Tuesday 8 December 2015

eros & bubbles

Piccadilly Circus, London, December 2015 ...

Sunday 1 November 2015

square mile

‘Everyone remembers things which never happened. And it is common knowledge that people often forget things which did. Either we are all fantasists and liars or the past has nothing definite in it. I have heard people say we are shaped by our childhood. But which one?’ (Jeanette Winterson, Sexing The Cherry, 1989)

A conjunction of a disparate things in recent weeks has set me thinking about the place of my childhood, the first place I remember. Firstly, the twinning of Los Angeles with Lusaka, Zambia, where I grew up (see ‘Let it shine’, 10 October 2008), and imagining possible connections, as though the twinning absolutely requires strong topographic/cultural similarities (which it clearly doesn't). Secondly, re-finding a Google Earth image of my family home and surrounding area in a suburb of Lusaka, an image that H had sent me a while ago. And thirdly, the writing of a citation for a Dartington honorary fellowship for Mike Pearson, to be awarded in a few weeks. In the book he co-wrote with Michael Shanks, Theatre/Archaeology (Routledge 2001), Mike writes about Welsh notions of place and cognitive maps of location/belonging, in particular the temporal palimpsest of embodied memories that is ‘the square mile’ (Y filltir sqwar):

‘The intimate landscape of one’s childhood, that patch of ground we know in a detail we will know anywhere again. Site of discovery and putting names to things, people and places. Working with difference and similitude. Favourite places, places to avoid. Neighbours and their stories. Textures, smells. Also of play, imagination, experiment. Finding the best location for doing things. Creating worlds under our own control, fantasy landscapes. A place of exaggeration and irrelevance. Of making rules and breaking rules, of learning to distinguish between “do” and “don’t do”. A place of improvised responses, rules of thumb – where, as Ned Thomas said, “the child first learns everything which is of real importance, history and geography”. And of which D.J. Williams noted, “when the many things I remember actually happened, I haven’t much of an idea. But I can locate most of them with a degree of certainty – where such and such a thing happened and where I was standing when I heard what I heard”’ (138-9).

When I look at the Google Earth photograph, and zoom in on the house on Fountains Road where I lived throughout the 1960s (the ‘shack’ as we called it), I am transported, awash with narrative fragments and sensations. I can move freely into each room in turn; each one has a flavour, a feel, particular objects, events that linger. The lipstick graffiti on my brother’s bedroom wall. Bolts of cloth in my mother’s cupboard, some of which I had chopped up to make a pair of roughly sewn trousers, blue and gold. Familiar sounds from inside my bedroom at night: dogs scratching, dogs’ claws on the floors, barks in the distance, heavy rain on the roof, the television, the sound of the bed as I turn over. The insistent flutter and tap of moths and beetles on the window. I see the dressing-gown on the back of the door, a hooded brooding figure that haunted my nocturnal imagination for years. The huntsman spider on the wall, a hairy hand the size of a bowl: my astonishment and fascination whenever it scuttled a few inches then stopped again. Always there. Spider and dressing gown creature were somehow connected. The texture of the mosquito netting, the shapes the light traced on its milky surface as it moved. The space under my bed, both intimately known and mysterious, a portal. The warmth of my parents’ bed in the early morning.

Smells: wet earth after rain drifting in through the windows; rissoles or bacon in the kitchen; a doggy mustiness on the rugs; my mother’s perfume, my dad’s aftershave; insecticide for mosquitos. Door handles. Window latches. Insect screens. Fly swats. I remember repeatedly sleepwalking through every room that contained books, obsessively counting them in my sleep – thousands of them; if I lost the number, I had to start again at the beginning, or the ‘grey blobby thing’ (an amorphous slate-coloured cloud hovering in the dream air) would ‘get me’. My dad’s collection of Plays and Players, a source of endless interest: actors’ heightened expressions, spaces, bodies, Danny La Rue in drag, the occasional breast. Watching my brother piss blood after he contracted bilharzia from snails in Kariba Lake near the dam. The weird creature that fell out of my mother’s dress as she leapt to her feet and shrieked during The Avengers: a kind of horned turd that pulsed its way across the floor as we shouted from the sofa, the dogs barking hysterically, Emma Peel now consigned to the background.

Moving into the garden, again I can go directly to the scene of all sorts of incidents and habitual activities. The patch of earth where Michael dug out a black mamba, then beheaded it with his spade. The scrubby patch where I found a scorpion. The ants nest: I was a connoisseur of ants and their different flavours – some bitter, some sweet as honey. The badminton court on the lawn. The tiny inflatable plastic pool filled from the hose. Still visible in the photograph, the grove of mulberry trees, their leaves plucked to feed the silk worms I was breeding in a shoe box. The banana tree I hacked at with a machete for no particular reason, the fibrous trunk soft and sticky on the inside, its goo white before drying brown. The tree where caterpillars congregated and were harvested in paper bags by local kids – brilliant climbers - for their evening meal (squeezed of their innards like toothpaste tubes, then boiled). Michael’s house behind the garage: a single smokey room in which he lived with his wife and two kids, my friends and partners-in-crime Berry & Freddy.

Slightly further afield, but still within the parameters of the bird’s eye photograph, there’s the path where my brother shot up another white kid with his air rifle: ‘dance’ he said with a comedy sneer, like a 10-year-old Lee Van Cleef, then shot him in the calf. When he ran off, little Lee peppered the boy’s abandoned bike, then destroyed one of his flip-flops patiently, shooting it at close range over and over again. And that’s where I started a fire with Philip; when it took hold in the scrub, we panicked, I tried to stamp out the flames with my feet, and my sock caught fire; I remember running along the street with my foot on fire. That’s where I wore the ceremonial police officer’s hat I’d ‘borrowed’ from Graham’s house (his father was a bigshot in the police), and got into all sorts of trouble. That’s where Chutney the dachsund was digging a hole in a pothole in the middle of the road when a truck went over her; she emerged unscathed in its wake, oblivious to its passage, still scrabbling away. That’s where Graham and I took naked photos of each other with his mother’s (empty) camera.

That’s where my parents’ friend the Scottish vet lived; in pens at the back of the house, we met baby elephants, hippos, even a tiny white rhinoceros. That’s where I climbed into a hollow tree and was stung around the mouth by swarming bees: my father gave me my first taste of beer to distract me from the pain. In that house, they had a cured elephant’s foot in the hallway, hollowed out to hold umbrellas and walking sticks. That’s where Berry told me the poisoner lived, that he was an evil man, and that I must never go there. Although it looks flat in the photo, that’s the hill where my bike-riding brother free-wheeled with me on the crossbar; he told me to put my foot in the front wheel to act as a brake, so I did – and we both fell off at high speed, skinning our knees and arms; my right foot was mangled and bloodied, but I never blamed him, it seemed fair enough at the time. That’s where we dug a complex series of tunnels in the ground and played elaborate games combining war, westerns and Bond (‘Jamesy Bondy, nickety-nickety-seven’).

That’s where my father picked up a stick to throw for one of the dogs, only to discover that the stick was a writhing snake – which he threw. That’s where Barney the beagle used to knock over bins and gorge himself on rotting food in the trash. That’s where Berry and Freddy and the other black kids – so much stronger and more worldly than me – used to swing me by my arms and legs and throw me to the top of the wall to get inside the football ground without paying; other kids caught me at the top and pulled me up to safety. Ginger, the Lusaka City winger, could run with the ball on his head; the only way to stop him was to knock him to the ground. Williams, the white goalkeeper (no relation).

That’s where Berry fired his catapult at a bird on the phone wires, and killed it instantly with a stone that ricocheted off its head. That’s where King Size jumped right over the long jump pit and landed on the grass at the other end; with the physique and sidies of a man 10 years older, and infinite smiling pleasure, he won everything at the sports day. That’s where I once hit plastic golf balls with my school friend Masuzyo Kaunda (the son of President Kenneth Kaunda, ‘KK’, a benevolent dictator in the one-party state that was newly independent Zambia); at the age of 6, we used to play hide and seek in the grounds around State House, about 3 miles up the road, and once drank milk with his father as he pounded a piano and sang hymns. My mum, who was a physiotherapist, treated Kaunda Snr for a bad back; she used to have to help him out of & back into his bullet-proof vest for treatment.

