Nora Turato’s Epic Pitch

ENCOUNTERING HOMER’S EPICS in translation and in print—as most modern readers do—it’s easy to take for granted that the poems began in performance. To correct for that, a number of recent translators have endeavored to revivify the Iliad and the Odyssey in ways that echo the texts’ origin in song. The American classicist Stanley Lombardo does not read from his versions so much as deliver them, accompanying himself on a small drum in a nod to the lyres strummed by archaic bards. When British poet Alice Oswald recites from Memorial, her 2011 adaptation of the Iliad stripped down to its gruesome death scenes and extended pastoral similes, she does so from memory, staring out into her audience, as if in a trance. McGill University classics professor Lynn Kozak approached the same material more playfully when, from January to August of 2018, they translated, memorized, and performed, as a fully choreographed one-person show in a Montreal bar, one “episode” of the Iliad per week.

I was reminded of Homer and these contemporary interpreters while watching Nora Turato’s spoken-word performance pool 5 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this past March, in part because the work plays across the space between the written word and oral tradition. In her live renditions of found language, Turato, who was born in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1991 and has lived in the Netherlands since moving there to study graphic design in 2009, emerges as both an interpreter and an entertainer. She delivered her freewheeling twenty-five-minute monologue in MoMA’s live-event Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio a total of twenty-eight times in March, hers being the first performances there since the onset of Covid-19. (The space opened in 2019, and Turato was originally scheduled to perform the fourth installment in her “pool” series [2017-] there in May 2020.)

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A white woman with a white body suit and dark jeans is spreading her arms and leaning on a pallette of boxes in front of a window.

Turato performing pool 5, 2022, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Each pool takes two forms: a handsomely designed artist’s book with bold graphic layouts of text culled from a multitude of sources over a given period of time (she has called the pools “annual reports”), and an abridged version Turato then memorizes and performs. In the studio, benches along the three interior walls faced a shipping pallet supporting a plastic-wrapped cube of cardboard boxes, crowned with one unsealed and opened box. The boxes contained copies of the pool 5 book; the cube itself was addressed to a MoMA loading dock, while copies of the books were on view near the entrance and available for purchase in the museum gift shop. This lone set piece felt simultaneously provisional and decisive, even sculptural—the open box was positioned off-center, just so—exemplifying the performance’s polished disorder.

Costumed in what didn’t look like a costume (white bodysuit, starchy dark-wash jeans, blue-and-yellow Nike trainers), Turato walked on and began: “So I, I started, uh, this business, initially as an online shop . . .” The first part of the monologue touted the booming protein bars market, escalating in intensity and speed as Turato rattled off a litany of available flavors: “they got salty caramel, hazelnut fudge, crunchy peanut butter, toasted almonds and coconut, cashew crunch, cookie dough and chocolate chip, double chocolate fudge, extra big juicy and chewy chunks, lemon drizzle, cinnamon swirls, white-chocolate-chip-cookie-brownie-crunch.” The back cover of the pool 5 books boasts a line from this section—“you can have any snack you like as long as it comes with extra protein.” Even as Turato’s topics (and, presumably, her sources) shifted, often flowing seamlessly into one another, the opening established a continuing character: a salesperson hawking useless (or worse) wares.

Red painting that says, in yellow letters "i sold it for a million" and then in black "bels"

Nora Turato: i sold it for million bells, 2022, vitreous enamel on steel, four parts, 94½ by 75⅝ inches overall.

While in past performances Turato has adopted the role of the intense or “hysterical” woman as a comment on misogyny—her fall 2020 performance wow this huge wooden horse is great approached the frenzy of Juliette Binoche in Ivo van Hove’s Antigone—her pool 5 persona feels distinctly masculine, the kind of showboating man who projects the opposite of big dick energy. Whether bragging about a hazing ritual that involves chasing shots of tequila with “scoops” of Albert Einstein’s embalmed brain, describing the satellite surveillance technology that allows the company Orbital Insight to estimate the volume of oil tanks around the world and then sell that data to speculators, or confessing the trade secrets of a retired “fraudulent fortune-teller,” the character Turato inhabits is always peddling something you don’t, or at least shouldn’t, want to buy.

Somewhat surprisingly, this turns out to be riveting. Turato, who performs with the confidence and poise of a stage actor, has undeniable star quality. Some of it might owe to natural charisma, but her apparent ease is the result of a rigorous process of training and rehearsal. Though her monologue maintained a wild, almost improvisatory energy, all the repetitions, stutters, and filler words—the features of real, rather than theatrical, speech—are actually scripted.

The artist has worked intensively with voice and dialect coach Julie Adams since 2021. After the original plans for pool 4 were scrapped, she devoted  herself to her craft with an actor’s seriousness. Describing the process in a talkback with curator Ana Janevski after the final performance of pool 5 on March 20, Turato said she aimed “to really feel like I could do Shakespeare if I needed to.” Her sonorous voice still bears traces of an accent, though it isn’t, quite, her natural one (in conversation with Janevski she moved comically into an American accent, then a Slavic one, to illustrate the characteristic differences in their alignment). In performance, her command of timbre and breath approaches the operatic: at certain points in pool 5 she was practically singing. When she shifted into musical pitch to deliver the words “how do you close the deal? how do you close a deal?,” a touch of vibrato entered the long “o” in “close,” a vocal fermata.

