Sunday 25 January 2009

a thing being done

An interview with Peter Hulton,
by David Williams and Ric Allsopp

DW: Peter, since 1977 you have edited and produced 5 series of Theatre Papers [1977-85] and then 5 collections of Arts Archives [1993-2001], and it’s an extraordinary body of work: traces of processes, dispositions and trajectories in the making of theatre, dance and a wide array of contextual practices. I think of them as a kind of plural and thoroughly use-ful map of diverse making cultures and thinkings-through-performance. Today I wanted to ask you about you in all of this, how you’ve kept going in such a productive, patient and self-effacing way, what your engines and goals are. First of all, can you remember how you started, what your triggers were?

PH: I can remember very clearly two moments when I started. With the Arts Archives and the audio-visual side of it, it was just by chance seeing the single gesture that a student of Laban’s made; it had been filmed at Dartington, and was in the archive there. When I saw this gesture, I thought if only one could understand the thinking and perceptual orientation that had arrived at the point where somebody, in this case a student, could engage in a movement or a gesture. Behind this one single gesture one can hear thoughts, ideas, perceptions and orientations, and I was so intrigued to hear more.

With the Theatre Papers, I had one of the original editions of Towards a Poor Theatre, the volume published in Sweden by Eugenio Barba. I was at university, and I remember one Sunday evening, sometimes I used to go and treat myself to a fry-up at the Shelbourne Grill Hotel in Dublin; I was by myself and I took the book in. And the first thing I looked at were the photographs of face masks, and I just didn’t understand a thing; I wasn’t studying theatre, I had no training in that area. I was absolutely intrigued, and started reading a little of what this man was saying in the book. And I thought, goodness, here’s the same person not only putting words down on paper but also somehow enabling these men and women to produce extraordinary facial images.

So I suppose in both instances it was the density of intelligence, in the widest sense of that word, that was within these phenomena. And I was interested to find out if there were ways of meeting this intelligence in some way or other. It seemed to me that most of the publications I’ve come across over the years in their various formats did little to help me in this respect. In Theatre Papers, it was always a question of giving the voice to the practitioner, to hear the ideas, thoughts, insights, experiences that had informed their work. As simple as that.

DW: That’s been a consistent principle throughout, that you make a space available for the voices of others ...

PH: Yes, it’s about them being allowed to be intelligent about their practices, in their own manner, in their own language, their own pace of thought, their own set of references and nouns and verbs and images. And likewise in Arts Archives, that sense of voice, not only occurring within the practices but also giving space for them to articulate what they do. I once worked with Joan Skinner, spent time with her doing the work. There we were at the Greenwich Dance Agency with all these distinguished dancers of one sort or another who had come to work with this famous lady. And there she was, at one point in this extended period of work, saying ‘And now we will do spongey dance’. If I had invited such a gathering of people to do a spongey dance, it would have fallen on dead ground. But precisely because she had worked with this group over a number of days, because she breathed the way she breathed, and because of all that phenomenally complex set of circumstances that make Joan Skinner who she is, she was able to say this and everyone was enabled to do a spongey dance! [See Arts Archives, 3rd archive, 1996-7, no. 2: ‘An Introduction to Skinner Releasing Technique’].

I’ve always been interested in how people speak of what they do: their language, but also the rhythms of speech and its spacings. With Arts Archives, the video enables a registering of the silences, the gaps, the travellings that go on in someone’s mind before they produce a word or sentence. I’ve almost come to the conclusion that there are no such things as methodologies, there are only teachers. At the end of the road, what is occurring are these fine, subtle meetings of people through spaces and times and breathings where nothing is being said at all; these elements are every bit as eloquent and interactive as anything else. And that kind of material evidence of practice can’t possibly begin to be annotated, recorded, documented in published print form. I’ve always been astonished that more people don’t seem to wish to attend to that kind of thickness of interchange that is going on; for a great deal of informational and perceptual richness is occurring in these interchanges.

