Wednesday, 30 July 2008

material imagination


"Direct images of matter. Vision names them, but the hand knows them. A dynamic joy touches them, kneads them, makes them lighter. One dreams these images of matter substantially, intimately, rejecting forms—perishable forms—and vain images, the becoming of surfaces. They have weight, they are a heart” (Gaston Bachelard)

In a cavernous iron warehouse at the back of the old Brunswick brickworks, behind the vertiginous chimneys of the kilns and the blackened skeletons of derelict machinery, an island of moist white sand floats in a sea of powdery grey brickdust and rubble. Prefiguring its future performance space in the city, the rehearsal space for To Run—Sand has been installed in the bowels of an abandoned industrial workplace—a site still palpably ghosted by its former function, and by those that worked and sweated and dreamed there. The only sounds now are the muffled wingbeats and cucurucus of pigeons far overhead. Until the digging starts.

Every session begins with digging. The island of sand, both setting and generative source for this dance-theatre performance, is on the move again. The impact of footfalls and bodies disperses the sand, it flows outwards, a slo-mo crystalline liquid. We rebuild two mounds, one as conical as a Hokusai Fuji, the other slightly flattened, volcanic. Our digging is punctuated with jokes about (im)possible careers with Vicroads. The remaining sand is raked, and the rehearsal begins.

Heraclitus suggested that one could never bathe in the same river twice; similarly, every time the performers return to the sand its reality shifts, literally and metaphorically. It possesses the pulsional mutability and discontinuity Gaston Bachelard called “intimate immensity”. At moments it suggests a pocket of coastal dune or beach, a lovers’ retreat, a children’s playground, or an island of enchantment and imprisonment, like Prospero’s; at others, it becomes battlefield, labour camp, post-industrial wasteland, mountain range, moonscape—or desert, that core postmodern metaphor for the nomadic and the dis/appearing. And it is the fluidity of the sand’s topographic referentiality that allows the performers (and those watching them) a remarkable associational freedom in narratives enacted and images inhabited.

Material is generated primarily through games, tasks, structured improvisations and free play; once Alison has set up an activity, she rarely intervenes. Images cluster around primordial transformations of status in the flux of inter-relations: playing, working, running, fighting, falling, burying, birthing. The three performers are developing quite different relationships with the sand, each one contradictory and polyvalent. And it is the materiality of these relationships that generates narratives, images and ‘characters’. Today Evelyn’s actions suggest elegant entrapment, a kind of perky buoyancy against all the odds, like Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days. Adrian is both ever playful and consumed by reverie, encumbered by the gravity of possibility; with the smile of Sisyphus, he moulds his desires and memories in the sand. Yumi is explosive, she leaps and digs with an energy that irradiates far beyond the outer edge of the sand—but her contact with it is consistently light, she touches and brushes with quiet patience and focus.

In many ways, the group’s recognition of the sand’s active role as trigger and co-performer celebrates Bachelard’s “material imagination”, which, “going beyond the attractions of the imagination of forms, thinks matter, dreams in it, lives in it, or, in other words, materialises the imaginary”. In Bachelard’s phenomenological poetics of the elements, matter (“the unconscious of form”, the “mother-substance” of dreams) reverberates to become “the mirror of our energy”, producing images “incapable of repose”.

In rehearsal the sand becomes a register of the actions and emotions that it has elicited from the performers; it mirrors their energy. Intimate, substantial afterimages of what was are retained within what is, although these trace impressions of the contours and gravities of presences-now-absent are always temporary, fleeting. Like memories, like identities, the marks in the sand are continuously overwritten or partially erased. But in the materiality of the instant, for those that work and sweat and dream there, they have weight, they are a heart.


To Run—Sand, by Alison Halit, was performed by Adrian Nunes, Evelyn Switajewski and Yumi Umiumare at the Economiser Building, Spencer Street Power Station, Melbourne, April-May 1997. Article originally published in RealTime issue #18, April-May 1997, p. 33. Photo: Brad Hick (Evelyn Switajewski in rehearsal)

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

not ours anymore

For the first time in the ten years that I have lived in Devon, this summer there have been swifts roosting under the roof of my house. Three pairs, I think. Imagine those small white eggs - up there. After a while, tiny cries from under the slates in the evenings. Soft scuffling in the ceiling above my desk. Then one evening we see an adult bird peel off from the shrieking hunting party to deliver food - the high-speed flight directly at the wall, the last-minute throwing back of its wings and head, and forward of its body, an air-brake to stall its momentum in the last few feet before the wall; and then the sudden plunging disappearance into the tiniest of gaps in the building. All of this in a flash. What a choreography. It looks like an outrageous parking manoeuvre in a black feathery sports car into an imperceptibly minute garage at 70 mph. We set up chairs on the grass below to watch these flashing disappearances and re-appearances: far better than TV (although an episode of The World's Ugliest Pets or Can Fat Teens Hunt? is weirdly tempting).

When the fledglings first leave the nest, they may not touch the earth again for several years ...

Imagine that initial drop-dive into the air, never having experienced the world 'out there' before. Take nothing with you. Just fall into the air, and within a micro-second somehow know how to fly. Imagine.

The common swift (apus apus). Every May I look forward to the arrival of the swifts from Africa, and when they finally appear I feel honoured, wide-eyed, lifted up - and at the same time clumsy, a gravity-bound blob. Hours spent in the evenings watching their intoxicating fly-pasts, neck straining in the dusk. Reckless energy, precision flying, joyous screams. Speed, intensity and exactitude. A swift is a genius at being a swift. It drinks and eats and mates and sometimes sleeps on the wing. It builds nests from feathers and fragments of dry grasses in the air, glueing them together in layers with its spit. It harvests insects like aerial plankton. It drifts and spirals effortlessly at unimaginable heights (up to 10,000 feet), then roars through the upper reaches of 'our world' like a tiny jet. Their experience of the topography of rooftops, telegraph poles, aerials and trees is so utterly different from any human sense of this village. How do they slow down perception to take in the mass of information coming at them? What is the function of their cries - territorial expression? in-flight communication and orientation? echolocation in relation to the complexity of the architectures they pass through? sonic blasts to stun or somehow confuse their prey? And what do they make of us humans on the ground, staring dumb-struck and bewildered at the sky, our eyes always too slow to see much more than the blur of their passage? Every year I'm deflated and humbled when they leave on their extraordinary journey.

Swifts remain deeply mysterious to us; there’s such a huge amount we don’t know about them. We do know the broad shape of their epic migratory odysseys to and from Southern Africa, above holiday destinations and chronic war zones and banks of gunmen and through dusty thermals, but we know almost nothing of the particulars of this magnetic trail. We know that they move clockwise around low-pressure systems in huge arcs of up to 1,200 miles. In England, they fly towards the unstable air at the rear of a depression, into the insect-rich, warm rising air as the front departs. Young birds roost on the wing, circling at high altitude through the night until dawn. It is thought that they don't touch ground to roost until their 4th year, remaining in flight throughout their early lives. We know that they can fly enormous distances, an estimated average of 500 miles a day; so a 20-year old swift will have flown more than 3.5 million miles ...

They are only here in England for about 16 weeks a year; and they have become an emblem of summer. ‘They’ve made it again, which means the globe’s still working’ (Ted Hughes).

Our most common encounter is as witnesses to their wild, high-speed displays and their screaming passes (part of what ornithologists call 'social screaming-parties'). That black sickle, sky-trawling flight silhouette that looks, in Edward Thomas’s words in his poem 'Haymaking', ‘as if the bow had flown off with the arrow’ …

"And here they are, here they are again
Erupting across yard stones

Shrapnel-scatter terror ...

They swat past, hard-fletched,

Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,

And are gone again …

Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy

And their whirling blades
sparkle out into blue – not ours any more” (Ted Hughes, ‘Swifts’)

And now it seems the young birds have left the loft of the house. They must have set off four or five days ago and we never saw them go. Too slow. I look for them in the sky, and listen. Lots of jackdaws and housemartins, but not a sign of the swifts. It's too early, surely, they're too young, too small, too fragile to leave - and it's not even the end of July. Did they somehow pick up a whiff of the change in the weather, days before the storm clouds rolled in? How did they conceive of what lies ahead? How could they conceive of it? How did they know when, and where, to go?

They must have been ready, but I'm not ...

