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Summer in the City

summer2014

‘Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other thing that will be discovered by the present generation of artists. Not only will these bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world we have always had about us but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard-of happenings and events.’
          Allan Kaprow (The Legacy of Jackson Pollock)

This is not the first Summer.

Back in 2014 Quarantine made the first iteration of Summer in a warehouse near Islington Mill. A group of people from many walks of life walked into a rehearsal room, shared food, thoughts and quite a bit of themselves. During the course of making, different things were tried out: exercises, experiments, provocative questions and strange instructions.  Some must have resonated (‘cause they are still in the show that’s being made now), others became starting points or ghostly after-images. Glimpsed only if you know where to look and lived the context.

In the old warehouse, there were few traces of what had occupied the space before. By contrast, this space is an onion-skin world of fragments. The theatre (our theatre) is inside a studio, the studio is a sound stage (was a sound stage), outside the sound stage is a street that isn’t a street (and on the other side is a street that is a street). Underneath the dance floor that is our stage, there are different patterns made to be different places. There is the floor that was the Rovers, marked and worn from hundreds of bar-tending steps. There is a pattern that looks like it might have been a kitchen or a shop. There are no walls. Where the bar is now, was apparently once Underworld. Affectionately known as the knicker factory (affectionately by our crew, I don’t know enough about Corrie to know what it’s called in that world). The map is the same size as the territory, although with a wildly different periphery – a hinterland of control rooms, dressing rooms and office space.

If you align your eyes with a particular camera angle a new setting might appear, like one of those magic eye pictures, or a sculpture that when it rotates resolves into the Channel 4 logo. Move, and it collapses, becomes faded marks on a floor, some intercom buttons that ring no bells, or a set of bins outside the back of a building (yes they are bins, but they’re also prop bins, is all the rubbish real?). These are outlines of tracing paper plans, overlaid until they are simply a jumble of accidental shapes. A map so heavily marked with journeys, notes and possibilities it’s no longer possible to decipher where it is.

It’s a space that’s been many places. Now, somehow, it’s our place. A place we inhabit for a short while, an everyday place, one where our individual paths in space and time collide. In this palace of make believe our backdrop is each other, a selection of chairs and tables, some cups and bottles of water, pens, balloons, cardboard signs, microphones, lights and occasionally some tantalising text on the screen above. Towards the end we’ll bring out our props. Objects selected from a list of categories long enough to mean no one person could have picked one of every type, yet deliberately incomplete – urging surprise (a manikin, a hoover, a tent). Whilst we rearrange them, we’ll try to make sense, as you will.

Both from the stage and from the seats – gravitas and significance is mashed up with accidental juxtaposition and misaligned farce. Between us we create meaning: what is this to you?

It all depends on your point of view.

Bins-4900

‘This is also to say that the stable worlds in which we seem to live are quite fragile. In our daily relationships we encounter only partial persons, fragments that we mistakenly presume to be whole personalities. Stability and coherence are generated in our co-active agreements. But these agreements are not binding, and disruptions can occur at any moment.’
          Kenneth Gergen (Relational Beings)

The company describe this work (and the Quartet that it begins) as ‘a piece of mass portraiture’. In what might be described as a traditional portrait – all gilt frame and brush-strokes – an artist orients the subject in a particular pose. The background (and other props) provide this context, and between them tell that story. For the spectator, meaning is forged in a moment of looking: a little reflection, and some unconscious bias might add to a well-travelled narrative. You move on, the picture remains (and will be there when you return).

Here, the portraits talk back, and their unlikely answers might puncture a preconceived idea, challenge a foregone conclusion or reinforce an attitude. These are fractal portraits. In every movement or word a tiny fragment of someone is revealed, at the same time exposing a glimpse of the iceberg mass of their past, their present and everything that took them from their beginning to now, to standing here, on this stage, looking back at you.

This is time travelling 3d portraiture, a randomised sequence of continuous, generous and temporary tableaux vivant, (or that bit in Donnie Darko where the main character’s future visibly bursts from his belly and traces a path through space).

And there are moments where our roles slip, between your spectatorship of us and our opportunity to look at you. There’s always enough light to see the audience from the stage, and sometimes in the stillness these portraits look back. Not as a vicious disruption, this is comfortable, almost. A kind of re-balancing act, in which the viewer and the viewed are somehow, briefly, equalised. It’s a beckoning stance, an invitation to be a part of a fleeting community. To zoom out, to extend the map.

