Phil Smith: Footnotes for Apocalypse

[posted on Phil’s behalf. Although I confess to making up the title, to fill the subject field. My apologies in advance. SB]


these notes have been assembled according to a feeling of precise ambivalence – that from all the proposals and performances and videos and walks and conversation, I cannot identify a set of key tactics that might, through synthesis or rearrangement, become a strategy for a performance that could reflect on environmental change through site-based performance

so, these notes are desperate ones

and behind them is the utopian sense that over three very short times together, and with much at stake in the way of ideas, mimesis, actions, gestures (our working tools, in other words) we seemed to ‘come through’, to initiate ourselves as a group of merry survivalists

not quite able to take apocalypse (real or not) entirely seriously

not quite able to escape from a sense that there was something farcical and inappropriate about the marriage of environmental change and the dominant arts economy (including any performance about environmental change) – mostly due to the inequalities of scale, but also the apparent force and vivacity of the poisonous relationships at the heart of the drama of human nature and non-human nature, a drama around which space(and culture) is looped – ideas and images feeding the production of yet more ideas and images

in ‘environmental theatre’ “the (visual) artist is king”

and so – in desperation – and with the slightest perverse suspicion that for art to be any part of change (let alone to reflect upon it), it would need to be really itself (and not the virtuous thing that others fondly imagine it to be – as if it were a rather helpless aunt or uncle who would give them half a crown in their younger days), to be really escapist, to be a romantic art of what is not – escaping from nature, from community, from self (let alone race, nation, etc.)

blurring human settlements and natural habitats… crocodiles in swimming pools, vertical farms in tower blocks…

and would have to trump the question of scale

to create a theatre of molecular assembly… to create a thriller-narrative around the making of very small things (at the model-level – patterns that can be reproduced, the building blocks of far, far larger forms) – this is the reparative detective-narrative (detecting the patterns) complement to the sci-fi paranoia about unravelling the world into nano-sludge

a performance that addresses environmental change will not ‘look green’, it will not share a milieu with greens or ecologists… milieus are part of the loop

instead it will try to defer its syntheses, hold its curves apart

possibilities: escapism, hauntology (a future made from the ruins of past failed futurisms), a fancy enjoying change, and an empathy for those who suffer by it – a kind of tragic tearing, and a grassing over, a reclamation, a promiscuous breeding of species-anomalies, and (making the best of a bad job) celebrating modern ruins (missing out habitation and going straight from building site to ruin)

on the strand we were always close to the beach (the central square of Somerset House used for sunbathing) – on one side the anatomy theatre, on the other the graveyard and the Happy Go Lucky Funeral Parlour in the green street where none of the plants’ roots reached the soil (beach) beneath the pavements, but end in troughs and pots

I didn’t mention: the place where the bomb exploded, blowing off the legs of the bomber, shredding his lungs – there is now a marching band named after him in Wexford, I didn’t mention the pavement where Markov was stabbed with a poisoned umbrella by the Bulgarian secret service

what would the performance of terror in the service of ecology look like? in the case of those few animal rights activists who use  terror its seems to rest on a romantic view of the moral superiority of non-humans – the innocence and naturalness of nature (another loop) – but what if we performed nature as terroristic, as the source of disasters, as assassin, as suicidally destructive and bent of world domination, as fundamentally incompatible with human survival… what if we take the spaces of human violence – the Bomber Harris statue, the bombsite of St Clemence Dane – and transform them into sites of ‘natural violence’, invasion, trap, treacherous underfoot? What if “nature” is what we really mean when we say “evil”? Just pretend (make believe) for a moment that a/ they are the same thing and b/ we still have a moral obligation towards and for it – what does an art reflecting on environmental (vicious) change look like now?

