Texting: The Artist as Writer as Artist

Reading this, you are probably unfazed. Likewise you don’t find it strange to see written texts in a bookshop, on a computer screen, or in a journal or newspaper. Yet a shelf of books or even a poem presented as art in a museum seems bizarre. When Seth Price displayed "Essay with Knots," a set of molded plastic panels on which his text "Dispersion" was printed, at the New Museum’s 2010 exhibition "Free," he acknowledged that doing so constituted a "perverse" gesture because "no one will read it! Text doesn’t really work on the wall, not an essay like this." Perhaps even more perverse was another work in that exhibition, Jill Magid’s "Becoming Tarden," 2009, which consisted of copies of a spy novel she wrote with the same title that was eventually redacted by a real spy agency, the Dutch Secret Service; visitors were invited to pluck one of the volumes from the shelf and read it on the spot, or else buy a copy in the museum store.

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Price and Magid are just two among a host of artists who employ writing in a way that, whether they intend it or not, acts as a solvent eating into established notions of what visual art is. Others include Simon Fujiwara, Mai-Thu Perret, Liam Gillick, Doug Fishbone, Matthew Brannon, and such collectives as the International Necronautical Society, Bernadette Corporation, and Slavs and Tatars. For all of them writing is part of their artistic practice. By writing I mean either discursive essays, like Price’s, or original narratives, although not necessarily textual ones. I am not concerned with works that incorporate appropriated text or that use text as image, rather than as something to be read or listened to, or as an object standing literally for an idea, as in the creations of the Conceptual artists of the 1960s and ’70s, where texts tended to function either as documentation — Richard Serra’s sets of instructions, for instance — or as analogues of sculptural objects. As Robert Smithson said in an essay, "Here language is built, not written."

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For the artists I’m discussing, writing is key and the line delimiting literary from visual art virtually nonexistent. Crucially, all these artists were born after 1964, which means they came of age and continue to live — as we all do — in the Blur. The Blur is our dispensation. It’s a place where the visual or retinal is not necessarily privileged over other modes; where the boundaries between the arts — music, literature, theater, sculpture, and so on — are nearly erased; where those between media are porous; where genres blend into one another; where the notion of the autonomous art object has gone fuzzy; and where that of art itself has been smeared, as it were. Artists of the Blur tend to reject modernist purity in all its forms but most particularly the sort of purity that demands that each art develop what is most intrinsic to it. They freely bring narrative — what was once known as literary content — into painting; they mix dance and sculpture or performance and drawing. They have been diagnosed by the critic Rosalind Krauss as suffering from a postmedium condition. And artists of the Blur embrace what the modernist critic Michael Fried calls "theatricality," by which he means the exhibition event becoming as important as the objects within it. These artists take as axiomatic that context creates art.

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In "Dispersion," Price says of this dispensation: "It does not necessarily stand against objects or painting, or for language as art; it does not need to stand against retinal art; it does not stand for anything certain, instead privileging framing and context, and constantly renegotiating its relationship to its audience." Price’s essay is notable for enacting what it describes: As a way of "constantly renegotiating its relationship to its audience," he distributes it through a number of platforms. In addition to existing as the art object "Essay with Knots," it is a PDF, available for free on his Web site and on that of Reena Spaulings (which is both a New York gallery and the character in a novel by the Bernadette Corporation), and a book. Indeed creating works in multiple versions on varied platforms is common to a number of these artists. The reason for such an open-ended approach, Price suggests in "Dispersion," is that making works that are, as Duchamp puts it, not "of art" — works outside the usual parameters of art — is for his generation a permanent directive. The problem with most work that is not "of art" is that it is easily co-opted by the institutions that define art as art and that have traditionally distributed it. The context transforms what was not "of art" into art. Work from the 1960s that challenged the art context, such as performance and site-specific sculpture, was eventually absorbed into institutions through photographic documentation. What began as the visceral experience of a performance that seemed out of context in, say, a gallery ended up as another bunch of pictures on a wall.

The lesson of those earlier efforts is that if you want to disrupt the understanding of what art is, you need to alter how it gets to its audience. "The definition of artistic activity occurs, first of all, in the field of distribution," the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers wrote. That sentence serves as the epigraph to "Dispersion," in which Price imagines a way to escape institutions: "Suppose an artist were to release the work directly into a system that depends on reproduction and distribution for its sustenance, a model that encourages contamination, borrowing, stealing, and horizontal blur. The art system usually corrals errant works, but how could it recoup thousands of freely circulating paperbacks?"

The answer is it can’t. Yet because context defines art, operating outside of, or in a way inappropriate to, the normal venues for distribution — the gallery, museum, or Kunsthalle — tends to de-define art. When Magid, for example, began showing "Evidence Locker," a multimedia work that includes video as well as a novella, curators resisted incorporating a reading room into the installation. "You can’t set up a whole room around a book. No one will read it," they told her. Magid insisted, and people did read "One Cycle of Memory in the City of L." The epistolary novella, consisting of love letters addressed to an enigmatic Observer, was so popular, in fact, that it recently went out of print. No institution has been willing to put up the $7,000 to reprint it, despite the fact that Magid is associated with top-tier galleries as well as with such museums as the Whitney and Tate Modern and that in this stratum of the art world, dispensing tens of thousands of dollars to fabricate an artwork is routine. (By signing up on Magid’s Web site you can have each of the book’s letters e-mailed to you.) One suspects that the collective Slavs and Tatars faces similar difficulties convincing galleries and museums that "Dear 1979, Meet 1989," 2011, the tabloid-style newsprint version of a lecture-performance, is actually an artwork. And it’s not hard to imagine the dismay of those trying to sell Doug Fishbone’s efforts when they found out that he’d decided to distribute "Everybody Loves a Winner," 2004, a video of a lecture-performance in which the artist reads a written text, for free on YouTube.

