Posts Tagged ‘kitchen essay’


In Uncategorized on September 7, 2012 at 10:42 pm



You can say anything… what will you say? Repeat lines of the offender? There is no off switch, no thumbs down. Celebrate, appreciate our period? Realize some potential in our now incredibly vast capacity, opportunity for freedom of expression? How?

My proposal, one attempt: reflexive, interpretive art writing with an ethnographic bent (critical appreciation), seeks to promote a theoretical model countering negative diagnoses of the modern metropolis―a strategy that might be described as aiming to reflect a period of so incredible the capacities of expression. What gives.

Ethnography, a non-method method, as Jamin’s “L’ethnographie, mode d’inemploi”, akin also to the intentions of some downtown New York artists of the 70s and 80s―art in the everyday―writing, as a way of Being meditative, observant (observational), quiet, not meaningless.  Also following Williams on the relationship between newspapers and advertizing, how advertizing ingested in our news stories now. [1] A desire to screen false fears, to lead healthy, helpful, immediate lives. The prose I hope for, yearn for, is in a calmness, observation, yet, honestly, what here in New York must be exasperatively auditory―sonic, energetic.

And includes object lessons; addresses multiplying spheres, contexts, environments. Social of course also architectural; technological, and natural. The streets here for example: gilded with barbed wire, the lights on all night, the perpetual alternating sirens and alarms signaling nothing but echoing complicated brief histories of immigration, economic disparity. The influx of new students always.



Today a man came to my door to ask how long I thought the injustices will continue. No, he said: “Do you think there’ll be an end to injustices?” I assumed it was a prank and returned to my desk but, then, I got up and returned to the tiny monitor showing me the street three floors and half a block away. I said, “How can I help you?”

He repeated himself, then said: “There’ve been a lot of injustices going on.” The camera switched to Arial view enhancing the reminiscence of the experience to a graphic novel I know, and then died. We were cut off and I stood there incredulous, my jaw gaped, until I’d stabbed the talk/hear button enough I was convinced the interaction must be complete.

I turned and sat at my desk again.  In my mind I ran down to meet the stranger. We walked down Wyckoff discussing the state of art. We thought of failing nutrition; diabetic campaigning, home land insecurity. We joked and laughed a bit, then promised to write.




Sensate intervals in the city have always been mediated. Yet, there are so many new versions. I feel slow. So slow in a world changing, travel, necessarily, Baroque Silences full of clacking keyboards, announcements, alerts, noise. Bass streams, foreclosures, permanent residences―what symbols emerge from some appreciation. Here’s the fear: that people are writing about the things they are seeing, reading, hearing, feeling, never in so many words. The responsibility! Ethics in an economy of clicks. Do pollsters qualify your reposted rapes, abortions? Like! And a terrific paradox: if you don’t have anything nice to say… The pantomime of cosmopolitan freedoms. It is difficult to be optimistic.

And this has already been written. One more: A sound check for monks, all monks all at once. Nature in machines, the slow breathlessness of nature in eternal machines―with a Black Sabbath riff off a haunted house.



Sarah Butler, What Writing, 2011



The Cost of Entry to Museums

In 1980 Geertz wrote “the instruments of reasoning are changing and society is less and less represented as an elaborate machine or a quasi-organism than as a serious game, a sidewalk drama, or a behavioural text.” [2]
What are the new instruments of reasoning, the tomorrow metaphors for society? INTERACTION, NETWORK, COMMUNICATION? That last not like two decades past terminology the paths of canals, railways, steamships, cars, and aero craft communication, but “straight to your skull” brand identity without the hyphen, relationalisms and trans intra supra nationalisms. Humanity forgets itself. What are the norms we today take for granted? …I’d like to think first about exhibitions.

In Exhibiting Contradiction Wallach discusses there was a lack of decorum for private collections made public. “Audiences were demonstrative, tastes eclectic.” [3] Inappropriate exuberance, voiced shock reaction. Where is your decorum? And now, artwork for contemplation or for entertainment. What is entertaining? Active construction of meaning? Is it so very much like an Opera then?




