Saturday, 31 December 2011

one machine talks, the other is silent

I've set up a few VOIP phone numbers which record incoming voicemails as sound files and then email them onwards. Every so often, these numbers get called by bots doing automated market research. It takes a little while for the bot to register that there is no human response.

This is a recording of that little while.

thevoicethattellsyouyouhavenonewmessages (mp3)

Thursday, 29 December 2011

The experience of an event...

It's become somewhat of a cliché for me to say this - get it in Bullshit Bingo any time I'm doing any kind of public speaking - but I've been owing a post on the origins of this to Andrew Haydon for nearly a year now. So here goes.

The experience of an event begins for its audience when they first hear about it and only finishes when they stop thinking and talking about it.

In making the kind of work that I do with Coney, getting this is paramount. The primary focus of any interactive-immersive-playful-whatchamacallit has to be the experience of the audience (or better, specific audiences) from start to finish to understand better what they might do, how they might feel, what might get in the way. We often break the experience down into shorthanded segments - the advance to the event, the event itself, the tail of the event. We also often create audience personae to imagine how they'll find something we make; currently Horace and Doris, Sonia and Phil, and the Family Smith amongst others are rattling around a piece tba in the devising.

But I think that this saying is incontrovertibly true not just for the kind of play that Coney makes but for any event, for any audience.

The advance includes that which is normally covered by marketing, but marketing is just one particular way of describing the relationship between an event or building and its audience. The audience's foreknowledge, expectations, anticipations (even fears) of the experience are critical. Which is one reason why I hate most traditional theatre posters, the kind that pepper the walls of tube escalators with their gilded letters and portraits of the cast, because they communicate an expectation of the experience of theatre for audiences who never go to the theatre (and judging by those posters, are right never to do so).

The late great John McGrath in A Good Night Out writes about all of the event much better than I can and how "there are elements in the language of theatre beyond the text, even beyond the production, which are often more decisive, more central to one's experience of the event than the text or the production..." anyone in any kind of theatre should read this book.

The advance brings the audience to the event, both time and place, but also imaginatively. Coney has used the advance like this for a while. So in advance of A Small Town Anywhere, an audience can choose if they wish to engage in a dialogue with the gatekeeper Small Town Historian, which helps them cast themselves into the Town and write their own history within it.

The event itself is not just the show (let's talk about a theatre show to make it simple), but the experience of being in the theatre building itself. Matthew Reason did some brilliant research which took teenagers to the Lyceum in Edinburgh to watch Othello; afterwards, he conducted discourse analysis with them to reconstruct their experience. Those who'd been to the theatre - any theatre - several times already talked animatedly about Othello. But for those new to theatre were dominated in their discourse by the experience of being in a posh building surrounded by other predominantly older people, their sense of how they ought to behave and how they'd be told off if they didn't. Othello didn't really feature. It takes a few goes before anyone habituates to the experience of the event of theatre.

In the experience of the interactive-immersive event for the interactive-immersive audience, sudden and surprising agency is intoxicating. I just don't know how long that lasts before habituation and the hangover kicks in.

The tail of an experience is important. Immediately after Small Town, we found it crucial to give all the audience a glass of wine in the Historian's Salon so that they'd all be more likely to stick with each other and talk about what had just happened. This post-liminal space becomes a decompression chamber. Because their most common question was about how they compared to other nights and other audiences (a sly way also of finding out how much agency they'd really had) then a couple of weeks after the run was finished, the Historian sent them the final chapter of his History which did just that in seeking to distil the 'average' Town and failing because none such existed, I liked that they received that after they thought it was over. It'd have been better if it had been a physical tangible object rather than a pdf. I've cherished for years the picture of the skypointing blue-footed booby which Chris Goode left in my house at the end of his home performance We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg! Every time I pick it up, I remember the show and smile. I guess programmes do the same but they are not necessarily invested with the same charge.

I also liked a thought recently tweeted by @lyngardner, that thinking and talking about a piece of theatre, necessarily transient, keeps it alive in mind. A bit like the ghosts who stick around until everyone has forgotten about them.

Ganesh Versus The Third Reich

In near impossible-to-judge review category of favouriteculturething, there have been many contenders on which I may write more anon. Two stay headlocked.

In one corner, the dazzling behemoth of Infinite Jest, which has been the reading experience of my life, measured out in tea spoons across five months, two continents, and six conversations started by strangers purely because they saw I was reading it. I'd love to write more about why I've loved it so; perhaps when less daunted.

In the other corner: Ganesh Versus The Third Reich. This is a piece of theatre by Melbourne company Back To Back, directed by Bruce Gladwin and devised by its ensemble. Back To Back brilliantly and rigorously integrate performers with learning difficulties into the heart of their work. In part, this is a fable about the Hindu god Ganesh travelling through space and time to Germany, 1943, there to wrest the swastika, originally a Hindu symbol of luck and fertility, back from the Nazis. It's beautifully staged on a vast empty stage with plastic curtains drawn back and forth to cast shadows and project monochrome landscapes; then a literally blinding moment where Vishnu (one of several roles played by David Woods of Ridiculusmus) lifts up the bottom of a starry night to reveal the light behind the fabric of the cosmos.

