[a short piece for an event in Hong Kong that asked us to imagine a theatre underwater]

The auditorium is almost totally dark
And nearly empty

Apart from the whale
cratered flesh floating in murky grey water
whale-shaped darkness looming over
decaying red velvet seats

She swims in circles
through the gaping proscenium jaw
along the barnacled dress circle
and as she swims
she sings

She sings Memory
She sings On My Own
She sings I Could Have Danced All Night
She sings You’ll Never Walk Alone
She sings What A Wonderful World
She sings I’ll Be Your Mirror
She sings Where Have All The Flowers Gone

She sings in the almost darkness
An elegy
A requiem
A memory of all the people who were once here
And their sad songs
and their love songs
and their dress circle
and their beautiful red velvet seats

And when she has finished singing
she pauses for a moment
to consider the passing of time

she imagines the world as it once probably was
and then exits via the loading the bay
to join the others


[a short essay written for the new book Audience Revoluton: Dispatches From The Fieldwhich has all kinds of other interesting things in it.]

Rosana Cade_Walking Holding_creditRosieHealey.jpg

  1. Play is free, is in fact freedom.

– Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens


1 – The City

Hyper-scrutinized and super-surveilled, fractured and fracturing, crowded with people, ideologies, contradictions, rhythms, retail opportunities, inequalities, inequities, good ideas, bad ideas, lost dogs, wifi hubs and sites of contested historical value, it is in our major cities that the coding that organises contemporary society is at its most visible and consequently its most reprogrammable. In our ever-growing metropolises we negotiate literally and figuratively the relationships that constitute the society we find ourselves a part of; relationships like that between ordinary citizens and bodies and instruments of conspicuous power, between private business and public good, and between you and me, the other people around us and the streets, buildings, parks and squares that make up the physical spaces we inhabit.

Through this plurality of relationships we return again and again to the notion of freedom, the spectre of control and the ways in which both are manifested on our busy streets. Cities have long been places where this ideological conflict is played out with bodies and buildings through actions that are at once real and symbolic. In Paris in the 19th century the city’s streets were famously redesigned in order to inhibit the kind of collective urban action that had fuelled the transformation of the entire country in the previous century, creating wide boulevards that prevented the construction of barricades and enabled swift access to potential sites of subversion from the city’s military barracks. At around the same time the city of Melbourne in Australia was being designed without any public squares at all, specifically in order to discourage the kind of democracy that such gathering places fostered.

This association of public space with freedom and democracy, and the consequent attempts to restrict freedom through the restriction of our access to such public space, is an equally significant component of the 21st century city. Consider the number of political movements that have emerged since 2011 which have been grounded in physical spaces, from Tahrir Square to Zucotti Park, and how frequently the reaction to these movements has involved restricting access to those very same sites, often indefinitely. Alongside such blunt confrontations with the democratic potential of the public realm there are other, more insidious threats. Architect Sam Jacobs, for example, has suggested that the dream of a digitally-driven ‘smart city’ of the future seductively envisioned by tech giants like Google and Apple has the potential to transform us into ‘voluntary prisoners of smart architecture’. In the smart city our behaviour is monitored and moderated by an elaborate array of networked devices that could include everything from the phones in our pockets to the park benches we sit on to the driverless cars we will soon be riding in. Convenience lures us into acquiescence.

Yet public space and the uses we are able to make of it remain crucial to our understanding of who we are, as individuals and as a community. And as traditional gathering places and familiar forms of protest are designed out of our urban environment and our personal and political agency is eroded by the utopian fantasies of unaccountable corporations, alternative methods of re-imagining and renegotiating our relationship with public space become increasingly important.


2 – On Play

Seemingly lacking both explicit intentions and meaningful outcomes, play is ideally situated to evade the kind of restrictions placed on more direct political action. Play can appear trivial or unserious and yet in its defiant unproductivity, its superimposition of alternative rules or structures over the rules that normally govern our public behaviour, and its encouragement to imagine something other than the ordinary, to imagine ourselves as something other than the ordinary, play can create a space of thrilling otherness to our current social and political conditions. Play invites us to imagine ourselves as free. Free to impose our own reality upon the cities we inhabit, even if temporarily. In doing so it might fulfil a vital purpose in an environment in which more explicit acts of freedom-making can be so vigorously policed and constrained.

But if even if play has the potential to serve as just such an act of ‘freedom-making’, what does that look like in practice? Is it the child crouched behind a park bench, waiting for just the right moment to leap out and scare her passing parents? Is it the elaborate Zombie chase game I attended a couple of years ago in an empty industrial estate in North London? Is it me, just earlier today, walking down the street secretly pretending to be a racing car? Is it all these things or is it none of them? How might we begin to configure a politics of play, as a means of understanding when playing on our city streets is a radical gesture and when it isn’t?

