Tuesday 26 February 2019

'terremoto': gibellina

‘What is the relation of the dead to what has not yet happened, to the future? All the future is the construction in which their “imagination” is engaged’ (Berger 1996: n.p.)

In the afternoon of Sunday 14 January 1968, shortly after the end of mass in the local churches, a series of major earthquakes (terremoti) shook through the Belice Valley in Western Sicily, a quasi-feudal and economically deprived agricultural area dotted with small towns, at the juncture of the provinces of Palermo, Trapani and Agrigento. The epicenter of these seismic events was the fourteenth-century town of Gibellina, and most of its 6,400 inhabitants fled their homes en masse in the early evening to seek refuge in the freezing open fields overnight: hundreds of blanketed groups huddling around fires under a clear sky, waiting for the light of dawn. In the early hours of Monday 15 January two further devastating shocks, the second of them measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale, ripped through the town, finally flattening and reducing it to a field of rubble on the hillside: stone, masonry, plaster, the debris of shattered lives. Only the town’s cemetery, a short distance away on a neighbouring hillside, remained intact. Three other communities in the valley were also entirely destroyed - Poggioreale, Salaparuta and Montevago; others were significantly damaged, including Santa Ninfa, Santa Margherita, Partanna and Salemi. In this one catastrophic night more than 400 people were killed – over 100 in Gibellina – while thousands more were injured, and almost 100,000 people were left homeless. On the front page of the Tuesday morning edition of the Communist newspaper L’Unità (16 January 1968), above a photograph of the deserted, pulverised ruins of Gibellina, the headline read: ‘Earthquake in Sicily: 500 dead? Entire region no longer exists. It was carnage’ (C’era una strage’). 

In the weeks and months that followed, as the dead were buried and survivors retrieved what possessions they could from the remains of their homes, gradually the emergency services and military personnel – struggling to cope with the aftermath of a disaster of such scale - constructed provisional shelters throughout the Belice Valley for the traumatised terremotati: gridded temporary communities of tents and then concrete fibre Nissan huts, without electricity, running water, heating, basic amenities. Ultimately these cramped, leaking, insanitary, barrack-like camps – barracopoli – would house the people of Gibellina for more than 11 years as they awaited a promised new town. Political in-fighting, bureaucratic indecision and inertia at local and State levels, disagreements about the location and nature of the new town, corruption, extortion and the embezzlement of State funds - all contributed to delays in planning and construction; and inevitably many contadini chose to abandon their paese forever, accepting local government’s offers of free passports and one-way tickets, and emigrating to Northern Italy, Germany, South America and elsewhere, in search of a new beginning.

In what follows, and in the wake of this disastrous foundational event in the formation of a contemporary identity for the Belice Valley, my focus will be on Gibellina’s relocation and reconstruction in the 1970s and 1980s as a utopian art-and-garden community, Nuova Gibellina, designed by renowned architects, urban planners and artists, and its present unfinished, partially inhabited status; and secondly, at the site of the old town, the refashioning of its remains and its memorialisation in Alberto Burri’s vast sculptural land art installation, Il Grande Cretto (‘The Large Crack’), conceived as a ‘labyrinth of memory’, but never fully finished and currently in a state of increasing disrepair. These twinned sites shadow and ghost each other in their entangled doubling, and we will travel freely between them here. Each of them is rooted in and references a catastrophic past, while endeavouring to realise a vision of possible future identities and histories informed by a humanist ideology of art and culture’s restorative centrality in the constitution of civic life: the dream of a ‘concrete utopia’, staging and enabling a community’s ‘memories for the future’. Furthermore, contemporary Gibellina is haunted by a range of other doublings none of which settle into neat, mutually exclusive binaries.  In addition to the axis between the past and its unrealised dreams of futurity, underlying this account are the ambiguous relations between idealised conception and its material concretisation, between map-plan and the embodied realities of everyday lived experience, between urbs (the material fabric of a city, its physical manifestation) and civis (the social practices and networks of its citizen inhabitants), and between construction-rebirth-renewal and ruin.

Nuova Gibellina: a ‘concrete utopia’

‘What meaning does your construction have?’ he asks. ‘What is the aim of a city under construction unless it is a city? Where is the plan you are following, the blueprint?’ ‘We will show it to you as soon as the working day is over; we cannot interrupt our work now’, they answer.
    Work stops at sunset. Darkness falls over the building site. The sky is filled with stars. ‘There is the blueprint’, they say (Calvino 1974: 127)

Initial plans for the reconstruction of Gibellina and the Belice Valley were drawn up by ISES (Istituto per lo Sviluppo dell’Edilizia Sociale) under the aegis of the Italian Ministry of Public Works. The State proposed a zoned rationalist plan for regional development, within which Gibellina, relocated to a new site and aggregated with some of the other damaged communities in a much larger town, would become a hub for local industry. In opposition to the State’s functionalist plans, Gibellina’s mayor Ludovico Corrao, a charismatic, pugnacious and controversial Communist lawyer with numerous connections in the arts (and arguably the core protagonist in the history of post-earthquake Gibellina) began to lobby with unflagging conviction for a radically different vision of a new town, solely for the Gibellinesi and in a different location - 18 kms to the west of the old town on the plains of Salinella below Salemi, close to agricultural land worked by the people of the town, and to major transport infrastructure: the train station at Salemi, with direct links to Palermo, and a new motorway linking Palermo and Mazara del Vallo on the south-western coast. Drawing on disparate elements of the utopian visions of François Marie Charles Fourier, William Morris, Frederick Law Olmsted and in particular Ebenezer Howard,  Corrao conceived of the new Gibellina as a garden-city, open to the fields in the surrounding countryside, with art and culture as the generative foundation and ‘redemptive’ catalyst for elaborating new histories and civic identities from the (purported) tabula rasa enforced by disaster and displacement. Leading artists and architects would work closely with local people to produce a modernist ‘concrete utopia’ within which contemporary art and design would be embedded into the very fabric of the urban environment. Agriculture, craft and building work during the period of reconstruction would provide employment and seed new enterprises, and over time the town would take its place as a significant destination on the cultural tourism itinerary for Southern Europe: ‘Where history has been destroyed, only art could rebuild the layers of a dispersed memory; only a strong death-defying cultural project could make the earth capable of bearing fruit and producing new flowers’ (Ludovico Corrao, quoted in Pes and Bonifacio 2003: 4).

From the time of his appointment as mayor in 1969, Corrao began to marshal high-profile artists, intellectuals and activists, including Leonardo Sciascia, Carlo Levi, Cesare Zavattini, and the celebrated Sicilian painter Renato Guttuso. He organised a series of gatherings, demonstrations and a public appeal on the second anniversary of the earthquake in January 1970, in the form of a collectively authored text corrosively critical of the State and explicitly designed to embarrass the government into action.  In such ways Corrao and his growing group of powerful cultural allies insistently lobbied to draw attention to the predicament of the people of Gibellina, languishing in increasing frustration in the camps with construction still not underway, protesting as best they could through representations to politicians and church leaders (including the Pope), tax strikes, marches, and graffiti campaigns.  Ultimately the initial ISES plans were abandoned, a compromise was agreed, and in the early 1970s building work finally commenced close to Corrao’s chosen site.

The new plan, drawn up by the architect Marcello Fabbri through the ISES, entailed the construction of a modernist town in the broad shape of a butterfly, with the two curved ‘wings’ containing housing, schools, sports facilities and gardens, assembled around a central East/West spine for municipal buildings and public art works. Ultimately this zone, as initially conceived by the German architect Oswald Mathias Ungers in 1981, with Corrao and others, was also to include an ornamental lake, artisan workshops, green spaces, shops, pedestrian piazze and walkways, and a major new church on a small hill at the ‘head’. (Formally this urban design configuration, graphically representing chrysalis-like metaphors of transformative emergence, renewal and liberation, closely resembles Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer’s modernist plans for Brasilia, as detailed in Costa’s drawings in the late 1950s of a city in the form of an aeroplane or bird-man, with two unfolded wings set either side of a central monumental axis).  Every Gibellinese family was guaranteed a new house: low-rise, double-fronted domestic dwellings divided into equal-sized plots with private gardens, offering vehicular access to a road on one side and a tree-lined pedestrian street on the other. By the late 1970s, most of the housing in Nuova Gibellina was completed, and the first people were able to move from the camps into their new homes. However by 1979 work on the components of the town’s central axis was barely underway, and it remained in large part an undeveloped void at the heart of the town.

