And while London burns…

So it’s Wednesday evening, and tomorrow I’m off to Bristol for our additional, follow-up network meeting, pursuing a potential collaboration with the Environment Agency. How might we use site/community-based performance to help highlight issues of flood risk (while also retaining an aesthetic integrity of our own) in an area that has not experienced flooding in recent memory? The EA has suggested the Bristol area of Eastville as a focus for our attentions.

No doubt I’ll be blogging about the outcomes next week, but this entry is to reflect on another element of follow-up to our London meeting in May… Last week I visited the offices of PLATFORM (who have apparently just dropped the capital letters and are now just Platform), to conduct an in-depth interview with James Marriott and Mel Evans, who presented their walk and talk to us in May. This conversation will be transcribed and either posted on this site or used in the forthcoming edition of Performance Research arising from the network project.

Oddly enough, it took me a while to find the offices. Platform are based, quite literally, underneath the approach to Tower Bridge – appropriately perhaps, like subversives burrowing into the foundations of the establishment… They’re just on the South side of the river, but technically still on land that’s part of the City of London, which is of course one of their main focuses of research and creative response. But their offices are so tucked away that I just couldn’t see the entrance at first despite the perfectly good directions. Apparently this is a common experience. I ended up calling Mel on her mobile, and she said she was looking right at me. I turned around and there she was, literally just across the road, standing in the doorway that I couldn’t see for looking. I suggested that they should rename themselves Platform 9 and 3/4.

Platform do make you look differently at the city, of course. Following a fascinating conversation with James and Mel, I set out to experience their 2007 audio walk and while london burns – which I’d been reading about in a couple of journal articles circulated by Helen Nicholson. Like the guided walk we experienced in May, this piece uses the City as its site and subject – and indeed covers some of the same ground that we did in May, both physically (Threadneedle Street and the 1 Poultry building) and thematically (and while london burns also focuses on BP’s influence, though it predates the Deepwater Horizon disaster). Even so, even as I felt myself criss-crossing the path we had walked collectively a few months ago, this was a very different walk and very different experience.

A large part of this difference lies in the formal distinctions between the two walks. In May, we were led on a ‘live’ guided tour by James and Mel, which observed the traditional structure for such events — walking between locations, stopping, talking, moving on. In between the presented sections of narrative, our engagement with the city streets was very much our own. By contrast, and while london burns is a continuous experience – billed as ‘operatic’ because of the interwoven musical soundtrack, but for me the analogy was more ‘cinematic’… The sounds and voices being heard only in my head as I moved through the city imposed a kind of screen or frame over what I was seeing — dramatising it and at times even melodramatising it (quite deliberately, it seems: the operatic form was chosen by Platform because of the ‘overheated’ subject matter of global warming). With instructional voices giving me particular directions to “Look up” or “Look through this window”, I felt as if my field of vision was operating as a kind of movie camera, twisting and dollying to find very particularly composed views. Early on in the piece, one is encouraged to walk around and around the circular entrance-way to the Bank tube station – an experience which, accompanied by music and apocalyptic predictions about +2 degrees global temperature rises this century – generates a sense of whirling, cinematic vertigo (until one then stops, abruptly, next to a cooling vent that blasts hellish hot air from underground up into your face… ‘stand as close as you dare’, invites the voice). Conversely, across the street from the Swiss Re building, for example (a.k.a. the Gherkin), I was encouraged to take a meditative moment of time-out, step under an unassuming copse of trees and – once again – “look up”. The sudden juxtaposition of Norman Foster’s uber-slick architecture with this simple canopy of leaves spoke volumes about the priorities of this place, the lack of green space visible elsewhere in the city…

The defamiliarising effect of the internal voice/narration, layered over the city and drawing curious attention to it, operated in a very different way to the much cooler, matter-of-fact ‘art tour’ narration in May. Indeed, this form combined with the narrative’s subject matter to create a weird sense of looking at London in the past rather than the present. A disillusioned city trader speaks melancholically of anticipated disaster – part personal (his partner has left him), part economic (this 2007 piece eerily anticipates the financial crash of the following year) and part environmental (catastrophic climate change is anticipated as imminent). The effect as I listened was to create a sense of looking back at London in a period (now!) of blind and blithe confidence about its own assumed continuation … back from a desperately less optimistic future… That effect is accentuated further by the periodic references to and sights of London’s historical past – at the outset we see the remains of the Roman temple of Mithras (now preserved amidst a building site); at the climax we climb to the peak of the Monument to the Great Fire of London, down Pudding Lane… Empires have fallen here before, we are reminded; disaster has struck and wiped out the present… This present is not forever.

This is powerful stuff, and all the more so because the piece exhorts us to take action so that the disaster might NOT happen. The listener is implicated as part of this place, and I imagine that it is particularly powerful if one actually works in the City, like the narrating trader character. The ideal audience member seems to be just such a trader — and as Financial Times review coverage of the piece suggests, this is a piece that has reached at least some of the financial community. Just as the May walk found its pivotal moment when we, as (mostly) academics, were implicated in the oil narrative in being reminded that our USS pensions depend on BP stock, so and while london burns seems to hinge around the moment when, circling the base of the Gherkin, the listener is invited to look into the glass cafe windows… to see those sitting within, but also to catch one’s own reflection.

What are those people in there doing to avert disaster? And how similar are those people in there to this person uncomfortably reflected? The City of London is a pumping engine of the global capital machine, a driver of climate change. How might it reassess its priorities? Platform are interested not only in pointing fingers at others, but at asking questions of those on the inside… As James put it in our interview, their role is in part to engage bankers and businessmen in conversation… to invite them away from their circular conference tables and invite them to look out of the window at what is happening outside….

The slight problem for and while london burns is that, four years on from being uploaded to the internet, it has not quite kept up with what is happening outside…

The rate of continuing change in the City, of buildings coming down and new ones going up, means that the smooth progression of Platform’s planned journey becomes – at times – entirely non-navigable. You have to abandon the printed-off map and instructions, pause the recording, and walk around whole blocks until you can get yourself back to where the piece wants you to be. That’s one problem.

The other one is our old friend apocalypse. The piece anticipates, seemingly quite confidently, that an irredeemable ‘tipping point’ towards runaway global warming will occur at some time in the next five years. But counting forward from 2007, that window will expire very soon, and there’s no irrefutable signs just yet of catastrophe. (Nor should we want there to be!) There’s a danger, as network discussions have reflected on in the past, that very urgent and serious concerns about climate change can be undermined by the tendency to warn darkly of things that don’t then happen on schedule. Of course, it may well be that we have passed a tipping point, and we just can’t quite see the effects yet (cheery thought). But equally, there might be reason, sometimes, to revise down the apocalyptic predictions. and while london burns reaches its conclusion as we step downhill towards the river, and are invited to imagine the floodwaters from the Thames rising around us (before climbing the Monument to reach virtual safety). The estimates for the flood line are based on Environment Agency estimates, the narration tells us. But if I recall correctly what our EA friend Michael Guthrie told me recently, the EA reappraised its expectations for the Thames Barrier only a year or two ago, and they are confident that it will actually survive for longer, and hold back more water, than previously estimated. If London is at threat from flooding, Michael suggested, it will be more because of groundwater (the underground tributary rivers coming up into the streets) than because the Thames bursts its banks. But that is not the narrative that and while london burns confidently informs us of… And that contradiction might allow sceptics to write the piece off as hysterical nonsense, when in fact its fundamental concerns are as pressing as they ever were. It IS a dangerous, suicidal nonsense for some in the City to be driving global emissions while others are charged with preparing to mop up the mess. The question is how to reflect on this contradiction, and encourage action on it, without falling into the trap of romanticised doom-mongering… a danger that this piece does flirt with it at times, for all its evident strengths and continuing relevance.

