Sunday, February 25, 2007

Three threes from Thursday

Uh oh. Since I was last here I've set up private blogs for the collaborating teams on my two big current projects, Speed Death of the Radiant Child and An Apparently Closed Room (the first of the Goodman Portraits.) Very exciting for me personally, but I guess instead of failing to update one blog I'll now be failing to update three. Hopefully this will be accounted as one failure split three ways, though honestly I suspect failures connect in parallel rather than in series.

Whatever, there's something quite pleasing about this triangulation, which didn't properly strike me until I just logged in to Blogger and for the first time had three visiting options. Three options means you can suspend relations with something that isn't working out well, and still have a choice of the something else you go to. Yeah. Writing it down makes it look a lot less profound than it felt in my head. Never mind. What I'm saying is, it feels like I can be more productive now. Oh, forget it.

Anyway, in recognition of this new arrangement, Thompson's Bank of Communicable Desire is today brought to you by the number three. Squared. And by the day Thursday. Actually there were a few nice days this past week, fewer than seven but plenty. Tuesday was very nice, once I got the hang of it. Beetled down to Cambridge: got to eat pea soup and pancakes with Sam and Sara and a modest infinity of attendant kids and the lovely Ed Holberton, except not so much with Sam because he was producing the pancakes; and had a quick drink with Jeremy, who has written since to describe me blowing my nose "as if you were laying a destroyed gecko to rest"; and watched the magnificent Lucy Ellinson and the beautiful Chris Thorpe (and those adjectives vice versa also, natch) turn in two exquisite performances in Third Angel's very lovely Presumption. Thorpe's scripted Clockwork, which opens this week at the NT -- a version of A Clockwork Orange directed by official force-of-nature and national-treasure-in-waiting Benji Reid. I'll be interested to see it, but not this time out Josephine: it sold out in picoseconds, apparently.

But hey, this isn't about Tuesday, it's about Thursday. Three sets of three, starting with:

3.1 Three notable things that happened at the ICA that weren't Tino Sieghal's This Success / This Failure which is what we were there to see

3.1.1 Waiting for Theron in the bookshop, browsing DVDs, and I'm pleased to have as a consequence a new favourite movie disclaimer, to supplant "Contains scenes of mild peril", which I first noticed on Rugrats Go Wild! a few years back but seems to crop up quite frequently now on kids' films and has anyway become placidly absorbed into the culture as a kind of paradigmatic catchphrase. So welcome, welcome, the formulation that admonishes would-be viewers of the newly-released DVD of Lukas Moodysson's Container: "Contains strong language and references to human suffering." When you reach the stage of having to warn people that art may refer to human suffering, everybody really really needs some heads-on-desks quiet time. I haven't seen the Moodysson film but I hope it might in fact be called Container partly as an oblique reference to these idiotic health & safety straplines. Does a film "contain" strong language in the same way that a ToffeeCrisp "may contain nut traces"? (I don't know that a ToffeeCrisp does, by the way, I haven't checked. Don't get all hysterical now and take a taser to your ToffeeCrisp stash. OK now I really want a ToffeeCrisp.)

On the table by my bed, in among all manner of junk -- painkillers, chewing gum, ear studs, a music box, and several dozen expired travelcards and train tickets -- I have a little fastened clear plastic bag containing one unshelled peanut. I think it came from a children's science kit we bought from Oxfam for Longwave. And on this little bag with a single peanut and nothing else inside it, is a preprinted sticker: "THIS BAG CONTAINS PEANUTS. THEY SHOULD NOT BE EATEN OR HANDLED BY ANY PERSON WHO MAY BE ALLERGIC TO PEANUTS." I feel like retaliating by getting a tattoo directly onto my cerebral cortex which reads: "May contain the word DUH."

Still. "Contains references to human suffering." That's classy, that is.

3.1.2 Theron [Schmidt]'s agreed to be the other performer in An Apparently Closed Room. This is seriously fantastic news, he's an incredibly gifted performer -- just having him in the room makes a kind of tonality possible to achieve that's really crucial to this area of my work and which is desperately hard to find, particularly among trained actors or dancers. He's in a really cool place too, right now, thinking hard and excitedly about a thread of his own research interests that it seems will take him through into starting a PhD later this year, all being equal. We haven't always found it easy to work together, for all sorts of reasons, and for a while there I kind of thought we were done; we haven't worked together in public since a steep and worthwhile but slightly bumpy one-off performance called Silverlake, more than two years ago now. So I'm surprised and delighted to be back in a working conversation with him and hugely encouraged about the prospects for this new piece. Ideas for interesting ways of articulating the argument of AACR are finally starting to bubble up in my head -- it's so hard, conceiving this kind of work without knowing who specifically you're thinking about. (That's why the casting for Speed Death is continuing to drive me a bit nuts. Though we're getting there, for sure.)

3.1.3 Picked up an ICA brochure on the way out and I'm beside myself with excitement to see that the next exhibition coming in, after Sehgal, is The Secret Public: The Last Days of the British Underground 1978-88. I was incredibly close to going out to the Kunstverein München, where the show originated, to catch it there. So I'm glad I didn't, now -- but also, that's some indication of how goshdarned beezer I think it's going to be. Drop down anywhere in the list of featured artists and you have the promise of an encounter I might have asked Jim to fix for me: the spine apparently being the Charles Atlas / Leigh Bowery / Trojan / Michael Clark / Bodymap / Mark E. Smith axis, which of course connects to John Maybury and Derek Jarman and Cerith Wyn Evans and Stuart Marshall & Neil Bartlett, and so on. Eeep! Frieze called it "thrilling and incomplete", which sounds perfect; and if, as seems possible, it's going to represent (among many other pleasures) another chance to see Charles Atlas's Michael Clark videos Hail the New Puritan and/or Because We Must, and more importantly another chance to take other people to see them, then that's good enough in itself, quite apart from the possibility of discovering some post-punk gems that I don't already know and love. The ICA has really rediscovered itself in the past year or so, after a long spell vacationing away with the e-fairies up its own digital-fetishist portal; it still hasn't worked out how to connect with live performance, and its film programme remains frustratingly partial, but it does seem to be reconciling itself with people again, in a way that it hasn't for a decade or so. I'm going to become a member. I should think that'll just about pay for itself in a year and anyway, it's a gesture of support for the direction they're (re)taking.

