Low-Budget Hollywood Disaster Special: Olwen Davies and Andy Field (Part Two)

Text: Wayne Burrows
Photography: Julian Hughes

“It begins with a party…”. There’s a red banner outside the doors of Broadway Cinema’s Screen 4, strung up among brightly coloured balloons, and that banner has these words written across it, but when we get inside, it doesn’t really begin with a party at all. Instead, it – which in this case is Olwen Davies’ Inside Neverhood, a work in progress developed at Broadway during a week long Hatch residency that has led to this first performance – begins with Davies herself, at the front of the cinema, nervously describing a party that she missed. She’s dressed in a shiny green sixties mini-skirt, white tights, and wears 1966 vintage Biba-girl make up, applied, she explains, after watching a make-up tutorial on YouTube. Except, the make-up artist giving the tutorial was basing her instructions on drawings from the time, so was sort of guessing how it might go, and the cosmetics both she and Davies used weren’t the same cosmetics you would have bought then, from a girl who was wearing this make up in a Biba shop in 1966…

This is just the introduction, but the themes are firmly set out as being collisions of reality and authenticity with aspiration and fantasy. The party Davies wanted to attend took place in 1966, so as she admits, she was very late indeed. It was a party also attended by Marianne Faithfull, Mick Jagger and John Lennon. It’s as much a myth as an actual party and what follows is Davies’s attempt to place herself inside the narrative of that legendary series of events (or at least, a series of events that has been inflated to mythic proportions by endless repetitions in a variety of media, even though half of what’s been written about it might not be true) by stepping, quite literally, from the space of right now, in this cinema, into the screen on which the events she aspires to be part of continue to exist. As in her previous piece, Fridge Logic, Davies tests not only herself against the imagery of the Big Screen, but the boundaries of live performance by transmitting her live actions from some undefined elsewhere to the screen in front of us.

The elsewhere, this time around, is not behind the audience, but somewhere back in time: once onscreen, Davies steps back in more ways than one into 1966, not least in the way the over-lit room she performs inside and the grain of the screen image both frame her inside a decidedly analogue world. The cut from a short bridging clip, very much digitally shot, somewhere in the Broadway building, showing an elderly couple acting out a party conversation using Bob Dylan Subterranean Homesick Blues style cue cards, to the first scene in her 1966 live film, with Davies in profile, bleached out against a screening of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, is striking in itself, and creates a definite sense of time and cultural conventions shifting. It might be a still from an Exploding Plastic Inevitable show caught on poor Super-8 amid the chaos, or something from the obligatory groovy nightclub scene in an otherwise forgotten film of the time that would go on to be spoofed by Mike Myers in Austin Powers.

The story unfolds with Davies casting herself as the Marianne Faithfull ingenue, but a Marianne Faithfull ingenue prone to comment anachronistically on the conventions of 1966: she doesn’t like David Hemmings’ photographer in Blow-Up much because he’s arrogant, bossy, a bit of a dick, frankly, and she’s continually forgetting where she’s supposed to be, addressing the audience directly in the present, wondering aloud how ‘authentic’ things are looking, before dropping back into that idea of the past for another moment or two. Inside Neverhood seems to be an attempt to explore the meaning of cultural symbols and the ways we measure our own lives against them: would Davies, or we, even know about it if we did happen to be at a party that was later mythologised out of any relationship to its real existence in the years to come, or would we find ourselves, as the likes of Faithfull, Lennon and Jagger possibly were in 1966, imagining how everything could have been so much better in some other time and place?

