Friday, 30 November 2012

Originally Published in The Skinny: Uninvited Guests in the past

Although I was tempted by the Speed Dating- the closest thing I have had to a date lately is a death threat from a burlesque dancer- I hauled myself back into a tent to catch Uninvited Guests and Fuel: Love Letters Straight from Your Heart. Uninvited Guests are National Review of Live Art veterans. I hoped for a little old school physical theatre.
Love Letters is partially improvised from ‘dedications’ made by the audience. We are invited to dedicate a song to somebody that we love, with a brief explanation. Between the two performers own musical selections and stories, the dedications are played, the explanations read out. Reasoning I was far enough from home for anonymity, I offered my own guilt-ridden secret love.
I spend the first half of the performance wondering whether they’d read mine out. Other people would smile wistfully or wipe away a tear when their choices emerged. We drink toasts to lovers, are reminded about love rituals and celebrations around the world, laugh at The Darkness’ cock-rock insincerity. Then, suddenly, I recognise the opening chords.
It feels odd to have my words read out. I try not to twist in my chair, knowing that the brief conversation that I had had with the people next to me had been long enough to make it clear that this was my dedication. I squirm and compose my features. I notice how my words are so tormented against the gentler, earlier requests. Someone had managed to describe their grandfather’s escape from a civil war with less mania than my brief declaration. My attempt to describe the battle between taste and expectation is an absurd melodrama, something I ought to remember the next time I am critical of a script’s insincerity.
Love Letters exploits the ability of a pop song to become saturated with emotion, to give profound meaning to memories, while celebrating the way it can connect people. It makes sense of the musical domination of Latitude, genuinely working a fusion of theatre and pop. As the performance ends- the actors on the floor, embracing beneath thrown flowers and the audience dancing together in awkward pairs- a storm opens up the sky and rattles the tarpaulin.

Of Course It's F-ing Political

There used to be this really irritating advert in which one cartoon figure told another that he "didn't do politics." Cue a series of scenarios in which all conversation was shut down by the character who smugly commented "that's politics, too." This was famously parodied in The Vile Arts' notorious broadcast, when an artist claimed not to read criticism , leading to ninety minutes of the host shouting "that's criticism" every time a guest tried offer an opinion.

The point there is that politics, like criticism, is one of those ideas that tries to apply itself to each circumstance, aggrandising those involved in it and adding to its sense of self-importance. The current debate about "political theatre" is stuck in a similar rut. As long as no-one cares to closely define the parameters of politics, all theatre comes into the discussion. The simple assumption is that political theatre has roots in the agit-prop enthusiasms of the left, weaving back through time to the Bolshevik plays (parodied in the ballet The Golden Age) and flourishing in the 1970s, when 7:84 were relevant and bold, and every playwright in collected editions was banging on about the revolution.

There is, however, a rise in the amount of performance that is explicitly concerned with matters political. Scotland's own Gary McNair and Kieran Hurley have been touring their Crunch and Hitch, Cora Bisset made Glasgow Girls based on a campaign to support asylum seekers, and even Tommy Sheridan had his moment in I, Tommy. By addressing economic meltdown, the protest against the G8, immigration and the rise and fall of Scotland's favourite swinging socialist, the creators have examined subjects that are susceptible to change through the electoral process. Add in Uninvited Guests and it looks like a trend.

It's fortunate that most of these plays also contain high levels of contemporary performance practice, since the 1970s' plays have dated, in some cases, very badly. Both Crunch and Hitch are driven by the presence of their creators and while Glasgow Girls might be a musical, it has a hip, post-modern self-awareness. And although they deal with specific situations - Crunch is one of the most immediate responses to the financial crises - they all contain enough broad philosophy to be applicable in different eras and use the magic of theatre to entertain as well as educate.

Despite all of this, Dennis Kelly - he wrote Pulling, and a play about a boy who liked Osama - has claimed that he doesn't see much point in political theatre. He prefers, quite rightly, to consider whether plays have any meaning rather than define them as political. Unlike that advert telling the nation how bloody important politics is, Kelly is suggesting that a better foundation is to think about quality.

Of course, this won't happen as long as the internet has a tagging system, and "political theatre" is a nice catch-all. For all this obsession with definition, all labels are only short-cuts to appreciation: if lumping Glasgow Girls  in with Hitch gets either piece more attention, the categorisation is worth making. And if the definition opens up the possibility of more criticism....

Por Sal Y Samba

Por Sal Y Samba isn't just coming to Edinburgh for the manipulate festival. It exists on-line in various incarnations. This video might not be safe for work, so I have annotated one version that I watched.

The first minute is a series of squeaks in the darkness. I had been told this was a piece that didn’t stint on the erotic, but I hadn’t expected something so close to my Saturday night fumbling. There is repressed laughter, an atmosphere of tension…

At the minute mark, the lights come up. There are two people, so it isn’t like my Saturday night at all.  A man and a woman are partnering each other in a samba style dance. He has got a very big red… it’s either a corsage or a handkerchief… and she has got a very short red dress.

1’22” He grabs her head and knocks her to the ground. Then he picks her up by the hair. Her body language suggests she isn’t too keen on that.

He roughs her up by the hair for a bit, puts her back on the floor. He strokes her hair nicely. The audience laughs.

1’33” That stops the chuckles. He tugs her about the floor by the hair. The look on her face isn’t suggesting that this is a spot of consensual BDSM. Her legs kick, she even moans in pain. Then they resolve into a classic samba pose. Oh, it’s okay to laugh again.

1’50” She wanders off from him and throws a few silky shapes. He smiles and strikes a pose, wearing a big cheesy grin. The samba is off again…

2’ 20” Jesus, he’s at it again. Dragging her about by the hair. Apparently, someone in the audience has “got the joke” and is chuckling along. He keeps his hand on her chops, now and again slamming her to the ground, but generally keeping her under his command.