So there's all this excitement already; and then a potter down past the South Bank to the Siobhan Davies Studios for the first in a series of four discussions with panels of dance and theatre artists, curated by Jonathan Burrows under the title Parallel Voices. For this first event, 'Not Conceptual', they'd gathered together:

3.2 Three really interesting makers (& theorists) talking seriously about choreography, theatre and art

3.2.1 Jérôme Bel, it turns out, looks like a Ronald Searle cartoon of a French choreographer, but rendered in vibrant 80's primary colours that Searle would have deplored -- though Irene Cara might have looked on them affectionately. (Anyone for The Kids From Infamy?) For a few hairy moments I thought Bel's response to Burrows's genial but rather earnest introduction was going to be so ludic and smirky and altogether franco-pomo that the whole set-up might be in tatters within the half hour. But actually, Bel, like all these artists, is thinking hard, rigorously, almost strenuously (though with evident pleasure and insouciance, rather than angst and self-flagellation), about the fundamentals of performance and theatre and, before that, presence and materiality. Reading about his work -- and I've read quite a bit, inspired initially by Tim Etchells's account of Shirtologie -- it's easy (too easy, it turns out) to see it as game-playing and mischievous provocation. Certainly intelligence and self-assurance comes through those reports, but not the sense of a larger project, which I thought was clearly illuminated in his own commentary in this panel. Burrows was keen to discover how Bel's theoretical readings (Deleuze came through as a particular influence) fed into the process of making work, but somewhere between these two actions -- the reading and the making -- Bel was determined to place some emphasis on circumstances: whether that was the political support for the arts in France in the early 90s, or the freeing money that Bel made by assisting Philippe Decoufle at the Albertville Winter Olympics in 1992, or a complete (and productive) lack of studio resources. Drawing links between Bourdieu and Daniel Buren, Bel spoke about the necessity of abandoning the studio and working at home, in a small apartment -- "We couldn't move," and small gestures were therefore "already too many things". This sense of seeking always to reject orthodox assumptions about what might be indispensible in performance, combined with an unstinting focus on the necessity of "activating the audience", leads him to work that is at once extremely stripped-down and immensely complex in its effects, a complexity that, in a sort of feedback loop, both arises from, and allows him to, address the work to individual spectators, with their individual readings of the presented work, rather than to "the audience" as an undifferentiated collective.

I don't think my work is anything like Bel's but it was fascinating to hear about points of similarity: from the benefits of working on performance in the home rather than the studio (which is a constant thread for me, obviously, right from my first domestic production of The Tempest back in 1994 to the home-based research work I learned so much from doing with Theron in 2005); to his articulation, in entirely different terms, of the question of the work supporting and encouraging multiple readings, which is precisely where all my use of 'signal to noise' and other Cybernetics 101 language comes in. It was also really good to hear Bel's militant rejection -- "No! No! NO!" -- of the notion of allowing his work to be filmed. The liveness, the contingency, and the ephemerality of his work and the relations it establishes, were so integral to the work that there was no way it could have any kind of afterlife in video documentation, he insisted. I felt a little rueful on the way home, as my own similarly furious opposition to ever allowing anything to be filmed has gradually been worn down over the years by the necessity of documenting for funding and brand-building purposes and by my own increasingly free-rein sentimentality. So it was with mixed feelings that within a few minutes of looking for further info on Bel, I found video clips from his pieces The Show Must Go On and Jérôme Bel in the video section of the excellent ImPulsTanz web site. (New one on me. Some great stuff in the catalogue there, though it really is only little promo clips rather than substantial extracts.)

3.2.2 I don't have nearly as much to say about Xavier Le Roy because I went not knowing very much about him and felt that I came away not really knowing very much about him. He was perfectly voluble but I didn't get much of a sense of what made him tick -- there was a huge unanswered question about how he came, well into his twenties, to make the transition from being a molecular biologist to being a choreographer. Are these two practices simply different expressions of the same impulse? I wonder. But he spoke interestingly about the ways in which artistic relationships are formed and seem to fuse into tendencies when isolated artists discover each other and experience a profound identification of their own questions in the other's practice -- not the answers, not the style, but the questions are the points of connection. (From my own point of view I'm not sure that's the whole story, but it sounds basically right.) His description of working alone, early on, without any aim -- not just without aims for the movement, for the artwork, but without the aim of, say, making a production that can be shown to an audience -- also rang half a bell. But it was his utter disdain for the idea of recognizability that really struck me as radically useful and made me want to bawl a bravo or two at him. Even the sidestream theatre tradition in this country, from Forced Ents to Complicite to DV8, is in unacknowledged thrall to the tyranny of the recognizable - whether that's about character types or cultural references or formal and presentational tropes -- all of which, even in the most progressive British work, is always-but-always about class and tribal distinction and the social situation of the audience outside of the theatre, while the social situation that is theatre is usually completely glossed over. I'd say more but an initial slip of the digit had me writing about "the tranny of the recognizable" and now I can't concentrate.

