My laptop doesn’t get on very well with Weaklings. The blog by Dennis Cooper, that is, not the new show by Chris Goode & Co., on which , as of yet, this is its only opinion. It’s an old unibody Macbook from 2009 and it finds any graphic or rich content rich website a bit of a struggle. Last night, fresh out of Weaklings the show, I tried to make my way through yesterday’s post on the film career of Vincent Price (Thursday, October 8, 2015), but every time I got started on the text the page would jump down as another Dr. Phibes GIF or screengrab from Edward Scissorhands loaded in above it. I had to wrestle with the scroll command for the best part of 15 minutes before the pasted interview between Price and Paul Karlstrom stopped leaping across the screen and I could get to the bottom of my favourite actor’s 1992 feelings on the American visual art scene.
That sense of tumult, of information overload and a narrative hopping tantalisingly just out of comprehension, is probably one that would persist even on a younger, less shit laptop. It’s been running for nine years in its current form. It’s updated pretty much every day, sometimes several times per day, and its range of references and articles, its sweep of culture is immense and intimidating. It has commonalities with the weird web, or the blurred and cacophonous communities of ancient message boards or Usenet newsgroups, except it’s guided and informed by Cooper’s voice. It is a collection of items, opinions, artworks and facts which have caught his attention, which he shares with both the wider and silent internet community, and the very specific and vocal community with which he engages in a free-wheeling, warm and candid public discussion via ‘PS…’ updates on each post. If it’s like anything, in fact, it’s like a private museum that has been open to the public from day one, which Cooper diligently patrols, engaging with his visitors with an apparently genuine joy at their shared fascinations.
Chris Goode’s Weaklings has done nothing for my browser speed, but in every other respect it performs an absorbing and deep-thinking introduction to Cooper’s online cabinet of curiosities. It performs an imagined version of the blog’s curation and its consumption, while simultaneously digging into the actions and connections which are developed or celebrated with real bodies in the real world. By naming a blog ‘The Weaklings’, Cooper is sending out a similar rallying cry to naming a punk band ‘The Misfits’, or a movement within a movement ‘Gay Shame’. It is a rallying call for the vulnerable or the out-of-sync. It is, at least on one level, a meeting point for those whose actions and interests persist without the requirement for outward manifestations of strength, whether that strength is configured as permanence (canon, credibility) or social status, or recognisability.
There are two main axes to Weaklings. The first, vertical, exists between Cooper and an imagined respondent. Cooper is played by Karen Christopher (nee Goat Island), sat in her/his office at a laptop, while the voice of a respondent or multitude of respondents is performed by Chris Brett Bailey, lurking in the shadows with his own laptop, firing out comments with a distinctive sense of flip and queer cool, at once comfortable with the space he occupies and keen to catch Cooper’s eye with his slanted perspectives and language.
The other axis, quieter and horizontal, is occupied by Nick Finegan and Craig Hamilton from Goode’s Ponyboy Curtis performance collective. They are readers, or commenters, or topics, but continuously play the subject to Christopher and Brett Bailey’s objects. They smoke and drop cigarette cherries on their dicks (owch), cut themselves and fuck one another. They play objects of desire, as well as fragile desire-ers. They photograph themselves naked, awkwardly. They are impermanent and, we suspect, probably quite vulnerable.
Across these performances are recorded interviews with a few of Cooper’s more active fans and commenters, projected onto Naomi Dawson’s set of folding gauze screens. They could have been plucked from a low-fi BBC4 memorial programme from the future, or a DVD extra. We watch warmly as they struggle to describe the blog (How sweet it is! How indefinable!), and how they first reached it, and what a strange and good egg Cooper is for keeping it all up and running and responding to every comment. They don’t counterpoint the performance, not exactly, but they do exist in a suggestive relationship to the performed voices that we hear, and the actions we watch, which tend towards the measured and durational.
