Friday, 24 February 2017
The avant-garde is in power now… culture and fascism at Manchester’s Club Big cabaret
Robin Nature-bold / Inland Taipan / Theatre of Nothing [Club Big, HOME]
Anthony Wilson’s headstone is like a looking glass in the heart of Southern Cemetery: Plot B, Grave 118. A quotation from The Manchester Man reminds us that “change alone is changeless”. We might want to cling to that as we ponder the Granadaland Ghostbusters pre-titles sequence which seems to have become of our streets.
You’ll know the backstory: inequality, the urban sickness, the municipal mumps. The rise of the elite conurbation and the demise of the also-ran town. The retaking of the centre by an affluent ‘creative class’ and the decline of the once proud red brick terrace suburb. Shoebox apartments thrown up for investors and an economy jerry-rigged to suit. Twelve storey stacks of casino chips for people to live in scattered across a cut-rate corporate landscape where once there was the dream of a city which partied to a different tune. A narrative driven by property rather than poverty, shame and not social exclusion, division as opposed to dwindling diversity.
Manchester, as was ever thus, is ahead of the curve. But four weeks after Donald Trump tore reality a brand new arsehole the new world stands at a watershed brought in with the tide of the crash. What dark demons may enter this world from therein? Fear and confusion haunt the glare of every tablet, smart phone and computer screen. You can see it in every news feed and every twitter stream. On TV and in the public places. Anger, paranoia, fear of the other. The old world is breaking apart now, the old order falling away. What began with Thatcher has seemingly brought us to the threshold of late capitalism: the anglophone mind sold off to the market; a phony war with Europe; the ascent of a realtor to the US presidency; and in our politics the spectre of dark and foreboding prejudice. Suddenly, in the glare of all those screens, everything looks different now.
So much has been dismantled in our culture. What once was local has been swept up in the same neoliberal caravan. Regional television denuded by the Broadcasting Act. The Evening News priced out of its own city. The big two football teams now merely window dressing for the bigger plans of billionaire speculators. Huge civic structures constructed to bring entertainment to the masses, where once the masses brought entertainment to the civic structures. A city once famed for its music now known for its venues. An art scene once invested in itself now predicated on tourism. A literature once noted for black poetry now awash with white flash fiction. A student population gentrified by tuition fees and hemmed in by debt. And all the while a society slowly turning on itself, stoked by populism, crude nativism, generational divide and millennial exception…a climate full of Twitter storms made real and acted out Ealing Comically across the land.
The new urban dream…it had seemed so viable. Creatives lured in to the city, tasked to regenerate it according to a woodsman’s conception of boutique commerce. Prices soared, values changed, the world turned…but in the end there was build without growth and a tax on the soul. Twenty-four-hour living put paid to the nightclub; the college pop music course replaced the Enterprise Allowance scheme as the breeding ground for young bands; a creative Eden gave rise to an industry, and it became possible to pursue a career in the arts; but just as MiF threw open its doors to send the new message to all corners of the globe, it became harder and harder for artists to remain in the city they’d helped reinvent. 2016 was the year of the Brexit vote and the rise of Trump, but also the date when notice was finally served on Manchester’s studio spaces. Behind Piccadilly Station, Rogue was finished the moment HS2 was announced and their Crusader Mill home was suddenly worth £10m overnight. Hotspur House was snapped up for its sell-on value in anticipation of the Oxford Road extension. MASA fell victim to the tide at the gateway to gentrified Salford. Meanwhile Artwork Atelier continues to barter for its life on a hand-to-mouth, month-to-month basis. The exodus of the artists has begun.
Yet there’s never been such a prolific culture as there is now. As the crane orgy sullies the skyline new pockets of resistance have sprung up in the margins and cheap spaces. An avant-garde scene at Islington Mill. A new hedonism at the White Hotel. Galloping grime at Rusholme’s Antwerp Mansion. A DIY circuit of house gigs and under-the-radar happenings in studentville. Unfettered free jazz in fundamentalist function rooms south of the centre. A migration to M3 where the rentals remain affordable. A new ethos of collaboration, cross-fertilisation and cross-disciplinary practice coming out of the art schools. A pandemic obsession with psychogeography and place in spitting defiance of the bleak townscapes and sainted guitar bands which have become the city’s millstone inheritance. In empty units of the emerging quarters and the liminal spaces of the Salford border, backstreet basement bars and art school seminars, a growing conversation between music, performance and art in response to the frantic re-construction of world’s first modern city.