The group on stage for this run is made up of some folks from the first Summer and others who are entirely new to the project. A temporary but coherent family. Quite astonishing is the speed with which this group coalesced. Those returning from the old Summer aren’t old lags or veterans, folks who’ve just come in aren’t newbies or neophytes. The continual shift of conversation, fertilised with countless questions, a freedom to interpret instructions and ask questions back – not to mention the extended family supper we share every time we meet – makes for a safe and inquisitive space. Long lost aunts and cousins embraced in a communal dance.

 Intercom-

‘Theatre can be what we want and need it to be in order to meet audiences and look them straight in the eyes with a question and an attempt to talk about what it’s like to live in this world now.’
          Tim Etchells (Programme Notes)

A thread that runs through the quartet is that of the asking and answering of questions. During Summer’s rehearsal process, disarmingly snuck in whilst the performers are tucking into a splendid tea, pieces of paper marked with questions are found on the table. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten? What’s your favourite karaoke song? Where is the furthest place from here you’ve ever visited? What’s the point?

There are no wrong answers, we’re told.

This process normalises and accelerates the discovery process of conversation. It helps build nascent friendships, and feeds curiosity. It brings nuance and agency to disclosure, and helps us share experiences. At a TEDx talk in 2014, teacher and author Antony Lishak described the most common fear amongst primary school children was of getting the answers wrong. This extends to us all in a tick-boxed world, where you and your Uber drive rate each other against arbitrary standards, we are encouraged to judge every purchase, every transaction, and those primary school children are chided for not knowing grammatical constructs their parents would struggle with.

The environment generated by the people of Summer calmly and beautifully disrupts this process, allows us to dip out of a world of harsh binaries, to let go of certainties and embrace the sublime vastness of each other’s experience.

Are you a member of a group?
Yes. This one.

One dinner time a small group of us talk about performance. Someone had read the programme where it described us Summer folk as ‘performers’ and thought that this was suddenly perplexing, an unusual additional pressure. Is what we do performance? Instructed and questioned, moving about a stage, talking in front of an audience. What is performance?

So let’s do the basics one more time. What are the rules of theatre?
Some people do something. The others watch, listen, try to be there.
Anything else we need to know?
Not really, no.
          Tim Etchells

We perform ourselves, any theorist can tell you, we play a different role in front of the bank manager and the Aldi cashier, show a different side to our grandmother, best friend, lover or that bloke in front of you in the queue.

We’re a different person in front of an audience.

Yet, from strong foundations, and a generous heart, this work – this labour of Summer – allows us to perform a version of ourselves for you that’s a little bit more intimate, a little bit more revealing and perhaps a little better than we think. Embracing nuance and complexity, finding ourselves in amongst the similarly intricate lives of family, friends and strangers, there are no simple answers and that’s ok.

‘The whole thing exudes warmth, and a valuably impolite yet delicate and searching curiosity about what it is that makes us human. Tonight and tomorrow the show will be different. Because that’s how life is…’
     Lyn Gardner, The Guardian on Summer. June 2014

My Song for Summer …

Other points of view:
Steven Bowler, Manchester Salon

Take me to the Theatre

I’m writing this is in part a response to Matt Trueman’s recent post on Bad Theatre, although his article has really just catalysed this post about a bunch of things I’ve been thinking about for a while.

David Essex in Mutiny the stage show.

When I was 14 this was Bad Theatre (may still be).

An argument against Bad Theatre appears to be the terrible things it does to its audiences, both in potentia and in the auditorium. Things that will put them off of theatre for life. Although, this feels like a kind of curious catch 22, as I suspect few aim to make something truly awful. In the vicious caldron of making there are and will always be many hoops and hurdles, infighting and misunderstanding, collisions of vision and form. Not to mention a financial landscape that almost guarantees a short rehearsal schedule, shortcuts in design, equipment and crew.  Some may elect not to show something at all if it falls short of their own quality control, but the majority of theatre that comes under the Bad banner is likely to be viewed as good by at least one person producing it.

Of course, audiences are hardly a homogenous bunch: one audience members meat is likely another’s veganism, and I know decades of watching live performance have spoiled me rotten. When I don’t like a show, I might roll my eyes, sneakily tweet something bitter or even walk out – but I’d like to hope I wouldn’t question whether it should have been made. On reflection, and after a pint, I’d rather things were experimented: and if some strange charms crystallised on stage and made someones night (even whilst they smeared shit over mine) then that’s still to be applauded. No one is born theatre, without some Bad under your belt, you might never get to great.