They are informational, which Goode’s show consistently and unashamedly is, but they also point to a disconnect between audiences for Cooper’s blog which runs across a range of different lines. His readers are, it is probably fair to say, curious and generally well-educated, usually if not overwhelmingly male-identifying, often queer, but their positions in society and the lives they lead can be worlds apart. They traverse sexually frustrated schoolboys, whose lives and words Finegan and Hamilton enact, and independent publishers and self-declared curators of outsider art who go to City Lights for illumination and chat with British theatre makers via Skype. Or maybe there are no schoolboys after all, only fantasists. Because as a brilliant section on Cooper’s regular round-up of International Slaves points out, that dude who wants to be kept as a quadruple amputated fuck-toy in a box of dirt might just be pulling your leg (no pun intended).
Despite the flickering projections of blogpost headlines, presumably standing in for Cooper’s constant whirling torrent of information,Weaklings actually obeys a number of traditional structural principles. The show is broken intro rough sections, with discussion of Cooper’s PS’s or his Slave narratives grouped together like they’ve been hooked together with a tag. It’s useful in a documentary sense, but it also feels a little too schematic. As an arrangement of information it feels counter to the experience of moving across the blog and diving into newly revealed streams and pools of art and knowledge. Similarly, Christopher’s role as the voice of Cooper feels strangely uncomplicated (except, I suppose, by her gender) and the skin of Cooper as counter-culture Virgil is never really breached, despite a suggestive encounter with a self-harmer who he speaks to in a gentle, fatherly, but powerless way.
The imagery is also a little on the nose, but then the nose is what punches should aim for anyway, and there’s an undeniable beauty to the sea of red lights which Finegan lays out in the dark. They twinkle like nodes on an unseen map, Weaklings calling out for each other against a black sea. There is also witty video design from Tom Hall, which acknowledges the Mondo appeal of some of Cooper’s content (that freakshow, oddball quality) as well as winking at the signposts of internet experience, with the entire show prefaced by that Blogger content warning we’re all well tired of clicking through.
There’s also original music by Scanner, which is the absolute bomb, and at times everything clicks together and it’s the beautiful, chewy love-letter to Dennis Cooper’s masterpiece that you know it is aiming to be. But there are other times in which this feels like two slightly separate productions, when the two axes work against one another driving two separate worlds. There’s the world of Christopher and Brett Bailey, the head and the tongue and the words, and then there’s the heart and the cock and the freedom of Ponyboy Curtis. Ponyboy is such a unique and, you suspect, all-consuming project or moment in Goode’s work that at times it threatens to swallow the more rational and careful explanatory and exploratory work that Weaklings requires. Even as I’m writing this I’m not sure it’s a problem. Any more than Tom Ross-Williams’ beautiful balletic presence pulled away from Goode’s essay in The Forest and the Field, but perhaps it’s that right at this present moment, on these first days, that relationship doesn’t yet have the fluidity and cohesion, or crunch and chaos, that it requires.
But I think it knows it, Weaklings, I think it knows its weaknesses. Towards the end a recording plays of associate director Jennifer Tang confessing her own feeling of removal from the blog, as a straight woman, and right at the start one of the Cooper acolytes makes what feels an explicitly devastating but quietly innervating point. ‘A song is a song,’ he more or less says, ‘a film is a film, a vinyl is a vinyl. And this blog is a blog.’ It is, in and of itself, a perfect matching of form and content. And Goode and his band have put it on stage. Honestly!
But as Goode is quoted, or quotes himself, on a comment on a blog somewhere that I can’t find on Google (this fucking laptop, I swear to God), that has been pasted onto a pink piece of card that has been stapled into the FIERCE festival programme: ‘What might seem like weakness as in faintness or phantomness actually becomes a strategy for indelibility. If that’s a word.’ It isn’t a word, but it’s a persistent non-word, and one that these Weaklings and the Weaklings they stand for, these self-identifying outcasts, trace faintly and phantom-wise, as they strategise their own imprinting on the world.
[Side Note: Chris Goode and Desk Fans. Who’s going to write the thesis? Because they’re snagging on my love-conga for Men in the Cities like teasles. There I thought there was something about the horrible municipal, office-bound urban world that I wasn’t quite getting; here there’s an obvious pun on ‘fans’, which is totally what this show is about, but what’s the connection? I mean it. I want answers. On a postcard. Stewart Pringle, c/o Old Red Lion Theatre Pub, 418 St John St, London EC1V 4NJ]