This work is situated within the field of current scholarly research into the relationship between poetry, art and performance, with particular reference to the poem as score.
‘Untitled (pause poem)’ is an experimental poetic work in three parts. The first of these is the poem itself, the second consists of two photographic images documenting the poem’s enactment while temporarily installed on the entrance door to the University of Queensland’s Main Library (in 1977), and the third is a semi-fictional exegetical text concerning the project within which the initial poem (or an earlier version of it) was originally embedded. The work as a whole concerns the relationship between the poetic text, the act of reading, and reflective exegesis, with reference to the documentation of performance based works.
In re-presenting the original poem forty years after its first public presentation, this new three-part configuration also serves to insert what was an ephemeral performative public work produced in the tradition of DIY practice into the now highly regulated and managed field of public art.
as you open
While some of the texts were a couple of paragraphs long, others were more like poems. I typed some of them on small adhesive labels that I could stick up quickly, others on pages to be glued in position.
I remember I put one up on the door to the main library out at the university campus in St Lucia. It was a simple few lines – something like this:
‘here / as you open / this door / you pause / to read / this poem’
It was what you might call a self-reflexive site-specific intervention, in which the pause to read while you were entering the library was what it was all about. A performance piece, as much as a poem.
I pasted up longer texts in places like bus stops, or on posts. Some of these were like the little pause poem, focused on the process of waiting for a bus, or considering the possibility of crossing the road, or walking along the footpath.
Then there were pieces that mainly described what the reader might be able to see from where they were, a bit like verbal landscape paintings of the city, or perhaps those descriptive passages in novels that provide an evocative account the view from a specific place. I remember I wrote a piece about a walk along the riverbank and stuck it to a post on North Quay near the monument to John Oxley.
Because these texts were all so specific to their location, I didn’t consider sending them off to literary magazines. I borrowed a camera and shot a roll of film documenting some of them, but at the time I really wasn’t that interested in showing my work in that way. It seemed to undermine what I was doing, which was all about the encounter with the text in the specific place I’d written it for. When I got the film developed I don’t think I even bothered to get prints made. It’s possible that the negatives are still around somewhere, but I doubt that the thirty-six images would reveal much. I think I made carbon copies when I typed out the longer pieces, but I haven’t seen them for years.
Untitled (pause poem)
Brisbane 1977 / 78
When I first wrote the very brief account of the project you have just read, what we might understand as a commentary on the first two parts, I was not concerned with accuracy. This was because I was writing in what is a fictional register. I wrote the commentary not simply as my own recollection of the project, but as the recollection of a slightly older artist (a character in a fictional project, whose name shares my initials). The commentary as it is presented here is excised from a much longer text that incorporates traces of projects I had undertaken (which I ‘gave’ to this character), as well as some I had invented as I was writing. In other words, the commentary was written as a broader fiction, and then a small (mostly true) section was excised and twisted to serve a new purpose as an accompaniment to the short poem / score and the two documentary images (for an account of another project by this fictional artist, see Anderson 2013).
What I had to say about the works in the project that included ‘pause poem’ was certainly based on the facts as I recalled them, but in writing the piece I probably gave the original project a greater sense of coherence, while also suggesting a more casual approach to the documentation. Of course, the project I was writing about had occurred some forty years earlier, and a lot of the detail had slipped from my memory. My records of the project were fairly thin, but what I did have at hand seemed to suggest that the project was a lot more incoherent than I recalled. The few copies of original texts I had seemed to be all over the place, rather than being tied to the two themes hinted at in the commentary. In recalling the project I was able to edit it, make it tighter. This fictional artist is much more organised than I am, and already seemed to know a lot of things that I have only learnt about more recently. While I had encountered the notion of the event score through my reading of general introductory books such as Adrian Henri’s Total Art: Environments, Happenings, and Performance (which I’d bought at the Queensland Book Depot in the summer of 1975), direct access to more detailed accounts of such practices wasn’t easy to come by in Brisbane in the mid-1970s (for an excellent account of this field, see Kotz 2010).
Perhaps it is also worth noting that the fictional artist and I had slightly different attitudes to the documentation of the project. Yes, I borrowed a camera and shot a roll of film, but unlike the fictional artist I did make a set of 8 x 10 inch black-and-white prints from the negatives, and in fact presented these in an exhibition in the foyer of the Schonell Cinema in early 1978. The photographs were accompanied by a very brief statement about the project, and book-ended by a pair of ‘concrete poems’ typed directly onto fabric. All of the photographic prints I produced for this exhibition have disappeared over the years, but I have always known exactly where to put my hands on the original negatives.
It was only recently, after I had the negatives scanned, that I realised how well the pair of images of the ‘pause poem’ piece worked. Not simply as documentation, but as images. They seemed to evocatively capture the pause, but also hinted at the place and time. There appeared to be something interesting going on with the reflections of the sandstone columns that surround the University’s courtyard, and the ‘push’ signs on the entrance doors. In addition, they carried an echo of so many images of performance documentation I’d seen, which was something I don’t think I recognised when I first saw them printed. Perhaps if I had, I would have done something more with them at that time. Maybe I’d have tried to get them published, accompanied by a brief commentary on the project they formed a part of.
