Sunday, 29 March 2015

space time angles

As a teacher of performance practices, I spend quite a lot of time in studios with people in general trying to make things. I am a party to their processes from the word ‘go’ to the moment at which it is shown live, if that’s the goal. In the bulk of my teaching that’s what it has been, in Australia, at Dartington and at Royal Holloway. Hopefully I am present and attentive to those people finding a way, finding forms, shapes and structures that they can work with, and trying to see where that flounders, where it's buoyant, where something moves freely amongst them and therefore in relation to me watching. I try to give them a little bit of guidance, where possible, but also to give them a bit of courage when something happens. Usually, often, ‘when something happens’ means that at some level I am engaged more than just as a pair of eyes with a brain attached to them; it feels much more embodied and implicated than that.

I also work as a dramaturg with dance people, with people somewhere in between dance and theatre, and then with Lone Twin. This job can take many different forms but essentially it involves a lot of watching and responding, always in the light of what it seems might be possible for that person or group, always trying to pitch any responses at a level that would encourage something that seems to be going on to develop fruitfully. So there’s a whole array of different kinds of watching that go on in teaching and in working as a dramaturg. In addition, I am also a fairly seasoned spectator. I have watched a lot of performance over the years, and I have been involved in making a lot of performances. And of course there are different orders of watching and listening involved in actually making and performing ... When people talk about ‘kinaesthetic empathy’, the empathy is both kinaesthetic and affective and it is very hard to separate those things off; indeed they seem to be absolutely entangled. The cliche that one is ‘moved’ by something feels quite palpably real and lived in all sorts of ways: motion, e-motion.

Another spectating and 'doing' activity that informs my relationship to all these things is sport. From being able to walk and run to around the age of 24, I guess I did that more than anything else. At whatever level one arrives, there are all kinds of empathies as a spectator that come out of simply doing that activity every afternoon or evening for 20 odd years, in one’s spare time. I spent years of my life kicking, throwing, catching, running, falling over, usually in relation to an object that moves predictably, a round ball, or unpredictably, like a rugby ball. I fundamentally believe that that set of experiences and deep oafish pleasures for me inform a huge amount of my understanding of and my feeling for related things to this day.

When I go and watch a football match at Arsenal, I am often surprised by the kind of things people in the stands say and what that reveals or suggests as to what they read in what's going on. For example, quite often people are extremely critical if somebody tries something and it doesn’t work, rather than being sympathetic to the endeavour. Yet one can still see a thought which has not been realised because of a whole variety of conditions, often extremely minimal. Its 'failure' might be the result of some kind of blurring of the concentration because someone was moving very fast: the lack of peripheral vision at that particular angle, or the ball moving in a particular way that made it slightly unpredictable, and unplayable. Empathy informs a capacity to 'see' all of those things: the architecture of a body, its movement through space, its relationship to those variables, the speed at which things are unfolding, the moment when something goes awry, what has been attempted if not realised – and somehow those things seem very legible to me at times.

I’m surprised by the limited way in which some people who I imagine haven’t played much sport seem to watch sport, including some of the commentators on TV. You know, cries of 'Rubbish!' to Santi Cazorla, that sort of thing. Relatedly, I'm always intrigued by the relationship between those managers and coaches who have been quite accomplished sports players – footballers, let’s say – and those who weren’t, and therefore the differences in their possible understandings of the predicament of that individual or that group of people. The embodied knowledges and intutitions they may or may not be able to access. For me it is centrally about reading predicaments in a particular set of conditions. Maybe my abilities to understand and empathise with somebody’s predicament come out of sitting in studios, making work, being inside performances, watching performances, and playing and watching sport for much of my life.

At university, one of my core teachers David Bradby taught me a slightly old-fashioned mode of critical engagement called ‘close reading’ in relation to language, and this has been very useful to me in all sorts of ways. I learned from him an attention to the particularities of language, its rhythms, refrains, patterns, structures across time and space in writing. What writing does. I guess what a dramaturg practises at one level is a kind of close reading: of what movements are and what they do, how they relate to other elements, the weave and its effects. By 'reading' I don’t mean decoding towards some singular meaning, but a whole set of often ambiguous and contradictory effects or intensities, structures of energy that produce different things in me as a spectator. The work in the studio is like a proto-spectating, acting as a kind of barometer that reads the heat or feel of the texture. I think of those qualities, and of movement, very much as material, in both senses of that word.

