In Uncategorized on December 20, 2011 at 8:25 pm



At London’s National Portrait Gallery one evening in June, Will Holder got up on the lecture theatre stage and quickly whispered “‘Do Nothing’ by Simon Amstell.” Then he took the  microphone out of the stand and began walking around the space, for forty five minutes talking and moving in the manner of a stand up comic.

Holder’s confessional monologue was that of a young gay man, someone evidently younger than Holder himself, who seemed to have a different body shape (the monologue returned repeatedly to its speakers ultra-thinness). As these gaps appeared between spoken and speaker, Holder began fiddling with an ear piece. Was the monologue being spoken into his ear? In one moment, Holder held the microphone at arms length away from his mouth and continued to talk. The volume of sound remained the same.

The performance encouraged an (at least) double response. The monologue is sometimes funny, and the audience laugh, so it functions like straight stand up comedy (perhaps for some, wandering in as part of the National Portrait Gallery late night opening, that’s what it was). For those familiar with Holder’s work as writer, editor and designer, such laughs get moderated by a meta level where the artist explores form, voice, and persona. The tangle of all this, in Holder’s performance and beyond, is what this essay explores.



Before artists doing stand up, there was the lecture performance. “Lecture performance” was the framework of Characters, Figures & Signs, a 2009 conference at Tate Modern; and the title of a 2009-10 exhibition at the Kölnischer Kunstverein and MoCA Belgrade. It attained further prominence via Mark Leckey’s Cinema in the Round, part of his 2007 Turner prize installation, and had oft-cited historical precedents, including Robert Morris 1964 lecture piece 21.3.



Robert Morris, script for 21.3 (1964)



In such work, artists adapted to their own ends the format of the academic lecture, a template providing both particular performance techniques and a pedagogical function concerned with the transmission of information to an audience expectantly (or not) waiting to be filled with knowledge.

Morris, for example, read aloud an essay by the art historian Erwin Panofsky, whilst Leckey’s associative bricolage highlighted the associative and electic methodology often characterizing the form.



Stills from Falke Pisano, A Sculpture turning into a conversation



As with Holder, questions about how such talks work as knowledge are foregrounded. The artist Falke Pisano suggests “the act of speaking about something or someone, in the cultural field as much as in other fields, necessarily involves reflection on one’s own position  and consequently on the conditions in which the utterance is made.” [1]

Pisano unfolds this idea in her 2010 artists book Figures of Speech, whose title proposes a structural model for the artists lecture as mixing talk, sculpture, illustration, crowd, grammar, drawing, diagram… The ambiguity this produces is evident in Pisano’s Sculpture Turning into A Conversation, which (in its written form in the book as a progression of numbered points) I experience via multiple and contradictory logics of poem, proof, proposition, experiment and short story.  If the title suggests a process with a definite conclusion, this compounding of logics foregrounds uncertainty and repetition.

Such dexterity is maybe one reason why performance-lectures are often framed through the framework of dance, as in, for example, Xavier Le Roy’s  Product of Circumstances (1999) and Jérôme Bel’s The Last Performance – A Lecture (2004). Such framing foregrounds the body, and a view of both talking and thinking as (physical) gestures in space, to be shaped and arranged as (bodily) forms. This context of dance is useful for proposing the lecture performance as a way to confound expectations, with “dance” consisting of someone talking, sitting, or giving a power point presentation.



Will Holder’s (not) stand up – and aspects of other performances in electra’s Dirty Literature season by Tony White, Sue Tompkins and Francesco Pedraglio – suggests the academic lecture is now a less important paradigm than the stand up comic, particular as it intersects with storytelling and art history through the monologues of, say, Spalding Gray, John Cage and Laurie Anderson.

Unlike art practice, stand up has a highly clear criteria for success and failure (it’s funny I’m laughing/ it isn’t funny get off), which is a provocative intervention to the more muddied social dynamics of an art event. As Holder demonstrated, the single figure, holding a microphone, pacing the stage, producing casual seeming (fake) spontaneity through a crafted and memorised routine, is its dominant mode. What is it acceptable to say in a particular situation? A history of comedians such as Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor propose anything is permissable as subject, as long as it is funny.

Other models for talking have a more specialist feel, such as Carey Young’s Speechcraft, a series of events using the formats of the Toastmasters, an American organisation promoting arts of public speaking, principally designed for businessmen. Again, Young’s attraction to the toastmasters is its fixed forms where speakers talking on set topics are immediately evaluated by further speakers who also follow strict time and content limitations.



