Friday, 23 October 2015

Hair and skin and heart and bones

Somewhere in the midst of Race Cards, Selina Thompson's probing, overwhelming, cumulatively extraordinary set of questions about race in the 21st century, she asks: Do you see whiteness? It's a difficult question for me to answer, which is why – following her printed invitation – I tried to answer it. But I didn't do so with complete honesty. If I had, I'd have confessed that, in relation to myself, no: that is, I do what white privilege – white supremacy, let's call it – makes absolutely possible, and think about how I exist in the world as some kind of default, or normal. My brown, bobbed, variably curly hair, for instance, is normal hair, just like it says on the shampoo bottle.

What I did answer, because it was easier, is that normality for me involves living alongside a microcosmic representation of the global population. I spent my childhood in Hackney, on the north side of London; I've lived almost my whole adulthood in the vicinity of Brixton, to the south: on London's streets, on public transport, in shops, and now at my kids' school, I hear and have always heard languages from across the world; I see every possible skin colour, in the faces of immigrants and the children of mixed parentage. So when I travel outside the capital, to towns where there is either a kind of segregation or people of colour are absent altogether, I see whiteness starkly. That concentrated whiteness troubles me.

And yet, I experience it most nights I go to the theatre in London. I could blame the institutions for not presenting enough work by people of colour, but that would be to elide the problem of my own, white-centric, choices. I mean, how many shows have I seen by Talawa, or Tara, or Tamasha, or Yellow Earth? And that's just to name the obvious companies. There are pitiably few occasions I can think of when I've shared a theatre auditorium with the same people with whom I share the supermarket and streets: Elmina's Kitchen and a couple of others at the National, Scottsboro Boys and Feast at the Young Vic, nights at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Not nearly enough.

At the final London performance of Dark and Lovely, Selina's show about hair – and, through that lens, about being black, British and female – I'm surrounded by black women. Dark-skinned, light-skinned, with large round faces and thin chiselled faces, some older, some younger, with shaved heads, natural hair, extensions, braids, locks, you name it. And that's the first brilliant thing about Dark and Lovely. It's a show made for black women, that holds out its arms to black women, wants to wrap them in an embrace that says, “I know, I know”, without excluding women – or men – of any other colour, background, ethnicity. There is a level at which hair is something that binds all of us as humans, as mammals: fibres made of keratin, growing from follicles. But there is also a level at which black women's hair is a fiercely contested political construct. And that's the space that Dark and Lovely occupies.

The personal being political, Selina delineates that space immediately through a quick-fire sequence of anecdotes that challenge one white woman's criticism of an earlier version of the show that “hair is just hair”: nothing to get so worked up about. Anecdotes about children being belittled for the kind of hair they have; adults being made to feel like they'll never measure up to the standards of desirability policed by the fashion industry, media and Hollywood; more than that, facing insinuations about their private lives because of the kind of hair they have; the astonishing facts of how much money is earned by beauty companies out of exploiting not only the resulting insecurities but the specific hair-care requirements of black women. With each anecdote, at least one, usually more, woman in the crowd nods or vocalises her recognition, asserts her shared experience. And that's the second brilliant thing about Dark and Lovely: the way Selina packs it with detail, vignettes that might describe scenes from the lives of people actually in the room, with which they can connect directly [1]. She talks about gasping with joy at recent movies and TV shows featuring black female characters in which something particular, distinctive, has happened relating to their hair. The electric thrill that inspires, of seeing yourself, your banal reality, acknowledged in public culture, is one her show provides its black female audience over and over again.

This is such a friendly show: Selina beams as she tells these anecdotes, stands at a hostess trolley (!!!) (sorry, I have a thing for hostess trolleys) mixing up fruit and rum punches for us to share, interrupts the script with sparky bits of improvisation. Instead of distancing herself on a stage, she's built a hut – she calls it her “tumbleweave” – from chicken wire and hair extensions, laid it out with a flowered carpet so comically redolent of the 1970s I half expected it to have its own avocado bathroom suite, and performs bits of the show poking her head through its windows and snuggled inside with as many of us can squeeze in (I couldn't, but it was fine: I still felt connected). Her cheerfulness almost – almost – belies the anger glowing beneath. But it's part of the rhythm of the show that Selina is like a pot on a slow heat: sometimes she's just simmering, but it doesn't take much for her to bubble up with fury. It's a fury that directs inwards to herself, and outwards to society, but never at the black women in the room. And this is the third brilliant thing: throughout, Selina makes clear that the feelings she has about her own hair should in no way be construed as a criticism of what other black women feel or choose to do with theirs. There are enough people in the world passing judgement like that.

The feelings Selina has are complicated, and inevitably shaped by those judgements – particularly as expressed by her own family and friends. Dreadlocks, for instance, are deemed unacceptable by her mum and nan, and when, as a 17-year-old, she shaved her hair off (she had strong high cheekbones then, she tells us, and looked beautiful; there's a photo of her inside the tumbleweave, and it's true, she did), her father didn't speak to her for a month. She thought she was emulating Skin from Skunk Anansie; friends just thought she was pulling a Britney. It's heartbreaking, because in these stories can be read the beginnings of a troubled relationship not just with hair but self: self-confidence, self-belief, self-care, self-acceptance.

That might suggest this is a selfish story, but it isn't: throughout, Selina weaves, or plaits, her own story with strands from others, collected during an extensive research period in Chapeltown, a predominately black area of Leeds. A woman who does people's hair in their living rooms tells stories of women having their hair permanently damaged, their scalps burned and scarred, by careless hairdressers. In a beauty emporium Selina encounters a woman who lost her hair to chemotherapy, then discovered that it's impossible to buy an Afro except in novelty colours, because no one in the wig industry thinks black women get cancer. In a barbershop frequented by old men and teenagers, she meets one youngster routinely teased by his friends for getting his grandmother to do his cornrows: he can do it himself in a fraction of the time, it transpires, but doesn't to make sure that someone is seeing his granny on a regular basis. Listening, we're pushed and pulled with emotion, ebb and flow with horror and love.

Chapeltown isn't where Selina lives, incidentally; she was commissioned to make a work that reflected the lives of the community there – a community assumed to be her own, even though she lives on the other side of Leeds. She's as honest about the mixed feelings this provokes as she is about her hair and her family: the sense of fraudulence, almost, tapping into a deep vein of anxiety that she is as friends have described her, “a coconut”, not black enough, too absorbed in white culture, white thinking. There's a whole set of questions in Race Cards – also difficult – about the position of black artists in a fundamentally white arts industry; questions about power, assumption, cultural appropriation. Selina doesn't address them directly in Dark and Lovely, but they're there, at the periphery, livid. Standing on a ladder at the centre of the tumbleweave, so that she seems to be wearing a huge, unwieldy, Disney-princess ballgown, she switches on a sequence of hairdryers and talks about the prospect of becoming, through this commission, an “angry black woman”: the difficulty of inhabiting that cliche, the desire to smash it. This is as noisy as the show gets, and it's telling that she uses the noise to create static, disruption, a facsimile, I feel, of what it sounds like in her own brain, as thoughts about race and responsibility churn through it, unresolved.

I'm fascinated by the way that Selina's softness operates in this show as a way of holding its audience in difficulty X. (There's a wonderful bit of thinking about niceness in Rajni Shah's most recently blog posts, too, in which she talks about the vital importance of “those spaces that are both difficult and nice”.) Because she really is furious, Selina, properly fucking apoplectic at the casual racism and sexism that persist in the world; and it's a contested thing, in feminism, the ease with which women who are angry get typecast as strident and unappealing, so I could be falling into a trap saying this, but to me it's a positive – the fourth brilliant thing – that the mood of Dark and Lovely is kind rather than aggressive. There's a fascinating moment when Selina falls prey to a similar bit of typecasting: she talks about the extensions she wore over the winter, heavy plaits that reached to her waist, and describes them as “womanly”. That word, its binary coding of femininity and attractiveness, makes me flinch.

