Capitalist-Realist Care: Metamodernism in “[insert slogan here]” and “Flight” at Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Spoilers ahead for “[insert slogan here]” (2018, YESYESNONO) and “Flight” (2018, Darkfield).
[insert slogan here] was my first encounter with YESYESNONO theatre and by far my personal favourite for the month of August. It blew me away. With central help from the audience, artist Sam Ward constructs on stage the events of a car advert he saw when he was a child, one that has been imprinted in his memory. This includes drawing a sandcastle on yellow paper; stacking white cardboard boxes (simply titled, “WHEEL”, “ENGINE” and so forth); and turning on electric candles, then laying them on various surfaces. Sam asks the volunteers who help him intimate questions — what is home to you? Have you ever felt love? Then between these interactive episodes Sam recites tracts of cryptic prose, rich with imagery, framing “his” past within the car advert. Remembered half-realities collide with earnest fabrication. Ryan Gilmartin provides glitched looping visuals, Charlotte Barber (S.H.A.R.) a terrific soundscape.
There’s definitely a sinister undertone to Sam’s interactions with the audience. His rubric for choosing volunteers revolves entirely on materiality: Who is wearing shoes? Who has a watch? Who has a mobile phone? Then there’s his focus on “coolness” — when do you feel cool, what does coolness means to you, who do you think is cool? Each interactive episode ends with an audience member posing on stage, flower in hand, as Ryan manually operates a camera to swoop across the pseudo-beach. And then Sam tells each volunteer they were, briefly, for at least once in their lives, the centre of everyone’s attention.
Yet this cynicism is complicated because Sam’s register is, for most of the hour, very, very gentle. He clearly states to the audience that no one has to come up if they don’t want to, and even then said interactions amount to soft ludology — drawing, building, flicking switches on… in regards to practice, this is very much the act of kindness Harry Josephine Giles calls for in their essay Shock and Care (2016). Here, Giles argues that the usefulness of artistic shock — in the vein of Sarah Kane, Bret Easton Ellis and Dennis Kelly — has been expended, or at least in the form audiences were accustomed to in the 1990s. “The dominant affect of the 21st century” they write, “ is not boredom but anxiety”:
If the current cultural moment is dominated by shock, we need to question what role the idea of the artistic shock can now have. […] [E]xperiences of deep and genuine care are themselves shocking, shocking through their incongruity with a wider uncaring world. They are also necessary, because so few of us have the option to be cared for. And they define your audiences, because to choose not to care — to not take account of — audiences made up of different people with very different needs, whether those are needs based on disability, class, mental health or otherwise — is to limit your audience, which is to limit the conversation your art is having and thus the possibilities of the art you can make.
Splashing fake blood over the front row of an audience to impart the horror of capitalism; jump-cutting between a credit card and its use as a blade on the arm (we’ll get to you in another essay, Rachel Maclean…) — strategies like that aren’t going to work anymore. We’re only a few dark Google searches away from the real deal, one unfortunate crawl down the cerulean sewer-pipe of Twitter to disaster. Granted, shock is built into our evolutionary biology, and so will always play a part in creative expression. But in this day and age, Giles argues, it is not radical.
So [insert slogan here] successfully uses the practice of care to offer a site for resistance, and so adhere to an anti-capitalism. Yet it also critiques through its care; it presents the mass-production of empathy of 21st-century companies, employing its exact tactics to make you feel things. Like, I nearly cried at the final interactive moment, when Sam and an audience member, a stranger, slow-dance across their finished “beach”. Despite the satire and fabrication of such a scenario, there was still real, visceral impact, a sentiment preserved, a connection made.
It’s a metamodern impasse. Now, I’m not really comfortable being that guy who talks about a concept more esoteric than postmodernism (one the general public already finds hard to wrap their heads around) but the trends of New Sincerity are definitely present here. In Luke Turner’s tongue-in-cheek/ambitious Metamodernist Manifesto, he notes “oscillation to be the natural order of the world”, focusing on the binary between sincerity and irony. And what oscillates more between those two poles than the use of absurd corporate mechanisms pushing audiences to an earnest response? Cynical work and emotional art become blurred. And I’m not using that term ‘art’ lightly, here, because we now live in a decade where adverts can be truly spectacular, both in their impressive aesthetic qualities and the political ramifications. Think Spike Jonze’s short film with FKA twigs, Welcome Home (2018), which I have to call a short film because of the technical mastery at work in cinematography, colour and choreography, even though its entire purpose is selling “HomePod”, “the new sound of home”, courtesy of tax-dodgers/child-slave-enabling/etc. Apple Inc. Or is the advert selling the emotions associated with the product, the ideal system of consumer responses that Apple crave? Simulacra where the desired thing is undefined by the creator(s); ex nihlo from a “capitalist realist desert”.
