2 November 2011

More weeks in New York

8th Ave, NY, 17th October 2011, 14.15
Avenue B, NY, 18th October 2011, 14.33

East 9th Street, NY, 18th October 2011, 14.54

North 7th and Kent, Brooklyn, 22nd October, 17.45

Nassau and Bedford Ave, 23rd October, 1.05

Brooklyn Bridge, NY, 23rd October 2011, 18.35

On the G train, October 25th 2011, 17.12

Wooster Street, 28th October 2011, 18.12

16 October 2011

A week in New York

West 27th Street, Sunday 16th October, 1.30pm

34 St Penn Station subway, Thursday October 13th, 11.35pm

Espace, Hell's Kitchen, Thursday October 13th, 11.10pm
Angela Bassett at the party for the opening of The Mountaintop on Broadway. Spike Lee wore a ridiculous velour hat.

Occupy Wall Street, 18.00pm
CHANGE is in the air

Occupy Wall Street, Sunday October 9th, 5.15pm
The first Spanish language General Assembly had been going on for about an hour, and these women gathered next to it and laid out these two flags, then a series of pink crucifixes and long powder blue evening gloves with slogans and ideals written in black pen.

Occupy Wall Street, Sunday 9th October, 4.55pm

Looking up in Bryant Park, Saturday 8th October, 18.30pm

*Not pictured: Spiderman the Musical (urgh); The Creators Project in DUMBO with FourTet; tacos at Paquitos; 5.40am at the Brickyard, Hell's Kitchen on Saturday morning watching Wales lose to France in the Rugby World Cup.

11 October 2011

A week in London

Liverpool Street Station, Thursday October 6th, 14.22pm
This child has amazingly lizardlike hands.

Liverpool Street Station, Thursday 6th October, 14.15pm
This man was standing underneath the departures board. I asked him "Is it ok if I take your photo?" He calmly looked at me and said "Everything is".

Soho, Wednesday 5th October, 3.15pm

Broadway Market, London Fields, Saturday 1st October 1.50am
A woman aged 30 was shot at the bus stop just before 2am. I was cycling home and approached the bus stop about 10 minutes after the police arrived. They were putting up cordons. The shirtless man was extremely drunk and harassing a policewoman to find his shirt for him. The policewoman was trying to take a witness statement from the young man in red, who gave the drunk man his jacket.

Friday 30th September, 1.55pm

30 September 2011

27 September 2011

Djokovic v. Nadal: This Time It's Personal

September 12th 2011. A day later than scheduled, a day after the most portentous date in the American calendar. A day after the day that sparked two wars - one barely masquerading as over, the other the longest in US history, whose casualty toll reaches over 250,000, showing no signs of abating, as renewed attacks from the Taliban have seen the intelligence agencies of the US and Britain. The eve of that portentous date, a truck bomb in central Afghanistan killed 5 Afghans and injured 77 US soldiers. A day which signifies unending, fractious offensives; offensives which come with deeply embedded psychologies: military cruelty presented as the fight between ideologies.

24 hours after that portentous date - and itself a day later than planned - a different kind of battle, between two foreign powers.

The US Open Tennis Men's Final.

World no.1 Novak Djokovic, bulldozing his way back from 2 sets to 0 down against Roger Federer in the semi finals (for the second year running), against defending champion Rafael Nadal - defeated Wimbledon finalist, 5 times losing finalist to Djokovic in 2011. Their rivalry this year has felt more like a war, in which the reigning king has been eroded and exploded by the Serbian's unbelievable resilience and strength in depth.

This was a battle. Brutal. Attritious. Contentious. And not just competitive - but combative. A battle whcih Djokovic inevitably won - but nonetheless a match which, over 4 sets, took nearly 4 and a half hours.

It hurt to watch. The two men were beating each other to a pulp, running so hard and striking the ball with such power that each shot really was that: a shot. Discharged with inconceivable force; two men armed. Literally. Weapons growing out of their shoulders, at times firing canons; at others, tricky, terrifying snipers, seeking the lines and corners.

This mammoth, hugely entertaining battle marks a new rivalry: Djokovic and Nadal. But unlike the previous rivalry which dominated men's tennis - that between Nadal and Federer, who have competed in 8 Grand Slam Finals (Nadal victorious in 6), and produced the greatest match of all time in the Wimbledon Final 2008 - this one will not be as dazzling in the ability of both players to bring the best out of each other.

Nadal and Federer's games fit each other like gloves - they challenged and responded to each other in ways previously impossible. But Djokovic and Nadal will not reign together. They'll wax and wane in turn: because their rivalry, with two styles so similar, is one of outdoing. Djokovic's game is effectively modelled on Nadal's (whose game was modelled on beating Federer's): phenomenal fitness, incredible returns, defence-into-attack, the grinding of opponents and the surprise unleashing of rocketing forehands. The elements they do not share between them - most clearly exposed on clay to Nadal's advantage, and on the hardcourts of Australia and the US for Djokovic - is unbelievable spin (Nadal's power) and a probing, split-second backhand (Djokovic's power - and Nadal's weakness).

So why, with games so similar, has Nadal always had Djokovic's number before? It's not just because Djokovic has only really reached competing levels of fitness and consistency this year. Nadal's greatest weapon, when all other weapons fail, is a huge heart and the steeliest of minds. The power to convince himself against the inevitability of an apparent loss: the ability to just keep the ball in play, to plant a seed of doubt in the opponent's mind, to hide out, to battle and play dirty until the dominator trips himself up. As well as his own waspish forehands and offensives, he plays so well into the self-confidence of others: he finds a way to undermine their faith in their strongest assets.

Yet in the heart of the second set of the Final, after Nadal had gone 2-0 up (as in the first), only to be hauled back to 2-2, at the end of a 17 minute game of brutal attack and impossible playmaking - Djokovic broke him. And that steely reserve cracked. Beneath it we saw what that outer armour protects: a little boy, eager to please, determined to succeed, bullied and buoyed by his uncle Toni. Skinny, a little desperate and full of willing - but out of ideas.

On September 12th, as the CIA building in Kabul slept nervously, suspicious but unaware of the attack awaiting it, Rafael Nadal faced up to a new enemy. An enemy that may well be himself.

