Sunday, 20 January 2008

Good Shit From Bristol: Live Art Weekender (Part 1)

Saturday 12 January 2008, Arnolfini, Bristol

image from Peoples In Pieces: 15 Storms in a Teacup (Good Shit evening programme)

Now this was a great way to start performance-going for 2008. The 8 pieces in the day-long programme worked beautifully together and there was a great vibe throughout the day. The evening programme was absolutely ramjacked and it was great to see so many local artists turn out to support the programme (and each other). I'm writing extended thoughts, so going to break this into two posts.

Here are some thoughts on each of the durational pieces:

Steve Robins: Coinage
Steve called this "a contemplation on the weight of words." As part of his PhD research he's been keeping a journal, in which he wrote 80,000 words last year. This durational performance started with 80.000 pennies piled in 365 dated squares, gridded out on the floor of the Arnolfini foyer - the number of pennies in each square corresponding to the number of words written on each date. The action involved Steve collecting each pile of coins in a rucksack as a reading of each journal entry was played quietly from a CD player in the bag. When the rucksack was as heavy as he could take, Steve carried it up two floors to Arnolfini's Light Studio. In the Light Studio was a video installation of 2-screens, showing images of an arm struggling with the with the weight of a bag of coins, and a projection onto the floor, showing Steve lying naked over the pile of 80,000 pennies. Once he reached the installation, Steve would tip the pennies from the rucksack over the floor projection.

It took him 12 hours to move all the pennies from the foyer to the Light Studio.

I felt it was important to outline the whole action here as I think the detail and the labour of it is really crucial to the effect of the piece. Each detail offered an opportunity to reframe or underline the sheer endurance of the action. These were alternative ways to measure or demonstrate the duration/endurance of this action. There was the literal weight of the pennies (and boy, was that bag heavy after a few handfuls of pennies) and the literal time it took to get all the coins upstairs. There was the looped video of an arm struggling under the weight of a bag of coins - projected large enough to see the muscles spasm and quiver before eventually caving in, but then repeated on and on. Inexorably. There was the intimacy of the journal entries (you had to get quite close to Steve to hear the recording), and then the overriding sense of mundanity that came from hearing so many of them - the words I remember most repeated being: "Went to the gym," and, "here and now." The strain, frustration (boredom, even?) that grew on Steve's face and shoulders as the day went on. The expanse of the task marked out ahead of you in days and words ("you've been doing this for 4 hours and you've only got to 12 March?!?").

I don't know how to sum up the piece more succinctly. For me it was very much about the accumulation - hence all these lists. I found the scale of it really affecting (the sheer number of coins, the fact that the action took place through Arnolfini's full three floors). There's something very humbling and accessible about the use of pennies too. It didn't look like £800. You were more likely to think of a wishing well than a bank account. Steve's amiable persona was helpful too. There was no barrier between him and the audience. In fact, the level of the journal recordings actively invited people to get close to him. As the day wore on, I think he more and more valued the company and conversation of people who asked questions, gave responses or checked he was ok. Once the final bag of coins had been transferred upstairs, Steve collected as many of us as he could to attend his closing gesture - where he lay on the pile of coins, replicating the image projected on the floor. I'm glad he announced it as he really deserved that little round of applause. I can't imagine how lonely it would have been to close the action alone. The value in my experience of it was rooted in being encouraged (and able) to return to Steve throughout the day. In this way, it was never a lonely action - it was never just about the artist undertaking this task.

On a practical note, halfway through the gridding of the floor, they must have run out of white paint marker, as the rest was done in chalk, which disappeared as the coins were collected and the spaces were once more trodden. I know some people though differently, but for me, I liked that the painted dates remained - I think they spoke more of absence and time passed than the vanished squares. As well as being "a contemplation on the weight of words," this was also a piece about time, how time passes, what we accumulate over time and how things change over time. It was an effective, reflective experience and one that I've enjoyed thinking back over again.

