Something Rotten in Britain
by Dan Fox
When C. Spencer Yeh invited me to contribute to Double Features, his live-soundtrack series, for Triple Canopy’s Vanitas issue, he asked me to come at it from the perspective of a writer. My instinct was to be in dialogue with the screen, to communicate with spirits from the beyond, specters pinned in the afterlife by the recorded image. Connect with people whose bodies had long-since aged or had been rotting in the earth for decades. Bodies rotting in the earth of my home country, Britain, which at the time of writing was cleaved down the middle by the occult powers of Brexit; all jingoism, chauvinism, resurgent racism, and revanchist fantasies of empire, cricket, and warm beer. (Sound familiar, America?)
Now living thousands of miles away from home, I wanted to force an awkward conversation about my country’s diseased relationship to class and white masculinity, and talk through the ways in which nostalgia and loss operate on me. Brexit: a figure of death.
I picked three films for the seance: The World of Gilbert & George, This England, and O Lucky Man!, as well as a short clip from a German television show interviewing Teddy Boys in a London pub. All date from the 1970s, bracketing 1976, the year I was born—another period during which Britain was in economic crisis, convulsed by social strife, energy crises, and a bellicose far-right. Gilbert & George’s film, shot in and around the pre-gentrification neighborhood of Spitalfields in East London—an area that has been home to immigrants and refugees since the Huguenots arrived from France in the eighteenth century—threaded patriotic satire among interviews with working-class teenagers talking about their hopes and disappointments.
I chose Tony Palmer’s This England, a 1977 television documentary about the legendary Wigan Casino club and the northern soul music scene, for its interviews with young people who had found a brief, fleeting sense of commonality across race and gender lines. They had been brought together in the ruined industrial cities of the north of England by soul music made in the ruined industrial cities of the USA. The Teddy Boys in the German TV show stood for the forces of conservatism; for those fearing change and difference. Malcolm McDowell’s character, Mick, the protagonist of Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 comedy O Lucky Man!, was a figure guilelessly rolling with capitalism’s punches, a Forrest Gump for the drab British 1970s. Mick was looking for a sense of purpose, for a reason to smile when offered the false certainties of money, fame, and nationalism, yet knowing that the only certainty is death.
What follows is the audio recording of my reading, integrated with the video clips that played as I read.
For the fourth installment of Double Features, a series of audio-visual exchanges, Dan Fox and Okkyung Lee will each perform alongside moving-image works. Fox will perform a textual score in response to a series of film excerpts that employ the convention of breaking the fourth wall—the common technique in theater and film whereby an actor directly addresses the audience or camera. This device, which provides a meta-commentary that crosses the boundaries of the fictional world, is almost theological: It enables a reckoning with the beyond, with a consciousness (shared by the viewer) that has a God’s-eye-view on the lives of the characters. Breaking the fourth wall also grants the character a brief moment of power, as she reveals herself to know more of “the beyond” than any of her fellow protagonists.
Lee will improvise on the cello in response to excerpts from three films whose protagonists have suffered severe disfigurement due to industrial accidents, scientific experimentation, or the pursuit of impossible beauty: Eyes Without a Face (dir. Georges Franju, 1962), The Face of Another (dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, from a novel by Kobo Abe, 1967), and El Espejo de la Bruja (dir. Chano Urueta, 1962). At first we might wonder, as Abe’s narrator does, “Why did one have to put up a hue and cry about anything so trifling as the skin on one’s face, which, after all was only a small part of the human capsule?” The mad doctor of El Espejo de la Bruja is convinced that flesh harbors talent and wisdom, and he collects ideal features and limbs, such as the hands of a pianist, for his disfigured subject. Each of these temporarily bandaged protagonists is fundamentally transformed; their subjectivities are imprisoned, disguised, liberated, and recovered by the masks. Must we identify one face as the original and the other a decoy?
The Double Features series was begun in 2010 by artist and musician C. Spencer Yeh, who recently joined Triple Canopy as a contributing editor. The Faces of Others, which marks the return of the series after a three-year hiatus, is part of Triple Canopy’s Vanitas issue, which explores contemporary meditations on mortality as well as the delights, delusions, and pressures of fleshly existence.
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Triple Canopy’s venue is located at 264 Canal Street 3W, near several Canal Street subway stations. Our floor is accessible by elevator (63" × 60" car, 31" door) and stairway. Due to the age and other characteristics of the building, our bathrooms are not ADA-accessible, though several such bathrooms are located nearby. If you have specific questions about access, please write at least three days before the event and we will make every effort to accommodate you.
- Dan Fox is coeditor at Frieze magazine and is based in New York City. Fox’s writing has appeared in numerous exhibition catalogues and in publications as diverse as Bulletins of The Serving Library, Dot Dot Dot, The Guardian, and Financial Times. He is a musician and codirector of the music label Junior Aspirin Records. His book Pretentiousness: Why It Matters was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2016.
- Okkyung Lee is a New York-based artist and South Korea native. Her work blurs genre boundaries and pushes the limits of contemporary cello performance techniques. She has released more than twenty albums and, since 2010, has been developing a site-specific duo project with dancer and choreographer Michelle Boulé. Lee was awarded the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award in 2015 and received a grant from Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2010.