Two Birds

30 March 2008

"Working with the rules, history and logic of the game, and the eccentric yet analytic language used to describe it, Kerbel constructs a perfectly playable yet unseen innings of [a baseball] game…".

Headed out of the house in the pouring rain yesterday to go see Janice Kerbel's performance Ball Game (Inning 1) at Site Gallery as part of Art Sheffield 08. In the piece an actor reads a text in the form of a play-by-play radio commentary, describing an imaginary game of baseball. Sheffield gray sky is still visible from the place I sit on the floor as the actor starts to read in a genial-yet-mannered more-or-less other-era tone, a tone which multiplies the already complex spatial and temporal co-ordinates of the event. A live performance which is nonetheless a script-reading, in the form of a non-existent transatlantic (non-broadcast) radio broadcast, the whole relating to a fictitious game that is 'taking place' (ie not taking place at all) in (some generic, conjured) America. The way he tells it each pitch, run, strike, catch and roar, takes place in front of this commentator, who persists in describing events he cannot see, in place (and by means) of the script which he is reading from and in place (furthermore) of the room, and the audience, whose presence, seated on chairs or leant against the walls, he could see clearly (just as we see him) if only he'd close his minds eye and look with his real ones. Live, not live at all, here, now and, in every way there and back then. A 1950's or 60's Americana blue sky superimposed on our overcast one.

I had to think about the relation between commentary (esp radio commentary) and the act of visualizing – that perhaps radio commentary is never quite as good a methodical or objective visualising tool as one might expect it to be – that its tropes, tricks and poetic turns are very much as much emotional, musical, textural as they might be blow-by-blow or systematic notes to the (re)construction of an event. Also struck by (and quite liking) the determined whimsicality of choosing this to-me distant kind of sport for such a treatment (a reconstructed/imagined football commentary would have tapped quite different buttons for most of those watching I think..). I can safely say that what few/any baseball or baseball-commentary associations I have are all already virtual – false memories implanted via some film which probably has Kevin Costner in it, or via staring at the pictures too long in faux-American restaurants or bars (either here or in real America). I certainly never went to a game. And I dont think I heard a commentray before this one, except already in a movie.

The other thing I got to thinking about was the relation between foreground and background. There's some very interesting stuff in Elaine Scarry's book Dreaming by the Book, about writing, in which she describes writers techniques for making locations feel real/vivid/solid in fiction (or in language). One of the things she points to is a device of constructing 'solid walls' by focusing on things that interrupt, mark or obscure them. She writes about light for example, passing over walls – I think the example she gives is from Proust – some sequence about a magic lantern image spinning over the bedroom walls – a sleight of hand she says, in which our attention is focused on the ephemeral image from the lantern, as we are in fact seduced into drawing/providing the walls and the objects which line them, with a solidity that they'd lack if described directly.

The related moment for me yesterday was early on in Kerbel's performance piece, when the commentator figure broke off his summoning/description of the team line-ups and warm up action on the field and instead drew attention to two birds, allegedly hovering in the blue sky up above the pitch. There was something vivid, seeable, almost tangible about these birds, unauthorised though clearly authored presences which rupture the account of the event, at the same time conferring it authenticity.

(This stuff is relevant somehow to the Forced Entertainment rehearsals which are going right now..  but not in a way that I can articulate usefully. Suffice it to say that the implied/virtual event, summoned in language, as well as the flickering of absent-yet-present performance is something that we loop around on a regular basis these days).

May Exist

23 March 2008

Two short fragments from Adam Phillips writing in The Observer about the room in which he writes:

"The room is chaotic-ish most of the time because tidiness is beyond me here; it seems that I don't really like to know where things are, I just want them to come to hand when I need them. When books are taken off the shelves they are not often taken back, so I tend to use those I can see at any given moment for whatever it is I am writing."

"I can only really write in this room, which I regret. I have always wanted to be able to write wherever I was. In any room."


Vlatka wrote me about a strand of philosophy described as 'speculative realism'. Reading about one of its adherents belief "that God does not exist but may exist in the future."

Leaking Pictures

21 March 2008
Screen Grab


Meanwhile in rehearsals with Forced Entertainment there’s a long discussion about what yesterday we were calling ‘the linguistic texture of truth-telling’ – its use in performance and its limits as a strategy. Also – in the same room but in another discussion – the observation that being able to define the exact nature, depth and other dimensions of the hole you are in does not necessarily mean that you are closer to getting out of it.