I think the gentleness allows Selina to dig deeper, cut closer to the bone: particularly in the final section, when she uses a very direct metaphor, sitting outside the tumbleweave pulling clotted mats of soapy hair from a concealed plughole, for the dredging of her own soul. She talks about Toni Morrison's book The Bluest Eye, and then Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks: about the deep-rooted desire perhaps not to be black, or not to carry the weight of being black, the internalisation of colonial thinking that black men are inferior to white men, and black women lesser still. There are two rasping sounds in this section of the show: one in Buffalo's excellent, subtle soundtrack, which is the rasp of a comb through (I'm assuming) Selina's own hair; the other when Selina is talking about The Bluest Eye, and about being a child who wore a towel over her head to pretend she had blonde hair long enough to chew, and she pauses to take a particular breath. In the rasp of that breath I recognise the sounds of panic and of holding inside tears: in that single moment I understand just how much she pushes herself to perform this show.

As a white person in the room, I inevitably represent the white gaze, and by extension the colonial gaze, and all the racism closely knitted into the fabric of modern society. As the child of immigrants from a former British colony, I also reject the simplicity of that construction. And this is the fifth brilliant thing about Dark and Lovely: it is interested in those complexities. Selina has made it for black women, to nod their assent, hear their selves and their stories, their complicated, torn desires, their deepest pains. But its willingness not to exclude means that, across the 90 minutes, it has the potential to bring up a medley of memories and associations for anyone in the room. These are some of mine: a story about a little boy with a white mum and an Asian dad, who tells his mum he doesn't want to have dark skin any more, reminds me of my own little boy, standing beside me at the mirror when he was five, and saying that he wants to dye his sandy hair dark brown, to look more like the rest of the family. The smell of coconut oil in a hair treatment that gets passed around the tumbleweave is the smell of the busy streets of my childhood: along with fresh cut grass and laundrettes, one of my favourites. When Selina removes her wig to reveal little-girl braids, she unexpectedly reminds me of Janice, my best friend at primary school. Talk of the barbershop reminds me how much I loved the TV programme Desmond's; the plughole scene brings up my genuine phobia of hairballs, developed when living with my friend Gemma at university, whose pre-Raphaelite auburn hair became a monster in the shower. I remember being at secondary school and freaking out when my friends – all blonde, for some reason – ganged up on me to chant that my hair was the colour of shit; and my mother laughing when I said I wanted to dye my hair black; and hating my dead-straight hair for not being spirally like my dad's. And then when it curled I remember talking to my Iraqi friend Sam about her hard-to-control ringlets, and sharing kirby-grip tips with my friend Alan, who shaved his off until in his 30s. Amid this mostly cheerful nostalgia, I remember the black women my mum worked with when I was a child, telling her stories of brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers, being taken in to the local police station and beaten, brutalised; that's if they emerged to tell of it. Hair isn't just hair: it's a lifetime of stories. I'm startled by how many.

There was another question in Race Cards, so difficult it still makes my chest feel tight when I think of it: what did Adrienne Rich get out of her friendship with Audre Lorde? I don't know enough about either of them to hazard an answer; yet it frightens me that Adrienne might have used Audre, as a tool to re-educate herself, to make a political point. It's about 14 months now since Selina has been in my life: we met when I organised a conversation with her and Louise Orwin in Edinburgh about body image; since then we've had two more long, exhilarating conversations about race, feminism and performance and another over email, which I quote almost any time anyone uses the word intersectionality. In each and in the weeks following, I've felt encouraged and supported by her in being absolutely honest, challenged by her to notice how I speak and think, invited to register the influence of growing up white to parents who worked hard to make me middle-class. I hope I've given her the same encouragement, support, challenge and invitation. But at the same time it terrifies me, the vastness of the possibility that, if not already, I will one day say something to Selina that makes her shoulders drop with disappointment, that demonstrates my failure to see whiteness, my internalisation of its privileges and its racisms. She makes me question the words I use and try harder, want to try harder, to use better ones. Is that what Adrienne got out of her relationship with Audre? Would Audre recognise that, or agree?

It was while walking to Ovalhouse to see Dark and Lovely that I caught myself thinking of my hair as normal. Before Selina, I wouldn't have noticed. In the best possible way she gives me pause, and I cherish her, love her, for it.

[1] I wanted to come back to this (so you don't have to scroll back up, it's the bit where I say that the second brilliant thing about Dark and Lovely is the way Selina packs it with detail, vignettes that might describe scenes from the lives of people actually in the room) because it directly contradicts the response of Stephanie Phillips, who reviewed Dark and Lovely for Media Diversified. And that troubles me, because Stephanie is a black woman and I represent precisely the white gaze that she thinks Selina is giving too much consideration. Here's what she says:

My only question to Thompson would be to ask, who was the performance developed for? The detail in which she described aspects of black life for the audience felt like she was not speaking fully to black women instead breaking from her story to bring white people up to speed.

Understandably a performance on black women's hair without any explanations could be confusing for anyone who is not a black woman but perhaps sometimes it is better to follow in the footsteps of legendary writers such as Junot Diaz and Toni Morrison. They both strongly believed that when writing about your own community you need to speak directly to them, especially when they are rarely acknowledged in wider society.

Black women need their own space, room and or tumbleweave where they can be accepted and told that they matter.

The difference in our opinion fascinates me – especially as I've been besotted with Junot Diaz since encountering Drown 18 years ago; the voice and pace and music of his writing are endlessly intoxicating and inspiring – because I don't think there's any way of reconciling them. To me, the details are a way of acknowledging a community in wider society. To me, Selina is constantly telling the black women in the audience that they matter. But, as a white woman with a white gaze, I don't know how much that thinking can be trusted; or rather, how much Stephanie herself would trust that thinking. I feel safer quoting Selina, who responded to this critique at some length on twitter, not to silence Stephanie, but to engage with and open the debate:

making a performance for/centred around the white gaze is one I wrestled with a lot while making the show. She says that it's the detail with which I recount things that breaks the story up - but for me recounting things in detail is not about making it easier for white people: a) black life is not a monolith, what is black life for one is not black life for all. B) when people shared stories with me, the stories that make the show – it is the details over which we bond, that bring memories to life. C) I don't think Junot or Toni omit detail in speaking to their community – rather they are unafraid to critique their community. … For me, being exacting, trying to pack the show with every little thing is about creating a show that is overwhelming, that heaves with information and significance – because for me, that is how you unlock and unpick the statement hair is just hair.

[2] While I've been writing this, there's been a bit of my mind turning over and over an interesting and unexpected critique of my own work by the brilliant Andrew Latimer. It cropped up in his series Writing as Hope, which mostly passed me by until earlier this week: the problem with trying to wean yourself off social media (as I have been doing, partly to get more books read because so help me I keep buying them, partly because, at the ripe old age of 40, I apparently haven't yet developed the strength of fucking character not to see twitter as a fucking popularity contest) is that you miss out on the excellent essays that excellent people direct you towards. The series as a whole posits writing as a way of thinking in public, but as I'm still digesting it, I'll let Andrew explain it himself: “the core principle of this way of writing is that vulnerability and exposure are not only precious stages in the composition of a thought – and writing is a process which gives us the space to explore that thought – but that writing as hope is an inherently interventionist practice, allowing us to challenge how honest we are with ourselves and our readers, to mine our privilege and prejudice, and to collectively confront our discipline, the art we consume and the fissures in our lives”.

Within the fourth essay, Andrew describes me as a: “writer whose words often dance as if they were set to music”, which is not a lovely thing to say, it does that perspicacious thing the best criticism is supposed to do, articulating my own work back to me in a formulation I recognise but hadn't managed to pinpoint myself. On the rare occasions I run anything approximating a writing workshop, or mentor a younger writer, I always talk about the primacy of rhythm, so clearly I know this is a thing for me, but I don't think I'd connected it to dance the way Andrew does here. Amazing. He goes on to say: “It’s possible that, were it not for her gorgeous style, the points she makes would stumble and wither.” And I'm troubled by that, not because I can't take any kind of criticism (although actually, basically, I can't), but because it feeds directly into an anxiety I've had lately, that the intellectual and theoretical high ground in British theatre writing is primarily occupied by (young, white) men. Stewart Pringle. Tim Bano. This Andrew and Andrew Haydon. Catherine Love used to be more present but these days she's mostly preoccupied with the intellectual and theoretical high ground of a PhD; Megan Vaughan has the clout – and a working knowledge of Kant to make me cry – but chooses not to; so, in a sense, do I. Which makes it basically ridiculous that I'm even worried about this.

