The last three weeks in Sydney has been Bondi Feast, which is Phil Spencer / Tamarama Rock Surfers’ annual winter festival out at the Bondi Pavilion. It’s a pretty lovely occasion, heaps of shows, forums, events and gigs all right by the sea.
Last year, Hadley and Jess and I performed Teen Makeouts one night, and it was utterly unnecessary and also lovely. This time around, the extraordinary Gin Savage directed a production of Jess and my piece Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose As Read By Jessica Bellamy and David Finnigan.
I don’t really know what to say about this – in fact I won’t say anything, I’ll just let you read it here if you like. Basically, Jess and I wrote a play in response to Kerouac’s guide for how to be a writer. It’s a list of rules and ideas that I found pretty inspiring, and we talked about them and wrote about them, and that is the play.
Two writers talking about writing is (to my mind) pretty unstageable, so it was totally delightful that Gin Savage took this on as a project, and with a whole array of lovely collaborators, she made it into far more than the text we wrote. The audience were seated around a pool of water, into which was projected animations, in which was dispersed dry ice, and on another wall an overhead projector sending up Kerouac’s rules, and over it all a beautiful soundtrack and two actors playing the part of Jess and myself.
Jodi McAlister wrote a lovely review of it on her Theatre From The Backseat blog:
Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose is a gentle, contemplative, rich piece of theatre. Actually, I’m not entirely sure it’s technically “theatre” per se (but then we would get into a whole debate about what constitutes theatre and there would be definitions and stuff and no one wants that). It’s certainly not theatre in the traditional sense. It’s more akin to a radio play, but it’s not quite that either. I wondered for a while if it would have been best as prose – I think I certainly would have liked to read it, because there’s a lot in it and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a bunch of stuff – but on second thought, I think theatrical conceit added a lot to it. We as audience sit around a pool of water, watching and listening as conversations and snippets of stories ripple across its surface.
One of the stories Scheherazade tells in the Arabian Nights (I think that’s where I remember it from!) is about a man who, entranced by a pool of water, sticks his head into it. While his head is in the water, he lives lifetimes: he conquers cities, defeats dragons, rescues princesses, all that kind of thing. When he removes his head from the water, only a few seconds have passed. (This story was part of Kenneth Slessor’s inspiration for Five Bells, BTW.) It’s easy to imagine that the pool of water in this show is the same kind of pool – full of infinite stories.
In this case, the stories were framed by, or came from, or maybe even emerged in spite of, Jack Kerouac’s guideline for writers, which are being discussed and talked through by two writers sitting in a café. Normally, I would find a show about two writers sitting and talking about writing unbearably self-indulgent – and there is certainly an element of indulgence here – but one of the things I really liked about this show was the way that stories kind of kept crowding their way over the top of the rules for prose. The two writers describe the best way to get close to the story, a kind of monstrous creature which you must submit to. There was one line which described language not as a dress you can pull off but as a tattoo, something imprinted on you, something bound to you. And yet in the midst of this, story is happening anyway without much interference from them – they are distracted by people sitting a few tables away, wondering if they’re getting married or divorced.
There’s a Daoist meditative ritual called zuowang – literally, sitting and forgetting – where you sit and stare into water and forget all your training and education in an effort to learn simply to be, to return to a state of pu (lit. “uncarved block”), which is the natural state of humans. I was reminded irresistibly of this during Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, staring into the limpid pool that was our theatre. Many of Kerouac’s rules were kind of about this: removing barriers and preconceptions and pretensions to literary technique so that you were able to face the story in a kind of pure state. I don’t think we as audience ever exactly achieve a meditative state – there is way too much to think about in this – but there is something very enchanting about staring into water and letting words bubble over you. It removes a number of the barriers that usually stand between audience and language in the theatre. There seems to be an inherent contradiction in Kerouac’s rules, in that rules in general seem to be figured as a kind of restraint. I think Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose is fascinating in its theatrical realisation of this idea.
It was intense to watch – I’d forgotten how personal it was, and how specific to the time and place we wrote it, and the people and situations we wrote it about. I found myself really caught up in the feeling of having other people hear these intimate details about my life, and them being shared with a group of strangers, and that group of strangers having (mostly) no idea that it was my (our) stories they were hearing.
I found myself hoping like crazy that other people could glean some insight from these personal tales.
Mostly though, I was so grateful that it was happening – grateful to Phil Spencer for producing it, grateful to Ginny for making it happen, grateful to all the artists / performers / creatives involved, grateful (always grateful) to Jess for being such an incredible collaborator, grateful to all the people whose stories we borrowed.
And also I came out of it wanting to write. So that’s a thing.
Also, while we were hanging out, Jess and I shared with each other our drafts for our new Teen Makeouts pieces, which we are performing with Hadley in Brisbane next month at the Queensland Poetry Festival, because POETRY, motherfuckers. Apparently.
Chris and I are in the studio this weekend with Reuben Ingall, who is producing the new Finnigan and Brother EP. I wanted to call it Finnigan and Brother Winter In Canberra 2014, but Chris has vetoed it owing to it being a terrible idea. What will we call it then? Will we borrow a title from our list of potential band names? (probably)
Right now Chris is recording guitar lines for the new Finnigan and Brother ‘single’ – though when I say single, you best believe I don’t know what that word means or what I’m talking about. He and Reuben are using the guitar to replicate various electronic percussion effects – ‘a static wash side-chained to a kick drum’ – all I know is it sounds like the new Ital Tek record and I’m happy.