I think that through sport, and through watching loads of stuff, lots of students and other practitioners, there are moments when I am able to be there and now with it. There is something like an amplified and sensitised empathy to many different things at play, and at the centre of that is what bodies are doing and what that produces in relation to other bodies, the space, the framing of the visible world, the audible world, the relationship with us, etc. And it's not necessarily a question of needing to know what the internal life of that is, its invisible logic, the intuitive or quite conscious scoring that goes on for a dancer: what Jonathan Burrows calls the 'internal song'. I’m always interested in those things, but not with a view to that thing being conveyed ... what's going on internally could be anything, because as we know there’s a mismatch between one’s internal life and what happens for somebody watching on the outside, what 'appears'. It’s all to do with what their actions do, and how to help someone recognise what that 'do' to me as a kind of foldback to them. So if I am ever interested in accessing their internal life, it’s only as a mechanism to help them have a fuller sense of what that seems to do for a third party.

At one time I was a gifted cricketer and at a certain point in my life people had me lined up to do this professionally as an adult. I played some representative cricket and then I had an injury and lost interest, particularly when I went to university. At other times I also played squash, fives and royal tennis, which is an extraordinarily complex game spatially and architecturally. It's played in an internal court with many different surfaces and textures. There are inert zones that you can hit the ball at and it will fall 'dead' off the wall, surfaces that you can hit which will rebound at a predictable rate, roofs that you can roll the ball along, etc. It’s very much about creatively reading architectures and surfaces and beginning to orient yourself and what you do with the ball in relation to these material effects. In a way it’s not unlike parcours but with a ball; you read and use the logic of architectural structures to play the game.

When I was very young, I played quite a bit of golf – and once every 10 years or so I still play with my brother; and that information from childhood is deeply encoded in my body. There is something remarkable in golf; it's the closest I have come to meditation outside of things that identify themselves as meditation. Similarly there is also something in football, and indeed in cricket, where everything external to what is going on right here, right now, falls away, and that's an extraordinary liberation at one level. A kind of immersion in present process. In golf that’s a singular activity, it’s just you and a club and a ball. But at the moment of settling down to strike a ball and to find a kind of flow that isn’t forced, they’re all the same thing (or not): you try too hard and you’ve stuffed it. You get in the way of ‘it’ doing it. It’s very Zen and the Art of Archery. That’s where I understood those things, in golf and in kicking, and in all of those activities associated with these sports: catching, kicking, throwing etc. To strike something with one’s foot, one’s head, or with a bat, or to bowl, or to hit a ball with a golf club – at times there’s a moment of profound stillness in and around the doing of that, and an absolute clarity which is very pleasurable for me (I'm someone who struggles with the privileging of the intellectual world at one level, and finds it hugely dispersed and distracting and off-balance). At such moments, I have felt absolute clarity in my ability to engage with the doing of that precise thing and not to be distracted by something else – those dumb bits of static: whether it will be good, whether people will like me if I do that, or who I am when I’m doing that. All that self-reflexive distraction – things that relate to a notion of self, to a notion of the quality of oneself, one’s abilities or non-abilities – they just fall away. And over time there are enough of such moments to make it significantly realigning in terms of one's sense of self; there is absolute calmness and clarity, and at its best or clearest, a joyous reunion with the thing that is being done. You are the thing that is being done; you are not doing it any more, it kind of ‘does you’. You can be a shit golfer and hit the ball very, very sweetly without effort five times in a round of golf and that will be enough for you to be full of joy.

I never took any of these things very seriously. Even though I was competitive I always thought they were joyously ridiculous as activities. I always understood and accepted the nonsense of sport, its fatuousness. Fundamentally it’s absurd and a bit pointless, both comic and serious, a 'folly' as Lone Twin suggest; and I very much like that about it. Of course it produces a great deal, with its intensities and emotions, its vectors and balls of energy, its alignments of perception, its very real and ephemeral pleasures; but it does not actually make a 'thing', it’s not productive in an instrumental way; it's a pure potlatch activity. It has no function other than in its doing and sharing. Sport is play, with all of play’s productive and non-productive attributes.

I have some odd abilities. For instance, I can for throw balls, or stones, very hard and a very long way. I don't know why. I guess it comes out of hours of chucking things as a kid, somehow endlessly fascinated by the arc of a trajectory, the curved flight through the air, the triangulation hand-eye-there. From the age of 7 to 18, I endlessly won silly competitions about throwing cricket balls. Like golf, or kicking a ball, it’s something to do with not getting in my own way and understanding the notion of not trying. There’s a kind of effort and aligned connectedness in playful visualisation that doesn’t impede your capacity to just get on and do that thing. Alain Platel of Les Ballets C de la B once talked of a fascination with something he called ‘suppressed virtuosities’. Those things we are extremely good at, but that no longer have a value, no current purchase as an activity. Throwing is one of them for me and I rather like the fact that I have this completely functionless capacity. I value its lack of value and its anomalous redundancy.

