posted by Tim / April 2, 2018
On tourism, and a tourist’s job.
Vatadage, Polonnaruwa. Photo: Sleepdogs.
Hatadage, Polonnaruwa. Photo: Tim X Atack
Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa. Photo: Tim X Atack
I’ve been working in Sri Lanka for the last 6 weeks, although my visa is technically correct when it says I’ve been here on holiday. I haven’t been paid for what I’m doing in the country.
Tanuja and I have made a short album of music and played it out of a tuk tuk’s soundsystem –
Sleepdogs, in the back of a tuk-tuk. Also pictured: Bass. Lots of bass.
– developed a piece for headphones installed at the edge of the ocean –
Ocean Confessions by Sleepdogs. Photo: Brian Hartley.
– and made or mixed soundtracks for works by all our colleagues on the Sura Medura residency. But on the most basic level we and our fellow artists are all here as tourists.
This means there’s a kind of daily tension to our identities, and I’ve been thinking about it throughout our time here, especially as Hikkaduwa is a proper tourist hotspot.
Hikkaduwa market. Photo: Tim X Atack.
Council chamber, Polonnaruwa. Photo: Tim X Atack
Tourists are economic migrants. Sure, the power relationship is different to other kinds of economic migration; the commitment on the part of the holiday-maker is shorter and obviously less arduous – but all the same, the parallels are fascinating to me.
Like working migrants, tourists variously choose or find themselves channelled into patterns of behaviour when in another country. Some attempt to learn parts of the local language(s), some don’t. Some are there simply for the financial transaction, others look for an investment that feels somehow progressive or hopeful or true.
Some form temporary communities or enclaves, others believe the better experience comes from hybridisation, a conversation between people from different places. Others still think that the only honest or viable path is to assimilate fully. And tourists get into trouble too, of course, for legal or cultural transgressions they’d failed to spot, or they find themselves ill-equipped to deal with their physical environments.
The exploitation of tourists is obviously of a different strain to the abuse suffered by working migrants – the repercussions are vastly different and there’s little-to-no comparison there, no doubt at all where the privilege lies. At the same time I think it’s fair to say tourists are both sought after and vilified by their host cultures.
Hikkaduwa market, empty. Photo: Tim X Atack
Council chamber, Polonnaruwa. Photo: Tim X Atack.
During the residency I’ve been suspicious of any talk that paints Hikkaduwa as an unreal Sri Lanka, a pricey ivory tower in contrast to cities like Colombo – or that discusses somewhere like Galle, an old colonial town, as ‘true’ in its urban sprawl and ‘false’ in the chintzy streets within the old fort with its air-conditioned shops and iced coffees.
Kelaniya Perahera, 2014. Photo: Tanuja Amarasuriya.
Tourist Sri Lanka is one of the many real Sri Lankas. The dreadlocked trustafarians with their constant fucking djembes are definitely real. The lives of the hotel and bar workers are real, as are the drug deals that take place in the WCs of the more popular bars and the gangster boys who hang out on motorcycles outside, late into the night.
The fear of the beaches on the part of many local women, discovered by our fellow artists Periplumduring their research, is palpably real. There’s the sense that the beaches are physically treacherous, morally loose, a genuine no-go zone for a good half of the population – making a laughing stock of the favoured Fox News trope that whole swathes of European cities are off-limits to scared white people.
The astonishing ebb and flow of activity around high and low season, the rush followed by deadly boring months-long lull, is as real in Hikkaduwa as it is in Blackpool or Paraty or Slanchev Bryag. And the diverse ways that Hikkaduwans accept their foreign visitors – joyful, mundane, sad, hopeful – are as real as the relationships between the fishermen and the sea.
Field recording, Dodanduwa. Photo: Tanuja Amarasuriya.
Recording songs and names, Dodanduwa. Photo: Tim X Atack.
So: a few small stories from the edge of being, and living with, tourists.
After sunset at one of the beachside bars, Tanuja and I were joined at the table by a 40-something Lankan beach boy who was so hammered on booze and skunk he would often pause for a whole 30 seconds between sentences without realising it. But the genial rambling speeches he gave us in fractured and heavily colloquial English were a good old-fashioned song familiar all over the world: the glass in his hand didn’t control him, fuck it, he didn’t need it; he’d been drinking since he was 9 years old; he knew everyone here, everyone knew him; he wasn’t ‘from’ anywhere; he was drummer, he could teach you how to drum, he’d sprained his hand; he owned a hotel of 40 rooms and let everyone stay there for free, foreigners, whoever; he was annoyed when his freeloading guests didn’t help to pay the water or electricity bills, especially the fucking Russians, who want everything for nothing; we seemed like we could be friends, he didn’t normally talk to foreigners; he didn’t understand why people bad-mouthed us artists but still turned up to look at the residents’ work; he thought people were full of shit.
We invited him to the Sura Medura event then he drifted away like one of the itinerant souls in a Graham Greene or JG Ballard novel, an astronaut living on the edge of the sand. Find me anytime, ask for me by name, he said – everyone knows me here. The next time I saw him with a cheery hello, he didn’t recognise me at all. So I asked our host about him, citing his name as suggested… and they had absolutely no idea who he was.
Arthur C. Clarke’s abandoned house, Hikkaduwa. Photo: Tim X Atack.
Elsewhere: in the Community Tsunami Museum at Peraliya I was in the room where they display the most distressing images from the Boxing Day disaster. The same room also contains the donation box. The museum’s co-founder Priyanti was asking a tall Scandinavian gentleman whether he’d like to make a donation.
As he gazed at the images of swollen, drowned bodies stretched across railway tracks, thrown into the backs of vans without ceremony or dignity by grim soldiers, orphans crying, a western man in floods of uncontrollable tears carrying a screaming Sri Lankan child through a channel of corpses, the gentleman said: “I haven’t got anything small enough.”
I think Priyanti did well to respond with just the right kind of tiny smile and to ask: “You don’t have anything small enough?” – not hectoring, not aggressive, just repeating what he said. “I told you I don’t have anything,” he replied, “Don’t make fun of me,” and immediately left the museum.
Elsewhere: the collected Sura Medura artists were lost in Colombo, having wandered into the mid-day sun in search of a National Museum a ‘short walk’ around the corner which turned out to be 25 minutes away and also on the point of shutting. But just before giving in and hailing tuk-tuks, we found ourselves in the diplomatic district, outside The Commission To Investigate Allegations Of Bribery or Corruption. We knew it was the Commission To Investigate Allegations Of Bribery or Corruption because it said so on a surprisingly large sign by the gate, and we were particularly excited by a billboard to its left, an advert for a radio station that exhorted, in huge capitals: JUST SAY YES.
So out came our cameras to fully capture the irony (Brian Hartley in particular being an avid documenter of unexpected details in the environment.) By the gates to the commission a two-man film crew was hanging out, buzzing at any car that approached the entrance, waiting for a catch. Once they saw that this weird cavalcade of behatted tourists opposite was filming, they began to film us in return – perhaps on the offchance we were something to do with someone within, perhaps capturing us as a visual comment on the Commission’s very presence, perhaps saying “look at these prurient westerners with their openly dishonest Presidents and their flailing economies, what have they to gawp and giggle at?” But whichever way, after a weird but brief standoff, all cameras were lowered and everyone went back about their business.
Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption. Photo: Tanuja Amarasuriya.
As we zipped across town to the almost-shut museum I wondered whether we’d been respectful – whether taking those pictures was the way we’d behave in other countries, within any culture. I believe I’d think twice about pointing a camera at an obscure government building in Moscow or Tehran or Washington DC, but that’s a practical attitude rather than purely a matter of respect.
Maybe I count enough Sri Lankans in my family to hope it’s a joke shared, that taking pictures of ironic arrangements of signs is something I’d do pretty much anywhere I felt safe – that in some ways it’s a greater expression of respect and love for a place to feel reasonably confident I won’t get detained or arrested for it.
Tourism is part of the real. You have to be a realistic tourist.
Matara, 2001. Photo: Tim X Atack
The first time I came to this country in 2001, the airport had been attacked by the Tamil Tigers a matter of weeks before, and 9/11 had given Sri Lanka’s travel industry a double-blow. Visiting the principle heritage sites like the temples at Anuradhapura or Kandy, I felt like one of only a handful of westerners in the country. People who worked with tourists were obviously having a desperate time, and there were even moments where crowds of people stood to one side with shouts of ‘white man coming!’ as I approached. It was weird as hell.
Kandalama, 2001. Photo: Tanuja Amarasuriya.
One image of that desperation will forever stick in my mind. Our hosts were cramming in as many locations as the 10-day itinerary would allow and a lot of our trip was spent rattling from town to town in a car – and this was before the expressways were built, so we mostly drove at breakneck speeds along winding narrow roads.
Heading from the higher lands outside Kandy down to the south early one morning, we descended a lush mountainside, our driver making time, pedal to the metal. Just before we began the descent a kid who couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old leapt towards the car with a crop of freshly-picked flowers in his hand, desperate to get our attention and make a sale, yelling “AiYY!” at the top of his lungs. The driver zoomed past him and took a zig-zag in the road that looped downhill and back on ourselves, in a snaking pattern which would repeat all the way down.
As we approached the mid-point of this lower stretch, I saw that the flower kid was hurtling with almost suicidal recklessness in a straight line downhill, through the dense foliage, rushing to meet us again, chasing what he could see: a posh car with blacked out windows, a tourist car. And he burst out onto the road milliseconds before we passed the mid-point again, flowers outstretched, repeating his yell of “AiYY!”
The kid did this on every loop of road down to the bottom of the mountain, eight fucking times. In his barefoot sprints through the jungle he held the flowers high above his head so as not to wreck them. Each time he leaped out onto the road’s edge a split second ahead of us, I was convinced the scowl on his face was deepening, the “AiYY!” more incensed, more offended, and I was petrified we’d hit him – because our driver was a government employee with a schedule, driving with complete authority, and we were stopping for nothing.
We didn’t hit the kid. I wish we’d been able to stop. I don’t know if I’d have bought the flowers – I would at the very least have told him I didn’t want to buy the flowers, and asked him not to chase after us again. Maybe at that point he would have slapped me. But at least the situation would have been clear. I was very grateful to my hosts on that whistle-stop tour of the island, we saw some amazing sights… but the kid on the mountainside cemented a resolve to never want to travel that way again, skimming the surface, behind darkened glass, not stopping, unable to even say ‘no, thank you.’
Field recording, Horton Plains, 2014. Photo: Tanuja Amarasuriya.
So that’s one of the reasons why on this residency Sleepdogs barely left Hikkaduwa, planting our feet in the sand, watching the sunset from roughly the same place every single night for 6 weeks. Chance had landed us in tourist central, so we got to know tourist central as well we could. And I decided to accept my part as a tourist – something I’ve previously fought against pretty hard, despite blatantly being the biggest gringo you ever did see – and soak up the contradictions. On our last day together in Hikkaduwa the Sura Medura artists gathered in the town’s most famously upmarket hipster joint for a – relatively – pricey goodbye brunch, and we laughed about how it was as if we’d come all the way to Sri Lanka just to go to Shoreditch.
Rehearsing with Suba Subramaniam and Brian Hartley, Hikkaduwa. Photo: Sleepdogs.
I think these contradictions have found their way into Sleepdogs’ work here; if only in something like the song title Stray Dog Dance / Selfie Stick from the LNK_A album we’ve made. But it’s also in the fact that nothing we’ve worked on out in Sri Lanka has been kept ‘pure’, bereft of the presence of travellers, rooted only in identifiably Lankan influences. The samples on our record feature fragments of hip hop as well as Kandyan dance – because hip hop and reggae are your tuk-tuk driver’s sonic weapons of choice.
Kataragama, 2014. Photo: Sleepdogs
Including all of this has as much to do with our belief in art as living, breathing, not pickled, as it does with this particular environment. On our first week out here I spent the mornings reading some essays by Alan Lomax, the pioneering folklorist and song collector, and was struck by one aspect of his innovation: how he and his father would search out not what were called the ‘survivors’, the unique or lost songs, the as-yet unheard or unrecorded, like most collectors of the time did – but would instead often keep documenting the same pieces of music by different singers in different places, celebrating and charting the ongoing life of the song rather than anything that might be called a purity of expression.
Mount Lavinia Beach, 2001. Photo: Tanuja Amarasuriya.
So my fellow tourists are as much part of the fabric of travelling, as much part of the sights I’m seeing or the things I’m hearing, as the ancient monuments or the striated skies. The sunsets in Hikkaduwa have been pretty much uniformly gorgeous, but equally astonishing is the human behaviour at the edge of the ocean every single evening, drones whirring overhead to get the full effect of people splashing romantically in the surf, Chinese women throwing joyful giggling poses against the sea breeze, everyone zipping back and forth between lens and screen, checking, reframing, checking, filtering, uploading.
I get mental images of future data archaeologists mining the broken hard-drives of our civilisation, uncovering some thousand billion crepuscular instagram horizons, and concluding we were as obsessed with the setting sun as the Aztecs.
View from Amarasuriya home, Kotte. Photo: Tim X Atack
In our last week on the island, spending time with Tanuja’s family, we joined her dad CJ on a trip to Somawathiya Chaitya, a Buddhist temple in the jungle just at the border of the north-central and eastern provinces. The day had been spent in Polonnaruwa, the site of an old capital, a ruined city in gladed forest, a proper tourist mecca. Somawathiya was different: difficult to get to, not so much a guidebook fixture, but truly peaceful, with elephants grazing at the temple boundaries and a reputation for unexplained miraculous incidents – documented in a little gallery behind the bo tree shrine that seemed to mostly consist of pictures of dramatically encircled lens flare.
T and I took our cameras and our recording equipment that night, sure, but in the end only captured a few quick snaps of the elephants for our niece and nephews… no sound recordings at all. Instead we hung back and watched the evening ceremonies unfold, breathed in the jungle air, got stung by a few mosquitoes, and felt the light dip to darkness around us. No document to speak of, just the memory. That felt right.
