Word Up: Text in Ed Atkins’s Ribbons

May 23, 2017

Ed Atkins: Movements is a tool designed by DHC/ART Education to encourage visitors to develop and elaborate on some key concepts of the exhibition Ed Atkins: Modern Piano Music. These concepts are liquid, melancholia, text, and body/violence.

Composition: Text

In the morning you wake from one bad dream and another begins. At the workbenches where, every moment, you hit your finger with a hammer or prick it with a needle, or over the columns of figures all awry in the ledgers of merchants and bankers, or at the rows of empty glasses on the zinc counters of the wineshops, the bent heads at least conceal the grim gaze.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1972

An author adept at “unmasking narratorial trade secrets and reminding readers of the self-reflexive nature of the fictional game [1],” Calvino described his text, which takes the form of a fictitious dialogue, as “a book whose place is between poetry and novel [2].” The above passage echoes the grim scene laid out in Ribbons, a three channel video installation produced by Ed Atkins in 2014. The comparison does not end there; a poet himself, Atkins has repeatedly described his attraction to the structural and reflexive elements in postmodern literature [3]. He draws on experimental traditions of blurring the lines between forms, and has stated he is more at home in the histories of cinema, music, and literature than that of art [4]. “Text is crucial to my practice. Is my practice, really [5].” Aside from drawing on literature’s structural forms, Atkins uses writing to improvise and think through ideas; as content for scripts; and in the process of video editing.

In Ribbons, poetry not only informs the image; it is its partner, and part of it—written, spoken, sung. Perfectly matched with meticulous sound editing, fragmented text reveals itself in a variety of visual and auditory forms, fleetingly appearing and reappearing over the duration of the work. It is not simply the choice of words that shapes the narrative, but also how they are rendered, expressed and embodied by Dave, the avatar at the centre of the story. In the first few seconds, A DEMAND FOR LOVE appears in a style reminiscent of a Hollywood film trailer; barely legible tattoos—or are they carved?—are found on Dave’s chest and wrist; banal yet intimate messages are left on post-it notes, in a scotch glass, in the palm of a hand. Handwritten phrases end mid-stream and one or two words here and there leave us hanging with their abandoned comma. What else? A cappella, falsetto renditions of melancholy pop songs, ramblings at the bar, monologues combined with explicit acts in a toilet stall and, perhaps most disturbing, alternating messages scrawled on Dave’s forehead—backwards, as if written for him and his reflection alone: Bankrupt. Asshole. Don’t die.

Dave’s musing/postering is at various points banal, esoteric, and incomprehensible. Atkins has said, “Coherence is held in such high regard—but what are the conditions of sense- making and according to what criteria?… I’ve always felt the urge to speak or to write and to not necessarily know what I want to say [6].” Dave channels this expression; text may mediate our reception of it, but it doesn’t necessarily provide us with any more clarity about its content. As author Leslie Jamison writes, “The language is unsettling, even irritating—because it gestures at meaning without delivering it, just as the avatar is unsettling because his face gestures at humanity but isn’t human [7].” We are left to our own devices in the discomfort of intimacy, proximity and, as Jamison argues, how quickly we feel the urge to flee the sentimental.

Like Calvino and others authors, Atkins pays important attention to rhythm, in particular through repetition. How would you describe the rhythm of Ribbons?

A number of authors and Atkins himself refer to a certain tension between empathy and disdain for Dave. What role does text play in shaping your emotional response to this protagonist and his circumstances?

Emily Keenlyside
DHC/ART Education


[1] GALASSI, Jonathan. (2013). The Dreams of Italo Calvino. The New York Review of Books. Online. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2013/06/20/dreams-italo-calvino.
[2] WEAVER, William and PETTIGREW, Damien (1992). Italo Calvino, The Art of Fiction No. 130. The Paris Review. Online. https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2027/italo-calvino-the-art-of-fiction-no-130-italo-calvino.
[3] BALLARD, Thea. (2014). “Newsmaker: Ed Atkins On His Serpentine Sackler Gallery Installation.” Modern Painters. Online. http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/1044455/
newsmaker-ed-atkins-on-his-serpentine-sackler-gallery.
[4] BIANCONI, Giampaolo. (2012). “Artist Profile: Ed Atkins”. Rhizome. Online. http://rhizome.org/editorial/2013/jan/21/artist-profile-ed-atkins/
[5] RISNER, Sophie. (2012). “Ed Atkins Interview”. This is Tomorrow. Online. http://thisistomorrow.info/articles/ed-atkins.
[6] Frieze (TBC)
[7] JAMISON, Leslie. (2016). “I’m Not Too Sad to Tell You”. Parkett. No. 98.



Image credit:
Ed Atkins, Ribbons (image still), 2014. 3-channel HD video with three 4.1 channel surround sound audio, 13 min. Courtesy of Ed Atkins and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome.

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