One way to answer this question would be by identifying a possible history of such radical play. Such a history might lead from the purposeful aimlessness of the dérive, through the playful event scores and happenings of sixties artists such as Allan Kaprow and George Brecht, to more contemporary manifestations of urban play such as flash mobs, pervasive gaming and certain kinds of contemporary site-specific theatre and performance art. Through recourse to such a history I can begin to map a kind of play that is placeless and appropriative, that disappears into the everyday activity of the city, that occupies time rather than space, that exists perhaps most fundamentally as a way of looking or a way of operating, ascribing new meanings to familiar actions and old architecture, and in so doing producing radical new experiences of the city. This is a definition of play I recognise as an act of oblique political resistance. It is the kind of definition around which my own practice has been constructed, informed by a critical and aesthetic vocabulary that has not only helped me to understand what I want to make, but also how to describe it.


3 – On Play and Privilege

Knowledge, however, is rarely only knowledge. In this instance the knowledge that has shaped the way I think about play has brought with it an artistic legitimacy and a cultural capital that has been just as crucial in affording me the freedom to play in the streets of my city. This freedom is manifested in a variety of ways; an ability to secure grants and commissions to devise and develop new projects, participation in festivals of play and performance that frequently enable special access to streets, parks and other public places, and perhaps less tangibly a kind of confidence – a sense of what I am able to get away with and where. This confidence is born of experience, of my ability to justify or explain what I am doing, of my position as a professional artist, and perhaps most fundamentally from privileges of race, sex and class that mean the streets are freer for me and people like me than virtually anyone else in society.

The history of play that has informed my own work is by and large a history of people with a similarly privileged freedom to play in radical and unpredictable ways in the public realm. Work emerging from, supported by and remembered in galleries, museums, universities and the pages of beautiful, expensive books. Celebrated yet circumscribed, well-intentioned but nonetheless legitimised by and legitimising institutions of explicit authority and privilege, does such play risk becoming part of neoliberal machinery that reinforces rather than re-imagines the power relations that govern our public spaces?

In 2009 on London’s South Bank, I was involved in creating a street game for a summer festival. Promoted by the South Bank Centre the piece encouraged players to dress in one of three colours and meet outside the Royal Festival Hall, freezing for two minutes and then moving in a series of stuttering improvised patterns towards a nearby park where we had prepared as a finale a giant game of grandmother’s footsteps led by a performer in a giant papier-mâché grandmother’s head.

As the people playing the game started to move in fits and starts across grass, dozens of other people, many local teenagers hanging out and drinking in the sunshine, noticed them doing so and tried to join in. These new people did not know the rules of the game, they had not received the pre-event briefing emailed to players the previous day, they were not visitors to the South Bank Centre. In delighted exhilaration they rushed at Grandma. We didn’t know what to do. We hadn’t anticipated this; we hadn’t invited them to play.

Responding instinctively to the danger posed to the performer braced inside the oversized costume we formed a cordon, a barrier, a strong line of defence; arms linked, we pressed into the crowd, forcing them backwards away from their immediate target. Behind me I could hear another supervisor using a loudhailer to encourage these new players to disperse. This was not the kind of play we had anticipated, and not the role we thought we would find ourselves playing.


4 – The London Riots

 The complexity of my relationship to public space and the freedom to play was perhaps made most apparent to me a couple of years after this experience when, in the summer of 2011 a black man called Mark Duggan was shot dead by police in North London. Little explanation for his death was given and the police briefings about the circumstances surrounding it inflamed the local community. Hundreds of people from the area marched on a nearby police station demanding an explanation. They waited for several hours whilst no satisfactory response was forthcoming; the crowd growing, the tension building.

Eventually there was a scuffle, then fights, and quickly things began to fall apart, or perhaps more accurately they started to be pulled apart. Violence spread like a meme – an idea, a pose, an action, a euphoric, irresistible carnival, carried on mobile phones and through the social networking sites. What followed was a flash mob of fierce chaos; an ecstatic, angry mirror to the corporatized incitements to dance in train stations or freeze in city parks that had infiltrated London in the previous couple of years. The same vocabulary of play and transformation shouted in furious voices by those who hadn’t previously been invited to join in.

Following the riots a clean-up was organised on the internet by well-meaning, socially-conscious people I thought of as much like me. Some of those organisers were people I’d actually met, at arts conferences and similar cultural events. They encouraged people to get a broom and go out into the streets to help with the clean up. People arrived on the streets ready to make a point, ready to take something back. By the time the crowds had assembled the majority of cleaning up had already been done by local council workers. With little to do but gather awaiting instructions these unneeded players stood in the street, posing for journalists’ photographs, holding their clean new brooms in the air like banners. They laughed, they cheered.

They swept away antagonism and reclaimed the streets for play of a kind I recognised as familiar. Play that is just radical enough, participated in largely by people with the freedom to choose when and how they will be visible and when they will remain inconspicuous; people for whom the experience of running through the city has rarely been anything but a thrilling experience.


5 – Walking Holding

More recently I have found myself drawn to a different kind of play. Play that is not so reliant on adherence to a single set of rules or a secretive fictional scenario, both of which can often depend on the seductive idea of erasing the complexities of privilege, politics and power that are always present in public space in the same problematic way Peter Brook erases them in his empty space.

