back toJacket2

May 2003  |  Jacket 22  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |

Speaking in Tongues

Caroline Bergvall

in conversation with John Stammers

This piece is 3,700 words or about eight printed pages long.
It was first published in Magma magazine in 1999.
For more details, please see the foot of this page.

You can read Caroline Bergvall’s review of A Conversation with David Antin, by David Antin and Charles Bernstein; with Album Notes by David Antin, in this issue of Jacket.

Caroline Bergvall is a poet based in London. Her books include Eclat (1996) and GoanAtom, 1: Doll (2001). GoanAtom is excerpted and also reviewed in Jacket 12. Other work has been featured in magazines and anthologies, both in the UK and North America. She has collaborated on a number of performances and installations, most recently at the South London Gallery, Sept. 2002.
Some of her work is available on the web, notably at:

She is Associate Research Fellow at Dartington College of Arts and Associate Writer at Cardiff University. Her critical work is chiefly concerned with bilingualism and cross-media forms of writing.

John Stammers: How did you start writing?

Caroline Bergvall: I suppose I would give two answers. The first approach is the more private approach to writing, manipulating language in the way many people do in their teens, and deciding to go from there. And there’s a more public approach to it: when you make the decision of trying to turn that into articulatable work. That would have been in my early twenties. Part of it was actually in French because that is my first language, but then it moved over into English very quickly. When I moved over into English is when writing became a public project to me, it then became the idea of getting it out. For me the idea of the move into another language became the idea of writing.

So in what way did this move into another language become the idea of writing?

What it demands of you, when you move from your first language into another language, as a writer, the person who manipulates language, verbal material, is that you become part of the activity or the commitment to writing. I am not English, but I am writing in English. This throws up a number of questions. How do I read English culture? How do I situate myself in it? Am I a foreigner to it? All that becomes the project of writing and that’s really linked to my being a writer.

Elsewhere you have said that bilingualism and even, (being half French, half Norwegian) trilingualism is an influence of yours which presumably relates to what you what you have just said.

What it has done is create a critical and an artistic interest in the crossing points between languages. The way languages and cultures meet, can or cannot meet. So I have become more and more interested in writing or literary work which is written in more than one language. My own work, more and more, is trying to use those ideas. And that’s not necessarily to create mongrel or hybrid languages, but rather to show up the impact that languages have against, or into, each other. That also indirectly, I think, can explain my interest in installation art, in kinds of cross-art forms, an interest in misspellings, in idiosyncrasies of all kinds, kinds of mis-translations.

Are you saying there’s a special awareness that comes with that, of difference and of the fact of language and languages?

Yes. It generates an awareness. You can’t forget that you are using verbal material, and you don’t have the same so-called intuition of language you can have with your first language. The whole issue of the mother tongue becomes very problematic. It isn’t my first language, so where do I place myself, where do I place the whole activity of dreaming, of speaking in tongues, of connotation? The buried knowledge of the culture of the language, do I have it or not? Will I misunderstand you in fact? I’ve lived here in England for ten years, but how much am I acquiring or not? That for me becomes very dynamic in the everyday use of the language, and therefore even more so in its artistic use or its literary use.

That kind of compromised relationship with language then how do you think that relates to your connection with the culture, as an individual, as a writer?

I suppose I would answer by saying the whole issue of compromise for me is more perhaps an understanding of context. That we always function in relation to contextualised activity, a contextual sense of culture. I will have some specialist awareness of English culture because of the way I am, who I am, where I have come from etc. So perhaps it’s not so much a compromise as a contextualisation. In that you become very aware that there’s no way of universalising yourself and that the whole notion of the universal becomes even more compromised by the fact that I cannot rest on it. The whole idea of the hegemony of monolingualism disappears because it becomes attuned to context. That of course has consequences for my entire understanding of culture and the imperialisms of cultural politics.

It sounds to me as if you’re saying that, in your case, as an individual, there’s always, if not a gap, at least an awareness of a possibility of a gap. Whereas perhaps other writers who are more embedded in, or at one with, their own language might not.

