Small Ways

30 January 2008

Watching the right hand of the audience member in front of me shift to her companion's back as the performance continues. She makes vague stroking motions at the base of her partner's spine while he leans forwards. Her hand climbing slowly upwards. Patting. Circling. Her fingers go up towards his neck. I recognise it instantly as the kind of  apologetic, absent-minded massage that gets made to a lover you have invited to something which proves to be difficult, or boring, or unbearable. A present, a making-up, even as the event itself unfolds, a silent negotiation with someone who you know already, 'hates this kind of thing'.

Small ways to say sorry. A touch with the hand, or the fingers, or the leg, or the foot. A whispered word. A kiss on the neck or the ear. A sustained moment of contact – thigh pressed next to thigh or knee to knee. Repeated patting of the palm. Tracing letters (or hearts or kisses) on the palm or the back of the hand. Eye contact. A smile. A shrug. Pulling a face that says 'I am going crazy with this too…' or pulling a face that says 'I am sorry.. I know!'. 

A sudden stillness where you think, for no reason, now I am here…

28 January 2008

Saturday I was sitting for the portrait by Toine Horvers which I mentioned already here. The task at this point was for him to get a photograph that will be the basis of the picture and at the same time for me to describe my face more or less as it appears in the same light and situation, generating text that will the be written over and layer the image. Getting the photograph was simple enough – 12 shots in natural light, straight to camera. Once it was done I spent 30-45 minutes sat in the same place – in the open doorway of Hugo’s studio (best light in the neighborhood) – staring at my reflection in a mirror on a music stand that trembled now and then in the breeze. I wrote fast as much as I could, (it was cold and I was half naked), and didn’t allow myself to revise or re-structure. I found the work pretty hard – in a good way – realising again and again that I didn’t have the skills (or the right kind of visual or mental organisation?) to be methodical in the task – and guessing that Toine, trained in life class drawing, or photographers Hugo or Tamar (who took the picture) – would likely have made a much more systematic and clear job of it all. Started to think too, that in my whole written output since the age of 20 or whatever there’s probably never been a single detailed description of a face anywhere – probably few descriptions of faces at all. Trying to figure out what that might mean and guessing that it might be something to do with how seriously I’m taking my fictional propositions. Below there’s a chunk of what I wrote on Saturday. In Toine’s final work this (and the rest of it) will get written across the picture, comments on specific parts or areas of the face written specifically onto or over them, the general description or phrases written bold and all over…  a kind of mapping the text to its subject that produces the kinds of concentrations, obliterations, spaces and re-emphases that the tests already show.

