Research for Operation Black Antler Project

I’m currently researching identity and the far right for a project I’ll (hopefully) be starting soon on Blast Theory and Hydrocracker’s piece  ‘Operation Black Antler‘. I just finished ‘The Road to Somewhere’ by David Goodhart and am now 60 pages into ‘The Strange Death of Europe’ by Douglas Murray. The focus of both books is quite different (Murray’s is explicitly cultural, whilst Goodhart takes a more analytical approach based on pollling), but the argument that racism – pure, unadulterated hatred for people of colour – does not exist is a common thread in both books.

Goodhart genuinely seems to think we have reached a post-racial consensus on immigration, bizzarrely citing UKIP as proof (anyone remember Farage’s comment about Africans with HIV and the Breaking Point poster?). His model of the Somewhere citizen essentialises working class communities into centre-right liberal caricatures,where racial animus is just a fact of life and should be read as a measure of belonging.

Murray, at the more extreme end of the spectrum, defines mass immigration as the displacement of one culture with another and only recognises racism when it manifests in a national event such as the Notting Hill Riots in the late 1950s. I’m curious to see what he will say about the EDL. I suspect racism won’t feature too heavily in his analysis of a gang of street fascists.

I struggle to see how either author expects post-Brexit Britain to achieve a greater level of cultural harmony when it denies the scale, veracity or even existence of ingrained racial prejudices. Despite their protestations, I can’t shake the feeling that they believe in their heart of hearts that a cultural re-set to an imagined past is inevitable and desirable.

Imagine…

Imagine browsing a bookshelf in a library or bookshop.

Now imagine a performace that browsed the world looking for audiences. It scans the shelves for peoplebooks, glancing at titlefaces.

Occasionally, an attractive fontface makes it stop.

Picking up the peoplebook, it opens it wide and takes a look at the wordorgans, flicking the skinpages looking for information.

Stopping at a wordorgan, the performance runs its finger over the skingpage leaving a perffinger print on the wordorgan, an imprint of time.

Performance is a browsing body picking up bodywords to flick through.

Flicking through bodies and picking out the bits it likes.

This body

Reading an extract of Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, we stand around the room looking at Janey’s dream map.

We put the body of text on a mortuary slab and exhume it’s remains to make a new body out of words, a way of using writing to mark the outline of the absence…

This body is cock

This body is desire

This body is sad

This body is water

This body is a stream

This body is a corpse

This body is feeling

This body is running

This body is alone

This body needs to be alone

This body wants

This body is lying

This body needs lies

This body’s friend is a liar

This body is dying

This body wants

This body is moving

This body has friends

This body is touching touching touching

This body wants love

This body hates

This body is in a room

This body is dreaming

This body is paranoid

This body likes tears

This body is a tear, a tear

This body breaks

This body is in a prison

This body is walking in the city

This body is buried

This body is digging

This body hides

This body needs

This body is alive

This body is useless, worn out, past it

This body is on the brink

This body knows something terrible

This body looks

This body is obliterating

This body is shattered knackered battered clattered

This body is fresh

This body is ripe for plucking

This body is out there, man

This body is wanting to die

This body is smiling

This body is finished

This body is waiting for him you it me them her to stop

This body is hurting

This body is hurt

This body is in your pain

This body is needing pain

This body is searching for the perfect lover

This body is sucking

This body is sleeping

This body is draining the juice out of him

This body is licking the sweat

This body is drinking the dirt

This body is dirty dirt

This body wants it

This body is peddle to the metal

This body is grinding its bones

This body is a clock

This body is a fairy tale

This body is growing

This body does not exist

This body flinches

This body needs me

This body is a bad joke

Reflections on the Stories of Solitude: Performance, Technology and Digital Overload Conference

This post was originally published on the CityLIS blog

***

This event was part of York Mediale, a new UK festival bringing together artists and technologist. Part celebration, part investigation, part space to question the ethical, social, political, economic and personal implications of digital culture, it is an exciting initiative with significant relevance for Library & Information Science.

The conference featured papers from artists, curators and scholars on the subject of solitude. It proved to be a broad yet subtle and sometimes evasive theme. The anxiety of social media use by iGen has brought the subject into the public arena but is often discussed with very little reference to research into its cultural impact. Debates regarding Facebook’s and Twitter’s effect on the tone of public discourse is all too often expressed with wild optimism by some or moral panic by others; neither position helps us study and investigate what these platforms are ‘doing’ to us and the world we live in. It was invigorating to attend an event where such extreme positons were absent. Doubt and ambivalence are underrated qualities at a time when clicks and likes and shares constitute a significant part of the public conversation.

