ARTYFACTS: May 2008

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Day 21 - So Close to Home

I have no idea why this was billed as a 'site-specific' performance, as we sat facing a wall, albeit tiled, for 1 hour and 40 minutes. It did stink of old pizza, and felt like a dead-end place to have a restaurant, so that much was authentic, but there was no real theatrical real use of the venue.

I doff my hat to the three actors who gave it their all. The dialogue was well crafted, with character writing that fitted men of three differet generations. But I'm not sure about the casting. The grandfather and father seemed to be about the same age. The main thrust, three generations who eventually put aside their differeces to play to their shared strengths, didn't quite come off.

Day 20 - the show that disappeared

When the festival was launched I mentioned the rather dismal appearance of a local artist and two singers trying to do something around 'hen and stag' parties - I can't now remember its name. This didn't come off, for one reason or another. However, having spent the last month out on the town almost every night, I must admit to be rather taken with the 'stag and hen' parties.

I saw lots of them on the seafront and West Street during my Rider Spoke experience. And sitting in outside the Hub (great sccess this year) and the Collonade bar (my home from home for May), I witnessed many a party wander by. The best, by far, was last night when a rather stange 'lap-dancing limosine' stopped in New Street advertising this dodgy new mobile service, while no more than a few steps away a hen party, all with pink rabbit ears, stood encircled around a tour guide explaining the history of the Theatre Royal. Several other theatrically dressed groups wandered by at regular intervals. They clearly love the opportuity to dress up a bit, pose and generally perform. Everyone's a bit snooty about the whole thing - I absolutely love it.

Day 20 - Story of a Rabbit - forgettable

I remember this show not creating a buzz at last year's Edinburgh festival, so I'm not sure why it's popped up here. A day later and I'm trying to remember what I witnessed last night - the play, you see was about memory. What a great theme. However, tales about memories, like the retelling of dreams, are so personal that they bore others. Ultimately the performance fails because it doesn't do what it promises - to elicit personal memories in the audience and that was the only way this was going to work.

Multimedia and memory
The use of 'multimedia' props was clever, as it mirrored the fragmented and different forms of memory - episodic, semantic, autobiographical, lucid and so on. There was text, a flip chart, old family film, photographs, physical props, music; but these were his memories and flat and unremarkable to me. It started rather well, with a dialogue with a audience member about tea and its association with funerals. Then it drifted into a grinning monologue about the death of the performer's father. I found this wearisome and found it difficult to stick with it, drifting, as we so often do during theatrical performances.

Death's in the detail
His metaphysical reflections about particles and potatoes were just banal. My mind was not opened by the experience and popping up a couple of quotes by Wittgenstein and Einstein is, frankly, as cliched a act as I ca imagine in the theatre.

PowerPoint again

PowerPoint made its third appearance in this festival (Creative Brighton, Jarvis Cocker). Funny how the arts takes so long to catch up with technological change, then jumps on bandwagon's long after the wagons have gone (Rider Spoke).

Brave attempt but it didn't work.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Day 19 - Jarvis Cocker

This is what Festivals are all about. A creative person, in this case that most English of pop stars, doing something different, and an audience that is open enough to stick with it. Jarvis Cocker delivering a PowerPoint on song-writing sounds odd, and it was. He was very nervous, and admitted as much at the end, but he's a fascinating character and delivered his 'lecture' with healthy doses of humour.

He started with a proposition, that lyrics are inseparably bound up with the music, and that they don't really matter on their own. Louie Louie by The Kingsmen was played and the old urban myth about its filthy lyrics was rolled out, along with the FBI investigation. The whole thing, as he explained, was a wind-up - the lyrics are as innocent as a nursery rhyme. Other examples were the magnificent 'I am the Walrus', Scott Walker's 'Plastic Palace People' and lots more. The highlight was Cocker's own acoustic performance and his own thoughts on his own lyrics, for example, 'Girls Like It Too' which should appear on his new album. He is a brilliant lyricist - just listen to Common people and Disco 2000. It was meant to last 1 hour and 15 minutes, but ended up at a whopping 2 hours.

Brighton baloney
The questions at the end were a real bag of 'Brighton' baloney. First the long-winded wannabee who asked two rather overlong questions, then added, 'I thrust my CD into your hand earlier', at this point the audience rightly booed. A disgruntled band member/song-writer who wanted to know how to split royalties (Cocker split the 4 ways in Pulp), the wacky therapist who wondered why Cocker hadn't tackled the serious issue of song-writing as therapy! Is nothing sacred? Does this 'Therapy Culture' have to infect everything? Then the sycophant. In the end these crackpots couldn't spoil a fantastic pulp, pop, powerpoint night.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Day 18 - Gore Vidal

It's like sitting at dinner hearing a very erudite guest hold court. His main target was Bush and the US, one a cretin, the other a busted flush (broke). Vidal has been alive for one third of the history of the US, knew or knows may of the main players. His take on them:

Hilary Clinton - witty but reminds men of their first wife
Macain - lost his plane, captured, empty vessel
Woodrow Wilson - terrible
Truman - truly awful
Bush - idiot
Vice president - takes an was - unnatural interest in torture
Roosevelt - best ever president
Blair - taking an unnatural interest in Catholicism
Mandelson - awful
Gore - OK, but didn't like his slideshow

No one who believes in the afterlife should be allowed to become President. The cinema, he regards as a low art form, as it has no 'brain'. It is the essay, not fiction that he sees as his legacy, that whisper from the past - Montaigne, Aristotle. There is only Republican TV in the US. Bad news when they stopped teaching geography. If he were to write about the UK, who and when - Scottish Enlightenment - Hume/Hobbes.

