As Ikon prepared for Greenbelt, they generously allowed me to sit-in on their planning sessions, as I am currently working on a book proposal featuring Ikon, with American sociologist Gerardo Marti.
Although I hadn’t observed Ikon’s planning process before, I knew that on the night at Greenbelt there was a good chance that Ikon would produce one of its ‘classics’ – a particularly powerful performance that stays with participants and audience long-after the event.
With this blog post I’m joining a list of people who have blogged about Ikon at Greenbelt without actually being there: Alan in Belfast, whose plea I echo for Ikon to re-stage the event in Belfast; and Cary Gibson, a long-time Ikonian (the catchy term used by the Greenbelt blogger) who now lives in Nashville.
But now that Ikon has posted the texts of various parts of its performance on its blog, it’s possible to reconstruct what happened for those of us who couldn’t make it. Ikon did not post the texts in the order that they were read or recited at the event, so I am putting them in that order here. That helps me to get my own head around how it panned out and to help others who were absent to do so as well. (Although I quote selectively from the texts, if you click on the link for each Ikonian’s reflection, you will be able to read it in full.)
Ikon’s event was called ‘Based on a
If you understand Ikon’s performances through the lens of post-modern philosophy, this title can be interpreted as a signal that Ikon is deconstructing preconceived ideas about ‘story.’ So in that spirit, I’m calling this post:
Reconstructing the De-Construction
Before considering the texts, I want to emphasise that Ikon events are unabashedly multi-sensory. Blogs can convey some sense of what things look and sound like, but I know I won’t be able to do the ‘experience’ aspect of the event justice. I’m not including Ikon’s multi-media presentations or recordings of the songs they sang, all vital parts of the performance. As you read, remember that these other aspects add layers to the richness of the experience.
Also, people who witnessed the event have uniformly commented on the quality of the costumes worn by the Ikonians, paper clothes fashioned by artist Jayne McConkey out of various texts and images. I saw some of these costumes before Ikon left and I was suitably impressed.
The centrepiece figure of the event was a woman (Lindsey Mitchell) in a spectacular, flowing paper dress, pecking away at an old-fashioned typewriter. (The word on the street is that while the other clothes survived the journey back to Belfast, this dress was a casualty of the trip. Alas. The image of Ikon on the left is courtesy of Ben Jones.)
I will also refrain here from editorialising about what the event ‘means’, or how it should be ‘understood.’ I’ll let Ikon’s Story speak for itself.
The event itself was divided into ‘five chapters’:
Chapter 1 – Once Upon a Time
This chapter featured Pádraig O’Tuama’s poem, ‘God is the Fracture.’ To give you a flavour, I reproduce the last three stanzas:
We are the bit
that God can’t explain
maybe the harmony
maybe the strain.
God is the plot
and we are the writers
the story of winners
and the story of fighters
the story of love
and the story of rupture
the story of stories
the story without structure.
Pádraig Ó Tuama began with a bit of poetry, delicately riffing on the theological implications of story. No surprises there, classic Ikon stuff. However, Pádraig was soon interrupted by another Ikonian, dryly declaring that his words were nothing but foul bovine waste matter (in slightly stronger terms) and proceeded to put his poetry through the shredder.
This chapter also included the first of Shirley McMillan’s reflections on God is a Story:
We hear it said sometimes that God created people because he loved stories.
But once upon a time, God was a story who loved to tell himself. How can I tell myself forever? he thought. So God told a man and a woman in his image and he told them that man’s chief end was to storify god and enjoy him forever. After God had created the man and the woman he said ‘It is good. The story is complete. Let it be fruitful and as it multiplies God will be retold for as long as there are people on the earth’.
Chapter 2 – This is Not a Story
Chapter 2 featured a reflection by Stephen Caswell, ‘Every Story is Made Up’, from which I quote selectively:
‘So our beliefs, and the stories of how we understand ourselves, other people, the world, and even the divine, are inevitably flawed. It’s nothing clever; it’s obvious. And we’ve all known how new experiences demand a rewrite.
… Yet, how often do we cling to our stories in the face of unfamiliars and unknowns?
… Suddenly our stories are engraved in stone (by tradition, by deep-set desires and fears, by subconscious self-serving agendas) and they will not be re-written. We demand that this new reality and these new experiences fall into line – fall into our lines, on our page, in our made up story. When the plot thickens, we want to sift out the complexities and make a Mr. Men book out of a mystery.
… The question isn’t whether your story is true (that’s easy – it isn’t). The question is whether your story is true enough. But how do we judge that? Our stories are precious, but they’re not as precious as the people around you. So when your made up story is helping others write their own beautiful chapters, keep it up. When your made up story is harming others, re-write it. If how you understand the divine leads you to love and include others, keep writing. But if how you understand the divine causes harm to others, reject your understanding. Shred it. Write it again. It might feel important, but you made it up.
