So, here’s a book I wrote last year.
It’s called ‘Do Nothing: An alternative approach to life for people who do too much.”
There are only two copies of it in existence. And I haven’t got either of them.
It started off as a silly/serious/perfect idea.
I was sitting on my bed. Half-meditating (not very successfully). And I glanced over at a little picture on my bedside table that I’d made about a year before. It’s just the words: MY CREATIVE FIELD, NOTHING, EMPTINESS, SILENCE and spinning. And some splodges from a very leaky pen that a friend had given me as a present. It was one of those absent-minded things that just emerged half of its own accord. But, when it arrived, it captured something for me: that, though it’s often hard to explain exactly how, a lot of my work is kind of grounded in doing nothing. (I wrote a little bit about it earlier this year.)
And as I was sitting there, half-meditating, (not very successfully) and glancing over at this drawing, I felt this full-fledged frustration: that I so easily feel and see the benefit of doing nothing, but that a lot of the time in work I would still find myself pushing and trying and doing. Even though I kind of knew those weren’t the best strategies.
And then this perfect joke popped into my head.
I should go to the DO Lectures in Wales and stand for doing nothing.
The DO Lectures: Inspirational talks from passionate, creative people. The idea is a simple one. That people who Do things, can inspire the rest of us to go and Do things too.
It felt like a joke, because it was so neat. Maybe joke isn’t the right word. I don’t know what the right word is. But a thing that makes you laugh because it feels so sweet and perfect and spot-on.
To go and stand for doing nothing. I felt a huge sense of relief - all of the frustration gone - as I saw the scene in my mind. To walk to the stage. To stand at the lectern. To have prepared nothing. And to do nothing.
Not as a gimmick. Not as a gag. But as a heartfelt offer. To offer the other side of the coin. To say: it’s also OK to not Do things.
From teaching and stand-up and improvisation, I know how easy it is to fill time just out of nerves. I know how easy it is to prepare material and then deliver that material and reveal nothing. To not be vulnerable. To not really be present. To use stories and smart words and preparation as a defensive measure. And as teacher or performer that means you can be safe. That means you can go up and be there and not die. But people don’t go to a performance to see someone hiding. The magic begins when you can stand up and not hide. Stand up unprepared and open and defenseless.
That was the gift I wanted to bring.
The moment the thought entered my mind, I dropped into this wonderfully lucid meditation. Eyes open. Relaxed. Peaceful. Happy. Just from imagining the feeling of what it might feel like to go and stand for doing nothing in the midst of a day devoted to doing. It felt good.
In that moment, it felt like something resolved. I had found a story where doing nothing could be genuinely valuable in the world. A perfect opportunity. Something I could stand for.
And then, happily, one of my favourite things in the world happened. I had a really silly idea. I knew the one person that I had to tell it to. And when I told it to them, they took it absolutely seriously.
So, thank you Curtis James for saying, yes, absolutely, of course you must go to the DO Lectures and stand up for doing nothing. And, yes of course the best way of getting the chance to do that would be to mock-up a DO Nothing book (in the style of the DO Lectures series of books about doing things).
And thank you Emily Macaulay for also taking it absolutely seriously and – just for the hell of it – handcrafting these two immaculate copies of a book about doing nothing.
Front cover - the title and a beautifully rendered, swooshy, flowing Zen ink wash swirl.
Back cover - a full exposition of why doing nothing matters:
“Whether it’s Archimedes in the bath or Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, some of the greatest breakthroughs in human history have been made while people were doing nothing. But in a world where we’re all permanently connected to everyone and everything, the undisturbed wildernesses of bathtime and downtime are increasingly under threat.
This drive to always be doing something started out as an Industrial Era dream of never-ending progress and ever-increasing output. But that dream has long since passed its sell-by date. Now, as we devote ourselves to productivity for its own sake, our busyness serves only to put our lives and our world under ever greater stress.
But there is a way out.
You can tap into a deeper creativity. A way of working that goes beyond productivity. A way of life that leaves space to dream and time for yourself.
And everything you need to get started is contained within the pages of this book.”
And inside - all the pages are blank. Of course. Haha.
