VerySmallKitchen: Several of your texts adopt the forms of play scripts. Is this best understood in relation to the category of poets theater, outlined in David Brazil and Kevin Killian’s The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater?
seekers of lice: Poets theater is not something I identify with. I use play to include the idea of a drama and of playing. Playing within the text and with conventions of the genre. Scripts, yes – because that points to something beyond the text, to a staging including other elements which aren’t specified.
VSK: When did you start using script forms? What elements of the conventional play text did you adopt?
seekers of lice: dumb show were the first scripts. I like to use the formal layout of conventional play texts. It provides a structure which is immediately recognisable so that if you write STICK: followed by some words, those words are seen as something spoken by a character who is a stick or is called Stick.
VSK: The focus on objects in your work suggests other models of theatre: Joseph Cornell’s boxes, Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise-
seekers of lice: The characters in dumb show were objects I was making at the time – wax and pigment painted balls, polyps and boxes. A version consisting of a cardboard box of wax polyps with the THEATRE OF OBJECTS scripts was exhibited and later bought by Dusseldorf Library.
VSK: What do you mean or not mean by “character.” In The Bride of L’Amor-mor-l’amor characters seem to be types. Is that always the case?
seekers of lice: Yes in The Bride there are roles rather than characters. I was interested in dumb show– and also LOUSE FACTORY – to see if the objects could become subjects. They are treading a line between subject and object.
And the idea for The Bride came from things I was making at the time. But I feel much more aligned to the aesthetic of Dubuffet and early Oldenburg than to the refinement of Duchamp and Cornell.
…whereas Claes Oldenburg sears his page with a mud-luscious Whitmanesque catalogue of the materials of art, and for Oldenburg the list is inexhaustible because he is for an art that is everything, everything that is “that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum,” and preferably everything that is not self-consciously refined, in other words that is raw, quick, smelly, holy, many small “sweet and stupid” acts of ungracious side-splitting, nose-blowing living that are supposed to be left for keeps in dirty abandoned corners.
Oldenburg’s Store has that unkempt look; the items hang in blobbish disregard for civilized order; the store articles are sculptured in relief with muslin strips dipped in plaster and placed over chicken wire, then painted with enamel to give the business a high dripping festive gloss.
These environments, situations, spaces are not going any place; they’re not on the market for immortality; they’re just not negotiable at all, except for tempting traffic with the eye and heart that is looking for more or less anything, or ready to stumble on something; and even that is saying too much, or too little, and no doubt Robert Whitman is right when he says that “this whole business has been complicated by people who say all smart things . . . “
Jill Johnston Village Voice, 6 Jul. 1961, 13.
VSK: It’s interesting to see affinities and art histories being constructed around an emotion or tone…
seekers of lice: Yes that’s a good way of putting it – the influence of a tone or sensibility. I would add Kharms to my list, and Philip Guston.
VSK: Viewed in the context of the scripts the objects propose a scenography-
seekers of lice: The physical objects from the boxes? I see them as seductive in a tactile way, but mute, dumb, unthinking.
VSK: And in relation to the words?
seekers of lice: I see the objects as haptic, visual… completely outside language. I’m interested in putting things next to each other and seeing what happens, words next to words, objects to objects and words next to objects.
VSK: The dumb plays are published by The Theatre of Objects. Is this a personal repertory company? It relates to your seekers of lice pseudonym.
seekers of lice: seekers of lice isn’t a pseudonym, it’s a space to inhabit with its own separate existence.
There was a manifesto for objects, demanding the space to speak. So Theatre of Objects was an imagined theatre not of seekers of lice but of the objects themselves. Benjamin Buchloh writes about the “object theater of fluxus”. I wondered what an object theatre was.
VSK: There is a distinctiveness to scripts –
seekers of lice: Yes, I see the scripts as different to other forms: scripts as dialogues, the spoken word interacting between separate characters, consecutive speeches are read as responses in some form to the previous speech. They point to an existence beyond the writer.
But the page presence is always important as well. I am continuing to use the play form in eg Poem to be Felt, published in VLAK 3, 2012.
VSK: Poets Theater confounds any straight forward transition/ translation of text into space. In your own work the book form itself is the primary performance –
seekers of lice: dumb show took different forms, eg the shine on the nose was published in The Blue Notebook as a tipped in A7 sheet of translucent paper with a hand-painted square of manganese blue. A note said:
The first script, the shine on the nose : dumb show is published here. Each copy of the journal contains 1 page of the 10 page script. The complete script is distributed through the different copies.
So that was a kind of performance. And the performance of LOUSE FACTORY was in its distribution.
VSK: In LOUSE FACTORY the use of the paper bag requires a brevity. It becomes an ideogram, an object, a sign for a new form of distribution that simultaneously makes the work ephemeral-
seekers of lice: The plays on paper bags were indeed exploring forms of distribution. They were used in bookshops for purchases without any explanatory comment. I wondered how a script could exist when each recipient ended up with a third or a quarter or a fifth of a play. So each page (bag) had to have an independent existence.
They were very visual texts, playing with patterns and spacings of words and letters. The space of the bag is the arena for action. The scene could be framed in any environment it reached.
