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May 08 2012

Was Bianca Jagger wrong to take flash photos at the opera?

The activist was spotted snapping away during Einstein on the Beach. In his new code of conduct for audiences, Leo Benedictus looks at what sort of behaviour is now acceptable

Last Friday, the theatre critic Mark Shenton was distracted from a five-hour performance of Philip Glass's opera Einstein on the Beach by a woman in his row taking photographs with a flash. It turned out to be Bianca Jagger. She had been snapping in defiance, Shenton claims, of complaints from those around her. Jagger has since said that others were taking pictures, too, adding that Shenton insulted and assaulted her. (He denies the latter, but admits the former with some pride.) The rules of behaviour in today's theatre audiences certainly seem to have changed. So, in the spirit of public service, and after consultation with Guardian critics, here is a new code of conduct.

1 Don't rattle your jewellery

All noise matters when you've come to listen to something. So a rustling packet in a classical concert can be as distracting as someone walking in front of a cinema screen. This makes even minor noises problematic. Vibrating phones are one example (we'll get to ringing). Vigorous page-turning is another. (In German concert halls, apparently, this is looked upon very gravely.)

Even jewellery is a common problem. "It's women who insist on wearing those multiple bangles," says our classical critic Andrew Clements, "so that every time they move their arms, which they invariably do in the quietest passages, you get extra unwanted percussion." Clements also complains about loud snoring, so if you know yourself to be a snorer, perhaps have a can of Red Bull before the show. The weak-bladdered should have half.

2 Do you really need an audioguide?

If you go to a gallery to be told what to look at, then by all means get one. But if you go along to explore, to be surprised, to linger around works that excite you, then all you have to do is, well, walk around. "Will an audioguide help you to get more?" asks art critic Jonathan Jones. "Or will it distract you from a fresh encounter with the art?"

Freedom of movement, he thinks, should be protected: stand where you like, look as long as you like, go back and look again. Anybody who objects can wait their turn. Freedom of speech, on the other hand, can be a nuisance. "What's annoying," says Jones, "is when someone loudly holds forth about a work, oblivious to strangers who are also looking. This can be distracting and destructive – even on the rare occasions when the showoff actually knows anything."

3 Talking, lateness, cameras, food, body odour

Michael Billington describes food as his "chief beef" in theatre audience etiquette, and recalls someone recently bringing a whole Chinese takeaway into The Duke of York's in London. Tim Ashley describes other people's body odour as his great bugbear, and insists other opera critics say the same. "If you're sitting next to somebody who stinks through six hours of Wagner, it can be a trial," he says. Theatre critic Lyn Gardner, meanwhile, is of the firm opinion that "people's bladders have quite clearly got weaker over the last 20 years".

There are difficult choices here. Cinemas and regional theatres often rely on confectionary sales to survive, so they do end up contributing to the rustling menace. As for lateness, there is a feeling that some venues could be far more sensitive about when they let the tardy in. After an overture is OK; between movements of a symphony is not. (Composers could start notating such moments in manuscripts, using whatever the Italian is for "latecomers".)

The principle, in short, is to avoid annoying people. So if you've annoyed somebody, you're in the wrong (and let's face it, you're never going to convince them otherwise). If somebody complains, obey them – and argue about it afterwards.

4 Your right to throw beer ends where my body begins

This observation from rock critic Caroline Sullivan is a reminder that, although gigs clearly have more relaxed rules than most other shows, there are still rules. And beer-flinging is certainly not permitted. "I experienced it most recently at Kings of Leon in Hyde Park," Sullivan says. "The entire audience expressed their enthusiasm by throwing pints over each other."

Accidental flinging also occurs, often as a consequence of lazy carrying. So if you're buying drinks for your friends, you are not allowed to transport more than three glasses at any time.

Sullivan does not object to mosh pits, though. "If you want to mosh, go down there and I'll stay at the back," she says. Her main grievance concerns her view. "Tall people really should play fair and stand at the back," she says. "I think it should be law." The practical considerations here – if a tall person has a short friend, or if he wants to mosh – have yet to be ironed out.

5 It's called "children's theatre" not "nursery"

Quite naturally, parents want to avoid spending time with their children. But the price of a ticket to a children's theatre show does not include babysitting services from those on stage.

This exercises Gardner, especially when parents look as if they know the rules but can't be bothered following them. "What they do is sit there while the show is going on, looking at their mobiles, and allowing their children to wander all over the stage," she says. By the same token, if you've taken young people to the theatre, and they are clearly bored, don't try to force them to be interested. This is unreasonable and counter-productive. "Not all theatre is good," says Gardner. "A lot of it is really rather dull."