It’s quite a funny object in the end. Because there’s not really very much difference between it and a blank notebook. But it would feel SO, SO wrong to write in it. It is a book. It’s finished. It’s not meant to be filled up with more. It’s just that each page has chosen to keep its silence. Something like that.
So, anyway, I sent one copy to David Hieatt, the founder of the DO Lectures. And I sent one to my friend Thomas, who wrote a terrifyingly smart (and very short) book called ‘Nothing: the building block of the universe’.
And Thomas was grateful. And David was impressed.
And nothing happened.
There was a little back and forth on email. About the book. About a lecture.
But nothing came of it.
So I didn’t go to Wales. And I didn’t stand up.
I did even less than that.
If you’d like someone to make a beautifully crafted book for you, get in touch with Emily: http://www.stanleyjamespress.com/.
And if you’d like to go hear people talking about doing things, head this way: http://www.thedolectures.com/
And if you’d like to do nothing, then do nothing.
I wrote this story for the About Trees exhibition at the Paul Klee Zentrum in Bern.
22 November 2015
Tree Story: Wassailing
“I have a surprise for you. Are you up for that?” I ask her.
Yes, she says, without hesitation. She loves surprises.
We’ve been seeing each other for five weeks.
We’re at her place and I have a plan.
I tell her we need to head outside and that she should choose where we go. She asks how she can choose where we’re going when she doesn’t know what the surprise is. I tell her I trust she’ll pick somewhere good. She plays along and we head out into a misty, autumn night, walking through the side streets of her north London neighbourhood. We arrive at a line of old, beautiful trees along the north side of Hampstead Heath. Frost hangs in the air. Street lamps glowing between the trees.
“We’re here,” she says. I tell her it’s perfect.
I ask her to choose a tree. We head to a huge oak about halfway along the avenue. We stand facing this giant and I take from my bag some string, some bread and a glass bottle of cider.
This is wassailing, I tell her. An old English tradition of tree worship.
She’s from Italy and has never heard of it. I really only know her as passionate, argumentative and endlessly stubborn in holding rational positions. But now her eyes are shining.
We tie the bread to the tree with the string.
We pour the cider around the roots.
Then we sing to the tree.
‘You got the love’ by Florence and the Machine.
The bread hanging in the tree will attract birds.
The cider round the roots smaller creatures.
Fertilising and aerating the soil.
And while the bread and cider make sure the animals take care of the tree, the singing does the same for the humans.
Give a tree a little appreciation and it can be the start of a beautiful relationship.
We walk down the line, ‘watering’, tying and singing.
It’s soft. It’s magical.
We walk back to her flat, wassailing all the way.
We sing to the tree that she can see outside the window of her flat.
And she stands in the moonlight.
She looks five years old.
Output from a coaching session with an old friend in November, 2015, in Zurich. Exasperated looking back on a lifetime of purposeful productivity and meaningful entrepreneurship and comparing it with a much quieter, less productive present, my friend was looking for a way to get past her frustration. As she told her story, I picked up my iPad and made this. It’s now her screensaver. And is also available as a lovely postcard.
“The Order of St Michael (Fuck The Past) featuring Josse Lieferinxe’s 15th century depiction of St Michael killing the dragon, currently on display in the Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon.
A piece of money art made for Burning Man 2012. Charcoal and a dollar.
Exhibited as part of The Exchanghibition Bank’s Transformoney Tree.
And, as far as I'm aware, it was then burned in the desert.
Kung Fool was created in the wilderness.
In Kung Fool, you may only use the mildest form of violence.
The whole body is in play, including clothing.
If you hit your opponent, using only the mildest form of violence, you get one point.
If you use a tiny bit more than the mildest form of violence, you get no points.
If you use noticeably more than the mildest form of violence, you lose a point.
The first to five points is the winner.
To open a match, players shake hands.
For the handshake, the hands must meet simultaneously.
To close a match, players shake hands.
For the handshake, the hands must meet simulaneously.
All photos by Sara Haq.
In 2006 or so, platinum-selling Russian pop band Tatu asked me to translate one of their songs into English. I don’t speak Russian (beyond being able to ask for a lighter, suggest we go for a drink and say ‘maybe’), so I decided to write a phonetic translation.
