Tuesday 14 September 2021

quieted, housed (oak time)

Over the past three years or so, I have photographed this oak tree many times from the same position, tracking its changes and the shifts in the weather. It's on a regular cycling and walking route; and pretty much every time I pass, I look at it and take a picture. There are dozens of them now. An archive of tree(s). 
I think of it as 'my' oak, although of course it isn't. Somehow it has acquired a particular place in my affections - a moving still point, always there. An enduring continuity. A kind of axis mundi. When someone close has passed away, I have placed some rose petals from the garden (dried or fresh, depending on the season) in a little hollow at the base of its trunk ...
Beginning last October, this chronological sequence records something of the past year in the life of the oak, autumn to the end of summer, with one image for each month. Twelve trees, the same tree. 
‘Occasionally, in a moment of peaked emotion ... we will truly see something, a tree, an animal, a neighbourhood, a loved one, in their idiosyncratic actuality, as we suspect they truly are, and we are overwhelmed, while quieted, housed, by the detail of their being. Before this moment of recognition, they existed, of course, but now they stand out with an aching clarity, which seems at once identity and a notion of our relationship to it' ... Tim Lilburn, The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place, 2017

Wednesday 28 April 2021

how do you say goodbye?

For Jane 


These texts are a response to travelling to Chicago for the 2003 Goat Island summer school at the School of the Art Institute. Two weeks in an American city I had never visited before, although it left its fingerprints all over my imagination. I read this text as a final presentation on the last day of the summer school, with unedited video footage of the city accompanying me on Bryan Saner’s laptop.


The presentation was prompted by certain lingering feelings from the school: by the work itself, by conversations, and by Mark Jeffery’s presentation on endings. It was also informed by the particular group of collaborators, a sense of a wider community of ‘goats’, and certain events at home while I was away. What follows is written in fragments, the ‘little by little suddenly’; it includes extracts from a number of found texts, emails, a letter, some bendings of the truth, the odd out-and-out lie. It’s an attempt to be playful in a purposeful way. It touches on displacement, connection, transformation, ephemerality, and the ways in which memory had taken (a) place for me in Chicago. It’s an attempt to re-member.


Let’s start with two poets who wrote in French. Firstly, Charles Baudelaire: ‘Countless layers of ideas, images, feelings have fallen successively on your mind as soft as light. It seems that each buries the preceding, but none has really perished’.


Secondly, Edmond Jabès: ‘There are no words for adieu’.




What is a goat? (1)

A while ago, you asked me: what is a goat? I’m not entirely sure, a goat is many things, and probably not a thing at all, more a process or an event – but here are four qualities I’ve come to suspect are at work, or at play, here:


1.  A goat is a kid who has matured somewhat.

2.  It is said that goats were implicated somehow at the very beginnings of theatre. The word ‘tragedy’ means something like ‘goat singing’, but I’m unclear as to whether it was the goats themselves who sang, or whether song hovered in the air around them as they munched – the good citizens of Athens bursting into song in their honour. En-chanted goats, literally. But it may well have been neither of these, maybe this is just a trick of memory …

3.  Never leave a goat unattended in your garden. It will eat everything and anything, including your laundry.

4.  Sometimes a goat isn’t a goat at all. It’s a bird.



A few days after my arrival, Matthew lent me a book called Chicago’s Famous Buildings: the first of a number of thoughtful generosities, exchanges and circulations. Coming from a small village in the south-west of England where tall means 6 foot 2 and the bus leaves for town on Tuesdays, it was with some wide-eyed bewilderment that I read pioneering architect Louis Sullivan’s account of the chief characteristic of the tall building: its loftiness.


‘Loftiness is the very organ-tone in its appeal. It must be in turn the dominant chord in the architect’s expression of it, the true excitant of his imagination. It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line …’


By this point, there was some excitant in my own imagination, and I felt the urge to experience loftiness such as this, within which every inch of it was tall. Feeling relatively brave, I chose the second tallest building in the city. My ears popped in the elevator on the way up. Then, from an open platform called ‘the skywalk’, I surveyed the city. I saw a man floating alone in a pool on top of a high-rise building. I saw a peregrine falcon riding the thermals, spiraling still as a stone above Michigan Avenue. I saw many things from up there.


And here’s some of what I didn’t see but might have seen from up there. I didn’t see but might have seen a lot of things from up there.


A young woman rocking backwards and forwards in the subway, singing the spiritual ‘Silver and Gold’.

Spray can marks on a railway-line wall that read: ‘Chica, estas fuerte!’