His final note, in response to a question by my friend Tessa, 'Which TV series do you prefer - West Wing or The Sopranos?' he replied' I've see neither'. He gets his news these days from the Internet. This was refreshing as I've spent most of this Festival listening to sceptics and Baby Boomers slam the internet as a medium.

Witty and uplifting.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Day 17 - Traces leave their mark

Pretty impressive stuff. My two 14 year old boys loved it - not something they often say about dance. Five dancers/acrobats/skateboarders/pianists/basketball players - one talented bunch this lot. I particularly liked the guy with the hoop and the final multiple hoops trick. The 'Gravity and Levity' lot need to watch this and learn. They were also brave enough to keep the 'traces' theme going - through narrative and photographs. This was well thought out. Crowd loved it - standing ovation.

Day 16 - Jerry Sadowitz

I have been watching this guy for over 2o years and still maintain that no one comes near him when it comes to pushing the humour, topics and audience. Absolutely nothing is sacred - paedophilia, Austrian basements, Burma, China, women, gays, Irish, Americans, Jews, Scots, disabled, Heather Mills, Alan Carr, Russell Brand, Kate Moss and on and on.

One woman decided to scream and heckle throughout the performance. Jerry took his time, then turned with a torrent of abuse. It was brutual and funny. Then there were the card tricks, his trademark. Not a one trick pony like so many other stand-ups.

Day 15 - Taverner

In long performances your eyes can drift, and anything out of the ordinary can catch the attention. In this case it was the huge guy straining out of his white tee-shirt, and his young daughter, standing right in front of the stage. She was literally leaning over the lip of the stage and playing with the dust during the performance. Then she started to experiment, standing on one leg, the the other. Finally she fell asleep on the floor, curled up in the foetal position, her head on her coat.

Brassed off
Then, unbelievably, one of the orchestra fell asleep. One of the brass section, (guy with glasses and grey hair) had the brass neck to nod off, much to the amusement of his brassy friends, who were smirking knowingly to each other.

As if this weren't enough, another brass player sloped off stage after signalling to the percussionist. Sure, he didn't have much to do, but he did miss an entire section, leaving his fellow trumpeters to carry the load. If you pay £25 for a concert, you don't expect them either to sleep or sidle off to the pub!

I, unlike some of the orchestra, was awake and enjoyed the whole spectacle. Interesting idea to take a 'Icon' as inspiration for a piece. I couldn't imagine how this could have been achieved until I heard it. He takes the strong foreground/background form in painting and reproduces it through a continuous backdrop of base sound and uses the cello's higher pitch as the foreground effect.

The second work is full of powerful choral blasts interspersed with solos, but unless you're of a devotional disposition, the repetition and sheer length of the piece can be draining.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Day 15 - Spiro

I'm not really that familiar with English folk music, being Scottish, but I do love the mandolin and fiddle. These guys have a liking for Northern folk music, and Northumbrian pipes, and it was interesting to hear those tunes played on other instruments. What a fun way to spend a lunchtime hour. Well done to Guy, the programmer for these events. It would be great if they were on all year round.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Day 14 - Susan Greenfield - Baby Boomers on warpath

2 minute intro to brain science
Greenfield is Professor of pharmacology at Oxford. We had a quick introduction to brain science through the concept of plasticity, genetics via single gene therapy, the London cabbie experiment and the piano experiment.

As a species we are unique in our ability to learn and adapt, primarily because of our brain size, which is capped due to our skulls and the need to come down the birth canal. The brain is a very plastic and dynamic organ subject to constant change, so much so that every human is unique and different from every other human in history. This seemed like a very obvious point but she made much of it . She presented this as if it were sound science but there are many in her field who would see her explanation as leaning far too far towards the ‘blank slate’ end of the spectrum. Her argument is that genes are necessary but not sufficient. This is to load the case too far on one side – in many cases genes are necessary and sufficient. As it is the premise for her entire book, if it is false, she’s in some trouble. The mind is certainly not a blank slate. This is the mistake that many educators make. It is also shaped by genetics.

