Monday, 28 September 2009

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are all beautiful…"

David Hoyle, Gay Icons at the National Portrait Gallery, London, 11 September 2009

Given David Hoyle’s considerable body of work (to say nothing of his fearsome reputation), the untitled work that he presented at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) might have seemed a slight one. In the context of an evening’s entertainment to celebrate the gallery’s current Gay Icons show, the Manchester-based Hoyle was one of many artists providing entertainment to the invited guests. And yet, it is the entire notion of entertainment – a pleasant pastime, a diversionary tactic? – that Hoyle questions. His work, from the days of the his most iconoclastic creation, The Divine David (mid-1990s-2000) onwards, is an art form thoroughly rooted in the social and political and is all the more humane for it.

Hoyle’s appearance at the NPG was deceptively simple. He was there, with a long black dress and his trademark melting make-up (applied always in a excessive fashion), in appearance a cross between a wraith and a society hostess. He milled about, hermetically involved in his own demeanour – holding a glass, exchanging a few pleasantries, walking, being attentive. This was a performance about performance. At times he paraded a poster of Sid Vicious about, perhaps as a way of pointing to the way that the media goads on, and then sanitises, revolt. You could say that he installed doubt in the midst of the celebrations and turned its guests into a mass of J Alfred Prufrocks. This was as elegant and poised as Franko B’s harrowing one-to-one works of live art or of Marina Abramovic’s economical works of attention.

But Hoyle is also a clown, and as is the way of great clowns, there is an equal measure of sadness and hilarity in what he does. His exit from the party – and perhaps, from life – was performed on the gallery’s escalator. He went up. And then came down again. Then up. And down. Like a bouncing Tosca, it was a refusal to lie down and die. Sad-sounding cocktail music played in the background. Guests either watched him or they didn’t. This was a performance made in full knowledge of its peripheral status. It was a beautifully observed sequence of movements.

And there to the heart of the ambivalence. David Hoyle’s art work – and it takes many forms, from performance at clubs such as Duckie, to painting, writing and video – has always addressed the tension between individuality and the crowd. He understands the lure of the crowd, and he is sympathetic to the difficulties of being alone, in the sense that aloneness needs to be tolerated and negotiated as a pre-condition for any creative act. He has always been an outspoken critic of the clubs and marketing strategies that create a herd out of gay and lesbian people. One imagines that Hoyle has his own ideas on being the gay icon he undoubtedly is. To take a vintage line from The Divine David: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are all beautiful – unt we are all going to die."

"Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree…"

Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill, a film inspired by A Life in Three Acts, 2009

I once asked Matthew Glamorre, the brilliant, beautiful boy behind Smashing! and so much else, why he had stopped dressing up. Matthew, I should say, was capable of making leigh Bowery look ordinary. It was simple, he said: that the level of violence he felt necessary to maintain the act was to high a price. It wasn't that Matthew ever went around hitting people, but he had to anticipate that others might want to hit him. I was with Matthew once one night in Soho when we hit came upon a street brawl – alone, I would have turned back. Matthew seized my arm and walked me confidently and quickly and very safely through the mayhem.

That wasn't an aside, but an acknowledgment of the importance of the work, the simple work of being done by actor Bette Bourne, son of Stoke Newington and uncrowned queen of Notting Hill. He has just finished A Life in Three Acts with playwright Mark Ravenhill at the Soho Theatre. This scripted conversation took in growing up gay in Hackney, discovering Soho by following Quentin Crisp in the street, the radical drag troupe Bloolips and more. Now in his 70s, it'd be a mistake to see Bette as a twinkly granny, a stately homo. "You think it's easy to wear lipstick in the street? Just you try."