“If at first you don’t succeed, redefine success.” – The Riot Group

It’s also true the competitors for a live theatrical performance are manyfold: an evening in with Netflix, a night out at the pub, some kind of sporting event (oh those sporting events, why aren’t our theatre fans like the fans of those sporting events), dinner and a movie (or a popcorn fuelled livestream), walking the dog, curling up with a book, a nook or a comic, some Call of Duty or hanging out in Arkham.

The homogeneity of the Theatre: Slunglow’s White Whale, Daniel Kitson’s Tree, A Folded Path, Crystal Kisses, Puffball and David Hoyle

Yet a theatre event can be so many of those things: an adventure in the city, a sound walk finding the unknown in well trodden paths, screaming for the home team in Hoke’s Bluff, quietly reading in a library and finding a perfect echo. From Punchdrunk’s amusement parks to the lightweight fortune teller of an intimate one-on-one, there isn’t one theatre, there’s no single thing to dismiss.

Jo Bannon, Dogs of Heaven, David Rosenberg's Ring/Fiction

One Theatre: Jo Bannon, Dogs of Heaven, David Rosenberg’s Ring/Fiction

Yet even given this crazy variety and diversity, theatre and performance does appear to be frequently dismissed in a heartbeat: it is too often thought of as “posh people in pretty clothes speaking poetry”. In part I think that’s down to its marketing: so many shows are promoted with a picture and some theatrical language on a website, a tweet or two, some A5 flyers and a poster. Holding up perceived wisdom in an echo chamber. No wonder people bunch it all into one imagined category.

What’s the most cray cray, though, is this idea that to see one bad show is to screw it up for life.

I’m wary of a sporting metaphor, but who goes to a football match, watches a shit game then vows never to go again (or at least sobers up the next day still feeling that)? When you see an awful movie, would you shake your head and think ‘that form of entertainment is simply not for me’? Same goes for a music gig, or a comic book or a AAA video game. Did a bad school trip put you off travel for life?

This game is annoyingly cryptic and easy to screw up. I guess I'll never play a video game again.

This game is annoyingly cryptic and easy to screw up. I guess I’ll never play a video game again. Although the 174hrs I racked up in Skyrim suggests otherwise.

I recently suggested a good friend of mine should come see Chris Brett Bailey’s This is how we die. Rather than using the dreaded ‘spoken word’ phrase, I pitched it as a dark stand-up spoken by someone who spends most of the time sitting down. Interest piqued, she came and brought a friend. They both loved every minute. I’m minded to stop asking, cajoling and instructing folks they should come to the theatre: instead I’ll take a leaf out of Lyn’s book and buy them a ticket, or bring them to something open and inviting, something that’ll change their idea of what theatre can be (probably without even mentioning the word).

I don’t think it’s Bad Theatre that stops audiences coming, its more that theatre is always changing and evolving but we don’t necessarily change the way we ask people in. It’s difficult to think of another industry where the public perception of what it is and what it actually is differs so wildly.

Well, virtually no industry.

Perhaps not that difficult.

It’s a perception problem: right now a risk averse, tight belted population doesn’t want to take a punt on something that they may not like, or that they don’t think is for them. So drag them along, pay for their ticket and look out for venues that’ll help you with that.

The Albany sell £1 tickets at the local market, over at the HUB everything is Pay What You Think and at the Yard they’ve just announced a discount card for locals. I love these kinds of schemes, especially when a venue realises that they’re in control of who gets what concession, and that the concession rate can be something realistic – a £1 discount on a twenty quid ticket isn’t going to have the unemployed, the over 60s or students breaking down the barricades – but a £5 ticket scheme or a BOGOF just might.

Hopefully that way, next time your buddies see some Bad Theatre it won’t scar them for life – although it’ll might just lighten your wallet.

House of wonder

 … or what would you give for magic?

not for me, not for you, but for us

There wasn’t much in the way of theatre in Frimley. It’s a small town, smooshing into it’s neighbours to make a kind of suburban sprawl that grants every Englishman a small and homogenous castle.

I know my dad was a fan of Shakespeare, I know that because of the VHS tapes of every TV Lear and the battered Complete Works (which is now on my bookshelf). I don’t remember seeing much in the way of live performance growing up, the Yvonne Arnaud might have been a mite too far away; and the Camberley Civic Hall is more Mrs Lorna Timms Dance Class Spectacular than nights of Beckett and new writing.

This is live performance, round our way.

This is live performance, round our way.

What did happen with blessed regularity was that my mums BFF would take us up to the big city to see A Big Show sometime between Christmas and the New Year. Typically these were West End giants (I don’t remember many details – the terrible David Essex vehicle Mutiny seems to have stuck  – its splendid revolve getting nods of approval from father and son even whilst we itched to slink away). We snuck in some ballet too: a rapt teen, wide eyed with breath held tight witnessing Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet (which would make me a Prokofiev snob for decades).