This is one of the best parts of the process for me. I get to sit here and listen to music get assembled, and be a part of it, but at this stage I’m mostly just along for the ride. Meanwhile I’m trying to edit some of the lyrics, capture the key ideas and lose some of the dross. I’m not a great editor, so this is a tricky part of the picture for me.
online dating may seem a little artificial
but making a dating profile prompts you to think about your best qualities
and challenges you to put them up front
it’s important to be with someone you can trust under pressure
and for that reason it’s great to get to know someone in a challenging setting
like on a mountaineering course
or backpacking somewhere remote
Recording one track over two days is a pretty delightful experience, in part at least because Reuben is an extraordinarily capable producer with a good understanding of our aesthetic. It’s also bringing it home to me how ridiculous it was for us back in 2012 to record the entirety of Finnigan and Brother Spend A Month In Colombia and the Psychic Radio EP – 18 tracks – in one day. So many props to Nickamc for rolling with us and somehow pulling that off.
This approach, on the other hand, is giving us room to focus on the details, try out different ideas, assemble a palette of effects and sounds specific to this song, and structure them thoughtfully. I got to have multiple attempts at recording vocal sections, and Reuben has even multi-tracked my voice to emphasise certain lines (‘RFID cat flaps’ and ‘e-cigarettes’). All of which is delightful.
This is part of a 3 track EP we’re putting together for release in a month or so, including a collaboration with Bec Taylor and (hopefully) a studio version of one of the tracks we debuted at Bad Slam in March this year. Mr Shane Parsons is working with us on a video for this track, the so-called single, which is, I guess, a love song?
you need someone who makes your heart beat faster
nights at home
playing GQ on the EQ full volume in the shower
More soon, yo.
So in early 2012 (what’s that, about 2 and a half years ago?) I was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to research the interface between contemporary science and the performing arts. It was (still is) one of those totally unexpected moments where everything you’ve done so far somehow adds up to something far, far greater than you could possibly have anticipated. I’m hugely lucky, and hugely grateful.
Over January – March this year, I travelled to 13 cities in North America, Europe and Asia (travelling only east) meeting with groups and individuals doing interesting things at the intersection of arts, science and policy. I met with around 50 people, each of whom gave me a good portion of their time and chatted with me about interesting projects and big ideas.
The two big threads that emerged from the writing were the cross-disciplinary fields of Experiential Futures and Systems Gaming, both of which are loose terms intended to capture some interesting work emerging in recent years from collaborations between scientists (futures scholars and systems scientists) and artists (of all kinds, but focusing on the performing arts in my analysis). Both these fields, in my mind, offer really interesting opportunities to open up the dialogue around big issues and challenges.
The end result is a report capturing some of the more examples of this kind of practice I encountered on my travels, a case for how they might be employed more broadly to shift the national conversation on broad challenges such as climate and global change, and a bit of a how-to guide for science-artists.
The report takes its name from a line in Mike Raupach’s introduction to the Australian Academy of Science’s Australia 2050: Living Scenarios book: ‘We face three basic realities: the future is uncertain, contested and ultimately shared.’
The report is hosted as a pdf on the Churchill Trust’s website, but I’ve also made it available as a wordpress blog, for ease of reading. Go on, get amongst it:
There’s plenty of people and organisations that I need to thank and acknowledge in the writing of this, but I’ll leave it to the Acknowledgments section.
If anyone has any thoughts or comments or feedbacks, I’m keen to hear it – keep me in the loop.
me in NYC – image by pep pe
‘No time for poetry but exactly what is’
Aight then in the spirit of Jack Kerouac’s Essentials For Spontaneous Prose, I’m not going to waste time with an elaborate update of what’s been happening recently, it doesn’t matter. I just want to mention three things that I’ve written, which I’d like to invite you to take a look at if you’re interested.
Firstly, I was commissioned by Justin Wolfers to write a piece for the online journal Seizure, as part of his Alt Txt series. The series consists of works about the internet, many of which were in the Alt Lit style. I don’t know much about Alt Lit – hella ignorant finig – so I wrote a personal essay on a topic very dear to my heart: the ways in which we curate and personalise our computers and online identities.
There’s nothing here that hasn’t been said already, and more elegantly, by writers like Aleks Krotoski, Doug Rushkoff, Anab Jain or the New Aesthetic blog, but at the same time it was a pleasure to get all these thoughts out and in one place, and to have the privilege of working with Justin as an editor. It’s entitled I Have Friends Who Are Growing Gardens, and you can read it, if you like.
There’s a degree to which I try to scrub my online persona clean – at the very least, to try to be aware of the traces I’ve left online. But the worst of it is, it’s not even up to me. In a majority of cases where someone has been fired or arrested for an incriminating photo or an unfortunate anecdote that surfaced on social media, it wasn’t them that posted it but their friends.
We are implicating each other all the time, and it is harder and harder to opt out.
I don’t doubt that there’s enough material on my website and social media history for a sufficiently motivated muckraker to find a bit of mud to fling at me, but even if I vigorously scrubbed my online havens clean, my online presence is much more than just the data I’ve personally uploaded – I’m a node in a larger network. Each of us is a data point in the bigger picture of our community, referenced and located by the people around us as much as by ourselves.
Honestly, no matter how much I think and hear about it happening, I find it almost impossible to connect what I say to my laptop in the privacy of my own home to the idea that hundreds and thousands of people could end up reading it.
Secondly, I spent last week as a participant in a CSIRO workshop entitled Modelling Planetary Boundaries. As the only non-scientist in the room I didn’t have a lot to add, but it was thoroughly mind-blowing and really one of the best weeks I’ve had in years. What this group of physicists, ecologists, meteorologists and economists were seeking to do was to model the entire human-earth system. Not just that, but their aim was to include social processes in this model, so that human behaviour and society was intrinsically a part of the earth-system.
