File Note 97: David Raymond Conroy - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Kari Rittenbach



David Raymond Conroy Images References Quote Biography Credits

David Raymond Conroy

He prints the lies he’s learnt he ought to tell and he sends them to people he doesn’t know in the hope they might believe them as much as their own.1


In premodern times, the bard was recommended for his affecting recitation. The lyrics he voiced were historically pre-scripted; or anyway passed down through various channels in the oral tradition. Like the scribes who later copied out Medieval manuscripts in the decades preceding Gutenberg’s press, these narrative caretakers made few assumptions regarding their individual role in generating any of the greater cultural myths. Instead, style, speed, meter, grace and/or feeling formed the pillars of their much-regarded reproductive arts. Scholarly controversies that now arise in the context of attributing lesser-known works often do so because authorship, as a concept, was not legally crystallised until around 1710, when copy-right was invented to regulate product from the new mechanical printers. 

The more contemporary conflation of author and corresponding “I” — encouraging authorship towards the realm of legal and emotional ownership — is read into the exceptionality of a confession (or construction) today, almost tout court. The notion that individual creation and personal identity are mutually exclusive was thoroughly disproved by literary post-structuralism, if not already overcome by the democratic expansion of education and both the popular press and the expanded canon.2 However briefly the rarified flame of ethereal genius burned (with the Romantic poet serving as its ultimate, ‘neutral’ medium), it did not go out unbegrudgingly. 

But once the queer idea of the author had been disrobed — revealing a lack of stable gender, class or origin — her invented story was thrown into question. No longer adhering to the Western patriarchal script, she hazarded a greyer territory of dubious testimony, tied to character and conviction. The stakes for writing grew complicated. Walt Whitman admitted as much in his 1855 Song of Myself (‘Very well then I contradict myself’), as James Baldwin did soberly when contemplating segregated life in the democratic United States, one century and one civil war later, from a subject position very much repressed in his time.

Twentieth-century scholars and theorists would attribute the shift in authenticity, and emphasis, from text to scribe as a consequence of the parasitical postmodern critic:

To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained.’ 3

In What Is An Author? (1969), Michel Foucault traces the technical effect of Roland Barthes’ ‘final signified’ to an almost mechanical ‘author function’ that deprives the writerly “I” of its productive agency. The figure of the author becomes a sort of short-hand for all the content of her greater works, even before we’ve read them.

Since autobiography entered into the present-day (post-digital) realm as the armature of a pure artistic subjectivity, we are reminded of the perils of the ‘author function’ in attempting to parse even the most confessional art. The anxiety induced by this predicament — extending even to social behaviors practiced in polite company — permeates the conflicted narrative accounts read performatively by the artist David Raymond Conroy. For undead (ie. contemporary) authors whose texts are repeatedly subjected to the coroner’s probe, any misplaced pause or too-impertinent explication might be misconstrued — particularly when re-blogged or otherwise tumbled along through the networked virtual sphere. So the peculiar division between the composing self and that other set down on the blank page (or glowing browser window) presents an intricate space of experiment for all the ambiguities of potential personhood, in a period dominated by the copyrighted gesture and the efficiently summarised social media profile. Conroy uneasily concurs: “everything will be cared about by someone: a cup or a glass, a grin or a sneer, a hand on a shoulder or one on the hip.” 4 His sly statement is posed pragmatically — and slightly pathetically — as if a reminder of some embarrassing personal episode. But through the act of articulation, he also perpetuates the awkward handling of objects, and their cumbersome companion emotions, by pointing his audience directly to their discomfiting terrors. This self-scrutiny, here transposed to the reader, also reveals the “someone” who cares as intrinsic to the structure of textual effacement; the passive internalisation of some surveillant status quo. For now, the expression of angst appears separated from our author, more apprehensively intertwined with the uncertainties of his sentence.5

No matter how sincere-seeming the delivery, the performance of authorship is always affected by the position of the presumed audience — the public that the writer seeks to address. Shifting from one essay to the next (as a factor of time, experience, intended purpose), a fully consistent position is unavailable to him; proving that consistency itself to be a fiction, as something only consolidated (or enforced) through acts of collective narration (ie. social norms) that obscure the more fluid nature of personal identity. Insofar as the operation of ‘genius’ (creation or invention) is absent individuality, it develops — or strikes — in proximity to those social and cultural positions assumed at the hour of typing, and according to contingencies of mood.