Seriously, if you are in the audience when I come and see this in Edinburgh, and you start laughing at violence against a woman, I am going to come and pull your hair.

I mean, I get it: it is choreography and not real violence. But this guy is acting like it’s Jim Davidson up there, slapping around his side-kick.

That said, the deconstruction of salsa’s implied macho savagery has been addressed pretty quickly. I am hoping she gets some licks in later.

2’ 40” He’s got her up against the wall. Still grabbing her hair, and she is flopping about.

3’ 02” They separate and go back into the slinky moves. The hip waggling and the sensual sway is uncomfortable now. He’s all melodramatic, she’s being seductive.

3’ 22” They parade around the stage together. He’s behind, guiding her with a soft touch.

3’ 54” Still the funky samba. The lack of music helps make it sinister, though. He looks like a threat. Maybe it’s the goatee. At least that handkerchief fell out of his pocket ages ago.

I’m not buying the idea that this takes cues from BDSM. If anything, it’s the opposite of Safe, Sane and Consensual. He doesn’t need to touch her to be menacing. The power balance is clearly in his favour.

4’02” He does a little sexy wiggle and gets a laugh.

4’ 13” Ya beauty. She’s got him by the hair and pinned him on the floor. The game is afoot.

4’28” After dragging him around for a bit, she has got him on all fours. This looks promising.
5’10” She is standing on his leg. He won’t like that. He doesn’t. Chuckles in the audience is having a high old time, though.

5’ 43” Okay. I am starting to feel bad now for wanting him to get hurt. She is poking her heel right in, and he is sobbing.

5’ 55” He’s got her by the hair and pulls her across his body.

6’ 00” It’s a full on ruck.

6’ 45” They are having a fight and shouting “samba,” like they are really grooving along to the beat. Only the beat is the sound of them scraping along the floor.

6’ 48” She boots him. The hilarity continues in  the audience.

7’ 05” Ah. It’s a bit more ritualized. They are taking turns on each other. That’s the BDSM coming out. Samba is like their safe word.

The lights just went out and the music came on. Is that The Carpenters?

8’04” Lights fade in. They are by a big box of salt. He is kneeling, she is squatting towards him.

8’15” That was looking a bit sexy, only now she is pouring salt down his throat. A thick white rope of it in his open mouth.

9’09” When Karen Carpenters sings “sharing horizons that are new to us,” there’s a nice irony. He seems to be into the salt feeding though and she is being quite gentle.

9’35” Shaking up a coke can, she slinks over to him.

10’ 24” He’s having a puke on stage.

10’44” And she’s taking the piss out of him for spewing.

At this point, I decided to draw a veil over the last five minutes. There needs to be some mystery, even in descriptive critique. 

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Tales of Magical Realism

Tales of Magical Realism (part 2)
follows on from Sven Werner's successful Cryptic Night, leading the audience, one by one, through four more episodes of the film-maker's mechanical film installation. A narrative, half beat poet and half hard-boiled detective, guides the viewer through the peep-show theatres housed inside Tramway 4's elongated space, evoking the romanticism of a childhood journey that slowly sours into a totalitarian nightmare.

While waiting for the funding for his film to arrive - Werner admits that this can be a slow process - he decamped to Glasgow and began work on what would become these short scenarios. It is difficult to define Tales: starting off with a small band and a chained dancer, the main presentation is divided into four short stories, each with their own viewing booth. Thanks to the headphones, every audience member must listen along, and the booths shut off the outside world. This magic is a solitary experience.

Three of the scenes are dedicated to travel - on a train, meeting a taxi at the station, the journey to a mythical city in the back of the taxi - while the fourth is, ironically, the destination: the viewer now having to cycle to power the light, and the character trapped in a factory that seems to generate light from human exertion. The anticipate of the first three chapters is cunningly flipped: the excitement of the open road's potential replace by the stasis of the city. Having built up the romance, Werner bleakly shifts gear, concluding on a despairing vision of modernity where humans are not replaced by machines but are forced to act like them.

The use of black and white imagery gives Tales a nostalgic atmosphere: the story is dream-like, and the music, which seems to have come from David Lynch's lost films, never lets the tension break. The sonorous voice, the matter-of-fact description of fantastic happenings, the hyper-real vision of the final destination: Werner catches the strict attention to detail and the loose symbolism that made magical realism bold and exciting when it first appeared from Latin America.


Bring Your Own Beamer is this huge international phenomena. You have to invite as many artists as possible, and they have to come along with their own projector. Then you shout "go" and they all project their work at the same time.

Glasgow gets its own BYOB on 30 November 2012: just when I am booked up with pantomimes. I suppose it comes to the same thing: information overload, multi-platform aesthetics, interludes of mayhem and plenty of bright colours.

Of course, it's at the Glue Factory. Honestly, where else could it be these days? It opens at 7pm for an exhibition opening, then the action kicks off at 9pm.

"Initiated by Rafaël Rozendaal in 2010, BYOB means one room, innumerable projectors, and an immersive experience of light and sound. With every participant bringing along their own beamer, all the night's artists present their work simultaneously, creating information overload and an overwhelming sense experience."

Organized by Diane Edwards and Craig Jackson with support from the Glue Factory.

Artists: Devon Elise Atkins / Stefan Blomeier and Darren Banks / Callum Beith / Adam Cruces / Natalie Doyle / Diane Edwards / Erica Eyres / James Farlam / Femtyechrome / Pete Fleming / Tracy Foster / Yannick Val Gesto / Mike Goldby / John Hill / Craig Jackson / Robin Johnson / David Johnstone / Marcin Klimek / Krysia Kordeck / Rachel MacLean / Ailisa Margot MacKenzie / Euan McKenzie / Val McLean / Christy Mearns / Rickie and Jamie McNeil / Robin Miller / Steven Morrison / Tim Narloch / Craig Oates / Lachlann Rattray / Alice Charlotte Ray / Jon Reid / James Rivers / Jamie F Simpson / Ewan Sinclair / Sara Sinclair and Mirja Koponen / Kim Stewart / Daniel Swan / Alex Tobin / Laskfar Vortok / Stella Wan / Marianne Wilson / Rachel Yezbick / Sinead Young

Audio-Visual sets: Ship Canal / Iopan / Tam Treanor / T.O.M.