Novak Djokovic beat Nadal at his own game. He played the same style of tennis, and now, emphatically underlined by Djokovic's unstoppable victories all year, he was playing it better. Constantly. And Rafa - with nowhere to hide under the lights and the cameras, no teammates, just one individual so eager to win, to please, that he re-programmed his body to play left-handed - faced the truth. That his refusal to lose had become a kind of denial....a negative. He went through his usual armoury: defence into attack, denying the loss, clawing back; but his classic refuse-to-lose game lacked one element. Belief. Even in the exhilarating fight of the third set. which saw Nadal come back from 4-1 down to take the set on a tie break, won by flashes of electric forehands, the moments of transcendence felt like a suspension of disbelief on Nadal's part. Half an hour where he forgot that he doesn't believe he can beat Djokovic right now.

The media loves to spin itself into a frenzy about form and fitness - endlessly fretting over the 'torture' Nadal inflicts on himself like an over-protective mother cooing over a grazed knee. The only torture for Nadal is mental. He was on fine form - and velocity - in the US Open, the second week especially. His first 2 sets against Andy Murray in the semi-final (won 6-4 6-2 3-6 6-2) were an example of the terrifying fluency of a top player at total ease. Nadal, who knows Murray's game so well, and knows how to beat it, was gorgeous: improvising with his own game, experimenting with length and depth, taking to the net. Just like with Federer's game, Nadal has cracked the formula with Murray: he knows the rhythm and rigour he needs to apply. The men on the other side of the net are known quantities. And with this knowledge, this comfort, he can relax and play great tennis.

But - what of this new enemy? This brusque, dark-haired, slim pine tree of a man, who makes Nadal look nervous and strained, exposing a weakness in Nadal's game he never thought he'd need to improve: that strong, strong resolve. How has Djokovic got inside his head?

The answer is in the Serb's own constitution. After several years showing promise, he has come to terms with his own head and heart. Sure, djokovic's superb fitness, the change to a gluten-free diet and good rest all contribute. But as he says, he hasn't changed his game so much. The key to his year of superhero tennis - only 2 losses in 64 games - is an alignment of a powerful mind to that powerful body. Exuding positivity and - in his own words - 'aggression', Djokovic has found a place for his personality within his game.

In previous years watching Djokovic play, you could see his undoubted talent - his victory in the Australian Open 2008 an obvious signal - but it always came in gasps, usually separated by periods of petulance, wilting fitness or variable form. Djokovic's relationship with his mind and personality was a bit like Murray's: the mind is a danger. It should be kept separate from the game; leave it off the court so it doesn't distract you.

As we constantly see with Murray, this causes problems. Try to lock up your mind and soul in the locker room and it will find a way of creeping out in your shoelaces, appearing on the inside of your towel as you wipe the sweat and change ends, in the yellow fluff of the new balls you're now nervous to serve with.

Djokovic has realised this year that personality - heart as well as mind - has a crucial place in a champion's game. He's not going to win just by playing good tennis. He has to have the attitude, the feeling to match. In his own words:

"...I had difficulties approaching semi-finals and finals. I would wait for players to make mistakes. I didn't have the positive attitude. That has changed now - the 2010 US Open [four-set defeat by Nadal] was the turning point.

"I guess it just clicked in my head. It's just that I'm hitting the shots that I maybe wasn't hitting in the last two, three years now. I'm going for it."

Djokovic's heart is in his tennis now - his character and his energy no longer struggling to stay subdued in the locker room.

Just look at that astounding exhibitionism after his match-point-saving forehand in the 5th set against Federer in the semis. or his unselfconsciously ridiculous robot dance at the end of the first week. His playmaking in set 2 of the final. Or his cold, clinical bulldozing of the 4th - a no-nonsense close out. Djokovic - a great mimic, a joker, a cheeky chancer, a bit arrogant but also, crucially, an enigma, a coolly fierce solider - has let his personality play tennis.

Now his mimicry - once reserved just for joking around or terrible adverts - is being used on court, to embody the styles of other players and beat them at their own games. This audacious mix of calm cockiness, one-upmanship and flair is - this year - an almost impenetrable fort. Opponents look across the net and see themselves...parodied.

And that was what made the US Open Final such a terrifying, pummelling bout of a game. It was personal. Like part of these players' identities was at stake. Like they were fighting for who they were: fighting for the right to be called champion, two players so similarly matched that the battleground was really a mental one. Two men playing a style of tennis which, on paper, is very similar. Two men divided and engaged by the net: drawing these similarities into battle.

The divide between them was not equal, though. The net a window to one, disguised as a mirror to the other. Nadal in the interrogation room - staring into the glass to only see himself, whilst Djokovic stoof on the other side, seeing his every move.

The component which turned the scrutiny on Nadal, and hid Djokovic's direction and probes from the Spaniard? That Djokovic has made that defence-into-attack style a purely attacking on. He's turned a 'negative' style of tennis into the most aggressive, open, incisive play around.

So now that Djokovic has brought his head game to rival the strongest head and heart of all - what is going to decide the future of this rivalry?

It will be the physical state of each player which redresses the current divide. To fix the mind, Nadal must go back to the body. Focus, train, and stop worrying about Djokovic. Focus on improving the backhand, serving under pressure, finding depth of groundstrokes. Only through playing the game, getting absorbed in it, can he find himself. Regain confidence, find enjoyment - and that form which found him winning the French, Wimbledon and US Opens in 2010. Time will pass. Djokovic will get a little tired, or the magic making this incredible year will run out; maybe that old mentality will peek in even for a second, if he isn't careful; maybe he'll drop off his workrate (though that seems unlikely...). Time will tell whose body will fatigue and confidence will falter.

Just look at that country plunged into war by that portentous day before September 12th. What a lot of self-belief and aggression it showed in the face of an enemy. And what a lot of damage and error can be caused when that self-belief goes awry. Or when it's not founded on anything. It becomes denial. The enemy adapts, survives, learns your game, finds its rhythm. And retains its own element of surprise. And the war grinds on: in it for the long haul, charting the shifts in power like spikes on a heart monitor.

During the match, Rafa must have felt like he was fighting a cause he didn't believe in. But in the press conference afterwards, Nadal's attitude was superb. And in a way - having, as he says, a new 'goal', a new target, is brilliant for him. He needs something to aim for: someone to attack. Djokovic is still soaring, but behind him - despite his humility and sense in interviews - Rafa is aggravated. Aggresive. In sport, that can cause an explosive renewal of offense, or a terrible implosion. A desire to finish this once and for all. Because in tennis at least, wars can be won and lost. They can be measured and tabulated and put in snippets on Wikipedia and ATP player bios. We're playing at being in battles. And if someone gets hurt, they don't get buried in a mass grave. They have a massage. Or cramp in a press conference.

