Monday, November 29, 2010

Reteaching gender and sexuality

An important enlarging of the ambitions of the whole 'It Gets Better' campaign. (Which has been significant in itself, of course, and produced many beautiful statements, but... 'Jam Tomorrow', anyone?) Queer youth -- all queer people -- deserve better than simply having to hang on in there.

Thanks to Lucy for drawing my attention to this great video from PUT THIS ON THE MAP.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Travelling home

It really is incomprehensible to me that that last post on Cavafy and Hockney and queerness is just a shade less than three weeks old. The lunch that provoked it feels like it ended only hours ago! November normally drags dog-botheringly on, but this year our tight Author schedule -- Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and now Lisbon -- has made the time really whoosh by. Suddenly we find ourselves coming up to our final performance of 2010 (tonight at 9.30 -- sold out, I'm afraid, just in case you were passing): after this evening, only an odd but very pleasing coda of a fortnight in Los Angeles next February will remain on the schedule.

I've not really blogged substantially about the show since Bristol, back at the end of September. I've Tweeted about it rather repetitiously (reflecting the fact that I'm afraid we've been having rather a repetitively good time) but haven't offered any further commentary: partly because much of what I thought it would be useful to say in public was said by the time we left Bristol; partly because a good deal of pretty brilliant critical writing about, or inspired by, The Author has begun to emerge -- vide Hannah Nicklin and Aliki Chapple for example -- and I'd much rather direct you towards that. I will however hope to do a final (or almost final) Author post next week, just to reflect on the experience as a whole and tie up what would otherwise be a nagging loose end.

(I'm aware also that I haven't been doing much with the blog partly because I'm now active on Twitter and a lot of the impulses that in the past would have prompted a Thompson's post can now be immediately discharged. So, look, I know it's not the same, but do please feel more than encouraged to follow me if you want to keep in touch with what I'm doing and thinking. Of course Twitter's also been much more convenient while we've been on tour, with times so busy and onliness frequently intermittent. Hopefully the rather more relaxed -- not to say, before long, frighteningly empty -- schedule ahead will create space for a thorough re-engagement with my bloggish responsibilities.)

Not much, at any rate, has gone unreported here that plausibly might have. The Leeds University symposium on The Author was a real treat, with a couple of particularly amazing papers (to my mind) in the afternoon -- a remarkable and enlightening reflection from Helen Iball on Jules's promotional image for the play, a presentation which included some unbelievably disturbing ornithological footage; and a gorgeously slippery piece, 'A History of the Voice', from Claire McDonald. Also I got to perform some stuff from my Tate piece Who You Are (and a handful of Edward Lear limericks), and to listen once again to Chris Thorpe's brilliant High Speed Impact. Test Number One. which I first saw him do at Queer Up North earlier this year.

Since then, a lot of my time and attention has been focused on my own paper on (a particular aspect of) the history of the voice, for the Gobsmacked conference at QMUL in which Johanna Linsley very kindly invited me to participate. My Authorial commitments meant I couldn't be there in person, but at least we knew that early on, and I was able to build that knowledge into my paper. Having started with a set of thoughts about visual poetry and sadomasochism, I ended up writing (way too much of -- so apologies to everyone for my appalling overrun --) a paper called 'Legal Beast Language: doubt and consent in the unspeakable act'. Jonny Liron had generously agreed to read whatever I wrote, and I became interested in folding in to the writing some recognition of the patterns of consent and risk (and the erotic underscoring of those patterns) in the way that writers (especially) use the bodies of performers to promote their own agenda, and performers agree, in various ways, both explicit and nonexplicit, to make their bodies available in that way. So there was an element of self-conscious performance in the paper, and especially in the way that I used my absence, and Jonny's acting as my proxy at the event, to 'require' Jonny to say on my behalf some quite difficult and challenging things that I dare say I might not have been brave enough to say had I been there in person. I'm not at all sure how it went down -- I don't think Jonny's all that sure -- and I know one or two people were discomfited by my conclusions, which were, after all, not wholly playful or ironic. But I won't say any more about this now, I'm intending to reshape the paper into a form that can be posted online, and probably stick it up over at Transductions. So I'll let you know if and when.

