Friday 30 July 2010

asking everything

The New Yorker's editor, David Remnick, answers the question: 'Are we all doomed?'

Nature is cold, wet, hard and unforgiving. Yet people seem to like it, and we're doing our damnedest to destroy it. It scares the hell out of me. We need worldwide self-denial and a technological revolution. It's asking everything, yet everything depends on it. Sorry to bum you out. more ...

Thursday 29 July 2010

flowers on stage: snake's head fritillaries

In the last of our series on flowers on stage, the artist Sue Palmer writes about the spring garden.

The Dartington garden is the first part of the estate to fold out of winter: crocuses, hellebores, snake’s head fritillaries, tiny vibrant pink cyclamen, white and mauve anenomies. This year, the primroses have been particularly radiant and prolific with their glorious yellows.

I have worked as a theatre lecturer for the past 9 years at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, teaching the site-specific course where students make performance work all around the estate – in the fields and woods, and along and in the River Dart. The College sits within a classic pastoral ‘estate’ landscape, and it is both with and against this floral spring ecology that we make site-specific performance.

As we go through the 9-week course from the end of February to mid-May the landscape transforms. The astonishing emergence from bare earth to flush of leaves and flowers and then to seed follows the trajectory of the creative process – researching, devising and performing. Flowers border our journeys, fill our gaze and accompany us in the process of making.

But the fecund Devon spring landscape is so complete in itself that to add ‘theatre’ to it often renders the maker superfluous to the ‘event’ of sheer abundance taking place all around: how can anything be added to a bluebell wood?

To balance the automatic lean towards Titania and the faeries, we look at Banksy’s ‘altered’ oil paintings: a CCTV camera monitoring a pastoral scene. And a more thoughtful attention comes into play: the flowers become visible processes that the performance work unfolds in relation to.

Wild garlic with its strong green leaves and white starflowers becomes food, material, scent. Red camellias, placed along a rocky path descending through the woods between abandoned high-heeled shoes, fill the place with yearning. A bunch of bluebells given as a tryst in the crook of a tree for one audience member at a time, already written with the inevitability of the flowers’ quick wilt. And the gardens, a site for subversive action: a special ‘guided tour’ pokes fun at the quintessential English garden and another performance transforms it into a place of zombies and half-deads.

In the site project at Dartington, the flower-filled landscape is not seen or used as decoration or backdrop but as an environment to open perception and explore the magnitude and detail of both real and invented worlds.

See also: flowers on stage: the poppy, flowers on stage: the daffodil, flowers on stage: the lotus, flowers on stage: the lungwort; flowers on stage: ‘breath of life’ and flowers on stage: kudzu

photo: snake’s head fritillary by Sue Palmer more ...

Wednesday 28 July 2010

bright ideas or stark statements

Plastic's USP is that it never goes away. It's why smart new recycling plants - such as the merf this blogger visited here - are very good news:

This is the reverse of “Modern Times”, where the machines dehumanise poor old Charlie Chaplin. This time the merf liberates the little guy from the tyranny of the bins.

(Hat-tip: It was the catering manager of the National Theatre who first told me about this 'merf'.)

Not so effective, in this blogger's opinion, is the slightly coercive advertising from the local council (above): 'Recycling: It's a duty not a choice.' As Wiki says, a duty is an obligation that is recognised by the individual, who acts out of a sense of moral commitment. For a local council to lecture its residents on "duties" may be counter-productive.

Pic. RB more ...

Tuesday 27 July 2010

the biggest hindrance

Jeremy Leggett, chairman of Solarcentury, answers questions about moving towards a low-carbon economy.

Q: Most people in the UK have heard of climate change and the need to act, but are doing little. What do you think is the biggest thing hindering behaviour change?

A: The human brain. The older I get the more I lose my faith in the power of rational argument.
more ...

Monday 26 July 2010

flowers on stage: kudzu

In the sixth of our series of blogs about flowers on stage, Ian Garrett writes about the environmental conditions of the theatre and kudzu.

