Reflections on Hold Everything Dear: Performance, Politics and John Berger, by Maddy Costa
Among my banks of memory files is a slim folder marked Rooms I Want To Live In. These aren’t architectural rooms as such: each one is better described as a public event that, in its generosity of offer, flow of ideas, structural elegance, and space for contemplation and playfulness, modelled the interpersonal and intellectual landscape I want to inhabit at all times – not selfishly, but because in such a landscape it might be possible for a human being to breathe and thrive. Another way of describing this landscape might be a pocket: “a small pocket of resistance”, as John Berger wrote, “against the inhumanity of the new world order”.
Berger was the inspiration for one of the folder’s key entries: a one-day symposium at University of Greenwich, convened by Simon Bowes, a lecturer in its Department of Literature, Language and Theatre, also a friend and a writer I’ve admired for years. Titled Hold Everything Dear: Performance, Politics and John Berger, it was designed as a dialogue between the three, with performances happening alongside papers and presentations, creating a series of illuminating cross-currents between argument, discussion, embodiment and abstraction. From the beginning Bowes acknowledged the socio-economic politics of the event itself, inspired in part by Berger’s declaration in the essay Ten Dispatches About Place (2005) that: “Yes, I’m still amongst other things a Marxist.” For instance, in his opening remarks Bowes revealed that each of the four commissioned artists had received a fee of £500 for their performance, on a par with pay structures in the wider London performance scene. Such transparency is rare but necessary if the invisible class structures of performance are to be dismantled.
Generally I feel, if not actively excluded, certainly far outside academic structures, so it’s odd that Hold Everything Dear was the second university symposium that I attended in barely seven months. The first was John Berger Now, two days of academic papers and conversation convened at Canterbury Christ Church University by Richard Turney, prefaced by a cinema day with screenings of five Berger films. The day I went was quite dry but in many ways also thoughtful and invigorating: highlights included Tom Overton’s tender account of shifts in his approach to writing Berger’s biography, and a scintillating paper by Rochelle Simmons of University of Otago, New Zealand, tracing lines of connection between Berger and Ali Smith’s novel Autumn. Bowes also took part, giving a paper called “’The problem of time is like the darkness of the sky: towards a poetics of duration in the thought of John Berger”, which situated Berger’s writings on time and matter, particularly in his book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, within philosophical texts by Henri Bergson, Elizabeth Grosz and Karl Marx.
Comparing the two events, I was struck by the difference in their approaches to ticketing. For Hold Everything Dear, day tickets were priced according to an equitable principle, at £15 for academics, £7.50 for freelance artists, £3 for students; whereas tickets for a single day of John Berger Now were £45, or three times higher, for waged people, but ten times higher, £30, for unwaged and students. I was also interested in the ways in which Bowes addressed the size of the audience at Hold Everything Dear, noting wryly that “we are not displeased to be running at a loss”, and more seriously that: “We may have the sense of a small culture speaking to itself about itself.” I had had exactly the same thought at John Berger Now, where I also contemplated what success “looks” like, how often the narrative of success is expressed quantitatively, whereas what really matters to me is quality of thought. Both Hold Everything Dear and John Berger Now reminded me that the other, more negative phrase for a pocket of resistance is an echo chamber, sealed from and irrelevant to the culture at large. Hold Everything Dear resisted this by generating a feeling – Bergerian in spirit – of encounter, between academics and artists, professionals within health and within literature, meetings across different disciplines and modes of expression, gifted by the smallness of the group a heightened quality of attention.
In another connection between the two events, Tom Overton was the first speaker at Hold Everything Dear, looking this time at a box of juvenalia recently discovered in Berger’s archive, and a short story called The Rotten Apple, written by Berger aged 17. The fruit of the title is given to a young man by a fading music-hall star, who asks him to throw it at her in heckle during her performance. When he does, the rest of the audience turn on him, and she becomes more radiant for their rallying defence. The drama of the tale – and, in Overton’s view, the gaucheness but also sophistication of the writing – resides in that reversal, in the young man’s ensuing confusion and shame.
The story is typical Berger in how it contemplates the “learnt assumptions” audiences bring to art, particularly “assumptions concerning Beauty Truth Genius Civilization”. These phrases are from the first chapter of Ways of Seeing (1972), in which Berger is concerned with reproducibility, the ways in which the meanings of art, of individual paintings, have been replaced by market value, co-opted to shape a “language of images” put to use by capital. I’ve spent most of my life writing about performance, so it’s a teasing question to me how Berger’s career might have been affected, or thwarted, if he’d taken as his primary subject theatre rather than visual art: what he wrote about was and remains accessible to a general readership in a way that a live event just isn’t. He too was able to put reproducibility to use.