Having broached anyway the topic of Jonny and unspeakable acts, I should get to my main point for dropping in here this afternoon, which is to advertise my participation in the last of the November Saturday events that Jonny's been curating over the past month at his live/work space The Situation Room. It's been absolutely excruciating to miss out on the first three, all of which have evidently been quite remarkable occasions one way or another, and full of good work and a sense of community and encounter that is obvious even from the distances I've been at. I'm going to be doing a 20-ish minute solo set (including a wholly new poem-with-sound which I'm desperately trying to finish this afternoon here in my hotel room), and other solo readers/performers are Jennifer Cooke, Nat Raha, Steve Willey and, making a rare London appearance, Jeremy Hardingham. Jonny will be showing a duo piece made with his (and my) sometime collaborator Andrew Oliveira; and Andy, Jonny, Jeremy and I will end the evening with a performance of Cornelius Cardew's wonderful Schooltime Special. I think it will be a night worth braving the snow and Zone 3 for. Details here.

It's exciting also to be looking at Saturday's Sit Room gig as the beginning of, as it were, the rest of my life. Amazing though The Author has been, a lot has had to be put on hold to make it possible, for all of us, and it will be really good to pick up some of those threads again -- and to be back in London, where I've spent so little time this year. I've realised especially this week, in Lisbon, that I'm not a comfortable tourist. I don't like trying to make being in a particular place the whole of what I'm doing. I only really understand myself in the world when I'm making stuff: and then, whatever place I'm in comes alive. What I mean by making stuff is pretty broad: like, I spent today in Belém, mostly seeing a really good, exciting exhibition -- A Culpa Não É Minha: Works from the Antonio Cachola Collection (Cachola appears to be a sort of Portuguese Charles Saatchi, but with better and more reliable taste) -- at the Museu Colecçāo Berardo in the gorgeous Belém Cultural Centre: and even that, just seeing some art, felt like it -- like I, I suppose -- was full of movement and possibility. I guess travel, of the mind-broadening kind anyway, is necessarily an interior process, and much though I've enjoyed being a tourist (and a working actor!) in Lisbon, I'm looking forward to doing some travel in London over the next few weeks. Getting back into my own bed, not least, and really travelling there.

OK, better finish this piece for Saturday. Maybe see you there? xx

Friday, November 05, 2010

Speaking about love

I found a little clutch of amazing images the other day; this evening I need to share them with someone else, as part of the very early stages of a new project, and I figured rather than just mail them to him or upload them to a file-sharing site, it might be interesting to post them here.

In 1966 David Hockney was commissioned to produce a series of etchings to accompany a new edition of poems by C.P. Cavafy. The resultant prints are widely taken (including by me!) to be among the best and the most significant of Hockney's works; they immaculately capture the distinctive tonalities of Cavafy's poems, their languid precision and their radiant intimacies:


And if I can't speak about my love—
if I don't talk about your hair, your lips, your eyes,
still your face that I keep within my heart,
the sound of your voice that I keep within my mind,
the days of September rising in my dreams,
give shape and colour to my words, my sentences,
whatever theme I touch, whatever thought I utter. 

The images that have caught my attention recently however are not exactly those. I didn't know, but it's common in the production of limited edition prints for the original plates finally to be 'cancelled': i.e. to be defaced so that they're no longer usable, no further prints can be produced from them. Usually this means that 'CANCELLED' or some such is inscribed onto the image. Cancellation proofs are then produced to indicate -- to prove, I suppose -- that this has happened. It's a very odd instance of an artist vandalising their own work in order to preserve its commodity value: a fascinating logical apogee to the functioning of the art market.

So here are some of the cancellation proofs from Hockney's Cavafy series: and you'll see how compellingly these images are completely reframed. I've found other examples of cancellation proofs by other artists but nothing to match the production here of what feel simply like new, more radical, artworks. This is partly to do with the content, the 'subject matter'; partly to do with the playfulness of Hockney's amendments, which in some cases look more like scurrilous graffiti than official stamps of withdrawal.

So how amazing, for example, these cancelled plates would have looked in the context of the first wave of agit-prop art works responding to the early days of the AIDS crisis. How much they would have appealed (on one level, at least) to a sardonic postmodern queer artist/activist like the brilliant David Wojnarowicz. Hockney might almost seem to be topping up the queerness of these images for more contemporary eyes in a culture where tastefully not-too-explicit depictions of male intimacy no longer frighten (most of) the horses in quite the same way. By scuffing these pictures, half-obliterating some of them, layering them with scrawls of impersonal language, Hockney actually -- we might say -- rescues these images of gay desire and identity from their original calm idealism, and installs them in the fray, in the midst of the always-ongoing battle for queer self-actualization and viable collectivity.