All of which brings us back to the Environment Agency, and flood threat, and Friday.

Watch this space.

The City from the top of the Monument, 7th September 2011.


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Reflections in Oil and Water (Part 2)

Alan Read introduces PLATFORM’s James Marriott and Mel Evans

So here I am, weeks after the fact, finally finding the headspace to reflect on the discussions at our final network meeting in May. (See my previous ‘Part 1’ posting for commentary on performances that weekend.) To be fair, there was a lot to absorb those two days, and it took a lot of mental unpacking — but here are some reflections that also take in, en passant,  certain thoughts and experiences that have occurred since.

1. Local Power

The opposition of local/global  is one that plagues discussions of environment/ecology. It was also the driving construct behind this network project in this first place: i.e. the thought that we might somehow use the specifics of particular localities (sites) as a means of ‘reflecting’ on global questions of environmental change. At our first two meetings, I think, we struggled at times to get our heads around this task: it’s one thing to look at what’s immediately around us, and even to make performances within it, but quite another to meaningfully connect that with some abstracted ‘bigger picture’. At Cove Park, of course, the presence of nuclear submarines in the waters around us clearly had a ‘global’ dimension. Yet few us knew what to ‘do’ with that information, perhaps not least because the Cold War-era provenance of such weapons systems makes them feel (dangerously) obsolescent rather than intrinsically related to current questions about environmental and climatic change (nuclear power, after all, is now considered by some as part of the solution!).

In London, however, the sense of local and global being intrinsically inter-connected became much more palpably apparent. As Doreen Massey writes, with profound simplicity, in World City:

“Actions in one place affect other places. Places are not only the recipients of the effects of global forces, they are – in such places as London most certainly – the origin and propagator of them too, and this raises the question of responsibility, and specifically a responsibility beyond place. . . . [Thus we] need to build a ‘local’ politics that thinks beyond the local. What is developed here is an argument against localism but for a politics of place.” (p.15)

Too often, I think, site-specific performances function as a kind of ‘localism’ in the sense Doreen uses it here: parochially self-enclosed, and with little sense of a bigger picture. In this respect, the walking performance led by PLATFORM around the City of London provided a powerful counter-example: we were looking at local places, particularities of street layout and architecture, while listening periodically to a story about BP’s impacts in the Gulf of Mexico… PLATFORM’s subsequent discussion at Kings College, around the “Carbon Web”, further underlined this connectivity — as they mapped out the way that BP and Shell have tendrils reaching into every branch of the (London-based) British establishment (government, judiciary, media, cultural organisations, etc.) …. Doreen Massey’s subsequent reflections on PLATFORM’s presentations, and on her own research into London as world city, also contributed powerfully a sense of the immediate locality around us in London being the seat and nexus of corporate and institutional power vectors that really do stretch around the world. We can’t cop out and pretend that London simply ‘reflects’ these global dynamics: things said and done in London actively shape these dynamics (through performativity as much as material decisions – statements of confidence in credit ratings, etc.). Or put another way, those dynamics do not exist in some abstract, disembodied state regardless of individual or collective human intervention… As Doreen reminded us repeatedly (and we need to keep being reminded), the global ‘market’ is too often treated as a set of untouchable natural laws rather than a human invention which can be regulated and modified if we want it to be.

Who is ‘we’? That’s the crucial question, of course, because even when we appreciate that the local is productive of the global, it’s still tempting to assume that such productivity is somehow the property of somebody else. ‘Them’, not ‘us’. And to some extent, it must be said, we fell into that habit during our London meeting – of regarding the power-holders as being, well OK, proximate to us physically, but still another species of person. It would be easy enough (if not really fair on PLATFORM) to draw such an interpretation from our walk around the City: ‘who are all those people inside those glass skyscrapers?’  Similarly, one could misread it into Doreen’s discussion of the things she loves about London – of London as a very progressive city, socially speaking. There is her/our London (the London of multicultural diversity) and there is ‘their’ London (the London of multinational capitalism), and it’s all too tempting to see these as somehow being layered over each other but still quite separate – like different plateaus or ‘planes of consistency’.

It must be said that this sense of separateness is one that the barons of the City are themselves doing their utmost to entrench. In World City, Doreen deftly analyses the financial sector’s performative endeavours to paint themselves as a special case, the economy’s ‘golden goose’, and thus as an exception to the normal rules ‘on the ground’ — arguments that our politicians have for too long been entirely willing to embrace (just as they have, we are reminded this week, been entirely too willing to embrace certain media powers such as the Murdoch empire). I was struck forcefully by this, a couple of weeks after the Kings College event, when I was back in London for a round of REF panel meetings that were held out in Docklands, at a corporate conference venue at South Quays. Looking out from the cafeteria terrace, all I could see was water (the old docks), blue sky, and glass… the interchangeable glass boxes housing financial corporations that have sprung up on all sides of this liquid space. Straight ahead of me was the new Fitch building – so much bigger and more uncompromising than the company’s former home, the relatively human-scale location we had visited on the PLATFORM walk… The whole area felt like it was trying to rebuild itself as some entirely non-local non-place, supremely without identifying characteristics, a great glass mother-ship of Kapital, descended from above onto East London… ‘We are not you! We are other, and your mortal rules do not apply…’

And yet… What was I doing there myself? I was there to help determine assessment criteria for the Research Excellence Framework. To many in academia, that exercise feels like an imposition by ‘them’ on ‘us’. Of course, as a panellist, I don’t see myself as ‘them’: I’m helping to represent ‘us’ in a peer review process. But no doubt to some, I am complicit in a suspect process – I have become one of them. My point being that none of us ever thinks about ourselves as one of them. The other week I attended a seminar on ‘ethics in banking’ organised by the ethics specialists at Leeds University, which was led by two bankers in pin-striped trousers. Very nice men, it seemed – very approachable, very frank about their sector’s shortcomings – and very clear that people working in the financial sector don’t regard themselves as villains or gangsters, but as honest folk making an honest living. Yes, the financial rewards may have skewed their frames of judgement, but to some extent isn’ t that true of us all? The most striking element of the analysis at that seminar was in fact that banks tend to have so many different layers of corporate governance that one committee will simply pass on a crucial decision to another committee, and so on. So when the bubble burst in 2008, it was at least partly because nobody was taking responsibility for – well – taking responsibility.