3.2.3 Actually the real bouquets for the night belong properly to the remarkable Bojana Cvejić, the third speaker, a Serbian performance theorist and artist. She provided an immensely helpful and suggestive commentary on what Bel and Le Roy were saying, and spoke with great fluency and immediacy about some difficult ideas that normally arrive pre-stultified on the pages of unnecessary journals. Her early description of the common features of Bel and Le Roy's work really helped me to tune in, not least in terms of some of my own preoccupations, and her characterisation of Le Roy's early work as "a kind of writing" -- in other words, choreography as a writing practice that precedes dancing as a type of spontaneous expression -- and both men's work as employing not "dance" as a language but an entire "choreographic field" in which dance is only one of the available technologies -- was particularly topical to my interests as a director. Very interestingly also she helped to shape a late discussion about the current predicament and possible legacy of work in this vein: the producing and presenting institutions, she said, had now absorbed this work, meaning that it could no longer function efficiently as political critique. I'm certain this is the case, though I wasn't sure about her characterisation of the interests and impulses of, as it were, the next generation down.

All in all, and despite a rather self-conscious hosting turn from the appealing Burrows, who looked throughout as if what he really needed was the tea and biscuit you get after giving blood, it was truly an exhilarating evening. For one thing, all three speakers, and Bel in particular, spoke up passionately for theatre, for the work they make as theatre (not dance, not "conceptual" art) -- and, as Nikki T. observed, in the whole two hour discussion nobody used the term 'live art' once. But also, and perhaps even more importantly or encouragingly, this was a brilliantly sustained public conversation in which nobody (except Burrows, fleetingly) apologized for trying to discuss the intellectual commitments and manoeuvres that make this work possible, at a pitch that achieved a bracing fidelity to the complex and sometimes abstruse nature of those commitments. Sorry to harp on but that did seem amazingly un-British, at least for an open performing arts event outside the long-armed embrace of the academy. I've never heard it even among my home-from-homies in the upstream poetry world, who only really ever want to read prepared papers to each other.

It will be interesting to see how this session compares with the other one I'm going to, at the end of the season, with Nicholas Hytner, Katie Mitchell and Lloyd Newson. Can't honestly see any of them curling up in bed with a dogeared copy of Différence et Répétition... (Which of course I do every night.) Well, I'll report back.

By the time I got home I thought my head might burst at any moment (a winning combination of extended concentration, stress, tiredness, sleeplessness, toothache and too many anti-toothache pills), but I couldn't wind down quickly enough to go straight to bed where I belonged. I'd have watched the tv for a bit, if I had a tv, but I don't. I have a tv card on my laptop, but the aerial only works if I dangle it out of my bedroom window, the aerial missus the aerial, which means having the window open and it was too cold and rainy on Thursday night for that sort of malarkey. You can't be too careful.

So instead I pottered about a bit on YouTube and, yes dears, here we go again with the soooo-last-year-it's-almost-the-year-before embedding thing, as I pridelessly present:

3.3 Three videos which I lovingly dedicate to three three-lettered friends who made my week better

3.3.1 For Nic: I'm sorry if I influenced you into not going to the dancey robots thing at the ICA, and I'm further sorry if the above elaboration of my new pro-ICA stance is infuriating in that light. But here is a bit of thinking-out-loud that made me want to say WOO, and I hope you'll feel, as I do, sort of cheered by it. (Though not so much by the dreadful music. Or the misspellings.)

3.3.2 For Fin: knowing your appetite for wildlife documentaries, I wondered whether you'd come across this? (It's likely also to appeal to anyone who enjoyed the Popper & Serafinowicz Birds of Britain video I posted last year. Although this one of course is not a spoof. I should mention that I found it actually not on YouTube, but, after clicking my way through about seven degrees of separation, at the highly invigorating blog of self-styled "pinko commie fag" Slava Mogutin, who certainly reaches some parts other blogs, er, don't.)

3.3.3 For Sam: in case you get tired of Clark Coolidge any time soon, here's where the real action is... Thanks for the pancake, bigfela.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Last night ended with a dream in which I cast Jimmy Stewart in Speed Death of the Radiant Child. He didn't start out as Jimmy Stewart, he was Pete Seeger to begin with. On being introduced to him in the dream I said: "Mr Seeger, it's a very great honour, sir." -- and then cringed inwardly at my fulsomeness. I mean I felt actual physical cringing. How odd, to be able to cringe while you're sleeping. What evolutionary purpose does that serve?

And this morning began with a really ravishing nosebleed. Haven't had a full-on nosebleed for years -- but I had a fiendish headache yesterday so maybe I've been building up to it for a while.

So, well, that's where I am. It's been sort of a horrible week. Nothing very horrible has happened, I've just felt horrible, really stressed. But nothing very stressful has happened either, I've just been coping very badly with a small amount of stress, though I suppose that's stressful in itself. At the first sign of trouble I fell -- no, I hurled myself -- off almost all of the various wagons I've been on for the past few weeks. How stupid, to conspire so greedily in my own meltdown at the first sign of trouble. I really thought when I got home from Australia that I was finally ready to turn my life around. Which I suppose I did. I just should have stopped before I completed 360 degrees.

It's a retreat, really, a deferred January of sniffling and duvet-love (my January this year having been so rudely interrupted with a completely gratuitous outbreak of upside-down summer) and really feeling the need of some re-foresting time before everything really kicks off showbiz-style in April. But the couple of pleasant and civilised pottering months that I thought I was coming back to post-Sydney have turned into a clamorous wig-out. I feel like I've been trying to grab forty winks curled up inside Moe Tucker's kickdrum.

The best of the bad deal is that I've become quite immersed already in Speed Death. I mean the thing with Jimmy Stewart, that's the first time I've ever dreamt about recalls. (We'll assume it was a dream rather than a down-the-line premonition.) So that sort of indicates the extent to which the project is already taking me over. Also, four times in the last month (most recently an hour or so ago) I've been so deep in thought about the piece on the way home from town that I've walked right past the front door of my house. I really can't tell if this is a good sign about my Art or a bad sign about my Mental Health. Same thing, I suppose. For Speed Death the casting in particular is more crucial and more complicated than ever, absolutely fraught with contingencies, and what is usually my favourite part of the process of making a new piece has at times become a little oppressive. A small assortment of shortlisted actors, less than a dozen I guess, have been going round and round in my head like kittens in a tumble dryer, and it's not much fun for any of us. I think I'm over the worst of it, though, and this time next week, fingers crossed, it'll all be over.

