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Victoria Gray interview - VESSEL

27/09/11 Live
by Nathan Jones

Victoria Gray premieres a new commission from Mercy as part of our Spectres of Spectacle show on 29th September. Here she discusses the work - including some talk about the disembodied voice, the 'working class' context of the work, and how this performance clicks with the concepts in our Forest Swords commission at the same event.

Vessel features Victoria walking around Ropewalks area of Liverpool, with her voice eminating from a large glass vase, which she carries.  You can see Victoria performing this work between 4pm, ending at Static Gallery at 9pm.

Victoria is a writer and performer, lecturer in performance at York St John University and co-founder of O U I Performance (York) with artist Nathan Walker. O U I Performance, has an exciting programme of work planned for 2011-12, "Action Art Now".

This interview was conducted by email on 26th September 2011

Before we get onto your latest work for Mercy, lets explore your approach and your background a little. The first thing we got talking about when we met was that you never used your voice in performance. I remember I found this intriguing considering your status as a writer/performer, someone who obviously has a complex relationship with language. Can you tell us a little bit about how writing relates to your work?

As you say, there are a number of complex, interwoven factors that have affected my ability to use my voice in performance. My practice stems from a highly technical & physically rigorous conservatoire training in choreography and movement practices. Over the past ten years I have spent time seriously critiquing the limits of this codified language and the politics of moving within what has often been negatively termed 'an economy of bodies'. Because of this critique I arrived at task based actions and would say that the work that I make now would sit better within discourses of 'action art.' Actions (for me) have a direct, factual quality to them that reveal phenomenological and physical qualities of the 'untrained' body in action that are hidden and erased by training techniques. For me, actions are a way of physically disrupting the mimetic and representational language of codified dance technique which it is clear to me now, had subordinated my own voice. Finding actions was a political, physical and conceptual leap to move outside of this economy, a language that Foucault warns is a form of corporeal inscription, discipline and power. Immediately it strikes me that my decision to dedicate my arts practice to exploring a language that is almost entirely predicated on communicating ideas and concepts via the body and not my voice plays a large part in my difficulty now, over ten years on, in using my voice in my work. Also, in movement training the vocabulary used is often limited, relying on counting as a means of communicating between teacher and student. At the most extreme, in order to learn Ballet technique I had to learn basic French as the terminology of steps is in the French language. Often an entire 2 hour class would be communicated almost entirely in French and therefore felt quite alien and detached. This must play a large part in my estrangement from my own voice and spoken word.

However, all of my work stems from writing, beginning always with a list of actions, objects, ideas and concepts that are then abstracted and embodied physically. The written language is re-written corporeally and becomes hidden almost. For a long time I was happy with this concealment, however over the past few years I have felt the need to be much more explicit. All of this hiding (and silence) has built into something, a voice perhaps, that is quite angry/frustrated and so the challenge has been finding ways in which I can build my voice back into my work and my body....albeit slowly and quietly to begin with. It is difficult though, my body retains much of the training as muscle memory and so it is a constant negotiation, even a fight, between the spectre of my old body and my new body. Un-training is paradoxically more difficult than training.....

With the piece you're planning for Mercy, I can see that you are displacing your voice twice. In the first, you are literally putting your voice into a vase, so it is dis-embodied, and placed within another vessel. With the second, you have had the recording of your voice altered slightly so that it becomes stripped of what we might think of as the signature aspects of your 'true' voice. You have created a situation where you can 'handle' your voice, in both senses of the word. How did you come to this format, and what do you think is the relationship between your own anxieties of the spoken word and the way the audience receive it?

This is a perfect observation and a nice bit of wordplay! It has really helped me to reflect on why I had such a strong image of the work, even before we spoke about the commission. Firstly, the vase is a fitting vessel as descriptions of vases often borrow from anatomical terminology, such as the 'neck' of the vase and the 'body' of the vase. Taking my voice outside of my own body and placing it inside of a new one, particularly a fragile glass one has allowed me as you say, to literally 'handle' it......very carefully! Also, as we both know, we have struggled to find a sound device that would fit inside the neck of the vase that I chose (which seems uncharacteristically small). There seems to be a strange significance here, as if the neck (or throat) of the vase is too tight to allow sound in or out. This is similar to the way that I feel when I have anxiety about speaking in performance, the sense of my throat closing.

