I find I’m all burned out,
In a Tesco Express that’s been my daily routine for years,
Welling up amongst the fruits and vegetables,
Listening to Chocolate by Tindersticks.
Gentle yet dramatic, expressing more vitality in ten minutes than my whole day does.
It’s a song I repeat again and again obsessively.
Where do I go? Where do I go?
I used to keep a dream diary in a thick, handsome, leather-bound journal. It was a Christmas gift from my parents. Its materials and craftsmanship belied its extravagance, and the heft of the object and circumstance instilled me with feelings of significance: that I should write important things in it.
It started as a place to write poetry but I was always dissatisfied with what I wrote. I’d draft them assiduously on my laptop and write them down only (and only) when I thought they were ready.
Almost immediately the perfectionism took hold. Words would be struck through, lines, sometimes whole stanzas, leaving the goldenrod pages battered and bruised with ink.
Dreams took over. The vivid images and sensations I remembered from sleep seemed as real and significant as waking life. They didn’t need to be revised because they were never meant for anyone else. I did submit one or two to small literary zines after a touch of editing back when I wanted to be a writer but that was a bonus.
I wondered briefly whether that could be my artistic practice: work during the day, do the art in my sleep.
Another dream was emerging too, which was to become a theatre and cabaret artist.
Allow a little smile at that.
Now it’s a decade since I received my first commissions to make work and that dream began to sorta cohere. In fact, I received not one but two commissions around the same time: the first to create an interactive theatrical history game called Lions After Slumber for Manchester History Festival, commissioned by The Larks; the second from hÅb to make a theatre piece, Even The Lone Ranger Had Tonto.
Around that time, I heard someone say that the day you get paid by someone else to make something is the day you become a professional. Even The Lone Ranger… would be a compelling argument against that definition. But not knowing any better, I took it to heart, marking 2012 as the year I first thought of myself as a ‘professional artist’.
Ten years. A nice even number over which to chart the arc of a dream. One which I’ve stumbled and faltered towards, like a drunk walking arms outstretched towards the toilet at four in the morning, guided only by a thin shaft of light emanating from beneath the bathroom door and some vague intuition.
I read a review of Fischerspooner’s final album, Sir just before New Year where Sean. T. Collins singles out the final track, ‘Oh Rio’ as a kind of token highlight of the album “if you’re feeling generous and inclined to favor diaristic directness over sonic strength” (oh meow).
The genesis of singer and songwriter, Casey Spooner’s dream is in the back of a bookshop.
You find you′re all washed up,
In some beach you pierced together for a teenage fantasy,
Getting hard in the back of a bookstore,
Searching for clues in a Bruce Weber volume.
Dog-eared and beat up, you sneak a peek but you leave it on the shelf.
Sacred tomb you visit secretly.
Now here you are, now here you are.
Spooner finally makes it to the Rio De Janeiro beach of his dreams but by the time he gets there, he’s strung out, physically ill, “hacking up a lung, flayed out in the sun,” arriving at an unsentimental conclusion: “sometimes dreams have to die”.
Collins says they’d be powerful statements coming from anyone let alone someone as gym-fit and successful as Spooner is today, and I’d agree: it’s an arresting image. Mine and Spooner’s departure and arrival points are very different but the experience of looking from a vantage point over the path you’ve taken to your destination, totting up what it’s cost you, is shared. So there’s an added dimension to my interest. I disagree about the music though: to me, the growling synths emit the blinding glare of sand dunes in sweltering noon heat, monumental, austere and unforgiving, which feels totally apt.
I pulled into the end of 2021 feeling burned out and examined my values for the first time. One step of the process is to think about the best and worst moments of your life, and examine how the values your hold were at play. I was surprised and disappointed when I found the act of making and presenting performance work featured rarely on the list of life’s great moments, populated by time with friends and family, of adventures. But then, none of my other jobs did either.
As the pandemic has bitten down even harder on the arts in England, severing people from the resources and stability that sustains their practice, there’s been an outpouring of generosity towards others and an inspiring sense of camaraderie. “If you haven’t made anything these past two years, don’t worry – you are still an artist.”
It makes me wonder. Making good art is hard work. Capitalism is set up so that achieving it and getting paid means having to think of it and treat it like it’s a job. Personally, I think I need to hold this job with a similar, maybe even greater distance than any other job that I’ve done because there will probably be times when I can’t / won’t want to do it. This may be pointless pedantry but in the relationship between work and self, could it be healthier to say ‘I make art’ rather than ‘I am an artist’? I don’t think I’d call myself a fundraiser if I quit my job tomorrow, though of course I’d still be capable of doing it. Why should art be different?
In a survey of Wolfgang Tillmans’ work that I’ve been reading, the essayist Lane Relyea, writing on the role of abstraction in Tillmans’ oeuvre, quotes Clement Greenberg: “In surrendering the totality of oneself to a professional role, you give up being a friend, a lover, a gossip, an attractive person, the life of the party, in order to be that much more poet, actor, doctor, businessman. Instead of completing yourself by work you mutilate yourself.”
Is the where the dream of being a theatre and cabaret artist goes to die? Or is it merely being hewn from a sense of self?
Perhaps that dream is dead. Come Closer, a performance I’m proud of, even if it’s imperfect, will never tour as a physical performance without a lot of effort from myself to make it so, and right now, I have neither the energy or inclination. There are no other performances in the pipeline.
But the death of one dream creates space for another, held more light-heartedly. At night the brain replays a lifetime’s events, theatre and cabaret metamorphose into music and writing, and Come Closer returns as a story.
Death arrives in a fanfare of G major, D major, A major. An exultant, extravagant surrender.