Performance, Politics, Art, Dialogue and Twitter

Politics, Rambles, Theatre

This is a short reflection on publishing the #GiveUpArt Twitter essay as part of the #SOTAflash conference, which ran alongside State of the Arts 2011. I reduced an essay (forthcoming in an Arts-Activism reader from Silent City) to forty 120-character tweets, which I scheduled at three-minute intervals between 11.30 and 1.30 on the day of the conference. My original thought was that this would be a sort of “essay as event” intervention into #SOTAflash and SOTA itself. As it happened, expanded far beyond that to become something else: thanks to the people who were taking part, something more interesting.

I had originally planned not to do anything on Twitter while the essay was being published, but I began to receive so many replies, objections, engagements and arguments – and began to see so many other interesting things to talk about in the feed – that I ended up having multiple parallel conversations about the ideas of #GiveUpArt while the essay was being tweeted. I was getting swept up in currents of conversation around the hashtag. I began to feel quite overwhelmed by the participation, and spent the full two hours frantically reading and responding to the comments.

Because so many ideas were flying around and being argued under the #SOTAflash hashtag already, my Twitter essay became a small nexus of chatter amid a much wider conversation with many other nexuses. Nexii. Nexapodes. I did dominate that feed for two hours, inevitably, but far less than I’d originally expected and worried about. It was thrilling to know that my conversations were just some among many: that the curators of #SOTAflash had created a multi-level and highly participatory site of argument alongside and around SOTA itself. The result is that several participants at SOTA quickly recognised that everything happening on the conference fringe was far more interesting and relevant than the conference itself, in form as well as in content. For my part, I couldn’t begin to understand why anyone would pay money to listen to dull, centrist speakers and have heavily-structured conversations rather than take part in a fluid, chaotic, freely-accessible multi-platform argument taking place in both cyber- and meatspace. Of course SOTA was dull: the form set it up to be so. It’s hopeless to expect anything worthwhile to come out of a conference format so out of touch with trends and currents in the way people now think and create. A hierarchical, authoritarian format will produce thought hemmed in by those structures of power: a horizontal, anarchic format will produce a wild variety of dissent and passionate, provocative thought.

As for #GiveUpArt, well,  it became much more of a performance, much more of an event, than I’d originally expected: it was a series of stimulating interactions and conversations triggered by or taking place around the brief bursts of pre-planned thought, and that’s much more interesting than just publishing an essay in short snippets. As a result, I became much more of a performer, tweeting about my own frenetic tweeting, thanking people profusely, arguing more provocatively, enjoying the lights that were shining in my direction. Twitter just is this fascinating blur of writing and performance: it is writing-as-performance, or performance-as-writing. It is a real-time experience with a short-lived archive; readers/watchers are participating not-quite-simultaneously, or even several days after each other. Twitter’s texts are technically almost permanent (and can be made more permanent), but after a week they’re even less likely to be read than books in a library’s backstock. And even though an archive does exist, it’s really no more complete and accurate than an archive of a theatre production: you can see the script, the props, the film of the performance, the programme, the audience interviews, and still not really understand the feeling of being part of the event. Twitter, like so much of the internet, is the transitory masquerading as the permanent.

After the day, I’d intended to archive everything that was tweeted under the #GiveUpArt hashtag. But I got too busy and delayed for a few days, and now, as you can see, Twitter’s search archiving is so minimal that that conversation is no longer easily organised and archivable: to do so, I’d have to trawl through the personal feeds of everyone who participated and extract the relevant tweets, no longer accurately timestamped, and reconstruct the conversation as it happened. That’s far too time-consuming! – and the results would be incomplete and unsatisfying. But as I’ve implied, I’m almost glad it’s too much effort now to archive: I don’t think there’s really any suitable means of completely recording multidirectional Twitter conversations, and I don’t think such a recording would capture any relevant essence of the event. For a reader who wasn’t part of it, it would be like trying to listen in on a crackly audio recording of a busy argument; for a reader who was part of it, it would add nothing to the memory.

On the other hand, another version of the essay is soon to be published in print format, and I’m glad of that, too. It will be another aspect of the same project, in the way 2001’s different elements reflected and expanded on each other. A print essay is only minimally an event, just as a Twitter conversation is only minimally an essay – the two share aspects of each other, but are ultimately (and politically) different. I think I’ll find the print essay less immediately fulfilling than the Twitter conversation, but I also think I’ll remember it and what results more and for longer.