DW: One thing that strikes me about Arts Archives is that they are extraordinarily information-rich resources in terms of dispositions towards pedagogy as dynamic process and communicative exchange. Qualities of watching and listening, which reside in the kinds of gaps you’ve referred to. Arts Archives and Theatre Papers seem to have a multiple pedagogic function, both in terms of thick descriptions or registers of teachers-in-process as it were, and as secondary research resources for students, researchers, teachers, practitioners to be used in different ways. Is one of your core concerns with the practices of teachers teaching?

PH: I know they seem like that, and of course many of the situations I observe involve a teacher, workshop leader or artist inviting people into aspects of their work that they feel are central and can be shared with somebody else. I am very often there at those points, and of course I’m intrigued by the manner in which they do that. But actually I don’t have in my head such a clear notion of what these materials are. And in a way the pedagogic aspects are only part of being on a journey, if you like. If I wished to touch something at the heart of the project I’m engaged in, I don’t think I would describe it in that way.

Let me tell you what I hunt. I risk getting into strange territory here, but let me try. What I love to see more than anything else is people at work in operation with imagery. I don’t have any fancy notions of what imagery is, it’s very open; I define it simply as possibilities rendered present. In a workshop, it’s like going fishing; you wait, and of course often you don’t catch anything. Sometimes you catch little ones, not that they are unimportant at all. Sometimes you’re there when a bigger one is being caught, not by me I have to say. I’m a witness, or through what I’m doing a participant in the fishing activity. Sometimes it is so evident that a person or a group of people, through many different means, techniques, orientations towards what they are doing, and within many different contexts, are arriving at or touching a point where they are in operation with imagery and imagery is in operation with them. I don’t define that in terms of any particular theatrical or performance form; I’ve been witness to it in the widest possible array of forms. Although of course the forms themselves contribute to these moments, and the ways in which they are generated.

I have to admit I don’t go to theatre any more, unless it’s free. It sounds terrible, I know, but the reason why I don’t go is because the disposition and formal arrangements of what theatre has so often become in our society simply don’t allow for the accessing of these particular operations or indeed for the witnessing of them. For me, the place where I can witness them, or be party to them, is often found within pedagogical situations, within the processes. It’s almost as if these processes, when they are really happening, are crying out for different contextual places within which they can happen. Our culture in the West is beginning to find alternative sites where these phenomena might appear, but only rarely do you find them in theatre.

So what is it I find within these processes? I really don’t want to give the impression of being an essentialist in this area, because what I am witnessing is as much a part of me and my performative engagement with whatever it is as it is part of the particular context of the particular person or people. It’s a very contextualised and complex moment, and very often the highly mediatised form through which I’m watching it further blurs it. But I do think that during these moments - I call them moments, but they can have some duration in time - and into these moments come all of the philosophical, aesthetic, artistic and intelligent activity that I wish to have there with it. I feel that when someone is really operating with imagery and imagery is operating with them in the sense I described, in these moments the potential for the conjunction of real intelligence and practice is most apparent: most explicit and implicit, if you like. Somehow the activity and the space within it allows for that, allows it to take place. So I find it immensely rich from that point of view.

There are other reasons I find these times so formidable. When they occur, I get an inkling of what for me is an emerging issue. At these moments I actually perceive an activity that allows forth a human person in relationship to imagery, imagery here as I’ve described: possibility rendered present. When I see this really at work, these moments shift or develop the performative moment away from what could be considered to be a very anthropocentric set of circumstances and concerns, towards something which allows in this fantastic evidence of a person in relationship to ‘world’: it could be the world of imagery, it could be the world of world, it could be a world. I see people negotiating, dialoguing, listening, being in a kind of ecological, streaming balance between the things that enable this moment to have the power that I think it has. And in such moments I feel that performance is beginning to reclaim something of the kind of power I think it does have, and probably always has had somewhere. In the real sense of the root word dromenon, the drama, which is ‘a thing being done’. The moments can be very fleeting or an entire performance, and it really doesn’t matter what kind of imagery it is: matrixed, non-matrixed, fragmented, or whatever. A thing is being done, and it’s being done with me as part of the performance, as well as with the performer, as well as with the imagery, the ‘thing’. A thing is being done which has all of the concrete existential evidence of the person, the tree, the cat, or whatever.

