The trouble is, nothing is irrelevant.
One of the things one learns from psychoanalytic therapy -- not that I've done a lot of it, or at least, not as much as some -- is that the casual aside, the throwaway remark, the odd scrap of detail, the glib wisecrack, these are where the real juice is. Even in this last post (proper), it seems I can't ignore the impulse to pounce on those tiny fragments that start off feeling barely purposive but end up containing the whole world.
Perhaps it's a bit like greebles -- the textural patches of synthetic complexity that are applied to digitally rendered objects to make them more lifelike. Greebles are the most explicit manifestation yet of a paradox I've always enjoyed and been fascinated by, and used a great deal in my own work: they are a kind of noise, and, by extension, supposedly not-information -- and yet they're generative of a significant strand of associative meaning. Greebling has a close association with a lot of urban and electronic music from the early 90s onwards, when surface noise (such as samples of vinyl playback crackle) would be added to pristine digital tracks to lend them that most indicatively paradoxical feature: simulated authenticity. No doubt I've written here before about my own similar practice of 'scuffing': an extra pass or two over a staged sequence in order to make it less choreographically smooth -- taking the edge of unreality off by putting more edges on.
So perhaps it's for that reason that I can't just cheerily chuck something in to the mix without also dismantling and analysing it. Today's example? Purely for the almost homeopathic dose of fun, the nano-shits and pico-giggles of it all, I thought I'd start this post with whatever was the most amusing or unusual or piquant version of 'My Way' that I could find on The You Tube. ("And now the end is here / And so I face the final curtain..." &c.) A pale one-liner, in other words. But rewatching for the first time in ages the far-from-obscure Sid Vicious version from The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, I found it really got under my skin. (In a good way.)
Notoriously, when the Vicious track -- plainly intended as an out-and-out cash cow novelty single, for all that the great Simon Jeffes graced it with his string arranging skills -- was recorded, Sid didn't know many of the lyrics, and improvised some incorrigible replacements during the session: famously, the third line becomes "You cunt, I'm not a queer", which hangs weirdly over the whole rendition, via its episodes of cat-killing and hat-wearing (a sardonic reference to Lydon, apparently), until its theme is recapitulated in unexpected inversion at the very end: "The record shows / I fucked a bloke / and did it my way." It's all pretty curious, and exceedingly queer in the present construction of that word, and perhaps what makes it so compelling, at least in the film version, is -- as even the song's godfather, Paul Anka, has suggested -- that Vicious seems sort of nakedly sincere. I guess beneath -- or actually within -- the strenuous pisstaking, Sid only reasserts the queer/punk credentials of the song itself: screw you all, I did it my way.
Revisiting the Sid Vicious version reminded me of a video project I conceived a few years ago in response to it. I hoped to rope in a bunch of unprepared volunteers who I'd film individually performing their own version of 'My Way', to a shop-bought karaoke backing, not supplying them with the correct lyrics but asking them to extemporise their own to fill in whatever lacunae there might be in their own remembrance of the song -- which I dare say might well include people who didn't really know it at all. I then intended to stack all these versions together: one backing track and a grid of maybe two dozen simultaneous performances, probably subtitled for ease of comparison. I thought that might be a fun project, and a revealing one. But it stayed on the drawing board: and anyway, apparently one ought to be a little wary of inexpert karaoke renderings of this particular song...
The reason I'm unpacking this a bit is because it's the best route in to describing how my working practice has changed in the past few years -- or, more importantly, how the commitments underscoring it have changed -- and why this blog is now a minor casualty of those otherwise highly positive changes. My never-realized video project is an early manifestation of what's gradually become the central motivation in my work: I mean my work as a director, above all, but more generally as a maker, which is what I increasingly would wish to call myself anyway -- an appellation that seems to contain within it all the strands of directing, writing, devising and performing that I do to differing degrees from project to project, and also to be plumped up by a sense that much if not most of the work is not about any of those roles or disciplines in particular but about a constant movement between them. That core commitment can be simply expressed (for once): I want to hear other people's voices. This is not to say that I am irrecuperably sick of the sound of my own, but rather that the peculiar textures of my work (and I think I was wanting precisely these textures right from the start, for example in undergraduate pieces that often employed multiple languages) are best served by the particular signal-to-noise ratio that's associated with polyvocality. What I want to do, in other words -- and what I want to do in order to be a distinctive artist in my own right and associated with certain kinds of aesthetic and political fingerprints -- is create spaces in which other voices than my own are heard. I might be in the mix too, at some level, but what really interests me is how my voice, my story, my testimony, lives among many, is always crosshatched and complicated by others. More and more my work is asking: what is an individual voice? What is a collective voice? And how is the imaginative and political life of the individual expressed and enhanced and extended by the collective, and how does the collective voice speak in the complex and partial distinction of the individual? How do we share our radical singleness with others, while harbouring our collectivity within ourselves ? (This is where Bataille's erotics first came in to my thinking to help save the day.) And where in all this is our own polyphony, the potentially liberating pressure of the contradictions we live, the dialectics that shape what we find to be liveable now and imaginable beyond us?
A call has just gone out from West Yorkshire Playhouse, with whom Chris Goode & Company will be making a piece from early next year. We're going to work with nine volunteers, most or all of whom we're expecting to be people with little or no performance experience; in collaboration with those individuals we'll make a short performance portrait for each of them to do on the stage of the Courtyard at WYP. It's one of a number of responses that have started to bubble up for me in the second half of this year to the incredible challenge that our earlier WYP piece, Open House, detonated beneath my practice. In that piece, the company (five of us) more-or-less lived for a week in a rehearsal room at the Playhouse, saying that we'd make a completely new piece from scratch in that week, and that the door would be (at least metaphorically) open so that anyone who wanted to could simply rock up and join in with the making. I remember with a little smirk now writing the copy in advance of that project, saying "Who knows, you might even end up in the final piece!", but feeling absolutely certain that nobody would engage to that extent. The retrospective smirk, of course, because the piece we showed on the Friday had a cast of 16. In that show, more than two thirds of the company were people we'd only met that week, and who were only there because they'd had the courage and the curiosity to show up in response to our invitation and say: Can I join in? And it was the most exciting week of the year, for me, artistically, and I left thinking, Well, now there needs to be a really good reason for not always working like that, because otherwise why would you not?
|Open House at West Yorkshire Playhouse
There has so far turned out to be only one dependable answer to that question, and it's this: the work that we showed on the last day of Open House was fun and exciting but also chaotic and inchoate and kind of a mess: which was perfect for that context, but it also made me want to be honest -- with myself, not least -- and say that I'd miss not being able to apply to that sort of collaborative framework the few bits and bobs that I know about crafting things, making them beautiful and elegant and (in a not too snooty way) refined. So the task since then has been to imagine different kinds of project that would allow for, if not compel, a reconciliation between, on the one hand, the openness of the system and the process and the room and the offer, and on the other, the (hopefully lightly-worn) authority of craft and a modicum of expertise born of the experience of fifteen years' back-to-back stuffmaking.
So, last week, I was in Bradford with two old-hand collaborators, the brilliant and beautiful Wendy Hubbard and the beautiful and brilliant Jamie Wood, embarking on the process of making a new piece, GOD/HEAD, for Ovalhouse in February. And all of the questions kept looping round to that one. How can we make this piece as open, as polyvocal, as horizontally authored, as unpredictable as possible, while at the same time being able to take the audience on a shaped and crafted journey, and to see through the trajectory of a particular and quite nuanced argument? It's a fascinating question, a challenging one certainly, and, given the content of GOD/HEAD, and the ideas and issues it seeks to animate (more on which below), a thoroughly entangled and exhausting one. I came away from our three days at Theatre in the Mill feeling like I'd mostly been wrestling with bears. (Which in actual fact hardly happened at all. I did spend some time rough-housing with an excellent vegetable bhuna, but that's not quite the same thing.)
Anyway: this, if we can crack it, and/or however else we find we can make models that square those particularly interesting and confounding circles, is what Chris Goode & Co as a company venture will have at its heart. It's been very interesting feeling the existing threads and pulls in my work coming together to create a language that already feels (to me) both familiar in its aspirations and quite new in its comprehension of what those aspirations are and how they all feed in to each other. Many, many paragraphs in this blog over the past five years have fretted, either overtly or implicitly, about what felt like an unmanageably (and unhelpfully) various and uncohesive array of ongoing projects, and the tension of wanting to continue to make work in a very broad range of formats and contexts while at the same time feeling like the offer I made as an artist to the different audiences and stakeholders in that picture needed to be more cohesive. I needed to be able to tell that story. And now I think I can, or at least I can begin to. The thing about hearing other people's voices is absolutely central. Sometimes I might be the mouthpiece; sometimes other actors will lend their own voices to the task and sometimes they'll also be the originators of those messages as well as their interpreters; sometimes we'll hear strangers: maybe the audience, right there and then in the moment of our meeting, or maybe people from way outside the room, people we'll never meet and never really know but whose connection to us we might wish to consider together in an imaginative and focused way.
These commitments feel like they might sit differently in the culture now than they did eighteen months ago, and perhaps in another eighteen months I'll be reframing them again, and that's fine, that's how it should be. For now there are two things that feel profoundly important. One is to keep remaking and rethinking theatre as a polyvocal space, a social space, a space that's scrupulously hospitable to difference but also in itself a place we can hold in common. The other is to refuse -- and to offer a welcoming alternative to -- what we seem to see more and more, all over, which is the simulation of participation: whether that's about theatre that presents itself as interactive but actually has no room within itself for a consequential or causative interactivity, or about the free-reign multivoice playgrounds of below-the-line territories in blogs, on news sites and so on, in which contributors are reduced to one-person mobs, bullies enraged by their own impotence and by the apparent impossibility of being part of a virtual discourse that can ever, ever amount to anything, or would even wish to.
The kind of work that I'm now wanting to concentrate on making (not exclusively, but I do think there are interesting questions about how more standard text-driven models, or processes in which I might direct others' scripts say, might also respond to these ideas) certainly still includes a measure of solo performance -- Keep Breathing, for example, where I do most of the talking but quite a lot of what I'm saying has been written or spoken by others in advance of the performance and I've just gathered those other documents together; or Hippo World Guest Book, which it was lovely to give another outing on the Monday before Christmas, and which is nothing but a recital of other voices, in different degrees of legibility and personal sincerity. I'm not sure any solo performance can really work that doesn't begin and end in an acknowledgement and a respectiful enaction of the plurality of the "individual" voice.
In those solo spaces, though, I feel much more like, say, the host of a dinner party, whose role is not to be the centre of attention, but perhaps merely, in a suggestive way, the centre of gravity, helping to set the tone and securing everyone's safety and their sense of being welcome, but other than that simply holding the space open for a fruitful exchange, a meaningful encounter, in which an audience sees itself, or themselves, or a perpetual reinscribing of those individual distinctions and speculative (or indicative) group formations reflected in terms of each other.
I can't, though, quite, make the same case for this blog, and as I said in the post where I kind of handed in my notice, right now (and for the past few months, to be honest) I'm really not sufficiently interested in what I, personally and individually, think about things, except as a fuzzy interior monologue that keeps me company at all hours; nor am I very interested in making myself known to others through such statements. I'm at a place where I want a properly dialogic space, not a podium for my own grandstanding. Some blogs I guess can come close to that condition, but they're few, and they've always operated in that way.
Actually the most fun I had on a blog all year was the Queer Eye Enquiry blog I curated for LADA's DIY8. In each of those four weekly posts, I tried to trace an argument or proposition about queerness as a political lens, by pulling together texts and images and sound and video clips from a wide range of sources but not explicitly commenting on how all these elements might be seen to relate. In other words, there was a set of positions, opinions, commitments, framing my acts as a curator (as is always the case), but those became a jumping-off point for assembling some quite complex structures, and, crucially, any of the participants in the Queer Eye Enquiry workshop (and, now that the blog's gone public, anyone else who happens to drop by), might see completely different things in those assemblages, different contours and isobars, different narratives and rhythms: and in doing so, not only would they have not missed the point, but in an important way they'd have got it. It wasn't about me, it was about creating the conditions for there to be an us.
This ties in so closely with what is for me (and I know for many others) among the most important commitments at the moment in relation to the theatre work: a disavowal of pedagogy as a top-down expression of authority or prestige based in knowledge. The space we now need -- as I know I've said before here, but this is the last chance I'll get to repeat myself! -- is not a space in which to tell audiences what they don't already know, but a constructed place in which it's possible for us all to acknowledge what we do already know, but have no space to admit, or recognize, or allow ourselves to feel in all its complexity. A space in which those things can be confronted truthfully and without fear, or more precisely without the suppression of fear. There's an awful lot that we're up against right now and a full acknowledgement of that is bound to give rise to fear, it probably ought to. But theatre -- and theatrical space (in which category I would also place the Queer DIY blog, for example) -- allows us to step into an experience of knowing what we know, and feeling what we must feel about what we know, without it immediately being threatening. Where we can just name the questions, without feeling that we have instantly to answer them or reject them or somehow defuse them. Whatever else it's been, and whatever its merits, this blog is not that kind of space, and never will be now: and as such, it feels to me, right now, irrelevant -- in the way that much poetry, for example, feels irrelevant, for all that it might be intelligent or penetrating or even useful in its way.
I wonder how much this is a response to what I thought was the hardest part of a really hard year: the summer riots, in London and elsewhere (though of course my experience of them was very local, dauntingly so). I wrote a post at the time which actually ended up being the most read and discussed thing I've ever published here; I have a feeling it was sort of useful to some people in its way at the time, and I'm glad of that. I personally felt better for writing it, that's for sure. But it's also true that it did little more than underline a lot of feelings of doubt and confusion -- particularly in terms of what it might mean to be an artist, a theatre maker, in that moment. It felt as if what was happening in those few days was a surge of the energy that many of us as writers and makers had been trying to describe and feed into and even incite for months, years: but that when the irruption came, we were caught -- not napping exactly, but on the wrong foot. Suddenly, we were in the middle of events that, particularly in their immediate aftermath, badly needed the kind of constructed social spaces opened up in them that for a long time we've been hankering for, describing to ourselves, beginning to invent in our minds. And some artists did try to open up that kind of space, I know. But I felt powerless in that moment, and jarringly unready. I think partly that may have had to do with what, as I said in my piece at the time, was the most difficult part of the experience of those few awful days: hearing some terrible, disastrous, profoundly dismaying things said and expressed (especially on Twitter, which went nuts) by people I thought I was counting on as allies. There was the most atrocious reactionary lurch, fixing on a 'them' who were responsible, and insisting that it was they who were stupid for being so inarticulate in their apparently opportunistic rage, rather than it being our problem that we didn't know who our neighbours were and what they were expressing in a language -- a dialect, more like -- in which we had too little vocabulary to get by. I think I felt in those days that we were all letting each other down: those with whom I thought I was shoulder to shoulder but with whom I was suddenly locked in a shouting (or un-following) match from either side of a ravine; those who were out on the streets and whose loudly insistent 'no' should have been a call to more general action, but whose means and modes felt almost totally discontinuous from the kinds of anarcho-utopian fantasies (however rigorously imagined) and conceptual spaces that I and my comrades have been giving so much of our attention. That's not to say I think we're wrong to do that, nor did I even feel that from the outskirts of the thick of it at the time; and maybe the price we pay for the privilege of living as we do is that sometimes we will be blown away and, worse, baffled by the ways in which the day-to-day lived realities of social injustice and class relations can confound us and suddenly re-present us with the most glaring image of how necessary our work is and also, at that same moment, how impossible, or at least how unfit for purpose when stuff is literally on fire. Maybe all we can do is learn how to dance on the wrong foot, on the offbeat, the ungainly but insistent thump of anarchist syncopation.
