Ella Road’s The Phlebotomist (currently playing at Hampstead Theatre) is part of a growing trend of plays dealing with surviving the everyday. It has thematic resonances with Mike Bartlett’s Game, Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin and Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, all plays that put the desperate desire to create a stable home in conflict with the responsibilities we have to future generations. Continue reading “The Domesticated Survival Play”
This post was originally published on the CityLIS Blog
The University of Malta’s fifth annual School of Performing Arts Conference was held on 7th-9th March. The title of this year’s conference was Cities, Embodiments and Technologies. The conference sought to generate debate on the how the relationship between performance (in its broadest sense) and culture can be articulated. Cities, Embodiments and Technologies were treated as frames through which speakers were invited to reflect and debate on how identities can manifest in the context of globalisation, and what impact our interconnected world has on the ways we understand history to intersect with the politics of the present.
I was part of the Performance Documentation and Intertextuality panel and presented a paper on the DocPerform Project. My goal was to explain the origins of the project and its goal to address the language barrier that exists between information professionals and performance scholar practitioners. I couched my paper in the context of digital culture, with its attendant themes of participation, technological connectivity, and open-ended art works. I also discussed the opportunities for knowledge innovation and models of practice research my role as artist in residence at CityLIS presents.
The other speakers on my panel were Marc Kosciejew and Marta Botana. Marc argued that performance and documentation enjoyed a symbiotic relationship whereby documentation can constitute a performance, a process creates a continuum of reality. Marta discussed her dance practice in the context of training one to feel connected to a site by treating the body as an intertextual phenomenon.
I couldn’t hope to try and precis all of the papers I heard, but I’d like to focus on a few key ideas and moments that really stood out for me.
Professor Maria Delgado opened the conference with her keynote paper ‘Performing Barcelona: Cultural Tourism, Geography and Identity’. Arguing that the iconography of Barcelona is bound up with theatricality, Professor Delgado cited the 1992 Olympic Games as an event that allowed the city to perform its identity on a world stage. The 1990s saw an unprecedented vogue for street art, a phenomena that was redolent of Barcelona’s strong traditional of performing outside of established arts venues in illegitimate spaces. This gives the city a porous identity. Tourists become readers when they visit Barcelona by inserting themselves in the topographical performance. Barcelona, in a sense, is a hypertext city that remains perpetually open to new formations.
The mutability of contested space was a theme picked up by Sophie Van der Bergh who addressed the tension between locationality and non-place in relation to the Iranian-Belgian artist Sachli Gholamalizad’s piece (Not) My Paradise. The performance concerns her grandparent’s migration rom Iran and the inability of any ethnic diaspora to completely leave behind the connection they feel with their home soil. Home becomes a fluid concept, one not necessarily rooted to a location but more akin to the preservation of memory and stories.
Babel Re-Play is a large scale practice research project based in cities across South Africa and Switzerland. The tower of the mythical Babel acts as a metaphor for the investigators to explore how the nomad, the figure who is forever wandering without a home, disrupts to hegemony of the cityscape by resisting becoming part of its textuality, which is to say it’s formal construction. In this sense, the nomad stands opposed to modernity by retaining their links with ancient myth. Using WhatsApp, Georges Pfruender, Cynthia Kros and David Peimar exchange images and films of the built environment in order to bring “the periphery to the centre”. The project uses WhatsApp as a cyberspuare, a digital environment that fulfils the function of a town square by allowing multiple actors to convene and share stories and experiences. The algorithm controls how much nomadic thinking can occur.
The final keynote was given by Professor Ann Cooper Albright who shared her research into the epistemologies of falling and its links with images and memories of 9/11. During her presentation, Ann showed us images of those who fell from the Twin Towers and reflected on the ways these pictures had come to symbolise a moment of global disorientation. The memorials erected in the days after the attacks can be read as an attempt to make sense of the incomprehensible atrocity the world witnessed that day.
I selected these moments because they have some resonance with the concerns and interests of those who work in the LIS field.
The gentrification Barcelona has undergone, for instance, has a powerful effect on how visitors and residents read the city. Delineating between legitimate and illegitimate forms of art runs the risk of making those artists who don’t fall within the former category invisible to the wider public. Documenting their practice becomes a necessity if they are to carve out spaces for themselves from where their art work can be encountered and experienced as part of Barcelona’s heterodox identity.
Proffering the city as text has wider implications for the ways non-text documents can be made to construct national identities for a public who may want to resist the conformity of the topography they traverse in their everyday lives. The figure of the nomad carries their home inside of them. Drifting through cyberspace makes nomads of all of us; we all create temporary homes and identities that possess a presence not contingent on the presence of the body to effectuate change in the environment we inhabit. The digital nomad can disrupt the homogeneity of cyberspace by giving the outside world a temporary home in the highly ordered and regulated environment. The outside brings new readings and knowledge to bear on how the web constitutes a home and a site where futures of our global future can be imagined and brought into being.
The commentary that an event with such a global scale as 9/11 possesses can sometimes obfuscate the experience of the individuals who experience such events first hand. The unofficial memorials that follow episodes of trauma and grief give a voice to the personal, which when erected in public spaces act as an attempt to keep living memory in a dialogue with official narratives and pronouncements. As documents, they function as the first attempt to formalise memories of the dead using public spaces as a site of collective contemplation.
Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 movie Network has been adapted for the stage by playwright Lee Hall. Network tells the story of Howard Beale, a middle of the road, middle aged, going nowhere fast American news anchor on the UBS network. One day he announces live on air that he will kill himself on his last broadcast. Howard explains that he has a deficit of bullshit in his life:
Bullshit is all the reasons we give for living and if we can’t think up any reasons of our own, we always have the God bullshit…We don’t know why we’re going through all this pointless pain, humilitation and decay, so there better be someone who does know. That’s the God bullshit.
(Hall, 2017, p.24)
Against all expectations, Howard becomes a hit. His producer Diana realises that he is able to articulate the popular rage of the public. The Howard Beale show becomes a connective tissue of anger and discontent for an audience who can no longer make sense of the world:
We sit in the house and slowly the world we live in gets smaller and all we ask is, please, at least leave us alone in our own living rooms. Let me have my toaster and teevee and my hair dryer and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything, just leave us alone. Well, I’m not going to leave you alone. I want you to get mad.
Television pales in comparison to the power of the internet in terms of it’s ubiquity in our everyday lives, but the principle that the valence of truth is contingent upon our perception of reality still holds, and the news remains a vital means of communicating a truth the public can believe in.
Network envisages a world that has dispensed with ideology, politics, nations, cultures, and has been replaced – in the words of the head of the UBS network, Mr Jensen – by the “endless, inexorable movement of money” (ibid, p.67). The media is the sole producer of truth and ideas have become defunct.
The brilliance of Network is to show that a litany of facts and statistics – whose been assassinated, what price the dollar is at, who said what in a speech – does not constitute the truth as people experience it in their daily lives. Information means little if we don’t believe in it’s veracity. When the facts stop making sense, all we have left is our gut instincts, a feeling that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. But Diana recognises that cynicism about the world isn’t enough to stir an audience’s emotions. The popular rage of the public does not just manifest in feelings of fear and resentment, but of a desire for change; for control. When the media tells the public that the only change can come from watching more news, which externalises their anxieties into an informational silo, the real world becomes the news.
Jan Versweyveld and Tal Yarden’s sublime design for the National Theatre production brilliantly creates a world of screens that fracture the audience’s perception of where the real action is taking place. Spectators can frantically search for the live actors admist a mass of cameras and microphones and still fail to find them. The audience are forced to watch most the action on a huge screen upstage. The effect is a double mediation of Network’s fictional reality. Howard’s paranoid proclamations of an America in crisis are made televisual flesh as a live broadcast.
The presience of Chayefsky’s writing is eerie. Bryan Cranston channels the conspiratorial tones of Fox News anchors in his description of America losing it’s greatness by selling it off to the highest bidder. The homely conspiratorial relationship he creates with the audience is reminiscent of Glenn Beck’s bizarre 9.12 project – an undefined programme for reinvigorating patriotism that harnesses the public trauma of a terrorist attack.
Chayefsky not only foresaw how the media could be weaponised by terrorist groups to spread fear and propaganda but also understood how capitalist economies can absorb such horror and refract it back to the public as entertainment. To boost the flailing UBS’s flailing ratings Diana pitches an idea for a TV show, The Terror Hour, which would show a film released by a terrorist group followed by interviews with the friends and family of the berieved. It is rejected outright by the editors, but the basic premise of The Terror Hour is one we can now choose to experience online. 9/11 was the first mediated terrorist attack broadcast in live time. Films of ISIS executions have become a recurrent feature on the news and can be accessed in a few clicks. Good taste is just a matter of finding the right medium.
The information ecology Network depicts is one that does not seek to explain the world but to embed the TV audience deeper and deeper in the information web of insatiable consumerism. Freedom in this ecology can only be expressed as a chant:
I’M MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE.
No action can follow this chant because ignorance, rage and fear are the natural order of things. The only reality is money, and once we grow tired of buying things we start to consume ourselves until our individual voice gets lost in the noise of the crowd. As Howard tells the audience in the manner of a wise father helping his children grow up, the real world works by
accepting that we are not the emperors of ourselves, we are bees in the hive, it’s not our individuality which makes us rich, but communality. We must ask how we can advance the whole rather than ourselves, each of us just a tiny node in the grand, glorious network.
(Hall, 2017, p.70).
This superb production tells us that it is not enough to know that information can entrap us inside informational silos; the internet isn’t going anywhere. What matters is arguing for a media that does not package our feelings into stories that amplify our fears into a collective howl of ecsatic rage. Network is a powerful response to our post-truth moment and leaves the audience yearning for more thinking and less feeling in our political culture.
Hall, L. (2017) Network. London: Faber and Faber
Immersive theatre has become a popular term in the UK over the past decade. It encompasses quite a broad range of performance practices, but at it’s most basic immersive theatre denotes performances that occur around the audience, who unlike in conventional theatre spaces experience the piece by moving inside a fictional world.But immersion does not just denote spatial characteristics. Participation is also a common trope, where artists aim to give audiences some agency over how they experience the story they are immersed inside of.
Our story picks up in the winter of 2011. After the CEDAR project wrapped up in February, I was asked to re-validate a level 2 module on the drama degree course at UEL with a colleague, Conan Lawrence. Conan had presented a paper at UEL’s Performing the Archive conference entitled ‘Performing the Archive: Reflections from an Archive Aware Performance Process’ where he uses Bourriad’s figure of the “semionaut” as a metaphor of archival navigation; a process of creating pathways through signs as a method of tacit knowledge (Lawrence, 2010).