Landfill: Part 4July 12, 2011
Landfill Contributor: Brindalyn Webster
Landfill is a project that studies socially engaged artworks by archiving and redistributing the materials they produce. It exists in three parts: an online archive, a quarterly subscription service, and a print journal. Four times a year, selected materials from the archive are mailed to subscribers, pulling diverse practices into conversation by grouping them thematically. The journal contains essays, interviews, images, and project descriptions relating to the objects in each issue. This column is a critical platform and experimental testing ground for Landfill: a place to open a dialogue about the materials themselves and methods for investigating them. This installment focuses on Mass Ventriloquism and Skidbladnir’s Figurehead, two works by Brindalyn Webster, a featured contributor on the Landfill archive.
The story of Carolina the whale begins with befuddlement; she was lost, beached on an isthmus in the Askim Bay. Two fishermen discovered her, heaving, with her belly wedged on the sand. Calling her a monster, they maimed her, taking a spear to her eye—her most human feature—a harpoon to her side, and an axe to her blowhole for two days, until she finally died.1 Afterward, they sold her bloodied corpse to August Wilhelm Malm, curator of Gothenburg’s Naturhistoriska Museum from 1848 until his death in 1882. Wrongly believing he had stumbled upon an undiscovered species, Malm took the liberty of naming the whale after his wife, Balænoptera carolinæ. He directed the hulking, putrid job of stuffing Carolina, acquiring for the museum what it can still claim: the only taxidermied blue whale in existence.
Despite Malm’s careful measurements, drawings, and scale models, her arsenic-coated skin did not stretch all the way over her new wooden frame.2 The gaps are patched with wooden pieces.3 Her upper jaw is fringed with baleen and opens on a hinge, turning her into a kind of stationary ship. Dubbed the Valsalen, which means both “whale room” and “election hall” in Swedish, Carolina’s interior is closed except on election days and during the museum’s Christmas bazaar, when visitors climb through her gaping mouth to vote or sit in her belly.4 Carolina’s gut resembles a Conestoga wagon; tapestries printed with cross-shaped flowers are stretched over her arched wooden ribs, and benches provide seating along her stomach walls.
In 2010, Brindalyn Webster invited fifteen women (whose jobs, like Carolina’s, require them to interact with the public daily) to perform a short play inside the whale. Mass Ventriloquism (2010) relates Carolina’s origin story; it recounts how three steamboats “escorted her” to Gothenburg, how Malm declared victory when he came to possess her, and how she quietly accepted her responsibilities to her country, representing Sweden at the 1866 Industrial Exposition in Stockholm. Now that she is mostly closed to the public, the play depicts her as a symbol of silent, feminine dignity. In her “graceful muteness,” she speaks only when “Sweden speaks through her” on Election Day.5
Underlying the play and the corresponding seven-minute video piece in which the women narrate Carolina’s fable over a slow pan of her empty interior is the discrepancy between being visible and having a voice. The now anthropomorphized blue whale once had her own diaphragm capable of emitting sound with such magnitude it may have traveled across oceans.6 Her slaying and stuffing have made her more visible than ever—a marvel of science and an icon of the Swedish electorate—but her voice is no longer her own; she has become a kind of puppet, a hyperbolized version of herself with a rigid, movable mandible.
Speaking demonstrates being capable of speech, of crying out in more than simple pleasure and pain. This is what an active electorate does; this is what protesters do: they prove the existence of thinking, speaking publics. In a representative democracy, an elected official not only serves as a medium for communal speech, but also speaks as an individual. Inanimate symbols, however, speak only by way of the cultural significance assigned to them. They acquire these meanings when they are put to use. In Mass Ventriloquism, Carolina “speaks of enormity”; she symbolizes the power of compounded voices whose sound she enables each time a Swedish voter enters her belly.7 In Webster’s play, ventriloquism functions as a metaphor for representative democracy and for speaking itself—for throwing one’s voice through a system of signs already suffused with symbolic meanings.
Occupying the allegorical power of something inanimate can be an act of agency or exploitation. Long before vaudeville, ventriloquism was known as gastromancy, an ancient Greek form of divination in which a person’s “second voice” issuing from the belly could be heard, providing insight and offering a course of action.8 The points of manipulation in this ancient art form are obvious, as the diviner has ultimate control over what the belly “says.” As its significance shifted away from prophecy and toward performance during the nineteenth century, ventriloquism became a kind of trickery that required the collusion of the audience; its ability to entertain depends not only on a performer’s capacity to dissociate voice from body, but also on the willingness of viewers to imagine life in a lifeless thing—to submit to a kind of willed confusion.
