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"There comes a time when the operation of the machine is so odious that you cannot even tacitly participate. You've got to place your bodies on the gears, the wheels, all the mechanism, and you've got to indicate to those who own it and those who run it that unless you are free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."
In this post I regret to say I describe a dream I just had. Usual disclaimers apply: other people's dreams are always unbelievably boring and this is no exception; but I haven't made any of this up, except in so far as I dreamt it. Also I am not quite awake yet so the writing might be low on style.
I dreamed last night that I had landed one of the most prestigious live presenting gigs around, and been selected as host of this year's Smash Hits Poll-Winners Party.
Allotted no rehearsal time, and daunted by the size of the stage, I tried to get my bearings, aware that Phillip Schofield had fallen off the front the year before. Gratefully I discovered as I walked around that, presumably in an effort to avoid repetition of such a debacle, we had been booked into a space where the stage was at floor level and the seats rose in a huge bank at one end.
Having determined how far forward I could walk, I then started to panic about not knowing where the centre line was on the stage. I glanced at my watch. Thirty minutes before showtime. There was still time, if I hurried. And so I set about counting chairs. If I knew how many chairs there were in the front row I could figure out the centre line. ...Except the doors were now open and hundreds of kids were streaming into the auditorium and taking their seats.
I keep counting, trying to remain calm. Some of the kids notice me and cheer. I am thrilled. I salute them. They cheer some more. I worry that actually saluting probably wasn't very cool.
I realise that actually there is seating on three sides, and that none of it, after all, is fixed. The kids are moving the chairs around so that they can sit with their mates. I want to shout at them to sit still, but I persevere with my counting. Having counted the front row (twice) I can calculate the middle. It turns out there is a white sign, already marking the centre. Well, I think, it was good to check.
At this point I realise I am wearing only trousers, in contravention of a memo that had been circulated to all the male performers that, because the temperature of the auditorium is being kept at refrigeration levels for medical reasons, fashionable shirtlessness is not, this year, being encouraged. I have to get back to my dressing room urgently, put on a t-shirt and my red and black tennis shoes.
Annoyingly, my dressing room is down several flights of stairs. I run down them as quickly as possible, jumping recklessly and slamming through fire door after fire door. On one landing, David Mitchell is waiting for me. He starts to essay a wisecrack -- not unkindly meant -- about my being an odd choice for the Smash Hits Poll-Winners Party, but I'm not going to let him bring me down. "I'm in a hurry!" I shout, feeling bad about rushing on. "You'll have to go faster than that!"
He is behind me now -- but I have come through the wrong fire door, one that looked different from all the others. I have ended up at my old school. Orchestra practice is just breaking up. My old history teacher is carrying a bassoon and talking about having once had a fist-fight with the conductor in the car-park. In quick succession I experience the two disappointing, if inevitable, realisations: that I'm never going to get back to the Smash Hits Poll-Winners Party from here; and that I'm dreaming.
Aware that I'm going to wake up any second, and looking down to find a microphone in my right hand, I console myself with a crack at my opening line: "Welcome to the Smash Hits Poll-Winners Par-tyyyyyyyyyyyy!" Wild cheering.
I am awake.
The point of relating all this, mostly, is: ffs, how bloody ubiquitous can David Mitchell be?
p.s. One sequence in my performance at Tate Modern last Monday involved a spoof interview with a member of Tate staff, for which, in my cheeky satirical way, I invented the job title of 'Director of Visitor Experiences'. A couple of people commented on how well I had managed to stay right on the edge of plausibility with that.
And now here is the inevitable link to a recruitment ad for a new role at Tate Modern, posted on the Guardian jobs site last Friday, four days after my piece.
There is an interesting post to be written -- but (as with every instance of that phrase ever since the first syllable of recorded time) not by me -- about the multitudinous phantom artworks that crowd the conceptosphere but are never actually realised.
I don't just mean the things that we quite fancy making and, for whatever reason, never get around to. I'm fascinated by those, and suspect there could be something interesting in a project about them; in fact, his horses, my piece with Theron U. Schmidt in 2003, started out at least partly as an act of mourning, or, more precisely, hallucinated remembrance for a proposed production of Macbeth that was nuked as a morula.
