The Artist is Present

Performace artist Marina Abramovic’s most recent show The Artist is Present at MoMA. Beautiful documentary if you get a chance to watch it. Simplicity and challenge of ‘just sitting’. It is a static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. She holds eye contact with anyone who comes to sit down… and the piece lasted for 736 hours and 30 minutes…!

Marina Abramovic is a famous Serbian performance artist based in New York, who began her career in the early 1970s. Active for over three decades, she has recently begun to describe herself as the “grandmother of performance art.” Abramović’s work explores the relationship between performer and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind.


national theatre, Port. Simon Stephens


National Theatre interviews and trailers on you tube.  Recent clips include Port by Simon Stephens and the National Theatre at 50.

katsuya kamo exhibits 100 couture headpieces

katsuya kamo exhibits 100 couture headpiecesImage

Our society is doomed….?


“I spend an inordinate amount of time going from one black rectangle to the next — whether it’s a smart phone or a TV screen or a laptop — and it wasn’t the case six years ago. The way you spend a lot of your time, the way you connect with other people, the way you communicate with other people, that’s fundamentally changed in a short period of time.” Charlie Brooker, The Guardian.
I came across this image this morning in a post titled, ’23 pictures that prove that society is doomed’. This image depicts a group of students leaving senior school for the last time.
Dependence on screens has been a big topic for sometime, in sociological and theatrical circles. Check out Philip Auslander’s ‘Liveness’ which discusses both the pitfalls and victories of technology from a philosophical point of view and in relation to performance.

we think

The online community is rife with opinions which re-instate the democratic, innovative and creative potential which smartphones and tablets can add to our lives. Charles Leadbeater is a pioneer for such a viewpoint, which is brillinantly summed up in this animation, We Think :
Whilst a lot can be said for freedom of information and accessibility –our society’s dependence on technology, and screens in particular, has become an irreversible feature in our society. Young children and babies are fascinated by the stimulating colours bursting from screens and tablets, whilst there is an argument that as a result we are less critical, and have shorter attention spans and are actually less able to think due to the saturation of information at our fingertips.
This brings me to performativity – by no means an easy topic and one which has been tackled by performance studies scholars for decades now. Put simply, performativity is concerned with the construction of identity and how we behave differently according to the context in which we’re in. Charlie Brooker neatly sums up how performativity relates to our online selves, our personal web presence and attraction to demonstrating how successful we are;
“I don’t quite understand the need to share every waking moment. I don’t understand when people tweet something like, “Just had a brilliant evening out with X, Y and Z. Good times!” I just sort of think, “What are you doing?” I sort of think: “you cant really be having a good time if you’re telling everyone about it”. To what extent are you living your life and to what extent are you performing your life to other people? Pictures on Facebook streams of people looking happy at parties, out in nightclubs… But surely if you’re having that good of a time, you’re not posing for photos?”Charlie Brooker’s series, Black Mirror, available on 4OD is a fantastic insight into our interdependence on technology and its darker sides. Particularly relevant now if you consider the recent revelations concerning privacy, spying and personal data in the PRISM system, as disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The predictions shown in the film Minority Report may not be too far from the truth…


Such thorny topics are often disseminated and examined artistically through the performance work of Blast Theory. Their approach to pervasive gaming, where they bring together gaming, performance and technology and place the audience member in a position of control, where they can define their own experience offers a fantastic case study for anyone studying spectatorship, participation, digital art and so on. What their work does, in my opinion, is bring together the online self and the real self, the self in the street, surrounded by other people rather than the online self, settled and isolated in a bedroom.

young love
So do you think our society is doomed?

The iconic image…

Stephanie Sinclair's photograph of child brides in Yemen

This image took my breath away when I saw it last year at the ‘World Press Photo Exhibition, 2012’ at the Southbank Centre. It has become something of a ritual – a neat, beautiful and often distressing experience which captures the breadth of news and events which take place annually across the world. There are always several images though which demand more time and focus and which compel me to stay rooted to the spot; the iconic image, ‘which carries an obvious meaning, while at the same time hinting at another idea which is less obvious, but possibly more significant….An icon then is two things at once; it is simultaneously an image and an idea; it is both a sign and symbol.’ (Evie Salmon)
The image above depicts two child brides in rural Yemen with their husbands. Tahani, the girl in pink, is 8; her husband Majed is 27. Ghada, in green, is also 8, while her husband, Saltan, is 33. Everyday around the world, around 39,000 girls, children like Tahani and Ghada, get married. The reception of this image sent international waves rippling and a campaign, Too Young To Wed, was born out of it, and has already prevented many child marriages. It seems to me then, that this image fits the bill – and simultaneously portrayed the abstract and specific, bringing people who come across it, out of their reality and into another’s.

