Studio Visit: Laurie Lax and Samuel Brzeski at studio USF.
Text: Laurie Lax and Samuel Brzeski
Photos: Tove Lise Mossestad
The following is a conversation between Samuel Brzeski (in italic type), and Laurie Lax (in regular type), developed through a joint-writing exercise. Interspersed throughout are fragments from a Whatsapp conversation, inspired by the form of a ‘chain poem’, developed by the surrealist artist Ithell Colquhoun.
I did a funny jump and broke the water with my hands and feet simultaneously. I kind of folded my body into two mid air, not sure whether to lead with the fingertips or the toe ends. It was the last summer swim in the fjord by the old sardine factory where we have our studio. It was a bit of a tough time for me, and I forgot how to dive into water. I was anxious to get my warm tense body into the cool calm waves. It was particularly cold that day. Our studio at USF Verftet overlooks the paved slabs that are filled with chiselled millenial bodies every summer day that the temperature rises over 21 degrees. They back flip, side roll and swan dive over each other, muscles clenched and white grins wide. I often think about the people who bought apartments overlooking the sunset views of the fjord and wonder whether they considered that their summer days and nights would be filled with the echoes of wild whoops from young mouths and the basslines of bluetooth speakers.
IF I wore my leather jacket to the studio
THEN you would probably spend most of the day telling me how good you looked in it
IF I told you to be quiet
THEN I would annoy you even more all day long
Before we moved into the studio here, I saw a lot of dance at USF Verftet, volunteering for BIT Teatergarasjen’s Oktoberdans in 2016. In particular, Daina Ashbee’s performance Unrelated about the missing indigenous women in Canada. There were no words, but physical gestures derived from the violence performed against those women. People in the audience were shaking. Then there was another memorable performance I saw in 2018: dancer Meg Stuart & artist/writer Tim Etchells’ Shown and Told. I liked that they disregarded the writing technique to ‘show, don’t tell’. There are no rules in writing and sometimes I want to be told. Etchells was describing Stuart’s movements “it’s like… it’s like” and he was so good at choosing the right words, which didn’t delimit her bodily form of communication (through dance).
The best performance that I experienced here was Gaahl’s Wyrd, an extreme black metal band from Bergen fronted by Kristian Espedal, a big player in the Norwegian metal scene. After having spent the day in the studio getting lost in a sea of theory, I wandered down through the winding corridors and twisting staircases until I found myself in the concert hall. That is something that I really appreciate about this place — it is an amalgamation of different venues. I can switch from heavy theory to heavy metal in a few steps. The gig was wild. Gaahl’s demonic crew screamed and thrashed at guitars and drum kits and vocal chords to an audience of thankful metalheads. The performers tongues extended grotesquely from their mouths, white and black makeup streamed with sweat down their faces, tense hands reached up to grasp the sky and pull it down on our heads, as the aggressively theatrical performance blasted the fog of theory from my mind. They keep the metal scene in Bergen alive in this building, as various other venues fall by the wayside.
IF the tide was high
THEN I would reflect on how it affected the borders of the land, making the earth appear as separations but in fact is one big lump
IF I asked why black?
THEN I would say it’s one less thing to think about
When people visit me here, I tell them: take the side entrance (D or E, I can never remember). You are now on the third floor, believe it or not. There are many, many closed doors. I don’t know what goes on behind all of them but I do know that is where a significant chunk of the cultural scene in Bergen is produced . Walk through all of the doors that are already open, keep going, right, keep going, left, keep going until you hit a fire exit. Open the fire exit and go down one flight of stairs. Now go back on yourself, back through the door as if you were on the floor above again. You will see a curved wall housing some toilets, next to a rehearsal space. Opposite these is another long corridor. Sometimes the door is open, sometimes it’s closed, but either way: go through it. You probably haven’t been here before. It feels something like a state prison or hospital with yellow lighting. Approximately two thirds of the way down, opposite Kiyoshi’s studio, is a door with a poster that says: “Words which touch each other in strange places”. Studio 230.
We were awarded a one year residency at the studio here at USF when completing our MA at the art school here in Bergen. All graduating students are eligible to apply, and usually they just give it to one student, but this year they offered it to both of us to share. I think a key element of the decision was based upon our shared intentions of opening up the space for others to use. Along with Robin Everett, Lucila Mayol and Pedro Riva, we run the art writing collective TEXSTgroup, and use the studio as a base for activity. We started TEXSTgroup when we were studying together, running regular TEXSTtable sessions in which artists and writers were invited to share text based work for discussion and critique in an open and informal setting, something that we continue to do here at USF. The sessions are open to anyone to join and have no fixed format other than sitting together around a communal table talking about words and art and how they work together, or don’t. We have also worked together on residential workshops, exhibitions and publications, and are about to launch TEXSTpress, a new publishing platform. The discursive and collaborative nature of the group gives a real sense of support, as the process of art making can sometimes be quite a lonely pursuit.
At first, TEXSTgroup was about testing text-based work. Now we realise it is as much about testing the limits of text itself. Arguably, all artists use text, even if as a refusal to engage with it, and this limits or enables artists to differing extents. It’s very important for me to get outside of my own way of thinking via collaboration and especially with TEXSTgroup. Together, we are in the process of writing a novella, or a short novel, or a novel that doesn’t take itself so seriously. All five of us have vastly different writing styles yet we have been churning around the same imagery, ideas and concepts for several weeks now, attempting to become one voice. We are doing this through an experimental online writing process.