Somewhere in the brain mulch provoked by those words stumble and wither is a question about the primacy of intellectualism over emotion (which Andrew himself is questioning in the essays), and how it's possible for men to be angry in ways that women can't without being dismissed as irrational, and how easy it is to slam down anti-capitalist discourse as woolly and impractical because the world it imagines is not yet real. Basically, I'm piqued and challenged, in ways I haven't yet figured out. But it seemed right, and in the spirit of Andrew's argument – an argument for naked vulnerability, and a stripping back of natural defences, and (I particularly love this) for “actively reinventing the interactions and meanings in our lives through the process of writing” – that I should begin trying to work it out here.

[3] On getting home from Dark and Lovely, I put on Blood Orange's Cupid Deluxe for the first time in a while, and I've had this song humming in the background while I've been writing this, too. I have a bad habit of taking pop choruses far too seriously, but there's something about the lines “time will tell if you can figure this and work it out/ no one's waiting for you anyway so don't get stressed out” that speaks to the questions that haunt me from Race Cards, and from Andrew's blog, in a warm and reassuring way.

Friday, 16 October 2015

French connections: a report from the Travellings festival and two In-Situ gatherings

Before I quite realise what's happening she's talking fast, really fast, about how charming the square is, and how remarkable that there's a church here, she had no idea this square or this church were here, she lives in another part of Marseilles, and now something about the show we've just seen, I snatch at odd words as they pour from her mouth, because when was the last time I had to listen to someone speaking so rapidly, so fluently, in French? When I was 18? Taking advantage of an infinitesimal pause I tell her, falteringly, that I'm from London, but my evident incapacity with the language in no way dents her enthusiasm for talking to me about the festival, and how it's brought her to a part of Marseilles she'd never been to before, she's lived here for 14 years, but that's what it's like in Marseilles, you stay in your locality, you don't really go to the other parts of the city, at least I think that's what she's saying, and I try, piecing the sentence together as if with tweezers, to say: isn't that what's great about festivals? They take you away from the known to the unknown, show you your city as you've never seen it before?


My presence at the Travellings festival in Marseilles, curated by Lieux Publics with (or for?) the In-Situ network, is basically an accident. Eight months ago I didn't know any of those things existed, with the possible exception of Marseilles. It began with an email linking me to William Galinsky, artistic director of the Norwich and Norfolk festival: he had seen the writing I'd done about Nature Theatre of Oklahoma last year when he'd programmed Life and Times, and wondered if I would be interested in attending an In-Situ gathering as embedded journalist. And so, the basics: In-Situ is a network of 21 festivals that take place in 14 different European countries, all of which present outdoor work; its coordinating office is at Cite des arts de la rue, run by Lieux Publics, a complex of workshop and studio spaces in a former industrial area opposite a mammoth housing estate to the north of Marseilles. At that initial gathering in the spring, six festival directors were present, and each had invited an artist whom they had commissioned to create a work for their festival that in some way addressed the question of “new technologies” in public space. The other two gatherings (in Italy and Czech Republic) focused on audience engagement and site-sensitivity, and all three groups met in Marseilles at the end of September, where the artists could meet the rest of the festival directors, and each discussion could be opened out.

That business part of the day took us to 2.30pm; from 8.30pm, there was a communal dinner on the grounds of Lieux Publics, overlooking the city. And in between: the Travellings festival, a thoughtfully curated set of outdoor shows that invited the In-Situ group, people from across Marseilles, and inhabitants of the housing estate to share a common space. At similar festivals in the UK, I'm often troubled by the gap between what people think they're offering and the conditions they actually create for acceptance; particularly I fret about the lack of dialogue between those disparate groups. In Marseilles, as a total outsider, I was more ready to let it just be what it was. But what it was did feel like a temporary meeting place: especially on the Friday and Saturday nights, when the wide metal gates of Lieux Publics stayed open, and kids from the estate swarmed among the theatre-people, being rowdy, sure, but having boisterous fun. On Sunday, the gate remained closed, and the atmosphere, though calmer, was a lot less electric.

The estate kids were mostly there because Bureau Detours, a group of architects-designers-artists-craftspeople from Denmark, had installed Dennis Design Center in a bit of open ground in Lieux Publics, and Dennis Design Center is brilliant. It works like this: Bureau Detours bring a pile of wood and blue plastic rope to a vicinity, ask the people thereabouts what they would like to build, then help them to build it. What was built in Lieux Publics was a miniature playground: a wibbly rope bridge strung between two towers, each dressed with bright green plants; a small fountain pouring from one of the towers into a pool; and eight swings hung from the steel beams supporting an upper, protruding, level of the building. Bish bash bosh, hours of fun: for the little ones who charged about by day; for the teenagers who swarmed the swings by night, challenging each other to swing harder, and higher, and while holding hands; and, in a less demonstrative way, for anyone attending the festival who didn't know a lot of people, and struggles with talking to strangers, let alone amid languages that aren't their own. On the final morning, three of the older male festival directors sat on the swings together, and that was the most delightful thing: the clearest indication of the permission the Dennis Design Center offers, to play, to let go, to experience freedom from adult conventions of comportment and restraint. Just gorgeous.

I missed Dennis' visit to the Aygalades housing estate, but was there for a couple of other shows. Wrzz, by French company 2,6 couverts, was the one in the church square, and it was as charming as its surroundings: an urban clowning show (someone compared it to Jacques Tati movies) described as a “cauchemar sonore” – actually, can we just pause for a moment to savour those words? Cauchemar sonore. Lovely – because every basic, ordinary move the ordinary-Joe clown-character attempts is disrupted by noise: the doorbell puts him in a telephone queue and plays on-hold muzak at him; his rucksack sets off an alarm every time he puts it on the floor; passing cars, to the amusement of their unsuspecting passengers, rattle as though they're about to fall apart. There's a brief sag of energy about 20 minutes in, when it seems the extended gag has run out of steam; but then the performer approaches the children in the front row and begins tapping out a rudimentary keyboard tune on their heads, to their infectious delight, and there's another surge of energy. Throughout Wrzz keeps a fine balance between the pointlessly but enjoyably silly and a philosophical contemplation of really, how the fuck do we actually cope with all this unnecessary clamour in our lives, the bombardment of industrial noise and electronic noise and traffic noise and human noise? At the end, when the kids had dispersed and the garrulous French lady had wandered into the church, I had a little moment of cherishing the peace: Wrzz was a useful reminder of how important it is in urban lives to make space for that.

There was another group of kids in the audience for Rodrigo Pardo's Flat, and I wish my French had been up to their running commentary: all I really caught was a debate about whether or not one bit of the set represented a toilet, and their amusement on discovering definitively that it did. As the title suggests, Flat is set in a studio flat; the surprise is that it isn't indoors but out, and not only out but suspended down the side of a building (in this case, a low-rise apartment block), the floor perpendicular to the ground, the furniture protruding into open air, the man who lives there rigged up to aerial ropes so that he can walk at a 90-degree angle to the rest of us, and lie on the bed while floating in space. The blurb acknowledges the influence of Jorge Luis Borges and magic-realist literature, and sure enough there are projections suggesting all sorts of fantastical hallucinations: the man's table transformed into some kind of well, the whole place icing over, a swarm of cockroaches, visions of a former lover haunting him as he tries to sleep. But to be honest, the material of the piece itself was less interesting than the dialogue between the show and its surroundings: the contrast between the lights of the fake flat and those of the real rooms next to it, the invented life of the man in the show and the imagined lives taking place behind drawn curtains. For me, the most magical moment was one in which, through the glass entrance door of the apartment block, I glimpsed a woman in her dressing gown preparing to take her dog for a walk. It's in those moments that Flat most effectively blurs fantasy and reality into one.

