Interview with Studio Silo

30 Jul

Your work appears to start with an interest in subverting and confounding expectations of materials.
We start with how to challenge the use and perceptions of materials. It is very difficult not to have a preconception of how something will look when completed but we try to be as open as possible. We generally approach things in a naïve way and learn through making.

For us it is really important that the making is evident in the final piece. So, for example, when we made glass pieces with fabric moulds it was very important to us that the stitches and texture of the textiles that had formed the vessels were visible in the final objects.

Tell me a bit about the process of making and how these works came about.
We work with material, process and basic physical principles. Our research involves reading, playing with materials and watching YouTube tutorials. We were both interested in rotor moulding, a method used to make large, hollow plastic objects, tanks for example, or plastic chairs.

What is rotor moulding?
1. It is a two – or more – part mould.
2. You put powdered plastic inside, not to fill the mould, just a little.
3. Then it rotates and is heated and the plastic gets distributed and sticks to the mould.
4. When it cools you have a shiny object that pops out the mould.

It is a cheap process to use for small scale production. It was invented by Swiss Chocolate makers and is used to make Easter Eggs.

I often think about where materials come from but don’t always consider the way that processes of making develop.
All technology has a route; often it is military. Those routes are part of our research. In this instance we were looking at Liquid Mirror Zenith Telescopes, which are a cheaper alternative to conventional telescopes which use glass or polished metal as a mirror. Liquid mirror telescopes are spinning discs of liquid, low-melt alloy, often mercury. When spun the mercury makes a perfect parabola shape. You then put a lens on top and can see things that are directly above the liquid. We realised that this was rotational moulding but only on one axis.

In that instance the liquid is in continual motion; perfectly stable but never set.
Exactly, and we started looking into this and thinking about how Isaac Newton had described inertia with a theory now called ‘Newton’s Bucket’. He hung a bucket of water on a rope, twisted the rope and let the bucket spin. He described how the water remains flat at first but after a while the bucket communicates the movement to the water and the water adopts a parabola shape.

We started to experiment with rota moulding aluminium but we realised that it did not convey the movement in the making process so we started to use acrylic reinforced gypsum plaster (or Jesmonite) which enabled us to use colour to describe the motion. We poured liquid Plaster of Paris with acrylic hardener into a hemisphere shape and rotated it. We used different colours to describe the motion, for example, in the green piece, the middle part doesn’t move as much as the outer part which communicates something of the inertia principle. The bowl starts turning and the liquid has to catch up so you get a dynamic S-shaped curve.

How do you keep the colours separate?
There is an additive in the material that ensures they don’t blend. When we started with plaster this wasn’t the case. This material is much harder and the colours stay clear and clean. We polish the bowls to make them more vibrant.

Are these functional objects? What do you imagine people will use them for?
We see them in the applied arts area so you would not eat from them but they are decorative pieces to be used in people’s homes. They’re not high functional and they’re not high art. We often work in series and these pieces are between a multiple and a one-off.

The vessels sit on three-legged metal stools that reference the kitchen stool. Tell me a bit about the display of the work.
The display of our work is important to us. This is something we think should be well considered as it has a strong impact on how the pieces are perceived. Our glass blower made the glass stands so that you can see the complete object and our design studio logo on the base. The metal spinner who made the moulds for the bowls made the tops of the plinths for us and we selected the grey to match the tone of the gallery.

Do you share all of your processes in an open source way?
We don’t want people to copy what we are doing but we want to excite people to explore some of these processes and materials. In fact, that is why we avoid brand names like Jesmonite. It is important to us to use more scientific terms that better describe the materials as you can’t get branded materials across the world and we want to encourage others to make.

We encourage openness in our practice and make videos that communicate how our work is made. These act as a visual aid that helps us to communicate more quickly but also describe the tone and pace of the studio. The videos are shorthand but we also run workshops to teach people some of our methods.

Meeting the Makers

15 Jul

I am not a maker. Like others my understanding of materials is aesthetic: formed by haptic, physical and sensorial experience that has developed into embedded memories of objects and surfaces. My knowledge of making is vicarious, learned through watching, reading and listening. Thinking about how materials are formed fills me with the same feeling I had during most maths and physics lessons in secondary school: a kind of detached wonder that makes my brain float and my body distant. I imagine procedures that probably could not happen, but without any attempt or desire to make them a reality. Sites of industry are for me, as for many others, mysterious places, disconnected from a present where surfaces are coated, veneered and anodised.

Until recently I sat next to artist Ruth Claxton for 2 days every week at Eastside Projects. For me and many of Birmingham’s younger artists Ruth is a font of making knowledge. She is someone who has learnt partly through trials in her practice and partly through more formal training previously available in the form of City & Guilds courses. This type of knowledge, embodied and learnt through activity, is very different to mine. I could ask Ruth questions like: what actually is shellac? And which metals can you weld together? Of course Ruth doesn’t know everything but she has routes to finding out most things. Along with Architects Alessandro and Mike Dring and musician and print maker Sean O’Keeffe, Ruth is planning Birmingham Production Space, a national site for making, both digital and analogue.

I inhale parts of the research undertaken by the artists I work with and thus have a rock-pool-like picture of materials and processes, with areas of shallow and slightly deeper understanding. Recently I have spoken extensively about casting, a process that endlessly fascinates all sorts of practitioners and which (like developing photographs) uses a mesmerising process of reversal. Casting formed the basis of one of the most enchanting artist talks I have encountered, given by artist Florian Roithmayr at the brilliant production site Grymsdkye Farm in August 2014.

Conversations with artists Marie Toseland and James Parkinson have triggered much of my recent thinking on casting. Both are currently showing cast works (in ceramic and glass and plaster respectively), in a group show I curated at The Sunday Painter, Peckham. For Marie casting is an intimate, erotic process wherein the original or container is suffocated by the substance filling it and eventually replicating it; whereas for James it is a system of loops and references through which he can explore the space between the actual and the virtual to look at notions of representation, embodiment and provenance.

I often think about the origins of, and journeys undertaken by, matter. The recent trend in tracing the lives of materials and objects (think Jane Bennett, Maurizio Boscagli, Mark Miodownik, OOO) has perhaps refreshed my interest in this, which began when I was an undergraduate student in social anthropology. I think too about how the politics of materials is formed by processes of extraction and the environmental and human costs incurred. I wonder if we will come up with a way of manufacturing some of the rare minerals that we currently depend on for our well-loved smart phones and tablets, whether we can produce them in a laboratory as we are now able to produce diamonds, or whether this will come with its own substantial problems. The V&A’s current show, What is Luxury, poses many interesting questions around the production of value through the employment of time, skills and expertise and rare materials.

At a recent conference on production, Fran Edgerley, a member of Assemble, proposed that production is an opportunity for people to be involved in productive activity, and noted the phenomenon of social prescription whereby GPs prescribe activity to aid all sorts of issues including depression and addiction. This reminds me of the meaningful activity utilised in the field of Occupational Therapy and brings me to an internal debate I have been having about the contemporary push for mindfulness and wellbeing. With the Conservative party’s Budget having been announced only 2 days ago, the idea that those who do not engage in normative, healthy, happy working lives are not of value or interest to society is fresh in my mind and I feel increasing scepticism seeping into my understanding of Britain’s new-found ‘understanding’ of mental health issues.

From this position of commissioning and curating as a way of questioning and absorbing knowledge (and let’s not forget that writing and curating are a processes of making and shaping material too) I find myself newly part of a group of people looking after a collection at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, which is comprised in part by twentieth century ceramics and a significant collection of contemporary jewellery. As such I have begun to swat up on studio ceramics practice and to learn about the field of contemporary jewellery, which I have to say is more interesting and political than I previously imagined (my limiting preconceptions showing).

These are the references that form my thoughts on Friday 10 July as I travel to London to see the Jerwood Makers Open 2015 and meet some of its makers the morning after it opened. The posts that follow will reflect on some of the threads initiated above.

a molecular vernacular

7 Jul

Georgie Grace, The machine is almost pure magic, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

Georgie Grace, The machine is almost pure magic, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

 

1. Reality does not run along the neat straight lines of the printed page wrote Sadie Plant in Zeros and Ones, aligning the infinitely tangled webs of the internet with the infinitely tangled webs of language. In the liquid flow of the data stream, words become isolated fragments estranged from an organizing central narrative. The channels of the computerized network are a-temporal. Against time (as we know it), not in any way with it. To read on and with the screen is to trust your body, and all of its unpredictable eruptions, over the packaged and bound linear narrative. When the machine hums, your body hums too, and so does language. Brains… are not unified entities but hives or swarms of elements, interconnected multiplicities, packet-switching systems of enormous complexity, which have no centralized government (Plant, 1997).

 

2. In Georgie Grace’s video The machine is almost pure magic, swarms of appropriated linguistic fragments combine in a visual narration of aural silence. There is no spoken voice to guide us, only buzzing phonetic hives spelled out in neon text on screen: it is a script of unfinished sentences, leading us to an unknown, but tempting us somewhere. Before she writes, the artist listens and transcribes, scribbling down verbal events (scientific lectures or techno-talks, for example) in the contemporaneous moment of their speaking. It is the live copied (or forgotten), then re-ordered. Mediated by her tinkering hand. The individual voice becomes drowned out and buried by the process (performance) of transcription, so that the original author disappears in the artist’s edit, and she replaces him: I’m interested in the experience of reading and it wouldn’t be a reading experience if it were a listening experience, so how reading is mediated on screen is something that I am concerned with: do I remember things in the same way? Am I able to organise things in my mind when I have multiple tabs and screens open? (Georgie Grace, 2015, 15:03 PM).

 

3. Georgie harnesses Kenneth Goldsmith’s concept of uncreative writing (How do you determine who owns a piece of writing? 14:44 PM) to craft and model a script of stolen lines and lecturing rhetoric, re-modelled as a text of questioning and sensorial combat. Of displacement and replacement. The script is not linear or narrative-driven, but it does build, unfold in some sort of sequence of sense. Sentences meet and merge, then break with the artifice. Fracture with their cut-up arrangement. Georgie’s syntactical collections embody a kind of liquid flow, and excess, as they travel and accrete in multiple directions. Deriving from the transcription-research, the script contains unexpected overlaps: although the content of each speech is different, the tone and language is transferrable. Like a download. Or a copy and paste. There are jumps in it so it is not completely smooth but at the same time it has a flow so you can almost make sense of it. The appropriating impulse of the ‘uncreative’ writer mirrors (as in screen) the immaterial and uncensored walls of the digital network, where authorship and ownership become tangled in the hyperlinked blur.

 

4. The machine is almost pure magic reads like an enumerative instructive manual, an assembly of texts to compute and join together. A text-based narration, it nevertheless ‘speaks’ a language of promotion, profession, aspiration, and work, in ghostly emerald city intonations: ‘You have an extremely powerful and very, very flexible device / you can use it to influence people / you can use it to get a better job / you can use it to increase your prosperity’. It feels as planned and formulated as the digital system it describes, as it performs the language of impenetrable science in creepy imperatives. An ambiguous order to trust and repeat. Real science and fictional science, as Georgie said. When reading/watching, Georgie’s friend declared whatever it is I’m buying one! She thought it was selling her something, a sort of phantom product. As writer and artist, Georgie has constructed a text in which form and content merge and speak: the transcribed language of the lecture is shuffled anew by the artist so that it inhabits, in its fragmentary list-like form, the syntax of the machine. Phrases to click, estranged from a coherent centre. ‘you can put a command in a box,’ the artist writes in place of the anonymous machine of artificial intelligence, flowing into ‘and the box sends out a high frequency signal/ it shoots out a beam of light’.

