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Know your choices - Andrew Simms on the forthcoming production by dreamthinkspeak

From January 28th, dreamthinkspeak present their latest production In the Beginning was the End at Somerset House. The writer and nef Fellow (New Economics Foundation) Andrew Simms - described by New Scientist magazine as ‘a master at joined-up progressive thinking’ - reflects on the question behind the production: is the world on the verge of collapse - or the brink of rebirth? In the Beginning was the End will incite you to know your choices - and it's not all that bad, is it?


Toward the end of December 2012 it didn’t happen. In fact, the end of the world keeps not coming. The Mayans, or at least their modern interpreters, were proved wrong. As were the Assyrians, several millennia before, who used some of the earliest examples of writing to express their fears that the world would end due to human 'degeneracy'.
All the warnings from ancient calendars, apocalypse obsessed religions and deeply pessimistic observers of humanity’s self-destructive tendencies have not come true. So we must be okay, mustn’t we?
‘In the Beginning was the End’ is a new work from Tristan Sharps, artistic director of the dreamthinkspeak theatre company which specialises in incorporating unusual locations into its performances. Sharps’ previous works include an interactive casino set in a former Chapel, another piece set in an underground abattoir, and the Paradise Project focused on a shopping precinct in Liverpool, which invoked Dante’s Paradiso.
For two months from the end of January the new performance will leave the question of whether we should still be worried open to an audience that will be led around old, normally inaccessible corners of Kings College and Somerset House in London. Winding through the old buildings they will be invited to reflect on the consequences of consumerism and how we currently live in the world.
“The pace of change is accelerating,” says Sharps, “it is easy to forget what is lost and only think about what we gain when change happens.”

An 18th century neoclassical building may not appear to be the most obvious point of departure to explore the inner dynamics of modern society’s dysfunctional relationship with the material world. But, the project’s actual starting point leaps back a further two and half centuries to the often prescient works of Leonardo da Vinci.
Sharps stumbled across an extraordinary da Vinci sketch, unlike any other he’d seen. A cloudburst of material possessions is a rough drawing, dashed-off in chalk and ink late in da Vinci’s life. In it, storm clouds embrace what looks like an angry lioness and pour down a deluge of the household detritus of his time: bowls and barrels, rakes, lanterns and other indecipherable clutter.
It is ‘the story of stuff’ from four centuries ago and suggests the great polymath feeling overwhelmed by the worldly works of people. But things are not so simple because Sharps explores the world of ‘Mechatronics.’ That might sound like an overwrought, all-action commercial children’s franchise, but it’s the very modern combination of mechanical engineering, control systems and product development at the heart of mass production. And, only slightly fancifully, Leonardo is referred to as its first practitioner. As such, he wouldn’t be the first to be the creator of new human potential to worry about what he was unleashing on the world.
You can’t know in advance precisely what to expect from In the Beginning was the End because that would pre-empt and spoil the transformative experience the production is aiming at. But it attempts to recreate the journey industrialised societies have been on in recent decades as they transform the world around them with large, if fully unknowable consequences.
“You’re leaving a rooted world,” explains Sharps, “to enter one of virtualness and mass production. The show is about knowing choices, leaving people to ask ‘OK, what can I do in the world?'”
That world, or rather the survival our species on it, has failed to end after dire warnings so many times before. Because of that, is the performance an example of the luxury of philosophical reflection afforded in a society whose basic material needs are met? The difference now, to the world of the Assyrians or Mayans, or Leonardo or even the modern wave of environmental concern that began in the 1960s is what science can tell us and the more detailed information about the consequences of our actions.
Today, our consumption of natural resources and production of waste, aided both by technological ingenuity and a dominant culture that views only ability to pay (and not always that) as a limit to what we consume, is pushing our biosphere beyond its ability to regenerate. We know that we are on the cusp of triggering potentially irreversible climatic upheaval that will compromise, for example, our ability to feed ourselves.
Are we capable of re-imagining how we live in, and enjoy the world? The answer begins by first breaking the spell which tells us that passive consumerism is the normal and only way to organise our lives. Art can ask the question. Based on Sharps’ previous work In the Beginning was the End is set to ask the question with full provocation and, in doing so, be an example for how the arts can better engage with the great challenges of our time.
Andrew Simms is a Fellow of nef (the new economics foundation) his new book, Cancel the Apocalypse: the New Path to Prosperity is published in February 2013 by LittleBrown.

In the Beginning was the End
A dreamthinkspeak production presented by Somerset House and King's Cultural Institute
28 January – 30 March 2013
at Somerset House, The Strand, London WC2R 1LA

For more information and to book tickets somersethouse.org.uk/beginning

In the Beginning was the End is co-commissioned by Somerset House Trust, King’s Cultural Institute and TippingPoint. Sponsored by Bloomberg. Supported by Arts Council England.  


Read the Run Riot Interview with dreamthinkspeak Artistic Director Tristan Sharps here

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