Those works invited Aygalades inhabitants to take part as audiences; in Jeroen Strijbos and Rob van Rijswijk's sound piece Walk With Me, we encountered them as participants. I wish I'd made it to this piece earlier: it's designed to be listened to alone, on big headphones, carrying an iPad, walking through unfamiliar areas not quite within the earshot of others, and doing that in the gloaming put the heebie-jeebies in me. But that nervousness is also a natural response to the sonic world that Strijbos and van Rijswijk create: ominous, glitchy, punctuated by the thump of footsteps; often it seems that people are not only following you but sharpening knives behind your back. Anxiety aside, I thought this piece was terrifically evocative, thrilling too: on the iPad is a map of Aygalades and Cite des art de la rue, and across that map are drawn overlapping squares, rectangles and circles; each shape represents an individual sound, and so you can effectively compose your own symphony as you traverse the landscape, holding one sound longer if it particularly appeals, walking quickly away from another that doesn't. A lot of the music has its roots in northern Africa (reflecting the population of Aygalades); the keening string notes and rattling percussion had a burnished quality so appealing that I kept retracing my steps to hear them again. Interspersed with the music are voices: a story that my French couldn't quite follow, but that had something of the heaviness of Camus' L'etranger, and snatches of text from conversations with the people of Aygalades, talking about the community, its reputation, the violence that happens there. There was one man, my favourite, who talked admiringly of the vibrancy of Marseilles, breaking into English to call it “a fucking city!”: a vortex of excitements, challenge, and promise.

The festival took us off-site, too, mostly thanks to the antics of X/tnt (Antonia Taddei and Ludovic Nobileau), whose ongoing project Le Code de la deconduite – basically, the opposite of the Highway Code, or any set of instructions guiding behaviours in public space – invites participants and passers-by to engage in acts of controlled anarchy and social disruption. William Galinsky programmed them at this year's Norwich and Norfolk festival, where they mocked the presence of CCTV cameras, encouraged people to strip naked (albeit behind curtains), and one of them was arrested for swinging an axe out on the street. The actions in Marseilles were fascinating, hilarious and incredibly problematic, causing deeply felt offence among some of the participants. For one of them, Taddei and Ludovic took a group by coach to a roundabout, where we threw a kind of live-art party. The issue, they explained en route, is that art on roundabouts is a lucrative business, attracting a lot of government investment, but it's also rubbish, because the art has to be undemonstrative, almost invisible, so as not to risk distracting drivers and causing accidents. X/tnt wanted to prove to the government that this is ridiculous, but also take the piss, and so each of us took a chair on to the roundabout, to which was affixed a mesh of concealing shrubbery, and first created a camouflaged space for a banquet of crisps, then shifted them to form a mock-up of the Aygalades estate, and finally threw water and pink powder in the air to make a great big mess. It was all a hoot, except for the bit where we were instructed to light cigars whose smoke would create the impression that our fake Aygalades was on fire, and I couldn't tell how disparaging the text for this bit was about people living in poverty. Certainly there was a note of callousness that troubled me, but without better French I couldn't trust how that manifested and can't adequately explain it.

But perhaps I thought that because of the other action, the day before, when two mini-buses of In-Situ people were taken to a chi-chi beach to create a welcoming party for arriving refugees. Artist-participants were already on the scene, dressed alternately in army camouflage and ambassadorial suits; our party, and sunbathers on the beach, were invited to dress up in the uniform of refugees and be greeted with a compassion and care entirely contrary to the prevalent media narrative of suspicion and fear. So far, so blandly liberal – but the uniform the refugees were invited to wear was the red T-shirt and blue shorts of Aylan Kurdi, the child whose photograph prompted a short-lived flurry of pity that has done little to change government policies. I can see the argument that X/tnt wanted to hammer home the necessity for a shift in how the public consider refugees, but I can also see the argument that the company were exploiting that dead little boy more even than the people who had argued over his photograph online. And I feel weird saying that, because at that moment in time, on the beach, I still hadn't seen the photograph, so it wasn't until someone told me later that I knew what the costume represented. But even before then, there was something odd and off-kilter about watching children on the beach play with gold-and-silver thermal blankets and the free beach balls that X/tnt distributed as part of the performance. Whose mindset was really being changed by this? What, other than a boost for the company's notoriety, was really being achieved?


Apart from the work, the Travellings festival was fascinating for its attempt to reconsider how a group of people engaged in making and staging performance might share perspectives and have fruitful discussions together within a fairly formal framework. As part of Dialogue, the slow-moving organisation I run with my friend Jake, I've done a fair bit of experimenting with this too, with variable degrees of success, so I particularly enjoyed assessing In-Situ's approach. Partly they stuck to the traditional, opening each day with a panel discussion, mostly dominated by white men. And yes, on the first day, it was just as dry and hierarchical as that sounds, with almost no one in the audience contributing, and a pervading feeling that we'd just like to get to the coffee break thanks. The second day was better, simply because the panel's moderator, Neil Butler of UZ Arts in Glasgow, spent most of it not sitting in his chair but bridging the gap between panel and audience, and constantly inviting dialogue: such a simple thing to do, but staggeringly effective.

The lunchtime slot did something else Jake and I are very keen on: created a space not only to talk but break bread together. Dubbed “M'eatings”, these discussions divided all participants across six tables, each of which was hosted by an artist; every 20 minutes, we swapped tables, so that by the end of the two-hour, six-course (!!!) lunch, the participants had had an opportunity to meet and chat with every one of the artists. In principle, I thought this was a great idea: it allowed all the festival directors to meet all of the artists from the three spring gatherings, and to discuss the ideas that had emerged from them; it allowed artists to cross-fertilise ideas; it introduced a lot of strangers to each other very quickly, easing the path to being social later on. In practice, though, it proved much less satisfying. Twenty minutes isn't long enough to move beyond shallow thinking into deep questioning and probing thought. Because each of the artists was there at the invitation of one director, the impulse for talking to the others became tainted by the possibility of being programmed by them in the future: rather than talk about theory, ideas, philosophy, most of them ended up doing a kind of infomercial for their work. Which was fine and lovely but also exhausting: by the time they met their fourth group, let alone their sixth, the artists at the tables were starting to feel tired, partly because they were feeling like they were repeating themselves, partly because they'd been so busy talking they hadn't been able to eat.

Again, this improved as the weekend went on, and more artists shifted from talking about their work to presenting it, whether using projected images, postcards that travelled around the table on a toy train, or an invitation to take part in a kind of extract. Czech artist Jonas Strouhal, whom I'd previously met in Norwich, excited a lot of people on Saturday by using the electric currents of his brain to operate a chocolate fountain: as long as he was feeling relaxed, the chocolate flowed and we could dip pieces of fruit he'd provided in it; if he wasn't, the fountain would stop. Similarly, Matteo Lanfranchi proved completely charming on Sunday, with his rough-scrawled map of places – surreal, romantic, everyday – that each represented an aspect of his work, and ample supply of Baci kisses. The general rule that can be extrapolated from this, I feel, is that there is no conversation that can't be vastly improved by the provision of free chocolate.


Of all the works and dialogues I took part in at Travellings, the one that will resonate, that I hope to hold on to for years to come, was Lotte van den Berg's piece Building Conversation. X As far as I can gather, she used to make something more like shows, but always with an interest in silence, or wordless communication, and in addressing social inequality, vulnerability, loneliness, desire. But with Building Conversation, and other pieces that have emerged from her research into traditional forms of communication in cultures including Inuit and Maori, she removes spectacle and concentrates on direct experience. In her biography, there's this quote: “I make theatre and keep asking myself the same question. How can I create a space in which you can watch without words and rules? A space in which the spectator becomes a participant that undergoes the performance without expectations.” That's pretty much what Building Conversation sets out to do.

I went to it with some uncertainty: on a sunny Sunday afternoon, my last full day in Marseilles, did I really want to stay shut up indoors for three hours? Once it began, uncertainty turned into anxiety and a strong desire to leave: the premise, I discovered, was that the group of 20 would sit in a circle in the space for a pre-allotted amount of time and communicate with each other without using a single word. It sounded excruciating. Not boring so much as embarrassing. We argued over how long we would do it for: seven minutes? 45? Two hours? We settled at 90 minutes, and that proved too much for one man, who promptly escaped. I forced myself to stay. And I'm so glad I did.

