Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Arrangement in red, green and orange

I'll spare us all the customary strenuous gesturing of apology for the quiet times hereabouts: for the moment, at least, I'm afraid that such absence may be an exception in the late stages of transmogrifying into a rule.

Thing is I'm really super-busy with work (which is good); more pertinently, quite a lot of what I'm busy with at the moment requires keeping another blog, elsewhere, and so all of my posting energies --which are anyway not quite what they were -- are currently focused on that. But that project's given rise to an interesting thought this evening which I thought I'd share here. I feel bad because I owe a lot of people in the world a lot of emails and documents and images (and money) (and apologies) and I could be using this time to clear some of those filthy decks; but actually I'm going to allow myself a few minutes to do this, because I've been feeling really physically below-par today and had decided I'd give myself the evening off to doze in front of a DVD or two -- and then I had this thought that I wanted to write down somewhere -- and now I feel like I'm being virtuous by writing this, rather than dilatory and lead-swinging. I feel pretty virtuous just for sitting up, tbh.

So the thing I've been blogging for is my DIY project, which I guess I must have mentioned in a previous post. The Live Art Development Agency runs this fantastic scheme whereby artists get to devise and offer training / professional development projects, workshops etc., to fellow artists. In my case, I wanted to respond to what I felt was a recent kind of climate change around the premises and currents of queer art and activism, and so I offered a series of workshops under the dismally shopworn title of Queer Eye Enquiry: the idea behind which was to create a series of experiences and encounters for willing fellow-travellers which might help them to reframe the parameters of what queer might now be, especially in the present political climate. (I started the preparatory work for the project in the week of the riots in London and elsewhere in England, and the experience of that time and its baleful fallout has inevitably informed a lot of my thinking around what this project might hope to do.) An interesting twist occurred early on, though, in that, in consultation with Fierce -- who have been wonderful partners in helping this all to happen -- it was decided not to run the project in London, as had been my original intention, but rather in a sort of de-centred way, with artists from all over the country (and further afield, even) engaging from their own locales and psychogeographic headspaces. So the format I've ended up using has been a (fairly mammoth) weekly blog post -- without all my usual verbiage, but compiling quite large amounts of text / image / film / sound material, around a loosely described or implied topic each week; each post ends with an assignment to be carried out, and each is preceded a day or two in advance by a kind of preparatory piece of postal correspondence (letters, CDs, postcards, that sort of thing: you can see the first week's red envelopeful above, including a 6x4in rendering of Ken Friedman's Center Piece which regular readers will know I revere; -- lots of Arts Council money blown at Paperchase, in other words, which is greatly complicating my masturbatory fantasies about Quentin Letts: what do we think, ladies, would his foaming disapproval be hot or not?).

Assembling these big blog posts has been a really interesting exercise (in a narcissistic way, perhaps; but then, I did get a bit drunk last week and start poking the pub table with my finger while asserting loudly that narcissism is a great virtue in artists -- and I do think there's some truth in that). Particularly as the weeks have gone by -- I'm now assembling the post for the fourth and final week -- what's emerged before my eyes is actually a pretty comprehensive map of almost everything, or at least a lot, a lot, that's been formative for me as a queer artist and, in most cases, has remained very presently valuable. A quick skim of the posts so far would reveal works and writings by the likes of Francesca Woodman, Ryan McGinley, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Wilson, John Wieners, William Forsythe, Cy Twombly, Bas Jan Ader, Frank O'Hara, Derek Jarman, Alaric Sumner, John Cage, Bill T. Jones, Tim Miller, Tom Spanbauer, Kathy Acker, Neil Bartlett, Dennis Cooper, Ed Templeton, Harmony Korine, Luigi y Luca, Will McBride, Kenji Siratori, Caroline Bergvall, and John Berger; plus lashings of Viennese Aktionism, skateboarding, and any amount of cheerful young dudes with their cocks out. I mean it's not totally exhaustive but, in the event of apocalypse, I could probably be re-engineered from scratch out of DNA-spattered scraps of these artists' works, thoughts, attitudes and self-stagings. It's been reminding me a bit of something my therapist told me back when I was walking wounded aged 21: go home, she said, and look at your room, at the pictures on your walls and the books on your shelves, and see what you're telling yourself about yourself. Boy, that was a sock in the jaw when I tried it...

