Thursday, 22 March 2012

"Over and over again, new bubbles come to the surface and then vanish in time with the waves" -

"Over and over again, new bubbles come to the surface and then vanish in time with the waves. For a brief instant they are lifted on the wave’s crest and then they sink down and are seen no more. We are like that."

EH Gombrich

As I was tuning up my uke this happened:

Woman: Why you love music?

Me: Why do I love music?

Woman: Yes.

Me: I... I don't know.

Woman: I do not like music.

"The beautiful and imperishable comes into existence...

... due to the suffering of individual perishable creatures who themselves are not beautiful, and must be reshaped to form a template from which the beautiful is printed (forged, extracted, converted). This is the terrible law of the universe. This is the basic law; it is a fact… Absolute suffering leads to — is the means to — absolute beauty.”

Philip K Dick

(via Brain Pickings)

Thursday, 15 March 2012

#DV8 Review 3: Promising

The other day I saw DV8's new show Can We Talk About This?

I've done two blogs ( blog 1 blog 2) about how it wasn't as good as I'd expected it to be. But I do want to speak a bit about its strengths. About its potential to have been great.

There were four amazing dances that combined arresting visual images, surprising and challenging movements, and interesting and engaging character led speeches. There were also other moments that were less complete but still contained great theatrical ideas. It's really hard to write about visuals and movement so I'm not going to waste our time trying to convey these moments now. Also if you do go they'll be much more exciting if they happen unexpectedly.

The problem with the show was that these moments weren't explored or expanded. They weren't made into motifs, they just weren't developed.

If this had been a work in progress and not a show in The National Theatre performed by my favourite dance group I would have called it promising. Certainly the performers potential is far more than promising. They were clearly amazingly talented. They had fantastic technique. It was a privilege to see them even if I wish they'd shown their skills more.

A lot of time and effort had gone into creating a polemic script made up of the words of real people. It sketches out the argument that liberal democracies need to stop being so scared to attack radical
Islam face on and advocates insisting that Muslims obey and conform to our national standards. It makes the argument that we should oppose oppression of women, homophobia, arranged marriages, violence and censorship. It suggests that "the liberals" need to stop being afraid to talk about these problems. It indicates that government policy should shift to a different form of integration that pushes cultures into ours more strongly, rather than encouraging co-existence.

This text is well argued. It has some great themes. It has a coherent point of view. It's a good starting point for some physical theatre. You could take it and those promising physical moments and develop them into something amazing. Something visceral, human and challenging. Something with a better balance of movement and words.

I wonder if DV8 have passed the point where people say "that's promising , now go away and work it, push it, develop it further." I suspect they have.

Which is a shame.

The audience the piece addresses is exactly the people the one it wants to challenge. The liberal middle class (who go to theatres) and who, in the name of multiculturalism, allow radical Islam off the hook. But they are also the audience who like things because they are meant to. Who will happily walk out of theatres saying things are "interesting". Who will put up with under-developed theatre because they are told it is worthy, because it has an academic write up in the programme, because they "should" like it and precisely because it is about a controversial subject.

If the work wanted to shake up and challenge this audience it either failed or didn't need to. The audience whooped and hollered at the end. The performers came on twice for curtain calls to rapturous applause. Everyone I heard leaving were gushing about how "interesting" it was.

And because of this kind if reaction I worry that DV8 will never feel the need to develop this work. The audience and the work seem in tune with each other. Except for me. What I see as promising they see as critically valid.

But will it remain with them as an experience? Will they think of the show again? Will it have a life after the hype?

I don't think so.

#DV8 Review 2: The personal is the political

So the other day I recorded a conversation for Getting Better Acquainted with Sanne who's currently studying physical theatre and has a background in dance and performance. She talked about what she wants to get from seeing theatre which broke down as: magic. She wants to sit in an audience and watch wonder happen on stage. Something unquantifiable, something indescribable. And broadly speaking I'd say that's what I want too. It's certainly something that you can only get in a live moment. It's something that theatre and dance can offer that other mediums can't. Not in the same way.

When I studied theatre at university dance was the stuff that really spoke to me. Having gone there as a playwright I discovered my course wasn't really about texts. It was about a different kind of theatre. A kind I wasn't familiar with. As I became familiar with it I found it to be limited in many ways. But the stuff that did excite me, that surpassed the limitations, tended to be dance and physical theatre. It broke through all the theory and pretension and hit you in the face with visceral performance that provoked emotional responses. It was the stuff that gave me the magic.

