Strings 1

‘dreams jangling with lost connections’

March 2024

Differently Positioned, Positioned Differently

Entries to a loose glossary of words beginning ‘re-’: definitions of process are ongoing, subjective, in flux and open to reconsideration, reinterpretation, retouching and (re)play.

Reviving: To take something that’s been and make it be again, same as before, but different. Or, to take something that is – concealed, ignored, hiding in plain sight, there but barely acknowledged, a vernacular misunderstood – and breathe into it the life from another. In similar but different terms, it is to imagine the thing once more, but differently, so it becomes the same in certain ways, but moulded by other minds, bodies or tools so as to be distinctly changed; a new, evolved permutation, alike but not. Emulation of what was is impossible, there’s always difference. Even with precision, variance seeps in; attitude, language, technology, time, economy are never the same twice, replication is improbable. To interpret what was is to intuit, to listen and to learn, it is to hold in careful balance the present, past and future for what that was might again be. In action, a revival can draw attention to a thing’s was-ness and the conditions under which it was was-ed. Transposed from one position to another entirely different, its format amended, the previously was-ed can be experienced again, afresh, observed in a reoriented vantage with new – even old or jaded – eyes, ears, senses and perspectives; the was is transformed from a was-ed into an is, from a been again into a being.
        Reviving is resuscitation as an act of spiritual and pragmatic conjury. It is to animate the inanimate. Where hands, lips, blind belief and brute force are cardinal instruments in willing life back into somebody, something, back into a person or an object that has crossed death’s threshold, whether spiritually, bodily or both. Heart, instinct and luck, knowledge and faith, timing and divinity, also play a deciding role in this transformation of a was-ed into a living being. But can a was-ed that never was ever be a be-ing again? In 1873 Charles Dickens’ incomplete serialised final novel Mystery of Edwin Drood was remarkably again-ed when, some three years after the author’s death, the book appeared published in whole. Summoned through a medium, Dickens’ “spirit-pen” rose to conclude the forestalled narrative, completing what remained agonisingly unfinished. Bridging numinous and earthly planes, it was the inky workman hands of American printer-publisher Thomas P. James, resident of Brattleboro, Vermont, that brought again the soul and writerly mind of the British author, buried in Westminster Abbey, to this ‘Earth-Life’. Experienced in the practical, labour-intensive process of typesetting – the manoeuvring of metal type, its ordering and re-ordering by a compositor of letters to convene an author’s words from bare manuscript to mass production – James, a conduit by profession, was perfectly situated to channel and guide the authorial voice through its final pages. As stated in the Medium’s Preface, this ‘ill-become’ messenger gave the book ‘to the public, word for word, as it came to me’. Praised by fellow spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle, dismissed by others, there are many more interpretations and “continuations” by writers and scholars, “successful” and not in their attempts for authenticity. Each new again-ing agains Dickens’ stylistic tics and habits, ploughing old syntactical earth in the hope of uncovering new literary nutrients in existing soil and exhuming possible answers to endings that never came. Repetition and replication, the copying and rehashing, an immersive act of becoming. Through these imaginative iterations the medium, the continuers, the custodians, these separate authors, put themselves forward as Dickens’ true spiritual guardian, laying claim to his prized work, literary legacy and to those material traces left behind in this ‘Earth-Life’; books published, letters written and received, the things that can be read, reread, and read. And, in a way, reveal a possessive ownership over that which can’t be read; the author himself, to his private, inner thoughts, sense of self and ego. Cogito ergo sum inscribes the half title page of James’ edition, “I think, therefore I am”. A cliché among clichés. 

Remaking: Making the already-made involves construction and fabrication, building and filling in the blanks. Putting down the already put down, cementing the cemented. Aiming to remake what existed while existing in a different time and place is an activation of a process passed. It is living the lived from a remove; and what is arrived at is a representation. Christine Brooke-Rose, the unboundedly explorative British post-war writer, titled her autobiography of 1996 Remake. Born at the turn of the twentieth century in Geneva, raised between Belgium and England, Brussels and London, a codebreaker at Bletchley Park, Brooke-Rose cared little for the biographic facts of memoir such as place and date, the where and when. Instead, life in Remake is found again in the detailed fragments of a life lived when remembered though language. Scattered and then patched back together, remade and remodelled, she first confronts herself through the process of writing before reimagining the self once lived. Telling the reader how life was so as to remake the was-ed as an is, requires transcribing a life and ascribing it with meaning. Rather than biography, as it happened, to the T, what’s written down uses lived life as a vehicle for present day motives, ulterior or otherwise; we can only write from the current positions we occupy, our understanding of the past refracted through this contemporary prism.
        Brooke-Rose, caught in a mathematical quandary having written an even number of novels (12) and critical books (4), could justify writing a seventeenth book, which would break the ‘beautiful three or four times four sequence’, only on the grounds that an autobiography – a form she 'felt a deep prejudice against’ but her publisher encouraged – is neither novel nor criticism. Written without pronouns, she disrupts, as she puts it, the ‘stable elements of language’ and the ability to identify individuals, their omission ‘involves a certain floating instability of the narrative’. ‘Self-confront many selves or one?’, she asks, the was, the was-ed, the event and the memory, the lived and its replica drift back and forth. This is her remaking herself, remaking how we write the self. Experienced once, we now have the experience of re-experiencing a lived experience. Autobiography not as representation, but as an ongoing embodied experience, a being in the act of was-ing is an is, through the was-ing being was-ed the lived is again living; the historic and the present bound in the same moment.