Pete Barrett: Enough Rope
Another durational performance which I think benefitted considerably from having returned a few times to Steve Robins' piece, and having got into a mindset of spending time with the work. Pete's work is often about "making life difficult for himself" and his tasks are usually repetitive with more of an air of self-imposed punishment about them, than out and out exhibitionism. Enough Rope involved him elaborately binding his feet with rope and then walking home.

Sat in the beautiful big window in the Arnolfini bookshop, Pete painstaking hobbled each foot using some sort of complex knotting pattern (one of the passers-by suggested he might be "making macrame shoes," when their child asked what that man was doing in the window), before heading out into the streets of Bristol.

I watched for some time when he started and returned 3 or 4 times over the next few hours. Enough Rope was very different to Steve Robins' Coinage, in that Enough Rope had much more of a sense of the artist doing this to themselves. For me, this isn't going to engage me as fully as piece such as Coinage, which calls out to its audience much more wholly. But there's something compelling in the focus with which Pete performs. It's a sort of voyeuristic fascination in watching someone doing something utterly incomprehensible, but with care, skill and conviction.

It's also funny in a weird sort of way. Yes, the craft of it is very watchable, but the absurdity of applying this kind of skill to making rope 'shoes' with which to walk through Bedminster is, faintly ridiculous. Nor does Pete seem po-faced about it. It doesn't feel inappropriate to laugh a little. And as a result, I'd much rather be cheering Pete home through BS3, than applaud anything David Blaine does.

On top of this, as Pete's 'shoes' developed, the knotty balls at the end of his legs began to remind me of this truly gobsmackingly freakish Discovery Channel shock-doc I saw a bit of when I was up at my parents' for Christmas. I won't go into the details cos it was really quite horrific, but in true Discovery Channel style, the documentary was called "Half Man, Half Tree."

Michael David Jones: Define Me
I think the fairest thing to say about this piece is that it was "transitional". As an observer, I'd say Mike Jones' thinking in terms of how he makes work has moved forward hugely over the last year, which is great for a young artist. I think this was much more a piece asking 'could he do this?' and 'what would happen if...?', rather than a finished piece that would make for a really satisfying audience experience. He recognised this though, and Arnolfini's live programme can be a really supportive arena for testing these ideas with a sensitive audience.

A one-one-one piece. Each audience member was given a small envelope and could spend up to 5 minutes in the space. Inside, Mike was lying on a plinth, naked and eyes closed. Inside the envelope was a card which read: "What do you see when you look at my flesh?" and "You may write directly onto my body."

Personally, I was thrown a bit by the tone of the question. I found the word 'flesh' a bit difficult to respond to - I couldn't really see Mike as 'flesh'; he was too much a person, particularly as he was asking the question (even if it was written down). What worked best for me was the privacy of the experience. There wasn't any compulsion to react in a certain way. After a couple of hours, the space was opened as an installation so that people could see what had been written. More than anything, what this revealed was the general lack of meaning in all this text drawn together. Perhaps that's why I'd made a deliberately obscure marking during my own private session (I drew a Sinhalese letter) - I knew what it meant, but Mike didn't know. I didn't think about it consciously at the time, but perhaps the fact that it didn't feel like there was any dialogue/connection between me and the prone MD Jones made me feel like I didn't need him to understand the mark I'd make. Ultimately, I think this probably failed to fully satisfy the expectations of either artist or audience, but was probably useful in terms of the development of Mike's artistic practice.

Shi Ker: Down to Earth
Shi Ker's a Chinese PhD student. The one thing I can say for sure about him, is that he's always bound to go at least that little bit further than most people would. What's great is that there's an openness to humour in what he does. His work sits on some sort of line between extreme body art and slapstick - a bit like Chris Burden's Shoot Piece, where there's the moment he gets shot in the arm, and then the moment he squeals "OW!!". Well, I've not seen Shi Ker get anyone to shoot him yet, but I have seen him eat raw chillies AND drink salt water in the SAME SHOW...