6 Hecklers are allowed to say two unfunny things

Standup is unusual in that audiences are expected to try to spoil it. Many comedians disapprove of heckling and in bigger venues it's impractical; even so, people do sometimes shout funny things, and most comics will have a decent putdown ready if hecklers fail to reach a certain standard.

However, heckling is an art for miniaturists. If you think you've thought of something funny to say, but it doesn't get a laugh, then you need to revisit that assumption. Spoiling the performance in an attempt to save face is not the answer. Drunk people are very slow to learn this. At one Scott Capurro gig in Edinburgh, I remember a young woman having to be physically removed by staff because she would not stop interrupting (a surprise, because his audiences are often only too happy to walk out). Perhaps this punishment should be meted out more often.

7 Off means off

About 10 years ago, it became routine for venues to warn audiences to turn off their phones. About five years ago, everybody stopped noticing. This is a forgetfulness problem, in short, and it will never go away. (Phones also ring at funerals, remember.) Instead, we have to manage it. So when you turn your phone off, it should be off, not silent. This discourages you from distracting people, or yourself, with its vibrations or lights. It's tough but necessary. When staying connected is important, there could be limited exceptions. Gardner suggests that theatres should institute special rows of seats for tweeters (as happens in parts of the US).

Billington even recommends turning off your phone with time to spare. He cites the US director Bartlett Sher, who believes audiences need a while to disconnect themselves from all their everyday worries – perhaps 20 minutes. By the same rationale, you should always arrive early, as Ashley does.

8 Don't be so bloody precious

Overreacting is antisocial behaviour, too. So if somebody's annoying you, in any way, act early. Think carefully about what you hope to achieve, and – if you can achieve anything – speak kindly at an opportune moment. Don't just stew until your anger overflows.

In the theatre, where Gardner describes "a sort of war" between the old guard and the new, this is a growing problem. Star-led casting, in particular, brings in people who are not used to the environment. They are more liable to behave badly, but they are also badly needed. If you love the theatre, then you are doing it a disservice by sending them home annoyed. On the other hand, when something is being a distraction nearby, you have a duty to do something. Others further off may be equally annoyed, but powerless, so they are depending on you.

Remember that – and don't rely on having an enraged Mark Shenton at the end of every row.


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December 15 2011

My favourite film: Koyaanisqatsi

In the latest of our writers' favourite film series, Leo Hickman is bowled over by the elemental force of Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass's 1982 environmental masterpiece

Want to set the world to rights? Have your say in the comments section below – or write your own review

It's a film without any characters, plot or narrative structure. And its title is notoriously hard to pronounce. What's not to love about Koyaanisqatsi?

I came to Godfrey Reggio's 1982 masterpiece very late. It was actually during a Google search a few years back when looking for timelapse footage of urban traffic (for work rather than pleasure!) that I came across a "cult film", as some online reviewers were calling it. This meant I first watched it as all its loyal fans say not to: on DVD, on a small screen. If ever a film was destined for watching in a cinema, this is it. But, even without the luxury of full immersion, I was still truly captivated by it and, without any exaggeration, I still think about it every day.

Koyaanisqatsi's formula is simple: combine the epic, remarkable cinematography of Ron Fricke with the swelling intensity and repeating motifs of Philip Glass's celebrated original score. There's your mood bomb, right there. But Reggio's directorial vision is key, too. He was the one who drove the project for six years on a small budget as he travelled with Fricke across the US in the mid-to-late 1970s, filming its natural and urban wonders with such originality.

Personally, I view the film as the quintessential environmental movie – a transformative meditation on the current imbalance between humans and the wider world that supports them (in the Hopi language, "Koyanaanis" means turmoil and "qatsi" means life). But Reggio has rightly refused to define the film's specific meaning; he even fought unsuccessfully with the distributor for the film to have no title. (Incidentally, it was only Francis Ford Coppola's last-minute support that helped push it into mainstream cinemas.)

"It's meant to offer an experience, rather than an idea," said Reggio in a 2002 interview (included with the DVD as a special feature). "For some people, it's an environmental film. For some, it's an ode to technology. For some people, it's a piece of shit. Or it moves people deeply. It depends on who you ask. It is the journey that is the objective."

It's the sort of answer you might expect from someone who was a resident member of the Christian Brothers teaching order from the age of 14 to 28. He also cites Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados as one of his most moving spiritual experiences. But it was his time spent making shorts for the Institute for Regional Education in the early 70s that sparked Koyaanisqatsi. The New Mexico-based institute provided $40,000 of funding after he made them a series of campaign films aimed at raising public awareness about how technology and surveillance were being used to "control behaviour".

