[written for the introduction to the play text of Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn’s Fake It Till you Make It]

1 The Bryony-ness of Bryony Kimmings

I am trying to think about the Bryony-ness of Bryony Kimmings. I have decided I want to write about a distinctive and perhaps slightly intangible quality that all her work seems to have – a muscular dynamism, a technicolour vividness, an aura of something, a certain kind of charm maybe, a thing, a Bryony thing, a Bryony-ness. What is the Bryony-ness of Bryony Kimmings? What is this elusive component that so compelling animates her work? It is not just charisma, it is more profound and more artful; something more calculated. I want to try and describe it but I am struggling. I am trying to pull myself from vagueness and cliché towards a more precise description of what makes Bryony’s work so interesting and so popular but I keep finding myself back again at the Bryony-ness.

Part of the difficulty I think is that memory is failing me. I have seen at least one version of every piece Bryony has made since I first saw Sex Idiot in a small and very crowded room at the Edinburgh Festival in 2010. I have seen some of those pieces a number of times or in a number of incarnations, but despite or perhaps because of this when I try and picture these shows the images are a disordered mess. A riot of cartoon costumes and machine washable fabrics. A mess of olds songs and new songs. A carnival of faces from the ridiculous to the heartbreaking. Moments of casual spontaneity and elegant craft. Stories real and imagined.

2 Fairy Tales

Perhaps part of the reason for this confusion is that a certain slipperiness of images and of meaning is an essential part of the Bryony-ness that I’m trying to describe.

Like fairy tales, Bryony’s shows are full of things that are constantly becoming other things. A science experiment that turns into a rave. A confession that turns into a pop song. Props that are first one thing and then another. A bouquet of flowers that transforms into a weapon. A bowl full of pubic hair that becomes a moustache. And always at the centre of all of this confusion is Bryony herself – cycling through a spectacular and seemingly infinite parade of costume changes; bird hunter, matador, shaman, bride, scientist, drunk clown, tropical princess. A carnival of transformations that reached its apotheosis in Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model when she transformed into a different person entirely – a curly-haired palaeontologist pop star called Catherine Bennett. Even the nominally ‘real’ ‘non-performers’ who have been Bryony’s collaborators on her two most recent shows are not there to present any straightforward version of themselves – they too become unreal creatures, costumed fantasies, components in an elaborate imaginary syntax.

Whilst autobiography might provide the basis for Bryony’s work it is the way in which those real stories become part of a dynamic, symbolic landscape that sets it apart. A rich, invented world composed in colours, costumes, songs, objects and images; a fairytale realm of contested meanings and metamorphoses.

3 Mythologies

What is it that is going on in the vivid imaginary world conjured by one of Bryony’s shows?

In Mythologies, Roland Barthes describes the process of contemporary mythmaking as a series of appropriations. Stories and images are emptied of the meaning that they once had and are instead employed to consolidate a particular idea – a myth, a story about the way the world is.

I think of Bryony’s shows as a similar if perhaps more benign form of mythologising in which a constellation of signs –  a speculum, a story about a sexually transmitted disease, a Spanish bullfighter, woman in a bridal gown, a list of words for a woman’s genitals – are co-opted to create a distinct new cosmogony. A new fable, nourished by the resonance of these contradictory references now employed to speak to or speak about something else; something beyond the limits of their earlier meanings. As such the show might be understood not as a story, or at least not the relatively neat relatively linear story the show blurb might suggest, but rather an accumulation of very small stories employed to express a larger idea with a rare richness and complexity.

Perhaps this is the Bryony-ness of Bryony. The ability to make one or two people on a relatively bare stage appear to be components in an elaborate symphony of voices. The quality of making from a few thin splinters of reality a self-contained universe that appears profound in its relevance and positively mythic in scale.

4 Dreams

Here then is an imaginary world as dense and messy as life itself, and as the doors of the theatre open we are tossed into it. Dressed in feathers or silver foil or pink fairy princess taffeta Bryony reels across the stage, waving cartoon props, pulling silly faces and telling us about abjection and addiction and mental illness, a put-upon ringmaster in some ecstatic circus.

It is like a dream this world. Not in the sense that it is slow or hypnotic or surreal or any of the other things we too-readily associate with dreams. It is like a dream in that it is as vivid and sensual and pregnant with possible meanings as the experience of dreaming; propelled, like any dream, by some delirious internal logic we can’t quite figure out even once we’ve left the auditorium.

Freud described dreaming as a means of thinking by experiencing, suggesting we attach ‘complete belief to the hallucinations’ and it is only later that we recognise that we have not been experiencing anything at all, only ‘thinking in a peculiar way’. Perhaps the same is true of our journey through Bryony’s hallucinatory fables. We watch and listen to this dazzlingly entertaining procession of costumes and confessions and as we try and place these disparate pieces together we are thinking by experiencing, exploring ideas made of bodies and melodies and headdresses. Figuring something out in a way that simply wouldn’t be possible with words alone.

