A few weekends ago marked a whole year since my exhibition with Jack O’Flynn, The Palace of Humming Trees, curated by Katie O’Grady. It was the height of summer, electrified by lightning storms and rain showers which sent the city streets flooding my ankle boots. I sat in the exhibition watching the auras of animals, drifting in and out of presence, doodling, planning short fiction I’d never write. The rain came down through the ceiling, just a little, and caught in a bucket. I texted in streams.
Something of the exhibition magicked itself into existence. We were all ’93 babies. Making things happen felt so easy. There were synchronicities and invincibilities. When Katie and I hung out at Phillies, we won the quiz. Jack and I wove this hyperplane of fantasy from the gestures of clay and line, whittling and glitter cast wide across floorboard and spiderweb. It was a strange time, the summer of 2021. I was also partially in the numb haze of grief. There was a delta wave but not like the deep sleep of the sea. People brought champagne and flowers to the opening. I wore a long white dress and wished the days were as long as they used to be. The Earth spins too fast.
Partly I wanted to write in the choral voice of many creatures speaking to one another. The process felt like a lyric surrender to this collective, their hyperintelligence of humming and stammer that spoke through pores, chitin, liquid. I don’t know where they learned all this. There was a sun virus in the emails we sent the summer before it. Time freckled on my arms. I could draw out the muscle ache from cycling more. It was possible then.
Anyway, about this experience of writing. A porous voice. Here’s an artist’s talk from a recent conference.
First delivered at Hear them speak: Voice in literature, culture, and the arts
10th June 2022
Who might be the ‘they’ in K Allado-McDowell’s statement? Taken from Pharmako-AI, published in 2021 and the first book to be co-authored with the neural network GPT-3, a system trained on extensive web data (from Google Books to Wikipedia), the quote suggests voice, presence and identity are questions of patterning, replication, weaving, plurality. Recurrent in Allado-McDowell’s book is the figure of the spider and its web, in a kind of constant movement like thought itself.
I was travelling north on a train when I began writing The Palace of Humming Trees, a book-length exhibition poem which forges energy fields of dreamy relation between many species of animal, mineral and element. Late spring and the fields I could forget about, texting myself more poem. The motion of the train according inverse to the downward scroll of the document. All the while seeing spiders in the corner of my vision, emitting great clots of silk. Commissioned by curator Katie O’Grady and made in collaboration with the artist Jack O’Flynn (both from Cork, Ireland), the exhibition was to offer something of a ‘hyperspace’ to its viewers: somewhere in which voices coalesced, formed new modalities of being and relation, new webs. In a Tank Magazine interview with K Allado-McDowell, Nora N. Khan notes that hyperspace ‘is an abstract space in which we perceive patterns of information and then shape them in language in order to communicate’. Having a big, serial and open field poem adjacent to visual work premised on bold, ecstatic colour and texture was to perform multiplicities of voice within an otherwise abstracted work. Inspired by Timothy Morton’s ideas of ‘dark ecology’, adrienne maree brown’s ‘pleasure activism’ and Ursula Le Guin’s ‘carrier bag theory of fiction’, I wanted to think about that communication as a form of attunement through which we gather, desire and coexist as ecological beings.
In The Palace of Humming Trees, the lyric voice is taken as that trembling spider silk assembling worlds. Spider silk is a protein fibre which embodies the inside of the spider woven on the outside for shelter, cocoon, courtship or the trapping of prey. It’s five times stronger than steel and is now being synthesised to make everything from body armour to surgical thread and parachutes. I began imagining the twangling of droplets on silk strands as the visualisation of a deep vibration, perhaps the wood wide web – something humming in and between trees. The world of the exhibition was inspired by the Irish folktale, The Hostel of the Rowan Trees, also known as Fairy Palace of the Quicken Trees. In the story, trees of scarlet fruit provide refuge, but the fruit itself (the quicken berries) are highly desirable to the point of despair. The rowan was brought from the land of promise, and its berries offer rejuvenation. With these symbolic undertones of danger and desire in mind, we wanted to explore a mythic ‘palace’ which merged the digitality of hyperspace with the organic textures of woodland and the chromatic intensity of dream, fantasy and ethical relation.
