Caroline Bergvall
Propelled to the Edges of a Language’s Freedom, and to the Depths of Its Collective Traumas

Eva Heisler

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In the poem “Alyson Singes,” Caroline Bergvall channels Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, renaming her “Al.” Al’s voice is a bawdy jumble of false friends and homophones: “I pout too much pressure on the palatial area it / swells the speech era & makes the personal ways of my / error untellable.” Al’s unruly speech is described as “glottic profusion.”

Exuberant “glottic profusion” characterizes Bergvall’s own practice as writer and artist. Multilingual and moving across media, Bergvall’s projects often foreground the materiality of voice, its tics, spit, accent, errors. Voice, Bergvall insists, is sound shaped by both the instrument of a particular body
and sociopolitical forces. In the multi-media installation SAY Parsley, Bergvall’s interrogation of the social implications of accent was informed by the 1937 massacre of Creole Haitians in the Dominican Republic. “Outsiders” were identified once they, having been asked to pronounce the word “parsley” (perejil), could not roll the “r.”

Bergvall engages the history and fictions of a given language, “propelled,” as she says in this interview, “to the edges of a language’s freedom, and to the depths of its collective traumas.” A self-described collector of translations, Bergvall arranged English translations of the opening lines of Dante’s
Inferno. The translations date from 1805 to 2000, and the resulting work VIA (48 Dante Translations), both a text and a sound piece, provides a remarkable experience of repetition and deviation, of emphasis and metamorphosis. In Drift, both a performance and a recent book, the tenth-century poem “The Seafarer” serves as a jumping off point to explore Old Norse, the language and imagery of the sea, as well as experiences of “drift”—drift as a characteristic of language, a feature of feeling, and a symptom of political paralysis as when, in 2011, a boatload of Libyan refugees were left to drift at sea.

In “Middling English,” Bergvall describes language in terms of excavation: deep in sediment are “language bones, pressed word-fossils” and near the surface are “well-defined graphemes, syllabic conduits, what looks like mud-encased capitalizations, gold-dust, systems of numerical sticks.” The writer, says Bergvall, “mines language for what is always moving, always escaping.”

In the following interview, Bergvall discusses the stakes of translation and multilingual writing today, the myriad ways contemporary artists and writers are reinventing practices of translation, and the impact of the 1990s London art and club scene on her development as a writer.

In looking at the installation photos of Middling English at John Hansard Gallery or the various sitings of SAY Parsley, I thought of Vladimir Nabokov’s comment on translating Pushkin: “I want translations with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that page so as to leave only the gleam of one textual line between commentary and eternity.” In your case, the footnotes are “aural excavations” (as David Kaufman nicely put it in his review of Drift), and they reach across walls and through the spaces of a gallery.

Your works are multilingual, and it strikes me that many are not translatable, perhaps even actively resistant to translation even though you engage with translations, and many of your projects work with translations as artifacts.

Can you talk about your use of translations as material with which you both creatively and critically explore voice and language?

Are your own projects ultimately untranslatable?

Nabokov’s notion is wonderful and provocative. It considers the translative operations themselves as an active part of the textual matter. Translation becomes articulated as a network, first and foremost commentary and context. This doesn’t necessarily make it dauntingly scholarly even if the translation shows its threads, as it were.

Following Nabokov’s architectural analogy, I might want to think of translation as a construction site with no definite end in sight. A bit like Berlin in the 1990s or London in the mid-noughties. I tend to view translation as enabling the emergence of a materiality based on traffic and imperfect dialogues more than on singular or attempted mirrored language occupancy.

My ideas around writing have increasingly to do with excavations, digs, and showing up cross-sections of language-matter. I investigate root texts and their languages, but I don’t consider myself a translator, and I don’t have a mission to bring texts back to my context in any recognizable form or shape. Instead, I look at some of the methods of these texts or structures of language for my own work, and for strategies that might allow the ancient material to make a transhistorical jump into contemporaneity.