Repeating: Repeat one’s words, we might say, is to say that which is already said. To voice in another time to other ears a speech, a phrase, a word, a comment heard, one previously asserted. It is to resound the sounded. A repetition. A repetition. Again, a repetition.
        Uttering the same remark bears a new utterance. Shifts in the verbal, in the resonance of the orated, can to the listener’s ear be unapparent and subtle or blatant and sarcastic – louder, softer, faster, taut, exaggerated. Whether a change in tone/tune is intentional or circumstantial, coming from the same body or voiced by another’s mouth, oscillations in wavelengths are unavoidable as the expressed takes on another expression, another vibrational mode in its oral repeating – emulation is untenable, variation is inescapable.
        In each repeating, in each repetition of the uttered, the before said is differently positioned. On occasion, when the said is said again, a speaker’s conviction on second recalling can reveal a faltering, a misgiving, a loss of faith in what is said (the message) or how it’s delivered (its conveyance) – the corrective, self-conscious: “How do I pronounce that?”; “Is that what I actually mean?”; “How does this come across?”. In the same breath, when said again, a repeated phrase – employed purposefully – emboldens the speaker; repetition asserts the ultimate form of authorial control — “you’ve heard it, but I’ll say it again. You can’t stop me saying it again, and again, and again”. Repetition for effect, repetition to make clear, repeating to cement meaning, to fix by hammering a belief in the listener’s head.
        But, adversely, overdone – the again and again-ing of sameness – clarity can dissolve. In his lexical song ‘Seatbelt Seatbelt’ from 1980, for example, Charles Amirkhamian again and agains the word ‘seatbelt’, looping the same utterance into a vacuum until sense falls away. Said over and over, tossed around and around by five mouths and recorded, then repeated, and repeated, and repeated aloud via tape loops, the letters transmute through their reinstating from a unit of phonic intelligibility to pure ambient sound; meaning finds a new register attuned to the non-lingual senses, to a sonic language. Overfamiliarity separates sign from signifier. Like helium, meaning drifts away and, on each enunciation, sensation takes its place. Guttural and bodily, the sound becomes a texture to the ear, a surface that can be touched, the grain felt, rubbed and stroked as its physicality to the listener becomes evident, irrefutable. The voice bears its trace on the uttered, marking and scarring its surface. Each expulsion of ‘seatbelt’ in its rhythmic regularity reveals the mechanism at work, the form buries the content as ‘seatbelt’ registers as sound, as music.
        But why repeat at all? Repetition can overcome uncomfortableness. To repeat is to hone and find an understanding of form and formulation by swallowing and digesting. The rehearsal of delivery, the again-ing and again-ing, equips, a skill is learnt. As children, we parrot, we impersonate and repeat what we hear to test meaning with, and into, the wider world. Vocabularies expand and language is learnt and absorbed through the say and re-saying of letters and words, teasing in edged increments the link between a sound and a meaning. Adjustments made in accord with returning echoes, a link is forged. As we say these words again, and again, and again, our lips and tongue, our throat and cheeks, familiarise themselves with their shape, turning and chewing them over and over, pushing them around and around before they are spat back out. Through this act of regurgitation, the contours smooth and soften in the speaker’s mind, an impression of the said is left on the body’s memory and words lie among many on the shores of our vocabulary. Rehearsing in this way gives confidence, it leads to a comfortability with one’s ability and, naturally, a comfortability in voicing out loud without retribution. Rehearsing breeds conformity. Repetition as a pedagogical mode, it could be argued, confines and shackles; we learn to adhere to patterns and behaviours, we assimilate, we repeat the same old, we become civilised.
        Like Amirkhamian’s looping repetitions, the voice’s modality also registers with the ear’s attention in artist Andrea Fraser’s lecture performance Kunst muss hängen (Art Must Hang), 2001. But unlike ‘Seatbelt Seatbelt’, the act of repetition seeks to critically expose prevailing structures rather than dissolve them. Pointing at once to the words being spoken, but also to their delivery – and deliveree – Fraser embodies, swallows and repeats, spluttering and slurring, an impromptu speech once given by an inebriated Martin Kippenberger, the infamous German artist. His rambling address given, drink in hand, at a gallery private view at the Cologne Kunstverein in 1995, is readdressed as Fraser reenacts his delivery from the position of the male artist himself. Repositioned and repeated by the body and mouth of somebody else later, the speech – or re-speech – is placed differently, giving fresh perspective on the misogynistic and xenophobic nature of the spoken. The surrogate body – white, female – stands in for the original speaker – white, male. This displacement and replacement-ing by a new subject reveals the normative roles adopted and afforded, played and rehearsed, and the leeway certain bodies and personalities are granted. As with ‘Seatbelt Seatbelt’, the re-speaking the spoken points towards the act of performance itself or rather, in Fraser’s re-speech-ing, to the performance of self; the tropes we inhabit, repeat, regurgitate and take up in order to conform/perform particular roles, consciously or otherwise. Readdressing the addressed also readdresses the gender power dynamics within art institutions, repetition in this case attempts not to replicate the past but offer space to reflect and reimagine the present. The title, itself a re-sounding, came from Kippenberger jovially berating Fraser earlier in her career for not taking care over the display of her work; ‘You know, Fraser, art must hang.’ Videotaped and screened, our view of the repeating is of its filmic representation. Projected onto the gallery wall, it hovers in illumination rather than hangs. But here we hang on Fraser’s every re-wording, here Kippenberger, who died in 1997 before this performance was enacted, dangles helplessly, a persona repeated and rehashed.