Possibly. I would say especially if you function in the arts at the end of the twentieth century. I would say many people for different reasons would feel what I feel but perhaps not in the same way as I’m describing it. I don’t know if it’s a gap so much as a sense of conflict, and I find that conflict productive and dynamic in the sense that you are having to question the givens, the assumptions around yourself as well.

You say ‘at the end of the twentieth century,’ but we’re always at the last moment in history whatever the date happens to be, aren’t we?

By ‘the end of the twentieth century’ I suppose I mean the way many artists and arts practices today signal a more inter-relational, less Romantic-Modernistic attitude to the making of art and of the artist. I locate the time period ideologically.

In that case, in light of this idea of questioning assumptions, one question I wanted to ask you was whether you would describe yourself as an avant-garde writer or poet?

Inevitably a lot of my practice and the cross-arts way I approach writing would place me in the continuity of the avant-garde tradition. I would situate the idea of the avant-garde as a particular tradition which is very much rooted from the beginning of the twentieth century. particularly which has to do with a break away from especially nineteenth century practice. Also it’s to do with a move away from a sense of humanist wholeness in relation to the arts, to knowledge, to language.
      I do not consider myself to be an avant-garde writer, but inevitably I would be placed within it. This is because I question language, I question meaning, I question the generation of gender, the archiving of knowledge in my practice. My practice doesn’t follow the — if you like — realist novel or lyric poem structures.
      But I would dispute the term ‘avant-garde’. I think it’s a term that can in fact invalidate a lot of contemporary writing practices. It has a very particular take that I might not subscribe to, which doesn’t necessarily include the questioning of identity in the way I am describing it; a lot of what’s happened in the visual arts in recent years; installation art; site specific work; sexual concerns.

Can you give me an example of something that you do regard as avant-garde, but would not be thought to sit within that tradition?

For example the Chicano-Mexican performance writer Gomez-Peña whose work sits very much within a tradition of conflictual or uncompromising, controversial performance, and is very politicised. This sits quite strongly therefore within a tradition of performance art which could be seen as avant-garde. But, in fact, his project seems to me different from this, in that he is not disputing the value of art, he is not trying to cancel it out. On the contrary, he is trying to use art and writing to define different structures of identity positively, as ways of highlighting social structures.

Is that what you mean by avant-garde not necessarily being a term that applies to you?

Yes, I really am committed to the idea of artistic practice as something that needs to sit and address and look at social structures such as where does art sit today. That it is part of a wider social frame, that it doesn’t sit outside it. I am interested in art questioning the frames, like avant-garde practice might do, but also in being active socially within it. So actually the project of bilingualism is something that could try and bring out voices, through educational process or whatever, that might not otherwise be heard. I am quite keen on this idea that art finds some kind of social impact again, rather than the kind of alienation that has been associated with the avant-garde. There’s initiatives at the moment within the EU (whether one believes them or not doesn’t really matter!) that have to do with trying to involve the arts and public arts and involving the public writing.

It sounds to me, then, as if you’re building up to agreeing with Auden’s remark that everything changes except the avant-garde.

The avant-garde as a term, if you consider what Peter Bürger has said on the subject, is very much to with a sense of the oppositional; it is in opposition to existing mainframe of society and culture. It does that by setting itself so called ‘outside’ those frames. I feel there might be ways in which the avant-garde doesn’t declare the same opposition but tries to work within existing structures to pull at them. It becomes a more subtle yet problematising project immediately. So, on that level, I would say that the avant-garde might, in fact, as a term, be invalidated. Peter Bürger’s theory is interesting in that it defines two sorts of avant-garde. Auden’s remark applies to one of those characterisations: the one that is always oppositional and therefore cannot change. I’m trying to think of the invalidation of that kind of avant-garde.

This then brings us back to this question of influence. We have talked about general cultural concerns and influences. In a more specific way, you, as an artist in your own work, what particular things have influenced you?

