Three extracts from the stone lexicon

For Mette Edvardsen

Programme note Apr 2018English

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Contextual note
This excerpt of a longer essay commissioned by Mette Edvardsen was published in the programme booklet of Bologna's Live Arts Week Gianni Peng VII in April 2018, where Edvardsen presented 'oslo'.

Over the years, Mette Edvardsen has been publishing booklets and postcards to accompany her performance works. Not so with oslo, unless you’d consider some of the ephemera that are informal and dispersed, or might have taken on a different substance than paper. One thing that has been travelling with the work is a stone, or better: the picture of a stone. I’ve clipped it from a theatre’s newspaper, a photograph about the size of an A4 page with the portrait of a flat, lichen-covered stone, a stone whose actual size is probably somewhat bigger than a cobblestone. Now it sits in front of me on my desk, next to another A4 page with the programme notes. In there, Edvardsen comments on this image: “The picture of the stone was taken last summer when I was walking in the mountains in Norway. And this information is of course totally irrelevant to the piece! But what made me choose it to represent the piece, apart from that I like the image, or the stone, was that it connected a moment of thinking about the piece with an image. And I found that interesting as an idea. An image needs to fit the piece in some or other way, but how?”

An erratic boulder, astray in my workroom. I realize that in oslo, it’s also been lingering around the edges of the performance, like a boundary object time and again left behind when Mette Edvardsen stated “A man walks into a room and the room is empty” or “A man walks into a room” and all the variations that were to follow. What other objects didn’t fit in that room? What do we carry with us and what do we need to leave behind for our attention to thrive and our imagination to unfold in the theatre?

I imagine the stone to be a landmark or milestone at the horizon, a signpost of sorts that indicates the limits of our imagination. The printed or remembered version has perhaps lost its physical weight, but not its gravitational pull. It’s become image and can be carried around, it’s at home in the age of mechanical reproduction – and yet it still contains a trace of its profound otherness, of its unfathomable life in nature, outside.

I take another look at the picture of the stone, but my mind wanders off before I’ve really engaged in a retinal journey. As much as the greenish crust, it must also be the thin symbolic layer surrounding the stone that appeals to me. Recently the picture has drawn me to reading a scientific article on ‘Ghosts of the Anthropocene’ and lichens covering tombstones. What first struck me was a formal description of these ancient worlds. “Lichens house hundreds, thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands of other species within the thallus, including other kinds of fungi and myriad bacteria. Bacterial diversity peaks at the center of a thallus, while the various edges house relatively fewer taxa. Bacterial communities at the centers of different lichens resemble each other, while edges house more random assemblages.” Now I’m reminded of Ursula K. Le Guin, who’s compiled various fragments of the Therolinguistics Association in one of her books, inviting us to ponder the languages of ants, penguins and dolphins as well as our future literacy in deciphering these natural languages and literatures. After the phytolinguist and aesthetic critic who read Eggplant fluently, the Association’s president wonders, “may there not come that even bolder adventurer – the first geolinguist, who, ignoring the delicate, transient lyrics of the lichen, will read beneath it the still less communicative, still more passive, wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry of the rocks: each one a word spoken, how long ago, by the earth itself, in the immense solitude, the immenser community, of space.”




Looking for something else, I pick up the book with a black cover and white lettering that reads Post-Dance. It contains a brief essay which Mette Edvardsen wrote during the preparations for oslo. Entitled ‘The picture of a stone’, this text is yet another remediation of the erratic boulder. “The image of a piece precedes the piece, but even if I care about how a work is communicated, also visually, the piece is indifferent to it.” After writing a paragraph about the picture, Edvardsen goes on musing about choreography as writing: “In the piece I am working on at the moment I try to do as little as possible on stage. Not because I’m lazy or tired, also not to provoke. It is not about my absence or about not doing, but it is about something else than my presence and what I am doing. And this ‘something else’ is what making a piece is about for me. What is this larger notion of the written?”

