In this exposition I reflect on a research method entitled ‘conversation-as-material’ that I have developed through various collaborations as a mode of self-reflexive enquiry and artistic production. Within this method, conversation is conceived not only as a verbal means for reflecting introspectively on practice but also as a (re)generative practice in-and-of-itself; site and material for the construction of immanent, inter-subjective modes of linguistic ‘sense-making’ emerging from different voices enmeshed in live exchange. Conversation-as-material is a practice attentive to — whilst attempting to make tangible — the live circumstances of its own processual production. The quest is for a not-yet-known vocabulary emerging synchronous to the live circumstances that it seeks to articulate: over and over, turned up and inside out, language is rolled around in the mouth until it starts to yield. Here, meaning does not exist prior to utterance but rather is co-produced in-and-through the dialogic process itself: an infra-personal textual poetics revealed only in retrospect once the recorded dialogue has been transcribed and distilled. Yet, how does the act of repeated reflection give rise to the emergence of something new or unexpected? How does one avoid repeating just repeating, self-reflexivity becoming hermetic or solipsistic, entropic or simply exhausted?

 

 



 

Re— is a collaborative project between myself, writer-artist Emma Cocker, and writer-curator Rachel Lois Clapham that presses on two art-writing practices coming together to explore the process and performativity of working with language. Re— takes its name from the event of ‘regarding’, ‘concerning’ or ‘being in reference to’. It refers to repetition, the prefix re — indicating an action repeated again or again; a backward turn or return to a previous condition. Re— was conceived as an iterative framework for working together where content is developed and reworked against the specificity of each invitation to perform: sometimes existing as a live reading, at other times as an installation of documents or a score.

 

The material developed within Re— was generated through conversation, self-consciously folded back as an aesthetic activity for investigating the conditions of its own becoming, for reflecting on the event of artistic collaboration and the wrestle therein to find a shared language. For philosopher Brian Massumi, "conversation becomes artistic when the conditions of its occurrence are set in a way that offsets it slightly from its own mode, that create that minimal distance of conversation to itself, giving it a unique vitality affect that just any conversation doesn’t have — a little something extra". (2017: 89)

 

Within Re— the ‘offsetting of conversation’ involved attending specifically to the peripheral, the incidental, those fleeting instances in conversation that could have gone unnoticed, that functioned as asides. “Let me tell you” says Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector ‘I’m trying to seize the fourth dimension of this instant-now so fleeting that it’s already gone because its already become a new instant-now that’s also already gone […] And if here I must use words, they must bear an almost merely bodily meaning, I’m struggling with the last vibration … I make a sentence of words made only from instants-now. Read, therefore, my invention as pure vibration with no meaning beyond each whistling syllable’.(2014: 5)

 

Our own process involved recording and transcribing the dialogue verbatim, such that we could attend to those instances of speech that were disappearing even as they were coming into being, that was not always possible to discern at the time of conversation itself. Those phatic and affective aspects of dialogue, where as artist Brandon LaBelle observes, speech is "punctuated by small interruptions and hesitations … In preceding the spoken, these hesitations come to assist in the final delivery of words: they figure the gap in order to get the body going […] reveal a body tuning itself to the sociality of speech, of being in front of another." (2014: 133).

 

Rather than documenting the dialogue as a means of reflection, within Re— conversational transcript is approached as material for playful appropriation and reworking. We asked: how might our conversational fragments be reactivated or re-performed, creating a feedback loop between artistic reflection and production? My own process of ‘working with’ the conversational material involved condensation or distillation; the boiling down of dialogue towards fragments of poetic-prose. Meanwhile, Rachel Lois attended to the latent gestural content, the unsaid or unspoken of what has been said, diagramming towards those parts of dialogic exchange that exist beyond words, affirmation of conversation’s sensible, affective potentiality. Reassembled as a live performance reading, two practices sit side-by-side, their means restricted to broken fragments from earlier conversations and mute utterances of a finger pointing, nails pink; a spoken text of dislocated phrases; a diagram drawn; the space of breath.

