Sunday 9 August 2015

Utopia at the Roundhouse

To the Roundhouse arts centre in Camden, there to see the installation UTOPIA, by tha artist and film-maker Penny Woolcock.

Except that we didn't see it. Arrinving shorly before the timed entry on our tickets we learned from font-of-house staff that there was a 'technical hitch' and there would be 'a few minutes' wait before the doors opened. Ten minutes later and I was told we might like to have a drink while we were  waiting, and were directed to something called The Camden Beach, a summer attraction sponsored by a vodka company and situated on a veranda space outside the building.

Before accessing the open-air space (with its beach huts and deck chairs and piped reggae-lite and bars and pop-up eateries) we had our bags searched and then paused to study the lengthy list of restrictions and prohibitions (couched in a jocular and dispiriting register: 'No Obvious Letching', 'No Heavy Petting' and so on). Absolutely everything you'd expect to be able to do on a beach was prohibited, apart from swimming, which wasn't possible because there was no water. This wasn't so much a beach as a sanitised desert.

But there were 150 tonnes of sand! And five private beach huts available for hire! And three different eateries! And dozens of deck chairs!

What we had was a heavily-policed and intensely commodified private space, everything was branded with the vodka maker's logo. It wasn't (as fliers claimed) an authentic if nostalgic British beach experience (no slap 'n' tickle or kiss me quick, no Reg Dixon at the Mighty Wurlitzer or winkles and whelks) but something closer to a bowdlerised Ibiza or Aya Napa. It was perfectly horrible.

Blinking at the price of the drinks (which included a 'Sex on the Beach cocktail) and unsettled by the sight of male and female citizens in pallid states of exposure we went back to the lobby where I glanced at the Utopia programme. The installation appeared to share certain values with the Camden Beach:

2 years in the making
3km of audio cable
33,265 cardboard boxes
15 tonnes of rubble
1,200 props.
2 cars
90 speakers
Over 6,000 hours of work

I'm tempted to add exclamation marks to each of these Barnham and Bailey huckster phrases. They seemed to me to set the wrong tone - logistics are one thing, but we were after an aesthetic experience, and possibly illumination. Who cares how many kilometres of audio cable went into the blasted space? What's that got to do with anything? A few other aspiring (and perspiring) Utopians had by now congregated outside the closed entrance. We'd now been waiting for about an hour and I spent a while gazing at an informative and well-designed wall display showing the history of the building since its origins in the 1830s as an engine shed for the London to Birmingham railway. It was later a bonded booze warehouse. It has had mixed fortunes over the past half century, skirting and sometimes embracing the radical.

As a 1960s concert venue it staged gigs by Jim Morrison and the Doors, and Jim Hendrix, and the Soft Machine and Genesis. As a theatre venue it hosted performances from Stephen Berkoff, Ginsberg and Ken Campbell. In the punk years Blondie and Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Buzzcocks and Patti Smith all passed through the doors currently shut to us. I recall visiting the Roundhouse for a brilliant production of Hamlet in modern dress (quite a rare thing back then) with Ben Kingsley as the Prince and the late Bob Peck as the First Gravedigger. It was (I learned today) the playwright Arnold Wesker who, in the 1960s, led the revival of the Roundhouse as 'Centre 42' (after the Trades Union resolution that urged the improvement of arts provisionthroughout the country. It became (according to the Roundhouse's erratically literate website) it became 'one of the most cutting-edge performing arts venue  [sic] in the country.

The most recent refurbishment - and the most successful - followed acquisition of the site in 2006 by the philanthropist Torquil Norman, after whom an upstairs bar is named. He was reportedly aghast, being a low-key chap, at such recognition and agreed only if a plaque were erected recording his distaste at the honour. This, amusingly, appears. He also insisted that he have a single free martini whenever he went to the bar, which seems fair enough given the many millions he has invested in the site. I like the cut of Torquil Norman's jib, and you might like to look him up on Google.   

Back in the lobby again. There were now about fifty people milling around and the next wave of 'timed entry' punters had started to drift in to be told that the doors would open 'in about five minutes'.  I noticed a printed sign on one of the entrance doors:

This instillation [sic] contains flashing lights and images. Patrons with photosensitivity are asked make [sic] themselves known to a member of staff.

Another friendly young member of the front of house staff then took me to one side to explain that some elements of the installation were unsuitable for children because there was a 'very explicit' description of a murder and of a couple screwing (not her phrase). We had a ten-year-old boy with us who perked up at the prospect but I felt uneasy as this was the first suggestion that the installation content was likely to be unsuitable for children. 
Being told by another very patient Roundhouse person that it would still be 'only about five minutes'  because of 'a minor technical hitch' I rather rudely asked the person at the box office if they'd tried switching it off and switching it on again. And our boy Frank said, with comic gravity 'You can't switch off Utopia".

But of course you can - and that's how you get a Dystopia. I haven't seen the installation but suspect it's more about the latter. The statement by Penny Woolcock in the programme says in part:

      I'm utterly complicit, typing this out on my laptop, stabbing at my smartphone, wearing my
      hundred and ten pound trainers, but I don't believe any of us is really comfortable stuffing
      ourselves while others scavenge on rubbish dumps, even if we prefer not to think about it.

She has a point, of course, but she seems to be confusing Utopianism (which is about society) with consumerism (which is about the individual). Feeling uncomfortable about the vast gap between the haves and have nots is a First World Problem of course, and if she's really so unhappy about splashing out a hundred quid on a  pair of fancy plimsolls I can suggest an easy way out of that particular ethical dilemma.

After a 90-minute wait we were offered tokens to get free drinks at the ghastly beach bar, but I didn't want to go back there and being told again that everything would be running 'in five to ten minutes' failed to convince. It was now 2:30. We'd had enough 'all gong and no dinner' by now and began the lengthy process of negotiating a refund from the friendly staff before leaving the building in search of a very late lunch. I reflected, on the way home, that Utopias, being social constructs, cannot accommodate the individual and that they always, always go wrong. I also reflected that, as a conceptual experience exploring thwarted desires and the hollow aspirations of late capitalist consumer culture, the afternoon had been a howling success.

The installation has been widely reviewed and mostly praised. I expect it's terrific but reserve judgement. On 5th August the comedian Russell Brand staged a one-off performance using the set, and I suspect his dazzling loquacity (not to be confused with eloquence) found an apt counterpoint in the overwhelming accumulation of 'stuff' making up Woolcock's Utopia.

'Bloomberg Philanthropics' are the show's corporate sponsors.

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