Overture. Intermission. Coda.

Overture.

Today the city was overgrown. Gone. Become once again forest.

Today the city is humid, tropical — if such a thing can be said to exist — the rich warm scent of overstuffed life, the rotten oily black stink of canals laden with centuries of effluent.

Today the city is shaking in its bones. Not quite in possession of itself. Rain falls. Endless, steadily, plucking at leaves in the verdant street canopy with such all-encompassingness that it fills the edges of hearing with a peaceful sshhhh… an ocean heard from afar.

Today there is no city. I wake up naked, lying on my back, limbs in somewhat disarray, looking up at the dusty orange-blue heavens. Darkness. The ground is near flat, surfaced with a fine, wind-blown clayish sand-ish humus rime I can feel acting as a dry lubricant when I push-pull my fingertips on the grit. A shiver of cold walks across me, the cold of a slight breeze on exposed skin, cold of the thrill and fear of anticipation, of the inevitable, of my death.

Noisy, dusty, orange-blue. Not smooth. Is it my eyes? Orange-blue night lit from an eruption below. From above, prick points of light, pure, faint, unvarying and unwavering sources. Patterns made clear by washing out their background. Constellations. Not a river of stars at all. The dark above pushes down, bearing its weight into the illumination rearing up from underneath. And I, I float in an emptiness between light and noise and this vault above. I am an island here. The roof of the apartment a shield at my back. The encircling silence folds back the city I hear like a torus around me, outside me. I am the hole in the middle. I am the centre of everything.

The sky above the horizon to the north-east, above and behind my left ear, is smudged as though a giant thumb had pushed and worn the night thinner. The day which barely left is returning. It circles around, dizzying. It is still night though, so enough time for this.

This is the story of my death. It takes place in the instant of falling. It is an acceleration. I remember the story as I write it, in that instant. How long do I have? That is a question, indeed. Not long at all. My fall starts on the flat roof of this apartment block, six stories up. Six high stories, so I have slightly more time than if the architecture was meaner. The ground I wake up on is the rough black tar and shingle, rolled out in sheets and pressed into the form of the roof. It is coated in the talcum of weeks without rain, ceaseless days and light, heat and cavernous vastness of sky and sun. Between me and it, a rough wool blanket. I am unclothed because I sleep the pair of hours of true night here, when the horizon to the north does not glow with dusk, the dry heat is almost bearable, and breathing is not putting face to furnace. I am naked because it doesn’t matter and there is no one to see.

As no one can see me, so can I see no one, no city. Only the endless shifting tones of blue and orange, the endless depth my eyes cannot focus on. If I were to turn my head slightly one side or the other, or slide my eyes over, the city would hove into view as a horizon, a periphery. I stay with infinity a while longer.

My mouth is dry, tongue plated to roof and whether I am terrified of what is to come or just slightly dehydrated, it doesn’t matter. In a minute or so, perhaps longer, I will sit up, pull on thin loose pants I’ve been using as a pillow, the kind you do not wear for public, pull on a thin loose sleeveless top which shows my arms and shoulders in a way never for public, and coming to standing, with the air alive over my skin, I will take a misstep and fall backwards, my headscarf a banner I am waving in one hand. Backwards and down. Into the public. Into the city. Dressed like this.

I am going to die. I should be afraid. But I already know how this ends.

I will tell you a secret: I waited longer. Until the sun was poised to shove itself over the horizon. I was feeling lazy in my death; I wanted these last minutes for myself. And another: I did not misstep. A single misstep for all that distance covered? I think not. I leaned back into that void and made it look convincing, let the world rotate around me. I am a good liar, even in dying, but I did not hide a smile from myself as I fell. It was a good performance.

Intermission.

How long do I have? How long do I need? Let’s continue.

I am still falling. My heel sank into nothing, fingers grasped for an edge. Missed. I felt terror lurch upwards in my belly as swiftly as I tumbled. I looked over my shoulder in my back-flip, to my glass-enclosed balcony, grey metal frames and rectangular panes on the shotcrete bathtub of a box protruding out into the air. I rotate some more and for a second it juts upwards, the vertical surface of the facade becomes a flat plain. Did I hope to see someone, who would see me, change my fate? Could they push me back to safety by force of their gaze, unwilling to accept what they see? What could they do other than witness my velocity? I chose this, and I am harder than the bones of this city, but that does not mean I don’t feel fear when I am in the instant of committing.

While I am passing my balcony, now rotated to the steep angle of a mountain’s flank, and the almost risen sun wobbles bright reflections like water on the uneven glass, I will tell you a little more of what’s going on.

This is a discussion on identity. self, other, authenticity, original. It is also a discussion on morality of identity. It is a story of someone who is — in the vast churn of events — unimportant. When the behemoth of history rolls atop her, she won’t yield; she will be the debris on those large and significant enough to be torn and gouged and routed and erased, to be washed away when the mess is hosed down. She is nothing, Somehow that makes her fortunate, because in this sense she is mostly too unremarkable to be noticed. Though unnoticed, she is dragged along with all the rest in the undertow, and while important and earth-shattering things happen around her and to her, in the final measure, they don’t signify at all.

It’s not a story of a young woman who comes from nowhere and becomes the fulcrum of events; it’s the story of a someone who comes from nowhere and loses her life to things beyond her comprehension, things she had no idea were even in play, for no reason, purpose, or meaning. Sometimes it’s nice to tell such stories though, of the ones who aren’t heroes or prime movers, even if they end up in a weighted sack in the canal or thrown off a roof, because sometimes these stories tell us more about what happened than the history we are left with.

