A Framework for Collective Decanting

The following text was written in collaboration with Jennifer Boyd as the culmination of Reading Matter, a curatorial project that staged a collective reading of The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector  at Five Years Gallery, London, in May 2016. It was published in the anthology How to Read: Writing Groups. How to Write: Reading Groups, which is available in print from Five Years Gallery

A. Instructions

The following instructions prescribe an exercise for reading together. This approach aims to undermine the competitive and isolating tendencies of academic reading groups and rather seeks to a stage an airing, a collective, experiential and non-hierarchical approach to a text.

The text can be well or little known, however the exercise is designed to inverse the tendency to approach texts as units to be unpacked and re-parcelled into useful citations. Therefore texts that frequently fall victim to academic dissection and extraction are best.

The text should be chosen according to its sonic qualities and aural materiality; the aim is to feel the shape of words as objects in the mouth, matter passing across the tongues of the readers.

The nature of the chosen text should overturn the tendency to scan or glaze over a page in order to quickly draw conclusions or access ‘meaning’. The textual body should be disruptive — composed of deliberate and strange language, difficult repetitions, grammatical stops and entanglements.

The text should assume the perspective of a singular subject, a body, or an ‘I’. This is found most readily, although not exclusively, in first person narratives. The voice of the narrator, their physical being and experience, is thus passed between readers. The ‘I’ becomes collective and the body mutually inhabited.

The most desirable works are those that oscillate between fiction and philosophy, as well as creative critical theory. However, any existential or polemical debates must be grounded in an immediate experience, a scenario that can be returned to ordinary life. Short-form poetry and other texts written for oration are nonviable in this context.

The readings themselves should be non-rehearsed and non-theatrical – a kind of intuitive automatism. Readers should attempt to read in a clear and measured way, however slip ups and pauses are expected and should be accepted without anxiety.

Note-taking is not permitted during the exercise, aside from discreet underlining of mutually appreciated sentences in the shared text.

Following the reading, once all participants have had the occasion to equally exercise their mouths and grow accustomed to the sound of their own voices, they will engage in a discussion.

The discussion is intended to draw out reflections on the text as experienced, the immediate resonances following its airing rather than aiming to situate the text in historical or critical contexts, with notes that have been pre-prepared.

Since all participants will have entered the exercise on equal ground, it should follow that the discussion is non-competitive and non-hierarchical. The discussion should seek to identify instances in the text of collective resonance, recognition and pleasure.

B. Text

The following text serves to demonstrate the variety of texts best suited to collective decanting.

As I look out of my window to the street, my eyes catch on a figure. A person is shuffling along slowly, only deviating from their course when it becomes necessary to avoid the cracks in the pavement. As a result of my fixed vantage point, I have missed my chance to glimpse their face. I crane my neck, searching for any semblance of skin, but their amorphous clothes seem specifically constructed to evade needling eyes like mine. Determination radiates through the soft pores in the material covering the back of the stranger’s head. Without warning, they go up in flames. I look on in stillness. The lean, licking fire adds a third, deathly epidermis. My globular eyes swell to take in forest fires, burning slag heaps, and the bright turbulence of things entering the atmosphere in a cyclic rush that quickly loops back and returns me to my own body.

I carry on passively eating my ham and lettuce sandwich. On the next bite, the bread sours on my tongue, drains of its wholesome integrity and turns to synthetic sponge. I taste this faint transition, as if my meal has turned sentient and is acting in collusion or empathy with the figure on fire, also no doubt changing states.  I feel a slight crunch on my left canine tooth—friable matter, foreign to the crisp turgidity of fresh lettuce.  The figure has barely flinched despite being ablaze, and they continue forward at the same steady pace. While I stare, my automaton fingers fumble with the slick of my teeth, attempting to find the source of my discomfort.  Triumphant, they finally seize the object and hold it up between my face and the window. I shorten my field of vision, bringing it in closer to my body. The figure turns to a radiant smear. The miniscule object sits on the tip of my index finger – a dark brown curve like a stiff eyelash or delicate twig. Dread rumbles as I wonder if I can just perceive a few spiked protective hairs that might identify this as one of a cockroach’s six legs. I flex my fingers to grip the sandwich more tightly in a timid attempt to feel for the rest of the carcass through the bread. Dissenting flecks of oil cause the wiry limb to glisten — the singing provocations of an animal that will endure far longer than my own, perishable body.



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