Although of course welcomed, the transition to an unfamiliar environment seems to have been profoundly unsettling, socially and psychologically, for many people. Despite the self-evident difficulties of the camps, years of having to navigate the shared and pressing problems of everyday life in close proximity had produced deep community bonds and relations of support. In this new context, with its radically dispersed lay-out and shift in scale, it seems many felt alienated and atomised by the wide boulevards, separated houses, and vast empty spaces. In the old town, population density had been at 3,200 people per hectare; in the spread of the new town, with a shrinking population of a little more than 4,000, there were now just 350 people per hectare (La Ferla 2004: 35). No provision seems to have been made for links with their former cultural mores and structures. Little possibility of conversations across the street or between neighbours. No meeting points on a human scale. No town centre, no shops. And the water supply was still unreliable, often interrupted without warning.

Rewriting ‘dis-aster’

‘Our culture thinks through disasters. Implicitly or explicitly, disasters mediate philosophical enquiry and shape our creative imagination’ (Huet 2012: 2)

From around 1980, Corrao turned his attention to the realisation of a number of ambitious architect-commissioned buildings and environments, and a wide range of public art works for the new town. This process continued in piecemeal fashion into the mid-1990s,  and in fits and starts to the present time, both developing some of the core commissions for the central axis and dispersing art objects throughout the town. From the outset, Corrao was insistent that art was not ‘superfluous’, but the essential cornerstone for the gradual emergence of a new post-earthquake civic identity and genius loci. Today Nuova Gibellina contains about 20 major buildings deemed to be of particular architectural note, over 100 public art works in the open air, and hundreds of other paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations and textiles in its two major gallery collections on the edge of town (almost 2,000 works in total). Tourist brochures and catalogues produced by Nuova Gibellina’s Museum of Contemporary Art proclaim it as ‘the largest open-air gallery in the world’, a living museum of the late twentieth-century avant-garde. At the same time, as the focus of fiercely polemical critical debates in Italy, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, about the functions and forms of contemporary urban design and renewal, as well as art and architecture’s relations to context, scale, and social responsibility, the town’s projects have been condemned roundly by others as representing ‘the cemetery of the avant-garde’:  a failed experiment in the spectacular, monumental and fragmented, and an unwitting and uncanny staging of Robert Smithson’s notion of entropic ‘ruins in reverse’,   further compromised by the scant concern apparently shown for the lived experience of local inhabitants.

One of the first major commissions, and the first art work one encounters at the entrance to the town today, is a startling 26-metre high burnished steel star straddling the main road: the Sicilian sculptor Pietro Consagra’s Stella: L’ingresso del Belice (‘Star: Entrance to the Belice’, 1981). Both monumental and delicate, resonantly defiant metaphor and simple graphic outline, its colour shifting constantly between industrial greys and honeyed apricots in response to the movements of sun and cloud, it remains one of Nuova Gibellina’s most iconic and poetically associative images (and one of few seemingly viewed with pride by many local people). Consagra seems to have been inspired in part by a relatively obscure passage in Goethe’s Italian Journey, written just a few miles away in Castelvetrano in April 1787, after a night spent in an inn that was ‘anything but elegant’:

At midnight I woke up and saw over my head a star so beautiful that I thought I had never seen one like it. Its enchanting light seemed a prophecy of good things to come, and my spirit felt utterly refreshed … It was not till daybreak that I discovered what had caused this miracle. There was a crack in the roof and I had woken up just at the very moment when one of the most beautiful stars in the firmament was crossing my private meridian (Goethe 1970: 265).

Etymologically the word ‘disaster’ suggests the loss of a protective star (dis-astro), and the calamitous repercussions of abandonment by distant agencies in a state of cosmic emergency. Consagra’s sculpture, however, rewrites the apocalyptic narrative, reclaims the errant star, and brings it to earth in palpable, material, enduring form. In this way, a public art work, its component parts welded and erected by the artist in collaboration with a team of local craftsmen, perhaps serves to humanise and politicise disaster, and, to paraphrase Marie-Hélène Huet in The Culture of Disaster, emancipate it from a discredited supernatural and root it in the socius (Huet 2012: 8). For Corrao, ever the advocate of a restorative mnemonics with one eye on the future, Consagra’s Christian and socialist symbol of rebirth at the entrance to the valley represented ‘the capacity of the people of Belice to sustain the memory of culture, despite all attempts to erase it’ (quoted in La Ferla 2004: 39).

Il Grande Cretto: memory and oblivion

‘The dead inhabit a timeless moment of construction continually rebegun. The construction is the state of the universe at any instant. According to their memory of life, the dead know the moment of construction as, also, a moment of collapse’ (Berger 1996: n.p.)

‘Where there is no past, there cannot be a future’ (Sicilian novelist Vincenzo Consolo, quoted in Bouchard and Ferme 2013: 168)

In 1979, Ludovico Corrao invited the celebrated Tuscan artist Alberto Burri (1915-95) to visit Gibellina, with a view to commissioning a major art work for the town. At that time Burri was perhaps best known for his monochromatic cretti (‘crack’) paintings of the 1970s, in which he explored analogies to mark-making and drawing in the filigree of chance cracks (craquelure) deliberately produced in the drying processes of various materials combined with pigments, including plastic cements, resins, kaolin and tar. These works seem to reference landscapes, clay river beds, evaporated lakes and deserts, and to relate to those same entropic processes that so fascinated Robert Smithson. Trained as a medical doctor, Burri was also interested in creating the conditions for the appearance of unforeseen and barely controlled ripples, ruptures and ‘wounds’ in the surface plane of visual images, and harnessing the energy implicated in their processes of scarring and ‘healing’. During his 1979 visit, Corrao took the artist to the devastated remains of the old Gibellina, to the work-in-progress of Nuova Gibellina, and to the nearby ruins of the Greek temples at Segesta; the latter seems to have triggered the seed of a creative response for Burri. Subsequently he proposed a large-scale memorial to the victims of the earthquake on the site of the old town, using the residual debris and rubble (i ruderi) to construct a dramatic map-like installation in situ on the hillside. Il Grande Cretto (now usually known as Il Cretto) would be the largest work of contemporary land art in the world.

Over a period of several years from 1985, under the direction of the architect Alberto Zanmatti and with the assistance of army demolitions personnel and a team of engineers and builders, approximately 60% of Burri’s proposal was realised before resources for the project from private donations dried up in 1989.  The remains of the old town were bulldozed into compacted blocks over an area of about 12 hectares (29 acres: 300 x 400 metres), in an approximate, somewhat abstracted restoration of the former locations of streets and buildings. These roughly eye-level, irregularly shaped cuboid structures and the 2-3 metre wide walkways between them were then covered with a shroud or sudarium-like layer of white cement to produce an imposing minimalist environment, which looks from a distance somewhat like an exposed quarry zone undulating down the slopes at the top of the valley. The play of light and shadow on the stone steps of the ancient amphitheatre at Segesta seems to have been central to Burri’s conception of Il Cretto as a dynamic environment-object imbricated in time. The cyclical daily mechanism of the sun’s passage would bring life and movement to his sculptural forms, and animate what he conceived of as an enduring poetic and thanatological testimony to a forgotten community in this manifestation of an ‘archaeology of the future’. And at the time of a full moon, local people say, the Cretto’s reflective spectral luminosity was visible at night from many miles away along the valley. The vein-like tissue of fissures in its surface resembled one of Burri’s paintings anomalously amplified and writ large into/onto the landscape: an epic projection of genius loci valued anew, and, for Burri, in implicit dialogue (and alliance) with those of the culturally revered ruins at Segesta and Selinunte.

From within the Cretto’s apparent muteness and pervasive silence, the network of 122 sarcophagi and corridors produces something phenomenally and affectively related to Peter Eisenman’s penumbral Holocaust Memorial (2004) in Berlin.  Burri’s installation, texturally rougher than Eisenmann’s, proposes a steeply angled, brightly lit and labyrinthine series of immersive passageways inviting exploration on foot, decelerating locomotion, and activating contemplation, associational memory and disorientation. Some degree of slumping in the concrete pouring and drying process has served to produce a vivid impression of the morphology of the surface walls as ‘epidermal’, their folds and creases evocative of ageing, somnolent or unfolding bodies. This tactile, organic quality within the material itself gives rise to a certain dynamism and liquidity in its apparently petrified, inorganic fixity, a corporeal lightness in its gravitied, monolithic, sublime mass. Wandering in proximity to the weathered distress of the surfaces along these crevasses, emergent shapes seem to drift to the surface of consciousness – ephemeral constellations, landscapes - while all the while one remains hyper-aware of this area of sculpted earth’s openness and connectedness to the overarching sky and to the vineyards and orchards of the valley ribboning away to the horizon.

