by Romana Huk


The colloquium from which the following papers were gathered took place at Oxford Brookes University, where a Centre for Modern and Contemporary Poetry has very recently been established.  The event was organized by myself, Romana Huk, during the leave I have secured from the University of New Hampshire in the States in order to work, as a two-year research fellow, to help jump-start the Centre and give its activities the beginnings of what its directors hope will be an ever-developing international scope. Given my other charge to attempt to make Brookes a place where traditionally antagonistic strands of poetry writing in the U.K. could at least meet and argue, if not find shared points of departure, I chose a topic with which every camp of work—“avant-garde” and  “mainstream,” black British and regionalist, etc.—has been concerned: rereading the concept of “presence” in performance, and the impact of such study on electronic as well as theatre and film modes for poetry.   Such debates about presence—and “liveness” in mediatized performance—constitute issues of acute importance for avant-garde women’s poetry, as the number of powerful women writers present at this small colloquium would suggest.  The necessity of rethinking identity politics and their impact on the social sphere according to newly located and temporalized rather than “generic” models of difference makes the collocation of performance discourse (with its re-placement of the female body) and those of gender politicking seem exhilarating and timely.  This is particularly so given the range of new media and modes in which to experiment with what Caroline Bergvall refers to as the context-specific and continually moving quantity of “presentness” rather than “presence.”  Obviously not every paper at the colloquium was engaged specifically with gender issues, but all that spoke clearly to its focus became key in the project of refiguring identity at the intersection between textual and spatial relations—of reading the latter back into the former and beginning to contemplate the private as the pivotal edge in that implicit triangle of interactions.

The range of responses that emerged during the colloquium to this problem of re-valuing the material presence of the author or speaker in space and time, and the implications of such valuations for electronic work, would be impossible to represent here, in part because many of the presentations were themselves performances rather than written/reproducible texts—John Cayley’s demonstration of how the electronic modes of his own works enhance rather than depart from variously embodied and codex-oriented experiment, for example, or Joan Retallack’s play with memory and “liveness” via recorded fragments of John Cage’s voice/laughter, or Tony Lopez’s making of a “talk poem,” styled after David Antin’s experiments with the same, or Patience Agbabi’s discussion of the difficulties faced in performing her new collage piece made out of testimonials and responses (i.e., bits of “personal witness”) elicited from victims and observers of the Alder Hey organ scandal, [1] or cris cheek’s and Kirsten Lavers’ collaborative presentation, via lap-top projections, of accumulative interventions made out of “things not worth keeping,” [2] by which they refer to solicited items deemed discardable by their owners undergoing “value-transitions” via their being re-presented in continually reconfigured public installations inviting responses from viewers.  Certainly Carla Harryman’s new theatre production—Performing Objects Stationed in Platform on the Sub (Urban) World—written especially for the colloquium, became the very heart of it; situated in the evening between the two days of papers and discussion, and played by a cast that involved some of our presenters, it became key in conversation and is discussed in our selection here at the end of Redell Olsen’s essay. [3]    And finally, some talks were delivered extempore, like Anthony Joseph’s opening one about his personal translation from Caribbean to British life.  He spoke of having to envision exile as a concept/experience “that becomes textual” in order to effect his own presence (which depends on loss of its bearings) on the page as well as in performance.  This description of using fragmentary language to create his own “self-styled vacuum”—his own peculiar and historical displacement in language being understood as space, which encompasses both absence and location—provided a provocative start to the colloquium, given its modeling of historical and irreducible if involuted presence that remains unassimilated in more familiar models of dispersed presence as we tend to assume them in avant-garde poetics. 

