Roger Daltrey, 'Giving It All Away' (Leo Sayer / David Courtney) 1973
So, hey, crew, I'm back: and if you've read the preceding post you'll know that this means I've finished the first draft of my book. I suspect what I feel right now is the feeling people are seeking when they present themselves to be colonically irrigated. Having said that, perhaps when my editor emails back his first thoughts I shall experience the opposite sensation -- which is less sought-after at health farms, I believe, though you never can tell what's going to catch on with rich people: maybe colonic reintroduction will turn out to be this year's treatment of choice. Sometimes I look at Owen Paterson and the reactions he induces in me are very much in that ballpark. I can't imagine wanting to pay for that, but who knows. The things I can't imagine generally do not constitute a useful set of objects and events by which to navigate.
I'm slightly nervous about the post that follows, because I really don't quite know what I'm doing with it, except wanting to say some things, and see how those things look or sound when I stack them up next to each other. I'm wildly unsure where it's going. But I suppose a good way to find out is to start writing and see what happens. I suspect some of it will be a bit uncomfortable, to say the least, for some readers. Well. I'm encouraged by a lovely conversation with Rajni Shah at last month's D&D event. She was talking about the importance (and the happiness -- though I'm certain she didn't say 'happiness' exactly) of thinking aloud, of taking a line (of inquiry) for a walk. And though I think I do that often in my work in the rehearsal room, I feel like I seldom do it in my writing -- not even here, which I guess must be the most hospitable space to which I have access. So: pack Scotch eggs and ginger beer: I'm not sure where this will go, and it might go on a while, but hey, let's go.
* * *
I'm starting this post on Thursday 7th February. I'm in Bristol. I'm here for work, but in quite a stretchy sense: my actual obligations are minimal, and it's nice to feel that I have some time for once -- especially since I decided to stay on for an extra day to avoid the London tube strike (which I support 100% but would still rather not have to deal with) -- so I'm really enjoying this space for writing and wandering and trying to follow my mood and my impulses rather than the familiar clunking fist of deadlines and agendas. I love Bristol (these days -- didn't so much when I was growing up here) and it's a good city for wandering in, but I'm aware that what's propelling my wanders this week is not so much an appetite for Bristol -- especially not in this weather -- but a compulsive craving for not-here, for someplace-else.
This is a phenomenon I've been interested in for some years: that I hardly ever feel, except very late at night at home, that I am in the right place for doing what I want to be doing. That the desk is too cluttered, or my chair's at slightly the wrong height, or I can't breathe properly or think straight where I am. This is the impulse that leads to me having breakfast out so often, for example -- in order to start the day I seem to need to be somewhere other than where I am, in some cafe or restaurant somewhere, where the ceiling is higher or the ambient sound is welcoming and I can hide from my bad self a little bit. Of course, whenever I get there, it's never quite satisfactory, and I want to be in some other elsewhere instead. As I wrote to John Hall in an email last year:
. . . [I]f "[t]he descriptions of cities Marco Polo visited had this virtue: you could wander through them in thought..." [Calvino, Invisible Cities], then does thinking -- perhaps a particular kind of wandering thinking -- produce a sense, or a glimpse perhaps, of a spectrally imagined city, or place, that acts as a site for that thought? I don't know, but it feels as if it may have something to do with a familiar sense that I always want to be -- literally -- somewhere else in order to write. I'll sit at my desk thinking I need to be in the park; will go to the park and wonder if I wouldn't get on better sitting at a table in the pub; the place where writing feels possible is always principally imaginary and seems usually at odds with here, wherever that may be. And if I am writing here, it is often because I have stopped noticing where I am.
It's not just about writing. A lot of my gallery-going (never as much as I'd love to be able to fit in) is about a craving for the other-space of a gallery rather than wanting to see a particular exhibition. I love walking into gallery spaces: I said on Twitter the other day, and I haven't yet decided I was wrong about this, that when you walk into a gallery, you feel like all the work is facing out towards you; when you walk into most theatres, you feel that the work has its back to you. I love to walk into a place that feels open, except I almost immediately feel that it's all too open and that to get anything done I need to feel more closed in. I went this morning to Arnolfini to check out their present show, which brings together a large body of work by the Belgian artist Joëlle Tuerlinckx, under the slightly annoying title WOR(L)D(K) IN PROGRESS?, and found its open-systems assemblage quite a difficult terrain to negotiate because I couldn't make much of the material work on its own or in relation with other elements so I always felt I wanted to be moving on to the next thing -- almost like that feeling of running down hill when you're going a little faster than you want and actually it's your momentum that's dictating the pace, slightly out of sync with your control instincts. Being able to regulate the speed of moving-on, of going somewhere-else, normally feels like the most information-rich part of the situation -- the speed at which you draw the line will to some extent determine the kind of line it's possible to draw.
Often there is desire behind this movement, desire in that weird and enthralling intersection where desire for space meets desire for other bodies. (Few bodies in the Tuerlinckx.) I can't walk around on a wet and windy day like today, with my collar turned up and my hat pulled down, without thinking of Paul Goodman, in the '50s and '60s, going out cruising for very young men in the roughest parts of town, having great high-intellectual thoughts as he trudged through the urban landscape, pulling out a notebook maybe from time to time or filing the idea away for later. (There's a truly profound musing, in his published diaries, on the subject of dogshit on pavements and what it tells us about the erotics of intellection.) There is I think some psychogeographical impetus behind Goodman's yomping -- he was, after all, a great thinker about town planning from a sociological (and temperamentally anarchist) perspective: a great reader, like Debord, of streets and social systems as encodings of each other -- which, again, seems to entwine with and complicate his (already complicated) looking-out for young working-class boys. I'm really not someone who cruises, except in the most sort of flippant or facetious way: whatever I do to follow the routes mapped out in improvisatory fashion by my essentially sarcastic libido, it's in the absolute certainty that nothing would ever come of anything, the glimpse or flicker or sideways glance that, for Goodman, might become the pivot of an entire afternoon. I think I'm not just playing, I'm role-playing, I'm playing at being the sort of person who does this. -- But in a much more generalised sense there's a deep connection, as I walk, between my wanting to walk through the city (and not really arrive anywhere if I can help it), and what might be a vague sense of feeling turned-on.
Like a lot of artists and makers and venues and organizations at the moment, Chris Goode & Company is currently having a pretty hard think about the work we'd like to be able to make, the relationships we'd like to foster, the stories we want to tell over the next few years. One piece that we hoped to be able to realise this spring but that will probably now have to wait for next year is a community project in which we want to ask people to talk to us about the spaces that they'd like to be able to go to and -- in whatever way -- use, in their town or their place of residence, but that they can't go to because those spaces don't exist yet; the building, or the open space, or the recreational site, or whatever, that they'd like to dream into being, not more than a bus ride away from where they live. We're calling the project The Other Place. It's sort of about exactly this sometimes erotic fantasy of wanting to be moving into and through a space of somewhere-else, responding with your body and your imagination to the affordances of a location which is shaped by, or somehow anticipates, and is to some extent activated by, exactly that desire.
Where am I, again? I'm in Bristol this week for the opening, at the Brewery, of Tobacco Factory Theatres' production of my 2008 play Infinite Lives. It's a solo play that's had a few scratchy or singleton outings but not amounted to much until now. I've not been very closely involved in rehearsals and I had nothing much to go on in shaping my expectations around last night's first show, except for true faith in its brilliant young director Nik Partridge and in the actor Ray Scannell, whom I didn't know before now and who seems to me to be really superb. What I hadn't seen or heard at all was any of the audiovisual material that the script calls for, and which has been developed for this production by animator / projection designer Alex Wright and sound designer Timothy X Atack (whose superlative work with Sleepdogs I've kept the best possible eye on without ever actually having seen any, ridiculously). It's those challenging technical aspects that I think have been one of the principal reasons why Infinite Lives has never had a full production until now: what I ask for in the text is complex and hard-to-do (especially without a big budget). And one strand of it is particularly fraught, as Infinite Lives is a story about a thirtysomething man who falls in love with a much younger guy who models for an online live-cam porn site, and whose name he believes to be Carlos. The play comes from that period in my work where I was exceedingly (even more than I am now) agitated about and fixated upon the under-explored capacity of theatre and live performance to be way bolder than it normally is in its presentation of sex; but not only does the script ask for an unusual level of explicitness, it also has a lot to say -- one way and another -- about who 'Carlos' is, how he looks, how he might behave. Carlos, in other words, has always been a problem.
It was only once last night's first performance of Infinite Lives had got underway and I had started kind of silently gurgling with pleasure (and not a little relief) at how good the projections and the music and sound design were, that I suddenly realised that I was about to see Carlos realised on screen for the first time. I had been careful not to set my expectations too high: it felt like sort of a miracle that it was happening at all, that the moment I'd been dreading -- "we've decided we'd rather do it without Carlos than do it with Carlos and it not really work": that moment -- had never come. And then suddenly we were at that juncture in the play where we get to see him for the first time: and I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. At the risk of sounding like a terrible old luvvie (I can use that word, you can't, OK?, it's like the n-word of showbiz): that person sliding into view on screen? It was Carlos. In every way, his look, his gestures, his physicality, his tone, his mode of self-performance: it was as if someone had stuck a USB cable into my left anterior cingulate cortex in January 2008, downloaded my imagining of Carlos onto a memory stick, and then uploaded it into After Effects six years later. The truth -- that, by means unknown to me, the production team had come across the (evidently massively talented) dancer Murilo Leite, and persuaded him to let himself be filmed in a range of excitatory scenarios -- is no less mindblowing, in its way.
