‘slippery things’: An Interview with Rosie Roberts
SPAM are delighted to announce the publication of portals: an exciting new sequence of notes and lyric musings from writer, artist and filmmaker Rosie Roberts. To be released early this summer, portals will be our first foray into full-length nonfiction. From the author:
portals is a rained through text set in Glasgow, it makes curtain twitchy inquiries into the disintegration of collective observation and thought in time. Through Glasgow’s associate objects the collection seeks to invoke a breath, a space and a motion between thinking and sounding in a particular place informed by writing and reading from out with. This is an act which draws in time, like the chord of the chime, in order to understand a place as undefinable, in relation to passing moments, themselves undefinable things, that are slippery and constant.
> Encountering Rosie Roberts’ work is like finding yourself in a canopy of trees, looking up at the sky and deciding that bristling sound is as much the clear azure as it is the leaves. Or maybe the sky wouldn’t be pure blue, but a hazy Highland bluster of grey. And you’d talk to it. I’m not saying it’s going to start warping into a vortex, Twin Peaks: The Return-style, just that it’s going to get a little bit blurred. The canopy is a commodious space for composing a thought; it feels like a paragraph. Crossing forms, genres and registers, swerving between spaces, voices, sources and times, Roberts’ approach to writing and filmmaking is dialogic and reparative as much as it is playful and multi-sensory: putting affect, attunement and intimacy at the forefront of her narrative, essays and images. Her style is firmly grounded in the everyday as well as myth and dream: attention to material detail abounds and yet there is always something aslant, an object or idea just a smidge out of place. A tiny dustmite, glowing oddly blue instead of red as it blinks cursorial across your screen. Roberts shows you how nothing is ever quite what it seems, but there is a delicious contingency in the shimmering version of things she presents.
> Roberts is writing and filming into space: making clearings for what we can or can’t know of the object world and of ourselves (not to mention ourselves-as-objects). There is a vulnerability, a kind of trembling to her work; an emphasis on the beauty of the everyday that puts you in mind of Margaret Tait or Margaret Salmon. Her films are lyric essays, while her essays feel like films. She seduces by a casual enchantment that feels like an opening commons in a weird world of uncanny encounter. Objects are lively with mutual agency. Characters seem trapped in a loop or a virtual definition of enaction itself. I think of this essay ‘LOOP (a geography)’ (2010) by Hayden Lorimer and John Wylie, an emphasis on the this of encounter: ‘This exposure of bodies to each other, this sharing and partaking means that being is first and foremost being-with’. In her poem ‘Aphrodite’s Hole’ (published in SPAM issue 8: Cruise Liner), the speaker details simple bodily and physical actions that become abstracted, some of which are more-than-human: ‘china / bounces on paisley carpet; prawns splat’. There is a submersion and a swim, there is a wavering: ‘Swimming to shore I do not know: where exactly we are, and what I will do after’. Something is always slightly clipped from the meaning, leaving the reader space to inhabit the scenario. Bodies and forms draw together. She often works with parataxis, giving things and events their equal measure, refusing to draw neat conclusions of meaning or value.
> In Roberts’ short film, Maud Gonne Nuts (2019), the protagonist (played by Catriona Smith) crawls out of a loch and enters the human world, only to splash back in again, and the cycle repeats: ‘but it happens in a loop / and you wash up again’. She is a fish, transformed into a woman by a ‘hapless unseen male Aenghus’. We are invited into a tender place, a hazelwood. The use of the second-person ‘you’, referring to Maud, heightens our identification with this entrancing yet recalcitrant woman/fish hybrid. Over images of flickering blue, interspersed with scenes of Maud wandering the countryside, chewing hazels, Rachel Lena Nicolson sings a gentle song of the possible and the strange: ‘if trees can sing / then maybe I’m / going nuts’. There’s something vibrating in the hazelwood, an unseen presence. But the film is not exactly eerie; there’s a quietly joyous quality to Roberts’ myth of Maud. She really pushes what it means to go-nuts, in a kind of Deleuzo-Guattarian sense of really becoming those hazels, becoming within the hazelwood. In the cafe-bar, the locals have their glasses filled not with beer but hazelnuts. As the small brown nuts are ancient symbols of fortune, wealth and happiness, it’s not so much that the characters drink to the goodness of each others’ future as they squirrel its possibility. So here we have metonymy. But it’s only really Maud we see eating the nuts, nourishing herself. She gets caught in these loops: endlessly she eats, she even accidentally indulges in some fishy cannibalism at the chippie. Over Fifth Harmony’s euphoric pop song ‘That’s My Girl’ (Epic/Syco 2016), Maud drifts around the bar, eyeing her hazels, striking a match over and over. I keep thinking of that Virginia Woolf quote from To the Lighthouse (1927):
What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.
