‘A language might also be compared to a sheet of paper. Thought is one side of the sheet and sound the reverse side. Just as it is impossible to take a pair of scissors and cut one side of paper without at the same time cutting the other, so it is impossible in a language to isolate sound from thought, or thought from sound; this could only be done by an abstraction.’
Cours de Linguistique Général, Ferdinand de Saussure
‘The single distinction of the manuscript is that not one word of it is legible.’
The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien
And The Word Became… Where to start?
When I was supposed to be making objects, I wrote. When I wrote, I hid it. I continued to hide it for many years, until it began leaking out. Now it’s splashing all over the place. And where am I amidst all these words? Well here I am writing them of course.
All of a sudden (!) it seems that Art Writing is boggling the brain of the contemporary art world. An interesting occurrence, when we take into consideration just how long artists, critics and yes, even theorists, have been furiously scribbling away (doubtless many at desks of their own precarious design).
Maybe these things take some time to consolidate into thought, and perhaps a bit longer to find their way into direct action: for as Michel Tournier has observed (not without considerable rancour) in his autobiography The Wind Spiri t, ‘ …in good philosophy the solution always precedes the problem. The problem is nothing but the shadow cast by its solution, a fountain of clarity that spurts motu proprio into the empyrean of the intelligible…’
Sits uncomfortably on the page.
Tastes unappetizing on the tongue.
It will have to do us for the time being.
Artists who write.
Writing about art.
Writing with art.
I like the last one best.
For the time being.
A few excellent, yes enjoyable, yes difficult, yes boring, yes unreadable books that are constructed of Art Writing have been published in the last few years. Some that come to mind are: John Russell’s Frozen Tears schlock-cycle, which continues to demand attention as a comprehensive ‘reader’; Rachelle Sawatsky and Dan Starling’s How To Write A Book Of which demonstrates how creative editing, combined with back-breaking syntax can conflate Abbie Hoffman and George Perec to unsettling effect; and Eine Pinot Grigio, Bitte, put together by Bernadette Corporation, which mimics the formalistic concerns of screenwriting, without any of its associated functionality of performance.
However. To begin to unpick a few predominant characteristics of Art Writing, I’ve made an entirely unrepresentative selection of two publications that I feel best cradle and showcase their contents: the most appropriate type of vehicle not only to carry but also distribute these words that have often been put together in the dark—the journal.
Of course I’m biased, I’ll gladly admit that—my own journal The Happy Hypocrite has a very specific remit, ‘for and about experimental art writing’—nonetheless it’s in serial production that I think Art Writing can best create at the limits, enacting something of Antonio Gramsci’s rubric which lead each issue of his own journal L’Ordine Nuovo —‘Pessimism of the Intellect: Optimism of the Will’.
For the ability to regenerate, to test, to stumble, to grow a constituency is very important here: and after all, that is what journals succeed at.
‘Communication seems to have become the culture industry’s very reason for being: its inhabitants are forced into incessant explanatory and introductory babbling, and so-called communicative skills—culminating in the art of the sales pitch and the resulting ‘audience outreach’—are valued above all else… What, exactly, is the status of language and its various articulations in these often self-contradicting works (paradox is the most basic logical schema of most artistic thought), and why do we have time for them—why do we agree to sit down and read and decipher, that which as an object that is emphatically not a mere utterance or communicative gesture (ie by its very definition), seems meant to remain unreadable, or at least understood as something other than “language”?’
An extract from the editorial statement in the latest issue of F.R. David
F.R. David is produced by de Appel arts centre in Amsterdam, and edited by the bright triumvirate Ann Demeester, Will Holder and Dieter Roelstraete. A blocky little tome, redolent of the sort of paperbacks you buy just because they smell nice. The journal reflects recent experiences of de Appel’s busy schedule, providing a fresh space for new connections to be made outside the institutional context.
The cover of the ‘Stuff & Nonsense’ issue (Winter 2008) is an image taken from the first page of The Penguin Rhyming Dictionary, instructing in a gentle manner, that what you are about to read, is as much about how you read it, as what you are actually reading.
