CITIES, poetics of life

problems with cultural studies…

[Nigel Thrift’s] theoretical propositions suggest at least three crucial elements that any accounts of everyday life must contain if they are to be plausible and interesting. First, they must be respectful of the social practices through which the everyday unfolds. They must recognise that much social practice is different (but certainly not inferior) to more contemplative academic modes of being in the world – embedded as they are in the noncognitive, preintentional and commonsensical. Second, they must contain a sense that practices (and thus the subjectivities and agencies of which they are a part) are shot through with creativity and possibility (even though these are ‘constrained’ and limited by existing networks of association). Third, the everyday should not be viewed as a world apart from more rationally grounded realms of social action such as ‘the state’, ‘the economic’, ‘the political’, or whatever. Rather, what needs to be recognised is how all elements of social life, all institutions, all forms of practice are in fact tied together with the work of getting on from day-to-day.

Seen through the filter of these criteria we can begin to make more sense of the substance source of Thrift’s unease with human geographic work about the everyday. Cultural [turn] was largely built upon a commitment to a particular politics of representation, and it remains obsessively focused on representation. This obsession not only implicitly downgrades the importance of practice, stressing as it does the symbolic over the expressive, “responsive and rhetorical” dimensions of language. It also has an alarming tendency to a slip into simplistic (and often exaggerated) narratives based on highly romantic stereotypes of both politics and persons. Thus, to take an example close to the concerns of this paper, white professionals living in an ethnically diverse area of North London, and eating out at its ethnic restaurants, are not reaching out towards some kind of engagement with the existing community (ambiguous, limited, and inadequate though that may be). No! They are ‘eating the Other’, and are implicated, despite their protestations, in a process of cultural imperialism intricately bound within a complex historical geography of racisms!

Alan Latham, 2003, ‘Research, performance, and doing human geography’, Environment and Planning A, vol.35, pp.1993-2017.

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CITIES, poetics of life, theatre

RW: Attract/Repel

The more I wanted to write this review quickly, the more I wanted it out and about, succint, streamlined and brilliant, the more I was tripping over my own inarticulation. The enthusiasm I had for writing seemed to derive from not knowing what it was I had to say, nor how. Why such caution before a very positive review? Because the praise I had to offer for Attract/Repel came from an unusual place; because of an avoidance of reviewing the previous show by Melbourne Town Players. Because the material does not easily lend itself to a watertight argument that can neatly encapsulate all that it does as a show. Finally because this review immediately follows a fascinating, if at times painful dialogue that grew out of a condemnatory critique of En Trance, a show that made artistic and dramaturgical choices that failed precisely where A/R succeeds.

If the foyer chatter on the opening night was anything to go by, we were in a minefield of opinions, impossible to exhaust in a 1,000-word review, no matter how well-chosen the thousand. I was midway through my annual contemplation of multiculturalism, having just found the perfect interlocutor. That, about 100 hours into the discussion, I discovered the interlocutor was more precisely the sensei, having written the text which seminally, famously, taught me all my thoughts on multiculturalism back in 2006, did not help. I was arguing with my spiritual uncle, if not exactly father, it turned out, and he was more than happy to keep challenging my hasty (but oh so quotable!) conclusions.

Terry Yeboah and Fanny Hanusin. Photography by Naomi Wong.

“Seeing a work that deals with topics I’ve spent solid three years thinking about”, I complained to Neandellus soon after, “makes it harder, not easier to write about. I have too many half-formed, unquotable thoughts.”

“Make your sensei write it”, was his suggestion. If only! Sensei (whom we’ll call ‘Ian’) declared he knew nothing about theatre, and was happy with correcting me. So I started:

Amidst the uneven, but fulsome praise for Attract/Repel circulating the foyer on opening night, it was apparent that this show’s merit arises in its slipping almost un-noticed across a series of borders that themselves are rarely ever acknowledged as such.

But ‘Ian’ was already slapping me on the wrist: “What you mean to add is: Borders which some have named the borders of whiteness, with quiet encroachments of the real into everyday fantasies of white supremacy in multicultural Australia.”

He continued: “The truths enacted through the show operated on an inversion of the assumptions presumed normal to a functional society, a logic more dependent on the potential for misunderstanding, misrecognition and mistaken identity.”

