The Voice of Nature | Tim Spooner | Cambridge Junction | 27.05.2017
A shadow appears at the back of the dark stage, a silhouette partially obscured by the dense clutter that fills the space. When it gets a bit brighter we see that he’s sort of like a weird Victorian child – cheekbones, sunken eyes, slicked over hair – wearing strange golden grey-ish pyjamas made from thick cloth. He’s clutching onto, or cuddling, a huge teddy (not quite a bear, or a dog; maybe a llama). He furtively retrieves one of its eyes from the mess.
He shuffles forwards into the landscape of dangling yellow wires, metallic assemblage and flat pink skins. He always frontal, facing us, like this is a presentation. We suspect that these are all his constructions (without having to look, he reaches forward, his hands knowing where to scrabble for precariously soldered-on switches and glowing buttons), but we can see that he’s not entirely sure of it all (he still has to scrabble). The machines are simple, and amazing, and unnerving, and refuse to be still. Pink hangings ripple with a disturbing fleshiness (too heavy and dense for cloth, more like a latex?), tall tripods rattle along the ground, and squat yellow drums shoot pink ping-pong balls at everything else (delightfully inconsistent in rebounding or simply flying straight off the side of the stage). There’s a collection of small black furry atomic creatures rattling around that remind me of Furbies, and the animate dust in Spirited Away.
Sometimes it feels like a laboratory separated from us by a sheet of glass, or like it’s underneath a microscope. It’s a weird universe, with a weird and child-like (but not childish) figure as its philosopher-engineer-biologist-architect; somehow responsible for it without quite belonging there either. Aware of our gaze, he picks his way nervously and delicately from one control board to another (each further illuminating and animating the debris). His feet are clad in amazing thick socks, awkwardly tucked up over the hem of his trousers, and his hesitant footsteps are always well-placed.
He hugs the teddy tightly, pushing his ear in close, and then whispers its secrets into his cupped hand. It looks a little like he’s regurgitating them back into the teddy/puppet, but they echo out through speakers and appear as surtitles high above the stage (it’s open on three sides, although we’re gathered at the front – I think it’s usually used for gigs). They’re strange words – Milkenwood, Milkenature, Milkenhere – and suggest a vaguely European mysticism. I think about of logics of sweetness and milk: the milky sap of trees, the sweetness of rot. Cream and bread. Milky chocolate that a little boy craves, the hot feeling in your mouth after eating too many sweets. The milk of nature, of human kindness. Medieval monks pouring their lives into endless and overworked theologies – philosophies that lack any heaven or hell, but rather speak to an ancient, dense and rotting land.
It’s asexual, yet excessively sexual – bodies remain discrete while shuddering, tripping, trembling and oozing over one another. There doesn’t seem to be any thread within this chaos beyond this figure himself; our attention and understanding shifts at the rate at which he picks his way through it all. As a semi-fictional creator of this space, and the artist and author of the work, everything branches off from Spooner’s presence. He wishes to give these things agency, to see them move by themselves: to shake, to wobble, to whisper, to cling, to drip, to fall over, to fly across the room, to appear, to move, to collapse. Tim-the-performer seems desperate to listen to and learn from these things, while Tim-the-artist sets them in motion. This contradiction drives the work: his search for knowledge is like a ventriloquist seeking answers from a puppet. A figure striving to hear the voice of nature, while being utterly unable to erase his own hand in setting it in motion.
But while we understand this figure to have crafted every individual material, the messiness and his trepidation suggests he has repeatedly fled from this place, only to return to it again and again. This room has developed an agency beyond him: not located in any one thing, but rather an intangible quality generated from the tangledness of it all. In an excess of connections and crossed wires, something spatially unfixed has gained an unknowable force that resonates beyond – and clearly unsettles – this figure. He’s a child who can’t resist imagining the monster waiting for him to fall asleep – the seductive force that causes him to return to this space is precisely what gives it its power over him. While continually collapsing back to the body of its evident architect, a force is evoked beyond him: an uncanny and unaccountable ‘something’ that resists identification or fixity within this cluttered laboratory/universe.
The whole work doesn’t progress, as much as it unfolds or collapses. An entropic dramaturgy exposes a restless fidgeting – things fall over, but continue to rattle along the ground. It’s a shocking, and exciting, and exceptional work, with a complexity and richness that speaks of the depth and duration of Spooner’s research. Strange and unlikely gestures flare: an excessive tremulousness in the body; a bizarre moment of magician-like ‘tricks’; the brandishing one of the pink latex sheets (at who, or what?) like a matador, evoking an uncertain threat of confrontation. He arrives at the front of the stage and doesn’t really do anything but look out at us – a strange encounter between a seemingly-isolated boy and a group of people standing around to watch him in this big venue in Cambridge. It’s all so murky, and unlikely – and it works. The Voice of Nature proposes a complex and precarious logic, impossibly hard to justify, something utterly counter to (and thereby revealing the narrowness of) institutional demands for performance. Its unlikeliness makes me cherish it. Seeing this piece felt like tentatively stepping through a garden that’s flourished undisturbed for years; overcome by virulent and delicate weeds, it offers up a wildly beautiful and entirely alien ecology.