Real Live Action

Photo by Chris Randle


w/ Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Holy Body Tattoo (dance troupe)

Queen Elizabeth Theatre; January 28, 2016

Jonathan Kew
Chris Randle

“Alain Badiou once identified the ‘passion for the Real’ as the key feature of the 20th century … The ultimate defining experience of the 20th century was the direct experience of the Real as opposed to the everyday social reality – the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of reality.” – Slavoj Zizek, A Holiday From History, and Other Real Stories

Some time into the impressive – and ultimately frustrating – MONUMENTAL, a phrase was projected behind the dancers of The Holy Body Tattoo, against a translucent veil covering Godspeed You! Black Emperor: “It’s an extraordinary feeling when parts of your body are touched for the first time. I’m thinking of the sensations from sex and surgery.” It, like the other truisms which constituted Jenny Holzer’s contribution to the multi-disciplinary MONUMENTAL, lacked impact. Holzer’s art, superimposed at large against skyscrapers and city architecture, or even within galleries, has the effect of discomfort, intimacy atypical of urban space. With the expectation that MONUMENTAL presumed, such statements became rote. For me, Holzer’s truisms came to embody an apolitical, Ludditic dirge for the Human Spirit: a redundant theme that didn’t capitalize on the skills present.

For instance, Godspeed You! Black Emperor have spent a career searching for ‘the Real.’ Swirling crescendos and raucous beauty put into practice the revolutionary slogan, “Under the paving stones, the beach.” What’s more, there’s a circumspection and exploration in their politically radical music that doesn’t resolve into sloganeering. Field recordings, noise collages, guitar orchestras that transform into psychedelic grandiloquence: myriad influences constitute Godspeed’s corpus.

In MONUMENTAL, Godspeed channel maximal repetition suitable for representing the mania of modernity. But it’s flat, one-dimensional. There was one moment when the band pushed lighter, xylophonic tones to the forefront. Otherwise, it was 90 minutes of tonal homogeneity; Godspeed at their most codified, everything their detractors say they are: crescendos that plateau almost immediately, multi-rhythmic drumming that blurs together, the din of noise and guitar distortion, strings overhead – again and again.

Surely ad nauseum is the point: the drudgery of McDonaldization. But it’s an underutilization of Godspeed’s abilities, and the romantic power the troupe ordinarily offers (the emphasis on the word HOPE in Godspeed’s stage-show evinces a searching that is absent here). Besides, the sound wasn’t inspiring in a textural sense. Kevin Drumm’s Organ is a personal favourite; I love monomaniacal noise. In this case, with the auditorium setting, the audience seated, and the music never enveloping or breaking out of its plateauing impulse, Godspeed’s power was caged; their “passion for the Real” rendered as a special effect. Imagine the conclusion of Vince Staples’ “Señorita” video and you have a good idea of what I mean.

However, if this flatness was necessary to keep MONUMENTAL from falling in on itself, it should be understood that The Holy Body Tattoo were tremendous. As the troupe writhed in manic gestures reminiscent of fast-forward butoh, their gestures of neurosis – folding over, heaving, falling apart, behaviours of anxiety and repetitive obsession – resembled in snapshots the beauty and articulation of classical sculpture. Clothed in various symbols of capitalist monotony (clerk, office-worker, urbanite, suburbanite), portraying weakness and abandon, their acting was good enough to dissimulate their own powerful bodies.

Nonetheless, as a musical endeavour MONUMENTAL is lacking. And as a gestalt MONUMENTAL is lacking bite. I adore the contributing parties, but their strengths rely on spillages that pull in too many directions; uniting them required some mono-myth of modernist alienation. While watching, after a series of Holzer’s truisms, I joked to myself that it would soon be time for the time-lapse footage of LA traffic.

I was not let down. It’s not that MONUMENTAL is off-base. It’s more disappointing that the sum of so many talents produced a paean for a bland and homogenizing humanism. The use of so much text from an 80’s Holzer document situated the piece in an ‘End of history’ slice of Koyanisqaatsi. Today, is there a gap in any exegesis of modern life that doesn’t address the Huxleian culture of internet, or any critique of modernity that doesn’t fall upon the impotence of white-collar drones unable to achieve actualization? To this latter point, can I be a hyperbolic ass in Discorder by suggesting MONUMENTAL is a sequel to Trainspotting and the clip from Falling Down where Michael Douglas is really upset he can’t get the McDonald’s breakfast?

Like the superstructures MONUMENTAL aspires to, there was power, and a reflective gaze. But it’s an everyday catharsis. There’s no re-examination, no disruption. It’s an old story retold by artists who excel at bringing newness into the world; again, the “passion for the Real” rendered as a special effect.

-Jonathan Kew