Friday, December 31, 2010

"The title of this episode is new approach": on solidarity and striptease and the year ahead (for Andy and Karl)

"You've had a quiet year," somebody said to me over Christmas: and they said it with such conviction that I had to check my own recollection.

I started the year on attachment at the National Theatre Studio, and ended it in a writer's room at the Royal Court, writing the first draft of a new play called The Extremists which I hope will continue to emerge over the coming months. I made Who You Are for Tate Modern (with the help of a dozen partially or wholly naked friends, in whose company it was a complete joy to run through the Turbine Hall at the end), and a companion piece for Queer Up North, Where You Stand, which is still online in a video version. I wrote and directed Henry & Elizabeth, with the brilliant Philip Bosworth and Claire Burlington, and after a chilly press night it toured very happily for a couple of months, generating along the way an assortment of anecdotes that kept me thoroughly entertained for a few hours when I met up with Boz and Claire a couple of weeks ago. With Jonny Liron I made the various-artists compendium piece World of Work for the Sussex Poetry Festival, and Fool's Errand for a memorable event at University College Cork; and back in Cork later in the year we duetted on a Michael Basinski piece at SoundEye. I made two new performance scores for Jonny, in situ and Angry, Red, and he took a first swing at in situ at the inuagural Situation Room event (a series that's been a crucially important thread through the second half of the year); and he and I did a fair bit of r&d work together in our Action one19 guise. I started writing poems again, seriously, for the first time in ages, and did readings at the Sit Room (twice) and SoundEye, and in Brighton for Chlorine and at Loughborough Uni. I took part in Future Editions for Artsadmin at Forest Fringe, and delivered House of the Future for Tim Etchells and Ant Hampton's Some of the Futures at the ICA (possibly my best half-hour's work of the year). I wrote on Michael Basinski for Damn the Caesars, and on Bob Cobbing and Marina Abramovic for Gobsmacked; I did a workshop at Whitechapel Gallery for London Art Book Fair, and seminars at Kings and Royal Holloway. I posted on average more than once a week here at Thompson's (and you know we ain't talkin' epigrams and haiku, baby), and threw up some unexpected stuff at David Rylance's Transductions blog. I worked through the casting process for my Pinter double-bill at the Ustinov early next year (with very cool results), and I embarked on editing a poetry anthology which will come out in the early spring from my own teeny-tiny Ganzfeld Press. For several weeks I kept my head above water by selling secondhand CDs via Amazon, meaning I spent a giddying amount of time in post office queues. I went to the theatre as often as I could, and saw a lot of great art. I went to live music gigs more than usual this year, especially down the road at the lifesaving Cafe Oto (a considerably more significant presence in the changing ecology of live performance in London than their incoming neighbours). I read books, and discussed stuff on discussion lists, and joined Twitter at last, and I ate some good food and watched some great movies (and two whole seasons of Juliet Bravo on DVD), and on Christmas Day I spent ten hours writing a manifesto that I hope you'll never see but that I equally hope I have the courage to live by in the year ahead.

Oh and hang on, I did about seventy performances over five months in fourteen different cities all around the UK and Europe, in my first ever professional acting role for someone else, in one of the most acclaimed and talked-about plays of the year. (It was The Author, if you're new here. Welcome!)

"It didn't feel like a quiet year," I said, and attempted a little chuckle.

So, look, this rant-alogue is not designed to induce marvelling or excite pity (or terror). It's OK: Muttley doesn't want a medal. (Unless it's got chocolate on the inside.) It's just there to help frame the post that follows. This late-December's retrospective musings have felt rather different than in previous years: the question that a couple of previous recent posts have touched on remains in the front of my mind: namely (mutatis mutandis): What did you do in the war, Daddy?