Well, it is a whole the way one operates as a writer, so I will have to show some specificities that have been particularly important. My motivation has been very much to do with gender and very much to do with sexuality. These are very strong motivators which to me are to do with how would you use language to construct or de-structure assumptions about gender, about sexuality, about female gender. Where do you situate the use of language within that so that you don’t fall into a kind of identity-based writing, or identity-based art, but so that the whole question of identity becomes questioned. You can only question identity through questioning yourself. So some writers have been particularly interesting to me in relation to that. Ironically, I could start with Beckett, for example, because of his use of silence, the violence of language and the violence of silence on the impossibility of settling identity. That would be the conceptual end of identity so to speak.
      There are other writers such as Wittig and Brossard, who are two conceptual French lesbian writers, or Kathy Acker or Dennis Cooper, who have developed ways of trying to deal with language in a conceptual manner so that they could find a language that might bring those aspects of the body and of sexualised, unstraightened bodies into language. I’m interested in the whole notion of what do you do with the flesh in language. How to use your own specificities.

How does that, then, find expression in your work in progress, Jets-poupée?

Well Jets-poupée is a good example in that it summarises aspects of our conversation. It is a project that started out by looking at Hans Bellmer’s surrealist doll which he called a Minor Articulated (Mineure Articulée). He created this doll whose parts he could take apart. He photographed them and hand coloured them. He then started on a second doll to shift body parts much more than he did with the first one. So the whole certainly of the female body, the female gender (because he used a ‘girl’ doll) becomes problematised. Even though his take remained very misogynistic and even paedophilic, the whole notion of the fixity or the stability of the body does become problematised. In the same way the articulation or dis-articulation of language in the way that I was talking about it through coming at it from different angles becomes problematised.
      So the Doll project for me was a way of playing with language of disarticulating language at the level of syllable very often. It was also a way of setting up word games, puns — some of them fairly bad, others very sexual, erotic, of adding on games where you suddenly switch into French. This is a way of thinking about this multiple body. I suppose, this unfixed body that for me today, at the end of the nineties rather than the surrealist thirties, it has my own take on it.
      This has a lot to do with issues of gender but also to do with issues of genetic engineering and the literary traditions around that, for example, Frankenstein, or Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or the work on dolls by George Sand or Heinrich von Kleist. Or the staging of gender as a montage in visual artists of the beginning of the century such as Hannah Hoch or Claude Cahun.
      It also has to do with the links that are being made in our collective imagination about gender and sexuality at the moment which Bellmer wasn’t able to tap into in the same way.
      So it’s that idea of articulation/disarticulation as part of our cultural imagination.

So do think that that is a particularly relevant theme today? Why would that be?

If you look at, for example, the Chapman brothers, the dispersed genitals of their sculptures, if you think about Cindy Sherman’s work with the mannequins and her placing herself into classical imagery, iconic imagery and using plastic breasts, et cetera, all that kind of work is absolutely part of the imagination of body construction and genetic engineering. I suppose GM (genetically modified) food is just the latest manifestation of our reality. They say for example, that we have consumed so many preservatives that it would take a hundred years for each of us to deteriorate in the grave!

So we have a longer shelf-life than our predecessors.

Exactly! We can also be used as relics because of the body parts. There was the artist who went to the morgue and made works out of what he took from there. So we are going back nearly to early medieval Christianity, where the body part itself seems to contain the power of the being, the power of the soul.

It is, after all, the French that have Napoleon’s preserved penis, isn’t it? But I’m being flippant. Although, taking that flippancy seriously for a moment, it does appear to me that, in this conversation, some of the things you have been talking about have happened here. I wonder if that isn’t to do with this issue of clarity, what is clarifiable, in what way and how art — in the case in point written, textual art — reflects that.

Yes, it is as if the artistic language, the artistic frame that one sets up, that one uses as an artist, is setting up different kinds of notions or ideas that aren’t necessarily that easy to then frame in conversation. So you have the complications in a way of a difficult clarification of the project itself. If you read Jets-Poupée all these ideas are clearer there than I am being now.

Is that an example of, I think, Eliot’s point that his poems were written as they were and not another way, because that’s what they were — so any explanation is less clear than the text itself?