“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” I nodded hastily, and continued:

It is quite different from The Melbourne Town Players’ previous work in not being veiled, stripping away most of the veneer of artiness, leaving the art instead. Yet A/R has been shaped with a clear eye and a strong dramaturgical hand into an exquisitely crafted work, building a rich spectrum of thought and feeling out of associative nuances. It takes courage and maturity to recognise the theatre in four people on chairs talking about their personal experience, and it was, indeed, beautifully crafted theatre. 

Four performers, fluorescent tubes, and a wall painted blackboard-black. A/R is beautifully ordinary, threateningly postdramatic perhaps, as the actors ask and answer personal questions, tell funny stories (and tales about racial stereotyping, from the butt-end of essentialising assumptions, tend to be hysterically funny), find dead ends to arguments, change direction, change key, but ultimately, and intentionally go nowhere in particular. Where was the dramatic development?, complained one person whom Ming-Zhu Hii would have, in the days of Mink Tails, labelled identifiably white. I looked at ‘Ian’ for answers, and he obliged:

“The lack of a progressive movement to a climactic denouement is one of the show’s great strengths, instead presenting a series of plateaux oscillating between affective highs and lows – disgust and desire, anger and joy, sufficient to illustrate the tenor of its thesis. It was true to the subject matter. There is no resolution to the problem – you go from feeling elated because you’re accepted, to crashing down because of some racist remark; you solve a problem, you find another. Attract, Repel.”

Fanny Hanusin. Photography by Naomi Wong.

Relieved, I could go on:

How to talk about A/R, which can be read as a very successful moment in the Australian political theatre, without getting factional? It is a beautiful work, but its strengths and innovations really shine when looked at as political theatre – and the political discourse now needed to be employed would likely be alienating. 

There is a strong nod to Jerome Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and I – far more so than to circus acts like an oak tree: the staged conversation is personal and unforced, improvised-looking rather than scripted for theatrical friction. While A/R does not quite reach the same magnitude of light-handed yet devastating effect, there is no shame in not being Jerome Bel. There are moments in the show of similar gentle, but enormous, destabilisation of effect. Right after a reasonably heavy story of racial discrimination, Terry Yeboah starts talking about his white girlfriend, and unexpectingly breaks out saying, She’s here tonight! Hi, baby!, and she responds! The effect of turning our heads back into the audience, seeing someone normal, socialised, unremarkable, in the place of a villain, belies interpretation. 

It could have so easily gone wrong many times; the politics of the effect are more noteworthy than the politics of the representation that occurred. By definition, political theatre tries to ‘make things happen’, as Caryl Churchill once said; in Michael Patterson’s book Strategies of Political Theatre, British playwrights overwhelmingly defined political theatre as theatre that has an impact on the audience, that affects them beyond the doors of the theatre building. In other words, whether what is staged is four children playing, or racial tension, is not the deciding factor in whether a theatre piece is political or not.  

By keeping the performers as performers, and the audience as audience, A/R renounces the very role of theatre as a heightened state of exception that, by definition, confirms the rule. In order to build resonance in a string of moments, anecdotes and effects that are inherently unremarkable; it strips away the entire frame of ritual, purification, deeper meaning and condensation that has been hanging over textual theatre like an Aristotelian hangover, and that political theatre in particular doesn’t know how to do without.  

Yet it is not all just pussyfooting detail. The interventions are real, but subtle. From the moment she draws a CHINK SCALE on the wall, rather than spitting on its implicit racism, Jing-Xuan Chan and the others proceed to explicate the variety of positions they may occupy depending on the situation. We are immediately in very interesting territory. Here, rather than mere victims of incipient racism, is an illustration of strategic essentialism.

‘Ian’ nudged me sternly: “I don’t think you understand what strategic essentialism is. In this case, it was used as a tool in the hands of skilled players on the field of identity politics, as elaborated in the discussion post-En Trance, with the provocation as much in language and speech-acts themselves.

