I went to Brown in March as an “artist in residence” for Interrupt3, a three-day conference on the intersection of art and text and digital things. I was anxious when I arrived because in the days before leaving people had asked me repeatedly what I would make once I got up there. I had no idea.
As soon as I arrived in Providence, I began seeing signs with the words “Imagine Brown” everywhere. They were on lampposts and banners and posters all over Brown’s (quite white — qhite?) campus.
Once at the studios, I stepped outside for a cigarette, hiding from the rain beneath a huge IMAGINE BROWN poster strewn along the whole wall of the arts building. Brown was begging to be imagined and I was there to be imagining.
I gathered everything brown and free that I could find in a fifty-footstep periphery of the studio. I photographed it with David’s fancy DSLR and printed it with the huge printer we were given access to. Brown, Imagined — here:
1 chocolate chocolate chip cookie
1 coffee cup
1 copy of the back of literallydead
1 Gertrude Stein quote from Tender Buttons
1 Helen Mirra/Fred Frith record, “Quail”
1 notebook that belongs to Michael Anzuoni
1 paper bag
1 pencil sharpener
1 sunglass case
1 trash can
2 packs of RAW rolling papers
2 pairs of glasses, both sun and regular
2 sheets of recycled paper at different stages of wrinkling
3 cigarette butts
3 pieces of cardboard, varying sizes
6 of the wooden sticks you use to stir milk or creamer into coffee
8 rubber bands
Sophia Le Fraga
Allegory and radical mimesis in Heriberto Yépez
Heriberto Yépez, Voice Exchange Rates, 2002. Is unoriginality already the preferred condition of USAmerican experimentalism?
“Talk-It,” the speaker-cum-software bot of Heriberto Yépez’s video-poem “Voice Exchange Rates,” describes itself as a technology “designed to help poetry return to the righteous path of the avant-garde” by automating the poetic endeavor: the program reads, translates, and composes in a variety of languages and registers in accordance with the preferences of its human user. This hypothetical division of the writing project into specific but related labors — the completion of which is achieved by outsourced procedural means — forces us to consider the stakes of such extreme mediation in literary practice, and to weigh the costs of jettisoning the “human” from artistic production.
We might begin by contemplating its assertion that the “next Octavio Paz is going to write like The New York Times.” Here, Yépez illuminates and contests the protocols that regulate the admission of nonnative, polylingual, and transnational voices to the institutionalized “avant-garde” tradition. Inevitably, the tariff assessed on these poetries is one of deracination: a body of writing only becomes properly saleable once it is stripped of its material and cultural specificities. By naming this gatekeeping as another syndrome of globalization, the poem poses a critical challenge to the literary institution of Conceptual writing: is it really so aesthetically subversive to write like The New York Times within the confines of the art institution — or, rather, to reframe and concretize this writing as commodified word-object — when this very same institution already imposes a regime of prescribed unoriginality (better yet: fluency) on writers who do not fall within its racialized and nationalistic tradition?
For Yépez, we sense, the proposition of “uncreative writing” threatens to recapitulate the globalizing logics that treat immigrant populations as reservoirs of disposable, recombinant, and plastic laboring subjects. If his work flirts morbidly with the obsolescence of the individuated and coherent speaker, it does so with the most pointed allegorical interest. We might say that “Voice Exchange Rates” works as a “radically mimetic” demonstration of the technological processes by which literary subjectivity is policed and homogenized — albeit one that signals the metonymic relationship between this phenomenon of exclusion (or selectively allocated and highly qualified inclusivity) and the larger patterns of sociopolitical marginalization and worker precaritization that order and stabilize the neoliberal state.