And so, today was tinted, rather gorgeously, by the lingering afterimage of Carlos (and a fun Twitter exchange with Murilo), and a sense -- to pick up a language that Jonny Liron and I used to make use of a whole lot -- of having been wounded, of there being some psychic and erotic imprint that is continually pressing itself into your heart and mind, and pushing on the step-after-step of walking through a beautiful, and beautifully familiar, city, and incubating the mild euphoria of suddenly being alive in a place and time where Carlos is a plausible reality, a real-life friend-of-a-friend, and where someone as special as Murilo has the generosity and composure to let himself be seen in that context. (I should say I suppose that the imagery in the production is not, actually, as explicit as the script implies it might be at some moments, though I suspect that Nik has judged it exactly right in terms of what is and isn't seen, and certainly I feel that my wishes for that aspect of the play have been respected, carefully but adventurously and kind of joyously.)
|Ray Scannell (front) and Murilo Leite (projection) in Infinite Lives
dir. Nik Partridge, Brewery Theatre, Bristol
Photo: Paul Blakemore
This is all by way of leading up to wanting to tell you about something really beautiful I saw a few weeks ago; by way of context, I suppose, or some kind of earthing, because I don't know that you'll think what I'm describing is beautiful. I imagine you might think it's horrible.
Starting to think again last summer about Infinite Lives, five years after its first scratchy appearance on stage, sent me back to a world from which I'd become almost totally estranged -- the world of online cam shows, to which I was a frequent visitor in around 2006-07 (just as broadband speeds became fast enough for the experience not to be unremittingly frustrating): I came for the hot boys but stayed for the whole elaborate ecosystem of it, the chatrooms, the etiquette, the syntax, the contract, and, of course, underneath all these, the ethics and the ideological conundra that led me to want to write the play in the first place. But though I was fascinated by that online space and its dynamics, it was hard to stay attached to it: expensive, for one thing; also the site I liked best was based in Canada which meant the live shows (which were what I wanted -- the repeats were not nearly so interesting, despite being superficially identical in every respect) didn't start till 11pm GMT and often the guys I wanted to watch weren't on till the 3am or 5am slots, which wasn't too compatible with the no-less-urgent desire to be productive in the world and meet friends in the world in daylight hours and so on.
But when the possibility of Infinite Lives being given a full production was floated last summer, I remembered that on a recent episode of the Thompson's Live podcast, my brilliant chum the director Nick Blackburn had talked a bit about liking very much a free cam site called Cam4 -- so I took a look at it, and ended up at a near clone of that site, called Chaturbate [NSFW link]: which must be the most repellent name I've ever heard for anything ever ever, with the possible exception of a local hair salon called 'Your Beautiful' [sic; my beautiful what?]: but the site itself really repaid those first attentions and I've been a not-infrequent visitor ever since. A nice aspect of Chaturbate (like Cam4) is that it exists principally to facilitate connections between amateur users who get to set their own parameters and rules of engagement. Anyone can broadcast themselves doing anything they're comfortable doing (within the Ts&Cs) and anyone who wants to watch can do so for free, so the bit where money changes hands is opt-in: users of the site can buy tokens with which they can then 'tip' performers; some tips are made as gratuities by way of thanks for good and faithful service, but often the performers will advertise a kind of tariff (for this many tokens I'll do x with y until z -- ah, the erotics of algebra). Performers can then cash in their received tokens when they want. Models are thumbnailed on the home page in order of present viewing figures, and it's easy to see what the market values most highly -- in the 'male' section, endless nearly-identical Colombian teenagers (legal ones, it says here) and stoned thirtysomething rednecks with cocks roughly the thickness of full-grown green anacondas: these stars will have anything up to a couple of thousand viewers at any one time (and loads more, of course, for the hetero stuff); but it's always worth scrolling through the first few pages to get to those shows that only four or six people in the whole wide world are watching: there are bearded septuagenarians from (I'm guessing) Lake Wobegon, emerging Buddha-like from their woodwork overalls; and fat Swiss real estate agents who look dismally like, er, me; and I once spent a very happy half hour in the 'company' of a German man dressed top-to-tail as a dragon, who mostly wanted to talk about software. There's one guy who seems to spend most of every working day masturbating in his office, with a camera trained on his poor overworked genitals; and a couple who broadcast from their (parked) cars. Thus it's a space in which seasoned pros (the Colombian cohort is obviously a super-slick factory operation) and stumbling bedroom exhibitionists exist cheek-by-(probably-not-exactly)-jowl, and super-cute ever-ready boyband wannabes line up alongside obese New York orthodontists whose winkies haven't even been discernible since the dog days of the Carter administration. Compared with most professional video sites, the range of body types and ages and ethnicities makes it all look much more like jury service. -- And all of this happens, I should say, within a system that's highly regulated in terms of conduct and etiquette, rather more so even than the semi-fictitious site I describe in Infinite Lives. Moderators patrol the chat and anyone who 'shouts' (in CAPS) or is consistently impolite is quickly booted out. It's not even really OK to ask a model to do something without tipping them in advance. There is often a low level of friendly bantering chat but even here the models are well-protected: so I don't think I've ever felt, as I often did at that old site a few years back, that there was anything abusive or even exploitative going on. Evidently there is prestige these days in fiercely protecting the model first and pleasing the customer second (which is exactly as it should be).
That's the context in which I met -- and in a sense am still meeting -- Charlie. (That's not quite his screen name.) Charlie's eighteen years old and he's a student somewhere in Scotland -- sensibly he doesn't say exactly where -- and I happened to watch his first ever appearance on Chaturbate. He was just chatting on cam, fully clothed, with some music on in the background, in a small bedroom that totally reminded me of the attic room I lived in in a shared house in Cambridge for a year or so after I graduated from uni. He had dyed blue hair and an unutterably sweet smile and a friendly and unassuming manner, and he wasn't accepting tips because he wasn't going to actually 'do' anything. He kept saying, with perfect equanimity, that anyone who was wanting a show should go and look somewhere else because he wasn't here to do that, he was just hanging out and chatting. And slowly, but inexorably, Charlie's warm, laid-back, gently flirtatious hanging-out crept up the rankings to become one of that afternoon's most-watched channels. There was some mild encouragement, especially among those who arrived as the broadcast went on, from those who wanted to cajole Charlie into this act or that divulgence, but he would politely and amusedly bat all this away.
And so it went, for a while. And then Charlie obviously started to wonder what would happen if, instead of saying no, he said yes. Not yes to anything crazy or off-the-chart. Just yes to the next thing. Yes, I suppose I don't mind unbuttoning my shirt. Yes, you can see my feet if you really want, why on earth would you want to but why not. Why not.
And you can probably imagine what happens next. As fans pour in, and Charlie gets more and more of a kick out of their delighted responses to his small careful concessions -- which have the feeling of gifts, acts of kindness, little treats, rather than wilful assertion or throwing-down or fabulous look-at-me luxuriations -- something starts to shift. It feels -- I want to say 'weirdly', though I don't know why it would be weird, really -- it feels, weirdly or not, like the building of trust, between a sweet good-natured teenager in a dreary bedsit somewhere in Scotland, and three-dozen, then a hundred, then three-hundred strangers present in name alone, some of them asking -- almost all with great courtesy and good humour -- if he'll be so kind as to say yes to the next thing, and the next.
I think the show must have gone on, in the end, for eight or nine hours, though I know there was a break in the middle for an hour or so when Charlie had to pop out for a bit. (That was nice -- that he was obviously the sort of person who had errands to run, or had got a bit hungry. You don't get that on Bel Ami.) I just let it run in the background as I sat at my desk and wrote stuff. I'd check in every so often and see where things had got to. I had to pop out for a while as well. Everything felt very casual.) And at some point, without my really noticing, the site crashed and the feed went down for a while.
By the end of the day, Charlie had a fanbase -- already nicknamed Charlie's Angels -- and he was talking to them still with the same sweetness but also with an instinctive fan-pleasing sense of performed (and perhaps somehow genuine) affection -- I've really got to go now, but I'll miss you all, you guys, and I'll see you all again tomorrow -- and a sort of implicit acknowledgement that he ought to start seeing himself as someone with a marketable talent. These few hours on from his low-key, carefully boundaried start, we had seen Charlie naked, we'd watched him masturbate (though annoyingly, after all that, I didn't see him come), he'd shown everyone his asshole, he'd put odd bits of clothing on in a playfully fetishy sort of way, he'd talked a bit about his personal life and his sexual preferences, and he'd dealt kindly and patiently with an endlessly renewing stream of visitors for whom his Scottishness was a mind-boggling novelty. (What do you wear under your kilt, Charlie? Nothing, of course. What are your views on Scottish independence? I don't think it's a good idea but I haven't really thought about it much. What do you wear under your kilt, Charlie? etc.)
