The idea of a London/San Francisco Gateway project was something I’d been discussing with people in San Francisco since my first visit there in Spring 1998. After presenting CAT, at the South London Gallery, for which I lived in a box for ten days, I’d travelled to a conference on Consciousness Studies in Arizona supported by an Arts Council travel grant. Then after the conference I’d continued the road trip with Arts Catalyst curator Rob La Frenais who introduced me to various people in San Francisco and Los Angeles. I subsequently hosted the artistic director of a San Francisco gallery when she visited London on a curatorial research trip. In this way contacts had begun to be established over many months.
For the past eight years I’d been visiting the East coast, spending summers composing music and teaching Shakespeare in Maine. In that time I’d become fascinated by the huge contradictions and sheer physical scale of America. But I’d never been further west so I jumped at the opportunity to explore California.
My second visit to San Francisco, in April 2001, took place at the invitation of The Lab, a small independent gallery and performance space. It was a hectic, exciting trip, a whirl of new people and situations with, at it’s centre, the surreal experience of living in a sound-proof, light-proof black box for ten days with no food. An unusual tourist option in the middle of the richest society in the world.
During that trip my main aim was to present my work, give talks and meet people. At the Headlands, a place I knew nothing about, I was given a studio where I spent hardly any time. It was only once I’d experienced the unique environment of The Headlands that I realized the wonderful opportunity it offered. Then I decided to return in the autumn for a more leisurely introverted ‘residency’ period without the hectic activity of gigs and meetings. As it happened, however, I did present another piece at the Lab on that second trip, and I found that I spent a lot of time cultivating the friendships and contacts I’d made on my first.
It was fascinating to be in America shortly after the national psychic convulsion of September 11th 2001. On Halloween the whole city seemed to be parading in The Castro dressed in its dream entrails, acting out every fantasy from Britney Spears to serial killers, Osama Bin Laden to Count Dracula. It was a wild mass exorcism of the kind I could not imagine in either Britain or India.
On that trip I continued to be faced with widely divergent tendencies in myself. On the one hand I love the variety and intensity of interaction with people from all sorts of contexts and communities. On the other hand I am deeply drawn to the life of the contemplative, meditating profoundly on essential concerns. My visits to California have strongly highlighted this schism. Many of my recurrent research topics have thriving interest groups there. Electronic music, Buddhist meditation, anarchist politics, sex-positive psychology, post-colonial discourse, utopianism, New Science, digital media, culinary art, consciousness studies, deep ecology… I found myself drawn to, and warmly welcomed by, these various communities.
While part of me wants a hermetic, secluded, meditative artistic practice, another part is incorrigibly gregarious. The tension between The Headlands and The Lab, separated by the spectacular Golden Gate Bridge became a fascinating symbol of the dichotomy between the rural and the urban temperaments in myself.
The Headlands is an old army barracks reinvented as an artist’s colony in the heart of a wilderness park on the Pacific coast. It is a glorious untamed conservation area of mountains, forests, cliffs and beaches in Marin County, a part of California which harbours some of the wealthiest people on the planet. Yachts clink in the bays, visited by whales, while lions prowl in the hills between the mansions of billionaires.
The Lab on the other hand is in the heart of the Mission District, one of the poorest, most violent and most vibrant, sections of the city, home to the homeless, filled with aliens, artists, destitutes, misfits and crazies. Having grown up as an immigrant myself, a traveller from a very young age, I find myself constantly oscillating between these continents of the soul.
My third trip was the first to be supported by the Arts Council. It became incorporated into a pilot version of the Arts Council’s International Fellowship Programme. This time I was paid a fee for my time there. The effect of this was that I felt relieved of some of the pressure to make work and professional contacts. I wanted to spend more time just reflecting on my practice.
But my nature is such that it is very difficult for me to avoid getting involved in the things going on around me. In order to find contemplative studio time I literally have to lock myself away in a monastery. So every few months I have to do a vipassana meditation course which involves 10 days of complete silence. No contact at all with the outside world, no talking, reading or writing. It’s the most profound peace I’ve ever experienced and the wellspring of my work.
The Headlands centre is designed for a similar experience, albeit with relaxed rules. But I couldn’t resist the excitement and the rich variety of the city so I found myself constantly involved in extrovert explorations. The private time to read, write, practice music or just mooch about remained a fantasy only occasionally, fleetingly, experienced. Instead I spent most of my time giving talks, making new friends and new pieces, and performing with musicians, dancers and artists.
The pieces of work I presented were all constructed out of this tension between urban hustle and rural retreat, between the personal and the public, the introspective and extrovert, the stationary and the travelling. Indeed my entire fellowship experience, and the places I ended up divided between, seemed to manifest this essential tension. This lived theme of dichotomy, edge or boundary – between land and sea, city and wilderness or consciousness and unconsciousness – continues to enrich my work. Travel broadens the mind in so many ways, one being that it forces one to confront and live out complex implications rather than just theorize them and imagine them.
In hindsight the extent of the reliance on this tension in my work is very clear.
The first piece I took to San Francisco for example, CAT, was precisely a public performance of interior experience. It is interesting to reflect on this now in the light of the phenomenal media success of David Blaine who is doing something very similar, with perhaps far greater popular impact. I’m intrigued by the difference that attention makes on the action itself. How much is art about marketing? Is this not simply a reframing of the question posed by Schrödinger’s Cat? The observer and the observed are thoroughly intertwined. Does not one determine the other? Which comes first, the internal experience or the external reality?
The fact that my residency at The Headlands Centre for the Arts and The Lab was spread over more than one trip only seems to emphasize this fundamental rupture in my practice. Duality and fragmentation are fractal processes continuing at every scale, blurring into over-arching tendencies around chaotic attractors. My residency has blended now into subsequent visits to San Francisco where I have been offered two weeks accommodation as a Headlands alumnus every year for life. My last trip was to perform with The Foundry, a theatre/dance/video company who have become good friends and ongoing collaborators.
As I write now I am about to leave for San Francisco again. This time I will be working on a large-scale project at the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts. This will be another collaboration with Guillermo Gomez-Pena with whom a creative relationship has been developing over the last few years. In the last few months, I have worked with him at Dartington College of Arts and shown work at the Liverpool Biennial and as part of Live Culture at the Tate Modern, London.
National Institute of Medical Research