Somewhat retrospective

9 August 2009
Gondola Prow

Somewhat retrospective, thanks to near-zero internet the last ten days.


There are two theories about Venice. One is that the people you see on the gondolas are the dead, transported though the narrow streets on the dark green waters to take a last glimpse of life on earth. Lain back in each others arms they are gazing up at the buildings from their mobile sarcophogi, hoping to catch a last glimpse of some loved one on a sunlit bridge or to see some relative or friend disappearing down a shadowed alley. All day their boats are heading this way and that on this kind of idle farewell tour, steered in an out of the sun and circulated by those cheery but absent-eyed stripy-topped guys, angels of death, all day until the time is come and the gondolas head out en masse, out of the maze of the city and towards the islands of the dead, where they’ll give up their passengers to the darkness. Yesterday, as the sun began to sink I saw two gondolas full of dead Japanese guys, heading out of the canals towards the open water, in a strangely excited state, mutually photographing each other in all directions, cameras pointing from one boat to the other with much gesticulation, shouts, laughter and calls for attention, then turns and more gesticulations to photograph the inhabitants of their own boats, as if each, photographing the photographers whilst themselves being photographed, were somehow determined to catch the final moment of their departure.

The other theory is that those of us walking on the islands of Venice are the dead, and that the people in the gondolas are living, tourists in fact, come here for daytrips to see what our echo of a life is like. Up here on the land we are going about our business (which is not much), walking here and there, eating in the cafes, sweating, laughing, talking, going through what we might think of as an echo of our former lives, staged here in this this endless ruined filmset, with its endlessly interrupted and incomplete tangle of streets. All day the tourists gawp at us, staring up to see again and again how lifelike, and yet how strange we dead are. All day they drift past on the gondolas, going through the dark passages of the canals, taking photographs as best they can of the liminal space we inhabit, capturing at 8 or 9 or even 12 megapixels our  glorious decay and that of our dead city, and at night they retreat, heading off to safer places, the mainland, home.

My copy of Nabakov meanwhile, used these days as much as a weapon as it as a reading book, accumulates mosquito blood.

In X’s apartment I develop a new way of killing the mosquitos that lurk each night on the ceiling, a method that involves launching the book, face upwards, in sudden vertical movement all the way to the ceiling. It’s a joy like lift off at Houston to see the book thundering directly upwards to smash into an insect on the white plaster high above with a satisfying thump. The upstairs neighbors must love this too, esp when I am dancing around in glee at my (too rare) latenight success. I imagine this would be a strange death though. Sensing nothing perhaps, or only feeling the terminal updraft, or else glimpsing a dark rectangle, ominous, mysterious, headed at high speed, perhaps turning mosquito head slightly to make out the looming words of the title Speak, Memory before sudden oblivion.

Fading Fast

28 July 2009

I have often noticed that after I bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it. Although it lingered on in my mind, its personal warmth, its retrospective appeal had gone and, presently it became more closely identified with my novel than with my former self, where it seemed to be so safe from the intrusion of the artist. Houses have crumbled in my memory as soundlessly as they did in the mute films of yore, and the portrait of my old French governess, whom I once lent to a boy in one of my books, is fading fast, now that it is engulfed in the description of a childhood entirely unrelated to my own.

[Nabakov, in Speak, Memory]


‘Dr Paine of the Space Center in Houston says: “This flight was a triumph for the squares of this world who aren’t ashamed to say a prayer now and then.” Is this the great adventure of space? Are these men going to take the step into regions literally unthinkable in verbal terms? To travel in space you must leave the old verbal garbage behind: God talk, country talk, mother talk, love talk, party talk. You must learn to exist with no religion, no country, no allies. You must learn to live alone in silence. Anyone who prays in space is not there.’

[From: Word Virus. The Williams Burroughs Reader. Eds J Grauerholz & I Silverberg. London: Flamingo]

Changes Göteborg

25 July 2009

My work City Changes will be presented as part of Göteborg Biennial which runs from September 5 – November 15 2009. Titled What A Wonderful World, the show is curated by Celia Prado and Johan Pousette. As preparation my friend the curator Ben Borthwick and I had a conversation about the work, focused on City Changes and the process of making it, the 7,500 words of which have been artfully excerpted (or chopped) to what’s below, to feature in the Biennal catalogue. If I get time (which may take some time) I’ll post the full version here later on. In the meantime thanks to Ben for the great conversation, and to Hester for the transcription.