But I'm thinking more about things like errors, slips of the tongue or the imagination, that create wholly new artistic propositions. Jeremy Irons, in a splendidly (if unconsciously) self-parodying interview with the never-interesting Mark Lawson (pictured here relaxing at home) on Radio 4 earlier this evening, accidentally conjured, with a bit of airy and erroneous namedropping, an entirely new film: Tarkovsky's Ran. ...Imagine! (And while you're at it, imagine Kurosawa's Andrei Rublev -- even better!)
And then there are the more wilfully mischievous malcomprehensions that may amuse the idling of mind -- like, there is a series currently airing on the BBC called Inside John Lewis, which is of course about the department store retailer but which in some puerile part of my sub-brain is only and entirely a proctological documentary about the late pianist of the Modern Jazz Quartet. (Someone on this morning's Guardian web chat with Adam Buxton had similarly improper designs on Lark Rise to Candleford having something to do with a wax car. Strenuous but indelible.)
These inanities have collided in my head with a couple of the responses so far to my piece Where Are You at Tate Modern yesterday evening. I got home to find an email from someone deploring the fact that I hadn't taken the opportunity of the cover of darkness to do a piece containing "a monologue from a Jewish gas chamber victim", while the audience were so "deliciously vulnerable". Very much more to be reckoned with was Lowri Jenkins's characteristically brainy account at Repetitive Strain, which nonetheless did something similar, essentially wondering why I hadn't made the piece that she would have made, addressing the qualities of the performance/installation that she found more interesting. Perhaps this is a facet of all criticism, or rather, all reviewing; but I'm not sure that's so. At any rate, in Lowri's case, it certainly seemed to arrest her availability to the piece that I actually did perform, which was seeking to embed in itself many if not all of the questions that she raises.
For me, the fundamentally significant thing about What It Is, or at least about my intentions for it (which I fully admit I may not have realised) -- and Lowri I think picks up on this without being able to trust my handling of it (which I also admit may be a reasonable response) -- is about wanting to make a piece that responded to the vulnerabilities, the weaknesses, of How It Is (the Miroslaw Balka installation in the Turbine Hall, for which the piece was made). It's staged, by Balka and the Tate, in rather an authoritarian way, and the undermining of that specious authority in the way the piece has actually been used, especially by young people, quickly became for me the most interesting thing about it: that something so large, so (literally) steely, so anxious to connote sombreness and doomy reflective thinking, should prove to be so weak, so fragile, so generous in its teetering on the brink of preposterousness and bathos. (Bathos not least because the interior darkness is hardly dark at all -- compared, for example, with the truly dark space of the Drama Studio at the Cambridge Misc Fest last week. I'm not sure why How It Is has got lighter inside since I first visited it, but it definitely has; it might be an increase in the ambient light around the Turbine Hall, or I think it may be that the black felt lining is coming away from the structure, creating small reflective patches off which exterior light can bounce.)
The fascinating question for me in all this is, how do you perform weakness? In a way this is an analogous idea to the one about failure (and its simulation) in performance, which is a sort of ongoing conversation on this blog and others. A very quick precis would assert that the recognition of failure as inherent in theatre and performance is vital, and that performed work in those contexts should at least have figured out its relationship with failure, a relationship that is at its least interesting, by far, if it clings to the orthodoxy of hoping to suppress or mask failure; but that the response of many makers who have made some (apparently progressive) hay out of wanting to embed failure visibly and celebratorily in their work has been to devise strategies for controlling that failure, simulating it, even meticulously rehearsing those simulations. (vide Tim Etchells in conversation with Jonathan Burrows a couple of years back -- I'll try and dig up a link.) This is obviously a huge misreading, one which still sees failure as a problem to be contained (which includes the idea of seeing it as the seed of a kind of aesthetic that can be confected and ultimately fetishized).
I've recently come to see my habitual relationship with the idea of weakness in the same light. The formative experience was that of Dennis Cooper's blog, and especially the 'backstage' comments area. Both on the blog's front pages and in those behind-the-scenes (but no less publicly accessible) conversations, a level of candour is commonplace that would feel jarring in other contexts. To take on, as it were, the challenge of that candour is exhilarating: you realise that, when you say the thing that you're most scared of saying, the sky doesn't actually fall in, and more often than not other people are grateful and relieved for what you've said and will be glad to say it too: and it's a short hop and skip from there to a sense that quickly becomes a motto (or did for me): that the most powerful person in the room is the one who is hiding the least.
