Sunday, 6 January 2013

shunt's the architects: an exorcism

Here are some things I don't do:

I don't look at the Daily Mail, even just to be able to berate the contents of the Daily Mail.

I don't read newspaper reports of war or violence or rapes, and avoid listening to more than an hour of the Today programme because it fills me with despair. (The despair threshold used to be 10 minutes.)

I don't watch political discussions on TV or listen to them on the radio.

I don't listen to Any Questions or any other current affairs talk radio.

I don't engage with celebrity culture.

I don't watch reality TV.

I don't think I'm in any way a superior person for not doing these things. If anything, this failure to engage with the media that surrounds me exacerbates my already pronounced naivety and exposes me for what I am, a gauche idealist with scant compass on the real world. But it's a choice I make to be able to function in that world. To be able to live without despising other people. To be able to believe in the capacity of human beings not simply to survive catastrophe but to create good.
Wonder -- is not precisely Knowing
And not precisely Knowing not --
A beautiful but bleak condition
He has not lived who has not felt --
Tonight, watching Shunt's TheArchitects, I spent 15 minutes essentially doing all those things I choose not to do, all at once. It happened like this. There are four characters, lower class in the old way of ranking people – grotesquely boorish, charmless and coarse – but upper class in the modern hierarchy governed by money. They are obscenely rich, but apparently generous, because they have invited us to take the trip of a lifetime on board a luxury cruise liner, where our every whim will be amply catered for. Why wouldn't we want to enjoy this opportunity? As they themselves say, we've worked for it: we deserve it.

Of course the ship starts sinking. Money corrupts, money corrodes. Money, you might say, is a beast we can't control, a beast whose form is mysterious and terrifying. A beast to whom we are ritually sacrificing our children, as the king of Crete once fed children to the minotaur. We watch these children struggling to lift themselves beyond its grasp – quite literally: they are played by aerialists – but one by one they plunge into money's abyss. And we do nothing. Because what can we do? How can we change this all-pervasive system?

And then we look up, and see the four characters again, raised above our heads, leering down. They don't care. They carry on indulging themselves as if it never happened, and we watch with amused fascination that, as the spectacle continues on and on and on, becomes a sickening voyeurism that is as culpable as the indulgence it gorges on. Do we carry on watching because they provide a spectacle? Or do they continue to provide the spectacle because we're watching? As the minutes tick painfully past, does their confrontation mutate into desperation, a longing for it to end? Why don't we cry, Enough!, and turn away?
Suspense -- is his maturer Sister --
Whether Adult Delight is Pain
Or of itself a new misgiving --
This is the Gnat that mangles men –
I went into The Architects with two things: a determination to see the best in it, because although I hadn't read any reviews I had seen the swirl of argument about it on twitter following press night and knew it split opinion; and a dim memory of skimming through Catherine Love's essay on audience agency/entrapment. It's been interesting revisiting that essay, and reading through Matt Trueman's writing pre- and post- press night, because they both found the final tableau underwhelming, whereas for me it transformed the show from what had felt like an entertaining but slightly toothless satire on luxury and greed, into something much more powerful, vehement, challenging and disturbing. I watched that tableau for its protracted and agonising entirety, willing it to stop but refusing to give in, and felt utterly filthy for doing so, because I knew my presence made its continuation possible. As I watched, I thought about all the media I reject, and wondered whether rejection is good enough, whether it's better to know the enemy than dwell in uninformed assumption, whether I distract myself by abhorring the messenger from taking proper issue with the message. It's a matter of responsibility: of accepting responsibility for the world we create. A world in which money is more important than people, in which the primary financial system is one that demands the ritual and frequent sacrifice of, if not lives, at least livelihoods. And who knows, maybe I read the show this way only because earlier on today I'd been thinking about the contradiction of my life, whereby I'm clearly some kind of bloody Marxist now (and when I say bloody, what I perhaps mean is instinctive-but-undereducated), yet I live in London where even to own a house is to contribute to appalling inequality, but it does seem to me that if The Architects is as much about choice as Matt and Catherine (and, for that matter, Shunt member David Rosenberg) say it is, then it's about the choices we make to do with money: to have more than we need, to indulge a warped sense of our own “value”, to believe we deserve more than others because we work so hard.

I left The Architects with nausea in my throat, a rock in my stomach and my brain in a fever of horror. Writing this, I want to return to the long speech one of the architects who run the cruise liner makes at the beginning of the show, about wonder (particularly as expressed in the Emily Dickinson poem above) and the optimism of architecture, its fusion of past achievement with dreams of a better, brighter future, because it was so uplifting – but that vision is tainted now, too, because what does architecture need if hope is to become reality? Money, money, money.

And even my own relationship and response to the show feel tainted, because I was given a free ticket, and that opens the door to a labyrinth of questions. Would I feel differently about it if I'd paid? What effect does money have on the way we watch art? Why do I “deserve” a free ticket, when others who have written about the show bought theirs? Aren't I helping to maintain a microcosm of inequality? And where does that leave my high-and-mighty politics?

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