My friend's observation threw me a little because, although we're not terrifically close, he's someone who I think of as an ally and someone who works professionally in theatre, and as such he's a hundred thousand times more engaged with my work than, y'know, almost everyone else who's currently alive. And yet I and the two dozen other people who genuinely believe that theatre can change the world, continue genuinely to believe that theatre can change the world. Believe, in fact -- and at this point, saying two dozen others may be a bit of an overestimate -- not only that theatre can change the world, but that it is already doing so, and that it is better placed to do so than almost any other medium or enterprise that doesn't depend on huge amounts of cash. This minority-of-a-minority view must surely be wretchedly delusional, hopelessly self-regarding, possibly actually harmful to its cause...?

Well so here are three moments from this year that I think I won't forget, and which will perhaps appear initially not to add up to much that's pertinent to this question of usefulness but which I nonetheless want to call as witnesses.

One which I wrote about already, in my festival diary post for August 7th. A Saturday morning, sitting around the kitchen table of a beautiful house in Edinburgh, with the directors and cast of The Author. Every day we 'check in' like this -- it's one of the most valuable things I've been exposed to this year. Everybody speaks: not necessarily at length, not necessarily with great profundity. We just talk a bit about how we're doing, about what's on our minds, what's been present in our hearts and thoughts since we last sat down together. You get to hear from everybody, and they get to hear from you. It's a fantastic lesson in how direly we normally treat the question "How are you?", both in asking and in answering it; how meagre are our expectations for the feasible scope of what follows. In the practice that Karl James and a smith have developed, "How are you?" re-emerges as a radical question, a revolutionary touchpaper. More than once over the course of the rehearsal period and the early shows, when we were checking in daily with this level of care, I would find myself on the edge of tears, expressing things that I hadn't even realised I was feeling, or which were so current and unprocessed for me that I wouldn't have been able to speak about them had there been any expectation of neatness or certainty.

This one morning, what I found myself wanting to talk about was feeling lucky. Fortunate, privileged, I'm not sure exactly what. Lucky. To have had the opportunities to work hard enough, and take enough risks with myself, to be able to exist, year after year, as someone whose central life commitment is to making art, making theatre above all. To have been given the space and the self-belief (however shaky) to make that commitment even slightly plausible. To be in that position (and at the start of four months of a decent regular income) when people I loved -- on that morning, I was thinking particularly of Jonny, who had just started a punishingly hard labouring job for less than minimum wage -- were enduring so much, just to get by: people every bit as creative as me, and every bit as deserving of the same opportunities. Of course, there's more of that story to tell -- when I was Jonny's age, after all, I was selling life insurance over the phone in a call centre for five quid an hour, and struggling to find my feet in London, and making far less art work than Jonny's managing, and surely that's the arc of the journey for lots of us -- but the sense of privilege was nonetheless very strong that morning, as I sat in a sunlit kitchen with some of the bravest and most beautiful people I know, and with the double good fortune that the answer to the obvious question -- Q: What am I going to do with this privileged position I've been given for a while? -- A: I'm going to do The Author -- was right at hand and, to my mind, so sufficient in itself.

That feeling of being moved to the brink of tears in considering the shape of my relationships with others immediately links me to the next moment I want to recall: from not much more than a fortnight ago, seeing Sam Amidon at Cafe Oto. It was an amazing gig, one of the most moving and extraordinary I've ever been to: partly because I've spent so much of the past couple of years engaging really closely with Amidon's work and it was kind of overwhelming to be standing, in a packed room (and a space that I think is truly lovely anyway), so near to him at times that I could have touched him -- one of my friends did, actually, by way of congratulation after the set was over, and I wondered at the degree of awe I was feeling that meant I could no more follow suit in that moment than if Sam had been in space. I find him so beautiful, as an artist and as a person, as a presence in front of a roomful of people, that I can hardly stand it. Afterwards, standing outside in the bitter cold, I leaned up against Jonny for a minute or more, not able to speak, just wanting to be in contact with someone. I felt extremely moved above all by Amidon's lack of guardedness as a performer, which is something it's hard to describe, you sort of have to experience it I guess -- it's a kind of charisma, a kind of radiance, a real feeling of openness, but it signals over and above all those things, I suppose because it feels like an extension of the ethical (and in his case maybe spiritual) positions that his work occupies: I don't know but I'd guess he places himself in relation to music in quite similar ways that I place myself in relation to theatre. He reminded me very much of what Utah Phillips used to say Ammon Hennacy told him about pacifism:

"You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you're not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed."

