Performance in the age of zoom

I’ve been thinking recently about how performance translates onto streaming and video-conferences, a question raised in Nicholas Berger’s essay, The Forgotten Art of Assembly (linked to in a recent post by Sarah Hymas).

Berger, a theatre artist, describes his feelings at being deluged by online artistic creations at the same time as “stories of mounting death tolls“. He questions aspects of this drive to create, such as how it plays into the ongoing crises in theatre. He also asks about the medium: “Are we not just grabbing at the closest, easiest, most obvious solutions? ‘You know what we normally do? Yeah, just do that, but on Facebook Live.’

“There’s a reason theatremakers weren’t staging readings of plays over Zoom two-months ago, it’s the same reason we continue to turn to theatre, even when Hulu programs a bigger season than any off-Broadway theater possibly could.”

Berger goes as far as calling for a pause in theatre, to let things blow over: “Theatre makers don’t need to provide a supply of art that there isn’t a demand for… I promise you Tiger King is more enjoyable than Hedda Gabler on Instagram Live.

There are issues with Berger’s essay, which I see as a positive thing – it’s more an expression of doubt than an argument. Anna Caldwell wrote a response saying that this explosion of content is to be welcomed. She writes that Berger “makes a meandering argument for the cessation of digital performances because they cannot capture or recreate what makes theater so magical and ephemeral: the art of assembly.” She concludes, “We are allowed to find our own balance.

There is an error often made online that, just because something is available for everyone, that it is made for everyone. But I like Berger’s question about the sort of art being made. How do you avoid making something that could be as easily recorded and played back? How you maintain presence when that is the thing that has been stripped away? What forms of performance will be maintained when this is over?

I’ve seen some good performance poetry sessions. In a recent one by Apples and Snakes, there was a host and two performing poets, with the host picking out questions from the chat. Luke Wright is also doing a nightly show which feels like a broadcast rather than a recording. The key here is the hosting: all those years dealing with restless and distracted festival audiences comes in useful. Indeed, Luke compared watching people arrive and leave his lifestream to watching audiences drift in and out of a festival tent.

I’ve not watched a lot of zoom performance because of the main problem – that in a period dominated by screens, it’s good to escape the screen in my time off. I’ve loved receiving art by post (including Sarah Hymas’s new piece) which feels real and immediate. But I’m still hoping to see some zoom-native art. Just don’t make it about the bloody pandemic, OK?

May Day

Every year, as May 1st approaches, I start making plans to see the Brighton Morris Men dance in the summer at Hollingbury Fort.

The night before, the Morris Men dance at a series of Hanover pubs. They retire to someone’s house for a few more drinks and then head out onto the Downs in time for dawn.

Every year, almost without fail, I decide against setting my alarm to watch the dancers. I’ve only actually made it once, back in the noughties. I remember trying to find my way in the dark, following the sound of bells. As the sky lightened, dancers circled the fort, just about keeping their footing on the damp grass. It was a magical experience, and I wish I’d taken the opportunity to do it more often.

I love the rituals that mark our passage through the year. There’s an importance to the continuity of these things. Obviously, I could not go and see the ritual this year – but I hope it still took place. I’d like to think there were a handful of socially-distanced dancers, setting the summer in motion.

Monthnotes – April 2020

That was a very strange April – meaning some quite perfunctory monthnotes.

I am grateful every day for how easy my life is compared to a lot of people right now. I have a stable job I can do from home and a flat to myself. But life is still hard: I feel constantly anxious about the impact of the pandemic on my friends and community, and sleep is difficult. I wake very early most days, but this week I’ve been forcing myself to stay in bed till 5:30am which is helping.

Walking has been a consistent 10,000 steps of daily exercise, with rare errands adding a few thousand steps. My total for April was 323,007 (200K less than in March), with my highest being 17,804 steps on the 3rd. My lowest was 10145, 30 more than my lowest in March, but I will ratchet the steps up for that. I go out early most days, when it is quiet, but the morning walk still feels stressful. Brighton is just too densely populated for social distancing to work easily. Sometimes I think I should just stop taking my daily walk, and exercise indoors; but I think that would leave me feeling more burned out and lethargic.

A couple of mornings I’ve taken a dip in the sea, which has left me feeling awake and alive, but most days it’s hard to summon the intention to go swimming.

I finished 11 books in January, and just 2 last month – my concentration is not good. One of the books was a short one about Kurt Cobain, the other one of Mick Herron’s Slough House Spy Novels.