London cabbies have large hippocampuses, as they need bigger working memories. The discovery of the role of the hippocampus in memory is fascinating with work by Kandel (Nobel Prize) and others leading the way. There was then some waffle about us being a ‘metaphorical’ species (she quotes David Lodge on this! – but surely Lakoff and Black are the serious players). Lodge’s ‘rise of the novel’ idea seemed very weak. More interesting was the ‘piano practice’ research by Pasceuel et al (1995), where those that simply rehearsed piano practice in their mind only showed the same brain activity as those who did the real thing. This seems to suggest that mental rehearsal, as opposed to real-life experience is just as effective in learning - the opposite of her later arguments.

Her argument
This is where things move away from science into the realm of speculation. Her idea is that technology, in particular ‘screen-based culture’ MAY be CHANGING young brains. She was quick to add that she didn’t want to be judgemental on this, as the jury is out. So far so good. Then good scientific scepticism went right out of the window as she and the Baby Boomer audience proceeded to be very judgemental. It quickly shifted from MAY to 'DOES' and CHANGING to 'DAMAGING'. I had heard this argument at The Parenting Debate from a bunch of amateurs. I didn’t expect the same line from a serious scientist.

She quoted Michael Johnson’s (sic), actually Steven Johnson’s book Everything Bad is Good for Us, showing that IQ is actually rising, then proceeded to attack screen based experience. This is where Susan began to metaphorically totter on her platform shoes.

Her categories – Someone (inviolate), Nobody (hedonistic, screen based personality), Anyone (her preferred option – open narrative) were simplistic, and even if true, her real mistake was to confuse the medium with the message. This is an exercise in crude, unscientific categorisation – it doesn’t wash.

Her attack on all things virtual was based again on a simplistic idea of what virtual experiences offer. She loves books (text is her thing) but does't really understand that the internet is still largely a text medium. Kids read a lot online, use sophisticated communications tools, Wikipedia, Google and so on. It is semantically rich. Her view was that the internet was episodic, all images and no words. Interestingly, she didn’t attack the Baby Boomer media of film or television, the two most dominant forms of screen based media

Her solution
Her solution was a future where creativity was a primary goal. What she forgets is that the internet has promoted massive levels of creativity, opening up opportunities for personal creativity, user-generated content, music composition, video, personal photography, blogs (text), wikis (text), social networking, collaboration, sharing and so on.

It’s always tempting for academics to worship the book and their world as intrinsically superior. They’d love us to believe that bookish people are, by definition, better people. I don’t buy this. Judgig by this audience, they're a smug, grumpy and self-satisfied bunch.

The chair threw in a good joke – 'we now punish kids, not by sending them to their room, but by taking them out of their room’.

Old audience
Once again, we had an audience of largely older people who began to moan about the younger generation’s lack of attention, interest and so on. They are invariably teachers and academics, who have the annoying habit of blaming students for everything, even their obviously bad teaching. Do teachers and lecturers really kow much abt the psychology of learning? I think not. Have students ever attended university lectures without dying of boredom?

We are witnessing a renaissance of creativity and communication. More people are better educated and it’s about time the Baby Boomers stopped carping on about the internet, (which they all use to buy books, book their fancy holidays and generally keep the world and wealth to themselves). They really are a smug lot!

The book is actually rather rushed, and overlong on personal musings and surprisingly low on science. All pretence at objectivity goes quickly out of the door. However, it does raise interesting cognitive questions, that are probably best answered by others.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Day 14 – Politics and trust

Why don’t we trust politicians?
BBC journalist Robinson kicked off with the admission that he hadn’t prepared for the discussion – bit of an odd admission, but there we go. His off the top of his head introduction centred on the fact that the Blair/Brow conflict, as show in recent memoirs, proved that the journalists were right – it was outright war.

Melissa Benn, the other journalist, thought that journalism had become soft, less probing and investigative. Globalisation, she added, had give politicians less room to make any real difference.

Oona King, ex-MP, thought that democracy was at risk and that because we in Britain are angry at politicians, the frontline between scepticism and cynicism had been blurred. She was honest ad open but sometimes drifted into Labour polemic.

Grayling, the resident philosopher, thought that politics was just difficult and messy, and that there margin for action had been eroded through globalisation. He defended Gordon Brown as a reflective, intelligent, well-read intellectual and regrets the fact that the press have turned on him like a pack of dogs. Grayling said little but made some telling points about avoiding rudeness in journalism being courteous and forensic in your questioning. Robinson’s point was that journalists have less time for interrogation.

Polly Toynbee added that a recent Hansard survey had shown that 41% had never talked about politics at all over the last two years.

There was some regret from Robinson that debates such as immigration and Europe were kept off the agenda, enraging the British public. Polly answered that the David Runciman book Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power from Hobbes to Orwell had claimed that hypocrisy was a necessary ingredient in politics, the only way to survive, Oona sort of agreed with this line.

More contention?
One of the better book and debate events in this festival but like many of the debates sometimes lacked contention. There was general agreement on most things, for example, that politicians were good eggs ad really did want to do good things. At this point the names Jeffrey Archer, Jonothan Aitken, Peter Mandelson and Jeremy Conway came to mind. It was not just the fact that they were all crooks, it was the way their peers defended their behaviour. Conway has still not returned the cash he clearly stole from the taxpayer, ad his fellow MPS are not pushing for it.