Concrete’s imperfections inevitably and unpredictably entail transformation over time. The effects of weathering sit uneasily with modernist architectural conceptions of uniform, planar ‘beauty’ (usually white), and its aesthetic ideals have more often than not resisted or repressed a work’s imbrication in time and context. Such transformation has been located as a ‘ruinous’ deterioration of original authorial intent for a ‘finished’ work, rather than as the traces of a contingent openness to the assimilation of the particular, fugitive qualities of place in nature’s ongoing process of finishing what is always ‘unfinished’ in time.  Today, long-term exposure to the extreme weather conditions of Western Sicily and lack of funding for restoration work have meant that Il Cretto is indeed, from a modernist perspective, deteriorating and gradually becoming a ‘new ruin’ in its own right. After almost 30 years, the original glaring white of the concrete finish, with its visibly artisanal shuttering and formwork, has been mottled and stained towards a somber blue-grey-tan lichen colour range. Some of the cement has been eroded to expose patchworks of different aggregates used in the original concrete blend for the render; and a number of the steel reinforcement rods are now exposed or have sprung free from the netting around the rubble core. In many places moss, small flowering shrubs, trees and other opportunist vegetation have colonised and burst through ever-widening cracks in the spalling mineral surface. 

In his remarkable historical study of concrete as modernity’s emblematic medium, Concrete and Culture, Adrian Forty returns repeatedly to concrete’s ambiguous status, and its resistance to stable classification as one of the recurrent features of its use and historical meanings: ‘many of the usual category distinctions through which we make sense of our lives – liquid/solid, smooth/rough, natural/artificial, ancient/modern, base/spirit – concrete manages to escape, slipping back and forth between categories’ (Forty 2012: 10-11). Its ‘tendency to double’ (11) proliferates in Burri’s use of the material in Il Cretto, a work which in its materiality and form activates the spaces between such binaries. In particular, the ambiguous blur between a progressive modernity and a residual craft archaism with elemental earthbound origins (concrete as a kind of mud), and between concrete’s base inertia as devalued industrial material and its paradoxical possibilities for a metaphysical numinosity. As an object-event-territory with complex and plural associations, and an uncertain overall status as art work, Il Cretto slips elusively between categories:

Painting, sculpture, architecture, installation, land art, scenography, design plan, document, wasteland, edgeland, centre, performance, scar, sanctuary, votive, tomb, memorial, monument, memento mori … Il Grande Cretto avoids all artistic categories, academic or otherwise, or perhaps unites them; its status remains wholly ambiguous (Casanova 2009: 121).

Later in Forty’s book, in a discussion of the use of concrete in the construction of memorials, he reflects on the use of a substance ‘so often regarded as the material of oblivion, erasing and obliterating memory, cutting people off from their past, from themselves, from each other … How can a material so generally regarded as amnesiac become the medium of choice in the preservation of memories?’ (Forty 2012: 197).  With reference to the twentieth century’s obsession with memory, and minimalist sculpture’s resistance to all forms of representation, Forty endeavours to unravel what he perceives to be a ‘circular puzzle – concrete the material of oblivion, avoided by artists hostile to mnemonic representation, but chosen by those seeking to represent memory’ (198). He goes on to suggest that, for him, the most successful of concrete memorials qua memorial is Georges-Henri Pingusson’s Memorial to the Martyrs of Deportation (1962) on the Ile de la Cité in Paris; and his description perhaps provides another perspective for understanding something of the paradoxical affective and memorial work that Burri’s Cretto both does and doesn’t enable:

not an object, but a void – and when you are in the void, there is nothing there to look at apart from yourself, the sky … and the unbroken surface of the concrete wall … there is no sign in this memorial; it is pure experience, there is nothing to be read, only the concrete itself … [it] creates a kind of sensory deprivation, which forces the visitor to concentrate upon the sky and the present … memory, if there can be such a thing, is of the moment, it cannot be captured or preserved … (214).

Unfortunately, however, local people felt they were not fully consulted about the demolition of surviving structures within the remains of their town, nor about the nature of Burri’s radical proposal for the memorial - like their new town, so utterly different from other responses in neighbouring communities devastated by the earthquake.  Some former residents of the old town, understandably less familiar with the discourses and practices of contemporary art, and with quite other conceptions of memory and memorialisation, felt that the ground of their patrimony (and identity) had been appropriated, and, in an act of paternalist, even colonialist imposition, forcibly reconfigured into forms that they could no longer recognise. In response to what they perceived to be Il Cretto’s obliteration and blanketing of historical remains, some suggested that the work had effected a kind of silencing. The enforced deracination from and veiled erasure of the recognisable traces of lived memory – a second violent ‘disappearing’, by art - had ultimately produced the ruins of memory in what had become, for them, quite literally a ‘concrete u-topia’, an alienating and impenetrable ‘no-where’; and it is evident that today the work’s function as sited civic memorial has been significantly eroded for many people in Nuova Gibellina.  Even for visitors without direct connection to the old town, within the insistent baroque in-folding of Burri’s structure one senses a potent and unresolved tension between the revelation afforded by public memorialisation (for the future) and memory’s concealment, the withholding of proliferative narratives, experiences and orientations (from the past) buried beneath the centripetal opacity of these surfaces, never to be recovered.


Since the early 1980s, old Gibellina has been the site of an annual summer festival of performance and music, the Orestiadi, named in homage to Aeschylus’s foundational theatrical narratives of emergence from abject catastrophe into the beginnings of a civic democracy. Initially the ruins of the old town, then Burri’s structure, were integrated as backdrop and scenographic frame for events staged on a flat piece of bare ground at the base. Already in 1979, Dario Fo and Franca Rame had performed Mistero Buffo for the people of Gibellina. And for over a decade into the 1990s, the Orestiadi became firmly embedded in the European festival circuit as one of the most adventurous events on the cultural calendar. Curated and managed by the Fondazione Orestiadi from its offices in the renovated former manor house Il Baglio di Stefano on the edge of Nuova Gibellina, the festival attracted some of the world’s best known contemporary artists;  and many of the performances were produced within the community and involved local people, in particular in the construction of scenographic objects and other design materials for theatre and opera.  Over the last 20 years or so, however, the Orestiadi has diminished drastically in scope and artistic ambition, and there has been little direct involvement from local people in the programme of imported productions and exhibitions.

‘Town as gallery’: notes on the architecture of the butterfly

Alongside the site of the bustling weekly market stretches a curved, cracked concrete bowl of almost 100 metres in length: an ‘ornamental lake’ with no water, just pockets of wind-blown litter and desiccated vegetation. Beyond the dry lake bed, a sprawling area of overgrown grassland with a small church at its edge, and then the town ‘centre’, the Piazza XV Gennaio 1968, another expansive and exposed void without shade. On one side, Samonà and Gregotti’s tufo and reinforced concrete town hall (Municipio), with its memorials to the earthquake; on the other, Alessandro Mendini’s cement and iron Torre Civica (1987), a 28-metre, winged, lighthouse-like structure and sonic art work intended as the town clock. At four predetermined times of the day, registering the rhythms of the working day, it is supposed to relay a 30-second burst of computer-generated amplified sound that never repeats – recorded fragments of traditional Sicilian songs, voices from the fields and from the past – but it has been out of operation for some time.

An elegant stone staircase that seems to lead nowhere slices through Ungers’s Carabinieri building, framing a patch of sky like a James Turrell ‘sky space’. Nearby, a number of free-standing floating walls pierced by empty windows, whose deconstructive function seems to be to frame ephemeral perspectives on the town for the passerby. An apparently unattached stone beam intersects with the roof of a building (Casa Pirrello) at an almost vertical angle, piercing it, as if suspended in mid-flight between falling and ascending; the beam casts a shadow across the façade below, like a sun dial. A series of immense, linear, de Chirico-like piazze, constructed formally and explicitly around a perspectival vanishing point (Purini and Thermes’s unfinished Sistema delle Piazze, 1990); at night, lighting in the facades either side of the chequer-board stone paving suggests abandoned runways awaiting air traffic. Uncanny scale and monumentality, in conjunction with a radical heterogeneity of form and style, seem to privilege visuality and scenographic frontality, the simulacral, the interstitial, the fragmentary and discontinuous.

At the base of a small hill towards the top of the town, Pietro Consagra’s Meeting (1983), an undulating steel and glass structure of great organic sensuousness and fluidity, like the back of whale or a camel breaching the surface; with only a small café at one end, it remains largely empty, a seductive sculptural shell. On the other side of the archway in its midriff, the Piazza Joseph Beuys (2001): the most desolate and deserted of the town’s stone and concrete voids, like an immense abandoned carpark. As well as the odd fragment of graffiti (‘Du bis mein’), its stained framing walls contain some ceramic texts that signal its intended and wholly unrealised revolutionary function as lo spazio della parola (‘the space of language’), an agora for collective gatherings, passeggiate and civic conversation. At one end of the square, and at right angles to the Meeting, broods Consagra’s towering and sublime Teatro, a major performing arts and cultural centre first conceived in the 1970s and still unfinished today. Architecture as permanent building-site, seemingly abandoned and suspended forever at some indeterminate mid-point between construction and abandonment. In the summer months the weathered concrete exoskeleton of this magnificent curvilinear monolith is colonized by darting flocks of sparrows, martins and migrant swifts.

