A Polyphonic Essay on Intimacy and Distance -
by Alexandra Ross and Gayle Meikle
A Polyphonic Essay on Intimacy and Distance.
Transart Triennale, Berlin 2016
A Polyphonic Essay on Intimacy and Distance presented at the Transart Triennale in August (2016) was a performance, presentation and discussion on themes relating to the concepts of intimacy and distance incorporating newly commissioned artworks from Mohammad Namazi and Koleka Putuma. A key component to the project was the performative scaffold we, the curators created to support and give shape to the project.
In the following textual and audio conversation, we present two layers of this process. On the left hand side, we have extracted the textual quotations we referenced and read aloud during the live event. These have been presented chronologically in an effort to discern if these texts present the essence of the Polyphonic Essay. On the right hand side can be found a transcript of a recorded conversation between the curators discussing the process of collaboration over great distance (UK and South Africa). During this conversation there is a discussion of the process leading to the performative scaffold. This conversation was conducted and recorded over Skype (Newcastle to Cape Town) on Tuesday 15th November 2016.
Performativity is a useful concept when thinking about the embodiment and intimacy of voice without falling into the essentialist or phonocentrism. Emerging from the body, voice is marked by that enculturated body. That is, embodied voices are always already mediated by culture: they are inherently modified by sex, gender ethnicity race, history and so on. Through its performative quality, voice does not directly express or represent those cultural characteristics, it enacts them - it embodies them through its vocal actions. And when media comes into play, those performative voices are not only marked once more, by mediation, but they enact and mark mediation itself. (1)
The kiss is the absolute form of mutuality: it is to say, there is nothing or no one else in this moment, only you and I. In this way, the romantic kiss is the absolute collapse of distance; there is no perspective, only the movement of a vanishing point rushing in, suddenly, to overtake the self. What architecture can stand against the proposal that every kiss makes, that of creating an altogether perfect form of enclosure? In bringing two mouths together, the kiss creates its own dwelling, a privacy that always already exceeds itself. (2)
Nothing exists independently, and nothing comes from nothing. At the DNA level, it’s impossible to tell a “genuine” code sequence from a viral code insertion. In bacteria, for example, there exist plasmids, entities not unlike pieces of viral code. Plasmids resemble parasites in the bacterial host, but at this scale it’s impossible to tell which being is a parasite and which a host (Dawkins, Extended Phenotype 159, 200–23, 226; paging Hillis Miller . . . ). DNA is literally a code that RNA translates in order for ribosomes to manufacture enzymes (end result: life-forms). Ribosomes can be programmed to read DNA differently: genetic engineering shows how a bacterial cell could manufacture plastics instead of proteins (see Material World for this uncontroversial bit of life science). In a sense, molecular biology confronts issues of authenticity similar to those in textual studies. Just as deconstruction showed that, at a certain level at any rate, no text is totally authentic, biology shows us that there is no authentic life-form. This is good news for a queer theory of ecology, which would suppose a multiplication of differences at as many levels and on as many scales as possible. (3)
Juno captures the “roar” of Jupiter. NASA’s Juno spacecraft has crossed into Jupiter’s immense magnetic field. Juno’s Waves instrument recorded the crossing of the bow shock on June 24, 2016. The bow shock is where the supersonic solar wind is heated and slowed by Jupiter’s magnetosphere. The next day, June 25, 2016, the Waves instrument witnessed the crossing of the magnetopause. The magnetopause is the boundary between the sun’s magnetic field and Jupiter’s magnetic field. Trapped continuum radiation refers to waves trapped in a low-density cavity in Jupiter’s magnetosphere. (4)
Fundamentally, the echo provides a means for orientation: the auditory reflections that surround us at all times capture a given sound, to return it, bringing it back into the environment. In this regard, it teaches us the dimensions of our surroundings – we gauge the material envelope of place through these reflections of sound. (5)
