Witness Adrian Piper and Edgar Heap of Birds

Two lines taken

Edgar Heap of Birds, Native Hosts (2008)

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.”  

Though for a few years beginning in the late 90s I wrote and published procedural, appropriative and at times “unreadable” poetry, I have remained a curious bystander while, over the last decade, similar strategies have drawn an enormous amount of attention. These strategies purport to carry a formalist critique of the materiality of the signifier into our networked, post-Fordist political environment. Borrowing both the moniker and some salient theoretical tenets from the heroic phase of Conceptual Art, it might have been predicted that Conceptual Writing would inherit an agonistic perspective. Yet a positive logic of Conceptual Writing seldom occurs when the discourse on conceptualisms retains as its foil the doxa of “Greenbergian formalism.” Generative as it has been to take the anti-Greenbergian stance (mainly via Craig Owens’ theory of postmodern allegory) as its point of departure, Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman’s Notes on Conceptualisms’ may endure more as a taxonomic than an analytic experiment (though it is obviously and pivotally both). Their analysis predicates ontological categories on social relations, hence “Conceptualisms maintain only the concept of ‘is’…is permanent.” In my opinion this was an operative insight of some New American Poets—see Ashbery’s “Il y a” or Creeley’s “There Is.” But what is only nascent there is the desire to take comfort in this “proof the ‘I’ do not exist” except as “Sobject,” also written “s/object.” Adorno on fumes: the lyric residue of found language: “subject and object are no rigid poles." The Sobject’s self-reflexivity is also a semiotic foil, the semiotic foil of an always-already “self-refuting” appropriation of “The Woman.” To their credit, in the section on prosody, Place and Fitterman conclude that contemporary Conceptual Writing “may or may not differ from its [literary- and art-historical] others,” precisely because “technique” is contingent upon its post-medium condition. Only the concept is real, “pure.”

By 1992, Adrian Piper had articulated an alternative to the agonistic approach. “The Logic of Modernism,” published in Flashart the following year, asserts that Greenberg’s diagnosis of Modern aesthetics as a hermetic investigation of the proper lineaments of a medium was “an aberration,” more “an ideological evasion of cold war McCarthyite censorship and Red-baiting in the 1950s” than a perspicuous view of “Euroethnic tradition.” In short, not the enemy; you can’t organize against an aberration, can you? She describes European modernism as “a medium of social engagement” consisting in four logically consecutive features: appropriation, formalism, self-reflexivity and “commitment to social content.” But not just any appropriation—perhaps not what Trisha Low, in her essay “4 Real,” calls “the ambiguous austerity of ‘high’ appropriation.” Cut-and-paste is one thing. It’s another to cite style, avatar, renown, and even desire, as Low does. It’s a form of ventriloquism or, as it were, granular citation, and it leaves more room for a politics, again in my own opinion. Granular citation is what makes conceptual writing a continuation of radical modernism. Granular citation vs. high appropriation sounds like a fun dichotomy. I’m inheriting the agonistic attitude myself, all of a sudden, which calls for an analysis. First, an observation: In the discourse on Conceptual Writing, I don’t much hear the names of my star witnesses, Piper and Heap of Birds.

There is another important strategy favored by younger conceptual writers: the prank. Issue #1 and Josef Kaplan’s Kill List parodically testify to ways in which poetry thinks and then mistakes the thinker for an excuse to celebrate. They neutralize whatever involuted sense of celebrity persists in our creative writing industry. For me that heightens the effect of the celebrity chat-porn and catholic confessional hoaxes that Low passes off as text. These and Kaplan’s One of These Cocks Is Mine represent more appreciable critiques of gender and maybe class. It could be argued that the contemporary prankster-conceptualist writer is working in the same tradition as the Piper of Catalysis, performances that gave rise to the calculated yet visceral, even salacious impulses of the Mythic Being series. Or when Heap of Birds hijacks signage at an international airport or along a state highway, even the swag at the 2007 Venice Biennale, there is something of the prank aesthetic. But I would rather focus on appropriation because it isolates certain visual impulses, less performative ones. A full analysis of the dichotomies I entertaining below would need to deal with composition and performance in tandem, though.

The Saturday Afternoon Show at Max’s Kansas City Hannah Weiner organized in 1970 is, like Issue # 1 or Kill List, a case study in artistic coterie. Piper’s contribution was to don blindfold, gloves, nose- and ear-plugs and, so deprived, mingle in the form of “a neutral object”—only to fail, as John Bowles explains in his monograph.

This photo contrasts the “collaborator” grinning at what registers as some practical joke, with the serious artist conducting a meticulous experiment. Bowles: “Her role as ‘collaborator’ defined her selfhood as well as her objecthood.” The Sobject avant la lettre.

