The Agency of Words

  • Spencer Roberts

Press/Media: Expert Comment


Review of the exhibition The Agency of Words, featuring comment on Beckett Machine, a work by Spencer Roberts.


In a second-hand bookshop I visited recently, a copy of John Cage's Silence had been shelved in the poetry section rather than the music section. This may not really have been a mistake. On the face of it, Silence is a book within which units of text are arranged across the pages, in various kinds of formal sequences, with a lot of space around them. It looks like it might be poetry, so it probably is. One of the ongoing projects of the artist Maurice Carlin is 'Book-moving'. He moves books in his local Manchester branch of Waterstone's from the categorised place accorded to them by the bookshop, to a different section, determined by his personal appraisal of the volume's contents, slipping a card explaining his action into the book. According to the artist, these actions comprise 'an enquiry into context, ordering, boundaries'. Much the same might be said of the exhibition 'The Agency of Words', in which Carlin is represented with another work. The exhibition is a significant element in the second Text Festival based at Bury Art Gallery in Greater Manchester, still as unlikely a place to encounter a survey of 'international poetics and language in art' as it was four years ago.  

Overall, the frames of reference of the works in the exhibition are exceedingly disparate. Some of the invited exhibitors are poets who exhibit words, such as Carol Watts. Others are painters and printmakers, like Liz Collini, who has made a site-specific wall painting of words in the Times New Roman typeface, its meticulous drawn measurements acquiring a level of baroque elaboration. For both sorts of practitioners, the found text evidently offers manifold possibilities. Carl Middleton's prints from his Apologies Series, re-presenting formulaic found texts, combine the concept of the poem-poster invented by Pierre Albert-Birot with the non-poetic nature of text-based Conceptual Art. Performative or actual time-based works are also present in the exhibition. Hester Reeve's funny filmic vision of her own art historical canonisation proceeds within a large frame bedizened with homophonic model brass cannons. In a small, darkened and enclosed room, Carolyn Thompson has provided a verbal audio guide to buildings that no longer exist.  

Two of the more enticing works in the exhibition, unorthodox homages to Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs, are also the smallest in scale. Spencer Roberts' Beckett Machine is a little device like a digital portable altar, on which scrolls endlessly the text of Waiting for Godot. Sound artist Ben Gwilliams' diptych presents text by Burroughs printed unreadably on superimposed acetates, paired with spoken texts reduced to an overlaid murmur from an old-fashioned cassette player. Illegibility, incomprehensibility and inaudibility are qualities featured in a number of other works in the exhibition.  [Continues ...]

Period1 Sep 2009

Media coverage


Media coverage

  • TitleThe Agency of Words
    Degree of recognitionNational
    Media name/outletArt Monthly
    Media typePrint
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
    DescriptionReview of the exhibition The Agency of Words, featuring comment on Beckett Machine, a work by Spencer Roberts.
    Producer/AuthorDavid Briers
    PersonsSpencer Roberts


TitleBury International Text Festival
LocationBury Art Gallery, Bury, United Kingdom
Period2 May 2009 → 18 Jul 2009