Another promising sign is that I travelled down to Plymouth last week with Naomi, the designer, and we had an amazingly successful day. The team at the Theatre Royal is bright and engaged and they seem to be genuinely up for it, pretty much whatever 'it' turns out to be. So right now, I really do think we can make something extraordinary. When I talk about the piece I keep using two images more-or-less interchangeably: running into a wall; and jumping off a cliff (sometimes, for added colour, "onto a big spike"). That's what the show has to feel like, and I begin to suspect that's also what making it will feel like. It ought to. That's the whole thing. The scrolling ticker-message under my obsessional stress-headache says "YOU ASKED FOR IT", and I bloody did too. I always remember that beautifully simple and heartening line of Ani Difranco's: "Would you prefer the easy way? / No, well, OK then, don't cry."

The other big task of the past fortnight has been an email interview with the excellent Sam Ladkin for an upcoming Chicago Review which has a feature on four 'young' UK poets. (Actually, to be precise, three real UK poets -- Andrea Brady, Peter Manson, Keston Sutherland -- and one bumptious hobbyist, yrs truly.) This CR gig has been quite a slog and my own attitude to it all is still unsettled, to say the least. But the invitation to participate, especially in such distinguished company, was ultimately irresistible; and Sam and co-editor (at the British end) Robin Purves have been quite exceptional -- not least their intro to the feature, which I just read, and immediately becomes required reading for anyone seeking a levelheaded overview of upstream poetry in Britain since WW2. We're still not home and dry with it, and several times weekly for the last five months a light at the end of the tunnel has turned out to be an oncoming train. But to have that coming out in the spring, and the book of essays on Geraldine Monk to which I contributed presumably finally emerging from Salt in the summer I guess, makes me feel that perhaps I haven't altogether mislaid or scrambled my connexion with the poetry scene.

Speed Death and the poetry stuff have together almost completely squeezed The Goodman Portraits out of my mind in the past fortnight, but hopefully from the end of next week that can be my main focus for a while. The first stab at it will be a sort of preliminary sketch (called An Apparently Closed Room) as part of an Artsadmin festival in June -- just a one-off gig, but part of a really strong line-up, so I want to do this really well. I'm still scared. I feel very alone with this one, suddenly. But I suppose the advantage of work in this mode is, you take those sorts of feelings and embed them in the piece, and then at least nothing goes to waste. Everything's composted.

Every time in the past few days that I've felt daunted by any of these projects, I've had in mind the brilliant Desert Island Discs last week with Paul Abbott, the genius screenwriter, originator of Shameless et al. (I don't know about the 'al', really -- not having a telly makes it harder to keep up with this stuff. But I've caught up with the first three series of Shameless on DVD and down everyone's favourite series of tubes.) Unfortunately DID isn't archived at the BBC web site so I haven't been able to listen to it again -- I tried to wake up in time to catch the Friday morning repeat, I really tried, but I hadn't got to bed until past 4am, so it just didn't happen... Anyway, Abbott said something brilliant about the importance of "learning to shout", and it really struck a chord. Wish I could remember the exact phrase.

A few other teensy cultural fragments that have got past the human firewall this week:

For Your Consideration is a small affair and I reluctantly have to concur with those critics who have found it a little disappointing. But, equally, it's a complete delight, and well worth seeing (as I did) on a rainy afternoon. Every few minutes, another favourite actor from the Christopher Guest rep co pops up; really, you're spoiled, it's the Christmas celebrity special of Record Breakers, but for grown-ups. John Michael Higgins is on particularly wonderful form. (Ricky Gervais is not.)

One of the regulars at Dennis Cooper's blog posted a really great link to this Screen International interview with Harmony Korine about his forthcoming Mister Lonely. It's eight years since Julien Donkey-Boy and now he's back with a movie about celebrity impersonators and a cast including Diego Luna and Leos Carax. A truly exciting prospect in a world where The Queen is considered to represent everything that serious film should aspire to, may God have mercy on our poor etiolated souls.

A better film (so far): Regular Lovers, Philippe Garrel's riposte to Bertolucci's The Dreamers. It's such a paradigmatic French art film, you can hardly believe your eyes. Louis, Garrel fils, already iconic, deftly manages the baffling (but delightful) switches between semi-improvised, politically acute dialogue and some barely-updated nouvelle vague tomfoolery. It's three hours long and pretty slow and I only got half way through it, but that's partly because it's so hard watching movies on my computer, with so many other distractions buzzing around. I'll pick it up and see it through, it's already amply repaid the attention I gave the first half. ...Also had another look at Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale -- great performances, but I'm still not convinced it's the masterpiece some have claimed: though I do love the beautifully understated gag where we cut between the separate houses of a recently separated couple -- at his place, Loudon Wainwright is on the stereo, and at hers, Kate & Anna McGarrigle. That's ticklish. Ah, whatever, it's better than Little Miss Sunshine, so I'll go along with it.

(Also got a great package of DVDs in the mail, from the US. How's this for a combo: Johan Grimonprez's dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, and Sesame Street Old School 1969-1974.)

Poor old tired Mr Postie also brings Body of Work, the remarkable new Reality Street collection of Maggie O'Sullivan's 80's chapbooks and fugitive pieces. O'Sullivan is a writer I've always admired rather than truly liked or felt close to, but this volume is seriously reconfiguring my relationship with her work. Extraordinarily exciting stuff with an unexpectedly urgent candour to it. -- And also, a slimmer volume of equally striking beauty, the score of Cathy Berberian's Stripsody, which I'm going to have a crack at performing some time soon. (At her official web site, click on 'Playlist' and you can hear Stripsody live. Killer.)