Say high appropriation is writing that objectifies writing by carrying it over into another document, questioning the documentary value of both formats, original and copy. Re-typing is the paradigmatic method. Both “author” and text are highly detached: high appropriation. In this way, so many conceptualisms intrude upon “culture” by delivering a culture unto itself: say, inserting the language of chat rooms into a collection of verse (K. Silem Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation). Or making literature the repository for the news (Kenneth Goldsmith’s Day) or a grammar (Craig Dworkin’s Parse). The idea is that it comes out as culture all over again, this time defanged by its own wherewithal. It is already detritus. Culture submitted to its plucky, expendable outskirts, poetry even. This and that, exactly what we mean by ambiguity. Disinterring gibberish from the surface of a discourse is a sophisticated feat. High appropriation culls from the main thrust of domestic sense and renders it marginalia. Another approach is to pull from the margins and obfuscate the power centers of discourse. So…

Say granular citation is cultural appropriation. Continuing with Piper’s argument, for appropriation to attain a genuine formalism, its meaning must be not just ambiguous but decidedly obscure. “[A]rtists must first look at the art of an alien culture and acknowledge their failure to grasp its contextual meaning, before its formal properties can heighten their self-awareness of the formal properties of their own culture’s art.” “[M]eaning” or “content” is only legible when form confronts us with a decisive “ignorance,” and “self-awareness” results. There is a special (formal) recognition of a “cultural practice” that is “inaccessible to understanding with respect to content, [which] is implicitly to recognize one’s own cultural practice as a cultural practice, with its own rules and constraints.” And though she is describing a tradition, a modernism completely at odds with Greenberg’s notion of the same, cross-cultural poetics of appropriation comes to be seen as “nontraditional,” which is the emblem of “a self-consciously critical rather than…involved evaluational perspective toward it.” That is why “American art has been restoring its social content through the back door”—let’s say as American vanguard poetry has, these twenty years later. Self-transendence is, in Piper’s own work, the key to her exhaustive interrogation of “xenophobia… The triumphant legacy of conceptual art’s subordination of medium to idea,” she writes in “Ways of Averting One’s Gaze,” “was the emergence of political content.”

“The Logic of Modernism” presents this definition of radical modernism.

It is natural that a society that depends on colonized non-Euroethnic cultures for its land, labor, and natural resources should do so for its aesthetic and cultural resources as well. But the impetus in the latter case is not necessarily imperialistic…It may be instead a drive to self-transcendence…to confound oneself… [E]xploitation is an unintended side effect—the consequence of ignorance and insensitivity—of a project whose main intention is to escape those very cognitive limitations.

According to Piper, the dual demands of modern Euroethnic art, as precedent for the identity politics of the 80s-90s artworld and (I would add) the “globalization” of these politics up to present times, are 1) defamiliarize the approximate to avoid mistaking proximity for similarity, and 2) valorize the same and assimilate the other with one movement. Formal experimentation is a generative practice, even though it inevitably appropriates. And only inasmuch as it is critical, even honorable. Or not. “[I]gnorance and insensitivity” could be seen as aberrant or accessory, the phenomenon we associate with high modernism but not the noumena it is. Source is resource. It is already the beach, grains of sand notwithstanding. Unique (“conceptual”) intervention notwithstanding, it is already cultural content.

The “conceptualist” tag foisted on the work of Piper and Heap of Birds seems reasonable enough. But I am at pains to ascribe them common precepts. At the level of language, however, many coincidences. Misnomers especially. Adrienne Piper redacted to Adrian to mitigate gendered assumptions of gallerists, et. al. Heap of Birds is a bastardization of the original family name, Many Magpies. Even the term Cheyenne comes from another language, and denotes the Lakota’s judgement of that alien tongue as “unintelligible speech.” Neither can I identify these practices as about identity, minority identity, without the spatial and conceptual registers coinciding. Piper’s investment in Kantian metaphysics is (but not exactly) a secular counterpart to Heap of Birds’ investment in religious concepts of sovereignty. (The latter are described in comparison to actor-network theory by Bill Anthes.) Opposite worldviews only vaguely predict the contours of their text-works. So are they opposed? Presenting them that way presents a problem; it enables a habit. The dialectical derivation of indigenous American epistemes from European precedents perpetuates clichéd tropes of pre- and post-modernity (Jean Fisher’s essay in the Most Serene Republics catalog is an important exception).  Also, I say “only vaguely” to qualify the status of the “concept” in positioning these two artists’ politics as typically conceptualist. All possible identity politics diverge at the outset, all excuse for tracing lines between spirit and letter.

But then so do their respective poetic lines. I will call Piper’s line granular. I am choosing linear instead of granular to describe Heap of Birds’ line. First because his line is a lineage; it has no individual exemplar, either as the stroke of a writing instrument or as a thematic approach to heritage, a people, and people (the silent “you” at the end of his imperatives). Second because it is a matter of “concrete” dispersal.

Adrian Piper, Hypothesis Situation 14 (1969). Click image to enlarge.

As granular citation selects affective and ideational strains and embellishes through composition of these strains—or constituent minutiae, grains—so a granular line has the texture of a dune. It falls over its own mass when you come into contact with it. To look at it as a prosodic field is to cascade down through its pores without the whole coming down with you. In fact its slope is its integrity. Piper’s Hypothesis Situation 14 (1969) slopes that way. Cold, clinical, directive and devoid of all idiolect, a most vivid example would be Concrete Infinity 6” Square (1968).