© David Williams




Monday, 28 July 2008

season of glass


Walking down the hill through the middle of Totnes today, I encountered a stalled lorry blocking the road. It had obviously wheezed its way up most of the hill, and expired. The trailer read ASSORTED GLASS. As I passed by, I noticed a stream of milk pouring out of a gap under its rear doors, then trickling into the gutter. Gallons of it. A river of split milk coursing through Totnes. Like a long liquid finger tracing a luminous line through the traffic to the River Dart.



black-and-white
I have a photograph in front of me, taken from the interior of an unknown room in New York.

Through the window, the downtown city skyline is a faded grey blur in the middle distance, afternoon shadows there and not there. Could be a forest. Could be a water stain. Could be a mirage.

On the windowsill inside the room, much more imposing than the fugitive city, a glass of water, half empty or half full: a lens that quietly distorts the spectres in the distance.

Beside it, a pair of glasses balanced on the frame and arms, staring unseeing towards the viewer. The left-hand lens offers a perfectly focused miniature of the window sill’s rim and the skyline beyond, a tiny framed world. The right-hand lens is splashed with a dark liquid, an impenetrable blur like spilt paint. Or blood. An obstacle to seeing. One eye maimed, the left eye.

The photograph, called ‘Season of Glass’, was taken by Yoko Ono. The glasses were worn by John Lennon when he was shot. So. New York. Central Park. The Dakota Building. December 1980.

The memory of glass.
The glass of memory.

Everything is still.
Everything moves.


into sand
As fragile as a dragonfly’s wings, a reflection in water, a promise. As brittle as a web of caramel, a pencil tip, a confidence. As transparent as the blue soup of the sky, as silence. Can be fashioned through fire into any shape and size and colour: a tiny crimson chimera, an imposing gold wave, a shimmering periwinkle veil. Can be used to contain, to frame, to enlighten, to focus, to build, to decorate, to stimulate, to protect, to obstruct, to warn, to pierce, to cut. Can be broken by dropping, throwing, crushing, colliding, the shock of water too hot, water too cold, polishing, touching, the clumsy fingers of forgetting. If left for long enough, will eventually break down into particles of sand.


shatter
once there was a girl called shatter and she lived in a glass house full of glass things and she had learnt to be careful learnt the hard way to watch her step her hands her clothes her every move and she moved like a cat all balance and listening and aware and eyes-all-over and breathing stillness and her rhythms were tight and right and all was shiney and transparent and in its place

everything was glass glass cutlery glass plates glass bed (a hammock of glass fibres suspended between glass posts) glass bath glass doors glass walls glass plants glass books glass dust

there was glass music and glass sighs glass giggles and glass light glass tears and glass dreams

the windows were glass spheres that turned everything outside upside down and made it smaller

the ceilings were lenses that magnified the sky the clouds the stars and made them bigger

the floors were mirrors that reflected the sky

when the sun shone everything glistened and sparked and refracted and hummed and when the night came and the wind and the rain the house chinked and swayed and danced like slow water inside and out and shatter chinked and swayed and danced with it

one day a small crack appeared in the living room ceiling only small but getting bigger and then the sky split in two and then the crack forked and then there were three skies with black rivers separating them and shatter could only watch as they grew and grew and jump over their reflections in the floor

then when the night came and the wind and the rain all three dripped through the cracks and onto the floor until the room was knee-deep in night and wind and rain then chest deep and shatter had to navigate from room to room in her glass bath first paddling with a glass bed post then rigging her hammock as a sail as the storm picked up and the house clanked and staggered and moaned inside and out and shatter clanked and staggered and moaned with it

at dawn the night level dropped and the wind eased and shatter slept and dreamt she was leaking and drowning in her own watery flow dreamt she was dissolving liquefying dispersing disappearing and when she woke up she felt refreshed

sitting up she saw the bath was beached high on a glass cupboard the damp floor a network of dark lines and fissures the walls stained by the water the windows murky and blurred

like a cat she climbed down the shelves
like a cat she walked across the floor and out of the glass door

outside everything was less shiney, slightly larger and the right way up

it would take her a while to get used to it


© David Williams, April 2007

Sunday, 27 July 2008

animal acts 2: dogs

‘All knowledge, the totality of all questions and all answers, is contained in the dog’ (Kafka, 'Investigations of a Dog', 1922)

‘[A]nyone who likes cats or dogs is a fool’ (Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 1987)

Odysseus & Argus. Alexander the Great & Peritas. Sir Isaac Newton & Diamond. Descartes & Monsieur Grat. George Washington & Sweet Lips. George Armstrong Custer & Tuck (who also died at Little Big Horn). Napoleon Bonaparte & Fortuné, Josephine’s pug (whom he hated). Richard Wagner & Pepsel, Fipsel, Russumuck and Marke. Byron & Boatswain. Maurice Maeterlinck & Pelléas. Sigmund Freud & Wolf, Lun, Tattoun and Jofi. Abraham Lincoln & Honey, Jip and Fido. Herbert Hoover & King Tut. Emily Dickinson & Carlo. Thomas Mann & Bashan. Gertrude Stein & Basket. Dorothy Parker & Cliché. Eugene O’Neill & Blemie. Baron Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen (‘the Red Baron’) & Moritz. Theodore Roosevelt & Skip and Pete. Franklin Delano Roosevelt & Fala. Adolf Hitler (codename ‘Wolf’) & Blondi. Tintin & Milou. Dwight Eisenhower & Caacie. Calvin Coolidge & Peter Pan. Alfred Hitchcock & Sarah. JF Kennedy & Charlie. Lyndon Baines Johnson & Him, Her, Blanco and Yuki. Queen Elizabeth II & the corgis Buzz, Foxy, Heather and Tiny. Helen Keller & Kenzan-Go. Richard M Nixon & Checkers. Gerald Ford & Liberty. Ronald Regan & Lucky. George Bush Snr. & C. Fred and Millie. Bill Clinton & Buddie. William Wegman & Man Ray. Madonna & Chihuahua Chiquita. Nicole Brown Simpson & Akita.

Wolf. Coyote. Dingo. Tasmanian tiger. Fox. Domestic dog. Bow-wow. Woof-woof. Arf-arf (English/American). Wau-wau (German). Wung-wung (Chinese). Jau-jau (Spanish). Ouah-ouah (French). Hav-hav (Israeli).

The approximately 200 million sense receptors in a dog’s nasal folds. The British phenomenon of ‘black dog’ apparitions, large shapeshifting creatures variously named in different regions the ‘Barguest’, ‘Shuck’, ‘Black Shag’ ‘Trash’, ‘Skriker’ or ‘Padfoot’. The Brown Dog Riots in London’s Battersea in 1906. Pavlov’s dogs. The real wolf (and eagle) the Fascists installed at the top of the Capitoline Hill in Rome in the early 1930s. Dogs used as suicide bombers by the Russians in World War II. The ‘Parapups’, British canine paratroopers in World War II. Churchill’s ‘black dogs’ of depression. Seeing-eye guide dogs. Seizure alert dogs. Sniffer dogs. Dogs trained to detect the early stages of cancer cells in human urine. Draught and carting dogs. Sled dogs. Hunting dogs. Guard dogs. Performing dogs. Police dogs. Dog baiting. Attack dogs. Dogs as experimental laboratory research ‘subjects’. Vivisection dogs. Ventriculochordectomy, an operation to remove the vocal chords of laboratory animals. Laika, the understudy Soviet astronaut. The successful sequencing of the canine genome, using a poodle called Shadow. The dingo that killed Azaria Chamberlain at Uluru in Australia. Pet cemeteries. Labradoodles. Dog biscuit. Dog chocolates. Dog shit. Dog tired. The hair of the dog that bit you.

Cerberus, the three-headed dragon-tailed dog of the Greek underworld Hades. Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god. The monstrous cynocephalic Aztec god Xolótl, and Greek Orthodox representations of the dog-headed St. Christopher. The holy greyhound St. Guinefort. Kitmir in The Koran, the only animal allowed to enter paradise. Syrius and Procyon, the Dog-stars. Goya’s painting Perro enterrado en arena (‘Dog buried in sand’), only the dog’s head visible, its eyes raised towards a desolate sky. JMW Turner’s Dawn after the Wreck, with its lone dog barking out to sea. In the Tarot pack, the animated dog at the feet of the Fool, as he steps off a cliff while staring at the sky. The HMV trademark fox terrier, the inquisitive Nipper listening to ‘his master’s voice’ from beyond the grave, on a gramophone. Scraps in Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life. Toto in The Wizard of Oz. Lassie Come Home. Greyfriar’s Bobby. Pluto. Goofy. Rin Tin Tin. Deputy Dawg. The dachsund in Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle. Old Yeller. Bodger the Bull Terrier in The Incredible Journey. Snoopy. 101 Dalmatians. The bionic German shepherd Max in The Bionic Woman. Benji. Mike the Dog in Down and Out in Beverly Hills. The love-struck St. Bernard in the film Beethoven. Scooby-Doo. Karen Salmansohn’s self-help book How to Make your Man Behave in 21 Days or Less, Using the Secrets of Professional Dog Trainers. The greyhound Santa’s Little Helper in The Simpsons. Wallace’s companion Gromit. Talking farm dogs Fly and Rex in Babe. Oscar the Labrador who toured Britain as a hypnotist in 1995.

