I saw an exhibition last year where I was told that the screen I was watching mattered— that the chairs and the walls and the lights were chosen especially by the artists, whose empathetic ontology dictated the arrangement.
[the materials are the message]
In my flat we have watched Dirty Dancing twice in the past month. We watch the Throw Down on Sundays and Drag Race on Thursdays and Saturdays. We are trying to keep rhythm and noise in our lives.
We are quiet at the start of Sharon Hayes’ Fingernails on a blackboard: Bella. We have two lamps on, both warm red, and our permanent Christmas bulbs flicker. The screen here is our television, which is too far away in the current rearrangement. I choose to sit on the floor.
I have tried to make an occasion of the screening. We are accustomed to talking over the television and have come to do the same over nervous academics on Zoom, as if their content were a rerun— dampening their clout as we lose the plot.
No, I don’t like when we talk over lectures.
The video echoes our initial silence, with closed captions on a blue background displaying segments of a transcript. It slowly becomes apparent that the dialogue is between a politician and their vocal coach, and for a second I find myself thinking about Margaret Thatcher.
The festival programmers ask the viewer to watch these works ‘energetically, to expand your energy and to think of new ways to be with the screen.’
We watch actively: we sing along to the transcripted ‘Mmmmmmms’ that flash white over cyan with an attentive loudness that circumstance allows. We expand our jaws and wildly approximate the written sounds together. Num, num, num. We are familiar with the languages of direction and instruction.
Is this the way they meant? We make a three part harmony. Mine is the middle. I imagine myself a tenor, but am probably an alto. I dread my inner soprano.
We miss the karaoke bar.
[activate the work as score]
‘The festival will continue with a series of screenings and events scheduled to follow the lunar calendar across the rest of 2021.’
I only sometimes know the location of the moon, but am drawn to this metronomy—the screen as an instrument for the measurement of time.
I try to posit the ‘telenomy’ (telly-nomy)—regulation of or as screen consumption and become sidetracked by a real word, ‘teleonomy’: ‘the quality of apparent purposefulness and of goal-directedness of structures and functions in living organisms.’
We miss purpose. Is that apparent?
[stop watching the Sopranos, lose track of time]
I smashed my finger in a door fifteen minutes before the new year came in. I spent the bells quashing hysteria, smothering the damage, stifling the shrieks of blunt abjection. A sharp deviation from the usual script.
I have measured the year since in that gouged nail bed—in the slow pull away of the keratin scale and the sore tedious inching of its replacement below.
My fingernail is more accurate than the moon, I feel. It has perfectly measured the time it would take for itself to fall off. Now free, it has lost its scratching potential.
[there are no blackboards to score here anyway]
I cried when I first heard my voice on film: it’s the nativity, I am small and sweet and shy and I am repulsed. I could be sick. I leave the room with the screen and hope never to cast another sound.
Have you ever transcribed organic conversation? This is how I listen— noticing stutters and repetition, measuring and monitoring the impulse to correct.
[what a relief to be in silence]
I enjoy measurements, not speech. Measures of pace, licks, accretions; measures of judgement, of tone. Quietly I design the text-as-fortress.
In writing the voice is tempered by retractions, tests, time. The demand for neutrality can be submitted to or defied.
To speak neutrally, it seems, comes easier to some. Abhorrent is the threat she expels from her throat.
I yell when the nail finally yanks off, caught on a knitted blanket we use to hide the landlord’s ugly furniture. My flatmates wince as I offer them the detached piece of myself on a soft bed of kitchen paper. I feel the glow of a new mother. There’s no taking it back.
[sing in praise of unruly materials]
I did not know of Bella Abzug and she is not made present in the anonymity of the film; she is a silent voice, her appearance a flash in the peripheral text.
Google offers a eulogy—the first descriptors, in order, are: former congresswoman, raspy-voiced and feminist. A measure of status, a measure of medium, a measure of message. Mmmmmmm.
There is power in the lingering abrasions of sound.
Jamie Donald is an artist, writer and fish enthusiast. She is currently one sixth of the GENERATOR (Dundee) committee and one third of the Wooosh Gallery (Miller’s Wynd car park) squad.
Sharon Haye’s Fingernails on a Blackboard: Bella was screened as part of GIVE BIRTH TO ME TOMORROW Artists’ Moving Image Festival 2021, co-programmed by Tako Taal and Adam Benmakhlouf. Haye’s work follows the transcript of a meeting between politician Bella Abzug and her vocal coach, in which they attempt to neutralise her accent and vocal tone.