Understand Everything: A two-week Canberra micro-residency

himalayas01 pic of my dad in the himalayas, circa 1978

Today’s the last day of my little two-week self-imagined Canberra residency, a little window in between jobs / gigs, in which I deliberately avoided looking for work in order to gain some ground on a new project.

I’ve spent the fortnight scribbling little fragments, doing bigger bursts of writing, planning and collating ideas, and being constantly surprised at how much work I feel like I’m doing and yet how little progress I seem to be making.

Working like this is weird – undirected, solo, without anyone to bounce off or answer to. There’s the constant fear that I haven’t got anything worth sharing, worth pursuing. Normally my method is to just commit to something – book a theatre, lock in to performing at some festival or other, apply for a grant, and so force myself to produce something, on demand. But for this project I don’t have anything nearly coherent enough to want to put on stage – but simultaneously, I want to give this project the chance to be something meaningful by not rushing into a format or a performance date.

GG_onion2 the International Biosphere-Geosphere Project (IGBP) formed in 1986 divided the earth into sectors for analysis

So what is the show? The concept, roughly, is to dig into the field of Earth System Science, which is the massive effort, by tens of thousands of scientists worldwide, to come up with a useful understanding of how the planet works. Oceans, atmospheres, forests, ecosystems, cities; the geosphere and biosphere, how it all fits together.

(Increasingly as part of that, there’s a need to understand how humans work – since people started taking fossilised sunlight from hundreds of millions of years ago and returning it to the atmosphere, if you want to understand how the whole earth works, you need some grasp on how people work. Which is tricky; people are tricky.)

hungers37 Jackal in Food for the Great Hungers, 2009. Pic by ‘pling.

I’ve been fascinated by the science and scientists working in this field for years. Boho has continually brushed up against this work, from Food for the Great Hungers onwards – and in fact Doug Cocks, who was a mentor and consultant on Hungers, has been a big inspiration for this project. But this is the first time I’m really leaning into the idea as the core of a new work, because it’s such a big, broad topic.

Talking about the whole earth system – the planet, the climate, the biosphere, the oceans, global change, population growth, demographic transitions, all of if – is so big it quickly becomes meaningless and numbing. It’s all too abstract. 7 billion is a meaningless number, and so on.

In fact, this is part of my whole fascination with the concept. We’re fundamentally incapable of actually thinking about the whole earth – the scale and complexity is way beyond what our minds are designed for – and yet, actions being taken at the human level are having a measurable effect on all this complexity. We can’t understand it / we have to understand it.

I know I’ll fail at communicating it / I have to try to communicate it.

I did a lot of reading over December – January, catching up on some texts and papers about complexity, the Anthropocene, systems models and so on. And a series of interviews – including a few conversations with my dad, digging into his history as an atmospheric scientist. Now this last two weeks was a chance to collate all this material, bring it together in one place and experiment with it – trying to find a format that can usefully frame it.

067936fd5527e7149d38ec4aced23da9 the A.V. Roe wind tunnel, 1950s

I did two scratch performances, to test two totally different sets of material. For the first, I tried out using my dad’s career as a spine for the story, tracking the evolution of systems models through his experiences with them. Beginning with the model aeroplanes he built as a boy, moving through the wind tunnels at the A.V. Roe Aircraft Factory where he worked as a young man, on to the CSIRO Environmental Mechanics Laboratory, digital climate models, Integrated Assessment Modelling and so on.

The second performance, I took a swing at writing a genre piece in the vein of Kill Climate Deniers and 44 Sex Acts In One Week – a globetrotting spy thriller entitled End Science Now, in which a young military cadet goes under cover to bring down science. This is a pretty chill framework from which to hang some content about the history of the IGBP, the IPCC and science’s changing role in society since the 1970s.

Results: the first performance, I think the biographical angle needs some work. Not quite a false start, but the two stories, the story of my dad’s career and the story of how modelling has changed over the last 50 years, did not speak to each other strongly.

cli8mbing on Craig Hogarth seas cliffs, Anglesea ca 1966 dad on some sea cliffs in 1966

Actually, fuck it, call it a false start. I’m not throwing that performance out (nothing is wasted) but I took all the notes and feedback I got from the attendees and I’m starting from scratch with the writing of that one.

The second performance, it’s a simpler, more playful form, and I’m intuitively more comfortable with it, so it was probs always gonna go over easier. And it felt like a solid beginning, like I can follow that thread more easily. (But who wants a spy thriller about bringing down science? What audience could there possibly be for a work like that? But don’t think like that, don’t think like that.)

Anyway, the other key goal for this fortnight was to produce a project pitch, to put together a document that illustrates – well, everything I’ve just said here, but in a compelling language and in a way that invites funders and project partners to come on board to support this work. And that, that crashed and burned. I thought I was on track for it, up until last night, when at 9pm I was sitting there with a 12 page word document moving text boxes around realising I’m just beginning to be able to articulate what this is.

I don’t even have a confirmed title. I want to call it UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING, I think that’s a good phrase. But Muttley, reasonably enough, pointed out that it’s super broad and kinda meaningless. So then I went through some of Doug Cocks’ work, his writing that has really inspired me to pursue this line of inquiry, and found a quote I liked from him about humanity and the bottleneck we’re facing: SCRAPE THROUGH THIS CENTURY.

nature08823-i6.0the IMAGE breakdown of how they construct their Integrated Assessment Models

I know you shouldn’t rush titles, but I live in fear of waiting too long and getting to that point where every title seems bad because you’ve lived with the project too long.

So that whole aspect of the residency, that… hasn’t happened. Shall we call that a failure? I failed to make that happen.

And the last two days have been that weird feeling of being lost, at sea, a little isolated and confused, unsure if I’m doing the right thing or moving in the right direction. And now it’s 11pm and I’m sitting outside Dickson McDonalds typing a word document and I feel pretty unmoored, like I’m drifting and not really in control of where I’m going or what happens next.

Micro-residency! Confused as ever!

Plus when I ordered a small fries the guy at the counter was like, ‘Do you want some cointreau with that?’ and I knew I’d misheard him but I couldn’t at all figure out what he’d meant to say and I just stood there, brows furrowed, looking at him, for a long time, until he awkwardly turned away and went to the drive-through window.

Photo on 17-02-2017 at 10.57 pm

Volcanoes, typhoons, what I’ve been up to in Singapore this month

A brief post to wrap my head around where I’ve come to at the end of the year. Particularly, what was I doing in Singapore?

Volcanoes!

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Right. So. Boho’s Best Festival Ever is an explanation of some core principles from systems thinking, but it really emerged out of the practice of ‘participatory co-modelling‘, which is a kind of practice in which scientists construct systems models of social-ecological systems (typically ones that are under some stress or threat) and use those models as a platform to bring together a group of people from that system for conversations and hard discussions.

How that looks, in practice, is often the scientist as a facilitator with a whole bunch of maps, graphs, tables, and a computer model running in the background, and the participants making decisions, choosing how to assign resources, and debating different aspects of the system. Typically, it’s a group of people with very different opinions about how the system works, and what needs to happen, and the discussion that’s being facilitated is about reaching some kind of compromise.

malinga-scenario-workshop-south-africaA Stockholm Resilience workshop in Malinga, South Africa.