A man in a leather jacket carried inches above the sidewalk by a silver heart-shaped balloon.

Isabella Rossellini at Virgin Records, she’s just bought a Björk DVD.

Two guys locked in conversation, passing an old man begging, and not hearing his plea: ‘But I voted Republican!’

A white T-shirt with the Innuit word in black: QUINUITUQ.

A black dog chasing a white plastic bag.

A man trying to inhale the world.

John Dillinger reading the sports section of a newspaper before heading on to the Biograph movie theatre.

Two cigarettes in the ashtray.

An old man with a very long beard, playing ‘Yesterday’ on a saw.

A girl with a box bearing the words: ‘Kit for paddling through stars floating on a lake’.

A man with a fire in his head.

A neon sign that reads LET’S DANCE, only the final E is missing.

A man barely able to stand up after breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s. The waitress clears away his half-finished meal, and asks him: ‘Would you like the complementary ice cream?’

Indiana Jones at the Oriental Institute.

A man at dawn whispering to the lake through a megaphone: ‘The air is filled with the moves of you’, he says.

A woman who cooks curries that make her friends hallucinate.

A man whistling and sawing away at the branch he’s sitting on.

The smell of chocolate hanging heavy in the air over the river.

A man on a cellphone in a hotel lobby: ‘We are all Americans at puberty’, he explains, ‘we die French’.

A woman who keeps valium in her sugar tin.

A jetlagged man who wakes at 4.33 a.m. precisely, sees the time and thinks he’s at a performance – or perhaps is one.

An old man directing the traffic with his stick.

Two nuns on a pedalo in the lake.

A woman wearing a necklace made out of pistachio shells.

A runaway horse skidding through the suburban mall.


The way she laughed.


‘There is no place not the reflection of another. It is the reflected place we must discover. The place within the place’ (Edmond Jabès).



As I walk at ground level, Chicago triggers memories, although I’ve never been here before. ‘Like those birds that lay their eggs in other species’ nests, memory produces in a place that does not belong to it’ (Michel de Certeau). Memory as cuckoo.


I walk and walk, and try to arrive, and one day something arrives at me. A feather floats down from a lofty building and lands in front of me …


Then I see that there are others falling out of the sky, a slow silent downpour.


‘FEATHER’: from a Greek root meaning ‘wing’

·      appendage, plumage, display, decoration, mark of honour, badge of a fool, emblem of cowardice (a white feather in a game bird’s tail is a mark of inferior breeding): a commodity (‘to feather one’s nest’): a tuft of hair on humans and horses

·      a very small part of anything, almost weightless, of little strength or importance: lightness, discretion, secrecy, flimsiness, a trifle

·      weaponry (arrows), ballistics: to pierce or wound (‘to bury an arrow to the feather’)

·      a blemish, flaw, imperfection having a feather-like appearance (in an eye, or a precious stone)

·      hunting: quivering movement of a hound’s tail and body while searching for the trail

·      related to wealth, health, weather (‘in fine or high feather’)

·      in writing, a quill: usually a swan or goose


I remember Italo Calvino: ‘For the ancient Egyptians, exactitude was symbolized by a feather that served as a weight on scales used for the weighing of souls. This light feather was called Maat, the goddess of scales. The hieroglyph for Maat also stood for a unit of length – the 33 cms of the standard brick – and for the fundamental note of the flute’ (Six Memos for the Next Millennium).


Questions for psychics (1)

Almost every day during my walk back from the studio, in a gallery space in Greektown, I am handed a piece of paper in the street.  On the third or fourth occasion, when I have a little pile of Jeanina flyers, I think what the hell, and I give her a call. I get her answerphone, and feel slightly disappointed that she didn’t know I was going to call, but leave her a message anyway. For I have one free question: ‘Hi Jeanina, I have a question for you, well, several of course, but here’s one for starters. It doesn’t quite fit the list of what you can tell me, but anyway, here goes … Umm … what is a goat?’

