It doesn’t get more ‘on message’ for this blog than an independent music festival staged on and around the East London Line. This week I met up with Amanda Lwin, 50% of the creative and organisational force behind Soundtracks, for my latest Londonist preview.
Art meets rage meets destruction meets catharsis meets clubbing- in a car park.
Locked Room Scenario – Ryan Gander
Photographer Julian Abrams
Commissioned and produced by Artangel with the support of Londonewcastle and the Lisson Gallery
Having made the headlines as a riot hot-spot on Monday 8th August, Hackney’s Clarence Road made reparation for the damage done to businesses and wellbeing with a vibrant show of community spirit.
I wrote about the street tea party a week on from the trouble in the Hackney Citizen.
Four days later I was back in Clarence Road to report the reopening of the Convenience Store, otherwise known as Siva’s shop, 11 days after it was ransacked.
Shopkeeper Siva Kandiah & daughter with Meg Hillier MP
The first time I saw Brian Lobel perform, he was dancing non-stop to his own silent disco of show tunes, wired up to a monitor and VHS in an approximation of his teenage bedroom, inviting you to join him and bop along. The second time he was daring a squirming, smirking audience to ‘appreciate’ his genitals (in the medical as well as the colloquial sense) and the third time he was soliciting 60 seconds of the lives of the good people of Brixton, in order to sell them back a week later, via vending machine lucky dip in the form of a DVD.
His latest work, Purge, is equally generous, democratic and confrontational. A commission for MotiRoti’s ‘What Counts?’ season in response to the 2011 census, it’s another marathon of a show, elapsing over 24 hours and divided across four days, building on the preoccupation with time and value he explored in Carpe Minuta Prima. Billed as ‘the world’s most brutal game of friendship maintenance,’ Purge is intensely social and inherently collaborative, as Lobel tours four cafes across London and asks the coffee-drinking public ‘keep- or delete?’ In keeping with Michael Landy’s Breakdown (2001), a work Lobel cites as a key influence, he uses his own Facebook profile and its supporting cast of 1300 Facebook friends as his raw material. Just as Landy systematically destroyed each and every one of his 7000 possessions, painstakingly inventoried over three years, Lobel ruthlessly deletes a contact from his friend list if the state of the relationship doesn’t make the grade in the eyes of the panel. The original YBA was left only with the clothes he stood up in, so is his devotee playing it safe by sticking to the virtual world? Yet the distinction is becoming increasingly blurred. We may not have become any less materialistic in the 11 years since Landy’s installation in a disused branch of C&A on Oxford Street, but we have become exponentially more nodocentric, with 750 million of us projecting ourselves to the world via Facebook profiles. The ‘tyranny of the nodes’ has prompted academic Ulises A. Mejias’ damning proclamation that in today’s world ‘if you’re not a node, you don’t exist.’ And at times, the stakes do feel that high, with the artist admitting that for a good proportion of his friendship group, Facebook is his only point of contact and without it, he is essentially erasing them- if not from his past, then from his future. Part fast-paced game show, complete with score cards, buzzers and timer, part social experiment, Purge gives you an irresistible insight into another person’s social network, only to shine an unflinching light on your own.
This performer in profile is a self-confessed ‘active’ Facebooker, but you don’t need quite such a formidable online presence for Purge to resonate with you. The scale of Brian’s undertaking is daunting, as he attempts to give a 60 second ‘defence’ of each and every friendship testified by his Friend List, but as ever, the devil is in the detail. During my 40-odd compelling minutes spent on the ‘keep or delete’ panel in a cosy corner of the elegant Off Broadway on Broadway Market, E8, I shared with my two fellow panelists a clutch of priceless (albeit second hand) moments from the artist’s life. With staggering memory recall, Lobel recounted at break neck speed the time when he witnessed a school friend’s wrap skirt fall off in the cafeteria, or when he and a friend hustled their way into watching Sex and the City the Movie in a stranger’s apartment in New York City, or smoked shisha together with Pink in 2001… Then there were the idiosyncratic character sketches- ‘he makes the best chocolate and banana muffins I’ve ever tasted… we shared a bunk together at summer camp… we sat next to each other in band… he was the first man I ever fell in love with… I was her cell phone message for a year and a half.’ And we aren’t only asked to look backwards, but to look ahead- ‘we’ve only met once, but I think he’s potential… if I delete her, it’ll be really awkward next time we’re at the same party.’ With a less charismatic, less articulate host in the hot seat, the anecdotes would undoubtedly be less effervescent, less punchy. Delivered against the clock, there’s no time for the nostalgia to get too syrupy, and no chance for the panel to duck out of their decision-making. Half the fun is in second-guessing your colleagues’ responses, or analyzing your own as you bow to popular opinion or stick to your guns on hearing that ‘we haven’t spoken since college’ or ‘I don’t remember what he does for a living’ or ‘she’s my parents’ friend’s sister’s daughter.’