I see the orange and blue dawn break into sunrise as real as if I were looking at it in the reflection of one pane. It hovers there as I do.

One more thing as I continue my descent: When I say, ‘discussion’, I mean war. And just because it’s decided this is a particular type of story, does not mean I will not lean into the punch until I change it, that I will not use this story to unravel and sunder that history entirely. I am the irresistible force and I glory in mayhem.

Coda.

And here am I, still falling. I am not dead yet. Not yet. Close though. Nearly there. If I reach with my toes, I will scrape the ground. It is as if I was jumping. I am the same height as the faces which stare at me, the idea of shock yet to boil across their expressions, almost beginning the thought of getting out of the way, of flinching, of reacting. They’ve seen me. They are too slow.

The sun has not reached here yet, in the canyon of apartments, in the street which is itself a gully or cutting, making space for the dark, oil and rust girders of rail bridges that suture its length. Even in this rainless summer water leaks from joints and cracks in the sidings, it is a city built on water and marsh after all. I would feel colder if there was time, and I do feel the first register of the transition to shade, as much as I have the capacity to attend to any sensation now. I see the light change, and hear the city. These things I don’t need to interpret. They are as present and real as it is possible to be here.

If this was a photograph there would be a cluster walking eastwards, part of a family facing the viewer like a portrait, staggered heights and varied dress, shop windows curtained in the morning on the left, and there’s the entrance door to my apartment, countersunk into the façade. Tram tracks inscribe the centre of the road on the right, mirroring their overhead lines, opening out to the empty ghost of the shunting yards those bridges run to. In the background, more of those rail bridges, and the road dips to pass under. You might notice the uneven rectangles of concrete slabbing making up part of the footpath, edges, corners, and fractures worn smooth, or the grey cobbles, each the size of a child’s fist, each struck into the sand by a hand wielding a metal hammer, the clinks filling the city like birdsong in summer. You might, because it looks like I am springing upwards. Why would I be leaping in front of them? Am I impromptu performing for them? You can’t see what they see because my back’s to you. Are their emerging expressions shock at my state of dress? Laughter at my physical joy? Confusion at who shows arms or shoulders, or hair loose in the morning? I can draw this moment out for as long as I need, but I am done.

I look at that quartet. They are a poisonous family, helmet to boot in matt black, not walking this street in the early morning, but blocking the entrance to the stairs leading to my apartment and the larger, double doors to the courtyard. If I could look around corners into the side-streets, I’d see more at other entrances, sealing up my egress. I am no small prize. I look at each of them in turn as I hover in this instant, remembering their faces and distinguishing characteristics. They are un-numbered, of course, and all look so very alike, yet each has unique marks, the kind crows love to pick over and horde.

I flick between states, looking forward, and looking up. A saccade of head and eyes. There’s a trio of torsos in silhouette peering over from where I just departed. I do the same to them, peering back, picking over their details and storing them for later.

When I said I was being lazy, wanting those last minutes ending dawn to myself, there’s a little more to it than that. I was waiting for them; and I was making them wait. I was waiting for the city also. I wanted the slow unravelling of night, to feel each instant shifting the temperature, brightening, the city coming awake. I won’t visit this exact version of the city again, and even though I am here only for work, I have grown attached to this home. My body thrived here. It drinks the warmth and dryness of the day, persevering through the heart of the inferno, I can feel it opening up and becoming itself in ways the cold climate I come from closes down. I can feel the heat and light change my thinking, change who I am. The pulse of the seasons, more than four and the movement between each, is a different time and life than the abrupt quarters of the north I am used to. So I want this last morning for myself. It is an agreement I make, with myself, for the work I do: some moments are for me alone.

Those three, peering down. I heard them trampling the stairs, six boots in complex rhythm. This is also why I slept on the roof, so I could feel and hear them coming, so I could choose my line of escape. After the clattering reaches my apartment, I heard them pause, then more carefully, apprehensively, take on the last, steep and narrow flight to the wooden door leading to me, the vertical on a right-angle triangle protruding out of the roof.

This is where I sit up, unpillow my pants and slide a leg into each, walking my hips in, pull on my singlet, fold my legs under and push to standing. The first of them is turning on the tight, half-way landing, and looking up the last run of steps to see light through the ill-fitting door. I wait a while more, letting my blood equalise, seeing the city as it is, poised on the cusp of daybreak, still pouring a torrent of light upwards from itself, streetlights, windows of early-risers and the up-all-night, running lights of trams and trains, spiked with bursts of lightning as their rails jump on the overhead lines, factories and industry that never pauses, gouting illumination and torches from their flare stacks, patches of darkness in parks and empty land. If I was higher I could see this streak of lightlessness and the bifurcation of gas light and electric marking the city’s partition.

My last morsel of waiting. I hear them cluster on the upper landing, see the first breath of the door moving, and I cover the distance from centre to periphery in a blink. I have my scarf in my hand, and as they push open the door fully, they will see its trail flutter down past the edge, prey leading the predators. They will see my wool blanket, hear the snapping departure of my scarf, and run to the brink, to see me looking back at them as I touch down. I know who they are now, in this world. I will pass that on, and see it used against them wherever else we find them, used to expand the trawling. What they will say now, here, is the story I prepared for them: “She ran and slipped. We lost her. Nothing is recoverable,” and the city will slam shut.