I’m not sure that we got to the bottom of the ‘trust’ issue but we covered the main topics; media, realpolitics, apathy, The Daily Mail, politicians as people.

Excellent questions
The audience had some excellent observations and questions.

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to insist that MPs have had at least 5 years of employment before becoming a politician?”

“Is there any other profession that meets such rudeness and disrespect, treated like worthless people we can ridicule.”

“Memoirs seem to be creating a sense of distrust.”

There was much talk of ‘cyberspace’ towards the end, a sure sign of a speaker who knows little about the internet. In the ed The Guardian ad the BBC and even books by Oona King, may matter little as their audience is shrinking. The internet is the medium of the future – I agree.

Day 13 - Neil Tennant – Pop bitch

Tennant is an articulate, witty and sometimes smug commentator on his own art form – pop. But we forgive his aloofness because he wrote great pop songs and doesn’t seem to be part of the publicity-seeking, pop pack. The truth is, he’s every inch the pop idol and pop bitch. He collaborated with Liza Minelli for god’s sake! But it’s this mix of honesty and front that makes him likeable. I hope for more of this from Jarvis Cocker and Mark E Smith.

Tennant’s from Newcastle and Lowe from Blackpool (the best pop music comes from the North). Tennant explained how the very different Northeast and Northwest expectations came together in The Pet Shop Boys (a name that popped up by accident as Lowe had two friends who worked in a pet shop). His stories about his refusal to wear brown paper bags over their heads on children’s TV, and refusing to wave on the revolving stage at the London Palladium, were priceless.

Strange Q&A session where one girl pleaded for his autograph, another man ran up the aisle to shake his hand, and others wanted to know about other collaborations with ‘women of a certain age’ (Tennant’s phrase).

He’s very theatrical, now playing a sort of Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde role in pop. Unfortunately, it’s a fickle trade, and he no longer registers waves on the puddle of pop. Sad to hear he’s now reduced to doing a ballet at Saddlers Wells. Fascinating evening.

Day 13 - The Parenting Debate – Debate!!??

What a let down
Debate descended into anecdote, cliché and show-boating , as Tanya Byron, Sue Palmer and Carl Honore, tried, but failed, to come across as ‘experts’. No wonder the politicians describe ‘education’ as an ‘expert-free zone’.

The problem became clear within minutes. None of them had the academic background or clout to debate at a reasonable level. My school debating society had more reason and intellect than this lot. Here were three ‘media’ pundits (one TV, the other two populist publishing) promoting a TV series and two rather weak books. The problem with modern ‘parenting’ may be the media itself, pumping out ‘voyeuristic’ TV programmes supposedly showing us how to parent, with ‘naughty steps’ and so called ‘experts’ behind the scenes with hidden cameras. They are the part of the problem, not the solution.

Tanya Byron - disappointment
I had high hopes for Tanya Byron, as the Byron Report seemed like a balanced response to the general hysteria that surround education and the world of digital abundance. However, she was like a guest on ‘Loose Women’ blabbering away about her kids and how she wasn’t very good at school. I expected more – she was hopeless.

Sue Palmer – hysterical fraud
Sue Palmer was a fraud. She claimed to be a born optimist, seeing the glass half full, avoiding the hysteria around ‘parenting’, a word she claimed to hate. All this from someone who has published books called ‘Toxic Childhood’ ad ‘Detoxing Childhood’. Her beef is our ‘screen-based culture’ and ‘marketing’ yet she has a website devoted to the hard sell of her own books, CDs and courses. Her contribution to the debate was NIL.

Carl Honore
He didn’t say much, other than an overlong anecdote at the start about his experience at a parents’ evening. Honore is a ‘big idea’ author. He latched onto the word ‘slow’ and is now milking it fast before he fades from view. His first book was, I thought, rather good, his second ‘Under Pressure’ is awful and amateurish.

Look again at their pictures - and tell me these people are balanced and not self-obsessed

Polly Toynbee
Polly Toynbee tried on several occasions to get back to some serious reasoning, with points about political decision making and the demand for proof, yet she was dutifully ignored on almost every steer, as the panelists reeled out weak jokes and well worn platitudes. The only interesting point in the entire debate was Polly’s evidence from Sweden on long paternity leave – they either don’t take it or go Elk hunting!

Audience betrayed itself
The audience gave the game away when the questions came. This was clearly a group of pushy parents whose concerns seemed to centre around whether they should send their kids to private or non-state schools. The questions were shockingly reactionary and naive, all ME, ME, ME.

Clap as they did whenever some liberal idea was mentioned about abandoning testing or more play, these are the parents who will kill and maim to get their kids into the right school. And by ‘right’ school, I mean the one with the best test results. The actual behaviour and first admission statistics in Brighton and Hove show that these middle class parents will do anything to avoid schools with high numbers of working class children, or below average test results. They pay little or no attention to the ‘added-value’ scores. This is the socio-economic group who move house, hire tutors and generally swing the system to suit their own child at the expense of the community as a whole.

