Landscape (1989)

I really like Emergency Chorus’ work. I caught their first show Celebration a full two years ago at NDT and found it got really stuck in my teeth.  A show about joy, it struck me at the time and it struck me again here that they have a real sincerity about their work: a meaningful commitment to taking the object in question extremely seriously, which leads to work that requires and rewards a heady amount of attention. They seem to lay out the ideas for you, an assemblage of objects that look like things you might have observed before, and then invite you to put them back together in your head to force the locus of meaning-making directly onto the attentive observer. This leads to, as said, work that gets stuck in your teeth, that’s really tricky to untangle and figure out.

They turn their attention here in their second show, Landscape (1989), to endings. “This is a show about endings.” That’s how we begin, a show about the end of history, both the sense of an ending and also Fukuyama’s essay on liberalism, and his thesis that it has brought a solution to progress.

The two performers – Ben Kulvichit and Clara Potter-Sweet  – explain all this, they lay down that track, and then we are off to Oregon, to a National Park, a National Park where the trees were felled and the fires came, the land was ruined and the forest was over. And then we go under the ground. And we find the largest living thing on earth, not dead, very much alive, growing around the roots of the dead trees. a mushroom, its mycelia entangling over nearly four kilometres. We  go underground and are invited to look at, think about and listen to the mushroom…

It’s worth briefly pausing to think about sincerity again, because this sounds silly: it sounds like the sort of thing my mum would be appalled at grown adults spending their time doing, which it is, frankly, she’s right – and I *think* Emergency Chorus know this, they seem to have senses of humour, so I’m sure they know this – but, by dint of said sincerity, we go with them.

And I guess part of the strategy here is that the going-with is the form. I thought a lot about form (dunno when, the walk home?) and what it was doing here. Over the course of an hour there is dancing and some singing and they make some mushrooms and eat them, there is miraculously little talking, there are some voices, which fit into a world we’re being introduced to, telling sort of stories about being in Oregon, there’s very little else, it’s quite spare, for a show with so much going on. We go-with, but it’s not an entirely cosy going-with, there’s a real glint of a disturbance: there are moments where the show feels desolate and post-apocalyptic, where mushrooms become the only thing we’re thinking about, the only food left, and then we’re reminded that the attention is on the mushroom, that if we listen more carefully to the mushroom, allow it not to be a metaphor, not a show about ‘mushroom’s but a show about a mushroom, to allow for sincerity, then we’ll find a more broad understanding of how liberalism’s failure – and the concomitant and impending ecological terror – is a disturbance to a web of interacting meanings – I mean, this might be a bridge too far, but I honestly wonder if the form of the show is like the web of mycelia through which mushrooms talk to one another, Christ I hope so, cos otherwise I am going absolutely mad.

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My sense is that these are a bunch of extremely accomplished people making something extremely accomplished.

For the sake of full-disclosure, I think there’s another push there at hand. I think of myself as fairly up-for-a-challenge, but I think there is a way to allow all the complex jigsawing of Fukuyama and Oregon information, at the top of the show, to be spread more evenly or elsewhere. I think anyone without any awareness of Fukuyama would be confused as to what he was saying and anyone who has read him would be thrown by the pot he was being boiled into, which brings up interesting thoughts about how you do theory onstage. Unhelpfully, I don’t have a solution, and maybe this is it, maybe tomorrow I will awake and feel thrillingly enlightened, but the nice lady next to me looked confused during this bit (I didn’t know her.)

I guess, tangentially, there are also moments where sincerity lapsed into not letting the audience off the hook, which I think is probably a good thing and is hopefully a gesture, but maybe isn’t on either count, I don’t know [this is where criticism rubs up against the limits of conversation, because I honestly dunno]. There’s a moment towards the middle where *spoilers* some mushrooms are microwaved onstage and we are told (I’m paraphrasing) that “nothing is annoying if you’re not wanting to be anywhere else”, which seems like a sort of po-faced insult to a bunch of people who I’m not sure were annoyed or bored, and who were instead being told that they weren’t allowed to be, which immediately made me annoyed and bored, but that’s by-the-by. There’s something about value here, about giving people permission to be frustrated, which I think interests me personally (I’m going to write something about this in the next month) and though the sincerity I felt was really important, I also think there needs to be more space for laughter, more space for people to feel comfortable feeling that the thing is silly (I hesitate to say more celebration because I think that’s probably the most annoying thing in the world – and I think it’s extremely laudable that this is such a departure in terms of engagement for an audience.)

But anyway, I found the whole thing rewarding and fascinating and eerily beautiful – what extraordinary lighting design by Ciara Shrager and I’ve no idea where Nat Norland’s sound-design and the incredible acoustics of the Vaults began and ended but it sounded great (*there’s a whole other bit of writing about how this show’s systems work underground surrounded by urban tunnelling but I’ll let you off the hook*).

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Landscape (1989) is on at Vaults Festival tonight and if I remember, in the future, there will be a link to their Edinburgh (I assume?) dates here where this word here is: here.

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