Stumbled upon this passage, contained within a Susan Sontag essay in the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille. It resonated with me when I first read it, even if I don’t feel I personally fit in the mould it describes yet.
“If within the last century art conceived as an autonomous activity has come to be invested with unprecedented stature – the nearest thing to a sacremental human activity acknowledged by secular society – it is because one of the tasks of art has assumed is making forays into and taking up positions on the frontiers of consciousness (often very dangerous to the artist as a person) and reporting back from there. Being a free-lance explorer of spiritual dangers, the artist gains a certain license to behave differently from other people; matching the singularity of his vocation, he may be decked out with a suitably eccentric life style, or he may not. His job is inventing trophies of his experiences – objects and gestures that fascinate and enthrall, not merely (as prescribed by older notions of artist) edify and entertain. His principle means of fascinating is to advance one step further in the dialectic of outrage. He seeks to make his work repulsive, obscure, inaccessible; in short, to give what is, or seems to be, not wanted. But however fierce may be the outrages the artist perpetuates on his audience, his credentials and spiritual authority ultimately depend on the audience’s sense (whether something known or inferred) of the outrages he commits upon himself. The exemplary modern artist is a broker in madness.”
– Susan Sontag, The Pornographic Imagination
I was thinking the other day how you never hear about people spontaneously combusting anymore. Has it fallen out of fashion? If so, when did this happen?
Maybe I’m wearing rose-tinted glasses but when I was younger, this sort of thing used to happen all the time. It would be a normal Saturday afternoon, slightly overcast, a bit like yesterday, and WHOOSH! – Aunt Jean has just gone up in a ball of flame on her way to Safeway, the sound of flesh crackling on her prone, smoking body; clothes slumping from her smouldering form in heaps of black ash. I used to like it as a statement. The literal interpretation of ‘Better to burn out than fade away’. Can’t help but admire it.
Oh yeah, blogging. Update: have I been performing? Yes, I’ve been performing. I’ve been having fun feeding whipped cream to stout blokes from Yorkshire and letting lovely ladies grip my flexed bicpes. I’ve been banging the drums to David Bowie (technically not part of my recent performance, but fuck it, it was fun) and been spitting my socks into people’s laps. I’ll elaborate on all of these teases at a later date, when I’ve got a higher tolerance for navel-gazing reflections on ‘process’.
I was also thinking the other day about how my tiger is not male, or female, or hermaphroditic: it’s just energy – an energy that I want to be so present in the room that its both exhilarating and terrifying for all of us.
Irascu. Scuria. Ruscia.
At 5:24pm a year ago yesterday, I hit ‘Send’ on the last email I would send as a digital account manager. It made the cute sound of an aeroplane taking off, lifting my trepidation about the future with it on a journey into the big blue digital sky. I then navigated to my email settings and composed an Out Of Office auto-reply for the rest of all time. It said:
“Carpe Diem, bitches!”
And with that, I threw on my coat, strode into the hall and prised open the lift doors with my bare hands, sliding down the cables and arriving at the foot of the shaft with the faintest of squeaks. A roundhouse kick sent the ground floor doors flying.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ I drawled as I stepped through the dust.
The receptionist laughed it off as she usually did and threw my rhinestoned cowboy hat into the air. I caught it on my head in one deft motion, like a salmon leaping from torrid waters. Time slowed so that the universe could savour the moment that little bit longer.
The silver coins in my back pocket tinkled lightly as I hit the ground and kicked my heels once – twice – three times. Clasping the brim of my hat, I gave it a tip in the receptionist’s direction. ‘See ya later, kiddo,’ I smiled, strutting into the sunset, ready to toast the world; to toast myself. The light reflecting from my hat was blinding, bringing all of Deansgate to a standstill.
The pub was a new place I’d heard about called The Dreamer’s Pillow, about 20 minutes’ walk away. It stood on its own on the outer fringes of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, where the cosmopolitan centre brushes against the city’s abandoned industrial past. It was covered in reams of ivy shivering and rippling in the evening breeze. I thought of fish scales glinting underwater, and looked at the dark windows for a moment, before stepping towards the entrance.