Every evening in most theatres, the air conditioning is turned up high, while technicians check every piece of 575w+ lighting and meticulously focused speaker clusters. They ensure that there is no foreign light, that the artificial fog moves the right way, and that the audience is comfortably buffered from influences we don’t control. This makes the ecology of the theatre inhospitable to most living things.

As a graduate student at CalArts, I worked on a production of Naomi lzuka’s SKIN, in which the scenic design had a ground row of living plants between the audience and the stage. This thin strip of greenery was conceptualized as a natural lens to view a gray industrial space (really the theatre itself), and we worked long hours on supporting this living design element.

To maintain the foliage we removed the plants from the theatre daily to bring them into the sun. We installed a plastic membrane between the soil and the rest of the set to allow for regular watering. We had to find mature plants, and spares for those that died, to fill a flower bed 1-foot by over 100-feet for two weeks of performances. Finally, we had to figure out where these plants would go when we were finished.

And after all that, the plants never looked real. In the hyper-designed theatrical realm, their lush leaves looked bland - so much so that they were lit bright green to make them ‘pop.' Here was all this effort to include a living thing, but ultimately for something that looked fake. Aside from the knowledge of the crew, we could have skipped this life support system entirely, and plastic plants would have been just as effective, if not more so.

When I lived in Houston, Texas, I designed a set in a large warehouse space. The play called for a large facade in a tropical location. I so wanted to ‘grow’ the set, researching into kudzu, an Asian vine, known as ‘the planet that ate the South’ and brought into the United States to abate erosion. It is known to grow over one foot in a day. I wanted it for its quick growing properties, but soon learned that it was illegal to bring into Texas. It is a plant that could tough out the harsh theatrical environment, but also so aggressive that it is legislated against.

It is unnatural to enter a building in the early morning, sit in the dark and leave at night. During the winter months, I’ve not seen the sun itself for days, and have weathered blizzards in a tee-shirt with no clue as to the snow outside. When I’ve tried to bring the outside inside, it’s been a poor substitute for a substitute or just plain disallowed.

We should be thinking about our theatre spaces in the same way that landscape architects think about working with an indigenous environment: What is the best thing for this geography and use? How do we make a theatre space that fulfils our needs and desires, while supporting life?

A part of sustainability in architecture is about environmental health: natural lighting, air-quality, and safety. Perhaps rather than just putting solar panels on the roof, we should be thinking about making sure a building allows life into it in the first place.
Ian Garrett is a director of Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts.
See also: flowers on stage: the poppy; flowers on stage: the daffodil; flowers on stage: the lotus; flowers on stage: the lungwort; and flowers on stage: 'breath of life'
Coming up: the snake's head fritillary more ...

wheels of change

Andrew Gillingham writes:
The railways owned the 19th century; the 20th was the age of the car. But as Alberto Contador processes up the Champs-Elysees to win the Tour de France, and as London's mayor, Boris Johnson, unveils his massive cycle-hire scheme, could this be the century of the bike? 

more ...

Thursday 15 July 2010

flowers on stage: 'breath of life'

In the fifth of our summer series of blogs about flowers on stage, Stephen Bottoms writes about the 'Breath of Life' in Susan Glaspell's play, The Verge.

Flowers are a bit queer. We think of them, habitually, as nature’s gift of colour and scent, yet they are also the most intensely ‘cultured’ of plants: we see them in ornately presented beds, or simply cut and arranged into bunches, bouquets. For most of us, particularly those of us in cities, flowers have typically been uprooted before we even see them: they have become human art and craft.

And yet, so often, we idealise them romantically, pretending that we are somehow apprehending their beauty in a virginal state of nature: ‘I wandered lonely as a Cloud,’ wrote Wordsworth in his poem on daffodils, transforming himself from human into mere vapour, just in time for his revelatory apprehension, ‘all at once,’ of the yellow host dancing in the breeze.

