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Word Play

Why a growing number of artists are turning away from image-making to writing and performance

A couple of weeks ago, I witnessed two consecutive performances by artists who think of themselves as visual artists – that is to say, as makers of images, first and foremost. They were fine performances, if a tad visually underwhelming, as the makers had clearly meant them to be. Both involved the artists either standing rather rigidly or moving about very deliberately and reciting texts, which were either read from a badly lit piece of paper or hauled from a visibly untrained memory. That such ‘textual’ non-events should haven taken place in a well-regarded art institution known for its beautiful architecture and occasional forays into spectacle (i.e. visual pleasure) didn’t strike me as particularly surprising. Rather, it’s symptomatic of a general condition afflicting cultural production in these times of instant image inundation that an ever-growing number of artists are visibly anxious to extricate themselves from. Having taught at a number of art schools, I am now used to being asked, upon entering a young artist’s studio, to either read or listen to work as opposed to simply look at it – indeed, ‘looking’, in its old-fashioned sense, is very often left out of the equation entirely.

In most cases, listening to work means listening to the artist’s deliberately listless and unaccompanied voice (monologue), to fragments of speech (either polyphony or cacophony), to people idly chatting (dialogue), or to hearsay (gossip, rumours, secrets, things whispered rather than exclaimed and certainly not written down). The narrative and the vocal are the two defining parameters of this trend; some of the artists whose work can be directly associated with this ever-expanding speech bubble include Ian Wilson (the granddaddy of it all), Tris Vonna-Michell, Imogen Stidworthy, Tino Sehgal, Falke Pisano, Susan Philipsz (whose Turner Prize interviews revolved around her not being a sound artist), Karl Holmqvist, Simon Fujiwara and Roberto Cuoghi. The resurgence of critical interest in Wilson’s radically dematerialized practice ­cannot be considered outside the context of the aforementioned phenomenon. It’s a sonorous landscape circumscribed by the spectral regimes of ventriloquism (Asta Gröting’s video cycle from 1993–2004, The Inner Voice, comes to mind, as does Jeff Wall’s 1990 photograph Ventriloquist at a Birthday Party in October, 1947) and charisma (think of the gold-coated Joseph Beuys explaining paintings to a dead hare), ruled by the myth of the indomitable immateriality, so easily reconfigured as ‘criticality’. The central claim here is that hearsay – words softly spoken into the ether (again, there is not a lot of yelling in this kind of work) – resists commodification. Other chimerical forms that crowd around the authority of the vocal chords evoke ‘a voice and nothing else’, to paraphrase the title of A Voice and Nothing More (2006) by Slovenian cultural theorist Mladen Dolar, who observed ‘the voice as a vehicle of meaning, a source of aesthetic admiration, and an object that can be seen as the lever of thought’. All of this relates to drones, mantras and nursery rhymes (e.g. repetition and conjuration), to prophecies and orations (the evangelical preacher being something of an improbable paragon here), to hypnosis and the talking cure (the couch is often a very important piece of furniture in the studios of the aforementioned art students), to political rhetoric (‘speechifying’) and the theatre of pseudo-academic lecturing.

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Fiona Bannar, Anatomy of a Page, 2008. Courtesy: the artist.

Fiona Bannar, Anatomy of a Page, 2008. Courtesy: the artist.

Reading an art work often means reading the scripted versions of all of the above: scripts have become a big deal among an emerging generation of artists, where theatre and the related arts of the stage seem to have replaced film (one of the dominant paradigms of much ’90s art) as the reference frame of choice. (This shift is, of course, more complex than can be thoroughly explored or theorized in these pages, but the textual or literary nature of theatre is only one factor in the attraction it now seems to hold for younger artists, the other being its live character and guarantee of something ‘real’ taking place.) It’s telling that one of last year’s most talked about exhibitions in New York was Marina Abramovic´’s retrospective, ‘The Artist is Present’, at the Museum of Modern Art, during the entire run of which the artist was indeed present. Eight years ago, the defining event would probably have been Matthew Barney’s ‘The Cremaster Cycle’ (1994–2002) – how things have changed. A theatre stage has replaced a cinema; live performers accosting visitors have replaced projections. It’s worth recalling here the key argument of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967): that the Western tradition of a ‘metaphysics of presence’ is built on the primacy of the spoken word over the written word. Very often today reading a work of art means looking at writing (the renaissance of collage does not just concern pictures, but also text), leafing through books, journals or stacks of photocopies and marvelling at the archaic aesthetic of the typewriter. I have long suspected that the enthusiasm evinced by many younger artists for the more obscure marginalia of 1960s and ’70s Conceptual art – such as deciphering painstakingly handwritten stories on crumpled pieces of paper that are then stuck to the wall, or reading the very same handwriting directly on the wall – is linked to the movement’s fondness for the typewriter, the primary source of the typography fetish that Benjamin Buchloh referred to as the ‘aesthetics of administration’.1 No matter how immaterial the claims of these various practices may sound, both written and printed matter are often at the heart of it all. However, there was a time, in only 2004, when this state of affairs appeared incongruous enough to occasion the publication by Revolver of a book titled Now What? Artists Write! Now, the genre of writing-by-artists, presided over by the shining examples of Robert Smithson, Dan Graham, Donald Judd and Agnes Martin, is fast becoming a flourishing niche market. Indeed, the increased interest in narration (fiction, alternative historiography, memoirs and even poetry) has done wonders for the spread of bibliophilia in an era consumed by the fear of the book’s apparently inevitable end, which has been declared in tones ranging from the apocalyptic (Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, 2010) to the plainly ecstatic (Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, 2010).