26 September 2011


Uprising & The Art of Not Looking Back//
Hofesh Shechter Company //
Dance Xchange, Birmingham, September 24th 2011

scribbled down last night, in my notebook:

"teeters between the

and the

... neither one - nor the other - but


at the the same time


5 September 2011

the agony of others: the US Open and its injuries

Expecting a match report and some press feedback on Rafael Nadal's victory last night in the US Open 3rd Round against David Nalbandian, I went to the tennis tournament's website. across the homepage was a video, whose screengrab just looked like a normal press conference. I clicked on it and found this (I feel sort of weird linking to this, as I don't know how I feel about this video being posted):

The most popular video on the US Open site, unavoidable on the scroll-through video gallery which keeps landing you back on it, was nearly 2 minutes of Rafael Nadal wincing and cramping, as the camera, rock-steady, recorded imperviously on. I made it through about a minute before realising 1) they aren't going to cut to anything else, let alone report on the match and 2) this is horrible.

What good is it to me, or anyone, to gawp at a tennis player suffering cramp at a bad time? Some of the comments below were ridiculous - one woman, Elizabeth David if I remember rightly, said that 'it was agonizing - how dare they put up such a video - look at what 'we' put them through'... (the response from another user, predictably deadpan, was along the lines of 'not agonizing enough for you to stop watching...')

Let's pull this into perspective. There are several things going on here. Yes, Elizabeth David, there is something cruel or weird about the posting of this video. But cramp isn't that cruel or weird thing. The odd thing going on with the video is the seeming lack of empathy or sympathy for a player in an awkwardly-timed spot of bother. Even weirder, or greedier, is the way that this footage was immediately advertised - and of course, picked up - by media outlets across the globe, hitting the homepages of ElPais, the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald (that at least has a sense of, not a sensationalist, humour) and so on within minutes - as a collapse/ shock/ OUTRAGE!!!

stop! press! RAFAEL SLUMPS TO THE GROUND....with cramp.

Cramp is painful, yes, but it passes. Press conferences too are painful, but they pass, with the same old 'he played well, tough first set, but I played some good points' soundbites. The only thing which makes the press conference special is that we happen to have seen what is an otherwise banal moment in a sports person's life, when thet have to lie back, breathe deep and wait for the spasms to subside.

Nadal's irritation with the persistent camera-snapping silence is understandable. But that's the only thing that makes the video interesting: imagining the silent, poised journos, gawping at an 'agony' that is merely inconvenient. And then this moment becomes the story of the entire game - it eclipses the sport completely. Nadal played a good game, and yet once again, the media will be fawning over this bruised solider, who is pushed 'too hard' by the tennis calendar.

Yes, the tennis calendar is punishing, but I have a feeling that no one is more punishing on himself than Rafael Nadal. The difference between he and Nalbandian was exactly one of mentality, a mindset solidified years ago and now paying off: Nalbandian, as everyone keeps saying, was one of the great hopes of a few years ago. He never really made it, and looking at the match up between he and Nadal yesterday, you could see why. It was written in their bodies, their body language, their movements and muscles. Both have talent, but what differentiates them is the amount of hard work and pain Nadal has put himself through to get to 10 grand slams.

But back to that video a second. It has since been removed from the US Open site, all full 2 minutes of boredom. A few rogue youtube versions remain here.When you relay its contents, it sounds funny (and then first comment for this video is: 'looks like he's getting a blowjob lol'): a world class athlete slowly disappearing from view under a table at a press conference. Fine, that is kind of funny - when you tell it to someone else.

But watch it, without thinking that. What is it that makes the event, the banal insight into an athlete's cramp, creepy? What does that unswerving, anonymous camera remind me of? Michael Haneke's Caché. A film that supremely deals with the mind games caused by the camera, the unglinting focus on the everyday; and how the viewer, intent on finding meaning, will turn the everyday, the uninhibited, into the ominous, the treacherous. (Incidentally, the trailer is a perfect example of the opposite - Hollywood's all powerful need to subsume and convert the tone and focus of any film into a deceptive 'thrill ride'; to reimagine the spasms of the death drive only in relation to death.)

What is baffling about this video and its eeriness is its complete absence of necessity, or even of meaning. (And see how desperately I am now flailing to give it meaning, to fit it into something sensical!)

I understand why it was recorded - but I don't understand why the US Open let it be posted, unedited, to the world. The two minutes are not dissimilar to those two hours of footage of Binoche and Auteil's house in Caché: unending, with no narrative, no change, no seeming purpose outside themselves. So why share it?

It is necessary, for other events, for a camera to unswervingly capture the agonies of an individual, or a nation. Pain and suffering DOES belong on the news: so too does reporting it objectively.

The word 'objective' is worth pausing over: post-modernism has torpedoed any sense of faith in 'objectivity'. Objectivity instead is always a relative term. The camera is not a passive nor innocent thing; it shapes and changes behaviour; and for the viewer it frames events into stories. Yet the objectivity - or otherwise - of the camera, is incredibly fluid; whilst in art we know it is oppressively present, it can be used with more urgency, and less calculation.

In a field such as journalism, especially within war and conflict reporting, the mere presence of a camera is important. Finding the right place, following the right people, until the filming can be done. But when recording takes place, there is little time, or consideration, for how 'objective' the framing. The focus is on what is in front of the camera, the rest, once the camera rolls, is simply trying to keep pace. Because the snatched footage from an al-Jazeera camera, or a mobile phone, are immediately in dialogue with a much bigger picture, a much bigger version of events.

Having a view into the torture and atrocities committed by non-elected and elected governments is imperative - and dangerous. In politics, video is perhaps the closest we can get to counterbalancing the mind-numbing (and often desensitising) raft of words - spoken or written - which use the recurrent themes: civilian casualties, air strike, unrest, humanitarian crisis. So in the context of ongoing unrest, the necessity of seeing a Syrian detainee being slapped and humiliated by a solider loyal to President Bashar al-Assad (in the link above), speaks for itself. It is not pain for pain's sake: it is one human face of the troubles which are recevied outside of the Middle East in largely dry and stylised (sterilised?) forms: reports, new legislations, meetings.

