The Death of the Unreliable Narrator
‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!’ So the flustered old man shouts while fidgeting with the partition that kept him, and the controls for his distracting light and sound displays, hidden. The old man is, of course, the supposed Wizard of Oz, the scene from the 1939 film providing the starting point for countless books and essays on the qualities of sound and narration in film (yes, including this one). The authority of the wizard, an apparent god-like power, who is revealed to be merely a nervous man tinkering with an amplifier and a smoke machine, gives a concise and classic example of the trope of the unreliable narrator: when what we are being told is bending things a bit, misleading us, or just plain untrue. The unreliable narrator is a concept with which we are all familiar – whether in the form of boastful exploits in the Life and Exploits of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, 1759-67, or in Kevin Spacey’s voiceover from the grave in American Beauty, 1999. The dissonance between what we are being told and what is being made revealed has long been used as a tool in fiction and art; but what happens when the unreliable narrator becomes ubiquitous and all narration is untrustworthy? What happens when the unreliable narrator becomes the only narrator in town?
The scene from the Wizard of Oz is included in the dense and engaging current exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, ‘This is a Voice’, alongside a film of the floating mouth of Samuel Beckett’s Not I, 1973, and Francis Barraud’s famous painting His Master’s Voice, 1919, with the dog peering quizzically into the horn of a phonograph that became the trade mark of the record company HMV. Curated by Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, the show brings together historical artefacts, like a copy of the oldest known recording of the human voice from 1860, recordings of mesmerising chants from central Africa and works by a range of contemporary artists. It is an expansive, timely show, given the concurrence of exhibitions like Kihlberg & Henry’s ‘Footnotes to a Long Distance Telephone Call’ at Danielle Arnaud (which featured their latest fractured voice-over video alongside work by other practitioners from a research group called the Disembodied Voice), and also the sheer number of artworks being produced at the moment which rely on voice and voice-over as their defining characteristic. Inside one vitrine in the Wellcome show is a laptop that displays a court interview with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong being run through lie-detection software: a reminder that the unreliable narrator does not exist only in the realm of fiction. The contemporary narrator, as a given, is subjective, and as such should be approached with caution. It is a condition that we could cite in academic postmodern positions like Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’, which insists that the main action and meaning occurs away from author’s intentions and resides only with each and every reader’s own take on things. But it is also a transition that we can see in things like the decline in the use of Received Pronunciation in newscasters towards using more varied accents, or in the decline in the use of the Encyclopedia Britannica as a definitive reference source in favour of a quick scan of the crowd-edited Wikipedia. History books and newspapers are now acknowledged as contextually sanctioned subjective perspectives rather than absolute authorities on a matter. To put it simplistically: every stance, we have been forced to acknowledge, comes from a specific position, and has its own bias. Authorship and authority are to be disassembled, analysed and relativised.
These brief observations are intended as a preamble to looking at what sort of art has been precipitated by this situation. Not long ago, one could easily lose count of the number of works that were from the ‘Notes Towards A Film’ school of art, involving everything around the making of a film – the script, the set, sometimes even a few actors – without actually making the film: projects like Uriel Orlow’s epic Unmade Film, 2012-13, where each of Orlow’s exhibitions for several years was a component of production – the proposal, the production stills, the closing credits – or Alexandre Singh’s installations like the Assembly Instructions, 2008, a set of drawings of various pop culture and philosophy references scattered on a wall with dotted lines running between them, pointing towards associations and potential narratives without spelling them out. It is also true of Cally Spooner’s scripts, or the endless verbal posturing of Tim Etchells – artworks that gesture towards the form without daring to embody it. (Take your own time to count how many exhibitions you might have seen recently which feature videos that were about the preparations and anxieties of working towards making that very video.) The same might be said of other forms like the novel, the play and even the exhibition itself: they were seen as too authoritative, too controlling, and so should be dissected, atomised, approached only obliquely. Interestingly, this genre seems to have played itself out; artists like Spooner and Singh have more recently attempted to make more straight-up film and theatre productions. However, while the implied narrative, the imaginary film, novel etc, was a fragmented affair, what has followed this has taken the form of a forthright outpouring: we are in the age of the monologue.