The operations of reciting carry within its soundings the messages over and above the coordinates of daily life; to import the gravity of tradition onto the spaces of such life, so as to remind of greater legacies, and greater narratives. As in the traditions of prayer, and the religious service, to recite an existing text is never only about words. Rather the respeaking of such texts solidifies, through its collective reverberations, a metaphysical, and institutional, bond: that my voice is but a modest carrier that joins in assembly with a particular set of beliefs. Here the citational chain performs explicitly to embed us within its historical reach, though one aimed toward the transcendental and the divine, and their institutional traditions. To pray is to affirm a particular constellation – of text and word, voice and subject of spirit and faith. We might ask, how many voices have gone before to trace over this text, along this citational pathway? I understand such recitals as a central act for the establishment of belief systems; to believe is already to recite, to subscribe to the citation itself, as one that possesses me, channels itself through my voice, and to which I am fully beholden. To repeat the words is thus to support the formation of a public. The public speech is an appeal to public life, to the social and collective body, and we might say, to the legacies of public institutions. From sermons to testimonies, anthems to oaths, soapbox rants to demonstrations, public speech finds its resonating energy by occupying given modalities of voicing, and their traditions tuning the private individual toward the greater sphere of civic culture and empowerment, while testing the limits of what a certain body can say. (6)
The undocumented perform intimate jobs clean our shit, handle the food we put in our mouth, handle our genitalia. (7)
SOUND LEVELS WITH INTIMACY DEGREES
Very close Soft whisper:
(ca. 7.6 to 15 cm) top secret
Close Audible whisper;
(20 to 30 cm) very confidential
Near (30 to 50 cm) Indoors, soft voice; outdoors, full voice; confidential
Neutral Soft voice, low volume;
(50 to ca 92 cm) personal subject matter
Neutral Full voice; information
(92 cm to 1.5 m) of non-personal matter
Public Distance Full voice with
(1.75 to 2.4 m) slight overloudness; public information for others to hear
Across the room Loud voice;
(2.4 to 6.1 m) talking to a group
Stretching the limits Hailing distance;
of distance departures.
(0 to 7.3m indoors;
up to 30.5m outdoors)
Friendship is founded, in truth, so as to protect itself from the bottom, or the abyssal bottomless depths. That is why friendship had better preserve itself in silence... Here again, Nietzsche thinks silence from the standpoint of friendship, as though silence itself could not be spoken about, as though it could not be spoken elsewhere than in friendship, by friendship. Speech ruins friendship, it corrupts by speaking, degrades, belittles, undoes the speaking of friendship... Not that friends should keep silent, among themselves or on the subject of their friends. Their speech would perhaps have to breathe with an implied silence. (9)
An intimacy of long unfolding fails to be apprehended, and the story concludes in familiar solitudes, human exceptionalism and lithic indifference. Withdrawal and remoteness are inevitable themes within any romance of stone, since rock outlasts that which it draws close, that which draws it close, that to which it is strangely bound. Humans respire, reproduce, invent,desire and dream. The lithic inhabits the secret interiors of the earth. What could be more cloistered? Inorganic, nothing like the familiar animals we conditionally welcome into community, an everyday material that surfaces blunt rebuke to assimilation, stone remains aloof. Yet a mutuality is always possible, some narrative of companionship and concurrency. This essay maps geophilia, a pull, a movement, and a conjoint creativity that breaches ontological distance. Even if born of a general principle of matter, geophilia’s mobility and clasp possess their own rocky effects, in the quadruple sense “effects” carries of aftermath, agency, production, and belongings. An elemental geophilia surely exists outside human experience. Yet to us nonlithics, its force will be most evident in the relations that enmesh us over long scales of time and in the “storied matter” these confederations of the human and inhuman divulge. (10)
( 1 )
Neumark, N., 2010, Doing things with Voices: Performativity and Voice, in Neumark, H., Gibson, R. and Van Leeuwen, T. (eds.), 2010, Voice: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media, MIT Press, pp. 97
( 2 )
LaBelle, B., 2014, Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and The Oral Imaginary, Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 105
( 3 )
Morton, T., PMLA, Volume 125, Number 2, March 2010, pp. 273–282 (10)
( 4 )
Blakemore, E., 2016, This Is What Jupiter Sounds Like. [online] Smithsonian. Available at: [Accessed 6 Aug. 2016].