That house is where my brother got drunk on a pint-mug cocktail of liqueurs at a party, then slid down the wall making farting noises with his lips. That’s where the drunk man shouted, and then chased me. That’s where my mother witnessed the mob lynching of a man who had been accused of rape: the look in her eyes and her tears. That’s where the nuns lived, the Sisters of Mercy, old and young and shinily scrubbed and twinkley eyed under their wing-like hats. And that whole area had no houses then; it was all scrubby bush land and, Berry said, full of snakes; in the evenings after school, we cycled through there at high speed, thrillingly afraid as our bare legs brushed the grass.

According to a recent UN Human Development Report, life expectancy in Zambia, a country ravaged by AIDS and poverty, is just 37. 16.5% of the urban population is HIV positive; the country is far too poor to buy anti-retroviral drugs, and almost half of all Zambian children under 15 have lost at least one parent. Meanwhile, international corporations and banks continue to reap the profits from the country’s massive copper and cobalt deposits.

Freddy died when I was about 14; my father said that he was poisoned.

Masuzyo Kaunda died of AIDS just before Christmas in 1986 at the age of 30 – he was a year older than me. Now in his mid-80s, his father ex-president Kenneth is an active AIDS campaigner.

If he’s still alive, Berry would now be 51.

Monday 5 October 2015

Tuesday 8 September 2015

memory machine

'And when today he lights up a cigarette, he uses a flintstone and a fuse, like everyone else. "In a boat", he says, "that is the best way. The wind blows the matches out, but the harder the wind blows, the more the fuse glows" (Walter Benjamin, 'Spain, 1932').

Over the last week or so, I have been in Berlin, then working at the Tanzfabrik in Potsdam with two choreographers and a video artist. Berlin, with its historical layers, its open spaces, slow rhythms and laidback feel, its adventurous contemporary architecture alongside older buildings, is a perfect city for drifting, and S and I walked and walked. The city is ghosted by so much that lingers in collective European psyches: the rise of fascism and the Second World War, its post-war isolation, the wall and its collapse, the reunification of Germany. Then for me there are other layers from German film, from Christiane F and Wings of Desire to The Lives of Others. When I first went there, Berlin seemed melancholic, hovering on the lip of hallucinatory slips and tears in time; turn a corner past the grooviest little gallery you ever did see and there's one of the synagogues that was trashed during Kristallnacht, or the site of book-burnings by Goebbels's henchmen, or the pock-marks of bullets in walls, or Boltanski's golden bricks naming those who lived in the missing building erased by a bomb, or the line where the wall once stood, or the golden angel from where Bruno Ganz's angel surveyed mortal humanity in a divided city. And yet it is full of space and light, and change; there's a sense of optimism, of something beginning. Although officially bankrupt, the city feels dynamic and shifting, its sediments on the move, offering up a kind of archaeological mapping of 20th century histories and the morphing cartographies of the new Europe. It is a graffitied memory machine with an eye on the future, and it has creative juice.

Of the countless new buildings in the city, Daniel Liebeskind's zinc-covered Jewish Museum is perhaps the most astonishing, structured like a zigzagging bolt of lightning or an angular line of fire, with gashes in its blue-grey outer skin. Some commentators have read its form as a fractured and dispersed Star of David. (The photo on the left, from the museum, is a bolt of cloth produced by a German manufacturer and printed with the yellow stars the Nazis forced Jews to wear). During the development of this project, Liebeskind (ever the conceptualist) had drawn straight lines between addresses on a street map of Berlin around the museum's location, land abutting what was the line between East and West Berlin; in this way he traced invisible links between Kleist, Heinrich Heine, Walter Benjamin, Paul Celan and others to produce an 'irrational' matrix or constellation of Jewish culture here in the form of a distorted star. He also employed Benjamin's 'urban apocalypse' One Way Street as a structural model, its 60 sections incorporated into the zigzag. Liebeskind has called the project 'Between the Lines', and in part his conceptual and structural (one might say 'dramaturgical') starting point seems to have been two lines and their shifting relations: 'One of the lines is straight but fragmented, while the other is winding but never-ending ... They move apart, become detached and are perceived as being separated from one another. They thus reveal a void'. The spaces between cultures and their people, the trajectories of shifting historical 'destinies', producing an unstable relational axis of tensions and encounters. The straight line cuts through the zigzag, and creates a number of empty spaces: charged zones of remembering and forgetting, of contemplation and mourning, of potential and disappearance in the aftermath of what Blanchot called the 'utterburn of history'. In particular, the Holocaust Tower and the Garden of Exile, spaces of uncanny embodied affect. In their configurations, materials and relations to light, they do things to you. The 'fuses glow'.

In the vast, cold, concrete wedge of the Holocaust Tower, Liebeskind's 'voided void' with its unnerving door illuminating the passage of people entering or leaving, then shutting with a terrible click, daylight enters through a slit from the outside at the very top of a tightly angled corner (impossible to enter and inhabit this corner, like the bow of an abandoned ship). One looks up for the release of sky, of outside, and fragments of everyday sounds drift into the space - life goes on elsewhere, but one cannot see anything of it here. A kind of blindness. This looking up is a straining as if one is interred underground. A metal ladder runs up a side wall at the other end of space; but it is functionless, little more than an emblem of futile im/possibility, it's much too high to reach. It supports a few tiny, fragile spiders' webs. The walls are chilly. Everything in the field of vision is monochromatic, shades of grey. People's movements are slow, quiet, restrained, private; we look isolated and a little spectral in the shadows, tiny craning figures dwarfed by the monolithic brutal planes of this 80-foot high silo. Space as sculpture, memory as form, architecture as music - but here all decoration is cauterised, erased. A 'writing of the disaster' in bare concrete and light. A dead end.

Elsewhere in the building, there is a staircase that leads nowhere.

At the end of an underground passageway sloping upwards past minimal traces of shattered lives, a minimal selection of personal possessions and mementos of great intimacy: a child's tiny toy monkey, an exquisite typewriter, a sewing machine, letters, photographs - past listings of death camps and diasporic destinations from Sydney to San Francisco - at the end of this gradual ascent, a glass door leads to the Garden of Exile. 49 rectangular concrete pillars 10-12 feet high placed in a grid equidistant from each other with rectlinear passageways between them. The ground is angled, the pillars just off vertical, and one's balance is slightly thrown; it feels out of kilter, not quite 'right'. Oleaster is planted in the tops of each column, its foliage casting moving shadows over the grey surfaces; they soften the pillars somewhat and provide a kind of fragile shelter, a canopy of something displaced still living and moving. Again, a space of slowing down into associative memory and contemplation, its configuration producing palpable effects on perception, orientation, the angle of the spine, rippling movements of emotion around one's slightly altered axis. Body weather.

Liebeskind's garden directly prefigures some of the formal and affective qualities and implications of Peter Eisenman's Holocaust Memorial on Cora Berliner Strasse near Potsdamer Platz, which was opened six years later than the Museum in 2005. There too you move in canyon spaces between concrete slabs on uneven sloping paths the width of a human body, but an explosion in scale as occurred. No longer a garden, for only a few isolated trees are planted in a proliferative field of grey slabs - over 2,500 of them. When you enter the memorial, you disappear into the slabs, as if engulfed in ossified grass or a vast frozen grey wave, and the city recedes. Inside there are shafts of light, shadows, cobbles and gravel, walls of infinitely shifting textures and greys, fleeting glimpses of other people, kids running and playing. In some ways, it seems an anonymous empty environment from which the personal has been erased. Underground, shadowing the memorial on the surface, is an information centre about the Holocaust: the Room of Dimensions, the Room of Families, the Room of Names, the Room of Sites ...

The fifth and final void in Liebeskind's building houses the Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman's installation Shalechet ('Fallen Leaves'). More than 10,000 flattened, round, mask-like faces cut from thick sheet steel, frozen into expressions rather like Munch's screamer, or emotionally blanked, lie scattered on the floor of another towering empty space, and we are invited to walk on them. Schematic eyes, nose and mouth, yet somehow individual and vulnerable (much more so than the sheep Kadishman has so often painted). All of them the same, anonymous, and yet slightly different - in expression, shades of autumnal rusting, sheen, scarring. ('The face is only the frozen moment of the rising oars or their dip into the sea' - Edmond Jabes, The Book of Questions). One becomes hyper-aware of the implications of one's weight and movement as the negotiation of this uneven, peopled surface inevitably generates sudden metallic groans and clankings amplified by the space. Dissonant, angular trajectories. Some people move imperceptibly slowly, hesitantly, trying to be light, careful, silent - to be attentive to the implications of their actions in this field of ruins, and present to the recognition that their weight, their life rests on the silent screams of others; others scamper in, posing for photos with one of the heavy heads in their hands as if it is laughing with them. Snap. At the far end people disappear under an overhang and dissolve into shadow. It feels like a setting for a piece of expressionist dance, for the terrible beauty and psychic dis-ease of Pina Bausch's tanztheater. I imagine a woman with long hair emerging quietly from the shadows and running, running, then walking, standing still as a tree, waiting, listening to voices, listening eyes open, breathing.

