Exercises (Céline, Beckett, Woolf, Stein)
Ola Ståhl / PS Malmö

Seeking to engage with canonical works of literature – and with the notion of canonical literature itself – from the perspective of writing as an expanded, non-literary practice, the different instantiations of the project Exercises seek to isolate, from the encounter with the works engaged with, certain qualities that are then amplified in different ways in and often across different media.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s use of ellipses; the exilic, impoverished, affective qualities of Samuel Beckett’s trilogy (written in French then translated into his native English); the rhythms and densities of soliloquies and descriptions of a landscape in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves; the relation between descriptive language and everyday material objects in Gertrud Stein’s Tender Buttons: these particularities in writing, the peculiar qualities that stand out, are engaged in the exercises that comprise the project, not in the form of citations per se, nor (solely) in the form of critical meta-commentary, but in a performative sense, seeking to push a particular aspect or quality to its limit. Far from being faithful to the original, in the conventional sense, they become attempts at differentiation, producing something different from the incessant repetition of a detail that catches one’s attention. The resulting pieces include printed matter but also video work, sound-text assemblages, short pieces of critical commentary (in some instances), read text and performances.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Ellipses)

1. This work is a diagram. It extracts and physically reprints all the ellipses in Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel “Mort a crédit.” In doing so, it seeks to explore the function of the ellipsis as an attribute of literary writing.

The function of the ellipsis in literary writing involves two concurrent modes. On the one hand, it signifies an omission, something left out, or something falling short, an opening up of the text to the ambiguous or the unsaid, to a plethora of subcurrent insinuations and uncertainties. This might be referred to as its arrestive mode. On the other hand, however, it involves a force which moves the text forward, from exclamation to exclamation, from fragment to fragment, and with increasing speed. This is what we might call its propulsive mode and it designates neither a space to paus or reflect, nor an ambiguity or a loitering around the uncertain, but rather a frantic rambling, an incessant rant, and an ever-increasing velocity.

2. The extracted ellipses are not reprinted one after the other. In other words, this is neither list nor an inventory. Rather, the ellipses of each page of the novel are superimposed onto the ellipses of all the novel’s other pages using a mechanical typewriter and running the same sheet of paper through the typewriter as many times as there are pages in the novel.

If Gilles Deleuze is right, and what we find in Céline’s two remarkable novels Death on Credit and Guignol’s Band is writing turned into pure sound, then his use of the two concurrent modalities of the ellipsis is precisely the means by which the sonorous mass of his writing is rendered rhythmical. It is by the use of ellipses (the propulsive cut as well as the reflective arrest), that his writing opens up to a non-syntactical infinite ground beyond the text – what might be thought of as the text’s potential – a horizon opened up to, then closed off yet again, in a pulsation. The ellipsis, in both its modalities, remain a liminal space and a passage, either a slowing down and an opening up toward an ambiguous and uncertain silence beyond the text, or a speeding up, moving erratically between disjointed fragments, in velocities that open syntactical language up to pure, polyrhythmic prosodies.

3. This is an abstract, geometrical shape. This is a set of traces of the repeated movement of the type bar. This is a diagram.

The function of the ellipsis is to crack syntactical language open and to reveal, from its shattered interiority, its outside, its excess, its exteriority, its folding of its exterior into itself – language, in other words, as materiality, as sound, as silence, as voice, as prosody, as rhythm, as embodiment, as affect, as intensity. It is there on the page for the reader of the text, a physical gap, a perforation of the mass of text, and it is there for the writer encountering language as code and the machinery of textual encoding – the movement of the type bar, repeated thrice, a breath in the writing of the text, the paus of someone lost and exhausted, or the erratic hyperventilation of someone too excited, forced but unwilling to stop to mark the omission thus doing so only briefly and to rush off again immediately, and with greater velocity this time. For reader and writer alike, the ellipsis marks a transgression and a transition, from inside to outside, from syntactical language to rhythm and prosody, from meaning to affect, and from narrative to intensity.

Based upon this notion, the graphical piece presented in this volume uses a typewriter to create a diagram outlining the function of the ellipses in Céline’s novel Death on Credit. In the diagram, the ellipses are extracted from each of the novel’s pages and typed out one after the other, but on the same page, in such a fashion that the ellipses of each page of the novel are superimposed upon one another. Graphically, in the resulting diagram, this means that the first few ellipses on the page, will be bolder on the page, as they have been superimposed a greater number of times.  As the reader proceed to read the remaining ellipses they will be less and less bold, as fewer pages contain sixty or seventy or eighty ellipses. The page can thus be read as a diagram of Céline’s use of ellipses per page, which in turn can be interpreted as an outline of the different speeds in Céline’s novel. Because the diagram has been produced using a typewriter, the repeated superimposition of the ellipses also takes on a physical character, where the first ellipses are not only bolder, but more deeply embossed into the fibres of the paper, to the verge of being a perforation rather than a mark – again coming back to a play between the graphical mark, the sound and speed of the repetition, and notion of an oscillation between mark and passage – and the latter ellipses are lighter, graphical marks, signifying higher speed, less duration passed, less repetition, propulsion, in much the same way as the pages with few ellipses tend to contain long sentences where the ellipses signifies and arrest and an ambiguity, whereas those with a greater number of ellipses tend to contain fragments where the ellipses signifies and increase in speed and a passage between fragments. 