It reminded me of our first trip in 2001, during a bad drought, when a scheduled power outage hit just at the point T and I were left alone with one of Sri Lanka’s most revered monuments, the Ruwanwelisaya Stupa in Anuradhapura. By chance it was just us and the immense white shape in the dark of night, with one emergency light, a single flickering fluorescent strip, intermittently crackling to life, making the whole building look like a dream, a faulty loop of film, a ghost moving in and out of our present dimension. We’d left the video camera in the car. “Shall we go and get it?” I asked quietly, and pretty much together we both decided, no, no, best not.
posted by Tanuja / March 11, 2018
It’s late in Week 4 of our Sura Medura residency. If last week was all about beats, tunes and noise; then this week’s been all about orchestral composing, performance text and the sea. Also a whole bunch of getting tangled up with wires, battery packs, live relay, headphone variants and playback devices in order to see what we can make happen with our feet in the sea.
It also means other types of thinking too, which is great for me. Although I’ve been loving the focus on sound and music-making (and learning shedloads for my sound design practice) it’s meant having to put a lid on my main practice as a director – and all the natural energy I have for that has been leaking out as anxiety dreams and edgy frustration. Over the last week I’ve had to take time out from the intense focus on being right here, in order to read plays, think about ongoing projects and exercise my staging and storytelling brain. It’s relieved some tension in me, and it feels slightly deflating to have to put the lid back on my principal practice <sadface>, so I’m taking permission to think more directorially about this piece with the sea, even though we probably won’t have time here to test many of those aspects. I’m hoping that by thinking in the most ambitious way about what this piece might become, we’ll kick something off that has the potential to really move audiences – even if we have to develop it on other shorelines and bring it back here later. I also really want to connect all this work beyond the bubble of this residency into ongoing projects and my broader theatre practice.
Documentation > interpretation
A couple of weeks ago Tim and I met with a group of around 10 people from Peraliya village, just outside Hikkaduwa, to hear about the impact on their community of the 2004 tsunami and how things have changed since. The session was facilitated by Priyanthi, who is from the village and manages the Tsunami Museum and community centre. It was as you might expect, a very moving experience to be given such personal insight into these people’s lives.
This session was part of recognising an impossible question that kept jumping up at us about the ongoing resonance of the tsunami in how we’re hearing the story of Hikkaduwa today, and if/how to acknowledge that from our position as outsiders invited to connect with what we’re discovering here.
It was also part of an exploration into what it takes to explicitly honour people’s life stories through our art – as part of the deliberate push to practice that Sura Medura encourages. This wasn’t completely opportunistic. In March 2017, I visited St Petersburg with the indomitable Sharon Clark, to interview survivors of the Siege of Leningrad as part of the research for Raucous’ new production, Ice Road. Listening to the testimony of those women (our interviewees were all women), sharing such intimate and disturbing details of the horror of that period was an extremely humbling experience.
The St Petersburg interviews came towards the end of Sharon’s Ice Road research because she didn’t want to write a documentary theatre piece that was rooted in those testimonies. But for me, as someone who was still new to the Ice Road process, the force of those testimonies felt impossible for me to sideline as an anchor. It was a useful tension that helped my role as a script development dramaturg for the show – but it also left me wondering about that negotiation between “personal” storytelling and “artistic” storytelling in a way that I’d never been that interested in digging into before.
As artists, Tim and I have never felt the call to explore documentary. In fact, I seem to spend a surprising amount of time advocating for the social and political value of imaginative fiction – especially in theatre. I’ve seen some great verbatim and autobiographical shows in my time (shout out to Tom Marshman’s Kings Cross REMIX and Katy Baird’s Workshy for starters), but I’ve seen more that have been worthy but dull, superficial or at worst, felt exploitative.
Over the last 2 weeks, Tim and I have been reflecting on the personal stories people – strangers – have so generously shared with us, and listened again to those conversations we recorded. One of the most striking things is the ongoing relationship with the sea. Much of this community still relies on the sea: via the ages old industry of fishing, or the newer one of tourism. People might be afraid of another tsunami, but they live connected to the sea nevertheless. Neil Butler (who runs Sura Medura) told us that for months after the tsunami, no-one went near the sea. A year on, he worked with the town to organise a massive carnival on the beach. Thousands of people rocked up and people have been back on the beach ever since.
All this brought us back to thinking about the sea, this shoreline, and what it means to be standing here, listening in and looking out. It brought us to thinking about the relationship between humans and the sea more broadly, through time, and also across borders.
Not sucking, outdoors
Back in March 2013, Tim and I were given a little residency up at Live Theatre in Newcastle. We wanted to begin exploring possibilities for making work outdoors (and planting the seeds for Tales from the Old World). There’s nothing like a week in the north east to give you a sense of the opportunities (belting cinematic vistas) and the challenges (ALL THE WEATHER) of making outdoor performance.
The curatorial focus of Sura Medura is art in public space. Of course “public space” doesn’t necessarily mean outdoors; but being in Hikkaduwa, right on the sea… the outside definitely calls.
The desire to make something for outdoors that’s stayed alive in me from that Newcastle residency, is in the potential for cinematic landscapes, distance and scale. These aesthetic fascinations run all through how I direct indoor shows too; but hell, there’s always a wider landscape outside; but hell, the practicalities…
I’ve seen a lot of outdoor performance in my time (including one of my all time fave shows, Back To Back’s Small Metal Objects). The stuff I’ve been most into has been the less theatrical and more interventionist work that genuinely integrates its environment as part of its aesthetic conjuring, rather than only as context or practical space. I’m thinking of pieces like circumstance’s subtlemobs, and Night Tripper by Fiksdal, Langgård & Becker. Small Metal Objects combines a brilliantly subversive theatrical statement with interventionist performance; and I’ve never looked at Broadmead the same since. None of these are site-specific as such – they’re all internationally touring projects – but they all felt so aesthetically intertwined with and amplified by the environment I experienced them in.
I want to create an experience that meshes with and augments the environment it’s played in.
I want it to be integrally connected with the sea; and to connect – in some deep felt, uncanny way – the place and time it’s experienced in to other heres and nows.
I want it to feel modern rather than folksy – or maybe: a mash up between modern and folksy.
I want it to feel immersive and interior and cinematic.
It’s going to take a lot more time and research to get this right.
We’re only going to be able to test the earliest glimmer of this project. We’ve created some music and text to try out. We’ve been playing around with ways to hook together the tech we have so that we can heighten the experience. And we’ve got the night sky. And the horizon. And our feet in the ocean.
Human / Technology
posted by Tanuja / March 2, 2018
Yahoo flip flops and Apple wallets at Hikkaduwa Market
So we’ve come to Sri Lanka, and we’re staying right by the sea, and now we’re working almost entirely on laptops with headphones. Our fellow artists here must think we’re nuts.
