Noulipo’s Oulipoed Foulipo

The sound was perceived as baby talk, a speech disorder, Bugs Bunny- and/or Elmer Fudd-like. It may have been understood as an attempt to acquire a language or to reconfigure the familiar lipogrammatic constraint of the non-letter r, where entire words that contain the consonant are eliminated. But Juliana Spahr’s and Stephanie Young’s collaborative paper and performance titled “foulipo,” presented at noulipo’s politics of constraint panel, were created through interpretations of Oulipian tactics of n+7 and Luc Etienne’s “slenderizing,” or “asphyxiation”—removing the letter “r” from speech.

Midway through the piece, a recording of their voices replaced their recitation, and they proceeded to remove their clothes, put on their clothes, remove their clothes, and replace them again, as they might do each day at home—with the repetition almost ritualistic, possibly alluding to the passage of time in the history of performance art. The text, however, was never replaced or padded, but remained disrobed, like audience members David Larsen, Jane Sprague, and Konrad Steiner. Conference attendees’ responses became part of the experience; some watched with smiles or refocused their eyes on other panelists: an admiring Christian Bök, business-as-usual Rodrigo Toscano, or moderator Jen Hofer who, observing Bök’s stare, looked back at the audience periodically with a grin.

Spahr and Young wanted to consider, in their words, “why in our social/literary/generational scene, only process-based art methods seemed to have any continuing lineage or practitioners” compared to body-based feminist performance art, though they evolved at the same time. Associating the ideas originally came about while considering Michelle Grangaud’s modification of the process of slenderizing, called “lipopossible,” affecting all letters of the alphabet. They added, “We thought there was something similar in the ways that writers we know equate female body performance artists with nudity … Our paper suggested that there might be much that is valuable about this feminist art, that we might still need it.” They wanted both traditions in dialogue with each other.

Relating current practices of constraint-based poetics to body-based feminist performance art would have made for engaging discussion, or consideration of what performance art prevails today, especially given its prevalence in war-torn and developing nations, or the tangentially related aesthetics of risk (more akin to body art), predominance of digital self-imaging (more applicable to identity politics), or current Web-based or programmatic generative methods as applied to preexisting source text—as well as how they might be integrated. Interpretation was left up to the audience, however, and the discussion traveled elsewhere.

Treated in the panel Q and A was the concern: Was “foulipo” a critique of [post] avant-garde movements? Young elaborated after the conference, “The latter half of our paper discusses the critical reception of writers within our generation who are influenced by the Oulipo more than it addresses the critical reception of ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ writing from official members of the French Oulipo,” initially citing Bök and Ubuweb as examples, prompting Paul Fournel to ask if he should return his Ubuweb T-shirt. Spahr and Young stated later that “Ubuweb is only one example of a cluster of writers within our generation who are influenced by the Oulipo. And neither is Ubuweb solely a collection of writing influenced by the Oulipo … We are huge Ubuweb fans.”

Responding to the combined affect of the disrobing of language and bodies, and the re-dressing of bodies, the piece may have been seen as a critique that women primarily received recognition in the avant-garde when they took off their clothes. It could have been viewed as a call for a women’s movement or appeal for a general nonexclusion. But Spahr and Young wanted to emphasize inclusion, not exclusion. They noted in our interview, in response to the first reading, that Gertrude Stein, for instance, wore layers and layers of clothes, and to the second, they requoted from their paper: “‘… because we didn’t want it to be women only; we didn’t want oulipuss.’”

They mentioned that they wanted there to be more unclothed people because one of the complaints made about feminist body art was that it was narcissistic because it focused attention on one female body, and that was about individualism, not collectivism. A couple panel participants were asked to undress, like Hofer, but with students in the audience, she chose not to at this particular event. Toscano was jokingly encouraged to join, but he refused. And though Bök was not asked, Spahr and Young noted that he would have been welcome. Otherwise, the audience was not made aware, which contributed to the impact of the piece. Post-conference responses to the immersive “foulipo” were positive and curious, ranging from a keen interest in San Francisco influence and historicism, to preferring to see ___ undressed, than ___ and ___.

Related concerns were raised throughout the conference. How does one include what might be missing in a constraint-based space, such as “emotion,” or does that emerge. There were reviews of the original politics behind the creation of the Oulipo, but identifying connections between processes—like recombinatory prose and hypertext for example—were scarcer. Current techniques, such as Flarf or uncreative writing, and the application of new media theory to poetics, or interdisciplinary possibilities, will be covered more extensively in the next conference.

All groups and participants, in effect, define their strategies at some level and are implicated in an exclusive inclusion. One of the many strengths of the event was that anticipated panelists were featured alongside poets who do not rely entirely on constraints, bringing additional matters to the table. It follows perhaps that, as the Oulipo revealed the syntactical limitations inherent in language by imposing their own rules to extend the possibilities of literature, Spahr and Young remind us that articulation of constraint itself is as much embodied as artifice, and there is potential still here.