Now and now and now

Some years ago, we met in London and she took me to see a German film, Himmeln über Berlin (‘Wings of Desire’). Broadly, it’s about angels hovering around the city of Berlin before the fall of the wall. They are able to hear and see everything in people’s embodied lives, to record but barely able to intervene. One of the angels is frustrated by his detachment from the world of the material, the temporal, the human. He yearns to be able to say, ‘’Now and now and now’, and no longer ‘since always’ and forever’’. He longs to be weighted, gravitied, attached to the earth. In one sequence, he comes across a man who has just been knocked off his motorcycle by a Mercedes; the man is badly injured and in shock. The angel comforts and calms him through a whispered list planted in the man’s consciousness: an orienting list of particular places and things the man has loved, a map of coordinates and phenomena and everyday fragilities. After a few words, the man’s voice picks up the list, they are now his own thoughts, and the angel walks slowly away listening to him whisper these words:


‘The fire on the cattle range. The potato in the ashes. The boathouse floating in the lake. The Southern Cross. The Far East. The Great North. The Wild West. The Great Bear Lake. Tristan da Cunha. The Mississippi Delta. Stromboli. The old houses of Charlottenburg. Albert Camus. The morning light. The child’s eyes. The swim in the waterfall. The stains from the first raindrops. The sun. The bread and wine. Hopping. Easter. The veins of the leaves. The colour of stones. The pebbles on the stream bed. The white tablecloth outdoors. The dream of a house inside the house. The loved one asleep in the next room. The peaceful Sunday. The horizon. The light from the room shining in the garden. The night flight. Riding a bicycle with no hands. The beautiful stranger. My father. My mother. My wife. My child …’


My favorite place (luck days)

Every day when I go and check my email, I find a text from someone who has been working on the same computer, a Korean woman studying English in Chicago. I have come to think that her words are left there deliberately, as messages for me. This is what she left for me yesterday:


‘My Favorite Place. Ka Mir Park, Jul. 4, 2003

One of my favorite pace is empty swimming pool. I used to go to swimming pool in the morning. Some luck days, there where no people in the swimming pool except me. When I swam alone, the feeling was really gorgeous. The surface of water looked really peaceful. The feeling that when I divided the calm surface of the water, I cannot expression by word. Just I cat say that I love it so much. And I do not have to worry about next me, it made me relief. Some time, there are many people in a swimming pool I have to hurry up even I stay in short of breath. When I depressed I saw the dull, it makes myfelling much better. That lucky days, I spent hole day in good mood from the feeling of swimming pool’.


What is a goat? (2)

In Michel Tournier’s novel Friday, Andoar was born on a tropical island, the very same island on which Robinson Crusoe was stranded – and although Andoar ended up as a kite, he was of mixed human/goat heritage. The human side comes from Friday, whose own ancestors (we are told) were probably coastal Indians from the central part of Chile. Friday was playful, light, solar; he greeted everything with laughter, not a naïve laughter but one that emerged from a sophisticated form of acceptance. In his eyes, there is always ‘a hint of derision, a touch of mockery defeated by the drollery of everything he sees’. Friday was aerial: for example, he had a passion for shooting arrows to see how far and long they could fly. As for the goat side of the mix, we know that Andoar’s other parent was a powerful and fearless goat with startling green eyes and a terrible smell which, we are told, could be detected from a great distance.


But to understand Andoar, you have to know not only the elements of his hybrid crossing, but also the miraculous circumstances of his birth. After several combative encounters between Friday and the goat, they engage in a great final contest. At the end of it, entwined in each other’s bodies, they tumble over a cliff and emerge as a new composite creature. Andoar (and/or) consists of the man formerly known as Friday, now thoroughly impregnated with eau de goat and sporting an aerial accessory – the old goat’s skin, now scraped, cured and polished, is attached to a frame of twigs and connected by a vine to the old Friday’s ankle. Andoar spends his days ‘battling with the tricks of the wind, diving to its sudden gusts, turning when it veered, sinking when it slackened, and in a soaring bound regaining the altitude it had lost’, as the more terrestrial parts of his body and its awkward shadow dance alongside on the sand.


Tournier’s novel as a whole is a tale of how to become solar, ‘an angel of helium’. And I am drawn to Andoar because of his talent for boundless flight, for lightness and mobility, while retaining some contact with the ground. Andoar activates the wish to fly, to extend the limits of one’s current embodiment; to escape the confines of biography, culture, training; to expand the horizon of the conceivable. Andoar’s mobility activates a desire for what Tournier calls ’something else’. He offers encouragement for the space to become otherwise. For the exercising of faculties. For playing around. For shuffling the deck. For changing places. For messing with things. For responding to shifts outside and in. For keeping one’s foot in contact with one’s shadow on the ground …


Encounters and crossings bring new things into being. A goat-man-kite becoming.