Live sets: ULTRA LEPaR / Flacid Haus / Thee Downs

DJ sets: Jonnie Wilkes and Steven Legget / Andy Wake and Scott Duncan

Open Art Surgery

Although he would (hopefully) disavow it, a great deal of the energy and charm of Breakin’ Convention comes from the personality of Jonzi D.  He’s been working within both theatrical dance and hip hop since the 1980s – a time when most perceptions of hip hop focused on the rappers - and has become a vital supporter of hop hop theatre, from the lyric-based solo shows that proliferate across England to the increasingly sophisticated fusions of locking, breaking and crumping with Modern Dance.

Open Art Surgery is an appropriate finale to the Traverse’s dance season: six short works, all from Scottish artists presented as works in progress after a week of mentoring in Dance Base at the hands of Jonzi and Curious Seed’s Christine Devaney. From Claricia Kruithof’s opening, claustrophobic solo to Big Tajj, Drew Taylor and Christina Gusthart’s finale three-way of dance, beat-box and poetry, Open Art Surgery is a quick survey of a dynamic scene that can incorporate the expected techniques of hip hop while welcoming other approaches.

With all six pieces still under construction, the territory is frequently more sketched out than completely mapped. But there are healthy signs of artists willing to push beyond boundaries: sweeTe performs a straight up rap but by constantly changing costume reinterprets her rhymes through homely, aggressive and theatrical modes. Jackin’ The Box get sinister for Piece of Mind and Ready Ready Sauce mix it up with Black Swan Dance Theatre is poke at Facebook: Steven Fraser (Heavy Smokers) and Will Thornton (Product) have an already brooding duet in Diamond Life,

All of these pieces – along with the two untitled works that began and finished the showcase – deconstructed the idea that hip hop is limited in its vocabulary. Topped and tailed by Jonzi’s enthusiastic cheerleading (and a DJ set by the UK DMC champion Ritchie Ruftone), Open Art Surgery is a testament to a dance scene that sometimes thrives beneath the radar, and a happy statement that choreography need not be confined to obscure ideas.

Paper Theatre: The Movie (1)

Ah, sweet memories of teaching. I am up in front of a class, weaving my way through the underworld with Aeneas and trying to explain how this journey is not so much an elaborate reconstruction of the land of the dead but an example of the hero's descent.

"Each of the characters that Aeneas encounters represents an aspect of his self," I deadpan. The room is as silent as the banks of the Styx - that is, I can hear ghostly groans despite the stifling atmosphere. "When Dido confronts the Trojan, she is really a manifestation of his sexual desire, and another thing that he must overcome on his path towards self-realisation."

I ignore the first question - the perennial favourite. "Is this going to be in the exam?" I am waiting for the inevitable second.

"How do you know that Virgil intended this?"

I shuffle my notes. I have the answer to this one. "You don't, and there is no way to find out. In fact, that's irrelevant. Mythology is a language, and it has its own meanings that the author cannot understand. Words and symbols combine themselves in such a way that the intention of Virgil, or Vile, is no longer important. It's not a question of intention: it's about whether you can justify your interpretation. Try to remember that all art is a mirror and all we find within is our myriad selves..."

It's like this as I try to research the history of visual theatre. I'm going through the history of various puppetry traditions, entering random juxtapositions on Google, linking up ideas and specific companies that are going to appear at manipulate. I've read enough Foucault (specifically, the beginner's guide) to know that this sort of research, seeking out origins, is part of a dishonest attempt to create a lineal version of history and, frankly, Paper Theatre has very little to do with Paper Cinema.

However, this line of inquiry, this critical version of the hero's descent (we could call wikipedia the river Styx and the obol has been replaced by the search engine), began with a survey of manipulate's programme. There are two shows this year that involve paper: the previously mentioned Paper Cinema, who are bringing their Odyssey and Yael Rasooly's Paper Cut. Remembering the Jesuit principle of "starting where you are," I typed in "Paper Theatre."

It turns out that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote an essay about Paper Theatre in 1884. Even then, he was being nostalgic. The boom in paper theatre, also known as Toy Theatre, had been a century earlier.  Then, after reading further, I remembered that we'd had one of these when I was a kid.

Paper Theatre was a chance for all the family to build their own version of a theatre and stage a miniature production. They were sold as cut-out-and-build kits, and contained everything needed to recreate that magnificent version of Hamlet that was wowing the cheap seats. And like most things that involved DIY, imagination and rational thought, Paper Theatre was wiped out when TV arrived.

It did have a revival though.

The connection between Paper Theatre and Paper Cinema might be an accident of language. However, I can see an aesthetic continuity - probably a consequence of the material being used. Paper Cinema use illustrations to mimic the cinematic process in the same way that Paper Theatre imitated the stage: and one of the reasons that Paper Theatre worked so well in the nineteenth century was that performance was in one of its periodic fascinations with spectacle. There's a shared sense in Paper Theatre and Cinema of using simple techniques (shoving about tiny figures and drawing respectively) to reflect an art form that thrives on scale and grandeur.

Despite the high level of skill displayed in The Odyssey, it consciously reveals the working process: the artists are visible on stage, the images appear as they are drawn: having had a go on a Paper Theatre, there's no way to avoid a similar deconstruction of the mechanics. Fingers appear to move Hamlet out of the way, all of the characters have the same voice... there was usually a moment when the entire thing fell down as I brushed it with my arms.