Charlie still goes on Chaturbate a bit, though not as often as he did -- once a week, now, maybe, at weekends. His hair went from blue to red for a while and now it's blond. Something a little practised underscores his shows now. (I think about how much less I like Eddie Izzard these days, since he developed such a hard-edged comprehension of what made him funny.) There is a big notice on Charlie's room page about buying him stuff off of his Amazon wish-list, by way of recompense for his performances: and why not? An exchange of gifts. That seems right. But I'm wondering whether anything will ever match the intensity of the brief period of transition where he was starting to test his own limits -- what happens if I say yes to this? -- without wanting to get tipped for it: where there was a genuine and (temporarily) sufficient pleasure in being desired. In being asked. In having people say: you're so beautiful, what more can you show us? Was that intensity I experienced something to do with the intimacy of watching an apparently genuine personal reflectiveness and movement, supported by the quiet encouragement of a bunch of strangers? Was that intensity about the exchange not being monetised? Or was it an intensity pressurized by injustice and exploitation and fake markers of consent and authorship?
I'd be more worried had Charlie never come back to Chaturbate after that first ecstatic eight-hour day; but I'm aware nonetheless of a kind of sadness or disappointment -- very mildly present, but certainly enough to detect -- that he did come back, and often enough to become so much more aware of what he was doing, of how it was all framed, of what was and is and wasn't and isn't seen, and of how -- you might argue -- a mutually exploitative situation can feel like one in which all the exploitation cancels itself out.
I'm looking at Charlie, and I'm thinking about actors.
* * *
Man, I think Travis Mathews must be some kind of genius. His extraordinary film I Want Your Love (the full-length version, following a short from 2010) was maybe the best movie I saw last year: it sits somewhere in the territory of Andrew Haigh's Weekend, which I love and revere (I wrote about it in my year's end post in 2011), but complicates its candid and profoundly truthful intimacies with something even deeper, an attachment to registering the scuffy and convulsive parts of our lives, when the narrative we're living becomes unclear even (or especially) to ourselves. I haven't seen that mystifying-yet-recognizable, almost aleatoric quality in such a naturalistic lo-fi film since Kelly Reichardt's tenderly upsetting Old Joy in 2006. Following I Want Your Love up, I found out about Mathews's In Their Room series, in which he films self-identified gay men in their bedrooms, hanging out, chatting, 'getting ready', being sexual; I've only seen clips and fragments but I adore these little glimpses into the subjects' lives and desires: the blatantly collaborative nature of the films as portraits, and the way their performative qualities really sing out of the documentary format, seem to me to make them really suggestive triggers for thinking about private versus public and the ways in which personal desires meet social ethics. There is something in Travis Mathews's approach and his evident concerns, and the integrity with which he appears to pursue his ideas and the relationships through which he realises those ideas, that feels very close to the kind of theatre practice that I most identify with at the moment: the way in which talking to people about their lives, and listening very closely to the answers, and creating a space in which intimate and truthful action can arise out of those conversations, produces work that is, on the one hand, rigorous in its engagements and its availability to critique, and at the same time is warmly humane and tender and funny, and difficult in the way that people and sex are, not just in the way that language and critical praxis and negative dialectics are. I really like how both I Want Your Love and In Their Room seem able to transcend the nicheness of some queer performance by being really specific about the gay lives and the queer identities they're focusing on: there is something about the valuing of particular details and individual personalities that becomes enlarging rather than parochialising.
Mathews's most high-profile project to date, however, is certainly Interior. Leather Bar., which he co-directs with the ubiquitous and endlessly confounding James Franco. If you haven't heard about this film, it's a high-concept proposition, not quite a one-liner but not far off. There's a notorious (&, many think, ropey) William Friedkin film from 1980 called Cruising, starring Al Pacino as a cop who has to go undercover on the New York gay S&M scene in pursuit of a serial killer. The film excited protests at the time from the gay community, who found the film savagely homophobic in its apparently hostile depiction of the S&M subculture; but other queer viewers, I know, were grateful -- as so many of us were, well into the nineties (and perhaps still are) -- for any representation, any recognizable or halfway realistic depiction of gay culture and sexuality. At any rate, in order to get the film passed by the MPAA (the American equivalent of the BBFC), Friedkin had to cut forty minutes of footage, which is said to have consisted of explicit sexual material from the club scenes. It's this unseen excised material that catches the imagination of Franco, who is, creditably, much concerned with how contemporary cinema presents sex, and the parameters that determine what can or can't be seen (and what can or can't be made) by consenting adults.
So Interior. Leather Bar. originates in an impulse of critical speculation: what might that missing material have looked like? But while Mathews & Franco's film may have started with that question -- and the record ought to show that Franco brought Mathews on board to help realise the film he was already interested in making, Franco having seen I Want Your Love and been impressed by Mathews's presentation of unsimulated sex in that movie -- it has become, in its fully developed version, a far more complex and teasing construction. It's a fiction-documentary following the making of that reconstructive film -- a process of making that happens only in so far as it creates the focus for the 'documentary'. So, we get some sequences of those club scenes, edited and post-produced, but we also get to see them being filmed in a tiny downtown space, and we get to see backstage at the filming, and to follow some of the process leading up to the filming. In particular we watch Franco's real-life acting buddy Val Lauren talking with Franco and Mathews about the project: they want him to play the lead -- and he certainly does have startling redolences of the young Pacino -- but he's not at all sure about the sexually explicit nature of the material they'll be focusing on, especially as a heterosexual actor who instinctively wants to draw the line somewhere before they get to the point of filming him having real sex with another man, but isn't at all sure where precisely that line needs to be drawn. And so we follow the wobbly trajectories of his uncertainty, his wrestling with the boundaries of (his own private) sexual normativity, and the orthodoxies of film-making and career-building; he talks to other actors on the set, who are more relaxed than he is, or less so, and are drawing the same line in different places. Above all we watch him repeatedly return to a basic allegiance to Franco: Lauren wants to give this project everything he can, not because it's something that particularly interests him or appeals to his own creative instincts, but because he recognizes that Franco is a significant creative talent -- and an influential one in the industry -- and he sees it as part of his complex role as an actor and as a friend-of-James to set aside his own misgivings as far as possible in order to support Franco's perceived artistry.
All of this is played so authentically that it is incredibly easy to forget, from moment to moment, and within seconds of being reminded (as the film repeatedly and assiduously does), that you're watching a totally constructed event. Which is not to say that there is not a core of reality here -- Lauren's struggle with the challenges being thrown up by the project seems to be totally authentic, and in so far as some of the sex that we watch certainly is real, so we can assume is the anxiety around it. But we are also inside an authored event. A few times, for example, we see scripts, held in hands or sitting on tables, and it becomes clear that that script is not for what we might call the film-within-the-film, but for the film itself, the one we're watching. One particularly giddy moment has Lauren sitting against the wall outside the film set, reading aloud to himself the description in the screenplay of him sitting against this very wall in this very scene: which means that we then hear him read the whole paragraph again, because he's just read that direction aloud, thus transforming it into a speech. (Geddit?) Nothing, really, could make it clearer that Franco and Mathews -- one rather suspects more Mathews than Franco, though I've no evidence for that -- are interested in confecting a sort of dynamic conundrum that will raise and frame a whole bunch of questions about authorship and control and allegiance and trust, at the core of which vortex are a few short filmed sequences of real power-play sex between men, so that the sex also blares its embedded questions about authorship and control and allegiance and trust. Fascinatingly, Franco, who is seen throughout most of the film, wielding a handheld camera or talking intelligently with Lauren and the other actors, disappears towards the end of the movie. He just isn't around any more. Where has he vanished to? The suggestion in the film is that he's gone to hang out somewhere else, on the circuit with some cool folks. Or is he just behind the camera? Of course, again, it's all a set-up, playing smartly on popular perceptions of Franco as some homo-curious dilettante art-school motherfucker: but there's something interesting in the removal from the system of Lauren's rationale for testing his own boundaries as an actor. What does it mean to be willing to maybe do something you're not comfortable with, for someone you respect, in pursuit of their vision which is not your own? And what, if anything, continues to hold the space of that dedicated rationale when said friend is suddenly absent? The vanishing of Franco towards the end of Interior. Leather Bar. reminds me, more than anything, of Blake, the Kurt Cobain cipher played by Michael Pitt in Gus Van Sant's best film Last Days. Blake keeps slipping out of frame -- falling out of a shot that won't move to catch him, or just wandering off dissociatively -- and the charismatic absence of him says a good deal more about the radioactivity of stardom than the (admittedly gorgeously hokey) final sequence where Dead Blake becomes a fine-art nude ascending a stairway to heaven.