We walked down the street talking about gentrification; rent, student debt, health care and war, when it came up that we are the “first generation to have less than its parents”. Where did that information come from? Certainly at least this, is a localized concept. And, what does less mean? How do we quantify less. My grandmother, for example, is always scheming to “make less,” in the basement, in the garage, in the barn. She nearly escaped death in WWII. How do we qualify? What are the new new instruments of reasoning, the new metaphors for citizens. “Users?” Surely not all and in varying intensities.



Sarah Butler, Anthology Art Space: Chapter One (Botanic and Famous Accountants, Photographs) #1, 2010-2012



Our work will be co-edited, in the sense that we write things together, at times, not exclusively, but it’s been so delightful to exchange letters with you. [4]  “All my outpourings of words are just one long defense of a world to which words have no right of entrance…To discover intimations of a space and time outside the division of labor.” [5]

Patron/Artist. I wanted to suggest that the social ROLE of the artist is determined by the PATRON. As well as of course the VALUE of the PATRON is created by the artist. The responsibility of patron? The patron should be regarded as an artist, a maker of cultural significance―at anticipated and direct global effect. Where do these generalizations come from? Institutional critique, media, ideology, art. Who is the audience for arts in Bushwick? Artists. The social responsibility of the artist. We celebrate artist-run-centers. We make taste…but, we also make food. [6]




Ethnographic art appreciation that includes some measure of a person taking photographs; observing new work on line, in the street, and at school, the museum, and gallery. In department stores and in prisons—a relational, thick description. When will I read you again?




My project is about writing as something to be doing―may be in the way a painter paints. Not necessarily to create something pre-figured. But as a discovery, as a very physical mode of engagement with the world, extending also Sontag’s thinking on photography — that sometimes to say something, is just to own it. [7] I call what I do art writing, to mean writing that is art. However my writing is also sometimes about art, and so I’m told that is confusing. Am I a writer who writes about art? Or an artist who arts about writing? Do these need be mutually exclusive? Maybe that’s just writing. Here we have non-poet poets, futurist ilk, active, aware identity fabricators, psychological pro-sumers, Kline-ian bothness.




Sarah Butler, Water Sample, 2011



A dangerous dream: “if social conditions allow advertising to serve images that are justified in the deepest and broadest social sense, advertising art could contribute effectively in preparing the way for a positive popular art, an art reaching everybody and understood by everybody.” [8]

And finally, a response to previous critiques: I don’t write to be popular or accessible. I seek to address an audience who I imagine will have some previous knowledge of my subject, some resonance with my context.  But, for a popular, unspecialized audience, I hope my writing might come off as poetic reverie. You don’t have to understand the mechanics of e. e. cummings in order to “get” it, just like you don’t need to know the details behind a (bird) song to be captivated by it. Not that my work is anything close to par with cummings, bird songs. But, here’s a normative reliquary for some new beginning: life’s work.






[1] Williams, Communications (London: Chatto & Windus, 1966).

[2] Geertz, “Blurred Genres,” The American Scholar, 49 (Spring 1980).

[3] Wallach, Exhibiting contradiction : essays on the art museum in the United States (Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1998).

[4] A brief note about different forms of address within my texts, sudden inferences about relationships and contexts never made explicit―I mean you, now (a reader if on an autumn’s night, a stranger at the door): on line and in the street; the gallery and salon, the classroom, studio, lab, and kitchen.

[5] Jorn in Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International (New York: Verso, 2011), 120.

[6] See The Patron’s Value.

[7] Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Girous, 1989).

[8] Kepes in Richardson Modern Art and Scientific Thought (Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 1971), 156.



More about Sarah’s work is here. She edits word servents.






In Uncategorized on June 14, 2012 at 11:57 am

Yoko Ono, film still from Fly (1970)



VerySmallKitchen writes: Reading through publications at X Marks the Bökship I noted the prevalence of script/ score/ play forms in current practice, including work by Alison Ballance, Ruth Beale, Ella Finer, Holly Pester, seekers of lice, Cally Spooner and Gerry Smith, amongst others.

