Geologists understand the forces of friction that cause earthquakes, but where and when an earthquake might strike remains a mystery. And while their ability to predict at least the risks of earthquake along the edges of tectonic plates, if not the timing of an event itself, the same can’t be said of events within those plates, deformed at the middle by activity at the fault lines. The shaking of the earth is a mystery: first you experience it, feel it, and then you assess the damage.
We Are Fucked begins with three women shaking. Just a little, the way a hand jiggles coins in a pocket, the way my grandfather used to flip worry beads: expending nervous energy, channelling restlessness, maybe that’s all. One holds a wound-up measuring tape, one a cable reel coiling blue wire, one a length of orange wire attached, it slowly becomes apparent, to a vacuum cleaner. Gradually the shaking becomes more intense, shifts energy and purpose, until Rosana Cade is playing sex games with the vacuum cleaner, Jo Bannon is flicking the unfurled measuring tape like a stiff Chinese ribbon and Louise Ahl is whipping herself with the wire. And then another shift, towards sound: all three raising their voices but shaking their throats or faces so the sound is distorted. The shaking is a mystery. Some eyelids droop, two people walk out. At first I feel nonplussed. And then I assess the damage.
Jo Bannon’s latest is one of those shows I take a lot of baggage into. There’s an electrifying but unsettling provocation she gave at In Between Time festival in February 2017, in which – to quote a blog post I wrote at the time – she “talked about the phrase ‘how do we unfuck the world?’, and asked whether a better question might be: ‘How can we fuck the world more?’ By we, she means women: women in control of their sexuality and their desire, grown women who understand their anatomy and its power, grown women who are penetrating, who penetrate the surface of this world until it cracks, revealing other possibilities beyond.” I remember that speech every time I listen to Janelle Monae’s Screwed: “You fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down”.
At the same festival, Hannah Sullivan performed With Force and Noise, another show characterised by shaking: her body trembling, more and more violently, and with it the sound of rattling rising, the sound of crockery and cutlery shaking on tabletops and shelves, actually produced by bells crashing together, stitched to the back of her costume. With Force and Noise thinks about protest, anger, acting for change, the embarrassment or diffidence that stops people moving, trying, that encourages people to silence themselves before they’ve voiced their dissent.
There’s that and there’s another collaboration between three women thinking about sex and power, Cock and Bull, also co-performed by Rosana Cade. The trio’s hands and mouths painted in gold, their bodies dressed in suits, their words stuttery, shaken-up lines of Tory election manifesto, its glorification of hard-working people, of austerity and acceptance of capitalist creeds, its dismissal of anyone else, anyone who is not able-bodied or able to survive its inhuman/e structures. Gradually the suits becoming dishevilled, as the three women begin to fuck the furniture as aggressively as the Tories are fucking up the country, fucking up people’s lives.
There’s the PJ Harvey album Let England Shake, how soaked in blood it is, how soaked it is in the blood of England warring with the rest of Europe, how soaked it is in the blood of civil war, how soaked it is in the blood of war that never ends.
And then there’s me, my relationship with domestic work, with vacuum cleaners I can’t be bothered to use and measuring tapes and extension leads I used in the days when I did my own small household tasks like putting up shelves and mowing the lawn, jobs now undertaken by my husband, the ways in which I feel less and less competent because of this, more and more gendered useless feminine, my ongoing silent acceptance, the metaphor of that.
I don’t think about all of these things in the room. Some of them come to me when I leave. Memory unsettled, shaken down, its debris shifting back to full consciousness.
I am thinking about covens, circles of witches, ritual circles. The gaping hole of the vagina, stretched to push a baby’s head through. I don’t know, maybe I’m overthinking: we’re just sitting in the round is all.
Rosana Cade is pulling an orange wire, wrapping it around her, loose bondage. The slapping sound of the wire as she jiggles it is the sound of wanking. She pulls the vacuum cleaner between her spread legs, jolts her body, uses the suction hose to tug at the loose fabric between the slit of her leather pants suit, thrusts her big toe into its gaping hole. It’s funny and silly and also I’m thinking: who am I to laugh at manifestations of lust?
Jo Bannon shrugs out a length of metal tape, lets it hang. Pulls some more, bends it, manipulates it so that it swirls around her, rises firm, falls flaccid. Erect for a moment, but needing all her energy, her attention, to keep it so. It’s beautiful, like a duet, in which it’s never quite possible to tell who is leading, who following, who or what wields power over the other.
Louise Ahl pulls coil after coil of blue-encased wire from the reel. Its movements are volatile, unpredictable; she flips a length through the air and it cuts with a whipping sound, circles her body to land with a slap across her back, her torso. It could be kink we’re watching. It could be an enactment of self-harm. I’m not sure if I mean to say these things are opposed or interrelated.
It’s like with the vocalisations, pitched towards screaming. Each sharp cry could be a screech of pain, or it could be a gasp of pleasure. Trying to slip my own body into the layers of complexity. To mine each minute movement for all the thought and research and question that went into it.
After an hour the lights go up. It feels like about 20 minutes. Waiting for the tube I try to start reading Jo’s programme note. I get as far as two and a half sentences and stop: “The beginning of this project arrived as a shaking. A life shake, an anxious tremble, a fit of rage. Some things large and small happened in my life as a mid 30s…” I stop because I’m now crying.
An earthquake can seem to come out of nowhere. Over the years a number of theories have arisen about ways in which to predict one: from watching the behaviour of animals to paying attention to cloud formations. Odd accumulations of silt in a clear river. TV interference. But most of these are refuted by scientists. The pressure that creates an earthquake builds up over such expanses of time that its release is volatile, unpredictable; a warning system in Japan gave the inhabitants of Tokyo just one minute of preparation time before an earthquake in 2011. Beneath the earth’s crust is a mantle almost fluid; beneath human skin all is pulse. Penetrate the earth in the wrong way it will react: some earthquakes are human-made, by fracking for instance. Penetrate the human body with enough daily violence and what, eventually, might explode?
Perhaps each of us might be a volcano, dormant it seems, but biding our time. Gathering strength against the onslaught of toxic masculinity, of austerity capitalism, of plutocratic neoliberalism, and when we shake, we shake up lava, reconstructing the landscape around us.
Shake up, in my thesaurus, is a synonym for revolution. And so, let us shake.
We Are Fucked was performed at the Royal Festival Hall. Click here for more details.