I took the sounds of each word in Russian and composed new lines for the song that were as close as possible to the original Russian. The song’s currently been viewed on YouTube 75,000 times and has been remixed, covered and translated into Spanish.
In 2005 (or some time around then) I went to a drama workshop at the Brixton Arts Coop. I think it was £2 to get in, I didn’t know anyone there and it was the first time I’d stood up to perform since drama lessons at school. There were maybe six of us in the workshop and the first exercise we were given was to go off in pairs for 40 minutes and then “to come back with a story”. At this point I slid into some kind of mystical wormhole, where I found myself inhabiting the persona of a boldly experimental performance artist.
My performance partner: “He said we have to come back in 40 minutes and tell a story.”
Me: “No, he said we have to come back with a story.”
Partner: “Oh, what? We could do a story without words? Just actions?”
Me: “Or maybe without actions either?”
I don’t remember. It went something like that.
What was the least we could come back with? Even us just spending 40 minutes together — that was a story. If we just went on stage and said nothing and did nothing, we’d still be coming back with a story: the “we just hung out for 40 minutes and didn’t prepare anything” story. That’s still a story.
Each moment we spent together the story was being written. Even the process of asking the question — “What’s the least we can come back with?” — every time we made a suggestion and dismissed it we were getting further and further away from doing the least we could do. Maybe we shouldn’t talk to each other. Maybe we should hide from each other for 40 minutes.
My partner suggested we try playing around with the Meisner technique.
“In this exercise, two actors sit across from each other and respond to each other through a repeated phrase. The phrase is about each other’s behavior, and reflects what is going on between them in the moment, such as “You look unhappy with me right now.” The way this phrase is said as it is repeated changes in meaning, tone and intensity to correspond with the behavior that each actor produces towards the other. Through this device, the actor stops thinking of what to say and do, and responds more freely and spontaneously, both physically and vocally.“ — Wikipedia
She explained it and I think I said: “What if we did that, but without saying a phrase?”
And as the last word of my question left my mouth it was clear that the exercise had begun and we looked at each other and she half-smiled and I half-smiled back and then she stopped half-smiling and I stopped half-smiling and her right eyebrow twitched and sank a few millimetres and almost without me being involved in the process my eyebrow mirrored hers and I felt my heart opening and my eyes softening and the world around us had completely disappeared and I was completely 100% in love with her and there was no distance between us and then the love passed and I felt a kind of emptiness of being alone and then a kind of peaceful –
She reached out, touched my knee and the room reappeared and we were sitting there across from each other back in the real world. And the host of the workshop was a few feet away staring at us open-mouthed — What the hell was that? What were you guys doing? You have to repeat that for the others when you come back to perform. I have to go hire a video camera and get you to do that again and film it.
He went back to see how the other groups were getting on, as our 40 minutes of preparation were nearly over. We talked about what we should do when it came to our turn. We could repeat our Meisner technique invisible repetition act, but that still felt like too much of a plan. And, we wanted to come back with the least we could. The Meisner thing meant staring into one another’s eyes for five minutes — that makes it a story about two people staring at each other for five minutes. Surely we can come up with less than that?
How about we go on stage and try to do nothing?
And if we accidentally find ourselves doing anything — like staring in each other’s eyes — we’ll just always keep returning to doing nothing.
We were on first. We’d planned to take a couple of chairs onto stage with us to sit on while we were doing nothing. But in the moment when I looked down at the chair in front of me, just as I was going to pick it up and put it in position, I could feel that it had already started and that if I picked up the chair and put it into position then this would be a story about someone picking up a chair. And that’s not nothing.
I’m looking down at the chair. Standing. Head tilted forward. Eyes down. Do nothing. I notice my breath is heavy and fast. I can feel the energy of the audience’s attention. I think about attention being like tension. About the attention of a crowd seamlessly transforming into nervous tension. About the audience looking at the top of my bowed head. I feel my breathing is heavy and fast and I think to myself that breathing heavy and fast is a thing and I should return to doing nothing so I stop breathing. I pause my breathing and feel the tension dissolve. The heavy in and out of my lungs in panic turns into slow, barely perceptible, normal breathing.
In the quiet space left behind I notice — even though my breathing is normal my heart is pounding out of my chest. Hard and fast. Adrenalin. Return to doing nothing. I focus on my heartbeat and feel it gradually return to a normal, unremarkable, background pace.
