Friday, September 25, 2009

And the things you can't remember tell the things you can't forget...

Well now, my lovely chickadees, I'm very much afraid this is going to be one of those slightly lame "What I did on my holidays" posts that for some reason I feel compelled to offer after any lengthy break in transmission, lest you should think I've spent the last month languishing in a hopeless K-hole lavishly surrounded by toothless catamites and gameshow hosts and a bevvy of fascinated hens that I accidentally ordered off the internet.

When last we met I was gearing up for Glass House at Deloitte Ignite: and I freely confess to being chuffed aux mintballes at how it all turned out in the end. Making it, in the day-to-day producery sense of working with the Royal Opera House to get it to happen at all, was, if not the worst experience I've ever had as a professional artist, then certainly in the top two. Everyone we dealt with was more than friendly and receptive in person, but actually getting things to happen, and even keeping track of the conversations around getting those things to happen, was like having a long inebriated dream of using a rubber pencil to fill out the necessary forms for planning permission to build a candy-cane cathedral in cuckooland. Even at these few weeks' distance I can hardly believe that it was as bizarre as I'm saying, but it really was, I promise. I'm sure if you direct there -- like, opera -- with their accustomed four-year lead times and such, the ROH may perhaps be a model of efficiency and supportiveness. If, on the other hand, you're a smallscale experimental theatre maker trying to get an installation up together, the experience is kind of like trying to explain the rules of croquet to Helen Keller from inside a chest freezer. Whilst wearing oven mitts. -- And before you chalk this up to me being my usual difficult and paranoid self, please ask around for reports from the other participating artists -- I'm pretty sure you'll find it wasn't just me this time. (I particularly liked / boggled at the story I heard of a lighting designer with another of the companies who had to break into the building early on the morning of the first performance because they hadn't been allocated any tech time...)

Nonetheless -- and I'd anyway better not lay it on too thick as they still owe me a bit of money -- the end result was amazingly pleasing, and not for the first time I was immensely grateful to have a team around me who were so on it that we were far less vulnerable to the vagaries of in-house weirdness than we'd otherwise have been. Arriving ten minutes before the opening of the first performance (that was all the get-in time we had), I hadn't at that point seen the set and lights all up-together, & nor had the performers -- so it's astonishing that it all fell in to place: but it did. A quick Cliff's Notes for those who haven't been following: the piece, which ran three hours each day, placed four male performers from different artistic and cultural backgrounds each in a kind of dressing room, with the following: a dressing table and mirrors; a rail of female garments borrowed from the ROH dead costumes store in Aberdare; someone to help them in and out of those costumes; and several sets of headphones transmitting an interview with that performer (about performance, 'cross-dressing' etc.) intercut with music of the performer's choice. Audiences could wander in and out of the rooms: some got round all four in ten minutes and then skidaddled; many more stayed for longer periods, including a few who lasted close to the whole three hours.

On the Sunday I wandered around with a video camera and I've made the little video below which captures some little glimpses of what happened -- as with all documentation you barely get an idea of what it all actually felt like but it's better than nothing.

Before you click on 'play': please note that this video contains Jonny Liron, and, consequently, nudity.

My fondest love and grateful thanks to Andrew O., Andrew R., Anna, Gerard, Harold, Jonny, Lucy C., Lucy E., Naomi and Sebastien, who were all awesome in their respective roles and a true, sanity-preserving pleasure to work with.

Thankfully, Jonny and I went straight from the second day of Glass House to a week away in the countryside of southwest Wales: here, to be precise: where we spent an amazing week poaching eggs, walking in the woods, playing with the dog (not me so much), swimming naked in the lake (not me either), working in the studio, throwing ourselves a memorable little party and generally breathing the big air and doing the big love; it wasn't the easiest thing in the world to come back. To Eeva, Andy, Angus and Meriel, should they see this: thank you so much, & we'll see you again soon, I'm certain. (Not least as we started hatching ideas for a new piece which we're hoping to start developing next year for the spring of 2011, and which cries out to be made in such radically unmetropolitan surroundings.)

