The ups, downs and sidewayses of developing a collaborative sign language performance for the London Word Festival 2011, and its subsequent adaptation for Tate Britain.


I had some good news a couple of months ago: a curator at Tate Britain got in touch asking to programme “Doing Words with Things” for a BP Saturdays event this October 22nd.

Marianne the curator and I have talked about how the work was first performed for the London Word Festival at the RichMix earlier this year, and agreed some adaptations for the environment and audience of Tate Britain.

When Alex and I originally performed the work together at RichMix we were restricted by my limited knowledge of BSL. This time round I’ve been looking for two fluent users of BSL who can work together to sign and sculpt simultaneously in continuous knowledge of what one another are saying and doing.

After a long search I’ve made contact with two Bristol-based BSL poets Richard Carter and Paul Scott. I haven’t yet met them in person but I’ve enjoyed watching their performances online with the help of some written translations and linguistic commentaries (part of a BSL poetry research project at Bristol University):…

Tomorrow I’m going to Bristol to meet them both for the first time for an initial conversation and rehearsal. Richard has found an interpreter, I’ve found a meeting room, Tate have agreed the rehearsal costs, and all the practicalities seem pretty much under control. Now it’s just the actual WORK we have to worry about.


Here we are back at the Rich Mix trying out the wire on its new spools. Still not quite right: they manage to unspool and get so tangled we have to cut the wire. I think the trick is to have many many spools, each one holding very little wire.

But we’ve made some good progress. In this video there’s more exchange between us: sometimes Alex holds the spool and passes wire to me, sometimes I hold it, sometimes he supports the sculpture in his hands while he’s signing, sometimes I copy his gestures even when instead of signing he’s having to untangle the wire.

At present we’re planning to perform throughout the evening of April 19th, sitting at one of the tables in the audience and occasionally finding a spotlight around us. Performing for so long will mean there will be plenty of mistakes and unexpected things, as well as several moments of inactivity between us as we’re distracted by the other performances and readings going on in the room. I like how conversational it’s becoming.


Spools for the wire. There have been very bad tangles without them.

Some of these cut-up cardboard tubes might get incorporated into the structure if they’re reluctant to come loose from the wire. We’ll try them out this weekend and see how they work.

They make me think of Simryn Gill: tubes for words in anticipation of their use.


Alex and I met yesterday for another rehearsal. It’s back to wire again: the wire remembers my movements so it allows a more articulate ‘vocabulary’ than the string I was working with last week.

This week we worked most on developing our respective vocabularies: mine in manipulating the material and his in describing my manipulations. In this video we’ve found a good breadth of movement and the timing looks fine, but I’m keen to reintroduce more grammatical and functional signs to clarify the distinction between my gestures and his. Last week we were having difficulty keeping our gestures sufficiently synchronized; this week I think we’ve gone too far and caused them to match too closely.

Doing Words with Things (rehearsal four)