When the writer’s authority was first assailed, his audience was divided into sympathisers and adversaries. If a tale is contested today, each premise of the plot demands adequate accounting, such that readership splinters around any number of potentially specious claims. So it is by means of this intimate if convoluted connection — contract, even — between an author and a reader where lines of empathy are drawn and sundered, loops of meaning loosened, communities called into being. For any ideal authorship to exist — for the social creature to disappear within the text, and power to transfer fully from individual person to open ended narrative — keen analysis and comprehension of the discursive field are required. At present, the texture of multicultural technological life is deceptively singular; Peter Osborne describes this cultural consensus as capitalist modernity’s “simultaneous abundance of historical representations and scarcity of forms of historical consciousness and experience.” 6 Developing a complex collective consciousness for uncomfortable and unfamiliar stories, and unexpected expressive forms, yields ever greater territory for the reading. Our own writing — in and out of inverted commas — improves too. The still-living author is best exhausted (happily killed) through repeated exertion, and close readings that transform misunderstanding into another kind of insight.

Within the margins, it matters little precisely who is speaking, but we do well to listen carefully to what is said.

Your self is hard to manage.
Even though you try and try.
Sometimes your self is so disappointing.
But in times like these
when you dislike what it is,
try to look farther off, beyond “you”.
Fill your eyes to
the brim with beauty!
Because luck is a far, far nicer
guide than you can ever your self be.
I wish you every happiness.
Try it.7


1 David Raymond Conroy, Broadway Flat (The Good Man), 2015

2 Virgina Woolf’s 1929 essay Women in Fiction approaches the dialectical notion of the female as the dichotomy it was presumed to be at the time.

3 Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” Image Music Text, New York: Hill and Wang, 1978. 147

4 David Raymond Conroy, David Raymond Conroy, Broadway
Flat (The Good Man)
, 2015

5 The subject position described by Conroy and excerpted briefly here might be characterised as “unconvinced Confidence-Man” — a contemporary twist on the duplicitous persona described by Herman Melville’s eponymous nineteenth-century novel.

6 Osborne, Peter. “’The Truth Will Be Known When the Last Witness Is Dead’: History Not Memory.” After the Event: New Perspectives on Art History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010. 204

7 Bernadette Corporation: The Complete Poem, Cologne: Walther Koenig, 2009.

Donald Barthelme, “The Report”, Sixty Stories, 1983

Simone de Beauvoir, The Woman Destroyed, 1969

Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods, 2012

Thomas Frank & Matt Weiland (eds), Commodify Your Dissent, 1997

Chris Krauss, Summer of Hate, 2012

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric, 2014

George Saunders, “Adams”, In Persuasion Nation, 2007

Brent Staples, “Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space”, Harpers 12/86.

Horizon: Are you a racist?, BBC Television, 1985:

Jane Horrocks, Cabaret:

Jake Thackray, Lah Di Dah:

DJ Rashad, I’m Gone:

Lee Mun Wah, The Color of Fear, 1994

Davey Wrenden, The Stanley Parable, Galactic Café, 2011/2013

'I will take from anywhere I know to get at the place that I’m going. Anything I know about you is mine now. And everything I know about me is also mine now.' Claudia Rankine in conversation with


David Raymond Conroy (b.1978, Reading) lives and works in Brussels, Belgium. Selected performances, solo and group exhibitions include Prosu(u)mer, EKKM, Tallinn, Estonia (2015); David Conroy, Seventeen Gallery, London, (2015); Performance Capture, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam(2015); A Shared Space of Difference, Camden Arts Centre, London (2015); What Thinks Me, TAIGA, St.Petersburg (2014); PPE, or It is Spring and I am Blind, Modern Art Oxford, Oxford (2013); Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, (with Andy Holden), ICA, London & Arnolfini, Bristol (2012–13).


Kari Rittenbach is a writer and curator based in New York.