 

5. Georgie’s video operates as a moving image, linked by cut-and-pasted stills (overlaid with cut-and-pasted language). Aesthetically, it embodies the ‘possibly analogue / possibly digital’ epithet in the script, used to describe the merging of corporeal and technological in a quasi-fictional machine, but equally an apt describer of Georgie’s film-making. Archive photographs of uninhabited sixties interiors are chopped into a mix of rippling animations and magnified grey materials. I was drawn to the idea of what reality is made of in its particles, pixels and half-tones – a focalized, immaterial materiality, in which the granular substance of the abstract background is not so far removed from the granular photographs shuffled in between. The images are filed and rearranged, akin to the ease of digital administration: it feels like a computational aesthetic of uploading and downloading, referring to the ways computers can sort images and understand them. File them irrespective of the date in which they were made. Nearly all of the images in the film document empty spaces, their textures mediated, virtual and digital, so that the past image (which also represents the epoch of cybernetic serendipity in art and technology) is relocated as an image of futurity. Of ‘cosmic significance’, or so says the script. And if the image is reduced to the atomic and molecular, so is the language. The artist manipulates linguistic material in the same way as a nanotechnologist, combing through the detritus of speech to refocus and reveal a fiction of her own.

 

6. From the form to the content. What does the posthuman machine that Georgie is transcribing, tracking and fictionalizing do? In Sadie’s silver smooth text, she wrote of a brain that ‘is body, extending even to the fingertips, through all the thinking, pulsing, fluctuating chemistries, and virtually connected with the matters of other bodies, clothes, keyboards, traffic flows, city streets and data streams’. In Georgie’s artwork, she extends this union further, writing a machine of mind-powered prosthetics, so that brain and body are computerized as one infinite and intelligent object. As the fragments of script direct us: ‘we’ll become machines that act like humans / technology and humanity are going to be converging / we’re going ethereal / like a snake shedding its skin.’ And in The machine is almost pure magic, the fiction of the immortal machine that flows and evolves from imagination to object over the course of the script, is communicated via Georgie’s writing: shedding the excess skin of language, she uncovers scales, molecules and atoms – which will eventually stick together again, to make another fiction new.

 

The machine is almost pure magic by Georgie Grace as commissioned through Jerwood Encounters: 3-Phase, a new artist development collaboration between two artist-led organisations Eastside Projects (Birmingham) and g39 (Cardiff), and Jerwood Charitable Foundation, through its London based gallery programme Jerwood Visual Arts.

diary-writing the membrane

18 Jun

Kelly Best, 'Velum', 2015. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

Kelly Best, ‘Velum’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

 

I am sitting in a corner of the gallery. My legs that are encased in light grey jeans are stretched out to make a line that is then extended by the dark grey slate tiles and from these, the dark grey object. An editor of an art magazine is taking notes when I arrive, and admires how the floor and sculpture are tonally working in tandem. He doesn’t know that soon my limbs (and language) will become part of the fixture, too.

 

Typing in this floor position, I am the figurative intruder, filling out the institutional void, and embodying it with material substance. My writing body feels exposed – even though he has now left – as my fingers scuttle across the keys and singular words emerge, in black, on the fake white page. The object stays rooted to the floor (like a tree-trunk, and like my bum) but its lines move: its surface pattern stages action and performance, a nod to the busy bodies that made it. I imagine a swarm of hands clutching pencils and rulers, slinking down the vertical surface and getting physically close to it. This grey and green sheet of two-dimensional surface, and patternised resistance, is a singular monolithic disguise for background teamwork.

 

KB. I told them not to worry too much, not to stress over every mark, which gave a lot more rhythm to the drawing. I wouldn’t stand there watching but I would change people around every ten or twenty lines, to give it a bit more texture.

 

I am writing a diary out of, through and on the work, inscribing and annotating in ad-hoc fashion, just like the workers who drew onto it. We’re both sensing the material; feeling it as we go. The first time I saw the work I couldn’t stop moving about the room, making my own foot-stepped lines, to view and concentrate on it from different angles, and now I’m making different kind of lines, moving trapeze-like across the keyboard. With my eyes tied to the work and the words, it’s a balancing act of looking, reading and writing.

 

I am visible but veiled at the same time. Velum is a curved sculpture that carves the space in two, protecting my private from the outside public. This artificial wall separates the exterior from the interior, the skin from the membrane. The title of the work Velum shifts in meaning in the same way as its quivering string-bound aesthetic moves and shakes (it looks like it could be plucked like a violin). Incurring rhythm and noise. I wonder what it would be like to pluck language, its phonemes spiralling from a linear system.

 

Velum is veil; it is bodily tissue; it is muscle: it is paper. Never one, or the other, but a frenetic experience of them all. From the reference to the inference to the metaphor. I start to wonder that the work is much more corporeal than it first appears, alluding to a phantom body, or perhaps the gallery intruder herself.

 

KB. I like words and titles that have double meanings and the potential of that: it forces the viewer to inspect the work more closely: then you can see it is really made out of thin MDF and is not actually calfskin vellum at all.

 

Kelly Best, 'Velum', 2015. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

Kelly Best, ‘Velum’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

 

I entered this veiled space from behind (from backstage), its naked construction exposing itself before the main event. This backwards path made me feel curious, unknowing, vulnerable and visible: it is a trick to surprise us. I had to question what it even was to start with, intuit its material substance: is it rope; is it collage; is it curtain… is it flesh?

 

KB. It feels more three-dimensional here because of how you approach it, which is important, as it allows the audience to move around the work and explore it.

 

Velum is a serpentine wooden structure that bends, concave, like a river. It is huge, nearly as high as the ceiling at one end, before decreasing with the curve to a smooth horizontal edge lower than its starting point. This wooden room divider is about twenty centimetres thick, as in three-dimensional, but it performs like a piece of paper – although is in no way flat. Velum contains, and then exposes, a two-dimensional surface that urges you, I, anyone, to touch it. Feel it. Climb all over it and make your own mark with dirty thumb-prints. Doing the wrong thing. I wonder at Velum’s precarious existence, a solid but also ephemeral object.

 

KB. It’s really robust even though the surface is really delicate. It’s odd that I don’t feel that precious about it; maybe I just got rid of that, and let go, when I knew other people were touching it, smudging it, drawing on it.

 

Kelly Best, 'Velum', 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

Kelly Best, ‘Velum’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Anna Arca.

 

It is a stage for drawing two-dimensional light green vertical lines, in all kinds of thicknesses and angles and wayward ripples, hidden amidst the discipline. From grey to green to black to yellow. From a thread to a void. The line is not a homogenous mark, however clean and simple it appears. Accidents happen on this stage. People forget their lines. They become interrupted or change direction, if only by a degree. In this wall of self-imposed excess and regularity – a formula, essentially – it is easy to get lost. It is easy to find pleasure in the tidal marks and constellations that happen and move in and around the order. I find myself desiring the unruly (even if ‘ruled’) lines, the scars that stray from the formula of linear inscription.

 

Velum makes contact with the viewer, and talks to her: asks her what it means to look.

 

KB. It was quite important to me that you could become immersed in the drawing: that it’s the only thing you can see.

 

As it screens out the background faces to only let in background noise, Velum constructs a curiously intimate space for writing, an invitation for a body to inhabit. Once the man leaves, for the most of the day I am the only body in the room, this busy screen of corporeal gesture and willed physicality (it takes muscular effort to draw these lines) inviting wild and automated acts of typing. If writing is meant to be a private experience in which you get to know oneself, in this walled room, I am partly private and partly public. I am intimately public.

 

KB. The work surrounds you: it gives you the privacy you need, to look.

 

To write in and with Velum is to combine acts of seeing, with acts of desire and language, in the middle of a public space. Constantly navigating what it means to be not just a body, but also a writing body, in a room. On the edges of visibility, flirting with risk. I thought I would feel self-aware but Velum, in its curved wing-like hold, is cradling: it understands what it means to write, and what writing needs. What this space needs. I look at it from a side-ways angle, and wonder if it is also a giant scroll, in a constant process of unfolding. Its marks could be words, its linear gestures an ambiguous and personal language.

 

 

This diary-like text was formed from a conversation with Kelly Best, and notes made in front of the artwork at Jerwood Space, 15 June 2015. An in-conversation with Kelly, Georgie Grace and the editor and critic, Oliver Basciano, happened later in the day, incidentally also in front of Velum.

 

Velum was commissioned through Jerwood Encounters: 3-Phase, a new artist development collaboration between two artist-led organisations Eastside Projects (Birmingham) and g39 (Cardiff), and Jerwood Charitable Foundation, through its London based gallery programme Jerwood Visual Arts.

something like life-writing

11 Jun

Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness', 2015 Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, ‘An Unreliable Witness’, 2015.
Photo: Anna Arca

 

In the hour that we’re together, the road that forms Tower Bridge stands firm. Little boats motor underneath it. Red buses drive across it. It does not break, this moment in history. But as we talk and get distracted, the edges of this fin-de-siécle monument get fuzzy. The conversation has the capacity to re-write timelines (seen in the towering concrete phallus) with personal affect, and accident.

 

While the river pushes on. (It was the present moment, or so says Virginia W.)

 

Or so quotes Alice May Williams: I was really aware that it is quite strange recording someone’s voice, in that it immediately brings them into the present, but a present that has already passed. It keeps happening in Orlando, as Woolf keeps referring to the fact that it was the present moment and then it’s gone. It hits you on the head.

 

I’m asking Alice questions, just like Ken does of Jessie (aka Great-Great Grandma) in her audio work An Unreliable Witness. Jessie answered back: she wouldn’t let herself get pinned down by the male biographer of dates and chronology, as she fought the masculine recorder with voice itself. It is a voice of shuffling ambiguity, as her Medusa laughs and muddy verbal gestures constantly undermine what he wants her to tell him.

 

Alice has clearly inherited her GGG’s oral rebelliousness, as she harnesses women’s talk as a strategy of communality and temporal disruption. We listen in on a female cacophony: voices murmuring in unison, Alice calls it, counteracting and contradicting that person (Ken? Myself?) clutching a microphone, running a script. I was definitely aware when talking to my family members that I did not want to play that directive role, of trying to get them to talk about what I thought I wanted them to tell me, because it is through the tangents where you really uncover the stuff the person being interviewed wants to talk about. In An Unreliable Witness – a fiction drawn from a document – the everyday tangents stall coherent narrative and logic, as space shifts from the cleanliness of Woolf’s Kew to the 1871 dirty streets of Battersea. Fiction and biography are pretty much interchangeable in Alice’s audio object, while time slides and text slides in her composite writing of appropriated verbatim and quotation.

 

Oral history probes and provokes the past, while constructing an edited narrative (however loose) in and out of the present. It is a fiction of potential, as it fills in the neglected gaps of women’s histories – from the domestic to the dangerous to the near deadly. Suzanne Lacy broadcast similar conversations on live TV for The Crystal Quilt, in which a Susan Stone composition of seventy-five women talking about ageing played in the background. Text and subtext murmuring in unison.