I've very seldom seen anyone stand in front of an audience as disarmed as Sam Amidon -- though it will certainly be what defines the central performance when I do Hamlet with Paul Dano (if you wouldn't mind mentioning it to him when you see him, as he may not currently be aware that I'm planning it...) -- and trying to talk about it really choked me up.

But I was already kind of in that place because of an experience I'd had right at the end of Sam's set. He does this very sweet (and sweetly improbable) cover of R. Kelly's song "Relief" -- here it is on his current album:

So the chorus of the song begins: "What a relief to know that we are one / What a relief to know that the war is over": and this is the cue for a singalong with the audience, and, man, we're there, we're ready, we'd probably join in singing multiplication tables for the rest of the evening if Sam asked us to. The room is packed and hot and the light is beautiful, the music is quiet so despite there being so many people there the singing is lullaby-soft, and to sing "What a relief to know that we are one" along with them gives me goosebumps. But there's no gap before the second line, and I feel like I really don't want to sing "the war is over", because, as Amidon himself comments during this live performance in Dublin, "that's the part that's not true"; but also I do want to sing it because I don't want to not be singing it while everyone else is singing it, and because I suppose I can make it stand in for the John & Yoko sentiment that "war is over if you want it", a pop slogan which I'm more used to feeling able to subscribe to, not least because it has the unusual virtue of being at some level more or less true (though I've always thought it could use the addition of the word "enough" -- "if you want it enough"). So I think I'll sing it, whatever, it doesn't matter; but when I get to it, I can't. A little strangled croak comes out, I can feel my throat tighten in that trying-not-to-cry way, and for the rest of the song, when that line comes around, I simply let it go past, like someone else's suitcase at baggage reclaim. I couldn't lend my voice to it, even though there can't have been anybody in the room singing those words under the impression that they were somehow a true reflection of anyone's reality anywhere on the planet. (Thinking of that gorgeous scene in The Muppets Take Manhattan where Fozzie Bear, who's having a crack at going back to nature, sits with his teddy, surrounded by hibernating feral bears, and, unable to sleep, he marvels at his comrades: "How do they do it?") So much of the past few weeks has been taken up with questions -- urgent, searching, deeply uncomfortable questions -- about what solidarity (or #solidarity) means, and that upsetting jolt between line one and line two of an R. Kelly song, the experience of careering straight from singing and feeling "we are one" into an instant of such complex fragmentation, at least seems to refer to those questions, even if it doesn't (yet) indicate an answer; maybe the question, rather than the answer, is where the information is anyway.

For the third moment I want to mention -- actually a pair of connected moments -- you'll feel the elevator lurch upward, as we find ourselves suddenly in the world of high art. I've said it to people before, in fact no doubt I've said it here before at some time or another: if I were to make a list of my top ten films, or at least if I were to make such a list under the influence of some kind of truth serum, I'm certain that more than a couple would be porn. By and large we still disdain to take pornography seriously as a meaningful cultural production, and often those who do take it seriously do so only because they want to argue that it's harmful, inherently violent, etc. I disagree with that analysis -- I don't disagree that there is harmful and (regressively) violent porn, but I think I've learned a huge amount through trying to think seriously about the difference is between good porn and bad porn, and about what might be bad about good porn and good about bad porn; there's a great deal of stuff that I've found not only (or not even) arousing but also moving, provocative, inspiring, inventive, critically alert, politically astute, artistically ambitious and -- often -- highly self-aware. I've thought hard about the moral and ethical and political arguments that are levelled against porn, and of course I've thought in particular about where feminist critiques of pornography connect with gay male erotica, which is what I mostly -- though not exclusively -- watch. At the very least I'd always want to assert that not all pornography is the same, any more than all Hollywood film is the same or all body-based live art is the same, and that to think about it categorically is to underestimate the extent to which its relation with its users is performative at the point of reception, and to that extent highly susceptible to contingency and contextual detail both at an individual/personal and a sociocultural level. In that light, over the past two or three years I've found it particularly instructive to consider the ways in which online structures and channels for the distribution of pornography have opened up so many spaces, both established and fugitive, in which, without obvious coercion and generally without commercial incentive, people are able to create images of themselves that connect them with the syntagma of pornography and may help to enlarge and further potentiate that language. The sexual imaginary as it appears in those cultural locations is now in far higher resolution than the gross and ever-more preposterous caricatures of erotic identification that circulate in the broadcast and print media at the service of market imperatives.