As Davies repeatedly emphasises, this event – the launch of Marianne Faithfull as a pop star after Jagger gave her As Tears Go By to record – was not only her making but the beginning of her undoing, initiating a cycle of self destruction that she didn’t emerge from until well into the 1980s, having reinvented herself and her devastated vocal chords decades later as a hard-living 1940s-style European chansonnier. The presence Davies now measures her own life against, the ethereal-voiced innocent that sold so well in Faithfull’s early days, is simultaneously revealed as a construct, a girl who never existed outside the remaining clips of her singing before the fall. In much the same way, Davies exists in the idea of 1966 she is determined to project only for as long as she’s immersed there, behind the screen, struggling to remain ‘in character’. The question isn’t just who we are, or where we’d like to be, but whether any of these things even exist in a meaningful way in the first place.

The screen as an intermediary is coincidentally a key factor in Andy Field’s Zilla!: Part Two, though that’s not the only bridge between the two pieces to be seen in this double bill. After all the talk about The Rolling Stones in Davies’s piece, and her soundtrack’s concluding rendition of As Tears Go By, the music playing on entry to Andy Field’s performance happens to be Gimme Shelter by, erm, the very same Rolling Stones, a year or two later. There’s also an opening that is a statement about the piece’s beginning, though in Field’s case an ominous dream replaces Davies’s 1966 party. Like Zilla!: Part One, and following the tendency of Hollywood sequels generally, Part Two moves from the spectacular destruction of the big picture, seen in Part One‘s gradual zoom from outer space to a city, its accounting for the disaster’s victims in statistical terms, to something closer to a single first person account (perhaps with some influences from gaming) of the same unfolding apocalypse, here aided by use of Google Street View.

In fact, the piece has been described by Field as “a duet for solo voice and Google Street View”, which proves to be more or less exactly what it is. The voice is that of a woman, seated at a desk like a television news-reader, and she describes a long series of ordinary events, illustrated with Street View images of the city in which the performance takes place. (I assume these change from one performance to another, but the larger structure remains the same, in the same way you can buy children’s books and insert any name you like into the place of the main character). So for this performance, we begin in Torvill Crescent, move on along Dean Street by bus, gradually edge forwards into the city. The everyday things witnessed along the route are described, the atmosphere and temperature is noted, increasingly obsessively. Everything is described alongside stills showing the locations not as they are ‘now’, in the narrative, but as they were a few years ago, when Google’s cars passed through, ignited their nine cameras in sequence, and so froze them arbitrarily in time.

Within this framework, the disaster unfolds, but the wreckage we hear about and are asked to imagine is never seen, except in the occasional curveball of an image thrown into the familiar landscape from elsewhere: often from Jon Rafman‘s Nine Eyes of Google Street View series, images of ominous yellow clouds, burning cars, road-blocks, tracks vanishing into desert landscapes, figures in animal masks, emergency scenes, and so on. Accompanied by mundane visuals of streets we know, the intertwining of real and unreal cities brings an unsettling air to proceedings, a slightly hyper-real quality, so that even while the story’s unfolding perhaps takes a little too long (the late sequence in which the narrator stands on a chair to make an appeal and an epilogue both seemed a bit superfluous to me) the atmosphere is registered strongly in the slow initial build-up and closing account of the devastated city under rubble and floodwater, or perhaps, as another version, existing simultaneously with the first has it, a city whose buildings stand strangely undamaged, but devoid of people.

While Zilla!: Part Two naturally follows Zilla!: Part One, then, it does so more as a formal variation on the same theme than a narrative extension or sequel. If you like, it offers a different, ground-level, perspective on the events described from higher altitudes in Part One. Which means that Zilla!: Part Three, a further variation handed out to those who’d attended both parts so far at the conclusion of Part Two, offers a new telling of the same story again. Part Three consists of a deck of printed cards for the audience to take out into their own streets and place into the real landscape wherever each comment or line of narrative might be relevant in some personalised disaster scenario. Quite what passers-by will make of being asked to imagine that “This shop is on fire” or that “The sky is unusually radiant” remains to be seen. It’ll certainly make for an interesting walk, for both participants and those stumbling across the trails they leave behind. “From here you can hear sirens” should get a nod of recognition out of most people, at least. That is pretty much always true, wherever you happen to be standing in Nottingham.


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