On Saturday May 1st I was part of a series of readings, performances and screenings, as part of Preambles and Perambulations at The Charles Dickens Musuem in London’s Bloomsbury.
The programme began on the museums top floor with Bram Thomas Arnold’s Museum Piece, in which he read a text partly authored by him and partly drawn from introductions to eight Dickens novels.
Bram alternated between reading to the room and into a microphone, one of several practical and conceptual ways that his single voice split into something more polyphonic, providing oral edge to the shifting relationship between experience and commentary, 21st and 19th century London, personal and textural, to pose questions of how private experiences became mediated in language and writing/ performance, body and history.
Bram’s text seemed to be permitted this eclecticism by its reading persona – both a composed commentator and somewhat edgy flaneur, a city stalked in writing between Iain Sinclair, Stewart Home, Naomi Klein, and Rimbaud, taking “Dickensian” very much as a grime and grim of detail, opening into it a certain aestheticism and romantic melancholy, testing that, what was possible within a commitment to the/a contemporary.
A second piece by Bram, performed later in the afternoon, involved reading introductions to Dickens novels into a microphone that echoed/ doubled/ reverberated his voice. This manipulation became telling commentary on the museums construction of Dickens-ness, its own writing genres of wall text and display labels.
Readings by Jane Madell and Gary O’Connor were more conventional author readings – Madell a short story published in the Bedford Square 3 anthology of writing from Royal Holloway’s MA in Creative Writing -and O’Connor from his Transition-gallery published novella The Field.
In the context of the afternoon, both explored a certain tangential relationship to Dicken’s: a character in Madell’s story is named for Dickens Estella; O’Connor’s thick matter and detail of description unfolded a certain acoustic space of “Dickensian” fiction and narrative.
It was also curious to think about how these different fictions were part of different writing careers – one (Madell) very much part of the Creative Writing arena, the later an “art writing” originally part of a gallery installation. I interviewed Gary earlier in the year as part of a response to his northcabin installation – see here – and was interested how book and show related.
Saturday’s reading suggested the questions were more ontologic than I had previously thought. Was this important? What differences did it imply? Did it mean different kinds of writing?
In the basement there was a screening of Jonathan Trayner’s Past and Present: A Conversation, in which a camera’s slow pan over a sentimental Victorian child portrait was accompanied by a soundtrack of an interview in which a man described the intertwining of his work in a massage parlour with his commitment to communist politics.
The interview was read in a way that seemed designed to raise questions about its authenticity,`and how its own detail and constructedness related to that in the painting. I was interested how the slow pan over the painting related to the unfolding of the evidently staged interview, what the rhythm of each meant in terms of discovery and revelation of detail.
Sophie Loss’ performance Reading to Myself was in two sections, each of which began in the library of Dickens museum with Loss unfurling an actual size photo of herself, then stepping back and reading to herself.
She moved between two books, one am academic study of Dickens reading, the other – I think – a manual on public speaking. Whilst I could see sections in the texts had been underlined by Loss or another studious reader, Loss chose what to read in the moment, flicking through the books to find a passage that articulated a nexus of reader, photo, room, audience, book, and voice.
Loss stood further away from her photograph than I expected. She moved away as she read, not looking at herself very much. One of the books contained exercises on posture and breathing for public speaking that Loss enacted as a further example of reading as “space tuning.”
She concluded each part of the reading by rolling up the photograph, almost as a form of punctuation, both prelude and coda.
This avoidance of the self was curious to add to the pieces other central paradox: that this a private act of reading in a public place. Loss was also streaming the reading on the internet, suggesting new configurations of public and private in digital space.
Loss’ two readings were interspersed by my own piece, THE SOUND OF DICKENS DANCING. This was a text piece whose several starting points included an interest in Dickens practice of the serial novel and reading aloud and a set of manuscripts and drawings written by myself aged six.
My piece changed considerably as I worked on it last week after several visits to the museum. How was the museum itself a site for writing, reading and talking? In a work exploring an associative network of ideas – spanning literary history and personal memory – how did the context of the museum limit and define the material that became part of my text and reading?
How did personal experience, as well as the moment of reading itself, relate to the constraint based text I had re-written and was, in some ways, re-authoring in moment of the event?
Writing the talk has prompted a broader enquiry into the forms of (artists’ – ) talk and lecture, which will be unfolded on this site. The questions were useful to explore in the context of an afternoon characterised by an intertwining of different practices with both the specificity and generality of Dickens, his writings and the museum.
Island Projects plan to explore these questions further as part of a larger scale exhibition in the Autumn.