I do think this is true, and I do like and value (as part of the practice of art at least) the saying of things that are exposing, unpalatable, 'confessional' (a horrible word but an indicative one), and so on -- that make the speaker appear vulnerable: and that open and apparent vulnerability really does become a strength, a kind of power. This is in a way reassuring, a kind of trade-off: but eventually one reaches, as I recently have, the awkward question. What do I want with that power?
This is not, I think, a question that necessarily contains, as it may appear to, a pre-emptive disdain for any answer that may be forthcoming: by which I mean, I'm certain it's possible to have a good reason -- just as, while I'm fond of the rhetorical question (which cropped up in Who You Are) "What are you doing with your privacy?", there are plenty of valid answers to it, for all that the question itself is, I think, worth posing and, indeed, constantly re-stating. So, maybe I can use the power of my own self-actualizing vulnerability to do good work with. I think I have -- on this blog, not least, where, from what some correspondents and colleagues tell me, my keenness to write very openly about my own doubts and depressions and the whole field of sadness has been important to them or others, and remotely supportive and conducive and encouraging and so on.
But the question that now arises for me is, how can I stop vulnerability, or weakness, in so far as they might be elements of an artistic proposition, inevitably becoming recuperated into models of strength or power -- especially if one wants to use them (as I do) not simply as qualities in themselves, tonally say, but as aspects of a politically or ethically motivated disavowal of unwanted creative authority or detested class prestige (which seems like a mordant joke from the inside, but I know isn't one) or patriarchal strength. How do I lay down my arms without immediately getting shot -- in other words, how can the corollary of that disavowal not be a disappearance into nullity and insaliency? Ultimately, can I be a weakling and still be a public artist? Is the very act of assertion or even conjecture, at the moment that it opens up a movement in a public culture, an act of strength -- either in resistance to the currents of creative and economic capital, or a capitulating aligment with those currents?
(I wonder, incidentally, whether poetry will turn out to be a good place to explore this weakness first? The publicness of poetry is after all much more negotiable, often more tentative, whereas theatre and performance necessarily bring some public cogency with them, for good or bad or both. That's kind of a note to self, sorry.)
So this set of questions -- especially in so far as they relate to an artistic proposition such as Balka's monumental How It Is, and to a much smaller proposition such as Who You Are which is able to inhabit, or squat in, that space in a possibly dissident or possibly concordant way (or fluctuate between both) for fifty minutes -- came to a particular head in a sequence of the piece, towards the end, where, in a kind of acting-out of exactly this weakness/power paradox, I spoke, at Blurt Factor 6, a supposedly emphatically self-exposing text, made up of dozens of scraps of autobiography and "confession". It was about asking very directly this question that the whole piece was about -- how can we reveal ourselves to each other in the darkness: not so much literally in the dark of the installation, but metaphorically in the darkness of the moment of encounter between performer and audience. But the six minute duration was intended to be long enough to allow the audience to experience exactly the shift that I've been through and which I now experience as a kind of drone of ambivalence and tension. What seems like an act of making oneself vulnerable quickly becomes powerful, even aggressive -- just as Lowri notes, apparently supposing this to be a flaw in the work, rather than a question that it's trying to ventilate. The image I had in my mind as I wrote it was of someone kind of hurling their body against that invisible fourth wall, the edge of the huge vitrine that all gallery art and so much performance is trapped in, often not even knowing that that plane is there, is still there. The image of a wasp trapped behind a window, that keeps banging its head, unable to comprehend the unseen barrier between itself and the outside.
What is this thwarted attempt at escape? Eventually I realised it's the neurotic action of performance trying to break through into becoming theatre. It's terribly hard sometimes to know the difference between performance and theatre but I think more and more it's something to do with performance applying itself to a target (a model, a task, an ideal execution), in a closed system, and theatre, which is an open system, in which there is no clear target other than the experience of the encounter itself. So, for example, my piece YEAH BOOM!, about Christopher Knowles, is definitely a performance because there are a bunch of things I want to convey, and I want to convey them to the best of my ability, I want to manage those tricky texts with such facility that I don't make any mistakes; with something like Hey Mathew, or Glass House, we're definitely (for me) in the territory of theatre because, though there's a score, a plan, a premeditated journey, the piece itself is not in us and what we do, it's in our live encounter with an audience who are meeting this work, or trying to meet it, and whatever that encounter is on any particular night, that's what the piece is.