There’s an art to it, because often you’re dealing with people who don’t even agree on how the system works, let alone the right way to go about managing it. So the scientists sit between being game-masters in a roleplaying game, experts with regard to data and maps, and facilitators for difficult and sometimes heated conversations.

Part of that involves running scenarios – speculative narratives about events that could impact the system, in which the participants have to decide how they’ll respond to it.

When we built Best Festival Ever, we deliberately made the scenario in question – a flood impacting a music festival – as gentle and forgiving as possible. It’s a nice way to keep it light, and to avoid having to blame the participants for causing death and mayhem through their choices. That said, we always knew that we were developing this tool – a mix of interactive theatre, boardgame and systems model – to apply to more high-stakes situations.

pacific_typhoon_tracks_1980-2005-copyA map of typhoon paths hitting south-east Asia, 1950-1985, thx Wikipedia

Maybe the most high-stakes setting possible is the one we’re looking at for a collaboration with the Earth Observatory Singapore, a research institution based at Nanyang Technological University. EOS looks at natural disasters in the south-east Asian region: earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, volcanoes, floods, and various consequences of climate change. EOS has invited us to collaborate with them to build a new game, looking at the situation of responding to a natural disaster crisis – volcanic unrest or an approaching typhoon.

So the new game, whatever it looks like, will simulate the period from the first warnings of the disaster, to the event itself (or the non-event – sometimes these things don’t unfold in the way you expect, or at all) and put participants in the role of responding to the crisis – as local government, the media, emergency services, or members of the community itself.

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The game will be presented first for the general public, but there is the possibility to bring it to high schools, or even the Singapore military. (The Singapore army does a lot of responding to disasters around the ASEAN region, but because they’re typically brought in after a crisis has occurred, they have less literacy in the lead-up situation.)

Our EOS partner Jamie McCaughey has zeroed in on volcanoes and typhoons as the natural disasters we’ll focus on, because they’re the disasters that have a meaningful lead time that allow you to make decisions about evacuations and so on. With earthquakes and tsunamis, the time from warning to the event is typically measured in seconds to minutes – with typhoons it’s usually 2-4 days, and with volcanoes it’s anywhere from 60 minutes to six months.

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The key trade-off in this system is that as time goes on, uncertainty reduces, but so do your options. By the time you’re absolutely certain of the situation, you no longer have any ability to act on that knowledge. So there’s a choice to be made about when to act on varying levels of confidence.

So I spent three weeks doing the first stage of R&D for the project, working on behalf of Boho, learning about volcanoes and constructing a rough model of the natural disaster system. This systems model will get thoroughly revisited, chewed up and rebuilt from scratch when we get back to Singapore, but it’s a start, and a way to talk a little bit about the framework where the game will sit.

This is my rough illustration of that system. I’m not going to unpack it in detail here – it’s way too speculative and early draft-esque for that – but in my early consideration, the game lives somewhere in those spots marked in red.

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It’s a pretty exciting collaboration to be embarking on – it’s one of those situations where we can see the tool we’ve developed with Best Festival Ever – and Boho’s practice more generally – being applied in a really granular, concrete setting, with a clear and important social value.

It’s also just been fascinating, spending three weeks sitting in the EOS office on NTU campus, spending all day reading about volcanoes. My main takeaway is: I don’t know how any of us are alive, at all.

The things I made this month in Singapore

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While I’ve been in Singapore this last three weeks I’ve been mostly doing work with the Earth Observatory, getting my head around the wonderful world of volcanoes and typhoons. (The planet is a monster and it wants us all dead, all the time.) But also, I’ve been keeping pretty quiet, staying on campus, not venturing out too much, and that’s been sorta necessary, post-Sweden, post-England.

One thing I wanted to do with this time was to spend a bit of time reflecting on recent projects, and a little more doing some planning and scheming on stuff for 2017. This year’s been a huge burst of output – things like Kill Climate Deniers, which was brewing for a while, started landing in the world. And Best Festival Ever has continued to roll out, with corporate seasons, theatrical seasons, and of course, building Democratic Nature in Sweden.

2017 I think will be a year of some new developments, of putting things together, of shaping some new ideas into project format. I don’t know quite yet what that means, but I want to do something with 44 Sex Acts In One Week, and I’m keen to make something around the idea of the Human-Earth System, maybe using my dad’s work as a lens in.

Apart from sketching those ideas into some kind of rough shape, I’ve been working on a couple of tiny creative things to keep me alive. Firstly and most exciting, the Finnigan and Brother 2016 Christmas single, Christmeth.

Christmas is the time to really put something out into the world, creatively, who cares if it’s not perfect or if it doesn’t have the sharpest production values? Chris’ music here is great, and my lyrics are the usual mess of ideas stolen from one song, pacing stolen from another, specific lines and phrases from 3-4 different ones, and the end result, god only knows what that sounds like. But, more like this!

Also, I managed to mentally / emotionally wipe myself out the first weekend I arrived. Maybe just the hangover from two hectic months in the UK and Sweden, going from that to being completely alone and isolated. I hit a bit of a wall. And so, best/only thing I know how to do, I tried to write about it and record that, down by Saiboo Bridge on the Singapore River.

Lastly! A piece I recorded a while ago, only now putting it up online – my fan-made video for Ira Gamerman’s iconic tune Am I Gonna Be A Filipino Soapstar, footage recorded by Alon Segarra of me, auditioning for a Filipino soap opera at the ABS-CBN Studios in Quezen City.

I didn’t get the part. I didn’t look enough like a ’40 year old man of power’. Next time, ABS, next time.

The Jigsaw Puzzle Game & Wicked Problem Theory: my London wrap-up

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Alright, so, right now I’m in Sweden, in residence at the Earth Observatory Singapore at Nanyang Technological University. Learning about volcanoes and typhoons, R&D for a possible future Boho project here. But more about that soon.

I wanted to write something briefly following the three weeks I just spent in London. Nathan did a great blog post about the trip from his perspective, which captured a bit of the why and what we were doing there, but I feel like I want to set a bit of it down myself – and reflect on an interesting moment.

I was there to drill down into work with Coney and Forum for the Future, with a view to what projects / collaborations might be possible in 2017. I wrote a little bit for Coney about it – but basically, I’m looking at what kinds of work I might be able to do for and with those organisations, alongside Boho and as a solo artist.

To make that happen, I spent a lot of November manically bouncing from Old Street to Aldgate, doing meetings, making pitches, writing funding proposals, fleshing out timelines and budgets, and generally trying to capture the vague possibilities for next year into a clearer shape.

cxqcnh2w8aadic0pic c/o Theatre Deli, who hosted one of the scratches – super lovely cats

Alongside that, I also presented several scratch showings of the solo version of Kill Climate Deniers (alongside Nathan’s new solo work How I Saved The Western Black Rhino), as a kind of test for the work in front of a UK audience. Super interesting stuff – what worked, what didn’t work, what made intellectual sense but didn’t emotionally resonate…

But. What I wanted to write about was actually an event that we (Nathan and Rachel and I) presented alongside Forum for the Future. Forum have a series of ‘Living Change’ events for their network, and they asked us to showcase a series of systems games for their November iteration, entitled ‘Gaming The System’.

We broke out a few pieces, including the Umbrella Game from Best Festival Ever, and trialled a version of Volleyball Farm, our common-pool resource game from way back in 2012. (It didn’t quite work, but it nearly did, and Nathan did a pretty great job of rescuing it after it became clear that more than seven players fundamentally broke the game structure.) And lastly, we tested out a new activity featuring jigsaw puzzles that we borrowed from Anne-Marie Grisogono.