Instead the play I find myself drawn to is built around the more ambiguous, negotiated terrain of the encounter. An encounter that recognises that different people will understand public space and their relationship to it in fundamentally different ways. That invites us to acknowledge that difference and explore it. That recognises the production of meaning as a plural and collaborative act. This is play that, initially at least, does not appear so explicitly playful, and yet which to me is still a gentle act of re-ordering and re-producing; the fashioning of new freedoms out of extra-ordinary interactions.

Perhaps the best example I have so far seen of such an encounter is a performance called Walking:Holding created by the artist Rosana Cade. The piece invites you to walk hand in hand with a series of strangers on a journey through the city. The people you walk with are residents of the city who have agreed to take part in the piece, people of various ages, genders, sexualities. As you walk with each of these people in turn, you share a conversation with them about how this walking together, this visible intimacy, makes you both feel.

Through the playful and seemingly uncomplicated action of holding hands we are able  to explore together some of the ways in which public spaces are performed and policed, the privileges of gender, sexuality, race and class that so often determine our freedom to roam,  and the contingent nature of our own visibility within the city. It is the simplicity of this gesture which is so powerful – the realisation that just a held hand is enough to thrillingly and frighteningly transform our experience of the city and initiate new relationships of solidarity and resistance.



Dancing in unison

Try this. Find a friend and dance together. Not hand in hand but actually together. In unison. Your steps matching their steps. Theirs matching yours.

There is I think something more intimate even than touch in the connection this creates. Your body speaking to their body, learning the rhythms of each other. Each compromising a little, finding something of the other inside yourself. The ghost of their bones in your bones, creating a new reality in the space between you.

The more people you add the greater the effect. I remember very vividly in a tiny, grotty late night bar at the outer limits of a music festival many years ago, looking up and noticing that the entire room had quite accidentally started bobbing in total unison.

We all noticed. We cheered. We continued bobbing. It was one of the most joyous experiences I can remember. A new reality. A kind of temporary utopia.

Figs in Wigs dance in unison

If people know one thing about Figs in Wigs it is that they dance in unison. And their dances are great dances. Neat and nimble and beguilingly strange, the kind of dances you might choreograph on an arcade machine from the 80s. Dances that seem to be made of pixels rather than steps.

But Figs’ synchronicity is about more than simply their moves. It extends out in every possible direction. It is in their identical costumes, their uniform monobrows, their deadpan expressions. It is in their jokes, the way they speak to each other and with each other.

It is even in the structuring of the shows themselves which seem to follow a totally unreadable, arhythmical logic entirely of their own devising. The journey through a Figs show is like a story told by a seven-year-old, full of false starts, extended diversions and endless repetitions. Meticulously setting up rules and conceits only to totally abandon them. Scenes of unpredictable length crashing delightedly into one another like the Figs themselves endlessly careering across the stage.

Yet none of this feels careless or accidentally. It is instead part of a meticulously constructed alternative reality, held together by uniform rhythms and matching wigs. The Figs have created for themselves an exhilaratingly indecipherable universe that only they can live in. A utopia that exists in the space between these five synchronised bodies.

And it is joyous.

Resisting reality as a radical act

In 1961 the artist Claus Oldenburg was living on New York’s Lower East Side – a then-largely derelict landscape of gaudy advertisements and abandoned warehouses. Broken industry and technicolour consumerism.

His response to this landscape was to create The Store, a small shop unit on East Second street filled with crudely made reproductions of everyday items. Shoes, chocolate bars and hot dogs made from chicken wire covered in plaster and painted in vivid blobs of glossy colour. Nestled amongst the neighbouring shops and advertisements Oldenburg’s store was both of the city and totally apart from it, a remaking of the surrounding environment as a baffling, messy, day-glo simulacra. Useless and curiously beautiful, The Store is both a reflection of New York and an escape from it into another fantastical world.

Like The Store, Figs In Wigs are experts at taking shitty quotidian reality and remaking it into something pointless and beautiful in its hand-made simplicity. In Often Onstage they trace endless patterns across the stage in their too-vivid green business suits. They speak empty motivational aphorisms from gameshow cards. They dance to the empty muzak of soul destroying aspirational advertisements.

It is an act of appropriation. It is the transformation of the reality that surrounds them into a world they might want to live in. A place of delirious strangeness and endless, flocking patterns of movement.


If you have ever walked in a protest, you have probably been told that it won’t change anything. That the message isn’t clear, or is unrealistic.

I think this misses an important point. Often the marching is itself the point. We march together, as a reaffirmation of community, as an act of collective solidarity. It is the creation of a new space we can all live in together, even if only temporarily. And the people on the march will carry the memory of that space with them when they leave. They will carry it together into the things they do in their ordinary lives. It will bleed into their future actions, and change those actions for the better.

Figs in Wigs shows don’t appear to make much sense. Like protests they are noisy and colourful, occasionally shambolic and frequently lacking in any clear ‘message’. And similarly to critique them based on a perceived failure to communicate anything would be a misunderstanding of what is taking place. Each Figs in Wigs show is a reaffirmation of the beguiling universe they are creating for themselves.