…stray hairs on the top of the forehead. Like trees, isolated trees sticking up out of floodwater. The place where the hair of the sideburns meets the beard on the right (as I look at it) is where the mix of colours is most intense – white, ginger brown, grey. Slight pink of the cheeks. Thick heavy shadow in the corners below the mouth. A burst of white on the right corner of the chin. Points of light in the eyes. The hair of the beard moving upwards onto the cheeks, thinning out, individual hairs visible – white grey black. Too many to count? Probably, A spot in the middle of the chin itself here where seems to be no hair. Smiling changes everything. Suddenly there are new lines that go from the corners of the eyes to the edges of the face. Three or four lines going upwards, more going downwards. The lines filled with shadow. Lines from the corners of the nose, reaching down to the mouth. Lines under the eyes, layers of shadow under the eyes. Dispersed blemishes – a tiny faint spot to the right side of the nose. Above it to the right another even fainter spot. On the other side a larger spot, not discoloured, just more like  circle of raised skin. A strange line almost following the cheekbone (but higher) on the right-hand side. Worried again that I am losing track of left and right, then laughing about it, which produces new lines, movements, shifts the shadows. Filling into the detail of my face, I am completely unable to make any kind of consistent orientation. Eyes scanning it. No sooner that I started on describing one thing I already lost interest in it and found something else.  Eyes again. A sudden stillness where you think, for no reason, now I am here. Ears. Sea shell curves and shadows. High points of light. The Guggenheim. Eyes. The number of times I sat in front of the camera in the daylight of the widow of my own bedroom for some video or another. Only there always talking or thinking. And here writing. The tensing and relaxing of the muscles under the eyes. Swallowing animates the neck. There is the biopsy scar on the left side of the neck.  Hairline crack in the skin. To the base of that scar, where it curves to the Adam’s apple you can still see the smaller lines left by each of the stitches. There, just above that is the blue/purple mark, the small indentation which Vlatka always called hers and which the surgery in 2004 – the biopsy or the sternotomy I can’t remember – basically destroyed, knotting it into scar tissue. But then, a year or more later it returned. The difference between the first hairs of the chest – wispy, vague, tangled  and the lowest hairs of the beard (the ones that spill down the neck). The scar like  a railway track snaking across, a ridge that catches the light,  going nowhere. In the centre of the chest, leading up to it I can just see the thicker scar from the sternotomy – the drawn purple line that divides me. And left of that at the shoulder, the mess made by numerous pacemaker operations. A single similar scar at the right – that strange white skin of  scar, again the stitches.  A tangle of scars – plus some hairs, some discoloured skin. Face moving a lot now because I am laughing because I have the sudden idea I am describing a monster. Wondering if every face described would be this way once looked at in detail. No, definitely not. Softer light now. Kinder. And my face relaxed. Unable to keep its public shape, its camera shape, too long. Or aware that it is dissolving in any case by virtue of this disorganised description. Aware that I am not sticking to the facts. But not sure what the facts are. Smoother forehead now, but still marked by 5 lines…

Little in Between

23 January 2008
Toine Horvers Image 1

Toine Horvers Image 2

Last year, I met the Dutch artist Toine Horvers whose task-based conceptual projects often involve text; especially as live, spoken or otherwise notated descriptions of people, landscapes or light. In some works these texts are present as performance or as recordings of one kind or another. In others they become elements of more involved assemblies – portraits or photocollaborations, layered sound works and installations. I was pretty fascinated with the projects he described to me at our first meeting – including one piece based on timed descriptions of the people in his subway carriage – annotations made on daily journeys between Brooklyn and Manhattan for a certain period time, each one a record of the arrival, actions and eventual departure of people boarding his train. I also liked the sound of his 360-degree ‘landscape pictures’ in which he’d turn round slowly in particular locations, describing everything he could see. This text, recorded and learnt as monologue, could then be ‘replayed’ in any other location, a performance effectively overlaying one place with the description of another. There’s lots of material about Toine’s work at his website.

Come Saturday I’m sitting for a portrait by Toine, made as a kind of collaboration between him, myself and photographer Tamar de Kemp. Toine’s making the piece for the foyer of Rotterdamse Shouwburg. Some samples below of his tests for the project (using an image of himself). If I manage to survive the minor trauma of sitting in front of a mirror and describing my own face for half an hour (to create text for Toine to use in the work) I’ll post the results here at some later point.


Writing notes to my friend A. who is translating some of the Endland Stories into German for publication.

“the hard thing to get over is just how deliberately bad, old, slang, fucked up and awkward the language is at all times….  Like the narrator always chooses either to be unnecessarily convoluted or unnecessarily blunt and direct, with very little in between.”


Vlatka updated her website with new stuff in the .pdfs about her recent work.

Harmless Things

17 January 2008

Talking to Ong Keng Sen about Vietnam and Cambodia. He describes the flood of exiles/emigres returning in recent times to the former especially, somehow trying to recreate the lives they’ve lived elsewhere. He describes their presence in the captial and elsewhere (their bars and cafes, their arts scene, their.. ) as in some way as like scar tissue. New tissue whose very presence reflects damage, and which although it sticks out, is still in the first instance, a part of the same body. Layer after layer he says. Old scar and new scar, untouched skin and altered skin as metaphors for the change in a country.


Talking to Eva Meyer Keller and Alexandra Bachzetsis about play doctors. That strange feeling that overtakes you sometimes – when watching other people’s work – that you could fix it. An effect of the distance and the space for fantasy I am sure.