By the lake at Pen Pynfarch
-- a still from home video

The week of our return was a momentous and, in the end, dreary one: I was knocked back by the Arts Council, to whom I'd applied for funding for a big project for this November. Some remnants of it will survive -- for which, keep an eye on the upcoming gigs list opposite -- but it's a shame not to be able to think (or, rather, make) a bit bigger, and kind of dispiriting to find that Hey Mathew was not, after all, the beginning of a more productive relationship with ACE. As usual the rejection letter indicates how steep the odds are -- only about a third of applications to Grants for the Arts are currently successful; but my record is now (if I'm counting correctly) one yes and eight no's over the past twelve years, which seems to suggest that my work is of way below average interest to them. I know, I know it's more complicated than that, and things are possibly tricker just now than they've ever been; well, it will be interesting to see what impact the imminent overhauling of GforA will have. In the meantime, much of the work I'm showing this autumn will be at my own expense, which is the kind of thing you do in your early twenties in the hope that, once you've been producing consistently OK work for ten or fifteen years, you won't have to do any more. C'est pour rire, innit.

Then last weekend it was back to Wales, briefly, en route to the wedding of my dear pals Emma and Fin: the perfect antidote to ACE miseries as it was, inevitably, a kind of mini-gathering of leftfield theatre clans, many of whom are also my closest friends: and everyone was beautiful and full of love and it was one of those occasions where you look around and think, wow, look at us all. Look what we did. Look who we are. The wedding was here, which, um, helped; at the groom's behest I sang a couple of songs, including what I think must be just about the most beautiful song ever written (and among the most resilient, it turns out) in duet with Jamie Wood on saw; my best man's speech hit its intended spot, partly by ripping off a lovely piece I once saw a smith do (though I did at least credit him), and despite being (only somewhat explicably) framed as a letter to the wholly unrelated Lawrence Upton; I danced like a loon; and Tom sang 'The Book of Love' (heartburstingly), and Theron read Rilke (beautifully), and Tassos turned up with the security tag still attached to his suit, and it was us, all of us, happy and hopeful and basking in the warm sunshine and the glow of each other's company.

Rare sighting of the Controlling Thompson at the pianoforte, with Jamie.
Piano by Bechstein; saw by Homebase.

Funnily enough, or perhaps not quite, I ran into a[ndy] smith just 48 hours later, at a dress rehearsal of The Author, Tim Crouch's new piece, on which he again collaborates together with Karl James. I like Andy a lot and I miss him now that he's in Oslo. The Author, which is now previewing at the Royal Court, is, I think, a really remarkable piece; the three of them are wonderful makers, joysomely intelligent and emotionally generous: and together their work just keeps getting braver and more progressive and more complicatedly beautiful. I'll say more in a while, as I'm hoping to be able to interview Tim and Andy for this blog next month. For the moment, I don't imagine there are very many tickets still available for The Author -- and there certainly won't be once the reviews start coming out, I'm sure -- so I'd warmly recommend booking.

This week's other cultural highlight for me was today's visit to the artist Ryan McGinley's first London solo show, Moonmilk, at Alison Jacques. McGinley's a photographer in his early thirties, whom I've been interested in for a few years now; even if you're not such a devotee you may know one instance of his work -- the gorgeous (and somewhat notorious) cover of Sigur Ros's album Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust -- but whether you know him or not I'd really urge you to get along to the gallery before October 8th. (If you're a long way from London -- hey, come visit!, you can sleep on my couch -- or, the whole Moonmilk series seems to be on McGinley's website and there's also a natty limited edition catalogue which I've just ordered.)

