Tony Trehy on curating Bury's Text Festival

Text Festival curator Tony Trehy with poets Karrri Kokko, Christian Bök, Satu Kaikkonen, and Geof Huth. Photo by derek beaulieu.

Note: The Text Festival in Bury, UK, is an internationally recognized event investigating contemporary language art (poetry, text art, sound and media text, live art). Against the background of global stylistic multiplicity, the use of language spans many artforms and may even be a unifying field of enquiry, a new definition and a new field of international linguistic art practice and dialogue. The Bury Festival is the leading focus of language in the twenty-first century, specializing in experiments, in new experiences, in performances and exhibitions that mix artforms in groundbreaking combinations that challenge traditional language art boundaries and offer artists a forum for dialogue and exchange of ideas. The third biannual Text Festival opened April 29, 2011; derek beaulieu — who was a participant in that year’s festival — had an opportunity to discuss the festival’s impetus and future with curator Tony Trehy.

derek beaulieu:
What was your impetus for creating the Text Festival?

Tony Trehy: Having curated various artforms (but mainly in galleries and public art) for about fifteen years in parallel with a separate personal output of writing, I had come to a point where I was trying to fit the two creative practices — curating and poetry — into not enough hours in the day. Then sometime in late 2003, I had been talking to Lawrence Weiner about a commission and had reason to communicate with Ron Silliman. There was a sudden moment when I realized that these split conversations mirrored my own psychological segregation of language into art and poet: I realized that my poetry was part of my curatorial persona. And concurrent with the revelation that I could break down the split in my practice, of course, instantaneously, I had to recognize the split also existed in the wider interaction between conceptual art and poetry; subsequently, I have extended this conception to question the location of language across artforms — sound, multimedia, performance, etc. I have got used to quickly adding in relation to ‘poetry’ that I mean the progressive artform little connected to the dead form that mostly passes for ‘poetry’ in the UK. The moribund state of UK poetry in relation to international developments was definitely one of the aspects that the first Text Festival took on. Although, I still find it personally entertaining to have a go at the state of mainstream poetry on my blog, it is more the pleasure of flogging a dead horse rather than being a real issue that concerns the Festival.

“Wonder Room” at Text Festival, 2011. Photo by derek beaulieu.

beaulieu: What has the response been from the UK poetic community?

Trehy: Pretty much none at all. But that’s really to be expected — British mainstream poetry didn’t get to its current comatose state by engaging with new developments; it’s sort of gratifying that it can’t respond to criticism as it verifies its incapability. But in the end, it’s not so important — the Festival isn’t conceived in relation to the UK or to poetry per se.

beaulieu: If the response from the poetic community has been silence what about the visual art community? What do you believe that the two communities have to learn from each other, as epitomized in the Text Festival?

Trehy: I wouldn’t say that the response of the poetic community in the UK has been silent — that is the default position of the Hegemony of the Banal, but it’s poetry is pretty quiet too — (Ron Silliman’s phrase: the School of Quietude). The response of the poetic community has been more complex related to the local (UK) structures of dialogue and status. The visual art community gives a more relaxed impression of critical engagement with the Festival. I am not sure why that is — maybe it is that the venues of the events are more in their comfort zone, a familiar vocabulary of spaces. I am always careful of this juxtaposition of visual to poetic though, because for me (and them) sound artists, performance artists, media artists — any other language forms — are all part of the mix: I find poets are most keen to treat it as a dialogue between the two “communities,” maybe that is part of their isolation from the practice of the other artforms.

 Jaap Blonk and Christian Bök perform an extemporaneous sound poem in the Warth Mill in Bury, England, as part of the Text Festival on May 1, 2011.

beaulieu: In terms of that isolation from other artforms — what do you believe that the poetic community has to learn from the art community?

Trehy: I suppose it could do with not being isolated! It’s generally been my position that significant things happen when artforms are in dialogue. This is one of the things the Text Festival assumes.

beaulieu: Has the mandate of the festival changed since its first incarnation? What to you have been some of the highlights of the festival to date?

Trehy: There is something about the word mandate that suggests that its imperatives came from somewhere else, from outside; I think the reason why it has developed a unique status is that it generates its own context. I suppose no one else can see the festival the way I do because I have seen all three of the festivals, but for me, the Text Festivals are in dialogue with each other. I have found it interesting this time round how a number of poets have written about how it has taken a direction or a position in relation to poetry. The Festival isn’t about poetry; it’s not a poetry festival. The festival is always to do with a question. So with the first exhibition of the first festival (also my first highlight), I asked myself: how to curate a show that juxtaposes contemporary poetry with visual (language) art? By its aesthetic location, the festival often operates in fields in which recipients (to use Lawrence Weiner’s term) may not come equipped with the knowledges and histories of particular artforms. As Art Monthly magazine observed, I have an “intrepid resistance to interpretation,” and in exhibitions of text I don’t see how you can use interpretive texts without clunking over the works. So then I have the question of what curatorial strategy can contextualize the question for a gallery visitor? In the first show, I created therefore a large bookcase that blocked views into the gallery — you had to face it and go round it to get in. I called this “The Canon” and featured all the books you would need to get all the messages in the show — ha! Audiences aren’t asked to work hard enough nowadays. And into the show itself: again, is there curatorial conceit that can represent this coming together of forms? Taking a form from Concrete Poetry, I came up with a display constellation. This was working very nicely but there was still something missing. Although the festival has announced submission deadlines, if the curatorial concept demands it, I will keep accepting proposals and looking for works right up to the last minute.  In this case, I didn’t know what was missing, just that it needed something. It came in the form of a performance artist, Hester Reeve (HRH.the) who proposed to spend the nine weeks of the first show sitting in the gallery reading and simultaneously writing Heidegger’s “Being and Time.”