 

As a positive reconstructive method, oral history seeks to make women authors of their own past, but what about the ghostly recorder or tinkering transcriber? What if he misses out her pause, or forgets her laugh? The gesture can only ruin him if he remembers it, or respects it, in language. In An Unreliable Witness, the artist’s Great-Great Grandma rejects the interviewer’s presence, and Alice steps in, turning Jessie’s anti-linear narrative into a revised construct of converging generations and multiple voices. All girls together. She is not so much speaking in place of the original speaker, as using the equipment of past and present speaking, to speak for her. And with her.

 

The writer Chloé Griffin assumed a similar responsibility for a life in her oral history of the writer and actress Cookie Mueller, whose dark-humour-heavy, diary-fictions shadowed her dark experiences before becoming another victim of AIDs in November 1989. Cookie’s life has always been prefaced by her death. It is her Internet entry, her presence, but an oral history can seek to do more. It can seek to embody and imagine, beyond the tragic ‘ending’.

 

In Edgewise, Griffin tacks together the voices of friends and lovers that knew her (artists and writers, mainly) in a polyvocal text of shifting temporal patterns. Memories and recollections accrete; extend; contradict. Griffin’s oral history is rendered as a continuous conversation, in spite of the scattered execution of the interviews over eight years, and the mutating time and place of the narratives. We hear her love Sharon Niesp retelling the dramaturgy of their relationship (‘I’d disappear for a while. We didn’t have fight fights every day like neurotic couples do. I would just disappear’), and later Gary Indiana talks of downtown New York happenings, starring Cookie:

‘I took a lot of pictures of Cookie in drag. Kathy Acker and I were asked at one point to do a performance at the Mudd club where we would project slides of our former boyfriends and read letters to them that we had written. I had a lot of letters I had written to boyfriends, but I didn’t have that many pictures of them, so I called Cookie up and said, “Would you like to pose as several of my former boyfriends?” We went to William Coupson’s studio, and she had two costumes. One was kind of manly – Playboy, kind of a smoking jacket – and the other was a Hustler kind of picture.’

Just as Alice’s work extends outwards from one biography to encompass multiple, Edgewise is both a portrait of the (singular) Cookie and a talking (plural) history of the communal underground art scene of the late twentieth century. It constantly moves from the intimate to the public performance of the intimate. And like An Unreliable Witness, chronology cannot be ascertained, as drugs and desire and dialogue bury it.

 

Back to the ‘present moment’ Alice that was: I didn’t want to do to the original recording what is trying to be done to that woman, where he’s trying to pin her down to dates: make it clear who she is and what time she lives. Anything I added I wanted to operate in the same fluid way as she does, evading chronology. My nan did exactly the same thing. She didn’t want to talk in timelines, or necessarily talk about her grandma. She just wanted to talk about what she wanted to talk about, and I knew I had to let her do that, because that is the strength of an oral history – it’s not just about securing timelines or getting things you can read in books – it’s about hearing someone’s current reflections on something. Anything.

 

Alice May Williams, 'We Can Do It!', 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Alice May Williams, ‘We Can Do It!’, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Alice May Williams, 'We Can Do It!', 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Alice May Williams, ‘We Can Do It!’, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

 

As Sherna Berger Gluck writes: women’s oral history is a feminist encounter, even if the interviewee is not herself a feminist. It is the creation of a new type of material on women; it is the validation of women’s experiences; it is the communication among women of different generations; it is the discovery of our own roots and the development of a continuity, which has been denied us in traditional historical accounts. In her 1988 book Rosie the Riveter Revisited, Sherna used this model on the women workers of World War Two, sifting and detouring through past moments, both little and big, as a backwards route to thinking about what ‘contemporary’ feminism might mean and could do for them. ‘Rosie the Riveter’ was also the collective subject of Alice’s video work We Can Do It! (2014), as this bicep pumping, blue shirted woman worker becomes a repeated online image of superficial feminist communality.

 

I became interested in the Rosie the River image due to its constant recycling and repetition, the act of which seemed to be erasing any possible stability it might once have had. It seemed to be an image, a code, a set of words completely up for grabs: it could mean so many different things to so many different ‘We’s’, leading to an unverifiable ‘felt’ kind of knowledge. Part of the appeal of the Rosie image, for me, is the rolling of her sleeves, and I became interested in the possible readings of that gesture: could it be a lesbian code of dress? It’s more like intimation than foolproof knowledge, but I think these forms of felt knowledge are just as much a part of how we make sense of the world, as the information we are given as truth/history/fact. In the current work, too, it is as much how things are said, as what is said. Jessie is dodging the linearity of history or fact by weaving us through sets of feelings or sensations.

 

In An Unreliable Witness, Alice (with Jessie as her sidekick) makes a joke out of living historically, as temporal orders overlap and converse into less structured units. Talking through the past and present at once, as a way to work through and understand it, rewrites the straight and phallic timeline. It inserts in its place a nonlinear concept of time, where histories can co-exist, all the while gazing in multiple directions. There are no first wave, second wave, or third wave feminisms in Alice’s work, as the generations talk to one another in a fragmentary fiction of chatter and noise. And feeling. The years intermix, become layered and one. 2015 becomes 1959 becomes 1865.

 

This is Elizabeth Freeman writing of such ‘non-sequential’ forms of time, which cackle against the normative chronology, just like Alice and Jessie: Queer temporalities… are points of resistance to this temporal order that, in turn, propose other possibilities for living in relation to indeterminately past, present and future others: that is: of living historically.

 

(We look to the Thames, as it curves from the wharfs to the west.)

 

Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness', 2015.  Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, ‘An Unreliable Witness’, 2015.
Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness' (detail), 2015. Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, ‘An Unreliable Witness’ (detail), 2015.
Photo: Anna Arca

 

An Unreliable Witness, the exhibition, is a body of research (with an etched wall drawing posing as a pretend family tree, and a printed fabric of Jessie’s drawn face repeated) that revolves and circulates around the restructuring of a found audio recording featuring the artist’s Great-Grand Grandma being interviewed by a male relative named Ken. This talking trace of 1959 resurfaced a few years ago over the family’s Christmas dinner, when Alice’s uncle played it to her Grandma through a phantom iPhone. I’ve just spoken to Grandma Jessie on the phone she said. As the artist writes of the event in the fragmentary transcript of literary and real-life quotation: Nan wasn’t crazy, or stupid, and she hadn’t lost the plot. She just didn’t have the words to describe the medium, which had channelled her grandma’s voice to her.

 

That medium, that document, was then taken care of by Alice: the responsibility of a life, a biography, in her hands. In the original recording, Ken asks Jessie questions about her life and the London in which she lived. He lingers on dates; she responds with a defiant what else do you want to know? and sends her interviewer off on chronological cul-de-sacs, interspersed with oblique but knowing chuckles.

 

Ken: And your father was a river pilot?

Jessie: Not a river pilot

Ken: River…

Jessie: Captain

 

And when Ken tries to bind Jessie to the erection of Tower Bridge, she evades his biographical tricks:

 

Ken: And you went down on the ship

Jessie: Ooh yes, of course

Ken: And when you went where Tower Bridge is now…

Jessie: Yes

Ken: … It wasn’t then built?

Jessie: Wasn’t then, No, no

Ken: Good heavens, we thought it had been there much longer than that, when was it built?

Jessie: Couldn’t tell you

Ken: Bout eighteen…

Jessie: Not the faintest idea, I’m a Londoner but I don’t know anything about London (throaty cough)

 

Alice: I find there is much more humour and humanity in writing verbatim than in formal prose. I think who is speaking and how they speak can really shape a set of words, so I try to let that come through.

 

In An Unreliable Witness, Alice weaves and layers conversations with her mother and grandmother (discussing Battersea Power Station and beauty culture) onto the raw 1959 document, as individual lives go forward and back, and merge, to make an alternative (edge-wise) biography of Jessie that is more communal than singular. Interviews can be a way to invent vocabularies for these social formations, which combine the intimate and the social, the informal and the institutional, said Ann Cvetkovich, in an essay that uses the metaphor of craft as conversation. In Alice’s audio fabric, multiple voices and histories shift and slide in patterns unknown, to be realized in the edit as an oddly biographical and fictional object. I guess I wanted it to be her autobiography, because I think that’s how she controls the conversation and everything else props towards that. But you’ve also got to recognise your place (Alice). Authorship is blurred, as each character (and author) is as unreliable as the next.

 

Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness', 2015.  Photo: Anna Arca

Alice May Williams, ‘An Unreliable Witness’, 2015.
Photo: Anna Arca

 

We get close to knowing Jessie, but it is more ‘felt’ knowledge, as Alice would say: we never get to see her or chat to her in any physical encounter. Our getting to know ‘her’ is much more psychic. In the same way we are also getting to ‘know’ Alice, through the people and things she has a distant relationship to, like a spindly branch on a family tree. It’s an autobiography of fragility and fiction: performance. Alice gets to know Jessie, gets to know Jane Eyre, gets to know Virginia, gets to know the dead she doesn’t know… calling to mind the naughty, wayward tracks Heather Love writes of in Feeling Backward: Perverse, immature, sterile and melancholic: even when they provoke fears about the future, they somehow also recall the past. They carry with them, as Djuna Barnes writes of her somnambulist heroine Robin Vote in Nightwood: the quality of the way back.

 

Jessie is the forgetful somnambulist, sleepwalking through the past in a forged daze. Alice takes on the same temporal position, giving a fictional life to the intimate and personal time that lies beyond the straitjacketing document. She does not ignore the chaos of feelings, as Jessie’s babble runs counter to ordered public measurements.

 

As Love elaborates in the same book of queer backwardness: Politics and feelings are very different kind of things: the public sphere is big, feelings are small; social life happens out there, psychic life, somewhere inside; public time is collective time, measured by the clock, whereas in psychic life, the train hardly ever runs on time.

 

An Unreliable Witness stages an interplay between these two poles of public and private: never one or the other, but a frenzied both that cannot be located. An Unreliable Witness is not simply an oral history work of mothers and memories, but through starting here, a wider social and economic history of London emerges. I should say histories. On top of her-stories. Buildings go up and down, the collective narrative running parallel to the private, working together.

 

I was interested in Battersea as a place that doesn’t really exist anymore, as a borough that got consumed by Lambeth and Wandsworth. A non-place. And even though they are now working on the regeneration of the power station and the surrounding area, whenever you see it referred to in print, they call it ‘nine elms on the south bank’, or the ‘western end of nine elms’.

 

In the transcript a similar conversation happens between Alice and her mum Jane Anne (with the writing of Virginia and the voice of Jessie stitched in between):

JA: They’re gonna keep the building? The base of it?

AM: mmmm look at this

JA: Quarter

AM: Its not, its like, its gross isn’t it

JA: God, the world’s finest retailers, restaurants, the old power station

AM: It’s not for people like us

Jessie: Ooooh! She screamed Mary! (throaty chuckle)

 

In An Unreliable Witness, Alice avoids the insular, self-soothing trap of making an artwork about motherhood, by using her mothers as characters, as voices, through which to channel broader discussions of identity, biography, time and place. I was very hesitant to make something family-oriented, because I think there’s something a bit gross about it. I really do not want this to be grounded in nostalgia. The artist interrupts the looming presence of nostalgia by forging communities between the living and the dead (Heather Love): she proposes time as something permeable and loose; likewise life-writing, as the artificial notes of Brontë and Woolf’s textual fragments are deposited on Alice’s own in the transcript, and voices of past and present synchronize as artifice in the recording.