I’m digressing slightly, but I may also have found my way back to Doreen:

“Conceptually, it is important to realise that the global is as much locally produced as vice versa, that an imaginary of big binaries of us and them (often aligned with local and global) is both politically disabling and exonerating of our own (and our own local place’s) implication, and that the very fact of specificity (that places vary) both opens up the space for debate and enjoins us to invent.” (World City, p.10)

Places vary. Sites are specific. But that variation and specificity is also about how we choose to do our looking. (In what ways do we choose to exonerate ourselves before we open our eyes in the morning?) The striking contrast in tone between the two walks we did that weekend in London (PLATFORM’s large-scale, impersonal, corporate landscape; Phil Smith’s friendly, potted-green, lived-in streets just off the Strand) underlined for me very clearly the sense that place is a product of how you look at it. And looking with a sense of responsibility is perhaps one of the hardest things to do. When we look at our places, not theirs, what should we be seeing that – most of the time – we don’t? (I’m thinking here, for example, of PLATFORM’s reminder that the USS pension scheme – and thus my own retirement income – is heavily reliant on oil investments.)

And so how exactly, re-Doreen’s words, are we (1) to apprehend our own implicatedness in these things, and (2) “enjoined to invent”? That is, how might performance provide a (politically enabling) tool or process to help with that process of seeing?

Something PLATFORM’s Mel Evans said at one point during our discussions stuck in my memory. She could take responsibility for her own bit of the world, she joked – by riding her bike and by eating vegan food, keeping down her personal carbon footprint – but in the big scheme of things such personal gestures make very little difference. There’s little point in getting sanctimonious about them. That’s why, for her, working and campaigning with PLATFORM is a way to take personal responsibility beyond her own immediate square of earth. To apprehend the global within the local.

Thanks Mel. But what can the rest of us do? Can we “fight the power”?

“Yes we can!” (thanks Barack)

Yes, maybe we can. Because we have more power – we, us, me, you – than we think we do.

On the subject of which…


2. Local Knowledge

On the second day of our London meeting, the network group was presented with a very particular kind of challenge by Michael Guthrie – Community and Stakeholder Relations Manager with the Environment Agency. Having given us an outline of the EA and its work, particularly with respect to flood risk and prevention (likely to become an ever-more-significant issue in the UK if climate change projections are accurate), Michael challenged us – working in small, breakout discussion groups – to come up with ways in which site-based performance might be used to engage urban communities, who haven’t flooded in the past, with the question of flood risk and the need to take adaptive / preventative measures.

I had scheduled this intervention and discussion to take place on our last afternoon, because I wondered if we could – collectively – try to summarise our network’s thinking over the 3 sessions in pursuit of a particular, concrete question. (Rather than just talking in general abstractions.) What I hadn’t quite anticipated – although I probably should have – was the extent to which Michael’s intervention from the outside would prove controversial. Some in the room felt quite strongly that an avowedly instrumentalist question of this sort, coming from a representative of a fundamentally instrumentalist Agency, needed to be questioned or even resisted. We were restaging in miniature, perhaps, the 2008 skirmish during which the UK government’s former Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir David King, accused arts and humanities academics of “shirking the climate change fight”, of  “staying in their disciplinary ‘comfort zones’ and failing to engage with scientists on the problem of climate change” (THE, 24 Jan 2008). Yet as UEA’s ‘Professor of Climate Change’ Mike Hulme rightly notes, “this engagement must work both ways. It needs to be acknowledged that the role of arts and humanities is not simply to translate scientific knowledge into public meaning, as though science is the only source of primary knowledge” (Nature Climate Change, Vol. 1, July 2011).

Michael Guthrie, it turns out, is a performance-minded scientist, working ‘both ways’: he later confessed to having deliberately worded his challenge to us in quite a blunt, expecting way, because this was representative of a ‘typical’ Environment Agency approach. He wanted to ‘play that part’ to see how we’d react to it – and sure enough, some of us didn’t react very warmly. But from Michael’s point of view, this game strategy was important as a way for him to think through, personally, a question the EA itself is having to review – that is, how it addresses other groups and communities…

Traditionally, the EA has operated – like many other government agencies – in an essentially top-down manner: it brings its expertise to bear on a particular problem or locality, and then imposes its solutions. That approach is now becoming less feasible because of the sheer scale of government cut-backs following the recent financial crisis: the EA, with many thousands fewer staff, nationally, needs to engage more directly with communities to get things done ‘on the ground’. In a sense, this reality falls neatly into line with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ voluntarism agenda, but Michael was at pains to stress that this move was in line with what the EA itself had been concluding anyway… That the application of top-down measures has real limitations. ‘Expert knowledge’ is one thing, but when working with and in particular sites/communities, it needs to be married with ‘local knowledge’ in order to get things done effectively. There is never a ‘one size fits all’ solution, even to generic problems like flood risk. Since local people usually know a great deal more about their localities than external agencies do, that knowledge can (and should) significantly inform the EA’s own assumptions about what needs ‘doing’ on the ground… and by having both an input in dicsussions and a role in realising what then happens, local people are also able to take ownership (if you’ll excuse the BS phrase) of decisions being made about where they live.

That’s the ideal scenario – but the problem, as Michael explained to us, is that local communities are often mistrustful of the kind of governmental authority represented by a body like the EA. Moreover, his experience is that people don’t necessarily respond ‘logically’ when presented with rational, scientific arguments about action that might need to be taken to obviate risk. (That much is evident on the global scale, when it comes to climate change scenarios!) So other strategies for engagement – perhaps creative, affective ones – are also necessary, and that is not at all where EA expertise lies. Hence Michael’s challenge to us…

I wonder if we too, as a group of (mostly) theatre and performance academics, were responding to Michael like a ‘local community’, mistrustful of the kinds of ‘authority’ that he represented (as a scientist and EA representative). Did he pose a bit of a threat, even, to our ‘local customs’? Did we assume that he was imposing something on us, and thus somewhat miss the fact that he was appealing to us for help, for a two-way dialogue… We had knowledges that could be valuable to him, just as he had knowledge that we could make use of on our own terms.

I’m slightly over-stating the case here, of course: the small group discussions we had were constructive ones, and have opened up the possibility of a follow-up meeting in September, in Bristol, to further the possibilities of working with the EA towards developing a model for site- and community-based performance engagements. (As Dee pointedly remarked in the break-out group I was part of, ‘Let’s just imagine that we want to be doing what Michael’s asking…’ That proved a deft way to circumvent a lot of potential arguments, in order that we could, indeed, use our imaginations…)

But it does strike me, on reflection, that there are important, broader questions underlying our various constructive misfires that afternoon. To take the case of ‘climate change’ itself, for example, there is an ‘authorised’ or ‘common sense’ discourse at work in most discussions around the subject that this is a scientific issue to do with measurable physical factors and complex projection models… and therefore one that most non-scientists either (a) lack the expertise to engage in, and/or (b) feel intimidated by because the real experts are somewhere over there – them, not us. And yet, as the afore-mentioned Mike Hulme stresses in his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change (CUP, 2009), climate change is now every bit as much a cultural idea as it is a set of physical measurements. (Too often – as we’ve noted before – that idea is drawn in crude terms, like a Hollywood disaster movie…) It is, moreover, only at the level of culture (discourse, politics, imagination) that societies will be able to address the global challenges that climate change presents. Cultural analysis and engagement is, in fact, entirely beyond the skill set of most scientists – which is why Hulme, despite being one of the single most respected experts on climate change on the planet, decided to undertake a part-time MA in History at UEA, in order to start to think through these cultural dimensions of the question.

