by Sam Rees
To ‘get’ is to understand. To ‘get’ is also to have, to acquire, to pillage. When Alice admits to The Cheshire Cat that she does not know where it is she is going, the Cat tells her ‘then it does not matter which way you go’.
What we may term ‘abstract’ art, ‘experimental’ art, or, in our boldest moments, that apparent paragon of all pretentiousness, the ‘avant-garde’ (all highly knotty and problematic terms, of course), contains an occasionally explicit, but more often euphemistic, refutation of authoritarian thinking. Through the prioritising of the conceptual, the subjective, the individualistic, in opposition to the standardised, the obvious, the collective, we are invited to delve into relatively unmonitored conversation with the subject, taking and giving ‘meaning’ as we see fit, as autonomous individuals. This is not a manifesto for the fringe, or even a claim that there is something more courageous or admirable about this particular species of work, but an analytic statement. Indeed, much art operating in the abstract is completely insufferable, as are the people creating it. But when does it work? How does it work? When can the liberation the Cheshire Cat offers us be of true use in stripping away our concern for literal understanding, and when does it simply leave us unmoored and floating around, dopily claiming that ‘anything goes’ and ‘everything is just opinion’? Where, in short, do we look for pleasure, irony, celebration and something recognisable as actually human and humane in this terrifying forest of unrecognisable shapes, sounds and signals?
Chris Goode’s What Is The Word, which this writer saw at Camden People’s Theatre towards the end of last year, offers a collection of valuable signposts. This is an anthology evening of experimental texts, mostly originating from the Twentieth Century, ranging from Samuel Beckett to Yoko Ono, John Cage to Gertrude Stein. ‘Text’ instantly feels a useless word. In beginning to organise thoughts, particularly explanatory ones, about the type of works being presented here, failure is the only option. Text is often the literal medium in which Goode is instructed, encouraged, seduced, by the artists to deliver their content. At times this results in a rampage of noise, in strained, keening, guttural yelps, in screams, and in silence. Often the level of interpretation required by the performer is extreme; some of the works are presented as images, or something approaching notational manuscripts. Incidentally, the unconventional presentation of performative work is currently sneaking its way into more theatre-makers’ imaginations; Caryl Churchill’s Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. demands bold leaps of decision-making on the creative team’s part, and Tim Crouch’s Total Immediate Collective Imminent Terrestrial Salvation utilises images in the core of its text.
A note on space and place: Camden People’s Theatre is, in this writer’s estimation, one of the most important venues in the capital city. Over its lifetime it has intricately woven a legacy of political and aesthetic radicalism, generosity to fledgling practitioners, real community, and established itself as one of the few fringe venues of the early Twenty-First Century that understood from the off that rich, frightening and impossible-to-define term ‘theatre-maker’. As its Artistic Director in the early 2000s, Goode was, and is, very much part of this legacy.
However, the physical conditions of CPT are just as much a key to its charm and mischievousness. Its paper-thin walls distinguish it from the noisy street outside, but only by formality. It is a barrier in a liminal sense; it exists therefore we must respect it, but as a functioning line of defence to the outside world it fails miserably, however, it can remain, so long as everyone buys into its value, like the wall of a tent. Of course, the outside world oft has other plans. Katsushika Hokusai’s woodcut, Travellers Caught in a Sudden breeze at Ejiri, depicts a series of individuals thrown off balance and cast in all directions by a gust of wind, and has spoken to our fear and awe of how brutally our lives can be misdirected by random acts of cosmic intervention. CPT invites all who work in the space (including the audience) to embrace the ‘sudden breeze’ first and foremost as artists; one of the most powerful moments of the evening is the wry smile that flickered across Goode’s face as he paused to let a car siren scream outside. The space is strong through its weakness, perfect in its flaws, the vulnerability of the spiritual tent we have pitched together so very clear that that cliché ‘rolling with it’ becomes more than the sign of a flexible and responsive performer, it becomes an act of survival.
How does this contradiction manifest? Initially, through confrontation. Goode’s chosen opener is Yoko Ono’s 1961 vocal performance ‘Voice Piece for Soprano’, a piece which offers the performer the options to scream ‘against the wind’, ‘against the wall’ and ‘against the sky’. Goode opens a hatch in a wall that lets in light directly from the street outside, and screams through this. It elicits giggles from several of us, partly because of the straightforward eccentricity of the act, but there is a delight as well a shock: we are allowed to hear them, they are not allowed to hear us. We have conspired to meet here in the dark, we are waiting, we are exposed. The last thing we want is to draw attention to ourselves, to tell the others, the strangers, the pragmatists out on the street, that we are here, and that we are as mad they fear. Maybe this is an inherited gene from our bohemian ancestors; a survival instinct to save us from being accused of witchcraft, or obscenity, or insurrection. A gene to keep the oddness a secret, and to make sure if others do detect it, then we at least do not appear too smug with ourselves. Goode strikes a fear and a thrill into us with this act, it is animalistic, tub-thumping, and without apology.