Eva also sent me images from a new project she’s doing in collaboration with Sybille Müller. The piece will involve a small group of kids working together to create versions of catastrophes – floods, hurricanes, explosions and more – using household materials. Looks like it will turn into a very smart piece – a more epic sequel perhaps to her brilliant Death Is Certain. Here’s a quote from her talking about that earlier piece:

“I’m just handling/ using harmless things, that everyone has at home in the kitchen or in their toolbox… Things you find in the supermarket… Everybody knows how it feels to have a knife, a hair dryer or an iron in their hand. At the same time, I’m not trying to recreate a kitchen on stage at all. It’s more that I invite these objects into the theatre and let them stand for what they signify. Throughout the performance they gain or change their… characteristics….. In the mind they might become torture tools… “

White Paint

13 January 2008
Responding to my last 1001 Nights Cast story Mike wrote simply: “$2900-dollars-a-night: Mart loved it to pieces, but we were looking for a Western–“, with a link pointing to this site.


I am walking thru fog with S, taking him to school. It’s early morning, the sky is still pretty dark in fact and the fog is very thick – an expanse of dense whiteness. From nowhere a guy appears on the pavement ahead of us. A slouching bloke in his work-clothes, looking old and tired already – one hand grips the handle of a large open can of white emulsion paint, the other clutches a paltry still-wet paint brush. Like he has been out there all night, just mixing and painting the fog that we are walking through, just finished his job and now heading home while we start the day.



T. 16.26:

y. i dunno. looks like it might be kind of chic but empty clever to me

V. 16:26:

the reviews are saying dark and gloomy and pessimistic

T. 16:27:

oh well. guess that cld be a good combo.

Nothing flows but everything follows

12 January 2008

This is the piece I mentioned before; the programme note I wrote to introduce Jerome Bel‘s forthcoming presentations at Sadler’s Wells in London.


Nothing flows but everything follows.

Towards the beginning of Jerome Bel’s the show must go on (2001) as well as during some intense moments in his later work Veronique Doisneau (2004), we are invited to stare at the bare stage – at the expanse of black dance floor, so many metres by so many metres — which so often plays the unremarkable part of an invisible nothingness in contemporary theatre and dance. We have time to look, look and look again. Nothing happens. Time does its thing. We look some more. Even what’s commonly taken for nothing, Bel seems to remind us, is very often something.

Or start like this. Since I first saw Jerome Bel’s work more than ten years ago it has had a special place in my heart and in any map I might make of contemporary performance. Each of his projects, though they differ enormously, creates a rigorous, puzzling and engaging experience at a very particular intersection of dance, theatre and contemporary art. Often exploring the structures of presence, language and representation, each work celebrates the combination of the entirely obvious and the absolutely extraordinary – sculpting a piece of time through which boredom and banality knot and unravel, only to dissipate around a flickering core of amazement.

Or start like this. In one part of his book Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, the French writer Georges Perec gives instructions on how to look at a city or a street.

Note down what you can see.” he writes, “Anything worthy of note going on. Do you know how to see what’s worthy of note? Is there anything that strikes you? Nothing strikes you. You don’t know how to see.

You must set about it more slowly, more stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless…. Don’t say, don’t write ‘etc’. Make an effort to exhaust the subject, even if it seems grotesque or pointless, or stupid. You still haven’t looked at anything, you’re merely picked out what you long ago picked out. Force yourself to see more flatly…

The ambition here – that of seeing flatly, of seeing more slowly, or more stupidly – is supremely present in Jerome Bel’s significant body of work created since 1994. Each of his performances – which combine their formal obsessiveness with wry and dry humour – are governed for the most part by the observance of a simple rule, task or idea. There is, to use simple terms, the show with the ten household objects, the show with the pop songs and the dances that literalise their lyrics, the show with the four naked performers, the show where he interviews another dancer, the show where all four performers are pretending to be someone else, and so on. Through the dramaturgical exploitation of the simple limits he sets up, Bel pushes us to look again and again at the things which we have forgotten how to see. Of course it’s not the scene of a Paris street that he directs us to, but rather stuff that’s just in front of our noses – the stage itself, the combination of human bodies on it and those arranged looking at it, the properties of clothing or domestic objects, pop music and classical music, language and its relation to the world, theatre and dance themselves; their expectations, logic and construction. And time perhaps; we get to see time.

