BY Jan Verwoert in Features | 27 FEB 12
Featured in
Issue 4

Vox Pop

Mixing poetry with pop songs, Karl Holmqvist has created a brand-new medium: the drag-performance

BY Jan Verwoert in Features | 27 FEB 12

Elephant Dung, 2011 (Courtesy: Hollybush Gardens & the artist; Photograph: Andy Keate)

It sounds like a voice being born. Rising up from the stomach through the chest into the throat. At this point, when we speak, the meaning of words usually begins to set itself off clearly against the sound of the voice. But not so here. The voice remains present and permeates each word it forms. What we hear emerging from the acoustic flow and rhythm is not just this or that utterance. It is true poetry.

This strange split between the speaking voice and the words uttered happens when Karl Holmqvist recites his poems. Freely and effortlessly, he stretches, modulates and rhythmizes the words by raising and lowering his voice. Bass-heavy vowels underlie slightly quavering consonants as Holmqvist moves on the threshold where tonal and atonal articulation – word, sound and song – merge into one another

in ever changing ways.

Raj Forever, 2011 (Courtesy: Raj Forever: Hollybush Gardens & the artist; Photograph: Andy Keate)

The recited poems are montages. Holmqvist works with the cut-up technique developed by Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs, splicing together different texts. Often, though not always, his raw materials comes from avant-garde poetry and prose, which he mixes with the kind of concrete language made today to be played loud on the radio, printed in huge letters on billboards or quickly scrawled on toilet doors. For example, he inserts lines from Gwen Stefani into passages from Gertrude Stein. Cabbalist references to heavenly bodies invert the hate-filled ragga tirades of Bounty Killer into love songs. Virginia Woolf goes berserk with the words of Lee Lozano. And sometimes it’s pop through and through but like having five songs playing in your head at the same time with one always morphing into another. The most diverse vocabularies and rhythms become bed mates, but as a listener one never gets the impression that all the stops have been pulled out at random. Each language sample is stretched, compacted, intoned, repeated and varied as often and for as long as it takes for all of its various moods and meanings to start coming out. Since he processes all of his material in this way, the material ends up feeling, not like a mishmash of quotes, but something spoken from a single heart, despite the many strong breaks in his readings.

Holmqvist himself describes this splicing together of avant-garde texts with pop language as a ‘drag performance’. His montages do have something of Burroughs as bearded lady, Stein in Spandex pants or Ezra Pound on poppers. But the key to this particular brand of drag is that it is not so much about drastic gestures but rather much more about specific corporeality – about creating a new linguistic body that

Stein and Stefani can live in together.

There are of course moments when this collective body seems grotesque. But such moments serve to highlight that Holmqvist’s methodical unorthodoxy may be the best way to stay faithful to the avant-garde tradition. Drag becomes a medium of devotion to modernist writers; and good pastiche, an expression of intimate affection. After all, in their own time, Stein and others including John Cage also demonstrated their love of the avant-garde by caricaturing themselves with extreme earnest in public.1 Not out of shame. But out of pride! Modern art is a laugh. Of course it is. Addressing its audience without the protection of established norms, modern art bares its peculiar physique – with precisely the attitude embodied by Holmqvist when, gravely imploring, arrhythmically shuffling, half whispering and half singing, he utters his version of the lyric to OutKast’s 2001 hit ‘Ms. Jackson’ (2001): ‘I Apologize / I truly does / I’M SORRY Ms. Jackson / I AM 4 REAL’.

It is incredible how Holmqvist brings this many-headed collective body of language to life in his readings while he sits calmly and meticulously dressed on the stage. This contrast makes the effect all the more demonic. Text in hand, the author does his job as a medium and reads while swarms of ghosts swirl around his head. The sound of his voice is the key to generating this eeriness. He reads not with his usual speaking voice but with a choric voice that he has artistically shaped in and for readings. Each individual sound is so clearly articulated that it seems to come from a separate throat. In this way, an entire chorus speaks through Holmqvist’s mouth. Using pitch like Mandarin, Swedish is one of the few tonal European languages. Besides that, it has eight vowels. Even when Holmqvist is reading English, he unfolds the full sonic potential of its vowels. During a transition from a to å (which is more an o than an a), the gates around the ° open up to the vowel’s deeper range; what we hear coming out of this vocal space and coming as if from an ancient church – Gregorian or rather Satånic – is neither I, nor you, nor we or they but id! The id lives in the collective body of language like fish live in the sea. And it works (to quote freely from Félix Guattari) in our organs of speech like a machine in a big factory.2

What to do with the id? There are many possibilities, and Holmqvist shows us how to proceed. He feeds the id with verse so it stirs and moves towards his listeners. When Holmqvist’s language enters your ear, you’re soon up to your neck in the id yourself. Lines like those taken from OutKast play a role in this experience – and that is the uncanny effect of a catchy tune. One example: Who am I if I spend the whole day humming ‘When you like it with each other put a ° on it’? Am I one of many single ladies inhabiting the collective linguistic body Beyoncé created in her 2008 hit ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)’? And therefore part of the id? Absolutely.

