Sunday, July 31, 2011

The finger and the moon

This was going to be the introduction to a much bigger post that I don't now think I'm ever going to write, so rather than let it languish in Drafts Purgatory I thought I'd post this little bit on its own :)

Look! Come quickly! Wallace Shawn is pointing at the moon!

Oh, all right, it's not really Wallace Shawn. (So they say.) It's Budai (or Hotei), the Laughing Buddha. He's pointing at the moon to remind us about a story from the Shurangama Sutra:

The Buddha told Ánanda, "You and others like you still listen to the Dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the Dharma becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the Dharma-nature. This is similar to a person pointing his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, the other person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why, because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.

This is a big moment for The Buddha because he's making a point that's going to end up in Enter the Dragon:

(How much more fun the Shurangama Sutra would be if that story began: 'The Buddha told Ánanda, "Kick me!"')

We've started, a little unexpectedly perhaps, in the world of Buddhist teaching and martial arts, because I was interested to try and discover the origins of a proposition contained in remarks made during a recent talk by Ken Robinson: a sermon on 'passion', as part of the popular series of secular sermons at the Conway Hall in London, organized by the excellent School of Life. Robinson is someone who keeps popping up lately, though I only really started paying attention when a few people on Twitter made a fuss, rightly, about this gorgeous animated film based on a recent Robinson talk on the premises and structures of education: it's startlingly cogent and ultimately rather moving.

I really recommend watching the whole of Robinson's sermon, too, not least for his easy, charismatic way with "public speaking", to which he is clearly (quietly) virtuosically accustomed. Getting everyone to sing along with 'Eye of the Tiger' may have more than a touch of David Brent about it, but once Robinson simply starts to make contact with his congregation, his easy, laconic, anecdotal style is very easy to warm to and the whole talk is a pleasure. Anyway, the bit that particularly leapt out at me (it starts at about 25 minutes in to the video, if you want to skip straight there) was this:

I'm convinced that the most distinctive feature of human life is [the] power of imagination. ... If you take a small baby into the garden ... at night, and point at the moon, the baby will look at the moon. If you take your dog into the garden and point at the moon, the dog will look at your finger. ... Human beings are born with expansive imaginations, and a sense of reference and possibility.

Those who know me too well will already have guessed where this is going. Much though I take Robinson's point about the significance of expansive imagination, I'd have to say I'm basically on the side of the dog in this.

I don't know whether Robinson's source here is the teaching of the Buddha, or Bruce Lee, or direct personal experience with a set of babies and dogs under laboratory conditions, or what; but I do think it's important to look again at that Buddhist parable: in which it is not simply that we are encouraged, as Lee suggests to his hapless protégé, to look at the moon rather than missing the point (so to speak) by fixating on the finger; rather, we are told not to mistake the finger for the moon. Other renditions, particularly in Zen teaching, make this more explicit: the words of the teaching are not the point of the teaching, and understanding the teaching and understanding the words from which it is composed are not at all the same thing.

But the lack of expansive (or, we might say, extrapolatory) imagination in the dog, who does not in this instance comprehend the sign of the pointing finger, is not a mistake -- in fact, it is more or less the opposite of the mistake we are warned against. Whereas the baby interprets the pointing finger as a sign, a metaphor, the dog sees the finger as a finger, no more no less.

In a recent post I set up a binary -- slightly specious, like most binaries, but a workable distinction for thinking with -- opposing 'the window' and 'the wall' as two tendencies in poetic language-use. The window approach asks us to look through and beyond language, to treat it as transparent (or maybe, in poetry, translucent, or a little textured perhaps), a technology offering the empathetic spectator access to something beyond; the chicken, I guess, crossing the road in order to get to the other side. Others meanwhile ask us to look at the wall, to confront language as a material in itself, as a stuff in its own right, which does not refer to some remote picture, but presents pattern, texture, substance, colour, temperature. Most of these elements require us to get up close, to touch, to feel, to make contact. If we are looking for the window in the wall and cannot find it, we may initially think that there is nothing here to be seen, that we have come to a dead end with which no communication is possible. But actually, an intense experience of material presence, here and now and occurring wholly in reference to the range of creative means we have at our disposal for coming into relation with an object, is immediately and totally accessible to us.

I don't know that "the window and the wall" is quite sophisticated enough a model to have much use except as a provocation: but I think "the finger and the moon" does something similar, and to more nuanced effect. We shouldn't take it as read that the dog, or the student, who sees the finger and not the moon, has missed out on the chance of beauty.

