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Two Excerpts from ‘Shrapnel’ (c.1998 – 2007)

17 Nov

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(xxxii)

“The genius of the free market idea is to have us blame ourselves for the inequalities built into the system. Imagine a hundred-meter sprint where some had to do a marathon or 10,000 meters before anyone started the stopwatch, some started six inches from the finish, and all the medals were already, anyway, sent to the same guys who won them every year without even needing to turn up at the track. It wouldn’t be credible as athletics, but it’s pretty much exactly how the economy works…”

William Sterling Everett: Signs of the Times (1997)

Careless Talk Costs Lives, the old wartime propaganda posters used to insist, a cartoon Nazi spy gleefully eavesdropping on Mavis and Hilda – or at least, on two ladies in hair-rollers and spotted headscarves who might as well have been named Mavis and Hilda – as they blithely gossip about their husbands’ postings and other matters of use to any passing Nazi spies who may have been lurking on the street-corners where they passed the time in their utility coats. They hold baskets amply but modestly furnished with rationed eggs, cheese and milk and, according to the poster, anyway, threaten to lose the war as surely as any active enemy saboteur.

Perhaps this was some early premonition of Chaos Theory, intimating the vast potential consequences of minute actions as their barely perceptible resonances multiplied in the world: the low hum of insect wings building in the air, slowly unfastening the stitches that hold some wind-current to its known course and changing the entire weather system. Or maybe it’s the appearance of a dropped penny on a pavement that magnetises itself to a hundred other orphan pennies and builds slowly towards a one pound coin, a ten pound note, perhaps the full multi-million pound jackpot of a lottery win on a £1 ticket.

Isn’t this how markets are assumed to function, as the unfathomable result of millions of barely perceptible individual purchase decisions as they generate vast sprawling factories and refineries in the desert sands, plant crops inside glistening perspex Savannah greenhouses, lay down entire networks of roads and red-brick housing estates with pocket gardens and tarmac cul-de-sacs and parking spaces to meet all the millions of freely-chosen individual desires that spawned them? As we desire it, so things shall be.

Except, desire as we may, nothing much seems to change. We throw out one government and acquire another that will at best pursue much the same policies with minor tweaks to the packaging and presentation, at worst do something it hardly bears thinking about that wasn’t even in the manifesto. We’d prefer to live our lives without being defined and shaped by money; we’d like to disentangle ourselves from the nine-to-five and the long-distance commute but find we need to spend ever more of our lives chasing money to achieve this goal in any meaningful way, to stack up enough to get out of the rat race, or at least, we do if we haven’t got the money to start with. We seek equilibrium while the prospect of achieving it recedes ever further into the realms of fantasy: even a moderately secure paid job and a place to live becomes the stuff of daydreams and fairy tales.

If this is the case, it must be because we lacked the necessary talent and drive. The thickets of mystique that grow around social connections and blind chance, like thorns around Sleeping Beauty’s castle, or the endless inflation that lifts entry-level doors beyond the reach of those who used to do the jobs, like the windows in Rapunzel’s tower. Besides, give someone the place and the role itself, the confidence inspired by acceptance, will tend to produce an approxiation of competence, enough to confirm the initial choice as right and justified, at least. Once the investment is made, and you’re on the inside, it might take years to expose your shortcomings even when this doesn’t apply.

Turn someone down, and maybe they’ll find themselves in debt, confidence shattered, slide from that crucial lost chance into apathy or worse. This is confirmation bias as a social and economic system, a lottery with delusions of meaningful decision-making. Every interview with someone successful you’ve ever read mentions the moment when something clicked: the job that led to everything that followed, the support that made the rest easy, the random draw that raised this one individual from the aspirant horde and planted those particular feet firmly on the sprung rubber surface of the fast track, where white lines curved on their clear path to the finish line. The rest remain outside, groping in the darkness for even the semblance of an entrance to the stadium.

Those who make it are the ones worthy of the rewards; the rest have fallen short. Anyone can see the natural justice at work in this.