 

Within Re— reflection on the process of making does not come after the fact, but rather is folded into the material of the work itself. An attempt is made to trouble the normative chronology within practice, collapsing the distinction — even the perceived hierarchy — between preparation, performance, documentation and reflection. Re— marked the beginning of a research approach that I have since called ‘conversation-as-material’, where conversation is activated not only as a verbal-linguistic means for reflecting introspectively on practice but also as a (re)generative practice in-and-of-itself; site and material for the construction of immanent, inter-subjective modes of linguistic ‘sense-making’ emerging from different voices enmeshed in live exchange. This process of conversation-as-material involves the quest for a not-yet-known vocabulary emerging synchronous to the live circumstances that it seeks to articulate. Here, meaning does not exist prior to utterance but rather is co-produced through the dialogic process itself: an infra-personal textual poetics revealed only in retrospect once recorded dialogue has been transcribed and distilled.

 

Conversation-as-material emerges from the desire to find a form of language — as artistic activity — where the content or ideas within are not already known in advance, but rather emerge in and through the material working-with of language. Indeed, this dilemma of how to find linguistic means through which to articulate the experiential dimension of lived enquiry is often conceived a problem for artistic research. Yet, as philosopher Dieter Mersch states, how might one rise to the ‘challenge of nevertheless finding words to say the unsayable’ (2015: 10). He argues that rather than ‘talking about art’, might not writing practise the ‘more careful and gentle “of” which merely dares to touch’ (2017: 122). Contiguous writing: touching upon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The practice of conversation-as-material — conceived as a way of writing without writing — was tested further within The Italic I, a collaboration with artist Clare Thornton which explores the event of surrendering to a repeated fall, slowed and extended through the use of both language and the lens. Becoming diagonal – the italic I: to let go, a commitment is made to the event of falling in and of itself, to putting the diagonal under pressure. A body falls, over and over, again and again: falling as investigative action. Parallel to capturing the event of a repeated fall through performance and its documents, our collaborative activity has involved the production of a textual lexicon for reflecting on the different episodes within falling, generated through the ‘free-fall’ of our conversations. Over a period of years, thousands of transcribed words from hours of recorded conversation have been gradually distilled towards our working vocabulary.

 

We asked: How can we develop a poetic mode of linguistic expression that embodies rather than describes the live experience that it seeks to articulate? We recognised that it can be difficult to shape experience into words, language can sometimes seem too stiff or rigid; like the body it also needs to be stretched and flexed. How might language be exercised akin to lungs and limbs? What happens if talking about practice is no longer an event of explication, but instead performed in the same key as doing? Breathless — ventilating the idea: to temper, to tune, to make tones available to different keys. Repeat the heating and cooling, softening and solidifying of language: molten flex. 

 

Like our staging of the fall, our conversations were framed, undertaken as a specific exercise within a time-bound period — usually between one and three hours — allocated only for this purpose. Together in conversation we seek to practice linguistic or even cognitive falls, searching for a language adequate to the task of articulating the experience of falling through falling. Akin to the body repeatedly falling, language can be generated from within fall-like circumstances, words pressured until they begin to arc and fold. In the live-ness of conversation, words can often slip and spill into existence; thought conjured in the event of its utterance, verbalised at the point of thinking leaning into the unknown. Reflecting on the ‘vitality affects’ within unscripted spontaneous conversation, psychologist Daniel Stern argues in the "imprecise, messy, hit-and-miss work to find the ‘right words’ to communicate what one wishes […] Emergent properties form. New linkages are created, tentatively accepted, revised, rejected, reintroduced in a different form, and moved with all the other creative products of the intention-unfolding process […] It is a process that can rush forward, hesitate, stop, restart gently. (2010:122 — 124)

 

Over and over, turned up and inside out, language can be rolled around in the mouth until it starts to yield or give. Indeed, Stern observes how speech production is an embodied practice that ‘requires physical (as well as mental) movement.’ (2010: 121-122)

 

Bodily lettering: the tasting of words, language caress of the tongue, phonemes felt against lips, exhaled on the breath. As LaBelle asserts, ‘As the space of (not only) voice’s reverberations, the mouth may be said to be ringed by language; it lingers in the mouth.’ (2014: 3) LaBelle argues that to "theorize the performativity of the spoken is to confront the tongue, the teeth, the lips and the throat; it is to feel the mouth as a fleshy, wet lining around each syllable, as well as a texturing orifice that marks the voice with specificity, not only in terms of accent or dialect, but also by the depth of expression so central to the body. (2014: 1)

 

Drawing on the etymological relation between reflexivity and regurgitation — and between the oral exertions of speaking and chewing, consider the word ruminant: from the Latin ruminare — one given to meditation or contemplation, but also a mammal that chews the ‘cud’ regurgitated from its rumen (the first chamber of its alimentary canal). To ruminate, thus: to ponder, to turn over in the mind, and ‘to chew over again’. For LaBelle "grabbing words in its wet cavity, biting down onto the consonantal, sounding out the resonance of the vowel, it is by way of the mouth that we might supplement the foundational narrative of proper speech with an oral poetics.(2014: 9 — 10)

