(An appreciation of Christopher Brett Bailey’s This is How We Die)
by Sam Rees
In The Forest and the Field, Chris Goode recounts a debate with poet and academic Keston Sutherland. The dispute takes place at a workshop Goode is running in which he refers to the theatrical ‘space’. Sutherland’s contention is that ‘people don’t live in spaces…they live in places’. Though this may appear on the surface a succumbing to a certain theoretical posturing, the marriage of Christopher Brett Bailey’s This Is How We Die with a particularly unique era of programming for Ovalhouse gives Sutherland’s assertion considerable clout.
When Ovalhouse moved on from its Kennington home around 2017, the likes of Owen Calvert-Lyons, the Head of Theatre and Artist Development, began devising a highly original approach to its farewell seasons, which ran through 2019. The so-called Demolition Party invited artists to propose work which could integrate the physical destruction of the building into the performance. This was executed in collaboration with engineer Alan Dunsmore, the man contracted to oversee the demolition of the site. Indeed, the idea in and of itself instantly carries connotations and provocations. It is at once both radical and inclusive, aggressive and celebratory, an act of conceptual and physical self-immolation, but when the implications are deeply contemplated, The Demolition Party also carries with it the unexpected energy of self-renewal.
The venue is to all intents and purposes a construction site; great gashes have been torn into the walls, pipes exposed, dangerous areas have been cordoned off with hazard tape. Mike Glier’s 2013 exhibition exploring his relationship to the landscape of the North-East was titled by his partner, neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, With All the Holes in You Already There’s No Reason to Define the Outside Environment as Alien. We have a discomfort around the desecrated, the dilapidated. The ‘falling-down’ of a space perhaps speaks to our own instinct, or hunch, that entropy is a fact not a debateable issue, and it is this existential itch which arises when we are asked to spend too long in transitory spaces, spaces so very clearly on the path to total decay. It is like staring at a victim of the Vesuvius Eruption; the act of life, futile and enfeebled, preserved in perfect death.
But the implication in Holzer’s title and, indeed, in the conceptual ramifications of The Demolition Party, is that, while we may fall short of celebrating ‘holes’, which are themselves symbols of the fragility of being (and moments when that fragility was especially felt), we can learn to live comfortably in them; that is to say that the central challenge of Ovalhouse’s idea is to live artistically in and around a space which contains multitudinous layers of both physical and ideological precarity, and to do more than exist, to flourish, and to do more than flourish, to use the energy of demolition, demonic energy though it may be, to fuel the art. In other words, to burn up what is left of Ovalhouse in the wretched and beautiful business of theatre.
So, with place very much established, who was to live in it? Enter Christopher Brett Bailey. A small writing desk sits downstage centre, with a huge square of floor entirely missing behind it, mortar and foundations completely exposed. A young man comes in and sits quietly at the edge of the cavernous absence behind him. He is Orpheus and he dare not look back.
This Is How We Die is a particular species of puerile, debauched performance-poetry, spat out by its executioner. A language laced with testosterone and self-hatred, but not without a sharp stab of irony, the nonsense language of ‘pussyfart’ and ‘forever-babies bathing in radio waves and rocket fuel’. There is no room for sentimentality here, no quivering of the voice, no vulnerability, Brett Bailey is the conduit prophet of a god who wants nothing other than to hurt with language, to make the heart pump faster and the head begin to ache.
Eventually the tone softens. Stories begin to emerge, albeit in a surreal and fragmentary way. We hear a humorous account of the narrator (the extent to which this is or is not Brett
Bailey is an entirely different conversation) attempting an act of auto-seduction after a woman tells him to ‘go fuck’ himself and he takes it too literally, and an ongoing tale of a journey across America, taken straight from the pages of Kerouac and Thompson, with spasms of Ginsberg-esque intensity. All of this either adds up to precisely nothing, or transcends into an experience of profundity, depending on an audience member’s willingness to really listen to Brett Bailey. In this writer’s estimation, he is, by the end, an immensely sympathetic performer, seeming to become at once a resolutely human standard-bearer for the anxiety of millennial youth, and an ancient world-weary and disappointed alien, casting vitriolic condemnation on a species destined for so much better but who is ‘transfixed and salivating over its own finale’.
Truly, the language of This Is How We Die is saturated in that of a dissatisfied citizen of late- era American free-market political structures: alienation, fear, superstition, irony. Is it radical? Is it anti-capitalist? In a short video published on YouTube by Transparent Films in 2011, the progressive author Charles Eisenstein discusses the then-blossoming Occupy Wall Street Movement. He couches its reluctance to fall into line with more traditional left-wing movements thusly:
‘Anything that people can articulate can only be articulated within the language of the current political discourse and that entire political discourse is already too small’
Socialism of any kind defines itself primarily by not being capitalism. If the latter is private then socialism is public, if socially conservative then socialism is liberal. This is a failure of language; to say one is opposed to something which is, at the same time, the very structure one exists in (and truly exists in, from religion to psychology to sex), is to fail. It is to be a fish opposed to water. The only solution can be to break the language one is using. This is Brett Bailey’s solution for sure. It is a radical piece of work at its heart, if only for its honest appraisal of the problem, and its refusal to bend to softly-centrist ideals, rather attacking systematic problems with subjective reactions, to attack them with conceptual ferocity and commitment, and to never underestimate the pain language can express as well as inflict.