To be clear, there’s no way we’d be inside our laptops like this if we hadn’t already had lots of experience in Sri Lanka and with Sri Lankan culture. We just wouldn’t have enough to work from, which is why I think the other artists are so eager to explore the country. Instead, for me and Tim, our first couple of weeks in Hikkaduwa were all about recognising what feels most alive to us in our immediate experience of this town, then focusing deeper via the lens of our previous experience with Sri Lanka, and now reframing it through our artistic practice. We’re towards the end of Week 3 now, so we’re well into the graft of making – hence the laptops and headphones. It’s unusual for us to make work this fast, so it’s really pushing our practice. And we’re being ambitious with the sheer amount of new material we want to make and present, so y’know, rod for our own back an’ all that. We’re also doing a lot of collaborative exploration with some of the other artists here, which is really intriguing and already full of discovery.
Tim and I think conceptually about and use technology a lot within our artistic processes. We often use digital tech, but our practice is to think about every thing that transforms stuff, as a technology – including the humans. I remember having a conversation with Dick Penny (former MD of Bristol’s Watershed) a few years back, where he theorised that people’s frustrations with modern tech were rooted in the fact that the mechanics of modern tech are often invisible. When you can see where something is broken, you can accept it’s broken. When the internet goes down it’s just like WHHAAAAARRRSRGRRRRGHHHSGHSH I’VE TURNED IT OFF AND ON AGAIN ALREADY GODDAMMIT etc.
When it comes to art, I like not seeing the mechanics. I love the transformations you don’t see coming. The magic of those unexpected and often uncanny transformations is what fascinates me about the possibilities of tech (including the humans) – be it the visceral power of an extraordinary physical choreography, or the ability to invent imaginary worlds, or the conflation of distance via WhatsApp, or the jolt of suddenly hearing my late Mum’s voice in a field recording AIFF from Sri Lanka 4 years ago.
Here in Hikkaduwa, I’ve been thinking a lot about humans and technology and humans as technology. One of the other artists asked me yesterday how we didn’t go stir crazy having to be so constantly laptop/headphones. And the answer is that there’s a whole heap of Sri Lanka in my laptop. And because Tim and I were there, making those field recordings, they are triggers to a personal lived experience of those places and times. So many spiralling stories like ghosts in the waveforms. And outside of the machine, in every walk along the beach or the road, there’s so much evidence of how humans have transformed this landscape – from all the plastic and other detritus left as rubbish, to the fact that tourists and ex-pats from half way round the world have had so much influence on the rebuilding and shaping of this town over recent years. I’ve been thinking about human hearing as a technology for filtering out the extraneous sounds we don’t need to notice in our day to day life. I’ve been thinking about human community as a technology for managing trauma. I’ve been thinking about the difference between recording people’s stories, and holding people’s stories. I’ve been thinking about the invention of surfing and the design of surfboards. I’ve been thinking about the experience of wearing wireless headphones and the experience of being connected by wires. I’ve been thinking about the difference between music played live by humans, and music constructed by humans but not played live.
tuk tuk hip hop
Did I mention we’re making a set of kick-ass tunes from field recordings of Sri Lanka? Well, I just want to say it again, because I’ve never made an album before and everyone’s always wanted to make an album right?
This week has been all about starting to make these tunes – which means having to construct every single sound and all the instruments we need from the extensive collection of field recordings we’ve collected in Sri Lanka. The samples and loops I make for Circadial can be so much looser than what we need here. I’ve never done this kind of music making before and it is waaaaaaaaay difficult. We’re having to work fast so it’s a bit of a bootcamp; but it’s also fun and I’m learning loads for my sound design practice. Making the whole thing here, I feel like we’re very directly vibe-ing off the town we’re in, which is really satisfying. We’re aiming to have 4 tunes we’re really happy with finished and properly mastered to play out and offer back to the community here.
At some point I might write a total nerd post about the process, but for now, I’m just loving how we can make hi-hats from market scales in Hikkaduwa, and basslines from children’s squeals in Katharagama, and snare drums from the Kelaniya Perehara, and melodies from a whistling thrush on Horton Plains.
Field recording in Sri Lanka
posted by Tim / March 1, 2018
The pantheon of gods in Sri Lanka is a complex hierarchy of beings ultimately subject to the cycle of birth and rebirth in the same manner humans are; a process that in Theravada Buddhism is widely accepted to last millions of lifetimes or more, until, after much suffering, enlightenment – and therefore the path to Nirvana – can be achieved.
None of these gods are depicted as being remotely alarmed by this terrifying prospect, with the notable exception of the horse god Muhuna Aśvayāyi.
Aware of the arduous and uneventful series of lives ahead of him – most of which, according to tradition, are likely to see him manifest in the form of a horse – Muhuna Aśvayāyi is portrayed as forever reared up, eyes wide, nostrils flared, neighing in protest at the cosmos.
The stereotypes associated with Sri Lankan grandmothers – or ‘archchis’ as they are known – are very similar to those all over the world, in that grandmas are generally seen to be up in everyone’s business 24/7, 365.
This stereotype has entered into popular custom in the form of the Wall Archchi, a partially concealed grandmother painted (or, in modern times, often laminated) onto the walls of a home: usually peeking out from the top of a cupboard. In the example pictured above the Wall Archchi is regarding everyone from behind a unhung mirror.
The figure is not seen as foreboding or auspicious, its eyes are meant to convey neither reprimand nor love. The wall archchi is simply continuously present.
It’s widely accepted now that over-fishing of Cooper’s Singing Fish from the Indian Ocean will most likely result in the species’ extinction within a few decades. This is especially distressing given that so many of them are thrown onto the street (as illustrated above) when their songs fail to please western tourists.
There is much ritual built up in the restaurants of four and five star hotels wherein diners choose a fish with the sweetest song, and any that fail to ululate in harmonic tones pleasing to the customer are quickly dispensed with. In the hours immediately after dinner time the gutters are filled with the cacophonous keening song of rejected specimens, especially ones unfortunate enough not to sing in accepted western scales.
The sound was probably made most famous on the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey – directly inspired by the experiences of the film’s author and famous Sri Lankan resident Arthur C Clarke, who would often weep openly at the fading song of thousands of spurned fish, echoing across the urban night.
In 2009 a series of civil but extremely noisy protests were held by Sri Lankan fishermen outside the Japanese embassy in Colombo, following the appearance of the highly controversial Aluminium Fish in the island’s waters.
The attempt by US and Japanese marine biochemists to produce a school of literally metallic fish in Japan’s own seas had supposedly failed in 2006. But three years later huge numbers of them were being caught in nets off Sri Lanka’s east, south and south-west coast, severely disrupting the traditional seafaring industries.
While resilient, rust-proof and purportedly living for several millennia, Aluminium Fish unsurprisingly taste awful.
A vanishing tradition in all but the most affluent Sri Lankan households, the Home Supplicant or ‘Gedara Sirura’ is a slumped figure without a face, usually left behind a door somewhere.
Any unwanted items around the house – disappointing gifts, unfavoured foods, etc – are formally presented to the Gedara Sirura, and if in the subsequent hours they are not either consumed or stored away, the offering must be retrieved and dealt with accordingly.
The Home Supplicant is believed by folklorists to be a cousin of the Tooth Fairy, but the Gedara Sirura’s association with social responsibility have seen it fall out of favour (as opposed to the tooth fairy’s decent capitalist principles.)
An interesting and completely unique offshoot of the Roman Catholicism introduced to Sri Lanka by Portuguese colonists sees a wide acceptance of certain deceased souls being immensely bored in, and by, the afterlife.
