Final Exhibition

In December 2015, the Gossip and Nonsense project organised a final exhibition of Clare Qualmann and Dominic Hills’s artwork at The Bank Gallery at the Cass, in Whitechapel, London.

2015-12-11-9Dom wired his beautiful evocations of Renaissance double entendres into the window and flyposted his ephemeral prints alongside.







2015-12-11-5The exhibition took place at the same time as a protest just along the road, where students had occupied the gallery space to contest the sale of the art school.












Dom’s prints and flyposters occupy the windows of the Cass.


Clare staged a series of games of Chinese Whispers, working through Sol LeWitt’s sentences on conceptual art.



She set the results in Letterpress.



Irrational judgement needs a new experience.

Charivari Explored


In December, a group of KCL Music, French, and History students performed a series of medieval and contemporary explorations of the pre-modern shaming ritual, charivari. Charivari Explored took as its source text the extraordinary manuscript Le Roman de Fauvel, produced in Paris around 1317, which includes a description and musical notation of the songs sung by the charivari on the marriage of the horse-headed anti-hero Fauvel to Vain Glory.

Charivari often arose as protest against remarriage or marriages with a perceived age gap; usually involving the young men of a community, they would often feature masks, donkeys, and excessive noise, made by the clattering of kitchen implements, discordant instruments, shouts, cries, and improvised percussion. The procession would wind up outside the house of the newlyweds and would call them out into the street; sometimes – but not always – the charivari could be paid off with money or drink.

Charivari Explored included performances of the songs in the manuscript and two contemporary pieces inspired by the research the group had done: a contemporary motet by Callum Hüseyin, inspired by the spliced motifs in Fauvel, and Matthew O’Keeffe’s mash-up of modern and classical refrains of love, marriage, and divorce, after the nonsense soundscapes of the fatras in the manuscript.

The whole thing should soon be available online.

Artwork from the Project

There will be a final, close-of-show exhibition in London for the Gossip and Nonsense project’s artwork in mid-December.

The Bank Gallery at The Cass, Central House, 59-63 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7PF
Friday 11th December 2015, 12 noon – 8pm
Saturday 12th December 2015, 12 noon – 5pm

Come and explore the potential of rumour and chatter to degenerate into productive nonsense. Dominic Hills has taken inspiration from masters of French Renaissance wit and prolixity and from Japanese shunga in the construction of his sinuous, erotic, and explicit woodcuts. Clare Qualmann’s investigation of the distortions and creative potential of the parlour game Chinese Whispers is inspired by the late Renaissance essayist, Montaigne.

Programme of events:
Live: Games of Chinese Whispers throughout the exhibition (drop in)
Live: Letterpress printing, Friday 1 – 6pm, Saturday 1 – 4pm
Talk: Prof. Hugh Roberts and Dr. Emily Butterworth discuss the project Friday, 6 – 6.30pm, followed by a drinks reception.

Gossip and the Fabrication of Reputation: Performance event at KCL

An immersive performance of the soundscape of pre-modern gossip, recreating songs and slanders through which stories circulated in the streets, will take place in the Chapel, King’s College London, on Wednesday 14 October at 6:30. It’s free to attend but tickets need to be booked here.

In a series of talks and performances, Simon Gaunt, Emma Dillon, Emily Butterworth, and Laura Gowing will explore how reputations were fabricated through street talk and song, performed by students from the Music Department. There will be twelfth-century speculation on what Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful queens in Western Europe, got up to in Antioch with her uncle, through a number of songs that were composed, improvised and circulated throughout Europe. Women’s reputations more generally will be under scrutiny in medieval motets. You will also hear sixteenth-century French songs, written for performance in small, elite social gatherings, which try to mimic the gossip of the country and the streets, and simultaneously reflect on the process of gossiping and the kind of audience it constructs. The rumours and insults of sixteenth-century London, reconstructed from court cases, will be performed by students from the History Department. The talks accompanying the performances will explore how gossip moved through social strata and through oral and written forms, and the impact it had on the reputations it tried to construct.


Paying attention to the words the past uses to describe itself sometimes gives unexpected results. I started this project thinking I would write a book about gossip in Renaissance France: after reading my corpus – actually, after even a cursory glance at sixteenth-century essays on talk – a different term emerged. It was ‘babble’. What we might call gossip was still there, in the texts – called caquet [cackle], or sometimes médisance [slander] – but what seemed to be of greater concern was this other species of talk, babil [babble]. And this made me think about what that might mean for the preoccupations of those sixteenth-century writers who thought it worthwhile to write an essay on the tongue and its dangers. Babble is a kind of unconsidered, almost automatic talk, a compulsion to speak about anything that strips the babbler of the qualities of reason and reflection that are the ideal characteristics of human speech. Babble is demeaning and also somehow dehumanising. It allows the subjectivity of the babbler to be submerged in the flood of words. This sounds like a concern that is rooted in the individual and their own personal identity, but it is an ethical one, too. In the Renaissance, a babbler is a betrayer: of himself and his own secrets, but more dangerously of others. Babble was a political vice. It was the worst thing a courtier could be accused of.

