allsopp&weir;

Practice in Repetition, Ellen Mara De Wachter
Practice in Repetition, Ellen Mara De Wachter

Practice in Repetition, Ellen Mara De Wachter

Practice in Repetition

Over the past few years, the work of collaborative duo allsopp&weir; has been characterised by its commitment to exploring processes of repetition and exhaustion. As though caught in their own pattern of repetition, compelled to carry out their investigation over and over again, the artists have unstintingly returned to the subject, with multimedia works such as To the Place or Being in the Place (2006), performances like Indefinite Articles (2007) and Call to Prayer (2006), the sound installation Whenever I Stop to Breathe In (2007), the video Language Machine (2007) and now for their exhibition An Approximate Call at Permanent Gallery, with the video and film works Amplification Device and Grass Breath Spit Trumpet (both 2007). The one element that ties all these works together is a concern with different manifestations of repetition and with the way that slippages that can occur in attempts to reproduce a sound, a word or an action, whether those repetitions are involuntary, compulsive or self-conscious and intentional.

One way to think about allsopp&weir;’s recent practice and output is to distinguish between repetitions that begin with what might be considered an original and those that appear caught in a cyclical compulsion, whose beginnings are not easily distinguished from their endings. Those originals set the tone for the works, and act as pretexts for the instigation of a particular pattern of repetition. In the case of the Indefinite Articles (2007), an opera singer performs the entire list of indefinite articles in Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (1848) to the soprano score of Arnold Schoenberg’s opera Erwartung (1909). The words are projected onto a screen that can be seen by the audience and the singer reads from during the live performance, combining them with the notes on the score she holds, and that is meaningful only to her. Because of their association with one of the most significant texts of the past two hundred years, the words are loaded with political and historical significance, but as indefinite articles, they lack any specific meaning, and are thus the building blocks of a repetition that shifts between a vacant compulsion to repeat and a tribute to the various consequences, successes and failures of a revolutionary and utopian drive.

The sound piece Whenever I Stop to Breathe In was recently installed in the coalhole of a small London gallery. The work consists of a disembodied voice, which seeps into the exhibition space from a trap door overhung with a naked light bulb. Repeating the words of the title until each breath is exhausted, the voice continues, with increasing strain and tension, for some 7 minutes, until becomes virtually incomprehensible, unsteady, gasping and unable to carry on, at which point it finally fulfils the proviso of its title, and stops. To breathe in. The piece then loops and the voice begins anew, calm and collected. Like a cartoon cat that balloons back to life after being flattened by a steamroller, the voice returns to normalcy after testing the limit of its physicality, and demonstrating that while it may seem disembodied, it is still vitally reliant on a body for its existence. In the case of Whenever I Stop to Breathe In, repetition appears as a solipsistic challenge, an experiment and seemingly absurd test of endurance whose musicality and refrain elevate it into a devotional hymn to pointlessness.

allsopp&weir;’s most recent works, Amplification Device and Grass Breath Spit Trumpet, feature the same actor in two different scenarios. For the first film, a man arrives at a fenced-off area outside an airport, carrying assorted bits of tubing, tape and canisters, and proceeds to construct a device, whose apparent aim to amplify his voice as he attempts
to communicate to passing planes. He repeats his cries with little success, pauses for a cigarette, then renews his attempts to reach the planes by creating increasingly complex versions of his amplification device. Footage of aircraft rumbling into the distance is inter-cut with shots of the man in increasingly gloomy and windy conditions. Moments of silence punctuate the soundtrack, emphasizing the constancy of the ambient noise: the scene is polluted by loud wind, planes, sirens and nearby roads, which dwarf the man’s voice into futility. The presence of a wizened old man, traditionally a symbol of knowledge and wisdom, combined with the potentially ritualistic nature of his actions hints at the possibility that this man’s actions are the result of a clear- headed voluntary intention rather than a pathological and involuntary compulsion. While the motivations behind his carefully planned actions may be inaccessible to the viewers, it seems unlikely that he is enacting them in a complete vacuum of meaning.

In Grass Breath Spit Trumpet, the old man reappears, this time bathed in golden autumnal sun. In an efficient and determined manner, he performs a ritual that involves blowing on the grass, pulling it from the ground, putting it into his mouth, crawling on all fours to a trumpet that has been planted in the ground, and spitting it into the opening of the trumpet, then crawling over to a metal tube planted a meter away and blowing into it, eliciting more or less successful tones from the trumpet. Watching this film is like watching a performer caught in a ritual, trapped in a cycle motivated by irrational beliefs or forces. Is there a mystical or magical reward to be had from enacting the grass breath spit trumpet ceremony, is there a religious component to the actions, given that the man is prostrate? This is not a crazy old man who has lost control of his faculties and actions. He is a dapper gentleman, carefully dressed focused on the task at hand and performing according to a logic that remains alien to the viewer. However, in the repetition of the grass to trumpet cycle, he becomes gradually more tired, his movements become strained and he reaches a point of exhaustion that signals the need to break out of the ritual before it disintegrates beyond all recognition. With both Amplification Device and Grass Breath Spit Trumpet we witness actions that seem to exist outside the confines of
what is considered normal behaviour. It is difficult to make sense of the old man’s movements, utterances and rituals. We are faced with a choice: to complete the picture and imagine a back-story and motivation for this character, whose actions seem so eccentric, or to resist the impulse to fill in the blanks, and simply observe his repeated actions.

