Sunday, November 30, 2008

Guess what they're selling at the happiness counter

Brrrrr. Winter draws on, as they used to not be allowed to say on the Home Service, and thoughts here at Thompson’s Bank -- we’re still waiting for our bail-out money, by the way, Mr Darling -- turn towards the year’s end. With the coming fortnight promised pretty much exclusively to the making of At Home, my project with Lucy Ellinson for Threshold, I fear the blog’s present somnolence is unlikely to be shaken overmuch between now and the end of the year. I’m planning a couple of substantial posts: one on the concept of sexual orientation (both in and out of artistic contexts), and one in commemoration of a personally significant anniversary, or more accurately the basically insignificant anniversary of a personally momentous event. That’ll take us to Christmas, I guess (unless Mr Pete Postlethwaite is of the contrary opinion, in which case, we might have to think again).

I’m in two minds about attempting a Furtive 50 this year (for new visitors: in previous years such as 2007 and, oh, let's see, 2006, I’ve posted during December a feature on favourite albums from the preceding twelve months); these posts have received gratifyingly warm responses and even helped with readers’ Christmas shopping a time or two, I believe – but it’s disproportionately time-consuming to do and I’ve had much less of my attention on new music in the second half of this year. It would be nice to have a pressing reason to catch up on all the stuff I’ve missed: but I’m also stymied by the woeful wireless connection here at home these days. It’s never been great but at the moment it’s next to useless. We’ve upgraded to something which BT tells us is called Home Hub 2.0. The evident advance on the last model is that, with the eyes of its NPD department apparently fixed on the looming Singularity, BT has made its new equipment artificially intelligent. Not really intelligent, you understand, just intelligent enough to react to its domestic data-transferral function with a kind of nihilistic despondency. The wireless signal is strong enough now but the hub really can’t be arsed to actually do anything. It needs to be manually rebooted every few minutes, giving a tiny window of usable time before it once again loses interest and forgets what it was doing. So getting anything done -- including this -- is a bit like trying to train seeing-eye cats for the blind.

Anyway, time will tell (and let’s factor in also my susceptibility to public opinion, on the slender offchance that any actually reaches me) what shows up here in due course and what doesn’t. For now, mindful that yr devoted but seldom gruntled Fat Controller has hardly radiated Olafur Eliasson levels of sweetness and light here -- or, in fact, anywhere -- in recent weeks, here’s a post full of things that I think are worth mentioning because they are, or might be, good, and deserve your attention over the next couple of weeks while I’m busy making my last (and smallest -- and that’s saying something...) show of the year.

Opinions may divide -- even within individuals -- on its subject, but Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms seems to me to be the best curated, best designed single-artist show at the Hayward since their brilliant Bruce Nauman retrospective several years ago. The rooms of the downstairs gallery (the upstairs is given over to the South African artist Robin Rhode) become quite distinctly organised zones, given queasy but hardly inapposite names such as ‘Cosmos’ and ‘Filmscape’: all of these regions are designed to induce in the visitor a strong feeling of immersion which is brightly suggestive of one of the exhibition’s apparent arguments. We tend to associate with Warhol a kind of disinterested flatness or remoteness, evidence for which is constantly presented throughout the show’s trajectory (which is not chronological but rather implies a sequence of unfolding ideas about the perception of depth and relational indices in different media). But even as we are asked to consider the nature of that distance and superficiality, we are experiencing a quite contrary sensation, of walking inside a much more dimensionalised portrait not of Warhol himself but of a whole milieu that we’re essentially being asked to think of as itself possibly his most significant work.

For example, the first room, ‘Cosmos’, presents, side-by-side, prints and works on paper, but also merchandise (we encounter the famous soup cans first as paintings and then reproduced in t-shirt form), documentation, press cuttings and other achival materials, books... -- in fact a whole yard sale of Warhol bric-a-brac, including the entire contents of one of his time capsules, full of publicity photos of the Beatles and correspondence from ingenuous young men asking to be cast in his movies. Whole arrays of Polaroids and contact sheets, showing stills from endless celebrity performances (not least Warhol’s own) which seem both staged and ad hoc, are viewed and re-viewed as participants in a kind of parallax play: when are they art, when are they not? Do we have a name for the middle ground? Is it something to do with culture, perhaps? (See, by the way, Alison Croggon’s quite brilliant recent post on the operations of culture -- amongst other things -- which was a really useful portable frame through which to trace the slippages and eddies in which this profoundly mischievous show narrates itself.) Perhaps it’s something to do with the way the marketplace barely sustains, or is interested in, a distinction between art and corollary artefact. Interestingly, those items which seem most incontrovertibly to be artworks rather than documentary effects, such as the Marilyns and the soup cans, are mostly placed highest in the room, way way up towards the ceiling, so that they can barely be seen and certainly not scrutinised. (The exceptions are the less iconic gold-leafed drawings, which would disappear at that distance.) It seems an almost preposterously literal response to Factory associate Rene Ricard’s injunction, in his brilliant and seminal essay ‘The Radiant Child’, that artists have a responsibility to “raise” their work “above the vernacular.” Perhaps there’s some truth in it -- though one would probably want to quibble with ‘responsibility’ -- but the feeling is that the mise en chambre of ‘Cosmos’ almost pokes fun at this attitude. The art that rises (like hot air, perhaps) out of the demotic hubbub starts to feel like a barely relevant by-product in a complex process of fractional distillation where the real action, the real information, is on the floor, at eye- (and ear- and mouth-) level. (Ricard ultimately knew this better than anyone, carefully positing a crucial distinction between “work that is information [and] work that is about information”; on these terms, Warhol’s signed, sealed, delivered art products are merely about the information that circulated so cogently within the cultural milieu of Warhol’s Factory.)

Other zones bring together Warhol’s films -- nineteen of them, all playing in loop on large-ish screens -- and, fascinatingly, videotapes of the cable TV shows he helmed in the early 80s for various channels including the nascent MTV. This array of suspended television screens rather beautifully spatializes a grammar of spectation that MTV is more or less credited with inventing or ushering in – a much more disjunctive, fast-cutting, alogical, multilayered style than heretofore, which anticipates and mimics the way in which having a short attention span would become a sort of prestige value in that decade: the viewer is both less and more engaged -- less prepared to sit passively in front of whatever she’s given, readier to flip channels or (all together now) go out and do something less boring instead; but inclined also perhaps to premature judgement, seeking immediate gratification or easy stimulation. In this so-called “TV-scape” (yuck, but yeah, OK), you hop from seat to seat, finding what somebody else is watching at the edge of your field of vision suddenly more intriguing than the programme you’ve just plugged into. There are odd glimpses of, say, pre-stardom Pee Wee Herman, or Nick Kamen months before the stopwatch starts on his own fifteen -- OK, eleven -- minutes of fame, or Rockets Redglare on the door at the Red Bar, or the debut of Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot (the ludicrously skinny and limber lead singer with Warhol proteges Curiosity Killed the Cat), or (most bizarrely) a young Kevin Spacey in weird stand-up/performance art mode; and of course there’s Philip Glass, there’s Debbie Harry, there’s Divine... And then there’s countless more-or-less interchangeable male models and female dancers, and lots of weird segments of Warhol himself being made to do aerobic exercise by some fearsome trainer. It’s enthralling: but what does it all add up to? Well, it adds up to itself, I guess, and the movements that it implies. Its unspoken slogan is perhaps that peerless, quintessential 80s couplet: “Keep feeling fascination / Looking, learning, moving on.” In other words, it wraps what seems like a nearly devotional concern for haecceity -- and, indeed, for beauty, whatever that may mean at any moment -- with a powerful, self-defeating restlessness that sits acutely and not unintelligently in a hard-to-discern interzone between inquisition on the one hand and acquisition on the other. What intrigues particularly is how this trigger-happy, gregarious, nearly (though seldom quite) dilettante aesthetic sits alongside the films: their slowness, their staticness, their restraint -- not least the early apogee of the eight-and-a-half hour Empire. In a way the TV shows simply make pornographically explicit what the early films erotically implied: never really expecting the spectator to slow down their perceptual relations with the work to match the velocity of their self-divulgence, those movies seem to me simply to present sites for an order of speculative proliferation that is deeply subjective. What changes in the ensuing twenty years is the reproductive technologies that will exteriorise and limitlessly broadcast that same quasi-frictionless traversal of a self-assembly conceptual field, powered and reframed by the emphases of privatisation and deregulation that the dispassionate self-regard of the earlier work is already incubating.