Paper Cinema don't do that: they are professionals. But the format they use avoids the slick. Paper seems to encourage a more intimate puppetry, a consciousness of the two dimensional nature of the art.

I suppose Foucault is right - I'll have to ask Paper Cinema whether this was an influence on them - and it's unlikely that the lineal evolution of Paper Theatre leads to Paper Cinema, or Rasooly's fantasy of a lonely secretary. Instead, it's possible that these three different uses of paper reveal a shared aesthetic, one defined by the material. I may not be ready for that full definition of visual theatre yet, but perhaps there is a clue in the way that it allows the fabric of a production to help clarify the meaning and atmosphere.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Glasgow Improvisors Orchestra

The problem of having such a busy schedule is that I keep coming across things that sound cool, but I can't write about them in a way that would do them justice. I don't like just doing question and answer sessions, or regurgitating press releases, but the amount of research I'd have to do to make an intelligent stab at describing the Glasgow Improviser Orchestra's weekend of events is precluded by my very real need to watch a pantomime at The Pavilion.

The GIO has been going for ten years, so they've probably found a tune or two by now. Improvisation seems to turn up all over the arts these days - contact improvisation in dance, live poetry slams, making shit up on the Radio Show - but I most strongly associate it with jazz. I always thought it had a political quality, appealing to my anarchic love of the spontaneous, and manifesting as a way of avoiding the tyranny of the expected, a clear path for artist self-expression in the moment and a beautiful way of building communication within a community.

The GIO have fortunately invited at least one jazz musician along - the mighty Evan Parker - and a German free jazz supergroup, the Alexander von Schlippenbach Trio, so my understanding isn't too far off. There's also a commission by Jim O'Rourke, who used to be in Sonic Youth. 

Earlier this week, the GIO launched their new CD, which included settings of poems by Edwin Morgan: later, the Shetland Improvisers Orchestra will make their first appearance on the mainland. The weekend is broken into a series of gigs, each one emphasising a different set of performers.

Another guest, Maggie Nicols, founded the Feminist Improvising Group, which supports my assumption that improvisation can have a political edge. She's jamming with a flutist, a double-bassist and a vocalist, Aileen Campbell, who is also a visual artist. After seeing Penny Chivas and Dominic Snyder work together on a dance and drawing number for The Glasgow Print Studio, I'm hoping that this will connect the dots between music and visual art a little more, at least in terms of the personnel and approach. 

 One of the founding members of the orchestra, saxophonist Raymond MacDonald, says, “Over the past 10 years we’ve got to know Maggie and Evan well and so I am delighted that they can join us to celebrate our 10th anniversary. They are not only world-leading musicians but are also big hearted and generous people who are long time friends of GIO. Alongside all the other guests we are honoured to host, they will ensure the festival is an inspiring, welcoming and accessible three days of enquiring and life-affirming music.” 

I admit it: I gave in to the press release at the end. But it doesn't matter that I don't know enough about the GIO yet: the weekend is full of workshops and chances to chat to the artists. This means I can go along and, by next Monday, be set to write a really informed preview for 2013.
November 29 – December 1 2012 

CCA, 350 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, G2 3JD 

Originally Published in The Skinny: Manipulate 2008

This month's puppetry festival Manipulate at Dundee Rep relocates the marionettes art into an adult, more shadowy realm of exitential terror and nightmarish otherness. Gareth K. Vile meets the man pulling the strings.

Simon Hart, the artistic director of manipulate, has a clear vision for Scotland's new puppetry festival for adults. "We want to get across to the general audience that object theatre is more than just the Muppets." Celebrating an art form often marginalised as childish, Manipulate aims at a mature audience, introducing adult themes and stretching the possibilities of puppetery. "All of the pieces take things that might be seen as quite safe - like marionettes - and use them in a way that is unsettling. Expectations are regularly subverted."

Hosted at Dundee Rep, the manipulate Festival evolved from the collaboration of Puppet Animation Scotland and Projector Animation Festival, and emphasises the close links between puppet theatre and animation, boasting a multitude of international companies.

Puppet Animation Scotland is best known for its annual, and extensive, festival for young people, which is represented in most towns and cities across the nation. But manipulate is a more adult affair: the brochure describes the shows in terms familiar to enthusiasts of physical theatre or live art. In Light!, Campaignie Mossoux- Bonte, whom Hart acknowledges as "primarily a dance company using the body to cast complex and eerie shadows", grapples with existential terror; Stephen Mottram brings his Seed Carriers up from England to haunt the audience with visions of an insectoid humanity. Theatre Velo follows a lost soul into the further reaches of his imagination in Appel d'Air, a work that transforms mundane objects into potent symbolism.

The puppetry festival segues into Projector's Hot Animation Festival. Before this begins, the puppetry moves out of the theatre and into the community. Hart mentions that "we have five days of masterclasses, working in shadow theatre, and Stephen Mottram looking at the relationship between the puppet, the puppeteer and their relationship with the audience. We are also working with the Dundee Literacy 16 to 24 project to create a short animation film with young people." One show, Angel - is being staged in support of homeless charity Shelter. Alongside the exhibition of designs for the Cannon Hill Puppet Theatre, hosted in the Dundee Rep Foyer, these workshops and events extend the festival beyond the auditorium, and engage with future audiences and performers, as well as placing the performances in a clear social context.

Hart sees this "as an intensification of our core event, the Puppet Animation Festival, which is aimed at 3 to 12 year olds." Puppet Animation Scotland has, in the past year, taken puppetry into one hundred and fifty eight Scottish venues and has seen attendance grow to nearly twenty thousand people in 2007. Manipulate applies this enthusiastic outreach to puppetry for adults. Not content to merely stage shows, it allows the audience to engage with the medium and draw the connections between puppetry and the aesthetic languages of dance or mime.

