During November I had the pleasure of returning to Spill Festival of Performance as Writer in Residence. As part of the residency, I also continued my work with 2015 Spill writers Anna Mortimer, Carolyn Roy, Dr Jonathan Boddam-Whetham, Natalie Raven as well as Laura Burns and Lewis Church.
Below is a selection of my writing. You can see all the texts by visiting the SPILL WRITING website.
SPILL GEIST: ORIENTATIONS IN DARKNESS:
It appears we are in complete darkness.
It appears we are in complete darkness.
It appears we are in complete darkness.
Let’s rework this. Let’s think it about it some more.
It appears we are in complete darkness, and the writing keeps trying to undo itself; it’s confronted with structures that battle with its meaning.
It appears we are in complete darkness, and we catch a glimpse of something: immaterial; in the sphere of feeling, fleeting and fickle.
In complete darkness, nuance is harder to notice; we lose immunity; our steps become more tentative. But we also become braver, with time. A different politics of visibility emerges; a different poetics of being. Contrasts take time to appear. We find spirits and confront our own; we are in a constant becoming.
In complete darkness, reflection, projection and potential gather momentum.
But it’s not all that dark, actually, if you give yourself time to adjust. Soon, it’ll seem bright enough. And in this new darkness, there’s a paradigm shift too: our vantage point changes; suddenly, there is volume and a shifting perspective. Nothing is singular.
In partial darkness, I find an invitation to think of Spirit in a polyphony of ways – being, ghost, traces, attitudes, confrontations, otherworldliness; a way of understanding human experience beyond embodiment and rationalisation;a way of accessing different states and, inadvertently, different politics.
In partial darkness, I think of how the event (and the experience) are contemporary paradigms of engagement, modes of framing or delineating art. But in experiencing darkness, I encounter a productive uncertainty. Here, ideologies are made and unmade, severed from their usual mechanisms of invisibility.
It appears we are in partial darkness in the city, veiled by shards of light and flickering signs and histories of the day, erased, stamped on, contoured.
It appears we are in partial darkness, but there’s so much to be found here. In darkness, a poetics of the spirit emerges.
It appears we are in partial darkness in Sarah Jane Norman’s Stone Tape Theory; in Pacitti Company’s Moving Mountains.
We begin, then, with partial darkness, as a space of recovery and regeneration.
Partial darkness is not linear, nor is it necessarily narrative; partial darkness is a space from which our precarity might be reconsidered, where time (loops), memories (re)form.
In Stone Tape Theory light flickers, occasionally, temporarily, quickly, and what I discern are merely sculptures: the borders of the room, the bodies that have gathered there. I encounter a timid and internal temporality, a process of freezing that only lasts for a second. I encounter fractured memories, a committed exercise of remembrance and distortion, and although the narrative dissipates every time I try and pin it down, other means of recording occur.
Stone tape is a theory that proposes that a traumatic, or notable events imprint themselves psychically onto a particular location. Such ghosts behave like recordings, residual hauntings, be they spatial, immaterial or embodied, capturing electrical impressions that are then replayed under certain conditions.
In Sarah Jane Norman’s piece, this concept is returned to both body and place, investigating the residual traumas that shape our experiences of the present, but also the displaced temporality that such memories hold. Stone Tape Theory speaks of a ritual of haunting, in which the looping narratives of the past become shared in a space of distortion, reauthored by other bodies complicit in the evolving soundscape.
I recall the intricacy and precision of Sarah Jane Norman inscribing a forgotten language onto bones in Bone Library; here, she is searching for electro-magnetic imprints, for something much more immaterial in her constant chain of associative memories, a hidden recall of trauma. When her body occasionally emerges in the darkness, it’s only for a brief encounter; we let go and we capture, moving beyond the narrative dimension of memories.
In the same way in which Bone Library become a testament to remembrance, a performance of cultural memory, here our own bodies inhabit this sonic landscape. Memories haunt us, but they are not are own; in darkness, though, memories have no author, and we feel their decay.
A different politics emerges in Moving Mountains, in which we are confronted with a cinematic triptych that speaks of visibility, representation and agency in relation to disability. These are images that operate aesthetically and indexically, building a lexicon of power, contestation and agency. Energies are channelled: there is gesturing, mirroring, reworking.
Bodies are draped and revealed; identities refuse to be fixed. Moving Mountains, it grows over time, it loops back into itself, it takes over. It emerges from these bodies that are gathered, but references other spaces, perhaps instances of confrontation; but this is not about remembrance, but mapping a form of agency. The work navigates instances of oppression without giving them visibility; instead, it speaks more boldly about power; these actions and portraits, they act as manifestoes, and ask for no one’s permission.
