The manager of Strength Weekly would like to apologise for the lack of posts over the last calendar month. This was due to the editor’s mind becoming empty. The process of everyday thinking was not suspended so much as diluted. His thoughts were unexceptional. He considered presenting unexceptional thoughts in a way that would somehow excuse or disguise their lack of exceptionality. It was found that even thoughts of this especially ordinary nature were not forthcoming. This is not to say that things were not happening. Many things were happening. Interesting things.
The latest chapter in a a grimly unfolding drama is trailed in an article in The Guardian titled ‘Too late? Why scientists say we should expect the worst’, wherein respected climatologists agree that ‘carbon emissions (are) soaring out of control’. The piece opens with a description of the scene at a recent climate conference when Kevin Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, tells his audience about certain current findings that left ‘Even committed green campaigners …terrified.’
Anderson had every reason to be gloomy but there is a chance that, if he had purchased for his archives a copy of The Guardian containing the report, he might have had his mood pleasantly lifted. Folded round the paper’s G2 supplement is a sheet of wrapping paper for Christmas designed by Sienna Miller. It is the latest in a series of wrapping papers designed by people who are very famous today. Such as Johnny Depp. Johnny Depp designed a sheet of wrapping paper only the other day. Another famous person who designed wrapping paper on another day was Kylie Minogue. Kylie’s had ribbons on. Sienna’s had red lips on. They were probably her lips, there is no way of knowing for sure. And Victoria Beckham. She did one.
These wrapping papers. They are all shit. They are a disgrace. They are mad. I wouldn’t wrap my bottom in them.
When you are very famous there is a kind of light that shines all around you. The light means that you have so much value that it comes out of you. The light will light up everything that you do and give it value too. For example suppose you have had no training in anything. It doesn’t matter. Suppose for example you had had no training in graphic design or illustration or drawing or photography. Suppose you had no skills in these fields despite not having been trained in any way. That wouldn’t really matter.
I think Johnny Depp would be a very good surgeon. He is certainly very attractive. I think Victoria Beckham would be a good middle distance runner in the Olympic Games in London in 2012. She is certainly very well dressed.
It’s quite possible that training is overrated. And skill. You just need a sort of light that shines all around you.
In order to model human movement for incorporation into film animation Max Fleischer, in 1915, devised a system called rotoscoping that would allow animators to trace over live-action film. Koko the Clown was the first figure thus generated. The apparatus was refined over the decades and by the late 70s came to be used in such special effects as the lightsabers in the first three ‘Star Wars’ features. In the early 80s computers began to be used for the analysis of movement. The process involved attaching potentiometers to a body and using the output to drive computer animated figures for choreographic studies and clinical assessment of movement abnormalities.
A little later, to quote from this useful article, optical tracking systems were developed. ‘Optical trackers typically use small markers attached to the body – either flashing LEDs or small reflecting dots – and a series of two or more cameras focused on the performance space. A combination of special hardware and software pick out the markers in each camera’s visual field and, by comparing the images, calculate the three-dimensional position of each marker through time.’ By 1994 the operation was digitised and by 1996 could be seen comprehensively threaded through the effects in ‘Titanic’.
The technology continues to develop, of course, and increasingly assumes a cultural importance quite distinct from its technical achievements. Two of my students pointed out that the use of the ‘bubble suit’, worn by actors in current motion capture practice, features the actor transformed into a puppet for the purpose of modelling realistic movement for a puppet. The actor will enact the moves that are, effectively, imprinted on to the screen figure. The puppet thus animated will have movement capacities that border on the uncanny and will, in excitable circles, prompt the already fatigued assertion that ‘Computer Generated Imagery will soon replace real actors!’ We can dispense with this non-debate by coolly observing ‘It will never happen.’
What, however, is happening, in part due to neo-folkloric attitudes to CGI, is an inexorable process of abasement in relation to animated figures and their imagined power. Despite using movement that is not their own, the CGI figures have an efficiency that results in their being experienced, at some level, as a species of vampiric contender. Puppets and dolls in popular culture (get box-set here) have long been associated with having murderous designs on their unsuspecting human stewards (see definitive scholarly study here). The imprinting of these malignancies onto cartoon characters has been a slower process, impeded by the narratives and personalities attached to the colourful 2Ds masquerading as 3Ds – a cartoon villain is clearly villainous and therefore not to be found in any way uncanny.