The Festival is clearly not aimed at children: The Seed Carriers, which has been challenging audiences for a decade, takes influences from the nightmarish paintings of Bosch and the films of the Quay brothers. Hart notes that "it uses a very old technique alongside contemporary themes". Its detailed creation of a microcosmic society is disturbing and advertised as unsuitable for children in any circumstances. Likewise, Light! examines the shadow-play of existence, dwelling on the fear evoked by darkness and the body. Those familiar with the films of Jan Svankmajer or the more Gothic experiments of Tim Burton will be enthralled: those whose experience is limited to Orville might be shocked. There are moments of beauty and clarity in both works, but they are hard won and original: both works express fierce, individual visions and work towards a new aesthetic.

Most importantly, Manipulate promises to relocate puppetry and animation as mature art forms. As has been the case with comic books, they have often been derides as limited in scope or potential. While plenty of novelty acts may have repositioned themselves as adult through explicit themes or shocking tactics, Manipulate is a showcase for more thoughtful and eloquent expressions of the puppeteers art.

Me and Penny Arcade (triptych)

Yes, it's the weekly Vile existential crisis! We don't really need to go into the exact reasons behind the dour face and the moaning emails to friends who would rather be hearing about... well, anything rather than the doubts of a man who has set himself an impossible task. Let's just say I am disappointed that I didn't get into any of the categories for the Creative Scotland Awards...

On the positive side, I do have a massive interview with Penny Arcade, and I'll have enough material for another half a dozen articles before I decide to release the unadorned text. And I have been looking for a good place to put her final message to me - and the readers of the blog. I think it's perfectly framed by a spot of my misery. 

Getting something like this in my inbox is thrilling: I have only ever seen Arcade perform once - but I reckon I can nip into The Albany on my way home for Christmas this year - but she is one of the personalities that fascinated me as I was being seduced into my love of performance-that-will-not-fit. When I opened this email, it was like having William Burrough's Words of Advice for Young People turn up with a new dedication, just for me.

I will say this to you and to everyone who reads your blog:
Notice your fears, your longings, your dreams, your nightmares. Face them as soon as possible because they will be with you always and the sooner you enter into a real relationship with all of yourself the better. 

Aim for a rigorous inquiry, a rigorous honesty with yourself. Respect your own development. Believe me, it is worth it because we all get stuck with ourselves for life. 

Amor Fati, the love of one's own fate. You have a fate, you know? No one escapes that. Build the life you want, build the person you want to be. It is okay to have heroes, to understand how others have created themselves as humans and as artists but don’t just copy and hope for the outcome you want. 

Actively pursue your innate values because values must be grown by each of us and they are bought and paid for on the installment plan of life though our own experience. There is no one like you. Isn’t it wonderful? You are in competition with no one when you choose to develop yourself. But you have to choose this over and over. It never stops being an active choice. Ever.

Okay, so I am being a shameless fan-boy here: but that is kind of the point of being a critic, at least for me. It's part of the job to voice concern, to identify those parts of an art-work that don't function, to assess the impact and skill. More importantly, however, is the need to be inspired, to believe that art has a purpose. If I stop believing that, if I stop being enthusiastic about artists, it's time for me to get back in the classroom and teach Latin grammar.

Uninvited Feeling

Somewhere towards the end of Make Better Please, there is a moment of audience interaction that distresses me. I think we'd just seen one of the cast run around the room half-naked wearing a papier-mache cock while having tea spat on him... he was being possessed by half a dozen newsworthy figures including Jimmy Saville and that one that runs the country... the lights were flashing red and the drummer was having some...

It was the moment of calm after the mayhem. Another cast member invited the audience to tell us any stories that they had which might act as an anchor of hope against this storm of media-manipulated misery. A few people got up and said a few words.

And I had nothing. No single story I could consider that wasn't compromised by my belief that moments of hope or beauty are inevitably crushed by the march of events. Even the few words from the other audience members left me cold - with all due respect for their bravery and sincerity, it all felt inevitably irrelevant in the face of the bloody mayhem we'd been reading about in our break-out groups.

This bothered me for many reasons, not least that it suggests that I have succumbed to the stereotypical persona of the critic: cynical, pessimistic, unable to make a leap of faith and always waiting to be impressed. Sure, I'll do my proper critique later, and dissect the structural implications of Uninvited Guest's mash-up of tea-party, discussion group, mentalist live art rock'n'roll and secular rituals of purification. But it seems far more important to get a clearer picture of my mental state first...

I am wondering whether this wasn't part of the show's point: having bombarded the audience with bad news, this moment of reflection allowed me to understand how it impacted on my psyche. Despite a few reservations about the process - I don't like to be lulled into security before being provoked to respond in public - Uninvited Guests are using some contemporary techniques to get back to theatre's earliest definitions: a place for catharsis of difficult emotions.

Back to me, sitting as part of a circle, alone with my rather dark prognosis of humanity. I cannot tell you a single thing that gives me hope against the behaviour of our politicians, the sex-traffic ring exposed in Edinburgh, the scandal of the UKIP supporting foster-parents, against homophobia. Isn't there a fairy-tale where an angel asks a human to give a justification for allowing our species to live? And wouldn't we be stuffed if the angel asked me?

I'm hoping that Make Better Please wanted to point out the way our minds are manipulated towards negativity by the media. If we'd been listening to Arvo Part for half an hour, and reading spiritual texts from across different cultures, I am sure I would have come up with something.

Either way, I was in my favourite theatre venue, and in a very dark place.

I'm going to be even more pessimistic. Works like Make Better Please have a habit of confronting me in my belief that criticism has a purpose. As it stands, the lovely little review I intended to write has been rendered meaningless. The format, the clever tricks, the symbolism of tea, how we all got to wear masks: fascinating, but useless to the purpose of the work.

The company may have ended on a further ritual to dispatch the darkness but, frankly, that's not enough. The meaning of this work is not revealed by itself, but through discussion. Sending us off into the night was not enough. It needed some kind of critical support, a mutual support session, a conversation.