I am reminded of that tone-poem in Beckett, maybe Waiting for Godot: 'All the dead voices. They are like sand, like leaves ...'

Later, in an old communist apartment block in Potsdam, I watch the exquisite videos Julien made in Japan and South Korea, and a compellingly weird documentary about North Korea. I read Junichiro Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows: some beautiful perceptions and propositions about the shadowy depths in lacquerware, Japanese architecture, beneath the skin in faces - although at times it reads uncomfortably like the grumblings of a reactionary old man in an imperialist culture that was both fading and on the eve of war. And I take notes from an interview with Tanaka Min, who my collaborators visited on his farm in Japan. Min describes his 'ambition to extend the horizon of a fleeting moment' and his 'sole aim - simply to be a sensitive surface':

In Western dance, they are fascinated by only movements. All the time nice movements. Is this dance? I think that dance is not visible ... I do not dance in the place, I dance the place. Place is where I am able to stare at my own corpse ... We have not yet really been born. We are forever imperfect ... Molecules that produce energy are tempted to dance thanks to the interaction between subterranean magma and life on earth. I am just there, caught in the exchange ... My work, when finished, leaves nothing behind; I stay with ever changing life, and will leave nothing behind ...

And this, from a transcription of a conversation with Tatsumi Hijikata:

Hijikata: Which came first, form or life?
Kazue Kobata: The latest theory says the indispensable condition was the replication of isomorphic genes made possible by micro-particle clay.
Hijikata: Oh, form invites life; life plunges into form.
© David Williams

Wednesday 12 August 2015


Ryoji Ikeda's Spectra, Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Palace of Westminster, night of 10 August. A 20 metre grid comprising 49 searchlights, visible for 7 nights in the summer of 2014. For further details, see the Artangel website here


for derek jarman (1)

'The more brilliant the light, the deeper the shadows'
(Leonardo da Vinci)

'If a garden isn't shaggy, forget it' (Derek Jarman)

A bright Sunday, the day after my brother's wedding, driving south through Kent from Maidstone across the Romney Marshes to the coast at Dungeness. A perfect langourous summer's day, all sky and heat haze and car bonnet glare, one of so few this summer. We go in search of Derek Jarman's house, Prospect Cottage, and its garden.

After ye oaste house and orchard gentility of much of Kent, Dungeness offers an unfamiliar landscape, profoundly un-English. Jarman aptly called it 'otherworldly', and this is something to do with the conjunction of topography, texture and a particular quality of light. At this time of year, it's dry, blasted, salt burnt. Naked. Flayed by light and sky. A desiccated and flattened version of Tarkovsky's 'zone'.
Tiny bungalow dwellings with the edges of their gardens undifferentiated from the shingle and couch grass surroundings: no fences, so no way of knowing where they 'begin' and 'end'. Everything looks provisional, temporary in this exposed edge-land. On the sea side of the road opposite the houses, a scattering of old corrugated iron fishermen's sheds leaning at unlikely angles, barely standing, propped up - some roofless and shattered, all weathered and rusted. Makeshift make do.
Old fishing boats beached and abandoned, lolling on their sides, their wooden hulls sanded bare by the elements and the bitter easterlies that cut through this place in the winter. Some of these vessels have holes punched in their sides, or planks ripped off for other scavenger purposes. Jammed winches trailing fractured chains, petrol containers, a rusting boiler as if dropped from the sky. Sparse and surreal vegetation, with the extraordinarily intricate convolutions of the giant sea kale predominating, each plant bearing a spray of pea-like seeds. A vast shingle beach stretching away in both directions, the white cliffs no more than a tiny smudged line to the east; the ground slides and gives way with every step - one step takes two, three. Container ships ploughing the Channel on the horizon. Then there's the sky ...

The locals call it 'The Ness'.
It feels like a pioneer landscape, this 'nature reserve' on the lip of England: a place of adventurers, eccentrics, outcasts, borderline outlaws, fugitives. Tough. Last gasp. Out of time (or rather imbricated in a complex layering of different temporalities - as Tacita Dean writes, Dungeness feels '1970s and Dickensian, prehistoric and Elizabethan, second world war and futuristic'). You expect to stumble across the horns of a steer. Or Harry Dean Stanton, unshaven and shirtless in a crumpled suit and dusty cowboy boots, scouring the stones for something even he doesn't know. (Or Derek Jarman in a jellaba ...) Echoes of the dust bowl of depression era America, or of some Death Valley gold-panning settlement. More than a whiff of Steinbeck's Cannery Row here. Or maybe the desolate white trash dunes and fisherfolk-surfy-biker wastelands of Tim Winton's Lancelin, north of Perth in Western Australia. A scoured and bleached moonscape barely animated by the cries of gulls and the slurrrsshh of the sea.

It is terribly beautiful, like a muted, over-exposed apocalypse. Or, as Jarman puts it: 'This landscape is like the face you overlook, the face of an angel with a naughty smile. There is very little to interrupt you here, just the wind, which, like the mistral, can drive you slightly mad' (Garden).
Jarman's former home is unmistakeable: an exquisite pitch black structure with a corrugated roof and bright yellow window frames and front door - a minimalist aesthetic with maximalist impact. It looks both new born and ancient. Fragile and resilient. On its south-facing side wall, black metal lettering on a black-tarred clapboard surface from roof to knee height: the text appears mildly dyslexic to modern eyes. It is The Sunne Rising, a poem by John Donne:
Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?
Must to thy motion lovers' seasons run?
Sawcy pedantique wretch, go chide
Late schoole boyes and sowre prentices,
Goe tell Court-huntsmen, that the King will ride,
Call countrey ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knowes, nor clyme,
Nor houres, dayes, moneths, which are the rags of time ...
Thou sunne art halfe as happy as wee,
In that the world's contracted thus.
Thine age askes ease, and since thy duties bee
To warme the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art every where;
This bed thy centre is, these walls thy spheare.

The garden: at the front, a sea of Californian poppies on a bed of shingle, some elder, gorse and dog rose. Elsewhere, scattered amongst the sparse plants and the raised beds between wooden sleepers, a great deal of metal rusted a deep flaky ochre: chains, wires, abandoned bits of machinery and old busted tools. Sea-smoothed driftwood and lichened stone. Cork. Shell. Flint. Circles of dolmen-like wood, foliage, stone: some magic at work. Every pebble different, every one the same. Material imagination.
Everything here has been found, salvaged, re-cycled from this sea-edge place, and is both displaced and quite at home. A manifest testament to qualities of patience, economy, playful invention and a quiet contemplative thusness. For the garden stages a deep acceptance of being here in all modesty and attentiveness. Taking time to make space. Slow time, still moves. A bricoleur Picasso meets the Zen garden.
Jarman bought the house in 1986 for £750; he was scouting for bluebells with Tilda Swinton and Keith Collins for a film shoot. He called it his 'paradise at the fifth quarter', a place where he could walk in the 'Gethsemane and Eden' of his garden and 'hold the hands of dead friends' (Garden).
(Once, when my mother was very ill in hospital, she told me that her mother had just visited her, what a shame I'd missed her. She had knocked on the window, told her that she should 'come out into the garden', it was good out there, and it was time. Her mother had died more than ten years beforehand).


And all the while, rarely out of sight, rarely out of mind, the monolithic nuclear power station, Dungeness B. A mile or so away, just beyond the twin lighthouses, one black, one black and white. This Ness 'monster' hums silently, invisibly pumping vast quantities of electrical energy into the ranks of pylons arcing north across the plain. Another kind of sunne rising to warme the world. The triumph of the nookular in this temple of 20th century technology alongside the wreckage of earlier technologies, now redundant.
A large party of Chinese people are picnicking and swimming on the shore below the power station's beach-side perimeter wall. Seems a strange place to set up barbecues, and an even stranger place to swim. Perhaps they work at the power station, and it's just part of the everyday, its awe and mysteries and fears long since annulled by familiarity and habit. Perhaps the water's warmer there, flushed by some steaming subaquatic outlet ...
On the road back across the gravel-pit flatlands towards Lydd and Rye, off to the right you can just see the 'sound mirrors' at Denge that Tacita Dean has described and filmed. Huge curved concrete walls, listening devices built in the wake of World War 1 for the acoustic detection of possible aerial invaders from Europe. A kind of lo-tech early warning system, wholly inadequate to the task; they picked up wind and birds and passing trawlers, and were soon abandoned to be replaced by radar. As Dean suggests, they were left there and linger still, 'solemnly eavesdropping on the sounds of Dungeness into the next century'.


