SPILL STINGS 20: A Dialogue on Infection (Concl.)

Thu 01 Jan 1970

This is the conclusion of a written dialogue between Mary Paterson and Theron Schmidt.
Hi Theron,

Yes, that’s it exactly – although you have articulated it much more fully than I could.  It reminds me of Martin Creed’s neon sign that was hung over the entrance to Tate Britain a few years ago:

the whole world + the work = the whole world

Our actions – as audiences, artists, workers, friends, citizens, dissidents – permeate the world that we live in and are permeated by the world.  What I like about this equation is that ‘the work’ is an addition to the world and part of it at the same time.  Art can introduce something completely new to the system, and it is the system.

I like your questions: ‘Can we think about the role of art not in terms of its ability to infect, but to be infected?  To be a space where infection happens, not necessarily the virus itself?’  In this year’s SPILL, there were (at least) two contrasting versions of how to set up a space for infection.

Firstly, there was Rajni Shah’s Glorious, a production that literally creates an alternative social space.  I’ve been involved in Glorious for over a year now – working on a publication that will document and reflect on the making process, and which will be published at the end of the tour.  So I have been able to observe the development of the show, including the relationships the company forms with performers and musicians at each venue (before the premiere in London, there was a preview of Glorious in Nottingham).

I was about to write, ‘and this means I have no critical distance’, which is of course true, but also more interesting than it sounds.  Leaving aside the problem with the term ‘critical distance’ (which is a fallacy), I have an unusually emotional relationship with Glorious – something more than wishing a company well, or hoping for the professional success of my friends and colleagues in the normal way.  Glorious is about social connections, and it is a model of social connectivity.  There is a deep, embedded concern with (positive) relationships at the heart of Glorious, and this attitude permeates every aspect of the production – from the homemade cakes baked for the launch of the project, to the interventions carried out by the cast in order to find new performers, to the invitation to the audience at the end of the show.  The result of all this ‘work’ exceeds the event of performance and is manifest in the nexus of relationships between the people involved.  But also, importantly, it is manifest in the potential of future relationships in the same model.

The political philosopher Brian Massumi describes the nature of perception as a dance between potentiality and possibility.  The crux of his argument is this: you cannot perceive an object without entering into a relationship with it; your relationship with the object is based on what you already know; therefore, your perception of the object is driven (but not determined) by what you have perceived before.  Knowledge, then, is not something that builds up like a wall.  Instead, it accumulates in a circular motion, bringing a bit of the past into the present in order to guess the future. And this is the infectious quality of Glorious: it introduces a pattern of behaviour that grows as and because it is spread by the actions (as opposed to the effects) of the people who take part.   Does this make it the environment or the virus?  Or both?  Perhaps the show is the moment of ‘actualised potentiality’ (to use Massumi’s term), when all the possibilities of perception converge on a single event: infection.  And the making process is the steady, circular growth of connectivity, which changes your relationship with the world forever: infectious conditions.

In contrast, Romeo Castellucci’s show in SPILL, On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, does not take a gradual approach.  Instead, the piece juxtaposes a set of strong, resonant images and symbols, and leaves the audience to find a way through.  How do you understand the modern relationship between a father and son, alongside the monumental, Renaissance-imagined face of Christ?  Incontinence alongside holiness?  Domesticity and religious majesty?  Theatrical realism and physical spectacle? You – or at least I – don’t.  Instead, I watch and absorb what I can of the performance.  Afterwards, I find that the images (and in this case, the smells) of Castellucci’s work stay with me, and begin to make connections with other things in my life.  Castellucci does not exactly invite the audience into a conversation, but he does start a dialogue which, like Glorious exceeds the event of the show, and adds to the world at the same time as it slips into it.  Full with intensity and utterly complete, On the Concept of the Face feels separate to the world in a way that Glorious does not, but in fact it grows into wider experience in a similar way.  Or at least, in a similar environment.  Perhaps the difference is that Castellucci subverts the order of things: first comes the infection and then, paradoxically, the infectious condition.

And yet there doesn’t need to be a defining difference.  One of the problems with language is that is has a linear direction (at least, our language does), which is tricky when you’re talking about processes that are gradual, circular, spreading.  So I will draw a circle and take Walt Whitman’s advice (‘Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’).  I like to think of art as a testing ground for cultural exchange: a place to reflect, resist or reciprocate the advances of culture.  I don’t believe that bald oppositionality is an effective strategic position, because it carries a high risk of over-simplification.  Although it’s useful to describe Rajni Shah and Romeo Castellucci in contrast, in fact they are part of the same cultural space, which is to say, they are both (re)active agents in the world.

