Monday, 6 April 2009


Karl Stockhausen considers the idea that criticism is a form of performance notation...

For a presentation as part of the SPILL:OVERSPILL writer's workshop (28-29 Mar, 2009), I wanted to explore how certain forms of criticism can become a new form of performance notation. The theme emerged from looking through a range of recent texts, which have appeared on this blog and elsewhere. This included:

Texts developed in response to a range of live events, talks, and discussions.

Texts developed out of reading and research around a particular topic.

In both cases the process is often a layered one. Initial notes and transcriptions are developed later into a text resembling a performance script.  

Often this meant using such notation conventions as numbered scenes, stage directions, and the dividing of text between different voices. But such conventions were rarely utilised in the logical manner of a conventional playscript. Instead, aspects of these devices were part of a broader effort to show language existing in space, being choreographed, not summarising or interpreting an event but seeking to open out of an event into something else.  

This project began with a transcript I made of a Richard Foreman talk at the ICA in May 2008. This was appropriate because Foreman's own scripts and poetics are a key source for this kind of work, not just in themselves but in their indebtedness to open field poetics. For my SPILL: OVERSPILL presentation I showed the following images of Richard Foreman's 1972 essay:  

For a second example I outlined my research into Robert Smithson's Cavern Cinema. This began with Smithson's own diagram-score-drawing-proposal for the project. I talked of how this had connected to Stockhausen's notations, through an interest in his own underground concert at the Jeita Caves in Lebanon in 1971, and also to the underground cinema events in the catacombs of Paris

Robert Smithson, Towards the Development of a "Cinema Cavern" (1971) Pencil, photography, tape.

Working with these different histories - and the different texts through which these events become present - I showed my play script You Don't Know What's Down There:  A Fantasia for the Cavern Cinema, recently published as part of the soanyway project. This, again, was an example of curating or choreographing material, and of writing involving a working in space with existing texts rather than the generation of large amounts of new material. Although, of course, the loss of such boundaries is often part of such texts.   

Karl Stockhausen, score for Stimmung (1966). 

Having looked at these different examples I drew up a short list of what characterised such pieces of writing:



shifts in register

word as object

quotation (real/ misremembered/ invented)

associative thought


use of white space


loss of attribution

choreographic listening

Several of these statements prompted questions from other members of the group. I described choreographic listening as a process of watching or reading an event with an awareness of translating it into typographic space and also into a series of language-gestures. The loss of attribution point prompted questions about plagiarism. This made me realise how one of the tensions in this form of writing is a reconsideration of the notion of voice. 

So what is the result and rewards of such writing? I am interested in how  it produces exciting and engaging texts alert to a certain reciprocity between the space of an event and the space of the page and its constituent tools of letters, words, sentences, paragraphs and punctuation marks. On a level that is less explored as yet I am interested in texts as literal scores, generators of new events, and as literal embodiments - and exaggerations - of the processes whereby ideas and events become transmitted.  

The notational possibilities of Black Mountain College...

A longer workshop could have moved into an exploration of this next stage. As, too, it could have considered a broader history of notation, moving from fluxus scores, experimental music, and Richard Kostelanetz's book Scenarios: The Right to Perform (1980), through to the more contemporary work of the journal Play: A Journal of Plays, the scripts of Mac Wellman and Erik Ehn, and the collaborations of Will Holder and Alex Waterman (captured in two excellent exhibition catalogues of music notation, Agapē and Between Thought and Sound). 

It could, too, have explored interconnections with certain strands of experimental poetry, from the open-field poetics of Charles Olson that informed Foreman, to the LANGUAGE poetics of Bruce Andrews who, to a degree, summarises the concerns of this presentation when he observes in The Poetics of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E:

The page, like the windowed computer screen, can encourage a LOOKING THROUGH or a LOOKING AT approach -

Looking through: as a transparent, dematerialized virtuality, cinema-style), 

or a LOOKING AT (as an opaque, action-oriented, control-panelled material reality). 

As, too, to link back to where the presentation began, the notebooks of Richard Foreman - available online for others to make performances from - are a reminder of the reciprocity between writing and performance in relation to event, space and interpretation.  

This essay - and the presentation it summarises - ends with several possibilities:

(1)An interchangeability between critical text and performance notation, where each becomes the other.

(2)A sharing of categories on a practical (use of stage directions and scenes) and conceptual level, but a maintaining of difference in how such scripts are read. 

(3)A combination of criticism and notation pursued to the level of uncertainty, where the precise character and demands of the text remains mysterious, dependent on  context, delivery, intention, and/or whim. 


So for the workshop I thought it would be interesting to respond to a piece of work, thinking through this connection of criticism and performance notation emerging from the experience of a particular event.  So this is the film _______ by the artist ______ which I chose for the way it engages a certain sense of _________ ,________ and ________.  

I encourage you to watch _______ and develop and improvise a _________ in response, writing down any thoughts, ideas, drawings, diagrams and _________'s whilst thinking of the idea of criticism as a score AT ALL TIMES. 

When _______ is finished we will have ten minutes to work those pieces of writing into an example of critical writing as performance notation.  The film is intended to be shown on a loop so I will let it run through twice. Let's go...