VSK: The texts are not, for example, instructional scores. They are more about their own language…
seekers of lice: The texts are things I have made and put in the world. They are presentations not explanations. I don’t conceptualise how they might be used.
The frame provides a context and a meaning. I like Weiner’s position, that art is what happens when you stop making metaphors, stop mediating the world through words which give the appearance of making sense of things, of translating reality into assimilable form.
Weiner says: “This is the reason why people like Carl Andre are such good artists. They’re not telling you what to think, they’re telling you to stand still and watch how your thoughts no longer work.”
Work which is not intrinsically metaphorical can then be used by people for their own purposes as a metaphor– as he puts it: to find your own place in the sun.
VSK: And the form of the paper bag is well suited to an enactment or performance of these ideas-
seekers of lice: The change to printed bags allowed me to design and control the layout, yes the ideogram of the text, very precisely. I hoped it would also speed production.
In fact I was using a basic computer printer and the bags were too thick to go through, so I had to open up the bottom of each bag, print it and then refold and reglue the bag. So production was very very slow!
I liked the boldness of printed text which was possible, and the factory production- line feel – closer to mechanical reproduction with me as machine.
The single gesture, the liminal, the infrathin, the peripheral – how much to move someone? Just reading an essay on Bonnard which links Duchamp’s infrathin with Bonnard. Yes I was/am interested in slightness.
VSK: How does slightness take form in your work?
seekers of lice: Slightness – the idea that art doesn’t have to be spectacular or dramatic(!) to create a profound effect. Also as a strategy, in finding ways to distribute work. Paper bags are ephemeral but function as a mode of circulation. I make the work and other people distribute it for me. So an individual bag is slight but its value to the recipient might exceed that.
Slightness. Lightness. A sliver inserted into the world. Finding a gap in which to operate. Buchloh again: “Fluxus doesn’t aspire to radical transformations of everyday life but to ludic practices which open up sudden ruptures within that system’s mesmerizing totality and numbing continuity.”
I had a short correspondence by email with a librarian at MOMA’s art library. She wrote:
Got your package today. Thanks for sending the books. They look great. I didn’t understand your name at first, but it hit me about 6 weeks ago when I was riding the subway home….
So I also regard the name as a work. This reminds me of Christian Morgenstern, “Korf erfindet eine Art von Witzen” or, according to Google Translator “Korf invents a kind of jokes”:
Korf invents a kind of jokes,
Act until many hours later.
Everyone listens to them with long while.
But as a scale if geglommen still,
will you suddenly alive at night in bed
smiling like a rich baby blessed.
VerySmallKitchen: These questions are explored differently in The Bride of L’Amor-mor-l’amor. Its length asks how your works are structured and develop, what sort of resolution they seek, if any.
seekers of lice: I see The Bride as a different sort of text, more formal and artificial. At the time I described it like this:
The Bride of L’Amor-mor-l’amor is an abstract conceptual work. It uses different vocabularies for different speakers which are married when the words of the Bride and Groom are literally combined, first word by word then with each of their words severed and rejoined to make new words.
Specific vocabularies are drawn from fairy tales such as Bluebeard and Donkey Skin, from works of philosophy and from the procedural fiction of Kafka. Simple construction using ‘as’ ‘is’ ‘and’ and ‘or’ are used to counter the forward movement of the line.
The layout reflects the initial opposition between the bride and groom; when they are married the text becomes centred. The use of bold type in the final dance is to suggest emphasis.
So for me it follows a conventional trajectory. I wanted an opposition between the bride and groom. He uses the language of romance and her speech is supposed to be overtly sexual. The action takes place in the restructuring of their language.
VSK: How does voice work in your plays? You have included CDs with books, worked with your children to record texts-
seekers of lice: I was interested in what happens when objects are given a voice. I’ve since discovered in Martin Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd Christian Morgenstern’s sandwich paper lying lonely in a wood which
“…Commenced, from fright, there is no doubt,
To think. Commenced, began, set out
To think, just think, what here combined,
Received (by fear) – a thinking mind ….”
Das Butterbrotpapier (the sandwich paper) ends up being eaten by a bird. Reading the scripts aloud raises questions of how these texts can be read, how intonation can be used, how the characters can be presented.
The readings I made with my children (not out of sentimentality – they were available and could be bribed to participate) were of quandaries. I liked the idea of the repetition of “or” acting as a drone. I made a short recording which just had the “or”s threaded together to make or-or -noise.
At the same time I made a recording of farcical tricycle which I put on a short promo disc for William English. Listening to it 3 years later I realise the extent to which I saw them as different voices, different characters.
The reading, the sound is important to me – I like to create the desire to read aloud or mouth the words, to feel the physical shapes. When I did creamy language [an installation for I AM NOT A POET, Totalkunst Gallery, Edinburgh, 2011] I was pleased that Mirja’s son walked in to the gallery and immediately started reading aloud from the walls.
But more of an indicator for the evolution of Cointet’s practice was The Paintings of Sophie Rummel, 1974, in which Viva stood before twelve of the artist’s new paintings composed of red letters and numbers on white canvas (consisting of license plate and phone numbers found randomly, together they seem like nonsensical signage, or else eye charts).
