Tess Denman-Cleaver

GERTRUDE STEIN, RADIOS AND TOWN HALL MEETINGS: an attempt to explain how seemingly disparate material came together in a logical and consequential fashion during my residency with SARU…

I was invited to be a resident artist at SARU by Patrick Farmer in Spring 2018. The invitation – which was incredibly carefully and generously constructed – gave me an opportunity to develop new lines of thinking within my practice and to make, or not make, new work. The residency came at the perfect time; I had just completed a PhD and was eager to start work on ideas that were not accountable to the value systems and languages of contemporary academia, which I’d found to be at best a headache and at worst a nightmare. 

My work – which has moved through theatre, contemporary performance, exhibition making and writing over the past decade – has consistently referred back to the writing of Gertrude Stein. Not knowing how to read her or what she is doing, I’ve always been mesmerised by her rhythms and her use of words as material rather than signifiers. Her writing always felt audacious to me and I decided to use the SARU residency to work out why I couldn’t stop reading Stein. 

In the years preceding the residency I’d also been working with analogue radios and live broadcast within performance, experimenting with landscapes as sensory and subjective phenomena, and using radio to play with how technology shapes our experience of place. Analogue radios became a tool for collaging, or conjoining disparate materials and mediums in performance, a way of holding together multiple time frames and numerous places, as well allowing for the inevitability of interference and chance. I’d broadcast my own material during performances in order to disrupt the definition of what is and isn’t within the bounds of the constructed event. I did this first in Sounds & Guts (2014) and then with Time Passes (2017), when I began to think about how radio affected the language of modernism. The residency was an opportunity to focus on radio as a performance tool – to make a live performance for radios – and to think more about what they do to language and landscape.

In Broadcasting Modernism, Sarah Wilson references a 30s American radio show called ‘Town Hall Meeting of the Air’ which was the first radio show to include audience participation – effectively establishing the political panel discussion format we are so familiar with today on shows such as Question Time or Any Questions. I got interested in the parallels between these early models of broadcast that aim at democratising access to political discourse and readings of Stein’s language as generative of a non-hierarchical. There’s an increasing amount of scholarship on how radio affected modernist literature and language in the early 20th Century. Rather than a literary and historical analysis of Stein’s writing though, I took the speculative proposal that Stein’s language is shaped by radio as a departure point for experiments with sound and my own writing practice.  

I started recording myself reading Stein to myself in the SARU studio. I found that if I spoke the words aloud they made some ‘sense’, I could follow them like speech and they held together in a way I couldn’t grasp on the page. I would then broadcast these recordings to multiple FM radios and write while I listened to the voices overlapping. Eventually this writing, along with some other archival research, became the text for a performance with radios at Middlesborough Art Weekender in October 2018. For the performance I invited artist Kate Liston to create a set of sculptural seating structures that became a scenography for the event, and configured the audience for the act of listening rather than spectating. 

Kate and I have continued to develop the project together, and we ran a workshop for Audiograft 2019 on some of the collaborative and Stein inspired writing practices we are using to do that. Everything is somewhat up in the air this Spring, but we hope that an exhibition version of the work will show at Baltic 39 (Newcastle) and Ovada (Oxford) early next year. If all goes to plan we’ll also produce a publication of texts with SARU that think about the poetics of political discourse, the architectures of democracy and potential in Stein’s language for disrupting hierarchies. 

Tess Denman-Cleaver