“When the social body is wired by techno-linguistic automatisms, it acts as a swarm: a collective organism whose behaviour is automatically directed by connective interfaces” Franco Bifo Berardi, The Uprising
We are not sure what we carry in the language of the everyday. This baggage is an intervention into our modes of communication. We speak on behalf of, or with, or alongside, or in antithesis, without certainty of intent or control. We often recite instead of state; we are co-opted into a collective swarm, where noise and meaning are hard to differentiate.
It is precisely this tension of meaning in language with which Cally Spooner’s work concerns itself. Navigating between linguistic composition, formal theatricality and aural landscapes, Spooner’s practice questions the ways in which meaning might be co-opted, fractured by market-speak, by commodification, by the knowledge economy and the jargon of finance. This quest for understanding linguistic automatisms is positioned in Spooner’s work in the individual and the collective, the place and the context.
In previous work, such as Collapsing in Parts, a long term multi-part project examining the relationship between the mechanisms of performance and the poetics of speech, Spooner played with notions of text and meaning. Starting with a body of writings that emerged from the artist’s personal research, then developed into episodic events through a range of collaborations presented as footnotes, Collapsing in Parts was concerned not only with processes of production, but also the notion of failure in communication. In one performative aspects of the work, Spooner speaks of a series of characters who are constantly unable to play their part onstage due to particular neuroses, such as the Copy Editor who get lost in spelling mistakes and bad grammar. The end of the project was marked by an unedited, untitled film, made up of loud bursts of language interrupting an otherwise uncanny, empty silence.
And You Were Wonderful, On Stage is a new iteration of a piece of work, commissioned as a two-part performance by Tate for the BMW Tate Live programme. The first iteration takes place in Tate Britain’s rotunda, concentrated around the newly built staircase. The second will be a developed version performed live to camera for Tate’s Performance Room.
The piece is presented as a musical for an all female a-cappella Chorus Line, drawing on the formal theatricality of Broadway musicals to consider the inflection and appropriation of language in every-day life. Built through cut-up, appropriation and linguistic play, drawing on extracts from Beyonce’s lip-synching at Obama’s inauguration, Michael Gove’s education proposal, or the Lance Armstrong scandal, And You Were Wonderful… is a playful iteration that juxtaposes the spectacle of appropriated language with the false authenticity of stage theatricality.
For an artist whose work originates in the fine art world, composition is crucial here; it forms the backbone of the work’s content, it shapes the ways in which form is deployed throughout the piece, and gives a strong sharpness and clarity to its fabric. It navigates the comedic and the dramatic, and uses conventions of character and song to explore the ways in which meaning is shape-shifted, occupied and often, invisible.
Tate Britain here serves as a apt backdrop, with its vaulted ceilings, its architectural authority and its capacity to render bodies sculptural, and voices automatic with the particular tropes of an art institution. We enter the space as it’s filled by the sound of female voices singing; some appear as almost automatic bodies, all dressed in a sculpted, loosely patterned, geometric outfits, sometimes performing in unison and at others creating a landscape of noise. This overture allows us to inhabit the space; to sink into a seemingly empty space devoid of language, before congregating around the staircase in a ritualistic gathering, punctured by Peter Joslyn’s musical scores.
Language here is slowly revealed as a site of infiltration; in the highly stylised addresses of the performers, repeating the same phrase, speaking of values, confidence, assets and brands, meaning reveals itself to be an equally inauthentic construct, woven through PR slang, automatic speech patterns and exhausted performances. There is a disassociation made visible here between the actions performed by these bodies- hand gestures, rapid movements, ritualistic walking or a sustained gaze- and the seemingly familiar speech uttered through song, in intonations gripping in their simplistic musicality. It’s the meeting pint between language and noise, between meaning and appropriation. It’s Debord’s Society of the Spectacle turned on its head in a display of manipulative virtuosity.
Spooner’s piece, with its clever engagement with form and its use of language as a plastic material, is sharply communicative. The critique of automation, the visibility of a politics of language that removes any potential form of individual authorship are transparent, rooted in the construct of the performance itself. There is a sophisticated disjoint here between action as enacted by the body, and language itself as a form of action, one stripped of agency.
At the same time, the space itself is very much used as a two-fold site of meaning-making; as an audience, we are equally sculptured bodies in this ritual of exhaustion; through the polyphonic repetition, through the ritualistic and almost religious iteration of language in its mediatisation, we are part of a ritual of purging; and the remnants of this purging remains as echoed voices in this empty hall. Yet And You Were Wonderful… remains tentative in its representation of this problem of jargon and authenticity of meaning; it manages to skilfully make visible the automatisms that govern a system of communication, at the same time marking its position on the subject with a lack of clarity. Is this satire and if not, is this abstraction posited as a celebration? Certainly self-critique, particularly in this instance, does not equate to subversion. As an artist concerned with appropriation as a strategy, Spooner refutes the importance of presentation and context- aspect at the heart of a politics of appropriation. The language is of this work is presentation, and Spooner’s piece embeds itself so silently within the walls of the institution.
It is this very site – the gallery – that constructs an uneasy tension between the institutionalisation of language, and the institution itself. For a performance that discusses the ways in which finance and marketing has politicised language, its context of display – the BMW series itself- remains an odd shadow. If the financial jargon is so implicit in limiting a freedom of communication in language, then what becomes of this spectacle of purging? What happens to that which is exhausted? I wonder if this makes And You Were Wonderful, On Stage a purely principal work, if sharply and eloquently presented. One that is unable to engage in a direct confrontation of the very context which it is attempting to critique. What of institutional critique, one might ask? Are abstraction and formal play here merely annulled by a lack of specificity? Are we talking institutionalised critique here? And is this what neoliberal art looks like? Because inertia is what delineates the relationship between work and place.
Language is stripped bare and toyed with in Spooner’s spectacle of automatic, poetic abstraction. The sheer power and versatility of the female performers, here bodies uttering and playing with voice and sound, is engaging, evocative and communicative. Yet only in the context of institutional dialogue is such a work disabled at the same time; and this tension remains a particularly intriguing, and problematic, if foundational, aspect of the work.