Neo-narration: stories of art

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Further forms of narration: from oratory to oratorio

The lecture and its variants provide a powerful framework for logocentric narrative art; John Bock's performances, for example, have long taken the form of presentations in which a quasi-didactic view of various social and philosophical systems are explored.

His role as narrator is fluid and unpredictable, with various personae contributing stories and voices to the narrational/narrative mix. Manipulated words and syntax combine with wholly invented language in order to parody and challenge, while notes and diagrams are penned onto boards in an act reminiscent of Beuys' famous lectures.

Other, newer, artists adopt similar strategies in a prolific contemporary emphasis on the lecture-performance genre. UK-based New Yorker Doug Fishbone uses the presentation as a springboard for apparently extempore narration in which, armed with a laptop and projector, the artist weaves a stream of consciousness-style monologue around images gleaned from the internet. Like Bock, Fishbone adopts a wide range of personae, from cod-philosopher to stand-up comic or opinionated bar-room bore.

In similar fashion, fast-emerging Tris Vonna-Michell delivers rapid-fire narration inspired by histories both fictional and factual. Each of his performances constitutes a type of chapter within his existing oeuvre, itself a loosely structured novelistic vehicle in which references to other chapters/performances interconnect and overlap.

Subjects range from reflections on the troubled history of the Anhalter Bahnhof in Berlin (Hahn/Huhn, 2004-7) to a magical realist fable, Down The Rabbit Hole (2006), in which the amnesiac artist travels to Paris in search of the avant-garde poet Henri Chopin, as well as clues to his forgotten identity.

In keeping with the literary analogy, Vonna-Michell frequently revises and expands his texts; and although they are generally performed within an environment equipped with specific props, the essentially non-visual basis of his practice provides yet another example of the ascendency of word within new narrative art.

A raft of further artists, such as Fia Backström, Pauline Boudry and Jeronimo Voss, are also closely associated with the lecture-performance genre, which will undoubtedly come to be seen as one of the most vital and significant of early 21st century trends.

The spoken performance as art medium draws on a wide variety of cultural forms and traditions. These clearly include the age-old practice of oral story-telling and poetic recital, but related influences abound: classical rhetoric; pedagogy; cabaret and theatre; post-war Spoken Word as exemplified by Allen Ginsberg or William S. Burroughs; and, in the case of Vonna-Michell, MC-ing and rap.

Reverend Billy - narration in art
image © Reverend Billy

Indeed, even the art of preaching has its place in neo-narration, with New York performance artist Reverend Billy adopting missionary zeal to proclaim against the consumerist greed of the 'shopocalypse'. A gospel choir, 'The Church of Life After Shopping', supports his homilies with musical indictment of the rampant desire to purchase.

The step from live to recorded narration is a short one. Artist Janet Cardiff, who now works in collaboration with partner George Bures Miller, is particularly well known for 'walk' pieces which lead participants equipped with headphones on a guided tour of specific environments. Early workThe Missing Voice (Case Study B) (1999), for example, weaves fictional narrative around an excursion into East London's streets.

More recent artists experimenting with audio narration include Paul Rooney, whose Words and Silence (2008) recounts the message left on answering machines by a young woman employed at a call centre. Her elaborate fiction is devised as an antidote to the tedium of her relentless occupation.


The libretto as neo-narrational vehicle

Music has long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with word. Rhythm and sonority are intrinsic to language, both as utterance or in literary form, and the fact that much early poetry was specifically written for musical accompaniment survives in our use of the term 'lyric'.

Such inter-connection is less fundamental to the visual arts, and while musical genres have often been closely associated with movements such as the Baroque, Impressionism or Minimalism, it was not until the 20th Century that fine artists extensively involved themselves in musical production as part of an ever-expanding inter-disciplinary practice. Works produced by Fluxus artists, Warhol's 'Velvet Underground' and Joseph Beuys' and Martin Kippenberger's excursions into recording are well-known examples.

For those neo-narrationists who utilise music however, libretto or lyric is generally of greater interest than melodic composition. Musical score assumes a secondary role: as complement or foil to the story being told, as well as a convenient vehicle for its dissemination.

As we have seen, Matt Stokes' recent work Gainsborough Packet is rendered in folk musical form. By contrast, Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson's, video work Caregivers (2008) uses the conventions of grand opera to highlight the circumstances of Eastern Europeans employed in Italian homes to care for the elderly or disabled.

The libretto is gleaned from a journalist's report exposing the workers' lack of rights, a shabby injustice which the specially commissioned score makes even more emphatic through musical reference to one of Italy's cultural glories.

The focus of British/Australian artist Richard Grayson's The Messiah (2003) is likewise a libretto, in this case the wording to Handel's eponymous 1742 oratorio, compiled by Charles Jennens from Biblical sources. Grayson commissioned Australian Country and Western band 'The Midnight Amblers' to re-arrange and perform Jennens' original text to a country-rock score that only fleetingly references passages from Handel's original, such as the famed 'Hallelujah Chorus'.

The resulting work brings the libretto to the fore, rendering its recontextualised language unexpected, strange and magical. The Country and Western melodies allude, in addition, to the powerful role Christianity maintains in the U.S. - which includes a vast array of fundamentalist or unorthodox interpretations of the Holy Word.

Richard Grayson, music and neo-narration
image © Richard Grayson

One of these is the subject of a more recent video work by Grayson, The Golden Space City of God. A choral piece performed by 26 vocalists, the libretto, which appears as subtitles, is based on texts by 'The Family', a religious community that emerged from the 1960s cult the 'Children of God'. Their vision of events leading to the end of the world provides a bizarrely compelling - and at times, strangely pertinent - narrative vehicle.

Drawn from the Book of Revelation and re-imagined through the idiom of science fiction, the Family's prediction describes the global turmoil that will follow an oil crisis and the collapse of dollar-based economies.

A world leader emerges from the chaos, assisted by UFOs, a giant robot, barcode technologies, UNESCO and the European Economic Community. Capitalism is abolished and replaced by an agrarian economy of exchange; Jesus returns to Earth to establish a kingdom of the saved.

A thousand years then pass during which the Elect rule over the rest of humankind, policing them using the power of invisibility. But the masses revolt a final time and God descends in the biggest space ship ever built, the Golden Space City, to rescue the Elect from earth's final destruction and colonise new planets.

In similar fashion to the conspiracy theories at the centre of Mike Nelson's The Projection Room (Triple Bluff Canyon),, The Golden Space City of God accesses one of the many 'unofficial' discourses that permeate societies and address the question of belief: quasi-fictions in the shape of urban myth, internet-generated intrigue, and, of course, conspiracy theories themselves.

Narrated in this case by a choir, Grayson adopts a method traditionally used by the Christian Church to deliver messages of faith. Not only does this provide an apt - if iconoclastic - medium for an alternative religious doctrine, it coincidentally serves to underline the extent of neo-narration's departure from artistic precedent. After all, the history of Western art is virtually inextricable from that of the Church and its favoured format of narrative painting.


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