Bowes’ own paper for Hold Everything Dear unobtrusively indicated the difference this makes, through a series of projected images of performances in the form of blank, black-framed rectangles. The performances in question were both by Ponyboy Curtis, the “avant-garde boyband” ensemble of director Chris Goode, examined alongside passages from Goode’s book The Forest and the Field, and Berger’s aphoristic statements in Ways of Seeing that: “To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. … To be naked is to be without disguise.” Picking up the argument of his Canterbury paper, Bowes saw in Ponyboy’s first performance, At the Yard (2015), a distinctive collective rhythm that spoke more of duration than linearity, a desire within the shifting nakedness of the all-male performers not for each other but for a different understanding of time, togetherness and society. By contrast, in Ponyboy’s next show, FCKSYSTMS (2016), Bowes saw a shift, partly in rhythm – here one of demarcated set-pieces – but more in display, the nakedness of the performers now nude, now in service.
These observations became the crux of Bowes’ thesis: that in The Forest and the Field, and his work with Ponyboy Curtis, Goode speaks against capital, but not against the specifically patriarchal power relations that reinforce and are reinforced by capitalism. Bowes relates this to the demand for “vigilance” Berger expressed in his essay The Theatre of Indifference, which refers not to staged performance directly but more widely “public life in the city”: the theatre that is “built on the ruins of the forum”, and whose “precondition is the failure of democracy”. Vigilance is necessary to avoid and challenge this indifference, born of “the inevitable divergence of personal fantasies when isolated from any effective social action”, and prevent it upholding the very structures that it seeks to resist.
Such was the gossamer mesh of ideas woven over the course of Hold Everything Dear that the texts by Berger quoted by Bowes repeatedly re-emerged, taking new guises, finding new emphases. Campbell Edinborough‘s performance piece How To Look drew on the same chapter on nudity in Ways of Seeing, moving from thoughts on the relationship between his body and the audience gaze that meets it, to address the ways in which power and patriarchy infiltrate his personal relationships with his daughter and his own father. He began the work naked, draped along a dais in much the same pose as the Rokeby Venus, holding a vanity mirror which he tilted so that the audience could see his face – but also so that he could see the audience. Unlike the painted female nude, condemned as vain while always at the service of the (male) spectator, Edinborough invited the gaze to control it.
Control is the essence of patriarchy: as Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing, “To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men.” What a weight of knowledge for a father to carry when faced with the gaze of his young daughter. Pulling on a grey suit, crisp shirt, the uniform of patriarchy (“a professional ruling class costume”, as Berger described the suit in About Looking), Edinborough reflected on his own father, a man he barely knew, but whose memory is imprinted in the ageing body he sees reflected in the mirror. His movements through these three interactions – between performer and audience, father and daughter, childhood self and father as symbol of remote, daunting authority – were spare and elegant, a dance of consciousness and self-consciousness, accruing with each moment greater nuance and complexity. There is an exactitude to Edinborough’s demeanour that, combined with the pre-recorded text, not a word spoken live, might have proven distancing; but his resistance is to sentiment, not feeling, and the work was more emotionally affecting for it.
Another echo of Bowes’ paper came with a second reference to The Theatre of Indifference by Rosie Rizq, a psychologist and psychotherapist based at University of Roehampton, who spoke powerfully of the damage wreaked by ideological austerity on the NHS and particularly mental health services. Starved of cash, these services have dwindled to such an extent that it’s barely possible for people to access any care, let alone the slow, patient, dialogue-driven one-on-one care that might improve and save lives. And although many in British society, perhaps even a majority, still believe in free healthcare available at point of need to all, Rizq sees no corresponding will to action required to ensure the NHS’s survival. Here is the indifference Berger railed against: the collapse of faith inevitably produced when ideas of human worth struggle for oxygen against value defined by market forces.
What Rizq would like to see across the NHS, above all in mental health services, is the kind of care Berger wrote about in A Fortunate Man (1967), his collaboration with photographer Jean Mohr, documenting emblematic weeks in the life of John Sassall, a general practitioner working in rural Gloucestershire. Sassall sought to understand the entirety of each patient’s life, not just the symptoms being presented; healing, he knew, was a matter of more than medication. And, rooted as he was in his community, he was able to care for people long-term, to hold memory for them, and chart the minutiae of their changing mental and physical states. An NHS governed by capital, by commercial medicines that demand diagnosis, and time directives more concerned with efficiency than quality of care, pushes Sassall’s way of working into history. Except in the furious minds of practitioners like Rizq, working where they can to fight for its return.
