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Session 6: 'Detached Gestures'

Professor Peter McDonald (Professor of English and Related Literature and Fellow, University of Oxford) Grammalepsy

Do you suffer from grammalepsy? If you are reading this, we can be confident you do. Yet, for John Cayley, the Canadian digital language artist and academic who coined the term, the condition (or generative capacity?) is not restricted to the literate. Grammalepsy has as much to do with gesture as with writing, inscription, or mark-making in its many forms and varieties. ‘Gestures made by someone who does not know a natural sign language remain gestures,’ he wrote in 2018, ‘but once they are grasped within a practice of language, they become, suddenly, something different. They become language.’ I shall use this short audiovisual presentation to reflect on Cayley’s engaging term, using examples from a range of media and artistic practices. 

Dr Jennifer Johnson (Junior Research Fellow in the History of Art, University of Oxford)
Sandra Blow’s abstraction: the obdurate gesture or performed materialism?


Influenced by the use of materials to speak for themselves in post-war European abstraction, the work of Sandra Blow negotiates gestures that open towards the viewer and simultaneously hermetically seal the work in a world of its own. This paper argues that this dialectical form of abstraction sits at the border of aesthetics and politics. In this, a parallel can be drawn with Brecht’s notion of ‘gestus’, which, meaning ‘gist’ as well as ‘gesture’ is embedded in both an historical moment and the motivations of individuals within that moment.

Leaning upon Brecht’s theories of ‘gestus’ and alienation, Blow’s abstraction between 1947 and 1960 is explored in relation to its moment of Cold War and post-war capitalism. The problem or idea of gesture in abstraction is argued to be bound up in both an obdurate and performed materialism.

Professor Jonathan Cross (Professor of Musicology, University of Oxford)
Gesture as ritual: avant-garde music theatre of the 1960s and 1970s

Until the advent of recorded music, sound and its human sources were intimately connected. For European music before the emergence of so-called absolute music in the 18th century, musical gestures were usually also related to some kind of ritual act, be that music for the Christian liturgy, or virtue signalling to the court, or ceremonial dancing. But even with sonatas, string quartets, symphonies and the like, the gestures of the players and conductors who brought the music into being might be understood to represent a kind of abstract rite – performance as an ‘extreme act’ as Edward Said described it – that defined the ‘sacred’ space of the concert hall and demanded special kinds of behaviour.


Post-First World War developments in abstract music (neoclassicism, dodecaphony, ‘neue Sachlichkeit’) and still more extreme positions after the Second World War (integral serialism, aleatoricism, electronic synthesis) resulted in the alienation of the expressive and, often, the denial of the body. Thus the (re-)emergence of music theatre in the 1960s might be understood as a reaction against this tendency and an attempt to reinstate the gestural into avant-garde musical performance as an interface between composer, musician and audience. And in so doing, the ritual of the concert hall was also reconceptualised.

I shall explore a number of these responses, as time allows, including by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Maurizio Kagel, Thea Musgrave, Harrison Birtwistle and John Cage, as well as Samuel Beckett and Nam June Paik. I shall end with a more recent work, Jesper Nordin’s Sculpting the Air (2015), which uses technology to harness the movements of the conductor in order to create new sounds. We come full circle: here gesture becomes/is music.

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