For reasons I won't go into right now, I've been thinking a lot lately about haecceity, about how art can bring us into a relationship not only with metaphor, with the exercise of expansive or speculative imagination, but also with the 'thisness' of stuff: and this is not a constrained or stupefied reaction to a material encounter or event but rather an invitation to apprehend in the highest fidelity what it is that we meet in meeting the world. Nor is the secularism of this materialist task so militant that it can't yield its own reflective and even devotional pleasures -- think for example of Gerard Manley Hopkins riffing on Scotus in 'As kingfishers catch fire':

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

(Yes, I'm afraid I too wonder whether the Speak & Spell was named after Hopkins's poem...)

In other words, even if Bruce Lee's advice -- "Don't think, feel!" -- were at all to be trusted, it's not as if "seeing the finger" is wholly cerebral in its promise (or perceiving the beauty of the moon, for that matter, a sub-rational act).

Moreover, even if we accept and value Robinson's fairly explicit premise that the expansive imagination is what separates humans from other animals, I am interested in the extension response that mines downwards rather than travelling outwards. In our example, I suppose this would be the dog that sees the finger and the sign, but does not produce out of this recognition any impulse to treat the sign as an instruction to be obeyed and (by the same extension) a catalyst, whose purpose is wholly instrumental and whose import vanishes on use, a message that will self-destruct. This dog sees the finger and understands at some level that the owner-operator of the finger is using rather than simply showing the finger, or is not merely showing the finger but is intentionally showing the finger. It is a finger that, as well as speaking and spelling itself, speaks of wanting. As Hopkins suggests, it cries with the intensity of the noun becoming a verb.

The baby that follows the finger but immediately dispenses with it except in respect of its utility value, and by extension (or expansion) sees the moon, and might or might not find the moon 'beautiful', is learning how to go to the (Hollywood) cinema, and how to read most mainstream poetry. The (admittedly slightly enhanced) dog that sees the finger, and, rather than interpreting its semiotic significance, instead appreciates and reflects on the fingerness of the finger, its connotation of gesturality at all, and the human desire out of which the technology of gesture arises, has invented theatre. (But of course in saying 'cinema' and 'theatre' here I am describing kinds or qualities of relationship that may have nothing to do with particular instances of the events that might take place in buildings bearing those names.)

And so, after the Cat Test, the Dog Test. The dog does not fail to see the performance matrix (in Michael Kirby's terms), and does not require that the matrix is eliminated or disavowed. All it asks in return is that it be allowed to establish its principal (and perhaps only) line of relation with actualities. The object is not dependent on its place in a system that requires it always to signal beyond itself to an ulterior meaning. The object suffices in itself. This allows the dog, too, to suffice, and to exist on the same plane as the object. The Dog Test, like the Cat Test, is an experiment in acceptance; it describes an uncapitalist space, wherein our first thought is of the thing itself, not of what it can be exchanged for.

So I really want to see those fingers.

No animals were harmed in the making of this post.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Forces in motion

All righty then, join in if you know the words -- all together now: "I'm sorry it's been so quiet here lately."

But I am. I don't like the feeling that the blog's being neglected. It's a bit like having a garden and not, you know, tending it. (I like how the word 'tending' has survived in that context. What else can you still tend? Not tend to, but tend. Apart from a garden, and the things in it, like plants and what-have-you? ...Oh, sheep, I suppose. Hm. This needs further investigation. By which I mean, this needs forgetting about immediately.)

Anyway, look, here I am, and I have to admit I'm super-tired at the end of a long hard day with my face pressed uncomfortably up against the granite slab of a daunting deadline. All done and dusted, I'm pleased to say, but I've been at my desk since a little after 6am, and I'm feeling a bit spaced-out and woozified. Not least because I just stupidly ate two meringues -- having fallen off the low carb wagon in L.A. and never properly climbed back on again, I've now replaced it with a fad diet where I'm only allowed to eat food that rhymes with the word "boomerangs" -- and had a bit of a blood-sugar wibble, followed by an inadvertent swivel on my desk chair when I was least expecting it. So now I'm properly wonked.

