Eventually it has to happen and what is it? A performance, a reckoning, a pinning of butterflies to a board in a frame. It begins with one triangular relationship – the artist, the artwork and the viewer (me and you) – then turns on its axis to another: the artwork, the writer (me) and the reader (you). On Tuesday 5 June the art work was Gob Squad’s Creation (Pictures for Dorian) and on Thursday it was another and today, Friday, the day I write, it will be another, and what happens to the memories without the writing, will they blur, will they change, will they fade? Now I am 43 and for the first time ever I have read a sentence containing the word ontological and understood what it meant:
“Peggy Phelan, in a really famous and influential argument in performance studies, has argued that the ontology of performance lies in its disappearance (Phelan 1993). Muñoz parts company with that argument that confines performance to a narrow present moment. He suggests that though live performance seems to exist ephemerally and then vanish, it does not disappear completely after its expiry. Rather, it changes form, like energy, and lives on, as very important trace and residue in the hearts and minds of those who witnessed it.” (Elisavet Pakis, Locating Hope and Futurity in the Anticipatory Illumination of Queer Performance, Borderlands e-journal)
Writing as a conduit of energy. Residue as runes. Reading as an act of interpretation: where did this begin, what was the matter, how does it mean? Nothing is permanent, but what endurance is possible, what extension of the present moment, what gesture towards the future?
Together we will contemplate life, the universe, and everything, as it decays.
This is the first point of the triangle.
I am sitting in a room talking about performance, thinking, John Berger, feeling small, feeling exposed, feeling shame, in particular for saying this: that theatre functions, for me, as a mirror, but the kind made by a window against the dark. It reflects, but you, I, can also see through it, to other lives and bodies beyond.
To those two points Gob Squad add a third: distortion.
Let me explain. They begin with triangles: past, present, future; God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; scone, jam, cream. Artist, object, viewer. In the Japanese art of Ikebana, flowers are assembled to balance the buds of youth, the bloom of maturity, the shadow of death in life, decomposition to complete the composition. Gob Squad apply this principle to bodies: young people in drama school, or just beginning a life in performance; older people who have “more stage life behind than in front”; and in the middle – where I also sit – Gob Squad themselves. We, they and I, are people who self-define through performance: whether the making of it, or the thinking through it. This is the second point of the triangle.
Performance reflects, performance sees through a glass darkly, but what does performance distort? This is the troubling question that seethes beneath Creation. The Gob Squad trio manipulate the bodies of their guests, treat them like putty to be moulded, dress them up, turn them on – wait, turn them on? It’s something Bastian Trost says, pausing to listen to the response. Maybe something is lost in the translation, he suggests. He means, oh so innocently, turn on the revolving plinth: the third time I’ve seen such a machine used on stage in a fortnight. The first was in Sleepwalk’s Domestica, and on it stood a young woman dressed like a beauty painted by Botticelli; together we thought about ways of seeing art, painting, as constructs of patriarchy and of capitalism, of an idea of civilsation that brutalises and represses even as it professes to save. The second was in RashDash’s Three Sisters (After Chekhov), and on it stood a bust of Chekhov, not solid but hollowed with no back or ballast to it; together we thought about ways of seeing theatre as a construct of patriarchy and of capitalism, the weight of the canon and the wait, the wait, the wait for theatre and for society to change in actual and substantial ways. On this third one, in Creation, stood Mike Narouei, a young man of colour with a Northern accent; and together we thought about ways of seeing that are also ways of being.
It’s about the process, runs the mantra, the doing, not the thing, the product, the finished artwork. There is no finished. They make through their seeing, I see through their making, you see through my writing. Sometimes a reflection, sometimes through to a new thought or idea, sometimes a distortion. There is an archness to how Gob Squad work through this, almost a cynicism in places – just as there was with Sleepwalk, just as there was with RashDash. But entwined with that cynicism, an inextricable embrace, is love for art, and for performance, and for the seeing differently that might be, and make through being, possible.
This is my life. You perform, I watch; I write, you read. The whirligig of time keeps turning, and what are its revenges? A sense of meaningless, a struggle to account for paths taken and choices made. In my barely legible notes scrawled on the night, another triangle: all you are, all you have been, and all your potential regrets. And this line, so itchy: “believed the wrong story/ lived the wrong life”. If the live performance changes form, like energy, where are you (am I) taking that energy? What are you (am I) using it for, or to do?
Exactly a month ago as I write, Eve Allin – she the bud, me the slowly withering bloom – said this:
“Lyn leaving the Guardian should be the watershed moment when we all finally accept the industry is fucked because the government is fucked and we all become politicians because it’s the only way to make change.”
On stage Bastian Trost is asking another of the younger performers, Christina Brown, what she would change. “There were times when I would have changed being a black queer woman,” she answers. “In fact I would change the system.”
So much of Creation deals with visibility: the desire for it, and what can be achieved by it. That desire – the desire of the performer to be looked at, to be the centre of attention; the desire of the writer to be read, to claim that attention – can be craven, but it can also be part of the push for systemic change. (I write that with far more conviction than I feel.) Amelie Roch, like all the guest performers corsetted in thick peach power-net, talks with barely contained sorrow of the way she feels people looking at her fat body. And then Gob Squad’s Sarah Thom turns that attention on herself. She strips off her clothes, tucks her microphone machinery under a sagging breast, and invites us, me, you, to look at her naked body. Its fat. Its refusal to conform. Its disobedience, its abundance. The third point of the triangle.
This is my life and I’m frightened it means nothing. The story I tell myself, tell you, is of a desire to write about and celebrate non-normative lives, and a desire to imagine systemic change, as though that might bring it about. But every day I’m getting older – I turned 43 shortly before seeing Gob Squad – and I don’t know if anything adds up. So many of the artists I write about are younger than me, and smarter than I was at their age (or feel now), and struggling more than I’ve ever had to struggle. Is saying this indulgent? Is creation, creating, indulgent? I’m searching for meaning knowing that I will probably die without finding it, that eventually it has to happen and
Creation (Pictures for Dorian) was performed at the Southbank Centre. Click here for more details.