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TNC Archive 2015: Review

PENNY WOOLCOCK -

UTOPIA

DESIGNS BY BLOCK9

★★★★

There is something of a painful contradiction at play sometimes when you’re invited to a show that, at its very heart, has a salient message that the creators hope the audience will listen to intently. These contractions aren’t subtly placed to try and trip audiences up; they’re put there to show, perhaps naively, that at the very core of our human experience is collective responsibility.

Humankind has been focused on achieving a Utopian ideal from the offset of civilisation. Whether it is Thomas More’s Utopia or Plato’s Republic, both works forming a great part of Penny Woolcock's latest installation, or Morris (1890), Wells (1900) or Huxley (1932), society has never seemed able to find the right balance to create this "Utopian" civilisation. These are not lofty notions of a fractured idealism of society. Far from it, the books are written as a reaction to the society of the day, yet the only uniformity that seems unbreakable is that a consensus can’t be reached.

For Woolcock's Utopia, one could be forgiven for the apologetic tone that the piece seems to project and the political message that is lost within the installation. It isn’t an easy sell for a show like this. There has to be a willingness to be proud of the political landscape that the installation is part of. The type of audience that Woolcock is likely to attract isn’t the best at being preached to. But the spirit and power of the installation come out in abundance during the special events that run alongside the installation over the course of the run.

 

As the audience walks in to the Roundhouse’s main space, Block9 have achieved an impressive and instantly arresting display that is initially daunting. Towering over the audience in the central space is a mountain of brown cardboard boxes ranging in size with Glamour, Desirability, Exclusivity, Popularity, Cool, Wealth, Happiness, and Utopia written across the middle. The central space is slightly sparse, with only muffled sound coming from the other areas and bright, colourful strobe lighting shining through the gaps between the boxers.

Following the installation anti-clockwise, the first space you encounter is a small, cramped room showing a video on loop. To enter the space, the audience has to walk through meat locker flaps, which also act as the projector screen, and considering the topic of the video, Woolcock manages to place each person walking through the flaps right into the heart of the story. From here, we walk around to another video on loop with 8 people reading, looking pensive and intently at times.

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It’s not until you walk into the next space that you realise Block9's stunning eye for detail and the intricacy of the work that they’ve become known for. Turning the corner, we enter a near post-apocalyptic city street complete with rubble. The enclosed space could be slightly claustrophobic but feels more natural and creepy. As you continue to walk around, the level at which Block9 is playing makes for a fantastic conclusion.

On the 12th of August, the Live Late element of the installation included a dance piece by renowned choreographer Dame Arlene Philips titled Money, Inheritance, and Celebrity. With Tommy Franzen and ZooNation Youth Company, Philips created a series of dances around the theme of money, which was also the soundtrack that she’d chosen. The capability of both Philips and the dancers is indisputable, but it would have been great to have seen a more structured theme in the dance piece. At times, there was a lot going on and the energy they'd created was infectious for the most part, but there is potential to use the themes within Utopia to create a piece that could really hit hard.

Leaving the comfort of the Roundhouse in Camden, reality begins to set in and I, like everyone else, whip out my iPhone and quickly send out a tweet. Woolcock says that she ‘doesn’t believe that any of us are really comfortable stuffing ourselves whilst others scavenge on rubbish dumps’. But too many of us are comfortable with that, and it goes back to almost everything Philips said before the dance piece.

In London, as in many other cities, the homeless situation has hit epidemic proportions and the state doesn’t seem fit to do anything about it except blame them for their own misfortune. In fact, local councils and the Mayor of London have tried to demonise rough sleepers with a cold-hearted approach. If you take an evening walk along The Strand in Central London, Covent Garden or along the whole of Oxford Street, you’ll see a sight that renders you hopeless. All ages and sexes of people are reduced to sleeping in the same spot night after night. Some beg and some don't, but all get ignored by the thousands of people who pass them daily.

 

The issue of unemployment and chronic homelessness is deep-rooted in a society that has taken the "me, me, me" mantra of the 1980s to its heart. All those out of work or sleeping rough are now seen as 'their fault, isn't it?' and have ceased to be an issue with which we are able or willing to assist. the Capital, there has been a huge surge by local councils trying to ban rough sleepers and even close soup kitchens, whilst also ensuring that the ‘it’s either them or you’ message is repeated as much as possible.

 

Speaking about her time in school and how it affected her not to be able to join the "Quality Street Club" or envying her neighbour's patent leather shoes, Philips takes this moment to truly speak from the heart. With this passion, honesty, and unexpected introduction to the dance piece, Philips spoke about her barber father and the times he found himself out of work. Philips's memories of her childhood and the experiences she encountered mirrored those of Woolcock and left a lasting impression. 

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But it seems that society, that all-seeing and knowing none-entity, manages to control us in such a way that we stop being able to affectively do much.

This personal insight had the power to try and make something that many of us refuse to accept, poverty and the exclusion we may have felt or still do feel, relatable. The experience that many children face due to parents being out of work or struggling to survive was another important theme in Philips' introduction and something that would have been a great inclusion in the dance piece.

Now I am trying to figure out a way to do "my part", but each time I come up feeling reluctantly incapable of doing anything that is going to have any worth. It reminds me of the Edmund Burke quote, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." But it seems that society, that all-seeing and knowing none-entity, manages to control us in such a way that we stop being able to affectively do much. 

They’ve demonised the poor, jobless, jobseekers, homeless, and the basic human dignity that we’re supposed to have seems lost in the vacant expressions of those people who are made to feel helpless.

 

Perhaps the first verse of Jerry Hannan’s song "Society" puts it more succinctly:

It's a mystery to me.

We have a greed with which we have agreed.

You think you have to want more than you need.

Until you have it all, you won't be free.