A fortnight ago, in various venues across Glasgow, Scottish art-house collective Cryptic presented its second annual Sonica festival, a curation of unique, innovative, avant-garde science-art; one long weird weekend of “sonic art for the visually-minded”. Had I but world enough and guesties, I’d have been front and centre for everything. As things stood, I had to narrow it down to the unmissable: Michaela Davies’ Compositions for Involuntary Strings. In little over a decade, with an academic background in psychology and philosophy, Sydney-born Davies has already amassed an impressive catalogue of mostly musical projects that figure her as a kind of posthuman Abramović; a bodies-not-buildings version of obstruction-upon-the-natural obsessors Christo and Jeanne Claude; Charcot’s Augustine all grown up and working through her complex ptsd. For this particular fright night, against the eerie stripped-brick backdrop of the Tramway’s main space, Davies’ quartet were strung like strange sweating marionettes, wired to electronic muscle stimulation pads through which a pre-programmed “score” was transmitted, jolting and spasming the musicians’ arms to create a unique “involuntary” performance. The result was a morbidly engrossing evening.
Though aware the experience couldn’t possibly be agonising, from the trailer all I could think of was the Cruciatus Curse. As the audience entered the room, the musicians were in place and ready-wired; twitching legs, tapping feet, and giddy self-awareness giving away the anticipatory adrenaline coursing through their bodies. Building from an introduction of rough grimacing slaps on the bodies of their instruments, each musician moved through artless plucks and bow scores into complex fiddle patterns and tremolo so rapid you expected smoke. As later transpired, at least one of the performers had zero musical training; this team of cyber-musicians propelled by uncaring technology, lost in the satisfying discomfort, the terrifying catharsis of the complete loss of control. You thought of the girl in the red shoes (enchanted or cursed?) who couldn’t stop dancing. It made you queasy.
This hyper-embodied spectacle reminded me of a play I saw recently — Theatre North’s Handel’s Cross, part of this year’s Glasgay festival. Secured to a wooden saltire in a fetish dungeon, the protagonist-narrator talks his audience through a half-hypothetical biography of Baroque composer George Frideric Handel, twisting the tale with fantasy scenarios as his “jailer” enacts gestures of sublime pleasure/pain upon his naked body. A thoroughly unique theatre experience, perhaps most shocking was how quickly one acclimatised to seeing such a scenario on stage. We watch as his body is lashed then the cuts spritzed with perfume, candle wax poured down his chest, nipples clamped, testicles flogged until his body is ruddy and convulsing with pain. His senses overwhelmed by the experience, he begins to fumble his words, to cry out before the blow even strikes. Crucio with consent is the fundamental concept of BDSM, but the implications during performance are quite different. In those moments it was impossible to separate the character from the actor; to ignore the exposed human being beneath the thin surface of the art. ‘In performance art the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.’ ‘This is a story about bodies,’ the play begins, and you think of Ovid, and forms that change.
In a single week where I finished one job, lost another, moved house only half by choice and celebrated a landmark birthday in the opposite of style, when the Sonica event rolled around it should have made more sense to stay home licking my wounds. But instead the question at the heart of the event’s promotion seemed particularly poignant: are the players playing, or being played? During a post-show Q&A every bit as weird and discordant as the piece itself, one audience member seemed fixated on the concept of voluntariness, arguing endlessly that the performance was indeed self-determined, being composed and pre-programmed and recurrently staged. It was irritating as these things are. Conceptual art rarely holds up to close reading — such rational criticism only serves to derail the creative conversation and to reassert the archaic hierarchy of masculine mind/logic/objectivism over feminine body/experience/subjectivism. Indeed, in this case the body-work of a younger woman was literally being maligned by the mind-interrogation of an older man, and in an exciting moment of spontaneous solidarity the room turned, several female audience members taking back quick control of the conversation. But in a philosophical slippery-slope sense the general point is an interesting one. If one consciously lays the foundations of the bad and painful things that will happen later, if one makes poor choices, diligently scoring one’s own downfall months and years before the spectacle is staged, can one really be said to be acted upon by higher powers, a bit-part in compositions beyond one’s ken? The artists’ bodies were acting involuntarily, out of their control, but their involvement in the project at all was voluntary. How far back can control, complicity, consent be traced? Once onstage, in media res, are the players playing or being played?