Ideal Syllabus: Beatrice Gibson
In an ongoing series, frieze asks an artist, curator or writer to list the books that have influenced them
B.S. Johnson, House Mother Normal (A Geriatric Comedy) (Collins, London, 1971)
My current hero, B.S. Johnson, was a master of the book-as-object. His penultimate novel, House Mother Normal (A Geriatric Comedy), is set during the course of an evening in an old people’s home. Comprising nine monologues which successively disintegrate, the typography of the book mirrors its content; gaping holes and blank silences punctuate the text. Incredibly funny and achingly sad, not least when we encounter entirely blank pages and realize their implications, this is an exquisite crafting of simultaneity and a remarkable investigation of the elderly as chorus, ensemble or group.
Robert Ashley, Perfect Lives: An Opera (Burning Books, San Francisco, 1991, first performed 1978)
The second installment of Robert Ashley’s madcap trilogy of operas, Perfect Lives is about a small town in the American Midwest and the people who live there. Two musicians travel to the town to play in its piano lounge and attempt to commit the perfect crime in the local bank – which is also a metaphor for something philosophical. Composition as collective, singing as storytelling and landscape as character – Perfect Lives blew me away and boggled my mind.
B.S. Johnson, Albert Angelo (Constable, London, 1964)
B.S. Johnson again – I can’t resist; there’s something about him I find utterly touching. Another book in which landscape is a character. Set in north London, this is a novel in which architecture and writing seem to stand in for one another. With each section framed by a different narrative mode, Johnson and his alliterated alter ego, Albert, introduce one mind-expanding graphic device after the other, including parallel columns that display thought and dialogue retrospectively and ‘future-seeing holes’ cut into the pages of the book. In the novel’s penultimate section, ‘Disintegration’, Johnson bursts out of the strictures of fiction only to declare: ‘Telling stories is telling lies.’
Stanislav Lem, ‘The Seventh Voyage’, in The Star Diaries (Mariner Books, New York, 1985; first published 1976)
Speaking of future-seeing holes reminded me of Stanislav Lem’s short story ‘The Seventh Voyage’. Trapped in a time loop of his own making, cosmonaut Ijon Tichy is repeatedly hit on the head with a saucepan by disobedient future versions of himself. I feel there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (Penguin Modern Classics, London, 2000; first published 1939)
A slightly different form of rebellion. Recently introduced to me by the writer Maria Fusco and apparently the last book that James Joyce ever read, this is an amazing piece of polyphonic, Pirandello-like self-reflexivity, in which fictional characters rebel against their author and multiple narrative fragments intertwine.
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ in Ficciones (Fictions) (Penguin Classics, London, 2000; first published 1962)
Introduced to me by another friend, composer Alex Waterman, this is a story that was imagined into existence by Jorge Luis Borges in the form of a fictional literary review. In it, Borges describes the concerted efforts of 20th-century French author, Pierre Menard to go beyond mere translation of Cervantes’ 1605 novel, Don Quixote, by means of immersing himself so thoroughly in the biographical fact of its author’s life as to be able to actually ‘re-write’ Don Quixote word for word without ever actually having seen it. The result: not merely a copy of Don Quixote but a translation derived from having lived another’s life so intensely that production – as opposed to reproduction – is made possible.
Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel (New York Review Books, New York, 2003; first published 1940)
Written by Adolfo Bioy Casares, a friend and colleague of Borges, The Invention of Morel is a science fiction novel that itself mirrors two other texts: H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and Alain Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais’ 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad. A mind-bending little novella in which a fugitive, trapped on an island associated with the stigma of disease, falls in love with a projection and edits himself in to an image. This is a labyrinthine masterpiece about reality and its representation.
Herman Melville, Bartleby The Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (Melville House, Hoboken, 2009; first published 1853)
Another story of a copy, referenced by everyone and her sister but for good reason. Herman Meville’s tale is of a pallid Wall Street copyist who ceases to copy and whose mode of being throughout the novel is to state: ‘I would prefer not to.’ A character haunted by incompleteness, Bartleby offers a model of indeterminacy in fictional form, one that, being neither this nor that, demands some kind of supplementation by the reader.
John Cage, Score for Concert for Piano and Orchestra (Edition Peters, London, 1960; first performed 1958)
One of John Cage’s earliest and most significant indeterminate compositions, this is a groundbreaking score within the tradition of experimental music, consisting of a collection of individual parts and ambiguous, open-ended notations. Performance of the piece has the potential to travel though multiple trajectories. No single performance will ever mirror another.
Cornelius Cardew, Treatise (Hinrichsen Edition, Edition Peters, London, 1970; first published 1967)
Written between 1963 and ’67, and inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Treatise consists of 193 sheets of paper presenting an array of shapes that vary from the recognizably musical to the utterly abstract. With no clear indication or instruction for its performance, performers come together as a social body, determining how the score will be read through dialogue and negotiation. Tearing apart entrenched hierarchies between composer and performer, Treatise proposes music making as a social experiment and reading as a collective act.
Beatrice Gibson is an artist based in London, UK. Employing film, performance and text, she explores ideas around sound, sociality, collective production and representation. Her film, A Necessary Music (2009), made in collaboration with composer Alex Waterman, won the Tiger Award for Best Short Film at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2009. She co-wrote the script to her most recent film, The Future’s Getting Old Like The Rest Of Us, with curator and critic George Clark; it was commissioned by London’s Serpentine Gallery and will premiere there in July. Gibson is currently working on a new book project with editor and designer Will Holder.
First published in Issue 132