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Cara Tolmie: Chinese Whispers

Cara Tolmie, Room Studies, 2010, performance and video. Photograph: Roger Woolridge
John Douglas Millar discusses the performances of emerging artist Cara Tolmie, in the context of the rejection of hyperbolic theory in answer to the question: what happens after postmodernism?  
Cara Tolmie, Room Studies, 2010, performance and video. Photograph: Roger Woolridge

A. A violent order is disorder; and

B. A great disorder is an order. These

Two things are one.

Wallace Stevens, ‘The Connoisseur of Chaos’, 195401

As the philosopher Simon Critchley maintains, we are living through an age of ‘gnawing and corrosive irony’.02Too solipsistic and downtrodden to try and reactivate tired emancipatory narratives without the proviso of an arch nod and a wink, we graze benignly on a saturated media landscape while in the shadow of a pervasive ennui. We are, to quote Critchley once more, ‘hamlets in a world of states that we know to be rotten’.03

Fredric Jameson has described the symptoms of our alienation:

We have indeed secreted a human age out of ourselves as spiders secrete their webs: an immense, all-encompassing ceiling […] which shuts down visibility on all sides even as it absorbs all the formerly natural elements in its habitat, transmuting them into its own man-made substance. Yet within this horizon of immanence we wander as alien as tribal people, or as visitors from outer space, admiring its unimaginably complex and fragile filigree and recoiling from its bottomless potholes […] The world of the human age is an aesthetic pretext for grinding terror or pathological ecstasy.04

During the last two decades, the question of how to move beyond an ironic subjectivity whilst acknowledging the stakes set by postmodernism and critical theory has become a defining concern. Look at the work, for example, of David Foster Wallace and his generation,05 writers who wanted to provide a kind of postmodernism with a human face; the hauntological pop of John Maus and Ariel Pink, with their ‘aesthetic of post-utopian romanticism’;06or the fictions and installations of Tom McCarthy, his attempted excavation, dusting down and navigation of the wreckage of the Modernist project.07

Liam Gillick has also written about his generation’s tangle with postmodernism and attendant theorising:

We [had] been through an education environment where we were told that we live in a completely relativistic society where everything is available to every artist to do whatever they want. […] All certainties are over and all collective strategies are off, and everything is open for question. And as a part of that, images for example become unstable and their meanings become unstable – so [if] we assume this to be a position that you can’t tell the difference between one thing and another, how do things still get decided, how are politics still strategised? How are images still powerful? How do things still progress in a way?

In the art world, the most prevalent discourse around what happens after postmodernism is often to be found in multiple riffs on Nicolas Bourriaud’s notion of relational aesthetics or his later formulation of the altermodern, which he calls a ‘rebooting’ of modernism.08

Relational aesthetics seeks to restage utopian community relations within the confines of institutional structures; a restaging that risks charges of mannerism as the work is institutionally co-opted. Altermodernism, meanwhile, seeks desperately to inscribe and engraft itself onto the cultural sphere, but more through an act of naming and by force of will than anything else. Bourriaud radically simplifies modernity in order to proclaim a new era of globalised art production, failing to recognise that globalisation, ‘the new’ and the notion of modernism have gone hand in hand since the Querelle.09

When in 1964 Susan Sontag wrote that ‘interpretation is the intellect’s revenge on art’, she could have little inkling of just how brutal that revenge would turn out to be.10Four decades later, we find a young generation of artists who wish to avoid the grasp of theory. This is not Sontag’s erotics in opposition to hermeneutics, but it does suggest that to drown a work in theory is to risk a negation of phenomena altogether.

The work of Cara Tolmie, which spans installation, performance, text and music, provides a powerful case study here. For the performance The End Is a Tumultuous Noise (2010), Tolmie responded to some of Meredith Monk’s 16mm films. The artist created a musical and emotionally intense work investigating the slippage between language and voice and commenting on failed, romantic attempts at transcendence through art. The piece was conceived in two parts, firstly in the form of a mythopoeic text that was handed out to the audience and secondly as a performance in which the artist walked in a circle and, through the use of a looping pedal and a microphone, added layer upon layer of baroque vocal melody at the end of each completed circuit.

Cara Tolmie, Myriad Mouth Line (2011), performance, 15min, London Frieze Art Fair. Photograph: Polly Braden

‘Postulated Space’

The echoes in the piece are not of Monk but rather of Beckett. With its minimalist theatricality, repetition and fixed circularity, The End brings to mind his short theatrical work Footfalls (1975), in which a woman paces up and down – ‘revolving her revolves’, as Beckett writes in the stage notes – within strictly confined coordinates while musing on her alienation.11 In response to an accusation of difficulty Beckett replied, ‘I’m not overly concerned with intelligibility, I want the piece to work on the nerves of the audience.’12

 The End Is a Tumultuous Noise operates within similar terrain; while multiple interpretations manifest themselves, the work resists reduction to psychoanalytical, political or theoretical analogies. It inhabits a third space in which its own logic is enough.For her performance Myriad Mouth Line at the Frieze Art Fair in 2011, Tolmie performed a series of short theatrical acts, or as she calls them, frames. Each frame acted to sequentially layer meaning whilst simultaneously frustrating homogenous interpretation. In the first frame she mapped out a space through the use of vocal techniques, once more walking within strictly choreographed coordinates. In frame two she came to a fixed microphone and performed abstract vocal gymnastics while standing with arms theatrically outstretched in a beseeching posture. For the third frame she sat in a revolving chair, spinning while intoning a knowingly overblown poem:

‘You draw your gaze from the vaults of the dead acts.’