There is absolutely nothing to be gained by noting here, as everybody presumably does for themselves anyway, that despite the hundreds of representations of Warhol in this show, not only in publicity shots and portraits and press cuttings but also in seemingly endless reels of self-archiving documentary video, we never get closer to him, blah; maybe there’s no “there” there, blah encore. It’s kind of true: but additionally and contrarily an implied portrait emerges of an extremely smart, switched-on artist and thinker, and a generous and engaged man for whom -- as is the case for present-day luminaries such as Dennis Cooper and John Waters -- kindness, graciousness, and a sincere interest in what others have to say are fundamental operating principles which by informing the moment-to-moment interaction with others necessarily inform by consequence the emergent work, even that part of the work that rises most airily (and, in Warhol’s case, lucratively) above the melee of the vernacular. Warhol has always, more or less inevitably, come to mind whenever I recall Iain Sinclair’s brilliant encapsulation of celebrity (in Suicide Bridge): “The act of stardom is to ... spray anonymity in gold light.” The pleasure in Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms is in how obvious it becomes that Warhol was quite actively seeking that light, in order to use it to illuminate others. In a way, he is a perfect theatre director, a brilliant maker of performance spaces and of opportunities for human encounter; only his attachment to the archive rules him out. (Even so, without Warhol, there is probably no his horses on my own CV, and no Hey Mathew -- though he wasn’t at all a conscious influence on either.)

In that respect it’s particularly interesting to consider what feels to me like the most successful of the films: his portrait of the great curator Henry Geldzahler. I hadn’t seen this one before, and was gripped by it, moved finally and unexpectedly to tears. It immediately (like, the next day) follows Empire in the oeuvre, but its unblinkingness is quite different, both scarier and more tender. Geldzahler is no conventional beauty (though he has a sweet, flustered voluptuousness), and as his experience of having the camera trained on him seems to turn from game to ordeal, his squirming becomes at first amusing and then deeply affecting. Perhaps we read in that discomfort what later is made clear from the accompanying text: unlike most of Warhol’s films, the artist wasn’t present during the filming of Henry Geldzahler: its subject was left alone with the camera. This loss to the exchange of the presence of Warhol as witness seems to me to deprive it of the kind of benign equity that is so important (often infuriatingly so) in coming to the artist’s other work. It’s odd, because the absence merely acts out what one takes to be Warhol’s disinterest (not un-interest); but that witnessing presence is, I’d suggest, across so much of Warhol’s work, something else before it cancels itself. It signals a desire to be present rather than not: which is either the minimum commitment required in the making of an artwork, or the whole of it, or its almost unimaginable horizon, but is anyway fundamental, and too frequently omitted in so much that is superfluously made.

This sits tellingly alongside another notable feature of the work presented in the show: how remarkably unerotic it is. I’ve always assumed that erotic attentiveness was more or less part of the architecture of the Factory, and indeed it may have been: Warhol’s own self-isolating voyeurism, which anyway is far from the whole story about his sex life, may have partly set the tone but there was clearly a hotter permissiveness at work too. (And after all there’s only a little breathing space between this work and Paul Morrissey’s Flesh, an unimpechably erotic piece of cinema – though admittedly this work is post-Warholian in more than one important sense; nor is Lonesome Cowboys in this show, which is unfortunate.) Wherever there is some sense of the erotic here it is either stifled by restraint – I’m afraid I don’t buy the received view that Blow Job is made sexier by the fixed focus on the facial expression of its blown subject – or disabled by a self-conscious silliness which barely even achieves the shagpile depth of camp. (Vide, or don’t, The Nude Restaurant; or, for that matter, the video in which Warhol, in typically benign and sanguine earnest, regards an artist drawing a portrait of him using a pencil stuck up his ass.) What we see, again and again, is a dismantling of the apparatus of eroticism in the service of the free exchange of surface and imitation. The geuinely erotic seems to incite a depth of sensation that presents a clear and present danger to the economy of the Factory and the wider circulation of Warhol as tender. As I’ve suggested, this may be a misperception brought about by the content of this show, which may in turn have been limited by Warhol’s estate, say; e.g. if I remember correctly, John Waters not so long ago curated a show of Warhol’s porn – not only that which he owned, but that which he made. So that material, were it here, might put a different complexion on things. But what we see here – and I’m inclined to trust this to a certain extent because it seems to explain so much else – is a modus operandi predicated substantially on the defusing of sexuality as a way of being able to acknowledge it without, as it were, yielding to it, and to its most radical implications in terms of its plausible threat to the series of complicities and acquiescences that Warhol himself would have to enact in order to become available (and by extension acceptable) to the widest possible audience. (I mean this not only in relation to public discomfort or disapproval of homoeroticism, but more fully with regard to the sense on which Warhol is dependent, both in his work and at the centre of his circle, that the interchangeability of elements, the tradeability of artefacts and ideas, is essentially free, and/or structured by market forces rather than specific instances of ethical or civic or historic consideration). The attachment to surface, to repetition, to the flip-flip-flip of the remote, and perhaps above all to scopophilia, is manifestly protective: but it’s incapable of closing down its own political ramifications, and can only hope therefore to be prettier than they are. (Which it mostly is.) If Warhol as theatre director – as witness and as author of spaces for encounter and contemplation – is a deeper and more provoking presence than Warhol as painter (or simply as signature), this seems to resonate with Zizek’s suggestion that, quite contrary to the widely credited assumption that we find ourselves now in an age where irony and critical distance have supplanted old narratives of value and in which “nobody believes anything any more”, in fact the strenuous contortions of our self-distancing language and our ironic remoteness only signal our terrible fear of those narratives, in which, at heart, we believe now more strongly than ever. Warhol, like Wilde, is, both aesthetically and personally, viable only if sex is reduced to decor, if death is a kind of wallpaper: otherwise, the fear of haecceity -- not its face but its fathomlessness -- rushes in as surely and as claustrophobically as it did for Hopkins, say.