In her introduction, Lotte quoted the following statistic: words account for no more than 7% of how we communicate; the rest comes from body language and tone of voice. Her challenge – no, that's too strong – her offer to us was to eliminate that 7%, and see what might be said, what might be understood. (Of course, that also eliminates the 38% that is tone, but never mind.) She also specified that we wouldn't use mime or sign. Within minutes of starting, William Galinsky erupted into uncontrollable giggles that expanded into hiccuping hysteria, and didn't stop for a good quarter of an hour. No less exaggerated was the physical language some people attempted: big smiles, raised eyebrows, shrugs. Within 10 minutes I realised I was far more interested in listening than trying to say anything. And that the more people attempted to “speak”, the less cogent and interesting what they were saying.

Maybe it's a condition of this work that words feel wholly inadequate to describe it. I'd need them to raise your body temperature by a fraction of a degree. To make emotion swim in your eyes. I'd want them to make you feel like you're hugging your mum, or your child, or someone you've loved deeply for years. I'd want them to make you look at the next person you come across and see, not their clothes or their hairstyle or how many spots they have, but their soul. By some magic quirk of fate, a man happened to bring his dog to Building Conversation, a big golden labrador, and the creature happened to be sat next to me. He spent most of the time lying down behind the circle of chairs, but at one point he nudged his nose into my lap, started licking my hand, and staring at me with huge brown eyes full of trust, radiant with not just the desire but the ability to give, give me anything I want, give me more. That's what Building Conversation offered: a space in which to be absolutely open to other people, absolutely without agenda, absolutely trusting, absolutely giving. I don't think everyone in the room understood it that way, and I feel like an obnoxious egotist saying that, as though I'm so intellectually or emotionally superior. Ugh. That's not what Building Conversation is for. It's for breaking down those barriers, for reminding us that we are animals, who need each other for survival, so damaged now by divisive and prejudicial social structures that we need to start all over again, from a place before words. From being afraid of 90 minutes of silence, I left never wanting to speak again.

And yes, I'm fully aware of the irony of that sentence coming at the end of almost 4000 words. But you don't have to be a speaker to be a writer. Listening, on the other hand, is essential.


For the sake of completion, I thought I might as well post up two of the three pieces of writing I did as part of the gatherings. Missing is the first, a synthesis of the Norwich workshop sessions, which was only half-written, the other half improvised on the day. The second is below, a piece I wrote about that session for Les Inrockuptibles; and the third is below that, the presentation I gave to open the Saturday panel discussion in Marseilles. While I'm here, thanks again to William Galinsky for the initial invitation, and to the In-Situ network for the opportunity: it was one of those jobs that made me glad I've stuck with this ridiculous practice of writing about performance.
For Les Inrockuptibles:

The group of In Situ partners and invited artists who gathered in Norwich for the Emerging Spaces meeting dedicated to New Technologies came from across Europe, bringing with them a host of languages that were put aside as everyone attempted to communicate in English. As the writer invited to respond to their conversations, I was struck by how, whatever our native language, we shared the word “technology” in common. In English, French, German, Czech, Hungarian, it's essentially the same. At its root are two ancient Greek words: techne, meaning art, craft, skill; and logia, meaning discourse. Technology, then, is the discourse of art.

And art is the application of technology – although, for the artists invited to Norwich, that could mean many things. Simon Collins (UK) employs age-old model-making techniques, soldering together scrap metal objects to create life-like animal sculptures. Adelin Schweitzer makes films with remote-controlled robots, or drones, adopting and subverting military surveillance tactics to provoke new narratives in urban and rural areas. Elisabeth Wildling (AU) and Klara Balazs (HU) use video and projection to encourage audiences to re-see their surroundings. Jonas Strouhal (CZ) plays with brain sensors to give surprising physical expression to internal thought-processes. And Eric Joris of CREW (BE) works with scientists at the university of Hasselt to develop complex goggle-sets that allow the wearer to see through another's eyes. As Hugo Bergs of Belgium's Theater op de Markt commented in a summary session on the final morning, technology for these artists isn't a decoration or an afterthought: it is essential to the fabric of their work, the strategy through which they address the human condition.

If new technologies offer artists new opportunities, they also present a challenge: how to keep pace with the rapid shifts in society brought about by digital advances? As Joris noted in a useful opening paper on the first morning, we live in a “fully mediatised society”: technology is so pervasive most people no longer notice it. Artists, though, notice things. In an interview with British arts and technology organisation The Space earlier this year, theatre-maker and game designer Hannah Nicklin identified a new “digital culture”, which she defined as: “how we are humans in the context of [technology]”. Digital culture, she continued, is: “the rate at which information travels, and how comment culture affects our public discourse. … It’s the vanishing of interfaces between technology and human input, and whether or not that needs to be addressed. It’s the growing of the ‘global village’ and the problems with how we fit that in our head.” An artist doesn't need to be presenting online for these questions to bleed into their work.

When interviewing the Emerging Space participants, In Situ's communication officer Maxime Demartin asked a pertinent question: is digital culture creating a new idea of public space? Already public space has plural meanings: it can be indoors as well as outdoors; theatres, train stations and shopping malls are all public spaces; even a balcony overlooking a street exists in public space. Public space is anywhere in which people might be seen by or encounter other people; these spaces acquire more power the more possible it is for people to congregate there and recognise their citizenship.

Fanni Nanay, programmer of the PLACCC festival in Budapest, pointed out that “people have access to public issues with the same measure that they have access to public spaces”: in Hungary, that access is increasingly being denied by a right-wing government. This is what attracted her to Balazs, who proposes to project images on to prominent statues in Budapest, inviting passers-by to interact with these memorials in new and unexpected ways. Nanay's hope is that, through this work, people will re-encounter their agency, and remember their ability to affect government policy. It is a work that could travel across Europe, but in each city its meanings would differ, depending on the history embedded in that site, its experience of war, riot and uprising.

As Joris noted, the ancient Greeks developed democracy and theatre, social organisation and a strategy to debate and hold accountable that organisation, simultaneously. The Arab Spring was a vital demonstration that people now locate those strategies online. The internet seems to promise limitless space and so limitless agency – and yet, as Schweitzer noted, the use most western Europeans make of it is limited to reading newspapers and chatting on Facebook. Strouhal's interest in how the brain functions led him during his presentation to identify lack of concentration as “the most common problem in our society”: people are too distracted by computer games and social media to focus on social activism. This, he argued, is the “infant conditioning” that novelist Aldous Huxley, in 1949, predicted would brainwash humanity into placid subservience to their leaders.

These were the moments when the Emerging Spaces meeting felt rich with potential: when the discussion ranged across the different art works, drawing connections between them by reaching into philosophy, politics and personal experience. In doing so, it offered each artist new lenses through which to consider their work. A crucial one was the notion of “transitional space”: explaining CREW's practice, Joris drew a Venn diagram with “real space” in the left circle, and “virtual space” in the right. Where the two overlap is a transitional space – the “interesting place to work”. Wildling related strongly to this: her film work attempts to shift perceptions of buildings and urban environments, by encouraging the eye to shift its angle of vision, to see between the real and the imagined.

Another transitional space emerged in the discussion of Strouhal's work, which sits between art and therapy. He uses EEG brain sensors otherwise employed by psychotherapists to train the brain into better concentration and stress management; by attaching those sensors to mechanical devices, he can channel the brain's natural electricity into causing motion, pulling down a small tree when his thoughts are stressful, triggering a fountain when happy. Balazs' statues project prompted debate about the overlap of private and public: who owns public space, and regulates what happens there? Schweitzer's drone was fascinating in this respect: zooming along roads, through tunnels and under feet, it is entirely unconcerned by questions of law, enjoying a freedom of movement few humans share.

What each of these projects aims to do, at some level, is make the invisible visible. In Where Is Hamlet?, the work he is developing with CREW, Joris connects violence in the Middle-East with the threat of war in Shakespeare's play. He hopes to illuminate the unseen powers – father figures, like the ghost of old Hamlet – who control the movements of the young, by filming in places of political turmoil, and then placing his audiences at the centre of those films, transforming their vision.

