Love songs: a constellation

by Maddy Costa

Form never stops. And form is always environmental. Like a people’s songs will tell you about the heart and the aspirations of that people, like their language and their use of it will tell you what their concerns are, material and metaphysical, their artforms will tell you everything about where they live and the shape they’re in.”

Ali Smith: Artful (p71)

Art is of nature, of the animal, but it is architectural first of all, which is to say it is ecological, concerned foremost with dwelling, habitation, shelter, and consequently, with hospitality. But before this — before everything else and in the last analysis — art is an expression of desire.”

Simon Bowes: The problem of time is like the darkness of the sky; with reference to Elizabeth Grosz: Chaos, Territory, Art

Writing is an act of desire … And desire is also an act of reading, of translation.”

Dionne Brand: A Map to the Door of No Return (p192)

*

Let’s call this a love song.

It starts with reading Smash Hits and moving on to NME. It starts with the charts and Top of the Pops, and shifts with a whisper to try John Peel. It starts with your mum playing Dolly and Elvis and your dad playing Marley and singing in Greek, with a dog-eared copy of the White Album and a seven inch of Remember (Walking in the Sand). It starts with George Michael at Wembley Stadium and Morrissey waving gladioli and the Stone Roses looking vacant and hearing the Pixies and knowing this new shore is home. It starts with seeing a girl at a gig and a boy at a gig, making out with the boy and making a life with the girl. Already you know where love is.

It starts with men because everything starts with men – JD Salinger and Richard Brautigan and Donald Barthelme – but it’s the women you want to be: Djuna Barnes, Ntozake Shange, Virginia Woolf. It starts with looking behind Oscar Wilde to the wild women, the feminists, the renegades who wrote and rode bicycles and let their ankles be seen. It starts with punk women scrawling slut on their stomachs and forming a band for a night. It starts with a photograph of Pauline Boty in a newspaper that you keep forever and decorating your room to look like hers. It starts with that first trip to Paris just to look at art. It starts with asking where the women are. Trying to be the woman you want to see.

It starts in the third row centre front and with a TV screen at midnight. It starts with a crush on James Stewart and Katharine Hepburn and wanting to dress like Doris Day. It starts with Aki Kaurismaki and Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley, with the lost and the peripheral and the oddballs of life. It starts with lines from films that you learn by heart, repeating them over as mantra, a way of thinking, philosophy. Do you love me? she asks. I respect and admire you, he says back. Isn’t that love? It’s respect and admiration: I think that’s better than love.

*

Picture me in the theatre matinee, fast asleep with the old people. Teenage and tired by trying to live inside music. Theatre didn’t pulse in my veins like music did, didn’t make me feel drunk or dizzy with pleasure. Theatre didn’t give me a space to dance in. And so theatre was boring. Until it wasn’t.

Falling in love comes so slowly, with wonder, an always expanding curiosity at what else there is to offer, and receive. In Artful, Ali Smith writes that: “Art is always an exchange, like love, whose giving and taking can be a complex and wounding matter.” This is my relationship with theatre: one of love and of exchange, complex and absolutely wounding. After less than a decade I had to walk away from it: I had come to despise its lies, its contrivances, the negligence of dialogue, of care, of exchange. Four years later I came back. In performance – which sometimes I still call theatre, like calling a new love by an old love’s name – I didn’t find a home but built one. Am building one. In writing about performance I am slowly rewriting myself.

This is the exchange I make with theatre: it tells me stories, deeply personal, slippery, rude, and I respond with my heart. The symbiosis between makers of theatre or performance and those who write about it is so often dismissed as parasitic, but no. I used to think it was mutual the way Andrew Haydon once described it: the writers are like “those birds that apparently hop into the mouths of crocodiles and pick bits of food from between their teeth”. But that’s not right to me either. We who live our lives however through performance grow together more like lichen: two organisms endlessly combining, finding nourishment with each other, not impossible in isolation but interlocked greater than the sum of their parts.

In that combining and interlocking I’ve found my politics, my voice, my hope. We can live so much more tenderly with each other: performance makes the space to do it now. We shelter each other, you and I, and in this hospitality build an environment of our own.

*

I know from the moment I breathe no to you, in an accent not mine, and you laugh, that I can trust you with anything. Including my heart.

But that’s not where it starts. It starts in the first conversation, about time and performance and how to live cross-grain. It starts with holding language up for scrutiny, searching for how to make meaning for ourselves. It finds sense in a line from a movie: I’ll marry you, she says, if you admit that respect, admiration and trust equal love. Say: they equal love. And every love song long accumulated, chattering gossips and agony aunts, shoulders to cry on and stern reprimands, draws in its breath before tilting into new motion.

We take words back to their origins to reconnect with a time before capitalism. Words like bewilder, a composite of thoroughly and lead astray, into the wilds. You bewilder me, make me wilder. Or the verb to romance: recite a narrative, and later, invent stories, journeys, adventures. Or desire – so bogged down now in lust, emotion transformed into an object of trade, bodies objectified in turn. What we’ve lost is the word’s unearthly root: in the longing, wishing, demanding, expecting, of that which came de sidere – the Latin for “from the stars”.

With you, with all the makers of performance that I respect, admire and trust, I have created a bubble somewhat aside from the worst of what humans do. Sometimes we call this bubble a pocket, or more lately a terrain, searching always to keep it open, so others can join us there. Today I’ll call it an ecosystem; so my work is that of ecologist, an endless study of relationships.

Where love meets desire this study is transformed: it becomes a mapping of stars. Drawing lines of constellation from this to that: from performance to performance, from person to story, to song and novel and film and sculpture, connection and connection in an ever-expanding universe, weaving a web sticky and safe, holding me in place. Over the course of my life I’ve watched the stars recede and the city I was born in grow uglier with its brightness, and without this pocket, this terrain, this self-contained environment of care and connection, I don’t know how I would live. This is what performance gifts me.

So let’s call this a love song. For all the makers and writers and thinkers and sculptors working with the stuff of life, trying to make something true.

Let’s call it a love song for the readers who listen.

Let’s call it a love song for you.

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