Deep Six

Beatrice Gibson, The Tiger’s Mind, 2012, 16-mm film transferred to HD, color, sound, 23 minutes.

“She might have said, we were looking for a revolution in language. That would have been typical of her. I would have said, more like loitering in its suburbs. He would have interjected, could a comma really save the world?”
-The Author

“I think this transcript would make a terrible film, it’d be awful.”
-The Circle

ONE DAY, a circle got together with a girl called Amy and they schemed to make a book about experimental notation in music. Before long, the wind, a tiger, a mind, and a tree were roped in, and what came of it all was a film. A book, too. The film’s press release, itself a work of extraordinary notation, declared it an “abstract crime thriller.”

This is what happened. In 1967, the British experimental composer Cornelius Cardew grew obsessed with the idea of a score that would involve words instead of music. The result was The Tiger’s Mind, a pithy composition drawing on six characters that reads a bit like a naive children’s story. The year before, Cardew had completed his epic 193-page Treatise, a graphic score involving circles, squares, numbers, and other symbolic miscellanea. It had no instructions. Depressed by musicians’ inability to relate to the enigmatic script, he opted to try his hand with words. “The merit of The Tiger’s Mind is that it demands no musical education and no visual education,” he said back then. “All it requires is a willingness to understand English and a desire to play.” Cardew, who had come of age alongside rigid compositionalists like Stockhausen and Boulez, hoped to put improvisation at the fore of his practice. Here’s an example of Tiger’s instructions:

The tiger is fighting
Amy jumps through the circle
The tiger sleeps
She comforts the tiger

More than four decades later, the London-based artist Beatrice Gibson picked up the script at the prompting of Cardew’s biographer, John Tilbury. Gibson, whose past projects have involved a science-fiction film set in modernist social housing and another born of discussion groups held with residents of English retirement homes, has long been interested in strange models of collective production. Here, she decided to revisit The Tiger’s Mind with the intention of using it as an engine for producing speech, and enlisted six friends who would assume the roles of the tiger, the mind, the tree, the wind, the circle, and a girl called Amy. Each would in turn stand in for the various elements of a production—props, music, Foley, special effects, author, and narrator, respectively.

Over the course of three weeklong meetings, Gibson’s characters—each of them artists in their own right, among them the avant-garde musician Alex Waterman and the artist-architect Céline Condorelli—engaged the Cardew script, at times celebrating its glorious polyphony and at others coming to heads over how to possibly make sense of it. In reading the transcripts of their discussions, all of which have been printed in a heroically dense book edited by artist-typographer Will Holder and published by Sternberg Press, one watches the group wrestle over the possibilities or, as it happens, the impossibilities of the task before them. As the conversations progress, the Author—that is, Gibson herself—assumes the role of the Circle, a sort of framing device that strains to make sense of this all (for “the circle is perfect and outside time”). By the middle of the second weeklong meeting, she’s grown tired of all the talking. Words have become intolerable. She picks up her camera.

What emerges is a ravishing film shot on 16 mm set in and around a breathtaking modernist villa in an anonymous country setting. Cardew’s spirit haunts the piece, as does the Author’s, whose narration is at once enigmatic and mournful. What follows is indelible: an abandoned room with an overturned chair and strange billowing gold curtains—marks of fractured domesticity? The eerie sound of footsteps on a garden’s gravel path reveals no walker. There is more: a woman—we do not know who she is—uttering words we (again) cannot hear; stereo equipment incongruously installed in a lush forest; creepy, hysterical laughter and a noir-ish ambient sound track; a life-size porcelain tiger.

Before long, the narrator informs us that all six characters are dead. It seems that in seeking a new language built around objects (at some point Gibson admits she “became tired of words”), her ship has sunk. But perhaps her ship was bound to sink all along: After all, the script assigns a single Author, but aren’t there at least six? Cardew’s original 1960s vision of utopian improvisation and emancipatory collectivism fails spectacularly as each character’s contribution—from Tiger’s props to Mind’s music to Wind’s effects—compete for primacy over the final form of the film. In the last (unforgettable) moments, the porcelain tiger shatters into a million pieces, like a scattered purse, dying a rapturous slow-motion death. By now, the film’s anxious, dystopian tenor has become one with the failure of Cardew’s experiment.

In a final confession, the Author admits:

I invited them here.
I thought that it might make better images.
And all I encountered was the glaring reflection of my own narcissism.

The Tiger’s Mind is on view through January 19 at The Showroom in London.