Time enough for one more thing.

Where did I write my story in this moment of falling? Here. It is inscribed on me. In me. I am cut and pared and flayed with my life. Lives. Open me up and look inside, more again. I am rearranged. By the time I hit the ground I will already be gone. I have written myself out. I am long already barely here. Another ghost. I have given my body because it is all I am, all I have. Will I live? This me in this city? No. I am still fighting against that arriving truth even as I embrace it. Will I be known, in my entirety? Even the microbes in my gut, the ecosystem like a halo around me? All this, yes. When I land it is not me who will end, who will shatter, but the city. This is war and I am a weapon. I destroy worlds.

I see the sky for the last time, orange and blue. A fluttering of lips and breath, quick as I can, words faster than falling, my exit. My toes compress and stub into the flecked grey granite cobbles, and the city’s gone.

Afterwards.

And it’s back. Same, similar, different. Still the heat and dust, but damper. Where there were tramlines, there’s a canal, tree-lined and dipped into by curtains of dark, knotted, hanging roots, and overlapping deeply green leaves the shape of a boat’s hull seen from above, taking the edge off the heat. It’s fecund, and feels like it’s shivering on the edge of monsoon. The buildings are mostly the same, except one or two stories squatter. My apartment remains on the top floor, but in this city has no balcony. A pity. I know it’s not really my apartment, and I use it only to dispose of it, but familiarity grows a fondness, and balcony or no, I’m glad to see it survived yet another change of the city.

“Cutting it fine there, sis.” I turn at that voice and she’s there, hair like dark wood and skin I know like my own. “Get your shawl on,” she chides with a tease, “What will the neighbours think?” She pulls my scarf around my shoulders, covering the lower length of my hair, slides a hand along my arm to palm my own. A proper touch, so unlike the ones I skimmed in avoiding in that barely gone but terminally ended city. “How’s your finger?” she asks, rubbing my palm with her thumb. “What do you mean?” as I look down to see a chunk of nail and skin cleanly missing from the edge of my left ring finger, and a little finger that finishes a bit after the first joint. “Oops,” I say, “ai, cutting it fine alright. That gonna be a problem, ya reckon?”
“It’s gonna sting. But, nah, unlikely. You were data-mapping non-critical and noise to extremities, ya?”
“Yeah, probably mostly shite jokes and insults.”
“That’s a lot of space for shite jokes and insults, sis.”
“You know me, in with mouth before brain.”
“Better your finger gone than your mouth. You’d look dead stupid.”

I can feel the crows busy in my Mnemorium, two-legged hopping around, getting everything orderly, preening gloss-black or grey feathers and stabbing with beaks while giving me the eye. I leave them to it, the more I can do without thinking the better.

“I need breakfast—” I shudder under hammer-strokes as I’m thrown back into that lurching fall and thrown out again. The crows burst into the air in a black flurry, caw-ing and making bedlam.
“You alright there, sis? Debriefing?”
“Yeah, someone just went amateur-hour on the replay.”
“Shame you lost your finger or you could proper insult them.”
“Ey, sis, I like how you mock misfortune.”
“Imagine if all I gave you was, ‘there there,’ and, ‘poor thing,’ you’d be as miserable as a shit in a bog. Here,” she disengages hands and slides her daypack off one shoulder, twisting and sliding arms through the loops to wear it on her front. She pulls a pair of light sandals out, and a delicately light, long-sleeved pullover, “Not having you traipse around in public looking like that.” We grin at each other. Morning is quieter here, in this version of the city. What was a main thoroughfare bordered by tram yards feels here like a pocket around which everything moves. Or, as with the city changing itself, so too does it change the people, their time and rhythm bound to the architecture as geology is to climate.

We walk arm in arm, eastwards, under the railway bridges, coming to a dingy set of stairs that hang off the side of the embankment, parallel to the tracks, one of those de facto right of ways that will one day either be gone or be formalised. This set of tracks and bridges only has one in use, the others grey-orange oil-soaked sleepers deprived of rails, or rusting pans stripped of their burden, pockets corroded through to the canal beneath. The ones still containing ballast are like long, narrow fields, ankle and knee-high grass curved from the prevailing wind, young trees pushing up. We cross on the one beside the live track, high enough here and exposed from the empty flat of the shunting yards to be cooled by the breeze. It’s the same time here, barely past dawn, the hard sun filtering through smog, I’m glad at least I’m in another hot climate city, or rather, the city chose to continue its run of hot cities.

On the northern side, a half-hearted chain-link fence bows in the middle, we high-step to cross, then cut across the hectarage of empty freight and goods yards, split down the middle by the high-speed rail conduit to the west. On the far side the land is stripped and sandy rubble, one of the missing teeth in the punched face of the city. Our side though, is as wild as any forest or glade beyond the city’s boundary.

“Proper calm, eh,” she says, “I’ve been waiting for this.” I make an agreeable grunt. “Ai, look at that, wild boars been here.” I follow her finger to a shallow dip stripped of grass and thickly dark with mud and water, the edges all churned up with trotter pockmarks. I would stay here forever if it meant not having to pick away at the edges of a fight I’ve been willingly and loyally rushing into for so long I forget if I ever did not. I’d become like the boars, swim in the mud, eat berries and rabbits, and slough off this version of myself.