 

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1

From where have we inherited the assumption that meaning is found beneath the surface? That depth equates to value, and superficiality is a sin?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the word ‘superficial’ dates from the late 14th century and was, initially at least, purely an anatomical and mathematical word that meant ‘of or related to a surface’[1]. It was only in the early part of the next century that its more common meaning – “not deep, without thorough understanding, cursory, comprehending only what is apparent or obvious” – emerges. This timing is, I think, important.

It is at exactly this time, towards the end of the 13th century and during the beginning of the 14th, that the concept of depth is coming to prominence in Western art through the invention of linear perspective. Linear perspective is a geometrical formulation that allows us to perceive depth within a two-dimensional image. We are probably all familiar with its converging lines and what they represent – an imagined world receding into the distance.

Linear Perspective transforms art’s representation of the world, and our relationship to that representation. Through the employment of linear perspective the painting resists superficiality; that is, it is no longer of or related to the surface. Instead our understanding of the image is a result of our understanding of depth, or we should say more accurately, the illusion of depth.  As Hito Steyerl states:

This space defined by linear perspective is calculable, navigable, and predictable. It allows the calculation of future risk, which can be anticipated, and therefore, managed. As a consequence, linear perspective not only transforms space, but also introduces the notion of a linear time, which allows mathematical prediction and, with it, linear progress. This is the second, temporal meaning of perspective: a view onto a calculable future. As Walter Benjamin argued, time can become just as homogenous and empty as space. And for all these calculations to operate, we must necessarily assume an observer standing on a stable ground looking out towards a vanishing point on a flat, and actually quite artificial, horizon.[2]

Linear perspective constructs a representation of the world governed by a set of mathematical rules. Consequently that world becomes legible and navigable for those people with the knowledge and power to interpret and manipulate those rules. People with depth, who thus become the gatekeepers of meaning and morality. But as Steyerl points out, this morality is a false and corrupting morality – one founded on a myth of objectivity reliant on a horizon that is straighter than it has any right to be.

An example of the kind of effect caused by this association of depth with value and meaning can be seen in the transformation of Christian iconography in roughly this period, as described in Lebanese artist Tony Chakar’s beautiful talk Any World That I’m Welcome to (Is Better Than the World I Come From). Early painted icons were a surface ballet, meaning derived from an interplay of signs happening here in the room with us – a function of the icon and our relationship to it. With the introduction of depth this meaning retreats from the surface and becomes locked away in the intangible, impossible beings those paintings depict. Magic and spirituality is no longer something residing in the icon itself, something belonging to us, but instead becomes something distant that the icon only serves to represent [3].

Consequently perhaps an answer to my initial question is that depth equates to meaning only as a result of system developed in the West over the last 600 years or so that concentrates power amongst a cognoscenti and strips the ordinary, everyday world of some of the value it once had.

2

Louise Mari and Nigel Barrett’s The Body is an incredibly, compellingly superficial show. In fact I can’t remember a time I have seen a show that so gloriously disregarded any assumptions I might have about the importance of depth to good theatre. It is a show in which meaning seems to wholly reside in it’s rich and remarkable surfaces.

Fragmentary moments flicker like symbols rather than scenes – a mechanical doll swimming endlessly in a tank of water; a microscopic camera reducing Nigel to a collage of colours projected on to the wall behind him; another doll sitting on a mound of sand whilst old home videos of a seaside holiday flicker in the background; the back wall pulled away to reveal a breathtakingly vast cavern of dolls, a violinist lost somewhere in the midst of them. As scene after scene spills through the revolving doors at the sides of the miniaturised auditorium at a rate of about one every minute  and a half, it felt like I was having to learn a new theatrical language.

But what end might this radical superficiality be serving? Perhaps the clue is in the dolls that litter every scene. They too are all surface, after all – a representation of reality (and humanity) that renders it entirely as material and mechanics. There is no depth. No soul. No spirit. At one point we see a doll walking across the stage towards us, its podgy, fleshy head and limbs giving way to a skeletal metal torso. We see piles of limbs, disembodied arms. We hold in our hands delicate, uncannily lifelike babies with battery powered heartbeats that are thrown unceremoniously into a giant cardboard box at the end of the show.

And remarkably, rather than these dolls becoming animated through stage trickery – a far more disconcerting transformation takes place. We humans, audience and performers, are remade in their superficial image. Jess and Nigel speak the same mechanically vacant lines as the automated voices of their plastic co-performers. They are lost amidst this sea of facsimiles. And even our own human heartbeats – the literal and figurative essence our ‘depth’, our being-ness – are converted into surface information; a patina of drumbeats to accompany the images onstage.