 

Certainly, the specific rhythm of conversation produces a different shape and texture of textual articulation compared to that of conventional writing. Significantly, the cadence or rhythmic pacing of conversation — its pitch and intonation, the tempo of speech — can often be of rising and falling, dipping and peaking. Excited acceleration. Hesitation. Deliberation. Syncopation. Abbreviation. Words dropped. Omissions. Repetitions. Sentence incompletion. Disregard for punctuation. Hurried utterance. Syllabic glides and slurs.

 

Our shared intent was to strive for a condition of exhaustion and elasticity in word and thought, stepping off or away from the stability of fixed subject positions towards the fluid process of co-production, intermingling of one another’s word and thought. An intersubjective — even infrasubjective vocabulary — emerges only after what one wanted to say has been exhausted or used up. Here, as Massumi observes "The conversational form begins to exhaust itself … you can no longer just draw on your own resources — you’ve already exhausted them ... That’s where it begins to get inventive. It becomes truly improvisational. It is no longer you who are speaking, or some other individual. The conversation passes between. It truly becomes a collective enunciation – a subject-group as Guattari would say … the whole thing gets most intense at those moments, where you’re no longer speaking in your own voice, or performing your individual point of view. (2017: 94 — 95)

 

Stretching — muscular, bodily. Pushing at the edges or the limits. This achieving and letting go — a reaching towards. The body makes phrases, exploratory gestures, bypassing the mind. Feeling its limitations, its irritating blockages, wrestling with ways to articulate. Light precise — the I dissolves. Conversational sparring enables a form of thinking and articulation beyond what is often conceivable on one’s own. As phenomenologist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty states in The Visible and the Invisible, ‘A genuine conversation gives me access to thoughts that I did not know myself capable of, that I was not capable of, and sometimes I feel myself followed in a route unknown to myself which my words, cast back by the other, are in the process of tracing out for me.’ (1968: 13) Or else as philosopher and educator Martin Buber claims:


"In a real conversation (that is, not one whose individual parts have been preconcerted, but one which is completely spontaneous, in which each speaks directly to his (or her) partner and calls forth his (or her) unpredictable reply), […] what is essential does not take place in each of the participants or in a neutral world which includes the two and all other things but it takes place between them in the most precise sense, as it were in a dimension which is accessible only to them. In the most powerful moments of the dialogic, where in truth “deep calls unto deep”, it becomes unmistakably clear that it is not the wand of the individual or of the social, but of a third which draws the circle of the happening. On the far side of the subjective, on this side of the objective, on the narrow ridge, where I and Thou meet, there is the realm of the “between”." (2002: 241)

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this sense, conversation creates the conditions for a mode of reflection that is less introspective (from intro— ‘inward, within, to the inside’ + specere ‘to look at, observe’) and rather more inter-spective (inter— ‘among, between, betwixt, in the midst of’). Whilst self-reflexivity risks becoming hermetic or solipsistic, entropic or simply self-absorbed, conversation offers a potential counterbalance since it has the capacity, in Buber’s terms, for ‘mutual surprises’. This is not about a mode of conversation conceived simply as exchange, the communication of ideas and thoughts already formed and ready in waiting, all too often merely a monologue performed in the proximity of another. Etymologically, conversation did not always refer to ‘talk’ but rather to the act of conducting oneself in the world: living-with or keeping company, literally meaning ‘to turn about with’. For Stern, conversation involves the delicate dance of ‘interactional synchrony’, a process of ‘affect attunement’ between speaker and listener (2010: 51). According to LaBelle:

… the listening that I’m after is one of deep affordance, enabling through both its dedicates and its distractions a potentiality for what may come, and for what we may do or say. I’d suggest that to listen is to adopt a position of not knowing; it is to stand in wait for the event, for the voice that may come … In this regard, listening is an unsettling of boundaries — what draws me forward, away from what I know. (2014: ix — x)

 

Whilst the notion of exhausting conversation might seem to privilege the act of talking which could heighten the sense of introspective speaking agency, conversation-as-material requires a letting go of self, the surrendering of one’s voice to the unfolding process. Here perhaps, theorist Michelle Boulous Walker’s recent reflections on ‘slow reading’ could be applied to the practice of conversation, where she argues that:

… an unhurried approach towards the other allows … a process of transformation ... which takes us from the heaviness of the subject who desires to know and to fix, toward the weightless, attentive and receptive space of an ethical encounter. (2017: xxiii)

 

For Walker, this approach is predicated on an ‘Emptying out of the self that prepares the ground for a passage between the self and the strangeness of the other.’ (2017: 157) In these terms, attending to the micro-dynamics of conversation is not a turning introspectively away the world but rather an ethical practice, the groundwork for a politic based on heightened empathy and mutual sharing. 