I talked before Christmas to Nigel Barrett, who's about to come to Plymouth with me as part of the ensemble for MAD MAN, about ideas sort of along these lines. Nigel's one of the most extraordinary actors I've ever had the privilege to work with: seemingly fearless, certainly effervescently clever and inventive and brilliantly generous and warm and positive and kind. He was talking very interestingly and rather movingly about his perception of himself as someone whose principal talent is in making himself available for use by people who have a stronger or more singular creative vision than he does himself. This is not, as he sees it -- and I think, or hope, he's right -- in any way a secondary role in the process. He just wants to put himself at the disposal of others: to a great extent he asks of himself only that he does as best he can what others ask of him. This is certainly a perspective that Jonny [Liron] has articulated to me in the past, as well, this sense of asking either me (qua director) or an audience: where do you want to go today? And I suppose it also brings to mind a really impressive conversation I had at D&D a few years back with the actor and translator Aliki Chapple, in whose earshot I was fulminating a bit stridently (I expect) about the idea -- maybe slightly less current now than it was then, but not by much -- that the director of a stage text is there to 'serve' the writer. I was really cross about the paradigm of 'service' (as opposed to, say, collaboration), about the blatant -- though not, actually, unshakeable -- implication of 'subservience'. But Aliki's hugely cogent dismissal of that objection came from outside the rehearsal room: she talked about her young son, about her sense that she 'serves' him, places herself in a relationship of service to his best interests. I found Aliki's comment jarring, at the time, but I thought about it a lot afterwards, and it's had a really (re-)formative impact on my thinking around these questions. I do think, in the work at least, the sense of service has to travel in all directions, but it is an interesting and provoking language to drop in to the negotiation of making-relationships.
When I think about the occasions when actors -- brilliant, intrepid colleagues -- have reminded me that they are there to serve my directorial vision, it's both exciting and discomfiting. Very often it's something that's said in the heat of a conversation about the things I feel nervous or conflicted about asking actors to do -- more often than not, then, it's about nudity, or sexual content, or both. They very kindly want to reassure me that it's OK for me to ask them those questions; sometimes they want to pre-empt them by making sure I know they're up for anything, or at least for a conversation about anything. And -- as John says in Infinite Lives -- "I do quite want": and while I'm cautious about becoming over-comfortable with or blase about that openness and willingness, I do still basically trust in the strategy we put in place (though Lord knows we didn't always execute it competently) during the negotiations around the making of Hey Mathew in 2008: wilful, insistent, vigilant transparency at all times: naming the desire, naming the complications, naming the fear, naming the obstacles, trying to name the hidden variables and the obscured field dynamics, and making a nameable decision from within the tangly midst of all that Naming Of Parts.
Still -- as I've said in the chapter on nudity in my upcoming book -- I don't much trust the tariffs of 'artistic' value that surround so much discussion on the subject, the bargaining that tries to account for, say, the level of professionalism involved in the project, or the artistic merit, or the motivation of the character in psychological-realistic terms. (The confusing conjugational litany of weighing-up that goes something like: "I am a professional artist; you have an Evening Standard award; my character wouldn't ever do that; we are all on minimum wage", etc.) I hate the idea that the actor is obliged to place themselves, more or less in a state of abstraction, into the fractious internal economy of art -- of the body in or as art -- as an industrial engine. Some things are too important, too precious, to sell, I piously say: and those things, you have to give away. (Which will call to mind for some equally sentimental readers the weepy scene in Harold and Maude where Maude throws Harold's keepsake gift to her into the ocean so that she'll always know where it is.)
Perhaps it is different in film than it is in theatre. There is always the persistence of the object in film. Look at all the Google hits for Val Lauren that show him in Interior. Leather Bar., but that don't -- that can't -- show up the ambivalences that make his role in that film so vibrantly powerful; they just capture him in a black vest looking kind of sexy and kind of gay and boringly unambiguous. Lauren's defining relationship in the film is with Franco, but I find it more instructive to think of him in relation to Mathews. What is at stake in that relationship? I think about how I often say to actors, especially those I haven't worked with before, that I often feel my role is split exactly 50/50 between making sure they're always comfortable, and making sure they're always uncomfortable. It is impossible, for both of us, to live in that space: but the contradiction is informative, and sort of shapely, and it can become a way of moving, a way of always moving on to the next someplace-else. In that sense, Interior. Leather Bar. is, I think, perhaps the best film I know about acting (or first-equal perhaps with Vanya on 42nd Street): and I say that in the knowledge that it is also, to some considerable extent, a film about sadomasochism; and sadomasochism, like acting, is one of the ways we've devised for thinking about how we can make our immense capacity for erotic love matter more.
I'm looking at Val Lauren, and I'm thinking about love.
|Val Lauren and Christian Patrick in Interior. Leather Bar.
(dir. James Franco & Travis Mathews, 2013)
* * *
Also in that book-chapter on nudity I mention a provocation with which I sometimes ask consenting actors to engage: once you're naked -- once you've "got" naked -- how can you carry on getting more naked? How can you extend the line, the curve, however you imagine it, on the graph of clothedness, how can you extend the line back through its own origin to sub-zero? To a degree, the expressibility of the question is suggestive enough in itself: my own interest in staged nakedness as a research question -- rather than merely as a signal or a tonal modifier that I simply liked to introduce into the aesthetic and erotic world of the work -- began with two late recognitions that seemed to speak to each other: one, that I was more interested in the movement of 'getting naked' rather than the state of being naked, I found something more dynamic (perhaps obviously) in the vector than in the static image; two, that I didn't want to think any more of nakedness as a limit state, which seemed to inscribe it into a position of extremity rather than root-position centrality. And even though it mostly isn't practical to work in a way that reflects this, I still see the actor -- certainly the professional or self-professed actor, and perhaps the actor whoever-they-may-be in a moment of action -- as a special kind of person whose body is engaged in speculative action (research action, I suppose I think of it as), not outside of place but in a critical relationship with it, and whose default should be nakedness rather than a state of being clothed. (This, I realise, is a very elliptical account of a position that's hard to explain concisely; at the risk of sounding like a colossal -- or tiny -- dick: if you're interested, have a look at the book when it comes out -- I'm able to take more time over it there. I was worried the position would unravel as I described it, but in fact it made me more sure of it, and more excited by its radical promise, than ever.)
I've been thinking a lot about that question this year in relation to a book that was one of my (far too many) Christmas presents to myself. It's a book I first became aware of thanks to a fascinating and truly thoughtful review of it by my old mate the novelist / poet / critic / blogger / paragon of awesomeness Thomas Moore. Do read Tom's review, it's far more close-to-the-bone than I imagine I'm going to be in the words that follow.
The book in question is Gabe, by the photographer Nick Haymes. It's simply -- and in no way simply -- a volume of photographs, taken across a period of about four years, of one individual: the actor-slash-nonactor Gabe Nevins, whom, if you know him at all, you'd most likely recognize from his lead role as a sweetly, blearily fucked-up skateboarding teen in Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park. I thought Nevins was stunning in that role (notwithstanding Van Sant's ineffable talent for filming young men and boys-becoming-men as if only he can truly discern the swirling phantom universes of pain and desire that animate and stupefy them) and it was both a surprise that he didn't immediately go on to superstardom and the cover of i-D and, at the same time, no surprise at all that he dropped out of sight.
But now here he is, in these hundred-odd photos by Nick Haymes -- plus adjunct documentation: the odd email to Harmony Korine ("i would do ANYTHING under your direction") or Facebook status update ("I'd like some citrus with this disguise, tell me what is wise", he says -- which sounds like it must be a song lyric, maybe, but I don't recognize it and can't turn it up: anybody know?). At the front end of the book, in his mid-teens, here he is, goofily turning somersaults, blowing blue bubble-gum, skating, flossing, endlessly taking his shirt off, dressing up as a nun; and then, a third of the way through the book, beginning what I guess most commentators would (perhaps fairly) describe as a 'descent': a lonelier, more convulsive, un-cute kind of mayhem, pretty much blaring a whole delirious fanfare of recreational drug use; putting on masks and make-up, posing for Larry Clark-esque pics with an Asian dominatrix; wearing less and less, more and more: just pantyhose; just a sock over his dick; then no sock. And then, once he's naked, getting more naked: wearing nothing but the glitches of a fucked-up digital video image; nothing but the cover of darkness; nothing but his eyes rolled back in his head, the weirdness and wiredness of too many sleepless nights bearing with too many chemical messages, illicit and otherwise; perhaps most strikingly, and disconcertingly, wearing the intense nakedness of a nasty outbreak of psoriasis. And there he is naked, again: just totally, straight-down-the-line naked, again and again.
