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?

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It’s even less clear what we should understand from Batchelor’s reference to Huxley’s Island, a strange book, little read, somewhat old fashioned, freighted with once-fashionable ideas about political economy and orientalist consciousness-raising.

And yet — Batchelor’s work has a kind of pop-and-lock, hip-hop inflection, something smooth, effortless, zero-gravity…

He actually was floating. “Floating,” the voice softly insisted. “Floating like a white bird on the water. Floating on a great river of life—a great smooth silent river that flows so still, so still, you might almost think it was asleep. A sleeping river. But it flows irresistibly. “Life flowing silently and irresistibly into ever fuller life, into a living peace all the more profound, all the richer and stronger and more complete because it knows all your pain and unhappiness, knows them and takes them into itself and makes them one with its own substance. And it’s into that peace that you’re floating now, floating on this smooth silent river that sleeps and is yet irresistible, and is irresistible precisely because it’s sleeping. And I’m floating with it.” (Huxley’s Island)

Floating…  white birds, swans … white short, white shoes, becoming future swans?

5.

Finally, Batchelor cites contemporary British philosopher John Gray, best known for his fabulously melancholic Straw Dogs.

Gray is, first of all, the reason for Batchelor’s interest in TE Hulme. Gray shares Hulme’s hostility to any politics or system of belief that aims at changing human nature. He quotes Hulme extensively in his most recent book, Silence of the Animals, a thoroughgoing denouncement Utopian idealism. No more Islands, Gray demands. They are impossible. The only Island we will find is the Island of Death. Science can’t take us there, and the attempt would overthrow millions. Whether from the political left or the political right, the dream of remaking society is necessarily a desire for murder and destruction.

Perhaps then, if Batchelor follows John Gray, what looked at first like a “posthuman” aesthetic — a term which absolutely suggests the possibility of an Island — is no such thing at all. Perhaps it is a kind of mysticism?

John Gray claims that what is needed in place of Utopian neoliberalism is “godless mysticism”, which he describes as a kind of extreme skepticism, or dystopian thinking. Does that explain the quiet, monkish industry of Batchelor, McCartney and Lee? Quick, rigorous, but unhurried? Their strange costuming – the white on white, white clothes and shoes, white chalk through the eyebrows and hair? Is it reminiscent of something cultish? Perhaps this Island is a cult dedicated to mystical self-abnegation? Moving around those the mirrors in which we figure possible worlds…

6.

There is only one art that moves me, says Hulme. Architecture.

The design of Ella Leoncio, described in the program as an architect, is simple but brilliant. She uses mobile banks of semi-transluscent, semi-reflective plastic panels both to cordon off the performance zone (a temporary clearance in the waste, as Gray would say), and also, interestingly, to project that performance zone into and across the audience, using a kind of funhouse hall-of-mirrors effect.

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7.

And the performers are looking at you. They single out individuals and stare, briefly, without expression. Here’s Hulme’s Cinders again:

Think in a theatre and watch the audience. Here is the reality, here are human animals.

Either way, the effect is uncanny. There is something brilliantly robotic about the measure and control of all three performers – Amber McCartney, Bicky Lee and Batchelor himself. It reminded me – of all things – of that poledancing witch-robot by Blurred Lines. She is also able to recognise people, staring at them from behind her mask. This kind of thing is deep in the uncanny valley.

8.

Our sense of unreality — in tension with Batchelor’s desire to “deconstruct the symbols that veil our perception of space” — is accentuated by Morgen Hickinbotham’s powerful sound design, which mixes ethereal soundscapes with grinding, body-rocking pulsations. Particularly in the first movement, we get lots of sustained, high-pitched atmospherics, like throbbing violins, but distant, under miles of reverb. Imagine the sharp, stabbing strings of the shower scene in Pscyho, but slow…

By what I think is the third of four parts (Batchelor describes the work as a “three-part study in space”; I counted four distinct parts, so I’m not sure where the divisions are meant to be), the music is overwhelming. People are starting to dance, or at least to shuffle and nod. And why not? We’re on our feet, the music is an irristiable 88 beats a minute, and that growling bass goes right through the body.

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9.

In the third part, or the second last, all three performers position themselves in a small enclosure, almost one on top of the other, and each remove a small desiree potato from a pocket. Then they sort of mime their potato caroming off the walls of the tank and off one another. At this point, Morgan Hickinbotham’s beats are probably at their most irresistibly danceable. But the significance of all this is, well, fairly obscure.

Perhaps it is a reference to Tristan da Cunha – one of the islands described in Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, reputedly the most isolated inhabited place in the world. Islanders there work on communally-owned potato plots in their leisure hours. Certainly the claustrophic, clambering choreography, in slow motion, fits with Tristan, where there are only 261 inhabitents, wtih 8 last names between them. Life is slow, and very, very contained.

Or perhaps it is only to say, “Of course the Dharma-Body of the Buddha is a potato!”

Maybe it’s a kind of retro futurism. I was reminded of the old Atari game of Asteroids with its potatos in space:

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10.

And cinders become the Azores, the Magic Isles.

There is so much to like about this piece. The design is so rich and involving, the choreography and argument so enigmatic and intriguing. If it isn’t the most radical sort of environmental theatre, it is enthralling nonetheless, layered with ideas, aesthetically appealing, choreographically expert, and intellectually stimulating.

Island, Wednesday 11 June 2014, James Batchelor & Dancehouse Housemate production, Dancehouse.

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1 thought on “James Batchelor: Island”

  1. I only just found this analysis of ISLAND (accidentally while looking for something else) and it has absolutely blown me away! This type and quality of critical writing about performance art is basically non existent these days… So I just wanted to say it was an absolute pleasure to read and thank you for your generosity in considering my work in such articulate detail.

    Best,

    James Batchelor

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