Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Language barriers

[This is a companion to a piece published in Exeunt. Might make more sense if you've read that first.]

I managed to make it to lunchtime before I got myself into trouble. A whole morning of sitting in an antiseptic white room around an imposing board table listening to academics deliver powerpoint presentations about austerity and “structural adjustment” with relation to gender and geography, how social relations are re-made through sugar and whether Fairtrade is genuinely fair, peer-to-peer lending and local currencies, feeling sort-of-interested but also sort-of-disengaged and basically incapable of asking any questions, and then something happens and suddenly I'm erupting incoherently with what sound suspiciously like anti-intellectual and anti-academy sentiments and wishing I'd kept my mouth shut.

This is me at this_is_tomorrow. Having an allergic reaction to a university.

In brief (because the business version of this story can be read on Exeunt), this_is_tomorrow is an artist development programme produced and curated by China Plate for Warwick Arts Centre, that aims to forge relationships between theatre-makers and academics at University of Warwick, in the hopes of inspiring innovative new work. Each year since 2012 it's invited a small group of artists to spend a week shuttling from one university department to another, hearing about top-level research in politics, economics, manufacturing, science and maths. Matt Trueman attended in 2013 as an “embedded” critic and each day I gobbled up his report from its furnace and seethed with jealousy that I wasn't there.

In the event, it's just as well China Plate brought me this year in for only one day: I'm not sure I could have handled any more than that. Maybe it was the specific department I landed in – politics and international studies (PAIS) – but from the moment its affable yet stern director of research, Matthew Watson, commented in his introduction on the university's need to demonstrate its impact on the wider world, my back was up. The day became stained with the suggestion of opportunism – and that cuts both ways, because if this-is-tomorrow successfully engineers an artist-academic relationship, it could result in the work being part-funded by the university (as happened with Theatre Rites' Bank On It, supported intellectually and financially by Abhinay Muthoo, head of the department of economics). I do recognise, though, that this is perfect pragmatism, especially in a Tory landscape. And I talk in the Exeunt piece about how this_is_tomorrow resists such cynicism, by refusing to insist on product-based outcomes for the project.

It's not Watson but Joel Lazarus, a research fellow with PAIS, who triggers my outburst about the academy, which even at the time made me sad, because he's the person whose presentation feels closest to my own work, particularly with Dialogue. He used to be a city trader but moved into academia after experiencing a breakdown, and has since dedicated himself to transforming British society by generating “civic literacy” and “mass intellectualism”. He talks about his desire to facilitate discussion, through interaction with culture and the expression of emotional truths, and it's like hearing myself talk about why I love the conversations that happen in theatre clubs – in which, to use Lazarus' phrase, we don't just “read the word but read the world”.

Part of me is really excited by Lazarus' presentation. I recognise the hopes of his work, its structures, its relationship to Marxist thinking, its informal methodologies. But the fact that he gets me using words like methodology rankles. There is an uncomfortable twist in my stomach at the terms civic literacy and mass intellectualism: on whose terms are they being defined? Because from where I'm sitting, around an imposing board table, with only one person of colour and an Eastern European as nods to diverse ethnicity, those terms look uncomfortably white, western-middle-class, and male.

I've since read a thoughtful piece by Lazarus on Open Democracy, in which he presents his vision for a “true democracy” reached through dialogue that is expressive of love, faith in humanity, hope and critical thinking. It calls for “radical, revolutionary social transformation” in terms I find inarguable. And yet I did argue with him at Warwick, for pitching his stall on such high-faluting ground, and not talking more like Francois Matarasso, who writes passionately of the value of traditional and everyday cultures and community arts. “All human beings have intellectual power,” Lazarus opined – but does that have to be expressed in received academic terms to be counted?

Looking back, I realise it was the context that troubled me more than the content. Lazarus spoke at the end of a morning mostly spent listening to male academics; the one exception was Shirin Rai, whose discipline is rooted in feminism and who systematically challenged her colleagues for their failures to acknowledge gender, class or ethnicity in their research. (I got the pleasing impression that Shirin is a thorn in the side of many in her department. I adored her.) Their lapses, combined with the setting, the language, the presentation of the academics as experts, the emphasis on top-down transmission of knowledge: all struck me as traditionally masculine/patriarchal ways of interacting and thinking about the world.