I have been reading Adrian Heathfield & Tehching Hsieh's Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh (LADA/MIT Press, 2009), a wonderful new book about Taiwanese-American artist Hsieh's extraordinary year-long performances from the late 1970s to the end of the 1990s. Alongside superb documentation of Hsieh's body of work, and quite brilliant texts by Adrian Heathfield, Tim Etchells and others, there's an exquisite sequence of open letters to Hsieh by Peggy Phelan. Entitled 'Dwelling', these letters weave together memories of a fleeting encounter with Hsieh with meditations on history, war, intimacy and dwelling. Phelan first met him during his year-long 'Outside' project, when he was living rough on the streets of New York - a work in which she says he 'measured unenclosure as the concept of radical freedom'.

At that time she had no idea he was an artist. She bought him a cup of coffee.

Three short passages in Phelan's texts made me think of Derek Jarman during his final years of life at Prospect Cottage, and of the unaccommodated and provisional 'outside' that is the Ness. Hsieh and Jarman are such different artists, almost polar opposites in some ways - and yet both move me profoundly in the clarity of their purpose, their integrity, and the questions they ask about art and life:

Here's the first fragment from Phelan:

All history is moody ... No wonder it is so difficult to dwell only within the borders of fact when the seeping event we call History pours into us, again and again. It is exhausting ...
Yes we want to be protected from some aspects of the outside, but we also want, at times, to test ourselves against these same conditions, even to be undone by them. Mountain climbers, hurricane stalkers, tornado fanatics, deep-sea divers, and astronauts remind us that we also desire to be free of shelter and to dwell, even momentarily, beyond our habitual habitations. How much of this adventuring is based on the desire to live to tell how we survived that parting of the sea, the opening of the oozing seam between life and death? The act and the tale of the act are linked in ways that give shelter to each other' (343).

Secondly, in response to Heidegger's essay 'Building, Dwelling, Thinking':

'Dwelling-in is part of our plight, for we are called from our essential homelessness to the foundational force of our mortality ceaselessly ... The Red Sea parted and we were suspended between water and land, from the footing we dream our homes will give us, and the floods that gather whether we move out or if we stay in. To embrace requires both a reaching out and a burrowing in. I handed you the coffee; you drank. And in the steam, we found our dwelling ... What is our plight? To be fully alive requires that we risk dwelling in an architecture of steam. Weather, air, the inconsistency of those who cross our paths, the enigmatic nature of our own hearts, the thoughts that will not settle into prose, the rhythm of our exhausting vulnerability. Of course we cannot sustain all this, and so we approach life, and the live, in bits and pieces. Here and there, we fall alone, although we hope we are together, through the clouds of our densest dreams. You took the cup, cracked the lid; the steam escaped and enveloped us'.

And finally, she signs off her last letter to Hsieh as follows:

'Every embrace is both a reaching out, Tehching, and a burrowing in, Mr Hsieh. Encircled still by that billowing ring of steam, I sign this with profound thanks and admiration. And I yield again to the gap, and fend off the flood with the merest of whispers: the lullaby we hum with wordless




Dean, Tacita (2000). 'Sound Mirrors', in Tacita Dean, Barcelona: ACTAR

Heathfield, Adrian & Tehching Hsieh (2009). Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh, London: LADA/MIT Press

Jarman, Derek (1995). Chroma: A Book of Colour, June '93, London: Vintage

----- (1995). Derek Jarman's Garden, with photos by Howard Sooley, London: Thames & Hudson

Tehching Hsieh's DVD-Rom is available from Hsieh's 'One Year Performance' website here; or through the Live Art Development Agency's online 'Unbound' bookshop here

gold into my black

for derek jarman (2)
'A colour shines in its surroundings. Just as eyes only shine in a face'
(Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour)

Oh oh the yellow windows.

In his penultimate book Chroma, in a section called 'Shadow is the queen of colour', Jarman writes about Aristotle's On Colour:

"He observes flowers, fruits, the roots of plants and the changing colours of the seasons. The green leaves turning yellow. Plants are penetrated by moisture which washes the colours into them. This is fixed by sunlight and warmth, just as occurs in dyeing. All growing things become yellow at the end. 'As the black grows steadily weaker, the colour changes gradually to green and at last becomes yellow. Other plants become red as they ripen'' (Chroma, p. 26).

In 'The Perils of Yellow', in which he ponders the ambiguities and multiplicities of yellow, Jarman writes:

"The fetid breath of diseased Yellowbelly scorches the hanging tree yellow with ague. Betrayal is the oxygen of his devilry [...]

Here comes the yellow dog, Dingo, chasing a brimstone butterfly on a sharp April morning.

Daffodil yellow. Primrose yellow. The Yellow Rose of Texas. Canary bird.

Rape and rattle. Yellow hot as mustard.

Ultraviolet reflects yellow strongly, so insects fall over themselves and hallucinate [...]

The executioner in Spain was dressed and painted in yellow.

For every yellow Primrose that commemorates Disraeli there is a Yellow Star. These are the stars extinguished in the gas chamber. (Old as the ghetto). Jews were wearing yellow hats in the Middle Ages. They were condemned to yellow like thieves and robbers who were coloured yellow and taken to the gallows.

Park benches were painted yellow. Aryans sat apart, yellow with terror. An evil vision jaundiced by colour, mark of Judas. Yellow plague cross.

We sail with the yellow plague flag on a ship into the bladder-wracked waters of the Sargasso [...]

Black and yellow sends a warning! DANGER, I am a wasp - keep your distance. The wasps circle the Burger King, McDonalds and Pizza Hut, fast convenience food lettered in livid 'Jump At You' typography - black and yellow red and yellow [...]

Yellow excites a warm and agreeable impression. If you look through a yellow glass at a landscape the eye is gladdened. In many of the shots I took at Dungeness for The Garden I used a yellow sky filter on my Super 8. It produced autumnal effects.

A golden colour appears when what is yellow and sunny gleams.

The nimbus of the saints, haloes and auras. These are the yellows of hope.

The joys of black and yellow Prospect Cottage. Black as pitch with bright yellow windows, it welcomes you [...]

This morning I met a friend on the corner of Oxford Street. He was wearing a beautiful yellow coat. I remarked on it. He had bought it in Tokyo and he said that it was sold to him as green.

The caged canary sings sweetest" (Chroma, 89-94).


On black, in 'The Black Arts: O Mia Anima Nera', Jarman writes:

"Black could be humorous. Could be modern. Coco Chanel's little black dress for all occasions.

But black was also the Inquisition [...]

I painted the gold into my black paintings (melanosis), the philosophic egg. The scarlet fire of the furnace, not as reproduction. This was the Quest, not a parody - the Quest that could end with a burning in the Field of Flowers - like Bruno who described the Universe as numerous worlds sparkling like dust in a shaft of sunlight. You could get more than your fingers burnt for that thought"
(Chroma, 141).


Black and yellow. Alchemical colours, both:

"BLACK: The base material was the Prima Materia, a chaos like the dark waters of the deep.

WHITE: The cleansing calcined albido.

YELLOW: Another stage, xanthosis.

PURPLE: Iosis, the colour of kingship" (Chroma, 76).


'The darkness comes in with the tide ... I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave' (Chroma, 124).


----- (1995). Chroma: A Book of Colour, June '93, London: Vintage

----- (1995). Derek Jarman's Garden, with photos by Howard Sooley, London: Thames & Hudson


for derek jarman (3)
At school in the 1970s one of my favorite teachers was Robin Noscoe, who taught art. He was anomalous in that environment: generous, enthusiastic about enabling creativity and encouraging expressive individuality, unapologetically eccentric - a godsend. Derek Jarman writes brilliantly about Robin - and about the school - in his book Dancing Ledge; for Jarman was at the same school, he left ten years before I arrived.

His critique of the English public school model of education in the late 1950s - akin to what James Hillman has called education as 'adult-eration' - is precise and withering:

'At fourteen, I paint in self-defence. The school is bleak and soulless, dominated by bells, prayers, bullying, and everything that brings a chill; a huge shadow cast over life, distilled into a distressing muscular Christianity. We dress in grey suits with stiff starched collars which cut into your neck; we polish our black shoes, and polish them again and parade past prefects twice a day. On Wednesday we change into prickly khaki uniforms and march up and down and on the spot. A subtle terror rules, thoughtfully preparing us for the outside world'.