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Anne-Marie is one of Boho’s scientist crushes (yes, we have scientist crushes – if we had one, Boho HQ would be plastered with posters of our favourite complexity scientists, we’re that kind of company). Anne-Marie is a physicist and complexity scientist – she worked for many years for the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), and she’s now a Visiting Fellow at the National Security College at the ANU. She’s one of the most extraordinary thinkers we’ve had the opportunity to work with, and her background in translating the insights of complexity science to real-world high-stakes contexts is pretty incredible.

The exercise, which Anne-Marie uses as an introduction to Wicked Problem theory, is simple: we invited our participants to complete a simple jigsaw puzzle. That’s all. The puzzle we had was of a tiger in a jungle. When they finished, we then invited them to reflect on the strategies they used – how did they solve the puzzle? What techniques, what approaches did they apply? Some of the answers were:

  • Started by looking for the edge pieces
  • Grouped pieces by colour
  • Worked from the outside in
  • Found the distinct ‘tiger-y’ pieces that definitely belonged to the tiger on the box

a3-96pieces-manchurian-tiger-paper-jigsaw-puzzles-for-adults-and-children-can-be-customization

Then we discussed why it was that those strategies worked. What was it is about the jigsaw puzzle that made it tractable, made it amenable to those approaches? Some of the answers here included:

  • We knew what the final goal looked like – we had the picture on the box
  • Every piece is part of the solution
  • You know when you’ve got something right (the pieces fit together)
  • The pieces don’t change
  • The puzzle exists in only two dimensions
  • We all know the rules of the game
  • Every step contributes to the solution – there are essentially no backwards steps
  • There’s only one way for it all to fit together

And so on. Finally, we compared this to real-world problems. Anne-Marie’s point here is that when we’re talking about the complex problems we face in the world (wealth inequality, climate change, epidemics, you name it) none of these conditions hold true.

This is the point that Anne-Marie introduces the idea of ‘wicked problems’, as some of these global challenges have been described. The social scientists who formulated wicked problem theory in 1973 laid out a few characteristics of wicked problems:

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
10. The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

The key point here is that we frequently go about trying to solve these complex, fiendishly difficult real-world problems as if they were jigsaw puzzles.

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It’s an interesting demo, and as Anna Birney from Forum put it, one of those cases where the best way to make a point is to use an analogy that is actually the exact opposite.

But in the event of actually rolling it out, we had an unexpected result. Mel Trievnor, hunting us down puzzles from op shops, wasn’t able to lay her hands on a 50 piece puzzle – instead, she dug us up a 500 piece puzzle. The result was that instead of a deliberately easy task (complete this puzzle in five minutes), the participants were given an impossible task.

I got each of the three groups to tackle it in phases – do as much as you can, leave the remainder for the next group. And in three rounds, they actually got a surprising amount of the picture completed.

The rest of the activity worked more or less as planned – but there was an interesting frisson in giving people a basically impossible task, and then seeing how far they managed to get. Participants are at first dismayed, and then kinda shrug, roll up their sleeves, and go for it. It’s an interesting vibe, and there may be something more to it.

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The interesting learning moment for me came in the debrief. Anna got the participants to reflect on what they’d taken from the event. One woman commented, ‘The jigsaw activity gave me hope, working in shifts as we were, because it reminded me that when we’re faced with massive problems like climate change, we don’t need to solve the whole thing – we can’t – but we can work on our bit, and the people that come after us can pick up where we left off.’

I thought that was a really nice reflection, and an encouraging and thoughtful takeaway from the activity.

Then another woman spoke up and said, ‘No, you’ve completely misunderstood. The whole point was that with complex problems, you can’t just pick up where the last generation left off – the whole problem has changed, the pieces have changed, the picture’s changed, the goals have changed, the rules have changed. We’re not working towards a single multi-generation solution, we’re working in a massive, complex, ever-evolving system that completely flips the rules on us all the time, but which we can never stop doing our best in because we can’t afford to just let it run off the rails.’

As soon as she said it, I realised she was right, and while bleak, it was probably a better diagnosis of the situation. And I then had to reflect on the fact that even facilitating the exercise, delivering the moral, I managed to kinda miss the point of it.

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(the lesson is, missing the lesson: what’s the lesson in that?)

War in the North Sea

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image by frostilicus

I wrote a trio of plays that have never been performed – and they never will be, really.

I spent a good chunk of 2007-09, in between working on the first two Boho shows and starting the Crack Theatre Festival, sketching out the broad outlines of these works. The other week it all came back to me, as it does, from time to time, and I sat down to attempt to capture what it is, what it was that I made, for my own head’s sake if no-one else’s.

It’s a trilogy with a kind of sci-fi fantasy bent, but I never thought of it in those terms. There was a world that was building up in my imagination, and I was trying to capture it. If I’d been a novelist or a prose writer, it woulda come out in that form – but because I write for theatre and performance, that world came out through the medium of three one-act plays. But it would never have been possible to do these plays onstage, not really.

They came under the banner of ‘War in the North Sea’ and they were all set in a kind of Arctic ocean – an imagined version, anyway. I was picturing a mass of little rocky islands, ice shelfs, and huge floating icebergs.

In this setting, there’s a war with heaven. It’s because humans have come too close to the top of the world, or because heaven has dipped closer to the surface of earth. But either way, there are angels loose in the north sea and there are human armies opposing them.

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The city of heaven is made from wires that run straight like a massive cobweb stretching thousands of kilometres in all directions. Angels run along the wires, and fly sometimes from spot to spot. It’s not really clear what angels look like in this setting – only at the end of the trilogy do you see one for the first time, and I never quite got to the point of writing that sequence down. For me, the presence of heaven was the more interesting fact. Imagine looking up and seeing a wire, like a telephone wire, stretching a few metres above your head, running straight from one horizon to the other. And in the distance, another wire, at a different angle. And another. Off into the sky as far as you could see. Like a huge spiderweb, with angels running along the wires. That is heaven. It was sinister and abstract, and it meant something to me – not like a literal metaphor, but something that nagged at me.

Anyway, the first story in the trilogy wasn’t even set in the north sea. It was called Silent Movie Play, and it was about a documentary film-maker who’d come back from the front line. Not like a recent documentary film-maker with a little digital camera, this was like a film-maker in the early 1920s. Like Robert Flaherty going to film Nanook of the North in 1922. Taking kilometre after kilometre of film reels and huge heavy equipment.

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So it’s an editing studio, but it’s the early days of film, so think, early 20th century, huge iron machinery, big spools of nitrate film, scissors, glue. Anyway this documentary film-maker arrives with footage he’s shot from the frontlines, which is supposed to be turned into a propaganda film. There’s an editor there, and together they watch the footage that this guy has filmed, and they’re supposed to re-edit it and add subtitles.

Now what the guy has filmed is a little bit of a raft voyage through the iceberg strewn ocean near the frontline. This low-ranking soldier who works transporting things around the battlefields is taking a very high-ranking woman to a particular iceberg. She’s like, aristocracy, as well as being an extremely well-regarded doctor. The Empress’ pharmacist. And she’s being transported by this low-ranking nobody who paddles a raft made from sealskin.