As a result when I see people who are very good at whatever their thing is, whether it's David Beckham taking a free kick, or a friend at school who could manipulate his face in a hyper-gurning way, or my friend the performer/choreographer Jane Mason moving, I recognise they have a particular set of capacities that I don’t have. I can see that Jane has a range of possibilities, and my not being able to do them somehow amplifies radically my sense of what a body can do. The horizon expands ever so slightly, and I find that very exciting. In Jane’s case, her particular quality might be the capacity to ride very close to some kind of intuitive hunch – without having to decode or understand intellectually, to explain it away. She’s very adept at that, and it takes various shapes. And so the nature of the conversation that seems possible with her is rooted in a kind of empathy for the proposition that she can run close to felt impulses she really doesn't need to know in a way she can verbalise. And I love and respect that, and try to encourage her to do that.

Of course if you play team sports you get to know your own capacities at some level: what you’re not so 'good' at, what you are 'good' at. Not necessarily intellectually ‘know’ those things, but you have a felt sense of them. And you also start to read what other people can do and where their capacities are; and so you create the conditions where that capacity can be activated usefully. It’s absolutely similar to working with a group of performers, whether they are dancers or theatre people. It’s somehow creating the conditions for the individuals within the collective to recognise, value, extend and develop their own capacities, and to find a complementarity in relation, so that collectively they can produce something that is more than the sum of its parts and that’s live here and now. Years ago I remember seeing early Theatre de Complicite shows, and talking with Simon McBurney about sport – and he made a similar set of connections between sport activities, team, playing field, structures in space that have restrictions and therefore encourage play, tactical possibility and game structures inside the restrictions. That’s what enables play, the parameters, the friction. It’s like the give in a bicycle chain; it has a structure, but it also has ‘play’ in it in that other sense of ‘give’. For me there was always a strong connection between sport, play and performance making.

I remember reading a beautiful article about footballers by Richard Williams in The Guardian, in which he writes in particular about the Portuguese player Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane. It was in part about why one might conceive of them as ‘artists’. Richard Williams had been a music writer before becoming a sports journalist; he’s written a book about Miles Davis, for example. He’s one of the few journalists who has a real feel for rhythm, space, tears and shifts in space, relations of connection and counterpoint, etc. – those elements that are central to my relation to watching sport. Anyway, Williams wrote a memorable phrase in this article: ‘He [Zidane] sees space and time and angles where we see only confusion.’ The ‘we’ that he refers to is perhaps the untutored eye, the kind of a person who perhaps isn’t sensitised to those kinds of elements and processes going on. He suggests somebody like Zidane makes such things palpably apparent. A change of direction that opens up that part of the space where it was blocked. That shift in angle, that cut-back pass that opens up a gap in relation to that vector of that body moving at that speed, through what looks like a chaotic scrimmage, into a new configuration of space. So it’s a kind of choreographic practice at one level, an enabling managing of space for people to flair into the thing that they do very well. Which is thrilling and illuminating,  of course. There are very few people who make such dynamic elements and possibilities as visible as Zidane sometimes did: a kind of pedagogy for spectators.

For what it's worth, an edited transcript of an interview with David Williams by Dick McCaw, a version of which was first published as 'Space and time and angles: learning how to watch' in the journal Theatre, Dance and Performance Training 5:3, 2014, 350-3. Image just above: Anthony Gormley, 'Trajectory Field', 2001

Thursday, 26 March 2015

stony ground, but not entirely

As an undergraduate student of French and Drama at an English university in the late 1970s, with a furrowed brow and a cigarette-fueled enthusiasm for Camus, Genet, Ionesco and above all Beckett, I possessed a much thumbed and annotated copy of Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd. Esslin’s book became a point of reference and orientation for me at that time, mapping and distilling certain thematic and formal patterns of which I felt I had intuited something without being able to organise those feelings into anything resembling coherent thought. 

At an impressionable, receptive period it was foundational for me, offering a window into affective landscapes of theatre, as well as leading me towards a wide range of other texts and readings. Initially it also spawned a bunch of adjectives that provided a kind of shorthand for complex ‘worlds’ and structures of feeling, words to be tossed around in undergraduate seminars and conversations as if there was a knowing, nodding consensus as to what they actually meant: ‘Beckettian’, ‘Kafkaesque’, ‘Pinteresque’ etc., as well as ‘absurdist’. 