In the ten years between Jarman's leaving and my arrival - effectively the 1960s - the school had changed significantly. Although a tradition of surreptitious bullying was resilient, fagging had disappeared altogether, and the military cadet 'training' (ha!) had softened massively to become a cartoon of itself. I was part of the 'naval cadets', ridiculous and comical in our matelot outfits, and utterly incompetent as sailors. We tended to spend quite a lot of Wednesday afternoons rowing up river to smoke cigarettes under the overhanging trees. Sometimes we went as far as the local town, where there was a cafe and a record shop; we hid the boat along the river bank and changed our clothes. It was hard to take this activity at all seriously, in part because it seemed to be locked in some dim distant past (the childhoods of the cast of Dad's Army?), in part because of the dumb sanctions that were imposed on those with scuffed shoes and inadequate haircuts and imprecise creases ironed into their thick woolen trousers (7 creases for the 7 ocean of the world). By the 1970s, it was fatuous bollocks, and we all knew it.

One thing that hadn't changed at all, it seems, was the refuge that the art school represented within such an anachronistic and uncreative regime. For Jarman in the late 50s, this was characterised by a 'vicious fraudulent gentility that masks a system of bullying and repression, coupled with a deliberate philistine aggression towards learning and intelligence ... A systematic destruction of the creative mind, called 'education', is under way. This has one aim: to awe you into impotence under the guise of teaching you judgement'.

Over in the art school, Robin Noscoe, with his tousled grey hair and runaway goatee, his paint-and-clay-splashed trousers and easy smile, was a combination of delightfully chaotic and a highly astute bricoleur-pragmatist. He got stuff done with incredible resourcefulness: painting, furniture, sculpture, ceramics, a lot of scavenging, trips 'out'. Even hanging out and not-doing-much was affirmed as productive, a Good Thing - which must have been a seditious thought for many of Robin's stiffer-lipped colleagues in this rural laboratory of the protestant work ethic coupled with an obsessive conviction that 'healthiness of mind' was surely synonymous with an ability to kick/throw/run/jump/pull/punch/hit. Above all, Robin demythologised and made available the processes of making, including getting lost and fucking up. He involved the students in constructing his house, an outdoor theatre and other structures, both provisional and more enduring. Art was a thing you did: a social and creative practice at the heart of the being in 'human being'.

Jarman remembers:

'It was from Robin that I learned that an artist was practical, whatever his outward eccentricity. Robin was mentor rather than teacher, he ignored the gulf that separated master and pupil and embraced you as a collaborator and equal ... In the art school he was a potter and every two weeks or so the great brick kiln we had built would be fired with wood scavenged from the grounds, and the pottery with its fine ash glazes would be scattered through the building and used as brush pots and crockery. As the kiln was unpacked, Robin would stand by, stroking his grey beard, his face wreathed in a delightful boyish enthusiasm. For a fourteen-year-old it was remarkable to see a grown-up so openly enthusiastic and in love with his work. For the boys he taught, Robin was an inspiration. Art was never mentioned in an academic context, but was a part of living in which anyone, whatever their natural ability or talent, could share'.

Jarman, Derek (1984). Dancing Ledge, London: Quartet Books

Monday 10 August 2015

welcome to dreamland

I will not help you with this. You have to ‘deal’. Which means cope with un-meaning. Or with the possibility of un-meaning. Or cope with me not coping. Or with me not meaning. The trembling of this moment … (Tim Etchells)

About three years ago I was asked to give a presentation at a gathering in Lancaster to mark the 20th anniversary of Forced Entertainment: what follows is an edited version of it. In many ways, it was a bit of a surprise to find myself there in Lancaster. A pleasurable one, yes, I was chuffed to be there, but a surprise nonetheless. I don’t regard myself as any kind of ‘expert’ in this context (or any others for that matter). For over half of Forced Entertainment’s more than 20-year existence, I wasn’t even living in Europe, I was on the other side of the world in Australia. I only came back to work in England at the end of the 1990s. So for a 13 or 14 year period, I had no direct contact with these people and this growing body of work. Whatever impressions I formed were the fruit of (at the very least) second hand information and experiences - and the same can be said of a small number of other influential presences shadowing my psyche; they are part of my memory and of how I constitute myself, they hover around the edges of the stories my cortex hums to me about who and where I am, I recognise them but I couldn’t claim to ‘know’ them.

In the case of Forced Entertainment, in Australia I saw the odd grainy copy of a copy of an often quite baffling video, decayed flickering traces drifting ever further from the ‘events’ they purported to register, the cassettes exchanging hands like a rather dodgey samizdat from another world. I also came across the odd text by Tim Etchells: sharply perceptive and interrogative, challenging, dissident, very funny and a bit arsey in ways that reminded me of something of what I missed of England, and of what was absent from so much of the performance I was able to see. In addition I heard the odd story from my old friend Claire Marshall, who is a long-term member of FE; we met sometimes when I came back to England for work or family reasons. She once sent me a video of Marina & Lee, and I showed it to the programmers at the Perth Festival of the Arts, who were quite evidently bemused and thought I was having a bit of a laugh.

And then a lot of word-of-mouth: that generative connective tissue that thrives on the unstable blur between memory, desire, fiction, and all sorts of assumptions and projections about what-it-is-one-would-like. In the early 1990s, for example, Phil a friend from Perth in Western Australia traveled to England, and somehow found his way to Sheffield to see Forced Entertainment’s retrospective trilogy Welcome to Dreamland: (Let the Water Run its Course) to the Sea that Made the Promise, 200% and Bloody Thirsty, and Some Confusions in the Law about Love). On his return, it was clear that something had happened to Phil. And that something was still happening for Phil. He burst into my house wild-eyed and waving a programme from the performances, ranting about angels and skeletons and wigs and dead people and the interruptions and not-knowing-whatthehell-was-going-on and the shouting and the weeping and the overload and the mess and the aching aching beauty of it all…. In the end he just flopped into a chair, took a deep breath and with a quiet melancholic seriousness said: ‘Jeeeez Dave mate, you’d have fuckin loved it!’

Somehow these mediated fragments made rather a lot of sense to me in Australia, with its lopsided grins and its displacements and its savage histories and its collective amnesias and its surreal wildlife in-the-everyday and its cultural frictions and its combative politics and its freak weather systems and its apocalyptic fires and its national ‘Sorry Day’ and its skywriters marking the vast indifference of the scriptable blue with ephemeral words like ‘GREED’ and ‘YES’ and ‘WE’, yes the blue of the sea and the blue of the sky, and now not even the sky but the memory of sky, and the blue of the earth in your lungs. I was living in a city where there were shops with names like ‘Bloody Cheap Strides’, and graffiti like ‘Chica! Estas fuerte!’, and ‘More than repair, everything is in need of mercy’. I had visited places with names like ‘Burnt Shirt’, ‘Catastrophe’, ‘Infinity’, ‘Useless Loop’ and ‘Paradise’. And I was fascinated by all those failed Australian explorers, setting off into the vast interior of this island continent in search of their projected desires (in particular imaginary inland seas), losing their way, and ‘dying of landscape’: they are part of the constitutive mythology of Australia. And then all those 19th century convict escapees from Sydney, heading west through the Blue Mountains towards the Red Centre, a line of flight to freedom, or so they thought: it was said that China lay on the other side of these mountains …

Then in early 1999, shortly after arriving back in England, at a time of major transitional uncertainty in my life personally, professionally and culturally - around that time I first read Tim’s book Certain Fragments, started to see some of the Forced Entertaiment shows, started to meet and talk around these events, then took part in a couple of workshops, and got to know a little bit more of these people and their work. And that’s pretty much it.

So my contact with Forced Entertainment over these 20 years has been sketchy, inconsistent, fragmented, at a distance, far more imagined than actual, but no less formative or real to me for all that. It feels as though I’ve been in some long-distance conversation with them across time and space for quite a while. And certain aspects of what they may have done and do indeed seem to do have marked my thinking, writing, teaching, making, playing, and dreaming in fundamental ways. It feels as though their fingerprints are all over my imagination - which is a slightly scarey thought: you don’t really where those digits have been, do you? … And so, as a stand-in for an absent ‘expert’, all I can hope to do is continue that conversation, and rehearse some sense of how these fingerprints have changed my perspectives – how they’ve shifted the angles and shapes of my perception, attention and energies to some degree: try to describe some of the patterns they form for me, how they feel, what they do, what they ask, what they enable. Not all of my stories will be true, but perhaps some of them will be good. A good story and a true story are not at all the same thing. And that suits my purposes here just fine ...

