have left varying impressions -- only Peter Whitehead's Benefit of the Doubt, which documents Brook's 1967 piece U.S. with the RSC, still looks genuinely powerful. But until yesterday I'd never seen his work live.

Actually I'm still not sure that I have. If there is liveness in 11 & 12, currently showing at the Barbican, it is barely detectable and highly constrained. You see it only in the actors, and only in glimpses. Which is not to say that they are not good actors: they are, with a single exception, very good indeed. With that single exception they are possessed of that quality that Ken Campbell used to call Quotient X (he thought John Malkovich and Eddie Izzard had it, though he was speaking relatively early in the careers of both) and which I customarily refer to as radiance. But just as they are possessed of radiance, so in the same moment are they dispossessed of it: it is suffocated in them by Brook's encroaching fear of it. If, as I've sometimes said, the test of radiance in an actor is whether you'd follow them anywhere they might care to take you, the problem here is that, for all that you might follow some of these actors to the ends of the earth, they're absolutely not going anywhere. Never mind the ends of the earth, you couldn't follow these poor sods to the far side of the kitchen.

Brook is widely acknowledged to be an almost unparalleled master of the stage, and in some ways you can see it. He gives us beautifully weighted pictures; he gives us time to think and space to breathe; he gives us clarity and ease. He gives, he gives and he gives... -- and "acting," says Julie Walters's Lesley in the final line of one of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads monologues, "is really just giving." Except that we know that what Lesley has given is no more than her essentially unwitting (and rationalised post hoc) consent to being exploited by an unscrupulous director of soft porn. I don't say that Brook is exploitative or unscrupulous in his work with these actors, but there is an incredible level of control here, a terrible pall of constraint (which many commentators misidentify as restraint) which does, in the end, leave this piece amazingly close to soft porn: and, as any fule kno, there's something truly pernicious about soft porn, something despicable that even the most degraded hardcore filth will never approach, something less than honest, something authoritarian, and concerned in the most deadly way with commerce.

To put it another way, 11 & 12 is probably the gayest play I've ever seen. This, I rush to add, is not a statement about Peter Brook himself; I believe he's spoken about having had relationships with men as well as women -- in this context it couldn't matter less. It is something to do with the homosociality of the world he presents here: all the actors are men, mostly young(ish) and fit and, when they take their shirts off, buff; when they fight, it is picturesque; when they play, they slap each other like Abercrombie & Fitch dollyboys; when the story needs women, the men play them for laughs.

What is really striking, though, which this ponderous maleness begins to point towards, is a gayness in exactly the terms that Jarman was Not Gay. Everything in this stage society is constrained by the pressure to conform: this is only incidentally a comment about the content of the piece, a story which uses as its departure and landing points a longstanding religious argument about a nicety of devotional practice -- whether a particular prayer should be said eleven or twelve times. Brook obviously comes to this story convinced -- and convinced that we must also be convinced -- that this kind of argument is destructive and that the better path is to rise above it (and accept with equanimity the parlous consequences of doing so). And so we can at least praise him for having arrived at a stage language that is perfectly aligned with his point of view.

And it's been there, certainly, since the days of The Empty Space: a supposedly apolitical, actually deeply reactionary insistence on the erasure of the specific. If we can get past our differences, get over ourselves and our egos, we will find that we all look at the same moon at night, etc etc. Like the half-submerged politics of gayness (as opposed to queerness), there is an immobilising fear of difference, disguised as a promotion of tolerance and what's presented as an attentiveness to common-ground. Of course it's precisely the reverse: for as soon as we look, carefully, discriminatingly, at common ground, we find there difference, or at least distinction.

So: whereas I love slowness in theatre, I was unbelievably bored by 11 & 12 because all of the buzzing information that slowness normally allows to be revealed has been airbrushed out of the picture. This is the slowness of meticulous control, of deliberate non-excitation, of a performed sagacity and serenity that is actually gripped with a fear of noncontrol, a fear of liveness. If Brook were really interested in slowness, in the way that, say, Arvo Part was interested in slowness (in his late work), he would help us to watch in high-resolution, as Part helped us to hear more acutely. But the monotony of the pacing is the heartlessness of an author who dare not let anyone in the room escape: whose perhaps understandable abhorrence of a violent and chaotic world has led to the altogether more secretive violence of a programmatic extinction of the unpredictable and the complex.

