We never use texts. We use the sounds of people talking as a kind of score.
A snow-white expanse, filled with thousands of words, exquisitely shaped in a font called Delicious-Roman. That is what you see when you open the website of the French playwright Joris Lacoste. In spite of its surreal beauty, a modernist homage to old-fashioned calligraphy, it soon gets intimidating. The site opens with a list of the 36 works of performing art he made since 2000 – a daunting achievement in itself. The list is divided into four columns: Pieces, Formats, Activities, and Dates, stating the years when his shows premiered.
The header of the opening page also contains four chapters: Joris Lacoste, Presentation, Calendar, and a choice between French and English. At least try the French version. However hopeless you are in the language, it conveys the pristine, meticulous, elegant, somehow very French quality of what Lacoste is doing in the most satisfying way.
Then, click on Presentation. You will get a concise explanation of each category:
‘Activities are specific research processes. More or less all of them are group endeavors.
Pieces are the ways in which a process is made public at a given time.
Formats are the presentation modes of the pieces – shows, articles, exhibitions, games, lectures, etc.’
When you click ‘Joris Lacoste’ in the header, you will not get his biography – it is filed under Presentation – but that daunting list again, which adds to your feeling of awe. Apparently, this guy is his work. Click any show, and you open veritable caves of information. Pictures, sound fragments, and texts – long, long texts. To give you an idea, here is the entry for Purgatoire (Purgatory, from 2007):
‘It’s rather entertaining. It’s strangely hectic. It’s compulsive. It’s very impressive. It feels very uncomfortable. It can’t be explained. It’s noisy. It compels admiration. It’s in-your-face. It’s frontal. It’s a little self-indulgent. It’s longer than planned. It’s darker. It’s hard. It’s more resistant than planned. It reminds you of. It’s deep. It allows for. It’s meant to. It’s pathological. It’s contagious. It’s fast. It’s unexpected. It’s ruthless. It’s a little over the top. It’s sheer torture. It’s super funny. It’s good.’
Most of Lacoste’s shows are based on the Encyclopédie de la Parole, the encyclopedia of the word, a project he initiated in 2002 in the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers. With a group of poets, musicians, scientists, visual artists, theater and radio directors, dramaturges, choreographers and curators, he has ever since been collecting audio fragments of what is said or uttered in public and private. Anything goes, basically – from work-out instructions via tapes helping people into hypnosis to famous speeches by Winston Churchill and Barack Obama.
The result is a worthy successor to Denis Diderot’s 18th century Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, a cornerstone of the Enlightenment and the first work minting the term encyclopedia. Meet Lacoste in person, however, and you will discover the instigator of this new monument to be a fairly young (he was born in 1973), hip, witty and very unintimidating child of our present times. ‘I have become hopeless in any company,’ he told me with a disarming smile during our talk in the Dutch harbor city of Rotterdam, where he recently presented Suite No 2, his latest work, during festival De Keuze (The Choice). ‘Most of the time I am very distracted. I don’t really listen to the people surrounding me. I am constantly mining what they say for new ideas for my shows.’
Lacoste’s work is deeply, heavily about language. Emphatically not about what is said and what it means, but about how it sounds. About the affects of the spoken word, and of the other noises we humans produce. ‘All the work I’ve done is based on speech,’ says Lacoste. ‘But we never use texts. We use the recordings themselves. As a kind of score. Including the pauses, silences and rhythms in what is being said.’
In Suite Nº 1 ‘ABC’ (2013) Lacoste directed an ensemble of eleven professional performers and eleven amateurs from the communities where the show was staged to re-enact those recordings, assembled in such a way as to give them new meanings. In Suite Nº 2, performed by five professionals, he went one step further. This show comes over as a concert, almost. The recordings are re-arranged in a musical way. For instance, Lacoste combines the shrieks of exertion of professional female tennis players with the groans of excitement of men watching porn on their computers, thereby alerting us to their striking similarity.