The body is a show about bodies and it is a re-embodiment, connecting us not only with our own fleshy superficiality but with the object world that we are so ineluctably a part of. In its delirious and deranged way it dredges meaning from depths and makes it a function again of light and sound and our own physical bodies in space. In doing so it feels not only excitingly new, but perhaps also connected to set of traditions that are very old indeed.

Hito-Vries

[1] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=superficial

[2] http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-free-fall-a-thought-experiment-on-vertical-perspective/

[3] An interesting side note. Tony talks describes how an icon is always ‘written’ rather than painted, and I wonder if the same is true of a play and if this linguistic confusion is the reason that undue prominence is historically given to the playwright who is, in the end, only ever one of the writers of the play.

Six Duets

Here is a little instruction-based performance for anyone that wants it, based on a piece I created for the Forest Fringe Microfestival in China. It is six short duets to be performed by you and a stranger in a busy city centre.

You can download it as a PDF e-book here.

And a printable PDF is downloadable here.

I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please do share it.

[A short text written to accompany an installation I created as part of On Light at the Wellcome Collection this weekend]

1

In the busy city-centre supermarket they are moving awkwardly down uncomfortably narrow aisles, metal baskets clashing with an echo of mumbled apology, negotiating their way past crates full of unstacked items in search of the end of the checkout queue snaking its way endlessly through the store. The glass-fronted fridge units glow magnolia white, the colour of hospital wards and nightclub toilets. Strip-lit low-energy halogen. The kind of light that never gets switched off.

It is approximately seven minutes past one in the morning and all the lights are about to go out. They will go out with the dull thud of giving up. They will go out all of a sudden. The store, and the street and the city outside will be plunged into darkness. They will be deluged by it. And when this happens I want you to observe the shoppers. Look at the way they place their baskets on the floor and reach their arms out tenderly in front of them, their instinct almost immediately reversed; no longer retreating, now reaching out, seeking some connection, some previously dismissed solidarity with the people and the shelves that were only moments ago nothing more than an impediment. In the darkness we draw everything closer. We draw closer to each other.

2

It is just after 4pm on August 14 2003 and inside a computer in the control room of the first energy corporation in Akron, Ohio a software bug is about to cause the largest blackout in North American history. 55 million people will be affected in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Ontario.

In Manhattan a new powerlessness descends upon the country’s centres of power, from Wall Street to the United Nations. All railway and subway lines into and out of the city are shut down, as are all the airports. Mobile phones have no reception. Without the thousands of lights that normally direct them traffic comes to complete standstill. As the sun starts to set people leave their offices and begin to walk through the hazy warmth of the hot summer’s evening. Deprived of power for their refrigerators and freezers, restaurants cook the food they have and hand it out to anyone who wants it. Impromptu parties break out amongst those stranded on the island. People reach out, they draw each other closer, and in the night sky above them the stars of the milky way are visible against the dark shapes of looming, powerless skyscrapers.

3

Where were you when the lights went out?

Were you one of those queuing for a payphone? Were you directing traffic? Were you lighting candles? Were you starting fires? Were you helping with the alleged baby boom that was to arrive some nine months later? Were you worried? Were you angry? Were you excited? Were you trapped in an elevator? Or an ATM vestibule? Or a traffic jam? Or a subway car? Were you lost in your own newly unfamiliar neighbourhood? Were you drinking in the park? Were you dancing in the streets? Were you emerging slowly, gingerly from the narrow aisles of an overcrowded supermarket, or were you simply standing staring up at the overwhelmingly starry sky?

[This is one section from a heapdhone-based walking piece for the streets of Melbourne I created with the brilliant Australian artist Dan Koop and the designer Nathen Street, as part of Arts House’s Going Nowhere project. We’re hoping to continue working on the project in the next few months.]

360°

Part 5. Distance
Little Collins Street Flight Centre

Look around you
Find the darkest spot you can
You have one minute to do so.

You can’t see me
But I’m watching you

It is dark here
I am sat in the corner of my living room
Laptop
Phone
A small glass of water
A coffee maybe
Except that I don’t drink coffee
A small yellow Formica table
I’m pressed up close to the radiator
My right leg crossed over my left and swinging distractedly as it always does when I’m concentrating
Or trying to concentrate
I am breathing slowly
I can hear the sound of my own breathing
And the frail whirr of the fan inside my ageing computer.
To my left I can see into our under-cared-for garden through two sets of French windows
Trees shudder and glisten in monochrome
I am lit almost entirely with laptop glow which I know you are not supposed to do because the glare apparently is bad for your eyes but nonetheless this semi-darkness feels more appropriate to the task I am undertaking
I am sitting
Trying to concentrate
Trying not to be too cold
Trying not to wake anyone in the house
Trying not to entertain Hollywood fantasies of masked figures suddenly appearing between the trees in the grey garden
And although there as you know several people involved in this performance
I am watching just you right now
The fact that you are listening to this means that I am watching you