Which reminds me. I've been on a rollercoaster since I was last here. (So all those claims to be insanely busy are instantly revealed to be transparently fraudulent.) I've been making this piece, Where We Meet, and it's about the sea, a bit, so we thought we might go to the seaside and sit by the sea and do some writing, like proper artists. Except we chose Southend-on-Sea, because it was close-ish to London, and, never having been there, I didn't realise at the point that I agreed with this course of action that there's a theme park there. With rides and everything. I'm not a very ridesy sort of person. Even the descending lift at the Premier Inn in Lancaster, where I stayed with Jonny last Saturday night (at the hotel, I mean, not actually in the lift), was enough to give me more thrills than I was seeking, frankly. But here's the thing: now I'm 38, I'm beginning to form a phantom list somewhere in my brain, a task that kicks in like a screensaver every so often when I'm on the bus or scrambling an egg, the inevitable "things to do before I'm 40" list, and going on a rollercoaster was pretty much at the top of that list. (To be honest the only other things I've come up with so far have been: Go to Latitude; and, have sex with a lady. I don't know which is the more likely to exacerbate my chilblains.)

Anyway, though I couldn't locate much actual enthusiasm for the idea, I did decide to toss caution gingerly into the bleak Essex wind, and we all got on this damn rollercoaster. I mean it wasn't a proper rollercoaster. I drew the line at upside-downness, at least for my first go, which meant we ended up on something that, though it looked like it went at quite a hurtle, did, I must admit, have a smiling dragon face on the front of it. As we waited our turn we watched a batch of quite small children arrive back from their circuit, looking as thoroughly bored and unmoved as if they'd just been on a fairground ride themed around the 1970s tv programme "Houseparty". So, well, obviously, I was pretty terrified by the whole thing: while my travelling companions were gamely announcing variants on "Woooo!" and "Yayyy!" as is customary, I was making a series of considerably quieter observations using combinations of the words "shit" and "fuck". But in those moments where the naked fear receded, I'm afraid I found that, rather than being exhilarated by the rush of adrenalin, I was mostly annoyed. Not bored, exactly, but feeling a deep sense of being unnecessarily inconvenienced. It is, after all, a really fatuously elaborate way of not going anywhere; if, after all that strange unseductive lurching, you ended up at Didcot Parkway, that at least would be something. But, ah, perhaps I need to go to Blackpool, or Sandusky, Ohio, and ride a real rollercoaster, a man's rollercoaster, and have multiple G's rammed down my inverted wazoo. If so, I hope you'll excuse me if I don't take scrupulous pains to ensure that I do so before I'm 40; with a bit of luck, very shortly after that I shall anyway be dead, and the situation won't arise, or most of me will have been amputated due to meringue-related diabetes complications, and my remaining portions can loop whichever loops they must while safely ensconced in somebody's Tupperware container or plastic bag.

Anyway. Y'know. This.

None of which reflects on the infinitely greater pleasure of making that piece, Where We Meet -- notwithstanding the deplorable fact that in the end we did zero writing by the sea. So, this is my new piece for home performance, the first since last year's Henry & Elizabeth (which I hope will tour again next spring, all being equal), and a very different kettle of ball games. For the first time, I'm making a piece for domestic performance where the audience comes to us, rather than inviting us over to theirs. In a way this is a curious route to go down, given that the home pieces have always been about transforming other people's living space. But something happened during H&E that I was interested to explore further. There's a scene in that show where the character Elizabeth is sitting up in bed, reading -- so, Claire, the brilliant actor playing Elizabeth, would get into bed in time for the audience's arrival in the bedroom. There's normally stuff that happens in a bedroom, in these shows, but I don't think we've staged anything where one of the characters is actually in our hosts' bed, and I was surprised (and a bit delighted) that in a lot of the places we went, this minor transgression created a sort of tickled-but-nervous frisson in the audience. And the same would often happen later during the same scene when the audience would be able to hear the other character, Henry, brushing his teeth in the bathroom. There were gigs where this would seem to blow people's minds!

The bedroom and the bathroom are the two rooms we've most often been asked not to use in performance -- it's always up to the hosts to tell us where's in and out of bounds -- and, needless to say, wherever people's anxiety is at its wiggy-outmost, that's where the art needs to be made. So, audiences for Where We Meet will be asked to watch a two-part performance that takes place firstly in a bedroom, and then in a bathroom. It will be interesting to see whether it not being their bedroom and bathroom entirely alleviates that discomfort.

The show is conceived as a diptych: two short separate pieces that nonetheless (hopefully) speak to each other and amount to something more than their sum. Both of the pieces arise out of encounters between the worlds of poetry and visual art. The first piece, in the bedroom, is inspired by those Hockney cancellation plates that I posted about a while ago, and draws on the tone of those images and the Cavafy poems to which they refer; the second imagines an encounter between, or at least a superimposition of, figures based on the conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader and the poet Veronica Forrest-Thomson, two artists who had exquisitely interesting and complicated relationships with the idea of meaning, and both of whom died in 1975 in ambiguous circumstances that point inconclusively towards suicide and/or accidental death.

