Spot On: Language arts, pre-Gutenberg

Lisa Radon at White Box/Courtesy of White Box

Lisa Radon performing ἐπί ἡμέρα (epi hemera)/Courtesy of White Box

By Patrick Collier

University of Oregon’s White Box held a five-day action last week called “Show and Tell.” In hit-and-run fashion, each day highlighted a different artist or presentation. I made a special, Tuesday trip to see the waning hours of Lisa Radon’s installation and performance, ἐπί ἡμέρα (epi hemera).

Epi: A multipurpose prepositional prefix with a number of meanings, the most common, etiologically, being “on.” Regardless, a proximal place.

Hemera: Day, plus the name of the Greek goddess of daytime.

Before I proceed, I need to disclose a few things, although no disclaimer will suffice, so deep is my admiration for ArtsWatch colleague Lisa Radon. We have exhibited together, she has curated me into an exhibit, and we have exchanged gifts of art and books, all of which, now that I think about it, is pretty much just the way things are done in these parts anyway, so perhaps it’s not that big of a journalistic quandary. Nevertheless, the reader should not be surprised if the below lapses into something more than a review.

ἐπί ἡμέρα is a follow-up to a previous performance, “COPIER: Horizons,” that Radon choreographed at Worksound last year. For “COPIER,” Radon recruited eight women to transcribe a portion of Dick Higgins’ essay “Horizons” over a two-hour period. A microphone was placed under each writing space to amplify the physicality of the writing process and magnify the industry of those assembled for the task. Higgins’ essay was first handwritten out by Radon in black ink and copies were given to each black-clad performer who then transcribed the black ink copy with white ink on white paper.

This is The Way Before Gutenberg, much maligned only—and so very conveniently, although not without reason—after the invention of the printing press. Gone the way of cursive with the advent of the keyboard in all of its manifestations. If only the keyboard (and now its reliance on the computer) wasn’t  so vulnerable, so quickly outdated, as software manufacturers compete and force their obsolescence program on us.

Radon’s old Macintosh Plus greeted visitors to the White Box gallery, an old screensaver displaying marks that looked like letters, except they weren’t. The machine still functions but can it communicate? What coded information does it contain that is inaccessible to the laity?

In the adjacent, larger space at White Box, the white on white of  the “COPIER” output became the centerpiece for Radon’s new solo performance. She is dressed in her signature white. Ink, pen, paper, desk, plinths, and walls are all (predominantly) white.

Radon’s production in ἐπί ἡμέρα/Courtesy of White Box

Eight pieces of blue calcite are spread across the left side of  her desktop, behind them two piles of 8 x 11 white paper. One pile has gray print on the top sheet, and Radon transcribes from this. The second pile comprises the pages she has finished and turned print side down. Two other stones, each different, sit close to her right, writing hand. A copy of “On the Composition of Images, Signs and Ideas” by Giordano Bruno is in the upper right corner of the desk. On the floor below the book rest a lemon, a potted mint (I was informed later that the calcite and mint are for memory. I forgot to ask about the lemon), and behind them, a small amplifier. Radon is barefoot, again a signature practice while performing. Her cell phone rests next to her left foot. Perhaps a necessary nuisance, it is the only thing that seems out of place.

Her writing surface is a sheet of clear glass placed on the desk. As she writes on a scroll of translucent drafting paper, she nudges the paper forward to cascade down the front of the desk. The gallery coordinator, Tomas Valladares, approaches quietly to gently coax the paper out onto the floor in soft folds. The wood floor can be seen through the paper, which in turn allows for an easier read of some of the transcription. Her script is neat and legible.

Does it matter what is being written? No doubt it does to Radon, for the transcriptions are of collected writings that comprise portions of her “Mine King,” an ongoing project that dates back to when I first met her some three years ago. Best minds and books are represented here. I read passages that are not hidden in the folds or lost in shadows of the plinths, yet in this setting and in white ink they seem more like private reflections, and I let them slip back into the overall of the space.

I have come to watch in the fifth hour of the performance of ἐπί ἡμέρα.  My intention is to stay until Radon has completed the eight hours of writing. I watch others come and go. A young man moves his lips as he reads the columns of hanging words. Many take photos. I use a flash. Radon does not look up from her task.

Noise from the street comes in waves. Cars, trains, yelling and sirens either drown out or accompany the sound of Radon’s pen as it makes its way across the paper. The microphone under the glass is positioned on the left side making for a doppler-like effect. Sometimes the writing sounds like a train passing, other times it is reminiscent of rolling thunder. (I wish it was in stereo.) End punctuation marks a time just as it is supposed to.

Eight plinths form a square around the table. Scrolls of paper hang from above and touch each “just so,” except when the air conditioning blows them about. Each scroll has a list of words, or more specifically, nouns, and therefore the world, laser-cut into it, the same number of words on each. (I fall short in my observational task in not counting them. Yet, I notice on one sheet the word “flask” etched twice.) The words may have a context outside of their thing-ness, but it does not seem to be available upon reading them. They may very well be a chorus for the words that are transcribed, but that is their dialogue, not ours. Or like guards, they keep us at arm’s length, as they may very well confine Radon to her writing station, a version of a gilt cage.

Is it a performance, or more a meditation, dedication or devotion? As a performance, I am reminded of Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present,” but only as the most recent endurance art to receive widespread media coverage.

Burden, Beuys, Fusco/Gomez-Peña, Hsieh and Kaprow are there with us as well, and like all of these artists, the ritual suggests an asceticism, an aesthetic moving toward sanctification. Radon quite suitably does it in white, and as she is known for this proclivity and an alchemy is at work, I am released from the temptation to address the political significance of the institutional space in which all of this occurs.

As is often the case, I am reminded of a song, and this time it is the Pixies’ “Monkey Gone to Heaven.” If Man is five, then the Devil is six, then God is seven.

Then what is eight? Eight performers in black; eight plinths, eight stones, eight hours… August is the eighth month of the year. A (white) box has eight vertices. It is a “magic number” in nuclear physics. In numerology, 8 seems to be a number of strength, wisdom, free will, karma and is the most feminine of numbers. The work day and the recommended amount of sleep each are eight. The word “ambiance” has eight letters. (I could go on.) The eye of an artist then rests the integer on its side to become forever and everything.

There are stretches of time when it is just Radon and me in the room. Partially hidden behind a plinth for hour seven, she may not even be aware I am in the room. She pauses long enough to stretch her neck, take a small sip of water, adjust her glasses and the paper. She sniffles. She pushes her hair back from her eyes. Her hand is surely cramped, yet she endures. It is clear that blood is settling in her feet. She arches them from the floor at increasingly frequent intervals. The duration of the piece invites close and prolonged observation, yet I also begin to empathize.

The sacrifice to the process encourages reverence. One dares barely a whisper, and then only in the antechamber.

Some of the words in ἐπί ἡμέρα./Courtesy of White Box

Fewer people attend in the final hour, and those who were here for an extended period of time have also left, perhaps to write poems about saints and angels. I have left the room at least twice.

Even the amplifier has reached a point of exhaustion, protesting in a constant series of pops and crackles that affect the volume. At times, the writing is all but muted. Another snap, and the volume returns, but so much louder than its original settings that it howls with feedback. Another pop and there is silence again. With mere minutes to go, I hear Radon sigh for the first time.

I applaud at the end, and immediately feel awkward for doing so.

Radon gets out of her seat but seems to remain entranced, under her own ecstatic influence. She picks up the two stones that sat next to her writing hand and excuses herself from the room.

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