You don’t know what you’ve got…

31st October 2012

… till it’s gone. Today, Wednesday 31 October, is the last day of the first six months of The Space. Fortunately, this Arts Council England/BBC collaboration has been such a success that the project is continuing (see Maggie Brown’s Guardian article for details) although some of the content will, because of rights restrictions, disappear from tomorrow. Among the losses will be what for me has been the most glorious offering – documentation videos of all of the Globe to Globe Shakespeare performances by companies from around the world. Let’s hope that these, or at least a goodly selection from them, turn up on DVD or elsewhere online very soon. I have detailed my disappointments with The Space previously, and now is not the time to repeat those. Instead, I want to continue developing a post that considers some more of its offerings – and then later in the week I’ll take stock of what remains.

The Arena Hotel
Let’s start with The Arena Hotel which is a very very neat idea (the link takes you to an introductory video, after which you can explore on your own). Extracts from (currently) twenty-six editions of Arena have been selected and structured around the idea of a hotel (which of course references one of the strand’s most famous shows, Chelsea Hotel, 1981, which is permanently on iPlayer here). The initial interface is the lobby and you can take the lift to various floors, from the basement nightclub (guests Poly Styrene, Pete Doherty, The Disapointer Sisters, John Campbell) to the rooftop (Superman, William Burroughs and Pete Doherty again).

Arena is beginning to make its invaluable archive available in a variety of ways – along with Chelsea Hotel, for example, there are three other full programmes available long-term on BBC iPlayer: Desert Island Discs (1982) Miller Meets Mandela (1991) and the 1988 Woody Guthrie profile. There are collections of clips too – all of which are drawn together here. But The Arena Hotel is a smart, elegant way into the world reflected through the series’ highly distinctive lens.

I have just one complaint. In the lobby there the trophy head of the panda Chi-Chi is prominently displayed on a wall. Now Chi-Chi was the subject of an Arena that Illuminations made long ago – and I clicked on the head expectantly. But there is no link – yet. Watch, as they say, this space.

How Like an Angel
is one of the most recent elements to be posted – and it’s just what The Space ought to be about. As a live show that was part of the Cultural Olympiad it was a collaboration between contemporary circus group Circa from Australia and the very fine vocal ensemble I Fagiolini. It was a show performed in English cathedrals during the summer mixing acrobatics with the performance of both Renaissance and contemporary music. I didn’t see it live but having seen the online version I find Lyn Gardner’s response in the Guardian persuasive:

…the show doesn’t entirely inhabit the space [she saw it in Ely Cathedral], often feeling as if it’s just been plonked down there, and it remains earthbound. Each individual component – circus, architecture and music – is beautiful, but they seldom explode against each other to make something new. The result is enjoyable, but not quite heavenly.

Online, the main offering is a 50-minute film drawn from the performance (which for my taste is just a touch over-artful). The great thing is, however, that the film is complemented by a range of links that effortlessly jump you out of the flow to, say, read a short biography of composer Thomas Tallis or learn about one of the performers, and then when you want flips you straight back in. It’s a truly elegant extension of an arts documentary – impossible to achieve on TV, even with red button capability – and one of the most effective applications of this kind that I’ve seen.

Kafka’s Wound
Will Self’s ‘digital essay’, created with the London Review of Books, develops another form that makes the most of the capabilities of interaction online. Across the summer the author has been writing an essay concerned with the following – which is taken from a LRB blog trailing the project:

Will Self’s essay will be examining his personal relationship to Kafka’s work through the lens of the story ‘A Country Doctor’ (1919), and in particular through the aperture of the wound described in that story. Will Self’s initial view is that the wound embodies an aspect of the burgeoning ironic consciousness created in European culture by the experience of the First World War, and his essay will treat of Kafka’s particular forms of irony and absurdism.

The essay appears in a continuous scroll online with embedded links (again, neatly designed and intuitive to use) which overlay a range of related material: film archive, photographs, original texts, responses to the subject from other academics. All of this can also be accessed via a graphic at the top of the page, but it’s best drawn into your experience of working through Self’s argument. Initially slightly sceptical that all this might just prove to be a digital gimmick, I was won over by an experience which unquestionably enhanced and extended my conventional reading.

More to come… (but not now tonight).

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