Once upon a time …

The LiteraryMix isn’t Seth Guy’s first attempt at coalescing sonorous text into an ephemeral engine. In 2010, he launched Observing Silence, a blog he created to archive quoted instances of silence he’s stumbled upon in his fiction reading. OS is a kind of blueprint of the LM. Although the artistry at play is quiet and gorgeous, more of a ‘finished’ text than a library of excerpts. The LiteraryMix plays more like music or poetry, while Observing Silence functions like the library itself. And, significantly, it is not exclusively focused on silence.

What began as an interview with Seth Guy, quickly morphed into a conversation between artist and curator-artist—both of us avid readers of fiction who listen to the sounds within. It took place over several exchanges and we have edited that dialogue, too. The linear tumbles into strands, a braided conversation.

Detail of a map used to construct The LiteraryMix, in the artist’s studio at Goldsmiths, 2011-12.


Joan Schuman: When you set out at the launch of your project of ‘listening’ to text, how did meaning begin to evolve amid such disparate excerpts or ‘stories’? When did it start to be a generative engine or narrative?

Seth Guy: It sprang from reflecting where my ideas come from, and realizing that it’s a mixture, or intermingling of different senses or impressions from both the mind and body.

I’ve always been interested in sounds which are ambiguous, either those that I cannot determine how they are made or what they might mean, especially in relation to others which we can identify. Similarly, I feel the same about visual things too I guess. Ambiguity and how it’s employed in my work is often a very tricky process which I grapple with for a long while until I find a way to resolve or rather hint at a way that it might be by the listener or viewer. It’s not necessary for me to exclude it.

I’ve made frequent reference to the labyrinth in the LM, both through texts which feature one, or refer to them. Borges’ work, for example, or Danielewski’s House of Leaves all make this quite explicit. My interest in the labyrinth is to an extent how I feel about perception, of our intermingling of our senses working together rather than separately, and how we make sense of what we see and hear is all very intriguing but also very confusing!

Sound for example, (and memory too), can be quite intrusive and not always welcome, but it depends entirely on our engagement. Noise is invariably a nuisance, but shaped, or even simply embraced, and it can be thought of differently, and it can even be good, inspiring. Silence can be something we often crave in respite from all the noise around us, but true silence, the absence of all sound would probably be terrifying. It’s through shifts in perspective like this that the LM proposes. I feel that listening, perception is perhaps the labyrinth.

With regard to, meaning, I was aware that the more I read I would make connections between different novels, and more importantly those texts containing sonorous material, so that often whilst reading one thing I was thinking about others I’d read before, that they were already intermingling in my mind, both aurally and visually, and so the idea to literally mix these excerpts together gradually formed in my mind as something I should try. I think the main reason for this is that this is how I create audio compositions, (or indeed most of my artwork) with lots of fragments of material which I collect and then weave together into something cohesive.

Initially I worked with about ten different texts as a trial run which I selected, edited and arranged into one long text and this seemed to work well enough, although it resembled more of a Burroughs cut-up. This meant that the different narratives in each made things a bit clunky, and so I needed a way of shifting one’s focus toward that of the sonorous content, essentially bringing that into the foreground and filter the original narratives in each out to some extent, or make them less important to the reading.

Joan: Was there a kind of epiphany and if so, can you recall which author/fiction it began to unravel and then re-thread?

Seth: I can’t say there was any one epiphany, more like several over the course of making the work, but with regard to the editing and structure of the work, how it reads, a few books provided me with clues as to how this could be achieved. When I began the LM, what I was reading was pretty eclectic, in that I mostly used my local library and was just taking out books almost arbitrarily, to broaden my reading as much as anything.

Then as time went on, I became increasingly interested in more experimental or what one might term ‘difficult’ reading. I read a lot of foreign novelists, (which I still do), starting out with things like Perec and Queneau, Calvino and others from the OuLiPo and I found myself increasingly attracted to works which fizzed with ideas and inspired me.

Then a little later I discovered the Nouveau Roman and was really impressed with this style of writing and I could definitely see parallels with sound (and film) in a lot of what I read, of challenging one’s perception of what books can do and of shifting perspectives. Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy for example has this ‘fly on the wall’ perspective which definitely influenced me in constructing the LM, but others such as Jean Ricardou’s Place Names, and Michel Butor’s Mobile also got me thinking that the LM needn’t have a ‘story’ as such, more that meaning could develop from how it is presented and how one reads it.

There are other books too, such as Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet which has no beginning or end,  Cortazar’s Hopscotch, which gives readers the option to go to different pages in the text to read additional details, B. S Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which is literally a box of loose pages where only the first and last pages are fixed and one can read the others in any order one chooses. (Incidentally, I thought of your Plausible Narration with regard to this.)

This process of selecting what to read impressed upon me that there was an analogy here with listening rather than hearing, that listening involves a choice, a degree of engagement, and so it seemed a pertinent solution to engage readers in making choices which would somehow flow together, but also a solid line of enquiry worthy of more research. And with reading writing from all over the world, and from different periods in history too, all of this I guess would have some bearing on the directions I would take with the work.

In a very, very far away … there lived a …

[… continue the conversation between Seth Guy & Joan Schuman]