He's a tough cookie.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Shame, Shame, Shame, Shame on You: 12 glorious years of Gay Shame

Femme fatale: Lois Weaver as Mother, Hitchcock Handbags, 4 July 2009

The evening offered boob jobs, breast-feeding workshops and a cure centre – modeled very much on the theatre of derangement offered by neurologist Jean-Marie Charcot at the Salpêtrière in the 1870s – for hysterical symptoms. Another shopfront – Mummy's Little Helper – dragged its participants into its precincts and, via vodka bottles, hormonal spots and the like, displayed the wounds of femininity to all who cared to look. Nasty, yes; brutal, yes; and well worth the 32 Green Shield stamps I paid for my exegesis. Elsewhere, there were some demented care bears (bears, in the gay sense, that is) who, in the course of their Girly, Sissy-Play Party, immured the bodies of their subjects in boxes before practising extreme make-overs on their heads poking out from the top of the boxes. This was a cross between unwilling Winnies (à la Beckett) and those hideous disembodied heads, marketed to young girls as make-up toys. It will never be possible to pass a make-up stand in Selfridges again and this was the whole point. All in all, Duckie's latest Gay Shame (theme: "Goes Girly"), its twelfth "annual festival of homosexual misery" was an appropriate coda to the happy, clappiness of Gay Pride day in London.

Duckie, of course, has an exuberant, irrepressible and utterly irreverent record here when it comes to dominant gay culture. Since 1995, its creators, Simon Casson and Amy Lamé have been questioning the herd mentality that rules that gay = uniformity, mega-discos and mega-drugs. Oh, of course people want to belong to a group, acknowledges Duckie, but, isn't it much more fun on the margins? It's here, after all, that individual creativity comes to the fore. Duckie has been helped on its way by many regular performers, from the truly iconoclastic David Hoyle onwards, but it's this message that's run through its history.

The paradox is that there'd be no Duckie had it not been for the generations of gay and lesbian activists whose lives and works predated it. Delightfully, Duckie has never been oppositional just for the sake of being bloody-minded. Rather, there's an attractive old-fashionedness way of thought in operation: the personal is political, it suggests – acknowledge this truth and life will never be the same again.

With this in mind, it makes perfect sense that one of the artists who has graced the stage at both Duckie and at this year's Shame is Lois Weaver. A veteran of New York's Split Britches company (with Peggy Shaw), of WOW (the Women's Only Café) and in London, Gay Sweatshop, Weaver is a writer/actor/academic whose work has focussed on the performance of femininity for some 30 years. While this is of interest in terms of feminism, it becomes really interesting when one introduces a bit of gender slippage and queer identity into the mix. Femininity in a lesbian context, suggests Weaver, never the valium-lapped backwater that a wider consumerist world might want it to be.

Unsurprisingly, Weaver is no stranger to Duckie. Her backwards stripteases, appearances by Tammy WhyNot, a country singer turned lesbian performer, and – on at least one occasion, the Dance of the Seven Wigs, have all brought both humour and steely glint to her subject. At Hitchcock Handbags, Weaver presided over the best sideshow that 2009's Shame had to offer. Her character of Mother – a truly scary character straight out of Psycho (but this time alive) – grabbed your money, shoved you into her shop, where two immaculate shop assistants flapped in a seizure of performance and an assistant invited you to try handbags – some lacerated, some fitted with flashing electrodes and others with video screens playing Hitchcock footage.

Screeds have been written about handbags (think the fascination with Mrs Thatcher's), not least in Hitchcock's films. They have been deconstructed (exploded?!) as signifiers of femininity, as metaphors for the female body, as phallic examples of a woman's mysterious 'equipment'. There's a glorious twist at the end of Weaver's Handbags sideshow… be warned. (Clue: the programme for Gay Shame Goes Girly features a vagina dentata.)

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Remembering Ian Loveday, 22 September 1954 – 17 June 2009

Above: Tobie Giddio and Ian Loveday, June 1989; Ian Loveday and John Peel at BBC Radio One

Mark Moore rang me yesterday with bad news. His dear friend – our own dear friend – Ian Loveday had died earlier that day, at St Mary's Hospital in London, due to complications with a sudden bout of pneumonia. Ian leaves his partner, Jo Christophe, parents and a sister plus a family of friends and admirers built up and nurtured over the years spent in clubs and studios. While much of Ian's music favoured a hard-edged, brooding nuance, perhaps influenced by his great love of all things sci-fi, in real life, Ian was quite different. Quiet and gracious, he was also an immensely kind man, an uncommon attribute in the more competitive realms of clubland. He loved and valued those around him.