“The eastern shipyards are being brought down today, we can make it if we hoof it, get some breakfast on the way, bit of destruction for entertainment.”
“I am all in for collapsing old buildings,” I say, thoughts elsewhere, away from the piggy mud-bath, back on my missing finger. Careless of me. Worth it, but careless. I caught three more, those three on the roof for that half-finger and bit of flesh. Was there anything of value in it? What if it survived? I expect nothing less than meticulous forensics from them, so yes, it survived, they found it after, or extracted it before the snapping closed of that city. Shite jokes and insults. What else? Am I a liability now? I sanitised my apartment, but did I attend to myself with the same care?
“You’re being hard on yourself. I can hear you beating yourself up.”
“Fucking finger.”
“Fucking finger.”
“I don’t want a story where a fucking finger — half a finger — brings us down.”
“Shite story, that.”
“I have to change my protocol. Even if I left nothing, how I cleaned up is unique, and they’ll be using that to match partials on other work, and use that to predict what it will look like when I start new work.”
“We can sort that.”
“Sorting that means decontaminating habits, you know what that’s like.”
“Like watching yourself being murdered. There’s enough of us here, we can patch with a generic variation of all of us.”
“Better than full decontamination, I suppose. Funny I’m good with throwing myself off roofs but losing habits fills me with dread.”
“Funny, ha ha.”
“Tell me to harden up.”
“Harden up ya whiner. It’ll be fine.”
“It’ll be fine.”

We keep walking, the swish of long grass being rustled by wind and our passing, the grinding of railway ballast with out steps filling over the fragile sounds of life. Further out, that torus of the city’s life, and in-between, that stillness I find around me in every city. We cut across, heading further eastwards to a ragged line of mature trees, their greens and browns hidden under a grey dust like a cement factory belched along their length.

There’s the bus, end of the line so it sits there, engine off, doors open, windows slid down, airing itself under mango trees, a short, ragged queue outside, and a few, early set-grabbers already in, suffering the still interior heat now for ventilation once we get moving and packed. We exit the yards by pushing through a padlocked gate at the top of grimy concrete steps, metal scraping on corroded aggregate, attracting stares only from those new enough to the neighbourhood not to know better. She grabs a plastic bottle of sweet ice tea from the pillbox kiosk before we board — I remember my mouth was stuck dry only hours ago and I haven’t drunk since then — leads me to one of the empty benches on the left side, which will stay in shade for our trip west, and pushes me into the window seat. I pull the pane down all the way so I can prop an elbow on its ledge, and take a sip that becomes a gulp of the cold tea, the plastic sweating and dripping. We look at each other and grin, she squeezes my hand. I look down, see your fingers interlaced, the same but different.
“Thanks for picking me up, sis.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it.”
Of all my sisters she is my favourite — I think. There’s so many of us, in versions and layers of the city, in memories and dreams, all of us real, and more of us all the time. We’ve gotten better at escape. If I ask her, “Were you in such-and-such a place with me?” she would likely answer in the negative and be saddened I struggle so with telling us apart. So, this variation is my favourite, would be more precise. And of this variation, this one, because I notice a short scar like a faint maggot on the first joint of her thumb and remember where I’ve seen it before. It’s always her, when I extract myself. She’s always happy to see me, no matter what state I’m in, missing fingers or not. What she does when I’m not here, I have no idea. We keep these things separate. She’s the tough one though, making me laugh when others would try and console.

“Where did you get that scar?”
Her smile vanishes, she looks at me hard and dumps a slab of memory on me.
“Oh!” I say, raising eyebrows.
“Yes. Oh.” She replies, “I’m glad you led with ‘Where did you get that scar,’ and not ‘Were you in…?’ this time.”
I look at her with a nauseous mix of not understanding colliding with knowing exactly what she’s talking about, “Ai. Very embarrassing.”
“Too easy,” she laughs and taunts at me, “Brains all back? Know who you are again?”
“Brains, plus feeling of stupidity for getting so upset about decontamination, plus high embarrassment at all the ‘I am a weapon’ and ‘mayhem’ carry-on.”
“I swear, every time I think I’ll get tired of this, it’s like the first.”
“You are enjoying my discomfort?”
“Yes, I am,” she thumps me on my shoulder, hard enough to feel like a punch, “And that’s for the stupid finger shite.”
“Deserved. Was worth it.”
“Drink up, we’re on holiday.”


A short explanation: I’ve been working on a novel, on and off, for more than a couple of years now. It’s a science-fiction novel, also bound to the cities I’ve lived in: Berlin, and Guangzhou in particular. I don’t have one of those pithy, one-sentence lines of what it’s about; I’m not sure even a paragraph would suffice, so I’ll stick with saying it deals with history, and identity, and how these are created. As it’s sci-fi, naturally it takes place on a different planet around a different star, sometime in the near-ish future, and tries to imagine an archaeology of the world I’ve lived through and studied.

These three sections I originally thought split the novel as overture, intermission, and coda, though it’s possible there could be more, or less, or it all gets rolled into one. The person on the roof I have very clear ideas of how they look and live, and anyone who knows me moderately well, or visits here enough to know my positions on things, can take as given aspects of this person without me explicitly saying here. I get explicit in the story — for me at least.

A couple of other things: She really does write out herself on herself, it’s not a metaphor or some such, think of it as a sub-atomic encryption and compression of data onto whatever strata is closest to hand, which happens to be herself. She doesn’t kill herself, it’s not suicide — though I’m aware it read like that, particularly before I rewrote and lengthened the coda — the best way I can describe it for now is an elaborate deception by someone who is playing multiple levels of subterfuge. There’s more than one of her, way more than one. The city really does change entirely from day to day (or on its own inscrutible timetable), and I lose track with how many versions of the city are extant.

