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McBurney’s Encounter: Real-Time Complicity

simon

You are complicit. Or, you could be. We say this phrase from a stance of pure innocence. You didn’t personally commit an evil act, but some of your actions and attitudes are so resonant with this evil, that you must be complicit. Because I am not complicit, I can say that you are. But complicity is a slippery thing. It jumps the gaps and implicates us when we least expect it.

I like this definition:

Involvement as an accomplice in a questionable act or a crime.

As an “accomplice” your participation may be direct or indirect, but what I particularly like is this idea of a “questionable act.” An act of uncertainty—is it an evil act or not? “The Encounter?” Is it a questionable act?

We all have the opportunity to be complicit, in real time, on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, at 7:30pm GMT (11:30am PT). That’s when Simon McBurney’s extraordinary theater company, “Complicite” will perform “The Encounter” via live stream.

The cutting-edge technology of the virtual reality headset attempts to give you a virtual world in a bottle. But what McBurney and Complicite offer is more than that, they’re playing with the stuff of reality itself. The audience is required to wear a headset, but in this case, it’s a pair of headphones.

“…my hand, groping around the universe, has torn a corner open… why did I tear the corner open, if I’m not prepared for the encounter?”

Twenty years ago Simon McBurney was given a book.

Written by a Romanian who escaped the Ceaușescu regime to reinvent himself as a Los Angeles screenwriter, the book, Amazon Beaming, tells the story of photographer Loren McIntyre, who, in 1969, found himself lost amongst the remote people of the Javari Valley, on the border between Brazil and Peru. It was an encounter that changed his life: bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus.

Complicite’s technical team has wired the performance space with 600 pairs of headphones. Simon McBurney performs to a microphone that looks like your head. He whispers in this ear, then he moves around the space, and whispers in the other ear. (If you tune in to the live stream, be sure to wear headphones. That way you can experience “spooky action at a distance.”)

Here is a clip from The Guardian to give you an idea of what it’s like:

Judged purely as a sonic experiment, the show is an astonishing technical feat. Amiably chatting to the audience and asking us to put ourselves in the mind of McIntyre, McBurney asks us to don headphones that relay information from a binaural microphone. This results in a complex aural mix of live and recorded sound. At one point, we hear the whirr of the Cessna aircraft that deposits McIntyre in the jungle. At another, McBurney simulates the sound of walking through the forest by trampling on a mass of recording tape. But the heart of the story concerns McIntyre’s encounter with the nomadic Mayoruna tribe, and his dependence on his close relationship with the head shaman, known as Barnacle, with whom he communicates in a way that transcends language.

This is what real-time technology has the capability to create. But technology only gives what we ask of it. McBurney and the Complicite team ask for the moon, the stars, and the jungle. A work of this magnitude begs the question, who should be asking technology for the next new thing? Should it really be the technologists themselves?

The Allure of “Is She Available?”

igor-goldkind
 

It’s a book of poetry, although in it’s most complete form, it’s not exactly a book. It’s more of a CD-ROM, if there were such a thing anymore. You could describe it as a multimedia presentation with words, animated images, music, comic strip panels and recitations. Igor Goldkind’s new publication “Is She Available?“, despite its intentional defiance of category, probably should be called poetry.

Full disclosure: I’ve counted Mr. Goldkind as a friend for almost four decades. This reading is of the text, a little of my friend, and the journey of a poet.

Perhaps the best example of poetry making in this mode would be the work of William Blake — the poet, painter and printmaker. Blake was also a technologist. He invented relief etching to combine words and imagery on to the same printing plate. When we read his poetry today, for the most part, we read it extracted from its original context — simplified as though we were looking at a web page in “reader view.” The poem’s text is transformed into its most legible and conservative form. The images are removed and the typography tamed. Although we find it fascinating, critics have trouble producing a close reading of a work that broadcasts on so many different channels. Film, or video game, criticism may come closest to accounting for all the levels.

This reading will focus on the text of “Is She Available?”, but there’s much more in this work that merits investigation. Return visits to view, and review, the work from different angles will be rewarded.

 

odysseus and sirens4
 

I put these poems into the larger frame of a poet’s journey. Joseph Campbell called it the Monomyth, or the “Hero’s Journey.” The poet leaves home, wanders and experiences the world, and then returns home, both changed and unchanged. For this poet, home was San Diego, California, when it seemed like the city lacked everything. It was a time before the Internet and corporate franchising made every place much the same. Looking outward, the rest of the world appeared filled to the brim — the location of danger, culture, and life. I’m going to examine four parts of the text that bring this theme into relief.

Whatever the format, the reader will be faced, first of all, with the title. The work is called “Is She Available?” Who is this “she?” Is “she” that obscure object of desire? Is she a lover, a daughter, mother, or perhaps she’s the muse of poetry itself. Whoever she is, she’s absent. There’s a separation, an aesthetic distance from which she’s viewed. The phrase also gives us a sense of her allure, her magnetism. At the outset of the poet’s journey, “she” may well be the call of the road — the as yet unfulfilled promise of the wider world.

