Hard to knuckle back down to business today: a nice mellow blue-skied Easter Sunday hardly compels a return to work after the splendid liminal high-jinks of a flying visit to Cork, where Jonny and I were taking part in a one-day festival event on April 1st, curated by Sam Ladkin (surely among the very sharpest cookies in the tin, if that's (i) in any way a well-known phrase or saying and (ii) a property that one seeks in cookies anyway, and I'm not sure it is). The festival, aptly and not a little suggestively called Fool's Errand, was supported by the English Literature Society at UCC, which, given the range of activity presented, implies a really marvellously, not to say exemplarily, adventurous sense of what English Literature is or can be.
Actually I had a really great time just sitting around the hotel bar drinking stratospherically expensive Diet Coke (oh man, life in Cork is a money pit lightyears beyond the degraded dreams of Tom Hanks) and watching the branded world going by; and treating the big scab on my knee (I fell over a week ago on the way to a meeting) to a nice deep hot bath in my room (along with the rest of me -- I mean the scab's still attached to me, c'mon!, I didn't just dunk it like a biscuit); and sitting spooning my way through the universe's most scaldingly viscous hot chocolate in a Depeche Mode-themed cafe -- a plucky little outlet who would probably on the whole prefer a bare minimum of publicity that occurs in such close proximity to two appearances of the word 'scab'.
Even those pleasures were dwarfed though by the bill of fare at Fool's Errand, which all day sat obstinately in a makeshift-feeling classroom on campus that quickly came to seem a perfect setting, its formalities quickly subverted and its homeliness easily intoxicated. The highlight of the day was, for sure, its climax: a rarer-than-a-fine-hen's-toothcomb performance of Christian Wolff's Burdocks, a quite staggering composition from 1971. Alongside the student participants were such local luminaries as John Godfrey, ex- of Icebreaker et al; Paul Hegarty of Safe (who memorably folded, spindled and mutilated Dennis Cooper's story 'Ugly Man' into a great noise album a little while back); and the sound/performance artist Danny McCarthy and his Quiet Club cohort Mick O'Shea. In the end, this exalted scratch band didn't include me, despite previous advertisings: it was I who suggested Burdocks in the first place, but when the score finally arrived, it was way more taxing in its use of extended notation than I had anticipated -- I thought it was closer to Wolff's prosier stuff (such as the works collected in this handy pdf) -- and my poor dwindled chops weren't at all up to it. But the mini-orchestra that assembled itself on Thursday evening was terrifically abuzz with skill and ingenuity. The piece sounded great -- really thrilling at some moments -- and any anxiety that the social aspect of the work might not come through clearly was almost instantly dismissed. As Wolff has written, very beautifully I think, elsewhere, in connection with another lovely piece, 'For One, Two or Three Musicians':
This music is drawn from the interaction of the people playing it. It requires for its performance independent self-discipline (unpoliced by a score defining fixed relationships and timings) and a capacity and special alertness for responding to what one’s fellow performers are doing, the sounds they are making or changing and their silences.
Burdocks perhaps has more sense of itself (at least in part) as a game, or as a set of structures for play. It asks for the impossible at some points, for the benign cacophonies of heroic failure; it asks (and requires) the players to take a kind of care of each other, which they can do not least by treating the score respectfully and allowing its indications to enlarge their own capacities for signalling and response. You probably can't say much better about any one performance of a piece like Burdocks than that it increased one's respect for the skill of the composer: that's exactly what happened, and it was an exhilarating joy.
Half a page of Christian Wolff's Burdocks (1971)
Burdocks had been preceded by a nice performance, by Paul Hegarty and Vicky Langan, of four strung-together Fluxus scores (one of them more implied, perhaps, than performed). They'd picked pieces with some level of ritual 'theatricality' and formal precision about them, such as Emmett Williams's highly poised Emotional Duet from 1962 (Fluxus's annus mirabilis):
Performer A inflicts pain upon himself.Performer B inflicts pain upon herself.Performer A inflicts pain upon performer B.Performer B inflicts pain upon performer A.
and made presentational choices that interestingly invoked certain performative codes that are perhaps more interesting to interpreters starting from a music or visual art background than those approaching Fluxus from a starting-point in theatre, for whom it's perhaps harder to enjoy playing with the codes of prestigious performance when we spend so much of our time trying to disturb and eliminate those. So good, at any rate, to see this work actually performed, and taken seriously, rather than sitting in inert conceptual sub-splendour on the page or as valorized (but neutralized) detritus in the museum/gallery vitrine.