Time passes. Small change turns up in the street from time to time. There is another story to be told, where we might glimpse details otherwise deemed insignificant: moments of clarity, peculiar unravellings of the fabrics we live by as the mind turns in on itself between one distraction and the next, each small paid job only tenuously connected to the last. Here’s one of those stories now, the beginnings of a prose elegy sketched out among the slogans and images that pierce the rain-soaked urban fabric with the fantastic promises of a dozen billboards along the route I’m walking:

It’s been eighty years since the armistice of the Great War, more or less. Vast posters appear in the streets showing the dark centres of scarlet poppies, as though Georgia O’Keefe has become confused with More O’Ferrall, the content stolen for the pasted image seamlessly merged with the interests profiting from the billboard itself. Lime green posters, possibly florescent, are slapped on top, unofficial fly posters showing a large disembodied phallus in black marker-pen. A train is beating over the iron railway-bridge, its wheels and carriages throbbing through the brickwork and girders above us with a close approximation of the rhythm in a migraine headache, right behind the eyes. A car takes a tight corner on a mountain road while the sun rises, or sets, it isn’t clear. Love and acceptance is promised to all by the mascaras and lipsticks worn by women so exceptional in appearance they are paid in multiples of your annual salary for a handful of photographs, a few seconds of film footage. There are four landscapes, sited at angles to one another above a junction, each one dramatic, beautiful and entirely free of advertising, all trying to entice us to travel into them by luxury car, cruise-liner or air…

This might be important. It’s just unedited notes, a few scraps of evidence, but you’ll probably have guessed already where it’s going, what the point will be. This isn’t subtle. There are some kinds of knowledge that we all share but somehow never quite rise into full consciousness for long enough to come into focus, mirages we aren’t sure are really there at all: am I seeing my mind work from a long way off or am I going mad? We know, instinctively, that the only place we’ll ever see a landscape entirely free of advertising is in the landscape depicted in an advertisement. It’s one of these things we know and witness continually but that no longer seems unnatural. Of course there are adverts everywhere, except in adverts. How else could things be?

Perhaps one day our shared observations will magnetize to one-another, gather weight and form, their collective gravity suddenly become sufficient to jolt entire fixed weather systems from their default courses. Would what ensued be chaos or liberation? Until then, I can indulge the dream of travelling among landscapes free of advertising while walking through a half-mile long canyon of shops and offices flanked by billboards, all the way from the Holloway Road to the gates of Finsbury Park. Perhaps if I can prove I’m worthy, start earning and save some money now, it might even happen. If I can just put my head down against all this rain and keep going…

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(lxiii)

“We work to maintain our chains of our own free will. We keep them safe with the clocks and the coins inside our own homes and fret ourselves ceaselessly about losing even a single link.”

Henry Sutton (1886)

The sun strains through the clouds like weak tea through muslin. Neon signs flicker high on the walls as I pass the Ethiopian crafts and clothes shop with its white door and window-frames, the grocer and halal  butcher, the steel shutters unrolled for an afternoon trade that seems to barely exist. On the pavement gangs of youths in leather jackets with gelled hair and strong after-shave hang around, maybe Greek, Cypriot or Turkish, maybe Albanian or Italian, but wherever they’re from I think I don’t recognise the language until I do, suddenly, finally catching a slangy, heavily accented English spoken at three times normal speed. A group of Somali women thread between them, while two elderly Jamaican men with grey hair and beards stand aside to let them pass, one doffing his tweed hat with a smile then moving on.

At the bus-stop a line of people moves forward to board a red Routemaster whose conductor hangs from the back step, one arm outstretched to signal that only the first four can get on, the rest must wait. There are murmurs and shufflings, but the line quickly falls back and returns to its paperbacks, newspapers and magazines. I am behind them, pausing by a litter-bin to pick up the shiny bronze penny that leans at a forty-five degree angle in the space between two paving-stones. As I stand, I notice the sky darkening, a large cloud moving through the light like a shadow over water. I can hear the distant rumbling of thunder, feel a vague electric charge hanging on the air like a veil.