An additional note a couple of weeks later: I decided to add in a fourth section, ‘Afterwards’, which continues her story immediately after where the original three ended. This mainly to elaborate on the city changing itself, and the multiple versions of herself which populate it.

Spellcheck the Shell Way

I was reading this awesome book (about which I shall soon blog) and there was this moment of, “Fark! What a brilliant line!” like I actually said that ’cos it was so good, followed by, “Fark! Spelling mistake of spacecraft’s name!” And I thought wouldn’t a good way to deal with spellchecking (besides my favourite cmd-;) be to take the entire text, do something fancy command-line to it, and output all the words alphabetically by frequency. Then you could just spellcheck that file, find the weird words, go back to the original document and correct the shit out of them. So I did. Brilliant!

# take a text and output all the words alphabetically by frequency
# spaces replaced with line breaks, lowercase everything, punctuation included (apostrophe in ascii \047)
# http://unix.stackexchange.com/questions/39039/get-text-file-word-occurrence-count-of-all-words-print-output-sorted
# http://tldp.org/LDP/abs/html/textproc.html
# http://donsnotes.com/tech/charsets/ascii.html
find . -name "foo.txt" -exec cat {} \; | tr ' ' '\012' | tr A-Z a-z | tr -cd '\012[a-z][0-9]\047' | grep -v "^\s*$" | sort | uniq -c | sort -bnr

Black Metal 1: How it Started and Some Notes about Music

All this began a couple of months ago, when Isabelle Schad said, “looks like I won’t have time in April to get in the studio with you, so here’s a week for you, call it a mini-residency.” Her studio, Wiesenburg Halle in Wedding, is in a 150 year-old, abandoned former homeless people’s asylum on the Panke canal that was built on funds from the Berlin Jewish community, then appropriated by the Nazis, used as a factory for manufacturing insignia, then munitions, then bombed and shot to all crap, then quietly returning to forest while the original owner’s descendants live in the front apartment building (an entire story in itself) – and a few years ago, Isabelle and the Wiesen 55 e.V. got funds to turn one of the decrepit halls (well, mostly its walls) and neighbouring areas into a rehearsal space surrounded by gardens. Huge and airy, and with a full lighting and sound rig, plus a kitchen, mezzanine, garden full of birds and life, a lot like being in the forest and not in a big city.

So I arrived on Monday with bike (cos I was taking full advantage of being in Wedding to go morning cyclocross-ing in the forest), two bags of stuff, and one “I have no idea what I’m doing.” It’s been a long time since I was in a studio making art, and a solo … that’s something I’ve not really ever done. Solos are the present currency of performance makers of all stripes, in large part because they’re cheap to stage and tour, in part also because of the ongoing fixation on autobiographical authenticity, but I’ve always preferred the intermediary of dancers (even if I performed in my own work). Doing a solo has always been a mix of “I have nothing to say,” and “I have no idea what to do,” and inflicting one on myself … maybe now I’m capable of it cos I don’t really give a shit anymore.

Black Metal is a lot about that last bit, doing stupid stuff in my bedroom to amuse myself, not caring about potential audience (or lack of) or all the usual games of funding, producing, venue-ing. Of course watching the video of the showing it has to be ‘good’ in the sense of I myself as my own audience have to get a kick out of it and go, “fukkenyeeeaah!” which means I have to go all spectacle on my own arse – to put it another way, in choreographing and performing myself, I have to be convincing to my other self as audience, I have to be good (competent, artistic, compelling) at what I do.

Lucky I had some ideas. Not big ones, not many, only four – really only one but call it four – not very ambitious, not wanting to make something big or complicated or involved. I’ve been trying on and off for a few years to get a solo out, and kept falling into the trench of unrealisable ideas, paralysed by too bigness, things that require budget and support and all, and seeing Germany is consistently uninterested in what I do, the likelihood of making a big work with several dancers and all the rest is highly improbable, which left a solo, which kept failing when my thinking modality banged up against incommensurability with budget. So, basically bedroom stupidity. With metal.

Things I love: Heavy metal. Hoonage. Swearing.

When I was a student in Australia, SBS used to have Top Fuel drag racing on a Friday night. Fukken heaven. This isn’t a piece about that or swearing, but there’s something of the cultural displeasure at both in it, what’s acceptable and what’s not. Heavy metal – in any of its derivatives, death, speed, thrash, hair, black, folk, doom, power, and on and on – is only really palatable to an outside audience if it’s made ironic. Metal might be many things but it’s never ironic. The commitment to the theatre of the act never lets up, never gives a knowing wink at the audience, no matter how ridiculous and embarrassing it might look – listen and look at Lost Horizon, or Gorgoroth’s Kraków, brilliance all round.

There’s a close relationship between punk, goth, and metal; I’ve been all three and can say, Metal Rulez!!! In seriousness and partisanship here, I think there is a larger possibility for creativity in metal than the other two which comes in part from the—wait, must headbang to Sword in the Metal Wind for a bit—ok, back … comes in part from the theatricality (not to confuse that with playing pretend, theatricality here is the performance of image), and part from the joy of music. Listen to Sword in the Metal Wind or Gorgoroth’s Antichrist, constantly changing time signatures, rhythms, melodies, keys, even Slayer’s Raining Blood goes all over the place. It draws on the history of western classical and folk music (or for Taiwan’s Chthonic, traditional Taiwanese music), and for me there’s a lineage I can hear with say, Trelldom or Sunn O))) and Hildegard von Bingen across a thousand years. Which is maybe to say there’s a greater intellectualism (as differentiated from politicalism in punk) in metal that its theatricality doesn’t always make apparent.