Anyway, the pharmacist woman hits on the soldier transporter. Hard. She decides she wants him, and she basically uses her authority and power to intimidate him into an intimate liaison. And this is captured on film by the film-maker.

So what the film-maker and the editor are doing is playing bits of this footage, and then shuffling them around, editing them into a coherent story, and supplying subtitles for the dialogue that you can’t hear.

But because this was a play, or at least it was intended to be, this all happened onstage. On one side of the stage was the editing studio, the film-maker and the editor, having their discussions and debates. On the other side, the projected footage, played out live, of the pharmacist and the soldier in the tiny sealskin raft amid the icebergs.

Now the gist of this whole story is that the film-maker and the editor are fighting about what they’re making. The film-maker thinks that the footage should be shown as close as is possible to what he shot – to tell the story as it happened. But the editor thinks, no, this isn’t suitable as propaganda. Partly because it’s not a glorious war victory that’s been captured on film – but mostly because it’s a woman seducing a man, and that’s not acceptable to show in a cinema.

mixtape1image by frosty

So bit by bit, and against the film-maker’s objections, the editor slices up and reassembles the footage to tell a different story. Using the same sequence of images, he changes it from a tale in which the elite pharmacist imposes her will on a terrified man, into the tale of a noble soldier who wins the heart of a cowering woman through his masculine prowess. He cuts snippets of footage and moves them out of order to seem to indicate a different person taking the lead, and recontextualising other moments so they suggest a whole different narrative. And then finally, he inserts subtitles which puts words in the mouth of the two film subjects so that they adhere to his reinterpretation of events.

It’s a story I guess about how people reshape the world to adhere to their particular narrative, and how for so long humans have been conning other humans into thinking that there’s only one way to see the world.

But alongside that, there’s the simple fact that this is happening live – so when you see bits of footage sliced out of order and placed in different parts of the sequence, you’re watching the pair of actors on the other side of the stage have to somehow snap from one motion to another, to physically enact these jarring jump cuts. And to speak the new lines that are being forcibly inserted into their mouths.

It was an incredibly specific and challenging format for any kind of live performance. I actually did some development with this idea, with Max Barker directing and Hanna Cormick and Lloyd Allison-Young performing. It was amazing to see, it made me think this idea could genuinely work.

But maybe that idea, that staging concept, should have been its own thing. Live actors portraying a snippet of film that’s re-edited and the story reconfigured so that it has a different meaning and message. That’s a complex thing in itself. But I was lost in this universe at that time, this whole setting of the war in the north sea. I couldn’t let it go.

Like I said, one of the big challenges with this setting was that I was exploring it through the medium of performance rather than, say, a spec-fic novel. But I mean, shifting mediums to prose wouldn’t necessarily have brought the world out in any clearer way. Shaping it as performance, as a series of one-act plays, didn’t make it easy to express some aspects of the world, but it forced me to open up different channels.

How do you tell a world in a live setting?

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The second play in the trilogy was called This Mixtape Must Reach You, and it took a different tack. This story took place a little before the events captured by the film-maker in the Silent Movie Play story. The low-ranking soldier, whose name is Annon, has just been summoned to his commander’s tent for a special mission.

The army is camped out on an ice shelf, and we see Annon make his way slowly through the camp, from the outskirts where his tent is pitched, through to the commander’s HQ at the heart of the army. And on the way, he is speaking into a little dictaphone, recording an audio letter for his young son at home, assembling a mixtape.

The format of this performance was a solo show, a narrated letter, with the songs in the mixtape peppered throughout. Stars of the Lid, the Stooges, the Cinematic Orchestra, Rasputin’s Stash…

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Anyway, through Annon’s introductions to the songs, and his encounters with other soldiers on the way to the commander’s tent, we get a picture of Annon, his history and his life. He’s a miserable specimen, a low-ranking loner, despised and abused by the other soldiers, coerced into acts he doesn’t want to do, forced to stay on the perimeter of the camp. And we learn about his history – his life in a small seaside village in the tropics, his home in a small hut by the shore.

We learn more about the history of the war, how people have been recruited without really knowing what they’re fighting for or why, how the disparate nature of human society means that information is so diffuse and unclear. And how the army in the north sea has coalesced into its own kind of social organisation, its own informal economy where food and medicine are traded between soldiers in a grey market.

And lastly, we learn about Annon’s relationship with his son, who it seems is likely to be an adopted son… maybe? The more Annon addresses him, the less clear it becomes, the harder it is to have a fixed sense of their relationship. And I don’t know exactly, because it’s nine years since I wrote it, but I think that was part of the point.

Anyway, Annon’s journey comes to an end when he reaches the commander’s tent and is given his mission; he must transport the Empress’ pharmacist on his raft to a remote iceberg outpost, where the human soldiers have stopped reporting from. And they’ll be filmed en route by a documentary maker who is making a propaganda film about the war.

So the second play ends where the first begins – and we see Annon and the pharmacist (whose name is The Sun, of course) depart on the raft.

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And then, finally, the third play. This one didn’t have a name, or at least, I can’t find one for it. And this was a solo play too, but a very different kind to the last one. This play takes place on the iceberg outpost that Annon and The Sun are sailing to, the outpost of human soldiers that has gone mysteriously quiet.

What has happened is this: there were 90 or so soldiers on the iceberg, camping on the tiny portion of ice that sits above the waterline. There to keep guard on a thread of the heavenly city that runs dangerously close to the sea. But they were attacked, by an angel or a group of angels, who tipped the iceberg over and consequently managed to drown most of the soldiers in the sea.

Only two soldiers survived: Catch, who was wounded in the attack and who is now gradually slipping away, and Amicitia, who was diving underwater in a drysuit when the angels attacked and managed to avoid the worst of the disaster.

The only person that the audience see is Amicitia, and what they are watching in this performance is Amicitia try to do everything at once. She is trying to tend to Catch’s wounds, she is trying to find a way to keep herself warm, she is trying to guard against the returning angels, she is trying to signal for help, she is trying to build traps and defences against her foes, she is recording her memoirs in case help doesn’t come in time, she is chattering to herself in order to keep her spirits up, she is trying to do everything, all at once.

The hook for this play, really, is that Amicitia is splitting her focus between a million high priority tasks, and gradually, each one is getting on top of her. The angels are getting closer, Catch is getting weaker, help is nowhere in sight, her spirits are flagging, but she just keeps pushing and pushing and pushing and will not give in.

This is where we encounter angels for the first time, when they come to finish off Amicitia and Catch. And we learn more about the war, too – for example, that all the soldiers on the iceberg were tied together with tiny black threads, so the whole network of humans, linked together, went underwater all at once – Catch and Amicitia had to sever their connections in order to avoid being drowned.

This play ends with the arrival of Annon and The Sun on the raft, to administer medicine and save those that can be saved – although The Sun’s intentions are far murkier, and it’s not at all clear that Amicitia is going to be saved, or that Annon will be allowed to return to the camp when the job is done.

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How it ends, I don’t know – I only have notes, and if I went to finish writing it now I’d have to find a completely new ending. But in part, at least one character ends up fleeing into the city of heaven, running along the wires up into the atmosphere.

So, I don’t know quite what to do with all of this. I have hundreds – literally hundreds – of pages of notes, and scraps of dialogue, pieces of scene… but of course, this isn’t a work that anyone would ever produce. I mean, I believe that there’s some kind of audience for this stuff, but really, who produces work like this? Why should they? It doesn’t tick any box for how a work of live performance should be.