The afternoon brought more women's voices, and shifts in the presentation styles, but also a realisation: that I'd encountered several of the ideas under discussion before, in less formal settings, in more colloquial language, and more conversational relationships. Those encounters had happened in the context of theatre: where I'd felt more engaged, more challenged, more inspired and more equal. In the days following this_is_tomorrow, I thought a lot about the different places academics and artists occupy in British culture. I thought about the similarities between them as groups: both devote time to research, and are rigorous in how they present their thinking about the world to a particular audience. And I thought about the differences in how their perceived: academia as a site of intellectual debate and power; theatre as a place of “entertainment” where attempts to advocate for its ability to inspire civic literacy or mass intellectualism are easily repudiated as variations on the dreaded theme of “theatre is educational” or “theatre is good for you”. A part of me felt affronted that artists aren't already celebrated as public intellectuals, the people who do our best thinking about the world.

Writing this, I recognise an element of defensiveness, another strand of the anti-intellectual reflex that Lazarus keeps butting against. I am part of that problem. There was an acute reminder from Lazarus of the other, pejorative, meaning of the word academic: irrelevant. When the academics in the room ask for help from the artists, it's in plaintive tone: they want their research to reach more people, not out of a desire for self-aggrandisement or to push Warwick up the university league tables, but because they genuinely believe the wider population should be thinking about drones, and public memorials, and alternatives to capitalism, because these things affect how we see ourselves and govern how we live.

Two incidents particularly struck me at this_is_tomorrow. Madeleine Fagan is researching “the implications of disastrous and catastrophic narratives of climate change”, focusing in particular on apocalyptic films and books and thinking about the ways in which they mould the ethics governing political policy on climate change. There was something lovely about the way Chrises Haydon and Thorpe started throwing zombie film titles at her to build on the ideas she's already developed. (I was much less generous, and sat there silently seething that she apparently hasn't read Rebecca Solnit on the subject.) Later, Trevor McCrisken spoke about “the seductive nature of drone warfare”, and broke off in the middle of his presentation to lean towards Haydon to say that his thinking on drones had been transformed by the Gate production of George Brant's play Grounded, which Haydon directed and which focuses on a drone pilot's slow mental breakdown. Being completely honest, both incidents fuelled my mounting resentment at the perceived intellectual superiority of academics. Looking back, I recognise how much scope there is for exchange, conversation and a sharing of expertise between academics and artists – a scope this_is_tomorrow is built upon.

I thought about Madeleine the day after attending this_is_tomorrow when I watched the Zinnie Harris play How To Hold Your Breath at the Royal Court, a dystopian vision of European collapse. I also thought back to the theatre club discussion Dialogue had hosted for Mr Burns at the Almeida, where some brilliant people talked about their own research into apocalyptic narratives, and the difference between those constructed by men – which basically amount to “only a hero can save us!” – and those generated by women, which hope instead for community transformation. Harris is female, but her play felt like a masculine presentation of disaster to me, in its inexorable subjugation of its female main character, and in the relentless selfishness of almost everyone she encounters. So much of what I was resisting at this_is_tomorrow was the sensation that the very way humanity thinks is defined by male thought and male ideas, that it's impossible to break out of that because our very language was shaped by men from an agenda that was essentially racist and misogynist. And the question that plagues me now is whether theatre is defined by male thought and language too, and I'm so entrenched in it I just don't see it.

Friday, 5 June 2015

feet to the ground / body to the wind

At the moment my art is situated between the pornographic tendency to reveal everything and the erotic inclination to hide what it's all about.
[A statement on a wall, by Marlene Dumas]

I want to write this in greyscale, a half-tone, a whisper. [I'm struggling to write it at all.] It might be I'm tongue-tied, word-shy, uptight; I don't deal with the sensual so well. [Erase, rewrite, delete, revise. Weeks trickle past. Still this isn't written.] It might be a phase of not needing writing, at least not enough. I do need it: like love, like breathing. But I could shed those too. Sometimes.