This has been especially the case with my most recent and most encompassing project, Drift, which rests on the parallel excavation of the Anglo-Saxon anonymous “Seafarer” poem and the “forensic” report which brought widespread attention to the disaster surrounding the non-assistance of a small ship of migrants in the Mediterranean in 2011. I activate buried or distended connections, and this can create other types of awareness about our connections to past languages or the pasts of one’s language, or one’s own forgotten intimate pasts.

The notion of opacity has interested me more than that of transparency, and questions of transport and access more than any idea of faithfulness. It’s also to do with my deep interest in the unstable yet powerful, contingent, liberatory nature to be found in the diversity of languages.

This has come about for me primarily as a reflection on multilingualism and becoming more acutely aware of the historical realities and damages brought on by enforced monolingualism and what it means to banish a language from its speakers, as has been practiced alongside so many military or social occupancies around the world. Reading or experiencing works by multilingual writers in monolingual cultures that engage with linguistic cohabitations, transformative cohabitations, revitalizes pain but also shows up a healthier and differential relationship entertained between languages. It also reclaims language invention and language games as a fundamental aspect of writing. It is this type of cultural politics that has led me to often actively shadow or double or transform my own work with lessons learnt from other writers and their specific use of language instances. From James Joyce to Paul Celan to Erin Mouré via Edwin Torres or Charles Bernstein. Transiting into other languages, actively foreigning oneself textually. Questioning what makes the border of texts, of languages, and of comprehension. Thinking about language crossing as a necessity as much as a privilege or an opportunity.

Following Gayatri Spivak, it is a question of not unquestionably obeying the hold of the mother tongue but rather to “open myself up to the languages of the world,” as Édouard Glissant argued so convincingly with his notion of “relational poetics.” Or indeed Edward Said’s counterpuntal way of thinking about literature.

Finally, my work is also informed by my great interest in non-literary yet language-based art forms.

So one could say that my work is happily resistant to the notion of a seamless translation. But it is not at all untranslatable, far from it. I think its methodological coherence makes it conducive to translation. Pieces of mine have been translated into various languages, and Meddle English is about to come out in French (Presses du Réel, 2016). But it does demand lateral and project-related operations on the part of the translator, I suppose.

I want to think about what contemporary translation can provide today. How it has a stake in the developing reality and important dimensions of bilingual/multilingual worlds. How translative methods are like active observers, witnesses, and participants of historical or contemporary language policies, and cultural assumptions. What does it mean for a writer-translator to be a player in the changing material dimensions of writing culture.

The poet Jen Bervin’s textile work from Emily Dickinson’s pencil texts, The Dickinson Composites, is an extraordinary example of rigorous attention to responsive modes of research-based wreading. Not translation per se, yet a threading through that transtextualises the fragility of the manuscript work.

The poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop’s palimpsestic translation A Key into the Language of America (1994) is another good example of a poetic work which finds radical ways of responding to Roger Williams’s mid-seventeenth century study of a Native American language now largely moribund, a text that is partly a translation, partly a stylised commentary, and an autobiographical account. It certainly also works as a tragic reminder of the living cohabitation, which could have, and ought to have taken place between the new arrivants and their hosts and neighbours.

The Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philip’s powerful contemporary classic Zong! uses as a first principle the whiting out of a historical legal document of the eighteenth century ordering black slaves thrown overboard during an Atlantic crossing. From this harrowing and callous story, she develops a poetics of mourning and re-emergence through and against the deadly white.

These all engage in translation one way or another.

Another work which combines literary translation with visual work is the textual and textile translation of Erin Mouré’s lyrical, mournful, love-struck O Cadoiro. In this beautiful work, the Canadian poet and translator works from rare medieval Galician troubadour songbooks while meditating on the uneven seams of memory, translation, and regendered love. She literally stitches a series of quotes over the poems and leaves the colorful threads hanging on the page. Part of the book has had to be photographed, and her poems start to exist as textual figures.

You mention “aural excavations” and that’s a really important and dynamic aspect of it all for me. “Aural” in the sense of ecologies of language. The sensory, perceptual, technological, but also historical and sociological dimensions of language’s production and living environment. Also the "noise," the "dirt," the often unaccounted for elements that sustain it. What surrounds and generates language instances and shapes dialogic encounters. From discrete somatic, intimate gestures and splutterings to physiological availabilities and collective slangs, language machines, urban, environmental networks. All this has been important to my work one way or another, and I have made use of it.