And then I think of the enormous intelligence, subtlety, fluidity at play, what Deleuze talks about in terms of the ‘plane of consistency’, immanent ‘continuums of intensity’. These moments, which I call ‘anthropomundic’, occur as close to that plane of consistency as any I ever see. And I’m astonished at the human person’s abilities and facilities in bringing to this moment all that they do bring. I’m reminded how rich that is in comparison to the streamings and intelligences and bases for decision-making that we might make in society to produce our educational system, for example, or our political systems, or our relational senses between each other. And at these moments when the things I’m on the hunt for emerge, I’m consistently amazed at how they remind us of the possible streamings.

DW: So these ‘anthropomundic’ moments are supra-subjective events: a flaring into appearance of the person, of the imagery, and of their dynamic and unfolding interrelatedness.

PH: Yes. I only use this word to myself; it’s a shorthand way to hit my head on the thing, to keep reminding myself. To say think of that, even if you don’t know what it means. By stepping on to that stone in the middle of the pond, somehow you see things from slightly different angles. Shorthand words like ‘anthropomundic’ are just little provocations, ways of stepping sideways and making sure I can stand there for a little while and have a look at something, think about something. And I find it rather pleasurable and productive.

I’ve just been teaching a course about the avant-garde at Bristol University as a sort of academic locum, and it’s been really interesting to revisit some of this work. You begin to develop shorthand views of what happened, what these people were after, how it evolved, the recurrent concerns and motifs. In the end you abstract yourself off to a series of wholly indefensible generalisations, but which are very useful reminders to me about some of what went on and where things are at the moment. Ignoring for a moment who or what the ‘avant-garde’ was or is, and accepting that I’m operating at a kind of hysterical shorthand level, let me convey my sense of the five gifts of the avant-garde. One of them, for better or for worse, and Deleuze describes it far better than I can, is the question of becoming; this shoots through and on, underpins everything. Another is a problematic rather than a gift, and it’s the question of narrative, non-narrative and spaces in-between in all their manifestations. A third gift, which is entirely indefensible although it makes some sense to me, is the notion of the thing itself; if I say that piece of shorthand to myself, I can rest happily on it for a while and gather sustenance from it. A fourth gift would be the body and issues of embodiment. And the fifth is the anthropomundic.

Ric, you remember years ago we talked at Dartington about an ecology of theatre? Well, I’m still hunting that one down, and have a slowly growing sense of how one might understand or practice this question of ecology; and the anthropomundic is really a question of ecology and ecologies of practice. For hundreds of years, so much of our art making in the West has been what I would call anthropocentric. Since the last century, the ‘avant garde’, drawing upon all sorts of influences and cultures, has reintroduced something of what I’m calling the anthropomundic, which is an image ecology between anthropos and mundus. Mundus not just being things - trees, flowers, animals, people, material objects - but also images, in their diverse manifestations. Between those two terms there are enormously dynamic streamings. Ostensibly Arts Archives is about very anthropocentric work, it could be seen in that way as simply watching people; but in the moments I’m looking for, it moves way beyond any question of anthropocentricity and you get a sense that you’re entering the realm of the anthropomundic.

Years ago, when I first went to Dartington, I had never been trained in theatre or anything related, and I really didn’t know why I’d been appointed to train these teachers or actors or dancers. I had no idea what to do. I spent a long time in the studio just moving chairs and bits of furniture around, or drawing the curtains, doing simple task-based activities because I had an absolute horror of anybody role-playing. I really didn’t understand or like anything to do with acting. After many years, I’ve come to the realisation that this anthropomundic quality is not determined by the kind of imagery that people are working with, it can happen in a moment or an entire play of Chekhov as well as with Yvonne Rainer doing a task-based activity. It just isn’t predicated on those kinds of image distinctions at all. That’s interesting to me, for it has meant that even within the highly anthropocentric nature of most Western theatre since the Renaissance there are occurrences of this other relationship and process, vestiges if you like. The thing being done has returned in the twenty-first century, and the avant-garde is partly responsible for reminding us of that, and reopening the possibilities.