In this current configuration, this three-part work, the two documentary photographs sit between two recollections. The first is the poem as recalled (or perhaps that should be rewritten). Then, following the images is the commentary that provides them with a context that turns them into performance documentation, rather than just two images of men pausing at a doorway. Of course, the fact that a few details have been changed really doesn’t have much of an impact, and even if I hadn’t made these additional comments you’d probably read the piece in much the same way. Perhaps you might hesitate when you get to the end of the commentary and wonder about the images. I guess you’d figure that I had found them.
One thing that I hoped would happen was that the initial reading of the first text would take place within the register of ‘poem’ rather than ‘score’. In this circumstance the situational nature of the work is not clear, and perhaps that is another reason why so few of the works I produced for this project ever found their way into print. Simply put, they didn’t make the same sense when read on the page isolated from the specific location or situation they were written for, be that a bus shelter, or a post beside the river, or a glass entrance door to a library. Reading the poem on the page, rather than as a text on an adhesive label attached to a door, is quite a different experience. In fact, what the poem seems to do is to reverse what might be seen as the usual order of things, where the pause to read a poem serves to open a door (in the reader’s mind), rather than simply causing the reader to pause while going through the door. The points of reference are quite different when you are reading the poem attached to ‘this (actual) door’. In many ways, the initial text presented in Untitled (pause poem) could stand in for many of the other pieces produced within the project, in that their address to the reader was also situational, and often performative. You encountered the poem in a particular location, and the visual references and possible actions were present in the reading situation.
In my current work, I’m particularly interested in the way that the understanding of visual and performance projects is shaped by the way they are written about, the way that art criticism itself is perhaps becoming ‘performative’ (Butt 2005). I’ve spent a lot of my life working as a freelance arts writer, mainly in the visual arts, so I suppose what I’m doing here is reflecting on my own practice, as an exhibition reviewer or writer of exhibition catalogues. Writing in this way isn’t really part of an academic practice in a field like art theory and it’s not really art history either. Instead, as James Elkins suggests, it is ‘more akin to creative writing’ (Elkins 2003: 8). It’s also a practice that really doesn’t have a clear disciplinary home, but seems to straddle a couple of fields. It’s a bit like the poem that might also be a score for an artwork.
In conclusion let me say a few words about the wider context of the original project, which took place over a couple of months in late 1977 and early 1978 in Brisbane. It was a difficult time to be young and creative in that city; in fact the project coincided approximately with the period between my being arrested in one of the ‘right to march’ street protests in October 1977 and appearing in the Magistrates court the following April (where I was fined twenty dollars for taking part in a procession for which a permit had not been issued, and failing to stop when directed to by a police officer). During this time I had also taken a leave of absence from my undergraduate studies at Griffith University for a year, with the primary intention of spending more time on my creative pursuits, which included art and poetry, as well as appearing in a production of The Unseen Hand by the American playwright Sam Sheppard. Despite the fact the Brisbane is often considered to have been an uncreative city, a city which the title character of David Malouf’s novel Johnno describes as ‘a place where poetry could never occur’ (Malouf 1975), I was determined that this would not be the case.
In retrospect, I can see that the way I approached the production of poetry as a site-specific and performative practice may have owed more to my reaction to Malouf’s novel than I thought at the time. Of course I was aware that poetry did exist in Brisbane. Malouf had published some himself, in the long-running UQP Paperback Poets series. But that wasn’t the only publishing venture in town, there was also Makar and the Gargoyle Poets series as well, and new little magazines were also being started, like Image (which was the site of my first published appearance – an awful mawkish poem I would turn my nose up at today). But all this seemed so firmly caught on the page, stuck a little in the tidiness of the English Department. I wanted poetry that was out there, on the street, shouted from the stage during that strange lull between punk bands, poetry that courted danger and addressed people directly. Of course, this is exactly what was happening within the political context of the street march, and with the sort of poetic play of the graffiti of BUGUP. A year or so later I encountered the same kind of ‘street poetry’ ethos in Melbourne, standing on Swanson Street with Thom the Street Poet handing out cheaply photocopied pages of my poetry to commuters on a freezing winter morning. No doubt there are lots of other examples of this kind of thing buried in obscure corners of the archive. Things that by their very ephemerality seem to have lost the voice they once might have had, a performative poetry that slips away because it is not documented.
The little adhesive label of ‘pause poem’ was always a more of a slight gesture than a shout. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t really see it as clearly back then as I do now. It’s a work that somehow got lost because it is so quiet, and so quick, just a momentary hesitation between the outside world and the library, the door between the street and the world of books.
Peter Anderson (April 2018)
Anderson, P 2013 ‘Instruction / Poem’, Creative Manoeuvres: Making/ Saying/ Being: papers of the 18th annual conference of the Australasian association of Writing Programs Canberra: AAWP, at (http://www.aawp.org.au/the_creative_manoeuvres_making_saying_being_papers)
Butt, G (ed) 2005 After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance Malden, MA: Blackwell
Elkins, J 2003 What Happened to Art Criticism, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press
Henri, A 1974 Total Art: Environments, Happenings, and Performance, New York: Praeger Publishing
Kotz, L 2010 Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s, Art Cambridge, Mass & London: The MIT Press
Malouf, D 1975 Johnno: a novel, St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press