But in the context of the US Open Press Conference (and the endless press circuit), an athlete's cramp does not speak for itself; and footage of this is useless, empty, unless we can understand where it fits. Those 2 minutes become a strangely dull pornography, where the viewer persists in the hope of a weird titillation or enough disgust to turn off: haha he looks like he's getting a blowjob...Oh my god isn't this terrible and awful!!!...yeah but isn't it still kind of hot...

For the most part, the video does little but raise an odd, passive aggressive disinterest, much like the disinterest of that 'unobtrusive' camera, turning us into the gawping rest of the press conference. Which is what makes this little glimpse of a player in pain so weird. It has no story; no outcome. The big games of professional tennis, unlike most other sports, give the viewer unblinkingly direct access to the players in moments that merge agony and ecstasy; and those emotions are always part of a bigger narrative. We're driven to expect them: but to expect them in the right places, like finals, career-defining moments.

Like with Caché, the presence of the camera here is not the dangerous thing: the viewer is. So far beyond the argument for the objective gaze, we now give the camera an overwhelming subjectivity, projecting our own meanings or feelings, filling in the gaps the way you might in a film, or an art installation.
It has to be telling us...something...it must be watching for a reason....
Thanks to the increasingly theatrical coverage of sport in the UK, even the journalistic camera is expected to give us a gazumping great tragedy, or triumph - rather than simpy document a passing moment. (And that's what Haneke's film plays with so brilliantly...in fact, maybe the overblown trailer was deliberate - to further highlight the expectation for titillation that the viewer presents.)

Of course, the journalists present to question Nadal were doing their job; what is more, no doubt the footage stops when it does because afterwards other figures rush in and the moment is lost. But those lonely 2 minutes are a curious pause for reflection: on the state of empathy in a culture which so obsessively yearns for any taste of the extraordinary and exalted few that it becomes distracted, and defined, by the mediocre.

But let the extraordinary be the focus once again. In tennis terms at least, Nadal (as the Guardian's Kevin Mitchell wrote) 'is back'.

24 August 2011

re: Talent, Wasted

I was just about to take this down and re-write it, because I realised that my thinking on it isn't fully fleshed out in a lot of parts. And it's about a lot of people and things, currently all jumbled together. But instead, am going to leave this initial brainspasm as it is and have a think about a longer/more intricate piece over the next week.

So keep your eyes peeled.

In the meantime, some really good hip hop that still carries a few of the devices and tics I feel confused and weird about. But passion, realness. That's life.

23 August 2011

Talent, Wasted: hip hop deceived by its own devices

Several times in the last few months, mostly at clubnights (most of them run by these guys, who also have a radio show on NTS ), I've heard this amazing Busta Rhymes' verse getting played in the middle of a set. It's over a kind of hazed--out electronic beat, sounds like a melted glitch, and Busta spits about 200 words in a minute over the top. Usually it cuts in over the end of Break Ya Neck, or some other piece of Busta audacity. And it's amazing.

I had no idea where the verse came from. But I thought, shit, if that's a verse, and the production is that good, this must be an incredible song. So I do a little searching and I discover


Oh God. Chris Brown. This is a horrible song. What's more - it's just pop music! That verse of Busta's that might have been a moment of sublime rap is...a bad commericial pop song.

It is also the most openly cynical 'selling' of a horribly pastiched 'gangsta' schtick I have ever seen. A perfect example of how 'HIP HOP' has become a commodity, a device, to make money; a collection of simplistic images, tics, phrases and gestures. In the video, Brown wears a series of shirts and hats for various sports teams across different cities in the US. He's not even representing something, or somewhere, he's just...representing. He bangs his chest. He tries to look hard. His entire body, from the tattoos criss-crossing all over his body, to the jewellery to the endless emblazoning of different cities across his chest, is a kind of vacuum, neatly polished with mindless 'signs' of 'HIP HOP'.

Has anyone else ever stooped that cynically low?Chris Brown is dressed in the video exactly like S.Mouse, Chris Lilley's parody of Soulja Boy (and Brown)-esque Rice Krispies-lite 'hip hop' stars. the video is nothing but cynical styling, money making without a statement from start to finish.

Brown is a pop star. Kind of clean (although his first hit 'Run It' had him boasting about his sexual prowess that would have us saying he couldn't be 16...), definitively boring. He went out with Rihanna. And he treated her extremely badly, resulting in physically attacking her in 2008. I can understand that he says feels terrible about this, and does not want to be the only thing by which he is judged for the rest of his life.

But songs like this make a mockery of the physical abuse of Rihanna. How to put uncomfortable domestic violence behind you, Chris? By reinventing yourself as a gangsta parody, a trite amalgamation of commercial hip hop cliches, preaching the same violence, the same misogyny, in his songs. Idiotic, ignorant mechanics, which do nothing but perpetuate a myth that these kind of violences are all ok. All in the game.

What's more, apart from the production and that Busta verse, it really is a shit song; Chris Brown's entire contribution competes only with Lil Wayne for casually offensive triteness and lack of originality. The whole endeavour smacks of the most cynical meeting point between pop star ego and record label greed.

Listen to the laziness of Chris Brown's 'dick' verse and then Lil Wayne at the end.

.......I hate myself for it, but I still want to listen to it. That Busta verse! The insistence of the rapping, faster and faster, over that lazy, oozy beat....it's so....ahhhhh....alluring. And that's really what bites about the song. Not the trite hip hop cliches. They're not clever. What is clever is using someone's virtuosity - Busta's vocal talents as an MC, one the key original disciplines of hip hop - to peddle this shit. To disguise the messages, to distract.

I let myself get taken in by what's being done, I let what's being said slide, because LISTEN TO WHAT THE FUCK BUSTA IS DOING WITH HIS MOUTH.

And yet- and yet - I can't totally turn a deaf ear. I still hear those words, though I wish I didn't.

And this is my problem with (even vaguely) commercial hip hop - I never feel able to say I like someone like Busta as a rapper - because for the incredible vocal dexterity and skill he has, the things he actually says are deplorable, and the stories he tells aren't worth listening to. All the old-school devices and talents of hip hop, are being unravelled from their origins and being used to essentially sell pop records. Hip-pop. Brilliant wordplay all to inform us about your lifestyle choices. What do I know or care about his cars and shaved pussies and all the other posturing that is his life? What do I care? Why don't I listen to more (god who doesn't hate this term) 'conscious' hip hop?