In presenting these shows to us, the audience, Figs are not asking that we decode their strangeness, or even hoping that we find it funny. Instead they are hoping that the world they have created might extend temporarily outwards to include the rest of us. That we can slip into the same odd rhythm. That we can harbour in the shelter of their strangeness from all the awfulness of the contemporary world – its competitiveness, its narcissism, its grim economic reality.

In their monobrows and matching costumes, they continue to act with the absolute conviction that they can live inside the world they have created for themselves, and that perhaps we can too. And that in itself is a defiantly, gloriously radical act.


In 2014 I created a project called Agreements, for two projects in London at Ovalhouse and Shoreditch Town hall. As described at the time, the project was a ‘series of contracts binding two friends or strangers into a commitment to perform a pre-determined action together at a specific point in the relatively near future. Should either of the two people fail to perform their part of action, the agreement outlines the costs they will be liable for.’

Today I received this email confirming that at least one of the agreements made had been fulfilled.

Message: Dear Andy,

We attended Nigel & Louise\’s Basement Grotto event in Shoreditch Town hall way back when in 2014. We participated in your Agreements event and are delighted to inform you that yesterday, the third day of the first heatwave of 2016, we fulfilled the terms of the contract we signed. We both met at at the east side of Regent\’s Park with a 4 pack of beer, a packet of cigarettes and a Velvet Underground playlist (via youtube on an iPhone). We found a mutually agreed location and drank the beer, smoked the cigarettes and danced to the Velvet Underground (including the track, Oh Sweet Nuthin\’) until the sun went down.
We thoroughly enjoyed the experience and hopefully will participate in another of your projects soon.
Kind Regards,
Ian & Zivile

I asked my friends on the internet to recommend me a good and weird fiction book as I haven’t read one for a while, and (brilliantly, generously, infuriatingly) they recommended me more books than I could ever possibly read. For my future reference, and maybe yours too, I am making a list of them here.

Dhalgren (Samuel R Delaney)
Unity (Michael Arditti)
The Remainder (Tom McCarthy)
Light (M John Harrison)
A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)
Meeting the English (Kate Clanchy)
The Honours (Tim Clare)
Wild Abandon (Joe Dunthorne)
Cigarettes (Harry Matthews)
My Life in the CIA (Harry Matthews)
Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)
These Demented Lands (Alan Warner)
Mama Day (Gloria Naylor)
First Bad Man (Miranda July)
The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)
The Amnesia Clinic (James Scudamore)
I Love Dick (Chris Klaus)
Polyamorous Love Song (Jacob Wren)
A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara)
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Amos Tutuola)
Kindred (Octavia Butler)
A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
My Elvis Blackout (Simon Crump)
Neverland (Simon Crump)
The Literary Conference (Cesar Aira)
Mislaid (Nell Zink)
The Wallcreeper (Nell Zink)
The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson)
The Vegetarian (Han Kang)
John dies at the end (David Wing)
The End of Mr Y (Scarlet Thomas)
Stone Junction (Jim Dodge)
The Mezzanine (Nicholson Baker)
Metropole (Ferenc Karinthy)
The Mouse and His Child (Russell Hoban)
Timbuktu (Paul Auster)
The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro)
Green Glowing Skull (Gavin Corbett)
The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester)
Shalimar the Clown (Salman Rushdie)
The Bricks That Built The Houses (Kate Tempest)
The People of Paper (Salvador Plascensia)
The Sirens of Titan (Kurt Vonnegut)
John The Posthumous (Jason Schwartz)
Ancient Evenings (Norman Mailer)
Hotels Of North America (Rick Moody)
The Peregrine (J. A. Baker)
Slights (Kaaren Warren)
Labyrinths (Jorge Luis Borges)
House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski)
Loitering With Intent (Muriel Spark)
Martin John (Anakana Schofield)



[Originally published in Contemporary Theatre Review, issue 26.1]


I cannot remember exactly when or how we arrived at the Times Museum in Guangzhou. It is not a building that aims to capture your attention. Indeed, it is a gallery that appears initially at least to occupy no space at all, embedded as it is on the lowermost and uppermost floors of an otherwise ordinary residential apartment block in an otherwise ordinary area of Guangzhou, far from declamatory civic architecture of the city centre – the voluminous aria of Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House, the clever spectacle of Guangzhou Library’s monumental book-like stacks. The Times Museum is a building to be experienced from the inside. Its spectacle is the city itself, viewed from a balcony or the glass windows of its exhibition rooms. This is not a museum that demands space and attention within the city, but rather a lens through which to consider it.

If architecture invites or perhaps even imposes a set of values upon the institution that occupies it, then the values implied by the architecture of the Times Museum are values I find enormously appealing. It is a building that blurs rather than demarcates space in the city. A building whose grandest flourish is a gesture out from rather than towards itself. A building that is physically embedded within and bound up with the activity of its local community. A building that seems to listen, rather than to speak.

Perhaps it was this set of architectural conditions that helped make the Times Museum the most enjoyable and most successful stop on our brief tour of China. Or perhaps it was more quotidian causes – the level of engagement of the programming team, their enthusiasm for and understanding of our work, the number of tickets we managed to sell. Perhaps those two things are not unrelated.