Where, in relation to those ideas, is failure? In performance, it's about a shortfall, a missed target, a failure to 'perform' adequately, to earn one's performance-related milk. In theatre, the failure is just an inherent part of our being together: it's noise, ambiguity, conflictedness, multiplicity, proliferation. But where, then, is weakness? I'd have said, until last night, and maybe I still think, that it feels like it's not in the failure to perform, because performance is so self-contained, and whatever I may feel if I 'fail' in that context -- disappointed, angry (with myself), humiliated -- I don't think I feel weak or powerless because the performance still contains itself and is to that extent impervious: failure is a rupture between myself and my task. I feel weaker in theatre because I have no special authority there, and because the (usually unspoken) idea is about giving away power, sharing an encounter, and thus being dependent on an audience, on their attentiveness, their willingness to share. I feel weak in performance only when the rupture of my failure in relation to the task at hand causes a breach that makes me actually dependent on and vulnerable in relation to the audience -- in which case, it's theatre, rather than performance, that is in that moment occurring.
The funny (and unexpected) thing is, I got closer to a feeling of weakness last night, in performance, than I think I have, as a performer (or perhaps I had better say 'actor'), ever before. What underwrote this and set it up was probably the material conditions of the performance: I had two weeks' making time, and absolutely no rehearsal time at all, not in situ, not anywhere; what's more, the piece was entirely dependent on a pretty complex sound score, and it hadn't been possible to try that out in the space either, so we absolutely didn't know how it would sound in there until (literally) 40 minutes before the performance, when the very nice guy from the Tate AV team showed up with a wholly inadequate (mono!) sound system, totally different from what we'd prearranged.
The idea was this: that I would be in silhouette, and appear to be speaking, live, words that actually were prerecorded. (This was partly to permit certain disorientations, but also because with just two weeks to make the thing it seemed insane to spend any time learning lines; I could have mapped out something to extemporize but instead figured I was more interested in crafting something playful and slippery that used the darkness as a permissive as well as a problematic condition.) But I spent the entire duration of the piece worried that no one could really hear the words on the sound score, due to the huge whack of reverb that came built-in to the installation -- I had anticipated it a bit, but not as much as that; and moreover was freaking out that I wasn't actually in silhouette, because of the much-less-dark-than-I-wanted darkness. Although rationally I knew I must be in silhouette because the only source of direct light was behind me (apart from some fucking photographer from the Tate who was bouncing around all the way through with her camera apparatus bleeding light almost constantly), looking down at my hands for example I felt very lit and very pale. So I kind of felt, for nearly an hour, that I was standing in front of a large-ish audience, visibly failing to lipsynch adequately to a pre-recorded score that no one could really hear anyway.
My task, apart from forbearance, was simply to stand there making gestures that looked as if they tied in with what I was saying, as if I were saying everything live. With so little to do and so much to worry about, I felt incredibly exposed and utterly weak. And the weakness came, I think, from the absolute lack of liveness. I had no control in the moment -- and I realised eventually it wasn't the lack of authorial control that I was missing (because actually I still had that -- it was still my piece, albeit far from perfectly rendered) but the lack of available response. I was powerless to respond. I had locked myself into a role, a position, that was blocked off from theatre, that was entirely constrained by the terms and conditions of performance. And of course this was exactly what I had wanted the piece to do -- to be performance that longed to be theatre but couldn't be (because it couldn't effectually share the space and the encounter with the audience). But it still felt surprising and hopelessly, horribly uncongenial.
Reaction has generally been really positive, though people report different experiences of the decipherability of the spoken text: not only in that some people caught almost all of it, and some not very much of it, but also that, from both sides of that axis, some people were really frustrated and some people were fine. Lots of people (including Lowri) imagined that the audio failure might have been deliberate; god I wish. My email correspondent was "bitterly disappointed": and, fair enough, it definitely was low on "delicious" gas chamber shenanigans. The Tate folks were happy, I think, or not unhappy. I might have liked them to be more happy or more unhappy than they were but it was a pretty middle-of-the-road piece, all in all -- an attempt to set the tone of We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg! in a space that would either overwhelm it or be further broken down by it, or both. (Seems to me, from what people say, that it did a little of both.) I'm not sure how I feel about "disappointing" people like Lowri. That seems like something that artists might legitimately do, if it's thoughtful. But... I dunno. Is that disappointment something to do with weakness maybe? Or is it just not-good-enough work? Or perhaps it's just about people's expectations and/or what they themselves would want to do, given the gig. It's hard to tell. But the thing about weakness and vulnerability is obviously going to be a big thing for me this year, so it might not be a bad thing for everyone to attune their expectations accordingly...
