Saturday, 27 June 2009

Cosán Dearg - some years on

Cosán Dearg is a piece I made in 2005 with director Jason Byrne(whose Phaedra's Love won best production last year in the Irish Times Theatre awards), composer Julie Feeney (whose critically acclaimed new album Pages is just released) and fellow performer Bernadette Iglich . It grew out of a collaboration that started when we were participants in a workshop organised by the Dublin Fringe Festival held at the Annaghmakerrig artists' retreat.

While we were in the last stages of making the piece, a film company called Scannán Dobharchú made a documentary about us. It wasn't an easy process, as I was anxious that the filming wouldn't interfere with the delicate last stages of our rehearsals. There were tensions in our collaboration that I was afraid the documentary might sensationalise. However, I think Scannán Dobharchú did a great job and it's a pleasure after all this time to see something of our work.

The documentary was completed in 2005 but never screened by TG4, the programme commissioners. Then, out of the blue, it appeared last year unannounced. Maybe there was a slot to fill? Maybe they lost it? But at least I've been able to get a copy now and here's an excerpt from the end of the programme.

It contains some tenebrously tasteful nudity

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Anna Minton Secured by Design

Anna Minton has just published a book called Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First-Century City. In it she describes the increasing privatisation of public space and claims that it is responsible for a climate and fear and mistrust that blights people's experience of the city.

More property is being built in Britain than at any time since WW2 - from high security gated apartment developments, gleaming business districts and plazas, to homogeneous city centres. However, Anna Minton argues that this 'regeneration' actually has a negative impact on our lives, because it is the result of private companies wresting control away from local government, creating spaces designed for profit and watched over by CCTV.
From Liverpool to Manchester, London to Newcastle, more and more streets owned by private companies with the sole aim of making money and homes are left to deliberately fall into dereliction so the land can be bought cheaply, imposing skyscrapers and fortress-like developments which not only provide physical barriers but engineer fear and mistrust.

There's an interesting video presentation which she gave to a group of designers and artists asking what the privatisation of public space means to the artists and designers who are asked to work in the public realm.

Minton's argument applies in the UK where developments like Stratford City and Kings Cross have created spaces that look like they're public since the public - actually consumers or shoppers - is encouraged to travel through it but that doesn't mean that you're allowed to busk there, film there or dance there. The same observation applies in Ireland where the Docklands is largely privatised or where the big shopping centres create spaces for people to gather in consumption but not much other sanctioned activity. Maybe when we have less money for buying stuff, these cathedrals of cash might need to be used for something else.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Roberta Lima

I spent this morning working with Roberta Lima, another of the Red Gate residents, whose work focuses on her own body, and in the past has included live and video-mediated performances that involve piercing, costume and feminist iconography. She is moving away from that kind of extreme engagement with her body (suspended by hooks in her knees, pierced by needles in her hips) but was still curious to see what might come from a brief collaboration between us. Roberta is Brazilian but is currently resident in Dublin where she is Associate Researcher at GradCam. The serendipity of finding our Irish connection made the idea of collaboration all the more necessary.

Roberta came to the performance of Dialogue in Beijing and was struck by the power of Xiao Ke on stage and by the abandon with which she could allow herself to be carried by me. I sensed that I might be able to give Roberta a taste of that experience in our working together. I could do something for her, with her, in the aesthetic frame she has established here in Beijing.

Her frame is to use a spy camera attached to her breast bone that sends images to an old analog TV that is then filmed by a digital camera. The layering of recording creates patterns of interference that are further enhanced by the very low fi reflections on the TV screen that the digital camera captures. The result is a physical experience observed at a distance, mediated in shadows, reflections, and the energy of a camera moving. Knowing about her experiments with suspension and her interest in how Xiao Ke and I worked together, I decided that I wanted to allow Roberta to experience her studio space from the different perspective of one being carried. Her initial rigidity gave way to an indulgence in the process and the resulting video material is intriguing and connects with her other work on many levels.

We then taped the camera to my chest and, while Roberta read an article she’d written on her work, I allowed the energy and content of her speech to suggest movement to me.

In fact the movement was restricted by the camera cables attached to my body – umbilical chord and fetters.

But I’m intrigued by some of the photos that came from the experiment and the relationship that exists between the woman who sits reading from a laptop on the stairs and the man wrapped in wire that writhes in below her. The camera quickly detached itself from my chest so I ended up holding it there in a gesture that had a strong emotional colour I found difficult to circumvent. What stands out in the photos are the inadvertent resonances between Roberta’s gestures and mine, so that some unchoreographed physical communication passes between us, even as her words dominate the space.

Of course, Roberta trained as an architect and later became and artist, so her sense of space and its meanings is acute. Serendipity! -which reminds me that Stefan Lewandowski is doing some research on serendipity or happenstance for his Clore Leadership Fellowship. His notes from an interview with Charles Hunter were stimulating, particularly the observation that
Openness to serendipity enables serendipity

Beijing Parkour - making sense of Beijing

The Goethe institute in China has published a pamphlet called Beijing Parkour, assembling a series of maps and elevations of various districts in Beijing that together creatively revisioning space in the way that Parkour encourages.

