Do you remember that time in the mid-noughties when everyone kept on saying stuff like “I just went to the shop avec Mike” and “wheres the pie? Dans le fridge”? … No? These kinds of phrases were pretty widespread for a time where I grew up, so I know for a fact that at least some middle class teenagers in East Anglia said them. I even think that, at its height, this particular brand of Franglais was so widespread that it could have probably been classed as some sort of proto-cryptolect. Or maybe it was a politically motivated attempt at subverting the trend of globalisation that has led to “le weekend” and “le hamburger” being French language staples. Having left East Anglia in 2006, I have no idea what happened to what I will helpfully call English Franglais. Did it develop to include both words and expressions – “I would plutôt go to the pub, as I could drink you under the table fingers in the nose“, for example? Did it spread and merge with other styles of Franglais emanating from Quebec or Guernsey? Did it die in 2009 with the Camden-born synthpop band Ou est le swimming pool?
Having moved from France to the UK in the mid-nineties, I grew up in a bi-lingual household. For a while, we all had to re-learn cultural identities and boundaries, not to mention learning a new language (my mum was already fluent but my sister and I weren’t). As a result, mis-translations, fumbled attempts at pronouncing both English and French words, mistakes and mispronunciations were the rules that governed communication. It wasn’t uncommon, for example, for one of us to try conjugate a verb and instead produce a pretty-sounding piece of nonsense.
My linguistically slippery upbringing is perhaps why I immediately connected with Accent, a work by multidisciplinary artists Antonia Barnett-McIntosh and Emma Bennett. It is a piece in which the two performers, mic’d up and stood at podiums, talk to/with/at/over each other. Making their cultural origins manifest (one is British, the other from New Zealand), before distorting and commenting upon them, the melodies, rhythms and timbres of their voices are exposed and transfigured, as they listen to each other speak and imitate each other’s utterances.
Their interaction takes a variety of forms, from remarking on each other’s accents in detached mock-criticism to simply repeating the noise that just happened across from the podium. Words and phrases are reiterated rhythmically, like a weird song that you could imagine kids singing in a playground of a parallel universe, creating a space in which meaning and sound jostle for prime position. With the simplest of processes, the artists lay bare the sonic/semantic dichotomy inherent in all spoken language. Repetition and rhythm become tools to split this duality wide open and stitch it together again, leading us into downward spirals of monosyllabic absurdity before we re-emerge with a halting, piercing line of semantic clarity, only to plunge into more sonic (semantic) ping-pong.
Language is a theme that crops up repeatedly in Emma’s work. In an earlier piece entitled Untitled (Speech), performed as part of the Bristol Art Weekender 2014, she assumes the role of a public speech-giver, putting herself in a situation where producing a speech seems to be both a circumstantial necessity (she is standing on a raised box, and giving the speech to what is presumably a receptive public) and a physical improbability. She speaks, or at least, tries to:
One. I speak; king. One. There is one, speech – I am – learning? Today? Which will be me – saying – THE GREATEST – I don’t know: of, our, nation. I! Five score, have been… Speaking – … (a) of the place/of-we-stand today, … and: proclamation.
Her delivery is meticulously intonated to give fragments of projected confidence and poise that make her seem oblivious to the fact her sentences make little sense. However, listening carefully between the garbled half-phrases, we start to glimpse a message. With flashes of poignant wit and humour, Emma dissects subjects such as politics and the art market, all the while dissecting her own delivery – and indeed the very idea of her own piece – as she stumbles circuitously along her course. Like Accent, Untitled (Speech) is a delicate balancing act between absurdity and meaning. Dangling the idea of communicable meaning in front of us – like a tempting carrot –, it flirts with the idea that language is doomed to solipsism, whilst striving to signify and comment on this state of affairs.
At home as much with notated musical composition as with music for film or multidisciplinary artistic collaboration, Antonia’s versatile output straddles several themes, of which language is one. She recently produced a group of works exploring the theme of rest as part of the Hubbub group at the Wellcome collection. One of these pieces, Breath, was featured in Weisslich Vol. 8. Another, earpiece, is a brilliant addition to the body of work that has recently been created exploring how we ‘hear our own ears’, to paraphrase Antonia. In a piece where “the participant becomes the instrument, performer and audience all at once”, audience members are invited to perform scored actions that include blocking, scratching, and tapping their ears as they listen to sounds played at ear height on speakers. Yet another of Antonia’s projects, A Few Pointers, sees her and artist Leena Kangaskoski re-negotiate simple relationships between a thing, its image, and its sound. Field recordings and images are starkly laid on top of each other, associating and dissociating their respective subjects in a figurative slideshow. As with many of her works (including, as mentioned above, Accent), the simplicity of the process lets the content of the work take centre-stage and speak directly to the audience. It’s a feature that endears me to Antonia’s work, and one of the reasons I wanted to program her in this concert.
For Weisslich Vol. 9, Emma and Antonia are making a new version of Accent. Will it be entirely in Franglais? Will it feature rapping? We don’t know. But you can expect to be both challenged and entertained, talked to and sung to, persuaded and lullabied, by these two fascinating artists.
Antonia Barnett-McIntosh and Emma Bennett will be playing WEISSLICH Vol. 9 along with Ensemble Pamplemousse and Robert Blatt on 13 January 2017 at The Wonder Inn, 29 Shudehill, Manchester and 14 January 2017 at STYX, 5 Ashley Road, Tottenham, London. Both events open doors at 7:30pm and performances start at 8:00pm.