DV8 in many ways represents this magic to me. Whilst I didn't see them live the films of their performances are some of the few times I've seen the amazingness that physical bodies in space can be captured on film.

Sanne also spoke about trying to make theatre that conveys a political message. She hasn't seen work that contains both politics and the magic. She hasn't come out a piece of political theatre saying "Wow!" She may have said "that was worthy" or "that was interesting" but never "that was a transformative experience."

She's still trying to find a way to knit these two things together in her own work. I told her that I think she's in the right area. I've found physical theatre to be the least preachy and most challenging political theatre I've seen. In it's physicality it has the power to disturb and challenge the viewer much more than something with words can.

I spoke of the ways that gender roles and sexuality is explored and challenged by DV8's Enter Achilles and Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men. And told her that I was excited to be going to see their new show Can We Talk About This?

I knew this new show was going to tackle issues around radical Islam, terrorism, censorship and the liberal fear of challenging religion. I went to the show expecting to see these themes explored with emotional physicality and powerful ambiguity by amazing dancers.

I did see amazing dancers, occasionally there were hints of amazing dance, but mostly what I experienced was a well crafted political essay spoken in a verbatim style by dancers. The movement was actually very uninteresting compared to what you might hope for, it didn't even seem that connected to the words. And the words dominated the whole experience. There was hardly a moment in the hour and 20 minute show that wasn't filled with words. The words weren't connected to characters particularly, although they came from real people, and they were delivered in a dispassionate style. This was a theatre in a Brechtian style, but missing the humour and style. And with far too much reliance on words.

What was sadly absent from the piece was the humanity of the people being quoted and of the issues and themes being played out. This was a slanted history essay. Dry. Biased.

The biggest strength of dance, of the human body in space, is the way it can explore what it is to be human. That's why it has political power. That's why I had high hopes for this piece. Enter Achilles and Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men both challenge the audience with the physicality of the performers. They also have characters and they have plot.

Can We Talk About This? takes the humans out of the equation. It doesn't explore why people feel the things they feel. It didn't challenge with anything that wasn't words. It basically had all the flaws Sanne had picked out as being present in political theatre. It had no magic. It was just preaching a point of view.

For the most part it took the personal out of the political. And we can see that sort of politics anywhere. What it could have done was put the personal into it. Explore more. Engage more. Give us a human experience rather than a cold polemic.

It didn't talk, it lectured. If we are to
talk about this then we have to listen. We have to challenge. We have to explore. And we have to remember we are all humans. That's the hardest thing to do.

Recently in a conversation about the recent Thatcher film I said "I'm annoyed that it will humanise her so much." The person I was talking to said "But she is human."

Werner Hertzog was accused of "trying to humanise" criminals on death row whilst he was making his recent documentary. He replied, "They are already human."

That's one of the things we always talk about. That we have to talk about. Sure, we should criticise bias. We shouldn't be afraid to challenge any idea, any belief, any action. But we should also explore why it is said. Consider the human who says it. Consider the human who murders as well as the human who is murdered. That's what we don't talk about. That's what this show could have talked about.

By not doing so it was as biased, scared and one-sided as the people it was attacking.

It could have been an open conversation. How else can we hope to understand difference and bias?

This talk by Karl James discusses many of the issues I go over in this blog and many of the issues DV8 was preaching at me the other night.

I'd like to end this review by suggesting you check it out. I wish I could recommend DV8's show but I can't. Their back catalogue however is amazing. Check that out if you can.

#DV8 Review 1: The cost of theatre

Yesterday I went to see DV8 perform Can We Talk About This? at The National Theatre.

This month I've gone a bit nuts and decided to go to the theatre on my own money. Nearly every time I've been to the theatre in the last few years has been when someone else is paying or it has cost £10 or less. This month I decided to go to expensive theatre and damn the financial consequences. I can survive on a shoestring for the rest of the month. I usually do anyway. I'm in a position I would call privileged poverty, after the rent, travel and food etc... is covered at the start if the month there are no real consequences if I run out of what I have left. I have no dependants. I get paid again next payday. My income is pretty small my partners even smaller but so generally are our outgoings. With no kids etc... and a stable job you really are free to fuck up. So this month I decided to scrape by and be nourished by art.

