Notes on Performance – Cruelty in Action

Antonin Artaud

Performance as an art does not hang like a pretty picture in the living room nor does it not fit on the wall of a middleclass restaurant. Damien Hirst’s Abalone Acetone Powder – his spot painting – fits too neatly into the house of a contestant on Come Dine With Me.

Not art but a brand, Hirst, stinking of the owner’s money like a pair of Westwood jeans. As a poet and performer, I have no interest in catering for such a market. I do not do panna cotta or blue cheese. I do blueness: that drowning disordering the senses – our senses.

Franko B says performance art works “when I come across something that I remember, either because it upset me or it made me happy.” He notes, “Art is about creating language and memories. Language is like a virus that can invade you, and I love that.” I love that too.

Hannah Silva writes,

In performance, the poet (whether consciously or not) works with language, music and the body simultaneously. An interdisciplinary process takes place within the performance poet, while a dialogic exchange takes place between poet and audience. This can give the impression of poetry being composed live in the space.

This is what I seek to do in performance – distill images into the audience like a virus injecting its DNA through the cell receptors. I use repetition to intensify the images to the edge of the breath. On the edge I cross one image over into another and back again. Allen Ginsberg writes, “Our heads are round so thought can change direction.”

In Theatre and Its Double, Antonin Artaud places an emphasis on cruelty. He writes that cruelty “means a theater difficult and cruel for myself first of all.” Cruelty begins with the self. My self. Lee Jamieson writes that cruelty means for the performer to embody and intensify “the underlying brutalities of life to recreate the thrill of experience.” He notes,

Artaud sought to remove aesthetic distance, bringing the audience into direct contact with the dangers of life. By turning theatre into a place where the spectator is exposed rather than protected, Artaud was committing an act of cruelty upon them.

I attempt to bring the audience into ideas – cruel ones – pulling away at the rug under them.

In my monologue, Another History of Nothing, nothing really happens. I stream thoughts around Sigmund Freud’s the Oedipus Complex. The aim – to bring the audience into the dynamics of the unconscious, turning one image into another to find the instinct to murder. Murder our mothers. Have we not all had this thought? The superego – the internalised parental voice – punishes us for it.

I attempt to highlight cruelty that begins with the self. What does Artaud mean by this? He may mean that the cruelty we experience is uniquely our own, in the way we experience the monstrosity of being alive. Artaud writes, “I myself am an absolute abyss.” I live in a city and cruelty is there on London streets. I feel it. I dream it. I think it. I scream it.

Samuel Beckett’s work is “the stink of mortality.” He says,

Yes, [my texts] deal with distress. Some people object to this in my writing. At a party an English intellectual—so-called—asked me why I write always about distress. As if it were perverse to do so! He wanted to know if my father had beaten me or my mother had run away from home to give me an unhappy childhood. I told him no, that I had had a very happy childhood. Then he thought me more perverse than ever. I left the party as soon as possible and got into a taxi. On the glass partition between me and the driver were three signs: one asked for help for the blind, another help for orphans, and the third for relief for the war refugees. One does not have to look for distress. It is screaming at you even in the taxis of London.

Franko B quotes from the Metro
Hannah Silva from her paper, Composing Speech, in Tom Chivers ed., Stress Factures: Essays on Poetry, Penned in the Margins, 2010
Lee Jamieson from his book, Antonin Artaud: From Theory to Practice, Greenwich Exchange, 2007
Samuel Beckett quote from Tom Driver, Beckett by the Madeleine, Columbia University Forum, 1961

Tom Bland, 2014

3 thoughts on “Notes on Performance – Cruelty in Action

  1. renemutume

    Hey was just going to mention that I liked your post, and mention a few bits about how I agree. Didn’t realise you know Sean though! That makes sense in terms of you visiting Kerosene C–
    Anyways, people are adverse to angst aren’t they, like that pleb/intellectual questioning Beckett. He never came across as an arrogant chap in interview, but that exchange must of felt like a dead tick trying to slip him some tongue.
    In mode with your point about over cruelty however, it made me think of Heidegger’s idea about ‘angst’ and Dasein — “The feeling of dread (angst) brings the individual to a confrontation with death and the ultimate meaninglessness of life, but only in this confrontation can an authentic sense of Being (Dasein) and of freedom be attained.” (Heidegger, Being and Time).
    But much like in theatre and play, some people create theatre and play. Like Alan Moore popping Nietzsche and Heidegger as characters into his 80’s comic “Miracle man”, whom is a seven foot man who likes flying and has a black secret agent friend called “Mr Cream”.
    I feel for young Hirsty lad though (there is much room in an unemployed man’s
    heart for such things).
    Nice piece of writing Tom. Much enjoyed the tour of artists and culture!

    1. tomblandpoet Post author

      Thanks very much for your thoughts. Sean and I run a poetry & performance event at the Flying Dutchman, the next one is happening this Sun. I really like Heidegger although haven’t read him for years. As a performer, the quote from Heidegger has performance possibilities and the question for me is, do I illustrate that idea in performance or do I translate it into an act of performance?

      1. renemutume

        I think that mostly, to take things apart whilst staying fed is the best thing. I cannit remember the quote properly mate but I believe that it was linked to angst
        and Daesin. I find that only the most sordid and intricate of things have any legs and illumination, and that they do not spread, or smell of perfume (unluckily) but likely will.

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