And, I must say, turning back, in that light, to the work that I've done since the summer, I do feel like it can do something that is about those riots. It maybe can't do it while everything is kicking off and awash with adrenalin and testosterone. It needs a place where people can let their fear go, and be quiet and thoughtful and kind to each other. (Not that there wasn't kindness in the midst of those riots -- and I don't just mean, in fact I don't at all mean, in the media-friendly clean-up operations that got most of us so speedily back to a cosmetically enhanced version of 'normal'.) The spaces that I've been making, and which I'll carry on making, are so much about who does and doesn't get heard. And yes, as it goes, my audience is overwhelmingly white and middle-class, by comparison with the streets I walk down to get the train every morning; but those whom we most need to be able to feel both the urgency and the feasibility of radical change are those overwhelmingly white middle-class folks who hold so much of the power and consequently carry (and experience, perhaps constantly, perhaps only in intermittent glimmering) the fear of that change, the dread of letting go.
For my part, my year's been weirdly and very unexpectedly dominated by not dissimilar questions of transition and radical change. I've been reticent about discussing or even mentioning this, but now that I've embarked on making a piece about it it seems daft not to address it. The whole of my adult life I've basically been an atheist -- and some serious-minded spells of going to Quaker meetings, and the experience of engaging to some extent with the life of St Paul's Covent Garden while I was working there as a charity administrator ten years ago, didn't do much to dent that, though it made me basically respectful of those who do have some belief, especially those for whom that belief is complicated by thought and study and tempered by doubt rather than amplified by righteous certitude; and it also left me profoundly suspicious of the hectoring or sneering tendencies within atheism. I think partly I have always wanted to distinguish between the question of God and the practice of organized religion (though having seen behind the scenes, as it were, at St Paul's, I do think there's much that's admirable in the church as well as much, perhaps much more, that is deplorable). I've never consciously set out to dig down into these ideas in my work, except for a period in our collaborative work when Jonny Liron and I were thinking quite searchingly-- and not at all facetiously -- about the qualities of Jesus Christ as an actor or performer; but they've been in the air this year: in Keep Breathing, for example, where I've frequently ended up talking to interviewees about the religious faith or spiritual practices that are an ongoing part of their basic encounter with the world, especially in the experience of loss and bereavement; and then in 66 Books for the Bush, my involvement in which required me to return (with some trepidation) to the King James Bible, for the first time since I studied it as an undergraduate in English literature. I've written here about how turbulent I found that confrontation earlier in the year, but I didn't spell it out. Now, it's time to.
One morning in April, while I was coming back from the supermarket, God spoke to me.
When I say 'God', and of course when I say 'spoke', and in fact when I say almost every word in that sentence apart from 'supermarket', I'm reporting back from a hopelessly subjective experience, and from my immediate interpretation of it. What actually happened was an abrupt sequence of physical sensations, and the instantaneous location of the source of those sensations in some idea of God that I obviously still carry without ever really examining it very closely. And of course there was a huge emotional rush too, and I honestly don't know -- I've spent a lot of time trying to think through it -- in what order these things happened, the physical and the emotional and the (for want of a better word -- and I really do want a better word) spiritual. All I can honestly say is that a bunch of very intense stuff happened very quickly and at the point that it all happened I did not doubt for a moment that it was God. Not necessarily God intervening, in a pointy-finger lighting-bolt sort of way, but God being revealed as fundamentally present and as needing something from me: which is only to say, if there is a God, the God that became real to me in that strange sudden public orgasm of sensations so strong I had to put my shopping down and lean against a wall for steadiness, then the reality of that God immediately seemed to imply to me a whole raft of responsibilities to which I would surely have to face up.
Once that rush was over, and I was back to picking up my shopping bags and heading home, albeit feeling physically shaken and panicky, the next sequence was of course a series of framing actions through which to try and reconcile the enormity of the experience with the need to continue to hold my life together in some recognizable version. One might question that need, but in that moment, I figured that was the task. I had a script to write, to an immovable deadline; this was Keep Breathing, which didn't feel too ungodly a project anyway: so I could park all this for a while and focus on the work and it wasn't like I was going out of my way to refuse the presence of God). I would put all this weird and potentially life-reconfiguring stuff to one side, and get on with my writing, and deal with the repercussions later.
Only then of course I started to notice how similar in some senses my epiphany had been to my experience in my mid-20s of paranoid delusions, and the whole fabric of what happened to me became inevitably dubious. And just as I remember spending a whole day in 1999 looping between thinking that the entire surgery of my then GP was a stage-set replica filled with cult followers who were being instructed to stab me by the scrolling LED display in the waiting room, and then thinking that that was obviously preposterous nonsense, and then thinking that it wasn't all obviously preposterous, and so on round in ever decreasing circles, so I spent several days this spring lurching between different degrees of acceptance and resistance, between dismissal and the brink of submission. I couldn't get past an uncloseable hypothetical chink: if there really were a God whose presence was the very definition of an article of faith to so many people, how else should it feel than exactly how it had felt? What more did I want, to quash my doubt? Perhaps in a way I was thinking about my recent distrust of the medicalization of sadness, the idea that being very unhappy within a social and cultural system that couldn't deal with unhappiness has produced a treatable condition called depression which makes some large industrial-pharmaceutical companies very rich. Did my God experience really have to be medicalized into a neurochemical incident, an episode with a clear (and rational) psychopharmacological cause? And then again, what was it exactly that made me want to kick against that? Why, after a fleeting encounter with something that felt like God, should I want to cling to it against almost all rational evidence to the contrary?
What gradually did become clear was that the time was never going to be right for me to 'deal with' these questions in the normal run of my day-to-day life. Theatre, in the end, is what I think with. And so when Ovalhouse asked me in for a chat, to see if there might be anything I'd like to make with them, these questions were still at the top of my mind. (And they also seemed to sit very interestingly and productively alongside the artistic questions that felt most urgent at that time, the ones I describe above which arose out of Open House and the will to reduce the tension between craft and not-knowing, between the object and the event.) And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I come to be making GOD/HEAD. Had we got the Wellcome Trust funding we applied for (they knocked us back for fear that the emergent piece was too "spiritual" -- their scare quotes, but I don't disagree with them exactly), it would have been a piece with a strong focus on this question around how neuroscience and religion (or more precisely the experience of God, which I keep wanting to maintain is quite a different thing) can play nicely together, or not, and whether God is just a squirt of chemicals, an accidental titillation of 5-HT receptors, and what changes if that's so. Without that funding and the particular perspective it would have compelled, it's easier to concentrate on the bit that fascinates me more, which is approaching a relatively familiar trope -- the crisis of faith -- from its much less familiar flipside: not the once-confident man of God who begins to struggle to sustain his belief, but the complacent atheist who is suddenly made to rethink everything, and how the universe shifts in relation to that rethinking and the fifteen seconds of intense physical and emotional overload that triggered it in the first place. Why am I, a previously comfortable atheist and committed materialist, so reluctant simply to give up the idea of the presence of God when the only sensible considered view is that for cultural reasons I have brought a deeply embedded superstitious complex to bear on my interpretation of a briefly disorienting moment of neurotransmitter naughtiness?
I suppose in a way what I trust -- and I think this comes through in quite a lot of my work, and a lot of my experience of the world -- has to do with the 'My Way' questions I outlined near the top of this post, about how we as individuals deal with our most personal experiences, in such a way as to be able to share them with others rather than struggle with them alone. A lot of the conversation in Bradford was about privacy. I don't reject privacy but I think it is a default for us in ways that are (by now) wholly ideological and utterly inseparable from the capitalist lodestone of private ownership -- itself a superstition easily as suspect as what Richard Dawkins calls the 'God delusion'. Making things -- not necessarily, but not least, in an artistic context -- is for me always a way of destroying, or at least suspending, a privacy that I think places too much of us -- certainly too much of me for my comfort -- out of the sight and out of the mind of others, and keeps those others (and our responsibilities towards them) too hidden from us. Of course the question immediately becomes one of that same signal-to-noise ratio I invoked at the very start: how can we find a way of conveying, sharing, analysing together our experiences, in a way that is as faithful as possible to the distinction of our experience? How do we do that as writers, say, when not only do many of our most intense and enlivened experiences evade the capacity of language fully to grasp them, but more than that, they have those qualities of intensity and excess partly because language cannot reach them? This is a very good answer, I suppose, at least, as to why I'm not only a writer, and why I had to venture beyond being "a playwright" in order to get done the work that seemed most necessary. I suspect it's also why I keep trying to push at what what theatre can do with sex, and with the emotional and psychic experiences of desire and grief and physical pain, and with the haecceity of the naked body (and, increasingly, the body of the animal); and maybe ultimately it's why I'm still a modernist, and my principal interest is in form rather than content, albeit suffused (perhaps sentimentally) with a close acknowledgement of the depth of the will to gesture rather than the semiology just below the surface, which is, for me, close to greebling.
But I feel like I'm writing my own obituary, which was not the point of all this... Er, what was the point of all this again? Oh, I guess a sort of year's end (and blog's end) state-0f-the-nation address or Queen's speech or something.
Well, darlings, all things considered it's been a really good year, really productive, frequently really difficult, and full of intensity: and probably if I could describe my perfect year it would be a mix of all those things in roughly the balance I got them: so, I guess that's a nice thing to be able to say, even if I do feel like I'm nursing a bruise or two over Christmas. The decisive factor, in so many ways, has been the new (or newly formalised) partnership with my extraordinary producer Ric Watts; as well as being quietly brilliant at what he does, Ric is a thoroughly good guy in a pretty wicked bit of the world, and I've been appreciating very much the unaccustomed pleasure of having my work represented by someone who not only instinctively gets it, but who has also taken the trouble to engage with it closely and is building a really dimensionalised sense of it and of me as an artist. It's the carefulness and energy of Ric's attention, as well as a bum of a lot of hard work, that have made it possible for us to line up what looks like a fun year ahead.
CG&Co started this year in the spring with an R&D project supported by CPT, picking up the threads of a devised piece based on the writings of Blaise Cendrars which I'd started looking into a few years ago at New Greenham Arts; in three weeks we made a 25-minute trailer for a show called The End of the World Filmed by the Angel of Notre-Dame that I think I'm resigned to us probably never making, or at least not for a while (it's incredibly hard to see where else it can fit other than the international festival circuit, which is not quite where we're at yet) -- but the collaboration with Mervyn Millar's gorgeous live animation and the sharp, bold performances of Clive Mendus (as God, a role he was manifestly born to play), Gemma Brockis and Jamie Wood made for a really lovely working atmosphere and a vivid and sort of pungent piece of work which I was proud of and, more importantly, surprised by. And I got to squirt honey-scented shampoo up the wall from a kitchen syringe, in a momentary eruption that (as far as I can tell) absolutely nobody noticed, and which took an hour with some kitchen roll to clear up. That's the sort of moment that my theatre work lives and dies by, if anybody asks.
|Clive Mendus in rehearsal for The End Of The World...
From there we went straight into an R&D week at the NT Studio, beginning a process that hopefully will bear fruit this summer (if we can make the logistics work), on a verbatim piece that I'm hugely excited about. It was a pretty joyful week, not least because I got to work for the first time with two actors I hugely admire, Stephen Boxer (a great and underrated presenter of children's tv back when I was a children) and the lovely Angela Clerkin. And that took us straight into Open House for WYP, which, as I've already said, was a real game-changer for me, and at several points the happiest I've been on the inside of my work in ages.
Jumping from Open House more or less straight into the making of a prototype of Where We Meet was a really happy transition, carrying across (I hope) some of the openness of the Leeds project but also working at a level of aesthetic detail and intellectual and compositional precision that felt like a really neat and appealing corrective to some of the mad jamming of the Open House week. Again, I'm not sure that Where We Meet has any future life, for similar reasons to the Cendrars piece: it's not that the idea isn't excitingly fertile, it's just hard to see how to make it viable, given that it's a show with a cast of four, for an audience of two, that could only reasonably be performed once in an evening. There's no way that's anyone's idea of "public benefit"... But I was so moved by the care and the application of the four performers, Lucy Ellinson, Jonny Liron, Theron Schmidt and Tomas Weber -- grateful for their tremendous skill and generosity (and not least their willingness to get naked and stay naked) -- and by the many kind folks who lent us their homes to rehearse in; and above all, perhaps, hugely touched by the ten people who came to see the scratch performances in Edinburgh, almost all of whom stayed behind afterwards, sometimes for longer than the duration of the show itself, to have tea and talk about the work, what they'd seen in it, what they'd felt, what they thought could be pursued further. There was something about those post-show conversations -- which, I guess, had after all been conceived as part of the work rather than an adjunct to it -- that felt even more exemplary than the pieces themselves. Being ready to sit with and be part of those conversations took great generosity on the part of the actors too and more than once I just sat there and allowed my mind to be gently blown by the four of them: Lucy, who's been my fellow traveller on so many projects over the past six years, and who was just about holding it together under the incredible physical and emotional strain of commuting between Edinburgh and Newcastle (where she was rehearsing a show for Northern Stage) and making work for Forest Fringe, as well as occupying perhaps the most intense of the four roles in Where We Meet with great intrepidity -- including a hitherto undiscovered (by me, at least) talent for improvising stream-of-consciousness text bordering sometimes on glossolalia -- and a gorgeous (and crucial) whack of self-deprecating physical comedy; Tomas, by some way the least experienced performer of the four, and the only one I hadn't worked with before, but who gave himself to the work with great grace and diligence; Jonny, whose unique and idiosyncratic expertise and whose wild signature wholeheartedness and companionship and courage and beauty are what makes it possible for me to think of making these unlikely shows in the first place; and perhaps most hearteningly for me, Theron, given the ups and downs that this blog has charted over the years in our working relationship: coming back together after three years for Open House was thrilling but difficult (I think we'd both say), but, for me at least, Where We Meet was the perfect place for us to, er, meet again, with none of the complicated and dissonant pressures that made the temporary end of our association in 2008 so painful and so impossible to avoid. Theron is just simply an exceptionally good person to have in the room: kind and funny and caring but also fiercely rigorous and always ready to ask the right question, even (or especially) when it's a question that no one feels ready to answer. I'm intending the year feeling really really thankful that that's a working relationship that's come back into my life in such a strong and expansive way.
Edinburgh was actually, mostly, of course, about the downscaled revival of The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley -- and much kudos to Ric for talking me into doing those ten shows at the Pleasance, as, reluctant though I was, I think they've been incredibly helpful in establishing CG&Co as an idea with its own distinctive tone. Of course I worry that Wound Man and Shirley is a misleading calling card -- not everything I do is so out-and-out accessible, and the fictional storytelling thing is a fairly small part of my repertoire and an even smaller part of my plans for the future; there are storytelling elements in GOD/HEAD, for example, but anybody expecting it to feel like Wound Man is likely to have a bit of a problem with it. Nonetheless, it's opened up some lovely new conversations (as has the subsquent BAC run), and I'm thrilled to have had heroes like Daniel Kitson and Stewart Lee come to see it, and if it's done anything to help some key people in the sector see that (a) I don't make the weird stuff I sometimes make because I don't know how to write a good crafted story, and (b) I don't only make irrecuperably weird and intransigently highbrow stuff anyway, then that's great, not just in terms of that show being seen but with regard to the plans that CG&Co might be able to make in the future. Everything that supports the sense that I have any kind of sustainable future at all is still quite a relief!