It is in this curious respect that “Voice Exchange Rates” shares much with the avowed methodologies and goals of the most visible exponents of Conceptual practice. I would furthermore hazard that the poem offers a prescient corrective to their well-documented (and eagerly claimed) critical failure before the fact. The piece is interested in contesting original authorship; it makes use of textual reframing; it is sensitive to the aesthetic and formal suggestions of nonliterary media; and it, too, theorizes writing in terms of the systems and technologies that facilitate its delivery and distribution. But at the same time, it is unwilling to marginalize or suspend political urgency in order to ventilate these concerns; rather, it sees these problems as inextricably related. This is to say that while the poem “mirrors” the “leveling and loading media” that govern the artistic production habits of a complacent neoliberal avant-garde, and even, perhaps, “[replicates] the error under critique,” it refuses to feign historical disinterest in the course of this performance, or to confirm the structural resignation that has defined the institutional commentary offered by the bulk of Conceptual writing — or, at least, its most visible practitioners and exponents.
Do Bush-era announcements of the “end of history” find their correlate in aesthetic affirmations of unoriginality and resignation? Yépez anticipates and rejects both of these propositions in this work.
Place and Fitterman acknowledge that the embryonic situation of this aesthetic development is a “repressive market economy.” For them, this operational predicament is “banal, [but] nonetheless true,” and more importantly, inescapable. Indeed, its very banality stems from the impossibility — hence familiarity and redundancy — of successful escape from market logics. But where Conceptual writing has, in the main, formulated its critique in materially dehistoricized and aesthetic terms — that is, in terms of the obligations (or liberty) to discard narrative in the wake of the “historical leveling” effected by the inception of the digital archive — Yépez examines the collapse of authorial and historical stability as a politico-aesthetic crisis that can be negotiated only through the proliferation of voices and authorships. I want to propose “Voice Exchange Rates” as a model for ethically and globally interested conceptual writing precisely because it eschews self-congratulation and insouciance: it offers incisive critiques of the imperialist tendencies of the Conceptual turn in poetry, even as it turns an eye to the ways in which authorial subjectivity is fractured, deauthenticated and selectively reconfigured under regimes of postindustrial capitalism that increasingly take shape along transnational lines and within digital spaces.
1. Yépez has described poetry as “series of techniques to construct — or, if [we] prefer, deconstruct — the subject” which rely on numerous literary figures, structures, and platforms, including voice, here “[understood] as the ways in which mind and body materialized, the patterns in which change interplays with memory.” (Heriberto Yépez, “Ethopoetics, What is it?,” Poems and Poetics, np.)
2. I’ve pulled these terms and concepts from Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009). But I do not intend to map their analysis onto Yépez’s work. Rather, my aim is to signal descriptive correspondences between these respective aesthetic accounts, which engage concomitant politico-aesthetic problems with varying degrees of commitment and urgency.
3. Of course, it would be inaccurate to say that the exponents of self-branded Conceptual writing have totally ignored the question of history. It is clear, for instance, that they maintain an interest in the question of technological advance and its impact on the history of twentieth-century art; and it is on this basis that they stake their claim to artistic relevancy: “In the 1990s, with the emergence of the Internet, as chronicled earlier, uncreative writing developed as an appropriate response for its time, combining historical permissions with powerful technology to imagine new ways of writing” (Kenneth Goldsmith, “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?,” in Against Expression [Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011], xxi).
4. Consider, for example, Kenneth Goldsmith’s remarks on the remixing opportunities afforded by digitization, delivered in conversation with Dale Smith.
5. I do not mean to suggest an unspoken affinity between Yépez’s work and the appropriative or procedural strategies that tend to dominate the landscape — and the discourse of Conceptual practice. See, most recently, his essay “El escándalo del sujeto concepto: Kenneth Goldsmith,” trans. Guillermo Parra.