I’ve now been back to this exhibition four times, and I suspect I may catch it again before it closes on January 18th. Before it is everything else that it is, it is exciting, stimulating, wildly productive, and -- as my repeat visits perhaps suggest -- ultimately profoundly unsatisfying. But I choose that ‘profoundly’ with care.

Nothing else will detain us quite so long: no reflection on it, only on my own stamina.

A quick round-up of other worthwhile art stuff should begin with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s delightful and unsettling Frequency and Volume, at the Barbican Curve also till January 18th. The concept is high, not complex but effective: walking into the gallery, your shadow is cast large on the white wall; your shape, your outline in silhouette, is analysed by computer and translated into a particular radio frequency; that frequency is then played back into the room, meaning that, as you walk through the gallery, your movement becomes the action of tuning and retuning (and volume-controlling) a radio.

The pleasures of this are initially simple: it’s fun to throw shapes (and to watch others doing so too) and interesting to move through the different stations that are activated as a result. I quite quickly found myself adopting a compositional relationship with the room, trying to locate the most satisfactory sound layers to add to whatever was already being produced. (Which is how I came to find myself protractedly tuned in to a harp recital on Classic FM, a station I normally can’t abide.) The idea of the body as tuner is also nicely suggestive on a not-too-precise metaphorical level: we all seem to have this vague sense of receiving signals, of being constantly bombarded with voices which we pick up or tune out (I’ve always loved the typo on the original sleeve of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon which inadvertently retitles the song ‘Road’ as ‘Radio’); and in fact I was reminded of the suggestive thesis that Nigel Kerner airs in his hysterical Song of the Greys, a book about alien visitation with which I was much taken at the time that we were making The Consolations several years ago, that the human skeleton, ‘designed’ as it is partly for the efficient conduction of sound in utero, is a perfectly shaped aerial “for transmitting and receiving the radio wavelength equivalent of the pre-electromagnetic spectrum i.e. Thought”: which is one of those varieties of bullshit that nonetheless seem to tell us something quite usable about what we want to do with ourselves.

After a while, darker resonances start to emerge. For a start, certain of the identified transmissions cannot, after all, be heard: we can tune ourselves in to the sound of satellites (gorgeous!) or radio astronomy but – “owing to UK legislation” (presumably the purview of Ofcom?) – no sources that aren’t intended for public use: so, no air traffic control, no navigation channels, no emergency services: these are censored. Furthermore, one’s sense of the whole experience shifts, for example, on seeing (as I did) somebody walk straight through the gallery completely unaware that she was being tracked by motion sensors and surveillance technologies. Suddenly, the space that Lozano-Hemmer has created feels much more complicatedly wrought, much more hemmed in by the kind of authoritarian encroachment on our private movements and communications to which we have now become accustomed and more or less resigned, if we are aware of it at all: and, to that degree, it’s kind of a trivial playground response to that invasive pressure. But the artist is at least consciously folding these questions into the mix, and in terms of the kinds of gallery behaviours that it encourages, Frequency and Volume is probably my favourite interactive artwork since I first encountered Jeppe Hein’s still-matchless Disappearing Rooms.

If you didn’t catch it then you’ve missed Roberto Cuoghi’s sound installation Ć uillakku at the ICA. Well, no matter. This was an impressive but unproductive piece, a quarter-hour audio loop of arguably overemphatic and at times drearily figurative exotica, attempting a sort of imaginative reconstruction of ancient Assyrian ritual. My students were blown away by it but I found it pretty unengaging, except at a technical level (a really sharp eight-channel mix full of clever spatial ideas): but then I have no imagination. They closed their eyes and imagined themselves in dark and spooky spaces surrounded on all sides by gibbering glossolaliac bogeypersons. I sat on the floor and enjoyed looking at the eight vaguely anthropomorphic speakers on their speaker stands, like bargain bin Giacomettis out of Maplins. Afterwards I recalled a music lesson at infant school: being played (aged seven), by a pretty progressive teacher it now strikes me, the first half of The Rite of Spring, and asked to draw whatever pictures were evoked by the music in my young mind. Completely uncomprehending of the task, and in some desperation, I drew a tree – having some sense that classical music was generally about trees, as was spring – and received a very low mark for it. Well, sorry, but the music didn’t remind me of anything: it was just itself, speaking for itself, arguing with itself. Of course the Rite is programmatic enough that I’m on shaky ground here: so, OK, more fool me. I just don’t get pictures when I listen to music. Cuoghi’s installation interested me mostly because it was only sound and entirely that. In a drab white-walled carpeted room we sat surrounded by speakers whose cables weren’t even primly tidied away. It’s quite rare to visit a gallery-based sound installation that makes no concessions whatever to the usual visual tropes of a gallery: there’s almost always some element of design, even if it’s just about low light or suspending the speakers or something. Here there was nothing but raw materials, and I rather liked that. Whether Cuoghi will turn out to be interesting, I’ve no idea; at a rough guess I’d say probably not, though this sort of overheated pictorialism certainly seems to be staging some sort of comeback.

A quick mention of Conversations at Kettle’s Yard, too (also now closed): there wasn’t much in it to get very excited about but I liked the idea – an assemblage in one space of a series curated over the course of a year by the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh, pairing older and younger artists with the broad general expectation that the younger person’s work somehow speaks to the elder’s. In practice this produces its best results when the younger artist is specifically responding to the earlier work shown: Cerith Wyn Evans makes a beautiful, and highly informed, response to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Star/Steer’; Callum Innes sensitively encounters Hiroshi Sugimoto – it’s hardly thrilling but it feels right; I don’t think Ceal Floyer’s ‘Door’ is made specifically in response to Dan Flavin but it’s a cute, funny, gently deflating comment anyway. By comparison, those pairings that are very obviously not bespoke or even authorised by the younger artist tend to misfire: most conspicuously the baffling pairing of an early Richard Serra film piece with a few of Francesca Woodman’s photographs, onto which conjunction not even the accompanying critical flatus can confer even the mildest coherence — in fact, both artists suffer from the match. Bolder inclusions are hit-and-miss in practice: it’s great to see a Howard Skempton score exhibited as a visual artwork, though the paired-up James Hugonin, attractive though his work is, has nothing to add; Robert Burns’s breakfast table, on the other hand, turns out to be, uh, pretty boring: which at least makes it consonant with the Rachel Whiteread piece alongside it. Mostly, though, I am bugged by the rubric. How are any of these pairings truly Conversations? We may be able to produce conversational readings, sure, but we’ll do this with any two items placed next to each other. The pack of tissues and box of paperclips sitting together next to my computer will produce reams of practical criticism (or sub-Hollyoaks dialogue for that matter) if I sit with them long enough. The curators behind Conversations presumably intend something more than this, something further. Well, fair enough, but what they can’t mean, surely, is ‘conversations’. There was similar nonsense around the word ‘translation’ a few years back. It’s useful to be able to use these terms to refer to quite particular kinds of transaction. For the most part, the activity that’s taking place in the Kettle’s Yard exhibition seems to me to have more to do with a kind of curatorial game of Alzheimer’s Pelmanism that’s ended too soon: which is, after all, more or less indistinguishable at a conceptual level from a game of musical chairs where there are always enough chairs. And there’s no music.