After thinking about Renaissance babble for a while, I was delighted to come across it in Ford Madox Ford’s wonderful books about Katherine Howard and Henry VIII, The Fifth Queen (1906-1908; Penguin, 1999). Magister Nicholas Udal, Lady Mary’s teacher, is ‘a notorious babbler’ who tells ‘many lies’ (p. 80); and Cicely Elliott asks Katherine to look for her husband: ‘in the Lady Mary’s room you will find my old knight babbling with the maidens’ (pp. 117-18). What is remarkable here – and in Renaissance treatises on the subject – is that men are particularly condemned for babbling. This was partly because men’s babble could do more harm since it was more consequential, as an early seventeenth-century pamphlet argued, in a rather double-edged defence of women. But in Ford’s vision of the Tudor court, it is women who guard their tongues and their secrets, and men who let their words blab.

And then I also remembered that my little sister, when she was 5 or 6, had made up a song that (if I were superstitious) I could take as some kind of omen (if omens deigned to pronounce on the subject of academic books): ‘Babble. When you’ve got nothing to say, Just babble.’

Sirens and Secrets

Reading through Montaigne’s ‘De la gloire’, I came across this piece of verse from Homer’s Odyssey which ventriloquises the Sirens and suggests content for their mysterious enchanting song. On his endless voyage home to Ithaca, Ulysses became the first man ever to resist the singing of the strange, monstrous bird-women, who lured sailors off their ships and dashed them onto the rocks of their island – and so became the first man ever to report the words of the song. Homer and Montaigne after him speculate that the irresistible song is in fact an interpellation, a mirror lifted up to the passing hero that offers him an image of himself that panders to his vanity and is thus spell-binding. Montaigne says:

Le premier enchantement que les Sirenes employent à piper Ulisses, est de cette nature, Deça vers nous, deça, ô tres-louable Ulisse, Et le plus grand honneur dont la Grece fleurisse.

The first enchantment the Syrens employed to deceive Ulisses, is of this nature. ‘Turne to us, to us turne, Ulisse thrice-renowned, / The principall renowne wherewith all Greece is crowned.’

I like this idea that the Sirens offer us visions of ourselves that are irresistible and glorious to us, rather than any other enticement. They seem to play the role of the Lacanian mirror, showing us beyond all doubt that rather than the broken, fragmented, vulnerable creature we feel ourselves to be, we are in fact, whole, competent, capable – heroes, in fact.

I remembered reading a poem by the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood when I was a teenager about precisely this kind of Siren song which left a lasting impression. Her Sirens also appeal to the hero in the passing sailor – you are my saviour! You will rescue me! – but they use the rhetoric of secrecy as lure in a way that Erasmus would have recognised.

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?
I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

Margaret Atwood, ‘Siren Song’, You Are Happy (1974)

What is clever about Atwood’s poem is that it is only at the end that you realise it is in its entirety the lure, the enchantment: the pose of the damsel in distress, the disillusion with the whole business of shipwrecking sailors. From this point of view it is a real siren song: it is not what it appears to be at first glance: rather than a beautiful singing maiden, it is a hideous squawking beast. But it is only because we want to believe them that they have any power.

Small talking things

As I get further away from you
I see you more clearly.
Your souls should have been immense by now,
not what they are,
small talking things –

(Louise Glück, ‘Retreating Wind’, Wild Iris)

The poem speaks with the voice and the perspective of the retreating wind, or perhaps of God, a once-present deity who has given up on its creation and withdraws from it, leaving it to spool out on its own. Perhaps the creator has been disappointed in its desire for an interlocutor, a respondent who could rise above mere noise and chat to a purer level of communication. ‘You’ are not like that. Your talk has restricted your soul, tied you to earth, perhaps, and to the everyday, stunted your growth. I am reminded of the sixteenth-century Christian preference for silence, which for pious and erudite worshippers like the reformist queen Marguerite de Navarre was closer to God than the babble of everyday prayer – a way to praise God more fully, perhaps even communicate with him. When Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, as Diarmid McCulloch puts it in Silence: A Christian History, he wanted to chatter; Jesus refuses to engage in conversation. Generations of ascetic Christians took Jesus as an example and withdrew into silence and inaccessible places. What all this suggests is the banality of the evil of chatter: it ties us to the contingent and the worldly, bogs us down in the detail, distracts our souls from following the retreating wind. Chatter is minute; silence is immense.

Gossip Transcripts

An occasional series of overheard gossip: on phones and in person, in the street, on the train, in cafes and at bus stops. (If I were an early modern woman, I would also add the bath house and the public mill.)

