The provocative works of the poet, performer and artist Caroline Bergvall have long intrigued and challenged medievalists – so when a handful of us CLAMS Anglo-Saxonists were invited to view a one-off performance of Bergvall’s newest work, Raga Dawn, we jumped at the chance.
‘Dawn’ by name, dawn by nature – the piece, to be performed at twelve locations on the old troubadour route from Morocco to southern Spain and through Europe in 2017, takes place outdoors at the rising of day. For us, that meant a 4am start, a big flask of coffee and a McDonald’s breakfast as we set out on a journey from South London and out towards Essex, our final destination being the landing platform at the Grade II listed Tilbury Cruise Terminal.
What’s the significance of Tilbury? Today it’s a working-class port town which never quite recovered from the devastating mass unemployment of the 1970s and 80s. But former centuries told quite a different story – the town’s position at the mouth of the Thames and its deep-water port meant it was historically an important location for trade and defence. Bede mentions in his Ecclesiastical History that St Cedd established a missionary church at ‘Tilaburg’ with the aim of converting the East Saxons to Christianity. It was here that Elizabeth I delivered her famous ‘heart and stomach of a king’ speech to assembled troops in advance of the anticipated invasion of the Spanish Armada. Here, too, the HMT Empire Windrush brought one of the first groups of West Indian immigrants to the UK after World War II.
Raga Dawn, performed by Bergvall and soprano Peyee Chen, was part of Estuary 16, the first biennial festival celebrating the cultural and historical importance of Tilbury and its neighbouring estuary towns of Gravesend, Canvey Island and Southend-on-Sea.
Via a spellbinding hour of layered spoken and sung voices in multiple languages, electronic sounds, yogic breathing and linguistic play, Bergvall’s work – performed under a blanket of shifting grey clouds – voices anxieties concerning forced human migration and issues of language, displacement and belonging. Performed as night turns to day, on the brink of the Essex marshlands, and exploring multilingualism and transnationalism via the use of minority languages (Punjabi and Romansch), Raga Dawn rejects the Anglocentric and instead gives centre-stage to all things liminal.
By looking to medieval lyric poetry for inspiration, Bergvall finds apt meeting points between east and west, the past and the present, and the spoken and written word. The history of troubadour love poetry reveals it to be transnational and nomadic, starting in the Middle East and moving across Spain and to Italy through the 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. The form translates and transforms itself through various times and places, becoming a shared tradition which denies a standardised or hierarchical linguistic culture. There was certainly the feeling amongst the rapt audience that we are being reconnected – in Bergvall’s words – to time, place, and to each other. It was an enormously profound and unique experience.
When the performance finished we flocked back inside the ferry terminal to partake in a Sikh breakfast of bombay potatoes and chapatis, prepared by the Essex Cultural Diversity Project – a welcome way to warm up after our hour by the water but also, undoubtedly, an important part of the transnational community-building experience.
By then it was half past 8 in the morning and the day was far from over – Tilbury Cruise Terminal was abuzz with visitors enjoying sound, film and photography installations as well as talks, poetry readings and films that explored the region’s complex connections with its own history and the wider world.
Waterborne was a particular highlight – a poignant audio piece experienced on board a working Thames boat, the Avante. French and Mottershead’s work is part of a wider project – Afterlife – in which the listener hears a detailed description of the decay of the human body in a variety of environments – woodland, water, in a museum and at home. Looking out across the Thames and hearing a visceral description of tissues and bones dissolving in the water over centuries, one expects to feel chilled but is instead strangely soothed by the deeply humanising shared experience that transgresses periodisation.
Also on display was Chloe Dewe Mathews newest project Thames Log. The photographer has spent five years documenting rituals, both habitual and ceremonial, enacted along the banks of the Thames. Surprising and moving moments come to light in this exhibition, including pentecostal baptism and the scattering of human ashes. We were especially intrigued by the way that Dewe Mathews displayed metadata about the photograph alongside the image itself, recording these watery rituals both quantitatively and visually.
The estuary was an unexpected but fitting location for thinking through our relationships with history, the environment and each other, and a (very) long but enjoyable and enriching day was had by all.
Beth Whalley is a PhD Candidate in the English and Geography Departments at King’s College London. Funded by the Rick Trainor Scholarship and the Canal and Rivers Trust, Beth’s research explores the semiotics of water across times and places.