I mentioned in these pages a few weeks ago the death of the exceptionally gifted, and in a dozen other ways exceptional too, American writer David Foster Wallace: but didn’t dwell on it at the time. Probably enough has been said elsewhere now in estimation of Wallace’s work and talents to obviate my less-informed participation in that exercise. But I do want to draw to the attention of Wallace’s fans hereabout the tribute edition of KCRW’s Bookworm that’s just been released. For those who don’t know the programme -- I’ve referred to it here before, but not for a while -- Bookworm is a longrunning series (now available as a free podcast from iTunes and the KCRW web site) of extended interviews with writers (most often novelists), conducted by an amiably purring fellow called Michael Silverblatt who just happens to be an astoundingly smart and perceptive and ingenious reader of books. (Those of us Brits who live with Radio 4 may be forgiven for wondering what such a person can possibly be doing hosting a book programme...)

Anyhoo. Bookworm has marked Wallace’s passing with a re-run of an interview he did with Silverblatt shortly after the publication of Infinite Jest in 1996. The conversation is of a quite astonishing calibre and in a way the most moving thing about it is not hearing Wallace talk about his ideas and working process but hearing how surprised and delighted he is by the attentiveness of Silverblatt’s reading of his work, by how tuned-in Silverblatt is. (I quite agree, it’s incredible; I don’t subscribe to Bookworm but I’ve heard probably twenty of these interviews and I’ve literally never heard Silverblatt make a remark or observation or ask a question that seems on the wrong track.) It’s poignant in this context because we tend to think of someone like Wallace as an intellectual, game-playing writer, and perhaps underestimate his emotional and physical investment in his work: so when he actually recognizes his novel in Silverblatt’s discussion of it, he’s audibly touched. “I feel like asking you to adopt me,” he says at one point. It’s quite beautiful, oddly intimate, like overhearing two people realizing that they’ve fallen in love.

My own reading fancies have been most tickled of late by a small but hugely resonant book just out from Reality Street, Paul Griffiths’s let me tell you. I almost feel reluctant to appear to be plugging another Reality Street book after my keen endorsement of the Reality Street Book of Sonnets a few months ago: not least because I got my ear quite roundly cuffed by Geraldine Monk on one of the poetry listservs for giving what she felt was a partial and distorting account of that anthology’s contents. This is one of the problems with writing appreciations on a blog like this of stuff one feels enthusiastic about: one doesn’t write with the care or the calm formal attitude with which one might compose a review for print publication, say. I imagine that I’m talking to friends here, and though I’m always happy to be quoted if anything I say can be useful in putting more readers in touch with a book or whatever, it’s oddly jarring, like a category error, to then be taken to task for what I’ve said as a consequence, or at least to be so vehemently disagreed with outside of these pages. One feels a bit like an actor in a soap opera being duffed up in Sainsbury’s because of something his character did in the previous night’s episode.

Fortunately, Let Me Tell You doesn’t produce (in this reader, at least) quite such a whoosh of adrenalin, so let’s hope I can express my approval of this work in soberer and less contentious terms. Again, there’s a high concept to this book that can be simply explained: the narrative voice is Opehlia, and the author allows himself to use only those words actually spoken by Ophelia in Hamlet. So on one level this is a rare British contribution to the corpus of Oulipian literature: and worth celebrating as such. However, like all the best Oulipian or constraint-based works, it wonderfully exceeds its exact perimeter. Which is not to say that it transcends the pressures exerted by its formative constraints: that would be silly, really. The prose has just a shade of strangeness, of stiltedness about it, even at its most fluent:

Mine is a memory made, as all memory is made, of what was and what should have
been. Wish is close to memory, and will find a way in. Wish will not be denied.
We all know that. Your memory is not one but many – a long music you have made
and will make again, over and over, with some things you know and some you do
not, some that are true and some you have made up, some that have stayed from
long before and some that have come this morning, some that will go tomorrow and
some that have long been there but you will never find them, not if you look
from now to your last day, for there is no end to memory.

And of course the lexis is sufficiently small that over the course of this 130-page book, the patterns of repetition and cross-beating slowly become hypnotic, sometimes befuddling. So it is a vital part of the success of the work that it is not quite able to, presumably not seeking to, rise above its limits; it doesn’t want you to forget what shapes it. But it does exceed, lyrically, hauntingly, its limited life as a game or exercise. The breakages and small bathetic failures of its textures and materials, the gaps and fissures within which the language reverberates, start to speak for themselves, about the homelessness, the terrible wandering madness, of the disembodied voice within such an insistent text. We start to hear something almost like a computer voice -- like HAL, say, in 2001: A Space Odyssey: this artificial Ophelia likewise has just enough intelligence to be paranoid; so much of her expressivity rests on polysemy, and yet if these few words are all she has, how is she to trust them when they’re so unstable? It is a sad, beautiful, limpid book. Were he living, Edward Lear would read it and weep; Veronica Forrest-Thompson, likewise, might bat an eyelid, were she.

As ever, the greater proportion of my day-to-day reading at the moment is online. The blog I’d most like to recommend, or rather the one I’m most enjoying, is Whateverall, my friend Jonny Liron’s space. Occasionally a two- or three-paragraph post will emerge, usually teasing out some question about theatre and its audiences, or language and its users: but mostly, at least for now, the blog advances itself through single lines and phrases. This extreme fragmentation is not a model I’ve seen used before in a blog and it can be devastatingly effective, particularly given the tension between Jonny’s emotional candour and his seductive performative esprit, and also the open and apparent influence of alcohol on some of the late-night posts. It’s as if he’s fed a ripped-up assortment of journal entries, love letters and suicide notes into a shredder, and is compelled every so often to grab a fistful of the output and try to turn it back into shards of convulsive prose. Certainly it’s as close as I, or presumably anyone, will ever come to receiving nocturnal text messages from Rudolf Schwarzkogler. It ain’t always pretty but it’s always, one way or another, true, and you can’t say that about many blog writings. Unfortunately I can’t point you in the direction of Whateverall just now, as a perceived incompatibility between the content of the blog and Jonny’s current acting day-job means he’s had to move the whole thing underground for the time being. When it reemerges into the public domain I’ll be sure to let you know: though I may at that point have cause to regret one or two of my own late-night worse-for-wear comments there...

In the meantime, a couple of relatively new blogs on the block are worth making a passing fuss of. Longtime compadre Tassos Stevens, one of the undersung geniuses of British theatre and presiding godfather of the emergent performance territory of alternate reality gaming (not a satisfactory phrase but he, and you likewise, will forgive the unnicety), now has a play space where he can frequently be spotted thinking through stuff he’s seen and heard and been pondering in the rainforest depths of his winterval beard. Tassos looks more like Slavoj Zizek than anyone else I know, including Zizek himself. But that’s beside the point. (Which means it must be a rubbish point.) Well, heigh ho, what am I trying to say. Simply expressed in terms of, say, ideas per cubic minute, Tassos, and by extension Tassos’s blog, are about as good as it gets if you’re interested in where we’re going and what the top speed is of the handcart in which we’re going there. I hope he isn’t lost altogether to Theatre As She Is Spoke: we can use his brain here too. But in the meantime, you’ll want to keep one eye on what he’s up to, even – no, especially – when you’re asleep.