Likenesses of the dead are carved with expressions as if they’re listlessly watching television or contemplating something remarkably mundane, and their unmoving features are then left protruding from the earth, staring at the sky as if they had just been partially resurrected but can’t be bothered to get up all the way out of the ground.
In some of the more cosmopolitan urban areas, if happening upon one of the Lazy Dead, it is thought both good luck and polite to kiss it on the nose.
The coastal winds in Sri Lanka frequently erode municipal stonework to reveal visiting spirits. It is considered unlucky to look at these images for too long, and extremely unlucky if you ever see one of them smile at you.
This is widely considered to be the work of fireflies, often in the employ of bored gods and / or mischievous priests.
Practice Makes Practice
posted by Tanuja / February 22, 2018
One of the main drives of these Sura Medura residencies is to push and take risks with our practice. The residencies are hosted by Neil Butler, who’s got strong form in making and producing radical art, and we’re all experienced artists, so it feels like a really supportive environment for embracing that challenge.
We had a catch up session over dinner last night, briefly hearing about what people have been exploring and what each of us might be heading towards showing. I’m a massive nerd for process, so I love hearing about these different investigations. I think we’re all feeling the pressure of time – the desire to be open and responsive to the culture and landscape around us, but also aware that we’ll need to focus down pretty soon in order to actually get stuff made in time to show. Broadly speaking we have 4 weeks to develop our own projects and 2 weeks to grow something(s) collaborative. The collaborative exchanges are already happening pretty organically in different ways, which is helpful.
Given the time pressure, my natural instinct is to retreat into my comfort zone rather than push at my edges, so I thought I’d use this blog to help me identify where I really want to extend my practice and take risks.
Me, myself and here
Both Tim and I are working on writing pieces that reflect on our personal experience in and in relation to Sri Lanka. Neither of us have done this before explicitly, in terms of art making. Of course our personal experience informs the perspective we bring to art making, but we’ve neither of us placed ourselves as the subject of the story before.
I can’t tell you how much of a professional risk that feels like for me. I wrote this article last year, about being a British Asian artist who doesn’t make work about being Asian, and the challenges of how that makes me seen and not seen. And I wrote recently about the challenge of making a career as an outsider with a UK theatre industry that seeks to box you up before it lets you in. The idea of writing myself as the subject in a way that fits those pigeonholes I’ve been fighting against professionally all my career, is, frankly, terrifying.
But here in Sri Lanka, there is something pulling me to address this. I have a sense of its focus, but I don’t yet know how it will manifest publicly. Whatever it becomes, I suspect it will be quiet. I know it’ll be hard for me to do.
It’s probably why I haven’t started that writing piece yet… (I’LL START IT AT THE WEEKEND OK I WILL I WILL)
Laying down tracks
All y’all Sleepdogs fans might have noticed that we’re fans of using field recordings in our sound designs. Our piece, Circadial, is an improvised gig entirely built from field recordings local to the gig venue. We’ve always resisted requests to record Circadial sets because we’ve always felt that the liveness was so important, and that the improvised sets just simply wouldn’t stand up as good enough music out of context.
There’s a tuk tuk driver here called Sudu, who’s got a phat sound system in his tuk tuk, and riding up and down to Ambalangoda the other day with the mix of traffic sounds, town noise and Dr Dre got us really excited about experimenting with whether here was the place to make tunes built from field recordings – music that stands up on its own and also speaks of a place, without needing us there to perform it live. It feels like a fun way to make a portrait of contemporary Sri Lanka, reflecting a vibrant and friendly spirit – a modern take on ideas of transformation that are so deeply rooted in this culture. Also, hip hop.
On a practical note, this is also a big step for me technically. I’ve only ever worked with samples to create ambient soundscapes. Composing actual tune tunes, which need no other context is a whole new thing for me.
I’ve always wanted to be in a band. Tim and I have never made an album together. We’ve never made anything together this fast. I hope the breaks break right. I hope they don’t break us.
Difficult, if true
Generally speaking, Tim and I create fictions. We’ve built work from ambient documentary recording before, and we’ve built work from conventional books and t’internet research. We’ve also interviewed people as background research around political and social ideas. But we’ve never tried creating work that explicitly honours other people’s life stories.
Somewhere between the ever-presence of the sea here (that I mentioned in my last blog) and the fact that the tsunami comes up so regularly in conversation with locals, there’s an impossible question that’s kept coming up for us, around the still resonating impact of that disaster and the most useful ways to tell that story. Places don’t stand still and people don’t stand still, and it feels important to remember how hope resides in the dark places too.
We’re heading back to the Tsunami Museum this evening, where Pryanthi and Roshan who manage the centre have invited a small group of families from Peraliya village to speak to us about their different experiences of the tsunami. Since we’ve been here, it’s been majorly humbling to hear people’s personal stories of that time – sometimes shared in great detail, sometimes mentioned as a decisive factor in as innocuous a question as “do you surf?”
We don’t yet know how we’ll work with those stories. We want to listen first and then respond. We want to make sure we’re sensitive, and find a way to honour those people’s stories without appropriating them. We don’t want to make a documentary. And we massively don’t want to make anything boringly worthy – that would be the least interesting way to hold anyone’s story and at worst it can feel really exploitative.
Tim and I love to run towards complicated things. This one is super complicated. More news from inside those knots soon, no doubt.
People Take Pictures Of People
posted by Tim / February 20, 2018
World’s End, Horton Plains. Photo: TX Atack
On the beach a tourist couple are ankle-deep in the surf, and she’s performing the kind of frolicking you only perform at the edge of the sea if you have a camera’s gaze upon you. The boyfriend, a man in his late thirties, is insta-framing the early sunset behind his partner using his phone, and while the waves make it difficult to hear for sure he seems to be encouraging her into some serious hair tossing and general beachside attractiveness. He looks most sastisfied when she gets too deep into the water for complete comfort, when she has to regain her balance and laughs, or is splashed by the more vigorous waves; these are surfing waters, the incoming wash is often unpredictable. Isn’t this crazy? says her laugh. Aren’t we crazy? She tries her most daring move yet in the shifting sands: a full double twirl in the water, arms outstretched. But her boyfriend doesn’t see. Something has arrived on his phone – he has shifted it into profile on his palm – and he walks away from the waves, away from her, distracted by whatever has beamed into his inbox.
Three Japanese women in shades and shorts, perhaps in their 30s, are posing in the centre of the marbled square that draws you in to the Bendictine abbey. In the blank heat of late morning there’s nothing of the breeze that smooths the mountaintop, but all the same these three are giving it some serious energy. Two of them throw frozen shapes like Charlie’s Angels or the Bee Gees or some shit: jaunty hips, shoulders slanted. Extended arms point to multiple architectural features, but eyes are directed steadily down the lens of the camera, held by the third woman at the edge of the square. The facade of the monastery rises in the background, the same colour as the hillside, almost as if hewn from the rockface. A frame is taken, the camera changes hands, the subjects re-arrange themselves wordlessly into an equally outrageous formation and hold, playing statues for as long as it takes the picture to be taken. Sometimes it takes quite a while. They keep holding the pose, always with minimal-to-zero expression on their faces.