The shadow throws the neon lights and office windows into sharper relief, and a blue and red sign shaped like a telephone flashes over a painted board that reads: Cheap Rate International Phone Calls and Travel Specialists. A man sits behind a wooden desk inside, a computer in front of him as he turns a ball-point pen over and over between his fingers, tapping it on the desk and staring into space. On the walls around him are posters in full colour showing scenes from Guyana, Jamaica, Cyprus, places where lurid pink and orange sunsets spread themselves behind silhouetted palm trees, where improbably blue skies luxuriate above sapphire oceans and white sand beaches, while natives in colourful clothes hold out baskets of fruit that seem to ripen in the warmth of exaggeratedly contented smiles, wide as the clean horizons that surround them.

He continues to stare into space, his gaze following a fly as it batters itself against a flickering florescent tube spotted with dust. He has the flight details and dialling codes of every point on the globe at his fingertips, but he is going nowhere and talking to no-one.

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Robert Holcombe as Fiction at Nottingham Writers’ Studio (October 6th, 2014)

11 Oct

Immersion (Milk Capital III) [1970]

On October 6th 2014 I was invited by NWS director Pippa Hennessy to deliver a short talk about the origins of the fictional artist Robert Holcombe, and the shift in my general approach to writing since around 2010, as part of the regular ‘social’ event held every month at Nottingham Writers’ Studio. As I’d got the notes already written down and the images gathered for the slides used on the night, it seemed worth preserving an outline of the talk here, if only because it might help to explain what it is I think I’m doing and how I ended up doing it…

Wood & Ink (Shoestring Press) (545x800)

At the start, writing poetry for the most part, I worked in the generally accepted way. That is, I mostly did things other than writing for a living (in my case, working in retail, picture framing and other similar trades) and sometimes got to write things in my spare time. I sent these things out to the magazines I knew about, who would sometimes publish them. At a certain point I had gathered a book’s worth of poetry that seemed both OK in itself, and gave an impression of coherence, so this was sent out to publishers. Marginalia appeared from Peterloo in 2001, and after several years focused on a day job in freelance journalism, compiling a fragmentary book about money called Shrapnel and developing projects like a sequence about genetics written for a dance company in 2005, a second short poetry collection, Emblems, emerged in 2009.

The Apple Sequence (Orchard Editions, 2011)

It’s worth noting that I still work this way, though I’ll admit that I’ve been negligent about sending things to magazines since 2010, perhaps because I edited one, called Staple, between 2007 and 2011, and needed a very long break from the endless round of envelopes, stamps and emails by the time its natural life-span expired. Even so, a series of poems written in response to woodcuts by Alan Dixon were included in the anthology Wood & Ink last year, and a body of new work, including the sequence A Cycle Of Songs From The Body’s Interior, will feature in Black Glass: New & Selected Poems, which is forthcoming from Shoestring in March 2015. But there was also a turning point, where a new way of working became possible, and this was probably a 2010 commission to work with Neville Gabie on a project built around the redevelopment of Sneinton Square, a historic fruit and vegetable market on the Eastside of Nottingham.

Sneinton Square by Patel Taylor Architects

This project became known as Orchard  and my contribution to it was a book-length series of poems called The Apple Sequence, a 64 page publication distributed free to an audience not usually engaged with the arts, but with a stake in the future of the site: market traders and their customers, activists involved in urban food production on the many allotments and city farm nearby, tenants and residents of the Sneinton and St Ann’s areas more widely. The commission included money to cover production of an artwork, so I used this to create a book from scratch – designing, typesetting and writing it simultaneously, to a tight deadline and with a definite public purpose. This seemed a more interesting way of working than the standard literary and publishing industry model. More to the point, it seemed to work, with The Apple Sequence widely read by those we’d hoped to reach.

Robert Holcombe: Marine (1955)

Yet the fact that this book was directed not at the poetry world in the standard way, but addressed to a very different readership, seemed to mean that as far as conventional literary acknowledgement went The Apple Sequence barely existed. Perhaps this was partly delayed response: no reviews, for example, but one of the few literary events the Apple Sequence poems were presented at was a Nine Arches Press reading in Leicester soon after publication – so the apple-themed anthology that appeared from Nine Arches this year may not be entirely unrelated to the 2011 project. At any rate, The Apple Sequence proved liberating in terms of the control it allowed over the design, format and speed at which the book could appear, and for the readership it was able to find while by-passing the usual literary channels. It is probably not insignificant, either, that the work of writing poems was, for once, reasonably well paid upfront.

