Handwriting as a Form of Protest
Fiona Templeton’s Cells of Release
This piece is 6,119 words or about 14 pages long.
Photo: Bill Jacobson
For six weeks, in 1995, the poet and performer Fiona Templeton locked herself up in the lugubrious corridors of the abandoned Eastern Penitentiary of Philadelphia to write. Why would she do this? Why would one do this? But this she did, “over six weeks”, writing by hand with an indelible marker, no return no edit, “I wrote without the possibility of erasure”, on one long string of paper, “where a spool of paper ran out, I sewed on the next one”, guiding it through one prison cell per day, and for as long as it would take to work through the thirty-eight cells that make up this one corridor of the dreadful panopticon. Once the project completed, she summarised it in this way: “written onsite / a continuous line / a cell a day”. To work for weeks within the walls of an abandoned prison, everyday, alone, certainly demonstrates mental stamina and an engagement with materials and ideas at a physical as much as at a discursive level. But what kind of claim on textual practice is Templeton making through the long hours of her writing body?
The fact that Cells of Release, a “poetry installation” as she terms it, was created in collaboration with Amnesty International and that the poetry in question is largely created from case reports of current (at the time of the work) prisoners of conscience goes some way to clarifying the context of Templeton’s approach. In the substantial endnote to the book of the project, she describes that each cell was dedicated to one Amnesty case and contained information on the prisoner of conscience as well as a pen and paper for the prospective visitor to use. Seen from this perspective, the poetics of this project are articulated at the borderline of civic activism. It is the project’s outer circle: Templeton writes and organises the prison site (and later the book) to move “you” (visitor, reader) to write. Not for you to write for the sake of writing. In fact, not for you to write with art or literature in mind, but rather for you to write the kind of tailored letter to officials that Amnesty asks of its supporters in order to influence the release of prisoners of conscience.
The activity of writing (in epistolary as much as poetic form) finds its logic in this admonition to write. Writing must lead to writing. Write until there is release. Write then write again. The proven force of the Amnesty method being proven only so long as letters are being written. “For information on Amnesty International, current cases, and letter-writing, contact your local chapter”. In the book, the final page gives the (here Washington) address of Amnesty. If the question of the artist’s social responsibility and the role of artistic creativity (why write) in the face of human rights abuses is made explicit in the ways Templeton frames Amnesty’s involvement, we shall see that this question is addressed at all the levels of this rich work. Cells of Release explores political engagement through its textual poetics (how write), as well as through methods of artistic work determined primarily by the place (sited or context-led work) and by the artist’s physical tasks in that place (why here, what now). No one solution or key is proposed but rather a collage of authorial functions is activated and tested against the activist’s call: site-specific artist writing in public space, writing as an explicit copying of social documents for textual source, poetic practice as organising principle (“poetry installation”), supra-artistic end of the project as audience development, poetic end of the project as book.
Photo: Bill Jacobson
Like much of her work, Fiona Templeton’s project Cells of Release straddles a number of artistic methods and cultural environments. It has had two significant outputs. The piece was initially part of the “Prison Sentences” exhibition, and all the while Templeton was writing at the prison site, it was opened to visitors. From the text, it seems she engaged with visitors and their questions. The installation with its thin membrane of written paper has by now (2004) most likely crumbled (although there’s a telephone number at the start of the book for visits by appointment, so if you’re ever in Philadelphia, dial 215- 236 3118). Like all site-led pieces, there are all sorts of reasons why it may still be difficult to get to.
The installation has also become a book (which may be just as difficult to get to), published by the specialist poetry press Roof Books (New York, 1997). Hence, the piece continues in the form of a textual and photographic document. The book remains concertedly an archive of the sited project. It is, as Templeton defines it, “a document of the poetry installation at the abandoned panopticon”. It reproduces textually the entire line of handwritten text produced over the six weeks, and provides drawings and photos of the site and of the written line as it weaves itself in and out of cells, following the walls, reaching back to the corridor. However, far more than a “document” (at any rate we know the unstable truth-value of such material), the book explicitly relocates or transfers to book-form some of the poetic concerns that articulated her installation. She uses the printed document (the document as visual and textual genre) to process poetic ideas, rather than to solely represent the sited piece as one would for a catalogue or monograph. This is important for the efficacy of her book as a project which depends on, yet also goes beyond the temporal and sited form of the piece.
