The following text is an extended transcript of a lecture given at L’Université Lille 3 on 19th March 2015 about the process of writing a commissioned text for Micromegas Vagabond Flux, the second in a series of 7 publishing projects and mobile exhibitions curated by Tracy Makenna and Edwin Janssen in response to Voltaire’s satirical proto-SciFi short story Micromegas (1752), with work by Bik Van Der Pol, Jacques Longuecolline, Jonn Herschend, Laure Prouvost, Mick Peter, Stefanos Pavlakis & Tobias Kauer, Tracy Makenna & Edwin Janssen, and myself. Micromegas Vagabond Flux is published by artconnexion in partnership with Ed & Ellis PS in a boxed, archival edition of 24 copies, and is supported by the University of Dundee and Fondation de France. A French translation of the lecture will be embedded here shortly. My published commissioned text Dog Star: Dreaming Transmissions from a Cosmonaut Bitch will be available online later in the year.
Approaching the Dog Star*: writing for Micromegas Vagabond Flux
Une conférence pour L’Université Lille 3, 19th March 2015
I thought it might be useful to start by talking about some of the ways in which an artist can write, and the possibilities of writing as part of art practice before I address the process of writing the text for Micromegas Vagabond Flux, and the challenges of responding to Voltaire in the light of recent events.
I am an artist and writer who sees the processes of making and writing as intertwined and at times inseparable. Creating boundaries between making images and objects, and writing texts is not helpful for me. Additionally, I see the act of reading and writing as performative. You will probably be familiar with the term ‘Art Writing’, which might be used to describe some of the things I do. However, I’m not yet sure what I think about this term, or whether it is of any use to me beyond that of convenience, in that it is a term one can use in a simplistic way to categorise and explain aspects of one’s practice. I wonder if, paradoxically, the term might engender a separation between written and visual practice, rather than enable integration of or discourse between the two.
What for the sake of convenience we can call my visual work has always, to one degree or another, started from the idea of text. Unwriting Lispector (2014) is an installation that is designed to sit on a bookshelf. A book, Água Viva by Clarice Lispector (which in English can be translated as ‘Living Water’ – perhaps in French it might be ‘eau vive’?) is placed next to a notebook, open at a blank page. Onto these is projected a looped video of me copying out the Lispector text into the self-same notebook. The footage is reversed so that my hand moves up the page and the words disappear – unwriting. This is a piece about writing and reading as process and performance, about an immersion in a text, and perhaps also about the limits of textual understanding. Other works have incorporated elements such as 100 crime novels which I made myself read one after the other, and a desk with a computer, its screen projected out onto the floor, where I spent periods in the gallery writing a sort of screenplay that attempted to animate the installation that surrounded me – see Sylvia Sylvia Where are You Buried? (2005). My short film The Is Of The Thing (2014) is about our relationship with books and reading. The voiceover is a cut-up / collage, of phrases taken from an email conversation between myself, and the curator who commissioned the work, David Berridge, an experimental writer. In our conversation we talked about the process of reading, and also the fear of reading that sometimes happens when one becomes overwhelmed by ones own ignorance, by the infinitesimal multitude of texts that one will never read.
In What Is A Book If It Will Not Be A BooK (2013) I turn an academic paper / illustrated talk into a performance, with the slides dominating the spoken and written narrative.
In the same way that my ‘visual work’ is embedded with an experience of text, so my writing starts from the visual and the spatial. By this I don’t necessarily mean the kind of experimental typography as exemplified by Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard (1914), but more that to write I must first inhabit a visual field. Writers are so often told not to worry about layout in the first instance – told that this is procrastination. ‘Just start! Just get it down!’. However, before I can start to write on the screen, even in note form, I have to choose a font, think about spacing, set the margins, start to design the page – otherwise the words will not come. I cannot shape the piece unless I have a visual framework from which to start.
Above is a screenshot of an ongoing piece of work, an experimental translation of Freud’s Überdekkerinnerungen, translated in English as ‘Screen Memories’– in French this might be something like ‘souvenirs d’écran’ or ‘couvercle de la mémoire’? I don’t speak German, so I am translating on what the words look like and sound like, working quickly, in the style of the free association of Freudian analysis. The text is formatted so that Freud’s text and mine follow each other paragraph by paragraph, with Freud’s words minaturised and redacted, written through, impossible to read, so that although both our voices are there, visually, my words are screening his: the page is designed to echo the ideas and processes of both Freud’s text and my translation.
A visual articulation of different voices is also used in the text for Micromegas Vagabond Flux – to position the reader within the different narratives at the point of reading, and to enable me to inhabit the voices during the process of writing. Laika (the eponymous cosmonaut bitch) is italicized, Voltaire is diminished in size, and the deliberate use of symbols rather than numbers for the footnotes meant that a visual star could orbit the written Star of the title. I cannot tell you how much this pleases me!