Ultimately, and more productively, it helped seed a life-long interest in the ‘unlessenable least best worse' and ‘nohow on' of Beckett’s writings. The late Herbert Blau once located Beckett’s work as ‘the locus classicus of the problematic of the future' - and, on this hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1, as conflict continues unabated in various war zones around the world, Beckett will be a shadow companion in what follows:

‘Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed … But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!' (Vladimir in Waiting for Godot).

I still have that original copy of Esslin’s book, although until recently I had not opened its battered covers for many years. Almost forty years later, it is frankly disarming to revisit this text via the filter of my underlinings and scribbled notes, encountering these barely decipherable invitations to read and think as ‘someone else’ once read and thought. For these sub-Krapp marginalia offer the perspectives of a dimly remembered and prematurely world-weary nineteen year-old, his (my) unconvincing performance of hip Left Bank-ish anomie concretised in an omnipresent, decaying donkey jacket stuffed with papers and books (no carrots or pebbles), and an impenetrable micro-climatic pall of (‘Camusian’) smoke. 

I was clearly seduced and somehow affirmed by what I took - in my limited understanding of existentialism as a philosophical style, a grey cloak of ideas to be tossed over young shoulders and worn - to be revelatory representations of impossibility and inertia, of the inadequacies of reason, language and received regimes of the self, of disenchantment and meaninglessness in the face of mortality. In retrospect, I had little sense of the gravity and matter of such thoughts in and as lived experience.

Over the next few years, increasingly and joyously immersed in the chaotic, dissident explosion of new popular music at that time, and associated leftist politics, I came to read some of these plays as proto-‘punk’ manifestations, affectively rhythmed and charged mechanisms to prise the lid off the blind assumptions, repressed power-plays and dead-ends of naturalised middle-class ‘normality’ and conformity, education, culture, science-as-progress, entrepreneurship, meaningful action, the future. (One of my notes in the margins of Esslin’s book comically reads ‘Cf. Pistols?!’). In their defamiliarising shocks to thought and conventional aesthetic values, as much as in their pitch-black humour, these plays seemed to have a critical status politically and socially, both presenting lived situations as uncomfortable, uncanny image-worlds – how it is - and implicitly positing the possibility of and need to conceive of how it might be, otherwise, in a ‘world to come’. 

I began to realise that these were not exclusively essentialist metaphysical myths of nihilism and despair, scorched ahistorical outlines of the inevitability of the house burning down and total collapse through proliferation or entropic diminution, but also and at the same time abrasive, startling, excavatory calls to question and think and reimagine what Beckett in his short text ‘Enough’ characterised as ‘stony ground but not entirely’. Calls to make meaning where it apparently recedes and dissolves – in paradox, contradiction, oxymoron, double-bind, the uncanny, the im/possible, the Unnamable - or to learn how to live with not-meaning (1). Esslin suggested as much, perhaps, but somehow the insistent privileged framing of these plays, via a very particular conception of absurdity as anguished existential ontology, has served to insulate and defuse their potential critical, political charge.

So. Now. What/how one might live in relation to others. What/how one might be. What/how one might do. At this place, at this moment in time, all mankind is us. Whether we like it or not. 

Extract from an essay on Beckett and ecology, 'The ruins of time (I've forgotten this before)', to be published in the autumn of 2015 as part of a collection reappraising Esslin's Theatre of the Absurd 

(1) It was only much later that I came across Adorno’s negative dialectics and other critical perspectives contesting an ‘absence’ of meaning in Beckett: “Beckett’s plays are absurd not because of the absence of any meaning, for they would be simply irrelevant, but because they put meaning on trial; they unfold its history’ (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 1970). See also Stanley Cavell on Endgame as: ‘not the failure of meaning (if that means the lack of meaning) but its total, even totalitarian success – our inability not to mean what we are given to mean’ (in Must We Mean What We Say?, 1996).

Monday, 23 March 2015

botched taxidermy (FE365)

Throughout 2014, the 30th year of Forced Entertainment's existence, the company made an open call for people to submit texts "describing, thinking around, considering, marking or in any way remembering the company’s work in the three decades from its beginning in 1984". The only rule, that they be "exactly 365 words long, the final objective being to make a selection of texts totaling 10,950 words, one word for each day of the group’s collective work in the field of contemporary performance". In March 2015, 30 of the texts originally submitted - one for each year - were selected and published online as a pdf, with an introduction by Deborah Chadbourn and an afterword by Tim Etchells. This and the following post, texts I submitted, were included.