Albie Clark @ The Institute

The Institut Français is one of the sadly underexposed venues during the Fringe: despite having a year round of programme of classes, its August performance season has not yet received the attention it deserves. Albie Clark’s exhibition Changement de Décor remembers 2012’s festival, collecting Clark’s photographs of the venue and including snaps of Atelier du Plateu’s ROCK (a three way pile up of Gallic, punk and performance cool), Elephant Man by Compagnie du Formentier, Christine Bovill’s Jacque Brel tribute and Ma Biche et Mon Lapin, a short blast of sophisticated object manipulation.

The Institut Français’ Fringe bookings are tightly curated, concentrating on contemporary theatre styles from France but including pieces for children (Lapin Wants Ice Cream) as well as the more avant-garde choices.

Unsurprisingly, ROCK dominates Clark’s collection. Portraits of cellist Vincent Courtois and actor Pierre Baux are placed above the fireplace in the Institut’s gallery, looking down on the rest of the exhibition like a pair of bohemian uncles: Courtois, caught sitting on the steps outside the Institut has the aura of a world-weary rock star while Baux appears pensive. Images of them in action are reminders of the show’s moments of vicious energy, although a mis en place of the tangled wires is a silent testament to Rock’s power.

Clark keeps the images direct and simple: shots of performers in flow, or casual pictures of the venue avoid pretentious or overelaborate treatment. In the white space of the Institut’s gallery, the exhibition respects the detail of the venue and makes a gentle claim for the importance of its programme.

My Inbox, emptied

It must be getting close to Christmas: there's a bunch of seasonal stuff in my inbox. Attune Theatre have taken a leaf from the GFT's book, and are touring It's A Wonderful Life around Scotland. Being about a year old, Attune are a busy company, and they promise to have found the connection between Capra's feel-good film and contemporary Scotland.

Wasn't the original about a good hearted bank manager? I'm not sure how well that is going to fly, what with the Credit Crunch and the general dislike for Fat Cats and Financial Frauds. Still, it is interesting to see something doing the rounds in December that isn't pantomime.

Not that there is anything wrong with pantomime.

I did get a wee keek at the exhibition in the Briggait: it's named after a Radiohead song (Blame it on the Black Star) and does, indeed, feature a large number of inflatable stars. There are two rooms, one with a ceiling full of stars ("connoting aspirations or goals") and "the second room contains grounded stars (reflecting earthed reality)." I went into what I thought was the empty room - of course, the stars were above my head, but bottled racing into the one with stars on the floor.

It was the opening and everyone else was having civilised discussion around the table of alcohol. I didn't want to look like a school kid jumping into the ball-pit.

Darius Kowal, 24 November - 21 December @ The Briggait
I might have been a little cynical when the NTS announced their version of A Christmas Carol last year: I didn't see the need for another version of Dicken's "well-loved" special at a time of year when there are plenty of pantomimes to distract the audience.

Still, I was wrong: it was a critical and commercial smash, and used puppetry in a contemporary, devastating manner. They didn't miss a trick, either. Because of the format of the show, it is transferrable. This year, it's going to Fife and expects to charm the local audiences as it did in Govan.

This show could become a moveable Christmas feast, so long as Benny Young doesn't mind giving it some Scrooge every December. It is highly recommended to anyone who might like a Christmas show that doesn't invite chanting from the crowd, enjoys puppetry that isn't for children (not that it ever is, these days) or wonders whether small scale theatre can pack a big emotional punch.

The Old Kirk, Kirk Wynd, Kirkcaldy, KY11EH
Fri 7, Sat 8, Tues 11-Sat 15, Tues 18, Thurs 20, Fri 21, Sat 22, Thurs 27, Fri 28, Sat 29 @ 7.30pm
Matinee performances: Wed 12, Fri 14, and Wed 19 December @ 1.30pm
Sat 8, Sun 9, Sat 22, Thurs 27, Sat 29 and Sun 30 @ 2.30pm

From pop up theatres to pop up art shop - PUGS is occupying a disused shop on Great Western Road, turning it into a festive gift shop selling the work of Scottish artists. It's a chance to find something a bit more interesting than the socks I probably need this yuletide, and marks the third year that PUGS has invaded a space to sell art direct to the public.

P.U.G.S (Pop Up Gallery Shop)
407 Great Western Road, Glasgow28 November – 16 December 2012 (closed Mondays)
Tues – Fri, 12 – 6pm
Sat - Sun, 10am – 5pm

SHHHH! A Festival of quiet Music and Art is taking over Platform for one day next week: Emma Pollock and Meursault are amongst the plethora of artists who won't be turning it up to eleven this time.  RM Hubbert, acoustic guitarist and collaborator with... well, most of Scotland's musical community... is hosting, along with Platform and offers the chance for a peaceful afternoon in Easterhouse.

Easy jokes aside about how quiet Easterhouse can ever get, the cool thing about Platform is that it has all sorts of other things to do. So, if you get bored with the tunes, you can sit in the library, which has a great collection of graphic novels and a book about Lady Gaga, or have a swim. 

Saturday 1 December , 3pm - 11pm
Gravenhurst / Meursault / Emma Pollock / Laura J Martin /
Rick Redbeard / Wounded Knee / Eagleowl / Finn Le Marinel /
Jo Mango / Woodpecker Wooliams / Craig B / I Build Collapsible Mountains / Yusuf Azak

Taking place at Glasgow’s Platform – the all-day event (proudly hosted by The Local, RM Hubbert, Platform and The Line Of Best Fit) is a chance for performers, artists and audience alike to come together in quiet unison.

Of course the bands are not ALWAYS super quiet, but the audience is. We’ll be bringing in our expertly trained ShhUshers for the event meaning you’ll be guaranteed a perfect listening environment for some of the most exciting and innovative names in music.

