Research Project: Intermedial Beckett

Derval Tubridy

Derval Tubridy, Sea and Concrete

Derval Tubridy’s research project Intermedial Beckett explores the complex intersections between literature, performance and the visual arts. It uses Samuel Beckett as a lens through which to analyse radical trans-generic artworks from the 1960s to the present. The intermedial nature of Beckett’s corpus, and his innovative engagement with avant garde media – to the extent that his later prose and dramatic work compromise and transgress boundaries of genre and discipline – are significant determining factors that explain Beckett’s position as a key figure, and a vital force, for contemporary artists in the expanded field of visual and aural culture. The project examines the modalities of influence and engagement between the arts, focusing on issues of iteration, aural spatiality, virtual embodiment, digital materiality, and neurodiversity.

Through detailed analyses of key artists working across installation art, performance art, sonic art, moving image, and text art, the project explores the hybrid, transmedial and intersemiotic practices of contemporary art and performance. Her research on the project has involved collaborations with the Royal Court Theatre London, creative non-profit organisation Touretteshero and neurodivergent-led arts studio DYSPLA. She has presented aspects of the research at the Edinburgh International Festival, Irish Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitechapel Gallery. Her public engagement on Intermedial Beckett includes appearances on BBC 3 ‘Nightwaves’, Sky Arts 2 HD, and on BBC television as part of the cutting edge documentary about neurodiversity in the arts entitled, Touretteshero: Me, My Mouth and I.

Activities and publications within the project

1. London Beckett Seminar
2. Public Engagement
3. Research Outputs: Journal Articles, Chapters, and Monographs

1. London Beckett Seminar
A core activity is The London Beckett Seminar which meets eight times a year, bringing together national and international scholars, researchers, postgraduate students and the general public to discuss issues arising from the prose, theatre and poetry of Samuel Beckett that pertain to aspects of literary, philosophical and historical analysis with particular attention to translation studies, performance and practice, digital humanities and visual cultures. Inherently interdisciplinary in approach, the seminar has established a vibrant research network for postgraduate students, early-career researchers, and established academics on a national and international level.

For more information and to see the current programme, with abstracts and booking links for upcoming seminars, please visit the London Beckett Seminar page.

2. Public Engagement
The research and development of Intermedial Beckett includes public engagement events held in collaboration with the Institute of English Studies of the School for Advanced Study, that explore aspects of intermediality as they connect with performance, the medical humanities, and the digital humanities:

Not I? Neurodiversity in Performance and Practice, a Medical Humanities colloquium at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. The colloquium investigated neurodiversity in performance with a particular engagement with issues of copyright, legal permissions, and theatre accessibility for neurodiverse audiences and performers. It brought together stakeholders from disability arts (Touretteshero, Unlimited, Battersea Arts Centre), experimental performance (Beckett Laboratory, U. of Warwick, Trinity College Dublin), and the AHRC research project Modernism, Medicine, and the Mind.

Samuel Beckett: Performance/Art/Writing, an international conference on Beckett and Intermediality at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. The conference partnered with the Beckett in London Festival and Gare St. Lazare Ireland at the Print Room Coronet Theatre, funded by Culture Ireland.

The Archive and the Edition: Digital Humanities for Literary Studies, a doctoral training event in the digital humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London funded by AHRC CHASE, with speakers from Universities of Reading and Antwerp and the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project.

The Epistolary in Literary Research, an international conference at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, on the role of correspondence in literary analysis with a particular focus on the development of the grey archive, the use of digital resources, translation, visual metadata, and the role of corollary correspondence.

3. Research Outputs: Books, Chapters, and Journal Articles

(A) Books

Three monographs express strands of enquiry that delineate the research project Intermedial Beckett.

The first, published by Cambridge University Press in 2018, is called Samuel Beckett and the Language of Subjectivity.

The monograph is a sustained exploration of aporia as a vital, subversive, and productive figure within Beckett’s writing as it moves between prose and theatre. Informed by key developments in analytic and continental philosophies of language, the book demonstrates how Beckett’s translations – between languages, genres, bodies, and genders – offer a way out of the impasse outlined in his early aesthetics. The primary modes of the self’s extension into the world are linguistic (speaking, listening) and material (engaging with bodies, spaces and objects). Yet what we mean by language has changed in the twenty-first century. Beckett’s concern with words must be read through the information economy in which contemporary identities are forged. Derval Tubridy’s Samuel Beckett and the Language of Subjectivity provides the groundwork for new insights on Beckett in terms of the posthuman: the materialist, vitalist and relational subject cathected within differential mechanisms of power.

You can access the third chapter of Samuel Beckett and the Language of Subjectivity here. Chapter three addresses the intersection between language and the body through the modality of violence. Taking How it is and What Where as exemplars of this intersection in different genres, the chapter draws out questions of authority in language and writing (inflected by Beckett’s reading of Sade), that centre on the question of authorship and voice, with implications for a new understanding of political Beckett.

