Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Bristol Harbourside Festival, Danceroom Spectroscopy and Radio On

The Matthew sails again
The Bristol Harbourside Festival, which took place under sunny skies last weekend, has grown into one of the largest city festivals in the country over the last decade, and the waterside paths and bridges are always teeming with slowly circulating crowds. The harbour itself is packed with rows of moored boats both humble, flashy and more remarkable. The reconstructed three-masted ship The Matthew, the original of which sailed across the Atlantic under its captain John Cabot until it bumped into Newfoundland in 1497, glid through a short circuit, smaller modern boats puttering past and around it like fussing court attendants. Steam tugs, canal barges and fire-floats took their turns along the artificial channels and basins dug and engineered in the early 19th century to circumvent the widely fluctuating tidal levels of the river Avon. The pannier-tanked harbour steam railway engine chuntered up and down past the remaing dockside cranes. The whole place was full of the noise and bustling activity which would have been a daily reality when it was a busy working environment, but with historical eras overlaid and thrown into unlikely proximity. A Brunel lookalike is generally to be found wandering around with cheery civic pride near to his ship The Great Britain, identifiable by his towering stove-pipe hat and black frock-coat, if not these days by a fat cigar clamped in the corner of his maw, Edward G Robinson-style. Stages are scattered around the waterside, and in the neighbouring Georgian environs of Queen’s Square, showcasing some of the best established and up and coming local music, dance and circus acrobatics.

The Sailor and the Sea - the Mark Bruce Company
I always particularly enjoy the dance here, which takes place in the natural theatrical piazza of the Millenium Square, with its faceted and reflective ‘spaceship’ globe and watery pools and fountains, which the children were making full splashing and screaming use of on this hot day. The light-footed statue of local boy Cary Grant, or plain old Archie Leach as he was known in his Bristol days, provided an invisibly presiding presence from behind the stage. There was some energetic street dance from Keneish Dance and the Hype Dance Company. The latter, with t-shirts bearing a Nike-ified Hype logo, featured young dancers spanning a wide age range, all of whom got to show off their own special moves as passages of group unison fragmented into more individualistic or small group displays. The music stuttered through a swiftly edited collage of ever-changing styles, accompanying similarly sudden shifts in dance styles. There was a definite sense that they were going to fit everything they could into the short time available, and show us just how much they capable of. So, punchy Hip-Hop moves suddenly morphed into Michael Jackson-style routines, old-fashioned body-popping and R&B posing intercut with other sounds and steps which I’m far too uncool to know about. The smallest member, a girl with a naturally assured manner and attitude to spare who looked like she could be destined to go far, was swung up and spun around by the other dancers, soaring high, a dramatic move which provided an impressive demonstration of the absolute trust which must have developed within the troupe. They all looked like they were having a fabulous time, and there were obviously some proud family members or friends in the crowd. It seems like a brilliant way of getting young people together and developing their confidence and sense of themselves and their own physicality. Watching them, it was impossible not to smile.

Angular bodies - the Julia Thorneycroft Company
More classical dance styles were represented by Julia Thorneycroft and the Mark Bruce Company. The Julia Thorneycroft piece involved her and three male dancers both interacting as a group and breaking off into individual, isolated movement. The music was loud, amplified cello, developing from mournful, Elgar-like expressiveness to more strident, attacking passages, which prompted more energetic and animated activity from the dancers. Mark Bruce’s piece was a duet, with a Gene Kelly-esque sailor, thumbs slotted into pockets with devil-may-care nonchalance, strolling on and meeting a woman dressed in a shimmering, electric blue dress. They fell into a dance which wavered between passionate embrace and arms-length disdain and rejection. The sailor and the female embodiment of the sea crossed and circled the stage, acting out the oceanic love which bound them together through tempest and calm. All played out to the romantic, yearning strains of an orchestrated version of Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