Much like decades ago, when it became a refuge for more adventurously minded film- and documentary makers, the art world has now become one of the few places where the culture of the book continues to reign relatively unchallenged, seemingly impervious to the curse of Kindles, iPads and e-books. While artists seem to be consuming as well as producing more books than ever before, more art magazines are being published today than at any time in recent history and the seemingly limitless demand for content to fill the cosmic expanse of Cyberia has meant that there has never been so much writing about writing, publishing about publishing, talking about talking or language about language. (See for instance, the appearance of ‘speciality’ journals such as The Happy Hypocrite, Dot Dot Dot, and F.R. David. Other artists, art collectives and publishing ventures that occupy positions of some importance in this unruly landscape are Fiona Banner, Paul Chan, Keren Cytter, Liam Gillick, Antonia Hirsch, Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle’s e-flux Journal, Seth Price and the collective Continuous Project, and Lili Reynaud Dewar’s magazine pétunia.)

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Ian Wilson, 'Plug In 47', Installation view, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 2009. Courtesy: Van Abbemuseum, photograph: Peter Cox. 

Ian Wilson, 'Plug In 47', Installation view, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 2009. Courtesy: Van Abbemuseum, photograph: Peter Cox. 

‘Words don’t come easy’ they used to say back in the early ’80s when, in Europe at least, art movements such as the Neue Wilden in Germany, the Transavanguardia in Italy, and New British Sculptors reigned supreme and words in art did not count for much. But that was a long time ago: never before, it seems, have words come more easily to art – that is to say, to artists. Why?2

One factor that has contributed to this recent development is the increased demand for literacy (both of the literary and theoretical variety) that has become an essential ingredient of art education. A certain professionalization of the artist’s trade as a result of the increasing pressure for art academies to become more academic has entered the picture. Art has been reconfigured as research to meet the demands of the information-and-knowledge economy, which has meant that artists are now routinely expected to be at home in various discourses in ways unimaginable to earlier generations, who very often chose art as a way out of language. Eloquence in the contextualization and/or defence of one’s work is now simply de rigueur – nothing more, nothing less. No wonder then that there is an incessant demand for talk in both art schools and the art market. (It has become increasingly difficult to imagine an art fair without an accompanying talks programme. I, for one, must admit to having spoken at more art fairs than non-profit art institutions last year). Thus, there is now a hypertrophy of art practices that centre around talk and an excess of art production that appears to ‘merely’ consist of a voice, and nothing else. As the art market cannot allow itself to lag behind too much, it has devised ways in which all of this friendly art banter, appearing as it does as the horizon of radical, forward-looking art practice, can be turned into a source of potential profit.

Finally, the whiff of anachronism and obsolescence that surrounds the art of the book has turned out to be a potent attractor, triggering many an artist’s instinct to come to the rescue of cultural phenomena that are either marginalized or threatened with extinction. Much art of the last decade has been melancholy and nostalgic, obsessed with both the past and its archival residues, and as the book is transformed into a historical artefact, an artistic cult of care is beginning to accrue around this last of the great models of a modernity that has become redefined, in the course of the last decade, as our antiquity. And what could be more ancient and archaic – and thus more alluring – than the art of storytelling?

To return, by way of conclusion, to my observation about the problem of instant image inundation: there is a growing sense among many artists and curators that in order for art to extricate itself from our culture’s dramatically devalued image economy it needs to retreat into language. Ironically perhaps, whereas words now seem to come easy to art, images, for a variety of reasons (one being that they have become so cheap) no longer do. For a long time, ‘Art & Language’ was the name of a problem as much as a conceptual art collective, but in recent years, it has become the name of an alliance, cemented around the duty of remembering when everywhere else the hypertrophy of image production seems to be predicated on forgetting – an annihilation, of sort. If art has become the privileged site for the telling and retelling (i.e. the preserving) of histories, it is primarily because history itself is disappearing amidst the maelstrom of its visual record.

is the newly appointed Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, USA, where he is currently preparing a survey exhibition of the work of Goshka Macuga. 

1 ‘Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions’, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, October, vol. 55. winter, 1990, pp. 105–143
2 The reference to the 1982 European hit record ‘Words Don’t Come Easy’ by a French pop star F.R. David is not, of course, unintentional: F.R. David is also the title of a journal, published by De Appel arts centre in Amsterdam, that ‘focuses on the status of language, writing and text in contemporary art practice’. I was, until recently, involved with it.

Issue 139

First published in Issue 139

May 2011
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