A lengthy and crucial endnote closes the book. A lyrical, pensive prose piece it confirms Templeton’s motivations. It outlines her processes and ties her writing to the physical and emotional labour of working on site and with this kind of material, “to see if the matter itself could be infused with the seeing-anew of art, not to alter the matter but to turn activity to it”. It also specifies the range of sources which came to create her line of text: reports from prisoners of conscience, specific testimonies about violent arrests and abuses, statistics about state-sponsored human rights crimes, which co-exist with Templeton’s own notation of thoughts, writing up these distressing stories day after day in the dank and menacing location of the prison. Some of the graffiti she found on the walls of cells as she was making her way down this corridor of writing make their way into her text. Pages of text alternate with black and white photos of prison cells and of the line of handwritten paper. On site, the writing seems rolled out like a scroll. In the book, the text is aligned at centre of the page and separated into sections (entrance/ cell number/ corridor) that reproduce a map of the prison site and index the book: there are no page numbers. Templeton’s handling of the book’s photo-textual material assumes a readership that did not witness the piece first-hand (on site), whereas the book of course, allows and favours the abstraction of site.
From the way Templeton handles the task of writing, it is clear that this piece is informed as much by forms of artistic knowledge derived from late twentieth-century performance practices as by textual poetics. The way she chooses to write highlights this crucial interdependency between the sited event and its writerly structure. She uses writing to record, to register:
The task in real time:
“and I enter the cell” (CELL 8), “I almost passed this other marking” (CELL 13).
The factual (Amnesty) material:
“this week the state of Alabama reintroduced the chain gang”
(TO CORRIDOR CEILING & INTO CELL 12).
The physical and psychological endurance of the task:
“I’d been yearning for a break
as in dam
or into fever
wanting my tongue to fork
but I have to go to hell first” (CORRIDOR).
The centrality of body perception for the apprehension of space:
“where the body begins
where in begins
where you are
The event-led structuring of time:
“I read it after falling
in Cell 21 last night” (CELL 19).
The experiential involvement with the site:
“and in the long dark writing
in the long light shaft
in the long dark time of the cell
my particular hand
bodying its short round bursts” (CELL 14).
From the point of view of textual poetics, one can therefore note that the text’s temporality is dictated not by strategies inherent to textual poetics, but rather by a temporal narrative which lies very directly outside of the text: how long she is on site (the actual duration of her work on site) is the real-time of this text’s writing. This being acknowledged, the many textual repetitions of the work start to read less as a stylistic device than as a rhythm, an inscription which literally punctuates, marks, keeps count of the passing of time and of the duration of the task. Have to keep writing to keep progressing down the corridor. Some cells of text read like a litany of negations (“not.../ not.../ not.../ not...”), (“can’t... / can’t.../ can’t.../ can’t...), others a litany of revelations (“again now / again now / again now / again now / again now...”), that try to exorcise the nightmare of this place (place... place... place... place... place) or attempt a correspondence between the referent siting of work and its discursive resonance (“message / passage / message / passage / message / passage”). “In context”, writes Templeton in the note, repetition is “a hanging on desperately”.
Similarly, spatial concerns are handled primarily in relation to her physical occupancy of the prison site. Her own body at the site of the prison is the central locus for the piece’s spatiality. Not surprisingly, there’s a predominant use of deictics throughout the text, “now” “here” “I”, a device used here to confirm, rather than imply, the congruence of the writer with the time and place of writing. Inevitably, the writing produced becomes in places profoundly personal, voire diaristic. The narratives are mostly held in first person narratives and prisoners’ cases often appear in first person narratives. ‘May I mention the stress which I overcame while I was a prisoner under sentence of death?’ The text reads simultaneously as a testimonial and as a barometer of her (and others’) time on the “inside” (the opening word of the text).