Again I’m thinking of the erratic boulder and everything else time and again left behind when Mette Edvardsen stated “A man walks into a room and the room is empty” or “A man with relevant knowledge walks out” and all the variations that were to follow, while trying to do as little as possible on stage. Edvardsen’s larger notion of the written must involve a keen process of selection and erasure, of unwriting perhaps. But I’m also thinking of these words Edvardsen wrote in relation to her group work or else nobody will know, words that have both intrigued and puzzled me since I first read them over a decade ago: Although the pieces seem to contemplate emptiness and absence, this is only there as a consequence of the existence of something else.” The existence of something else. Over the years, throughout Edvardsen’s body of work, this ‘something else’ has been migrating and transforming, yet it remains somewhat elusive. Now I imagine the stone to be a counterweight to what at first could be mistaken for bare modernist aesthetics. Even though oslo is perhaps an invitation to travel lightly, there is no entering that empty room of the theatre without the erratic boulder flimsy as a folded piece of paper tucked away in one’s memory pocket. It’s not so much that nature or the world are a precondition for representation, but that the threshold to the empty room has by now expanded into a landscape populated with symbolic objects, imaginary workspaces and acts of remediation. What do we carry with us and what do we need to leave behind for our attention to thrive and our imagination to unfold in the theatre? Trying to do as little as possible on stage so that a sense of something else might occur – what’s the space of reading such writing?

            “A  man walks into a room in front of our eyes.” Still sitting at my desk, not quite out there beyond that threshold, I continue reading the essay. In the theatre, the distribution of attention is a collaboration of many actors – people and technologies, text and space, little things and other bodies, moments and drafts of air. It’s a choreography in which the peripheral and details matter, and, just like any other writing and the space of reading it opens up, Edvardsen writes, it will never be finished. She admits that sometimes it’s good to know when to stop though, which might be just a beginning, perhaps even of a mindset: “Let’s take care of the gaps.”




Not sure how to move on to the empty room, I decided to take a break and allowed to lose myself in another novella by César Aira, Varamo. It’s a detailed description of the 24 hours leading up to the clerk Varamo writing a masterpiece of avant-garde poetry in a single night – how come a clerk without any writing experience and the imagination of a bookkeeper arrived at such a feat? Was he struck by inspiration, or merely a product of altogether arbitrary circumstances? Halfway the book, Aira pauses to explain in a rather ironic fashion his method for analysing the relation between Varamo’s work of experimental literature and the real-life circumstances from which it emerged. “All the critic has to do is translate each verse, each word, backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang.” The size of the elements can differ widely, and so are the relations between them, as well as the order in which they are arranged. In short, for the critic anything goes, and “the result can have a rather surrealist air” or be mistaken for a novel itself. Yet, the notion of “particles of reality” appeals to me, just like the idea of a novel that in its haphazard unfolding seeks to approximate the imaginary workspace of an author. In Varamo these particles take on the form of counterfeit money, a piece of candy, an embalmed fish, a mulling over the fundamental problem of “how to feign innocence” and the intricacies of improvisation that cause one a headache, “regularity rallies”, a bush in a park, and so on. They’re made up by Aira as he goes, driven by his poetics of “flying forward”, and at the same time they function as tropes: not merely concepts, but symbolic objects that live in literature yet maintain an irreducible materiality that do make them resonate with the world outside. They’re the erratic boulders that litter and underwrite the imagination of writer and reader and mediate the abstraction of words strung together on a page – and, in that larger sense of the written, I suspect, also in the empty room of the theatre. By then, Aira has shifted gear after a car accident and moved on in a lengthy explanation of the regularity rallies, until suddenly, maybe ten pages further on, Varamo “was in a room that he had never visited before, where everything was new and unfamiliar to him.” My mind must have been wandering, because how did he get there from walking down the street? I reread a couple of pages, yet the mystery remains, also to Varamo himself: “He’d entered this room in such a hurry that he hadn’t registered the transition; his consciousness had failed to take it in.”