I've been thinking a lot about queerness in the last few days, against the backdrop of the dreary third-rate orthodoxies and political nullity that characterise so much soi disant queer work and play right now, at a time when, perhaps more than ever, a genuine, concerted, angry, tender, thoughtful, active radical queerness is called for -- and I mean urgently, I mean called for like you'd call for an ambulance. I've said a time or two before now, possibly including here (I've now said more or less everything it's possible to say here at some point), that I'd be keen to describe my politics as queer and my sexuality as anticapitalist; it always sounds a little facetious and I'm aware of that, but it's also basically a sincere attempt to describe the predicament of the body on the street.

Most of these thoughts have been prompted by a gurglingly pleasureful reading of the newish Semiotext(e) edition of Guy Hocquenghem's The Screwball Asses, an extraordinary essay from 1972 which has more to say than any other book or article I've ever read about the imperatives for (and the faultlines within) revolutionary homosexual activism, not just in the early 70s but in early November 2010 too (and coming soon to a theatre near you). I was sitting reading it in a cafe in Dalston earlier in the week and it felt alarmingly and exhilaratingly like I was publicly masturbating over a petrol bomb. I won't be so crass as to attempt a precis of Hocquenghem's thesis, which is anyway as slippery and ludic as Deleuze, as erotomaniacal as Guyotat and as furious as Debord: quite a combination, and not one that lends itself to careless summary. I would very warmly urge any angry, imaginative person from anywhere on the queer spectrum to get hold of a copy. For any remaining straight folks reading this: here you go.

Another fantastic set of apt provocations can be found in Goodbye to London: Radical art & politics in the 70's, which accompanies the recent exhibition Goodbye London at the NGBK in Berlin. The book -- image-heavy but no less articulate for that -- renders excitingly pointless any attempt to discriminate between art and activism in the period; one superb chapter offers testimony from the early days of South London Gay Liberation and the communes and squats where its activists grouped themselves. Hocquenghem is largely opposed, ultimately, to these sorts of collective identifications, fearing that (as no self-respecting fan of C.J. Cregg ever would) they accept too readily the heteronormative premise of the question. I have some sympathy for, and feel some recognition of, that squeamishness, but the significance of such microcommunities living and working for gay emancipation in the 70s is undeniable and, from this vantage, enviable.

As a fascinating and very moving blog I stumbled across this week clearly indicates, to speak from the experience of and/or an identification with queerness -- to "speak about one's love", in the most politically implicating construction of that phrase -- is still often risky or scary or downright impossible, even for those of us who would like to think of ourselves as confident in our queerness and committed to living it publicly. Part of the problem we face is the self-same problem to be found at the broken heart of so many thwarted efforts towards radical community formation: namely, how estranged we still are from each other, how little we know about each other's lives, how difficult we find it to hear each other sometimes.

For instance, in the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about a short paper I'm writing for this (immensely cool-looking!) upcoming conference on speechlessness in, and as, performance. (I won't actually be at the conference, I'll be in Manchester with The Author; I think Jonny's going to read my paper.) One unexpected avenue I've been wanting to explore, via thoughts on voice and identity, Marina Abramovic, and the sounding of visual poetry, is around the linguistic and paralinguistic content of BDSM practice and especially the use of safe words to help ensure that issues of control and consent do not become wholly and potentially dangerously blurred and illegible. Sadomasochism isn't really my personal thing, though -- if you'll pardon the overshare -- I've had some experiences over the past couple of years that have really opened me up, ha ha, to the attractions of that territory. This has spilled somewhat into a writing project that I'll be picking up in December, which I hope might lead towards a new play (with a script and everything) next year sometime: and the more I read and research, the more I'm aware of my ignorance. Like, presumably, most people who tend to think of themselves as broad-minded and liberal, I think the elasticity of my tolerance can sometimes be a way of not having to think about, or not having to know about, the experiences of others which may be considerably removed from my own. Even at my most vanilla, S&M has never bothered me exactly so I've never really had to engage with what's going on for people for whom that's a central part of their identity. There are all kinds of strains of this -- how much do I actually know about the lived experience of "militant" Islam in Britain? or ultra-Orthodox Judaism?; how much time do I actually spend finding out about what conversations are going on among radical feminists right now? I just airily "support" stuff, maybe drop the occasional coin into a tin, sign a petition or two: but there are things going on deep down in the lives of my closest friends, and their friends, which I have hardly the first clue about. Perhaps this is inevitable. But I'm aware just now of feeling how unsatisfactory this especially is in relation to queerness: queer is central to my work and my life, more crucial than anything really, and yet I feel like I know so little about what's going on for a lot of other people who also identify as queer, let alone those many more with whom I feel a close accord but for whom the designation 'queer' is, to their minds, too problematic to embrace. (I know how they feel, sometimes.)

