Big transparent egos

So: the last question was: eyes open? Or eyes shut? Is it possible to interpret a film while not looking at it? Or by looking, then looking away? There has to be a space of not-looking in between the looking, doesn’t there? A space for reflection. When I’m thinking very hard, I often can’t make eye contact with people. It’s as if the invitation to be present with other people is difficult to reconcile with intense thinking. So I alternate between one and the other – between listening and looking, and thinking and responding. So maybe there is something important about keeping hold of both – eyes open, and eyes shut?

I’m writing about something different today though. Something that has taken me a while to write, and longer to post.

Something is preventing me from writing this next piece. In a great deal of the correspondence that Anna has been passing on to me, from poets and writers and musicians as they return their thoughts and interpretations to us, there is an undertone of worry. Worry that comes alongside phrases in the artists’ and poets’ emails like ‘doing justice’, or following rules. That said, the creative constraint of the process of embodied interpretation seems to be liberating to some of our contributors – though I also wonder whether the work that seems to flow so easily for some is a result of a thing that already was. I don’t mean to suggest that any of the artists who have given their time so generously to the project are just auto-producing a kind of Blue Peter here’s-one-I-made-earlier Tracy-Island. I also don’t mean that any of the artist’s involved are simply reproducing patterns of work that they have already established. In any case, isn’t that what the term ‘practice’ means? Isn’t what we do a result of repetitive acts of refinement in one way or another? And don’t things improve with practice? But I think I’m digressing here.

Some of the work-in-progress interpretations I’ve listened to and read speak very strongly to the artist’s own mode of practice. There is a sense of ownership of the work that comes through very strikingly as an extension of this. Steve Emmerson‘s conceptual poem, and Sebastiane Hegarty‘s sound composition based on the striking of a match both give me a sense that their interpretations become theirs because of the pathways their work has trodden in the past: the creative practices they have developed over an extended period of time. If I look for a sign of the artist’s own body in the interpretation, I suspect I’ll be unlikely to find it as bluntly or explicitly as that. This is not a criticism – after all, when we sent out the brief to our poets and musicians, we only asked if they could think about how their bodies might become part of the interpretation. We didn’t even know whether it would be possible to produce an interpretation ‘from the body’.

It is not an easy thing to do, particularly if one’s own practice as an artist takes care to erase the traces of a body from the work. After years of academic training, I certainly have found it difficult to find my own embodied voice in my writing.

Something else sticks in my mind about a recent conversation with the poet and writer, Sophie Mayer. I was asking about the presence of bodies and embodiment in translation and interpretation. Sophie, who wrote her PhD on comparative translation some years ago, talked to me about the ways that translation has been described as a ‘handmaiden art’. I can’t ever think of that word without also thinking about Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and the institutional violence that holds a Handmaid in check. We talked about the implicit gender violence, productivity and creativity involved in the art form of literary translation. Much like simultaneous translation or editing, translation willingly makes itself utterly limpid, entirely transparent, and therefore, completely invisible. Is this what we are asking artists to do? Or is there another way of thinking about it – about being with a work, through a body, where the identity we so often clutch to ourselves is somehow less important?

How many artists are willing to make their work – their practice – completely transparent? What would it take for the big self, the identity of ‘I’ that seems in so many cases to be the point of making art in the first place, to be invisible when held up to the light? So my question for today is a big one: are we wrestling with big transparent egos, when we make creative, artistic interpretations?

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