Another hugely welcome recent addition to the blogroll is Performance Monkey, home to a brilliantly smart and engaging critic called David Jays, to whom I have no connexion to disclose save that (I think) I did We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg! in his flat one time. The scope and the confidence of Performance Monkey is really thrilling and encouraging, particularly with Postcards... so quiet and folks like Dan B and Alex F apparently missing in action. I only discovered it a few weeks ago but it’s already established itself as a must-read.

I’ve also added to the list a couple of blogs that I’d simply foolishly overlooked till now: the performance makers Third Angel (whose lovely Presumption seems to have gone down well at Southwark Playhouse – it’s there till the end of the coming week if you haven’t seen it yet); and the poet Jeff Hilson, my boggling admiration for whom has already been spelt out in these pages to infinity and beyond.

Finally, for those who get through this post in time, an interesting sounding event at the Royal Court tomorrow, trailed here by the excellent Dan Rebellato. I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it, sadly, but I’m sure there’ll be reports.

And that’s about it, I think. I mean, obviously, get the new BBC Radiophonic Workshop anniversary CD before they absent-mindedly delete it and it starts changing hands for seventy quid on eBay. And, if you haven’t already (and of course you have) you’ll want to admire the spectacle of Stephen Fry channelling Jay-Z.

Nothing, though, I have to say, has pleased me more in the past few days than discovering that this easy-on-the-eye young fellow...

-- an actor by the name of Cole Williams who plays one of the eponymous brothers in an absolutely barking, wildly incoherent but weirdly likeable American indie film from a couple of years ago called Harry and Max, which describes an incestuous relationship between two sibling popstars presumably modelled on Nick and Aaron Carter, or the screenwriter’s fantasies thereof... -- where was I? Oh yes, so the highly pleasing and estimable Cole Williams turns out to be the son of one of the guys who wrote ‘The Rainbow Connection’. Even in the small world that it undoubtedly is, there’s something so satisfactory about that, I can’t believe it didn’t come giftwrapped.

Keep warm, my dears, and I’ll see you in a while or two.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"You must remember this..."

Oooh. Ow. Yes. Bit much, that last one, wasn't it. Sorry. As Schopenhauer more or less implies outright in Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, public masturbation is OK, and dressing up as Edward Scissorhands is OK, but masturbating while dressed as Edward Scissorhands is basically not OK. So to anyone who was perturbed by last night's blood and screaming, my sincere apologies.

It really was just the rain talking, I think, and a bit of leftover tiredness. Today, despite my not really having slept, it only took a bit of blue sky, combined with happening upon It's Better To Travel (the first Swing Out Sister album, from 1986, with Richard Niles's horn & string arrangements managing somehow to encapsulate and then outdo the entire history of human achievement, roughly speaking) on my iPod, to turn things around. So you're a happy bunny today, dear saggy old Controlling T? No, I'm still The Picture of Anguish and Lovelorn Self-Involvement, but as somebody brilliant once said -- I wish I could remember who; I'm sure it'll come back to me -- if a person has a communication problem, the least they can do is to shut up about it. I'm not going to delete the post -- if I erased everything here that in the cold light of the following day looked a bit misjudged, you'd be able to fit The Complete Thompsons on a beermat -- but I am going to distance myself slightly from the worst of its gruesomeness.

What really comes back and socks me in the gob from last night's post is how much I need to return my attention to finding a way of getting re-attached to a venue of some kind. It feels like last night's blinkered recourse to self-reproach and fretful vanity is sort of the default state for collapsing into when one's nerve fails or falters as an "individual" artist: and at these times I miss standing instantly and inextricably for a set of ideas that's bigger than my own ability to contain and activate them as a sole trader. And not having to generate one's own continuity seems increasingly vital -- I feel more and more like Gromit in that sequence in The Wrong Trousers, having to lay track by hand in front of the speeding toy train he's riding. I mean, Jonny's facetious-looking comment from last night is probably ultimately correct: theatre-making is pretty much the art of working incredibly hard for as long as possible with the aim of amounting to precisely nothing -- no residue, no surplus prestige. (Remember Derek Jarman telling Jeremy Isaacs at the end of their Face to Face encounter that he wanted his films to just disappear after his death. Not for the first time, Jarman seems a more theatrically inspired artist than most theatre-makers: though of course he spoke from what must have been by then the certain knowledge that his films would survive, even if they were to fall into neglect at some point: and that has to be, doesn't it, a position of some kind of strength, as regards what feels like a not wholly ignoble human desire to be of some consequence...) But my fear of ending up (and before terribly long, actually) unusable as an artist is not about the sense of legacy or of having a name that's known or some kind of visible status, but simply of being able to get gigs, being able to work at the only thing I know how to do. If I fall off the tightrope now -- and, fuck, last night, I felt precarious enough to really be wondering about this, and I feel that more frequently as time goes on rather than less -- how quickly do I just vanish? How quickly do the three dozen people who are paying close attention to my work stop paying attention to the space where I used to be? That's the scary thing. That the ephemerality of the work itself is beautiful and correct but that one's constantly living in the midst of that nothing.

(Actually partly I'm just feeling sorry for myself because, having been working solidly all year -- and this is the first year I've done that, where there haven't been yawning gaps in the diary -- I still can't afford to buy a half-decent digital piano. Which is about the only material thing my heart desires, and has for some years, and every year I think maybe this year will be the one... Well, maybe next year, innit. In the meantime, let me eat Omnichord.)

An interesting moment today at college where one of my students stopped me in mid-sentence at 11am and asked that we observe the two minutes' silence. I hadn't even thought about it. It was good to be jolted into that space -- particularly by someone younger (and not British) -- and also interesting, on the other side of it, to nudge the group slightly towards a conversation about the memorial functions of performance -- the silence being a strongly and significantly performative act in a way I guess I hadn't really thought about before -- and how these relate to the built-in lossiness of theatre, both in relation to its low signal-to-noise ratio and in its total predication on the ephemerality I've been talking about here. The really smart person on theatre as a site for the invocation -- indeed the presentation -- of loss, and the mnemonic preservation of absence, is Theron; I might see if he's willing to have a transcribable conversation about it for these pages. I love the idea of locating the vital political commitment of not-forgetting in some other place than the public monument, which is (or can often be) so stilted and aggressive; I love the idea of theatrical remembrance as something that has to be held in common by all those present; I love how the fundamental evanescence of the form becomes a civic challenge rather than a prompt for a kind of desireless resignation. I wonder if that in itself could be a route out of these (certainly anyway temporary) doldrums to do with what all this, all of us, might add up to. I might go back to some of John Fox and Sue Gill's writings in this area, too.

Yes, so yes, yes, there's makeable work, and we put one foot in front of the other, and I have to remember how vastly bigger the context of the work I'm doing is than the life I'm trying to do it in. And I guess I have to try and remember also that untrammelled sadness is kind of a drag on the ticket, and incontinent self-exposure likewise perhaps. But also, ow; which is where we came in. But fuck, it matters. Love -- to give it its rotten jargony technical name -- matters, doesn't it, above, or below, everything, whether or not it's speakable or makeable right here right now, because everything else, the work, the urge, is about ensuring that love has its rightful place, and is not strangled or casually contemned, and will eventually make sense of the other promises we make, which all attest finally only to the possibility of love, in the way that we know certain particles exist only because ingeniously we see the traced aftermath of their collisions. And that's all this is, this outpouring these last few days, and at the Hey Mathew blog, and in all the places where I've been of late. I'm just fidgeting in my heart, to see if there's a way of doing this more comfortably. Unfortunately, now that I (think I) know myself a little better than I did, and understand the twisting narratives that have gone into making me, I see that I'm split right down the middle and that exactly fifty per cent of me is soppy and clingy and wants to climb inside its den and stay there for ever; the other exactly-half is made of sterner stuff and knows love is actually bracing and propulsive and sends us out in to the world to give ourselves away unstintingly. Neither impulse wins out. This is, if nothing else, a good argument for having an odd number of parents.

