Interview with Tony Trehy

The 3rd bi-annual Text Festival opened April 29, 2011 in Bury, UK. The festival is an international exhibition of text-based art. derek beaulieu — who was a participant this year — had an opportunity to discuss the festival’s impetus and future with curator Tony Trehy.
beaulieu: Has the mandate of the festival changed since its first incarnation? What for you have been the highlights of the festival to date?
Trehy: There is something about the word mandate that suggests that its imperatives came from somewhere else, from outside. I think the reason why it has developed a unique status is that it generates its own context. I suppose no-one else can see the festival the way I do because I have seen all three of the festivals, but for me, the Text Festivals are in dialogue with each other. I have found it interesting this time round how a number of poets have written about how it has taken a direction or a position in relation to poetry. But the festival isn’t about poetry: it’s not a poetry festival. The festival is always to do with a question. So with the first exhibition of the first festival (also my first highlight), I asked myself: how do I curate a show that juxtaposes contemporary poetry with visual (language) art? By its aesthetic location, the festival often operates in fields in which recipients (to use Lawrence Weiner’s term) may not come equipped with the knowledges and histories of particular artforms. As Art Monthly magazine observed, I have an ‘intrepid resistance to interpretation’, and in exhibitions of text I don’t see how you can use interpretive texts without clunking over the works. So I am presented with the problem of how to come up with a curatorial strategy that can contextualise the question for a gallery visitor. This led me, in the first show, to create a large bookcase that blocked views into the gallery — you had to face it and go round it to get in. I called this ‘The Canon’ and featured all the books you would need to get all the messages in the show—ha! Audiences aren’t asked to work hard enough nowadays. And into the show itself: again, is there a curatorial conceit that can represent this coming together of forms? Taking a form from Concrete Poetry, I came up with a display constellation. This was working very nicely but there was still something missing. Although the festival has announced submission deadlines, if the curatorial concept demands it, I will keep accepting proposals and looking for works right up to the last minute. In this case, I didn’t know what was missing, just that it needed something. It came in the form of a performance artist, Hester Reeve (HRH.the) who proposed to spend the nine weeks of the first show sitting in the gallery reading and simultaneously writing Heidegger’s Being and Time.

Bob Cobbing Exhibition (Text Festival 2005), installation shot © Phil Davenport.
Bob Cobbing Exhibition (Text Festival 2005), installation shot © Phil Davenport.

In the second Festival, although a lot of people rated the Bury Poems readings with Tony Lopez, Carol Watts and Phil Davenport, my highpoint was the headline gig with Ron Silliman. For this the question was, if you have Ron doing his first ever reading in the UK, who else do you put on the bill? There couldn’t be another poet, so I programmed Scottish student story-telling artist, Catriona Glover, German turntablist Claus van Bebber, and Hester Reeve. I was very pleased with that balance. It was a great night, but this year surpassed curatorially by the juxtaposition of sound art from Sarah Boothroyd and Bruno Bresani with Holly Pester, Eduard Escoffet, Christian Bök plus the surprise interventions of Geof Huth and you.

A couple of guest curators have produced magical moments to note: Phil Davenport’s Bob Cobbing show in 2005 and this year’s readings of Schwitters’ Ursonata at Warth Mill.
That’s a lot of highlights, but I’d like to add another: an element of all the festivals that forms an integral part of the dynamic is the festival party where a lot of the artists meet — that is very important.
beaulieu: So — if each festival is in dialogue with the previous, then what — after the 3rd incarnation — would you still like to address?
Trehy: Ah, the trick question — I wondered how you might approach this. As you know, I announced before this Festival that I wouldn’t be doing another. At various points during the 2011 event I did have ideas of what might be interesting next. But I am still resisting the tyranny of having to do what one is able to do. Through my links with Finland — visual art and poetry — we are talking about doing some sort of Text show/event in Tampere (the Manchester of Finland), so my textual inclinations may still be occupied; but either way, if there were to be another Text Festival, it couldn’t be until 2014 because I am working on another (non-text) international art project which will keep me occupied until then (starting in September, I’ll be setting it up in China).
But thinking about the question, I have been reflecting on the Festival just ending and have an increasing sense of disappointment with the responses of the poetry community — so I’d probably start thinking about how to address the problems I perceive: namely, it struck me that, despite my aspiration to locate poetry in dialogue with other language-using artforms, writings coming out of the festival have tended only to engage with poetry. I found it really telling that no-one commented on the location of George Widener and Steve Miller in Wonder Rooms, for instance — both visual artists not visual poets, both using language in gripping ways. I’m not saying that there weren’t great visual poems in the show; I’m saying it seems odd to me that the visual artists’ contribution drew so little attention from the poets. Similarly, the poets have tended to focus on Ron Silliman’s neon text and Tony Lopez’s digital text in the Sentences exhibition; but the poets don’t seem to have anything to say about the Marcel Broodthaers, for instance. I think I would address this. Maybe there would be fewer poets; maybe supporting a notion of ‘poetry community’ itself is counter-productive in shifting poetry into a more critically rigorous relationship with art.
I think that Ron also asked a question that interests me: he observed that a lot of the work on display can’t be ‘called new in any way that is meaningful within poetry’ (note again that this locates the Festival agenda as poetic). He proceeded to raise the question ‘Is the work any good?’ Some of it is more than good. Some of it isn’t. I have a pretty good idea which is which. But again, I am not sure that I am comfortable with the claim for the festival that quality of work is its aim. I set out to investigate the implications of certain actions, certain juxtapositions. It’s my hope that testing ideas is what participating artists will use the festival for – the space to fail, and learn things from that. Some of the criticisms of Ron’s neon are legitimate but much of it misses the point of what that work does in the gallery and how it will function as a piece of site-specific public art. Christian Bök’s Protein 13 is still a work in progress; he would acknowledge that he developed his thinking about how the model and text function as objects on display as the installation progressed; and I think that that is an important contribution to the development of the work.
More information on the Text Festival can be found at