This led VerySmallKitchen to consider a score-based art practice as both actuality and proposition, finding a ground in the written text that instigates an ongoing flux of object, performance and publication that returns, moves away, between, transforms, forgets, re-writes, repeats and more that score from which it begins…



It was wanting to clarify this working- movement and momentum of the score as/for art practice over time that returned me to the work of Yoko Ono. As, also, a prelude to her forthcoming show at London’s Serpentine Gallery. A practice which, in varying degrees of proximity, often returns to the forms and specifics of Grapefruit, Ono’s collection of scores first published in 1964.

I focus here on Ono’s film scripts as – in relation to the contemporary work at the Bökship – an area that distills most clearly the tensions involved in the score form: an instruction that is also a self-contained gesture in itself; a public invitation that is also a form of private, solitary note taking and discipline; to Fly/ Fly as figure for thinking through score-based practice…



A proposition:


A. Score-practice as a restless, dissatisfied form, incomplete in itself, creating disjunctions of meaning and experience within and between different participants and times in which the score/ work exists.

B. Score-based practice demonstrates a simplicity of instruction and communication to proliferate problematics concerning both its own invitation and any response.








Perhaps this essay could be a score for reading the many script/ score based works in X Marks the Bökship: sentences and ideas applied to other projects and essays as instructional scores, initiating ways of reading other words and images. Such an approach – both as success and failure, concise instruction and incomprehensible request – is one way to consider what is at stake in Yoko Ono’s cinema.

In 1964 Ono introduced a sequence of her “film scripts” as follows:


These scores were printed and made available to whoever was interested at the time or thereafter in making their own version of the films, since these films, by their nature, became a reality only when they were repeated and realized by other filmmakers.

A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream together is a reality.[1]

And to Scott MacDonald twenty five years later:


I think one of the reasons I’m not making more films is that I’ve done so many film scripts. I’d like to see one of them made by somebody else. Maybe one day out of the blue I’ll feel it so strongly that I’ll make a film myself again.[2]



Yoko Ono’s 25-minute film Fly (1970) begins from a score written in 1968:



Film No.13 FLY

Let a fly walk on a woman’s body from toe to head and fly out of the window.


It’s a sentence that says everything about the film, and also nothing. So an essay like this becomes an attempt to delineate those differences: the film as an idea; idea as instruction and invitation; the film as executed by John Lennon and Yoko in 1982, in a New York apartment, with 200 sugar-solution stunned ants and the (also stunned) actress Virginia Lust; the film as historical lens and, via Youtube, contemporary manifestation (that’s Ono herself as contemporary, and our own work as we retrospectively engage with the nexus of issues Fly raises).

Another beginning for Fly features a cartoon in a newspaper. As Yoko tells Scott MacDonald:



A cartoon in a newspaper gave me the idea. There’s this woman with a low-cut dress, and a guy is looking at her, and the guy’s wife says, “What are you looking at!” and the guy says, “Oh, I’m looking at a fly on her.” I wanted the film to be an experience where you’re always wondering, am I following the movement of the fly or am I looking at the body? I think that life is full of that kind of thing. We’re always sort of deceiving ourselves about what we’re really seeing.





A set of SIX FILM SCRIPTS BY YOKO ONO are dated Tokyo, June, 1964. A later set of THIRTEEN FILM SCORES are attributed to London, 1968. Both were part of a broader practice of scores Ono used as the basis for musical compositions, performances, and paintings, first collected together in her 1964 publication Grapefruit. Many scores continue to be interpreted and installed up to the present.



Yoko Ono, Six Film Scripts, page from Grapefruit (1964)



All the scores invite responses of various kinds, and thinking about the specific nature of such invitations begins with the materiality of the scores themselves. So in Grapefruit the placing of a single score on a white page foregrounds a distinct, almost sculptural identity, whilst scores are also grouped into chapters, including MUSIC, PAINTING, EVENT, POETRY and OBJECT. When Scott MacDonald re-printed the film scripts in Screen Writings, Ono requested he keep spelling errors and unusual punctuation as accurate reflection of “the informal Fluxus aesthetic of the time”.