In your introduction to I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, you mention the German and English translators of Rabelais who added their own games to Rabelais’s list of 217 parlor games, translating “along the lines of structure, rather than verbal correspondence.” You write, “It is the list factor that is being translated, not the textual list.” What “lines of structure” are preoccupying you at the moment?

It seems to me very silly to wish to translate the language from instruction- or template-based pieces. Especially if there’s been no other editing or writing than accepting the material and reorganizing it. Best to utilize the process itself to generate a text in the arrival language and, in this sense, reframe the translation process. Indeed, some works require first and foremost a translation of processes, an extremely inventive and patient Rabelaisian player of their own language in the face of the work’s methods. Like the demands placed on the English translation of Georges Perec’s La disparition.

In the marvellous collection Imagining Language, edited a few years ago by Steve McCaffery and Jed Rasula, translation is akin to invention, originary rather than a secondary movement. It is indicative of transportation from one language to another. Transformation and reinvention of languages often tend towards a motivated Cratylian imagination. Of course it does not guarantee that the transformed arrival of the object bears much in common with the point of departure even though it is totally dependent on it. These intense intimacies with source texts enable the creation of freestanding cubic pieces. The Oulipo poets, of course, were masters of the genre, and British poet Tim Atkins’s recent fantastic working through Petrarch goes from the hyper-silly to the most advanced uses of translation operations and games.

In this respect, I have really enjoyed the way poets have approached me to translate my piece “VIA (48 Dante Translations),” seemingly untranslatable. Yet I have made the process so transparent that they are invariably happy to generate a new text based on their culture’s own history with Dante. I do specify the musical quality of the Bach fugue variations so that they bear in mind the alphabetic quality of the selection but that’s all. Most recently VIA has been translated for a Polish anthology as well as for a Portuguese project, following these guidelines.

I’d like to ask about your process, and the influence of artists on your experimentation with language. Let’s start with the preparatory drawings titled Goodolly—two are reproduced in the book Meddle English, one of which is also on your website along with another. You refer to these palimpsestic texts as preparatory drawings for Goan Atom, a work in which fragments of language, like broken speech, float on the page. You have said Goan Atom is indebted to the photographs of Hans Bellmer and Cindy Sherman.

I’m wondering how the densely worked Goodolly prepares you for the porous Goan Atom which in turn is a response to the fractures of Bellmer and Sherman?

Goodolly is a series of sketches, palimpsestic exercises. The collages cut between layers of texts and images and function in a logic of discontinuity and interruption. I made similar ones with short cut-up texts that never made it to the project but sparked its methods. I was literally just trying my hand and they ended up forming the basis for supporting the bilingual structure of Goan Atom, notably its first part “Cogs.”

Thinking about code-switching and working with linguistic cuts as though they were visual cuts, I started moving back and forth between French and English, down to a letter, sometimes swapping or cutting languages at line break. I was fascinated and amused by William Burroughs’ notion that “the future leaks through the cuts of the present.” Another motivation was feminist and concerned with revisiting representation. I’d recently finished a graphic tribute piece called Flèsh Acoeur where I’d gone to work at this in a violent, sexual and explicitly Kathy Acker–inspired fashion.

Goan Atom was more playful and I had my bilingual syntax from both that earlier Flèsh piece and from visual artists such as Cindy Sherman, Louise Bourgeois, and others.

This interrupted or piecemeal construction enabled me to create a piecemeal textual doll, a Frankensteinian doll, one that envisages the imaginary female body in constant navigation between languages, histories, desires. Line breaks function as joints and nodes, creating a bizarrely disarticulate/rearticulate not-figure, much like Hans Bellmer’s female body as grammar and Cindy Sherman’s critique of the same. After that, the method could change and grow, always cognizant of its dis/articulatory logic. This gives rise to the queer fantasies of part 3, influenced by the notion of bricolage that was very much circulating at the time, and to my first variation and choral piece, “Ambient Fish,” which I later turned into my first flash piece.