In her gulping breaths, it’s like Maud is asking the world a question. O, O, O: the loop, the cry, the breath but she can’t begin. The match is a little daily miracle, obsessively repeated. ‘[H]ere was one’, looping back on the revelation of the ‘never did come’ itself. You might say of Rosie Roberts’ work in general: there are all these illuminations, matches struck in the dark by surprise. I think of sliding my iPhone out of my pocket, the back-lit glow of notification like a spell. Because Roberts’ work allows for that simultaneity, distraction; she suggests its lateral drift might even be a comfort. We are constantly warned that the waning of attention correlates with cultural and personal anxiety, but Roberts’ work sensitively unpacks the phenomenology of medial living between times and perspectives and voice. In her poem ‘help loop – a script for introduction’ (published in chains zine, 2019), she quotes Lotte L. S.’s recent essay series, published by Poetry Foundation: ‘The We of A Position’ (2019): ‘“Have you thought of the night, now, in other times, in other foreign countries?”’. There is this playfully vague Lotte L. S. refrain of ‘someone in literature once asked’, that Roberts modulates to an ask in her extended essay or ‘proposal for synchronicity and relational epistemology’: ‘Ring, bird, fish, tree, bell — a sigil for a city in the round whole: animal object, plant and sound’ (2019). The point is to pluralise one’s position, to laterally cite and to do so in body: as in Roberts’ film Pan (2018), where two human actors enact the playful ambles of their double canine companions. What would it mean to see from that landscape, knowing the humans and dogs were as much a part as the hills? And all those mammalian and geologic times at once! And in Maud Gonne Nuts, there are the hazels in the hazelwood, rendered in sound as a looping crunch crunch crunch.
> Roberts’ work is in many ways obviously new materialist, object-oriented in some of its themes. But there is a lovely domesticity to this: no speculative obsession with black holes and mineral obscurity as such. Her analogue, Pasolini-inspired film just / only (2019) was hand-processed in a developer made from strikingly everyday items ‘Vitamin C, coffee and baking soda’. Her alchemic aesthetics are not simply statements of agential being, but show up the strange desire economies of a familiar object-world, held shakily and estranged in the hands of its human viewer, wielding the camera. There is the repeat: ‘wants / a structure that just wants / to be another structure’, overlaying the flickering image, repeating again with a move from ‘just’ to ‘only’. These little affective shifts call attention to how we construct value, identity and perspective in language. The camera attends to the nuts on the windowsill; bulbs of light glow and retract as in a time lapse; scratches of matter play across the screen. We are asked to think of what is held in a form, in structure; but also what slips.
> In addition to her new materialist and ecological tendencies, Roberts uses registers and tone adopted from a feminist and queer practice of reparation, catharsis and care. References to Jack Halberstam and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (especially the notion of ‘paranoid reading’) abound in her work. Additionally she asks, alongside Donna Haraway, what it might mean to ‘try speaking with things’. This is not an act of ventriloquism or projection so much as a tune and a chime, a whimsical gesture with the weight of sincerity behind it. I like to think of the fleetingness of her work (not just in length, but the way a sentence turns back on itself, a section repeats but somehow also refuses continuity; the way she stages a loop) in relation to something else Lotte L.S. writes: ‘What we had in those moments was an anti-literature of life, an afterthought reaching to become the first and foremost’. Once again, the loop which is literature’s (anti)possibility. I think of that famous quote from Maurice Blanchot, ‘Literature is heading toward itself, towards its essence, which is its disappearance’. Roberts’ work asks what would it mean to be in a work that was dissolving itself, reduced to seed or grain as if that were origin, dying and sprouting almost helplessly. In Samuel Beckett’s play on memory, media and self-archivisation, Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), Krapp asks the question: ‘The grain, now what I wonder do I mean by that, I mean…’
> What does it mean to trail off this way, to not stay present and sweet, like a perfect rhyme continually ringing? ‘What happens to the seed that isn’t eaten, that doesn’t grow’, Roberts asks in ‘Ring, bird, fish, tree, bell’. Riffing off Jack Halberstam, she suggests that ‘conversations parse out seeds of thought and offer a way of being in relation to another form of being and knowing without seeking to measure’. With her shimmering cinematography, her looping, veering prose-poetics, her reflexive questioning of what it means to write, present and talk, Roberts goes some way to teasing out the qualitative, affective relation between the way and form of being and knowing. Its special secret chime. That her work sometimes feels like a script, scene setting and reeling little moments or depictions of peripheral characters, speaks to the reciprocity and intimacy of her practice. With Pan, Roberts wrote the script ‘simultaneously to the cinematographic process in order to subvert the relationship between script writing and image making’. There is perhaps the idea of a blur, a ringing tone, a veer; a colloquial space of exchange, an intermedial zone of transition and translation.