On Angelica Dass and Divya Victor
A collage of photographs from Angelica Dass’s ongoing Humanæ Project appeared on the cover of the “The Trouble With Race” issue of Foreign Affairs magazine in March 2015. Dass’s photographic pairing of human skin tone with swatches of PANTONE® color was selected for an issue slated to spotlight the global failure of multiculturalism. It is unlikely that Foreign Affairs was looking for a cover image that would serve as diegetic proof of this failure, but Dass’s embodied rooms of color could not describe more perfectly the perception of racialized bodies as artful abstraction that makes up the dominant multiculturalist vision. Dass describes her practice as a kind of radical visibility: she calls Humanæ “a pursuit for highlighting our subtle-continuous of our tones that make more equality than difference … our true colors, rather than the untrue Red and Yellow, Black and White.” Elevating the representative specific over the generalized untrue race, Dass offers “a kind of game for subverting our codes” in which the narrow racial imaginary is inundated with numerically identified bodies. The catalogue of human experience is limitless but trackable. The bodies undergo an erasure of qualities in order to attain this idealized and nameless “equality.” It is color — independent of race, ethnicity, nationality, history, or culture — that is emphasized to the complete removal of the personal-political identity.
The color category dangerously suggests that human bodies are each intrinsically colored without consideration of the psychosocially constructed and connotatively loaded ascription of skin color. One would assume that this Conceptualist pigment-worship as banquet of difference has enough historical and political fallout at this point to be recognizable as an act of pseudophysiognomic ecstasy. The supposedly subversive game that Dass is playing is a matching game in which visibility is produced for the purpose of expunging voice. The voicelessness is precisely what Dass claims ties her subjects to one another — it is their continuity. Dass’s subjects stand assimilated inside the colorized holding cells made for them, and they are meant to stay there, visible and voiceless.
This postracial framework stands in contrast to the interactive gameplay of Divya Victor’s Race Card, a performance in which Victor herself stands in as the object-body (à la Dass’s subjects), while audience members are solicited to assume the role of the artist/poet (à la Dass) in matching Victor’s body to a set of designated color swatches with the use of a worksheet. The problem the audience is then faced with is that despite being asked to perform the dominant role of the artist/poet, they must still play audience: they must watch themselves watch Victor. Victor’s circuit of self-consciousness is important. As Vanessa Place notes, “the cost of our comprehension is our complicity.” In the case of Race Card,each Glidden color swatch that appears on the worksheet is presented to the audience with a name as well as a number, lending a semantic absurdity that underlines the precariousness of the task at hand. Audience members are expected to select a swatch before the performance ends, or risk identifying Victor as invisible. Where Dass’s Humanæ accommodates the gaze of its audience, encouraging the commodification of visible bodies while decontextualizing skin color as a racialized identifier, Victor’s Race Card forces audience members to identify “the poet without a void: the unavoidable poet.” Victor’s audience must confront race. They are not permitted invisibility, and neither is Victor, making Race Card an exercise in burning down the passive-aggressive superhighway of postracial discourse.
Victor’s Race Card worksheet adopts the form of a Glidden-designed online form intended for customers beginning a new painting project. Victor’s Race Card closes with consumerist rhetoric (“please visit a Glidden Color Center at a participating retailer near you”) as embedded critique of the ease with which customer-audiences slip back into commodifying bodies as fetishized products of difference. Late capitalism wants this rhetoric as much as it wants Dass’s wiping of politicized identifiers for mass consumption by invisible audiences. By vetting Glidden’s pitch, Race Card asks audience members to watch themselves consuming race as they always have: as the socioeconomic value of visible bodies.
Conversely, Dass’s use of PANTONE® color in Humanæ signals a collaboration with corporate objective to the point of sponsorship. PANTONE® claims to be “known worldwide as the standard language for color communication from designer to manufacturer to retailer to customer.” Humanæ stays on message, standardizing skin color on the metric of the corporation; Dass delivers body-product as aesthetic spread. Perhaps this is why the press has celebrated Humanæ for forgoing political stakes. This neutrality is of course extremely political. Without identity in play, it is possible to focus completely on consuming the subjects of Humanæ. Palate ticklers like “the fresh colors painted from the subtle sherbet pinks to the creamy coffee and chocolate tones” suggest that we are invited to eat the deliciously serene faces of those made identifiably visible before us.