Somewhere in there the performance magic stuck, imbued me with its wonder, vital and valued.

So when I came to return the favour, to take my brother’s children to a Big Show in the Big City, to take them somewhere where the enchantment could take hold and for them to see something they’d never seen the like of before (e.g. an awesome revolve) there really was only one choice. BAC.

midnights-pumpkin-large

Kneehigh’s Midnight’s Pumpkin at BAC

My disjointed family danced in the Grand Hall: In an interval filled with marvellous melody, the fanciest of fancy dress, and a thunder storm of children – hand claps just about keeping in time. Somewhere brimming with love, laughter and a multitude of balloons. (The teenagers finding themselves caught between embarrassment and joy – not knowing quite where to land).

Much later, once again in the Grand Hall, this time at Little Bulb’s Orpheus, I’d see my nephews eyes so wide it was like he couldn’t open them more; and my niece grinning like the cat with all the cream.

Orpheus, Little Bulb Theatre

Orpheus, Little Bulb Theatre

There are precious few places with this much energy and power; where creatures of the imagination live and play. It’s a creaking, crackling, multi-chambered heart – pulsating with glitter, blood, passion and hope; pumping out into the world sometimes a balm, sometimes a virus. It’s also a coffee shop, cafe and meeting place – and through doorways and up stairwells I’ve glimpsed mums, dads and kids, bespeckled professor Yaffles, scarfed students and staff – all kinds of folks of all ages just getting on with stuff.

Chris Brett-Bailey - This is How We Die

Chris Brett-Bailey – smashing good fun

I haven’t visited as much as I’d like; but enough to know the place is enchanted: It’s where I saw Lemn Sissay’s incredible Something Dark play to its first London crowds, where I first met Megan, where I bumped into Jon Spooner at a matinee and where we slightly uncomfortably tried to work out which of these young’uns around us were each others kids like we somehow should have known, where I saw Chris Brett-Bailey smash a glass to death and where I was taken into the dark and felt the furniture re-arrange itself around me.

It’s a home and a working place to artists of all stripes, a natural London springboard for ground-breaking projects such as A Nation’s Theatre and youth empowerment scheme the Agency. I’d be surprised if there was a performance maker, programmer or critic in the country who’s first thought on hearing the word ‘scratch’ is anything to do with an itch.

On Friday this precious dream took a punch to the gut. It burned, but did not up in smoke. By Saturday, the Grand Hall all but destroyed, the front of building was already open once again. The show did go on (more than one as it turns out). There’s a big road to travel, as Mary Halton writes here, but there are supporters everywhere – filled with love and belief. David Jubb’s message, in the wake of these events, is both presidential and revolutionary – the new chapter starts here and it starts now.

I’m writing this on Mothers’ Day, when every year we’ll send a token of love, support and esteem to someone you wouldn’t be here without. Thanks to the National Funding Scheme (NFS); this is where you can give money to help the #BACPhoenix rise.

I doubt the idea of ‘pay what you think it is worth‘ has ever been stronger.

 


 

More from Lyn Gardner, Mary Halton, Jake Orr, Catherine Love, and Dan Rebellato.

Northern Powerhouse

UpBaloon

Architects render of Northern Powerhouse (as supplied by Alan Lane)

There’s been talk.

The politicians from the capital have started their pre-election, regional tour.

Nick Clegg – in a radical piece of recursion – instructed the Manchester creative-entrepreneur-set to ape Berlin and ‘use vacant buildings as a base for arty start-ups and collectives‘, which came as some surprise to author and DJ Dave Haslam who points out that the Berlin model had been, at the very least, influenced by Manchester’s creative use of space.

There’s been a call to arms from the chancellor: The cities of the North must come together, because ‘in a modern, knowledge-based, economy city size matters like never before.’ In a service economy which promised shiny new jobs to take the place of the the old and mucky ones outsourced by the epic footsteps of globalisation. Yet automation and algorithm short-changed the new-jobs-for-old-mantra; the precious skilled up and rejuvenated workforce seem to have ended up shelf-stacking and amazon-picking.

Its not quite what I’d imagined. As a kid the future promised space travel and hover-cars, it promised a utopia where robots would do all the menial jobs leaving us to truly find our potential. Then the robots turned out to be us, and rather than striving to make the world a better place we ended up unemployed.

Still it doesn’t stop me enjoying the phrase Northern Powerhouse.

