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Writing Objects Part I: Ubu Roi and the Actor as Object (Primary, May 7 2014)

8 May
Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (1896)

Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (1896)

The first of the Writing Objects sessions took place last night at Primary, bringing together writers, performers and artists interested in using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s installation Multiple points in this crude landscape, which launches on Friday 9 May (6 – 9pm) with an opening performance devised by Baldock in collaboration with Florence Peake. For the first session of three, we decided to explore the idea of the ‘actor as object’, or more precisely, reconsider the usually frowned-upon practice of objectification.

Usually thought of in contexts like pornography, advertising and mainstream cinema, and often used in propaganda and news media, where our sympathy or animosity is aroused by stereotypical victims and dehumanised threats, objectification is about the presentation of human figures as things, stripped in some way of their particular identities and voices, and thereby rendered passive and powerless.

Our starting point was to consider other ways in which this act of objectification might work, and we looked at four texts and a selection of related films that seemed to challenge conventional approaches to objectification.

To illustrate this approach we watched the opening scenes of Vera Chytilova’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies) [1966] which first reduces its two teenage protagonists, known only as Marie I and Marie II, to mannequins, then in every subsequent scene has the girls constantly changing – from one role or context to another, almost randomly tumbling through the film’s discontinuous settings – while keeping them exactly as they are, utterly unfazed and unchanged by even the most extreme and unsettling things in their environment.

This technique relates to folk traditions, where, as in the Brothers Grimm version of Hansel & Gretel, the characters – the Woodcutter, the Witch and Hansel & Gretel – are always ciphers rather than individuals, blank spaces into which we are free to project our own identities and experiences rather than rounded individuals in their own right. Their presence in their own story is overshadowed by the objects and things around them: Hansel & Gretel are not only interchangeable with one another but with any child, while the Witch’s house, if not the Witch herself, is very specifically memorable.

In a different way, the character of Père Ubu in Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi is objectified by exaggeration, a broad-brush caricature: human traits of cowardice, avarice and lust for glory are pushed to extremes, dialogue is laced with obscenities. Jarry’s drama is an absurdist satire on the workings of power, a Punch & Judy version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with no intention of being even-handed or naturalistic. When we see performed versions, either on stage or in films like Jean Christophe Averty’s live-action Ubu Roi (1965)  or Geoff Dunbar’s animated Ubu (1978), Jarry’s intention to make his play a live-action puppet show becomes unmistakable.

Another approach to the stripping away of specific identity can be seen in Samuel Beckett’s short, intense script Not I (1972) in which the central (and only) character, a woman, possibly old, possibly already dead or in limbo, is reduced to a mouth, floating disembodied on the stage while speaking a rapid-fire monologue composed of fragmented generalities and shattered bits of memory. Here, loss of identity is contradicted by language, which floods out, veering between emotional states, as though speech is the only thing that keeps Mouth (or any of us) from disappearing altogether (a point underscored by the fact that, if she ceases to speak, nothing at all remains visible).

Returning to the conventions of Hansel & Gretel for our conclusion, we watched Jan Svankmajer’s 1983 short film Down To The Cellar, a work which utilises the affectless characterisation of the Brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll’s original Alice books (also filmed by Svankmajer, in 1987) in a modern, political setting. Down To The Cellar is entirely wordless, its whole effect built on heightened sound and visual atmospherics. The protagonist is silent, a figure into whose shoes we place ourselves (or at least, a memory of ourselves as children).

As a footnote, we looked at an example of the inverse of objectification, where a human consciousness strives to decode the intentions and meaning of an actual mute object. The French poet and essayist Francis Ponge (1899 – 1988) was a master of this and his quest to give objects a language of their own, to find what strange, non-human meanings hid in that ‘language of objects’, meant Karen Volkman’s translation of The Trees Delete Themselves Inside A Fog Sphere offered a neat full-stop to our discussion.

Gisela Gottschlich: Illustration from Grimm's Fairy Tales [Hansel Und Gretel II]

Gisela Gottschlich: Illustration from Grimm’s Fairy Tales [Hansel Und Gretel II]

Writing Objects (Session two: on text as incantation and ritual) is at Primary on 21 May (7 – 9pm).

Writing Objects (Session three: on masks and unstable identities) is at Primary on 4 June (7 – 9pm).

Free booking may still be available for these sessions via the Primary eventbrite link.