So how did I write it? On the 6th January I received an email from Tracy and Edwin kindly inviting me to write the text in response to Voltaire’s Micromegas. They give me free rein, whilst indicating areas of my practice that might offer starting points: the arena of the ambiguous memoir, the relationships between word and image, the positioning of site and landscape as a repository for personal and collective memory, and walking as a tool for teaching, learning and research. This all seemed good to me, and I think that in the first instance I imagined writing quite an abstract, cerebral sort of piece, probably around place and imagined sites. But then the next day, January 7th, there came the attack upon the offices of the ‘satirical’ magazine Charlie Hebdo, and suddenly Voltaire was everywhere: the poster boy for free speech. It seemed inconceivable that I could write the piece without talking about Hebdo. But the more I tried, the more impossible it became. I talk about these impossibilities at length in the postscript of Dog Star (so in a way I do write about it), but for the purposes of this presentation I’m more interested in how what was impossible shaped what was possible. Thinking through these impossibilities made me angry, angry at the hypocrisy & laziness around the uses and definitions of the term free speech, and the uncritical trumpeting of vague Enlightenment values. What is free speech exactly? Where do its boundaries lie? If, as a feminist activist I receive what I experience as misogynist and intimidating Tweets, should I tolerate them because of the sanctity of ‘free speech’? Is the reason I find them distressing because I am not rational? When I saw the picture of world leaders marching for Hebdo in the newspapers I started counting the number of countries represented wherein its citizens are either locked up, punished, or murdered for ‘free speech’. There were many, including my own. I found Voltaire’s story fascinating and ingenious: but the character of Micromegas paradoxical. In some senses written to be a listener, an observer, a wonderer, he also read as privileged, pompous and self-satisfied. I wouldn’t want to sit next to him at dinner.
So what shaped the piece in the end was anger. I needed a voice that could be angry, that could disrupt the flow of the writing, that could shout at Voltaire and shout at Micromegas, and shout at the violence committed on both sides of any war. I also needed a voice with which I could be playful, a foil for the serious politicised narrative that I wanted to construct around the moon landings. As I read and reread Micromegas I found myself becoming more and more murderous in my mind – I saw myself following him around, muttering and cursing, and I was muttering and cursing and walking around my studio as I read. We have a phrase in English that is to be ‘dogged by’, which is to be cursed by and bound to – as in ‘he was dogged by misfortune’. We also use the description ‘dogged’, to be dogged is to be persistent, stubborn, determined, to keep at it. It was during the process of these cross and grumbling readings that Laika the space dog, the creature betrayed by science and rationality, came to mind – she would follow Micromegas from planet to planet, snapping at his heels and sniffing him out. I wanted allow Laika’s voice to become more and more feral as the piece went on. I was trying to write growls and howls but they looked unconvincing as words – contrived and inauthentic, and read as whimsical rather than fierce. A solution to this was to record myself being a dog, snapping and barking, and then to transcribe the sounds I made onto the page. (At the time of recording I had very bad flu, with fluid filling up my lungs – the recording is interspersed with much coughing and cursing).
In the process of writing there are many influences and desires that shape our texts. The ones that I can consciously acknowledge in Dog Star* include a wish to try to write in different and dialectical voices and the deliberate juxtaposition of personal memory (particularly my memories of watching the moon landings as a very small child) with historical research, political analysis, and fictional narratives, and the use of a postscript to anchor the present with the past. I tried to situate wonder and reality side by side and let them both retain an integrity whilst avoiding the polarities of whimsy and didacticism. And there were other, more sentimental indulgences, for instance – my partner’s fascination with and imaginative love for the outer reaches of our solar system, so when in the first paragraph I write ‘I slipped the leash and spiralled past the pewter planets of the Kuiper belt, through the fractoluminescence of the asteroids, and the comet clouds of icy moons to sail far, far out into the starry deeps’, I am writing for them.
I cannot end without mentioning that most useful of creative tools: serendipity. As I was struggling to finish the main body of the piece I was contacted by the journalist Cath Murray of DIVA magazine who were planning an article about the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, at the RAF Greenham Common military base in Kent, set up in response to the British government’s decision to allow the US Air Force to site Cruise nuclear missiles there. I had been there as a very young woman, and they wanted to interview me about my memories of that time. Suddenly and unexpectedly I had the ending for Dog Star, for here in those memories was Laika embodied. Feral, stubborn, and uncompromising: not pontificating about the sanctity of free speech, but getting dirty and speaking truth to power.
The full text of Dog Star* – dreaming transmissions from a cosmonaut bitch will be available on line later this year.