Piss on pity’, as the work itself states.
Moving Mountains challenges mythologies of representation and identification of disability, and delves into questions of agency, oppression and assault. It makes visible through the visual what written narratives fail to do; it finds something in the darkness, and suggests processes of its coming into being, whilst walking the line between personal and public, between ideologies that render identities invisible, and responses that call on responsibility.
Geist has no direct equivalent in English; it is often referred to as ghost, spirit, mind. Also see Zeigeist, meaning literally time-spirit, or spirit of the age.
SPILL GEIST: WOMEN, NOISE AND STATES OF UNREST
The mist emerges out of the warm night. Little to confront here, though the aftermath of the spectacle has chased away the dying. The invitation of the night: there’s no rustling trees, no deep silence, just pauses in the everyday.
I think of the carcass of the fox in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist.I think of the rustle that reveals nature, and the meaning of horror, and the primacy of the body.
Mist acts as an organ of recall, rattling recent memories and battling the narrativity in my writing. Invoking, or evoking? What is writing in times of in-between?
“Tell me, how does it feel with my teeth in your heart?”
I think of the city and its distortions, its aesthetic and physical invasion, in relation to bodies that do. I think of the labour of FK Alexander shifting coal, increasingly amassing amidst the noise and the vibrations, confronting its own coming into being. The red lantern, the mines (they become spaces of our imagination, recalled ghosts of political questioning).
I think of the silence that Poppy Jackson’s Site brings on to the city: sustained, embedded, disturbing narratives with distinct loudness. In silence. Through silence.
I wonder if this is how we might create our folklore, now, through unfolding actions that reverberate (and in the city, this city, the stakes feel so much higher. The questions weight more heavily, amassing the weight of politics, of cultural processes, of sociality).
Site claims architecture, but it also invites the internal; it probes questions about agency, presence and the ideologies of representation. It disturbs the public/private by questioning affect. Under neoliberalism, affect becomes a key instrument (it takes noise to break that down, to rework). Neoliberalism brings labour and affect in dangerous relationships; how easy, divorcing boundaries and appropriate nature itself.
That same question of labour (and destruction) emerges in NO WHERE/ NOW HERE. Here, noise is a theatrical device, washing over appropriated images and extended actions. Red Road crumbling, Twin Towers falling (images that scream, though they scream theatrically, jumping across continents, an activist metaphor, albeit incomplete). The increasingly difficult labour, the sounds of coals amassing, the body breaking, the occasional sound of breath and tiredness, all prompted, initiated, by the red lamp that flickers back and forth (just to get us started). Mining and white noise and the brutal acts of history. They flicker in fragments, on shards of coal, in shaking bodies crossing these narratives, in laborious processes of remembrance and protest.
The body rattles the image, it rattles the city, and the noise washes out the structured rhythms of every day.
Bodies imprint onto space. Noise frees the image. Noise as a contemporary paradigm (and what a rich history we have there too). We speak of making visible, but it seems, we need to make audible, too, for those who refuse to look.
Noise as deliberate misalignment, as way to mark unthinking acceptance, contemporary rationalities and routine assumptions. It struck me that the registers presented here (and their spirit, their concentration and activist poetics) probe questions about performativity and theatricality, about staging and doing, and ways to unpeel and rework. It’s striking that the in-between (yesterday, we were in the land of ghosts and timid horror) is gently probed here.
These are female bodies (Antigone, Medea?) seeking to confront the grotesque in the everyday through an embodied politics of confrontation. Site does so through stillness, and the power gained in disturbing the realm of the internal and external; NO WHERE in speaking of angst and turning wild and pushing through. This is a resistance to being tamed – the paradigm of silence/noise disturbs, if you dare to look, on the day of Hallows’ Eve.
SPILL GEIST: ON DISTURBANCE: THE FRAME, THE SHOW, THE TRICKSTER
In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord talks about the ways in which the spectacle has integrated itself into reality to such an extent that it both describes and reconstructs it. We’re no strangers to simulations, to cultures in which authenticity is shattered and displaced, in which the original is no longer fixed. We constantly reconsider the ways in which representation and reality function, and performance’s relationship to social, political, cultural and personal ways of being and doing. How do we move past performance’s appropriation (from the workplace to the staged spectacle) or instrumentalisation (is it in failure, in intervention, in duration?) and turn to a different way of engaging political aesthetics?