The first section of Koyaanisqatsi begins with long, aerial shots of the natural world – cloudscapes, ocean waves, the desert scenery of Monument Valley made so famous by 1950s westerns. Slowly, the presence of mankind drips into the film: we see power lines, mines and atomic explosions. Then, after half an hour or so – yes, this film demands commitment, concentration and utter capitulation – the pace and visual intensity picks up, as some transfixing footage of derelict housing estates being demolished feeds into urban scenes of traffic, shown in either slow motion or rapid timelapse. We see hotdogs and Twinkies being made in a food factory, people spilling out and on to trains and elevators, and jumbo jets taxiing at LAX. And then it climaxes perfectly with archive footage of a Nasa test rocket exploding during takeoff in 1962, with the camera tracking the final flaming piece of debris as it falls back to earth.

It may look hackneyed now, as we've become so used to Koyaanisqatsi's much-imitated techniques – Madonna's Ray of Light video, high-definition slow-motion footage of sport, Adam Curtis documentaries. Our minds have been seared by images of the Twin Towers falling and the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles exploding – both prophetically foreshadowed in the film. But still, 30 years on, Koyaanisqatsi can connect with us, perhaps more than ever. And you can't overstate how much Glass's score sets the tone and rhythm for the film's rolling, relentless cycle of imagery.

"I didn't want to show the obviousness of injustice, social deprivation, war, etc," said Reggio. "I wanted to show that which we're most proud of: our shining beast, our way of life. So [the film] is about the beauty of this beast." He clearly thought he might partially disguise his concerns about the direction of mankind within the film. But other statements reveal his true feelings:

"What I tried to show is that the main event today is not seen by those who live in it. We see the surface of the newspapers and the obviousness of conflict, social injustice, the market, the welling up of culture. But for me, the greatest and most important event of perhaps our entire history has fundamentally gone unnoticed: the transiting from old nature – or the natural environment as our host of life for human habitation – into a technological milieu, into mass technology, as the environment of life."

The New York Times, in its original 1982 review, was somewhat ambivalent about the film: "Koyaanisqatsi is an oddball and – if one is willing to put up with a certain amount of solemn picturesqueness – entertaining trip." But the film, which is actually the first part of a (long-delayed and, in my view, far less successful) trilogy, has since been added to the National Film Registry by the US Library of Congress due to it being "culturally, historically and aesthetically" significant.

My one regret with the film is that I have yet to see it on the big screen. I missed it last year at the Brighton festival – where the Philip Glass Ensemble played the soundtrack live – and again at Edinburgh earlier this year. I am determined not to waste such a chance again.


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May 24 2011

Barbican unveils Olympics arts festival

Programme includes theatre productions starring Juliette Binoche and Cate Blanchett, and major Bauhaus exhibition

The Barbican arts centre in London will celebrate next year's Olympics with an "unparalleled" lineup of international stars, including the actors Juliette Binoche and Cate Blanchett; stage directors Yukio Ninagawa and Peter Sellars; and the first UK performance of Einstein on the Beach, the opera that four decades ago made the reputations of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson.

The centre will host the biggest exhibition in the UK for 40 years on the Bauhaus design school, which flourished in the 1920s and early 30s.

"In 2012, London welcomes the world for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the Barbican will be at the forefront of that international moment with an extraordinary range of cultural experiences for all," said Barbican director Sir Nicholas Kenyon.

He predicted that London will "punch above its weight" in the arts festival, and promised "something for everyone", both within the concrete bunker of its Barbican home and in many events across the capital.

"This is not an imported rent-a-festival that is happening all through the world. It is a real collection of things that we believe in that represent the Barbican values."

Kenyon can afford his starry spending spree because the Barbican – whose core funding comes from the City of London – will receive a special grant of £700,000 from the London Olympics organisers to join the nationwide arts festival planned to coincide with the Games.

The Barbican also pulled off a funding coup recognising its eclectic programming – which is both popular and critically acclaimed – when it won a substantial increase in Arts Council funding at a time when hundreds of other organisations were being slashed.

Programme director Louise Jeffreys said the Barbican represented the Bauhaus principles in breaking down divisions between art forms. "We continue to push forward the pioneering spirit. In 2012 stars of stage and screen will rub shoulders with first-timers, international artists will meet local people, and the traditional will meet the new."

The Bauhaus exhibition, Art as Life, will track the design school from its founding in 1919 by Walter Gropius, to its last director, the architect Mies van der Rohe, and its forced closure in 1933 by the Nazis, who detested its radical modernist ethos. The exhibition will include painting, sculpture, film, photography, textiles, ceramics and architecture.