WayneBurrows_Robert_Holcombe_The_Modernists_Diptych_I_(Primal)_[1972]_(2014)

I’ve been exploring the possibilities of this way of working ever since, in poetry and various kinds of non-mainstream fiction, the resulting work mostly distributed outside the channels of traditional publishing. A couple of these later projects might include Spirit Wrappings (2012), which was produced as a short, beautifully designed fiction chapbook by Nottingham Contemporary, commissioned in response to an exhibition about a collector named Rashleigh Jackson by visual artist Simon Withers and curator Abi Spinks, and The Disappearances/The Peel Street Codex, commissioned by Jo Dacombe and Laura Jade Klee of Sidelong to be performed in caves, then made into booklets for A Box Of Things (2014), a limited edition publication documenting a project based on the myths and legends of Nottingham’s cave network.

Robert Holcombe: Biological Camouflage (Les Chateaux de la Loire I) [1977]

The creation of Robert Holcombe, an alter-ego who could be put to many different uses, was almost accidental. He first appeared in a novel I’d been writing, Albany 6, which traced an alternative history of the late 20th century, where he was the author of a handful of pulp science-fiction stories that had shaped the obsessions of the book’s main protagonist, a Chicago musician named Thomas Satz, and grew from there. His public debut was as the subject of a fictional lecture during 2010, expanding on one of those pulp stories, Not smoking can seriously damage your health (1976). More fake lectures have been delivered since, among them a fabricated paper exploring the invented connections between Holcombe and the post-war Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow, presented at a Nottingham Contemporary symposium on the meaning of disgust in November 2013.

The Modernists: Portal (1967)

So who is Robert Holcombe? An exhibition hand-out written in early 2014 gives the basic facts of his fictional biography:

“Robert Holcombe is an entirely fictional British artist (b. Leeds 1923 – d. Exeter 2003) whose fascination with collage was first discovered when he began cutting up magazines and rearranging the parts whilst convalescing from injuries sustained in 1944, during active service in Malaya. He was a radio engineer, a contemporary of Richard Hamilton at the Slade School of Art  and, from 1955 until 1988, a planning officer in Leeds. He maintained a long correspondence with Eduardo Paolozzi, whose interest in elaborate fictions and alternate realities he shared. Although Holcombe did not exhibit publicly during his lifetime, he made most of his work under two pseudonyms – Gene and Michael Harrison. It’s also notable that many of his images, particularly those featuring material rooted in fashion, advertising and technology, show a more ambiguous enthusiasm for the world of the Post-War era than was usual at the time. His works are marked by a fascination with consumerist excess, inscrutable apparitions of surgical, sexual and folkloric symbols inside modernist interiors, and unsettling disturbances of ordinary space”.

From The Holcombe Family Bible [Apocrypha - The Appearing of Three Angels to Abraham] (1967)

Another lecture on Holcombe’s work was improvised at a closing event for the fictional retrospective exhibitionThe Family Bible & Other Fables: Works From The Holcombe Collection 1948 – 1978, staged at Syson Gallery in January 2014. This outlined links between the fabricated collages on the gallery walls and their literary sources, some fictional, like Holcombe’s own pulp SF writings and letters, others, like Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines Of Dr Hoffmann and JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, very real. A quote from Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition perhaps gives a flavour of the literary origins of Robert Holcombe: “These mental polaroids form a large part of our library of affections”, writes Ballard. “Carried around in our heads, they touch our memories like albums of family photographs. Turning their pages, we see what seems to be a ghostly and alternative version of our own past, filled with shadowy figures as formalized as Egyptian tomb-reliefs.”  

Marine - A Story in Eight Objects (Nottingham Castle, 2013) Cover design by Joff + Ollie.