How do I reconcile that awareness with the fact that I sunk probably two years of reflection and detailed scribbling into it? Other people were studying at university, earning money, engaging with the world around them. I got lost in this – still do, always do. Sometimes when I’m dancing (and it was during a gig in Stockholm last month, 2am on the dancefloor, that I decided to sketch out this summary) I start to recall the world, and I get lost in it, tracing out the paths, contemplating all the ways that story went, all the characters, the threads in that odd tapestry.

The last fragment of text in my notes is a line of dialogue, said by an angel to Annon. I don’t know how this encounter comes about, there’s nothing written around it – but the angel says:

Four times to build the city in your mind
Four times and then it’s indestructible

That’s all. That’s all I have.

Where am I right now, and why I’m here, and where to next

img_1178-copyworking by lanternlight in Flaten after our fuses blew. pic by nikki kennedy.

A few weeks ago I sat down to reflect on the last couple years of work and projects, and to look ahead to the next couple, and I had the weird realisation that this blog might be the closest thing I have to a thread tying my whole practice together. That’s a strange thought. With all the various projects and strands to my work, creative work and otherwise, it’s hard to pick out a through line. But this blog is a way to talk about everything, no matter how off-base it seems, and to try and find the common links across different cities and projects.

From that little epiphany came the thought: well, it behooves me to update the blog more often to simply say where I am, and why I’m there, and where I’m going next, and for what.

So, what’s happened at this end of 2016?

Well, I spent a good chunk of the year in Melbourne. The middle months, I can’t remember the exact dates, but from around April through til late September. Living in Fitzroy North, working with Jordan on our boy bands / futures scenarios project, and making Kill Climate Deniers happen.

There were lots of other bits in there – going to Manila for Karnabal, working on the Kids Killing Kids radio play – but I think the main focus was Kill Climate Deniers. Lots of project management stuff, some marketing, as well as all the creative bits – the film clip, the photoshoot, the listening party, the album launch tour…

dsc_8208 the bolted film clip! pic by sarah walker.

And then, late September, I got on a plane and headed to Stockholm. Boho have been commissioned to produce a new participatory work building on the Best Festival Ever model, based on the Flaten nature reserve south of Stockholm. We’ve been working with Swedish NGO Miljöverkstan to map and model the system, and construct a game for their gallery on the shores of Flaten lake. More of an explanation about the project on the Boho website, if yr curious.

It was a beautiful month, and super productive, but also, hectic. Me, Nikki, Rachel, Nathan and Muttley were joined by Gillian Schwab and Nick McCorriston, who dived in to contribute set, props and sound design.

So the seven of us lived in a beautiful old mansion in Danderyds Sjukhus, north of Stockholm’s CBD. It was a hundred year old house, and we were lucky enough to live in it while the family who owned it were in the process of selling it. Which was extraordinary, and lucky, but also entailed doing some dancing around removalists.

I said hectic. Maybe it’s just the inevitable result of a team of seven doing an international development to build a brand new participatory work in a tight timeframe. But yeah, it had a tenor of, no, can’t keep going like this indefinitely. But we did it, we made it, and it looks good, sounds good, and plays well. There’s a long way to go. But a prototype built and tested in a month, I’m proud of that.

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I’m especially happy because the five of us worked quicker and sharper than we have before. It feels like the process that we developed over three years through creating BFE is now in really good working order, and we were in really good shape when it came to generating games, testing them, wrapping script and performance images around them, and dividing when necessary to pool our strengths.

Plus having Gills and Nickamc contributing design stuff lifted the whole thing so, so much. Have a look at these photos, my god.

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So then. From Stockholm to London, and now I’m holed up in a flat in Hackney, looking at the half moon at 4.30pm through the grey brown apartment blocks. On Saturday I met up with Tassos in a cafe under the arches where a guy was just eating salt by the spoonful, looking grimmer and grimmer every minute, and where the ad for the local tarot card reader said ‘All readings confidential UNLESS you express an intent to commit a crime’. This town is wonderful.

I’m here doing some work with Coney, some work with Forum for the Future, and otherwise, presenting several scratches of Kill Climate Deniers. I’m really curious as to whether the show will have any resonance with a UK audience – and if so, which bits work and which bits don’t. Two shows, alongside Nathan’s new work How I Saved The Western Black Rhino:

7.30pm Saturday 12 Nov @ Camden Peoples Theatre (as part of CPT’s Big Bang scratch evening)

7.30pm Saturday 19 Nov @ Theatre Delicatessen (as part of a Coney event, featuring new Coney work The Commons)

So this is a hectic month, then.

And then, at the end of November, I go to Singapore for three weeks. I’m sinking into the R&D phase for a potential new Boho collaboration with the Earth Observatory Singapore, a research foundation based at Nanyang Technical University. The goal is to produce a new scenario-based participatory work around natural disasters in the south-east Asian region – so I’ll be spending three weeks learning about volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.

And then Australia. And then 2017. And then and then.

Some days are nothing but panic and scrambling, others are a little more peaceful. There’s nothing particularly clear about the future at this point, I’m pretty close to the wire financially and there’s no guarantees about anything, but I had a good lunch and the moon is bright, so I’m gonna claim the day as a victory.

img_1274-copy this is a picture nikki took of me and a cygnet in Flaten, who did not give a damn about me, but still I was very happy.

How the Kids Killing Kids Radio National podcast came about

Well, so this is a lovely thing to get to lay out, and, in a way, lay down, at least for a good while.

One of the bigger arcs in my creative life this last half-decade was the Battalia Royale project, and the fall-out from it. Short version: me and Too Many Weapons headed over to the Philippines, worked with the Sipat Lawin Ensemble to adapt Koushon Takami’s Battle Royale for the stage, the production got out of hand, in a lot of interesting and headfucking ways.

So we produced the Kids Killing Kids show, to reflect on our role as writers in the whole affair. Out of that show, we were invited to take part in the 2014 Next Wave Festival to do an extended version, A Wake: Kids Killing Kids, bringing in five members of Sipat Lawin and their perspective.

We weren’t in any position to be able to keep on performing that show, and it would’ve got really morbid if we’d tried. But we wanted to find a way to document the story, and to be able to share it out more broadly to anyone who might be interested.

pic by Martin Vidanes

At this point, we were invited by Jesse Cox from ABC Radio National to try adapting it to the form of a podcast. And with his careful guidance, we went into the studio and recorded the show.

That didn’t work. And after a second rewrite, it still didn’t work. What had been clear as a story told on stage started to sound really weird as an audio piece.

At that point, Jesse threw out the original script entirely and proposed an alternative model. Rather than trying to replicate the Kids Killing Kids performance in radioplay format, he interviewed each of us – Jordan, Georgie, Sam and I – and then edited those interviews together to tell the story.

The result is a totally different take on the saga, and a lovely one from my perspective, because it finally shows up the differences in perspective between the four of us that got flattened out when we began work on Kids Killing Kids back in 2013.

Now it exists, and I’m delighted that it exists. So if you’re curious, and you’d like to have a listen, you can.

Or you can read the article we sketched out for the ABC website about it.

Either way, my massive thanks to Jesse for shepherding us through this. It’s a fascinating thing, making radio. I dug it heaps and I want more of it, more of it, all the time.