BB: With City Changes what strikes me is that it takes a kind of Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis model but instead of synthesis being an end point, you imagine that it could go on reversing itself forever. Can you talk about how you structured the piece and how you thought about the movement from one text to the next?

TE: I was interested to create a text work that allowed me to archaeologise the process that had gone into it. We understand that speech is provisional; that speaking is a temporary, sketching process, but there’s always a temptation to present written textual artefacts as somehow solid or permanent. I’ve always been tuned to the fact that a text is somehow just a layering of the different choices that are made in its writing.

One influence for City Changes was the ‘track changes’ function in word processing software which I’d come across working on multi-authored admin documents. Rewritten by several persons these documents become colourful, slightly schizophrenic, endlessly commented on, cut and expanded. I began to think about these ‘layered documents’ as a form I could explore.

City Changes is a binary writing task, in which I describe and  re-describe a city – first as an urban space of stasis and then as one that changes all the time. In the beginning, I was keeping daily track of the changes, colour coding them. So every morning,  I re-wrote what I’d written the day before but I slowed down a bit for a while because it was doing my head in!  What attracted me, I suppose, was this idea of archaeologising – making choices visible and exploring these contradictory versions of urban space.

BB: Did you start with certain models for cities in mind? Some are very clear – the totalitarian city, the psychedelic city, the neo-liberal ‘libertarian’ city – and then others are more opaque; they don’t quite fit any clear model of cities we know or recognise.

TE: I didn’t pre-plan it – I approached it much more as a kind of live improvising game, unfolding over several weeks. I wrote the first text and for the second simply made cheeky changes to reverse its meaning. After that, each time I revisited the text I was discovering new ways that I could propose either stillness or change. Partly it was about identifying models, as you suggest; thinking about cities and the languages and structures that are used to define them. Just as often though my approach emerged from the writing in quite a macro way. I saw it as a poetic job as well as a conceptual one, but it also felt strangely like how I think making sculpture must feel -because you’re always stuck working with this object that’s left from the day before. You might really wish you hadn’t deleted that word, or you’re sick to death of a particular sentence but you’re wary what happens to the object if you erase it. It was a very interesting moment-by-moment improvisational process that felt like a battle between two parts of myself; the part of me that loves or thrives in disorder or chaos, or the part of me that loves change versus the part of me that likes some peace and quiet.

BB: Which of the cities would you want to live in?

TE: I was very happy with the city where everything was fossilised. The stasis it summoned seemed really permanent.

BB: [Laughs] But to live in?

TE: [Also laughing] I don’t know.

BB: How do you situate your different practices in performance, writing and art practice in relation to each other?

TE: I used to find it almost impossible to reconcile my different activities, but lately I’ve been thinking about things that pull them together despite the shifts I make between forms. The first through-line is the way that my works occupy, or unfold in, time and space. There’s also this sense that often I’m co-opting the reader/viewer as a kind of active, imaginative agent who will unpack what I’ve done, at least in the works that involve language… So both sculpting time and space, and using language to conjure or make events and to pull viewers into relations with imagined objects, actions or spaces seem like useful frames around the work.

BB: What about the production process? You often work with a group…

TE: Of course all the work I’ve done with Forced Entertainment has been produced in a constant negotiation of the opinions and whims of six or more other people! By comparison, I’m often not answerable to anybody else in the space of either writing as writing or art-making, which opens some different possibilities.

BB: City Changes emerged from a shared editing processes, while in the work itself you’ve taken that collective process and made it a form for your solitary practice.

TE: I hadn’t thought of that. City Changes is absolutely a process of contestation – I’m writing and re-writing so that in the end every word in the text gets flipped or spun in some way. I suppose in one sense I’m mischievously re-enacting the kinds of contestation that go on when working with others. In one sense it’s flat, and in another sense what you get is me arguing with myself!

BB: One of the really striking aspects of the piece is the use of colour. Did you just follow whatever arbitrary colour scheme the software offered you, or have you used colours that evoke the moods in each scenario? I mean, it has a very clinical look to it but then there’s this vibrant colour scheme.

TE: I started with the most obvious colour – red, then did the next set in blue and so on. Making 20 versions you soon run out of easily distinguishable colours and the palette gets more and more complex. There’s some delight in the way that a procedure like the colour-coding, which is meant to generate transparency, in fact generates more confusion.

BB: What’s important to you about having this archaeological view on its own production? What’s your interest in archives?