The first time all of these literary, historical and visual threads had come together in a single place was in Marine: A Story in Eight Objects, commissioned by Nottingham Castle and Fermynwoods Contemporary Art to be part of Make Believe, a series of interventions in the collections and grounds of Nottingham Castle during 2013. The exhibition explored the blurring of fact and fiction in the site’s real and legendary histories and Marine combined a 30-page print publication, tracing the actual and imaginary resonances of a sea voyage from England to Hawaii aboard HMS Blonde in 1824; a film remix setting fragments of that published text to 1950s ‘exotica’ music and sequences of still visual images; and an installation featuring a Holcombe work inside a high security case (another collage appeared as the book’s frontispiece and the opening image of the film).

Make believe -7560

The Marine film and publication were also presented at two venues during the inaugural Pilot Festival in Brightlingsea, suggesting that they did not depend on the site specific context they were devised for. Site specificity could also arise by accident: with Holcombe having been at least partly inspired by JG Ballard, it seemed a good omen that the second fictional retrospective – Folklore, Ritual and The Modern Interior: 1955 – 1975 – was shown at a London gallery named (by the curators, Pil & Galia Kollectiv) after three ‘psychic projections’, Xero, Kline & Coma, who appear in several of Ballard’s books. Even more pertinently, the exhibition accidentally coincided with a major Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern and Hannah Hoch’s work just down the road at the Whitechapel, both of which added a certain additional resonance to the work on display.

XeroKline&Coma

Holcombe’s Performing The Curtain Rituals series, supposedly made in 1966, directly referenced work by both these neighbouring artists, a fact that earned the show a small place in a dissertation on the politics of parafictional art published by Keren Goldberg at the RCA in summer 2014. This seems apt, as chance meanings were the subject of The Holcombe Tarot, a series of 78 collages made between 2011 and 2014 in which a few classic Tarot symbols, like Death, The Tower, The Lovers and The Priestess, were vastly outnumbered by such oblique images as The Mirage (some banknotes hovering above a glacier), The Source (a gigantic chrome tap standing in a ruined abbey), The Purge (a burning rice field, suggestive of the late Vietnam War context in which the cards were made) and The Nest (a classical column protruding from a birds’ nest). Devised to appear meaningful, while remaining open-ended, the curious thing is how the drawing of one of these cards can still feel significant.

Tarot Series (The Mirage)

These cards were first shown (as a selection of 12 collages) at Xero, Kline & Coma and have since been prototyped as a working Tarot pack and launched on Kickstarter, so a limited edition of 100 packs of The Holcombe Tarot will be produced in November 2014. The Holcombe Tarot also, I suppose, works as a kind of mutated poetry collection: a gathering of images that seem to relate to one another, can be ‘read’ in sequence or dipped into at will, each card freestanding but dependent on the others. Perhaps this is the thread connecting these bodies of written and visual work. Collage and poetry, after all, both operate through the selection and recombination of images and details from multiple sources. In a poem it might be a written recollection or voicing where a view of an apple orchard merges with a memory of factory machinery; in a collage it might be some photographic combination or overlay of the two things. The effect, either way, is similar.

GBX020 CD 800

A project currently in its early stages of development is Exotica Suite, a collaboration with the musician Paul Isherwood (look up The Soundcarriers’ back catalogue for some examples of his work). At this point Exotica Suite is not planned as a Holcombe project but a sequence of new texts exploring identity as something constructed, both for us, socially, and by us, in response to assumptions made by others. Inspirations are figures like Sun Ra, Yma Sumac and Jack Bilbo, who each in some way refused or complicated authenticity and rebuilt reality around themselves (as Holcombe notes in a 1984 letter: “We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves.”). Where all this will lead is not yet known, but the results will be released as a vinyl LP and download and a print publication. There will be events at New Art Exchange to introduce the ideas and influences behind the project and discuss the issues it raises. I think it is going to be interesting.

Writing Objects Part II: Incantation and Ritual (Primary, May 21 2014)

23 May
Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

For our second Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s commissioned installation, we looked at the various ways in which the sound and rhythm of language can be used to create an illusion of almost magical power or authority: the realm of the incantation, the chant, prayer and spell. These, after all, are the kinds of texts used in anything from a horror film to a stage magician’s act, and from a Church to a coven, to imply that words possess the power to bring objects to life and influence nature.

