Dark Matter: Holly Herndon, Gorilla, June 30; Yael Bartana, What if Women Ruled the World?, Mayfield Depot, July 5, 2017.
In a blog post dated 9 March, 2017, Manchester International Festival’s Director John McGrath framed the contents of this year’s edition as ‘a picture of the world today’. While McGrath maintains that ‘We don’t set any rules about the themes or issues [participating artists] should address’, and while it’s a challenge to imagine any form of artistic endeavour that didn’t in some way picture the world in which it had been realised, this off-hand curatorial gesture still places a great deal of pressure on the works and performances that McGrath and his team have assembled. McGrath’s suggestion that the selected artists are linked by their ‘asking questions about how we got here and where we’re going’ hardly constitutes a radical or innovative mission statement for a contemporary arts festival program, but it still suggests that there’s something pithy and redemptive to be gleaned from attending any given performance. In an immensely complex historical moment, then, the ability to offer a clear and worthwhile reflection of the contemporary world is adopted as a measure of success for the festival as a whole.
This backdrop hangs heavy over Holly Herdon’s performance at Gorilla for two reasons. Firstly, Herndon is an artist that has repeatedly proven willing to discuss the wider intellectual context for her music: in a 2016 interview for Crack magazine, for instance, Herndon noted that her desire to create electronic music which adopts and warps the sonic and visual pallettes of contemporary consumer culture is based on the political conviction that ‘If we as a society are ever going to progress, and move beyond certain oppressive institutions and infrastructure, then the idea of fantasy is essential…Being able to recognise the plasticity of things gives us the agency to mould the world the way we want to see it.’ Secondly, there’s an air of curatorial overdetermination about the Festival sub-program in which Herndon’s performance is placed: this is not just a Holly Herndon gig at Gorilla on a Friday night but an episode in “Dark Matter”, a series of eight “immersive” shows curated by Mary Anne Hobbs, with special lighting designed by Stuart Bailes. On the booking page for the show, there’s a forty second video clip in which Hobbs presents Herndon as ‘an artist who inhabits the digital domain in a completely unique way’, and who ‘uses sound almost like architecture’. None of this is wrong or throwaway necessarily, but it reinforces the tone of McGrath’s blog post in framing this forthcoming concert as a kind of teaching moment about contemporary society.
In the event, Herndon’s set is far from reductive or drily conceptual. In fact, the overriding tone is one of humour and spontaneity. On record, Herndon’s songs are big, maximalist assemblages of synth patches and vocal fragments; live, Herdon and her band – she’s joined on stage here by regular collaborators Mat Dryhurst and Colin Self – are able to re-weave tracks like “Fade”, “Chorus” and “Home” into fresh arrangements which seem alive with improvisatory potential. There are quieter moments when Herndon and Self exchange abstract vocal lines which appear to take the concern for the human voice found on Herndon’s albums Platform (2015) and Movement (2012) into new, sparser, rawer territory. And early on in the set Self is given space to take the lead with a vocal performance reminiscent of some of the more extreme forms of metal. It’s an eclectic mix, but one dominated by an undeniable sense of fun. If you were to attempt to distill this set into a single “picture of the world today”, that picture would be decidedly brighter than we might have imagined would be possible even six months ago. Throughout, Herndon, Dryhurst and Self exploit the playful possibilities of digital technology, using it to summon a sense of communality rather than atomisation. They giggle, pull the sound this way and that, and communicate with the audience through the notebook app on a projected laptop screen, into which Dryhurst types hopeful messages about Chelsea Manning (in whose plight Herndon and her band-mates have long been invested) and Jeremy Corbyn. It all feels quite far from the pall of seriousness that Hobbs appears to want to cast around Herndon’s work, which is not to say that her work does not warrant careful attention and contextualisation; rather, there’s a contingent, messily human element to Herndon’s technologically-oriented set here that wriggles free of the uses to which a curator might want to apply it.
If Herndon’s performance succeeds in part because of its lack of didacticism about contemporary society, Yael Bartana’s experimental play What If Women Ruled the World? succeeds on diametrically opposite terms. The bulk of this performance, which takes place in a spectacularly atmospheric set in Mayfield Depot reminiscent of the “War Room” from Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove (1964), consists of a roundtable discussion between five female experts from a variety of disciplines, with a view towards producing a series of resolutions to tackle the “greatest threats to humanity and the planet today”. On the night I am in attendance, Bartana’s regular cast of six actors is joined by Susan George, a French-American political and social scientist; Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House; Marion Koopmans, Head of the Department of Virology at the Erasmus University Medical Centre in Rotterdam; Anni-Helena Ruotsala, Environment Secretary for the Finnish Sami Parliament; and Natasha Walter, a British feminist author and human rights activist. For the most part, this discussion is played straight, with each expert advancing their view on what they perceive to be the most pressing contemporary global issues before opening out a dialogue to establish commonalities and overlaps. The delegates raise a number of fixes – avert ecological catastrophe by handing power to marginalised peoples who retain ancestral knowledge of environmental cycles and resource management, dismantle patriarchy be re-evaluating domestic and emotional labour, reverse the dehumanisation of refugee populations by abolishing national borders – before critiquing one another’s, all of which results in about as sensitive, lucid and nuanced a picture of the world today as can be mustered through an hour or so of discussion.
The theatrical framing of this discursive performance, meanwhile, ends up seeming almost incidental. Before the delegates are introduced, the five female members of Bartana’s cast occupy the stage, and we are treated to a kind of parodic recreation of Doctor Strangelove, its most quotable lines jumbled out of order. Then the lights are dimmed and a brief, Beckettian episode ensues in which the same actors gradually walk us up to the idea that we are now inhabiting the scenario proposed by Strangelove himself at the end of that film, a post-apocalyptic society with a 10:1 female-to-male population ratio. The roundtable discussion is occasionally interrupted by video clips detailing the history of the Cold War-era symbol of the “Doomsday Clock” and by contributions from the six actors: there is a sixth, male member, dressed in just a pair of boxer shorts, who serves tea to the delegates. Some of these interruptions are played for laughs – one of the female actors, dressed in male drag, does not contribute to the discussion but mopes around, hamming up the character of a lone male delegate on an otherwise all-female panel. These feminist counterfactuals, which perhaps resonate with the imaginative landscape of Naomi Alderman’s highly successful recent novel The Power, cannot produce a sustained illusion of a parallel world, however, since the roundtable discussion is explicitly grounded in the realities of the present: Donald Trump is still the President of the United States. Nor do these more contrived aspects of the performance neutralise the radical potential of the roundtable discussion by binding it in artistic scare quotes; rather, the flickering suggestion of a radically different polity in which these options are actually on the table offers a galvanising incentive to pursue them outside of the Mayfield Depot set. Under the sometimes-frustrating garb of radical pedagogical art, Bartana has succeeded in smuggling in a quite straightforward object lesson in the sophisticated levels of critical thought that can be achieved by placing a host of female experts around a conference table, and the Manchester International Festival is all the richer for it.