Someone is leading a life parallel to your own. This person looks like you, answers to your name, lives in your house. But they are not you.
This publication by Alex Reynolds brings together her epistolary project But They Are Not You (2014) in which volunteers began to receive letters ‘from’ themselves, via the return-of-post system, penned after extensive research by the artist. The addressees in the letters are all other volunteers in the project. They never met each other.
This is intended as a postscript to the project, published alongside full details of the project, all the research surveys, and the letter transcripts themselves.
Huge thanks to Alex Reynolds and Gabriel Pericàs at Biel Books.
You have felt the heave of the train before, late at night, pulling out of the station. You have sat in its citrine pall while another carriage’s yellow oblong windows slide past you on a parallel track. At a certain moment, because of the darkness outside, you’re not sure who is moving, your carriage or theirs. Your inner ear is equipped with three semicircular canals that operate like a gyroscope to tell you where your body is in relation to the earth and its gravity. It is the body’s attempt to maintain you at the centre of the world, and it’s usually a perfectly successful illusion. On this train, though, it is temporarily confused, because of the other train. You could be still, moving forward, or backward, and no sensory information can tell you which.
Two centres of the world, sliding past each other, de-centring.
Someone is leading a life parallel to your own. This person looks like you, answers to your name, lives in your house. But they are not you.
The letters you receive are faintly disturbing in a stalkerish way, for sure, but you had submitted information about yourself voluntarily, in a survey, so you can hardly complain. You can read traces of the survey in the letters, but they go far beyond that. Certain aspects heighten the sense of invasion. The letters are ostensibly written by you and come from your home, where you had not expected something quite like this – maybe a performance or an object, but not something that claimed to come from you. It is strange to imagine someone else in your home, living in your skin.
I have an open wardrobe with my shoes and scarves spilling out of buckets, the clothes all visible on the rails. There’s quotes, poetry and notes from special people pinned on my walls. I have not much else. It’s sparse but it’s very personal. What if someone slept in my bed, took the books off my shelf, got a taste for the essays of David Foster Wallace while drinking wine and lounging on the mattress on the floor, on my dark grey bed sheets?
And then – what if that person were me, but I was suddenly observing her through some outside lens? Even worse, what if parts of her were not quite right? What if she tilted my accent in English just a bit too far towards the Spanish tone (that only British people seem to notice); or if she started mentioning that I like Rioja or tapas or something stereotypical like that. For the sake of pinning down some smart journalistic observation, but actually exaggerating parts of me I’m not aware of. Nobody ever thinks they have an accent. Accents emerge and get stronger the further you move away from the centre of the world, which is you.
The letters are handwritten. For true realism, the medium of email would have made more sense in most of the instances of this piece. But inboxes are not homes, and keyboards do not have souls. So, assuming this is not “… another nostalgic critique of technology and its effect on human relations,” – as Stella the curator sharply puts it – you can be assured that the form of a handwritten letter sacrifices realism for the sake of other effects. Namely, the inhabitation of your home, and your body. As it happens, I am a very good forger. I once had to sign a cheque for my boss while he was away and it was incredibly satisfying to see the money hop through a bank vault solely due to the innate intelligence of my wrist. But the accountant regarded me nervously after that. Why is forgery so repulsive? There are many answers to this, but one of them is that it is an attempt to inhabit the hand of the original maker. Imagine, for a moment, a forgery whose content was absolutely accurate, appropriate, and actually anticipated your own intentions. And imagine that you had some sort of guarantee that this would always be the case. This could be seen as a blessing, except for the fact that it was not you who did it. This tells us that the crawling disquiet caused by forgery comes from another problem beyond mere misrepresentation. A forgery is a descriptive mark attempting to be an indexical one; a direct trace of its maker. It is an attempted possession of your body. The indexicality of the mark has allowed you to assume the indivisibility of your body from your self, and here the power of the indexical mark is taken down along with your internal coherence.
The outrage is not just about an assumed identity but a wildcat attempt at the function of recognition, which is far more powerful and intimate. In translating the surveys into letters, the task was actually to translate the plain identity markers offered by the survey – accurate content – into moments of recognition. Something needn’t be true about you in order to be recognisable. You may fear something that has not happened to you yet, and it may shape your life and you will recognise yourself in that event that is not yet actually part of your life history. Maybe you have a fear of suddenly falling ill in a foreign country and you become a person who travels less. Here in between what you are and what you could be there is enormous space for what is normally called fiction.
So in the end, getting things ‘right’ is not exactly the point. After appropriating your name and your home and your hand, the letters may in fact be a deliberate means of distancing you from yourself. The other thing about recognition is, unlike identity markers, it is a cooperative relation; its effect is produced by projecting something towards others, and having that projection accepted. It is an instantaneous consensus: the you that lives in your head constantly needs affirmation through recognition by others. But right now, you have nobody engaging in the act of recognizing you, in fact you take on that role by yourself. You have become your own witness, and recogniser. This drives a wedge between you and yourself, and this is further forced open by the various elaborations of the letters.
Even more – when engaging in a descriptive act, a little bit of distance from reality is always more shocking, and – here’s the important part – more reminiscent of the original, than perfect verisimilitude. As the French saying goes, “prêcher le faux pour savoir le vrai,” (Preach a falsehood to know the truth); or more prosaically, as Cunningham’s law puts it: “the best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.” Falsehood, when it is about closely personal things, can be a provocation that refreshes your association with the truth and shocks you by its betrayal. As regards the production of artworks, Linus, the theatre director, knows this best:
… You never know what effect [an] intruder will have in your life. I, as a director, can never know how much of the intruder is indeed a mere replica of the actor himself. This I have to find out, and when the actor and the character appear to be too close for comfort, it is hard work. There is no distance. This distance needs to be identified, created, the actor needs it to survive.
