Seeing comes before words. … It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. John Berger, Ways of Seeing
A journey across time in the last remaining car.
A guided tour of London in a language wrenched from sense.
A life resurrected in a video etched with dust.
Anxiety, loneliness, depression, in the dissolving colours of a painted owl.
If you'd asked me while they were happening what connected the disparate shows and Scratch performances programmed in BAC's Autumn 2012 Cook-Up season, I'd have struggled to come up with an answer. Talking to one of the producers there, I got the impression even they weren't sure. Something clicked for me when I (finally! after 18 years of meaning to!) started reading Ways of Seeing: a thought connecting Motor Vehicle Sundown, Still Night, Standby For Tape Backup and Puffball. In appearance, the four works are radically different: MVS is an audio piece for two people, sitting outside in a car; Still Night a fantasia rising mistily from the pages of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities; Puffball a skittering amalgam of music, animation, nature documentary and performance; Stand-By a prose-poem waltzing with found television footage. The experiment in form separates them, but it also brings them together, in a slippery space between the tangible and intangible; between what their audiences know, feel and imagine; between what audiences see and what they're told.
Seeing comes before words
The Fireplace Room at BAC is small and grey and dominated by, yes, a fireplace painted to blend into the wall. With 14 chairs and a sound desk crammed into it, the space feels claustrophobic. Ross Sutherland is backed into a corner; behind him, projected on the wall, are the theme credits to the TV show Friends. Set verbal against visual information, Ross tells us sorrowfully, and images will always win. Will we hear anything he's saying, or just get distracted by the screen?
Standby is still in development – this was a Scratch show – but the game at its heart is already assured. Sutherland plays with words and pictures to test how far he can manipulate the relationship between the two. As his language increasingly reflects the visual stimuli, how successfully does he hold our attention? I wonder how much the answer might be affected by differing relationships with TV. I lived without one for years, and begrudge giving it my full attention. Approach the show with a resistance of TV pictures and the tension shifts: Sutherland's text forces you to look, to search for connections on the screen.
The show is built around an old VHS tape, transferred to digital, that belonged to Sutherland's grandfather, who died a few years ago. It's a ratchety thing, a haphazard collage of stuff his grandfather recorded, in the old world where video accidents could have unexpected permanence. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air slices into Ghostbusters; Michael Jackson's Thriller video overlays an episode of The Crystal Maze. Another aside: this is the cultural mulch of my own childhood, but how much would be meaningful to someone born in the 1990s? I'm not sure it matters: what's more interesting is the jarring portrait the video creates of Sutherland's grandfather, the person apparently watching these things. Ghostbusters, Sutherland can understand: it's the first film they saw together, when Ross was a wee slip of a lad and terrified. But Fresh Prince? Odd – but enjoyably plausible.
More disorienting still is the way Sutherland uses the contents of the video, like the key to a code, to unlock his own buried thoughts: about his grandfather, the idea and actuality of death, the broken hope of love. He remembers being so unable to communicate what he really felt watching Ghostbusters, to articulate the knot of fear in his gut, that his grandfather took him back to the cinema to see it again. How much changed in the years that followed? For all his ability to spin language into kaleidoscopic patterns, when faced with an intractable relationship, Sutherland finds that words fail him. He watches a contestant on The Crystal Maze struggling to solve the problem she's been set, and sees himself, obtuse and uncomprehending, flummoxed by love. And though mismatched, this yoking of pop culture and autobiography is poignant: as in the song These Foolish Things, the least significant trigger makes memory bleed.
The precise interlocking of Sutherland's prose-poems with his found footage is startling: every phrase is relevant to the visuals while perfectly suiting his subject and theme. The tighter the synthesis, the more dazzling – and brain-frazzling – the performance. In my favourite sequence, Sutherland uses Fresh Prince's opening credits to contemplate his grandfather's existence, one narrative informing the other no matter how many poles apart they seem. The verbal barrage is so relentless that by the fifth iteration of the sequence I thought my head was going to explode. But then he did it again. And again. It's meticulously written, smart, funny, draining – and one of the best things I've seen in a theatre this year. And this was only a Scratch. I can't wait to see where he's at with it when it comes back to BAC in December.
Please remember that this is a simulation.
We have tried to recreate everything as accurately as possible.
But inevitably there will be some mistakes.
Andy Field, Motor Vehicle Sundown
Welcome to the future. A future without cars. Let's rediscover what they were like. Let's remember the journeys that people once took in them. That we once took in them. Let's take our seats in this, the last car in the world. Lean our heads against the windows, feel the cool of the glass against our skin. Smell the air – Forest Fresh. This is the future and it's now. This is before and what's to come. This isn't real. Except maybe, frighteningly, it is.