20 March 2008

His whole personality seemed unsteady, bound in perpetual flux. His face unstable, over-animated; eyebrows, eyes, lips etc in almost constant exaggerated motion as though his tired and too fleshy features were channeling the preliminary sketches for some outlandish cartoon character. His voice too wavered all over the place, like someone trying out a series of options they might later use in a prank phone call.


Meanwhile, not connected to the above, an engaged and positive blog response to the pieces by Vlatka and me in Art Sheffield 08 – Insults & Praises and Threats & Promises – from Sophie Risner.

Object by Object

16 March 2008
Spent time in New York working on writing a monologue/text called Sight Is The Sense That A Dying Person Tends To Lose First, for Jim Fletcher, an extraordinary perfomer people might well know from his work with Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players (he was in House, and in The End of Reality amongst other pieces and is currently in their brilliant Ode to the Man Who Kneels). The monologue will be shown as work-in-progress in Vienna this April. The text free-associates from topic to topic to create a flowing and failing iteration/explanation of the world, the things, forces, experiences, and people in it – what they are and how they work. I already included some working notes/a fragment from the text, a while ago. Here's another short passage:
A cage is a container for animals. A mirror is a defective window. A hall of mirrors is a room full of bad mirrors. Shift workers are people who work when other people are sleeping. The night shift is hard on your sleep patterns and on your relationships. Tired people get depressed. Stressed people say unexpected things. Rage is another word for anger. There is only one correct answer to a mathematical question. There is only one way out of a maze. A blood transfusion is way of moving blood from one body into another using pipes and a small pump. Clouds change shape in ways that are impossible to predict. Hate is hard to explain. Rats move in groups. Knives are things made of metal. Metal comes from out of the ground. Heavy Metal music has a strong beat and a lot of guitar. You cannot stop people from dancing if they want to dance. You cannot stop progress. An umbrella is no protection against a swarm of bees. Happy people are more productive than sad people. Change is not always a good thing. A cardiac arrest is nothing to do with the police.  
The full (but not yet entirely completed) text is running something like six thousand words. Discussing the whole project with Graham Parker (my friend, the artist, not the punk-era rocker) he flagged the Doris Lessing text below – which I really liked – as a cousin or relation to it. Something related to Perec's exhaustiveness too. Going to see if I can find my copy of the Lessing book, I know there's one somehwere here…
I used at night to sit up in bed and play what I called 'the game.' First I created the room I sat in, object by object, 'naming' everything, bed, chair, curtains, till it was whole in my mind, then move out of the room, creating the house, then out of the house, slowly creating the street, then rise into the air, looking down on London, at the enormous sprawling wastes of London, but holding at the same time the room and the house and the street in my mind, and then England, the shape of England in Britain, then the little group of islands lying against the continent, then slowly, slowly, I would create the world, continent by continent, ocean by ocean (but the point of 'the game' was to create this vastness while holding the bedroom, the house, the street in their littleness in my mind at the same time), until the point was reached where I moved out into space, and watched the world, a sunlit ball in the sky, turning and rolling beneath me. Then, having reached that point, with the stars around me, and the little earth turning underneath me, I'd try to imagine at the same time, a drop of water, swarming with life, or a grean leaf. Sometimes I could reach what I wanted, a simultaneous knowledge of vastness and of smallness. Or I would concentrate on a single creature, a small coloured fish in a pool, or a single flower, or a moth, and try to create, to 'name' the being of the flower, the moth, the fish, slowly creating around it the forest, or the sea-pool, or the space of blowing night air that tilted my wings. And then, out, suddenly, from the smallness into space.
It was easy when I was a child. . .

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook


15 March 2008
Sowing Apathy - Prompt Image 1001 Nights Cast

Thursday night wrote my last story for Barbara Campbell’s amazing 1001 Nights Cast project. My text – from the prompt ‘sowing apathy’ – was number 998, in good company with texts 997 (Tony White), 996 (Deborah Levy) and 995 (M. John Harrison) who all pulled out the stops to write great pieces.

Here are the first paragraphs of mine, the rest is here. A great speedy pleasure to write.


To a lot of people it felt like the end. Some said months or weeks, some even said it was only a matter of days. The big clock is ticking. That is what an asshole yelled out the window of a speeding vehicle that sprayed dirty water from a puddle all over her dress, its stupid Versace sirens scratching the air. The big clock is still ticking. Yeah yeah yeah.

To her it felt different though. More like a beginning in fact than an end.