Time is key in Bel’s stage-economy, as is an eye for systems. Everything takes its time.

Nothing flows, but everything follows. We go piece by piece. Methodically. Each new image, utterance, action or sequence either arises or breaks playfully from the pattern established before. The stage is a little empire of signs. We watch them shifted, shunted, rearranged. Additions and subtractions, escalations and reversals. Questions leading to answers, to more questions, more answers. Big pleasures in small things. Small things grown large by their context. The delights of transformation. The absurdities of repetition. Machinery and human behaviour. There’s always something calm and human scale about the proceedings in any case; a softness and a humour which cut through, or cut against (or inhabit or inhibit) the systematic.

Above all perhaps, we get to understand something we know but are prone to forgetting; that one thing is different to another. We become re-attuned to detail. We see for example, that the red that smudged lipstick leaves on human skin is not the same red produced when skin is slapped.  Or we notice something simple, with a shock that seems almost stupid; that a man lain on the floor beneath a blanket is not the same thing as a man lain on the floor without one. Or we see again, only vividly, as something simple and present, that what reads in one culture (say white European) is not at all the same as what reads elsewhere (say Thailand, in traditional Thai dance). We’re made to spend time with these facts, made to look at them better, flatter, more stupidly. There is no delirium; there’s little that might pass for abandon. Indeed, no matter which of Bel’s performances you look at, after each unfolding action, image, dialogue or exchange, there always comes a breath, a silence. This punctuation – a second or two of stillness, a measure of unfilled time – is an imperative beat which nods both to the comedian’s double-take and wait for laughter, and the philosopher’s pause for reflection. Silence. And waiting. These are points to which we always return while witnessing Bel’s pieces. Silence in which the possible multiplies. Silence in which the distribution of the sensible is remade. Silence in which we are left thinking, aware of the space which we are left to fill.

All Sorts

10 January 2008

The lovely Vlatka has three shows coming up in New York which seems unreasonable to me. Two of them even have openings on the same night, tonight. She has work in Cut Away at Anna Kustera Gallery, 520 West 21st Street which runs to Feb 16, 2008. She’s also one of three people in the new show at White Columns, 320 West 13th Street (Enter on Horatio Street, between Hudson and 8th Avenue) which runs from Jan 10 – Feb 16, 2008. White Columns has the beautiful collages I previewed a while back, as well as her To Nothing charts, and a lovely piece to take-away. Vlatka’s also in the same show as me – Skipping the Page – at The Center for Book Arts, 28 West 27th Street, 3rd floor which runs from Jan 18 – March 29, 2008.

While I’m on the dates thing. The current season at Sadler’s Wells in London is pretty amazing. In the next couple of months they’re showing four evening’s (11, 18, 25 and 26 of Jan) comprising the whole trilogy of minimal and really inspiring duets by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion – Both Sitting Duet, The Quiet Dance and Speaking Dancepieces I wrote about a good while back. Sadler’s Wells is also presenting almost the entire back catalogue of the French conceptual choreographer Jerome Bel from Nom donné par l’auteur (1994) to Pichet Klunchun and myself (2005). Again it’s extraordinary, important work, and so great to see it brought together and celebrated here. Finally they have Pina Bausch in the programme presenting a double bill of Café Müller (1978) alongside Le Sacre du Printemps/The Rite of Spring (1975). Can’t do the whole lot (too far, no time) but very much looking forward to making the trip to catch some of this stuff.

They asked me to write something, a kind of short intro to the Jerome Bel pieces. Scratching the surface really but I’ll be posting the whole of it tomorrow.

