The Reader Outlouder’s Handbook: Visual Editions Late at the V&A and the Psychology of Performance Art

It is a Reader Outlouder, and he stoppeth one of three.

Last night was Visual Editions’ event at Late at the V&A, in which they turned their latest release, Marc Saporta’s ‘book in a box’ Composition No. 1, into a sprawling, many-peopled Ambient Promenade Spoken Word Production.

Anna and Britt (the publishers) took each of the book’s 150 or so loose pages – which you’re supposed to shuffle before reading, so as to create a personalised, near-unique (sic) version of the text – and gave it to a volunteer, who was then positioned somewhere in the museum, where they read it (their page) aloud, over and over, for the benefit of passing visitors. The idea being that, if you listened to every be-stickered reader, you would have heard the whole of the book.

I was placed at the bottom of the stairs at the far end of the Sculpture Gallery from Exhibition Road, opposite the Bookshop. You can just about make me out in this picture, in a black jacket and white shirt.

Was it the whole thing a success? I’ve no idea, as the experience of reading that page out maybe 80 or 100 times in the space of two-and-a-half hours was so immersive that I can’t tell if the people who heard part or all of my page were genuinely taken with Saporta’s words, or with my magisterial performance, or were just enjoying a kooky, clever art performance piece.

Certainly some of them stayed and listened. Some listened to it more than once, some three or four times – and some of those entirely willingly. One couple came back to hear it through a couple more times on their way back down the stairs.

What I enjoyed about it was two things: the opportunity to engage with a random text with an intensity lacking from most of my reading, and the opportunity to buttonhole people in a public place and play with our shared ideas about social and artistic interaction. Ok, I liked the attention, too.

Points to be made:

Unless you gave them a reason not to, people tended to be content with walking past and catching a few phrases as they went. This is linked, I think, to the uncertain etiquette of performance art/site-specific or promenade theatre: etiquette is unclear until the performer makes it so. The audience looks to you for cues.

People were usually willing to stop and listen if you did encourage them: means to this end included eye contact, a turn of the body, a raised finger or water bottle, or falling in step while reading.

Once they had gifted their attention, they were usually amenable to hearing out the rest of the piece – though as they might have come in halfway through the page, and as I tended to loop back to the beginning of the section without making this obvious, they might end up listening to it more than once.

Looping the text was fun. Partly because, once you had people’s attention (once they had let you have it) it was easy to keep them there, even when, like Coleridge’s poor wedding guest, they would rather actually be moving on, thank you very much.

But the being-held-there-sort-of-against-your-will was, I’d say, part of the enjoyment. The fun of it – of any performance piece like this – was that the audience has to work out the rules as they go along, which often only starts once they realise that the rules have them trapped. My looping of the text, and my carrying on with the reading once they realised that I was looping it, was a statement to the effect that, although they had tacitly agreed to enter into the performance by stopping and listening, I was under no obligation to give them an out, either by stopping reading, turning away, or giving them a cue that it was okay for them to leave.

Which might just be so much fuckwittery, if it wasn’t for the fact that multiple readings of my particular page did give rise to multiple meanings… it was a good page.

Which is to say that, although a few people did just walk away once (or before) they’d heard a single iteration, most stayed for at least a couple of them, and that, again mostly, I gave them the cue, or left them, once they’d been through the particular social-artistic revelation of ‘Shit, he’s repeating himself, I’ve got to listen to this again’… which hopefully included an element of ‘Oh, it’s actually quite an interesting bit of writing…’

I was lucky, I think, with my page, in that it was not narrative, but rather a rhetorical description of barracks life. This editorialising, value-laden aspect meant that it was open to interpretation, and re-interpretation. What was a bitter lament one reading (“The dirt. The renunciation of pride. Of self-respect. The submission.”) could be recast as an ironic celebration the next (“The dirt! The renunciation of pride! Etc…).

People often seemed to enjoy the second reading more than the first. Until they didn’t. One couple stayed for three or four iterations, as if to bounce the challenge back to me… to see if I could keep on reading it under their scrutiny and keep a straight face while doing it. They’d realised that the rules were, actually, as much in their gift as mine.

Obvious couples were good. You addressed the man, (it was about the male military experience, after all, and specifically about the “abjection into which young men can fall when absolute authority is exerted over them and they must adhere to an absurd system of unreasoning obedience” – which, if you think about it, rather describes the position they found themselves in) and the man tended to listen, not wanting to look to his partner like the sort of bloke who was fazed by a piece of performance art. He should have thanked me. I made him look good.

Groups of blokes less easy. You often had to follow them up the stairs.

It’s hard to get away from someone dogging your every step when you’re climbing stairs. You can’t just dodge behind a piece of Victorian statuary.

Probably it was a great opportunity for pulling. You did get to get close to people. My wife had a particularly well turned out young man who stood listening to her at one point for a couple of iterations, one foot elegantly on her step, head politely dipped in concentration. She didn’t make eye contact (“It was early in the evening,” she said) but “he smelled very nice.” But then that’s the V&A crowd for you, I guess.

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