When I recorded and edited my voice for the work my desire was to make my voice become an object, this reflects my desire often to make my body become an object. I realise that this is dangerous territory, particularly as a woman making performance work. In fact, one of the main obstacles is presenting my body to the public in a way which does not objectify me and so I have to think really carefully and be critical of myself when I feel such a strong desire, as you say, to erase the 'signature aspects of my true voice', both my vocal voice and my physical/body voice.

The text that I have written for the work is, for me, highly personal and much more explicit than the writing that I have made public before. Most of the writing that I publish is critical writing on other artists practices and so is very different in tone, there isn't as much at stake. This text is a mesh of personal, political and critical references that have been brewing for sometime. I realise now that the work is not only allowing me to 'handle' the sound of my voice but perhaps even more so the content and subject of the text itself. The text originated as a straight spoken word piece but in the edit I processed and layered my voice, eventually almost concealing the audibility of the raw material. I recognise this now as a new method of dis-placing and hiding that I must become wary of....

Within the piece you hear my voice speaking the text forwards, coupled with the same text played in reverse so that you hear me speaking forwards and backwards in parallel. What emerged sounds like a difficult conversation or an argument, quite antagonistic and also haunting. My voice in reverse could almost be mistaken for another language and constantly interrupts and drowns my 'real' voice. Finally I took a tiny sample from my voice in reverse and looped it so that it became one elongated sound that runs in the background of the whole track. This sound is long and low and is at the periphery, its volume ascends and peaks exactly halfway in and then fades out. Most of the time it is imperceptible but at its peak it sounds choral, almost harmonic, but again quite sinister and revenant. These processes have allowed me to conceptually play with ideas of the spectre, repetition and returning but have also allowed me to 'handle' the form and content of my spoken word. I performed the text in one take and so all of the layers derive from the same root (or route), the same moment of performance. This was really important as I felt that the recorded text needed also to be a document of an ephemeral event, especially as there was only myself and one technician in the room at the time.

I think my concern with spoken word and the way that an audience receives it is that the work, or I, will be considered narcissistic. My concerns with greater literality in my work have been that it will translate as overly sentimental, diaristic, possibly reductive. From my own research I have traced similar concerns in other artists work, particularly female artists who sought to find ways of including personal material in their work but in a detached way; an unfortunate symptom of trying to be taken more 'seriously'. Female 'minimalist', or 'post-minimalist' artists such as Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta and Yvonne Rainer, critics such as Lucy Lippard and a healthy dose of feminist politics, particularly theories of corporeal feminism have been really influential in my re-thinking here and have helped me to reconcile my differences with my own voice; both vocally and physically.

Coming now to the event Spectres of Spectacle, which we approached you with because you're obviously someone who has a history of working with Derrida's ideas, specifically 'hauntology'. I feel like the hauntological nature of your work is different, in comparison to, say, how it's been used in musicology. How have you approached this commission?

I agree, my approach and relationship to 'hauntology' is different to its uses in musicological terms, however, I have to confess that my first encounter with the term was via Joy Division. Admittedly, this is quite a popular reference in relation to ideas of 'hauntology', however it was through reading literature on post-punk that I came to find 'hauntology', K-Punk and then from there all roads lead to Derrida and that's when things begin to get really complicated but really interesting......