Steve and Ledonna Cobb leave the ruins of Briarwood elementary school in Oklahoma after the tornado

Jonathan Jones, in writing for The Guardian this week and discussing the iconic image of Steve & Ledonna Cobb carrying their child to safety after the Oklahoma tornado, which has been circulating the web describes this experience beautifully. ‘Coming across it in a newspaper I found that I stopped and pondered. It took me out of the workaday world painted by the words around it. Perhaps the reason a news photograph becomes iconic is that it swamps the rational, detailed, yet often ephemeral reality of journalism with something more universal, passionate and human – the grandeur of a sudden tragic insight into what the human condition really is.’ (Jonathan Jones, The Guardian)

Whilst the iconic image often draws upon design and purpose in advertising and branding as well as for artistic merit , they create a picture of an era. And here we turn to theatre. Last night I saw Clod Ensemble’s Zero at the Brighton Dome, a piece which consistently strove towards creating iconic moments for the audience to experience. Did Clod Ensemble’s work carry an obvious meaning, hint an another and become a sign and a symbol? No, but they did touch upon these elements and their theatrical language certainly doesn’t aim to offer obvious meanings. Instead, their signature movement, sound and live music score hinted at ideas and concepts, as they embedded abstract, symbolic and real life events into their work, as tragic events such as Hurricane Katrina, as well as sibling rivalry and threatening behaviour from strangers all featured. Due to the fragmented, layered nature of their work – the remembered images remain stronger for me than my experience of seeing it live. And here we return to the iconic image – a lasting, haunting image which offers me more than a fleeting experience.

Clod Ensemble

The unique selling point of theatre though is all about the live experience, although ephermal, it’s immersive, and offers audiences a sense of community, a shared experience, a ritual. Put plainly, seeing other bodies move and do things in front of you, for you. The most exciting theatre practitioners though, seek to bring the vocabulary of photography, the iconic image to audiences in creating a multitude of lasting visuals which continue to take our breath away, long after we have left the building.

The ultimate in crossing disciplines, 1927 offers revolution in animated form.