In my head it looks a bit like this:

Northern Powerhouse. Final version released to planning.

Northern Powerhouse. Final version released to planning.

Actually, and despite where the phrase originates, I really think it’s a super, smashing, sensitive, sensual explosion of culture stuff. There’s a wealth in the talent of the North, sloshing about the place like messy puddles in rain. Ongoing and nascent collaborations are happening fast and loose all over the region. In fact, whilst the push for partnerships from central government, arts council and other funders comes from a place of austerity – delivery of more bang for less buck – it does appear to have provided a bit of a nudge when it comes to developing opportunities for new and brilliant associations and relationships between artists, venues, producers, audiences and participants.

Necessity being the mother of inspiration.

Of course the Powerhouse is actually already here, and it’s built not with bricks and finance – but with tendril connections between the folks of QuarantineSlunglow, Forced Entertainment, Third Angel, 20 Stories High, Eggs Collective, Invisible Flock, Unlimited (and on and on); between those established and those brand new – corralling new audiences from new places. Its in the changes of what performance can be and is, and perhaps in the migration of all kinds of people away from a capital which holds houses and flats as uncle Scrooge’s investment, not homes.

scrooge-mcduck-money-bin

Typical London apartment block.

Recently Lyn Gardner wrote a lovely piece about work at Sadler’s Wells that took the eminently pragmatic view that in developing future audiences the best place to start is at the beginning, building “strong work for children and families”. The difficulties and the joys of programming for families and children are also touched upon by Maddy Costa in her Railway Children review, (and now shooting past at the supersonic rate of social media, an all caps Twitter scream exclaims MATILDA TICKETS ARE £95!).

Meanwhile, up here in the Powerhouse there’s Manchester’s Z-Arts with their extensive family programme of things to watch and do; Contact’s emphasis on empowering young people (the Agency project, a collaboration with BAC, even making the Leader’s Blog), and their Young Company having made fascinating work with performance legends such as Forced Entertainment’s Cathy Naden, Coney’s Tassos Stevens and now Stacy Makishi. Moving out and away from my own city there’s the indomitable Slunglow touring beautiful work for children and their adults; and the amazing 20 Stories High, who make precious, loud and splendid things for and by their community – work that resonates on both an epic and intimate scale.

I’ve felt for a long time that in the main, Manchester’s theatre audience are more conservative than many other cities, our most successful fringe venues and festivals – 24:7, Studio Salford, JB Shorts – being overwhelmingly dominated by traditional plays. No regular Buzzcut or Forest Fringe, but some splendid storytelling nights – producers and venues still trying to lift the fallen weight of greenroom (big shout to Word of Warning goes here!). I’d like a Northern Powerhouse that sees a Manchester audience expanded and enhanced by our more adventurous cousins from across the Pennines, over the river and out by the sea.

Political Powerhouses (it seems) must be made by an injection of largesse (money and ideology), and there seems to be a strange movement of money up here in Manchester. The fundraisers are still filling in the gaps in the fit-out of arts mega complex: Home, and also for Contact’s 21st century refurbishment plan. Our library, galleries and museums are in the process of, or have been, refreshed and rejuvenated, yet suddenly out of thin air lands a multi-million dollop of cash for a palace to the arts that we didn’t even know we wanted. Perhaps it’s a little like the mayor that we voted against, yet somehow we’ve been granted like a gift.

Facilitating a powerhouse spread across the north doesn’t seem that compatible with spending what amounts to a quarter of the annual Arts Council England budget, in one city, on one building.

If anything, that action seems almost designed to build spite and resentment. With so little subsidy around, it’s an easy trap to feel that someone else got your money. I don’t know how much has been spent in Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds or Bradford – but over the past few years up here in Manchester we seem to have been pledged or spent something like £120m on bricks and mortar (along with chrome, steel, glass, hope, expansion bolts, dreams and vision). Folks I’ve chatted with and twittered to seem pretty happy and hopeful for Home and Contact, or at the very least ambivalent – but I’ve yet to speak with an arts (or not arts) professional who is less than bemused by the £78m Factory.

Of course it’s a power play. The Ferrero Rocher on the top of the big money of devoManc – the secret deal to piss off the north. Or re-make it in a particular image.

The £78m Factory, Manchester.

The £78m Factory, Manchester.

A Northern Powerhouse can’t be built on such a peculiar inequality, or by replicating a model of London and the regions. It can be built by children and their adults, making and doing new and excellent things, smeared across a region that’s connected by passion, brains and the industry of imagination.