French film star Binoche, who made an acclaimed debut on the London stage at the National Theatre in a dance piece with the choreographer Akram Khan, will return in a more conventional acting role, in Mademoiselle Julie, a new version – in French – of August Strindberg's play about seething class and sexual tensions, with costumes by couture house Lanvin.

The Australian actor Cate Blanchett, star of the 1998 film Elizabeth – and better known to a younger audience as Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings – returns to the London stage after 13 years in a new version by the British playwright Martin Crimp of the German play Gross und Klein, in the role of a lonely wife implausibly deserted by her husband. The show will be a co-production between the Barbican and the Sydney theatre company Blanchett runs with her husband.

Co-productions are a feature of the programme: the Barbican is getting together with Sadler's Wells for the first time to bring in one of the most acclaimed dance companies in the world, the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in a month-long season across the two venues.

Classical stars include the New York Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw orchestra from Amsterdam, and the Kronos quartet, which will also play a concert at the Hackney Empire in east London.

Ninagawa, renowned for his take on Shakespeare, will direct a new version of Cymbeline in Japanese, and the theatre season will also include a major new production by Simon McBurney for the Complicite company.

The author and academic Toni Morrison is working with Rokia Traore, a singer and song writer from Mali, on Desdemona, a performance incorporating traditional African instruments inspired by an invisible character in Shakespeare's play, his heroine's African nurse Barbary.

Other music highlights will include the return of Sir Simon Rattle as conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra. African and western musicians will also unite in Africa Express, the collective founded by Damon Albarn, which will visit UK towns and cities on its most ambitious tour to date, with the Barbican as executive producer.


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July 31 2010

New York City views

Matteo Pericoli found fame with his 22ft fold-out drawing of Manhattan's skyline. His new book shows the city through the windows of New York's artists and writers, from Annie Leibovitz to Philip Glass, David Byrne to Nora Ephron, with their thoughts on what those views mean to them

The country singer Rosanne Cash glimpses two iconic New York landmarks through her apartment window: the Empire State building and the Chelsea hotel. She is lucky. From his window, the composer Philip Glass sees only "water tanks, air conditioning, exhaust pipes". But he loves his view all the same.

The screenwriter Nora Ephron looks out at the Chrysler building framed in a single pane: "the absolute epitome of every glittery dream I have ever had about New York". The satirist Stephen Colbert stares out at a towering "telecommunications skyscraper whose peak bristles with microwave transmitters" and thinks mostly about cancer. David Byrne, as if trapped in one of his elliptical songs, gazes out of his window at the windows of other people, some of whom he occasionally catches looking back at him. Peter Carey's novelistic imagination conjures up "dead people" walking past his window – "the famous showman, PT Barnum, passing along Broadway to arrange the wedding of Tom Thumb".

The view from one's window is, as the artist Matteo Pericoli puts it, "one of the least designable things about the buildings we call home, but the one that perhaps affects us most deeply every day". Pericoli, who is best known for his epic book, Manhattan Unfurled, a 22ft fold-out drawing of the New York skyline, has now turned his attention to a more intimate, but no less intriguing, subject: what New York's writers and artists see when they look out of their windows. It's a simple idea that yields surprising results – about the nature of urban living, about the creative imaginations of those who choose to live and work in a city and, perhaps most intriguingly, about Pericoli's own unique and slightly obsessive way of seeing.

"When you draw something, it often becomes more interesting somehow," he says, when I call him in Turin, where he now lives. "It is not just representation, it's more about telling a story. These drawings are not about how I see, but how I think. They are a kind of thinking process brought to life through lines."

Pericoli has found that the people who grant him access to the views from their windows are "constantly surprised by the results in a way that they would not be surprised by a photograph or even a painting". What he captures, he says, "is not a transient moment, but a presence of some kind".

Looking at Pericoli's line drawings in their beautiful simplicity, their wealth of detail and their mastery of line and perspective, you can see what he means. His drawing of the view from Glass's window is one of my favourites, a rendering of an often invisible or overlooked New York of water towers, warehouses and air conditioning machines, what Glass calls "the infrastructure of New York in plain view".

Sometimes, too, the window views seem to be accidental metaphors: the architect Daniel Libeskind looks out at towering stone buildings that seem to enclose his apartment; the skyline that the contemporary artist Nick Ghiz sees is interrupted by a bent steel pipe that is sculptural; the former mayor of New York, Ed Koch, has a window that, as he puts it, "allows the light to shine though unimpeded". Tom Wolfe says that he chose his apartment solely for the view – "To this day, I haven't really seen the apartment, only what's outside it." Ephron, paradoxically, chose her home in spite of the beauty of her vista: "When I write, I face away from it otherwise I would never get anything done."