In frame four she explored the space mapped in frame one, this time moving around it in an awkward contorted shuffle and stopping to scream, as she says, ‘like an industrial machine’,13at each of the four corners. In the final frame she returned to the swivel chair and in the form of a short lecture deconstructed what each part of the performance ‘meant for her’. In this case the work does bring to mind Monk’s statement that: ‘I work in between the cracks, where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where theatre becomes cinema.’14 Tolmie maintains that each frame ‘re-describes everything that has come before it using a slightly different mode of language and consequently contributing another layer to the narrative and history of this postulated space.’15There is a constant tension between a demand to suspend disbelief, following Tolmie’s logic, and succumbing to the techniques of alienation.

Moreover, the idea of creating a temporary ‘postulated’ space through the voice within the confines of a commercial art fair is a tactic of denial and disavowal. Tolmie’s performance took place outside at the very edge of the fair, where a path through Regent’s Park passes close to the ticket office. This meant that casual passersby could easily view it. Was it acting as advertisement, rebuttal, supplement? How are we to read this ‘postulated space’? In what way does the context mediate its meaning?


The artist’s key tropes (looping, translation, layering) were also present on a grander scale for her solo show ‘Read Thou Art, and Read Thou Shalt Remain’ at Dundee Contemporary Arts in May 2011. The title of the show is a play on the Reformation debate on transubstantiation in which one priest famously refuted the notion by saying ‘bread thou art, and bread thou shalt remain’. Tolmie’s work is made in the spirit of a kind of secular faith, in that it seeks a third space outside the divide of knowing or not knowing. In this sense the reference to the Reformation – an attempt to prohibit faith from becoming dogmatic and corrupt – may act as a critique for the ‘doctrines’ surrounding the making and theorising of contemporary art.

The show grew out of the desert. Film footage shot from a car travelling through Death Valley in the US, shown on continuous loop, is the first work encountered. This is then reinterpreted in the second piece, a framed, printed list of actions ([fence]post, foreground, post, camera zooms in, etc.) – and then as a framed graphic representation and finally as a 21-minute film or as Tolmie has it, ‘mini-opera’. The works examine how knowledge changes through representation – as if mediated through a game of Chinese whispers. Indeed, in Tolmie’s work, a process or game whereby meaning is constantly shifting through (mis)representation or deliberate guile, this might be as good a description to hang on it as we might find.

In his catalogue essay for the exhibition ‘For the Blind Man in the Dark Room Looking for the Black Cat that Isn’t There’ (2009), the show’s curator Anthony Huberman asks: ‘Can one imagine a new epistemological map that reaches outside and beyond the familiar north/south poles of knowing and not knowing?’ Tolmie’s work seeks this space;on that is also outside of the bind created by postmodernism. It seeks to frustrate absolute systems of meaning, and – it must be acknowledged – at significant risk of obscurantism, replaces them with, I believe, a call for a secular faith, ‘not faith in God, but faith as “an experience of fidelity to a demand that I hold to be true”’, a faith that structures life ‘be it politically or artistically’ and, indeed, that structures the artwork itself.16

Homepage image: Cara Tolmie, The End Is A Tumultuous Noise, 2010, performance.


  • Wallace Stevens, ‘The Connoisseur of Chaos’, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Vintage, 1990, p.215.
  • Interview with Simon Critchley and Carl Cederström, ‘Konsten att börja oroa sig och sluta leva’, March 2009. See:
  • Simon Critchley ‘Do It, England (The Hamlet Doctrine, Part 1)’, lecture at Swedenborg Hall, London, 29 November 2011. Available at
  • Fredric Jameson, Valances of the Dialectic, London and New York: Verso Books, 2009, p.25.
  • See Evan Hughes, ‘Just Kids’, New York, 9 October 2011. Available at:
  • Adam Harper, ‘Heaven Is Real: John Maus and the truth of Pop’, Rouge’s Foam. Available at (last accessed 10 December 2011)
  • See James Purdon, ‘To ignore the avant-garde is akin to ignoring Darwin’, The Observer (newspaper), 1 August 2010. See: (last accessed 10 December 2011)
  • As an aside, it is interesting to note the rise in use of the language of computing within intellectuals keen to popularise their work. For example, the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson and his use of the term ‘apps’ in outlining his argument for the benefits of Western hegemony. See ‘The 6 Killer Apps of Prosperity’, TED Talks, July 2011. Available at
  • See Anne-Marie Lecoq, La Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. Paris: Gallimard. 2001
  • Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966, p.7.
  • James Knowleson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, London: Bloomsbury, 1996, p.615.
  • Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape and Other Shorter Plays. London: Faber & Faber, 2009, p.10.
  • Meredith Monk, Meredith Monk (ed. Deborah Jowitt), Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997, p.2.
  • Artist’s text, distributed at the performance of Myriad Mouth Line (2011) at the Frieze Art Fair, London, October 2011.
  • Artist’s text, Myriad Mouth Line (2011), op.cit.
  • S. Critchley, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. London and New York: Verso Books, 2007. pp.44–47