All of that might be true about the living room by the way
Or it might not be
You are in the dark
So to speak

There are many things you don’t know about me
But then, there are many things I don’t know about you
I don’t know what you look like
I don’t know how tall you are
Or what your voice sounds like
I don’t know whether you’re having a good time
Or even an interesting time
I don’t know how warm the air is
And how it feels on your skin
I don’t know what this particular dark corner of the city smells like
I don’t know if you know any of the people that I know in the city
Or if we have ever briefly shared the same overcrowded bar space
Breathing in the same beery air
I am in the dark
We both are
Perhaps
And I suppose I could
Yes
I probably could if I really wanted figure some of these things out
I could try and find you on facebook
or on twitter
or via linkedin
I could ask Dan or ArtsHouse or somebody else I know in the city
I could call you
I could so easily call you
You are on the other end of the phone
And you would say hi
And I would say hi
And we could shine floodlights into the dark recesses of the space between us
We could illuminate everything if we wanted to
We could wash away any uncertainty
To feel safe perhaps
Or just for the sake of finding out
For the relentless pursuit of knowledge

But I am remembering a journey I once took in a very small boat on a very big lake
And how it got dark unexpectedly quickly
And we found ourselves me and her and the pilot moving through oil-black water
With nothing but the spindly chugging of the engine
And a sprinkling of lights on the distant shore side
And though we were afraid
It would be fair to say we were afraid
Of what we could no longer see around us
How above us suddenly hung the universe
So impossibly expansively there
How absolutely exhilaratingly here
constellations of stars
cloudy drifts of milky way
And then the realisation
That it had always been there
Underneath the night-time glow of the streets of London
Underneath the glare of the Melbourne sky above you

Or in New York even on the warm night of August 15 2003
When the power went out along the Eastern seaboard
and above the dark black shapes of skyscrapers and tenement buildings
that same universe from the lake was suddenly visible in that noisy belly of civilisation

And how we might marvel at something so big
So impossibly beautiful remaining so thoroughly hidden
Undetectable by even the most powerful torch
Hiding not in knowledge
But in unknowing
Waiting for us to grow comfortable with the idea of real darkness
In order to see properly again

What costume shall the poor girl wear to all tomorrow’s parties?

A pair of second hand black River Island heels, thick black tights with gold zig zags woven through them in a pattern, an elasticated black knee-length skirt and a black vest top with an elaborate butterfly pattern taking up most of the front. This will be accessorized with a knowingly juxtaposed combination of a pair of fairy wings and a set of red plastic devil horns you might find in any joke shop or party store.

What’s love got to do with it?

A non-exhaustive list of some of the things that have got to do with it:

Money
Sex
Alcohol
Disorientation
Loneliness
Convenience
Dizziness
Exercise
Hormone imbalance
This dim light
Something someone said once about seizing the moment
Heavy rain
Curiosity
Desperation
An impending catastrophe
A warm bed
A decent smile
Kind eyes
The inability to say no
The film The Wedding Singer
Injury
Mistaken identity
Stockholm
An awkward pause in conversation
A bet
A fleeting glimpse of genuine happiness

But not love. Love, it turns out, has got nothing to do with it.

How soon is now?

Really soon.

 

Agreements is 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.

The project was commissioned by Maddy Costa and Jake Orr for their Dialogues Festival at Oval House, and re-presented in a slightly different form for Christopher Brett Bailey’s late night event at Shoreditch Town Hall just before Christmas.

With this project I hoped to play around in the ambiguity between live performance as something imaginary and something actually happening in the world.

Agreements Page 1

Agreements Page 2

Drei Schwestern by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Schauspieltruppe Kreuzberg (Barbican)

I wasn’t going to go to this show. It’s not really my kind of thing, I presumed. I got my ticket last minute and I was sitting about five or six seats away from Miranda Richardson. Behind me two old men with voices like expensive brandy were discussing other plays they had recently seen and not enjoyed. The air tasted like an expensive British Airways flight. For much of the first part of the show I wasn’t really sure what was going on, people wandered on and offstage with a studied casualness mumbling lines of incomprehensible (to me) German. For seemingly no particular reason an actual child was building a city out of Lego bricks on the edge of the stage. At one point Pale Blue Eyes by the Velvet Underground played and all the actors stopped acting and stared out into the darkness of the auditorium until the song finished, when they picked up where they’d left off. This kind of thing went on for at least a couple of hours without an interval and I could feel the prickly discomfort of the Brandy bottles behind me, and I will reluctantly admit this certainly improved my enjoyment of the show which till that point had been taken a lot of effort. I was, I thought, probably just about having a good time and was satisfied that it might continue on like this until the end when suddenly as what I think was one of the sisters stared longingly out of a window smoking what I think was supposed to be a joint, all the walls of the set crashed down around in a storm of noise and dust and debris, like a Buster Keaton sketch rewritten by Wagner. When the dust finally cleared she was still stood there, still smoking, as if nothing had happened. The scene carried on and the final twenty minutes of the show were played amongst the rubble, the actors opening doors that were no longer there and reaching to place glasses on tables that were now only splinters.  It was perfect. I went home and dreamt of the siege of Stalingrad and all the things I could do with even half that kind of budget.

