A Performa 19 commission, Ed Atkins’s A Catch Upon the Mirror is a live performance that manifests under a different title every time it is staged. In this iteration, Atkins presences himself in uncharacteristic analog, on a proscenium playhouse stage at Abrons Art Center, equipped with nothing save for a microphone and proverbial box of linguistic bait and tackle. In monk-like garb, he casts out his voice, reading Gilbert Sorrentino’s three-stanza poem “The Morning Roundup” (1971), with its remarks on radio, weather, and friends. He repeats it again, with altered emphasis, and again, and again: a perpetuating loop so incantatory that its accumulated banalities become lyrical. Soon, Atkins breaks into and between songs, bringing softness to his spoken soliloquy; and toward the end, a choir distributed throughout the audience erupts in sonic swell, with Atkins, in a rendition of Henry Purcell’s woundingly melodious tavern song “Under this Stone Lies Gabriel John” (1686), as affective as gospel music.
Emma McCormick Goodhart: What does the piece’s iterative nature, and its changing titles, enable?
Ed Atkins: An inexhaustibility, I suppose. A perpetual equivalence. This or this or this or. That a final reading, a final performance, is pointless? That it remains an attempt.
EMG: You’re critical of coherence and “the hidden agendas of comprehensibility.” How do you engage (in)coherence in A Catch Upon the Mirror?
EA: By rejecting any kind of finality I guess it might baffle any interpretative conclusion. It ends with catharsis but not meaning, so whatever inference is exploded in sensation.
EMG: What happens in the rupture of modalities between speech and song, between your voice and a choral voice — a dynamic that unfolds throughout the piece?
EA: The poem is almost completely exhausted; I throw most everything at it. The songs appear as a kind of reprieve: they interrupt the rhythm and afford some respite from the challenge of speech as something that is meant to convey significance — perhaps particularly by the profundity of poetry. The songs are generous; songs are generous. The shifts are modal in lots of ways, and maybe most significantly, they are pressure drops that are kind in some essential way. They’re songs I sing to my daughter.
EMG: Does your interest in aphorism come full circle in any way as you verbally sample and loop Sorrentino’s “The Morning Roundup”?
EA: Not sure what that means. Full circle like the loop of reciting the poem is the full circle? If so, then yes, I think. It’s a poem deeply frustrated by irretrievable loss, but also by the finitude of everything, particularly the deficiency of language and poetry. Its brevity concentrates this sensation, so that every time the poem is recited, it shrinks further, feeling further and further away from its broken attempt to empathically communicate weather, love, the past, what’s gone. The poem is not sampled in the performance: that is it in its entirety, every time.
EMG: “To publish” originally meant to make public through speech. Does A Catch Upon the Mirror’s live performance raise the stakes of your writing practice in real time, as opposed to writing in video or on a page?
EA: This is very difficult. There’s faith in it. That it’s an act of faith and, as such, evangelical in its striving to connect and convince. In all the things I want sensation to arise in the failures of a medium that cannot conceal itself enough to suspend disbelief. Artifice hobbles itself to such a degree that it manifests dumbly — though in so doing, conjures a different, sadder kind of emotional response, but to its inability to persuade of its truth, its authenticity. It’s perverse, and I think this performance is, too, as are the writing and the videos, at their best.