something like life-writing

3130 words

Alice Butler

Alice May Williams, An Unreliable Witness, 2015. Image: Anna Arca
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Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness', 2015 Photo: Anna Arca
Alice May Williams, An Unreliable Witness, 2015. Image: Anna Arca


In the hour that we’re together, the road that forms Tower Bridge stands firm. Little boats motor underneath it. Red buses drive across it. It does not break, this moment in history. But as we talk and get distracted, the edges of this fin-de-siécle monument get fuzzy. The conversation has the capacity to re-write timelines (seen in the towering concrete phallus) with personal affect, and accident.

While the river pushes on. (It was the present moment, or so says Virginia W.)

Or so quotes Alice May Williams: I was really aware that it is quite strange recording someone’s voice, in that it immediately brings them into the present, but a present that has already passed. It keeps happening in Orlando, as Woolf keeps referring to the fact that it was the present moment and then it’s gone. It hits you on the head.

I’m asking Alice questions, just like Ken does of Jessie (aka Great-Great Grandma) in her audio work An Unreliable Witness. Jessie answered back: she wouldn’t let herself get pinned down by the male biographer of dates and chronology, as she fought the masculine recorder with voice itself. It is a voice of shuffling ambiguity, as her Medusa laughs and muddy verbal gestures constantly undermine what he wants her to tell him.

Alice has clearly inherited her GGG’s oral rebelliousness, as she harnesses women’s talk as a strategy of communality and temporal disruption. We listen in on a female cacophony: voices murmuring in unison, Alice calls it, counteracting and contradicting that person (Ken? Myself?) clutching a microphone, running a script. I was definitely aware when talking to my family members that I did not want to play that directive role, of trying to get them to talk about what I thought I wanted them to tell me, because it is through the tangents where you really uncover the stuff the person being interviewed wants to talk about. In An Unreliable Witness – a fiction drawn from a document – the everyday tangents stall coherent narrative and logic, as space shifts from the cleanliness of Woolf’s Kew to the 1871 dirty streets of Battersea. Fiction and biography are pretty much interchangeable in Alice’s audio object, while time slides and text slides in her composite writing of appropriated verbatim and quotation.


 Oral history probes and provokes the past, while constructing an edited narrative (however loose) in and out of the present. It is a fiction of potential, as it fills in the neglected gaps of women’s histories – from the domestic to the dangerous to the near deadly. Suzanne Lacy broadcast similar conversations on live TV for The Crystal Quilt, in which a Susan Stone composition of seventy-five women talking about ageing played in the background. Text and subtext murmuring in unison.


As a positive reconstructive method, oral history seeks to make women authors of their own past, but what about the ghostly recorder or tinkering transcriber? What if he misses out her pause, or forgets her laugh? The gesture can only ruin him if he remembers it, or respects it, in language. In An Unreliable Witness, the artist’s Great-Great Grandma rejects the interviewer’s presence, and Alice steps in, turning Jessie’s anti-linear narrative into a revised construct of converging generations and multiple voices. All girls together. She is not so much speaking in place of the original speaker, as using the equipment of past and present speaking, to speak for her. And with her.


The writer Chloé Griffin assumed a similar responsibility for a life in her oral history of the writer and actress Cookie Mueller, whose dark-humour-heavy, diary-fictions shadowed her dark experiences before becoming another victim of AIDs in November 1989. Cookie’s life has always been prefaced by her death. It is her Internet entry, her presence, but an oral history can seek to do more. It can seek to embody and imagine, beyond the tragic ‘ending’.