Meantime, just call me Negative Capability Brown. (That should be a paint shade.)

Today, for the first time in my life, I thought quite hard for a few minutes about the idea of redemption. I wonder what that's going to end up meaning.

On which topic, actually: P.S. I'm reading with Harry Gilonis, Luke Roberts and Karen Sandhu (and Allen Fisher via ectoplastic transpixelification) at Openned, at the Foundry (Old St kinda neck of the woods), next Tuesday, November 18th. It's free to get in, even. This is the last of the present funny little glutlet of poetry outbursts from yrs truly; please come and rattle your jewellery. Without you I'm nothing.

Fulfilling our foray (or not)

Although it's one of the best-received posts I've published in these pages, I kind of wish I'd never written that thing a few weeks ago about sadness. It feels almost impossible now to use this space to explore that kind of mood without everything tipping into some sort of ghastly self-parody -- what used to be called, in relation to Morrissey in particular, miserablism. (A little Googling indicates that the coinage is Neil Tennant's, which could surely be the straw to break the back of feebler camelids than me...) A painful post mortem discussion of Hey Mathew indicated clearly how insidiously, inadvertently, the present closeness to my skin and language of sadness and vulnerability became sort of tyrannical (my word, nobody else's) in the rehearsal room, or kind of hectoring, and unassailable, in something like the way that some critics took exception to the apparently impervious 'victim art' of Bill T. Jones's memorably beautiful Still / Here. How can one speak against it? Wouldn't it feel like scolding a frightened dog?

There's a built-in imbalance to this space, too. I still don't know who impressed in my mind the notion that the ideal relationship to have with one's writing (or creative work of whatever kind) is that you take everything to it -- your sadness, your happiness, your inspirations, your frustrations; perhaps most importantly, your doubt in relation to your work, and your inability to write what you want to write: but, at any rate, it feels more and more that Thompson's is functioning lopsidedly in that respect. That I turn to it only with doubt and unhappiness; that when things are full-on Tony-the-Tiger grrrreat -- as they sometimes are, I promise you -- I'm much too busy playing on the swings and generally pretending to be in an early Housemartins video to come here and tell you all about it. Maybe I come here to say the things I can't say to anyone: which, given that these words consistently reach the biggest audience I have, is manifestly bizarre, practically psychotic. But, oh, whatever, it's a thing to do, isn't it. Whereas sitting scrolling through the names on my phone and discovering all the reasons why I can't call that person or that person or that person and be sad while they listen feels like a thing to not do, or not even a thing really. Anyway, you get the picture. Skip it if you want. It's not like I don't apprehend the tendency towards monotonousness. I feel like very early Philip Glass, sitting in an abandoned downtown loft sounding the same E minor chord for nine days without a break.

Notwithstanding a truly bleak Monday morning rush hour experience -- over two torturous hours in the rain (falling mainly on the train) to get from home to Sidcup, which is hardly a kneetrembler of a destination at the best of times -- I'm mostly gloomy tonight because Jonny's gone, and that basically sucks. We've been together for most of every day for the past seven weeks and it's been an extraordinarily intense friendship, as well as an exceptionally intrepid and challenging working relationship; I'm sure the work and the friendship will persist but to not be around him for the next few weeks will be painful in itself from day to day, but also compounded by a miserable suspicion that, despite our mutual reassurances to the contrary, we won't ever quite recover the space we've been in, at least not its emotional charge. And, no, ok, something else will replace it, and that will be good too. But, fuck, I've felt more alive in the past two months than in the last ten years put together, and all my very real (and completely exhausted) gratitude for that is inevitably shaded by the desire to live always like that. Which would kill me: and I dare say that's partly what I mean -- that unhinged but not meaningless desire to actually be the carcrash I feel like I'm endlessly implying.

This is not just the [Edward] Lear-ish turn towards (specifically, and quite carefully) self-defeating nostalgia -- in the very midst of what's brilliant and beautiful, the anguish that nothing else can ever possibly be so brilliant and beautiful again. Though I am a bit susceptible to that. Nor is it [Walter] Pater's boggle-eyed anti-entropic fantasy about (is this right?) "burn[ing] always with a hard, gem-like flame". I think mostly what this speaks to is the incredible loneliness of theatre-making, a loneliness that has almost entirely consumed me many times, and which feels wretchedly, and rather abusively, paradoxical, given the insistence of theatre -- and my quite militant endorsement of that insistence, in the face of certain (previously?) entrenched models of playwriting etc. as dependent on or powered by seclusion and individuality -- on its social aspect as the most profound element in its various contracts.

What is that loneliness? It's the signal, I suppose: which will always be broken in transit, and the sacrifice of which is itself ineluctably and bountifully theatrical. But the impulse that begins within me, as a vision -- often tremblingly indistinct or inchoate or literally impossible to hold: but a vision, if we can say that, if that's not too histrionic. A vision of the work. In the early days, that really was about stage pictures, and it still quite often is. Now more often though it's a vision to do with the social, the civic and political contexts of theatre-making: talking about which, even (or perhaps especially) among fellow practitioners, is sometimes like describing a dream: elusive in the mind, banal on the lips, boring as it arrives in the other's ears. Even among my closest peers, those I most admire for their work and their sense of their work, when I talk about the specifically anticapitalist basis for my conception -- my vision -- of my own practice, I feel like a Scientologist or something: that if I'm lucky there will be polite nodding... Well, I don't need to be agreed with, but don't I crave to be argued with? Will someone please reject the premises of the question? Something?

Well, no; and, fine, except -- and perhaps this indicates how little I actually want to be argued with -- as people have started coming through with more developed, or at least more confidently stated, responses to Hey Mathew, I become more and more aware of how the piece may have failed in some of its objectives, and of how among even pretty sophisticated audiences there is still deep hostility to certain kinds of display or behaviour or apparent challenges to propriety -- that perhaps we took too much on, or set it up in a way that indicated a profound and in some ways terrible underestimation of the amount of travel that the piece would require an audience to be willing to undertake. I mean it's all right for me, I sit with these ideas all day and most of the night.

So what's devastating about this is not so much having been (perhaps) wrong in some important ways about what the piece could do, or aspire to do, but that by misjudging the level of noise around spectators' perceptual and phenomenological relation to the piece, we, I, seriously misrepresented our argument for it, our sense not only of the necessity of the work and the importance of its scope, but of the distance between those things and an audience coming cold to the room, which seems in some cases to have produced not merely a caricature of our intention but actually its direct antithesis. So that some people in talking about the work have used words like shock, and pornography, and self-indulgence, all of which are categories of experience that the work was seeking quite concertedly to eliminate. Add to this the harm that I seem to have done by managing the project badly -- and how excruciating, to be given (by Alan Lane and Theatre in the Mill) this incredible opportunity to "make the work you want to make, that you can't make anywhere else", and to set about doing so, only to find that in making that work one has still failed to make the work one wants to make, exactly because it has, however inadvertently, caused harm and distress, even (and/or albeit) at the most basic administrative level.

