This year the PuSh Festival is once again partnering with the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library on two intimate and interactive shows, both of which launched today. Back from last year is the hugely popular Human Library, in which patrons get to check out a person (e.g. Born Again Christian, Transgender Woman) for a twenty minute conversation. Curated by Zee Zee Theatre's Dave Deveau (also our Youth Program Coordinator and, together with Cameron Mackenzie, one half of Tucked and Plucked at Club PuSh next Friday), the second floor sign-up table was hopping when I stopped by to say hello earlier this afternoon.
The traffic was a bit slower on the third floor, where UK artists Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells' The Quiet Volume is in residence for the next three weekends. But that will no doubt change as word of mouth spreads about this utterly involving and highly affective self-generated performance for two. Though it takes place indoors and one is sedentary and for the most part silent for its duration, in terms of sheer sensorial engagement (and especially its rethinking of the limits and possibilities of the visual sense), The Quiet Volume is this year's Do You See What I Mean? In other words, an experience you don't want to miss.
The piece begins with you and your partner each receiving a set of headphones and a mini-iPod, which have been designated "right" and "left" according to where you have been instructed to sit. In my case, as I did not book the show with someone I knew, I was partnered with one of PuSh's many gracious volunteers. We were both then led to a table with two sets of stacked books. After a while Ant Hampton's voice comes through the headphones, his opening disquisition on how unquiet most libraries actually are coinciding with my gradual and accretive registering of the ambient soundscape: the shufflings of the patrons at the desks opposite us; the person clacking away at a computer keyboard at my left; the man having a very open and very loud conversation on his cellphone. At the same time, Hampton's voice has a seductive lilt, and soon I am drawn into the story he is telling.
Which turns out to be a story about the performative act of reading, of what it means to translate this normally solitary, interior, and visually-oriented activity (at least post the invention of print) into a public and shared experience of felt witnessing--in which reading (from) the same book becomes as much about marking (quite literally) the impression of another's hand on the page as absorbing the words on that page. This is demonstrated through a set of tactile encounters with your fellow reader, beginning with an instruction to place your palm on a blank page and then discreetly signal to your partner by raising a finger. Later our respective hands fly through the pages of another book as first one of us and then another is told to flip to page 295 or 172 or 67, and then to find X- or Y-word half-way or two-thirds of the way down the page, and then finally to begin following the text with our index finger as the words are repeated for us in our headphones.
Except that the words on the page don't exactly correspond to the words we hear in our ears: there are subtle substitutions, or some words are skipped over altogether. This oral/aural corruption of the printed text is just noticeable enough to suggest, again, that content and meaning are less important in this case than the responsibility of tracing for our fellow reader the material outline of ink on fibre--as if to lift that finger would be to sunder not just the prosthetic connection one has established between body and text (and here thinking about the experience of reading an electronic tablet is wholly applicable) but, by extension, the body of the other whose finger takes over where yours leaves off. All of this culminates in a final moment of peripheral reading and parallel pointing: instructed to bring our respective notebooks together, my partner and I then read from each other's pages, while simultaneously moving our fingers across and down our own pages at the pace we presume the other is reading.
There are so many wonderful surprises in this piece, not the least of which is the fact that out of the three published books (one of them is José Saragamo's Blindness) from which we are variously instructed to read there actually emerges a fairly coherent narrative. And, most affecting for me, is that out of this narrative one is also gifted a word--the outline of which one is first instructed to memorize and then make disappear, only to conjure it up again letter by letter--that remains as your private impression (in all senses of that word) of this public act of reading.
Not just for bibliophiles, this is a work for anyone who believes in the power of performance to transform the way one sees the world around you. Get your tickets now.