The cost of both these theatre trips was doubled as I was paying for my lower salaried girlfriend (I repeat: we are lucky and we choose to earn less and have more time). But since theatre is obscenely priced (although cheaper than a stadium gig or a big comedian) going to see these shows really does mean a highly frugal month. I currently have £10 to last till the 28th.

Was it worth it?

Well DV8 was the most expensive of the two shows. But going to see them is a bit like catching a band you really love when they come to town. I've loved DV8 since I first came across them aged 19 but I've never seen them live.

Their dance pieces on film blew me away. They changed how I thought about dance and about performance. They expressed sexuality, gender and specifically the complexity and contradictions of masculinity through movement in a way that I had never been able to using language. They transformed me. They led the way to me falling in love with contemporary dance and physical theatre. When I found out they were in town I just had to see them.

However, it turns out I am not a fan of the "new album" and they didn't really play any hits! The piece didn't even
contain much dance. Although to be fair what little movement there was did have the power to amaze and transport.

The show was really a big polemic rant, some of which I agreed with, some of which I didn't, some of which was provocative, some of which was simplistic. All of which was one tone.

I would say it wasn't entertaining. It wasn't designed to entertain. I'm not talking about entertainment in a narrow sense, there are many ways to be entertained. It didn't really hit ant of them. It wasn't boring exactly as it contained facts. But it wasn't transporting.

To be fair I'm sure listening to a verbatim transcripts of interviews and articles might entertain some people well enough. But I don't feel the show fits into many people's definition of entertainment.

It also didn't give me anything new. There wasn't really an exchange. I gave the show my money and it gave me back stuff I've read in newspapers and heard on TV and radio. Albeit with a particular slant added. Since it was designed to give you these facts pretty dryly, without narrative, characterisation, without even a focus on their wonderful dance skills, I don't think it would communicate well to an audience unfamiliar with the material. It wasn't designed to communicate.

And it begs the question: In a capitalist system is it justifiable to take someone's money, a lot of their money, and in exchange for that to give them a political rant?

I don't pay politicians to make campaign speeches. I don't pay the people who rant at speakers corner. When you go on a protest you don't pay people to hold their placards or to talk into the megaphones. When a friend tells you their thoughts on a political issue down the pub you don't slip them a tenner.

This piece wants to communicate a polemic to me. Fine. But why should I pay for that? Especially if it isn't mixed with entertainment. Surely I paid for entertainment.

Don't get me wrong I believe in art being provocative. I believe in artists creating polemics too, although I prefer them to be more accessible, interesting and entertaining. But then ultimately I believe that art should be free. That all art should be accessible to all. And I don't support the capitalist system. But I do have to live in it.

I feel that if you are going to charge for your art you have a duty to your audience to at least try and entertain them. Sure, you may fail. Sure, you may only entertain some of them. But that should be your goal. Actually I feel this way even if the art is offered up for free. Art is for the audience.

Sadly I don't think that anything that costs £35 per person can be a polemic rant and be justified. I think it also received arts council funding too.

Thankfully the other show I went to was both much cheaper (although still in my view overpriced, but as I say any price to me is overpriced, and price isn't something that performers and creators really set anyway) and also much, much better.

It was entertaining, provocative, difficult, moving, thought provoking, personal and universal. It was called God/Head and created and performed by Chris Goode. If you can ever see it you should. I'm not sure if it'll ever be performed again.

The DV8 show is called Can We Talk About This? But who does it want to talk about this with? The price doesn't encourage attendance from people who don't make a certain amount of money. It doesn't invite people who might disagree with it to come along. Sure, west end musicals and other populist shows are more expensive. But people who buy tickets to them know they will be entertained. They know the band will break out their greatest hits. They can guarantee a return.

If theatre wants to talk to more people it needs to be more affordable and it also needs to offer audiences something.

There is so much that the stage can offer people that can't be found elsewhere and that's what stage artists need to focus on. The magic of powerful performance is what DV8 need to tap back into. If they want to make political arguments they should go on Newsnight and Question Time where it doesn't cost £35 to listen to them.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Making the Hackney more Hackney: a review of the @HackneyHear

An app I trialled last year has finally arrived in the iPhone app store.

The app is free.

It's an audio GPS triggered experience.

And it's called The Hackney Hear.

When I went to trial it I didn't have high expectations. At that time I didn't have a smart phone, I didn't really understand what an app was and GPS makes me nervous.

