Open Cities: an afterword.

Gunn, David

“Open Cities / Porto” 

by Guillermo Brown and David Gunn 

An Afterword.

And 1913: Charley Patton sits, exhausted, in the boarding houses of Will Dockery’s plantation. Playing for a crowd of workers, dancers and drunkards. Playing all night straight, singing songs he does not own. Singing fragments known to all, age-worn couplets and tired bawdy jokes. Resequenced volk. Playing from early evening to mid-morning the next day, to an audience hopped up on booze, crown and opiates. To an audience that does not care.  By the end of it, his hands are bleeding and he can no longer play, reduced to simply banging his guitar rhythmically as the crowd dance on, oblivious to his “art”, to his intention. Oblivious so long as the party keeps on going.

Cadiz carnival, 2002. My first time in the city, and everyone brings drums. There are musical performances, of course, but these are side events, irrelevant details. Sat with strangers and friends, drinking until I find myself in the first light of morning, in the middle of hundreds of people, clambering onto the monuments of Plaza de España. Everyone has a drum, banging maniacally. There is no wrong beat. Each individual action is simply one more element, infinite offbeats and deviations in the writhing muscle of rhythm. There is no audience, nothing that sits outside of the moment, of that shared sound. Dancing until we fell off and the world returned.

Artists, galleries, ticketed venues, the commissioned work, the artistic vision.  These are specific occurrences situation in space and time. Arriving before us, they often seem so familiar as to be immutable, but things were not always so. There are other balances, other powers. Dockery, 1913. Cadiz, 2002. The dominant modes of contemporary popular performance should not occur as a natural given, as they so frequently do. The phemomenon must be interrogated as a historically situated concept. Tested and changed. Undermined and overwhelmed. Exhausted and left for other lands.

Open Cities is a little project. It is one approach to this idea, constructed from performances occurring at infrequent intervals and in different places.  And each show is contingent, partial, failed. Each show is an attempt, an experiment that leads a little closer to the imaginary centre.

For a long time, i have been asking the question “what does a digital folk culture really look like?” And i’m not thinking about postured brut or outsider art, about breathless Wired aesthetics or the thin walls of Adobe veneer. I’m talking about the accidental pirates in all of us, inadvertently rip, burn and linking ourselves out of the sad pact of the 20th century, waltzing back to some future land where creativity is not an occupation and the owning isn’t the all.

That, i guess, is sorta where we came from. Where we are trying to get to. OC Porto was show number two. It went like this:

Recording devices of varied quality are distributed amongst project participants. Phones, dictaphones, field recorders. Participants wander their city, each free to document any sounds and images they find. Interviews with street vendors, the sounds of water and of fountains, of unidentified machinery. The fragments they record are collected and a show is constructed using only these raw materials. During the performance, real-time decisions are juxtaposed with stochastic fragments and sequences drawn from the same source. Performances within performances. Intentions within intentions, and always something that escapes, always a spilling over, always another who walks beside you. And so forth and so on.

Some things are probably too obvious to say, but here goes: process matters. The process is as valuable as the result, always, and one is unavoidably coloured by the other. The thing is not the thing. So we were there with long-time residents of Porto, we stood around with them, asking them to record the things they ignore every day, to re-adjust patterns of habitual response. And doing the same for ourselves – always avoiding the rote paths of institutional soundwalk and facilitated action, the creative practioner sales programme LLP. Trying always to find once again the play in your lost world. In many ways, the performance is only the pale afterglow of these moments, the necessary pretext for the real deal. Wandering around bashing wood and locks, splashing water, stalking rabid dogs through the confusion of the Ribera. Locating phased reverberance in empty dustbins. Starting conversations with people you have passed every day for years without a word or glance. A rediscovery of street-level scale. Distant rivers echo passages underground.

“Open cities” … there is an ideology here. More than anything else, it is about the importance of maintaining a certain contingency at a structural level. The ability to remain at a variable angle of incidence to the conditions that surround you.  Or follow Bataille: figure out how to spend the excess before it spends you. Or maybe even the old Gysin / Burroughs ramble: cut out cut in cut up. Old clouds on the predestinate river. And so on and so forth.

There was a show. And sure, to some extent the old audience / artist dichotomies returned. But lets be realistic: no one project can do it all, nor should it. We run other projects, and each has its own vector, its own logic.  Sometimes inside out, and others outside in. Or as old man Frazer wrote it – contagious magic / imitative magic. Each has its place and each its power. And i’d almost even go as far as to say the old performance paradigm is qualitatively no worse nor better than any other, given the right time / place / morals. Maybe. Though my instincts always lean towards the gradual disassembly of the ArtistKoncept. But beyond that, it is simply a question of maintaining the angle of incidence, keeping the valencies intact and visible. Like Heitor says: calibrate. Keep things at a distance from themselves and never forget the shtick. Nothing is natural and there is always a shtick.

We had fun. We think and hope that everyone else did, too.  Fun is important, too important to be ignored. Critique is deathless and bored, pale through over-use and distance, too tangled in the whole morass of late capital, critical distance, the aesthetic milieu. Bad drone, endlessly dislocated from people, places, from love. Bad credit and bad dirge. This does not interest us and never has. We are interested in an aesthetics of celebration. Degenerative disco, smudged and blazing. Cthonic hydro-boogies and troubadour ghosts. “Wierd dancing in all-night computer-banking lobbies”. And so forth and so on.

Other versions are always possible. Other openings, other cities. But what it comes down to is this: figuring out how to cultivate a certain sense of constant play. Figuring out how to dislocate yourself and the walls around you, how to keep moving towards the imaginary centre. So get the hell out there – record your cities and hit the streets, literally. Beneath the pavements the beats.


David Gunn
London, July 2010