This dialogue begins on the IBT news page, where I wrote about The Record in reference to other conversations taking place at the festival.
I was not primed to enjoy The Record. I’ve had a stressful, tiring day, trying to juggle having a family with attending a live art festival (spoiler: you can’t do both at once). I am tired, too, by the ‘social stress’ – as you called it – of a festival context. The seeing and being seen. The small talk. The conversations held with people who are looking over your shoulder for someone else. And I am cynical about participatory art, or socially engaged practice. Having worked in that field, I’m aware of both the naive idealism that can hang in its air, and the cold instrumentalisation that can frame its access to finance and practical support.
But then I saw the show, and I was moved. As a piece of choreography, I thought it was simple and compelling. In a language of limited poses and gestures, a growing number of people occupied the stage. And I mean really occupied it. It felt like a different space when they were in it – at times aggressive and confrontational, at others gentle and inviting. Every performer made a point of looking at individual members of the audience, who were increasingly visible, as the house-lights rose imperceptibly during the show. We were seeing and being seen, but without the distraction and competition that accompanies normal social life. Because this, of course, was not normal, or social, or life. This was the theatre – from the Greek, theatron, the place to look – with all the power and impotence that looking contains.
I found one performer particularly poignant, especially given the conversation you and I’d had earlier about the ways that women and girls internalise the threat of rape, until we are scared of our own physical presence. This performer was a young woman who stood at the centre front of the stage towards the end of the show. Confident, deliberate, she held my gaze and occupied the space between us as surely as if I had fallen and she had caught me in her arms. I’d guess she was 13 or 14 years old. Do you remember being that age? I do. I remember realising that my body had attained some new meanings which I could not control and which were not welcome. I would have cut my own body to shreds rather than stand in a spotlight. The idea that a girl on the verge of adulthood could see and be seen with such assurance, such devastatingly simple humanity, would have been unthinkable to me back then. If I hadn’t just seen it, it might still be unthinkable to me now.
I am writing all this because I know that you had a very different experience. You wrote that The Record flattens the differences between people, presenting instead a ‘generalised humanity’ that feels neither inclusive nor specifically Bristolian. Instead, the artists, who are from New York, have drawn people into a presentation of their own artistic vision.
I agree with you entirely. But I don’t think any of that’s a problem.
Why should the Bristolians on stage represent Bristol, any more than you or I represent London, or, indeed, represent people of the same colour skin as us, or the same age, class or levels of education? How could the people on stage represent anything other than an abstract idea in an hour, as part of a group show? How could they represent their hopes and dreams, their individual desires, their backgrounds and their futures, their innermost selves? At best, any attempt to do so would become a hellish, long drawn out version of the start of a corporate away day: let’s go round in a circle so you can tell us your name and your favourite sandwich!
It’s also true that the participants in The Record are tools in a pre-conceived artistic concept. But that doesn’t mean that they are ignorant or manipulated pawns. I assume the choreography is a type of structure – like Japanese Renga poetry or Scottish country dancing – that is not designed for revelation but for togetherness. And I assume the participants are participating, knowingly, in the web of meanings that appear on stage: the art historical resonances of their poses, the histories and politics of looking in contemporary culture, the power of moving slowly and surely in a chattering and mobile world, the defiance of un-photoshopped bodies being present in public space, the difference between catching someone’s eye and looking away, the visceral thrill of the music as it moves from jazz to dance beats and back again.
I know nothing about the performers in The Record: they do not reveal themselves to me like picture books, I cannot own them by looking. It is not about them. It’s about us.
One of the most heartbreaking things I have ever heard a grieving person say is, ‘I don’t know what her favourite sandwich was.’ It was a few months after she had died, and the colossal weight of what had gone was too much to bear. It’s not the sandwich that mattered, but the fact that there were secrets and ideas, hopes and dreams, plans and disappointments that had never been voiced, never shared, never placed on record. We never know everything about another person, not even about the people we love the most. But we live every day with the stupid optimism that we can bridge the gap: between the vast, unknown experiences you have, and the vast, unknown experiences I do, too.
Like you, I don’t read much about a show before I watch it. so I came out of The Record and read your response straight away, and found out that the performers had never met each other before. Unlike you, I think this does change the way I think about the show. It makes me think about process and this, I realise, is where I am locating ‘participation’ in the sense that I think you are talking about: inclusion, access, agency. It must take a tidal wave of trust to go onstage and perform with people you have never met, to let yourself fall into their arms, to let yourself be guided by their movements. For me as an audience member, the show was about these gaps between people. For the participants, the strangeness of this process must have been an extraordinary experience that reverberated with connection and absence… But of course, that experience will remain a mystery to me. Because that experience is not the show. That experience – private, unshared, unvoiced – is the experience of participation, and participation is not a matter of aesthetic display.
