Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Death is now. And now. And now," or, The Work of Life in the Age of Digital Pre-Production

This was written during the Liars' set at ATP: I'll Be Your Mirror on Sunday. I've just learnt the acronym TLDR [too long, didn't read] so warning: this is going to be a long post. The Liars, like many of the bands playing ATP, are pretty committed to sustain (Godspeed You! Black Emperor were averaging 15 minutes a song). I'll try not to drone on, but I want the post to reflect the immersive experience, the drench not just of NOIZE, although Swans in particular certainly brought that (to the extent that I've been feeling strange and deafened the last few days, like I should be hearing that constant barrage of sound), but of sustained attention and development. And the half-formed thoughts it prompted, which I am leaving somewhat fragmented, totally unsubstantiated and rather feedbacky. If you want a (partial) review of the event with some very atmospheric photos, check out the multi-contributor diary on Wears the Trousers, my favourite music blog. It's particularly good on PJ Harvey and Portishead.
My ATP experience began with PJ Harvey on Saturday night (well, with the line-ups for chips, but let's skip that experience of duration), and with the odd realisation that I was framing my experience of the concert through the expectation that I would write about it here as part of the irregular series of female performers. That sense is nothing new, in a sense: I watch films and read books with pen in hand, even when not for publication. I've also reviewed dance and live theatre, but never live music (Birds' Eye View film and music extravaganza aside). While live music often prompts poem-thoughts and leads me to grappling for a notebook in my bag while going 'woooooooooh', it's not an experience that I filter critically or philosophically, despite adolescent plans to be a music journo. Being utterly unmusical, I can't Alex Ross it. It's embodied: sensory saturation (which isn't to say that its production and performance is unintellectual, or that I'm not learning and thinking). But while trying to catch a glimpse of PJ Harvey's extraordinary feather-hair arrangement, and feeling England shake, I was also framing her performance in words -- and, worse, in the viewfinder of my phone's camera. I should add that I'm a terrible and irregular photographer, but the iPhone camera works well for me (with its point-and-shoot absoluteness). So I took some crappy pictures of pixie people flared out in stage lights, more as a response to the crowd of camera screens waving in my vicinity than any internal compulsion.
Portishead and Godspeed You! Black Emperor both had video projections behind the band: Jem Cohen's impressively inchoate and melancholy films for the inscrutable Montréalers (whose sense of humour was abundantly demonstrated in their band bio in the programme, where they compared themselves to Rush), and faffy sub-Jem Cohen guff for the Bristolians. In between the lame films, Portishead did have live digital projection in over-exposed black-and-white, sometimes sequenced or mixed, but often extreme close-ups of Beth Gibbon. Film screens at large concerts, particularly festivals, are nothing new, but the use of grainy b/w appeared to be making a claim towards an affinity with Bertrand Tavernier's film Round Midnight and the jazz club photographs that inspired it -- and that also inspired the Super 8 depiction of the Velvet Underground scene. Think of Nick Cave performing in Wings of Desire. So it was a concert film that harked back to analogue grain and rawness, but being both captured and projected while the concert was ongoing.
Geoff Dyer refers to the quality of certain photographs as "the ongoing moment," a paradoxical perpetuity of the instant (or instantaneous eternity) that is a direct descendant of Roland Barthes' argument about the photographic punctum, the inscription of the photographic subject's death that makes portrait photography so moving. But these pictures were not being taken to be viewed, or reviewed, as mementos in the future, either the distant future after the subject's death, or the near future of communicating the experience to real-world friends. Instead, they were taken for the moment and for the immediate future: to review a minute or an hour later, to relive the concert that evening. Not as mementos to secure memory as it might fade, but as a record of an experience people were not having in its lived time.
There's a name - well, an acronym - for this kind of delay, and it's not TiVo. It's PTSD: post traumatic stress disorder, perhaps the defining condition of post-9/11 EuroWestern society, as this recent article by Gordon Turnbull suggests. In Precarious Life, Judith Butler suggests that the realisation that the West is as vulnerable as the Rest has prompted a kind of social PTSD, complete with repetition compulsion; Turnbull's article suggests the ways in which we can learn from trauma _not_ to repeat, instead to recognise our shared vulnerability: that is, our shared proximity to death.
Digital technology, as Laura Mulvey has suggested, a kind of death of death: the end of the stillness of the photographic still that makes up film, as well as the end of indexicality, whereby a photographic negative physically (that is, chemically) records the light bouncing off the subject of the photograph. The practical eradication of physical printing, as well as the development of wireless transmission, challenges the ongoingness of the photographic moment. Instead, the camera becomes an electronic amygdala: that is, it records what we can’t quite experience, and distributes it, diffusing its effect. Rather than be present in the moment of the music (and some of the moments, such as Swans, demanded intense presentness from the musicians and audience through their use of sustain, drone, build and volume), the digital photographer defers his or her experience, sharing it later in the ‘safe space’ of the online community. Their post asks – implicitly – exactly the questions posed by trauma survivors when their memories return: was I (t)here? What did I feel? What has it made me?
And, perhaps most crucially, how did I survive? Thinking about digital technology and/as amygdala gave me an intuition about the traumatic memory, the ‘shell shock’ dream images produced from/by photographic memory, which repeat always the same, unprocessed, uncondensed. Freud intuited that this meant the images had not been seen at the time; they had not been captured by the conscious and thus sent through the unconscious. Instead, the conscious mind had averted itself in order to survive a violent/violating experience. I think we can take this further: these are images the mind never expected to have to process, to store in memory. They are the images of the seconds before death, the unseen instants carried, eventually, by everyone: not the famous ‘life rushing before one’s eyes,’ but the precise circumstances of death. That which one would never expect to see. So to replay that black box record within one’s own mind raises the question: Am I dead? If I am, how can I remember? If I’m not, how can I not remember?