I had also been reading a lot of theory on transgenerational haunting, genealogy and the idea of the 'hand-me down' and so these theories seemed to merge together nicely, moving my understanding of hauntology into wider discourses. One of the main ideas that interested me initially was simply the idea of things in the past persisting and perhaps antagonising the present. I have a strong feeling that this is different to what we might understand as memory. Perhaps what I mean is, I became interested in how memory of past events and experiences becomes embodied, affecting the body physically in the present and in the future, even to the extent of inhibiting the body from functioning effectively in the present. This brings me back to my earlier description of my technically trained body and ways in which these habitual experiences resurface and disrupt my body today. For example, old injuries still occur and old concerns over normative or regulated bodily aesthetics still linger. These voices can be debilitating in the day to day experience of being in my body; painful in fact and are like hauntings or visitations that I experience physically, phenomenologically and powerfully. I also became interested in the genealogical factors that affected my physical and psychological make-up, like an inheritance; what my Dads, Dads, Dad might have handed down to me for example, and so my understanding of 'hauntology' you could say became more specifically 'corporeal hauntology.'

In relation to Derrida, I found his theories most useful when grappling with the complex relationship between movement and writing. Particularly concepts of presence and absence, i.e the performance of movements or actions being caught in an act of self-erasure. Additionally there is no universal method for writing or recording movement itself in the way a script might function for theatre or notes on a score serve music for example. Derrida's theories for me suggest that action can not be considered outside of writing, it is writing and so the two are bound up. Also, Derrida's concepts of 'trace' and 'detritus' allowed me to see that what has seemingly disappeared does not actually disappear it simply takes on another form, its trace or detritus. So for me, the traces and detritus of past bodily experiences and bodily writings are experienced hauntologically, they are carried in my body and are continually re-written in performance. For this performance the writing is doubled, it emerges from my 'real' body and from the body of the vase as it is carried across and haunts Liverpool....!

You've been exploring the Ropewalks area of Liverpool in preparation for this performance. What have you been looking for? Did you find it?

Within the text I am 'handling' memories of the North East (where I am from) that concern the political and economic make-up of the region, or at least my experience of it growing up in the 80's, which for me felt quite dark. In the text I call this 'Northness' and it is characterised by work, labour, and grafting. I parallel this physicality and economy of workers bodies to my own experiences of corporeal inscription in training methods. I am pulled back again and again to memories of my Dad's trade as a welder in the shipyards along the North East coast and their subsequent decline under Thatcher and Conservative government in the late 70's. The scars of this, both physical and psychological can be seen in the North East landscape but also in the bodies of people there. I am thinking specifically about the redundancy of the physical skills embodied by my Dad and other tradesmen once they were literally made redundant. This surplus still haunts in muscle memory. My Dad educated me of these past trades as a kid by taking me to the places along the North East coast that used to be thriving shipyards but are now stagnant. He also had a habit of driving us around bleak places such as Middlesborough known for its chemical industry and Hartlepool a ship building town, places that have a post-industrial history. I found this really depressing and melancholic but also really romantic and have been drawn to these kinds of places ever since. Places where the primary function is now redundant and so they are left to die, or are struggling to bend to some kind of unsympathetic regeneration project or capital investment.
When I was researching the areas of Liverpool in and around Mercy I found the Ropewalks area (running from Lydia Ann Street to Renshaw Street widthways, and from Roscoe Street to Hanover Street lengthways). Firstly, I was seduced by the name as it combined an object and an action. There was a coincidence in that my idea for the piece, to walk the city with the vase, resonated with this and so it felt like a confirmation. I learned that the name Ropewalks refers to a practice of rope making for sailing ships that was the trade in this area of the city up until the 19th century. Now of course it has disappeared and the area today is part of the cultural quarter giving way to shops and leisure industries, including FACT, Chinatown and St Luke's bombed out church. So, there was an instant relationship here between afternoons with my Dad in the North East, the route of my walk in Liverpool, ships, the decline of trades and the ghosts of these spaces. What I always seem to look for are coincidences, signs, or confirmations, especially when I am making a new piece of work and need a bit of direction. I found plenty in the Ropewalks area, specifically in the street names which I ended up citing in the text piece. Firstly there is a street called Kent, which happens to be my middle name, a hand-me down from my Mam's side. Secondly there is a street called Argyle Street which is actually the name of the street that my Mam grew up on in Hebburn, another North East town (also home to my good friend and co-curator of the Spectres of Spectacle event, Mark Greenwood!). I remember my Mam driving me there on rainy afternoons to point out the place where Argyle Street used to stand, now demolished. Further, Argyle Street was a typical North East terrace, built to house the workers and shipbuilders grafting on the quayside in Hebburn. Again, when the industry declined these terraces were demolished and so here is a space that no longer exists in Hebburn but I found it again in Liverpool.

