This year’s Manipulate Festival opened with a night of cabaret and performance hosted by Puppet Animation Scotland which left me feeling like I was at school again. Not that that’s a bad thing. Partly it was to do with the space, at Summerhall: all those lecture theatres, the shuffling in designated groups from room to room, each of which contained performance lecture works; these were in turn separated by two half hour breaks – playtimes – in which we mingled, chatted, burst balloons, fired silly string and held hands. But more importantly, the whole experience left me with a lot to think about.
Murray Wason’s Automaton began with the swift command to build our own ‘automatons’ out of a pile of scraps of cardboard and Sellotape, a task that seemed to be embraced by all with fervour. The piece progressed into a multi-part collage of visual play with projection, historical document and personal memory. As a performer Wason was endearing and charming, with a mischievous grin. Initially I felt some of the technical elements needed refining: the projection onto his body and then automatons themselves, revealing a similarity in their inner workings, were imprecise and awkward; I expected something more controlled, mechanised even, from the piece. But on reflection, this effect was possibly exactly what Wason intended and his final heartfelt speech, a closing reflection on the fiery drive of humanity, in contrast to the cold and empty repetitions of the machine, was testimony to this. I was disappointed, however, that the automatons we had so carefully brought into existence weren’t brought to life by his hand; instead he gave one a careless kick.
During each of the breaks there was a chance to take past in ‘5 Minutes to move me’, a series of one-to-one works with four performers, each of a different generation. My first, Chaos with Jenna Watt, a woman in her 20s, was light and playful. Watt, surrounded by an exciting multitude if objects, gently took my hands to begin with, asking me without any hint of hidden intention how my evening had been so far; I could have chatted away inanely for my full five minutes she was so affable but I was promptly instructed to work my way down a flow chart towards a surprise event; I immediately said yes to ‘chaos’, yes to ‘loud,’ and yes to ‘messy’; I was handed a baton for each symbol and Watt climbed upon the table to burst a balloon filled with flour which hung above her head. It was interesting but I have to say I was left craving something a bit more rousing.
Next up, Harry Wilson’s Death Jump, was an engaging and compelling performance lecture, mapping and responding to dangerous jumps from the 20th and 21st century. Wilson was warm and natural in his performance, playing his part with an endearing pinch of nervousness reminiscent of my old history teacher. His final jump a humorous homage to Yves Klein’s leap into the void, and his nude ‘Anthropometries’, in which he donned a blue jumpsuit, stuffed clumsily with bubble wrap and leaped awkwardly over the parapet was a humbling and honest display of humankind’s struggle for transcendence.
In the second break of the evening I took the hand of 18 year old Corie McKendrick for five minutes. His hands were coated in a thick white paint with a smell that immediately took me back to nursery; apparently it’s a common connection. McKendrick was cheery and undemanding and we chatted easily and lightly about the evening. On parting our painted hands peel away with a satisfying tacky resistance. I feared later I could have made more of our five minutes, but under the pressure of a timer I can never think of what to say. The same goes for Ian Nulty’s curious piece Dark Age, with the instruction to text the year 3000, a number is provided and all I can think of is a dated Busted hit until I’m told there’s not much time. A hasty speech in a hushed voice says something about time, relics, remembrance, but it’s all a little too frantic for me and before I know it the piece is finished.
The evening finished with the raunchy and provocative Por Sal y Samba from choreographer Carles Casallachs. A Latin American duet that begins with flirtatious glances and pompous puffs of perfume, that heats up to acts of physical brutality, wild struggle and a display of power that leaves Casallachs retching a spray of salt across the dance floor; an astounding display of control and endurance from both dancers. We’ve come a long way from school, but what really ties these pieces together is a ostensibly innate human drive to make a mark on the world and to test and push ourselves and each other, whether for better or for worse.