When you refer to Goodolly as “drawings,” how are you using the term “drawing”? Is this “drawing” because you are assembling lines, albeit lines of text?

I think of writers such as Henri Michaux or Antonin Artaud who have commented on their drawing practices in relation to writing. It is drawing because it is not writing, but it is drawing that is either just past writing or about to precede writing. Michaux and Artaud both maintain a connection with writing even if just to dismiss it. But they inevitably reconnect writing to gesturality and physicality, to calligraphy, and also to ancient scripts.

Kamau Brathwaite’s “videoscript” is fabulous in this regard. He’s developed a digital script he revealingly calls “Sycorax” with which he now insists on writing and publishing all his works. He’s done so to bring back a more acute multi-sensory visual reading to his work and to reject the separation between text and script.

I love Fiona Banner’s use of text, especially her nude performances and her books. She is writing the nude model rather than drawing the model, and she opens up the drawing studio to an audience, thus to performance. There are many artistic modes challenged here and, with it, one’s relation to the modeling of gendered representation.

There’s a discipline with drawing which I find wonderful. I don’t try to draw, but I try to hold a line of ink or a breath while marking.

Drawing can also be a release, as with the Philomena series which I first created as a response to the section in the Ovidian/medieval tale in which Philomena has her tongue cut off when she threatens to report her rape. This second violent defilement is just as shocking as the first one, and I tried to deal with it gesturally in a few series which have been shown at various exhibitions. This last series was published in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, in a special issue on drawing and performance.

Are there visual artists who have had a particularly strong influence on how you approach writing?

Visual artists, and also musicians, have been a major influence on my work and continue to be so. This influence is often project-related as I go back to artists to try and guide ideas or methods of work, so it would be tough to name them all! There’s a sort of cognitive shift or distance or interrupt between visual and textual propositions, which is conducive to other ways of thinking and dreaming. It makes me free to think and experience more intuitive layers of being and feeling.

For instance, in an ongoing piece in progress, I work through ideas of patterns and ornaments, and the way embedded repetitive shapes can create visionary or liberatory sexualized worlds. I use these as a rule for the textual variations I’m developing. Here I base myself on the works of Gustav Klimt, Chris Ofili, and Ellen Gallagher as well as on Japanese and Tibetan Buddhist woodblock prints. This piece, called “The Garden,” is a sort of creation myth which, among other things, explores aspects of female sexual power. It’s a ritualistic piece for mourning and grieving, for holding on in the face of intense loss and intense love. It’s written using nearly only patterns and repetitions.

Perhaps the one artist that has meant the most to me on all levels, and who I frequently go back to, is the film-maker, artist, writer, gardener, queer activist Derek Jarman. He was a tender, intense, angry, collective-minded artist, whose methods were iconoclastic and provocative. He had a way of putting disparate materials together, of tying violent desolate acts together into strong, angry yet also lyrical and visionary models. I also love the way he used his own voice for many of the narrations of his films. His last acoustic feature film, Blue, an incredible proposition, was a ninety-minute filmed blue screen with a soundtrack of voices.

In the book PLESSJØR, your text seems to be in response to a particular experience of drawing, and TOGETHER (keeping it/losing it/doing it) is a series of drawings in conjunction with a voice work. Can you talk about these two works? I’m especially interested in the relationship between voice and drawing.

I’m really glad you bring up these pieces as they don’t often get discussed and certainly not at the same time, but they share a similar pull towards what one could briefly call elemental practice. In both cases, this stems from a wish to extend my writing to other languages using drawing. Plessjør is a translative title: it is the way one might pronounce pleasure in Norwegian. But of course no one gets that particularly. For the title, I took a small leaf from the extraordinary work Book of the Sky by Chinese artist Xu Bing who created ideographic blocks which seem readable to a non-Chinese but remain, in fact, unreadable.