Lobel, not for the first time, is tapping into the zeitgeist here- not only through the modish conception of the Facebook ‘cull’ that carries many of the Aristotelian associations of catharsis as cleansing and renewing, but also by toying with the less benign act of ‘F-rape’ in freely surrendering his network, the annals of his social and professional life, to the scrutiny of strangers. In her essay ‘Generation Why?’ Zadie Smith argues that in ‘interfacing with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg,’ that is just what all of us Facebook junkies have done. We have relinquished control of our images, our identities, even our thoughts- or at least over the way in which they are represented, through a medium which necessarily inculcates conformity. We should beware the limits of the software, she writes, and not confuse them with the mutable contours of our sense of self:
‘When a human being becomes a set of data… he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience; we lose our bodies…’
But Lobel is alive to this. In his own words he ‘makes work about bodies; politicized bodies, marginalized bodies, dancing and singing bodies, happy bodies, sick bodies…’ not least the memory of his friend and first love Grant, who was let down by his body. After the physical death of his friend, Brian was forced to mourn a virtual death when Grant’s Friendster profile was deleted, in a corporate ‘cull’ of the site’s content in May of this year. And what’s more, he discovered that at some point during their tumultuous relationship, Grant had ‘de-friended’ him on this now defunct social network. A virtual shrine, a narcissistic archive, a status symbol, an inescapable palimpsest, an inadequate identikit of selfhood; Purge is a parlour game that scratches beneath the programming.
‘They come here, they look but they do not see.’ The central paradox of journalistic endeavour in contemporary Nigeria is delivered by the character of the Porter, in the tradition of wise fools more insightful than their masters (and often their audiences) give them credit for.
In Fixer, Lydia Adetunji’s challenge is to make us see things for what they are- corruption, spin, deceit, blackmail- the lines of which are all too easily blurred in the dazzling Sub-Saharan heat, the glare of the media spotlight and the smoke and mirrors PR haze. The playwright is well-served by a production which strives for clarity of purpose on a bare thrust stage with minimal set and no costume changes. A battered airline seat doubles as a reconditioned plane and a makeshift bench; a reminder of the fugitive nature of the characters’ business- here today, gone tomorrow.
The 2009 play explores the damage wrought by so-called ‘damage limitation’, when a multinational corporation seeks to protect its interests in northern Nigeria. Here foreign correspondents, PR merchants and local militants alike can make or break fortunes and international headlines. Fixer is a modern morality play of oil money, hush money, even blood money, which changes hands rapidly. The characters know all too well that ‘everything has a price.’ Though their hungry eyes glint at the promise of security that the banknotes bring, it’s with clumsy haste and trepidation that they accept the unwieldy wads of dirty money, as if a nefarious game of pass the parcel were being played on a loop, with every player dreading the moment the music stops.
Like a playground game of one-upmanship, with its callous readiness for playing dirty and switching sides, directors Dan Barnard and Rachel Briscoe succeed in maintaining a sizzling energy throughout (and not only because of the oppressive heat of the Oval House lighting rigs). The entire cast remain on stage for the duration- hovering, poised at various ‘bases’ on the periphery of the stage, rather than retreating with a well earned sigh of relief between scenes. Similarly, it was a well-judged choice to run the play without an interval, the pace accelerated and the stakes raised by a refusal to let those on (or off) stage off the hook. Where this bid for theatrical athleticism backfired was in the en masse, blackout sprint back and forth- arguably a visual leveller of status with every character fleeing to save their skin, but in the relatively intimate space of the Oval House auditorium it registered as more Benny Hill caper than blind exodus.
Given Adetunji’s journalistic pedigree (she served six years at The Financial Times), the play is littered with well-observed media-speak and the archetypes of Fleet Street, from the young idealist, Laurence (Damola Adelaja), wet behind the ears but with a nose for a story, to ‘Dangerous’ Dave (Alex Barclay), the faded action man, to the ambiguous traitor Jerome (Robert Bowman) who has ‘moved over to the dark (ie. corporate) side,’ to Sara (Jennifer Jackson), the inscrutable ‘fire-fighter’ of the Consortium and of course Chuks (Richard Pepple), the resourceful, mercurial fixer of the title. With an uncompromising and unsentimental eye, the playwright shows up each and every player for falling short of the standards they preach- truth-telling, loyalty, ethics- all abandoned at turns in pursuit of a story, a fast buck, a corporate bonus. Only once did the accumulation of hack-cliché jar in my ear as too contrived, too self-conscious- ‘I’m on a deadline here, need to get this story in the bag!’ But then that is the superficial patter of the 24-hour news cycle- give or take ironic delivery- so perhaps it’s more telling that it didn’t quite ring true, even in the mouth of an otherwise convincingly jaded character.
The directorial team were faithful to an understated ending that sees the rival foreign correspondents thrown together on an outbound flight back to the UK. We hear a final chewing of the fat, a passing of the buck between young Turk and old soak but learn that despite appearances, they aren’t so polarised when it comes to justifying the rules of the reporter game. Amid the ‘stuff happens’ rationale of their post-mortem, we are haunted by the image of Chuks- a Mother Courage figure who sought to profit from the developer/ news-gatherer conflict, only to realise it was he who had the most at stake.