As much as anything else, the text becomes an exploration of what being “inside” consists of. Inside the institutional space as much as the body’s interiority. Both determined by the stricter or looser boundaries set by an “outside” (the last word of the text). The boundaries between what is in and out never as strictly disturbed as when the “inside” is pushed to the furthest reaches of “outside”. So far “in” you could be forgotten, so far in you could be left out, might never come out:
a drawn boundary shifts across you
not drawn by you
meaning ownership of you shifts
because borders are breached
they breach you
they cross you
In the case of prisoners of conscience, there is frequently no awareness as to how long they will be kept for. The imprisoned body, by definition a body stripped of interiority, is on the inside to be invaded by the cruel and complex layers of incarceration. It is impossible to measure how deeply one’s sense of interiority, of having (or, being) an inside, of having insides, might be turned out under torture or imprisonment. Released prisoners invariably speak of the very particular mental and physical strain at not knowing when they might be released and if anyone on the outside still knows where they are. Less than ten years from this project, and in the wake of the acute and politically opportunistic changes to civic liberties in the West since 9/11, it is chilling to note the current British justice’s stance regarding the imprisonment with no trial, Guantanamo-style, of nine foreign nationals on suspicion of terrorist activities (under the “Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act” of 2001).
The long hours and days of her voluntary confinement (how far does she take the act of doing this time? does she go home at night?) provoke thoughts regarding her own presence at the prison and the role of art production in the face of these merciless stories.
A man stopped at the gate the other day. He spent fifteen years in this place, sentenced when he was a teenager.
He said, I don’t think they should make museums out of what goes on in places like that.
To which Templeton replies, “remembering warns”. Yet her doubts as an artist caught in what is chiefly a metonymic form of imprisonment are increasingly at work. This dilemma of the artistic resolve is fascinating and familiar. It finds her caught in art’s associative link, a testimonial at best, to the social injustices examined, along with the all-too familiar perception that art in itself doesn’t effect social change. Flying in the face of formal considerations, her dilemma is frequently brought on by the harrowing detail of some of the tortures undergone by prisoners, and the obvious difficulty at giving account in ways which will not seem gratuitous or voyeuristic:
I had chosen these cells near each other for metaphoric connection
starving to death
and being beaten so hard his intestines were forced out through his anus
but sometime bringing these obscenities out
seemed as obscene as doing to the body
(TO CORRIDOR CEILING)
Is the work more potent, less voyeuristic for having subjected the artist to some degree of physical and emotional discomfort? Are we talking of empathetic action, a heightening of the ability to feel someone else’s suffering, in order to validate a sense of personal indignation and even more crucially, validate the art-making process? Yet Templeton is caught too in the mechanics of her working method and the ethical concerns that arise from this strict adherence to form itself: she allows herself to be changed by the task, following it through whatever comes up, physically, mentally: “I’m not here to be right / I’m here to have a body” (CELL 26).
This is certainly one aspect in which Templeton’s physical involvement, the way she implicates her own physicality, her own body as part of the writing process, can serve as a measuring stick. From the point of view of the art-making process, questions learnt and art produced from exercises in physical staying power are different, though far from antithetical, from those learnt from intellectual patience. Much in the same way that questions learnt from personal experience will vary from scholarly investigations. The perception of time and space, of scale, of materials and of context are not only different, they also provoke a different understanding of the use of (one’s) body and of (one’s) writing. Ahead of discursive understanding, the very fact of (one’s) body means at least two things: it represents the most common denominator (all humans have body) and the most singular one (each human entity has one specific, let’s call it physical, body).
Twentieth-century performance and body-related arts place the exploration of the human body firmly at their structural centre. As site, the physical body is as singular as it is collective, as symbolic as any psycho-social site, as alive as it will be dead, as alive or as dead as it might be “live”. Discourses of identity and of body boundaries have to do with such ins and outs. Performance reminds us that a “live” body is singularly alive and collective. It is singular and singularised. Performance Art explores the collective (and plural) experiences of the singularised body. It involves the audience as witness and as accomplice. The great excesses and secrets of performance art: cutting into the individual (performer’s) body to display or show up the collective interdicts or events that could and do shape it. As a performer who’s been involved in large-scale projects with both individual and collective bodies, Templeton knows this. She knows too that her explicit physical action (here, the action of writing on site) inevitably affects the kind of thinking processes she will produce: “my gut has turned from irony / from artful bettering” (CELL 26) “I stripped speech naked to discover why to respect it / threw away elsewhere to look for where I am” (CELL 36). Templeton’s exercise heightens her experience of both the collective and of the singularised body. That the visitor would have to experience the piece in a prison plays certainly no small part in Templeton’s decision to work there. Her endnote opens with the words: “Before the visitor interprets, she has brought her body. And in order for the visitor to perceive, the body goes further still, accompanies the work”. The testimonial and empathetic activities of the project function through physical involvement, through accompaniment. To accompany: to go with, to keep company. The body accompanies the work. It assumes relationship, it enhances interrelationship, interdependence. In direct continuity with her Amnesty engagement, the act of writing supports the physical body. Seeks to accompany it, to go with, to be several. At all stages of the work, we can discern such points of accompaniment, the social and physical “withness” of a performed writing, and the express sense of responsibility that it also implies.
