ten texts from 2017
ten texts from 2017
2017’s been a long year.
In a world where I have far more time and motivation, each of these items I would have written 1000 word longform revews on. As it happens, this list will have to do. I’ve selected these texts for the impact they have had on my year, on the way I see the world around me and the way I make work. The majority of these things weren’t published this year, but this was the year they have affected me.
I’m not rereading these ahead of writing this list, so everything here is from out of my head. Some of it might be misremembered – there’s always that risk when operating a mind that it might spin its own fantasies out of half-truths and loose association. Perhaps none of these texts actually exist in the way I treat them here. Perhaps, were they to be wiped from the Earth, we’d have no way of recreating a shred of them.
Chernobyl Prayer, by Svetlana Alexievich
Svetlana Alexievich sets herself a solemn and morbid mission: this book is a collection of interviews with Belarusian survivors (in one sense or another) of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The book largely takes the form of extended monologues, where she has allowed her interviewees to talk, to share their stories and speak freely. The subject matter moves fluidly from one extreme to another, like speech is wont to do, and Alexievich’s voice is almost entirely absent from the collection. There is the sense of a space, an ear given, and the stories told feel as if they have been waiting to be heard. I read this book at a very lonely, liminal time and it kept me a kind of company. There are some beautiful polyphonous sections where Alexievich has interviewed a group, and they overlap and interrupt each other. Remarkable for the piece of history and the lives it records, remarkable for its formal accomplishments, remarkable for the cold and awful horror that is radiation poisoning, of a land and a people.
Black Country – Liz Berry
Named for that bit of England west of Birmingham where there are places like Dudley and Wolverhampton and people talk like noone does anywhere else. This is an introspective volume of poetry, published with a greyscale cover, and those elements are pretty standard. But it is the celebration of dialect that Black Country constitutes that gives it its place here. I could make a choice here between calling the language of the Black Country dialect or non-standard English. I prefer non-standard English; it suggests to me a process of decolonisation. I am keen to dismantle the notion that England and English need to be totemic in order to be unifying. I hope keenly, too, that we can be various and flexible and accommodating and toss out rules and prescription. One issue with this collection is the running glossary at the bottom of the page. Maybe it isn’t, but it feels like an editorial decision – pandering to those unwilling to take unfamiliar words as they are. I for one like finding unfamiliar words. It reminds me how I learned to read.
We Want You To Watch – Alice Birch and RashDash
‘Pornado – A Tornado of Porn‘. I did not see this show when it was on at the National Theatre, which allows me that great pleasure of reading a text and getting to imagine how on Earth the thing looked. I’m aware that it didn’t reach universal acclaim, though I’ve not had a single conversation with someone who has seen it. I keep recommending and lending the text to friends, though. I can see why it might have divided opinion; regardless of how the show was presented, the subject matter and the textual content I’d imagine would be more than enough to induce some clenched arseholes in the auditorium. If anyone knows of some footage of the show (come on, they must archive this stuff) then please send it my way. As it is, the impression in my head is like an Angela Carter fever-dream, all cabaret without the titilation (and the only reason Angela Carter isn’t on this list is because I’ve somehow not read any of her this year). And may some deity bless whoever thought up this collaborative partnership – more Alice Birch and RashDash. Only ever Alice Birch and RashDash, please (cmon Katie Mitchell, share).
Something is wrong on the internet – James Bridle
(online journalism) link
Children are terrifying and the internet is terrifying. Parents are terrifying, because they’re Just People who have been given this impossible task of transforming children into other people. I do hope to have kids one day but every time I think about that I just remember how miserable and terrifying the world is. But then I see a kid and think they have the power to make the world a better place. Which I suppose is the thing we chase when we do have kids. Human society is iterative. We keep riffing and it takes a long time because to grow up and have ideas then have a child and grow them up takes a long time (at least 36 years to make two adults). Machine learning, though, is also iterative, also terrifying, and Much MUCH Faster than we are. There are robots creating content targeted at our children, the videos are mostly watched by robots and they learn from each other and make more videos. Somewhere, at the kernel, you can see the ingredients for our own civilisations. This is a piece of journalism, the things it reveals are messy and clouded, but scary. Processes at work, somewhere.
Game Maker’s Toolkit: Super Mario 3D World’s 4 Step Level Design – Mark Brown
(video game analysis) link
This is a video I really think you should watch if you have any interest in story structure or communicating things to an audience. I’m increasingly fascinated by video games. They are on the whole entirely an audience experience, they rely heavily on user-generated content. Generally, I believe that what you bring to a piece of art is usually the same as what you take away – the task of the art, then, is to reshape what you bring it, uncover an aspect that you didn’t know you had in you. Surprise, joy, comes from a sort of guided self-knowledge. This is true for theatre and certainly true for games. In this video (and it’s worth watching his others, too) Mark Brown describes the combination of invention and restraint used by Nintendo in designing levels for Mario games. This is a piece of analysis that has had a genuine applied impact on the work I have made this year.