Ellen Mara De Wachter
(text for exhibition publication, An Approximate Call, allsopp&weir;, Permanent Gallery Brighton, 2007)

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Text by Ellen Mara De Wachter

Rhythm, then, is the basis of life. The heartbeat and the breath measure out our days and nights, repeated feats of unconscious endurance. A word or phrase repeated ad infinitum, ad absurdum, ad nauseam until the fine thread – a brittle hair tying a word to its meaning – unravels finally and the thread becomes a threat. A threat to the ordered logic of language and understanding, inescapable, even with the fastest running, talking, repeating.
So the anxiety of misunderstanding is not dispelled by faster talking, plugging silences and gaps and gasps with talking (a finger in the dam). The superstition of order and alphabetized lists as the antidote to confusion is a false comfort. Rhythm, then, is the basis of life, but rhythm is a flow, swinging round obstacles, but sometimes crashing into them, wrecking meaning and behaviour.

Repetition is the essence of ritual as it is the essence of learning. Delivered in Gertrude Stein’s lulling intonation, it becomes the essence of life, of man’s lived trilogy ‘when he’s a young man, when he’s an old man, when he’s an older man’. Her syntactical variations, the recurring ‘then’ of her speech, a beat, a mantric marker, stake out the different but essentially equivalent elements of father and son, of cruelty and nobility, embodied in a dilapidated sign in a field in Spain, which reads ‘fascists, traitors, thieves’.

Stein’s ‘little description of something that happened once’ tells the story of a young boy, fascinated with butterflies and beetles, convinced by his father that ‘killing things to make collections of them’ is wrong. But the noble hour is a short one, and the little son is betrayed the very next morning, by his father’s own inability to resist the exquisite cruelty of trapping, killing and pinning a wonderfully beautiful moth. And repetition, then, is the basis of life.
And functional rules join with ritual and repetition as necessary components of learning. But malfunctioning is what defines a body, so the disjunction between rules and repetition widens and narrows according to a body’s ability to grasp the father’s words, according to the father’s ability to embody the rules.

And language? The trauma of learning a language by necessity, the violence of impelled belonging runs counter to the condition of foreignness.

Rhythm/Repetition/Ritual/Performativity/Rules – Essential to learning
‘Repeating, then, is in everyone. In everyone, their being and their feeling and their way of realising everything and everyone comes out of them in repeating.’
‘Repeating, then, is in everyone. Everyone, then, comes sometimes to be clearer to someone. Sometime there will be, then, an orderly history of everyone who ever was or is or will be living.’
‘Killing things to make collections of them.’
Rhythm/Repetition/Ritual/Performativity/Rules – Essential to learning
‘Repeating, then, is in everyone. In everyone, their being and their feeling and their way of realising everything and everyone comes out of them in repeating.’
‘Repeating, then, is in everyone. Everyone, then, comes sometimes to be clearer to someone. Sometime there will be, then, an orderly history of everyone who ever was or is or will be living.’
‘Killing things to make collections of them.’
Rhythm/Repetition/Ritual/Performativity/Rules – Essential to learning
‘Repeating, then, is in everyone. In everyone, their being and their feeling and their way of realising everything and everyone comes out of them in repeating.’
‘Repeating, then, is in everyone. Everyone, then, comes sometimes to be clearer to someone. Sometime there will be, then, an orderly history of everyone who ever was or is or will be living.’
‘Killing things to make collections of them.’
Rhythm/Repetition/Ritual/Performativity/Rules – Essential to learning
‘Repeating, then, is in everyone. In everyone, their being and their feeling and their way of realising everything and everyone comes out of them in repeating.’
‘Repeating, then, is in everyone. Everyone, then, comes sometimes to be clearer to someone. Sometime there will be, then, an orderly history of everyone who ever was or is or will be living.’
‘Killing things to make collections of them.’
Rhythm/Repetition/Ritual/Performativity/Rules – Essential to learning
‘Repeating, then, is in everyone. In everyone, their being and their feeling and their way of realising everything and everyone comes out of them in repeating.’
‘Repeating, then, is in everyone. Everyone, then, comes sometimes to be clearer to someone. Sometime there will be, then, an orderly history of everyone who ever was or is or will be living.’
‘Killing things to make collections of th
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