Finally, on my first visit to Liverpool to discuss the commission I met with Forest Swords who told me that the three tracks that he was working on also refer to places in Liverpool now long gone that his Dad had told him about; a sailors home, the overhead railway and The David Lewis Theatre. This was a nice coincidence and a thread between our works. Going back to Derrida, one of the first books that I read when researching Hauntology was 'Spectres of Marx'. In a way you could say that these redundant, post-industrial places are Spectres of Thatcher.....

Finally, there is a sub-theme of "post-spectacle" which has really emerged from the title of the show - and also from some of the concerns Mercy have generally tried to address in deepening the nature of our work. There is definitely a tension here between the need for artworks to 'reach' audiences, the occasional hyperbole around events promotion, and the experimental and subtle nature of some contemporary practice. I don't think its a polar opposition though, just a more complex relationship than perhaps Mercy have promoted in the past. Do you feel this, and how would you say you work for Spectres of Spectacle works with this tension?

I agree and it is interesting that you identify it as a tension, it is definitely a concern that I am still struggling with as my work is often very minimal, simple and I guess anti-spectacle, somebody once said that my work was anti-performance? 'Post-spectacle' is also a bit of a buzz term in current performance practices and is, for me, harking back to the post-modernist dance movement and I guess conceptual artists whereby the work was executed but almost covertly. The work is the idea and so is somewhat invisible materially. One of my most treasured references of this era is Yvonne Rainer's, 'No Manifesto' of I think 1968, where she declared 'No' to pretty much every performance convention, if its ok I would like to quote it; she said, 'NO to Spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make believe no to glamour and transcendency of the star image no to heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.' This really influenced my approach and made me want to investigate ways of performing in a 'non-spectacular' way that still had a strong affect, this is hard to do.....especially as the obligation to impress or entertain still holds strong in many audiences expectations. Consequently, I tend not to think about my work as entertainment.

Also, I am interested in a couple of themes in your question, for instance you comment that 'post-spectacle' would 'deepen the nature of your work' with Mercy. I identify with this in that through minimising and reducing my performance actions I feel like a spectator can experience kinaesthetic and perhaps phenomenological qualities of the action. This is for me more subtle than recognising the visual and kinetic elements that tend to sit nearer the surface of the work, and is therefore perhaps a deeper engagement.
For this commission one of the ways I have dealt with this is by taking my performance out into the city where it could actually disappear. As the action takes place outside, and is essentially quite mundane, I could almost be mistaken for someone who just happens to have bought a vase from a shop and is then carrying it home, or perhaps someone who is moving house and is carrying their possessions. I feel more comfortable with this un-framing of the performance and it reminds me of when I first bought the vase. I bought it from a warehouse that sells on furniture from house clearances, mainly from houses of people who have recently passed on. In order to get it home I had to carry it through York, a 30 minute walk home along a main road carrying the vase, my performance in Liverpool is like a revisitation of this. Also, the event at Mercy is billed as starting at 9.00pm and my 'performance' ends at 9.00pm, effectively before the event even begins!

Lastly, you comment that 'post-spectacle' is a 'sub-theme' and this is also indicative I think of how we perceive, 'non-spectacular' work, as if it is a 'sub' to the main event perhaps. I hope that rather than it be a sub-theme, post-spectacle can elevate itself to being the theme! Personally, 'post-spectacle' is not just an aesthetic preference but is also a deliberate political decision to challenge the ethics of modernity, the politics of movement and the hyper-mobile experience that we are (covertly and silently) interpolated in daily within a capitalist society........German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (another of my favourite references!) would say that this mode of criticism is crucial and is a ‘quiet theory of loud mobilization.' The idea that the humble 'post-spectacle' could achieve something so spectacular as critically dismantling the 'spectacle' really really excites me.....