HOME CEO Dave Moutrey thought he was up for a pranging the night city chief Sir Howard Bernstein rang him up and asked him to call by his office, 8am the next morning. It was a Wednesday night, July 2010, out of the blue. As director of the Cornerhouse cinema Moutrey and his team had been trying for years without luck to upscale their Oxford Road premises. Either the matched funding couldn’t be found or prices were too inflated to acquire the real estate. One way or another the ailing arthouse, needing desperately to grow, had its smock caught on a low rung of the property ladder.
Now though, in a moment, the snag was snipped. The BBC had pulled out of its planned move to the new First Street development being constructed around Tony Wilson Place, gazumped at the last by Peel Holdings’ leviathan Media City project. Developer Ask Real Estate were in a poke, needing a regenerator to prime their new iconically-branded, just-add-culture, instant commercial hub. With the minimum of fuss, Cornerhouse was fixed up with £25m for a five cinema / two theatre / two restaurant / art gallery complex, entailing a merger with the Library Theatre, a grant from the Arts Council and a cash injection from the Garfield Weston Foundation. The concealed location, set back off Whitworth Street near the Medlock St junction, just a stone’s throw from the old Hacienda, was said to augur badly for the success of the move. Whatever the box office, though, since the grand opening in 2015 Mancunians seem to have taken to it as a hangout at the very least. For the city’s arts community, HOME has undoubtedly become a home from home.
So a club in an art gallery…why do that? Now that Manchester is awash with live venues and cafe bars and pop-up spaces and what-have-you? Well…pop-up spaces…those, in the present weather, are very ‘now’. ‘Meanwhile spaces’, they call them, when artists and property developers come together: the brief interregnum between purposes of a unit of real estate. The small blip in rent and time in which the intervention of artists is deemed desirable in order to inflate the commercial value of the asset. Pop-up spaces are like the wormholes in our culture now, where the creative universe knits together, where the small particles make sense of the planets, an index of the speed at which capital now fornicates. They’re the little mouse holes in the skirting board where the little borrowers take what they find in the big world, spin it into art, and somehow magically make money for the big people to live on.
So maybe that’s why we’re here at Club Big. Our little hole in the corner of HOME can be found beneath a thin red neon light, and inside the little club is a world within a world within a world…a pop-up replica of an electric cabaret within a multipurpose arts centre branded as a residential hangout in order to prime the nascent economy of a brand new business hub in a brand new part of propertyville. Outside in the Manchester night, the Beetham Tower is like a syringe which sucked all the hope out of Miles Platting and stabbed it into the failing end of Deansgate; the city still hooked on the unconscious search for a high which peaked almost three decades ago in a converted yacht warehouse remade as a situationist drug playroom. In here, by contrast, we can but pretend that this is a real club, and we are all real punters; that we are all, by way of our inner Alice, Big.
On a low stage a seven-piece lounge band kitted out in candy-ass purplecore suits stagger through a catalogue of spiky old Three Johns memories. They could be in an Aki Kaurismaki film. They could Murph and the Magictones from The Blues Brothers, yawning out Di Mi Quando Quando Quando in the Armanda Room at the Holiday Inn, except that this is the north of England and thus its notional equivalent: a working men’s show band, or carnival grunts fresh from the truck, navigating the one-way systems of Lancashire’s left-behind towns for an Arts Council retainer, bringing the joy to Preston Pride, the Fleetwood Festival and the Wigan Weekender. Scaffolding a flatbed at six in the morning, loading up the gear, sound checking the PA, dressing the stage, donning the feathers, playing soca with cold, blistered hands all day round pound shop Brexodus Britain, before de-scaffolding, unloading and getting the gear back to the mill for two in the morning.
A yeti size front man with a machete widow’s peak brandishing a Telecaster like some strange children’s toy. A bug-eyed tenor player blowing twisted jazz platitudes with a dapper young alto, neat as a bible-seller. A seen-it-all sticksman with a bored touch and a look like he could wing it in any band in the world. A muppet baby bass player barely out of his teens popping finger style funky as his ‘fro. A geezer who looks like he’s upturned a hod to play Eno for payment in lager. A pocket lead guitarist with a slapback-ey Strat throwing out cute licks like wiseacre cracks. By the looks of them they were weaned on glue bags and Gong LPs and could physically compromise the Star Wars Cantina Band without getting any mither in return.
