[A short piece made and performed on Sunday 28 September at Transmute in the Brighton Digital Festival]
This is a collage of material from Solo Two, a show I was performing on Tuesday Friday and Saturday last week. Together with some other thoughts provoked during the week. A bit like a 7 inch remix, put together today on the rail replacement bus to Brighton.
Solo Two started with an introduction. As does this. So I’d invite you to get into groups of 6 and introduce yourselves to each other. And then see if you can find the most interesting thing that all of you in your group of 6 have in common.
[they discuss and then their commonalities shared to the room]
So in Solo Two, all the audience is seated on chairs scattered around the room. And all the words I speak are printed on sheets, and dealt to the audience who give them back to me. It’s a piece made up of small pieces which the audience connect up for themselves. Here’s one of those small pieces.
Here we all are gathered in a room.
How many of us are there? I’m going to do a head count.
Take a look around while I do. And perhaps say hello with your eyes to the other people here.
I make it N people.
It’s a little miracle. This gathering of all of us and only us together in a room. The chance is practically zero that all of us and only us will be gathered again in a room before the end of the world, whenever that might be.
I’ve an empty chair here. There’s a Jewish tradition of leaving a chair empty at the feast, for someone who is not there but you wish that they were.
So we can do this too. If you like, and no worries if you’d rather not, please take out your phone. Open up your phonebook of contacts. Start scrolling through the names. If you don’t have a phone, you can imagine an address book and start leafing through that. And perhaps surprise yourself in picking someone who is dear to you but who hasn’t been in your mind for a little while.
When you’ve chosen someone, imagine them sitting here in this chair. And just let your mind dream out of this room towards whichever room you imagine this person sitting in the chair might actually be.
And whenever you see this chair, you can imagine your friend sitting here.
So on Thursday I went to see An Enemy Of The People at the Barbican. It’s the Ibsen play repurposed by German director Thomas Ostermeier and his team. ‘Enemy Of The People’ translates as Volksfeind in German.
In the original play, Dr Stockmann is the Enemy Of The People. He’s discovered that the water in the town’s spa baths has been poisoned by waste from a factory. But these baths give the town its wealth, and there are too many individuals with vested interest to let this simple truth be told. But Stockmann refuses to shut up. And he calls a meeting in which he addresses the whole town. He’s the individual speaking up against the majority. And he goes very far indeed.
In Ostermeier’s production, we the audience play the town.
We’re addressed by Stockmann. And he goes much further than we expect, not just talking about the poisoned water but a poison he perceives in the minds of everyone in the town.
And Ostermeier puts into Stockmann’s mouth some words from the manifesto The Coming Insurrection, written in 2007 by a radical group The Invisible Committee. The poison in our minds is the creed of individualism. Expressed in an advertising slogan – I AM WHAT I AM
I AM WHAT I AM. My body belongs to me. I am me, you are you, and it’s not going too well. Mass personalization. Individualization of all conditions – of life, work, misery.
I AM WHAT I AM is not just a simple lie, a simple advertising campaign, but a military campaign, a war-cry directed against everything there is between people, against everything that circulates indistinctly, everything that ties them invisibly together, everything that puts an obstacle in the way of perfect desolation, against everything that makes it so we exist and the world doesn’t just look like one big highway everywhere, an amusement park or one of the new cities: pure boredom; passionless, but well-ordered; empty, frozen space where nothing moves besides the duly registered bodies, the automobile molecules and the ideal commodities.
Before cutting back into Ibsen.
The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! That is one of these social lies against which an independent, intelligent man must wage war. Who is it that constitutes the majority of the population in a country? Is it the clever folk, or the stupid?
And when the discussion is opened up to the floor, for us the audience to make our voice heard, it’s true that we don’t do very well. We’ve been set up to fail. We’re too many voices, we haven’t been scripted, we only have the slogans and clichés and truisms and gags that spring to mind when we’re a crowd straining to make ourselves heard.
A friend of mine criticized Ostermeier for being politically confused. Stockmann is speaking for the individual against the majority, so how can the poison of the majority he rails against be individualism?
