Edinburgh 2002

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.

One thing that strikes me as particularly important in Charmatz's pieces is the absence of music. There's just the sound of bare feet on wood, the sound of breathing. Natural sounds can be the best ones, just simple, unaccompanied body sounds. I free-associate across to the records of Dominque Petitgand, which I've been really impressed by this year. They're just people talking, set against quiet music. Or I think of the 'field recordings' of Moondog, another recent discovery. How they include the sound of the street, and how the percussion sounds so organic, like hands and feet stomping.

This impression that you can make fabulous music without using instruments other than parts of the human body is re-inforced by a performance of Stimmung by Stockhausen, which I attend the evening I learn of Rika's death. There's a danger that anything I see or hear this terrible day will be completely overshadowed, but the opposite happens; I cling to every sound made by this small circle of people dressed in white, to the canon form in which one voice supports and reciprocates another, to the human scale of the sound, its kindness, calmness and transcendence.

The World Is My Workshop

I discover an East Villagey, veggie, volunteer-staffed cafe near the Grassmarket called Forest where they project the films of Wong Kar Wai and even, one day, happen to be playing my 'Old Friend, New Flame' when I walk in. Here I browse from their shelves of radical and arty books, discovering a painter I like a lot, Kai Althoff, in one of them, a Taschen survey of the contemporary scene. Later I'll see more of his work in Paris at the Pompidou Centre, and buy his CD on the Sonig label, released under the name of Workshop.

Workshop's record, Es liebt Dich und Deine Korperlichkeit ein Ausgeflippter, is mysterious, deep, wandering, folksy music, played on a basketwork base of freely-flowing guitars, with dreamy, slightly absurd and pointed lyrics in German. Althoff seems to stand to the Sonig label as Vincent Gallo does to Warp. They both break with the house styles of the cult labels who release them, apparently returning to something much more traditional. But they fit because they're charismatic cults in their own right. I'd put Mark Borthwick's records in the same category, and observe that it's sometimes charm alone -- in these cases, a charm tied up with the primacy, in our visual age, of painting, cinema and photography over musicianship -- which can convince us that some subtly skewed version of 'the same old thing' can be 'the new thing'. And when 'the new thing' comes along, the bleepy Warpy 'old thing' looks, for all its 'futurism', tired and ready to roll over. In the case of dance, say, the 'minimalist' white light, black clothes, electronic noise style of Saburo Teshigawara's Karas company looks fusty after the informality of Boris Charmatz. You leave at the interval. You won't come back. Irrelevance is a matter of life or death in the creative world. That's why it's important to keep travelling, keep crossing time zones, keep seeing the work everybody's making, and keep resetting your watch.

Moondog and some plain old dogs

Of course, it isn't just new work that resets your agenda. Old stuff newly-discovered can do it too. It's often stuff which failed to make its mark the first time around because it didn't fit into the right categories, didn't 'swing' or was considered just plain eccentric. Moondog is just such a surprise. I hear him played at a party at Kumi Okamoto's place in Paris, and think it's 'The Little Red Songbook'. His 1969 album of madrigals really sounds remarkably close to my Analog Baroque style. It's galling to realise that he was doing this thirty years before me! But it's great to discover a musician so interesting.

I have a similar experience when I see Bob and Roberta Smith's new paintings at the Artists' Collective Gallery on Cockburn Street. They use the same typeface and the same classical / modern bathos-humour that I was using in 1999 on this website, on my albums and in my New York show 'Electronics in the 18th Century'. Bob and Roberta (who are in fact the same person) are a mere three years behind me. Their paintings (hung alongside certificates they've made people sign in which they swear to stop making art) are a joke, amusing for a moment or two.

But you can even steal stuff from let-downs and disappointments. The play Variety at the King's Theatre is set in 1938, during the last week of a variety company's tenure of a theatre which, unbeknownst to them, is about to be converted into a cinema. The play isn't very successful, but the accompanying lecture opens up a world I find fascinating: the vanished world of the Panopticon Music Hall, Trongate, Glasgow, or the Winter Gardens in Rothesay, Isle of Bute, or the pierrot shows at the Harbour Theatre, Portobello. Killed four times (out-talked by the Talkies, out-screamed by Rock and Roll, knocked on the head by bingo and electrocuted by television), these vaudeville routines seem as lost as the Dead Sea Scrolls. But I still harbour illusions of popping them out of the winter of their neglect by applying sympathetic electronics.