Matteo Pericoli initially trained as an architect in Milan and it shows in every line, every shadow, every shape. He moved to New York in 1995 to work for Richard Meier & Partners, and ironically began working on a design for the Jubilee church in Rome. While cycling the seven kilometres to and from work every day, he began to think about drawing the Manhattan skyline in its entirety. The resulting book, Manhattan Unfurled, took just over two years to complete. The end result was two 37ft scrolls of the east and west side of Manhattan that were then condensed to what the publishers called "a 22ft-long accordion fold-out".

In early September 2001, Pericoli received the very first printed copies of Manhattan Unfurled. Two days later, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre disappeared from the skyline in the terrorist attacks of 11 September. "Suddenly, there was New York before 9/11 and New York after 9/11, and I had portrayed a New York skyline that was past tense. It was a very strange time for me because I had such a relationship with the place. You spend so much time looking at these buildings and then drawing them that the lines enter your brain and are embedded there."

The critical acclaim that greeted the publication of Manhattan Unfurled helped him gain access to the apartments and houses of the likes of Tom Wolfe, Graydon Carter (editor of Vanity Fair), Annie Leibovitz and Steve Martin. Leibovitz presented him with a series of photographs she had made of her window view, but he insisted on working in his own way, stamping his own presence on the subject. "I don't draw a fleeting moment, I try to capture a sense of wholeness, of permanence."

The actor Steve Martin's view across Central Park was "so iconic, so fairy tale" that Pericoli decided not to include it. "It was just what you would expect; there were no surprises." Others, whom he will not name, refused him access. "Many people wanted to guard their private view and I respect that. It also made me feel happy in the sense that what I was doing had some deeper meaning."

For Manhattan Unfurled, Pericoli began by journeying around New York on the Circle Line cruise boat, photographing the skyline. For his current project, London Unfurled, he walked the length of the Thames, from Hammersmith to the Isle of Dogs, and back again, photographing constantly. "I am gently obsessive," he says, understating the case somewhat. "I walk 10 metres, then stop and photograph. All along the north side of the river, then back along the south. It was two incredibly intense weeks in which I took 6,300 photographs and destroyed a pair of shoes."

Pericoli has worked out that 50 photographs add up to 20 centimetres of drawing. As before, he worked on a long roll of architectural drawing paper, "10 to 15 centimetres at a time, never looking back at what I have completed, never worrying about, or erasing small mistakes. It's all there, the cityscape and the voyage of discovery that I undertake when I put it on to the paper."

When I spoke to him this week, he had just completed an 11.5m section of drawing that takes in Hammersmith to the Isle of Dogs. He has, he says, another 8.1m to go before he gets to the Gherkin. "I try not to think about the Gherkin too much but I can tell you I drew 900 lines, maybe more."

Pericoli will not see the drawing of London in its entirety until he has finished it. "This is just how I work, but also, on a more practical level, my house is just not big enough for me to keep unfurling the drawing. This way, you must trust yourself and your instinct and your ability. And, of course, the drawing gets better as I do it. In a way, I am rolling back time when I finally look at the whole thing."

Since 2000, Pericoli has followed his obsession, giving up architecture altogether to concentrate on his epic and intimate drawings. He now lives in Turin and travels the world to work. His drawings have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, la Stampa and Vanity Fair. Jet-lagged American Airlines passengers can see his most epic works as they stagger into the arrivals hall at JFK airport in New York: a 397ft panoramic mural called Skyline of the World. Cityscapes, whether large and small, epic or intimate, seem to hold an inordinate fascination for him. What does he think underlies his obsession?

"Always, I am trying to understand what makes a city work," he says, without hesitation. "In New York, I am an outsider and I have found that New Yorkers are strangely incurious about their city. So few New Yorkers take the Circle Line to look at Manhattan. This is interesting to me. What they see mostly is a little piece of New York through their window. But, there are millions of windows, millions of views, millions of tiny New Yorks. In a way, I would like to draw them all but that, of course, is impossible. Instead, I try to somehow synthesise the city, get close to its essence. This is what drives me and what drives me a little mad. The more complex the view, the more I have to synthesise to tell the story. In the end, I guess I am more like a short story writer than an artist."

For more information on Matteo Pericoli visit his website www.matteopericoli.com or Facebook page www.facebook.com/pages/Matteo-Pericoli/39173777082


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