Over the past month I’ve nudged two mini artworks into the world: (1) You, a short interactive-ish story about reflection and moving on, and (2) Lonely Actually, a one-on-one performance about winter and longing. I’ll start with a brief description of each piece.
You can be found here (that was easy).
Lonely Actually was based on Andrew Lincoln’s romantic/inappropriate sign gesture from the Christmassy rom-com Love Actually (you can watch the scene here if you were in a coma in 2003). Performed for one person at a time, the audience member would sit and listen to The Temptations’ version of Silent Night on a personal tape player, during which I would Andrew Lincoln to their Keira Knightly. My gesture followed the same structure as Andrew’s, however the text itself deviated at certain points, undermining its righteous martyrdom and towards a less dignified but more honest account of my longing for romantic love.
Both pieces are aesthetically and philosophically simple, precariously bordering on trite (sounds harsh but for me that’s the kind of precarious that makes you work harder). One speaks to past love, drawing a line under the experience whilst simultaneously holding it to my heart. The other speaks to an uncertain future – of loneliness, hope… and… well, love actually.
Without getting into autobiographical performance theory (because I was only ever pretending to read about it at uni) I would say that while vast majority of my work starts out from, or speaks to deeply personal lived experience, I do not tend to frame the work so the audience are explicitly aware of that. In other words, instead of using the self as a politicised creative site, I take the more ‘selfish’ approach of using my story and history as source material, while publically presenting it through a filter of abstraction and/or fictionalisation.
It’s a…self preservation thing.
Both You and Lonely Actually buck this trend, at least in part. You is written in my voice and tells my story, and Lonely Actually, despite some sneaky textual obfuscation, is a fairly frank account of the emotional longing I feel, as well as being the message that a less restrained me would deliver to a particular someone (don’t answer the doorbell this Christmas Eve).
However, by reducing the gap between the artwork and my ‘self,’ I also raised some new questions for… myself. Because whereas as an artist I tend to follow my spirit animal Doctor Bobby’s mantra to ‘head towards complexity’, and am myself generally uninterested in linear cohesion, in my actual real life (What’s the difference? Fuck off.) I am ALL ABOUT linear narrative. Seriously, I am the most sentimental postmodernist you’ll ever meet. Every winter, I get the exact same mushy feeling in my heart, and when I watch It’s A Wonderful Life, I really do perceive it as a story aimed specifically and deliberately at me, despite the fact that I probably wouldn’t ever give my holiday money away, even if there was a recession… Huh? Since when? I believe in happy endings, underdogs and True Love, regardless of evidence and with the unshakeable faith of a religious fundamentalist. If being romantic was dangerous then I’d be put in some sort of programme.
But wait, what if romanticism is dangerous? Well in terms of psychic health it might well be. In a futile attempt to distil a precocious grasp of gender studies into one irrefutable sentence, let’s all agree that a basic sin of the patriarchal system is that it lies to men (please send objections to email@example.com). That is, men, real-life human men of the walking feeling breathing kind are born into a complex mythological web, and are innately instructed that co-operation with the system will lead to reward. Extrinsic rewards are primarily reserved for cis-men, with variable diminishments for other identifiers such as sexuality, race, class, etc. These same extrinsic rewards are restricted if not wholly denied to women and smaller marginalised identity groups. However, the intrinsic rewards for the cis straight capitalist male, are very much lacking. That is because the systems of capitalism, patriarchy and hegemonic structure in general, do not place value on intrinsic reward, that’s a fluffy and frivolous stuff. Of course, we can see plainly via male suicide rates, mental health, aggression, domestic violence, sexual violence and the general destruction of the planet that a lack of internal peace and compassion is very much a male problem (the kind of problem that causes everyone fucking else to have a problem).
And herein we see the dark shadow of romanticism. What is more likely to cause despair and rage than the subconscious realisation that the fairytale you were sold was a lie? That despite your best efforts to be an effective cog in the machine, you aren’t in fact entitled to anything. As Germaine Greer put it in 1971,
And if the fact is that men have been unconsciously tyrannical, and I think it probably is the case, then it’s certain also that they were debauched by their own tyranny and degraded by it and confused by it almost as much as the people they’d tyrannized over.
Ok, so what does all this have to do with the two arts I made? Well first of all, there is the concern of my intentions being lost in translation, of unintended resonances. For example, what if during Lonely Actually while I’m trying to communicate a loving advocacy of your whole self by saying ‘To me you are perfect’, all I’m really doing is reminding you of that quote from The Female Eunuch that ‘women have very little idea how much men hate them’? Or you might be a queer audience member and know that despite keeping the text gender-neutral, I’ve obviously made an artwork that’s straighter than Primark’s menswear department. Worse still, what if you do understand the point I’m making, and then you wholly buy into it on face value??? Of course I do mean what I’m saying within these works, but that’s not all I mean! Unfortunately, the poetic conclusion of Lonely Actually is about as applicable to real life as one of those Yogi teabag messages. The journey of a relationship isn’t as simple as described in You, and after the optimistic last page, we all just have to get on with it. Additionally, with both artworks there is the danger of writing myself as the tragic-romantic hero, crestfallen but with unwavering sensitivity and hope. I would posit that for the non-macho, non-ironic 21st Century male, this method of self-portrayal can be used as a tool for self-promotion and power negotiation, therefore it is not to be fully trusted (read: I am not to be fully trusted). Could it be that through my seemingly innocuous romantic narratives, I am an unwitting agent of the patriarchy, helping to sell the bullshit that keeps us in servile tunnel vision?
Well – maybe. That said, a real agent of the patriarchy would find some clever intellectual way of wiggling out of this one, duping the reader into thinking they’ve been on some sort of journey. I won’t do that. The above questions are real, and…hmm… I don’t know.
The only rebuttal I can offer, in art and in life, is the feeling I have inside. I feel it every winter. I feel it inside my chest and stomach. And I know that what I feel, is love. And I know that the person I love, to me, will be perfect. And I know that I care more about the moment our eyes connect, or our fingers entwine, more about loving you – than all the art, and all the thoughts, more even than the gender revolution (omg). And that’s why Andrew Lincoln’s character from Love Actually is the perfect vessel for my message. Because I’m prepared to be as pathetic, irresponsible, unprincipled and selfish as he was, for love. Or as Dido put it, ‘I will go down with this ship’. Ok that’s enough. Enough now.
Well…actually it’s not quite enough…
EPILOGUE: So, full disclosure, I wrote the majority of this article before I had performed Lonely Actually and published You. And yes I know that was a SILLY thing to do because how could I accurately reflect on something that wasn’t even finished, but let’s be real here, I’m basically not in control of what I’m doing, my arts practice is like a monkey chasing its own shadow.
From this new perspective, I would say that the above critique still stands, but there is one missing component that seems important to the analysis, and that is the audience. It is particularly relevant to Lonely Actually given the interactive nature of that performance. Although the performance was structured and scripted the same way for every audience member, nonetheless every interaction felt different, because the audience weren’t passive within the work. If the person opposite me chose not to make eye contact, if they smiled, if they laughed knowingly, or raised their eyebrows sarcastically; they fundamentally impacted the meaning of the work. In effect, as soon as I performed the piece for someone else, it stopped being about me, and I stopped having full control over the exercise of meaning-making. Perhaps an obvious thing to say, but I feel it’s worth noting.
So I’ll end not with a decisive conclusion, but instead a practical idea for continuing forward. Be authentic, have integrity and have faith in the person you are speaking to.