Specific natures

Opposite my apartment on State Street, just underneath a sign for Ossama’s Hair Designs, there’s a vacant storefront. Above the windows in gold letters: ‘Incomparable Quality’ – ‘Impeccable Fashions’ – ‘Exclusive Styles’. In two neighboring windows, two life-sized casts of human bodies – a naked man and a naked woman, lying down on their backs beside each other. Asleep. Or dead, maybe. Each body is caked with earth, and inlaid from head to toe with thousands of grass seedlings. In this piece (‘Specific natures: a living installation’) and other work by the two British artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, the grass grows to the point of its natural depletion, then withers and dies. On my first day in Chicago, the specific form of each body was visible, the grass no more than stubble length: a beginning. By this morning, all distinguishing features have been blurred and concealed by the grass. They are now generic bodies, ungendered, turfed outlines.


I imagine two goats grazing in the vacant storefront on State Street, quietly discussing their meal, ignoring the traffic, the passersby. ‘Mmmmmhhmmm, this grass is incomparable, impeccable. How’s yours, gonzo?’ ‘Exclusivo, compadre. Hey hey, ain’t this the life’. I imagine the grass spreading gradually out of the storefront, across the sidewalk, making its way oh so slowly up something really very lofty … grass that is every inch a proud and soaring thing …


How deep in your mouth (laughtears)

I loved it when she laughed. It was like discovering a tree was still alive, although it had no leaves because it was winter.


At her 21st birthday party, she laughed as if laughing was the joke, and the joke was spinning the world around faster and faster so that only the joke held and didn’t get dizzy, it just threw off light and flecks of laughter and grains of sugar and with its head back swallowed vino spumante, and played with the bubbles and gave them to her friends with a kiss when they joined in her laughter.


We were partners for about two years when we were undergraduates. I studied French, she studied German. We have been friends for almost a quarter of a century. Then a year ago, she became ill. Last Thursday I dedicated my talk about animals to her. She was the person who told me that Kafka called his cough ‘the animal’. Earlier this week on Monday morning, this email from her sister fell out of the sky and landed in front of me in Chicago. A breathturn.


            Dear David

            Jane finally died at 1.15 this morning. She had spent the previous couple of days in a coma and was very peaceful. Whilst we are devastated at losing her, we are all relieved that her suffering is over. She has been so incredibly brave over the last 13 months, but has had to put up with more than any one person should have to bear.

            I got your email yesterday evening, having been in the hospice for the past few days and nights, and fortunately I spoke to Kate who was there last night and made sure that she whispered your message into Jane’s ear. I believe she could hear us right up until the end, and we have been reading and chatting to her for the last few days. I like to think that she heard your message.

            I will let you know what the funeral arrangements are once they are organized – I don’t expect you to fly back, but I am sure that you will want to think of her at that time and maybe mark it in your own way.

            Much love, C x


A few months ago, in late spring, I sent Jane the following text from a section called ‘Our Cancer’ in Matthew Goulish’s book (Matthew is quoting Odysseas Elytis); Bryan Saner spoke a version of this text at the end of Goat Island’s The Sea and Poison:


‘I felt abandoned by everything. A great sorrow fell upon my soul. I walked across the fields without salvation. I pulled a branch from some unknown bush, broke it, and brought it to my upper lip. I understood immediately that all people are innocent. We walk thousands of years. We call the sky ‘sky’ and the sea ‘sea’. All things will change one day, and we too with them’.


I mentioned the goats, told her about coming to Chicago for the summer school. Some days later, she phoned me with a question: ‘What is a goat?’


I loved it when she laughed.


Questions for psychics (2)

I try Jeanina three more times. Always the answerphone, never anyone there to respond. As my questions remain unanswered, I figure I still have one free question each time I call.


Here are my questions:

1.  ‘Jeanina – I want to be milked from the udders of a cow. I want a pine tree to grow inside me. I want to hang by my fingertips between the tops of two mountains … And you?’

2.  ‘Hi Jeanina, me again … what if I just suck?’

3.  ‘How do you say goodbye?’


The only dream worth having

Dear David


There are other worlds. Other kinds of dreams. Dreams in which failure is feasible. Honorable. Sometimes even worth striving for. Worlds in which recognition is not the only barometer of brilliance or human worth. There are plenty of warriors whom I know and love, people far more valuable than myself, who go to war each day knowing in advance that they will fail. True, they are less ‘successful’ in the most vulgar sense of the word, but by no means less fulfilled.


The only dream worth having is to dream that you will live while you’re alive and die only when you’re dead.


Which means exactly what?


To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated nor complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try to understand. To never look away. And never to forget.