So these precious, tortuous images induce survivor’s guilt through their painful clarity, the very fact of their availability proving both that we are not dead, and that we should be. While it’s an exaggeration to claim that a music festival is a site of trauma that one must defer, and then mourn, it’s an exaggeration with at least three contributory thoughts: first of all, the volume of articles published each summer on how to prepare for attending such festivals (mainly shilling for specialised wellies, tents, earcans, etc), suggest that this is an event to be survived (although not necessarily survivable); one could go so far as to argue that, given the obsession with detailing the boggy conditions at Glastonbury, music festivals are described in the register of accounts of trench warfare from WWI, and may even be a cultural substitution for the rite of passage constituted by national service. They are certainly a version/descendant of the rambling/back to the land movement that started in Germany in the late nineteenth century as an outgrowth of Romanticism: the reification of ‘landscape’ and ‘nature’ as separate spheres from the urban, to be enjoyed by city folk en masse, sporadically and passively.
Reason two is, perhaps as a dark reflection of the war zone, the physical assault of noise and crowds that are generally regarded as unpleasant (say, in the London Underground), but welcomed at a festival as part of the authentic experience – although this experience can be differentially assaultive depending on your vulnerability. Despite utopian arguments to the contrary, festivals are temporary autonomous zones that (as ever) tend to favour the autonomy of those wishing to take power-over, as with the incidence of rape at Latitude last year.
The intense experience of being in a crowd of strangers, one where ordinary social controls and supervisions may not apply, is intensified or underlined by reason three: a year after the fatal crush at Love Parade, it was also hard not to be hyper-aware of the dangers of the crowd itself. Furthermore, the urban crowd has been, since Dresden at least – or maybe Peterloo, the target of military and militant assaults. A crowd is an attractive target. It was difficult, at ATP this weekend, not to think of Utøya: a similar autonomous zone, one where youth, music, exchange, and many of the ideas and beliefs reflected by the festival’s line-up were shared. To be in a crowd is thus to be vulnerable: to other individuals therein; to the mass movement; and to individuals outside.
So perhaps those digital photographers had the right idea: record now to watch later. But can you live life like TiVo? Watching the sea of digital phone cameras capture and immediately transmit (to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, MMS, etc) a film being immediately captured and transmitted, I wondered what had happened to death. Not least because of Harvey's "All and Everyone" with its standout line: "Death is now, and now, and now." That, I felt, was what missing. Not in the negative, Nietzchean, rather adolescent sense of "militant dysphoria" that Dominic Fox proposes, but as the defining, enlivening aspect of lived experience. The death that makes the music I heard at the festival so haunting and compelling: music at extremities of aural violence and vulnerability, spectral dynamics of sound and silence, of density and spareness. It was music that demands you stand to attention, salute it: the music of war and the mourning of war.
Harvey and Beth Gibbon of Portishead, in particular, as female frontwomen, not only take me back to my formative years in the mid-90s and so probably define my idea of female performance, but also seem haunted by an older tradition: they are both keeners. Professional mourners. Let England Shake is the album George W. Bush and Pericles would both have banned: an angry, provocative work of mourning for the war dead. A recognition and a cry for justice. A making-audible of the death that saturates the English landscape. Portishead have recently recorded a song for Amnesty International, and their oblique lyrics are often dense with a desire for decreation, or grief in the face of impossible loss.
As Wears the Trousers point out, both nights, “Wandering Star” was the stand-out song of their set. This unbearably fragile song of mourning, bleak and beautiful, was performed by Gibbon in a rocking crouch, her eyes drawn closed, her face turned down. Not the most expressive, outward performer (she hunches her shoulders and draws her belly in protectively while singing, and faces the back of the stage while not; in fact, her singing posture was uncannily similar to that of the burned, bowed body of Joan at the stake at the end of The Passion of Joan of Arc, which was screened, with live accompaniment, on Sunday afternoon), Gibbon appeared to cave in on herself for the most intense performance of the set. Uncommonly, the whooping crowd fell silent, even when the vocals dropped out (which prompted cheers and applause during all the other songs), in the presence of an intensity and rawness of feeling that – perhaps – we struggle to process, especially in the close proximity of so many (sweaty) others.
It’s the rawness of a collective mourning we no longer undertake, a collective witness to our vulnerability and connectedness. “Please could you stay awhile to share my grief,” the song asks. Death is now, and now, and now. This is what live performance demands: an affective, sensory apprehension of the layers of meaning in a ritual/performance, and our role in it, that is neither Dionysiac abandon (which inevitably leads to both risky and selfish behaviour, placing a premium on the expression of individual experience) or Apollonian triumphalism (which demands that the individual sublimate their experience into a cohesive performance directed towards a larger power). Obviously, blogging about this demonstrates that I have lost this sense/ability as much as anyone has, and that while trying to recapture it at ATP, I also found myself mourning it – and I have found myself grieving for the end of the festival since Sunday evening, when we heard the final notes of ‘Wandering Star’ and felt complete; sustained.
Through (re)writing these notes, I am seeking to reconnect to the brief glimpse of the needful network that sustains and shapes (not prescribes, commands or conforms, as religions and political parties do) the apprehension described above. Can there be a network without a system? A crowd without power? If there can, it must reside in the work of art itself, in its resistant liveness that defies the cultural determination that it has been staged in order to be instantly digitised. Performance, which contorts and absorbs the body, which makes shapes of yearning and desire, touches us kinaesthetically – not least with the desire to touch the performer, if only with our eyes. Sound, which moves through us in waves as light does not (which is why photography is possible), which is felt in the tympanum and the bones, which works on the nervous system, is a powerful medium for securing the interdependence of vulnerabilities necessary to be in the precarious now. And now. And now.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Divorce: A Love Story