At the heart of our project was a notion of infinity. Hyperspace suggests that our ecological sense of world, surrounds, habitat, umwelt is always being reassembled. I wondered if infinity could somehow be voiced in a way that wasn’t just postmodern recursion or echo. What does it mean to be open to a state of infinity? To let many worlds pass through you all at once, making diamond-like instants and gossamer patterns of prosody?
Infinity became our figure for ambience. As spider silk is densely structured, and the neural net densely layered, so the notion of ambience captures, in Brian Eno’s words ‘many levels of listening attention’. To walk through the door of The Palace of Humming Trees was to enter a portal of multiplicity. You could take any route you liked around the room, moving between sculptures of hyperfoxes and sparklehorses, lichenous forms, ceramic butterflies of psychedelic hue and illustrated groves where trees shimmered green, orange, purple and blue. You could also scan a QR code and choose to listen to a recording of the poem, voiced by Jack, Katie and I and accompanied by Dalian Rynne’s sonic dreamscapes. To hear something ‘humming’ is to sense its presence, even if you can’t wholly understand it; humming implies electromagnetic vibration, birds and bees, a weather event or tectonic movement. We weren’t interested in translating the more-than-human voice so much as bringing it into the forcefield of lyric poetry, and through that expansive patterning achieve ‘infinity states’ of reassembled meaning, of felt experience that could not be crystallised into singularities of being. Visitors took pictures, sketched Jack’s sculptures, ran their fingers through the luminous plaster dust, placed to highlight the debris or excess of our clay animals. Something always in the process of creation or decay, incomplete. Corporeal, yet infinite.
One of the many voicings of this project was Letters from a Sun Virus, a correspondence between Jack and I that occurred over the first Covid lockdown, documented at the back of the exhibition book. While the email exchange had distinct senders and receivers, the you and I, over time in collaborating and sharing work between the visual and textual, our voices were beginning to mingle. Sometimes this co-voicing was painterly; other times musical, inflected with the characteristic intonation and energy of our respective speech patterns, moods, expressions. An entry from April 2020 reads: ‘…the wateriness of the poem. I had completely forgotten about all that blur. It’s like all the brush of the ocean and one which seems the idea to spill that way. Almost like a pressure, lines that go on and hair turning into the sea, each one of kinetic energy then finds all these points’. To assemble the correspondence for publication, I plugged it through text remixers, copying, pasting and rearranging phrases to enhance that sense of two voices repatterning one another. A ceaseless quest for points; for elements acting upon objects, emotions. Denise Riley has written of ‘inner speech’ as a strange oxymoron, where one hears voice at the moment of issuing voice inside us – a kind of running commentary that hums without actually humming. The letters suggest a kind of inner voice infected by the anticipated response of the other, rendering intimacies of collaboration which form a sticky substance, sentences and mobius formations holding time’s play and repeat – ‘Unending loop of my dream resins / not to complete the palace infinity of these trees’. Imagining the many of them speaking.
In Texts for Nothing, Samuel Beckett writes:
Whose voice, no one’s, there is no one, there’s a voice without a mouth, and somewhere a kind of hearing, something compelled to hear, and somewhere a hand, it calls that a hand, it wants to make a hand, or if not a hand something somewhere that can leave a trace, of what is made, of what is said, you can’t do with less, no, that’s romancing, more romancing, there is nothing but a voice murmuring a trace.
To ask whose voice in The Palace of Humming Trees is to hear sound bouncing as light, romancing, refracting in what Katie, the curator, calls a many-panelled ‘vivarium of humming thought’. To say ‘there is no one’ is to declare at once absence and the impossibility of presence as a singularity, there is no ONE. What if voice was infectious, modular, sporous, erotically charged, in common? Early in the project, I had this conversation with Jack where he told me that sometimes in the process of sculpture, he’ll try turning something upside down, or inside out, to revitalise the work. Make it strange or more-than. To sculpt by hand is to ‘leave a trace, of what is made’, and to write is to leave a trace ‘of what is said’. I wondered if the inner speech of the lyric ‘I’ could be turned inside out, to be exposed to the grain, the noise, the weather. A voice that touches is and is being touched, traced, smudged. I imagine this book as a glasshouse, somewhere between inside and outside, shelter and exposure; a chamber music of alchemical voicings, always repatterning, transforming each other. Sound and light. A place of invitation, ritual attention, metamorphosis. Many selves stuck to the web of a visual, expansive language.