Where were all the men?
One guy stood up and asked why there were so few men in the audience (the panel confirmed that these events were attended by 95% women). He clearly knew nothing about football - the FA cup final was on! The truth, I suspect, is that me are less bothered, and less hysterical, about this obsession with ‘parenting skills’. When I mentioned I was attending this event, I got nothing but puzzled looks and raised eyebrows. Discuss!

Giant dinner party
It was like one of those god-awful, dinner parties where the majority start discussing schools, spouting out liberal arguments to mask their deeply conservative instincts. God save our kids from these self-publicists.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Day 10 - ‘Shift’ – the audience did – out the door!

Circus has become the domain of old communist countries (
Russia & China) or, in a magnificently awful and debased form, artless artists and crusties. This was completely awful. One man felt compelled to announce ‘This is absolute drivel‘ before storming out. He was genuinely angry. Others just left in silence or whispered their disbelief to those next to them.

Artless, dull and without any real sense of skill, the performers (I use this word hesitantly) swung and moved around like snails. No doubt someone will defend this as 'pushing the boundaries' or 'taking artistic risk'. This is wrong. I've see Butcher's work before - the audiences are bored. As for this audience, it was more than ‘losing the will to live’, it actually ‘induced the will to kill’. How about some artistic euthanasia? Work like this makes audiences feel they've been ripped-off.

'dullest performance I have seen'
If you think I’ve been hard – here's two other reviews:

‘This was possibly the dullest performance I have seen. After a vaguely promising start interlaced with some average humour I found myself watching a 'dancer' (and I use the term loosely in connection with this performance) spinning round, and round, and round, and round chasing a plank of wood on some ropes. This continued for what seems to be HOURS. No wonder the other performer chucked herself off the high beam...I empathised completely! I left early, with about 25% of the audience.’

'I have to admit I was really excited about seeing this show and seem to have been billed as spectacular. I am not sure I got it to be honest and have to say overall it was pretty rubbish. The venue was not great for a start this was mainly due to the fact that you had to sit on a wooden floor which was extremely uncomfortable as only a few seats were available. It seemed to start of positive and the crowd were laughing. I thought some of the dance at the start was intriguing but have to say not a great deal was based on gravity or levitation. A lot was on the floor with many of the same style moves and it all seemed a bit too surreal with no real story to tell. This was obviously noted as half the crowd were leaving mid performance. Most of the time it was people putting on harnesses which wasn't exciting and you could not hear any of the dialog which was just really inane chat. I couldn't bear it any longer and had to leave myself prior to nine due to bum ache boredom and embarrassment. £15 was a disgrace for this more like £3, Maybe it is just me being a philistine but I just did not get it at all would be interested to hear any other thoughts. nothing wowed me full stop!'

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Day 7 - The Bell

Great atmosphere in Wild park for 'The Bell'. A crescent moon, a natural wooded amphitheatre and, as you walk up to the top of the park in the dark, you hear a bell toll every minute.

The bell tolls, a woman sings on the hill, we prepare for battle, three terrifying black figures appear behind the crowd, we surge into battle with our leader, our leader is killed, we retreat, he's buried.

Finally, a giant fiery bell emerges from the earth. This was something else. A great spectacle. The bell episode is truly spectacular.

Day 8 – Stockholm

The audience was full of couples, and judging by the reaction, they got the message. We've all been there.

The script was smart and peppered with witty, middle class references – Serbian builders, IKEA etc. but it was the adventurous staging and dance that supplemented the acting, that gave it edge. The third person dialogue was interesting. I loved the choreography. It was at times unashamedly raunchy and violent, especially the oral sex scene and knife fight.

Day 7 – Rider Spoke - really a bike ride

After midnight when we were sent off around Brighton on our bikes with headphones a small mike and a wireless Nokia GPS device.

What a place
after midnight is as lively as other towns at 8 pm. I saw a full football match between, what sounded like, Spanish or South American boys, a basketball game on the floodlit seafront court, dozens of small groups with fires on the beach, clubbers, lovers, the homeless, Frisbee throwers, other cyclists and even a couple dancing a waltz to their own music. It was great to just cycle around, sober, and just watch.

Techo disappointment
What was disappointing was the technology and its use. We were instructed to stop and record our answers to questions that appeared on the screens. There were pseudo-psychological, confessional questions, such as ‘Tell us about your father’. I soon lost interest in this. This type of technology is about groups, social activity and communication, not some Baby Boomer's Freudian obsessions. They missed the point. As for the claim that it combines 'theatre with gameplay' - no way. There's no game element in the experience at all.

Great fun anyway. The World naked Bike Ride is on Sat 7 June at 11am on The Level - be there and be bare.