So this obviously terminates in a question like what the fuck am I doing?, and what makes that spiky right now is that, miraculously, I've found in Jonny someone with whom, at worst, the gap is very small, so the noise is very small, and the visions seem to arrive intact and shareably and in open-source formats; at best, we dream the same things, period. Not least because of the public performances of Hey Mathew, our relationship seems to be quite misunderstood and even mistrusted, which is a shame, because it only overheats our tendencies to Whitmanesque self-involvement. (I'm thinking, not least, of "We two boys together clinging", which we can now chalk up on the already uncontainable list of things that are exciting when I think them but turn out to be fucking creepy when I say them out loud.) But it has been incredibly reassuring to feel, sounded in the various proximities of Jonny, that there's something true and dependable and shareable in what I envision, which is, after all, the greater and by far the more decent and potentially worthwhile part of who I am.

Well, screw it, what's all this for. I wasn't lonely for a while, in my work, and now I am again, tonight at 00.34, and what do I expect to do about that. Go to bed, presumably.

This will all be OK. There's lots of stuff to be excited about. I have my new batch of MA students at Rose Bruford -- met them for the first time today -- only three, this year, but all smart and capable; I'm going to take them to the (really thrilling, I thought) Warhol show at the Hayward on Wednesday and see if I can't spoil their minds. There's a new home show starting to come together, with Lucy Ellinson, which I think will be beautiful. I'm still reeling from a design meeting at the weekend on King Pelican -- my eyes literally fell out of my head like wilted deely-boppers and I had to put them back in with a warm teaspoon. It turns out that ...Sisters won't, after all, tour in the summer, which is a shame; but Wound Man and Shirley continues to murmur at the edge of my field of vision: the other night, feeling seriously wibbly, almost Mahlerianly so, I stupidly -- the kind of stupidity that's actually weirdly optimistic in its effects -- sank a bottle of wine and performed the script to myself, with some carelessly selected hand movements, and loudly pronounced myself a genius, before tumbling into the kind of sleep that I really ought to be delivering myself unto at this precise moment.

So that's all good. Right? ...Except my fear is that what I'm describing is partly about sustaining a way of life (at least through until next summer) that seems also to require levels of self-examination and engagement that make me, or reveal me to be, unhappy and self-doubting to a degree that seems unsustainable. And, no, it wouldn't be any better chucking all this in and becoming, er, something else. (The careers aptitude test at school suggested 'road haulage manager' -- for which, perhaps, it really is never too late; but, no.)

Well. Enough, no more. It may be -- I begin to wonder -- that my therapy over the summer left me unable, or unwilling at least (or not bothered enough), to lie; well, OK; but perhaps I've also wound up too compelled to speak, or not knowing when to shut up. This is all really, really self-defeating, isn't it? I mean I make these jokes about shooting myself in the foot and other organs but, Xt, my career trajectory, such as it is, has taken me from 'promising' to 'maverick' (yeah, me & McCain) to 'underused' in about five years. We know how that arc ends, don't we? 'Embarrassing', next (or now, maybe); then 'troubled'; then 'who?' ...Dot dot dot... Then finally 'Ding, fries are done', and, as the sainted Gore taught us to say, meretricious and a happy new year.

Apple pie, anyone?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Stick it in the shredder marked 'douchebag'

CARTMAN: I dreamed I was standing out in a field, and there was this huge satellite dish stickin' out of my butt. And there were hundreds of cows and aliens, and then I went up on the ship, and Scott Baio gave me pinkeye.
STAN: That wasn't a dream, Cartman. That really happened.

Yeah, so, that's the reason I'm not going to say anything much about Hey Mathew, which is over and not over in roughly equal measure and which I'm not sure I can write about rationally yet. I'd sound like I was gibbering about being abducted by aliens. What shall I say? There were, in total, five performances, and two of them (the first, in Bradford, and the last, in London) were, for me, overwhelming in the way that they not only matched but exceeded my aspirations for how the piece we'd made might sit in a room with a group of people encountering it live for the first time. Every performance was interesting and I was always proud of the work but those couple of shows transported everything in to a different register for me. I dare say there will be folks who attended one or the other and were left cold or ambivalent. Only one person has said directly to me that they didn't like it (he was perfectly respectful and it was fine, though disappointing); quite a few people have not wanted to say anything, or at least to say anything yet. It was, by the time it was in the room, an unusually frank piece of work, not only in its sexual explicitness but also in its emotional rawness and its personal exposure, and I'm sure if one of my friends had made it I might be reluctant to talk to them about it. Even the people who were apparently deeply moved by it -- of whom I'm pleased to say there were very many -- would quite often come up and touch my arm and cock their head to one side, as if to say "poor you". It was rather as if someone had died. ...I hope it was me.

Today's been harsh, though: the steep, steep comedown: I overslept, it was gloomy, it rained, I put the radio on and everything was horrible trivial middleclass crap, I went to the supermarket (the most disconsoling place it's possible to imagine on a rainy Saturday afternoon -- is there anything more hateful than choosing a bunch of bananas while listening to Seal on the instore PA?), I slept some more, I couldn't read, couldn't listen to music... It's been like having awful toothache but without any actual toothache. I could easily sleep again now but of course it's firework season, so the neighbourhood gets to dictate the parameters.

Yesterday was pretty cool, the Cambridge reading went well in every respect except one, which was that I didn't read at all well. The rest of the bill was mighty: Mike Wallace-Hadrill came up from Brighton and managed to throw some seriously scalene triangles despite the worst efforts of bronchial malcontentment and yucky Benylin; teenage dream Tomas Weber, in honour of whose fleeting mainland expedition I conceived the whole event, delivered a genuinely remarkable performance of some bountifully promising work; and Nick Potamitis stepped up with aching nonchalance to the quilted oche and laid down a whole Mexican waveful of arms -- slippy, skippy, full of surprising jags, like a boxful of polystyrene chips packed out with bone china for maximum transit damage. I then was for some reason a bit fake and listless, or I felt so, and I can't lay the blame entirely at that vampiric drama studio space, because I've read there before a couple of times and never felt so distant within myself. Actually I think the real problem is I've started drinking wine a lot more, under Jonny's balefully sybaritic influence, and in comparison with my usual pre-match tipple (normally a vodka or three, though I do remember before a previous Cambridge reading getting half-wasted on M&S Harvey Wallbangers), I was probably left a bit woollier than I had reason to be. So that's a lesson learned, albeit one that most people have figured out by the time they're, like, ten. 

So anyway I was a bit deflated afterwards and headed straight back to London, alone and really feeling like I'd been in a five week fight. Which seems like a preposterous way to describe the process of making this most recent piece -- of which I am inexpressibly proud: of the piece, but also very much of the process -- nothwithstanding some sad and disappointing ructions within the team towards the end, which kicked my heart in a bit. But also, anyway, looking back at it, and at all the things I've done over the last month which I hadn't for a long while -- drinking till I threw up; crying myself to sleep; playing air guitar to the Longpigs in the middle of the street not long after nightfall; feeling like I wanted to kiss practically everybody; dancing in public (not too visibly); making a den; kicking the fuck back; reading poetry aloud for the sheer sensual pleasure of it; screaming the place down at the Klinker; living mostly on three hours' sleep a night; one or two things I'd better not even say here (three if you count having lunch with a Bishop); and, can you guess what it is yet?, falling Captain Batshit crazy-in-love (albeit the kind of love whose requitedness isn't always easy to put one's finger on) -- I guess it's hardly surprising I've needed a day for quiet whimpering and milk and cookies and invertebrate despond.

