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Ruth Beale’s Performing Keywords

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Ruth Beale, Performing Keywords (2013) at Turner Contemporary

Ruth Beale is a London-based artist whose multi-faceted practice includes drawing, performance, video and the collection and re-presentation of archival materials. Performing Keywords was Beale’s attempt to ‘enact’ Raymond Wiliams’ Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society through choreographed manoeuvres, props, readings and sound. The live 30-minute performance was devised for Words to be Spoken Aloud (Turner Contemporary, March 2013) through a workshop process with local people, including members of Turner Contemporary’s Studio Group. The workshops explored the terms within the book and Raymond Williams’ rationale for undertaking the project, as well as the potency of individual Keywords, and how changes in meaning reflect the political bent and values of society.

When did you first come across Raymond Williams’ Keywords book?

I arrived at Keywords through Culture and Society 1780 to 1950, as I was researching the historical relationship between education and ‘culture as a social project’ for my performance lecture Art for Virtue’s Sake. In Culture and Society Williams charts the shifts in meaning of just five words – culture, society, industry, art, class and democracy – and identifies instances where both the meaning of the words and the subject matter changes. Keywords was originally intended as an appendix for that book, but was cut due to space before being expanded over twenty-odd years into its own volume. My copy of Keywords (the second, expanded, 1983 edition) was given to me by my friend Pete Law who likes to think of himself as a kind of patron in the best sense of the word.

What was it about the text that provided the impetus for your project?

Keywords is such as unusual book. It appears at first like a reference book, or dictionary, but actually benefits from being read and cross-referenced, following the connections Williams makes between the words. It’s one man’s attempt to chart the language that describes culture, whilst acknowledging and exploring how complicated that is, because the language itself is weighted. Thinking of it like this paints Williams as a collector of words. I like the idea of him building an archive and set of meanings and histories as objectively as he can, but one that ultimately reflects his perspective on the subject. I also like his class-bound perspective, as he describes in his introduction the experience of being at Cambridge (having come from the Welsh valleys) where people would use the same words but somehow speak a ‘different language’. New words and meanings, and who uses them, reflect the political bent and values of society.

How was it working with amateur performers on the piece? How did both they and the audience respond to the text?

I was mindful of Williams’ work as an educationalist and WEA tutor (in fact I found a syllabus he had written about culture to be taught in Kent) so I thought it would be interesting to work with a group of local people at Turner Contemporary, and for us to collectively explore the text – a kind of socialised questioning. The group was made up of people from different backgrounds, though they were mostly already involved with the gallery’s education programme, so were engaged and interested in culture but not necessarily educated in the arts (though one member of the group was a recent dance graduate, and she helped choreograph the movements). They were very happy to approach it speculatively which was great.

We started with discussions about the words as a list, the currency of the words chosen and what had changed in the last twenty years since the second edition, before getting into Williams’ motivation for writing the book. I visited the Raymond Williams archive at Swansea university and brought back copies of his original notebooks so we could trace his own process of selection and elimination. All of this fed into the performance by creating an inner logic, an interpretation based on the discussions we had had. The script – edited extracts from the book and Williams’ own writing about Keywords – was part explanation and part proposition, but I think for the audience it was the props and movement that worked as a way to make it physical, to suspend and animate the words, and play with that tension between the tangible and intangible.

Now that the meaning of the term keyword has expanded to incorporate algorithm friendly search terms for organisations like GCHQ and NSA, has another layer of political significance been added to Williams’ project in retrospect?

In some ways it does a disservice to Williams’ book, because we now think of ‘keywords’ as search terms, but of course this shift is precisely the process he was describing. The search term is part of our understanding of how the world works through the digital tools that we have at our disposal, so illustrates how words take on new meanings in different contexts, and how this reflects changes in society. I wonder what Williams would make of the fact we now receive targeted advertising related to words we use on Google or Facebook, or that a couple was recently refused a visa to the USA for saying on Twitter they were going to ‘blow up’ (i.e. party) New York?