I've also, tonight, been thinking a bit about how inextricable my work (mostly as a theatre personage; somewhat as a poet, too) and my queerness are: which is something I've been attesting to for years without ever having thought it all the way back, as it were -- like, when I think back to the very first things I "staged", as a kid of 7 or 8. Not just the little variety shows that me and my friends would perform for our mums and dads (I say "little"; I have a feeling they were probably longer than Peer Gynt, some of them), but the things I'd make happen -- or, to deploy the phrase I find myself using more and more frequently these days to describe what I make as an artist: "constructed events". So: the sports day I organized the summer I was 7; the "judo parties" where the other neighbourhood boys and I would vaguely wrestle in our living room, in tightly organized tournaments, while the local girls were invited to come along and serve squash and biscuits (I know, I know, I was the worst eight-year-old chauvinist, what can I say, it was 1981 and I didn't know any better and I still wake up shuddering and I'm sorry, I'm truly sorry); the little turns I'd do in school assembly (one of which involved blacking up to portray the footballer Pele; please see previous apology, mutatis mutandis); the role-playing games my best friend and I would act out, which for him were surely no more than pretend sci-fi play but for me were semi-prepared episodes of an imaginary tv series.

Behind all these activities there were these two impulses, side by side. One was about wanting to make things happen that caused the grown-ups in my life -- mostly, but not only, my parents -- to be delighted and impressed. The other was about wanting things, wanting to see and feel things that I couldn't otherwise experience except in books and on t.v.; partly wanting to make things that didn't and wouldn't otherwise exist, but also wanting things that I simply couldn't ask for. I talk a lot these days, to students particularly, about theatre -- perhaps more than any other art form, though I think it's probably somewhat true of all arts -- being principally an art of wanting, and of being prepared to want out loud. (I've probably written about it here before, too.) But in saying that I don't always make the connection back to -- for example -- the first nude scene I ever wrote as a playwright, which was when I was eight and, on my first typewriter, I was bashing out a cursory adaptation of a children's book called Albert and the Dragonettes and introducing into it a gratuitous beach scene purely because there was a younger boy down the road who I didn't know very well and I was longing, longing, to the point of sleeplessness and shortness of breath, to see what he looked like without any clothes on. But one couldn't just ask (or at least, so I thought; it'd be another couple of years before I found out it was sometimes just worth chancing that approach!); what one could do was script it -- which gave the desire a kind of spurious, abstracted authority in relation to which I suppose I had some degree of deniability. -- And thirty years on, for all that I may (arguably) have a slightly more developed practice now, that same basically erotic pulse still keeps time with my artistic desires.

But I think I've only really noticed for the first time this evening how those two things -- wanting to delight and entertain others, and wanting to legitimize my own desire and create safe spaces for the things I lacked in the world to become visible -- are actually about each other. They're about making my queerness -- of which I was already perfectly aware at the age of seven: and I don't just mean in terms of fancying boys (which only became inconvenient later on) but in terms of feeling like there was a kind of renegade alter ego living inside me who might emerge at any moment like the Hulk and betray my bright-green weirdness and abnormality -- acceptable. Not just acceptable but indispensible, in fact. Which in turn helps me to see why so much of my preoccupation as an adult theatre artist has been about the extent to which performance events register as real -- or don't. If I ask, as I often have: does the subjunctivity of the constructed event impede its political consequentiality?, at another level I'm really asking: is it possible for me to come here and speak honestly about myself? -- Which in turn triggers memories of a whole bunch of short plays I wrote as a teenager, in sixth form in particular, in which the central characters, invariably played by me, were endlessly coming out as gay. A way of saying something while at the same time not having risked saying it.