> Of ‘chatting’, Roberts writes, ‘as a form of knowledge making’, she asks what it means to bring in voices of informal wisdom within the formalised essay; she questions what is readable of a thought transmitted as image or text. Sometimes, being distracted or between-times is where the potential lies: where the trembling seed might split and grow, where the kelp washes up treasures at the edge of the water, where the mobile blinks its message of elsewheres going on and on.
> Ahead of publication, and following the screening of Roberts’ film Pan at the Beastly Modernisms conference, held at the University of Glasgow in 2019, SPAM editor Maria Sledmere got in touch to find out more about her practice.
A lot of your recent films and writings formed part of your coursework for the inaugural MLitt in Art Writing at the Glasgow School of Art. Can you talk a bit about your experience with the course and how it shaped your understanding of creative-critical work?
The Art Writing studio is a space shaped at the intersection between conversation, reading and creative responsibility/flexibility. I think it’s the kind of ‘sapling space’ I talk about in RFBTB (Ring, bird, fish, tree, bell — a sigil for a city in the round whole: animal object, plant and sound).
‘Sapling’ in itself is a vulnerable form bound up in time, a kind of transitional ephemera – in the Winnicott sense – and this is the way I experienced the course. As in, there is a designation of an intermediate area of experience, between primary creative activity – doing, making, writing, filming, talking etc – and a projection of what has already happened, and is going to happen in a practice, so, then there is this kind of unawareness of indebtedness and the acknowledgement of indebtedness that is constantly happening because it’s a learning environment that is based explicitly on sharing knowledge through conversational praxis. And this can be leaned into or resisted as it suits the individual/subject matter/time of year or whatever, I found it a transformative, challenging and furtive ground for thinking.
I’m excited by the course’s definition of art writing as ‘an interdisciplinary studio practice’. What does the notion of ‘studio’ mean to you, perhaps as a generative space but also an institution, a laboratory for thought, an ‘inside’ as opposed to ‘outside’? Are those notions stable?
You may have covered it, um I think of it as a place to think and make and do, but possibly also as a place that is other to the more function-set sites of life or places dominated by neo-liberal or capitalist production. But this is flawed thinking too because of co-option. I’m not sure, so maybe the notion isn’t stable, but that might be what is good about a studio? Sorry about this answer…
I know Margaret Tait [twentieth-century avant-garde film-poet, born in the Orkney islands] is an influence. Can you talk about when you first discovered her and how you’ve grown with her since?
I can’t really remember when I first heard of her, maybe it was through my mum sharing a radio show about her work with me? In terms of growing, maybe it’s something like, I feel like her work holds a creativity that has a light but meaningful touch and this is something that comes with confidence and practice, and perhaps once you trust your touch you can make work that holds the tenderness and authenticity of the subject (if you have one) well, because much of Tait’s work is almost documentary, so her light but meaningful method, feels like an ethical choice. I am also interested in how her films work as a constellation of visual thinking, often the practitioners I am most drawn to work like this, each piece deepens the context, affect and meaning of the last. You can feel the exploration of ideas unfolding.
We were saturated for a while there, with Tait’s work though, so it will be interesting to come back to it in a couple of years, and see how that level of exposure – to a particular artist with a finite body of work – will affect visual and poetic practices going forward.