In response to that eye-opening experience, I wrote a blog post on the Boho website explaining (as best I am able) why you’d attempt to create such a model and how you go about it. This is especially exciting for me because of how it links into Boho’s Best Festival Ever: How To Manage A Disaster, which is about to kick off in London in just over two months’ time.
One idea which has been gaining significant traction in recent years is the idea that we have recently moved into a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. This is a period in the earth’s history in which humankind has become one of the most significant drivers of the planetary systems. For decades, if not centuries, humans have been altering the composition of the earth’s atmosphere, changing the biosphere by driving species extinct and transporting new species around the planet, altering the activity of river systems and changing land use, all at a global scale.
In hundreds of million of years’ time, when humanity’s existence has been reduced to a thin smear of rock in the geological record, future species or alien visitors will still be able to detect our presence through the spike of radioactive minerals resulting from humanity’s nuclear weapons tests.
Finally, I recently stole (another) idea from Declan Greene. When we first met back in 2009, Declan showed me an early draft of a play he was working on entitled Pompeii LA. The 2012 Malthouse production was a stunning piece of theatre, but one of the things that most impressed me about the early draft was that Declan was quite consciously aggregating the content out of a project-specific tumblr, kind of like a digital scrapbook.
I decided to borrow the idea wholesale, and for the last few months I’ve been collating bits and pieces on a blog as the basis for a new script entitled Kill Climate Deniers. Evolving out of discussions with director Julian Hobba, the first draft had a reading at the Street Theatre last week, and it is ridiculous and overblown and badly written and yet, and yet I quite like it. So if you’re curious, have a glance at the blog. If nothing else, there’s a good selection of late 80s / early 90s club music on there.
What if we invited climate deniers to describe what piece or pieces of evidence it would take to change their mind on climate change? Make the criteria as loose as they like, they can name it. And if they can’t articulate any piece of evidence that could convince them, then they have to accept that they’re not debating?
Wouldn’t work. Not worth it. They’re not arguing a position, they’re arguing to make noise, to stall us, to prevent us doing what needs to be done. They need to be worked around.
And if they can’t be worked around, they need to be removed.
By ‘removed’, I don’t mean killed.
Get amongst it – killclimatedeniers.tumblr.com
image by Sarah Walker
So A Wake: Kids Killing Kids is now DONE. Nine of us (Ninya Bedruz, Sam Burns-Warr, Ness Roque, Georgie McAuley, Alon Segarra, JK Anicoche, Jordan Prosser, Sarah Salazar and myself) gathered in Melbourne with director Bridget Balodis, designer Melanie Koomen and stage manager Cameron Stewart, and told the story of Battalia Royale for the last time – well, nine last times – as part of the 2014 Next Wave festival.
I’m hugely grateful to Next Wave – to Em Sexton and Meg Hale – and to Stephen Armstrong from the Playking Foundation, for making it happen. I’m grateful to everyone who was part of it: it was a pleasure to stand there on stage with you cats and share the story. I’m grateful to everyone who came along – it was a kind and generous audience, and lots of good and thoughtful conversations after the work. And I’m grateful it’s finished.
Now what did the critics think? Rebecca McLean Chan from the Australia Council described the work as ‘a thought-provoking and important public debriefing’, which is nice. Alison Croggon wrote about it for ABC Arts, which was exciting for me cause I think Croggon’s a genius and it’s the first time she’s seen any of my work. She said:
A Wake: Kids Killing Kids is a return of theatre company MKA’s hit from the Fringe Festival. I missed that incarnation, although I didn’t miss the controversy… I don’t know what the initial show was like, but here it was Sipat Lawin that held your attention, with the Australians playing the role of naïve fools on the edges of a history of violence that they barely understand.
This performance raises a bundle of knotty questions. Among the most vexed are the models of cross-cultural collaboration and its parallels with colonisation, and the morality of the representation of ultra-violence. Here the members of Sipat Lawin articulate their ambivalences: on the one hand, the violence of the show spoke to the unacknowledged colonial violence that runs through the bloody history of the Philippines; on the other, what does it mean when an audience is screaming for the murder of a child? How does fantasy relate to reality? Is it brutalising to so faithfully enact ultra-violence, or can it be politically empowering in a society in which memories of actual violence are actively repressed? A Wake didn’t answer any of these questions, which are turned over, discomfortingly, to the audience; but the passion of Sipat Lawin in addressing them gives the lie to any easy answers.
This is a true thing, and I have to give a shout out here to Ness, Ninya, JK, Sarah and Alon, who brought such a hard and uncompromising honesty to the show every night, it really left everyone stunned. Motherfuckers can act.
image by Sarah Walker
Rebecca Harkins-Cross from the Age liked it not at all:
More questions are raised than answered, leaving vexing gaps in the most pressing areas: how did they decide upon this problematic text? Did they discuss the potentially traumatic ramifications of performative violence before they undertook the project? Sipat Lawin wanted to confront their society’s normalisation of violence by showcasing it excessively, but surely enormous crowds whooping for characters to die wasn’t the reaction they envisaged?
I’m still bemused as to whether this is an ingenious way of igniting debate, or a cautionary tale about the perils of clueless cross-cultural collaboration. I was left wishing I’d seen the original production instead.
I didn’t get a lot from this review, honestly, but all good – people are welcome to dislike things. The article, though, was upstaged by the cheeky sub-editor who accompanied it with the following image and caption:
HEY SUB-EDITOR, WE LIKE YOUR STYLE, WANNA JOIN A THEATRE COMPANY?
