Spill Festival of Performance Residency 2015

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?

Fragments of/on process

Fragments of/on process

This piece was originally written for Next Wave’s arts journalism training programme, Text Camp.

Stephen Willats’s Model of an Existing Artist-Audience Relationship, 1973 Published in the book The Artist as an Instigator of Changes in Social Cognition and Behaviour (London: Occasional Papers, 2010 [1973]), 28. Also found in Grant Kester’s The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism”, e-flux journal No 50.

This is a short text in six moments that offers up fragmented thoughts on critical process.

Moment 1 (Encounter)

Artist Willem De Kooning spoke of the content of a work of art as “a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash.” For him, content was “very, very tiny”, something both intimate and invisible.

As a critic, content is your referent; it’s that which you try and tease out of an experience that is multiple, complicated, affective, perhaps poetic. As Umberto Eco explored in Poetics of the Open Work, content is that which is opened within a work. It is that which enables you to engage in a conversation with it.

Moment 2 (Resistance)

The intellectual tradition of criticism, particularly under the guise of the market economy, posits that criticism takes two iterations: the moment of your encounter with the work, and the articulation of your own thinking about the work that takes place in the form of, most often, a text.

This is a very linear understanding of how critics- and people in general- think about works of art. It assumes that this thinking is particularly focused from the onset; that it is gathered in the moment of encounter and simply shaped into a form in the text itself.  Yet as Hannah Arendt has stated in her unfinished work The Life of the Mind, “thinking is always out of order, interrupts all ordinary activities and is interrupted by them. The oddities of the thinking activity arise from the fact of withdrawal. [..] Thinking always deals with absences, and removes itself from what is present and close at hand.”

Moment 3 (Articulation)

I want to briefly complicate this tradition of identifying the critical process in two simple stages, building on what Arendt offers to us here. We can perhaps consider that as critics, we are both present and removed; in our thinking, we are negotiating a myriad of forces of knowledge, emotion and intent that shape our perception of a work, our articulation of it, and the interpretation that is fuelled by that.

Criticism is not simply a work of beginnings, neither is it one of conclusions. We do not simply ignite or derive, we propose, question, position and engage ideas. We make certain moments of content appear on the page.

So I propose that we consider a more complex set of events in our process of criticism; I propose that:

  • this begins before our encounter with work
  • it continues after in our formation of memories, our note-taking, our research and attempt to define and delineate through old and new knowledge
  • it emerges in a process of interpretation in which we, sometimes less consciously than we would like, try and give shape to our thoughts.
  • it develops in the form of a text, in which several forces are at play: the intent, the space, the timing, the deadline, the context, the relationship.
  • then it continues on, once that text itself is released.  Let’s say it dissipates into the public sphere.

Moment 4 (Interpretation)

In some ways, criticism is a conflict with meaning. We excavate our thoughts to be able to justify and identify moments of that encounter with a work of art. Through interpretation we both ascribe meaning and try and make sense of our intuitive responses.

Thinking about process can help differentiate between what is intuition, what is knowledge and what is judgment. We can consider the ways in which a work might appear, in which a fragment can be described or teased out.

Yet interpretation can be controlled too; where you write, how you approach that writing, and how you trigger different memories are essential to being able to shape and structure your own thinking.

Moment 5 (Dialogue)

The text is the manifestation of our interpretation, and in some ways, the first dialogue that you might begin with your readers and the work itself. Although there are many ways to approach structuring a text, it’s also important to be aware of the ways in which the text tries the shape the writing.

Sometimes playing with structure to begin with might provide some interesting moments, recall some particular memories, or allow you to make connections that you haven’t encountered in your journey of interpretation.

Being aware of the assumptions you are making for what the text should be, is also crucial; allow your own thinking to dictate form. Consider the role of description in the text, and what is can enact. Then think about the action of a critical sentence, and where that should be positioned. In between will be your argument.

Any text is plural, and it has an odd quality of both distinction and equality. And, to return to Arendt, “with word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world.” So for a more aware, open-ended text, an awareness of criticism as a particular form of composition and conversation might be imperative. After all, this is merely an invitation, an extension; and the rest follows.

And You Were Wonderful, On Stage

When the social body is wired by techno-linguistic automatisms, it acts as a swarm: a collective organism whose behaviour is automatically directed by connective interfaces” Franco Bifo Berardi, The Uprising

Review written for Exeunt Magazine

We are not sure what we carry in the language of the everyday; and this baggage is an intervention into our modes of communication. We speak on behalf of, or with, or alongside, or in antithesis, without certainty of intent or control. We often recite instead of state; we are co-opted into a collective swarm, where noise and meaning are hard to differentiate.