Photo: Bill Jacobson
The development of an appropriate poetic line is one of the most enduring interests and concerns of prosody. One could even venture to say that it is what keeps poetry, poetry. How a poet justifies the length or the beat or spatiality of their “line” is a near obligatory part of poetic structure. Take Dante’s tercet, Skelton’s skeltonics, Sappho’s lyric line, Milton’s blank verse, Chaucer’s couplets, Petrarch’s sonnet, Shakespeare’s sonnet, Wordsworth’s common line, Basho’s haiku, Baudelaire’s prose line, Mallarmé’s book line, Whitman’s thought line, Blake’s song lines, Olson’s breath line, Stein’s paragraphic line, William Carlos Williams’ short line, Joyce’s omnivorous line, Kurt Schwitters’s voice line, Allen Ginsberg’s mantras, David Antin’s transcribed line, John Ashbery’s disjunctive line, Frank O’Hara’s New York line, Kamau Brathwaite’s computerised line, Ntozake Shange’s choral line, Anne Marie Albiach’s choral line, Garcia Lorca’s duende, Henri Chopin’s audio line, Brion Gysin’s permuted line, Alice Notley’s subway line, Susan Howe’s visual line, Charles Bernstein’s plundering line, Jackson Mac Low’s acrostic line, John Cage’s mesostic line, Kenneth Goldsmith’s procedural line, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ scholarly line, Henri Michaux’s commentary, Joan Retallack’s chance line, Bob Cobbing’s xeroxed line, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s collage line, or Lee Ann Brown’s ballads or Erin Mouré’s translative line, for instance...
For Templeton, the single continuous line explored here is, as we have seen, one obligated by place and duration. She writes in the endnote: “It is hard to represent on the pages of a book the physical continuity of the original writing. I felt mostly the single journey that I was making”. This physical continuity marks the length of Templeton’s line. This poetic line is a sited line. It cannot be erased or altered (edited) and is a continuous line in real time. Its successful progression responds intrinsically, inherently, to the in situ conditions through which it arises. This of course goes far beyond the historic considerations of what has been considered a poetic line. But then was the poetic line ever anything but a reflection of individual as much as cultural conditions? Applying basic prosodic notions to textual work that unfolds spatially and temporally in social sites, opens compositional concerns hitherto specific to poetry to events-led forms of writing. To measure the various units of a video-audio-spatial-physical piece by Brian Catling or Aaron Williamson enables these to be structurally considered as accompanying, as going with, as being part and parcel of the textual work. It forces textual criticism to continue to meet poetry at the door, or rather, in “the STREETS”, as Steve Mc Caffery puts it within the related context of sonic poetry.*
* This is McCaffery’s take on the famous couplet in Olson’s Projective Verse. The full alternative quote goes as follows: “with the CAVITIES, by way of the THROAT, to the SOUND / the BODY, by way of TECHNOLOGICAL EXTENSION to the STREETS”.