so many stage doors… I hung about them for a while… it never crossed my mind that I would see anyone I recognised, that I was part of that community of performance, but I am (not), I smiled at Mike Leigh and he looked puzzled and irritated (I nearly told him that I had given a first to one of my student’s for an excellent project about his work), and I remembered as a child being taken to the stage door to meet stars like Frankie Howard, Hope and Keen, Jimmy Clitheroe – Mister Pastry gave me a golly (later I would see Billy Dainty imitate him brilliantly), Janie Marsden gave me a kiss. I saw Mister Toad getting into his costume and I saw the rat-machine – the animals dragged across the stage in great nets…

pantos are about ruined ecologies that are revived and become utopias through the goodness of their leading characters – through romances that are instantaneous, by courage that is compulsory, over and through obstacles that are functional

and it is all hemmed about with layered comedy (different parts of the comedy aimed at different parts of the audience) and surreal set pieces…

what if one were to stage a panto of environmental change?

stage flats

rough perspectival scene painting…

what would an ecological solution look like when painted with a bare nod to realism or perspective?

the villains are easy to portray… PLATFORM introduced them… but what if we removed all the stage characters, and simply used lighting, panto props and the painted sets… things moved about the stage by machines – rats in nets… trapdoors… machines and the illusion of nature… so that the whole enterprise became a dialogue between the mechanisms of (heavy industrial) stage scenery and the ‘dramatic’ (ie, naturalistic, narrative, utopian) portrayal of landscapes?

stage ghosts – where do these fit in a changing environment? Isn’t this my basic problem? I start with a set of assumptions, aspirations, ideals about nature, environment, exploitation, ‘over-’ and balance, species death, conservation… (stage ghosts)… and then I try to turn them into a reflective performance. But they are already a set of reflections – so I am propping up one mirror to face another. It was only when I lay down on the steps of the cemetery, that I could feel clumsily happy. Because I had become a ghost in contact with solid steps … rather than peddling ideas, I had become ghost/step (a brundlefly)* (Lady Dedlock, a deadlock, disguised in purchased rags, dead, trying to get to the mountain of flesh and bones). Now if I could find a serious ‘answer’ to – or a performance of – how that ghost-ideal and its environment might be part of the same change… it is the ghosts that would change… so, to pose the question (arrange the dramaturgy) a different way: how do you change a ghost? Or even another way – is the research question the wrong way round? – what if our job all along has  really been to make environments that reflected on performative change?

* “Brundlefly” –

Seth Brundle: You have to leave now, and never come back here. Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I. Insects… don’t have politics. They’re very… brutal. No compassion, no compromise. We can’t trust the insect. I’d like to become the first… insect politician. Y’see, I’d like to, but… I’m afraid, uh…
Ronnie: I don’t know what you’re trying to say.
Seth Brundle: I’m saying… I’m saying I – I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the insect is awake.
Ronnie: No. no, Seth…
Seth Brundle: I’m saying… I’ll hurt you if you stay.

That evening in Glasgow – we sat and watched the apocalypse approach while eating a fish and chip supper… nothing felt as adequate to the task of reflecting upon (protesting against, resisting) environmental change as the grotesqueness of it all. Rather as nothing felt as adequate to our task as the whole of our response.

(perhaps we need to be very careful not to laugh and then forget why we laughed – there’s nothing lightweight about my light-heartedness)

I walked with JD to Liverpool Street Station and I could chat to him about how, in a way that I never really quite worked out how to say to the group that, hypocrisy might be necessary (as virtue and consistency seemed so ineffective in exciting or mobilising a general response to environmental change) – environmental hypocrisy = thinking locally, acting globally. ‘We’ want to believe (or rather ‘we’ want to believe that ‘we’ believe) that many small democratic actions (and acts of dissent) and solo-acts of social responsibility will have an efficacious massing/agglomeration (a change of quantity to a change of quality). But what if they can’t? What if those insect-politics don’t neatly mesh with human democratic politics?

Lady Dedlock:  I cannot get it out of my head, it’s stuck there now. Have you heard of social preparation for apocalypse? Neither have I? Apocalypses don’t have ways out. That’s the definition of them. Dead ends. No escape, no mercy. We can’t trust apocalypses, we can’t negotiate with them. I’d like to be the first merciful apocalypse. Yes, I would. But I don’t think I should…

Phil: Why not? Do you mean you can’t do any good?