Coincidence or zeitgeist? This week I've seen two works that use divorce as at once a lens onto the personal intimacy that shadows public policy, and as an analogy for the necessary separation of church and state. The works are as different as different can be: Asghar Farhadi's film A Separation, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin in February, and Howard Brenton's play Anne Boleyn, revived at the Globe this summer after a successful run last year. Anne Boleyn takes up the famous story of Henry VIII's dual divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the Roman Catholic Church, but suggests that Boleyn was not simply the strumpet of historical repute: she was a passionate, well-read Tyndale Protestant saving the soul of King and country. Brenton has an excellent article about the genesis of the play, where he reveals that it was seeded by Dominic Dromgoole's suggestion he write about the translation of the King James Bible, which marks its 500th anniversary this year.

Theatre, like Biblical translation, depends on a scrupulously accurate choice of words; unlike Biblical translation, that choice has to be made to allow for -- even create -- ambiguities, ironies and fatal double meanings. Brenton, like Shakespeare, uses a court setting to show how assiduously language is politicked, how weighty its precise dualities can be. He also follows the conceit of lovers speaking most truly in the language of metaphor: Henry and Anne sing to each other when and what they cannot speak openly. They long, in verse, for a pre-linguistic island idyll where they could communicate without or beyond words.

Yet it is Anne's copy of Tyndale's The Obedience of a Christian Man, annotated for Henry, that provides her with life after death when James I discovers it in a secret panel in a trunk (hoary but effectively done by the brilliant James Garnon playing James as a ticc'ing, dancing, roaring cross between Eddie Izzard and Billy Connolly), as the book itself preserved the ideas and words of Tyndale even when the man himself (and many copies of his books) were burnt. And this small black book containing sedition becomes an effective theatrical device, a loaded secret passed from hand to hand across time. On the one hand, it liberates Anne to follow her conscience; on the other, it liberates Henry to take total power and, just outside the timeframe of the play, leads to the rise and rise of the mercantile Puritans, to the colonisation of North America and beyond.