CG&Co also had its name on Keep Breathing, though strictly speaking the project predated the existence of the company. It had a first outing at STK in April under the aegis of London Word Festival, and that was a very lovely occasion, massively enhanced by LWF's having double-billed it with Debbie Pearson's utterly radiant (and wonderfully sympathetic) Like You Were Before. The Plymouth run was a mixed time for me -- everyone at the Theatre Royal was terrific as ever, and I was thrilled (as audiences were too) with the transformation that Naomi Dawson and Kristina Hjelm were able to effect in the Drum, finding in it a much more embracing, immersive space than I'd seen it be before. Audience response to the piece was as good as I could possibly have hoped -- I've never had so many people write to me after a show to share their own experiences, often very movingly. (To be fair, I've never so explicitly solicited those responses: that seems to be a good thing to do.) Only in one or two performances did I feel like I was failing to make the kind of connection on which the whole piece completely depended -- and then it was horrible. But the audience-facing stuff was basically great. I was also really pleased to meet as part of that project Sarah Elvin, who generously spoke to me at length about the campaign, in which she's been deeply involved, to try and put a stop to the building of a waste incinerator at Devonport; it felt important as well as personally satisfying to be able to highlight a local issue like that as part of the show. Sadly the last couple of days have brought the news that the project is going ahead despite the strength of local objection (and the admission by the council that those objections are fully justified by the available evidence; the only argument in favour, by their own admission, is that there is money to be made, and this of course overrules even the consideration of health risks to local residents); I hope the campaign will be able to find the resources it needs to keep going, but whatever happens, I was really inspired by Sarah and I hope others were too when I passed on her story. So all of that was good; frustratingly, I had a very difficult time personally in Plymouth, running into a brick wall of depression that threatened a few times to tip over into something seriously uncontainable -- and being on my own there (and so far from home) made it very hard to find the support I needed: so, sadly, I'm still looking back on that whole experience with more of a shudder than a glow. The learnings -- that I'm still vulnerable to a species of depression that hasn't disrupted my life that significantly since 2002 and which I'd begun to think was all in the past; and that I shouldn't ever again let myself get into a position where I'm on tour and totally on my own without anyone having an eye on me -- will hopefully be valuable enough in themselves that eventually I'll feel less sore about those few weeks.
|Keep Breathing at the Drum, Plymouth
And then the Monday before Christmas I did Hippo World Guest Book at STK, getting it out of storage for the first time since my Lean Upstream mini-retrospective in 2009: and it was the most fun I've ever had performing that piece (due to a brilliant audience -- just the right combination of smart and drunk -- and the perfect venue, notwithstanding it was so cold in there that I could see my breath in front of my face). I don't know if HWGB has a future -- I really like doing it, at least in front of audiences who are able to tune in to what I'm doing, and it's pretty easy to install and to take on the road; on the other hand, the passage of time has a big effect on how the piece comes across (to my mind, anyway) -- I think our sense of what online community formation and exchange actually means has shifted a lot in the nearly five years since the piece was made, and I certainly find that overfamiliarity has made the below-the-line abuses and snarkery less gleefully amusing than they were at the time. But I guess the piece will be part of CG&Co's portfolio -- the one-off performance at STK was mostly in order to show it to Ric so that he knows what it is and does and where it might sit -- and on the whole I'm quite glad of that. Glad too of the support of STK and especially the mighty Greg McLaren.
And then I guess there were all the things that weren't CG&Co projects. Back at the start of the year, the Pinter double-bill, Landscape / Monologue, at the Ustinov, which gave me the opportunity of working with three phenomenal actors I've long admired: Maggie Henderson again (after her heartbreaking Ann in King Pelican), George Irving (who's been on my wishlist ever since I saw him in an emotionally scarring episode of Juliet Bravo when I was ten!), and Clive Mendus (who was in the cast of The Street of Crocodiles, the Complicite show which the Thompson's calendar takes as Year Zero); that project was intended partly to flag up to the world that I'm really keen to direct other people's work, and I'm not sure it achieved that objective: but on its own terms I was very proud of it, and not least the extraordinary lighting cadenza which Katharine Williams so beautifully created for the transition between the two plays. And I went straight from Bath to Los Angeles (as one does) for the last leg of The Author -- which I think I've covered in sufficient depth, but which I look back on with a shake of the head at our (and above all at Tim Crouch's) audacity -- in a good way, mostly; the launch of Tim's Plays One from Oberon and the new Contemporary Theatre Review number dedicated to his work a couple of weeks ago was a terrific vantage from which to ponder the whole Author journey, and I'm pleased to report that I have even less idea what to make of it all now than I ever did. Probably that goes especially for that last Los Angeles leg -- as it probably should. But I'm remembering chatting about Ken Campbell with the brilliant Stacie Chaiken over the best grilled cheese sandwich I've ever tasted, and catching a glimpse of dolphins as we beetled down the coast road towards Santa Barbara, and nearly dying in Vic Llewellyn's passenger seat as we headed home one night, and being courted by the senior vice president of casting at Sony who thought I should be in sitcoms (the eccentric British next door neighbour kind of thing), and eating recherche flavours of Ben & Jerry's while watching RuPaul's Drag Race back at the apartment, and... well, there's much there to feel fondly about.
Then there were my adventures in being a proper writer -- The Extremists for the Royal Court and The Loss of All Things for the Bush as part of their extraordinary 66 Books. What do we make of all that, on reflection? I'm not quite sure, to be honest. I was very pleased with, and a little startled by, both pieces; neither is perfect but both are, I think, interesting and provocative and ambitious. That the Royal Court ended up not wanting The Extremists after what felt like a really ecstatically successful public reading in March has inevitably slightly distorted my relationship with it, but I think I mostly feel as I did at the time that the breakdown of that project was more to do with a mismatch of expectations around process than a direct reflection on the script; it didn't go forward because they felt it didn't quite work yet, and the frustrating thing is, I agreed that it didn't -- but it seems they wanted me to fix those problems by continuing to work on the piece as a lonely playwright in a little room, while I felt that only a rehearsal process would iron those wrinkles out, while further time alone in my writer's cell would only produce rewrites of increasingly antisocial weirdness. The Bush's attitude likewise was initially wary -- encouraging to a degree but anxious about where my half-hour piece ended up, and wanting me to consider cutting the whole last scene (which still seems to me to be an extraordinary thing to say to a writer, at least to one you profess to have any faith in or respect for); perhaps that bit of the conversation would have felt more supportive and less censorious had we been able to have it in detail rather than as one discussion alongside 65 others that they were attempting to have at the same time. At any rate, once the finished script had been signed off, I have to say the Bush were both consistently supportive and extraordinarily impressive -- especially Tamara Harvey, who drove the extremely condensed get-in/tech rehearsals for both my pieces (I was also directing Harold Finley in Michael Rosen's piece from Amos) with tremendous facility and lightness. I'm not sure many of the grown-ups really liked or felt attuned with The Loss of All Things (though Josie Rourke was nice about it once she'd seen it a few times and its movements became a little clearer to her), but it got good mentions in dispatches and seems to have excited some of the younger directors and writers around the project: thanks not least to the gobsmacking work of my three actors: Christian Roe, who I first met at the NT Studio a couple of years ago and who's loomed large this year one way and another, which is a delightful turn; Rick Warden, who was something of an idol when I was in the year below him at Cambridge and watching him turn out performances of such astounding intensity and daring that it's taken me until now to pluck up the courage to ask him if we could work together -- he was amazing (not least in the way he dealt with becoming a father for the second time on the day of our tech for heaven's sake) and I hope we'll go round that particular block again before too long; and Gareth Kieran Jones, the perfect Paul, to whom I was introduced quite by chance on the train home from Edinburgh and who stuck in my mind straight away as someone with exactly the right combination of hard edges and soft centre (and frankly blaring sexual charisma), and whom I'd love to get in a room with again very soon. Maybe even a rehearsal room, ha ha. If there's one thing 66 Books brought home to me with great clarity, it's that what we call "new writing" is actually a very particular and rather a narrow sort of thing, and to that extent rather a peculiar territory. I don't dislike it -- in fact I'd love to be spending more time there, especially at the incredibly dynamic new Bush space, and conceivably in a post-Dominic Cooke Royal Court too -- but I can understand why they think I'm as weird as I sort of think they are... ;)
And then there was the huge fun and fascination of the Queer Eye Enquiry DIY project, which ate much more of the autumn than I intended it to (or than it paid for) but was a brilliantly heartening experience, not least because in assembling those big blog posts and the pieces of correspondence that accompanied them I realised I was telling a huge story back to myself, a kind of mind-map (plus heart-map plus -- sorry, but -- cock-map) of a huge region of the artistic universe in which I've worked over the past fifteen years and slowly put together my own creative and political identity; if they still did This Is Your Life, my Big Red Book would have looked a lot like that blog. And I was thrilled to see what the participating artists did, and made, and thought, in response to that stimulus; and it reminded me of how much I want to continue to find space for a curatorial practice as part of what I do both within and outside CG&Co. I suppose that impulse to curation was also driving Better Than Language, the poetry anthology I edited and which came out this year through my own Ganzfeld imprint. I was ever so proud of the book (which I have to say represented a lot of voluntary labour), and of everyone in it, and the two launch events (at STK and as part of Hi Zero in Brighton) were lively and memorable, and there's been a very small amount of positive critical response (compared with, to the best of my knowledge, next to no negative critical response), and I'm only a little sorry that we've sold rather fewer copies than I expected. But they continue to trickle out so maybe it's just a slow-burner.
And now we're down to the sundries but I do want to say how much I liked having a couple of extended public conversations this year: with Chris Johnston as part of The Argument Room at QMUL (you can still watch the archived stream here) and with Theron Schmidt at the excellent Edgelands conference in Edinburgh. It seems to me there's finally a bit of a turn against what was becoming an entrenched soundbite-driven culture in theatre and allied trades: an underachieving reductiveness which is certainly not vanquished but is at least beginning to look like one option among many, and one driven by ideological rather than economic constraints. There was an admirable thoughtfulness in evidence at the D&D on queer theatre that I hosted for Improbable; and at a small gathering of theatre-making friends in Lancaster in the summer (an assemblage much enhanced by the contributions of those who couldn't make it in person but had given a lot of thought to how they might be able to be present anyway: a nice synthesis of face-to-face and virtual mind-to-mind); and at the Birkbeck seminar on provisional poetic communities that Carol Watts organized for the visiting cris cheek (whom I had a lot of fun talking to in the run-up); and in the one-off classes I taught at CSSD and RHUL. Even on Twitter, there was thoughtfulness, often. Not always, but often.
Add to all of the above the readings that I did at the Other Room in Manchester (half-cocked but quite enjoyable) and the Situation Room in London (ditto, probably); the video I made for 'Kenilworth Castle...', in response to zero public demand and garnering even less interest; a couple of new poems, both exactly half-decent, and a piece called 'Divine Principles in the End Times' i.m. Antonio Urdiales which was probably the only worthwhile piece of standalone experimental writing I did this year; and the various little scraps of journalism and online interviews and radio stuff that all these foregoing projects have thrown up (with all the fullest redolences of the phrase "thrown up"); and this blog, of course, in so far as it's held anything like it's own this year (which to be fair I think it has, intermittently): it feels like a satisfyingly full year, crammed with good conversations and the beginnings of lots of things I can look forward to. I'm pretty sad that there's been so little room for Action one19, my ongoing collaborative partnership with Jonny Liron, which was such an important thread running through previous years: we started the year with great plans, and in fact made some good things happen on a couple of occasions, but mostly circumstances and perhaps the passage of time have worked against us. I hope we can find a way of protecting our work together, and the relationship that has produced that work, in the coming year: as far as I'm concerned, we've only just begun, and I'd be really sad to think we couldn't make the space for that work to continue. (I also can't help wondering whether the intensity of that work hasn't up till now been what's kept God at bay -- which is certainly how I'd rather it was.) But I think that's the only real downside to the year that's gone. Which is not a bad state of affairs, all told.
And now, the end is not only near but pretty much here: and so before I face the final curtain -- or, rather, lower the Bank's security shutters and steal away -- I figured I'd leave you with a survey of some of the excellent things that have happened this year that I (mostly) wasn't involved in. Quite a lot of these things are internetly flotsams and bobtails which you'll probably know by heart already, especially if you follow me on Twitter. But there'll be some brief accounts of things that actually happened in the actual world, too: for, ah, I am of that generation, poor soul. I'll be tossing in a few interludes too, to break up the monotony of my going on about cool things and trying to find words other than "brilliant" and "wonderful" with which to encapsulate their, er, brilliance and wonderfulness. -- All right, well, off we go. You might want a cup of tea and a biscuit. (Don't worry, you won't have to put up with this sort of micromanaging much longer.) I should add that these are in Strictly Come Banking-style no particular order; and also that some of what follows may be considered NSFW, if you're unlucky enough to W with Cs. (Though what are you doing at W anyway? It's holidays innit!)
* * *
1 To begin with: this. Because: everything.
2 I'm going to name as my Writer of the Year (do these ridiculous non-prizes really merit capital letters? I can't tell yet...) the quite remarkable Chris Kraus. Although I vaguely knew Kraus from her editorial work with Semiotext(e), and especially the hit-and-miss but reliably place-holding compendium Hatred of Capitalism, I'd never made a sustained engagement with her own writing until this year. Kraus's Where Art Belongs, a little orange volume in Semiotext(e)'s 'Intervention' series, and an elatingly appealing book to look at and to hold, didn't immediately seem likely to be the beginning of a full-on crush: it was at first glance modest, conversational, an easy read between tube stops. But gradually and without a single misstep the book builds into an exceptionally high-resolution picture of what art now is in our culture, and through which circuits it travels. The writing is grounded in a candid, almost flirtatious subjectivity, tellingly feeding off the complex privileges of proximity and the intimate vantage: which is to say it is a book just as much about where criticism belongs, and what kind of a participant in the dissemination of aesthetic and political ideas a "professional" critic might now be. The pieces on the Tiny Creatures gallery project and on the fascinating and infuriating Bernadette Corporation were particularly invigorating to me, but it was the relief map of Kraus herself that the book slowly yields that sent me scuttling across to her novel I Love Dick, which I was aware of on its first release in 1997 but which I've only now read, in the light of Where Art Belongs, and which is gobstoppingly thrilling in the risks it takes with disclosure and specificity and the game of the self -- a game which fifteen years later seems both reckless and underachieving, but which also contains within itself the seeds of a more continuously radical and pertinent engagement with the core question that fiction and critical theory hold in common: what else can we be? An absolute delight, and, better yet, a daunting one.