He’s an older gentleman, northern European, gaunt and pale and made twice his natural width by a loose floral shirt; she’s from south-east Asia, younger, plumper, shorter, smilier. They stand beneath a scant bright blossom on the path into Kandy’s botanical gardens while their guide, a Sinhalese force of nature happy to shout at the top of his voice about every floral feature in sight, fusses around them, moving them this way, that way. He eventually sets the couple a good foot or so apart. They seem to want to get closer to each other but their Sri Lankan guide isn’t convinced. He then dashes several paces back and drops into the most amazing shooting position: right leg extended forward and bent at the knee in a lunge, left leg anchored as far behind his arse as it’s possible to get, camera pushed out with both hands at maximum arm’s length. It’s somewhere between yoga pose and the starting position for a forgotten sport, and fair play, it gets a massive surprised grin from his subjects, and probably a good picture.
Horton Plains 2014
At the edge of the plains is a sheer drop of 1 km as the highland suddenly falls away to forest. A common pastime is to walk the few kilometres over the cool grasslands to the cliff, and contemplate the immense vista. There are a few foreign folks, brought in on zipping tuk-tuks from Ella and Nurawa Eliya – but you have to get here well early in the day for the best conditions, and for the most part the hikers are Sri Lankans. However, nature plays tricks: often the weather systems will throw a rising cloud flat up against World’s End, meaning you’re faced with a view of nothing but eerie blank white. So today people stand in groups in front of the remarkable nothingness and have their pictures taken. The ledge at World’s End is surprsingly shallow. It’s not all that easy to get a group shot with any surrounding context in the frame; plants, trees, rocks, even the ground. So most photographs will show a row of Sri Lankan faces – serious and matter-of-fact as they so often are in pictures of their travels – against what might as well be a big whitish wall.
Nuwara Eliya 2014
The British colonists loved this place in the hill country of an otherwise sweltering Sri Lanka, because the climate meant they could build homes with glass windows, and a golf course or whatever. So we’re in a country club-style hotel, creaky wooden floors and soft furnishings, pictures of Queen Victoria, etc. In one of the day parlours a Japanese woman in her late 40s is adopting serious and silent fashion-mag positions, variously reclining on sofas, perching at leadwork windows and gazing into the middle distance. She’s wearing custom-tailored bottle green clothes, a silk scarf. Her photographer is a Japanese fellow of the same age burdened with a shocking amount of professional equipment hung around his neck, and the face of a deep-sea angler fish. After every single frame, every shot, the woman swishes to his side and looks at the camera display. Neither of them seem to react to anything they see, or audibly converse. They continue to move around the hotel taking pictures in this fashion for at last an hour.
You’d know where you were even without looking up. Across the viewing platform, people from all over the world are are extending their arms wide, aping the statue of the redeemer close behind them, the Christ that watches over the southern zone of Rio De Janeiro. They’re all struggling with an immediate problem of scale and framing: to fit in both subject and statue you need a fish-eye lens or similar, and unless you’re some kind of photo ninja you won’t have one on you. The solution most people arrive at is for the photographer to crouch or lie on the ground. So the place looks like a piece of performance art. Men in haiwaiian shirts are laid flat out on the blisteringly hot stone slabs, their mates gurning over them with hands far apart as if indicating the size of a supernaturally large fish they once caught. One woman is doing the whole Christ-arms thing without the tiniest crack of a smile. Some game souls, perhaps slightly confused in the heat, climb onto the head-height ledge around the monument’s plinth before throwing their arms open, as if that will make for a better image. The vast majority of the kids have it right, though. They’re not interested in pretending to be Jesus, they just want to look over the mountain’s edge at the gloriously noisy city below.
There’s no taking of photos allowed in the Community Tsunami Museum, and it’s not surprising – all they have are the pictures on the walls, it’s a true archive, a collection you wouldn’t find anywhere else. The most profoundly distressing images – of bodies piled into mass graves, of parents crying over their drowned children – are kept to one wall and a drape is pulled over this section when kids are present. The story is laid out over four small quiet rooms, dealing with geology, the devastation caused by the wave, the aftermath, and finally the reconstruction; of buildings, boats, lives, hope. Quietly and efficiently the museum staff give you the facts and figures: the number of dead in this village alone, the time the wave struck, the way the animals behaved, the number of orphans left behind that day. There are many pictures of stopped clocks, frozen at the time the wave hit the coast, making me think of pocket watches gathered after the Hiroshima bomb. In the final room there’s a photograph of a group of local kids by some railroad tracks, and all of them have cameras. They’re the chemical, analogue kind of camera that maybe you could have last bought on a western high street back in the late 90s, and they’re clutched in small hands with varying degrees of comfort and familiarity, but all of the children are grinning wide at something to the left of frame. The land behind them is still battered and cracked, but the background doesn’t matter in this picture. The future is somewhere in the foreground.
Ask me if I’m Sri Lankan
posted by Tanuja / February 18, 2018
I think it was 2014, at the caravan showcase, when Bettina Linstrum first mentioned the Sura Meduraresidency project to us. Now it’s February 2018, and here we are, towards the end of Week 1 of a 6-week residency in the town of Hikkaduwa, SW Sri Lanka. It’s an extraordinary gift to be offered – 6 whole weeks; they’re paying entirely (including a fee) for one of us to be out here, and covering shared costs for the other, and all with a very light touch application process.
We’re here with 6 other artists from England and Scotland: Subathra Subramaniam, Emma Brierley, Rob Mulholland, Brian Hartley, Claire Rafferty and Damian Wright. It’s brilliant to be amongst both an interdisciplinary and also experienced bunch of artists. We’re missing the Pervasive Media Studio 10thbirthday party whilst we’re out here, so it’s great not to be missing the Studio’s interdisciplinary influence too. Every conversation (and there’s LOTS of conversation) is really making me think about the decisions I make in my practice – both extending possibilities and also attuning the swerves and established direction of my artistic curiosity.
Being a Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka: part 1
I was born in Sri Lanka, but only 10 months old when my family emigrated to the UK. This is my seventh visit to Sri Lanka, and Tim’s third. The fact that Tim and I have a lot of previous with this country puts us in quite a different position to our fellow artists, who are all experiencing Sri Lanka for the first time. All of these guys have toured internationally to all kinds of places, and there’s a real desire to understand and participate in the local culture, which is great. It’s making me feel unexpectedly proud of my birth country. I’ve noticed myself saying “we” a lot when talking about Sri Lankan words and food culture. Though I’m still saying “Sri Lankans tend to…” when talking about social vibes and customs. I guess it says a lot about where I feel my heritage sits in me.
It’s the first time Sura Medura has hosted a British artist of Sri Lankan heritage. And for me, it’s the first time I’ve spent any time in Sri Lanka without being surrounded by family – which is something I couldn’t do without feeling uber-guilty if I wasn’t here to work. Family is a BIG DEAL in Sri Lanka and there’ve been times when I’ve been here and felt ragingly trapped and suffocated by that. This residency is a uniquely precious chance for me to dig into my own relationship with this beautiful and troubling country.
