I read Olivia Laing’s wonderful piece before I wrote this, and was immediately catapulted back to cut-and-paste zines and the ability to order and re-order the language of others; to say stuff with words and understand what could be said, before I was capable of making the words myself. This kind of writing was of course only amplified by the arrival of the web, of learning to write in HTML and code, where language becomes structural and programmatic, becomes something that literally as well as metaphorically ‘works’. I also knew language could be dangerous, progressive, and destabilizing, probably from the moment I took William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959) as my favourite book to English class aged 13, and was nervously questioned by the teacher as to its suitability. Adults are worried about writing? There are things one shouldn’t read? Well, that’s interesting.
I got a Master’s degree in Computer Science by writing language rather than code – I didn’t submit any code in fact, I was terrible at programming. But I could write about it, I understood it, and I understood that both forms of writing were about thinking through problems, processing, building a framework and shaping information. Or, perhaps, both were about tone, transcendence and revelation. Which is why I went into publishing, and was terrible at editing too, but continued a love affair with language and meaning as texture and material. It took many years for my own writing to emerge from beneath the slush pile, which is what publishers call the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts received daily from hopeful writers. There are already a lot of words in the world; sometimes it’s better not to add any more. Or if you do, it had better be worth it. I came back to writing as a way of thinking and of thinking through, of occupying the space between things, and opening them up again.
A friend lent me a copy of Robert Smithson’s Slideworks (1997) the other day, and it opened itself to a quote about language: ‘One must remember that writing on art replaces presence by absence by substituting the abstraction of language for the real thing’. Of course, it’s only artists who are also extraordinary writers who say things like this. But what he’s getting at is art writing that attempts to simply translate existing works into language, rather than becoming entangled with them. It’s a misconception about the isolation of art, and the hermeticism of writing. Writing, more visibly and unquestionably today than ever, is inherently networked. It begins and remains connected to its subject, and to everything else, becoming part of it. It acts. It does work. It lives. When we write, we reconfigure the world.
For more information about the 2016 Frieze Writer's Prize, click here.
James Bridle is a British writer and artist living in Athens, Greece. His forthcoming projects include an installation at the Oslo Architecture Triennale, Norway, a solo exhibition at Galleri Image, Aarhus, Denmark, and a digital commission for Serpentine Galleries, London, UK. His work can be found at booktwo.org.