Which takes us -- come with me, will you? (You don't have to if you don't want to -- just skip the next couple of paragraphs...) -- to a video which during the course of this year has been kicking around some of the gay versions of YouTube, such as (in this case) Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: 'Hot French Boy Does Amasing Streeptease' [sic]. (Handle with care, folks: he does a lot more than just streep, bless him; by about 3 min 20 he's doing something with a Chupa Chup which I presume the originators of Chupa Chups did not have in mind for their almost-fruity lollipops. I cannot imagine that an official sponsorship deal has been arranged, though if this really is a viral ad, I should think it's done the trick. I mean, talk about product placement. Boom tish.)

I can't remember what hotel room I was in now, where in the world we were, which is a pleasingly rockstar-like circumstance from which to launch this inquiry. But I do remember following the link, from a blog I really like, to our French pal, and finding him exceedingly Hot and his streeping indeed Amasing, but the wi-fi at the hotel not being quite up to the job, meaning we made slow progress together -- not always a bad thing, of course. As I waited for the next few-second instalment to buffer, I wondered whether this video really was what it purported to be -- this homemade stuff, solo or otherwise, is so popular now, with its badly framed images and the weird shapes its subjects sometimes have to throw, that some commercial studios seem to be starting to mimic it. (The different camera positions in this one suggest at least an unusual level of sophistication and attentiveness for a regular amateur, though it's not impossible. The Kylie soundtrack marks it out too I guess.) I wondered whether it mattered, ultimately, though the notion that this really was just a young guy alone in his bedroom performing for love rather than money was clearly in lots of ways more satisfactory. In any case I thought about the confidence that the young men who do this (in their thousands, everywhere) seem to have, in their bodies, as performers, as sexually self-identifying individuals, turned out towards a kind of community; and how the web has enabled them to see each other in places and modes of behaviour that still signal at least partly as private, to learn from each other, to share themselves, not for profit or fame, but for the pleasure of sharing, wanting to be seen. Just as we (that's "we") still tend to consider viewing pornography as an essentially furtive act, we're inclined also to rush to denigrate the work these boys make as "exhibitionism": and I suppose if that's what we want to say it is, then fair enough. Lord knows I've learned enough over the years from attending exhibitions.

(Do I feel differently about young women making videos like that in a heterosexual context? Yes, on the whole. But again, I wouldn't trust any categorical pronouncement on the topic.)

Some time after making the remote acquaintance of my (and perhaps now your) Hot Amasing comrade, I found myself sitting on the floor of a small dark room on the second floor of the Museu Colecçãu Berardo at the CCB in Lisbon, watching José Maçãs Carvalho's video piece 'Striptease as Textuality' in the fascinating exhibition A Culpa Não É Minha. Carvalho's piece shows a woman performing a (by comparison with Hot French Boy) rather prosaic striptease -- maybe not even that, maybe just undressing -- while an English text is spoken in voiceover to accompany the image; the same text then appears projected in English and spoken in Portuguese:

And so I was reminded of that earlier halting striptease by a line in that text: "it is the delay in the stripping that makes it exciting". And as I watched the piece loop around a few times I started to relate the French boy's video, and all those thousands of similar videos being posted online all the time, to the thesis of 'Striptease as Textuality': that, because it precludes actual physical touch, the logic of striptease is of a series of essentially unsatisfying revelations, each of which serves only to precede the next; there is in its grammar no final target, just a dead-end vertiginous staring into an unknowable mystery. I wasn't quite sure: there was definitely something in that, but it didn't seem to describe my experience online. Partly of course that was because the French guy went so much further than stripping, entering the adjacent logic sequence of the jerk-off video, whose ending is both more clearcut and, implicitly, more inviting of participation (of a sort).