( 5 )
LaBelle Ibid pp. 169
( 6 )
Ibid pp. 167-169
( 7 )
Barrett, S., (2016) – quotation from audience member, artist Sonia Barrett.
( 8 )
Oaks.nvg.org., 2016, Distances Talk, and Sound Levels Talk - Proxemics of E. T. Hall – The Gold Scales. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Aug. 2016].
( 9 )
Derrida, J., 2005, The Politics of Friendship, Verso Books, pp.53-54.
Cohen, J., continent, Issue 4.2, 2015, pp. 8-18 [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Aug. 2016].
Transcription of in-conversation Tuesday 15 November 2016
Alexandra: Hello Gayle
Gayle: Hi Alexandra
A: Hi, so we were wanting to talk about the polyphonic essay on intimacy and distance and there were a few things we wanted to clarify - so do you want to start?
G: Yeah, so I suppose the best thing to do is to sort of talk about the genesis of the project thus far…
G: So it might be quite useful to identify our geographical locations. At the moment I am based in the North East of the England, and you are based in South Africa. However, this project began, or at least the beginnings of the project began when I was still up in the Hebrides, in Scotland. So, we kind of wanted to collaborate together, we wanted to do something, because over the last ten years we have been working on and off with one another and we are great friends, a lot of our interests overlap. And I suppose you saw that (Transart) Open Call which came at a timely moment for both of us in terms of thinking about our own practices and a collaborative practice, and actually naming this collaborative practice together or a part of this collaborative practice. So do we want to talk about how we developed the processes, the stages?
A: Yes, we wanted it to be a commissioning process of bringing together artists likely from our respective locations, although that wasn’t nailed down. So, the idea that we were going to create a project stemming from and showcasing artists’ work, but in a particularly innovative and new format and framework. So this idea of the essay, you know I was already interested in the notion of polyphony within my PhD. And finding a way within the presentation of the artists’ work, to gather and present multiple voices in the weaving together of a surrounding … and you used the phrase scaffold which I think is a really good term for what we are trying to unpick with the idea of the Polyphonic Essay as form/with the Polyphonic Essay as scaffold.
G: Yes, exactly, a supportive structure in which the event was framed and within which the artworks were presented to a public.
A: I actually think the essay as form came quite naturally - intuitively it was a very good phraseology, but also form that we were wanting to approach. And since obviously getting deeper into the project and looking at what the essay could be, and how it has been unpicked in the past. Some of the elements which really resonated with how we wanted the project to come together and how it did come together, thankfully, were some of the following: all the parts of an essay support one another; the essay will begin with the complex and the difficult; and the essay reflects the object without doing violence to it. Which I think is really interesting. And also something else I picked up on, this is Adorno – ‘Essay as Form’. (1) The essay will not be exhaustive, it will omit and is not totalizing in its system. So the idea that what unfolds is not the be all and end all, it’s not a finalized form, it’s something very much in-process.
G: Yeah, I think that in-process, or that contingency is very interesting in terms of how we have worked. So the timeline was from January to August (2016) and there were three stages to the project in terms of how we structured the delivery of it. So the first stage was: we independently commissioned our artists and did not tell each other. And also gathered references to input into this polyphonic essay. An arsenal of references and what not, that we could pull out during this liveness. The second stage, was actually playing the commissioned works to one another and the audience at the same time, so the reveal of the content happened to both the audience and each curator (simultaneously). Which I think is a really interesting way of thinking about how one presents artworks, or how one makes exhibitions. The third part was of course the construction - pulling out those references out from the arsenal.
A: We have certainly touched upon this many times before, but the unrehearsed nature, the thoroughly prepared nature and researched nature, but the unrehearsed element of it - what was being received by the audience and indeed towards the latter part of the event that they (the audience) participated in as well - that this was unrehearsed. You have mentioned the word liveness just there and I think that is crucial.