This complicity often involved exclusion, laughing through another’s mouth at another’s expense. A handbook written by a working ventriloquist in 1906 gives detailed instruction for rigging the mouths of puppets to suit character types. These types served to reinforce cultural assumptions within the powerful, imaginary space of the play. The author describes the way a puppet’s function dictated its physical construction: “The Old Woman” and “the Old Man” were “standing figures,” while “the Irish” and “the Negro” were constructed to sit on the ventriloquist’s knee.9 These instructions also reflect prejudices so deeply embedded in the time and in the form that the ventriloquist rattles them off unselfconsciously as practical guidelines. He writes:
By resuscitating Carolina, Webster turns two scarred and forceful histories—that of the whale and of ventriloquism itself—into a single, workable fable that addresses the continually pressing issue of who gets to speak and how.
Recasting Past Futures
Revisionary histories can be used to absolve individuals and societies of responsibility; they can also be used to imagine alternate pasts that open up into a newly unfamiliar present—inventing and enabling a capacity for change. Carolina has never been a window into the invented species of Balænoptera carolinæ; but she does provide insight into nineteenth-century ideas about functionality (coffee and punch were served inside her), into Malm’s own quirky tastes in interior design, and into a not-so-distant society in which a creature was killed because it was unfamiliar, and preserved for the same reason. The disparity between the lasting relevance of Malm’s actions and the way he perceived their significance demonstrates that his story has always been imaginary.
In Norse mythology, Skidbladnir is a wonder of craftsmanship, a boat whose thin pliable boards are suffused with magic. It catches the wind the instant its sails are raised, going exactly where it needs to; it can be folded up and put in one’s pocket, but expands to hold all of the gods of Asgard. In Skidbladnir’s Figurehead (2009–10), Webster translates the ship into an idea that moves, like the mythical vessel, though Gothenburg’s canals and over land, from storefront to storefront. She produced the pocket-sized book while studying at the Valand School of Art in Gothenburg. It contains nineteenth-century photographs of the city’s canals and ships, protest slogans demanding that Gothenburg’s rising waters be addressed on a global scale, an interview about plans to build protective walls around the city, and a proposal for a contemporary reconstruction of Skidbladnir. It also documents a series of performances, in which Gothenburg shop owners pose as the figurehead of the mythic ship using Webster as a counterweight, arching their backs and pressing their chests forward with their feet planted on dry ground. With each performance, the boat is rebuilt.
Pittsburgh-based artist Gregory Witt contributed a plan for the fictive physical reconstruction of Skidbladnir, addressing its particular design challenges. He proposes a sort of floating dirigible whose foldable rubber bladders enable it to fly with the help of an auxiliary hot air pump. Webster contextualizes the need for a new Skidbladnir in an interview with Ulf Moback, a landscape architect who works with city planners to protect Gothenburg from a steadily rising sea level, which, if left unaddressed, could put the center of the city underwater in less than a century. Some stonewalls have already been built, integrated into the urban infrastructure. Also included in the booklet is a protest sheet used during Göteborg Under Vatten, (Gothenburg Under Water), a demonstration that took place during the December 2009 UN Climate Change Conference. Protesters at the conference demanded recognition that the rising tide stems from climate change, and that walls alone will not solve the compounding problem. Broken into numbered stanzas, their chants read more like poems than slogans: “Meatballs, lutefisk, pickled herring / Now Göteborg is bad / Ham, mini sausages, farmer dip the pot / Soon Göteborg is completely submerged.”
