Dickie Beau, physical performer and drag fabulist, on ‘eye noise’ or floaters.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
DB Eye Noise is something I came up with as a phrase when I was rehearsing for Camera Lucida, a show I did at the Barbican last autumn, as a way to get the performers to do certain physical things with their eyes. It was about trying to get them into a trance-like state in a way. One of my preoccupations with this show was in large part to do with the relationship between visual images and sound images. In the show we had an infrasound pipe which was tuned to a frequency of 18.9 hertz, which is the resonant frequency of the average human eyeball. This frequency has been shown to exist at certain haunted sites. It’s often generated by big air conditioning units, it’s common in the tube, and heavy machinery can also generate this very low frequency. It also exists in thunder, the sound of waves and wind.
GB So the frequency makes you think you’re seeing something?
DB Apparently if it’s at a high enough decibel level it can make you hallucinate and make your eyeballs vibrate.
GB Maybe you’ve explained ghosts!
DB It could explain ghosts. Or maybe the ghosts use the 18.9 frequency as a portal. We didn’t make anybody hallucinate at the Barbican. It wasn’t a high enough decibel level. But it does resonate within the body. One of the things I wanted from the performers was that they become vessels of the spoken-word material and a way of getting them inside their bodies so they could really be faithful to the sound and imagine how that sound might travel through their bodies, was to bring them to the level of the eye noise as I call it, or floaters that we see in our eyeballs. To see eye noise you have to be looking into light so we could do this in rehearsals but it was tricky in performances with theatre light. It was a good technique for getting the actors into a sort of altered state and it came to me as an object of beauty because it speaks to so many things I’m interested in. In image theory all human image making is related to death. This is traceable back to cave paintings, which were ways of communicating with spirits. The earliest human settlements made stone death masks. The human body is the primary medium of an image. That’s how it’s generated and transported and where it arrives. Someone reviewed my lip-synching performances said that I’m like a medium. It struck me that it’s the same word that we use in fine art and for leading a séance. But of course they’re exactly the same thing. Those original media were designed to communicate with the dead. If I do a lip synch to Judy Garland I’m carrying the voice, so I start to wonder where the difference between the sound and the image really lies.
GB Can you remember the first time you became aware of floaters in your eyes?
DB I remember it from when I was quite young.
GB Did you find it beautiful straight away or did the beauty come to you more in an intellectual way as you found a use for the eye noise in your work?
DB When I first noticed it I do remember thinking that it was a magnified part of my internal organism that I was seeing. But then it becomes cerebral because it’s a tiny glimpse of all the invisible cellular activity that’s going on in our bodies, performing these incredibly complex tasks of controlling hormones and blood cells and enzymes and making our hearts beat. All these processes are going on and there’s something humbling about eye noise. However clever I think I am in coming up with an art work, the workings of my own body are far more clever than I’ll ever be.
GB Do you think people avoid thinking about these processes because it makes them feel so vulnerable, that it could so easily go wrong?
DB You’re absolutely right. I think most people are afraid of it. People are afraid of many things and we live in a society where they form addictions that keep those fears out of their heads and keep them from facing that void.
GB Do you think that if we can find beauty in things like this, it can be a sort of consolation?
DB The real beauty and the magic lies in the unknown, in facing up to that feeling. Then you’re on the biggest rollercoaster ride ever.
GB The floaters are caused by the decay of our eyeballs. You portray quite tragic characters in your work. You’re trying to preserve memories of them that are constantly decaying. Is this decay linked to your concept of beauty?
DB I don’t think it’s the decay, I think the beauty lies in the connection or empathy you feel for the characters through this channel of communication.
GB Do you think there’s an element of novelty to beauty? You’ve chosen something so unexpected?
DB It’s a good question. I don’t know. Like everybody, I’m affected by my cultural backdrop, so I’m conditioned to see certain things as beautiful – but when it comes to my personal idea of what’s beautiful I think novelty might be a part of it.
GB Do you hope that other people will find eye noise beautiful once you’ve pointed it out to them?
DB Oh, I’m not bothered. I’m not going to try to control what other people find beautiful. Hopefully they’ll find their own version. That would be better.
GB Do you find that people often find the same things beautiful as you?
DB It depends who I’m with. Julia Bardsley and I sat together and ate a pig’s head in Stockholm. That was very beautiful. I was in Morocco earlier this year with Catherine Hoffmann and we were very intent on eating local dishes, so we had spleen, pancreas and a bowl of intestines. It looked incredibly beautiful but it tasted dark. I almost had a spiritual experience it tasted so dark. My body heated up. I don’t think many people would have found the intestines beautiful but we both did.
GB So is beauty useful to you in finding like-minded people in the world?
DB I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s about appreciation and seeing things a certain way and beauty is certainly one aspect of that.
GB Maybe that’s also one of the reasons we create art?
DB For me it’s absolutely about making conscious connections with like-minded souls.
GB Would you judge me if I found the bowl of intestines absolutely repulsive?
DB No. It would be terrible if we all saw things the same way. I think if you’d been with us you’d have seen the beauty in it. I don’t think you’d have enjoyed the flavour. I’m not sure I did but I’m glad I tried it.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
DB I’m wary of hierarchies and of the kind of beauty that confers privilege such as within art. I do actively seek beauty and in the end, for me, it’s about emotional impact. I find something beautiful if it has some kind of affective resonance in my body. Our emotional experience of life is always curated by our thought systems. We experience our feelings through the filter of a particular thought and through that lens we decide if it’s a good or a bad feeling. I think we can afford to be a bit more louche in this. Powerful feelings are only a reminder that you’re alive.
Dickie Beau is the winner of the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award, 2014