Ultimately, for audience members these became paintings and texts at the same time that they were representations of paintings and texts–in short, props. Viva read aloud from sheets containing the exact same text, introducing different potential meanings by using a variety of intonations and rhythms of speech as she revisited the passages over and over. Is it praise? Adoration? Puzzlement? Depending on the intonation, “1256” could be a tragic number.
Marie de Brugerolle, “Enigma Variations” in Artforum, Summer 2007, 413.
VSK: As well as the forms of the texts themselves, it is the circumstances of how such writing is produced that offers parallels between your own work and poets theater. In To Be At Music: Essays & Talks Norma Cole writes:
The projects of Poets’ Theatre are communal. They accrete and gather momentum, a kind of critical mass, building on local relationships in time. Someone is writing – often the “someone” is a composite, a dyad, the multiple author – writing for known members of the future cast so the future is here and now. So even the primary or originary moment of writing is expansive, interactive, a function of the vitality of ongoing conversations in a community. The boundaries of the community are permeable and shifting, since it consists of singularities, to use Agamben’s term. Individuals express interest in participating. This interest is incorporated. So the dynamics of the participants, a kind of multiple person, or mega-organism live in solution in continuous flux. (54)
seekers of lice: I don’t identify with any of this at all.
VSK: Really? Why not!? If there’s not the performance context Cole talks about, your texts still seem to evidence this originary moment that is expansive, interactive –
seekers of lice: Isn’t that true of all art/writing?
VSK: You don’t want to conceptualise your work like this.
seekers of lice: I don’t conceptualise my work. I’m only interested in doing it and getting it out there. So I’m not a Conceptual writer/artist.
VSK: Cole also quotes Brecht: “One might say that everything hangs on the ‘story’ which is what happens between people.’
seekers of lice: Are you asking what happens between the text/writer and the reader?
VSK: You told me before that the plays of Gertrude Stein are not intended for performance. Why is that?
seekers of lice: I’m distinguishing between reading and theatrical performance with sets, costumes, action, conflict, resolution etc, or a theatrical performance within that context.
I think theatre requires action and the dialogue is only a part of that, not necessarily the most significant element. In Stein’s plays I feel the dialogue is the action. I think that is also true of The Bride. Giles [Goodland] said he would like to see it set to music like Edith Sitwell’s Façade – I like the idea but need a composer.
VSK: When you saw Einstein on the Beach recently did that offer any connections to thinking about staging?
seekers of lice: No. I thought the music and singing in Einstein on the Beach were fantastic, and the dancing, but was less convinced by the staged set pieces.
I wonder whether dumb show could be performed; or rather become part of a theatrical performance; perhaps in the manner of a Bauhaus / Oscar Schlemmer performance with dance and acrobatics? Perhaps LOUSE FACTORY could be performed as a cabaret. I think it’s a possibility because they are very open texts.
Fundamentally I agree with Martin Esslin: “Theatre is always more than mere language. Language alone can be read, but true theatre can become manifest only in performance.” So they – dumb show and LOUSE FACTORY – are scripts for a potential performance.
VSK: A default performance style in poets theater and also in art writing performances at venues like X Marks the Bökship is the artist and their friends in everyday clothes holding A4 typescripts or books and reading them aloud.
seekers of lice: I prefer the intimate unmediated relationship between reader and text, the scale of performance that produces.
VSK: Perhaps again, as with the bags, you need a form that reduces and restricts in order to reveal…
seekers of lice: Yes I like the scale, the smallness of the disembodied reading.
VSK: LOUSE FACTORY opens with a manifesto for the absurd. Is the absurd a category for these scripts, for theatre, the body, and your practice as a whole?
seekers of lice: dumb show and LOUSE FACTORY play with the ridiculous and absurd. The tradition of the absurd includes verbal nonsense, clowning and fooling.
For me the risk in writing is being prepared to risk stupidity, dumbness and the laughable in order to write something which is not just a parody of writing, or of poetry – not something which merely looks like art.
So bolt in moebius dispute ends “no armour / be ridiculous I am rid- / / iculous.” I’m always verging on the ridiculous – or trying to.
VSK: I relate this to a forcefulness in your writing. To articulate this quality, I’m thinking of texts by Maggie O’Sullivan and Hélène Cixous, some hybrid model of poet as shaman, linguistic animism, écriture féminine…
seekers of lice: I’ve not read O’Sulllivan or Cixous and I’m resistant to écriture feminine. I believe gender is irrelevant to the way I work.
I want to be a man; as Eileen Myles wrote, why can’t we all be men? This is why I like an ungendered name – not because I’m trying to make a mystery, but because I don’t see it as relevant. But Beuys is one of my heroes.
VSK: You feel regret after a performance. Is this from the failure of the absurd to fully exist as public discourse?
seekers of lice: No, regret at my failure to do justice to the performance. Discourse after all is running hither and thither so very open to the absurd.
This dialogue was conducted by email July-Sep 2012. THEATRE OF OBJECTS, a collection of play scripts, will be published by VerySmallKitchen in Nov 2012.