This, finally, is what lethally undermines the undeniable beauty of 11 & 12. The reductiveness of Brook's vision, his intolerance of complexity, his depressing attachment to language at its most pedestrian and generalised, his desire to transcend the intractable and disengage from the terrible specificity of the cruelty that characterises so much intercultural encounter to offer a loftier perspective, stepping out of time and place into the generalised empty space of eternal narrative, is wretchedly untheatrical. 11 & 12 is not so much theatre as the confiscation of theatre: giving us this, giving us that, Brook just takes from us all our agency, all our variousness, as audience. I understand and sympathise with his fear, his caution, his gayness; I feel sad, though, that the experimental adventure that started in the mid-60s with the Theatre of Cruelty, the Marat/Sade and, in due course, U.S., should lead to a performance in which theatre is so violently being protected from itself, as though for its own good. Glenda Jackson once said that the word she most associates with Brook is "No"; she said it approvingly, but 11 & 12 resounds with that firm, simple gesture of constraint. Trapped by its own negativity, it has nowhere to go but upwards.

I really agree (unusually) with Kate Kellaway in the Observer: "In the end," she writes, "the message is not about ordinary tolerance. It is about the tolerance that makes a martyr. What Brook is really interested in is holiness." But the piousness of Brook's approach has its roots in that aggressive emptying-out of space for which he argued in 1968. I sometimes have recourse -- and I will be the first to admit that I'm being a little reductive in the characterisations that follow, so you should feel free to object to my hypocrisy, but: I sometimes have recourse to what I take to be one of the most pertinent binaries in contemporary culture: the underlying social philosophies of, on the one hand, Disney, and on the other, Sesame Street. In Disney World (or Land or whichever you prefer), "it's a small world after all": people are all basically the same, once you get past their superficial differences. This is Peter Brook's line, and it ends up being a reason to not bother trying to penetrate those superficialities: which is why 11 & 12 is so unbelievably gay. On Sesame Street, the message is not that everyone is the same, but conversely, that everyone is different, and it's your job to deal with that. Sesame Street is all about this:



Three of these kids belong together
Three of these kids are kind of the same
But one of these kids is doing his own thing
Now it's time to play our game
Which of these kids is doing his own thing?...

[my italics]

Sesame Street always loved the kid that was doing his own thing. Sure, Peter Brook doesn't mind that three of the kids are jumping rope and the other one is reading (whereas Walt Disney thinks that kid is a sissy), but what he really wants to say is: Look, how wonderful, they are all holding objects in their hands, and gosh, how beautiful that calm grey background is.

This, by the way, is why the Muppets should never have been sold to Disney, and I suspect it's mixed up somewhere in the reason why the Sesame Street muppets were exempt from the sale. (I mean, sure, it was a contractual thing, because the CTW owns the Sesame Street characters: but why wouldn't you organise things like that, if not to provide some ethical insulation from corporate distrust of difference?) 

Just a few words finally, in the light of the experience of 11 & 12, about Tom Ford's film A Single Man, which seems likely to do well, given that the Odeon Covent Garden, where I do all my daytime movie-going because it's such an unpopular cinema that one can often be blissfully nearly alone in a matinee, was absolutely rammed at 3 o'clock on Monday afternoon, many of them (I overheard) there because they hadn't been able to get tickets anywhere over the weekend.

I was surprised to like it as much as I did: I think it's a very considerable film, assured, perfectly beautiful, serious and sad. Only once, in a truly pathetic flashback that places the central character and his partner in the middle of an early 90s ad for Calvin Klein Obsession, does Ford put a foot wrong. (Interesting though that the closest cinematic relation one can think of to A Single Man would be the truly wonderful documentaries of CK's one-time photographer of choice, Bruce Weber: the aesthetic of Let's Get Lost or, especially, Chop Suey feels close enough to touch Ford's debut at times.)

An interesting if ultimately annoying blog article by David Cox at the Guardian web site yesterday wonders aloud about the gayness of A Single Man. The question it doesn't quite arrive at is, can a film be both gay and universal, or does it have to choose (or be chosen as) one or the other? In a way, the film asks a parallel question: can a gay man signal beyond his gayness without obscuring it? Colin Firth's character is (necessarily) discreetly closeted at work, though he exudes an elegant and unhistrionic difference, which is picked up on by a young, possibly gay student, played with jaw-dropping poise and almost supernatural radiance by Nicholas Hoult. (As widely reported, Firth is also astonishingly good, which sort of makes me wonder what he's been doing all this time...)

That these questions arise out of the film at all seems interesting to me: in a way they crystallize the discrepancy between what gayness meant in 1962, when the film is set, and what it can be taken to mean in 2010: and again Derek Jarman's early 90s Not Gayness is deeply indicative, not least because the Guardian blog quotes Tom Ford's insistence that his film is, like Jarman and Milonakis, "not gay". This is taken to mean that he wants its themes of grief, isolation and longing to resonate more widely, to signal beyond the parameters of gayness: and I'm sure he does. But I wonder whether Ford can't see it as a gay film because it both precedes and succeeds gayness. The gay characters in the movie aren't gay, they're homosexual; 'gay' as a lifestyle is figured by the film but not named as such: gay consciousness is still deftly, lightly limned in moments of privacy, seclusion, invisibility; public gayness is still a little way off. Partly for that reason, from our present vantage this all looks post-gay: queer, possibly, in an echo of earlier models of queerness; but also not-gay in that it seems wholly unconcerned with narratives of acceptance (except in so far as they shape personal relationships and secure the possible candour of friendly conversation). There is a self-reliant apartness to Firth's George: he may be suicidal, but that signals queerness anyway (see Sara Ahmed's brilliant "Happiness and Queer Politics" online in World Picture Journal #3) -- this can't end well, can it?