I think there is a them and us discourse at play in the way the arts sector talks about participation. It assumes that ‘we’ (professional artists, performers, writers) have a position of power over ‘they’ (unprofessionals) who do not. Something about the discourse assumes that participants are members of an under-represented group in need of an opportunity to be take part in a revelatory experience that provides access to social resources. The Agency that you mention is a great idea, but it is not an artistic one. It is a producer’s idea, an institutional idea, and it absolutely must happen. The Record is an artistic idea. Part of the artistic idea, as I read it, is that it is performed by people who are not professional dancers. But that is not the same as saying that the performers represent un-professional dancers. They represent nothing. They perform relationships.
I scribbled all this down in Subway after I came out of the theatre – desperate for food and also desperate to avoid the social stress of the Arnolfini bar. Then I went to see Cuncrete which was brilliant – funny, raucous, silly, strange. It’s a show of a punk rock band called the Great White Males, who sing odes to capitalism and brutalism. The performers are all women, and they perform masculinity wonderfully on stage: groins out, chins up, cock sure and not afraid to let you know. It reminded me of the times you and I say to each other, ‘what would a man do?’, to shock us out of apologising for ourselves. It also made me wonder what it is about the status of professional performers that makes it OK for them to play with different versions of themselves, but which assumes that their opposite – unprofessional performers (participants) – must be tied to a single identity. When you and I ask each other what a man would do, we are watching ourselves be ourselves and we are acting at being other people and we are also becoming a third, temporary kind of person who lies in between. Couldn’t the participants in The Record have been doing the same? Trying this thing on for size, able to experience it and critically appraise it at the same time? Or, another way of putting it is, would you have felt differently if the choreography was performed by professional dancers/actors? Or if the framework of ‘participation’ had not been used to describe the show?
I’m so glad you’ve brought The Record into this dialogue, because I’ve had many conversations about it in person, but only posted that small bit of writing on the IBT blog so far. And it’s good to be challenged, too. It’s funny, I know exactly the girl you mean, and was also very struck by her, and also thought of myself at her age, but in the opposite way to you: at that age, absolutely I would have done that, taken part, held the stage with that assurance – but I would look back on it, as I look back on so many things in my life, with profound embarrassment, a stomach-turning cringe. I realise that to project my present self into her future is horribly unfair.
I agree with you on so many points: why should they represent anything? Why should we do more than see or be seen in a space that is not normal, or social, or life? How could they present their innermost selves in such little time? As with so many things, I’m aware that my thinking is conditioned by working with Chris Goode. The two participatory works I’ve seen of his – 9, which I also wrote about at length, having interviewed most of the nine locals from Leeds who took part; and Wanted – have given the participants the opportunity to represent anything they choose, to see and be seen but also be heard, and find ways to present, if not their entireties, at least some key aspect of their existence or values or belief systems. Not only that, but they did so in a form that was theatrically rich and compelling, not just for the participants, or an experienced audience like us, but for everyone in the room. I was very preoccupied by one particular person in my audience on Thursday, a black male teenager who came in with his skateboard. I know this is a violent assumption but I didn’t get the impression that the Old Vic is a place he habituates, and I really wondered what his response to The Record might have been. Would he have been able to access the emotional connection of seeing and being seen, or would a solid wall of “I don’t understand” have blocked his way?
You’re right about The Agency not being an artistic idea, but those shows by Chris are, and they come from the same place: literally, the question asked of the participants in Wanted was “what do you want to see on stage?”, and then Chris put his resources and networks in service of making that happen. I thought about that when watching The Record, and I also thought about Pina Bausch, at least the tiny tiny proportion of her work that I’ve seen: how those dancers perform relationships, in a space that is not normal, but is social and is life. This suggests I would have felt differently if the performers were “professionals” but that’s not what I’m saying. (In fact, something that 600 Highwaymen said in the interview with Matt Trueman that I really liked was that they reject the terms “non-professional” and in particular “non-performer” as reductive: you’re on stage, you’re performing, you’re the same as any performer. Perfect.) The problem is the choreography. I spoke to another maker today – who also didn’t like it – who described it as austere and joyless, and I agree. Yes, there are intriguing references in the movements, and also something of the beauty of a mathematical equation – but Bausch has both of those, and also sensuality, humour, charm, silliness. I missed all those qualities.
I’m going to say something else that I was thinking that is devastatingly cynical. Remember the older man with the silver hair and the dapper blue suit? I loved him – he reminded me of Roger from Mad Men. And being reminded of Mad Men reminded me of its very final moments, in which Don Draper, who has been in the midst of another breakdown and run away, this time to a meditation retreat in California, has a moment of epiphany. He smiles his Mona Lisa smile, and as the image of him fades, it’s replaced by a Coke advert from the 1970s, people of all ages, genders, skin colours, body shapes, gathered on a hillside, singing I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing. That’s what The Record was to me: an advert for perfect harmony. But somehow not the real thing.
