Because in the End We Arrive at the Beginning
“You know, Phaedrus, that is the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly correspond to painting. The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words; they seem to talk to you as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever.”– Socrates to Phaedrus
This chapbook celebrates TechnoText, a week-long exhibition held at Barbur Gallery, in Jerusalem, that incorporated a series of performances in late August 2019. I am writing here, now, reflecting on what was there, then, with the hope of furthering that experiment by recording my experience and sharing it with you. I imagine you reading this at some future time and in some future place, and am trying to re-live it with you and thereby collapse the distance between us, me now and you then, me here and you there.
The central performances were a series of literary readings — poetic, fictional and not — performed in a “Hyperphrastic Transcription Environment”. These readings were bookended by an opening event that foreshadowed the week to come, and a musical show. “Hyperphrastic Transcription Environment”? Well, ekphrasis, from the Greek for “to speak (phrásis) out (ek)”, is an attempt to capture what the eye may not see in an initial experience, to elevate the experience found in a work of art, and to then find the action within a static art-object through description. Hyperphrasis then, is the amplification of meaning found in a work of art spoken out from the lens of a particular moment.
In our case, as someone would speak, a transcription, projected onto a wall behind them, would emerge in four stages. Utilizing software developed by Eran Hadas and Lonnie Monka, the transcription would first capture as accurately as possible the spoken words, it would then read out two algorithmically controlled variant readings, testing the boundaries of fidelity and figurative meanings, while simultaneously presenting a shifting single keyword reflecting the cumulative sentiment of the totality of a performance at any single moment. The resulting experience was circular, a movement from the page to the audience via a performance, and from the performer to the page via live transcription. That transcription would then become the new page read by the audience, to which the improvising performer would respond in turn. If a text is the object of ritual — repeated, scripted, and sacred — this was an exercise in anti-ritual.
The schedule of literary readings proceeded as follows:
1. The Gnat Poets of Tel Aviv — Amit Ben Ami, Ariel de Leon, Daniel Oz, Ella Novak, Eran Hadas, Noam Dovev, Vaan Nguyen — performed in Hebrew.
2. Haim Watzman read several short stories set in Jerusalem and Amital Stern, accompanied by a short silent film, read from a series entitled Miflezet, of women, and Jerusalem, and monsters.
3. A series of “in[ ]determinant poems”, much like those in this chapbook — poems that provide space from within for a reader to interject and improvise — were read by Lonnie Monka, Joelle Milman, and Shimon Yeshaya Weinbach, in turn.
4. And finally, there was a matinee celebration of local Jerusalem poetry by Jane Medved, Maurice Eidelsberg, and Michael Dickel that incorporated live composition.
Each performance used the exhibition in different ways to probe the boundaries between text and interpretation, performance and meaning. Simply put, the core of TechnoText was an open-ended experiment that continually resisted description, yet comfortably allowed for a shared experience.
In order to describe the principal threads of the exhibition, and to attempt to unravel them in retrospect, I would like to focus on the two experiments that bookended the week.
TechnoText opened with what was at once a performance from within and meta-commentary about the exhibition as a whole. Lonnie read “Resuscitating the Author”, an abridged, repeated, and improvised homage to Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”. The commentary that ensued was an attempt to de-anchor our relationship to the written word and to privilege performance, any performance, of reading, above a static art-object, text or otherwise.
Roland Barthes wrote that “once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile, to give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a single signified, to close the writing”. The response here was to excavate the latent potential meanings of a written text through performance.
These opening moments were a provocation to experience texts and to invest ourselves in their meanings. Destabilizing any one particular reading through a series of improvisational additions and subtractions, the TechnoText experiments uniquely marked their texts in the moment.
If “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”, writing then becomes a gift to create something for someone else, to be accepted on their terms. Writing becomes a type of communication, and a form of suicide, that imposes no expectations on the receiver and presents the possibility for one’s resurrection at the hands of another. It is a vulnerability to allow ourselves to give someone else the means to recreate us in their image — self-erasure through self-expression — the result of which is a mutual recognition.
The opening experiment served as a preview for the multilayered exhibition to come.
“I want to do something that I don’t know how to do, and offer you the experience of watching someone fumble, because I think maybe that’s what art should offer. An opportunity to recognize our common humanity and vulnerability.”(Charlie Kaufman wrote that. Or rather he wrote it down, read it in public, and then had it transcribed and published. I heard the recording.)
Ana Wild walked to the stage and began by stuttering. For a very long time I think the common feeling in the room could have been nothing but a sense of shame, and of embarrassment on her behalf. Slowly she inched towards coherence, no longer stuttering, now repeating words over and over again, now talking in half sentences moving along mid-thought. Her voice, which had begun in a whisper, now rose. What had been piecemeal words and cut up phrases were now conjoining. Stripped of predetermined expectations, she was slowly carving out a shared space.
Or maybe none of this is right. Maybe what had happened was not that she became coherent, but that we had slowly begun to understand her. It wasn’t a performance to a passive audience, so much as a language lesson and a movement towards mutual understanding.
By the conclusion of the performance Ana was yelling, a cri-de-coeur, and we understood one another. What had begun in shame ended in epiphany, and we had to go through that to get to there. Where were we? There was no narrative or message, but in the form of her performance we found an exposed vulnerability, a shared humanity. Empathy became a mode of interpretation.