Expect to see the more established likes of Gravenhurst and Wounded Knee play alongside newer acts such as Eagleowl and I Build Collapsible Mountains at this unique all-day festival, tickets for which are priced at £12 if you’re an early bird or £15 if you’re not.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Penny Arcade: part 1

Penny Arcade's provocative approach to performance has made her appear as an archetypal Live Artist: unafraid of addressing controversial issues (her response to the mainstreaming of queer culture was to participate in an early Gay Shame event), rejecting the props and sets and formats of theatre (Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! is more like a club night) and determinedly sticking to her personal agenda, she was there in the 1960s when pop art was encouraging artists to get out of the usual boxes. 

But unlike many countercultural figures, her attitude has not softened in the past decades. Coming to wider attention in the 1980s, Arcade has both a strong sense of history and an uncompromising commitment to personal authenticity.

"I began working in the Playhouse of The Ridiculous at seventeen," she says. "This was the original glitter/glam, pre punk, queer, political, rock and roll experiemental, improvisational theatre of NY’s late 1960s: so when I started to create my own work I was twenty seven. I spent from twenty one to thirty one THINKING of what that might be."

Arcade's first experience of New York soon led to her falling into Warhol's circle: she appeared in his Women in Revolt but soon fled the scene to travel around Europe. It wasn't until 1981 that she returned to New York, and began performing her own monologues. She also performed alongside Quentin Crisp and well as becoming part of the post punk bohemian community. Her 2002 work, New York Values examined the commodification of rebellion, a process that the mainstream has become adept at, transforming, for example, the ferocity of punk into another branded version of pop.

Although Arcade could be said to have defined the nature of performance art, she maintains a strong sense of respect for the previous generation of artists. "So someone like me had the standards for inquiry, experimentation and excellence from the very brave, highly original self individuated older artists whose work I respected and whose standards I wanted to emulate," she says. "I wanted to copy their standards for excellence not their WORK not Their VOICE. The entire point was to find my own voice."

The connection between community and aesthetics has never been ignored by Arcade: she has been part of a project to document the artists of the Lower East Side, and is clear that it is both politics and community that inspires art. "One  can’t separate the advent of 80’s performance art from the political and artistic culture of NY’s East Village/Lower East Side," she explains. "There was a lineage then…there wasn’t this awful mono-generational, erasure of history."

"In the early 80s performance was the domain of women, queers and minorities. I had come from the highly experiemental period of the 60s - influenced by artists who had been experimenting since the 40s, 50s and early 60s. Work that today would still be highly original."

"The truth is the genre that I helped create , solo performance was based very much on what I saw in fragments from older artists like Taylor Mead, HM Koutoukas…people who drew from their own imaginations. I was lucky enough to be in an artistic community that had SELF INDIVIDUATION as its key element and also had a thriving AUDIENCE that wanted to be there and watch you walk that tight rope. You cannot have new art forms if you do not have the audience that midwives these forms with their attention and support."

"I waited a long time to start performing my solo stuff , I was thirty four when I did my first solo show and that stuff was all improvisation, drawing from my natural ability as a story teller, unscripted, out on the high wire. I never wrote anything down for seven years!!! And then I burst into flames as a writer and wrote four full length shows when I was forty and it just kept pouring out. I think this process is refered to as priming the pump!"

"I focused always on seeking the answer to this question : What am I seeking to express?"

15- 23 December, The Albany

Electronic Musing and Sonatas for People

It’s debatable whether my contention that electronic music is not enhanced by live performance is a prejudice evolved from years of watching dance: the theatricality lacking from events like Touch 30 is as much about the process of creation not allowing or encouraging wild performance as any more specific problems of the concert format. Nevertheless, after Sonica, and Sonata for a Man and a Boy, the sight of three men fiddling with electronics is less engaging than either an orchestra in full flight or a cellist chasing around the stage after a mischievous student.

What Touch: 30 does provide is a statement about the range of electronic music being made outside of the classical, dance and pop spheres. Philip Jeck is a veteran artist – his set made up the middle portion of the night and a large projection cast up his intricate attentions to turntables and a keyboard. Like BJ Nilsen and Thomas Koner – both using a more contemporary laptop set-up, Jeck’s music is about the texture. All three artists emphasise the drone and the nuanced shift – Jeck’s analogue equipment includes surface noise and distortion while Nilsen goes for a collaged soundscape of found noises. Koner’s final set is the most bass heavy and illustrated through a series of dark projections, each one shifting slowly like the moods of his composition.

All three artists are immensely serious, but only Koner’s subsonic bass justifies the live performance – there’s a brutal reverberation to his seismic shifts. Sonata for a Man and a Boy isn’t really trying to imitate the musical sophistication of Touch’s artists – the music it uses is familiar and melodic, taking advantage of the cello’s eloquent melancholy.

The music is, indeed, only part of Sonata’s purpose: rather, it uses the format of a lesson to bounce around ideas about education and maturity. The skill of the man is mirrored by the humour of the boy and a simple cello lesson – a rare example of a teacher being represented positively within the arts – becomes the ground for games and life learning.

It’s almost irrelevant to group these two shows together simply because they are centred around music and yet their intentions – to find new ways to use music – are shared. While Touch: 30 emerges from the independent label scene of the 1980s, it has adapted the high seriousness of classical and visual art, shifting away from explicit meaning towards abstraction. Sonata embraces physical theatre but, despite interludes of idiosyncratic choreography, speaks of the relationship between childhood and maturity leaving enough ambiguity for discussion but clearly grounding the content.


In the past month, I have attended concerts by two of my heroes: Philip Jeck – mainly because of his Vinyl Requiem – and Michael Gira in Swans. Neither gig was as ecstatic as I might have hoped. In both cases, the live experience did not expand on my joy in their recorded output.

In many ways, Swans are easier to understand: it is clear that their live sets chase the ecstasy and the limitations of the venue’s sound – and a slight discomfort caused by the ritual of the gig, in which the audience are reduced to spectators – undermined the ferocious assault. 