As a DJ/musician and producer, Ian went under a host of aliases – Ian B, Ian Beta, Eon, Minimal Man, Rio Rhythm Band and most recently, Tan-Ru and 1integral amongst them – but for me and many others, when he wasn't being Ian, he was simply Binty. I'm not sure where the nickname came from – I suspect it went deep into the years of friendship that he and Mark had shared, long before I came on the scene in 1988, just in time for the efflorescence of the British acid house scene of which both Ian and Mark were an integral part.

Unusually for one involved in techno, Ian had a level of practical technological knowledge that fed into his music. After a late 1970s/early 1980s stint playing disco at the Royalty in Southgate, he got a proper job in telecommunications: he fixed telephone lines and designed a car phone that was years before its time; he also made bugging devices. This material engagement with the mechanical meant that he was fond of tinkering: for months in the late 1980s, his kitchen floor was covered with pieces from a disembowelled washing machine that he was repairing. Musician Dan Donovan remembers Ian's minute attention to detail: "After the move from analogue to digital production, Ian, like many others, switched to working in the box, that is through his Mac and its various devices. Unlike others, he would check, test and note every single preset [loaded into his machines]." It was laborious work, but typical of his level of industry.

But it was a trip, with Mark Moore, to see a Mantronix gig in the mid-1980s that got Ian back into club music. He began playing hiphop, rare groove, funk and go-go as a warm-up DJ at the Mudd Club and Heaven. When the early Chicago 12-inches from Phuture, Frankie Knuckles, Larry Heard and their ilk began to arrive in London in 1986, Mark and Ian were among the first DJs to realise their significance and revolutionary import. Their shopping trips to all the various independent records stores were always pleasurable outings.

Work peaked: Eon's first releases on Vinyl Solution, Hooj Tunes and XL Recordings, where a track of Ian's was their debut release, picked up fans in clubs and Kiss, then still a pirate radio station. Studio work was also rich: Ian recorded Light, Colour, Sound, an austere piece of 1988 brilliance with J Saul Kane (aka Depth Charge) and embarked on a long association with Peter Ford with whom the Minimal Man project was started. He continued working with Mark Moore, by now busy with his chart-topping S'Express. Ian was a fixture behind the decks of London's major house clubs of 1988-89 – RIP at Clink Street, Danny and Jenni Rampling's Shoom, Pyramid (at Heaven, with Mark Moore and Colin Faver) and at the Fridge in Brixton for Nicky Trax's Planet Love, where Ian and Mark were the house DJs.

In addition to a welter of 12-inch releases and various collaborations, including – with Baby Ford –"Dead Eye", the highly regarded debut for Ifach Records in 1994, Eon released two albums: Void Dweller (1992), which contained the influential tracks Spice and Basket Case, and, in 2003, Sum of Parts (on Long Haul Records). He was a favourite of John Peel and the influential Radio One DJ invited him to record numerous sessions for his radio show. The last 18 months of Ian's life was spent working closely with Peter Ford. Ian's remix of a 1998 Baby Ford track, "Make Your Own Sunshine", on Ford's Pal SL label, was his last recording.

Ian's legacy to younger musicians lies in his music: he was inspirational in his breadth of vision and also with the precision with which he executed it. Dan Donovan cites him as "a British electro pioneer with his own distinct sound". Peter Ford remembers Ian's rare mixture of inspired ability and humility: "It was a beautiful combination: that someone could be so talented and gifted and also so modest. He was never negative." Mark Moore praises Ian's character as a "mad scientist, a surrealist and unique". Ian was generous with his time and energies and he is already very much missed.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Tot Ziens, Barack!

Above: Pieter-Dirk Uys, a man who never misses an opportunity to wear a dress if it makes a point

New Zealander Julian Shaw's 2007 documentary on Evita Bezuidenhout, South Africa's most famous woman, has finally made it to the UK. It stars Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.(Compared to them, Tom Cruise et al are mere asteroids, to run with a heavenly metaphor.)

