Sunday, March 23, 2014

#1000thLIVE, or The Ethics of the Invisible Hand

Last night I was privy to parts of Forced Entertainment’s 14-year old piece And on the Thousandth Night... via livestream from Lisbon, Portugal.

I want to say something that I feel was overlooked – it was not an exercise in storytelling, but in forgetting. Forget that there is anything but this stage, these people, princesses and so on. Forget that you have to think. Forget that there is anything but the theatre.

The work is a line of people wearing crowns and telling stories. Someone can interrupt at any point and say “Stop!” and then continue their own story. It hurts to point out that this monumental work is really just a theatre game. It’s played in rehearsal rooms everywhere - just not for 6 hours. The difference: every now and again an invisible hand intervened and curated specific moments and stories that were, as if by magic, allowed more air time than what was afforded others. These moments were inevitably shocking, sometimes violent, and interrupted the flow of English banter and piss-taking that characterised the rest of the dialogue. So one moment we were in an enchanted forest where no-one could move for about 20 minutes of re-starting, and then suddenly, we were a plane dropping a long, slow bomb.

The strength of the work relies almost entirely on getting these curated moments to drop in a way that was meaningful, and not forgotten by the time the browser is refreshed. At its worst, the effect is like reading media – you get the fluffy kittens and bunny rabbits, and then a flash of hyper-authentic catastrophe sometimes on the same page, sometimes the same header. At its best, it operated as a metaphor for such – for the violence of contemporary narration.

This best-case scenario is certainly an important point to make. The manipulation of contemporary audience for media relies on a sort of information assault, a blurring of truth and fictions that result in the individual accepting impossible realities. So even though Russian flags have been flying in Crimea since at least 2006 when I first visited, suddenly they’re in every photo.

So, did these moments drop in a way that would be considered artful? Certainly, they were sometimes emotional experiences. But were they forgotten? 

They weren’t being discussed online as far as I could see.

But what of this ‘Invisible Hand’?

Many will find this term problematic, it is, after all, taken from the grandfather of Economics, Adam Smith, and refers to free market capitalism. And problematic it is. Because if something is invisible, it cannot be easily identified. It controls you. And this might be a pleasurable feeling, but does it empower audiences?

It’s an age-old question – the same can be asked of the illusionist, or Méliès’ trick cinema. The result is usually a kind of potent paralysis, a viewing experience that recreates the crisis of belief. This is not new to Forced Entertainment, it was present in Spectacular for example (in many ways also a durational work, if for no other reason than one became so conscious of the passing of time during it). But where Spectacular was oppositional to the point where audiences were permitted to reject it, this was playing a much more subtle, and much more dangerous game. It’s a game governments play all the time.
With 1000th Night, what defines Forced Entertainment becomes an engagement that overwhelms critical minds usually capable of distance, and translating their usually sharp cognition into tear-fuelled enthusiasm. In this case, they even tactically selected critics from different parts of the world to act as ‘nodes’ – points of access for their individual audiences. This is problematic, and may serve to contradict the argument for the work as a frame for examination of contemporary media narratives – the best case scenario. If you are not generating good dialogue, if your work does not have a pedagogical intention at its heart – why are you there?

Regular readers will know that I often make the case for critical thought to be reinterpreted not as a specialised field for a select few but as something imperative to receiving information well, and thus for autonomy. In a world increasingly dictated by competing fictions, it is important for the individual to discern between realities, and not to be seduced by false argument. Pedagogy is imperative. 1000th Night taught me nothing but a new kind of submission.

As a durational work, I found this as good as I’ve ever seen.

But I have nothing to say to it.

And on the Thousandth Night...

  Conceived and devised by the company
Performers: Robin Arthur, Tim Etchells, Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon, Claire Marshall, Cathy Naden, Terry O’Connor
Guest Performers vary but have included: Tamzin Griffin, Tobias Lange, John Rowley, Ruth Ben-Tovim, Bruno Roubicek
Direction: Tim Etchells
Text: Tim Etchells and the company
Design and Lighting Design: Richard Lowdon

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