I am standing in a fine drizzle falling into a dingy underground mall beneath Sir James Stirling's 1980s candy-striped Number One Poultry building, as an overture and then a voice tells of the desexualisation of the Starbucks Mermaid logo. Her once overt nipples now hidden, her tail--previously spread provocatively--now shown coy and curled. The secret corruptions of taste and decency that have led us here, to smell the coffee of corporate culture, are capitalism's sanitising influence on culture's freedoms, or at least so And While London Burns would have us believe.
And While London Burns is an operatic story told through a downloadable MP3 audio tour of the capital's Square Mile, written by John Jordan and James Marriott with music by Isa Suarez. It follows a trail that charts some of the physical manifestations of the oil industry around the Bank of England in parallel with the psychological collapse of the protagonist. Tormented by both personal tragedy and internal ethical conflict over the business interests of the corporation for which he works, he ponders the future of the city as we accompany him on a one-hour meander. As we wander we learn of his lost love for an activist, his own moral tensions between work and life, and his imagination of a future half-submerged from the effects of global warming. We are also accompanied by a second, female voice, one that takes a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy role, giving out directions and hard factual information about the buildings and the corporations that we pass. And all the time an emotive soundtrack with a metronomic beat keeps us in step with the story.
On paper then, And While London Burns is a richly experimental work that intertwines Ballardian fiction with real world socio-environmental politics, and an operatic libretto subversively inserted into everyday social space. Its use of a podcast is straightforward but still relatively fresh, and its demands on its audience to engage in a series of micro-performative actions en route do challenge conventions of performer and public. This approach is typical of Jordan's work over the past two decades. Although not entirely distanced from artistic practice, Jordan has co-opted the fringes of performance to take an instrumental and often radical role in environmental activism. His incredible roster of projects, from the highly influential Reclaim the Streets to the recent irreverence of the Clandestine Rebel Insurgent Clown Army, have drawn from a carnivalesque notion of temporary social upheaval and civil disobedience as direct action. With their conceptual touchstones in Situationism, often taking 'Under the Pavement the Beach' quite literally, these disobedient performances (sometimes even realised with the support of Arts Council funding) have mobilised people's desires for personal pleasure and for political change into highly effective public demonstrations.
Likewise Platform, the commissioning agency for this work, which Jordan co-founded and where James Marriott continues as a director, has performed such guided tours live over a number of years. These tours more directly trace the interrelationship between commerce, oil, globalisation and exploitation, and are engaging opportunities to debate such issues.
So where does it all go wrong? And While London Burns falls short of its potential by a long way, its good intentions defeated most often by poor writing, which is neither particularly informative nor dramatically engaging, and at its worst is patronising and misguided. …