James Batchelor: Island

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But the line stops. There is no unity. All
logic and life are made up of tangled ends like
that.

–TE Hulme’s Cinders

1.

James Batchelor’s Island is an enthralling combination of dance, sound design and installation art, a fascinating approach on problems of perspective and positionality, all pulled together by an intriguing, ultimately elusive, utopianist dream logic. Entering the Sylvia Staehli Theatre, we are encouraged to find our own place in the room. We can move wherever and whenever, even after the work begins, exploring different views on the action and the architecture. Orderly lines – the bank of seats, the rows of eyes – are broken off. The audience stops. We are standing, then we are moving. We are that tangle of ends, the loose strands, tossed, as the daughter of John of Elton throws back her head.

2.

The work has a has a slick, cyberpunk theme, with suggestions of the uncanny and post-human. Given this general sort of sci-fi feel, the literary influences cited by Batchelor in his program notes are pretty wild, and perhaps counterintuitive.

TE Hulme’s Cinders is mentioned. Astonishing! TE Hulme, proto-modernist poet and amateur philosopher, big and bluff and always chucking people down the stairs, a self-declared enemy of Romanticism, a prig and a reactionary, who volunteered as an artillery man and was blown-up in 1917 in West Flanders. Has anyone else thought of TE Hulme recently? Besides John Gray? Hulme had no truck with progressive politics of any kind, and especially not with any belief in the perfectabiltiy of society — of islands and utopias. But Cinders is a kind grimoire for modernists: whatever spell you need, you will find it in Cinders.

3.

He also cites Aldous Huxley. TE Hulme is interesting enough, but to pair Hulme with Huxley is something else. Among the modernists, Huxley is  Hulme’s antithesis. Huxley is a political progressive, a gentle, would-be-mystic, a pseudo-scientist and a pacifist: four reasons for Hulme to despise him. Batchelor cites both Huxley’s Island and The Doors of Perception as inspirations for his own Island.

We can  guess what Batchelor finds in The Doors of Perception, Huxley’s account of his “experiments” with mescaline. It is the search for some hidden hatch in the back of the skull, an escape from the suffocating embrace of selfhood: a utopia for the mind. But what does dance have to do with it? Can the dancer lift her audience from the ruts of ordinary perception? Can dance transcend spatial relations, or only reveal them? What is Batchelor really up to with his Huxley? What good is choreography which only imitates the feeling of a sacramental experience of reality? Continue reading “James Batchelor: Island”