Finally, Fleur Kilpatrick wrote an extraordinary post about the show on her School For Birds blog, where she invited two audience members to discuss the show with her immediately upon leaving the theatre. Their conversation was thoughtful, generous yet rigorous. They were particularly on the ball with regard to the form of the show, intelligently interrogating our choices in terms of how we put it together. I can’t help quoting a short sample:
Josiah: One question that came up (a question they tried to engage with last time when it was just the four of them without the Sipat Lawin ensemble and didn’t really have an answer for) was ‘why make this work?’ Having seen their show I now approach a lot of shows with that question. Why now? I get that you are adapting Oscar Wilde to the stage or I get that you want to re-stage a Patrick White play or I get that Stephen Sewell is really interesting but it is a play from the 80s so why now? It is a very useful critical question that I brought away from the last season. It is so great to have the Sipat Lawin ensemble here because I feel like you have much more of an understanding of the ‘why.’ That wasn’t very well represented in the last one.
SFB: I think deliberately. They almost played up their naivety. They are four incredibly cluey makers but I think they played up the blundering white kids thing. They played that up and I think that was partly them not wanting to appropriate the story that wasn’t theirs to tell: the experience of performing Battalia Royale night after night and engaging with the audience as fellow Filipinos. I think they deliberately played that naivety out of respect for their collaborators, and that was incredibly brave and selfless of them because it provoked more heated discussion than if they had played themselves as all-knowing. But it meant audiences might leave questioning their motivations and their sanity.
This time I felt really satisfied by their engagement with the work. And they got to me. My chest hurts from just watching that. My breath isn’t right yet. It affected me physically.
Josiah: Some of the testimonies from the Sipat Lawin ensemble were heart-breaking. One of the actresses talking about playing her role and asking ‘why is the audience cheering? I have a character who is very real to me. I’m getting brutally murdered on stage and this audience is cheering for my death. That feels wrong but, at the same time, I want to continue making this work.’
I was watching her get tears in her eyes and I’m like ‘oh my God!’
image by Sarah Walker
Now as always, whenever I finish a show, I put on this Out Hud track and say out loud the vocal snippet which opens it.
Funny feeling about to open A Wake: Kids Killing Kids for the Next Wave festival tonight. I’ve never felt quite like this a few hours before opening a show, ever. I think it’s because my motivations for doing a show have never been the motivations I have for doing this one, and that plays out in all sorts of ways.
For background: A Wake: Kids Killing Kids is a live documentary theatre collaboration between Too Many Weapons (myself, Georgie McAuley, Jordan Prosser and Sam Burns-Warr) and the Sipat Lawin Ensemble (represented here by JK Anicohce, Alon Segarra, Ness Roque, Ninya Bedruz and Sarah Salazar) telling the story of the Battalia Royale project that took place in Manila over 2012.
Last year, the blessed cats at MKA produced the first version of this work featuring just 2MW, which toured to the Melbourne Fringe, Crack Theatre Festival and the Q Theatre in Penrith. Following that show, Sipat produced their own documentary response to Battalia, entitled A Wake, which was performed earlier this year in Manila. Now, the two shows have been stapled / delicately woven together into one creature with the amazing acronym of AWKKK.
This production owes a lot of thanks to a lot of humans – firstly to MKA and Glyn Roberts, who took our initial idea for a slide night about our Philippines holiday and gave us the framework to turn it into a much bigger and real-life theatre show, and then to other supporters like Katrina Douglas from the Q Theatre, Chris Ryan, Nick Atkins and Jenni Medway from Crack Theatre Festival, Felix Preval from the Melbourne Fringe, all the mad lovers.
That work triggered conversations between Sipat Lawin and Next Wave director Em Sexton and Stephen Armstrong from Arts Centre Melbourne, which led to an invitation for Sipat to come to Australia and take part in Next Wave. That invitation set in motion the creation of A Wake, and from there the decision to integrate A Wake and KKK into one multi-faceted mega-show, the Man O’War Jellyfish of documentary theatre. If you want a clearer rundown of the creature, roll to Eleanor Zeichner’s article about it in Exeunt Magazine.
AWKKK includes the masterful work of designer Mel Koomen and stage manager Cameron Stewart, and the whole thing is once again directed by Bridget Balodis. Bridget was responsible for turning KKK from a long-winded series of essays into a tight theatre show, and once again she’s managed to tie the diverse strands of the story into a single unified slice of jiving performance, with dance. I am super grateful to all these human beings, I’m not putting logos on this blog post, this is actual thanks from an actual human being to all the human beings who have helped make this thing happen.
So what’s going on in my head? First of all, I’m not at all concerned about the audience or critical response. We have a story to tell, and we’re going to tell it as best we can, with generosity and love and welcoming the audience in. Bridget Balodis is an amazing director and she has built a fantastic framework to support us in telling this tale, making it live and breathe and giving us our best shot at getting it across to a bunch of strangers. It might still fall over, it might not work, but we will try our best, we will try our absolute best, and that’s all there is for us to do.
But in a funny way, I’m not searching for approval from the audience. I’m not looking for audiences to pat us on the back and say they thought it was good, or fun, or interesting, or anything like that. I’m not fussed if critics praise or condemn the form or the content of the show. Critical discourse is oxygen for my theatre-making normally (and this show is all about critical discourse) but for this particular show, it’s not part of the equation. Critics are just people to whom we’re telling the story, no more and no less.