© David Williams

Friday, 25 July 2008

animal acts 1: horses


a flying and falling list

List. n. A border; a boundary (obs.); a destination (Shake.). A catalogue, roll or enumeration. Desire; inclination; choice; heeling over.

W
hen suddenly Johnny gets the feeling he's being surrounded
by
horses, horses, horses, horses coming in in all directions
white shining silver studs with their nose in flames

He saw horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses.

Do you know how to pony like bony maroney

Do you know how to twist, well it goes like this, it goes like this ...
(Patti Smith, Land/Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances)

Pegasus, the Vedic gandharvas and the five kinds of Chinese celestial flying horses. Centaurs, ichthyocentaurs (centaur-fish), hippogriffs and sea-horses. Alexander the Great and Bucephalus, El Cid and Babieca, Napoleon and Marengo, Roy Rogers and Trigger. Mr Ed.

The nomadic horseback warriors of Scythians, Mongols, Tartars and Huns. The centrality of horses to the Islamic prophet Mohammed’s Jihad. The ‘wind-drinkers’ of the crusades. The fifteen horses Cortés took to the New World in 1519. The ‘iron horse’. The Suffragette Derby Day suicide. The twenty ponies who accompanied Scott on his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1911. The estimated 375,000 British horses killed in the First World War. The game of buzkashi played by Afghan tribesmen. The padded mounts of picadors in the corrida. Red Rum opening shopping centres.

The privileged roles ascribed to horses in Siberian, Korean and American Indian shamanism. Ocyrrhoe’s becoming-horse in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Jonathan Swift’s equine Houyhnhnms and human Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels.

The Italian trainer Grisone, author of one of the 16th century’s most influential equestrian treatises, Gli Ordini di Cavalcare, who recommended persuading a ‘nappy’ horse to go forward by tying flaming straw, a live cat or a hedgehog beneath the horses’s tail. The ‘Horse Latitudes’ and the Gulfo de Yeguas (‘Gulf of Mares’), areas of the Atlantic Ocean so named because of the numbers of horses who died and were thrown overboard during early crossings from Europe to the New World. The apocryphal terror of the Aztecs when one of Pizarro’s riders fell from his horse; it is said the Aztecs had believed rider and horse to comprise one indivisible creature.

The four horsemen of the apocalypse in the Book of Revelation: conquest, war, pestilence and death. 'And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder. One of the four beasts saying: "Come and see". And I saw. And behold a white horse' (Johnny Cash, When the Man Comes Around).

Mr Green’s ‘equestrian balloon ascents’ in mid-19th century London, astride his favorite pony.

Théodore Géricault’s death from a horse fall. The flogged horses who (appear to have) triggered psychological crises in Nietzsche and Little Hans. King and Queen, turn of the century ‘diving horses’ who performed 10 metre, head-first drops into a lake at Captain Boynton’s Coney Island ‘pleasure grounds’. Jerry Brown, Cocaine, Kilroy: three of Hollywood’s best-known ‘falling horses’, all winners of the Craven Award for ‘humanely trained’ animal stunt performers. The dead white horse suspended from the raised Leningrad bridge, then dropped into the river, in Eisenstein’s October. The horse who s/tumbles down a flight of stairs in Tarkovsky’s Andrey Rublev. Maurizio Cattelan’s dead chestnut horse spinning slowly above the heads of gallery-goers, its spine arched unnaturally around the harness support under its midriff - like those horses shipped live from England to the abattoirs of France, for human consumption.

The direct descent of all thoroughbreds in the modern world from one of four Arab stallions brought to England in the early part of the 18th century: the Darley, Byerley, Godolphin and Helmsley Arabians.

The New Zealand stallion Sir Tristram’s ritual burial, with his tail pointing to the rising sun. The continuing struggle over Phar Lap’s remains. The disappearance of Shergar. The White Horse of Uffington. The silver brumby.

The equine chronophotography of Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadward Muybridge. Byron’s Mazeppa. The Misfits. A Man Called Horse. Jean-Louis Barrault’s centaur in Around a Mother, as described by Artaud. Joseph Beuys’s ‘shamanic action’ with a white horse in Iphigenia/Titus. Bartabas and Zingaro. Lucy Gunning’s video work The Horse Impressionists. Forced Entertainment’s panto horse. Monty Roberts, the ‘horse whisperer’ ...

Horses and/as fertility, divinity, warfare, prestige, commodity, the instinctive, the irrational, an elemental force, the apocalypse, the ‘natural’ and ’free’. Horses as ideograms of energy, life-fulness, speed, sexual drives, the disorderly. Explosive danger-fear-nightmare- madness. Abject ‘beastly’ suffering. Kinetic and energetic event.

© David Williams

Thursday, 24 July 2008

daniel

‘The work of hope: notes on Daniel Hit By A Train'

‘Health to you, and don’t forget that flowers, like hope, are harvested’
Subcommandante Marcos, Our Word is Our Weapon (2001)

For this new collaboratively devised work by Lone Twin Theatre, Daniel Hit By A Train, the second in a trilogy of narrative-based performances directed by Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters with the company of five performers, once again we started with material that seemed a little surprising for artists who have so often articulated their commitment to optimism and practices of hope. While the first performance Alice Bell (2006) was triggered in large part by the group’s process of sharing stories of displacement, separation and loss, for Daniel Hit By A Train we drew on a little-known 19th-century London memorial to people who lost their lives attempting to save others.

The ‘Watts Memorial of Heroic Deeds’, in Postman’s Park in the City of London, contains 53 plaques recording acts of impulsive bravery; and these became the focus of our improvisations, the lens through which we looked for forms, languages and rhythms. Taken together, the plaques comprise a catalogue of small disasters in the everyday, with momentous implications for the protagonists. Each plaque contains the bare bones of a story and of a collapsed, elliptical life: a name, a brief description of an action, a date. Some have the stark economy of an expressionist woodcut, for example: ‘THOMAS SIMPSON, DIED OF EXHAUSTION AFTER SAVING MANY LIVES FROM THE BREAKING ICE AT HIGHGATE POND, JAN 25 1885’. Others are small songs of impetuous selflessness; a few are disarmingly comic. Each of these cryptic fragments endeavours to remember the forgotten and to honour the attempt to intervene. And perhaps that’s one link with hope, and with Lone Twin’s work; they have consistently tried to honour the attempt.

Collectively these texts constitute a list, a form that Lone Twin has mined repeatedly and inventively over the past 11 years. The list as conjunction without continuity, as provisional and partial map hinting at lives and worlds, a kind of ruptured and unfinishable historiography that traces the contours and feels of lives and worlds. The list as resonant debris of the everyday, residual particles of the storm from paradise as we edge backwards into the future, like the ‘angel of history’. The Postman’s Park texts are in some ways reminiscent of other cumulative, serial texts that deal with everyday catastrophes – the anarchist Félix Fénéon’s remarkable Novels in Three Lines, for example, or the snatches of Berliners’ thoughts overheard by the angels in Wim Wenders/Peter Handke’s Wings of Desire. There are connections too with Andy Warhol’s obsessive engagement with the iconography and instruments of mortality in his Death and Disaster series. Perhaps above all I am reminded of a much-discussed passage in Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, a book awash with drownings, near-drownings and savings from the murky waters of the Thames. A much disliked character, Riderhood, is plucked unconscious from the river, then laid out in a nearby pub. “No one has the least regard for the man”, Dickens wrote, “with them all, he has been the object of avoidance, suspicion and aversion: but the spark of life within him is curiously separable from himself now, and they have a deep interest in it, probably because it is life, and they are living and must die”. In this way, Dickens suggests the mysterious allure of the ‘Life’ in life - life itself, beyond the particular individual – and his perception generates a complex, grained hope.