The work of Plessjør is a series of drawings as body traces and handwritten lines in coloured ink. The drawings are intimate ink performances which turn into a closing block of text. In Norwegian, “to promise” is “å love” and the law is “loven.” So this provided me with an obvious jumping-point into English just at a time when gay marriage was being inked into law in Norway. But then the inking is also a known way of counting illiterate voters, and I was thinking of the then recent Zimbabwe elections, where such inking had been used as proof of its enforced activity. The drawings here were made instead of writing in Norwegian yet responding to it, done as a gestural way of inscribing bodily performance. They ended up opening up to other bodily and judicial considerations of the use of ink.

This project really opened up my work. The dilemma between drawing and writing became collaborating dimensions of exchange through performance and politics, and through both ancient and highly current mark-making. The drawings are actually larger than the small square book they were published as and I would really love one day to create a full-size edition of this work.

The drawings of the Together series came after the voice and sound recordings I made. The sound work TOGETHER (keeping it/losing it/doing it) was commissioned by the Museum of Modern and Contemporary ART (MAMCO) in Geneva, and it was first played on Swiss National Public Radio on the occasion of Art’s Birthday (January 17 of every year, as proposed by Robert Filliou).

I was invited to create a piece in a Francophone context, and I was conscious of the discrepancy of using English. For that very special and inherently international occasion, I wanted to create a piece which could be taken in by linguistically varied audiences, a piece that was tying language to something within itself that all languages contain. The smallest yet most absolute common denominator in speech. And which would resonate in such an elemental undisputable form across the airwaves and the language spaces: breath. I have since taken to performing these pieces live and they invariably bind the audience in a way that I don’t often experience otherwise. Sometimes it is as though we all start floating on a rising and sinking wave of breath. It’s very strong and very moving.

As a writer, you extend your projects through the practices of installation art. The experience of reading—or registering spoken words—is importantly different when words are encountered in a gallery space rather than moving across pages.

Your works test the embodied experience of language; are you also testing the embodied experience of reading?

Yes, definitely. I am interested in architectonic exploration. Time-led experience. Scale. Altered reading practices. Sculptural relation to textual or phonemic elements. Spatial relation to deciphering. The possibility of physical and sensory immersion. The experience of bumping into people.

I also like the experience of inattention or diverted attention that one often experiences in visual shows, and what emerges from that. I sometimes place a recorded voice piece at entrances, having the soundspeakers literally face each other so that the listener coming into the show inevitably walks through the recording. It physicalises the listening in a subtle but strong way. Listeners take it in, but it’s also quite rare that people stop to listen more attentively. When they do, it’s a beautiful image of the invisible threshold.

I had a speech impediment as a child, and every time I speak a foreign language—whether it be Icelandic or French or German—my memories of not being able to speak as a child surface; they are bodily memories of a mouth that failed. So I find a work such as SAY Parsley really moving. In this work, you explore how accent and pronunciation are integral to social identity and power relations. And in Meddle English, you write that “we each use a voice that speaks for us before we even get to speak.” Related to this, to the horizon of possibilities created by our speech, you have said that your sexuality “propelled” you into English. Would you say more about this? How is one’s sexuality entangled in the vocabulary available to one?

Your notion of a memory in-mouth, a failing articulacy, has been much in the mind of my work as one of the fascinating and terrifying realities of the implicit muscular demands of smoothed-out or fluent articulacy.

This reminds me of Alvin Lucier’s sound work I am Sitting in a Room. It was composed, as he explicitly says in the actual text of the work, to hide his stuttering, to make it disappear inside electromagnetic tape, to “smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.” In order to erase the linguistic fact of a faulty tongue, his speech has to be endlessly re-recorded on electromagnetic tape, has to stretch out into the room and, in the process, change articulacy into unintelligible speech and into a moving sculptural sound object-space.

My background is French and Norwegian. I actively sought out the English language as a way to find my own writer’s language and to create and to invent my textual and sexual identity away from any familial languages. My “stextual” identity became my grounding.

I made a strong connection between language acquisition and gender/sexuated acquisition. Learning English and becoming a writer and artist in English was like learning about my body all over again. Learning about its impulses and constrictions. Its embedded traumas and unexplored pleasures. Also its potential lack of limits. And to what extent one’s body really is a changing, living archive of sounds and experiences that both exceed and find root in language. The extent to which this informs one’s ability to speak and write and be heard is obviously always stronger when dealing with any kind of minority status, as this is usually accompanied by some form of experience of abuse or insult.