Considering such material manifestations leads to philosophical and procedural questions: Does the score need to be enacted? Is the display of the score as an art work itself a performance of the score? If the scores are “instructions” then is the result what is instructed, or something other that emerges from performing those instructions, perhaps unrealised to those who presumed themselves to be instructor or instructed, or some other less defined participant?



Yoko Ono, film still from Fly (1970)



Apt for exploring these questions is Ono’s own beautiful condition of IN-STRUCTURE, first formulated in a program note for a concert in Tokyo in 1964:


Something that emerged from instruction and yet not quite emerged – not quite structured – never quite structured… like an unfinished church with a sky ceiling.





The film scripts as a whole evidence Ono’s grappling with all the material, perceptual, temporal, and event characteristics making up the film making/ watching process. Instructions include: cut out a disliked part of the screen; make a film of an entire life from birth to death; make a travelogue without leaving the apartment; chase a girl on a street with a camera. In BOTTOMS the score reads: “String bottoms together in place of signatures for petition for piece.” In OMNIBUS FILM Ono suggests giving multiple directors the same footage and screening one after another the differently edited films.



Yoko Ono, film strip from Bottoms (1966)



Collected together, the film scores become an essay in the pervasive workings and influence of cinema. As an experiment to this end, Ono proposed to Scott MacDonald burying a film underground for fifty years:


Any film, any cheap film, if you put it underground for fifty years, becomes interesting [laughter]. You just take a shot of people walking, and that’s enough: the weight of history is so incredible.


The films themselves work with this weight in various ways. Consider Bottoms (1966), which demonstrates how Ono’s films are often not about what they are obviously about:


For me the film is less about bottoms than about a certain beat, a beat you didn’t see in films…. comparable to a rock beat. Even in the music world there wasn’t that beat until rock came. It’s the closest thing to the heartbeat.


Ono also emphasised to MacDonald how ”I enjoy the editing part of filmmaking most of all; that’s where the films really get made.” Bottoms post-production work involved an interplay of sound and image comprising interviews with participants, including comments about how boring the film was likely to be, and excerpts from Ono being interviewed by the British press.

Form was always intimately tied to content for Ono. Asked to make a follow up on breasts, she agreed on the condition that it would involve only a single breast.




A film like Fly opens itself to diverse viewings: “One of the interesting things about watching the film Fly is that one’s sense of what the body we’re seeing is about, and what the film is about, is constantly changing.” Or: “In Fly, Ono expresses her own search for personal freedom, as well a concern with the role of woman as passive object…. Fly can be read as a metaphor for the split self.” [3]

For Ono, introducing a screening of her films at the Whitney Museum in 2000, both the fly and the woman were autobiographical. All these readings – even those that admit multiplicity upfront, inevitably miss some of the endless perspective shifting her films consistency of focus prompts, quite how it locates us on the edge of completely different positions.

To think about Fly is to adapt another Yoko Ono score that asks the audience to look at a round object until it becomes square and vice versa. Or, I think watching the film again on youtube, body becoming fly, victim becoming voyeur, vice versa and back again.






Compare Fly with such contemporaneous films as Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1966-7)(which Ono saw and admired) and Warhol’s Henry Geldzhaler (1964). All three films share an interest in sustained focus, but understand the relations and consequences of this duration differently.





Ono’s fascination with the editing stage of film making is one distinction. If for Warhol the persistence of the camera’s gaze causes a crumbling of Geldzhaler’s public self, then for Ono the female body is still, almost deathly so, throughout. Geldzhaler’s restless shiftings on the sofa are transferred to the act of looking itself.

Snow’s film, meanwhile, famously zooms across a New York apartment to where the film frame becomes filled with the waves in a small photograph pinned onto the wall. Ono’s camera gaze literally leaves the room through the window, seeing first the New York roof tops and then – a movement that also defines Apotheosis (1970, attributed to John Lennon) – a move up into the sky.

There also seems to be a different personality of power in Ono’s film. In Snow and Warhol, the incessant camera and/or the length of the film reel very evidently organise the film. In Fly it is more the various flies and the body itself that have this quality of holding the viewer to a particular duration. When Yoko does focus on the dynamics of the camera – in Rape (1969), where a woman encountered on the street is pursued aggressively by a camera crew that force their way into her home – the engagement with the camera gaze is much more violent and direct than in either of her male contemporaries.

