Reading other people’s texts aloud feels good. Having someone else’s thoughts jangle around in another mouth, hearing it come out at a different speed—the weight of another tongue leans more heavily or lingers on a word longer than was initially intended, accented anew. Our mouths needn’t know how to spell, just how to move breath through lips—“L,” “Elle,” “El.”
Ritual languages (like prayers, like songs) know the pleasure of this collaboration and flauntingly desire to mingle their words with our histories and bodies, blending their older fragments with oral selves to achieve dissemination, circulation, transmission. The rhyme seeks out its memorialization because it wants to ignite repetition, find willing hosts to replicate its structure. And yet, we’re never quite faithful to the original. We always repeat, rehearse, realize inside our own attitudes, gestures, breathing patterns. This is how influence flows through us, connects us impossibly with past incantations. In our desires to be with the old language, we transform it, maybe even disfiguring it in our remembering and working through our imprecisions as an act of additive creation.
(Anne Carson translates Sappho’s fragments: “someone will remember us / I say / even in another time”. I hear the desire and pride in her words, as well as the doubtfulness and desperation in the pauses. Both can be true. Repeat after me, the poet says, hoping for an echo, waiting inside the gaps.)
While working together on their performance in a basement speakeasy in Berlin, my friend Evan sends me Jean Fisher’s essay “Reflections on Echo.” I read it through what we are doing together and write some notes to send Evan: “A by-product of sound and thus of being present (or having been present), the echo is the formal repetition of content. It is a rhythm in spatial and sonorous entanglement with time. Once embodied and now disembodied, it becomes the structural relay between transmitters and receivers, speakers and listeners. Even a silence repeated is still an echo of things unspoken.”
Over a year later, I’m in the same basement, working on another performance—this time with Jimmy. We’re listening to a recording of Ian reading aloud Jessica Mitford’s essay “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain” from her 1963 book The American Way of Death. Ian recorded it for Jimmy on a CD-R as a text to share and discuss. In the gaps between Ian’s clipped accent, street sounds leak into the background. Perhaps it’s the tone of his voice, but the recording has a slight metallic ring to it, a clatter. Jimmy and I speculate if it was recorded in a kitchen with the windows open. At the end, I hear the mic capturing the echoey click of Ian’s mouse as he presses stop.
Jimmy wants to play this CD at the beginning of the performance and for the bar to feel a bit like a sex club. He suggests we replace the lighting with red bulbs and pour out bottles of poppers onto the concrete floor. On opening night, I overcompensate by pouring too much and too early. I forget the public still need time to descend the staircase from the courtyard into the basement, and so the two invigilators and I linger in a large puddle of amyl nitrate, waiting at the bottom, warmly swaying. My flatmate Jim says the funk of leather cleaner has a whiff of the morgue. He talks about looking up from the ground and seeing the public gathered in the dark cellar, dim faces in a crypt. Everyone silent, listening, inhaling one another’s moisture—the poppers evaporating with body warmth, the audience making the performance for each other.
At the end of Ian’s reading, Jimmy wants the public to be released into the main hall upstairs, bathed in white light turning to dark blue. There’s something alarming about that color transition. I think of the brightness of teeth and dandruff on a black-light dance floor, as well as the UV lights in inner-city bus stations that I grew up around in the 1990s—lit so no one could find a vein. (How horrific, to invent a light that intentionally sends vulnerable people into the dark.) But the blue in the hall is thicker—more bruised—and softened by a smoke machine saturating the hall with the appearance of a secret. Gathering clouds hiss along to Ain’s throbbing remix of Diana Ross’s Love Hangover, and these two textures lean into the congregation of soft bodies, the fog reducing everyone to apparitions—a group disassembling. The smoke disperses, and Jimmy reappears lighting a fag, casually reciting Grace Jones dead pan—summoning her as icon, as blue-black in black on brown, as Nightclubbing in 1981.
(John Berger affectionately describes the time of a cigarette as a parenthesis: “If it is shared you are both in that parenthesis. It’s like a proscenium arch for a dialogue.” Jimmy calls it a pause: “But people are paying attention because of the gesture. I mean, it’s smoke, it’s literally nothing. But you put it under a light, and it appears.”)