What follows are some brief descriptions and reflections on a selection of the papers. A full list of the speakers is available on the York Mediale website.

***
What does it mean to be alone in a hyper-connected world? The fear of being alone and the manifestation of that fears shapes much of our lives. But there are many different states of alone-ness. ICTs are designed – ostensibly, at least – to bring people closer together without the need for physical proximity. Connectivity is a fundamental part of our lives. This was true before the internet. The roots of globalisation that took root in the nineteenth century would have been impossible without effective communication systems. It is said that shorter communicative distance shrinks the world and thus alleviates feelings of isolation by increasing the channels that connect us. Yet pervasive connectivity does not necessarily produce intimacy. Henrik Ibsen’s astute question, ‘What is the difference in being alone with another and being alone by one’s self?’ captures the struggle to establish true feelings of connection. The study of communication technologies is the study of ourselves.

The difference between loneliness and solitude was a recurrent topic throughout the day. Taking the image of Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, Matthew Causey argued solitude is the state where we experience freedom, which electronic communication disrupts. Social media creates a validation feedback loop where feelings of loneliness are only temporality alleviated with likes and shares. In online spaces, we exist as part of a ‘digital swarm of data subjects’ where our critical agency is comprised of algorithmic calculations. By becoming the subject of communication we turn ourselves into a project and so our relationship with society is altered. We present ourselves as communication nodes that can only exist through online interactivity. Causey reminded us that solitude is the prerequisite of individuation in modern drama and provides a strategy for differentiation from the herd. Solitude is more than a state of being; it is an event of thinking. But we avoid it in order to remain in service to the technological. Digital culture does not allow us to be forgotten, meaning we can never be truly alone, even when we are away from the screens.

Explicating this theme, Zeena Feldman opened her paper with two quotes. The first from John Steinbeck, ‘All great and precious things are lonely’, sits in stark contrast to Kurt Vonnegut’s imploration for young people to ‘create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured’. Both writers point to the potentialities latent with loneliness and solitude. They are states which exemplify a subject’s uniqueness but can also act as a catalyst for collective action, a state to be overcome. Feldman’s Quitting Social Media project looked at the possibilities that opened up by disconnecting ourselves from technologically mediated networks. She believes we are living through a ‘digital mediated crisis of solitude’ Communication technologies alter experiences of temporality by privileging short form content. A recent ONS report showed that we check our portable devices every twelve minutes on average; maintaining the feeling of connection requires consistent up keep, which becomes amplified when information comes at us in such small but frequent doses. Participating in social networks is seen as necessary to live and a waste of time; it is necessary but morally suspect. Self-improvement through expansive exercises in interactivity and network growth underpin its societal value. But the contradiction of today’s digital technology is that we use to also disconnect ourselves from networks. There now exists a digital detox industry. South Korea and China now host internet addiction camps, the principle of which is not unlike drug rehabilitation centres, while apps to help us sleep or exercise or ration social media use continue to grow in popularity. Both technological mediation and non-technological mediation constitute a project of self-valorisation, which is at the heart of digital culture. These activities and values foreground an anxiety about the future by narrowing our attention on our present (perceived) inadequacies, all the while making us fixate on an analogue, idealised past. Using technology to reduce our dependence on technology is not viable, but nevertheless points to a concerted if misguided effort to re-claim solitude as a morally important state of being that is worth preserving.

Natalie Kane gave a moving paper on the history of the chatroom. She described the function of these prototypical social media platforms as ‘negotiating the narrative of ourselves’. Online communication spaces require users to adapt themselves, where ‘everything becomes a difficult feeling to work out’. They can becomes spaces of survival and solace, and provide a means of working out how to express one’s identity through networked dialogue. Kane’s description of social media as a space to practice ‘radical softness’ was an important reminder that expressions of outrage and intolerance are not the only way we can communicate online. The colonisation of online spaces seeks to homogenize the messiness of human emotion by treating each utterance as an expression of preference, not as a means of reaching out to others known and unknown. But if the purpose of social media can be re-orientated towards the project of deconstructing our emotional selves then technology alone isn’t enough. We need a politics of networked thinking to legitimate the public performance of solitude. This is not a politics that celebrates isolation but recognises that intimacy and connection are temporary, variegate experiences, not statuses to be reached and maintained.