IF we never met
THEN I'm not sure if I would be using so much text
IF you never came to TEXSTgroup?
THEN I would be a pretty lonely artist right now
IF I wrote a letter to you
THEN it would be a big fat 'F'
Writing has always played a big role in my life. As a young child I would write little notes and pack them into bags for imagined journeys that never took place. Then as a teenager I filled stacks of journals with angsty swathes of commiserations and lamentations. I would hate to have to read through all of them again. Before art, I studied literature, writing and film in Sheffield in the UK. When I started making art, I left writing alone for a time, thinking that it was more of a self reflective act than an element of the work itself. It was only in the last couple of years that writing and text have formed the crux of my artistic practice. All of the works that I make start with an intensive writing process. For example, for most of 2018 I completed a daily ritual, in which every morning, before speaking to anyone, I would meditate for half an hour before writing for half an hour. The results of this process have gone on to form the basis for an ongoing series of text-based video installations concerning the changing perception of time and presence within digital culture.
My process changes from project to project but the consistent themes are control and mediation. In terms of the electronic or digital, I’m interested in computer algorithms and the implications that these have for power and control. My background is in drawing and printmaking, which I used to surmise as ‘drawing in the expanded field’ – until I realised this meant nothing. I still like to talk about my works as drawing or printmaking though. For my graduation work, which took the form of an audio guide, I coloured in the script with pencils as a way of intuitive editing, putting them through an actual drawing process. While in printmaking, I explore the impact of a force or gesture – to throw something into relief, to make it visible. I find it a fascinating contradiction how many printmaking techniques are an attempt to control the outcome, yet one can never fully predict the result.
IF you lost your voice suddenly
THEN I would lose a large part of myself and my ability to be present (genuine fear)
IF you lost your sight suddenly
THEN this could be a very interesting thing for you to look at, I think, and my sight, well I would have to start groping my way around life more
Predictability and control is also something that I look at in my performance works. Time tapers to a point is a performance series that I have been working on since 2017, in which I spend extended periods sitting and repeating single phrases or whole poems over and over again, each time changing the content ever so slightly. I have been calling these instances ‘exercises in extreme presencing’, as the audience is invited to sit for a meditative experience constructed by the repetitive voice. In these performances, I am also trying to explore the poetic potential of the male voice and its relationship to vulnerability. By performing overly romantic poems with a genuine sincerity, or by repeating traditionally masculine phrases to the extent that they become deactivated, my hope is that I can work to undermine the authority of the voice of the white western male, an authority that is often used to hide weakness and to manipulate others.
My reading of your work, in your investigation of the ‘white western male’ voice (something you cannot ignore in the present day and I’m glad you are seeking to address it), is that you show how the authority of that voice is often assumed – because it is intimidating, loud, hard to ignore, and difficult to challenge. By re-configuring, you show how unfixed that assumption is. How easily it can be crushed. Related to that in my work, the idea of the ‘irritating’ female voice is something I seek to confront. Are higher pitched voices less pleasant? Are feminine voices more easily criticised? Gender politics aside, I appreciate the booming quality of your voice. I love bass, going to noisey concerts, to actually feel the vibrations in your body. This is something I played with in a recent project called I Love You Soliloquy, when I turned the walls into speakers to transmit the tone of my voice. The words were incomprehensible. I’m interested in the question: how do words bind or isolate? As far as my practice is concerned with literature, it is about conversation, transcription and the vernacular. I’m interested in the different ways in which words are spoken to each other as well as in chat-based communication; everyday acts of listening, reading and writing that are at once together and alone – especially now. I’ve been reflecting deeply on how word-based communication has evolved. How does it affect emotional response, the way one speaks – the way people relate to one another?
Vibrational quality is something that is lost in much of digital communication. The vibrational presence of the voice is lost through instant chat, the aura of the human is devoid in the emoji, the sensation of touch is nowhere to be found in the text message. The whole linguistic system is shifting rhythm from a sensitive quality of presence to the cold sphere of absence. The direction that you are taking your work in concerning these issues is an important one, but is also one that is difficult to negotiate. How do we talk about these types of problems that people are so exhausted with talking about and experiencing, yet are so urgent at the same time? There is a real struggle here between urgency and exhaustion that can lead to inertia. You are confronting the anonymity of digital exchange in works of yours such as ‘Dog and bone’ where you managed to convince a previous Tinder match to record your text based communications with the voice, a work that is as equally brave as it is hilarious. I think everyone who has experienced the awkwardness of communications over Tinder can relate to this.
It’s been both exciting and challenging to examine these frictions and commonalities across our works, half way through the residency. I wonder if it has come out of the time we spend together, or if it is the reason why we spend time together in the first place. The exhibition we had at the start of this residency, at Joy Forum, will be book-ended with another exhibition towards the end. I’m looking forward to seeing how much our works have grown together or apart in this year.
THEN what is presence all about?
IF it is a genuine fear?
THEN it’s about being and inhabiting the body and the mind in the moment, and the voice is a carrier of the mind through the medium of the body
IF I said we should change the structure of the conversation
THEN I am open to this idea
Laurie Lax www.laurielax.co.uk
Samuel Brzeski www.samuelbrzeski.com
If you want more information on TEXSTgroup, or are interested in coming to a TEXSTtable meeting, please mail us firstname.lastname@example.org
Link to collaborative sound work from exhibition in Joy Forum https://soundcloud.com/samuel-brzeski/words-which-touch-each-other-in-strange-places