You know why? Because for all the Mos Defs and Talib Kwelis (amazing lyricists, neither commercial rappers nor insecure gangsta fakers), the fact is that they don't have the sick beats that Rick Ross, or Pusha T or Noreaga might pull out. And I hate most of the things that guys like Cam'Ron say: but I love the way they say them.

So I can almost understand how, caught up in the seductive 'way of saying it' - the beats, the vocal dexterity, the production and the energy - we can let so many terrible statements slide. But I have no idea why we can actually listen to that stuff, and then praise what it is being said. Or even repeat it. I thought that the obsession with 'realness' in hip hop might mean that the majority of listeners being rapped to by millionaires in basketball jerseys riding Segways inventing ridiculous dance moves, would see the bullshit.

What part of life are they rapping about? Even Watch the Throne...it's full of disses, and still packed with traditional devices of old school hip hop...but Jay and Kanye, if you're the only 'gods' up there in the clouds, who's this 'you' you keep hating on? If no one else can touch you, the only people you're hating on must be your listeners, the plebs and groundlings that you gotta tell how amazing you are, how above them you be.

Fuck keeping it real. It's finding the real we should worry about. There's always been exaggeration, self-construction and fantasy in hip hop - the whole movement arises from a culture and peoples whose economic reality and social repression and exploitation means that life revolves around money (not having it, or having it and spending it) - but reality should have a place.

Even Grandmaster Flash was driven by real stories, giving a voice to the ghetto: the music was an incredibly imaginative way of showing the world these stories. The majority of hip hop that gets heard and played these days - and not just purely commercial stuff but also by a lot of hip hop heads, radio stations and the like - seems to feel pressured to imagine something to rap about....instead of looking at the real shit around them. The majority of hip hop listeners are being told about 'real life' that sounds like a fantasy, or some overblown dream.

Who is someone like Kanye keeping it real to now? Who lives that life that he raps about? Footballers, basically. In the UK at least. They're some of the few people in the world who share a lifestyle and economic freedom similar to massive rap artists. Talented performers who have been awarded staggering amounts of money by an originally working class, communitarian, movement/pursuit, that is now enthralled by commerce and consumerism. Converted into gods by money. And encouraging a culture of waste; throwaway materials, throwaway people....and throwaway talent.

It would be easier if Kanye West - and even our original adversay, Mr Chris Brown - was a talentless douche. Kanye is very smart, witty, insightful. And Chris Brown is actually a great dancer. Not a special singer, but as a dancer, amazing. So why doesn't he spend more time working on what he's good at, and being even better at it? And why does Kanye West use that talent he has to endorse and further embed the dominance and wealth of the few over the many? And what positive thing is Busta doing with his doubtless talents, apart from getting paper with the help of the teen dollar that Brown brings in?

Money is in hip hop. It's a crucial part of it. I am not an orientalist utopian idiot who likes to think that back in 79 it was all about peace and love and emancipating black people together. That's another form of ignorance. Hip hop arose out of a web of social and economic factors, that impinged enough on a certain group of people, on their spirit, put pressure on, so that this new way of expression, combining music, lifestyle, dance, emerged. What I'm saying is that it came from feeling. From a real, deep experience, an impulse and desire to say somethign new, to express - and breakdancing, MCing, djing, swagger, became devices to do that.

But what I don't understand is why, and how, money seems to have become the dominating factor in hip hop and in contemporary society. If there is still 'real' hip hop, real protest, then it's surely about using talent and insight to present the alternatives; to show society that there is another way of structuring your life, so that it doesn't revolve around getting paper. Not just for the streets that hip hop set out to speak for, but even for the record execs and the record buying public and the millions of people now affected by it. Use talent, the virtuosity and audacity, to move us differently.

Barrios Beats and Blood

This morning I watched, again, this documentary about young men in Ciudad Juarez who use hip-hop to talk about the violence and corruption suffered by their city.

It's brilliant and apt, especially watching it in London now. The young people of Juarez, generally aged between 15 and 30, are known as 'Ni-ni' (neither-nors): 'ni escuela ni trabajo' (no school nor work). Their situation is very extreme, but the fingers of free market capitalism (encouraged by the much-maligned North American Free Trade agreement) have played a massive part in the undoing of these young people's lives, as the very agreement which Mexico willingly signed to allow the US an Access All Areas pass to its resources and labour force, is the the same agreement whose porous borders permits the drug trade to hoover up swathes of lives and aspirations from the coca leaves of Colombia up to, finally, the noses and pipes of the world's biggest cocaine and crack market, the United States of America.

Northern Mexico, essentially a zone of vigilante justice, where there are as many criminals in the police force as there may be on the streets, has the highest murder rate in the world. Yet it has shamefully little coverage. Two prominent massacres - the most recent within the Juarez jail - receive little attention in international media, least of all neighbouring United States. It truly is a war; and not just over drugs, as President Obama and Felipe Calderon would have you believe.

The war, of which narcotics have become the symbol, is actually a battleground where the results of adopting a free market economy tumble and scream and slide: voracious and unchecked globalisation of capital; privatisation of welfare services; overwhelming emigration of cheap labour forces; the conversion of society and community ties themselves into a 'free market'; the resultant alienation, lack of legal employment.

Equally disturbing is the fact that the femicide in Juarez - a big campaign for Amnesty and other human rights and women's rights groups at the end of the last decade - has been forgotten outside the North Mexican desert.

Hundreds of women, many of whom were immigrants working in the maquiladoras, some as young as 12, installed the Mexican side of the border for their cheap labour costs, were found dead, usually showing signs of rape and mutilation, dating from as early as 1993, until around 2008. The frequent appearance of new bodies, murdered with almost a complete lack of motive, led many to label them the result of 'blood sport' in which men who felt free to act outside the law - policemen as well as cartel members - would ride around Juarez, and rape, kill and dump women's bodies for fun.

It is essentially one of the biggest 'unsolved' mass murders of all time - in which the identities of several perpetrators are not a mystery at all, but are in burned or buried case files; despite brave campaigning, it seems that a fear of violent retribution, and a murky legal process rife with misdemeanour, means that the authorities keep the case open, and the truth closed.

This is important. Real. And happening now. So why does nobody want to watch this here in London? These factors are at work in the society in which we live - we made it so because we adopted the same policy, the same economics - and we cannot simply ignore Mexico because it is 'culturally' different.