A lot of this seems to be tied to the shifts in performance’s presence politically and culturally. I am thinking here of institutions and their quest to appropriate live and performance art histories into other narratives (or tag them in their programming, often with mediocre curatorial conceptualisations), thus rendering performance as a simple paradigm for art’s experience, rather than a practice with its own registers, vocabularies and ideological positions; the incessant need to commodify or quantify the ephemeral; the relationship with fetishizing what is confrontational; or recontextualising provocation. There is a constant battle of framing and legitimation that sets contexts against each other, rather than marking joint areas of discourse, flagging up the relationship between performance, modes of thinking and being, political and social participation.
At the same time, to me, frames and form are modes of delineating and distinguishing; of marking an area of visibility whilst also imposing a temporary order or principle of engagement.
We often speak of resistance and subversion in terms of performance’s relationship to form and reality, yet On Spirit has brought together a fundamental aspect: the navigating between precision and ambiguity, between context, care and framing.
Performance, when it acknowledges its dependence on a particular social or political reality, when it considers its aesthetic and somatic engagement, disturbs boundaries in such a way that it enables discourses to shift from their context. In that way, a lot of the work I’ve encountered over the past days has sought to reconsider the contemporary paradigm of experience, to move towards something more hidden, more urgent, harder to pinpoint.
I am thinking about a series of frames.
Some are more visible than others; transparent, material, in constant movement, with ambiguous vantage points.
Some are mirrors other windows, and some distort in order to reconstruct.
Some are etched into the fabric of the everyday
And others mark their presence more aggressively.
And all of them return to us; to image and action, and the ways in which these two are inseparable.
I am thinking about the ways in which Daniel Oliver’s Weird Séance: Incredible Interquel Spectacle!, Katy Baird’sWorkshy and Jamal Harewood’s The Privileged all engage with different frames of representation, working from the paradigm of participation. Workshy is a confrontation with labour and the very idea of artistic practice; it deliberately trades in spectacle but also in honest exchange, and tackles the relationship between the economic and the personal, cutting across expectations surrounding work and value. It is situated somewhere between actuality and fiction, between manipulation and representation, although it makes its own ideological position transparent too. It teases theatre as a place of didactic exchange, whilst also introducing economics in reflections on the act of spectatorship. Failure becomes subject matter and dramaturgical device, and notions of personal and public, value and accumulation, trading and commodity are embroiled in the same conversation, in which we are complicit.
In Weird Séance and The Privileged, a performance keeps trying to take shape, but it is destabilised from within. Across all these works, the provocation lies much more deeply with questions of positioning, responsibility and recognition – in a different way than we’re used to when confronted with participation as a flippant, theatrical device that either reiterates or challenges the notion of an audience and its agency.
In their different ways, these shows destabilise the relationship between the real and the staged by making the audience complicit – somewhere between the accumulated narrative and the authentic fiction. Discomfort is not theatrical here, it is a device for problematising ways of thinking about certainty, about visibility and about the realities of choice.
In Weird Séance, we have to pretend to be in a fictional place that is actually a real place that has been fictionalised; there is an event that never quite takes shape, which we are complicit in reconstructing, but we are also witness to and apparent (deceptively) author of. This is a kind of post-relational play with a real band (wearing hairy suits), and leaves and branches that stand in for trees, and lots of messiness and an incredibly precise manipulation.
This creates a sense of relationality between form and content, between our complicity in this fiction and its authentic dramaturgy, creating a constant need of looking beyond, of trying to find nuance or ideology within the work itself. When it finishes, we dissipate uneasily, unsure of where we stand, and this deliberate state of confusion is contingent on our ability to both contribute to the sustaining of the fiction and dissent towards the event that it is creating, which refuses to occur at the same time. The ethical, the political and the social are irrevocably tied together; the flippancy, the fiction and the sense of pretence construct a complex framework, which we become obsessed with sensing, and which feels like it dissipates and accumulates at the same time.
Weird Séance is provocative not because of its self-critique or reflexivity, nor because of its formal play, but because of the ways in which it collapses and constantly rebuilds frames of representation. It deliberately traces and then critiques its own boundaries, prompts thinking of systems and then flippantly dismisses any ideological play, because it is all transparent and embedded at the same time.
I think of both Daniel Oliver and Jamal Harewood as the ultimate tricksters – complicit, present, guiding, authorial and somehow unaccountable within the show itself. In The Privileged, the trickster becomes the teaser of discourse; the artist is both author and victim, configuring a network of social and artistic orders.