Other reading: finally finished Michael Palin's Diaries 1969-79. (Fascinating, though never quite gripping. In the introduction he affectionately mocks his schoolboy diaries: "Cabbage for lunch. Watched tv." Which is fine, but actually these later journals proceed very often along the lines of: "Went to party, met Leonard Bernstein. Cabbage for dinner. Watched self on tv." -- Which is also fine, I guess. Critics teased the arguably underedited mundanity of some of this published stuff, but when your experiential world changes in a matter of a few years, from a quiet middle-class Sheffield upbringing to hanging out with George Harrison and attending Studio 54 parties with Andy Warhol, I can well imagine the thread of narrative concerning your family and the weather and the local residents' association becomes even more valuable.)

Anyway, now that's over, I'm having a go at Zizek's The Indivisible Remainder but mostly finding my attention wanders to My Take by Gary Barlow: whose irrepressible Pooterishness makes Palin look like Dali.

Lots of time spent catching up with old theatre pals. Tassos Stevens, restless innovator and lapinophile, on good pre-Valentines form, sweetly trying to comprehend the Borgesian abyss of my lovelife; Jon Spooner, of Unlimited, eyes a-glint with an appealing new project, and still (I think) slightly nonplussed to find himself a father of two; Liam Jarvis and Ria Parry, of Theatre Trash, even fuller of beans (if that were possible) than when I first met them five years ago. Nice feeling that we're all still plugging away...

Listening to: Patrick Wolf's The Magic Position, a gorgeous, sexy album, finally fulfilling the exceptional promise of his earliest recordings; for Speed Death purposes, Ghosts of Dead Aeroplanes by Prolapse, and the New Fast Automatic Daffodils' Body Exit Mind; for out-and-out nostalgia, Bill Sharpe & Gary Numan's apogee of radio-friendliness, Automatic; in memoriam, the few shreds and patches I have of recorded work by the extraordinary Paul Burwell, who died some days ago. (Brian Catling turned in a nicely lavish obit for the Independent.)

Worst listening experience: an absolutely appalling reading, by the normally dependable Philip Franks, of Edward Lear's 'The Jumblies', on some Radio 4 thing hosted by Adrian Mitchell (of whom I remain fond, despite everything). I'm sure it's the smallness of his iconic spectacle-lenses that makes people think of Lear as being some sort of genial curate. Maybe that was how he presented himself, even. But inside! Inside, for God's sake! Artaud wrestling a bear! 'The Jumblies' is possibly the most vividly alarmist literature of the 19th century. To whom it may concern: going to sea in a sieve is not some whimsical peccadillo, like having little bunnies on your jim-jams. It's a monstrous outburst of reckless fury -- at the sea, at the sieve; at the self, and the stultifying logics of purpose and compatibility.

(Still, I readily forgive Mr Franks, who some years ago introduced into my life the precious word 'pecorious', as part of a wonderfully sensational narrative about needing to use the bathroom at a party and finding it occupied by livestock. But that's another story.)

What else?

Rediscovering William Forsythe's Improvisation Technologies CD-Rom, which I managed to track down again, having trodden on and broken (accidentally!) my original copy about three years ago. To anyone with any interest in improvisation or choreography, in any way, I honestly can't recommend it highly enough. Not easy to track down, but not impossible. It fundamentally altered the way I work and think, and I feel certain its contents are cross-applicable to any area of artistic or ideational activity.

And watching, above all: David Lynch's hands. I don't think I've ever seen Lynch talking extendedly before. Look at his hands! My God, he's like Rostropovich!

Oh and I'm going to have another go at a novel, I think. Writing one, I mean. Don't let me forget.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Immortal Brad

As a slightly curious postscript to yesterday's remarks about Robert Wilson:

You might have heard of the series of video portraits, mostly of slebs, that Wilson made for LAB HD, which was (until its closure at the end of 2005) a sort of high-definition VH-1 for video art.

The only one of these portraits it's easy to track down (though I'm going to stay on the trail for others -- would be fascinated to see the Steve Buscemi one...) is of Brad Pitt. So, sigh, you'll just have to make do with Brad in his shorts in a rainstorm. The whole thing is deeply, deeply peculiar.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

'Bob': a job; plus, To 'Hell' and back

"There is really no legal function to ballet."
-- William Forsythe

The good news -- and the bad news -- about Katharina Otto-Bernstein's new large-format biography of the theatre director Robert Wilson is that it's the companion volume to a documentary film of the same title: Absolute Wilson. The existence of the film prompts one to dare to hope that there will eventually be a DVD release, which would be great news for those of us who from time to time try to teach (and learn from) Wilson, and for video evidence have to rely on Mike Figgis's earnest but actually pretty shabby documentation for Artangel of Wilson's mid-90s Clink Street installation H.G., and (in my case) odd, worn-out clips from a fourth generation VHS of the BBC's 1985 Arena documentary The Theatre of Robert Wilson. (In fact, come to think of it, that's not even my tape. Eek. Sorry Katja, that's shameful of me.) Even in the small-format trailer for the movie, to see some familiar clips of key works cleared of the fog of tape wear and copy noise is genuinely exciting (as well as some footage of Christopher Knowles that I hadn't seen before). On the downside, it seems that Wilson fans and sceptics alike are also going to have to sit through pin-sharp footage of the great man behaving like a poseur, a prima donna and a prick. (And if he can cram that into the two minutes of the trailer, O Lord what horrors may await in the full-length movie...)