Alright, so Darling! is not simply all about Evita as much as her creator, Pieter-Dirk Uys, an actor who took up the arms of satire against the apartheid regime. With the election of Mandela, there were those who thought that Uys' work was done. That he could take off his dresses and do something classical. Shakespeare, perhaps. But no. An unholy trinity – Mbeki, Aids, ANC corruption – has ensured otherwise.

It’s into this arena, particular that of Aids, that Uys has leapt with commendable courage. Since 1999, he has been visiting schools – in townships, cities, everywhere – lecturing children on the necessity for safe sex. “It’s ridiculous that an old queen has to go out talking to kids about heterosexual sex,” he jokes in one show, Foreign Aids (2001). He’s aware that the activity puts him at odds with both Calvinist and traditional societies where blunt talking about sex is an awkward virtue. But, he counters, he lives in a country where infected men think that sleeping with a young virgin is a cure for Aids and where a government minister can talk about making anti-viral muti or magic potion out of peach leaves. If the Act Up movement in Europe and the US has as its slogan “Silence = Death”, one might say that Uys’ equivalent is “Speaking out = Life.”

If Uys’ one-man Aids-awareness campaign is unparalleled on the level of singular political engagement – he has spoken to hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren in over the years, and he finances himself from his earnings at his own cabaret theatre, Evita se Perron in Darling, near Cape Town, and abroad – then it’s also doubly extraordinary in that he draws a humour from the appalling situation. To be sure, it can sometimes be a dark humour – when the South African Department of Health released 44 million free condoms to the population, they stapled each one to a piece of card – but its thrust is brilliantly effective.

Uys never misses a chance, even in this advert for the South African franchise of the Nando's burger chain: go, girl!

Thursday, 26 March 2009

We're Going Down: Forced Entertainment's Void Story

Above: still from Void Story (© Forced Entertainment)

I must confess to an indecent level of excitement in anticipating the arrival of Forced Entertainment's new show (I use the word hesitantly) at the Soho Theatre in London next month. The company's blurb promise "haunted wildernesses, backstreets and bewildering funfairs", a night so intense that stars themselves hide. It's going to be fun.

If most theatre is about creating the necessary disbelief to summon the story it is telling into being, then Tim Etchells and Forced Entertainment's is no ordinary theatre. I've found them in strange places over the years: a wintry attic by the Thames engaged in a seemingly endless question-and-answer game; I've heard them confess to genocide and reading each other's diaries; and on at least two occasions, they have predicted my death and those of many of others who'd attended First Night (2001), a piece of dark entertainment that naughtily masqueraded as a vaudeville show. In Bloody Mess (2004), I've seen them summon up the beginning – and the end – of the world, a process that involved disco dancing and naked men discussing types of silence; and a manic woman in a cheap gorilla suit pelting the audience with sweets and popcorn.

True, most people don't go for a night out to be reminded of the inevitable, and the cod fortune-telling of First Night is met with gales of uneasy laughter. But in this Sheffield-based group's carefully controlled pandemonium and dangerous humours, there is a strange complicity with the audience. Something strong is shared when the screen of traditional narrative structures is dispensed with. Watching Quizoola! (1996) one Saturday afternoon in 2001 in that rain-sodden attic, I felt like I'd arrived at the end of the world; and when the last light was turned off in Bloody Mess, the sudden loss was overwhelming.

Above: Excerpt from Void Story (© Forced Entertainment)

John Avery has written a sparse and atmospheric score that haunts Void Story all the more. In these surreal and decentered times, what could be more suitable than this bleak cautionary tale.

More details, snippets and oddities at:

Friday, 20 March 2009

Hanne Darboven 1941-2009

Top: Turf Boon: from Score for Community Choir, 2009 (© Jennifer Walshe)
Below: Hanne Darboven in 1994 (© dpa/ddp)

I am indebted to Le Beau Vice for alerting me to the death on 9 March of Hanne Darboven (1941-2009), the Hamburg-based conceptual artist known best known for her visual work. Neither Darboven's foundation nor a lengthy obituary in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (14 March) mention the cause of death. She was 67.