The positive I’ve taken from all this is that I really want to get better at talking about participatory work. You spoke in your first instalment of this dialogue of the problem of language, and how we are twisted by the neoliberal agenda into employing a language that isn’t true to what we’re trying to do, and so warps what we’re trying to do into something that serves the neoliberal agenda (hence the ruptures along the lines of age, race, class and education in the publicly funded arts sector that replicate the society the sector purports to challenge). Someone else who has given me pause for thought at IBT is Ruth Obegbuna, founder of the Reclaim project in Manchester, which works with young working-class people to end leadership inequality. The kids she works with refuse to be described as “disadvantaged” or “disengaged” because these words carry powerful assumptions of inferiority. And yet, as anyone who has filled in a G4A or in particular NPO application knows, this is the shorthand language employed all the fucking time. It diminishes the conversation, diminishes us as individuals, and in particular diminishes the sector.
Putting all that aside: I’m delighted and kind of furious that you loved Cuncrete so much. I saw a slightly earlier version of it at CPT and felt exactly the same way, then saw it again in Edinburgh on a night when the room was full of venue programmers and it fell horribly flat. (I spoke to Rachael Clerke about this on Wednesday and she remembered exactly the night I was there, even named the other audience members, and said it was one of three bad nights.) I figured that seeing it at IBT wasn’t going to counteract the industry problem, and so the fury is at myself for deciding to go home. On the other hand, I saw my family and the friends I’m staying with performing several rounds of charades, reaching a peak of hilarity when my daughter asked my son to think of a word that rhymed with “poo” and his immediate response was “fart”. It was definitely worth missing Cuncrete for that.
My triumph last night was Lucy McCormick’s Triple Threat, which operated at roughly the same level of humour and scatological sophistication as the poo/fart charade, but was also blissfully smart, perfect in construction, conversation with theatre and indeed participation, feminist argument and critique of religion. I want to tell you everything about it, blow by blow (oh god, it’s the kind of show that makes everything you write about it come across as a Viz-style double entendre), but what I want to do more is send you to see it at Soho theatre next month so we can have a proper conversation. I’ve really enjoyed this dialogue with you as part of the work I’ve been doing at IBT, and as a formalisation of the ongoing conversations we have about work, and life, all the time. I think we should keep it up.
With love xx
I read this on the way home yesterday – a long trip by train, then a visit to relatives, then another long trip by train, lugging lego and snacks in tupperware and feeling that there is not enough time in my life to have a family and to finish the conversation. IBT is over but there are things I still want to say, or to ask:
Are we disagreeing about the artistic content of The Record, its relationship with its participants, or both?
What are the moral implications of either of these things? By which I mean, what do we expect art to be able to do, and what do we criticise it for failing to do? I haven’t watched Mad Men, but the scene you describe seems to be a comment on the values of the advertising industry and its lies. Surely the problem with the Coke advert is not its lazy politics per se, but its lazy politics in the service of selling Coca Cola. And the problem with Don Draper is not that he’s participated in a Californian meditation retreat, but that he’s appropriated its philosophy in the service of money, thus metamorphosing its ideas into an aestheticised version of profit.
In contrast, I was running up Primrose Hill on the day that Martin Creed’s work All The Bells took place. As part of the preparation for the Olympics, Creed invited everyone to ring a bell at 8.12 am. I was deeply cynical about the Olympics, and grumpy that it was taking over my city. But the effect of this simple, participatory performance was really magical. A ghostly chant tinkled above London, and dog-walkers, school-kids, old people, mums with babies, runners stopped, rang bells, laughed, smiled, paused for a moment and moved on. It was not intersectional or sophisticated, and it was not representative either. But it was a moment shared together, and an anticipation of other shared moments to come. If I imagine this being done for, say, a mobile phone company, or a TV station I think it would have been horrific. It worked precisely because no-one involved was to gain anything beyond the experience itself.
What does being in service mean? Why does Chris Goode put himself in service of participants? What is the difference between service and collaboration and partnership and inequality? What is the difference, linguistically, between putting yourself in service of someone and saying she is disengaged/ disenfranchised/ disadvantaged?
Does the discourse around participation/ participatory art assume that participants are going to gain something? Can we talk about art without gain? Can we talk about it as sustenance instead? Can we assume that being involved in art is one way of getting sustenance, but that if it didn’t exist others would spring up instead? So that participating might be the difference between eating food that makes you feel great and food that fills you up, rather than the difference between eating and not eating at all?
What is the industry problem? I feel like I know exactly what you mean, but I can’t put my finger on it. Perhaps it is linked to something else I was talking about when we met – the audience labour of attending festivals, showcases and biennials. The social-stress. I need to remember that the festival is only a moment in time, and there is never, never, never enough of that. But remembering, thinking and talking about it afterwards is the work of art. That continues …