More Drama

12 August 2008

Last year I wrote the text for Drama Queens, a project by the artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Comprising a short (40 minute) play for 6 radio controlled sculptures (scale models of real ones by Jeff Koons, Sol LeWitt, Giacometti, Warhol, Barbara Hepworth et al)  it was presented at Munster Skulpture Projekte and, more recently this year, at Art Basel. Here’s what I wrote about it back then with links to some reviews etc here and here.

Ingar was in touch with me a while back to say (slightly mysteriously) that “a London theatre” might be interested in staging the piece on a one-off basis with live actors providing the voices for the sculptures. The two presentations of the work so far featured recorded voices, as done by actors in Munster. Anyways. Things went quiet on all this and I thought any London plan was dead in the water. But now it’s all happening.

The Old Vic, no less, will present the work as a one off on Sunday 12 October 7.30pm, with artistic director Kevin Spacey reading one part and various other actors great and small looking at the script in due course with a view to joining the cast. Drama Queens is £250 a ticket gala fundraising type event but there are regular priced tickets too. The performance comes just a month before Forced Entertainment’s Spectacular at Riverside in London and alongside a new show by Elmgreen & Dragset at Victoria Miro.

Currently hard at work on the text – one sculpture is getting cut (sightline and space issues – The Old Vic stage is ‘in the round’ this season, and a general spring-clean of the text is going on). I’m definitely going to make it to the performance in October.


Anything Is Possible

11 August 2008

In Vienna to talk with Fumiyo Ikeda about the solo for her which we will collaborate on next year. Before I arrive she sends me these notes on improvisation.

These are my personal notes about improvisation.
They are very short. I want it to be short sentences.
While improvising it’s too late to think what am I doing ?
While improvising it’s too late to think how will I do it?
Improvisation is now and here. Me and communication.

Accepting the situation
Getting into the momentum
No judgment
No comment
No evaluation
Anything is possible
Let it come
Let it go

I first saw Fumiyo dance more than twenty years ago, in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker‘s Rosas Dans Rosas. I must have seen her dance many times since then, most recently in Nine Finger with artist/performer Benjamin Verdonck, which they made with Alain Platel. Fumiyo always looks like she’s thinking about what she’s doing, as if the movement she makes is under some kind of scrutiny or consideration – consideration not shown on the face, more by the body. More than anything else her movement seems constantly weighed, as if there is some sub-micro-second (or unquantifiable attention-split) of contemplation involved in even the fastest move. Not all dancers give that impression but with Fumiyo it’s very strong. For me it means that what happens counts. What’s amazing too is how fast she picks up and drops a particular energy in her movement – so the tone of what she’s doing can seem extremely fluid, changeable, unstable – light one moment, harsh or difficult another, with barely a boundary between the two. I’m compelled by this – as I am watching the other dancers I’ve been lucky enough to work with, Meg Stuart, Wendy Houston for example – even as I’m still very unsure what Fumiyo and I will make together. There is time for that still.

I found the new piece of Anne Teresa – Zeitung – very strong. The structure is deeply fragile – deploying the nine dancers in small groups for duets that turn into solos, trios that turn into duets – an unfolding, dissolving, endlessly adjusting and re-forming use of the stage, which only later pulls out the stops for some large-group set-pieces or more dynamic and exhausting improvisations. Even there though the piece resists the easy climax very often, many times choosing to dissipate an energy rather than take it to the max, shifting focus from one performer to another or one mode to another, where continuing would evidently make better, or at least more evidently functional drama. The piece is all so much the better for this fragility though even if it gives a hard time to anyone looking for an easy ride and even though I’d struggle to explain why. It’s more than my perversity speaking here I’m sure. There’s something very simple going on (not that I can name it), as well as a shifting between different kinds of intimacy, dramatic interaction, bodily distortion and, in a certain way, grace.

Throughout much of the piece Anne Teresa also lets the music and the lights take their own independent tracks – working with and for the choreography but also at many junctures seeming to ignore it, keeping it off balance. Ghosts or spirits that haunt the dance but do not serve it always, the lights (done, along with the stage design by Discordia’s Jan Joris Lamers) are prone to changing apparently at random, moving from one to another of the set number of lighting states during scenes, throwing what begins as a stark or simple scene into sudden backlight or total darkness, or creating huge space suddenly around an image that was previously isolated or framed by light. The music for its part quite often arrives during sequences that have already begun, or at other times the action endures apparently unchanged once the music has ended, suddenly exposed, continuing in silence. You have the impression I guess of things being slightly out-of-sync, displaced, misplaced  but without any kind of melodrama being created out of this condition. What seems key too is that these tactics aren’t deployed to make a mess either – there’s no flaunting of dysfunction. In fact the structure remains extremely careful, slow-burning, without appearing to be going anywhere much and persists in this way, nontheless creating a space, place, mode in which small interactions or events in the choreography start to count over and above their real weight. There’s a kind of self-effacement in the work too – each of the dancers gets their moment, or shines in some particular interaction or sequence, but no one’s lifted far out of the group which remains in some senses human and straightforward (watching each other, working, waiting) but at the same time slightly austere, blank, sparse and aesthetic in the ways that you might expect from a Rosas piece. Perhaps the closest thing to a through-line is the presence of Alain Franco  – seated at the piano to play the Bach pieces which are the spine of the work, and controlling the introduction  of the recorded versions of Weburn and Schoenberg that provide the rest of the music. It’s certainly matters that the first Bach track is played by him alone on the expanse of the stage area, with both dancers and audience in effect waiting – it’s an act of contemplation, private as well as public, that sets the tone for much of what will follow – simplicity and focus. Later in the evening Franco rises from his place at the piano – abandoning it during one sequence so that he can slump in an arm chair, and for another wandering into the depth of the space, behind the playing area – a man, who, drained from his own playing and having set the final recording in motion seems to have no further task left.


An Axe To Break The Frozen Sea

8 August 2008

Coming across lots of quotes from Kafka for some reason, most likely because I was in Prague last week.

Liked this:

Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence… Someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence, certainly never.

(The Silence of the Sirens, October 1917)

And may well make a title from somewhere in the last beautiful melodrama of this:

“… we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us.  …we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book should be an axe to break the frozen sea inside us.”

(Letter to Oskar Pollak, 27 January 1904)


Ant Hampton meanwhile sent the image below after my brief writing about a guy seen at the airport. Ant’s picture reminded me that years ago I filmed a weary looking guy for ages, as he waited at Manchester Airport, with a sign that read BROTHER. It meant the computer firm I am pretty sure… but the other possibility was too strong to resist.

Mr Sandman

Only Testing

6 August 2008

Mail from Harun Morrison a while back pointing to some notes on testing computer games, based on his experience doing just that at EA. I liked these in relation to The Broken World – esp around glitches, and the cross-connection of one thing to another, topics which fascinate me. There’s nothing so good as the scent of accidental as it appears in a work (world) that is all intention to make me sit up and take notice.

..if you eat a yellow star you can fly for 10 seconds, [so] for the game to be satisfactory you shouldn’t be able to fly if you haven’t eaten a yellow star. There is also the physics of the game to be tested, is the length of time you hold a button proportional to how high you jump? Can you shoot yourself? Can you run beyond the borders of the game, can you stand outside the play space? Do the buildings have the integrity they should? Can you run through a wall that operates as the boundaries of the game, or does your avatar half-merge with something that should be solid? Do bullets pass through an enemy that is supposed to be susceptible? When the game is set on its most difficult setting is it too easy to complete, is the beginner setting to difficult for an average player. Do the multi-language formats work? Does the sniper rifle make a sound programmed for the machine gun? These are ‘bugs’, it is the aim of the testers to find them, be able to recreate them and communicate to a third party where and how the bug occurred…let the programmers (unseen on the floor above) know where the bugs are, and how they reveal themselves, the programmer would then fix the bug, when he or she felt this had been done, we would be sent an updated version of the game, we would try re-locate the bug or re-create the circumstances which led to its appearance.

What I also really liked in Harun’s text was this stuff that starts to push at the difference between playing and testing:

Importantly the testing is executed by the same means the game would normally be played. We use the same control pads often the same button combinations. In fact the game could only be usefully tested this way if it is to successfully recreate situations in ‘real-life game play’. The process of playing the game and testing it are the same. However playing and testing are not the same. There is a difference in intention on the part of the operator which alters the definition and labeling of the activity from the point of view of the operator but not universally. An outside eye looking over the shoulder of the operator would not necessarily be able to define the activity. The outside eye might label what the operator considers to be testing as irrational or bad playing. If one thinks of a videogame as a system designed for an expected function, in this case playing, the misuse/ misapplication/ deconstruction/ destruction/ critique of the system is an activity that deviates from the expected function (defined by the designer). Perversely, testing is an activity that we communally recognize as operating by (the inclusion of) deviation from expected function and normative use/application.

More from Harun.

Something a bit like Sleep

3 August 2008

After a few days you start to realise that only a city with some kind of confusion about time would have a giant metronome installed on a hill above it. All day that thing is ticking time out from the heights up there, the great pointless pointing arm of it ploughing the parched air back and forth, while the skateboarders clatter below it and the coachloads of tourists trudge the steps littered with glass and graffiti. Less a statement of true time that slow ticking arm, and more an obstinate insistence that this – its regular and continuos motion – is how the whole thing really should work, even if it does not do so in real, at least not here.

Wandering further up on the hills to the North side of the river you come across the Communist-era Museum of Technology, two large buildings, the first of which has its doors barred, a small sign announcing that it's closed for renovation and looking forward to your visit on its scheduled reopening 'sometime in 2009 or 2010'. There is a certain vagueness about the place, a state that somehow spills from the doorway to all aspects of its environs. Out front could be grand coutryard or free parking, it's hard to tell which and when you reach the lesser of the two Museum buildings the confusion deepens; since whilst it shows no evidence of life or activity it lacks any sign or barrier to indicate an actual closure.

A push at the heavy door (metal with glass too thick and too dirty to see thru) and you're in the entrance hall. Right there a guy fixes cables from his position up a ladder, whilst behind the glass screen of what once must have been an entrance booth another guy watches TV in the resentful manner of a nightwatchman contractually obliged to do Saturday afternoons in August. Ask him if the place is open and he'll nod a sideways and unlikely yes, before his cigarette-hand starts to trace the air with a route to guide you to the (relocated) ticket stand, his fingers trailing smoke to follow, shroud, lead or protect you. Cool in the shade of the building, at least as you go down the stone stairs and round the corner, you descend to the indicated place where a woman waits smiling at a table in a lower hall, a large space that has been filled with antiquated farming machinery. She's placed, as if by some centrifugal action to the very edge and corner of the room, pressed behind her ticket table which is stacked with a postcards and pendants, a notebook and a cashbox; the tools of the trade. 'Museum of Technology is basically closed' she says, 'only this part is open…' – gesturing around the hall and above her non-specifically to indicate the building in general – '…Agriculture'. It's already too good, or too bad to miss.

You pay and walk. There are a few famillies washed up in here too, those surprised by the closure, still clutching outdated guide books that do not sync with this reality, those who came with kids eager for the delights of a jet fighter or a replica satellite or a World War One tank or even a bus from the 50's and who are now left traipsing with subdued faces past the 1936 and 1937 models of something green and black or purple and silver that must once have optimistically ploughed earth or pulled trucks in service of some 3 Year Plan. It's this or the heat of the afternoon sun. You take the wrong route around the room – most recent tractors first, falling and/or strolling backwards, heading into the past, which is labelled for the most part only in Czech. History as a largely mute and illegible procession, the only text that comes in translation, with considerable monotony,  is the museum mantra of Do Not Touch, generously offered in German, French, Itallian, Spanish, English and all caps.

You leave the tractor hall and head upstairs again, back through the lobby where construction work continues not so much apace as at its own pace, up past rooms and ambiguous corridors sealed off with incomprehensible signage and single ropes. Somewhere here you pass a few of the same lost tourist souls you saw before; there out in the stairwell, the German party of five, and in an indeterminate half-hallway somewhere nearby the bunch of English adrift with their toddlers. By now mums are seated with the strollers on the stone staircase, drinking water from bottles, rocking the youngest kids into something a bit like sleep, while fathers are pressing gamely on upstairs with the elder kids, ascending to circuit another room filled with farming equipment. These are desperate times.

At the door to each new room your ticket must apparently be checked again, each time by a different but similar ancient-woman-in-an-apron, each of whom is stood by an electric fan, their only defence against the heat which rises the higher in the building as you climb. Somehow each time producing the requisite ticket takes you longer though, as if the slip of paper shifts hiding place (front pocket, wallet, back pocket, bag) in reaction to the repeated scrutiny. Raised in different times and perhaps oblivious to these, the old gatekeepers will not waive you through. They are wise to subterfuges and tricks of those intent on slipping in without payment to see the inexplicable miniaturised non-functioning models of sugar and other refineries now half a century olf. Each of them takes stock of your ticket in her own way, according to her own logic, alternately friendly, bored, indifferent, polite, officious – one tearing off a corner, the next making a mark to index your entry in a notebook she keeps at her side, the next performing with considerable exactitude a bone-fingered tear in the ticket half way along its length. Hard to say if these fading employees are actual persons or experimental extensions of the building rendered as life, or to know if they are acting alone or in concert, or if their assortment of marks and interventions on the ticket are systems as such or just residual practices, habits or even private codes adopted to help pass or mark, scrape or peel away the surface of time. The walls sweat, trickle with dust. Once past the entrance scrutiny and into the rooms you're still under the old women's blank watch in any case and while for the most part they're content to track you with their eyes, they're also careful to shift position subtly at the far end of each hall, shadowing your moves with studied nonchalance so that agricultural objects do not eclipse or shelter you from their gaze for too long. As you stray to the further reaches of each hall – down into the zone shielded from sight by the massive model of an automated flour mill (Worlds Fair 1958) perhaps, or by the displays about pesticides – they are prone to appearing around corners with great sudden-ness and in total silence.  All part of the service.

The final exhibit, defended with zeal by the oldest of the women comprises two rooms devoted to the largely uncelebrated but up to the minute 2008, Year of the Potato. You're faced with a grim display of facts, diagrams and photographs that line the walls, walls which themselves have been decorated with crinkled mud-brown paper to somehow suit or illustrate the theme. Here on the third floor you are, somehow by a miracle of amateur set-dressing, underground. Hard to reconcile this room with 2008 in any way, or to remotely feel remotely at ease in its antechamber of looped black and white videos info-dumping without subtitles on the topics of Potato Farming through the Ages. Is this a contemporary exhibit about the present of Agriculture done in the style of the past? Or a past exhibit that attempts a quasi-futuristic take on an important root vegetable? You can't tell and the family – seated, listless, zombie-like, in front of the TV  – are giving no clues, receiving data from the screen with an indifference and patience that dead men might envy or recognise. Time to get out. The Colorado beatle must be feared at all cost. The entrance hallway is deserted as you exit, cables trailing to the ladder, the TV in what was once a booth playing out its unrecognisiable dramas to no audience. You're gone, your presence another kind of history.

It's only later, much later, when you are down and off the hill, that you realise the metronome which counts time around here is stopped in the evenings and that it, as well as time itself, only gets back to work in the mornings.