Why I became obsessed with U2 in 2011

melbourne, 2011, this is all I really remember.

So the other night Bec asked me, in all seriousness, ‘What do you think of U2?’ And I burst out laughing, because it made me think, maybe you can escape your past.  Maybe, in the bright light of 2017, people no longer look at me and think, ‘I must share U2-related news and content with that man’. We all commit crimes, but maybe there’s also forgiveness?

It inspired me to go back through my files, and dig up one of the strangest and most idiosyncratic projects I’d ever been involved with, which was the 2011 online audio piece Functioning As A Machine That Hates U2. I want to write about it here now, partly because it was an unusual creative process that I want to reflect on, and partly because of who was involved in it, and what happened with that group of artists.

In early 2011 I moved to Melbourne for the first time. We’d just finished the first You Are Here festival – which at that stage was a one-off, no guarantees of a second iteration – and I’d come down to crash at Max’s place in Northcote. I’d acquired from an op shop a copy of Eamon Dunphy’s biography of U2, entitled Unforgettable Fire: The Story of U2, and I found myself reading it over and over, unable to stop or switch off.

Slightly bigger context here: 2010 was a tricky year, creatively. I was overstretched on three big projects, each of which was at the upper limit of what I could handle: production managing the Canberra International Music Festival, Boho’s (fraught) collaboration with the Powerhouse Museum True Logic of the Future, and co-directing the second Crack Theatre Festival. They all came off, more or less, but they were individually hectic, and the combination of the three of them put me as close as I’ve ever been to a stress burnout.

Right off the back of that, the invitation to put together You Are Here (which Lande chronicled beautifully in her Griffith Review piece), which was itself a tough process and a tight timeframe (100 days from the first meeting with Robyn Archer to opening night). In some respects things turned a corner on the first day of You Are Here, when the festival team expanded beyond Lande, Anthony and I, and the whole thing suddenly started to get fun. But for the next few months, through this next little period in Melbourne, I was still in a wobbly place creatively. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go, and I definitely couldn’t handle the idea of taking on any more big projects (in the forseeable future, or, ever).

So instead I read Eamon Dunphy’s Unforgettable Fire over and over, growing increasingly obsessed and infuriated with every single choice that U2 made in the entire course of their career. I couldn’t switch it off, couldn’t put it down. I wrote in my diary, on one of those days, ‘at this point I’m basically functioning as a machine that hates U2’.

I found myself writing a response to the book –  something between a script and an endless screed. A meta-essay, or a stream of frustration, and in the way that sometimes happen when you get on a roll, everything that happened to me started to get folded in. I wrote about it on Facebook, and when people commented, I took those comments and rolled them into the text. At one point Rach Roberts sent me an essay about Bono she’d had to read as part of the Theology course she’d had to take, and that got folded in too.

There was no context for the work, no point or purpose, but then truly I’ve never needed a point or a purpose for my work, and that’s a problem with me.

In an impulsive way, I started sending bits of the script out to people I’d met, people who interested me, people whose work I liked, and asked them to do something with it. I didn’t have anything really concrete in mind, but I asked them to maybe record some parts as audio, and send them back.

One by one, people started sending back audio recordings of bits of the script. And soon, there was a whole bunch of content. Bizarre, stylistically disjointed content. But as soon as they started coming in, it started to feel like a real thing.

Nickamc joined me, and stitched the whole thing into a 12-part series – a 70 minute radio play / semi-scripted podcast, broken into short collage style episodes. And then it was real, and we put it up online and made it available to download, and put it out into the world.

I don’t think many people listened to the whole thing. I did, and it made me happy. Maybe the end product wasn’t the point. (Maybe it was the point, and I’m trying to let myself off the hook by claiming it wasn’t the point.) Who even knows?

But the interesting thing is, and what I’ve been really struck by when I came back to this project the other night, what happened with the group of people I hit up to contribute.

I’ve included extracts here from the recording, which are mostly less than a minute, so go on if you want a taster.

Nickamc and Max Barker
Two of my closest core collaborators, right from the very beginning of my practice. We’d already been working in super close quarters for over a decade by the time this project came around, and now we’re more than halfway through a second decade. The following is Max playing the role of the manager of fictional U2-esque band FULL NATURAL BUSH.

Lloyd Allison-Young
Lloyd and I had worked together on serious theatre’s production of Oceans All Boiled Into Sky, and then Lloyd moved to the US. We still haven’t managed to collaborate on a full show together, but we spent a development in London in 2014 working with Hanna Cormick on a new piece riffing on Dirty Dancing.