Indeed, whilst the practice of conversation-as-material has developed in-and-though a number of collaborations, it is transformed each time anew as it meets with the specificity — even the strangeness — of others, for example, within interdisciplinary, even undisciplinary encounters such as Choreo-graphic Figures Deviations of the Line, an artistic research collaboration with artist Nikolaus Gansterer and choreographer Mariella Greil, working with interlocutors Alex Arteaga, Christine de Smedt and Lilia Mestre. With artistic research at its heart, Choreo-graphic Figures stages a beyond-disciplinary, inter-subjective encounter between the lines of choreography, drawing and writing, for exploring those forms of artistic knowledge produced in the slippage and deviation as different modes of practice enter into dialogue, overlap, collide. The shared research enquiry explores the unfolding processes of decision-making and dynamic movements of ‘sense-making’ within collaborative artistic practice, seeking modes of performativity and notation for making tangible this often hidden or undisclosed aspect of the creative process and for asserting the epistemological significance therein.

 

We ask: How can we attend to the process of artistic sense making from within or inside, that affective realm of energies, emergences and intensities operat­ing before, between, and below the more readable ges­tures of artistic practice? How can we develop systems of notation and performativity for sharing this often hidden or undisclosed aspect of the creative process, for communicating the experience with others? How can we articulate the instability and mutability of the flows and forces within artistic ex­ploration without fixing that which is inherently dynamic and contingent as a literal sign? Indeed, how might this focus on the micro-movements of aesthet­ic enquiry have wider implications at the level of the macro, encouraging the de-, re- and trans-figuring of our ways of being in the world, inviting new forms of relationality, sociality and solidarity?

 

Within the frame of this project, transcribed conversations have been used more explicitly as both a textual script and a physical material with which to further experiment: conversation-as-material aerated through the performative ‘ventilating of meaning’, improvisational extraction and appropriation as a live event. Indeed, within this project the ‘practice of conversation’ has been expanded far beyond the mode of ‘conversation-as-material’ that I am focusing on in this paper, through conversational ‘game structures’ and scores including those introduced by artist-performer Lilia Mestre. However, rather than elaborating on how a ‘conversational practice’ developed differently within the Choreo-graphic Figures project (which is beyond the scope of this paper), I want to end with a return to Re— and to the question of how one might repeat without repeating.


 

 

 

 

 

 

References

Boulous Walker, Michelle (2017). Slow Philosophy: Reading Against the Institution. London and New York: Bloombury.

Buber, Martin (2002). Between Man and Man. London and New York: Routledge.

Cocker, Emma. (2018). “Conversation as Material: Writing Without Writing”. Katja Hilevaara and Emily Orley (eds.), The Creative Critic:  Writing about  / as Practice. London and New York: Routledge.

Cocker, Emma and Clare Thornton. (2016). “A 16 Stage Lexicon on the Arc of Falling”, Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, Issue 7.2, July 2016, 253  – 273.

Emma Cocker, Nikolaus Gansterer, Mariella Greil. 2017. (eds.) Choreo-graphic Figures: Deviations from the Line. Berlin: de Gruyter,

LaBelle, Brandon. (2014). Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary, London: Bloomsbury Academic.Lispector, Clarice. (2014). Agua Viva.

Massumi, Brian. (2017). The Principle of Unrest: Activist Philosophy in the Expanded Field. London: Open Humanities Press.

Mersch, Dieter. (2015). Epistemologies of Aesthetics. Zurich and Berlin: Diaphanes.

Mersch, Dieter. (2017). “Figuration / Defiguration: For a Dialectic of Choreo-graphy”, in Emma Cocker, Nikolaus Gansterer, Mariella Greil (eds.), Choreo-graphic Figures: Deviations from the Line. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2017, 111 – 123.

Stern, Daniel. (2010). Forms of Vitality: Exploring Dynamic Experience in Psy-chology, the Arts, Psychotherapy and Development. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1968). The Visible and the Invisible. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.