3 It feels as though it might somehow be indicative of a particular kind of importance if you can spend only a few fleeting moments with an artist's work, and still come away from the encounter feeling bowled over yet again by what you thought you already knew and had comes to terms with about that artist's project. It will be absolutely no surprise to any longterm reader of this blog, or anyone who knows me personally, that Ryan McGinley's end of year show at Alison Jacques, Wandering Comma, took my legs out from under me. McGinley's made a lot of terrific work since he was last in town, at the same gallery in 2009 with his stunning Moonmilk show: in particular, a large number of unexpected but consistently superb monochrome studio portraits, including several which place his familiar nude young pals in the frame with a bird or animal -- partly, he says, a tactic for helping his models take their attention off the camera, or off the camera's attention on them, though I also read in that conjunction something more profound that comes through Wandering Comma in teeming abundance. That imposing something is McGinley's courageous and crucial confrontation with the idea of the sublime -- an idea that in itself feels vulnerable now that the familiar downscaling reconfigurations of the sublime under postmodernism are so stressed-out and frankly incredible. Here, McGinley gives us back a version of the old-skool Kantian sublime partly through working with scale: there are only seven pictures here but each is not far off 3m x 2m: in other words, about as big as it gets for photographs. In all but one of the pictures, the human figure is present as our yardstick, and in some nature diminutizes the person -- perhaps most tellingly in 'Taylor (Rushing River)', a yelping head and leg (like Bruegel's Icarus) sticking out of a body of water so turbulently foamy it almost looks like the fuzz of a giant Sesame Street monster; while in the two black-and-white portraits that initially greet the visitor, the female body itself is huge, in a way that recalls the commercial exploitation of undressed women on every Western billboard but somehow manages to spirit away the distortions of the advertising transaction to present us with very large collaborative compositions: women who are seeing themselves being seen, and who see us seeing, in standing room only behind McGinley's shoulder. Perhaps the key to the whole show is the gorgeously coloured 'Night Sky Pine', which eliminates the human altogether (except the implied viewer, of whom this is the tenderest portrait) and seems almost single-handedly to re-present us with a natural sublime we might have thought was lost forever -- towering trees, distant stars, and the difficult poetry of our own looking-up; these pictures, unabashedly, are out-and-out fictions, but like all the best fictions they are to be trusted, and loved for their trustworthiness. I find the erotic kick of McGinley's best work still deeply present, and it's exciting to see it as much in the pine trees as in the naked bodies. For me, the show's pinnacle, perhaps McGinley's most important piece so far, is 'Brandee (Midnight Flight)', in which the manifestly literal and the reverberantly metaphorical are locked in deep conversation: the falling motif which McGinley's been exploring for some time now, but also the depiction of wonder at what is fallen through, at where that flight begins and ends, feels as complete and as extensive as any single visual presentation could ever hope to be at this time and in these places. Dizzying and yet emphatically steady, McGinley's is, to my racing mind, the fullest and most richly participatory artwork currently being shown.
|Ryan McGinley, 'Brandee (Midnight Flight)' (2011)
4 If there's one thing I like more than smart cool people, it's cool smart people. Not necessarily theatre people, but people who are thinking elegantly -- and in ways that can shine helpful lights on theatre practice -- about how we live together. This is probably where I'd mention Ken Robinson's School of Life sermon on passion, if I hadn't already made a fuss of it back in July. I've also been really struck this year by the amazing Rob Hopkins; if you don't know his Transition Culture blog, bookmark it now and check it hourly. I really do think transition communities are going to be among the most vital sources of learning and insight for theatre and performance makers over the next few years: they're already grappling with what it means to imagine living differently, in a really hands-on way, while a lot of more overtly politically oriented groups are still alphabetizing the doilies. Listen here to an admirably lucid conversation between Rob Hopkins and Carolyne Stayton for Transition US. But mostly I want in this paragraph to celebrate my dear friend and sometime co-worker Karl James, of The Dialogue Project: and in particular to ask you to watch, if you haven't already, a version of the presentation that Karl gave to The Story 2011 conference in February. Karl made a lot of friends that day: no wonder. He's an amazing man, and what he has to share is -- has repeatedly proved itself to be -- life-changing.
5 Well so this being the year that the establishment new writing spaces like the Royal Court and the Bush started to take an interest in what I might be up to, I thought I'd better play the game: so I spent a few weeks in the spring cramming in visits to real plays. You know, the actual written-down ones. Very interesting it was too. Of Wastwater we shall speak a bit further down the page. Dan Rebellato's Chekhov in Hell confused me a bit: aside from being the Duke of Twitter, Dan's a lovely man, a brilliant critic (read his Theatre & Globalization if you haven't, it's a perfect conjunction of nail and head) and a talented writer whose My Life Is A Series of People Saying Goodbye was my favourite radio play of the year; I also suspect Chekhov in Hell is heavily dependent on an exoskeleton of ironies that the audience I was sitting with at the Soho hadn't quite tuned into, but what came across to me via the distorting chamber of their hysterical response around me was a muddled compendium of sub-Walliams & Lucas skits on foreignness and apparently sincere expressions of misanthropic fatigue, terminating in a curious stub of gun-wielding melodrama, all played out on a mystifyingly drab and enervating set. Bit harsh, probably, but while recognizing the patterns of its wit and the line of its trajectory, I felt totally estranged from its "modern life is rubbish" sulks and from pretty much everything it wanted, especially everything it appeared to want from me -- unless it wanted exactly the recation it got from me, and secretly hated everyone else for lapping it up: in which case I still don't like it. I also found myself out of step with the audience for Philip Ridley's Tender Napalm -- perhaps his fullest and most energetically potent play since Mercury Fur, but a tricky one to pitch. David Mercatali's approach -- and I think in a way this was the bravest possible choice -- was to have the heroically committed Jack Gordon and Vinette Robinson amped up to 11 from the start, and only in the closing minutes to admit any kind of cadence, nuance or ambiguity into the mix. You can't fault the attempt to meet Ridley's writing head-on, at its own register -- and I bet Phil absolutely loved the production as a result; but I found it quickly outstayed its welcome, and became overbearing, strident (particularly in its adamant refusal of any trace of queerness), and occasionally cringemaking in its yoofy physical theatre platitudes. But again I am out of step with pretty much every critical response I've read to the production. Fair enough: I just think Phil's potentially more interesting than that -- more interesting, I think, than even he knows he is. So, of that little clutch of plays I saw, the only one I found myself really excited by -- and therefore hereby name Proper Actual Play of the Year -- was David Eldridge's The Knot of the Heart at the Almeida. Again, the pitch of the thing was initially really hard to tune in to: but once I managed that alignment, I found Eldridge's project terrifically exciting. Perhaps the closest analogue I can think of to it might be Almodovar -- not the first name one thinks of as adjacent in tone and ambition to Mr Eldridge, perhaps, but I absolutely loved seeing such an emotionally full-on middle-class melodrama, driven by women (especially terrific performances by Lisa Dillon and Margot Leicester) and by the terrible inadequacies of language: "I love you", Lucy and her mother keep saying to each other at the end, and the words bounce and ricochet between them as though in an infinite hall of mirrors: but there's nothing beyond the last visible dog but us. The Knot of the Heart is a long play and a good deal less explicitly leftfield than most of what I lap up, but I was engrossed by the whole thing, and greatly cheered by its ambition, its scope and its achievement. This blog was in its earlier days home to a fair amount of misunderstanding and argy-bargy between myself and David Eldridge, and I dare say we're still not quite eye-to-eye, but I have to hand it to him: he knows what he's about: his control of The Knot of the Heart is masterly and I bet actors love to play his dialogue: it immediately rewards saying aloud with your whole mouth and your whole heart.
6 I've seen the wondrous Sam Amidon live more often than any other singer except Dick Gaughan, and I was looking forward hugely to his October appearance at Cecil Sharp House, one of London's loveliest acoustic music venues. Looking forward to it so much, in fact, that I was slightly resenting having to sit through his support act, some unknown-to-me personage called Rachael Dadd. In fact I almost suggested we miss her out and sit in the bar till Sam came on. But the great thing about the bar at Cecil Sharp is, absolutely nothing about it makes you want to stay there. So we went up to listen to Ms Dadd: and 45 minutes later, I was a changed man. Utterly, utterly changed: I mean really changed for the rest of that night, and I guess a little bit for ever, because I'll always have sat through her exquisite set, almost holding my breath for fear of exhaling too loudly and causing the music to crumple away. Starting out just with banjo and the frailest of vocals, and gradually opening up to uke (very nicely wielded) and guitar and piano, and a couple of other musicians covering harp and clarinet and percussion and all-sorts between them, she astounded me with the wonky meticulousness of her songs, the scalene lyrics half-obscure half-mundane, the melodies loopy and wilful and immediately tickling the ear, the arrangements poised but playful and perfectly lively, the tone of the whole thing as close as your closest friend but as distant as a kite at the seaside in your faded memory of childhood seaside kites. It was really just very, very fetching, and I fell more than a little in love, and at half-time we had to go and find a cash machine so that I could return to the merch stall and buy one of everything. Well, the CDs are very lovely and everything and I'm ever so glad of them, but glad in part because they remind me of how incredibly special the live experience was. I can't wait to see her again. In the meantime, here's a clip from a 2010 gig at the Union Chapel, which will give you the beginnings of an idea of just how astonishing she is.
7 OK, now, for a full directory of cute / funny animal sites, look no further than shootingcutefishinafunnybarrel.com -- but I have to admit nothing all year has quite gladdened my poor slow Bible-black heart like 50 Photos of Basset Hounds Running. When you consider the military origins of the internet, it's hard not to feel that things are basically getting better.
|from 50 Photos of Basset Hounds Running
8 I probably only saw about a dozen films this year so bestowing end-of-term commendations on three of them in three different paragraphs may seem perhaps a little de trop. On the other hand, all three are, in different ways, notable for their reticence, so maybe my own excesses won't feel so unbalanced. Anyway, I'm going to begin by thanking all the parties concerned for what was I think my favourite film of 2011: Mike Mills's incredibly delightful Beginners. I was looking forward to Beginners, having quite liked Mills's low-key debut Thumbsucker (and some of his other previous work in music video and his graphic output from the midst of the Beautiful Losers milieu) and feeling anyway like everybody in it would be watchable. On a rainy afternoon at the Cameo in Edinburgh it was exactly what I felt like seeing. But maybe because my expectations weren't stratospherically high, Beginners absolutely bowled me over. It's so, so beautiful: partly because of the great performances (a reminder of actually how good Ewan McGregor can be; gourmet stuff from a game Christopher Plummer; and I adored the warmth and subtlety of Goran Višnjić in the smallish role of Plummer's younger boyfriend, sweetly baffled by grief); but mostly because, brilliantly, Mike Mills managed to find in the rhythms of his direction and visual style a perfect match for the tone and cadence of his own writing -- something that writer-directors don't always achieve, Lord knows. It's obviously such a personal film to Mills and the rendering of his conception just feels like it's been achieved with a sort of off-kilter purity of vision. Increasingly, this sort of sweet-and-sour American indie stuff seems to come across like it's been written by a committee according to some filmschool template for aspiring heroes of Sundance, but the distinctive vision of Mills's film makes it feel way more universal, and kinder, and more truthful, and, in the best way, more sneaky: as in, sooner or later this film's going to sneak up on you and give you the sweetest kiss, and pretend to not notice you're crying, but hold your hand anyway, just lightly, till it's over. ...Oh, and the dog is amazing.
9 After a couple of years where it felt like the benefit of the doubt was being extended on all sides, I have once again found myself a bit out of sync with the poetry scene this year, notwithstanding the intense pleasure and pride of having managed to get Better Than Language into the world, and actually sincerely liking very much all thirteen of the poets represented in that book (I mean them and their work!). Perhaps the making of that anthology brought me into a slightly shifted relation with the poem as object (rather than as event or open proposition). Probably I was also just repelled by watching, basically as an outsider these days, as any number of young, smart, politically engaged poets took their pristinely furious, ironically self-implicating (thus self-exonerating) positions on the summer riots and the Occupy movement and so on. Of course many of them were also much more hands-on in those contexts than I was -- especially in relation to Occupy Cambridge -- and I wouldn't anyway claim any high ground: except that the widely practised manoeuvre of both insisting on and simultaneously disavowing a kind of hypomanic ideological purity -- each contradictory gesture endorsing the next -- has become a kind of incandescent gymnastics that, as an earlier poet put it, says nothing to me about my life. The book-as-event seemed as though it might produce some interesting effects: J.H. Prynne's Kazoo Dreamboats, or On What There Is, recently out from Critical Documents, is as fluently present in a fully public sense as anything in the whole of Prynne's oeuvre, and pretty exciting in the (surprisingly long, smooth) moves it makes, though I've only had it a week and I can't pretend to have made much study of it at depth yet; Simon Jarvis's Dionysus Crucified, given a quite astonishing production by Grasp, is remarkable for its ambition and nearly as much for its achievement, though it still cannot quite put its finger on what it is doing in its public life, retaining some tendencies towards narcissism slightly in excess of its charisma (especially when viewed, as I suppose I must do, in a loosely Marcusian sort of way). There is a great deal to admire and, at least incidentally, to relish in both these much-discussed books, but I wouldn't say either seems to me as cogent and as fully realised as, say, John Hall and Peter Hughes's Interscriptions, in an elegantly assured edition from Knives Forks and Spoons. The social repertory of Hall and Hughes's painstaking collaboration is both expansive and detailed, and the distribution of its textual and graphical weight is utterly secure and rather deft; it occupies a literary and visual space that to me feels considerably more advanced in its way than either of the aforementioned (if there were any point at all in drawing such a comparison): it's interesting, what gets hailed as important, when rigour is perceived only in the key-scratch marks of strain and unrelenting. However: partly because it points beyond these tensions, and partly because its braw compendiousness is in itself a measure of the inclusivity that is in this moment probably just the ticket, I'm saying the poetry book I'm hailing above all others this year is Francis Crot's invaluable HAX, (Punch P.), a novel-length (and -shaped) poem in which Crot's scanner-like mythopoetic convulsions reach their first apotheosis. The seething energy of this book, of its collaged Londony smuts and broken contingencies, means it pisses thrillingly and from a great height on the remains of the once-significant Iain Sinclair: remains that will now only be of interest to Iain Sinclair himself reincarnated as his own avenging vulture. No other book has touched it this year for quickness of thought, multiplicity or issue: though the fifth in Grasp's excellent Folds series, a mini-anthology collecting writings from the end of last year by four of BTL's finest -- Francesca Lisette, Jonny Liron, Joe Luna and Timothy Thornton, runs it close and brings an entirely different order of visual lucidity to not dissimilar ends. One might also mention three exceptionally helpful critical works: Keston Sutherland's long-awaited and beautifully turned Stupefaction: A Radical Anatomy of Phantoms (incidentally also remarkably good value for money, a bloody lovely hardback for not much more than a tenner, which I hope will help it secure the wide readership, not least outside the academy, that it deserves and can do something fruitful with); Scott Thurston's Talking Poetics: Dialogues in Innovative Poetry from Shearsman, which is a really gripping collection of extended interviews with four exemplary poets (Karen Mac Cormack, Jennifer Moxley, Caroline Bergvall and Andrea Brady); and in a neck of the woods that I refuse to imagine being somewhere else, Raphael Zarka's On A Day With No Waves: A Chronicle Of Skateboarding 1779-2009, which came out last year but didn't cross my path till this year, and which provides a wonderfully detailed survey of a species of poetic imagination that I'm afraid I begin to doubt I'll ever actually encounter (except in tantalising glimpses) in even the most imaginative of poets.
10 You'll be astounded forever to know that I'm not much of a game-player, except in the very least competitive circumstances (and save the occasional fiendish Mastermind tournament with Jonny: I grind algorithmically, he intuits like a big Puck). This is the kind of thing I love, though: Mitoza is a very simple A-or-B toy whose inventiveness and refined playfulness is -- as far as I can tell -- really inexhaustibly appealing, as is its gorgeously crafty aesthetic. If you don't already know it, give it a click: I promise it'll make you smile as soon as you start to play.