Causey, M. (2018) ‘Now I Am Alone’ : Dwelling in the Technological

Feldman, Z. (2018) Beyond Time: On Quitting Social Media

Kane, N. (2018) Intimate Objects: In Search of Loneliness Online

Reflective Essay on the Fluid Ecologies Project


***

I undertook the Fluid Ecologies project with Tracing the Pathway in May and June 2015. For five days we were artists in residence at the LAPSody Festival at the Theatre Academy University of the Arts in Helsinki. Shortly afterwards we travelled to Nuuk, Greenland, to take part in the PSi conference Fluid States North: Performances of Unknowing. This is a reflective essay I wrote soon after I arrived back in the UK.

***

We are four bodies, each unique and fixed, yet porous. We are one shifting whole – an ecology dependent on its constituent parts. As a fluid mass we merge and collide with other beings that we encounter along our path, and thus new perspectives forge an itinerant-based knowledge.

Tracing the Pathway’s methodology is designed to formulate an evolving processual framework with multiple iterations and access points. Fluid Ecologies is in many ways the embodiment of this methodology; it is Tracing the Pathway’s attempt to establish dialogues through embodied and sensuously collaborative modes of knowledge production.

In an effort to resist against the creation of discrete and finalised live art works we create structures that enable us to interact with audiences, whose presence enjoins with ours to generate fluidic encounters. These encounters form part of our archive; a repository of fragments that weave into our writing and function as material to activate future live acts. The body-to-body, site-to-document, and document-to-body encounters we manifest in performance leave residues of themselves on the spaces Tracing the Pathway work in and across. We animate these traces in performance when we invite participants to contribute to our archive.

The various iterations that comprise Fluid Ecologies are a conscious attempt to subvert hermeneutic categorisations. No performance event is a closed system; each constituent part of Tracing the Pathway’s practice feeds into the other modes.In this way, we treat performance as a series of continuous events that regenerate knowledge through embodied encounters. Our methodology is therefore in a perpetual state of transformation because we strive to make it responsive to the people and to the environments we work in. But in another sense we describe our process as fluidic because we are separated by distance and do not operate from a permanent base. The majority of our time is spent planning, talking, reading, and researching by ourselves; the time we spend with each other to facilitate workshops and performances is largely devoted to enacting ideas which until then have not been physicalized. We aim to become an ecology by creating a symbiosis between all of our constituent parts.

It was not until I participated in Fluid Ecologies that I was able to reflect upon what the implications of Tracing the Pathway’s methodology have for artists who wish to make their process public. This is distinct from making public performances, as the processes that produce live art works are embedded into the structure of individual pieces and rarely achieve a performed presence in and of themselves.

Unlike Ash, Cara and Mads – the other three members of the collective – I am not from a performance art background. My masters’ degree was in theatre practice where I trained with Philip Zarrilli in psychophysical acting. My lexicon of critique and analysis is routed in discourses pertaining to theatre and drama. This does not mean that I am unversed in the practices and theories of performance and live art. Indeed, when I began my PhD I was inextricably drawn to performance and live art as a way of formulating a theory of the live medium based on the exigencies of the archive. My studies ran concurrently with my work with Tracing the Pathway, and at varying points the work overlapped. Yet I have never felt compelled to situate my practice outside of a theatrical paradigm. This in itself might not be significant, but in some important ways they are distinct from each other, not least in the way the artist’s presence often constitutes the work in performance and live art.

I now find myself in the paradoxical position of making performance art whilst not being a performance artist. I am uncomfortable describing myself as a performance artist because rightly or wrongly it evokes for me a perception of art’s place in the world that I do not concur with. Historically, performance art is a practice that has always strived to smash the boundaries between life and art, professional and familial identities, the personal and the political. I have never thought it was necessary for my arts practice to overtly enter into my relationships with my friends or family, nor have I thought it should determine how I perceive and interact with the world. I maintain that to do so closes down one’s intellectual faculties and powers of empathy; the art as life paradigm inhibits the profoundly important desire we all posses to distinguish between us and them, here and there, you and me. All cultures are enriched and indeed sustained by these differences no matter how arbitrary or irrelevant they may appear. Occasionally, I have also found myself frustrated that the schools of criticism around performance and live art are often far more interesting than the works themselves. But this observation gives me a space to explore how the critical and the creative spheres can be bridged.