Suite Nº 2 is performed in the fifteen different languages of the original recordings. The actors even painstakingly reproduce the accents of the original speakers. Among the highlights are George W. Bush’s declaration of war against Iraq in 2003, the Gatling-gun reading of the verdict against Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and a rugby coach prepping his team for an important match. At one point, the interminable and very boring speech of a Portuguese minister of Finance, meant to soften the blow of a policy of austerity, acts as the basso continuo to a chorus of wildly different other utterances.
As the show progresses, the actors increasingly resort to musical interventions. They drum, dance and sing in canon, thereby alerting their spectators to the affects of the tsunami of words and sounds constantly assailing us via television, radio and our modern digital appliances, which we inhale every day without giving it a moment’s thought.
In spite of their great precision and craftsmanship, ‘in my shows you will never hear the original recordings’, Lacoste says. ‘We always add some other layer, like music. In this way, I want to draw attention to the manner in which texts are being spoken.’ The result is bookish, nerdy, sometimes moving, more often funny. And very musical. Towards the end, Lacoste builds a climax Ludwig van Beethoven could have approved of.
In the process of studying so much human speech for so many years, he discovered patterns that previously went unnoticed. ‘You will always recognize a commercial,’ he explained to me. ‘And the television news! It always uses the same format, wherever on earth it is made. In a way, it even uses the same language, everywhere.’ Part of the explanation, he thinks, is that ‘television news readers never see their audience’. ‘Talking to somebody who isn’t there is quite a recent phenomenon,’ as Lacoste points out.
Try to imagine Lacoste’s huge group of collaborators, assembling, for the past thirteen years, this colossal library of sounds that is the Encyclopédie de la Parole. Listening to them, cataloguing them, organising them into groups and categories. It reminds you of medieval monks, patiently toiling away at beautifully illuminated bibles. A very serious labor, putting a heavy burden of duty and responsibility on its participants. Not on Joris Lacoste, though. He seems more like a child dancing through a luscious garden, picking flowers at random and bundling them into ever changing elegant bouquets, singing a song while he’s at it.
From the treasure trove of his Encyclopédie, over the years he picked Shows, Exhibitions, Articles, Performances and Games, to name just the most commonly used of his formats. He even came up with seven Activities which he calls ‘hypnographies’, explained by him as ‘research on dream design and the possible artistic uses of hypnosis’.
The last one was 4 prepared dreams, commissioned by the festival Crossing the Line and presented there in 2012. Lacoste created ‘four scripted dreams for four New York-based artists’ – Tony Conrad, Annie Dorsen, April March and Jonathan Caouette – ‘who experienced them throughout a one-on-one hypnosis session with the artist. The artwork is the dream experienced during the session, in which the invited spectator surrenders to the fiction Joris Lacoste presents him with. Each session is followed by a post-hypnotic discussion – open to the public – between Lacoste and his guest.’ Culturebot’s Jeremy Barker had an extensive talk with Lacoste about this show and his other experiments with hypnosis.
‘You create hypnosis by speech,’ Lacoste explained to me in Rotterdam. ‘Seen from that angle, hypnosis is the exact opposite of psychotherapy. Therapists basically listen to their clients. They hardly say anything back.’ One of his games is called Hmm hmm (2009). It was a blind test, in which the participants had to listen to unidentified recordings and then ‘guess their provenance, recording situations, the identity of their speakers, and their status’. His first two works were ‘radio playwritings’, as the English version of Lacoste’s website defines them.
In short, his creativity knows no bounds, and its source goes back a long way. ‘My first approach to art was through literature,’ Lacoste told me. ‘My family didn’t go to the theater, but we had a lot of books.’ And boy, did he put them to good use. The Encyclopédie de la Parole will keep the child in the luscious garden dancing, picking and singing for many years to come.
Playlist for Suite Nº 2
November 19 till 21: Théâtre l’Air Libre in Rennes, France, during the festival Mettre en Scène.
March 12 and 13, 2016: Black Box Teater in Oslo, Norway.
May 31 and June 1, 2016: Teatro Maria Matos in Lisbon, Portugal, during the Festival Alkantara.