“Like Fear of a Brown Planet?” I wondered. The the political intervention of the humorous, very light-hearted A/R, a gritty show with a smiling face, is in the performative act of saying what are to some, unsayable things – again. There is here a more serious question whether the ultimate effect isn’t lost on those audience members who found the language simply failing to align with their truth; is the alignment noticeable, recognisable when it happens? Notice the ‘again’: it is the iteration that matters, that sets down a possibility of a pattern, and that gets recognised. Without going deeper into a discussion that can get bogged along the lines of you don’t understand; it has never happened to you, which may be as correct as it is unlikely to make one any friends, it is hard to finish this point. 

‘Ian’ pondered: “One of the chief problems we have experienced coming here was the deeply normative tolerance prescribed by Australian multiculturalism. Just like the whiteness of the true Australian skin: always invisible to itself, denied, yet something for all to comply with, more or less, by degrees, for acceptance to accrue.”

I jumped in: “The mind-numbingly idiotic language…”

“I think you’ll find you mean ‘mind-numbingly essentialist’…” ‘Ian’ sighed.

Alright. The mind-numbingly essentialist language, according to which Australia was diverse because of the many cuisines on offer, the maintenance of cultural identities by the shimmying of traditional dances on Federation Square once a year, was taken extremely seriously, elevated into a sort of magical language for getting by in life. To anyone aware of how much more complicated cultural pluralism is on the ground, this was the equivalent of one infant’s babytalk imposed on all the kids in the kindergarten as the right language for that age. But here it was, an invisible, white language, neatly split into politically correct nonsense on the one hand, and bureaucratic proscription (“if you don’t like it here”, “we choose who comes to this country…”) on the other. All the messy rest, heretically non-compliant with our Platonically ideal multiculture, exeunt. 

Georgina Naidu, Terry Yeboah and Jing-xuan Chan. Photography by Naomi Wong.

This is why there was sheer thrill in A/R when acronyms FOB and ABC were discussed, points marked on the CHINK SCALE and nuances of being called ‘nigger’ dissected. It was both a reclamation and exposure (again!) of ground that was true, existing, and all but invisible. 

“All well and right,” Neandellus popped his head through the window. “But is there any formal innovation there? Is it good theatre?”

“It’s very good political theatre…” I stumbled and looked at my sensei for argumentation. He was trying to make a bed for himself under the table, and looked frankly disappointed with me:

“Performative politics – i.e. the politics are iteratively done rather than represented. Butler makes a distinction between performance and performativity. Its important not to conflate them. The formal innovation is in lack of denouement.”

“Performativity and performance. One that accrues and one that’s mimetic, right?” I was testing my argumentative powers.

“Yes”, allowed my spiritual uncle. “Sort of. It will do. Mimesis is out of fashion. Accrual is in. But the plateaux bit is important. No orgasmic endings. Just more and more plateaux and deferral of climax.”

There was nowhere for the conversation to go after that. We politely retreated, happy to know we had just seen a great show.

Guerrilla Semiotics would like to thank Ian Woodcock for his generous support during the realisation of this project.

Attract/Repel. With a cast including Jing-Xuan Chan, Fanny Hanusin, Georgina Naidu, and Terry Yeboah. Music by experimental jazz guitarist Yusuke Akai. Sound design by Russell Goldsmith. Lighting design (inspired by Dan Flavin) by Damien McLean, with lighting concept support by Rachel Burke. Concept and direction by Ming-Zhu Hii. Producers: Nicholas Coghlan and Shalini Nair. Development Supported by Full Tilt Creative Development. The Store Room, 17 September-10 October 2009

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CITIES, how the world works

3xQuestion (rather less rhetorical than they may seem)

1. 1994

The New York Times had an article on the front page asking: why isn’t there class conflict, why aren’t all these people recognizing they have class interests that are being betrayed, lethally betrayed, by Big Business, and why now do people blame government instead of blaming business, and why is the boss never really seen as being the enemy and is rather being seen as a fellow victim? The article laid out in political and sociological terms how much the Right has won and how much the elimination, not even so much of the Soviet system as an alternative – because it never really has been an alternative for us – but of an ideological space marked “alternative”, how the elimination of that has absolutely forced people into simply accepting as a given all the things that are contrary to their own self-interest. You won’t blame the boss because blaming the boss means developing a critique of capitalism as a system and, of course, we all know now that capitalism is the only conceivable system. Look at the destruction of the trade unions, the idea that everybody is downscaling and everybody is being put out of work. No one is getting angry at these corporations anymore because it is simply assumed they will maximize profits at the expense of human beings, and that this is the way that it has to be.
– Tony Kushner interviewed by Carl Weber

2. 2006

How did we get [to the war on terror]? The best place to look for the answer is not in the days after the attacks, but in the years before. Examining the cultural mood of the late ’90s allows us to separate the natural reaction to a national trauma from any underlying predispositions. During that period, the country was in the grip of a strange, prolonged obsession with World War II and the generation that had fought it.