It is precisely this tension of meaning in language that Cally Spooner’s work concerns itself with. Navigating between linguistic composition, formal theatricality and aural landscapes, Spooner’s practice questions the ways in which meaning might be co-opted, fractured by market-speak, by commodification, by the knowledge economy and the jargon of finance.  This quest for understanding linguistic automatisms is positioned in Spooner’s work in the individual and the collective, the place and the context.

In previous work, such as Collapsing in Parts, a long term multi-part project examining the relationship between the mechanisms of performance and the poetics of speech, Spooner played with notions of text and meaning. Starting with a body of writings that emerged from the artist’s personal research, then developed into episodic events through a range of collaborations presented as footnotes, Collapsing in Parts was concerned not only with processes of production, but also the notion of failure in communication. In one performative aspects of the work, Spooner speaks of a series of characters who are constantly unable to play their part onstage due to particular neuroses, such as the Copy Editor who get lost in spelling mistakes and bad grammar. The end of the project was marked by an unedited, untitled film, made up of loud bursts of language interrupting an otherwise uncanny, empty silence.

And You Were Wonderful, On Stage is a new iteration of a piece of work, commissioned as a two-part performance by Tate for the BMW Tate Live programme. The first iteration takes place in Tate Britain’s rotunda, concentrated around the newly built staircase. The second will be a developed version performed live to camera for Tate’s Performance Room.

The piece is presented as a musical for an all female a-cappella Chorus Line, drawing on the formal theatricality of Broadway musicals to consider the inflection and appropriation of language in every-day life. Built through cut-up, appropriation and linguistic play, drawing on extracts from Beyonce’s lip-synching at Obama’s inauguration, Michael Gove’s education proposal, or the Lance Armstrong scandal, And You Were Wonderful… is a playful iteration that juxtaposes the spectacle of appropriated language with the false authenticity of stage theatricality.

For an artist whose work originates in the fine art world, composition is crucial here; it forms the backbone of the work’s content, it shapes the ways in which form is deployed throughout the piece, and gives a strong sharpness and clarity to its fabric.  It navigates the comedic and the dramatic, and uses conventions of character and song to explore the ways in which meaning is shape-shifted, occupied and often, invisible.

Tate Britain here serves as a apt backdrop, with its vaulted ceilings, its architectural authority and its capacity to render bodies sculptural, and voices automatic with the particular tropes of an art institution. We enter the space as it’s filled by the sound of female voices singing; some appear as almost automatic bodies, all dressed in a sculpted, loosely patterned, geometric outfits, sometimes performing in unison and at others creating a landscape of noise. This overture allows us to inhabit the space; to sink into a seemingly empty space devoid of language, before congregating around the staircase in a ritualistic gathering, punctured by Peter Joslyn’s musical scores.

Language here is slowly revealed as a site of infiltration; in the highly stylised addresses of the performers, repeating the same phrase, speaking of values, confidence, assets and brands, meaning reveals itself to be an equally inauthentic construct, woven through PR slang, automatic speech patterns and exhausted performances. There is a disassociation made visible here between the actions performed by these bodies- hand gestures, rapid movements, ritualistic walking or a sustained gaze- and the seemingly familiar speech uttered through song, in intonations gripping in their simplistic musicality. It’s the meeting pint between language and noise, between meaning and appropriation. It’s Debord’ Society of the Spectacle turned on its head in a display of manipulative virtuosity.

Spooner’s piece, with its clever engagement with form and its use of language as a plastic material, is sharply communicative. The critique of automation, the visibility of a politics of language that removes any potential form of individual authorship are transparent, rooted in the construct of the performance itself. There is a sophisticated disjoint here between action as enacted by the body, and language itself as a form of action, one stripped of agency.

At the same time, the space itself is very much used as a two-fold site of meaning-making; as an audience, we are equally sculptured bodies in this ritual of exhaustion; through the polyphonic repetition, through the ritualistic and almost religious iteration of language in its mediatisation, we are part of a ritual of purging; and the remnants of this purging remains as echoed voices in this empty hall. Yet And You Were Wonderful… remains tentative in its representation of this problem of jargon and authenticity of meaning; it manages to skilfully make visible the automatisms that govern a system of communication, at the same time marking its position on the subject with a lack of clarity. Is this satire and if not, is this abstraction posited as a celebration? Certainly self-critique, particularly in this instance, does not equate to subversion. As an artist concerned with appropriation as a strategy, Spooner refutes the importance of presentation and context- aspect at the heart of a politics of appropriation. The language is of this work is presentation, and Spooner’s piece embeds itself so silently within the walls of the institution.

