Dialogue: Bryony Gillard

Bryony Gillard, 'A cap, like water, transparent, fluid yet with definite body', 2017-18

In advance of her performance Harmonic Anatomies / Wet Mouths on 25 July 2019, we talk with artist Bryony Gillard about the basis for the work, and its relationship with her wider practice.

PROJECTIONS:  Harmonic Anatomies / Wet Mouths positions the female voice as dangerous. Does this danger lie in terms of what the female voice gives issue to – the things it might say – or is its physicality also implicated here; its register, timbre, cadence, and so on?

BRYONY GILLARD:  In terms of the potential danger of the female/feminised voice, I am interested in exploring the qualities that have been projected onto it, both historically and contemporaneously by western patriarchal systems of control. These certainly relate to both materiality and content. In her essay The Gender of Sound 1 (read online here), Anne Carson talks about Aristotle’s claim that women’s high-pitched voices are evidence of their evil disposition, because creatures that are brave, like lions or male humans, have resonant, deep voices. And we only have to look to more recent examples of people identifying as women in the public eye believing they need to change their voice in order to be taken seriously, to recognise that there are certainly deeply ingrained biases between pitch or register and power.  

But equally, danger certainly lies in the female/feminised voice’s potential to let out what should not be said — that it speaks of interior life and collectivity, beyond the binaries of rationality/irrationality and therefore has to the power to subvert, call out and resist.

I think it’s also important at this point to acknowledge that within the systems of oppression placed on feminised sound, there are of course hierarchies at play in terms of which female voices have more or less privilege to speak in relation to intersecting identities of race, class and sexuality.

PROJECTIONS:  That’s a powerful proposition, to take a prescribed or fabricated sense of danger and wield it as a real force against that very prescription. Perhaps different spaces too affect this. For your performance as part of Projections, you’ll use sock puppets, slime and hydrophones, among other things. One alone, in the context of a cinema, would be outré, all three together is mind-blowing. What do you think it will mean to perform it in a cinema, as opposed to a project space or gallery?

BRYONY GILLARD:  Over the past few years, moving image has increasingly been a useful strategy for me to translate the improvised, provisional and temporal methods I am engaging with — which often involves working with others. I’m really interested in the notion of expanded moving image and the tension between moving image and liveness. Bringing performance into the space of the cinema will allow me to go deeper into exploring the cinema as a space of co-creation with my collaborators and the audience, rather than a passive viewing space. There’s also something about the way that a cinema space holds the attention of the viewer which is very different to the engagement that an audience has with performance in the context of a gallery, and I’m really excited about what the disruption/intervention of improvisation can do in this space that it can’t in the gallery.

Excerpt 3 from A cap, like water, transparent, fluid yet with definite body, 2018 from Bryony Gillard on Vimeo.

PROJECTIONS:  This isn’t the first time you’ve used sock puppets in your work, is it? What is it about puppetry – particularly of the non-character based, socky kind – that you find useful? Is it the ability to talk through a cipher, a conduit, or is it more than that?

BRYONY GILLARD:  This performance is the second iteration or chapter in a body of work I’ve been making around gendered sound and control. The first iteration was a solo performance of a recited text for multiple voices, with a sock puppet — and that was the first time I’d considered using puppets in my work. At the time this was a strategy to bring in another voice/body/orifice/mouth other than my own, but it also helped me to introduce the abject into the conversation. My sock puppets aren’t conventionally cute or anthropomorphised: they are grotty, sticky non-gendered (and non-human) mouths or orifices — so they instantly allow me to talk from another bodily/philosophical position. For this performance we’ll have the possibility of working with many puppets, and I’m excited to explore what the addition of these multiple non-human presences might contribute to the conversation.

Image of the exterior of the gallery Turf Projects housing Bryony Gillard's exhibition 'A cap, like water, transparent, fluid yet with definite body'. in 2018
Bryony Gillard, ‘A cap, like water, transparent, fluid yet with definite body’. Gallery view, Turf Projects, 2018

PROJECTIONS:  Seeing them as non-humans with a sense of agency is really interesting, and perhaps the idea of ‘presence’ untethered from any usual, theatrical association, implicates your working method as at odds with any neat idea of ‘performance’, too. Improvisation also figures prominently in the way Harmonic Anatomies / Wet Mouths is framed. It’s one of the things that stood out when first reading your proposal: a huge variable in a field – proposals to realise new work – in which you’d expect anything but. That is, most artists would want to be in control of what they’re creating, unsurprisingly. So it was exciting to see this abandonment to chance. Can you say something about how and why improvisation is important to you, and to this show – and perhaps what form it might take?

BRYONY GILLARD:  I find improvisation really exciting, but also incredibly terrifying and challenging! I’m really interested in the potential for improvisation to create a non-hierarchical territory — and one of my collaborators, Maggie Nicols (improvisation pioneer and vocalist), talks about improvisation as one of the last completely radical spaces, simply because it can’t be controlled, anticipated or contained. Because my practice is innately collaborative, improvisation is a way of creating space for many voices and contributions in my work and ensuring my voice or narrative is decentred. 

