Not Content: Performance 2, curated by Les Figues Press for LACE’s Public Interest initiative, July 11, 2010
Not Content, an exhibition of sorts curated by Les Figues Press and currently taking place at LACE, brings together an international group of writers-in-residence to investigate the shifting functions of language in private and public spheres. Performance 2 represented a sort of culmination of three text-based visual projects that had been developing within the gallery space, all with the input of visitors.
Before I begin, it might be helpful to offer a mini-primer on conceptual writing for those who are unfamiliar with it, since the work in this show primarily revolves around it. A movement that has been gaining steam in the world of poetics over the last 10 years, conceptual writing has much in common with its visual art predecessor. It eschews craft, emotion, and narrative in favor of employing words as material in the service of stringent concepts or constraints. There is also a sense that we are living in an age when we are surrounded by a vast surplus of text, and the job of the writer now is not to produce more text, but rather to mediate the vast quantity that already exists in order to uncover fresh perspectives and/or hidden meanings. Thus, much conceptual writing consists of shrewdly shifting selected texts from one context into another.
Vanessa Place is a noted conceptual writer who also works as a criminal defense attorney with a specialization in sex offenses. Her recently released book, Statement of Facts, presents the first part of an actual appellate brief from a 2005 case involving the sexual assault and subsequent death of an indigent woman. The evidence of the crime as presented at trial is set forth in narrative form, purporting to be an objective account of the facts in the case. When read as a narrative, however, it becomes apparent how novelistic this “statement” actually is, and thus, how subjective and ambiguous its contents are. What is a fact, and what is not?
At LACE, the pages of the book were mounted over two walls at about waist height, so one had to bend over and move from right to left in order to read them. The story is lurid, full of odd details, and not always so clear in its presentation, thus forcing readers to mull over the entirety of the case and question the motives of the authorities involved. For Performance 2, Place gave a reading from the text that seemed to further abstract its words, shaping them into repetitive rhythms that highlighted the uncomfortable horror of phrases like “oral copulation.”
Divya Victor’s Hellocasts is a multi-faceted project involving many different “authors.” It begins with Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, a poetry book published in 1975 in which the poem consisted of unedited transcriptions of witness testimony from the Eichmann and Nuremberg trials. Dismissed by some critics as “not poetry” at all, the book’s presentation was lauded by others for bearing vivid witness to the Holocaust and foregrounding individual responsibility for its acts. Victor generates even more witnesses through her Hellocasts, in which she dictates Reznikoff’s text and invites participants to transcribe what she says. There is an extra twist: transcriptions must be written in the shape of Hello Kitty, the ubiquitous icon of cutesy. Notable for having no mouth, Hello Kitty is a symbol of pleasure taken in silence, of a branded object that cannot speak for itself. Through Reznikoff’s written words, Victor’s spoken words, the viewer’s act of transcribing them, and the blunt imagery of Hello Kitty, the events of the Holocaust are witnessed and shared by a lively conglomeration of voices.
The far back wall at LACE has for weeks featured a gigantic stenciled image of Hello Kitty, which is filled in with text transcribed by Victor herself, who was in town during the days leading up to the project kick-off. Visitors to the gallery have also been invited to contribute transcriptions during the course of this show. At the Performance 2 event, a group of local artists and writers were rounded up to simultaneously take dictation from Victor via audiotape, in what was cleverly billed as a Feral Cat Attack. On the tape, Victor read the text very slowly and very clearly, stopping to enunciate and spell out any words that might be difficult. Periodically, she would remind us that “none of the words spoken are mine; none of the words written were Charles Reznikoff’s; but all of these words are ours, and all are now yours; and so are those whose words were not heard when you heard my voice.” A few audience members were also picked to help with the transcribing. This went on for 20 minutes or so, during which time the words did come to feel like they belonged to all of us, amounting to a powerful act of remembrance.
Douglas Kearney’s COVERAGE was obviously inspired by the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast, and the media spin that inevitably accompanies such an event. On a long wall in LACE’s back gallery, key words like MESS, TOP KILL, SPILL, and BOOM were stenciled in thick black paint that then dripped ominously downward. Participants were invited to add to the spill, graffiti-style, either filling in missing text or covering up the mess with more spillage, generating a “COVERAGE [that] will overflow and choke, creating its own mess of gulfs.”
Kearney first warmed up by reading from “Showtime in the Burning City,” a poem written several years ago that could just as well be a reaction to the recent case in which an Oakland BART police officer fatally shot a black man who was already handcuffed and on the ground. He then gave the most stunning spoken word performance I have yet to see—cuing some musical accompaniment, he proceeded to rap the words that had been scrawled on the COVERAGE wall. Getting up close to the wall, moving up and down its length, Kearney actually interacted with what people had written and seemed to embody whatever fury, frustration, anger, and disbelief he felt in there, finding jagged rhythms and melodies along the way. I don’t know if it was all improvised on the spot or if there had been some rehearsal beforehand. Regardless, it was an amazing and beautiful feat of performance that congealed and bubbled over with a crowd of voices, nearly drowning out the oil spill itself.