Boogie intimacy. That’s what Douglas Crimp calls the moment when you’re on the dancefloor with a stranger. “It’s not a couples thing,” he stresses, this “in-the-moment union for sharing pleasure”—looking, inviting, mirroring, curiously performing for one another, spontaneously figuring out how bodies might fit together for the duration of a song or a whole night. Crimp believed boogie intimacy lasted well beyond lights-up, though; it was a radical forerunner of gay liberation, “the expansion of affectional possibility.” I don’t want to theorize the fun out of the dancefloor as if I’m wringing sweat out of an otherwise juicy shirt, but I appreciate how the willingness to invent sensual collaborations can be a rehearsal for other shared actions—for solidarity and experimentation in different environments.
Jimmy, Ain, and Em are remembering all the nightclubs they used to meet at, how their friendship came through the occupation of and participation in these spaces. There’s a pointed nostalgia in this conversation taking place in a moment where there are no nightclubs, just lockdowns. Em describes how organizing clubs can serve as on-ramps to developing and participating in mutual aid structures: both share similar skills dedicated to creating relations that produce physical and emotional spaces for self-organized actions. Both are refusals of isolation. Em mentions a number of recent nightclub crews that, during the early part of the pandemic, transitioned from running clubs to running care communities.
It’s not all utopia though. Ethos and place do not always congeal, and the line outside a club has its own attitude. Jimmy talks to me about the bouncer as the delineation between different worlds as well as different authorities. The safety of a building, of a crowd, and who is permitted into either, who gets to be on the list, why we need the dark in the first place—these are questions with answers that stratify and structure living as much as belonging.
I’m reminded of Em’s account of what it means to create social space through art and their refusal to differentiate between authorship and collaboration: “There is no need to know what we will do but a willingness to let us do it if we dare. In this sense you could say it is close to anarchist or non-authoritative socialist thinking and organizing. It is a curiosity and a commitment to distributing resources and knowledge and having or making the experience of organizing and doing something collectively, with an emphasis on process as much as the final goal,” they say. “Collaboration is already a dependency, with focus on the social relations and objects or materiality, technologies, etc. So I would not make so much of a distinction about whether I am collaborating or not, and say that it is always a collaboration, to live.”
The summer after Jimmy’s performance, Em and I take a break from work so we can stage an impromptu protest outside the offices of an art magazine holding a public panel on cancel culture, the theme of its latest edition. The panel seems keen to publicize their self-pronounced victimhood in an institutional space, and the publisher willing to provide that platform to celebrate the launch of its new issue. I wonder if the protest will just be the two of us. Certainly, on arrival, I am surprised at how well-attended the event is and how many friends and co-workers have turned up as audience. Their attendance isn’t spontaneous; it’s ticketed in advance.
But there are a number of other people who I don’t know who have turned up, unprompted, in protest too, and we begin to form a picket. We each take turns speaking with the incoming audience, delaying them on the threshold of the steps between the street and the doors to the office, holding up the queue. We initiate conversations about why attendees want to be an audience to this discourse and whether different dialogues could be had instead and what their power is in this dynamic. We ask each other about different ways of assembling the kind of world we want. We ask for conversations about solidarity that might interrupt a discourse of scarcity and punishment. I notice our dialogues improve in depth and length as we work our way down the line of people, learning how to ask more precise questions, perhaps listen better, follow-up questions, and push back. We’ve all produced various printouts to distribute to the audience, with different links and information. Afterwards, Em and I go to the pub to decompress and read through the other protestors’ texts.
Collaboration is about the space together, but Annie Dillard wants to talk about the space between. She says that the gaps are the thing: “Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock—more than a maple—a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”
I wonder what the gaps sound like and how to listen out for them: the threshold between what we think and what we say; the awkward hesitations or unbearable waiting between the call and the response; the leaping and the lingering of the stories we tell each other, what we skim off for fear of ugliness and rejection. Sometimes I need other people to point the gaps out, to show me how these quiet spaces structure the louder parts.