TE: The interest is basically political because the twentieth century, and the twenty-first so far, have produced this kind of Capitalism that’s increasingly obsessed with surfaces –presenting artefacts that have their production hidden. Perhaps coming from performance, my interest is more in failure and in failing bodies, in processes that are visible and exposed. I’m interested to make objects that declare their contingency and their failure to a certain extent – that declare the fact that they are formed out of intention or intentions –the fact that they arise from, out of, processes. I find that important in face of a politics, and a cultural context, so based on hermetic positions and statements.

BB: One of the ways I read City Changes is as a kind of score, both formally and in the narratives. It brings to mind the work of someone like Steve Reich, or Bruce Nauman, or Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, where they will start with a phrase and then explore the possibilities of that phrase from different perspectives…

TE: I love these kinds of structural approaches to meaning-making – in sound, language, dance, even in more pictorial practices. I’ve never been interested in writing that won’t acknowledge its status as writing, as arrangements of signs coded in a particular way. Of course that’s what people like Steve Reich, Nauman, or Georges Perec have done by exploring simple forms and rules – creating structures where, as a viewer or listener, you can start to see what the system is and therefore you can read decisions or moves that are being made. I find that much more interesting than some idea of supposed freedom.


Ben Borthwick is a curator and writer who works at Tate Modern, where he has curated exhibitions like Rodchenko and Popova, Gilbert & George, and The Irresistible Force. He is a specialist in sound related practices and, in addition to curating Bill Fontana and Bruce Nauman’s sound installations in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, he contributes to the music magazine The Wire. In 2008, he co-founded the public art organization Butcher’s that has done projects with Tim Etchells, Marcos Chaves and Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa.



24 July 2009

N (who is 5) says these words of greeting as I walk out of the train station and towards the car.

You're a bad man sometimes.  You say you can fly but really you are walking. Is that right?


C wrote: this lake is actually very deep and supposed to have a british plane from WW II in it, with it's pilot/the remains of him… It is in the East and they say that the GDR neither had the money to look for the plane nor did they care. If my diving brings light into the story, i'll let you know.


Hi Rabih

Just to say that I finally went into the bank today and organised the transfer of the fee for your lovely Vienna text. Thanks again.

They told me the transfer should take a week or so.

The woman who served me at the bank wanted to know what country you were in. I told her Lebanon. She said "is that a country?" I said, er,  yes. She said she never heard of it. She explained that she thought that Lebanon was a language, possibly connected to Libya. I said no, it's a country. A small one. Where? She wanted to know. I said bordering Israel, Syria, Jordan.

She shrugged. She said "You learn something every day".

I'm sorry about this. Also – it's not intended as an excuse if the money is late – the personal knowledge of the bank tellers does not affect the money transfer.

all the best


19 July 2009

She takes you by the arm and leads you to the bushes by the road, up at the place where the street on the hill joins the much larger road, just by the tower of the hospital, intent on smelling these flowers for which she does not know the name in English.

Look, she says, "Jorgovan! Lovely. What are they called here?"

You don't know.

"So beautiful. Jorgovan. The partisans loved these. So many songs about them, how the "jorgovan" are in blossom and how happy the partisans are.."



as we stand waiting in the subway one rough looking quasi-homeless guy ahead of us on the platform stoops to pour water from a bottle down into the gulley of the tracks. His friend meanwhile squats on the tiles that bounce florescent light and holds his hands out to wash them in the stream of water, the excess falling, dispersed/redirected and unseen to the ground below.


X mentions a couple he met (English/French) who when speaking of their already bilingual kid mentioned that they will soon 'introduce' Chinese. What you mean X asked – you're going to learn Chinese? No, they'll just hire some nanny-type person to speak Chinese to the kid. X looks a bit blank. Chinese, the mother says, it's the economic language of the future. To teach him that – it's a great investment we can make for him.


12 July 2009

A curious melancholy about this story:

A Manhattan skyscraper in one of the most security-conscious parts of New York has become the scene of an unlikely missing persons mystery.

Police are trying to work out what has happened to a cleaning woman who vanished halfway through her shift on Tuesday evening at an office skyscraper near the reconstruction site at Ground Zero.

Eridania Rodriguez, 46, punched in for work at No 2 Rector Street at 5pm local time. She put on her blue uniform, chatted with other after-hours workers and was last seen on security cameras at around 7pm. Then, she disappeared.

The building’s cameras did not record her leaving the skyscraper. She didn’t meet up with coworkers for her regular subway ride home to Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Her purse and clothes remained in her locker. Her cleaning trolley was found abandoned on the eighth floor, a space recently vacated by the city’s transportation department.