The second monograph, which is in research and development, is called Beyond Illustration: Beckett and the Artist’s Book: 1958-2018. The book explores the aesthetic, social and cultural importance of Samuel Beckett’s collaboration with visual artists and composers through the form of the artist’s book or livre d’artiste over a sixty year period. Although recent scholarship on Beckett has begun to investigate the influence of painting and the visual arts on Beckett’s writing and Beckett’s influence on contemporary art there has been little sustained examination of Beckett’s limited edition artist’s books: the rationale for their production, the modes of their dissemination, and their impact on the artistic and cultural environment of post-war Europe and America. The book makes two claims. First, that these artist’s books form an integral and important part of Beckett’s oeuvre and significantly inform our reading of Beckett’s writing in prose, drama and poetry. Second, that Beckett’s artist’s books provide a prism through which we can better understand collaborative cultural production, and the development of this distinct art form, across national, linguistic and disciplinary boundaries on the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Beyond Illustration: Beckett and the Artist’s Book: 1958-2018 is the first cultural history of the inception and production of Beckett’s artist’s books, with insights drawn from archival sources and interviews with collaborating artists and publishers, and close reading and analysis of the interrelationship between text and image understood within social, political and aesthetic contexts.
The third monograph in development is called Art after Beckett. The book explores the modalities of intermedial engagement with Beckett’s work in the visual art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries across the disciplines of Installation, Performance, Sound, and Moving Image.

Derval is co-editing a collection of essays called Corresponding with Beckett (eds. Derval Tubridy, Jennifer Jeffers, and Stefano Rosignoli). The book asks what does it mean to correspond with Beckett? How does Beckett’s correspondence give us insight into his work? In what ways are critical reading and writing a form of correspondence with an author? Corresponding with Beckett examines issues around the development of the grey archive, the use of digital resources, translation, visual metadata, and the role of corollary correspondence. Given Beckett’s hesitation to render the personal public, the book addresses how we negotiate issues of privacy, permissions, and copyright. It marks new thinking on the letter as artefact, the textual and stylistic aspects of the epistolary, and explores the legacy of a correspondence project and how the research that underpins it can be deployed for further research. Using literary correspondence and related materials the book raises older literary questions on authorial intention and reading methodologies that continue to inform literary analysis. In the age of snapchat and whatsapp correspondence is primarily digital: the book addresses the longevity of contemporary digital correspondence, and explores strategies for future engagement with the epistolary in literary research.

(B) Chapters 

‘Ecologies of the Anthropo(s)cene: Beckett, Knesevic, Horn, Sébire, Guarigalia’, in Beckett and Ecologies, eds. Céline Thobois, Trish McTighe, Nicholas Johnson (forthcoming). Beckett’s critical posthumanism is marked by an increasing engagement with embodied interrelations between the human and its environment, which includes the vascular and neurological environment which makes possible our concepts and actions, and the climatic, affective environment in which others engage with those concepts and actions. Beckett’s play Breath can be viewed as an attenuated response to the anthropocenic environment in which, to quote Endgame, all is ‘corpsed’. Environmental scientists Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill use the term ‘Anthropocene’ to mark how ‘human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita’ (Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill 2007, 614).  This ‘terra incognita’ is surely the wasteland of Breath, and the shore delineated by the ebb and flow of Beckett’s radio play Embers, though for Beckett, vestiges of the human remain. Through readings of Beckett’s Breath and Embers, in conjunction with the work of four artists –Barbara Knesevic’s installation Breath, Roni Horn’s installation Library of Water, Adam Sébire’s three-part video series Anthropo(s)cene(s);  and Justin Guarigalia’s photographic project After Nature – the chapter argues that the posthuman concerns of the anthropocene are integral to 21st century readings of Beckett. Inthese artists’ work this limit is articulated as a topographical extreme which challenges the extent of human control, evoking the topos of Beckett’s Breath and Embers to articulate a position that ‘contests’ as Rosi Braidotti puts it, ‘the arrogance of anthropocentrism’ and leads us, through readings of Donna Haraway, to consider a polis of kinship across species and environments.