Picture a woman. She is naked, voluptuous, flesh doughy and luminous. She stands on a wooden platform, gleaming black heels pressed into it like skewers; a fascinator covers her eyes with a wisp of lace. Rope snakes around her, criss-crossing her chest, her stomach, her thighs, eating into her skin; tied to a rack above her head, it pulls her arms high, forcing her body to stretch. She is caught. So tightly bound that her skin flushes red around knot and twine. She is caught and she sings in a voice that flames from her stomach and her heart, pours viscous from her throat, the German lyrics of Surabaya Johnny. The words mysterious, but not the feeling. I long for you. Ache for you. With every fibre of my being. Every thought is of you, my soul crying out to you: love me. Love me more.

[Months later, I wrote:

she is everyone i've loved from afar
every hand (never) held kiss (never) felt
body that never held me in the night
the delirium of wanting
(in vain)

I wrote:

my eyes full of this woman, this extraordinary naked woman, but my mind at sea, drowning in a long history of unrequited crushes, unresolved obsessions, on people who liked me, respected me, but never wanted me that way. i thought of them, and i thought of my mother, and how she tried to protect me from lust. how shocked she would be by me sitting in a deserted warehouse looking at a woman trussed up like a pig. i thought of the bondage of romance and the lie of rom-com, of femmes fatale and the pop songs that caught me, binding me in chains. i thought of my own flabby body, the roll of my stomach, the ripple of thighs, and wearing red lipstick to stop chasing a kiss]

It's strange: I've listened to Father John Misty so many times but it wasn't until that night of unbridled euphoria three posts back that I noticed how lubricious his songs are. I'd always turned to Fear Fun in downbeat moods, cloudy with melancholy: he cared for me by shrugging at death while mocking the stupidity of being alive. Lust in those songs seemed unconsummated, unrequited, wistful, conditional, and if not then hapless, ludicrous, exhausting: “I would like … to smoke everything in sight with every girl I've ever loved”, “oh I long to feel your arms around me”, “if this is what it takes to get you on a date I'm gonna put my member behind glass”. And then there he was singing them live and the sex was spilling out of them: all the torrid days and nights he'd lived to ejaculate those words, vivid and glistening. This realisation of rampant red-blooded male heterosexuality was oddly disappointing: in my head FJM was the gentler twin of John Grant, Fear Fun the Queen of Denmark that didn't finish by punching me into a wall; both re-vision the country music I'd grown up listening to with my mum (a fan of Dolly, Kris, Willie, even Kenny on the lesser days), but what I particularly loved about Grant was his singing to boys, queering country in ways that felt/feel transgressive and transformative. And here was FJM's country being flamboyant but conventionally straight.

That deflating recognition hasn't stopped me listening to FJM with a fervour and frequency that borders on obsession (while hardly playing Grant at all). But I listen to I Love You Honeybear – and this one is flagrant in its evocation of honeymoon bliss – and something in me aches. It's nostalgia, I think: for curiosity, and not knowing, discovering a body, being discovered in turn, for surprise and spontaneity, silliness and wonder. Feeling that nostalgia makes FJM's dispassionate depiction of marriage in Bored in the USA all the more devastating:
How many people rise and think: 'oh good, the stranger's body's still here,
our arrangement hasn't changed'?
Now I've got a lifetime to consider all the ways
I've grown more disappointing to you as my beauty warps and fades.
I suspect you feel the same.

[The hours and the days and the weeks drifting by.]
[I would cover every mirror in the house if I could.]
[Take down the clocks.]
[Smash all the plates.]
[Not every day. Sometimes.]

The first few times I listened to that song, the canned laughter disconcerted me. The sound was so ugly, so jarring, so cruel. But it's necessary, because how else is it possible to carry that level of disillusion in your mind except with a readiness to laugh at yourself? (Which I'm pretty bad at. All of the times.)