But I think Ostermeier was spot on in this juxtaposition.
We’re in an era where a majority is created through a market of individual self-interests, where we are encouraged to speak and vote and purchase on behalf of our own personal freedom, and assured that other people will look after themselves. We’re billions of atomised individuals scrunched up to make a majority, a crowd puppeteered by globalised systems of capital and control. And trying to break step by yourself isn’t impossible, it’s irrelevant.
Back to The Coming Insurrection.
It’s dizzying to see Reebok’s “I AM WHAT I AM” enthroned atop a Shanghai skyscraper. The West is advancing everywhere, with its favorite Trojan horse: the murderous opposition between the “I” and the world, the individual and the group, between attachment and freedom.
Freedom isn’t the gesture of liberation from attachments, but the practical capacity to operate upon them, to move around in them, to establish or cut them off. The freedom to tear oneself out has always been the mere phantom of liberty. We won’t get free of what’s holding us back without losing at the same time that which our strength could be exercised on.
Back to Solo Two. For part of it, I was telling the story of someone called Veronica. Someone who is very much herself (although she can’t help but reflect a little bit of her author). One of Veronica’s peculiarities is the way she thinks about friends. Here’s the bit of her story about that.
They say that the Eskimos have 50 words for snow, and that the words don’t just help reflect how they see the white world around them but also shape the way they see it. It always puzzles Veronica then that there are so few words for relationships – if not family then usually fluttering around friend or pal or chum which all mean the same, then flitting towards the bunch of words hanging around lovers. But friends are all different, ones you watch football with, ones you walk home with, the one you call to shout at whenever you have something to shout about – so why do you use much the same word?
Veronica makes new words for all her relationships. You’re my Betty, she says to another girl at school, which puzzles the girl at first because her name is Julie but then pleases her because she thinks Veronica is saying she’s her bestie. But she’s not. She means that the relationship she cherishes with Julie makes her uniquely her Betty. If you asked her what she meant, she’d shrug and say, y’know a Betty.
Sometimes the words are born inside of her. A boy called Ola who has a crush on Veronica aged 15 is disheartened and bewildered when she announces that he is her Puddenglimp. Dan is The Whiskery Cardinal, Jackson her Gingery Tom, while Emily Frost is confusingly her Emily, but this cannot be said of her relationships with Emily Dixon, Emily Frankland, or Emily Goode – who are respectively Huggy, The Solveig, and My Imaginator.
Today I was remembering the TV show Monkey. Or Mon-kayyyyy!
It’s something I loved when I was a kid. A Japanese TV show based on the Chinese novel Journey to the West, filled with chopsocky action and delicious over-acting.
Monkey and friends were on a never-ending quest for Buddha.
Not so much a superhero team as a motley gang of friends.
But they all had superpowers for me.
Monkey is someone who reminded me to be brave.
Tripitaka is someone who reminded me to take good care.
Pigsy is someone who made me laugh.
Sandy is someone who reminded me to think clearly.
Horse is someone who might carry me if I needed carrying.
So, you can probably see where this is going…
Remember your friend who’s sitting here.
I wonder if they were one of Monkey’s gang for you, which one would they be?
Monkey? Tripitaka? Pigsy? Sandy? Or Horse?
Just like Veronica called her friend her Betty, which of these five names might you choose to describe your friend sitting here?
Monkey, Tripitaka, Pigsy, Sandy, or Horse?
For the reasons I suggested, or for your own reasons?
And now, here are 4 more empty chairs. Perhaps you can fill more of these.
If you take out your phone again, I wonder if you might scroll through and find any more friends to dub with any of the remaining titles? Can you even edit their contact details so you add Monkey Tripitaka Pigsy Sandy or Horse to their names?
You can do this by yourself or rejoin your group or other friends and tell them about the friends you’re choosing and why.
Finally. This is only the beginning.
This is a number for you. If you like, text HELLO.
And over the coming days you’ll receive a series of text messages, each with a small challenge you might choose to take.
You can stop at any time. But I hope that you will continue. Wherever this goes.