All this turns on a book and a divorce, on the swearing of oaths (sometimes under torture) and the promises of lovers tested against the word of God. The value of giving one's word is measured against divine and human authority on the one hand, and against the individual conscience and heart on the other. Within the closed and corrupt world of the court, it seems like neither truth is possible -- theatre relies on that slippage and impossibility, but at the same time, on the verbal contract between audience and performer that we accept these words as a promise of a complicated kind of truth, one hidden within what is seen. This art of revealed mystery seems to me to be a manifestation of Christianity (the Globe is staging the Mysteries later this summer, currently being advertised by one of those posters that makes me want to smash my head into a wall -- God as a grandad in an armchair and, oh look, sexy naked Eve, the only woman featured) -- or Christianity itself a development of the religious mystery of Athenian theatre, which itself has a strong relation to the language and form of the law courts.

That's also the case with A Separation, a legal drama not in the sense of Law and Order or even Twelve Angry Men: instead it's about how the nature of litigation pervades every aspect of life as two families become entangled in a mesh of constant cross-questioning, assertion, delayed revelation, evidence, self-betrayal, and negotiation.

This trailer has no subtitles, but its sense is clear: this is a film about argument. An argument between individuals, in a series of small rooms. People who are connected to each other not only by incident, but by the passionate debate and desperate negotiation that ensues. Here are people living through language: verbal and gestural. In the film, all the crucial action moments that would be front and centre in a mainstream film occur offscreen, loading the dialogue of each scene with tension and revelation. In other words, it's great, necessary, brilliant, terrifying filmmaking.

The film is easy and hard to summarise (Peter Bradshaw's review for the Guardian does a good job), but the opening seconds make clear that the titular separation (the full title is Nader and Simin: A Separation) is one that is prelude to a divorce, as Nader and Simin argue their case before an unseen magistrate, whose place is taken by the camera and the audience. So from the start, the viewer is pulled in to the film's talky vernacular, its back-and-forth of assertion and contradiction, of eloquent body language and unspoken secrets. We are put in the position of adjudicator.

When I say the film is "talky," it's not like Woody Allen: although people quibble about definitions and verbal felicities, although there's a fantastic small scene where Nader takes his daughter Termeh to task over an English-Farsi vocabulary test. When she offers an Arabic word for 'guarantee', a word given to her by her teacher, he tells her to use the Persian word, even if it risks losing a mark. Not only does it reveal Nader's letter-not-the-spirit prideful personality, which is one of the motor's of the film's grindingly tragic events, but also the significance of language as cultural inheritance and legal formality. Yet even 'guarantee' is not a guarantee of anything: all words are translations, and therefore treacherous.

And that brings forth a question central to the film, about the arbitration of meaning. For the opening of the film to defer that arbitration to the camera/viewer is a bold move in a country where magistrates are not only legally, but theologically, bound. When we eventually meet a magistrate, he is revealed -- like the judge in Kim Longinotto's documentary Divorce Iranian Style -- to be an intelligent, thoughtful and just man, but one operating in an impossible system. The conundrum is evident from the start, where Simin presents her case for divorce thus: she has applied for a visa to America, where she believes that she and her daughter will find more equal opportunities; Nader is blocking the move because he has to care for his elderly father who has Alzheimer's. An impossible, perfect, parable-like paradox is presented: Simin is arguing for divorce on the grounds that she is currently in a position of inequality; but divorce cannot be obtained on her terms, because of that inequality. Were there full equality before the law in Iran, she would not be seeking a divorce. Simin can travel to America alone once she is divorced, which Nader wearily (and fatefully) agrees to, but Termeh can only travel with her father's permission, which he will not give.

The giving of permission, and one's word, proves crucial as each character is asked to present their version of events on oath, most crushingly when it is Termeh's turn. As in the Tudor court, oaths are always taken under coercion, whether human or divine. Such politics of fear raises the question of whether truth can be thus obtained (as in the debate about torture); feminists have coined the term 'coercive consent' to describe the situation in which a person with less power enters into a sexual or other relationship with a person with significantly more power (student/teacher, servant/employer), where the coercion may not be overt but may relate to implicit fears such as loss of earnings, grades or even immigration status. I think a similar term can be applied to the oaths taken and confessions made in A Separation and Anne Boleyn, particularly by the women, while the men can better afford to cling to pride and honour as justifications for following the letter of the law. (Echoed in this week's New Yorker cartoon-in-search-of-a-caption).