The day had begun with readings by Fergal Gaynor and Michael Kindellan, the latter presenting the long title poem from his extraordinary recent Not love (from Barque Press). 'Not love' sort of zooms out, exquisitely slow and unrelentingly, from the hard-to-stomach not-only-carnal intimacies and just impedimenta that striate our experiences of love as intention or narrative pressure, opening up a wider screen that will take in our self-defeating clumsiness in meeting all different kinds of other and our readiness to sell out for an idea that's already been thought-through like a ready-meal for the exhausted imagination. Eventually, two-thirds in, we are inevitably here: "You look so good you're like Iraq. We ain't never / gonna pull out". Kindellan's voices (in the writing) are at once punctilious and playing dress-up; the reading similarly proceeds both deliberately and informally, enjoying its occasional slacker deviations while savouring also its extrakinespheric reach for borrowed assurance and knowing adornment. I like that Kindellan seems not particularly to 'fit' anywhere and yet has found enough space to craft such a serious and profoundly telling poem. It's such a relief to hear a slow reading once in a while, too: something that struck me also when, as a dead-right aperitif, Sam Ladkin read the 'Codex' from Stephen Rodefer's Four Lectures. I love how Sam reads: lucid, reasonable, as if he likes to feel the logics of these words against the skin of his teeth. He makes even the crankiest poem sound close-at-hand.
And then there was us: Jonny and I did one of our 'Mixed Ape' performances, throwing together verbal and visual poetry, Fluxus and other scored or instructed performance, and a bit of live panic half-disguised as movement response, swirled into a stand-up-and-beg salmagundi. We called this one 'Folly Seeing All This', in view of the auspicious date and having been inspired by our location to use a sequence of short Beckett pieces (including 'What Is The Word?', from which that phrase comes) as the spinal column for our compilation. Because we're both performing stuff simultaneously throughout, I was, as ever, sad to miss so much of what Jonny was doing, though the audible bits sounded fantastic. For my part I particularly enjoyed reading Edward Lear's 'The Akond of Swat' (complete with not-too-grudging audience participation) and those sounds meeting the aroma, coming from Jonny's side of the room, of fresh salad, arising from Alison Knowles's famous Fluxus Proposition ("Make a salad."), which notoriously ended in tears, or other bodily fluids, during the very first Mixed Ape instalment (with Jamie Wood) back in 2006.
One enjoyable feature this time out was that J & I agreed to give each other some surprise scores, to be sealed in envelopes right up until the moment of their performance. I picked for Jonny two visual poems by Paula Claire and Alaric Sumner respectively, a canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and a wonderfully (and characteristically) obscene text extract from Kathy Acker's The Birth of the Poet, which he liked a lot.
Alaric Sumner, 'Paradoxical Stress'
His first for me was a score by arguably Fluxus's greatest hitter, Dick Higgins: Danger Music no. 17, which reads in its entirety: "Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream! Scream!" I'd given my own "Free Electric Hernia" quite a screamy performance at Chlorine in Brighton the week before so it was nice to go round again, though I also tried to force a duet with a duck call, which I only had with me in case it came in handy and which perhaps wasn't quite equal to the exertions I tried to force it into, inspired perhaps by the memory of an exceptional Hession/Wilkinson/Fell gig at Cafe Oto last weekend. Surprise number two -- and anyone who predicted this wins a £15 book token -- was a photocopy of the title page of Merleau-Ponty's The Visible and the Invisible, covered in spunk. (Not freshly covered, but at some point a few weeks earlier.) After a slightly perturbed giggle at it, I found that the only viable response was to perform it as a visual poem whilst simultaneously tearing out and eating the jizz-blots, before, finally, removing the papier gnashé spoo-bolus from my gob and feeding it to J (revenge, like semen, actually being a dish best served warm). It was all quite fun -- though the Patum Paperium (ha ha) left a hard-to-lose tang on the tongue -- and there was an undeniable thrill in thinking that rarest of thoughts for a sound poet on a spree: "Well I bet Bob Cobbing never did this."
