P O R E S 4
An Avant-Gardist Journal
of Poetics Research
D e l l O l s e n
Will Rowe: I thought we might start by considering different approaches to space and poetry, it seems to me that as well as considering space in relation to the actual work itself it might be important to include considerations of the spaces of publication and distribution of poetry as well?
Dell Olsen: For me these two considerations of space are intertwined, for example when I did the eraofheroes performance at the Bookartbookshop in 2003 I specifically made a text that would be suitable for the space and technologies available to me at the event. I decided that I was going to walk around the area wearing a portable microphone and headset that would transmit my voice into the shop from wherever I was. The audience had to choose to listen to the text from within the shop or to follow me outside on the street. There were also a number of visual elements such as a neon sign in the shop window and a large poster on the wall outside. I liked the fact that the audience had to position themselves either out on the street or inside the shop and in doing so accept that they were probably going to miss elements of what was happening either visually or sonically. Loss and the inability to “get” everything seem important to consider in relation questions of space and audience. The text was made up of a list of the names of superheroes which came up on Google.
WR: Was the time when this list was made important?
DO: eraofheroes was made at the beginning of the war on Iraq and the relationship between this and the fragile inconsequentiality of a list of superheroes drawn as it were from the cultural unconscious at this time seemed important, as did the intervention into a public space wearing a headset and Mickey Mouse ears.
WR: The word space, it seems to me, can start to drift and so you lose the idea of what are actual times and places. Is the relationship between space and text always stable in your work?
DO: No, it isn't, and it changes from project to project which I like. I had to reconsider the whole relationship between space and writing in considering how to re-site this performance, or its detritus, in Secure Portable Space. As a book it really functions as a loose and somewhat leaky container for a series of related works. In order to find a new space for the performance the consideration of the typographical decisions about the list seemed important. I chose to use a font called “wanted” which you usually see on posters about the Wild West.
WR: Lists seem to be an important feature in your work: do they have any relationship to the lists used by conceptual artists since the 1970's for example?
DO: I am interested in the decision by conceptual artists in the 1970's to replace objects with words and lists, what they saw as the dematerialisation of the art object which is also paradoxically a rematerialisation of text and language. I think that lists can be very interesting in relation both to the space of performance and in relation to the space on the page. A couple of years ago I went to see On Kawara's “Reading One Million Years” being performed in Trafalgar Square. I was aware of the book as an object and had actually never considered what it would be like in performance. It was performed continuously on a shift system by teams of two people who read the dates back and forwards between each other. What amazed me about the performance was how fraught with failure and fragility it was. The list seemed to exist in an uncomfortable impossible relationship to its speakers who inevitably became physically tired and began to make mistakes; missing dates or fluffing lines. It was the fact that these little inconsistencies which were highlighted when the voice and body did not conform to expectations that interested me....and of course it was all happening in the public space of Trafalgar Square which is often used for public speaking and expression...
WR: And does your interest in lists and repetition also stem from a poetic tradition?
DO: Very much so. I am interested in contemporary writers who seem to be exploring seriality in various ways, such as Kenny Goldsmith, Dan Farrell and Jena Osman. I like Gertrude Stein's comment that repetition is “not repetition but insistence” and of course Allen Fisher's relationship to the insistent possibilities of process and seriality seem very exciting and necessary.
WR: What about the association that people have of gallery space with visual arts which is a much more various and open scenario. Yet once you start to say this is poetry, then some people will start thinking Slam or something like that. I mean where does one start to work out a position or a strategy or an understanding, say with reference to conditions in London now?
DO: I think there's a difference between knowing where you would like to hold poetry events and where they actually happen. I think it would be exciting if there were more events in places like art galleries and if it felt as if contemporary poetry was actually in public dialogue with other art practices and vice versa. And it does seem to me that for various social and mostly economic reasons those are absolutely divided spaces. I'm not sure that the existing art context is even aware or feels that it needs to be aware of what is happening in poetry.
WR: I mean it is so different say from Europe where there's some continuity with the period of the avant-gardes. Something has happened at some point that has made that split. There are artists' books around and you did a performance at the shop, and yet there isn't a public place of any significance for that genre.
DO: I think that I would make a distinction between bookarts and artists' books; the first being about the formal possibilities of the book in relation its textual surfaces, while the latter often falls into the category of printmaking and illustration of existing texts which I personally don't find as exciting. And I agree that it would be great if London had more spaces for the hybrid cross over of different practices. I love “Printed Matter” in New York for that—it has music, art books, poetry and bookarts. We need a space for performance, readings and exchange like that in London. Even apparently designated spaces for poetry like the 'Poetry Café' in the Poetry Society are fraught with difficulty and compromise. In London it seems hard to place work that does not necessarily conform to the expected genre boundaries.
WR: What were your expectations and hopes in relation to the series of installations that you curated with Susan Johanknecht in the 'Poetry Cafe'?