(This really cheered me up though, this morning. I love the girl who pronounces 'Deutsche Bank' as 'Douche Bag'. Quite.)

Obviously the process of re-entry into real life (or whatever inversion thereof we're required to settle for) is barely underway but I did just want to say something brief about the microfurore that's been kicked up by the decision of the current artistic director of the ICA, Ekow Eshun, to wind up its Live & Media Arts Department. This news turned up on the Live Art discussion list in mid-October and I feared it might go more widely unremarked, but, as ever, Lyn Gardner was on the ball and an interesting if overnoisy conversation ensued at the Guardian theatre blog. I haven't gone back to that discussion in the past few days, nor read it as closely as I might have, so I might be about to duplicate a point that's already made quite adequately there, but if that's the worst harm I do today it'll be a refreshingly decent result.

Certainly I agree with those commentators, on that blog and elsewhere, who have had reason to recall the ICA's erstwhile commitment to live art, particularly during the tenure of Lois Keidan and Catherine Ugwu, with a degree of fondness and ardour that must be incomprehensible to those who've come on to the scene in recent years and found the Institute to be some kind of bad joke cross between a hall of mirrors and a puff of CGI smoke. I remember quite soon after I came to London seeing Anthony Howell and a very young Robin Deacon there, and having my first live experience of Goat Island (The Sea and Poison). These formative experiences were strong enough to imprint the ICA at the heart of my sense of the ecology of experimental performance in the capital long after the venue had ceased to deserve such an assessment.

The real problem -- which, as I say, others may by now have picked up on at the Guardian blog or elsewhere, but I can't face going looking right now -- is that a few years ago (not on Eshun's watch, it must be said, but during that of his predecessor Philip Dodd) the ICA got all hot and bothered about new media and digital arts, to the extent that this sector started to drown out the organisation's commitment to live performance and its confidence in what liveness and nonvirtual reality could actually deliver. Initially this snark-chasing paid off with some handsome adventures -- I remember seeing Evan Parker's Electroacoustic Ensemble there quite early on, when that project was still seeming to offer Parker's most vital work in a good while -- but it became increasingly apparent, not just to luddites like me, that with the exception of a few genuinely intelligent outfits working in the area of digital arts, there's almost no there there. Furthermore, the yoking together of Live and Media Arts in one department came to seem like a structural (and presumably administrative) as well as aesthetic disaster. Not even the whiff of modishness could sufficiently perfume the nastiness emanating from the ideological tension right at the foundations of that department's existence. The ICA took its eye off the ball to go chasing a shadow that it itself was casting.

In that context, Eshun's statement is worth some ever-so-slightly careful parsing. Plenty of people are (not unrightly) up in arms about his characterisation of the live art sector as lacking "depth and cultural urgency": except he very clearly doesn't do that. He's speaking quite precisely to a problem with "new media based arts practice". He does not, anywhere in his statement, address live art whatsoever, except by dint of its being tethered to new media in the structuring of the organization. I'm sure it's convenient to him to elide the two practices in terms of the deletion of the department, but I'm equally sure it can't be insignificant that his assessment of the value of the department's work focuses entirely on a failure he evidently perceives (and which, as I'm sure is obvious, I wouldn't strongly disagree with) in the level of delivery on the new media promise of which the organization has been trying to convince us for the last decade. Either he thinks the irrelevance of live art speaks for itself (which is no worse a position than the one the ICA's occupied over these past years), or he's making quite a careful point about new media arts, and the loss of live art from the ICA's programme is essentially collateral damage. Obviously it doesn't consequentially matter which it is, but I'm interested to wonder. 

In the meantime, live art could really still use a black box hub in central London; for a while I thought CPT could be positioned there, and Matt Ball seems to have continued to think along those lines, but it probably can't ever produce that gravitational pull, not least because of where it is and how little money it has. The Chelsea Theatre programmes interesting work but struggles with momentum and visibility. Shunt has developed into a crucial base for live art, and for the sustained integration of this kind of performance language into a cultural continuum: but my problems persist with that space and the attitudes and ideological positions it connotes. Great things happen under the aegis of Artsadmin at Toynbee Studios (where we just showed Hey Mathew) -- but, as our experience amply demonstrated, despite the massive enthusiasm and moral support there, practically their spaces just aren't equipped for anything more than the most provisional showings. I suppose there's an argument that live art should be fugitive, that it should pop up in unlikely places or in real-life settings where possible. But equally the fundamental problem with live art as it's developed over the last decade is the increasingly low level of craft applied to its production; of course craft shouldn't be a priority for those who are working against that sort of model, but for those who are interested in that kind of making, a fixed base can be important both as a resource and as a cultural and social signal. Eshun may actually have made a smart move in ditching Live & Media Arts if it enables the ICA to clear the air and reassess, in a little while, the fundamental and burgeoning importance of live art, and the sheer bizarreness of allowing its institutional commitment to live art to collapse when for so many visual artists questions around performance are now so central that to insist on a division between the plastic, the conceptual and the performative in visual arts practice seems quite absurd and untenable. In the meantime, I quite agree with those commentators who suggest that ACE should redistribute a proportion of the ICA's funding for reinvestment in live art elsewhere (and a fixed base, not just festival opportunities or more site-specific wheezery); and I'm sad to think I have yet another reason not to renew my ICA membership when the time comes round again. Some months I look at the programme and wonder what the place hasn't given up on. I mean they had Kula Shaker in a few months ago. What else needs saying after that?

The other topic worth a chew on over at the Graun of late is the announcement of a new fringe venue dedicated to gay theatre. This haemorrhage-inducing news becomes all the more desolate when the brains behind the operation turns out to be Peter Bull, who brought into CPT one of the most wretched, banal, insulting pieces of theatre I've ever seen, quite near the end of my tenure when I was wondering if I'd done enough to support gay-targeted work at the venue. (It turned out I had.) I'm not going to get into this now because I think it's going to sit somewhere within the turnings of the post I'm planning to get up here sometime this week, which I'd better warn you will be all of your favourite things: too long, too personal, and hardly about theatre at all; but I think I might be about to have a crack at arguing, in passing, that gay theatre is ineluctably harmful and regressive and anyway in a very real sense impossible. So, you'll want a box of Maltesers for that one.

And with that, for now I'm going to stop, as I'm in one of those frames of mind where everything I say just seems to make me sound (to my own ears, at least, and I dare say to yours) like a fucking dick.

Today was hopeless. Tomorrow: we will be heroes. The day after that: we will be heroes again. The day after that: Laundry.

p.s. If anyone's in any doubt as to where the comma ought to go in the phrase "[people] would quite often come up and touch my arm and cock their head to one side", above: it's after "arm", OK?, not after "cock". The Controlling Thompson apologises for any inconvenience caused.