The battered wooden doors gave a groan as I pushed against them, first with my hands, and then with my whole weight behind my shoulder. It yielded eventually and I stepped inside. The lights were out. The only sounds came from the street.
I struck a match on my thigh and held it up slowly, to see what had happened.
Lists: they’re easy to write, easy to digest and even easier to forget, so are the perfect fodder for a blogger in search of something – anything – to say. We’re also rapidly approaching the end of one big unit of time and about to start another, so people are more reflective than usual and just want a sense of closure, please. Put these two phenomena together and you get the ubiquitous END OF YEAR list.
‘List’ can also refer to a ship leaning to one side, which is a bit like bias: the very thing an end of year list can reveal if you’re not too careful. My bias is the following: if it involved some kind of fluid flying out of or into an orifice, I more than likely had a whale of a time. Why? I don’t know; I just like to see people having a good time.
I’m not going to write a list. The avant-garde may be dead but I know what I stand in opposition to. I’m a paragraph man, and I like my paragraphs substantial. Oh, you do too? Then read on, my friend! As for the rest of you, quit while you’re ahead and get your opinions in Chicken McNugget-sized pieces elsewhere.
This blog looks at ‘performances’ rather than focusing on theatre or live art, mostly because I wanted to include Christeene at Bummer Camp, Islington Mill in my anti-list. She’s an artist who marries live music with character-based performance, and also fits my bodily-fluid bias. Her take on drag has been dragged backwards through the bushes by raging baby ponies to deliver a body-positive message of sex, love and ultimately, humanity. In contrast to the schools of drag which aspire to flawlessness, Christeene surrenders herself to the filth and imperfection that’s common to us all, wearing it as armour in her crusade against homogenisation within and without queer communities everywhere. She writes great music, too.
Islington Mill was also the setting for Melt Banana at FAT OUT FEST, and my first moshpit in ten years. Islington Mill has the unique quality of becoming a furnace when more than five people move animatedly in it at one time, so my abiding memories of the night are euphoric industrial pop noise, taking my t-shirt off in the first five minutes, panting like a dog for the rest of the set and trudging home in sopping wet denim: 5 STARS! Here’s hoping they don’t lose their live music licence in 2015 because of their crotchety neighbours.
F K Alexander
I got a bit damp at Beacons Festival too, but this was on account of the weather rather than F K Alexander, who doused the audience with gob-fuls of water during her set in Steakhouse Live’s ‘Divine Intervention’ takeover. Appearing in a funny / intimidating costume pastiche of all things Scots-cliche, F K proceeded to demolish Big Country’s ‘In A Big Country’ like a scowling, ginger-wigged seraphim, armed with a ground-levelling monotone and brandishing a megaphone. Who needs twelve notes when one works just fine?
Festivals were a big part of my life this year, most notably Flying Solo at Contact and SPILL at Ipswich, which were home to lots of fantastic performances from the likes of Victoria Melody, Greg Wohead, Rachel Mars, Ron Athey, Katy Baird and many more. Of all these performances, I feel special mention should go to Peter McMaster‘s elegant and sophisticated ‘Wuthering Heights’, which interweaved the all male company’s autobiographies amongst scenes from Bronte’s classic novel. The result was a moving theatrical exploration of masculinity and identity, flirting with flamboyance and baring emotional wounds, with the climax coming during a devastating recreation of Cathy and Heathcliff’s parting scene. The tears almost flowed for me at Akram Khan‘s magnificent DESH at The Lowry too; a stately, virtuoso performance that almost literally brought the house down thanks to some impressive staging. However, I have a one public display of emotion per year quota, and Peter McMaster beat Akram to it. Better luck next time, Akram.
There was no shortage of watery emissions from Mouse at the SPILL closing party, which I managed to dodge by taking up a comfy seat and watching the live feed in another room (those at the front will likely have been glad of the complimentary umbrellas). As I say, I like to watch people having a good time, whether or not that ‘good time’ means unfurling 10 foot of bunting from between their legs.
