Magnetic North Blog

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Aotearoa (The Long, White Cloud)

I’m on the other side of the world, at the almost northernmost point of the north island. This is Cape Reinga, where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean in a spectacular swirl of currents. It is a sacred site, steeped in spirituality; for Māori, this is the place where the wairua (spirit) of their recently passed loved ones depart to the afterlife, their homeland Hawaiki.


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Bridging ideas

If you travel over the river Forth on either the road or rail bridge at the moment, you see an extraordinary sight: the almost complete new Forth road bridge. Watching a bridge being built is an amazing sight, it always makes me appreciate the astonishing feat of engineering that a bridge is. Too often, we travel over them, taking them for granted because they’re just there. But can you imagine the leap of faith that was necessary to build the first bridge? Maybe someone found a fallen tree over a stream and used it to get over. Maybe then, someone thought that they could move that fallen tree to a better place? But how do you get from that, to building stone bridges? And from there to building huge suspension bridges?

The development of bridges from fallen trees across streams to structures two miles long connecting islands is a beautiful example of a long term collaboration.  Over thousands of years, the gradual refinement of the idea continued, sometimes led by improvements in technology: the development of steel wire in the 19th century enabled spans and loads to increase hugely. Sometimes by vision: maybe someone asking the question ‘why shouldn’t we bridge that gap?’  Sometimes by necessity: ‘how much time could we save if we could go straight over there, rather than going round?’  This strikes me as a metaphor for artistry. Some leaps have arisen from technological developments – steel strings rather than gut, for example – others from a creative leap – someone deciding that rather than a narrator and chorus, a character could step forward and speak for his or herself;  or both - perspective required both the imagination to understand it was needed, and the technical understanding to codify it.

Cristo morto


I remember being shown a slide of the painting "Christo Morto" by Mantegna at school and being startled by how daring the foreshortening was and how modern it seemed, even though it was 500 years old.  But whatever the root of a development, and no matter how sudden or gradual a development is, it is always a collaboration between the past and the present. So just as we couldn’t have the new Forth bridge without someone putting a felled tree over a stream thousands of years, so we act as creative bridges between what has happened before and the potential for something else to happen in the future. How we interpret that is a matter of choice. Do we want to acknowledge what has gone before us? Or do we want to ignore it? Either is a choice, but we have to be aware of the choice. The worst thing is either to ignore the past without knowing it, or to assume that received assumptions are correct. When Marcel Duchamp did this:



















It was an apparently simple act of defacement, but there are several layers of meaning within the act – by defacing this particular image, he not only changes perceptions of what constitutes a work of art (Duchamp’s contention being that anything can be a work of art if an artist decrees it one), he defaces an iconic ideal of beauty.  But by using a cheap, poor quality postcard reproduction, he also draws attention to the degradation of the image that has already taken place, he questions whether we have unthinkingly accepted it as a great work of art without ever really looking at it.  He looks back into the past and forward into the future at the same time and knows he is doing it.

But are we just our own bridges, connecting past and future, or are we part of a whole system of bridges, rivers and streams?  Should we see ourselves as part of a network of connections and links – linking audiences to our work, to other people’s work, linking us to other artists and other artforms.  Are we part of a great tradition that progresses inexorably from one thing to another, or are we part of a net that stretches all around us? Is our job as artists to look for the tiny capillaries of connection as well as the thundering road bridges we can see from miles away?    

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Pointing and thinking - what I learnt from Giacometti


A few weeks ago, Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti's sculpture Pointing Man was sold for a world record $141 million [Guardian story]. I first saw this sculpture in real life, rather than in reproduction, at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art about 15 years ago as part of a Giacometti retrospective.

I thought I knew his work quite well from work I'd seen in other galleries and from reproductions, but being confronted by a collection of the work in one place was quite a different experience. I was very moved by what I saw, by the cumulative effect of seeing so much of his work together, and the sense it gave of what he was trying to do. I had probably thought till then that he made a lot of work that was quite similar, but I was missing the point. He was working to refine an idea, not to repeat himself. Particularly striking was the variation in scale. This piece is large - life size, you might say - but other sculptures were tiny, just a few centimetres high. Giacometti said that he didn't set out to make them so small, but that was how they kept ending up. 

So, there are two things that fascinate me in particular about this work: first is the removal of all unnecessary flourish. this is about as far as you could get from baroque style. I remember staring at this sculpture in the gallery and thinking it looked like a figure seen from a distance in a heat haze: the form told you it was human because it contained the essence of the human form, even though there appeared to be no detail. What is interesting about this is that in the mid-1920s – about 20 years before this particular work – Giacometti made a conscious decision to change the way he worked. He had become frustrated by his approach, which was based on the traditional method of working from a model. So in late 1925, at the age of 24, he decided he would work only from memory – he separated out the task of observation from the task of interpretation and his work was transformed.  If you look at his work from before this time, it’s good, but lacking in the  character that makes his later work so distinctly his.

The second thing was about the humanity of the act of pointing. It was only later that I began to see this. Pointing is a human act: no other species understands it as we do. If you try to direct an animal by pointing, the animal will look at the end of your finger, not to where you are pointing. Humans have developed an ability to abstract a pointing finger: we understand that it refers us to something we aren't looking at, or maybe even something we can't see because it's over the next hill. It's such a simple act, but it summarises the sophistication of the human brain. If I point to my cat's bowl, she stares at my finger; if I point to my son's bowl, he looks at the bowl. So here is this beautifully refined - in the sense of anything extraneous being removed - sculpture that perfectly captures what it is to be human, and perhaps what it is to be an artist. The act of pointing is a wonderful thing in itself, but think of how we have refined that act still further. When I went to vote in the Scottish referendum last year, I saw this sign.


It's nicely old fashioned in style - the finger is still there, recognisable, though someone has interpreted it.  We see this on signposts sometimes:

Fingerpost sign in Carmunnock 2b Coppermine 7322

but even then it can be abstracted further to an absolute minimum of form that tells us exactly what we need to know. 


So is that the job of an artist? To tell people exactly what they need to know? But then how do you know what it is they need to know? Or is it more complex than that? Are artists there to point to the right question? Or to point to a number of possibilities? To leave space for the listener or observer to fill in the gaps?

What would happen if you thought you had found the answer?  Could you carry on?  What’s interesting about the answer Giacometti found when he changed his method of working was that, although it answered one question, it enabled him to ask many more.

This blog is based on part of a talk I gave at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in October 2014.

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Working on Viewpoints with SITI company

I’m in Saratoga Springs, New York for a month’s training with Anne Bogart and her SITI company.  At the core of SITI’s work are two approaches: Viewpoints (an approach first developed by choreographer Mary Overlie and then adapted by Anne Bogart for theatre) and Suzuki (a method of actor training developed by Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki).

Viewpoints was the thing that brought me here and I had little knowledge of Suzuki, which meant that the first Suzuki class at 9.30 on Monday morning came as something of a shock.  We had been told to wear shorts or tight leggings (“So we can see the bend of your knee”) which might have served as a warning.  Suzuki, it turns out, is very different to Viewpoints.  It is a form (in the way that tai chi or ballet are forms), which makes it very different to any western style of actor training.  There is a series of movements to be learnt, and the whole approach is designed to create a sense of control over the body, built from the centre.  It is physically demanding and highly disciplined, not unlike a martial art.  Viewpoints is much more freeform, and what is fascinating is starting to understand how these two quite different approaches to performing work together.  The schedule is this: in the morning we do two 90 minute classes, one in Suzuki, one in Viewpoints, alternating daily which is first.  In the afternoon we do related classes – dramaturgy, speaking, movement and composition.  For the last two days of each week we do two Suzuki and two Viewpoints classes each day.  Today is the end of the first week and its fair to say there’s quite a mix of physical exhaustion and physical exhilaration at play.  The exhaustion comes from the sheer effort of learning a new discipline, the exhilaration from the accumulation of this effort over a week.

In the first week we have learnt the first two parts of the Suzuki form – Basic no. 1 and Basic no. 2.  No 1 is a sideways movement, no 2 is a forward movement.  In both of them there is a sequence that involves weight shifts and controlling the body so that you don’t fall over.  Different members of the SITI company have taught each day and it’s been fascinating hearing their slightly different takes on the form.  Yesterday, Leon (a big bear of a man with an imposing presence and a beautiful lightness) said that the point of learning Suzuki was not to be the best at Suzuki but to develop an understanding and control of your body in order to be able to perform to the best of your ability.  Today, Bondo focused on the separation of the elements – in one exercise we were pausing the sequence to recite a speech from The Cherry Orchard (Ranyevskaya’s “Oh my childhood, my innocent childhood” from Act I) and he emphasised the need to separate the elements: first finish the movement (which also involves taking the breath for the line), then making the gestural action (in this case a movement of the arm) before speaking – each element separated cleanly so there is no bleed from one to the other.