An Attempt at Exhausting A Place In Paris by Anon

This is maybe the simplest piece I encountered this year and one of the most beautiful. In Bedford Square, one of those Bloomsbury squares filled with elegant trees and grand townhouses covered in blue plaques and engraved brass, on a park bench sat a pair of wireless headphones. I don’t know where these headphones had come from or who had put them there. Next to them was a small white card with on which were printed in small neat letters the words An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. I had received a similar card in the post, but with the name of this square written on the other side and the dates 18-20 October 2014; this was how I had ended up here. I sat down on the bench and put on the headphones. In my ears was a voice describing in a soft French accent what I assume was everything that they could see happening in front of them. People walking and what they were wearing. Buses driving past and where they were going to. I could hear in the background the hum of traffic and people talking. The voice was calm and persistent. I thought about all the things he could see and I could not. About all the things I could see and he could not. I thought about how Henri Lefebvre talked about rhythm being the key to unlocking the way that cities work and how he talked about looking at a city from a balcony so as to be inside and outside of it at the same time. I felt inside and outside of this city, lifted up by this intimately distant voice as if on a balcony that managed the impossible feat of being in both Paris and London at the same time. I listened for perhaps an hour and then finally placed the headphones back down on the bench and walked away.

Too Many Nights by Chris West (Summerhall, Edinburgh)

There are two versions of this show. There is the show I can describe to you here with some words, and there is how that show felt in my bones. For example, I could tell you that this show involved a man standing, or occasionally sitting on an otherwise empty stage with nothing more than a few clever lighting changes for company. And you might justifiably assume that as a consequence this show was stark, austere, minimal but to be there it didn’t feel like that at all; it felt so rich, so full, so teeming with colour and life and people, whole cities of struggling, angry, sad, lost people. Or I could tell you that this show was about violence and confusion and anger and dread and you might justifiably assume that it was a pretty bleak experience but it wasn’t. It was exultant, lit up with humanity and an irrational hopefulness that bordered on the ecstatic. It was a signal flare waved like a cheerleader’s baton in the darkest corners of our collective imagination and I loved it. I loved the things it made me feel. This paradox was perhaps best articulated in the show’s most controversial moment, when Chris calls a sex chat line live on stage in order to describe to the woman on the other end of the line his fantasy of a more humane, less rotten world for us all to live in. When written out like that it sounds kind of crass, kind of glibly obvious and maybe even slightly exploitative. But this wasn’t a stunt, or at least it wasn’t just a stunt. This collapsing of sexual desire and utopian longing was delivered with such heart and such glorious, stupid commitment that for a few hallucinatory minutes I genuinely believed the voice at the other end of the line might be able to save all of us. I think in my best moments I still believe that.

Vigil by Lina Neil (Artangel)

Every night in November Lina Neil held a vigil. People signed up via the artangel website with their name and address and from the names 30 were randomly selected to have a vigil held for them. I was one of the people who was selected. The first thing I knew about it was a hand written letter (when was the last time you received a hand written letter?) informing me that a vigil would be held for me one night in November. Lina couldn’t tell me when but one night at midnight she would take up a position somewhere within eyeshot of my house and she would remain there until dawn. She would not move unless she absolutely had to and if I noticed her there I shouldn’t go and speak to her. I had almost entirely forgotten this when one night I noticed a figure in a dark rain jacket and a red woollen bobble hat standing on the other side of the street seemingly staring at the window of my house. It was I will admit initially somewhat alarming and then quite funny and then disconcerting and then finally reassuring. It is hard to sleep when you know there is someone if not watching you then at least bearing witness to your continued presence, to your existence in the world. I went back intermittently to check she was still there – she always was and then finally she wasn’t.

Wacky Races by Blisterpack (Fierce Festival, Birmingham)

When someone told me that the impossibly precocious young performance collective Blisterpack were making a show called Wacky Races I didn’t initially realise that their show Wacky Races would actually be a version of the popular 60s Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races. I think this is because it is obviously a totally stupid idea. And yet they did it anyway and god bless them for that. Taking over an indoor Go-Karting track in a former warehouse in Digbeth and filling it with impressively accurate homemade recreations of the cars from the original series, we became the audience for an unrelentingly messy 20 lap race filled with violence, dirty tricks, trash talking, gloriously genuine competitiveness and several fairly major collisions, all held together by a bellowing cacophony of cartoon music and a note-perfect live commentary. Through ridiculous slapstick, knowing pastiche, uncontrollable chaos and wild enthusiasm they somehow created something that was both a knowing metaphor for globalised late-capitalism and a gonzo ritual of cathartic self-destruction. And it was so much fun. It made me wish the things I made were ever this fun.

