DRAG DRAG SOLO: Cally Spooner.
Cally Spooner and Ginevra Bria in conversation
For Ludwig Feuerbach the philosophical element in a work is its Entwicklungsfähigkeit, literally its timeless capability to become inchoate. It is an element that remains unsaid within the work, but which demands to be unfolded and embodied. To quote Walter Benjamin this “philosophical element” is similar to the fragment of “messianic time” scattered and disseminated in profane time. This is an analogical paradigm we could assign to Cally Spooner’s oeuvre. Her spatializations are continually changing, depending on and reflecting performative actualizations of society’s orders and regimes. In DRAG DRAG SOLO, Spooner’s largest solo show to date, hosted by Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, dystopian replays of present day narratives found metaphysical and epistemological implications. An overemphasis on space and extension explored across three floors, dividing CAC into a past, present, future. Starting from And You Were Wonderful, on Stage (2013–15), this monumental five-channel film installation, presented on the second floor, appeared as a live choreographic event in a cinematic enclave, where time itself is perceived in spatialized terms. In the installation, a succession of re-stagings, from the not too distant pop cultural past, show moments where real time and living matter becomes measurable and linear as they are delegated to technics. But it is on the CAC’s third floor that the perspectival model makes man the measure and measurer of all connections. In Self Tracking (the five stages of grief) (2016) a wall drawing circles the gallery walls, depicting technologized rationality as it meshes with personalized measurements of biology and health. In other works (ranging from audio, objects, live performance and film) language and non-linguistic sounds meet individualistic, competitive human resistance. This living reflection, on epistemological, and insidious questions hints at moments where desires are repressed in the interest of more ‘rational’ aims such as the control and possession of time. A degree of disorder arrives as a novel-in-progress titled Early Research: Methods (2015–ongoing). Flowing astray from a narrative that continuously folds back on itself, a story of Western humanity’s ‘self-improvement’ arrives. Fractured, it reflects on our present state of chronic-stress, whilst seeking possibilities for the creation of a “non-normative” form of reason. Finally, on the fourth floor, a future prospect unfolds.
GINEVRA BRIA: Which kind of action, definition, or gesture does the term “to drag” represent within this monographic show?
CALLY SPOONER: The Drag appears in a silent film I made called DRAG DRAG SOLO (2016), and from which the whole exhibition takes its name. This film appears halfway through my show at the CAC, on the third floor. In the film, two dancers drag each other across a wide shot of a static camera in opposing directions, while a soloist performs, unobstructed, in the foreground. In its muteness, the film finds its soundtrack from sources external to itself.
GB: Could you describe the structure of DRAG DRAG SOLO and what kind of poetic declaration it makes?
CS: DRAG DRAG SOLO — the exhibition — is taking place at a moment when reality can feel “degraded”—a description I borrow from Masha Gessen’s review of Michael Wolff’s instant best-seller Fire and Fury (2018). Wolff’s scathing attack on the Trump administration prompts Gessen to voice a more general critique: “Part old news, part bad reporting, [Fire and Fury’s] success is symptomatic of our degraded sense of reality under Trump.” This degraded sense of reality, she holds, is a language problem. A problem that affects us all in a moment where we find ourselves caught in a middle ground, where there is “neither restraint nor accuracy” in the president’s utterances, nor in the words of his most publicly outspoken critics. This meant Fire and Fury occupied “so much of the public conversation space that it degraded our sense of reality further whilst creating the sense of affirming it.” DRAG DRAG SOLO is not an exhibition about Trump or his tweets or his low-grade vocabulary. Nor is it about his critics. It is an exhibition that renders the language climate I am a partial product of into a partial fiction, using sound, movement, choreography, and writing—an attempt to find ways of speaking about and resisting those moments when language breaks down or folds into itself, grinds to a halt, or does damage.
GB: How did you “exploit” CAC’s architecture to get it in dialogue with your work? Did it enhance DRAG DRAG SOLO? What will we watch at CAC’s Cinema Dynamo?
CS: I was invited to create a retrospective, but this could not quite make sense to me. So now the show is billed as “an exhibition which sits somewhere between a retrospective and a rehearsal”, and this feels more appropriate. I used the three exhibiting floors of the CAC to present three bodies of work. The second floor is in the past, it’s a closure. The third floor remains in the present, in formation. The fourth floor is the future, as a speculative event. On the second floor is And You Were Wonderful, On Stage, a five-channel musical for six continually rolling cameras, shot in a first, single take. This is the first time the work has been screened since its premiere at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2016, but I still would say it has more in common with a live choreographic event than cinema. On the third floor, there are a number of works created between 2015 – 2018: objects, sound, drawing and live events, in varying states of aliveness and deadness that together create an ecosystem of fact and fiction, and hint at a novel in progress.
