Poet Caroline Bergvall’s Drift is a multi-millenniumal mashup of sea stories. Here she speaks and stutters out her work with musician Ingar Zach on a single drum, and video artist Thomas Köppel’s similarly pared down projections, in a performance with all the melancholy and delicate wit of her anonymous source.
Caroline Bergvall is a mesmerising performer – impossible to imagine someone more suited to perform her work. She’s a solid, disconcertingly still presence in front of the floating clouds or storms of words behind her, all her energy poured into her voice’s resonating depths. Sometimes words are crooned, sometimes half sung, sometimes interspersed with clicks of the tongue that echo a heartbeat, or passing time.
Swirling around her voice, Ingar Zach’s imaginative, theatrical landscape of sea sounds mimics gusts of winds with rolling movements, or strings the strainings of a ship at sea across a taut violin bow. His stratagems are fascinating to watch, extracting a bewildering array of sounds of moods from one single drum. Thomas Köppel’s projections does less to explain and expand Bergvall’s text. Instead, he compresses it into a dense mass of words, softly vibrating, then breaking apart to highlight the quirks of its antiquated, expressive language.
Bergvall draws on the The Seafarer for both atmosphere and structure – a poem from the 8th or 9th century, its written in Old English that’s heavy with Germanic sounds brought out in Bergvall’s gutteral native Norwegian accent. It’s told from the perspective of an old mariner who mourns his past life on the sea, but laments its brutalities too. It’s a work full of meditations on mortality, transcience, and the inexorability of life’s hardships – but Bergvall’s telling gently mocks her morose narrator, weaving Morrissey’s lyrics into his misery. Elsewhere, its elegaic laments for lost friends are echoed in her list of names, Jeff Buckley alongside Amelia Earheart, of people who have died at sea.
The Seafarer continues to dominate the tone of her second piece – after a pause, she introduces the story of a boat of African migrants departing the Libyan coast for the Italian island of Lampedusa. Hundreds of migrants have died in the waters that surround it, transported in inadequate boats by unscrupulous traffickers. Thomas Köppel’s projected words create a kind of literary motion simulator to suggest the grim momentum of this particular boat, and the repeated, agonising failure of authorities in both countries to stage a rescue.
Not inappropriately, there’s a sense that Bergvall’s narrative is drifting in its final third. Her two sources blur, and her language becomes dense and impenetrable once more – but harder to access, after the clarity of her migrant story. The Seafarer finds safe harbour in God, but Bergvall’s drifting, shifting story of those in peril on the sea can’t strike such a comforting chord.