He’s a womaniser, an alcoholic, and a bounder. That’s all you can say about him. (Friday 29 Nov 2013, London, street)

  • He’s just a bit of a grumpy git.
  • With glasses?
  • He just looks like he’s got a miserable face. Some people do, don’t they? When I first met Angie, I thought… Then I got to know her, and she’s really nice, isn’t she?
  • She doesn’t mean to. She’ll just look at you, and go…
  • She ought to stop that, though. Cos when she’s at the front of the church, singing… People might get the wrong impression! (Wednesday 11 December 2013, Kent to London, train)

Do you remember little Sally? What? Yes, they’re on the way. So I’m sorry I’ll be so long, but it seems silly to come out at half past four and not carry on. I was going to take the tube but … so many things to carry … Yes, it’s lovely. Yes, did you find your stuff? Yes, did you find your stuff? Yes, you said that when you got it. I’ll tell you all when I get in, but there’s not much more to tell. OK? Yes, I said you were very upset… Can you hear me? Yes, sorry, erm, probably a valley… To hear about the place in Cornwall, what? Yes, I know! Derby or something… (Thursday 19 December 2013, London to Kent, train, phone)

The London chatterati

In The Guardian on 12 October 2013, Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, responded to the outrage at his paper’s article by Geoffrey Levy on Ed Milliband’s father, dismissing the criticism as so much froth and steam from the London chatterati. It made me think about chattering again, and why it’s so contemptible for papers like Dacre’s – and how it is different from the Mail’s online ‘sidebar of shame’. Turning for enlightenment, as ever, to Erasmus, I wonder if the idea, already commonplace in the sixteenth century, that chattering and gossip is practised compulsively by servants and women, making it both servile and effeminate, is still in operation here. Chatter has no substance, it is pure frivolity. Men should be ashamed of being associated with the chattering habit, a silly, effeminate tradition worthy only of overpaid, over-pampered London journalists, miles away from the Mail’s readers, ‘hard-working Britons’ with no time to chat. Chattering is the opposite of doing: it is distracting nonsense, and it is representative of only a tiny, privileged section of the population, who have lost contact with ‘the real world’. Like women and servants in the sixteenth century, the journalists of the chatterati have no real power. They make up for this by making a lot of noise.

Welcome to Happy Redoubt

I have recently been involved in another artistic collaboration, Welcome to Happy Redoubt, an installation in Somerset House, London, until 15 December. The artists, Juneau Projects, have imagined a world after a data meltdown, a post-apocalyptic marketplace where the robot remnants of a technological society convey partial and fragmentary information and ask you to do craft projects for them. In return, you can earn wooden ‘currency’ which you can swop for things in the marketplace. I was involved in a stall called the Rumour Mill, which invites you to elaborate on the originary myth of the Crash, its origins, and the possible future. Every week, Juneau Projects will read out the additions and alterations to the story in the Happy Redoubt Headlines, and the full version will be unveiled at the Finale Event on 15 December.

This is the sketch for the origin myth that will be elaborated and changed by visitors to the installation:

Before the Crash, the whole world was a web, controlled by the Cloud. Everything anyone had ever known was contained in the web, and all you had to do to find out anything you wanted was to plug yourself into one of its screens. You can still see these screens, now blank and useless, banked up in huge disintegrating piles. You could talk to anyone you wanted, anywhere in the web. People were never alone. No-one had ever seen the spider at the heart of the web, but it was there, growing bigger and bigger with each update people made. But people became curious about the spider and they wanted to reach the Cloud. They built tall masts in attempts to pierce the Cloud and bring it down to earth. You can still see them dotted around the city. Perhaps it was these attempts to reach the Cloud that brought about the Crash. But what was brought down to earth wasn’t the Cloud, but the tangle of cables that we see everywhere. This is all that is left of the web. The Cloud itself broke into millions of fragments, and these clouds are still visible in the sky, too far away to reach. But the Cloud left its guardians behind on earth: the robots, who are there to warn us if we ever get too close to destroying the Cloud again. They look after us. They police us.

But others say that it wasn’t human hubris that caused the Crash. It wasn’t our fault. A sudden flood of data overwhelmed all the electronic systems. They couldn’t cope. Or a sudden sun flare short-circuited all electronic equipment, and it’s never worked again. In any case, there is somewhere a data-ark that has survived: maybe in America, maybe in China. It will find us eventually and pull us back into the communication age. The robots will tell us when it’s getting closer.

Others say that the web never collapsed, and the Cloud never disintegrated: but rather, after an electro-magnetic surge, that we were all uploaded into the Cloud, and now exist as bits of data. All physical experience is merely data-activity in the Cloud. The robots are not robots but remnants of physical bodies that have congealed together. That’s why you can’t touch them.