SPILL STINGS 18: We See Fireworks

Thu 01 Jan 1970

Madeleine Hodge reflects on performance, memory, and the idea of hope in relation to Helen Cole’s We See Fireworks installation, 18-23 April 2011.
One sunny afternoon a few years ago, a friend asked me, very earnestly, “What is performance?”  She seemed genuinely perplexed and intrigued by the question or problem of performance, and I was too.  Having been an artist working in and around performance for over ten years, I was surprised not to have a ready answer.  Over the next hour we attempted to describe performance to each other: Is it a moment of encounter between two live bodies?  Is it an event?  Is it a frame?  Is it a decision that a mind makes to record a sequence?  Is it a memory?

We lie or sit in a very dark room and our bodies are like ships on a dark sea: lights emerge in the darkness, islands in the distance.  We are floating on a sea of memory, memories that appear like landmasses in the distance, coming into view, as close, warm voices tell of memories that have stayed with them.  Or so it feels to me as I lie on a floor in a dark exhibition space at the Barbican, listening to Helen Cole’s brilliant archive of performance memories, We See Fireworks.  Through recorded voices that come out of the darkness, I see: an older, naked dancer with folds of rippling flesh; a party for grown-ups wearing their finest clothes, who sit on tiny children’s furniture in an abandoned school; a man climbing into a coffin in a room full of lilies; seven million starlings filling the sky in an epic choreography of flight and traces; a man standing in the headlights of a car, wearing a female stranger’s underpants.  As I lie here, occasionally lit by the glow of incandescent light bulbs, I realise that I am not only hearing part of an archive, but that I am witnessing my own memory-making mind: recalling, absorbing and archiving.  Mapping my past and making a future that will take in this experience.  I am witnessing other people’s memories, fictions and experiences becoming part of me.

In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida writes, “The archivist produces more archive and that is why the archive is never closed.  It opens out of the future.”  The brilliance of Cole’s archive is that it hints at infinity, while each moment remains small and succinct.  I imagine that all 6,775,235,700 people on the earth might each have a completely distinct story, and that this unfathomable number of memories all already exist and are constantly multiplying and being remade.  Perhaps two people would remember the same moment, only remembering it differently from different angles.  Perhaps moments would echo each other.  Perhaps it is only once all of these memories are recorded and marked out that we will know the secret of what a performance is.  The archive currently holds 300 memories, but it could continue into an unimaginable future.  Cole tells me that each time she presents the archive she finds a new way of presenting the recordings suitable to the context, and a new constellation of connections, voices, tones and memories emerge from the archive.  Also new recordings are made – so with each iteration the archive grows, literally accumulating more experiences as it simultaneously grows within each of us.

Our sunny afternoon conversation veered and my friend described her work in terms of contagion, in that her work attempts to leave the viewer with an idea that is unshakeable.  That takes root inside them.  That is the little bit left over that you take into your body and begin to remake within your own frame.  From We See Fireworks I carry with me the memory of a man who tells of being separated from his wife for two years.  He tells of a performance in which he is asked to climb into a bed.  He says that once he gets in, a female performer crawls in behind him.  She puts her arm over his shoulder and presses her body against him in an embrace.  He says he realises with a sharp shock of emotions that have been held for too long, that he hasn’t been touched since his wife left, and he begins to cry.  This stays with me.  I carry the memory of that touch on my skin.

Like Artaud before him, Castellucci has said, “Theatre is the art form that is most closely related to death.”  I have understood this to mean that to begin to watch in the theatre you are complicit in the artwork’s demise: the beginning signals its end.  In a theatre or a performance, time ticks away, and we are at the edge of time passing, living with a sense that is as much like forgetting as it is remembering.  Its temporality makes it fallible, already gone as it is happening.  We See Fireworks is a hopeful attempt to fight against forgetting, to fight against cultural amnesia.  Cole’s archive makes a permanent but shifting archive of intimate, impermanent moments.  In doing so it asserts such a powerful case for the future of performance in all its messy, imperfect, glorious permutations that I come away feeling profoundly hopeful.  If any artist can make something that imprints itself on any mind, or memory-maker, in the ways described by these voices, then we will be okay.  There is a future for us.  We need each other to make each other’s memories possible.

The 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, best known for his philosophy of dialogue, writes about the spark of goodness within all things.  Much like the sparks set off in the SPILL Festival, he believes that these sparks spread through encounter.  Sparks, exploding from each person, each performance…  expanding each of us and making it possible for ideas, memories and experiences to perform and travel amongst us.  We infect each other through dialogue, through being, he says.  “The sparks scatter everywhere, they cling to material things sealed up in wells, they crouch in substances as in caves that have been bricked up, they inhale darkness and breath out fear; they flutter about in the movements of the world, searching where they can lodge to be set free.”