11 I wrote earlier in the month about Lisa Jeschke + Lucy Beynon's starkly fascinating, suggestive, frequently wrong-footing work in response to the Queer DIY workshop, and as part of this survey I really wanted to mention one piece in particular that has snagged on some sticky-out bit of my imagination:
|Lisa Jeschke + Lucy Beynon, 'Self-Portrait' (2011)
I don't think I want to say too much about this piece -- as most people will recognize, this is a National Insurance number, produced as a work on paper on a large scale (I don't know exact dimensions but it took both of them to hold the version they brought along to the closing DIY session); they presented it by way of response to one of the tasks in that workshop, which requested a text to be made containing an element of personal disclosure and designed specifically for public circulation; it also seems to refer back to an earlier task which asked participants to create some kind of naked self-portrait. I find this response by turns funny, vaguely troubling, sharply frightening and ineffably sad, in its part-ironic redramatization of the questions that lie behind those commissions, and the places within our political culture where those questions ramify most pressingly. I think it's a remarkable piece of visual theatre.
12 This one is partly here because elsewhere in the Great Big Interwebularity it is recorded in all dimensions of perpetuity that I "hate" Little Bulb. Which I'm sure was at least partly true when I announced it, some considerable time ago, on the evidence of a series of glimpses and fleeting impressions of something scratchy they did in the bar at BAC while I was not quite in the bar, which seemed a bit clunky and overbearing and winsome and lots of other things I'm not very at home to (except of course when they crop up in my own work). The thing is, I feel I want to issue a corrective -- if I were any sort of a man this would be in 36-point Impact, but I'm no sort of a man, & if you can imagine me as a man you'll thank me for knowing my limits -- to say that, because so many trusted friends (including Maddy Costa, whose blog it is that preserves my stupid hyperbolic 'hatred' for the generations) told me I must, I went to see Operation Greenfield at Soho, and I thought it absolutely rocked. In fact I think it's pretty much the best thing I've seen in its weight class all year. Its constant tack-sharp movement between the ingenious and the ingenuous (oh my dears won't you miss this clever writing when it's gone?) is not only likeable, but more likeable because it's more than likeable: the fleet performance, the blatant making chops, the rolling structure, the tonal care: it's all really really smart -- the product not least (I imagine) of them having done it a fair few times by now. At a time when truly accomplished devising with a strong company signature seems thin on the ground, I'm prepared to be among Little Bulb's bigger fans. Apart from anything else, Operation Greenfield has a good good heart, and I freely confess it made me do a Little Blub. And, you know, I feel bad about the earlier 'hating' thing, but then I remember that Andrew Haydon used to hate me a little bit -- "the fluffy-headed person's Johann Hari", i.i.r.c. -- and now look, he's on the back of my book telling everyone I'm like Tom Stoppard or something, Tom Stoppard if Mark Lawson had never heard of him. Whatever. Y'all see what I'm saying.
13 Christmas wouldn't be Christmas... no, wait, Thompson's wouldn't be Thompson's without some serious (and only partly sexual) genuflection before the genius of Dennis Cooper. In some ways there are oceans between our respective practices and styles, whole toxic oceans full of chimerical bioluminescent piscoids and variably buoyant sewage babies; but no one maker (aside from immediate peers) has had such a profound effect on my work, and my thinking around it, during the period that this blog has charted. And Dennis's activities this year continue the trend, in so far as I've been able to follow them at all. What certainly has fallen away, regretfully, is my committed attendance (and you really do have to be committed -- or, at least, that's the only way I think I can enjoy doing it, all-or-nothing as is the brand essence of my wont) at Dennis's notorious B.L.O.G., which bucks a trend by appearing healthier and heartier than ever. The short spell where I did get back into the rhythm of it, in the summer, weirdly happened to coincide with the tragically early passing of the blog's near-legendary sometime contributor Antonio Urdiales: and the way that the community there, and Dennis not least, dealt with that event and its aftermath, and were prompted to reflect on what kind of meeting-place that blog has been over the past few years, was a very moving and (if this word doesn't jar in the circumstances) impressive period. I've also just finished reading Dennis's latest novel, The Marbled Swarm, which is an almost supernaturally gripping read (given that it's in every way an art novel, a glinting mobile of conscious artifices rather than any kind of a plot-driven page-turner). Thank fuck, the book certainly resists precis -- or at least, I'd feel like a flat-footed ogre for even trying; but it is an extraordinarily sustained inquiry into the novel as a genre of performance, in which the longest and most hazardous distances are those between ontology and epistemology, between the staged ideal and the bathos of experience, and of course between any two bodies, or the body and its wearer; and, Lord knows, between all of the above and the perpetual desolating shortfall of language. As a quite diamantine study of gesture and consequentiality, and the ways in which gayness can be weirdly refracted in these, The Marbled Swarm is totally compelling; beyond, or before, that, though, it is a game of literature, which Cooper plays by now like a grandmaster. To my mind his best -- certainly his most achieved (if that's the word) -- post-George Miles Cycle novel, it reminds me above all of one of the few original visual artworks I own, which I picked up for a knockdown fifty quid because the artist had made some error with the fixing chemicals she used, meaning (she tells me) that the image will slowly disappear over the next couple of decades. Cooper's novels are often like this: certainly they are objects, rather than events; and they are closed, rather than open (or simulating openness or even woundedness). But they are changing, even while you hold them in front of your body; they are in motion; they are already leaving. -- As a postscript, I should also mention the soundtrack release of Them, Dennis's performance collaboration with choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones and musician Chris Cochrane. The piece dates back to 1995 but was revived last year, and the audio portion was this year issued on John Zorn's Tzadik label. (Some readers will recognize the Cooper / Cochrane / Zorn axis from the fascinating if slightly misfiring Weird Little Boy project on Avant in the mid 90s.) Them as a live performance proposition looks pretty exciting and I'm sorry not to have been able to catch it (yet -- I'm thinking I might try and nip to Paris to see it in the spring): but the audio version, especially if taken on its own terms rather than heard as an element stranded on its own in relation to a whole raft of unknowable absent cues, is a rich mix, complex, unnerving and, on headphones, claustrophobically intimate. Cochrane's sense for the drama of proximity is unerringly strong, and Cooper's readings of his own texts are as scarily poised and exposed as I've ever heard him do, especially on 'Dead Friends', which in this context is almost impossible to bear with. Jonny and I intend (as far as I know) to continue working on a piece called Slaves, based on a recurring wet nightmare that Dennis's blog has had for as long as I've known it; right now I wonder if the implicit challenges of that project are at some level what's stopping me and Jonny from working together at all... Well, time will tell, I guess, but it's never felt more important to me to stay close to what Dennis is doing: he is an artist at the height of his depths.
14 If you're basically a softy queer anarcho-syndicalist in possession of a limited range of plaid shirts, like I basically am, then this has been quite a whirlwind year: ideas I've been banging on about for years and sounding like a crackpot are suddenly being discussed on telly as if there were something important and pertinent and real -- and moderate! -- about them: which of course there is. More importantly, more people than ever are living those ideas, or at least living in proximity or in conscious relation to them: and if there's a body of water between me and, say, the Occupy movement, or UK Uncut, in terms of what the agenda needs to be if we're to get the radical change we need rather than (to be much too blunt about it) making a tactical grab for breathing space through efforts of mitigation and deferral, then at least the conversations arising from those disagreements now feel more like applied political thought than cloud-8 pinhead-dancing theology. As I say above, sometimes the conversations around where we are and where we're all going have felt very difficult and scratchy and hard to control, and differences of opinion and emphasis, while totally acceptable and necessary and fruitful at a rational level, can often, and especially in tired and nearly-overwhelmed people, be emotionally very gruelling and sad and isolating. And of course the web is full of networks which are just as likely, if not more so, to incubate discord and sniping as support and understanding. So when stuff emerges that can be helpful, that can find the right balance of reassurance and disorientation, restorative soothing and provocation, I've felt incredibly grateful for it. Actually mostly for me this year that's been about returning again and again to Diane DiPrima's Revolutionary Letters, and of course to John Holloway's Crack Capitalism which has frequently been just the ticket (and which enough of our comrades have now read that, even if they disagree with its theses or its mode of presentation, we can at least talk together about it and that's almost always positive). But other, more fleeting pop-ups can really help too, as lifebuoys almost. At the start of the year I was still feeling hugely inspired by the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination's Users Guide to
15 For someone who doesn't own a tv and doesn't watch tv, I seem to watch a surprising amount of tv. You surely know already how devoted I am to Masterchef -- especially the Professionals version, which was extraordinary this year and at which I wept like a little girl on a scary rollercoaster more than once. (By "little girl on a scary rollercoaster" of course I mean "me on a really tame rollercoaster".) And I am peculiarly fond of the languid repartee that bounces between Alexander Armstrong and Richard Thingy on Pointless. But if I were to pick a single show to nominate as Outstanding TV Whatever Of The Year, then it's neck and neck between two sitcoms. Series 2 of Rev has been remarkable, as the writing grows in confidence and the characters pick up further nuances and greebles (I've particularly enjoyed watching Simon McBurney flesh out the previously slightly over-broad Archdeacon); the ends of both episodes five and six were jaw-dropping, and you don't often say that about a sitcom -- which Rev hardly is any more. But I feel like a bit of a middle-class Guardianista twit going on about Rev so I'm going to award the gong* [*there is no gong] instead to Him & Her, which seems to have gone somewhere quite a lot darker this series in a way that I initially found hard to like: but Sarah Solemani and Russell Tovey portray the central relationship so exquisitely that you keep getting drawn back -- and Joe Wilkinson as Dan is a gift that keeps on giving. I hugely admire Stefan Golaszewski's writing, too -- I don't know (though I'm sure I could probably find out) how much the dialogue comes out of improvisation, if at all -- however much, he does a fantastic job, and I'm already excited about series 3 and where else the characters and the format can go. (And, to save you the bother, I may as well point out that if you take the initial letter of each sentence in the foregoing paragraph, and rearrange them, it more or less spells out: "me want to do sexytime with Russell Tovey". Just putting that out there, subliminally.)
16 When it comes to the year's bigger theatre/dance/performance shows, it's hard to think of anything I've really enjoyed that I haven't also felt conflicted about. (Maybe by this point in the cosmic proceedings a response of unreserved adoration could only apply to underachieving work, anyway; maybe it's not cleanliness that's next to godliness now, but smeariness?) The 30th anniversary restaging of Lucinda Childs's DANCE at the Barbican was enthrallingly joyous, technically prodigious and in every way captivating: but it was also very pointedly keeping its distance (and Philip Glass's gorgeous teeming score likewise), in a way that marked it out as a product of pre-contemporary intelligences. Dave St Pierre's Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde! at Sadler's Wells ended up the very model of kindness, its achingly beautiful final sequence alleviating and more than counterbalancing the anxieties the company teasingly educes earlier in the show -- anxieties which are not just those around nudity and the reckless obliteration of the fourth wall; but for all that, the clowning gender-play never stopped feeling blandly misogynistic to me, so that the experience of the evening as a whole was of sharing a space with bullies who turned out to have hearts of gold and who only wanted to play and who never meant to hurt you: yes, well, misogynists never do, and anyway, what's more, they always want to tell you how much they love women; so, some blissful stuff (albeit too much of the heavy lifting was left to Arvo Bloody Part), but too much fly and too little ointment, maybe. Shall we then salute above all The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic at the Lowry for Manchester International Festival, for much of the opening hour of which (having got past the pre-show tableau of sleek black dogs patrolling a sumptuous mortuary, which I'd contentedly have watched for much longer) I quite wanted to beat Robert Wilson to death with a wooden spoon, very very slowly. The desperately unamusing caricaturish recounting of Abramovic's early years in Wilson's exhausted (and exhausting) cartoon expressionist style -- aided and abetted by Willem Dafoe in heart-sinking whiteface -- nearly killed the whole evening for me. But once that backstory was out of the way, and its abject smugness had been punctured -- mostly by the breathtaking presence of Antony Hegarty (about whom I've never particularly cared, but who abundantly reveals in this live setting the penetrating charisma that his avid fans kept telling me about) -- then it was all, wondrously, about images that stood only for themselves and the matter of their own duration, and bodies that both fulfilled and thankfully failed to map perfectly onto the matrices that were designed for them: in other words, theatre excellently surviving a botched attempt on its life. (For further discussion of which, see this post, and its Parable of Kira O'Reilly's Arsehole: soon to be a major motion picture, in my dreams.)
17 For the first time in years, I happened to be in town during the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. It was a quietish year for LLGFF -- the programme had shrunk considerably following budget cuts -- but I was really glad of almost everything I saw. We Were Here was stunning, a desperately sad but profoundly affirmative documentary on the early days of the AIDS crisis in San Fransisco: a film everyone should see; another excellent doc, Making the Boys, told the story of Mart Crowley's pioneering The Boys in the Band, and inevitably ended up being an AIDS documentary too, though what was really shocking was a vox pop montage of Pride-marching twinks who had never heard of The Boys in the Band -- depressing in itself but alarming too if gay communities really are failing to pass on what's salient in their cultural and political heritage: that short memories can be lethal is an observation that applies to much more than just sexual health. Another interesting documentary in the main feature strand, Mutantes (Punk Porn Feminism) followed some intriguing and provoking tendencies in queer self-staging and group formation, and checked in with a few artists and activists who've been important to me (above all the mighty Del La Grace Volcano); but -- I mean, it doesn't really matter a cahoot what I think, but -- I was slightly downcast to see so much queer/feminist activity that was so in thrall to (even an ironic) phallocentrism and the aping, but hardly detournement exactly, of pretty standard heteronormative power play: those things don't seem to me to become liberating or productive simply by dint of their occurring in a queer-identifying context. Among the fiction features, I truly enjoyed Xavier Dolan's coolly stylish Heartbeats and I felt very fondly about Gregg Araki's Kaboom, though there was something odd about the mix of relatively expensive (post-Mysterious Skin) visuals with Araki's samo sophomoric writing: I really like both elements but they don't always sit together all that happily. Still, two very breezily sexy films, and really interesting to feel the gayness of Heartbeats and the queerness of Kaboom not merely overlapping but kind of 69-ing. The huge surprise at LLGFF, though, and my nomination for epic art fag film of the year, was Bruce LaBruce's L.A. Zombie. Except actually the award goes to L.A. Zombie Hardcore, which the BFI were sadly unable to show. The heavily shredded softcore version -- still fairly eyeopening in places -- is pretty incoherent in terms of continuity; but then, so is the uncut version, so I think we have to assume it's deliberate. (In which case it's pretty cool.) What's really remarkable (and admirable) about L.A. Zombie, in both its versions, is how profoundly serious it is, and how critically acute. More than you might expect from a film in which, essentially, a sad zombie wanders an L.A. wasteland, fucking a series of fresh male corpses back to life. It will be a movie that's written about a lot in years to come, I should think, and a set text on queer film courses, and so on. LaBruce has consistently been the most politically interesting -- not to say provocative -- queer filmmaker on the block, but what's fascinating here is that in taking a step back from the overt sloganeering and emphatic iconography of, say, The Raspberry Reich (and its pornier version The Revolution Is My Boyfriend), a much more developed political sensibility seems to come through, with room for ambiguity and contradiction and a kind of melancholy that actually comes very close to how I feel the idea of the erotic might be working now on the left. Apart from anything else, L.A. Zombie Hardcore is a very odd offering indeed approached as porn: which I kind of think queer porn ought to be. After the screening of the cut version at the BFI, the movie stayed with me for a long time, subtly changing the look and smell and taste of everything: and it was impossible to say how, or why: and that's why I think it's a very considerable work of art -- especially in the hardcore version, if for no other reason than that there's nothing in the movie, or in its aftereffects, that isn't amplified by zombified François Sagat having an unsimulated hard-on, and a culture in which the opportunity to see that is curtailed has definitely got itself into a weird pickle. -- Worth saying also that it's also visually rather an accomplished film, often beautiful if dystopically bleak. Los Angeles has never looked so fucked.
