Review: Ruth Buchanan ‘Lying Freely and The weather, a building’ – Federica Bueti
Ruth Buchanan: Lying Freely and The weather, a building
Text by Federica Bueti with footnotes by Ruth Buchanan
An interference. A sudden change. The sound of feedback, a disturbance to the radio signal, the clash between two electromagnetic waveforms, a beam of light through a narrow opening, a comma in the wrong position, a word out of place, a cut, a drop of water on a book, a gust of wind, a hole in a smooth piece of paper. Where interferences occur, the uns-, nons- and counters emerge: you say something, I understand something else. Meanings change. They change directions too: to, in, between. How frustrating that is! They stand in your way, on the way to comprehension. Where interferences happen, phenomena take places, for disturbances are the phenomenon they are believed to interfere with, they constitute its raw material. And, it is by way of interference that an idea comes into the world, an object takes shape, a reality and its understanding are formed.1 Or, I should say performed. Philosopher of science, physicist and feminist Karen Barad suggests it is a performative process: An eye looking through a lens pointed on a volume is not a linear, but an intra-active process; it is the intra-actions between let’s say the eye, the lens, the volume, the surrounding, that a phenomenon and its analysis are created and performed.2 They strike between (interfere with) each other. Analysis then is the result of a critical proximity to the object of study, and not of a supposed objective distance. A close observation, an immersion, in which the body, any body, becomes a conductor of and a disturbance to the process of experiencing. So, a book that wants to convey an experience of an event, or a review that wants to render the experience of seeing an exhibition, too are a kind of disturbance, in the sense that they become the medium and the mediated form of the experience. Or, we could also say that a book can convey an experience which is similar and different to that experience altogether. The and is the space of tension and the point of transformation. Gilles Deleuze would refer to this as the and which reality is made of, not ‘or’, but ‘and’; not dialectically constructed oppositions, but a philosophy of relations.3 When an object, a thing, an idea, or a space are challenged in what they can do, when their boundaries are pushed forward, an and appears.
Ruth Buchanan’s books Lying Freely and The Weather, a building, are like two ands, two commas, two points of tension, in her artistic practice. Matter, language, space and movement constitute the material of her practice. Through language Ruth Buchanan carves out spaces in which bodies, objects, architectures and meanings collide, produce frictions and generate new spaces and modes of relations.4
Ruth Buchanan’s books Lying Freely and The weather, a building are constructed around gaps, occurrences and interferences. Lying Freely is Buchanan’s first artist book. Composed of three scripts from three works: Nothing is closed (2009), a guided tour through the Rietveld Schröderhuis, Utrecht; Circular Facts (2009), a performance which was first performed in Amsterdam, and Several Attentions (2009) an audio work usually displayed in a gallery context. The three scripts can be read separately, as three different stories, or as three chapters of the same one.
The first script, a series of directions reflecting on a guided tour of the Rietveld Schröderhuis for example, unfolds to deliberately avoid any reference its past (the history of De Stjil, the story of its architect and commissioner, Mrs. Truss Schröder, or its historical relevance) and focuses on the geometry – lines, angles, curves, breaks – of the architecture and its interiors, curtains, dust, tea towels, light shedding through the window. The house is both a concrete object and a memory, of it, a container and its content, a physical and a mental space, a place of passage and one of dwelling.
Upon reading the first four pages, I came across a line: ‘objects are indexical of frustration’. I think that Buchanan is right; books too are indexical of frustration. How to convey an experience, the experience of listening to a speaking voice, of bodies moving together in space, the feeling of the heat in a crowded room, in written words? How to push the limits of what a book, a body, an object, can do? How to be in and overcome the frustration? But, what is the frustration Ruth Buchanan speaks of?5 Is it the impossibility of fully articulating experiences? Is it about the particular weight, shape and colour of an object? In Ruth Buchanan’s work, frustration seems to be another name for potential, for what an object, a word, a thought could do but it doesn’t. And when the object does not do what it could, then we write, exchange thoughts, and make works.
Lying Freely is not only a book about a series of performances, but a book that performs the encounter that happened between the artist and the audiences of these performances, between Buchanan and the reader, between Buchanan and the places and characters that appear in the three scripts. A series of encounters that happens each time we meet a thought when flipping through the pages; a word, a line, that brings us back to the places where the performances took place; each time a reader opens the book and enters the tour following the voice of the artist announcing: ‘Now that we are complete, we can begin.’ This is the line that opens the first chapter of the book. Lying Freely is not only a record of an event and performance that happened somewhere else, but it is a performative object in itself. Performative as Karen Barad describes it – as the way in which ‘from questions of [the] correspondence between descriptions and reality (e.g. do they mirror nature or culture?)’ we move on ‘to matters of practices/ doings/actions.’ Arguing against representationalism, where knowledge is supposed to be the linkage between words and things, Barad proposes that we think in terms of what she calls ‘agential realism’, in which words, things, bodies and matter are entangled, they influence and affect each other; where inside and outside, causes and effects cannot be fully separated but are intertwined. So, knowing and becoming too are knotted together.
Knowing and becoming, producing and being produced, transforming and being transformed. We participate in the making of the phenomenon we are supposed to analyse, and we do so by cutting through, by becoming ourselves interferences.