I didn’t watch any movies last month – my concentration is as bad at watching things as reading things. I’ve watched bits of a few series – Westworld has been mostly annoying, Devs started well and wore out its welcome. Netflix’s Sex Education (a recommendation from Rosy) was the only thing I enjoyed.

Above everything, writing has been rewarding. I’ve been running remote Not for the Faint-Hearted Sessions, and attending Naomi Wood’s workshops. I also published a new zine, the first part of my South Downs Way project. And today I’ll be working on a new spoken word piece for Zoom.

I read a blog recently where the author suggested the topic of “looking back at my 2020 resolutions and laughing/crying“. I had a read of my new year’s post:

No resolutions for 2020. Instead, I am planning to do less, making space for new things to enter my life. I am going to try reading more fiction, but that doesn’t require a programme or any goals.

I’ve found lots of space in my life, so I am winning at my new year’s resolution. I also re-read another post from January about the Pastoral Post-Apocalypse: “A world of fast fashion and cheap global air travel is coming to an end“. I hadn’t expected that to be so sudden.

We are in uncertain times. The days drag and the weeks fly by. But every day I am grateful for what I have. I miss people and sharing food and parties, but I’m happy enough for now.

The Panchakroshi Temple

In her book on Banaras, Diana Eck talks about the ‘transposition of place’ in Hinduism, and how “to some extent, all of India’s great tirthas are duplicated and multiplied elsewhere in India“. Banaras, as Kashi, contains echoes of all these other tirthas (holy places).

The idea of condensing a whole into a part is seen in the Panchakroshi Road, which encircles Kashi. There are 108 shrines on this road, and pilgrims perform a 5-day tour of them. I’ve read that this pilgrimage is as holy as visiting the four sacred sites at the far-flung corners of India. Eck writes:

And, of course, it is fitting that if one cannot make the long trip around the Panchakroshi Road, there is a single temple in the heart of the city – the Panchakroshi Temple – which one can visit. By circumambulating the sanctum of this temple, with 108 wall reliefs of the stations of the sacred way, one honours the whole of Kashi, and, in turn, the whole world.

I love the way in which these three different routes – around India, around Kashi and around the temple sanctum – are considered as identical. I read somewhere about how a short walk around the Panchakroshi Temple can be as holy as the pilgrimage around all India.

When I was last in Varanasi, I went to find the Panchakroshi Temple. There were no clear directions, so I did my best to find the place using Google Maps and GPS in the narrow alleyways. Finally, we found the doorway to the temple and walked up the steps. I felt a little like an intruder in a domestic space, as lines of drying laundry hung from the inner sanctum. I had little knowledge or understanding of the tiny representations of the temples, but asked if I could take photographs. I was told this was not possible. I walked around the temple, thanked the people, and headed for the river.

I don’t know how long I will be back in Varanasi – they say the greatest misfortune is to leave Kashi once one has been there – but some day I hope to walk the full length of the Panchakroshi Road.

New Zine: The South Downs Way

The copies of my new zine, The South Downs Way arrived today:

This booklet of short stories is part of a larger project about the South Downs Way. The zine contains 17 microfictions, most written in the last few months, but some dating back further (one to when I was 17 years old).

I’m looking forward to seeing what people make of this, and will be starting to send out copies tonight. If you want one email me, or leave me a message in the comments (I won’t publish it!).

The reality of ley lines

The first thing to know about ley lines is that they don’t exist. This is also the least interesting thing about them.

The theory of ley lines came from Alfred Watkins, based on observing alignments between historical sites. Watkins claimed that these lines would have been used to navigate trade routes. Over time, this theory has been tied in with new age ideas of earth magic, coming to represent channels of energy and force.

Ley lines are a statistical curiousity. Given the density of significant sites (wells, churches, barrows, hilltops) in the UK, it would be stranger if it were not possible to draw lines between them. Ben Goldacre posted about an experiment that found alignments between the old Woolworths stores. Using some software written by Stephen Kay, I’ve found lines between pubs in Brighton. Aside from the obvious alignment of pubs along the seafront, there was a pub-line from the Western Front to the Swan in Falmer, joining several pubs in the valleys between. Obviously, no-one had tried to align Brighton’s drinking dens, so what does this mean?

A few years back, I followed the ley line near the long man of Wilmington (a figure that Watkins thought might have been a surveyor of ley lines). I’m not sure how useful this line would be to navigate with, compared to the ridgelines and rivers in the area. I remain skeptical about most of the theories about leys.