Coined by Mark Fisher, capitalist realism is the notion that, since the fall of the Soviet Union, all grand narratives have flattened to one, and that one being neoliberal capitalism. Any alternatives will inevitably fall into the god-like ontology of business. This was a phenomenon most visible during the 2000s, New Labour and all that, or — and this is Fisher’s focus — the marketisation of university, loci of alternative thought dismantled to become conveyor belts of profitable degrees that directly link into bureaucratic jobs (‘market Stalinism’, to use Fisher’s term). Then there’s the so-called ethical capitalism that Žižek, everyone’s favourite/problematic Lacanian sugar daddy, so often derides: a capitalism which pantomimes anti-capitalism, eschewing its earlier façades of blatant artifice. A capitalism like theatre.
Another Fringe show I saw which explored these themes was Flight, by Darkfield. Like in YESYESNONO’s production, Flight uses a corporate register, though its veneer is more easily broken, and for far more sinister purposes. At thirty minutes, the piece could be as easily described as an installation as theatre. It takes place in an old shipping container, which has been transformed into the inside of one half of an aeroplane. The audience come in; they are told to put their luggage in the holds above; they sit, put their seatbelts on, then watch a strange and glitched pre-flight information video. And then all the lights go out. The action happens purely in audio, transmitted through headphones — the awkward shuffle of passengers, the crash, the inexplicable recovery. It’s thrilling stuff, made possible by impeccable sound design.
Flight is a more conventional black satire than [insert slogan here], but it doesn’t veer into ultraviolence, or shock of that standard. Rather, it poses existential concerns through the overarching theme of quantum superposition. Flight very consciously refers to the audience as being in a shipping container, comparing such a situation to Schrodinger’s cat, where infinite possibilities are happening all at once (and non-theatrical ones at that, as Flight is eager to remind us). In this sense, I would say Flight exacerbates the anxiety of contemporary capitalism. It notes an infinity of accidents that could happen, which become/seem very possible in the dulcet whisper of a pilot, somehow flying and whispering right in the audience member’s ear. “You do not need to stand,” he whispers. “You are in the luckiest seat.” Like in [insert slogan here], corporate rhetoricians posit the individual as the centre of everything, but here it feeds back to a more standard (though by no means less effective) irony. You know every other audience member here is hearing the exact same thing.
There are more quips which point to the more well-known ills of corporate speak. The stewardess mentions early on that there is a convoluted dish available in first class, while the toilets have disappeared in economy-class. There’s the discomfort of corporate speak, too, at a particularly surreal part, where a chorus of crying babies immediately stop when the stewardess, over intercom, asks them to. “Thank you.”
And despite its use of shock and unnerving tone, the ending does speak to a kind of care Giles mentions in their essay. Dawn slowly rises through the windows; the pilot tells the audience to relish and enjoy this reality, the reality where they were just in a shipping container all along. Though this care is problematised, as in [insert slogan here]. Surely we are still at the whims of the authoritarian pilot here, in our leaving? Why are we to be the lucky ones? And what of the post-industrial space? A cylinder of old industry pretending to be transport for the globalised. This satire of capitalism is staged in the metal embodiment of its victims. The ontology of business, and so on. Because although it is the pilot which insists on this multiverse the audience is bound to, his point is true — we are lucky to have been in the universe where we didn’t die in that instance. Erm, obviously. Cynical corpo-peace versus affecting sentiment — an oscillation.
There’s a lot more to talk about these two plays. The self-reflexivity in regards to theatre, for example: surely the audiences of [insert slogan here] are already theatrically inclined, and so keen to be meaningful and emotional on any stage? Are YESYESNONO playing with that as another double-bind of corporate/sincere candour?
Its seductive calm gradually disintegrates into something evocative, then reassembles it to something tender. Though how tender can a performance in the 21st century really be?
Fisher, Mark (2009) Capitalist Realism: Is there no other alternative? Zero Books (“Capitalist realist desert” is from Mark Fisher’s blurb review of Alex Niven’s poetry collection Last Tape, The (2014, Zero Books).)
Turner, Luke (2011) Metamodernist Manifesto. Available at https://www.metamodernism.org
Josephine Giles, Harry (2016) Shock and Care: an essay about art, politics and responsibility. Available at https://harrygiles.org/2016/04/24/shock-and-care/
Jonze, Spike (2018) Welcome Home