Sunday, July 17, 2011

Performing Seals It!

The Manchester International Festival finishes today, and although its a bit difficult to be objective, given that few people will have been to more than a couple of shows, because of the cost and the variety, it seems to have been another success. There were tickets still on sale as late as yesterday afternoon for the remaining shows - which, though surely not ideal, at least let people make choices after the reviews came in.

I popped into "11 Rooms" at Manchester Art Gallery yesterday - I simply hadn't found time and opportunity before - and the place was packed, and indeed closed its doors early. Performance art, that mainstay of TV comedy skits on art, has clearly come of age. Maybe it was already there... David Blaine in a box, or the hourly stints on the 4th plinth at "One and Other." I don't think I'm being elitist when I felt that I didn't want to be crammed into a small space watching this or that performer. The performers I have seen this last couple of weeks - Rickie Lee Jones, Paul Heaton, Lonelady - have been of the musical variety. In each case, although seeing them live seems a privilege it is the work that got me there. Classic albums from Rickie Lee (she took us through her first two albums in the order they were recorded), familiar songs from Lonelady, a brand new ensemble piece by the Beautiful South frontman.

I could (and perhaps should) have gone to something every day and night this week, but I've had to limit myself. In all of this "performance" you wonder where anyone gets the time to do any work nowadays. Bjork apparently doesn't speak for a day after the performance; yet everyone's been hoping to "star spot" round town, as if seeing someone outside of their show, drinking beer in Albert Square or coffee in the Cornerhouse, is somehow a more authentic experience. After all, its no surprise that you might bump into Damon Albarn out and about, as he's garrisoned in Manchester for a few weeks. The more authentic experience, of course, is the performance; but even more than that - it's the creation of the art, and that, so often happens outside the performance space.

I'm thinking of this because next Sunday I'm going to be in a "performance" space, one of a relay of writers in "residency" for a couple of hours at Untitled Gallery, a subterranean space under the Friends' Meeting House (run by Metallica fans if the typeface is anything to go by!) Jane Chavez-Dawson's "The Reading" is being broadcast onto screens across the city, including the lobby of the Cornerhouse. A full list of writers is here....

This piece appealed to me on a number of levels. Firstly because it is about writers doing what they do, usually in silence and isolation. Secondly because of its democratic nature - which has appealed to a wide range of Manchester's writing community. And thirdly because the chance to sit down and write something in "residency" even for just a couple of hours, feels a real privilege. In other words, it amazes me that any work at all gets done these days, so inculcated are we in the primacy of performance.

As a poet, as a well as a fiction writer, I know how long it can take for a poem to make it from first draft, to being ready for the world, to being published. For our art, I think this has implication, in that its only when a book or record or film is completed that the world sits up and takes notice. Our instantaneous culture is one of over-production, yet for an individual artist or writer this is so difficult. No wonder there's a trend in the art world towards minimalism, it's all people have time for.

Yet if you make art in isolation, it can be hard sometimes to know where it might fit in. There are writers who are fixtures in certain magazines, or who are an obvious fit for this or that project. Yet if you follow your own path - wondering where it might lead - it can sometimes seem out of synchronisation with the times. A disinclination to be a "celebrity" is anathemic to modern culture. Bookselling demands not only your presence, but your performance. In our cultural zoo it is the creatives who are best at being performing seals who often are most successful, at least in the short term. But all this activity is often counterproductive. I've read more about the Poetry Society in the last month than in the previous ten years, and all of it is to do with their administration and nothing to do with poetry (though there are poets involved.)

Anyone who is interested in contemporary art can find themselves invited to previews every week of the year - yet it is the silent contemplation on a wet Wednesday afternoon that offers the real communion with an artist, just like the real communion with a writer is in private, with the work. Anyone who has sat there uncomfortably as a friend asks to read your latest poem knows how irrelevant your presence is to the reading - after all the "presence" is all in the work. All art is performance, but when everything is performance, I fear a little for the art.

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