On 'Area Sneaks'

The original call for work for our journal Area Sneaks sought “to touch the live wire where language and visual art meet.” The very real divide between poetry and visual art, as we saw it in 2007, is where we discovered this metaphorical live wire. The figure of the area-sneak, a term borrowed from Charles Dickens, proved to be our principle guide. It is a slang term derived from the “literature of roguery” or what scholar Daniel Tiffany calls “infidel culture,” a nineteenth-century literary community “shaped in part by radical politics, but also by a revolution in the media,” whereby “activities such as theft, pimping, rape, blackmail, and pornography … and popular politics intersected with organized crime.”[1] The term “area-sneak” in particular refers to a class of small-time thieves or pickpockets who were known to cross boundaries, or the area-gates of working houses, to commit their crimes. And so we began each issue with one of two epigraphs: “From the swell mob, we diverge to the kindred topics of cracksmen, fences, public-house dancers, area-sneaks, designing young people who go out ‘gonophing’ and other ‘schools’”; and “Benevolent area-sneaks get lost in the kitchens and are found to impede the circulation of the knife-cleaning machine.” We found the term well-suited, and perhaps a little bit perverse, for a magazine that hoped to cross its own boundaries, to traverse the disciplines of poetry and visual art, and to encourage the trespassing of these areas.

When we first conceived of this journal, there were few publications in the United States that attempted to provide a space for both poets and artists to present their work or to engage in conversation. We were puzzled as to why this should be. Throughout the twentieth century artists and writers had forged a very close relationship. The avant-garde is full of obvious examples, from Futurism to Wallace Berman’s Semina Culture to Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayers’s mimeographed journal 0 to 9. As poet Caroline Bergvall notes, “The array of historic art shows, notably around Concrete, Dada, and Futurist movements or those from more recent Environmental or Concept Arts, where the strict line between textual and visual exploration blissfully dissipates are [an] important linkage between artistic modalities.”[2] Our intention with Area Sneaks was to place various media and materials into dialogue: artist projects, poetry, historical papers, speculative essays on art and language, poetics statements, imaginative theses, Conceptual writing, photographic essays, performance documents, interviews, architectural critiques, and film analyses all kept uneasy company within the journal’s pages. 

In 2009, Bergvall attended an event at the Serpentine Gallery in London curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist called The Poetry Marathon, in which more than fifty poets and artists were slated to take part. But she found her experience somewhat troubling. “Although a number of the chosen artists are known for dealing with writing and language pertinently and intrinsically as part of their artwork,” she wrote, “it was something of a disappointment to see so many of them react with undisguised anxiety at that same word, ‘poetry.’ Otherwise lucid, articulate artists found themselves in the throes of open self loathing, ‘I don’t know poetry,’ ‘I don’t know what to read,’ choosing to calm the audience by reading from known values such as Eliot, Ted Hughes, Lorca, and Celan, rather than tracing their own engagement with writing as part of the event. Here, poetry itself was treated as a historical, in the sense of acquired, decorative, rather than productive, mode of functioning.”[3]

She goes on to note, “the event confirmed that the debates between art and poetry remain superficial,” or seem to be, and that “the cultural status quo is still very much, and in an often unexamined way, one of irreconcilable historic and formal differences between the literary and visual arts.” And even more provocatively: “the pink elephant in this open-air enclosure … is language itself.”[4] The same year, Tim Griffin, then the editor-in-chief of Artforum, described poetry as “seeming to the outside world little more than an archaic discipline, around which institutions were inevitably built in order to preserve its character and form.”[5]

If the divide between poetry and the visual arts seemed insurmountable in 2009, the intervening years have proven that, as Quinn Latimer noted in a special 2014 issue of Frieze devoted to poetry, “contemporary art is hungry and omnivorous; it devours and assimilates everything.”[6] Artist-run magazines such as Triple Canopy, Animal Shelter, The Happy Hypocrite, and Material have increasingly published poetry alongside art criticism and artist portfolios. Artists such as Karl Holmqvist and Sue Tompkins use poetry as their medium. And there has been increasing institutional interest in poetry as well. In 2014 Hans Ulrich Obrist, along with the LUMA Foundation, inaugurated 89plus and “Poetry will be made by all,” an exhibition at the LUMA Westbau exhibition space in Zurich, Switzerland, this time with artists and poets less anxious about language. In Los Angeles, the Poetic Research Bureau has begun an ongoing collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art on a series of performance and poetry events entitled Step and Repeat. And the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial included a poetry anthology called The Animated Reader edited by Brian Droitcour.

What changed in the past five or six years to facilitate such a rapprochement between poetry and the visual arts? We have our suspicions, but needless to say a full account would require more research and space than can be afforded in this short editorial note.[7] We hope that Area Sneaks,which has throughout remained a small, out-of-pocket, and irregularly published enterprise, is neither praised nor buried for providing an ongoing space for dialogue between poets and visual artists.

1. Daniel Tiffany, Infidel Poetics: Riddles, Nightlife, Substance (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 176–79.

2. Caroline Bergvall, qtd. in Fred Sasaki, “Poetry Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery, London,” The Harriet Blog, Poetry Foundation, 2009.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Tim Griffin, “Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’: 32 Responses,” October 130 (Fall 2009): 3–124.

6. Quinn Latimer, “Art Hearts Poetry,” Frieze Magazine 164 (June–August 2014).

7. For informed accounts of the recent rapprochement between poetry and visual art, see Alan Gilbert, “Skinscreen: Art and Poetry at the New Museum’s Surround Audience Triennial,” BOMB Magazine 133 (Fall 2015) and Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal, “Let’s Take a Very Fucking Poetry Lesson: Art’s Crush on Poetry,” X-Tra Contemporary Art Quarterly (Winter 2016).