Adrian Piper, Concrete Infinity 6" Square (1968). Click image to enlarge.

The title of this piece is deceptive, unless we take “concrete” to mean only a resemblance in the shape that is explained elsewhere, in the text. Concrete poetry is often reduced to a genre defined by its self-illustrative value, and sometimes conceptual art as a reaction against this would-be ludic mimesis. A corrective to this account was offered by Jamie Hilder last year, and is worth reading. I’ll only say that the silhouette of white square on a rectangular white page of typing paper is not a static counterpart of linguistic reference. What readers supposedly ought to do agitates against the fact that even squares are constituted of equally brusque forms infinitely modulated (two rectangles, four squares, and so forth). The language is all moral temperament, while the options are intemperately various. The square must flash up before our eyes to attain concretion. The need to reassemble it is obvious and (intentionally) distracting. Then the eyes trickle down through the seams, which are no more than hints of a pattern, or the pattern “meant” to be descried. Try to read this as prose text and only the shape it suggests is a square (deal).

Edgar Heap of Birds, Vacant (1995).

Try to read Heap of Birds’ 1995 drawing Vacant. (This soft focus slide is the only one available at the moment, unfortunately. Yet in a way, that flash of geometric recognition concrete poetry exploits pops into relief by partially occluding the text.) Try to read these as verse lines and you are led to a schematic level of significance, an overall thematic fit. Their dispersal across a sheet of paper is calligrammic, concrete, shaped to outline the semantic range of the words. What is vacant is the heart that flutters. The statements are drawn. And they include tercets that would fit into any of his modular Wall Lyrics: “ZONE / TRANCE / ART” or “DRIVE / BIG / DOG.” The Z in ZONE may be a numeral 2, for a koan-like sentiment, trance inducing. The relative size and degree of dispersal in the letter forms are suggestively titular or iconic: “THE ALLURE” and “VACANT.” But then the consistency of the heart is described or reinforced by words like “ICE / HARD,” “LOVE,” perhaps also “WHIPPED” and “FREE.” A statement like “BUILD /HUMBLE / CENTER / WITH / PULSING / HEART” has the sentential structure of his signage, say “IMPERIAL / CANADA / SHARE / STOLEN / LANDS” (2006). But in the drawing, the imperative is apparently directed toward the artist, to the hand holding the marker, a process note. So is “NO MARKS WITHOUT MEANING,” which might also be pointing, via the Z or 2 of “ONE / TRANCE / ART,” to the tercets, titles, single words. Or an address to the reader, of course. It is quite evident that there are two kinds of lines here: longer, discursive lines taking the shape of the heart, and clusters of vertical lines (or stanzas). But the tone of many of the clusters shifts from the semi-mystical to the downright snide, righteous and bold—another feature of the Wall Lyrics. Two in particular: “A / MCDONALD’S / SHOOTING / (MAY I TAKE / YOUR ORDER / PLEASE)” and “CURATOR STAR / REPLACED / ARTIST STAR.”

In discussing the Wall Lyric entitled Is What Is (1992), Heap of Birds describes his tercets as “very direct,” as having an “intrinsic connection.” They are modular but also paratactic, rather than “narrative.” For him, what is at stake, through its impossibility, is nothing short of offering a “world” in “short bursts of words that I present as images.” An incredibly precise indictment of the lyric tradition literally in line with the fragmentation of incantatory ritual cycles alluded to through their format; the Wall Lyrics are hung in tandem to the Neuf paintings, which serialize the cyclical set of four seasons at the center of his religious practice (see Anthes).

Edgar Heap of Birds, Is What Is (1992).

Heap of Birds’ line is a lineage in two, maybe three ways. It amounts to taking a line on—or, to mix metaphors, drawing a line in the sand, a line around—an historiographical glitch. The presence and present tense of the ancient “host” in series like Native Hosts especially; the road sign or “historical marker” is built to mandate or locate what would not be otherwise obvious or evident. The least legible aspect of the piece is the signature line, tiny and generic enough to resist indexing the presence of an individual behind the ploy. A signature on a street sign would be redundant. The anonymity of that kind of authority assumes universal obedience to it. The artist is not the exemplar he or she would be in Piper’s early work, like Mythic Being or Food for the Spirit, where the self to be transcended must be repeatedly accounted for—photographed, written in, signed on. The signature of the artist on a road side rather plays the unique against the evocation of a people. Lineage as in ancestry rather than a single descendent who would be its ultimate outcome. Also, using the suffix “-age” as we do in a term like bricolage, the line is a lining or multiplicity, an activity, hence the fuzzy, barbed, or scribbled letterforms. Lineage on the local level is a frayed line. On a schematic level, it is a fluttering.

What is a derelict void? Two compossible images for it. One the granular mass whose own rundown is a girding mechanism. Concrete Infinity 6” Square goes on, outside the empty frame. Correction fluid covers the last line. And the other image is of a linear demarcation of territories, verbal statements, and stanzas. Vacant is replete, and that’s the allure. “Compossible” is not to say complimentary. Though it now seems a plurality of politics should be possible if we admit these visual artists’ poetics into a fuller consideration of prosody.