On Saturday I presented a new work at the Stanley Picker gallery during the Writing Exhibitions symposium. Here’s an outline of my work, which I called Genuine Smiles:

A sheet of paper is attached to one wall of the gallery, and attached just below it is a long piece of string with a sharpened pencil fixed to the other end. Visitors are invited to hold a pencil and do whatever they need to do to muster a genuine smile. As soon as the smile is on their lips and before it vanishes they should begin to draw a line from the smile to the piece of paper, without allowing the pencil to leave the surface, until the line from the smile reaches the most convenient edge of the paper.

The picture above is the piece of paper, which I removed from the wall and kept. Below is the paper on the wall of the gallery, continuous with its lines which also continue onto the floor:

Genuine Smiles follows on from the book of line drawings I made over the summer (more here) in which I recorded places and times by drawing lines from the pages of the book to nearby things. Once a set of lines has been drawn and the book has been put away again, the objects, furniture, walls, floor are still marked with lines, all of which converge about a single rectangular gap.

There are lots of these rectangular gaps lying around the house now. The gaps mark places in the room where the book can be reinserted, with the appropriate pages spread open, to reconnect the detached elements of the record.

The lines drawn in the book are like deictic words, which have a fixed semantic value but a unfixed denotative value (words in English like ‘you’ or ‘here’). The semantics of each line is the way it looks and the way it runs off the edge of the page, and the denotative value of each line is the thing it points at. Taken as a self-contained book, separate from the pencil marks drawn around the room, the references of the lines on the paper are frustrated. You don’t know what they’re saying other than that they mean to say something. Not waving but drowning.

The book that fills all the gaps is safe drowning on a shelf in the hallway at the moment. But even if it returns to one of its rectangular gaps and connects up to each line correctly, the other ends of the lines – the lines touching the objects I wanted to record – are still precarious. As things get rearranged, put away, tidied, nudged, so the lines that reach them splinter and rotate and move until they are pointing somewhere else, or end abruptly, or dissipate in angular ways through the house.

This dissipation returns as the failure of writing as witness that led to the biro line I drew in September, and it comes up again in a different way in Genuine Smiles.

In Genuine Smiles people are invited to draw a line from their smile to the piece of paper on the wall, using a pencil attached by a long piece of string to the paper itself. The line should be drawn continuously along whatever surfaces it takes for the pencil to reach the paper without ever leaving some ground or other. I’ve written before about my intentions for this work, and another day I look forward to writing more about how my intentions affect the work and its participants. But for now I want to focus on the movement of the line itself as it is fractured and carried apart.

I want to think about the line as a visible rendering of the relationship between a word and the thing it describes. The line is constructed from the same stuff writing is constructed from, and because of this the line feels something like an unravelled word. But it stretches and attenuates the possibility of being a word: it doesn’t occupy the same space as a word because it travels to and touches its object, and travels to and touches another object too, which is the piece of paper. At the moment the direction of travel seems less important than the fact that movement takes place. I’m not sure what to make of the piece of paper yet.

The piece of paper stuck to the wall at the Stanley Picker gallery was the place people were asked to draw their lines to. As a result it felt as though the smile was only ‘written down’ once it had touched the paper, and indeed people generally stopped their lines as soon as they’d passed the edge of the page.

Once the line was on the paper the smile was ‘kept’, and while the line was just on the wall, floor, foot, trouser leg, arm, chin or mouth, the smile was still precarious and at risk of evaporating. The line doesn’t change in quality when it reaches the paper, but something changes.

The paper is special because it is temporary and is removable and is the one part that can be kept once the event is over. The wall will be washed over, the people will go home and the lines will be cleaned from their skin and clothes. Perhaps the paper is special because pencils go with paper, so a pencil line is resolved when you conclude it on paper. It’s special also because it’s shared between all the smiles: all of them end there, and so the paper is where all the smiles go to be collected up.

I want to think more about what’s left in the gallery once the people have gone and the paper has gone too. The pencil lines remaining are tethered neither to their endings on the page nor their beginnings at our lips. Just the middle part of the deixis – the blank fact that something’s referring to something. Just smiles in passing.