Day 7 – Bahok - Non-places

Marc Auge, the French anthropologist, calls railway stations, airports and other transitory spaces ‘Non-Places’ and it was clever to set the entire piece in an anonymous international waiting area. The digital departure board was also clever, although underused, and at times abused. ‘Earth, Air, Fire and Water’ must literally be the oldest cliché in western literature and the final HOPE/HOME/HOPE was puerile. We half expected to see ‘HOVE’. It would have been great to use this as a medium for more SMS messages.

The dialogue (really chatter) was not miked, therefore difficult to hear, and although witty at times, went on a bit. On the other had the dancers were superb, especially the four from the National Ballet of China and, in particular, the tall Chinese male in the white shirt. Dance is in the DNA of Chinese culture. Step outdoors on any morning at first light and you’ll see hundreds dance in local parks, all of it graceful. His moves were full of beautiful Chinese touches, ‘wushu’ and ‘Tai Chi’. He’s a real star.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Day 6 - Norman - go see this

Go see this
The ‘must see’ show of the Festival so far. I had never heard of Norman McLaren but I doubt I’ll ever forget him after this experience. It’s ingenuous and utterly fantastic to watch a single dancer play with film images projected behind, in front, above, below and around him. I’ve see this technique used before but never in such depth and with such imagination and beauty. It’s usually a projection ‘gimmick’.

McLaren’s films were about unadorned form and movement and he likened his films to dance. Trosztmer and his projection wizards Lemieux and Pilon fuse these films, along with physical props, interviews with McLaren’s colleagues and dance. It’s downright genius.

What a fascinating person McLaren was. That rare bird, a Scottish artist, he studied at Glasgow School of Art, but because he didn’t have a film camera, he scratched images straight on to the film stock! Remember that this was between the wars. He was really a visionary and visual poet.

'A Chairy Tale', where Trosztmer does an astonishing chair swap with the virtual figure and chair, was an extremely sophisticated piece of choreography. 'Narcissus' where figures split, observe each other did more in a few seconds than the entire Ballet de Marseilles ‘Metamorphosis’ achieved over an entire performance a few nights earlier. 'Begone Dull Care ' was a visual representation of Oscar Peterson’s Jazz. 'Pas de deux' uses real ballet figures and this figurative work allowed Trosztmer to literally dance with ballet dancers who are now probably dead. 'Neighbours' is a shocking anti-war film that starts with two neighbours coveting a flower. It descends into a brutal fight where babies are kicked into touch and the men batter each other in a futile domestic war. The treatment of McLaren’s death was powerful and genuinely moving. There seemed to be literally dozens of films and the treatments for each were specific and transformative. Trosztmer in every case made the piece his own by creating something new from the old.

It’s the synchronisation of all the elements that at first impresses, then amazes and finally moves. Trosztmer kicks, punches, plays, bounces off and inhabits the simple projected forms. Projected figures appear, sit beside him, talk to him and dance with him. At one point he opens a door and a 3D wire frame emerges, then the white blur of a runner followed by small dancing figures and some languid cats that pad across the stage.

A word in praise of the Theatre Royal
I liked the intimacy of the venue. The Theatre Royal is a small, tight space and this close proximity to these amazing films and the dancer made the whole experience more intense. It was great to emerge on a warm evening into New Road, where we sat and had a late night drink, and spoke to a visiting Welsh couple who thought Brighton was wonderful.

Go see this show – tonight’s the last night.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Day 3 - The Brighton Moment - not quite

You'd expect more from Julie Burchill and Peter James. Sorry to say I've never heard of Jeff Noon, Sam O'Reilley, Sue Roe, William Shaw, Dave Swann, Martine McDonagh, Susanna Jones, Alison Macleod. Of course, the fact that I've never heard of them means nothing. There's lots of good writers I've never heard of. However, the fact that was a disastrous evening is indisputable. Poor work read by poor readers. It was unbearable. God knows why you'd want to put these together into a book. This is vanity, or insanity publishing at its worst. Lots of people simply left at half time.

Dan Raven falls into the category of 'I've heard of him, but not as a writer' category. He worked for me for seven years and appears to be on the bill because he's Julie Burchill's husband. That about sums it up.
Roy Grace

Day 5 - Creative Brighton Debate - Digital disappointment

Strictly Come Digital
Strange start from the Creative Brighton rep, a hesitant woman in a weirdly inappropriate Strictly Come Dancing dress, sequins and all, introduced our not so illustrious panel with some flannel about digital zeitgeist.

In the newspaper corner, no Emily Bell as billed, in her place Neil Mackintosh, a Guardian journalist – never heard of him. In the music industry corner, Beth Appleton, someone who works in Universal Music. In the TV corner, Matt Locke, who works for the education (really) department of C4! At least we had Bill Thompson, a cute commentator on technology, albeit in the pay of the BBC.

I may have missed something but since when did British newspapers, the education department of a British TV channel and the music industry ever represent the digital future? And why pick three unknown London-based people who work in big non-internet companies to represent the digital future? Why no one from an internet company? TV, the music industry and newspaper s are followers, not leaders. They have not been innovators in this field. They play catch-up.

