Dry November: Day 12

November 12, 2018

On Thursday night I went to a contemporary dance performance called MK Ultra at the Southbank Centre. Since then I’ve learned that this is an almost impossible thing to talk about without sounding mad, as its creator Rosie Kay herself found out when she started research on the topic in 2015. Named after a twenty year illegal mind mind control program conducted by the CIA (yes, a real thing), the piece looks partly at that program itself, and partly at later conspiracy theories that arose from it.

The piece was a collaboration with Adam Curtis, a director whose documentaries The Century of the Self (2002), All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011), and Hypernormalisation, in addition to all being freely available online, are brilliantly provocative pieces that I highly recommend.

The association with Curtis featured his trademark video and voiceover, which added indispensable framing and background to the piece. Dance, for all its virtues, is not an ideal medium for expressing complex political narratives. I found this out the hard way, years ago, when I utterly failed to absorb any aspect of the plot of Mayerling, which attempts to portray, through ballet, a 19th century Austrian murder-suicide whose wikipedia page is hard enough to follow.

The story in MK Ultra, insofar as I understood it, was that the Discordians, a (real) fake religion started in 1963, decided, through their control of Playboy and other media outlets, to sow a conspiracy theory about the Illuminati running the world. The Illuminati was a real covert group in 18th Century Bavaria, but the 20th century Discordians sowed a story, more or less as a joke, that this group had somehow persisted and now controlled the world. People on the 21st century internet began to confuse this prank Illuminati with reality, conflating it with the MK Ultra project, and thereby came to believe that the Illuminati (via the CIA and Disney) was using mind control on celebrities, along with subliminal messaging, to control the population and to create spies and assassins. But the brainwashing was imperfect, and tended to wear off after seven years, leading to the erratic behaviour, for example, of Britney Spears. I don’t know the story but evidently something happened, which the theorists took as proof that her brainwashing was wearing off.

Got it? Doesn’t matter. Because the show opens with a disclaimer that not all of its content is true. So even if I’ve given a correct account of the piece’s reality, it does not necessarily have anything to do with actual events. The piece does, however, capture something of today’s mood of distrust, paranoia, and bizarre media events; if it is not factually true, it is still an interesting commentary. This is itself a sort of meta-commentary on the fact that even though the conspiracy theories it examines might not be true, they do capture the pervasive distrust of discourse, and sense that much of media is propaganda, that is increasingly common in the wake of recent events. With Curtis’ ruminations on conspiracy theories acting as intertitles to the action, the dance proceeded. Seven dancers in neon psychedelic catsuits enact the power dynamics, conspiracy theories, and brainwashing that Curtis describes.

Given this description, and how little I know about contemporary dance, it may not sound like a promising start. I probably had not seen any contemporary dance since university, and never at this level. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find the performance compelling and, at times, quite moving. It has more of the energy of flamenco than the ardour of ballet, and as complex as the topic was, it still made more sense than Mayerling. It tended to showcase the strength of the dancers, including seriously impressive acrobatics, and combined a sense of intense deliberateness with sudden jerky accidents and falls. It used novel motions (to me at least), with several bodies in unconventional configurations, sometimes making the dancers seem like a single organism. It was at times vulnerable, at times sexual, at others mechanical, and often all three.

All this was intentional, as we learned in the fascinating Q&A with Adam Curtis and Rosie Kay that followed the performance. The work was influenced by 90s pop videos—whose familiarity might account for my relative appreciation of the work—but also more recent trap music videos—about which I know nothing. Adam Curtis remarked on the sexually-charged, mechanical nature of these videos. Rosie Kay pointed out that these characteristics came largely from porn, and she wanted to engage with the challenges faced by a generation who had grown up in the internet porn era. Although she said that her feminism sometimes made this task emotionally difficult, she felt she could not be truly subversive without engaging deeply with the material. “It’s quite subversive just twerking on this hallowed ground,” she quipped. This was true; it was pretty much the polar opposite of the last thing I’d seen on that stage, which was a production of the Ring Cycle.

Adam Curtis had shared her fascination with the conspiracy theories, and with a generation who has grown up in a post-truth era. Millions believed insane stories, he said, and now, with fake news, further millions believe even stranger things. He was careful to point out that although they may believe conspiracy theories, they are not stupid. In the wake of the Iraq war, they distrusted the media, whom they rightly felt had lied to them. This led them to come up with their own fantasies and narratives. They may not believe that Britney Spears was literally brainwashed by the CIA; but this is at least an entertaining fabrication, as opposed to the lies told by the mainstream media. When an audience member asked about Kanye West, Curtis joked, “Has it been seven years? Maybe the brainwashing is wearing off.”