Down To Earth is much more Monty Python (a direct steal in some ways - but I'm all for stealing from the greats). It involves Shi Ker in full climbing gear, tackling the 'sheer face' of quayside between Jury's hotel and Arnolfini, with only a few trees acting as ledges in between.

Like Pete Barrett, Shi Ker performs his task with care and focus. Of course it's funny, but like any well performed theatre it makes you take a little leap into another dimension and the audience cheer his progress from the sidelines. I don't think it's the principle focus of the piece, but with so much time to stare at the cobbles, you notice that the danger in this climb comes from all the broken glass, dog shit, bird shit, fag butts and other shit which liberally peppers the ground. He might have gravity on his side, but it's still an endurance.

And then the finale. Having reached the summit (Arnolfini's main doors), he recoups, kept warm in a foil blanket, chainsmoking like the end of a long hard day. A white stool is set up as a podium, on which he stands, is presented with a bouquet, and then remains, hand placed on heart, whilst a mash up of several national anthems is played on a crappy little stereo (maybe there's no genny on top of Everest?). The genius is that he maintains the perspective the whole way through - the podium is on its side and he is lying on the ground throughout. And he smokes through the whole ceremony.

It was cock-eyed for sure, but importantly (given the context) it was consistent. It was funny, without being flippant about the action. I don't know what it means, in the same way as I don't know what climbing Everest means, but there was something of the spirit of endeavour about it that was joyous, even if it did seem like a bit of a ridiculous thing to do. But then, I wouldn't climb Everest either.

Friday, 18 January 2008


For some reason, I've so far avoided blogging about one of the best things in the world EVER - namely, Doctor Who. OK, so I've snuck in a couple of brief mentions, but now that I've written nearly 7000 words about other stuff, I'm going to bloody indulge myself.
OK, the minor freakout about where to start has subsided and I now have a strategy. I had thought, why not write about each of the Doctor Who stories I'd seen since Christmas? The answer to which is: that would be silly. What with the Christmas special, the DVD box sets Santa so kindly left us, and lots of lovely time off work, there's been LOTS of Doctor Who watched round our gaff over the last few weeks. So instead of everything, I'm going to start at the beginning...

An Unearthly Child
First broadcast 23 November 1963

When I was 11, I read and wrote a report on H.G. Wells' The Time Machine as one of my English homework assignments. My summing up of the book went something along the lines of: "not a bad story, but not very original. The idea of time travel has already been done better by Dr Who", against which my teacher, Dr Wilkinson, wrote in the margin, "HG Wells wrote this years before Dr Who!" Even so, I still got 8/10 for the essay.

Now, I'm not in the habit of remembering my homework marks from 20 years ago, but that one's always stuck with me. I can even remember that I wrote "Dr Who" as opposed to "Doctor Who" as I would now. Of course, as soon as I got the essay back I couldn't believe how stupid I'd been. It had simply never occurred to me that there was a time before Doctor Who existed. It illustrates how embedded into the cultural landscape Doctor Who had become. Even in 1988, when the Classic series was in its death throes, it was impossible to dismiss it. Maybe it was part of that taking it for granted that allowed us to let it get a bit shit in the '80s and limp off our screens with a whimper...

So, given that to some extent I grew up with the impression that Timelords were the first beings to harness the power of time travel, it was fascinating, at last, to watch the first ever episode of Doctor Who. Even though I'd seen numerous documentaries and read lots and lots about the almost clinical design of this new show, it still gave me tingles to see how they introduced it to the 4.4 million people who were watching on 23 November 1963.

Of course, what strikes you first is the opening credits. No matter how many times I see them, there's still something extremely weird about them. Right from the outset, they take you somewhere else. Maybe it's to do with the fact that visually, the howl-around is made out of TV itself? However it works, it sets it up brilliantly. I'd love to know what it was like to see/hear those credits when they were first broadcast... but then again, there's some that say the entire '60s looked and sounded just like that.