There has been a storm around the production with some Hindu groups protesting at the portrayal of Ganesh. The defence has been that this is a warm and respectful representation, but as true as that is - Ganesh is undoubtedly a divine hero - it misses what I think is the real focus of this fundamentalist protest, indeed any fundamentalist protest at theatre. Theatre is playful representation of what if and what is, both together: make believe and believe. But fundamentalism is fundamentally about one level of belief and only one: their word made flesh. It's anti-play.

And here is the other half of the piece. Having hit genuine concerns during the devising process about the rights and wrongs of telling this story, Back To Back's response was to tell a story of the piece's making incorporated inside the piece. So 'director' David struggles with the other actors and with himself, his initially pitch-perfect political correctness in valuing their every contribution becoming more controlling, bending sinister. The cast protest when Mark, an actor with Down syndrome, is cast as Hitler. He doesn't know who Hitler was, they argue. He doesn't understand the Holocaust. And more than that, he can't distinguish between what is real and what is play. But that's exciting, says David. Look. Look at these empty seats (in which we are sat). Imagine the audience there. And then he charges into a tirade against that imagined audience as perverts, into freak-porn. Meanwhile Mark sits there grinning in the midst of the arguments, blithely playing. You have to check yourself to remember that this is being played, has been rehearsed, as levels of reality collapse in your head. It's ruthlessly funny, like the best episode of South Park ever, but where it hurts to laugh. Every performance - indeed everything about it - is absolutely rigorous. At the last, Mark is waiting for his mum to come pick him up but David wants to go, so he starts Mark on a game of hide and seek. Mark is under the table as David counts and tiptoes his way out. Mark is still under the table, playing playing hide and seek, just being there, as the lights contract to a spot. It's an image that won't leave me.

O Walshy

Click to download the rest of it.


MONA is an extraordinary place, an art gallery that is a Pharoah's tomb meets a Bond villain's complex. And I mean those both literally. It's hollowed out inside a hill beneath a vineyard. The vineyard was bought in 1995 by a local gambling savant: David Walsh. Walshy is Hobart's benevolent anti-Bond. He has an Aspergian mathematical ability, and heads a syndicate banned from most casinos around the world but now plugging a data-brain into horse races globally and leveraging a tiny edge on a massive scale so that rivers of gold flow his way. And he's diverted a lot of that into MONA.

You're best taking the boat there. From the jetty you walk up steps and onto... a red tennis court. It feels like some Ballardian construction, but actually it's just there because Walshy likes tennis. A mirrored wall on the side of the court is the entrance. Through you descend a spiral staircase into three floors of caverns, sculpted for the very installation of some particular works.

The collection is remarkable: some really exciting contemporary art by artists ranging from Sidney Nolan to Pipilotti Rist, Damien Hirst to Tasmanian artist Brigita Ozolins (hers is one of my favourite pieces here), all vividly themed around sex and death, alongside antiquities especially Egyptian. You understand perfectly why it is the Museum of Old and New Art. But the collection is secondary to the experience.

Not just because of how the work is displayed - Aztec stone skulls beside video art in an underwater Wunderkammer, for instance - but because there is no signage of any kind around the art, so that you can immerse yourself completely in its presence. Your guide is an iPod with an app called the O that tells where you are and beams information on nearby works to your fingertips. It asks you to rate whether you love or hate any piece of work; no place for mealy-mouthed emotions here. It often streams writings about each work under channels called Ideas, Art Wank, and Gonzo. Walshy himself writes most often the last section, meticulous and insightful, making what could have been a channel called Hubris into something else entirely.

I spent all day here but could easily have spent three. Just before leaving I found a cabinet cloaked in red velvet in the basement, with a stuffed raven rearing above nevermore. In the cabinet is an urn, dedicated to Thomas Dexter Walsh. It's the ashes of Walshy's dad. You too can pay to become a beyond-life patron and be interred here in this Pharoah's tomb.

Ian my host drove us down there on a Tuesday when he didn't realise it was shut, but it was still something to see even when deserted. Deserted except for workers from a furniture firm called Osiris.

In Watchmen, the best graphic novel ever made, the anti-hero is revealed in an Antarctic complex, obsessed with saving the world and his own legacy, a pharoah masquerading behind a security firm called Rameses. Here is perhaps the closest for real, here in the place where boats can sail down the river Derwent out into the Southern Ocean and to the land of ice.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Zen Moment

The story behind this one, you'll have to imagine. Or ask me.

Review Of The Year

Last December, I met for a drink with one of my oldest and bestest friends, Jimmy Smooth. We hadn't seen each other for way too long. There were very many stories to share. So we invented what isn't so much a game as a conversation format: the Review of the Year.

One person decides an award category - like Best Surprise - and describes what would be awarded - like a jack-in-the-box with your own grinning face. You each then choose whichever experience from your own year best deserves that award - momentary or momentous - and tell that story.

This year Jimmy and I were joined by a few more friends at the Dove to play the review. It's also popped up at Ma'ida with Benoonbenoon, and round my family's Christmas eve table.

Some of my 2011 awards follow. Perhaps it will kickstart my return to some kind of writing discipline. Perhaps perhaps.