‘Disability and Diversity in the Beckettian Body’, in The Oxford Handbook of Samuel Beckett, eds. Mark Nixon and Dirk Van Hulle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming). Current scholarship on Beckett often figures disability in terms of physical or cognitive impairment or disorder (Davidson 2007; Sarkar 2015; Maud 2015; Barry, Maude, and Salisbury 2016, Purcell 2018), pain and endurance (Tanaka, Tajiri and Tsushima 2012) and the debilitated body’s relationship to prostheses and technology (Tajiri 2007, Maud 2009). While in each of these studies the phenomenological experience and affective consequences of disorder are addressed, disability is primarily understood in terms of lack, absence, and disempowerment. The chapter will trace representations of disability in Beckett’s writing, situating Beckett’ interest in disability in his own experience of illness and disease (through for example his discussions with Geoffrey Thompson in 1935, his work in Saint-Lô, his experience of Cissie Sinclair’s debilitating arthritis, and his own mother’s Parkinson’s). Building on extant scholarship in disability studies (Davis 2002; Nussbaum 2006; Quayson 2007; Kittay 2011), and on the posthuman (Effinger 2012; Braidotti 2013; Rabaté 2017) the chapter will re-frame concepts of disability in Beckett’s writing in terms of diversity focusing on the enhanced capacities of neuro-and physio-diversity, and the value of relational inter-dependence. Through readings of contemporary performances of Beckett’s theatre the chapter positions Beckett’s work as a vital lens through which concepts of agency, volition, and subjective representation integral to disability are reconfigured.

‘Beckett, Neurodiversity and the Prosthetic: the Posthuman Turn in Contemporary Art’, in Beckett’s Afterlives: Adaptation, Remediation, Appropriation, ed. Pim Verhulst, Anna McMullan (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming). The conceptual frameworks through which we understand human corporeality and agency are under stress and need now to be reconfigured. The chapter examines how artist Rebecca Horn and neurodiverse performer Jess Thom draw on Samuel Beckett’s work to question normative categories of human embodiment.  Drawing on theories of the posthuman it explores the interface between the machinic, the prosthetic and the corporeal in Horn’s body sculptures and machine installations (1970-2010), and examines how neurodiverse theatre performance reconfigures modalities of subjectivity and agency in Jess Thom’s Touretteshero production of Not I (2018), drawing into the discussion an analysis of how ideas of silence and the somatic in Anne Niemetz’s and Andrew Pelling’s sound work Dark Side of the Cell (2004). The chapter concludes that the mutability of contemporary art is an essential experimental space for performative adaptation within posthumanism.

(C) Journal articles

Theatre and Installation: Perspectives on Beckett’, Contemporary Theatre Review: Staging Beckett and Contemporary Theatre and Performance Cultures, special issue eds. Anna McMullan and Graham Saunders. 27:4 (Spring 2018), pp.68-81.
The article explores the intersections between drama, live performance and the visual arts with specific reference to the aesthetics of installation art and the importance of site in selected productions and stage adaptations of Samuel Beckett’s drama for theatre and radio by contemporary Irish companies, Pan Pan Theatre and Company SJ. These productions extend the boundaries of theatre and engage with modalities of installation art that lend new perspectives to contemporary theatre. The intermedial condition of contemporary art, performance practice and theatre-making opens a new site for the production of theatre, and of art. By considering Beckett through the lens of installation we can better understand what is groundbreaking in his theatre, and consider the extent to which the strategies of installation art inform what is most complex and radical in contemporary theatre.

Incommensurable Corporealities? Touretteshero’s Not I, Contemporary Theatre Review Interventions, 28.1 (March 2018). This intervention reflects on a performance of Beckett’s Not I by Jess Thom of Touretteshero which played at the Battersea Arts Centre in Spring 2018 after a run at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe. I argue that Touretteshero’s performance of Not I extends the parameters of performance by drawing out the corporeal and linguistic implications of neurological diversity and the intersection between agency and intention in the speaking body, and by embedding corporeal translation of the voiced text at the heart of performance through British Sign Language. I investigate Beckett’s interest in neurodiversity and propose that Touretteshero’s Not I changes how we think about agency and access, identifying the neurodiverse body as a central agent and vital audience.

‘Beckett and Sonic Art’, Samuel Beckett and Contemporary Art ed. David Houston Jones, Robert Reginio and Katherine Weiss (Stuttgart: Ibidem Press, 2017), pp.265-290. Beckett’s short prose piece ‘Sounds’, drafted in 1972, ends with the invitation: ‘make nothing to listen for no such thing as a sound’ (Beckett 1996, 268). In this chapter I respond to Beckett’s invitation by exploring the subjected and subsumed sounds of Beckett’s writing that form the material for four pieces of contemporary sonic art: Charles Amirkhanian’s Pas de Voix: Portrait of Samuel Beckett (1987), John Philips’s The things one has to listen to … (1990), Danny McCarthy’s curated album Bend It Like Beckett (2006), and John D’Arcy’s sound installation Beckett Basement (2012).Following lines of argument that emerge from scholarship on Beckett’s radio, I trace the interplay between representation and abstraction in sonic art that responds to Beckett’s work, and explore how, in Beckett’s words, these artists ‘make nothing to listen for’ and articulate a practice in which there is ‘no such thing as a sound’.