Friday, 21 February 2014

It must be love, love, love

A thought has been itching in my head for weeks now, a thought about love, and landscapes, and marriage, and Andy Field's new show with Ira Brand, Put Your Sweet Hand in Mine. A thought that I haven't found the time or space to formulate; a thought that, no matter how many times I sat down over Christmas and New Year to email Andy, refused to coalesce into words. But I'm in a new time zone now, and a new space, a hotel near Niagara Falls, surrounded by rough-tumble piles of hard-packed greying snow; and, perhaps most importantly, I'm alone. Somehow the thought about marriage felt shy of emerging with my husband hovering in the background.

I don't remember when Andy and I started talking about Put Your Sweet Hand in Mine, except that back then it was still called “I would like to talk to the capitalists about money, but they only wanted to tell love stories”. Maybe it was when he sent me an early text that Ira performed at Buzzcut in Glasgow in spring 2013 and I emailed him a bunch of thoughts it inspired about the intensity of looking a stranger in the eye, romance versus altruism, and the capitalist ideology enacted by Hollywood love stories. Maybe it was autumn 2012 when, with fizzing brain and palpitating heart, I read and re-read a talk he'd given in Nottingham, Political Art: A User's Manuel. In a section called Love dedicated to Rebecca Solnit, he quoted a passage of her life-enhancing book A Paradise Built in Hell, the bit celebrating “other loves”: the non-romantic loves you don't see in popular culture, that express themselves in genuine philanthropy – philia, friendship, for anthropi, (hu)mankind – a word narrowed and twisted by capitalism so it now connotes lofty patronage, rather than an active desire anyone might feel to make the world better, particularly for the powerless. At the end of that section on Love, Andy threw down a challenge:

I would like you to make a show about love
In which no one falls in love

Maybe he told me then that he was setting that challenge for himself.

In December just gone, I went to BAC to visit Andy, Ira and their producer, Beckie Darlington, in the middle of a two-week stint working on Sweet Hand. They showed me what they had made so far, then we sat in the cafe and wrangled over it. I say we: Andy and I wrangled, while every now and then Ira, whose head was cotton-woolly from a cold, would say that she finds it hard to work in the abstract in this way, that she makes by doing, trying, moving. What we were struggling to figure out was how the show could travel from a conventional romantic beginning – eyes meeting across a crowded room, the consuming sense of possibility generated in that moment of connection – to a contemplation of other loves: everything you might do or at least deliberate if you weren't constantly dreaming about those eyes/their possibility, but actively engaged with the world and more concerned with a wider philanthropy. At one point I said it was the difference between looking at someone and thinking, “I want to marry you, have children with you, live with you for the rest of our days”, or thinking, “I want to start a riot with you [and change the world].” It took me several weeks to realise that these weren't opposites: they were just different angles on the same romantic love story, so ingrained in my psyche that it's hard to see beyond it.

I really enjoyed the scratch showing a week later, even though it didn't quite work. The audience sat (and still do) in two rows facing each other, with a narrow pathway between; Andy and Ira sat (and still do) on opposite sides, but not opposite each other. When they speak, they don't look across at each other, but directly at the audience-member in front of them, so when their characters lock eyes at the beginning of the show, or bump into each other on the Paris metro, those initial stirrings of love are communicated outside of the couple, not within it. I happened to be sitting beside Andy that night, and watching the person opposite him was extraordinary: he knew he was at the heart of the story and there was a palpable electricity to that. But what the scratch didn't make clear was that everyone in the audience is at the centre of the story, everyone is invited to catch eyes with the stranger sitting opposite and imagine falling in love, or starting a riot – or eschewing the traditional romantic narrative altogether. It wasn't until close to the end, when we're instructed to hold hands with the person opposite and hold their gaze, that this potential connection was made, and that was too late.

The fragmentary structure of the piece felt really important: every time we were lulled into thinking about romantic love, crack, something happened to disrupt that. But somehow this never resulted in a contemplation of other loves. Until, that is, the final scene, when Andy and Ira took off their clothes and replaced them with dripping-wet outfits extracted from buckets of water, to play an apocalyptic disaster in which they stand at either end of the aisle and – in a mixture of quotes from Hollywood films – try to save each other, and everyone else. “It started as quite funny, but very very quickly became utterly devastating,” I wrote in my compulsory email to Andy. “It is shockingly romantic, the more so because of the distance between you. It is full of longing and desire and absence and need and yet when you talk it's about none of those things: it's anxiety for others, it's social care. I think it's the moment when you're doing both things at once: looking inside love and outside. Personal and political.”

The week after the scratch, Andy and co took Sweet Hand-making to ARC in Stockton, where they created an exquisite (I say this having only read Andy's report of it, but can't see how it could be otherwise) companion piece, I Want To Know What Love Is: a participatory work which involves people looking through a list of 100 types of love and, if they find one that relates to them, writing a few words about it, in return for a Casablanca thimble. If they don't find anything relevant, they get to smash the thimble. Oh it sounds perfect: a gorgeous invitation really to think about and celebrate other loves, loves for friends, for pets, for ideas, for places. The love of landscape, Andy told me later, emerged so strongly from this work; he hoped he would be able to get that into the show.

The word landscape snagged at my brain, and this is the thought I've been trying to prise out since. I see marriage as a kind of landscape, too. When you first fall in love, that landscape is verdant, all spring blossom and clover, but the further you travel across it, the more you notice its jagged stumbling stones, the steepness of its incline, the prickling gorse you have to avoid. The scamper across a soft grassy slope becomes a hike across a windswept moorland: ardour becomes arduous. That sounds unremittingly negative, maybe it is. But I can see the positives in it. Tough ground feels very sure beneath the feet. In August 2012, in the midst of a spectacularly dizzy high, when I felt I could be in love with almost everyone, it occurred to me how grateful I was for the security of marriage: I could enjoy this mind-spinning love for the people around me and still think about other things, get stuff done. Romantic love is distracting: as Andy wrote in that piece dedicated to Rebecca Solnit,

Perhaps love becomes a vacuum
In which we can’t hear the other things we’re trying to say

Love-in-marriage (and maybe by that I simply mean long-term love) isn't distracting: it's just there, a landscape of few defining features, stretching as far as the eye can see. No wonder popular culture has so little interest in it.

Thinking about marriage in this way, I realised that something has always troubled me about Solnit's celebration of other loves. I don't have the book with me so can't quote this accurately, but central to this idea is the story of an extraordinary woman who lived in the San Francisco area in the early part of the 20th century, who experienced the 1906 earthquakes as a child and was so emotionally struck by the charity people extended to each other that she decided not to marry but to devote herself to philanthropy. Whether intentionally or not, Solnit appears to convey here that marriage and other loves are mutually exclusive. But they're not. Marriage isn't a closing off from the world, but the terrain one walks across when opening up to it.

I tried to formulate something of that when Andy and I wrangled at BAC but it wouldn't come out then either. Perhaps it's not even relevant. But my inability to articulate a thought about another kind of love than the headily romantic feels part of the same problem as the one Andy (and Ira and Beckie) were grappling with when making Sweet Hand.

It was odd seeing the finished show on Saturday night (February 15); to be honest, I didn't properly see it, because I had spent the day metaphorically locked in a darkened room, cradling a broken heart (broken in the way that only love can break your heart), and was lost in a fog of misery. It's still an oblique and fragmentary piece, which requires its audience to make connections between disparate propositions, and on Saturday night I could barely identify the propositions, let alone connect them. And as I scan my memories of it, I'm not sure what belongs to Saturday night, and what to the December scratch. The invitation to connect with the person opposite is more clearly made at the beginning now, and there's a wonderful sequence in the middle where you're invited to gaze at each other, not into each other's eyes but through them to the mind behind, to its secret longings, fears and pains. Even so, I was surprised by how easy it is for people sitting just a metre apart to look at anything but the stranger in front of them. And the grip of the traditional romantic narrative felt even more tenacious in this version, particularly when Andy sings, in a fragile quaver, the Beach Boys' God Only Knows. I think it's brilliant that Sweet Hand ends with Foreigner's I Want To Know What Love Is, partly because it's a dreadful song that none the less makes me want to wave lighters in the air, partly because the show is genuinely saying that: I want to know what love is, I want you to show me. It's the perfect soundtrack to the journey Sweet Hand now takes, thinking about romantic love.

The day before I saw Sweet Hand, Valentine's Day (don't get me started on the pernicious manipulation of Valentine's Day), I spent a couple of hours volunteering at a centre dedicated to getting people into work. The vetting process for this had been fairly rigorous – I'd had to send in a CV and application form explaining why I wanted to volunteer, and talk all this through again on the phone and in person – and despite all that, the first question I was asked when I reported for duty was: “Why are you doing this? You're a mum, you work: why this as well?” As though the concept of philanthropy were utterly alien.

Popular culture could do so much to counter that, to create, as Solnit puts it, “maps of the human psyche with altruism, idealism, and even ideas on them”. What I've been trying to work out from within the fog of Saturday night is whether Sweet Hand still tries to create that map, or whether it simply talks about romantic love. I think Sweet Hand is many lovely things, but it's not a show about love in which no one falls in love. Like a child evading its parent's desires, it grew from that embryonic challenge into something else.

At least, that's the way I see it having spent so many months tracing its progress. And I might not have written about Sweet Hand at all, except that I'm in this hotel near Niagara to take part in a university conference about, among other things, “embedded criticism”, so I've been reconsidering what the gains and losses are in involvement in process of this kind. I couldn't see the finished version of Sweet Hand clearly because I was watching it through a personal-crisis fog – but also because the show isn't a single entity for me, it's split into twins. There's the living breathing show that's playing at BAC and about to tour, and then there's its ghost twin, a dream of a show about other loves that exists only in the ether. I sent an earlier version of this post to Andy, which I hope not too many people have read, which he felt was a value judgement on the show that exists. It's not: it's an observation about the weird perspective I have on it, a perspective I have from being involved in the process. I'm still wrestling with what that perspective means.

The conference, for anyone reading this on the day of publication, was set up by the amazing Karen Fricker, is taking place at Brock University in a small town in Canada that reminds me of Stockton, and is live-being streamed here (click on the live videos tab) and tweeted at #DARTcritics. The embedded panel is today at 4pm (9pm GMT), and also features Andy Horwitz of Culturebot, meeting whom has been an absolute privilege.

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