I love the Austin Osman Spare quote about magic, that we should treat the entities we encounter “as if real”, not “as real”. These ideas were taken further by the practitioners of chaos magic, who decided that it was irrelevant if the entities and powers they interacted with were real. They found intercessions to superheroes or Mr Men could be as powerful as dealing with gods or demons.

It doesn’t matter if ley lines are real, because people find a power in these ideas. Some of them seriously believe that ley-lines channel energy in the earth. I’m generally suspicious of people using the word energy when they mean atmosphere – as someone who studied for a physics degress, if someone talks about energy then I want to see evidence of heat. I do wish, though, this sort of ‘energy’ was something I could experience and appreciate.

But I love ley-lines for telling stories about landscape. They tether churches to wells and ancient stones, asking us to make connections. I love the claims that these are lines of earth energy, used to guide alien space ships in prehistoric times. More than once at parties, people have told me that Brighton is special because two ley-lines cross here, although no-one has ever told me which ley-lines they are. Even the local council refers to ley lines in the St Anne’s Well Gardens information board – although they don’t know anything more about this line, only that it passes through the well. Ley-lines may not have the structure and authenticity of similar concepts like songlines, but given a few hundred years, they might.

The Walker

It’s just over a year now since I joined a pilgrimage to CERN where we immantenised the eschaton. I’ve not written a lot about this caper, mainly because I’m still thinking it through, even now – but you can get a good flavour of the events by reading the accounts from Ben Graham and the Moneyburner.

Part of what made the pilgrimage such an intense experience were the preparations we made in advance. We set up a radio station, planned magic rituals, and had a complete tarot deck printed. In the deck was a card for each of the pilgrims involved, and everyone came up with a card design and a pilgrim name.

I’ve long been around people with nested secret identities. I have friends with pen-names and stage-names; burlesque stars, rappers and hackers. It seemed like everyone had an alias – I know one person with nested identities four layers deep. I felt like the only person I knew with just one name.

In preparing for the pilgrimage, I had to take on a new identity for the first time. I needed an attribute that represented who I was. I picked The Walker: For the hiking, for how I would break bounds at school for night-hikes, for how I use walking to solve problems. I found an image of the Pennine Way, resting with my feet pointed towards an unfolding path through the Cheviots. And, for a touch of mysticism, I added a Feynman diagram, the one showing how an election and a positron are the same thing, but travelling different directions in time. My physics days are a long time ago, but I still love aspects of that.

The pilgrimage offered an opportunity to set aside my old identity. For a few days, I would be The Walker. I could forsake my old name, and be someone else. Possibly, I took this too far when someone asked me my name and I replied “The Walker”; they asked for my first, real name. I didn’t mean to be sarcastic when I said “The” – that was who I was then.

The pilgrimage was an incredible experience, which set my life onto a new path. When I came home, I put the identity of the Walker away, like Bilbo putting his Mithril coat in the wardrobe. It’s come out on a few occasions, but not often.

But maybe there is an opportunity here – who might The Walker be in my ‘normal’ life?

‘The New Normal’

I’m coming up to the end of my sixth week of distancing, and this weekend has been the first time I’ve found things difficult. A combination of not sleeping, isolation and general anxiety have taken their toll – not helped by a hangover from the cherry brandy and Cokes I was drinking last night.

When lockdown started, I very much approached it as a temporary thing. I was aware of the Stockdale paradox, so I didn’t start promising myself that the restrictions would be lifted at the first review, or even the second. But I went into this assuming Boris Johnson’s upbeat prognosis of 12 weeks to have this beaten would set a rough timescale.

It’s become obvious recently that it could be some time before restrictions are eased in any form. It’s no longer a case of briskly carrying-on as best as I can. I’m now asking myself what a sustainable and positive normal life now means. I tried to make lockdown a positive experience, but I’d not really considered what it would require over the long term.

There have been good things: it’s been an opportunity to look at how I approach the things I do; to give cooking the attention it needs; I’ve found a domestic contentment and enjoyed having few plans for the future; it’s been good to have this time to pause and look back at my life so far; and it’s a chance to grow out my buzzcut.

But I have been treating it as a novelty (part of which is blogging about this so much). I actually have it pretty good right now (and I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for a lot of other people). I need to accept what is happening, turn down the volume on the news. To find new routes to exercise that won’t be crowded. To get better at sourcing groceries.

