The seminar is a convergence of the two entities: right there where Marcel Duchamp’s infrathin space-between-spaces and the students’ own experiments with language meet. Where “The dictatorship of grammar” (#100) is only there to be overthrown. Where “The vibrations from sound, audible yet invisible” (#243) are nonetheless seen. Where the space “Between saying and meaning” (#385) is also known as the classroom. Where one is by design never forced to choose “Between passion and purpose” (#993). As Goldsmith has enjoyed saying to anyone within earshot, the poetry world is more than a half-century behind the visual art world; experiments in painting, sculpture and conceptual art have been doing things that most poets and poetics people have heretofore felt impossible or unnecessary. The term “behind” suggests a competition, but of course it’s not that. It’s not a course (as it were) with a finish line or single endpoint. It’s a means, a movement defying conventional academic evaluation, a way toward fresh conception through educational defamiliarization. The success of the project comes from putting the two worlds aesthetically — and pedagogically — together. Thus will emerge, we expect, a new generation of artists and arts-minded citizens who are actively uninterested in distinctions between the arts; they know it’s all one project.
Every other year Kenneth Goldsmith teaches a year-long seminar on writing about/through contemporary art. The 2017-18 seminar was held as a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at Penn and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (in particular the Modern division) — and the students created their own version of Duchamp's infrathins. In a few weeks a book containing the students' Duchampian compositions will be published, and it will include the following prefatory statement by me.
I pitched this piece before Kenneth Goldsmith’s March 2015 performance at Brown University, and I wrote the interlinking reflections that follow the first section right after Goldsmith’s performance, so the progression of my thinking within this reflection is contorted and strange, especially now that I’m writing this preface months later.
“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.
Heriberto Yépez, Voice Exchange Rates, 2002. Is unoriginality already the preferred condition of USAmerican experimentalism?
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.
Note: Craig Dworkin, author of Parse (Atelos, 2008), No Medium (MIT Press, 2013), and founding senior editor of Eclipse sat down with me on July 21, 2015 for a conversation in Salt Lake City as part of the one on one podcast series.
In this commentary, I want to contrast two artists’ visual prosody. In previous commentaries I have paired an artist and a poet. In this case, both of the writers are artists and have practically never been called poets. Here I am interested in setting Adrian Piper and Hock-E-Aye-Vi Edgar Heap of Birds side by side, and as an heuristic, specifically, two pieces: Piper’s Concrete Infinity 6” Square (1968) and Heap of Birds’ Vacant (1995). My excuse for pairing these examples is not art- or literary-historical so much as it is guided by the motif of a “derelict void.”
The event was called “What Oozed Through the Staircase: A Winter Afternoon of Surrealist Writing and Music,” held in the middle of the surrealist exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Sunday, January 26, 2014. Surprised that the event wasn't being recorded, I brought out my smart phone and captured the audio as best I could from the fourth row. I also made a video recording of the final performance — a surrealist game. All this is now available at a special PennSound page.