18 While we're dealing in rudenesses, let us recall the strange and faintly nauseous joy of the baroque excesses to be found in the copy editor's style sheet for Nicholson Baker's novel House of Holes. This is mostly a list of all the dictionary-defeatingly obscure and confected sexual terminology with which Baker festoons his story: and as such the article unites two of my dearest predelictions: obscenity and alphabetical order. Could be worth adapting for the stage when everyone's bored of Hippo World Guest Book again.
19 Absolutely no doubt as to the pre-eminent art show of the year: Gerhard Richter: Panorama at Tate Modern was so great as to be deeply humbling. I was prepared for Richter's quiet seriousness and his breathtaking technical resources; I certainly wasn't prepared for the effects produced by the stylistic and formal breadth of his work -- a strong impression finally not of dissonance (or a kind of heavy dilettantism) but of consonance, the cohesion of a lifelong project to comprehend the nature of appearance and apparentness and apparition and artifice. For Richter, the act of seeing is so strongly an act of making, somewhere between promise and proposition, that even his most reduced or abstracted pieces urge on the viewer some admittance of human complicity: by which I suppose I mean I've seldom met work in which the use of colour, for example, seems to have such a sussuration of ethical concern buzzing within it. There was overwhelming work in every room of the show, but it's the October 18, 1977 paintings around Ulrike Meinhof and the Rote Armee Fraktion that stayed scored on my mind and implanted somewhere unreachable in my body for weeks afterwards: a sober but tenderizing reckoning with the mundanities of the outrageous.
|Gerhard Richter, 'Festnahme 1' ('Arrest 1'), oil on canvas, 1988
20 And the Andy Field Memorial Rosette for the Best Theatre I Didn't Actually See But That Nonetheless Captured My Imagination By Other (Not Necessarily Ancillary) Means Thereby Still Qualifying As An Artistic Experience Of Some Merit goes to... BAAL by Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company. The YouTube trailer for BAAL is a wildly enticing glimpse into a stage world that's more familiar from dreams than from stuff I've seen elsewhere. Dreams, I mean, of what a contemporary classical theatre could, and should be -- not just dreams of beardy barechested rock stars in rain storms who later go on to transmogrify into unicycle-riding deer. Only maybe Gisele Vienne's work exerts as strong a pull at the point when it's no more than an idea and an image or two; maybe also Societas Rafaello Sanzio, at least back before R. Castellucci jumped the shark, turned round, went back to the shark, climbed up onto its back, did a poo on its head, took a photograph of the poo, and sold the photograph to the Barbican for a million pounds. I think had BAAL been playing even a couple of minutes nearer London than its Antipodes, I'd have made an expedition of it, I'm sure -- and not necessarily been rewarded for my efforts, according to some reviews. But in a year when I've thought quite a bit about the value -- the virtue, even -- of the glimpse as a political event, this minute-and-a-bit of BAAL achieves way more than its trailer function of making me want to see the show. Specifically I suppose it makes me want to make the show that brings this other unseeable show into a closer relationship with everything I am as an artist. Which is more than you can say for the entire career of Trevor Nunn, laid end to end until it reaches the Circle Bar. Anyway, see for yourself -- bearing in mind I may have built it up a tad now:
21 Probably everyone -- but perhaps especially the queers in the house -- can remember their teenage experiences of getting intensely hot and bothered when reading what the book clubs on the back page of the TV Times used to call 'Caution: Erotica - for adults only'. The books you have to put down because you can't breathe any more. (Frank Moorhouse's The Everlasting Secret Family springs to mind. Even the thought of that book can still give me an attack of proper Edwardian vapours.) The publications that seem to be emitting a Ready-Brek glow from inside your bag. It's a sensation that seems to dissipate with age and experience -- particularly now one no longer has to take books and magazines to a cash desk and more-or-less announce in public that one wants them -- and now I'm remembering the mortifying to-do in Waterstone's when my chosen copy of The Best Gay Superstars 1998 turned out not to have a barcode on it -- but instead can go from one year to the next only ever disclosing one's deepest desires to Amazon or whoever. And I miss it, sometimes, I miss that feeling of hotness and jeopardy. Thank heaven, then, for the lovely Frank Jaffe and Luke Munson, two naughty boys in Florida who this summer released issue 1 of their splendidly named queer zine Please, You Will Sodomize Me?!? Not since I picked up my first issue of the legendary Holy Titclamps at Tower Records Piccadilly in about 1996 have I held in my hands a slim volume with such an incendiary feel. The morning my copy was delivered I took it with me to read on the train but then found that I really couldn't bring myself to take it out of my work bag for fear that, like phosphorus, it (or I) might actually catch fire were it exposed to the air. This is already, I think, a brilliant achievement on the part of Jaffe and Munson. How does this thing get to be such a hot potato? No secret, really: it's just that perfect combination of smart, porny, creative, uncompromising, and radically blaringly queer. (And that subtle little trickle of cum running down the chin of our cover star certainly plays its part.) As the editors say in their splendid introduction: "Please, You Will Sodomize Me?!? wants to stick out like a sore erection..." Well boys, mission accomplished. This first issue has interviews with the brilliant Gio Black Peter and the inspirational Koes Staassen; there's a featurette on Gregg Araki's Nowhere; there's some great writing by Munson including a bravura prose work called Extreme Unction; and there are a bunch of pictures ranging from the cheerfully explicit outwards. Nothing I've held in my hands this year -- at least nothing that didn't actually have a pulse -- has throbbed harder. Apparently issue 2 is in the pipeline. Lord have mercy.
22 Abrupt change of pace! This is one of those breathtaking videos that make me not after all want to throw away the whole internet and start over: Murmuration by Sophie Windsor Clive does what the web does best by capturing something real and personal and local and serendipitous and then sharing that record with anyone and everyone who wants it. It's interesting, too, how strong the political import of this clip is for its makers.
With thanks to @deldridgewriter for tweeting it in the first place.
23 At one point -- on the occasion of the fourth or fifth deferral notice from Amazon -- I began to wonder if Violette's much-delayed Michael Clark would ever actually be published. In September, after the best part of two years, it finally was, and ever since it's been a shoo-in for Big Sexy Coffeetable Book of the Year. It's a fantastic compendium of images (and some patchily worthwhile accompanying texts) from across the history of Clark's work, and I particularly like it for doing both the things I kind of wanted it to do: it makes sense of the trajectory of the work over time, and it also makes it (to my mind) surpassingly clear that the best of Clark's work was done before the end of the 80s. I imagine this is exactly as it should be: if his present work and aesthetic were still hanging on to the tone and gestures of the post-punk stuff, it might now look (unintentionally) ridiculous, and maybe the trading of youthful ebullience for mature refinement is anyway in itself important or has produced work that is important to some people (even if it's not so much to me). Whatever, it's right that young, dizzyingly talented, gleefully unorthodox talents should burst on to the scene and shake everything up, and right that that's the period of their work that we might most cherish, and I suppose I just wonder if it's right that a theatre maker not far off 40 should feel, perhaps self-deludingly, that their early, youthful, ebullient work might still be ahead of them.
|A spread from Michael Clark (Violette Editions)
24 Without wishing, in the midst of this already plenty-long post, to produce after all the Furtive 50 that in a pissy huff I earlier announced I wasn't going to do, perhaps we might forgive ourselves for taking a last gambol through the headlines. The #1 record of the 2011 intake would have been the James Blake album, which probably on balance I did think was the best release of the year, though not perhaps the most interesting to write about or the most surprising to mention, given that for a while there it seemed to be so universally acclaimed and ubiquitous as to recall past supercool epoch-owners like Portishead's Dummy or whatever. So let's talk about some other things. I liked how many of the records in the higher reaches of the 50 were solo women or female-fronted bands: Jenny Hval's stunning Viscera at #2, Rachael Dadd at #3, Tune-Yards at #4, Austra at #6 (their Feel It Break was probably the album I played most all year, and the one which stuck most insistently in my head). Perhaps my favourite record of the year for just putting on and having fun listening to (which is apparently something that the kids still do, after all this time and despite their Snoopy Tennis Game 'n' Watches and their Pez thingummies) was the joyous racket of Ma Vie Banale Avant-Garde by AIDS Wolf, which I placed at #11. I could have filled several spaces on the chart with the year's releases from Another Timbre, the Sheffield-based improv/new composition label -- I chose Michael Pisaro's Fields Have Ears to stand in for all of them; for slightly more mainstream jazz my top picks were the ebullient live set The Coimbra Concert from Mostly Other People Do The Killing (featuring the consistently astounding trumpeter Peter Evans) and Austin (son of Stacy) Peralta's variable but intermittently exhilarating Endless Planets. Among the year's Interesting Men, I rated highly John Maus at #14, Tom Vek at #20, the adorable Connan Mockasin at #35 and the even more adorable Bigott at #50. As usual I was out of my depth with the year's hip hop releases, and by liking Childish Gambino's Camp as much as I did I surely showed myself up yet againas a sucker for yucky inauthentic stuff with a depressing appeal to cosy middle-class boys like myself -- see also (to a lesser extent) Das Racist, Shabazz Palaces, Beans etc., all of whom also popped up on the chart; but then again, is Kanye really 'authentic' either? There were some old-timers up there worth thanking our stars for, especially the valedictorian Glen Campbell, but also the still up-for-it Peter Murphy, the never-really-up-for-it-but-cool-anyway Harold Budd, and the still-crazy-after-all-these-years Van Der Graaf Generator, who returned with a concept album about maths. I'm also struck by how many records I was impressed by this year that I also found quite irritating, especially Seth Horvitz's brilliant but sporadically unbelievably annoying Eight Studies for Automatic Piano, and Tupolev's strange and hard-to-love but impossible-to-dismiss Towers of Sparks. But I guess if I had to recommend just one album from the year on the basis that you might not have come across it and you won't have heard anything quite like it before, I'd strongly urge you to seek out a fascinating record called As A Hovering Insect Mass Breaks Your Fall by James Brewster. Actually you might have heard stuff that sounds a bit like a bit of it before -- Múm, Richard Youngs, David Sylvian, Jónsi, Claire Hamill, Eyeless in Gaza, Pet Shop Boys, Robin Williamson, The Ecstasy of St Theresa, Durutti Column, Schlammpeitziger, Cody, Hafler Trio... -- but I bet you've never heard someone trying to push all those buttons in one go, let alone basically succeeding. It's a formidably eccentric album, sometimes difficult but never inaccessible -- in fact you never really feel like you've strayed too far from a vision of a kind of leftfield pop. There's also something curiously English about it, given that it apparently draws on or folds in ideas from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Actually it conjures a place that seems vividly familiar but also totally fictional: you don't feel uncomfortable there, but nor do you (and nor does Brewster) ever get settled. I'm not even sure it's a successful record, in a sense, but in another sense it clearly is because I keep going back to it, and I've given it a lot of close listens without ever feeling that I was really getting to know it. So, let that be my recommendation above all, and if you give it a try, let me know how you get on.
p.s. Directly below this post -- but you'll probably have to click on 'Older posts' (or alternatively you could just click here) you'll find the 2011 Thompson's Wall Of Sound -- tracks from some of the above-mentioned albums, and some other favourite music from the past year. Not all of it will suit all palates, but there should be something for everyone. By which I mostly mean, there's a Duran Duran cover by William Shatner, and if that's not good enough then frankly, fish fiddle de dee.
25 You could easily spend fifty years trawling the world and its environs in search of Things And Stuff, and never once come across any Thing as lovely, any Stuff so delightful, as Draw A Stickman. Oh, you've probably played with it already -- and, fair enough, it doesn't repay particularly extended or repeated engagement, it's too constrained and controlling for that -- but I do remember my first meeting with it, and the genuine childlike glee I experienced as a result: particularly when (SPOILER ALERT) its analysis of my drawing was acute enough that when I drew a stickman with a big body and tiny little legs, it took absolutely ages for my guy to walk anywhere. Doing a drawing that comes to life must be one of those archetypal childhood fantasies that never goes away -- it just gets forgotten about, until it's reactivated. Much clapping and cheering to all concerned.
26 The work of Rajni Shah -- here I'm thinking particularly of the stage-based performance work, I guess, rather than the less constructed and matrixed interventions -- often attempts to do something quite particular and distinctive and to my mind rather admirable: which is to effect a synthesis between the vocabulary and syntax and, one might say, 'manners' of live art, and the direct, unironic personal emotivity of truly mainstream pop-cultural formats, in the service of a relational practice that is both accessible and challenging -- often most challenging to those cultural gatekeepers who are most used to being 'challenged' by 'challenging' work -- and adaptable to the special tasks of provisional community-making and grassroots activism. On paper this sounds like a hybrid that it's obviously worth pursuing, and yet the clashes of register and the cross-currents of authority are so tricky to negotiate that the effect can sometimes be like mixing orange juice and milk. It seems that's how some audience members found Rajni's Glorious, a piece that's both self-evidently a musical and also, at least to begin with, not-a-musical, in just the same way that the brain and eye will emphatically reject what's actually there in an encounter with an optical illusion, even after the literal truth has been pointed out a hundred times. It's even a musical "in three acts"! Not even three-act plays have three acts any more! In the end I was truly grateful to Rajni and her many collaborators for Glorious because it needed so much from me and also so little. It just needed me to meet it. It had no use for my baggage, my critical armoury, my metropolitanism, my defences, my ideological apparatus, my learned scepticism. It needed me to meet it without all that stuff, but with open arms and no malice aforethought. And, man, that took a while to tune into. (Maddy Costa beautifully describes a similar trajectory of response.) I thought I wanted more, wanted faster, wanted more obviously complex... But I didn't. I just needed a bit of time to let go of my fear of the radiant goodness of the piece -- the generosity of its conception, the flair of its execution, the elan of its openness. It's so rare to see a theatre work that's this radically disarming. And as we lay down our arms, the last thing we cling to, possibly -- I mean I suspect this is so -- is a slight distaste at the self-appointment of the lead artist, the fact that this process begins with someone standing up in front of us and being willing -- or actively wishing -- to be the element in the mix around which everything else orbits. (I suspect we find this particularly hard when it's a young woman.) It is brave to want things in the way Rajni wants them, and to hold the line when through your own agency they start to happen. Recalling her, immobile, centre stage, the focus of all these people's attention and fear and anxiety and some of these people's goodwill, I am once again reminded of my favourite Edward Lear limerick, which concerns an Old Man of Deeside, who wears such an enormous hat that, as with all Lear's hat-wearers (see also the Quangle-Wangle) everyone surely thinks he's a freak, a weirdo, a creature of the fringes. And then it starts to hail, and everyone huddles under the brim of his hat. And suddenly he's at the centre of it all, bringing the gift of shelter. This Old Man, I think, is an artist after Rajni Shah's heart.
