Do you ever think about your body? I don’t mean to ask whether you think about how you look in the mirror. I mean do you ever think about that membrane between the outside world and your mind – your body – making its creaturely way through the landscape?
I have been thinking about my body more than usual over the course of the pandemic, as I believe many people have. I’m concerned often with its breaches and weaknesses, its ability to convey and receive viral material. I worry, as if it’s a houseplant that might die without the sustenance of the outside world.
Splayed Festival, curated by Amy Bell at The Place, describes itself as an ‘eruption of disruptive queer performances and digital arts’. This review focuses on the digital segments of the festival, which are accessible online, many until November, and are pay-what-you-can. Bear with me – this is all going to come together, LRB-book-review style.
A potentially deathly disease with shocking debilitating after-effects – the long Covid, as it’s known – has forced any number of cis, able-bodied people to consider the vulnerabilities of their permeable, mutable bodies. Often these ruminations are new and horrible, couched in the language of discovery – I never knew my body could let me down like this, I expected it to do as it was told. Suddenly we need things: long rests from post-viral fatigue, special dispensation for movement and gathering, changing and rigorous guidelines to keep venues safe an accessible.
For so many people living with chronic disabilities, however, this negotiation with the outside space and their bodies has always been in place. Our confused new terror must seem rather blinkered and inflexible. I was struck by this especially listening to Claire Cunningham’s binaural piece Quanimacy, which opens with Cunningham addressing – someone? something? – “You’re not always on my right. You’re not always on my left. You are the place on which I rest, on the days when my back is sore… Quadruped. Plural. Our body. Three of us, on four points.”
Cunningham, a Scottish choreographer and dancer, often performs with her crutches – the ‘you’ addressed here. They are simultaneously presented as external tools, and as a part of ‘we’, a collective body, a negotiation of movement, tension, rest and support. Cunningham describes choreographing with the crutches as if they were collaborators; she talks as a choreographer might discuss the exercises done with dancers to build a piece. Interspersed with Cunningham’s evocative, subtly affecting dialogue with her crutches is Professor Julia Watts Belser’s reflection on her wheelchair – a her, ‘not an equal partner’ in the make-up of the body but certainly more than an it – and her visions of the aliveness of the world around her – not just plants and animals, but the inanimate too.
Quanimacy, set to dramatic, mournful music by Matthias Herrmann, has an audio tug of romance to it; it sounds as if it might open on to a love story, and in many ways it is a love story. It describes the world as a body and the body as a dancer in duet with the built environment around it. There’s a profound sense of magic to this outlook, it offers a shifting, fantastical, expansive consideration of the way our bodies might negotiate trouble or difficulty. It is intended to be listened to through headphones, but to tell the truth, this facet of the piece feels almost insignificant – Cunningham’s deeply poetic meditations, which evoke so much in the way of locomotion and physical manipulation, are quite extraordinary without the binaural element.
A triple bill of filmed work also encourages viewers to consider the blank, clumsy unseeingness – synonymous with privilege – with which most people are able to occupy space. The stand-out piece is Cade and MacAskill’s funny, charismatic film Presenting Our Selves. Ivor MacAskill and Rosana Cade use this film to scrutinise the body in the performance space – particularly bodies that are not cis, or present non-normatively, celebrating non-normativity. It cuts between the two performers in their bed in Glasgow, both wearing moustaches, both with silver laptops, and clips from their performances. “We miss your flesh, and your smell, and we miss watching you watching us,” says MacAskill.
MacAskill was due to perform fully naked in spring 2020, in a ‘newly masculinised’ form, having had top surgery in 2019. The pandemic, obviously, put paid to that, and MacAskill reflects on the strangeness of being perceived as a heterosexual, “normal” couple, and of engaging with the body not as viewable performer, but as a method for private, personal pleasure (in the example of the film skinny-dipping). The film’s clips from Cade and MacAskill’s live performances as Double Pussy Clit Fuck have an intensely frenetic, joyfully grotesque energy (a response to the ‘beautiful’ drag they found unrepresentative of their selves); the pace of the film itself, however, is measured, sweetly humorous, like a Buster Keaton black-and-white feature. It offers the situation of the pandemic as a moment for reflection, on what performance gives performers, as well as the audience, what we have jointly lost, and what we might also privately gain or recuperate.
It feels tedious and clichéd to describe queer performance as ‘brave’ – brave for daring to be different, brava! glad it’s you and not me! – and in fact it’s not bravery that strikes me here, but kindness. To explore the self to deeply, to, as Cade and MacAskill have, Present Our Selves, takes a great deal of patience with the viewer; to be humorous, clown lightly with restrained choreographed movements from a plaid bedspread, to talk thoughtfully about being new and unlike, is a kindness granted to the audience.
It’s joined by Mele Broomes’s In Love and Sorrow: Manifestations of Love and Solidarity #3, a mystical 3-minute film that has the glistening energy of pure dance, and Business Insider by Malik Nashad Sharpe and Ellen Furey. Business Insider, available until 23rd October, was intended as a live performance (and will be performed live in 2022), but in these unprecedented times (cliché again), Sharpe and Furey, separated by continents, use film to collaborate in the imaginative space of the screen. Certain sections have a found footage feel to them, but the overall collage doesn’t quite work in film format. Sharpe, in a beautiful gold dress, wanders night-time streets, singing softly to themselves, filmed in stuttering freeze-frame climbing a wall. Furey, alien-vibrant in moss-green body paint, wavers and stares. The aesthetic has a sort of mystical disco feel to it, but the power and presence of the body in these late, dimly lit settings feels very obscure. I’m uncertain what to take from it or what structure we’re following; this might be one of those pieces that just does not carry its energy from live format to filmed.
Broomes’s piece, filmed on a phone, juxtaposes a clothed body, in techno-urban neon pink jumpsuit, straps and veil, against a wild, windy landscape. Broomes moves in the wind like a new kind of plant, testing the curve of her spine and arms against the forces of the outside, calligraphic and sinuous. At times the film cuts to Broomes’s point of view, holding the phone and walking beside water or on paths; these sections, which show her body in shadow on the floor, feel surprisingly intimate, but do also underline the extent to which In Love and Sorrow is an experimentation in using the body and the landscape in filmed work, outside of a performance space – it has a quality of uncertainty at times, but a sense of importance and ritual at others. As it ends, it occurs to me that these words might very well function as a catchline for Splayed Festival as a whole. Uncertainty, importance, ritual: we watch distant bodies adapt to a new form of dancing together; in turn, I hope, we might think more critically, creatively and kindly about our own.
Quanimacy is available to watch online until 13th November here. The Triple Bill of Digital Arts – featuring Mele Broomes, Malik Nashad Sharpe and Ellen Furey, and Cade and MacAskill – is available to watch online till 14th November here. You can watch the short films that are part of Fringe! Queer Film and Arts Fest here, with a live online event on 14th November.