speaking in tongues

I first found the Glasgow Women’s Library by way of an intriguing sign pointing down a city centre alleyway on my way home from school every day. Finally googling circa 2009, I’ve since attended a slew of events, met some wonderful people, and assisted in a few of the library’s projects, from sorting through and cataloguing feminist magazines, to helping to establish the Hens Tae Watch Oot Fur zine of young queer women’s voices, to geeking about literary heroines while shovelling delicious homemade hummus down my throat. Now I’m involved in its new Seeing Things project, which intends to establish a safe, friendly, and engaging social network for women who might not otherwise feel comfortable attending cultural events around the city. Don’t you just love the reclaimative sense of that name? The 19th century Madwoman in the Attic idea of women “seeing things”. Infantilised hysterics confined to their beds, stimulated only by the patterns in the wallpaper.

One of the best things about the project is being privy to an enhanced, behind the scenes view of what’s happening in Glasgow, and last week we were lucky enough to be guided through the Centre for Contemporary ArtsSpeaking in Tongues exhibition by Director Francis McKee. The CCA is currently sifting through its extensive collection of promotional and administrative materials, researching its own history since 1992, and that of its predecessor the Third Eye Centre: a ‘shrine to the avant garde’ founded in 1974 by playwright Tom McGrath. This exhibition invites back three important contemporary artists — Susan Hiller, Pavel Büchler, and Sonia Boyce — each of whom worked with the TEC/CCA early in their career. Though keen to chronicle the venue’s past and evidently committed to honouring the history of the avant-garde arts in Glasgow, McKee is wary of the institution of the archive; their capacity to be ‘awful, dangerous things’ loaded with political or ideological or even just subjective bias, representing only a very specific version of the past. Indeed, many of the works in Speaking in Tongues worry the question of what is to be kept and what is to be left behind, passed over, discarded.

Susan Hiller, Lucidity & Intuition: Homage to Gertrude Stein, image from susanhiller.org

Upon entering the exhibition space, one is immediately met by Susan Hiller’s Lucidity & Intuition: Homage to Gertrude Stein, an approximation of the writer’s desk, under which is packed an unexpectedly copious selection of books on automatic writing: the practice of writing while directing one’s attention elsewhere, whose messages have latterly been attributed to the workings of the subconscious mind, but which were once co-opted by surrealists and spiritualists as evidence of spirit and alien worlds, the writer’s hand ‘owned by something else‘. Though Stein conducted experiments into automatic writing at Radcliffe with renowned psychologist (and brother of Henry) William James, fast becoming his “most brilliant woman student”, she would later grow ashamed of — and reject — the association. In Hiller’s sculpture, the books seem almost to hold up the table, as her disowned academic life surely supported her literary experimentation, and subsequent cultural legacy. The piece is topped by a bound copy of Stein’s thesis, and surrounded by a collection of mounted light boxes (From India to the Planet Mars) in which Hiller borrows examples of automatic writing by fin de siècle medium Hélène Smith, who claimed to be in communication with Martians, as well as the reincarnation of first Marie Antoinette, then a Hindu princess. Hiller’s work is obsessed with what we suppress, what we sublimate; as a culture, as evolving selves.

Pavel Büchler, conversely, is preoccupied by what remains; by the offset of representation and reality; by the process of transforming an object’s purpose and presentation while retaining some kind of spirit of its meaning. In I am going to use this projector, the artist presents a by now antiquated cassette recorder, mounted to the wall, which plays a distracting recording of typewriter clacking, a tiny counter smoothly ticking off the seconds of tape. When Büchler originally found the object it included a recorded discussion between two artists, Mel Gooding and Terry Atkinson, which he had transcribed by a typist, recording this new sound over the old, losing forever the original conversation while commemorating it in this new incarnation, the typed transcription mounted alongside, formatted in pale ink on a lengthy scroll of paper so as to be all but unreadable. In his other assembled works we see traditional printing press typesets brought out of retirement to spell the names of the primary colours using secondary coloured paint (Honest Work); a sculpture of air mail scales and ping pong balls in which everything hangs in the balance, ‘a kind of visual gag’ (per McKee), signifying nothing (0:0); two clunky television podiums playing a synchronised looped video, switching between two small still images of Samuel Beckett, that endlessly dour master of pointless repetition, effecting him as a rampant Pythonesque nodding dog (Nodds).