In the morning class on Friday, Stephen made a really helpful analogy for working with the Viewpoints.  He suggested thinking of them as a horizontal plane, with all of the elements at play at any one time, but that at different times we could turn the volume up on one of them to examine its effect.  In Bogart’s version there are nine Viewpoints, divided into two groups – Time and Space.  The viewpoints of time are duration, speed, kinaesthetic response and repetition; the viewpoints of space are shape, gesture, spatial relationship, architecture and topography.  As is frequently pointed out, the viewpoints have always been there and have always been used, this system is merely a way of codifying them in order to use them more effectively.  What is important is that Viewpoints is post-modern in structure so there is no hierarchy – all the viewpoints are of equal importance (hence Stephen’s image of the horizontal plane).

Over the weekend we are all busy with our first composition assignment.  In groups of 4 we are creating 10 minute site-specific compositions using texts from a number of plays by Charles Mee (a regular collaborator with SITI) and a number of given elements that must be included (a slap, a kiss, 3 movement sequences).  For me this means an unusual discipline – learning lines, something I have not needed to do since I was a student.  I’m enjoying the structure this imposes and it emphasises to me the muscular nature of the brain – the act of learning makes further learning easier, much like lifting weights (or practising Suzuki some to that). 
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SITI week 2

The train ride from New York city to Saratoga Springs is a beautiful journey up the Hudson valley towards the Adirondack mountains.  The place names are evocative: Yonkers - birthplace of Ella Fitzgerald,  Schenectady - where Edison founded the General Electric Company, and Poughkeepsie, which is probably also famous for something but just has a great name as far as I’m concerned.  Saratoga is in the middle of a wide plain and I can see trees for miles from my room.  The other day I had a Walden moment when I saw a beautiful light brown hawk circling over a clearing in the trees.  It floated about while I watched it, not quite with the joy of just being there that Thoreau observed, but a beautiful sight none the less.  There were obviously no pickings for it so it flapped elegantly away after a while making me feel very earthbound (even on the 7th floor).

In the work with SITI, we’ve been moved up a gear this week.  Further parts of the Suzuki form have been taught to us – Kelly, one of the core SITI members, made a very important point to us on Friday afternoon when she reminded us that the purpose of the Suzuki method is not to master the form, because you never can.  The important thing is the discipline you derive from the effort  to master it, as well as the skills with which it equips you, such as a clarity of focus on stage. 

On Wednesday evening Leon and Ellen gave a talk on the origins of both Suzuki and Viewpoints and how the SITI company came to work with the two approaches.  Suzuki had begin training his actors during the 1960s, developing the form from a variety of sources, including Kendo, Katakali, Flamenco and Sumoh as well as the Japanese theatre styles of Noh, Kabuki and Butoh.  During the late ‘70s he began training other actors in the method, including a group from America that would form the ore of the SITI company in the early 1990s.  During the 80s Anne Bogart happened to work with some of these actors and couldn’t help noticing how much less they moved their feet than other actors.  Intrigued by this, she asked them why and was introduced to Suzuki.  At the same time, Anne had been developing her own version of Mary Overlie’s Six Viewpoints as a means of quickly building an ensemble when she was working on productions at theatres around the States.  As she worked with the Suzuki actors she began to realise that these two seemingly opposite approaches were very complimentary.

This week in Viewpoints we’ve been doing quite a lot of open viewpoints, which is an improvisation in the space using all the viewpoints.  This is quite heady stuff as you get to know the group you’re working with and start to discover the risks you can take moving about a space – sometimes at high speed – while maintaining a connection with everyone else in the space.  One of the viewpoints is Kinesthetic Response – which is about how you decide “when” (when to move, for instance, or be still, turn, look, or when to speak etc) – like all the viewpoints it can only operate in conjunction with the others (such as duration – how long you might move for  - or tempo – how fast you might move).  Kinesthetic Response is quite a “back brain” action – you allow yourself to move almost instinctively in response to an external stimulus, rather than with a thought-through motivation.  The purest, or maybe most minimal, exercise is Flow.  In Flow you have only 5 pieces of vocabulary: stopping, moving through gaps, turning, following, changing tempo.  When it works, it is an incredible feeling – as if you are connected to everyone else who’s up there with you.

This morning, while researching some things for our composition assignment (each week we make a short performance piece in small groups) I found a clip of Pina Bausch dancing to the aria “When I am Dead and Laid in Earth” from Dido and Aeneas in her piece Café Muller (you can watch it here).  I’d seen this a couple of months ago in Wim Wenders’ film Pina and had been affected by the story she told about it.  When she came to revive the piece for the first time she couldn’t work out why it didn’t feel right, and then she realised that, even though her eyes were closed throughout, where she looked was essential to how she performed it.  The first time she did it, she always looked down but the second time she’d been doing it without paying attention to where she looked.  At the time I remember thinking that the lesson here is “no detail is too small to ignore”.

Now I have to go and learn some lines.
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