Still, there was that final thought in the text, suggesting that in the (non)-culminating standoff at the end of the line of stripping, "we are returned to the mystery of our own origins. Just so in reading or listening." [italics in the original] This seemed to come rather abruptly out of nowhere, and appeared to endorse my suspicion that, though its source wasn't cited anywhere, this text was extracted from a longer passage. Wondering who the thinker behind it all might be, I ran through the mental list of usual suspects, but nothing would ever have suggested to me its actual author: sitting there in that Lisbon gallery I'd been listening to the words of David Lodge. In fact to be absolutely exact I'd been listening to the words of Lodge's fictional American academic Morris Zapp, in the novel Small World: and Zapp is using the striptease customer as an analogue for the reader in pursuit of meaning:

The attempt to peer into the very core of a text, to possess once and for all its meaning, is vain -- it is only ourselves that we find there, not the work itself. [. . .] To read is to surrender oneself to an endless displacement of curiosity and desire from one sentence to another, from one action to another, from one level of the text to another. The text unveils itself before us, but never allows itself to be possessed; and instead of striving to possess it we should take pleasure in its teasing.

So: this would seem to support very encouragingly my remark about pornography as a performance, with all the contingencies of performance. By 'this', I don't mean Lodge's / Zapp's description of critical reading, which may ring more or less true, or not, and may appeal, or not; no, I mean the fact that the metaphorical coupling of reading and striptease, as I encounter it in Carvalho's work (itself dating from 2001), emerges, a trifle bizarrely, out of an English campus novel of the mid 1980s. What reading means now, 26 years later at the end of 2010, feels very different (the very idea of reading as the pursuit of pleasure, or at least reading as a game, seems parlously insufficient); and what striptease means now, compared with what it meant in pre-internet 1984 when Lodge published Small World, is certainly wildly different. Perhaps, though, it could be said that those shifts are at least parallel, that reading now is to watching striptease now as reading then was to watching striptease then. That we are now more than ever in search of usable information, not the (literally) dubious pleasures of the po-mo game; that we read for the gesture behind the surface, the desire behind the sign; that what we crave is contact with others, and that some meaningful, informative contact is possible even in the remoteness of cyberspace. ("This article," wrote Rene Ricard in his seminal 1981 essay 'The Radiant Child' -- though he might as well have been saying it about this article -- "is about work that is information, not work that is about information.") What we doubt, what we distrust, is the indirect. I trust other people when we are able to contact each other directly; I distrust the intervention of the organization, the institution, the machine, I distrust the influence of money, the interests of old media. When I watch my French hero (who knows if he's even French, of course?) so expertly and generously performing his striptease -- and the rest -- I read his body, I read his arousal, and I trust them, partly because I see some version of my own body and my own arousal reflected in his generosity, in his leap of faith. I see the image, but I also see the desire behind the image, and I do not think it is only cynical. I am not in the grip of a fantasy, I understand what this is, this mediated transaction; but when watching him come makes me come (like I'd last that long, ha ha), it is a correspondence that has some meaning -- and not only, I think, for me, though obviously only specifically for me -- in exactly the way that I can be personally intimately moved and altered by a poem that addresses me as "you", even though I know the poet wasn't thinking of me specifically at the time he wrote it. "Now and with the least hurt, this / is for you.", writes J.H. Prynne at the end of 'Against Hurt', and my understanding of myself as that "you" is not just unimpeded by, but is of course actually inspired and enlarged by, how complicated, in the context of the poem, that "you" is: almost as complicated as I can't help thinking "I" myself am.