‘Being natural is simply a pose,’ remarks Lord Henry Wootton at the outset of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, ‘and the most irritating pose I know.’ For Wilde, the artifice of human culture is inescapable, and that includes our relations with the so-called natural world: we live after the fall, in full self-consciousness, and simply ‘being’ – as opposed to performing – is only an option for the disingenuous.

No wonder, then, that the most renowned emblem of Wilde’s proto-queer community of decadents and aesthetes was the green carnation – the ‘little green flower’ that his Salome promises to drop as a boon to the Young Syrian who admires her so. Carnations do not, of course, grow in green naturally - and for that matter they don’t grow red, white or yellow either, though all these colours have been cultivated as variations on (deviations from?) the bright pinkish-purple that nature provided. The appeal of such cultivars to Wilde was precisely their frank reminder of the unnatural.

Something similar is apparent in the flower photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, in the 1970s and ‘80s. Mapplethorpe gave us detailed, precision close-ups that capture the classical beauty of the floral, yet the pristine lighting and cool composition of these images make these blooms unavoidably cultured – sometimes so ‘cool’ as to appear almost deathly. Mapplethorpe’s fascination with the phallic properties of flowers, moreover – whether their stems or, more particularly, their pollen-bearing anthers and filaments – often seems to render them queerly anthropomorphic, particularly when juxtaposed on the wall with his human nudes.

It’s not only male artists who have apprehended this queerness in the floral, though. Take, for instance, Susan Glaspell’s extraordinary play The Verge, first staged in 1921 by New York’s Provincetown Players.

The play’s heroine, Claire, is a troubled, radically feminist figure who expresses her attempts to break free of old forms, old assumptions, both through her unorthodox use of language – which oscillates between tortuous stuttering and flights of strange poetry – and through her obsessive work as an experimental botanist.

The various men in Claire’s life – Tom, Dick, and Harry – are tediously literal and natural(istic) by comparison, and they fear that her behaviour of late has become altogether too ‘queer.’ Glaspell’s 1920s usage of the word doesn’t appear to carry the same sexual connotations as it does today, but her inference is nonetheless towards something feared because it is alien, inexplicable, an implicit challenge to the presumed ‘norm.’

And the ultimate expression of Claire’s queerness lies in her cultivation of a tiny, fragile flower – which she has named, simply, ‘Breath of Life.’ This is a flower which, Glaspell’s stage directions tell us, ‘glows from within’ – but not with stereotypically feminine beauty. (“I’d rather be the steam rising from the manure than be a thing called beautiful!”, Claire asserts.)

This paradoxical bloom, though bred by a human, somehow radiates a strangeness that is beyond the frames of reference within which humans categorise and control the products of the natural world. “Let this be release,” Tom whispers in awe on seeing the flower, “This – breath of the uncaptured.”

Claire remains, however, unsatisfied, terrified that her creation (and her feminism?) will too swiftly become captured, accommodated, ‘naturalised’:

Breath of the uncaptured?
You are a novelty.
You have been brought in.
A thousand years from now, when you are but a form too long repeated,
Perhaps the madness that gave you life will burst again,
And from the prison that is you will leap pent queernesses
to make a form that hasn’t been –

We domesticate flowers at our own risk. They’re deviant little buggers – as queer as they are natural, as artificial as they are real. And we made them that way. Or, to misappropriate Wilde’s thoughts on art in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray:

All (flowers are) at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that (a flower) really mirrors.

Stephen Bottoms is the Wole Soyinka Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at the University of Leeds.

See also: flowers on stage: the poppy, flowers on stage: the daffodil, flowers on stage: the lotus, and flowers on stage: the lungwort

Coming up: the snake's head fritillary and kudzu

photo: Sue Kessler from the production of The Verge at the Performance Lab 115, New York, 2009 more ...