The team behind the app gave my girlfriend and I an iphone and a headphone splitter and sent us out into Hackney with only the app to guide us. And from the moment we started using it we were hooked.

The design of on the screen was simple and engaging and the voice of the app guided us through. As we walked we were transported. It was an exciting thing to share, this new and unusual experience, being whispered at by the places you stand in.

The Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky once said that
“art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.”
And this is what the Hackney Hear did for us. It changed the world around us, the world that we are used to seeing and so never really look at, into something more emphasised. It put London Fields into a bold typeface. It made the stone more stony.

When you use the Hackney Hear this is what happens:

The location around you speaks, sometimes literally through the voices of the people of Hackney, sometimes with the everyday sounds of Hackney, and also in heightened forms such as stories, songs and poetry. All of this is transported through your earphones and into your mind. It is an intimate experience.

As you pass a statue you hear about its history. As you cross a field you hear people hoola hooping on a Sunday, like ghosts of the weekend, heard but not seen. When you sit on a park bench it talks to you, tells you about the changes that it has witnessed. You hear quotes from literature that refer to Hackney. You hear fiction from authors like Michael Rosen and Ian Sinclair, fictions that spring from their experience of Hackney. When you pass the Lido you hear a song about the Lido. It is like a magic spell. You see the building as you hear the song. You hear documentary footage and interviews, people describing the present day Hackney in all its complexity, from gang colours to zebra crossings.

I don't live in Hackney. Trialling this app was the first time I'd ever been to London Fields. But the experience of using this app, of walking through this augmented reality, made me feel as if I know Hackney on a much deeper level that I would have done if I'd just passed through it unthinkingly. To someone who knows Hackney already I think this app might be an even richer experience. It might make the Hackney more Hackney.

I look forward to returning to London Fields to re-experience The Hackney Hear. I look forward to it's reach growing to cover more areas of Hackney.

And I wish that there were more audio landscapes like this one. But maybe that would dilute the quality because one of the things that makes this app great is that it has been curated skilfully, providing a rich and complex experience for its listener. Although maybe listener is the wrong word because listening is only part of the experience. Maybe people using this app should think of themselves as explorers.

I look forward to exploring this landscape again. And hope in the future to be able to explore many other areas in this unique and exciting way.

This is what some other people said about it:

Hackney Hear - the trial users speak from Hackney Hear on Vimeo.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

On length and access:

An hour long show isn't too long. Not if it's good. Many shows we listen to or watch are around an hour in length. But getting people to listen to an hour show is hard. We are always reluctant to give our time to something unknown. I understand that. I'm the same. But the issue isn't the time. The issue is the unknown.

And also the effort. If you aren't someone who listens to podcasts already it seems like it will take great efforts to do so. It is a new thing to consider, a new system or process to learn. And there are lots of different media that you already know your way around. That you've already integrated into your life.

But just because you love those flavours doesn't mean you won't love a new one. And they aren't as hard to taste (or rather to access and integrate) as you think.

Getting Better Acquainted is worth listening to. It's a flavour worth tasting. It isn't the only longform podcast worth sampling but it's not a bad one to start with. I recommend other longform conversation based podcasts via the GBA twitter stream as well as posting about the show.

This are the ways you can get Getting Better Acquainted:

You can stream it straight on your computer or mobile. You can do this by clicking play on soundcloud or on Facebook. You can download an mp3 of an episode directly by clicking on download if you want to listen to it later or on a different device.

You can subscribe to it on iTunes. Which means (in theory) that iTunes will keep an eye out and download the episodes when they come out. If you have an iPhone it will download them straight to your pocket. You can also transfer the mp3's to other mp3 players with a tiny bit more hassle. iTunes is unreliable but it is comprehensive and relatively hassle free if you are an iTunes user.

The best way I have found of consuming podcasts is through The Stitcher Smart Radio App. It's FREE. You download it onto your smartphone and then tell it which podcasts you want to stream. And it's done. Many radio shows are available as podcasts so with stitcher you can create your own streaming radio station to carry around in your pocket, made from both established radio programmes that are released on BBC or NPR and independent podcasts. The downside is that some podcasts and radio shows aren't on Stitcher yet. The upside is that a lot of them are. And significantly GBA certainly is.

There are many other ways you can get GBA but they are all much more complicated than the ones listed above. If any of them are the best way for you to consume podcasts then you'll already know how to do it.