Lone Twin Theatre’s approach, however, combines a compassionate regard for the bottom-line human predicaments in these tragic stories, with a recognition that the most telling forms of respect and re-membering are often irreverent. True seriousness admits laughter and contradiction, and the task is to track the ‘Life’ in life to its lair, even in death. As a company, we have found some background stimulus in this regard in the forms and irreverent idioms of the medieval mystery play, the ‘dance-of-death’, the carnival procession, music hall, the village play, and other structures of popular community event. Memory in such contexts is the domain of hopeful and playful re-invention, rather than melancholy; irreverence is a sign of creative curiosity and experimental re-working. The rehearsing of 53 deaths here both admits to the fragility and contingency of human life, and celebrates our capacity to create multiple, temporary and provisional lives and worlds, and to share stories about them. So, theatre itself as a practice of hope.

In The Principle of Hope (1959), Ernst Bloch suggested that: ‘The work of hope requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong’. What is the nature of the impulse to act at the moment of catastrophic accident? What drives someone into the fire, the path of the train or runaway horse, the sinking ship, the toxic pit, the sea/canal/pond/lake/river? What is at play in this instinctive self-forgetting? The triggers for action remain unknowable here. This list’s reiteration of selfless, active intervention and failure suggests something fundamental is at work here, another ‘story’ we hadn’t bargained for - and I’m not referring to some clumsily Freudian realisation of a suppressed ‘death drive’: quite the opposite. Some people seem to experience an unconscious compassion in the face of vulnerability and distress, a recognition that overrides conscious self-preservation. There is hopefulness at the heart of this recognition, in the attentive openness to the ‘becoming to which they belong’ (and Bloch’s phrase might well characterise Lone Twin’s body of work as a duo, as well as the ensemble work of Lone Twin Theatre). Such hopefulness is not betrayed by contingency and failure. For in the work of hope something of life is affirmed even in the dying - as it is in theatre, that most mortal of forms, forever hovering at the cusp of appearance and disappearance.

In her book Hope in the Dark (2005), Rebecca Solnit outlines her own pedagogy of hope, with hope conceived proactively, as an ‘act of defiance’: “Hopefulness is risky, since it is after all a form of trust, trust in the unknown and the possible, even in discontinuity. To be hopeful is to take on a different persona, one that risks disappointment, betrayal …Hope is not about what we expect. It is an embrace of the essential unknowability of the world, of the breaks with the present, the surprises … Expect to be astonished, expect that we don’t know. And this is grounds to act”. Solnit’s credo is one that might be applied to Lone Twin Theatre’s two performances thus far, both the single narrative arc of Alice Bell and the proliferative accumulation of stories in Daniel Hit By A Train. For here is a social practice that seeks, playfully and defiantly, to rub up against the unknowable and the impossible, the mortality of things and their ghosts, in search of sparks of life and other unforeseeable surprises. And always, at the very least, to honour the attempt.

Programme notes for Lone Twin Theatre's Daniel Hit By a Train: premiered at the Brut im Künstlerhaus as part of the Vienna Festival (Wiener Festwochen), May 2008. Co-produced by Vienna Festival, ACE, British Council, Barbican/BITE, Leeds Met -
© David Williams
. Lone Twin Theatre is Gregg Whelan, Gary Winters, Kate Houlden, Guy Dartnell, Antoine Fraval, Paul Gazzola, Molly Haslund, Nina Tecklenburg, Cynthia Whelan and David Williams

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

alice

In recent years, I have worked as a dramaturg with old friends Gregg Whelan, Gary Winters and their company Lone Twin Theatre, on the creation of a trilogy of performances. Two of those performances now exist: Alice Bell, which has toured extensively throughout Europe since its Brussels premiere in 2006, and Daniel Hit By A Train (2008), which premiered earlier this year in Vienna and will tour the UK in the autumn. The third and final part of the trilogy will be premiered in the autumn of 2009. The following two posts (23 and 24 July 2009) are programme notes written for the tours of Alice and Daniel: fragmentary maps of processes I still haven't fully digested, but am happy to linger with ...
______________________________________________

‘A falling together of accomplices’: Notes on the making of Alice Bell

* A story is fashioned in the wake of events, this is central to how human beings synthesise the chaotic multiplicity of lived experience; an examined life is a life recounted, a ‘life-story’. And yet the telling itself can be an event in itself - the fashioning, staging and communicating of a world here now. This is what we dance around repeatedly and uncertainly, finding our way, then losing it again. ’How to get the real into the made-up? Ask me an easier one’ (Seamus Heaney).

* Looking back over Lone Twin’s performance work, it seems there are recurrent principles or propositions at play, and they have an unspoken matter for us in what we are trying to make here in Alice Bell. So, for example, in each Lone Twin performance something simple is made strange, unfamiliar or difficult, then worked through in order to reach a sense of accomplishment. Each work is an ‘act of folly’, and yet somehow hope-ful and joy-ful, a ‘labour of love’ as Barry Laing has described it. For every work is a structure to make contact with people and to seek their help. The invitation implicit in these practices of hope asks: walk with me, talk with me, dance with me, meet me, be my accomplice for a while, share this with me, it will help me. Love requires effort and an acceptance of vulnerability. Be here with me now. Maybe it will help you too. There is always the possibility of joy.

* I’ve been reading Richard Kearney’s On Stories (2002), and his articulation of an ethics of storytelling and of inter-subjective imagination is compelling in the face of those millennial anti-humanists who declared the ‘end of narrative’ (as well as of history and ideology). ‘The story is not confined to the mind of its author alone’, he writes. ‘Nor is it confined to the mind of its reader. Nor indeed to the action of its narrated actors. Every story is a play of at least three persons (author/actor/addressee) whose outcome is never final. That is why narrative is an open-ended invitation to ethical and political responsiveness. Storytelling invites us to become not just agents of our own lives, but narrators and readers as well. It shows us that the untold life is not worth living. There will always be someone there to say, “tell me a story”, and someone there to respond. Were this not so, we would no longer be fully human’.

* Graffiti seen today on Berlin walls: ‘I’d rather laugh, all day’. And: ’My mother taught me well, so I rebel’. Also, alongside a stencilled banana: ‘One glass of water illuminates the world’.

* The politics and ethics of collaboration – everything is at stake in how we meet, listen, respond, how we are there with and for each other. How to live with others, loving something of their difference, their elsewhere? How to make the friction of difference part of the grain of a collective articulation? And how to invent the conditions for invention? How to invite people and forms and languages to come into conjunction, creating the time and space for them to co-exist? How to care for what we inject into the collective bloodstream, and to enable it to reverberate in ways that are more than the sum of its parts? How to be responsible for this story of love, transformation, betrayal and forgiveness, and to wear it on our sleeves with compassion and generosity rather than nudge-nudging and winking through the lens of a world-weary cynicism?

* Gathered around a laptop in a stairwell in Berlin, the only place we find to pick up a wi-fi signal on a Sunday afternoon, we watch online videos of the Gillian Welch/David Rawlings band, and of Bruce Springsteen with the E Street Band. These serve as points of reference in terms of investment, attitude, energy, presence. Something is palpably at stake in the work of it. As Gregg says, something is ‘crucial’, it’s not just a relaxed good time. Something has to be made to happen, and we recognise the engagement, the quality of attention and of listening. And we root for them, just as we do for Tim and Dawn in the final episode of The Office (another point of reference here). ‘You have to step it up out of the familiar’, Gregg says, ‘you have to step up to the plate’.

* In Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, one of the central characters Patrick proposes a kind of dramaturgy of the band, where the interweavings of self and others within musical structures offer a model for dynamic, connective relations between the individual and the collective. Cornet, saxophone and drum ‘chased each other across solos and then suddenly fell together and rose within a chorus’. Patrick recognises how ‘each one of them was carried by the strength of something more than themselves’. Here the collaborative meeting place of the band is ‘perfect company, with an ending full of embraces after the solos had made everyone stronger, more delineated. His own life was no longer a single story but part of a mural, which was a falling together of accomplices … a wondrous night web’. This is a metaphorical mapping of possible inter-relations in the construction of both narratives and identities. Although we have long since left Ondaatje’s novel behind, nonetheless this musical ideal lingers on to ghost so much of what we seek as a company in this performance.