And when it starts, it doesn't start all cosy and familiar. It starts creepy and dark. A junkyard. Broken things. Forgotten things. Things without purpose. Things out of place. A police public call box, humming, vaguely... It's properly creepy. In fact, the tone of the first episode is consistently eerie - particularly in the pilot recording (the episode was re-recorded with minor changes - principally lightening the tone of The Doctor's character - for broadcast).

One of the most impressive things about this first episode is how concise it is. 45 years and a whole expanded Whoniverse later, it perhaps seems like a more massive idea than it was at the time, but it was still asking its audience to get their heads around some pretty mindbending concepts in 23 minutes:

a) Aliens that look like humans
b) A space/time ship that looks like a police box.
And of course...
c) The TARDIS - it's bigger on the inside.

Cleverly, the episode focuses its attention on introducing these ideas. Susan's oddness - her alienness - is what stirs the teachers' concern (or curiosity - as the science teacher, Ian Chesterton points out). There's no adventure as such in this first ep - unless you consider getting lost in a junkyard at night with no matches, an adventure. It's the discovery of this portal to adventure that is focus of it. The Doctor asks:

"Have you ever thought what it's like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension?"

and that's the question. And the fact is, Ian and Barbara have been curious. No matter how pissed off they get subsequently, they got curious about Susan and barged their way into the TARDIS. They didn't not notice, they weren't not warned and they still didn't hang back. And what you get for keeping going into the dark and the fog, is cavemen, Daleks and the TARDIS getting clever about communicating. That's just the first three stories.

A lot of Doctor Who is about intrusion. Consequence. The indelibility of the footprint you leave, no matter how touristy your intentions. Interestingly, it seems to take the line that, no matter how back and forth you dart in time, as a traveller, your memory of events is chronological to your experience of them. To quote Futurama, "You watched it. You can't unwatch it." And then what do you do with that knowledge? If you could go back in time... if you could see the future... if you could go to another world where no-one knew anything about you... ?

And since we haven't yet harnessed the power of time travel (though I heard someone on the radio a couple of months ago, who was attempting time travel via a point of light, lots of mirrors and - I think - a cup of coffee), it's still worth thinking what it might be like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension.

If you're interested, there's a detailed breakdown of the episode here. In theory, it's linked to the following three episodes which form a lacklustre runaround involving cavemen and the search for fire, but frankly, it's too dull to bother with in the same breath as the opening episode.
* "Activate... The Device" is one of my favourite Doctor Who quotes. It's from a Peter Davison era story called Earthshock. It's from when the Cybermen had rubbishy voices and sounded a bit like a bunch of posh old men who'd had a bit too much to drink.
"Activate," says the Cyberleader. Pause. What? we say. Activate what? the tension is immense.
"The Device" says the Cyberleader, at length. Ah! we say. The Device.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Hang on, you missed a bit

image: The Performance Reenactment Society

OK, so when it says the last post was written on 10 Nov 2007, what that actually means is that I started writing it on 10 Nov 07, but only finished writing it today (4 Jan 2008 - woo hoo! Happy new year etc etc etc), which doesn't exactly bode well for writing about all the shows I've not yet written about.

It's not quite what I intended, but in accordance with the words of Brian Eno I'm going to, "think of my mistakes as hidden intentions" and attempt to sum up each show I've missed writing about in 100 words or less. Preferably less. Don't all cheer at once. And don't all go on about whether I should be writing 100 words or fewer either.

Goat Island Book Launch event
Friday 26 October 07, Arnolfini, Bristol
So many people come out of the woodwork for Goat Island - like a family or, the cruel amongst you might say, a cult. Their work is wonderful, but so hard to describe. It's esoteric, but not ungraspable. People often read this as wilful obscurity, but I disagree. They never talk around the point. It's just that their point is rarely a tangible thing - more often it's a feeling; a resonance. It was the same in this event. They just read passages from the book, but these are not just passages from the book...
(95 words - hooray!)