A synapse-teasing disconnect between what we see and what we're told is at the heart of Andy Field's Motor Vehicle Sundown. It's framed as a fairground ride, or museum installation, in the post-apocalyptic landscape of cinematic sci-fi. Assuming there are fairground rides, or museums, in this cold metallic world. We enter a real car to take a simulated journey through the past; see cars flit by on the busy urban street ahead while a voice (Christopher Brett Bailey) drawls in our ears of empty nights in the back seat, gazing drowsily at blackened fields and dreary suburbs with the lights of the big city glimmering tantalisingly ahead. Each section dismantles its own little bit of American movie iconography: the long-distance drive, the drive-in movie, the pioneer's drive for gold. The further it travels from your own lived experience, the more the piece envelops you.
In some ways I was out of sync with MVS from the beginning: encouraged to recall childhood journeys, my head instead flooded with memories of teenage years. But it didn't seem to matter: the piece is expansive enough to allow you to inhabit it your own way. I went twice, first in daylight, then at dusk, first as the driver, then the passenger, in a different car each time (only the first had the Forest Fresh tree hanging from the rearview mirror, a cheeky nod to Forest Fringe). I preferred the latter, when the darkness concealed more of the real world; in the gloaming, only the rough hard fact of the car cradling your body distracts from the words needling at your ears.
The real world? But what is real? There's a brilliant moment, roughly halfway through the piece, in which the voice in your head – you, watching a drive-in movie – and the soundtrack of the B-movie burbling beneath it unexpectedly synchronise, ominous and impassioned:
VOICE: You can't be sure what's real any more.
MOVIE: I don't know what's real any more.
Always the dream of driving is the dream of escape, from the banal triviality of “real” life to some brighter future elsewhere. Only, in Motor Vehicle Sundown, that bright future is a catastrophe that has already happened, to which you return, an anaesthetised succumbing to an inevitable fate. Here, too, there are twists: the driver cedes control to the force of implacable nature; the passenger once tethered to the back seat gazing at the stars is set free to float among them. These journeys into oblivion ought to be depressing, because cars are among the handcarts in which we're travelling to hell, and the reality of that is terrifying, but they're framed with a tenderness that makes them strangely comforting. I emerged from the car, more so the second time than the first, reluctant to turn off the soundtrack, to return to the present, with all its simulations of happiness and hope.
Does anybody know what we are looking for?
Queen, The Show Must Go On
We might as well go home. The other performer hasn't turned up.
She couldn't face it. And the show isn't going to work without her.
What's the point in carrying on?
We should all just quit.
As a frame, I thought, sitting in the Recreation Room listening to Chris Bailey (again!) half-heartedly encouraging the audience to leave, this doesn't quite work. Of course we're not going to budge. If nothing else, the architectural magnificence of Bailey's hair is a performance in itself. When Bailey dons a silver sequinned jacket and starts spinning around the stage like a human mirror ball, the spectacle is so amusing that the song seems irrelevant. Or rather, relevant only as a gag: Bailey acquiesces that the show must go on, by miming along to Queen's The Show Must Go On. Boom boom.
The funny thing is, when I look up the song lyrics, it's like re-reading the show. What are we living for? Inside my heart is breaking. Inside in the dark I'm aching to be free. I have to find the will to carry on. Puffball, small, broken, unable to reconcile himself to his existence. Failing to live up to what's expected of him. Ineluctably drawn to the thought of death, its darkness, safety and silence. Refusing to play his part.
Puffball the show could be nauseatingly twee, because Puffball the character is a fluffy painted owl, his lugubrious features reminiscent of the mouth-downturned penguin in Oliver Jeffers' Lost and Found, the explosion of fiery colour around him pure John Burningham. But every picture-book-gorgeous thing Caroline Williams does as illustrator is subverted by every dark, challenging, surreal thing Williams does as writer and director and Bailey does as narrator and performer. Puffball is numb with self-loathing; taken into care, he is examined, drugged, coaxed and slowly rehabilitated. No matter how conditioned we are, not least by children's books, to anthropomorphism, Williams and Bailey know it is absurd to talk about an owl in these terms. So there is laughter, but in the spaces between the laughter the articulation of the experience of depression is acute. To the extent that he feels anything, Puffball feels suicidal because his place in the surrounding world is established and he wants to reject it but sees no positive alternative. He can't break the world – the show will simply go on without him. So he may as well break himself.