* In discussions about the speaking of texts Gregg and Gary talk of sentences as sculptural ‘objects’, each one an entity of a particular shape and weight to be placed alongside each other in a public space as if they were components of a ‘report’. Molly Haslund, who plays Alice Bell, describes her score as a performer as being made up of structures like karate ‘kata’, tasks of a particular form and rhythm to be embodied and fulfilled. I think of the poet Alice Oswald talking of each line in a poem as a stone, and of the poem as a ‘dry-stone wall’: a composite or aggregate entity, hand-made from found materials, within which each component has a certain self-sufficiency, a certain suchness, to be encountered and contemplated in relation to the whole.

* Peter Brook once said that, when his international group first started performing in Paris in the mid-1970s, people often asked them if they were amateurs. Although the performers were slightly miffed, Brook was delighted. He was after a kind of sophisticated children’s theatre comprising diverse, legible, storytelling forms and performers whose differences flared into visibility. ‘Amateurs’ in the old sense of the word: lovers of stories coming together to meet in the telling, each of them implicated in making it take (a) place in the present. This relates to something at the heart of my pleasure in working with Gregg and Gary, and now with this new company; here too ‘naivety’ and the ‘amateur’ are qualities to be worked and affirmed and celebrated, and it’s often uncomfortable in terms of my own received ideas. It’s like hanging out with two disarmingly smart (and hilarious) kids whose perceptions unsettle and surprise, and invite me into elsewhere and otherwise. An encouragement to think and re-think through shifting position and unexpected contradiction, rather than the surface rearranging of prejudices that so often passes for thinking.

(Extracts from rehearsal journal, Berlin, March 2006)

Programme notes for Lone Twin Theatre's Alice Bell. World premiere: Beurrsschouwburg Centre for the Arts, Brussels, as part of the Künsten Festival des Arts, May 2006. Co-commissioned by Sophiensaele, Berlin; Künsten Festival des Arts, Brussels; The Maltings, Farnham; and Nuffield Theatre, Lancaster. Supported by ACE, German Federal Cultural Foundation, Tron Theatre Glasgow - © David Williams

the little by little suddenly


'One t
housand needles: imagine threading them with a straight thread’ (Yoko Ono 1970: unpaginated)

‘Perception over time equals thought’ (Bill Viola 1995: 150)

'Slowness is a formidable power: it has the passion of immobility with which it will, some day, fuse' (Edmond Jabes 1972: 55-6).

As Anthony Hoete has suggested in his introduction to Roam: Reader on the Aesthetics of Mobility: ‘Mobility, in the contemporary context, is a complex concept, ideologically elusive, difficult to pin down. Mobility is a transitory, transformational state, reconfigurable and self-refreshing, time after time. Mobility is an ‘event-space’, a sequence of appointments and rendezvous. Mobility is multi-dimensional […] polymorphous […] multi-scalar […] multi-linear. Whilst comprised of journeys from A to B, these lines constitute networks: from C to DE via KLM. As such mobility’s multi-dimensionality suggests a matrix, or an array of co-ordinates’ (Hoete 2002: 11-12).

Yet, paradoxically, in practice mobility has also come to infer immobility. We are increasingly obliged to ‘kill time’ suspended in the meanwhile non-places of waiting within the multi-dimensional matrix, crawling along or going nowhere in traffic jams and queues and railway stations and airports, inert in front of computer terminals as the server fails to serve our desires. In our haste to speed up our trajectories through the world we are obliged to slow down, and in this tension for many there is a loss of patience and a kind of impossible suffering. ‘Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared?’ (Kundera 1996: 4).

Some art processes and practices school us in slowness, and the qualities of attention that allow what is happening to happen and to take (a) place; they teach us about festina lente – making haste slowly. As Buddhist philosophers have recognised, there is an epistemology of and in slowness, and its propositions are informative and provocative for artists: ‘A rediscovery of the now, relocation in the here; return to the primacy of experience, of the event; rediscovery that facts are relations, that all knowledge exists on the threshold and in the interaction between subject and object (which are themselves only hypostatisations); a rediscovery of ambiguity, of contradiction, of difference; a reassertion that things – and people – are what they do’ (George 1999: 34).

In a 10-day conversation with a small group of dance writers and makers on the shore of Lake Como at Bellaggio in Italy in the summer of 2002, a conversation in which I was delighted to participate, American choreographer Susan Rethorst articulated her sense of choreography as a long, curious wandering: ‘Choreography engages what might be called a more sober passion. It lies in small cumulative moments and decisions, glimpses and glimmers that add slowly through the dailiness, that sneak into a whole consuming reality, a parallel to the rest of one’s life’. André Lepecki, one of those centrally involved in this drifting exchange, had written earlier about ‘the time of dance’: ‘to sit, to listen, to be, to observe, to breathe, to think, to remember – the most urgent choreography’ (Lepecki 1996: 107). Now we talk about the time of conversation, and its dance. The luxury of time, of taking time to make time - of slow wandering and drift and waste and interruption and change of direction and silence and connective emergence and the small ‘violence’ of dislocation - of a slowing down into the complexity and detail of what is happening ‘in the middle’.

I think of the generative deceleration described by Matthew Goulish: ‘Most of us live in fear of slowing down our thinking, because of the possibility that if we succeed we might find that in fact nothing is happening. I guarantee this is not the case. Something is always happening. In fact, some things happen which one can only perceive with slow thinking’ (Goulish 2000: 82).

I think of Bachelard’s suggestion that one of his aims is ‘to school us in slowness’ (Bachelard 1988: vii). I think of Deleuze’s challenge to ‘think other durations’ through memory, art, philosophy, to ‘think the time of becoming’ as intensive rather than extensive, of time as the force of movement whereby movement transforms time by producing new becomings. Movement, he suggests, does not move a body from one point to another (translation), but rather in each aggregation/moment of movement bodies transform and become (vibration/variation/ multiplicity): ‘Movement always relates to a change, migration to a seasonal variation. And this is equally true of bodies: the fall of a body presupposes another one which attracts it, and expresses a change in the whole which governs them both. If we think of pure atoms, their movements which testify to a reciprocal action of all the parts of the substance, necessarily express modifications, disturbances, changes of energy in the whole … beyond translation is vibration, radiation’ (Deleuze 1986: 8-9).

I think of Paul Auster, blocked as a writer, falling out of the momentum of New York into the attenuated rhythms and discontinuous intensities and flows of a dance studio, and the moving stillness of a choreography taking shape: ‘In the beginning I wanted to speak of arms and legs, of jumping up and down, of bodies tumbling and spinning, of enormous journeys through space, of cities, of deserts, of mountain ranges stretching farther than the eye can see. Little by little, however, as these words began to impose themselves on me, the things I wanted to do seemed finally to be of no importance. Reluctantly, I abandoned all my witty stories, all my adventures of far-away places, and began, slowly and painfully, to empty my mind. Now emptiness is all that remains: a space, no matter how small, in which whatever is happening can be allowed to happen’ (Auster 1998: 86).

I think of Bill Viola’s explorations of the intervals below the threshold of perception in works where, as Walter Benjamin wrote of slow-motion: ‘the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses’ (Benjamin 1968: 236).

I think of the French paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin illuminated by his encounters with Mongol communities and with the burnt stones of the Inner Mongolian desert in the early 1920s. Years later he wrote: ‘Throughout my whole life, during every minute of it, the world has been gradually lighting up and blazing before my eyes until it has come to surround me, entirely lit up from within’ (quoted in Dillard 1999: 13). I think of deep ecologist Arne Naess’s invitation to ‘think like a mountain’, and of Wallace Heim’s notion of ‘slow activism’ (Heim 2003). I think of Marina Abramowic’s statement that she is ‘more and more interested in less and less’.

I think of Andrey Tarkovsky, Clarice Lispector, Edmond Jabès, Terrence Malick, WG Sebald, Ann Hamilton, Tacita Dean, David Nash, John Cage, Jem Finer. The slow ones.

The texts and images that follow comprise 24 fragments related to conceptions, perceptions and practices of slowness, where each ‘fragment’ should be understood in Maurice Blanchot’s terms as ‘the patience of pure impatience, the little by little suddenly‘ (Blanchot 1995: 34). Or as a single frame within an imaginary film strip of one second: 24 frames per second. The explosion of an instant. A slo-mo rehearsal of a lightning strike, moving at the speed of memory.

[* Please note that for this online version, I have removed one of the frames and its accompanying text, in memory of Lyall Watson who died a few weeks ago in June 2008. A prolific writer and a rather eccentric adventurer, he was the author of a book that was important to me, Heaven's Breath: A Natural History of the Wind (1984). In the missing section, please think of a wind you know and its particular qualities].

