At Practise booklets 4
Now available: At Practise publications can be purchased from David Dale Gallery and Good Press

There is a scene in Joanna Hogg’s film Exhibition in which the character D, a performance artist, presses her body against and around the contents and contours of a room. She twists and bends, tilts and leans, inhabiting the shifts and shiftiness of somatic inquiry. At times she stares vacantly, as if at nothing, and yet she is palpably receptive: porous and attuned to something we, the viewers, cannot explicitly see. She is taking all of it in. With the leverage of her frame, the surface of her skin and the permutations of her limbs, she is seeking something. She is trying to figure something out, a figuring that is contingent on the source material of her body and the relations it forges or fumbles or unravels with that which surrounds her.

Her body remains silent, operating outwith and without the figures of speech we often turn to when we wish to communicate. We are made privy to the mechanisms of her process, or at least to those which can be outwardly gleaned. As I watch, something feels unsettling, almost voyeuristic, about witnessing the intimacy of these moments as they unfold.

This scene, and the feelings it stirred up, come back to me during Jessa Mockridge’s SWIM–performance at the first installment of At Practise, a series of events that took place over three evenings, across several months, at David Dale Gallery and Studios. Mockridge moves about the space, weaving between us as if our presence is merely incidental, stopping to read from one of many texts that are packaged, pasted, propped and floating in various nooks in the gallery’s courtyard. Pages are tucked away inconspicuously, awaiting activation by a body. She stops, she drapes, lays, cradles and hunches, inhabiting a different corporeal shape for each reading.

Exploring problems in relation to drinking and waterways, sobriety and sanitation, the texts work as prompts or scripts, testimonies and records, of the various means by which bodies can become contaminated by pollutants in their proximity. The placement of the texts themselves is indicative of the many ways such documents might (have to) insinuate themselves into a space in order to be heard. She gives them clandestine capabilities. A potential disregard. The need for a voice. She illuminates the various places writing—and what it might contain—might get lodged, be retrieved or go unnoticed. Up close, afterwards, you can see how the pages have suffered from the weathering effects of exposure to the elements, having been left outside in the cold.

Mockridge too is exposed. Clothes and hair drenched. Soaked to the skin. Subduing the shiver. As if she has just survived the wreck. She must withstand this wet that is aligned with Moyra Davey’s version of ‘the Wet’ as ‘things I may never be ready to tell.’ [i] Vulnerability drips heavier each time she speaks and we take heed of what she might be trying to relay. With each new formation Mockridge’s voice shifts too, inflected not only by the content of the texts but by the arcs, coils and contortions of her body.

A concern with what happens when writing moves from the page to become live in reading or performance was central to the At Practise series and to the artists, performers and poets the programme brought together.

Underpinning this was the concept of ‘rehearsal-as-form’. Unconcerned with the resolution of highly finished work, these works-in-progress were offered still messy or unclear around the edges, unapologetic in their cruder states. The series was a space to nurture the nascent. A place to cultivate potential coherence in the kernels of the inchoate. It was a setting up of that which might be waiting to unfurl.

At the third event we move inside to the warmer exhibition space. In reference to a Sean Bonney poem they are about to recite, Wormhook says:

‘I have been holding it in my mouth for a while and wanting to embed it in a body.’

Wormhook captures a sense of the whole body being the site of language. Denise Riley describes language as ‘robust, and fat with history’, [ii]—it is this language, fecund, visceral and full, that is the substrate and sinew of the series. Both the matter on the page and of the flesh, it is a language that relates to, and constitutes, its own kinds of bodies.

Language (as well as writing) can be thick, sticky and resistant. But it can also be slippery and pliant, supple and soft. It provides a ‘point of re-entry’ to the reality of a world that is often fazed by our consciousness of it but, as a way (back) in, it is often ‘hesitant, provisional and awkward’.[iii] At Practise allowed us to inhabit this provisional state. It courted the simmer and froth of language in all its volatility, in the gushing and the stumbling, the hesitancy and the refrain. It facilitated the textural flurry that is the voice, which forms like foam from the tip of a tongue on the roof of a mouth, spilling over and looking for somewhere to land.

Nat Raha rocks gingerly on the pads of her feet, tentative and softly stepping as she tows the words of a series of poems with the vessel of her body, punctuated by sharp, short intakes of breath where a line might otherwise break. We watch as words are clasped, cleaved and corralled from the fizz of the interior. We see the clambering of utterance through the body as it broaches its borders with the semantics and sounding out of speaking and all of the extra-lingual embellishments that tack themselves on.

Much of this is a question of delivery. Holly Pester describes delivery as ‘inherent to the mechanics of thought that embody the pressures of being linguistic and how it feels to function in society; the nervous static of subjectivity or, as Lisa Robertson has termed it, “the movement of subjectivity in language.” ’[iv] At Practise alleviated some of these pressures, the pressures felt by the demands of a world that often wants us to seal up in words that which might not yet be clear, ready or complete, or which might not have been linguistically prone to begin with. By absolving language and writing from the constrictions of propriety, mastery or conformity, At Practise assuaged this nervousness. It harnessed the potential of this static into transferable energy. It supported this movement. It was a support structure.

It was a framework, a set of parameters with limber edges and surfaces to touch, tease and test. It held, held up and helped to build. A scaffold, rickety yet retaining a particular aesthetic appeal. On the topic of scaffolding, Lisa Roberston invokes movement on saying, ‘It finds stabilities in transitions between gestures.” [v] Each instance of At Practise might be conceived as such a gesture, finding purchase within contingency and gaining a foothold in the company of the equally unsure.

At Practise established the terms with which to embrace such uncertainty while fostering the conditions for such approaches to draw succor, to find fledging or firmer ground, or perhaps to germinate. It resembles what Lauren Berlant calls the ‘[t]erms of transition [that] provide conceptual infrastructures not only as ideas but also as part of the protocols or practices that hold the world up’, constituting a ‘critical social form’ that can ‘alter the harder and softer, tighter and looser infrastructures of sociality itself’. [vi]

It is in this sociality that the potency of At Practise lay. Lisa Robertson, again, says ‘We could say scaffolding is a furnishing insofar as it supports the desires of our bodies.’ [vii] At Practise not only supplied the concrete contours of time and space for ideas and experiments to tread on shaky ground, it also provided the milieu for the reception. It made room, cushioned by the sustenance derived from an unburdening of expectation. Room underpinned by desires to communicate and be communicated with, to convey and convene and to reside in the possibilities that emerge from the semantic and somatic swells of a gathering.


Sara O’Brien is a writer based between Dublin and Glasgow.


At Practise was programmed by Jude Browning and took place at David Dale Gallery and Studios on 19 June, 14 August and 30 October, 2021. Documentation and recordings of the events can be viewed here.

The 4 publications documenting the project can be bought from David Dale Gallery (online and in the gallery), Good Press, Category Is Books, Burning House Books, and Arcade Camfa (Cardiff), £3 each.

[i] Moyra Davey, Index Cards, London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, p.110

[ii] Denise Riley, Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005, p.7

[iii] Lyn Hejinian, ‘Introduction’ to ‘If Writing Is Written’ in The Language of Inquiry, California: California University Press, 2000, p.26

[iv] Holly Pester, ‘The Politics of Delivery (Against Poet-Voice),’ The Poetry Review, 109:2, Summer 2019. Available at:

[v] Lisa Robertson, ‘Doubt and the History of Scaffolding,’ in Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture, Toronto: Coach House Books, 2011 p.139

[vi] Lauren Berlant, ‘The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times,’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol. 34(3), 2016, p.394

[vii] Lisa Robertson, Ibid., p.141