Visitors to the most recent New Contemporaries at the ICA at the end of 2015 might remember the upstairs gallery in which five short videos were displayed in close proximity to each other. Other than the installation itself doing the artists no favours, what became apparent was the similarities between them. Four of the five works involved an off-screen voice speaking for the duration of the piece. The ratio is representative; we have reached a moment that we might call peak voiceover. It could be the floating digitised head of Ed Atkins, mumbling about his foreskin, or the Alex Rathbone show ‘Down’ at Sunday Painter in April this year, in which a male voice takes his sweet time talking us through a dream chasing an elusive character. These narrators make no claims to a wider authority and make no bones about being personal, happily pontificating on their own. This prominence of the voiceover is symptomatic of a return to the authorial: a contemporary narrator that supposedly acknowledges its own subjectivity, that has ingested and subsumed the unreliable narrator, but proceeds to rant nonetheless.
It is a phenomenon that can also be seen in the texts accompanying exhibitions; Simon Denny’s ‘Products for Organising’, which was at the Serpentine at the same time as New Contemporaries, was ostensibly a set of corporate-style sculptural displays, but integral and more defining to each, were the labels and faux-improvised handwritten notes and arrows that covered each display, explaining the story behind the objects. The histories and micro-stories within the show were fascinating, but all Denny did was constantly barrage you with hundreds of facts. Morgan Quaintance’s initial show at Cubitt, ‘Software, Hard Problem’ was a small but expansive look at the issues of digital culture and production. Most strikingly, particularly for a small-scale gallery that is part of an artist-run organisation, the exhibition was framed and led by a series of introductory museum-style wall texts, dividing the research and works in the show into three sections, phrased as problems of form, tool mastery and consciousness. It was a formal tone that set itself as the gatekeeper for a wide, general audience – the tone of knowing authority.
It would seem that the unreliable narrator is so much of a given these days that we don’t even need to bother with it anymore, since doubt is so ubiquitous artists in response have returned to a more traditional authorial role. We have reached a place where every narrator is reliably unreliable, and so the notion, with its negotiations and reorientations, is rendered ineffective. Instead we have a reinstated the authoritative narrator, who is supposedly informed by the lapsed unreliable narrator and who metaphorically winks ironically at us. But what this also leads to is a realm where an overabundance of subjective assertions circles back to meet the authorial domination that we had supposedly escaped. These voices and texts talk at the audience; you don’t get the sense that it matters who is listening, or even whether anyone is listening. Marxist theorist Louis Althusser used the word ‘interpellation’ to describe how we are implicated and integrated into ideological systems: it is a hailing, a call which we respond to, and by responding we are placed within a hierarchical bond; any small meeting is a positioning of individuals in just such wider power relationships. The unreliable narrator was, in effect, a critique of the interpellating voice, a means by which the negotiations of hierarchy implicit in an interaction might be made apparent, if not undermined. The authorial return, the calling of the monologue, is a return to interpellation par excellence.
Every generation, it seems, has to come to terms with what feels like an honest means of negotiating subjectivities; the death of the unreliable narrator is not necessarily a cause to be mourned. This resuscitated narrator – not necessarily ‘reliable’, but all we are given – does at first imply a more passive role for the audience as receptacle and depository of enunciations. But it could also be interpreted as a multiplication, a spreading and evening of the authorial: we are all narrators. This current wave of monologues could simply be the first stage of us finding our voices now, as it were; we are learning how, in the present, we might share stories without irony, without these being undermined. Interpellation then becomes a tool, not of the old school ideological state apparatuses that Althusser described, but a more private, and potentially subversive, means of inducting each other into myriad wild microsubjectivities. Alternative means of using this narrator are already suggested in practices like the sly performances and installations of Francesco Pedraglio, with playful prods at reading, listening, literary jaunts that you kind of just have to go along with. Or in Linda Stupart’s recent book Virus, an occult sci-fi riot that is part critique of a male-dominated art world and part fantasy of a tentacled viral entity that transforms everything, interspersed with instructions for spells such as ‘a spell for binding all-male conference panels’. Crucially, the book is also a collection of quotes and assimilated reinterpretations of panel discussions and various moments in art history, a more engaging and turned-on version of the type of post-author writing presented by the likes of Kenneth Goldsmith; language is the virus, and, Stupart implies, how we talk about ourselves changes our future. In practices such as these, the authorial voice is a kaleidoscopic monologue which suggests that the death of the unreliable narrator might make way for as-yet-undetermined ways to find new means of dialogue.
Originally published in Art Monthly 397, June 2016