So I guess thematically (especially given the anachronic reading I can't help making of Hockney's mid-60s prints in the light of the subsequent devastation of the post-liberation gay community by the AIDS epidemic) it's quite a doomy, deathy sort of affair, all told: but actually working on these two pieces hasn't felt like that at all. In those small domestic spaces, and partly I think because there's such a lot of nudity in both works, it feels like actually there's going to be an incredibly powerful and beautiful sense of presence -- intimacy, proximity, tactility. Where We Meet, as a phrase, is a tiny fragment of one of the Cavafy poems we've been working with, and initially I thought it might refer to home, or to bed -- and I suppose it still does -- but more and more the meeting it seems to be invoking is the one that we do in the psychic, sometimes erotic space between our two (or more) bodies.

It's very early days for Where We Meet -- we've spent just a very few days working on each of the pieces -- but we're giving the draft show a little test run in Edinburgh, from Tuesday 23 to Saturday 27 August, at 9.30pm each evening. We're not in the Fringe programme, in fact this is all very under the radar, but hey, that's how you and I met in the first place, right?, so maybe you'd like to come along. The only problem with that is, the show's for an audience of two at a time (for now -- we might stretch to four in future runs!), so only ten people can see it in Edinburgh. I'm not quite sure how to organize this without turning it into a kind of Willy Wonka golden ticket thing, which would be horribly unseemly. Though also a giggle I suppose. Anyway, for the time being, if you think you might want to see one of the Edinburgh shows, drop me a line or something. It's probably not the biggest-fun show you can see at 9.30 in the evening in the last week of the Fringe, but if you like being really close to incredibly smart and talented people while they're gratuitously naked -- come on, eh, it's always a little bit gratuitous, that's what makes it lovely -- you might find it a nice kind of headspace to be in for an hour or so.

Two of the performers of Where We Meet, Jonny Liron and Tomas Weber, were also to be found down at the ever-more-brilliant Stoke Newington International Airport last night, where we did the launch for my new anthology of young modernist poets, Better Than Language. Eleven of the thirteen poets in the book were there to read, and the other two were read in their absence, and almost everyone read for longer than they were supposed to, and after a decade of putting on readings I still don't know how to stop that happening, and I'm sorry to those who struggled to get home as a consequence, but it wasn't like it was Cambridge Misc Fest 4-in-the-morning weeping-with-tiredness long, and anyway actually it was bloody great: the kind of intensely compacted night I'd expected became instead an adventurously long and searching and celebratory one, and I felt more than ever that the book needed to be made: which was nice, because I'd already made it. On Twitter earlier, Andy Field extemporised the perfect blurb for the anthology: "It's what I imagine your first time trying to water-ski must be like. Exhilarating, bumpy confusion followed by something suddenly sublime." If that sounds like something in which you recognize your own aspirations -- or the aspirations of the people you're hoping will start the revolution for you while you sit around playing fucking Ninjabread Man for the Fake Wii -- you might like to know that I'm extending the pre-publication discount on orders till Monday (just because I can't particularly be bothered to get in there and change the Paypal button code right now) so you can still grab a copy for £10 +p&p. And, you know, I love you heaps and you have nice hair and everything but I really think you'd be a massive seeping douchebag not to get one.

Oh and while we're on the subject of publishing and/or being damned, I'm really really happy to say that to coincide with the upcoming Edinburgh run of The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley (in its new intimate unplugged stripped-back no-bells-no-whistles let's-face-it-we've-totally-run-out-of-money version), the lovely people at Oberon are publishing the script. So now you too can perform it in the comfort of your own breakdown. I'll give you a shout when it's out. It's going to be fab. (A really pleasing by-product of all of this, by the way, is that it's put me back in touch with Andrew Walby, who's now Senior Editor at Oberon but who I met about eight years ago when he and his erstwhile collaborating partner Helena Sands brought into CPT a piece called When I Close My Eyes I See You, which was full of soil and Celan and which I often think of as being perhaps my favourite thing I programmed while I was running the joint.)