We began with Marie Osmond, specifically her 1980s appearance in an episode of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, in which she introduces and then memorably recites Hugo Ball’s Dada sound-poem Karawane (1916). Ball’s text implies meaning through its imitation of some of the expected patterns of spoken language, from which all familiar syntax and vocabulary has been erased to replace comprehension with patterns of repetition and verbal sound to generate an air of impenetrable significance. In this, the sound-poem echoes much that is commonly found in the form of the incantation.

Looking at the traditions of Biblical or Oral song-texts, the way these patterns work emerges more clearly. In The Song of Solomon the effect lies in the repetition of sentence structures, of patterns of concrete nouns and vivid images shaped by rhythmic variations. A text that imitates the more sinister possibilities of this kind of incantation is The Peel Street Codex (2013), commissioned to be performed in a (supposedly haunted) cave underneath the Salutation Inn in Nottingham during a series of walks curated by Sidelong. Although contradictory when examined, and designed to expose its own fakeness, when recited it creates a ritualistic, if theatrical, intensity.

The real thing can be experienced in the work of American poet and musician Jayne Cortez: looking at her 1980s piece New York’s Bullfighter Gums on the page clearly implies the presence of this kind of ritualistic tone:

New York’s bullfighter gums
mashed up like red bananas
fiery sauce caked on
its rocket-shaped head
E train eyes rolling like
some big time frog from Uruguay
& I say
it’s not impossible
to find deep fried romance
in this concrete ocean
of marinated snake juice…

The real impact of the piece, however, emerges when it is heard in Cortez’s own voice, and while this particular poem isn’t available online, re-reading it after listening to the author’s rendition of I See Chano Pozo (an incantation to the spirit of the musician who fused Cuban music with Be-Bop jazz in the 1940s as part of Dizzy Gillespie’s band) transforms the way we read the text of Cortez’s poem. With the drums and rhythms of her voice planted in our minds, the logic behind the construction of the initially baffling but powerfully vivid images of New York’s Bullfighter Gums sharply clarifies. Cortez uses concrete nouns, repeated sentence structures and rhythmic patterns to give shape to a series of images that follow no ordinary or everyday logic, but instead by-pass conscious reasoning and aim to find echoes in the unconscious.

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

It’s a patterning used everywhere in political slogans, advertising catchphrases and management mantras – from the French Revolution’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to the striking Miners’ Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out; from Just Do It to Gotta Lotta Bottle; from Education Education Education to Hard-Working Families. Stringing a catchy threesome of words together has long been known to be memorable and devices like this have been rhetorically exploited for the purpose of persuasion for centuries – a secular form of spell casting and ritual speech, even if it rarely acknowledges that it is.

Used to very different purposes, in Maya Deren’s silent and self-consciously ritualistic film Witch’s Cradle (1943, partly a documentation of a Marcel Duchamp string installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) or Kenneth Anger’s (equally self-consciously ritualistic) Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), fragmentary images develop coherence through the use of repetition and visual rhythm. Just as Hugo Ball’s Karawane created an illusion of potential meaning from seemingly arbitrary sounds, Deren and Anger’s disjunctive edits develop their own elusive sense and operate like languages whose precise meanings lie only slightly beyond our grasp.

Eva Svankmajerova’s Baradla Cave uses similar methods, sometimes reading like ordinary fiction, but swerving between genres and forms from one sentence or paragraph to the next. Baradla herself is the cave setting of the book and its female heroine: sometimes one, sometimes the other, and occasionally both. But then, if Baradla Cave is anything, it is a satirical parody of narrative sense that holds its reader’s attention with the patterns of its language, which is full of lists, jokes, factual commentary and arbitrary sequences that deliberately refuse to add up. Its real aim, like any good incantation, is to imply sense while purposefully defying logic, and at its most nonsensical reveals some of its deepest and most intriguing truths.

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Writing Objects session three, on masks and unstable identities, is at Primary on 4 June (7 – 9pm, free). All welcome.

Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.