In the discussion that followed Rizq’s paper we spoke as a group about the difficulty within a right-swing climate even of hoping for social change, and the role theatre might play in shifting this mood of futility (a kinder word than indifference), by connecting people in their thoughts, their anger, their longings. One such connection occurred when writer and live artist Michael Pinchbeck presented a staging of A Fortunate Man, an early draft of an adaptation he was creating for the company New Perspectives, to be toured not only to theatres but GP surgeries where, it’s hoped, it might inspire today’s doctors to return to Sassall’s methods. Performing with a colleague from University of Lincoln, Rachel Baynton, Pinchbeck read extracts from the book from index cards, each one then discarded as carelessly as Sassall’s values have been abandoned. But the performance also included the story not told by Berger, because he couldn’t foresee the future: that of Sassall’s death, by suicide, in 1982. He drew out, absorbed, the pain of his patients until he couldn’t absorb any more. Pinchbeck and Baynton repeatedly examined the final photograph in the book, flipped so that Sassall appears to be walking out of its pages: that flipping shifts one’s perspective, just as Sassall’s death shifts perspectives on his life, just as Sassall’s life can shift our perspective of the NHS. What else might be flipped, what points of view can be changed? This question pulsed at the heart of the symposium.
A key line for Pinchbeck in A Fortunate Man is Berger’s assertion: “If I am a storyteller, it’s because I listen.” And these words, too, reverberated through the day: notably in the opening phrases of a text by artist and academic Diana Damian Martin that listened with utmost care to a number of between-spaces. Her lithe text slipped across the imaginative space between storyteller and reader, storyteller and page; into the pregnant space between Berger and his many interlocutors (Susan Sontag, Tilda Swinton, the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg); and through the liminal spaces between present and past, fiction and truth, love and politics, authority and the stories that might destabilise it.
Diana’s text was one of three produced by Something Other, commissioned by Bowes to bring a critical voice into the heart of the symposium. Although Diana, Mary Paterson and I wrote individually and had intended to perform our own work, a combination of childcare and life events conspired against us, and I was alone able to attend on the day. Rather than read out all the texts solo, I invited audience members to help me transform them into dialogues: a whimsical decision that had a profound effect on Mary’s already powerful work, transforming it into an act of community all the more affecting because her focus was on the unseen, unseemly pollutions of the “hostile environment” against migrants, the way it poisons common humanity and separates bodies into us, the privileged, and them, flotsam unwelcome as plastic refuse.
Three sets of phrases punctuated Mary’s text, framing it but also functioning as refrains. One related to her interest in maps, the kinds of looking they draw from her: “Looking as a form of politics. Looking as a form of communication. Looking as a type of moral responsibility.” With each repetition these phrases became less descriptive, more invitation or even challenge. Another was a line of Berger’s, from his Booker prize acceptance speech in 1972: “The issue is between me and the culture which has formed me” – an incisive phrase, slicing through time to the present day. The third was the title itself, “I like to imagine I’m there with you”, modified by the end of the text to chime out a note of desire, “I like to imagine you’re with me”: with Mary in committing ourselves to looking harder at the workings of privilege, in the world but also internally, the effects on imagination and understanding, acknowledging but also using it, to expose and prevent further abuses of human life.
Mary’s words still hung in the air when Rhiannon Armstrong performed Anchored, in which she reflected on her own family’s experience of migrancy and inequality. On the affluent side of her family tree Armstrong has found documents, photographs, property, homes it is still possible to visit, large enough to hold the memorabilia that proves these people were alive. On the other side she’s found poverty and so absence, lives comparatively unrecorded. Where her working-class grandmother once lived in London has been erased, razed down to build vertiginous office blocks; when Armstrong tries to visit she feels intimidated by the ways in which what looks like public space here is actually privately owned, every step taken within its boundaries subject to legislation and scrutiny.
