Physics (and a little chemistry)
This is a study of energy. Or bonding. Fusion (as opposed to fission): a high-speed collision of nuclei resulting in something new. Or covalence: the sharing of electrons, the stable balance of attractive and repulsive forces on which new structures are built. A group of artists and academics gathered in crucible conditions, with Warwick Arts Centre and its associate producers, China Plate, as the scientists testing different combinations and waiting patiently to see what might emerge.
This is a study of this_is_tomorrow, a week-long artist development programme which takes place each spring at University of Warwick. Already the writing speaks to an anxiety of 2013 participant Chris Goode: that groups of artists are invited on campus to “raid it for metaphors … the kinds of things that we can superficially engage with as artists without really having an understanding of the toys that we’re playing with”. Negative matched to positive: “If you look at this_is_tomorrow as a week of play,” Goode continues, “it’s great. But I do think it’s brilliantly, abundantly problematic.”
This is a study of spaces and the people who make them.
this_is_tomorrow is one of two development initiatives through which Warwick Arts Centre seeks to bring artists and academics into closer contact. The other, triggered@warwick, offers individual artists already following a particular line of research time with specific Warwick academics who can enrich their thinking. Beneficiaries of this programme include Chris Thorpe with Confirmation, Coney’s Early Days (of a Better Nation), Victoria Melody’s Hair Peace and Daniel Bye’s Gone Viral. Where triggered has depth of engagement, this_is_tomorrow has breadth. A small group of artists spend a week being whizzed through several university departments, among them physics, economics, law, maths and social sciences, where they might hear about specialist research from as many as 10 academics each day. Theatre-writer Matt Trueman attended in 2013 as “embedded” critic; his documentation exquisitely conveys the “quickfire, dizzying headspins” he experienced that week.
But the academy is a very particular space and the day I attend this_is_tomorrow (Tuesday 10 March, 2015), I’m quickly aware that not everyone feels equally comfortable there. (In the interests of full disclosure, I don’t.) We’re in the department of politics and international studies (PAIS); around the table are its director of research, Matthew Watson, and members of his team who take turns to present distillations of their work. Between them sit China Plate’s Ed Collier and Paul Warwick, plus theatre-maker Thorpe and directors Chris Haydon (the Gate, London) and Erica Whyman (RSC), all of whom respond to the invitation to ask questions of the academics; Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen of RashDash and playwright Elinor Cook, who mostly remain quiet. When interviewed, Thorpe and Haydon admit to regarding the academics with a degree of cheerful scepticism: “It was refreshing,” says Thorpe, “to be able to look at the person speaking and ask yourself the question: ‘Is what they’re saying actually right?’”. But for Goalen the environment was “quite intimidating”, and Cook avoided asking questions for fear of “slowing things down and revealing my own ignorance”.
The pace is fast and the language unmodulated: “We’re invited into their world,” says China Plate’s Paul Warwick. “The onus is on us to get their language.” The speed is deliberate, too, he says: “The week is concentrated to get the artists out of their daily distractions and modes of activity.” When struck by such an avalanche of ideas, it helps sometimes to slacken attention – but not everyone realises it’s possible to make that choice. “I tried to focus on everything equally, and that takes its toll on you,” says Greenland. “I felt I was completely drowning in it.” Choreographer Charlotte Vincent, a 2013 attendee, agrees: “I’m used to intensity,” she says, “but for god’s sake. It’s disconcerting to be bombarded with so much information. There was no time to process anything.”
Goode, who likens taking part in this_is_tomorrow to “speed-dating for a week”, admits that the frenetic atmosphere instils a sense of euphoria. But it also closes down space for reflection and critique, creating for him an ethical problem. this_is_tomorrow isn’t simply an artist development opportunity, he argues: “It’s also about the university telling a story back to itself. If you were to design a propagandistic infomercial for the contemporary university, you couldn’t do much better than that week.” This particularly troubled him in departments such as manufacturing and economics, which, he felt, were: “blatantly at the service of a neo-liberal machine. I had a sense of Warwick as being a kind of model, maybe a paradigmatic model, of the contemporary university as an industrial and economic generator. But it always looked like a breach of etiquette to be engaging in a discussion at that level of analysis.”
In PAIS what made me uncomfortable was the ease with which traditional hierarchies imposed themselves. To be fair, this glimpse of this_is_tomorrow wasn’t absolutely representative: Goalen and Cook point to less formal structures, for instance the day in the maths department, spent in an open, communal space surrounded on all sides by chalk boards. Both women appreciated the encounters that happened at the end of the day, when the group reconvened for dinner: “At first I thought that might be a bit full-on,” says Goalen, “but I really enjoyed those opportunities to have one-on-one conversations that felt reciprocal.” So different modes of engagement are built in. But Matt Burman, head of programming and audiences at Warwick Arts Centre, admits to the programme’s general emphasis on “top-down” communication: it’s the best way found so far of sharing “as many ideas in as short a space of time”.
