May 3, 2013

Reading as performance

by

The Quiet Volume, an installation art exhibit about the reading experience, is up this week at NYU’s Bobst Library and the Schomburg Center. The brainchild of Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells, it’s presented by PS-122 and the PEN World Voices Festival. “Performance” isn’t a perfect word–two people perform the act of reading separately and together, guided by audio instructions on two separate iPods.

It’s part of the Autoteatro series, begun in 2007, which is intended for introverted people to give a kind of performance for themselves, following a set of given instructions. The Rotazaza website says, “There are no actors or human input during the work other than the participants. An Autoteatro work is a ‘trigger’ for a subsequently self-generating performance.”

What fits this requirement? The act of reading. When you enter the library, an employee walks you into a busy reading room and seats you in front of a small pile of books. You are meant to go with a partner; I arrived with author Ashton Applewhite. The librarian cued up both iPods; one with a recording intended for the person on the left, and one specifically for the person on the right.

I’ve read a lot about the way interactive reading and the world of digital reading will change our experience, but this wasn’t what I expected. Some things I took away from the installation:

1. Reading with another person–even just a recording–is surprisingly intimate. This recording opens with two minutes of silence. (We were warned, so we wouldn’t think there was a problem with the iPod.) I listened to the students typing around us, a phone vibrating in a bag, a backpack zipping shut.

A whispering voice arrived to describe the noises in the library. You can get a sense of the conspiratorial tone from the video above. Some sounds, like the backpack zipper, arrived as if on cue. For a place devoted to silence, the voice said, how could there be so much noise? Shouldn’t the space be dedicated to sound?

In the tension between the auditory space and the physical page, the voice of the recording seems to be inside your head.

2. It is impossible not to read the words in front of you, especially if there is a lot of negative space. The voice instructed us to open the notebooks in front of us, and to look at the first page without reading it. There was only one sentence on the page. Isn’t it hard not to read that sentence? the voice asked.

His voice began to go on, and as we turned the page, his voice dissolved into the written sentence. The page asked us whose voice was in our heads, what we felt we were hearing as we read.

Later, we were told to hold the next book upside down, to remember what it was like to see words without being able to understand them. We were asked to look around the room and picture each person learning to read, how frustrated they felt, and notice how quickly and effortlessly they seemed to be reading now. We were finally allowed to turn the book around, but we were supposed to picture the words as decorative objects as long as possible. Within a few seconds, they became words again.

3. There is something very eerie about the way one book can lead you into another. The written notebook led us to a memory of a cab. We were asked to picture street lights and pedestrian signals. Then we were told to open the first pages of the first book, Jose Saramago‘s The Blindness. The first page picks up where the notebook left off, in car the moments before an accident.

We are struck by the accident in a more visceral way, having pictured ourselves in the cab through the notebook scene. A man in the car feels he has gone blind, that he is in “a milky sea.” We are led back to a blank page in the notebook to imagine the words we read disappearing.

We were soon directed back to the notebook, thinking about the blank page. The voice told us to imagine it as snow. Soon my partner was picking up the next book and guiding me to the word “snow” in several different chapters.

4. Audio can be tremendously distracting. A child’s voice came on to describe a scene with his brother and his grandmother. A second boy’s voice arrived, slightly out of synch with the first. I had to follow the story with my pointer finger for my partner. It was difficult to follow; at times I followed the boy in my right ear, but slowly moved to the boy who seemed to be in my left ear.

Later, we were sent on a wild goose chase from one volume to another, alternating who is following the words for whom, each getting different instructions for alternating volumes. The sound of paper flying around us picks up, growing so loud it is hard to believe no one else can hear it. We alternate sentences and then words. The voices read the wrong words on purpose; cold is changed to heat, reading to writing, nonsense words are put in in the place of logical ones.

5. The mental picture of any given setting will differ from reader to reader. We are asked which city we pictured in the first book, Saramago’s car accident. The two of us share a photo book, Gabriele Basilico’s Cityscapes, and are instructed to flip through the pages looking for the right city. I learn later that my partner grew up in Beruit, so she knew the city well. None of the images in the book looked like the intersection in my head.

6. We came to rely on this kind of guidance so heavily, we weren’t sure how to end the project. My partner didn’t turn the last page of her book to discover a hidden message because the voice hadn’t given her permission.

There are a couple of things an artist would have to consider in this kind of project. How long would the audio recording leave us to read, I wondered during the first few pages. The time couldn’t be uniform. Everyone reads at a different rate; how would we know when to stop and start? The voice answered, telling me to stop wherever I was on the page. I was supposed to study the last word I’d read, and the shape of its letters. Then we turned to a blank page of the notebook and imagined that word written on a blank page. A series of lines in various gradations appeared on the next page, saying how easy it would be for words to disappear. We heard loud popping sounds, like gunshots, and were meant to imagine the words disappearing from every book in the library.

MacArthur Fellow Bob Stein wrote, “This brilliant piece is a remarkable inquiry into the nature of reading and how it might evolve. If you even think you might be interested, try not to miss it… You have to go with someone, but the who isn’t crucial.”

Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.

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