Further up the hillside, Francesco Venezia’s Palazzo di Lorenzo (1981), an enclosed, roofless cube whose walls incorporate the stone remains of the façade of a major feudal building retrieved from the centre of the old town after the earthquake. This contemplative, mnemonic space of refuge and connectivity with a recognisable past activates the displaced former palazzo’s windows and balconies as optic frames for glimpses of the town and the neighbouring fields; its open configuration also dynamically registers the passage of the sun and of time in the movement across its textured surfaces of carved, material blocks of light and shadow. Finally, nearby on the top of the hill, Ludovico Quaroni’s astonishing Chiesa Madre, with its dramatic staging of a metaphysical intersection/collision between a rationalist cube and a huge white cosmic sphere – as if a luminous planetary body had tumbled from the skies and embedded itself in the wall behind the church’s altar. First conceived in 1972, the church was nearing completion when the concrete roof of the nave collapsed in 1994, leaving it in a state of abandoned disrepair until its restoration and final consecration, almost 50 years after its genesis, in 2010.

Postscript: the unfinished

For all of its continuing problems (unemployment, diminishing financial resources and prospects for young people, etc.), its unfinished structures and art works urgently in need of restoration, and for all of its haunting melancholy at times, in reality Nuova Gibellina today is far from the state of ‘ruinous abandonment’ that initial impressions and fleeting contact might suggest. The more time one spends there, the more apparent it becomes that over the years local people have gradually found ways to inhabit pockets of their extra-ordinary urban situation tactically and to affirm its uniqueness. Social life goes on in homes, the few cafes and social clubs (circoli), in the weekly market alongside the empty lake, and on summer evenings in the milling conversational traffic and street vendors in and around the municipal square and the open-air cinema. On most days, sections of the deserted spaces of the vast piazze are noisily reclaimed as perfect all-weather environments for kids playing football. A scattering of small shops now operate from the ground floors of some dwellings; and the slow drift from house to house entailed in this dispersed, attenuated mode of gathering things for an evening meal inevitably generates surprise encounters and pleasurable conversations. After several visits in recent years, I have become increasingly attached to this town. For the courageous ambition and compromising blindspots of its original imagining, and for its present imperfections, fragilities and uncertainties. For the warmth of human exchanges it affords, and for its moments of startling, layered beauty in the everyday. Perhaps above all, for the enduring possibilities it still seems to contain, somehow and despite everything, as an ambiguous, provisional, slowly unfolding work-in-progress …

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Hall, Peter (2014). Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design since 1880, Chichester: Wiley/Blackwell

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1970). Italian Journey, trans. W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer, London: Penguin

Huet, Marie-Hélène (2012). The Culture of Disaster, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

La Ferla, Mario (2004). Te la do io Brasilia: la ricostruzione incompiuta di Gibellina, Viterbo: Eretica/Stampalternativa

Mostafavi, Mohsen and Leatherbarrow, David (1993). On Weathering: The Life of Buildings in Time, Cambridge Mass.: The MIT Press

Pes, Aurelio and Bonifacio, Tanino (eds) (2003). Gibellina, dalla A alla Z, Gibellina: Comune di Gibellina/Museo d’Arte Contemporanea

Sciosia, Vittoria (2014). ‘Belice from a drone’: http://vimeo.com/111352987 - online video: accessed 10 January 2015.

Essay originally published as 'Terremoto: memory, utopia, and the unfinished in Sicily', in Performance Research, 20:3, June 2015 ('On Ruins and Ruination'), eds. Carl Lavery & Richard Gough 

Saturday 23 February 2019

botched taxidermy (FE365)

Throughout 2014, the 30th year of Forced Entertainment's existence, the company made an open call for people to submit texts "describing, thinking around, considering, marking or in any way remembering the company’s work in the three decades from its beginning in 1984". The only rule, that they be "exactly 365 words long, the final objective being to make a selection of texts totaling 10,950 words, one word for each day of the group’s collective work in the field of contemporary performance". In March 2015, 30 of the texts originally submitted - one for each year - were selected and published online as a pdf, with an introduction by Deborah Chadbourn and an afterword by Tim Etchells. This and the following post, texts I submitted, were included.

In his book The Postmodern Animal (2000), Steve Baker explores a variety of contemporary art practices involving animal representations, where ‘things appear to have gone wrong with the animal, as it were, but where it still holds together’. He describes strategies of imitation where 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 and Guattari’s word rater (to spoil, ruin), he coins the term ‘botched taxidermy’ for such makeshift, imperfect practices. Related to assemblage and bricolage, and the knowingly open display of ‘faulty’ or ‘inexpert’ technique, Baker suggests that such creative procedures in the generation of the provisional, the informal and the recycled are ‘questioning entities’(Derrida).

‘Botched taxidermy’ seems useful in relation to Forced Entertainment’s work, not only for thinking into all those dodgy animal disguises and uncertain animal/human hybrids in the performances: the panto horse in Pleasure, gulping whisky through an eye socket and cans of lager through the join between the two halves of the costume, before dancing in its own beery piss; the recurrent gorilla suit with or without head; or Cathy’s tatty, amateurish ‘dog’ costume in Showtime, on all fours with only the dog’s head and an old overcoat - a hilarious irritant messing with the show’s already troubled coherence, as well as a bittersweet failure of cynocephalic transformation. ‘Botched taxidermy’ also informs the structures and tonalities that characterise so many of these shows. Irreverently playing with received, overly-familiar or overlooked representational forms, displacing and defamiliarising them, turning them inside out and on their heads. Messing with their anatomies, abusing them, taking them apart, ‘stitching them up’ and reanimating them as comic, pathetic, psychotic, narcoleptic, drunk, incompetent, conspiratorial or inventive revenants in a different context here-now.

In Forced Entertainment’s shows, things often stagger on the lip of falling apart, yet somehow it still holds together. This core ambiguity and complexity in the work might be called a ‘fucked-up-and-yetness’. The ‘and-yetness’, which is political in its invitation to possibility and connectivity, takes many forms aesthetically and affectively, from the melancholic, the poignant and the corrosively comic, to the most astonishing micro-events of a flaring into appearance.

For all of the FE365 submissions in 2014, as well as the pdf download, see here. Contributors to the pdf selection include Mike Harrison, Alan Read, Gerry Harris, John McGrath, Matt Fenton, David Tushingham, Tim Crouch, Andy Smith, Richard Gregory, Kate Valk, Claire Macdonald, Dan Rebellato and Mark Etchells. 

liars and thieves (FE365)

Years ago, someone once sent me a rather poor photocopy of a photo of my friend Claire Marshall - in Hidden J, I think, it was a show I never actually saw. In the photo, she’s wearing a black dress and a cardboard sign tied with string around her neck, with the word LIAR written in big capital letters. Claire looks vulnerable and isolated adorned by this material textual object, 'othered' as if the sign has been coercively imposed. In some photos of her in this show, a slightly blurred Richard Lowdon is lurking in the background, his eyes directed towards Claire’s back, and his presence seems to confirm this coercion. 

Yet the nomination LIAR remains ambiguous, and any stable reading skids and unravels. Claire seems to be located as A liar, if not THE singular liar. At the same time the word and her 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? Oh…

The photograph came to me at a time when I lived in Australia, and petty criminals were being publicly shamed in some states there. 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 Claire, and it has often been reproduced since then, I have wanted to undo her isolation, 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 universities and online. A community of liars, with no clear way of ever knowing if any of us were telling the truth.

Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Wednesday 20 February 2019

stony ground, but not entirely

As an undergraduate student of French and Drama at an English university in the late 1970s, with a furrowed brow and a cigarette-fueled enthusiasm for Camus, Genet, Ionesco and above all Beckett, I possessed a much thumbed and annotated copy of Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd. Esslin’s book became a point of reference and orientation for me at that time, mapping and distilling certain thematic and formal patterns of which I felt I had intuited something without being able to organise those feelings into anything resembling coherent thought. 

At an impressionable, receptive period it was foundational for me, offering a window into affective landscapes of theatre, as well as leading me towards a wide range of other texts and readings. Initially it also spawned a bunch of adjectives that provided a kind of shorthand for complex ‘worlds’ and structures of feeling, words to be tossed around in undergraduate seminars and conversations as if there was a knowing, nodding consensus as to what they actually meant: ‘Beckettian’, ‘Kafkaesque’, ‘Pinteresque’ etc., as well as ‘absurdist’. 