Turato moves with an actor’s grace too, using her long arms almost as punctuation marks. Occasionally, she interacted with the box-plinth she circled throughout—she’d plant an elbow down, take a seat, or sling one leg over the side. At the first line to elicit laughter when I attended—“marketing brings people into the funnel”—she emphasized the final word by bringing her hands down on either side of her pelvis.

A person in all black and an N95 stands in black bleachers against a blue and white checkered wall that has illegible words on it.

View of the installation and performance wow this huge wooden horse is great!, 2020, at the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

TURATO MINES MUCH of her text from the internet, but she’s less interested in online culture than in the way we process language as a subject and, certainly, as a medium. She’s always drawing from and recontextualizing the immense store of verbal data available on the internet at any given moment, in order to create forms that require her audience to meet her in place and time. Her choice of a theatrical framework for performance art—rather than the paradigm of “the body as installation” that, she remarked to Janevski, has prevailed in more durational approaches to the medium demands that people sit and listen for a designated period, thus committing the same kind of heightened attention that she herself pays to the language she collects. It’s this belief in the irreplicable nature of live experience, so essential to theater, that makes Turato resist documentation of her performances. She does, however, acquiesce to institutional demand when necessary; you can watch the final performance of pool 5 and the conversation that followed on MoMA’s YouTube channel. It’s worth viewing as an introduction, but the video also vindicates Turato’s insistence on live performance as her form of choice: some of the kinetic charge gets lost in translation. At MoMA, I was so riveted by Turato’s gaze that I could barely take notes. I was stunned, when she concluded, to find that twenty-five minutes had passed: I could—and would—have kept listening to her pitch.

The pool performances succeed in capturing the feeling of navigating the chaotic, confusing nonsense of the information age. The books, meanwhile, by fixing language largely drawn from the internet into hard copy, feel more like careful homages to fragments of language that many of us are quick
to forget. Designed by Sabo Day, Turato’s friend from when they studied graphic design together at Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, pool 5 doesn’t seem intended to be read in the traditional sense: the many hundreds of pages are not numbered, and the at times minimal contrast between the color of the words and their background renders certain spreads nearly illegible. Though the shapes and often bright colors against which the Helvetica text is laid out are beautiful, I found the volume better suited to games of bibliomancy—opening to pages at random and interpreting them prophetically—than a continuous reading experience. Turato’s conception of voice is not bound to the literal: as she explained in the talkback, she sees graphic design as “a type of voice,” a tool for modulating tone. The books have modest print runs of 500 copies each, which helps reproduce the “you had to be there” sensibility of her performances: by the second day of pool 5, MoMA’s copies of pool 4 had sold out.

WHAT DOES ANY OF THIS have to do with Homer? Epic poetry might be an unusual point of comparison for work that has no discernible hero or plot. And at least on its face, Turato’s project bears a greater resemblance to various other more recent literary movements that have carried the torch of modernism’s grand romance with appropriation. Both her procedure and embrace of comic juxtaposition are reminiscent of Flarf poetry, whose practitioners manipulated search engines in order to create irreverent, often bawdy poems in the early 2000s. But while the Flarf poets flouted conventions of acceptable language and subject matter, they still worked on the level of the poetic line to create works that were easily recognizable as poems. Turato’s pools, on the other hand, can come off more like commonplace books—journals of quotations that, as far back as antiquity, avid readers have kept as records of personal edification and inspiration. Yet it is precisely in constructing her poetic interventions through compilation rather than cut-ups, and in then making them public, that Turato steps into the tradition of the epic.

Two black bleachery benches in a gallery covered in murals. On the left is one that is a gradient from red to yellow with a big white circle in the middle. On the right is a blue and white checkered mural; the checkers change size throughout.

View of the installation and performance wow this huge wooden horse is great!, 2020, at the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

The poet we call Homer was, of course, not a person in the strictest sense. Though scholarly debate has raged, Achilles-like, for centuries about the extent to which individual literary accomplishment figured in setting down the written versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey as we know them, it’s now generally agreed that the poems at least arose from a long oral tradition, transmitted through culture and over time by bards in preliterate Greece—a hypothesis popularized by Milman Parry in the 1930s. Per Parry, the famously repeated epithets of the writer we call “Homer” (“swift-footed Achilles,” “cunning Odysseus”) were vestiges of this tradition, metrically fixed units that not only served as mnemonic devices but also allowed for improvisatory composition within the Homeric hexameters. Building on Parry’s comparative study of Homer and the extant oral tradition of South Slavic bards (guslari), the late scholar John Miles Foley went further in arguing that, for such preliterate bards, the concept of the “word” is not limited to single typographical units, epithets, or even metrical lines. As Foley saw it, writing in College Literature in 2007, the “logical constitutive unit” of epic poetry could be far more capacious: “the thought-bytes of ancient Greek epic are larger, composite units of utterance and meaning that take the form of recurrent phrases, scenes, and story-patterns.”