To return to my point earlier in this posting: we all of us have more power than we think we do, and part of that power lies in the kinds of knowledge that we possess. It’s all too easy, living inside the bubble of one particular set of disciplinary reference points, to assume that our own ‘expert knowledge’ is really just ‘local knowledge’ (i.e. of little use or interest to anyone but ourselves, or those curious outsiders who might wander onto our ‘patch’). But as Michael Guthrie reminded us (and Mike Hulme, in a sense, confirms), local knowledge is a form of expert knowledge — and it can prove invaluable to other ‘experts’, who inevitably know less than we do about, for example, strategies for public performance.

On 14th June, I attended a day seminar at the Royal Geographic Society titled ‘Narrating Environmental Change’, in which Steve Daniels and the AHRC had drawn together the Principal Investigators from all the 2010-11 ‘environmental change’ networks – for a kind of meta-networking event. Mike Hulme was a guest speaker, invited to draw the threads together at the end of the day, and he did this by interlinking a number of points flagged up in the various network summaries that had been collated in a booklet for the day’s participants (to read my summary of our network, go to ‘Summary’ under ‘Network’ on the toolbar above).  It was striking to me, perhaps because I’m habitually paranoid that I never do anything of ‘substance’, that Hulme singled out as noteworthy various key points arising from our network — especially our resistance to apocalyptic ‘disaster movie’ narratives of climate change, and our insistence instead on ‘lived experience’ (and live performance as a mode by which to reflect on it). Performance people have an important contribution to make, if we can avoid ‘shrinkwrapping’ ourselves within our own frames of reference (alas, that was very much my experience of May’s PSi conference Utrecht, but that’s another story again…).

Perhaps I’m rambling again, but I want to close this posting by referring to two elements of our London network event that I haven’t mentioned yet. One was J.D. Dewsbury’s paper “Material Impositions and Immanent Inhabitations” — a complex meditation on (if you will) ‘lived experience’ in particular sites. J.D. drew on physical examples from each of the network’s three event locations to explore how material conditions impose demands on human behaviour within those sites, but also how those conditions are themselves the consequence of past inhabitation, and indeed of human habit. This is a fairly crass summary, from leaky memory, and I’m hoping J.D. will be making the paper available for us to read again, carefully – either on this site or in a prospective journal edition arising from the network. But my concern here is the closeness of J.D.’s geographic/theoretical eye in looking at details such as seating arrangements (whether in the USS building or in the ruins of Fountains Abbey). This was an attentiveness to the miniature that paradoxically rendered the possibility of expansive thinking… thinking which J.D. invited us all to participate in by beautifully structuring his presentation to incorporate periods of open discussion. His approach seems to me, with hindsight, exemplary of this notion of sharing ‘local knowledge’ (in both the spatial and disciplinary sense) in a way that facilitates constructive exchange beyond the confines of that locality.

In a similar, but also very different way, David Williams’s presentation the previous day – in his performance paper Plumbbob – struck me as a demonstration of ‘local knowledge’ rendered as ‘expert’ knowledge. David’s allusive text explored the particularities not of a geographic site but of a temporal moment — that of the week of his birth in 1958 (was it?). A copy of Time magazine from that week was used as a source of extraordinary, juxtaposed visuals that complemented David’s reflections — 1950s advertising imagery and celebrity smiles jumbled up against images of Nevada H-Bomb tests and the soldiers asked to stand in visual proximity of the test site.  This strangely potent mix of cultural memories, further enhanced by David’s occasional fragments of song, suggested a kind of affective temporal geography, a deep mapping of a passing moment whose implications continue to ripple out towards us over 50 years later.  In what ways, David seemed to be asking, are we shaped by the moments into which we are born? What forms of toxicity – whether cultural or actual – do we ingest with the air around us? And how might a re-examination of these forces that shape us prove necessary to our future survival?

Rigorous attentiveness to place and time – a sensitivity to affect as well as logic –

Yes we can.


Closing conversation on Friday 20th May, Anatomy Museum.

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Glasgow blog link

Many thanks to Dee for pointing out this link to a detailed and positive blog on our Glasgow symposium event in February.


Posted in Cove Park | Leave a comment

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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Oily Anatomies and Toxic Landscapes (Part 1)

The “performance footprint” network held its third and final scheduled meeting in London on May 20th/21st. At our second meeting, in Scotland at Cove Park, the emphasis had been on network members themselves making work in situ, but since this was always going to be difficult in central London (we didn’t exactly have “the run of the place”), our meeting here adopted a more “curated” approach. Three commissioned performances, prepared in advance — by PLATFORM, Julie Laffin, and network member Phil Smith — were presented as catalysts to further discussion and reflection. In what follows below, I will attempt to summarise these presentations from my own perspective, before going on in a subsequent posting to consider the other, more discursive components of the weekend.

Day 1 – Friday 20th May

Network members met bright and early at 8.50am, Liverpool Street Station. We were met by Mel Evans and James Marriott (above), of the activist/performance collective PLATFORM, who proceeded to conduct us on a walking tour of the City of London’s backstreets. Aesthetically speaking, the walk was “cool” to the point of chill: Mel and James studiously avoided engaging us in chummy conversation as we walked, and for the most part avoided pointing out what was around us. It was for each of us, as pedestrians, to use our own eyes, draw our own narratives, from the spaces and architecture around us. Periodically we were stopped, arranged into neat lines of “audience”, and told the next chapter in the story of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — which began exactly one year and one month ago (20 April 2010). Our first port of call, pictured above, was along a corridor backing onto RBS’s central London offices – where we were reminded that the Chief Executive was probably just sitting down at his desk. RBS, mostly owned by us, the UK taxpayers, is a major investor in BP – and a key player in having kept it afloat during last year’s post-spill crisis of confidence. As we peered through two layers of glass (from very different historical periods) into Liverpool Street Station, we were informed that the Deepwater Horizon rig would have just about fit inside the main terminal building… A useful reminder of scale.

Looking through windows, and at our own reflections, became a bit of a theme on this walk. Here we are, outside the building occupied – until recently – by the credit ratings agency Fitch, a key player in BP’s financial survival last year. I was particularly struck by the utter impassivity of the security guard in that window, who didn’t blink or move a muscle the whole time we stood there. Even when I moved in for a close-up…

That kind of impervious indifference says something about the financial sector’s performance of rock-like inevitability (this system is here for all time!). Yet in their discourse on BP, James and Mel gave us a compelling summary of the ways in which confidence in a corporation and its stock can bleed away in moments. This entirely fictive, subjective commodity has to be managed, bolstered, through performative interventions by financiers and politicians. Walking around these streets, watching people coming and going to their places of work, was a powerful reminder that the seemingly transcendental mechanisms of international capital may in fact be more vulnerable than we often assume – managed by human beings who, in times of trouble, get by a little (well-staged) help from their friends…