It doesn't help -- or maybe, in a way, it does -- that this trajectory continues (or so we can easily discover) beyond the confines of this book: just as with Interior. Leather Bar., this project is essentially a docu-drama, neither straight documentary nor secluded fiction: but the documentary aspect is where the intimacy starts to feel perhaps a bit frightening, as the pictorial reportage start to tell together the story of Nevins's life as a young adult: what starts within the book as drugs and hustling and restlessness ends up outside its covers as homelessness and a spell in jail. Which leaves behind an unsettling (and in some sense unresolvable) set of questions about what this book is, what it records, what it constructs, how it responds, what it authors. There is no sense of non-consent -- Nevins is totally open to and turned towards the presence of Haymes and his camera; and yet, how safe an infrastructure is consent? A signature on a release form is a kind of consent; friendship is a kind of consent; keeping on going back is a kind of consent; but we all know kids of thirteen who should be allowed to vote and adults of thirty-six who don't have the emotional maturity to be able to consent meaningfully to sex or marriage or even dinner; we all know that you can consent to stuff in one country or one state (I mean US state but see also emotional state, state of intoxication, etc.) and drive across a border to a place where that consent is now impossible, unrecognisable. Non-human animals can't consent to any of the uses to which we put them, though plenty of people who forge domestic or working relationships with animals will insist that they could and would consent if they had at their disposal the language formats with which to do so. In some of these pictures, Nevins is (categorically) like an animal, I think.
|Spread from Gabe by Nick Haymes, featuring Gabe Nevins
I was interested in Haymes's Gabe project because I've often taken an interest in the curious, negotiative relationships that sometimes propel long-form one-on-one projects between photographers and models, and especially between male photographers (who may or may not be gay) and their male subjects (who may or may not be straight). The negotiations that those projects necessarily contain and dramatize seem to me to be very pure -- I don't mean morally pure, I mean concentrated -- relational dialogues about desire and testimony, gift and acceptance, value and gratuity, friendship and romance, intimacy and exposure, privacy and publicity, et cetera: in other words, they feel like exercises in the configuration of the essential theatrical encounter. Sometimes they've formed quite direct models, I suppose, for my own practice; I've often worked with self-identified straight male performers and asked them to respond to or situate themselves in a performative relation with my self-identified queer perspective as a maker. Bruce Weber's adoption of Peter Johnson as his muse for the project recorded in his (absolutely wonderful) film Chop Suey and the accompanying book The Chop Suey Club was a direct inspiration for making my 2003 show his horses with Theron Schmidt, while Greg Gorman's extraordinary photographic relationship with the (heterosexual but eyewateringly intrepid) model Greg Knudson, as charted in Gorman's Just Between Us, was in the room from day one working with Jonny Liron on Hey Mathew. In both cases there was something really strong about presenting not only those brilliant photographs to my friends as stimulus in themselves, but also looking at them as bodies of work recording the exploratory nature of those collaborations. But it quickly becomes disconcertingly tangly. Look, I'm saying: here are some cool guys who didn't mind being looked at by other guys. Look how much fun they seem to be having. Look at Greg Knudson jerking off: how could anyone not want to be him and/or look at him? And in saying those things in those moments to those collaborating performers, I am reporting in a fairly direct and unvarnished way my own response to some work that I find genuinely interesting and exciting and worthy of consideration as exemplary productions; but that duck is obviously also a rabbit: I am trying to persuade my friends, whom I love and respect, to do something that, one way or another, takes some persuasion. I don't think I have the power apparatus to tip that vocabulary of persuasion into a form of coercion, though perhaps friendship has that tendency in it anyway. In this situation, I don't even think about the mechanism of consent. Consent shows up as the pinpoint punctuation marks in this liquid prosody. I think more about how it feels in the room. I think about how we are moving together. I think about -- and try to ask, carefully, about -- what the conversation is like for them.
I've been having exactly this conversation, lately -- not by any means for the first time -- with an actor who's also someone I value very much as a friend (though I hope it doesn't substantially matter that he's a friend -- I mean, it does, but I hope I'd treat a stranger the same way). He knows I like placing naked actors on stage; he doesn't show any sign of being morally offended (or aesthetically displeased) by that, but he'd rather not be one of them, personally: and for the moment, that's slightly thwarting something I'd love to be able to make. His "no" -- it goes without saying, though I also want to spell it out -- totally overrules my "please": but it's not framed as an absolute "no", just "no" for now -- so we agree there's a conversation to be had, though I appreciate we may not be equally eager to have it. For my part, of course, I find the possibility that sits in this conversation more exciting in a way than I'd have found it if he'd said "yeah, no problem" right from the start. I'm excited by the idea of us moving together through the conversation. But there is a profound contradiction, or an ambiguity, which I take to have to do with my job, my role as director, though perhaps it's not tied to that or explained by it: perhaps those are just the structural conditions that allow that ambiguity to come through clearly. It seems to me, at any rate, that there are two responses to that actor's provisional or contingent "no" that are equally plausible as ethically engaged reactions: one is, "I totally respect that and let's drop the subject"; the other is, "Can we talk about howcome you feel that way?" Obviously, beneath the second lies an agenda that could hardly be described as hidden: if you tell me why you feel like that, maybe I can change your mind: and perhaps that's the bit that makes me feel queasy about myself and my position. Yet I genuinely feel that, particularly in respect of theatre, and in respect of what I think acting is, there is a nearly absolute moral good to the position of feeling able to be naked on stage, to be seen naked. (The reverse is not true, I think: being unwilling to be naked is not a moral deficiency. But at any rate not all theatre situations are the same of course and in fact most of the situations where actors are seen naked on stage or in performance are ones where I think they shouldn't be: which is mostly one of the myriad violent faults in capitalism rather than a way of describing who human beings can and can't be to each other, but the two are of course atrociously inseparable. That's the problem I showed up to try and dispel.) In a way, though, this is not really a question to do with the morality or otherwise of nudity or the invocation of erotic desire through the performance of nudity. It's a question about what it means to have the capacity, and/or the invitation, to quite fundamentally change a person's mind, to disturb their value system, to alter the habitual pattern of their life.
And this, I think, ultimately, is where consent as a structure tends to be faulty. Consent is a language-performance that takes place in advance of an event that can only to a limited extent be accurately described or commissioned before it has taken place. The giving or withholding of consent is usually taken to be a rational exercise based on a weighing of secondary and perhaps circumstantial evidence: the one thing you can't base it on is the experience you haven't had yet. It's a predicament I think about a lot in relation to audiences. Whatever admonitory notices and disclaimers we may put up outside a show, whatever means we may use to describe our work through marketing copy and images and other supporting materials, the consent that is sought from audiences at the moment that they buy their ticket or they enter the auditorium is an incredibly crude technology. They cannot meaningfully consent to the experience they will have: they can only consent to be present through a period of not-knowing-yet. It's very like Jerome Bel's categorically distinct dismissal of the idea of refunding money to angry or dissatisfied or displeased or offended punters: the ticket price is literally the price of admission, and the transaction ultimately is not about the value of the show itself, but about the value (to you) of your presence in relation to it. This was on my mind very much when I toured with Tim Crouch's The Author a while back. No amount of pre-publicity or gossip or warning notices or careful reviews could create an adequate holding structure in which an audience could meaningfully give their informed consent to witnessing and participating in that play -- in that play: because the only information that would have amounted to such 'informed' consent was the information that the play divulged in performance.
In my play King Pelican these anxieties about consent become unbearable. In creating a poem, an image, whatever, the central character -- the Victorian poet Edward Lear -- feels monstrous because those creations are invasive. The picture, the scribbly cartoon accompanying this or that limerick, is not, essentially, drawn in the book, on the page; it's drawn on the inside of the mind of the beholder. These thoughts, these ideas, these pictures, are forcibly introduced into the reader's imagination. This is not a line of argument that I thought up in relation to Lear: it was the furious reaction of one prominent early reader of Lear's work, who was resentful of the vividness of Lear's artistic interventions. What is seen can't be unseen. In the same podcast that Nick Blackburn talks about Cam4, Rachel Mars and I have (what I think is) a really interesting conversation about her brilliant show The Way You Tell Them, in which -- for extremely legitimate and artistically cogent reasons -- she does a kind of obscene aural graffiti all over a scene in a documentary film that is, or was, one of my favourite documentaries, a piece of work that I have revered and found extremely moving -- as, I think, has she. But I'll never again watch that film without it being to some extent undermined by that obscene overlay. I can't unhear her intervention, and in consenting to see her show, I certainly didn't consent to have that important artwork in my life vandalised in that way.
Except -- as I started to think (and perhaps say: I can't quite remember) by the end of that podcast recording -- what Rachel does in that show is, like much graffiti and like so very much that is taken to be obscene, a deeply moral act. It is not, for a second, thoughtless or careless. It does not, or it need not, ruin that film for me. It becomes, for a few minutes, a complicating layer, one that extends and reorients the active purview of a film that might, in fact, even be enhanced by Rachel's intervention. What I have to do is adapt to the additional information.
I've talked -- you can hear it here -- with Karl James, the co-director of Tim Crouch's The Author, about the problem of consent. For Karl, the bottom line is -- if not simple, then fundamental. We must be able to risk harm. Without the risk of harm there is no movement. I wrestled with this a lot at the point that he said it; I feel reconciled to it now, but still deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps the way I explain it more reassuringly to myself is by rearranging the equation in this way: I feel harmed, or I have felt harmed, most in my life, by situations where there is no movement. So I guess what I take from that, and from all this, is that we need some more effective ethical construct for our consideration of the risky movement of changing minds (and, by extension, lives) than that of negotiating consent. This is, I must immediately stress, by no means an argument about wanting consent as an explicit language-act in relation to sex and other intimacies in proximity to harm to become a greyer area: quite the opposite. At the same time, we need to acknowledge, in thinking through these issues, the limits that we currently place on the effective registration of consent: for example, readers old enough to remember Operation Spanner in the mid-1980s, or those of any age whose own interests have brought them into contact somehow with the premises of that operation, will remember that it is (still) not possible legally to consent to being harmed (in line with the relevant definitions of actual bodily harm) in the pursuit of homosexual sadomasochistic activity. (The law still seems not to treat heterosexual S&M the same way, though there appears to be a lot of confusion here.) That I can't consent to be beaten up by my lover, but he may be able to inflict emotional distress on me (by leaving me, for example, when I don't want him to) that may cause far more enduring harm and have a significantly more deleterious effect on my quality of life and consent as a question won't even show up in that space, seems to me to suggest there is a kind of inadequacy here to the way we frame consent and harm, and how those frames do not necessarily fall into alignment in the territories of art, morality and the law.
