Bizarrely an Allied London security guard tried to stop me taking this photo of Quay House, over several floors of which Adam Curtis and Felix Barrett have installed their American nightmare with a Daman Albarn soundtrack.
‘Believe it or not this square is private property,’ he said. ‘And they don’t want anyone taking photographs.’
Anyway. You enter It Felt Like a Kiss, a two-and-a-quarter hour experience, as part of a group of eight, gingerly stumbling through total darkness. You leave ‘as you always wanted to be… a free individual, alone in the dark,’ but now you are running. And you will run. They can make you do anything they want you to do.
Inspired by Little Eva’s relationship with her abusive boyfriend, The Crystals sang ‘He hit me, and it felt like a kiss,’ in 1962. For Adam Curtis and Felix Barrett, the song has come to sum up the world’s relationship with the USA since that country began to flex its superpower muscles.
This adventure begins in a lovingly recreated late 1950s American living space. It should be comforting, but already a certain paranoia is creeping in. You have entered the world of Sidney Gottlieb, LSD user and CIA chief scientist who hoped his work would enable America to control the world with mind altering drugs. He may have failed to assassinate Fidel Castro, but his colleague Frank Wisner, who headed up clandestine operations (and was to suffer a total mental collapse), was effective in overthrowing governments, some democratically elected, and replacing them with brutal dictatorships.
Midway through this experience you find yourself in a film club watching a 35 minute chronology of America’s crimes against the world that loves it, after which the pace changes. You’re in a kind of operant conditioning chamber inspired by the work and ideology of psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner. Here you will do what you want and emerge as they want you to be.
It Felt Like a Kiss shows that America’s most idealistic, believing they were forces for absolute good in a war on evil, turned the dream to nightmare. Unaware of their own vulnerable psychologies they placed too much faith in the untested science that was to corrupt and destroy them. Like so many others, they believed their own evil acts were justified as they were in support of a much greater good.
Moreover, the likes of Gottlieb and Wisner inhabited a secret world – America’s sub-conscious – and so ordinary Americans could continue to believe in the dream. The rest of the world would retain its unrequited love of everything American no matter how badly that country’s foreign policy hurt them.
But how far can we trust Curtis and Barrett?
Explanatory notes handed out as we leave caricature the Black Panthers as cocaine addicted rapists, at one time intent on ‘seizing power in America through violence,’ but now committed Reaganite Republicans. Those of us fortunate enough to catch Emory Douglas in Manchester a few months ago, know there is another truth. Perhaps the creators of It Felt Like a Kiss are just as capable of manipulation in support of some hidden agenda as those they seek to expose. Perhaps too cynical for their own good, they are only able to condemn absolutely and so have come to believe in their own absolute goodness.
[It Felt Like a Kiss is a Manchester International Festival commission and runs until 19 July 2009.]