The photographs and dialogue that appear in the book are also included in Webster’s Göteborg År 2000 (2009), a video based on a 1913 essay of the same name that was written by a sixteen-year-old boy, Uno Eng. Webster dug the images out of Göteborg’s Stadsmuseum archive and timed them with a narration by Jens Leckman of Eng’s already secondhand narrative. In the essay, Eng recounts a meeting in a coffee shop with his uncle Karl Teofil Theodorsson, who fervently and drunkenly discloses a secret—a vision in which a winged vacker flicka rewards him for his civic service to the city by sweeping him eighty-seven years into Göteborg’s future, allowing him to see its progress. Some scenes in this now-past hereafter seem dreamlike in the present: airships can be summoned from rooftops; men wear huge collars advertising successful business firms. Others sound more familiar: wide streets are filled with the whirring sounds of industry; the harbor, a mile wide and three times as deep as it was in 1913, teems with ocean steamers. In his travels, Theodorsson sees his old horse in a museum—presumably stuffed, strapped to a wagon and surrounded by spectators. The horse, planted in unfamiliar, rarefied surroundings, speaks of changes that were uncertain in 1913, but inexorable in hindsight. The animal’s appearance in the vision of this turn-of-the-century dreamer also speaks of an ancient human ability to imagine seemingly sturdy, essential things as ephemeral bodies. These eventual pieces of evidence document their own outmoded functionality, but they also continue to act as marionettes that give voice to an elastic narrative.
Building a Beaver Dam
For Meetings As Architecture (2008), Webster attended voluntary meetings in the San Francisco Bay Area and asked attendees to imagine their meeting as a construction they were working to build. She asked each the same question: “If this meeting was a piece of architecture, what would it be?” Sometimes she suggested ways to elaborate by comparing individuals to design elements: “window, stairs, pillar, wall, rug, moat, sail, booby trap, etc.”11 The project exists as a series of neon yellow cards, each containing a floor map diagramming a meeting’s seating arrangement, the name of the group that gathered, and a quote from someone who was there, describing what the meeting would look like if it were fabricated in physical space. A student participating in the San Francisco Public Library’s Teen Advisory Committee, a group that develops programming to make the library more teen-friendly, related the meeting to a beaver dam: “A beaver puts things on in little pieces twigs and leaves. And then takes them off and rearranges them. And the water rushing through the dams are like the events, or time.”12 A beaver dam is a structure that changes constantly—parts of it are eaten, other parts collapse against the force of the water that also enables it to float. Mud and stones are used to patch it; it is rebuilt overnight.
Similarly, the reconstruction of Skidbladnir is constantly occurring. It can be observed in confrontations between a speaking public and its government, in escapist elusions that drift away from addressing the root of the problem, and in practical proposals to fend off the waters that surround the city. In Skidbladnir’s Figurehead, demands for change and demonstrations of agency exist alongside fantasies of a deus ex machina—a ship that can fit all the city’s people—suggesting that these ideas are not at odds. Fantasy is a kind of protest; when made physically present through fiction, craft, and performance, it demonstrates an unwillingness to accept things as they are. Protest is likewise a kind of fantasy, a belief in the possibility of something that does not yet exist, and a willingness to act based on that belief. It requires imagination, a willing suspension of disbelief, to accept a century-old wooden whale as a source of speech. It requires a similar sort of imagination to visualize the sea level, one hundred years in the future, rising because of causes so vast they become abstract. Its existence in imagination does not mean that climate change is fiction, only that its inconceivable magnitude has to be matched by symbols that are similarly expansive, so that the issue itself becomes tangible enough to talk about and act upon.
Without cutting Skidbladnir’s tethers to a specific time and place, Webster resuscitates the ship in the same way that she revives Carolina, by spinning new fables out of pliable, historical ones, pulling the stories into the present while remaining rooted in Gothenburg. They are pliable because they were already imaginary, constructed and remodeled using charged icons developed through centuries of telling and retelling. In this account, ordinary citizens become figureheads in both senses of the word—sovereign leaders and mystical symbols of good faith and good luck— by participating in fables, and by revising their significance.
Webster’s projects investigate how we might construct a plan for the future out of the physical conditions existing now, by producing new myths out of existing histories. They account for the difficulty of navigating tides that shift and rise by looking backward to historical accounts, which contain elements of confusion, hubris, and optimism. They use ever-present bewilderment and uncertainty as resources for producing needed forks in the narrative. As voices are thrown through already charged icons, forgotten or defunct fables become newly viable. These rebuilt myths lead to actual constructions, arrangements of people and places, which have the ability to either stifle or enable speech. The present aim is to build structures, new oral histories, which anticipate the ways in which our movements are changing. These vessels need to be sturdy and bendable, large enough to fit expanding notions of what it means to speak.