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l’Encyclopédie De La Performa 2011. Courtesy if the author and Art in America Magazine.

On Nov 2, as part of the Performa 11 Biennal activities,’ L’Encyclopedie de la Parole’, a French performance group dedicated  to using speech as the central element in performance, produced a series of carefully chorused Speech Pieces based on familiar spoken texts taken from political rhetoric, YouTube’s  ‘most-watched’ videos and other pop American language sources.

Unlike spoken word performances, Slams and Rants, the work here is traditional-style rehearsed composition with a group of speaker/singers and a choral conductor. And the reference to older forms is an invitation to examine the appropriated content more closely: having been elevated here in a well-rehearsed aesthetic context that reinforces the sense of nuance and care that is central to this group’s exploration into linguistic constructs.

The French appreciation of language, the significance of words and their pronunciation, of complex verbal structures in that ‘diplomatic’ language alongside the more haphazard, innovative and free-style aspects of the American use of language is a striking mix that arguably brings out the qualities of both approaches; in this case American content presented into a French style structural form.

The group is composed of Francophone and Anglophone artists singing together; the words are carefully, maybe even over-pronounced so that we fully understand them, even though there are a number of different accents involved. The effect of American language constructs that went viral in one way or another, being turned into a kind of slo-mo, fastidious chant, is humorous and then revealing in the same way as other close-ups of pop phenomena.

On one hand, the greater significance of the content is in each case distilled down to it’s bottom line essence by virtue of being re-presented in this re-focused context; on the other the vapid superficiality of some of what goes viral is also laid bare. Not least here, the way language is used to express emotion becomes almost comic when elevated to song, then repeated in chorus structure.

In a sense, the emphasis on language, removed from its context and sung, can be considered analogous to the use of text in visual forms: Lawrence Weiner and Jean Michel Basquiat used words and phrases to add dimension and to express the back and forth of ambiguity and meaning that language is capable of; particularly when extracted from it’s original context.

In this case Presence, the primal, electro-magnetic even of Performance, and spoken word, replace text (and language) used in 2 and 3 dimensional traditional forms, but abstracted in a parallel way: Basquiat’s use of pop phrases clipped from common usage come more to mind here than, for example, Lawrence Weiner’s more heady single word byte constructions from a content angle are comparable in the way these demand that we focus on the actual non-contextural meaning. The polished  presentation is closer to Bruce Nauman. whose blinking neon phrases and video of a clown on a toilet agonizingly moaning out the letters of the alphabet come quickly to mind.

L’Encyclopedie has here blended 2 disparate cultural practices; the informal and formal, the structured and unstructured, in a way that reveals aspects of both; they’ve mined language in ways parallel to other contemporary forms; the focus on language is a striking reminder of the  complexity  power of word, and not least when the ever expanding theoretical language around art continues to become central to the actual content of art[.]

Link here to a video of L’Encyclopedie de la Parole.

This post was contributed by David Rohn.

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