Wednesday 14 July 2010

the same lesson

In the current NYRB, John Terborgh reviews Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution by Caroline Fraser. He writes:

Conservation is indeed not so much the management of nature, but the management of people.  And wherever one goes, people have distinct traditions, outlooks, and economies.  Every project requires deep insights into the psychology, aspirations, and circumstances of the local residents.  Huge amounts of money  - billions - have been wasted because international donors did not take such nuances into account - just as our military made serious miscalculations in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan by failing to comprehend the historical and cultural setting of its engagements. more ...

Monday 12 July 2010

flowers on stage: the lungwort

In the fourth of our summer series of blogs about flowers on stage, the artist Sue Palmer, writes about the lungwort (Pulmonaria).

I have a Pulmonaria 'Glacier' from Brantwood in my garden; it comes up perennially in early spring with a pale white-blue flower. When it flowers, I think of the large house and rambling garden beside Coniston Water, the former home of writer, thinker and art critic John Ruskin.

In 2001, I created a site-specific performance project there. Brantwood is a significant tourist attraction with its open house and gardens, and I wanted to make a something unusual for the visitors that unravelled some of Ruskin’s philosophies and ideas, and to both work with, and challenge, the tourist culture. So I created a ‘tour’ of Ruskin’s Dining Room.

Visitors coming to Brantwood were offered the chance (free of charge) to come to a ‘special guided tour’ of the Dining Room, overlooking the lake. I began as an ordinary tour guide would, speaking about the objects and features, but over the 20 minutes, I evoked some of the extraordinary events that had occurred in that room, using three ‘elements’: salt, money and flowers.

Ruskin had published a book in two volumes in the late 1800s about plants and flowers called Proserpina. It went largely unrecognised at the time due to its eccentric collection of intensely detailed observations of plants and their processes, woven with passionate prose.

‘The flower exists for its own sake. The production of the fruit is an added honour to it - is a granted consolation to us for its death. But the flower is the end of the seed - not the seed of the flower.’

Ruskin’s writing was rich with religious and moral beliefs, with flowers as the emblematic fulcrum of beauty and resonance.

‘You think that the use of cherry blossom is to produce cherries. Not at all. The use of cherries is to produce cherry blossom; just as the use of bulbs is to produce hyacinths.’

I scattered flowers – collected and dried from both Brantwood and my own garden - around the edge of the dining table. As I introduced Ruskin’s Proserpina, their perfume filled the room: roses, marigolds, camomile. Pinks, reds and yellows. Flowers normally contained and organised in vases now strewn over the table.

I invited the ‘audience’ to consider this: Charles Darwin had dined there in 1879. He was 70, Ruskin was 60. The discussion was probably rich, with Darwin speaking about the recurring struggle for existence, the mechanical process that had little or no reliance upon soul or will. And Ruskin passionate about his beliefs that nature did not exist by competition alone, that co-operation and ‘soul’ played crucial parts.

As the content of a conversation over 200 years old was evoked, next to the flower petals, I placed a circle of one pound coins: money laid down for Ruskin’s criticisms of capitalist ideology, of mechanisation and loss of craft. His highly influential writing on ‘value’ was laid out in his book Unto This Last. Gandhi had read this on a train journey in South Africa; it inspired him to direct action, to the Salt March and the collapse of colonial India. So into the centre of the table, I poured salt. Normally contained as a condiment, now salt was spilling over, the grains scattered on the money and in with the flowers.

At the end of my ‘tour’, I offered a ‘souvenir’ of the dining room to each member of the audience - a small bag containing either salt, a pound coin or some dried flowers. Not only did this reverse the usual order of purchasing a memento of the house, but it provoked a complex choice for each visitor: each one had value, significance, a use even, and each object was imbued with meaning. Most visitors I remember, chose the flowers.

See also: flowers on stage: the poppy, flowers on stage: the daffodil and flowers on stage: the lotus more ...

Friday 9 July 2010

choose your own adventure

Director Zoe Svendsen explains the background thinking to her climate change production 3rd Ring Out.