In July 2015 Forest Fringe went to China. We were invited by the British Council to create a touring ‘microfestival’; a collection of intimate, interactive performances and installations by artists from the UK to be presented as a series of self-contained two-day festivals in the cities of Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. In the last five years we have made similar microfestivals in cities including Lisbon, New York, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Athens, but never before had we attempted a project on this scale.

Scale is important in relation to Forest Fringe. We began as a gathering of mainly young, mainly British performance artists and theatremakers working together to create a space to present our work in the midst of the corporatized fury of the Edinburgh Festival. Ten years later Forest Fringe continues to be made up of a decentralised community of independent theatre makers – solo artists, duos, small companies of three or four individuals – who come together at particular times and in particular places in order to present their work together. In order to achieve collectively something they can’t achieve individually.

Forest Fringe exists because such defiantly independent, unashamedly small-scale artists are able to sustain themselves in the UK, up to a certain point at least. This is in part a consequence of the fact that they are able to fund projects through the Arts Council’s small grants programme and partly because they are able to tour the UK’s relatively healthy network of small to medium-scale venues reasonable cheaply. We live on a small island with a competent road network and enough stages built into the upstairs of pubs and the basements of warehouses to keep blood just about flowing through thin capillaries. Artists can largely create work without the patronage of major institutions and the entailing necessity to increase the scale of your work to fit the size of the rooms such major institutions tend to build for people to watch theatre in.

Forest Fringe, and to an extent the wider community of artists that exist around and beyond it, has become a laboratory for the exploration of the theatrical possibilities implicit in this intimate scale. What you tend to find at Forest Fringe is work invested in moments of immediate connection. Work woven out of the individual threads that connect one audience member to another and each of them to the artists standing often no more than a few metres away from you. The sound of their breathe rising and falling. Their eyes picking you out in the half darkness. The urgency of this act of gathering. Your responsibility as a member of this temporary community. And whilst the technical complexity and the aesthetic ambition of this work has increased enormously over the course of nearly a decade at the Edinburgh Festival, the scale has remained relatively similar. We like it up close and personal.

The intimacy of this scale and the impact this has on the performance and those people bearing witness to it remains one of the greatest strengths of Forest Fringe’s work. It is also one of the things that makes the work of Forest Fringe artists distinctive and interesting for an international audience. But it also often brings challenges. As we travel round the world we regularly encounter the problem of operating on a scale that is not in sympathy with that of the theatre buildings in the countries we visit. We can admire your beautiful Zaha Hadid concert hall but we know we would be totally lost in it.

Consequently we have tried to find other ways to place this work, to create contexts that make sense of it, allowing local audiences to meet that work on its own terms. Sometimes this is about finding imaginative alternative ways to use the space and resources of big institutions – to present our work in their boardrooms and their bars and their underground car parks. Sometimes it is about going somewhere else entirely – repurposing non-theatre spaces, whether they be warehouses, old cinemas, former slaughterhouses or, in the case of China, three moderately-sized independent galleries.

But perhaps the most important way we have found of creating space for ourselves in these foreign places is the idea of a ‘microfestival’ itself – a constellating together of three or four or five small pieces to create the shape of something larger. Each piece in dialogue with the others, providing not only the content of the event but also a way of framing and contextualising it. A microfestival is a culture in both senses of the word; a collective expression of the way we think about art, and a carefully prepared set of conditions that allows our work to live temporarily far away from home.


What are we doing in China? What purpose could our being here possibly have? This is what I am thinking to myself as we move anonymously between buildings of impossible scale and conspicuous power.

Perhaps what we are trying to do is create a culture that refuses to participate in this discourse of spectacle. A version of international touring that exists outside of the huge mega-venues and their franchised productions of international mega-hits; hits such as the National Theatre’s War Horse, whose restaging in the same cities were also visiting was one of the centrepieces of 2015’s Anglo-Chinese year of Culture. Perhaps ours is a version of art that has more in common with the kind of everyday strategies for inhabiting space that are to be found on the streets of a city rather than in its immaculate concert halls.

Certainly it is noticeable on our brief stay that the artists we brought with us felt most at ease amongst the activity of China’s smaller, messier city streets. Tiny restaurants spilling out on to the pavement on colourful plastic chairs, the appropriated logos of major international brands, the occasionally hilarious DIY repairs and resourceful technological workarounds, all of which make China’s streets such a joyous, unpredictable place to walk. Improvisatory tactics, resourceful acts of cohabitation and appropriation; an ‘art of making do’ as Michel De Certeau would have it. In the shadows of skyscrapers, shopping malls and conference centres, it is on these streets that the world’s most populous country appears to find its most human scale.