Metal, yeah, I could go on about it all day. I’ve used metal music in pretty much every work I’ve made, it’s probably one of those things I should deny myself in the interests of getting over my habits and devices. This piece I wanted to go into the least-liked of subgenres, the one of church burnings, murder, neo-Nazis, Norway, corpse paint, that inadvertently made some incredible and influential music. And as I went along, Gaahl, the lead singer of Gorgoroth, and with his own project Trelldom (and others), tall Gaahl from a fjord village north of Bergen with the haunted eyes and penchant for burning churches and torturing people who cross his line, gay Gaahl, became central. I’d planned to only use music from him or in which he sung, but that didn’t work out during the residency, limited to what I had on my laptop. So, Sunn O))) which I’ve used so many times it’s a cliché, Gorgoroth from immediately before Gaahl joined (the incredible eponymous track from the Antichrist album), fucking Nazi Burzum – going to go into why I’m using Burzum and why it doesn’t seem like a bad idea right now: maybe it’s possible to appropriate his music, and maybe within the context of black metal and the history of the last millennia of northern Europe it’s apt, maybe also it elucidates without nuance the arrogant misogyny, nationalism, hetero-bro-ing, racism of black metal, and by extension all metal and most contemporary music genres.

And then there’s Hildegard von Bingen,  who you should really read about cos she was well awesome. I wanted to use some mediæval music, and obviously my proclivities and interests meant the composer should be a woman, and best if it was from 12th century-ish northern Europe. This doesn’t leave so many possibilities, but lucky my ongoing enjoyment of Mechthild von Magdeburg led to her, though they likely never met and were on opposites of Thüringen. I was trying to find some non-folk music that was instrumental, but seems like gaping yaws is the default, so her O Tu Suavissima Virga swings between too beautiful, too easy, too overbearing, too saccharine, quite a few other toos, but also might be the piece. After the showing we had plenty of talking about music, about Hildegard and soaring mediæval sacral music, and how the showing was a one-to-one relationship of music to dance. A proper sound design is one possibility, though I wonder if that might become too complicated and not crap enough. For the moment I’m not sure. Same goes for lighting, though I’d love to have Giacomo Gorini along. Either way whatever I do needs to be convincing even without sound or lights.

Inadvertently I’ve jumped from a general what I was doing and how it came about to a long blab about music. Which means I’ll have to save writing about what I was doing for next time.

On Training (Ballet Barre & Bars)

I’m gripping Louis XIV’s pole like I’m trying to strangle it. I’m not sure it’s Louis XIV’s. I’m not sure I even know what’s going on. It’s a length of wood. Hurhur. That we grip. Double hur. Not too tightly though. We let our fingers and hand glide back and forth along its length—Ok, So we’re just done with “phrasing,” right?

We use the barre to: keep our balance for, while we work our legs for, as we warm up through various exercises to prepare us for … something something. I don’t think we know why we’re using it, except out of habit. We use it because we’ve always used it, because ballet uses it, because it’s the ballet barre part of a ballet class, because it’s ballet. So we grip it and strangle it and caress it and our eyes glaze over whenever we get near the question of why we use it because that original answer is lost.

I think it’s in lieu, of a hand, of another’s hand, of another person. It’s in lieu of our partner, with whom we dance. But we no longer dance with a hand and arm and partner who moves and dances with us; we hold onto a fixed wooden pole. I’m only presuming this because I thought the question of when the barre was codified was a straightforward one, but what I found was a complete absence. Nothing in Louis XIV’s time. An early mention seems most of a century later with Gennaro Magri in the late-1700s, or Carlo Blasis or Giovanni-Léopold Adice in the early-1800s, where a chair was used for support, subsequently to be replaced by our barre.

Whatever, the barre serves another purpose now, for another kind of ballet.

Michel Serres in Genesis talks about ballet, the barre, the body thinking—one of the only philosophers to seriously and genuinely engage with dance. I may disagree with him and others now somewhat in that I do not think that ballet is unnatural, a torture. It is a poor habit to regard that which oneself is not capable of, which one does not understand, as monstrous. On the other hand, he writes that the dancer is the possible: “Dance is to the body proper what exercise of thought is to the subject known as I.” I would go further, and say there is no subject which thinks, outside of the body. Thinking is the domain of the body and dancing is as much thinking as thoughts which form themselves in words around a thing we think of as I.

What thoughts come when a body exercises while gripping a barre?

I had one teacher who encouraged us to hang onto the barre, use it because it’s there. This in lascivious opposition to the statements of the majority that the hand must lie delicately on the upper surface, thumb next to index finger, and not wrapped around, to slip forwards and backwards with each change of weight. I’m sure I’ve done both, and I’m not sure there’s fundamentally much of a difference. The illusion of choice, to use or not use the barre, is just that. We use it, have used it, before we even recognise we need it. At this speed, our body preempts our thinking, and the fine detail of caring for balance within a body is overthrown by the hand always getting there first. Using the barre depends on an artificiality that has nothing to do with a body standing on one or two feet.