Actually, it is probably no bad thing, on balance, that Otto-Bernstein (who is also the director of the film) appears to have retained and sensibly protected a certain ambivalence at the heart of her admiration for her subject: and that Wilson clearly has made it his business, in co-operating with her, to allow himself to come across as humanly fallible as it seems he does. After all, Wilson's detractors -- and this is important partly because those dissenting spectators are always quick to use their lifeless wooden effigy of Wilson as a blunt stick with which to beat a whole model of theatre-making -- are often particularly offended by the cultishness he seems to inculcate in his followers, their quite slavish devotion to his cool authoritarian cruelties. It was Peter Porter who famously said of J.H. Prynne that he seeks "disciples, not readers": he might well have been mouthing, mutatis mutandis, the orthodox objection to Wilson. The problem for admirers-with-doubts, like me, is that Wilson hasn't always made it easy for us to defend him from such ungenerous readings. From his strikingly peculiar 70's habit of trying to adopt and cohabit with his young and disadvantaged male proteges, such as Raymond Andrews and Christopher Knowles, to his immensely controlled, brand-aware self-presentation, Robert Wilson has never gone far out of his way to soften the general impression of the frosty and paternalistic master of ceremonies, who disdains the trivial preoccupations and the bourgeois mores even of his friends and collaborators. An auteur with a capital H.

Part of the composition of this impression, and a salient factor in Wilson's undeniable oddness as a man, is the extreme repetitiousness of his own commentary on his life and work. His accounts, whether to press interviewers or lecture audiences, of many key moments and themes in the development of his practice, are more or less word-for-word identical, across gaps of ten or fifteen years. It's not just the obvious (and sometimes nearly platitudinous) crafting and rehearsal of these accounts that jars -- after all, many artists would probably come across similarly if they didn't work so hard at practising their spontaneity signals; it's the weird combination of having (apparently) stopped thinking in new ways about these critical events, with what consequently appears to be an ulterior design for the cementing of a rhythmically consistent personal mythology. Perhaps, given his extremely religious upbringing in Waco, Texas in the 40s, his sense is that to have real authority you have to sound as unchanging and as deliberate as the Bible.

At any rate, Absolute Wilson appears to blow quite a lot of this away. In both the book and the clips from the film, he comes across as, first and foremost, a flesh-and-blood hominid, and secondly, not as some airtight black-clad cult leader, but as a guy finding pleasure and excitement (and some human exhaustion) in his ludicrously busy, carbon-expensive working life. He talks quite openly and in what seems to be a relaxed manner about his personal life, his sexuality in particular, which I think is a first. (Some months back a Wikipedia reference to him being gay was quite hastily deleted, I recall.) He recounts some of the Wilsonian myths and legends in what appear to be somewhat freshened patterns, and the pompousness and frequent preposterousness of these occasionally downright magic-realist anecdotes is contextually offset, or at least sweetened, by the exasperated affection of longterm collaborators and devotees.

Above all -- so far, for me at least -- it's the testimony of his sister, and to an extent Wilson's own descriptions of his upbringing, that really help things fall into place. How does a weird little kid with a learning disorder (manifesting most obviously as a speech impediment) become an adult working with way-larger budgets than any other comparable director on many of the world's most prestigious stages (though not so much in the US -- a longtime sticking point...), earning the respect of Susan Sontag and the friendship of Jessye Norman and wheedling million-dollar investments out of wealthy New York 'intellectuals' with such charm and such tactical cunning that they're barely aware it's happening? It all must be, mustn't it, at some level, a performance? Wilson portrays himself as slightly disconnected from other people but I think he has a real understanding of what motivates people, and an almost cynical ability to present to them the behavioural and semiological cues of a smooth-operating artworld genius. It helps that I think he probably is, in so far as the term has any useful meaning, a genius in respect of visual design: which is almost entirely what his theatre is made from. (He's often touted as some kind of renaissance man, but this is specious at best; if you listen to his 'conversational' speech, or watch his Torch Dance from Einstein on the Beach, he's organizing everything from the visual plane inwards. Even his immaculate understanding of and affinity with time is, I would guess, visually organized within his own cognition. This is why he responded so quickly to Christopher Knowles's work, and why he continues to boast so happily that Knowles's mother told him that his notebook closely resembled Christopher's.)

So this is what you have to think about when you see the trailer for Absolute Wilson and there's that exruciating shot of him dandily throwing his scarf over his shoulder. He doesn't look like the archetypal posey theatre director; he looks like the archetypal posey undergraduate who thinks he will one day be Robert Wilson. He's the perfect postmodernist -- everything about him is imitative. Of course he recognizes no boundary between art and life: that's because, to borrow from his hero Gertrude Stein, there's no there there. In the book, and (as far as one can tell) the film, we can, perhaps for the first time, tell that Robert Wilson is a human being; I'm not altogether sure that he can. There are tales (all from friends and admirers) of monstrous behaviour that will make you wince so hard you'll strain your sacroiliac. But I would -- this is literally true -- I would in a trice swap 98% of the theatre created in the UK in the last five years for the closing three minutes of Wilson's production of A Dream Play. Which I would also recognize is by no means one of his most important achievements.

