8 essays
Compiled by Samuel Barry

There is a space where the ontology of writing opens itself unto the world. Here we find an arena for the “performativity“ of literature. Within this space, an embodiment of languages and pauses exist as powerful gestures for the political, the economic, the feministic and as a celebration of the diverse.

From the exit of orality in Mary Walling Blackburn’s “Sister Apple, Sister Pig” to a female mysticism put forth by Evia Wilk in “The Word Made Fresh,” there are outlines of a radical gesturing. As a consequence of these gestures, there exists a puncture, through which a performativity of literature surges and flows.

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Mary Walling Blackburn
Sister Apple, Sister Pig: Speculative Annotations
Originally published in March 2014

Sister Apple, Sister Pig, a book of images and text by Mary Walling Blackburn, emulates a lost literary genre: photo-illustrated children’s books of the 1960s and 70s that cast the child as a protagonist, problem-solver, and model for action in the world. To use this genre is a radical gesture, as modern discourses on abortion have focused largely on the mother’s experience. Nineteenth-century patent medicine companies, for instance, advertised pills for “female irregularity” and “complaints incidental to the female frame.” In the late 1960s, Western middle class consciousness-raising groups sought to understand abortion as an opportunity for women’s self-knowledge. Later third-wave feminists countered this argument by honoring the traumatic aspects of abortion for the mother, seeking to establish “the death of the fetus [as] a real death.” Right-wing activists now concretize this “real death” in the form of bloody fetus photos. Children themselves, however—both living and dead—remained strangely voiceless.

Doreen Mende
The Many Haruns: A Timeline Through Books and Hand Gestures from 18,000 BC–2061
Originally published in November 2014

A few moments from encounters with Harun Farocki materialize in the form of his films and his own texts, passages from emails exchanged with HF over the years, my porous memory of dinners, and our reunions in the years to come. The time-fragments presented below begin long before we met and exceed the factual-temporal event of Harun’s untimely, depressing, and shocking passing on July 30, 2014.

Bilal Khbeiz
In Praise of Books: When Authorities Close a Prison, They Foil a Revolution!
Originally published in October 2012

People these days lament young people’s disdain for reading and, by extension, writing. Quite a few of today’s young people secretly indulge in writing poetry that will never be published, probably because they seek distraction elsewhere. It seems that in the West, and especially in America, all the best-selling authors are retired celebrities. The list of retirees who write is long, starting with politicians and continuing with businessmen, economists, and the wives of famous baseball players or golfers. Each has an enthralling tale to tell that is worthy of publishing only if there’s a success story behind it. That is why Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, published a book at the end of his long and successful career. Had the financial crash of Lehmann Brothers happened before the release of his book, he might have stopped the presses, since he presided over the economic policies that led to the financial avalanche of September 17, 2008.

Orit Gat
Could Reading Be Looking?
Originally published in April 2016

Imagine, if you must, walking into an exhibition space and encountering work so oblique you don’t know what to make of it. You start looking for text. First on the wall, then, by the door or a desk someplace. You scan whatever copy you can find, searching for coordinates, landmarks, bits of conceptual breadcrumbs, or a bright stripe of familiarity amidst the thicket of ideas. You hope to find some meaning in the work in front of you. Sometimes you do.

Lawrence Liang
Shadow Libraries
Originally published in September 2012

Over the last few monsoons I lived with the dread that the rain would eventually find its ways through my leaky terrace roof and destroy my books. Last August my fears came true when I woke up in the middle of the night to see my room flooded and water leaking from the roof and through the walls. Much of the night was spent rescuing the books and shifting them to a dry room. While timing and speed were essential to the task at hand they were also the key hazards navigating a slippery floor with books perched till one’s neck. At the end of the rescue mission, I sat alone, exhausted amongst a mountain of books assessing the damage that had been done, but also having found books I had forgotten or had not seen in years; books which I had thought had been permanently borrowed by others or misplaced found their way back as I set many aside in a kind of ritual of renewed commitment.

Barbara Cassin
More Than One Language
Originally published in March 2017

I don’t know what “one’s own” means and I’d like to begin with a different question: What is a maternal language? I will then try to understand what happens when you speak more than one language, when you speak several different languages, and how these different languages ultimately draw out different worlds; not incompatible worlds, not radically different worlds, but worlds in resonance with one another and without ever being able to match up completely. This is why we will have to ask how we go from one language to another and think about what we call translation.

Hans Ulrich Obrist
In Conversation with Nawal El Saadawi
Originally published in February 2013

On July 25, 2011, I sat down for a conversation with Egyptian writer, activist, physician and psychiatrist Nawal El Saadawi while she was in London for a workshop as part of the Edgware Road Project at the Serpentine Gallery. It was a beautiful July week in London and an equally bright time for the ongoing revolution in Egypt that had begun only a few months before, and I found Nawal full of the ferocious optimism she is known around the world for. As darker clouds now loom over the horizon in Egypt, Nawal’s reflections on the role of creativity, literature, dissident work, and feminism are absolutely crucial to return to now. Published here for the first time, a different version of this interview will be published in the third volume of my Pars Pro Toto series of books with artist Susan Hefuna.
—Hans Ulrich Obrist

Elvia Wilk
The Word Made Fresh: Mystical Encounter and the New Weird Divine
Originally published in June 2018

A biologist enters mysterious territory on a mission to comprehend the incomprehensible. Together with three colleagues—an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a surveyor—she crosses an imperceptible border into a region known as Area X. They are the twelfth expedition to cross the border. They are all women.

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