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Thank yous are a map

A thank you is just a thank you, but I think it’s worthwhile putting my Kill Climate Deniers thank yous down in a blog post, because acknowledging my collaborators – as best I can – becomes a kind of map of the project. Something as diffuse and extended as KCD comes into focus when you look at the range of people involved, the network takes a sort of shape. Given that you can’t wrap a boundary around a project – I used to think you could, I was wrong – maybe the best thing you can do is to start to sketch the nodes and links?

I’m really grateful, and also I’m growing much more into the act of looking at a project by its list of credited names, acknowledgements, because those lists are the beginning of a guide to how work happens, in this world.

So.

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Julian Hobba + Aspen Island Theatre Company
Kill Climate Deniers came into being thanks to Julian Hobba’s invitation to write a new script for his company Aspen Island. Julian shepherded the first draft into being through a series of conversations, and it was Julian that managed to secure funding to drive the script forward into an actual shape. He directed the development and the radio play recordings that were sampled to make the album.

Insofar as the script has a shape and form, it’s Julian that provided the dramaturgical advice. And he manifested and produced a huge amount of the structure behind the project’s development – thoughtfully, generously and intelligently. Julian got what I was trying to do straight away, and guided the work there with such calm precision.

Which, also: a shout out to the performers who took part in the script development and the recording. Clare Moss, Miranda Borman, Emma Strand, Sarah Walker, Emma Hall, Rachel Roberts, Cathy Petocz and Ellie Garran. The script was written in/for their voices – I can’t imagine Gwen Malkin as anything other than Clare Moss’ interpretation, for example.

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Reuben Ingall
Reuben took part in the first script development as a musician, and it was Reuben that suggested the play might work well as a radio play. That evolved into Reuben taking on the massive task of writing and recording an entire album of original tunes, and constructing the audio world of the story, including producing the Listening Party and an amazing live set.

Reuben’s style is just an inspiration, and I’ve been in love with the music he makes under all his various guises for many years. Collaborating with him was such a pleasure – so easy, so simple, and then he turns around and breaks out phenomenal surprises all the damn time; like the first time he played me Music to Shoot Climate Activists To.

Nick Wilson + Clan Analogue
Although Clan Analogue has been an incredibly generous supporter from the outset, I’m singling Nick out because his contribution has just been above and beyond, constantly. I don’t know how a record label works normally, but from the first time we talked about releasing KCD through Clan, he was 100% behind what we were doing, and incredibly sharp and responsive.

The whole fact of getting to release a record through a storied label like Clan is pretty incredible, and the lovely thing which I learned through the experience is that it really is a clan, in the sense of being a collective of great humans who help each other make art. Shout outs also to Martin Koszolko, Nick McCorriston, Wade Clarke and Kimmo Vennonen for remixes, mixing advice and mastering.

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Gillian Schwab
Longtime collaborator Gills Schwab gave me the nudge to take the work further after the first script development, and her opinion counts for a lot with me. I hassled her to contribute some illustrations for the playscript, and she came up with a gorgeous set of pictures, which have totally shaped my conception of the characters. Gills is one of the peeps who understood the aesthetic I was angling for with this project long before I could coherently articulate it – that’s a very special skill.

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Karmin Cooper + New Best Friend
This one is massive. Karmin and I worked closely together on You Are Here back in the day, and since then, she’s been an incredibly generous supporter of my work with regard to design.

In the case of Kill Climate Deniers, I went to Karmin and asked for her help putting together some collateral around the project. What she – and New Best Friend – provided went way, way beyond that. Karmin designed the project website, most of the marketing material, created a logo for the project, and then, because she’s an extraordinary human beind, brought in New Best Friend designer Liam Cotchett to design the printed playscript / ebook.

If you’ve seen the script, you’ll understand that this was a massive undertaking. Liam did an incredible job, and NBF saw the project all the way through to completion, on every front.

I don’t even know how to explain how big a thing this is. Just to say that the project wouldn’t even begin to approach the standard it’s at without New Best Friend. And also, the lesson learned, which is: just trust Karmin.

Tom Finnigan
My older bro is a film-maker and also very, very media-literate, for reasons pertaining to his job. So he first kicked in some very pertinent advice about Parliament House, about how to approach that institution, and then he took the time to produce the outstanding short film (featuring Clare Moss and Emma Strand) introducing people to the project.

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Sarah Walker
I roped in Sarah to take part in the project as a performer for the radio play recording, and leaned on her then to take a few preliminary photos. She was willing, but she made me promise that we’d actually have a proper photoshoot, because she had some ideas for some concept images.

The end result was way beyond what I could’ve expected – stunning fire and ice images on a cloudy beach, with Georgie McAuley holding a molotov cocktail… I don’t know how Sarah sees what she sees when she imagines things, but she is very good.

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Jordan Prosser
Another very close collaborator, Jordan and I spent a good chunk of this year working together in a concrete office at Melbourne University, writing and thinking about the future. Along with being a source of good advice in general, Jordan also took on the task of adapting Kill Climate Deniers into a feature film script, which is incredible. (A couple of the best gags in the KCD solo show were stolen from Jordan’s script.)

Jordan then put his hand up to direct the music video for Bolted. The concept was entirely his, and he did all the production and direction, for what turned out to be a bizarrely effective and beautiful creation. Also shout out to Dan von Czarnecki, Sophie Hayward, Amanda Lissant-Clayton, Sam Burns-Warr, Ben Hamey, and Georgie McAuley again, for the dancing.

Eric Gardiner
This is just an example of how strange and varied and lovely the support for this project – playwright Eric Gardiner is the most astute tracker of the far-right commentariat that I know, and so I turned to him for help producing the Which Right Wing Commentator Are You? personality quiz. Eric went above and beyond, and basically created the thing entirely by himself – and it’s brilliant – for nothing, out of the goodness of his heart. Which is one of those things where people’s generosity really keeps surprising me.

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You Are Here Festival
When YAH agreed to take on the first public outing of KCD there was a real risk, as far as we knew, that it would be a real headfuck with regard to getting attacked by internet trolls. But Adelaide Rief and Vanessa Wright were completely unfazed, and helped shape the solo show from its earliest form, and gave me a whole load of support and trust in the execution of it. Plus they provided the best possible context for the work – a Saturday night festival party event. Yes.

Much love to the whole festival crew for manifesting it into being – and to Ginger Gorman, Mark Fletcher and Bernie Slater for jumping on board with the panel, and to CMAG, Shane Breynard and Mick Bailey for hosting it too.

And a nod to Vanessa also, because it was her that observed, back in March, that the most interesting thing about this project was that it was a moving target. That thought has been swirling around in my head since then, leading to this, among other things.

Yolande Norris
I’ve been aware from the start that this project needs outside eyes to help frame the strategic side of things. My parents have been a good sounding board, as has Jack Lloyd, my brother Chris, Brenna Hobson, Natalie Reiss, and many others here and there. But Lande Norris has been the person who’s most effectively steered it away from bad mistakes.

My experience of Yolande, from the first weeks I knew her, is that when it comes to arts and politics, she has a longer range perspective than anyone else I know – far, far better than mine. With KCD, Lande was the person who told me bluntly when I was going in the wrong direction, and reminded me, gently and clearly, who this work was for, and to not get distracted by the noise around it.

Always the advice I needed, at the moment I need it.

