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?

Loop: 20 GOTO 10

As part of this year’s digitial festival, Kate Shields presented an installation called Loop. This was a fantastic piece, and received official support via one of the Grassroots Grants. Loop involved feedback produced between two mobile phones filming one another, the result of which was projected (also adding to the inputs to the phones). The images produced were strange, hypnotic and weirdly restful.

The exhibition also included a series of supporting events, such as (B)loop, a musical response from R. Dyer, and some film screenings. There was also my own appearance, a spoken word piece called 20 GOTO 10.

I love doing commissioned work, as it challenges me to be innovative. Despite this being a one-off performance, I tried a number of new things. One of these was making the script into a mobius strip, so that my own reading was in a loop. This meant part of the script would be facing the audience, so I added pictures and large text to it. These may not have been easy to see, but I wanted to give the impression that the script was an aesthetic object in itself.

As any public speaker will tell you, do not write your own slide software – you should use one of the standard tools that are available. But I wanted to incorporate the idea of loops and decay into this aspect of the performance. I knocked together something with processing which displayed video loops, making them darker over time, to be replaced by the next when I used the clicker.

This was a lot of work, but it was taught me a lot. I originally planned the work as a way of preparing some material for Amateur Escapology, the show I’m doing next month. Instead, I ended up talking about a very different theme, that of the importance of ritual, and how ritual works further and backwards in time.

Something I’ve realised recently is that I’ve been more successful with performance than publication. This comes down to the huge anxieties I have about my writing. With a performance, there is a commitment to complete something; whereas submission for publication is something that can be ducked. Which is not to say I haven’t pulled performances, but it’s rarer that I can get away with it.

But it does get easier. When I worked on the first Slash/night many years I became convinced that it would go badly and ruin my enire life. I was more stressed about 20 GOTO 10 than I should have been, but it is getting easier. A day before I looked at it and decided it was horrible. But all the good things I needed were in the script, they just needed to be shuffled. I’m glad I did this.

Escape talk at the Bavard Bar

Last night, I popped over to Eastbourne to speak at the Bavard Bar. It’s a fun event with a friendly crowd. The format is borrowed from Brighton’s Catalyst Club, but with a few additions. I was there to give my talk ‘How to Escape from a WW2 POW camp‘.

I spoke first, which meant that I could relax with a glass of wine while I listened to the other speakers. Becky Edwards spoke about To Be Continued, a multi-media storytelling project based on the diaries of Dick Perceval. Becky found these diaries lying beside a bin in the 90s, and has been tracing the story of their writer. There was also a discussion of atonal music, particularly the work of Arnold Schoenberg. It was a great introduction to an area I’ve never thought about, and never realised was worth thinking about. So, all-in-all, a great night. Thanks to Tim for inviting me along!

Crowd from the Bavard Bar

(The image above is by Cliff Crawford, the Bavard’s resident artist)

The talk I gave was from my first appearance the Catalyst Club back in January 2010, also coincidentally the first time that Tim attended. I also gave the talk at 2011’s White Night (the year of the zombie riot in the aquarium). I think I might have done it at Wilderness Festival in 2015 too. It’s a good talk, and one I always planned to do something with. Like so many things, I abandoned it rather than develop it further, but it’s good to finally revive it after almost ten years.

The most difficult thing was fitting everything into 15 minutes, which I just about managed. Some of the material from this talk has been folded into my Amateur Escapology show, but less than I expected. Meanwhile, I’m going to look for more places to give this talk.

Loop: 20 GOTO 10 (talk on 12/10/19)

On October 12th, I’m giving a talk called ‘20 GOTO 10‘ in support of Kate Shields’ new exhibition Loop, which is appearing as part of the Brighton Digital Festival.

The talk is about ‘looking at how we can escape loops, drawing from examples in science, technology and daily life‘. It will be about 20 minutes long, and is going to be a little different to my usual talks.

The themes of 20 GOTO 10 link with those of Amateur Escapology. But, the more I’ve worked on it, the more of an independent life it’s taken on. I’ve even written my own slideshow software so I can do some tricks that Powerpoint/Impress just aren’t there for. I’m having so much fun devising this talk, and it will be very different to anything I’d normally do.