The format for the ‘simulation’ is rather like a multidimensional, multimedia ‘choose your own adventure’ book.

See fingers on the button and recent comments. more ...

Thursday 8 July 2010

object one hundred

When we left Africa two million years ago, every person took with them the same dream.

You can now watch Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, describe the solar panel in terms of one of the 100 objects in the history of the world. (See myth becomes reality.) more ...

four blows

A revolution in how we read and learn has taken place in the lifetime of today’s teenager.

Sixteen years ago, as Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa and O.J. Simpson fled very slowly from the police in a white Ford Bronco, was born. It was the first of four blows to public libraries: the others were Google (b. 1998), Wikipedia (b. 2001) and the Kindle (b. 2007). With these shiny new tools to hand, why would anyone step inside a library? Except to escape the rain.

My piece on reinventing the library.

pic: the new Library of Birmingham more ...

Wednesday 7 July 2010

fingers on the button

The year is 2033. The UK is in crisis. You are in charge of your city.

That's the invitation from Metis Arts in their new production 3rd Ring Out. Rehearsing The Future by Zoe Svendsen and Simon Daw.

Members of the audience sit in a container, next to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and two actors keep the audience updated with news about how the climate crisis is developing. Each audience member has to take a number of decisions (there are green, blue and red buttons to press) and these decisions affect the way the story unfolds. There's no conferring.

On the screens there's an impressive stream of updates on the situation outside, via news bulletins, videocam interviews, and tweets. In front of us, there's a map of the area for which we're responsible (see pic).  This is the area immediately outside the container. One of the remarkable things about 3rd Ring Out is that there have been separate scenarios designed for the production as it has toured locations in Cambridge, Ipswich, Norwich, Newcastle and London.

In taking on this subject, Svendsen and Daw have set themselves three big challenges. One is to dramatise the subject of climate change. The second is to combine, in a realistic way, digital technology with live performance. The third is to use the audience as participants. There's a lot going on there.

The two performers, Pradeep Jey and Sarah Belcher, deftly steer the audience through the disaster scenario as it develops and the clever use of a range of media tools brings home the grim variety of climate impacts - literally home for the local members of the audience: flooding, food shortages, fires, civil unrest, refugees. But our response is double-edged. Since this is a piece of theatre we love it when the news gets really bad - it's more entertaining. The sparkiness of the cast's delivery also ensured that more nuanced responses to the questions raised had to wait till the show was over.

If Svendsen and Daw develop this approach, which I hope they do, because what they've achieved shows how rich the possibilities are, it would be fascinating to experience another scenario that had a very tight focus, followed a single issue perhaps, drew out the complications involved, empowered members of the audience with the ability to negotiate, and built to one key decision.

Easy enough to suggest, of course, and very hard to achieve. But one of the pleasures of 3rd Ring Out was imagining how much further they could take this kind of audience involvement.

3rd Ring Out is a Tipping Point commission.
Lyn Gardner's review in the Guardian (***), followed by 12 comments that range from 'an absolutely unique experience' and 'incredibly inventive' to 'I wanted the play to offer more solutions'. more ...

Tuesday 6 July 2010

flowers on stage: the lotus

In the third of our summer series of blogs about flowers on stage, Satinder Chohan, writes about the lotus.

Lotus Beauty is the working title for a play I'm writing about the lives of different generations of Asian women in Britain. The play is set in a ladies beauty salon in suburban London.

Early in the play's development, while grappling with notions of 'beauty', I took a walk around my neighbourhood in Southall, West London. In a small park, in a dilapidated, brown-edged pond, a beautiful white lotus stood elegant and poised, rising above half-submerged carrier bags, cigarette butts, beer cans and smack needles in the murky water. The suburban lotus inspired my ideas for the play.