Ultimately, and more productively, it helped seed a life-long interest in the ‘unlessenable least best worse' and ‘nohow on' of Beckett’s writings. The late Herbert Blau once located Beckett’s work as ‘the locus classicus of the problematic of the future' - and, on this hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War 1, as conflict continues unabated in various war zones around the world, Beckett will be a shadow companion in what follows:

‘Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed … But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!' (Vladimir in Waiting for Godot).

I still have that original copy of Esslin’s book, although until recently I had not opened its battered covers for many years. Almost forty years later, it is frankly disarming to revisit this text via the filter of my underlinings and scribbled notes, encountering these barely decipherable invitations to read and think as ‘someone else’ once read and thought. For these sub-Krapp marginalia offer the perspectives of a dimly remembered and prematurely world-weary nineteen year-old, his (my) unconvincing performance of hip Left Bank-ish anomie concretised in an omnipresent, decaying donkey jacket stuffed with papers and books (no carrots or pebbles), and an impenetrable micro-climatic pall of (‘Camusian’) smoke. 

I was clearly seduced and somehow affirmed by what I took - in my limited understanding of existentialism as a philosophical style, a grey cloak of ideas to be tossed over young shoulders and worn - to be revelatory representations of impossibility and inertia, of the inadequacies of reason, language and received regimes of the self, of disenchantment and meaninglessness in the face of mortality. In retrospect, I had little sense of the gravity and matter of such thoughts in and as lived experience.

Over the next few years, increasingly and joyously immersed in the chaotic, dissident explosion of new popular music at that time, and associated leftist politics, I came to read some of these plays as proto-‘punk’ manifestations, affectively rhythmed and charged mechanisms to prise the lid off the blind assumptions, repressed power-plays and dead-ends of naturalised middle-class ‘normality’ and conformity, education, culture, science-as-progress, entrepreneurship, meaningful action, the future. (One of my notes in the margins of Esslin’s book comically reads ‘Cf. Pistols?!’). In their defamiliarising shocks to thought and conventional aesthetic values, as much as in their pitch-black humour, these plays seemed to have a critical status politically and socially, both presenting lived situations as uncomfortable, uncanny image-worlds – how it is - and implicitly positing the possibility of and need to conceive of how it might be, otherwise, in a ‘world to come’. 

I began to realise that these were not exclusively essentialist metaphysical myths of nihilism and despair, scorched ahistorical outlines of the inevitability of the house burning down and total collapse through proliferation or entropic diminution, but also and at the same time abrasive, startling, excavatory calls to question and think and reimagine what Beckett in his short text ‘Enough’ characterised as ‘stony ground but not entirely’. Calls to make meaning where it apparently recedes and dissolves – in paradox, contradiction, oxymoron, double-bind, the uncanny, the im/possible, the Unnamable - or to learn how to live with not-meaning (1). Esslin suggested as much, perhaps, but somehow the insistent privileged framing of these plays, via a very particular conception of absurdity as anguished existential ontology, has served to insulate and defuse their potential critical, political charge.

So. Now. What/how one might live in relation to others. What/how one might be. What/how one might do. At this place, at this moment in time, all mankind is us. Whether we like it or not. 

Extract from an essay on Beckett and ecology, 'The ruins of time (I've forgotten this before)', published in the autumn of 2015 as part of a collection reappraising Esslin's Theatre of the Absurd in the light of contemporary environmental concerns and perspectives

(1) It was only much later that I came across Adorno’s negative dialectics and other critical perspectives contesting an ‘absence’ of meaning in Beckett: “Beckett’s plays are absurd not because of the absence of any meaning, for they would be simply irrelevant, but because they put meaning on trial; they unfold its history’ (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 1970). See also Stanley Cavell on Endgame as: ‘not the failure of meaning (if that means the lack of meaning) but its total, even totalitarian success – our inability not to mean what we are given to mean’ (in Must We Mean What We Say?, 1996).

Friday 15 February 2019

two shillings

'A tea time drunk weaving his way down Old Compton Street in the blinding sun stops me, and with a smile says, "Son, I want to give you two shillings".

I was quite taken aback as my hand was already in my pocket fumbling for change.

He gave me the two shillings. I thanked him and he said, "Good day".

"It is", I said. "All sunlight".

From Derek Jarman's Modern Nature, entry for 29 April 1990

Friday 8 February 2019

space time angles

As an artist and teacher of performance practices, I spend quite a lot of time in studios with people in general trying to make things. I am a party to their processes from the word ‘go’ to the moment at which it is shown live, if that’s the goal. In the bulk of my teaching that’s what it has been, in Australia, at Dartington and at Royal Holloway. Hopefully I am present and attentive to those people finding a way, finding forms, shapes and structures that they can work with, and trying to see where that flounders, where it's buoyant, where something moves freely amongst them and therefore in relation to me watching. I try to give them a little bit of guidance, where possible, but also to give them a bit of courage when something happens. Usually, often, ‘when something happens’ means that at some level I am engaged more than just as a pair of eyes with a brain attached to them; it feels much more embodied and implicated than that.

As well as performing, I also work as a dramaturg with dance people, with people somewhere in between dance and theatre, and then with Lone Twin. This job can take many different forms but essentially it involves a lot of watching and responding, always in the light of what it seems might be possible for that person or group, always trying to pitch any responses at a level that would encourage something that seems to be going on to develop fruitfully. So there’s a whole array of different kinds of watching that go on in teaching and in working as a dramaturg (and of course in performing). In addition, I am also a fairly seasoned spectator. I have watched a lot of performance over the years, and I have been involved in making a lot of performances. And of course there are different orders of watching and listening involved in actually making and performing ... When people talk about ‘kinaesthetic empathy’, the empathy is both kinaesthetic and affective and it is very hard to separate those things off; indeed they seem to be absolutely entangled. The cliche that one is ‘moved’ by something feels quite palpably real and lived in all sorts of ways: motion, e-motion.

Another spectating and 'doing' activity that informs my relationship to all these things is sport. From being able to walk and run to around the age of 24, I guess I did that more than anything else. At whatever level one arrives, there are all kinds of empathies as a spectator that come out of simply doing that activity every afternoon or evening for 20 odd years, in one’s spare time. I spent years of my life kicking, throwing, catching, running, falling over, usually in relation to an object that moves predictably, a round ball, or unpredictably, like a rugby ball. I fundamentally believe that that set of experiences and deep oafish pleasures for me inform a huge amount of my understanding of and my feeling for related things to this day.

When I go and watch a football match at Arsenal, I am often surprised by the kind of things people in the stands say and what that reveals or suggests as to what they read in what's going on. For example, quite often people are extremely critical if somebody tries something and it doesn’t work, rather than being sympathetic to the endeavour. Yet one can still see a thought which has not been realised because of a whole variety of conditions, often extremely minimal. Its 'failure' might be the result of some kind of blurring of the concentration because someone was moving very fast: the lack of peripheral vision at that particular angle, or the ball moving in a particular way that made it slightly unpredictable, and unplayable. Empathy informs a capacity to 'see' all of those things: the architecture of a body, its movement through space, its relationship to those variables, the speed at which things are unfolding, the moment when something goes awry, what has been attempted if not realised – and somehow those things seem very legible to me at times.

I’m surprised by the limited way in which some people who I imagine haven’t played much sport seem to watch sport, including some of the commentators on TV. You know, cries of 'Rubbish!' to Santi Cazorla, that sort of thing. Relatedly, I'm always intrigued by the relationship between those managers and coaches who have been quite accomplished sports players – footballers, let’s say – and those who weren’t, and therefore the differences in their possible understandings of the predicament of that individual or that group of people. The embodied knowledges and intutitions they may or may not be able to access. For me it is centrally about reading predicaments in a particular set of conditions. Maybe my abilities to understand and empathise with somebody’s predicament come out of sitting in studios, making work, being inside performances, watching performances, and playing and watching sport for much of my life.

At university, one of my core teachers David Bradby taught me a slightly old-fashioned mode of critical engagement called ‘close reading’ in relation to language, and this has been very useful to me in all sorts of ways. I learned from him an attention to the particularities of language, its rhythms, refrains, patterns, structures across time and space in writing. What writing does. I guess what a dramaturg practises at one level is a kind of close reading: of what movements are and what they do, how they relate to other elements, the weave and its effects. By 'reading' I don’t mean decoding towards some singular meaning, but a whole set of often ambiguous and contradictory effects or intensities, structures of energy that produce different things in me as a spectator. The work in the studio is like a proto-spectating, acting as a kind of barometer that reads the heat or feel of the texture. I think of those qualities, and of movement, very much as material, in both senses of that word.

