Men Gather, in Speech… is a strikingly philosophical exhibition of films by artists Emma Charles, Rose English and Abri de Swardt, which share a physical space and a connecting theme of language as a rich and perplexing medium in an artistic context.
The entrance to the Cooper Gallery features text and audio interviews with the artists, giving an idea of their background and their curiosity surrounding various methods of communication. This context almost immediately invites the viewer into a kind of private dialogue with the artists, and they explain what it means for them to truly speak.
The main exhibition is laid out with Emma Charles’ Fragments on Machines and Abri de Swardt’s film I’ll never wear sunglasses again taking turns to play on either side of the projection screens, with headphones provided for audio. English’s recording of her 1983 performance, Plato’s Chair, sits adjacent on the left, laid out in the manner of a theatre, with chairs pointed towards the screen and speakers hanging from above, which mimic the sound of a wider public space or arena.
Plato’s Chair is a playful yet daring performance in which English acts as a mediator between the audience and her dreams, with a private question in mind, hoping to find an answer to it through the medium of an entirely improvised monologue. At times oddly humorous, it is a passionate confrontation of Platonic ideas: she feels a tumultuous desire to steal “the chair”, thereby seizing her right to be a philosopher. During the artist’s “In Conversation” discussion with Catherine Spencer prior to the opening, English mentioned the programmes she handed out in selected performances of Plato’s Chair, each with a different singular image, one of which is that of a bullfight. This stands as an appropriate metaphor, perhaps, for this tenacious and unpredictable display of spontaneous speech with a live audience present.
A very different medium of performance, I’ll never wear sunglasses again continues the themes of theatrical language through seemingly scripted and almost unnatural-sounding speech, akin to a Shakespearean play. We are presented with naked men reciting jarred half-dialogue, taking place in a white purgatory that brings to mind the artificial and eternal space of the internet. Strange fragments of collage appear throughout, which may remind the viewer of certain areas of internet culture such as Tumblr and memes. Overall, the piece seems to speak with a cautious voice towards new technologies that arouse the “post-political” ideas that are central to this exhibition.
Providing an alternative aesthetic for spaces used to communicate information, Charles’ Fragments on Machines gives us panning shots of vast industrial transmitters in the backdrop of New York’s financial district. While the sounds of the constant hums and whirs of the city cut in and out of overwhelming visuals of infrastructures that send information all over the world, the isolated voice of the narrator explains to us what we are part of. However, this voice seems somewhat disjointed. Perhaps the contrast of the noise of the machines and the relative silence of the people who operate them is enough to illustrate the idea of technological communication rendering our own voices unheard.
The links to politics are subtle in the over-arching theme of the exhibition, but in its most basic form, parlance creates parliament, and in an age where we have technological platforms that allow us to engage in political spheres, we may think that politics is more interactive. Men Gather, In Speech… challenges this by asking if our voices are perhaps more lost than ever.