Alan Read argues that at it’s most effectual “theatre is antagonistic to official views of reality” (1993, p.11). Optimally, theatre communicates in images, yet despite the multiple and varied innovations that have occurred over the decades the written script retains its status as the foundation of much theatre practice. True, all scripts exist as potential performances, yet they too often mean theatre is experienced in a literary register. It hardly needs saying that audiences interpret live acts and written texts markedly differently. In relying on the critic’s articulation of ideas lying underneath performance art pieces I have been guilty of falling back onto the false hypothesis that live art can be entirely ‘understood’ through text, or indeed that there is something in any art work that can be fully ‘known’. After experimenting with the conference paper format at the LAPSody Festival and the PSi conference I started to consider how artists could deploy the embodied language of performance to share their methodologies.

The iteration of Fluid Ecologies at the Theatre Academy in Helsinki manifested as an installation Hoppy Hoppy Sparrow. We were taken with Edward Monkton’s description of the sparrow that “plants beautiful thoughts that grow like flowers in the blackness of space” and thought it was a potent metaphor for how we want our methodology to operate.

Participants were invited to plant seeds in a pot and then add them to the pile of soil we had installed in the foyer of the theatre. The participants wrote their names on flowerpot sticks and watered their small pot of soil over the course of the festival. The four of us also recorded fragments of conversations we had with participants on archiving labels and added them to the installation.

The seeds acted as a way to illustrate and experience the formation of thoughts, dialogues and relationships as a collaborative act. Some of the texts that were generated were included in the conference paper we presented on the last day of the festival. We had said in our application that our methodology was going to be the subject of this paper, yet after experiencing Hoppy Hoppy Sparrow we strongly felt that any attempt at contextualizing it would somehow lessen the profundity of the experience we had with the participants. I can say this from the luxurious position of hindsight; at the time I found this process challenging in the extreme. I had never written a conference paper during a performance process; the former always followed the latter. I have always considered conference papers to be reflective and at best provocative exercises; they offer a chance to present one’s projects and stages of one’s thinking with peers, but do not act as part of one’s artistic practice per se. Embedding the writing of the Fluid Ecologies paper into a performance piece demanded a degree of commitment and personal revelation I was unprepared for.

When we were planning Hoppy Hoppy Sparrow I was convinced we were not giving the participants enough to work with. As someone who has been trying to develop methodologies of audience participation I have become convinced that performers must be prepared to ask for a level of commitment from participants which challenges their notions of what audiences ‘should’ do. Planting seeds and talking with us seemed a little tame to me. But what I had not considered before I began the Fluid Ecologies project was the level of commitment I would have to make – not as a performer, but as a person. I thought I understood what it meant to commit to a performance, but here was the first time the limits of my training and knowledge became evident. I was trained to perform in a theatrical context, which to a greater or lesser extent always has a fictive overlay. In contrast, as a piece of performance art Hoppy Hoppy Sparrow demanded I make myself vulnerable in order to engender the type of dialogue we were aiming for. It was clear from the interest the participants displayed when planting the seeds that they found the experience rewarding, but I didn’t understand why. Yet herein lay the problem: it was not until I came to write my sections of the paper that I realized I had been attempting to answer this question before I had entered into the process. Moreover, I was unconsciously complying with an artificial performer-spectator dichotomy: one performs, the other watches. This was contrary to the level of interactivity Hoppy Hoppy Sparrow demanded. True participation in a performative sense requires a blurring of boundaries between the two roles until both the performer and the participant enter into a collaborative relationship until the work that is produced lacks a single author.

As a method of expressing Tracing the Pathway’s methodology, Hoppy Hoppy Sparrow and the Fluid Ecologies paper illuminated for me the lacunae that are inherent when attempting to share an ongoing artistic process. The paper was an assemblage of our memories produced from participating in the installation and some reflective writing on how we consider Tracing the Pathway to function as an ecology. This was a necessary format to explicate the processual nature of our work, but  it made me consider the limitations of standardized conference papers when attempting to embed theoretical discourses into live acts. I have never subscribed to the notion that theory and practice exist as a binary. Practice as research projects are not exercises in performing ideas anymore than they are attempts to textualise live acts. Yet it is a truism that the text and the performance outcomes that are generated from practice as research projects are often produced as separate pieces of work. By consciously using the material that was generated from Hoppy Hoppy Sparrow without seeking to overly contextualize it in the conference paper I began to think about how practitioners might appropriate the body-language of performance and live art as a method of sharing their artistic process in a conference setting.

This does, however, raise the question of how willing or, indeed, how able existing institutions are able to facilitate this type of practice. I am not talking about a performance or a conference paper here, but rather a method of expressing a philosophy of working that does not cohere to the rules and restrictions of langue. Such a structure would have to incorporate a documentation strategy that did not function as a series of historiographical records but instead acted as generative materials to expand the dialogic exchanges that occur between performers and audiences. If such a mode of scholarly communication were possible it could potentially innovate the ways we in the academy disseminate research.