And much like those human-scaled streets, Forest Fringe’s microfestival in China represents to me more an occupation of time than an occupation of space. An interruption perhaps, or a series of interruptions, that subtly reconstitute the space we are temporarily inhabiting. There are no grand sets or spectacular installations, instead there are a series of imaginative acts of repurposing and re-imagining. There is, for example, the Hunt & Darton cafe temporarily infecting the gallery’s normal rooftop cafe space like a technicolour fever dream, filling it with unhelpful cardboard signs, deranged costumed waitresses and curiously English culinary offerings. There is Richard DeDomenici slipping anonymously through the city’s streets recreating scenes from multi-million dollar Hollywood movies in their original shooting locations using only a small digital camera and a team of willing local volunteers, Abigail Conway inviting people to dismantle old Chinese watches and transform them into new pieces of jewellery, Simone Kenyon and Maria Sideri creating beautiful sculptural forms using nothing but their own bodies, or my own instructional book of ‘Six Duets’ inviting audiences to play hidden, secret games with unsuspecting passersby, both in the gallery and out on the streets beyond it. These are not pieces that demand to be looked at, but rather pieces to be looked with – lenses for reconstituting our relationship to the world around us.

And the enthusiasm with which these surreal offerings are greeted is for me a reassuring counter to the seductive power of scale and spectacle. It is a reminder that beyond the grand concert halls, China is also a country (as hopefully any country is) that is built not from steel and glass but out of everyday human-scale interactions. It is a place full of people who appreciate the value of distraction and interruption; of playful, unpredictable and politically ambiguous acts of gathering. People who recognise the thrill in performances where you can hear the sound of a breathe rising and falling and see into the eyes of the person moving in front of you. Performances that are an invitation to be part of strange, temporary communities that fill us not with awe but with agency.

[Image: Abigail Conway’s On The Tip Of Your Tongue at the Times Museum, Guangzhou]

MaxMcClure SpikeIsland (22)

Here is a PDF of a newspaper I made a few years ago for a project at Spike Island, the earliest version of something that much later would become put your sweet hand in mine.

Spike Island Paper 3

2015-07-03 123009

[A talk I gave as part of the Hunt & Darton Symposium on Friday 5 February in response to the question How does something as quintessentially British as the Hunt and Darton Cafe thing translate internationally?]

In 2015 the Hunt and Darton Café went to China. It went as part of a Forest Fringe Microfestival that toured to three different galleries in three major cities – Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing.

We arrived first in Guangzhou at the end of July. Holly and Jenny brought with them two new pineapple dresses, a collection of novelty porcelain ornaments, and a suitcase full of British cakes – Battenberg, French fancies, Wagon Wheels – everything we knew we wouldn’t be able to find in China.

Guangzhou is the third largest city in China with a population of over 13 million people. When people prepare to go home for Chinese New Year a queue forms at Guangzhou central train station that can be up to two days long. It is almost impossibly big, filled with skyscrapers and spectacular architectural projects of impossible scale and conspicuous power. It is hot and humid. In Shanghai we are working in a former slaughterhouse with labyrinthine walkways rising up from the ground floor in disorientating spirals. One day we head out to one of the city’s impossibly huge shopping centres and eat expensive sandwiches in a European café. When Holly and I try to get a cab home we end up stranded on a three lane highway for about half an hour, waving at taxis that won’t stop. We stand on either side of the road and when eventually Holly persuades someone to take us I have to run across two lanes of traffic and dive in as he is already starting to pull away. In Beijing we go on a day trip to the Great Wall of China. It is so big and so beautiful.

In Guangzhou the café was intended to temporarily take the place of another more permanent café on a balcony of the gallery perched seventeen floors up on the top of a local apartment block. The day before the first day of the first microfestival on the tour we stood on this balcony and looked out at the endless carpet of city laid out in front of us.

What are we doing here in China? What purpose could our being here possibly have? Can something as small and peculiar as Forest Fringe or the Hunt and Darton Café make any sense in this impossibly huge and entirely different place. Who would come? What would they think? Would any of this make any sense to them? Would we just look like idiots? Would they understand that perhaps we were trying to do so?

China, like any place, is best understood not from the top of its tallest buildings, but from walking through its smallest streets. Or at least it is perhaps noticeable that this is undoubtedly where we all felt most comfortable. Tiny restaurants spilling out on to the pavement on colourful plastic chairs, the appropriated imagery of major international brands, people laughing with you and occasionally at you, occasionally hilarious home-made fixes and resourceful workarounds, all of which make China’s streets such a joyous, unpredictable place to walk. Improvisatory tactics, resourceful acts of cohabitation and appropriation; an ‘art of making do’ as Michel De Certeau would have it. In the shadows of skyscrapers, shopping malls and conference centres, it is on these streets that the world’s most populous country exists on a human scale.

Heading out into these streets was a useful reminder to us that beyond the grand concert halls, China is also a country (as hopefully any country is) that still operates on an intimate, human scale. A place full of people who appreciate the value of distraction and interruption. People who enjoy garish colours, trashy food and the multitude of tiny rituals that make up the way we choose to eat together. People with a sense of humour and an appetitive for oddness. People who enjoy stupid dances and making fun of themselves. People who appreciate the opportunity to gather together and to try something they haven’t tried before. All the things, in short, that make the Hunt and Darton café such a great place to spend some time.