Gabrielle Affleck
Possibly the single greatest contributor to the KCD project, Gabby helped me tie the whole thing together. Looking at the tangle of different strands to this project, Gabby helped me find a way to talk about the thing in a vaguely coherent way. And to strategise how all these different elements might find their way out into the world, when and where and through who.

I think one of the most incredible things that Gabby provided was that when I was staring at what seemed like a blank wall, in terms of ‘I have no money, no audience and no place to start’, she was able to break that down into achievable, comprehensible goals and starting places. Guidance, encouragement and a shitload of very practical wisdom. Making things seem possible – that’s a pretty powerful skill.

My parents, and Emily Stewart
Any project of sufficient size is enough to get on top of you, to shake you up and make you doubt yourself. It’s funny, when you start something yourself, you don’t even have the structure of, say, a university degree – you’re making it up as you go along. There’s a lot of room in there for you to panic and lose your way.

A lot of good humans had my back at different times throughout the making of this, but always, unfailingly, my parents, when I sat down and chatted with them. And Emily, who never let me hit a wall, never let me panic or go around in circles.

How much any piece of art, any creative project, is just a meeting point for a lot of people’s efforts, just a space in which people come together to care.

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All the films I ever reviewed, in one place

Because of how I’m wired, I’m not a great fan of a lot of middlebrow TV or films. I am continually turning down offers to watch extremely good things, Academy Award winning dramas etc, in favour of junk. I quite like a lot of super abstract video art, and lowbrow genre trash – nothing in the middle. I’m not proud of this – in fact I wish I were different – but nature + nurture conspired to do a number on me in this regard, and now here we are.

Anyway, the result is, I sometimes watch genre films and write – well, not quite reviews, but… commentaries? – on them. And because I haven’t really documented that material in any intelligent way, I thought it might be a good idea to gather some of those pieces in one place, in case anyone feels like they need that.

So, here we go:


The Surrender is not the anal sex primer we were praying for

Starting with the best first, The Surrender was a one-woman show based on Toni Bentley’s erotic memoir about her sexual adventures, and in particular, her journey into the world of heterosexual sodomy. I saw this with Jess and Siobhan in New York and it is easily one of my top three theatre experiences of all-time.

Click on the link and journey from top to bottom – or as Toni Bentley would say: ‘from bottom… to BOTTOM.’


Monte Carlo BUT BETTER

I saw this early Selena Gomez holiday romance / mistaken identity saga back in 2011 and it was terrible, but also, the sight of Leighton Meester shedding some of her uptight cares and worries and learning to be free by splashing through fountains and necking with a topless aussie bloke in waist deep water… ahhh.

& now a blow-by-blow account of Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights

This whole film is a fucking disaster, and I ended up being on the side of the uptight wealthy jerk who the heroine’s parents are trying to set her up with, rather than the free-spirited Cuban dancer lad she falls for. Also the Patrick Swayze cameo was weird and disturbing. But a dance training montage to Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie makes everything okay.

 we are all John Lloyd Cruz (but we are trying to be Bea Alonzo)

Thanks to Clyde Enriquez I watched the iconic Filipino rom-com One More Chance, way over-identified with Bea Alonzo as the heroine, and hated matinee idol John Lloyd Cruz more than I’ve ever hated a movie character before or since. Fuck that guy.


was the Hannah Montana Movie worth it?

Jess Bellamy and I sat down together and watched the Hannah Montana movie – jointly, for science – and each wrote our own review. I’m not going to spoil it for you, but it is not a very good movie. Except for the barndance sequence, that’s all killer no filler.


How To Be Single, movie, I watched you

Most recently, I poured my tired soul into this Dakota Johnson vehicle, and look, I felt a lot of feelings, but I can’t pretend they’re all thanks to the film. I spent a lot of time being distracted by the conspicuous wealth on display, and by the total lack of any clear narrative arc.

The future is bright, the future is orangutan.

How To Be Single, movie, I watched you

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Four minutes into this Dakota Johnson movie and I’m feeling all kinds of feelings.

1. Sex and the City-esque light philosophical reflections about being single over a high-speed montage of a couple getting together and then breaking up

2. Dakota Johnson seems really fine, but also like she’s not sure she wants to be here. Maybe that’s her MO. The whole of 50 Shades, her special trick that she brought to the performance was the look of being deeply unhappy about being there. It’s a Thing I guess

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3. I fucken hate TaySwi’s Welcome To New York, and it’s not like I don’t love 1989, so don’t lay that on me

Dakota Johnson moves to New York after breaking up with her bf of four years to find out what it’s like to be single and Rebel Wilson meets her at her new job as a paralegal

like there are jobs in New York

there are no jobs in New York

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At the end of day one of job, Dakota wants to go home, in her sexy mini and makeup, but Rebel is the irresponsible best friend, already. Some fucking how.

Not that I can write better romance than this movie: I am this movie.

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There’s a character who’s slightly anally looking for the right guy on dating websites – the bartender at the place she’s meeting these guys has a playful frisson-charged friendship with her, will something develop? On date one, the gag is that the guy isn’t into having children, he’s about having crazy sex acts.

It’s

just

fucking

workmanlike.

This is making me long for the overstuffed shambolic fuckup that was Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis’ Friends With Benefits – so many failed setpieces. This film knows all the moves, it just doesn’t care.

But: glossy costumes, well-lit, colourful sets, heaps of extras, Dakota Johnson looking winsome: we proceed.

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Rebel Wilson takes Dakota to a bar where she instructs Dakota to get laid. Fifth Harmony’s Worth It is playing, Dakota says several times ‘I’m not looking to hook up, I just want to discover who I am”. This is, in the parlance of the Hero’s Journey: Refusing The Call.

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Dakota ends up making out with the bartender that’s been flirting with the uptight girl, then it cuts to the next morning at Dakota’s sister’s beautiful house, her beautiful, huge, beautiful house. Her huge house that she has in New York with her doctor job, her doctor job that has made her rich, rich enough to own a huge, beautiful house with great couches and lovely natural light where Rebel and Dakota awake, hungover, after the night out they had following a day at work at their jobs, their jobs that they have in New York, because they have jobs in New York.

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I’m 16 minutes into this film and the lighting is exquisite.

There’s a whole thing with the sister getting clucky, deciding that she wants a baby herself. What’s going on here? Do I have the courage and sensitivity to say anything about this scene in this recounting or do I leave it alone?

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(note from future david: looks like i decided to leave it alone)

Dakota’s boyf that she split with at the top of the film shows up for a meeting, she asks him to come back to her, he says no. It’s a good bit of writing cause it’s done and dusted in a couple of short lines – this is how writing should be written.

I will write this scene, this same scene, I will write this exact scene, with a little less grace and fewer Dakota Johnsons.

The uptight girl is at the bar being alone when a hen’s party rocks up and the hen is an old friend and girl-on-girl competition is about to be afoot, I can feel it. Bitch friends asking too many spiteful questions bring our girl down, but then the bartender pretends to be her boyfriend to make them jealous and score points.

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Just, give me one reason to like any of these characters. Have them do something good, or interesting. They’re in the sympathetic protagonist slot in the movie but I just – don’t – care.

God the extras are well dressed, though.

In fact, the costumes are off the fucking chain. There’s not one scene where Dakota doesn’t look like she’s in an amazing and sexy hair commercial.

Having wealth, having fucking wealth, man.