The Arnolfini Gallery, situated in an old tea warehouse on the harbourside, paid host to a special interactive exhibition in their performance theatre in the afternoon. Danceroom Spectroscopy brought together the generally mutually exclusive worlds of art and science. People wandered in and mingled in front of a large screen. Their moving bodies were scanned by the 180° sweep of a 3D imaging camera, which sent its signal to a nearby computer. The Danceroom Spectroscopy computer programme, designed by theoretical chemist David Glowacki and artist Phill Tew, interpreted people’s movements and interactions with each other and the space in terms of molecular energy fields, which were then visualised as shifting patterns built up from modelled representations of the five most common elements in the universe. Hydrogen atoms were represented by swarms of blue, pin-prick particles, helium by caroming red particles, carbon by regal purple particles, iron by a more solid orange, and oxygen by the turquoise of the Earth’s atmosphere. These were all projected onto the screen, so that people could see the fed back output which they were creating, and alter and shape it further. As people moved in different ways, clustering together or drifting apart, the nature of what appeared on screen changed. You could generally recognise yourself by waving like a loon or jumping up and down. One boy brought in a balloon, which created an interesting new shape and dynamic, bouncing movement. Sometimes you would be composed of a vibrating, Brownian motion of hydrogen atoms contained within a spectral outline. At others, you would be a shivering purple waveform, approaching the state of those ‘being of pure energy’ which used to crop up in Star Trek every now and then. The burbling ambient sound backdrop was also subtly altered by people’s activities, which provided the input for the evolution of its generative musical patterns. People had a great deal of fun getting their molecular or waveform avatars to go through their transformations. It was an engaging and accessible installation which allowed people to see themselves in an entirely new light, as light.

There was also a dance piece, Hidden Fields, choreographed by Laura Kriefman using the spectroscopy system, featuring five female dancers. This followed a vague narrative scheme of birth, the exploration and discovery of the self and its connection with the world, interaction and connection with others, and eventual death and dissipation. It was fascinating and a little bedazzling to have to flicker the focus of your perceptions between the dancers and the motions they created on the screen. It must have been strange for the dancers to not be the sole object of attention during the performance, and indeed to have no following lights drawing the eye to their movements. But the essence of the piece lay in the interaction between the human element and its computer-projected analogue on the screen, and it was necessary somehow to be aware of both. The images on screen were often abstract and strikingly beautiful. Waves of colour would ripple across, or oscillating pulses of light would waver back and forth. Particulate clusters in roughly human form would merge with one another and then bifurcate with the appearance of fluid cellular division. Joseph Hyde provided electronic music which drew on the visuals, reacting to them in real time, and gave them sonic contours. He began with the hum and hiss of white noise, the aural analogue of the chaos of the untuned TV screen with which was what the projections initially resembled. As forms began to emerge, along with the dancers, the music too began to resolve into individual notes and tones. Thick, angular particle trails slowly drew lines across the screen before ricocheting off the edges, accompanied by oddly mammalian squeaks and cries of surprise. One of the dancers played a game of interrupting or evading these firefly atomic contrails, the first tentative exploration of how the self could affect the world through which it moved. Towards the end, the human shape became a container for shimmering colonies of pointillistic atoms. The dancers began to lose their energy, and their partners cradled their dying forms and lay them gently down onto the ground. Their atomic clusters lost coherence, and slowly dissipated out into the general particulate matter which drifted all around them. It was a mystical image of essential indivisibility, of a certain continuity of being, and of the connection of all things which was in keeping with the spiritual tenor of the piece as a whole. The projected visuals, with their semi-abstract and vibrantly coloured but still somehow recognisably human forms, gave the impression of a technologically-enabled emanation of some inherent essence of spirit, and iridescent imprint of the soul. It all ended with the music crackling and humming with the background noise of the universe. The screen was a frosty white, etched with the black craquelure of shattered safety glass. The last of the dancers slowly made her way to the wings, her movements creating a ghost which passed across the patterned screen like a watery shadow beneath thick ice. Life spiriting away in the face of the heat death of the universe. The whole was a fantastically beautiful and at times very moving meeting of science and art, human grace and technological ingenuity, rationalism and mysticism, dispassionate programming and emotional engagement. After the dancers had left, the floor was open once more, and the audience were free to project their own stories and selves onto the screen, to make sport and play in the Atomic World.