The implicit problems in both that kind of theoretical disjuncture discernible between talks at the colloquium and the very idea that raced, gendered or sexual difference might be “assimilated” within broadening models of performative presence are explored either tangentially or directly in the pieces that I have chosen to assemble here for HOW2’s readers.  For example, though it may be less than immediately apparent upon listening to them, there are provocative connections between Tyrus Miller’s and Caroline Bergvall’s presentations, given their focus on the how the unassimilable—the face, if you will, in that both discuss encounters with, or responses to, images of it and the seen body—becomes key to the project of rereading social meaning relationally.  What Bergvall calls the problem of “translatability” in the “delay and the understanding of presence” is related to what Miller describes, after the Hungarian film maker Péter Forgács, as the shift from understanding film image as discrete fact to its articulation—precisely via its inevitable loss of specific personal and historical reference—within a configurational and gestural realm caught in the instant of filming.  We have here, as Bergvall has abbreviated it in her presentation notes, an inevitable process of “[r]emoval of the face for its sign.”  These home movies that Forgács collected from mid-century Central Europe and now uses as his primary materials poignantly foreground the thickness of presence: the operations of loss and mis-memorialization by which we retrieve it, as we do as we look at these figures, and the partial aspect (in every sense of that word) of its occurrence “against the backdrop of historical events [it] can only partially comprehend.”   When he attempts, as Miller argues Forgács has done in Wittgenstein Tractatus (one of the films made out of this footage), to “trace out relations in space that are tangential to propositional language,” the “general problems of relating the world as seen and said” enact a critique of the Tractatus—a work Miller believes Forgács read as indirectly designed by the contradictions of the everyday life of Central European Jewry at the time of the filming.  In other words, propositional language must be read back against the “presence” of the inassimilable in order to be glimpsed as taking part in a configurational complex of relations whose vanishing point by its very loss enables such reading.

Such matters, in addition to their reverse dynamic—what Bergvall calls up in her notes via Judith Butler’s ideas from Excitable Speech: the constitutive aspects of public language use—relate to Bergvall’s concerns about “literacy” or the readability, translatability, of encountered difference or otherness and the ethics of responding to it, of meeting “face to face.”  The partialness of the appearances of the face in her work-in-progress performed/discussed at the colloquium, “About Face,” [4] as well as our retrieval of it via operations that involve its displacement by recorded spoken fragments and the assumptions they provoke about interlocutor and context, also relate to the problems presented by Forgács’ film.  “Accidental finds mean that personal detail is lost in broader recording/archiving context,” she notes, commenting on Boltanski’s photographic installation, Le Lycée Chases; “defacement, evacuation of personal history is replaced/emphasised by approach to the viewer’s own processing” under the lights (gallery lights, in this instance, or “interrogation lights”, as she calls them) that signal those processes—because “[l]ight is always in the way.” Bergvall’s invocation of N. Katherine Hayles’ work on the “posthuman,” and its description of the constant interplay between inscription and incorporation, or abstract systems of signs and instances of practice, leads her to muse for a moment in her notes about the potential morphing of lost Benjaminian “aura” within new articulations of presence—or, as she puts it, “in the performed aspect of the viewing experience.  In the unique fragility of these found pics.”  Although referring here to Boltanski’s photographic work, Bergvall might well have been thinking of Wittgenstein Tractatus as well.  Forgács like Boltanski seems to suggest with his treatment of found materials that “art is always a witness,” that “form has become less important,” and that “[n]ow we’re concerned with the right way of speaking to someone; there is no form that is right forever…. Now [we] find it equally important to work in the newspaper or with posters, say, to do work in the street rather than to make pieces for museum display.”  The form Bergvall and I chose for her text here—its “unfinished” state (as it was when delivered), with its gestural economy and ellipses, its offering of work in progress as communication requiring response (rather than “exhibited” artwork), and its openness to interruption but insistence on continually renewing the problem of response itself, signaled by the presence of her own face, the “untranslatable individual, the socially opaque”—enacts her idea of (the difficulty of) what performance does at the intersection of “the gallery” and the public. 

The imperative to rethink the ethics of response, and therefore enact a presentness in relation to others through or despite what Bergvall describes as our “prostheticised voice” and practice of “ventriloquism of the live image” (thinking of the recent work Mouthpiece by Krzysztof Wodiczko, which investigates such social processes), informed several key papers at the colloquium, if in very different ways and with markedly differing results.  It was present in Robert Sheppard’s critical link-up of discourses about performance and Levinas’s much-discussed distinctions between “saying” and “the said”—the former embodying that present unfinishedness and “openness to the other” that the latter cannot. Sheppard’s strategies for reading such embodiments, or Levinas’s well-known meditations on the face (which are not directly mentioned in his paper), differ in crucial ways from Bergvall’s and take him in other directions in terms of commentary on the politics of presence in performance—to which I will return below.  Joan Retallack, working from Gertrude Stein’s quasi-syllogistic suggestion that “nothing is surprising but a coincidence, a fact is not surprising,” [t]here is always a coincidence in crime,” and [t]here are so many ways in which there is no crime”(Blood On The Dining Room Floor), also addresses similar issues by considering the “liveness” of openness to unpredictability, and the transgressive valence of presenting one to an(other) in the site of “contiguity,” which she thinks of as “the spatial dimension of coincidence.”  “It is in fact the ill-fitting coincidence-contiguity of our reciprocal alterity whose energies continually disrupt longings for harmony”—harmony that might be enacted within “the connection of connections within a work of art” but not when read alongside “the connections between persons and events and things in daily life.”  Reading this part of the essay alongside Bergvall’s (related but not wholly similar) notes on the bilingualism so key to her work, and the untranslatable “traffic” it generates, is rewarding.  Retallack, commenting on the “incommensurability of the multiple logics we experience and employ in different parts of our lives,” also implicitly draws—as do Bergvall and Sheppard more explicitly—Bakhtin back into the mix of key theorists whose ideas gave rise to certain kinds of assumptions at the colloquium, though the latter were often articulated with the difference that, in revision of Bakhtin’s more utopian dialogic or polyphonic models, or models of “answerability,” new dynamic space is given to the impermeable or unreadable (or silent): the radical contingencies of presentness that escape reading within current literacies.