For this I will tell you about Marta, an audio piece you listen to on an mp3 player in a gallery. There are two voices: a woman, who tells a story about why she is in the gallery; and a man, who gives cinematic directions, essentially directing your gaze with phrases like ‘pan to the left up to the photograph of the girl’. If you’re a smart listener you’ll twig that the described space corresponds to the space you are in. But the female voice is adding some tension. She is talking about a man who could be the gallery attendant sitting nearby. According to her, this person used to be with her sister (Marta), and something terrible happened between them, something that destroyed Marta.
Many of us know of, and have even been part of, the gallery attendant species at some point (vastly overqualified, sartorially normcore, currently reading Houellebecq, willing to clean the toilet). You have a place for him in your mind, he is benign and helpful and almost definitively inoffensive. And you are hearing this:
his hand went down to the spot where her ribs began and started to sink its fingers in. The skin opened up and allowed his hand to enter. Under her ribs, little by little, until it reached the aorta just above her heart. My sister saw all of this with absolute clarity. She saw how inside her own body, the index finger pressed on her aorta, harder and harder, until her heart slowly stopped beating.
The male voice points you towards objects in the attendant’s vicinity, artworks. It’s not just about being taken in by outward appearances versus inner realities. It’s closer to Norman Bates and his mother than Jekyll and Hyde; it depends not on a monstrous transition, but on your own construal of the other person. Recognition, remember, is cooperative. The shift is relative. Yet you imagine yourself as a fixed point from which everything else extends. If the earth turns and you maintain your axis, what has moved – you, or the ground?
Maybe you read those letters you received in the same way you interpret a horoscope. It’s quite the soap opera – oppressive debts, illicit romance, estranged families, fussy curators, dancers in denial. Let us just accept that floating over Stockholm there is now a web of stories, claimed by no-one but quite coherent and verifiable at least on its own terms. Its internal consistency is tethered at a few fixed points to concrete things like addresses, biographical fact, and the places where intuitive guesswork dug deeper than you thought it could. The other guyrope, though, is your relation to the you who was writing away, up there. You may not like the sound of that person, but in this case there is no need to worry, for example, about libel. Unlike vicious rumour, this web of stories does not have the definitive need to be re-told. Because it barely has an audience.
This book provides what the project didn’t offer you: a collected overview of the whole situation. This book presumes a public in the way that the project did not. There was no curated discussion, you had no cosy chat in the pub with everyone gathered, no reveal, relief, declaration of an end point, no outside view, no redemption. The letters just stopped.
The work itself was conducted largely in private spaces. This leads us to question whether this was a ‘public’ artwork at all, or what sort of terminology we might lean upon to describe it. Working directly in the lives and spaces of ‘ordinary’ people normally signals an interventionist, socially-engaged work. Raising this possibility, however, also raises a whole gamut of critical problems that are not particularly relevant to the work. A ‘good’ socially engaged work gains its validity through a more clearly defined ethics than most artworks claim, tied closely to an institutional (or, more to the point, a de-institutionalising) impulse. In brief, socially engaged practices often seek to deny or undo institutionalized privilege, whether that of art institutions or more generalised privileges of class, gender, race, etc, within public encounters. Usually this is through either instrumental means (a clearly definable social benefit or redistribution of power) or curatorial means (such as a moderated moment of critical reflection from the outside). This project offered neither of those things, and so on the grounds of a socially engaged work, its ethics are still in question. You’ve still been kind of messed with, and it was either irritating or unbearable or revelatory or maybe a combination of all three.
Sidestep. The absence of a de-institutionalising power dynamic, or its attempt, is not about the letters’ failure as a socially engaged artwork, but more about the absence of the institution in the first place. You are not involved in that cosmic, self-perpetuating face-off that we get between institution, artist and public when we discuss socially engaged works. But the useful thing about thinking about it in these terms is that the broader absence of any sort of institutional drumbeat behind this all suddenly becomes a deafening silence. There’s a slight feeling of neglect that goes beyond the absence of a happy-clappy social artwork vibe. You’ve been truly left alone. Once, when I was sixteen, I was left alone in a room with a Hieronymous Bosch painting. I mean really left alone, not just standing in a quiet gallery. It was part of a local public art collection and the people who looked after it had a very casual attitude to security, which meant I was left in a back room with a cup of tea and a friendly smile and the work was propped on a chair so I could draw it for my art studies. It was one of the really classic apocalyptic ones with monocled birds in bubbles, damned people trumpeting from their arses, and so forth. And in normal circumstances that is probably nearly the closest anybody gets to taking in an artwork unaccompanied, unwatched and unguided. Outside of the pre-existing, footsore and gently scrutinised time frames that galleries and museums allow, or outside of the magic moment of social engagement which signals its ‘inside’ by having an ‘outside,’ such as a moment of celebration or reflection. With Bosch, I was left alone with the work. With the letters, though, the work has been left alone with you. And it was never taken away again. Like agreeing to catsit, but your neighbour never returned to take the cat home.
But while the letters continued without your volition or control, you were not passive in this work. Let’s say the work is not the letters, but the way in which they were given meaning. They were activated by you, your innate processes of construing yourself, which whether you are consciously aware of it or not is a frenetic and violent process of constant actualization. The voices in the letters split, refracted and quite possibly doubled up that machinery. They echoed round your home and became part of its history. The work is an act of inhabitation that may never be evicted. Did your inner ear retrieve its balance?