Obviously these days, what I want -- the array of acts of wanting that together make up a theatre practice -- is very much more about political questions, about kinds of social relations that it might be possible both to imagine and to realise in a theatrical frame. (Though of course there's still nothing more suggestive to me of the radicalism of those relational matrices than seeing people get naked within them, and/or being willing to be sexually desired by an audience of strangers.) And what I think a more conscious engagement of late with queerness as a lived-out strain of anticapitalist dissidence has enabled me to see is that I was wrong, at least to a degree, in my anxiety about those shifts of register when we move out of the theatre back into the real world. (Sprinkle ye scare quotes where ye may.) To travel from theatrical space into a real-life place is not, ultimately, an intrinsically quasi-transdiegetic movement of the kind that we feel most jarringly when the 'dead' stand up and bow at the end of a Shakespeare tragedy, say -- or, for that matter, when we wake up from a dream. I had thought that there was a problem with the political efficacy of theatre as a host site for hypothetical reconfigurations of the structures and forms of social relationships because it involved a movement from a constructed event back out into a real world beyond. What thinking more searchingly about queerness (as an anticapitalist commitment) has helped me to understand is that the transition is not one that takes us across immiscible degrees or pitches of reality. If an instance of theatre is a constructed event, then so too is liberal-democratic late capitalist society a network of constructed events. We -- I -- have perhaps been guilty of accepting the unspoken assumption that the way we live now is somehow the product of naturally occurring forces, working themselves inexorably out. The truth is that almost everything we do -- especially everything we do together (and queerness is something that can only be present in a place of togetherness) -- is shaped by underlying systematic and ideological forces that are every bit as artificial, as synthetic, as constructed as theatre is, or any other kind of fiction; in fact, more so, because capitalism masks its source code beneath so many other layers of text. I always thought my sense that I lived mostly (and best) "within" theatre was partly a metaphor, or at any rate partly fanciful, a sort of luvvie exaggeration to be announced in a loud voice over risotto at the Jerwood Space; but queerness so abundantly and fluidly exceeds the limits of that metaphor that I now think I can be braver than ever about attesting to the conscious concerted inhabitability of theatre practice as a sustainable way of refusing the lies that capitalism tells about itself.

I suppose the only other thing I want to say about all that, by way of a postscript, is that the DIY project is called Queer Eye Enquiry because I wanted to work not only with comfortably self-identifying queer artists, but also with others who wouldn't necessarily call themselves (or their work) 'queer' but who could see that there might be something interesting or productive in spending some time looking at the world with a queered gaze -- and letting the world look back in the same spirit. I've been involved in an interesting ongoing conversation recently with John Armstrong, over at his excellent Bebrowed blog, about the Better Than Language anthology (still available for a tenner -- "pre-publication offer" indeed!, ho ho -- over here), about the ways in which identifying work as queer may or may not be a stumbling block for those who don't identify as queer themselves, or who see 'queer' as a reductive category lens to try and view the work through. If there is something in that, then there's a task here: queer, like anticapitalist, is not a prescription but an invitation, one that's open to all who will dare to accept it. I must admit I struggle with the notion of a truly queer heterosexuality, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in that struggle: and certainly those artists whose work graces the Queer Eye Enquiry blog are of every conceivable sexual orientation (though I must confess there's much too great a preponderance of cisgender artists as it stands; I suppose I was always bound to end up reflecting my own species of queerness rather than trying to represent everyone under the LGBTQWERTYUIOP sun) -- they're represented because I think their work lends itself to queer readings: and queerness, finally, is a property of readings and relationships, not of individuals. So, I hope you know -- whoever you are, and especially whoever you fuck, everything I just wrote is about you. If you want it, that is.

OK, well, lots more to say -- not least about what I'm up to work-wise, which most imminently includes the extraordinary Sixty-Six Books project at the Bush (where I'm directing Michael Rosen's very striking piece from Amos, with the wonderful Harold Finley, as well as my own play, The Loss Of All Things, which on the back of just three days' rehearsal is being performed extraordinarily (I reckon) by Gareth Kieran Jones, Christian Roe and Rick Warden); and after that, Keep Breathing, at the Drum in Plymouth, and nearer Christmas (but not quite signed-and-sealed yet) a short London run of The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley (the script of which has now been published, rather gorgeously, by Oberon, and can be purchased either via them or by sending an inquisitive email to Ganzfeld). Proper updates about all that stuff soon (ish), I hope -- though I hardly dare promise. And then of course there are so many things I've seen and read and so on that I really ought to have written about here, and haven't, and plainly won't now; probably if you really want to know what I've been up to and what I think about it then the likeliest way of getting to hear about it is to drop me a line and we'll go for a drink ;)

What I can just finally stick up here is a short review of an exhibition, The Weaklings, which I saw at Five Years in Hackney earlier in the summer. I wrote this piece as a submission for a prize that I very emphatically have. not. won. -- so now I can share it with you, huzzah.