If what I’m talking about has any relevance at all, then what kinds of sensations, perceptions, trainings, modes of preparation does one need to engage with in order to come by this anthropomundic relationship? And for me these are profoundly interesting questions. For example, in my work as a teacher over the years, I’ve become aware that there is a very simple faculty that people have great difficulty working with, myself included: and that is, how does one listen to the implications of material? Of course it involves the dialogue with oneself, but somehow it’s more than that. How do you allow the implications of material you’re working with to reveal or disclose themselves in an alignment with you? Because we impact upon our environment, our world, our images so much, we have an enormous difficulty in allowing this to occur in and to us. Do you know the word syzygy? It means a conjunction or alignment, as in planetary alignment. When you see people working with materials, they make repeated compositions of one sort or another, and more often than not they are laying too much on the materials, or laying too much on their own bodies. There is a reverse procedure which throws up something akin to syzygy, where you come into alignment with the material. Through and along the alignment come all the streamings. If you’re not in alignment with your image, whatever that image is, whether inside or outside or both, then you won’t hear it speak to you.

RA: If I look at the list of Arts Archives, one way I can see it is in terms of your eye moving from 1993 to the most recent one you’ve made. There is a consistency of your eye looking at this work. That process of placing yourself in alignment with the material you’re working on is like a mirroring; you’re doing it, but you’re also trying to find out what it is, what that relationship is inside the material you’re looking at. I wondered whether you’d come to any thoughts about this? What have you gleaned about that in terms of how you’re beginning to look? How does the experience now direct you to look at particular pieces?

PH: Well, two things to say about that. One is that my way of looking within Arts Archives is mediated entirely by the technology I use ...

RA: It’s not entirely: it’s heavily mediated, of course, but you still have lots of choices ...

PH: I do, but to be frank the more I work it, the more I realise how mediated it is. Which is fine, and I have to work with the grain of that. At the moment I’m working on a CD Rom with a French dancer, Dominique Dupuy. Let me describe the experience of beginning to make that. I’m there in a workshop situation, which is one I’m quite familiar with. He has a radio mic on him, I have earphones so I can pick up what he’s saying. The camera is framed of course, and utterly predetermined in terms of what it’s framing, how close or far, the speed of approach, how it’s moving, and so on. My eye perceives through technology, as does my ear. And you can only get it once, it’s very hard to edit this kind of material and try to overdub afterwards. I try to be in the flow of what’s happening, to listen closely to the degree that I can to some extent prefigure where it will go; and this is my second point. As he’s speaking, I’m already thinking about what it is that the lens must already be moving towards watching. I find it exhausting, but when it works, in a sense I’m filtering, and as he speaks I’m already moving towards his foot, say. If I’m connected to it sufficiently, aligned with it, I prefigure the logic of where to go next visually. That’s when it’s really working. As I described earlier, the moment of Joan Skinner’s instructions, the spacings of her words, and the thickness of information in the gaps, you can’t overdub any of this; or if you do, it turns into something completely different, and you have to recognise that.

I have become increasingly interested in using this CD technology. The workshop videos I make are much more delimited than what a CD can give you. The physical phenomena of the computer screen, what you can do with it and how it engages people, are very different. And it allows you greater analytical space to watch something, return to it, flick forward or back, come off at different angles from it; it’s more rhizomatic than arborescent, to borrow Deleuze’s terms. In a very simple way, it allows you to manipulate material and to journey through it individually in a rather different way from video where one has to guide the viewer to some greater degree. So with this CD technology, slowly I would like to move away from those situations like workshops, which is where I’ve been with my camera for the past eight years or so. I would like to take another set of angles on this material, to place my eye in relation to it in a slightly different way using CDs and, if I had enough money, DVD and mpeg2 compression. CDs offer a site of reflection or meditation for the person viewing somebody’s work; or at least one would like to believe they do. I would love to be able to encounter work with people in a much more personal and specific way. I once made a video of Julyen Hamilton working in the space [Arts Archives 2nd Series, 1994-5, no. 5: ‘Dance Improvisation’] in which Julyen dances and talks about dancing at the same time; and I was always intrigued by that possibility even though it was just video. I suppose I want to work with people just to celebrate the ways that they are in the world that inform their making, what they see, what they think, their perceptions and how these surface in their work.