The purplesuits pound through their set like snide soul freaks in lysergic Wonka-weave tailoring. The lo-fi rock anthem Death of the European reworked as upbeat northern soul bop. The motorcity grind of AWOL reimagined as bristling post-Beefheart R&B. The psychobilly stomp of Teenage Nightingales to Wax done as a doomy Roxy Music style stomper. The Clash-lite Brain Box cooked up to a boil to a slow-skanking rocksteady rhythm. Yeti-man stoops and croons coyly into a mic like a lovestruck orc, and the room is metropolitan hive. This is art cabaret from the soul of the city filtered through a movie that has never been made.
We buy our drinks and take our seats as a dead man, white as cement, takes the mic and greets us the only way a good dead compere should: as old friends. A club in an art gallery…the louche burlesque of Le Chat Noir…the assault on all sense that was the Cabaret Voltaire…the haven from Hitler in Sally Bowles’s fictional nachtklub…well, there’s none of that ”Wilkommen, bienvenue” business tonight. Self-evidently, those days are over. This is no harbour in Europe’s heart of darkness. We’re not in Weimar Berlin, or Dreyfus-era Paris, or Zurich cowering shellshocked in the thick of World War One. This cabaret is an outpost, north of London, west of the mainland, adrift from America and lost in the theme park built over the world’s first industrial city. A club in an art gallery on the edge of a continent keeping dark forces at bay, in a world on the brink of what?
We’re northerners here, and we speak among ourselves.
Our roots are punk rock, and our compere is a ghost.
“I used to be John Hyatt,” says the former Three Johns man.
“Welcome,” he glimmers, “to Club Big.”
Into the view of the waiting crowd is wheeled a man in a white suit and top hat. Phantom face mask, Spanish guitar. He’s attended by an orderly and there’s a girl in Victorian finery with gothic black hair. The sick man, seemingly, is going to sing to us. There’s some kind of provocation from a bedroom art terrorist’s manual blazoned in heavy metal lettering behind him: If You Like My Art You Are Clever, If You Don’t You Are Stupid. We sip our drinks and wait politely for the bomb to go off.
Back in the day Robin Nature-bold was a snot nosed scene punk who thought the YBAs were the shit and bought into nihilism like it was Buddhism for the culturally invigorated. He started out as a fashion shoot in the work space of artist Mike Chavez-Dawson: self-portraits in guerilla gear, black strip across the eyes, manifesto slogans on t-shirts such as Triumph Of Style Over Substance and I Just Want to Be a Fucking Cool Artist. Then he got a baseball bat, wrote You Don’t Want To Fuck With Me on it, and sold it to Tom Bloxham for a grand. The Urban Splash property king put it in his Castlefield coolpad with his Damien Hirst spot painting and his cow parade prize heifer. No intention of using it, no doubt, but nice to know that it’s there.
At nights such as Phush at Manchester’s Generation X the lights would go up and Robin would be there in the middle of the room in his balaclava and his art terrorist gear waving his culturedick in peoples’ faces. People didn’t like it. They didn’t like it when he barked his stupid song about a little donkey or when he scrawled a load of bollocks on a board that he’d overheard people saying in the audience, like he was making it into art. They didn’t get that this Hoxton kindergarten hooligan was, in the mind of its creator at least, touching base with his idol, Andy Kaufman. And they were most certainly oblivious to the fact that in his continuing adventures Robin was riding the arc of a Rake’s Progress, as his forays into the music business, complete with his own personal crash-and-burny journey, described.
Robin’s career as a flash-in-the-pan art-pop dandy was like a funhouse mirror reflection of cool gone wrong. He assembled a band, acquired the white cunt suit and the droogish face mask, and embarked on a pouting post-punk joyride into high-end jerky-guitar twaddle. He and his troupe of similarly attired White Cube chang puppets would rock up for support slots with Billy Childish and Bobby Conn to jam a ball-jangling racket for half an hour until people got sufficiently pissed off with it to throw stuff at them. Whereupon they’d launch into something sweet and saccharine, like when twisted lovers give flowers to make black eyes feel worse.