The main point here is not the dissolution of the ego but the capacity for linguistic action induced by entering the id: If I must no longer prove that words and knowledge are the property of an ego, then I can safely forget bourgeois modes of proprietorial thinking, with all their fears and rituals of justification. No worries. Anyone who hums ‘Single Ladies’ is a single lady. The mystery of becoming Beyoncé is not controlled by any academic rules of citation or rules for footnoting. Becoming is a linguistic possibility. And it is to be realized in concrete terms. This is the political message of Holmqvist’s practical language philosophy (his All The Single Ladies video from 2009 can be viewed for free on UbuWeb).3

Nest, 2007 (Courtesy: Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch & the artist; Photograph: Bernd Borchardt)

The overall gist of his practice is to provide his audience with materials and methods for further use. He makes no secret of the ingredients in his language mixes: The technique stems from Gysin and Burroughs, and the texts are taken from sources accessible to all: modernist classics and familiar radio and television material. The choric sound of his voice conveys a clear message: ‘When I mix, I’m just a medium. Carry on mixing. When we become mediums, the material belongs to all of us.’ Whoever talks about only ‘appropriation’ is still attached to the idea that artistic activity – via acquisition (of knowledge, references, etc.) – must increase someone’s intellectual property. By contrast, what Holmqvist shows in his practice is that the emancipatory potential lies not in appropriation but in dedication. In dedicating himself to other writers and in converting their language into freely usable linguistic instruments, he dedicates these means to his listeners and readers.

And it works. I never got into Stein until I heard Holmqvist reading passages from her poems and texts. Immediately it was obvious: Stein wrote for the voice! You have to use her. Only when she is read aloud does one understand what’s going on in her poems and texts. It’s a fun and highly recommended experience! Using the title The Sun Shines for Everyone, Holmqvist set himself the task of lovingly breaking Ezra Pound down into his composite parts, at events held on the winter and summer solstice (the first reading was on 21 December 2011 at Kunsthalle Zürich; the second is scheduled for 21 June 2012 at the same venue). It’s incredible, but Holmqvist manages to spin the Duce of literary snobbism from the right to the left. In his remix, Pound’s epic ‘Cantos’ become a treasury of popular song while poetry becomes what it can be in concrete social practice: singing for others.

The gesture of rededicating material to common usage also shapes Holmqvist’s take on other artistic formats. At first, he circulated his writing in the simplest possible form: self-designed, handmade zines. The fastest way to get material out to the public is the direct route of photocopying. His volumes of poetry to date I ON A LION IN ZION (2005) and WHAT’S MY NAME? (2009)4 maintain this directness. They are made to be read. For the layout, Holmqvist uses the techniques of visual poetry. Like his voice at the readings, the typography foregrounds the materiality of language. In many cases, he spreads the words freely across the page and uses graphic arrangement to create a rhythm for the eyeball. Elsewhere, verses are set in simple columns, using upper and lower case much like volume control: THIS is obviously louder than this. In among the small print, one sometimes finds essayistic passages: musings on politics and literary and cultural criticism, written in flowing prose or borrowed from others, inserted into the text as bigger chunks of language.

Using prose as chunks of language is not dissimilar to the way Holmqvist approaches images and objects. They, too, are introduced into the mix, converted into semiotic material and thrown out again together with all the rest. This process can occur not only in texts but also in space. Holmqvist’s installations are layouts in 3D. He translates image and text from posters and panels into wall newspapers, turns mandala graphics from his texts into sculptural objects in the exhibition space or writes lines of poetry on Verner Panton chairs as if they were notepads. The prose on the object becomes part of a poetry of converting the world into concrete language. Graffiti is a good way of converting spaces. Galleries and railway station toilets are sites of semi-public communication. So why not use the walls of one like those of the other? Who knows – perhaps someone will come along who can read and understand the writing you’ve left on the wall? As part of his contribution to the 2011 Venice Biennale, Holmqvist wrote the popular onomatopoeias of Futurism straight onto the plaster of the Italian pavilion: TUUM TA TA ZANG. In their cartoonish literalness the graffiti reinfuse Futurist battle cries with the irreverent spirit in which they were most likely originally uttered.

Finally, Holmqvist also uses video as a means to bring voice and writing together. In I’m with you in Rockland (2005), the text appears on a black background, line by line, while the artist is heard as a voice-over. The title is a greeting to Allen Ginsberg whose verses provide the framework for a montage of pop and current political catch phrases. More generally, the piece is a homage to the legacy of bohemian New York. Holmqvist invokes other spirits besides Ginsberg, including Jonas Mekas, Patti Smith and Vito Acconci. He treats them as both idols and sources of raw material. But this double treatment is fitting since what these figures have in common is their ability to create a potentially collective body of language – each in his or her own way. The political project of this bohemian culture can be understood as the ongoing reinvention of the commons via the provision of singular artistic means that reveal the social dimension of personal experience (and vice versa). If you no longer trust churches, schools and worldviews, only a singular voice can be the medium of collective experience. Experimentally, potentially, never once and for all. The more eccentric, the better.

Holmqvist makes himself the medium for such an ongoing experiment. His words are his insofar as they are words by many for many. His voice is his because he speaks not for a single person but as a whole chorus. He establishes a singular relationship with the collective dimension of language and invents collective language afresh as verbal drag for all. His refusal to think in terms of private property becomes a declaration of love for the id’s capacity to act through language: When the words are found and when the voice takes on a different sound, where ego was, the id will be! And the id can move as freely in the linguistic body of social experience as people in a big city. How good it is, then, to have a Holmqvist in town!
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

1 See John Cage: Water Walk, performance on CBS (1960), (retrieved on 1.2.2012)
2 Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis: An Ethicoaesthetic Paradigm, Sydney, 1995
3 (retrieved on 22.1.2012)
4 Karl Holmqvist, I ON A LION IN ZION, IX Baltic Triennial of International Art, Vilnius and Frankfurt/Main, 2005; Karl Holmqvist, WHAT’S MY NAME?, London, 2009

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.