What is a goat? (3)

Before I left, you asked me: what is a goat? I’m not entirely sure, a goat is many things, and probably not a thing at all, more a process or an event, but here are some qualities I’ve come to believe or suspect are at work, or at play, here:


A goat is the mystery of an encounter.

A goat is responsibility in the face-to-face.

A goat is connection and exchange.


A goat is attentiveness, exactitude/imprecision, interruption, contradiction, invitation, possibility, small miracle, crossing, overflowing.


A goat is a widening of wishes.

A goat is loftiness in small things.

A goat is an active vanishing.

A goat is the arrival of memory.

A goat is a letter to the dead, and a letter to the future.


A goat is a sensuality accomplice for the one that is one of a kind.


A goat is a breathturn.


Goat is also a verb: to goat. To goat is to be light (embodied, gravitied light – light as a bird, not light as a feather: Paul Valéry). To goat is to hold on tightly and let go lightly. To goat is to fall into the open, to fly a little with one’s foot touching one’s shadow – a shaggy, raveled thing – on the ground. To goat is to give the gift that gives.


To goat is to graze.

To goat is to laugh.

To goat is to whisper.

To goat is to listen.




Chicago, SAIC, 25 July 2003. Includes texts from Italo Calvino (Six Memos for the Next Millennium), Peter Handke/Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire), Jane Bennett (The Enchantment of Modern Life), Matthew Goulish (39 Microlectures in proximity of performance), John Berger (To the Wedding), Arundhati Roy (The End of Imagination), Charles Baudelaire. Edmond Jabès, Paul Celan, Roland Barthes, Alfonso Lingis, James Joyce, Deborah Levy, Ka Mir Park.


Wednesday 7 April 2021

care (push-pull)

When I last saw G, my neighbour in Western Australia, he was in his early eighties. A delightful, sensitive man who had once been an engineer. We used to chat at length over the fence or out walking with our two dogs. For over forty years, G had been caring for his bed-bound partner A; she had a rare brittle-bone condition so extreme it meant that even a sneeze could result in a broken rib. Sometimes we had tea with A around her bed; she was both fragile and extraordinarily radiant. Out with the dogs, over time G revealed his frustration and exhaustion. After so many years the imperative to care for A, the push-pull of having to meet her every need and demand, had ground him down. He loved A but wanted her to let go now, to slip away; it was time, he said, while there was still time. Sometimes, despite himself, the weight of his tiredness manifested as irritation or even anger towards A, and he felt crippling guilt for not always being up to giving away his life for another.


G had an escape, and perhaps, he said, it was now ‘the love of his life’. Once a week for a few hours he would go gliding by himself, and whenever he talked about it, he was utterly transformed, lit up. The sheer joy of riding invisible thermals, the miracle of soaring and hovering, the wedge-tailed eagles. The silence, adrift in skyspace with the world laid out far below like ‘a beautiful old faded carpet’ (his words). Freed, for a moment, from gravity and care, while A lay immobilised by her illness on her bed, as light as a bird. When he came home afterwards, he said, he was troubled about whether it was okay to feel such pleasure. I told him I felt sure it was, more than okay. He invited me to come gliding with him. But then A died, and for months G was bereft. Grounded.


Extract from ‘Diffractions: record of a passage’, an afterword for the forthcoming collection edited by Karen Christopher & Mary Paterson, Entanglement: duet as form and practice, Intellect Books, to be published in August 2021. Image from www.aerospaceweb.org, 'Birds, thermals & soaring flight'

Monday 15 March 2021

tamper (the play in it)

‘The playing of the game is the playing of the game with that object, and the object of the game is therefore in part always to undertake a forensic trial of the object’s possibilities. One plays with the object in order to put its properties and possibilities in play, to discover and determine what play there is in it’ (Connor 2011: 123)

‘The children seem to be fighting, but they are merely learning to inhabit their country’ (Barthes 2007: 47)