Not long after that, time became gooey and elastic in Forced Entertainment‘s 24 hour long version of Quizoola at The Millennium Gallery in Sheffield. Armed with cookies and coffee for a live art sleepover, I alternated between watching six performers take it in turns to ask and answer questions about everything from why women wear hats at weddings to who they think is going to die first; and napping in the breakout room. There were also times when I trod the liminal boundaries of sleep and wakefulness, and watched a peculiar dreamlike version of the show in my head, and others I spent just drinking in the collective atmosphere of commitment to see the show through to the end. I had to bow out halfway through the proceedings, but the sense of having been stuck in a post-apocalyptic underground bunker where there is nothing to do but speculate on a long abandoned outside world stuck with me long afterwards. The live stream allowed me to catch the closing half hour from the comfort of my own bed: bonus!
Which more or less brings me to here, sat here on the sofa at my parent’s house in the Midlands, tapping away and wondering what kind of loud, lachrymose and messy performances I might see in 2015. I’m already looking forward to performances from Rosana Cade, Brian Lobel, Lucy Hutson and Tom Marshman, so check back in 365 days to find out what other shows left an impression on me in 2015. I might even write a list.
Over in the Guardian, Ben Walters has written a smart and pithy summary of Forest Fringe’s activities over the past few years, and the pivotal role it (and DIY approaches to theatre in general) play nowadays in this perennial age of austerity (which shows little sign of letting up).
Little Bulb performing Sporadical. Photograph: Murdo Macleod
I’ve only visited the Fringe once before, back in 2011, and I was directed to Forest Fringe by Kings Of England. I remember being spellbound by Made In China’s We Hope That You’re Happy (Why Would We Lie?) in the building’s cavernous upstairs space. Action Hero were on the box office, having performed their thrilling Watch Me Fall the night before at The Summerhall Gallery. The cafe was alive with chatter and the hiss of hot drinks being made. Ever since then, Forest Fringe, and the artists associated with it, have been a byword for innovative, resourceful, contemporary theatre.
I entered the world of performance through the ‘back door’ of cabaret back in 2008, and any associations that phrase may with deviancy and illegitimacy are totally intentional. I didn’t have a qualification in performance – but I did have a strange sense of humour, and a willingness to get on stage to share my odd creations. Cabaret was the perfect arena for a nobody like me to launch himself on an unsuspecting audience. With little in the way of budget, things had to happen on a shoestring. I see DIY as a big part of cabaret’s DNA (except perhaps for when Hollywood movie stars get involved). Many of the performers I love and adore are working on next to nothing in terms of resources, and from there springs innovation and ingenuity.
The article quotes, ‘For Field, DIY is “an ideology rather than an aesthetic. It’s not defined by handmade props or deliberately shonky effects, though it sometimes is those things. It’s about finding alternative modes of production, ways of making art that invite us to imagine and inhabit different, hopefully better, ways of living in the world.”’
As an emerging practitioner, I don’t get the luxury of being trusted with big budgets, teams and stages on a regular basis. Myself and everyone else wading through the ‘early-career’ phase of being a performance maker has to find their Philosopher’s Stone: turning base metals – or more commonly, cardboard, glue and glitter – into gold. For me, the real luxury would be to have both DIY and ‘professional’ approaches at my disposal. I love an expensive spectacle as much as the next person. Akram Khan’s Desh features an astounding finale in a mammoth production that only huge teams could have made happen. Big budgets can blow minds – but so can ‘no budgets’. Watching something ‘shonky’ transform into more than the sum of its parts is thrilling. Take this video for example: it takes just three minutes, an OHP and a pair of hands to delight an audience.
It’s the emphasis on DIY being an ideology rather than an aesthetic that really resonates with me at the moment. There are regular call-outs to perform at regional and national platforms, and I and all the other emerging artists are competing for those same platforms, treating them as the next rung on a very long, steep and slippery ladder. That effort’s only going to pay off for a lucky few, so what about the rest of us?
I’m not knocking platforms; they provide a huge amount in the way of support and promotion, and I’ve also been selected for my fair share in the past, so can hardly have a go. But let’s face it – application forms are a right chore, and every minute spent filling one out is one not spent making art. So I’m wondering how I can create opportunities for myself and others to share their work without compromising the ideas, rather than participate in what seems to be the arts equivalent of Black Friday stampedes every couple of weeks.
In the spirit of generosity and DIY, if I do find that Philosopher’s Stone, I’ll share the formula.