DO: I think that the expectation was that we would show work by writers and artists who both used text in ways which would challenge the usual way that writing and poetry is presented or even considered in that normative mainstream poetry context and perhaps makes links between the reading of poetry and the reading of text in visual art. We felt that we had the potential to infiltrate that space and to problematise the usual expectations of what work on the wall in that context might be like.
WR: What do you think was the resonance or after effect of the project?
DO: For us the main resonance of the project has been in relation to the bookwork that we made in response to the exhibition. We had quite specific ideas about this in that we didn't want to make a catalogue which neatly tried to reproduce the exhibition as it had happened but we wanted to make a book which tried to engage with our roles as curators and installers of the projects, many of which involved us carrying out instructions as given to us by the artists or writers in order to make the work. There was some writing by Elizabeth Grosz in her book Architecture From The Outside which seemed to offer a framework for thinking about what the book might be like and in it she describes “space-times of the new” in which past, present and future possibilities “resonate” together through activity and process. Our book, Here Are My Instructions contains a poetic text which runs through it and which does not offer the kind of expository commentary usually found in art catalogues. It includes instructions for new pieces of work and collects partial images and fragments of the exhibition rather than attempting to give documentation “as if you had been there”...
WR: The whole project raises questions about possibilities for showing hybrid practice or practice that might be somewhere between poetry and art. Where to do it? How to do it? What the audience would be?
DO: The difficulties of trying to show that work are immense yet this is despite the fact that lots of people are quite prepared and quite happy to talk about hybrid practice in a theoretical way, yet when it actually comes to finding spaces that want to show it and can show it, well, it becomes difficult...
WR: And your experience is that it is actually very difficult.
DO: Yeah… yeah… I think that in retrospect some of the most powerful moments of our experience were in the actual difficulties of the installation, in terms of trying to negotiate a poetry space that was actually full of business people having corporate lunches. It was hard to install work around them without causing a disruption and of course we actually started to take quite subtle and complicated pleasure in this disruption of that space!
WR: So you were not actually contesting the named place of poetry?
DO: In this case I think that the project was just trying to contest just how narrow the definition of what poetry might be had become. It seems to me that an arts practice that gives up on its own formal interrogation and accepts itself as simply the backdrop to a corporate lunch is in real trouble. The same thought was behind the invitation to Gillian Wylde to do one of her live barking performances in the space. It was disruptive but also questioning its directness...
WR: Your book Secure Portable Space makes lots and lots of different kinds of connection between how public spaces are put together or controlled, and whatever it means to inhabit them as some sort of person. From clothing to make up to film narrative including the types of cutting that you expose. And what you did with the heroesoferror (the performance that you have already been referring to) perhaps interrogates the social imagination of person.
DO: I wanted the audience to have to make a choice about whether they were going to watch me walking around the bookshop and therefore not be able hear the list that I was making or to be inside the shop and not necessarily be able to see me but be able to hear what I was saying and it didn't seem to be possible to be in both positions at once.
WR: So you're dramatising both where it's coming from and where it's going to, i.e. received.
DO: But what was funny was that ah… some people that were stuck in the shop weren't aware, until quite far into the performance, that I was actually physically there, outside, walking. And likewise some people that were outside the shop who watched me passing weren't quite sure of the connection, until the performance had been going for a number of minutes, that there was relationship between the view of me muttering into a microphone and the fact that there was a voice coming out in the shop...
WR: What you set out dissociated the voice from the presence or the presence from the inwardness of space and the ear. Intimacy is valued and often associated, in a consumer sense, with couples and especially with women. Yet simple rejection of the lyric as fetishised intimacy doesn't quite seem to be the scenario.
DO: I don't want to refuse the possibility of the lyric but I am interested in challenging the view that it is, rather than that it represents, an apparently “natural” and “private” “inner” space. The lyric, like any notion of a private or inner space is a highly constructed and artificial category—just like poetry and art are. I am interested in exploring these constructions as permeable and temporary, as categories that aren't contained within secure portable space at all! So, to a certain extent, I do think that lots of the poems in Secure Portable Space are about… or move through different spaces of intimacy, often ones that are produced by artificial means; like film, or through the technology of the internet. In the book the lyric “I” exists as a series of subjectivities produced by and in relation to mediatised technologies of representation and capitalism. I was quite interested in that when I was making the list of superheroes. I was interested in thinking about how what is available on the internet at any one time is a kind of litmus test of a technologised subjectivity which is out there in a public way but it's also accessible by an individual at any one point. I don't think that the work is wanting to accept an easy lyric position in terms of something fixed but I am interested in exploring a number of temporary fixings of what that a space that the lyric “I” might inhabit. “Secure Portable Space” is both an emphatic command to Secure Portable Space, at the same time as it designates the potential for that containment as well as the impossibility of its limits. If that makes sense?
WR: For me secure obviously also echoes security, the security state and so on.
DO: Yes, exactly. The phrase that I hear on the tubes and trains everyday by the recorded voice that urges me to pay attention to my belongings in this time of “heightened National security” and “report anything suspicious” is also there...