Humanæ’s production of complacent wonder is marketable. The audience feels good tucked away in invisibility, whiteness, affluence, cultural dominance, right, and righteous passivity. Race Card is an indictment of the performance of this routine. Its production of participatory self-consciousness creates and acknowledges the pain of visibility and forcible erasure for racialized bodies. It is unsellable, this pain, this painting project.
1. “The Trouble With Race,” Foreign Affairs, February 10, 2015.
2. Angelica Dass, “About,” Humanæ.
4. Vanessa Place, “Playing Divya Victor’s Race Card” (lecture, REVERSE — Copenhagen International Poetry Festival 2014, Copenhagen, September 19, 2014).
7. “About PANTONE,” PANTONE®.
8. “Skin Toning With Humanæ,” Digital Design Therapy, August 9, 2012.
On Cha, Goldsmith, Pendleton
I am going to discuss three examples of Conceptual writing. My purpose in doing so is merely to define one of a larger set of questions. Defining questions is going to be more productive than pretending to have answers. I don’t want to even seem to be making an argument about these examples; that would truly be shortchanging the artists’ efforts. The brevity of this essay requires that I forego the summation and close reading, the kind of exposition we use to support a fully fledged thesis. In March 2015, Dorothy Wang wrote at Boston Review about a conversation that “needs to be had by poets and critics of all races and ethnicities about the assumptions — racialized and other — that underlie and structure fundamental categories of poetry and poetics, such as the notion of the ‘universal’ poetic speaker, the idea of ‘difficulty’ and abstraction in poetry, literary tropes, the link between formal structures and social and historical contexts.” Taking that last option as a cue, I want to draw attention to a couple of alternative models of appropriation in Conceptual writing, simply to test the validity of this question: Can race and conjectural history be retrieved from their status as disappeared coincidences?
Conjecture here refers to the force of imagination that we impute to an imaginary, an ideological formation that seems of its time as much as it is “objective” — bearing no unique signature, issuing from no one in particular. Conjecture connotes fallacy, which is important because race serves as logical subterfuge so long as no one cops to (or copes with) racism. I am thinking of historians like Reginald Horsman, who show that the assumptions and aporias of white privilege are not a given but always coincide with a challenge to certain religious and political ideals. And the further coincidence of the disaster of liberal, even color-blind, ideals with eventual hegemonic or “structural” racialism confuses conjecture with prediction. But we also impute this force of imagination to art and artists, even and especially when they attempt interventions meant to disclose suppressed fallacies and the dire consequences of historical ignorance — even and especially when they ask, into what Conceptual subterfuge have these imaginaries disappeared? Can the coincidence between race and conjectural history be articulated differently? As is sometimes said, a question you can answer is a partially legible proposition. The mark of a true question is that it seems timely and important because the answer remains to be seen. So to the conversation Wang wants to see I’m offering a short attempt to decipher this question. If I can, it will soon make more sense to both of us.