Ultimately, I suspect that gay culture now means something so different, is so uniformly shaped by all of the characteristics that Jarman wished to disassociate himself from, that Ford might be justified in saying A Single Man isn't a gay film because conceivably gay audiences won't know what to do with it. Certainly several of the younger gay men sitting in adjacent seats to mine at the Odeon yesterday were dismissive of it -- bored and talkative during, and bitchy afterwards. ("Well, that wasn't exactly Brokeback Mountain, was it?", said one, quite loudly, before the credits had even started to roll.) Well, so, sure, it's also an 'arthouse' movie in a way: it's slow, subtle, unhistrionic and, even at its most optimistic, hardly affirmative.

I suppose really I wonder whether Ford, who is obviously deeply versed in movies, literature and art as well as fashion and design, and who is nudging 50 (which is, like, 120 in gay years, right?), has made a film whose gayness is itself as lenticular as that Audrey Hepburn picture I'm coveting? From where I'm standing, and perhaps Ford is too, it's an old-school gayness that Jarman might perhaps have very slightly respected, for all that he would have found it too buttoned up. His respect, I'd want to suggest, would be for its grammar. The gay culture that exploded onto the streets at the Stonewall riots and in their wake was obviously shaped by previous generations of queer men and women who had developed a distinct talent for thinking in, and through, images. A whole discourse of signs and signals -- which is reflected in the film, especially in George's personal and domestic stylings -- made possible a sophisticated array of subtextual conversation. Images were authored, and read, with surpassing attentiveness and care and a fine balance of discretion and disclosure.

As gayness lost its queerness, though, and gradually moved towards its present role within the polyphony of the metropolitan mainstream, the particular quality of this formative literacy became first diluted and then almost wholly lost. The soi disant queer culture of the late 80s / early 90s was, I guess, to some degree an effort to recuperate an aspect of dissidence that those for whom the greatest gift of community was the promise of conformity were ready, indeed eager, to sacrifice. Where, in 1962, images were for thinking with, it seems that for the gay young men at the pictures yesterday, images are nothing more or less than their face value: they're how you postpone thinking, or at best they're the pictures you look at while the dialogue's telling you what to think. A gay film in 2010 is an audio book with a screensaver attached.

Just as with Brook, I suppose, the fear is that complexity is sharp enough to reopen old wounds, that the scariness of difference and the challenge of specificity can between them demolish the confidence and the succour one finds, often hard-enough won, in community and solidarity. But theatre -- like the best films, one might quickly add -- proposes a solidarity that we continually re-examine, and re-state on the basis of that re-examination, for fear that it might not otherwise tell enough of the truth about us. Unexamined solidarity presents us with a picture of ourselves from which each of us, individually, is absent. This might, after all, suit us, in our shyness, our weirdness, even our gayness. But look again! There, in the corner of the apparently empty space, is a kid, on his own, reading a book, doing his own thing.


4 comments:

simon said...

A brilliant post. I'm glad you reiterate the difference between Disney and the Muppets again here, just because I love it. It's been on my mind quite a bit (specifically your distinction) - I think as a result of having to think about the election of all things, the left and the right, and how much Labour could have done if it they'd stuck with the Muppets' message. Is peoples.
I still think "signal" is a pretty misleading word for what we produce, but your talk here of a signal behind a signal will probably amount to something (I'm sure there's an easier way to it though). And, BABY, Colin Firth has always been the best. I went and saw A Single Man on Sunday, West India Quays, a perfect location, and as it turned out a great date film for the date in question. I was stunned by it. He didn't die at the end, did he, the film just slowed down. I'm convinced of it.
oualis

Anonymous said...

A satisfied customer writes:
"I ordered Chris Goode's A History of Airports and, in the 72 hours it took to arrive, I was offered a new job."
Coincidence? I hardly think so.

simon said...

And I forgot, sorry, I vote for "Weepie", predictably.
Also, I tried putting a link hither on my blog but it doesn't work, it just says "no longer accessible", do you have any idea why?
x
glerso

Finlay said...

Got to have Weepie mate, particularly if it's billed the 1997 Edinburgh Fringe way viz. "Wee Pie". Would it be too cheeky to say I'd love to see "Folding Stuff" in there? ... It's old, but it's still yummy.