Although Darboven's work has been taken into collections worldwide, there's has also been a corresponding neglect, at least in the English-speaking world, of the significance and range – in all its historic, aesthetic and political manifestations – of her work. Certainly there are honourable exceptions – one being Dan Adler's volume on Darboven's vast installation, Cultural History 1880-1983 (1980-83), that has recently been published by Afterall Books – but these are few.

Why should this be? Can it simply be because, with the exception of a handful of years amongst the New York minimalists in the late 1960s, that her output was in Germany, that her language (in as much as she stuck to conventional language) was German? Surely not. If only for the benefit of the prurient interest of the British, the state of being German (and a German artist at that) in the late 20th century is synonymous with fascination. (Susan Sontag got that right.)

More likely the reason for Darboven's comparative neglect lies in the two aspects of her work: its vastness (warehouses were filled to their rafters with writings, pictures, found objects) and also its interdisciplinary nature. She did too much. Darboven, who had originally considered a career as a pianist before entering art school in Hamburg, was an artist for whom the production, the creation of that-which-was-outside-of-her, was both akin to living as well as a defence against a state of non-creation, that is, death. "We write so we are," she once said – this in reference to the graphic works produced during her Schreibzeit (1975-80), a period of literally (pun intended) writing. There is something overwhelming about her work, and something also quite heroic.

And in amongst all her assemblages, it's Darboven's work as a composer that been missed. Certainly while living New York in between 1966-68, she experienced the work of the minimalists as work that cut across disciplines with formidable élan. The collaborations of the period are well known – Philip Glass was at one time Richard Serra's welder, for example. Charlemagne Palestine was known more for performance than performing.

If it was this milieu that helped shape Darboven's sense of how art could be manifest, it is possible that it was also an atmosphere that proposed systematic art. Although what's come to be understood as minimalist music was, in many ways, a reaction against the limitations of twelve-tone composition, they had a discursive shape – one thinks of the inversions of form that characterises Glass' early works. For Darboven, whose work was to develop its own way of devising systems – in a way that both played with order and hinted at its polar opposite – to involve herself in music was an obvious route. Just as she translated dates into numbers, so she turned numbers into music.

The musicologist Wolfgang Marx, for many years Darboven's orchestrator, told me: "What I always found interesting was that she translates her numbers into pitches, but does not plan for the organisation of other parameters like rhythm orchestration, dynamics, tempo, etc. She virtually always accepted my proposals regarding these parameters as long as the pitch structure was kept intact."

In other words (numbers? notes?) it's the web of relationships that she was working on. (And the number of the possible relationships could be huge: Opus 60, for example, contains 120 separate parts.)

Marx continued: "The repetitiveness of her scores lets one think of minimalism, but in my view this is rather deceiving. Unlike most minimalist pieces, hers are clearly teleological in that they 'run their course' through a given set of numbers and finish once it is completed."

Neglect is nothing new in the art world, but Darboven's death is sad not least because it comes just at the point when younger artists, such as the Irish composer Jennifer Walshe, are discovering the German artist's offer of freedom for themselves.

In her recent Grúpat show at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, Walshe staged a group show for nine artists – actually aspects of herself – and let them run riot. They created votaries, their own instruments, garden sheds and always musical scores – made from stones, string, drawings – and soundworks. In Grúpat's over-determined universe, there was much that was playful, but there was also a deadly serious attempt to describe the world and the networks it throws up. And that is straight out of Hanne Darboven.

Listeners can hear an excerpt from Hanne Darboven's Requiem Opus 19 at

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

The Blog Baby

Reluctant as I am to toot my own trumpet, it's sometimes nice to have a tune with which to do so. My first proper book – The No-Nonsense Guide to World Music – is to be published by New Internationalist on 1 April, a very appropriate date.

Friends, fellow travellers and libel lawyers can even get a sneak preview by following this link:

I'm very proud that David Toop has written the foreword.