So I spent some really interesting time earlier this week at the brilliant Questioning Transphobia blog, which has dealt in exemplary fashion with the tragic recent news story around the death of the human rights lawyer Sonia Burgess, and highlighted some truly appalling and hateful reportage in mainstream press coverage of the case. In a somewhat lighter, though at base no less serious, vein, I've enjoyed catching up with a couple of blogs (here and here) which provide focal points for the apparently increasing numbers of people choosing to identify as pansexual. And I've been fascinated by the blog kept by a female submissive latex fetishist (pictured wearing a latex burqa), which throws up all kinds of worthwhile and challenging questions.

I've also had the great pleasure over the past few weeks of working very closely on the editing of an anthology of work by 13 young poets: some of whom identify as queer and/or trans, and/or as gay or lesbian or bisexual; others wouldn't accept those identifications but their lived experience certainly includes time or thought spent away from the privileges of heteronormalcy. I didn't select any of the poets included in the anthology -- which will be coming out from Ganzfeld early in the new year -- for any reason other than I really, really like their work. But it's interesting that queerness and its variants is not only part of the personal story of several of them, but an essential part of the writing practice of all but a very few of them. I don't really know whether I think queerness is first and foremost about who you fuck -- I guess ultimately it is: but it's also indissolubly about the apparatus you use to think with, the models you have in mind, your own distinct sense of the body -- your body -- on the street. All of these things obviously inform and inflect language practice, and for those putting close attention on the way that language normally functions and how else it might be set to work, queerness, like all species of political thinking, is a syntactic as well as a somatic or erotic marker.

You can see it even in the purely visual work of John Cage. I finally got to visit Every Day Is A Good Day, the remarkable exhibition currently at Kettle's Yard, and the importance of Cage's queerness -- partly as reflected in his longterm relationship with Merce Cunningham and the influence on his compositional work that that relationship clearly and cheerily exerted; but partly in the demeanour of his presence and the new-minted etiquettes of his favoured forms and operations -- shines out of the whole show. Amid the gorgeously, limpidly, exactly beautiful paintings and drawings that the exhibition pulls together, a couple of monitors show video clips, including this marvellous appearance by Cage on the US game show I've Got A Secret, in which he performs 'Water Walk' (with great generosity and poise): it would be a shame to wish to CANCEL this picture of gentle, multifarious queerness:

Seeing this, earlier today, we'd just come from a lunchtime conversation about the above-mentioned new project, intended for bedroom performance: a piece that I hope might bring the intimacies of Hockney and Cavafy (and the almost brutal, curiously urban-looking queerness of Hockney's cancellation inscriptions) into a productive relation with the sorts of formal and syntactical adventurousness that I hope Cage would recognize and where some of the young poets I'm working with at the moment would feel at home. It's a constellation of ideas and tonalities that I imagine will also be detectable (and delectable) all through the sequence of Saturday evening readings and performances that my beloved pro-queer compadre Jonny is curating at his live/work gaff, The Situation Room, this month. I'll be reading and performing at the last, on the 27th; I'd be in the audience for all of them, were I not still on tour with The Author. If you can go, I would recommend it, more warmly than I think I can say; go to one, go to all of them, go to all of all of them. Nowhere in my experience more suggestively and inspiringly represents the politics of queerness and the erotics of anticapitalism than the Sit Room; no one is working harder to put their body and their language on the line than Jonny. It is, all through the month, a programme of readers and makers to die for -- no, wait, even more romantically: to live for. You don't have to be queer to work here: but, o fuck me, it helps.