Songwriter, performance artist, occultist and lead singer of avant-garde industrial outfit Throbbing Gristle, Genesis P-Orridge, wrote in their Book of Lies: The Disinformation Guide to Magick and the Occult that:
‘Nothing is forgotten, all is permitted. In a stinking cave, muttering babies scream and scratch, furs undulate in copulation. In one corner, bright-eyed first marks are daubed on a wall. They are marks to function, marks of place, of time. They are marks to draw results and persist beyond one human lifetime. Instinct has arisen, snake-like, coiling itself into intuition and suggesting the very power of suggestion. No one noted down from a book this process, it grew from watching the elements, closeness to life-sources, death-forces that modern persons are divorced from. On this damp stone there is a curve, it is land, horizon, ejaculation, movement.’
Fundamentally, it is in these terms we must understand This Is How We Die. For all of its potential didacticism, for the occasional pinpoints of reason, it is in the final judgement a primordial effort, taking first ‘instinct’ and then moving towards ‘intuition’ until we are on the edge of ‘suggestion’. The modern anxiety of ‘getting’ a work (a strange synonym of choice for ‘understanding’ now one thinks of it, as if to know something is to own it), wrapped up in the capitalist-crisis which manifests as the terror of failure, is not only unhelpful, but anti- theatrical, and arguably the fear of the philistine. We had much better ask not ‘what does he mean?’ but ‘what does he do?’. The three-act structure, the linear cause-and-effect-plot, is
only one small kind of sense we are capable of understanding, and it is only one type of understanding.
This resolution is most vindicated in the end of the performance. Can one say it ends? Brett Bailey rather seems to kill his show. An uneasy sense of melancholy builds, Brett Bailey pronounces language ‘dead’ and the audience are hurled into a new universe. From seemingly nowhere a four-piece band build a tapestry of transcendental post-rock, the jagged spikes of guitars and the cataclysmic scream of electric violin reach a deafening volume, and, in total darkness, the audience has no choice but to sit and absorb the experience.
Any visual art that does not directly represent the human is a void of some sort or another. But entwined within this is an ultimate contradiction. A human has created the work, in perhaps the most tactile and intimate medium there is. We see the fingerprints of the progenitor anywhere we look, sometimes literal, but more often figuratively or emotionally. Martin Kemp, an emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University, dedicates a portion of his practice to authenticating suspect pieces of art through a detailed analysis, the New Yorker explains how we analyses ‘brushstrokes, composition, iconography and pigments- those elements which may reveal an artist’s hidden identity’. The less-of-a-person is there, the more the specifics of their humanity are revealed. Once Brett Bailey removes himself (and all human signifiers thereof: body, voice, face) and compels us to experience the psychography of This Is How We Die in the abstract, through emotionally-charged music, we do not feel removed, we do not feel alienated. We feel we see his humanity in perhaps more razor-sharp resolution than ever before. It is a redeeming paradox, an act of self-destruction which is necessary to complete the difficult task of breaking through the orthodoxies of language as our best form of communication, and to take us back to the human hiding behind the artist, and the cleansing, all-encompassing micro-death which is consequential to this process.
People and place, text and non-text, all collide together. Brett Bailey has torn down his own ego, his own masculinity and his own despair. He has reached a point where the limitations of language and its capacity to offer sincere relational communication have been reached and so, amongst the ruins of his metaphorical world, and the ruins of the physical conditions he is operating in, we endure his last nonsensical testament, an act of transgression and arguably of violence; the volume of the music was intended to damage the structure of Ovalhouse itself.
Chris Goode resolves his debate by conceding the value of Sutherland’s position. He suggests that he wants to make work ‘that people could really live inside: not visit, in a state of holiday…but inhabit fully and creatively’. This seems a commendable aim, particularly the notion that this attitude necessitates the audience adopt some creative role over what they are experiencing. It also seems a useful framework for justifying the fact that Brett Bailey’s piece is, in the final judgement, not an intellectual experience. This Is How We Die is utterly contemporary; Brett Bailey could even be interpreted as the glitching mechanism at the heart of the online matrix personified, offering an overload of content to the point where the derangement of modernity is exposed. This is theatre to really live inside, and in amongst the deconstructed structure of Ovalhouse, Brett Bailey takes apart conceptual structures: sex, politics, technology, and, perhaps most vitally, traditional approaches to dramaturgy and form, rejecting fundamentally what most people expect theatre to do. It is a beguiling, cathartic and exhilarating evening of work, in which the venue itself, weakened and bruised, speaks to the piece in new ways. There is no holiday on offer in Brett Bailey’s universe, and This Is How We Die is the cruel and pained howl of a species utterly confused and dismayed
by the place they live in. Is this how we die? It would seem a closer approximation than most work gets to: confusedly, passionately, and then all at once.
This article has been amended on the day of publication. It initially claimed that Ovalhouse had “lost its Kennington home” in 2017. This has since been corrected. We apologise for the error.