On the fourth floor is a wall text announcing a yet-to-be-realised performance company called OFFSHORE. At the time of going to print OFFSHORE has met seven times. We understood our meetings to be an exercise in building vocabulary and knowledge through less semiotic, more bodily means. To help OFFSHORE evolve, I will host workshops in Cinema Dynamo, on the last days of the exhibition, with students from HEAD – Genève, Haute école d’art et de design, and the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Lyon. The workshops are called “AGAINST THE PERFORMATIVE.” Until then, a lone, live dancer stretches continually on the fourth floor maintaining a state of repair and rehearsal. This is a work by me called Warm Up (2016).
GB: What kind of critical weight does the rehearsal have in your methodologies?
CS: Rehearsing, presenting, then rehearsing my work again, over long durations, across a variety of venues, with casts of others and in public—this has so far been how I have operated. This in itself presents a kind of drag, a maintaining of simple gestures and projects over many years before audiences. Further, collaboration is never as straightforward as working alone. In a rehearsal room we are practical, very hands-on, we try to listen to one another and pay attention to a shared reality that we are working on creating in that room at that time, while endeavoring to throw one another sympathetically and reasonably out of sync. If we are rehearing well, we are retaining the capacity of acting and thinking simultaneously, and in doing so, it becomes clear what is fact and what is fiction, what is true and false. Right now, this feels like the right way to work.
GB: How can human language be silenced by digital insidious autocracies? What are the threads killing, day by day, our subjectivity?
CS: This sounds very dramatic. I could start with a detour. It’s via a false tear, engineered in 1856 by Rodolphe, the adulterous lover of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The tear is dripped onto a breakup letter and sent to the heroine via messenger. The Casanova’s nineteenth-century emoticon arrives at a moment when the life of the other becomes inconvenient and emotion cannot be conjured from his own body. “There ought to have been some tears on this; but I can’t cry; it isn’t my fault,” he says, but not to her. Then, having filled a drinking glass with water, Rodolphe dips his finger and lets a big drop fall onto the paper, leaving a pale stain on the ink. Taking the incident of the false tear as a linchpin—a barely wet metaphor—allowed me to consider, in the most expanded sense, how life and communication is “outsourced” or assessed in the present day, and what distances are thereby created between bodies. I wanted to call this tear “performative.”
“The performative” is a concept that has been handled in many ways over the past decades, for instance in 2014 by Maurizio Lazzarato. In his Signs and Machines “the performative” is understood as a codified system of linguistic system of triggers and prompts; an invisible, attritional subjugation, where a subject’s utterance is created by sources outside of their body and experiences (by institutions, government, advertising / media etc.). Language is handed to a subject to consume, use and carry, as though it were their own, degrading and quantifying a subject’s agency. While present forms of digital communication allow us to open new futures and draft alternative scenarios to the world we live in without us having to rely on “performative” handouts from Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon etc, DRAG DRAG SOLO starts with observation of our relationship to those digital autocracies you refer to. It is asking what happens when we do (obliviously or accidentally) accept those handouts, so much so that we begin to shape ourselves by outsourcing our communication and knowledge to their terms and protocols.
GB: What do you see in our future? How, for instance, is the human conception of time being bent by the imposition of chrono-normative history?
CS: There is an audio work presented on the third floor called He wins every time, on time and under-budget (2016). It is a two-channel stereo piece, and it’s title is a prophecy that came true. Through the left channel is the voice of Maggie Segale, a dancer I work with often. She is performing a rugby exercise (which trains players to catch and throw the ball correctly) with a bad head cold. In the opposite speaker, panned right, is the voice of Ivanka Trump. Her voice is extracted from a filmed interview she made with Fortune Magazine, in which she discusses her business venture “#womenwhowork, a seemingly product-less enterprise that trades in female empowerment tips and household life hacks, and which helped her father secure women’s votes during his presidential campaign.
For Fortune Magazine Ivanka’s vocabulary runs smooth. The regular register of her voice fluently and self-assuredly talks of “leveraging her assets” and “architecting her life.” This is a language question, and a question of power. This woman can talk, and she talks only in turns of phrase that correlate to her private reality, modelled on her family’s corporate politics that have become a national affair. Alongside, I understand the sound of Maggie’s head cold to be one of the most alive things in the exhibition. I made this work before Ivanka’s father won the presidency, and the title of the work is a not-quite-verbatim quote from her. At a Republican rally, she welcomes her father to the stage, promising the audience that codes of corporate performance—the mastery of time, money and the defeating of competitors—would be fulfilled with her father in office. (“He, wins.” She says. “Every time. On time. And under budget”.) So, in some sense she was right.
If chrononormativity in its simplest terms is us all running on the same clock, this clock can often render invisible things that are slower and more durational, such as maintenance and care, that are crucial to our survival and to more sustainable approaches to living. Chrononormative history goes hand in hand with this and is often criticized as supporting linear, often masculine or accelerationist, accounts of history, accounts that are usually written by those who hold most power and who fix and determine their narratives according to their watch and profit. I’m trying to speak of the damage that chrononormativity can do, or at least render and make visible the moments where it’s present, thereby understanding better how a resilience to it might be developed. I was thinking about chrononormative history when I made this sound work, but also when I created DRAG DRAG SOLO (the film) in 2016. In absorbing and being affected by sound sources outside of itself the film can always be very different, depending on what it comes into contact with. It is not entirely pinned down and fixed. Then DRAG DRAG SOLO (the exhibition) is similar; neither entirely fixed nor totally complete. The works in the show are installed un-synched, or made, in ways where they cannot be seen the same way twice.
