In a Clarissa first, and following her own show’s run in Edinburgh, regular contributor AJ McKenna reviews Sophia Walker’s latest at the Fringe.
The Corps is Mother, the Corps is Father. A still tongue makes a happy life. Questions are a burden to others, answers a prison for oneself. I’m glad I’m not an Epsilon. Two and two make five. Be seeing you. Try to remember.
As what the folks in marketing call a Young Adult these days, I thrilled to depictions of political dystopia. Future worlds, like that of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four or J Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, or worlds hidden away or folded behind the interstices of the present, like The Village in The Prisoner or the Outer Church of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. They had a number of things in common, these dystopias, but maybe the most important was that they were sexy. Maybe I only found them so because I’m a little too heavily into power exchange, but there was something about that open confrontation between freedom fighters and dominant leader types that fairly throbbed with libidinal energy. Patrick McGoohan glowering at whoever was playing Number Two this week (especially Mary Morris in ‘Dance of the Dead’); King Mob, the most brazen Mary Sue in the history of comic books (and openly admitted as such by Morrison), surviving torture and flipping off his tormentors with a quip; those black patent leather gloves Patricia Tallman had to wear. I mean, seriously, phwoarrr. The future might be dark, these fictions seemed to say, but at least (and again we obviously have to allow for the fact that I am clearly a MASSIVE pervert) you’d be able to get off on the darkness.
Too bad, then, that these days we find ourselves living in something pretty damn close to dystopia, and the dominant colour is beige. That’s the theme of one of the best shows of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Sophia Walker’s Cult Friction, a show which will make you think differently about where and how you shop, who you vote for, and why you seem to need to keep checking your iPhone.
The Fringe is an unforgiving place to pitch your show, as I found out the first time I had to flyer for mine. And on those terms, telling people you want them to come and see a fifty-minute show about neuromarketing is kind of a risk. But any doubts about the concept are dispelled the moment Walker gets on stage and starts speaking. A former BBC Slam winner and spoken word veteran, Walker has the ability to imbue everything she says with the kind of conviction that compels you to follow her argument down whatever twisting paths it might lead. This would be impressive enough were she playing herself in this one-woman show: the fact she maintains this force while playing a Yorkshire Methodist preacher (based on her own great-grandfather), a fourteen-year-old Belieber, said Belieber’s frazzled mum, Steve Jobs and (neuromarketing godfather) Martin Lindstrom makes the piece even more impressive. More impressive still is the fact that the mother’s lines are delivered while performing aerobics on stage, an athletic achievement of which I am still deeply in awe. As a point of comparison, I was doing one show a day, flyering in an extremely half-arsed fashion, and junked part of my show halfway through its run, which involved having to straddle a chair, because my knees were so fucked and I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be able to return to a vertical base after doing so; Sophia was doing two shows a day, flyering like a Trojan and, for part of her run, hosting this year’s BBC Slam every night for a week, AND she did the aerobics bit for every damn performance of this show. Hard. As. NAILS.
All these theatrics would be nothing more than the spoken word equivalent of spot-monkeying if this show didn’t have such an urgent, important premise. And that premise is that your mind is being manipulated right fucking now, or at least it is if you’re reading this on an iPhone (probably if you’re reading this on an Android too tbqh, but less research has been done into those). Why? Because the act of touching a screen releases hormones like oxytocin, which plays an important role in intimacy and social bonding, particularly between mothers and children. And this isn’t mere conspiracy-mongering of the ‘don’t sleep, they put fluoride in your dreams!’ school (tip of the hat to North East comic genius Jack Gardner for that excellent line): neuroscientists have found that when iPhone users are given MRI scans and shown an image of their Little Magic Steve Jobs Box, the areas of the brain this stimulates are the same ones which light up when shown pictures of their loved ones. Your smartphone, it turns out, isn’t just a handy device to organise your life, stay in touch with people, and watch porn on when you can’t sleep: you actually love it in a physical, neurochemical sense. Suddenly Her doesn’t seem like quite such a stretch, does it?
But the sinister designs of our iOverlords are only one part of the tapestry of neuromarketing nastiness Walker unpicks throughout her show. The layout and lighting of shopping malls, the insidious nature of modern ‘food products’ and the intersection of neuromarketing and politics all come in for a beautifully-worded kicking. The most chilling line? ‘No left-wing party has ever tried to use neuromarketing’ – seriously, fuck doctrinal purity, get your hands on those weapons, guys. Cult Friction has been compared to an Adam Curtis documentary, and I can see why: after you finish watching it, you see the world in a strange way, a new way. Your brain has been reorganised, rewired to resist.
I first saw this show at a Fringe Preview event in Newcastle. About a week later, myself and fellow poet Kirsten Luckins were shopping for props for another show. We did most of this at Grainger Market, a magnificently old-school covered market in the centre of the city, but towards the end we had to go into a newly-refurbished part of Eldon Square, a fancier, more modern shopping mall. As we mounted the escalators I could feel my mood changing, my mind acclimatising to the lighting, the recycled air, the beigeness. For some reason – maybe an attempt to bolster our resistance – I began telling Kirsten about something I’d read on the TLS blog, which quoted the architect Rem Koolhaas’ contention that shopping is ‘possibly the last public activity we have left’. We agreed that this was a depressing thought. As we reached the top and entered the mall proper, we encountered an agitated young man in a tracksuit. ‘Can you help us, ladies?’ he asked. ‘I’m lookin’ for a way out.’ We pointed him in the direction we’d just come from, and headed off.
I was idly looking at a bunch of dinosaur toys in Paperchase when it suddenly hit me: we had now completely entered browsing mode. We forgot we had a mission, that we were here for a reason. The dystopia was messing with our minds. I’m looking for a way out, the man had said. Me too, mate. Me too.
Cult Friction is one woman’s attempt to imagine a way out. The Fringe is over now, and there’s no word on whether or not the show’s touring, but if you get a chance to see it? Go. You owe it to your brain.
AJ McKenna is the author of the poetry pamphlets A Lady of a Certain Rage and names and songs of women, and the album …the gunshots which kill us are silenced. Her poetry film Letter to a Minnesota Prison was screened at the South Bank Centre in 2012, and she performed her spoken word show, Howl of the Bantee, at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015. AJ previously served as So So Gay‘s Deputy Editor. She is about to embark on the Apples & Snakes tour, Public Address III, which is being directed by Hanna Silva. She lives in Newcastle with two cats and two lesbians.