Language on the edge

Posted on February 7, 2011 by


Aaron Williamson

A language in search of its meta language.

Tate Britain, 4th February 2011

A few years ago at the 2007 Anti Festival in Finland I saw, or more precisely, heard a work by Aaron Williamson. In this work, the artist lies hidden for an entire day, on an island just a few hundred meters from the docks of Kuopio.  He lays in the grassy rushes on the edge of the island and with help of a megaphone yells back to the shore “I am an island…. I am an island…. I am an island” over and over and over, until his voice is hoarse and then he yells some more. Audiences hear him yelling in the distance, the voice is haunting, sometimes audible and other times it seems to get caught on a wind and disappears, the artists body and voice becomes a proxy for the island and the island becomes an expression of the artists isolation from the audience. The thing that makes this performance or act resonate with more clarity is that Aaron Williamson has, for the past twenty years, been slowly becoming deaf, and so over the course of his practice, he has been experiencing a transformation which must have at times been experienced as a sort of islandisation. At least that is one way to understand not only the performance but also the experience of deafness, and so the artist becoming the island, the island becoming a man and the disembodied voice all serve to pose questions about how we relate and how we hear each other.

When I saw that this very same Aaron Williamson was presenting a “performance lecture” on language at a late at the Tate event, I gathered a few friends and went along not really sure what to expect. The performance takes place in an auditorium perfectly suited to a lecture, it starts a few minutes late, but in an evening of interventions and drinks after work this is not really surprising. A young woman comes on stage to introduce the lecture and explain that Aaron is stuck in traffic and running late and again in London’s world of tube disasters and city gridlock, its not at all surprising. And so we sit back and wait while this lady from the Tate’s public engagement team reads from an impressive list of fellowships and achievements that she tells us she has sourced from Aaron’s website, “a useful resource for those interested in performance, language and live art”. A British Sign Language interpreter is translating the performance and I spend much of this introduction not really thinking about Aaron’s lateness, but wondering about the shapes of empathy apparent in sign language, or is that just this woman’s way of expressing herself?

Soon Aaron enters, he is carrying a small travel suitcase and as he arrives on the stage the young public engagement lady excuses herself. Aaron is dressed in a tweed jacket and white shirt and with his greying hair he is a quintessential Englishman/professor. Aaron doesn’t begin straight away, he is clearly distressed and he mumbles an apology and then we wait as he is fitted with a microphone. Then he looks through his suitcase and pulls out a laptop, all the time he is sort of grunting or almost muttering to himself. He is flustered, his face is red, he finds a place for the laptop, he tries to connect it, and cant, the performance still hasn’t begun.  He turns to us and says something about a book that he is writing, it’s a book about aspect ratios, (perhaps this is the beginning now) and then he says that in order to show us this properly he is going to need to show us his film, which is on the laptop, he calls for some help, a technician comes back to the stage and tries to connect the laptop. All this time time we are waiting for him to begin to command our attention, to describe the premise of the lecture, to take control, to “perform” and as I struggle with this feeling of complete helplessness in the face of his distress, I wonder what I really want from this performance or indeed any performance or any lecture.

The technician says the connection should be working and goes back to the booth we presume to make it work. It clearly isn’t working. The audience are on Aaron’s side, we fidget, call for help, we turn to the back, look at each other, wonder what we can do to help him. I even wonder very briefly if it would help if I got up to tell a story, perhaps I could tell the story of the island, and the man in the rushes while he works out how to play the film. He is alone on the stage again, he calls the technician back down using the phone on the lectern, they arrange to screen the film from a disk that he finds in the suitcase, he pours himself some water from the jug on the table where there are a stack of plastic cups, water spills on to the ground, on to his feet, the audience groans, this is all he needs. The technician says something from the back of the room, the film is not working, and the disk will not load. The film wont work, he will describe the film he says. He begins to do this, shouting loudly into the auditorium above our heads.

He bangs on his microphone, he wants the technician again he has another idea about the laptop, there is a sonic element to this whole experience, I realise, a series of splutters and half starts and the longer it goes on the more I recall the stories I have heard from ex students and from friends of Aaron’s who describe him as the least helpless person or artist they know. This is a man with a wicked sense of humor.  I realise with a growing relief that this performance of half starts and non-beginnings is the language searching at the edge of its frame for a meta language. He has created a series of accidents out of the idea of being late to the tate with which to explore the dubious form of “performance / lecture” and the experience is nothing less than genius. The work is artfully participatory, a live art work that comments on itself and its frame and in doing so comments on us, on our strange prejudices and our sympathies and misunderstandings about deafness. It comments also on the failure of lecture or performance to adequately describe anything without an embodied transaction, which Aaron engineers beautifully.

The lecture turns again as he describes his interest in frames and aspect ratios by adjusting the curtains at the back of the room with the help of the technician. For some time both he and the technician are in a cupboard on the side of the stage moving the curtains between 16:9 and 4:3. He has found the right shape, the right frame and he begins to speak from an impossibly large pile of notes. Its funny now, the audience is more comfortable, laughing, we get it, or do we? Its still so awkward, I’m still not sure that there is a right way to view this performance, where is the edge of this meta meta? Are we going to keep “getting it” as we consider this man, this act, when we finally continue our journeys into the night?

The performance is ending, the artist stands paused in the middle of the stage, in the middle of the frame he keeps banging on about, the light of the projector and the laptop desktop covers his face. There are notes on the desktop that feel like clues, one file name “the collapsing lecture” is whispered across the rows of the audience. He is paused, the translator tries to get him to finish, shows him the time… shows him the time again… there is a long pause he stands very still, poised on the edge… he yells….

“Don’t go”



Aaron Williamson describes his practice thus…

“As an artist my engagement with performance, objects, place and space is entirely transformed through the experience of becoming profoundly deaf over the course of some twenty years. Informed by this radical personal alteration, my art practice takes an interdisciplinary approach. Hence, my artistic projects remain open to innovation according to circumstance and I have explored working with performance, installation, photography, video, sculpture, text, choreography and digital art – often combining elements within one work.”

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