Writing about marriage is hard because it isn't just an institution, it's two people, and how to keep that separate? Every word against marriage as a thing feels like a betrayal of the man who loved me so much he wanted to spend the rest of his life dealing with my shit. If I hadn't loved him back I wouldn't have married him, but having married him I find I loathe many of the expectations and conventions of conjugal life. The normativity of it. The routines, all the more defined since having children. The predictability, the acceptability. It makes me tired of being straight. I'm quoting this book everywhere at the moment, but here's Paul Goodman on marriage in Growing Up Absurd:

For powerful and well-known modern reasons, some of them inevitable, the institution of marriage itself, as we have known it for several hundred years, cannot work simply any longer, and is very often the direct cause of intense suffering. … A dispassionate observer of modern marriage might sensibly propose, Forget it; think up some other form of mating and child care. … But of course, in this field there are no dispassionate observers. We are all in the toils of jealousy of our own Oedipus complexes, and few of us can tolerate loneliness and the feeling of being abandoned. Nor do we have any other formula for secure sex, companionship, and bringing up children.

(Two notes: firstly, Goodman's focus in the book on the spiritual malaise of men, the gnawing and diminishing lack of meaning in male lives, the absence of opportunity for what he calls “excellence and manliness”, suggests that although he doesn't specify, the “intense suffering” he describes here should be read as experienced specifically by men. Secondly, Goodman's focus in the book on the necessity of opportunities for worth, excellence and spirituality for men alone, his presentation as incontrovertible fact that a woman's “career does not have to be self-justifying, for she will have children, which is absolutely self-justifying, like any other natural or creative act”, makes reading the book as infuriating for me as it is elucidating and inspiring: part of the fun is turning each page not knowing if I'm going to agree vigorously or want to rip it to shreds. I know there are women who find motherhood natural, creative, fulfilling: that I'm not one of them fills me with jealousy, guilt, frustration, sadness, a host of irritable emotions at constant war with the heart-battering love I feel for my kids.)

For days Bored in the USA played in my head on repeat. And then a natural trail of musical association (I imbibed Springsteen through the womb) led me from Born in the USA to Born to Run to Dancing in the Dark, and then it was replaced with these words:
I take a look in the mirror
Want to change my clothes, my hair, my face
I ain't nothing but tired
Man I'm just tired and bored of myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help

And these words:
You can't start a fire
Worrying about your little world falling apart

Picture a woman. Except she doesn't look like a woman. She wears a white shirt, a man's black raincoat, jeans. Her cropped hair is gelled to stiff smooth spikes, on her face is scribbled a black moustache and beard. She is telling a story of seeing a man in a bar, self-assured, crisp and cocky, and of herself meeting his challenge: sitting down opposite him, sliding a foot between his legs, going out to his car and letting him fuck her, hard, against the seat, once, then again. What does this say about masculinity, about femininity? About aggression and acquiescence, confidence and meekness, the veneers of (binary) gender, the relative visibilities of desire? A shift and she's Ollie, a graphic designer with his own business, nice but no spark to him, no danger, no risk. Invited to ask him a question, we face him in silence. Another shift and she's Bruce swaggering through that song: you can't start a fire, can't start a fire without a spark. Want to change my clothes, my hair, my face. I watch each transformation and wonder: which one feels to her most true?

Weeks later, in a gallery in Modern Art Oxford, Dancing in the Dark is playing again. The exhibition is Test Run: Performance in Public; the exhibit is Hopeful Romantic, by Lilly McElroy, a four-minute film of a woman standing alone in wild, rural, desert, snowy places, looking over mountain peaks, wheat fields, broad placid lakes, facing out into the distance, a ghetto blaster precariously poised on her head, Springsteen rustling the breeze. There is running but no hiding from the self; there is leaving but no escape. I watch the video and for the briefest of moments stop performing wife, or mother. It's just me and the song and these extraordinary not-empty landscapes and a yearning that will never be assuaged.

[The woman in the toilets doesn't meet my glance.
It's amazing what you can get up to in public places.]

On reading Kathy Acker. On reading Kathy Acker and feeling a shock of recognition. The electric shock of words that scorn the normative narrative line, the charge and dazzle of words that have so little respect for rules. Her writing jitters and somersaults and constantly re-forms itself, into film scripts, and poetry, illustration and the curlicues of Arabic, into fantasy, romantic reverie, the pulse and sweat of pornography. She writes of other writers and her passion for them sears the page. She is everything I want from writing, from myself. But I've been struggling to read any more. There is a violence to Blood and Guts in High School that I find terrifying: a subjugation of the young female that feels unresolved and deeply uncomfortable. Sex and pain so inextricably entwined. It confuses me, how intently and unrelentingly the young female is punished for desiring this pain. Exploited, imprisoned, abused. I want her to have more power, not to be more aggressive, just to have more control. For her to display less neediness, for the men she encounters to show her more respect. Less realism, more idealism. Acker is so much braver than me.