Installation by derek beaulieu at Text Festival, 2011. Photo by derek beaulieu.

In the second Festival, although a lot of people rated the Bury Poems readings with Tony Lopez, Carol Watts, and Phil Davenport, my highpoint was the headline gig with Ron Silliman. For this the question was, if you have Ron doing his first ever reading in the UK, who else do you put on the bill? There couldn’t be another poet, so I programmed Scottish student storytelling artist, Catriona Glover, German turntablist Claus van Bebber, and Hester Reeve. I was very pleased with that balance. It was a great night, but this year surpassed curatorially by the juxtaposition of sound art from Sarah Boothroyd and Bruno Bresani with Holly Pester, Eduard Escoffet, Christian Bök plus the surprise interventions of Geof Huth and you.

A couple of guest curators have produces magical moments to note: Phil Davenport’s Bob Cobbing show in 2005 and this year’s readings of Schwitters’s Ursonate at Warth Mill.

This sounds like a lot of highlights but one element of all the festivals that forms an integral part of the dynamic is the festival party where a lot of the artists meet — that is very important.

beaulieu: So — if each festival is in dialogue with the previous, then what — after the third incarnation — would you still like to address?

Trehy: Ah, the trick question — I wondered how you might approach this. As you know, I announced before this Festival that I wouldn’t be doing another. At various points during the 2011 event I did have ideas of what might be interesting next. But I am still resisting the tyranny of having to do what one is able to do. Through my links with Finland — visual art and poetry — we are talking about doing some sort of Text show/event in Tampere (the Manchester of Finland), so my textual inclinations may still be occupied; but either way, if there was another Text Festival, it couldn’t be until 2014 because I am working on another (non-text) international art project which will keep me occupied until then (starting in September, I’ll be setting it up in China).

But thinking about the question, I have been reflecting on the Festival just ending and have an increasing sense of disappointment with the responses of the poetry community — so I’d probably start thinking about how to address the problems I perceive: namely, it struck me that, despite my aspiration to locate poetry in dialogue with other language-using artforms, writings coming out of the festival poets have tended only to engage with poetry. I found it really telling that no one commented on the location of George Widener and Steve Miller in Wonder Rooms, for instance — both visual artists not visual poets, both using language in gripping ways. I’m not saying that there weren’t great visual poems in the show; I’m saying it seems odd to me that the visual artists’ contribution drew so little attention from the poets. Similarly, the poets have tended to focus on Ron Silliman’s neon text and Tony Lopez’s digital text in the Sentences exhibition; but the poets, don’t seem to have anything to say about the Marcel Broodthaers, for instance. I think I would address this. Maybe there would be fewer poets; maybe supporting a notion of “poetry community” itself is counterproductive in shifting poetry into a more critically rigorous relationship with art.

I think that Ron also asked a question that interests me: he observed that a lot of the work on display can’t be “called new in any way that is meaningful within poetry” (note again that this locates the Festival agenda as poetic). He proceeded to raise the question “Is the work any good?” Some of it is more than good. Some of it isn’t. I have a pretty good idea which is which. But again, I am not sure that I comfortable with the claim for the festival that quality of work is its aim. I set out to investigate the implications of certain actions, certain juxtapositions. It’s my hope that testing ideas is what participating artists will use the festival for — the space to fail, and learn things from that. Some of the criticisms of Ron’s neon are legitimate but much of it misses the point of what that work does in the gallery and how it will function as a piece of site-specific public art. Christian Bök’s Protein 13 is still a work in progress; he would acknowledge that he developed his thinking about how the model and text function as objects on display as the installation progressed; and I think that that is an important contribution to the development of the work.

 Satu Kaikkonen and Karri Kokko perform a sound poem in the Bury Parish Church, Bury, UK, as part of the Text Festival on April 30, 2011.

beaulieu: How has the festival affected your own poetic practice?

Trehy: I’d have to say it has stoned it dead! After the first festival, I took a year off to recover during which I wrote 50 Heads. And with a gap of four years between the first festival and the second, I was able to write a body of works including Reykjavik and Space The Soldier Who Died For Perspective plus various text art installations. This time the festival was almost too big for me to handle and in the run up and afterwards, the huge creative demand of it has pretty much drained me. I had a handful of very useful conversations during the festival (not least with you and Christian), which suggested to me where my writing should go (an inkling of reinventing a non-poetic form, taking my interest in language and space in a new direction) but there seems little chance that I will have the energy to address it anytime soon.