I’m breathing normally. My heart rate is normal. The audience attention / tension has gone. I realise I’m standing with my head bowed looking at a chair and that I’ve been standing like that for a couple of minutes. And standing head bowed looking at a chair is a thing. I feel the tension in the back of my neck. I relax. And my head lifts and I turn and see for the first time the scene that I am in.
I am standing. My partner is sitting a few feet away across the stage. She is looking up at my face. All the time I was stood there, head bowed, she was looking. And, in the moment where I lift my head and turn, I meet her eyes.
There’s a ferocious connection. A crackle of energy. The initial drama of breathing and heartbeat and the attention of the audience has passed. Now there’s just this. The drama of a man and a woman looking at each other.
A man and a woman looking at each other is a thing.
The tension between a man and a woman looking at each other is a thing.
Return to nothing.
I look at her. She looks at me. It feels as if we are caught for a moment. I feel like I’ve just emerged from a battle to find her waiting for me. There is a connection.
But connection is a thing.
A moment passes and it’s gone.
There’s no drama left. We break eye contact and turn to the audience and they see that it’s over.
They might have applauded. It might have just been silent. I don’t remember.
In turn, each member of the audience tells us what they saw. And each person saw something completely different. Back stories are imagined. Relationship dynamics deduced. One person says that at a certain point I disappeared. That it was as if I’d become a ghost. That they had ceased to be able to relate to me as a person.
The other groups played their stories. They were normal. People driving cars. People fighting. I was in a daze.
The workshop host took email addresses and said he’d borrow a film camera and get us to replay the scene. But nothing came of it.
A vision held for three years - and a promise kept. To start a theatre on midsummer's eve 2015. A last-minute change of venue - from Portofino to Broadway. A series of impromptu performances. An opera based on a no smoking sign in City Hall Park. A love story told by two French pensioners, accompanied by a violin and Petula Clark singing Chariot (The song that had played 50 years before when he had asked her to dance in the village square. "He was so tender," she says with her eyes shining.) A dance-off and busk-off with two violinists. And two plays performed with a cast of breakdancers, performing each other's love stories.
February 14th. Probably 2005. A kissing booth outside the machine-gun guarded gates of Downing Street. Venice has the Bridge of Sighs. Paris the Eiffel Tower. But where is the most romantic spot in London? We decided to start a new tradition: inviting tourists to kiss in front of Downing Street, have a Polaroid photo taken and then chalk a white cross into the road beneath them. It definitely wasn’t an anti-war protest, as protests outside Downing Street had recently been banned. And what kind of monster would ban a kissing booth? On Valentine’s Day?
The kissing carried on all day until a policeman, seeing the growing field of chalk-white crosses on the pavement on his CCTV monitor, got uncomfortable and closed it down.
Concept by Charles Davies. Execution by Bryony Henderson.
This talk on ‘The Nature of Money’ is just about ten minutes long and took me five years to write.
And I wrote half of it in my head whilst talking on stage.
But the half of it that I had written down beforehand took five years.
The challenge I set myself five years previously was to take the essential content from Peter Koenig’s work on money and make it straightforward, compelling and entertaining enough that I could stand on stage and present it to a roomful of people drinking beer in a comedy club. So I distilled everything I knew into ten minutes of jokes about cats and Facebook and performed it at Amsterdam’s legendary comedy club, Toomler.
One of the amazing things about performing stand-up comedy is that it is absolutely the harshest form of editing. You immediately know, second-by-second, whether you are communicating something to people. Whereas sitting here typing this, I can basically write anything la-la-la and have no idea of whether it’s communicating anything at all. Whether it’s connecting. Whether it’s empty and saying nothing.
If you think you have an interesting idea and you want to test it, try telling it to a stand-up comedy audience. They’ll let you know if it’s any good.
For the past eight weeks, I’ve been hosting a very small-scale theatre experiment. I wanted to see if it were possible to start a whole theatre without any plan whatsoever.
It ended last night.
I don’t know how to capture what happened.
My hypothesis was that no one needs to learn how to act. That everyone knows how to improvise. And that no one needs tools or tricks or games or a method. That impeccable, powerful theatre can be produced just by providing a space for people to play and by having faith in their ability to do so.