 

Stream Bitterness

We didn’t know the car needed petrol.
We didn’t know that plants needed water.
We didn’t know that children needed love.

It’s Sunday now. The daily twitter stats have landed in my mailbox: 270 tweets, 24 new followers, around the same new followings, 69 retweets & 195 tweets favourited.

It must be the day after a Forced Entertainment livestream.

SB-FE

This isn’t the first. Speak Bitterness was streamed in 2008 some 14 years after its first ‘live’ performance (I think from the same venue). This year, FE’s 30th, holds plenty of these gifts in its grasp. And its this year that the convergence of the remote social media audience and the streaming durational really gains traction. I’ve certainly fallen for it. After leaving the physical manifestation of the splendid #Quizoola24 (at the Barbican), the livestream was my methodone.

Some of the same faces (avatars) are clustered around their twitter feeds this time too, all watching and commenting. A giant distributed real-time water cooler. Swapping favourite moments, and tips on how to get to Tescos and back whilst still streaming via 3G.

Not everyone feels it (and this is a pretty vague and ephemeral ‘it’).

Tweet

This returns me to thinking about text (in its various forms) and some of the new roles it can play. Whilst Tim, Terry, Richard, Robin, Cathy and Claire are Speaking Bitterness (and Hugo is filming them do it), we’re tweeting conversation. It feels like its nuanced and full. It feels like a group hug, or everyone nodding softly. We’re debating and thinking about nuance and form. Or just laughing, oohing in pain or surprise.

Something is said that makes me and one of my best friends think about our dads.
There’s tears and a spine shiver.

There’s folk on here who come from different parts of my life. There’s the performance clan who already sorta-kinda know what’s going on, and there’s the digital people – some of whom I keep prodding with while-you’re-here-have-a-look-at-this type tweets. As a venn diagram the slither of overlap is small. The blend is a beaut:

Tweet

The way we’re talking reads like friendship. Most of these people I haven’t met in the real world. Some of them I’ll happily chatter to on Twitter to pass the time of day. Favourites and retweets work as part of a gut-level reward system. It reminds me of chatting on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) before that became a buzz word for hackers, crackers, the dark net and the silk road. It feels like everyone is clustered around a really fucking big TV. It feels like we’re all here watching something we love and we’re allowed to talk about it to each other without any chance of someone *shssh-ing*, or even that *shssh* is a thing.

I feel like I’m in an audience.

And when it’s over, I want to sit with them and share a drink and a natter.

But there’s really no-where to go, and wherever there was – everyone just left.

UPDATE: Some pretty interesting things written by Lyn Gardner, Billy Barratt & Chloe Mashiter.

Simple text is rarely so.

An image of my phone automatically creating poetry

iSadness.

“Don’t anthropomorphise computers, they don’t like it”
(Anonymous – sometimes attributed to Terry Pratchett)

 

I started a text message on my iPhone.

The iPhone had been recently updated to IOS8. As part of that Apple overhaul there is a new predictive text system. Three choices of words are presented above the keyboard to assist in the creation of the text of the message. Normally I use this to bypass my unbelievably bad spelling and typing (that is if my input is close enough for the prediction engine to work out if its actually a word or not).

I started a text message by hitting the middle button of the predictive text – again, and again, and again.
Just to see what it would do.

It said this:

The fact I can get it right away with the new version is better to be the first half of the day before I get a follow back on my way home from work to be the first half of the day before I get a follow back on my way home from work to be the best of the year and the first half of the year and the other hand is the only thing that would have to go back and the other hand is the only thing that would have to go back and the first half of the year of high quality of life and I don’t think that I have a great way of life and the first half of the day I have a great way of the year of high quality of life is the only one

A few more taps and it said this:

life is so cute
I can’t even see you soon enough

This is an algorithm at work. Trying to figure out what it thinks I want to say. Like most algorithms I suppose it is heuristic and haphazard, and naturally (unnaturally) doesn’t understand any of the language it’s processing remotely the way you or I do. I still rabidly anthropomorphise it’s output “it said this“.

It also makes me wonder if there is intent hidden somewhere in there. Some programatic emotion embedded somewhere right in there, by its creator or creators. Its curated database soul. A performative thing, for sure.

SATURDAY

So I’m thinking about text again. About the way we make text, everywhere, all the time. We’re writing so much, in public and in private. And it’s not like it was before; these messages aren’t analogous to letters or telegrams, this is instantaneous and breaths in and out like conversation, like we’re actually there. I’m thinking about what Tim Etchells has said, that the meaning of text messages is a co-creation between sender and recipient. In particular I’m thinking about this because as part of a piece of research, I’m sat here texting people I don’t know.