To read that narrative as human experience is easy. But every attempt to imprint humanity on Puffball is unsettled by an unemotional insistence that the reality being discussed here is that of owls. Intermittently, Bailey offers up some Proper Facts About Owls as though this were a nature documentary, detailing their habitats and feeding habits, usefully regurgitating an undigested pellet. Just as Puffball is assessed by the people who assume his care, the audience are given the opportunity to assess some Actual Owls – oh, OK, small ornamental china owls – weighing them, examining their colours, running a finger along smooth sculpted feathers. One is filled with pot-pourri whose stale scent is offensive. As with the elaborate introduction, this interlude seemed a bit daft in the room. Too obtrusive, too tangible. But again, looking back, I wonder if I missed the, or at least a, point. The more the audience's senses are engaged, the more pitifully trapped Puffball appears in his apathy. In withdrawing from the world that confines him, he denies himself the freedom possible in sensation, connection and, ultimately, love.
** After publishing this, Caroline Williams got in touch about these final couple of sentences. “The whole point,” she wrote, “is he doesn't deny HIMSELF that freedom... it's not a choice... as most people with mental health problems will tell you.” Reading her email I felt a right twit, because I'd understood that and yet still managed to use all the wrong language, thereby conveying the entirely opposite point. Thank you to Caroline for the clarification.
The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things.
Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
There was a moment in Still Night when I thought: ah, yes, I remember this. I remember the mind-fizz of reading Calvino's Invisible Cities, all those years ago; remember how disorienting it was, how magical, how shifty and strange. Kublai Khan, Marco Polo, the mutability of dreams. And then, a few days later, I pulled the book down from the shelf and began to read and recognised nothing. Not a word was familiar. Had I really read this book? Or only imagined it?
“Set out, explore every coast, and seek this city,” the Khan says to Marco. “Then come back and tell me if my dream corresponds to reality.”
Made by Gemma Brockis and Sylvia Mercuriali, Still Night transforms the city in which it plays into one of the fantastical cities the Venetian explorer Marco Polo describes night after night to Kublai Khan, cities that haunt and taunt the emperor's imagination with their refusal to correspond to his imperialist sense of his empire, or the world. When they performed it in Brisbane, Gemma told me, they did so in a room at the top of a tall building; for most of the duration, the windows were concealed by a curtain, so that when it was drawn back the city, with all its sulphur brightness and mystery and promise, wasn't merely revealed but a revelation.
That sense of revelation is integral to the piece, which makes BAC an odd place for it to play. BAC sits in a hinterland of London that is not quite suburban, but far enough from the centre to seem disconnected, a world unto itself. When the shutters are taken down in the Recreation Room, the feeling isn't so much, “Oh! And there's London!” but, “Oh! Of course! BAC has windows!”
Although Still Night wasn't presented as a Scratch show, it felt scratchy: because of moments of disjunction as with the windows, because of certain hesitancies in the performance, because of technical glitches that provided their own oddly delightful theatre, Brockis' eyes widening in silent appeal each time the audio or video refused to behave. That untidiness felt true to London as the subject of the show. While the Olympics were on I thought again and again about how my city, with its scruffiness and shonky shops and half-cut building sites, presents itself to visitors. In other cities I see these things snootily as black marks of underdevelopment; here I'm more forgiving.
Not that Still Night is actually about London. The city that plays host to the performance is simply the trigger for a contemplation of how people experience cities; of how a city operates on multiple levels, so that even if you were born there, even if the cracks in its paving stones mirror the lines of your hand, always something about it remains elusive. The piece begins with a sightseeing tour conducted in a language that sounds like Portuguese, Romanian and Lithuanian rolling around in bed together, a suggestive stream of enthusiastic babble accompanied by photographs of London just slightly askew, glimpses of the city at once familiar and unknown, specific and generic. And as the tour travels from the seen to the unseen, with a teasing nod to the magic underworld beneath our feet, whose entrance is concealed somewhere in the Serpentine, Still Night appeals to every harassed Londoner's desire for a city of our own, aside and empty and perfect. At just that moment, facts flash up on the projection screen. Population of London: 8.1 million. When I was studying geography as a teenager, it was still only 6.6 million. We don't all fit.
In the midst of that tension, that longing, Still Night travels further from reality, to the heart of Invisible Cities. The audience are instructed to put on headphones and close eyes, to settle back in seats as though in a swaying hammock. We're in the garden of Kublai Khan. The night is warm – a soft, balmy breeze wafts across the room. The air is scented with jasmine – there, yes, that's what I can smell. I remember Chris Goode trying to do this as part of the Cendrars project – in which Brockis was one of the performers – but the honey-laced shower gel he squirted across the CPT stage had no olfactory effect (it did, however, leave a lot of sludgy mess). Here, I don't know what they do, but it works. The perfume and the breeze and the warm dark light and the huge head of a horse that Brockis wears, everything appeals precisely to our senses in the real world, but does so to take us to the surreal world, to implant us in the imagination. The experience is disorienting and delicious: you feel Still Night brush against your skin, tingle in your veins, shiver through your body the way an ice-cold cocktail does.