MK Ultra is the third part of a trilogy, which started with 5 Soldiers (2010) and There Is Hope (2012). In the first, Kay tried to make sense of experiences she had while attached to a British Army battalion. The second was a piece on religion, apparently combined with elements of 1984. MK Ultra, which completed the trilogy, was never intended to be about real politics, but about the rising popularity of conspiracy theories. So in 2015, as she began research, she became shocked at the false narratives that were circulating social media.

She herself was in danger of being grouped in with this fringe. When she tried to speak to anthropology professors at Oxford, they largely refused, worried that she was a believer. She persisted, saying that she was only interested in the phenomenon itself. When she finally managed to speak to someone, apparently in cautious whispers, she was told that any perceived acknowledgement of this phenomenon was career suicide. The problem is that one starts to sound mad just talking about it. I found this out the hard way the next day, when I tried to explain the performance. If you speak about the Britney Spears, the CIA, and LSD mind control in a single sentence, you tend to get strange looks, regardless of what you actually say. Depressingly, Kay found that most conspiracy theories, whether from the far left or the alt-right, tended to end in antisemitism and Holocaust denial if you had the nerve or bad sense to follow them far enough.

Kay also elucidated why I might have found the work challenging, but still approachable. At first she had asked the dancers to improvise, but she was not satisfied by the results. “It either looked like pastiche or it looked like contemporary dance,” she said, and she did not want it to look like either. Instead, after two straight years of listening to trap and watching its music videos, she tried improvising herself. It seems she danced the whole piece in one furious burst, which she recorded, then had the dancers learn the footage by heart. “It’s quite extraordinary,” said Curtis. “I’ve seen videos of her dancing all the dancers’ parts, start to finish.” Given that the performance lasted a few hours, and that there were seven dancers, this must have been a marathon. “They’re all mini-mes,” said Kay. But the end result is a physical amalgamation of pop videos, paranoia, surveillance, and fake news. As she writes in the programme:

Explaining my new work, MK Ultra, has become a lot easier in recent months.

Even a year ago, mentioning my work looking at conspiracy theory would have draw a snort from many over the age of 25. But it is different now—‘Fake News’, ‘Alternative Facts’, ‘Deep State’ and ‘Conspiracy Theory’ have become the news and the fragile balance of trust between truth, the news, our leaders, and the media has been fractured. The lid has been lifted, and the widespread belief and knowledge of conspiracy theory is now being looked at seriously—something I’ve been advocating for several years as I researched and watched the gulf between the mainstream, the alternative and how young people were navigating their way in this confused world of distrust. Most of us have been in a state of stasis, but young people have long known and felt the disintegration of belief in our leaders and the stories they tell us.

Curtis explained the political views behind his side of the collaboration. Projected in an enormous triangle shape behind the stage, and reflected on its golden floor, he presented the images of MK Ultra’s victims as well as footage of celebrity meltdowns. “The ‘being on your own’ of individualism is beginning to wear thin,” he said. He believes that Thatcher was the last politician with a persuasive narrative, and that this narrative told everyone to act as an individual. The message was so successful that it destroyed the population’s ability to collectivise. It also changed the nature of politics: rather than political parties engaging in persuasive narratives to garner popular support, they became more like corporate management systems. 

“A management system can’t give you a story.” He went on to argue that in the absence of political narratives, the conspiracy theory, or fantasy, is one option; nationalism, or fascism, is another. “Progressives hate to answer the question: Can populism be good? Or must it always end as it did in the twentieth century?” If politicians refuse to present a persuasive narrative, one that emotionally galvanises a movement, then non-politicians, some of whom are experts in emotive messaging, will come to fill the gap. “You can create anything,” he claimed, emphasising that we must not be afraid of this act of creation, or the world will fall victim to more cynical forces.

Afterwards, I was lucky enough to speak with Curtis briefly, and offered to buy him a drink. He refused, but the brief conversation was provocative, continuing along the same lines as the Q&A. Someone remarked on the fact that most of the people at a contemporary dance performance at the Southbank were not members of the populace to which populists must appeal. Curtis agreed, but said: “The people in this room are educated, have every advantage, and have leisure time. They should be creating the popular narratives, rather than engaging in self-expression without content.” I’ve thought a lot about this as I’ve written solipsistically about my November.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.