Text by Natalie Bradbury
That there was a queue of indie-looking twenty-somethings with tote bags and striped t-shirts waiting to get into the first Manchester performance of Dan Graham‘s Past Future Split Attention, looking something like the line for the bar at a rock concert, told you that this was no ordinary art event. Dan Graham is, after all, among the most rock ‘n’ roll of artists: he is just as at home fraternising with Sonic Youth, writing criticism on twentieth-century minimalist composers and presenting video essays on pop music as bringing together his parallel loves of art and architecture in sculptural two-way mirror pavilions. What much of his work has in common is the way it positions the artwork in relation to the viewer and reconfigures their relationship with each other.
Past Future Split Attention was a live reprisal of a filmed performance for which Graham originally created two sentences by way of instructions in the early 1970s. From this terse beginning arises a continuous, self-contained feedback loop drawn from the utterances and subtle non-verbal motions of two actors (to continue the rock ‘n’ roll/noise theme, in a question and answer session immediately following the performance Graham couldn’t help but enthuse about the influence of the dual-drummer assault of cult New Jersey rock band the Feelies, a personal favourite of his).
In its new incarnation for Manchester International Festival, an Irishman and an Englishman – who in casual shirts and skinny jeans looked as if they could have stepped in from the queue outside – walked into a room, stood and faced each other awkwardly, eyes half on the floor, and began to make observations about themselves and each other. Making an unlikely piece of theatre out of real people, instructed to improvise the exercise without rehearsal, these observations variously analysed and expressed regret about past, private actions and thoughts, picked up on barely perceptible mannerisms hardly registering in the present, and at times appeared to predict the future, looking ahead to influence each other’s actions. Creating a trick of perception in the viewer’s experience of time, the performance relied on the snap reactions of one performer to the other, working not with each other nor against each other but opposite each other, to continue the flow. Sometimes, there was a surge in the conversation, with observations overlapping and intertwining, but watching the exchange was often a discomforting experience. As the performers occasionally grasped for words, the audience was left outside the ongoing conversational figure of eight without so much as eye contact directed their way.
Occasionally referring to agents outside the conversation, such as girlfriends, it was unclear what, if any, prior relationship existed between the two participants, blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, depth and superficiality, and striking an uneasy balance between the performers’ ability to draw on a wealth of background knowledge and to think on their feet. Against a twenty first backdrop of reality TV and constant life sharing on social media, the performance restaged questions about how well you can really know someone, how well you can ever get to know yourself, how much the way in which others see us contributes to the identity we construct for ourselves – and just what information about ourselves and others is worth knowing.
That isn’t to say the performance was without humour; trivia such as laundry practises and the age-old theme of sexual jealousy aroused a few nervous giggles from the audience, and Graham later spoke of his love of cliché and non-sequiturs. Overflowing with an interest in just about anything, and explaining that his work draws on everything from dance and psychology to popular physics, science fiction and even yoga, Graham was at pains to point out that he is not an intellectual but that for him all great art is about humour. It was no surprise to hear his admission that an anarchic humour and sense of fun is central to his work, reinstating what is missing from much of today’s screen-mediated experience and interaction and making Past Future Split Attention as relevant and watchable now as it must have been when it was first performed forty years ago.
Natalie Bradbury is a writer and research student based in Manchester.