In his book The Postmodern Animal (2000), Steve Baker explores a variety of contemporary art practices involving animal representations, where ‘things appear to have gone wrong with the animal, as it were, but where it still holds together’. He describes strategies of imitation where disguises are tawdry, compromised, incongruous conjunctions coming apart at the seams, active reminders of difference and perhaps of a certain shame. With reference to Deleuze and Guattari’s word rater (to spoil, ruin), he coins the term ‘botched taxidermy’ for such makeshift, imperfect practices. Related to assemblage and bricolage, and the knowingly open display of ‘faulty’ or ‘inexpert’ technique, Baker suggests that such creative procedures in the generation of the provisional, the informal and the recycled are ‘questioning entities’(Derrida).

‘Botched taxidermy’ seems useful in relation to Forced Entertainment’s work, not only for thinking into all those dodgy animal disguises and uncertain animal/human hybrids in the performances: the panto horse in Pleasure, gulping whisky through an eye socket and cans of lager through the join between the two halves of the costume, before dancing in its own beery piss; the recurrent gorilla suit with or without head; or Cathy’s tatty, amateurish ‘dog’ costume in Showtime, on all fours with only the dog’s head and an old overcoat - a hilarious irritant messing with the show’s already troubled coherence, as well as a bittersweet failure of cynocephalic transformation. ‘Botched taxidermy’ also informs the structures and tonalities that characterise so many of these shows. Irreverently playing with received, overly-familiar or overlooked representational forms, displacing and defamiliarising them, turning them inside out and on their heads. Messing with their anatomies, abusing them, taking them apart, ‘stitching them up’ and reanimating them as comic, pathetic, psychotic, narcoleptic, drunk, incompetent, conspiratorial or inventive revenants in a different context here-now.

In Forced Entertainment’s shows, things often stagger on the lip of falling apart, yet somehow it still holds together. This core ambiguity and complexity in the work might be called a ‘fucked-up-and-yetness’. The ‘and-yetness’, which is political in its invitation to possibility and connectivity, takes many forms aesthetically and affectively, from the melancholic, the poignant and the corrosively comic, to the most astonishing micro-events of a flaring into appearance.

For all of the FE365 submissions in 2014, as well as the pdf download, see here. Contributors to the pdf selection include Mike Harrison, Alan Read, Gerry Harris, John McGrath, Matt Fenton, David Tushingham, Tim Crouch, Andy Smith, Richard Gregory, Kate Valk, Claire Macdonald, Dan Rebellato and Mark Etchells. 

liars and thieves (FE365)

Years ago, someone once sent me a rather poor photocopy of a photo of my friend Claire Marshall - in Hidden J, I think, it was a show I never actually saw. In the photo, she’s wearing a black dress and a cardboard sign tied with string around her neck, with the word LIAR written in big capital letters. Claire looks vulnerable and isolated adorned by this material textual object, 'othered' as if the sign has been coercively imposed. In some photos of her in this show, a slightly blurred Richard Lowdon is lurking in the background, his eyes directed towards Claire’s back, and his presence seems to confirm this coercion. 

Yet the nomination LIAR remains ambiguous, and any stable reading skids and unravels. Claire seems to be located as A liar, if not THE singular liar. At the same time the word and her gaze also point outwards to any readers of the sign, and the term can attach itself to anyone who witnesses, perhaps to be freely accepted and shared in complicity: aren’t we all liars anyway? Or it can be received as accusation. Who? Me? Oh…

The photograph came to me at a time when I lived in Australia, and petty criminals were being publicly shamed in some states there. A boy who had been caught shoplifting in a glossy new mall in Canberra was punished in the children’s court by being obliged to stand every Saturday outside the ‘scene-of-the-crime’ in the shopping centre wearing a T-shirt with the word THIEF printed on it. Within days of his sentencing, this civic stigmatisation had been co-opted and dispersed as thousands of identical T-shirts were printed, distributed and worn around the shopping malls of Canberra.

Whenever I’ve seen this image of Claire, and it has often been reproduced since then, I have wanted to undo her isolation, and have tried to imagine (it’s not so hard) a proliferation of liars on street corners and in courts of law, in shopping centres and front gardens, in railway stations and pubs and theatres and universities and online. A community of liars, with no clear way of ever knowing if any of us were telling the truth.

Photo: Hugo Glendinning