27 For at least the third year running, I think most of the really great live music events I've attended this year have been at Cafe Oto in Dalston, one of my favourite venues anywhere. (Wish they'd revert to programming a bit more poetry, but why would they, I guess.) Shoji Haino split opinions (i.e. got on some nerves -- but not mine, or at least, not in a bad way) in the company of Paul Dunmall and John Edwards; Christian Marclay tore up the place in skittish consort with Steve Beresford and Phil Minton; Stephan Mathieu did that overwhelming thing he does which is a bit like getting stuck in an astral lift; and my dear chum Susanna Ferrar essayed a quite ravishing extempore violin concerto with the London Improvisers Orchestra, with the warm and witty conduction of Alison Blunt guiding and supporting her all the way; and Steve Roden blew my mind, and Jonny's too, with the patient and expansive materialist detail of his domestic minimalism: revelation after revelation, like having just arrived on a new planet where all the weather's strange. Certainly the most nakedly exciting thing I heard there -- or pretty much anywhere -- all year, though, was Mark Fell, whose recent flurry of albums had tickled me enough to make me want to go along, but had nowhere near prepared me for the casual enormity of what Fell does live. As the set went on, it gradually yielded -- as if under interrogation at customs -- more and more of its initially obscured origins in a kind of multilated house music. It retains the logics of house, its builds and drops and sustained horizontality, as well as some of its local colour (the synthetic handclap, hooray!, rehabilitated at last for the armchair boffin), but twists them into confounding patterns that appear at their lower reaches to be insisting you're in a perfectly foursquare environment while at every moment further up the image asymmetric beats chop and lope and push and pull your brain into weird Mobius balloon animals. All this being done by a dude in a cap who looks like he's just come downstairs on a Sunday morning to find himself in a strange house, with no recollection of how he got there, and is passing the time playing Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing until his memory comes back. This track from last year's Multistability on Raster-Noton gives you some idea, if you play it loud enough, but it seems possible that, for now, it's in live contexts that Fell really hits home.
28 While I was doing research (I know that's immediately going to look like "doing research, ha ha", but I really was doing research) for the Queer DIY blog, I came across -- I think via Frank Jaffe's blog -- the Tumblr of an anonymous young guy who called his space n00dzblog. He was posting a series of erotic/pornographic (individual sand-lines will vary) self-portraits, using different kinds of personas or references to queer types and tropes; and they were really great, let's say that to begin with, they were really fucking amazing in fact. But there was an additional and fascinating paradox at work in them too, in that they were pretty full-on in terms of what was shown, but the maker had lightly pixellated his face, supposedly in response to being recognized by someone at his school. So they were great pictures but they also captured an interesting problem, an essentially political problem about the will to self-disclosure and self-identification and the borders of the permission we give ourselves in pursuing those aims. On first encountering n00dzblog, I grabbed a couple of images that I thought might be useful for my own project blog, and figured I'd go back the following day and download everything else on the site. Which I did: only, a couple of the images that I thought I'd remembered didn't seem to be there any more; and then I hit refresh and, rather than those lost images returning, even more disappeared: and I realised with a kind of jolt of horror that the owner-operator of n00dzblog was deleting all the images, right now in this moment, while I was trying to download them all. So, essentially, we raced each other (and I later managed to find a few fills where his images had been reposted on other blogs). By the end of the day, all that was left at n00dzblog -- and even this, now, is gone -- was a note that I found genuinely sad: "im tired of being slutty and posting explicit pictures of myself. thats not me and i don't want anyone to think of me like that . . . i am not an object and this is me taking a stand against that...". It was hard to think through the statement partly because it was difficult to accept its face value: only the previous day, he'd been posting incredible (and incredibly popular) pictures of himself, that were conceived with great generosity and executed with enormous skill and flair, and so, for all that one could understand his not wanting to be seen only as a maker of explicit self-pics, it clearly wasn't wholly true either that "thats not me": he'd obviously been expressing at least an aspect of himself, and doing so with such great courage and with such a reliable eye for his own beauty that I was genuinely upset about whatever had happened to make him change his mind. Maybe he got busted again, I thought -- someone close to him found out what he was doing and gave him a talking to (it certainly sounds to me like someone else's language being parroted). But mostly I dearly wanted to be able to talk back to him about what it means to be, and to choose to be, an object (sometimes) -- in the way that actors are objects: not reduced to the status of inanimate junk without human feelings and capacities, but released into the profoundly beautiful state of being willing to be seen, being open to the readings, the interpretations, the distortions maybe, of other people's desirous subjective projections on to you. It's not an easy state to enter, and there are plenty of successful actors who will never, ever fully achieve it; in those who do, it instils a kind of grace that I think is among the most exact and most powerful expressions of presence within art. ...But that's not the kind of comment that generally gets traded around online spaces like n00dzblog. Whatever -- I hope he knows how great he is, and, "slutty" or not, how exemplary was the refinement of his self-staging performances, the record of which he was so kind, even briefly, to share. -- I've thought pretty hard about including one of the pictures with this paragraph, as an illustration, and in the end I decided I would indeed use one, though probably the least explicit image out of everything I harvested. This might be seen as a grossly disrespectful overriding of his obvious wishes not to have these pictures circulate any more; but given that they're still so multiply present in the public domain anyway, I can't see it being additionally harmful, and anyway I slightly want to hope that in doing so I might manage to summon him here, and maybe he'll read this paragraph, and be reassured that his first instinct was right: that his pictures were beautiful, and generous, and true to themselves: and whoever told him otherwise was speaking -- sincerely, no doubt -- from an unreliable position of private fear.
29 Well so you'll be wanting to know what's the best room I've been in all year. (As if it were any of your damn business.) I guess the obvious, and in some respects the correct, answer is The Situation Room, which even on a relatively quiet year -- quiet at least in terms of public events and productive work -- still seethes with a sense of possibilities waiting to be explored. Also, the new Bush theatre auditorium is I think an absolute triumph and I felt very lucky to be walking around it and working in it, especially at the even more exciting stage where the last of it was still being built. But actually this category's slipped in simply so that I can mention, mostly for the benefit of my own memory, the upstairs room at the awesome Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, Los Angeles, containing the display called The Lives of Perfect Creatures: The Dogs of the Soviet Space Program. Inside is a small collection of specially-commissioned portraits in oils of five of the dogs who were sent into space by the Russians between 1957 (Laika, the most famous of the doggy cosmonauts, on Sputnik 2) and 1966 (Ugolyok, who spent 22 days in space and came back apparently unharmed). It's an extraordinarily beautiful display, and deeply moving -- perhaps all the more so because I only got to spend a few very brief moments in there -- and fascinating in the tone it sets: it seems so hearteningly serious not despite but in part because of its being slightly kitsch -- bestowing these portraits on the dogs is in a way a perfect mirror of what it meant to send those animals into space in the first place, a category error ennabled by the speechlessness of the para-erotic gap between two discontinuous species. Seeing these portraits tells us so much about ourselves, and so terribly little about the experiences of the dogs.
|Portrait of Laika, by M.A. Peers
30 A quick run-through of the best small-scale performance I saw this year might sensibly begin with the very smallest (and quickest) -- and also perhaps the biggest in terms of immediate impact and the decay time of its reverberations: a fleeting one-to-one, not much more than a turbulent constructed act of seeing, this was Laura Lima's 'Men = flesh / Women = flesh - FLAT', as part of 11 Rooms at the Manchester International Festival, and much the most successful of the pieces in that show, I thought, though genuinely troubling both in concept and in practice. A far more benignly unsettling experience was to be had at Edgelands, where Alex Kelly set up his Inspiration Exchange, a project I'd heard about and seen documentation of but never directly experienced in action; I love the shapes of Alex's work and thinking, and one of the new bits of information I came away with (regarding a 6B pencil) has already passed through me to several new carriers. Edgelands of course also presented the opportunity, which I was delighted to take, to see Kieran Hurley's Hitch again: but I think I've probably said enough on that topic already. Elsewhere in Edinburgh, Greg McLaren's Doris Day Can Fuck Off was a full-blooded gift of a show, loving and reckless and imploring and bracingly odd; while In Short Productions made a nifty job of David Greig's terrific Yellow Moon, thanks not least to a brace of incredible performances from Helen Cooper and Kyle Major in the central roles of Leila and Lee. But I think my Smallish Piece Of The Year would have to be Melanie Wilson's beautifully conceived, stunningly realized Autobiographer. I saw a very early showing, at QMUL, and I dare say it's grown even futher since then, but I was blown away, as I always am, by Melanie's compositional skills, her flawless creation of structures (physical, textual and especially sonic) one can walk around in thought, bringing the fullness -- and sometimes the sparseness -- of one's own experience to the work, and finding a sympathetic space for it there. What could have been a heavy, sombre piece -- tracing as it did the taking-hold of Alzheimers -- was light, witty and deeply affecting; and the show contains also the most astonishing coup de theatre I've witnessed in ages, a moment that was genuinely gaspingly strange and almost chilling, but at the same time serenely and expansively beautiful.
31 As post after post on this blog can be seen to attest, I properly properly *heart* Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz, the geniuses behind Look Around You and much besides. So here's something by each of them that made me smile this year: firstly, Popper as his wincingly funny wind-up alter ego Robin Cooper putting in a call to 118 118 (the clip is a few years old but I only came across it recently so I'm going to stick it in here, and hang the rules!); and then, from Serafinowicz, a proposed advert for KFC. When Michael Billington recently opined that absurdism had no claim to contemporary relevance, I thought immediately of Popper and Serafinowicz, who so frequently and with such laboratory care nudge the mundane and familiar just enough to tilt it into a strange and often out-and-out disturbing light; as absurd (and quintessentially absurdist) as anything in Ionesco or N.F. Simpson, it is work that titters on the edge of an abyss.
32 At the risk of sounding sucky-uppy, I wanted quickly to say something about Ovalhouse. When I went down to Oval House (back in the day when it was two words) in March for the queer D&D satellite, I was very struck by how different it felt from the last time I'd been there. There was a palpable sense of energy and engagement and of the blinds suddenly being open. And when I wrote to thank the new joint artistic directors, Rachel Briscoe and Rebecca Atkinson-Lord, for their hospitality to that event, they invited me in for a chat, and eight months later, I've just started making a show for them that will open in February. I feel very fortunate that I seem to have been (for once) ahead of the curve in terms of people figuring out how exceptionally good Atkinson-Lord and Briscoe are, and how refreshed and optimistic the venue now feels (to an outsider like me, anyway), and how rapidly the place is going to shift both in the ecology of London (and national) theatre and in the estimation of those who are paying attention. The season of queer work that my piece will be a part of looks like a terrific selection box of voices and styles; Ovalhouse hasn't junked any of its valuable and longstanding commitments, but it has rebooted them in a spirit of expanded vision, renewed confidence and more fun. At the end of 2011 things look more interesting across the London fringe than they have in a while: the Stoke Newington International Airport collective are beautifully in their stride; Brian Logan and Jenny Paton are just the right helmspersons for the next chapter in the continuing shaggy dog story of Camden People's Theatre; and a little further downstream it will be fascinating to watch Chris Haydon and Madani Younis put their respective stamps on the Gate and the Bush. I'm only sorry (in a thwarted sort of way, let's be honest) that rather than transferring into new hands on the departure of the present leadership, the Drill Hall is being subsumed into RADA. What a waste. I started my conversation with Ovalhouse by saying that I, like so many indie theatre makers, have no obvious home in London, no sustained relationship with a single small/midscale venue whose express remit is presenting, developing, and being an advocate for, work of that stripe, and whose energies, critical insights and governance (and, I suppose, funding) are equal to such a programme. For myself -- as various short-falling job applications over the past eighteen months appear to indicate -- I seem to be too old now to be considered for the interesting smaller spaces, and when I'm old enough for the bigger institutions (any minute now) I won't have anything like the experience most Boards of Trustees will be looking for. People ask me all the time if I'd like to run a building again, and the answer is always yes; but I begin to wonder if the only way this will ever happen is if I bite the far-from-soft-centred bullet and start something from scratch. Which is, actually, realistic considerations aside, a fun thought: but for the moment, CG&Co is plenty to be working (and playing) with.
33 In this year of what one collaborator has already started referring to as my "prod from God", perhaps it's appropriate that I should have seen not one but two live performances of the St Matthew Passion. I thought Jonathan Miller's staging at the NT was interesting, though a little underpowered: his thoughtful naturalism just doesn't reach the excesses of the story of Christ -- people pottering about with their hands in their pockets, like a melancholic Gap advert, can't make sense of anything: which is perhaps exactly the point, and I can see the problem Miller's trying to solve but I suspect the answer is not to give the piece a makeover in smart-casual beige so as to bring it closer to the everyday, but rather to raise the audience up so that we have no choice but to look God in the eye, or to avert our gaze and to live out the drama and the social meaning of that aversion; really, the Passion should be so daunting, so demanding as to dwarf King Lear -- let alone the pastel normalities (and whose normalities are they, anyway?) of Miller's production. So I guess I'd say I was more taken with the extremely fine Bach Choir performance at the RFH, an annual Easter fixture there. One could have wished for a sexier, more radically compelling Jesus, than Jeremy White; but otherwise the soloists were excellent, above all the extraordinary Iestyn Davies. And above all, this St Matthew Passion had a surprise in store: sudden illness forced James Gilchrist, who up to that point had been a remarkably committed and engaging Evangelist, to leave the stage three-quarters of the way through, and with no one in a position to step in for him, the remainder of the piece could only be presented in excerpts -- with the exceptionally curious outcome that Jesus cheated death. And not in the usual close-your-eyes-and-count-to-three-days way. I mean he simply didn't die on the cross. It was a peculiar turn of events, a bit like watching the thousandth replay of a famous goal and the ball suddenly going wide: but I must say, I was not unpleased that, just this once, Christ got off scot-free. Narrow Escape Of The Year, by a mile. Run, Jesus, run!
34 Let's round up some more art, shall we? The year's highlights for me included two hugely stimulating major shows at the Barbican: Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene, New York 1970s, which offered a wonderful, richly contextualised opportunity to come closer to two artists (Brown and Matta-Clark) who are too often relegated to lists of (basically) 'people who used to be important', and also to see a good range of Anderson's pre-United States work -- in the case of all three artists, there was lots here that had retained its freshness (especially Brown's still thrillingly cogent 'Man Walking Down the Side of a Building' from 1970), and tellingly it wasn't the originals but the slightly pious best-behaviour recreations of Brown's live works which made the passage of time feel as if it was looming large; and the current show OMA/Progress, which I visited once and loved but found almost immediately exhausting, so I hope to go back in the new year, not least as a way of setting up a subsequent visit to the V&A's Postmodernism: Style & Subversion, 1970-1990. Equally lively, though inevitably rather less consistently successful, was the touring British Art Show 7: In The Days Of The Comet, which I caught twice at the Hayward and again in the pleasingly different spaces of its Plymouth leg. It was Christian Marclay's The Clock and Roger Hiorns's untitled installation (park bench, sometimes on fire, sometimes watched by a naked young man, sometimes not -- you might have seen it on the BAS7 poster) that caught most of the popular attention -- and why not?, they're two beautifully accomplished pieces; but there was plenty more to enjoy and to think about, including some coolly involving paintings by Maaike Shoorel and Milena Dragicevic, Haroon Mirza's complex and poignant Ian Curtis-related installation Regaining a Degree of Control, and Elizabeth Price's strange and mesmerising video New Ruined Institute. For me though it was Hiorns's several pieces, considered as a whole, and Wolfgang Tillmans's Truth Study Center and Freischwimmer 155 taken together (or in relation to each other), that continued to reverberate long after the gallery visits. Among the smaller shows, Charles Atlas at Vilma Gold, and especially the new digital video piece No Safety In Numbers, drew you into a smart imaginative dialogue with an abundant queerness just beginning to tend towards abstraction; Larry Clark at Simon Lee was, as ever, brilliant, repulsive, funny, obnoxious, sexy, boring, a queer hero, a homophobic misogynistic creep, and frequently kind of blah: and the perpetual movement between these states made the work turn like a mobile in the heat of your confused critical attention; Fred Sandback at the Whitechapel was just an out-and-out joy (my only grumble being that there wasn't more of it -- hopefully we'll see a major retrospective somewhere in the UK before too long); the group show The Weaklings, curated by Dennis Cooper for Five Years gallery in Hackney, was a blast -- I've written about it already; and Giuseppe Penone and Richard Long made for a suggestive pairing at Haunch of Venison, though the scale of the gallery and the works on display suited Long's quiet monumentalism better, and I like Penone more, so the balance was for me a little wonky and the impositions (not least acoustic) of the location came close to being suffocating, as did the sense that it and I were on opposing sides of a class war in which the artwork was being forced into a peacekeeping role. But for the best of the smaller shows this year I'm taking us back to the Barbican for Cory Arcangel's Beat the Champ. This extraordinary installation -- a time-line of home videogame consoles all hacked to play ten-pin bowling games on an endless loop of dismal nul points failure -- covered itself in oodles of win for the following reasons: unlike almost everything I've ever seen there, it made sense of the Curve's odd and usually annoying space; as a wall of sound and image it was perfectly scaled, more than lifesize but less than sublime and so sitting in a nimbly ambiguous relation to ideas about culture, progress, noise and the repetitiousness of wanting; most importantly it worked as a one-liner but continued to yield more and more as you stayed with it, accumulating eventually an emotional weight and a critical depth, like a slow flood of recognition. Perhaps it was my favourite single new artwork of the year because it was the one that was most like the year I was having.