 

peter-wendy
 

In the poem “What Peter Said to Wendy” we see the mechanics of desire, and of the journey. If desire were to be fulfilled, then the journey would be over before it had even begun. For the journey to continue, the object of desire must be desire itself — the desire of desiring. In the story of Peter Pan and Wendy Darling, Peter resides in Never Never Land. It’s a place where time idles in childhood reverie. Wendy knows at some point she must return to the world. Peter knows that he needs to give Wendy something she can take back, even if he can’t follow her there.

From “What Peter Said to Wendy”

Fear not my audacity Wendy.
I do not care for your heart, as you might think, I care for mine
And the reflection of truth’s desire I see hiding
in the forest of your eyes

It’s in the journey that the contours of the poet’s life come in to focus. Each of the poems in the volume encapsulate a moment along the path. Textures that were invisible in the youth of small town Southern California are now clearly visible. Family connections received and created take hold with real and vital force. There are battles with daemons both internal and external, and the poet tries on a series of masks to see how they fit. Think of it like a medicine man tasting all of the plants in the surrounding landscape to get of sense of their effect on the human mind and body. There’s nothing more real than this.

 

Berlin-Wall-Liesen-Strasse
 

At the far edge of the journey, the poet encounters a mirror image of his starting point. For a long time San Diego felt like a very large village. Perhaps, it’s a city now, but it remained a small town for the longest time despite its ballooning population. At first walls were built to keep the poet in, and he had to escape. Now, in this village out in the world, they’re built to keep him out. In the poem “Dry Stone Walls”, he encounters the narrow attitudes that first inspired his journey into the wider world.

You can’t build a wall round a village
You can try
You can stack honeyed stone upon stone, fashion judgement upon judgement,
into a long pretty barrier of decorative limestone
to keep the outsiders out and the insiders in
But you can’t build a wall round a village
the sun and the wind
will always find their way in

In the prototypical “Hero’s Journey”, the hero engages in a climactic battle and emerges victorious. This moment signals the change that allows him to return home. In this work, it’s the poem “Dry Stone Walls (You Can’t Build a Wall Round a Village)” that serves this purpose. The battle that he didn’t wage at home is fully engaged here. And it’s not that Frankenstein’s Creature somehow turns round and defeats the villagers, with their torches and pitchforks, but rather like “the sun and the wind”, the poet can now come and go as he chooses. The walls don’t and can’t keep the wider world at bay. The narrow attitudes of the village have lost their force, and the atmosphere of the wider world has equalized with his point of origin. San Diego has become a part of the wider world; the spell has been broken.

 

 

gullivers_travels_ships
 

The poem “San Diego Bay” marks the poet’s return. Filled with the experiences of the world, he is gigantic compared to the young man of so many years ago. San Diego Bay is now the size of a bath tub, and the giant poet washes off the dust of the road in its waters.

San Diego bay… Oh San Diego bay
Your leaden toy war ships cast a heavy grey cloud
on my sunlit-blue sky return.

San Diego bay… San Diego bay
You rounded sheet of crinkled foil at six AM in the morning looking out, looking in, at the sheet of this world, I bathe in you now.

San Diego bay
San Diego bay
You’re my Dirty
bathwater
now.

Igor Goldkind’s “Is She Available?” is filled to the brim with sparkling and challenging poetic sketches forged during his travels. The e-book is a thrill ride that’s built up layer-upon-layer on a bedrock of poetic text. This collection of poems isn’t the well-behaved straight lines of text you may be used to; they explode into sound, music and image; refusing the standard-issue poetry container.

The form of this “book” is another dimension of the journey these poems take us on. The physical form of the poems, their inscription on a multimedia surface, stops the reader’s internal voice from assuming an open-mic night, timid, confessional, “poetry voice,” and demands something more. It’s a loud book and may not be appropriate for reading in a quiet library. In fact, one of its more challenging technical aspects is figuring out the dynamic range of the poem’s sound. There may be a temptation to let the “book” read itself to you. But to take in its full effect, you’ll need to perform it yourself, at full volume.

Corporate Team Building: The Devil’s Staircase

Fintan O'Toole has a piece in a recent New York Review of Books called, “Beckett in Love.” He starts the piece, not with love, but with failure. Not an uncommon gambit when ruminating about Samuel Beckett. O'Toole begins with the point of contact most familiar to the person least familiar with the author. It's a favorite quote of the entrepreneurial set because it resonates with a strategy of dogged determination.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

The quote is from the late work “Worstward Ho.” In an age where we thirst for “context,” except when it doesn't suit our purposes, O'Toole goes on to explain the larger context of the quote.

“Fail better” (which I recently saw on a recruitment advertisement for a financial services company) is followed a few lines later by a reminder that, for Beckett, the phrase is an exhortation, not to keep trying until you succeed but to keep failing until you fail completely: “Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.”