He was last seen in a gallery in Edinburgh in 2008, giving birth to a performance piece called Whatever You See Are Your Own Demons, They’re Not Coming From Me. Swaddled in muslin and seated on a white plinth, his atavistic pounding on a fun-sized Casio keyboard gave way to a night-rending grief-wracked death-sob before he collapsed lifelessly onto his ceremonial disc. Patrons were ushered back out into the street where they belonged, and that had seemed to that as far as Robin was concerned: the culmination of his Progress; the journey to Bethlem Hospital complete.
Tonight though, after nine long years, he’s back. Still a twat in a white suit but reliant now on assisted mobility, watched over by the officious-looking Care Worker and flanked by the possibly illusory ‘Moth’. Moth’s ethereal attire suggests a muse…perhaps she’s the Icarus impulse which led him to crash and burn in the first place? Whatever…once the introductions are done with and Robin begins to perform, the comeback which unfolds turns out to be the kind of backward step not seen since Donovan did the Marti Caine show in 1983.
It begins with a reverent mumbling of Love Song by The Cure and progresses to a wistfully introspective Johnny B Goode. Then there’s a thing called Margate, one of Robin’s own, which is a bit like a Britpop anthem by some Camden losers who went to Margate one day in 1995 and thought they’d write a song about it.
It’s at this point that a couple close by exchange glances.
“What the fuck’s this?”
Hard To Handle doesn’t appease them, delivered as it is by a visibly depressed man in a white suit in a wheelchair, unpacking his suitcase full of sadness, strumming on a duty free six-string, forcing the notes like the first stool in a fortnight, imposing himself like a grieving mother at another kid’s birthday party. To this couple, the spectacle seems to encapsulate every grievance they hold for a world of art and entertainment which takes them for fools.
“This is nonsense.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“Clueless. And he’s hogging the limelight.”
They’re not alone. Scanning the room it isn’t difficult to discern the lack of love for Robin’s personal act of redemption. It’s in everyone’s faces. At the bar. Across the tables. Among the artists, techs and musicians by the stage. The slow begrudging excretion of applause which greets each number is like an insult in a foreign culture. Secretly, covertly, unanimously, we have become joined in contempt for a grown man locked in the pubescent struggle to find himself, as though by rehearsing the soundtrack to his youth he might somehow take the turning he missed the day he fell in love with himself acting like a tosser with a balaclava on his head.
At our table, man and wife are frothing like a champagne bottle in an ‘80s porno.
“Why don’t they let her have a go?”
“Wanker. He’s been singing for ages. He’s useless.”
Alert to the unease, the Care Worker sensitively steps forward.
“Where does it all come from, Robin?” he improvises, as though what’s needed here is an intervention from Front Row.
Robin says he has peacock blood.
There’s a shuffling of seats. If this was X-Factor there might be the ingredients of a national incident here, as the mentalist in the stupid suit denies the girl in the pretty dress her rightful turn. But of course without a panel, without someone prepared to exercise authority, the injustice goes unchecked and uninterrogated. We’re left with anarchy, without anybody representing us, the audience out here in the darkness. You can say what you like about your Simon Cowells and your Tom Joneses…they coin it whichever way the wind blows, for sure…but they have at least the authority to make a judgement call in these situations. To them, at least, we can channel our aspirations. Without them, we’re at the mercy of the degenerate.
“This is appalling.”
“This is supposed to be an art gallery.”
“It’s like something out of the 1960s.”
Perhaps wisely, the Care Worker suggests that Robin try the song he sings when Nurse Nancy gives him his bed bath. So there’s more fidgeting, and then Robin does Lonely Boy by the Black Keys, open mic standard. We’ve been on the receiving end of this horseshit for half an hour now, and there’s little sign of an end to it. It’s like a slow Chinese burn to the frontal lobe. Robin goes into an old number of his own, called Moth, and suddenly Moth rises to her feet, as though summoned by unseen forces.
The couple close by pull up their chairs.
The moment freezes.
Her hair is a nest of coal black tresses with a feathery antenna tucked primly above each ear. Around the eyes of her powdered face she wears a glittering of woodland speckles. Her shoulders are cased in a stole of deep ermine, Arctic white and grey, and a long bridal gown flutes softly to the stage in a slope of snow white silk. We hear a nursery orchestra of bells, pipes and celestes tinkling like icicles in the mind of a Christmas-witched child. Robin, who to be frank looks like he could do with a train set in the morning, hangs his head as Moth opens her mouth and begins, at last, supernally to sing.