I’m somewhat reluctant to contribute to the neverending story of the wellbeing of performance criticism, as talking about talking about live performance seems a peculiarly niche thing to do at any time, least of all when we’re about to start bombing the same country for the third time in my lifetime. But a few days ago a good friend of mine said that criticism is all terrible these days, and then some other people disagreed and then someone else wrote very articulately about how they were both right, with reference to the structural problems with the conventional reviewing formula, particularly in the broadsheet media. All of which got me thinking a bit about the responsibility artists might have for the quality of the critical landscape they make their work in.

Yes, we can blame particular reviewers for their lack  of quality or perhaps their lack of empathy. And we can blame newspapers for ransoming off the space to think about art and culture in their last deckchair-rearranging attempts at keeping their sinking business models afloat. And we can blame capitalism for the insidious power it has to denature the way we think about and interact with beautiful things. But should we as artists bear some responsibility for acquiescing too easily to these forces? Is a helplessness that leads too often to petulance really the best we can contribute to the attempts by some brilliant writers to transform the critical culture in this country? Are we sometimes at fault for slagging off the worst conventions of theatre criticism with one hand, whilst continuing to participate in the reproduction of those exact same conventions when it suits us? I am asking myself these questions as much as I am asking anyone who has bothered to read this far down the page.

For example, perhaps one simple thing we could all do, is to stop printing uncontextualised star-ratings on the front of flyers and posters. Star ratings are the very worst – nuance’s kryptonite – tiny nuggets of sadness harvested in the darkest heart of consumer capitalism and sent to cling grimly to the surface of art like old shopping bags floating down a river. Yet there they are, whole constellations of them scattered across the front of every piece of publicity – each one a quiet concession to a version of our work, and a relationship to an audience, that I think most people I know would barely recognise. But equally I know the reason they’re there is because we want people to come and see our stuff, we perhaps even need them to come, and its hard enough to get people to give up an evening and money they barely have to come and see some art they know little about without sacrificing one of the best means you have of gaining their curiosity. In doing so however we’re helping to perpetuate a thinness to the way in which people can engage with our work, and the means they have of navigating their way through it. To an extent, the very stars that we use to attract people are actually perhaps limiting the number of people who will engage with our work and the ways that they have of engaging with it. It’s a vicious circle, but the point is, we are part of that circle, not simply it’s victims.

The other immediate thing that artists could do to help change the critical culture in this country is to actually actively contribute to that critical culture, by which I mean artists could and should be writing more about each other’s work. There is no more imaginative, more positive and more practical contribution that artists could be making to changing the way we think about criticism. Some of the most exciting, thoughtful responses to work I’ve seen in the last few years have been by artists. People redefining the nature of the relationship between event and response or artist and critic, such as in Harun Morrison’s articulate and unselfconscious responses to the work in his own festival, or artists finding compelling new vocabularies for writing about performance, such as James Stenhouse’s pseudonymous review of Laura Dannequin’s Hardy Animal.  I want to challenge artists to find their own way of writing about live performance, ways that challenge who we think has a right to speak and how and when. We could learn a lot from brilliant writers like Megan Vaughan about how unlike a review a review can look. We should see their work as a thrilling challenge to find our own different, more appropriate ways of saying what we want to say, and the less it looks like a review perhaps the better, the more so to contribute to a burgeoning, widening, polyphony of critical voices that are helping redefine the ways we have to think about the work we see and the work we make.

There are plenty of reasons to feel frustrated with criticism in this country, and certainly we should celebrate the great voices like Lyn Gardner who do so much within a difficult system, as well as championing writers like Megan and Maddy Costa and Catherine Love who are contributing so much to finding alternatives to that system. But I want to believe that artists themselves can play a larger part in that re-organising process, both by making our own imaginative critical contributions and being more diligent at refusing to participate in the shittiest parts of the current orthodoxy.

[Originally written for Exeunt]

Still Night

She unbuttons her coat and drapes herself over the stool. She lies there in the darkness belly-up and head slung back like she’s waiting to be sacrificed and as she does so a row of simple towers appears from the folds of her white cotton dress, their windows glowing streetlight-amber. The cityscape follows the inverted curvature of her spine; neat cotton apartment blocks on a gently sloping hill. She is now almost completely invisible, a subterranean shape beneath the city that is growing out of her. But in the last few moments before she stands up, the silhouette of her hand gently runs its fingers across the towers, the tenderness of her touch suggesting that she still feels them like they are part of her.