Finally, for those who came and found themselves frustrated by missing some of the spoken content, and for all those who would have come but couldn't (including the brilliant 14 people who made a cameo apperance at the end of the piece -- a sequence that I feel very proud of and very sad not to have been able to watch -- and who mostly have no idea what the piece was that they were in), I'm going to make the entire soundscore available, either in mp3 form on a private blog, or via CD, or both. So, if that's of interest to you, would you let me know? I might ask for a donation of a couple of quid -- via the Paypal button in the sidebar -- to cover postage if it's a CD you want. But I guess first of all let's see what the demand is!
And even more finally, perhaps even terminally: for those of you who haven't met him already: please enjoy this paragon of weakness, this soft bulletin from the future of theatre, Maestro Eduard Khil. They tell me he's a meme. Whatever, bitch: I -heart- his ass. All together now!
If I could, I'd also embed the performance of Coldplay's 'Fix You' by a large choir of primary school children that was in progress when I dropped in to the bar of the Royal Festival Hall yesterday afternoon. Annoyingly, though, it was real life, and as such, resists embedding -- presumably someone's working on that -- but it was quite like this:
which has more political resonance in its three-and-a-half minute duration than the complete works of Societas Raffaello Sanzio, and don't you just know it.
Thought I'd just take a few minutes out from making my upcoming performance Who You Are to remind you about my upcoming performance Who You Are, which happens, one time only, now-or-never-style, this coming Monday, 15th March, 6.30pm, at Tate Modern. The piece is for performance actually inside Miroslaw Balka's Turbine Hall installation How It Is, and closes the gallery's 'Experiences of the Dark' season. The performance runs about 45 minutes and I'm really enjoying making it: I hope it's as playful, poetic and provocative as I'm aiming for. There are still tickets available but it would definitely be worthwhile booking in advance if you think you want to come.
A treat earlier this week, in the context of making Who You Are and its diptych partner Where You Stand (which I'm creating in collaboration with Kier Cooke Sandvik and Jonny Liron for Queer Up North), was seeing a smith and Amund Sjolie Sveen's piece Where Are You?, which obviously shares some nice common ground with my current projects -- especially given that the tickets for my Tate piece incorrectly render its title as Who Are You?! A[ndy]'s gentle, witty way of working with ideas around phenomenology and human geography in helping audiences to experience their own agency and authorship and confront their own habitual assumptions has been very inspiring to me over the years that I've known him and his work, and I liked the sly generosity of Where Are You? very much indeed: despite its low-key style and simple presentational methods (it's a piece devised with youngish schoolkids in mind), it builds to a clinching sequence that I found moving and exciting.
The piece reminded me a little bit of a film that I think I may have mentioned before, Jorge Furtado's short documentary Ilha das Flores from 1989. Here it is in its entirety: it's a little dated in some ways but its message and its methods could hardly be more pertinent right this minute:
And while I'm in embedding mode/mood, one brilliant sequence in Where Are You? inverts a map of the world, which seems to me a really important thing to do, not just in front of schoolkids, but in front of anyone. Fellow West Wing fans will recognize the theme:
It was really nice seeing Andy and Amund's piece immediately after a scratch of a new piece by Ryan Stevens, the collaborative [id]entity of composer / sound artist Nick Ryan and performance / event maker Tassos Stevens, the latter in not-too-customary storyteller role as both narrator and part-embodied eponymous hero of the splendidly titled Jimmy Stewart, an Anthropologist from Mars, Analyses Love and Happiness in Humans (and Rabbits). I had the great pleasure of helping out a little bit as an eye and ear in the room in the very final stages of preparation, which meant I saw the show three times and saw (and heard) a little more, more richness, more patterns, each time. Lots of imaginative work to do as an audience member, which makes a nice link to Andy's work, partly because T.S. borrows a particular performance structure from Andy (just as I did for a separate occasion last year), but mostly because Andy's frequent collaborator Tim Crouch came to mind with his insistence, which I feel more and more relaxed about, that an audience can hold both is and if in its collective mind at the same time: that it can both exercise a game / pretend / projection mindset and simultaneously know and feel and experience the room that it's really in and the relationships that really are in motion. I hope Jimmy Stewart... will ride again, it's really an inordinately beautiful piece which, the night I saw it at least, held everyone in the palm of its hand with great care and delight.