Another aspect of this city landscape that I particularly noticed was the recurrence of corporate art. You can see it on the walls behind the security guard above, and all over the lobby walls of the next building we visited — which houses (among others) the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Mel and James informed the desk people here that we were a bunch of academics having a seminar, and we proceeded to sit around a peculiar goldfish bowl arrangement – to be told how deeply dependent our own USS pension plans are on BP stock. No surprise there, perhaps, but in this context the point served as an unnerving reminder of our own complicity in – and indirect responsibility for – that corporation’s global environmental impacts. And the banal corporate art has something to do with manufacturing that complicity. I was reminded strongly of Tim Crouch’s play for white-walled art galleries, ENGLAND, and its emphasis on “all those clean lines” in modernist architectural spaces. In some ways it doesn’t matter what the art on the gallery walls is; it’s the impression of light, space, airiness in spaces like this that seems reassuring, even uplifting. Later in the day, when reflecting on the walk – in dialogue with PLATFORM – geographer Doreen Massey reminded us that the financial cost of keeping a space this large and empty in a corporate building in central London would be huge. This setting has been very deliberately chosen and laid out to communicate particular impressions and information – like a highly expensive stage set. And it’s not just the corporate lobbies that adopt this strategy — the (quasi-) art was everywhere, even in this underground walkway with its sub-Dan Flavin flourescent tubes. This particular path led us to a food court, featuring Starbucks (naturally), and situated beneath the central offices of Aviva – another corporation heavily bound up with BP, (and the provider of life insurance for several of us present).

One of the most striking things about this whole walk was the sense of the City of London itself mutating and growing all around us. Yes, the corporations centered here are responsible for major ecological impacts around the world (as in the Gulf of Mexico), but “environmental change” was also happening all around us. Cranes everywhere, fresh tarmac being laid down beneath our feet almost as we walked, new buildings jostling for space with old. The City of London as breathing, sweating organism…It was inevitable, perhaps, that our path would inevitably lead us, past St. Pauls, and across the Thames, to Tate Modern — that paradigmatic instance of post-industrial cultural industry — which numbers BP among its most significant sponsors. Here, the City’s equation of “art dressing up corporations” is turned inside out to “corporations propping up art” — but at both ends of the spectrum the objective is essentially the same. As James later noted in our discussions at Kings College, corporations such as BP spend huge amounts of time, money and creativity on perpetually renewing their “social license to operate.” They keep doing what they’re doing (most recently digging in Canadian tar sands – the geological equivalent of “scraping the barrel” – while abjectly failing to commit any significant resource to developing renewable energy sources) because we let them…

… And the sponsorship of art is a powerful strand in that social license. Tobacco companies can’t get away with it anymore, because social attitudes have shifted sufficiently that we tend to see their product as “dirty” – something that stains other entities by association. But, PLATFORM’s argument runs, despite catastrophic incidents such as Deepwater Horizon, BP is still having its public image cleaned and laundered through association with popular cultural institutions such as the Tate. They get by with a little help from their friends – and Nicholas Serota has publicly declared himself as one of them.

Another friend of the Tate was proudly being hailed

from its windows. “Release Ai Weiwei”, the Chinese government is instructed. A laudable sentiment, but in the context of the day I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ai Weiwei’s recent installation in the Tate’s turbine hall, which was itself something of an environmental disaster. Millions of ceramic sunflower seeds, created as an interactive installation to be walked around on by visitors (scrunch scrunch scrunch)….

… but they ended up being roped off as a “do not touch” exhibit owing to the health hazard that was being generated by the ceramic dust (including particles of lead-based paint) rising from the floor, as the seeds were ground together underfoot. You’d think that somebody would have thought of this as a potential issue when the installation was being conceived, but it seems that the shit we breathe in daily – whether inside the Tate or outside on London’s streets, from petrol and diesel fumes – comes pretty low down on the list of corporate considerations…

Anatomical impacts became something of a theme once we were safely back at Kings College for the day’s “symposium” (also attended by a number of interested parties beyond the immediate network membership). Housed in the beautiful, white-walled confines of the college’s former Anatomy Museum (“all those clean lines”), we were presented by PLATFORM with an analysis of the Carbon Web — the anatomy, James suggested, of oil corporations such as BP and Shell. Their connections with everything from raw drilling activities through to government lobbying, media interface and cultural sponsorship were laid out in persuasive detail. But James was keen to stress, too, the actual anatomical impacts of what we breathe in with the urban air, daily… and that concern was brought home forcefully during our afternoon sessions, and the presentation by Illinois-based performance artist Julie Laffin.

Julie used to make performances like this, involving wearing huge gown sculptures – whether inside gallery or theatre spaces, or outside on city streets. Since 2004, though, she has developed a form of environmental illness known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, which makes her exquisitely sensitive – and reactive – to trace levels of “everyday” chemicals found in soaps, shampoos, detergents, deodorants — and yes, to petrol and diesel fumes. As a result, Julie can no longer work – or indeed live – in public, and instead is all but housebound in her home in rural Illinois. She moved out of Chicago to find cleaner air in the country, but during the summer has to move out to the American Southwest (desert, high prairie) to get away from agrichemical crop-dusting. Her presentation for the network symposium consisted of two short films about her experiences in New Mexico last summer (as she sought to find viable shelter in an extraordinary natural landscape), which were intercut with sequences of live, online feed from a room in Julie’s home. These included a sequence of roaming webcam, like some miniaturised helicopter shot, and then – at the end – an extended Q&A discussion in which Julie spoke to her audience as a giant, projected presence on the Anatomy Theatre’s cinema screen. I find it hard to comment objectively on this experience, from a spectatorial point of view, because I was involved – myself – as the person lining up Julie’s DVDs and facilitating the Q&A. But the insight we were afforded into Julie’s isolated existence – as well as her resilience and good humour in spite of it all – served as a moving and salutary reminder that the mobility and freedom so many of us take for granted is entirely conditional upon our bodies continuing to tolerate the environmental / atmospheric conditions that humans are daily impacting upon. Julie’s very personal, even intimate narrative, operated as a striking contrast to the macro-scale concerns elucidated by PLATFORM, but in some ways both presentations were dealing with different ends of the same telescope.  Within the spaces of the Anatomy Theatre & Museum, we had moved from an anatomisation of the oil industry’s social and political reach, towards a close-up focus on one woman’s anatomy… literally so, in isolated skinscapes – a six-screen video installation that Julie had prepared for the Museum space, in which each screen presented a camera’s eye-view isolating her eyes, hands, mouth, navel, tongue… At the same time, the fact that this installation was conceived remotely, at thousands of miles’ distance from its execution, was a further reminder of the networked proximity that we all now share.

Day 2 – Saturday 21st May

Network members met bright and early once again, exactly 24 hours after the PLATFORM walk, to undertake a second and very different city walk with Phil Smith – network member, mythogeographer, Wrights and Sites mis-guider.  This began, for most of us, in the lobby of the Strand Palace Hotel – where we’d been staying for two nights – where Phil handed us various bits of ephemera to carry around on the walk, and then led us out and around the corner to the main entrance of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (not actually on Drury Lane), there to meet with non-hotel-residents Alan Read, Sally Mackey and (joining us for the day, the head of  the AHRC’s Landscape and Environment) Steve Daniels. I emphasise the domestic details here because – as was later noted by somebody or other – we had come in a couple of days to feel quite “at home” in this bustling part of central London, popping back and forth between the Strand Palace and Kings College, a couple of hundred yards away. This was, at least for those of us who have tended to hold the noise and scale of London at a safe distance from our daily lives, something of a surprise… But it was also this renewed sense of the human-scale and domestic that Phil very much emphasised on his walk. In striking contrast to the coolness of PLATFORM’s estranged (or, to grab another translation of Brecht’s verfremdung, literally alienated) approach to the intimidating monumentality of the City, Phil made us feel as if we’d just popped out round the corner for a bit of a chat with him. Which, indeed, we had.