I used to find a lot of truth for writing in Kathy Acker’s phrase “I was unspeakable so I ran into the languages of others.” For me, this move out of what one knows, what one can’t deal with, to somewhere else also became the way in. It became a way of claiming and exploring spaces for myself, which would welcome, explore, and ultimately also invent my body and my shapes in the world. It allowed me to explore textually and linguistically some of the obstacles as well as potentials underlying any female gendering and any queer sexuality.

In a very personal way it enabled me both to release my own inhibitions and to exceed my background.

Of course it helped that English has London and that London had some of the best gay and queer clubs and art scenes of the time (early 1990s)! There I also saw Kathy Acker read in a packed-out subterranean club hosted by Iain Sinclair. Ron Athey did one of his AIDS blood performances at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Anne Bean and Bow Gamelan did a performance drilling holes in large sheets of plywood to release blue light. Chris Ofili used cow dung and porn asses. Sonia Boyce hung a curtain of hair extensions at the entrance to an art show/club-night under the railway arches at Vauxhall. La Ribot danced on the roof of the Southbank Centre. Derek Jarman released The Last of England. All in all, it felt like the most mixed, wild, angry, rich, strong club and art scene I could ever imagine. It made me feel how productive and resonant it would be to do the same with my own work in such a setting.

There’s a common saying that leaving the mother tongue makes one free, allows one to swear. In a sense, freeing myself to speak, and to excavate aspects of my sexuality, happened for me when I made the switch to English. Initially it was a bit like swearing with delight. I never cared that I had an accent; that was part of the reality of my experience. I had to be unhomed, or to accept my own unhoming, in order to make myself a home. And so I have a soft spot for accents and what they tell of your journey.

In English, I was able to let go of the traumatic hold some experiences in my source- languages had left in me, and to start using these experiences productively. I had lived an open gay life before in non-English speaking contexts, but it is when I started creating in English that I could make sense of the purposes of my work.

Slowly, project by project, my source languages have reinstated themselves in my work. These points of pressure led me to examine the English language in more detail, as I did with the inherent bilingual writing of Goan Atom or Flèsh Acoeur. What happened, too, is that I started to work more diachronically and historically, or even transhistorically. I took a look at the past of the language and it led me to explore actual or fictive ties and links with its present conditions. It led to projects such as my “Shorter Chaucer Tales” in Meddle English and, very recently, my large scale piece Drift.

So English itself was a coming out and opting in for me, in the sense of accepting or claiming disfluency in order to grow a larger frame of fluency, and to seek to contribute to a wider understanding of what fluency is actually about. It also showed me the extent of the negative and truly destructive hold language can have on us. And this, of course, applies to all sorts of majoritarian or segregational histories. So it is crucial and really exciting to me that a writer’s language can both release these and also create new linguistic connections and emotional fields. Renewed worlds.

In your essay on Fiona Templeton’s Cells of Release, you list all kinds of poetic lines—“Mallarmé’s book line, Whitman’s thought line, Blake’s song lines, Olson’s breath line . . . Brion Gysin’s permuted line . . . Alice Notley’s subway line, Susan Howe’s visual line” . . . and so on. It’s a wonderful list, a mini-history of modern and contemporary poetry. How about your own work with the poetic line? If you were to insert yourself in the list, right after Erin Mouré’s “translative line,” how would you characterize your use of line?

Perhaps, reclaimed line.

What is your attachment to the concept of “poem”—or to an experience of the “poetic”?

I no longer call myself a poet but I still often identify as one, if this makes any sense. My craft, my skills with language and as an artist come from the fact that I have always had a detailed understanding and interest in textual forms, and in the development of language and writing culture.

The poetic is still the most important space for examining and for spinning language and language-based work and, as such, it remains a strong working environment for me.

I also think that the oral text, the voiced text, is one defining aspect of the massive changes brewing in our general literacies. And poetry and the performance or recording of texts and voices has much to offer here. So it is an important archaic cultural tool for the future, too.