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Dakota moves into a beautiful luxury apartment with high ceilings, with all her possessions, her goddamn possessions, how can she be sad when she has everything? How does she live?

The sister is gonna have a baby by herself, it doesn’t work the first time, the sister has a history of helping other people but when will she learn to take care of herself?

Rebel and Dakota are hanging out in a… place. If it were the 90s, and it were Sliding Doors, that place would be… yoga. Because that’s what aspirationally attractive young professionals with romantic possibilities ahead of them did, in movies back then. Now it’s 2016 and they’re in a sauna. Which is fucking yellow.

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I’ve said before that the lighting in this film is unbelievable, but here I think they’ve legit let the designer go too far. Fuck, man, what’s even going on.

The flight attendants are walking up and down the aisle and chatting to people in their gorgeous Birmingham accents and they are adorable. Nathan and Rachel are a few seats back so they can clearly see that I’m watching this film, there are no secrets on this plane. I tried to convince Rachel to watch it too so we could debrief about it but she said that all reports are that it’s terrible, so now I have no-one to debrief about it with except you, word document.

What does Dakota do in this film? What does she DO? She exists only in relation to her partners, prospective or past, she has no thing that she does. And the meet-cutes in this flick have been universally bad.

Nah but straight up, fuck the bit where the characters hate on pubic hair as a thing where it’s ugly and you can’t have sex with new guys if you have it. What the fuck is wrong with you, screenwriter, that you wrote that, and with you, entire culture, that you sanctioned it? I mean don’t get me wrong, I know what world I’m living in, I know what to expect from Hollywood patriarchal mainstream fluff, but every so often, man the world is just depressing.

(aside: a week or so into Stockholm development, and thank you Sweden for your healthy mature attitude towards nudity and the human body, but also as a consequence, I’m extremely aware that every dudebro at the gym is getting around with shaved nads. I feel hella self-conscious rocking my full natural bush; Dakota Johnson, I relate, I relate.)

Dakota does the thing where not knowing how to work her electrical appliances and being confused about technology is cute. (It’s understandable and no judgment, but it’s not cute.)

There’s a Glee club sequences and a whole thing with the pregnant sister wanting to have sex and having sex with some young dude at the office christmas party. Man, fucken American banter is so type A and obnoxious, it would be nice if people were just nice to each other, in this films, in all this films.

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The sister has sex with a dude in the copy room at the law firm, which we know from the first scene with Rebel Wilson is under surveillance, and not to be having sex in.

(The gag where this sex scene has been filmed is set up but never delivered on, which means it’s 100% on the editing floor, in which case, I commend the editor of the flick for their restraint in paring this thing back to a digestible length.)

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The uptight girl gets angry at kids in a library and tells them that dudes are no good and that love is dead, it’s a setpiece with kids as comedy. She meets a librarian who is cute with a scruffy face.

Dakota goes to her ex-boyf’s christmas party to see him dancing with his new gf because who the fuck is Dakota Johnson in this film, a walking open wound.

She has wealth, sees wealth, a wealthy businessman takes her to the top of an expensive building he owns, because wealth = romance, romance = wealth.

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Now she’s hanging with the businessman’s daughter, he gets angry because she’s bonding with his daughter. It’s three months later. The relationship ends. Where are we. In the sky somewhere, night, in the shadow of the earth, I’m lost in the vastness of the world and the melancholy that is international travel, as lost if not more so than this film.

There’s a mealy indie guitar ballad to celebrate the end of this relationship, a parade scene – so many extras. So many extras. A great scene with silhouettes. Good lighting. Dakota hugs her sister and cries. This purposeless, vacuous movie has no trajectory, and I’m lost in it.

The uptight lass is now with the scruffy librarian, now it’s a montage of the characters being happy, being happy, it’s a montage of… what? Dakota has some casual sex, and then runs into her ex-boyfriend again. I swear, we get no distance from this character. We can’t even use him as a measure of Dakota’s progress because what progress? What direction? What even?

The sister pushes away her young lover because she is too afraid to be open.

The perpetually single bartender has fallen in love with the uptight girl but it’s too late, she’s gone.

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The wealthy businessman tucks in his daughter with a melancholy air.

Dakota get a text from her ex-boyf inviting her back. She goes to hang out with the bartender.

DAKOTA VOICEOVER: Maybe this whole time we’ve been making all the wrong moves. Maybe we’ve been focusing on the wrong stuff, and now it’s too late.

what

Dakota has sex with the bartender to the tune of the Harlem Shake. Is it a good song? Seems like on paper it should be a good song, but also, I don’t know if I like it?

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Everyone drinks in this film, alcohol is the only thing. Dakota has a huge birthday party, a rooftop party. She gets drunk, the lighting is beautiful, who are all these fucking strangers.

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The setpiece in this section of the film is all three of Dakota’s beaus meeting. At her birthday party.

The bartender makes a move on the uptight girl, who’s now getting married to the librarian so she rebuffs him. The wealthy businessman apologises to Dakota, she… ah, I don’t know. She still doesn’t look like she wants to even be in this film. But I’m tired and I just need a hug and I want Dakota Johnson to be happy.

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At this point on any international flight my head is in a weird place and look at Dakota Johnson’s kind eyes and ohhhhh, I don’t need grace just a smile, just a smile

Dakota is now ripping in to Rebel Wilson for not having a life of her own, which is rich given that

a) Rebel is doing her best with the paltry material she’s been given as the wacky best friend, and

b) Dakota doesn’t even have the beginnings of a flicker of a life.

The realtalk concludes with a song that I thought might be the Verve’s Already There, which woulda been an unusual choice, but it was not. Often the soundtrack is the place in these safe-bet studio films where the director feels free to cut loose and pull in an unexpected choice or two, but here the music feels curated by Spotify algorithms, and I guess that’s fine, I guess that’s fine.

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Now her ex-boyf comes and sits with Dakota on a stairwell. They make out, they nearly have sex. But he’s still with his new girlfriend, Dakota’s angry.

The editing, the editing is exceptionally good. It’s going so fast.

But there’s a triumphant bit where Dakota realises she wants to be alone. And there’s a water breaking sequence which is… well look, I feel like there’s probably a way to play someone’s waters breaking as a clever gag, but this is not it. And then there’s a labour in the back of a cab. And now it’s soft chiming guitars and the baby got born. And holy shit, the baby they hand to her when she’s finished giving birth is clearly a fortnight old. Man, you can’t get a genuine infant in the movies, can you? It’s understandable and ethically good, but also, jesus.

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So the final score at the end of the flick is:

– The sister gets back together with her young dude because they love each other and he wants to help raise the baby

– Dakota walks back to her beautifully lit apartment at dawn and enjoys being alone

– She reads Cheryl Strayed in the window of her apartment and texts Rebel Wilson

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DOES SHE EVER WORK AT HER FUCKING JOB

She’s getting ready to walk the Grand Canyon. She sees young girls who are friends on the streets and smiles. An anthem of independence plays and she reconnects with Rebel Wilson.

DAKOTA VOICEOVER: I’ve been thinking that the time we have single is really just the time to get good at being alone…. but how good do we really want to be?

(is this the moral you want to leave your audience with? does this actually mean anything?)

Final shot, Dakota standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon in the dawn. Alone. Truly alone.

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And there, there, what a lot of things to think and feel. Do I have the energy, do I have the heart? I feel like a mess.