My contexts here are in my own past: a childhood playing sport with genuine pleasure and commitment, while never really taking it fully seriously. I still conceive of it as a joyous folly, a kind of absorbing, immersive absurdity (1). As Steven Connor suggests in A Philosophy of Sport, sport is ‘triumph and disaster; everything, nothing; important, unimportant’ (Connor 2011: 48). The initial trigger for this revisiting of aspects of my past from over 40 years ago came in a file of school reports (from the ages of 5 to 18) handed to me by my father with a sigh about 18 months ago. These distilled, haiku-like assessments of a child’s abilities and aptitudes are illuminating and rather troubling in their fragmentary and elliptical account of an education in the 1960s and 1970s, its expectations and ‘tamperings’, its stratifying of different orders of ‘knowledge’, its explicit reiteration of what is valued and privileged, of what constitutes ‘success’ and ‘failure’, and the extraordinarily partial perception and construction of a young self-in-process. Clearly I was failing to understand that particular ‘game structure’, its rules and protocols. Ultimately the reports offer a litany of disappointment at my apparent lack of interest and attention in most classes (apart from art and music), with far too much staring out of the window, dreaming, chatting, an approach that is deemed altogether ‘maddeningly casual and easy-going’. They include this Latin report at the age of 9: ‘He has tried all the spivvish tricks, and has only now discovered that work is the best solution’ (what tricks were they?); and a despairing summary comment from the headmaster when I was just 11: ‘At present he is rather a stupid and idle boy. Despite our best efforts, I’m not sure we will ever be able to save him’. These failings are consistently offset and partially mollified, it seems, by my rather pointless sporting prowess – for example, this from a report on ‘games’ at the age of 12: ‘David is an expert thrower and an accurate bowler of considerable skill, but he lacks discipline and is not capitalizing on his gifts’ … (2).

In what follows, in part I am interested in reclaiming and valuing something of what the choreographer Alain Platel has called ‘suppressed virtuosities’ - redundant, devalued or forgotten techniques, currently functionless embodied skills or areas of expertise: in my case, in particular between the ages of 7 and 18, eye-hand coordination, and a peculiar aptitude for play with a variety of balls, bowling, throwing, catching, kicking, hitting, as well as an array of fairly esoteric techniques for ball tampering in cricket matches. Also in the back of my mind hover some attributes prized in the aesthetics of Italian football. Of the three vital ingredients required for the most accomplished football players and teams, Italian aficionados suggest that the unruly passion of English football lacks all three. These qualities are: technica (technique, skill); fantasia (the ability to do unpredictable and surprising things with the ball, inspired instinct, imagination, flair); and furbizia (cunning, guile, slyness, a tactical bending of the rules, aspects of gamesmanship).
‘He obviously enjoys acting – on and off stage!’ (School report, aged 16)

Cricket is a game of infinite repetitions, and attenuated discontinuous rhythms - long periods of apparent low-level activity (or even non-activity) and sudden flarings of intensity, in a durational game structure of great complexity that enables significant ‘play’ and unpredictabilities within that structure (including, for example, its porosity to the material effects of weather, cloud cover, wind etc.). For Steven Connor, like all ball games it is ‘a choreographed meteorology of speeds and durations’ within which the ball acts as ‘the switcher and transmitter of these speeds’ (Connor 2011: 77).

Over a period of about eleven years, I spent a significant amount of time during the spring and summer months playing school cricket as a medium-paced ‘swing bowler’ or ‘seamer’, a specialist in the production of unpredictable movement, swerve and bounce. As a bowler, one endeavours to set up the conditions for unpredictability, always projecting an object both related to and independent from you on a forward trajectory into the future, towards the ludic, agonistic encounter with the anticipatory and reflex skills of a batsman. My particular abilities, which remain at some level wholly mysterious to me, were ‘late swing’, a sudden alteration in the rate of change of the ball’s trajectory, amplified bounce or ‘kick’ off the pitch’s surface, and a cut-back off the seam at the moment of the ball’s striking the pitch, suddenly redirecting the ball in a different direction from that of its original swing through the air. To paraphrase Connor, the aim of this particular game was to play with your opponent by trying to prevent them from playing (with) you (131).

In all ball sports, the nature of the ball is paradoxical: inanimate and animate, object and subject, it seems to move in and out of its own agency; and in its passage and exchange, its status as intermediary, it weaves relations and constructs complex entanglements and intersubjectivities. The cricket ball’s structure comprises smooth leather surfaces on two halves of a sphere, with a raised, stitched seam encircling it; in this way, uniformity is combined with an element of unpredictability (Connor 2011: 138). The physical mechanics of swing (the ball’s ‘movement’) are intimately related to the transformation of the ball in time, its mnemonic registering of its histories of contact and collision, the biographical traces of what happens to happen to it; for ‘the cricket ball is designed to soak up accidents of all kinds’ (142). Over time its flawless, smooth surfaces roughen and soften slightly, the seam loosens and becomes uneven, and the object assumes a ‘lunar asymmetry’ (ibid).  In some ways, the ball mirrors the pitch itself, a ‘sphere, as it were, rolled out’ (139), a flattened and extended smooth surface that in itself becomes worn, marked and damaged over time by the contingencies of the game; it decays into ‘a scarred cartography of accidence’ (59). This gradual entropic deterioration of the idealized, immaculate integrity of two of the game’s core structural elements – ball and ground – is actively assimilated within and exploited by the game structure of cricket; and this growing material imperfection serves to compromise predictability and thus multiply the possibilities for a bowler keenly aware of the game’s intimate imbrication in processes of change over time.