Sally Mackey, Phil Smith, Dee Heddon, Helen Nicholson, Wallace Heim.. and a guest of Phil’s whose name escapes me… outside Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

The beauty of Phil’s approach is that, simply through the places in which he asks you to stand and the manner in which he addresses you, you start noticing the stranger and quirkier elements of the urban landscape around you… Look, behind Phil’s head in the picture above, for example, at this particularly grumpy looking cherub in a Masonic memorial…

On one level, this is a throwaway observation, but there were in fact a striking number of memorials and sculptures – of one sort or another – on the route Phil took us along. Again, contrasting with the contemporary art trail PLATFORM took us on in the City, we saw with Phil the outdated, the kitsch, and the downright weird. Around the corner from this masonic thingamabob, for example, at a stage door to the Theatre Royal, he pointed out the rather grandiose, golden royal crest high above – signalling that this is the route taken by Royals (as well as by the disabled) being ushered quietly in the back… We obediently created a little royal tableau by way of illustration…

Phil with his parents’ house, in front of visiting Emperor Steve Daniels, King Alan Read, Prince Aaron Franks, courtier Tim Nunn, and security knight Steve Bottoms.

The observant among you will note that the Theatre Royal is currently playing host to Hollywood, in the form of Shrek, The Musical (poor Tony Jackson was caught by Wallace Heim’s camera in this unflattering juxtaposition, right), but since at least one of the Shrek films features the Muffin Man, who of course lives on Drury Lane, then this may not be inappropriate… But OK, before I get off into a rather silly series of free-associations (Phil does this to you), let me jump-cut to another above-the-door golden portal design that Phil led us to slightly later on the walk. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of this one, since by then my camera was playing up, so anyone not on the walk will have to trust me when I say that this particular restaurant entrance featured a 3-D display of golden seraphs and cherubs engaged in what can only reasonably be described as an explicitly pornographic display (involving, as I recall, rear entry penetration and nipple stimulation). An interesting counterpoint, perhaps, to Shrek’s bum-scratching and the grumpy cherub pictured above (maybe he wasn’t getting any)…. And the reason I’m recounting all this is because, as the walk went on, an almost carnivalesque sense of the bodily – of the physical in all its variously joyous, grotesque and, yes, theatrical functions – began to push its way to the front of the jostling mental impressions that Phil was stirring up…  This was thanks, in particular, to the two most poignant stops on the tour.

The first of these, just around the corner from the Theatre Royal, was at a memoral garden which stands on the site of an old graveyard. Phil positioned himself at ground level (left) to emphasise the extent to which the garden has been built up from street level… A result, he claimed, of the fact that this burial site was once piled so high with the undifferentiated bodies of the urban poor that they began to block the views, and light, of the windows in the surrounding buildings. Eventually this was all capped – paved over with slabs to keep the dead down – but the raising of the floor level here literally represents “environmental change” brought about by the addition to the ground of human fertiliser. Towards the end of Phil’s tour, outside St. Clement-Danes’ Church (“oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s”), he pointed out the statue to Bomber Harris – architect of the fire-bombing of Dresden in World War II – but also evoked a much older history of massacre by explaining that the “Danes” of the church’s title once referred to the bodies of Vikings that had been strung out across the walls of a previous sanctuary on this site — during the fearsome siege warfare between invading Danes and resident Anglo-Saxons that resulted in many of the local place names. Aldwych, for example, is “Auld wick” – the old town – the locality the Saxons lived until they were literally driven off it into a more fortified encampment, and which instead became the Vikings’ camp. (Phil, forgive me if I misremember any of these details, but I guess the Chinese Whispers version of history is one of the things that interests you anyway… so I’ll resist the temptation to scour Wikipedia in an attempt to check my facts.)  Phil’s narrative, throughout, came as a powerful reminder that the hugely built-up environment around us – man-made, with only a few trace glimpses of the ‘natural’ world – is nonetheless constantly ‘in process’; involved in its own (organic?) cycles of collapse and renewal; far from being merely fixed and inevitable. It’s an environment built by and on human bodies, and on the silted accumulation of history in this so-long-so-heavily populated of locations. These thoughts, perhaps, loop us back again to the fact of our location that weekend – Kings College’s former Anatomy Theatre & Museum…. and to the socially excluded body of Julie Laffin …. and to PLATFORM’s anatomisation of the oil industry, an industry which – for all the “clean lines” of its artistic and architectural investments – is also built upon squalor, degradation, and suffering in other, less visible parts of the world such as the Niger Delta…  (Network member Tim Nunn, who visited that area a few years ago as a photographer and activist, spoke powerfully during Friday’s symposium about his experiences of that environment – of leaking oil pipelines literally cutting through the middle of villages, polluting wells, posing extreme health and fire risks – and about how his own camera was confiscated by arresting police officers who were not, Shell insisted (though nobody had yet suggested it), acting at their behest…)

Hmm. I appear to have travelled some distance from the jollity of my opening reflections on Phil’s walk… He does that to you too. But I’d be doing him a disservice if I didn’t also mention that we finished on an upbeat note, parading in single file through the dancing fountains outside Somerset House, watched over by – yes – Ai Weiwei’s decapitated Zodiac Heads…

Thanks to my malfunctioning camera, I had to steal this image off the internet to illustrate… But Phil had us walking through the middle of this, a trail of motley individuals with J.D. Dewsbury bringing up the rear dragging his wheelie suitcase like a caboose. Collectively, a theatrical display of shining human promise in this palace of the arts… (Or something like that.) Almost immediately after we had performed our little show, other visitors began following suit – and having themselves photographed following suit… Human behaviour in process, a response to performed examples and physical affordances… (or just plain copying?). Some thoughts to return to – in my next posting perhaps…

And “reflecting on environmental change”…? Well, I hope I’ve done a little of that, but I’ll close this post (at long last, well done if you’ve got this far) with the last photo I was able to take with my camera before it went on the blink… A scene as seen just round the corner from the pornographic restaurant entrance… And illustrating Phil’s astute observation that all the greenery we were seeing on the streets in that area (and the foliage was not inconsiderable) was actually planted in pots, placed over paving, rather than rooted in the earth. Did we ever see any earth? At the same time, though, natural forces continue to operate even on the man-made environment, as neatly evidenced by the advanced decomposition of this hardboard table, which is gradually unfurling like the pages of a book…. As Phil might say, it’s all about the layers.

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Anatomy of a Network Event

This Friday, 20th May, the ‘performance footprint’ network is hosting a public symposium event at the Anatomy Theatre & Museum at Kings College London. This forms part of the third and final scheduled meeting of this AHRC-funded network series — with network members also meeting the following day, Saturday 21st, to follow-up on Friday’s events and attempt to draw some conclusions.