Meanwhile I had a lot of fun writing for Barbara Campbell’s 1001 Nights Cast again yesterday. On a whim (inspired by the first line that came into my head after seeing the prompt) I took a break from the kind of comical-brutalist second-generation Endland stories I’ve typically been doing there. I really want to do more of those.. and I’m harboring plans to do something rather longer set in that world (I use the word advisedly and with a whole lot of quote marks as I picture Mike Harrison reading.) In the meantime you can find the rather more breezy and ironic $2900-dollars-a-night over at 1001. The fucked-upness is coming from a different place in this one.

Brief Wondrous

7 January 2008

Reading and really enjoying The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, some kind of bleak and funny post-modern diaspora saga by Junot Diaz. The frame of reference (linguistic and cultural) is beautiful in its mixture; the contemporary characters caught between their (nightmarish, semi-mythical) Dominican Republic cultural heritage on the one hand and the alien wasteland of 80s New Jersey on the other. Here and there in the Spanglish (I sometimes understand by inference, or not at all) you find characters sketched by comical nods to Dune, Tolkien, Marvel Comics or even A. E. Van Vogt (whose book Slan I guess I havent seen much mention of since reading it as a teenager). The vibe is nerdy meets smart crossed with shit-talking at a party; conversational but quite happy to dip into detail on some aspect of Carribean culture and history.

In fact it’s especially the direct/bad tempered and from time-to-time abusive-staccato of the footnotes on the Dominican Republic that are super enjoyable. “You don’t know that we were occupied twice in the Twentieth Century…”, the narrator taunts explaining something at one point, only to console in the same sentence, “…don’t worry, when you have kids they wont know the U.S. occupied Iraq either“.  In related spirit a general level of flashy badmouthing is meeted out to latter-day Dominican public/political figures – Tujillo is “a portly, pig-eyed sadistic mulato who bleached his own skin… our Sauron, our Arawan, our Darkseid…”, whilst Balaguer started out as “one of El Jefe [Tujillo’s] more efficient ringwraiths” but in the period of his own rule is “…a Negrophobe, an apologist for genocide, an election thief and a killer of people that wrote better than himself…”

Diaz’ own contemporary characters –  a fat nerdy kid Oscar and his punk sister Lola  – born to a powerhouse of negativity/Dominican-immigrant single-mother Beli, don’t always fare much better, perpetually shadowed by intimations of Fuki (a curse) and often described with perversely enjoyable skepticism and disdain. Oscar has a rough adolescence; “scrambling his face into nothing you could call cute, splotching his skin with zits.. too dorky, too shy, and (if the kids from the neighborhood are to be believed) too weird.” Another character (suitor to Beli) is framed like this; “there is something about the binding, selling and degradation of women that brought out the best in the Gangster”.  Diaz can be a great enthuser too though – brash and funny – Beli, for example, gains a cleavage that is something “so beserk that only a pornographer or a comic-book artist could have designed it with a clear conscience”.

Though it’s from a very different universe both the mix of voices and the negativity thing set me thinking about my own tactics in Endland Stories and elsewhere (Lisa, protagonist in the first story of that book for example, is “an unlucky misery guts with a hidden gift for brilliant ideas”). There’s something so charged about the act of creating figures who at the same time you dismiss, threaten or paint-as-doomed. It’s a method that perhaps strikes at and immediately doubles the process of making-through-writing. It’s tense too, at least in Diaz’ book. I’m worried about Oscar, even though I guess the title has pretty well given it away.

What’s interesting for me also is reading a book like this that really does ‘generations and family history’ – small characters in a time of big change – it’s a genre that I more or less never go near (except maybe via Marquez). Seeing it done so well though – very now, no reverence,  a lot of play, and a kind of light-touch cool self-consciousness alongside really sharp politics and vivid characters – has made me think about it all over again. Diaz’ shift of voices for different sections of the book – jumping and tracking back through family generations, and between figures in the story – reminds me a little bit of David Mitchell too. All good. I didn’t finish this one yet but I already Amazoned his earlier short story collection called Drown.