 

I finished Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts on my way back from talking to Alice by Tower Bridge. On the face of it, it is a memoir, with the author’s story of queer family-making at its narrative heart. In the first paragraph, Maggie recounts verbatim the first moment of uncontrollable heart confession: ‘Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth…’ But The Argonauts is not only ‘about’ falling in love and becoming a mother (like An Unreliable Witness is not simply a maternal family tree). This is the book’s life-like subtext (as in similar but not quite). Maggie’s relationship with Harry Dodge: their wedding, her IVF and his top surgery, happens in and amidst critical reflections on language and body, politics and activism, perversion and freedom.

 

It has the feel of a diary that talks, with trespassing voices of anxiety and influence. I was thinking about how to write my conversation with Alice, and looked to The Argonauts’ typographical assertion of ‘real-life’ verbal events (as in: ‘I want you to feel free, I said in anger disguised as compassion, compassion disguised as anger) intermixed with textual fragments from those she has read, learnt from, whose writing and ideas has fed and nourished her own. Motherhood without pro-creation (or just creation of a different kind). The names of Eve Sedgwick, Eileen Myles, Beatriz Preciado and more (including Harry), can be found in the book’s margins. As in: ‘Even identical genital acts mean very different things to different people. This is a crucial point to remember, and also a difficult one. It reminds us that there is difference right where we may be looking for, and expecting, communion. Sedgwick’

 

In The Argonauts, just like in An Unreliable Witness, and what I have tried to write here, the recounting of a life cannot be constrained by a single viewpoint, by one voice. A life is not singular but multiple, as layered and mutating, and unpredictable, as the act of writing. To patch texts and recordings together, as Alice and Maggie have done, emphasises the artificiality and unreliability of memoir. The performance of life-writing becomes the stuff of the real. As Jessie always knew, to reconstruct a life can never amount to evidence, when feelings are sending us off on wayward paths.

 

Alice May Williams: An Unreliable Witness is a Project Space commission supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation. The exhibition is open at Jerwood Space until 29 August 2015.

POSTSCRIPT: unpacking Blood in stuff

11 May

It’s easy to be seduced by the ink stains and the violent erasures. It’s easy to see in these crossings out, in the artist’s frantic scrawl, traces of the artist’s body. What lies beneath. Evidence of the life, proof of the blood in scanned units. I’m not interested in binding them, protecting them, as in The Diaries of Franz Kafka. I don’t want to romanticize the mess of the notebook or fall for its viscerality, however much I enjoy the ride of the broken syntax. Finding the words through arrows and loopholes. Zig-zagging through ‘multiple narratives’ and ‘too much to take’ and ‘sexuality/pathogens’, appearing as if a visual poem, but in fact a method of writing and research. Note-taking contemporaneous with thinking, faster than the clock. Copying from Archives of Sexual Behaviour Vol. 31 and making your own in acts of guilty trespass.

 

Marianna's sketchbook, 2014-2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Marianna’s sketchbook, 2014-2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Marianna Simnett, sketchbook drawing, 2014-2015. Courtesy of the artist.

 

  1. Going back to the notebook. It’s called sketchbook but there’s more writing than drawing (aside from the wide-eyed girl with a red-stained mouth). She’s sketching her thoughts and having fun with word play. From ‘hymenologies’ to ‘Hi Men’. And later: ‘Film takes on blood as currency / Nose as virgin Nose = virgin.’ Reading these fragments, I remember Isak Dinesen’s story ‘The Blank Page’, in which the bloodied flax of formerly virgin brides is displayed for public consumption. One anonymous princess exhibits a sheet of ‘snow-white blankness’, withholding her body in act of radical resistance, owning the page as M does her notebook. Blood moves and mutates through the turning of each scanned page, in numbered narratives and feminist concepts about men being hot and dry and women being cold and moist. Order and health versus disorder and illness. Meanwhile, the author and artist asks herself to do things and buy the best value equipment, the backstage clutter and correspondence. She writes down questions for Isabel and nose surgeons, as well as phone numbers and emails, so to talk to people who might help; she talks to herself, too, not as a means of confession, but as a means of making. Of seeing things happen. Unfold. This is starred, hence important: ‘ *build up of blood causes girls to become delirious, violent, even strange themselves’, which I can relate to as I write more text from stuff, libidinal and automated, building layer upon layer – as in the chaotic and cluttered syntax of the notebook.

 

I knew I was interested in experiencing Blood in ephemera when I asked Marianna to dig out some stuff for me a few weeks ago, but I was still unsure of how I might use it. It was titled FOR ALICE, transferring its responsibility and desire through the click of a send. I’ve been circling the works and the artists for a while now, writing letters and emails to them, building an archive of intimate texts in the margins of the internet. Through the stuff of language exposed we are very nearly touching, if not physically, then maybe materially, as Berlant says: ‘In an intimate public sphere emotional contact, of a sort, is made.’ I am drawn to this writing of embodied hesitation.

 

Some of our correspondence will stay public, performed in text, but some things said will remain invisible, languishing in the bottom end of the inbox. Or the back pages of the notebook… It might find its way out in time, but time will be different by then.

 

Marianna Simnett, Nose-build for Blood, 2014-2015. Courtesy of the artist.

 

  1. An arm (could be left or right) is outstretched as in ‘The Willful Child’, cropped as a colour image with no defining hand. Or thumb-prints to investigate. But it is scratched and pink and sore, with lines appearing as bloody inscriptions. Her flesh is shot with blue, like a fabric woven with two threads. Those veins look difficult to manage, probably made worse by the Albanian winter. I wonder whose limb this belongs to. Marianna’s, Lali’s or Isabel’s? Does the sick child of the story also self-harm? Inject heroine into her blue threads? Anna Kavan died this way. I turn to her Asylum Piece, in which she territorialised her own (institutionalised) illness in writing: ‘It seems ages since I have been able to concentrate on my work: and yet I am obliged to put in the same number of hours each day at my desk.’ (The ill in willfulness.) I later learn that this image called ‘PROCESS’ is evidence of Marianna’s cut-up arm: when nose-building goes wrong. I stumble across two consecutive images of the nose and find pleasure in these x-ray view-points: from the wooden, chicken-wired construction, stripped back and naked, to the newspaper layer that coats it. I imagine M climbing all over it, screaming at the sharp edges of its skeleton. In physical pain. But also because it’s her film. And because she can.

 

The archive is a space of affective attachment and contact, of getting closer to the object and oneself (often through the pencil markings you make). Through making more stuff. It’s a resource but also a partner, a companion, and a friend. (It’s basically Lali.) In the time between the email I sent requesting ephemera and the time and space of writing this post, I’ve moved a bit in my thinking, worked out that the archive I am getting to know is less the archive of secure institutionalised masculinity, and more the floating archive, the one you might ask for but the one you can’t predict. Or value. I am less interested in discovering context and biographical detail, as imagining narrative and desiring the marginal object, away from the exhibited final thing. My inquiry is formed by intimacy: the unfinished, the open, the leaking. Bodily forensics without the proper tools, forgetting the protocol:

 

Calling to mind José Esteban Munoz in ‘Ephemera as Evidence’: ‘Queer acts… contest and rewrite the protocols of critical writing …’

 

  1. Staying with photographs, or a photograph of photographs. This one has been mediated and compartmentalised, perhaps to make it easier to compare the sworn virgins’ faces – their immediate exteriority. I know Lali, or at least I feel like I do (she’s got her thumbs up in another photo); and I’ve met Drande before in a video. She’s bottom right. I feel bad for thoughts surrounding who looks more masculine, as if the reproduction of a ‘male’ aesthetic is the only cause or reason of their passing. That said, Lali has a naval hat on and is smoking, by the sea, not in the mountains. She is beautiful and beguiling, not as man or woman, but as both or either. This must be one of her’s and Marianna’s first meetings: the interview research. I don’t have the audio so can only guess at their conversations, words and phrases that probably found their way into the script, reframed and chopped up. All of their faces are smooth, but some are more lined than others. Only the second virgin is showing her teeth, a smile of understanding and warmth. Contact. There was a character to fulfill for the purpose of Blood the fiction, but the life extends beyond the frame.

 

Ephemeral objects embody the traces of the performance and are in this sense, objects of performance, too. Time-based and durational is this material waste, but it is also the wayward document constantly performing itself, mediated through the scanned selection process. I want to extend the fiction, create an assemblage of bloody stuff. I want to write in and out of the ephemera, and get close to it, not in order to prove something about the work but in order to inhabit it and desire it and imagine it and perform it. In language. To provide the work with a queer life outside the gallery walls.

 

  1. Isabel sits on a green chair in front of Marianna and her camera. She is Goldilocks. She wears a white vest and grapples with the script in her fingers, crosses her legs, makes only occasional contact with her interviewer. Spurred on she says, repeating my same confusion:

From some angles she looks like a woman and from some man. It’s quite weird that she’s devoted her life but I can see why…

M responds: Can you tell me?

Men get more advantages and more freedom than women who like clean and cook. Women are basically their slaves, basically…

The language of the young girl is, like, reoriented in the texture of the script… resulting in a fictional Isabel that, through Lali, and through hysteria, and through a red bleeding body, challenges the stable foundations of femininity. Precariously balanced on the ‘wobbly chair of heterosexuality’, this is Dodie Bellamy writing of her own Goldilocks Syndrome, unearthing its sickened potential:

‘Rather than identity, we uncover a void, a vacuum, an inrush of sticky desiring others – a non-position where the unbridled power of the libidinal child can be unleashed, the child who can blow up the world with her thoughts, the child whose body gets blown up over and over again, each time resembling in ways that get stranger and stranger, the child that people back away from, otherness blazing from her, a molten orange and red aura. When this child enters the discourse of heternormativity language is going to fry.’

 

The blazing young girl: dangerously red in her otherness.

 

When Munoz wrote about looking at an image of a Tony Just performance, and found that ‘a few people recognized the image as that of a toilet bowl, many saw it as a breast, some only as a nipple, others as an anus and still others as a belly button’ he also opened up the indeterminate and desiring potential of ephemera. It desires us and we desire it back. It’s mutual; this performative relationship of dislocated time. The ephemeral object is bound to the temporal moment in which it was spawned, but it also rejects it. Tagged by time it likewise travels, down into wonder – where feeling and writing merge.

 

MS_ACME_14

Marianna Simnett, Lali, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

 

  1. Getting lost in the nose. A kind of building with separate rooms and levels, its insides painted pink. Raw. In through the anterior and out through the uvula, making my way through the inferior, middle and superior turbinates. Imagining I was Isabel. Running through viscera and excess. The anatomical drawing of holes and vestibules and winding passages sums up the experience of hallucination: ‘STORYTELLING’. Marianna’s own graphite drawings of vivisected noses follow the science. No bottom lips are drawn in these androgynous shapes, only the nose and cupids bow. The final nose is lined and withered, her lips indented by the daily drag of a cigarette. The scanned image is untitled and un-named: I wonder if it is Lali, re-drawn… (a good guess, I later discover).

 

This is Kathleen Stewart writing of the fluid (sometimes perverse) way we experience everyday objects: ‘From the perspective of Ordinary Affects, thought is patchy and material. It does not find magical closure or even seek it, perhaps only because it’s too busy just trying to imagine what’s going on.’

