Cara Tolmie: Pley
Spike Island, Bristol
13 April - 16 June 2013
Review by Phil Owen
There are three key elements to ‘Pley’, Cara Tolmie’s enveloping new film installation: a loosely-alluded-to workshop, a room, and an actress. Each of these elements, however, defies straightforward identification. The workshop is only partially described by its participants as they are interviewed by the artist - who seems to have designed the tasks undertaken - and could be anything from a performer’s warm-up to a faintly sinister psychological experiment (‘you haven’t said we can’t do this, so’ maybe we can’). The room could be the interior of the structure in the background of the interview scenes, and though brightly decorated, it is strewn with piles of sand and gravel, as though the elements of its construction were dissolving back in to their original materials. It could also be the location of the workshop, but we see no direct evidence. The performed role of the actress, its inhabitant, is only exposed once she begins her second, then third telephone conversations in radically different accents.
The idea of a veiled comprehension of the world around us is richly addressed here - how our comprehension of reality is shaped or limited by our individual subjectivities, particularly as mediated through language (the performativity of language is an on-going concern in Tolmie’s practice). The work’s title itself is a phonetic misspelling of the word used to describe how children create imaginary scenarios in imitation of the world, to practice their roles within it. The actress (or pley-er’) despite her surfeit of voices, is by far the most convincing and ‘natural’ figure in the film, compared to the interviewees. But, in turn, their moments of hesitance and awkwardness lead me to wonder whether their mannerisms are to be viewed as the result of self-consciousness at being filmed, their normal behaviour isolated out of context and thus made odd, or possibly an am-dram attempt to convey uncertainty, for the camera. The room might be interpreted as a sort of pre-verbal space, Tolmie implying that we have never quite come into a fully reciprocal relationship to the outside world - the actress misappropriates kitchen utensils to mould the sand and gravel, while her conversations on the telephone are heard only as one-sided, a directionless interior monologue rather than a conversation.
It could be that the poststructuralist interpretation of the nature of speech and description leads to a kind of stasis or flatness here, rather than the playfulness or co-negotiation that the title implies. ‘I think the feelings were connected to this experience, but obviously, I can’t be sure’ states a voice over. The shifting, mediated nature of subjectivity and how it is communicated might make it unreliable, but it would be wrong to underestimate its agency.