Like a moth to a flame / Only got yourself to blame…
And there it is, ladies and gentlemen: talent at last. Man and wife are on the edge of their seats, exultant and vindicated in equal measure.
“See! What did I tell you?”
Moth’s lullaby is a wrought aria of iced tones and mannered graces, and there could be no greater demonstration of the way life is rigged against the gifted and the good. How this fluttery creature could have had to sit there, uncalled upon, as we endured the prating crywank of Robin Nature-bold is an object lesson in the prejudices of the elite. Moth is a siren, a signal, a beacon, a distress call issuing in loveliest of human voices, in a world which seems stone deaf to such alarms. Who could not love her? A voice like that could enchant stones, cease wars, soothe the lonely…something that Robin, with his goober guitar and his cocaine morning suit, could scarcely dream of.
As the performers exit…Moth to raptures, Robin to rat poison, seemingly…the reception close by tells its own story. It’s a victory for Simon Cowell, really. As for those charlatans the YBAs, so beloved of Robin and his ilk…the Damien Hirsts, the Tracey Emins, the Charles Saatchis…well, it’s them that brought us here, isn’t it? They made their bed and now Robin, and the rest of us, are lying in it. So God help us. God help the people when the ad men own the culture. God help the angry, post-truth, post-postmodern world. God help the singers and sung to and the sung for. And most of all, for the sake of all of us, God help the song.
The inland taipan is the most venomous snake in the world. One bite contains enough poison to kill a hundred men. So it’s an eyebrow-raiser when Inland Taipan the band hove up on stage, next up: three nice girls, seemingly, in sensible attire, who look like they could be waiting tables at one of the restaurants upstairs. What with the look and the three-piece line-up and the far-eastern-sounding name the notion flickers that there might be something like Shonen Knife or the 5,6,7,8’s on the cards here…subversively straight, deceptively raw, counterintuitively cool…but there’s little sign of layers of irony being played with here. Truth be told, they look like a dissident woodwind faction from the music school moonlighting in front of their mates.
Your reviewer, it might be noted, is a forty-five-year-old man, and the music scene inevitably peered at from some remove. But when did musicianship get back to the prog rock standard of the early ‘70s? Around the time the jazz funk snare sounds master’s degree came online, perhaps? Go to any live venue in the city and the standard of playing can be way beyond what it was in Manchester’s heyday. And likewise…when did the image thing get shoved in the closet? Wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll always about playing with codes and rethinking the tribes? As the new music scene has flowered weed-like atop the mouldering heritage site which remains of the old one, the grouse from the old one can be that its inheritors seem privileged, conservative and niche. Time was when middle class kids had to slum it in order to pass themselves off as rebels and so acquire the requisite faux working class cool.
But these girls…correction, the drummer’s a fella…they’re not slumming it at all. They don’t give a fuck about any of that. There’s no rockism here. No fashion or anti-fashion. No costume, haircut, irony, attitude, sense of humour. No smeared lipstick, ripped dresses, drainpipes, charity shop chic or slogans on retro-fit t-shirts. None of the devices by which women used to filter the experience of being a ‘girl in a band’ or offset the overshare of peddling the dark side of the laundry basket to young paying customers. And that’s a good thing, right? That’s progress. Why should they have to? Those old modes of expectation have been overcome. The class complex…it ain’t what it used to be. Why check your privileges in a rock band in 2017?
Singer Aisling Davis raises a pint to said mates and the band tumble into opening number Call of a Yorkshire Cannibal, a song about killing your boyfriend. Strumming nonchalantly on a Thinline Telecaster…downstrokes with the fingers, upstroke with the thumb, so that when she drags it back up towards her it finishes almost beneath her chin…she looks at first as though she can hardly play the instrument. Behind her, drummer Tom Walmsley strikes up a shuffling back beat…dragging on the snare, easy on the hi-hat, leaning on the ride. Stage right Bryony Dawson thumbs tentatively at her bass…neat, static, round-toned, lightly grooving. There’s a slow, sour, fuzztone drone…if you were the boyfriend that might be your cue to leg it…as Aisling steps up to the mic.