At some point once its done I hope I’ll write some kind of looking-back on the project (at least on my own experience and participation in it) but I think that will wait a while. For now follow the tags below if you want to find other stuff I wrote here about 1001 already. I’m looking forward to the next three nights as Barbara closes the piece down after almost three years continuos work. I wish I could be there in Sydney for the closing event/symposia this weekend at which Barbara  is joined by Helen Grace (Hong Kong), Marian Pastor Roces (Manila), Matias Viegener (LA), Frazer Ward (Northampton, USA) and Tony White (London) to discuss the project. Free.
The big final-night 1001’s webcast will be 6.45pm (Sydney time), Monday March 17th, with a live studio audience at Performance Space at Carriageworks.

Overlapping Waves

13 March 2008

Still a bit haunted by Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring that Kate and I saw a couple of weeks ago at Sadlers Wells.

First there was something faintly pantomime about the dynamics – or melodrama at least  – the flock of gaunt women versus the mob of extremely triangular guys with their shirts off; muscle and attitude everywhere. A lot of circling and stalking, menace, trembling and eye contact, followed by a lot of full-on throwing, running and jumping. Think Fertility, Seasons, Fecundity, Men, Women and a strong dose of Sacrifice on a big empty floor covered in dark earth and you won’t be far off. I felt a bit distant from it all at first I guess – I often have to look at my shoes when symbols are in operation. The music also had me laughing inadvertently from time to time – something between its strident modernist discordia, coupled with the dancers' spectacular exertions on the earth and the general air of 'tops-off hand-to-hand combat' made me think quite specifically of Star Trek. I'm not really sure why – I don't think that Rodenberry et al used Stravinsky for soundtrack and Kirk/Shatner never looked anything remotely as good as Bausch's dancers, that's for sure. But the connection once made in my head was hard to shake, as can be the case with such inappropriate associations.

What very much more than saves the piece though is how unapologetic it is for its aesthetic, and for its symbolism. Doesn't even blink. This, it says, is what we are doing. If you don't like it you can probably figure out where the door is

The other real clincher is the lengths to which Bausch and the dancers are prepared to go, pushing things and themselves. The physical stakes are very high, very driven. The whole thing establishes a kind of muscular vividness that while I was watching made dance as dance – bodies, motion, space – make sense to me as dance only does infrequently. Bausch is so good at drawing shapes on the stage, so good at setting one energy against another, so good at pulling one scene, or movement or mood out of another that here, very often, it's simply breathtaking – in spite of all my unhelpful Star Trek associations.  There's something machinic about the work too – a kind of pounding intensity to the swirl of crossing lines, circles, groups, chases, stillnesses – something so full-on, precise and committed, that you only notice it might have a human cost in terms of *effort* in the moments where the dancers stop still together, chests heaving in not-quite-unison, and the sound of their breathing comes rolling from the stage in ragged overlapping waves.

For all its beauty, skill and mastery as dance (which I suppose keeps some people happy on a certain level) it's essentially a very very brutal, dark and antisocial piece of work – especially as the ghost of it’s gender melodrama gets worked more and more raw, the rather bald/transparent symbols get beaten out of their hideouts in the ether, dragged into substance, drawn out of the bodies, stamped out of the ground itself to rise up in the dirt and the sweat to make something real, frightening and present. I guess that’s what they teach about ritual in performance studies or whatever, but I never saw it happen quite like this until now, and weirdly, only here, now, writing this, do I understand that this is what I saw back there in London. The imagery of the performance warps and shifts over time too somehow. If there's something a bit pastoral-Disney in the first encounter between the men and the women, it's not long before the atmosphere is flashing off in directions more like death camp, Russian roulette or gang rape. More sexuality (and dance) as desperate inevitability and faceless pulverization than either of them as creative and individual means of expression or collective route to freedom. There's an inexorable, grinding and harsh quality about the whole thing.

What I really wanted to write about though, as has been the case for me before with Pina Bausch, is the curtain call. Back in the 80’s I wrote a piece for Performance Magazine about Cafe Muller which I'd seen in Edinburgh, noting the lack of change in the dancers after the performance as they returned to the stage for their bows. The severity and poise of the piece followed them into the curtain call, the dancers refusing to let its fiction drop. In Cafe Muller this felt a little bit like strategy – weird, mildly annoying but effective nonetheless in its signal/refusal to let matters drop – the transfer of the piece's problem to the real time and space of the auditorium. In Rite of Spring though, we went a very different route to a similar place as the lead dancer – Ruth Amarante – came back for something like three curtain calls in a shaking, exhausted and weeping state that seemed to border physical breakdown – consequence, you could only imagine, of the piece in general and the spectacular and physically devastating final solo in which (in narrative at least) she's required to dance herself to death. There was something very unsettling about this, with sparks of the 'is it real/has it somehow become real?' kind flying off in all directions. Amazing.

