There is no Rome: Looking for Utopia in Trisha Donnelly’s “Letter to Tacitus”

At the 54th Carnegie International in 2004, in addition to four other works, Trisha Donnelly created a performance called Letter to Tacitus. 

According to descriptions of the performance I have read online, Donnelly selected an elderly male museum guard to read a letter that she had written, imagined to have been to the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus. I have only found one photograph of the performance.

As for the letter itself, the text was easy enough to find – I just Googled “Trisha Donnelly” “Letter to Tacitus” and found it amid a pdf of press releases and articles on the artist:

Yet even with the photograph and the text, I kept feeling that there was something about the performance that was missing. So, I went digging around in the Carnegie website and this lead me to a list of the works by Donnelly in their collection. Of the two works, I found the following reference to a work Donnelly had exhibited as part of the Venice Biennale the previous year.

Given the associations between the text and its reference to there not being an ‘ideal Rome’, I thought that this may be a promising lead to follow. Then I discovered  e-flux website, which contained a pdf download of Donnelly’s contribution to the ‘Utopia Station Poster Project’:

At this juncture I felt like I’d hit a dead end, even though the Carnegie collection contained this poster, what could BZRK have to do with Tacitus? (were the Norse warriors known as the Bezerkers related to the tribes of the Germania? Or given the idea of Utopia, could it not simply be an acronym for some Californian company called Blissful Zen Reality Kingdom?). Having hit this impasse, and before abandoning the connection between the Carnegie and Utopia Station, I went back to the text of the Letter to Tacitus for clues. There seemed to be a direct correlation between the idea of utopia, ancient Rome and what this mysterious ‘E’ had written to the Roman historian about the absence of a true or idea Rome. So, I searched GoogleBooks for the phrase that stood out to me as most (anti-)utopian (“there is no ideal Rome”) and this lead me to the following results.

First was a text by E. M. Cioran from his 1960 book History and Utopia:

Committed to the description of real cities, history, which always and everywhere asseverates the failure rather than the fulfillment of our hopes, has ratified none of these forecasts. For a Tacitus, there is no ideal Rome.

But there too was a snippet of the catalogue for the Venice Biennale that quoted Donnelly’s text in capital letters. With this evidence it became clear that Letter to Tacitus had some role in Utopia Station, I just needed to find exactly what. So, I started to look through installation views of Venice exhibition to see if Tacitus’ name made an appearance elsewhere, focusing my attention on images of the exhibition that showed text-based works. After a while I stumbled across the following promising image:

After some more searching, I found out that it was a construction called Utopia Station Tower by Rikrit Tiravanija and that the posters were all produced by M/M (Paris) as a project called Utopia of Flows. I could find no further information about these posters online, only the following seemingly unhelpful video:

Even though the installation image of the posters was too small for me to read the individual texts, I was convinced that if I could only read them I would find Donnelly’s Tacitus. So, I went to the OSU library catalogue and looked up M/M (Paris). Here were the results:

The first book looked promising, so off I went to the Fine Arts Library to find the copy. Given that this was such a wild goosed chase, I decided not to look at the book in the library, but to bring it back to my office in the Classics department and only then see if I had found what I was searching for. After negotiating the convoluted ordering system (M/M are obsessed by alphabets and fonts), I cam across the image of the Utopia Station Tower that I had seen online:

I excitedly scoured the words that I could now read and low and behold, there in the top right of the photograph was Donnelly’s Letter to Tacitus (sorry for the blurry image):

All of my detective work had paid off! Now I knew that there was a connection between the text read at the Carnegie International as part of the performance Letter to Tacitus and the exhibition Utopia Station at Venice. Now, to save anyone else the trouble of retracing the same steps of this research journey, I scanned the text from the M/M (Paris) book (with a minor addition to record my own journey) and here it is for all to read:

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