The pining for the glory days of the Good War has now been largely forgotten, but to sift through the cultural detritus of that era is to discover a deep longing for the kind of epic struggle the War on Terror would later provide. The standard view of 9/11 is that it “changed everything.” But in its rhetoric and symbolism, the WWII nostalgia laid the conceptual groundwork for what was to come—the strange brew of nationalism, militarism and maudlin sentimentality that constitutes post-9/11 culture.
– Christopher Hayes, The Good War on Terror: How the Greatest Generation helped pave the road to Baghdad

3. yesterday

Nick Dave’s new book The Death of Bunny Munro, about a man who sits in a hotel room and masturbates fantasizing about vaginas (what elese?, you sort of wonder), is due for release in Australia in August. This is the cover. If I knew whether I think it’s problematic or not, it would mean I have found answers to many questions troubling me these days. I haven’t, so I don’t.

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CITIES, how the world works, poetics of life

The Hunger Artists of St Petersburg

Writes Dmitry Vilensky on the global arts newswire:

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On May 15, the young contemporary artist Artem Loskutov was arrested
in his native Novisibirsk and charged with possession of a narcotic
substance (marijuana) by the local branch of the Interior Ministry’s
notorious Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”). Loskutov and
his supporters claim that the police planted the marijuana in his bag
in order to incriminate him. As one of the organizers of the annual
“Monstration” — a flash mob street party in which young people march
with absurdist, non-political slogans — Loskutov had long been an
objection of the Center’s attentions. At a pre-trial custody hearing
on May 20, it was revealed that the Center had been tapping the phones
of Loskutov and his friends for the past six months. In April and on
May Day itself, Loskutov had been summoned to the Center for
“discussions,” and his parents had been called and told that their son
was a member of a dangerous sect. The circumstances of the case and
the way that he was arrested thus point to a campaign of intimidation
directed both at Loskutov and his fellow “monstrators” in Novosibirsk.

The Loskutov case has sparked a massive outcry in Russia’s activist
and art communities. In the past three weeks, artists, activists, and
ordinary concerned citizens all over Russia have carried out a series
of pickets, protests, and actions in Loskutov’s defense. The most
inspiring of these actions has been a “plein air” hunger strike
organized by several young artists in Petersburg, now in its second
week. The artists encamped themselves in a park next to city hall and
began producing paintings and drawings whose central theme is the
increasingly brutal police repression of social activists and
left-wing artists in Russia. The hunger strikers have issued three
demands. First, they want a criminal investigation of the mass arrests
by riot police of a group of young anarchists on May Day in Petersburg
despite their having obtained official written permission to march
with the other columns of demonstrators. Second, they call for the
creation of a public commission to monitor the work of Center “E.”
Finally, they ask that all charges against Artem Loskutov be dropped
and that he be released.

Although the Loskutov case and the Petersburg hunger strike have
become one of the hottest topics in the Russian blogosphere, there has
been a near-total blackout in the mainstream Russian press, especially
television. That is why we ask you to read the article linked below
and learn how you can join our campaign of solidarity with Artem and
his artist comrades in Petersburg. We have called an international day
of solidarity actions for June 9, a day before Artem’s next hearing in
the Novosibirsk Regional Court.

An injury to one is an injury to all. Free Artem Loskutov!

http://chtodelat.wordpress.com/2009/06/04/free-artem-loskutov/

http://www.demotix.com/news/artists-hunger-strike-drags-international-economic-forum-looms
Artists hunger strike drags on as international economic forum looms

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Follow on the Chto delat? blog. Thought I’d mention.

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