The popular form of the quote is plucked from Beckett's “Worstward Ho” in an attempt to turn failure into just another strain of pre-natal success. Beckett, on the other hand, only found his own voice by delving deeper and deeper into failure, loss, exile, and poverty. It's fair to say that Beckett found a form of humor in these depths, but it isn't the free and superior laugh of the successful entrepreneur — the master satisfied with a job well done after several setbacks. Nor is it the comedy of bringing the high and mighty to earth, rather it's the laughter of the lowest when the epiphany strikes that there may not be a “bottom” to hit.

One imagines the corporate team building exercise where the high-priced enthusiasm consultant leads the bright-eyed group of employees through a visualization.

You know that dream where you're falling? Take yourself to that place right now. You're falling and falling. You begin to panic. Surely you'll stop soon. Perhaps you'll begin flying. But no, you fall and fall. What happens when the bottom comes? Terror sets in. It will be the end. It doesn't come. The exquisite disorientation of falling continues on and on. Numbness. And then, a moment when the absurdity of your situation emerges. You smile inwardly as you consider the notion that there may be no bottom to hit.

 

Environmental Theatrics: Top Secret Crypto

I'm not saying there is such a thing, and no one could prove otherwise. But if there were some sort of new underground forming, it would have a “Fight Club”-like motto. The first rule of the new underground is that you don't talk about the new underground. In fact, no one even calls it that because it doesn't have a name yet. It may never have a name. Forget I even mentioned it.

Of course, this particular incident was revealing, but only if you were able to tune into the hidden channel it was broadcasting on. Now that the event itself is safely behind us, I can tell you a few details. It was a series of performances by a unit called “The Collected Works” in San Francisco. Untethered to any particular performance venue, this group commandeered the Old Mint building for an environmental theater performance of Jean Genet's “The Balcony.” This information is on a need-to-know basis and should not be passed on to anyone.

The Old Mint's basement was the site of the play's opening three scenes featuring the Judge, the General and the Bishop. Underground, hidden, locked away from the revolt happening at street level, these characters obsessively repeated their fetishes in strict rituals performed in various chambers of the brothel. The audience wandered from one scene to the next feeling as though they'd walked in on the middle of some very private moment. Then, just when a sense of comfort and rhythm was beginning to take hold, an alarm bell rings. An alarm clock, a wake-up call, a harsh reminder that the time for this session is up. It's time to leave the underground cells and return to the real world upstairs.

In scenes unfolding in grand room after room, the audience witnesses the business of the brothel, the protection provided by the police, the unfolding revolution surrounding the building, private fantasies transforming into public power, and finally the birth of the Chief of Police into the canon of fetishes. Like the others, the Chief of Police is an expression of a desire that wishes to remain unfulfilled, and thus remain desire in the form of “desiring.” The Bishop, the Judge and the General are all medicines that cause the illness they are meant to cure. Preserving the capacity to repeat a ritual in the private chambers of the brothel is echoed in the public halls of government, society and power. The play attempts hold up a very large mirror.

The performance was breathtaking in the sheer size of its conception, and in the difficulty and risk of selecting Genet's text. The performers and the performance inhabited and transformed the dusty and neglected space of the Old Mint building. In environmental performance, there's a tricky moment as the audience moves from space to space to witness the next scene. There is no break in the action, no pause for the logistics of movement, the performance continues even as the audience gathers in the next space. The key rhythmical moment is when the moving audience isn't fully settled in the new location. They aren't sure where to stand or sit, they may not even be clear in what part of the room the action of the play will take place. Suddenly the performance sparks to life and the scene begins. The audience, not yet feeling itself to be an audience, is transformed and pulled into the urgency of the narrative. These performers were masterful in creating each new performance space as the play progressed.

Let us assume that you didn't witness any of the performances in this particular series. For the most part the local arts and entertainment media, to the extent such a thing still exists, was oblivious to the event. While this performance of Jean Genet's “The Balcony,” by The Collected Works was a public performance, it was hidden in plain site. It occupied two floors of a large public building in the middle of downtown, but was largely invisible. The two week run sold out every performance, with some people returning several times. For work like this to prosper, it's important that you keep quiet about it. Don't tell all your friends, don't share this blog post, and don't hope that this goes mainstream.

If we were to talk about this theater collective and it's performances, we'd have to acknowledge that plays by Gombrowicz and Genet are not mainstream. They aren't supposed to be for everybody. Any future performances are on a need-to-know basis. Attend only if you must.

Environmental, or site specific, performance creates a very rare aesthetic experience for these times. In this age of screens and couches, it's a given that a certain kind of distance and separation is required to create an aesthetic experience. The fourth wall is institutionalized in the form of a sheet of glass separating you from the “content” on your device. Interacting with a performance is limited to backchannel snark inscribed on to a real-time social network stream. Alternatively, performances like “The Balcony,” if there were such performances, are strangely intimate. A performance space is shared by the audience and the performers and divided up on the fly in brief moments of stasis before transforming and renegotiating the territory all over again. There's a give and take that demands a conscious creation and recreation of aesthetic distance from moment to moment as the play moves through the site.

I'm counting on you to keep this secret. It's not as hard as you might think. People see what they want to see. Sometimes the simplest mask will keep hidden what seems perfectly obvious and public. Remember, this is top secret crypto. Your eyes only…

 

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