Greenland and I were struck by the masculine or patriarchal qualities of the language used to disseminate (see what I mean?) those ideas. And while no one felt that this year’s group of artists was, in the words of Thorpe, “fundamentally unequal”, none the less there was a deference in the way the artists received those ideas that split not only along gender lines but the “assumed seniority of age and perceived experience”. For Thorpe, this isn’t a structural problem for the programme’s organisers to address, but down to the artists themselves to sort out. “As artists, it’s our job not just to communicate but to examine communication. That’s our fucking job. So we need to step up and do that. It’s not beyond us to get together and ask: how are we having these discussions? Could we do them better? What can we try differently?”
This is a study of quantitative impact.
It was striking to me how many PAIS academics mentioned in their presentations a desire for help with communicating their ideas to a wider audience. Partly that relates to University of Warwick’s drive to demonstrate its impact on the culture surrounding the campus; partly it stems from frustration that such important thinking (whether on drones or how we remember the dead, exploitative farming practices or local currencies) should be locked in the academy. this_is_tomorrow, says Paul Warwick, is an “attempt to get knowledge out of the silo. We bring artists in to do the translation.” He quickly corrects himself: “Not translation: transmission. It’s a collaboration in ideas.”
Yet it’s striking that, since 2012 when this_is_tomorrow began, there has been only one finished work that could be said to have emerged directly from the programme: Theatre Rites’ Bank On It, a gentle, comic yet thought-prodding piece that reflected on the 2008 financial crisis and questioned where value really resides. It’s pertinent, too, that Theatre Rites’ artistic director, Sue Buckmaster, came to the programme in its first year with the kernel of that show already in her pocket and “right on that point where I was looking for my next site-specific”. Factor in the additional funding ploughed into Bank On It by Warwick’s economics department, and the support offered by its head, Abernay Muthoo, and it’s understandable that Buckmaster’s experience of this_is_tomorrow is overwhelmingly positive.
One show in three years feels like a low hit rate, especially considering the money that goes into this_is_tomorrow: covering the artists’ travel and accommodation, and providing all food, including three-course dinners for 20 or so people for five nights, plus wine. I find myself wondering: is it worth it? Even asking the question makes me feel I’m at the service of a neo-liberal machine. Burman reminds me that the programme is designed to support “the earliest stages in the development of new work” – and “long-form development” at that. It aims to give artists “time for an idea to percolate”. He points to ongoing outcomes: composer Dan Jones, who attended in 2012, has been visiting the university at intervals ever since to develop an installation for cathedrals, which won’t be premiered until 2016; musician Robin Rimbaud, who attended in 2013, is now collaborating with Goode on a new show, Weaklings, which goes into rehearsals this autumn. Burman’s great ambition is to create a “pollination effect”, whereby the shared passion of an academic and an artist mean that “the artist’s project is fed by the academic’s research, and the making of the work feeds back into that research and changes how the academic might see it”. this_is_tomorrow is itself a project in development, reaching towards that ideal exchange.
For all the talk of impact, there is a streak of generosity at the heart of this_is_tomorrow that I believe is genuine. “It’s not product-driven,” says Paul Warwick. So much of what gets called artist development is geared towards a particular showing, he argues: spend a week at the National Theatre Studio and you’ll devote two days to creative activity and three to delivery. “We divorce the product from the thinking and creative time. The university has an agenda but the important bit is trying to create a fertile environment for making great theatre. Everything else is a bonus.”
The fact that the artist group in 2015 paired theatre-artists with “producer-partners” (Thorpe with Whyman, Cook with Haydon, RashDash with Headlong’s literary associate Sam Potter, absent the day I was there) suggests that Warwick Arts Centre and China Plate are beginning to think more strategically about how new work might be sparked into life. And still, says Thorpe: “The project very clearly says: there is no agenda to this. There is no expectation of outcome – which I think is a very positive thing, because there is an internal expectation of outcome for everything.”
The one ask of each artist is that they come up with a proposal for a project related in some way to an individual academic’s work. Nothing more onerous than that. And within that, says Vincent, “they encourage you to be bold and carefree with your ideas”. She almost didn’t submit one of her proposals – a sequence of Becketts – because it seemed unrelated to any specific department. “But the process took me back to basics, and stirred up quite a lot of deep existential thought,” she explains. Having the freedom to express that in her response, without having to “justify” the idea, is part of the programme’s appeal. If she hasn’t staged the Becketts already, it’s only because Lisa Dwan got there first.