When I remember each piece, I remember being involved in the same type of viewing: a quiet, still, reflective audience, which breathes in and out with the performance, breathes it in.

Dear Mary,

It’s interesting to see how this dialogue has returned us to some of the same questions that we were asking as writers, in a different configuration, at the last SPILL festival: questions of porosity, of text (and responsiveness in general) that is permeable and transformed by the encounter.  And these questions, of course, are part of a larger continuum of ideas about textuality, such as Umberto Eco’s idea of the ‘open work’, or Roland Barthes’ distinction between ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts.  But I sometimes get frustrated with those arguments, particularly when they tend toward (what I perceive) as a fetishisation of formalism, of trying to ‘break’ texts so that they allow gaps for the reader – but also (when done gracelessly) doing so in a way that is just as prescriptive and closed as a traditional text with regard to the capabilities of the reader.

At any rate, what I find interesting about where you are taking the conversation is that the qualities of permeability and inclusivity, as you are describing them, have less to do with the formal properties of the work itself and more to do with the context.  What we bring to the work, and the way in which the work introduces itself to us, is part of the work.  When I put it that way, I know it sounds obvious – that our expectations shape our experiences.  But while it may be obvious if one thinks of the experience in simple terms such as ‘liking it’ or ‘not liking it’, I think that one of the things that this week at the Barbican has explored is that there are multiple vectors of approach to the work, multiple ways of even thinking about what it is to approach the work, and the festival has been designed to explore these peripheral encounters as well.

Someone might only see the projected SPILL logo as they pass through the Barbican.  Or wander into the Tarot exhibition, which feels like a series of performances suspended in mid-act, at the same time as it functions cumulatively as a collection.  You might lean over the balcony and catch a glimpse of Robert talking with Diamanda Galás, and never see her film collaboration.  Or you might join the circle for one of Oreet’s conversations with Uma, or one of the other Salons.  I like the way that these hover in between public and private events, each with their own properties of inclusivity and exclusivity.  For example, the circle of chairs at the Salon establishes everyone in the Salon as more-or-less equal, but there were always people drifting in and out at the perimeter, or people who wandered up late who may have found the circle to be a closed boundary.  I think that’s okay.  I think nothing is ever purely ‘open’ – instead, the question is ‘open to what?’  Which will always mean, closed to something else.  What’s important is to keep shifting these sets of openness and closure, rather than to assume (wrongly) that one has achieved equality of access.  In the Salons, then, to be open to a space of respectful dialogue, and of sustained conversation, necessarily also means to be closed to arbitrary interruption.

One of my favourite of the SPILL formats, in this regard, is the SPILL Feasts.  Robert told me how these were inspired by a theatre he had visited – I think it might have been the Stuk in Leuven – in which everyone associated with the centre eats together each day: artists, technicians, administrators.  There’s something obviously egalitarian about this impulse – we all have an equal need for sustenance, and we are all entitled to an equal place at the table.  But this activity of eating together is never experienced neutrally or as a tabula rasa – as food scholar Martin Jones spoke about in his little post-meal talk at this year’s Feast, when he described the ways in which the activity of feasting reinforced distributions of power in medieval times, or the historical invention of the table-setting customs that we still observe.  To me, this year’s Feast felt more like everyone involved was already a professional, rather than the mix of audiences with arts professionals that characterised the 2009 Feasts – which might have been due to this year’s afternoon setting, or the overabundance of activity during the Festival, or the benefit that the previous Feasts had through their partnership with New Work Network (which recently lost its regular public funding) and Artsadmin.  But even so, I think there’s something important about just knowing that the Feast is happening, even if one doesn’t choose to attend.  It’s a sign of a commitment to a particular form of openness, of availability.  It says that there are many ways to approach the work, which might include personal encounter with the artists, or participation in a discussion, or just buying your ticket, showing up, and walking away into the night.