Above all, in dialogue with Hannah Chiswell’s 24 fragments in the original artist's book, these texts and images stage something of a slow and ongoing conversation between two friends, about snow and rocks and sky and lightning and memory and flying and falling and birds. The unfolding loop of cogitation between two attenuated and intensive seconds, a dynamic relational meanwhile between an inhalation and exhalation.
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1. ‘There was this, and then this, and then this: nothing … one could truly lean on’ (Chantal Akerman on her film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), quoted in Margulies 1996: 149).


2. ‘There is a secret link between slowness and remembering, between quickness and forgetting. Think of something utterly commonplace – a man walking down the street. Suddenly, he wishes to remember something, but his memory fails him. At this moment he automatically slows his paces. Conversely, someone trying to forget a terrible experience he has just had will unconsciously quicken his pace, as though wanting to escape from what is still all too close to him in time. In existential mathematics this experience can be expressed in the form of two elementary equations: the degree of slowness exists in direct proportion to the intensity of remembering; the degree of quickness exists in direct proportion to the intensity of forgetting’ (Kundera 1996: 34-5)

3. On a bright spring morning in April 2003, British performers Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters, collectively Lone Twin, conducted an exercise on the beach at Scarborough in Yorkshire, with a dozen or so participants. The proposition was simple: count the number of steps from the Victorian Spa to the beach’s edge, then over a period of 30 minutes walk towards the sea using the same number of steps; at the water’s edge make an action imagined en route, then turn and retrace one’s journey back to the beginning of the beach, again reiterating the same number of steps over a 30 minute period. A simple meditative slowing down and immersion in present process, drawing attention to time’s passing, in counterpoint with the rhythms of beach-side traffic, dog walkers, ball games, donkey rides, a group of girls cart-wheeling dizzily, swaying metal detectors, the crash of the waves, the drift of the clouds. During the group’s attenuated return from the sea, two uniformed policemen moved swiftly towards the lead walker - coincidentally the editor of this volume - and confronted him nose to nose, blocking his passage. They had received a number of phone calls reporting ‘suspicious behaviour’, a group of people moving imperceptibly slowly across the beach. What were they doing? Was it a protest of some sort? In this way a slow private action in public, its internal dynamics, meanings and functions resistant to a normalising survey from the outside, constituted a threatening anomaly to the civic everyday. The most everyday of actions - standing, walking, thinking, at times apparently immobile and doing nothing at all – had produced an unreadable and dissident friction in the complex layered polyrhythms of the seaside. Perhaps unwittingly, they had provoked a small collision of practices of mobility and conceptions of ‘acceptable’ speeds.

4. ‘I like the feeling of the texture of cocoons. A cocoon produces numerous threads. The threads come out so fast that my body is often left behind. At such times my body is empty. I wonder where my stomach and other organs have gone. But the threads that go out may be my organs, or they may go out through all my pores. They spread out into space, no one can stop them. All that’s left of me is contours. In the meantime, my body remains in the cocoon and is suffocated. People often say that I’m not moving or that I look like an idiot. Is it because I move too fast?’ (Butoh performer Akedno Ashikawa in Moore 1991)

5. 400 polished stainless steel poles, each of them with a diameter of 2 inches and solid stainless steel tips, arrayed in a parallel rectangular grid 5,280 feet by 3,300 feet, or 1 mile by 1 kilometre. Each pole 220 feet apart. Each mile-long row containing 25 poles, each kilometre-long row containing 16. A walk of about 2 hours to cover the perimeter of the grid. A field of potentiality in waiting for the untimely, sudden, sublime event of lightning. The conditions for lightning and its ‘doing of the did’.

Completed in West Central New Mexico in 1977, Walter de Maria’s The Lightning Field was one of the iconic works of land art. It was intended for the work to be viewed alone ‘over at least a 24-hour period’ (de Maria 1980: 529). Using aerial and land surveys to determine the precise elevation of the terrain, in order for the plane of the poles’ tips to ‘evenly support an imaginary sheet of glass’ (ibid), the work took 5 months to install. Only about 60 days a year fell within the season of primary lightning activity during the summer months. It was possible to observe a number of distinct thunderstorms simultaneously from The Lightning Field. With occasional light snow in winter, and the anomalous optical phenomenon of the vast majority of the poles becoming almost invisible when the sun was high in the sky, light was deemed to be ‘as important as lightning’ (ibid: 530). On rare occasions, a powerful electrical current in the air generated the glow known as ‘St Elmo’s Fire’ which was emitted from the tips of the poles. The conjunction of art and nature, engineering and unpredictability, a tiny number of witnesses and a vast landscape/skyscape, the slowest of events and those moving at the speed of light.

6. During the 1990s, the Russian performance artist Oleg Kulik made a series of related performances collectively entitled Zoophrenia, in which he pursued the game of playing dog in a purposeful way, mimicking a certain kind of canine behaviour to excess. Becoming-dog was a strategy to ‘renounce his identity as a reflective being in order to become a being with reflexes (a dog)’ (Kulik in Watkins & Kermode 2001: 76). At other times, he also ‘became’ a bull, an ape and a bird, but the dog tracked him like a shadow. In 1998, Kulik made a performance called White Man, Black Dog. In complete darkness in a Ljubljana gallery space, a naked Kulik tried to interact and establish an intimate exchange with a real black dog. Intermittent camera flashes produced by two photographers documenting the encounter supposedly burnt ephemeral images into the short-term retinal memories of spectators. For Kulik, such an encounter and its fugitive visual traces constituted ‘the only true, “absolutely real” art’ (Kulik 2003: 23).

7. ‘Oui … Oui … Oui … Oui … Oui … Oui … Oui … Oui …’ (Aurore Clément, on the telephone in the final shot of Chantal Akerman’s film Toute une nuit (‘All Night Long’), 1982, quoted in Margulies 1996: 173).

8. She moves. Her attention adjusts and focuses as she sniffs around a quality of stillness in the action, a quality of action in the stillness, her nostrils flared for the event of it. Slowly slowly. Stalking while never letting on, while always letting on, that stalking’s afoot. Something lives here, and moves here. Something warm. Something animal. Its presence resonates and is carried on the wind in this windless space. Its reverberation comes to her as smell. Just a whiff, the merest hint of a lair, of a pelt, of a world in a surreptitious moment of synaesthesia. Coloursoundsongsmell. Something there. The need for moist attention. The need for a wet nose. Follow your nose. Slowly slowly track it, but but let it be, let it take a place in the open. Patience, go quickly go slowly, stay close to it but not too close: she must move away if she gets too close. How to be near and far? Come and go, just as it comes and goes on the wind in this windy place. The role of the eyes in sniffing it out, the role of the ears. Body all eye-ear-nose. She follows her nose, it takes her closer, closer, then no too close and she can’t smell a thing and she smells too many things, the smell blurs and its shape fades and she moves away again and begins to drift again. Circling. Circling. As if now were here, and she were all alone. S l o w i n g d o w n t o n o w h e r e s h e Breathe. Ready. Again. And. No not now, be slower. Move away again and wait, lie in wait, be still in wait. Wait. Weight. Wet. She remembers an Inuit word she read and wrote down and learnt for the rightness of its rhythm, the shape of its sound in space and the time of its gesture - an onomatopoeic map: QUINUITUQ, the deep patience of waiting for long periods while prepared for a sudden event. QUINUI - like a polar bear waiting for a seal at a hole in the ice. A chameleon invisibly perched on a branch attentive to the flashing insect wings around it. A tick on a blade of grass ready for the passage of fur. Or a photographer standing in a storm at night, camera in hand, waiting for the lightning strike. Then TUQ - a flaring into appearance. An active vanishing that burns itself into the retina for a moment, then gradually dissolves.

9. ‘There are about two hundred shots in Mirror, very few when a film of that length usually has about five hundred; the small number is due to their length. Although the assembly of the shots is responsible for the structure of a film, it does not, as is generally assumed, create its rhythm. The distinctive time running through the shots makes the rhythm of the picture; and rhythm is determined not by the length of the edited pieces, but by the pressure of the time that runs through them. Editing cannot determine rhythm … indeed, time courses through the picture despite editing rather than because of it. The course of time, recorded in the frame, is what the director has to catch in the pieces laid out on the editing table.