I'm 50 or so pages into Blood and Guts when I see Hannah Silva perform a work-in-progress of Schlock!, and zero pages into 50 Shades of Grey, because truly life is too short. Schlock! splices Acker and the Shades trilogy in a way that feels true to Acker's slash-and-steal techniques, characteristic of Hannah's chippy-chop playfulness and linguistic interrogation, attentive to the underlying politics of cheap-thrill erotica and thrillingly promiscuous in its stage languages. The written word covers the floor in pages and pages of typescript torn from novels; Hannah chews on them and spits them out, snatches sentences from Acker, loops her voice, and – oh so beautiful – speaks emphatically in British sign language, merging text and body, body becoming text. Amid the sex and the sensual is also the intimacy and fury of mother and child, the nakedness, love, anger, resentment, the complex interplay of dominance and submission. It was a few weeks later that I caught myself recognising that if what I really wanted from my children was unconditional love and near-total obedience, I should do them and me a favour and get a dog.

In Schlock!'s post-show discussion (titled something brilliant like Sex and Subversion on Stage), I X talk quite a bit about Rosana and Amy Cade's show Sister, which I'd seen a few months previously in a work-in-progress more raw and emotionally scorched than the show the sisters went on to perform on tour. Rosana in particular charred the air as she communicated from a place beyond verbal expression, between pain and rage, about misogyny, sexuality, embarrassment, fear and belonging; while Amy's discussion of her family's difficulty comprehending her sexual drive and the desires it engendered gave me a couple of necessary jolts. Feminism struggles with prostitution and I recognised that I'd drifted into an uninterrogated belief that all sex work is exploitative: Amy calmly argued the case that sex work can provide women with a sexual fulfilment not so easily accessible elsewhere; can – for a woman endowed with certain social privileges, not least independence – be an articulation of autonomy, strength and dissident pleasure. Listening to Amy inspired an almost immediate rethink in how I talked to my daughter about her body; it might even have made me braver in my relationship with my own.

Picture a woman alone on a train. Self-absorbed and silent. [A line from the Sonia Delauney exhibition, via Plato: silence is the soul in conversation with itself.] Barely noticing the landscapes and the seasons shuttling past, from stark trees and louring skies to lush verdant gleam. Writing for company, writing for calm; writing propped up in big hotel beds, unfurling into words. Curtains open to midnight darkness and the TV always off. The hardest bit of the journey is always the going home.

To offset the contemptuous and borderline offensive disregard for female experience in the Goodman, I read Growing Up Absurd alongside Women's Poetry of the 1930s, an anthology edited by Jane Dowson that presents like an extended PhD thesis but introduced me to a lot of excellent minds. The strict time parameters meant several of the poets weren't necessarily represented by their best work (which might have emerged in the 1940s/50s), and neglect struck me as a reasonable fate for anyone writing florid, earnest verses to the countryside. But page after page flamed with anger at the Spanish civil war and political violence, at “Europe's nerve strung like catapult, the cataclysm roaring” (Nancy Cunard); at social injustice, particularly poverty, and the loathsome privilege of the languid upper classes. To the “children of wealth”, Elizabeth Daryush warned: “You'll wake to horror's wrecking fire – your home/ Is wired within for this, in every room.” Daryush also had one of the most acute couplets encapsulating these poets' other great theme: the various disappointments, frustrations, limitations and thwarted desires of marriage. Surveying the pros and cons of a bad match, Daryush concluded: “[W]hen the mistaken marriage mortifies,/ it's your own branch and stem and root that dies.” Often the tone is self-righteous, but Frances Cornford's Ode on the Whole Duty of Parents has the lightest air of ironic amusement; it's so gentle in its satire you could almost miss her addressing parents – mothers, let's face it – as “you, the unstable”.