Something else I'll alert you to, if and when it emerges, is footage of my reading at The Other Room in Manchester last week with Jonny Liron and Tamarin Norwood. It was a tricky gig for me, to be honest: I found it hard to get my groove on and my ducks in a row (or even vice versa), though it was nobody's fault, except maybe mine for having one drink too many before kick-off. I guess my personal preference is to read without a mic where possible, and to have a bit more room to pace back and forth like one of the demented polar bears that used to be such a fantastic advert for Bristol Zoo when I was growing up. But still I wish I'd settled a little sooner. Nonetheless, a new longish poem called 'Weird Science' seemed to go over effectively, and the even longer 'DSM-5 is a Rock Chick' can generally dependably hold its own. -- Anyway, my own shortcomings aside, it was a really good evening: great to catch up even briefly with Scott Thurston and a bit more expansively with Geraldine Monk, whose gorgeous new Lobe Scarps & Finials, from the very useful Leafe Press, includes the still-breathtaking 'A Nocturnall Upon S. Lucies Day' ("A Collaboration with John Donne") which Geraldine incredibly kindly wrote for me back in 2004 when I left CPT. And terrific to hear the other readers, too: Jonny was on fantastic, boisterous, unnerving form, and it was a huge pleasure to meet and hear the brilliant Tamarin Norwood. (Do, if you can, get hold of her book Do Something: it's the funniest work of wordless experimental literature I've ever read.)

The Other Room came at the end of a five-day sojourn in Manchester which was intended to be a bit of a holiday but turned into nothing of the sort. I was chatting with work friends the other day and everyone seems to be feeling, as I certainly feel, really squeezed at the moment. It's more of a struggle to make ends meet right now than it's been for a while and the first casualty is breathing space. So everywhere I go feels really uncomfortably squeezed by the stuff either side of it in the calendar or in the city or in my head. Five days in an apartment in Manchester vanished in a rainy trice, leaving my credit card bruised and my mind and body a bit un-unwound.

But it was good catching the end of the International Festival. It was The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic that took us up there in the first place (The Other Room gig was a happy coincidence) and, having been worried that it would be a total carcrash, I was absolutely thrilled by it as it turned out. Hugely frustrated too, I should hurry to say, especially by the opening 45 minutes of the show proper (after the fantastic prologue tableau of trotting, treat-snaffling dogs: I'd have happily watched that for another hour), which more or less suffocated under the leaden, fetishy esprit-vacuum of Robert Wilson at his very stupidest. But from the first appearance of Antony [Hegarty] -- of whom I've never been a huge fan, until now -- seeing him live makes all the difference, and then some -- everything blossomed into a calmer, warmer humanity, out of which arose some genuinely extraordinary sequences and images, one in particular that I'm sure I'll never forget (and which, funnily, I can't find online anywhere, so I guess I'll just have to remember it anyway). Willem Dafoe was hugely accomplished doing something that almost throughout I strenuously wished he wasn't doing (though his song, prowling across a carpet of dry ice in the second half, was astounding); Abramovic was stilted and funny and ridiculous and beautiful and horrible and great; and Antony got under my skin like Ed Gein on a spree. (Oh I wish I hadn't written that but now I can't possibly delete it.) And I thought the rest of the cast were -- mostly -- amazing: especially the extraordinary Christopher Nell.

The problem with Wilson's work these days, really -- which The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic only exhibits really parlously in the long humourless wacky slog of those first 45 minutes or so -- is that he has turned a useful observation (about how you "can't" do anything on stage -- not walk, not sit, not anything -- as you would do it off stage, so these things have to be reconfigured from scratch) into an inert, self-regarding maxim, in all its joyless narcissism a perfect self-harming match for that Abramovic who, remember, "hates" theatre. As narrative falls away from the piece and a logic (or intelligent liquidity) of images takes over, this fake rigour of Wilson's is at least somewhat dispelled, and for the first time in ages you can see something of the edgeless romantic equanimity of his early 70s work.

