Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Residency in Cambridge Pt.2: Finnegans Wakes
Finnegans Wake: Ventriloquent Agitations
The speedboat steered towards disaster seciton of the residency.
The attempt was deceptively simple enough: try to get Finnegans Wake through new throats whilst miscegenating objects in the same splace.
On Thursday 4th, I led a 'workshop with close friends (who else would want to attend one of these things at the end of term?). The last thing we did involved everyone (but me) reading from and playing with Finnegans wake. I inserted labels into a copy of the book with words like "fall" "homunculus" "stomach" "ventriloquise" and "miscegenate" written on them. Being a 'ventriloquent agitation' (FW, 56), rather than a 'performance' or 'improvisation', material was literally 'agitated', as in the way the OED describes agitation as 'the mental tossing of a matter to and fro'. I wanted something that has existed for so much time inside my skull, to be tossed about in a room with other people.
It was an indulgence to say the least.
But on that day, my (mostly) sceptical colleagues played along with the whim and produced some interesting doings. Despite the apparent formlessness of everything that was happening, things were remarkably tied together (aside from Kirstin's proclivity towards the spool of string) by the voices that spluttered, delivered and refused the text. This is a text that rarely instructs you how to read, yet due to its delusions of mythology, it can often determine a particular, grandilquent and ultimately pathetic tone. But when someone like Jeremy Hardingham flicks through the pages, beginning with a cod Irish accent flattening into something which quite simply takes the piss, the joke of the matter really seeps out.
This book shouldn't be read with reckless abandon, but it should be abandoned, it will always be abandoned because it can never be finished. A performance of it will always be an abandonment in some way. There was a point when Jeremy began reading, probably one of the most famous passages in the book, the tale of the Mookse and the Gripes, at which point he violently spat at it and flicked to another page. Afterwards he told me that he starting making some of it up whilst Kirstin tied him to the lecturn with string.
Is it frustration? tedium? disgust? does the text agitate its reader as well as itself? I thought that this could be, out of all this impossibility, an entry point into a performance of Finnegans Wake. A series of abandonments, agitations and revulsions. As well as the love that is always there whenever someone generously offers to read it.
However, I should have left it at that and let these thoughts sink in. A week later I attempted to recreate the agitation in the Miscellaneous Theatre (?) Festival, but this time with strangers from the audience.
I outlined (what I thought was) a simple structure that would lead into a crescendo and then descend back to a single reading voice. It was a large audience and they'd already been there for 3hours (and there was at least another 3 to follow), and people did not hesitate to participate.
The long and short lesson to be learned: the gift of freedom can be an ugly prison.
I was entirely open to 'anything' happening, so politically I don't regret the 'performance'. But there was a part of me that lost faith in humanity as I saw people sawing my objects in half and mindlessly dropping flour everywhere. I am, of course, entirely to blame for encouraging such directionless squalor and my vagueness in my introduction, "You will be given a label with a word which you can regard or disregard as you please", didn't help to dictate any kind of ethical expectations. But ultimately I was disappointed in the general lack of respect that took place. It's one thing to tie some one up with string, but it's another to confront another persons objects (whether physical or mental) with deliberate violence. Apart from the examples above, I can't really pin point specific actions but it was more the violent absence of communication that was quite disturbing.
Alot of this does depend on circumstance, the mood of the room , the selection of volunteers, what had come before and what was to follow; and perhaps I did waste alot of people's time. But despite the failure, it was a valuable, ugly experience which was necessary for figuring out what I want to do with Finnegans Wake in the future.
Finnegans Wake: A Solo Droma
The quieter, solitary route into 'performing' with the Wake.
Following a sketch for a 'Ten Minute Tone Performance' that I had made a few weeks before, I gathered some materials (A flower, some eggs, water, two puppets (Which I had made as Albany and Cornwall from Unfolding King Lear), and a large hardback book, the Complete Lewis Carroll), and then I recorded an audio piece to accompany some tabletop object manipulation.
Whilst listening to the audio and going through the actions Jonny came into the studio and watched. Afterwards he told me that it was far more engaging watching me perform to myself, with headphones, than if he could hear the audio that I had composed. I agreed (half because I thought the audio I had made was pretty mediocre), and it became part of the performance.
Essentially, the little performance attempts to depict the skeleton of the Wake through symbolic objects (e.g. The egg for HCE, water for ALP, the flower for Isabel and the puppets for Shem and Shaun). But the outcome was not to effectively describe or represent Finnegans Wake to an audience but to present a creator doing Finnegans Wake, exploring the many ways of treating and ultimately cracking an egg. My favorite moment involved using a cracked egg as a mouth which plucked petals from a geranium and eventually devoured itself as the pressure of the bites gradually crushed the shell.
It's hard for me to really assess the piece as its so introverted. In a way, it doesn't really feel like a performance, or more precisely, it doesn't feel like I'm really 'showing' anything, but simply 'doing' something in front of an audience. In a way, the absolute extreme opposite to the Ventriloquent Agitation in which the audience are asked to participate.
But did I forget about the audience entirely? How can a performer actually 'forget' an audience?
I think there's a value in the act of giving something to the audience, even if it is just a series of solitary actions. An audience doesn't have to be physically dragged into an action in order to feel part of it.
But ultimately, with a text like the Wake, which will always seem to be a 'members only' kind of experience, how far can an audience be included in work made around it?
That's the next (series of) question(s) for the project.
How should we consider an audience if we are ultimately abondoning a text in front of them? How privy to this experience can they be? And how far can they 'understand by enjoying', as Gertrude Stein would put it, whilst retaining the inevitable sense of bafflement and frustration that the text inevitably produces on everybody in the room?