Also, this show is never touring again. Nine performances (starting tonight) and that’s it. For good. There are lots of reasons for that – probably the major one being that it’s an extremely personal piece referring to a particular time and place, and past a point it would be dishonest to return there. So we won’t. And that means we’re not interested in hustling for further tours, future opportunities, trying to win over venue presenters, promoters and curators. That’s a frequent part of doing work as an independent artist – you create something you’re proud of, you naturally want to see it have a future life, as well as trying to source other gigs and opportunities to keep your practice moving. But here we’ve created something we’re proud of, and we’re sharing it to the audiences at Next Wave, and that’s it. Presenters, promoters and curators are just people to whom we’re telling the story, no more and no less.
For me, there are two real reasons why I’m doing this show: to honour the other people on stage and to honour the story.
Doing the earlier version of this show last year (as Kids Killing Kids) was a lot of talking about the Sipat Lawin Ensemble without ever actually featuring Sipat in the story. We couldn’t speak for them, and so we focused the story on us – on our own limitations as white, western collaborators. Well and good. But for this season, thanks to a lot of support and love from Next Wave and the Playking Foundation and such, we have JK, Alon, Ness, Ninya and Sarah onstage with us. The technical term for this is fuck yeah. We are a bunch of friends and collaborators from two countries talking together and hanging out onstage and sharing what went down between us, and it is intense and emotional and fun.
And also and importantly, this production is the last chapter in the story of Battalia Royale, which began five years ago when I met JK and Alon and Ness and Isab and the rest of the crew in Penguin Cafe in Malate at the beginning of 2009. That experience has swelled up and consumed a good chunk of the last few years, in a lot of unexpected and significant ways, and at last here and now I can trace that arc from beginning to end, with the people who were there and part of it with me, and tell the whole ridiculous story. And it’s an interesting story (I think) and I’m pleased to be telling it in style, complete with three projectors and a small city of milk crates.
So my entire headspace at this point is not ‘what can I get from this show?’ or ‘what will people think of this show?’ or anything like that. All I’m thinking, 10 hours out from opening, is: ‘I will do my very best to tell this story well and share it with the audience and support my friends I’m on stage with’.
What I’m saying is, A Wake: Kids Killing Kids is probably the first really honest piece of theatre I’ve ever made. Don’t worry, it won’t happen again.
Photo of Salon de Thé Facebook, Tunis, shared on Twitter by @WadhahJebri on February 16, 2011 and recirculated with the #16juin2014 hashtag
It sounds, at first, like something out of H.G. Wells. On February 16, 2011, a person opening a Tunisian newspaper or website might have come across an article dated more than three years in the future.
Following the Sidi Bouzid Revolt in January 2011 which ousted the president, the country experienced a national strike which halted economic activity, and the transition government swiftly lost the confidence and goodwill of the people. A Tunisian ad agency, Memac Ogilvy Label Tunisia, embarked on a campaign to convince Tunisia’s media outlets to join together for one day to report news from 2014.
‘We needed to find a way to encourage the people to get back to work and start rebuilding the country we had all fought for… So we decided to show everyone how bright our future could be if we all started building it now… During a whole day, the media acted as if it were June 16th 2014 and presented Tunisia as a prosperous, modern and democratic country… The media content spread to social media via 16juin2014.com and people began to imagine wonderful futures and called everyone for action. #16juin2014 hashtag was n°1 top trend topic on Twitter all day long. At 6pm, the debate was everywhere on TV, radios, blogs… Getting back to work quickly became an act of resistance.’
The idea of Experiential Futures comes from futurist Stuart Candy, whose influence looms large over both this article and the research I’ve been doing recently for my Churchill Fellowship.
This article is also heavily indebted to Rhizome editor Michael Connor, who pushed it a whole lot further into applying a thoughtful critique and opened up new areas of analysis. Very grateful to both these gentlemen for making this thing a happening thing.
My Churchill report digs a lot deeper into the subject of Experiential Futures, as well as the relatively new field of Systems Gaming – consider this a kind of teaser, p’raps.
The Procession of Stanta Ste.la at Lecturas de Cruce
image by adam thomas
Being back in Canberra and immersed in the You Are Here festival, while for the first time in four years having nothing whatsoever to do with the You Are Here festival, has provided a weird opportunity for reflection. In particular, Anthony Hayes printed up and distributed the third in his series of pamphlets critiquing the festival’s corporate affiliations. Or maybe not – the 2014 pamphlet is titled You Are Nowhere, but other than the provocative title, it only references the festival pretty obliquely.
I’ve had trouble with these missives in the past, but not particularly because of the critique. In fact, we always did our best to provide a platform for Hayes and anyone else who we felt had a worthwhile criticism of the festival philosophically, because these are conversations we were having pretty constantly within the festival team, and it was great to see them being had more broadly in the community. My problem has rather been that Hayes’ messages were somewhat laden with Marxist language and therefore a little difficult for me to decipher. This one is no different – I haven’t spoken with Hayes directly, and I’m wary of trying to debate him because I fear I may be misconstruing his argument.
With that in mind, the following is not a rebuttal of Hayes’ pamphlet, nor is it even really a response – just that he has prompted me to scribble down these loose thoughts, for which I’m grateful.
This year maybe more than ever before, coming along to the Money Bin and seeing the festival cracking along in full swing, it’s hit home to me how much You Are Here – how much maybe every festival – is about relationships. At its core, creating a festival is about building and maintaining relationships with artists, with organisations, and with audiences. Every one of those is a real and serious relationship that needs to be thoughtfully honoured and maintained.
‘Maintaining relationships’ sounds like corporate speak, but what I’m talking about is love.