This opens up a new field of enquiry: to what extent is art itself an exercise of power? This is particularly pertinent in work that invites interaction, such as Collins' outdoor performances with metal sculptures. He has developed two huge dragons made from junk, whose movements might be controlled by his audiences. Our discussion about the limits and possibilities of interactivity sharpened his thinking about the project: attending Emerging Spaces, he said on the final day, might have saved him two years of trial-and-error experiment. Schweitzer wondered whether the invitation to interact with Balazs' statue projections might damage it, allowing audiences to miss its political import by treating it as a game. But play is also important: it offers new agency in a neo-liberal culture that claims everything as work and drains our energy for creating change.

As a writer, my playground is language. In my closing address at the Emerging Spaces meeting, I reminded the group that in English, the newest technology is described as state-of-the-art. Art advances technology and technology advances art. The artists present at Emerging Spaces exist in the transitional space where the two meet: it is indeed the most interesting place to work.

And for the panel discussion:

I've spent a lot of the past month in a rehearsal room X talking a lot in the rehearsal room about perceptions of community, and of private and public space, and private and public self, and what our absorption into social media and online forums does to those perceptions. Perhaps my favourite question to come up has been: do you think Victorians had anxious conversations about what this new-fangled thing called the telephone would do to human relations?

Over the past year, British journalist Paul Mason – a specialist in economics and social upheaval – has been writing about what the digital revolution has done to human relations. He identifies a new kind of human being, one who extends their self into their devices; adopts multiple selves; [and] creates their own ongoing narrative through the words, imagery and film they distribute across several social media platforms. Why, he wonders, would such a human sit in a theatre and watch a play, when they are already so adept at creating their own multi-dimensional narratives? More provocatively, Mason identifies a new economic system – which he calls postcapitalism – developing outwards from the digital, as the unstoppable abundance of information technology loosens the relationship between work and wages, corrodes the market's ability to fix prices, and creates the conditions for collaborative production. Is this utopian? Or a realistic solution to damaging and unequal social systems, that points the way towards more sustainable ways of living together?

The Emerging Space meeting in Norwich began with a contemplation of these and other ways in which the digital revolution is disrupting existing power structures; the other, obvious instance mentioned was the Arab Spring uprisings fomented through social media. The meeting also began with a suggestion – from Eric Joris of Crew – that if artists want to debate or test social organisation, as theatre always has since the days of the ancient Greeks, then it makes sense to do that where the most people are congregating: online. This became a central question for the meeting: to what extent is public space – the space in which people might exercise and recognise their citizenship – now sited online? And how does the pervasive nature of digital culture charge or affect human interaction in the outdoor spaces where the In Situ festivals take place?

To some extent Eric's proposition was misleading: like all of the artists at this Emerging Space, he doesn't make work to be experienced online but in person. But his work uses some of the experiences of online – that sense of private interaction in a public setting; and the overlap of present and virtual realities, both of which are also the experiences of live performance – to create increasingly complex theatrical events that play with the senses. Over several works with Crew Eric has developed headset technology that immerses the wearer inside an alternative reality, so completely transporting that many participants demonstrate while wearing it a disbelief that their hands are their own. Where Is Hamlet uses this technology to examine power structures, particularly in political systems that are dominated by a father figure (like the ghost of old Hamlet) who controls and limits social interaction. The problem with using such advanced technology, Eric admitted, is one of distribution: only a relatively small number of people can experience the work at once.

Part of what makes Eric's work fascinating is its ability to manipulate the imagination; to convince the brain that its senses are bearing witness to something other than the body's actual surroundings. During the meeting Eric wondered whether this susceptibility was evidence of the fragility of human consciousness, but there is a way of seeing this more positively, as evidence of the brain's useful plasticity. Neuro-scientists are still learning about this: it's an argument I've encountered in a book of feminist science thinking by Cordelia Fine, which demonstrates that much of the way in which humans talk about gender and resulting power relations can actually be traced to stereotypes constructed in support of patriarchal structures – exactly the structures Eric addresses in Where Is Hamlet.

The brain's plasticity is central to Jonas Strouhal's work, and connects to his own experience as a young person of treatment for hyperactivity disorder, which measured his brain's electricity and used simple interaction with moving images to train it into relaxation. Jonas now uses the same brain-scanning technology in his work, inviting participants to trigger music at a fountain, or movement in a leaf blower, or ripples in the surface of a lake, simply by concentrating their thoughts. Even without experiencing it first-hand, I found his work incredibly moving. It invites audiences to witness a physical manifestation of their own, invisible brain activity – and offers a sense of control that is in sharp contrast to the sense of overload that is a common response to the digital revolution. And it encourages participants to live absolutely in the present, centred in their minds and their bodies, not split between the live environment and the digital.

Jonas' discomfort with digital bombardment was shared by Adelin Schweitzer, who suggested that the role of the artist using technology might be to work on deceleration processes: slowing experience back down, from the speed of the algorithm to the speed of human walking. With The Drones Release he's interested too in how to shift audience perception, inviting people to see from a different perspective. Specifically, the perspective of the drone: a small remote-controlled object on wheels that arrives unannounced in a public space and interacts with its participants, asking them existential questions such as “what is humanity?” and “what is love?” There was something beautifully innocent about this drone: not only did it neutralise the sinister connotations of drones as used in surveillance and warfare, but it was able to transgress conventions of social conduct, and to ignore boundaries – whether of space or social interaction – that humans are trained from an early age to respect.

Adelin's intention is that the recordings of the drone's movements and conversations are used to make a film, to be screened for the community that interacted with it – inviting them to see their public or communal spaces and interactions within them anew. This impulse – which was also registered by Eric Aubry yesterday, when he noted that art is interesting when it makes people think differently about their local area – is where all three Emerging Space meetings overlap: and Adelin did wonder during the Emerging Space what made the theme of new technology more relevant to this group than the themes of engaging audiences or site-specificity. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that technology for these artists is a necessary tool, the form and method through which they articulate their thinking. Simon Collins, also known as Paka, doesn't work with digital technology, or new technology at all. Yet his robot sculptures are undoubtedly feats of skilled technology, that also encourage viewers to think differently about waste. Built from scrap metal and found junk, they are extraordinary creations, his dragon Elsie looming feet above people's heads. Is it possible to see that sculpture in your local area and not have your memories of that site changed for ever?

On the surface, Paka's work could not be more unlike that of Elisabeth Wildling, whose tools are film and projection. The commonality between them is that invitation to audiences to experience place differently. Wildling has projected graffiti on to a canal and the names of Austrians killed by the Nazis on to the facade of the National Library in Vienna; she tilts the angle of her camera so that the viewer sees the skyline at eye level and the passage of time across a room. She is interested in how film and projection can be used to express the character of place, draw out the memories imprinted in it, and so shift audience perception within it.

Often when people of my generation – the generation who encountered the digital revolution as adults – talk about digital space, we do so as though it were somewhere separate from here where we sit. But it isn't. I'm sure while I've been talking more than one person has been using their smartphone, to check email or flick through social media; even if no one has, a conversation has been continuing there for you to catch up with later. New technology is integral to our lives now; and the question that interests me is how art can be as pervasive, as integral. Theatre and art are the way I think through my existence and understand myself, other humans, my surroundings, and social systems. How can artists best use technology to invite others to do the same?

Ride, baby, ride

Of Riders and Running Horses is a performance for five female dancers (the marketing copy says six so I don't know what happened to the other one but at this Dance Umbrella showing it was definitely five) and two male musicians.

Of Riders and Running Horses is getting to the club early, before most people have arrived, and the few who are already there are just standing around having drinks, and the DJ plays a song that is a bit slow so it wouldn't work at midnight but it just so happens to be one of your favourites so you dance and the floor is basically empty, smooth but not slippery, not soused in spilled drinks, so you can really travel across it, exult in all that space, and maybe one of your friends joins you and she's dancing different but the same, and every time you catch each other's eyes you sing along and laugh.

Of Riders and Running Horses is that flick of the wrist or that toss of the head or that curve of the body that hits the beat just right, that sink of the knees, that quick step back, that spin, that pause, that jitterbug jump.

It's seeing someone else on the dance floor who somehow has every muscle coordinated just so, stepping with and across the grain of the music so effortlessly, so exquisitely, so unlike anyone else around her, that you spend the rest of the evening – the rest of your life – shaping your body to that memory.