So, those are the three-ish moments I'm dwelling on as the minutes of the year tick away: and I'm struck by the places where they happen. They happen in small rooms (really or conceptually or both), in relation to small numbers of people. Around a kitchen table where someone is asking "How are you?" and I will be heard when I in my turn actually say how I actually am. In a small concert venue with a lot of other people, phasing in and out of unison with them and wondering whether that's also phasing in and out of solidarity or whether it's the careful maintenance of solidarity; in a small concert venue with an artist whom I can't bring myself to touch, but by whom I am deeply touched; outside the venue, leaning my body against my friend, not having to speak. Sitting in a darkened gallery room on my own, constantly shifting in relation to an artwork that intrigues and delights and bothers me. Feeling an intense erotic connection with a beautiful stranger I will never meet, but who knows that I'm there like a poet knows I'm there, and is signalling to me in an exemplary exhibition of courage and grace and giving-stuff-away and a defiantly queer refusal of the ideology of privacy.

I've sat in some very big rooms this year and watched people grappling there with enormities and (sometimes) banalities: David Hare at the National, Slavoj Zizek at the RFH, Laurie Anderson at the Barbican, Miroslaw Balka at Tate Modern... And I got a lot out of all those experiences. But what changed me, what changed the things I can imagine doing when I get up tomorrow, were encounters in small rooms. A chat with Karl James. Kieran Hurley's Hitch. Richard Youngs at Oto, singing a cappella. Jonny Liron and Andrew Oliveira standing naked together at the Sit Room. Listening to a draft of a smith's new show on my iPod. Cork Shape Note Singers. Lunch at Whitechapel with Andy Field. Jo Clifford happening to sit down next to me at the Traverse. A B&B bedroom with Godard's Film Socialisme on my laptop. Laughing in the car with Boz and Claire. A little room with a snow-covered floor in the company of Jimmy Stewart. John Cage at Kettle's Yard, John Cage on YouTube, John Cage in the book I'm reading, John Cage at #21 in the Top 40. John Hall and Peter Hughes's Inscriptions at SoundEye. Holding Francesca Lisette's As The Rushes Were in my hands. An afternoon with Mervyn Millar, just playing around with stuff. Watching the otters at the Oceanarium. Oh, my word, the otters.

Of course if those things and those things alone changed the world as much as they change me, we wouldn't be starting from here. But it's worth bearing in mind what I think marketers call 'effective rate'. It's not how many people you reach in one go that matters, necessarily: it's how many people you can move -- and be moved by; change, and be changed by. If I have two really honest face-to-face conversations tomorrow, and two people -- no, three people: I was there too -- go away thinking about something in a way they haven't thought about before, such that each of them go off and have new conversations with other people the next day, it's conceivable that I've had a higher effective rate than, say, that night's episode of Hollyoaks. That's how it happens, right? ...No, maybe not, but there's something there. Don't you think?

Theatre, like reading, like striptease, doesn't mean the same thing this year that it did ten years ago and it won't mean the same next year either. To each according to his need, innit. What I most want to see us doing in the coming months is creating testimonial space. The space in which it's possible to speak, possible to be heard. Possible to really say how you really are when you're asked. The most powerful-feeling idea I'm carrying around in my head at the moment -- seeded, as so much has been this year, by John Holloway's essential Crack Capitalism -- is that everyone already knows. It's not that we, the enlightened vanguard, have to convince people that the ways in which we're presently compelled to live are violent, unjust and unsustainable. People know that, they're not stupid. They just don't have access to any kind of space in which it's OK to know it. It's a scary thing to know, to know that you know; like a scream you can't let out for fear of giving away your presence to the intruder in your house. The implications of facing up to that knowledge are terrifying. For us too, of course: we're not immune to that fear. Where do we go to begin to peek through the gaps between our fingers? Where do we go where we can lay down our arms? How do we learn to see each other, and be seen for who we really are? Where do we fucking get to work, in the knowledge that these are not rhetorical questions?

What would it feel like to not be afraid any more?