 

Accidents happen here, in this space beyond the frame,

as the stuff of making finds a new frame in writing:

 

In this, my postscript to the intimate archive, I have tried to imagine what’s going on in the archive of Blood. Write as I find it. Pay it a different kind of attention. We might recognize it and its people; we might not, the stuff of this bloody catalogue, or notebook.

 

Marianna Simnett's diary, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Marianna Simnett’s diary, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

 

  1. A scrappy ring bound notebook for a diary, a vessel of documentation and of fiction. The writing moves in and out of description as this resilient, sleepless writer (‘Yesterday, I mean this morning, I left home at 1:30 am to catch three nightbuses to Heathrow) hones in on the everyday details. Latte macchiatos can last for as long as you will them to, as the act of waiting is then trapped in the act of writing. M (I think it’s M) is sitting in a café, like the protagonist in Marguerite Duras’s Moderato Cantabile. The French novelist is also scribbled in M’s notebook, along with other reference points like Angela Carter and The Company of Wolves. Also: Antonia Young; Balkan Peace Project; Mike Kelley. The first person dominates this diary form. Of course it does. It’s the language of the young girl, older than the first, but still candid and confessional. We think we can see her, but the page is dislocated from the narrative, like a cut-off arm.

We cannot see the whole of her.

 

 

‘Blood’ by Marianna Simnett was commissioned as part of the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’. The Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me’ are a collaboration between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and FVU in association with CCA, Glasgow and University of East London, School of Arts and Digital Industries. FVU is supported by Arts Council England.

Appendix 1. messages to activate.

1 May

Transcript of an email interview with Lucy Clout

 

A: From Our Own Correspondent continues your previous investigations into ephemeral forms of speech: can you explain your interest in the interview as a mode of verbal exchange?

L: I listen to a lot of podcasts in my studio; particularly interview podcasts, of which there are many. It’s a quick and cheap way for them to make content. Interviews such as these are not hugely edited, and are often much longer than would be typical of more traditional media platforms. They offer me the comforting background witter I’ve talked about in previous videos. In From Our Own Correspondent the journalistic interview is used as a model of professionalised conversation and exchange, one that is potentially full of hierarchy and flattery; the skilled formation of intimacy and formality, and the drawing out of people and directness. In the beginning of making From Our Own Correspondent I was thinking about those podcasts, of producing, essentially, your own chat-show: I was thinking about the difference between asking a question where you know what you want the other person to say, and asking a question where you need the other person to bring something you can’t provide. Of course, these aren’t separate situations, but things that might play out within a single interview in which the power dynamic ebbs and flows. In my work, which began as a performance practice, I have long been interested in the exchange between performer and audience. During an interview (a certain type of interview at least) the interviewer and subject can play both the roles of performer and audience at various times within the exchange. Much of what I wanted from the journalists I spoke to was to perform themselves: that is, as women with jobs, as professional people who are rather protective of their professionalism and who are expert at understanding what is at stake when you speak publicly.

 

A: The Internet is seen as the arena of confession, and in much the same way the interview is obsessed with exposure, but both seem to be as much about disguise and performance as truth…

L: Absolutely. Confession, intimacy, shame and visibility are all important in the work. The confessional, the biographic, and particularly the ambiguously fictionalised memoir, seem to be having a moment in the work of writers like Chris Kraus, Eleana Ferranti and Karl Ove Knausgaard. There is a question at the heart of the video about the need and desire for contact with another, and also with what that contact might supply you with and how. Online spaces also demonstrate how confession can exist without needing to relate it to a whole person or a whole truth – as a type of rhetoric. This exists against the backdrop of intermingled professional and personal lives. In a way the pleasure of online sex is that it offers relief that can be compartmentalized, that it does not disturb one’s whole life (except when it does). It seems like it is a public act when in fact it is mainly very private. In the last third of the work an unseen person re-posts, retroactively, the banal and shame-filled conversations of a disgraced politician, which the avatar is puzzled by and drawn to. She enjoys the emotions surrounding confession and shame, providing a witness to the original act of re-posting, in turn activating that unseen person’s feelings and desires. In From Our Own Correspondent, I was interested in the idea of a ‘story’ as a set of events that can be separated out neatly, in order to be presented. There is the final monologue; there are the five women edited together to create an authoritative voice; there is the avatar. It’s very much a video about being, and not being, intertwined with others, about the ways in which the performance of various professional and personal roles blend into one another, both online and psychically.

 

A: I am also interested in the way you perform your subject matter, as you interview the interviewers, and make them interviewees…

L: It reiterates that documentary trope when the film acknowledges the maker in order to acknowledge the subjective process of the making. From Our Own Correspondent is not an objective work: it addresses the wants and loneliness of a not hugely realistic avatar. And so, the journalists were so suspicious of me. I mean, of course they were: they are people who have thought more than most about their visibility in their work; about posterity, and about what might be given away as an interview subject. I am a bad interviewer, in contrast. There is a moment in the film when I am told off for all the nodding reassurances I keep doing. At other points they tell me to ‘relax’, to ‘try asking the question again’, or ‘ask it like we were sitting at a bar together’. My amateurism allows those particular exchanges to happen; except, of course, I am not exactly an amateur. One of the reasons the journalists were so puzzled by me was that I was describing the interviews as my job.

 

A: What does the avatar symbolize for you and what are the sources behind her construction?

L: She is a maker; she is a worker. She is an example. She is also just a woman in her 30s with a job. Designing her look involved trawling the pages of the Next catalogue (it still exists as a physical object it turns out!) and searching ‘professional work wear woman’ online. There is something of the Holly Hunter in the film Broadcast News (1987) in her hair. She is older and fatter than the original version, and that scaling was tricky: the gusset was scaled particularly poorly at first. She wears these knickers of an almost towelling texture. I had in mind a type of foamy material that is used to make cheap everyday seamless underwear dense and absorbent. She has taken her skirt off in order that it doesn’t crease, or maybe she hadn’t put it on yet, signalling a half-readiness to perform. She is both rehearsing alone and running over her day, performing a looping type of stasis within the hotel room.

 

A: What is the significance of the hotel room in the context of the work?

L: The hotel straddles domestic-space and workspace. It also offers the work a particular flat tone that means the empty hotel room can be read as a still or CGI. The potential for pleasure and horror is abundant in those spaces. Checking into a hotel alone I always have a ghoulish wonder if this is where I am going to kill myself. As well as suicide, hotels are a place for honeymoons and meetings and good sex and luxury and presentation writing over a slow Internet connection. Mainly, of course, nothing happens.

 

A: I was wondering if you could talk about the relationship between the ‘work’ of the interview and the ‘play’ of the correspondence and pop up messages that flash across the screen? Is it something to do with a breakdown in public and private spaces?  

L: I was really thinking about anxiety and work and self-soothing. There is something in there about the breakdown between work and non-work time; about the vigilance that is felt to be required to protect a professional persona, and the psychic toll of that. Which of course means that spending time on hook-up sites makes perfect sense: what is masturbation but anxiety, attractive risk and self-soothing? Did you read about those judges who all got disbarred recently for looking at porn on their work computers (but not while they were actually in a trial)? My woman is not working all the time: she is looking for someone to message; she has time to fill and an empty hotel room that might be full of promise. She just needs someone else to activate it.

 

 

 

‘From Our Own Correspondent’ by Lucy Clout was commissioned as part of the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’. The Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’ are a collaboration between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Film and Video Umbrella (FVU) in association with CCA, Glasgow and University of East London, School of Arts and Digital Industries. FVU is supported by Arts Council England.

“more talk than tour”, or the intimacy of interlocuting

1 May

Hi Alice

Sorry I meant to wish you the best for the talk. How diid it go? Mx

p.s. Tour not talk

 

Hey Marianna –

You’re probably right: it was more ‘talk’ than ‘tour’…

 

I’ve been talking to Marianna and Lucy via email, the real life interview in and amidst the intimate documents of epistolary performance. Some of the emails are visible here, and some of them are buried in the flow and fissures of the text. To keep some bodies private.

 

I read the imaginary letters to M and L out loud for a gallery ‘tour’ last month, an extension of the performance, spawning questions in the post-discussion about writing and embodiment, liveness and vulnerability. We were talking about talking, essentially.

 

This particular document will be longer than I first intended: it will wander and accrete, out of linear time, as text feeds more text, akin to the course of correspondence between friends. It only stops when someone stops writing.

 

Or dies.

 

*

 

In Marianna’s Blood, language becomes a sticky transparent substance that bends across geographical boundaries and dialects. Subtitles are there to help us but Isabel doesn’t need them. She understands Lali without these directional flashes of conversation. Their interlocution is much more intimate, and embodied. It’s not just heard, processed and interpreted; it’s also felt, and left hanging, almost unanswered. As if it’s happening in the moment. As Isabel asks Lali questions like ‘what shall I call you, a he or a she?’ the young girl interviewer tests and excavates the template of her (and Lali’s) subjectivity and public appearance. Their talking is based on a language of discovery and desire, what Ann Cvetkovich in her ‘public feelings project’ would call ‘queer bonds – forms of intimacy that have public significance that transgress boundaries between work and play, and remake the meanings of love and kinship.’

 

Marianna Simnett, 'Blood', 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Marianna Simnett, ‘Blood’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Marianna Simnett talking to Drande, research interviews for 'Blood' (2015). Courtesy of the artist.

Marianna Simnett talking to Drande, research interviews for ‘Blood’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

 

We see similar bonds being played out in Marianna’s ‘conversation-research’, which saw her meet and talk to numerous sworn virgins (not just Lali) while volunteering as an English teacher in an Albanian school. In a snippet of a filmed interview, sent to my inbox as part of an email of ephemera, I listen in on Marianna and Drande, with translator, discussing ‘what is a man?’ Drande, in a stripy polo shirt, plays with his cigarette paraphernalia while outlining the character of ‘man’: being honest, being fair, he says, assuredly through the smoke.

 

March 27 2015, 10:54 AM, M writes:

The process for each scene is governed by the situation. Some is tightly scripted but often based on conversations and rehearsals. Sometimes a rehearsal isn’t possible so it happens on set, like in the men’s scenes. The remoteness was difficult, not being able to see or predict in advance. But of course that’s also why I do it. You ask a northern Albanian to talk about besa or blood and they’ve already got a thousand things to say. The scene on the bridge, where Isabel is asking Lali questions, was actually me feeding the questions and improvising with them… it was akin to a live performance for camera with four speakers, not two: the cast, the translator and myself. As for the friends/bones, they are real best friends from school. I would try to eavesdrop during rehearsals, try to catch moments when they are not heard by adults.

 

(Later, M wrote: Talking is less important in the film that communication of which there are many kinds.)

 

On camera and backstage. The cast-sheet of Blood reminds us of the presence of the translator, the out-of-sight communicator. It is a ‘he’: a 25-year-old electrical engineering student born in Kosovo. His hands creep into the frame in the final scene, his words into the audio: he too, is character, and crew. There was a translator on the research trip, too: a tricksy one who wanted to be an editor, tampering, then fixing, the script via Facebook chat. It took 6000 fraught but funny messages to build it.