A crude but perhaps efficient description of this work might be to cause you somehow (only I don't know how) to imagine a conflation of Ed Templeton and Bill Viola. Moonmilk places however-many nice-looking, vaguely androgynous, undressed young people mostly in and around big caves, or in other natural surroundings. The natural world is tinted and saturated; the bodies glow or seem to insist on their own spectral absence. There is a slightly sentimental numinousness to these images, which has often to do with scale -- either the size of the naked figure within the picture, or the physical dimensions of the picture itself (though many of the pieces shown at Alison Jacques are surprisingly, and in some cases disappointingly, small -- presumably intending concertedly to counter the sense of secondhand sublime). But it's not a cheap or a dishonest sentimentality, it seems to me, but a genuine tenderness, arising out of a quite radical encounter between body and environment. He speaks to a question that's very much on my mind at the moment, about how queerness might be read away from the city. Only the equally talented, though somewhat lesser known, Aspen Michael Taylor seems to be dedicatedly pursuing a similar aesthetic, though without the sumptuous, occasionally slightly queasy, highly fictionalised palette that McGinley's got into here.

Ryan McGinley, 'Marcel (Hidden Reflection)'
from Moonmilk

Anyway, Moonmilk is one of the loveliest, most nakedly (no pun) ravishing art shows I've seen in a lifetime: startling, sensual, and, if you listen carefully, kind of challenging.

The other big visual pleasure of the week is a book that's been out a few months but I've only just stumbled across it: a hefty, and heavily seductive, volume edited by musicologist and composer Theresa Sauer, called Notations 21. The book comprises a wide assortment of experimental musical scores, located at various different points along the music / visual art axis, and exploring a lot of different concerns around notation and graphic authorship; Cage, Stockhausen, Earle Brown are here, and key new music figures whose notational practice might not always be considered by their listeners: Robert Ashley, Pauline Oliveros, Phill Niblock, Elliott Sharp, John Tchicai, Barry Guy, Stephen Vitiello, and Steve Roden, for example. (Also Jonathan Zorn, who turns out not to be John Zorn. What are the odds.) The book is stand-up-and-cheer exciting, and cherishable, and more than welcome; my only cavil would be that, I suppose necessarily, some of the reproductions are at a scale where they can only really be appreciated as visual works rather than actually used to perform from -- the fine detail, inevitably, becomes vanishingly small. This is kind of frustrating -- as a resource, the book holds a lot of important information just out of reach. But it's still the year's most exciting coffeetable book and seems to me to do for notated music what The Reality Street Book of Sonnets does for the old eight'n'six.

Stephen Vitiello, 'First Horizontal'
from the book Notations 21 (Mark Batty Publisher)

And a quick snapshot of the other newly-acquired books that are piling up around me, in case anyone's interested in what I read (or, just as likely, never quite get around to reading): Nicholas Bourriaud, Altermodern; Allen Fisher, Leans; Frederic Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998; Joe Kelleher, Theatre & Politics; Michael Palin, Halfway to Hollywood: Diaries 1980-88; Simon Whitehead, Walking to Work. Worth also making a fuss about another brilliant essay by Dave Beech for Art Monthly: the September issue has his piece 'Inside Out', on "the fall of public art" -- it's every bit as good as his previous articles on participation and on radical critical art. And I'll be drooling abundantly down my chin and into my bran flakes until my copy of Keston Sutherland's newly disgorged Stress Position arrives in the mail from the Barque Cave. (This video rendition of some of it kills the time -- literally -- but only serves to stimulate further the salivatory incontinence.)