Within the visual arts, and from the point of view of the exploration of the single line, one can think of the explicit linearity of Nancy Spero’s handprinted text murals of the 1970s, stretching along the walls of the gallery to exceed the painterly frame and explore ways of figuring (also through Amnesty reports) narrations of torture and abuse of women. There’s the continuous line of blue paint casually leaked by Francis Alys’ to record his walks in different cities. There’s the mapped line of Hamish Fulton’s long walking pieces. From within the literary, there’s the devastating one-sentence long prose piece Eden Eden Eden by French writer Pierre Guyotat, published in France at the height of the French-Algerian War (1962). Along with Spero’s work, this is perhaps the line that is the closest to Templeton’s own. It is a vociferous book, a full 300 pages of claustrophobic close-up narrative of body parts being blown apart, bodies tortured, humiliated, names hardly given that they are swallowed into the bloodied swamp of this one, breathlessly descriptive, cannibalistic and unending line, from start to finish one single line of exploded phrases and fragmented events, one line which holds between its circuit of commas, the pulsating and cyclical revulsion, the unforgiving rhythm of the horrors of the Algerian War. This close to the skin it is an unsustainable read, morally as much as physically. It was banned when it was thought that it would encourage anti-French sentiment. There is something of this revulsion at work in Templeton’s piece, something of this emphasis on myopic physical closeness and the way it forces up insights into suffering. There is something of this same insistence in the bleached out photos of the collapsed cells, in the textual repetitions, in the retelling of abuse, in the reality of the prisoners’ condition of disappearance, in the nightmarish duration of her process. All of which captured and made manifest in the stubborn singleness of her one handwritten site line.
Ironically, it is through the photos that one becomes aware of the singleness of her poetic line. In the book, the line travels down the centre of the page in short interrupted bursts, and turning the page creates interruptions and pauses. It is the photos that follow the handwritten line, the tracing of the text as it makes its way along the cells. The photographed line of text is pinned on the prison site, weaves a line of writing, a line of work in and out of the cells. There are no close-ups of the text. The photos are all taken mid-shot. From this distance, the actual line of text is not readable. It is viewable but largely unreadable. Photographed in this way the handwritten text belongs to the site, is a part of the site. The photos give credence to the veracity of the torturous task of writing. They make it seem (feel) true. They push the work towards social document. Susan Sontag observes in her recent Regarding the pain of others, with regard to the German writer W.G Sebald’s need to combine his mournful travelogues with archival photos, that they are there: “to haunt us”. They turn the elegist into a “militant elegist” (p.80). The photos confirm Templeton’s personal process as a militant one. Furthermore, because their role is precisely to show the site as followed through by the handwritten line of her intervention, their presence in the book is inextricably (not descriptively) one of the modes of the piece. They are necessary to the iconic as much as signifying articulations and complexities of the (re)presented textualities.
Photo: Bill Jacobson
At the innermost circle of the work: the handwritten line. As we’ve seen, this handwritten line, presented as it is through the photos of the book, shows less what it has written than that it has been written. In this sense, it doubles up on the performativeness and sitedness of Templeton’s approach. As far as I can tell from the photos, Templeton’s line of handwriting is steady, the gaps between phrases equidistant. It doesn’t doodle, it doesn’t draw anything else but letters and signs. The handwriting is in the task. A hand is seen to have been at writing. Being in (the) hand, it is on site. One assumes that it has originated in the hand (body) of the writer, in the one doing writing. This assumption is crucial. The handwriting specifies and particularises the act of writing. It embodies the act of writing as a physical activity. Where typeset writing is explicitly separated from the literate physiologies of the particular writer’s hand, written by hand the text retains, even favours the unmistakable trace of physical transit, of passage along a line from the writer’s body to textual work. Seen from the angle of a poetic tracing, a textual gesture rather than a textual line, this corporeal tracing turns the handwriting itself into an excess of writing. Or rather, and paradoxically, it can be considered in excess of writing very specifically because it literally incorporates the writing body to the textuality produced. It implies a somatisation, not so much of the text, but of the act of writing. In itself, a very particular example of the pulsational “feminine” writing famously advocated by the French writer Helene Cixous and subsequently taken on by a whole range of artists, of whom Nancy Spero’s and Susan Hiller’s work using handwriting seem the most directly relevant here. Similarly, Marjorie Welish connects the handwriting processes of Cy Twombly and Mary Kelly to a “poetic logic of language acquisition”, one where the learning body itself provides the semantics of the gesture of writing.