Jordan and Sam
I knew Jordan and Sam very slightly at this point, through school and through programming their first show The Landlords at Belconnen Theatre in 2008 as part of the Wet Season (word Jan Wawrzynczak, another connection you helped make). Along with Georgie McAuley, I met up with Jordan and Sam in the Philippines later that year and began work on Sipat’s Battalie Royale, which led to the four of us forming the Too Many Weapons collective and producing material from full plays (Kids Killing Kids) to the Rizal Fountain Raps series of spoken word pieces.

Applespiel
I’d worked with Applespiel on the Crack Theatre Festival and then You Are Here, but not creatively. A year after this, Nathan, Nikki and Rachel from Applespiel joined Muttley and I in London, and we’ve spent the last six years making systems games around the world.

Sipat Lawin Ensemble
So at this time I had no real relationship with Sipat. I’d met them for one night in 2009 when they produced To Heat You Up And Cool You Down, and I’d gone to Manila to check it out. We’d exchanged a couple of emails subsequently, but that was it. I sent them the script not expecting anything – what would this Filipino theatre company do with a rambling text about U2? They said they’d get in touch, and then I didn’t hear anything from then, and I figured that was that.

The night before we were going to release the radio play, I got an email from Sipat with some audio attachments. I called up Nickamc:

‘Sipat have sent through their segment and you need to hear it.’

‘What did they do? Can we use it?’

‘…I don’t know? But, it’s amazing.’

It was partly the sheer insane weirdness of what Sipat sent through that convinced me to move my commitments around and find a way to be in Manila to work on Battalia later that year.

This is the first bit of what they sent us – go on, I dare you.

– No, it’s the gates of heaven – no firing squad, it’s just outside heaven and U2 has arrived and the angel at the gate of heaven is like

– WHO ARE YOU

– I… I’m U2.

– TELL ME WHAT YOU HAVE DONE SO THAT I MAY DETERMINE WHETHER YOU ARE WORTHY OF ENTERING HEAVEN

– I was a band. We started out being called Feedback, and then we changed out name to The Hype, and then we signed up for this young band talent contest as U2 –

– No, it’s not heaven, it’s the future – it’s the science fiction future – it’s a cyberpunk dystopia –

– You mean neon in the rain

– Neon in the rain, that’s right, and a little girl walking along the sidewalk finds an old broken down robot in the rain

– No, this is how you can be U2 reliving your story

– Okay go

– The girl sees this body lying in the gutter, and at first we think it’s crusty wino, and then we realise it’s an old Irishman, and then the camera zooms in and we see its eyes are actually red LEDs, so it’s robot Irishman

– So it’s Terminator

– So the little girl kneels down beside the collapsed robot Irishman  in the rain and she presses some buttons on its wrist and she’s all like

– Oh robot? Oh Mr Robot? Who are you? Why are you lying here all deactivated in the rain?

– And the robot’s jaw cranks open and closed and it murmurs

– Little girl, I was U2 –

Five year plan

 Jordan took this pic of me nine months into my middle age

Last year around August I had a week up my sleeve without work, and no urgent projects or deadlines or anything. I had enough money up my sleeve after doing this residency with Jordan, and I had work coming up in Sweden in October, so I decided to take a week without seeking money and do a five year plan.

I was living at Emma Hall’s place in Melbourne, and so every night when she came home from work or from rehearsals (building her new work Ode To Man), I was sitting with sheets of paper and index cards spread out over the floor, trying to condense my vague ambitions out of the air into some kind of actual plan.

First step was to do an update on where I’d gotten to since my last attempt at a five year plan, which was in 2013. I’d just finished the third You Are Here festival, just turned 30, and made a solid promise to myself to get out of festivals and arts producing for good. I have memories of making a solid set of plans at the time, but when I looked back on it, it was more like a 5-page stream of consciousness written after the final night of the festival, lots of panicky sentences in all-caps saying WRITE FINIG JUST FUCKING WRITE

But it was good rereading it anyway. I could say, at least, I’d fulfilled that minimum criteria of not going back into festivals or producing. (I was lucky, all the time I remember I was lucky, to get one of those Ozco Early Career Fellowships before they swept them away thanks to Brandis’ pointless beef with the Council.) And then I turned my head to the next five years.

I wrote a list of headings, all the different facets of life I thought were important, which were, roughly:
• Physical health
• Emotional health
• Finances
• Creative practice
• Impact
• Networks
• Experiences
• Public profile
• Possessions
• Relationships
• Sex
• Lifestyle
• Family
• Friends

Then underneath I wrote down everything I could think of that I wanted from each of those facets of life in the next five years.

(yes I know, I included ‘sex’ in my professional five year plan, it seemed worth considering)

Some of it was straightforward, some of it was not. I spent a bunch of time reflecting on the kind of art I want to make – how have my tastes changed in the last few years, what structures do I need to make in order to make the stuff I want to make, etc. I did a bit of writing at the time about an aesthetic paradigm that emerged from Kill Climate Deniers and Kids Killing Kids, a way of coming at a core idea from a number of different forms, honouring the fact that I have neither the discipline nor the craftsmanship to just write something plain, simple and beautiful.