Two other recent performance-going experiences have demanded a little more stamina. I won't say anything about Lone Twin's Catastrophe Trilogy at this stage, partly because I messed up on timings and consequently missed the last part: but I will say that I really enjoyed seeing Alice Bell, the first of the three, again: it's a piece that really gets under your skin with its simplicity and care: and, again, it does a very solicitous job of balancing the is with the if.
And then last night I was in Cambridge for the second night of the fourth annual Miscellaneous Theatre Festival. (I think in its promotions, Theatre is somehow punctuated, with a question mark maybe, so as to make it look problematic or pressured, and I think in the circumstances that would be right.) I think I've dropped in on all four of the Misc Fests so far, and was impressed and even moved by the critical mass it seems to be achieving. Jeremy Hardingham, who manages the Studio where the event takes place, has finally got the rather inert black-box surroundings to yield a little, to meet the people who come; partly this has at last happened because a lot of people, these days, are coming: so everything felt vital, engaged, warm, relaxed, attentive -- perfect, really.
The wholly open curatorial policy (if you want to be in, you're in) made for a forbiddingly long programme of events: with a start time of 7pm I was braced for a five-hour evening, which seemed intimidating enough, but by midnight we were still only two thirds of the way through the programme, and the last of the work didn't come down till a little before 3am. I went through phases of feeling cross about this -- it's kind of unfair to the acts, as people's attention obviously has its limits, particularly when there's a (very welcome) free bar; it must be hard not to feel more pressure to earn your keep when you're showing a messy under-crafted suck-it-and-see bit of live art at half past one in the morning than there would have been at half nine in the evening...; and it's kind of unfair to audiences too. Nonetheless, as Morton Feldman reminds us, after a while we cease to perceive duration and confront only scale, and as the wee small hours ticked by, digging in for this extremely long haul became a test of character and an effort of solidarity, which was not unhelpful.
I was there mostly to support Jonny Liron, who was showing his first ever solo, 'Wound Response (Preoperative Preparation)'; it was last on the bill, save for a valedictory squib from Hardingham and cohorts, but a decent sized audience remained, and tuned in, and were attentive and appreciative. Hard for me to be impartial, and why would I want to be, but Jonny's piece was quite breathtaking, particularly in a sequence where, having removed the last of his clothes (black women's briefs, thigh-length boots and a plastic crucifix around the neck), he scaled the walls of the Studio and hung naked from the lighting grid, perilously but with an odd serenity that had me gulping for air. Like the whole of his piece, it was incredibly disarming, but not coercively so: I mean it just made you want to lay down your arms. I was very moved by it, and by other people's reactions to it.
Just as importantly, there were at least half a dozen pieces in the programme that I thought were really good or important or useful, which is a strike rate way higher than the Misc Fest has normally achieved or, even, sought. One interesting feature was the yoking of the experimental and the mainstream: nobody seemed bothered about using quite avant styles and procedures right up against straight-down-the-line cabaret or musical theatre. Another interesting feature was Justin Katko, whose performance as Harold Pinter and/or Aileen Wuornos in Will Stuart's brilliant and audacious 'Transfigurations' was wildly compelling, hugely expert (without being virtuosic in a banal way) and, in the end, deeply worrying. I'm reading with Justin in Brighton in a couple of weeks, alongside Marianne Morris: it would be derelict to want to be anywhere else that night, just so you know, and I'd say so even if I wasn't luckily among the three.
And that will have to be it for now -- lots more to say, but Monday is looming large in my thoughts and I'm still at least a fortnight away from finishing, so it's off to work I go. More soon, my hens, and see you maybe, or not see you at all but sense you otherhow, inside Mr Balka's big dark container.