It will also be good to see Kate’s exhibition. I’ve visited her a few times while she’s been working on it in the studio, and can’t wait to see what it looks like in the gallery.

Launch night for Rosy Carrick’s Chokey

June looks like a pretty exciting month (World cup! Birthday! Trip to Glastonbury!) but the highlight is the launch of Rosy’s pamphlet Chokey (tickets available for £5 from the Rialto website). The event will be incredible, with performances, tattoo parlour, ‘beefcake videos’, themed cocktails and an actual real life chokey. I’ve never seen a spoken word event with this much planning and complexity. You must come!

Me, modelling the fashion accessory of the summer

For me, personally, the launch of this book is a huge event. I’m listed in the acknowledgements, where Rosy thanks me for help with editing the poems, and “for living through them with me for the last twelve years”. I don’t know that I’ve done much real editing, although it’s been fun discussing these poems in workshops, fields and late nights over the years. But I’ve definitely felt the intensity of living through these poems.

The thing I love most about poetry is the way that it captures intensely personal moments and opens them up for other people. No other artform does this for me in such a powerful way . Seeing these poems collected together in a single volume was like a reunion with old friends. It’s beautiful to see them gathered together to set out into the world.

Of course I love these poems, although some are difficult to re-read. Most striking of all is the penultimate poem, Thickening Water, an intense eight-page poem. I’ve seen it performed a couple of times and it’s breathtaking.

Rosy is having something of an imperial phase right now, having just done three Brighton dates for her show Passionate Machine (for more see this interview or review from the source). I turned up as a character in that, which was a weird experience, seeing some events from my life recontextualised. It was also good to see an explanation of what had been happening over the past few years, with Rosy’s weird trips and the odd letters that keep arriving.

(The other day I saw a stranger who looked like an older version of Rosy, and my first thought was that it must be Future Rosy, popping back in time).

Art is a beautiful, transformative thing, a way to share our feelings and our lives. It makes the world a better place.

2/6/18: More reviews for Passionate Machine:

The Frankie Vah Revival

Frankie Vah, ranting poet, must be in his mid-fifties now. It’s a long time since the 1987 election, when Frankie toured the country as a support act for indie band The Midnight Special. Vah would be completely forgotten if he were not the subject of Luke Wright’s new play, Frankie Vah.

By looking at the problems within the Labour party of the 1980s, Luke has found an interesting way to approach contemporary issues. There’s an incredible amount of research into the time – Kinnock: The Movie, an election broadcast, is an essential point, as is the deputy leadership contest between Dennis Healey and Tony Benn. Somehow, this level of political geekery is passed off gently, introducing the background without obvious exposition. And it’s done well. The show I saw was followed by a Q&A with various politicians who’d attended gigs at the time, possible even ones Vah had performed at, and they accepted the reality of Luke’s play without question.

Obviously, I never heard Vah perform, but Luke’s performance does an incredible job of summoning an energy and outrage around Thatcherite politics. Lady Winter, Luke’s reconstruction of the sort of poem Vah might have done, is pitch-perfect and stirring.

For a play about the 80s, Frankie Vah made me think a lot about current politics. About idealism vs compromise. About what art can do to change the real world. The show is currently on at the Soho Theatre, but if you can’t make that, then the script has been published by Penned-in-the-Margins. It kept me company on a recent trip to Ireland.

Passionate Machine!

Given that this is my response to a show about time-travel, it’s ironic that it’s as late as it is. I also have a weird feeling, as if it might not be the only time that I’ve written this. There could be other timelines where I’m also writing descriptions of the events – or where I managed to post them sooner.

So, obviously Rosy Carrick’s show Passionate Machine, was amazing. I mean, I’d say that even if it wasn’t (if you want a more objective review, check out the one from the Brighton Argus). Hopefully, I can persuade you there were many other things that made it great, not just that I want to stay friends with her. The show describes a strange period in Rosy’s life where she received messages that could only come from the future, sent by a mysterious figure. These messages related to Rosy’s PhD research into the great Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Rosy’s show was spoken word rather than poetry, and incorporated video footage and images (as well as an audio recording of me). Watching it I was impressed at what Rosy had done with the one-man-show. It’s a lot more interesting than someone simply standing up and reciting things. She’d used the format to its limit, for example handing envelopes of evidence to the audience as they arrived. There are also some moving moments showing how  people had responded to the story online.