(Cobbing fans and novices alike should, by the way, take a close look at Steve Willey's excellent new documentary on the history and currency of Writers Forum. Steve himself is quick to say that the film is an introduction only, and there are certainly many more stories to be told and insights to be harvested. But as an entry-level account it's great that it exists, and highly recommended. Paula Claire is worth the price of entry alone.)
Flying drowsily back from Cork, I felt the afterglow of our Mixed Ape performance, particularly considering it as a rickety bridge of sighs between Kindellan and Fluxus, entering into collision in my mind with the actual mixtape I made Jonny for his birthday, and a couple of beautifully reverberant mixtape-commemorating posts lately over at Flesh World: and I thought about the act of putting things together like that so that they speak more eloquently, perhaps more stressfully. In some ways I think my mixtape making skills are the most advanced techniques in my artistic practice: eventually you realise it's not just about sequencing great songs, or even about pulling off clever and exciting juxtapositions: it's about being able to elaborate an argument, it's about daring to draw entirely new contour lines or isobars on what might have seemed a more-or-less familiar map. I only really make mixtapes on CD these days, admittedly, which is treacherous, but which at least allows for an intense precision in the management of the segue, the cut, the crossfade. I think more and more that cadence is the first and the most inciting generator of the sensation we call 'meaning'. As in:
And this in turn is the character of the festival, too: or, partly. I'm struck by how much of my work this year is happening in festival contexts: after Fool's Errand, we're next doing a new piece called World of Work at the Sussex Poetry Festival; and then Where You Stand at Queer Up North; and then in the summer I'll hopefully be back in Cork performing at SoundEye, which is possibly, by now, the most significant annual festival of experimental poetic practice anywhere in Europe; and then The Author opens, with me almost unaccountably in it, at the Traverse in August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe; and on we go...
There seems to be a real glut of great festivals at the moment, an array amounting almost to a metafestival in itself. I have notes pinned up about the imminently upcoming What If... Festival, based at Siobhan Davies Studios and offering a seriously tantalising opportunity to see Sally Potter's early film The Gold Diggers amid a great programme of live and filmed performance and discussion; about Freedom of the City, the longrunning festival of improvised music which takes place every May Bank Holiday weekend at Conway Hall (hubba hubba) and this year includes sets by Tania Chen / Lol Coxhill / Dominic Lash, John Russell's Quaqua (including Chris Burn, Matt Hutchinson, Henry Lowther &c.), Ross Lambert / Eddie Prevost / Seymour Wright, and Adam Bohman guesting with FURT, among many others; and the strikingly revivified LIFT, including a rare visit to London by Rimini Protokoll, an occasion with such a high Event Quotient that even the ICA can be bothered to open its doors to host some significant contemporary performance for once -- just like old, old, old times, back before Ekow Eshun was even a twinkle, let alone... oh, no, wait, he's still a twinkle.
During the three years I was at the helm of CPT I curated six designated festival events: three editions of SPRINT (which continues to run at the venue every spring), two of Total Writing London, and a music and poetry festival called The Queen is Deaf in contra-celebration of Her Majesty's golden jubilee in 2002. Putting those festival seasons and events together was my favourite part of the job there (and it was on the very next day after I spotted that it was starting to become a chore that I handed in my notice). As with the mixtape manufacture, it wasn't just about shaping a day's programme, or placing artists alongside each other so as to suggest correspondences or productive dissonances. It was about being able to stage an argument, an argument not revealing itself all at once in the space of a single brilliant paragraph (which is anyway, as Thompson's readers will know, not a skill I've ever had) but slowly unfolding over an evening or a weekend or a whole month. Trying to shape an audience's experience, and their perception of that experience, so as to do the work of a manifesto or a cultural prescription without ever having to be so crass as to state it directly. A festival (like Freedom of the City, in particular; and, I think, like Fool's Errand, just gone) can be particularly well placed to narrate an ethical proposition, or at least a set of aesthetic commitments with an ethical undertow, without ever having to frame that proposition in language that arrives pre-thought and which pre-empts or renders merely illustrative the work that articulates those ideas with most valency. It's show-not-tell at its most bountifully eloquent.