It is this very site- the gallery- that constructs an uneasy tension between the institutionalisation of language, and the institution itself. For a performance that discusses the ways in which finance and marketing has politicised language, its context of display- the BMW series itself- remains an odd shadow. If the financial jargon is so implicit in limiting a freedom of communication in language, then what becomes of this spectacle of purging? What happens to that which is exhausted? I wonder if this makes And You Were Wonderful, On Stage a purely principal work, if sharply and eloquently presented. One that is unable to engage in a direct confrontation of the very context which it is attempting to critique. What of institutional critique, one might ask? Are abstraction and formal play here merely annulled by a lack of specificity?  Are we talking institutionalised critique here? And is this what neoliberal art looks like? Because inertia is what delineates the relationship between work and place.

Language is undoubtedly stripped bare and toyed with in Spooner’s spectacle of automatic, poetic abstraction. The sheer power and versatility of the female performers, here bodies uttering and playing with voice and sound, is engaging, evocative and communicative. Yet only in the context of institutional dialogue is such a work disabled at the same time; and this tension remains a particularly intriguing, and problematic, if foundational, aspect of the work.

Review: Scenes from a Marriage

Written for Exeunt Magazine

1. This is not really a review. It has elements of re-viewing, displaced by the presence of an original image, a redacted memory. I am thinking here through and with the aid of translation; past the problems of mediation(s) that the production proposes (language; form; source; site).

2. I am watching a still from Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. “We weren’t in love at all, but we were both downhearted.” A green velvet sofa, well behaved shoulders, hands tucked in lap; being in someone’s living room. The wall patterns seem familiar; the cleanliness of it all. There is a sparse exchange of words, a loaded cinematic gaze. It’s thick with atmosphere, the beige-ness of spaces in between. I am not sure what I am looking at. I wonder if it’s history, or a history of some kind. It feels a lot more like a portrait with shifting subjects. Because who thinks about love these days; at least, who thinks about love, these days, like this.

3. I am sat on the Barbican’s main stage and the show has just started. There is no velvet sofa, but the soft texture of the walls, the sound that spills from the scene happening adjacent to me, they all shape a sense of poetic intimacy. I wonder, am I watching a portrait? This feels historical. This feels historical. Three scenes for which we move; then a spectacle of speculative philosophy.

4. These different variations, these cycles that I am confronted with in van Hove’s vision, they are unabashedly personal; they contemplate through their own form. There’s an oddly fractured respect for the shifting perspective in Bergman’s cinema, for a process of appropriation of that aesthetic intimacy that is distinctly not embodied, but playful. What is the body on this stage, when these people are not the characters? When their bodies become sites of thinking, age is fluid, persona emerges as a kind of theatrical proposition. Signs are getting so perceptively muddled up. Narrative is strongly enacted, embodied then discarded. It’s the repetition of this tension that emerges through the moments in –between; this juxtaposition of selves, that speaks more fervently than the domesticity of this character language.

5. Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage began life as a short six-episode series which went on to become a full length feature. There is a strong sense of literary authorship to its depiction of the relationship between intimacy and destruction, and the shape-shifting politics of emotional discourse. The cinematic here is a site of speculation rather than any direct representation; its language nevertheless engages with a distinct interest in what we might consider (now, with hindsight) to be a sense of the real. It is fractured yet has a particular narrative linearity surprised by self-awareness.

6. Toneelgroep’s Scenes from a Marriage moves this speculation to a different mode of thinking-through; the stage is both actual and speculative. I move through, and think relationally. My perspective is not drenched with the language of separation, or any poesis of relationships. It is enacted through people. I feel the temperature of this evolving timeline; engage in repetitive processes of emotional high-rises. Speak in-between moments of tension. Consider justification in the different expositions which Tongeelgroep present.

7. I am trying to follow the gaze of young Marianne in this spectacle of cross-characterisation; bright eyed, jumping in between with no sense of timed choreography. I can make out a portrait that keeps refusing to stand still. I can make out an exchange that morphs. This is not history, I think to myself. It’s too softly-focused, too aware.

8. I’m on a film set, bathed in harsh light and following this cycle with a sense of extreme satisfaction; it’s a humorous, densely poetic and fiercely melancholic struggle that I’m part of, and the emotional traces of any past intimacy have been wiped away. There is authorial self-awareness. Split-seconds of concrete ideas materialise. There is an overwhelming sense of intention in this unfolding social politic, be it removed from its referent, incubated on stage.

9. I am considering the position of history in this portrait which refuses to emerge; I am struck by the co-existence of a strong sense of conclusiveness, but I am also confronting a particular set of questions. The form of the piece plays with the implications of presenting this dynamic (marriage?) with a clear sense of commitment to genre-play and a particular awareness of the construction of selfhood onstage. The intimacy is a device that enables a lot of dynamic engagement. There are perceptible knots, strong releases, moments of impossible communication.

10. “What kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one? What is the world like when it is experiences, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity?” Alain Badiou