Reminded me a lot of the very short story About Lisa in my Endland collection. Esp this part, the end of the narrative:

“Later (probably July) the automatic doors in all the buildings in the city seem to ignore her and no longer open anymore like they know she is no longer human or worse perhaps no longer a living thing of any kind.

Only by waiting for a stray dog to trigger the infra-red can Lisa get in anywhere.


Lisa gets more bad luck. She gets a skin complaint and falls out with her mum. Her new job at The Institute For Physical Research doesn’t last.

Before long Lisa can’t even see her image on the CCTV screens in town and she knows she’s disappearing and she understands quickly that this is the punishment the gods have meated out for her vengeance of her poor innocent sister.


People in the street try to talk to Lisa and try to act like everything is OK, but machines and most animals ignore her.

Lisa changes her name by deed poll. She calls herself something more suited to her age, race, sex and occupation. She calls herself SILENCE.

And from that moment on she lives up to her name“.


From a talk by Chris Petit yesterday at Site Gallery:

Borges describing London as a tattered labyrinth.


A pioneering approach to corporate security based on homeopathic medicine in which the body of a corporation or government department is encouraged to develop resistance to problems like fraud, corruption, extortion and suchlike by encountering them in minute amounts.

Here at XXXX the head of security encourages breeches in the computer firewall from time to time, even hires people that he knows will be sloppy with their swipe cards and passwords. A small number of incidents a year is what he’s aiming at, nothing too dramatic. Just enough to keep us strong.
And does it work?
Well, they lose thousands..
Yes. They lose thousands of pounds each year in direct ways, as well as untold amounts more in lost business, stolen research findings, leaked info to competitors etc. but so far at least he has management convinced that things would be much much worse if they weren’t following his advice.


6 July 2009

on each steel post
of the airport perimeter fence
a black crow


she tells her two year old daughter
that when mum is away she can spend the whole week naked, in the garden, with no shoes
not anticipating that this week will be nothing but rain
and that back home her partner will face scenes and protests about the broken promise


the game they invented
to sit on the balcony, talking softly late night
and meanwhile to watch the highrises out across the street behind the wrecked school and the stunted wasteground
and as the night went on the windows in those buildings would go dark except for this one
and that one
and that one
here and there a scattering of non-sleepers
lit up in orange or in a boxed storm of flickering tv blue
and how they'd try to figure which ones of those still awake up there on the tenth floor were watching the same film
and how in the end they'd lay playful bets on which would go to bed next
talking, and talking
but at the same time with an eye always to those distant windows
to see whose team would check out first


Memories of Michael Jackson (Excerpt from a Longer work)

29 June 2009

 I was black. I was a child star in a band with my brothers. We lived in America. My father beat me. I remember we had to practise dance routines. At first we played in clubs then we were on television. I did not have a normal childhood. People liked me. Later when I grew up I made some albums that people liked a lot, especially Thriller and another one, the name of which I have forgotten. I did a dance called moonwalking. My video for Thriller was a big thing on MTV – a television station that showed short films to go wtih pop music. I was a crossover act – I appealed to rock and dance music, I also bridged the racial divide. My favourite friends were a chimpanzee called Bubbles and an old actress called Elizabeth Taylor. I had a place to live called Neverland. I shared my bed with young boys. Sometimes I had legal disputes and negative publicity about that. I had a fun fair in the grounds of my house. I bought all the Beatles songs. I lost all my money. I had plastic surgery many times. I had a skin condition that takes away the pigment from black skin. People said I looked like a freak. I bought the bones of the Elephant Man. I was isolated from the world. I had three children and I tried to keep their faces hidden from the cameras. I died of some sort of heart attack because I was using too many drugs in crazy combinations.


Smell of Elzabeth Taylor. Feel of the palm of Bubbles. Tunnel of Love. Own face reflected in an Oscar? Sound of young boy recovered from cancer breathing in a bed next to me. Paparazzi flashes in front of my eyes. As a kid – sleeping on the couch in dressing room, couch covered in peacock feathers and dropped sequins. The sound of other humans screaming, heard from 30 feet below, passing thru concrete to the dressing room, or to the long concrete tunnel that leads up to the stadium stage. The texture of Zombie make up. Sunglasses. Looking at pictures of myself on TV from years ago and not knowing who that is, not able to get inside that person. Dance moves – I move only once and they all flow back through me.