At the point where borrowed or ‘captured’ movement becomes acceptably realistic, its bearer – the animated figure – becomes unsettling, regardless of character imprinting and physiognomy. It is more goblin than elf and, insofar as it seems to have substance rather than mere spirit, more zombie than spectre. If we persist with the fairyfication, then the animated figure is an embodiment of an advanced and complicated technology that may be viewed as a stealer of souls, a producer of doubles and an adept at the switcheroo previously practised by the fairies that took your baby away and left you with a spooky changeling. The industrial champions of CGI compound all this with their ‘soon be better than the real thing’ boastfulness.
The animation technologies are themselves embodiments of technological slave systems, in the sense that a machine or component may control another machine or component. To be controlled by a machine is to be forcibly machinised and might suggest a condition in which one’s movements were constantly surveilled or even captured. The term ‘motion capture’ is efficient, especially when shifted from the movies to the experience of having the status of a component.
As a result of curating and presenting David Gale’s Peachy Coochy Nites at ArtsAdmin’s Toynbee Studios Bar throughout the last year I have built up a personal arsenal of presentations. Since first writing about the Nites here I’ve been compering the evenings – they comprise a selection of six presenters each delivering a show that is precisely 6 minutes and 40 seconds long – and, on every occasion, composing a show myself. After the first couple I realised that I seemed to be pursuing certain themes in my own cooches and decided to let that tendency lead the subsequent shows.
Readers who can’t be bothered to use the links are advised that Peachy Coochy is an image and text format in which the presenter chooses 20 images which are projected for 20 seconds each. Each image is accompanied by 20 seconds of speech. Thus the thoroughly predictable 6 mins and 40 secs duration. Within this strict format imaginative variation is welcomed. I intro and outro the acts. We do six acts in an evening. There’s a laptop, a data projector, a big screen and a P.A.
The choice of topic is entirely down to the presenter, as is the approach to the format – as long as it doesn’t stray from the 20 x 20 bottom line. One of the things that makes the Nites hum is the remarkable range of the responses – people have sung, a physicist explained quantum theory, a bloke memorised his lines, shut his eyes and more or less managed to get the timings right, a naked artist fired surgical staples into her arm…
What couldn’t be predicted at the outset of the Nites was the sheer ingenuity and variety of responses to a decidedly severe set of constraints. Strength Weekly holds no torch for corsetry but it must be said that a tight squeeze really does bring out the best in everyday creative folk.
When I was asked to contribute to The City Wakes festival in Cambridge last month it occurred to me that I was in a good position to inflict on an audience a novel variant on the basic Peachy Coochy structure. I had six linked presentations at my disposal and could, therefore, join them up into one continuous 40 minute item. The density of my recurring allusions to the search for identity in a vaporising culture, Celine Dion, the virtues of the collapsible plastic packing case as a model for the early 21st Century self, Hertfordshire, doppelgangers, Amy Winehouse, fascist youth gangs, handguns, pale children and the sheer ugliness of Birmingham would become so much more telling in the new long form, I felt.
Installed in a room beside a church, I explained to the audience the history and background of the Cooch. I had on my lectern a glass of water to moisten the voice that would soon be committed to establishing the World Image & Text Delivery Duration Record. Would I get through with an acceptable URE (Unforced Reading Error) count? Would I neglect vocal expression in the interests of good diction?
Forty minutes later I realised how touching it was to have imagined that I would reach across for the glass of water, convey it to my mouth, sip from it then replace it without disrupting the minerally cruel and inexorable procession of images through the PowerPoint apparatus. It was an entirely dry run. The URE count wasn’t too bad – as one moves through the texts (nothing less than three and a half lines per image, nothing more than five) relations between the mind and one’s lips acquire an unforeseen tension and curious brick-like structures randomly obstruct the normally fluid lingual/labial interplay.
Because I didn’t invent it I can say that Peachy Coochy is a dandy little format – some presenters talk directly to the image, maintaining a literal connection, others caption humorously, some go for elliptical counterpoint and the film-maker John Smith asked to be mailed 20 images that he had never seen before then composed a connecting text titled ‘On the Relationship Between Power and Powder’.
And finally, The Guardian, here, catches a Peachy Coochy gig hosted and produced by Forced Entertainment.
My chair was about six feet from Anna Freud‘s couch. My first client, a 15 year old girl, came into the room. I suggested that she might either tell me about a recent dream or simply what was on her mind. I said that she should try to talk to me quite openly, letting go, if at all possible, of the usual censorship we impose on our everyday conversations. She started to tell me what was on her mind.