Reinterpreting: Ceaselessly variable. An interpretation could lie with the maker or the viewer, speaker or listener, writer or reader, you or me, everyone and anyone. There’s the intended understanding, then there’s the received understanding, but then there are many, multiplying interpretations which fracture and proliferate further upon reinterpretation. To reinterpret the interpreted implies critical reflection, appraising the same point but from another vantage, the direction pivoted, refracted. Cracking open understanding and peering into the break exposes depth, reveals previously disclosed meanings to be again defined as understood.

Reenacting: To reenact is to inhabit a role once occupied and performed. To play out the previously played. It is to do again what has already happened by dressing up, putting on a costume and wearing a mask over one’s own. Occupying a position once filled is to place yourself differently, allowing yourself to be placed differently by onlookers, by an audience who now see you otherwise. Standing in someone else’s shoes and met by a gaze reserved for others, a greater perspective on yourself is gleaned. In 1982 a group of six American teenagers embarked on re-acting the already acted Raiders of the Lost Ark, released in cinemas one year prior in 1981. Remade shot-for-shot, word-for-word, scene-for-scene, lines once delivered by Harrison Ford are embodied and recited by a teenager in an ill-fitting hat. Filmed modestly on a handheld home video recorder, the amateurish re-filming took seven consecutive summers to complete. By which time, leading cast members had passed (and were passing) through puberty – voices changed, bodies grew, demeanours evolved, mannerisms matured. These six teenagers – Chris, Angela, Eric, Ted, Alan and William – inadvertently document themselves transforming from one self to another. In these formative years we learn how to act ourselves; we perform the performance of self, a drama played out with the body and props over and over until we find a self and a suitable method for expressing or obscuring this self. Circumventing the industry with a bootleg edition was not the filmmakers’ intention, nor was their ambition to live the lives of fictive characters, but rather to reenact Harrison Ford’s portrayal. The desire was to embody the actor so as to experience the act of acting as if they were Hollywood icons. Fidelity to the original material doesn’t lead in strict terms to a faithful reproduction, means and access are limited, but its spirit is in good faith and therefore the remake a genuine and loyal reenacting. Reenacting the acted is to disappear, dissolving the self in the embodiment of somebody else’s self, who themselves diffused into another self; a representation is refracted into a re-representation. In this case, reenacting the act of acting exposes the theatre of representation and the artifice of pretence. And uncovering what is typically veiled. Prompts, make-up, words, scenes, the “stage” is revealed for what it is, a construct, and the actors for what they are, teenage fans with aspirations, dreams and hopes to act and enact other selves.

MATTHEW STUART is a typographer, writer and lecturer based in the UK. He co-runs/edits the independent press/irregular journal Bricks from the Kiln and has organised events and exhibitions internationally. He has previously published work and writing with Prototype and If A Leaf Falls Press.