G: Yes definitely, I suppose what I am quite interested from my own practice is different modes of presenting, exhibition making or distributing artworks and that’s evident in a lot of the curatorial positions that I’ve held over the last few years. So for me I was really interested in thinking about how one presents artworks as an essay and obviously there is long history of that, but thinking about, can we transpose the linguistic elements of the essay, so those points that you talk about that come from Adorno’s key text – how can one transpose that to a curatorial methodology or a way of thinking about this scaffold and how we operate, where it is very much in dialogue with one another.
A: … and in dialogue with the artwork – because that was something that we were absolutely - you know, prior to the Transart Triennale, that we were in dialogue individually with the artists. The artist I commissioned was Koleka Putuma who is based in Cape Town and you commissioned Mohammad Namazi who is based in London, but Iranian. And this multi-channel dialogue we had, and how that actual performance itself, the event itself, everything spun out from the artworks we were presenting. But because it was unrehearsed, but also because it was the reveal, I received and experienced your artist and his contribution at the same time as the audience did, drawing from this arsenal of references of audio clips, that came in the moment, very spontaneously. But from this place of symbiosis that we have referred to in the past, this shared practice of almost ten years – this feeling of intuition that you likely will use something like this, that you likely will refer to that… and these moments of (overlap). Like the one for example where I had referred to the highest point of audio recording and you referred to the lowest, sub-oceanic audio recording. So this idea that we already had similar lines of thinking, but we selected different references from which to draw. And hopefully what you’ll be reading on the page of Mnemoscape, you’ll be able to experience the excerpts from the texts that we read aloud, as they were read chronologically.
G: So I suppose what we have adjacent to this audio is the collected quotes. I supposed I’m interested in whether (1) not having been there – and it was very much about being in the moment and being experientially there – how does the document of this event exist past the event and I’m interested in how that reads. Does this series of quotes read/ meander as an essay and can we get some understanding of the content (of the event) and (2) does it have another life of its own that isn’t about documenting exactly - in a traditional way – does it give a nod to it, but also exist independently from it?
A: Precisely. What we are presenting, intentionally, is not a verbatim transcript of what took place because first of all, that verbatim transcript would lose so much of what took place in the room – especially working with the audience’s experience of Koleka’s (audio reading of the work/ her voice in the room, and one audience member said it was like she was in the room. And also the way the bodies interacted with Mohammad’s work and the installation of the microphones. So if we transcribed that, what are we losing? So much! Whereas what we are trying to focus on with the gathering of the textual quotes, is, is there a coherence, a linearity, an argument per se, in an essay form? I am aware that we wanted to make this short and sweet, and we are coming to the time that we wanted to record for, is there anything else that we wanted to touch on before we close up?
G: I think in terms of – again just stressing that we are not replicating but developing on from – would be a good way of thinking about this project and what we are presenting within the confines of this journal is that it is to be considered as a document but also as something else. It is open ended.
A: It is. Of course. Because we have various different other elements which would not be best showcased within this form. For example, the experiencing of Mohammad’s work or Koleka’s requires a different a different context, which we are finding form through and with Mnemoscape. But on this occasion, we were wanting to see how can we capture a slice of the project. And also, doing so a little bit with hindsight, reflecting upon it.
G: Yes. Very much so.
A: Lovely chatting.
G: Thank you.
A: Speak to you soon.
Reference in audio conversation:
( 1 )
Adorno, T W; Hullot-Kentor B and Will, F (Trans.), The Essay as Form, New German Critique, No. 32. (Spring - Summer, 1984), pp. 154.
A Polyphonic Essay on… is an ongoing
collaboration between curators Alexandra Ross and Gayle Meikle. A Polyphonic Essay on Intimacy and Distance was commissioned by and made for Transart Triennale Berlin, 5 – 7 August 2016. Artworks commissioned were Internet Fantasy in What Way?
by Mohammad Namazi and Grief Will Always Ask: Why by Koleka Putuma.
A Polyphonic Essay on Intimacy and Distance.
Transart Triennale, Berlin 2016