In Edgewise, Griffin tacks together the voices of friends and lovers that knew her (artists and writers, mainly) in a polyvocal text of shifting temporal patterns. Memories and recollections accrete; extend; contradict. Griffin’s oral history is rendered as a continuous conversation, in spite of the scattered execution of the interviews over eight years, and the mutating time and place of the narratives. We hear her love Sharon Niesp retelling the dramaturgy of their relationship (‘I’d disappear for a while. We didn’t have fight fights every day like neurotic couples do. I would just disappear’), and later Gary Indiana talks of downtown New York happenings, starring Cookie:


‘I took a lot of pictures of Cookie in drag. Kathy Acker and I were asked at one point to do a performance at the Mudd club where we would project slides of our former boyfriends and read letters to them that we had written. I had a lot of letters I had written to boyfriends, but I didn’t have that many pictures of them, so I called Cookie up and said, “Would you like to pose as several of my former boyfriends?” We went to William Coupson’s studio, and she had two costumes. One was kind of manly – Playboy, kind of a smoking jacket – and the other was a Hustler kind of picture.’


Just as Alice’s work extends outwards from one biography to encompass multiple, Edgewise is both a portrait of the (singular) Cookie and a talking (plural) history of the communal underground art scene of the late twentieth century. It constantly moves from the intimate to the public performance of the intimate. And like An Unreliable Witness, chronology cannot be ascertained, as drugs and desire and dialogue bury it.


Back to the ‘present moment’ Alice that was: I didn’t want to do to the original recording what is trying to be done to that woman, where he’s trying to pin her down to dates: make it clear who she is and what time she lives. Anything I added I wanted to operate in the same fluid way as she does, evading chronology. My nan did exactly the same thing. She didn’t want to talk in timelines, or necessarily talk about her grandma. She just wanted to talk about what she wanted to talk about, and I knew I had to let her do that, because that is the strength of an oral history – it’s not just about securing timelines or getting things you can read in books – it’s about hearing someone’s current reflections on something. Anything.


Alice May Williams, 'We Can Do It!', 2014. Courtesy of the artist.
Alice May Williams, We Can Do It!, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Alice May Williams, 'We Can Do It!', 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Alice May Williams, We Can Do It!, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

As Sherna Berger Gluck writes: women’s oral history is a feminist encounter, even if the interviewee is not herself a feminist. It is the creation of a new type of material on women; it is the validation of women’s experiences; it is the communication among women of different generations; it is the discovery of our own roots and the development of a continuity, which has been denied us in traditional historical accounts. In her 1988 book Rosie the Riveter Revisited, Sherna used this model on the women workers of World War Two, sifting and detouring through past moments, both little and big, as a backwards route to thinking about what ‘contemporary’ feminism might mean and could do for them. ‘Rosie the Riveter’ was also the collective subject of Alice’s video work We Can Do It! (2014), as this bicep pumping, blue shirted woman worker becomes a repeated online image of superficial feminist communality.


I became interested in the Rosie the River image due to its constant recycling and repetition, the act of which seemed to be erasing any possible stability it might once have had. It seemed to be an image, a code, a set of words completely up for grabs: it could mean so many different things to so many different ‘We’s’, leading to an unverifiable ‘felt’ kind of knowledge. Part of the appeal of the Rosie image, for me, is the rolling of her sleeves, and I became interested in the possible readings of that gesture: could it be a lesbian code of dress? It’s more like intimation than foolproof knowledge, but I think these forms of felt knowledge are just as much a part of how we make sense of the world, as the information we are given as truth/history/fact. In the current work, too, it is as much how things are said, as what is said. Jessie is dodging the linearity of history or fact by weaving us through sets of feelings or sensations.


 In An Unreliable Witness, Alice (with Jessie as her sidekick) makes a joke out of living historically, as temporal orders overlap and converse into less structured units. Talking through the past and present at once, as a way to work through and understand it, rewrites the straight and phallic timeline. It inserts in its place a nonlinear concept of time, where histories can co-exist, all the while gazing in multiple directions. There are no first wave, second wave, or third wave feminisms in Alice’s work, as the generations talk to one another in a fragmentary fiction of chatter and noise. And feeling. The years intermix, become layered and one. 2015 becomes 1959 becomes 1865.

This is Elizabeth Freeman writing of such ‘non-sequential’ forms of time, which cackle against the normative chronology, just like Alice and Jessie: Queer temporalities… are points of resistance to this temporal order that, in turn, propose other possibilities for living in relation to indeterminately past, present and future others: that is: of living historically.