Of Riders and Running Horses is dancing until your knickers and bra are soaked with sweat, dancing until your muscles ache, still dancing because the music is there and it's yours, and even when you pause for a drink, even if you're on the way to the toilet and quite in need of a pee, if the right song comes on, a song that has a rope tied round your heart, then it will yank you back to the dance floor no matter what, and you will dance until you're breathless, because who needs breath when the music is pulsing through you: who needs energy when the song is there to feed you.

And maybe, in its moments of synchronicity that are also individuated, because each of the women do the same moves, but in their own charismatic way, Of Riders and Running Horses is all the best nights I've had with my dance group, not just performing but out for a social, when one of our songs plays and we fall into a routine, and it doesn't matter if we fuck up because we're a gang, we're together, but still inclusive, because on the best nights, the really special nights, the strangers around us catch the pattern of what we're doing and cheerfully join in.

But Of Rider and Running Horses isn't just dancing at dance nights: it's dancing in the kitchen in the midst of washing up, peeling off rubber gloves and whirling around in the space between the counters, however tight, and singing, singing at the top of your voice, not caring how wonky the notes are. It's dancing at the bus stop because the sun is shining and the air is light, a lift of the heel, a tap of the toes, hands drumming a rhythm on your stomach or your thighs.

It's not walking but running, not for exercise, or to get somewhere faster, running just because, because the wind is blowing through you like you were made of gauze, because the air is charged with the coming of spring, because walking won't answer this rush of blood through your veins, so you run, pounding along the pavement, peeling off into back streets for a clearer path, run to the river so you can stand, breath ragged, gazing at the oily blue of the water and its glimmering lights, and look up into the sky and imagine it full of stars. It's running down hills and almost losing control, and doing cartwheels in the park even though you haven't done a cartwheel in years, and doing them makes you pull a fucking thigh muscle, but who cares, because that surge of elation inside needs this movement to honour it. It's being young, or it's remembering what it was to be young, and doing that in a way that isn't mournful but celebratory, that remembers you don't have to stop being young, or dancing, or running, or behaving with abandon, just because the years are ticking on.

And because it's directed by Dan Canham, Of Riders and Running Horses is also the memory of 30 Cecil Street, and the communities that form around and through dancing, and the charge that those spaces for dancing carry; it has moments of stillness and reflection like that show had, moments when four of the women peel away and a single body remains, contemplative, wondering, gathering resources, and those moments of calm make the return of the group more vibrant, more rapturous and alive.

And because Dan's associate director is Laura Dannequin, Of Riders and Running Horses is watching Action Hero's Hoke's Bluff for the second time, and realising that the tight-lipped person playing the football referee, so sharp with the whistle, hands slicing the air like scythes, was the same person who had performed a solo piece called Hardy Animal, about experiencing chronic back pain, that was so quiet and so beautiful, not a trace of self-pity in it, just a matter-of-fact discussion of what it is to live with pain, and how blundering most people's questions and sympathies and expectations around that are (I winced a lot watching it, remembering occasions when I had blundered the same way), its movements carefully weighted, warm and generous in its manipulations of the spine. And it's watching Hoke's Bluff for the third time, and properly appreciating how taut and precise Dannequin's movements, her referee not quite emotionless but outside the story in a way that allows Gemma and James to embrace wholeheartedly its longing for a better way of living together, a better way of dreaming, a better way of being young.

And because one of the two musicians is Sam Halmarack, Of Riders and Running Horses is those two blissful, heart-bursting nights watching him play with the Miserablites – the absolute fucking wonder of the Miserablites being us, the audience – all making the show together, playing songs together like it's the simplest thing in the world. I love Sam's voice: there's something unearthly about it, a note of such sadness harmonised with a note of such hope. As he sang the first song tonight, there was a bit of my brain back in Edinburgh with Tassos Stevens, singing the inexplicably euphoric chorus to the Miserablites' finale: “Three in the back, two in the front, this is how we drive when we're going to the concert”. And at the end, Of Riders and Running Horses does exactly what Sam does in that show: it invites everyone on to the dance floor, and the release of that is exhilarating.

Of Riders and Running Horses is all of these things and none of them. It's the first time I ever saw a video of people breakdancing, the hours I've spent watching dancers from the 60s on youtube, the dreams I once had of moving to New York. It's X every time I've danced lindy with a partner so brilliant I forgot I can't actually do it. Of Riders and Running Horses is the best fun I've had dancing while not actually dancing. It is nothing that I think it is and everything you think it is. One thing, definitely: it is a thing of total joy. 

[And in case you're wondering, the soundtrack to this post is:

and now I have to make myself go to bed and not dance until dawn.] 

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Errors big and small

Things that made me cry in the first three days of October:

The first and 11th rooms in the Agnes Martin exhibition at Tate Modern.
A kind email from Laura McDermott.
The final page of Jenny Offill's book 17 Things I'm Not Allowed To Do Any More.
Telling my beloved friend Mary about the final page of Jenny Offill's book 17 Things I'm Not Allowed To Do Any More.
Catching sight of the sea in the middle of the Barbara Hepworth exhibition at Tate Britain.
An email I was sent in 2012.
My daughter complaining that school is a waste of time.
Talking through my work schedule with my mum.
The warmth of the autumn sun pouring through the window as I sat at the computer.
The final three minutes of text in This Is How We Die, just before the music kicks in.

I didn't cry in Dan Bye's new show Going Viral, which is just as well, because the plot of it hinges on a contagious outbreak of uncontrollable crying and I would have felt ridiculous and exposed – especially as it was performed in an intimate circle and I had no one to hide behind. But then, to cry would have been against the central premise of the piece: that I – like every other member of the audience – am the protagonist, a man in his 30s from the north of England, who found out some months before that a friend had died. Who hasn't since been able to cry. Or hasn't made the space and time in his life to cry, to grieve, to absorb the impact of that death. During the show, Dan wafts a freshly chopped onion beneath his nose (at least, he would have done in Margate, except he mislaid it, and I was glad), has someone tweeze hairs out of his arm, and chews a chunk of red chilli pepper, and each time pushes against any impulse to cry. Both the attempt and the repression disturb.

I've seen another show by Dan this year, also about someone grieving: Error 404, his children's show about a boy of maybe 10 years old whose best friend is killed in an accident. The boy's mother being a robot scientist, she builds him a replacement, plugging the friend's Facebook feed into the machine's hard-drive so that its store of anecdotes, experiences, likes and dislikes matches exactly the memories the boy has of his friend. And the question of how much children's lives are splayed out online, what that exposure might mean as they grow up, wasn't even at the forefront of the show: it had too much else going on for that. Its text was a bathe in elemental philosophy: for some questions, such as “what are feelings?” it posited a few possible answers, but mostly it left them open, to contemplate over the course of life. For instance (and I write this from the residue of memory, not the record of notes): does who we are define our actions, or do our actions define who we are? To what extent does a person's past cement their future? What does it mean to be human, and humane, and the opposite of those things? What do we mean by good and evil, and are these things inherent in a person's character, in the wiring of their brain? I'm not generally a reader of parenting manuals, but I do have one, How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, and I return to it often, it's so full of wisdom, not just in terms of how to be a better parent but how to be a better person. One of its most useful tenets is to avoid labelling or entrenching a child by attaching adjectives to them, naming instead the behaviour: not “you're naughty” or “you're thoughtless” but “that behaviour was naughty” or “that action was thoughtless”. Telling someone they are stupid, or clumsy, or mean, trains the brain to believe it and act accordingly.

What made Error 404 even more special was that the whole show is a conversation with its audience, at least with its child audience. I saw it on an odd day, when there were barely eight of us in the room: my daughter, inclined to hold back, tried hiding behind another family but Dan found gentle ways of drawing her out. Inviting the children to shape story details – the games the boy plays with his friend, the names of characters, the particular “badness” of one of the adults – tells them it's “their” story; inviting them to address those philosophical questions as the plot unfolds tells them that we haven't gathered for adults to ponder big, tricky stuff above their heads, but that they, too, have the capacity for such thought and adults are interested in their perspective. Which again, isn't something children are told every day.

