There is an interesting post to be written -- but (as with every instance of that phrase ever since the first syllable of recorded time) not by me -- about the multitudinous phantom artworks that crowd the conceptosphere but are never actually realised.
I don't just mean the things that we quite fancy making and, for whatever reason, never get around to. I'm fascinated by those, and suspect there could be something interesting in a project about them; in fact, his horses, my piece with Theron U. Schmidt in 2003, started out at least partly as an act of mourning, or, more precisely, hallucinated remembrance for a proposed production of Macbeth that was nuked as a morula.
But I'm thinking more about things like errors, slips of the tongue or the imagination, that create wholly new artistic propositions. Jeremy Irons, in a splendidly (if unconsciously) self-parodying interview with the never-interesting Mark Lawson (pictured here relaxing at home) on Radio 4 earlier this evening, accidentally conjured, with a bit of airy and erroneous namedropping, an entirely new film: Tarkovsky's Ran. ...Imagine! (And while you're at it, imagine Kurosawa's Andrei Rublev -- even better!)
And then there are the more wilfully mischievous malcomprehensions that may amuse the idling of mind -- like, there is a series currently airing on the BBC called Inside John Lewis, which is of course about the department store retailer but which in some puerile part of my sub-brain is only and entirely a proctological documentary about the late pianist of the Modern Jazz Quartet. (Someone on this morning's Guardian web chat with Adam Buxton had similarly improper designs on Lark Rise to Candleford having something to do with a wax car. Strenuous but indelible.)
These inanities have collided in my head with a couple of the responses so far to my piece Where Are You at Tate Modern yesterday evening. I got home to find an email from someone deploring the fact that I hadn't taken the opportunity of the cover of darkness to do a piece containing "a monologue from a Jewish gas chamber victim", while the audience were so "deliciously vulnerable". Very much more to be reckoned with was Lowri Jenkins's characteristically brainy account at Repetitive Strain, which nonetheless did something similar, essentially wondering why I hadn't made the piece that she would have made, addressing the qualities of the performance/installation that she found more interesting. Perhaps this is a facet of all criticism, or rather, all reviewing; but I'm not sure that's so. At any rate, in Lowri's case, it certainly seemed to arrest her availability to the piece that I actually did perform, which was seeking to embed in itself many if not all of the questions that she raises.
For me, the fundamentally significant thing about What It Is, or at least about my intentions for it (which I fully admit I may not have realised) -- and Lowri I think picks up on this without being able to trust my handling of it (which I also admit may be a reasonable response) -- is about wanting to make a piece that responded to the vulnerabilities, the weaknesses, of How It Is (the Miroslaw Balka installation in the Turbine Hall, for which the piece was made). It's staged, by Balka and the Tate, in rather an authoritarian way, and the undermining of that specious authority in the way the piece has actually been used, especially by young people, quickly became for me the most interesting thing about it: that something so large, so (literally) steely, so anxious to connote sombreness and doomy reflective thinking, should prove to be so weak, so fragile, so generous in its teetering on the brink of preposterousness and bathos. (Bathos not least because the interior darkness is hardly dark at all -- compared, for example, with the truly dark space of the Drama Studio at the Cambridge Misc Fest last week. I'm not sure why How It Is has got lighter inside since I first visited it, but it definitely has; it might be an increase in the ambient light around the Turbine Hall, or I think it may be that the black felt lining is coming away from the structure, creating small reflective patches off which exterior light can bounce.)
The fascinating question for me in all this is, how do you perform weakness? In a way this is an analogous idea to the one about failure (and its simulation) in performance, which is a sort of ongoing conversation on this blog and others. A very quick precis would assert that the recognition of failure as inherent in theatre and performance is vital, and that performed work in those contexts should at least have figured out its relationship with failure, a relationship that is at its least interesting, by far, if it clings to the orthodoxy of hoping to suppress or mask failure; but that the response of many makers who have made some (apparently progressive) hay out of wanting to embed failure visibly and celebratorily in their work has been to devise strategies for controlling that failure, simulating it, even meticulously rehearsing those simulations. (vide Tim Etchells in conversation with Jonathan Burrows a couple of years back -- I'll try and dig up a link.) This is obviously a huge misreading, one which still sees failure as a problem to be contained (which includes the idea of seeing it as the seed of a kind of aesthetic that can be confected and ultimately fetishized).
I've recently come to see my habitual relationship with the idea of weakness in the same light. The formative experience was that of Dennis Cooper's blog, and especially the 'backstage' comments area. Both on the blog's front pages and in those behind-the-scenes (but no less publicly accessible) conversations, a level of candour is commonplace that would feel jarring in other contexts. To take on, as it were, the challenge of that candour is exhilarating: you realise that, when you say the thing that you're most scared of saying, the sky doesn't actually fall in, and more often than not other people are grateful and relieved for what you've said and will be glad to say it too: and it's a short hop and skip from there to a sense that quickly becomes a motto (or did for me): that the most powerful person in the room is the one who is hiding the least.