I know partly the pleasures of the festival are the pleasures of the feast (to which of course it etymologically refers): there's something about abundance, surfeit, even conspicuous consumption. I always thought it was fascinatingly indicative that people complained at the first Total Writing London festival that there was too much in the programme (it started each day at 11am and ran with only the meanest breaks through till 11 in the evening) -- but it hadn't occurred to me that anybody, other than me qua curator, would try to attend everything. But it's like our experience of the hotel in Cork these last few days: we're totally skint, and breakfast was included, so we ended up trying to cram everything into our toast-holes and trouser pockets. I greedily guzzled banana smoothie that I wouldn't normally give house-room. I had not particularly nice hash browns because they were there. And so it is, sometimes, with artistic collations of various kinds. I remember having anthology anxiety a few years ago, having excitedly bought the enormous Outlaw Bible of American Poetry -- in actual fact, not much stuff in there is all that good, but my god!, feel the width!, stun the ox!! -- the contents pages alone were thicker than some notable chapbooks, and that brings an odd sense of plenitude that both reassures and titillates. And, after all, think how often anthologies are blurbed, somewhere along the line, as "feasts".
The crucial tact, I think, is to allow us to enjoy this plenitude, but to help us to experience it not as banal luxury but as in some way a mirror of our own multiplicity, which is, to put it very simply, one of the things that's cool about who we are. Granted, it may seem tediously self-regarding to enjoy making a mixtape that cuts, as my most recent one for Jonny did, between Throbbing Gristle and Take That, or Gangsta Fag and Charley the Cat -- but the ability to spot or suggest or speculatively describe connections between diverse cultural items is a key part of the syntax of innovation, and if innovation is in itself (as I have argued here before) value neutral, that's not to say that it shouldn't be sought: it doesn't necessarily do political work, but clearly it can -- and how! Moreover, to become fluent with those kinds of technologies is to make load-bearing and potentially wonderfully productive the idea that art consists not in single objects or even in closed systems, but in the open and shifting relations between things, between people and things, between people -- selves and others, everywhere, including within us as individuals. A friend of mine insists that intelligence is a property not of people but of conversations: well, I don't know that I'd walk that idea all the way home and kiss it goodnight, but there's lots in there, for sure, and it's a great basis for a curatorial practice. It reminds me immediately of Modern Times, the astounding exhibition which I caught towards the end of its recent tenure at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge and which opened yesterday at De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, where I certainly hope to catch it again at some point between now and June. Lutz Becker has done the most rousing, discriminating, virtuosic curating job I've seen in ages. It could serve as a model for festivals -- and mixtapes -- everywhere.
In the meantime, Jonny and I are excited to see what happens with the making of this new piece, World of Work, the score for which will be a deck of cards designed by a large number of poets, writers, theatre makers, visual artists and musicians. We're hoping to be able to assemble 52. The designs are already coming in, and things look exciting: but what's been particularly nice so far is how delighted a lot of the people we've approached have been with the idea. The difficulties of making works of art -- even theatre, that most (supposedly) social of media -- are so often experienced in solitary and seemingly incommunicable discomfort: it feels good then to be asked to be one among many, and perhaps to remember that one always is. Rodefer's words at the end of 'Codex' -- especially when spoken, slowly and reasonably, by a beautiful bearded man, in a room that's awaiting the arrival of Christian Wolff's Burdocks and the unsheathing of spunk-spattered copy paper -- take us straight to the heart of it:
. . . I wanted you to meet your fellow brains. Thank you,People of destiny, for your brilliant corners. I like your voice.Look where it's come from.