People think that YAH has a sponsorship relationship with Canberra CBD Limited whereby we provide them a service in exchange for dollars – and yes that’s part of it, it must be – but from my perspective what we really had was a relationship with one or two people in that organisation. We hung out, we talked about what we wanted, what they wanted, we shared ideas, we introduced each other to different people in our networks, we collaborated to make things happen.
What do you think that the property manager CBRE got out of letting the festival use the old Fletcher Jones shopfront last year? From a corporate standpoint their gift probably ticked a few boxes, but really, the reason that it happened was that one of their agents met with us, chatted with us, we were on the same wavelength, and they wrote a bunch of emails and did a bunch of lobbying at their end to make it happen.
This is at least partly true: YAH is people, and those people form relationships with people in organisations, not with organisations.
Money is obviously crucial for a few things – equipment, insurance – without which the festival cannot exist, but the main thing money buys you is time, and what you do with that time is build relationships.
There is a sense in which everything is commodified within the world of the festival – because everything takes time, and time costs money.
For example, it’s not an organisational guarantee that YAH offers its partners, whether they’re artists, property owners or audiences, it’s a personal guarantee from the festival team: ‘We promise that we have the capacity to deliver on our promises
• To take care of your venue
• To provide you with logistical support and take some personal care with your work
• To provide you with a program of activity that adheres to a certain quality standard.’
All those promises require that the people behind the festival have time to follow through on all their commitments, and a certain set of skills and capabilities (that took a serious investment of time to develop).
Of course the festival operates within the system. Putting on gigs in public spaces (legally) requires a huge amount of engagement with a lot of people who have suits and desks. Being the interface between a few hundred artists, a few thousand audience members and maybe 50 different service providers involves a huge amount of negotiation, and on occasion, thoughtful compromise. I don’t believe that compromise is inherently bad – I come from a devised theatre background, where compromise is the lifeblood of creative collaboration, and often results in the most exciting creative decisions – but it is an extremely delicate enterprise, and a responsibility that no festival producer I’ve ever met takes lightly.
I think one question it’s worth asking any producer – or any artist, for that matter – is: When have you compromised? When has it worked, when has it gone wrong?
Personally I’d never assume that compromise happens unwittingly or accidentally. Every decision has a story behind it, and there’s always something to be learned from those stories. There’s the general philosophical statement that we’re all implicated in a capitalist system (which I think is definitely true) but I think it gets interesting when you go beyond that and ask, how are we co-opted? Where is there space to make beautiful shit happen within a corrupt structure? Where do you draw the line and where do you bend? The general principles are obvious and maybe even trivial – it’s the specific examples which really prove where you stand. Is You Are Here closer to Skyfire or the old Canberra Festival of Contemporary Art? Art Not Apart or Enlighten or the Multicultural Fringe? And how?
Working within the system doesn’t require huge resources or big corporate partners, but people’s energy, effort and love. Putting on a gig in a public space in Canberra isn’t necessarily expensive, but it requires a huge amount of negotiating red tape. Risk management plans, public liability insurance applications, TAMS, Roads ACT, liquor licensing if you go that route… The main factor is knowing what information all those people require, and being able to give it to them in the form that they’re familiar with. Other people – the Centenary of Canberra team for example – shared that knowledge with us. They give us their templates from other, similar events that they’d run in the past. We shared our templates with other groups wanting to do similar things. Producing is a skill that isn’t taught in schools, it’s learned on the ground and shared between groups, between communities, generously and with love. This is how it happens.
Important to note, though, that this type of dealing with bureaucracy favours a certain demographic – white, middle-class, university educated artists, people who have the time to sink into learning these skills. Every additional 10-page form that producers are required to submit eight weeks before the event disadvantages community groups, people from cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds…
If there’s one criticism I’d level at the You Are Here festival, it’s that there’s still a long way to go in terms of engaging with people from diverse backgrounds, artists with disabilities, artists from CALD communities, though it’s certainly better than it was when I was involved. Worth noting that 2011, the year in which I curated like 80% of the program, was by far the most narrow in terms of representation. This is a serious point that I wish was getting more traction at all levels of debate.
What I wish – speaking as far as I know, only for myself – is that there were more groups doing what YAH does, occupying vacant spaces in the city. We never intended YA to be the only one of its kind. Art Not Apart started in 2012, and it has its own weird flavour, informed by but totally unlike YAH. The Multicultural Fringe is doing its own weird dance, circling around its own strange attractors. I wish there were 50 rival arts festivals in this town, collaborating, competing and laughing at each other.
In the meantime: bless Mr Hayes for taking the festival to task, even though I feel if he asked more questions of the festival crew he might have more tangible stuff to critique. And bless the festival team, the hundreds of artists, all the enablers, and the thousands of people I’ve seen at the festival this last week or so. Doing it with love. Sharing their time, their energy, their feelings, all that ridiculous jive, with love. lovelovelovelovelovelovelove
But David, that wasn’t an argument, nor was it a coherent case, it was more like a dream journal of disconnected vague thoughts.
Aight, no more faffing around: some gorgeous Adam Thomas photos from the festival fer yer enjoyment.
What’ve you been doing, Finig?
I have not been making, I have not been writing, I have been learning. I have been traveling on a research fellowship funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, looking at arts-science practice in Honolulu, Santa Barbara, Santa Fe, New York, Toronto, London, Paris, Stockholm, Warsaw, Wroclaw, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore.
What have you learned, Finig?
It’s too early to say, I don’t know, hard to tell, not sure, maybe nothing, it’s complicated, difficult to answer right now, too soon.