One measure of that, I suppose, is that I honestly don't know how far we've strayed from Nick Haymes's brilliant and disturbing book Gabe. Are we still talking about it? I guess we're talking about the way in which I, like Tom Moore, don't seem to know how to think about what our responsibilities to Gabe Nevins may be, and that's partly because Gabe Nevins is totally fucked but also totally fine, and because we who respond to his appearance in these photographs with feelings of tenderness, or revulsion, or concern, or arousal, are totally fine but also totally fucked, not least by all the intermeshing technologies of mediation and commodification that allow me to look at intimate pictures of people I'll never meet. Perhaps we look at this picture and smile, and look at the next one and wince; perhaps we look at this picture one day and smile, and the next day we look at the same picture and wince; perhaps my friend and I look through this book together and he winces and I smile, or vice versa. These micro-negotiations are present in any act of reading worth the effort; they're (presumably) where the ethics of reading, in an artistic sense, are seeded. Which is partly to say, Gabe feels like not only an important book but a profoundly morally engaged one, precisely because of the buttons it pushes, the awkward questions it gives rise to around complicity and responsibility and the moment when something difficult and disquieting can also be engrossing and arousing.
I'm looking at Nick Haymes looking at Gabe Nevins lying naked in the bath, and I'm looking at Gabe Nevins looking back, through Nick Haymes to me, and I'm thinking, as usual, about audiences.
* * *
As I sit down to write this next section, the great Phelim McDermott tweets a quote from the also-great Maurice Sendak: "I refuse to lie to children."
It's the kind of statement that feels familiar from the process of making Monkey Bars, when it was often very hard to tell the difference between what was a radical insight and what was merely a sentimental gesture. (Like most people whose views would place them at an 'extreme' end of the normative political axis, I'm a deeply and incorrigibly sentimental person, who not only cries at the Peter Gabriel song from Babe: Pig in the City, but is actually crudely proud of that fact.) Which is it this time? I'm not sure. Those two categories, the radical and the sentimental, are not always easy to distinguish at all when we talk about children, and especially when -- as Sendak does here -- we're not actually talking about children at all, but using children as a point of reference for talking (approvingly) about ourselves. (I don't mean that entirely snarkily and it shouldn't be taken as denigratory of Sendak as an exceptionally eloquent artist in his dealings with children's wants and needs.)
One of the reasons we (culturally) treat children so badly is that doing so helps us keep them from developing detailed and complex relationships with other people in the context of our own shared imaginary. By seeking to suppress (or, much the same, to ignore) what about them is at odds with, or at an oblique angle relative to, the smoothest operations of our social mechanisms, we make them much more available as receivers, not only of our authoritarian and pedagogical cravings, but of our emotional projections: they become the wandering wireless prostheses that absorb and caddie our adult shame and doubt and fear. All the time, we are running these washed-out home movies in our heads about the creatures they are and the creatures we once were, and children -- not necessarily our children, but other people's children, the children that don't immediately belong to someone else when we think about them -- are set to work as screens.
For that reason it makes perfect sense that when we first encounter the children in Boris Charmatz's enfant -- which, let's say this now, is one of the half-dozen best pieces of theatre I've ever seen -- they are asleep, or of course they are acting being-asleep. Adult dancers move the 'sleeping' children's bodies in a range of ways nearly all of which seem strangely in loco parentis: there is tenderness (or there are the shapes of tenderness); there is game-playing, flying and whirling, a trackless rollercoaster for each of these kids to swoop through, the teasing quality of falling and looping and abrupt arrest; there is what reads as pride, exaltation. Perhaps that last feeling, especially, because we are not used to seeing children manipulated in this way by people other than their parents or their close relatives. Only blood ties, in the way we live now, here, normally permit this sort of access to a child's body; perhaps, occasionally, you might see these games in a professional therapeutic context. I have never seen anything like it on stage and it is electrically shocking whilst at the same time being the most unshocking of partnerships: a relation of self-evidence is what I think I'm watching. As in, when you see a show and you think, and feel: well, but, of course.
That knife-edge between the radical and the sentimental obviously has to do with the notion of authenticity, which makes theatre thinkers' and critical theorists' heads explode. (No, but really: whisper that word to someone who's paid a living wage to think about performance, in any context, and you'll find you're suddenly in the almighty midst of an early Cronenberg film.) The lay-person's (or non-exploder's) sense of authenticity is often about the idea that whatever is underneath is more real than whatever covers it: that there is a striptease of dissembling to be imagined, at the bottom of which is the substance of honest unmediated realness: and everyone wants to get at that core, to have the password. Who is the child underneath? Some Pears' soap paragon of innocence? Or a feral child waiting to pounce and rip the head off a blackbird? Is it Terry Scott's brother under there? Some prototypical Jack from Lord of the Flies? As a kid myself I watched a television documentary about Summerhill, the radical Suffolk boarding school, and had a powerfully intense erotic reaction to a sequence showing the pupils swimming naked together; twenty years later it was dismal to read A.S. Neill's account of Summerhill and to come across his insistence that there was essentially no homosexual behaviour at the school because homosexuality was a sign of something having gone wrong in the emotional life of the individual, and in the emotional lives of children raised the Summerhill way, nothing could or would go so badly wrong as that.
But "sometimes when the wrappings fall / There's nothing underneath at all", Sondheim reminds us (in the song "Ah! But Underneath", that he introduced into Follies -- tellingly -- for its first British production), and that notion of peeling away the layers in order to get at the true instinctive energies of the child is, again, the reverse of what it appears to be: it springs from the will to name and stabilise the undefined person in the ideological image of -- or, quite often, the vampiric salvation of -- the adult who is doing the peeling: the guilt-ridden shall have their innocents, the sheep shall have their wolves.
I didn't realise I thought this until I did an interview in support of Inifinite Lives last week and it occurred to me how much capitalism has supplanted (or, at least, overwritten) the idea of original sin. Children now are born into a parlous despondency, a dire entanglement of complicity and planetary doom. (Hello! Try the waffles.) Innocence has nothing to do with what you choose or don't choose: it doesn't matter how many 'Not In My Name' badges I wear -- the circumstances under which the coat to which I pin them was manufactured are contrived quite precisely in my name and in the name of whoever is baptised tomorrow in my country. (Cue pic of poor Brazilian factory workers making Guy Fawkes masks for Anonymous western vanities to frig themselves silly with.) The stories that we tell about the innocence or otherwise of little children are stories about us, not them.
So we look back at the Sadler's Wells stage on which we see a complex picture -- that is, an actually social picture -- that in some quarters, perhaps most quarters now, would seem nightmarish: a picture of adults touching children to whom they have no blood tie, touching them carefully but unstintingly, without reservation, without anxiety, coming near sometimes to the boundaries of what would seem physically 'safe'; more vertiginously still, a picture of children letting themselves be touched. The thought rushes in: on whose authority do they -- the apparently willing children -- do this? But let me straight away put this question more carefully. We can imagine the framework of consent that formally permits this project to take place on a major stage in London or Avignon, the provisions and contracts and systems that have to be in place, the statutory obligations and formal assurances and informal promises: all of which, presumably, is designed to support a process in the middle of which, these young children's parents or guardians say: OK, fine, let's do it. And I'm sure in almost every case, though perhaps to different degrees, the children are involved in those conversations. Everyone is very careful to make sure they aren't asked to do anything they don't want to do.
But where and how do the desires of these children register, when we so systematically exclude them from the adult-patrolled matrices of consent? I should say right away without further ado that the sensualities and intimacies of enfant seem never to read as sexual -- though presumably, as with any performance, other viewers may produce other readings, especially when such a turbulent pressure of anxiety surrounds the imagery; towards the end, when many of the adult dancers are half-naked and some of the children have started tearing off their own clothes, it is not hard to feel the pulse of the room racing a little. I feel like I saw there a picture of (things like) 'joy' and 'liberation': but I also wondered what it would be like to be sitting in that auditorium next to someone like Hakim Bey, the brilliantly provocative anarchist philosopher whose work on 'temporary autonomous zones' (building on research around 'pirate Utopias') has hugely informed my own anarchism and my ideas of (things like) 'joy' and 'liberation', and part of whose anarchism has saliently, and of course controversially, been expressed in his unrelenting advocacy of legally unrestrained sexual contact between adults and children. It was not a stretch to imagine him profoundly identifying with the space of encounter and play towards which enfant grows. I couldn't decide whether, if enfant were an event occurring spontaneously in the park down the road from my house, some concerned pillar of the community wouldn't call the police.