Is there a way that the virtual media, that we often use to distract us, or to facilitate or ignorance of what is physically occurring on our streets or on the bus (we can cloud it all out with an iPod!), can actually tell these real stories?

In a town where words and deeds are themselves corrupt and corrupting, music, dance, sport, performance, seem to be the few ways of practically, honestly allowing the Ni-Nis to communicate with those in their town. And photo and video documentary, made by journalists like Rancho Aparte, seems to be one of the most practical, honest, ways of sharing these troubles with the world. This photo blog here is one case in point.

Barrios, Beats and Blood demonstrates the extent to which a real and perceived lack of support, trust, and governance in the official and municipal fabric of the city has allowed such corruption and doubt to unravel. These young men are perceptive, intelligent and funny. They talk and joke with each other (Axer lists the weapons he used to carry 'a 38mm...no, 2 38mm...and a few grenades...' he kids) with the resilience and innocence of youth, but the stories they tell and their insight makes them seem like the only adults with cool heads in a world where authority figures and institutions are either completely corrupt, or struggling against a mentality which now perceives them as corrupt and untrustworthy.

And weirdly, the presence of the camera, for which of course we all perform, feels candid. It somehow invites smart observations from its interviewees - and makes smart observations of its own, simply by being moved around. And because it isn't a person, it doesn't have its own voice which is inherently corruptible, it somehow becomes trusted. An object that can capture, and be confided in.

Ultimately, what keeps me coming back to this film is that the life within these young MCs fights that cynical notion presented by Mexico's media and politicians that in Juarez, it's lose lose. It is hell and there's little to save it - you try to find a way to make peace in hell and they say you must be the devil.

That 'lose-lose' perspective in the UK has also resulted in some pitifully reactionary shit being spouted by local citizens to the Prime Minister, about how to 'deal' with the apparently violent, mindless criminals terrorising 'our Britain'. Behind those reactionary missives is the message to the young people of the UK that they're in hell, they made it, and there's no way out.

A complex problem, one which requires care and, more than anything else, attention, simple attention to the circumstances which created it, is turned into a doctrine. You are bad, you're a devil, or you are good; that's what the coalition is telling us. The bad will be punished. The good will prevail. Just when we discover how brutally economic policy has mutilated social, ethical and working life in urban Britain, the government is going to bury the case file, and call this a moral crusade. A simple battle between good people and bad people. Nothing to do with money, or any of those complicated things, at all.

Yet just one glimpse at Ciudad Juarez is enough to show us all how laughable that ideology is.

19 August 2011

Security Measures tighten on the edges of the City

Chatsworth Road, E5

On a very eerie road in Clapton -
where gentrification and smart delis collide
but don't communicate -

with tyre repair businesses

remnants of white working class industry

African and Caribbean food shops and cafes

skinny white 20 somethings on thing bikes speeding past young black kids doing wheelies.

all watched over by machines of love and grace?

the only big brother watching is this one, probably. not even sure it should be considered an advert.

The Louys Project

I thought I'd use this little pocket of cyberspace to eschew reviews for a moment and write a little on the performance I'm currently working on.

It's with a very new company called Lifeguard Productions, set up by Farah Merani, who I met at a TAMASHA training course. Farah asked me if I'd be interested in directing a devised project she was trying to get off the ground, and I said...yes.

We've been working from a book of poems called Les Chansons de Bilitis, with a group of five women (the performance at the moment has four as the delightful Ari Phillips has been busy with new job).

We're grappling with the curious identity crisis behind the writing of the poems - passed off as the discovered works of an ancient Greek poetess but actually the imaginings of a middle aged French man in 1894 - and once we knew about the authorship of the poems, the whole project became about 'who speaks for women?'

We realised that we couldn't 'perform' the story of Bilitis, because we didn't really believe it. It was essentially a series of changing relationships between identity and desire: the shifting position that her body takes with the world around it. Childhood and openness; first desire and nervousness; discovering sex and wanting to fuck the world; giving yourself totally, wildly, and becoming jealous, possessive, betrayed.

These are all somewhat conventional patterns of behaviours - or relational norms - which women are still encouraged to perform. But in 2011, we're encouraged to perform these shifting positions by the media in all its forms, from newspaper articles to magazine covers to pop videos to self-help books. Like Louys' presence in the Chansons de Bilitis, these media are the shadowy voices of authority that stand behind our experiences of desire and instinct, shaping not only how we communicate them - but perhaps dictating how we feel and act in the first place.

So the project as it stands at the moment is a summary, a collage of observations, of contemporary 'authority' figures which dictate how or what women should feel as they grow. This is done physically by the performers: we see them pluck at their bodies in an invisible mirror; be transformed from nervous self-conscious wrecks into a punching army of aggression and 'self-assertion' (fascistically, utterly controlled by one leader); turn everyday situations of irritation and pressure into pop idol dance moves. This is paired with the equivalent poem or moment from Louys' shaping of Bilitis' life.

In many ways, we're playing into dangerous hands here - because rather than straight out rejecting these existing authorities and their versions of womanhood, we're trying to adopt them without getting lost or brainwashed. It's risky: but I want to push further into these shapes and 'versions' of womanhood, to find a truer and realer voice, a voice which emerges through the exhaustion of these conventions and cliches.

Because I think that if you don't address what exists, if you start as if none of these other patterns and version influence you and bombard you every day, you'll just self-consciously replicate them. You have to know the rules - or at least recognise them - before you can break them.

Tonight's the last performance of part one - the 'collage of observations' on who speaks for women - at the New Diorama Theatre. I've been writing a few blogs on the rehearsal process on the company website here (designed by Dylan Spencer-Davidson). And there'll be more. Brain is whirring constantly so over the weekend expect some knee-jerk missives (and hopefully a few more reflective ones) on where we go next. Have got lots of spinning-top thoughts and am figuring out which ones to keep whirring.

8 August 2011

London political weather forecast 2

Monday 8th August, late afternoon.

Clarence Road, Hackney.

A heavy and darkening cloud engulfs parts of the city. Police response, radio and television coverage looks set to further hyperbolise reality over the week, with increasing risk of continued turbulence.

London political weather forecast 2

Monday 8th August, evening.

Grouping clouds meet developing smoke. Fires further south.

A chance of increasing helicopters across Hackney and Greater London.

Sirens and constant whir overhead.