Death by Powerpoint
This was meant to be a debate on ‘digital creativity’ but what we started with astounded more than a few in the audience – a Powerpoint presentation! Sorry, a bad Powerpoint presentation. Beth, the music guru, presented a series of text rich slides, breaking every rule in creative design, then proceeded to read them out one by one. It was awful.

She was basically an apologist for Universal trying to defend some huge music company, when we all know that they want to kick the hell out of file sharing and hate the web. Just for the record this is the same Universal that hunted Napster down like a dog with massive lawsuits, and even this year have sued MySpace, Yahoo and threatened Microsoft and Apple over pricing. They’re a bunch of bullies. Neil Mackintosh wasn’t much better with some nonsense about journalists hoarding stuff.

Matt Locke was much better. He wisely chose to avoid talking too much about the C4 education unit whose contribution to our digital future has been NIL. He did mention Clay Shirky (who was mentioned so often, he felt like the fourth member of the panel -, and made a useful point about the blurring of the private/public boundary. Mobiles and ATMs have made things public that used to be private. Even public phones used to be in soundproof red boxes. Another strong observation was on the rise of ‘play’ in leisure, learning and work.

Bill nails them
Bill then nailed them by saying they could be a blacksmith, apothecary and some other old profession. It was like people defending the use of horses in the face of the car industry, he claimed. He was right, and their contributions from then on only confirmed his observation.

Beth’s contributions became increasingly banal, especially her comment on the Licence Fee - a futuristic business model, she claimed - really a subscription. Sorry Beth, subscriptions are not compulsory by law!

In the end I would have preferred to hear Bill speak, rather than Chair. As Chair he said more than the rest of the panel put together. All in all, an opportunity missed!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Day 4 - Still Black, Still Proud

James Brown RIP, as in let's RIP. A surge of feeling from somewhere in your feet rises up until the hairs stand up on the back of your neck when you hear the opening bars of ‘It’s so good’ and ‘It’s a man’s world’.

Cheikh seemed stoned out of his head and couldn’t find either his microphone or lyrics and it was hilarious watching him wander about looking, first for his guitar, then the lyric sheet. At one point Pee Wee Ellis had to talk the lyrics into his ear line by line. Once he got going, however, he was roof raising.

The two guest singers let rip and danced as well as they sang. I’ve never seen anyone dance as well as James Brown in stilettos!

The deep African backbeat engine of the double drummers and base drove the music from the back, with percussion, organ, guitar and horns up front. It just bulldozed along, sweeping everyone in the audience along in its shovel.

Great, great night.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Day 2 - Ballet de Marseille - Metamorphosis

Everything changes - that was Ovid's message and this performance changed from a rather dull start through a series of myths, some stunning, some obscure, others just banal. However, it did grow in stature as it progressed, albeit in a totally disjointed fashion.

The set and discs were OK, but more could have been made of them, rather than just the occasional spin or screen for projection. At points their use seemed confused. Much is made of the Brazilian designers but it was nothing EXTRAordinary. In fact, the projected images of bacteria and DNA were trite and the plastic pupae that cracked as ice was laughable.

The Chaos myth was a simple piece in subdued lighting as bodies struggled to gain form and movement, they emerged, paired, grouped and synchronised. We got the point but it was a little laboured (don't say that was the point).

Spot the myth

The problem with this theme is that it invites you to guess the myth from whatever bank of myths you've picked up over the years. So here goes. Perseus and Medusa was the piece that really did bring the lighting, set, costumes and choreography together into a stunning whole. The careful manipulation of the mirrored shield across that audience elivened the whole dance and Medusa's dance was suitably strange and alien. Acteon surprising Diana belittled rather than enhanced the myth. Acteon comes across Diana, surrounded by nymphs, she turns him into a stag and he is torn to pieces by hounds. This is a great, tragic tale, delivered in this performance by placing a mess of white tubing round his head. A good use of choreography and video in the Narcissus scene which lingers, as it should and the mirrored dancers were perfectly synched. A circular rig and web acted as Pallas and Arachne's trap. It was OK....but not thrilling. I wasn't sure, but I think the last scene was Medea and, if it was meant, the nakedness of her young body contrasting with the aged appearance of her ribs was very strange, and made for quite a disturbing end.

Second best?
This is the third Ballet de Marseille performance I've seen, and I'm not convinced they are as groudbreaking as their publicity suggests. If this is the 'second-best dance company in France', then all the noise about the decline of French culture must surely be right. There's nothing here that makes you take notice or brings on a surge of emotion. The audience, of course, loved it, but then again they love everything in the venue. Everyone I've spoken to afterwards sort of shrugged their shoulders.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Day 1 - John Gray

John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the LSE, is a puzzle. A genuine 21st century thinker, he delights in demolishing 20th century obsessions and openly takes Nietzsche's late 19th century agenda, the death of utopias, transcendental realms and truths, to destroy concepts such as 'progress'. But this leaves him in a precarious position, as he has to face up to the problem of nihilism and relativism.