The Privileged acknowledges its signifiers so fully (echoes of Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s Couple in a Cage) – the gaze, the tension, the dialectic of oppressor and oppressed, issues of race and racism, of colonial histories and embedded opression – that it complicates the ways in which these different layers constitute cultures of agency or limitation. As a frame, it confronts us with ourselves without any ethical purity, but by inflaming a situation.
Harewood pushes the audience to go further, but in an environment deliberately laid out before us, that straddles reality and narrative, play and authenticity, as if without commitment to either. In this way, it reveals the gaps in liberal politics and problematises political and social structures that legislate or organise. This is a real history, Harewood proposes; and we are all complicit in its coming into being, and everything else is choice, and those choices are not outside any system, no matter where they are positioned.
Participation as frame.
Participation as citizenship.
Participation as critique.
Participation as a mechanism of making visible.
Participation as flippancy.
Participation as care.
SPILL SPIRITS: CASSILS (INEXTINGUISHABLE FIRE)- A PROLOGUE
In anticipation of fire and the construction of the image and its reverberations from the National Theatre.
In the echoes of all the works we’ve encountered around historical trauma and representation, the narratives that have been buried, the skeletons left behind, the legislation of victors and the distance of the witnesses.
In the echoes of public spaces of protest, of consumption and appropriation of iconographies, of symbols we do not see or read. In the echoes of discussions on the urban landscape, on energies and the importance of recognising processes and shifts, on identity and its representation. In the echoes of memories we reconstruct, of those we hear distorted, of histories we have forgotten and relics we walk over. To thinking of labour and participation, and art as a space to consider contemporary citizenship and liberty.
If self-immolation as a practice is connected to a history of resilience, of no choice, of a physical process that marks and destroys the body, then we anticipate this ritual, taking place at the National Theatre, not only as a proposition about how we construct empathy and its social and political significance, but also a meditation on recognition, on canonisation and the relationship between ideology, representation and history.
Given their training both as a painter and as an artist working with performance, Cassils’ work is characterised by a particular formalism, an engagement with the sculptural that maintains an aesthetic rigour and a conceptual dimension that ignites such complex discourses on the work itself.
Speaking to Cassils about Inextinguishable Fire unleashed a conversation around the politics of visibility, around what mechanisms and structures legitimate our reading of and relationship to the image and its experience, and on the poetics of attempting the impossible. We speak of Harun Farocki’s film of the same title as a politicised engagement with processes of mass destruction, and they tell me that the shift is not from the cigarette Farocki lights on his arm to the fire that will take over their body tonight, but a consideration of those politics of visibility now.
There is a strong engagement with historical representation: Cassils mentions Picasso’s Guernica and the work of Michael Asher, and we speak of the histories of self-immolation, but also the recent events that have marked US politics (Ferguson or Baltimore, to name just a few), the reverberations with wider political shifts, from ISIS through to the recent movement of migrants in Europe. Silently, I think of the (now over) thirty burning bodies at Colectiv club in Romania.
Inextinguishable Fire is a diptych, unfolding live in front of an audience in the National Theatre, and through a film screening. This navigating between the theatre as a space to deconstruct such modes of representation and embodied construction of the image (Cassils worked with a professional stunt team who are highly involved in the live act), and the cinematic to foreground the constant shift in frame (Cassils speaks of the foley sound for the film as well as the use of slow-motion) plays with temporality and our relationships to bodies and the abstraction of trauma. It’s perhaps telling that the trailer for the work itself attempts a brief confrontation that doesn’t try and hide the process of its constitution; there’s the visual fascination, the desire of the gaze, but also the reminder of the context, of the humanity of the body taking part, the idea of a body consuming and being consumed, and the reality of the danger.
I want to emphasize this here because the reality of the danger is occurring in a particular space – the National Theatre – and the implications of this are significant. This act asks questions about the institutional relationships and cultural boundaries in which experiences and images are reproduced and disseminated, drawing links between their mediatisation and their political implications.
Cassils’s practice engages with issues of representation through both identity – trans as a destabilising force, a political position that offers lack of fixity – and an aesthetics of transformation. In Inextinguishable Fire, Cassils moves beyond the body as site of subjectivity to invite questioning of our understanding of the image, and of ways in which we negotiate distance, privilege and engagement.
What happens when the body is ignited, unrecognisable, yet sustained just enough to reveal the mechanisms of that ignition, the resonance of the anti-spectacle, the change in context as it unfolds, marking our own processes of recognition and engagement? What can we be, in this encounter?