Each film maker, of course, produces a contradictory cinema which leaves me wondering if, in another writing, these three films might rotate between these different positions. Each also has their own forms of playfulness. In Ono the camera’s proximity reveals a delight in the flies dextrous, musical movement, evoking the choreographies of Merce Cunningham. There is also Ono’s extended vocal soundtrack for Fly – that seeks to improvise the contact point of voice, fly, camera and Lust’s body.

Consider this, too, in relation to how Ono’s film making was aesthetically and practically rooted in particular domestic, social and professional relationships. Early films, such as No.1 (Match) (1966) were made after George Macunias acquired temporary use of a high speed scientific film camera; and all Ono’s film work can be read as a collaboration with John Lennon (films were attributed to whoever had the original concept, but were worked on collaboratively).

Such a position was articulated in Ono’s short essay On Film No.4 (1967), where she observed:



The film world is becoming terribly aristocratic, too. It’s professionalism all the way down the line. In any other field: painting, music, etc., people are starting to become iconoclastic. But in the film world – that’s where nobody touches it except the director. The director carries the old mystery of the artist… This film proves that anybody can be a director… I’m hoping that after seeing this film people will start to make their own home movies like crazy.





Fly ends with sky. Both as actual movement, idea and metaphor, sky – and a gesture of the camera or eye upwards – is ever present in Yoko’s work. Take the project “Half A WindShow” at London’s Lisson Gallery in 1967:


TV to see the sky: This is a TV just to see the sky. Different channels for different skies, high-up sky, low sky etc. y.o.


Or the more specific SKY EVENT for John Lennon of spring 1968, with ladders for climbing up to view the sky, being careful not to “talk loud or make noise, as you may scare the sky.” Or this, from her letter TO THE WESLEYAN PEOPLE (1966):


I would like to see the sky machine on every corner of the street instead of the coke machine. We need more skies than coke.


To move in the sky, of course, is to fly. Also in TO THE WESLEYAN PEOPLE, Ono writes: “Another Event that was memorable for me was “Fly”, at Naigua Gallery in Tokyo. People were asked to come prepared to fly in their own way. I did not attend.”





Other works include billboards at five locations in Richmond, Virginia (1996), each bearing the word FLY, both score itself and enactment of the earlier:




Summer 1963


When this is presented in monographs, the assumption seems to be that this is the act of aerial suspension, not the insect, but it is the pun of these two identical words that provides one tool for reading the films own doubleness, how explicit actions and instructions are ghosted, articulated and not, by the implicit.

Consider, too, other one or two word declarations in Ono’s work, how they function ambiguously, with their intertwining of simplicity and impossibility:






I saw Ono at Tate Britain during the 2004 Art and The 60s: This was Tomorrow exhibition. The discordant music and entrapped body that I remember from her short performance seemed to vanish when it came to the Q&A. Are there any new Beatles CD’s planned? someone asked.

I got impatient, put up my hand and asked about the legacy of the work in the exhibition for artists working today. “What is important” said Ono, looking out into an audience reflected back at themselves via her trademark shades, “is what you do now.”

The evening concluded with a large vase that Ono smashed with a sledgehammer. Let’s meet in 10 years and put the vase back together again, she said. There then followed a ruck to get a piece of the vase, during which Ono – neglecting to collect email addresses from the frenzy – was ushered away by security.



Yoko Ono, film still from Fly (1970)



Likewise, Ono’s film scores are not, despite her requests and protestations, straightforwardly saying: Make this film. They are, more broadly, instigating a situation in which certain relations of gender, power, death and violence, are evidenced. The insights might not be experienced by the person enacting them, or only later, mediated through film, and/or distance, maybe of continents and decades, or not.






Back to flies. Ono’s most sustained engagement with the insect- Fly was not Fly at all, but Museum of Modern (F)art, which begun as an advert in the Village Voice in December 1971, purportedly for an exhibition at MOMA.