Some catch phrases used by old Scottish variety actors:

'In the name o' the wee man'
'Nae bother at all'
'It's smashin', ma!'
'Sausages is the boys'

Despair and hope

So, to recap. The people I currently idolise, the people I wish to be and to steal from, the people who have, as far as I'm concerned, reset the creative clocks, the 'good objects' worthy of investment and emulation, in short, the right-now insuperable artists, are:

Boris Charmatz. Kai Althoff. Dominique Petitgand. Mark Borthwick. Holger Hiller. DAT Politics. Gutevolk. Scratch Pet Land. Moondog. Jacques Tati.

But where there are new heroes, there must also be fallen heroes, people who now fail to impress or inspire me, and show with their every move that they haven't reset their watches to what I consider 'the correct time'.

Music: The new Beck album, 'Sea Change', is a let-down, it's 'Mutations' with weaker tunes and some of the most outrageous Gainsbourg / Vannier arrangement rips you will ever hear. (To be reviving Gainsbourg in 2002 -- and ripping off original arrangements this blatantly -- is simply an aesthetic error. What on earth is Beck thinking of?) As an antidote, I'm listening over and over to 'Thatness and Thereness' by Ryuichi Sakamoto (from his 1980 'B2 Unit' album). I love the vague fluidity of this song, hung on huge fat Moog basslines and subtle chord changes. I'm appreciating the more ethnic moments on the Sweet Robots Against The Machine album, which seems to continue Haruomi Hosono's excursions into the electrification of ethnic music. Nobukazu Takemura remains central, Keigo Oyamada doesn't. I continue to delight in rarities from the back catalogue of Holger Hiller, this time the radio piece Kei Schla Hu We, the video for Oh Hi Ho Bang Bang and H'at Voi Que Hong, a late 70s oddity on ZickZack Records where he melds Neue Deutsch Welle and Vietnamese pop music. (I contemplate making a trip to Dusseldorf, where the Kunsthalle is showing a German New Wave exhibition featuring a stage-set by members of Der Plan.)

Films: How To Draw A Bunny, a documentary I see on the EdFilmFest about postal artist Ray Johnston, is a bit depressing, being a documentary about an unsuccessful New York artist who finally kills himself. Not much better is Baader, an apolitical, inaccurate and -- how can I put this other than by saying Primal-Screamish? -- biopic of the RAF terrorist which manages to make him look like a cross between Butch Cassidy and a Wallpaper model.

Words of Wisdom from Mr Bolex

I meet Jonas Mekas, eternal light of the New York Bolex underground and keeper of the Anthology Film Archive, after a program of shorts about him. There's a fabulous bit in one of the documentaries (all commissioned by French TV) where he improvises an accordion song to camera about how he doesn't know where he's going, finally gets it right after about eight minutes of painful attempts, then reaches for the video and exclaims drunkenly 'Oh my God, nothing has been recorded!'

The real life Jonas Mekas is a bit more grumpy than the sentimental zany onscreen. He refuses to answer my question about whether time turns montage into narrative (as Cage said it turned noise into harmony). And to the inquiry 'So, Mr Mekas, would it worry you if young people seeing your work for the first time thought it looked like a video on MTV?' he throws back the somewhat contemptuous 'It's not my job to worry about what people think of my work. Such judgements and such people are of absolutely no consequence to me.'

I like very much one thing he says in one of the documentaries, though. Asked why Anthology Film Archive has survived when so many other underground and alternative venues have been taken over and closed down, Mekas says 'It's because we are crazy! Everybody else had a more sensible way of thinking than us. They were practical, so they are no longer here.'

It's a vital thought. It reminds me why I keep trying to mess up my head with art. It's art, rather than life, that keeps me crazy. And only the crazy survive.

Thoughts Index