Between practice, collaboration and creation
The invitation out here has been about developing our artistic practice, responding to place and collaborating with the other artists. We’re only a week in, but I’m already conscious of needing to maintain a balance between these rangy prompts. Throughout the week I’ve been mega conscious of my practice as one that is quite slow, private and accumulative and which generally only becomes public once its thread is clear to me. I can feel the pressure of needing to collaborate with artists I’ve only just met and I don’t want to get distracted by designing workshops or trying to pre-empt what we might make together. I really want to make sure that I’m letting the experience of working in this place take root in me so that it can influence the work I make more long-term rather than just the bubble of what I do within these 6 weeks.
Being a Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka: part 2
My artistic practice is deeply influenced by the fact that I grew up halfway round the world (Durham, UK) from where I was born (Colombo, Sri Lanka). The active mixing of forms and techniques, a fascination with stories of technological and cultural dispersal, a friction against any fixed notion of home or destiny, a hyper-awareness of perspective, a conviction that the world is bigger than we know or imagine… these instincts all spring from my being a child of the diaspora. So far, I’ve only had the chance to use this perspective from being anchored in Europe. It already feels kinda overwhelming to grow my consciousness of that perspective in Sri Lanka. It’s the first time I’ve been signified as Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka without the prism of my family. When I practice my rickety Sinhala, people don’t just see me as a tourist but refer to me as someone practising their mother tongue.
I’m in Hikkaduwa, on the SW coast, staying in a hotel right on the sea front. I can stand on the beach at the edge of Sri Lanka every day for 6 weeks and find myself looking out to the West from here, rather than the other way round.
Stories from the village, stories from the sea
We came out here ostensibly to continue chipping away at Tales From The Old World, in particular the notion of writing myths of the modern world. It was a loose focus around which we’d also have the freedom to respond to whatever became alive for us during the residency.
Sri Lanka has a rich tradition of folk myths and oral storytelling. It’s quite hard to find Sri Lankan books in translation, so I nicked off with a book called Folklore of Sri Lanka by Nandasena Ratnapala which I found under the stairs at my Dad’s house, and have been reading that over the last week. It’s joined a lot of dots for me – explaining the supernatural elements of Sri Lankan Buddhism, the odd life rituals that persist through time and across international borders, and the roots of superstitions that still feel very present around things like death and disease. There’s also this myth of how Hitler invented the Volkswagen Beetle, apparently:
“Once Hitler got an open lorry full of cotton wool and caused the lorry to be driven at great speed. Some of the cotton was blown away by the wind, and Hitler ordered the engineers to build a car having the shape of the cotton that remained in the lorry. The result was the Volkswagen.”
It feels like part of Tales From the Old World before we’ve even made it.
But the thing that feels most present to me here is the sea. It’s a surf beach, so the waves break and jostle constantly. The noise of the sea is immense and its power feels proper from the Old Gods. All the main industries of this town are linked to it. The horizons are super-wide and super-cinematic. It’s the edge of this world and the best set ever.
It’s been 14 years since the boxing day tsunami hit. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know. The town’s been reshaped and rebuilt for good vibes and good surfing. But I notice that the tsunami crops up in almost every conversation I have with locals. It’s an indelible mark in the timeline of this town.
Being a Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka: part 3
When we visited Hikkaduwa’s small Tsunami Museum earlier this week, I was particularly struck by 2 things:
- The story the museum tells goes from big picture geology lesson through horrific human devastation and into rebuilding and regeneration;
- The regularly reiterated notion that the West doesn’t care about Sri Lanka and its tragedies.
These things make me think about storytelling. About how we hear stories and which stories we hear. About cultural tone and moral imperialism. About where stories end or carry on. About the difference between storytelling as confirmation and storytelling as transformation.
This perception that the West doesn’t care about Sri Lanka is something I’ve heard regularly since forever I can remember – particularly in relation to the civil war. Civil war is a dark and insular thing, pushing people to define themselves in opposition, and often unfathomable to the outside world. The only truth I know about the Sri Lankan civil war is that so many people were killed and brutalised in so many different ways. I feel like almost all my life, I’ve been wrestling with how to talk about it in ways that force open its complexities without sounding like an apologist for brutality on either side. ‘War’ suggests a binary conflict. It is not a binary conflict.
When I try out my kronky Sinhala, people invariably ask me if I’m Sri Lankan. And here, I invariably say yes.
So being a Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka, standing on the edge of this land, looking out to the West, what is my responsibility as a storyteller? Are there stories I have a duty to tell and how should I tell them?
The sea and the technology
Three nights ago Tim and I took an iPad, headphones and a Minirig out onto the beach. I’d wanted to try playing against the sound of the sea. We had field recordings from Kataragama already made up into playable samples so we figured we could test with those. There was a lightning storm far up in the sky, spiking all pink and orange. We stood with our feet in the Indian Ocean and played a mini Circadial in concert with the waves: one of us controlling the iPad, one of us holding the Minirig.
Feel free to call me a wanker, but I found it a profound and beautiful experience. The lightning made it doubly cinematic. It felt like a ritual of transformation. An offering to the sea that came not from the old days, but from modern times.
Memory clears the space for what’s needed
I can’t believe I’ve been here almost a week already; but writing this has helped me distil what’s been accumulating (if you’re still reading – thanks dudes! You are dudes). I have 3 threads of work I want to pursue, interrelated I think by a vague notion of oral storytelling. One will involve interviewing people in town. One will be an act of personal political writing. One will be an ongoing research. I feel like I’m both reaching into the roots of something big and just skimming the surface of something beautiful.
The Museum Of Important Incidents
posted by Tim / February 18, 2018
photo by Timothy X Atack
The Museum of Important Incidents was established some years ago (precisely when is unimportant) in order to celebrate the truth.
Fame and infamy and the works of so-called significant persons are often bright and noisy; often lauded as the ‘course of history’. But they have their own museums. Instead, we founded an institution to catalogue the things that happened in the gloom beyond those lights, that made their own music beneath the trumpets and horns. We did not want to ignore the big pains; the terrible memories; the world-wide horrible lies. But at the same time, we felt the people needed a place to go and appreciate themselves, to see their own faces and thoughts, and not the big killings and the magnanimous gestures, the banquets or garlands or first-time discoveries, the endless piles of money and weapons. So we began to make plans for where and how we might build our museum.
It was difficult, of course. The first people who complained were men. Many men. Perhaps this is unsurprising to you, but long ago men discovered that the nozzle that dangles between their thighs was some part of what makes a child, and since then have spent most of their time claiming that these wobbly tubies are the single most important things in the world. They don’t always do this in a straightforwardly fashion, but secretly their talk on almost any subject is to do with this very particular one subject. For instance we currently have a man in charge of America who does nothing but talk of his own appendage, and a surprising number of people think, somehow, it’s politics. It’s become a bit of a bore. So perhaps our first rule of the Museum of Important Incidents was that no phalluses would be included, or at least, none of them should be immediately visible.
This was not enjoyed by many people who owned phalluses, but especially not by those who behaved as though they might be made entirely of phallus. It’s possible they would have been content had we filled a large number of rooms in our establishment with dangling bombs or tastefully arranged assortments of rifles, or models of future tower blocks higher than the moon, struck by lightning and yet untroubled, impervious to the highest wind, deathless, rigid, etcetera.