Well, ironically he set up a whole book of footnotes to The Waste Land in order to try to allow another kind of elucidation of the text itself. But even the notes in themselves cannot be seen as elucidation but merely as further complications. So I would agree with you the kind of art forms that I have been involved in: writing verbal material and re-entangling some of that, but at the same time involved in performance, installations, collaborative work — this is certainly causing the work itself to need its own frame. It can become at times difficult to surround it with my own conversation. I do, though, surround it with critical work, and I would consider that an interview of this kind should be seen as a critical activity.

That seems to lead on to questioning the status of an interview like this, and its form.

It is interesting because you are both recording and not recording, so we are also going to be picking up and not picking up on certain points. But what is really happening is that we are allowing ourselves to exchange thoughts that aren’t necessarily totally clear or clarified as such, and therefore allowing for this process to become another aspect of being engaged as practitioners in the material of our society or aspects of it. I suppose that’s what it should be about, that it leaves you with questions rather than answers.

To be provocative?

Yes, or provoked.

In the context of what we have been talking about, then, what do you think you aim or goal is as writer?

I will try to use some of the vocabulary that I have used earlier. This idea of context awareness and having to be aware of your own particularities in order to make work. My aim as a writer is to be able to feel that I can commit aspects of my text or of my use of language or verbal material beyond my writing as well into wider social activities and to do that by various means or different contexts.
      So to do that I would use the example of my job, which is to run a writing course in an arts college. My aim there is to try to enable a younger generation of writers — or at least practitioners — to think about art and culture, to think about artistic commitment in society today, why would you want to be an artist in the first place. Also to try with one’s own activity as a writer to look beyond the text itself. What I can do because I place myself as a practitioner? What does art do today? Why are we doing it? Therefore also the notion of context, the notion of time and place in relation to particularities is a question. Where do we speak? Where is its silence and is there anything I can contribute in relation to those silences?

So what next?

I am working on a text in three parts, of which Jets-poupée (The Doll) is one part: the whole project is called ‘Goan Atom’. One other part is based around Duchamp’s Large Glass and its working title is ‘The Bride’. I’ve also been invited to take part in an artists’ books project called ‘Volumes of Vulnerability’ to come out in September 1999 as a boxcase of 20 artists’/ writers’ contributions. I’ve got a commission for a sited sound-text piece for Hull Time Based Arts in late October which I’ve entitled ‘Misherrings (ambient fish)’. Apart from that, I am also continuing my role as a teacher and becoming more and more involved in issues of public writing. That means organising conferences, contacting different kinds of organisations, setting up writing projects that are outside the purely artistic frame that I am involved in.

And more long term projects or interests that you have?

I think, as a kind of concluding answer perhaps, the fact that the more I write and the more I’m involved as a practitioner and thinking about it, the more complicated and complex it gets, and therefore the more open I get to various situations in which I could involve my being a writer. So that it becomes less and less clear that to be a writer for me is to generate books. It becomes an aspect of it.
      I become more and more interested in how are we thinking about setting up a context for writers involved in the new Tate Gallery, for instance. Or writing involved with plurilingualism and things like that. It is making my whole commitment, my civic commitment as an artist more and more clear in the sense that it’s not just about text, writing it. It is about how that activity does in fact make you function or malfunction socially.
      We have talked a lot about the whole issue of being a writer and the texts themselves become one of the products of a writer. And we have had a conversation that is about the implications of the commitment of being a writer, or being a reader, or being a practitioner.
      Now we leave that to the reader.

This interview was written in the late Northern summer of 1999 and was published in the Northern fall of that year in Magma 15. Jacket is grateful for permission from Magma editor David Boll and from John Stammers to reprint the piece here. John Stammers’ collection of poems Panoramic Lounge-Bar (Picador UK 2001), won the Forward Prize for a first collection.

Magma magazine is available at
Magma’s Web edition contains a selection of poetry and articles from the magazine, which appears three times a year, the full edition brought to you in bookshops and by post from its base in London England, and the Web edition brought to you from the San Francisco Bay area.

Jacket 22 — May 2003  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © John Stammers and Caroline Bergvall
and Magma magazine 1999 and Jacket magazine 2003
The URL address of this page is