One of the functions of handwriting as a poetic practice would be to testify to this physical root of the trace of writing. How much of the hand and how much of writing is there in the handwriting? Rather, what kind of writing and what kind of textuality does handwriting produce? From the point of view of textual genetics, it is still very largely the case that it is the “poem” in progress, which is of interest. This does not traditionally include a reading of its tracing. To pore over the poet’s manuscript and its many drafts and corrections is done primarily to study the development of the verbal material. This does not include the blotches in the margins, the weight of the hand on the page. Critical work done around the connections between drawing and writing, as well as the growing field of textual genetics is helping shift this but the analysis of writing gestures is still a largely marginal, incidental activity of poetics. Even after philosophy’s influential discussions on the performativity of the signature, that last bastion of handwriting, it is still more often than not read as part of a biographic commerce in the writer’s aura rather than as part of its textuality. “I wonder why manuscripts are so underestimated in all academic disciplines, including science, mathematics, linguistics, semiology” ponders Susan Howe in her recent Pierce Arrow, in which typeset texts and pages of manuscript are presented more or less as a viewing/ reading pairing. This form of accompanied reading allows dedicated attention to Pierce’s handwritten notes and verbal sketches, and the progressive aspects times of his thinking as also demonstrated in his writing. Connecting the writing to the writer’s hand (not the writer’s name) emphasises the traced body, the bodily trace at the root of writing. The dramatic changes to Emily Dickinson’s handwriting have been commented on. As years of writing go by, the way the pencil hardly seems to brush against the paper, how this visually ethereal quality accompanies the maturing of her extraordinary and elusive work. French critics have also variously reflected on the “added sensation” brought on to his autobiography by Stendahl’s doodles. Handwriting commits writing to the circumstances of writing as much as to language. The poet commits her literate and socialised body to the emotive act of writing, and to what Derrida, working on Artaud’s “written drawings” has called, the graphic trace.
Using handwriting as a poetic or performance practice to enhance or explore embodied lines of work is invariably and to various degrees done in reaction to what is perceived as the prominence of phonocentric and logocentric knowledge. Susan Hiller’s early automatic light-writings sought to excavate the body for buried (repressed, unconscious) meaning. From here, one is drawn to performances where writing becomes more of a mark-making process, less textual than it is performic. Deeply connected to the writer’s body and politicised in no small way through feminist and “feminine” practices. In fact, gestural and calligraphic skills, long devalued by most western poetry, seem to have found their way back to art through performance and body-related visual arts: blood writing and white ink writing, writing done using body emissions and organic materials, that are seen to register body movements and highlight taboo manifestations of the human body’s interior/s.
This is exemplified in the work of Gina Pane, Ana Mendieta, Andre Serrano, Franco B, Ron Athey. Cris cheek mentions tracing with “25 separate pages of marks made by my tongue. Marks made by “licking” with crushed beetroot, red wine, coriander, tea, carrot and cochineal”. The recording or sounding of handwriting done by Brion Gysin or TNWK or the “live transmissions” of the visual artist Morgan O’Hara, expand the sensory base of the written scratching of a hand-tool or body-tool on a surface. The far reaches of body writing are not only a somatisation, but a practice of contestation. Done in resistance to linguistic semantics as much as to the power structures surrounding the human body in art, they enhance forms of knowledge, of rituals and of art practice that have been largely discredited by the laws of written culture.
For poetic work, such practices have emerged initially from the revolutionary realms of Concrete Poetry and from the work of gestural calligraphy by a number of Western poets and painters from the 1950s onwards. See for instance the magical permutations of Brion Gysin, who trained in Japanese as well as Arabic calligraphy, and describes his writing paintings as “calligraffiti”. Or the hand traces and drawings of the poets and writers associated with Bob Cobbing’s workshop. See also the works of Henri Michaux and Antonin Artaud, two poets who have actively engaged with drawing texts. Michaux’ handwritten pieces are calligraphic imitations, mimicries of writing, brush strokes which have abandoned writing, which “have left writing behind”. It is a case of an active disengagement from and a spiritualisation of the grapheme into line. Artaud’s “written drawings” (dessins écrits) carry a verbal sense and the highly energetic representation of words increases, augments, devastates writing at its contact with the poet’s hand. Writing draws its trace, becomes its own drawn trace. A body seeking to escape its writing through the trace. They are “but the circumscribed / figuration on paper / of an élan / that took place / and produced / magnetically and / magically its / effects (“50 Drawings to Assassinate Magic”).