According to articles 2.2.9 and 42.3 in the laws of cricket (sections concerning the alteration of the condition of the ball in the International Cricket Council’s formal ‘Code of Conduct’), the bowler and fielders are permitted to clean and polish the ball, sustaining its shine. They are prohibited, however, from using any other aids apart from bodily fluids – sweat, spit – and their own clothing (ICC 2017). One side of the ball is polished and carefully maintained, while the other is allowed (or caused) to deteriorate, therefore creating increased drag - ‘turbulent flow’ - on that side during its movement through the air as it travels along the line of the seam; in this way, the friction on the rougher hemisphere produces a bending of the line of flight – the swerving movement of a ‘curve-ball’.

‘Ball tampering’ is a term that refers to illegitimate means of gaining advantage by accelerating the deterioration of the condition of the ball, thereby unfairly interfering with the ‘orderly’ aerodynamics and legibility of its trajectory, and increasing swerve and unpredictability. There are long histories of tampering, documented since at least 1918 (see for example Birley 1999: 217, 316); and whenever it is exposed, it is decried as ‘not cricket’, ‘not playing the game’. In professional contexts it results in substantial fines and penalties. For example, the England captain Mike Atherton was seen on TV using dirt in his pocket at Lords in 1994; the Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi was captured on camera biting the seam in a match against Australia in 2010; and the wonderfully named South African bowler Vernon Philander was caught gouging the ball with his nails in 2014. In 2016, Faf du Plessis, the South African captain, was fined his entire match fee from the second test against Australia when TV images revealed him applying sugary saliva from a sucked mint to the ball. Most recently, during the fourth Ashes Test in Melbourne, Australia, in late December 2017, the England bowler Jimmy Anderson was recorded by Channel 9 TV cameras running his fingernails along the quarter seam of the Kookaburra ball, although any intentional ‘foul play’ was subsequently denied and dismissed by England officials as ‘Pommie-bashing’ gamesmanship.

In my early teens I was taught how to ‘work the ball’ (we never used the term ‘tamper’) by a warm, funny Yorkshireman who was the school cricket coach, a retired England and county cricket player celebrated as a canny, unreadable swinger and seamer. I was a sweet sucker and sugary polisher, although the ball was sometimes scuffed or further shined covertly by a couple of frotteur teammates in the field on its circuitous route back to me. I think I conceived of this as just part of the game and its tactics, an amoral adolescent understanding and play-ful acceptance of furbizia: a minor amplificatory tweaking of the ‘give’ in structure, the craft in ‘crafty’, and the meaning of ‘in mint condition’ …

Tampering techniques aim to produce subtle modifications of the game’s core object. Typically there are three core modes of tampering – picking and lifting the seam, roughening one side of the ball, and shining the other with concealed materials. Less commonly and more mysteriously, marking or scuffing the surface of the pristine, polished side, or picking, lifting and fraying the finer quarter seam that bisects that unblemished hemisphere, can also produce what is known as ‘reverse swing’. An inventory of tampering tools might include: for polishing and shining, Vaseline (concealed on one’s trousers, forehead or a handkerchief), lip balm, hair gel, sunscreen, saliva from sucking sweets; for roughening and scuffing, trouser zip, studs, dirt or gravel, or throwing the ball into the ground; and for lifting seams, finger nails, penknife, nail clippers, metal bottle top, zip. Each of these interventions has to be realised invisibly, and gradually, so as not to attract undue attention. The umpires have the right to inspect the ball at any time, to verify its integrity and the credibility of its gradual wearing and minor deformation as part of the game’s material knocks and frictions; and indeed they can decide to replace the ball with one of similar age and condition prior to tampering if the ball in play is deemed to be excessively damaged.

