Hugh Sillitoe is an artist, activist, poet, performer, and academic researcher based in Glasgow, Scotland. The following was originally posted on Doppelgangster.com.
Rachel Helena Walsh and Dr Tom Payne | Photograph by Sebastien Jamain
The following piece responds to the performance of TITANIC by Doppelgangster’s Tobias and Tom, and co-conspirator Rachel Helena Walsh at La Générale artist/activist cooperative in Paris on 9th December 2015, deep in the midst of the state of emergency, the COP21 climate negotiations, and the many associated activist interventions. La Générale is a huge whale’s belly of a room, ripe for filling by any challenging ideas ambling in. DOPPELGANGSTER really provided the plankton.
I’ve been thinking recently about what to term performance that escalates the absurdity of tragicomedy and goes beyond it, and, mostly in conversations with myself, although sometimes in conversations with others (humans, pigeons, and spoons), I’ve tentatively begun talking about mogitramedy. I think that DOPPELGANGSTER’S TITANIC, as performed in Paris during COP21, was mogitramic. By this I mean I consistently found the performance simultaneously hilarious and crushing; unabashedly fun whilst absolutely non-frivolous; simmering with hyperactive disillusion.
Tom Payne lighting distress signals | Photograph by Sebastien Jamain
For instance, a recurring song about a ‘floatation device’, increasingly funny with each preoccupied repetition by the ‘director’, James Cameron/Tobias Manderson-Galvin, carried with it an unavoidable reminder of the smug self-centredness of privileged tokenism regarding climate change: ‘the sea may engulf Bangladesh, but I’ve got my floatation device’. The later inclusion of a racist ragtime tune, sang as the ship inevitably sinks, the performers lingering over each patronising, prejudiced lyric, produced a similar unsettling effect that remained darkly humorous in its unspoken-yet-seething criticality. Such a mogitramic device served to underline the farcical privilege of those who could minimise the harm caused by climate change (wealthy / powerful / disproportionately white) in contrast to those who face the gravest dangers (poor / disempowered / disproportionately brown).
Such witty critique was omnipresent throughout TITANIC, as further demonstrated by the slapstick eruption of champagne into Tobias’ crotch, and subsequent change of underwear meticulously stuffed with wine-engorged socks. This was immediately funny, whilst a man with a champagne-soaked-penis-extension directing a collision with an iceberg needs little unwrapping as a critical metaphor for the dominance of wealthy men in orchestrating false solutions to climate change. In sharp connection to all this, the line, “music to drown by, now I know I’m in first class”, delivered with jolting solemnity by Jack/Tom Payne, hung in the air until I could smell it. As artists responding to an age characterised by ever-increasing climate catastrophe, escalating religious fanaticism and conflict, and the tightening of borders that should never have existed, it does often feel like we’re making music to drown by. And, whilst it is awful, there is somehow often humour within this condition. TITANIC spoke to me because it harnessed and exploded this paradox with aplomb.
The activist and politically engaged artist condition is, in my experience and observations, inescapably absurd, in that huge socio-political shifts are desired, yet in reality we temporarily shut down one business, or perform a show in front of a small audience, whilst ‘the machine’ keeps turning almost entirely unscathed. Candidly acknowledging such limitation and incorporating its humour into performance practice itself, laughing at ourselves as well as those we oppose, I augur allows us to, echoing Beckett, ‘go on’ despite what might otherwise be a crippling absence of hope. I feel TITANIC displayed this reflexive self-awareness in droves, playing with purposelessness in an invigoratingly generative way, re-evaluating through practice the role of performance in the face of catastrophe and chaos. This was summarised with Tobias’ utterance of the single word, “theatre”, followed by silence, succinctly drawing the audience to consider what ‘theatre’ might mean in relation to the socio-political and ecological issues cacophonously juggled before them.
Tobias Manderson-Galvin sings 'My Heart Will Go On' | Photograph by Sebastien Jamain
The apex of the performance, for me, was the delivery of Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ (relevant in sentiment to the themes of coping and continuance mentioned above), but with the first line ‘Every night in my dreams’ repeated throughout the tune, accompanied by the projection of footage from Paris ’68. Expressing grievance at the successful oppression of contemporary mass uprising, I feel TITANIC’s critique of the farcical status quo of power and wealth distribution within contemporary climate-change-perpetuating capitalism could have easily become too on-the-nose. However, through the condensing of Celine Dion, in stark juxtaposition with silenced footage of quasi-mythical protest, the audience were not assaulted with accusations of apathy, but instead made to step back and laugh at a gamut of ridiculousness running from pop-culture superficiality and short-term political and cultural memory, through to myopic emphasis upon aspirations/dreams which ignores disproportions in cultural capital.
The song and footage provided a moment of reflection on the previous moments of the performance and its setting within the elaborate circus of COP21, and, on a more personal note, gave space for me to consider what had brought me to Paris and what I hoped to achieve there.