A Family Conversation

Medium: performance to invited audience; with two postcards, chair, spotlight and recorded voice track on ghetto blaster
Date: 1982
Duration: 3 minutes
Location: Staff common room, Clarence Place, Newport School of Art and Design, Gwent College of Higher Education, Newport, Wales

Description
A conversational exchange between mother and daughter, told through two picture postcards. The informality of the communicative form, associated with holidays, contrasts with announcement by the mother about the death of her aunt, and her speculation about the imminent demise of another aunt.

Production notes
One of my early performance pieces, developed over a week and then presented to an audience of students and staff, A Family Conversation evolved in response to a picture postcard I received from my mother. One side featured a full colour photograph of a walrus; the reverse side contained the caption, The walrus in Alaska, lines of my mother’s handwriting, and a stamp. I decided to respond to my mother’s communication via picture postcard, and chose one of the Severn Bridge from a local newsagent’s. I composed my message and then posted my card to my mum in Cambridge.

To create the performance, I recorded myself reading out loud all the written text on my mother’s postcard, the handwritten message, the name and address, and the printed information. I also phoned my mother and asked her to post back my Severn Bridge postcard to her, so I could include it in my performance - which she did. On the day, I placed a plain, hard-backed chair against the wall on which I’d pinned my mother’s card, showing the walrus image, and put an audio cassette ghetto blaster on the floor nearby. The room was darkened, and the overhead lights turned off. I lit the area around the chair and postcard with a single studio lamp. During the performance, I walked into the spotlight, sat down on the chair, pressed play, and began to read my postcard reply, struggling to hold my own live voice against my recorded voice, speaking my mother’s words, her message, then my name and address, and all the other words printed on the card.

Publication and comments
Afterwards, I wanted to memorialise the event, and created a video documentation, using a recording of me ‘reading’ my Severn Bridge card to form a second soundtrack that ran concurrently with the recording of me reading my mother’s Walrus card. The visuals were a series of close-up shots of both sides of the cards, filmed in the video studio at Clarence Place. The most complex setup featured a split-screen effect with my mouth reading the words with the lower portion of the card above my lips - for these, I held a card in front of my face with the picture side facing the camera, whilst I read through the words.

The video A Family Conversation was later broadcast on BBC TV as part of a one-off programme called ‘Video Magic’, which featured work by artists as well as amateur home movies. I watched the programme live and recall that only a single audio channel was played back - I presume because the BBC considered the two voices simultaneously would be confusing for a mainstream audience. The BBC kindly sent me a VHS tape of the programme, because I was only able to watch in black and white on my portable telly.