Lady Deadlock: I mean … I mean that I am a mercy that dreamed it was disaster, but now the dream is over… and now the graveyard is awake.

Phil: No, that’s silly, morbid…

Lady Deadlock:  What I’m telling you … don’t use me as a metaphor… or it’ll be your funeral.

PROPOSAL: Act globally, and locally (with love) do whatever you fancy. (I stole some of this from Aleister Crowley, the Great Beast, but was gratified to note, from ‘Robinson In Ruins’, that it has some rather warmer antecedents).

When we got to Liverpool Street JD explained the strange feeling he had walking through the station – his father had designed it, though compromises had been made; he walked through his father’s shapes, but they were not wholly his father’s.

Yet we did carry on and what we made together (while we were busy making many other things) was a way of ‘working-at-while-enjoying’ the massive structures (in my head I see some awful monster that excites me, but I can’t place it) that were set upon us.  I felt that we were creating an intellectual permaculture. Rather as Margaret Killjoy (must be a pseudonym) suggests we should in Alan Moore’s Dodgen Logic mag, preparing for bad times to come by creating social structures to cope with them (rather than run for the log cabins) and those structures do not include bunkers (or floodwalls), but are made of people – so we created a new ‘us’… is that because a performance that would do what we were doing (reflecting upon environmental change) would eventually (if it could get rid of its drama) get around to evolving/becoming a form of small-battalion building (to appropriate Burke)?  A paranoid-reparative form?

It felt like we were a gang with a den (maybe an old shed) and that the different members of the gang brought along different bits of kit – Helen’s over-consumption, Mike’s ablative, Sally’s cherishing the light, JD’s vibrant materials, PLATFORM’s wormholes (bringing the Mexican Gulf to the city) and their “special publ

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Was it Doreen Massey who pointed out the message of that under-used foyer that we squatted for 10 minutes? That company was saying: “we have a luxurious space that we can demonstrably fail to use”… now, here’s a thought, lady, ‘ere (beckons to the audience with his hand, straightens his floral suit, looks backstage) … is he there? is he there? … (mugging as if looking to see if the theatre manager is keeping an eye on him, then to the audience) … ‘ere, lady, come a bit closer, comfy up to Maxie… now, lady, what if them big companies and them big governments, what if they was to apply the same principle to a much larger space, to the space of nature, eh, what if they was to come straight out with it, own up to it, and say: ‘we own the whole bloody world and most of it we will demonstrably fail to use!’, now wouldn’t that be a caution, lady? eh? (Looks nervously offtsstaggeee

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“This very morning I placed a tiny stone

Upon the grave of Rabbi Lhur.

Tonight as I sat at home and all alone

It came knocking at my door.”

(from The Golem by Avr Thun, translated by Arthur Balding)

Hypocrite: (aside, winking and gurning) I don’t feel good about writing this…

(Across the stage walk the Gang, amazed and merry; it is a wasteland partly shaped by their parents and partly not.)

Hypocrite: (running to catch up with the Gang) Wait, wait! This is so funny!

(The gang turn on the Hypocrite, who is brought up short by their looks.)

Hypocrite:  I didn’t say it…

(The gang eye the Hypocrite suspiciously. They turn away and begin to dismantle the stage.)

Hypocrite: Wait… just one second…

(The Gang pause in their work and turn. But the dismantling they have begun continues. The set, a countryside vista, has become a gaze. A prop has become a thing. The curtains slide off their runners and fold onto the stage, the boards sag and the nails spring from the planks, the thick ropes unwind, the back wall collapses and the giant scenery doors swing open and fall into the road, the stage lights float off into the night (so many artificial stars) and the roof turns into darkness…)

Hypocrite: (nervously taking her notebook from her bag) I didn’t note down which one of you said it, but…. er, here it is… “it’s not the catastrophes that are the disaster, the disaster is the ‘normal’, it’s the ‘everyday’…”

(A grinding of stage machinery, a wind machine edges across the splintered stage floor, it makes a noise like pieces of material sliding one over anothe

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