&Now: Blast Radius – writing and the other arts

by Anna Gibbs


Experimental writing often seems like a rather small and obscure – if vivacious and highly engaged – field of practice in Australia. But a trip to the biannual ‘&Now’ festival of experimental writing at CalArts in Los Angeles last week served as a reminder of the different kinds of energy that can be created both by critical mass and by the cross-currents activated in the expanded field formed when writing conjoins, cooperates or collides with other practices. The festival, whose theme this year was ‘Blast Radius: Writing and the Other Arts’, covered work ranging from the relationship between text and image in both print and electronic forms, data-driven writing practices, text-based video and sound art, performance and happening to the ‘hybrid essay’. Four sets of four parallel sessions a day and evening performances over three days made for an exciting but exhausting schedule and the need for excruciating decisions about which sessions to attend and which had to be foregone. In addition to readings and performances, panels and presentations addressed histories and theories of experimental writing and its relationship with the other arts and with wider debates in the Humanities around – for example – New Materialisms, and posed larger questions of the role of experimental writing in a broader cultural politics.

Hosted by a range of universities across the US since 2004, and held in Paris in 2012, the participants in 2015 were overwhelmingly US-based. Although the concerns of the festival were familiar, the form taken by debate about them was often not. The event was haunted by a controversy that erupted at a performance by Kenneth Goldsmith titled ‘The Body of Michael Brown’ at ‘Interrrupt3’, a conference at Brown University held the previous week. Here Goldsmith, a white male literary celebrity (known for his promotion of a form of conceptual writing he terms ‘uncreative writing’) read from his edited version of the autopsy report on Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager shot by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. As he did so he stood in front of Brown’s much circulated graduation photo, made to serve as a backdrop for his performance. Not surprisingly, the performance produced responses ranging from disquiet to outrage (for a more detailed account of the event see Hollie Pich’s piece in Overland). Issues around the marginalisation and appropriation of black bodies and bodies of work were explicitly addressed in response to the Interrupt event by Lucas de Lima at a performance panel on ‘mØngreL PôeTiKs’. (De Lima is the author of ‘Wet Land’, a collection of poems driven by the death of his friend Ana Maria who was taken by a crocodile. Her death was also the subject of a National Geographic television documentary, arguably reducing it to a voyeuristic entertainment, and de Lima’s work deals directly with questions of the ethics and poetics of representation of such a violent death, including his own. De Lima also recently posted a manifesto online on behalf of The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo in response to an article about conceptual writing in Jacket2. The Mongrel Coalition Manifesto can be read at www.gringpo.com.)

The performed manifesto can be a powerful thing, but in many ways it seemed to me that de Lima was addressing a crowd already on side and looking for ways to move beyond outrage to a kind of work that might bring about discussion of the politics of aesthetics and might even begin to make possible the – small but critical – shifts in consciousness that art and writing can sometimes help bring about. Elsewhere at the festival questions of race and ethnicity were actually being engaged in powerful ways and giving rise to the kinds of discussion about how to produce such shifts that, it seems to me, we don’t have often enough in Australia, where the scene is much smaller.

On a panel called ‘Violence, Trauma and Interrogation in Sound, Visual and Performance Poetry’, Douglas Kearney, Christine Wertheim and Carlos Soto-Román each presented riveting performances and engaged in a discussion about the articulation of trauma in art and the difference between saying something ‘about’ trauma and enabling an audience to sense something of what it feels like. As Douglas Kearney commented, doing the latter means moving beyond the kinds of voyeuristic spectacle presented to us by the television news to forge a kind of proximity between audience and performer. This in turn requires an awareness of the ways in which audiences come to habituate to certain performance styles, so that, for example, white audiences might come to expect a black performer to yell at them and might even enjoy it, in much the same way horror movies are to be enjoyed.