Finally, in Sonia Boyce’s anteroom, floor-to-ceiling shelves display selected records and bookmarked magazines from an archive of black female music artists raised (or who made their careers) in Britain. Born of a 1999 workshop in which Boyce and her participants struggled to name anyone beyond Shirley Bassey, The Devotional Collection is an ever-evolving, tactile piece that includes a functional record player, for curious or nostalgic visitors to delve into the stacks. The opposing wall is decorated with the names of some of the 200+ women added to Boyce’s list since the day of that workshop, set out in large bold serif type and decorated with messy concentric outlines, echoing the rapt, obsessive concentration of a pop-loving teenager. Through this collection and her short video Oh Adelaide — a collaboration with sound artist Ain Bailey which can be viewed online here — Boyce interrogates the erasure of women of colour in the music industry, the cultural disposability of women’s art, and the question of who and what is archive-worthy. Who gets to decide what needs to be remembered? What is the importance of collective memory? In this internet age of real-time history-writing — when everyone with a tumblr log-in is a fledgling curator and the V&A is acquiring Katy Perry falsies and Primark jeans as part of a ‘rapid response’ collecting strategy — when does preservation begin to indulge pointless nostalgia, the blinkered arrogance of the present?

Susan Hiller, Measure by Measure // Pavel Büchler, Idle Thoughts // images from the CCA website

There were two works especially from the exhibition that have lingered with me. In Measure by Measure, Susan Hiller creates an industrial sculpture from the ashes of her own work. Annually selecting twenty pieces to be burned, she collects the rubble in long stoppered pipettes, date-stamping and displaying them in thick glass jars. In Pavel Büchler’s Idle Thoughts, the artist frames a year’s diary on twelve single sheets of paper: one month of entries per page, overwritten to create a bruised, tangled mass. As a terminal diary-keeper and life ephemera hoarder, both of these works fill me with a kind of tender horror. Though I rarely even drag my bags of old journals out from under my bed, one of my deepest regrets is still throwing away the thick blue hardback notebook that was my constant teenage companion. Despite the cathartic notion of sending them out into the public sphere in impenetrable disguise, the idea of my most intimate feelings, my profoundest thoughts, being lost in an illegible thicket of ink — a whole year of lifewriting and memory-making made irretrievable. Who on earth can foresee what we’ll consider important, what we’ll want back in our lives later on?

Of course what these pieces might be trying to tell us is that the importance of the work is putting in the work. The importance of the work is in creating something meaningful, even if that entails demolition, decreation. Archive-creation by its very definition requires a strong stomach for destruction, a ruthless eye, Ockham’s razor. If writers are always selling someone out, archivists are always cutting something loose. This deftness of touch, a palpable tautness, can be felt viscerally as one wanders through the Speaking in Tongues exhibition space. The clacking of Büchler’s typewriter, Beckett’s nauseating nod, the long dark cables stretching from television and tape recorder to their impossibly distant power sockets, not an inch to spare: all help to create an environment of austerity, a heavy sense of what is not being shared. Despite the overarching theme of being spoken through, being owned by something else, being out of control and presenting the private, between the regurgitated works, distorted language, and conscientiously bookmarked pages, it soon becomes clear that each of these artists is saying only exactly what they mean to say. Sharing only exactly what they wish to share.

Speaking in Tongues runs at the CCA until March 23rd, though be aware that exhibitions are closed on Mondays. Shouts go out to Francis McKee for an illuminating, fantastically personal tour of the collection. The GWL is currently hosting an exhibition on the LGBTQ* acronym as part of LGBT Month Scotland until February 28th — amongst other events. The Seeing Things project (#seeingthings) has lots of exciting exhibition trips lined up, including provocative sculptor Sarah Lucas at the Tramway, and Louise Bourgeois’ ‘insomnia drawings’ at the Edinburgh Fruitmarket. If you want to get involved, have any questions, or would like to suggest an event, I’m sure organiser Alice would love to hear from you.