Turato constructs her pools using what might be the “thought-bytes” of our time: units of text quantifiable, in one way, by our desire to share them. Sometimes as short as 280 characters, but often longer—sometimes, but not mostly, sourced from a meme or viral post—Turato’s “units of utterance” are the sorts of passages we encounter while scrolling, reading, or watching a movie that induce in us some frisson of delight, disgust, and/or recognition and, along with it, the impulse to preserve it via screenshot or photograph or transcription so that we can post it to an Instagram story or message it to a friend. It’s the inherently social dimension of these thought-bytes—which Turato’s books and performances vigorously exploit—that make her pools transcend the genre of the commonplace book.

What surfaces in pool 5 is not a linear plot, but the collective story of a-year-or-so-in-the-life—of lock-down and protest—punctuated by time spent laughing at things on the internet. Turato has said that gathering the language that became pool 5 was an important coping mechanism for her during the standstill of the early pandemic. If pool 5 has a protagonist, it might be the prevailing mood of 2020-21 itself—at least as channeled by the artist. Just as Homer’s epics offer their audiences not only entertainment but also a prized record of the values and anxieties of the culture that produced them, Turato’s pools reflect our own time, in all its fragmented humor and horror.

It’s tempting to read pool 5 as a critique, since it often feels as if Turato is skewering her primary references: the language of marketing and media, the unctuous global authority of the English language, especially when paired with graphic design. But Turato is not quite playing the role of Cassandra, the Trojan princess cursed (though not in Homer’s version) to foresee the fall of her city and not be believed. Turato’s work is neither prophecy nor breaking news; “annual reports” are, after all, studies of the near past. Her approach to her material, and the collective portrait she produces from it, brings her closer to Helen, who is, in her own way, cursed: all she can do is document the war waged in her name. When Helen makes her first appearance, early in the Iliad, she is weaving a web that records all the Greeks and Trojans who have suffered, ostensibly on her behalf.

The character Turato assumes in pool 5, however, is neither clarion caller nor powerless victim. Cunning Odysseus—salesman of his own survival and star of his own epic—was the one who could talk his way into, and out of, anything. When, in her monologue’s final turn, Turato slips into the voice of Michael Lerner’s loathsome Hollywood producer from the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, she could be describing the situation of her own performance:

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We’re only interested in one thing. Can you tell a story? Can you make us laugh? Can you make us wanna break out in joyous song? Is that more than one thing? Okay. The point is I run this dump and I don’t know the technical mumbo jumbo. Why do I run it? I got horse sense, goddammit. Showmanship!

Her audience at MoMA might well have been indicted in that “we,” but so, surely, was Turato’s own willingness to put on the show.

LIKE HER ARTIST’S BOOKS, the wall-based works in exhibitions like “govern me harder” Turato’s first solo gallery exhibition in the United States, feels like an extension of her work’s highest form as performance. She admitted as much in a recent interview. The show, which is dazzlingly installed at 52 Walker, the downtown David Zwirner outpost directed by Ebony L. Haynes, and on view through July 1, presents seven multipart vitreous enamel-on-steel panels that each feature a deftly designed phrase from pool 5. (Turato collaborated with Jung-Lee Type Foundry, with an assist from Sabo Day, to create two new typefaces for the exhibition: “Helvetica 52” and a dramatically distorted one Turato calls “Helvetica monster cut.”) A red, four-part panel resembling the front of a pack of cigarettes bears the same text, in mustard yellow, as the pool 5 book’s cover, “i sold it for million bells”—with “bells” in black, stretched to fill a black-bordered white rectangle at bottom, an approximation of a health warning.

All the walls except one, which is left white, are adorned with sequences of brightly colored floor-to-ceiling ovals of varying dimensions, some resembling stretched-out red-and-blue-striped basketballs. At first glance, these appear to be vinyl, but all are painted. For the installation, a stencil pattern for each elongated sphere was printed onto multiple sheets of paper, taped together on the wall, cut out with an Exacto knife, and then filled in with three to four layers of paint. The same process was used for each letter and every piece of punctuation in the three lines of text that run along the bottom of the walls. One line maneuvers around several small, sharp corners; another proclaims “horse sense, goddammit. showmanship!” Only upon close inspection of the shapes’ imperfect edges does one see that everything has been hand-painted directly on the wall.

Whatever her medium, Turato seems to relish creating, then breaking, the illusion of ease. This ethos might apply to her work’s frequently comedic effect as well. Her quip “i sold it for million bells” could simply refer to the unit of currency in the game Animal Crossing, which exploded in popularity during quarantine, but here, Turato poses it as a line of poetry that asks us to consider what a million bells could be worth, whether it was a bad deal or a very good one, what it might mean to make music instead of money. Turato’s work speaks in an ironic vernacular that’s all too familiar, but sidesteps the nihilism in which irony often dead-ends. Meticulous as Helen and tricky as Odysseus, the artist invites us first to misread the slick surfaces and humor of her works as effortless, then forces us to attend to the laborious practices they belie, the histories and possibilities of that effort. Getting someone’s attention is easy; sticking in their memory is harder.


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