Pauline Oliveros (after whom this performance is titled 2) also talks about the collectivity that womxn improvising together can create — which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in terms of intersectional feminist practice and activism, and the strategies we might employ to build collectivity, listening and understanding. These questions are pertinent to Harmonic Anatomies/Wet Mouths, and I am interested in collectively exploring how improvisation and female/feminised sound intersect — both as materials and practices of resistance that have powerful potential to disrupt and enact change.

PROJECTIONS:  Following on from this, you’re also presenting a linked workshop with Maggie Nicols, a leading figure in both free improvisation and feminist art practice. Has Maggie long been an inspiration to you, and is this workshop part of a long-running association, or the start of something?

BRYONY GILLARD:  Our mutual friend and collaborator, D-M Withers, introduced me to Maggie’s work in 2016. At the time D-M was organising a tour of Les Diaboliques (free improvisation trio Maggie has been performing as since the 1970’s with French bassist Joëlle Léandre and Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer) and was absolutely blown away by their performance in Bristol. Shortly afterwards I spent some time at Create-aah, a community space Maggie runs in Wales, and took part in the peer led workshop, Learning, Transforming, Technique, that D-M runs there every year. From there I invited Maggie to contribute to my last project, A cap like water, transparent, fluid yet with definite body. Maggie has had such a fascinating life and ground breaking career and life —existing at the intersection of radical politics and creative practice. She was an active member of the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Socialist Workers Party and more recently has been a spokesperson for carer’s rights in Wales. She’s a pioneer of free improvisation and has been facilitating workshops for over 50 years.

I am super interested in the space of the workshop as a site for discourse and knowledge production and Maggie’s practice has really centred around this. I’ve learnt so much from her (and D-M Withers) about holding the space of a workshop and creating an environment that is open and nurturing.

One of the things that I first learnt about Maggie is her role in founding F.I.G (Feminist Improvising Group —the first all female group of free improvisers, established in 1977) and I’ve been thinking about F.I.G and Maggie as a muse for Harmonic Anatomies/Wet Mouths — womxn unafraid to push the boundaries of what female sound can and should do—to be outrageous, fearless radical and questioning of their position, whilst radiating generosity and joy.

Image of the Feminist Improvising Group
Feminist Improvising Group

PROJECTIONS:  Your work is characterised by its sense of sense: fluidity, slipperiness, malleability, the shaped and the shapeable. What is at the heart of all this? Is it touch? And could you say something about how this intersects with a particular feminist practice?

BRYONY GILLARD:  By nature, it’s difficult to answer questions about slipperiness! Rather than there being a heart to this enquiry, I am prone to thinking about the interconnected tentacles of what a slippery feminist phenomenology might imply. Thinking about slipperiness and fluidity allows me to think about ideas or practices that are unfixed — in the sense of being difficult to pin down, or elusive — that resist formal definition or canonisation.

I am also interested in what these qualities imply and their relationship to the abject. This enquiry has and can take many forms and guises, but at the moment and in the case of Harmonic Anatomies / Wet Mouths I am interested in looking at the similarities female sound and bodily fluids, as materials that are seen as difficult to contain, evidence of our leakiness and interior life — that ‘need’ to be controlled somehow and are seen as an embarrassing by society.

PROJECTIONS:  …and as if slime and open-ended chance encounters aren’t enough, you’ve also elected to work with local artists, many of whom you’ve not met before. Why make this decision rather than bring people with you – is it purely pragmatic, or does this in some way open up the element of chance even further in a way that helps you?

BRYONY GILLARD:  I’m working with a combination of collaborators with whom I’ve worked very closely before (Maggie Nicols, Danni Spooner) and new people (Sarah Rose Bird, Heather Bonnie Reid, Rene McBrearty). I do a lot of research before approaching possible collaborators and also rely on intuition and recommendations of my peers, so I normally have a strong feeling whether someone will be interested in the work. One of the things I love most about working collaboratively is the opportunity to bring people together who I know will get a lot for each other’s practice — there are always surprising links and similarities between people’s work, or personal histories and it’s such a joy to watch these relationships develop. It is of course a gamble bringing new people together, but I think certainly in relation to improvisation, this freshness brings something really interesting that can’t be recreated. It’s probably also important to mention that the performance itself is only part of the project — we’ll be working together for the whole day prior to the performance, undertaking exercises, games, readings, discussions and spending time together — so the performance comes from a foundation of common ground we will have built during that time.

PROJECTIONS:  Finally, in your original proposal – redacted for the purposes of not scaring people off but here helpfully reintroduced – you closed by saying the ‘audience will be invited to participate and get wet/loud.’ Is that still the case?

BRYONY GILLARD:  I’m actually in the process of making a number of puppets to give to audience members as gifts, for them to use during the performance and take away afterwards if they wish. I’m super aware that compulsory participation is really uncomfortable and I personally hate the feeling like I have to participate in other people’s work, so I am hoping the puppets will provide a soft way for those who really want to interact to do so. The puppets have latex mouths, as mentioned before, which make a clacky, sticky sound when worked as a puppet and require a little lubrication to stop them getting too stuck together —so I am hoping the act of choosing whether to take a puppet, whether to use it and also whether to lube it up, provides a gentle way in for people!

Dialogue is a series of interviews with artists and curators involved in the Projections programme. 

23 July 2019