Like the rose of the West, the lotus of the East is imbued with myriad cultural and spiritual meaning. The lotus is deeply rooted in Eastern mythology and religion, Buddhism and Hinduism in particular. Using the lotus symbol, I wanted to write about a spiritually bankrupt 21st century British-Asian suburbia, increasingly obsessed with external beauty and the physical self, consumed by ego, money and materialism.

I asked my mother about the lotus in rural India. As a child, she used to pop lotus seeds with her friends, eating them like popcorn. Lotuses used to spring up in flooded fields in her village. As frequent drought and new development swallowed up ponds and swamps, few remain. Her lotus-eating anecdote led me to Homer's Odyssey and Tennyson's 1832 poem The Lotos-Eaters. In both, the Lotophagi people eat a soporific plant that 'so overpowered them with languor, they felt no inclination to leave, or anymore a desire to pursue the journey homewards' (Odyssey). I imagined how people gorge on money, not lotuses, that have risen from the murky swamps of Britain, leading to apathetic lives, disconnected from nature and one's environment.

For the women in my play, the lotus eventually blooms in trapped lives - the lotus reminding us that untainted beauty can indeed rise from earthly mud.

See also: flowers on stage: the poppy and flowers on stage: the daffodil

Satinder Chohan is a freelance writer and playwright whose first play Zameen (2008) focussed on Indian cotton farmers. more ...

Sunday 4 July 2010

giant day in tooting

 A town in transition. Trashcatchers' blog. ITV's London Tonight.

Type rest of the post here

more ...

Friday 2 July 2010

myth becomes reality

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, was one of the speakers at last night's Ashden Awards. He told the audience that the 100th object in his History of the World in A Hundred Objects had not yet been chosen. One of the strongest candidates for the 100th object was the photovoltaic panel.

Ever since humans migrated from Africa a million years ago, he said, they have dreamt of harnessing the energy of the sun for the moments when the sun isn't shining. It had become one of the central myths of mankind. With the photovoltaic panel, that idea - that societies could flourish by storing the energy of the sun - looks more than possible. It was an object that would change the world.

See Ashden Awards International Finalists and Ashden Awards UK winners and the Guardian's report Eigg Islanders win top prize for green living more ...

Thursday 1 July 2010

flowers on stage: the daffodil

In the second in our summer series of blogs, the artist Sue Palmer writes about the daffodils and the desk fan in Mary Southcott's 'Let’s get some weather in here'

One moment – a movement - remains with me. I can remember none of the content now – it is about 8 years since I saw the theatre performance and the stories are blurred, fleeted. What I do remember is Mary performing her solo show, and one moment within it has fused itself onto my memory.

Just off centre in the performance space is a window box, a white plastic window box, and facing the audience are a row of daffodils, yellow and bright in the studio lighting. They are looking perky and buoyant as only daffodils can, and very yellow, the trumpet variety. At one point in the performance, Mary switches on a desk fan that stands behind the daffodils and a deeply satisfying event takes place.

As the fan turns its automated 120-degree span, so the daffodil heads respond - bobbing, nodding. The bobbing heads in the breeze are met by collective warmth and delight from the audience - our attention is absorbed by the responsive movement of the flowers that is so familiar, so recognisable.

Mary’s simple creation of a small ‘weather system’ in the studio is utterly captivating: the outside is suddenly on the inside. The relationship between the wind and the flower is placed at the centre of my attention, so I can see in absolute detail the architectural brilliance of the flower at being able to both receive and resist the wind. Due to the travel of the fan, the breeze interacts with the flowers over an arc of time so the daffodil heads respond to the beginning of the wind touching them, nodding vigorously as the full fan passes over them, returning to a small stillness before the process loops to a return.

The articulation of the flowers and their ability to work with the wind ‘speaks’; their ‘heads’ work with receptivity, capacity, intelligence. The daffodils have performed for us.

At ‘Presence’ Festival, Dartington College of Arts, Devon, June 2002

Photo: Ed O'Keefe

See also flowers on stage: the poppy. Next: flowers on stage: the lotus. more ...