A sinewy and much-valued conversation about privilege and ethnicity with Selina Thompson led me back to another poet, Ntozake Shange, who turned the world through kaleidoscopes when I first read her 20 years ago and still does now. If you haven't read for colored girls who considered suicide when the rainbow wasn't enuf or Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo then please stop wasting your time here and get to it. Nappy Edges is such a brilliant book: angry, sexy, determined, graceful. What it says about the writer's voice – a musician, a band, you can recognise from a handful of notes, but a writer from a sentence? – will ignite me for years. Poet is one of those words I hanker after (like artist, dancer, singer, even writer): Shange makes me want to be a poet, and brave enough to live that.
people keep telling me these are hard times/ what are you gonna be
doin ten years from now/ what in the hell do you think/ i
am gonna be writin poems/ i will have poems/ inchin up the
walls of the lincoln tunnel/ i am gonna feed my children poems
on rye bread with horseradish/ i am gonna send my mailman off
with a poem for his wagon/ give my doctor a poem for his heart/
i am a poet/ i am not a part-time poet/ i am not an amateur
poet/ i dont even know what that person cd be/ whoever that
is authorizing poetry as an avocation/ is a fraud/
put yr own feet on the ground/
It's August 2013 and I'm in bed with a woman. We lie in the back of a large industrial van, me in my clothes gazing at her tousled hair, black against the quiet white of the sheets, her pretending to be asleep, yet insinuating her body against mine, snuggling my arm into the yielding flesh of her torso. I remember wanting to stroke her hair, touch her skin, gaze at her for hours, not the minutes she gave. Two months later and we're together again, her naked, tied up, distant though close; wanting to touch her, trapped too, a voyeur. A year later I wrote:
I don't remember how Surabaya Johnny ended. But that's because it hasn't. That performance lives on in me, day after day. I carry it like a scar with all the others: the graze of knuckles in Soho, shame staining my cheeks in Hornsey, eyelids burning in Battersea, stomach at my feet in Warren Street. A line from a song in the Klanghaus show: “And the soul lives on, when the bones are gone.” Unrequited love is like that: some spirit of it keeps living, a halcyon dream.
That was eight months ago. I don't dream that way any more.

[Summer in the city means cleavage, cleavage, cleavage.
I wonder how it would feel for her to not let go.]

Picture a woman, two women this time. One flamboyant, robe flowing, paintbrush dangling from her mouth like a cigarette. (I so wish I could carry that off: what a gorgeous, ridiculous affectation, much better than actual thin cigarettes.) One slight and angular, a bit like Barbie. They are arguing about friendship, marriage and commitment. The straight-laced one coos to her boyfriend on the phone; he is disruptive, demanding, she becomes infantile in response. The flamboyant one is resistant, too singular for straight conventionalities. Their bodies become their tools for debate: there is rough and tumble argument, limbs tangling and torsos thrusting; there is an awkward but loving struggle to maintain contact, heads pressed together while arms and legs twist away. The odds are stacked against marriage here: for all that it offers in security and stability, it carries the threat of soul-sapping lifelessness. I don't want to choose once and stop, cries the flamboyant one. I want to choose you every day.

Dear god I cried watching Oh I Can't Be Bothered. Cried for the selves that chose and didn't get chosen, cried for the desire, ambition and zest. Cried for the moving on, the growing up, the drifting apart. Cried for the feeling stuck. That's the most useful description of depression I've ever encountered (in Ann Cvetkovich's book Depression: A Public Feeling): a feeling of being stuck, so totally stuck that there seems to be no way out, and so the energy to find one gradually slumps and feelings become numb in the concrete of being stuck. The Barbie woman in her polythene bridal veil, trapped and potentially suffocating. Pulling it off only to find that no one can be relied on, not really. Having a contract at least limits that vulnerability.

[lines from an email correspondence:
i'm just kind of being nosy about people's marriages at the moment bec it kind of defeats me how they work. how the fuck does marriage work?”
I don't think there's any rules, but it's definitely hard... I guess I predominately believe in fluidity and I like the notion that (even) a marriage is a continual choice, day to day, to stay together rather than a fate accompli... that every day we choose to stay married and it really is as simple as that.”]

The woman bound with rope and in the bed is Sarah-Jane Norman. The woman dressed up as Bruce Springsteen is Ira Brand. The women fighting between marriage and friendship are Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen. The self-absorbed woman is me.