Playing with medieval things: Caroline Bergvall

In a series of posts, the organisers of ‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’ explore some of the pieces of work, modern and medieval, that have inspired these workshops.

Caroline Bergvall’s multimedia project Drift (2012) is difficult to talk about neatly and succinctly. But here goes…

The work comprises of performances – for voice, music, and digital screen – and a book containing poetry, visual art, and a ‘researcher’s log’ which notes down some of Bergvall’s writing and making processes. Drift retells the story of the ‘left to die boat’ –  a dingy which set off from Libya in March 2011, in which sixty-three migrants of the seventy-two on board died while drifting for fourteen days, despite being sighted by NATO boats within the coalition’s maritime surveillance area. At the same time, neither more nor less importantly, Drift explores medieval poetry: most obviously the Old English poem, ‘The Seafarer’, which is dissected and reassembled throughout the new work.

Watch and listen again to even just the first minute of the video above. Bergvall plays with language in a number of ways: choosing translations based on which words sound similar rather than what they mean, or deliberately mis-translating or mis-pronouncing words because of what they look like.

Take just the first line of the Old English Seafarer for example:

Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan…

[Keeping the word order: ‘May I of my self true stories tell’; or literally: ‘I may tell a true story about myself’]

And now Bergvall’s words:

Let me speak my true journeys, own true songs
Maeg ic, I can make my sorry tale right soggy truth
sothgied sodsgate some serious wrecan my ship
sailing rekkies tell Hu ic how ache wracked from

From one line of Old English Bergvall has spun out five lines. Each Old English word is teased and tested and stretched. ‘Soðgied’, in truth pronounced ‘soth-yed’, is here turned into ‘sodsgate’: a transformation that always reminds me of when I was first learning Old English, I would always accidentally read ‘ð’ as ‘d’. Also, to note, I’ve used the book version of the text to get the spellings for this section, but hearing the poem aloud the words more obviously reveal their playfulness, for example ‘some serious wrecan my ship’ could be ‘some serious wreck-an my ship’.

In meddling with Old English, Bergvall plays with ideas of authority and truth. She uses this 1000 year old poem to explore own linguistic background, which includes Norwegian, French, and English. The fact that she then transforms the story into the horrific tale of a failed migration from Libya to Italy further turns the Old English poem on its head. A song from the North of Europe, by a people who thought nothing of roving around the seas in search of new lands to call their own, becomes an account of refugees from South of the Mediterranean, voicing stories of people who could only dream of freely claiming rights to live in a new land.

[Via poetry foundation
The actual form of Drift on the page further disrupts language and stories. One particular passage retells the same part of a sea voyage over an over again, recounting the moment that a boat falls into trouble. Old and new words quite literally mingle and fall together across a white page, or during performances they drift about untethered across a digital screen, or are broken apart in Bergvall’s voicing of them.

Bergvall’s play with medieval words and ideas about migration alongside a contemporary report of the migrant crisis asks us (those of us who feel lucky enough to ‘belong’ anywhere at least) to question our own position in the world. How did we get to where we are now? What journey, how long ago, led us to this point? By breaking up language, and weaving together modern and medieval English, French, and Scandinavian words Drift muddies the waters that define where the medieval ends and the modern begins, and where stories of ‘Old England’ belong alongside tales from new Europe.

We hope that during ‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’ workshops participants will be able to tell their own stories using Chaucer’s ‘House of Fame’ or the Old English ‘Dream of the Rood’  as starting points. Book your place now on eventbrite for workshops on Thursday 13 October and Monday 17 October.


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