I’ve also been thinking about these ideas in relation to this particular format of writing that we have been observing: the letter.  Again, what I think is distinctive about this dialogue is not its formal properties as an object, but the context that it both draws upon and generates.  I mean: these letters between us, as textual objects, are not really that different from other kinds of critical writing.  It helps me formulate my thoughts to be responding to you, but it’s not a ‘real’ letter, whatever that would be, in that I’m always aware that there are other readers.  To be sure, it makes a difference to me (and to the tone with which I write) to think of this as a letter, but it’s not a radical difference.  Where a more significant difference occurs, I think, is for those external readers, people other than you and me, who approach this through the frame of it being a dialogue.  What properties, other than formal ones, does that idea start to produce?  Perhaps that there is something about kindness and generosity going on here, in the exchange between two friends, that accompanies our attempts to articulate ideas.  Or indeed that there is something both open and closed – an openness between you and me, who are engaging in this act based on mutual trust and respect, which is also opened out in a slightly different way to the readers we can only imagine – and which is also closed.  Robert told me that he wanted to comment on one of our previous dialogues, but wasn’t sure of the etiquette, as it was framed as a personal correspondence.  What would it do to interrupt with his own voice?  Would he be intruding?  Or is it really open?

This old-fashioned form, the letter.  Is it a coincidence that I see it everywhere this festival?  You talked about Glorious, which begins with Rajni and her team asking strangers in the street to stop and write a letter to someone they will never meet, and to take a letter in return.  And this format is adopted by the theatrical work, as well, as Rajni sings some of her letters, and the ‘non-performers/performers’ (as Maddy called them) also read aloud from texts that are structured as letters.  I know Collin, one of the performers, and I know Ghalib, to whom his letter is addressed, and to be witness to his letter – even though I know it is only a performance artifice – moves me to tears.  For me, these start when he walks up to the microphone and says, ‘Hi Ghalib.’

Or when I meet some of the artists from GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN at one of the networking events, they tell me about a letter-writing project that they have been engaged with alongside making their future work.  There’s something different again about these letters: they are written between three people, which unsettles the format (in a good way!), and the first one begins with an acknowledgement that the project is a kind of theft and an awareness that it has a public readership.  The chronology of these letters is important – you have to read them in the right order, and they refer to themselves, and to the way they mark a particular process, and are filled with anticipation of the future – so to approach them from the outside is to be aware of my own position in relation to them.

Or Leisa Shelton’s remarkable gesture with her Open Letter to 100 Australian Artists.  Leisa was invited to SPILL in order to say something about ‘the state of the arts’ in Australia.  She threw the question open, turning her presentation slot into an open conduit for the voices of others.  She wrote to 100 artists and arts professionals, inviting them to submit words or images or whatever.  By the time of the presentation, she had 38 responses, and those of us who were there used them as the basis for the conversation.  One of the things this does is start to establish some common themes and points for comparison: questions of sustainability, and proximity to power (in both countries, opera is by far the most highly subsidised art form), and that strange dynamic by which it is easier to get funding to bring artists from overseas than to get funding in one’s own country.  But this format also opens up the space to talk about conversation itself: who responded to the call?  Who didn’t?  Whose voices are we hearing?  And who is keeping silent?  We talk about self-organising networks, generational shifts, and questions of identity and identification. Rather than being definitive, this dialogue is generative.

I’m drifting here, and so maybe that’s a sign that I should bring this to a close.  We’ve agreed that these will be our final reflections on the festival, and so maybe that’s why I’m a little reluctant to end – I want to keep the space open, keep trying to fit in all that I didn’t get to say: about conversation, and infection, and kindness, and generosity.  About reciprocity rather than equality, which is what I took away from Kings of England and from Glorious, and about the work of hospitality – the work that begins before the work begins.  But maybe rather than give myself the last word, I will give these to those other curious voices that have been participating in this dialogue.  No one else has heard them, as I’ve been filtering them out – but all along this writing, we’ve been accompanied by automated bots, trying to add their comments, in the hope that the comment will be approved and along with it an accompanying link to cheap trainers, or pharmaceuticals, or financial information.  These too are a kind of infection, but I like the way they try to proceed: through kindness.  Here is some of what they say:

It is rare to find educated people about this topic, but you seem like you are aware of what you are posting about! Bless you

I really knew about nearly all of this, but with that in mind, I still considered it had been helpful. Excellent post!

If you could e-mail me with a few suggestions on just how you made your blog look this excellent, I would be grateful.

Terrific work! This is the type of information that should be shared around the web. Shame on the search engines for not positioning this post higher!

Bless you for trying to describe the terminlogy for the noobs!

I would really like to say thanks very much for that job you have made in writing this post. I am hoping the same most effective work from you down the road also.
Thank you, Mary.  Thank you, readers.  And thank you, bots. I’ll do my best down the road.

x theron