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Raven Burrows: An Old School Happening

5 Dec

RAVEN BURROWS Banner Image (first version)

The artists’ studios where I have my office, Primary, recently staged its annual Open event, and it so happened that our turn to deliver another part of the ongoing programme in the building coincided with it. Early in 2013, a series of public events titled Old School Breaks was launched, pairing the 30 or so artists who work here into fifteen randomly selected partnerships, each to create some kind of collaborative event on whatever terms seemed to work best in one of fifteen randomly allocated months. Some gave talks, others collaborated over a whole month then showed the work they’d made at the end, others delivered a performance or small exhibition and discussion. As I’d been teamed up with the performance artist and pug painter Simon Raven, we decided to create an immersive environment inside the semi-derelict Blue Building (a disused modern school block) and then explore it over five hours, spread across the three nights of the Open Studios event. With no budget and not much time, the fact that we’re both, if nothing else, hoarders of vaguely interesting things – slide projectors, masks, 78rpm records, BBC radiophonic LPs, a toy Tardis, perspex mirrors – meant we managed to suspend fabrics, build a hidden Ubu room, set up projectors and light sources, installed record players, negatives, light-boxes and detuned radio sets…then waited till it got dark and opened the doors.

On the first night, a big crowd arrived at the start and watched our inhabiting of the space as if it were a performance, which slightly missed the purpose of the exercise, which had always been more intent on generating an atmosphere to be explored rather than a spectacle to be watched: fortunately, once that initial crush subsided, the smaller groups of three or six tended to enter the space as required, watching us for a bit, then making their own way around all the nooks and crannies of the building: a small installation of modified record sleeves under the stairs, labelled ART GALLERY: MIND YOUR HEAD. The Ubu room, with a seven foot figure of Alfred Jarry’s anti-hero staring down at whoever entered like a gigantic crowned bird surrounded by dunce’s caps (and with one or two photocopies of Alan Dixon’s woodcuts on a nearby shelf). The old toilets, with a laptop playing a loop of rehearsal footage from a choral collaboration with composer Hilary Nicholls called ‘Breath‘ while candles flickered on a cistern. Simon’s film of himself as a grotesque blue grub, The Bookworm, crawling through London towards a library. But most of the activity was in one particular space, where it seemed, over the three nights, we moved from ghosts, haunting the space under sheets, to something like Batman villains’ henchmen in face masks, to just doing strange and (hopefully) visually interesting things with mirrors, light and the room we were in.

Was it a performance? Yes and no. With its ambition to be immersive, to generate an atmosphere rather than a meaning or narrative, it was probably closer to the old 1960s arts lab style of improvised happening than anything more formally categorisable, and perhaps the mostly analogue tools reinforced that link. Either way, it was an interesting experiment and certainly produced a result that neither of us would have come up with individually, and I suppose that’s most of the point of the Old School Breaks series (next up in the Primary Old School Breaks series, incidentally, are Frank Abbott and Lauren O’Grady – there’s more information on their collaboration here).

Alan Dixon: Two Personages (Wood & Ink, 2013)

19 Aug

At the end of 2012, John Lucas contacted me about writing some poems in response to woodcuts by Alan Dixon, whose 73 Woodcuts had appeared through Shoestring Press the previous year.

Dixon’s images, made in the spirit of early 20th century movements like Die Brucke and Dadaism, provoked a variety of responses, ranging from a new nursery rhyme (‘Procession’) to an odd study of ‘Two Heads’, forming some new but yet-to-be-named thought at a Swiss cabaret, and a ‘Complicated Figure’ whose disjointed body anticipates “a coming disorder”.

There are ‘Inquisitors’, a ‘Nocturne’ and – my personal favourites – versions of two songs from Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Cocu that merge the cheerful obscenity of Viz Comic with the violence and gore of b-movies like Cannibal Holocaust: just having an excuse to take a crack at those made the whole exercise worthwhile, and Dixon’s portraits of King Ubu himself, and a non-canonical but very Ubu-esque character named ‘Big Mouth’, were a chance that wasn’t going to come again anytime soon.

The book, now titled Wood & Ink, includes responses to Dixon’s work by Andrew Sant, Helena Nelson, Paul McLoughlin, Jo Shapcott & John Hartley Williams (there’s also one marvellous poem by Alan Dixon himself, placed beside a specially-made woodcut image of its subject). It goes to press today and will be launched next month.

Until then here’s one of the poems from my series that didn’t make the final cut. Consider its appearance here a kind of taster or bonus track in anticipation of the finished publication in September. There’s also a very informative interview with Alan Dixon on Helena Nelson’s Sphinx.

Alan Dixon - Two Personages

Two Personages

What is understood when we stand together
like the two planes of a fairground mirror
on either side of the darkness in this tight room
is that we are only alike to small degrees.

Your breast is rounded, my ribs a knife,
my arms are lowered, your hand upraised.
On my back I carry this entirely useless roof
you no longer want to build a life beneath.

Two Personages by Alan Dixon appears in 73 Woodcuts (Shoestring Press, 2011) [p.80]