An interview with a performance artist, whose "art" consists of consuming entire copies of the Oxford English Dictionary, Gray's Anatomy, and the King James Bible.
Mind, Body, Soul was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1999.
Gregory Whitehead has been immersed in audio production and play from early childhood, and has since founded a number of spurious research centers, including the Paul Broca Memorial Institute for Schizophonic Behavior, the International Institute for Screamscape Studies, and the Laboratory for Innovation and Acoustic Research (LIAR). His efforts have yielded a wide variety of responses, including awards such as the BBC award, the Prix Futura, and the Prix Italia, which he was relieved to discover was not a formula racing car event.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Gregory Whitehead
[Ed. note: When we first started talking with Gregory about featuring his work on the Third Coast Web site, he requested that instead of conducting a standard interview, weengage in a dialogue that would unravel over a short period of time, and extract parts of it. We were more than happy to break from tradition for a couple weeks and indulge him (and ourselves) in a conversation about his work. What follows are some of the highlights.]
So, I’ve been asked to describe your work a few times, and have never been exactly sure where to start. How would / do you describe your approach to your work?
I begin with the idea of radio as an adventure, and part of the idea of an adventure is that you don't always know precisely where you are. To my ears, a good radio program invites the listener to navigate. Sometimes the waters get choppy, or the fog rolls in. I always remind myself that the first community of radio artists was a community of maritime distress and rescue, the community of S-O-S.
In fact, the first trans-Atlantic radio broadcast was the single letter "S" in Morse code, dot-dot-dot. It's a twitching finger, a nervous finger, and radio is a nervous medium, we never really know who is really speaking, or why, or from where, it is a medium of permanently suspended disbelief. Rather than pretend the fog doesn't exist, I've always tried to embrace it, listen for the buoys, and hopefully float a few of my own. There's nothing more pretentious than imposing an artificial clarity on a nebulous, and even convoluted, world.
I believe it was the poet Leopardi who said that the smallest confused idea was superior to the most lucid grand idea. Not to say that we should aim to create confusion, but good programs, to my mind, are an invitation into a field of associations, where the conclusion may not be entirely clear. The open adventure of thought, not the delivery of predetermined conclusions.
What strikes me about your work is that you’re constantly inviting listeners to suspend their beliefs in what they think they comprehend as Truth, and what they suspect is fiction. You coax a certain flexibility from them.
Producers spend far too much time policing boundaries - on this side, we will put all the facts, and over there, we will isolate the imagination - but of course that's not the way of the world, in which the fabulous becomes all too real in a heartbeat, and in which "hard facts" are transformed into the most perverse fictions, whether through political motivations, or through the drive to sell stuff. Good programs invite the listener to ask questions about the nature of contemporary reality, and the blurring of fact and fiction is very much a part of reality. That's not to say there is no "truth" - of course there is, but it does not come with a sign hanging around its neck, or with a blinking neon arrow. I would always choose the truthful fiction over the duplicitous fact.
I've produced documentary features where listeners have asked me where I found such excellent actors, and plays where I've been quizzed about where I found such crazy people. That's not because they weren't listening closely enough, but because the very nature of identity has become extremely slippery.
It seems you’ve mastered the art of crafting such convincing, yet benevolent narrative deceptions. Are listeners ever upset by your talent for so convincingly blurring the lines between literalism and imagination?
It's a question of style. My role is to open up a space of play between fact and fiction, certainly not to fool anybody. Not deception -- but play. For example, take Ice Music, in which a sextet of trumpets are frozen into an ice tray, then dropped into a glass of selzer to create a brass choir. Well, the dream of freezing sound is an old one, and it pops up in Rabelais and elsewhere, but it does not carry much water as science. The humor is in taking the illusion seriously enough to inhabit the conventions of a "real" discovery.
Deadpan style has a long tradition in American humor. Twain and Bierce come immediately to mind, but most television comedy goes the other way, into a kind of manic cartoon, pumped up by a hysterical laugh track. Meanwhile a President of the United States can stare into a camera and say "I did not have sex with that woman" in a deadpan so perfect it jumps straight through comedy to become tragic farce.
I'm also struck by how you implicate yourself as a character / role / voice in your programs. Does this then heighten the sense of play?
Oh, absolutely, hey I don't want to miss out on the fun. I spend a good deal of time studying the technique of master clowns and also magicians, who often make fabulous humorists. Key to so many routines and tricks is allowing oneself to become the victim of the scene. Like a chef baked into her own pudding. So, for example, in Marinade a la Tête, I am the first head to get juiced by the marinade, and loved every squirt. Radio is also the perfect medium for this technique, the ear is so much more forgiving than the hyper-analytical eye, radio is the medium of creative ambiguity.