At the risk of contributing to an already exaggerated cache, it can’t go unmentioned: Kenneth Goldsmith’s rueful performance — reading the autopsy report of Michael Brown at Brown University in March 2015 — punctuates an ongoing need to scrutinize one of a small set of signature techniques borrowed from the history of Conceptual art (beginning with Duchamp, continuing with Warhol, and extending through people like Joseph Kosuth, Jackson Mac Low, and others). The technique is to displace social materials, to appropriate them, as a method of social critique — not a critique of the materials themselves, but of the way they are trafficked and received. This method presumes that our commonsense coincidence between facticity and historicity can be proved corrupt, or at least hasty, by sheer reframing, with minimal or no alteration of the materials beyond recontextualizing them. I have always thought that Goldsmith’s work was at its best when he mimicked what historians do with readymade materials: installing them in a domain cultivated for disinterested contemplation, and in the process claiming to disclose from events or statements qualities that were originally undetectable. Day is the least ambiguous example of Goldsmith’s attempts to instrumentalize documentary value. That book, published under the auspices of the postmodern long poem, transcribes the New York Times of 9/1/2000, an “uncreative” act commemorating what Goldsmith predicted would be his last year spent purging himself of any creativity. One year and a day later, the morning edition of the New York Times of 9/11/2001 was irrelevant within hours of appearing, but by retyping it under the sign of poetry, and publishing the results in a 2009 issue of Poetry magazine as “The Day,” Goldsmith marks a pivot point in the national imaginary of United States exceptionalism. He — but of course anyone at all — could do so only because of a perceived threshold between the newsworthy and the archival. The critique in this relies on irrelevance produced when a unique instance becomes characteristic. But Michael Brown’s autopsy was, and remains, so painfully contemporary that it hadn’t faded into anything like hindsight. Like a botched resurrection ceremony, to revive the body of Michael Brown through a dramatic reading of the bureaucratic paper trail enshrouding it either questions the resemblance, by coincidence, of revivification to dissection; or, for so many of us, it begs the question of dissemblance that subtends racial privilege and poetic license. No such historical hiccup predated its reframing. Unlike the Times, it was not at all “unremarkable” (the refrain of the report and, subsequently, Goldsmith’s reading). It could have been Goldsmith meant to bring to life what is hidden in plain view, a kind of protest; it could have been a case of what Thom Donovan called, in a poem he posted in the immediate aftermath of the performance, “corpse fucking.”
Of course, what really matters is racism itself, and not an aesthetic loophole in neo-avant-garde ambitions to do politics. Neither intention nor method will answer the charge of privileged vampirism (a charge put to the “unpure” Conceptualism of Flarf years ago). Only the insidiousness of racism, its ability to subsume specific horrors by pervading experience, can explain the immediate impact of the offense. Between intention and impact is a horizon line that Joseph Kosuth memorably called “the art condition,” which, by instrumentalizing intention (or “concept”), might be brought into relief by what Lawrence Weiner called the “non-unique.” In a 1969 interview, Weiner said, “One thing an artist can’t do: an artist can say that a shop-bought cream soda can is art, but he can’t say it’s not a shop-bought cream soda can.” I take this as a cautionary statement. In the aftermath of Goldsmith’s performance, he has sought to explain the impact in terms of the aesthetic conditions of its reception. In neutering the materiality of his source texts, the appropriative strategy of mainstream conceptualism neutralizes intention, rendering any explanation belated with respect to racism; racism becomes the agent rather than the object of reflection.
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s work worries any and every discrepancy between intention and impact. She uses appropriative methods against the feigned neutrality of both subjective expressiveness and objective reportage. Cha’s oeuvre defines the disaster, and its “unremarkable,” recalcitrant, unnoticed, and tolerated distillation into computationally tractable data: “horizontal in form, in concept. From which a portion has been severed without the evidence of a mark even, except that now it was necessary to comply to the preface.” But no such compliance would be possible. It is well-known that allusion and allegory in her work are subverted at the level of the source materials, a critique of the materials themselves — the documentary value is contaminated before the document is referenced or cited, its relevance affirmed through careful corrosion of the facts then installed as artistic materials. Being in this way both appropriative and creative writing, no coincidence would be possible. (Something else comes from the materials, which were made to differ from themselves “originally.”) This is why Cha’s artist book Commentaire wonders “how not to say while saying”; comment taire? faire commentaire? The book features a still from Carl Dryer’s Vampyr.If the horror-film genre relies on death’s encroachment, Vampyr cancels itself. It goes from dead to undead. Laying the parallel dimension of the undead horizontal to a ruined life discloses a world of fun, a voyeuristic carnival of floating signifiers Dryer exploits and Cha exteriorizes. At the impassive surface of Cha’s text is a threshold of attention where poetic expression becomes a demotic broadcast, a kind of ambient lore that serves as the faintly focused ethnic resemblance heretofore known as the hyphenated American. Cha’s conceptual strategies are experimental: a sociohistorically moonlit experience regulated by hypothesis, control, and variable. As in science and finance, experimentation is conjectural and predicative. It answers for disaster. “Why resurrect it all now. From the Past. History, the old wound. The past emotions all over again. To confess to relive the same folly. To name it now so as not to repeat history in oblivion.”