At least part of Bey's (admittedly self-justifying, but aren't we all?) position on the question of children, sex and consent is focused on what is -- by any measure -- the obviously hypocritical basis of the prohibition: parents and teachers routinely tell children that they should under no circumstances allow a grown-up to tell them what to do with their body, and of course in doing so they assume their own exemption from the warning. Perhaps my hatred for this position depends on my not being a parent myself (so I couldn't possibly understand, etc. -- the absolute privilege of blood ties, again); perhaps it has something to do with my queerness; if so, I think what underscores and motivates that position of queerness is the feeling of sexual dissidence I've always had, since I was a child the age of some of the older kids in enfant, simply because I was, at that age, more sexually active, and more intensely and hungrily sexually exploratory, than at almost any point in my adult life; but being discovered by adults a time or two in flagrante, and being punished or made to feel ashamed or given the silent treatment, and not having anyone I could talk to about what I felt and what I wanted and what might or might not have been safe or appropriate or OK about those feelings and the behaviours that arose out of them, became hugely and in some ways disastrously formative for me as I became some fucking sort of fucking adult, whatever the fuck I am. I feel sorry now for the kid I was at that age, because I was incredibly full of a radiantly honest desire that could not be acknowledged by anyone, hardly even myself; that could not register within a language-structure or a performative terrain of 'consent' because there was a blanket abnegation where that conversation might have lived.
So when I watch the little girl who strips off her t-shirt and her shoes near the end of enfant and rampages around in her shorts, the complicatedness of that action is very resonant. What are the parameters of that action, how authored is it, how predictable is it, how was it arrived at?, etc. Again this is not to cast any kind of opprobrium on enfant but rather to celebrate its complexity and to attach to that complexity some act of witnessing, some way of saying that I instinctively trust my not-knowing, my adult doubt and anxiety. enfant testifies very beautifully on my behalf as the nine-year-old I was: it takes the complexity of my infantile desire and the social problem it represented (and still represents, far more now than it would have done in the early 1980s) and translates it into the generative problems within the impeccably elegant, formally meticulous structure of Boris Charmatz's piece. It too seems to reject the technology of consent as too crude; it requires a genuinely ethical engagement that is alive with the turbulence of contingency and the specific needs and desires of two dozen people on stage, half of whom need a special kind of carefulness around them because they are children, and the other half of whom need a different kind of carefulness -- perhaps not very different -- because, poor fuckers, they are adults.
It matters very much that as enfant proceeds, the tables turn, not just once but many times. For a while the children have the upper hand, it is they who control and manipulate while the adults are passive sleepyheads. Towards the end, as a lone piper traverses the stage, the adults and children follow him together, partners in Hamelin-like thrall. More and more, the stage looks simply like a place where these kids and grown-ups can live together, comfortable in their skin, and my overriding response is a kind of enviousness.
Boris Charmatz / Musee de la danse, enfant (2011)
I keep thinking back -- during the performance, I mean, but also since then -- to working on Albemarle in Leeds last November. On day one with the dancers, the astonishing Akeim Buck led us all through an exercise which felt as close as I've ever come to hypnotic regression: it created a space in which to re-enter the radiant intensities and physical impulses of childhood. My body's never been so utterly ready for anything in my whole adult life -- not since, at the age of nine or ten, it was drummed in to me through every conceivable channel that what my body wanted was almost certainly wrong, and perverse, and would make my mother cry. At the age of forty, and not far off clinically obese, and anyway as someone who can count on the thumbs of a pair of oven-gloves the number of times I've danced in public, on this morning I ran and jumped and skipped around that rehearsal room with a hunger that amazed me as soon as the exercise was over. I hooted and screamed and laughed with all my breath. I lay down on the floor and could almost feel the grass tickling my nose, the ladybirds on my fingers, the smell of dirt and dew. I pulled off my socks as urgently as if they had been designed specifically to torture me. Only a few days before, working on the same project in London, I'd written a long account aiming to piece together how I came to feel, as an adult, that I didn't like, or trust, or want, my body. I wrote everything down I could remember, and arranged it chronologically. All the things that happened before I was eighteen. All the stuff about school and sport and masculinity and rough-and-tumble; all the stuff about food, about how at home we communicated with each other through food (sugar, especially), as a way of not having to ever say 'I love you' to anyone; all the stuff about sex and nudity and desire and guilt and the deep shock of queer shame that I felt might destroy my home and my security with one wrong move. Most of all of that before I was even at secondary school. By then it was just playing out the logics that were already crammed into my bewildered mind.
And so enfant sings to me as a show about co-operative anarchy versus capitalist subjugation and injustice; a show suffused with and powered by erotic sensuality, that accepts that children experience those feelings too, but respects perfectly that they experience those feelings as children and in a way that isn't about who we are, virtuously or otherwise, as adults, and that isn't for us even if it's near us, and that if we see it for what it is we could even choose not to be afraid of it any more; and above all, a show that does exactly what I now want theatre to do -- and, I suspect, now want theatre to do precisely because of who I was when I was nine and how the fucking wretched damage done to that nine-year-old kid still re-explodes inside me every fucking day, one way or another -- in opening up a constructed space in which we can imagine other ways to live together, and make a start on doing exactly that living, in the knowledge that that theatrical space is no more or less constructed than the lethally violent and self-denying space of capitalism and patriarchy that we re-inflict on ourselves with almost our every action.
Weirdly (when you see it), enfant starts not with children at all but with the floppily passive (or, as per The Meaning of Liff: 'Gallipoli') bodies of 'sleeping' adults being moved around by a big machine, a giant mechanical robot arm that dances its not-quite-stupid motions a bit like the cranes over the east London skyline in Charles Atlas's Hail the New Puritan. As a thick industrial rope-like thread is unpicked by the machine, adult dancers are hauled onto the stage, lifted, moved about, caused nearly to collide. Their dignity is nowhere, and they are beautiful and absurd. Looking back: is this: children are to adults as adults are to machines? Neither in control nor out of control, but yielding to a tyranny that promises love in return for acquiescence? It is not without its appeal, God knows, when we're dry and nothing makes sense. But those final rampages, at the other end of the show, those chaotic groups of adults and children, dancing and playing and swooping and forging a liveable togetherness out of their liking for each other's irrepressible energy and uncoverable skin: that movement feels like sweet and hard-won victory: totally radical and brutally sentimental, and not, for precisely fuck's sake, to be fucked with.
Yeah so I'm watching enfant and I'm thinking about the liveability, or otherwise, of my life.
* * *
There's a poem I wrote years and years ago which has a line in it that even I don't quite understand, though it rotates in my head sometimes like a 3D screensaver. It says: "What we let go is how we know we're here."
On my last day in Bristol I trudge up Park Street (where George's Booksellers and Rayners Records used to be) and along Queen's Road (where, as a young lad, I'd be taken to Maggs' Department Store for an end-of-term chocolate milkshake to celebrate doing well in my exams) to the RWA (where I first saw "modern art" with my own eyes: a Sidney Nolan retrospective that, even though I didn't like the work very much, somehow snagged in my mind and made me aware of how some art might have a very peculiar angle of incidence, just as some children do).
I was interested to take a look at a group show called 'Oneself as Another', which centred itself promisingly on an idea of alternative portraiture, an eagerness to present and examine what might normally be thought of as 'imperfection' as it relates to the paradigms by which we tend to judge ourselves and others, even if we do so in what we might hope was an informed and enlightened way. It turned out to be a slightly underpowered show in relation to its thesis but there was much to enjoy and admire. I liked Johan Andersson's large-scale oil portraits of people with facial disfigurements, and their peppy dialogue with Wanda Bernardino's smaller oil studies in which she recreates figures from historic paintings and then obliterates their faces altogether, and with Tom Butler's 'Cabinet of Curiosity' series, in which he directly intervenes to modify the images on vintage portrait photographs and postcards, conjuring new weird identities for these figures through the imposition of masks or distortions or out-of-joint hairdos -- a pastime that brought to mind some of the quiet sci-fi-like mutations wrought by John Stezaker in his brilliant collage works.
|Wanda Bernardino, 'Strangers to Ourselves [Study]' (2011)
oil on paper, 20.5x18cm
The show, though, is dominated by a photo-installation by Ione Rucquoi, called 'Sanctae - A Portrait of Secular Saints'. The work comprises twenty-one c-type prints, arranged in a semicircle around the viewer, each depicting a naked woman rendered as a haloed saint. Each of these bodies is distinct -- I mean unique, of course, anyway, but also marked somehow. There are scars and bandages, masks and fascinators, signs and fetishes. The marks tell silent but eloquent stories of motherhood, transition, injury, loss; some are immediately comprehensible, even shockingly so, while others seem to carry a symbolic freight that might be private to the subject and the artist, or to refer to quite particular cultural narratives that I, as a gay white European male, haven't (taken the trouble to) come across before.