Aisling’s thing is that she plays electric guitar the classical way, and the best thing about Inland Taipan is watching her do that. The right hand flexed and sprung in flamenco style, fanning and chopping across the strings, whipping backwards and upwards with the fingertips, jabbing grungy bar chords in flurries of downward thumbstrokes, the resonant frequency of her amplifier’s speaker cabinet thrumming with the lower registers of her hollow bodied Fender guitar. Her voice is like a rare poison. A venom that takes time to go to work. A slow wrung screech like Polly Harvey’s, strung out and graced with strange colours not unlike those of the late Jeff Buckley, divining a course between melody and dissonance, angel and dinner lady.
It’s a keening pitch and its unremitting. Sideways chords, sour melodies…somewhere in those ululated lyrics is the tale of a young man’s death and devourment, and as the song lurches, shifts, switches time and tempo, there’s the conclusion – for one poor son of the patriarchy – that courting doesn’t get much tougher than this. Aisling certainly owns it, if nothing else. In that fierce and freshing confidence is the picture of a talent not yet in focus but asserted with such entitlement as to convince.
Battle Crimea follows. It’s their best tune. A long, low key, slow burn built on a maundering guitar melody…stuttering drums, looping bass, lots of space…like Riders on the Storm or one of those blues rock beasts the great power trios used to do in the ‘60s. Limerence ploughs a similar furrow…a pale folk rock figure and a banshee shriek in the face of male expectation… “Lord knows I’ve done a lot wrong / But I won’t give you a son…” The shambling Skitz dispenses further unmedicated madness as a former boyfriend’s breakdown is referenced to raw and unnerving effect. You can hear Polly Harvey jamming in a room here, singing in the bath, getting angry with the loofer. But that faculty which Harvey, or Kurt Cobain, or Courtney Love had for marshalling great weather and breach-loading it into sparking, sock-in-the-mouth material…well, that isn’t quite there yet. But it may surely come.
A flurry of fret-tapping in the brooding Ballad of a Brigand. A smoulder of promises in the one chord Easter Rising. And then Inland Taipan take their leave, a hiss of feedback in their wake, and a latency of corpses, cannibalism, madness, refusal and war – some going for three nice girls on the lam from the woodwind section. It’s a band which seems very much defined by Aisling’s singular musicianship: articulate anger in her strumming hand, a shortage of strong ideas, as yet, in her fretting hand, and a dissonant wail in need of harnessing for its otherworldly effect. The best bits…the fret-tapping, the trickling arpeggios, the teased jazz shapes, the recipes, the frenzied flurries at the touch of a fuzz pedal, the unhinged potency of her voice…if she can hawk up the venom with greater potency and proof, learn to make a proper racket with the band, pick up some chazza shop rags and ex-army jackboots, then the sky, without a doubt, could be the limit.
What of anger, though? What of the patriarchy? What of gentrification? What of the future now for a ‘girl in a band’? What of the front line in the culture wars being stoked in cyberspace? What of the prospects between the sexes, now that the Cheeto-in-Chief across the water is a self-proclaimed sexual assailant? Backed by a base enjoined to the backlash, opposed by a heated liberal core…is fourth wave feminism aflame or are we enmired in the polarities of social media? They may not be questions for this writer to answer, save to note the sense of looming conflict, and that Aisling Davis could have a claim to stake, if she thinks smart and rolls up her sleeves and works at it.
“Who’s in the horse?” Our revenant compere wants to know.
We crane our necks as a shimmering fifteen foot nag is hauled in from the back of the room.
“Who’s in the horse?”
We join the chant.
The horse is mirrored. As it draws alongside and we gaze upon its coat we can see only ourselves in its hide. From the near flank a door opens, and out steps a man. A rotund figure in an orange jumpsuit, lordly cape, papier mache helmet on his head, a grotesque wound collar sprouting from his neck. Tendrils of cable stream Medusa-like from his head-piece…he’s like an undersea emperor, a Jules Verne character, an Ubu Roi, the despotic father figure in Alfred Jarry’s absurdist fin de siecle play. As an entrance, it could only have been bettered if a pack of mirrored hounds had come bounding in with him, snapping around his heels.
“It’s King Nobody, ladies and gentlemen! The Theatre of Nothing!”
What follows is a slow, sleepwalking study in dysfunction as our hero navigates the landscape of strange props which serves as his de facto kingdom: a white canvas stretched across the floor; an ageing medic’s case that looks neither use nor ornament; a trolley with mismatched wheels that moves only in a circle. We watch in swallowed silence as this tangerine surrealonaut flounders on his knees throwing eggs in the air, then rises and spins himself dizzy, tendrils fanning outwards as he whirls. He removes the head-piece and we see at last the portly, buttery-haired man who lurks beneath: the artist Emrys Morgan.