What they do have to deal with every day is how to interact with friends: how to cope with that person who's a bit annoying, how to navigate or settle argument, how to manage the instinct to compete. And this becomes the driving question of Error 404: is it better for the boy to be friends with a robot who is emotionally fixed or another child who challenges and disrupts, who surprises and cheers but also disappoints? Is it better to communicate through text (whether by phone, email, or social media) or in person, where words are more raw, and sentences more complicated, and feelings more vulnerable, and you have to really listen, and be present, and give attention? The gap between what I know to be the answer and how I actually behave gets bigger every year.

This thought carries through to Going Viral, when Dan/the character mentions how the news of his friend's death reached him: in a text message. I try to imagine the impulse of the person sending the text: the desire for speed of communication overriding or even erasing concern for how the person receiving it might feel. It reminded me of the gut-punch moment in I Wish I Was Lonely, when Hannah Jane Walker confessed telling her partner that she had miscarried their child in a text message; in retrospect she recognised it was callous, but at the time it was reflex, the medium she used automatically to share information with him. I'm writing this while also trying to put together some thoughts on how the internet and everything it makes possible has affected my relationship with time, and the day before seeing Going Viral I read two pieces that, I think, reflect directly the strand of thought Dan weaves in here. One is the speech by David Foster Wallace that calls on people to be less self-obsessed and more solicitous towards others; the second is a piece from the London Review of Books by Rebecca Solnit on how modern communications have changed human character. Both convey a fear that, as a species, we've forgotten how to care for each other. How to care about each other. We've lost track of our responsibility for each other's welfare. We struggle to see beyond the screens of our mobile phones. And of course it's possible to feel strong connections with people through social media – by the power of twitter, I know more about Megan Vaughan on any given day than anyone else of my acquaintance. But that anyone else includes two of my closest friends, both of whom are living with depression, and get scant support from me, because giving that support is a fuckload harder than flicking through my twitter feed. [Thinking back on this the day after publishing, I realise that even in saying this, I'm letting myself off the more difficult hook: of being truthful about how hard I'm finding it at the moment being with my kids. No matter that I love them: their noise, their demands, their exuberance, their sheer human presence, feel overwhelming, exhausting, suffocating. And that is the very worst thing.]

The virus at the heart of Going Viral could be the fanciful thing Dan describes – the contagion of crying – or it could be social media, which creates the impression of human contact even as it erodes it. Then again, the virus could be the hardening of humanity seen in a violent disregard for the plight of refugees, sometimes expressed as compassion fatigue, and/or the “viral” images (such as the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, face down in sand) that shock people back into outraged sympathy, however temporary; or it could be a pervasive feeling of negativity induced by late-capitalism and austerity and widening poverty; or the vile and violent hold that media narratives have over public imagination; or the failure of white middle-class Europeans to take responsibility for the ongoing aftershocks of colonialism. I'd love to say I had all these thoughts on my own, but I was having an odd night of riveted concentration interrupted by spasmodic droops, the result of chronic lack of sleep and incipient lurgy, and can't lay claim to anything with any confidence; instead, these are the things I remember from the audience discussion prompted by Going Viral. Unlike in Error 404, that discussion didn't happen within the show itself, although in its own way it's established as a space of dialogue, Dan beginning by asking us, “how are you?” and passing around a bottle of antibacterial hand gel – which brings the spectre not only of virus into the room, but bacteria, particularly those like MRSA resistant to antibiotics, and acknowledges the delicacy of the systems that keep us in health, and how our actions unbalance them, putting us at risk.

No: the real discussion happened afterwards, in the theatre club, hosted not by me but by an amazing woman called Anna, one of the new Margate volunteers in a national network Fuel are setting up as a legacy of the New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood touring research project that I've been working on since 2013. I went along to give Anna moral support, which she didn't really need, because she was bloody brilliant. She got a room of 15 people talking with real consideration and sometimes acute honesty about how they responded to the show, what it raised for them, what it made them think. (She's also now written a lovely blog about the night for the NTiYN site I curate.) A couple of people related the show to their experiences of depression; one man said he now protects himself by paying no attention whatsoever to the media, describing the same bubble I've chosen to inhabit. I had to run for the London train while he was speaking, so never found out whether his argument that we shouldn't beat ourselves up for a failure of responsibility towards others was a reminder that we can work at a micro, local level to make people's lives better, and that is as worthwhile as bigger political actions, or a classic conservative argument for looking after you and yours first and leaving society whatever-that-is to take care of itself. But that uncertainty, too, is what I love about theatre club: that it holds conflicting viewpoints together, in a space that is open, generous, and considerate.

Andrew Latimer's exceptional review of Going Viral – so good that, on reading it, I had to stop myself deleting every word of this post, and would have were it not for the fact that this is what I've been doing while stealing time away from my children, and I've got to have something to show for it, however inadequate – addresses this question of space particularly well: Dan, he writes, “asks us to think deeply about the nature of space, not only how diseases or hysteria or empathy may travel through and across it … but how microcommunities reveal a tremendous amount about how we construct proximities, borders and emotional shields on one hand but compassion on the other”. X

I feel sad that I'm in the process of handing over theatre club in the NTiYN towns; but it's a useful, concrete sadness, unlike the vaguer melancholy that was triggering all those tears early in the month. The problem, I realised, was a lack of space in my life: space for thinking, resting, writing except to deadline. I've been forcing myself to sleep more, to write this despite a strangling feeling that my voice is completely off, to ignore twitter and add a few stitches to the dress I'm sewing instead. One of the best decisions I made this month was squeezing in the Agnes Martin exhibition at Tate Modern. It was extraordinary for being all space: her tight grids and scrupulous geometries create order so that your brain can pass beyond them, freer. The canvases in the first room are fairly large and very still: bands of soft pastel colour, washed into lambency, reverent as dawn, placid as the evening sun sinking into a calm inviting sea. Sure enough, the same palette coloured Margate that evening, more saturated but just as soothing. But maybe soothing is the wrong word: my chest felt choked in this exhibition, as though, in showing me stillness, meditation, transcendence, Martin's paintings reminded me how much weight presses on me elsewhere. The paintings in Room 11, a suite that Martin stated should always be exhibited together, drew you in with their simplicity and slight differences, invited you to seek out their infelicities and small errors, encouraged fortitude in the acceptance of human mistakes.

I started writing this on a train to Darlington for This Is How We Die at the Jabberwocky festival; it's since travelled with me to Coventry for Weaklings, to Birmingham for Fierce and particularly Selina Thompson's probing, fearless and vital Race Cards, and now it's on its way to Plymouth for Men in the Cities (revisited). In that 10 days I've also seen dreamthinkspeak's Absent, a show as insubstantial yet evocative and intricate in construction as a couture ballgown sewn in tulle; Igor and Moreno's A Room for All Our Tomorrows, by turns obstreperous, comical, tender and pensive, so rich in potential meaning that several distinct interpretations emerged during the theatre club I hosted after (my favourite was my friend Jake's, who read it as a portrait of the struggle for gay rights); Kandinsky's Dog Show, which gnawed at the bit of me that desperately wants to get a dog, but otherwise was completely delightful, a story about companionship and community and objectionable violence told through human and canine characters, all played to precision by the ensemble of four, plus song and noise and flashing lights and clarinet from onstage musician Zac Gvirtzman that was sometimes like Szechuan pepper and sometimes like caramel; and Eilidh MacAskill's Stud, which was basically one long dick gag but infinitely smarter than that makes it sound. I want to write so much more about them: need to, I suspect, to feel like I'm not just gobbling up other people's stuff but digesting it; to feel like I'm making something, whatever this is, of my own. (On that, since writing this I've also had a rare gig with my dance group, and there are some hilarious/excruciating pictures of me pulling shapes on this blog: for a retro 60s group, turns out we can have a lot of fun with indie classics.) Also in that 10 days, Matt Trueman wrote a column for What's On Stage wondering how criticism accounts for the shows that don't make much of an impact in the moment of seeing them but continue gnawing at you days and weeks and months later. It reminded me, in the midst of berating myself for failing to keep up with other theatre writers, that I'm trying to do something different to the prevalent culture of criticism; and that resistance, and isolationism, is the subject of Going Viral as well.