I think that through sport, and through watching loads of stuff, lots of students and other practitioners, there are moments when I am able to be there and now with it. There is something like an amplified and sensitised empathy to many different things at play, and at the centre of that is what bodies are doing and what that produces in relation to other bodies, the space, the framing of the visible world, the audible world, the relationship with us, etc. And it's not necessarily a question of needing to know what the internal life of that is, its invisible logic, the intuitive or quite conscious scoring that goes on for a dancer: what Jonathan Burrows calls the 'internal song'. I’m always interested in those things, but not with a view to that thing being conveyed ... what's going on internally could be anything, because as we know there’s a mismatch between one’s internal life and what happens for somebody watching on the outside, what 'appears'. It’s all to do with what their actions do, and how to help someone recognise what that 'do' to me as a kind of foldback to them. So if I am ever interested in accessing their internal life, it’s only as a mechanism to help them have a fuller sense of what that seems to do for a third party.

At one time I was a gifted cricketer and at a certain point in my life people had me lined up to do this professionally as an adult. I played some representative cricket and then I had an injury and lost interest, particularly when I went to university. At other times I also played squash, fives and royal tennis, which is an extraordinarily complex game spatially and architecturally. It's played in an internal court with many different surfaces and textures. There are inert zones that you can hit the ball at and it will fall 'dead' off the wall, surfaces that you can hit which will rebound at a predictable rate, roofs that you can roll the ball along, etc. It’s very much about creatively reading architectures and surfaces and beginning to orient yourself and what you do with the ball in relation to these material effects. In a way it’s not unlike parcours but with a ball; you read and use the logic of architectural structures to play the game.

When I was very young, I played quite a bit of golf – and once every 10 years or so I still play with my brother; and that information from childhood is deeply encoded in my body. There is something remarkable in golf; it's the closest I have come to meditation outside of things that identify themselves as meditation. Similarly there is also something in football, and indeed in cricket, where everything external to what is going on right here, right now, falls away, and that's an extraordinary liberation at one level. A kind of immersion in present process. In golf that’s a singular activity, it’s just you and a club and a ball. But at the moment of settling down to strike a ball and to find a kind of flow that isn’t forced, they’re all the same thing (or not): you try too hard and you’ve stuffed it. You get in the way of ‘it’ doing it. It’s very Zen and the Art of Archery. That’s where I understood those things, in golf and in kicking, and in all of those activities associated with these sports: catching, kicking, throwing etc. To strike something with one’s foot, one’s head, or with a bat, or to bowl, or to hit a ball with a golf club – at times there’s a moment of profound stillness in and around the doing of that, and an absolute clarity which is very pleasurable for me (I'm someone who struggles with the privileging of the intellectual world at one level, and finds it hugely dispersed and distracting and off-balance). At such moments, I have felt absolute clarity in my ability to engage with the doing of that precise thing and not to be distracted by something else – those dumb bits of static: whether it will be good, whether people will like me if I do that, or who I am when I’m doing that. All that self-reflexive distraction – things that relate to a notion of self, to a notion of the quality of oneself, one’s abilities or non-abilities – they just fall away. And over time there are enough of such moments to make it significantly realigning in terms of one's sense of self; there is absolute calmness and clarity, and at its best or clearest, a joyous reunion with the thing that is being done. You are the thing that is being done; you are not doing it any more, it kind of ‘does you’. You can be a shit golfer and hit the ball very, very sweetly without effort five times in a round of golf and that will be enough for you to be full of joy.

I never took any of these things very seriously. Even though I was competitive I always thought they were joyously ridiculous as activities. I always understood and accepted the nonsense of sport, its fatuousness. Fundamentally it’s absurd and a bit pointless, both comic and serious, a 'folly' as Lone Twin suggest; and I very much like that about it. Of course it produces a great deal, with its intensities and emotions, its vectors and balls of energy, its alignments of perception, its very real and ephemeral pleasures; but it does not actually make a 'thing', it’s not productive in an instrumental way; it's a pure potlatch activity. It has no function other than in its doing and sharing. Sport is play, with all of play’s productive and non-productive attributes.

I have some odd abilities. For instance, I can for throw balls, or stones, very hard and a very long way. I don't know why. I guess it comes out of hours of chucking things as a kid, somehow endlessly fascinated by the arc of a trajectory, the curved flight through the air, the triangulation hand-eye-there. From the age of 7 to 18, I endlessly won silly competitions about throwing cricket balls. Like golf, or kicking a ball, it’s something to do with not getting in my own way and understanding the notion of not trying. There’s a kind of effort and aligned connectedness in playful visualisation that doesn’t impede your capacity to just get on and do that thing. Alain Platel of Les Ballets C de la B once talked of a fascination with something he called ‘suppressed virtuosities’. Those things we are extremely good at, but that no longer have a value, no current purchase as an activity. Throwing is one of them for me and I rather like the fact that I have this completely functionless capacity. I value its lack of value and its anomalous redundancy.

As a result when I see people who are very good at whatever their thing is, whether it's David Beckham taking a free kick, or a friend at school who could manipulate his face in a hyper-gurning way, or my friend the performer/choreographer Jane Mason moving, I recognise they have a particular set of capacities that I don’t have. I can see that Jane has a range of possibilities, and my not being able to do them somehow amplifies radically my sense of what a body can do. The horizon expands ever so slightly, and I find that very exciting. In Jane’s case, her particular quality might be the capacity to ride very close to some kind of intuitive hunch – without having to decode or understand intellectually, to explain it away. She’s very adept at that, and it takes various shapes. And so the nature of the conversation that seems possible with her is rooted in a kind of empathy for the proposition that she can run close to felt impulses she really doesn't need to know in a way she can verbalise. And I love and respect that, and try to encourage her to do that.

Of course if you play team sports you get to know your own capacities at some level: what you’re not so 'good' at, what you are 'good' at. Not necessarily intellectually ‘know’ those things, but you have a felt sense of them. And you also start to read what other people can do and where their capacities are; and so you create the conditions where that capacity can be activated usefully. It’s absolutely similar to working with a group of performers, whether they are dancers or theatre people. It’s somehow creating the conditions for the individuals within the collective to recognise, value, extend and develop their own capacities, and to find a complementarity in relation, so that collectively they can produce something that is more than the sum of its parts and that’s live here and now. Years ago I remember seeing early Theatre de Complicite shows, and talking with Simon McBurney about sport – and he made a similar set of connections between sport activities, team, playing field, structures in space that have restrictions and therefore encourage play, tactical possibility and game structures inside the restrictions. That’s what enables play, the parameters, the friction. It’s like the give in a bicycle chain; it has a structure, but it also has ‘play’ in it in that other sense of ‘give’. For me there was always a strong connection between sport, play and performance making.

I remember reading a beautiful article about footballers by Richard Williams in The Guardian, in which he writes in particular about the Portuguese player Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane. It was in part about why one might conceive of them as ‘artists’. Richard Williams had been a music writer before becoming a sports journalist; he’s written a book about Miles Davis, for example. He’s one of the few journalists who has a real feel for rhythm, space, tears and shifts in space, relations of connection and counterpoint, etc. – those elements that are central to my relation to watching sport. Anyway, Williams wrote a memorable phrase in this article: ‘He [Zidane] sees space and time and angles where we see only confusion.’ The ‘we’ that he refers to is perhaps the untutored eye, the kind of a person who perhaps isn’t sensitised to those kinds of elements and processes going on. He suggests somebody like Zidane makes such things palpably apparent. A change of direction that opens up that part of the space where it was blocked. That shift in angle, that cut-back pass that opens up a gap in relation to that vector of that body moving at that speed, through what looks like a chaotic scrimmage, into a new configuration of space. So it’s a kind of choreographic practice at one level, an enabling managing of space for people to flair into the thing that they do very well. Which is thrilling and illuminating,  of course. There are very few people who make such dynamic elements and possibilities as visible as Zidane sometimes did: a kind of pedagogy for spectators.

For what it's worth, an edited transcript of an interview with David Williams by Dick McCaw, a version of which was first published as 'Space and time and angles: learning how to watch' in the journal Theatre, Dance and Performance Training 5:3, 2014, 350-3. Image just above: Anthony Gormley, 'Trajectory Field', 2001

Wednesday 6 February 2019

the zoo at night: beautiful mutants

 ‘… like all people who feel uncomfortable in an uncomfortable world, you want to make a map. Well let me tell you it is difficult to make a map in splintered times when whole worlds and histories collide’ (1).