Time, imprinted in the frame, dictates the particular editing principle; and the pieces that ‘won’t edit’ – that can’t be properly joined – are those which record a radically different kind of time. One cannot, for instance, put actual time together with conceptual time, any more than one can join water pipes of different diameter. The consistency of the time that runs through the shot, its intensity or ‘sloppiness’, could be called time-pressure; then editing can be seen as the assembly of the pieces on the basis of the time-pressure within them’ (Tarkovsky 1986: 117).

10. Of all of the artist-walkers who spring to mind - Hamish Fulton, Marina & Ulay, Lone Twin, Wrights & Sites, Janet Cardiff, Tim Brennan, Iain Sinclair, Bruce Chatwin, and so on – Richard Long seems to me one of the slowest and most patient, one of the clearest about his choices. Long repeatedly uses walking structures as generative ‘games’ in the production of photographs and texts in which words assume a sculptural quality, as well as ‘non-site’ works for gallery spaces. His walks are playful in a purposeful way, and it’s invariably hard to separate the idea for a walk, the walk itself, and the trace of walk. The walks are conceived by Long as ‘sculpture’, taking sculpture way beyond the usual definition of the generation of objects. Instead, he proposes to make experiential events and impermanent relational connections with and in places. In his registering of their traces lies an implicit set of propositions about reality, nature, our place(s) in the world: a kind of ethics of lightness, movement, process, change, relationality in complexity. We only ever witness traces of the space-time aggregate of the absent/invisible event. The sculptural work itself rarely involves violent interventions; the work is always on a human scale, often discreet, ephemeral, small restrained displacements more often than not employing the elementary and archetypal formal configurations of lines (motion) and circles (stopping points) and their variants (spiral, cross, arc, zig-zag, ellipsis).

In an interview in 1990, Long reflected on the complex relations between duration and ephemerality in his work, a slow dance of endless repetition with difference, of unfolding multiplicity within identity: ‘I suppose my work runs the whole gamut from being completely invisible and disappearing in seconds, like a water drawing, to a permanent work in a museum that could last forever. The planet is full of unbelievably permanent things, like rock strata and tides, and yet full of impermanence like butterflies or the seaweed on the beach, which is in a new pattern every day for thousands of years. I would like to think my work reflects that beautiful complexity and reality’ (Long 1991: 104).

One of Richard Long’s most remarkable walking works is Crossing Stones (1987), in which he carried a single pebble from a beach on the East coast of England, near Aldeburgh in Suffolk, all the way across Britain to Aberystwyth in West Wales, covering more than 300 miles in 10 days. On the beach in Aberystwyth, he deposited the Suffolk stone, exchanged it for another, and then carried this second stone back another 300 miles to deposit it on the same beach in Suffolk. This act of displacement is both heroic and Sisyphean in its epic absurdity. A return journey on foot lasting 20 days, covering more than 600 miles, in order to exchange two pebbles (why those two?), and all that survives is one text work, a brief score-like description of the structure of the event as a whole. The symmetrical transplant effects a re-assimilation by two pebbles on a new beach in a fresh alliance with other pebbles, all of them moving incessantly with tides and weather: so nothing moves, everything stays the same, but everything has changed. (The layerings of time: the moment of choice of a pebble, the rhythms of foot steps, the moment of placement, the rhythms of the sea, the glacial speed of change in stone: slowness is always relative). The pebbles remain remote from each other in their new locations, as far apart as ever, but a new connective relation or tissue is established between the individual stones, the beaches, the coastlines, the edges of Britain. Each of them has crossed to a situation that is the same and quite different. The space between them is blooded and activated by Long’s long walk, a passage which has all but disappeared in its embodied complexity, Nothing is mentioned of the journey to and fro beyond the fact that it took place; three weeks collapse into a few words, and Long’s experiences en route are excised completely in this most radical act of editing and distilling to a pure economy of exchange. It is the experiences of the pebbles, it seems, that are to be privileged.

11. ‘There are, on a few Shinto shrines, some sacred curiosities. Stones that have fallen from the sky. Nobody makes much fuss about them. They are simply there for people to take pleasure in, and as objects deserving of the respect accorded to everything that shares the spirit of divinity. The traditional explanation for their existence is very simple and matter-of-fact. “There is a hole in the sky”, say the priests, “and sometimes things just fall through it”’ (Watson 1984: 319).

12. In the opening sequence of Le Jet de Sang (‘The Spurt of Blood’), a short play written by Antonin Artaud, a pair of young lovers express ardent passion for each other in a (parodic? nostalgic?) exchange that culminates in the young man declaring: ‘We are intense. Ah. What a well-made world’. Artaud then provides a genuinely startling stage direction: precise, hallucinatory, dissociated, anti-romantic, surreal, apocalyptic. It appears there is indeed a hole in the sky, and fragments of well-made civilisations and anatomies fall through it as the lovers’ intensive coup de foudre gives way to cosmic dismemberment: 'Silence: noise like a huge wheel spinning, blowing out wind. A hurricane comes between them. At that moment, two stars collide, and a succession of limbs of flesh fall. Then feet, hands, scalps, masks, colonnades, porticoes, temples and alembics, falling slower and slower as if through space, then three scorpions one of the other and finally a frog, and a scarab which lands with heart-breaking, nauseating slowness’ (Artaud 1968: 63).

Although one might readily associate an Artaudian ‘theatre of cruelty’ with frenzied speed and ecstasy, it is my impression that in his writings Artaud rehearsed a particular ontology of slowness. He returned repeatedly to his sense of time and integrated, ‘orderly’ spaces (e.g. that of the human body) being out of joint, and articulated the pervasive dis-ease he experienced as ‘that abnormal facility that has entered into human relations which does not allow our thoughts the time to take root’ (Artaud 1988: 162).

13. On a footpath, in large letters traced with a finger in the fresh snow, someone’s written a message to the sky: MORE SNOW PLEASE. The gift of snow. Its aura.


14. ‘Relation of walking and thinking, the movement of the body setting thought in motion. Rimbaud composed many of his poems while walking. So does Edmond Jabès. Walking the space of a line, a phrase. As if finding it. A grammar of motion … Edmond Jabès walks. Hands crossed in back. Slowly … In the dining room, Edmond opens a drawer full of pebbles he has collected on beaches. In Brittany, In Italy. “Look at this, wouldn’t you say, a face? And this one here, magnificent”. Almost all his pebbles have markings one could see as a face. “Just look; it’s Verlaine”. Once he has said this I cannot see anything but Verlaine in the veins of the stone. But I think more of how it is sand and stone that hold his attention rather than the sea. Bits of desert … After Edmond’s death, Marcel gives us a most precious gift. Two out of a group of five white pebbles that Edmond has collected for him. These do not suggest faces. They are pure white. They are, strangely, almost perfect cubes. They sit on top of one another’ (Waldrop 2002: 15, 30, 32-3)

15. ‘In 1981, I made a videotape in Japan, Hatsu Yume ('First Dream'), in which there is one sequence where a fixed camera views a rock on a mountainside over a long period of time. When it comes on the screen, the images are moving 20 times normal speed, and gradually, in a series of stages, it slows down to real-time, and eventually to extreme slow-motion. People usually describe that scene by saying, “ … the part where the people are all slowed down while moving round the rock”. What I looked at in that scene is the rock, not so much the people. I thought it would be interesting to show a rock in slow motion. All that is really happening is that the rock’s time, its rate of change, exceeds the sampling rate (the recording time of the video), whereas the people are within that range. So the rock just sits there, high speed, slow speed … it doesn’t matter. I think about time in that way. There are windows or wavelengths of perception. They are simultaneous and interwoven at any one moment, but we are tuned only to a certain frequency range. This is directly related to scale changes in space or sound, proportion in architecture and music. A fly lives for a week or two, and a rock exists for thousands or millions of years’ (Bill Viola 1995: 151).

16. In the late 1960s, in a proposal for a new work called Island of Broken Glass, a work that might be thought of nowadays in terms of a ‘deep ecology’, American land artist Robert Smithson suggested that a small island in Vancouver harbour (Miami Islet) should be covered with broken glass. Eventually, through the forces of nature over a long period of time, the glass would break down into ever smaller pieces until its final return to sand. Smithson’s proposal was vehemently opposed by ecologists, and the work was never realised. Elsewhere Smithson wrote: ‘In the museum one can find deposits of rust labelled "Philosophy", and in glass cases unknown lumps of something labelled "Aesthetics"' (Smithson in Holt 1979: 79).