Unable to film directly the places where her family might have lived, slept, walked, Armstrong instead filmed reflections of those places held within beads of water, balanced on a sheet of card, or on her own skin. Lucid, poetic, these tiny droplets magnified to the size of a projection screen capture death-grey buildings, scudding clouds, mutable cityscapes in their orb. Reading Berger’s essay Looking Carefully published in the collection Hold Everything Dear, I find a multitude of phrases that transmigrate to this work: it is “discreet, elusive and persistent”, concerned with “the impact of an event on a life”, and in it we see “what remains unnameable … after we have made an inventory of everything that is recognisable”. These weren’t the words I was thinking of in the moment of watching, however; instead my head was full of these lines from William Blake’s poem Auguries of Innocence:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
In the poem that opens And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, Berger writes of the wild flower that will outlive him; its “pollen is older than the mountains” and holds the force of time itself. Nowhere did Berger write more exquisitely about time than in this book, or reassuringly about the “timelessness” sometimes felt in “the sensuous, the particular, and the ephemeral” qualities of art. As Bowes noted in his paper for the John Berger Now conference, Berger accentuates here the differences between “the regular, uniform flow of time” constructed by capitalism and the “cyclic views of time” which held “two forces in play: a force (time) moving in one direction, and a force resisting that movement”. Beatrice Jarvis‘s performance A Lost Narration materialised this with a three-dimensional, embodied and inhabitable interpretation of Berger’s book. On the walls, illustrations and films of wild-grass landscape in which she danced; on the ground an accumulation of objects, among them books, a typewriter, feathers and stones. An unspooled scroll of cartridge paper lay across the length of the room, Jarvis scrawling upon it in charcoal that smudged as she moved; beside that, a chalk circle within which she danced some more, whirring circles that spread chalk dust in evocative clouds. “All cyclic views of time held these two constituents together: the wheel turning and the ground on which it turned.” Sensuous, particular, ephemeral.
Most of what I’ve written here is an act of memory, some significantly prompted by documentation I have to hand (the texts by Simon, Mary and Diana, Rhiannon’s script), or by the abstracts published in the programme of the day; some held tight in mind because I took no notes in the moment, wanting to focus my attention on looking direct at the present, not bowing my head to the future. There are, I’m sure, misrememberings. In her video contribution Once Upon a Time – the Finite and the Ephemeral, Deborah Pearson drew attention to those misrememberings, scrolling through a youtube video of Berger’s visual essay Once Upon a Time in search of a text she could not find and an idea she might have imposed on it retrospectively. Pearson began with a quote from Berger’s film: “When you tell a story about a life, you try to touch its meaning. The meaning of a life, to hold it, preserve it, against the onrush of chaos.” As I rewatch her film (Pearson later sent it to Something Other for inclusion in our Sixth Chapter, On Clockwork), it occurs to me that in this writing I am trying to preserve this remarkable day, this room I want to live in, from the onrush of chaos that would deny its importance. Elsewhere in her film, Pearson showed Berger again, this time speaking directly about “the intensity of seeing for the first time” and “the intensity of seeing for the last time” in the wake of his father’s death. But what of the intensity of seeing for the only time, as happens in every encounter with performance? What can writing do to capture that intensity, to hold it in memory – not just for those who were present, but those prevented by time or geography from joining on the day, those in the future not even born?
Berger’s final book, Confabulations, published just a few months before his death in 2017, ends with an essay titled How To Resist a State of Forgetfulness. That forgetfulness is orchestrated, he argued, as he had argued indefatigably, astutely, passionately throughout his life, by “the global dictatorship of speculative capitalism”, and “the language used by the media to present and classify the world”, which “quantifies everything and seldom refers to substance or quality”. As shaped by Bowes’ resistant sensibilities, the symposium Hold Everything Dear was abundant in substance and quality, in substantive relationships across disciplines and experience, air mingling, water merging, chalk and charcoal smudging together.
“Let us recall”, Berger wrote in that essay, “that time, as Einstein and other physicists have explained, is not linear but circular. Our lives are not a point on a line – a line which is today being amputated by the Instant Greed of the unprecedented global capitalist order. We are not points on a line; rather, we are the centres of circles.” Hold Everything Dear: Performance, Politics and John Berger drew its participants into a circle: not closed against the rest of the world but open to it, permeated by it, responsive and responsible to all that happens there. It was “a small pocket of resistance”, true to the spirit of the man who inspired it, gifting “the courage to resist and continue resisting” to all held within its orbit: in the room itself and, I quietly hope, reading about it now.
Hold Everything Dear: Performance, Politics and John Berger took place at the Bathway Theatre, University of Greenwich, London, on 14 April 2018. Thanks to Simon Bowes for commissioning Something Other to be part of the event, and for helpful comments on a more convoluted earlier draft of this response (which, for the sake of total transparency, was neither commissioned nor paid for, but something I wanted to write to honour how much I got out of attending). Thanks also to Deborah Pearson, Rhiannon Armstrong and Campbell Edinborough for conversation about it since. Since writing I’ve come across a longer version of Rosie Rizq’s presentation here.