Constraint and construction, body as page

Poet and reader inside poem in procession.

I talk about meaning all day long. I don’t feel that language comes out of my body, but rather that I observe and recycle it. Maybe my voice originates in my body, but language is a visitor that changes form all the time. I use my body all day long. I don’t feel that I am my body, but that embodiment is an idea that I observe and recycle. Maybe I originate in my body, but I am a visitor that changes form all the time. Is the idea that emerges from this line of thinking a concept? I think about what I want to do with poetry all day long. Maybe poetry originates in the space around me and I observe and recycle it. Is this a concept?

I engage in the conceptual body practices of yoga and butoh as a way of experimenting with the extraction and recontextualization of the body from public space to a collective space. With the guidance of a teacher, I follow directions while making decisions about how to interpret instructions for my own purposes of discovery and experience. In yoga practice, I enjoy the idea of giving up control of my own body for an entire hour in order to move according to the creative decisions of another. Often with my writing, I set rules for the poem and then let the language move within them. In both instances, something unexpected often happens.

Butoh is a bodily movement practice that emerged in reaction to modern dance. Instead of focusing on the shape that the body should make, the practitioner interprets the teacher’s prompts in their own way. For two hours, we writhe or crawl or walk at various speeds, become trees or reach for their fruit. Fall and die over and over. It is a time away from language, but a time when language is incubating or its elements are transforming into new foundations. What feels most related to my poetry practice is the allowance to go somewhere unexpected framed by an abstraction of ideas about how we think we move in the world. My body is a language that doesn’t always have to make sense.

A major difference between my bodily practices and my composition of poetry is the idea of performance. I’m adamant that I am not a performer. I don’t understand the value of others watching how I move my body. However, I am acutely aware during the process of composition that I want readers to share in the experience of the poem in multiple ways. I am creating prompts for reading as much as I am following the ones that I’ve created. The poem is also a space that I’m creating, a site of experimentation, sometimes messy and sometimes overly rigid, an explosion in explanation of some terrain rendered in language.

Notes toward an anthropological process

From 'Dossier on the Site of a Shooting.' Image by Paul Soulellis.

Three things I do: 

1. Dossier

“Dossier on the Site of a Shooting,”[1] published by GaussPDF in March 2015, presents pieces of evidence I gathered in an attempt to better understand the Trayvon Martin murder, the George Zimmerman acquittal, the lack of protest in Sanford emphasized in the news: notes from the site visit, silent iPhone video recording of the site, written site description, interviews with residents of Sanford, Google Maps screen shots, and other web media such as news accounts.

A review by Paul Soullellis in Rhizome describes the form this way: “Gallagher’s piece ‘reads’ like a dérive through a haunted crime scene, at times poignant, but my own interest is in its performative quality as a publishing event. In confronting her own understanding of the perplexing series of events, she challenges our own expectations — what to call it, what form to give it, how to disperse it.” He says the project allowed him to “shadow her movements in some way, just as she traced a path through the … events. I physically performed the dossier — moving, dragging, watching, engaging with Gallagher’s material in a relational way. Reading.”[2]

Soulellis suggests his engagement with “Dossier” invokes the contemporary experience of reading. Shifting across forms, platforms, and types of “information” is actually how most of us know what we think we know about the Trayvon Martin murder. I find this method of handling volatile, heavily mediated social materials more troubling and revealing than if dealt with through the highly disjunctive language of modernism, or even just language alone. Many situations worth writing about now need some engagement of the changing landscape of how we get information. The dossier model presents to readers a set of disjunctions between platforms, sources, and media, and like the file of a citizen-detective, insinuates readers in a reexamination of the case.

2. Transcription

I often see my work as presenting evidence. My job is to observe well and look in the right places, and part of that involves recording and transcribing. I love listening back to audio recordings; they reveal how consistently experience does not capture events. Audio recording doesn’t select like the human ear. Every sound is collected equally, landscape flattened into soundscape.

My first book, We Are Here, is ninety-nine examples of people reading maps, retracing steps, arguing over or discussing directions. For a period of time I brought my recording device with me everywhere. I found one thing consistently happened: much time was spent consulting maps and self-orienting — and the language of that was not only interesting but often funny. It is a weird, unsettling experience to hear yourself talking in a language you apparently use all the time — and so does everyone else — but no one has ever noticed. It reminded me of a quality of Georges Perec’s work I love: his capacity for capturing things that are so ubiquitous we don’t notice them. So I collected ninety-nine examples and published them.

Using recording technology is a truly contemporary practice. Not only is it woven into every moment of our lives, but using it as artists allows us to present evidence that perception and reflection never could.

3. Fictionalization

Most of the writing I do now is based in direct experience, including research experience, documenting efforts to find out “what happened” or playing with that concept. Among my influences are Zora Neale Hurston — her moving back and forth between anthropology and fiction, often using the same materials in both — and Tan Lin, who years ago started rewriting news stories as if they were about him, or his family and friends. In Seven Controlled Vocabularies, the painter Bruce Pearson, who loves food, is rewritten as a chef; in an untitled section of Lin’s as-yet unpublished novel Our Feelings Were Made by Hand, a news story of an old man who died and left a strange collection of objects is rewritten as a story about Lin’s uncle. Lin’s strategy not only plays with fictionalization and autobiography but also engages the role of mass media in our sense of identity, the ways in which identity is already ambient, diffuse, mediated.