One thing I will record now is part a conversation which took place in a chat window while all the tweeting was going on. Its subjects are parallel to those of #GiveUpArt, just as it took place in parallel to the event, but I thought some readers might find it interesting. I’m the first speaker; the second is a Marxist anthropologist friend of mine, a comrade of protests, meetings, arguments and 12-hour tabletop RPG sessions.

12:42
It’s a bit intense
Trying to engage everyone who replies; difficult to keep up!

12:43
It got away from you. How exciting!
Creating through dialogue is quite exciting.

12:46
I fucken love it

12:46
This is why I’ve been watching your work with such interest. I knew you were thinking about such things when I was there, and I was just beginning to think about them.

12:50
The more I work with dialogue, the more I become convinced its a vital creative frontier.

12:50
Well working with it makes you realise how much all art (ignoring your essay, or at least its rhetoric) is dialogic, and merely conceals its origins.
Some of the comments around this are relevant:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7sei-eEjy4g
People accusing her of “ripping off” the Clash, vs a dialogic understanding of hip-hop.

13:01
Oh yeh, MIA loves pressing those buttons :-D

13:01
Well it’s the essence of hip-hop. There was an amazing paper at this autonomist conference I attended about how hip-hop is an act of creation in the commons.

13:02
And those are the roots of all poetry
Baba Brinkman’s thesis is that hip-hop is a return to the roots of folk poetry and performance

13:02
Well Negri would argue that all productivity is immediately production in common, and it takes juridical private property to convince us otherwise.

13:02
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBX_eKDABx0
http://www.babasword.com/writing/poetry/rhymerenaissance.pdf

13:03
Essay as event… Wonderful.
“Work can be liberated because it is essentially the one human mode of existence which is simultaneously collective, rational and interdependent. It generates solidarity. Capitalism and socialism have only succeeded in subjugating work to a social mechanism which is logocentric or paranoid, authoritarian and potentially destructive.” Negri and Guattari

13:08
Ooh nice

13:14
Damnit, I’m signing up for twitter.

13:17
Oh no!
You’ve buckled
It happens to us all eventually
Do you mind if I publish the bits of this conversation about #GiveUpArt in a reflections blog tomorrow?

13:19
Of course not.
Fuck ownership.
I’m pleased my work’s of some use.

What I’ve Been Doing

Personal, Poetry, Rambles, Site Stuff, Theatre

I find that, when I’ve had a lull in blogging, for whatever reason, it’s hard to write that return post. There is so much to say! So much I meant to write! A useful technique, I think, is simply to provide a short, unartistic summary post of things which have been happening to wipe the slate clean, clear the baggage to enable me to write good posts again. Which is what this is.

Things I’ve been doing

I have been in something of a fallow creative period — not barren, but just lying fallow, regaining my fertility, taking my time — instead spending my time contributing to wider projects. But, to disgustingly mix metaphors, I’m emerging from the cocoon, new shoots are showing, something’s brewing. I see myself starting some new performance and creative projects soon.

But I have been helping make an exciting and wide-ranging project happen at the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens: it’s called The Secret Grove, and it has involved taking over an often-forgotten section of the gardens, just behind the glasshouses, and turning it into a space for exploration and imagination, with an ecological twist. Our space has been filled with art installations, we have hand-built wooden yurts housing multiple creative and environmental workshops daily, and each day there are interactive performances embedded in trees, on lawns, and on benches around the space. You can turn up there any time during the day and something exciting — and sometimes chaotic! — will be happening.

I’ve also been working for the Edinburgh International Science Festival, training their street performers. Throughout the festivals this August, there will be street scientists with Christiania Bikes packed full of experiments for the public. They’re big, loud, smelly and fascinating; I’m proud of the work we’ve been doing together developing the show, and I think they’re a great piece of accessible and entertaining science communication. It’s been useful for me to hone my professional workshop skills as it becomes more and more clear that the way to survive as a performer and theatre artist is to get paid to run a lot of workshops. I’m gonna need to professionalise this site a wee bit more.

What else? I’ve had the occasional poetry gig, done odd little performances here and there, kept things smouldering. Read a lot, rediscovered comics, felt sometimes sad and sometimes astonished by the world. I’ve been doing what’s in front of me.

Things that are happening soon

First up, I’m doing a full set at Express Excess in Camden next Wednesday 18th, details coming soon to my poetry site. I’ll probably be hitting up the ever-brilliant and constantly-growing Chill Pill the night before. I have  brewing to start a new free Open Mic and Read-Easy season in Edinburgh as well, now that I’m here for the long run, so stay tuned.