WR: I was struck by one of the poems the word stammering and is kind of intermittent and yet the effect doesn't seem to be about breaking things up in an avant-gardist way or Dadaist type of fragmentation. It seems to be as much about assembling the bits as it is about pulling them apart. Which makes me remember something that you said about the approach to technique or approach to poetics, that it was not necessary to position oneself along a line of development, you know 'I'm a post this or' but that one could take the various available possibilities and lay them side by side, is that what you meant when you said flat packing the elements of poetics?
DO: Oh, well… when I was talking about “flat packing” I was speaking in response to a piece by Andy Smith called “Pocket Sized Performance Solutions” (2003) which itself was an updating of the Toronto Research Group's “Device for Generating A Contemporary Essay Title” which first appeared as a postcard in 1980. Smith's postcard offered a grid composed of lists of materials, objects, actions, durations and locations. Readers were offered the chance to use a chance operation to determine what sort of art work they would make according to one item from each of the lists....so you might come out with: wax, iron, jumping, ten minutes on a beach for example! And that would be your instructions for an action. It seems to suggest, quite glibly I think, that art practice has become formulaic and that we cannot think of anything new but that we are just endlessly recycling new ideas. I think the title of the paper was “Out Of Actions?” and I was wondering what it meant to be “out of actions”? Is it that they don't work any more? We can't think of any? We are too cynical to make them? That we are politically out of actions and can only rely on texts and performances from pre-packed kits, i.e. The Flat-packed 1970's Performance Kit (abject an optional extra), The Procedural Poetry Kit (complete with Cagean furry dice), Karoke Lyrics from Cambridge, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E by Numbers etc....(laughs).
WR: It is what other people perhaps call DIY, a sort of DIY approach with its box of tools.
DO: Right but I would be more interested in a sort of DIY approach which would find its own materials from apparently wrong or opposing places or sites and perhaps not be too worried about conforming to a set of um… criteria like “you must not use “I”” or “you must not write lyric poetry”. I'd rather not follow those sort of flat pack rules. So in that sense, I think I'm trying not to do that...
WR: I mean some of that is produced by literary studies in universities. Because there is something there about being able to almost own the material or the concept. Do you see that as one of the difficulties as someone teaching practice inside the university?
DO: Well I think when teaching is interesting it is about trying to explore unknown territories, trying to push practice and the discussion of it into unknown places or not yet known places, rather than learning by rote according to the flat-pack rules of criticism. So again it's… if the teaching, like the writing, can be something messy, something that refuses the usual rules and expectations, or tries to work with them in unexpected ways then that becomes interesting. I think you can do flat-pack teaching as much as you can do flat-pack writing and criticism. It could be a problem of the way literary studies is taught in universities but I don't think it is dependent on that. I think whole sets of judgements happen outside the university, which are just as much about flat-packing poetry as anything can be.
WR: I mean the sheer refusal of experiment in public spaces vis-à-vis British poetry is astounding I think, given how long it has gone on for and how little inroad seems to have been made. What places or spaces or issues are ones where things might be shifting now?
DO: For poetry specifically?
WR: In your own experience.
DO: Well I think, I think there are a number of social and artistic networks in place in London; people finding different ways of distributing, publishing work. It is always exciting to hear and be involved with small groups of individuals coming together and trying to do something differently. In London there is Barque Press which is being supported at last by the Arts Council—so that seems very hopeful, there is the Bookartbookshop which stocks work which by both poets and artists, the Poetic Practice MA students at Royal Holloway are actively curating a number of internet journals and reading and performance events which seem to be full of new writers. It would be great if these activities could eventually lead towards an actual designated space for poetry readings and events to happen in that wasn't about mainstream commodification. Some sort of almost permanent or semi-permanent space where you knew that interesting and radical things were going to be programmed. I think that would be great if that could happen in London for writing and for poetry...
WR: In a city that size…
DO: I think that at the moment networks of poetic activity are being created through virtual spaces such as the internet which means that these networks aren't geographically specific. I am involved in the journal How(2) which involves many women writers from all over the world. This is good but I think it's a shame that poetry is forced in terms of actual space to be so nomadic and is so easily moved on and out of the way by more corporate agendas.
WR: Or forgotten? And moved on in every sense?
DO: Yeah, moved on in the sense of a few readings in this or that pub and then it another and it's a shame that it seems to be that way in London.
WR: Or gets expelled even?
DO: Yeah… and I think that does pose long-term problems for the involvement of a wider public in radical types of poetry.
DO: I have been working with students on an outreach project in Slough schools for Creative Partnerships and we have discussed ways in which they can run workshops for a range of age groups from seven to eleven that use lots of apparently avant-garde and innovative writing techniques; like working with chance procedures, found material and sound poetry. Processes and procedures of working don't need to be dumbed down to make them accessible. The pupils produce really exciting work and don't find it difficult or inaccessible at all. It seems to me that radical and innovative writing practices should be central to any funding policies concerned with community—precisely because these practices allow so much play in and through language in ways that unfix all the usual hierarchies. And there's a real freedom in that.
Links and Related Texts:
Redell Olsen, Secure Portable Space. Hastings: Reality Street, 2004.