So, I invited a handful of people. I told them it would be ‘some kind of foolish theatre’. There was a bedbase as a stage, an iPad for music and a few artfully arranged lamps as stage lighting. And no plan. I didn’t even know whether the people coming would be players or audience. (And neither did they.)
And, over the course of eight weeks, everyone who turned up stood up and took a turn on stage. There was singing. There was puppetry. There was confession. There was stripping. There was crying. There was quite a lot of crying. There was laughing. Lots and lots of laughing. There were cheap gags and high drama. There were moments of intricate and subtle beauty. There was sitting in the dark listening to music. There was dancing in the spotlight. One night there was an hour-long one man show on Brighton beach. Another night there were seventeen performances, with everyone present taking a turn.
But above all, there was serendipity. Every time someone stepped out into the void of 'I have no idea what I’m doing’ they were caught and carried safely by inspiration and coincidence. It was as if the tempo and pitch of the evening, the shifting moods, the light and dark, were all secretly, impeccably orchestrated without a single instruction being given out loud.
All photos of The Seafront Stage by Nina Timmers.
What if you put on a comedy night, but dropped the idea of having a stand-up, a stage, a mic and an audience and just announced the thing, opened the doors and waited to see what happened? Puppeteering, career advice, a tricycle, touching for business, mass karaoke... It was kind of a shambles, to be honest.
The task was to get a group of city planners to look at London with fresh eyes.
So I split them into small groups and gave them a blindfolded tour guide.
The tour guide had learned a route - but needed to be told where they were and what was there every step of the way. No space for being clever - just a real need to be specific and observant and clear.
No photos, so you have to imagine looking for a kerb. Waiting for the lights to change. Inviting people to look at the view from London Bridge without being able to see it. It's busy here. OK - the crowd is thinning out now. Is it left or right now? An underground travelator, City Hall, HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge...
Two years. 100 email newsletters. More events and stories and connections and friendships and projects and happenings than I could possibly count. With a team of 35 'editors' creating an online magazine that doubled as a real-life community of artists, entrepreneurs and activists in London. Anything that would foster a culture of everyday communal creativity. Kate Bush musicals in Hackney, hide and seek in Covent Garden, carol singing at boxing matches and on stage in Trafalgar Square, picnics, club nights, performance art, photography projects, neighbourhood get-togethers - everything.
A workshop. Probably 2006.
What if you ran a communications workshop for members of the public, but didn't speak?
Not from the first moment of welcoming people, introducing the workshop, indicating it was time for an interval, thanking everyone for coming and sending them on their way?
For two and a half hours, no one spoke. But they danced. They hugged. They saw each other. They gave each other money. They played. They had visions of their future. They danced. They saw the potential for conflict resolution in getting people to meet and to not talk. A lot happened in a short space of time - without words getting in the way.
No photos. Imagine everyone stacking the furniture in a (pretty tall) room and someone climbing to the top so they could hang from the ceiling while everyone applauded.
An improvised performance in a forest in Holland.
"My name is Charles Davies. And I'm a chameleon. A chameleon is a special kind of lizard that can change its appearance to blend in with its surroundings. Some people say a chameleon doesn't have any special powers though, and just hangs out near things that are the same colour as it..."
Travelling at speed in a tube deep under the city is miraculous. But it’s easy to forget how special it is. A reminder: provide air hostesses to hand out tea and coffee to early morning commuters. “Good morning ladies and gentlemen. We are now travelling at a depth of 150 feet. The crew will be coming through the cabin shortly with a selection of hot drinks...”
An experiment. Probably 2004.
What happens if you dress up as animals and walk around London for the day? Not handing out flyers, not promoting anything - just having a day out in London.
Short answer: school children will attack you, builders will defend you, pizza delivery men try to run you over, businessmen hug you, bus drivers don’t blink an eyelid.
Conclusion: London runs on autopilot, but there is no autopilot setting for meeting a giant teddy bear, so everyone has to make it up on the spot.
Over the course of six weeks, 30 teachers taught 75 classes in central Brighton. The brief: teach anything you want, but it has to be something you love. Endless graft by Graeme Walker. Patronage by Prem Rose.