I do think this is true, and I do like and value (as part of the practice of art at least) the saying of things that are exposing, unpalatable, 'confessional' (a horrible word but an indicative one), and so on -- that make the speaker appear vulnerable: and that open and apparent vulnerability really does become a strength, a kind of power. This is in a way reassuring, a kind of trade-off: but eventually one reaches, as I recently have, the awkward question. What do I want with that power?
This is not, I think, a question that necessarily contains, as it may appear to, a pre-emptive disdain for any answer that may be forthcoming: by which I mean, I'm certain it's possible to have a good reason -- just as, while I'm fond of the rhetorical question (which cropped up in Who You Are) "What are you doing with your privacy?", there are plenty of valid answers to it, for all that the question itself is, I think, worth posing and, indeed, constantly re-stating. So, maybe I can use the power of my own self-actualizing vulnerability to do good work with. I think I have -- on this blog, not least, where, from what some correspondents and colleagues tell me, my keenness to write very openly about my own doubts and depressions and the whole field of sadness has been important to them or others, and remotely supportive and conducive and encouraging and so on.
But the question that now arises for me is, how can I stop vulnerability, or weakness, in so far as they might be elements of an artistic proposition, inevitably becoming recuperated into models of strength or power -- especially if one wants to use them (as I do) not simply as qualities in themselves, tonally say, but as aspects of a politically or ethically motivated disavowal of unwanted creative authority or detested class prestige (which seems like a mordant joke from the inside, but I know isn't one) or patriarchal strength. How do I lay down my arms without immediately getting shot -- in other words, how can the corollary of that disavowal not be a disappearance into nullity and insaliency? Ultimately, can I be a weakling and still be a public artist? Is the very act of assertion or even conjecture, at the moment that it opens up a movement in a public culture, an act of strength -- either in resistance to the currents of creative and economic capital, or a capitulating aligment with those currents?
(I wonder, incidentally, whether poetry will turn out to be a good place to explore this weakness first? The publicness of poetry is after all much more negotiable, often more tentative, whereas theatre and performance necessarily bring some public cogency with them, for good or bad or both. That's kind of a note to self, sorry.)
So this set of questions -- especially in so far as they relate to an artistic proposition such as Balka's monumental How It Is, and to a much smaller proposition such as Who You Are which is able to inhabit, or squat in, that space in a possibly dissident or possibly concordant way (or fluctuate between both) for fifty minutes -- came to a particular head in a sequence of the piece, towards the end, where, in a kind of acting-out of exactly this weakness/power paradox, I spoke, at Blurt Factor 6, a supposedly emphatically self-exposing text, made up of dozens of scraps of autobiography and "confession". It was about asking very directly this question that the whole piece was about -- how can we reveal ourselves to each other in the darkness: not so much literally in the dark of the installation, but metaphorically in the darkness of the moment of encounter between performer and audience. But the six minute duration was intended to be long enough to allow the audience to experience exactly the shift that I've been through and which I now experience as a kind of drone of ambivalence and tension. What seems like an act of making oneself vulnerable quickly becomes powerful, even aggressive -- just as Lowri notes, apparently supposing this to be a flaw in the work, rather than a question that it's trying to ventilate. The image I had in my mind as I wrote it was of someone kind of hurling their body against that invisible fourth wall, the edge of the huge vitrine that all gallery art and so much performance is trapped in, often not even knowing that that plane is there, is still there. The image of a wasp trapped behind a window, that keeps banging its head, unable to comprehend the unseen barrier between itself and the outside.
What is this thwarted attempt at escape? Eventually I realised it's the neurotic action of performance trying to break through into becoming theatre. It's terribly hard sometimes to know the difference between performance and theatre but I think more and more it's something to do with performance applying itself to a target (a model, a task, an ideal execution), in a closed system, and theatre, which is an open system, in which there is no clear target other than the experience of the encounter itself. So, for example, my piece YEAH BOOM!, about Christopher Knowles, is definitely a performance because there are a bunch of things I want to convey, and I want to convey them to the best of my ability, I want to manage those tricky texts with such facility that I don't make any mistakes; with something like Hey Mathew, or Glass House, we're definitely (for me) in the territory of theatre because, though there's a score, a plan, a premeditated journey, the piece itself is not in us and what we do, it's in our live encounter with an audience who are meeting this work, or trying to meet it, and whatever that encounter is on any particular night, that's what the piece is.
Where, in relation to those ideas, is failure? In performance, it's about a shortfall, a missed target, a failure to 'perform' adequately, to earn one's performance-related milk. In theatre, the failure is just an inherent part of our being together: it's noise, ambiguity, conflictedness, multiplicity, proliferation. But where, then, is weakness? I'd have said, until last night, and maybe I still think, that it feels like it's not in the failure to perform, because performance is so self-contained, and whatever I may feel if I 'fail' in that context -- disappointed, angry (with myself), humiliated -- I don't think I feel weak or powerless because the performance still contains itself and is to that extent impervious: failure is a rupture between myself and my task. I feel weaker in theatre because I have no special authority there, and because the (usually unspoken) idea is about giving away power, sharing an encounter, and thus being dependent on an audience, on their attentiveness, their willingness to share. I feel weak in performance only when the rupture of my failure in relation to the task at hand causes a breach that makes me actually dependent on and vulnerable in relation to the audience -- in which case, it's theatre, rather than performance, that is in that moment occurring.