Attempting to visit the exhibition meant possibly encountering a man with a sandwich board outside. The board said that flies had been put in a glass container that had the same volume as Ono’s body, and which was then placed in the middle of MOMA’s sculpture garden. The flies were released, and a photographer dispatched to document their travels around the city.

The flies, it was claimed, were identifiable by the odour of the artists favourite perfume, which had been placed in the container. Handbills invited passers by to join the search, and the catalogue for the “show” identified locations where the flies had been, with arrows indicating the precise location.

Perhaps it is more appropriate to think of Ono’s films, too, as constructions of a particular kind of landscape that need not necessarily distinguish between score and idea; instruction, intention and inhabitation. A sky cinema is one name for such a landscape. But is the sky projected, or the screen for a projection, or the film itself? In this later case, what is the camera?

I watch the film again. It is there, for example, in the moment two flies turn their attention to one another, on a flat desert landscape between two rocky tors that might once have been (Lust’s) shoulder blades. A fly on a nipple. Or a fly into a vagina, recalling Nam June Paik’s score for Dick Higgins’ Danger Musicwhich instructs: Creep into the Vagina of a Living Whale. Moments when the landscape of vision is without its normal censorings, although the same freedom proposes us voyeurs and necrophiliacs.

For the reader/ listener/ viewer of Ono’s works, too, this sense of landscape encourages a reading that cross-pollinates between aspects, media and times of her score-based practice. So the tactility of the painting instruction scores can expand our sense of the kinds of relation prompted by the film scripts, and vice versa; whilst the techniques of the Bottoms soundtrack leads to an expanded reading of the vocal improvisations of Fly: Ono’s guttural vocals variously a special kind of news report, interview, sports commentary and écriture féminine.






Ono’s contemporary response to the 1968 score Fly was her 2003 decision to re-imagine the work as an installation. Six video monitors and DVD players in a darkened room installed at eye level on plinths, showing the same film.

The frame has always been central to Ono’s film project – a special measuring instrument was constructed to ensure correct placement of the buttocks in Bottoms – and the video monitor offers another level to this originally 16mm work, transferring a work originally screened at the Elgin Theatre, New York in 1970 into a more (domestically associated) constriction.

More broadly, I think about Ono’s work reading Dorothea Von Hantelmann’s 2010 treatise How to Do Things with Art. This focusses on Daniel Buren, James Coleman, Tino Seghal, and Jeff Koons to argue change occurs through “dependency on conventions” rather than any fictive critical position outside them. [4]





Sometimes the arguments in Hantelmann’s book suggest a development of score-based practice beyond Ono’s concerns – particularly Seghal’s purely oral practice of script and score, on the level of both the score and its realization, documentation, contractual and archival arrangements with gallery and collector.

More often, however, what emerges from the practices Hantelmann chronicles is the high level of control such work involves, its risk of imprisoning work, ideas, audiences and artists within constricted notions of material, audience, location, economy, effect and now.

Counter to this, Fly, and Ono’s score practice more broadly, emerges once again, to be valued for its messy, domestic, conceptual, gendered, contradictory, turbulent, instructive and helpfully misleading engagements with enactment and possibility.






Go and find all the skies throughout a scored based art practice.






[1]Introduction to “SIX FILM SCRIPTS BY YOKO ONO Tokyo, June 1964” reprinted in Scott MacDonlad, ed. Screen Writings: Scripts and Texts by Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995).

[2]Scott MacDonald, “Interview with Yoko Ono,” in Yoko Ono: Ideas on Film,” Film Quarterly, vol.43, no.1 (Fall 1989).

[3]Scott MacDonald, “Interview with Yoko Ono,” ibid., and Chrissie Iles, “Erotic Conceptualism: The Films of Yoko Ono” in Alexandra Munroe with Jon Hendricks eds. YES: YOKO ONO (New York, Harry N.Abrams, 2001).

[4]Dorothea Von Hantelmann, How to Do Things with Art (Zurich, JRP Ringier, 2010).


Yoko Ono’s TO THE LIGHT is at the Serpentine Gallery, London, from 19 June-9 September 2012. More info here.





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.