Forging, flying, process, grief: on developing DON’T READ THE COMMENTS at Adhocracy 2017

Forging

 

More than anything it’s a blur.

 

I’ve been writing about Adhocracy – first for RealTime, then my blog when my editor lost interest – since 2013, but it turns out that was no kind of apprenticeship at all for being on the inside. It’s a place, I suppose, I’ve always secretly (or perhaps not so secretly) wanted to be. Mainly this feeling was about the work I’d seen in previous years, the tiny, fiery revolutions of purpose and craft that happen every year, and that are so generously shared with peers and audience members alike. Attending as an audience member, most of the time the artists seemed relaxed, or at least drunk as each of the three public evenings wore on. But I wasn’t prepared for how tiring it is as an artist, how drained I would feel at the end of each long day. Arriving at ten or eleven o’clock in the morning, we would often not leave until midnight, and there was no easy way – not even on a lunch break, or after all the official art-making was out of the way – to turn off the faucet of ideas in our heads. (By Saturday I realised I had only slept a few hours each night, such was my inability to stop thinking about the work we were making, and was in danger of burning out prematurely. Thankfully, there was some Valium in the house.) Adhocracy is known as a ‘hothouse’ and it’s an appropriate enough image, art projects growing quickly to size under conditions of concentrated heat and light. But I kept thinking of sword forging, the way they are heated up and hammered out, metal folded into metal, and must be not only strong but also flexible under stress.

 

Flying

 

Mostly, though, I thought about the show I had come there to develop, DON’T READ THE COMMENTS (or Below the Line as we’re probably/maybe/definitely going to call it now). I went to as many artist talks and showings as I could but felt like a bad audience member every time. ‘What is useful in this for me and my show?’ was the unconscious thought through which everything I saw was filtered. And then there was the work that I had been told, either by other artists or audience members, ‘was a bit like mine’ and that I should not miss. I made a point, of course, of not missing these works – specifically Tiyan Baker’s The Witness and Alison Currie and Alisdair Macindoes’ Solo for (Hu)man and Foam – and I’m glad I didn’t. But I was, for the first time at Adhocracy, only ever partially present for other people’s work (the guided Buddhist meditation that was part of the audience experience of the showing of Tiyan’s work I saw was especially challenging).

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Meanwhile, back in the room – that gorgeously musty little foyer at the front of Waterside, normally the audience thoroughfare for Vitals shows but closed off for our exclusive use for the duration of Adhocracy – we had lost our brilliant dramaturg    Bridget Mackey. Having just flown in from Melbourne, Bridget had to fly out the next day to be with a sick relative. Like a superhero, Sarah Dunn – this year’s Adhocracy MC – arrived to take Bridget’s place, but only to ‘look after us’ for her. Look after us she did. During the weekend I heard someone say that all the art that ever gets made is really just a conjunction of accidents – in other words, the result of what happens to happen. I think this is only partly true – art is also the difference between doing the work, which most people can do after a fashion, and making informed choices, which is hard – but I know the place our show ended up at on Sunday night was a very different one from where it would have had Bridget not been compelled to leave – not better, not worse, merely different. Different accidents, different work, different choices.

 

We never got round to looking at Elinor Fuch’s wonderful dramaturgical essay ‘Visit to a Small Planet’ (sorry Bridget), but then it turned out Sarah was writing a play about online shaming (I hope I’ve got that right Sarah) – another (happy) accident. The development was also shaped in our favour by choices we didn’t make. At first I thought it serendipitous that DON’T READ THE COMMENTS had been programmed alongside Tiyan’s own exploration of the dark corners of the internet but to continue to think this way would have been to do a disservice to curators Emma Webb and Paul Gazzola who did the work and made the choices, seeing connections between projects that had only previously existed in (relative) isolation. Climate scientists speak of ‘feedbacks’ – in layman’s terms, positive ones amplify certain trends and changes while negative ones diminish them (negative, in this sense, is not a synonym for bad, nor positive for good). At the risk of mixing my metaphors, I think artist hothouses like Adhocracy – if skilfully curated – can be a bit like that, each project and participant pressing in on each other in subtly (or, in some cases, not so subtly) influential ways.

 

One of my favourite memories of the weekend involved Tiyan, bravely working alone in the cramped, underground Supper Room, telling me one night after a few drinks that she just felt like she really needed a dramaturg. I recommended Sarah and, like the superhero that she is, she turned up the next day to help, flaunting whatever the dramaturg’s equivalent of a cape and underpants on the outside is (notebook and well-thumbed copy of Poetics perhaps?) When I later asked Sarah how it went, she said to me she’d barely done anything – mainly just told Tiyan to keep doing what she was doing – but that too is part of the dramaturg’s art. As Iain Sinclair put it in this terrific essay: ‘A good dramaturg knows that the best interventionist dramaturgy is often none at all. A bad dramaturg thinks that intervention is process.’

