Disaster and revival

On Cha, Goldsmith, Pendleton

The first issue of 'Art in America,' which appeared in 1913, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's 'Exilée and Temps Morts: Selected Works.'

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.”[1] 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.[2] 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.”[3]

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,”[4] which, by instrumentalizing intention (or “concept”), might be brought into relief by what Lawrence Weiner called the “non-unique.”[5] 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.”[6] 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.”[7] 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?[8] The book features a still from Carl Dryer’s Vampyr.[9]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.”[10]

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.”[11] 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.”[12] 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?”[13] 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.”[14] 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).

2. See Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).

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.

6. Ibid.

7. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1995), 140.

8. Trinh T. Minh-ha, “White Spring,” In The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951–1982), ed. Constance M. Lewallen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 35–36.

9. Theresa Hak Kyung Chang, Exilée / Temps Morts: Selected Words, ed. Constance M. Lewallen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 207.

10. Cha, Dictee, 19.

11. Adrienne Edwards, “Blackness in Abstraction,” Art in America (January 2015): 64.

12. Adam Pendleton, Interview, Bomb (Winter 2011).

13. Tom McDonough, “The Parallax View,” Artforum (November 2011): 232.

14. Ibid., 238.