Writing as public performance

This evening I spent some time in Faheem Majeed’s Chicago Works exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the artist’s first solo museum exhibition. An artist with a long-term focus on public space and what makes public space, Faheem’s workshop space drew me in immediately as a place to work. A room-sized installation that sets a workspace on a plinth, it invited me to sit and write in ways that both compelled me comfortably and revealed some discomfort. Was I performing (in) his work, or mine? And was my act of public writing necessarily a performance?

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Just as acts of public listening (in the work of Lauren Brown, for example) perform the alert body, public writing performs the focused body. Bodies in public space tend to be engaged in acts of consumption or of passive commuting, with the passivity of the latter sometimes supplemented by the hand-held device, and the former rendered active by the common presence of others also eating, spectating, shopping etc. The solitary body at a focused task is a rarity in the public space. There is an intimacy to writing that we tend to associate with the private space – perhaps because of its association with the personal journal or letter, or perhaps because the intimacy of the creative act is itself not something we tend to experience in the public space – with a notable exception being artists who paint or sketch in public, often as buskers (or perhaps, to perform Montmartre).

Ernest Hemingway’s writing in public has been appropriated by the Moleskine company to offer us all a chance to buy into that legend. I went to uni with many a budding writer who sought to emulate Henry Miller’s public typewriter. The spatial qualities of the writing body add further elements to the performance. George Perec’s Species of Spaces encourages the making of lists that cast the body as just another object in space. Jane Rendell’s site-writing identifies writing as a site for building, design and thinking.

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For my own act of writing in public this evening, it was first and foremost something I was compelled to do. I had just this afternoon arrived in a new city and within a few tweets’ time I had my evening plans sorted. I explored the work of a favourite artist and then intended to wander the rest of the gallery space before enjoying sunset jazz in the sculpture garden. Then the workspace arrested me, and the text on the didactic panel made it clear that the space was intended for productive use. And so, I made myself comfortable – and wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

At one point the guard came up to warn me me – not because I was making myself too comfortable, which was explicitly encouraged, but rather, because I was using a pen inside a museum. Within an installation whose materials had clearly been chosen for their raw hardiness. I smiled, produced a pencil, and kept going.

I write stream of consciousness by habit, by necessity and by practice. I have filled twenty volumes in twenty years of writing whose act has created new connections, new lines of enquiry, new reflections, new emotions and new work. I can only ever perform the one I am – to the extent that my every utterance and my every garment performs identity, culture, gender, influence, care. The act of public writing: is it a performance? Is it an invitation? My body, framed by the wooden space that rests on a plinth: was it read by gallery visitors as other than one among their number stopping to use the space? To render the space useful, rather than merely installative? If the gallery always frames, and I am always already complict in that, then what did I wish to perform?

To perform the act of writing is to return the hands and the eyes to their own craft. To remind the viewer that public activity need not be passive nor consumptive. To occupy a small site for a small moment and thereby write a temporary intimacy into the public. To write your own space and time.