 

Process

 

I thought a lot about process during Adhocracy, which is perhaps just another way of saying I thought a lot about thinking. Midway through the weekend we made a list on a long piece of butcher’s paper of everything we had thought and talked about and done up until that point. Here’s what we wrote:

 

  • Discussed/debriefed 1st stage creative development
  • Dissected what comments are
  • Talked about play (‘Kill Climate Deniers’)
  • Talked about pre-reading – psychology of online comments + trolling culture/nature
  • Talked about dramaturgies – what else could it be?
  • Thread exercise – exploring context – what does this do for the audience experience (what do we want the piece to feel like)?
  • Asked what is this about – climate change? David’s play? Kate’s article? Online culture? How we talk to each other online/offline?
  • What does it mean that we are in a physical space/giving voices/bodies to comments?
  • How different from social media?
  • Talked about censorship/free speech/moderation (computer vs. human)
  • Asked: are the commenters making something together (termites/bees)?
  • What is the structure? Found – visual representation (map)
  • Why are we doing this? Anonymity, accountability, responsibility. ‘If you want to know about a society, go to where the trouble is’
  • Talked about who they are and why they are commenting (ideology)
  • Are we cherry-picking (threads)?
  • How does the presentation of the text change the meaning?
  • Isolating voices
  • Linking/establishing meaning
  • Talked about social capital + colonisation/reclamation of contested space + liminality (private/public)
  • What does the title mean?

 

And time. Oh yes. We spent A LOT of time talking about time – how it works in plays, how it works for audiences, and how it works online. Synchrony and dyssynchrony. ‘Once they’ve closed, online comments sections are the opposite of theatre,’ Sarah said at one point during the development. I’m still not sure if that’s right, but I know what she was getting at, or rather what she was doing – being a good dramaturg, which means, if we think of online comments as a kind of text, ‘[knowing] the essential difference between literature and drama and [advocating] for drama at every turn’ (in Sinclair’s words).

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Every text intended for performance is a code, and we spent a good deal of the weekend attempting to crack ours. We ended up with a vast map (see image above), each comment assigned to an index card coloured according to whether the commenter had commented before or would do so again, and marked with a green, red, yellow, or blue sticker depending on ideological stance on the question of anthropogenic climate change or whether the Guardian’s moderators had stepped in. Finally, the cards were joined up by a web (geddit?) of string indicating where replies had been made to preceding comments.

 

It was a stunning thing to step back and look at once we had finished it, the negative space – the time between comments, roughly indicated by the distance between columns, each one representing one hour during the 96 hours or so the comments section was live (now there’s a telling word!) – taking on unexpected significance. We had talked a lot about what ‘shape’ online comment sections are, and decided that they were circular, or perhaps spiral, so it was interesting that the map (minus the negative space) formed a sort of semi-circle. Perhaps even more interestingly, the map looked a bit like what would happen were you to do the same thing with a contemporary ‘well-made’ play – lean beginning and end, and two or three clusters of high activity spread more or less evenly with an obvious enough ‘climax’ that, while a little early, nevertheless could be thought of as having the same kind of impact. Maybe the map is the work, we joked, imagining it at home in some white-walled art space. But the joke grew thin as our audiences responded to it in increasingly enthusiastic ways.

 

Ducking into the space late one night to get my bag, I discovered two audience members, who had already been at two of our showings, had snuck back in to pore over the spread of comments, to trace each piece of string, and politely debate the meaning of it all. Audience members who filled in a questionnaire after our second showing wrote that the map was enjoyable because it was ‘tactile’, and because – and I found myself thinking about this a lot, because it had been such a head-fuck to make, and frankly looked like a big mess – ‘a relief’. We sometimes talked of the comments as a forest. Was there, we wondered, something about being able to see the whole thing – not on a tiny phone screen, or compartmentalised on successive web pages – that was like being able to see the entirety of a forest that you had previously only experienced one tree at a time, as somewhere you had never been able to navigate through because you could only ever see what was right in front of you?

 

Grief

 

The more we wrangled with these kinds of ideas, the further I felt from where we had started: with David’s play, and the critical problem of climate change. There was a moment, I think on the last day, which felt strangely like a kind of grief, when I thought for the first time ‘I don’t think this work is about climate change or David’s play; I think it’s about how we talk to each other online, and what that is doing to us as human beings.’ I tried to reassure myself – ‘it’s OK, this is important too’ – but I felt adrift, a little bit scared even. I tried to reassure myself some more – ‘maybe it’s about climate change as well’ – but, in the end, I realised these feelings were OK, maybe even useful, and that I didn’t need to come to any kind of accommodation with them right now. What I needed to do was drink wine, pretend to be Alison Currie and Alisdair Macindoe (long story), and be told that I had good comic timing (thanks Ashton).

 

Looking back now, maybe I felt a little like Paul Simon must have done when recording Late in the Evening. The story goes that he asked his horn section to come up with a break for the song and when they came back with the one we all know – tell me it’s not the first thing you hear in your head when you think of the song – he thought It’s good, but it’s not the song. Listeners liked it though and, even more importantly, it stayed with them. Well, Simon thought in the end, maybe it is the song.

 

Maybe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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