London political weather forecast

Saturday 6th August, evening

Riots in Tottenham Hale.
Rainbows in Hackney Central.
Sirens moving north.

26 July 2011

The office: a journey in percussion

The internet has a worming effect on your body and mind, burrowing in between them and creating gaps or channels where you thought there was harmony. Your mind moves at a million miles an hour; it tries to make the body void and null. Nowhere have I more acutely felt this than in my part time job with a company which exists solely to play Google, and make its clients more prominent in cyberspace.

Sitting down and staring at one thing for such a long period of time is unnatural. The dull thrum of your nerves pulsing into the swivel chair, the self-prohibited desire to get up and run around or at least laugh at loud a lot, forms a kind of bass-kick somewhere in your body. Fingers absentmindedly flicker and snap. Mouths open and close silently. The pace and length of the strides from the kitchen to the desk to the toilet quicken and slacken.

Far from this activity dulling or diminishing the body's natural energy - it simply short circuits it. The energy and movement which might power a human body is harnessed to one spot, given a very short leash, and HAS to be rechannelled - into spasmodic eructations on your phone, trips to the toilet, another cup of tea. The office becomes a music and a dance. A duet between body and computer, a dialogue of energy between collective and individual; a flurry of tap-tap-tapping keys and click-click-clicking heels, with the snare and slide of a chair across the carpet.

This short-circuiting of my energy usually leads me, with that internet conditioned click-it-and-see impulse, to YouTube, and music. Whilst I previously thought that my listening choices were a little freedom amidst the invisible office straitjacket, I've realised that music does more than that for me.

I tend to listen to similar songs when I'm working; and I think that the music I choose does what my body wishes it was doing. The music is movement - in sound rather than action. It dances for me, for all of us and our short-circuited energy. I wonder whether the songs I choose chart this daily journey, of body and mind slowly splitting, admitting (or not) to a common beat and re-emerging in time for the end of the day.

A typical morning starts somewhere like here. There's a sense of unity, or openness. Words and rhythm are in a half-blended haze, something optimistic and straight forward, the heat and awareness of the outside enters the office and rules it for the first half an hour.

Then that soulful sunniness sits down, settles and things become more insistent - that beat becomes more regulated, just as the office has clicked into gear and is clap clap clapping through. Meanwhile, the individual, like the voice of Pharoahe, kicks away from that rhythm, unconsciously or not. The harmony of the first half hour dissipates as body and mind split.

And then the mind kind of takes over. The beat quietens down as the office subdues, caffeine buzzes trickle away, and like an unstoppable stream, the random synapses of the over-stimulated mind kicks in, clicking between two screens, or 23 open tabs across 4 windows, emails, scorecards, Google results. A collection of divergent references and unfinished thoughts, like Def here skipping from disco to techno to soul and back. (This video reminds me of an internet-era Beckett's Not I: a disembodied mouth that can't do anything but let the thoughts pour out unstoppably, constantly distracted and shifting. The rhythm, the chaotic monotony of being online.)

But inevitably, this surge fades away into a dulled almost-silence, just the hums of the piano (or, in my world offline, the computers). Confronted with the mind at a dead-end, and a body switching off. At this point, an attempt to jump out of the lull by imagining or identifying yourself with a class, a drama, or a struggle, that will make you feel authentically real, or turn the dull feeling into an identifiable story. But this is self-dramatizing and little more.

It's after lunch and there's still several hours to go. Blood pumps around the stomach and the office is slumped, echoes of the morning (like Burial's traces of the night before) reverberating gently and muggily around the desks. That post-eating haze, as workers finally all arrive back from their breaks, begins to wear off and the first beats of the afternoon settle in. A metronomic pulse overlayed with tiny offshoots and tributaries, as some sink further into the monotony, and others pick up and propel themselves into meetings or tea breaks.

By this point, the montony has become kind of fun. So consistent and strong that you can build off it. My wayward mind has started finding ways to do what I like without paying too much attention to the work I have to complete. I begin to care less about the overall thrum and more about how I can fit new rhythms and ideas into that steadiness, without being caught out.

And by this point, we're less than an hour before the end of the day, and I can feel it. I can't quite pay attention to the beat of the overall office anymore, because a fidgety feeling takes over, itching in and around, resisting any steady rhythm. I go get a glass of water. I sit up, I sit down. I have a chat with a colleague. Everyone begins to splinter, recovering tiny gestures, motifs, and overlaying them on the general office monotony.

This persists, revs, and releases itself, deliriously scattershot onto the streets outside, meeting a thousand others, and cycling home.

25 July 2011

Missives from Months Lost: The Government Inspector

This was on at the Young Vic in June, and to be honest, I haven't thought about it much since, so I can't imagine typing up my original scribblings will be much surprise.

A Study in Deference
'in defence of deference'

Typified by its unwillingness to probe or question its (undeniable) stars. Julian Barratt, poor man, who looked desperate to be given something other to do than lope around stage and pump his fingers into his palm whilst trying to get his lines out as quickly as possible without forgetting them, is a wonderful actor wasted. It felt like he came to this looking for a challenge and a chance to explore a more body-ful way of performing not used in the facical tics and wonderful timing of his TV work - and was instead greeted with a cynical campagin on the YV's part to sell, at all costs, this show as 'The Mighty Boosh''s Julian Barratt. Just likethe poster.

(The audience was certainly comprised of people in their mid 20s, mostly in suits, who seemed to be waiting for subtle Boosh references and had perhaps been big fans at uni when the show first came out.)

It felt like he'd been directed to be Howard Moon and nothing else. You saw glimpses of him leaping out of that oddly ill-fitting demeanour (go with your instincts, Julian! You're right! Acting for TV isn't what you want to do on stage! Don't listen to or worryn about what the director tells you!) - at the very end a physical and vocal spasm as the realisation of the Mayor's mistake dawns on him. Like a jolt of electrivity had been shot through him, Barratt fitted and convulsed, the words coming out so much easier and truer because he wasn't thinking about them. He was doing.
He doesn't strike me as a prima donna, so it's curious that the direciton showed such deference to him + his career - ultimately suggesting a lack of faith. "Just do what you normally do, Julian" stops being a mark of respect 9even sycophancy) and becomes if unchecked, a tool of fear/ A director scared to push a performer and a performer suddenly scared that s/he can't do anything else. Then the words become terrifying, tangible: like the ghost-train neon INCOGNITO which flitted around the walls of the mayor's home.
Kyle Soller meanwhile had the life of 6 people flowing through his wiry frame. I could not take my eyes off him - neither could the audience nor the rest of the cast.
I ddin't completely understand the mish-mash design either - at once retro then clashingly futuristic, or rahter, very 'nowness', with its cut-and-paste references and mingling of aesthetics which ultimately left it feeling oddly styleless...?