An enquiry into the word 'we' (1)

Imagine. A naked man in a monkey mask, with white feather angel wings on his back, is squatting up a tree. A woman stands below, trying to persuade him to come down.

She offers him glass beads
She offers him PJ Harvey
She offers him an intimate secret
She offers him a banana
She offers him a list of other more modest trees, bushes and shrubs
She offers him a small act of kindness
She offers him a barely veiled threat
She offers him a list of things that go up and must come down
She offers him a magic trick
She offers him a hat
She offers him a home
She offers him a real good time
She offers him the vegetable of the day
She offers him words of wisdom
She offers him a single entendre
She offers him a small companion animal
She offers him the involuntary sounds of her body
She offers him an incomplete collection of back issues of Vogue
She offers him a variety of weather conditions
She offers him an obscene vetriloquism act
She offers him an impression of Bjork
She offers him a seismograph of her heart
She offers him flying lessons
She offers him descriptions of imaginary places
She offers him Pina Bausch
She offers him a crime that is bound to work
She offers him Archie Gemmill’s goal against Holland
She offers him a right old mess and a good kicking
She offers him a glimpse of the place where the nothing shows through
She offers him Edith Piaf
She offers him the big long breakfast thing
She offers him a medley of chimp calls and bird songs
She offers him her hand against the glass of a window

Liars and thieves

Dear Claire

Someone once sent me a rather poor photocopy of a photo of you - in Hidden J, I think, it was a show I never saw. In the photo - and you’ll know the one I mean - you’re wearing a black dress and a cardboard sign tied with string around your neck, with the word LIAR written in capital letters. You look vulnerable and isolated adorned by this material textual object, 'othered' as if the sign has been coercively imposed. In some photos of you in this show, a slightly blurred Richard Lowdon is lurking in the background, his eyes directed towards your back, and his presence seems to confirm this coercion. Yet the nomination LIAR remains ambiguous, and any stable reading skids. You do seem to be located as A liar, if not THE singular liar. At the same time the word and your gaze also point outwards to any readers of the sign, and the term can attach itself to anyone who witnesses – perhaps to be freely accepted and shared in complicity: aren’t we all liars anyway? – or it can be received as accusation. Who? Me? Nah.

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

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

Love to you, D

An enquiry into the word 'we' (2)

'”We” is a performance art. But how does one learn what to do together? How to be, once again, bodies in public, together, guardians of each other’s shame, looking the part? Where do the steps come from? […] But once we know the rules of the game, we can think about our performance, we don’t have to worry about the game. We take some things for granted so that we can take other things for something else' (Adam Phillips)

Walkthroughs (1): rude cement fart o nite

What happens if you bring a group of people into a city they don’t know, let them loose on its streets, encourage them to fall off the map and get lost? What are the stories and lies they might tell? What might they find? What possible worlds might they imagine? What desire paths might they create? What invisible cities are interwoven with this one? What other places can migrate here? For the city is multiple, mutable, layered, and always in the process of being ‘made up’...

In April 2000, Forced Entertainment invited 13 people to participate in a workshop, led by Robin Arthur and Claire Marshall. Dancers, video makers, performance makers of different kinds, the odd teacher. Only one of them was familiar with Sheffield. Over a ten-day period, this ad hoc group was introduced to some of the recurrent propositions and strategies of Forced Entertainment’s working processes, with a view to generating a site-specific durational performance as the culmination to the workshop: Saturday Night at the Grosvenor Hotel. I was one of the 13.

We did a lot of walking in and around the city, maps in hand. We interviewed each other about what we had seen, the traces of places we carry within us, places in our memories and dreams. We described to each other the places we believed they were thinking about, and the people and objects that ghosted those places. We collected objects, textual fragments and vast quantities of photographic traces; we used them to invent stories and tell bare-faced lies.

My notebook of that time is full of odd lists: The list as conjunction without causality, elliptical cartographies and historiographies, overflowing through accumulation, always in excess, and always incomplete, partial. Too much and too little. In particular here, there are lists of fragments of gags, trigger words or punchlines - trifle deaf / wide-mouthed frog / boomerang that doesn’t come back / what’s grey and comes in pints / Al Caprawn / why couldn’t the sea urchin see 'er chin / 2 freemasons having a bath / William Hague walks into a bar / brass belly button / my girlfriend’s writing a novel in her sleep / why couldn’t the viper viper nose / Carrie was always a troubled child / Doctor Doctor I’ve got a pastie on my head. Also, street names I lifted from the maps of Sheffield: Blonk Street, Blast Lane, Blue Boy Way, Carsick View Road, Carsick Grove, Jaunty Lane, Nodder Road. And lists of mystics, criminals and dictators I thought about claiming to have encountered in the streets of the city: Gurdjieff, Krishnamurti, Pol Pot, Sri Baba, Myra Hindley, Mme Blavatsky, St John of the Cross, the Emperor Bokassa, Squeaky Frome, Reggie Kray. In the end I claimed to have met Charles Manson in a baker’s shop, and Jesus on the ring road, asking for directions to the Sheffield suburb of Paradise.

Collectively we drew maps of the city and marked on them the sites of events, memories, hallucinations, desires, possible dis-placed places: the Agamemnon Sporting Club and Drop-In Centre, the Clytemnestra Massage Parlour, the Mark E Smith Ward for the Criminally Insane, the River of Blood, Nirvana Avenue, Berchtesgarden Villas, The Odessa Steps, The Hanging Gardens, The Winter Palace, The Silk Route, Attention Deficit Disorder Drive etc.

Our base and performance space was the Grosvenor Suite, a vast tacky ballroom in the Grosvenor Hotel in the centre of Sheffield. On the wall by the entrance to this space was one of those grooved boards with white felt lettering, spelling out who’d booked the room: FORCED ENTERTAINMENT. Every day we rearranged these letters to make obscene or nonsensical anagrams – for reasons that remain murky, the only one I remember is: RUDE CEMENT FART O NITE. Every morning when we returned to the space, the letters had been put back in the right order by some invisible nocturnal hand.

We tried on a lot of old Forced Entertainment costumes, the sloughed skin of ghosts. We told jokes in many languages, until generic formats started to collapse and migrate into other jokes, producing rambling broken narratives in search of a laugh forever deferred. We shuffled objects and furniture and lights in our space until we found a configuration that contained a kind of tawdry tension.

‘Acting’s allowed as long as you can’t see it’, Rob said.

Out of the debris of material produced, we elaborated a structure for a 6-hour durational performance. A tiny stage at one end of the cavernous ballroom, all silver and blue tinsel tat and bright lights; in the middle, a huge dance floor scattered with empty chairs, its outline ringed with fairy lights; then the spectators at the other end of the space, perhaps 30 metres from the performers, in an area of chairs and long white tables, with video monitors relaying extreme full-face close-ups of events on stage.

The event looped around a recurrent 3-part structure: (1) a fractured stand-up routine at a microphone onstage, with absent punchlines, possessed ramblings, lonely visions, driftings and stumblings and failings through sorry gags that had themselves fallen off the map into a kind of disoriented yearning - appeals to be heard, to be loved, to take (a) place; (2) an interrogation/interview from a shadowy figure at a table on the dance floor about ‘the city’ - now a composite palimpsest of desire, imagination, possibility, unabashed lie and the actual here now - it’s only a short walk from Campo Street past Netto’s the supermarket to the collapsed church next to the lake with the immersed statues, only a short drive from Cafe Uno in Ecclesall Street to the crossing point in the wall and the desert beyond; and finally (3) improvised dance marathon routines in teams - like the gags, broken pleas, temporary alliances unravelling into further dispersals, mis-matchings, attenuated mechanisms for losing the way, then briefly finding it, then losing it again. Stand-up and dance marathon sections were conducted at 16 rpm, the gramophone giving us Mrs Mills on Valium. The interview was conducted in silence.

‘Give yourself enough rope to hang yourself’, Rob told us.