The second diagram is a graphic rendering of all the ellipses in the novel. Using a typewriter, the ellipses were typed onto a transparent acetates, the projected onto a piece of paper, on which the outlines of each ellipses, enlarged, were drawn faintly and superimposed on one another. The resulting line drawing is a diagram of the minute graphical differences in Celine’s repeated use of ellipses in Death on Credit, where the slight divergences between the lines, signify miniscule anomalies within the repeated movement of the type bar towards and against the platen, outlining the play between repetition and differentiation, repetition and rhythm, repetition and passage, involved in Céline’s use of the ellipsis.

Published as an artist’s book and a set of fabric patterns by Publication Studio Malmö and a chapbook by Calgary-based No Press (2014).

Samuel Beckett (Rant)

Rant is a project initiated in 2006 for the conference Beckett & Company at Goldsmiths College and Tate Modern in London, UK. The project consists of a series of reworkings of Beckett’s trilogy – Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable – in which the fragments of text are systematically extracted from the novel. These fragments form a series of new text which are then translated back and forth between English, French and Swedish, resulting in both incoherent, nonsensical turns of phrase, and fragments that suggest new narrative trajectories. Bearing in mind that Beckett’s writing itself flickers, makes obscure the possibility of animating words as speech issuing from a body, Rant constitutes an attempt at infusing his words with an excess that refuses to submit to signification, an intensification of what is already a particular and peculiar quality in Beckett’s work – its affective register; its minor, exilic qualities; its stuttering and stammering – a quality as frail as it is powerful; a borderline that exiles us from all possible meaning at the same time as it produces a germinal state where words link and mutate outside of their original narrative.

At Beckett & Company, the resulting text was performed by participants walking among the crowd at coffee breaks, quietly reciting the text, and at an advertised event in the concrete staircase at Goldsmiths College, where the performers paced up and down the stairs reciting the text. A similar version of the project was also exhibited and performed at Sassoon Gallery, London (2007) and, later, used as the material for a workshop and performance at Bureau for Open Culture, Columbus, OH, USA (2009).


Parts of Rant has since been published as part of Little Paper Planes’ Sights & Sounds series (2010). You can listen to an extract from the accompanying sound recording below (read by Neil Chapman):

The piece has also been performed at the gallery Oksasenkatu 11 in Helsinki, Finland, in 2011. A video recording of the performance is available below.

In 2013 the project in its entirety was published as an artist book with Publication Studio, available here.

Virginia Woolf (Densities)

Taking as a point of departure the rhythms of speech intervals created by the soliloquies that compose large parts of Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves and the marked contrast between these rhythms and those of the description of the landscape that makes up the remaining parts of the novel, the reworking of the text that forms part of the Exercises-series approaches the texture of rhythms and different temporalities of the novel on the basis of intervals and densities. The interior densities of the soliloquies (speech direct inwards, towards an interior) are contrasted with the exterior densities of the parts of the text describing the cyclical temporality of the landscape in which the novel is situated and to which the soliloquies are inexorably linked. This is marked out by extracting the citation marks from the text (the beginnings and ends of each soliloquy), thus graphically highlighting densities and intervals of interiorized speech and, through the absence of marks, the temporality of the landscape. The text – a text without actual text – becomes a play with and between these rhythms, amplified by its printed and bound format (flicking through the book animates it, turns the flicking between or turning of its pages into its own texture of rhythms, gives the lines, fixed on the page, a sense of movement) as does the accompanying video work containing nothing but the flickering lines and the blank spaces between them.

Published as an artist’s book and a fabric pattern by Publication Studio Malmö (2014) and featured as a video in several installations, displays and other presentations of Publication Studio Malmö’s artists’ books.

Densities (Virginia Woolf)

Gertrud Stein (Definitions)

Drawing upon the relation between the language and everyday objects in Gertrud Stein’s Tender Buttons, and in particular the notion that there is a sliding movement of displacement involved in the rendering of the material object as language, and of language itself as a materiality, the instantiation of Exercises engaging with Gertrud Stein’s work makes use of sections from her text, replacing each word with parts of its lexical definition and / or approximate, and sometimes not so approximate, synonyms. The resulting text, moves further from the material object described, creates an increasing gap between object and language, sliding beneath any sense of language’s descriptive function thus opening up to new trajectories of meaning and narrative, images of hybrid or displaced objects, and fractured processes signification and communication.

Published as an artist’s book on card and rice paper by Publication Studio Malmö (2014) and featured as a video in several installations, displays and other presentations of Publication Studio Malmö’s artists’ books.

Definitions (Gertrud Stein)