All you can do with this stuff really is treat it as a gift back to life, put it back out there. One of the nice things about what I’ve been doing is that I’ve enjoyed the strategy of the medium I’ve used. I enjoy the fact that there’s a catalogue, so people can choose what they want if they want it. I like the strategy of a video or a CD, rather than say a book or journal. Not that books or journals aren’t useful, but Arts Archives and Theatre Papers are an entirely different strategy. They get into nooks and crannies with the distaste that they deserve. [Laughter]

DW: They have very different kinds of circuits and flows of dispersal, and somehow they enable different connectivities. I remember a few years ago in Western Australia, there was a small new dance and contact gang who treated some of the Theatre Papers a bit like samizdat. They passed around these papers, and photocopies of them, and the materials seemed to take on a little quiet role of provocative anti-toxins, or toxins, I’m not sure; they entered the bloodstream.

PH: It’s interesting in terms of circulation, because their effect is not immediate, it seems to me. They also have a knack of reappearing after about ten years, they begin to appear in people’s bibliographies. They come back into another area of circulation, if you like.

RA: How was it to rework Mary Fulkerson’s Theatre Paper as a CD Rom? [Arts Archives, 4th series, 1998-9: ‘Release: Language of the Axis’]. You first worked on it with Mary in 1978, and it must have been a very different strategy for CD.

PR: Well, that was my first CD effort, and it was very crude. It was a different strategy, of course. But it hasn’t been taken up at all. When 'Language of the Axis' first came out in print, it went out to a community of people, and was circulated widely, and I knew that was happening. Arts Archives don’t go to communities of people because I don’t think they exist in the same way as they did then. They go to individuals, the cultural situation is much more atomised now, and they also go to communities of people working in higher education, in training and institutional research contexts. And in a very tiny way I suspect that these kinds of materials have contributed to the recognition that practice can be a legitimate subject for research, that its bodies of knowledge are indeed worthy of scrutiny. That was certainly part of an underlying subversive strategy from the very beginning, to distribute these materials in such a way that they might play their part in extending academic notions of research. At the same time, over and above the actual content of a video or paper, perhaps it helps enhance the reputations of the artists concerned, it helps get them work, and they are able to use these materials as tools in applications for funding, and so on.

I think you have to use a ‘Bavarian-type cunning’, as Brecht would say, in pursuing these kinds of projects. I fully support any material strategy which can help declare the practice. If there is a biosphere of practices or images, let’s call it a ‘practicosphere’, then it’s under threat from so many different things within our society. Not least of which might be the revenge of the intellect upon experience that plagues so many of our university courses. Resistances and suspicions about other kinds of knowledges which cannot be conveyed in discursive ways remain entrenched. The gesture made by the Laban student I mentioned earlier on was in its own right a fragment of knowledge. And I believe there’s a huge bank of knowledge in what I’m witnessing.

DW: One of the things I like about Arts Archives is a proposition included in the brochure. It reads: ‘It is the policy of Arts Archives to include as much material as is practical in order that the viewer or reader may edit according to interest’. As well as being an encouragement to engage with these materials in the ways one finds useful, this seems to be a recognition of their unfinished quality, rather than claiming that this is, for example, the ‘definitive’ video about kalarippayattu, the Alexander technique, breath and the voice, or whatever. The archives offer an array of materials that are to be re-used, re-fashioned, re-edited. Am I right in thinking there’s a seed here for your recent interest in the possibilities afforded by CDs, in terms of a greater agency for the watcher or reader, and relatively a greater fluidity on the level of the materials themselves?

PH: Yes, I think you’re right. Maybe I wrote that to suggest that if you’re bored, you’ve got a fast-forward function on your VCR. But I’d hate for the videos to be seen as packaging a practice with any claim to exclusive mastery or closure at all. When I make copies of the videos to send out, I just rewind them to a point mid-stream and go in there to check if they are working properly. So I have an enormous memory bank of little snippets from each of the videos, and that can be as informative as editing the whole video. I would like them to be tools for people’s work.

