I’m remembering being 13 and encountering a ‘weird’ piece of art for the first time. An older friend showed me a video of John Cage’s Waterwalk. In it, Cage moves through a collection of household items (a bathtub, a rubber duck, a pressure cooker, some radios), methodically using each item to create a series of tightly sequenced sounds in a live performance. Brilliantly, he’s performing it on a popular 60’s TV gameshow, to an audience howling with laughter (bemused, but having fun). After that, the same friend played me ‘Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict’ from Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma: five minutes of tuneless screeching, scratching and tapping. Mega lolz.
Tim Spooner and Tom Richards’ Cuteness Forensics is what I imagine might happen if all the gathered small furry animals were to suddenly die and John Cage to enter the cave to experiment with their corpses.
Entering Spooner and Richards’ (operating) theatre is like stepping into a scrapyard full of detritus from another dimension. Strewn across the space are: a mess of tangled wires and sound equipment; a pink doll’s house on pointy legs; shiny wooden surfaces; suspended plastic teats filled with blood; plastic sheeting; soft furry creatures draped, sat or dangling; DJ decks; music stands holding up chunks of sponge with an outer layer of fur; pink velvety curtains; a metal board in the shape of a standing mirror, bright white LED light panels. It’s a child’s playground, an artificial habitat, a morgue, a laboratory, a crime scene, all of those things at once.
Tom Richards crawls out on his knees, dressed in comfortable red clothes and comfy knee pads. He’s on sound – a cacophony of irregular splutters, clicks and scratches, spiking sharply in volume, seeming to be only half within his control. Tim Spooner joins, shuffling sideways like a crab, with taped-on sponge sandals, his back to the audience, a small aperture cut into his top and laid over with plastic – a window to the pale skin on his back. The shoulder blades are the window to the soul, or something.
All of the materials are animated in turn. Spooner pokes at sponge with flimsy knives – they squeal, amplified. Everything is precariously balanced, threatening to fall and topple; sometimes doing so. Objects are thrown about unceremoniously, poked and prodded with nervous curiosity. The creatures are skinned, bisected, bled (not liquid blood, but iron filings). One conceals a speaker, another an animatronic system – they seem to me to be entirely artificial things, only resembling lifeforms that once breathed oxygen. It’s like Spooner is searching desperately for evidence of life, only to find wires. I wonder if what he’s really searching for is the aperture on his back, his own fleshy realness, impossible to see for himself.
It’s a deeply weird experience – a great deal weirder that most everything else that calls itself theatre and gets any modicum of interest from UK venues. When I was 13, I didn’t have the conceptual apparatus at my disposal with which to make sense of Waterwalk or ‘Several Species…’: music meant melodies and conventional instruments, so I wasn’t able to read anything that sat outside of that framework. And I think theatre, as I have learnt it, doesn’t really provide an adequate framework from which to approach something like Cuteness Forensics. We’re taught to read theatre on a metaphorical level. The things that characters say point towards larger issues; a prop phone plays a fictional phone; everything signifies something else.
Here, that’s not necessarily the case – materials are only themselves, chosen not for what they might mean or suggest, but for their inherent qualities: their sponginess, their pinkness, their softness, the clanginess, their shininess. I’m struck by how a logic that’s unremarkable in visual art can feel so strangely affronting as soon as you put it in a theatre. Watching Cuteness Forensics, for me, is a reminder of the feeling – exciting and disorienting – of encountering something out of place. A sharp, metallic taste you’re not expecting; like discovering you had joints you didn’t know about. I laugh a lot. I’d love to see Tim Spooner on a TV gameshow.
Ways to Submit
Anyone who’s play fought as a kid knows how quickly play can turn prickly, ugly, hurtful. In the playground the rules of consent were never clear. In Ways to Submit, they are, but the consequences of that consent are still hard to navigate.
Ira Brand invites the audience to play with her. She sets out how the show is going to go: nine fights, each with a member of the audience, each lasting three minutes, with rest periods after the third and sixth. There is a mat for wrestling and audience on benches either side. Three taps means disengage and pause, the safe word tonight is ‘toolbox’. No biting, no scratching, no head-butting, no eye-gouging.
She has become interested, she explains, in dominance and submission, in kink practices and Brazilian jiu-jitsu (don’t worry, she says, she’s not very good), and the possibilities that might arise through the consensual playing-out of power dynamics. She has been taught that fighting is violent behaviour, that violent behaviour is undesirable; now she wants to learn to fight.
Laid out like this, in plain terms, the show isn’t holding anything back. It has no dramaturgical trick up its sleeve – it has no sleeves full stop, it’s wearing a tank top and it’s ready to play. The fun is in its playing out.
And the fights are fascinating. Brand isn’t highly trained or skilled, added to which she’s doing nine times the work of any one audience member, so she’s not always got the upper hand. One person has a knack for picking her up and letting her dangle helplessly. Another easily overpowers her and sits on her, as apologetic as it’s possible to be whilst sitting on someone. There are moments when tussles plateau out into indifference, awkwardness, shyness, tenderness. One fight is more like a dance. Some slip in and out of erotic half-images (always met by laughter). There are insect-like evasion tactics and deadlock impasses.
The one man (or male-reading person) who goes up has a clear strategy – pin down the legs – and he’s efficient and effective. The sudden imbalance of power here is palpable – at one point he drags her across the mat by the ankle – with no trace of malice and some degree of care, but there’s an audible gasp nonetheless. It’s interesting that this audience polices itself – who deems themselves an appropriate participant – despite the contract of consent that Brand sets up. Because for all that she may or may not be an equal sparring partner, it’s always her, as the piece’s performer, who’s opening herself up to risk and danger. It feels like we’re aware of that: we’re aware that consent doesn’t make things black and white. They teach you in Physics that energy neither originates nor disappears but rather transfers and converts into different forms; so power is always present in relationships, given and taken, passed from person to person. We’re watching an experiment that proves that.
I do consider going up myself. I want to see what it’s like have to literally grapple with the work, to feel the thrill of the fight, to see what role I fall into. What would that do to my critical perspective? What position would that put me in? What particular kind of power might be exercised, felt, transferred in that relationship?
I decide against it.
So, what’s going on here? What does it all add up to? To ‘play’ at something implies you’re not really doing it. That there aren’t consequences. But by the end of the show Brand is out of breath, and the air in the room has changed. ‘This state that I’m in, what is it good for?’ she asks. And the answer she gives is ‘work.’
For me, there’s an ellipsis at the end of the show that wants to be pursued. What is that work exactly? Dismantling power structures (patriarchal/economic/