Kearney’s own, incredibly powerful, and sometimes darkly and very painfully funny multi-media work, ‘The Grunt’ was both haunted and driven by the ‘real-life’ scream torn out of an African-American man dragged behind a pick up truck by three white men until he couldn’t scream any more. It made palpable the way the grunt as the ‘ur utterance’ or ‘mutterance’ into which such screams are transformed in the routine of everyday life resists writing as the rational articulation of meaning and instead marks a form of resistance to something “too hard, or too much”. Kearney’s performance – a mix of live and pre-recorded sound – orchestrated the grunt, lifting it out of the complex typography of the concrete poems projected behind him and moving it through the registers from scream to complaint and into a kind of riff first heard in a speech by Martin Luther King and weirdly echoed in a song by Public Enemy. Along the way Kearney produces a meta-commentary on the effects of performance until a sort of philosophy of the grunt begins to emerge and the grunt itself stretches to take on an affirmative force: ‘it’s too much for me but I’ll go on’.

Christine Wertheim’s piece ‘Madonnas and Child’ performed a section from her book mUtter-bAbel (Counterpath, 2014), in which Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army are dramatised not as isolated madmen but instead made to appear as the inevitable symptoms and living channels of a global economy of violence circulating through familial, neo-colonial, military and religious formations. In this geo-psychic political system, the first world dominates the developing world, and omnipotent baby men dominate women and children, venting their infantile dissatisfactions upon them. Kony, personifying the system, appears as a massive, blocked up baby, struggling to breathe through the holes he pierces in female bodies. The audience must get inside Kony, feeling what in us resonates with the infantile and helpless rage he feels and which he tries to alleviate by his orchestration of ats of violence on women’s bodies. This resonance is key to understanding the ways in which Kony himself is an infantalised product of neo-colonialism. As Wertheim performs, a list of the names of non-returning girls abducted by the LRA is projected, connecting the particularity of each of the girls with their common fate. The list is sickeningly, dizzyingly long, and as the performance goes on, it starts to tremble and slip sideways and the names begin to merge in a blur of speed as we feel the world slip out of control and boundaries beginning to dissolve into a frightening and undifferentiated chaos. Wertheim, a brilliant performer, and one of the organisers of the conference, teaches at CalArts, but she is an Australian and her work should be better known here, both as feminist theory and as the art practice through which it is developed and articulated.

Carlos Soto-Román performed a multi-media work collaboratively produced with Martin Gubbins and dramatizing passages from his book Alternative Set of Procedures (Corollary Press 2014). This work, provoked by the Bush administration’s notorious Manual of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques and the CIA’s Kurback Manual, deals with torture at Guantanamo Bay, but also in Chile. If history repeats itself depressingly familiar ways from one site of torture to the next, the revelation of the codification of methods of torture also allows us to see something of the diabolical inventiveness of the torturers as their methods continue to evolve. In this work, the ‘stress positions’ detailed by the Bush era manual are visited as stations of the cross where the thoughts and memories of those tortured are voiced against the background of a pulsing heartbeat, bursts of police radio and the sounds of a crime scene. The piece also appropriates from other texts, and through these recontextualisations the state itself comes to appear as a sleeping psyche, needing to be woken from its bad dream – yet the work ends with a long beep, as if some one has died.

Meanwhile, a new NEA (National Endowment of the Arts) survey has mapped the engagement of arts audiences in the US and reports that nationally, attendance at flagship ballet, opera, theatre and galleries are declining since 1992. One wonders if the GFC might have had something to do with this, though there is also the possibility that neo-liberalism has effected a shift in what is valued. But it also seems that in California in particular, fewer members of arts audiences are white (40% now as opposed to 55% in 1992), and fewer have college degrees (31% rather than 40%) than nationally. If participation in the arts by people of colour in California is growing, it is not in the ‘benchmark areas’, but in activities taking place in less formal venues (like bars and cafes) and in more participatory activities including art classes, and open mic poetry readings. And ultimately, this seems to be feeding into and energising the experimental writing scene at those points where writing meets the other arts, as in ‘&Now’.