These questions were at the forefront of my mind when I travelled to Greenland. Our hosts at the Knustmusuem in Nuuk were the Danish performance art group Sisters Hope. At the heart of their practice is the notion of ‘sensuous learning’. The two ‘sisters’ Gry Worre Hallberg and Anna Lawaetz use performance art as a tool to enact modes of learning that belie cognitive methods of knowledge production in favour of subjective and embodied encounters with experiential reality. Their goals expand beyond creating performance pieces by applying the processes of artistic labour in pedagogical settings. To this end, the group transform schools into temporary academies and are temporarily run by the members of Sisters Hope (see Sisters Hope, 2015). As part of the PSi conference the museum became a Sisters Academy to experiment with how states of “unknowing” might actualise in a conference setting.

Clearly, the presence of live bodies in space is a prerequisite for sensuous learning to occur. It is also a pedagogical exercise in transcending text-centred curriculum design in order to embrace the presence of animate, interactive bodies that enact a type of dialogue that eludes discipline-specific classification. As a response to a provocation from Sisters Hope we created an installation we have posthumously titled The Shadow Room. We took a corner of the museum and covered the floor, the ceiling and the walls with white A4 sheets of paper. To create a cocoon effect we hung large sheets of white paper from the ceiling to the floor, with a space left open for people to enter and exit. On the outside of the space we hung a light with a purple filament that shone through the paper walls, creating a strongly ethereal effect.

Outside of Tracing the Pathway Ash’s primary artistic medium is paper, a type of practice she describes as “soft art”. Before creating this installation I had never considered paper to be a particularly sensuous material, but the effects on the participants was quite striking. Throughout our residency period people used it as a space to enter into intimately whispered conversations, whilst Ash, Cara and I felt compelled to write in it.

Our presentation for the conference was produced in a similar fashion to the way the LAPSody paper was written, but this time we were not confined to the format of a lecture hall. All of the listeners sat in a loose formation on the floor of the museum. As we spoke we moved around them and asked them to participate in some gentle movement exercises. After a while we led them into The Shadow Room and shared some writing we had written in response to our time in Nuuk.

The format Sisters Hope created in Knustmuseum illuminated for me the lack of spaces that exist for performance practitioners outside of conferences and other academic settings to share their methodologies. So often events like these becomes showcases for presenting finalised piece or work-in-progress showings, but what we were attempting to do at LAPSody and PSi was to communicate our process by creating work in response to the people we were sharing the space with.

Historical and critical records have a tendency of abstracting theatre from its roots in the practice of the “everyday” – the multiple practices we undertake and that constitute a lived life, much of which resists hermeneutic classification. Read expresses the dichotomy between the written critique and the live event as “[l]ike the fieldnotes of the anthropologist” because “they are not the culture they describe” (1993, p.13). In the theatre, images become known through the experiencing of them in a live space not through the record that documents their occurrence. The performance-image enacts a process of communicating a lived idea that can be sensed and felt but never fully articulated.

This formulation of performance art allows me to confront a useful dilemma in my practice: I am first and foremost an academic; words are my currency. I value written arguments and recognise their importance in communicating and preserving ideas. In pedagogical contexts theatre and performance art practices are dependent on textual and verbal description and analysis to transmit knowledge. This is effective as a method of historicising practices to the extent that they can be placed within a broader corpus of ideas whilst also engendering critical discourses across disciplines. When considering the format of conference papers, however, I am now questioning if standard formats can adequately express the process of performance-making. As someone who is relatively new to academia I have found conferences to be unnecessarily confrontational forums and that they are not always conducive to an atmosphere of knowledge exchange. But this is not to say I believe they should be abandoned. Rather, I want to consider how the language and techniques used to enact a performance methodology can be deployed as a means of constructing discourses with audiences that functions as a way of constructing new methodologies.

How can we train students to make art works that fulfill the function of theoretical texts whilst not succumbing to the limitations of evaluative critique? What forums can be established to collaboratively produce knowledge over the course of an event – a type of knowledge we might term “sensuous”? And can this be accomplished without artificially rupturing the rich relationship between theory and practice, which if it were to happen would inevitably lead to practice research remaining in an academic silo?

References

Read, A. (1993) Theatre & Everyday Life: An Ethics of Performance. London: Routledge

Sisters Hope (2015) Available at: http://sistershope.dk/ (Accessed: April 10 2015)