metamorphoses

A fortnight ago, in various venues across Glasgow, Scottish art-house collective Cryptic presented its second annual Sonica festival, a curation of unique, innovative, avant-garde science-art; one long weird weekend of “sonic art for the visually-minded”. Had I but world enough and guesties, I’d have been front and centre for everything. As things stood, I had to narrow it down to the unmissable: Michaela Davies’ Compositions for Involuntary Strings. In little over a decade, with an academic background in psychology and philosophy, Sydney-born Davies has already amassed an impressive catalogue of mostly musical projects that figure her as a kind of posthuman Abramović; a bodies-not-buildings version of obstruction-upon-the-natural obsessors Christo and Jeanne Claude; Charcot’s Augustine all grown up and working through her complex ptsd. For this particular fright night, against the eerie stripped-brick backdrop of the Tramway’s main space, Davies’ quartet were strung like strange sweating marionettes, wired to electronic muscle stimulation pads through which a pre-programmed “score” was transmitted, jolting and spasming the musicians’ arms to create a unique “involuntary” performance. The result was a morbidly engrossing evening.

Though aware the experience couldn’t possibly be agonising, from the trailer all I could think of was the Cruciatus Curse. As the audience entered the room, the musicians were in place and ready-wired; twitching legs, tapping feet, and giddy self-awareness giving away the anticipatory adrenaline coursing through their bodies. Building from an introduction of rough grimacing slaps on the bodies of their instruments, each musician moved through artless plucks and bow scores into complex fiddle patterns and tremolo so rapid you expected smoke. As later transpired, at least one of the performers had zero musical training; this team of cyber-musicians propelled by uncaring technology, lost in the satisfying discomfort, the terrifying catharsis of the complete loss of control. You thought of the girl in the red shoes (enchanted or cursed?) who couldn’t stop dancing. It made you queasy.

This hyper-embodied spectacle reminded me of a play I saw recently — Theatre North’s Handel’s Cross, part of this year’s Glasgay festival. Secured to a wooden saltire in a fetish dungeon, the protagonist-narrator talks his audience through a half-hypothetical biography of Baroque composer George Frideric Handel, twisting the tale with fantasy scenarios as his “jailer” enacts gestures of sublime pleasure/pain upon his naked body. A thoroughly unique theatre experience, perhaps most shocking was how quickly one acclimatised to seeing such a scenario on stage. We watch as his body is lashed then the cuts spritzed with perfume, candle wax poured down his chest, nipples clamped, testicles flogged until his body is ruddy and convulsing with pain. His senses overwhelmed by the experience, he begins to fumble his words, to cry out before the blow even strikes. Crucio with consent is the fundamental concept of BDSM, but the implications during performance are quite different. In those moments it was impossible to separate the character from the actor; to ignore the exposed human being beneath the thin surface of the art. ‘In performance art the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real.’ ‘This is a story about bodies,’ the play begins, and you think of Ovid, and forms that change.

In a single week where I finished one job, lost another, moved house only half by choice and celebrated a landmark birthday in the opposite of style, when the Sonica event rolled around it should have made more sense to stay home licking my wounds. But instead the question at the heart of the event’s promotion seemed particularly poignant: are the players playing, or being played? During a post-show Q&A every bit as weird and discordant as the piece itself, one audience member seemed fixated on the concept of voluntariness, arguing endlessly that the performance was indeed self-determined, being composed and pre-programmed and recurrently staged. It was irritating as these things are. Conceptual art rarely holds up to close reading — such rational criticism only serves to derail the creative conversation and to reassert the archaic hierarchy of masculine mind/logic/objectivism over feminine body/experience/subjectivism. Indeed, in this case the body-work of a younger woman was literally being maligned by the mind-interrogation of an older man, and in an exciting moment of spontaneous solidarity the room turned, several female audience members taking back quick control of the conversation. But in a philosophical slippery-slope sense the general point is an interesting one. If one consciously lays the foundations of the bad and painful things that will happen later, if one makes poor choices, diligently scoring one’s own downfall months and years before the spectacle is staged, can one really be said to be acted upon by higher powers, a bit-part in compositions beyond one’s ken? The artists’ bodies were acting involuntarily, out of their control, but their involvement in the project at all was voluntary. How far back can control, complicity, consent be traced? Once onstage, in media res, are the players playing or being played?