This blog entry is intended to provide some initial thoughts and context – particularly for those who are attending the public symposium but have not previously been part of the network discussions, although network members may also benefit from some insight into the thinking behind what’s planned for these two days.

The purposes of this network series is, we hope, clear from its formal title – “Reflecting on Environmental Change through Site-Based Performance” (devised in response to the AHRC’s call for networks responding to the theme “Researching Environmental Change”). Each of the three meetings has taken place at a site location with distinctive, even iconic resonances – the intention being that these places would inspire focused reflection on the environmental and theatrical questions we are attempting to explore.

The first meeting took place last October in North Yorkshire at Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal, the National Trust and World Heritage site, and the discussions were largely focused on consideration of the heritage site as a locus for considering environmental change. The history of human impact on this particular environment is very clear — from the monks’ re-routing of the River Skell, to move it to the side of its natural valley and around the Abbey itself, to the choices of eighteenth century landscape gardeners in (first) laying out formal water gardens along the course of the Skell, and then (responding to changing fashions) adding more informal, “picturesque” features to enhance the ostensibly natural landscape. The Fountains site is, in effect, a large-scale theatrical set that stages particular historical attitudes to human/nature relations — and much of the network’s discussions that weekend also focused on ways in which it is currently presented (staged) to the public as a major National Trust property; and also on the types of performative behaviour that it facilitates and encourages among visitors. We also considered, with invaluable input from the estate’s Head of Landscape Michael Ridsdale, the visible impacts that changing climatic conditions (unusually persistent dry weather, punctuated by sudden ‘events’ such as the 2007 floods) have had on the site’s architectural and organic infrastructure. Simply preserving the estate in something resembling its historical condition now consumes huge amounts of energy, labour and knowhow – a fact that has implications of its own.

The second meeting of the network, at Cove Park artists’ retreat in Argyll and Bute (following a half-day symposium at Glasgow University) took place this February. Set amidst a surrounding nature reserve, and the imposing landscape of Scottish mountains and lochs, this meeting was billed as the one that would locate us closest to nature in its unsculpted form — at least as compared to the manufactured landscape at Fountains. To some extent, that was indeed what we experienced that weekend — with the sometimes inclement weather turning the hillside on which Cove Park is located into a rain-soaked sponge, on which even the gravel paths were literally cut apart by rivulets of water seeking fresh paths downhill. There was much consideration that weekend of non-human nature as dynamic process and agency (rather than as static “backdrop” to human activity), and many of the short, devised performance pieces created while we were there concerned themselves with trying to locate our human presence in constructive relationship with these other forces. At the same time, we had to reckon with the spectre of forces of inconceivable destruction: Cove Park itself is built on the site of a World War II military compound and arms dump, and is geographically sandwiched between the present-day naval bases at Faslane and Coulport, which respectively house nuclear submarines and their warheads. There we were, right in the middle of the UK’s “independent nuclear deterrent”, looking out contemplatively through picture windows at the Scottish scenery. Over the weekend, we only scratched the surface of exploring and “performing” the contradictions inherent in that site.

Which brings us, sort of, to our third and final location in the Anatomy Theatre & Museum at Kings College, London. This meeting was always conceived as the one that would place us, if you will, in “the belly of the beast” — in the middle of an entirely man-made, intensely crowded, urban environment — a far cry from either the sculpted green surroundings of Fountains or the deceptively quiet shores of Loch Long. In environmental terms London has to be conceived of not only in terms of what we see (or don’t see) locally by way of natural or architectural features, but also in terms of its role as a networked hub of global ecological impacts. Hence our invitation, early on, to the London-based collective PLATFORM to become involved in this meeting: their recent performance work and activism has been closely bound up with critiques of the financial and oil extraction industries that have major corporate headquarters within walking distance of Kings College. Alan Read, our host at Kings, proposed to create a symposium in which PLATFORM could be brought into discussion with geographer Doreen Massey, whose celebrated work on the North-South divide has more recently been complemented by research on global North-South relations (including the extraction, by the North, of human as well as material resources from other parts of the world).

The symposium’s proposed consideration of the city’s global environmental impacts – particularly in terms of pollutants and toxicity (think no further than last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as brought about by the oversight [in both senses of the word] of a London-based corporation, BP) – also prompted us to invite two further contributors to take part this Friday, to provide contrasting but connected perspectives. Artist and scholar David Williams will present his performance paper Plumbbomb – which is “site-based” not in relation to London but in its reflections on the contaminated nuclear test sites of Nevada. Subsequently, Illinois-based performance artist Julie Laffin will present new video work that also responds, in part, to features of the American Southwest, but which has been created specifically with Kings’ Anatomy Theatre & Museum in mind as its presentation site. Julie’s own “anatomical” situation is that severe environmental illness — which makes commonly-used, everyday chemicals effectively toxic to her — has forced her to retreat entirely from the public sphere: she can be present with us only through networked technology.

The London symposium, then, represents a significant shift of emphasis from our previous network meetings — but there are continuities also, some of which may come into play on Friday, but which will also be a key factor in Saturday’s network discussions. The ‘heritage’ thread, for example, is very much a part of this third site: the Strand campus of Kings sits next to, indeed overlaps with, the buildings of Somerset House. Moreover, the Anatomy Theatre & Museum are themselves named after their historical, rather than current, usage – a history that involves particular attitudes to the natural world and the human body’s place within it. Since the early modern period, anatomy theatres had been places for the public display of human dissection – often using cadavers acquired from ghoulish sources (the gallows; homes for the destitute). Such displays were notionally educational but also to some extent sensational, as the arena-like pit of early anatomy theatres perhaps suggests (as in this image of the early 17th century example at Leiden):

By the nineteenth century, changing social attitudes and increasing scientific specialization meant that the observation of dissection became the preserve of students and specialists – but medical and anatomical museums instead emerged to take on the role of informing the curious public (as well as providing a further teaching resource). The Kings spaces date from the early part of the twentieth century, when such exhibition traditions were already fading thanks to the steady improvements in available teaching aids and medical text books — but their current use as spaces that fuse intellectual and theatrical enquiry is perhaps not that inconsistent with their former purpose.

Other threads that recur in varying inflections across the various network sites include:

the vital presence of water: the River Skell and its water gardens, too prone to flooding; Loch Long and its many tributaries on the sodden hillside at Cove Park; the River Thames, which used to have a shore on what is now The Strand (which means ‘beach’), until the construction of the Victoria Embankment. London’s own tributary rivers, flowing into the Thames, are today largely culverted under its roads and buildings, and surface to public view only when they flood… The threat of such groundwater flooding will be addressed by our special guest on Saturday 21st, Michael Guthrie (Environment Agency).

the notion of “retreat” — be it the artists’ retreat at Cove Park, the monastic removal from “the world” at Fountains Abbey, or indeed Studley Royal’s landscape garden design (complete with faux hermitage) which engineered a tranquil escape from the urban and everyday. Kings College and its environs may not look much like a retreat, but the Anatomy Theatre & Museum are squirrelled away deep within the buildings of the Strand campus, and they represent a history in which the acquisition of knowledge was/is regarded as a specialised vocation, set aside from the everyday world. Some see the separation and isolation of knowledge into so many different fields as contributing to our current problems in thinking through global threats – we “can’t see the wood for the trees”. But is there also, in the notion of “retreat”, a commitment to gaining clearer insight through a process of stepping back?

