Wake up at 7:00 very tired indeed. Elect to sleep on as I did last week, but wake up again at 7:30 (when I’d normally be finishing my sitting) and decide to get up, since on those occasions I do allow myself a lie-in I feel a crushing sense of failure. Well, a mildly discomforting sense of dis-achievement, anyway.
I spend the day hewing at the page designs some more, until I have a matching pair in the two sizes. There’s more margin space on the larger one, but a narrower column width on the smaller. Perhaps we can use both. I cut some out to see how they feel "in the hand". I kind of worry that perhaps I’ve not got enough of the 21st century into them (a specific part of the brief).
Laura calls to see if I want to go and see Ken Campbell at the ICA this evening. Instinct cuts in and I say "Yes" (for the record, the answer to any question that begins "Do you want to see Ken Campbell…" is always "Yes"), even though my body is screaming at me that all I want to do is sit on the sofa dribbling gently and filling the living room with chopped-up pieces of paper. But Instinct wins out, and quite right too.
I check out some journals that deal with technoculture in the ICA bookshop, and no matter how zappy they subject matter they all seem to be in the fill-the-page-with-words utilitarian design that all journals have. The only concession to style is the occasional use of groovy sans or nearly-sans on the running-heads.
The corridors of the ICA have been turned into goodness-alone-knows-what, with swing double-doors and video games. I assume it’s some kind of artwork, either that or some bright spark has decided that what the world needs is an arts centre that doubles as a dowdy art-school corridor-cum-amusement arcade. They certainly seem to have swallowed the idea that Nintendo/Playstation are the bright harbingers of cultural progress and that what the world needs more than anything else are egocentric but essentially anonymous blokes self-consciously sharing their record collections with us.
So. Without wishing to convey the idea that I’m mindlessly negative (I hope that I am at least mindfully negative at worst), I have to say that even though I have been annoyed by galleries and arts centres before, this current incarnation of the ICA is the only one that I’ve found positively repellent. but more on that later.
This is a sort of polemic by Ken, about his application to run the National Theatre in a "peculiar and specific way". Essentially though, it’s a demonstration on the one hand that the more fun bits of culture might be what he calls (after Frank Muir) Mimi – all the bits of ""arseing around in front of everyone else that people have been doing since they were in caves" that sloshes around the ankles of the High Culture (or at least what is taken to be High Culture). Ken notices that Ken Dodd has never performed at the National, not so much "mincing around in Tartuffe", since "he’s got his own show, with the Diddymen and the bloke who sings country and western". Also he invokes the Great British Actor Seymour Hicks, a master of stagecraft, master of tragedy and comedy, who railed against the idea of a National Theatre when it was first proposed in Edwardian Times, attempting to contact Hicks at a seance in Stamford Hill, but getting Laurence Olivier instead. Ken asks Larry to update his comment on the Greatest Actor of the Age (when he originally spoke, it was Charlie Chaplin and he mumbled something about Danny Kaye), and the Spirit of Larry says the GAotA is Jackie Chan (and he mumbles something about Jim Carrey).
Ken shows us the climax to Police Story 4, which is very exciting.
So he’s got Ken Dodd on Sundays and Jackie Chan to fill up the cavernous vertical spaces at the Olivier, and, oh…
He goes on to invoke Keith Johnstone, the Guru of Improvisational theatre, who was the Royal Court’s Court Jester for ten years until he was banished to Canada for not being serious enough; Anne of Green Gables; turning the Big Lyttleton into a regional rep; Actual Proper Acting (as opposed to being told what to do by a director) with anciliary skills such as entering downstage right (backwards, in case anyone ever asks you); German Theater Spektakle; Paul Pena, the Tuvan throat-singing blues singer and many things I’ve probably forgotten.
It all seems chaotic and impromptu, but of course it’s not, however much Ken’s words appear from a miasma of mutterings and vocalese. As the audience are entering, he’s running through some videos, one of which is The Court Jester starring Danny Kaye, so that’s Larry’s GAotA in a film which is referenced to Keith Johnstone, tied in to the NT (Larry was the NT’s first director, and one of the architects of its policy, and an heir to Seymour Hicks as the official GAotA as well as having one of the NT’s theatre’s named after him).