Daniel O’Donoghue, lead-singer of The Script, as in the excruciatingly dull and overwhelmingly cynical indie-pop group, sang on their 2012 cut ‘No Words’:
‘But what can I say, about something that blows me away/ Without it sounding like another cliché?/ From what I’ve seen and I’ve heard/ When it comes to you, baby no, there are no, there are no words/ There are no words, yeah I swear this much is true /There ain’t [sic] a word in this world that describes you’
What is inarticulacy? Why do we find it so appealing? It has, in contemporary pop culture, intersected frequently with an expression of secular worship; the notion of loving someone so entirely but never being able to sum that up with the dirty and imperfect lexicon we are provided with. This is not what is being discussed here. But O’Donoghue’s bafflement about how to make sense of something that blows him away does contain a useful springboard of sorts. Inarticulacy is a passive state; it is an individual sitting in their failure to fluently (or lucidly) discuss the conditions of their being. Incoherency, on the other hand, may be best understood as the emancipatory decision which comes after a recognition of this state. We cannot make sense; therefore, we should not make sense. There is one final paradox to this tangled arrangement: sense will eventually come for those not seeking it. As our friend The Cheshire Cat reminds us, ‘it does not matter which way you go’ if you have no idea of the destination.
‘The Sundance Kid was beautiful, because he was beautiful’, so goes the recitation Goode gives of Christopher Knowles and Robert Wilson’s ‘The Sundance Kid is Beautiful’. Such is the conviction of this line, and the seemingly endless swirling variations thereupon, that one is forced to take Goode seriously. Meaninglessness takes us on a journey. It is a journey through the necessary point of laughter, and unwillingness to engage fully with the work, lest we be associated with its superficial difficulty or indulgency. With symbolic or figurative folded arms, a set of predominantly millennial London theatre-goers, force-fed on irony and trolling, sit in a room and are, eventually, won round. Who can say in what specific way sense comes from a text like this? It is a different language to the transactional information-based one we operate in as a norm; it is a language with different systems in place: systems of self-perpetuation, of exhaustion and endurance, of retention, and of release.
In Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borge’s excellent 1941 short story The Library of Babel, the librarian narrator exclaims of their efforts that they:
‘…cannot combine some characters
[for example:] dhcmrlchtdj
which the divine Library has not foreseen and which in one of its secret tongues do not contain a terrible meaning. No one can articulate a syllable which is not filled with tenderness and fear, which is not, in one of these languages, the powerful name of a god. To speak is to fall into tautology.’
Speech as contradiction. Language as a seductive but ultimately empty pursuit. To push back against meaning only forces us further into its cloying embrace. Perhaps this is one melancholy revelation of What Is The Word. But maybe it does not have to be this way. And who said ‘meaning’ was so bad anyway?
As a word limit runs its course, one naturally feels the guilt of unaddressed questions. There has been no time to discuss Goode’s inclusion of Cage’s 4”33”, for example(though it is probably fair to say enough people have expended their efforts on this particular work already). But several main case studies still need discussion in this writer’s mind, so hopefully the inherent superficiality of some of this analysis can be forgiven, indulgence is begged for, either way.
The journey of sense appears carefully mapped out by Goode across the evening. In Michael Basinski’s Ghosts #2, a very definite voice strains and pushes, almost through its own excitement and exuberance to recount something to us. Its humanity gets in the way. Flashes of content rise up like the peaks of a mountain, the god-like jumps we must make between summits of meaning are for us to ascertain. It must be commented on sooner or later that the presentation of this evening should not be seen as po-faced or overly-serious; the dominant impression is of a practitioner delighting in the madness, nonsense and textures of language, and its potential as a subversive force. There is a great deal of joy, revelry, whimsy and silliness to the whole affair.
Perhaps the most enduring tribute Goode offers us is that of his grand finale-Kurt Schwitters’ masterful effort of sound-poetry Ursonate. This is not nonsense language, but it is non-sense language. A steady pattern of rules and rhythmically precise vocal gestures, which reference Germanic grammar and phonetics, and contain codas, subjects, reprises, are laid out for us. High-speed, punchy, energetic. Arguably danceable, in fact. But the specifics of these gestures can and should be understood also as blemishes. Gesture in the specific is communication, human communication, which allows the mapping of understanding and the relaying of content to others. In the general, it is only noise. Goode fundamentally did not present noise at any point across the evening, which is to say the human is at the forefront of What Is The Word. Such is the intonation, the structure and the tone of Ursonate that, out of the non-sense, feeling undeniably emerges: anger, righteousness, glee. These are evidently rudimentary but certainly present. As Borge explores this idea through his fiction, so we see it in action-no sounds, no combination of syllables or utterances, are alien to us in the end. All are human, even if through mutual acts by both spectator and performer: one reaches forth a hand and the other takes.
Goode is a human. This means he supplies a body and a voice moving through space. That is his end of the bargain, but it also automatically corrupts these texts with every small flicker and large decision Goode is forced to make as an interpretive being in that space. We are also, to almost certainly labour a point, humans. And we, therefore, corrupt with the receiving of the work, with our moods and contexts and prejudices. The world outside with its sirens corrupts. How does one make any sense of this? In the same way one makes sense of even the most straightforward of dramaturgies: as a human being hurtling through space. By relinquishing control, admitting we know nothing of where we are headed, and so accepting we can leave behind any orthodoxies about how to get there. Where are we going? We do not know. How do we get there? It does not matter. What is the word? Let us hope we never find it.