A few other incomings worth your anticipation, all coincidentally lined up along the South Bank: Werner Herzog is to be found in interview at the RFH on Saturday October 3rd: at the time of writing, some seats are still available; the same venue's Schnittke festival in the second half of November omits almost all my personal favourites but I'll be hoping to get along to a toothsome pairing of the Cello Concerto no. 2 with Haydn's Seven Last Words on the 28th; a crashingly dull programme for this year's London Film Festival nonetheless contains an interesting looking experimental collation under the deadbeat title Whirl of Confusion, which includes 'Film for Invisible Ink Case No. 142: Abbreviation for Dead Winter (Diminished by 1,794)' by the brilliant David Gatten -- that's on October 25th; and Tate Modern -- where they're currently installing the new Turbine Hall piece by one of my absolute favourite contemporary artists, Miroslaw Balka (though the Turbine Hall has so far defeated almost everyone who's taken it on; those who are, or think themselves, equal to it tend to be producing banal work anyway) -- has John Baldessari in conversation on October 8th.

David Gatten, 'Film for Invisible Ink Case No. 142: Abbreviation for Dead Winter (Diminished by 1,794)'

Elsewhere on the web: Pink Neptune [click with care -- nudity etc] est mort (again), which is a real shame -- it's long been the best of the picture blogs in my bookmark list; those whose appetite for queer-ish photography has been piqued by the discussion of McGinley above may enjoy a visit to the web site of Paris-based Norwegian photographer Markus Bollingmo, and/or his awesome (but even NSFW-er) blog; and I've been enjoying discovering the work of the Polish artist and composer Wojciech Kosma, who has a show at Image Music Text currently -- his 'Songbook' of performance scores is here and you can see videos of some performances from those scores at his web site here: including three pieces performed (last weekend, in my regretful absence) by Jonny -- "Wait" [#10], "Pieces for pulse" [#8], and "Count down, cum on one" [#2]. (This last, as you'd presumably expect, "contains adult material", though given the annoying camerawork and horrible lighting, it's probably not the most erotic wank you'll ever watch online...)

What else? There's a really great blog, to which both Ron Silliman and Harry Gilonis have recently drawn attention, featuring re-versions by various artists of the famous 'black page' in Sterne's Tristram Shandy; the trailer for Harmony Korine's new film Trash Humpers is fucking terrifying -- and, oh, wait, it turns out it's in the programme for the LFF -- I must have missed that -- I should probably go back and moderate my earlier disdainful remarks... -- nah, where's the fun in that?; and, from our Who Spiked My Chocolate Milk? department, it looks like I'm a character in the new Ridiculusmus show, Goodbye Princess...

I'll mention finally that, what with all this lovely time off that the Arts Council has so kindly arranged for me, I'm going to be catching up with some new music over the next couple of weeks, by way of early preparation for this year's Furtive 50. It's not yet October and already I have 259 albums on the longlist -- without any particular exertion on my part -- so I'm looking forward to deepening my acquaintance with all those records in the weeks between now and Christmas. As ever, if there's anything you think I ought to be listening to and fear I might have missed, do please draw my attention to it.

I'll be back here almost straight away to post an interesting conversation I've been having back-channel and which I have permission now to share with y'all. After that, who knows. Will I ever write that promised post on the Young Poets? Or the piece on Mark Ravenhill and Lucio Fontana that I trailed way back in 1956, when every Thompson's post was made out of punch-cards, string and acacia honey? No doubt time -- should it ever stop cramming its filthy gob with cormorants -- will tell; and it's time, time, time that you love...


simon said...

How nice that you're back. I guess you've seen this but if not, here:

hey cool my captcha is "answer"

Amanda said...

Completely with you on 'The Author'...I also managed to catch a rehearsal and found it incredible. Brave, engrossing, and managed to ask big questions about the nature of creating and viewing theatre too without becoming cold and detached.

Jetsetting Joyce said...

Hi Chris - just a note from the (amateur) actor who read the part of your alter ego in Ridiculusmus' new play, Goodbye Princess!

Ridiculusmus selected me to play 'Blogger 1' because I'm also a blogger (who sometimes writes about theatre) and you can read a follow up post of the actual play reading at

Let's hope that the National Theatre ends up picking up the script, because then maybe you'll be able to see Lucy Liu play me play you in London!

Jetsetting Joyce