The pamphlet contains an interview with Michael Kahn-Ackermann. He was an exchange student in Beijing in the seventies and returned there as director of the Goethe Institute in China in 2006.

In the interview, conducted by Shi Jian and Cui Qiao, the institute's Commissioner for Cultural Programs, Kahn-Ackermann discusses his own cross-cultural experiences:

Cui Qiao: What do you think Beijing is lacking?
MKA: Beijing lacks - I'm not sure what it's called in Chinese, but it's the urban atmosphere of a major metropolis. Beijing has it all except for that particular atmosphere of its own. Shanghai can't compare to Beijing in many respects, and from a cultural perspective Shanghai is a desert, but it has that atmosphere, which you can sense if you're walking around. Beijing's problem is not one of size but one of space. It's empty, regardless of the area you're talking about.
SJ: Not the notion of emptiness in traditional Chinese culture, but geniune emptiness.
MKA: Pure emptiness.
SJ: There's no urbanity.
MKA: Right, no urbanity. I feel that the fundamental issue is that old Beijingers have a sense of mission. In the 70s, Beijingers could still feel that it was "my Beijing" - they "administered" the city; sure, they way they administered it was not by demonstrating, not like the citizens of metropolises in the west, where if you want to put up a tall building, a crowd will form immediately in opposition. Not that type, but it still was absolutely an identification with the city. No matter how large the city grew, you could have that sense of mission: this is my city, this is the city I want, this is where I was born, where I grew up, and I will die in this city. Today, because of Beijing's changes, that sense of mission is gone: these changes have nothing to do with me, I'm someone whose life has been transformed, entirely involuntarily. I feel that this is not a problem unique to Beijing, it's shared by all of China's major cities.

What interests me here is the sense that the physical transformation of the city has deprived its residents of the means to identify with their environment. Kahn-Ackermann doesn’t quite explain the difference between earlier change (‘No matter how large the city grew, you could have that sense of mission.’) and this more recent phase of development that has rendered the city empty, even as it is full of gargantuan building projects. Is it the scale of this latter development, that bears no relation to human proportions, that is so alienating?

I’m still flummoxed by the huge towers in the Central Business District. I can rarely find the entrance. Intending to join a friend for drinks in the China Bar at the top of the Park Hyatt in Guomao, I spent a half hour trying to locate the building when I was just across the road from it and another ten minutes pacing the perimeter of the building trying to find the entrance which, in case you need, is on the inside of the building complex. I just don’t know how to read these constructions.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

4th June Tiananmen

20 years ago the Chinese army began its violent crackdown on the Tiananmen demonstrations. Since last month, the internet censors in China have been curtailing access to websites such as Youtube and blogger (which is why it’s been difficult to update this blog) and Flickr, Twitter and more recently BBC news reports that refer to Tiananmen. The period is being referred to as Chinese Internet Maintenance Day, since many websites are closed ‘for routine maintenance’.
Of the many articles I’ve read about the situation, I was struck by this one in the The Nation which features the famous image of a lone man confronting the tanks on Changan Jie (there’s video footage of the same event on the Guardian website.

In April and May of 1989, people around the world were inspired by the protests in Tiananmen Square, then horrified when the June 4 massacre turned Beijing streets into urban killing fields. China has changed enormously in the twenty years since then, but the Communist Party's attitude toward 1989 has remained constant. It insists there were no peaceful protests and no "massacre," just "counterrevolutionary riots" that were pacified by soldiers who showed great restraint. It refuses to acknowledge the losses to relatives of the hundreds of victims, tries to keep young Chinese ignorant of what happened and encourages specialists in the West to stop dwelling on 1989.
This approach is part of a larger effort to change the image of the party, so that mention of its name does not bring to mind visions of the Red Guard of the 1960s, anti-Confucian rallies of the '70s or the iconic picture of the lone man confronting a line of tanks. Instead, party leaders would like it to be associated with skyscrapers, sleek department stores and refurbished Confucian temples. These pictures fit in better with the party's view of itself as a pragmatic organization that has moved China forward while honoring traditions, transformed cities into showplaces of modernity and raised the nation's international status and living standards. The 2008 Olympics, seen in this light, was the most expensive rebranding campaign in world history.

What resonates with me is the connection the article makes between the image of the lone figure and the image of ‘skyscrapers, sleek department stores and refurbished Confucian temples’. I’m not brave like that man in front of the tanks, and because I’m not brave, I can only stand or dance in front of the battalions of buildings which are somehow connected to the same totalitarian energy that drives a tank. When we performed in Beijing for the Dadao Live Art Festival in 2007, I didn’t perform on Tiananmen, but by sneaking on to the Olympic building site and dancing in front of the Bird’s Nest Stadium, I wanted to pay my cowardly homage to the lone individual who can stand in front of tanks.