In Guangzhou over 800 people attended the Forest Fringe microfestival in 2 days and almost all of those people spent a lot of their time in the café, chatting to friends, eating cake, watching Jenny and Holly dance and talk with customers and their volunteer helpers and make food and serve food and spill food and throw food and play records and readjust their pineapple headdresses. In Shanghai the numbers were similar. Sometimes it was very busy and the whole place felt like a bewildering, technicolour festival. Other times there were perhaps only a handful of people there and it felt like a café. In either case it always felt undoubtedly like the Hunt and Darton café, or at least a version of it, existing perfectly happily here amongst the skyscrapers and the busyness of contemporary Chinese city life.

Perhaps then the café itself is not quintessentially British after all.

Perhaps it is Holly and Jenny who are quintessentially British. Or perhaps they are just strange in any language.

Either way the thing they have created is not some kitsch object like the porcelain figurines or the mountains of Battenberg cake that arrived with them in a suitcase. It is not some obscure in-joke. Nor is it the kind of exportable, marketable version of Britishness that George Osborne so likes – like Downton Abbey or War Horse or Top Gear or every surviving member of the British Family – fetishized pieces of Brand GB nostalgia sold like souvenir postcards, like some distant cultural other.

Instead the café is an intervention or perhaps a series of interventions within another space that belongs as much to that other space as it does to any antiquated notion of Britishness. It is an interruption, an alternative way of doing things that temporarily takes hold without obliterating the curious localness of each of the places it visits.

The café’s peculiar way of doing things manifests itself in all manner of ways. In China it meant Holly attempting to cook Victoria sponges in a local Shanghai bar owner’s pizza oven at 11 at night on the day before the café opened. It meant Jenny teaching the young women working in the café in Guangzhou how to make salmon sandwiches and what the different kinds of chocolate biscuit tasted like and who Delia Smith is. It meant asking six year olds and sixteen year olds and sixty year olds to push two strange British women around on a trolley as a form of entertainment. It meant making a prestigious Chinese theatre critic lie on a table pretending to smoke a piece of ham like a cigar whilst friends and strangers threw pieces of salad at him.

In the end then, I think the reason the café was so successful in Guangzhou and Shanghai are the same reasons it was so successful in Peterborough or Colchester or Clapton. It is because the café is not an object. It is not an artwork to be admired. And neither is it really a café. It is a performance that employs the language and conventions of a café in order to create a space in which we can all play together.

It is a performance that temporarily occupies a place without ever needing to take it over, without eliminating or obscuring the people and things that were there already. It is a performance of distinctive weirdness that doesn’t attempt to sell us its Britishness but instead invites us to participate in it. A performance whose rules are so simple we can all join in. A performance as familiar to us as the childhood games of make-believe we all used to play – running cafes, running shops, manning hospitals, driving vans. It is that same game of make-believe played with real food and real money. It is a game of ordinary people pretending to be ordinary people, playing out deconstructed cartoon versions of the kind of ordinary interactions that make up their everyday lives,  and the strangeness of that is always liberating and delightful, no matter who you are and no matter where you come from.

And the wonderful thing about these curious tactics and alternative ways of operating is that they linger long after the show has left town and the café itself has disappeared. By embroiling themselves in the local everydayness of a place Hunt and Darton become part of that localness. In China they left behind cardboard signs and porcelain ornaments, a love of niche low budget British snacks and recipes for finger sandwiches that have since become part of our Guangzhou hosts’ regular menu. In Shanghai the bar we built is now a part of the venue we built it in. They left behind dances and movements, a way of talking and of playing, a way of relating to the people around you, a silliness and a humour and a recognition that such silliness and humour do not have to be the opposite of seriousness or of taking what you do seriously.

What our trip to China taught me is that it is not the Britishness of the café that makes it so appealing. It is how much a part of the localness of each place it visits it is able and willing to become.

When he wore his hair long at the Top Rank Suite in Sunderland
When he met Marlene Dietrich at Oxford Polytechnic
When he played for one million people at The Playhouse in Harlow
When he told us about Friedrich Nietzsche and Dexter Wansel at Slough Technical College
When we wore matching white suits at the Toby Jug in Tolworth
When he sang with Freddie Mercury at Chelsea Village in Bournemouth
When we drove through the desert at Chichester College
When he became a film star at Assembly Hall in Worthing
When he faked his own death at Wallington Public Hall
When he disappeared at University Rag in Sheffield
When he watched us through a limousine window at Aberystwyth University
When we watched the Velvet Underground at Southampton Civic Centre
When he lost himself to cocaine psychosis at Southsea Pier Pavilion
When the machinery broke down at St George’s Hall in Bradford
When we became heroes at the the Guildhall in Preston
When he drove in circles till he ran out of petrol at the Mayfair Ballroom in Newcastle
When we walked through ruined cities at the Greyhound in Croydon
When he fell to earth at the Belfry Hotel in Sutton Coldfield
When he rose like Lazarus at Birmingham Town Hall
When he posed for the cameras at Brighton Dome
When he lived through it at Yeovil College
When we stared into the future at Hemel Hempstead Pavilion