There's no real conclusion to this post, as there's no real conclusion to either the play or the film: Anne Boleyn ends with a whimper, unable to face up to the torture and murder of its deeply sympathetic central character, or to the less savoury consequences of the Reformation and James' scholiastic rule; A Separation ends with one of the most audacious final scenes in recent cinema, one that is both a still tableau, an agony of waiting that pulls us deeper into the titular characters' as it reinforces our role as magistrate, and one that, through the placement of the camera and the use of sound, shows that a divorce -- any divorce, not just that of a king -- takes place in, and as part of, a social maelstrom of other lives and losses. Like Nader and Simin, we are all still waiting to see what could happen if a full divorce of church and state, of authority and intimacy, were to take place, and how language, truth, heritage and even love -- forged in a crucible of religious tradition that we still cannot shake -- will resolve themselves.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Far from the Madding Crowd: Biophilia, Live Music, and Face Time

Welcome to another in this summer's irregular series of posts on women and live music performance. This one was prompted by a review of Bjork's show Biophilia that appeared on the F-Word. I saw the same show, on the same steamily humid day. Like Ruth Rosselson, I felt disappointed at first: distanced by the performance in the round framed by screen media (I found the videos inventive and distracting), music engines (likewise), the avenging angels of the choir (likewise and more so), and the Victorian architecture, which made me feel like I was at a cattle auction in a Hardy novel.

Which made me wonder: what exactly is it we're buying at live performances? Rosselson's review points out that the performance in the round meant that Bjork was facing away from 3/4 of the audience at any given moment, a gesture compounded or highlighted by her Braveheart/Boudicca-style wig and make-up. Like Rosselson, I found myself longing for face time: that intimate connection that seems promised by the yearning, direct, bodily intensity of Bjork's music. That faciality is the key mode of Western culture is a truth widely recognised, particularly in contrast to the place of the face in relation to identity in Islamic cultures. I found myself somewhat chastened to realise that what I was bidding for in my shuffling, head-winding position on the elevated terraces of the market hall was a chance to "own" a moment of Bjork's face, to "own" a direct connection with the singer/performer, as if she were singing directly to me.

That seduction is of course the predicate of musical and theatrical performance dating back at least to the eighteenth century and the appearance of women on stage in England in the Restoration: precariously paid and in social limbo, female performers were often perceived as prostitutes "offering" themselves on stage and off. That association, which was sometimes literalised under economic and social pressure, still haunts the presence of the female performer and the desire of the audience.

What's particularly interesting to me about Bjork's music -- and particular her new material -- is that, in all sorts of subtle ways, it plays with this desire and the idea of the face. David Attenborough's pre-recorded announcements -- brisk, associative, three-word captions -- couldn't be more different from his precise but flowing narration for BBC wildlife documentaries. Rather than naming and narrating species as they appear on screen (and particularly, with mammals, as their binocular vision engages ours), these captions present the theory or theme of the track that follows as an experiment rather than a confession.

Eye contact is a powerful experience, not only with a non-human Other whose eyes appear to offer recognition and reflect intelligence. It's one that shapes us from infancy in the maternal dyad, and one that can offer a guarantee of our existence and value in adulthood: but it is far from definitive. A partially-sighted person could have thrilled to the varied and palpable sound world of Biophilia, not least the absolute commitment of Bjork's voice to fill the space and engage her audience.

The video screens above the stage act as a reminder that confession is now (is always?) a mediated act, and our expectations of face time are not a nostalgia for an organic age of close connection with performers, but rather a product of cinematic technology, specifically the close-up and the video diary, which create the sense of public ownership over performers that generates paparazzi (Bjork has little patience with them as a species).

In place of this false nostalgia/claim to faciality, Bjork's new show offers a radical idea: biophilia. Love that relates to the life in liveness, not to appearance. The liveness of the voice as expression of embodiment, rather than the face. Of movement and co-operation (as when Bjork was surrounded by the choir as a mass of bodies) rather than the singular artist selling face time. Its radicalism stretches far beyond the commercial music business or issues of celebrity to speak to how we construct our relations with every aspect of the biosphere. Do we need eye contact with every refugee in order to protest draconian immigration regulations? Will we not save endangered animals unless we can have face time with them (every Friday, as per WWF's facebook stream)? Must something _have_ a face for us to engage with it -- to believe it is engaging with/imploring us?

Or can we read Bjork's costume and staging as a plea for escape from faciality: for returning the (pathless, faceless) rock to rock music?