But to their dismay, our subsequent primary rules were: no bombs. No guns. No killers, human or otherwise. No pictures of wars, no matter how artful. No megadeaths. No trampled populations. No scourging fires. No skyscrapers. What then, asked our detractors, what then will this cockamamie museum consist of? What will people come to look at? Dust? Darkness? Hydrogen?
In fact the earliest curated part of the museum was a wing of the building devoted entirely to in-jokes: to laughter between friends, jokes that made no sense to anyone but those who shared them. These jokes being in any way funny was not a condition of inclusion. We catalogued them with merciless accuracy and detail, and displayed them on a rotating basis. It’s often pointed out that some of the more oblique and memorable of these in-jokes did find their way onto popular t-shirts and crockery, but the museum did not instigate the merchandise and neither condoned nor condemned its sale.
The second major group of people to make mass representations against the Museum Of Important Incidents were artists, who felt that a true account of importance could not be made without reference to art. This of course is some downright woolly thinking. The museum had art coming out of its ears. It was simply that only a tiny amount of it was made by professional artists, and anything by a professional artist that we did put on display was work that had been made by mistake.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in our extremely popular Chamber Of Rusted Things, where time had played tricks on the mind. The onlooker was convinced of patterns, expositions and intentions in the objects on display, whereas the only important agencies at work were physics, chemistry, and the aforementioned onlooker. For instance there were brash warning signs and municipal exhortations, all rendered unreadable, or their messages changed through the oxidisation of letters or whole words. If the chamber contained a temple god, it was a god eaten up beyond recognition, jaws unhinged, become some sad clownish creature. There were segments of huge unplaceable constructions. There were open pots of paint, encrusted and discoloured, which some well-regarded painters took as a direct insult to their craft. Our resident Professor of Rust, a young woman from New Delhi – perhaps the world’s foremost city of rust – was for a time the most reviled woman in the arts and the study of the arts. We are happy to report she survived the opprobrium and is now living happily in Japan, where her ideas are appreciated (albeit in moderation.)
It was this kind of controversy that made it easy for our detractors to argue against our public funding. Unfortunately for them we had never received any public funding, because we were not considered important – nor rigorous, nor accessible. Apparently our activities could not be conducive to communal well-being or a sense of national identity, because nothing of what we provided could be measured. We also found it extremely difficult to obtain private funding because by definition a museum of truly important things is generally unattractive to people who have become rich by design.
A notable exception to this was the international pop star who for thirteen months provided us with funds to create a Usual Noises Room, where any member of the public could deposit a noise they considered usual plus associated metadata. It was then possible to press buttons around the room and release each unique noise, or a great many simultaneously. Unfortunately a visit by the pop star to the room at a particularly busy time of day, involving hundreds of children, resulted in the immediate cessation of the grant.
But through donations, support in kind and good will we somehow kept the massive operation afloat. It helped that we had no obligation to anyone but our public, and the upkeep of truly important material came with certain caveats; to be genuinely important our exhibits had to be subject to loss. Much of the museum was open-air, and maintained without any official security. That felt in keeping with our ethos… but after several years we began to realise that for all our care we’d left one everyday subject, death, without a permanent home. No-one working at the museum had ever remarked upon it before. It was almost as if we’d done it deliberately. A few fraught meetings later, it was decided that as a solution we would put up an enormous sign apologising for the lack of a death wing, explaining that such a gallery within the museum would have to be infinite, making it impossible for mortal beings to comprehend, and therefore curate. Our public protested. Having been made aware of our oversight, they wanted it corrected. Overwhelmingly they considered our justifications to be weak excuses, a lack of ambition of the worst kind – and rightly so. But we found it almost impossible to address importance in death without also evoking some extremely overinflated and self-aggrandising aspects of life.
Some of the – increasingly desperate – suggestions for the best way of creating a death exhibition included
a) creating a room with no lights and no floor
b) filling a room alternately with fire, earth, wind, and water
c) hiding the exhibit but making it extremely loud
d) building an enormous clock that made absolutely no sense
e) abandoning the entire museum altogether, suddenly and without warning, at some randomly acquired date.
The solution we eventually came to was inevitable, and also by some margin the single most unpopular thing we had done as far as the authorities were concerned. We put living people on display.
As much as possible we made it an ethically sound experience for those exhibited. And our position was: to all extents and purposes, death is put on display in almost every museum in some fashion in every part of the world, often for the purposes of tourism. But it seems the crucially unacceptable element was our detailing the most important, most factual aspects of the impending deaths involved. We addressed, moment by moment, point by point, inescapable truth by inescapable truth, why the ends were approaching.
Simply sat or laid out around the room, or walking around if able to, the manner of death was written upon each body in as many languages as could fit.
Sometimes photographs of the body at an earlier point were provided, so as to illustrate the process.
Some bodies lasted longer than others, of course. Some were salaried. Others were employed on a freelance basis, sometimes they volunteered.
The dead were moved as soon as was possible, with decorum but without visible ritual.
What we did not anticipate and could not have measured beforehand was how rapidly the authorities considered this a political act. It seemed that no matter what part chance or fate or basic bad luck played in the fate of our exhibits, any associated social facts would be argued by commentators or officials or other actors for the establishment – claiming that we had it wrong, or that our facts were the wrong facts, or that we were obscuring the most important truths. Death was no business for collectors and the cultural elite, they said. Death was something that should be given respect, kept private, not paraded around for everyone to gawp at. They accused us of ‘using’ death. They called it undignified, then they called it inhumane, then they called it abhorrent, then they called it evil, then things really escalated. Men turned up to the exhibition hall and denounced the museum, shouting alternative stories about the dying, some of them extremely unfavourable, slanderous. The families of the exhibited were often in attendance in the death wing, and violence broke out. An already weak heart gave; we had our first death not within the exhibition but caused by it, and we realised the museum’s end had come. If we didn’t bring it about ourselves, the powerful now had their excuse.
The natural inclination of course was to activate plan e) and simply run away, leaving the museum to the winds and the crows and the dancing rust. But no, we thought, therein lies too much satisfaction for the men made mostly of phallus.
Instead, under cover of darkness over the course of one astonishing night, we disassembled the entire site and had our collection randomly donated to any household, any dive bar, any kitchen cabinet or attic that could contain a small part of us. As in life, the Museum Of Important Incidents’ death was accompanied by sheer good will and a generally happy, if slightly confused, accommodation. You’ll see us everywhere you go. Back in the olden days you might not find a rusting god for sale in a roadside shop, these days they’re all over the place, the world better for it: accidental art, patterns without intentions. Noises rattle about the cities, sudden warbles, clanging nonsense from out of nowhere, nowadays considered usual, but every one of those sound-offs unique. And of course the lunatics are still in charge but there’s so much they can’t control. I’m sure you’ll agree that in modern times you hear plenty more in-jokes than ever before. That’s us. That’s us, and our friends. Times were hard but in the end, we released the jokes into the wild like butterflies. In the end we knew what was important.