Price concedes that in their text-based work the first Conceptualists, like the artists of the Blur, also sought new ways of distributing, and thus defining, art. What distinguishes the current practitioners, aside from access to new technology, is their aims. Much of the text-based work of the 1960s, Price says, "was primarily concerned with finding exhibition alternatives to the gallery wall and in any case often used these sites to demonstrate dryly theoretical propositions rather than address issues of, say, desire." In fact the differences go considerably deeper, to the level of form. In addressing "issues of desire," the younger artists consistently resort to narrative and often to elaborate fictions. The Bernadette Corporation has exhibited its collective novel "Reena Spaulings" in art contexts. And in his 2010 videos "The Rolling Skull" and "Fire and Smoke," Price reads, over an on-screen montage of appropriated imagery, folktale-like stories he has written in the style of the German Romantic writer Ludwig Tieck.

The history of modernism can be understood, in part, as a progressive leaching of narrative from visual art, be it literary content excised from painting or story lines from film. The Blur generation of artists uses text as a means of restoring this spurned aspect to visual art. Altering the way art is distributed can be seen as a byproduct of that endeavor. These artists are thus the aesthetic children not of the 1960s text-based Conceptualists but of those artists of the ’70s and ’80s — from Michael Smith and Martha Rosler to Cindy Sherman and, above all, Sophie Calle — who began reintroducing narrative into cutting-edge works.

As the Price videos demonstrate, narrative doesn’t always entail the display of text. Fishbone, Slavs and Tatars, and Simon Fujiwara all present performance-lectures of written works. The latter’s "Museum of Incest," for instance, begins, in his words, as a PowerPoint "guided tour" of a fictional architectural complex that "ends up as a wildly personal portrait of a father-son relationship." Magid, in collaboration with the actor Ed Vassallo, has been performing live versions of the written components of all her pieces, at least one of which, "Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy" (the New York police call-sign for spelling love), is being turned into a feature film. Creating film scripts — as opposed to reading written text as a performance — takes us to the outer edge, as it were, of writing as an art practice. Not all films are scripted. Some are improvised; some bear little relationship to their scenarios. Yet in that realm the examples multiply: Fishbone has written, directed, and acted in the feature-length film "Elmina"; the artist Nathaniel Mellors has recently begun filming episodes of a television serial — as an artwork — based on stories he’s penned, and numerous other artists have recently created features. The crucial point is that writing is the distinctive characteristic of these artists’ practice, not text per se.

That writing should enter the arena of visual art when it did, in the first decade of the 21st century, is intriguing because in the early aughts the dominant paradigm of the Blur was what the theorist Nicholas Bourriaud calls "postproduction" in an essay bearing that word as its title. The model for postproduction is sampling: the DJ’s mixing other people’s beats, the programmer’s altering preexisting code, and the collage artist’s cutting and pasting images produced by others. Postproduction artists, Bourriaud writes, "contribute to the eradication of the traditional distinction between production and consumption, creation and copy, readymade and original work." Of course, this process is the culmination of a much older assault on notions of authorship and originality that can be traced back through the relational aesthetics of the 1990s to the appropriation art of the ’70s and early ’80s, and through a half-century of fascination with Duchamp and John Cage that introduced chance, as well as other methods of removing the hand, into the production of artworks.

I see the emergence of artists’ writing, displaying books, and aggressively adopting literary modes as an effort to protect or recapture originality both from the maelstrom of postproduction that has remade the aesthetic landscape and from the attack on it launched ironically enough by the text-based Conceptualism of the 1960s. In contrast to other modes of asserting originality, authoring has the advantage of being novel, if you can excuse the pun, in a visual art context. In an interview, Mellors speaks of "feeling critical of a prevalent commitment to cultural recycling," a commitment he satirized in the 2008 installation "Giantbum," which allegorizes cultural recycling as cannibalism and coprophagy. What better way to critique sampling and the endless recycling of images, sounds, and texts than through an original, authored work? That is not, however, to argue that these artists are completely against postproduction. Like hip-hop groups that augment a DJ’s sampling with live instrumental music, all the while maintaining other conventions of rap, these artists tend to combine their authored texts into multimedia collages. Magid juxtaposes CCTV footage with her texts; Price marries spoken tales to montages of appropriated video; Fishbone interlaces monologues with sampled images.

Original as these strategies are, a few artists put written narrative to an even more inventive use. If stories operate through seduction, finding compelling ways to maintain intercourse with the reader, then the result of such couplings is, inevitably, the production of offspring. Several of the artists mentioned literalize this trope. For them the story is a means of generating new art objects. Mellors’s Rabelaisian tale "Giantbum" was written to provide the scenario for various video scripts he subsequently made and also as a vehicle for the creation of animatronic sculptures. For the past decade or so, everything produced by the artist Mai-Thu Perret has sprung from "The Crystal Frontier," her ongoing written tale of a utopian, all-female feminist community in the southwestern U.S. desert. Composed of discrete fictional texts in various genres — expository prose, diary entries, letters, daily schedules, and so on, parts of which she sometimes displays and sometimes publishes — the narrative creates a world that Perret then fills with objects. "The story was imagined at the beginning," Perret says in a 2009 interview, "as a kind of machine that makes the art."

The story as generator of objects is a reversal. For Magid, Price, and the others, it was the art world context, filled with objects, that opened to admit their narratives. In a sense, the objects — whether shelves of books, neon words, video screens, or vitrines — were the soft spots in the gallery context that allowed it to expand. Now Perret is importing objects into the world of her stories. And it’s only within the context of the story that the objects she creates, such as dresses for nonexistent commune dwellers, will be seen as art. 

"Texting" originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' Summer 2011 Table of Contents.