Child-like he returns to the floor, arranging tiles like deckchairs on the Toytanic, then with a set of giant tongs throws huge balls of clay about…a Morph for Modern Times, a little man wrangling with industrial-sized plasticine. One of these balls he pierces with a pole, to which he attaches a red funnel. He repeats this with a second lump of clay, affixing a blue funnel. They stand upright in their bases, five feet high, ten feet apart: a red one, a blue one, a choice. Bear in mind there are some shitholes in this world where you only get one funnel.
He dons a large pair of goggles.
Each funnel he fills with ash. He sinks his face into the red one and issues a sorrowed, strangulated howl into the debris. When he looks up his face is blasted with the powder. He goes to the blue funnel and howls desperately into that. Then he smashes an egg into his brow and red paint leaks down tragically across his face. Clearly, this man is the architect of his own pudding.
He acquires a bandage and begins to wrap it around his head, but the dressing is fixed to a spindle on the trolley which he cannot dis-attach. It’s a bit like brain surgery by Mr Bean. On the work surface he hammers pins into a board, then puts his hand there and begins to bind the hand instead of the head, looping the material round and round until it’s tethered to the cart. Then with shambling difficulty he drags his makeshift ambulance in his wake.
Finally, he finds a giant lump of clay and pounds it with a rock until it’s flat. Pressing it to his face, he tries to wrap it around his features, then staggers to his feet, jumpsuit stained with streaks of crimson paint. He moves blindly. He puts a red light on his head. He jams shards of broken mirror in his clay mask, then finds a full-length glass and regards himself unseeingly in its depths. He marches up and down, a sightless king, an Aardman accident at war with his maker.
And then, stage centre, he picks up an electric guitar, steps up to the mic and starts gingerly to sing.
To witness one of Morgan’s singular, somnambulist performances is a bit like stepping inside one of the artist’s paintings…a scattered landscape of preoccupations, politically-skewed, rendered in a style you might call social surrealism (or as he himself prefers it, ‘psychotic realism’). Brought to life and acted out his interior world becomes a Theatre of the Absurd, as we follow a man compelled to rituals he cannot transcend, caught up in an algorithm he can neither see nor realistically escape, renditioned to a TV set crossed between Crackerjack and Camp X-Ray. It’s a thoughtscape filled with latent symbolism, furnished with base materials (ash, clay, glass, paint) in a manner reminiscent of the Fluxus icon Joseph Beuys, or the practitioners said to have made up the Italian arte povera movement. The repurposing of found items. The innate desire to make and mend. The idea of social sculpture…the methodology flows dreamlike from other realms of artistic practice, and the dreamscape we see is assuredly meaningful. By exploring the associations presented to us we wonder, as does a wakened sleeper: why the red and blue funnels? Why the eggs? Why the mirror? Why the clay and the red light? What do they represent?
There’s a childishness to the performance as tableau gives way to tableau. A frustrated tactility. A futility. It’s all such a mess, a slow motion slapstick, a vision of man’s predicament so beset with detritus it could make you want to incinerate your own undergarments at the sight of a man so itchily encumbered by ‘things’. Howling into the blue funnel. Howling into the red funnel. And the red light between them…is that sleaze, danger or socialism? This man who emerged from the mirrored horse in which we could see only ourselves…in the orange jumpsuit, with the regal cape and the emperor’s head-piece…this ‘King Nobody’…for sure, he’s us. An involuntary dream foisted cruelly upon us. But what does the vision really mean? Morgan’s performance has the quality of dreams wherein they appear at the same time obvious and elusive. Is it not that we know exactly what our dreams are telling us, and that it’s our waking selves which are bewildered, unknowing and blind?
“The bird has flown…”
Morgan drawls drily into the microphone as the purplesuits work up a drone. They clatter to a halt and then Yeti-man strikes in with a steely white funk riff, post punk style. Everyone piles in…backbeat cooking, saxes swirling, everybody riding along. Even Eno.
“We don’t need…more of this fascist shit!”
It’s a refrain to bring the evening to a close. A ten minute blitz with Morgan at the helm…in that orange jumpsuit a well-fed ghost of Guantanomo Bay, but with the physique and the flattened hair a Trumpish caricature too, paint-flecked and war-weary from his adventures in the land of King Nobody.