The scene should shift back now to a hillside outside Bath in 1979. The indefatigable and ingenious Natural Theatre of Bath was providing roadside entertainment for cyclists on a gruelling tour of the hills surrounding the city. The tour was organised by Bike Events, who were later to run the London to Brighton Bike Ride. As participants sweated the slopes they would encounter curious and diverting vignettes concocted by performers from the Naturals. I was asked to don a dark suit and sit at the top of a particularly grim hill beside a chaise longue. The chaise was concealed by hospital screens and I was assisted by a cheerful actress posing as a nurse. Each time a deeply exhausted cyclist crested the hill I would invite them to lie on the chaise for a psychoanalytic session.
A typical exchange ran like this:
Analyst: Just tell me the first thing that comes into your mind.
Cyclist: Puff puff puff.
Analyst: Why do you think you are puffing?
Analyst: Does this remind you of experiences you may have had earlier in your life?
Cyclist: Yes. The last time I was knackered.
Analyst: Do you think there is any significance in your use of the word ‘knackered’?
And so on. Good clean fun.
The scene now runs forward to Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, London. It is early September, 2008. The School of Life has had the street closed off in order to hold its Open Day. Sophie Howarth, indefatigable and ingenious Director of the School, has asked me to be a ‘street shrink’, based on my having told her about the Bath gig all those years ago. She has secured a handsome red velvet chaise longue, beside which I placed an armchair. The deal is to sit in the street and ask passersby if they would like a ten minute psychoanalytic session. A ticketing scheme has been worked out and analysands are invite to drop a quid in a tin if they want to. Eager not to be mistaken for a qualified therapist I had prepared a laminated card bearing the following information:
‘Dream interpretation and other psychiatric processes are tools used in certain psychological therapies. Therapists who use these methods in their work have usually received an appropriate training. I have received no training in any form of psychological therapy. I am not qualified to practice as a therapist nor do I wish to dispense any form of therapy. I will not, in the course of our conversation, suggest a course of action or give advice on how to act or what to do.’
“Clear enough,” I thought. As the street began to fill with potential clients I settled into my chair beneath a pleasant tree. A few feet away sat other School of Life personnel, handing out brochures and giving information on courses. They told everyone who approached them that the street shrink had left the building and was therefore available.
I had imagined that despite the orthodoxy suggested by the chaise longue the general outsideness of the setup might constitute a clue as to the degree of playfulness to be anticipated in any transactions that might ensue. I had no clear idea what that playfulness might involve but, as a street performer of some experience, I felt confident that an appropriate mode would pop up.
I saw twentythree clients in succession, for between 10 and 20 minutes each, with no breaks. At times it rained and we either whipped out the brollies or went inside. With one exception (a proper shrink!), every single client, despite reading the disclaimer as soon as they sat down, proceeded to disclose material of a personal nature that they considered to be problematic in some way. Some of the material was selected for its lightness – anxieties related to everyday decisions that the client would probably resolve without too much difficulty. Much of the material was of another order altogether. A failure to make friends, a fracturing relationship, a nervous skin condition, phobias, a philandering parent, life after rehab, an ill-advised affair with a dangerous person.
After the first two encounters I realised that there would be no playfulness that afternoon. Rather than think up amusing ripostes I had to buckle down, listen very carefully and, drawing on a fascination with psychoanalysis acquired in my mid-teens and subsequently reinforced with a lifetime’s reading, attempt to offer thoughtful responses. On three occasions clients furnished narratives that demanded rather more than I could offer. Feeling that the fundamental fraudulence of my position simply outweighed the permission given, I suggested that the client might wish to consult, in confidence, the School of Life’s own psychotherapist, a fully qualified professional.
After several hours the last ticket-holder had been seen and I took my leave. I felt entirely confused.
A few weeks later I received a call from Sophie Howarth. She put me on to Julian Rothenstein of the Redstone Press, who was launching his new book ‘Psychogames’ at the Freud Museum that evening. Would I do my shrink thing at the launch? But of course. A few hours later, having brushed my suit, I was down in Maresfield Gardens, Swiss Cottage, hoisting a white wine in a marquee in Freud’s back garden as the guests began to arrive. Julian had shown me round the rooms in the Museum so that we could select a suitably quiet space. I felt that this time we should strive for a modicum of privacy – we would sit in a room with the door open so that people could peek in. The laminated disclaimer would be pinned to the door.