Meanwhile about thirty years after its disappearance Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) has re-emerged into astonishing visibility (for the time being) from beneath the surface of the Great Salk Late in Utah; the rocks are now caked in sparkling salt crystals in the pink waters of the lake.

17. Imagine it. A wheat field, two blocks from the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and Wall Street in New York City, opposite the Statue of Liberty. First, the clearing of rocks and trash on a disused block of land, then a fresh covering with truckloads of landfill, before the spring planting of seed in 285 hand-dug furrows blanketed with an inch of top-soil. The establishment of an irrigation system, clearing, maintenance, weeding and spraying. Four months of careful tending, from brown to green to amber, then the final harvesting in August: almost 1,000 pounds of wheat. Finally, the return of the land to the rhythms and economies of intensive urban development, and the construction of a new luxury complex.

Reflecting on her land art sculpture-event Wheatfield (1982) afterwards, activist-artist Agnes Denes suggested: ‘It represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, economics. It referred to mismanagement and world hunger. It was an intrusion into the Citadel, a confrontation of High Civilisation. Then again, it was also Shangri-la, a small paradise, one’s childhood, a hot summer afternoon in the country, peace, forgotten values, simple pleasures’ (Denes 1982: 544).

A wheat field in lower Manhattan. Imagine it.

18. On a February morning of both sun and snow, walking through the fields on the banks of the River Dart at Dartington in Devon, I come across an oak tree that has fallen during a winter storm. Uprooted, its massive trunk shattered, the tree’s canopy lies over the pathway made by dog-walkers and joggers: an impassable obstruction, an interruption in the rhythms of walking and running. It is as if it has dropped out of the sky, like the timber house in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. I am struck by the juxtaposition of a long, slow period of vertical growth and the sudden moment of falling to the horizontal:

‘There is a moment when the newborn first lets out a cry into the dry air, when the pressure of light first falls on the virgin surface of the new retina and is registered by some pattern of nerve impulses not yet fully “understood” … There is a moment, only truly known in anticipation before it happens, when the eyes close for the last time and the brain shuts down its circuits forever (the end of time)’ (Viola 1995: 142).

In the weeks since the oak’s collapse, a new ‘desire path’ has been worn into the grass around it, a perfect semi-circle tracing the outline of the canopy and connecting the path at either side. The old path, now enveloped by the dead branches, remains bare. From the perspective of the buzzard floating far above my head, one might see a large brown D inscribed into the grassy surface of the field by gravitied footfalls over time.

19. [...]

20. First, a score: Yoko Ono’s TAPE PIECE III/Snow Piece (1963): ‘Take a tape of the sound of the snow falling. This should be done in the evening. Do not listen to the tape. Cut it and use it as strings to tie gifts with. Make a gift wrapper, if you wish, using the same process with a phonosheet’ (Ono 1970: unpaginated).

Then a slow and illuminating close reading of a slow and illuminating work. In his remarkable study of sound in 20th century avant-garde art work, Noise Water Meat (1999), Douglas Kahn begins by describing the paradoxical acoustical effects of snow falling: ‘It is a sound of blanketing bereft of warmth, a massive field of intense activity that is oddly quiet, and because the accumulation of snow acts to absorb sounds and the minute crystalline structure of snow breaks up sound waves at their own scale, it becomes progressively quieter as the snow mutes itself. [...] The irony of snow falling is that it produces the conditions for listening closely but then absorbs the sounds that might be heard’ (Kahn 1999: 238-9).

Kahn then turns his attention to Ono’s poetical disposition towards technology, and its embracing of multiple inaudibilities. For the score involves: ‘much more than trying to listen, even though Ono has employed and displayed the technology of listening. She has actually employed a technology one imagines and a technology one ignores. Assume for a moment an impossible transparency of audiophonic technology [...] A tape recording is made of falling snow using such technology and then ignored. Ono’s score instructs the recordist not to listen to it because it is the best way to ensure its accuracy’ (ibid: 239).

Finally Kahn highlights the ethical overlay in Ono’s score between environmental and social relations, the tacit acknowledgement of multiple silences (and silencings) and the emotional warmth in the economy of the gift: ‘A refusal to listen complements both the silence of the imagined sound of snow falling and the silences involved in the very act of gift giving. Whatever else can be said about gift giving, something is always left unsaid. Although speech may revolve around the act, the delicacy of the gesture, especially in Ono’s score, acts to absorb the sound waves of speech. When the audiotape is used as ribbon, the environment of snow falling lies covertly inscribed along the length of the tape in patterns resembling the loops of a bow’ (ibid: 239-40).

21. Las Ramblas: a bustling, tree-lined boulevard bisecting the old city of Barcelona. Lorca once described it as ‘the only street in the world which I wish would never end’. Its name derives from an Arabic word (ramla) for torrents or rapids, for at one time it was a seasonal watercourse, the route of run-off from hills to the sea. The memory of water.

Today Las Ramblas runs from Plaça de Catalunya in the north to Plaça Portal de la Pau in the south, with its harbourside monument to Christopher Columbus. Caked white with birdshit, with a hefty stone map in one hand by his side, Columbus points confidently out to sea, but in the direction of North Africa rather than the New World. This way, folks, must be.

How to remake a river? Or more modestly, for I’m uneasy with Columbus’s unshakeable conviction as model, how to make a small action whose ephemeral traces might reconnect this place briefly and playfully with its naming, and with its past role in the micro-circuits and flows of the hydrological cycle? How to re-member a river? I discussed this with Gregg and Gary. Many triggers for me in what they do, and they have moist imaginations. We chatted in a cafe, quiet little rants and what ifs and didyaknows about weather systems, bodies, maps, becoming-river, Snowflake the albino gorilla. Then Gary said what about ice.

In the end we slid a block of ice from the CCCB, past the Plaça dels Angels and along the Carrer Bonsuccés to Las Ramblas. We placed it on its side on the paving stones in the middle of Rambla Canaletes, near an old iron fountain, then wrung the melted ice from our gloves to start the flow. People watching, talking in the sun. The water of memory (David Williams in Whelan & Winters 2001: unpaginated).

22. After hearing La Monte Young talk at the Barbican in December 1998, Jem Finer, the creator and composer of Longplayer, a 1,000-year-long musical score for looped Tibetan bell-chants spiralling ‘like planets around the sun’ (Finer in van Noord 2000: 3), wrote in his journal: ‘I was interested by his talking about the evening’s performance as part of an ongoing, ever-lasting performance. The time that had elapsed since the last one merely being a pause in the music’ (ibid: 29).

23. Speed of the sound of loneliness is the title of a John Prine song sung by Nanci Griffin, a title borrowed by Richard Long for a walking work he made on Dartmoor in the winter of 1998. Walking continuously from dawn to dusk, Long circled Crow Tor at a distance representing the Earth’s orbit around the Sun; the rock acted as still point or fulcrum in a circuit of 7 miles walked 3 1/2 times, at a speed Long estimated to be at 2.8 miles an hour. Long’s published score of the event goes on to record other speeds occurring simultaneously in a sliding scale of space-times around Crow Tor - an overlay of differential speeds and relational connections moving out from the rock to the galaxy in this simple meditative staging of the vertiginous dynamics of our tiny corner of the universe (Long 2002: 149):

THE ROTATION SPEED OF THE EARTH IN ENGLAND 700 MILES AN HOUR

THE ROTATION SPEED OF THE EARTH IN ITS ORBIT AROUND THE SUN 70,000 MILES AN HOUR

THE SPEED OF OUR MOTION AROUND THE GALAXY 500,000 MILES AN HOUR

24. A man in a snail suit stands waiting at a zebra crossing. Spiral shell on his back, comedy feelers protruding from his forehead. A car slows to let him cross. He acknowledges the driver politely, then lies on his belly and slides imperceptibly slowly across the tarmac, inch by inch. Music: Bakerman, by the band Laid Back. "Bakerman is baking bread. Bakerman … is baking bread. The night train is coming, got to keep on runnin’ …" (from Dom Joly’s Trigger Happy TV).


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(‘The little by little suddenly’, in Ian Abbot (ed.), Slow, Devon: Elusive Camel Books, 2007. Limited edition artist’s book. Contributors include Matthew Goulish, Kirsten Lavers, Kevin Mount, Cupola Bobber. This version - with one frame 'missing', no. 19 - is reproduced here in memory of Lyall Watson, who died in late June 2008).