It hasn’t started yet. But it will soon.

Last time I did this I got into a bunch of conversations (54 to be accurate). Some were abrasive, some funny and some well deep. There were jokes and relationship advice (both ways!), Robbie Williams songs and trolling slurs.

I didn’t have a clue who any of them were, these texters. For the project I used a new phone and a new SIM card, so all the messages were anonymous (to me). Later, when close friends discovered they’d been texting me it was all surprising and slightly awkward. Like we should have known each other by inflection and individuality of emoji use. There was always doubt as to the gender, age, sexuality, well basically *anything* about the person I was chatting to.

LATER

So its finished now, iteration #2. This time I tried to make things a little more structured, to borrow and steal from other folk who have used text messaging as a performative space. I’m not sure it worked as well. Folk getting the same messages as each other felt it dispersed the supposedly special relationship. It probably did. In trying to conduct multiple conversations and concentrating on making them all unique, I took an inevitable shorthand and broke the spell a bit.

Fourteen hundred text messages with thirty people over five hours.

SMS has been characterised as the most hostile environment you can go to. ‘No picture, no sound, nothe most hostile environment you can go to. No picture, no sound, no font even’ (Benford & Giannachi, 2011). Not so true now, with emojii and the possibility of pictures, links and other mediations. Still pretty barren.

Look at what she’s said now” – overheard participant.

Stop texting me plz” – participant

And I’m still making sense of it utterly in context of me.

 

 

 

 

A button I can’t unpress

Secret_Theatre

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(So I’m mainly writing this to me and about me and about filling the gaps between articulation, memory and bias.)

To sorta/kinda remember what on earth I thought about it and the noise around it, before it becomes a vague word-cloud memory and home to something with a slightly bitter taste.

In a way it’s a Secret Theatre thing, (its also an overview thing).

Up in Edinburgh, I went to see Secret Theatre’s ‘Show 5’. The lovely, lively and very human A Series Of Increasingly Impossible Acts. I had a great time, enjoyed the games and playfulness, the adrenalin impro that throws up giggles, slaps and knife cuts, and – with generosity and clarity – the love the company clearly has for each other.

Came out with a giggly grin and an uplift where my heart lives.

(and mildly irritated that the show, inevitably by its very nature, came out late and made me miss the opening bits of the next show on my stupidly packed EdFringe schedule. Such is the way with Edinburgh, however, that I managed to meet up with the folk from _that_ show who gave me a blow-by-blow account of what I missed. What a splendid magic that is.)

What I didn’t really expect, I suppose, was the world wide hyperbole and auto-gushing machine that is the current incarnation of the social Internet. Pronouncements that this splendid show was such a game changer. Folk falling in a daze at its brilliance of form, its blistering raw heart.

Now, I’m a reactionary bastard. This much enthusiasm is bound to rankle. (I spent four years refusing to watch the Mighty Boosh ’cause EVERYONE screamed ‘comedy genius’ into my ears until they bled). So this lovely show – which I keep saying in this bl0g post to pretty much prove that I DID LIKE IT – didn’t seem so revolutionary as much as evolutionary. It felt like the drama department broke into the contemporary arts building at midnight and played with all their stuff. That in google world we’re all happily inventing wheels without wondering what wheels were there before. That performance and theatre are still stupidly divided and basking in their blissful lack of awareness of each other.

(glibly, I’d oftentimes pronounce that what Live Art did yesterday, Performance did today and Theatre would do tomorrow).

Looking at form – asking questions or performing tasks to discover curious meaning, insight and pitch perfect moments. This form is so well established that even I’ve been in a show that did just that – and in the 25 years or so I’ve been minnowing round the theatre and performance pond i’ve only been on stage four times (although it wasn’t that often a stage, more a field or a warehouse and one memorable time an elevated porcelain bath tub, painted gold and screaming – I was the one painted gold, not the bath).

I guess the gush is unexpected. Or possibly totally expected. A bit dizzy. Nodding wisely with a wry grin.

I mean, it’s not just about particular ways of doing things. Performers like to talk into microphones whilst sat down. It’s a thing, right? Yet you’d not confuse Chris Brett Bailey, Forced Entertainment, Debbie Pearson or Kieran Hurley. Tool for the job. That kind of thing.

After the undirected wail of ‘really!’, after a bit of reflection and a couple of chats I have started to think that in fact it speaks a little bit to freedom. That folk now take so easily to their public voice. Confidently expressing deep joy, anger or the transformative awe of experience. It’s a raw debate, and we’re not yet very good at it. There’s no granularity, and gut feelings rank as high as the informed. But we’re all talking.