The weather, a building moves in this direction, considering and activating the gaps and cuts that form the memory of a story, and by doing so they actually generate it. The book, in this case, tells the story of the Staatsbibliothek, the State Library of Berlin: the evacuation of its contents during WWII, its dismemberment and relocation to and in other spaces across Berlin and in other cities, and the construction and design of the new building where the library is housed today. Holes, gaps, cuts: The weather, a building looks at the history of the library performatively: while the book might at first appear as a classical historical account including timelines, dates and documentary images, archival material, a scientific report, the way these ‘facts’ are placed side by side with the artists’ images and writing and a text on allegory and material by Ian White – affects the reading of the story, if not producing another story. Through the overlapping of different facts, speculations and perspectives, the book creates a non-linear narrative offering a new reading of the history of the library. Rather than the outcome, the book itself, as Buchanan herself suggests, is ‘a process of defining, setting apart, bringing back together’.6
The weather, a building begins with a sentence from Marina Vishmidt’s afterword to Lying Freely: ‘We have often had occasion to note that subjectivity is social and that it is constituted by gaps.’7 While the artist’s decision to begin The weather, a building where Lying Freely ends, so to speak, seems to be pointing to a link between the two books, in reading through them, however, it becomes clear that this link is also what makes the two books so different. In a recent conversation, Ruth Buchanan described this link as a ‘filling up’ and ‘spilling over’. Lying Freely gathers a series of experiences and conversations that happened in three different locations and over an extended period of time. In a way, the book collects, archives and displaces those experiences and moments. The weather, a building (re)tells the story of the Berlin State Library, in which the protagonists are books. And, it is in the form of the book that the story is (re)created by bringing together existing documents and facts, and new speculations and readings, for the first time. In The weather, a building the book is the work, not a recollection of previous works. It performs, and transforms the story it is telling. We could also say that the story does not pre-exist the book, but it comes to matter in the process of becoming a book, a performance, a body. The two books inform and transform each other, while the performative qualities of Ruth Buchanan’s work travel from the physical space, from the body that tells us the story of a building into a book, and from a book that collects and in some ways also contains, a book that performs the changing architecture of a library and its history. These two books challenge the idea that there is a difference between (static) objects and (living) bodies; the limits and possibilities of the book and writing as medium. In all those cases, the book is a cut, an interference that produces a series of changes in an ongoing process of transformation and mutual affection that ties bodies, objects and discourses together.
Federica Bueti is an art critic, editor, researcher, and occasional curator living in Berlin and Oslo. She is founder of …ment, a journal for contemporary culture, art and politics.
1. See Katherine Mansfield, The Aloe with Prelude, Vincent O’Sullivan (ed.), Wellington: Port Nicholson Press, 1982. The Aloe was published in 1930, this edition designed by Lindsay Missen includes both the first draft, ‘The Aloe’, and the final draft, ‘Prelude’.
2. See Janet Frame, Towards Another Summer, a novel published posthumously by Frame’s estate, Auckland: Vintage Press, 2007.
3. See Moyra Davey, The Wet and the Dry, part of The Social Life of the Book series, Paris: Paraguay Press, 2011. See also M. Davey, The Problem of Reading, New York: Documents Books, 2003.
4. See Diana Fuss and Joel Sanders, ‘An Aesthetic Headache: Notes from the Museum Bench’, Interiors, Johanna Burton, Lynne Cooke, Josiah McElheny (ed.), Berlin and New York: Sternberg Press and Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, 2012.
5. See Ian White, ‘Division’, Exchange, Gil Leung (ed.), London: Versuch Press and Flat Time House, 2013.
6. See A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-1945, Allen Curnow (ed.), Christchurch: The Caxton Press, 1945.
7. See Marina Vishmidt, ‘Self-Negating Labour: A Spasmodic Chronology of Domestic Unwork’, The Grand Domestic Revolution GOES ON, Binna Choi and Maiko Tanaka (ed.), Utrecht and London: Casco Office for Art, Design and Theory, and Bedford Press, 2010.
Ruth Buchanan, Lying Freely, Utrecht and Maastricht: Casco Office for Art, Design and Theory, and Jan van Eyck Academie, 2010.
Ruth Buchanan, The weather, a building, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012.
Karen Barad, ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter’, originally published in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3, 2003. Available at http://humweb.ucsc.edu/feministstudies/faculty/barad/barad-posthumanist.pdf
Ruth Buchanan, Nothing is closed, 2009, a guided tour through Rietveld Schröderhuis. See http://cascoprojects.org/nothing-is-closed-lying-freely-part-i
Ruth Buchanan, Circular Facts is a performance that takes mystery novelist Agatha Christie’s disappearance for 11 days in late 1926 as its departure point. It was first performed at the Frascati Theater, Amsterdam, 21 October 2009, as part of the platform If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your Revolution. See http://www.ificantdance.org/
Ruth Buchanan, Several Attentions, 2009, was included in Buchanan’s solo exhibition ‘Several Attentions — Lying Freely Part III’, The Showroom, London, 2 December 2009–16 January 2010. See http://www.theshowroom.org/programme.html?id=589,590