More recently, and in ways that are close to Spero or Templeton in her commitment to physicalising her social commentary, the Iranian photographer and filmmaker Shirin Neshat has used handwriting very specifically to document or sign her self-portraits by inscribing with Arabic script the areas of her skin not already veiled by the burka. Processes of “veiling”, what makes a veil, what unveils, are played out here. Furthermore, the photos draw links between traditional and contemporary forms of inscription (writerly, photographic) and remind us that women have traditionally no access to practising publicly the sacred art of Islamic calligraphic writing. These pieces from her 1996 series “Anchorage” reflect the issues of power, gender and transmission always at work with writing. Made in the West, they are also a reminder that this script system inscribes the traditional richness of one of the world’s influential cultures within the context of international contemporaneity. Neshat does this at a time when Islamic culture is already much threatened by ongoing interests in the politico-religious West as much as by waves of extremism in its own midst.
At a direct level one can say that all these practices widen the scope of alphabetic (speech dependent) writing, towards a broader understanding of writing’s ideographic history. In this context, the act of writing may be textual but it is not primarily linguistic. It concerns itself with the trace as much as with the traced. Poetic practices connected to the immediacy of the gestural body, the stroke of the breath or of the skilled hand position themselves in explicit extension of the literary production of writing. We’ve seen that the politicisation of the marked performer’s body (here, through handwriting processes) provides relevant contexts on approaching this kind of practice.
Templeton, as much as Spero or Sherat, works with the proximity of the writing body as physical document. Their form of testimony comes from a highly personalised response to social and political realities and an exploratory way of committing art to it. The experimental bricolage and responsive conceptualism of present day arts activism is often seen to have emerged from the modalities of 60s–70s grass-root resistance as well as from the more physically progressive performance practices of these last few decades. Imbricated combinations of personal and social history are a means to mobilise and make a case for investigative concerns and on-the-ground, in-the-flesh methods of work. Templeton’s piece connects with this as much as with the function of poetry as a form of dissident witnessing. By intervening with text site-specifically and through site-led compositional methods, she creates a form of writing, which is profoundly connected to the “witness” material at source and provides for an uncompromising commitment to the act of “testimony”.
Indeed, as we have seen, Cells of Release implicates the poet physically and viscerally, and deals with her sense of social responsibility in both pragmatic and subtle ways. She writes under duress and we’ve seen that she positions the act of writing very specifically at each level of her descent into the work. Her call to writing is very directly a call to individual responsiveness and individual involvement beyond the piece. Her use of cross-arts tactics and her performer’s experience is attuned to artistic modes in which the performer explores representations of physical presence as a sample of thinking and as the very testing-ground for work. She addresses the impasse at the separateness of formal process and social motivation, of arts productive or non-productive nature, not by poeticising towards a revolutionary state of Art revolt, or by projecting new political ideals, but rather by proposing a physically responsive and quietly collective mode of participation and of resistance. One which, for instance, accepts the participatory structures of an established, international and universalist body (Amnesty). This makes for work that knows that it is by exploring a set of formal structures to the full and in context, by going to the heart of practice (body and sign), that writing turns into a form of protest.
My thanks to the students and poets attending my MA Seminar “Contemporary Poetic & Text-led Practices” in 2004 at Birkbeck College, London, where this text was first discussed. As ever, many thanks to John Hall for providing my initial draft with comments and suggestions.
Fiona Templeton, Cells of Release (Roof Books, 1997)
J. Bird, J-A Isaak & S. Lotringer (eds), Nancy Spero (Phaidon Press, 1996)
B.Cobbing & L.Upton (eds), Word Score Utterance Choreography in verbal & visual poetry (Writers Forum, 1998)
Jacques Derrida & Paule Thevenin, The secret art of Antonin Artaud, tr. from the French by Marie Ann Caws (MIT Press, 1998)
Susan Howe, Pierce Arrow (New Directions, 1999)
José Feréz Kuti (ed), Brion Gysin:Tuning in to the Multimedia Age (Thames & Hudson, 2003)
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