The problem or task of generating new literacies for, as Retallack puts it, “the making of new intelligibility, that is, a new form of life…a swerve of thought toward a use of history that enables a vital invention of self in the reciprocal alterity of the contemporary moment,” was taken up by both Alex Goody and Robert Sheppard primarily as a task for the reader before the performative text.  Goody, whose reading of Susan Howe’s work as being hypertextual in effect—i.e., as encouraging new forms of embodiment and agency from readers who must themselves become performers—dovetails interestingly with Sheppard’s in that both ultimately argue that “performance may feel ontologically repressive,” as Sheppard puts it, “if the condition of saying inherent in a text may only fully be realized by a reader in dialogue with the text, unfolding its sounds in the variable temporalities that reading and memory allow.”   In other words, the “saidness” of the performative text can become the openness of saying when given what he calls “successful reading.”  In relation to this, and along with John Cayley and Redell Olsen, Goody argues that hypertextual modes only help realize what many works in codex media demand formally, but which their current state in page-bound “static”-ness obscures.  What I found interesting about these various arguments was that they seemed to suggest that electronic work isn’t (when I thought that some at the colloquium might argue that it is) actually performance itself, though like codex text it can be performative; at the same time, both exceed performance in terms of empowering the viewer/reader and enabling their embodied reading.  Description of the “prior performer”—the planner of our options in hypertext, the setter of links and pathways and sometimes temporal/temporalized movements, the presentness of that limiting sensibility, the one we respond to even as we seem to be “navigating” our own route through such texts—was elided in the course of discussion of readerly choice-making.  Yet I kept wondering how such conversation might be altered if, say, Fiona Templeton’s performance of You – The City, as treated in Olsen’s paper, was the subject, with its creation of what Olsen calls “alternative networks of communication” in an urban setting.  Was that “performance” as it was being filmed because other bodies besides those of the participants were involved?  Does the fact that participants had a limited number of options in terms of following said “alternative” routes in the city mean that they weren’t as empowered as readers are when sat before hypertextual manifestations of texts?  Do the latter not also contain limited routes of possibility? How much choice makes for “agency” in reader/viewer response?—was a question I was left with; and is that agency dependent upon the absence of another body participating in making the text?  The trace of the writing subject is replaced as a concern for Goody by the materiality of the medium in which [its] selected signs occur, as well as their context, inasmuch as they relate entirely back to the reader’s experience/performance of the text—“this means x for me here and now if I do this (turn this page, read this section).”  “Within the context of hypertext,” she argues, “the idea of ‘performance’ is radically redescribed as the text itself if performed through the act of reading/using”.  But is there really a redefinition at work here?  Mustn’t we see performative codex texts as producing the same revelation? Is it not another kind of embodiment that entails the use of commands and cursor to juxtapose or accumulate given frames in new contiguities, or entails the silent performance and temporalized juxtapositionings of what Sheppard calls (after Christopher Middleton) the “vocal qualities,” or endophonic aspects of a text?  What happens to the problem of response, of responding to the face—the embodied presence—of the sayer when we talk about this kind of performance? Or is it really not part of the same conversation?  And should it be?

