Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land

When James was 9 he wrote a song about his 57 Chevy, cruisin’ down the freeway.

I’m not sure exactly how this is relevant to our upcoming workshop residency at CounterPULSE, but somehow it gets right to the heart of it. A child, living in England and never having travelled outside of the UK, decides to write a song. What comes out is a first person description of an experience that is alien to the culture that he lives in, but yet so familiar. The boy decides not to write about his world or his reality, but instead it seems more appropriate to write lyrics that recall the landscapes that seem, somehow, and without reason, to fit with the action of writing a song. For the boy, of course you’d write about that. Maybe he never considered writing about an Austin Metro on the South Circular. Or maybe, it just didn’t seem as romantic.

James and I have been making performances together for nearly 7 years now, and, like all artists there are certain things that seem to replay for us. Things that we can’t seem to get over, or that seem to always be interesting. One of these things is America’s cultural exports, in the form of its films that celebrate a particular kind of hero, the landscapes that are so familiar (and yet unknown) to a European eye, the music that sings about a longing for a bygone era where things were simpler and life was sweet. The feeling of familiarity of an entire culture that you are on the outside of is a very peculiar one, especially because the impression I have is purely surface. It goes no deeper, because how could it? Its formed out of watching Dawson’s Creek and Sweet Valley High, listening to Dolly Parton and Elvis, knowing that Route 66 is some kind of famous road but not knowing where it goes from or to. There’s no depth, no relation to any reality other than the one that is being sold to me (and the politics around the why’s and wherefore’s of that are a whole other story….)

But still, even though its paper thin, this reality is compelling for us. The narrative of it is so strong, so familiar yet exotic, full of promise but simultaneously deeply unsettling. We went to America for the first time in 2010, and we came to Texas. All of those feelings we’d had from afar, known only by proxy, were now replayed first hand. One thing was clear: this was a Foreign Country. We were strangers here. I saw a man in a Stetson and I couldn’t get over it. That was his real hat, he wasn’t joking, or being ironic — he was in it for real. In this place, for real. The dissonance between recognising everything but feeling so disconnected from is very odd — I was outside and inside, I was different yet the same. It felt like being in a film; roads that wide, cars that big and not a cloud in the sky.

That sense of the uncanny is very intriguing. James and I wondered what it was like to live there, to have that as your life and also have it reflected back to you via global mass media. We wondered where the (inevitable) gaps were, where the fake version split from the real, and how to tell one from the other when on the surface they look the same. Well maybe not the same, but very similar. One was a copy of the other, but I wasn’t sure which way round it was. And as a stranger, how could I ever know? As a tourist, a city always puts it’s best face on for you, sells you what you came for.

Last summer we visited San Francisco with University of Chichester to find people to connect with for this project. We found CounterPULSE, and now we’ve found 6 artists who we’re going to work with over a couple of weeks in August. The project is called Stranger in a Strange Land because we wanted to explore the idea of being a stranger or an outsider with people who might also consider themselves to be outsiders somehow. Or that the lens of a stranger might help us to look at how America manifests through mass media, and how a nostalgia for this place/time might be investigated through this stance. Being in California (the west of the West) seems important. We know we will talk a lot. We’ll try to make stuff that we can share with an audience — we hope we can find out what the actions and imagery of these ideas might be, and have a go at doing them, somehow. We will probably make diagrams and lists. We’ll take photos and video. We want to try to locate what the texts around these ideas might be, and speak them. Maybe in the places where they fit, maybe where they are unexpected. James and I have no idea what that might really mean yet — it seems impossible plan too much when we’ll only be 2 out of 8 artists in the group. But that’s what’s exciting about processes like this; we don’t know what we’ll find till we get there. We’ll make ourselves a pretty good map, and we’ll use it to try to understand the (conceptual) territory, but the potential for off-roading will be high. I love a good metaphor, so bear with me whilst I extend this one: we’ll be exploring, mapping, discovering, redrawing, navigating without much of a compass. We want to be open to the open road. We’ve got a tonne of starting points and there are lots of possibilities, but like all the best projects it will probably change beyond recognition when we get in the room.

We know this much for sure — in 2 weeks we’ll get on a plane and after 15 hours we’ll land in another country. We’ll be strangers in a strange land.

*Keep an eye on this blog, because we’ll be posting stuff regularly throughout the process, which starts on 11th August.

One Comment

  • RichieIsrael

    America is an un-identifiable place, an unruly assemblage of culture and ideas. It does not owe itself to any image, yet at the same time it is often misguidedly acknowledged for its image.

    America is very familiar to me, I can say more about what is imported here than exported. I grew up in a generic suburban town in Pennsylvania, My father worked around Amish people in a farmers market, and my mother greeted people behind a counter at a small post office. My family travelled often, and I have moved to many different towns/cities in this country. I’ve always felt like a stranger because I never particularly felt belonging to anywhere, and always looked at things from the outside.

    The romance of the west is something that still lives in peoples minds. Gunslingers, and rugged cowboys are continuous themes in films, novels, and paintings. And for a while now have taken on as an ironic aesthetic, to a point where the original reference is unnecessary.

    And in some towns in the south-west, there is a questioning feeling you can get when you see a man in stirrups, ponytail and bolo tie strutting along a sidewalk walking into a re-creation of a old western saloon. You might ask yourself, how serious is this all to be taken, and for how long, until you realize that some of these men own ranches deep yonder in the vacant lands, with a dozen horses, branded cattle, and they still know how to throw a lasso with magical precision.

    Road trips are cinematic, they are immerse and detached, letting your eyes and body wander into the landscape’s pure immediacy.

    The ‘adventure’ is one of America’s ongoing celebrated themes, from manifest destiny to theme parks, to reality television, people want to be part of the unpredictably,
    ‘On the road’ and ‘Into the wild’ towards an unknown ‘Vanishing Point’

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