We've talked a lot in the past few years, in the upstream theatre world, about creating safe space, about the vital importance of having a safe space in which to fail; we've talked about different kinds of risk, about helping audiences to take risks, helping ourselves to take risks. In some ways I've sympathized with this rhetoric, in other ways I've been frustrated by it. I've certainly been frustrated by what it's too often ended up meaning: comfort blanket processes for risk-averse producers, money-back guarantees for audiences, a lack of critical rigour on all sides, a mistrust of the ambitious and the visionary. 

But maybe it's time to refresh our relationship with that language, with the good and careful aspirations from which those ideas arise. It seems likely that 2011 will be a year in which a lot of people desperately need a safe space. In which a lot of people feel like they're experiencing failure -- what may feel like their own failure, but is no more or less than the failure of a cruel and bogus system in which their whole life's work is invested. A year in which a lot of people might need help dealing with the frightening levels of risk in their lives. And in which a lot of people, maybe more than we can possibly know, might welcome a space in which to be heard. A kitchen table to sit around; a group to sing along with; kind and beautiful strangers, clothed or unclothed, to connect with. The space to say how you are, and know you're heard; the space to hear others say how they are, and know you can trust what they say. A space in which to testify, with your voice, with your body, with your presence. To begin to peek through the gaps between your fingers. To begin to imagine a life with less fear in it. A safe space in which to fail -- maybe even joyously -- in your allotted task to keep making capitalism, to keep participating in violence, to keep enacting spectacle, to keep agreeing that that's just how it has to be.

A space where putting a lollipop up your bottom will earn you nothing but respect and admiration.

Interesting that José Maçãs Carvalho slightly modifies the words of Morris Zapp. As in watching a stripper, "just so in reading," says Zapp. "Or listening," Carvalho adds, diligently italicising his codicil. What's striking about the elision in that manoeuvre is that reading and listening are not necessarily quite the same kind of activity. Reading tends to be targeted on a particular text in any particular moment; attentive listening may have a 'text' of one kind or another, a speaking person, a specific signal we're listening for, but equally it may be about a kind of open engagement with whatever's out there. A kind of leaning forwards, a leaning into the world, to catch it, to catch more of it. What it produces is not the doubtful wonder of "mystery" that for Zapp (and, who knows, perhaps for Lodge) marks the horizon of the narrative of performed undressing, but the informed wonder of identification with the not-yet-known. Perhaps this, ultimately, is the most articulate form of testimony we have at our disposal: not speaking -- with the voice, with the body -- but listening: listening attentively as the world sheds its layers; listening as our social environment gradually takes off the clothes of systematic oppression and finally dares to get naked. Listening as the most active imaginable testimony to our capacity to learn, and to change, and to really be with each other.

The title of this post comes from a wonderful essay from 1971 called 'On A Clear Day You Can See Your Mother', by the lesbian feminist critic Jill Johnston. I picked up a secondhand copy of her collection Admission Accomplished after seeing (on YouTube) her reading a version of the same piece, as her contribution to the now infamous New York 'Theater for Ideas' debate on feminism, presided over by that hairy human dose of ipecac Norman Mailer and recorded for our continued appreciation as the documentary Town Bloody Hall.

You might have seen some of Town Bloody Hall when Nic Green placed it at the core of her brilliant Trilogy, which I caught at the Barbican at the start of this year, and which has remained an inspiration ever since. I've been thinking about it a lot as the ideas I've explored in this post were bumping together in my head over the past few days. Even if you didn't see Trilogy you'll surely have heard about its amazing final sequence, in which Green invited women in the audience to come up onto the stage -- I saw it at the Barbican -- and stand together, naked, en masse, for a rousing, reclaiming performance of 'Jerusalem'. I've been thinking about Trilogy in relation to the signalling of naked bodies (though of course this had not a shred of striptease about it), and the performance of solidarity; in relation to theatre as a safe space for risk-taking; in relation to singing along and not singing along. (I didn't mind the separatism of that final image, because I understood why it was necessary and what I was doing in helping to hold and witness it -- though I understand the spatial separation was less stark in some of the other, smaller venues that the piece toured to, and I do wish I'd seen it elsewhere, partly because the rest of the piece didn't always scale up comfortably to that enormous theatre; but I did struggle with the idea of singing 'Jerusalem', and struggled with that struggle.)