Lost Luggage: Brittle Secrets
Friday 2 December, Wickham Theatre, Bristol
I'm not going to dwell on this. It was a very bad show. It was a first collaboration and it would be unfair to judge the company on it - and I know they think that too, and have taken a lot of criticism on board. What really confounded me, was that I could not for the life of me understand how those artists could have made the decisions that created that show. Perhaps no-one fully took on that role, and no real decisions were made, and this is just what they ended up with.
(95 words again - blimey!)

Blind Summit: Low Life
Thursday 8 November, Tobacco Factory, Bristol
Hoping to break through my, er, puppet prejudice, I had quite high hopes of this. Well, if you are going to bill the show as Tom Waits meets... Needless to say, I was monumentally disappointed. They were obviously great puppeteers, but as actors they were terrifyingly bad almost talking to camera like Playschool presenters. The writing was bland and made no attempt to delve deep into the stories of these puppet characters, despite the actors introducing each episode on that premise. There was a wonderful section where a crazy-assed film is played out using little blue interchangeable figures, with the puppeteers hidden behind a table. It was the one part of the show which was properly inventive, hugely imaginative and very very funny. The rest of it was pretty mundane and uninspired.
(132 words - baaaaaaaad)

La Pocha Nostra: The New Barbarians Collection
Saturday, 10 November, Arnolfini, Bristol

Now this was one of the most exhilarating, extraordinary performance experiences I've ever had in my life. It was a magnificent rockandroll overload. Like all the best sci-fi, it reveals the here and now in wholly unexpected ways. There's a fabulous review of the show here.
(46 words - acecore!)

The Darkside presents: The Performance Re-enactment Society
Sunday 2 December, Arnolfini, Bristol
Another generous and surprising event in the Darkside series. This was a lovely experiment in turning memory into a tangible, fully archivable (and archived) thing. Working with archivists, costumers, performers and photographers we were able to bring to life a performance moment, as we remembered it. Without labouring the point, it was a playful, but sophisticated way of acknowledging that one of the great things about live performance is its ephemerality. Its legacy is often only in memory, but shouldn't make it any less valid (or valuable) than an object-document. It was also great fun to be encouraged to spend time with a memory, and have that nostalgia indulged. I heard so many great stories from people that I never would have heard because of this. It's put a smile on my face just thinking about it again.
(138 words - oops)

Travelling Light Theatre: The Ugly Duckling
Friday 14 December, Tobacco Factory, Bristol
It had some magical moments and the actor playing the Ugly Duckling was fantastic - all gangly limbs and gurning. I think it suffered from being in space you just can't ignore (those goddammed pillars!) and didn't have the visual scope and magic it should perhaps have aspired to. It was aimed at 2-6 year olds, but I think the younger kids might struggle with it a bit. A lot of fun all the same. Smiles all round!
(78 words)

Franko B in conversation with Jennifer Doyle
Friday 14 November, Arnolfini, Bristol
Franko always has something good to say, but sometimes he needs a bit of wrangling to keep the flow of discussion moving forward. Jennifer Doyle was great at this, without so much of the 'I am not worthy'-ness that sometimes surrounds Franko B - understandably, as he's one of the most extraordinary and generous performers I've ever seen. I always feel it's like he's holding my hand, reassuring me so that I can leap further into the experience than perhaps I would without him. He says some brilliant things tonight - touching on ideas of responsibility, sentimentality, expectation. Even when he's not on form, there's always something inescapably honest about what he says and he's always worth listening to, cos even when he's not on form, he'll still have one or two gems up his sleeve.
(135 words... hmmm... I might come back to this one...)

Blimey - telly next I think. Doctor Who Christmas Special anyone?

images of The Performance Re-enactment Society and New Barbarians Fall Collection. Photos by Carl Newland