GB: How does this project enhance or contain or amplify the themes in Soundtrack for a troubled time?
CS: Soundtrack for a troubled time is an audio soundscape depicting a fictional present, set against the premise that fiction is often only a few degrees removed from reality. I made the work at a time when I was having a yearlong conversation with a psychiatrist about the moments in which a body cannot lie. In Soundtrack for a troubled time, a performer counts in his native Spanish in the right channels of the sound system. The numerical monologue is choked by barrages of water being bucketed over him. From the left channel, the sharp thwack of a golf club obliviously and relentlessly drives the ball and cuts through the exhibition space. The two-channel sound is presented on three white Bose FreeSpace speakers, designed to invisibly blend in with their environment and create atmosphere or affect from no discernible source. I came upon these speakers in an immersive sound installation at Gatwick Airport, where the bank HSBC replicated the sound of the Yangtze River throughout the South Terminal. It was unclear what particular product this installation was attempting to sell. In Soundtrack for a troubled time, the performer’s language appears to disintegrate while the presence of a counting, jogging body is increased, and rendered into fiction.
GB: Could you express a wish or formulate a thought to accompany DRAG DRAG SOLO ?
CS: In October 2016 the British pound, already in a state of decline following the Brexit vote, plummeted overnight to its lowest value in three decades. Responses from financial institutions and currency specialists were swift. HSBC bank immediately declared the GBP was in the gloomiest and most terrible ‘stage of grief’. This humanization of the currency, by a chief currency analyst, led me to wonder why it was useful to evoke the poetic register of a grief-stricken, weeping pound sterling. This in turn inspired Self Tracking (the five stages of grief). The work is a wall drawing. A continuous line of spray tan, circles all peripheral walls of the third floor galleries. Standing in for a typical average or “normal range” skin type, the spray line becomes the mean range on top of which biological, economic, and environmental data (extracted between 2012 and 2016 from test results or automated points-based systems) is plotted in pencil. The gallery walls are divided into five sections, representing five years of data. So, at the CAC, one year translates to being about twenty meters long. You enter the exhibition in 2012 then exit in 2016. Throughout the galleries, dipping above, below and sometimes right on top of the spray tan, are three lines of data.
A first line, in light grey, traces my artist’s career rank as measured by the database Artfacts.net. Using a points-based system, this website rates artist’s according to how many shows they’ve made, who they have exhibited alongside and where they have exhibited, in order to quantitatively measure sustainability, and thus most accurately predict future appreciation of work produced. A second line in pink tracks the fluctuations in my metabolism, according to my T4 thyroxine levels (which in my case are synthetic and medicated, given I do not in fact have a Thyroid). A third darker pencil line charts the value of the British currency measured against the Euro. It ends in a steep downturn; the grieving pound.
GB: I wanted to talk about this work because it relates to the ubiquitousness of “performatives” and how they might relate to methods of self-tracking. Humans have self-tracked since diaries and calendars were invented, yet how it hooks up with those digital autocracies you previously referred to is new. “Health”, the app on my i.Phone, (which counts my steps) is something I would like to be able to delete, but it is inbuilt, and fairly immoveable. Artfacts.net is a website I would so much love to not be listed on; I did not ask to be ranked. Yet, it seems cultures that make us “measurable” are increasingly incorporated into our tools and lives and against our volition.
CS: Self Tracking (the five stages of grief) also allows me to formulate another thought, which is the use of prosopopoeia— a literary device, that mobilizes the dead or inanimate things as mouthpieces to speak through. In this case, the gloomy pound is used by a bank to express discontent with Brexit. Right now, I am thinking about instances where minor metaphors, images, objects, and people are used to another’s advantage, and how we might speak for and through one another more carefully.
GB: What can you tell us about your future programs—events, residencies, shows, and so on?
CS: A solo show at Castello di Rivoli in November means I can think more about prosopopoeia, mouthpieces, as well as the novel-in-progress, which currently finds “exhibition” form as Early Research Methods. Some of these are exhibited on the third floor at CAC. They are stacks of my writing; offset printed fragments of fiction, science, fan mail, held down with a bronze cast of my ear. Then, be it in pieces, or as a more coherent published whole the novel will be the basis for my solo show at the Swiss Institute, New York in December, which itself is an editorial version of my show at the CAC. Next month, I am collaborating with philosophers from Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University to build foundations for OFFSHORE, at Stanley Picker Gallery. OFFSHORE IN CHICAGO will be presented by The Art Institute Chicago (in early 2019), and by that point, I hope to be able to better explain the project as “a radical philosophy school for embodied knowledge.”