 

In Blood, conversation is exposed as a constructed encounter, an inquiry but also an unpredictable performance, where semantic accidents might occur. Moments of ephemeral everyday language are reoriented in fictional scenes of noise and chatter, as Isabel’s turbinate bone hysteria is also located in the mouth. (‘She’s the unorganizable feminine construct’, wrote Cixous of the headless (and boneless) hysteric.) Isabel, strewn and static in her pink puffy hammock, but busy and manic in her dreams, is a fictionalized subject of the Freudian object-fiction: Emma Eckstein, to be specific, a patient of Freud, who had her preturbinates removed as a treatment for her warbling madness and junkie masturbation. Freud was heavily influenced by Wilhelm Fleiss, an ‘otolaryngologist’, who saw a link between the leaking nose and the leaky genitals. Marianna urged some private surgeon specialists to see beyond the medical misinterpretations and historical inaccuracy, Isabel being an innocent 10, as opposed Emma’s sex-crazed 27.

 

(I later take a peek at Marianna and Cecilie’s correspondence of black, red and purple font, the texts’ changing colour a suggestion of the journey of ideas and the multiple voices of production. The clinician from W1G must’ve said no, unsurprisingly, as the hospital location moved to a state of the art ear-nose-throat surgery in the West Midlands: The hospital is a small one, Marianna wrote first, hence the easy admin – not ideal for transporting crew, but then it could be worse… it could be Albania.)

 

Emma E had her revenge on Freud, when she stole back the analyst’s pen and started practicing in the job herself, just like Isabel running free, running blood. Or Lali choosing to give it all up and live her life as a man.

 

Or Marianna writing in her notebook.

 

The availability of choice is the most important thing.

 

I should admit that I grew a beard when I was making the film. (Marianna, artist TALK, 20 April 2015, about 7:30 PM.)

 

*

 

The figure of the mad woman-writer (of novels and letters) is in a constant battle with her masculine analyst. In October 1959, the then night-time novelist Ann Quin took up her post as part-time secretary at the Royal College of Art (she was a crazy fast typist), after being cleared fit by her doctor. This would later become more tenuous, as her doctor would become more doubtful, mirrored in the note-writing analyst character of Dr. X in the The Unmapped Country, the novel she was working on at the time of her death. ‘I’ve got the pen here. Do you see the pen?’ He questions the patient, waving the phallic tool in her face.

 

She longed for the pen, but was inscribed as record instead; forced to work behind a docile desk, to be made answerable to Sir. Made into ink. Unable to resume duties.

 

Before she wrote it all back into her fictions.

 

‘Freud’s’ Anna O. (formerly Bertha Pappenheim before Joseph Breuer renamed her) crafted her own fairytales too. She wrote, told stories in ‘babbling polygottal’ tongues, even if no book survives for feminist posterity. Kate Zambreno talks about in Heroines: ‘The hysteric is a writer who ultimately could not be,’ she wrote, in 2012. The hysteric’s chatter is disruptive, unrecognizable and infinite, located beyond the lock-and-keyed archive.

 

18 April 2015 10:59 AM, M:

From what I can gather Emma E was a tough nut. She took the piss out of Freud for weakening at the sight of her haemorrhage. “So this is the strong sex”, she said to him after almost bleeding to death. Emma E. has been overloaded with irritating and damaging theories regarding her condition… but this is a larger problem to do with hysteria and women. What caught my attention was that she was thought to have conjured her own blood… like Matilda… making stuff move that shouldn’t. According to Freud she wanted her bleeding problems to happen so she could get his love and attention. This all sounds like bullshit, but the idea of eliciting a fluid seems plausible. Her body willing it… being ill can be a desirable place to be and may not necessarily be synchronous with passivity.

 

To be illful and willful simultaneously:

 

M: This film felt very much about the retention of blood and the ill of willfulness. Check out The Willful Child by the Brothers Grimm. Sara Ahmed mentioned it once in a talk and it’s haunted me ever since.

 

I look up the fairytale and find it online in both ‘he’ and ‘she’ versions. I read the latter. In this pithy tale of infinite pathos, ‘God’ punishes a young girl for being naughty and willful; he lets her become ill and does not stop her from dying. But, as she is lowered into her grave and her body becomes smothered with earth, the child stretches her arm upwards, out from the ground and into the sky. Her arm is relentless. She revolts against her own fate over and over again.

 

As Ahmed writes in Willful Subjects: ‘The arm that keeps coming out of the grave can signify persistence and protest, or perhaps even more importantly, persistence as protest’. Ahmed goes on to reference the clenched fist as a defining image of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s, and that remains a characteristic signifier of feminist struggle.

 

Marianna’s film moves in and around this history.

 

*

 

I wonder if the email is an epistolary form particularly suited to the ‘hysteric’, the woman who wants to make her body known, heard, without the pathologist’s inked judgment. Fingers quiver, shake and scuttle above the keyboard, free and loose. Making a mess in more ways than one. It is writing that is both in time, and curiously beyond it, once it gets sent.

 

Babbling through message feeds: five conversations at once, breaking linearity.

 

Writing, as if talking.

 

Seemingly ‘unthought’, to write an email is a performance of the visceral and automated: the body channeling its madness in text that reads like speech. Relentlessly oral: keeping in TOUCH and interlocuting.

 

The private email is a mode of correspondence the hysteric can claim back and territorialise as her own. As Dodie Bellamy writes in the essay ‘Low Culture’: ‘Sitting at the computer, a body writes about sex. The keyboard and monitor are enormously erotic THE BEEPING MODEM, THE WORD MACHINE TALKING BACK more than once e-mail has gotten me in trouble.’

 

*

 

Trouble = Kathy Acker

 

I’ve been reading (or perhaps I should say: gorging on) the emails Kathy and McKenzie Wark exchanged over the course of six months between 1995 and 1996. The private made public. Her affective words are splashed across the cover in a typeface that mimics the handwritten letter: I’m very into you she once wrote, on screen, not on paper. Sometimes they would email up to six times a day, often seventeen hours apart.

 

Acker was to die at the end of November 1997, while staying in an alternative treatment centre for the cancer that was eating her (partly it was all she could afford, as she writes about in ‘The Gift of Disease’), and so she is no longer here, to halt the publication of her intimate documents. Perhaps she would have favoured it, seeing it as an extension of the performance she had been writing since she self-published in serial format The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula in the early 1970s. She borrowed her friend Eleanor Antin’s mailing list (comprising the same addresses Antin used for the post-card piece 100 Boots) and sent Childlike chapbooks as gifts of correspondence. In her published writing, Acker plagiarized her own life, and plagiarized others’ literature, creating novels of uncensored, disordered syntax. Selfhood is never watertight and whole. It leaks. It moves. It writes: confessing, naked and dirty.

 

Kathy met Ken (that’s how he signs off: k x) in Sydney in the summer of 1995. Ken was enjoying the success of his book Virtual Geographies, published a year earlier, which looked at the emergence of a global media space as a series of events, transmitted via various lines of communication, as rampant virtual spectacles. He was also juggling girlfriends and boyfriends, meandering in and around feelings of queerness and straightness, butchness and femmeness (which makes me think of Lali).

 

M: Lali offers a way of thinking through contradiction as a practical form of existence. She can walk into any toilet and be in the right one. She is able to switch her identity/identities on and off. She says she was born a man but what about the picture of her at the end where she looks like a woman? Her oath means she is forever alone but must occupy two genders. She is never settled. She agitates, always breaching her own fragile laws.

 

In Acker@eworld’s messages to mwark@laurel, she writes in a frenzied, but also direct, conversational style, calling to mind the candid statements about cocks and cunts spoken by many of her protagonists. She is skint. She is needy. She is nearly always drunk. She wants to talk, talk things over, if not with him, then maybe with herself, transcribed within the exciting medium of newness and first person intimacy = email. ‘Like: you the one I want/wanted to talk to’, she confesses, in the grips of the ‘beginning’ of their correspondence. (There is an edited narrative at play here.)

 

Ellipses litter the epistles, their only grammatical joinery (‘such are the delights of email.’) emphasising the blabbering, unedited hysteria of Kathy’s letter-writing persona: ‘… I love emailing you… emailing must be pure narcissism… I think I’m going to blab even more intensely now so byebye for tonight…’

 

Kathy doesn’t mind a colon now and then, though, as in: ‘Am depressed, a rarity for me, so want to blab a little. More: scream.’ These emails enable corporeal release.

 

As the prospect of Ken’s IRL arrival in San Francisco draws closer, Kathy’s anxieties over their epistolary relationship impels her to ask her correspondent questions, numbered and neat in format, but restless and manic in voice: ‘1. The last night we slept together, why didn’t you want to touch me?’ she enquires.

 

We might immediately sympathise with Acker’s plight of insecurity, but once again, she has constructed that trap, that ruse. It’s like when Zambreno wrote of the hysterical woman-writer – ‘She is raw material. Too raw, too open, too needy, too emotional’ – and flipped the appropriation as a positive tactic. And so, as Wark invites Kathy to ‘Write me your vertigo’, she does just that. Vertiginous and vulnerable emails they are, performed and worked out in her own time, as she talked in order to survive.

 

*

 

Hannah Wilke, 'Intercourse with...', b&w video, 1978

Hannah Wilke, ‘Intercourse with…’, b&w video, 1978

 

Kathy goes to Haiti, Acker’s short novel that figures a young girl’s sexual adventures in a self-sacrificing rampant form, was published in 1978, the same year as Hannah Wilke performed Intercourse with…, in which Hannah’s private phone messages (like Ken’s to Kathy’s) are transmitted to the audience in ghostly intonations, conflating intimate spaces of desire and confession with public spaces of fiction and performance. The voice-over stream of messages point towards the autobiographical, but this one-sided diary of phone calls – from family, friends, lovers and colleagues – has been cut up and reordered by Wilke, so that what we encounter is exposure, as owned and edited performance. Wilke then strips to reveal her body inscribed with the names of the individuals we have heard speaking, before erasing these signatures until all traces of their correspondence has disappeared – leaving only the outline of her naked corporeal figure. This is her reply, her post-script, much like Kathy’s final email to Ken: ‘Every time you dream I am fucking you, this is what happens.’

 

It also reminds me of the avatar that busies herself in hotel rooms in Lucy Clout’s film From Our Own Correspondent. She is an object, a performed cyber-being, an absolute example of a thirty something journalist with as an abundant inbox as Hannah’s answering machine. (But she asks questions for a living). The artist used the banal and suburban Next catalogue, and typed ‘professional work wear women’ into search bars, to design her regularised look.

 

Lucy Clout, 'From our own correspondent', 2015. courtesy of the artist.

Lucy Clout, ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Holly Hunter in 'Broadcast News', 1987.

Holly Hunter in ‘Broadcast News’, 1987.

 

22 April, 23.33 PM, L writes: There is something of the Holly Hunter in the film Broadcast News (1987) in her hair. She is older and fatter than the original version, and that scaling was tricky: the gusset was scaled particularly poorly at first. She wears these knickers of an almost towelling texture. I had in mind a type of foamy material that is used to make cheap everyday seamless underwear dense and absorbent. She has taken her skirt off in order that it doesn’t crease, or maybe she hadn’t put it on yet, signalling a half-readiness to perform. She is both rehearsing alone and running over her day, performing a looping type of stasis within the hotel room.

 

Lucy Clout, 'From our own correspondent',  2015. Courtesy of the artist.

Lucy Clout, ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

 

She’s offering herself too, her body and language promising distraction and interaction. TROUBLE? As she asks questions to get intimate, alongside her day-to-night profession, it is her written speech – her chatter – her talk – that defines her. But like the decapitated hysteric, she is curiously silent. Instead we experience her semi-naked body and her semi-naked chat-room messages: the correspondents’ private world (the correspondence) exposed.

