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.

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

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

I fucken love it

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.

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

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:
People accusing her of “ripping off” the Clash, vs a dialogic understanding of hip-hop.

Oh yeh, MIA loves pressing those buttons :-D

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.

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

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


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

Ooh nice

Damnit, I’m signing up for twitter.

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?

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

On Launching Inky Fingers

Events, Poetry

Inky Fingers, the new Edinburgh event series set up by me and Alice Tarbuck, launched last night. I was pretty highly strung in the couple of hours leading up to the launch, darting around Forest pushing tables around, tapping the microphone, writing things on bits of paper, lighting candles – pretty familiar behaviour for anyone who’s run events. Truth is, we really didn’t know how it was going to turn out. Our feature acts were stunners, we had a full list of signed-up open mic performers, and the Facebook attendance figures looked good. But you never really know until it happens.

Right now I couldn’t be happier. Not only did everything go smoothly, Forest was packed literally wall-to-wall with a massively enthusiastic audience, the open mic readers were really strong, of a very high standard overall, the night went smoothly, and as people left Forest we were thanked over and over for having run a great night. But most importantly for me, we saw a real diversity — in age, background, style, content — of readers, and several of them confessed that it was their first time reading.

That’s the most important thing for me, because the reason I wanted to set up this series, the reason I love doing Open Mic nights, is that I really very strongly believe in writer and performer development. I love what creating and performing can do for people — it helps them find a voice to talk about what’s important, allows them to channel emotions into creativity, gives people confidence, allows us to make our own entertainment. I hate the idea that the arts could ever be made inaccessible, and I hate the assumption that professionals make the best or only significant art, that art that springs from the community doesn’t need our support and attention, isn’t among the most important we create. I’m often most delighted by performances at open mic nights, and I’m never happier than when facilitating others’ creativity. (That’s why I’m a theatre director, I suppose, and why I believe in interactive theatre.)

So,  a successful night all round. Of course, we made some mistakes, and we’ll learn from them. I suppose it’s pretty exciting that from such a strong start we’ve still got loads of space to get better, loads of opportunities to make stronger, more entertaining and more worthwhile events. We’ll be back with another open mic in a month, but before then we’ve a Writers’ Group, providing a space for people to hear their words read and get feedback. I’m looking forward to it. I hope to see and hear some of you there.

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.