The a-ha moment for me with Robert Wilson (by which I mean, the point at which I finally comprehended my relation to his work, not the moment where we got chased down a pencil-sketched corridor by a creepy guy with a monkey wrench) was his lecture at the Barbican about three years ago, when The Black Rider was in town. I hadn't previously quite understood the strength, or rather the force, of his conviction that the stage is somewhere else, somewhere ineluctably non-real. In a way this is simply a fierce reaction to American (and British) naturalism, and he's absolutely right that the innate artificiality of the performance situation as it's normally contrived represents a problem to be solved rather than a web of conventions to be tacitly accepted. But he and I diverge completely in our approach to that problem. Where he strengthens the barriers, I want to soften them. To say that the stage is insolubly different from the space around it is, I think, merely to restate the problem at a higher and more definitive level. For him, it is absurd to mimic reality in an unreal space; for me, it is an unconscionable rejection of reality to accept and endorse an equally absurd discontinuity of apprehension in a continuously real place. What's more, there is, to my mind, an extraordinary poignancy in retaining and protecting the realness of the real space and in being candid about our relations (as actors and spectators) with it. Wilson's hard line is both easier and more difficult to sustain: easier because it allows for extended authorial control, and eliminates contingency; more difficult because it admits no room for error or for chance. Which to my mind is tantamount to saying, it refuses love. -- And yet, very many people do love Wilson's work. Actually I suspect what they really love is that it dependably (and evasively) describes a dream space, which my work can't, or won't, do. I admire Wilson very much for his singular vision, which I find more interesting and more useful than his plural 'visions'. His attachment to creation outwards from formal and structural intuitions, in particular, is strikingly close to my own. I don't know any other theatre makers, apart from him and me -- though no doubt they exist! -- who will be able to tell you what the 55th or the 74th minute of a piece will feel like long before it's cast or its narrative is developed or its surface scenario is even conceived.

I am, by the way, aware that it's very unlikely that Mr Wilson talks about me and him in the same breath. Or that anybody else does, anywhere.

O and good grief but he was beautiful when he was 20.

Having been reading (through the gaps between my fingers) the horrifying account of Wilson's partially abortive CIVIL warS project for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics -- if it's that traumatic to read, what must it have been like to live through? -- it's been kind of a relief that this last week's other artistic adventures have been characterised rather more by restraint and by the impressive reverberation of the withheld and the unexpressed.

It started with Kelly Reichardt's remarkable film Old Joy, in which Daniel London and Will Oldham play two old friends meeting up for a weekend camping in the Oregon countryside. In a way, it's exactly the kind of film you'd expect Oldham (aka Bonnie 'Prince' Billy) to be up for -- though he hasn't always been the most predictable in his choices of project; Sam reminded me last night of this little doozy -- but he and London both dig much deeper than any simplistic or superficial affinity would take them. This is not quite as pared down a movie as some of the (euphoric) reviews have suggested -- the two men do talk to each other quite a bit, and it's not all smalltalk by any means. I think the sense of incredible restraint in this film derives not from its open spaces (real and metaphorical) but from what is held back. There is a remarkable credibility in the complete refusal of the film to elaborate its own backstories. References are made to a shared history and to more recent events in the friends' lives that are thrown away, unelaborated, never picked up. And at the couple of instances where the pressure that builds all through the film finally pushes one of the protagonists into self-revelation, there is an almost immediate withdrawal: either the men back down or off, or the scene ends. What this adds up to is certainly the most successful rendering in film that I've ever seen of the dynamic procedure of a really good short story (which Old Joy originally was -- a short story, at any rate, I don't know if it's really good, but I'd guess it probably is). The last minute of the movie is as beautiful and as upsetting as anything I've seen at the pictures for a long time, and yet it's so barely there I could hardly describe it; and then, after less than an hour and a quarter, the film ends. There is such intelligence and tenderness in this film; sometimes I think I manage bravery in my work, and sometimes I think I manage poise, but to achieve both, with such economy and yet not a trace of coolness, is unbelievably impressive.

An equally notable restraint rather surprisingly characterises Emio Greco PC's Hell, which passed through the Barbican this week to an apparently muted reaction from audiences and some open hostility from critics. Having seen a couple of Greco and Scholten's previous works (Conjunto di NERO and Rimasto Orfano) in Edinburgh, where Greco was particularly in favour for a while, and having greatly admired that work but formed the suspicion that it could quite easily develop towards a kind of histrionic sensationalism, I had somewhat expected Hell, four years on, to confirm that promise -- not necessarily, but most likely perhaps, to its detriment.

So it was a surprise to find Hell more tightly and lucidly organised than that. Certainly there was, right from the start (a late 80's disco -- Taylor Dayne, indeed! -- standing in none-too-cryptically for the liminal terrors of Dante's "dark wood"), a finely wrought -- arguably slightly overwrought -- intellectual rigour to the piece, which meant that unfamiliar and disturbing patterns and cues were to the fore. One early component was the searchlight, a computer-controlled spotlight that tracked chillingly over the audience -- chills that were by no means dispelled by the on-stage presence of two of the same robot-like lights (one suspended above the other), reacting to unseen remote commands with bleakly humorous anthropomorphic twitching. (Heiner Goebbels took the same device much further in his brilliant Eraritjaritjaka a couple of years ago, but that was always cute rather than scary.) From the steep irony of the showbiz arc, twinkling with domestic-looking bulbs, through which the dancers initially enter, to the full-body charcoal-grey suits in which some dancers sporadically and momentarily portrayed others' shadows, there was an argument in the work about light and dark which seemed to reach far beyond the simplistic symbologies or the basic theological connotations of those states, to a more ambivalent and restless confrontation of exposure and concealment, of being hidden and being (literally) discovered.

Two things, ultimately, overcame my own ambivalence about the work as it proceeded -- though I have to say it was never, for a moment, not interesting. Firstly, I realized how much of the tonal ambiguity of the work could be partly resolved by watching the company and the mise en scene through Greco's own stage presence, which seems more easily to convey (or at least to carry) a sense of playfulness and of pleasure. Ultimately, he is dancing because he is a dancer, and we are to watch dancers dancing, not mute athletes engaging us in a pitiless, unwinnable game of charades. They are not dancing about anything, though there are ideas and propositions and questions in the mix which help us to situate our relation to their creative process. Once I'd worked out that I was indeed watching Greco (he is quite heavily disguised at the start of the performance), he became my Virgil in this disorienting vision of Hell. And the second of these convincing factors was close to the end, where Greco has his company dance naked to the first movement of Beethoven's 5th. This could feel lame in so many ways, but it ends up being a precarious and ultimately enthralling coup de theatre. Before this, he has already shown us these dancers exchanging costumes, invoking the persistence of the body beneath our privatised or familial or commercial identies: so this nakedness is literally stark, a hard-fought and unyielding essentialism, distinctly prior to the social and cultural significations that the piece has taken such jouissant pains to ruin. What's really exciting is how this seems to have sufficient power even to recuperate the Beethoven, probably the most overplayed, overburdened, overinvoked piece in the classical repertory. None of these accreted layers is dispelled, exactly, but the music is able in this context to be serious and struggling despite, not because of, its secondary connotations. Pace Helpmann or whoever it was, no, not everything does stop when the music does: my heart was pounding for the rest of the night and my head's still a little bit whirly even now.