The good news is, I have a new zine at the printers, part of a longer project. I’ve got the opportunity to really work on this, with fewer distractions than usual. And, over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to blog more about that project than the experiences and frustrations of confinement.

It’s been a tricky weekend, but nothing a good night’s sleep won’t help.

Retreat, Days 38-40

  • The birdsong seems so loud these days. I’m particularly noticing it in zoom calls. Zoom does some fairly clever things with audio, and I wonder if this is a side-effect?
  • The world continues to be strange. This week I received a £25 rebate on my car insurance as so few people are claiming. It’s very welcome, but it’s odd.
  • This month, the price of oil turned negative. Vice had a couple of good articles on this: a good explainer, and a discussion of whether buying an oil tanker to take advantage of this would work. It’s a fascinating story, showing how the futures market does indeed involve actual real things – which traders came very close to taking possession of.
  • A beautiful quote from a recent Rebecca Solnit article: The philosopher-mystic Simone Weil once wrote to a faraway friend: “Let us love this distance, which is thoroughly woven with friendship, since those who do not love each other are not separated.”
  • Remember the banana bread era? An age of innocence, when we still thought lockdown was going to be like a wet half-term in an Enid Blyton book” – Jess Cartner-Morley
  • One of the local hairdressers seems to have transformed into a greengrocers. A sign of the times, but I welcome having more options for fresh food.
  • Another sign of ingenuity – on a conference call this week, a colleague showed us their system of mirrors, placed in the garden to angle sunlight into their office.
  • Nick Caves transformation into spiritual leader continues with this lovely recent piece of writing on prayer: A Prayer to Who?
  • Busy day today, including running a workshop. Off to bed now to get a good night’s sleep, ready for tomorrow’s virtual session with Slow Yoga Club.

Retreat, Days 35-37: Retrospective

This week, a friend has been sick with covid-19. Fortunately, they did not need to go to hospital, but it was a close thing. It’s been horrible seeing them suffer their ordeal alone. One of the worst things about this pandemic is the many ways in which it isolates us. I’m feeling a lot more nervous now about getting ill myself.

I’m now into my fifth week of retreat. At the start I tried to prepare myself for an extended period of restrictions, and it’s become obvious that the old world is not coming back any time soon, if at all. We are a long way from enjoying a pint at the pub. This seems a good time to review how I’m feeling about the lockdown:

  • I made a lot of preparations for activities to stop me getting bored. This has not been a problem. Most of my energy has been needed for work, and reading is a satisfying way to fill the rest of the time. I’ve abandoned a lot of the daily activities I started doing (including juggling and learning Hindi on duolingo). Watching TV has not proved a good use of my time – I find it hard to concentrate on most shows.
  • I’ve been cooking for myself since this started, since that feels safer. I’m enjoying this, although I’m still not comfortable with the best way to get food. I’ve avoided large supermarkets, but the problem with this is needing to make more trips. Hopefully delivery services will become easier to access. I’m still a little shaken by the empty shelves when this started.
  • I really miss having visitors, and popping over to other people’s houses. Socialising by zoom is actually quite tiring compared to hanging out with people in the real world, and I’ve been trying not to spend too much time online (particularly given that work requires me to be in front of a screen).
  • A few days, I’ve left the curtains closed, and that has made me feel lethargic. So, I am making a conscious effort to keep things as bright as possible during the daylight hours.
  • My walks are to a fairly regular routine. It’s easier to get the energy to go out about 6am, and things are fairly quiet. When I have taken walks later in the day, social distancing has proved difficult. There is just not enough open space to walk in Brighton and Hove for a densely packed population.
  • I’m trying not to plan my days too much, and the looser schedule is much more comfortable. I feel a lot less anxious than normal about the things I need to do.
  • I’ve not done any volunteering on the NHS app. I am not sure about going outside any more than my daily walks, and don’t feel comfortable driving – most of the time I am too tired, as I’m not sleeping.
  • Generally, I’m finding the situation very oppressive – both the horror of the disease, and the effect it’s having on people’s lives and finances. I am quite safe and comfortable, but even so I still find it hard to sleep.
  • I feel I have quite a stable basis for however many months this goes on for. Take it slow and gentle, appreciate the distraction of my job, and focus on my writing. This is an opportunity for focussed deep work, and to reflect on my life. I’d certainly never choose this as a lifestyle, but I still feel I can make a positive experience from it.