The word as event: Geoff Dunlop

I have always been a writer. By this I mean that writing has been, for as long as I can remember, an essential activity, natural and pleasurable too. I can remember so well my first day of work, on the local newspaper in my home town, performing the act of winding a sheet of paper into an unpright Imperial typewriter. In fact it was a piece of paper, plus a layer of carbon paper and then another layer of typing paper for the copy. This flimsy combination of moving parts was not easy to handle for a nervous beginner, so easy to crease and get black smudges everywhere and jam the entire mess in the machinery. The solid build of the ancient Imperial made this all the more likely. But what did I care? I was writing for a living!

I am afraid that this first piece of professional writing was not an auspicious debut. My task was to translate into continuous prose the contents of a wedding form, filled in by the family of the bride. The formula was a rigid one, with little chance for inventive writing, although some of the distinctive vocabulary was new to me. I don’t think I have written the words organdie, tulle or fresia ever since. And soon I was on my way to something more demanding: reporting the dramas of missing children and merciless magistrates, failing to make any sense of minor league football matches or passing my callow judgment on visiting artists of distinction, in my eagerly assumed role of cultural commentator. Ken Tynan was my guiding star, although the readers of Reading may not have noticed.

Inevitably, away from the newspaper, I went on to write some blank verse under the heavy influence of Penguin Modern Poets, and I produced the first three chapters of half-a-dozen novels, now lost to history. But I soon learnt that what I could write best was functional prose, to be consumed at speed and discarded lightly. Armed with these journeyman skills, I even spent a few years on The Times, when it considered itself to be the nation’s newspaper of record. There the writing style was more stolid than ambitious, but one did learn to appreciate the value of a calm and lucid account of the “facts”. I still do.

When I later started to make films, mostly for broadcast, I took great satisfaction, and some pains, in employing my utlilitarian talent on the art of scriptwriting. This proved a fascinating challenge in which multiple layers of text share the task of making sense with multiple layers of picture and sound. I eventually realised that, for me at least, all filmmaking is a form of writing. The authorial text is just one of the elements – and much of the meaning is carried in the speech and expression of others, as well as in a complex of image and sound.

So it wasn’t such a shock to the system when Jerome Fletcher argued -at the weekend workshop associated with this exhibition and website- that text is but one dimension of writing. Words can be liberated from the page, he said. Writing can be a non-linear activity or multi-linear. Text can be presented in con-text, performed, sited, made material, in a specific space. The word can be an event.

Jerome is one of the founding figures of the discipline of Performance Writing, which was partly established to challenge the cultural primacy of a text that is bound to the page. He was a one of a group of gentle revolutionaries at Dartington College, in the nineties, who started out by seeking to energise and liberate writing for the stage. Now the fruits of their table-turning most frequently presents themselves in the settings of the visual arts and -unsurprisingly- the internet.

Jerome showed us many inspiring examples, and it occured to me that I had recently experienced a magnificent example Performance Writing myself at Modern Art Oxford. There the sloganeer artist Barbara Kruger had literally placed visitors to her exhibition within the text, surrounded on all sides of a large loftspace by a cacophony of opinion. This immersive experience provoked thought and delight in equal measure – both for me and my 11-year-old grandson. Lively writing indeed.

All of us who attended the Writing & Architecture workshop came to it, to some extent, as visual artists. I was there because of my growing desire to integrate text into my own work for exhibition and also as a maker of books. I have found that, even when I work as a visual artist, the writer in me refuses to lie down (as does the filmmaker), but so far I have failed to find a convincing way to engage with words, without deadening the effect of the visual dimension. No lights flashed on as a result of Jerome’s refreshing provocations, but perhaps something more useful did.

Being in a room with a dozen or so people attempting to catch the eel of what Performance Writing might actually be proved to be a stimulating activity in itself … something that freed us up, got us to relax, encouraged us to embrace the idea of multiple-definition and ambiguity. For some of us, I think, the weekend was, in part, an attempt to unravel a tangle of semantic string. Yet it also opened us up to a set of new options and possibilities. Frustration and liberation in equal measure – an excellent result.

By the end of the two days, all of us had produced some work, evidence of which can be found on this website. No one piece was like another, but each of us used words as playthings, even when our intentions were serious. My attempt (DEPARTED, see above) is an early step in what I consider to be a long journey, an extended encounter with writing itself. It’s as unsteady a stride as my first dealings with the old Imperial upright, but you have to start somewhere.

And you have to acknowledge your gratitude to the people who give you an energy booster to take on the long trek – Jerome most definitely, and no less definitely the always encouraging instigator of the workshop and curator of the exhibition, Fay Stevens.

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