How much do you want / need the listener's trust? Maybe this hearkens back too much to the deception idea, which you countered with the notion of play. In that case, how much do you want / need a listener's participation in the game?
I want listeners to trust in the spirit of the game, certainly, and also in the process of an active navigation. In many of my longer pieces, the cross currents of association can at first seem to create a sense of chaos, like Poe's famous Maelstrom, but I work very hard to make sure there is always a way through, the associations make sense, the metaphors resonate, the stories build meaning. Not a passive delivery of a story that is prescribed, like a daily dose of received wisdom, but an active navigation, which we will do together. Like Emerson wrote, "The ship that sails the truest course does not necessarily sail a straight line." My intent is not to float out false signals, but rather to offer a few reference points for individual mapping, listeners taking what they want, or need, and building their own journeys, come what may.
You’ve talked about how good radio programs invite listeners to ask questions... now how about answers? Do good programs also offer an answer, or a variety of answers... or the encouragement to figure it out ourselves?
For answers, all you have to do is tune in the prevailing gang of pundits. The audience, above all, the American audience, is saturated with answers. In a confusing world, program makers have a key choice: do we try to simplify, filter, streamline, and move toward the delusion of the One Answer? Or do we create programs that exercise the more fundamental skills of multi-dimensional thought, the ability to hold two competing thoughts in the mind at once, which may be the very definition of intelligence. Americans are relentlessly infantilized, and mass infantilization of the sort we have here eventually produces a weak democracy, and the evidence for that is everywhere. More complex structures encourage more complex thought, leading to more open, vigorous discussion, which in turn prepares all of us for a future where one person's Big Answer inevitably turns out to be another person's coffin.
You also manage to tackle an assemblage of abstract notions (revolution, evolution, inspiration, art) via more conventional or standard communicative methods, such as interviews, or dialogue / monologue.
Yes, well, it's hard to ignore the most ubiquitous pop formats, and the Talk Show dialogue, or shared monologue, is right up near the top. So I proposed a series of interviews, in celebrity talk mode, in which I would be the host, the guest, and the band. Mind, Body, Soul presents an unnamed performance artist, who has become a sensation in the art world for eating three books: The Oxford Universal Dictionary, Gray's Anatomy and the King James Bible. One for the mind, one for the body and one for the soul. Within the simple Q & A format, with a down-tempo backbeat, I'm able to raise all kinds of questions about the art world, ambition, the market, the body. The simplicity of the form gives a tremendous amount of freedom, and at the same time, the format is so familiar, and readily accepted by an audience, gives the most difficult notions a relaxed feel.
The composed music in your work comes across as a voice as loudly as the speech does. Which came first - music or radio? What does the music accomplish that language can not?
Radio is at root a PULSE medium, it's the very nature of soundwaves. My own roots are in music and writing, so radio seemed like a lovely place to dance. I use music to set tone, certainly, but also to heighten the humor, create counterpoint, or cross-reference. Listeners are trained to hear radio as a combination of Words and Music, so once again, why fight it? In a piece like Brain Mash, it's crucial to communicate the essential ingredient of TIME, if you aim to transform mashed Idaho tubers into living human brains.
So what motivates you toward making this kind of work? What’s inspired you to develop as the radiomaker / artist you’ve become?
Well, when I give workshops to students, I always warn them that creative radio is not the endeavor to satisfy one's hunger for fame or fortune! I've always believed deeply in the utopian side of radio, the wonderful power to create these temporary communities, among listeners you can never entirely anticipate or predict, very democratic and even random. The other side of radio flourishes, I call it radio Thanatos - radio death. Radio was born as call for help (S.O.S), yet swiftly became a tool for destruction, whether in the rants of tyrants or, quite literally, as a weapon. But we should never underestimate or abandon the radio that is close to the beat of life, the rhythm of community, what I call Radio Eros.
If you think of the radio "feature" as the form of radio broadcast that tries to work with the root materials and possibilities of radio itself, then there is the challenge: the task of coaxing, seducing, luring, seizing, out of the dark, a moment of thought. A charge, a scream, a laugh, an objection, or a fragile connection. Putting things back together again, where a moment before there had been only solitude, silence and rupture. And featuremakers and radio playwrights don't have to look hard for themes, because they are all right here, inside the old mother herself: radio, born from maritime distress, riddled by catastrophe and salvation, instrument of conquest and illumination, source of immense profit, propaganda, and pleasure medium of polyphony and crushing monotones. The Third Coast Festival has a lot of ground to cover, and very much to celebrate!