Carey Young, Speechcraft (2007) as staged in New York by Creative Time (2008). Photographs copyright Sam Horine.



If talking as dance focusses on the body, then viewing the lecture as a form of poetry enables a focus upon its language, whilst the format of the poetry reading offers new perspectives on the art and experience of the artist talking.

One example here is the work of David Antin, who began in 1972 to present “verbal improvisations that spun narratives out of arguments and arguments out of narratives. I had been looking for a poetry of thinking and what I found was a poetry of talking, because talking was as close as I could come to thinking.” [2] Antin’s attitudes to such talks can be seen in the format he adopted for their transcriptions, rejecting left and right margins and block capitals, with white spaces between words an alternative system of punctuation.

Antin’s printed texts begin by stating location and context, and any “improvisation” is always within such determinants. As Antin wrote after a 1976 performance: “I knew what I wanted to address quite well; I had some notion of the terms I was going to address it in, and what I was looking for was the way”. [3]

In Antin’s recent Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature 1966-2005, several talk poems appear amongst conventional critical essays and interviews. Such juxtaposition suggests oral and written as co-existent poetic strategies, in contrast to traditional poetic histories that have viewed  the later as replacing and developing out of the former.





Antin’s focus is usefully viewed alongside Steve Benson, who, in the texts gathered in Open Clothes adopts a number of procedures for producing “poems” from improvised speaking. [4] This applies to both public and private performance, speaking aloud and acts of writing, with methods including speaking into hand-held tape recorders during road trips and improvising poems/talks with the rule that he will speak only questions. In a Q&A following one such performance, Benson observes:



… So there’s the quality of closure and of openness that occurs at every point, at least potentially. And so when you say this was a this kind of move or a that kind of move, I’m never sure until it’s all over what seems to be the dominant modality that would be registered for a certain move. It might appear to one person to be primarily a theme move or to another person to be a musical move or to another person to be a philosophical unhinging of the question, or whatever. [5]



Both Benson and Antin highlight what is also true of the stand up’s restless pacing of the stage: how talking connects to a particular quality and rhythm of the mind, which Leslie Scalapino describes as a mode of being where “The attention of the mind (of either the speaker’s, or the reader’s, or listener’s) in reading the text or during the performance, is neither in nor outside that experience.” [6]





Developing this further, a recent talk by London based artist Patrick Coyle sees the artist attempt to repeat a lecture by Allen Ginsberg that Coyle has sought to memorise.  In performances such as Alphabetes, Coyle has worked previously with attempts at remembering, cultivating the improvisatory creativity and humor that often comes from such intentional failure.

His Ginsberg talk, which can be viewed below, has a different emphasis through Coyle’s attempted fidelity to the original. This produces large amounts of silence that can’t be redeemed by any on the spot inventiveness, provocatively posing the talking artist as a failed mnemonic rather than a skilled proponent of (improvisatory) verbal facility.





Talk, of course, should not and cannot be confined to the particular variants which take place in galleries or lecture theatres. The attraction to talking is in part its garrulousness. Many of us talk to ourselves. As the recent Susan Hiller show at Tate Britain demonstrated, even the dead are busy chattering through the static of radio hiss and white noise.

That a certain philosophy of talk can permeate an artists life and work, the voice unfolding as a marker or guide, both through what it says and in its timbre, is something Joan Retallack observes, both of her own extensive conversations with John Cage and the role of speaking in Cage’s lectures and performances. [7]

The poet Chris Cheek, like Benson an improviser of poems, has also developed a practice where talking is site specific, open to the the ever changing environment, which shifts his own identity from source to channel or receiver, a complex of factors cheek describes as a “doubting interface” (191) that must take into consideration:



scale, perspective, contradiction, deliberate misunderstanding, anecdote, vernacular obsession, fictive quoting, imposed character, cartoon depiction, carnivalesque interpretation, historicising, demonising, sports commentary, theoretical exposition, emergences (and emergencies) of catchprase, listening to prerecorded texts or previous talks on headphones whilst talking (thereby mobilising conflict between listening and uttering), overhearing fragments of passing conversations… [8]



In the work of Tino Seghal the artist is himself physically absent from the work, but scoring conditions for speaking by others. In This situation (2007), for example, five hired interpreters engage in an intellectual discussion in the gallery space, turning to gallery visitors as they enter to ask “What do you think?”

As has by now (as he intended) become a staple of contemporary art (oral and written) folklore, Seghal refuses photographic documentation of his work, both enacting, documenting, and selling work through oral transactions. Unlike cheek, Seghal’s works function solely within controlled gallery conditions, depending upon their particular rules. In their after life, however, works are orally passed on in multiple locations, verbal descriptions and narratives, as here, rumours and tale telling of a varied and promiscuous speech life.



