Bergvall, Bergdahl, and Meddle English

My review of Caroline Bergvall’s latest book Meddle English: New and Selected Texts (Nightboat Books, 2011) is now in the July/August issue of The Brooklyn Rail.  Here’s a little excerpt from the beginning:

Glancing quickly and obliquely at the front cover, I got the initial impression of a vinyl record or, better yet, a compact disc—as if ‘BERGVALL’ were the name of a band and ‘MEDDLE ENGLISH’ were the name of an album. Nevertheless, this momentary misrecognition is fitting, since any understanding of Caroline Bergvall’s work must take into consideration the inter- and multi-mediality of her artwork and the various ways it has been archived, reproduced, and distributed…Taking another look: the circular form on the front cover seems like a minimalist rendition of a breast—like the ones that humorously rotate in Bergvall’s animated Flash poem Ambient Fish or the single one depicted on the front cover of her out-of-print volume Goan Atom (1. Doll) (Krupskaya, 2001) which is reprinted here and forms the core of Meddle English. This misrecognition, too, is fitting as it imagines the mappemonde as an enormous erogenous zone.


Vanessa Place has an interesting review of Meddle English in The Constant Critic which ponders the way in which works of appropriation (collage, transcription, etc.)–instead of merely disavowing authorship as one might expect–tend to shore up the appropriator and re-inscribe the author.  Place says, “although Meddle English is a concerted performance of polyvocality, the only voice heard is Bergvall’s. Bergvall is the only point of entry and departure for the book…there is Bergvall, acting as interlocutor and writer and performer… we are thrown back into the lap of the one who writes. As in tongue. As in mouth, as in mind. Is this a problem. In other words, this is the problem.”  Using the language of a mathematical proof, Place proposes the following tautology: “Bergvall proves Bergvall.”


One of Bergvall’s appropriation pieces is a “transcription” of Carolee Schneemann’s 1965 film Fuses.  Here is a brief snippet:

REDBLACK film Kissclear burntfilm WHITE breast upside down
fuckrhythmshow breastsburnt film SEASOUND RED shadow
BLACK outlinePINKbodySEASOUNDseagulls outline negative

Fuses, according to Schneemann’s website, is “silent film of collaged and painted sequences of lovemaking between Schneemann and her then partner, composer James Tenney; observed by the cat, Kitch.”

In the notes in the back of Meddle English, Bergvall points us to yet another appropriation: “Cheryl Donegan’s Refuses (2009), a netplunder video work, which used ‘Fuses’ as its initial structuring device.”  Interestingly, on the Electronic Arts Intermix website, which presents information on Donegan’s Refuses, Caroline Bergvall’s name is incorrectly spelled “Carolyn Bergdahl.”

This, of course, may be a simple orthographic error (notice above how “Bergdahl” morphs into “Bergdhl”), but to think otherwise might get us around the “problem” that Place posits in her review.  “Bergvall” may prove “Bergvall” but, as Foucault has shown, “Bergvall” is not equivalent to (in Place’s words) “the one who writes.”  That both Bergvall’s first name as well as her surname are misspelled on the EAI website suggests that the misspelling is intentional, that the very act of misspelling is signalling an alteration, a destabilization, of the author function that we call “Bergvall.”  We can go further and say that the coining of “Bergdahl” is re-inserting a polyvocality back into “Bergvall,” that it is resisting what Foucault (in “What is An Author?”) calls “the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning.”  If we agree with Foucault that “[t]he author is…the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning,” then Donegan’s project–assuming that the misspelling is her own deliberate conceptual move–is an invitation of such proliferation.  So too, there may be a “Bergvahl” or “Burgvall” along with a “Bergdahl” and a “Bergdhl.”  To return to Place’s mathematical tautology, I propose a corollary: “Bergdahl” approaches but is not equal to “Bergvall.”  Or: for every “Bergvall,” there is a “Bergdhl.”

~ by Michael Leong on July 12, 2011.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: