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

1
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.)

2
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.

3
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.

4
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.

 

[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?