I hope my various musings here have provided some context and introduction for our meetings at Kings. I look forward to seeing you there!

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How I Spent My Spring Vacation

With planning now well underway for our third network meeting at Kings College London next month, I am grateful to Phil Smith for providing me with the following gem regarding a certain street we’ll be seeing a lot of:

“The Strand. The name is recorded in 1185 as Stronde and in 1220 as la Stranda. It is formed from the Old English “strand”, meaning bank or shore. Initially it referred to the shallow bank of the once much wider River Thames, before the construction of the Victoria Embankment.”

This is a salutary reminder that much of the built-up area around Kings, which looks so solid and forever, is constructed on landfill. And that the river is never far away – a river that we’ve tried to stop from flooding by constructing a massive tidal defence barrier. In the extreme case global warming scenarios, though — with polar ice sheets in meltdown and potential sea level rises in the tens of metres — those defences are unlikely to be enough. In Steve Waters’ recent play The Contingency Plan, one character discusses the image of Nelson staring out once again across an ocean that, with his Column now submerged underwater along with the rest of Trafalgar Square (which is, of course, at the other end of the Strand from Kings).

Since childhood I’ve associated “The Strand” with its place on the red zone of the Monopoly board – and thus with buying and selling, accumulation, capitalism…. But it was once, apparently, a sandy river shore. Today, when we hear the word “strand” at all in its original usage, it tends to be accompanied by the word “narrow” – as in “a narrow strand of beach”. So there’s something insubstantial and (that word again) precarious about the very concept. All of which puts me in mind of my family break last week on the North East coast, at Seahouses — a small fishing village from which generations of tourists have taken boats out to the Farne Islands to see the colonies of puffins, gulls and seals (the islands are now protected as a nature reserve by the National Trust).  Triangulated with Seahouses and the Farnes is Bamburgh — from each location the other two are clearly visible, like a kind of large natural stage of social and physical contrasts. The Farnes as rocky outcrops in the North Sea (they’ll presumably be quick to go under if the sea level rises – bye bye puffins!); Seahouses as a practical village of working people – once mainly in fishing, now mainly in tourism; and Bamburgh as a more upper-middle-class town of cream tea cafes, in the lea of the baronial seat of Bamburgh Castle as it looks out to sea over grassy dunes…

Bamburgh Castle, from the beach at low tide

The Castle is still privately owned by the Armstrong family, and it would be easy for a middle-aged wannabe socialist like me to make cheap remarks about aristocratic wealth. But castles, as Mike Hansell points out in his book Built by Animals (Oxford UP, 2007), are in essence defensive structures, and “our need for protection is no different from that of other species.” Hansell compares the three-ringed defences of Dun Aengus fort (off the coast of Ireland) with the three layers of defensive barrier that certain species of caterpillar will build on either side of themselves – along a plant stem – before spinning themselves cocoons in which they’ll become moths. Thought of in these terms, the imposing structure at Bamburgh has a kind of primal simplicity — built by vulnerable creatures to help them feel less exposed to predators and to the elements. Viewed in these terms, perhaps, the Castle has a much more organic relationship with the dunes it stands over than is first apparent. Dunes themselves are natural defences of land against sea, solidified by the grasses that grow into them. Yet they are also created by the sea, in a basic relational dynamic: the sea deposits sand on the beach (having eroded it from land elsewhere), and the sand is blown up the beach to form rough hills, or dunes.

The whole time we spent on the beach as a family, this dynamic was being performed for us. As the waves came in and out on the shore, the gusting wind was also creating what I can only describe as waves in the grasses atop the dunes, and whipping up miniature sandstorms, racing up and down the beach, occasionally stinging exposed legs, arms, eyes. It’s a site in constant flux, but also with a certain natural equilibrium and stability.

I’m not going to dwell here on what would happen if winds and weather become more unstable, and sea levels rise — but the potentially catastrophic consequences were imaginatively illustrated by my partner Paula and six-year-old daughter Eleanor, as they built a series of sandcastles on the beach, in a reiteration of a time-honoured social performance. Each of the castles was ceremoniously named “Bamburgh Castle” by Eleanor, and then we watched as the tide came in and washed it away. Another Bamburgh Castle was duly built slightly further up the beach, and then the tide came in and washed it away. And so on. I think they constructed five or six of these things, in a Sisyphusian game of futile fun. The tide comes in quick, ultimately leaving just a narrow strand of beach…

The next day, on another bit of the beach nearer Seahouses, we replaced architectural assertion (sandcastles) with self-assertion (writing names in the sand). Here’s my homage to Eleanor…

And here’s Paula’s homage to herself:

And here’s Eleanor’s reciprocal gesture for me (that’s “Daddy Steve” if you can’t quite make it out):

And here’s Eleanor on the same spot a few seconds later (taken, like the shot above, at 5.16pm):

And this is the same spot one minute later, at 5.17pm (as the photos’ digital signatures confirm):

Bye-bye Daddy Steve…

“The foolish man built his house upon the sand, the foolish man built his house upon the sand, the foolish man built his house upon the sand, and the walls came tumbling down….”

The birds on the Farnes, of course, are wise men who built their house upon the rocks:

Another house built upon rocks (as its name suggests), is Cragside. It too is overseen by the National Trust (who preserve the habitats of both birds and rich people). It’s a few miles inland and to the South-west of Seahouses, near Rothbury, and was built by William Armstrong (before he bought Bamburgh Castle) as his country retreat from life as a pioneering industrialist in Victorian Newcastle:

Armstrong was an inventive engineer – he developed the hydraulic crane, and then began to specialise in making really big guns and warships: half the Japanese ironclads that won their naval war with Russia in 1905 were built by Armstrong’s company. (He’d have fit right in at Faslane and Coulport.) Anyhoo, point is, Armstrong also liked to tinker with home improvements: Cragside was the first house anywhere to be partially powered by hydro-electricity (an early use of renewable energy), and the servants loved working there because of various labour-saving devices Armstrong installed for them (like a very early dishwasher). So he can’t have been all bad.

In 1884, the Prince and Princess of Wales famously paid a visit to Cragside (a whole new suite of apartments was built in their honour). This visit was highly unusual, since Armstrong hadn’t even been ennobled yet at that point, but they came because Armstrong had built in mod-cons that at the time you couldn’t even get at Sandringham — like central heating and running water. Things that Queen Victoria didn’t have but I do. And probably you do too. Which again puts a building like Bamburgh Castle in perspective…

For millennia, human beings have operated like every other animal on the planet – in relational equilibrium with their surroundings, building themselves homes as shelters, defences. But now, in little more than a century, human beings have come to take for granted the idea that our homes have self-regulating micro-climates. Feeling chilly? Turn up the central heating instead of putting another sweater on. Easy…. Except that this requires energy, and there isn’t yet enough hydro-electricity to go round… As a consequence of which, the tide is rising.

Bye-bye Bamburgh.

Bye-bye Strand.

Fly away Peter.

Fly away Paul.