Friday, 24 February 2012

kino residence: encyclopedia review

In 2012, as part of my artist residency at Café Kino in Stokes Croft in Bristol, I spent five days in the basement of the café, at a table with two chairs, on the stage, attempting to ‘write down everything I knew from memory’. I called this a ‘performance’ and called the performance ‘encyclopedia’. It took place from 9AM to 5PM each day between Monday the 13th and Friday the 17th of February. I stopped for a half hour lunch break each day, and took regular pauses from writing to avoid repetitive strain injury and eyestrain. The entire performance took five days and I spent a total of 37.5 hours writing and produced 120 pages of writing on lined A4 recycled paper as a result.

There was a chalk board behind me that said ‘ENCYCLOPEDIA 5 DAY PERFORMANCE’ and ‘MAKE AN ILLUSTRATION’. People could come and view this performance and could make illustrations for what I had written about that day, while sitting opposite me on the stage. They were instructed to 1. choose a category for the day’s stack of papers 2. make an illustration for that category 3. sign their name 4. attach their illustration to the page it was taken from using the paperclips provided.

Now that I’ve finished and I’ve had a chance to think about the project, it seems to me that it splits into three separate parts:

1. The idea

This was a very simple idea and I think it can be enjoyable in its own right. The idea to ‘write down everything I knew from memory’ was written down in a press release and was part of a lecture I held at Café Kino on the evening of Sunday the 12th of February, the night before I
started the performance. The idea included a rough outline of how I would go about this performance and the reasons for why I wanted to do it.

I said that I wanted to set an impossible task and that, on one level, the ridiculousness of it might be entertaining enough for people to enjoy. I also said that this was not a stuntman-style endurance test and that it was not about what I did know but rather what I thought I knew, what I didn’t know and whether, all alone on the stage, I could really ‘know’ anything. Finally I said that my favourite part of art was the artfulness that people can put into everyday tasks. I was thinking also about crafts people who would spend their entire lives at single task, making their performance of that task fluid and ‘artful’. It was probably watching the BBC programme Imagine about Grayson Perry that made me think of this.

I also have a habit of telling stories as facts, which I have no references for. I think most people do this. I think that it is not always understood how academic language preserves its credibility through the inclusion of references so that at least there might be explanations as to where facts came from even if they prove to be ultimately incorrect. ‘Educational’ television has a habit of informing without any reference as to where the information they are giving us came from. That is why what I have done is art and not academia. I rely only on my flawed memory and to trust what I tell you would make you a bigger fool than even me.

2. The performance

This was the practical side of the bold claim of the press release. How would I now go about a task designed to fail? I had said in the press release that, between the hours of 9AM and 5PM, I would be under ‘exam conditions’. I slackened this rule to allow myself to answer questions from people who came to see me and used my judgement as to when to stop them from telling me something that I might use to ‘cheat’. This felt more in keeping with what I hope was a humanistic performance in which people were encouraged to participate. I also decided that each day would constitute a separate exam and while I would not allow myself to look things up or ‘revise’ in between days, I was allowed to absorb information as I would naturally, so long as I never went back and corrected a previous day’s writing. It was these practical considerations that separated the performance from the idea.

I chose to write by hand so that spelling mistakes would also occur. There was a great thing I was noticing about how the credibility of some authoritative piece of writing could be destroyed all of a sudden by a spelling error or a jarringly wrong fact, even if what came before and after was completely correct. This was something I wanted to preserve. This idea starts with the title ‘encyclopedia’, which I had spelled using the American spelling rather than the English, inconsistently with the spelling of everything else. The final outcome of this performance will be typed, so as to introduce typos, as well as to communicate greater authority to the reader, which they will then be asked to question.

My approach in writing was to start with a topic and let what I wrote about it inform what I would write about next. I expected to get stuck often, but this system actually worked really well. If I found myself heading in a circle, I would simply change the subject. I intend to alphabetise the results, but I was given a brilliant Idea by Sarah Kate to include an index of topics in chronological order as well, so that the subject associations could be seen.

The basement location was perfect for my purposes. I was slightly isolated but people had access and many even came down especially to talk to me and do a drawing. I was also keen not to get in the way of customers or the café staff trying to do their jobs. The stage also acted as kind of framing device, indicating a performance and not just someone sitting and writing (even though this was really what it was).

By the end of the week, I found I was genuinely trying to write things as if I were explaining them to someone from another planet. I also found that I was questioning the nature of knowledge. ‘The war in Iraq does not exist’ said Jean Baudrillard and what I guess he meant was that if you do not witness something with your eyes, but are only informed about it or shown pictures of it, you cannot prove that it is real. Even your eyes could lie to you I suppose. By the end of the week I was wondering how I could prove that it ever happened. I could have faked the photos, could have bribed ‘witnesses’, could have fabricated the writing making it all contrived and not really the result of a ‘stream of consciousness’ performance at all. I took a photo of my watch on the workstation but I could easily have changed the times. This, I think is the result of the performance. A questioning of what real ‘knowledge’ is and how you do something that it is not possible to do. It seems to be the desire of the human brain to try and distinguish black from white when there is only grey.

3.The Document

Over the course of 2012, I will type up and alphabetise what I have written, scanning in illustrations and leaving spelling mistakes uncorrected. This should be a simple process. I will mark the day on which each category was written and, as stated before, I will include a chronological index of subjects. This will be printed and bound into a one off (plus archive copy) book, which will be displayed in an exhibition at the end of 2012, along with all the other things produced as a result of the year’s residency.

In Sunday the 12th’s lecture, I talked about the evolution of the alphabet from carving to scripture to printed type and how many idiosyncrasies of the chiselled letter were taken on into handwriting and handwriting into moveable type. It is my intention to preserve the mistakes of my handwritten document in digital type.

Before I proposed this project, I researched for a while to make sure it had not been done before. I couldn’t find anything but being such a simple idea. It is quite possible that someone else has done something similar in the past. What makes this idea unique was the specific way that I have gone about it. The decisions I made along the way made the project mine in a way that the original simple idea never could truly be.

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