And he’s right. Not only should he be given the job, but the world would be significantly better place if he was given the job. And of course he never would be, in a million years.
To my mind, the problem is not that the people who run stuff (I’m working very hard here not to use the term Cultural Elite, but you know what I mean) don’t embrace Mimi, because they love it, it gives them tremendous street cred and the sense that they are down with the kids, but that in order for them to be seen anywhere near it, it has to be elevated to the status of Art rather than being allowed to be the Mimi that it really is. So Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy are games for goodness sake, and the Playstation or the Nintendo are toys. And for my money (actually, when it comes down to it, for anybody’s genuine hard cash) chess or Go (the Japanese strategy game rather than the world-travelling knock-off of Monopoly, although that’s pretty good too) are infinitely better games, and Lego is an infinitely better toy. And to be honest, if you want Art, between the National Gallery and the Tates Britain and Modern you should be able to find something to your taste.
In fact, now I come to think of it, video games aren’t games at all. They’re pastimes. They’re the hi-tech equivalents of whittling.
OK, now I’m ranting like a Seventeenth-century cleric under Divine Influence, some terms defined:
- A Game is defined as the set of rules and parameters within which one Plays.
- A Toy is defined as the tool or object with which one Plays, and can be part of a Game or can contain within it its own rules (for example, a doll suggests certain ways in which it can be employed and still remain a Doll. Those are the Game rules. If you use a doll for banging in a nail, it is no longer a Toy, but a Tool).
- Play could be defined as Irresponsible Work, that is to say that when one is playing, one has checked any responsibilites other than tho ones demanded by the Game rules at the door. As such, it is a useful way of generating the necessary skills and attitude to be employed at Work. For example, a Lion cub employs at play with its siblings and adjacent adults the same skills of attack and fighting that will later be employed at Work on a gazelle or a wildebeest or, if we are lucky, a Big Game Hunter.
- A Pastime is something that one does in order not to spend one’s entire life staring into space dribbling. Pastimes tend to be closed, self-referential activities rather than open, connective ones, so whittling is unlikely to develop useful skills unless you need a lot of stakes on account of the vampire activity; crossword puzzles are calisthenic exercise for the mind, but ultimately the end product (the filled-in crossword) is somehow less than the unstarted one. Doing a crossword is a bit like taking a guided tour of a museum rather than being left to wander around for oneself. There’s a lot that the guide won’t show you for reasons of time, logistics or their own taste. but if they’re a good guide you may be lucky enough to get an interesting, entertaining, if packaged and limited experience.
- Work is what one does. I can’t reslly put it any better than that. It’s activity with responsibility. If you’re lucky, probably buddhistic, you approach Work as an extension of Play. If you are unlucky and bound within the confines of Calvinism, Play is restricted to the limitations of Work. A jazz musician for the former, I suppose, and a collector of model trains for the latter.
More on this when I’ve thought about it, I’m sure.
It’s like the relationship between Practise and Practice, the distinction between Technique and Craft. Unless an activity has both sides, it’s somehow lacking, to my kidney, at least. Not without value, but not as blesséd an activity as something that embodies both qualities. So a gamer may have considerable Technique, but there is no Craft to gaming (although perhaps there is in the design of games).
Both Art and Mimi require both Technique and Craft.
Anyway, what I find so dispiriting about the ICA thing is that the things that it has latched onto as The Future – gaming and clubbing and (I suppose, although it’s not explicitly stated) drugs is that they reek (as popularly practiced at least) of the Pastime rather than Play. Oddly, there may be more receptiveness to Ken’s message on the South Bank than he imagines, and less at the ICA. Essentially, the ICA is Cool. And Coolness is about embodying qualities rather than doing things. If creativity is (as Ken states, after Keith Johnstone) about sponteneity, about not editing, then Cool is only about editing. Cool does not want to create, only to curate. And although the two activities are (after Eno) related or somehow conflated, they are not the same. After all, Eno, the non-musician who elevated curatorship to the status of Art, is always doing, always creating, and his curatorship is an extension of his creativity, not a replacement of it. Read his Diary With Swollen Appendices if you don’t believe me.
Or as the Guitar Craft Aphorisms have it:
An artist acts with the assumption of innocence within a field of experience.
Even genius requires a competent technique.
Any fool can play something difficult.