Meanwhile, I hope you're doing great, wherever you are, and perhaps we'll say hello again soon, one way or another.

* * *

Joel Westendorf, Goatmouth (2005)

‘The Weaklings’
Curated by Dennis Cooper
Five Years, Hackney, 11-26 June 2011

Like most great contemporary buildings, the prodigious blog of writer Dennis Cooper is an exciting space to visit because its structure has been invented from the inside by its users, not imposed from above by its nominal owner. It’s learned its shape from the needs and desires of the people who hang out there—an ad hoc community of authors, artists and fans who gather to discuss Cooper’s daily posts and their own experiments in creative living. Here, the social promise of online collaboration—a promise that elsewhere has often appeared broken—is restlessly renewed.

That blog has now given rise—and lent its name, The Weaklings—to an art show, at Five Years in Hackney, which draws together work in various media by fifteen of the blog’s denizens, representing a range of relationships with the world of professional art practice. You’d expect lurches, gaucheness maybe, and to an extent you get them, but they’re smoothed into a fun ride by Cooper’s curatorial elan and a remarkable consistency of poise and self-assurance.

What comes through first is not thematic but tonal: a complicated, reflexive melancholy, familiar perhaps from Cooper’s own work. People here are half-grasped ideas, waiting for a moment of clarity that may never come, a desire that arrives ready-thwarted in the imagination. There’s a kind of intimacy, but the closer the object comes, the more comprehension recedes—out of kindness, maybe. These artists abundantly belie Tom Lehrer’s loveless wisecrack that if a person has a communication problem, the least he can do is shut up about it.

The show’s key text might be Joel Westendorf’s four untitled animal portraits: glossy photographs of an open-mouthed (screaming?; startled?; yawning?) goat and giraffe, a contortedly sprawling alpaca, a deeply self-involved kangaroo. I’m reminded of Peter Hujar’s ‘Goat, Westown, 1978’, who’ll stare you out forever; the barrier—is it species difference, or language discontinuity?—becomes infused with a pressure that feels both numinous and disorientingly erotic. Westendorf’s animal pictures, especially the goat against its solid orange background, work like semi-staged celebrity candids: vivacious, unreliable.

There are real(ish) celebrities in Jared Pappas-Kelley’s video, ‘just cant get you out of my head’, in which a stuttering synthetic female voice endlessly restates the lyrics of Kylie’s song, while familiar low-grade snapshots of the likes of Stephen Dorff and Christopher Atkins, sourced from online repositories of male nude celeb images, rotate on-screen, pivoting on their fathomlessly disappointing cocks. What eventually starts to throb in the mind, though, is the luridly busy domestic wallpaper Pappas-Kelley sets behind them: invoking perhaps our propensity for recognizing human faces in almost any pattern, holding ourselves in a claustrophobic loop of fixated titillation and disappointment: “boy it’s more than I dare to think about.”

Fittingly, this tendency in the Weaklings artists finds its apotheosis on the gallery floor, in a brace of low-key but powerfully intrepid works by Alex Rose. First, a tied bundle of damaged-looking magazines and papers: only the top picture—a very young model in underwear and socks, just shy of being legally problematic—is readable; in the other room, a composite places a spider’s web, in a dream thought-bubble maybe, beside a near-naked, bandaged, sleeping child, unglossed but recognizable as Ruben van Assouw, nine-year-old sole survivor of last year’s Airbus crash in Tripoli. The image of the hospitalized boy distils with discomfiting efficiency the suggestiveness of the whole show. Pain and sleep are two irrecuperably private states which can only leave the spectator wondering. Were this encounter more public, we’d be enrolled as witnesses: but in this little gallery, no one will help validate or care for our speculative projections. We’re left with doubt, configured as a particular strain of tenderness which is not unlike desire: wanting to dare to know.

That dumb old theatrical adage about not working with children and animals is actually of course a proposition about control and authority. The Weaklings—the show, like the blog—is a space in which gestures towards control become spurious. Cooper’s vision, like that of the artists he attracts, is anarchic; productively so. Not only animals and children but celebrities too are our exiles, painfully stranded outside the language constructs of desire and consent. But our tyrannic power over them is unwelcome here; only a radical, liberatory weakness will change us.