Similarly, Adam Pendleton explores the threshold between neutrality and immanence — “blackness’s immanence” — in his Black Dada which, according to Adrienne Edwards, constitutes “the autobiography of conceptual art.” Black Dada is a book that is forever in progress; distributed (for now, at least) back channel; and it consists entirely of found language. In an interview with Donovan, Pendleton describes his prevailing concern with documental “experience” as one of “holding” and “giving” — each of his works comprises a “tonal shift” as “information or content” passes to and fro. “Black and Dada create a relationship on paper that is a literal merging of two things. Dada, meaning yes, yes and black as an open-ended signifier. Taking these very basic notions and allowing them to become a functioning definition — something you can put in someone’s hands — is how I hope to repoliticize a neo-avant-garde.” Black Dada is also a series of 2D visual works that reframe images (details) of sculptures by Sol LeWitt, and overlay these with text. Tom McDonough put it this way: “What if [LeRoi] Jones, then soon to become the black nationalist poet Amiri Baraka, had also written ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’? [How to] wreck meaning by making use of the very structures that would seem to guarantee it, structures that — like grammar itself — are inevitably both aesthetic and political?” McDonough’s premise, that aesthetic and political structures are entangled like a grammar — that is, systematically and on the level of the social imaginary — this premise is worth questioning because the question follows from (as conclusion rather than merely a premise of) Pendelton’s project. Is this inevitability a coincidence or a consequence, something gleaned in hindsight or a predicative pattern? Pendelton’s own blackness and his various embodiments of it perform this question, sometimes with an emphasis on compatibility and sometimes through estranging the body of the text from the speaking subject. What does it take to make us think of grammar as either aesthetic or political, if we don’t first impute an “art condition” exists to be disclosed that way, predisposing the subject of Conceptual art not as “blackness” in particular but as the disaster? McDonough writes, “[W]hat seems crucial here is precisely the degree to which the contexts from which [Pendleton’s] materials are drawn remain incompatible … His conjectural histories … expose the incommensurability of subaltern histories, the very difficulty of thinking Language poetry and the Rainbow Coalition and AIDS activism and the church at one and the same time, as Pendleton did for his acclaimed contribution to Performa 07, The Revival.” Whereas The Revival emancipates paper language, literature — and the tonal shift is in realizing the preacher is a “drag queen” spreading the gospel of good old-fashioned parataxis — it is the problem of the “non-unique” and the patina of particularity conferred by aestheticizing social materials that, taken together, subsume or disappear racism in that coincidental difference called “race.”
1. Dorothy Wang, “From Jim-Crow to ‘Color-Blind’ Poetics: Race and the So-Called Avant-Garde,” Boston Review (March 10, 2015).
3. Thom Donovan, “Corpsefuckers,” Wild Horses of Fire (blog), March 18, 2015.
4. Joseph Kosuth, “Art After Philosophy (1969),” UBU Web.
5. Lawrence Weiner, Recording Conceptual Art: Early Interview with Barry, Huebler, Kaltenbach, LeWitt, Morris, Oppenheim, Siegelaub, Smithson, and Weiner by Patricia Norvell, eds. Alexander Alberro and Patricia Norvell (Berkley: University of California Press, 2001), 102.
11. Adrienne Edwards, “Blackness in Abstraction,” Art in America (January 2015): 64.
12. Adam Pendleton, Interview, Bomb (Winter 2011).