The performance we saw was a work-in-progress, but it was pretty much complete and incredibly moving. I liked that the show did not get bogged down in the mechanics of time travel, taking it for granted and working with that. The resulting story is more personal and emotional than a lot of similar portrayals. As the show explains, we are all time-travellers in a sense, relentlessly pushed forward, able only to send messages forwards. Rosy has had a very different experience.

For me it’s a very different show than for most of the audience, as I was around for a lot of it. Rosy talks about the university course where she first discovered Vladimir Mayakovsky. Rosy was, apparently exasperated by my foolish questions in that class, but warmed to me when we chatted. I ended up looking after her pet cat Squeaky one Easter while I wrote an term paper on Wuthering Heights and, later, a chunk of my dissertation. We’ve been friends since then, through all sorts of adventures. And a lot of Rocky films.



Chalk Ghosts at Fort Process

I’m frantically packing for walking the South Downs Way and almost forgot to mention that I am giving the Chalk Ghosts talk again at Fort Process. This should be particularly interesting, as I’ll have spent the week before tramping across the downs.

Sussex is haunted by stories. Sometimes it seems that folklore is confined to books, but it’s still out there. Looking at Sussex myths, ghosts and chalk, this talk will show how our world is just as strange as it has ever been. There are ghosts all around us. James Burt looks Sussex legends over the years, drawing links between them, and asking why these stories have changed over the years.

I’ve been doing lots of new research for this including on angels and food in visitations. I will also finally see Dr Bramwell’s talk on Ghost Villages. I’m also looking forward to seeing Sarah Angliss, Kemper Norton, Gagarin and Scrying Ylem. I’ll also get to watch Matthew Clayton’s talk, which I missed at Wilderness.


Chalk Ghosts – 8th July 2016


I’m giving a performance at the next Small Story Cabaret event, on 8th July at Westgate Chapel in Lewes. The theme of the night is ‘Hoof and Horn’, which means stories of magic and the occult. I will be performing a new ‘thing’:

Chalk Ghosts
Sussex is haunted by stories. Sometimes it seems that folklore is confined to books, but it’s still out there. Looking at Sussex myths, ghosts and chalk, this talk will show how our world is just as strange as it has ever been. There are ghosts all around us.

Tara originally asked me if I wanted to do a version of the talk on Slenderman that she saw at the Towner in 2014. This started out as a performance at 2014’s Brighton Digital Festival and was given in a longer version at Wilderness last year. I’ve also been talking about Sussex folklore at last year’s Brighton fringe and in my performance for Two Knocks for Yes. This talk brings together a lot of those threads.

Chalk Ghosts is very much based around Sussex. It’s about what this county means to me – I’ve lived here since I was 2 or 3 years old. I’m currently making projections and recordings, and figuring out how best to use the space. I have no idea quite what this will turn out to be, but it won’t be boring.

Two Knocks for Yes


Last Friday I spoke as part of the Two Knocks performance at St Andrew’s Church in Hove. I’d been involved in some early discussion and it sounded so ambitious that, when I was invited to participate I had to say yes.

I gave a talk about ‘The Folklore of Death and Water’. It was a deliberately bland title, playing with some of my obsessions while feeding into other aspects of the event. I was a little nervous as the night approached, particularly as the audience hit 100, but I was fairly happy with my performance.


The venue was probably the most atmospheric place I’ve ever performed. It was incredible speaking from the pulpit, the audience dimly lit in front of me. The building was sufficiently spooky to freak me out completely during rehearsals. I was talking while Curtis listened, Emily ran tech and Simon checked his kit. We had the doors locked so that we weren’t disturbed. From where I was I could see through the doorway into the church’s entrance corridor.  As I described a haunting, I saw a shape move past the doorway. The rehearsal fell apart as I started laughing nervously. I’m not the sort of person who imagines seeing things.

As I said in the talk, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in hauntings. Even during daytime rehearsals, the effect of the performance and venue was spooky. I hope there are more of these in the future. Future events will be announced via the Two Knocks mailing list and the soundtrack is online.