Early last week I’d been watching Ballet Company Reality TV. Horribly awful and impossible to look away. I’d followed that with one of the most frustrating classes in a long time, and as usual when frustration and desperation meet, crazy, wild, revolutionary things happen: I took my hand off the barre. Faaark. Radical shit right there.

Seriously. I felt like a menace to society.

I’ve done it before too, recidivist that I am. When I first started dancing I experimented with it as a fast-track, quick-fix. It’s neither. And occasionally teachers mention in passing the benefits of not using the barre. Though not in a serious way, not in a, “Let’s fuck shit up right now! Take your hands off, youse!” More of a proposition no one was actually expected to commit to. Or if they do, then the barre itself, the class is changed, it’s a special “Barre without the barre” barre, and not simply doing the barre without holding onto it. If you get what I mean.

So I let go of the barre, what happened? Craaaazy shit! One of my life-long bad habits is holding superhero levels of tension in my shoulders. And I’ve had years of “Shoulders down, Frances!” blahdiblah only to work out it’s not the shoulders which are up, but my head which is down, retracted all turtle-like. Yanking on the barre only exacerbates this. The amount of tension you can put into your shoulders is only limited by how securely the barre is bolted down. You have two of the most opposite ends of your body, a hand and a foot holding on and wedge in for dear life while you wave the rest of your body around in the mad panic called ballet, and hell yes will your shoulder and neck do the job of battening the hatches.

And then you get into the centre, the bit of the class without the barre and first thing expected of your body is to do dead slow shit on one leg. Shoulder and neck are all, “We live for this shit!” But they don’t. Cos there’s nothing for them to hold on to. You’ve spent 45 minutes diligently training yourself out of your body, out of coordination, out of balance and all the rest, and now you’re gonna turn it all on? Nope. A whole body’s worth of uselessness, and simply “not doing” that isn’t going to magically transport you into the necessary physical state. And what kind of caricature is all roid-raged in their neck and shoulders? The scary, uptight type. It’s a two-way street. Just as much as stress builds up in this location, so does tension there set off all kinds of emotional and mental bollocks. It’s exhausting stuff.

Last night I watched the Royal Ballet taking company class, and the barre was mentioned, as a device that enables the dancers to concentrate on the accuracy of their feet and legwork. They’re all fucking amazing so probably all isn’t really applicable to dancing at that level, but it occurred to me that the barre exercises in themselves—and not the aid of the barre—prepare that physical accuracy, the balance, control, coordination, strength, mental and emotional states, so when you get to the centre you’ve already done the basic work and you’ve already been dancing for 45 minutes with yourself, so things like that first adagio make sense as a coherent, logical progression, and not a bizarre leap from one physiological state to another.

This is just my experience of not using the barre: I have to rely on myself, through the pliés, tendus, all those little steps, my body has to discover how it balances and stands, where to hold and where to release, how my weight shifts forward and back, side to side, where my ribs are, how my spine assembles and rights itself. Without the noise of tension in shoulders and neck that comes from the deceptive security of holding onto something, there’s far more to hear within. My body sways far more, probably excessively right now as it adapts to this new regime, seems to work harder, or have more demanded of it, yet remains calmer and recovers from exertion quicker. Ballet forms itself more easily from this state, things like turnout result from this, or are more understandable within the physical logic of the system, rather than being something we—or I—do. Movement that often thwarts me in the centre comes together, patchily for sure at the moment, but inevitably also. Speed is sometimes not possible; at other times almost too easy. Things, by which I mean chronic injuries I’m still getting over, nag less, I think because the barre aids in going too far in movement, and not far enough in maintaining balance, causing overloading or counterbalance compensation stress and tension. It becomes a constant, personal experience of balance and movement. Tough also, definitely the toughest thing I’m doing right now, harder than climbing and cyclocross. Sort of a meditation, maybe because without the barre ballet is easier for me to see as a mental discipline.

An addendum: All this is part of a question of why do I keep dancing, for which I think the only real answer is: because I love it. It’s a question for which that answer is insufficient, particularly while getting older. It’s tied up in that word, ‘keep.’ Keep dancing. Keep doing ballet, when most professional ballet dancers have retired by my age and most professional dancers don’t really commit to the regularity and discipline of class either. Keep putting myself into a physiological state far from the everyday. Why? For what? Again an insufficient answer: for the thing itself. For whatever other reason, I continue doing ballet because it’s not finished with me yet.

On Training (Ballet, Cyclocross, & Some Philosophy)

While working with Isabelle on Fugen, we talked a lot about training. The work itself was concerned with training, the space between training and performance, whether training could be performed (or presented as performance). During rehearsals, I would mention things from my own diverse loves—cyclocross, climbing, of course ballet, dancing, movement—she from hers—again ballet, as a thing from her history, but mostly from Aikido and Ki Concepts (translating that loosely here as things in the realm of Qi Gong, Tai Qi, Shiatsu). We would train together as a warmup (not so much in this rehearsal compared to previous), I would add things from her training to my own, now an incoherent mass of yoga, Pilates, Qi Gong, stretching and strengthening from various physiotherapists … things I do.

Particularly with getting older, injury prevention, rehabilitation, general corporeal maintenance, training—a thing I do most days—preoccupies me. It’s a subject I talk about with friends often. Dasniya and I have made it an endless discussion over the last years. I’ve been wondering, particularly the last few weeks, why it’s not something I’ve been writing about, or at least writing here about it, that thing I do, which I seem to have given my life to.