A series of talks at the Mandrake bar, Los Angeles in 2009, were organised under the banner of “Contra Mundum.” The phrase – translated as “against the world” – was taken from Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited. In the book of transcriptions from the series, the editors observe of their frame how each of the invited speakers “attempt, in various ways, to retrieve this vision of social (non)relation and to take it seriously as a subject position, particularly now, in our current moment of geopolitical uncertainty.” [9]



Frances Stark, The New Vision, 2008



At the Mandrake Bar this meant – as I imagine the event from publication alone – prioritising a straightforward sharing of information  and the creation of a particular social environment, with each speaker followed by a specially selected DJ set. Diverse themes operated against any false notion of commonality amongst the participants. Whilst none of the talks explored talks potential for destruction and cruelty, the notion of talk as contrary was key. In one Mandrake talk, Frances Stark suggests “Fuck the World” as a more appropriate translation.

In July this year, the South London Gallery hosted Performance as Publishing. If explorations like this essay can be over dependent on talks that attain some printed form, here was a curatorial frame (initiated by Nicole Bachmann and Ruth Beale) proposing to bring that act of publishing back into the moment of performance. In pieces by Annie Davey and Emma Kay this was matter of factly the case, with artists reading aloud texts printed on A4 paper, as if all the decisions, acts and costs of publishing became a matter for voice and site.



Francesco Pedraglio, Hanging Rock, 2011



Other works offered a less literal intepretation of “performance as publishing.” Francesco Pedraglio’s A few stories in the shape of abstract objects (2011) negotiated amongst both the absorptive, charismatic effects of a traditional storyteller and a set of elements chosen for their questioning of narrator and narrative coherence; whilst Jenny Moore’s Proposal for a Rock Opera- Act Two (2011) sketched out a musical based on an artist residency in Norway.

Moore used song and hand drawn acetates on an overhead projector to convey sample songs and plot. The deliberately amateur clumsiness of these techniques was balanced by her clear musical prowess and confidence as a performer. Like Holder’s talk at the National Portrait Gallery, both Moore and Pedraglio asked us to become involved (and be entertained) by what was presented, whilst highly self-aware and destabilising of the structures and procedures involved in its manufacture. Something I can’t articulate yet about how these different strategies combine is what engages and excites here.



Ruth Beale, Lindgren & Langlois: The Archive Paradox, 2011



This doubleness (at least) unfolded differently in Beale’s own Lindgren & Langlois: The Archive Paradox (2011), which saw two male actors facing each other across desks ten metres apart, reading aloud their correspondence as, respectively, first curator of the BFI’s National Film Archive and co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française.

Unlike some of the night’s other work, Beale deployed traditional theatrical notions of scenography and the trained actor. Unlike Moore, Pedraglio and Holder, Beale did not (this time) use humour and absurdist inventiveness. Instead, such theatrical artificiality created a quiet concentration that opened up a gap between audience and performers.

This gap was composed of questions. Why this subject and not any other? Why now? What are we to do with this information? How does its specificity play with an audience presumably not out for an evening on early histories of film preservation? If Beale wasn’t offering laughs, this wasn’t necessarily a tactic to be valued over others, but another element of what is at stake in an artist talking, the multiple ways of inhabiting that doubting interface.





[1]Falke Pisano, Figures of Speech (JRP Ringier, 2010), 19.

[2]David Antin: Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature 1966-2005 (University of Chicago Press, 2011), 11.

[3]Stephen Vincent and Ellen Zweig eds. The Poetry Reading: A contemporary compendium on language & performance (San Francisco, Momo’s Press, 1981), 191.

[4]Steve Benson, Open Clothes (Berkeley, Atelos, 2005).

[5]Open Clothes, 116.

[6]Leslie Scalapino, How Phenomena Appear to Unfold (Litmus Press, 2011), 123.

[7]Joan Retallack inteviewed about John Cage by Thomas Trummer in Trummer, ed. Voice & Void (The Aldrich, 2007), 89-94.

[8]Chris Cheek, THE CHURCH- THE SCHOOL- THE BEER (Critical Documents, 2007), 191.

[9]CONTRA MUNDUM I-VIII (Los Angeles, Oslo Editions, 2010), v.




  1. This is really excellent work!
    Those of us out of the loop, stuck in the sticks, but ‘aching for a connection’ can find it here.

    Packed full of goodies, a pre-Xmas hamper of surprises.

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