(We look to the Thames, as it curves from the wharfs to the west.)


Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness', 2015. Photo: Anna Arca
Alice May Williams, An Unreliable Witness, 2015. Image: Anna Arca


An Unreliable Witness, the exhibition, is a body of research (with an etched wall drawing posing as a pretend family tree, and a printed fabric of Jessie’s drawn face repeated) that revolves and circulates around the restructuring of a found audio recording featuring the artist’s Great-Grand Grandma being interviewed by a male relative named Ken. This talking trace of 1959 resurfaced a few years ago over the family’s Christmas dinner, when Alice’s uncle played it to her Grandma through a phantom iPhone. I’ve just spoken to Grandma Jessie on the phone she said. As the artist writes of the event in the fragmentary transcript of literary and real-life quotation: Nan wasn’t crazy, or stupid, and she hadn’t lost the plot. She just didn’t have the words to describe the medium, which had channelled her grandma’s voice to her.

That medium, that document, was then taken care of by Alice: the responsibility of a life, a biography, in her hands. In the original recording, Ken asks Jessie questions about her life and the London in which she lived. He lingers on dates; she responds with a defiant what else do you want to know? and sends her interviewer off on chronological cul-de-sacs, interspersed with oblique but knowing chuckles.


Ken: And your father was a river pilot?

Jessie: Not a river pilot

Ken: River…

Jessie: Captain

And when Ken tries to bind Jessie to the erection of Tower Bridge, she evades his biographical tricks:

Ken: And you went down on the ship

Jessie: Ooh yes, of course

Ken: And when you went where Tower Bridge is now…

Jessie: Yes

Ken: … It wasn’t then built?

Jessie: Wasn’t then, No, no

Ken: Good heavens, we thought it had been there much longer than that, when was it built?

Jessie: Couldn’t tell you

Ken: Bout eighteen…

Jessie: Not the faintest idea, I’m a Londoner but I don’t know anything about London (throaty cough)

Alice: I find there is much more humour and humanity in writing verbatim than in formal prose. I think who is speaking and how they speak can really shape a set of words, so I try to let that come through.


In An Unreliable Witness, Alice weaves and layers conversations with her mother and grandmother (discussing Battersea Power Station and beauty culture) onto the raw 1959 document, as individual lives go forward and back, and merge, to make an alternative (edge-wise) biography of Jessie that is more communal than singular. Interviews can be a way to invent vocabularies for these social formations, which combine the intimate and the social, the informal and the institutional, said Ann Cvetkovich, in an essay that uses the metaphor of craft as conversation. In Alice’s audio fabric, multiple voices and histories shift and slide in patterns unknown, to be realized in the edit as an oddly biographical and fictional object. I guess I wanted it to be her autobiography, because I think that’s how she controls the conversation and everything else props towards that. But you’ve also got to recognise your place (Alice). Authorship is blurred, as each character (and author) is as unreliable as the next.


Alice May Williams, 'An Unreliable Witness', 2015. Photo: Anna Arca
Alice May Williams, An Unreliable Witness, 2015. Image: Anna Arca



We get close to knowing Jessie, but it is more ‘felt’ knowledge, as Alice would say: we never get to see her or chat to her in any physical encounter. Our getting to know ‘her’ is much more psychic. In the same way we are also getting to ‘know’ Alice, through the people and things she has a distant relationship to, like a spindly branch on a family tree. It’s an autobiography of fragility and fiction: performance. Alice gets to know Jessie, gets to know Jane Eyre, gets to know Virginia, gets to know the dead she doesn’t know… calling to mind the naughty, wayward tracks Heather Love writes of in Feeling Backward: Perverse, immature, sterile and melancholic: even when they provoke fears about the future, they somehow also recall the past. They carry with them, as Djuna Barnes writes of her somnambulist heroine Robin Vote in Nightwood: the quality of the way back.