In the light of that question around the stultifications that emerge out of what we might term mesmeric artifice, there is a good post to be written (which a younger, less tired me would have gladly attempted) about Kira O'Reilly's arsehole. ...Say wha'? OK. Life and Death... sweetly incorporates earlier pieces made by some of the live artists who make up the performing company, including Stair Falling, O'Reilly's piece from 2009, which she showed at MIF's Marina Abramovic Presents... in that year, and which is recreated here as part of a composite sequence of these other sampled works. O'Reilly "falls", with painstaking slowness and control, backwards downstairs; it's a terrific piece in its own right (though I've only seen video and photographic documentation of it, as per the above link). What's really interesting in the context of the Wilson re-version is that the rest of the show requires that she wears full body make-up -- everyone's artificially pale, a bit of dreary signalling just in case we're not aware we're in a theatre ;) -- but as O'Reilly "falls", at one point her buttocks are inevitably somewhat splayed and you can see the edge of the make-up, as far as it reaches, and the line of her un-made-up skin meeting it. Her glimpsed anus is not "covered" by the same contract of artifice as the rest of her body. Like the Incident of Garry Collins's Semi-Erect Penis that I celebrated some years ago, Kira O'Reilly's arsehole is not in the same stage space as everyone and everything else -- with the exception, actually, of Antony, who is incredibly charismatic precisely because performative matrix just drops off him like water off the proverbial duck. So actually the show I'm really excited about here is the embedded, easter-eggish one where Antony Hegarty and Kira O'Reilly's arsehole are a double-act. (Oh, come on, it's not like you've never seen Antony singing next to an arsehole before.)

I also enjoyed 11 Rooms at Manchester Art Gallery -- eleven performance installations, each in its own room -- very much, though we went on its last afternoon so it was swamped with visitors (so much so that admissions were halted earlier than expected) and it was interesting how much that inflected the internal economy of the show -- simply, you start to have to wonder whether queueing for an installation for twenty minutes is "worth it", in an amusing echo, come to think of it, of Roman Ondak's piece in the show, Swap, where you're invited to exchange any item in your possession for the one that the artist's representative currently has on the table in front of him, as long as you feel it's a fair swap. Swap is a piece that doesn't go far enough, and like a couple of other performances in the show it's woefully over-telegraphed by its performer(s) when I see it. (No wonder all these live artists hate theatre, if that's all they think it can do.)

For me the stand-outs are: Santiago Sierra's Veterans of the Wars of Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq Facing the Corner -- deeply troubling and radically unresolvable into a settled proposition; Laura Lima's piece MEN=Flesh/WOMEN=Flesh - Flat, which requires you to lie down in order to make eye-contact with a disabled performer who also is lying down on the far side of a room whose ceiling is only two feet or so above its floor: I'd have liked to stay much longer with this, and would have if there hadn't been a buzzing queue waiting for me to move on, but even so (and perhaps because of this) it was an experience of fleeting profundity and upset; and the "empty" John Baldessari room which features only a wall-mounted trail of documentation tracing the ultimately thwarted efforts of the gallery to secure a dead body with which to realise Baldessari's proposed 'cadaver piece' installation -- a fascinating, dismaying insight into the absurd and amazing legislative frameworks we have in place to prevent us ever really seeing dead bodies in public spaces, unless we are unfortunate enough to live in a place where those frameworks are inexistent or commonly obliterated by violent incursion. I can't decide if co-curator Klaus Biesenbach, the most strident of the voices in this tracked dialogue, is a hero or a dick. He can, of course, be both, I guess.

The other fun thing we did in Manchester was watch The Tree of Life in the fantastic Screen 1 at the Cornerhouse, one of those rare cinema spaces that's genuinely exciting to walk into. I can't say much about Malick's film that hasn't already been said ad nauseam by now. It's an astounding achievement, jaw-dropping in its ambition and frequently breathtaking in its beauty and self-control. It's also preposterous beyond belief, not only in its bargain-bin CGI dinosaurs, but also in its implied thesis that the 13 billion years since the Big Bang have been a process flowing Vltava-like inexorably towards the American nuclear family, in all its befuddled violent well-meaning patriarchy, its fucking numinous Caucasian rectitude (the one scene with black people in it is presented like it's a trip to the fucking zoo), and its achingly bland heteronormative prettiness, with the fathomlessly boring Jessica Chastain the apotheosis of that blandness and prettiness. Also there is a lot of v/o whispering, from which, dear reader, I eventually withdrew the benefit of the doubt. It all ends up a bit, er, this. And yet, despite everything, you have to take your hat off to it, it's an extraordinary film, and by any standards a great American work of art: I mean it's American in every codon of its DNA. But it also made me want to rub footage of the L.A. riots and clips from the nastiest, most violent gay porn directly onto my eyeballs as an antidote.

We got back from Manchester late on Thursday afternoon and I had to go straight over to QMUL where I was the guest on that evening's Argument Room. This is a live format, streamed online, in which the excellent Chris Johnston (of Rideout and many other worthwhile outfits, including Fluxx -- in which guise I first met him) talks to someone connected somehow with the arts and/or social justice, about their work and their thinking. They're still trialing it, prior to a more extended run later in the year, but the existing episodes -- the pilot, with the fascinating architect Will Alsop, and the first issue proper with Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust -- are both well worth watching, and, if I may disgustingly say so, I think ours was pretty successful too.