“We don’t need…more of this fascist shit!”
John Hyatt, another ghost given back by the grave, is up on stage. Black raiment, white greasepaint, leathers and jeans, the punk professor, the albino MC, the irradiated ringmaster. The man with the grant.
“We don’t need…more of this fascist shit!”
A gathering storm, a cacophony arkestra, a muster of heads, a sharing of knowledge…this one goes out to all those sitting out there in the dark…a simple message, stark as screaming, hip as meme-ing, louder than war.
But who is screaming?
“We don’t need…more of this fascist shit!”
And that’s the thing. Politics in an art gallery…somehow, that seems new. Or is that just the way our cultural providers want it? Politics in a club in a gallery in a multi-purpose arts centre in a brand new business district in a brand new town in the centre of what used to be Manchester in a brand new world where property is king and culture its graven image…an asset of the state and its blizzard of private partners to be found in the program given to you when you came in. You, me, the art scene, Manchester, Donald Trump and all this fascist shit…we’ve been on this journey together. We rode in on the same horse. Arrived at the same time. Disembarked at the same station. Pissed in the same pot. Bought the same Joy Division oven gloves. Ever since Damien Hirst and the nascent YBAs blagged an empty warehouse from the London Docklands Development Corporation, persuaded Canary Wharf developer Olympia & York to fund a catalogue, to stage the galactic, game-changing Freeze exhibition, we’ve been on an unmistakeable trajectory. Like a moth to a flame…the art world reflecting back on itself, celebrity overtaking reputation, the investor edging out the opinion-maker, property eclipsing society, sensation replacing communion, nihilism trumping humanism as a fig leaf to capital’s shame…ten years post-crash, with the western world paralysed by cyberfears, a realtor sits in the White House and the Kremlin’s chief strategist, Vladislav Surkov is a man of the small theatre. It’s all cabaret and dada is the official line. The avant garde is in power now, playing the tribes off against each other, and fascism just one of its many masks. From Trump’s lies to Putin’s schemes to the machinations of the Brexiteers, the world stopped making sense and narrative has become subversion. This is what keeps you in your place, and keeps the one percent in clover. In a world without direction capital does whatever it pleases. So let the rich eat the poor and the mandarins gentrify the world…in the city, on the internet, and in your head.
The gentrification of the mind continues apace. The social cleansing of the planet. Regeneration for some. Negation for the rest. The gerrymandering of the boundaries between Us and Them. Get the Mexicans out of the US. The foreigners out of Blighty. The homeless out of the shopping district. The working classes out of Ancoats. The Russians out of your News Feed. The heretics out your Friends list. There’s a big club – right here – and you’re either in it or you’re not. Touch base with your Facebook buddies and unite against the Other. The first world culture war has finally begun. Left versus Right. Black versus white. Man versus woman. Old versus young. Rich versus poor. Dog versus cat. Cat versus mouse.
Which is where we came in, isn’t it?
The hole in the skirting board…the place where it all gets turned into art to boost the value. The place where the government and the municipality keep their excuses. A place we gather to channel our Facebukkake fears. All that was once mere representation is now directly lived…and the fascist is you, stupid. You’re a cog in a machine, a zero in a data mine, a phish caught up in an all-extending algorithm, and you know it. Browsing the updates, dissing the Brexiters, calling out the Remainers, scorning the liberals, kicking the Tories, trolling the women, trashing the men. Fearing the migrant and the competition he brings for the morsels you falsely consider to be your own. In the global marketplace we’re all migrants. No matter your slant, the system wins. Fascism got monetised and only the machine collects.
So to what extent should we buy in to this white cabaret? In the age of the cultural provider does art have a future as an agent of social change?
Wilson’s headstone is like a looking glass in the heart of Southern Cemetery, and in its depths can be seen a vision of the death of a dream. A Bez hologram dances ceaselessly upon the plot. A city which danced to a different tune, high on ecstasy, creativity, independence…in thrall to New York loft living, club culture and contemporary art; accessible to every class, creed, heritage and gender. It all seemed so viable.
So where are we headed now? Where does this end? Where should we go? What can we do? Because the little people, the artists, they still go out into the world. They take what they find and turn it into art as best they can. So take your mind back, and take your art back. Take it back…your city, your country, your world. Think yourself through the hole in the wall, and take a look at the State we’re in.