You know, when I hear from people out of the blue and I send materials out around the world, I feel that these things are somehow going to settle into some fertile ground. I always feel the seed is going to spiral down and rest there and be taken further into something else. Perhaps what I least enjoy is bulk orders from university libraries; I’ve just sent a large number of videos from all of the archives to a university, and I know that they risk just sitting on the shelves collecting dust. And I don’t have quite the same experience. But what does sustain me there is that someone by chance, by happenstance, might just take one off the shelf, put it in the VCR for fun, and might see something that touches them, gives them impetus. Even if someone rejects it, that defines a little bit of their own impetus to move forward or elsewhere.

DW: There is also a historiographic edge to what you’ve been doing for over twenty years now; these are oral and visual histories of often quite marginalised practices. I remember having a conversation with Mick Gordon, the director of The Gate in London. He asked why I wrote about ‘famous’ people, rather than the ‘true heroes’ of performance making, and then proceeded to list the kinds of people you’ve worked with on Arts Archives or Theatre Papers: the semi-secret and often barely visible engines and triggers for all sorts of practices, which hover on the brink of disappearance in our product-oriented culture. Do you conceive of this as one of the functions of these materials? As a sort of loose, serendipitous, and very partial mapping of processes and practices, all of them invitations to pause and look again, that inform so much of what hardens into forms and comes at us in high visibility institutional contexts. For versions of them are often co-opted and used in these sponge-like commodity contexts.

PH: Well, I don’t think I’ve ever conceived of this project in terms of the relationship to an energising substrata such as you’ve just described. On the other hand, I have conceived of these materials as part of a dynamic oral culture of connections, exchanges, knowledges. There used to be a debate about how to document oral cultures without immobilising or destroying them. But of course they are strong enough to go on in their own ways, they are resilient and evolve. Sometimes you meet someone like Andrei Serban - on one level a celebrated director with an international reputation, on another someone who works with stick exercises in the training of performers. [See Arts Archives, 4th Series, 1998-9, no. 4: ‘The use of sticks in performance training’]. And the stick exercises themselves belong to the kind of area you’re referring to, bedrocks of particular knowledges that are shared and travel in an ‘invisible’ way, they don’t belong to Andrei. Their movements and connections operate rather like oral cultures. And all sorts of specific exercises circulate in this way, they are handed on and transformed according to needs and contexts; they are not owned by anyone. Over the years I’ve observed thousands of different practices. Do I use them in my own work? I might use one or two that I know about, not intellectually or by observing them, but by bringing them into my own practices in a substantial way, having the touch to understand and develop them. These are not recipes for people to follow. Sometimes you see a knowledge at work, you hear an echo, and something is possible. That’s what I mean by my suggestion that there are no such things as methodologies, there are only practitioners.

RA: This relates to what you said earlier on about alignment, and it reminds me of something else you once said which has stayed with me. You talked about the ability to be able to ‘hang around things’. An ability to circle around something until it reveals what it is. It’s a quality of listening.

PH: Yes. When you make your Fire Table performances, Ric, you have thought about them of course, but in a sense the pieces declare themselves to you; it’s two-way traffic. It’s a dialogue, a balance within our psyches and physicalities. I see it in Dominique Dupuy’s way of being in his body, for example: it’s not simply a question of letting outside in, and it’s never only inside out. The anthropomundic is the dialogue and exchange of two-way traffic. I would almost call it a touch; touching something on the outside means being touched by it, and this is another way of perceiving alignment. Part of the etymological root for the word ‘touch’ relates to something that ignites: touchstone, touchwood. Touch that fires. The congruence and conjunction of inside and outside, which I find touching, moving. I can recall the anthropomundic just by feeling the air on my cheek...

I very much like Deleuze’s description of the plane of consistency. He says that if you’re off it, you’re either early or late, which is related to speed. And then he talks about ‘affinities’; you’re either there with it, or you’re not. And that’s a little what I see, that underneath the organisational composition one senses connections with this plane, people working or beginning to work in touch with it. And they do.


Interview recorded in May 2001, Exeter, England.

First published in Writings on Dance 21 ('Ecologies of Practice'), Summer 2001-2, Australia, 12-19

Peter Hulton is director of the Arts Documentation Unit, Exeter, England, and editor of Arts Archives. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. For information about Arts Archives, please contact Peter Hulton at 6A Devonshire Place, Exeter EX4 6JA, Devon, England. For online catalogue, see here

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