But I did learn a new way to say Yes
and that’s surely not nothing
This is not a review, let’s not pretend it’s a review – this is an ACCOUNT, of a thing that happened.
It’s a New York fairytale, or, if you will, it’s a journey from innocence to experience, or maybe it’s a cautionary tale about how Jess Bellamy and I nearly ruined a great collaborative partnership before it began. It is TONI BENTLEY’S THE SURRENDER and let’s get amongst it.
So Jess and I were in New York for different reasons, and because she is a virtuous playwright who sometimes attends theatre, she picked up a copy of New York’s Time Out magazine, featuring listings of plays. As soon as she saw the blurb for Toni Bentley’s The Surrender, she emailed me – one glance at the website and I was in.
Next, we invited our friends and new collaborators Ira Gamerman and Siobhan O’Loughlin to join us at ‘the anal sex play’. Ira, sensing something was amiss, managed to have a prior appointment, but Siobhan, trusting naively in our good intentions, agreed enthusiastically to come along. It was only a few days later, when the tickets had been booked and there was no backing out, that Siobhan realised we had no expectations that the play would be any good – in fact, quite the opposite – in fact, that was the point.
So Saturday afternoon. New York. Falling snow. Times Square. Theatre Row. I arrive first and stand in the foyer amid a crowd of what look like Americans in the final stages of life’s journey, clustered in tour groups, in the Big Apple for a few days and keen to catch a bit of the theatrical life the city is so famous for. Aside from The Surrender, there are posters for a range of great-looking shows:
BREAKFAST WITH MUGABE: Accept… If You Dare
INTIMACY: A Comedy About Sex
NEWSICAL: A Musical (which bore a quote from the NY Daily News, whatever the fuck that is, describing it as ‘A hit with gays, straights and everyone in between!’)
and play called REHAB where the letters are spelled out in glowing red trackmarks on a black and white photo of a wrist.
At this point Siobhan hasn’t shown, and we’re wondering whether she’s calculated the pros and cons of keeping the friendship with the Australians vs seeing The Surrender and made the right decision, but then she arrives and the three of us make our way into the 150-seat auditorium with the six other audience members, all of whom are over the age of 50, and we settle down.
In my notebook is scrawled WHY IS THE SET ALL RED? WHY IS ANYONE ELSE HERE?
The usher tells us to turn off our phones and ‘unwrap all lozenges’ before the show starts, which already made me smirk. This was bad, we were in the third row and there was no-one in between us and the stage, and I was already on the verge of giggling. And then the lights out and then our performer, Laurie Campbell, strolls out on stage in a black silk dressing gown, a bustier and high heels, and opens with the lines: ‘I once loved a man so much that I stopped existing. No me, only him.’
Without any preamble, she launches into an explanation of how sex between equals is futile – equality can’t go anywhere. She’s tried sex lying on her side once or twice: it’s no good. Just no good. Forget about it. One person has to be on top, and that person is in charge. And then she turns to meet our eyes and says while wiggling her eyebrows like a crazy person, ‘But my journey was not from top to bottom, but from bottom… to BOTTOM.’
At this point I notice Siobhan is having some kind of seizure next to me and Jess is making weird tiny huffing noises, and for a second I think they’re both having medical emergencies, but without doubt I look no better – I’m stifling laughter by desperately biting my own face. I know for a fact that Laurie Campbell can see us shaking with silent mirth two metres away from her, but professional that she is, she merely gives me a quick glance that spells death and then refuses to meet my eyes for the rest of the show.
Now she proceeds to unfold her main thesis – she is going to tell us about ‘the joy that lies on the other side of convention’ through her journey into the realm of having a lot of buttsex. With the benefit of hindsight – ‘or should I say, BEHIND-SIGHT’ (more eyebrow waggling) she will convince us all to ENTER THE EXIT: PARADISE AWAITS.
So the story starts with Toni Bentley as a young ballerina in search of spirituality. She is raised an atheist, but has some religious pangs, which she transfers into her dance career. ‘My pink point shoes became my fetishistic ally – my crown of thorns.’ (metaphor) Then at some stage she gets into reading and falls in love with Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and SOARING KIRKEGAARD (sensually rubs her own neck).
In case I haven’t made it clear, Toni Bentley’s script is so wildly turgid and overblown that she cannot say a single thing without stapling a really awkward adjective or a surreal metaphor to it. On top of that, the director has made the choice to hit every line with so much forced affect that Laurie spends the whole play desperately mugging at the audience to make sure we don’t miss any of the incredibly unsubtle subtext. When she says the line, ‘Fidelity will render Casanova’s cane… limp, and Cleopatra’s Nile… dry,’ she holds up a cane to represent a wang and lets it flop forward as if it has lost its erection, because Theatre. When she explains that she was having RELENTLESSLY SAFE SEX and that she became the Queen of Condoms, she puts on a sash made of a strip of condoms, because Condom Queen.
Somebody is responsible for this play being produced and tickets being sold in return for actual money. Whoever that person is, I want to meet them and ask them questions.
Anyway, the young ballerina Toni meets a man and enters the world of sex (‘He had big hands and handled me like a piece of meat… PRIME’). It doesn’t work out, and after they divorce, she coerces an unfortunate masseuse into having sex with her at the risk of losing his job (‘Over the next few hours I learned that his tongue held the same magical current as his hands’). She discovers more about her own sexuality and while in a way it’s beautiful to track her taking ownership of her sexual self, at the same time it’s fucking grating because she is overwhelmingly narcissistic (‘I was a mythic goddess, coming for all womankind’).