Guerilla – El Conde de Torrefiel
I was supposed to write a revew of this. I saw it at Transform ’17 in Leeds this April. I’ve still got the document on my desktop with about 100 words in it from when I started. It was absolutely fantastic as a piece of theatre, and usually if I’m blown away by something I find it pretty easy to write about afterwards but for some reason, this show stuck. Maybe it’s cos I was writing lots of other revews at the time and I was tired, maybe this show was just a bit massive and paralysing. The sound design was huuuge and we had to wear earplugs and the volume attacked you bodily. The whole show is just three vignettes (with a chorus of local volunteers) no dialogue and a big text that you’re just expected to read throughout and it was ace. (Maybe the reason I couldn’t write the revew is because it would be too short – that’s what it is. I’ve described it to you and I can’t do much else, go see it if you ever can, but also any work by El Conde de Torrefiel because they are really good at making images onstage.) The full show is actually online here if you can read (what I assume is) Spanish: https://vimeo.com/234737400
From the Heart – Lee Miller
This is an awful book in scope and subject matter, it is heavy and powerful and beautiful and immensely saddening. Lee Miller collects a history of Native American peoples, in their own words and lays out her research chronologically. The book focuses on one geographical area at a time, in roughly the order they were colonised by Europeans. This means each time a new chapter begins, you take a jump back in time to first contact, when the Europeans seemed like they might be trustworthy. Then there is genocide – universally across every region the continent is broken up into, just various tactics of mass genocide. It’s a crushing book. It’s beautifully curated and all sourced and there’s something meditative about the barrage of voices talking to you. It’s like a great, vital wave. It is an honouring of voices that need to be.
The Vegetarian – Han Kang
I love this book. It’s brief and economical and absurd and beautiful and even formally it’s so Spot On. It’s a mission of mine for 2018 to read Han Kang’s other books cos she’s got at least three out and it excites me to know that here is a writer who is alive and still producing work and I can look forward to stuff from in the future. I don’t want to give any of the plot away but it’s a great, unsettling, feminist piece of writing. I’d recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat.
BEARS – Powder Keg
This is the only thing on this list I have actually already revewed (this sentence is a link). I think part of the reason BEARS has stuck in my mind is because it’s silent – it demands you engage with it on a visual level, that you tell yourself what story you are seeing in it. In my revew, I describe the piece as a dream – it has that kind of logic to it. It’s a show that feels robust, like it has a perfect reason for its visual language, for its sounds and movements and design. It relies on the real world for reference, but largely trusts its audience to make what connections there are to be made. Writing this I’m reminded of Andy Smith’s concept of ‘dematerialised theatre’: there is a transformation that is invited to happen in our collective consciousness when we watch the sort of onstage metaphors in BEARS. We must imagine for it to work. This is theatre that invites the audience to imagine. When theatre like this does its job well I am wholly convinced imagination can change our world.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely – Claudia Rankine
I read this book whilst in London rehearsing a show. I don’t like London. I don’t know if I mean I don’t like The Postmodern City or if it’s the specific combination of size and multiplicity and alienation and dissociation I experience in London. But I get pretty stressed when I’m in London (or, at least, when I must travel through or to it). Don’t Let Me Be Lonely expresses all those feelings. It’s an intensely personal and reflective piece but at its heart it is an account of a City and a life within it. It seems counter intuitive but, being in a stressed, tired and lonely place, this book was like a companion. I tore through it because I had little else to do other than read and it was like reading reflections. Again, Claudia Rankine is a writer whose existence and genius excites me because I am here to live through it.
Interviews with Francis Bacon – David Sylvester
This is the oldest text on here. In fact, it’s probably safe to describe it as a classic. There’s all sorts of Billy-Big-Bollocks art people who talk about reading it whilst at Art College, like Damien Hirst and whoever. I’m not too fussed about them but these are some Good Interviews. At the time of writing, I can’t remember whether I saw A Brush With Violence or read this collection of interviews first, but both are compelling and I find Francis Bacon, as a man who loved intensely and self-destructively and liked getting beat up, really fascinating. I’ve always loved his paintings and it’s interesting to couple those with this collection of interviews between two men who know each other increasingly well. I think it’s a great form for a book and I want to see more of this sort of thing and it makes me want to interview artists I respect.
The Reign of the Internet Sad Girl is Over – And That’s a Good Thing – Hannah Williams
(online opinion) link
I’m a big fan of the work of Audrey Wollen. I listen to Lana Del Rey less than I used to because I’m not sure how ironic I think she’s being anymore. I don’t think this article is really a crystallisation of my opinions but it made me think about the whole ‘sad girl’ thing I’d been uncritical of for a while. I don’t think it’s really my place to weigh in and write all about What I Reckon. I think this article makes a really astute analysis of the culture it’s looking at. It observes, too, the potential for sadness to be a stage on the route to a more potent activism. If nothing else, I think this article is a useful record of a particular moment in online history.
Little on the Inside – Alice Birch
Another example of Alice Birch’s ability for storytelling through abstract, expressive dialogue.
Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper
So Damn Wholesome album – really lovely to listen to and I’ve listened to it a lot.
Ghosts of My Life – Mark Fisher
Have written about this – really interesting PoMo music and film journalism.
Tonguit – Harry Giles
Great poetry, in a mixture of Scots and English – smart and sexy.
Cosmic Scallies – Jackie Hagan
I was assistant director on this this year – a warm story about the underclass, with buckets of laughs and Heart.
Chill, Dummy – P.O.S
Only just gotten into P.O.S – went to a gig last week and he’s a really sweet dude. Banger after banger.
Citizen – Claudia Rankine
More Rankine, beautiful – and with full colour illustration this time cos obviously her publishers are realising how shit-hot her work is.
Soviet Space Dogs – Olesya Turkina
Lots and lots of Pictures of Dogs. AND some interesting history of the Soviet Union’s space programme.
Thank you for reading this. Have a safe 2018.