skellig Michael

In 1985 Walt Disney Pictures released Return To Oz, directed by the sound designer and editor Walter Murch. Set only six months apart, but made at opposite ends of the 20th century, Return To Oz and the Wizard of Oz exist in at once both the same and very different worlds. In Return To Oz Dorothy’s talk of a magical land of living scarecrows and great wizards results in her hospitalization and electro shock therapy. Escaping the hospital she finds herself back in Oz, where the yellow brick road and the Emerald City lie in ruins, and her friends have all turned to stone. Dorothy must navigate her way through this blasted landscape pursued by the mechanised half-human wheelers, literally picking her way through the ruins of the earlier film, its iconography dismantled and rewritten to speak of melancholy, loss , fear and paranoia – to speak perhaps of the difference between 1939 and 1985*. I don’t remember there being a happy ending to the film but apparently there was one.

(*the same year, it might be noted, in which Back to The Future sent us on a return to the imagined innocence of 1955. It was in the sequel to Back to The Future that the idea of a film set in the ruins of an earlier film is taken a step further, by having the finale of the sequel take place actually within the final scene of the earlier film.)

From Svetlana Boym’s Ruinophilia: Appreciation of Ruins:

Ruins make us think of the past that could have been and the future that never took place, tantalizing us with utopian dreams of escaping the irreversibility of time. Walter Benjamin saw in ruins “allegories of thinking itself,” a meditation on ambivalence. At the same time, the fascination for ruins is not merely intellectual, but also sensual. Ruins give us a shock of vanishing materiality. Suddenly our critical lens changes, and instead of marvelling at grand projects and utopian designs, we begin to notice weeds and dandelions in the crevices of the stones, cracks on modern transparencies, rust on withered “Blackberries” in our ever-shrinking closets.

The two highest grossing films of 2015 were Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World, both films that in both literal and figurative ways took place within the ruins of earlier films.

In Jurassic World a successful theme park has been built upon the ruins of the failed one from the first film, tantalisingly decayed parts of which are occasionally revealed in hidden corners of the modern park. Alongside this the remains of the earlier film are present in slightly less literal ways, not least as the very same source of nostalgia that has probably brought us to the cinema to see it. When one of the characters reveals an original Jurassic Park t-shirt bought off e-bay the laughter in the auditorium is perhaps in part about the audacity of the film’s attempt at having its cake and eating it, flagging up the cynical commoditisation of nostalgia in a film whose success is partly at least based on selling our fond memories of the first film back to us. (It is at this point worth noting that Jurassic World‘s director Colin Trevorrow has already been signed up to direct the final film in the current Star Wars trilogy.)

In Star Wars: The Force Awakens when we first meet the lead character Rey she lives inside the ruin of an old Imperial AT-AT and scavenges for parts in the remains of Star Destroyers and other iconic structures from the earlier films; recycling and repurposing material from the past whilst she waits patiently for that very same past to return. Her adversary Kylo Ren meanwhile is equally preoccupied with looking backwards, manufacturing a shrine from the ruined facemask of his grandfather Darth Vader; an image that conjures Walter Benjamin’s description of the ‘death’s head’ as everything ‘untimely, sorrowful and unsuccessful’ about history.

These are young characters that (perhaps in sympathy with their young director) are caught in the hinterland of recent history, the ruins of which still litter both the physical landscape and our collective imagination. Both appear to see these ruins as the means to enact an impossible return; a blueprint for a doomed attempts to recreate an imagined past in an uncertain future. Whether the director himself is merely recognising this desire or is his himself seduced by it, is open to question, though tellingly his sympathy certainly seems to be with the historical scavenger rather than slavish devotee.

The film ends with another return, a final blast from the past, as Rey arrives at Luke Skywalker’s hidden island retreat. This scene was filmed on Skellig Michael off the coast of Ireland, itself the site of another famous ruin, that of a thousand year old Christian monastery. Here the melancholy presence of this ancient structure has a strangely disruptive effect on the cinematic universe, highlighting the inescapable modernity of this Hollywood mythology and the artificiality of the nostalgia that has been integral to Star Wars from the opening four words of the very first film.

There is a haunting taking place, but I am not sure who is haunting whom. The past haunting the present. The imaginary haunting the real. The real haunting the imaginary. It is spooky. I am spooked.

In their obsession with ruins, perhaps what we are seeing in these films is cinema recognising itself as a ruin, as historical artefact; a site of nostalgia and of the ‘shock of vanishing materiality’.

After all, what do we see when we watch those earlier films? We no longer marvel at the scale and grandeur of their cinematic vision, but instead we begin to notice the weeds and dandelions in the crevices. We see the distance between now and then in the fading of their colours and the obviousness of their blockbuster special effects. They no longer transport us to another world in quite the same way they once did, but instead seem to point to the passage of time itself and in doing so to nostalgia, loss, melancholy and absence.

By embodying these qualities through their inhabiting of ruins perhaps Jurassic World and Star Wars recognise the different place that cinema now plays in our lives and the different meanings that we ascribe to it. Perhaps what these two nominally science fiction films tell us more than anything is that we now understand cinema as something that belongs more to the past than it does to the future.