I wonder how long it’ll take before we’re all listening.

 

On Fairness

“Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies”

In a Thatcherite Britain, heavy with the ideological antipathy towards support for culture or anything non-vocational, a company I worked with made a successful application for arts subsidy. Big cheers all round. At the time it felt like a massive windfall, even though it wasn’t enough to pay anyone involved a reasonable wage for their considerable investment in time, energy and effort.

The grapevine is never so noisy as when you have nothing better to value stuff by. Always buoyant from the huge cheers of a mass audience, the making of our large scale work was a labour of love, not money. So it came as a bit of a surprise when the trickle down gossip was that some folk, people working in a field adjacent to our own, some folk thought our funding bonus was taken straight from their pockets. That they were the established artists in the field and that they deserved the money, the gift, the extra life.

Still, that was the 1990s. When the Prime Minister and her government breathed life into that lie that arts, culture and any study not directly driven towards the means of production was an unnecessary luxury.

Fast forward to today, when the arts and culture sectors (see, even I’m using the word sector, like its a box I can live in) are similarly branded. A not dis-similar view is bubbling up once again. Artists are picking apart others’ art. Not to find the good in it, not to examine it for its ideas and provocations, but to ask why it got funding and I didn’t. Or my friends didn’t. Or any number of people who make art that I like and that are much better than that didn’t get the money.

Well tough. The arts and cultural funding system isn’t fair, it’s officers are working overtime with minimal resources and no quality control. Its as much a lottery as the one the money comes from.

But don’t think that money is yours.

Down in the Park

Immersive intervention on a budget will still stretch your imagination.

 

Entrancing. The sign on the door says "Welcome to Peel Park Asylum. Please wait here for assistance."

 

Discovered by word of mouth, an email, tweet or something found by the side of the road. I somehow found myself alerted to a new performance piece happening just off Salford Crescent. Peel Park Asylum promises Immersive Theatre for the Brave created by enthusiastic newcomers Moonstruck Me. There are no tickets on sale, instead an appointment is booked through email, in an enticing exchange of taut formal text. (There’s also a website for the mythical psychiatric organisation at the heart of the work).

Simply arriving at Peel Park is an excellent immersing experience. The campus grounds feel a long way from the University they belong to, rather they are just the right type of shape and imposing grandeur to take you some ways to Shutter Island. We’re no longer on Salford Crescent, and doubt as to the return of the no. 37 bus back to Manchester is just starting to set in. In short, the place is a gift; oozing charm and character – with a hint of Jack Nicholson’s mad eyed smile.

 

Image of the Peel Park building.

Peel Park (or possibly the equally elegant building next door)

 

An experience for one, this promenade piece plays out as a mix of walking tour and amusement park ride. After signing in and leaving your worldly possessions with an orderly, you find yourself disconcertingly kitted out in a patient’s gown. Led on a meandering tour of the building you happen upon a number of semi-scripted interactions – a test here, an interview there – it’s pleasantly unsettling: meeting familiar archetypes and finding yourself in unfamiliar situations. You’re never quite sure of who you might meet, and you occasionally find that the one you’re meeting is you.

Each of these moments aches to branch off to become a rewarding, personalised experience – but the interactions struggle to free themselves from their script. It never really feels like you can contribute to the story, and too frequently I felt ‘acted at’ – a video game character in a cut-scene, waiting for my role to start.

The company has huge imagination, and without the budget or time for the minutely detailed set dressing of a Punchdrunk show, or the sheer volume of volunteers or co-creators needed to generate the roller-coaster of You Me Bum Bum Train, they do succeed in drawing you into the story. Many moments are intriguing, funny, spooky or even a little scary (there’s nothing quite like being blindly wheeled down corridors and stairwells – everywhere feels like a precipice), but the overall pace and acting choices never allow complete immersion.

There are missed opportunities, too. The small cast work well to create the numerous characters, but with more orchestration I’m sure more than one audience could be simultaneously taken through the piece; blurring the boundaries between performer and participant, performance and reaction. Similarly, in some of the rooms the audience member’s entrance is clearly taken as a cue to ‘begin acting’. Allowing these moments to breathe, to carry some weight before diving into narrative would enhance the experience and let the piece really live.

As a first outing this is an excellent starting point, and the team have clearly worked hard and taken a brilliant leap of faith.

More companies could and should be creating this kind of work.

 

 

Follow Moonstruck Me on twitter here: @1Moonstruck_Me