This self-reflexivity, perhaps informed by the apparent loss of faith in the contiguity of the contemporary art object, therefore positions critical Art Writing in relation to it. A persistent questioning of authorial supremacy—as both subject and object—skirts around the production and reception of the contributions in F.R. David, in an attempt to vanquish as they put it ‘the tyranny of communication’.
This objective is put into play in a run of dense contributions ranging from: a selection of James Lee Byars’ unpublished letters to Wies Smals (cunningly fetched from de Appel’s own archive), a series of prioritised visual methodologies of ‘writing’ over language-based ones; to Adam Pendleton’s ‘Reading Godard, Reading on Cerith Wyn Evans and Reading on Malcolm X in no particular order’, in which LOUD uppercase ponderings push and pull their own readers into a state of confusion; and Sue Tompkins’ ‘copies of copies’, a selection of pages from the A4 ring binder she uses to work from in a performance context, the simultaneous ‘evidence’ of orality and literacy.
MF: For you what’s Linguistic Hardcore?
CFT: I take it as it is. Hardcore first means more to me than linguistics, in that it has to be brutally honest. If you want to express that linguistically, visually whatever, it must be very honest. Brutal honesty could be expressed in sentimentality too though, not just violence. It doesn’t have to be shocking in that respect, just very, very direct. It should just hit the part of you that more subtle methods might allow you to escape from, there’s no way out, you have to connect with it. So Linguistic Hardcore would be something that forces you to connect with the message, deal with it and assimilate it.
An extract from a conversation between Cosey Fanni Tutti and Maria Fusco in the first issue of The Happy Hypocrite
Forgiving my meta-ramblings that follow, I’d like to mention The Happy Hypocrite again. Named after English satirist Max Beerbohm’s short story of the same name, the power of words, often a poor currency for thought (to paraphrase Adorno), sustain my enterprise. Not only did I lose one member of the advisory board, I also lost a potential contributor because they didn’t like the word ‘hypocrite’.
This biannual journal is a new forum for experimental art writing, and as such encourages linguistic and formalistic invention and intervention. Each issue is themed by methodology rather than subject, the first issue, ‘Linguistic Hardcore’ features artists who write in a range of roles adopted to find the most precise method of creative communication. This attention to being present in the present is a very important consideration for me, as an editor, as a writer and as a reader. Persuasive words can, I feel, help me/us to achieve this.
Gerard Byrne’s footnoted poems challenge impressionistic reports of sightings of the Loch Ness Monster with factual data, destablising modalities of representation; whilst Nick Thurston’s index, freed from the common-sense application of page numbers offers both a lens through which to view itself, and a meditation on the nature of academic convention. Lisa Robertson’s translation of Michele Bernstein’s poppy roman-a-clef Tous les Chevaux du Roi froths with dirty Situationist synonyms; whilst Douglas Coupland’s ‘Notes on Time’ present the reader with a textual surface wreckage that’s quietly confident.
At its best, my journal cannot be read as a single voice, rather the project is constituted only within a non-narrative, quasi-authorial reading vicinage, and this, to borrow an observation of Roman Jakobson’s, ‘rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components… [and] guarantees the integrity of the structure’.
So, where are we now?
Have we approached the rather large weapon of Art Writing with any assurance, sniffing its weak spots, poking our fingers in them, and loving it all the more for it?
Or have I put you off reading (not to mention producing) Art Writing altogether?
Maria Fusco is a Belfast-born writer working across fiction, critical and theoretical writing. She is the editor of The Happy Hypocrite, a new journal for and about experimental art writing, and is director of Art Writing at Goldsmiths College, London. In 2009, she will be the inaugural writer-in-residence at The Whitechapel Art Gallery
www.deappel.nl/publications; www.frozentears.co.uk; www.thehappyhypocrite.org; www.projectilepublishing.ca; www.sternberg-press.com