Climate Camp is coming to the city on the 19th as well, of course, so that’s going to be consuming a lot of my time. I’ll be performing there, but also practising my facilitation my helping run massive consensus decision-making meetings: always exhausting, but often thrilling, the sense of genuinely discovering anew what true democracy can be. I’m reading David Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography at the moment, and it’s helping whet my appetite.

Come September, it’ll be time to get a large-scale theatre project of my own happening again. Happily, there’re a few things brewing. I’m talking with an old collaborator about developing plans for internet site-specific cybertheatre — intimate and surprising theatre performed in cyberspace — and I’ve plans to build on Open Source Theatre‘s cycle of work on property and capital, including the long-awaited debt project.

Meanwhile, what have I been thinking about? The purpose of theatre, of my life in performance, I suppose. (O delicious privilege!) At the moment Forest Fringe, the best place to be at the Edinburgh Festivals, is helping me with that a lot. Genuinely experimental performance, days of interaction and experience, so many opportunities to grow and think about art together with people who are committed, sincere and fun. I’m hoping to be writing more about that soon, keep my mind working, keep communicating.

Speak soon.

Hx

Things I’ve been thinking and reading about the internet recently

Personal, Poetry, Rambles, Theatre

1

I am not an internet sceptic. I am excited by the possibilities of the internet; I consume social media; I spend hours every day playing in the surf. I genuinely think we are in the midst of the greatest techno-social revolution since heavy industrialisation. But nor do I ride the waves of internet utopianism.

2

The latest effusion in internet utopianism is the idea of web 4.0, an amorphous and ethereal mess of ideas around cloud culture, artificial intelligence theory, and the politics of information distribution. I don’t think I understand it. I don’t think it understands itself.

3

Who Controls the Internet? is still a vital critique of the internet’s political dreamers, exposing the problems with the idea of net-borderlessness, pointing to how economic hegemonies and semiotic power-blocks can hold sway. But what I want to see now is a critique of the materiality of the internet, pointing to how it, like all advanced technologies, is threatened by extreme resource scarcity in this culture of waste.

4

Recent tweets:

The internet and its enthusiasts constantly aspire to escape their material trappings — the reality of wires, servers, resource extraction.
But the net can no more be freed from its material underpinnings than could Descartes successfully divorce mind from body.
Nevertheless, philosophers continue to pretend that reason is not embodied, and informational utopias always ignore resource scarcity.

5

Like any other technology, the possibilities of the internet are shaped by the social and economic conditions of its societies. This is not to say that the internet does not shape politics and economics – there is a cyclical relationship – but State and Capital have awesome power to control things. Technology is never neutral, but neither is it the most powerful agent in the game; the internet does have a certain potential to reshape our societies, but I feel that, at least at the moment, our societies have more potential to shape it.

6

Readers of the world unite! Seize the means of semiotic production!

7

If nothing else, we should be tremendously excited about the internet as a platform for performance. ARGonauts must break the barriers of advergames; new media theatre types must see more potential than Such Tweet Sorrow; ChatRoulette can be used for more than comedy. The internet is already a giant playground of freaks, geeks and automatons; let’s play some more interesting games now.

8

We should feel as though we are in the early days of a new artform. The internet is currently like Los Angeles in 1915; artists and vagrants are migrating there, fleeing punitive licensing and seeking the white heat of competitive creativity. We’re making nonsense that people in a hundred years (or fewer? Does art change at an exponential rate, alongside technology, or is it slowing down?) will only be interested in as historical research, but we’re just starting to produce lasting memories.

9

But this kind of thinking I find abhorrent. For those too tired or jaded to click on a link, that leads to a video about new ideas for e-readers, trying to find ways of using internet connectivity to enliven ebooks and foster social reading. But the result is to import the attention-deficit gimmickry that characterises the worst of the internet into the book form. I follow the work of the Institute for the Future of the Book quite closely, because I think we need to reimagine the book for this new platform (obv.), but this is a recipe for hyperactive disaster. I read books for a depth of concentrated experience, for an immersive and relaxing linguistic experience, not to gather statistics, or send short messages to friends, or to skittishly skip around sources, or any of the other things internet reading allows. There should be no doubt now that internet reading is reshaping our minds – we form connections faster, think abstractly better, but can’t concentrate as well, and can’t maintain attention for as long, to gloss crudely – and that book-reading shapes us differently. For me, the book, even an e-book, though I love the feel of paper, is an escape from the debauched madness of the internet. Let me keep something.