It's odd, though, how quickly any large group of people starts to make me fret. As an image, as a spectacle, to see that many women standing naked together, on their own terms, was unforgettable: but as ever, I wanted to know about the people who weren't in that picture. I wanted to hear from the voices that weren't clothed in the words of 'Jerusalem'. It wasn't that chorus demanding its chariot of fire that has stayed with me in a truly meaningful way (though I'm sure it will have for pretty much everyone who stood inside that image and many who looked on and cheered), as much as the utterly distinctive, renegade voice of Jill Johnston, from earlier in the evening, in a kind of counterpoint with a much smaller group of naked performers. The pieces in Johnston's Admission Accomplished look rather like the birth of a kind of informal queer theory, more than a decade before the earliest writings of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, before even Guy Hocquenghem's pioneering Homosexual Desire. It's a breathless, cartwheeling voice, unparagraphed, undisciplined even: as Johnston says in her introduction: "...I was alternately silly and furious, writerly and inflated, diverting and dogmatic, devil-may-care and paranoid, whimsical and pontifical, cool and megalo -- often at lightning-speed shifts within a single column." Exactly the kind of ardent playfulness that Morris Zapp might advocate: except with Johnston, that playful quality arose not out of there being, finally, no reliable information, but out of there being nothing but information: it was all reliable information: information that looked like that, that took those forms, that demanded to be spoken out, to be given its distinct and authentic voice. After all, she'd started as a dance critic. In a way she always was a dance critic, whatever she happened to be writing. We could all do worse than be dance critics.

Jill Johnston died in September this year, after a stroke, at the age of 81. Along with John Holloway's Crack Capitalism and Guy Hocquenghem's astounding The Screwball Asses, and kind of sitting somewhere between them I suppose, Admission Accomplished has been one of the most important books I've travelled with this year. All three are about movement, about bodies moving, about testimony that moves as quickly as the lives it's trying to describe -- it has to, right?, because otherwise, language is just a drag on the ticket. I mean: wow, we're living through times when Suzanne Moore can get a basically decent and sensible piece about anarchosyndicalism as a set of ideas with real currency published in a national broadsheet. What shall we do? We can choose, in these times, to re-create fixities and continue to slam home our kindness in the face of radical right-wing assault. Or we can choose to move, and build, and knock down, and move again, and rebuild, and never stop moving, and never stop building. Because we know, we do know, you do know, that it's possible to live the lives we need. Our task now is to find a way of imagining those lives without being afraid of our capacity to change, and without fearing the crucial imperative to lay down the weapons of our privilege.

Now, more than ever, theatre is an instrument of escapism. Ecsaping into the real. Escaping at last into real life. We can actually do this in 2011. Tell your friends. Get naked. Testify!

But enough about me. How are you?



Jonny Liron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonny Liron said...

Hey Chris

You know what? I'm doing alright, in fact, after having read this, I'm much better than alright.

I feel totally inspired and engaged right now and my body is wherever there is something to be done.

so my body is at your disposal, all of you.

come on
just do it

Tim said...


Thanks for asking.

I am also with you and for you, certain and uncertain. Hoping that the world will change in small spaces.

I'm feeling good. It's a new year and, like new things, I don't know what to do with it yet.

Maybe I'll buy some chupa chups.

Thanks for your reading and your writing - and your listening and your watching. Thanks for stripping for us on the banks of communicable desire. Thanks for reminding me of the otters.

t x

jheawood said...

Hi Chris - I agree!

Jonathan Heawood

doublevision said...

As you know, I'm one of those believes theatre can and does change the world, one live body to another, at a time. Thanks for being here, there and everywhere. You know where I strip. Both publicly and privately. Let's keep up the good fight. much love and all good things in 2011...ah one thing though - as a child I was berated for my fear and so pretended to not be afraid, starting age 2-3. This can be another form of twistedness. All emotions are OK if accepted.