Jessie is the forgetful somnambulist, sleepwalking through the past in a forged daze. Alice takes on the same temporal position, giving a fictional life to the intimate and personal time that lies beyond the straitjacketing document. She does not ignore the chaos of feelings, as Jessie’s babble runs counter to ordered public measurements.


As Love elaborates in the same book of queer backwardness: Politics and feelings are very different kind of things: the public sphere is big, feelings are small; social life happens out there, psychic life, somewhere inside; public time is collective time, measured by the clock, whereas in psychic life, the train hardly ever runs on time.


An Unreliable Witness stages an interplay between these two poles of public and private: never one or the other, but a frenzied both that cannot be located. An Unreliable Witness is not simply an oral history work of mothers and memories, but through starting here, a wider social and economic history of London emerges. I should say histories. On top of her-stories. Buildings go up and down, the collective narrative running parallel to the private, working together.


I was interested in Battersea as a place that doesn’t really exist anymore, as a borough that got consumed by Lambeth and Wandsworth. A non-place. And even though they are now working on the regeneration of the power station and the surrounding area, whenever you see it referred to in print, they call it ‘nine elms on the south bank’, or the ‘western end of nine elms’.


In the transcript a similar conversation happens between Alice and her mum Jane Anne (with the writing of Virginia and the voice of Jessie stitched in between):

JA: They’re gonna keep the building? The base of it?

AM: mmmm look at this

JA: Quarter

AM: Its not, its like, its gross isn’t it

JA: God, the world’s finest retailers, restaurants, the old power station

AM: It’s not for people like us

Jessie: Ooooh! She screamed Mary! (throaty chuckle)


In An Unreliable Witness, Alice avoids the insular, self-soothing trap of making an artwork about motherhood, by using her mothers as characters, as voices, through which to channel broader discussions of identity, biography, time and place. I was very hesitant to make something family-oriented, because I think there’s something a bit gross about it. I really do not want this to be grounded in nostalgia. The artist interrupts the looming presence of nostalgia by forging communities between the living and the dead (Heather Love): she proposes time as something permeable and loose; likewise life-writing, as the artificial notes of Brontë and Woolf’s textual fragments are deposited on Alice’s own in the transcript, and voices of past and present synchronize as artifice in the recording.


I finished Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts on my way back from talking to Alice by Tower Bridge. On the face of it, it is a memoir, with the author’s story of queer family-making at its narrative heart. In the first paragraph, Maggie recounts verbatim the first moment of uncontrollable heart confession: ‘Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth…’ But The Argonauts is not only ‘about’ falling in love and becoming a mother (like An Unreliable Witness is not simply a maternal family tree). This is the book’s life-like subtext (as in similar but not quite). Maggie’s relationship with Harry Dodge: their wedding, her IVF and his top surgery, happens in and amidst critical reflections on language and body, politics and activism, perversion and freedom.


It has the feel of a diary that talks, with trespassing voices of anxiety and influence. I was thinking about how to write my conversation with Alice, and looked to The Argonauts’ typographical assertion of ‘real-life’ verbal events (as in: ‘I want you to feel free, I said in anger disguised as compassion, compassion disguised as anger) intermixed with textual fragments from those she has read, learnt from, whose writing and ideas has fed and nourished her own. Motherhood without pro-creation (or just creation of a different kind). The names of Eve Sedgwick, Eileen Myles, Beatriz Preciado and more (including Harry), can be found in the book’s margins. As in: ‘Even identical genital acts mean very different things to different people. This is a crucial point to remember, and also a difficult one. It reminds us that there is difference right where we may be looking for, and expecting, communion. Sedgwick’


In The Argonauts, just like in An Unreliable Witness, and what I have tried to write here, the recounting of a life cannot be constrained by a single viewpoint, by one voice. A life is not singular but multiple, as layered and mutating, and unpredictable, as the act of writing. To patch texts and recordings together, as Alice and Maggie have done, emphasises the artificiality and unreliability of memoir. The performance of life-writing becomes the stuff of the real. As Jessie always knew, to reconstruct a life can never amount to evidence, when feelings are sending us off on wayward paths.