The author may well be dead but readers are alive and relatively well in a cellar in Salford (UK) and, occasionally, in a polite version of Tourette’s, between varying pauses, reading out apparently random sentences from Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography ‘Words’.
This is the closing performance of Maeve Rendle’s staged ‘Po.et.i.cal On Summary In Freedom’ in which a nine strong reading group are camped out in Stuart Edmundson’s ‘Black’ cellar gallery and producing an unsynchronized communal muttering by reading highlighted passages from Sartre’s book.
Historically, ‘performance’ works have intentionally manufactured discomfort. Rendle is happy to generate a degree of unease, to be less combative but possibly more subtly irritating.
We depend on the communal cement of an assumption that language is a tool which allows the communication of human truths, whilst all still retaining a universal suspicion of language’s actual social use. The devious manipulations of the unconscious and the social conditioning of a populace by political administrations and their sound bite simplifications of language’s knotty operations make sure of that.
But this is not just a staged metaphor for the rumblings and grumblings of a Jungian id camped in the basement of the human psyche. The skepticism about language’s function -the automatic inauthenticity of its articulations - dismisses the autonomy of consciousness itself as a delusion. If individual autonomy is an illusion then clearly the concept of ‘the author’ is also. The authorial subject has been well and truly kicked into submission.
Rendle’s art school background makes this kind of hamster wheel of speculation almost a given within her work but something else is going on.
The detailed observations and dissections of a novelist’s eye and the parallel imperceptible hum of an interior monologue just highlight the sequential linguistic domino effect of language’s flow, the comforting spine of a narrative, that’s so impossible, at a gut level, to dismiss.
Within the novel form (and let’s face it the ‘autobiography’ is as unreliable as any other writing), words often obscure the bigger picture by clarifying detail, trim things to essentials. What does this mean? What is actually essential in any particular movement, gesture, moment...?
In Rendle’s piece there is a gesture towards the experiential and visible, and the wider implications of that which this implies: the image, a movement, this moment becomes this anticipated redirection of narrative. Here the physicality of announced words and the physicality of the reader-performer’s bodies are curiously bifurcated, they are separated into two physicalities: the old-fashioned performative presence of the human form and the parallel infrastructure of the mental operations of the other.
When bodies are used to obscure, to frustrate speeches presumed operations, an ambient tone of opposition results. To what, in particular, God knows; but it still leaves you feeling pretty good.