It begins with two people on stage. There are always two people on stage. I think about how many companies I know are made up of two people. Duos. Double acts of a sort. I think about how rare it is to see a stage crowded with bodies any more. I can remember a long conversation with my friend Harun in which we suggested that this was perhaps an inevitable function of socio-economic forces outwith the art world. Without the ability to feasibly live on the dole that once perhaps existed, the members of a company are compelled to find jobs to even be able to survive, these jobs will frequently involve long hours and will often be in different cities, which makes thinking together and staying together increasingly difficult. Much easier as a duo, especially if you’re a couple. One bedroom. One car. Planning over dinner or breakfast. A small fee split between two rather than six goes much further. Or maybe we just find it harder to get on with each other these days.

She’s telling a story about a city of three tall towers. Except that she’s not telling the story, we’re listening on headphones to her voice as she describes this city. We’re supposed to have our eyes shut but I’m watching and as I watch I notice her reveal a crude model of a city made from stacks of glued-together sugar cubes. As she places the model down on top of the projector one of the fragile towers snaps off in her hand. Everyone’s eyes are still shut. Carefully, she holds the tower between two fingers whilst she lights the model with a torch. In the headphones, her voice tells us to open our eyes. We watch as the shadow of the towers moves slowly across the back wall, her hand discretely holding the city together.

There is an enormous difference between having two people on stage and having three people on stage. In the 1960s, Robert Morris suggested that a simple object such as a white cube contains so few internal relationships that the viewer cannot help but consider the relationships that exist beyond that object, between the object and the room and the people in the room. We are not thinking about the relationship between this tree and that hay cart, or this person and that person, we are thinking about us, standing in this white room looking at this small white cube.

When there are just two people on stage, the complications that might exist between three or four or five people you are reduced to the single relationship that exists between one person and the other. This is the basis for a lot of the best theatre and a lot of the best comedy; Caryl Churchill’s A Number perhaps or Laurel and Hardy. But the singularity of this relationship also offers the possibility that, like Morris’ cubes, without any other complicating factors our own role as watchers might become a more visible and fluid part of the story. And I think that for some of the most interesting duos making work at the moment this is explicitly the case. Action Hero’s Watch Me Fall, for example, is perhaps best described as a delicate three-way ballet between the two performers and the audience, an abstract drama in which loyalties are made, tested and betrayed on all sides.

She stands in the middle of the space and I know it is nearly the end of the show because I’ve seen it twice before already. I am waiting for my favourite part of the show. As music plays in the darkened room and a series of images are projected of Amsterdam, New York, Athens, the shutters covering the windows along the back wall that we hadn’t even noticed where there are raised from the outside and the amber light of the street bleeds into the room. We can see quiet side street, the dark windows, the plants, the graffiti on the wall. She walks to the back of the room, opens a pair of glass doors and seems to sink into the real world like a warm bath or a comfortable chair. She looks at the man that opened the doors, her assistant, her faithful horse, and they walk off together into the city. This is my favourite part of the show.

When I was talking to Harun about the pervasiveness of the duo in what, for want of a better phrase, we might call the world of Live Art, the company we couldn’t help but compare all these contemporary duos to was Forced Entertainment. They might be described, probably against their will, as the archetypal performance collective.

Quizoola however, only ever features of two of them at any one time. Quizoola is show of questions. In a circle traced out by a chain of illuminated lightbulbs, two performers sit in everyday clothes and basic white clown face. One holds a rough bundle of A4 pages from which they appear to ask an endless series of questions, each answered by the other performer; honestly, fantastically, humorously, as best they can. After a while, they switch roles, and every two hours or so, one of the two performers is replaced by a third performer. The show always lasts a minimum of six hours and has been presented for as long as a whole day.  

Two is very important in Quizoola. This is a game of question and answer. Interlocutor and responder. There is no explicit ‘role’ for the audience, we are not asked to do anything and calling out answers is not encouraged. Yet through the seamless, seamless, hypnotising shifts in the tone and content of the questions and the consequent transformations of the relationship between the two performers, we find our own place in the performance is also constantly changing.

We are observers of a simple theatrical game
Intruders at a confessional
Witnesses to an interrogation
Helpless bystanders to a gruelling quiz
The audience of a crass and meaningless chat show
and finally after six hours
we are now participants sharing in a collective durational ordeal 
We are exhausted
Breathless
Caught between these innumerable places
Between this polyphony of meanings

Our ability to come and go as we please only emphasises the redundancy of our conventional expectations of spectatorship. We sit, them and us, re-imagining again and again where we are and what the relationship between the three of us might be. Without us really moving, worlds appear and disappear as easily as a stage hand dropping painted backgrounds in and out of a proscenium arch.