Recently, this strategy has led me to a new approach to nature writing. I take reports of ecological disaster from around the world and rewrite them, blending them with both personal experience in Florida and eco-horror stories, anything from Lovecraft to popular film. It’s not enough to write a sad story about a cute, lovable dying species. The sweet story in The New Yorker about how friendly the soon-to-be-extinct Florida Scrub Jay is never mentions that, while nice to humans, they will swarm and peck out the brains of an enemy mockingbird through its eyes. Species and survival are complicated, messy, and so is our species’s likely future. It seems to me a certain amount of fictionalization helps increase the impact of the news, makes it even more true, unpalatable, more obviously undigestible in the way the truth of our own species’s death is undigestible.

At the same time, I like the idea of a nature writing that is already second-order, and that in some way reverses the formula of simple truth-in-witness empiricism. And then sometimes I still write from direct experience. I make no effort to distinguish. The effects of the writing are what matter.

1. Kristen Gallagher, “Dossier on the Site of a Shooting” (San Francisco: GaussPDF, 2015).

2. Paul Soulellis, “Digital Publishing Unzipped,” Rhizome, March 18, 2015.

Hysterically Real

1. Hysterically Real (United States: Internet, 2009) makes Conceptual artworks and performances. By applying a poetic and often metaphorical language, Real wants to amplify the astonishment of the spectator by creating compositions or settings that generate tranquil poetic images that leave traces and balances on the edge of recognition and alienation.

2. HR’s Conceptual artworks appear as dreamlike images in which fiction and reality meet, well-known tropes merge, meanings shift, past and present fuse. Time and memory always play a key role. By investigating language on a meta-level, HR often creates several practically identical works, upon which thoughts that have apparently just been developed are manifested: notes are made and then crossed out again, “mistakes” are repeated.

3. Hysterically Real’s works focus on the failings of communication, which are used to visualize reality, the attempt of dialogue, the dissonance between form and content and the dysfunctions of language. In short, the lack of clear references is a key element in the work. By manipulating the viewer to create confusion, HR tries to grasp language. Transformed into art, language becomes an ornament. At that moment, lots of ambiguities and indistinctnesses, which are inherent to the phenomenon, come to the surface.

4. HR works are on the one hand touchingly beautiful, on the other hand painfully attractive. Again and again, the artist leaves us orphaned with a mix of conflicting feelings and thoughts.

5. Hysterically Real currently lives and works in Buffalo, New York. HR is uncomfortable with all of these claims. HR is comfortable claiming to make picture books. HR is comfortable claiming to make poetry.

Gossip as method

The corruption of information hierarchies

Files of the Women’s Art Library, Goldsmiths, University of London. Photo courtesy Anne Krinsky.

It was suggested to me that I write about work I do in contribution to the attempt at pluralizing what-could-be-considered Conceptual writing, and put it into the context of other cultural productions. I am also keen to explore the potential of otherwise cultural productions where concept is intrarelated to body and experience. Not clever-idea-led writing where appropriation of found text moves language from one master narrative to another, but embodied replies to institutional hails. Repetition distorted by subjective desire; echoing news bulletins as comedy; regurgitating instruction manuals with stomach acid or lyric; having abortions; being sick in the street; karaoke; going to work, not going to work; not responding to emails — cultural expression rich in information to be repeated into poetics.

I am also interested in how such gestures contribute to the possibilities of research, cultivating forms of practice-knowledge. One such form of cultural production or activity that is both polluting and creative within systems of information is gossip.

Gossip is a kind of folk art, activated through oral culture and queer, radical, and female communities. It exists through repetition, subversion, communication, and relation. We can tune into gossip as a radical approach to art history or we can do it as method, as a mode of composition. As an example of a work made through gossip-as-method, I offer a poem formed from an index of posters held in the Women’s Art Library. To make the poem, the titles of posters — as labeled in the index — were connected into miniature arrangements of meaning. This was a process of pattern-matching, weaving the text into little stories. Gossip-as-method means reacting against the hierarchies of information, of archival content and official language. Fragments outside the frames, and the frames themselves interact to become consequential plot. Accidents of textual organization become gags, a comedy of recognition, and deliberate fabulations between statements become character and event.

She took off her clothes and danced
at the Drill Hall in October

Give me Love Sonnets
try self-defense

A woman’s cycle
screen-print it

Where have all the feminists gone?
The landscape of Cornwall

The poster index is not a snapshot of UK feminism in the early 1980s to early 1990s, but a heterotopic set that whispers about struggle and dissent. It speaks of Irish Centre openings, Women of Color exhibitions, benefit discos, Marxist reading groups, sexual health clinics, domestic violence awareness events, Artists’ Union meetings, cabaret nights, tarot readings, nuclear arms protest marches, equal pay rallies, LGBT collectives. It speaks of the material survival of women as art practitioners, workers, mothers, as well as the histories of these categories. The geography and the milieu are very apparent — it’s so British and it’s sooo ’80s, as it is fabulously feminist. I am a fan of the substance and information in this archive and want it to exceed its margins. This poem is also a work of fan fiction.