An interruption about knowing: Gregg's story

My friend Gregg Whelan of Lone Twin told me about going to see Pina Bausch at Sadler’s Wells a few years ago. He’d never seen a Bausch show, and he’d never been to Sadler’s Wells; in fact he confessed he’d never been to what he called ‘a proper posh theatre’. Anyway, he was having a drink in the bar beforehand, checking out the surroundings and the punters, dressed up to the nines. Suddenly his attention was caught by an unusually loud laugh, and everyone turned round … to see Simon Callow wading through the crowd in a dinner jacket, holding a glass of champagne aloft in front of him, with a rather beautiful young man following him in his wake. There’s Simon Callow, everyone said. Gregg was surprised at how round and glowing Simon was. Then everyone started to move into the auditorium, and eventually settled into their seats. Everyone was in, and there was a low and expectant hubbub. Then at the last gasp there was a mini-kerfuffle behind him and everyone turned round … and Simon Callow came in at high speed down the aisle, still carrying champagne glass, still with young man in tow, then proceeded to squeeze along a row past dozens of seated punters with a series of excuse me’s and beaming smiles and muffled laughs. It’s Simon Callow, everyone said. Then just as Simon & friend sat down bang in the middle, the lights started to fade to black. Gregg started to applaud. He thought it was brilliant. So this was the world of Pina Bausch ...

An enquiry into the word 'we' (3)

Imagine. A naked woman in a monkey mask, with white feather angel wings on her back, is squatting up a tree. A man stands below, trying to persuade her to come down.

He offers her gleaming things from the other side
He offers her an Elvis move
He offers her a comic fruit
He offers her his inner clown, called Peanut
He offers her a pint and a takeaway
He offers her spurious origins for his scars
He offers her a peacock cry
He offers her Thom Yorke dancing
He offers her a view from space
He offers her the dream about the horse in the shopping mall
He offers her a new identity and no questions asked
He offers her a shoulder, and a neck, and some arms
He offers her a soft landing
He offers her a fish with eyes like wells
He offers to disappoint when the chips are down
He offers her a melancholy shuffle and a stifled burp
He offers her a swift rub-down with an oily rag
He offers her a ride on a pantomime horse
He offers her a variety of silences
He offers her a map of the world, scratched on the ground with his toe
He offers her an orchard and a lake and a lame excuse
He offers her a crime that is just bound to work
He offers her a volcano

Walkthroughs (2): ‘And in that failing is your heartbeat’

In retrospect, the legacy of this workshop (and of other encounters with the company’s work) takes shape for me in five core sites that linger on in my thinking and practice:

First, something about a compositional process. It’s a topological process, where topology is (in Michel Serres’s words) a ‘science of proximities and ongoing or interrupted transformations’. Here is Serres talking about his own multi-modal journey towards an unstable ‘map’: ‘When you are working on relationships that are in process, you’re like a man who takes a plane from Toulouse to Madrid, travels by car from Geneva to Lausanne, goes on foot from Paris towards the Chevreuse valley, or from Cervina to the top of the Matterhorn (with spikes on his shoes, a rope and an ice axe), who goes by boat from Le Havre to New York, who swims from Calais to Dover, who travels by rocket towards the moon, travels by semaphore, telephone or fax, by diaries from childhood to old age, by monuments from antiquity to the present, by lightning bolts when in love. One may well ask: ‘What in the world is this man doing?’ There are dilemmas in the mode of travelling, the reasons for the trip, the point of departure and the destination, in the places through which one will pass: the speed, the means, the vehicle, the obstacles to be overcome, make that space active. And since I have used diverse methods, the coherence of my project is suspect. […] In fact, it was always a matter of establishing a relation, constructing it, fine-tuning it. And once established, thousands of relations, here, there, everywhere – after a while, when you step back and look, a picture emerges. Or at least a map. You see a general theory of relations, without any point focalising the construction or solidifying it, like a pyramid. The turbulences keep moving. The flows keep dancing’ (111-12).

In this context in Sheffield, composition involved the generation of masses of fragments (which Blanchot calls ‘the little by little suddenly’) through drifting as a means of uncovering versions of what’s there. This requires patience, an attentiveness to detail, to multiplicities and connectivities. Knowingly not knowing what it is ‘about’ at the outset. Tracking something emergent, trying to go for the ride, knowing it will always be a few necks ahead of the rider. I’m sure this must have been something like the process of WG Sebald, whose works dance around unnamed polycentric subjects that are only ever implied.

Second, something about the relations between space, place and identity. ‘What the map cuts up, the story cuts across’, wrote Michel de Certeau. Location and identity are produced as much through narration as through what already exists: more to do with doing than knowing. This kind of work provides opportunities to rehearse and play-fully refashion those heterogeneous personal mappings that we are continuously making up and over, and out of which we constitute our-‘selves’. So, a kind of fluid performative ‘auto-topography’ that creates senses of self and of space and place (rather than the ‘self’ or the ‘world’ occurring preformed, as if they were pre-existent entities rubbing up against each other). Space, time, self as ‘a multiple foldable diversity’ (Michel Serres), a field of flows and intensities: spacing, timing, selfing. Here a dynamically spatialised (and fictionalised) self-in-process perhaps frays just a little the dualist territorial imaginaries of inside and outside, of self-identity in opposition to radical alterity. A philosophy and practice of passage, rather than of ground or territory. If the continuity of identity is secured through movement and the capacity to change, rather than the ability to cling to what is already established, then this work proposed simple strategies for abandoning the logics of mastery and letting elements of outside in-here.

Third, something about politics and the political. The FE work struck me as overtly political - in the micro-politics of its collaborative processes, the complex authorship in the elaboration of its forms and languages; in its critical engagement with the task of ‘bearing witness to the dreams and failings of a culture’ (Tim’s words in Certain Fragments); in its ambiguously contestatory relations to a range of conventions and expectations in theatre; in its obsessions with the urban; in the ethical complexity of the situations it creates for its spectators and the agency it grants them as makers of meaning in the proliferative play of signification. In a notebook I once wrote, ‘Forced Entertainment are the bastard children of Brecht and a drunken panto horse. Poor old horse’.

Fourth, something about dramaturgy. In his book The Postmodern Animal, Steve Baker writes about contemporary art practices involving animals or animal representations, where ‘things appear to have gone wrong with the animal, as it were, but where it still holds together’. He discusses strategies of imitation where the disguises are tawdry, compromised, incongruous conjunctions, coming apart at the seams, active reminders of difference, and perhaps of a certain shame. With reference to Deleuze & Guattari’s word ‘rater’ (to spoil, ruin), he coins the term ‘botched taxidermy’ for such practices, giving examples under thematic headings which sound like a taxonomy of Forced Entertainment strategies: ‘Mixed materials … ‘Stuffed’ animals not as taxidermy but as toys … Other uses of ‘wrong’ materials … Hybrid forms … Messy confrontations … Taxidermic form reworked … Finally, tattiness …’. I think of Roland Barthes on the body, and how to write it: ‘Neither the skin, nor the muscles, not the bones, not the nerves, but the rest: an awkward, fibrous, shaggy, ravelled thing, a clown’s coat’.

As Baker points out, ‘botching’ (and the related term ‘bodging’) don’t necessarily always mean utter ruination or abject failure, the wrecking of something. ‘It can also mean sticking or cobbling something together in a makeshift way, an ‘ill-finished’ or clumsy or unskilful way, with no attempt at perfection but equally with no implication of the thing completely falling apart’. So it’s related to assemblage and bricolage, and the knowingly open display of ‘faulty’ technique: a creative procedure in the generation of the provisional, the informal, the recycled – instances of the inexpert that are ‘questioning entities’ (to borrow a phrase from Jacques Derrida).

Now, I’m not just referring to all those shonky animal disguises and uncertain animal/human hybrids in Forced Entertainment shows: Cathy in the dog costume in Showtime, the panto horse that gulped whisky through an eye socket and cans of lager through the join between the two halves of the costume, and danced in its own lagery piss in Pleasure, the recurrent gorilla suit with or without head, and so on. I’m also thinking of the structures and tonalities that seem to characterise so many of these shows: messing with received and overly-familiar and overlooked representational forms, displacing them, defamiliarising them, turning them inside out and on their heads, messing with their anatomies, abusing them, taking them apart, stitching them up (in both senses) and reanimating them as comic or pathetic or psychotic or narcoleptic or drunk or incompetent or conspiratorial or inventive revenants in a different context here-now. Everything staggers on the lip of falling apart, yet it somehow still holds together. It was this tension that was happening to Phil when he burst into my house years ago, and he couldn’t resolve it. It’s a core ambiguity and complexity in this work, which one might call a fucked-up-and-yetness. This ‘and-yetness’ (which is political in its invitation to possibility and connectivity) takes many forms compositionally and affectively, from the melancholic, the poignant and the corrosively comic to the most astonishing micro-events of a flaring into appearance.