Grey's books
'Straw Dogs' was an attack on humanism and anthropomorphism, 'Heresies' was a strong set of essays, originally published in the New Satesman, illustrating his arguments against 'progress'. They cover war, terrorism, Iraq, US politics, Europe, Blair and Thatcher. His latest book, the subject of this talk, is 'Black Mass (Apocalypitic Religion and the Death of Utopia)'. They do challenge deeply held beliefs and assumptions, on both the right and left, about basic ethics, but where does that leave him?

Torture - a modest proposal
He opened with an anecdote about 'Torture: A modest proposal' a Swiftian satire on the US reversal of the prohibition of torture. He still gets emails, mostly from the US, condemning his defence of torture! His point was that may human phenomena refuse to disappear, and that human nature determines that they resurface time and time again.

Fundamental problem
So far, so good. But there's a fundamental problem with Grey. He does become prescriptive, but on what grounds? If he has demolished science, as a pseudo-religious quest, he can't rely on science as a justification for prescriptive belief. Darwinism, climate change scientists and others are hauled in by him whenever the debate gets down to detail. He takes down the scaffolding then uses those same poles to whack you over the head.

I asked the following question:

"At one point you became prescriptive, recommending 'deep', as opposed to 'shallow', myths, but how does one distinguish between the two? How do we avoid wallowing in a sea of relativism?"

His answer was, I felt, rather weak, defaulting to general human concerns as reflected in Greek Tragedy and Shakespeare. I agree with his need for a fuller understanding of human nature, with its realistic limits and constraints. But you can't rely on art to solve the problem, as art can distort and promote wrong-headed ideas when it is used to political ends. His second line of defence, Freud, is also puzzling, as the his manifesto of probing the unconscious seemed to have failed. I'm surprised he doesn't seek refuge in the work of psychology and evolutionary psychology, which seems to be providing some answers and useful hypotheses about human nature, continuing the Humean investigation into the deeper causes behind our often puzzling and abhorrent traits.

He places the Enlightenment as the bad boy offspring of Christianity, then positions Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism as their bastard offspring. There is some, but very little, truth in this. Nazism was the offspring of an anti-Semitic movement and Marxist-Leninism, was the bastard offspring of Hegel. Enlightenment values fought back, and in the end, defeated both. The Second World War, the collapse of Communism and the eradication of Maoism have been the result of Enlightenment ideas.

He also seems to miss the distinction between improvement and perfection. Many scientists have a sophisticated view of the scientific method, disengaging it from claims about absolute truth. Most secularists lie in this middle ground of gradual improvement, rather than being victims of secular religion. And he is not beyond the personal dig, as when he derides AC Grayling, who famously wrote a stinging review of Black Mass.

Gray is a interesting thinker, but lacks the real philosophical depth to tackle these epistemological issues. He's fine when attacking religious figures, evolutionists and others with fixed systems of belief, but he struggles when he enters the realm of true philosophy.

Parental fascism
At one point a woman asked 'Are you a parent?'. 'No' he replied. 'Then I won't be buying any of your books' she retorted. He, like me, was astonished at the nature of the attack. Can only parents reflect and comment on the world? Are childless people intellectually crippled through a lack of compassion?

Actually, she had quite an interesting point, which I'm not sure she realised. The basic human need to nurture may well be an important human trait in ethics. In China the one child policy has led to a large and growing imbalance between males and females. There may be as much as 60 million more men in China in the next decade. This may lead to a disenfranchised group who resort to violence, largely a male trait. Grey himself resorted to myths of 'birth, copulation and death', an admission that these basic human needs are important.

Q What are you 'optimistic' about?
He was right to deny the simplistic distinction between 'optimism' and 'pessimism', however, he failed to deliver a real answer to the underlying question about how we proceed in the face of nihilism.

Q Is there no 'hope'?

In defence of Gray
The great thing about these events, is their ability to stimulate thought and reflection over the following days. It made me pick up 'Heresies' again. In his finale, he recommended the book Wolf Totem. This is the second time in a week I've had this book recommended to me - I'm off to buy it!

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Day 1- Alela Diane

And we're off.....first event in the 2008 Brighton Festival. The children's parade seemed like the biggest and noisiest yet. Parades need to be noisy as there's nothing worse than one of those quiet, joyless, glum, silent 'British' affairs.

The streets around the venues were packed and Fringe acts were out giving it their all; the good, the bad and the downright crap. The live burlesque made my teenage sons stop for longer than was necessary and the grand finale, a parting of the feathers, lived up to expectations. The great thing about burlesque is that it attracts women with 'interesting' rather than perfect bodies.

Alela Diane, from Nevada City in northern California, is a US folk singer with a big voice and a sackful of strong songs. Not all the songs hit the mark but the first had wonderfully ambiguous lyrics. Tired Feet, White as Diamonds and Clickety Click were good but her most famous song, The Rifle, shot straight and true.

The sun was out, an auspicious start for sunny Brighton and the Festival- lets hope it continues.