In this poem that engages with a list of posters, Conceptual-like writing is a process of inducing leaks into sanctioned language and modes of articulation — building a gossipy fabric for various forms of knowledge and perspectives to open up. It’s a practice of being surreptitious and aberrant with an index. Not in order to claim the text but to offer another body for its outflow.


Body, ritual, and erasure

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, 'swims,' 2014. All images by Nick Burnett.

My current writing project, swims, exemplifies a kind of Conceptual writing that employs ritual and bodily practice to explore environmental activism. A long poem documenting wild swims across the UK, it starts and ends in Devon, my home county, taking in rivers through Somerset, Surrey, London, Kent, Herefordshire, and the Lake District. Each swim is conceived of as environmental action, which questions how (or whether) individuals can effect environmental change, while also foregrounding the importance of pleasure, leisure, and optimism in the undertaking.

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett,
swims, 2014.

Swim IV, (the River Ouse, Surrey), arose as a result of the following email sent to participants:

I’ll be doing a swim wearing a swimsuit on which I’ve written some hopes and fears on current environmental issues. I’m inviting you to write your own hopes and fears on my swimsuit which I will take with me as I swim, writing the water with our collective thoughts. Your writing can be as brief or long as you like, as the space of the swimsuit permits. You may have a few lines, or a single word. I may sink with the weight of them or rise with their purpose.[1]

I transcribed the text that appeared on the swimsuit before the swim and what was left on it afterwards. The resulting poem has three text columns: on the left, the text before the swim; on the right, the text after the swim; and in the middle, a text composed in dialogue with the process. It has also been displayed in a gallery context as part of The Trembling Grass, an exhibition I curated in collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World (CCANW).[2] This form of the piece uses images documenting different stages of the swim (before, during, and after), while the text version uses the space of the page (left, middle, right) to enact these stages.

Ritual is present in the sense of the swim — I use this action to engage materially with the natural world (entering my body into water), gaining a sense of enlarged corporeality and porous subjectivity in which the self is not isolated from nature, as the preface to the overall project states:

To not end where you thought you did,
not with skin but water
not with arms but meadow
of watercress, dropwort, floating pennywort,
against all odds to be buoyant. (lines 9–13)

Yet this action also always takes place within an awareness of its temporality — knowing that the intensity of the sensation of immersion and emancipation is temporary and confined to the swim, although there is also the capacity for more lasting cognitive and affective shifts. There is also the presiding knowledge of the limitations of the action in an activist sense. Will the environmental fears expressed on the swimsuit be solved by my swim? Doubtful. But can the swim have a relational and energising function that gives renewed momentum in the face of a precarious environmental situation? Hopeful.

Many of the swims evolve from invitations to correspondents or other collaborators, using Bourriaud’s sense of the artwork as “a programme to be carried out”[3] to produce relational exchanges. I also identify this relational ritual as “poethical,”[4] in Retallack’s sense of a poetic practice that impacts everyday life, beyond the parameters of the gallery space. I gesture with these swims towards an integration of art and everyday life where my actions have resonances that continue long after the swims have finished.[5]  

Elizabeth-Jane Burnett,
swims, 2014.

There is also a sense of guilt (environmental and humanitarian), whereby the pleasure experienced in swimming is counterbalanced by a lament at the degradation of the environment in which it takes place. In the preface and Swim I (The Teign), pollutants and inhumane fishing practices are charted, “metal onto clay, / acid onto wire, / electrified chicken wire to keep the salmon in” (preface, lines 27–29), while Swim II (The Barle) muses on disasters further afield, “as in Fukushima, fishermen / record radioactive caesium in fish,” (lines 12–13), a situation discussed “a year on from the earthquake” (Swim II, line 14) and returned to four years later in Swim IX (Grasmere). The pleasure involved in the swim is a necessary part of the ritual, which serves to energise both the swimmer and (it is hoped) the correspondents in the projects, and the readers of/audience for the poems, to provide them with the renewed vigour required to live with environmental degradation without losing faith in the possibilities of agency. This pleasure is always in the context of a larger pain and in this sense, as the closing lines of Swim II assert: “Though we leave the water, there is no emergence” (lines 27–28).

1. Email from author, sent June 8, 2014.

2. Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, The Trembling Grass, the Innovation Centre, University of Exeter, displayed September–November 2014.

3. Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les Presse Du Reel, 1998), 70.

4. Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (Los Angeles: University of California Press), 2003.

5. Though these swims could also be seen to occur within the kind of holiday space that Bourriaud outlines — these ideas of temporality, leisure, commerce, and the everyday invite further discussion beyond the scope of the current word count.