L: The body is the filthy thing that disrupts the hotel room. (Lucy, artist TALK, 20 April 2015, about 7:40 PM.)

 

*

 

I’ve been thinking about the closeness of the word ‘course’ to sex, writing and correspondence. It’s a trial, an education: somewhere to test things out. It’s also a river, a stream, an interior scroll: of bodily and infinite messages: language. I mentioned Barf Manifesto in my first blog post, which is also a ‘letter’ to her friend Eileen Myles. Emphasising barfing and sickness as a feminist literary form, she writes: ‘The Barf is messy, irregular, but you can feel in your guts that it’s going somewhere, you can’t stop it, can’t shape it, you’ve just got to let it run its course.

 

Carolee Schneemann, 'Correspondence Course', 1980.

Carolee Schneemann, ‘Correspondence Course’, 1980.

 

Correspondence Course is the title of an artwork by Carolee Schneemann, and a book of her selected letters. The written epistle – email or letter – is correspondence and the art object, as well as its very substance. Schneemann was sending out dotted and dashed TLS all over the place – to lovers, husbands, friends and artists – composing them on her Underwood manual typewriter, then photocopying them, and her correspondents’ replies, for her own future archive of work, performance and desire. But sometimes the letters she received were not always asked for; they were not preceded by a letter to. Excessive demands from scholars, administrators and bureaucrats agitated this usually enthusiastic and confessional correspondent, known as CS. The 1980 Correspondence Course is her reply of confrontational exposure: a teasing performance, in which CS bends her body in unexpected positions, maybe paired with a cabbage leaf beneath her vagina or clutched in her bum cheeks.

Comprising a series of eighteen self-shot photographic prints with fragments of the original letters reprinted silkscreen, and contextualised by Schneemann’s restless body, Correspondence Course reveals how an artist can become objectified as a poorly paid twenty-four hour working automaton. CS bemoans this in her letters, the economic struggle of being an artist, as she writes to her friend, the poet Ann Lauterbach, in March 1973: ‘in the city we scramble for jobs – I take any lecture film/discussion I can find,’ which calls to mind Kathy’s emailed concerns following her Australian seduction: ‘… the checks I got in Australia for work all can’t be cashed ’cause they’re non-negotiable and I have ten dollars in the bank, and then and then, oh jetlag, so your message is changing the day – or is it night? – around.’

 

Time folds in on itself, as the desire for contact amidst the pressures of work, finds pleasure in transnational correspondence. Lucy’s avatar trawls online hook-up sites and sends messages to prospective (detached) lovers as a way of filling up time, and embodying it with desire, however distant. The hotel room is empty but she can still talk to an anonymous ‘someone’, or someones. There is a risk element too that is appealing, escaping the work email and replacing it with sex. An orgasmic collapse.

 

L: I was thinking about anxiety and work and self-soothing. There is something in there about the breakdown between work and non-work time; about the vigilance that is felt to be required to protect a professional persona, and the psychic toll of that – which of course means that spending time on hook-up sites makes perfect sense. What is masturbation but anxiety, attractive risk and self-soothing? Did you read about those judges who all got disbarred recently for looking at porn on their work computers (but not while they were actually in a trial)? My woman is not working all the time: she is looking for someone to message; she has time to fill and an empty hotel room that might be full of promise. She just needs someone else to activate it.

 

A band of five working women, operative across print, internet and radio, are performing as themselves in the film’s interviews. They couldn’t be any more in the know of what is at stake when you speak publicly (L). The journalistic interview is used as a model for professionalised conversation, full of skill, the correct body language and performed intimacy, located within public worlds of work and publishing. Such encounters are interrogated as scenes of confession and exposure, but also of artifice and performance, dripping down into the intimate private space of online interlocution. Work and play become confused and become one, as in the letters of Kathy and Carolee and Ann Quin. Their workspace leaks, to give way for the leaky containers of correspondence.

 

L: Confession, intimacy, shame and visibility are all important in the work. The confessional, the biographic, and particularly the ambiguously fictionalised memoir seem to be having a moment in the work of writers like Chris Kraus, Eleana Ferranti and Karl Ove Knausgaard. There is a question at the heart of the video about the need for desire for contact with another, and also with what that contact might supply you with and how. Online spaces also demonstrate how confession can exist without needing to relate it to a whole person or a whole truth, as a type of rhetoric. This exists against the backdrop of intermingled professional and personal lives. In a way, the pleasure of online sex is that it offers relief that can be compartmentalized, that it does not disturb one’s whole life (except when it does).

 

Chris Kraus centralises the use(s) and users of correspondence within her work, particularly her first novel I Love Dick, in which she is both character and author. Through Chris’s obsessive love letters to Dick, which are later appropriated as a Sophie Calle-style art piece in the novel (and then turned into the novel we are reading), the author also groups communities of writers and artists together. She’s not only talking to her epistolary affection, but also talking to her friends, fictionalising them through her own work and providing their work with affective critical commentaries. A platform of visibility, however much it is performed. Her life’s texts feed the text we are reading, as she writes:

 

And I have brilliant friends to talk to (Eileen, Jim and John, Carol, Ann, Yvonne) about writing and ideas but I don’t (will never have?) (this writing is so personal it’s hard to picture it) any other kind of audience. But even so I can’t stop writing for a day – I’m doing it to save my life. These letter’re the first time I’ve ever tried to talk about ideas because I need to, not just to amuse or entertain.

 

The coursing letter, the immediate email: these epistolary forms of expression offer potential, a space of making contact – friends, as well as sexspace lovers for journalist avatars – through writing and body. Correspondence has cluttered this blog post, made it a space of hysterical chatter. It’s helped me talk to and forge links, between the generations, and in the moment – from correspondent to correspondent. From me to L and M, but also from me to them and on (or back) to Kathy and Carolee: corresponding together and performing the right to speak. To chat together: all girls together, as Kathy Acker once said in a Vogue interview with the Spice Girls in 1997.

 

 

‘From Our Own Correspondent’ by Lucy Clout and ‘Blood’ by Marianna Simnett were commissioned as part of the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’. The Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’ are a collaboration between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Film and Video Umbrella (FVU) in association with CCA: Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow and University of East London, School of Arts and Digital Industries. FVU is supported by Arts Council England.

a couple of intimate documents, no.2

1 Apr

2. A Letter to Blood

 

Dear M

 

I’ve been thinking about your title ‘Blood’: so innocent and candid in its base simplicity but so visceral and dangerous in its threat. Is it a metaphor and metonym in one? I read on Twitter there was a fire in the basement of the gallery your film is showing in, which seemed to sum up the same epigrammatic explosion configured by that single word.

 

Blood.

 

Weird how a word can be so messy in its image but so clean and complete on the page.

 

I wonder what will happen if I write to the work instead of you? You wrote a girl with ‘strong emotions… welling up inside’, and now I’m going to write to her and the script she moves in, as I’m watching her. This kind of writing is like touching, it happens that quickly, an intimate meeting of word and image. My hand (my bodily signature) dances about the keyboard; it touches the machine and types what wells up inside, from letter to letter, like a scene change.

 

Yours

 

A.

 

*

 

Dear Blood

 

Of course you begin with a red building, B. You abject Bloody Chamber. A rectangular concrete shell that pulses with colour, as rosy and sore as cow meat. I can tell you’re a film about childhood because there’s a mickey mouse painted on the outside wall.

 

But it looks cold up in those mountains, as if my veins would go blue there. Do vampires live there? What about wolves? I tend to write down authors names and books I’ve read when I experience art, as a way of thinking into it when I’m stuck or confused. So I wrote down ‘Angela Carter’ and the catch-all phrase ‘Magic Realism’ when I watched you the first time, as you open with a fairytale landscape of schoolchildren reading from M’s script in an Eastern European accent. My bag is heavy / and my feet are tired. At least these kids are wrapped up warm. They’re helping each other learn to read, orally, but leading us through the story too, like the comforting chant of a night-time chapter.

 

I see Isabel is back; she was in The Udder when I saw her last. But what’s she doing with a sieve on her head? Is it a helmet of domesticity? She is a GIRL, after all. Power to her for asking: Why am I being punished? She holds the hands of an imagined twin, and spins around in a circle. One is dressed in an English country gent’s tweed coat, while the other Isabel is rocking Albanian housewife in a blue woolen dress, embroidered waistcoat and floral headscarf. Blood, your phonetic parts flash up on screen: B L O O D – the caption to Isabel’s tricksy face and dragged up dance. I start to wonder if you’re not so much a film about death (as the title first implies), as a film about life, of living it differently in whatever clothes you choose.

 

Soon we are up her nose. I’ve been thinking about these scenes. First we meet Isabel’s two friends making pinkie promises in pink pyjamas, begging her to play. They spin her round. Isabel finds respite in the giant black nostrils of an even bigger fake nose, but her frenemies follow her, as they double up as the skin-munching antibodies that are causing Isabel’s nasal infection. I bet she’s faking it, they say, pointing towards the fictional infrastructure of the fairytale we are watching. Tell M, when you see her, that was clever.

 

Isabel appears vulnerable in her hospital gown. I wonder if these scenes of you, B, are a comment on the fragility of the female body. The blonde girl is sick, scared, and soon to wither even more as her nose gets bloodier than a playground nose bleed (which, come to think of it, is always pretty embarrassing). And so I guess what I’m asking you, Blood, is this: is the embarrassing exposure of Isabel’s disease, her corporeal failing and fucked over turbinate bone, some sort of willing tactic on M’s part? The turbinate is supposed to clean and filter the air that we breathe in, so the doctor tells us, but Isabel’s is faulty. She is a messy and smelly, sick young thing (invariably described as a monster; a poor creature; a foreign body), rejecting the pre-inscribed femininity that has been mapped out before her. The pink patrol speaks a language of digital girlishness (full of Lols and Seriouslys), but Isabel’s language is infinitely more wayward. She wants to escape the polyester pink and replace it with red.

 

It makes me think of Virginia Woolf making hallucinogenic stories out of her sickbed in the self-referential essay ‘On Being Ill’; or Dodie Bellamy, who made the expression of neuroses (and blood) a feminist literary form in The Letters of Mina Harker. Dodie later wrote about the strategy in a separate essay called ‘The Cheese Stands Alone’: ‘In my gusto for exploding the boundaries between my writing and my lived experience, I was determined to push the personal into ever more embarrassing realms.’ Sickness might mean blood, but sickness also means power: it means transgression. It pushes the body (and mind) into unchartered territories.

 

Quite literally in the case of you, for the next minute we’re in Albania. A river flows across the base of the screen, while a mountainous condensing landscape is stratified across the top. It’s an image of that other life-enforcing element: water. In M’s magic realist tale, the Albanian narrative represents Isabel exploring the depths of her unconscious, enhanced through sickness. She is both in and out of body during this moment of abject rupture, which provides the necessary environment for transgression and desire. She has not only run away from home (and all of the domestic trappings that that entails) but is also seeking out an alternative, of how one might be a girl, and what this might mean. What it could mean. She is literally in battle with her own flesh and blood.

