But one day, she couldn’t seem to …
Joan: What are your thoughts on the text as body (body of work, muscularity of the text, sound-making as a physical experience, breath)? How might these themes connect to Bergvall’s work?
Seth: Part of what intrigued me about your making connections here with Bergvall is that what I’ve seen of her performances, and indeed how she talks about “flattening the text” in your interview, is that I would say that Bergvall is very present in her work. It’s her voice, she performs, and the division between her and her audience is a formal, familiar, well-defined spectacle. Most people working with or engaged with sound see performance as an established mode of presenting work.
I like how the text in her work DRIFT is visible, but I think it’s important to make a distinction between reading and reading aloud. In The LiteraryMix I’m trying to an extent to become invisible and silent, not a narrator, and to shift the focus more on to the reader as participant, collaborator, performer and listener. So that it’s their own internal voice that reads, is heard and engages with the text. For the most part participants are unknown to me, and so one might think of it more like a broadcast I suppose? Need I be present in their performance of their experience? They can spend as little or as much time as they like exploring the work without me, incorporating their own sound and listening, their own memory, experiences and imagination, essentially make the mix their own.
I’m not entirely absent from the work obviously but I wanted to be more like the foley or the editor whose presence is there but not explicitly, or to put it another way, setting up a set of parameters in which the work could be performed by others in my absence, like an operation or score perhaps?
Image of Bergvall vocalizing DRIFT at performance space Norrlandsoperan in Umea, Sweden, 2014, with Ingar Zach, percussion; visual artist Thomas Köppel, digital text; and photographer, Helena Wikström. Audio portrait produced by Joan Schuman, originally for a series of conversations with artists at Trickhouse, 2014. Full performance of Bergvall’s TOGETHER finishes the interview. Visit Caroline Bergvall for more projects.
Joan: It’s like breathing then, a kind of muscularity of performing, as Bergvall suggests, and that’s different from the breathing we do in the background as we read. You are, in effect, the breath that is always inhaling/exhaling, steering the text in a way by the chosen excerpts. Then you let go.
Seth: I would admit that there is (in all work by artists to an extent) an element of me ‘steering’ the work and therefore also steering the reader although I think I make this more visible or obvious than others, or indeed authors might themselves admit. This goes back to this question of the arbitrary and choice I think.
“Breath” is very loaded it seems to me, perhaps because it’s so vital to us, however much we may be unconscious of it or take it for granted. I understand what you’re trying to suggest with regard to the performative, and making a connection with the mouth and voice. It then made me think of an excerpt from a text I was reading the other day.
As a child in the country I had once witnessed a farm boy, or whatever he was, running from the constables. He raced past me a path leading uphill, and at first nothing could be heard of his pursuers but their shouts of “Halt!” To this day I can see that boy’s face, flushed and puffy, and his body, which looks shrunken, his pumping arms seeming all the longer. But what has stayed with me even more vividly is the sound he was making. It was both more than panting and less. It was also more than whistling and less that burst out of both his lungs. Besides, it was really not a question of his lungs. The sound I have in my ear breaks or explodes out of the entire person, and not from his insides but from his surface, his exterior, from every single patch of skin or pore. And it does not come from the boy alone but from several, a large number, a multitude, and includes not just his pursuers, bellowing as they gain on him, but also nature’s silent objects all around. This whirring and vibrating, no matter how unmistakably the hunted boy had reached the end of his strength, has stayed with me, representing an overwhelming power, an elemental force of sorts. Don Juan, by Peter Handke
This example of sound’s effect after the event is closer to what I had in mind for The LiteraryMix, something which would resonate beyond the sound described and my steering of the viewer. A sort of tapping in, into my ears, eyes, and imagination, why I might select an excerpt, and my simple desire to want to share this ‘elemental force’ that has effected me, (and so too one might call it my obsessions) with others.
Joan: That excerpt has a similar energy to one that I cannot get out of my ears (really, my bones) since I read it in Harry Parker’s debut novel that is narrated by inanimate objects. The ‘voice’ is of the IED that blows up the soldier. It’s visceral and sonic. It’s aural and oral. I keep chanting it aloud. But more so, this kind of palpable sonorous embodiment—really disembodiment—gathers its audience quite physically. But it starts in the ears.
I existed for a fraction of a moment. I was created by an explosive reaction. I passed through rock, mud, through a man. I am also noise. Try bang, try boom, try dull thud-thump, try ker-krump, try piercing ping puncturing perforated drum. My bang rolling out across the landscape. Anatomy of a Soldier, by Harry Parker
Seth: Going back to the breath you mention, I prefer a more tactile analogy, one less vital to life but just as meaningful in our lives: our interactions with others. That of a reaching out and making contact, of an open hand or an introduction from one friend to another? I suppose what I’m trying to get at is something similar to that of a gesture of goodwill between strangers, one which to some extent is open to interpretation, and a degree of mutual trust. A bit like a surprise gift, in that it relies to some extent on a degree of trust which is somewhat precarious though the intention and expectation of both parties is understood to mean well. Perhaps one in which you must continue to unwrap layers to get at ever greater gifts; things I’m hoping you will like, as I do, but cannot really know if you will.
The ‘letting go’ you speak of, I guess is in part me allowing the text to speak for itself to the reader, and for readers to make it their own. It’s enough for me to ‘introduce’ that excerpt, with the knowledge that I’ve selected and edited it, chosen to blend with what they’ve read before and what they may now read. I accept that readers read at different speeds, some texts may absorb them others bore them, there’s no way for me to know, nor predict either their surroundings where they read and what visual sights and audible sources of sound may filter into those that they imagine, but each text I’ve carefully arranged and positioned with the hope that they may surprise, fascinate and delight, and that they do with them as they will.
And then she tried …
[… more conversation between Seth Guy & Joan Schuman