Sheppard includes in his discussion of Maggie O’Sullivan’s performance work a section entitled “The Word Made Flesh,” by which he means the transformation of material (language) into “signifying sound”—“when the body,” he writes, quoting Bakhtin, “generating the sound from within itself and feeling the unity of its own productive exertion, is drawn into form.”  He reads O’Sullivan’s work as enfolding materiality into language by replicating in the latter the processes of the natural world—“engendering mutant subjectivities,” in Guattari’s terms, by launching “a forward flight into machinations and deterritorialized machinic paths” with her sped-up evolutions of meaning making. Suggesting that this is “the most poignant example of a saying that pre-empts the power of the said,” Sheppard goes on to sound like Retallack in his use of Guattari’s reformulations of Bakhtin in order to think of such sayings—“articulated through the living body of the poet…in the dialect become sociolect of performance”—as “refrains” which catalyze decompositions of cultural redundancies by ordering chaos with link-ups of disparate logic worlds.  Sheppard is, like Bergvall, keen to think of how such performances intervene in developing “sociolects,” as he calls them—discursive realms of possibility made in and for public use.  But he must ultimately go with the Middletonian suggestion that the isolated reading, made privately, is more effective: that “the inner ear is capable of an auditory complexity which exceeds almost any audible vocalizing,” and that poetry’s “saying” “may be more fully present in the kinds of endophonic reading…during which the visual and the aural, the performative and the semantic, work together in the reader-controlled temporality of reception.”  I think this kind of differing conclusion might be due to the way that embodiment is constructed in the reading of performance.  Between Bakhtinian notions of the “concrete unity” of word and poet in the act of sounding, and Guattarian (neo-Adorno-esque) notions of the “existential detachment” and “autonomy” required in the engendering of refrain functions, there is little room for dialogue—for anything but the closure of embodied performance upon itself, the “internal coherence” Bergvall notes is possible via Bakhtin for her “Doll.”  Bakhtin was, after all, in his early discussions of poetic embodiments, describing poetry as the “monologic genre” for these very reasons.  And Guattari’s understanding of the detachment of fragments from content in the course of “autopoesis” risks the same sort of problems Bergvall and Retallack note for the “artwork” that would substitute the “connection of connections” within itself for connection to (and creation of self through) the other, for what Bakhtin called “answerability” in novelized genres—and for what Boltanski means by “the right way of speaking to someone.”   For embodiment that is, in other words, communicative and accumulative of response.

It would seem, then, that at the colloquium we were discussing a number of differing kinds of embodiments/presence in a number of differing kinds of performance.  It might therefore be most provocative to end with reference to Redell Olsen’s paper on “Degrees of Liveness” which she pursued by thinking through operations performed in works by Leslie Scalapino, Fiona Templeton and Carla Harryman.  Olsen’s Auslanderesque [5] premises concerning “event as representation” in our increasingly mediatized culture problematize any easy definition of presence as immediacy of bodily location/responsiveness in space and time.  This problem is bound up with what Bergvall struggles with in her notation about the inseparability of inscription and incorporation (from corpus, incorporare, to put into the body of something else), as Hayles describes it; the question for Bergvall becomes: “Is this assimilable to [Peggy] Phelan’s articulation of the live occurrence as unrepeatable? (no)”.  If there can never be prioritization of full presencing—“the live subject’s ‘I saw this’ [being anything other than] a tissue of varying degress of liveness that have occurred over a period of time”—then degrees of liveness for Olsen become traceable in the subject’s self-reflexivity and alternative path-taking as she describes it in Scalapino’s revelation of the mediatized manipulation of witnessing in Goya’s L.A. (made after the L.A. riots) and in Templeton’s remapping of urban connections in You – The City.  As with Goody, Olsen’s focus in much of her paper is on “the reader becom[ing] self-consciously aware of her relationship to the reading of the text itself”; therefore, when discussing Harryman’s electronic collaboration with the artist Amy Trachtenberg, The Games (, for example, she writes that the process of activating its icons “creates a space for a reader whose degree of liveness is figured by a recognition of the radical possibility of the subjunctive: what if I were to click here…what if I might…would it make a difference if I…”.

And yet, as with Goody, Olsen’s assumption that “the text performs its own reflexivity, which effectively displaces the distinction between outside and inside onto the event itself” might also be seen to blur the problem of the specification of location—proximity, relationality, etc.—vis-à-vis the performing presence.  It does so partly by supposing an “outside” that encompasses amorphousness, or all the world in its operations, versus an “inside” equally dislocated from situating relations; Templeton’s work set in the city consequently provides such “radical possibility of the subjunctive” because it “lack[s] a frame,” “is not bracketed from the world by use of conventional theatre space,” and therefore allows more chance combining into its mix—but its ranges of possible choice-making are certainly discernible as well.  Readers will find it interesting to compare Olsen’s discussion of framing with Retallack’s; the latter suggests that performance is itself defined by frames, that “it could not be coterminous with everyday-life time, since the framing of an event as performance is in fact a kind of time-bracketing (as Cage called it) that transforms the time-sense (as Stein called it) within it.”  Perhaps Retallack and Olsen meet in understanding liveness through degrees of response to the “foregrounded contingencies” in performance—the difference being that Retallack understands the latter to be readymade as well, “fram[es or] location for the construction of a process of cultural play.”