 

I think the next subplot is really bold of you, Blood. It’s a story of transgenderism, transgression, of passing and difference; but it also reveals the extremes of such circumstances, and in this sense is also a story of female oppression, domesticity and chastity, contained in a vessel that is part fiction and part document. I hear the research behind you is drawn from the anthropological findings of Antonia Young’s Women Who Become Men, which I read in the British Library last week. First, it was Edith Durham that struck upon Albania’s sworn virgins in the mid 1860s; then in 1919, while reporting on the situation of refugees after World War One, the American journalist Rose Wilder Lane also delved into similar ethnographic detail. Rose was the daughter of Laura, the author of Little House on the Prairie, which I thought was a funny coincidence given M’s warped vision of childhood innocence.

 

I am wondering how M met Lali, for your credits confirm that s/he is playing a version of hirself. It is real life and real speech reoriented by the permeations of film and fiction and dialogue and writing. Lali introduces hirself to Isabel, explains that s/he chose to live hir life as a man, in exchange for eternal chastity. But if the promise is broken, the sin can only be repaid with the sinner’s blood, reaping shame on all hir family. Antonia wrote a piece for Cosmopolitan on the sworn virgin tradition, but it was the 1990s – the era of the sex column – and the editors tampered with its language, preferring to emphasise the sacrificial element of the task, as opposed to it being a positive redeeming choice for many (as well as the conditions of that choice).

 

I wouldn’t change it for anything says Lali to the bewildered interior Isabel. Meanwhile, the girl’s exterior continues to bleed, straight from the nasal cavity; she’s rejecting those bones and singing back to the infectious mites with finger-wagging rhymes, as her friends also draw on her face with lipliner.

 

In contrast, Lali takes an extended drag from a cigarette and later sips at some liquor while talking about football. What a man, what a man.

 

Blood, I am starting to think that you are a film about multiplicity, of being more than one thing at once, as Lali, in white cone hat, plaid shirt and smooth mountain skin says, I am a he and a she. Cosmo failed to note the overwhelming differences between glossy clit culture and rural Albania. M does not, as she gives voice to the protagonist in Lali, in dialogue that feels incredibly honest, even if the set-up is not and the cameras are on hir. In answer to Isabel’s sassy claim (I don’t need to be a man to be free), Lali simply states: Your life is different to the one we had

 

And as Lali takes care of the wandering Isabel and invites her to sip from the very same liquor, her face becomes crusty and deformed. She is a red raw female grotesque with suffering skin, but in the alternative fairytale land of Albania, she is testing out the limits of her messy feminine identity (emotional, sick, intersectional), just like Wolf-Alice in The Bloody Chamber or Kathy Acker in Blood and Guts in High School. Blood, I wonder if your elemental freedom stems from the fact that you are fiction. The fairytale lends itself to a rewrite.

 

Your Isabel with blonde Rapunzel locks is pre-adolescent and pre-woman. She is also delicate, diseased and defective. But herein lies her revolting potential. She is in a marginal state, hospitalized but also moving; it is a frenetic state of being and subjectivity in which change and transgression can occur. When she runs away from Lali’s cottage to the tower, she’s not only running away from her fairytale foster parent, or running away from her failing nose; she’s running away from her old SELF and healing, this unrecognizable poor creature. But with this transformative cleansing comes BLOOD, as the young girl confesses in the closing sequence: At that moment strong emotions were welling up inside me. There was moderate bleeding from the nose and mouth. The odour was very very bad.

 

*

 

A postscript for M:

I wrote a letter to your work, as excessive and scrolling as Isabel’s blood-sucking gauze, because I thought this the most intimate form of writing about it, given its affirmation of the visceral body. An epistle is often stained with blood as well as ink, a hand-stamp of its writer. There’s no blood on this blog, on this shiny screen. But there is feeling. I wrote it in a dazed state, a foreign body, like Virginia Woolf on her sickbed.

 

 

 

‘Blood’ by Marianna Simnett was commissioned as part of the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’ currently showing at Jerwood Space. The Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me’ are a collaboration between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and FVU in association with CCA, Glasgow and University of East London, School of Arts and Digital Industries. FVU is supported by Arts Council England.

a couple of intimate documents, no.1

1 Apr

1. A Letter to L, from your own correspondent

 

Dear L

 

I’m watching your film that begins in New York, and I thought I’d write to you about it, in a way that’s like talking. The film is full of conversations – it’s called From Our Own Correspondent, after all – so let’s chat too, in language that is ephemeral but embodied. Also performed. I’m going to write this epistle quickly, figuring it out as I go, like I would in an email. So sorry if it’s not all that tidy, or clean. Typing before thinking, just as Dodie Bellamy said in Sexspace (which I think you would love by the way). In this story-cum-manifesto for writing, she writes: Sexspace is the site where all impulses originate and return, byte to byte, where fucking is reduced to its barest, most efficient form – two lovers at monitors upright in their office chairs, their fingers scuttling across keyboards, their desire evidenced through fantasy and adjectives. If the digital unleashes lexical looseness, as body coagulates with machine, I wonder where this letter will take me…

 

That loud rustle at the beginning of the film is sort of exciting. It is the dawn movement of sheets, suggestive of a body, suggestive of desire. The sun creeps up, orange and lilac, behind the city’s apartment blocks and hotel penthouses. It is the start of a new working day. No time for morning sex when the Internet is 24 hour, and people are confessing and corresponding ALL OF THE TIME over sexspace.

 

I’ve been thinking about the relationship of the correspondents in the film (and the title) to correspondence (like what we’re doing now). Red messages flash up on screen, scrolling behind the beige curtains: Awake? she asks, awake and desperate, in syntax punctuated by a yearning question mark. In this alternate hotel world, of leaky eggs and leaky hearts, time is no longer divided by the usual workaday units, as work and desire become messy and one. Educated professional (37) brunette. Away from home. Message? Cam? Even when she is sleeping, she is looking. The tabs remain open. The light stays on. The messages continue, shooting through the slime of the screen and the working emails, with body and blood and affect. Threatening the whiteness of the hotel-room sheets. Personal forms of correspondence tantalise and tease, the unruly tab a gateway to pleasure and perversity. I am left wanting more, just like your chat-room brunette.

 

Your film seems to me, L, to be about the flimsy walls between public (work/journalism/the interview) and private (sex/relationships/home/conversation). The locked door en-suite with only a kettle for a kitchen is a sign of constant networking, immaterial labour, as work invades intimacy in this space of digital liquid. Striving for personal relationships but the pop-up gets in the way. Constant distraction: with news and desire battling for your attention. (No time to eat.)

 

I thought it was interesting when, later on in the film, one of your interviewees said that thing about not working within false constraints of time; with no print deadline for these digital journalists, the story can be uploaded and then the facts added later. The text is always moving, its script and structure as fluid as the clock. Multiple stories can be woven together at once. Someone has to be available, waiting, in the hotel room, to make that happen: this total news gush.

 

I’m wondering if this is a woman thing, too: if the online blogger, hopping from story to story, must be gendered female: an open, desiring, leaky cyborg, relentlessly artificial. There’s a thrill in going backstage and witnessing the preparation, as your ‘legs-wide-open’ blogging avatar shows us her white knickers, practices her nods and smiles, totters about the square room in PVC heels, and gets ready for a day of interviews. I can hear the shuffling of her notes and pre-written questions. The new recording device has arrived, its foam packing strewn across the memory foam mattress.

 

In other words: she’s getting ready (programming) for the performance. The Feminization of Labour. It is she who is doing the uploading, and messing about with HTML. In secret. Before it goes public. With smooth skin and silicone gestures, animated to be anonymous, this creature seems to embody what Sadie Plant suggested in Zeros and Ones, when the internet was just getting going. This was Sadie, writing in 1997: Hardware, software, wetware – before their beginning and beyond their ends women have been the simulators, assemblers and programmers of the digital machines. And the digital news.

 

And this was Donna Haraway, sketching out the cyberfeminism that would see us from the 1980s to now. The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, post modern collective and personal self, she wrote, presaging the same kind of public intimacy that your anonymous blogger, of bits and parts, must play.

 

Then, from hotel-home to the interview itself. L, do you perform the same strategies as your avatar, interviewing her IRL employees, in order to expose the contrived relationship at play? That’s how it seems to me, as you edit your interviewees’ answers as guilty greenroom confessions, full of all the right pauses and emphases. And they’ve all got such silky hair and perfect skin. (Was that luck, coincidence or performance?) The redhead, especially, seems like a fierce ‘professional’. I wonder how much time she’s got for sexspace correspondence. She says people want to do jobs that come naturally to them but there’s nothing natural about those words, which are carried by the polemical weight of the hand gesture.

 

The Internet is supposed to be the arena of honesty, confession and exposure; of getting below the skin, just like the interview, but both seem to be as much about disguise or self-effacement, as telling the truth. I think that is what your film is showing, L, as your real life bloggers morph from case study to character. The interview is a performed and constructed encounter, whereby we play exaggerated or dissipated cover versions of our selves. That is what they will see of them: the stagey stuff of artifice. Questions as opposed to answers. Never pause to look at what I might be asking is the redhead’s manifesto, as she asserts absolute control in this verbal transaction of entrusted speech. Be playful and direct, she adds, with a confirmatory nod of authority, as she leans casually on this hotel’s mahogany desk.

 

It’s dusk now and I’m still writing this letter to you, L. The light outside is dulling, but also acquiring that pink which I only see in London, and that was so much easier to spot when I lived in a top floor flat. The avatar is lying on her penthouse bed, too. She’s done her interviews and is back in the hotel room. The light outside the floor-to-ceiling windows is a mixture of neon blues and greens. The sun is fading in New York. She’s changed her outfit into something a bit more ‘night-time’, to make her feel sexier, and less like she’s at work. The avatar’s closing monologue seems to encapsulate the film’s ideas about the slippery interface between public and private. It’s a speech that feels like a scrolling message feed in its drip like excess and frenetic distractions. Pressing ‘post’ before there’s time to regret it.

 

This closing speech just made me think about how much your film, L, is composed of the first person. The confessional booth or the hotel room interview, or the Internet chat-room, is a space of the intimate ‘I’, even if that ‘I’ is glossed, warped, performed. Back in her false space of privacy and comfort, working to meet the morning deadline, but detouring down erotic online routes, the avatar enters the sexspace field. She’s looking for contact online, but finds only immaterial windows and other people’s messages. Correspondence, but no touching. First she comes across a verbatim, but typo-ridden, transcript someone had posted, containing relayed messages that had become public following the political scandal of a politician tweeting a picture of his penis. What will they see of him? They will see his willy. And the comments about his willy. Because as long as there are screenshots, it will never disappear. The avatar then follows other leads, pop up correspondences and chat room messages: talk to me, they say. Or question, desiringly.

 

I’ve been asking you questions in this letter too, L (just like you). I don’t think it matters if I don’t get a reply, as friendships can be imaginary. They can help us figure things out in our heads.

 

Are the emails and chat room messages a distraction for the avatar, I wonder? Is this letter a distraction? Maybe so, but then who cares: it’s just me, you and all the other trillion avatars trying to make our way in the world.

 

 

Yours,

A, your correspondent.

 

 

 

‘From Our Own Correspondent’ by Lucy Clout was commissioned as part of the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’ currently showing at Jerwood Space.The Jerwood/FVU Awards 2015: ‘What Will They See of Me?’ are a collaboration between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Film and Video Umbrella (FVU) in association with CCA, Glasgow and University of East London, School of Arts and Digital Industries. FVU is supported by Arts Council England.