And I no longer remember where it came or why it was there but, in all this dreamy sensuality, the most ravishing moment is when Brockis unbuttons her coat dress and lies back across a chair with a model cityscape of luminous buildings rising from her stomach and chest. It is the perfect image for how we create the city within and around ourselves: the city is what we choose to see, to recognise, to inculcate, to project. And maybe that was the problem with the removing of the screens covering BAC's windows: nothing in the twinkling lights outside seemed as beautiful, as full of wonder, as the tiny gleaming city curved across this woman's body.
Marco enters a city: he sees someone in a square living a life or an instant that could be his; he could now be in that man's place, if he had stopped in time, long ago; or if, long ago, at a crossroads, instead of taking one road he had taken the opposite one, and after long wandering he had come to be in the place of that man in that square. By now, from that real or hypothetical past of his, he is excluded; he cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else's present. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.
“Journeys to relive your past?” was the Khan's question at this point, a question which could also have been formulated: “Journeys to recover your future?”
And Marco's answer was: “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveller recognises the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”
I read Ways of Seeing in the run-up to a John Berger event, The Field of Performance, organised by Chris Goode as a way of thinking out loud about the influence of Berger's writing and politics on the way (some) theatre is made and seen. At that event, artist/producer Alex Eisenberg was musing on the double qualities of the window glass as the afternoon sky darkened, both translucent so that the world outside could be seen clearly through it, but opaque so that the room inside was reflected, and this struck me as a lovely way of thinking about theatre: it is at once window and mirror, offering insight into other worlds, other lives, while at the same time showing you unflinchingly your own. It might just be me who feels this: one of the performers in the room (Tom Bailey) said he'd never gone to the theatre looking for either experience. But again, it's what connects these four Cook-Up pieces: they make you look outwards and inwards at the same time. Not through naturalism: the more they seem to “represent” “reality”, the more they make you question that reality and your relationship with it. What you see jars with what you (think you) know, again and again, so that sense can be found only in the interstices between time and place inhabited by the imagination.
One of the purposes of Ways of Seeing is to make the reader consider how art, specifically oil paintings, reinforce the social order through their representation of reality. Something of that political motivation is woven into these Cook-Up pieces, too: it's in Still Night's snub to the commercialised city – both the city outside and, in the Marco Polo narrative, the cities of Kublai Khan's expanding empire – in favour of celebrating oddity and wonder. It's in Motor Vehicle Sundown's quietly furious argument that capitalism is the source of global destruction. And it was particularly evident in the Cook-Up season's more community-oriented, personal work: in Sayraphim Lothian's A Moment in Yarn and Lucy Ellinson's One-Minute Manifesto.
The former is a one-on-one piece for an audience member and a “performer” who could be anyone handy with a crochet needle. You tell the performer a happy memory and they translate that image into a crotchet granny square before your eyes. I love this project for so many reasons: the generosity of wanting to give something physical, tangible, to the audience member – and for that something to be theirs already, but intangible, at risk of fading or disappearing from their life; the calmness and reflectiveness of it, in the hubbub of work and family pressure and otherwise unbalanced lives; the way it uses craft, so often disparaged, as a tool for art; the way it creates a secret community around itself, both of performers, dubbed momenteers, and recipients. Sayraphim calls it a “loveliness project”, and that's exactly what it is.
Lucy Ellinson's One-Minute Manifesto project is more radical still: anyone can perform it, as long as they have something they passionately want to say. Over the course of the Autumn Cook-Up I read or heard Peter McMaster encourage listeners to embrace failure, David Sheppeard celebrating the naughtiness of older people, Andy Field inciting shoplifting in the local Asda, a young guy whose name I didn't catch talk inspiringly about the importance of taking the time to cook, BAC producer Shelley Hastings advising us all to slow down – each one a heartfelt recognition that the way we live is in so many ways not right and we have the power to change it. I talked to Lucy a lot about the project while based at BAC, and enjoyed listening to her plans for guerilla manifesto performances, walking the streets of Clapham Junction encouraging passers-by to stop and speak. That wrenching of “politics” from people in suits shouting at each other in the Houses of Commons, in favour of a politics more genuinely democratic; that wrenching of art from conceived ideas that separate “artists” from “audiences”, in favour of an art that belongs to everybody; that desire to change the way people think about their own ability to effect change: all these things make the One-Minute Manifesto project vital. It encourages people to reject what they're told – about money, value, market systems, competition, everything dehumanising in our society – and express instead what they feel.