In any case, Olsen’s description of Templeton’s use of “readymades” develops into a method of reading performative presence in relation to designated props that allows her to beautifully illuminate Harryman’s theatre “objects/actors” in Performing Objects, as well as their function on stage.  “Like narrative, ‘character’ in Harryman’s work is distributed across points,” Olsen writes, “points that include animate and inanimate objects.”  As in Bergvall’s work, presence in Harryman’s is often both situated and accumulative, responsive to local architectures of physical space and inter-personal relationships.  Her home town of Detroit informs Performing Objects, becoming physicalized in Beckettian fashion in the few props required, like the car wheel, as well as in the dynamics of its peculiar urban center now decentered and grown into detached shapes of communities.  She “present[s] bodies,” Olsen writes, “as she does narrative but redistributed.  The performing objects are always in excess or at an angle to that which could be considered a bounded subject position and in this sense the live subject on the stage multiplies itself, refracts and visually exceeds the sum total of named parts.”  Such refraction of named characters into parts like “C2a” and C2b,” for example, often reflects discursive versus active engagement in the desirous and sometimes violent imaginings and actions that constitute the play’s “narrative.”  Presence is “figured,” in the production, as being in that space of contiguity between what Retallack in her paper names “figs.,” or real objects/people-cum-representations, and metaphorical/structural imaginings; it depends, in other words, on reading structuring relations with an eye/ear for the gaps—what Retallack calls the “contingent but not arbitrary…condition of life principles that have to do with complex interactions and impermeabilities that constitute any event in the world.”  The emotive quality of the piece, like and unlike Beckett’s in its refusal of character but insistence on performing presence, made it the perfect work to accompany our colloquium’s headier discussion of the same.


[1]    Alder Hey was recently in the news as a hospital where, quite controversially, dead babies’ body parts were used in further operations without the express permission of parents or relatives.  Patience Agbabi, situated for one year in a residency shared between the Centre for Modern and Contemporary Poetry and the School for Heath Care at Oxford Brookes University, solicited responses from people involved in the incident or who were observers of it for the purpose of making a community poem, a collage work, out of the offered materials.  Interestingly, a letter of objection to this project was posted on the Brookes e-mail network; its argument that such materials would be inevitably recast and “used” by the narrating voice of the poem made performance of it at the colloquium especially complicated for Agbabi, and intriguing conversation about the role of witnessing for poetry arose in response to the problem.

[2]    Some aspects of this multiply-incarnated/sited work can be seen at; I encourage readers to take a look, since this ongoing work, so promethean in its development as it involves the artists in evolving travel commitments and continual reconceptualizations of interactive modes of “gift-giving” and response, is particularly difficult to describe here in a sentence.

[3]    Photos and excerpts from the production will be able to viewed on the Oxford Brookes website by the end of September:

[4]    A scan of “part” of the initial draft of this work appears here as a link, in addition to her own illustration to accompany notes on Bride, “Ceci n’est pas une bride.”

[5]    See Philip Auslander’s book, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).

BIO: Romana Huk is currently Associate Professor of English at The University of New Hampshire, and will take up a new post as Associate Professor of English at The University of Notre Dame in August of 2002.  She is also completing a two-year fellowship (2000-2002) in the Centre for Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Oxford Brookes University, U.K., where the event represented in this section of HOW2 took place.  She has edited and introduced two collections of essays: Contemporary British Poetry: Essays in Theory and Criticism (with James Acheson; SUNY, 1996), and Assembling Alternatives: Reading Postmodern Poetries Transnationally (Wesleyan University Press, forthcoming, 2002).   She is currently finishing a book on the British poet Stevie Smith for Palgrave Publishers in London, Stevie Smith: Between the Lines, (forthcoming 2002), and is beginning a new book on postmodern theology and poetry.  Her essays range across a number of issues, and most recently engage with the project of understanding how culturally located and raced assumptions as well as national mythologies continue to play their unexamined roles in the disposition of avant-garde aesthetics; pieces recently appearing in the Yale Journal of Criticism, the Irish magazine The Journal, Spectacular Diseases (A Folio for Fanny Howe), and a new essay collection due out from Edinburgh University Press, Poetry and Contemporary Culture (2002) demonstrate new lines of argument in her work.



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