I won’t pretend that we didn’t joke about using Freud’s couch, despite its being roped off from the public. We moved on, however, to Anna Freud’s consulting room and found it a more accommodating space. The couch – more of a divan, in fact – was along one wall and Anna Freud’s chair was nearby. Julian thought that the chair would come in handy until we noticed the cord strung between its arms, proclaiming its inviolability. We procured two less hallowed chairs and set them up at one end of Anna’s room.
I saw thirteen clients – including two sets of couples – in two hours. This time round I assumed that nobody would take me unseriously so, after ensuring that the client had read the disclaimer, I asked them “Are you okay with that?” When the client, invariably, assented I said “But that needn’t stop us from having an interesting conversation.” I felt pleased that I had come up with this formulation – I wasn’t some party entertainer with diplomas in charlatanry, I was a person with whom you could have interesting conversations. But hey – that’s enough about me!
Among the female clients were dreamers about friendships with women, losing teeth and cafes in disorder. I saw a young couple, two very young sisters, a young man in love and a novelist of my acquaintance who guffawed “You’re David Gale! You’re not a shrink!” I could only agree. The clients, however, seemed quite prepared to ignore such details as the absence of training and, as I had hoped, we had some extremely interesting conversations.
I gave a talk at ‘The City Wakes’ the other day. This is the week of events in tribute to Syd Barrett currently underway in Cambridge. Syd was a founding member of the Pink Floyd who lost his mind, probably due to an excessive intake of LSD, then spent the rest of his life in seclusion in his home town until his death in July 2006. I’ve written here and there about what Syd was like and some of the circumstances of his demise. For this occasion I decided to go wide and try to place him in a context of social aspects of the 60s that might have destabilised him. It’s titled ‘Roger, Syd & the Batman – the Dark Night of Cool‘.
An email from Jordan McKenzie, live artist and interventionist:
Well well well…it should have come as no surprise really but thought I should update you about my performance at Frieze. I have never had any trouble in terms of security at Primark, Big Brother, Northern Rock etc but at Frieze, an event that purports to bring cutting edge culture and art to London I was escorted from not only the ticket office but also Regents Park for queuing in an inappropriate manner! I managed 1 hour and 57 minutes before I was approached by two security guards who asked me why I was there. I replied that I was here to queue and they then asked me if I intended to buy a ticket. I replied that I was not really interested in the art and was just here to experience the queue. They then asked me if I was making a piece of art and I replied that I was not and that I just liked standing in queues and was not aware that I was causing any problems by doing this given that this was a designated area for queuing in. They then said that it was only a queue for people intending to buy a ticket and I asked them where in the ticket office it explicitly stated this. They seemed to have no answer for this and so I said that surely I was free to queue in an area that was designated as a queuing area. By this time other people were on their radios and I had obviously been labelled as a major queuing risk and a threat to the very fabric of the Frieze event judging by the way they were all running around and looking at me through the glass window. This happened in front of a perplexed audience of fellow queuers who were finding it hard to figure out why I could not stand in a queue and they could. After a rather circular, abstract and at times philosophical conversation about about what actually constituted a legitimate queuing action he finally threw his hands up in the air and said that he was not prepared to discuss this any further and that he and his chum were going to escort me off the premises.
Policed space…I should coco
We are driving through Holborn when a group of four or five young women, probably in their late teens, dashes across the road without checking to see if the lights are in their favour. They encounter oncoming traffic and start screaming. As they lunge onto the narrow island in the middle of the road they are shrieking and holding onto each other. One of them waves her right hand up and down in front of her face, making rapid fanning movements. My wife, referring to the fanning, says “I hate it when girls are like that.”
I venture that what we’ve just seen has its antecedents in Victorian times, when ladies would lose consciousness rather more frequently than is now the custom. For reasons that aren’t instantly apparent, teenage girls are emulating their 19th century ancestors in terms of a theatrical and gestural vocabulary of hysterical prostration. In this case, the theatricality serves as shorthand – the girls don’t actually faint, they behave as though they are about to, then fan themselves back to a state of coolness. It’s doubtful that they ever really thought that their conscious state was in jeopardy, more that a demonstration of this possibility to their friends will serve to reinforce certain shared values of the group.