I’m particularly interested in descriptions of Tait’s films as ‘lyric essays’, which could obviously also be applied to your work. How do you understand the lyric essay, which is often a fraught topic in both creative writing departments and publishing contexts?
My understanding of lyric essay maybe has something to do with my background in painting, perhaps because painting mostly involves an attempt at visual poetics and often a failure. Lyric, like painting is also situated within a white male canon and so we teach ourselves against it.
I guess I am interested in the medium and method of the flow of language or something, but also to be keenly tied to meaning, questioning and the relational qualities of a piece of work. Maybe this is what I play with a bit in ‘Aphrodite’s Hole’, the work is about revenge as much as it is about escape, but also its about the flow of a whipped off table cloth, and the swing of a dead dog in a carrier bag.
Sometimes I think of myself as a sort of mordant art person trained to look at literature through the lens of a creative practice whose pedagogical experiences were almost all visual/relational/spatial and this can create a cognitive dissonance, which I value.
But essentially I’m an essay imposter, something I felt keenly when I went to Glasgow University for a class for the first time. But then that feeling petered out, we all have something to offer in the essayistic sense because it is about ‘trying’. Perhaps lyric leaves space for the reader/watcher, can let meaning flow the way thought might? I’m not sure, perhaps it is a space born of oral traditions where dissonant information could pass between people without leaving a trace for power to use for persecution.
I wonder if there is a connection to be drawn between the idea of an art that draws you into multiple, conflicting and simultaneous directions and what Timothy Morton means by an ambient poetics: ‘a poetic enactment of a state of nondual awareness that collapses the subject-object division, upon which depends the aggressive territorialisation that precipitates ecological destruction’. There are so many ambient qualities in the way you use sound, image, text overlay and transition, the material traces still visible on film, the idea of presence and speech blurring in and out of focus. Sometimes there are wisps of sound and song, other times the melody and message is bursting like a sugar-rush — that moment of ‘THAT’S MY GIRL!’ in Maud Gonne Nuts, for example. Morton argues that ‘ambient images offer a sort of gate into another dimension, a dimension that turns out to be none other than the nowness that is far more radically “here”’. I see many portals in your work: from the loch of Maud Gonne Nuts to the images of ‘Ring, bird, fish, tree, bell — a sigil for a city in the round whole: animal object, plant and sound’, to the use of blank space and other motional ‘veers’ in your prose. What does ambience mean to you, as an aesthetic strategy and/or mode of being (and being ecological)?
Possibly ambience is the mode I am attempting to work towards, or maybe more work into. Ambience comes from ambire first used in the 14th C to denote a live thing which ‘goes around’ or ‘encircles’, which could be music or movement, temperature etc. The meaning slowly evolved through French to mean the ephemera – possibly particularly in relation to art works – that supported the effect of the central focus of a piece. I like the idea of creating the supporting network of ephemera without pointing to a clear focal point. I have thought about this in relation to conversation and to Hannah Arendt’s prevailing table metaphor:
‘To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men [sic] at the same time,’ she wrote. (Arendt, The Human Condition)
I think I’m interested in the feeling of the world of things between those who have it in common, and perhaps I see this as ambience; but of course, and I guess this is what I focus on in RFBTB, the perception of this ambience is experienced from the site of a subjective body and therefore at an intersection of infinite difference.
On the subject of your amazing propositional essay, ‘Ring, bird, fish, tree, bell’, can you talk a bit more about what the images are doing in that text, or what the curatorial decisions around including them were?
Two things – one, I wanted to take something almost cliché or kitsch as a site for thinking because of the charge that cliched things arrive with they are a generous site for affective exploration, and I mean this is a method taken pretty directly from Denise Riley and a workshop that Daisy Lafarge lead on Riley’s work last year.
And two there is a question of situated access, like, I am talking about the images we see in Glasgow every day. I think in RFBTB I use the examples of bus stop, tea towel, tile mosaic but I mean they are literally everywhere. So, people have prior knowledge and experience of/with them so perhaps the writing can then add a certain complication or attention to these everyday encounters. As I work towards a distillation of this thinking into portals, my pamphlet book thing for SPAM, I want the images to act as structural anchors within the flow of thought (hopefully!)
I absolutely love this line from Maud Gonne Nuts, ‘now she is an elsewhere document / a little lost you know’. Can you talk about the kinds of elsewheres you strive for or try to hold in your art, film, poetry and prose?