And so last year's cavalcade of frankly exposed bodies seems to be continuing in 2007. I don't particularly seek this stuff out, honest. (When we were away, J. was looking through the wallet-full of favourite movies I'd brought with me. "Chris," he said, "why do all your DVDs have pictures of naked people on them?" Which wasn't quite accurate, but not far off.) When there's nudity even in a Will Oldham movie -- he quite breezily hops in a hot-tub, which was not what I expected -- what can you do? Meanwhile, over at Dennis Cooper's blog, there's been a fascinating participatory exercise (proposed by one of the regulars), in which the DC base submit naked pictures of themselves [scroll down past the JMC stuff!] -- though not necessarily explicit: it was made clear that a hand or a shoulder would be quite acceptable: in which light, the number of folks -- the young men in particular -- who have gone all the way -- and then some -- is striking and, in a funny way, rather encouraging: expressive, thoughtful, communitarian, rather than blandly and individually exhibitionist. As with the Completely Naked project, the questions arising around self-presentation and the languages and codes of self-imaging are complex and provocative in all the best, most generative ways. And similar thoughts arise from the excellent Collier Schorr's testing photographs in the current (February) issue of i-D.

This is all to the good not least because, sometime at the start of the year, the thinking and sketching I was doing towards my performance project The Goodman Portraits went really peculiarly and unexpectedly out of focus. Everything had been feeling very clear, and then suddenly it was all a bit fuzzy and obscure. Partly I suppose because Kiss of Life and the trip to Sydney in general, and also the gathering storm [the good kind!] around Speed Death of the Radiant Child in Plymouth, simply edged it out of my mind -- too much on the front-burner, not for the first time... And maybe I got to a point where I was so intensely into TGP that some of that ideation and desire burnt itself out. Or maybe my courage buckled when it started to be a practical reality instead of a prodigious daydream. For me, at least, it's once thing to be doing the sketching and planning for a project that will ask a lot of its participants in terms of its -- uh -- I hate this word, it's exactly wrong -- explicitness; as long as I can explain the serious questions and impulses that are behind it, that's fine. It's another thing to put the ad in the paper, send out the round-robin email... There's just some residual reticence. Maybe it's no more than a heightening of the usual fear -- that people will say no. I'm casting Speed Death at the moment and when people say no, or worse yet don't say anything at all, two anxieties crash into each other: I'm being rejected, and at the same time my advance sense of my work is being altered in quite forceful ways. Possibilities change -- of course others emerge, but that doesn't seem to compensate.

Also I suppose, in respect of The Goodman Portraits, I'm not feeling quite as fired up at the moment as I was at the end of last year. Getting something on that scale uptogether feels a bit daunting right now, especially in parallel with Speed Death, which is going to be a huge undertaking. Maybe this is just February talking, a slight wish to disappear under my duvet with a big book and a steady supply of vanilla tea. Anyway, I think TGP is slowly coming back into view. We'll see. I suspect there'll be more cowardly burbling on these pages before I get the ball properly rolling.

Something I've been quite excited by, finally: looking for info on Robert Lepage's new show, I got Googlepointed to this archive of John Tusa's interviews with cultural luminaries for Radio 3. I occasionally see these interviews in the radio listings but never seem to remember to listen: but they're all stacked up waiting to be worked through. For the Thompson-aligned, there are substantial (40-minute) conversations -- all with transcriptions -- with Lepage, Simon McBurney, William Forsythe (jaw-droppingly smart as usual), Merce Cunningham, Heiner Goebbels, Edward Bond, Deborah Warner, Gyorgy Ligeti, Elliot Carter, Michael Craig-Martin and Richard Serra. While for those who haven't been paying attention in class, there's David Hare and Anish Kapoor. (Click on the Forsythe link for a more easily navigable list of all the programmes.)

Tusa is arguably a borderline crackpot, of course -- an impression that his new role as chair of a Conservative party taskforce on arts policy does little to dent. But for all his harrumphing (of which there's a fair bit in these interviews) and somewhat patrician aspect, he's a massively capable man -- he seems to have been brilliant for the Barbican, though I don't know how affectionately he's regarded there; his classic Reithian instincts have put him on the right side of a number of arguments around the World Service and BBC arts provision, and the outline he gives the Guardian of the issues that he sees as likely to be raised in his new role is not by a long chalk foolish or pedestrian. In the light of the New Labour evasion and mediocrity that have led to the state of affairs magnificently nailed by Lyn Gardner in her most recent blog entry, I wouldn't be at all sorry to see the values that Tusa appears to uphold in the ascendant for a while. But then, like most old-school socialists, I've got a little bit of the grumpy old Telegraph reader about me. His lines of questioning in these interviews, anyway -- that's what I'm supposed to be writing about -- are sensible rather than quick or acrobatically intelligent, but a likeable enthusiasm for the maverick and the intellectually switched-on, and a concomitant distaste for the bogus, can certainly be made out in what he says and in the rapport that he seems to build with most of his subjects. Better still, he knows when to shut up and let these people talk. I've never heard Simon McBurney better (or, at any rate, less fanciful). I'd like to hear Tusa get hold of Robert Wilson one of these days.