What is it that these febrile teens are experiencing then? Have they become enfeebled in some way that facilitates vasoconstriction, tachycardia and hyperventilation? Surely not. So how come they have picked up on a behaviour that went out of fashion in the early 20th century? People still faint, of course, but generally not in ways that are primarily designed to signal their specialness. It was certainly the case that Victorian fainting was seen as an aristocratic pursuit, a marker of sophistication, delicacy and privilege, and to faint was to assume these distinctions. But given that our teens are not noted as Victorianists their swoony affectations must derive, despite their 19th century hue, from rather less historically distant sources.
I blame teen television. American and Australian early evening teen series feature a degree of hystericisation that makes standard soap melodrama look like CCTV in a bank. If the teen ejaculation “Oh/my/God!” signals the onset of sensations akin to those experienced by the hippy when intoning “Far/fucking/out!” then we are merely in that part of the world where the mightiness of phenomena threatens to flatten the flimsy thing that is the adolescent subject. When, however, this suggestibility is metabolised in the script meetings of youth TV it transmutes into a ludicrous nerviness that jumps with tremulous excitability between zonk-out and martinettish mastery.
Such is the scarcity of psychic spaces in which to express the vertigo induced by the busy-ness of existence that young people, according to the etiquettes of teen TV, will form extreme relationships with the materiality of the world: young women will vaporise and young men will become hard. Both modes are covered by the popular cry “It’s a knock-out!” Both modes have their basis in real teen behaviour but, under the guise of endorsing this behaviour, teen TV consistently delivers a caricature that turns the teen inside out so that the visibility of the nervous system – like a plastinated Gunther von Hagens exhibit – is seen as more important than its role in content delivery.
Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker’s ‘Rosas’ dance company is presenting, at Sadler’s Wells in London, the ‘Steve Reich Evening‘ of works inspired and accompanied by the music of the eponymous composer. The choreography that once seemed both an elegant critique and, paradoxically, an enhancement of cold machinism, now informs pieces that feel like curios from a bygone era in which dances with the machine were viewed as correctives to hyper-rationality. The programme opens with an eloquent yet eventually imploding image: two microphones, suspended from long cables, swing like pendulums between two speakers, creating feedback noises each time they pass through the speakers’ active field. As the mics start to swing out of phase so do the feedback noises move from harmony to discord then, as the pendulum swings reduce, the mics move more or less together and the noise reharmonises even as the system winds down.
The piece is Steve Reich’s ‘Pendulum Music’, one of his earliest minimalist works, composed in 1968. The episode last about five minutes and is, at first, beguiling. The simplicity is enjoyable and the swinging microphones seem to have their own agency as they suck notes from the speakers. We are watching machines at play and we are captivated by them. The machines are indifferent to us but they are uncanny.
This period of enchantment lasts about two minutes, at which point it becomes apparent that it might take the pendulums several minutes more to come fully to rest. An avant garde moment supervenes, provoking, in this viewer’s mind, a thought along the lines of “Oh no, we’ve got the idea about our relationship to technology and we are now being punished by an aesthetic of needless protraction.” Mercifully a performer eventually cancels the swings with his hands and we move directly into ‘Marimba Phase’, a Reich piece for two marimbas in which much the same sorts of issue are reprised within a more complicated (and, by comparison, lusher) minimalist frame.
The concerns with technology would not, and could not, have been framed in the composer’s mind back in the early 70s with the same urgency as they are today. Keersmaeker, nonetheless, would appear to feel that the music, deployed by her as dance scores, has its eloquence for an early 21st century audience and has produced two new works for the programme. Certainly the meticulous iterations of her female dancers (less so with the men) command respect and there are playful ruptures in some of the pieces that suggest that well drilled, mathematicised ensemblism is indeed not a commendable prescription for a social programme.
The trouble is, the work is hopelessly out of date. It – or its minimalist equivalents – became obsolete at the point of 9/11 and achieved the status of a museum piece in the course of the last three weeks. It’s a bit much to expect Sadler’s Wells, which probably has a programming lead-time of at least a year, to oblige us with a polished commentary on the collapse (or, to borrow the euphemism of the moment: ‘the unwinding of the excesses’) of Western capitalism as it is actually unfolding in the banks of nearby Upper Street, but it must be said that suddenly the rigour, the chilly economy, the repetition, the cycling and recycling that characterise the work feel like semaphore from the inmates of a bubble in time. As a consequence, the work acquires a nostalgic charm, consoling us with the suggestion that a better world is to be found within the hygienic severities of number, pattern and calculable return.