I’m walking home from the show through unfamiliar streets. The streets are almost empty. Shops are shut up not because it is now night but because they are no longer ever open. Every imaginable surface is covered in graffiti – houses, monuments, government buildings, cafes, bars, ruins. I wonder if this is what it’s always been like and if it’s just one of those things that no one thinks to tell you about this city, like the fact that in Berlin everyone has cheese for breakfast or that Vancouver is absolutely full of junkies. I’m told by my friend Gabriella that until recently it wasn’t like this. That all this scribbling is one consequence of the financial crisis. Youth unemployment is currently at 57% and for won’t of anything else to do young people spend their time writing themselves on to the city, like they’re trying to remind it that they still exist.

The closest literary parallel I can think of to the slippery quantum leaps of Quizoola is the writing of Italo Calvinho, and in particular If on a winter’s night a traveller. The book exists as a seemingly endless sequence of literary beginnings, each ending abruptly at the conclusion of a chapter or paragraph. Interspersed between each of these books-within-a-book are fragments of a story that grows harder to follow the more closely it seems to mirror the plots of the novels that the characters are trying and failing to complete. As this might suggest the book is undoubtedly disorienting but exhilaratingly so, and out of these frequent and exhausting changes of perspective something vague but definite begins to emerge. A shape in the fog. A palimpsestual outline. And it reminds me of a line from a show I saw once that has been tattooed somewhere in my memory ever since.

This is more the expression of a longing than an account of what is actually happening.

I get home and I want to write something. I want to write something about the show I have just seen three nights running. I saw it three times in part because I felt a responsibility to, having co-curated the festival the show was at, partly because otherwise I was alone in a foreign city that I didn’t know and being a fairly useless traveller I had no idea what to do with myself otherwise, and party because I wasn’t tired of it yet and I wanted to be absorbed again by its strangeness. I saw it three nights running and now I want to write something about it. I have the outline of an idea, a shape in the fog, but I’ve no idea where to start. I write three different sentences and delete each one in turn. And then I just write my memory of a woman lying on her back on a bar stool with a city growing out of her stomach. 

Although Still Night is nominally based on Calvinho’s Invisible Cities it seems also to owe a debt to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Like Quizoola it is a piece created and performed by two people, Gemma Brockis and Silvia Mercuriali. The show begins as a clumsy, thrown-together lecture on the city the show is being performed in, apologetically presented by a woman speaking in a mongrel language made of words borrowed from everywhere. We don’t quite know what to think of this. We hope, perhaps, that this isn’t the whole show.

And then, just as we are growing accustomed to it, just as she begins to perhaps be making more sense, this reality falls apart and again we have no idea where we are. We briefly seem to be in an undercity, or a mirror city, then we are watching the stories of other cities we’ve never heard of, we are listening on headphones to a voice telling us we are Kubla Khan and the cool evening breeze is on our faces, we are watching a man with a horse’s head rolling dice and eating sugar cubes, we are in a darkened room that could be anywhere, we are watching a woman lying on a bar stool with a city growing out of her stomach. And when eventually the whole back wall opens up to reveal the soft amber glow of the real city outside, it’s shuttered windows and its graffiti, this feels like no comfort at all. After fifty minutes of reflections and refractions, of real and implausible stories, this just feels like another illusion show (or perhaps a city) that is full of them.

I’m on a plane back to London and I’m trying to finish this before the fasten seat belt sign comes back on. As I write the song Japan by Cocorosie comes on and I’m trying to write but actually I’m just listening. They sing, everybody wants to go to Japan. Everybody wants to go Californ-i-aye. Everybody wants to go to Jamaica. Everybody wants to go Iraq. Everybody wants to go to Japan. Everybody just hold hands. And this is followed by a kind of operatic interlude that I can’t say I’m too keen on, flourished like an attention-seeking waistcoat or a face tattoo, but just when I think I’ve really had enough the melody sweetly floats back in again and we are once more full of longing for all these cities that we might go to. Or maybe we are just full of longing for all cities. For the city.

Still Night succeeds in recreating Invisible Cities by totally disdaining to recreate it. Where Calvinho employs literature’s immersive pull to invite us to dream its many cities into existence, Still Night spins us through a medley of possible meanings of what it might mean to be an audience. In each articulation we are a cast as a different kind of witness to a heartfelt perhaps almost desperate attempt to describe to us the city. Each time we are invited to start imagining and each time the teller and the city slip away again before they are completed. What we are left with are fragments of ideas and half-finished cities, ruins in reverse. Cities written on top of other cities. An accumulation of stories and histories and perspectives. So many cities piled on top of each that you can’t help but imagine that one day the physical buildings will no longer be enough to contain them.

More information on Still Night can be found here.