It is a little puzzling to revisit the archival traces that linger from a performance that occurred almost a quarter of a century ago, in search of ‘what happened’: working note books, drafts, photographs, some video fragments, drawings, the programme, reviews, photocopied extracts from associated readings (2), and the odd object, including a blue paint handprint on a square of thick, water-stained canvas, a leather Arlecchino half-mask, and a finger-length luminescent peacock feather. It’s puzzling because the work itself and its processes are of course largely irrecuperable from these things, and the stories my cortex hums to me are of uncertain status at such distance in time, closer to fiction, or perhaps dream. The live event slips in and out of focus, some sequences and details still vivid, brightly lit and ‘hot’ in my memory, others largely defused or eroded over time.

However my memory of the place of the event - the New Fortune Theatre - feels remarkably immediate, embodied, animate; and as I write on this winter’s evening in my home in Somerset, England, in an instant I can cross the world and be there again. It’s a place I still feel I know well. Perhaps its clarity and intensity in my memory in part result from having spent a number of years working from an office in the English Department at UWA that looked out directly on to this space; perhaps in part this is the mnemonic residue of all those hours spent exploring its sculptural geometries and volumes, its live zones, sight lines, the movement of light and shadow over its surfaces. In what follows – a reworking and expansion of some earlier reflections on the production co-written with my core collaborator and friend Barry Laing, with extracts from the performance text – my memories of this place, its architectural and affective particularities, its agencies in the making of a performance, are at the very centre. 

                                                                                                David Williams

 The trigger source for the Ex-Stasis Theatre Company’s production of Beautiful Mutants, commissioned by the Festival of Perth in 1993, was Deborah Levy’s novel of the same name. Initially the novel was adapted by David Williams and Barry Laing into a performance text/script, which passed through seven written drafts before being submitted to the company. The sequence of 24 episodes in this seventh draft then became the starting point for the material outcomes of the performance itself, which were collectively devised with the full ExTC company (3).

Beautiful Mutants, Levy’s first novel, marks the beginning of her transition as a writer from theatre to fiction, and its textures (linguistic and imagistic), tonal shifts of register and fluid narrative structure mine and extend many of the attributes of her earlier texts for performance. It is a work of vast imaginative range and depth set in the crumbling world of late 1980s capitalism and commercialism, characterized by one of Levy’s protagonists as ‘the age of the migrant and the missile’. (4) With the scope and dexterity of a cinematic vision, Levy hunts in unexpected places and moves easily among the shadows in the lives and fractured minds of people exiled from themselves, displaced geographically and psychologically: their culture too near for comfort, the land of their dreams sometimes too far to realize. In a world of rampant materialism, competition and consumption, the city – Thatcher’s London - becomes a ‘zoo’, peopled and echoing with squeals of desire, dances of obsession and dreams of flight.
ExTC’s production was gathered around and written into the specificities of the performance site, the New Fortune Theatre at UWA: a schematic ‘reconstruction’ of an Elizabethan theatre, with triple balconies on all sides of a large thrust stage, an audience ‘pit’, and a second open space behind the regular stage – and all open to the sky. The architecture of the New Fortune, familiar to both directors, was instrumental in the conception and development of the work from the very outset. We felt that its multiple zones, framings, layerings, its possibility for something akin to the mobility of cinematic close-up, long shot and depth of field, for montage and fluid dissolves of location (5) could inform and focus the emergent dramaturgy of the performance as a whole. Although we would have limited access to the theatre during the devising process, we tried to conceive of the space as protagonist, material and medium, rather than as passive ‘receptacle’ or container for our imaginings. And secretly we played the game of asking ourselves what it wanted, how it could flare into a different visibility by a shifting of the geometry of attention. Ideally the event could both ‘fit’ with the logics and possibilities of the site and at the same time be in a relation of tension or critical friction with it, the performance’s forms and materials somewhat ‘ill-fitting’ in terms of the site’s received conventions and languages (as we perceived them, at least). So the theatre itself as a particular space-time to refer to, align with, push against, hold present. Ultimately, with a view to being playful in a purposeful way, we sought to defamiliarise the space and make its latent dynamics and potentials active and apparent. To this end, the usual orientation of the space was turned through 45 degrees clockwise, with an L-shaped block of seating placed on two sides and two levels, thereby configuring a ‘new’ performance space privileging proximity, encounter and sensory imbrication, as well as a looking anew/askew on a known space at an unfamiliar angle of incidence, its centre line now running from downstage right to upstage left. In addition, the space usually designated as audience ‘pit’ in the Elizabethan configuration was sealed and flooded with water to a level of over a meter in depth. This pool area, the thrust stage and all three levels of the balconies were used by the performers throughout.

In terms of design, the core components were located in the pool: a metal ‘island’ with hinged struts, allowing transformation from a cage in the shape of cupped hands, a claw or a closed bud, into, say, an unfolding sunflower (see episode 3, ‘The Age of the Great Howl’, below); a bridge – a spine, a trestle of bones – with articulated metal supports, which could also be manipulated; a silk and bamboo structure known as ‘the pupa’, a tubular tunnel that snaked around the lip of the thrust and into the water like some massive grey intestinal tract or larval invertebrate; a network of rope and chain rigging, onto which spectators were invited to tie small handwritten notes of desired release, like prayer flags; and the water itself, able to suggest a tropical blue lagoon, a black lake of indeterminate depth, or a sulphurous burning reservoir. The water offered reflective and scriptable surfaces, mirrorings, doublings, and endless possible dis/appearances, dissolvings and re-makings. In its saturated metaphoricity and material fluidity it was conceived as the unstable space of memories and desires, of buoyancies, rips and drownings – in the words of the South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, water as ‘the soul of the mirror’ (6).
In this complex and dynamic space were elaborated the major roles upon which the performance turned. Lapinski, a Russian immigrant conceived on the marble slab of a war memorial, who leaves her home for a foreign land: an ‘island’, another place, an elsewhere. She smokes, conjures the martyrs and ‘love demons’ who haunt her, befriends a Poet, loves a Painter called Freddie, and tells stories. She is a kind of narrator, her voice pervading and animating the space of all the others, their stories enacting her story in turn:

Life is a perpetual to and fro, a dis/continuous releasing and absorbing of the self. Let her weave her story within their stories, her life amidst their lives. And while she weaves, let her whip, spur and set them on fire. Thus making them sing again. Very softly a-new a-gain (7).

In the flat above Lapinski, whose ‘otherness’ particularly confounds him, lives the Revenger. He exists crawling between earth and sky, swimming sometimes, mostly treading water, but burning with the struggle to turn his drownings into dreams. He is frightened and he doesn’t know why, he wakes in the mornings afraid and there’s no one there to tell; but incredulously and comically he is determined to be ‘master of his own fuck-ups’, and most of all amused by his own bitter jokes.

The Poet works on a hamburger production line in a factory on the edge of an urban wasteland – the ‘Meatbelt’, the brown underbelly of the city – with Lapinski and other women, sleepwalkers, blood under their finger nails. Among them is Seashells, a woman who can hear the sea, has visions, and loses her hands to the beast of the machine. In the Poet’s eyes, whole continents flicker as she transports herself, her workmates and the audience across thousands of imagined miles, through borders of every kind, no passports required. She has learnt the art of metamorphosis:
The night shift is nearly over. Soon we will return to each other after our long separation. We will be startled by the distance we have travelled, even though we are standing shoulder to shoulder in the same room. (8)

Freddie is an artist who glories in his own delusional ruminations on Lenin, Freud and Dali. He is a ‘lover’ fragmented by impossible past loves, including Lapinski, who realizes himself in the very moment of his immolation in the voracious lust and flaming mouth of Gemma the Banker. The Banker finds liberation in hatred and destruction. She is ‘love’s arsonist’, a Kali-like corporate raider who loots the city and every possible sexual scenario; ultimately she torches the Zoo in a maniacal, necrophiliac apocalypse of passion and pain.
Krupskaya, Lapinski’s shape-shifting cat, prowls through these stories and spaces, transformed by them variously into a grandmother, a corpse, a blow-up doll, and other shadows and reflections between worlds.

The form of the work emerged from these darkly comic and sometimes violent stories of exile and dislocation, and the possibilities afforded by the performance space. Dramaturgically and scenographically, the intention was to engender a cinematic fluidity that enabled radical jumps in space-time, sudden migrations, interweavings and collisions of discrete image-worlds: a kind of dissident, critical surrealism. The performance posited a cartography of multiple or possible selves using an episodic structure to speak of the pathologies of cultural ‘death’ and the possibilities of imaginal ‘life’, and the transitional spaces between. Conceptually, these transitional spaces were orchestrated as rips, tearings, overflowings, bleedings, ecstasies – formally suture, montage, jump-cuts – in an attempt to articulate an increase in the buoyancy of the imaginal pool we are always already swimming in.