At the interval Kate and I had been talking about the intense privacy of these Bausch pieces – not a single moment of direct contact or acknowledgement of the audience in either of them – the dancers lost in their own little world up there on the stage, locked into its logic, space, and set of relations. There's so much theatre in dance these days, so much performance and so much self-consciousness (at least in the end of dance I get to see!) that this felt really odd, out of time, no matter how easy in fact it was to settle into and enjoy. By the time of the Rite of Spring curtain call though it was really making sense to me – the curtain call as the one moment to check in together – dancers and audience – to see what had happened. Watching Amarante you got confirmation, if you didn't know it already, that something really had.


You can find the short text I wrote in the 80’s about curtain calls in general, including Bausch’s Cafe Muller, in Certain Fragments.

Some very nice stuff about riots and fistfights at the 1913 Nijinsky/Stravinsky premiere of Rite of Spring on Wikipedia, esp the detail of Nijinsky having to stand on a chair in the wings throughout the latter parts of the performance and yell out the counts to the dancers on the stage because the music was getting drowned by the escalation of fighting and outrage in the auditorium.

Unable To Restrain My Joy

12 March 2008

Ant Hampton wrote:

"'I'm in Nigeria. Came in from Ghana, met by a British Council security guard / driver who threw me into a bullet proof SUV with a satellite dish on top of it…  A guy in front turned round and handed me a big wad of cash and a telephone. Now i'm at the hotel, and i'm not allowed out without the driver. It's all a bit gated… "

He also sent a link to a film by his brother Martin. 'POSSESSED' enters the complicated worlds of four hoarders; people whose lives are dominated by their relationship to possessions.

It's definitely worth a look. Some other films by Martin on the same site.


This was a completely random find. An amazing lettter by Shostakovich to his friend Isaak Glikman in 1957. There's  a link here if you want the context.

Dear Isaak Davidovich,

I arrived in Odessa on the day of the All-Peoples celebration of the 40th anniversary of Soviet Ukraine. This morning, I went out into the street. You, of course, understand that one cannot stay indoors on such a day. Despite wet and foggy weather, the whole of Odessa was out of doors. Everywhere are portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and also of comrades A. I. Belyaev, L. I. Brezhnev, N. A. Bulganin, K. E. Voroshilov, N. G. Ignatov, A. I. Kirilenko, F. R. Kozlov, O. V. Kuussinen, A. I. Mikoyan, N. A. Mukhitdinov, M. A. Suslov, E. A. Furtseva, N. S. Khrushchev, N. M. Shvernik, A. A. Aristov, P. A. Pospelov, Ya. E. Kalnberzin, A. P. Kirichenko, A. N. Kosygin, K. T. Mazyrov, V. P. Mzhevanadze, M. G. Pervukhin, N. T. Kalchenko.

Everywhere are banners, slogans, posters. All around are happy, beaming Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish faces. Here and there one hears eulogies in honour of the great banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and also in honour of comrades A. I. Belyaev, L. I. Brezhnev, N. A. Bulganin, K. E. Voroshilov, N. G. Ignatov, A. I. Kirichenko, F. R. Kozlov, O. V. Kuussinen, A. I. Mikoyan, N. A. Mukhitdinov, M. A. Suslov, E. A. Furtseva, N. S. Khrushchev, N. M. Shvernik, A. A. Aristov, P. A. Pospelov, Ya. E. Kalnberzin, A. P. Kirilenko, A. N. Kosygin, K. T. Mazyrov, V. P. Mzhevanadze, M. G. Pervukhin, N. T. Kalchenko, D. S. Korotchenko. Everywhere one hears Russian and Ukrainian speech. Sometimes one hears the foreign speech of the representatives of progressive humanity who have come to Odessa to congratulate its residents on the occasion of their glorious holiday. I too wandered around and, unable to restrain my joy, returned to my hotel where I resolved to describe, so far as I can, the All-Peoples celebration in Odessa.

Do not judge me harshly.

All the best,

D. Shostakovich

New York Random

9 March 2008

A guy speaking to the excessively chatty stranger-from-out-of-town who’s taken the seat next to him at the fifth floor coffee shop in BG,  as said stranger launches into what seems like the fourth conversational gambit of his $6 capuccino. The other guy says: Look, you're an employee right? You're just here to make everyone in this place feel great?


My proposal re the gigantic billboard for Animal Planet TV show (or whatever) nearby on 1st Street, which is fitted with some kind of motion detector and has a weatherproof speaker system mounted on the wall above it and which emits a cacophonous chattering of loud jungle creature sounds anytime you walk past it, is simply that the whole thing be taken down immediately and installed at the deathbed of the person who invented it.