Arbonauts, The Desire Machine, Brunel Tunnel Shaft, Rotherhithe, July 25
You enter the venue over a brick stile, down two footholds into a very low horizontal shaft, descend a couple of stories by metal staircase into the heart of a circular shaft where a sub-frequency sound throbs in your ears. It is a venue like no other. In the centre of the space an imposing tubular structure (designed by Carl Robertshaw) rises with ropes ascending to an invisible apex and a round stage floor at its base. We stand around it like bystanders wondering what has just fallen to earth. After the lights go down (to a real blackout), it is at the apex of the structure that we see a suspended figure (Megan Saunders) bathed in light, turning and somersaulting slowly, weightlessly. We are craning our necks to watch and I hope it’s not going to continue for too long. The suffused light reveals a structure that is sturdy and at this proximity it looms large. If there is one venue where haze may have been effective it is this one, but the feeling of claustrophobia may already be at the limit. The lighting by Marty Langthorne is subtle enough not to give much away but haze might have eroded the outlines of the structure even more to suggest a platform that is suspended in the air in which the performers are in turn suspended. For now the legacy of Brunel’s industrial machinery hovers over us. Only towards the end of The Desire Machine does the use of strobe lighting effectively remove the structure as well as the outlines of the performers and the vision of bodies in four-dimensional space is stunning.
For now the figure suspended in Lee Berwick’s low frequency sound seems like a metaphor for suspending our own conceptions of what The Desire Machine might be. We are all swimming and neither Dimitri Launder nor Helen Galliano, the creative directors of Arbonauts, are going to offer us a hand. They are taking us on a sensory journey where there are no dots to match up, no rational thoughts to guide us and no text that we can piece together into a narrative. We are floating on our own senses.
The light fades on Saunders and from the darkness the figure of Rachel Alexander in a translucent white wedding dress (the ‘bride’) emerges into the light turning like a mechanical doll on a music box in the centre of the floor. As she turns she looks at the audience through pale eyes from a pale face, her arms bending at the elbow only, a minimal semaphoric communication, the heartbeat of a cold spectral being. Even her speech is mechanical; she mouths snippets of text and the words are reproduced through the speakers. The text is the only clue to the inspiration behind The Desire Machine. As a creative process, Launder and Galliano start with text before working on images; the movement then emerges from the images and finally they research a venue in which the whole artistic edifice can be installed. Perhaps because the final product has a life of its own they are not forthcoming about the source, but having seen The Desire Machine twice, I want to fill this conceptual stage. The snippets of text lead me to Angela Carter and her surreal novel, The Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. I’ll come back to Carter later as there is a lot more sensual information to glean from the performance first.
A woman in a latex top and black shiny jodpur pants (Dominique Vannod) rises on to the platform and circles in the opposite direction to the bride and then a third siren (Silvia Almeida) joins, all three looking at us intensely from the inside of their circling desire machine. What exactly is the relationship between us? I have the impression of watching a hologram, an unattainable image or mirage of a peep show playground of desire but the pedestrian (however carefully they step), mechanical pace falls short of the illusion (Launder and Galliano write of harnessing the idea of an 18th century zoetrope, which is closer to the cylindrical nature of the structure).
The costumes by Rachel Taylor have ‘erotic’ sewn all over them but they have a prosaic quality that reminds me too much of the artifice. It is a quality that undermines The Desire Machine: to arouse desire — or the illusion of desire — in the audience (I am assuming this is the idea) desire has to be manifest in the performance. The signifier (in Barthes’ term) is there but the signified does not fully register. Like the soundscape, where pockets of intensity give way to pockets where it is relatively calm, the visual and physical language can be powerful — notably in the muzzled, muscled, mantis-like Vannod preying on the heads of two colleagues — but it is not consistent throughout. Hamish Toeng suspended on the ropes is more tautly expressive than his supine interpretation of perpetual motion that has lost so much of the erotic as to fall short of calisthenics.
The result of this imbalance between idea and performance is more esoteric than erotic, which points away from desire in a direction that is too vague to interpret; the destination is clearly marked but the signpost is not facing the right way.
The Desire Machine is nevertheless an ambitious project that attempts what Angela Carter created in her novel, a meeting of ideas and images bordering on the surreal that underline and undermine societal attitudes towards desire. The language of both the novel and the performance resists classification, and even if the resonance of the written word speaks to my imagination more powerfully, the promise of The Desire Machine, pushed further in its imagery, is intoxicating.