In this context, we conceived of images as polyphonous ‘worlds’: collocatory syntaxes conjoining words, physical actions, music, sound and the rhythmed articulation of space – images as dynamic sites of possibility. The ‘images’ were thought of as the visible/audible/palpable intersections of these sites. In this way we understood the pool as a tabula rasa re-definable under different lighting conditions, revealing its depth or solidifying into an impenetrable, black void. The performers swam beneath its surface, emerging from darkness into the dreams or nightmares of their own stories, disappearing, then re-emerging in the memories of others.
The water, and the metal, wood, earth and canvas of the set and its structures – such as the bridge linking the front of the auditorium to the thrust stage – were ‘playable’. They served as musical instruments and pliable forms. The water deflected, reflected and re-animated sound, light and the performers’ actions. In ‘The Age of the Great Howl’, the bridge, which served as one of the sites for the Meatbelt, was played with iron bars for percussive and melodic effect, alongside pre-recorded sound and the thrashing of water. In episode 21, ‘Zoo Apocalypse’, the water was set aflame – fire over water – as were metal, wood and cloth dispersed throughout the space. The pungent odour of fuel and black smoke mingled with human cries and animal murmurings as the flickering shadows kept time with destruction:

The zoo at night is the saddest place. Behind the bars, at rest from vivisecting eyes, the animals cry out, species separated from one another, knowing instinctively the map of belonging. They would choose predator and prey against this outlandish safety. Their ears, more powerful than those of their keepers, pick up sounds of cars and last-hour take-aways. They hear all the human noises of distress. What they don’t hear is the hum of the undergrowth or the crack of fire. The noises of kill. The river-roar booming against brief screams. They prick their ears till their ears are sharp points, but the noises they seek are too far away. I wish I could hear your voice again. (9)

The spoken words of the script were one of a number of ‘textual’ components embedded in these composite images. For example in episode 17, ‘And All for Babies with Bone Disease’, the Revenger tells stories that collapse time and space while the figure of his father, enacted by the performer who plays the morphing Krupskaya, presides over his demise from a second balcony. Drifting piano music, the hollow sound of drips and a distant helicopter threaten the primacy of the spoken/written words.

In addition, we located a series of speakers in and around the performance areas to allow the soundscapes to ‘travel’ through and around, spatialising the movement of sound within the architecture of the theatre. One of the central audio images which recurred in different guises throughout the performance was of a helicopter with searchlight, circling ever closer, before hovering in the night sky above the space, finally careering out of control and being ‘sucked’ into the water with the performers (see below, episode 24, ‘This Does Not Exist’). The performers enact roles of ‘see-ers’, and the ‘seen’; they are able to transport themselves, but they are policed, living under the watchful eye and scorching light of equally possible repressions.
Finally, the particularity of the theatre space itself introduced a wholly productive unpredictability in two ways. Firstly, the weather became an active component of unfolding image worlds, particularly wind – warm gusts and eddies animating flame, smoke, cloth, hair, sounds - and the occasional summer shower, droplets disturbing the surface of the water as if it were reaching boiling point. Secondly, in all of the performances the theatre’s resident peacocks chose to remain present throughout, exquisitely languorous and bejeweled onlookers, uncharacteristically silent, taking up various positions on the balconies like baroque azure extras quietly performing an-other audience. This porosity in the parameters of space and event, their openness to the uncontrollable dynamics of the context (the allowing in of both a meteorological and animal ‘outside’), seemed to amplify and thicken the resonance of images, giving them further immediacy, body and carry.

David Williams and Barry Laing thank Deborah Levy for her encouragement during the production process. All photographs are by Marcelo Palacios.


The first image of the performance. Soundscape: piano music, a lament, emerging from a sound of sampled water droplets, as the performers who play Lapinski and Krupskaya walk slowly into the space from opposite sides and meet on the bridge. Krupskaya carries an old, battered and threadbare umbrella, inverted above her, like a bowl; a black cloth over her shoulders, like a shawl. She gives the umbrella to Lapinski, who slowly spins it above her head to create her own ‘snow-storm’; from the umbrella white feathers swirl and settle on her shoulders, the bridge and the water below. At the same time, Krupskaya wraps her head in the black cloth, for a few moments becoming the ‘grandmother’, bidding Lapinski farewell.

Both figures then step quietly out of this space, down from the bridge and into the water, as the journey to a foreign land begins. Lapinski moves through the water with the umbrella, looking straight ahead. While she wades, she trails Krupskaya in her wake. She is a ‘corpse’, floating concealed underneath what is now a black shroud: her dead ‘mother’ – a memory, a weight. As Lapinski approaches the metal cage, Krupskaya is released, floating abandoned for a few moments, then re-emerging to dance serenely in the water with the cloth. The umbrella floats nearby, like a monstrous damaged lotus.

A distant dog bark in the soundtrack greets Lapinski as she climbs into her ‘new world’ – an island, a cage. As the music slips underneath, she slowly looks around her at the audience, and begins to tell Lapinski’s story:
LAPINSKI: My mother was the ice-skating champion of Moscow. She danced, glided, whirled on blades of steel, pregnant with me, warm in her womb even though I was on ice. She said I was conceived on the marble slab of a war memorial, both she and my father in their Sunday best: I came into being on a pile of corpses in the bitter snows of mid-winter.

On my fifth birthday, my father stole a goose. He stuffed it into the pocket of his overcoat and whizzed off on his motorbike, trying to stop it from flying away with his knees. We ate it that evening. As I put my first forkful into my mouth, he tickled me under the chin and said, “This does not exist. Understand?” I did not understand at the time. Especially as my mother stuffed a pillow full of the feathers for me, and soaked the few left in red vegetable dye to sew onto the skirt of her skating costume.

At the age of twelve, when my parents died, I was sent to the West by my grandmother. She said it was for the best. I was to stay with a distant uncle. When I asked my grandmother why he had left, she said, “Because he is faithless”.

The ‘mother’ has disappeared into the water, and now reappears in deep focus, walking quietly along a side balcony and off into the distance, a blue light painting the plastic shroud that rustles around her: the memory recedes.

Which is how I came to be here. Where women were rumoured to swim in fountains of sparkling wine dressed in leopardskin bikinis. I unpacked my few clothes, books, photographs, parcels of spiced meat, and wept into the handkerchief my grandmother had pressed into my hand. It was embroidered with one scarlet thread with my name – L. A. P. I. N. S. K. I.

The music has dropped out altogether.

            Exile is a state of mind… 

(1)  The Poet in Deborah Levy, Beautiful Mutants, Jonathan Cape: London, 1989, p. 16. Republished by Penguin in Early Levy, a volume with her novel Swallowing Geography, in 2014.
(2)  This pool of loosely related materials, reflecting our fascinations at the time and informing our approaches to some degree, include an annotated copy of Ted Hughes’s poem/film treatment Gaudete, sections of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse and of Breyten Breytenbach’s Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, two short stories by Gail Jones – ‘The House of Breathing’ and ‘Modernity’ - and essays about the dance-theatre work of Pina Bausch.
(3)  Beautiful Mutants was first performed at the New Fortune Theatre in Perth on 9 February 1993. The project was conceived and directed by David Williams and Barry Laing. The performers were Mandy McElhinney (Lapinski), Felicity Bott (Krupskaya), Barry Laing (‘Duke’, the Revenger), Andrea McVeigh (The Poet), James Berlyn (Freddie, the Painter), Anne Browning (Gemma, the Banker), and Kate Beahan (Seashells). The devising process also implicated the designer Ricardo Peach, lighting designer Margaret Burton, sound artists John Patterson and Andrew Beck, costume designer Bruno Santarelli, and the production manager Mark Homer.
(4)  The Poet in Deborah Levy, Beautiful Mutants, Jonathan Cape: London, 1989, p. 11.
(5)  Although these are characteristics of Shakespearean dramaturgy, film was our central metaphorical and aesthetic stimulus here for an approach to image making in the theatre.
(6)  Breyten Breytenbach, All One Horse: Fictions and Images, Faber & Faber: London, 1989, p. 14.
(7)  Trinh T. Minh-ha, ‘Grandma’s Story’, in Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, Indiana University Press: Bloomington 1989, p. 128.
(8)  Episode 14, ‘One Body’, ExTC adaptation of Deborah Levy’s Beautiful Mutants.
(9)  Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body, Jonathan Cape: London, 1992, p. 135.

Extract from 'Space as protagonist, material, medium: Beautiful Mutants', by  David Williams and Barry Laing, a longer text with extracts from the performance text, published in The New Fortune Theatre: That Vast Open Stage, Perth, Australia: UWA Press, 2018. Eds. Ciara Rawnsley & Robert White