New York

Ben Vida, Speech Act (Video), 2016, video, color, sound, 11 minutes 50 seconds.

Ben Vida, Speech Act (Video), 2016, video, color, sound, 11 minutes 50 seconds.

Ben Vida

Lisa Cooley

Ben Vida, Speech Act (Video), 2016, video, color, sound, 11 minutes 50 seconds.

Midway through Beckett’s Endgame, the blind Hamm, agitated, asks his son/servant Clov, “What’s happening? What’s happening?” Clov responds, cagily, “Something is taking its course.” Later, Hamm attempts to identify this unspecified something, but his efforts—“We’re not beginning to . . . to . . . mean something?”—are unsuccessful, dismissed by Clov with a laugh.

The spirit of Endgame is alive and well in composer Ben Vida’s “Speech Acts,” 2016–, a series of works that chart the ways in which sound and meaning work together or permeate each other, and the ways that they approach each other and then swerve. In large, neatly handwritten blocks of text, understood to be scripts for a sound work and looking a great deal like cue cards, the words are punctuated by bracketed stage directions, interrupted by ellipses and dashes, urged forward by arrows. Reading these disconnected texts was made more difficult by the presence of a video in the same room, in which two speakers recite parts of the written texts and others, both following the script and not. Trying to read one set of words while listening to another produced an effect much like trying to read the word red written in blue: a confusion about which constitutes the word’s true nature.

In Vida’s texts the particles er and um—what linguists call “discourse markers” or “phatic communication”—figure prominently, along with words such as maybe and perhaps. The overall effect is more pattern or rhythm than sense: “Perhaps I, perhaps—err I, perhaps—perhaps I, err—uh err, I” and “of course could—could of course—maybe I—or I—or perhaps I.” Often, the stage directions give just as much information as putative speech; they in fact introduce yet another system of communication in among the visual and aural—the so-called soft system of human inflection. Like Beckett, Vida paces the work with the generous use of “[Pause]”; elsewhere he suggests the slippage of thought into speech (“[Now. In all honesty]”) or throws in an abrupt non sequitur (“[Carelessness is in]”)—although one would be hard-pressed to say what is and isn’t non sequitur here, or to divide the text into the categories of words thought and words spoken.

The video’s two speakers, a man (the artist) and a woman (artist Mary Manning) who resemble each other and moreover are dressed alike, maintain studiously neutral expressions as they perform their recitations. Their faces turned to the viewer and never to each other, they deliver the text in unison and then as a kind of call-and-response, with one giving the speech and the other the direction, although the directions are often ignored or else are inscrutable (how does one speak with “prearticulation dodge”?). At times a percussive glitch overrides their words; at others the screen is taken over by flashing words with a voice-over reciting something else. These two grave, Beckettian clowns could very well represent the divided self struggling to talk to itself, nonsense pitted against meaning to yield an equivocating stammer that is somehow more truthful than either.

Emily Hall