This is a study of the workings of the brain. In 2013, Matt Trueman wrote of a shared feeling that: “despite mental exhaustion, we’re all thinking faster, harder and better than we have in ages”. Looking back, the phrase he uses is “mind-blown”.
“My brain literally hurt,” says Buckmaster. “At the end of each day my head was buzzing.” She is now working on another proposal that emerged from this_is_tomorrow, which relates to “how we think about things, how our brains work”. Haydon enjoyed being stuffed with information, because he felt in that an invitation to artists to: “make lateral or not obvious connections – which is what you do as a theatre-maker, you see connections that don’t necessarily follow a standard logic. You begin to find patterns, and it’s that seeking of patterns that I think is really exciting.” For Goode, this happens at too “glib a level of discourse” to be meaningful, and does so via an “emphatic performance of choice and variety and plurality” that stands no interrogation and left him with an abiding sensation that “the neo-liberals have won”.
Alert to the difference presentation styles in each department, Thorpe became fascinated by: “the ways in which we conduct knowledge from person to person: the mechanics of the way that knowledge is imparted”. The university is just one mechanic or “knowledge framework”, and the question that vexes me is whether this_is_tomorrow inadvertently reinforces hierarchies that divide academic thought and art. “One of my strongest memories of the week is of thinking: we’re not so far apart,” says Vincent. And yet she got the impression that many in the university assumed the artists would be “other”. “Someone did a lecture about contagion theory,” she recalls, “and I had the feeling that they expected we wouldn’t understand it. It sounds really arrogant, but I felt I was asking creative, imaginative questions to do with the subject, and they almost couldn’t believe we would think in that way.”
For Buckmaster, just being invited to hear about these theories was confidence-boosting. “Someone looks at you and says: you’re capable of this. You’re capable of meeting other experts, because you’re an expert.” One of the key results for her of taking part in this_is_tomorrow is that: “I’m less scared of talking to experts in a field I don’t know about. I think it has given me that confidence.” Greenland and Goalen agree: “I became aware for the first time that you can ask academics to talk to you and they might want to,” says Greenland. And the advantage of sitting down to dinner with them, says Goalen, is that you get to discover the chinks in their confidence. One academic began an evening conversation with her with the words: “I was worried you didn’t enjoy my presentation because you didn’t say very much.” She laughs: “Of course, you don’t engage with the academic’s personal insecurities: that they’re not engaging this young woman who’s sitting there silently, and that their work feels irrelevant.”
this_is_tomorrow always ends in the maths department. “That’s quite a weird thing,” says Trueman. “You could tell that Ed and Paul had this amazing experience of maths the first year, and the second time was a repeat.” It’s weird, says Goode, because as a collective, the mathematicians have “such a clear sense of the way in which they’re performing”. (In fact, his abiding impression of the week is of “a lot of performing on both sides”.) None the less, it’s the maths department that all the artists talk about most fondly. Playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who attended in 2012 with Buckmaster, one day hopes to return to write an entire play there. “There was one very old man who would inhabit the library day and night like a prophet,” she remembers. “He wasn’t affiliated with the university, he simply loved maths. Impressions like that stayed with me.” Buckmaster recalls affectionately: “the man who talked about numbers as though they were his family members. He apologised for the zero on its behalf.”
Cook enjoyed the maths department because: “It felt much more two-way, as opposed to a passive receiving of ideas. We were playing games which meant we were engaged straight away.” But she also wonders whether it’s the tiny, human impressions, and not the explosive encounters with huge ideas, that make this_is_tomorrow so valuable to theatre-makers. “The moments that really stayed with me are slightly intangible: an unusual turn of phrase, a moment of tension in the room, the moments when we retreated. As someone who is hugely interested in human behaviour, it was fascinating to encounter so many different personalities.”
What this_is_tomorrow does, suggests Vincent, is bring together two particular personality types – the nerdy academic and the creative artist – in the hopes that “innovation happens at the interface”. The difference between them, she says, comes down to computation. “We don’t need to prove things. My truths are personal and instinctive, and hopefully universal, they will affect people universally, but they’re not provable. But they want everything to be computable.” There’s something pleasing about the way this_is_tomorrow resists computation, resists product-based evaluation, resists justifying its existence on any terms other than that of encounter. My brief encounter with it provoked a host of misgivings; but the more I spoke to artists about their experiences on the programme, the more this_is_tomorrow resisted my criticisms.