I also dug my head deeply into the question of how to make a living while making art, given that I don’t really want a regular job on the side (I travel too much to make that work, unfortunately). Is it possible to earn a basic living through small commissions, consultancies, writing gigs etc, in the specifically weird sub-sub-genre of participatory science performance drawing on complexity theory and resilience thinking?

It has to be. It has to be, because, as Mick Bailey once said, never have a plan b.

So I wrote a list of things to try, questions to ask, hypotheses to test, that circle around, ‘Who would pay for the sort of work I do? Under what circumstances would they pay for it? How much would they pay for it? How frequently could I expect those sorts of opportunities to arrive? Can I live off that much money?’

Now it’s a year later, and I’m in London, trying to make this city work for me, trying to answer these questions in this context. I’ve spent four months as Associate-in-Residence with Coney (concluding at the end of August), working on my own systems gaming stuff which has grown out of Boho’s work in this field, as well as doing some small commissions work for Coney.

London’s a good place to try to answer these questions. It’s no better or worse than anywhere else in the world, but if you’re an artist working with scientists, it’s easier here than a lot of other places. There are many, many arts and cultural institutions here that create a full-blown arts ecology, crowded and dense, with many many places where a person can carve out a niche. And, bluntly, there’s money. It’s expensive to live here, but there’s money moving through this system, and people willing to try new things and ready to experiment. So all of that is helpful.

I have no answers to any of these questions, but the people here are great and I’m enjoying it, so there’s that. Good sunsets. A cafe near Bethnal Green overground station where old Turkish men drink coffee late at night and talk over the top of each other. Bhangra and grime blasting out of car windows. Bright moments.

And then meanwhile, in the midst of this, Kill Climate Deniers won the Griffin Playwrights Award! This was exciting, this I am so, so grateful for. Conscious of how, because I got lucky this time around, how many other playwrights missed their turn. But grateful, still. Lucky, happy, relieved, grateful.

But of course, winning an award like that can also knock you around, if you’re not careful. Something like that (for a personality like mine) can fool you into thinking that things are going to get easier from here on out. Like you’ve just been let off the hook, and from here on out you’re not going to have to struggle to get your work out into the world.

I think I subconsciously subscribe to the idea of some kind of professional finish line, whereby winning an award means ‘I’ve done it, I’m through, I can relax’. Intellectually I know it doesn’t work like that, but at some level, getting a nod of acknowledgment like the Griffin Award was like a signal to take my foot off the accelerator.

Bad news and rejection knocks you around but good news can also insidiously trip you up and make you lose focus on the real shit.

The real shit, which is, roughly: shut out the noise and the poison and just write.

The summary of my five year plan was basically: ‘Find a way to exist in the world that lets me make theatre, keep writing, with all the good people, and keep going, doing good and not causing harm.’

Chatting with Charlie Sofo many years ago about how well he was doing with exhibitions and projects at that time, I asked him whether he was succeeding. He said, ‘Success is if you keep going, failure’s if you stop.’

I like that framing a lot. It’s simple, but there’s something in it I didn’t consider at the time, which is that to ‘keep going’ gets harder / trickier / more expensive as you go along. The cost of being an artist rises over time, because as you improve, your standards go up, and the time and energy (and money) it takes to create a work that exceeds your last work increase all the time. And at the same time, your friends and peers are settling into real lives, real jobs, earning real money, achieving real life milestones, and you’re still… well.

So, when I won the Griffin Award, I had a bunch of chats with Glyn Roberts, now returned from Brisbane to Victoria, to take on directing the Castlemaine Festival. One day I’ll write down in one place all the snippets of advice and insights Glyn has given me (it’s Glyn who told me a couple of years ago to ‘stop writing plays’ as a way to make it as a playwright – I need to expand that out into a post in its own right) – in this instance, he pointed out that winning a prize like Griffin does very little on its own. You can do things with that award, it could be leverage in trying to get up certain projects or broker conversations with certain people, but as a thing in itself, it’s inert. You put it on your CV, on your website, you go on the list of previous winners on Griffin’s website, and then that’s it, unless you make that not be it.

And so, this is the eternal picking myself up off the floor and telling myself to return to the writing. Back to the real work. There are a million posts like this in the decade I’ve been writing this blog, countless attempts to tell myself, ‘Finig if you keep going you can keep going, if you don’t you can’t’. Countless links to this Out Hud song that starts with a weary voice saying, ‘Okay, let’s do the next one.’

It’s Sunday night in London and the sky’s darkening over the apartment blocks, listening to Out Hud, hope you’re all fighting, keep fighting