The best, or at least the most welcome, thing about The Argument Room is the time that it allows itself. Even shorn of its interval break, the edited version of our episode runs close to two hours. I mean, wow, the luxury! How amazing, I notice, that even in the most upstream practice environments we so often ape the soundbite culture that we're nonetheless so quick to inveigh against. It was such a relief to have the time and space to really seriously explore some of the questions that arose. Even so, inevitably, much got touched on and then brushed aside, but still it was a thorough and expansive conversation -- especially in the second, longer half, which really became a conversation after a first half that was more like a straight interview. (Too much like Desert Island Discs, said one slightly disgruntled attendee, who found that first stretch a bit cosy: and perhaps rightly so, though the unexpected biographical element of the questioning -- taking me back to my childhood and so on -- did throw up some genuinely new insights for me into the -- actually, it turns out -- unbelievably predictable course of my entire life ever since the age of about three.)

Anyway, you can watch it here, and, if you've the stomach for it (or, I don't know, doing it in instalments might help...), I'd really like it if you did. I reckon it's one of the best accounts of my work and my thinking that I've given to date. I'm really grateful to Sara Hyde for the invitation and to Chris Johnston, Poppy Spowage, Sylvan Baker and everyone else who got involved.

One question that comes up a couple of times in the conversation and which, as you might see, I never really answer -- partly because it defeats me slightly, at least in one sense -- is (in relation to the idea, which I've occasionally rehearsed here and in other places in recent years, of a 24-hour 'rolling theatre' which you can drop in and spend time with whenever you want to), who gets to come? Who are the audience? Who has access?

In the conversation I have a go at drawing out what the assumptions underlying the question might be -- that such a utopian, pious-sounding, civically grounded venue is only ever going to appeal to a white liberal middle-class intellectual audience. This is not quite accepted, and maybe that's right, maybe that's not what's being winkled out. But there is an assumption, as far as I can see, that this new model theatre (which I keep positing more as a thought experiment about what theatre might look like if it were uncoupled from the language of capitalism and the apparatus of the marketplace, than as a wholly serious proposition about the future of recreational space: though I'm not un-serious about it either, and given a chance to build it and see if anyone came, I'd jump at the opportunity for sure) would be likely to transfer with it many of the old model's problems with access and prestige.

Lots of partly self-contradicting things jump into my throat at this point. It seems weird to me to imagine that, at least if this theatre model advertised blatantly enough its interest in and disposal towards a wholesale shift in how we live together socially, only those with a vested interest in the status quo would attend. Surely not! A big problem with theatre at the moment in relation to the audiences it can and can't attract is that most audiences want to see their own living aspirations somehow reflected in or refracted through or resonating within the work they're shown; we don't necessarily want to see work that's about us, but we want to see work that's about who we can (at some level) imagine being. We need to have our capacity for empathy, our ability to think and feel ourselves into new relationships, exercised. In work that isn't driven by a particular set of characters or an explicit narrative (both of which I imagine being absent in this model), you want to be a bit careful about who audiences see on stage; everybody needs to be up there at some point. But other than that, I can't see that anyone would necessarily feel excluded from such a space, except I suppose transitionally; at least, not excluded by dint of their spot on the demographic dial. The bottom line on access, for me, has always been the same: charge as little as you can; make sure no one is prevented from attending by your inadvertent carelessness or inhospitality; say hello to the people who show up. C'est tout.

I must admit, though, I still can't quite bring myself to be OK with the idea that what I do starts with its potential audience, except in the most ungraspable sense, a sense in which I don't yet have any responsibility to that imagined audience, except speculatively and in principle. You certainly can't start with an audience you want to target and an impression (researched or otherwise -- usually, I'm afraid, it's otherwise) of what they might want to see, and work backwards from there. (If you're going to talk to folks in advance like that about what they'd like to see, it would anyway surely be more sensible to work with them on the making, too. Help them be in the show they think they want to watch, as my old pal Jazz-Hands Gandhi used to say.)