Two things, two fronts, for me, collide, interestingly and confusingly. One is that, after many years of insisting on materialities and nothing (or little) but, I have in the past few months started feeling differently about ways in which we set some space apart, we circumscribe it and call it 'sacred', for instance, or we frame certain constructed behaviours as 'ritual'. I've never had any use for these modes, really, until now. I'm still not sure I have much use for them. But I can tell that they're speaking to me. There's something about stepping out of oneself in order to be more present, more productive: it's exactly not about transcendence, which has always been (and still is) the manoeuvre I'm particularly anxious about: it's about being in a more elaborately complicated here in order to get something specific done that needs us first to adjust our gaze. It is not -- despite some of what I've just written -- a realm of woolly thinking and mumbo-jumbo. It's as simple as: when we did our week on The Witch of Edmonton at the NT Studio last summer I cut my hair and painted my nails because I felt that I needed a slightly different 'me' to show up to work, in order to be able to hold open a slightly different 'here' for everyone to inhabit. (Boy oh fuckity boy did that ever work.) Which in turn is not very different from: when I toured in The Author, the idea was that we'd rock up for the show in whatever clothes we happened to be wearing that day, and perform just like that; but I always felt I needed to change my shoes -- partly because I think I think differently depending on what shoes I'm wearing (and yes you may henceforth call me Dame Judi), but partly because that tiny chink of a liminal transition made a palpable difference to how I interpreted my own vulnerability on the inside of that play's devastating system. And now I think perhaps changing from a pair of Vans to a pair of Converse ten minutes before the house opens is not all that different, at least categorically, from drawing a pentagram on the floor in chalk and asking everyone to wear garments made out of still-warm deerskin.
The other thing that felt weighty in that space was my awarness of myself as a cisgendered man. No, I suppose it is not an unusual experience for a man to stand in a gallery space and be bounteously surrounded by images of naked (or nude) women. But this is a single work, authored by a female artist in collaboration with 21 female subjects, and seeking both to contemplate and to testify from a range of experiences that are first and foremost distinctively female, to do with female reproductivity, female ageing, the female body. I think Rucquoi's installation is very beautiful, and very candid, in a way that is at once painful and pain-relieving. But I find in its midst I have a difficult critical question for myself that has to do with stance. Where do I stand in relation to these images? It is an unusual experience for a man, perhaps, to confront art that is not at least implicitly for you and about you. This work is accessible to me, it doesn't turn away from me, it has nothing to hide from me, but it respectfully presents a complex set of truths with which, in the moment of viewing, I don't feel I already have an adequate or articulate sense of relation. This is a state I associate with worthwhile art. But I don't often feel so personally, corporeally present, and so gendered in my presence, when I bring myself to art of that kind. I wonder -- only because I could use the control version in my head -- what it would be like to stand before a semicircle of 21 images of self-identifying queer or gay men, placing before me their testimony about some ideas that maybe I would more intimately recognize and share, about queer bodies and queer autobiographies, that particular vocabulary of scars and inscriptions. At the very outset of even posing myself the question, I crumple. I feel myself collapse inside, too sad, too grateful. I can't tell if this is the beginning, or the end, of empathy.
A few days later, Jonny writes (beautifully) to say, among other things, that he increasingly feels that all we can do in art is to speak as accurately as we can to our own experience, and not to seek to speak or make claims on behalf of others, or of some specious 'us' or 'we'. I know what he means; and I know his point of departure is one of wishing to minimize harm, and I guess where I am with that right now is that I trust it when I say it and I don't really trust it when anyone else says it -- which maybe goes some way to proving its validity or at least its viability as a position. But I know that sometimes -- often -- and not only in theatre -- I experience an 'us' -- or many different constructions of 'us' -- very keenly and dearly and compellingly: and if I can't speak with the voice of that 'us', I can point to the ways in which that 'us' is a necessary, a crucial, part of my individual freedom: a liberty that means nothing until it is partly given away. Until it becomes a gift held out towards others, for them to take.
Meanwhile in a space somehow (for me at least) conceptually adjacent to this, the Daily Mail has grabbed some coverage and some larded indignation by reprinting as 'new' (they're nothing of the sort) certain claims about how Harriet Harman and other senior (or once-senior) Labour figures may, during their involvement with the National Council for Civil Liberties (the pressure group now known as Liberty) in the mid/late 1970s, have engaged in advocacy on behalf of or in proximity to a now notorious (& defunct) grassroots organization called the Paedophile Information Exchange. Ed Miliband and Harman herself have today both issued denunciations and rebuttals of the story -- as well they might, if it's untrue; Harman calls it a politically motivated smear campaign, which I suspect tends to underestimate the extent to which the Mail likes any sort of story that allows them 'legitimately' to use phrases like "sex with children" which, of course, remain irrepressibly popular internet search terms. It's taken several attempts in different forums over several years to really make the Harman/PIE story break big -- I certainly first read about it at least five years ago -- and I guess the much greater volume of noise around it now is some sort of index of how steeply attitudes have changed, not just in the last forty years, but in the last five or ten. Certainly during that 1970s period the Paedophile Information Exchange was by no means universally seen as being beyond the pale, for all that most people might want to distance themselves emphatically from its activities and its programme. As is often observed, defending the liberty and the freedom of speech of people we agree with is not difficult; it's those by whom we, and the normativities on which we suppose ourselves to depend, are most threatened and disturbed who most need support -- specialist, if not wide, support -- in preserving their right to pursue unpopular agendas. It's been obvious in relation to Savile and Operation Yewtree and other high-profile 'celebrity' sex abuse cases in recent months that cultural attitudes have greatly changed in my lifetime, and this can be acknowledged without in any way diminishing or obscuring the terrible distress and trauma experienced by victims of unwanted sexual contact who have lived in the shadow of those experiences for many decades since. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Cleveland child abuse 'scandal' in 1987 was a tipping point: you could feel it at the time, a quite sudden hardening of attitudes towards the idea of some people wanting to have sex with children -- an idea that previously had excited, broadly, a mixture of pity and jocularity -- that paedophiles were sad and inadequate individuals in the grip of an unfortunate compulsion, but an essentially naughty rather than evil one, something more like a peccadillo than a psychopathology. (A residue of which of course can still be discerned in the commodity operations of what you might call 'barely legal' culture, and the buzz of titillation around the age of consent as a threshold, a tradition now rigorously upheld by the Daily Mail's web site, as Harman has splendidly pointed out.) The relative merits of these various perspectives on paedophilia are not my topic here (though it's interesting to note how all of them have been applied, at different times in the past seventy years, to adult homosexuality), but it's worth drawing attention to how relatively recently it's become the case that people who are erotically oriented towards children are the last sexual minority it's OK to hate out loud and to want to castrate / incarcerate / string up -- it's only since the early 90s that paedophilia as an orientation has been widely seen as an inherent and unmitigable evil, let alone The Worst Thing In The World; throughout most of our cultural history this is not what we've thought -- and even if this present phase finds us at an apogee of enlightenment (which seems unlikely, if the Daily Mail are cheerleading it), it seems probable that we're not done talking about this, just as we've not finished science or solved politics.
It's easy to forget that, even in the midst of these orchestrated outbreaks of fortissimo hyperventilation, all over the world, people go to bed with each other and are glad of the company; they take off their clothes and feel somehow better without them; they trust and confide in each other, they touch each other with their bare hands, as part of a grateful negotiation, willingly and equitably and sometimes in a spirit of glad and defiant self-exposure. It sometimes seems that those stories, unfolding someplace off the grid of fearful and reductive commodity relations, love stories without proprietary trademarks and copyright notices, are among the least heard.
I talk more with my actor friend who was not too sure about getting naked on stage. He says he feels differently about it now. Having been in rehearsal with us now he's got a better understanding of the context in which it would happen; the care around it and beneath it as an actionable proposition. What he's responding to I suppose, and what Jonny maybe (and maybe for good reason) isn't in a position to see at the moment, is the ways in which the social art I, like many, hope to make creates space specifically in order to share it, or in order to give it away. It wants to introduce, in its temporary autonomous way, some kind of micro gift economy.
I haven't worked with the idea of gift nearly as much as certain other performance artists I know (& love) -- Rajni Shah, for example, or Tim Jeeves. But I do remember how I started to think about these questions. Normally I carry blank postcards around with me, on which to write bits of stimulus for actors -- single words to be combined with other words, or simple task instructions, or more poetic leaping-off points that require a degree of thoughtful interpretation or decoding. One evening in 1999 on my way to rehearsal I couldn't find blank postcards anywhere. I ended up buying some Christmas gift tags instead, in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall. They were gold-coloured and they said 'peace' on them in lowercase. (I'm sure I wouldn't buy them now. The last thing we need right now is peace.) Writing lyrical prompts and instructions inside gift tags seemed to change everything about those fragments of text, and everything about the responses of the actors who received them. We worked by candlelight, just to create some atmosphere in that old church hall. Warm light, a warm room; warm bodies. Some people took off some of their clothes; I think I suggested that maybe but I don't think I asked for it and anyway I didn't think anyone would.
I thought the exercise would be a twenty-minute warm-up; in the event it took up the first two hours of our three hour rehearsal. The gift tag prompts became an open invitation, by which I suppose I mean the actors used the cryptic stimulus as license to open up -- to each other, to the situation, to that particular temporary quality of light and heat -- not least what Tim Miller calls "the heat of affiliation". It was tender and thoughtful; erotic, perhaps, in a shimmering way, but as fundamentally safe as anywhere can ever be where change is happening. Somewhere in here, I thought, looking around -- as I so often think, working in theatre with the bravest and kindest of actors -- is how I want to live. Somewhere in here is the other place.
I'm looking around at that rehearsal room, and I'm thinking about you.