Hand papermaking allows an artist to take ownership of their materials. Choosing a fiber for paper pulp, making handmade paper, creating the final form—papermaking is a mutable art medium that allows for a multitude of options. When used in interdisciplinary manner, the process can be a way to add context, content, and meaning to an art piece.
Patrick Blenkarn is a Canadian artist based in Vancouver who recently created Soliloquy in English, a performance piece about English as a second language. It uses a rich combination of materials: words spoken aloud, a book containing varied experiences, and paper handmade from a secondhand dictionary.
For a long time I called myself a theatre director and a playwright. I was born in Ottawa and went to school in Halifax to study philosophy, theatre history, and film history. For four years I spent my days in the library and lecture hall, and my evenings in rehearsal halls and theatres.
From the beginning, I wasn’t particularly satisfied with the notion of dedicating myself to one form of theatre. While many of my peers would make one play and aim to workshop it and tour it over two or three years, I preferred working on new or multiple projects every two to three months. Theatre was new and exciting to me. After having made plays for theatres, for streets, for kitchens, and even one over email that lasted four months, I went back to school to start a Master’s of Fine Arts degree at Simon Fraser University in Interdisciplinary Studies—I’m still there now.
Most of my recent work has left the theatre altogether, or at least the classification of theatre, since I will admit it still borrows from the things I love most about theatre—questions about the relationship between performer and audience, the rhythm of speech, character, and more.
I mention all this as a way to explain to myself how I came to be reading Paperslurry’s instructions on how to make paper. At the end of June of 2016, I needed to finish a new work called Soliloquy in English, which opened in August at the SummerWorks Performance Festival in Toronto.
Soliloquy in English is a book for multiple voices. It is comprised of interviews with people who learned English as a second language and it is read out loud by a small audience. The book is passed from hand to hand and voice to voice, and the result is a kind of lyric essay about the experience of learning a language people are increasingly expected to know around the world—a language I myself have never felt forced or expected to know.
While the subject matter was largely sparked by my own brief stint in Shanghai as a middle school ESL teacher, and a desire to connect with people I’d known throughout my life in English (despite us both often being fluent in another language), my adventure into handmade paper came from thinking about how to build on the relationship between the act of reading and the language being spoken.
In the performance, we read in English and reflect on English. The words are a material in the performance. They are put in your mouth to be chewed on. Once I started thinking of the words in these terms, I felt that the book itself couldn’t just be any old paper. It had to be part of the greater question about English. So I bought a Concise Oxford Dictionary from a secondhand shop on West Pender in Vancouver and a blender and set to work.
The result is very much a mix of things. A book. A performance. An art object. An essay. A documentary—a slurry.
- By Patrick Blenkarn
Soliloquy in English runs until August 14th , 2016 at the Theatre Centre in Toronto, Canada.
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