Invisible Architectures – a commissioned text about the work of Imogen Stidworthy by Chris Fite-Wassilak

We commissioned author Chris Fite-Wassilak to write a text about Imogen Stidworthy’s work. The text refers to Imogen Stidworthy’s solo exhibition Dialogues with People [ … ] at Netwerk Aalst.

Invisible Architectures

So here we are:

We meet, in a place already defined by words, though not completely bound to them. (You are, as they say, free to wander.)

This is an entrance of some form; an antechamber, to an exhibition. The exhibition is, on a literal level, a gathering of metals, cloth, and plastics, images and information. These various parts coalesce into a series of staged monologues: we hear groans and murmurs, making out a word here and there; we might catch words flickering by, glimpses of hands gesticulating, the backs and sides of heads. Rarely, we see a mouth. Even rarer, we see and hear it speaking.

These gathered works by Imogen Stidworthy bear a burden of proof. They use photographic techniques and sound recordings to provide some form of documentary, although often depicting their subjects in manners that are fragmented and at times oblique. There are particulars to what each specific work is attempting to document – the whats and whys of a woman who speaks confidently of the difference between the ‘real world’ and ‘ordinary reality’; a man solemnly holding his hand in front of his own face, feeling the expelling of breath that comes with making the sounds of ‘puh’ and ‘hot’; another man who holds a book to his nose, smelling its crease and fanning his face flipping through its pages. The work here is, on a level of about-ness, a set of documents of conversations, interactions and time spent with individuals with differing relationships to language and the verbal world.

Walking among the works installed in the gallery rooms, imagery, sound, and text are often divided into separate components; different forms of experience that need to be navigated, traversed. Going back and forth between video screens, speakers and displays of scrolling text, we witness atomised words slowly come together and again disperse. The continued attempts of ‘be, beetle, no…be, be…beatings’ of one man; or another as he haltingly enunciates, ‘each… building put down…they are still in existence’, the words sounding as if foreign to his mouth. We can feel the weighted efforts of attempting to speak, the sensory delineations of intelligibility. Their outlines and boundaries brood between the works, both heavy and elusive, addressed more indirectly than not, like the memory of a building explored in a dream.

Stidworthy’s work isn’t so much about the spectrum of communication, addressing its glitches and aberrations, but more about taking that spectrum as its structure and method. Which is to say, it places those viewing the work in the position of piecing things together, of figuring out what is relegated to the realm of noise, and what builds towards speaking, towards language. Asking us to enact this process is also asking us to consider the basic constituting elements of society; when two or more people might share some sense of what sense is when wider agreement or association might come about, or not. Through the work, it becomes apparent that the limits of intelligibility aren’t easily traversed, but rather heavily regulated and policed. Both by habit and by formal rules. What emerges through experiencing the work is a set of metaphorical spaces for where the social might start.

Together, these metaphorical spaces gesture towards an invisible architecture that hovers above the partitions and walls of the gallery – a set of imaginary rooms, spaces for various forms of encounters, ghosts of institutional spaces that shape lives. As each work shifts and slides between each of these spaces of interaction, let us take a brief tour of these conceptual structures:

The library is long, with a low ceiling. Visitors here come one at a time, to survey the past and gaze on its definitions of knowledge. The edges are clearer here, holding generations of bound information in infinite storage. In one section are the holdings on hermeneutics, just next to science fiction. Another hosts all the varying forms of encyclopaedias and translation dictionaries, arranged by year. Browsing is encouraged, if not necessary, given that the records of what is being held in the library are incomplete. However, navigation and use of the library still must follow prescribed parameters: attentiveness, introversion, cleanliness. The library instils the urge to accrue; to record, to catalogue, to preserve. Although solitary, the encounters held here are ones of discovery, of learning, but also of control.

A plain, white cube of a room, with two doors in it. Visitors here, if invited to, can take a seat on one of two chairs facing each other, upholstered in anti-bacterial vinyl. The clinic is a space for only two to interact, depending on when the attendant specialist is available. Through the other door, before they arrive, you might hear murmurs of what they are discussing (‘The neural mechanisms underlying imagined speech remain poorly defined, in part due to the lack of clear timing of inner speech, and the subjective nature of speech imagery,’ says one official. Another states, ‘The human brain is a giant, interconnected, recurrent network: in principle, we should be able to understand it as a computer, by reverse-engineering it and discovering the underlying computational algorithms that govern its function.’). The clinic is predictive, working towards diagnosis and determining what the future will be. Interactions are precise, prescriptive, with a set outcome in mind, often that of erasing a perceived abnormality. The encounters are those of guidance, direction, and correction.

The shape of this room is similar to that of the clinic; though there are no seats or doors. On one side is a frosted, waist-high glass window. The hushed atmosphere is similar to that of the library; though unlike the library’s deliberate solitude, the prison imposes isolation. There is no interaction here – only the echoes of your own movement. Others might appear as shadowed outlines, occasionally, at the window; but you cannot hear them. You can attempt to make out words from the movement of their silhouetted lips, or press your forehead against the glass. The prison is static, a space without time.

Walls fall away to the flat expanse of the agora. An open, undefined and unresourced plain stretches out in all directions. The agora is the untapped present, a place where any number of people might meet on equal footing. They might speak, argue, or just walk away. Interactions here are fleeting, ephemeral, and many forget that the agora was the space where the social began before being partitioned out.

Back here in the antechamber, we might understand that these aren’t the only spaces for interaction, rather, these are the ones we currently have. They are not enough. Others are available, others are possible; but they require different ways of hearing, seeing, sensing. In several of Stidworthy’s works, the use of digital 3D imaging enables the video’s perspective to move through solid matter. We can see through walls: this impossible way of seeing suggests the existence of impossible ways of speaking. But we only conceive of them as impossible, blinkered by habitual forms of saying, of defining, of meeting. The treatment of silence, text, gesture, and enunciation throughout Stidworthy’s work, as actions and entities given equal weight and attention, is perhaps one way to start. Such an approach dissolves language into wider senses of being, and wider beings of sense.

There is no pure or perfect way to communicate. Rather we must aim, as Stidworthy’s models suggest, to imagine and embrace and immerse ourselves in the infinite forms that communication can take. Or, that is to say, we might learn to understand that communication itself is metaphorical – a restless, shapeless haze, that might stand for desires to share, a moving haze that takes us between spaces; a haze that might take us, as writer Róbert Gál put it, From the inside out, but from which inside to which outside?

What remains is the possibility of mutual acknowledgement. Each of us is the third person in the conversations unfolding in the gallery, and their questions and potentials remain with us to shape the forms of conversation we have afterwards. What remains is to create new imaginary architectures of exchange, where something, unheard and unspeakable, might pass to, and from, and back again, with a slight nod of your head.

Chris Fite-Wassilak, 2019