Really, I thought it would be less boring.
And more funny.

It seemed that the mayor's anxiety - so potent in the play - had influenced the rest of the skittish productions; with the exception of the bottle rocket 'Government Inspector' - an enigma in the cast and an enigmatic expception to the other largely strained performances.

Kyle Soller, on the otherhand, was the reason for not leaving at the interval. He was mesmeric, and had the effect of a sports star or a dancer at his or her best, who you simply watched open-jawed with their virtuosity. His energy was the kind that, for two hours, makes you fall completely in love, forgiving everything else around you.

Missives from Months Lost: The Passion in Port Talbot

Back in April, National Theatre Wales, a company that really explores and expands old binary ideas of what a 'national' theatre is, with a real openness and curiosity about how Wales as a country and the company as a group of artists can work together, finished up its inaugural year with The Passion in Port Talbot, a 3 day festival, sort-of-but-not-quite recreating elements of the Passion in this South Wales town by the sea.

I had tickets for the opening day - Friday 22nd April - and then ended up coming back the next two days as well (though I missed bits and pieces.)
Anyway, this is from the floor of Aberafan Shopping Centre on the Saturday 23rd, in a break between 'scenes'.

What is brilliant is the bodies of the people - the social body - the polis

First day, first performance: nervous, shuffling and obedient
by Saturday 3.44pm they're sitting on the floor of the shopping centre - a real accidentally -on-purpose sit-in relaxed and non-conformist in a way that they won't even notice
maybe they do notice maybe - maybe their feet and their torsos and shoulders feel different - perceptibly to me imperceptible to them or vice versa who knows
but from where (and how) I stand, this event is relocating and rearticulating the crooked social body, giving different and new flight to a mangled group of people who are not in themselves broken or mangled at all, but impinged upon - by the overpass, by the steelworks, by economic recession, by an undeserved reputation
but a body will fly again will pick itself up - it does not need to reconstitute BECAUSE IT IS NOT BROKEN IT IS NOT FRAGMENTED NO
it is squashed and all it needs to do is stretch once more; stop crouching, lift the head and elognate the spine, raise the head a little closer to the blue skies, relasing the lungs and the diaphragm letting the fresh(ish) air in and in this new - yet age-old - stance, TAKE A STAND, make itself stand up and sing unstoppable but also inevitable

it isn't about a lack or an abolition of control it is about a recolation
[ A RELOCATION where there is usually DIS-LOCATION

putting our head back on the shoulders
breathing in
not forcing up and out but by nature
being empowered rather than experiencing power as a bitter gust that rallies under the doors and through the pillared corridors created by the overpass -
taking breath - inspiration - a movement of air from within + without the body itself, chemically, naturally connecting inside + out; shared + minutely individual
not just the hot blasts of gorgeous wind on Aberavon beach, nor the whistling whirs of the M4 traffic but air (dirty and clean) that passes through the many membraned insides of the flesh+blood human beings who live amidst the concrete + sea somewhere between industry & nature
not bi-partisan, not pro-mountain, anti-M4, not pro-sea, anti-steelworks, but somewhere, something uniting the two, something that acknolwedges history + economy's impositions & recognise that these people & this nature has absorbed these things - suffered but SURVIVED: a regenerative, mournful but maybe maybe changing process, generous process which industry cannot perform no
NATURE, human nature, can & does suffer these impositions: it is generous (sometimes too generous) and quiet (sometimes too quiet) in ceding a place to all these inventions

industry in its arrogance imagines it has won. imagines it dominates the landscape. Imagines that the story is its own. But one look at the beach at Aberafan tells you different. This is Nature's story - whether a tragedy or a comedy, or something unheard of before, this is not about industry. Industry does not win. Industry is incoporated. It is a theme, perhaps, a well-realised motif.
But Nature is all: subject, object, within + without, wheezing as well as singing, patching itself up even whilst it is being torn apart.
This is a passion of mine.
It's pretty clear that the 'story' being written about isn't the narrative of the piece of theatre, but the impulse of the event itself. The story of the people of Port Talbot. The story of Nature and Industry battling over human beings' lives.

I remember a sudden, massive response to the feeling, of being one of and with the people and the history of the town in some ways - and perhaps surprise at experiencing that feeling. Of great pride and faith and connection to the people and the landscape, and being part of that somehow, not just as an audience member, but as someone born and brought up down the road, who went to the town's Lido a few times, but mostly drove over it, as most do, to get to Swansea, or back home to the Vale.

I could never write any kind of 'review' of the show. That said, I thought Lyn Gardner did a non-job of it here - especially to give it 5* then give little more than a summary of what happened. As a piece of theatre - a dramaturgical whole - it didn't make a whole lot of sense.

And if I judged it as a cohesive show then I don't think it would stand up so well. But then it took place across so many platforms, and involved so many times and places that it was not possible to see everything. And certain elements were simply interactions with other people, with Port Talbot community groups and so on. There were moments of great beauty and well-crafted poise - Owen Sheer's writing for the Llewellyn Street passage was stunning, as ghosts of the town, people unhoused by the building of the overpass, emerged from the pillars of the M4 to rebuild, by imagination and voice, the homes they once knew.

Yet for the most part, we were running around in the hope that something would become clear that never quite did. The traditional passion stuff all happened - but this didn't quite weave into what the narrative was trying to do (so we have a slightly inexplicable 'punishment' of an amnesiac Teacher who refuses to take responsibility for being involved in a uprising in the town - crucifixion!). Really, Port Talbot was Christ in this story, and my only wish was that this had been more fully committed to and explored in fabric of the piece. Still, as an event, a community gathering, it was second to none. And perhaps even trying to judge it, or understand it, as some kind of narrative whole or dramaturgical pattern, is ridiculous when considering thousands of people. In many ways it was a patchwork - a reflection of the different (and soemtimes conflicting) expectations of what the participants were making - of theatre, song, spectacular, promenade, fete, funeral, film. Its power was what it did to and for people.
A rightful celebration.