I presented this durational performance in Mix, an international festival held in Jerusalem in 2011. The work centred on a volume that I found in a secondhand bookshop in the city, titled Chronicle of the 20th Century. The performance worked with the physical and metaphysical weight and presence of the book, reassembling its contents through interactions with the audience.
Over a period of hours, from sunset into late evening, I waited for people to approach the gold square of fabric on which the encyclopaedia was placed and I knelt. Each time someone came, I invited them to sit down with me, close their eyes and open the book at a page of their choice, at random. Such games stir our imagination, and a curiosity and emotion tends to arise when we open our eyes and see what is before us. We may connect accidentally with histories that do not form part of our knowledge, or the narratives of identity, nation, and belonging to which we have become accustomed. We may randomly pick an event that is personally or culturally momentous to us, which can prompt powerful feelings of coincidence or serendipity. We may treat it lightheartedly, or earnestly. Whatever, there tends to be some pause for thought.
In the act of making a choice, and then interpreting the outcome, the situation accentuates the play between history making and story making. We start to think about our relationship with this collective storehouse called an encyclopedia, the great chronicle. We may recollect its origins in events, in actions, with all the variables that this implies. The book may regain something of its nature as a phenomenon of the imagination; it is difficult to conceive of the shift in consciousness that the age of printing and the spread of encyclopedic thinking created, out of thin air.
After each selection, I carefully cut the chosen pages out of the book and reassembled them across the lawn. Gradually, the archive became a pathway. A set of compressed events partially unfolded again in space, was bound up in a duration, as well existing as abstract time in our minds. Butterflies, moths, slugs and other creatures came into the scene, attracted by the bright theatre light. The gold of the backdrop created a sense of the sacred, of a ritual, that contrasted with the playfulness of the proposition to select a page, any page. I ended the performance when I had performed sufficient interactions to link the gold square with a nearby tree, which I then also spotlit. Perhaps this drew in another symbol of the embodiment of knowledge, in line with one cultural reading of the tree. Perhaps it created a sense of human history in relation to natural history. Perhaps it created an end simply by forming a connection.
I have always been fascinated by such books and the claims they make, by the correspondence between their physical weight as an object, imposing, dramatic, and the weight of history that they represent, the metaphysics that they embody. The proposition: to hold this book is to hold the traces of something we call a century in your hands. Yet, there is an arbitrary nature to history, to the way that certain events become archetypal, to the way that a collection of facts becomes a canon on which a culture falls back and a mythology is set in motion. The practice of history struggles to capture diversity, to deal with contradictions, uncertain relations. It needs other methods to achieve this than those tied in with the logic of chronology, the spirit of universal relevance, and the project of creating an ordered story called cultural history from the messy logic of life. Perhaps other means of envisaging collectivity through them are required in addition to the standard modes.
I wanted to recollect both the Chronicle’s contents and the fact that this is, after all, is nothing more and nothing less, than a process of assembling traces. A sense of history potentially lies in the process of doing this as much as the results created. Perhaps this opens the way to questioning the methods that we use for capturing, translating and transforming traces. Second-hand bookshops offer their own particular portrait of a cultural setting, the number and character of such places in a city, the types of books that come up, their age, disciplinary range, along with other features such as language variety. In this sense, they are a type of ‘clearing’, a space where certain things come into view, felt both in terms of their being present and being absent from view, the feeling of a centre shaped by the awareness of peripheries.