Earlier this year, after returning to Berlin from my east and south wanderings, I returned to ballet. The previous years had been a cycle of chronic injuries, torn meniscus, patellofemoral pain syndrome, ankle sprains and tendonitis, hip and lower back problems, to the point where I wondered if I’d even be walking in the next decade. This is not however a positive tale of surmounting injury, though it did start with simple questions around injury: How can I get through a ballet class? How can I keep doing class regularly? Is it realistic for me to imagine still dancing, still training for decades?

What comes from these questions I’m not sure I can call answers. Let’s just say the only ‘answer’ of comparable length to the question is: There’s no one, single way. And that’s a banal pile of duh right there. This is practical shit I’m dealing with here, not that kind of vapid platitude. Another couple of questions then: Why ballet? Also, why cyclocross and climbing? And what happened to doing yoga every day?

Well, yoga was causing injuries, floppy loose joints and all, so I’m kinda iffy on it lately. Cyclocross, because it means I get to scuff through forests in the morning (when I live in Wedding), which is one of the greatest pleasures in life, especially on a bike—and cyclocross is one of those weird, dorky sports (it’s the Belgian and Dutch national sport, y’know) that doesn’t quite make sense when you try and explain it to people: “Yeah, it’s like cross-country running, on a bike that looks like a road racing bike … in the mud … in winter …” Climbing, because it feels good, also because it wasn’t dance and was the one thing I’d do and never analyse.

As for ballet, which I’ve over-analysed since the start, partly it’s the love of the form—I mean here of the training form, the process through the hour and an half of a class which has become something of a meditation. From a purely physical aspect, it’s the one thing of all that I’ve done which keeps me together, yet doesn’t introduce its own liabilities (predictable ballet injuries aside). It’s physically and psychologically challenging every single time, its complexity possibly endless.

This is not the time to have a discussion about how ballet is seen in contemporary dance, beyond to say there’s a discipline in ballet which fits my thinking, and while there was no question I’d ever be a professional ballet dancer, as a professional dancer I’ve found it indispensable for keeping my shoddy array of limbs in order. The muscularity, sweat, intensity, toughness, all also appeal, as does finding calmness and a kind of detachment, like meditation, in this. Ballet has this delicate precariousness, what works this time might not the next. It’s a function of the complexity of organising a body while moving in this way, or in any discipline which demands an acute opposition to entropy. For me, it’s this that keeps me returning, that there’s more to be discovered, that it’s not a single path to unattainable perfection, in fact ultimately it’s not about perfection at all. It’s a process, one where the part of the body which thinks in words is mostly along for the ride.

And having written this I realise I’ve said almost nothing of consequence about training, dancing, getting older, living like this.

Video

Eine choreografische LeseVerbindung

Late-2012, I helped Dasniya and Hartmut Fischer with the video for their performance, Die Liebe und ihr Gegenteil oder Mädchenmörder Brunke – Eine choreografische LeseVerbindung. Some of this was collecting their own video of rehearsals, some was joining them on trips around Berlin by ferry or Ring-Bahn, and some was cutting it all together. The performance happened first in Tübingen at Club Voltaire, then again in a different form in Berlin at the Club der polnischen Versager. Hartmut had the unpublished manuscripts of Thomas Brasch, a Jewish Berlin playwright, writer, and director, which are what appear tied up and suspended in the middle part of the video. The first part is Dasniya and Hartmut organising the papers, which arrived as an unsorted mass in an old suitcase. The third part, on the Spree ferry goes past where Brasch used to live in Mitte when it was East Berlin. Finally, we three went on a ride on the S-Bahn, arriving at Ostkreuz just as the sun was setting. It’s not an especially spectacular piece of video, but it does represent – or document – a period of my life in Berlin, as well as parts of the city of Berlin itself. Mostly it’s silent.

Post Formats & Misc Coding

After the recent days of cleaning up the link formatting dregs of Movable Type, I got slightly excited about fixing a couple of things that have been on my list, merging a bunch of tags, images in the wrong folder (another shift-from-MT thing), miscellaneous missing formatting … then I discovered the code which wraps an excerpt around a search term – so you can see the term in context – had borked the archive excerpts. So I rewrote a bunch of that. Finally I got to the not-cleaning-up-mess stuff: Post Formats.

I’d written a widget for Lewis Major that shows a list of available post formats, and had been meaning to put it on supernaut for ages. Turned out to be a matter of plonking the code in my already-existing custom widgets file and there it is, in the footer. Then I decided to do something about the Image Post Format, which turned into a coding frenzy. The result is on a single image format post, the inserted image gets yanked, its ID grabbed and used to spit out the full-size image below any content. Rather happy with how that worked out.

Finally, I decided to add a bunch of posts to the Gallery Post Format. Besides being assigned thus, nothing in the template code is different. I haven’t decided if I want to do anything interesting with how the images are displayed, let alone looked around for code that could give me ideas. Mainly it’s so all the posts where I’ve uploaded some kind of collection of images are grouped. Not all though; some posts with a lot of images, like workshop notices, or which induced some vague feeling of “not gallery” are not included.

The others then: Video posts have been around for a while (I need to do something about forcing non-16:9 into pillarbox format); occasionally there are Quotes, usually from books I’m reading; Asides also get some use (this was going to be an Aside before I realised I didn’t know when to stop); and last but used the most, my pseudo-Twitter Status posts, limited to 140 characters by some petty-facist script.