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.

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