Which brings me, finally, to something about the 'event'. What is the nature of the event, and of ‘eventhood’? Natalie Crohn Schmidt has reflected on notions of event in the discourses of 20th century science and their further exploration in post-Cagean aesthetics: ‘In science it has come to be understood that the event is the basic unit of all things real – that energy, not matter, is the basic dictum. In the increasingly widespread perception of reality as endless process, performance, not the art object, becomes primary […] performance is an event rather than an object’. The notion of ‘event’ is much discussed in contemporary philosophy, notably in the work of Emmanuel Levinas (‘the event of alterity’), Jean-Luc Nancy (the notion of passibilité), Gilles Deleuze (the concept as event), Alain Badiou (ethics and event), and Jean-François Lyotard (the event as ‘non-mastery of self over self’). Lyotard writes of the event’s capacity to exceed and undo the cognitive reach of the self: ‘Because it is absolute, the presenting present cannot be grasped; it is not yet or no longer present. It is always too soon or too late to grasp presentation itself and present it. Such is the specific and paradoxical constitution of the event. That something happens, the occurrence, means that the mind is disappropriated. The expression ‘it happens that…’ is the formula of non-mastery of self over self. The event makes the self incapable of taking possession and control of what it is. It testifies that the self is essentially passible to a recurrent alterity’ (Lyotard, The Inhuman, 1991, 59).

In the early 1980s the performance theorist Herbert Blau asked how one might ‘effect the liberation of the performer as an actor who, laminated with appearance, struggles to appear’? (Blau 1982, 257). The struggle is all, ‘at the dubious end of ideology, at the possible end of history, when our lives are still dominated (incredibly) by the prospect of an actual disappearance. All theatre comes against the inevitability of disappearance from the struggle to appear. The only theatre worth seeing – that can be seen rather than stared through – is that which struggles to appear. The rest is all bad make-up’ (ibid, 298).

So what happens at those moments of a flaring into visibility through appearance, of an ephemeral visitation in the active vanishing of performance? like that of a ghost (une apparition) erupting through the walls of appearance to take (its) place? At the intersection of visible appearance and invisible happening, dream and event, the ‘doing’ and ‘the thing done’ (Elin Diamond), what then appears, and to whom? How might one make space for something akin to Lyotard’s theatre of energetics, in which what appears is ‘the highest intensity […] of what there is, without intention’? (‘The Tooth, the Palm’, 1997). I don’t have the answers, and ‘the turbulences keep moving, the flows keep dancing’ - but it seems Forced Entertainment (and others) return again and again to related questions: in particular, in terms of a desire to create situations in which we are encouraged to watch the people in front of us, at risk, ‘not representing something but going through something’. ‘Staying inside difficulty’. At such moments, as Tim suggests, ‘They lay their bodies on the line … and we are transformed – not audience to a spectacle, but witnesses to an event’ (Certain Fragments, 49).

The last word goes to Tim Etchells in a text called ‘We seek the unsought misfortune’ (2004), which itself forms part of Matthew Goulish’s text ‘Peculiar Detonation: The Incomplete History and Impermanent Manifesto of the Institute of Failure’:

'I am in love with you. I want you to see me. I want you to see me without filters, without frames, borders, deceits. I want us to meet in this time. In this moment to abandon expectations. Defences. Limits. To breathe. And I want you to be wary. To be aware that your gaze judges and prescribes me. And that my gaze is also judgemental. That I do not love or trust you. How could I? I do not know who you are ...

Presence. The moment. The now.
Thrown back on your own devices. I will not help you with this. You have to ‘deal’. Which means cope with un-meaning. Or with the possibility of un-meaning. Or cope with me not coping. Or with me not meaning. The trembling of this moment ...
To put it very simply: You get up here (you come up here) and you fail. And in that failing is your heartbeat, and in that failing is you connected to everything and everyone'.

An enquiry into the word 'we' (4): 'Good evening, Sheffield - Is there anyone there?'

Q. David, you’re on the tallest building in the city: what do you see?

A: I see a stadium with its lights on. I see a deserted soccer pitch on top of a hill. I see the disused steel works and a huge mound of tyres. I see a canal system like arteries running through the city. I see the ring road. I see a motorway bridge across a gorge. I see roof gardens. I see a block of flats in the shape of a honeycomb. I see a field of ashes. I see an eagle perched on a rock on top of the multi-storey carpark, staring. I see two men in blue boiler suits walking along the river’s edge. I see the peaks in the distance. I see the sky. I see seven hills. I see seven dwarves outside Debenham’s waiting for it to open. I see seven samurai directing traffic. I see seven seasons in one day. I see seven people dying from smoking related illnesses. I see trousers with seven creases. I see seven fingers on one hand. I see seven steps to Heaven. I see seven seas. I see seven tombstones with the word YID scrawled on them. I see myself at the age of seven.

Q. You mention Debenham’s. You’re driving past Debenham’s in a speeding car, heading for the desert. What do you see?

A. I see pedestrians scattering, it’s a pedestrian precinct. I see Isabella Rossellini coming out of the HMV shop with a DVD - looks like the first series of ‘Twin Peaks’. I see the lady of the bridge. I see a statue of an angel with one wing missing. I see a man eating a kebab. I see a black dog chasing a white plastic bag. I see the engineering works on Matilda Street. I see the scene of the crime.

Q. Do you know what’s the best place to be when the rains come?

A. On top of the tower in the old radio station, it’s a stopping point for the small fleet of craft that takes to the water as it rises. When the rains come, whole suburbs disappear; and when they recede whole communities are revealed, they return to life, churchbells ringing. Ghost cities perfectly preserved. And the desert is carpeted with flowers.

Q. Do you know the big wall? What’s on the other side?

A. I’ve only been there once, and that was a couple of weeks ago. There’s a memorial to all those people who died. It was the anniversary. Flowers, scarves, messages. I went with my spray can ... to leave some thoughts. There was no one else there apart from a woman, who said to me, ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ … And beyond that, well, there’s “a wreck of a place. There are three gates standing ajar and a fence that broke off. It is not the wreck of anything else in particular. A place came there and crashed. After that it remained the wreck of a place. Light fell on it”.

And now I have some questions for you: - Is there anyone there who has ever been penetrated by a traffic cop? Is there anyone there who has ever defended a dog in a court of law? Is there anyone there who has ever danced with a life-sized cut-out of Adrian Heathfield? Is there anyone there who has ever tried to murder someone by sneaking up on them with two Bic lighters, then held one to each nostril and released the gas? Is there anyone there who has ever been trapped in a lift with an entire rugby league team? Is there anyone there who has ever felt love for a whippet? Is there anyone there with their own teeth? Is there anyone there who feels pain? Is there anyone there with a heart? Is there anyone there?

Is there anyone there?


Baker, Steve (2000). The Postmodern Animal, London: Reaktion Books
Blanchot, Maurice (1995). The Writing of the Disaster (trans. Ann Smock), Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press
Blau, Herbert (1982). Take up the Bodies: Theatre at the Vanishing Point, Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press
Etchells, Tim (1999). Certain fragments: contemporary performance and Forced Entertainment, London & New York: Routledge
Etchells, Tim (2004) ‘We seek the unsought misfortune’, in Helmer & Malzacher 2004: 264-5
Helmer, J. & Malzacher, F. (eds) (2004). Not Even a Game Anymore: The Theatre of Forced Entertainment, Berlin: Alexander Verlag
Lyotard, Jean-François (1991). The Inhuman: Reflections on Time (trans. Geoffrey Bennington & Rachel Bowlby), Cambridge: Polity Press
Lyotard, Jean François (1997). ‘The Tooth, the Palm’ [1977], in Timothy Mottram (ed.), Mimesis, Masochism, and Mime: The Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary Thought, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 282-8
Serres, Michel & Latour, Bruno (1995). Conversations on Science, Culture and Time (trans. Roxanne Lapidus), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Edited version of ‘Welcome to Paradise (you’d have loved it)’, opening keynote address at symposium to mark the 20th anniversary of Forced Entertainment (’We are searching for a theatre that can really talk about what it’s like to live through these times’: A Forced Entertainment Symposium’, Lancaster University, 2004. All presentations recorded & held by the National Sound Archive, London). Photograph of Claire Marshall in Hidden J © Hugo Glendinning/FE. Texts © David Williams. My thanks to Hannah for her help with this material. For Chris Kohn's RealTime review of the Lancaster symposium, see here.