At this stage in my notebook is scrawled a quote which I have forgotten the context for: ‘There were plenty of discarded bodies in the moat around my castle.’
Anyway she goes through discovering threesomes, and explains it in really confusing logistical detail that leaves you unsure of which person was inserting what into whom, but whatever – at that point I was distracted by the soundtrack, which was a mixture of Leonard Cohen and sexy muzak that sounded like an elevator stuck between floors.
I tuned back in again when she described a particularly wild encounter with a man where he stuck his dick into her ‘vertical mail slot’. And then she pauses and says, ‘And I mean, my actual vertical mail slot. He stood outside my front door with his penis poking through my mail slot and I knelt in my front corridor and sucked it.’ And I just thought, why? Maybe I’m missing some kind of exciting door-fucking kinkiness, but to me that seems like acting out the fantasy no-one’s had or ever wants.
BUT THEN: I learned something! As Toni explains that whenever she is preparing for sex she puts makeup on her face, and then ‘on my lower face… my real face’, and I was like, do girls usually put lipstick on their clit? Is that a real thing? Maybe I’m an ignorant dude and I’ve just never noticed that dames is always painting up their vulvz? But according to Jess and Siobhan: Not A Thing. So, now you know.
Toni, Toni, Toni. I really wasn’t sure about writing this blog post, because I feel quite confident that Toni Bentley is going to read it, and her feelings are going to be hurt. But then I thought, dammit Toni, that ticket cost me $50 USD, and I don’t even have a job, plus you got an incomprehensibly good review in an actual newspaper, so you can deal with it. But also, I’m not actually pissed at you – you needed a good editor, or maybe a therapist, or maybe just someone to talk with you in real terms about what was and what wasn’t right to share under the banner of ‘empowerment’. But then, who am I to tell you how to do female empowerment?
These are real conversations we can have, Toni: get at me.
Okay so now we get to the core of the play: our narrator meets a man who has anal sex with her, that is his thing, and she’s into it, and now the play stops being even slightly about anything that isn’t buttsex. As Toni puts it, ‘the impossible had come to pass… IN MY ASS.’
I can’t even tell how I’m supposed to feel about lines like this.
So Toni ‘shifts into being a conduit for a pleasure greater than myself’ and so on, this unrelenting stream of not-even-euphemisms for sodomy and her slightly hysterical exclamations about how it was the best thing that ever happened to her. Over and over again. There’s an ill-advised science demonstration with diagrams about how the rectum is actually part of the digestive tract, and even handy tips on douching (they are not that handy, but whatevs).
Anyway here’s where it gets kinda sad. Up until this point, the narrator’s colossal ego and sense of smugness about her sexual escapades kind of kept me from feeling anything for her other than eyerolling weariness. But when we shift into the dynamics of her relationship with ‘A-Man’ (yup), she opens up chasms of sadness that I can’t help but pity.
A brief laundry list:
• She raves about how he dominates her (‘finally, a man who was not afraid to fuck me in the ass’) and how crucial it is to have a dominant partner for really transportive lovemaking, and yet he comes across less like a caring dominant partner than a really selfish jerk who takes what he wants from her without really caring
• ‘When he is in my ass I regress to a very young age: I goo and gah’ – I didn’t like this line
• She waits at home for him, he determines if and when they’ll have sex, and she gets usually an hour’s notice before he comes around, which she always accedes to
• ‘If we don’t make it to the bedroom in time something always gets smashed’ – spontaneously breaking furniture during crazy passionate sex sounds great, doing it regularly sounds sorta contrived
• She shaves her pubes pre-sex while reciting a William Blake poem (‘He who binds himself unto a joy’) – no problem with William Blake, but there’s this ‘lady-body-hair is gross’ undertone throughout a lot of this piece that I find a bit meh
• She calculates how often they have ass-sex in total (298) and how frequently (once every 2.4 days) using lipstick on a mirror – strange and awkward and desperate and also unnecessarily mirror-ruining when there are piles of paper scattered around the stage
Now to give her due credit, Toni is fully aware that she is being super needy and not okay here, and this is the dark underbelly of the play – it’s her coming to terms with the fact that this relationship is not on an equal footing, and eventually she ends it. Her exit from the relationship was as cringeworthy as anything else in the play, but it was nice seeing her stand up for herself.
I guess what made me sad, though, was that the whole show felt like a celebration of a really manipulative, abusive relationship. The sex didn’t sound very hot (I don’t have much of an opinion on anal sex, but anything where ‘negotiation’ and ‘consent’ are dismissed as vanilla is probably not my bag) and the end lesson was something like ‘anal sex is not for me’ rather than ‘maybe ass-sex can be just one part of a wholesome, fulfilling, adult relationship, rather than the single and only defining feature?’
Still, to give her her due, Toni saved up the three best lines in the whole play for the epilogue. After the break-up, she explains that ‘I felt like a pelican…’ (bated breath waiting to see where this might go) ‘…trying to extract itself from an oil spill.’
On future anal sex: ‘I never let anyone else into my sacred backyard… what was once hallowed ground, now a tunnel of despair… filled with ghosts.’
HOT TIP FOR ASPIRING PLAYWRIGHTS: Never describe your asshole as a tunnel of despair filled with ghosts.
Finally, leaving us on an inspiring upbeat note, Toni tells us, ‘I had taken my ass back. He doesn’t live there any more. I live there now.’ And then slips off her robe, moons the audience for a long, awful moment, and then black-out.
And then back onstage for a curtain call, during which she maintains her poise with superb grace and only once shoots me a withering, contemptuous glance.
The End. No Moral.