So tampering involves deception, simulation and disguise, discreetly and necessarily concealed within a performed and illusory pretense of playing by the rules and ‘playing the game’, while incrementally introducing a kind of sinister deviation in the predictable and orderly, a swerve of difference in repetition. Steven Connor suggests that cheating in such contexts is an affront to sport’s claimed ontology. For, he proposes, ‘sport is in its essence zealously non-symbolic and unillusory’, and its function is ‘to provide a place and an occasion from which all possibility of simulation has been scorched away, and in which one can be sure that whatever happens will reliably and irreversibly have happened’ (Connor 2011: 175). In some ways, perhaps there is an echo here of those absolutist claims made for performance art as manifest action and event, the actual happening of the ‘real’, in contrast to the subterfuges, shapeshiftings and tawdry pretense of a particular (and limited) conception of theatre, with its purported privileging of the underhand over the manifest, of seeming over being.

Two months after submitting this text for publication, ball tampering briefly became the focus of the international media, and triggered the performance of a great deal of indignant moral outrage, as if the fact that such tactics could be at play within the game of cricket was the most unforeseen and alarming of revelations. During the third Test match between South Africa and Australia in Cape Town in March 2018, television cameras and live-feed monitors in the stadium picked up Australia’s Cameron Bancroft rubbing the ball with a mysterious yellow object that he then concealed, with comically inept sleight-of-hand, down the front of his trousers. Approached by the umpires, Bancroft showed them a dark grey sunglass pouch from his side pocket, and no penalty was imposed at that time. However the close-up images of Bancroft’s actions had been widely disseminated, and the heightened media attention prompted an immediate investigation. Subsequently Bancroft and Australia’s captain Steve Smith admitted that in fact there had been an attempt to interfere with the ball’s condition, using sand paper as an abrasive tool, and that the tampering plan had been hatched during a lunch break by a ‘leadership group’ within the Australian camp. Formally charged with improper conduct by the ICC, Smith and Bancroft were heavily fined. In the wake of the players’ admission, the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (‘it beggars belief’) and a range of international commentators publicly condemned the players’ actions, and a formal investigation was undertaken by Cricket Australia. Ultimately Smith, Bancroft and David Warner, the Australian vice-captain (a notoriously aggressive competitor, and the apparent instigator of the tampering plan) were found guilty of cheating, lying and bringing the game into disrepute; they were sanctioned with lengthy bans from all international and domestic cricket. In addition, the Australian coach Darren Lehmann resigned. On their return to Australia, all three beleaguered players gave tearfully apologetic press conferences to the international media, in which they spoke of their shame, their failure as ‘men’, ‘leaders’ and ‘role models’, and their commitment to forthcoming reviews of the team’s culture and the conduct of professional sportsmen.

1. An earlier version of this material was presented as part of ‘The Things They Do’, an event curated by Joe Kelleher and Nicholas Ridout at the Barbican, London in July 2016, in response to the major retrospective exhibition by Ragnar Kjartansson at the Barbican Gallery.
2. A decade before my arrival, Derek Jarman attended the same secondary school. In his bleakly withering account of its educational ideologies and disciplinary regimes, he characterizes his experiences there in terms of ‘a vicious fraudulent gentility’ that ‘masks a system of bullying and repression, coupled with a deliberate philistine aggression towards learning and intelligence, which are only acceptable if saturated with the muddied values of the rugger pitch … The aggression carries over into many aspects of the teaching which serves not only to enlighten but to repress. A systematic destruction of the creative mind, called ‘education’, is underway … A subtle terror rules, thoughtfully preparing us for the outside world. I feel threatened, isolated and friendless – I’m hopeless at all the communal activities, particularly ball games’ (Jarman 1984: 51-2). Like Jarman, I found refuge in the astonishing openings and relative freedoms offered by the very same art teacher, an inspirational enthusiast and mentor to many ‘failing’ elsewhere; unlike Jarman, I was fortunate to be able to find other pleasures and enduring friendships in the complicities, physical release and escape that sport allowed, for some.

Barthes, Roland (2007). What Is Sport? (trans. Richard Howard), New Haven: Yale University Press.
Birley, Derek (1999). A Social History of English Cricket, London: Aurum Press.
Connor, Steven (2011). A Philosophy of Sport, London: Reaktion.
ICC (International Cricket Council) (2017). ‘Regulations – Playing: Code of Conduct for Players and Player Support Personnel – Effective September 2017’, ICC Rules and Regulations: KeyDocuments, accessed 10 December 2017.
Jarman, Derek (1984). Dancing Ledge, London: Quartet Books.

1. Seam: photo David Williams 
2. Old hand, new ball (‘whispering death’): photo Sue Palmer
3. A tampering toolkit: photo David Williams

First published in Performance Research 23: 4-5, 'On Reflection: Turning 100', October 2018: commissioned text for special 100th double issue of the journal