35 More than one person noted that the demise of this blog seemed to coincide with a waning in general of the appetite for blogging and especially for reading other people's blogs: and I must admit that does, to some degree, reflect my own experience as a reader as well as, obviously, as a writer. But there are still some people out there who are making the blog thing work, not only for themselves but for their grateful readers too. I guess the blogs I admire above all, especially these days, are those which recognize the power of spaces where the personal -- sometimes the deeply personal -- can meet some kind of public, and a kind of conversation or cross-pollination or even some social model can stand in and grow out of that space. My dear friend Julia Lee Barclay's blog Somewhere In Transition is exactly and exemplarily that: its candour -- sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce, often both -- is exactly its raison d'etre, or at least its reason to be a public space rather than a private journal: it is, among many other things, a record of a life lived in the full and sometimes unforgiving glare of a political and ethical consciousness that won't let go. For some doubtless it will sometimes read like the most uncomfortable overshare; if you're among them, you should know that the world in which that kind of pusillanimous etiquette is favoured as an invsible overlay for keeping everyone in their place is going to come under sustained attack over the next few years, and artists as brave and humane as Julia will be in the vanguard of that movement, and -- I'm saying this fondly -- you're going to end up feeling like a dick, and with good reason. For similar reasons I've greatly valued CN Lester's blog A Gentleman and a Scholar for keeping me on my toes in relation to trans issues while at the same time remaining stylish, entertaining, thoughtful and superbly well-written; and it's nice keeping an eye on what's going on in my pal Chris Rowlands's head via the medium of his big-fun Tumblr. And finally I wouldn't want this survey to omit ...Supervalent Thought, the blog of Lauren Berlant, an intoxicatingly smart American academic to whose work I was introduced this year by Theron Schmidt (no dumbkopf himself). She's posted only nine entries this year (so far) but you could live off any of them for several months, so densely nutritious are they, like intellectual astronaut food. I'm hoping sooner or later if I keep my head down I'll figure out what 'supervalent' means, and then, oh dude, we're off to the races.
36 No hesitation about my 'You Just Had To Be There' Moment Of The Year. At the Sit Room launch of Timothy Thornton's very remarkable -- possibly someday seminal -- Jocund Day (from the excellent Mountain P., whose Certain Prose Works of the English Intelligencer looks sure to be a highlight of 2012), Joe Luna, who was there (as was I) to read in acclamation of Thornton (a bit like the "coloured girls" who go do-do-do whilst bearing down on Lou Reed in all the lubricious pomp of his feral peregrinations), unexpectedly and marvellously concluded his set by reading "The Windhover" by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which is one of the greatest short poems in the English language, and anyone who says different quite frankly smells of bobbins; and not only was this surprising and titillating in itself, but he also read it blindingly well, as Luna so often will: and suddenly there was music and sex and modernity in it, Tom of Finland graffiti and E.T. flying with Elliott across the lit face of the moon: which is good, because there were all of those things in Gerard Manley Doodah, too, which is why he had to wear his bicycle clips so tight: and so not only were we listening to Luna, and doing proper obeisances to Thornton, and trying to catch the eye of Jonny Liron, but we were also briefly summoning Gerard Manley Whatnot and throwing him a long-overdue coming out party, and I think I may have ended the evening being sucked off in the warehouse lavatory by a ghost who smelled of violet creams.
37 I've spent a lot of this year reading with some relish the old dudes, the pantheon of Meerikan honky cats who spent the fifties and early sixties being definitely on to something that the bitter end of the sixties stupidly forgot in the narcissistic pall of its purple haze. First there was The Paul Goodman Reader, which omits much I wish it'd found room for but is still a pretty impressive entry-level anthology for those new to Goodman's work and life and thought; then on a trip to Bristol I happened to pick up, in a bargain bookstore, the utterly delightful Fuller's Earth: A Day With Buckminster Fuller and the Kids, a transcript of an extended conversation between Bucky Fuller, late in life, and three children, one of whom, Monkee / Liquid Paper heir Michael Nesmith's son Jonathan, comes across as so bright and appealing it's a wonder Paul Goodman wasn't waiting for him in the garden with a butterfly net; then I re-read Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man, which remains a really key text for me and an exciting one in many ways; and most recently I was pleased to pick up Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, both in the recentish Penguin Modern Classics edition and, via Ubuweb, a late 60s audio adaptation -- though it's the book, more than the LP, that's most lucid in its explorations of the nonlinearity of the aural, an argument that chimes resonantly with some of what Drew Daniel's been saying in various places lately about the queerness of sound (precisely because it resists, or can resist, hierarchy, taxonomy, and linear ordering). All of this has been great: but if one Book By An Old Geezer has turned me on this year above all others, it's Euclid's Elements -- especially in the stunning Taschen reprint of Oliver Byrne's 1847 edition, which replaces the algebraic equations of Euclid's original with bold four-colour diagrams. I haven't worked through it methodically yet -- it was a Christmas present to myself, so I'm still at the boggling stage -- but simply as a sensual entertainment, it's transcendent; and the bits of Euclid proper that I read earlier in the year, and that made me want to investigate editions of the Elements that I might like, were vertiginously beautiful and strangely touching. There is something about the basic propositions from which Euclid proceeds that is a bit like looking at a clutch of bird's-eggs: something objectively profound, I suppose.
|from Oliver Byrne's Six Books of Euclid (1847; Taschen facsimile, 2010)
38 It seemed like pretty much everyone was excited about Weekend by the time it got its general release: the advance word was so good, the trailer so promising. And I, falling in line for once, was looking forward to it also -- it looked like it might be a confident, uncliched, restrained, basically realistic telling of a gay love story: and there aren't many of those to write home about. So of course one went in with a little anxiety: that it wasn't going to live up to the hype, that it wasn't going to be as honest and unvarnished and care-taking as we wanted (or even needed) it to be: and sure enough that's the slightly grumpy place in which I spent the first half hour. The real problem I had with it was that neither of the lead characters -- who, as you probably know, meet on a Friday night and become surprisingly emotionally entangled over the course of the weekend, only for it to be revealed (and this is I think hardly a spoiler) that one of the pair is leaving for the US on Sunday afternoon, and won't be back for a couple of years -- was all that likeable. In fact I thought they were both ever-so-slightly kind of annoying: which made it hard to invest very fully in the plot and in the predicament it was heading towards. Only slowly did I realise that this was the power of the film: that it was refusing yet another of the received ideas that attend most gay movies, and in fact most movies period: that a film, especially a talky character-driven film, is obliged to be in part an advert, selling us the likeability of its outlook and its leads (in that curious flickery-matrixed place where you see both the actor and the character overlaid in a kind of stereoscopic picture which looks and feels a lot like the three dimensions of 'roundedness') and needing us to fall in love with them in order that we may find it credible that they are loveable to each other. Weekend does not seem to need or want you to love, or even like, the people it's about; it asks that you empathize with them, with their situation and (to some extent) with what they represent. As soon as I realised that my role was simply to witness, to watch and listen with care and to sit with the film as a fiction and with the idea of the film as a proposition, I quickly found that I was very moved and very heartened by its self-possession and its elegance. The performances, especially by leads Chris New and Tom Cullen, actually are really great; the writing is sensitive and intelligent; and the shape of the thing is almost perfectly judged. It's an extremely grown-up film -- and there's a scene, two thirds through, where they're in bed together very early on the Sunday morning, that made me bite back sobs. I guess I should say that I think I remained a little disappointed -- and gosh, won't this sound shallow -- that it wasn't as sexually explicit as I'd heard and anticipated (though certainly it's not coy either); I wish it had gone a bit further only because the project is clearly motivated by a passion, maybe an anger even, about what we see and don't see gay men as being, or being able to be -- and in fact Cullen's character even makes exactly this point, about the visibility of queer sex in mainstream spaces. But I dare say there was some entirely proper discussion about how far you could go before the reception of the depiction of sex would overbalance the ability of audiences to see the rest of the drama. At any rate, I think Weekend is a beautiful film because of its integrity, its grown-upness; because its humanity rests not in its showing us radiant people doing things of cinematic loveliness, but in its allowing us to watch regular people figuring stuff out over coffee (and other recreational drugs). By not going out of its way to make that disclosure consistently palatable, it lets us see instead that it trusts us, trusts our own grown-upness and all the mess and confusion that goes along with it.
39 I guess it was maybe eight in the morning, something like that; I, along with most of the people in the room (probably not the stage managers though), had given up trying to keep track of the time. The point is, it had been night-time for a while, and we'd all stayed up together. There in the new Bush, keeping each other company through the first 24-hour performance of the whole of 66 Books. There had been food breaks, and great chats with friends and strangers, and mooching in the library and the garden; and there had been plays and monologues, and plays and monologues, and an amazing gospel band, and plays and monologues -- and at some point, somewhere in the woozy hour between four and five in the morning, there had been Harold Finley's exquisite and commanding three-minute performance of Michael Rosen's Amos the Shepherd Curses the Rulers of Ancient Israel, which I directed and which he delivers -- as I knew he would -- with a cool imperiousness, dressed in an outfit (made by Tori Jennings) we pretty much cribbed off Maya Angelou. There had been, in total, 41 plays and monologues and other sorts of things -- but mostly plays and monologues -- by this point. And then... And then, o best beloved, there was Billy Bragg. Sitting on the stage, just him and his guitar, not even a microphone to keep him from us. And there was sunlight: suddenly, amazingly, coming in through the opened shutters like a message that just couldn't be kept in, there was sunlight flooding the space. And Billy Bragg sung us a song called 'Do Unto Others', which was... All right. An all-right song. And I loved that. The great Billy Bragg, a hero of mine for 25 years but someone I'd never seen live before; the amazing sunlight; a room full of woozy or post-woozy people who'd stayed up all night to keep watch together; and the beautiful adequacy, in that moment, of an all-right song. There are not many moments I've had in a theatre that I'll remember for ever, but I can't imagine forgetting that one.
40 And this last one comes even closer to breaking my self-imposed ordinance about not picking anything in which I was directly involved -- but it's here precisely because I really wasn't directly involved, that's what made it probably the Happiest Thing Of The Year. I can't remember where it began. Well, I know it was the rehearsal room at West Yorkshire Playhouse where I and four others -- Tom Frankland, James Lewis, Jonny Liron and Thero Schmidt -- spent a week making Open House with whoever walked through the door and said they'd like to join in. I think it was sometime on a Monday -- and maybe Gloria Lindh had something to do with it...? -- it's all a bit fuzzy I'm afraid. But at some point early in that week, somebody started making a dance. We wanted to make a dance that anybody could learn, that anyone could walk into the room and just pick up the moves, in ten minutes flat. Even a terpsichorean doofus like me. So maybe it started then. What I do remember is that when the amazing Pauline Mayers showed up on Wednesday morning -- thinking she'd stay for an hour or so; actually she was with us for the next three days and we couldn't have done half of what we did without her -- the beginnings of a dance that were knocking aroud the room suddenly started coming together into a dance. A learnable, teachable, danceable dance. It went at the end of our first showing, that Wednesday evening, and it seemed to work; so we did it again, a little refined perhaps and with new music (or maybe the music had already changed?), on the Thursday; and by the end of our proper full-on Friday evening performance, I reckon thirty people were up on their feet, doing the dance that anyone could learn, and you really couldn't tell by that point who was the core company and who was passing through and who was front of house staff and who'd never set foot in the room before: and I was very very happy. The kind of happy where you can't really imagine being happier. And then...! And then we had to go home, so we missed the party on the last night. None of us who'd hosted and facilitated the project were there any more. But the dance... Ah, the dance was still there. And the next day Jon Spooner tweeted this video, of our dance erupting in the middle of something completely different. Nothing to do with us; and everything; and nothing again. Because theatre belongs to everyone, and ideas belong to no one, and the great thing about the dance that anyone can easily learn is that anyone can learn it. Just like that.
* * *
And that, my friends, is that. Like, really that.
It's taken me ten days (on and off) to make this post; I'm not sure if it's the longest ever to grace these pages -- I suppose it would be fitting to go out on a long, if not on a high, but I'm not too bothered. The more important thing is, doing it has been a nice reminder of what's been enjoyable here over the past five and a half years. It's made me wonder whether I'll miss this space more than I currently think; and maybe I will.
I suppose one measure of the period of my life that this blog has covered since its diffident beginnings in May 2006 is that, down here at the close of 2011, my life is oriented around the presence and collaboration of two people more than any others (and among many): Jonny Liron and Ric Watts. At the point that the blog started, Ric was just a name I vaguely knew from the footer of occasional promotional emails, and Jonny and I knew nothing about each other's existence -- he was still a teenager, in fact. (*heart breaks*) Which is not just to say "oooh isn't five years a long time, you could get a Mars bar for 55p" etc., but more than that, it's about how, very often, the day before your life changes, you really have no idea who's going to step into the frame and turn everything upside down: and I suppose part of what I want to do at this point is make more space in my life for those game-changing things to happen in. And it doesn't happen so much when you're spending too much time sitting at a desk keeping a blog fed: especially a hungry blog like this.
Thankfully, and perhaps appropriately (it's nearly always been a bit like this), I can't just ramble on and on through a sort of K-Tel album of valedictory platitudes: I need to be out of the house in thirty minutes and there's lots to do before I go. Most immediately, I'm off to BAC to do the final London performance of The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley. (Nearly lost my voice last night so I'm a bit anxious, but I'm doing honey and lemon linctus and camomile tea and lots of water and aspirin and I'm hoping all that might do the trick.) And then next week I'm at the Jerwood Space, working on GOD/HEAD with a beautiful young actor I hardly know and have never worked with before, and I suspect it's going to be an intense and revelatory week, and I can't wait to get in there. And somewhere between now and then, there's another New Year's Eve, and some time just to live in, I hope, and be thankful, and love the people I'm with when the clocks go bong.
As I promised in a previous post, Chris Goode & Company will have a proper-bo (though probably not too fancypants) web site up and running before long, and I'll keep the sidebar here updated with news of that, as well as upcoming performances and stuff. And hopefully before long there'll be a Thompson's book. So keep an eye out, won't you, and if you want to be on CG&Co's mailing list you can email me here. For now, do feel free to leave any comments here. And, may I say, it's been a pleasure to have your company over the past few years, and a privilege to have had so many smart and engaged and feisty and appreciative readers. I hope you'll stay in touch.
Wishing you all the best in 2012 and beyond.
p.s. Don't forget the year-end Thompson's Wall of Sound -- it's the next post down -- click on 'Older posts' or on this link here.