The Grosvenor today

From the flyover - Radio On, 1979

Beneath the flyover - Radio On, 1979

On the way back to Brunel and Francis Fox’s majestic Temple Meads station, I passed the sad remains of the Grosvenor Hotel. Apparently unloved by both the City Council and the people of Bristol, it’s boarded up, sports unruly sproutings of buddleia and is scheduled for demolition, to be replaced by yet more mixed-use office blocks and retail and restaurant outlets. This odd and distinctive building, which looks as if a modernist thirties frontage has been grafted onto a Victorian red-brick rear, featured in Chris Petit’s 1979 road movie Radio On. The protagonist Robert’s road journey begins in on the Westway in London and ends on the spindly little one way flyover which used to curl past the windows of the Grosvenor in a manner suggestive of a cut-price Metropolis set. Iain Sinclair, talking about the film in his book Lights Out For the Territory, described the Grosvenor as ‘a Bristol hotel and flyover unmatched in British cinema for their powers of displacement’. It provides a visual rhyme with the sixties retro-modernism of the Monsoon ‘battleship’ building which Robert passes on the elevated roadway out of London. He goes to the Grosvenor with a German woman called Ingrid, whom he meets in Bristol, who speaks little English and who provides a link with the Wim Wenders films which inspired Petit (the film was co-produced by Wenders’ Road Movies company). Lisa Kreuzer, who plays Ingrid, had appeared in all three of Wenders’ 70s road movie ‘trilogy’ of films (Alice in the Cities, The Wrong Move and Kings of the Road), and she provides the impetus for a coda to Robert’s journey, as they go to Weston Super Mare to look for her son, and reach the farthest extent of the land, the end of the pier marking a faded and rather melancholy full stop. Robert’s car breaks down, and he starts his journey back by catching a shabby two-coach train from Blue Anchor station, near Minehead, helped on his homeward way by the propulsive strains of Kraftwerk’s Ohm Sweet Ohm. The Grosvenor provides the perfect locale for the pervasive atmosphere of anomie and alienation which permeates the film. When they sit listlessly in her hotel room, Robert and Ingrid are effectively speaking two different languages, although they do manage to make some sort of connection, perhaps as a result of the simpler and more direct level of communication which results. There is an effective moving shot taken from the flyover which captures them framed in separate windows, gazing blankly outwards, each in their separate world, the faint echoes of Robert Fripp’s dark piece of frippertronics Urban Landscape, from the Exposure album, just discernible in the background. Petit went back to the locales of Radio On in 1998 for his short video film Radio On (Remix). He was just in time to witness and film the dismantling of the flyover in the pouring rain on the 13th June 1998, an effective packing away and discrete disposal of modernist dreams.

Alienation framed - Radio On, 1979

The flyover dismantled - Radio On (Remix), 1989


Singing Bear said...

Thank you so much. You sent me looking for 'Radio On' - I've now watched it and ordered my own copy. As a displaced Bristolian, I was delighted to see the old place as it was in the late 70's. The Grosvenor was always incredibly seedy and used beautifully in the film. The flyover that ran alongside it was 'temporary' for about forty years. Note: the house they visit in 'Weston' is actually located at the top of West Town Lane in Brislington, Bristol...two minutes walk from one of my own childhood homes. It is of a rather unique 1930's design, so much suited to the mood of the film, which I think is a wonderful piece of art. Again, thank you.

Jez Winship said...

My pleasure. I didn't know the 30s house was in Bristol - it's seen very briefly in the rather grainy video film in the extras of the bfi dvd in which Chris Petit revisits the locations of the film. I saw Radio On in the cinema at an All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Minehead a few years back, and later took the steam train back towards Taunton on the line which passes through Blue Anchor station, where the film ends. I always liked the flyover. It reminded me of some plastic tracks I had as a child which you could fit together into an implausible superhighway structure to race your Matchbox cars along.