“The rich get richer and live on milk and honey, while the poor get poorer. We want what you have.”
Cries of the 2011 riots, social deprivation, inequality and ghettoisation are at the core of The Animals and Children took the streets. Yet, 1927 have created a charming, clever and mischievous performance that pokes fun at the audience whilst playfully experimenting with form.
And it’s funny. It’s sharp, a dark comedy that successfully draws on adult humour – Agnes Eaves who aspire to changing lives by creating an art club; Wayne the racist and his racist offspring who run riot, the Caretaker, upon eating a Kit-kat, congratulates himself that, “all in all, today was a pretty good day.”
1927’s keen eye and excellent attention to detail highlight the frustrating bureaucracy of modern day living; the 10 hour wait in A&E for an exploding kidney, only to be given a plaster and advised to take a paracetamol, the helplines that promise advise but instead play synchronised versions of Greensleaves for hours on end and never help and the absurdity of having to buy a train ticket 14 days in advance or having to pay £777.77p for a single journey on the day of travel.
Perhaps what is most interesting, is 1927’s determination to cross disciplines and play with performance mode; animation meets live performance meets cabaret meets pantomime meets clowning meets poetry….Traces of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt were clear here. Devises which prevented the audience in being passively swept away by story and character but instead, in drawing attention to form and creating a more conscious and critical observer; a large pen, suitcase and book are depicted through cardboard props with the words clearly branded across them. Throughout the performance, 1927 shift the mood and genre from a gothic type of fairytale, rooted in a storytelling tradition, to seductively reminding us of their attempt to imitate reality in their highly skilled ‘pretending.’ They often return to the ‘alienation’ of the audience but do so stylistically – and in keeping with the tone of the piece.
Yet, strangely I did miss the prominence of the actor’s body on stage. Largely, individual actors stuck to their side of the stage and their projected animation. To me, the absence of the performers’ touching, interacting and utilising the stage space fully made the performance more disparate, which brings us back to the age-old debate concerning mediatisation and the difficulty in bringing screens and bodies together without one dominating the other. Yet, perhaps what I’m pining for doesn’t need to be there – and what makes their work innovative. Certainly, the absence of touch and interaction alerts me to the fact that I’m watching a performance and highlights their artistic choices regarding form, mode and parallels with Brecht.
What intrigued me is how they created the work and what came first as the performers’ response to the animation was seamless, but supposedly impossible to do before the animation was created. In coming across an interview in IdeasTap, animator Paul Barritt states that “we worked backwards, which we’ll never do again – we didn’t have a story until a month ago, and you just can’t work like that. Combining live performance and animation is also quite a rigorous thing because it is so time-consuming to make and get right. In the future, we’ll sit down and work out our story well in advance – devising has added a lot of extra work.” Although devising may have added extra work for 1927, their performance holds up, in my opinion, because of the delicate balance which they created in crossing disciplines and born from a devising process. The animation was prominent in the work, but the performers, the poetry and pertinence of the piece fought their corner extremely well.
Overall, the audience left the theatre amused, charmed by the animation and 1927’s clever choices but disturbed in equal measure, mulling over 1927’s departing words;
“Born in the Bayou; die in the Bayou.
We prefer it this way, too.”

The Animals and Children took the streets is on at The Old Market Theatre until the 9th of March. Catch it whilst you can.


Theatre is a weapon….


The Ulster Kama Sutra, created by Andrea Montgomery and Nuala McKeever, are bringing a production to the stage which aims to challenge the dour conservative views prominent in the local media.

“It’s being billed as Thunderbirds meets The Vagina Monologues and its subject is rather delicate: the sex lives of the supposedly conservative, uptight, God-fearing people of Ulster.”

Initially the duo were keen to use actors (rather than puppets) but when pitching the production to venues they discovered that their work was deemed too controversial and too provocative – by using humans.

Therefore, cue the puppets. Interestingly, venues were happy to support the same production with the use of puppets. So, what does this mean – that puppetry is less subversive – less controversial – has less impact? It can offer distance that bodies on stage cannot? It’s a safe option.

Historically though, puppetry is a subversive form. Its political role began in revolutionary 17th Century England with popular figure of Punch, (of Punch & Judy fame) Famous for being a hero of the working class he broke sacrosanct laws – he mocked God, The King, the law and even Death. Consider also the Bread & Puppet theatre company, offering a powerful language to demonstrate against concerns of the day. During the Vietnam War, Bread and puppet staged block-long processions and pageants involving hundreds of people.

But what is perhaps more interesting is the need to mask controversial work. Hidden meanings. Secret messages. Innuendos.

Consider theatre practitioners, supported by the Federal Theatre Project in the 1930s, who aimed to create work which seemingly supported the government whilst offering another layer of hidden anti-establishment meaning.

It’s a shame that it’s still necessary today. Still, what it does prove is that theatre is a weapon,”too dangerous to be allowed in society” (Plato) as powerful now as it was in Ancient Greece. Consider  the production of The River and the Mountain, staged in Uganda, which tells the story of a young businessman coming to terms with being gay in a climate of homophobia. Not only was this production banned by the authorities but British producer, David Cecil, was even arrested in September last year and was facing two years in jail for staging the play, before being deported back to the UK.

I don’t often leave the theatre with the impetus to change my life, with the feeling that theatre is a weapon, a tool for change. Yet, it’s obviously powerful enough to provoke strong and angry responses. Belfast was one of the first cities in the UK, for instance, to try to ban the rock opera Jesus Christ…superstar! So it was banned. Prohibited. Censored.

It’s even powerful enough to force the Ugandan authorities to arrest and deport a British producer. So, hats off to Andrea Montgomery and Nuala McKeever for finding a way to stage their work, reach new audiences, and provoke a reaction!