/ / Marysia Lewandowska

Recording. Conversation in Progress.
Marysia Lewandowska

Performed at The Women’s Library on Saturday 14 March 2009.

The initial impulse and reason for carrying a tape recorder with me at all times was connected to the fact that I left Warsaw at the moment of a deep political upheaval. The experiences related to establishing in 1980 of Solidarity, a free trade union inside a communist regime and its ultimate destruction through the introduction of martial law in December of 1981, have marked my perception of how history is constructed, who keeps the documents, who has access to public broadcast. Events of such magnitude in terms of their impact on the social imagination determine one’s relationship to one’s own practice. The practice itself is put into question. When I was leaving Poland in 1984 and heading for The Banff Centre, an oasis of creative endeavors in the Rocky Mountains in Canada, I was aware that the change in context, change in political circumstances will present a dilemma which I will not be easily able to escape.

The question was not so much how to address what I left behind but more pressing was the question what I could do in the new situation, in an unfamiliar setting. Recording what was happening around me was a way of familiarizing myself, of listening rather than speaking, creating conditions for privacy and exchange through conversation. Recording was a form of participation but also a form of gathering knowledge, developing relationships. In London I found myself surrounded by women, in an environment of mutual support, interest, working out tactics which did not involve exhibition as the only form of dissemination of our work. We were meeting at the London Film Makers Co-op film screenings, performances at the Air Gallery where I first met Iwona Blazwick, at the ICA talks, and at protests around Greenham Common. My interest was in exploring the context before deciding how best I could contribute. It was perhaps also a technique of survival, of establishing continuities. So the recordings fall into two categories, documenting of public events, seminars, talks, conferences, and private conversations.

These are valuable records of a particular time in discourse, begining around 1983 until 1990. A decade dominated by academics and artists close to the October magazine, and by feminist gatherings with participation of Mary Kelly, Jo Spence, Nancy Spero, Judy Chicago, Yvonne Rainer, Barbara Kruger, Jane Weinstock.

In 1990 I was asked to contribute to a book Sound by Artists published by Art Metropole in Toronto. It was the first and only essay devoted to what was by then named the Women’s Audio Archive. In my introduction I called it a sound documentation place concerned with the spoken word, a living archive and an independent project that has grown out of my interest in language as a site of cultural displacement. The act of gathering the recordings and building the collection was motivated by reluctance to accept a particular kind of practice or existing behaviour in the London artworld. So rather than making direct reference to the political upheavals of my homeland I chose to attend to how politics and critical thinking were imbedded in the culture I was becoming part of. Having been educated in a totalitarian state I was very sensitive to the power of representation, to the origin and manipulation of images, to the conflicting narratives offered by the state which differed from those closer to me. So the emphasis on sound, away from the image was also a conscious decision to undermine the primacy of visuality.

“To speak is to question the will to possess. It is a rejection of a will to produce an object and turn it into a commodity. But to speak means also to re-affirm a presence, to be noticed, at times to gain control. ‘Language is legislation, speech its code.” (p.56)

It also important to remember the shifts in technology. Technology always presents us with a promise of record-keeping, of retaining memory, and by extension with the privilege of truth. I mainly used 1983 SONY WALKMAN WM-F1 TAPE PLAYER. It is now available on ebay at starting price of 5 dollars. The poor quality of the recordings is annoying, I acted often in a manner that might have been justified under the state of emergency in Poland but not while recording a discussion at the ICA or DIA Foundation. I kept the habits of secrecy. Hiss and distortions are far from charming. And you will experience those in a moment.

The Archive as a project was committed to investigating further the possibilities of living inside and creating a non-homogenous culture. Perhaps it was through the awareness of developing an undercurrent and in the continuous effort to preserve I was able to establish some relevant orientation points in a dense and contentious reality. In establishing the Women’s Audio Archive I had in mind both the collection and a site that would act as meeting point where the recorded conversations would participate in developing a history of women in the media-visual tradition that by its ephemeral nature can easily be forgotten. The Archive with its attention to sound acts as an incision in the hegemony of visual culture and commodity values. It gathers sound and speech, traces debates, contributing a selective commentary.

At the centre of the project lies conversation. What a conversation offers is a chance of breaking up a code, introducing the idea of singularity and belonging, as well as rebellion. In conversation the wrong-sidededness of language is revealed and patterns of communications are uncertain. And here again I draw upon the culture in which the channels of subversion emerge in conversations with others, and through the word that spreads around, mediating between desires and deeds. To recall Luce Irigaray: “… to create culture it is necessary to meet, to talk together, to organize without any economic, juridical, and religious submission, dependence and prohibition:”

A conversation needs no stage, it does not require a setting. It is able to find a space in the unlawful territory of tenderness and affection. It is ongoing. It pays no attention to progress. Conversation provides a transitional space of self-doubt and speaking out of not-knowing. By means of recording it represents time, it articulates histories. It makes past present over and over again. The potential of ever present is granted by the apparatus – the tape recorder, the playback machine.

Speaking belongs to the area of the un-traceable, the testimony often cannot be forced out of the body. The body is able to sustain torture in the refusal to utter and submit. The liquid present always originates in dialogue with the past. But the past remains full of blank spaces. Often we can only survive if we keep on forgetting. But in a world ordered by the regimes of reason, we are not allowed to forget; our memory is stored in the machine and often called upon out of our control. Speech leaves no visible mark, its only refuge is in the memory of the listener. It is not the voice that commands the story, it is the ear.Re