The current toilet reading of one of my housemates -- this shows you the kind of house I live in -- is a book of essays on and interviews with the great Anthony Braxton. And I read this today (for I, too, sometimes, though only ever as a last resort, go to the toilet), and I think it's great; he's talking about some of the reasons why he stopped working with the pianist (and Scientologist cockwad) Chick Corea:

Chick was becoming more interested in what he called music that communicated more, whereas I wanted to continue with my work. Let me be clear on this, though -- I've always wanted my music to communicate: it was a question of priorities. The most important thing to me was my music: if it could communicate, great; if it couldn't, OK I accept the verdict, but I'm not changing my music in order to communicate. Because what would I be communicating? I mean, if you have to become somebody else to communicate, what is that? (Laughs.)
Graham Lock, Forces in Motion: The music and thoughts of Anthony Braxton
(Da Capo P., 1988, pp.88-89)

This kind of sentiment is very often called elitist at the moment, as if it were somehow resistant to the idea of an honest negotiation of cohabitation and exchange in social space: whereas I think that's exactly what Braxton is safeguarding here. It's an admission of difference, and a statement of a refusal to colonise the experience of others. In other words, it's a more acute seeing of an audience -- a shade, I suppose, of a nearly-lost meaning in the word 'discrimination' -- than any more compromising policy can enact on behalf of those others we might ourselves be, before long, who knows.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Do it yourself

Morning all,

Today's the first day of a new devising project with Lucy Ellinson and Theron Schmidt, and you can imagine I'm as excited as all murgatroyd to be sitting on the edge of that particular brink. Thought I'd just take five minutes to mention a couple of things to you, though, before I immerse myself, for who o who knows when I'll re-emerge.

Firstly, I'm delighted to be one of the artists chosen to run a project in DIY8. DIY is an annual programme run by the indispensible Live Art Development Agency, in consort with numerous partners, in which training and development projects are conceived and run by artists for artists.

My project's called Queer Eye Enquiry: ways of not seeing straight, and it sort of emerged out of the conversations at the D&D satellite on queer theatre and performance that I hosted earlier in the year. Two things that came through very clearly were: a sense that the orthodoxies that queer has started to accumulate for itself have become really stultifying, especially (though not exclusively) for a younger generation of artists who, as a result, don't wish to identify themselves or their work as queer (a strategy with which I have some sympathy, though, as I said in the first half of this big post, I have some doubts about it too); and a desire among artists making queer work -- whether or not they'd call it that -- to be working in ways that are as much about queer process as about queer "product" (we could do with a better word for that half of the binary), without necessarily feeling confident that they know or clearly understand for themselves what a queer process would be or look like.

So, I've put together this fairly light-touch project, which you can be part of wherever you live, as it's being run in a decentred way, via mail and online channels -- except for the final session when all the participants will come together to say hello to each other in Birmingham (where we are the guests of Fierce, under whose aegis this particular DIY project is being run). More details here, including the application process (deadline is Friday 15th July). I do want to emphasize that the project isn't only open to artists who already identify as queer (or post-queer); one of the things I want to explore is the extent to which queer is a way of seeing, and a property of relationships, rather than something that inheres in individuals. That, really, is the entry point to a whole bunch of political and social ideas that I hope the project will be able to illuminate and investigate.

I want to mention also that the whole DIY line-up this year, as with previous years, is well worth investigating. Naturally I hope you'll want to do mine, but there's plenty else to enjoy, including projects run by the excellent Dan Belasco Rogers, the dauntingly legendary Scottee, and the intriguing jamie lewis hadley, whose work I don't know much about yet but sounds really exciting. A very strong political slant this year, a lot of stuff engaging with activism, psychogeography and sexual dissidence... Feel like I accidentally-on-purpose threw my hat into this particular ring at an especially interesting time.

Speaking of DIY: you might remember that I mentioned here recently a new poetry anthology that I've edited -- given that I wanted to read it, and it didn't exist, y'know, that was just how it had to be: a little bit of do-it-yourself. So, after thirteen months' work and thirty-nine nosebleeds, I'm thrilled to say that Better Than Language is now tremulously close to existing in the world -- official publication date is Monday 25th July. Here, look, it looks like this:

Cool, eh? What's more, Ganzfeld (i.e. me with a publisher's visor and cardigan on -- no, not just a publisher's visor and cardigan, you saucy thing...) now has a web site where you can order your copy of Better Than Language, or buy The History of Airports or COAT's copy of CD if you don't have one of those yet.

Or if you want to hang on and pick one up in person, there'll be launch events in London and Brighton -- see the sidebar on the Ganzfeld site for details. The London launch is Thursday 28th July at Stoke Newington International Airport -- pop it in your diary, there's a love.

Right, well, lots to do and performance artists coming round soon, so, I'm sorry, I'm going to have to scram. Apologies for the abrupt withdrawal, but you'll just have to finish yourself off. :)

loves xx