The funny (and unexpected) thing is, I got closer to a feeling of weakness last night, in performance, than I think I have, as a performer (or perhaps I had better say 'actor'), ever before. What underwrote this and set it up was probably the material conditions of the performance: I had two weeks' making time, and absolutely no rehearsal time at all, not in situ, not anywhere; what's more, the piece was entirely dependent on a pretty complex sound score, and it hadn't been possible to try that out in the space either, so we absolutely didn't know how it would sound in there until (literally) 40 minutes before the performance, when the very nice guy from the Tate AV team showed up with a wholly inadequate (mono!) sound system, totally different from what we'd prearranged.
The idea was this: that I would be in silhouette, and appear to be speaking, live, words that actually were prerecorded. (This was partly to permit certain disorientations, but also because with just two weeks to make the thing it seemed insane to spend any time learning lines; I could have mapped out something to extemporize but instead figured I was more interested in crafting something playful and slippery that used the darkness as a permissive as well as a problematic condition.) But I spent the entire duration of the piece worried that no one could really hear the words on the sound score, due to the huge whack of reverb that came built-in to the installation -- I had anticipated it a bit, but not as much as that; and moreover was freaking out that I wasn't actually in silhouette, because of the much-less-dark-than-I-wanted darkness. Although rationally I knew I must be in silhouette because the only source of direct light was behind me (apart from some fucking photographer from the Tate who was bouncing around all the way through with her camera apparatus bleeding light almost constantly), looking down at my hands for example I felt very lit and very pale. So I kind of felt, for nearly an hour, that I was standing in front of a large-ish audience, visibly failing to lipsynch adequately to a pre-recorded score that no one could really hear anyway.
My task, apart from forbearance, was simply to stand there making gestures that looked as if they tied in with what I was saying, as if I were saying everything live. With so little to do and so much to worry about, I felt incredibly exposed and utterly weak. And the weakness came, I think, from the absolute lack of liveness. I had no control in the moment -- and I realised eventually it wasn't the lack of authorial control that I was missing (because actually I still had that -- it was still my piece, albeit far from perfectly rendered) but the lack of available response. I was powerless to respond. I had locked myself into a role, a position, that was blocked off from theatre, that was entirely constrained by the terms and conditions of performance. And of course this was exactly what I had wanted the piece to do -- to be performance that longed to be theatre but couldn't be (because it couldn't effectually share the space and the encounter with the audience). But it still felt surprising and hopelessly, horribly uncongenial.
Reaction has generally been really positive, though people report different experiences of the decipherability of the spoken text: not only in that some people caught almost all of it, and some not very much of it, but also that, from both sides of that axis, some people were really frustrated and some people were fine. Lots of people (including Lowri) imagined that the audio failure might have been deliberate; god I wish. My email correspondent was "bitterly disappointed": and, fair enough, it definitely was low on "delicious" gas chamber shenanigans. The Tate folks were happy, I think, or not unhappy. I might have liked them to be more happy or more unhappy than they were but it was a pretty middle-of-the-road piece, all in all -- an attempt to set the tone of We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg! in a space that would either overwhelm it or be further broken down by it, or both. (Seems to me, from what people say, that it did a little of both.) I'm not sure how I feel about "disappointing" people like Lowri. That seems like something that artists might legitimately do, if it's thoughtful. But... I dunno. Is that disappointment something to do with weakness maybe? Or is it just not-good-enough work? Or perhaps it's just about people's expectations and/or what they themselves would want to do, given the gig. It's hard to tell. But the thing about weakness and vulnerability is obviously going to be a big thing for me this year, so it might not be a bad thing for everyone to attune their expectations accordingly...
Finally, for those who came and found themselves frustrated by missing some of the spoken content, and for all those who would have come but couldn't (including the brilliant 14 people who made a cameo apperance at the end of the piece -- a sequence that I feel very proud of and very sad not to have been able to watch -- and who mostly have no idea what the piece was that they were in), I'm going to make the entire soundscore available, either in mp3 form on a private blog, or via CD, or both. So, if that's of interest to you, would you let me know? I might ask for a donation of a couple of quid -- via the Paypal button in the sidebar -- to cover postage if it's a CD you want. But I guess first of all let's see what the demand is!
And even more finally, perhaps even terminally: for those of you who haven't met him already: please enjoy this paragon of weakness, this soft bulletin from the future of theatre, Maestro Eduard Khil. They tell me he's a meme. Whatever, bitch: I -heart- his ass. All together now!
If I could, I'd also embed the performance of Coldplay's 'Fix You' by a large choir of primary school children that was in progress when I dropped in to the bar of the Royal Festival Hall yesterday afternoon. Annoyingly, though, it was real life, and as such, resists embedding -- presumably someone's working on that -- but it was quite like this:
which has more political resonance in its three-and-a-half minute duration than the complete works of Societas Raffaello Sanzio, and don't you just know it.