There were moments of sheer brilliance: an unexpected version of A Coward proved that Swans’ latest incarnation can be as hard-hitting as Gira’s earlier line-ups, and there were several improvised moments when the guitars, and percussion combined towards a monumental majesty. Gira himself, reveling in his new, confident baritone, was appropriately messianic and my subjective experience was clearly not shared by the entire audience. The sheer volume, the interludes of droning distorting, the energetic runs driven by the twin drummers: even on what was not a perfect night, Swans are proving that there is an alternative to the nostalgia circuit.

Philip Jeck is harder to assess. In a triple bill of experimental musicians, his analogue approach stood out. The use of vinyl lends his performance a rougher, human edge (later, Thomas Koner would evoke landscapes that dwarf human scale, much like an icier vision of Swans’ scope). Yet, having worked with dancers and creating installations like the Vinyl Requiem, Jeck’s solo is oddly introverted. He builds layers of sound through adding recordings and even rolls out a few bass lines that sound fresh from a John Carpenter horror flick.

If he never quite reaches the scale of Koner, he does use his drones in a familiar, almost friendly manner. The awkwardness of vinyl makes the tunes distort under pressure – at times, the tone evokes a lost radio transmission. Yet the live dimension adds little.

While Swans battle the elements – and there were few moments of boredom and plenty of potential – it makes sense for Gira to tour. But for Jeck, the nature of his music seems more comfortable in a recorded format. Gira aims to be shamanic, ramping up the traditional rock egotism into something spiritual, while Jeck is tinkering with idea that are as immediate experienced in a solitary cell. There are two forms of mysticism at work – which explains why these characters became my heroes in my teenage years. One is liberatory, expansive, feeding on nature and the moment. The other is scholarly, monastic.


Monday, 26 November 2012

Get Classical... and Cinematic

As this blog has noted on several occasions, the real musical excitement is happening in contemporary classical. Sure, Chain and the Gang are doing a show in the CCA (and any band that mixes up ironic acceptance of the status quo with BDSM overtones are always alright by me), and Saul Williams is at SWG3 on Friday for two events but there's nothing I like more than an exclusive on an original event.

Tomorrow tonight, Matthew Whiteside and Jason Staddon are launching an open mic night for classical musicians at Bloc Bar in Glasgow. That's the 27th November, and The Vile Blog announced it first. At least, I can't find it anywhere else on the web.

It kicks off at half past nine, and Whiteside and Staddon are inviting anyone who wants to play "Bach, Beethoven, Brahms or Boulez or earlier than any of them." There is an electric piano tuned up and ready to go, although it is strictly Bring Your Own Pianist.

As for Saul Williams, he's doing a gig at SWG3 this Friday - having collaborated with the likes of Erykah Badu, Nas, The Roots and Zack De La Rocha (out of Rage Against the Machine), he brings a very hip hop sensibility to spoken word poetry. Described as "an uncompromising voice determined to tap the adrenaline center of his existence with any tool he can get his hands on," he is one of the few rappers who can lay claim to a serious presence as a poet beyond the musical context.

Before that, Africa in Motion (AiM) Film Festival is screening his film Tey (Aujourd'hui) and Williams will be discussing it afterwards. 

Venue: SWG3, 100 Eastvale Place, Glasgow, G3 8QG

Date: Friday 30 Nov, 4pm

Entry: £5.

View the Film trailer

Film synopsis

He is a strong, healthy man, yet today is the last day of his life. Satché (played by African American musician, poet, writer and actor Saul Williams) recounts his past as he ambles through the familiar streets of his Senegalese home town for the last time. As if on a quest to leave his relationships in peace, he journeys from his parents’ house to his first love, to the friends of his youth, to his wife and children. Satché experiences his concluding moments full of fear, yet exuding serenity. Followed by a congregation of admirers, he weaves through the streets with an unwavering focus on his death foretold.

Meditative and exotic, French/Senegalese director Alain Gomis’ film tells the story of a man who leaves America to return to the land of his birth. It is a poetic and experimental narrative that prompts the audience to contemplate their own mortality.

Following the screening of 'Tey' (Aujourd'hui), Saul Williams will be doing a spoken word performance in SWG3. The performance will take place in the same venue, however they are separate events. Please be aware that the audience in attendance for the screening will be required to exit the building in order to prepare for the evening's performance. Doors will then re-open at 7pm. For more details on Saul's performance, please see: SWG3: Saul Williams

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Penny Arcade comes to the Albany

Performance art, despite being a handy tag to include everything that happens in real time and space, isn't that old as a genre. Even ignoring the various controversies around its definition - when does something become Live Art or theatre? what section of The Skinny is this supposed to be in? - performance art tends to stir up the shit: it is frequently the artistic vehicle of choice for creatives who want to examine ideas that don't fit with the mainstream. 

Penny Arcade was right in at the start of it - and her work from the 1960s until today has been challenging, original and determinedly personal. In recent years, she has become a mentor to emerging artists - the wonderful LaJohnJoseph acknowledges her role in her practice - while still touring pieces that refuse classification. She is arriving at The Albany in December to reprise Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!

There's more confrontation in the title than in most venue's entire season: the event is part night club, part series of monologues and features male and female exotic dancers. Originally designed as a reaction to attempts by the American right to limit funding to controversial works, Arcade did describe the show as a "fuck you" to censorship.

Featuring roles from a receptionist in a brothel to meditations on the rise of the New York gay scene, BDFHW! is less interested in mainstreaming queer culture than representing it. Connecting to Arcade's presence within the Gay Shame movement - an attempt to disavow the rush to mainstream acceptance by a counterculture, BDFHW! is an extended provocation.

Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! Is coming to the Albany from December 15-23 for a final London run coinciding with the Albany's 30th anniversary.