Chapter 3 – Rupture
Chapter 3 included two main text elements. First was Jon Hatch’s not-so-subtly titled ‘Fuck Your Story.’ Hatch’s piece draws heavily on Ikon’s Northern Ireland context to contrast the ‘stories’ of Ann Travers/Mary McArdle and Jennifer McCann/Jeffrey Donaldson, concluding like this:
This style of political dis-engagement, depressingly familiar in my part of this dis-United Kingdom, leaves us perpetually with the question: is this all to which we will ever reasonably aspire: to tell our stories separately; remember separately, in different rooms, out of sight, sound and mind of each other? Equal and alone?
What do we do when our stories are irreconcilable?
What do we do when your narrative of heroism is my narrative of grief?
What do we do when your story of strategic national interest and foreign policy is, for another, a story of an errant thousand-pound missile dropped on their home?
When your story of fiscal responsibility and the need for spending cuts is, for me, a story of a severed lifeline?
When your biblical story is my inability to stand in my Church and marry the person I love?
What do we do when the only commentary I can give to your story is ‘Fuck your story’?
It also featured part 2 of McMillan’s God is a Story:
God was almost right to think that he could be told in the story of human nature. He was close, so close. But the people he created in his image looked at him, as in a mirror, and failed to see themselves. And so the things they did unto the story of god failed.
So God thought again: How can I tell myself to the world, forever? He considered writing a book- several books- using wise people to record his thoughts and wishes and commands and his-story. It would be something that would be full of tales that would pass down through centuries and it would teach people how to live and love and how to be saved from death. It would tell them about how the story of god was being written amongst them and that if only they could recognise that the mirror they looked through was merely clouded with stories, they would see the true reflection of God in his good and perfect creation.
But the book of God’s story was also inadequate. The story of the story seemed to multiply with every reading. It became a story of a story of a story of a story of a story of a story of a story. Of the making of stories there was no end and the people became weary and confused. Each time they tried to look at God the mirror became more and more clouded by the stories they told themselves of what to expect and what they wanted to see.
Chapter 4 – The Forgetting Museum
The textual centrepiece of the chapter on the Forgetting Museum was Chris Fry’s reflection, ‘Those Who Remember the Past are Condemned to Repeat it.’ In part, he said:
Most of us are here tonight because of a story called ‘Belief’ which must not be forgotten. It weaves a powerful spell because it can hold inside itself without contradiction suicide bombing, misogyny, pro-life influenced murder and homophobia to name a few. It can become a form of remembering that protects us from the truth of our existence. A dead-end story that loops in on itself. Empty, dead words. Connected to nothing except itself. Story-less stories that burn those they touch and burn out those who live in them.
A story-less story cannot hold, metabolize and ultimately transform anything. Once the story is lost all one can do is comply to or reject what is now a belief. Remembering gives way to repetition. Our book of life, our book of stories now a prison of understanding.
Chapter 5 – God is a Story That Loves to Be Told
This, the final chapter, featured McMillan’s third reflection:
God is a story that loves to be told. But he was perplexed. He felt as if all those years of trying to tell himself had only led to a greater distance, a greater un-telling. And so he thought again. This time, God thought, I will tell myself in my own flesh. People will see that there is nothing that need separate a man or woman from the story of god. And so the word became flesh, the story became flesh, hoping so hard that this time it would be clear.
This was followed by a Ritual, described like this:
Our ritual will be conducted mostly in silence.
Let us share some silence.
Let us stand up, in silence.
In silence, turn to look at somebody you don’t know. This is not a joke. Hold their gaze.
Like in a library of stories, be silent.
Hold the person’s gaze look at them. Take a silent step toward then. Imagine their name. Hold their gaze.
Hold their gaze. Imagine their story. Hold their gaze. In silence take another step.
In silence, reach out and take their hand. Hold their gaze. Imagine their name. Imagine their story.
Hold their hand. Hold their gaze. Hold the tension.
Quietly, lean forward and whisper your name to them.
Now let us all, together, whisper our own names. Keep whispering. Keep whispering. Whisper your name, which is part of your story. Let us fill the space with whispering. Over and over.
After which followed a Liturgy, written by Sarah Williamson:
THE OLD OLD STORY
May we be truth-tellers and myth-spellers and story-tellers
And telling old, old stories, may we all live well ever after…
Stories take us, narratives which are centuries old shape our daily lives, tales of cities and towers and mega-powers
May we rethink our stories, faith and life with care, remembering that there is always more than one side to every story.
There is history & there is her story
MAKING THE PAST INTO HISTORY
Stories forsake us; sometimes memories can become a cover story
May we unfurl our grip on our dead end stories which repeat like a record trapped in a groove.
Making the past into history is a profound and delicate art
MAKING THE WORD FLESH
Stories became flesh. God is the plot and we are the writers; God is the writer and we are the plot.
May we embrace our INCARNATION in capital letters. For our chief end, perhaps, is to storify God and enjoy each other forever.
God is a story that loves to be told. Once upon a time…
And that’s THE END of Ikon’s Greenbelt Story.