I try to fill the you-shaped hole with art
A hole punched through my body
In the shape of you
And through the hole I look at things
As we used to do
Edinburgh is where I come from, but it's not where I belong. Edinburgh is where my family lives, but it's a long way from where my friends are. That fact is brought home to me with terrible force this August when, far away in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, one of my closest friends takes her own life. Whether I could have saved Rika if I'd been closer is a question that will haunt me for the rest of my life. As will her loss. One day I will write more about her, but just now it's too soon. And too late. There's no helping her now, and staying at home seeping tears into the sofa won't bring her back. I still can't believe that I won't hear her voice again, calling me up to meet for dim sum on Eldridge Street. I can't believe she isn't reading this now, in fact.
But because there's nothing I can do, I go out. I go out and do the kind of things she and I loved to do. See shows, visit galleries, meet interesting people, watch films, eat gyoza and schlepp about, drowning our problems in alcohol and art. This time, though, Rika is with me in a different way: she's a tangibly absent presence, a Rika-shaped hole, as if I've been punched through to the core by a pastry-cutter. Every mirror I pass watches me with her eyes, every film I see seems to involve suicide in some way, every inscription fits my loss, like the poem I see on a Cy Twombly painting at Inverleith House in the Botanical Gardens one unfeasibly paradisal day:
brief in its beauty
but the scent...
better than fame!
I scribble it down. As I scribble down other thoughts to her. I imagine how she would like the things I'm seeing, if she were here. If her tragic commitment to a particular narrative hadn't convinced her of the beauty and necessity and correctness of death.
Oh Rika, fucking hell, it was just a story that was ending, a fairly insignificant fragment of narrative involving a man and a baby. A back story. It didn't have to be the end of your life!
I'll try and stop talking about this now. But I won't stop dreaming it and living it and staring through plane windows seeing it. Seeing you.
My fellow citizens throw an egg at me
So here I am again. A visit to the Edinburgh Festival just before I start composing and recording an album is propitious. I hope and I know that it teaches me boldness, play, experimentation and adventure. You've got to realise that there's a side of me which is like Edinburgh outside of festival time: dour, moralistic, embittered, grey and somewhat wet. But the EdFest brings out something more extraverted: some commedia side, some love of theatre, of cross-genre pollinations and erudite subversions. (Both The Little Red Songbook and Folktronic were written and recorded right after EdFests.) I tend to be looking, as I book tickets and flip through programmes and wander the streets, for something that can help me reset my buttons, refresh and update my ideas about what art can be and do. And, of course, for something worth stealing.
Stealing things is wrong. Picking your influences and admiring stuff is OK, though. It's a lot less criminal, if you're stealing things, to nick them at some vast, hydra-headed, international event like the Edinburgh Festival, because by the time you've chosen from the six thousand different cultural experiences on offer you've basically made a self-portrait, just as you do when you tap words and names, then other words and names, into a web search engine. You make an Archimbolo head out of stolen fruit, but the head resembles you, no-one else.
This year, I almost feel more cosmopolitan than the festival. I'm more aware than before of my own vulnerable exoticism in the eyes of my fellow countrymen, the Scots, who now seem, sadly, to bristle with hostility at my appearance. I get cries, as I pass, of 'Where's your parrot?' and 'What the fuck is that?', I get 'Arrrrs' both from drunks and the bouncers paid to keep tabs on them. I even get a raw egg thrown at me from a passing car. I'm obviously seen as some invading thing here in my 'homeland' rather than a person. I feel more threatened on Lothian Road on a Saturday night, walking home after seeing Dark Water, the excellent new horror film by the director of the Ring trilogy, than I ever did in New York. Little knots of Scottish males on street corners turn to me, scanning for signs that I'm one of them or not. And I'm not. And I remember how much I appreciate places where nobody has the hubris to assume this judge-and-jury role, this illegitimate sense of owning the city and its mores.
When I read the paper, I realise the aggression that's come my way is relatively mild. In Wester Hailes a school is flooded and all its iMacs smashed by ex-students. On Leith Walk a traffic warden gets called over to a car for directions only to find acid sprayed in his face. I point out to my racist stepfather, who spends an evening trying to convince me that Britain's worst problem is an invasion of illegal asylum seekers, that these horrific acts are white-on-white. There are few ethnic minorities in Scotland you can blame. It's us. We're the problem, we're the heart of darkness.
The Designated New Artists
So fuck the Scots (although God bless their new parliament building, jutting into the High Street like a trawler about to slice into the North Sea). My find of the festival is the work of French choreographer and curator Boris Charmatz.
The first piece I see by this Marseillais is called heatre-elevision. It's running on the hour every hour in The Hub, the big church up by the castle which has become a booking centre for the International Festival. (It's a sign I've grown up that I no longer go to anything on the Fringe, just stuff on the 'official' festival and at the Film Festival). Only one person is allowed in at a time. You climb a piano stool and lie horizontal on a 'piano' with your ears between two speakers. Above you is a monitor. Videos of dance performances are shown. As they play, you're scanned by white theatrical beams, as if your own body were the spectacle in someone else's play.
The performances are pretty fresh. The dancers loll with goofy expressions, tongues hanging out like big human Garfield cats. They burst into giggles. Their gestures are gracefully clumsy. They inhabit glitzy mirror-tiled spaces which look like 70s french clubs. These guys' general style, which you might call left-handed minimalist hippy style, resembles that of my friend Toog, who also hung out in Marseilles and knows the people on the art scene there.
(Note to self: remember that you have not lost all your friends. Some survive.)
The Absence of Music
The next time I'm charmed by Charmatz is at the art college, where there's a big curated piece called Statuts, a series of multimedia environments you walk through. Dancers kitted out in Marseille Guerrisol style are 'skateboarding' around on the drums of a big exploded washing machine on spin cycle. Out in the lobby a man on a blanketed plinth is telling us this story over and over again. It begins 'I developed the ability to understand the language of the birds...' A woman dances around an inexpressive, seated male, emoting recklessly.