Toward a Subtler Linguistic Practice

There is far too much reliance – even in 2016 – in artistic practice and discourse (and this is something which is still being drilled in art schools) on an idea which can best be expressed as “Duchamp said so.” It stands as testament to Duchamp’s innovation that much of the reasoning of artists hinges on the Duchampian question, yet it nonetheless condemns us that a century after the event we must still retain him as a crutch. Like a speech impediment, the student stammers “Duchamp” and is rewarded with praise. It is as though to merely grasp the idea of proto-Conceptual Art is considered an artistic statement – a statement which expects no exponential discourse or elaboration, and on which the student can declare Terra Firma.
An “artist as conceptualist” (or, as I prefer to think of it, “as thinker”), is the artist who has learned to take responsibility for his or her own works. To have abstract thoughts is the predicate of sentience, and abstract thoughts which remain in abstraction are thoughts as they are normally experienced and expressed. Artists do not have the quotidian luxury of passing thoughts off as tangential experience to be communicated or kept private according to their whims, but must channel those thoughts into their works – indeed, this happens whether the artist chooses it or not. By extension, to keep that work to oneself is precisely the same thing as the everyday thought which is kept private because, as has been axiomatically repeated throughout art history and philosophical enquiry, art is only Art when it arts. It has to communicate an idea in order to function. When a work is kept hidden it is nothing more profound than an object containing no more meaning than its perfunctory intention. We must modify, by degrees, the world around us; question the linguistic framework of all of our social apparatus. To do this the artist has to analyse the first-person understanding of the individual and compare it to the third-person meaning of the object, and by this I mean pick apart the meaning-value in signs themselves. I can think of a train station – not a major train station, which is staffed constantly by an army of individual first-persons, but a small train station which may or may not have one individual sat behind a glass screen. The station is teeming with signs which have been manufactured somewhere else and whose meaning has been placed in them – more often than not – decades previously. Think of the “High Voltage” and “Trespass” signs. These signs are not of that particular station at that precise moment, but are third-person signs generated to remind the subject of dangers which have remained constant throughout a larger period of time. The sign has the same value to the person abiding by their meaning and the person who transgresses the explicit threat. What differs is the first-person reception of meaning, and this meaning is entirely malleable: the abiding person sees the sign as representing authority (the greater organism) threatening legal action (by the organism) and death (by the technology used by the organism) if the station’s signs are not obeyed. The transgressor might see the sign as representing a solution (an easy-way-out for the depressed or suicidal), and in this instance the sign does not represent authority or any greater organism. In each case the signified belongs to vastly different third-person meanings. The sign itself belongs to a greater expansion of time, meant as ideological imperative (the vast majority do not wish to endanger their lives or risk punishment from the courts), which runs throughout the station’s time. At an earlier point in history the sign would have carried the same imperative, even though the peculiarities may have differed (in the early Twentieth Century, there would have been no risk of electrocution, for instance, although the dangers of trespassing on the tracks would have been the same), though this does not mean that the sign has intrinsically changed for the greater organism still compels itself to demand obedience. The sign in the station is merely a microcosm of the larger Capitalist sign which exists as psycho-geographical marker, deterritorialised from the larger Capitalist organism to localise the wider imperative of non-transgression.

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When we take this idea of the sign and apply to them Duchampian method, we inevitably invoke the notion of option: the option to take a sign at face value or to manipulate its potential for duality of meaning. This is arguably how Contemporary Art still functions: as a concentration of deterritorialisation. What we have ceased to do, however, is question the dualities or their exponential expansion, to focus on what forces (linguistic or otherwise) create these dualities. One can argue that the Duchampian method was last used to real effect by Joseph Beuys, and there would be a degree of truth in that argument. More precisely, Beuys should be seen as a Postmodern Duchamp in that the ideas begun by Duchamp were applied to both industrial and post-industrial landscapes. Duchamp would have taken a section of track and displayed it in the gallery, whereas Beuys would have uprooted the track and created a deviation outside of the given track’s route – he may well have even retained its functionality by returning the train to the re-routed track. Who is a contemporary Beuys? There are few artists today who have expanded on this linguistic deterritorialisation, which is surprising given the weight given to both Duchamp and Beuys. What we have are re-iterations of the same, or a broadening of the vocabulary to accommodate accelerating technology, but the process is the same: re-route the linguistic origins of a sign from the greater organism to propose a potential for difference. John Armleder plays a much subtler game by exposing the materiality of the dominant linguistic frameworks of culture. An orange and black sunburst pattern is used coterminously on the canvas and an electric guitar (Zakk Wylde II, 2008), while the same Albers-like colour schematic is explored in black and red by a simple translation in form, using the same two opposing objects (Guitar Multiple (FS 164, 1987). Throughout his lengthy career, Armleder has perpetually been investigating this material dialogue, while others exploring the same thing have abandoned the simplicity of this dialogue in favour of the spectacle, in the assumption that the same idea on a grander scale will intensify the meaning. It is not the scale or audacity of the work that expands meaning, but a reassessment of the linguistic principles themselves

Regarding the Ceremony of Art Presentation

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The Ceremony of Art Presentation

 

Being the fourth dimension of meaning somewhere between Sign, Signified and Signifier.

 

If the sign is the art piece, the signified is the referent and the signified the meaning, there is an extra layer of meaning between Sign and Signified which takes place during artistic presentation.  To wit, the meaning in Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting is not on the canvas itself, nor was it during the painting’s creation, but rather lies in its presentation as an absence.  This absence is seen often throughout the Twentieth-Century in response to Wittgensteinian silence, which in itself is demonstrated in Ludwig Uhland’s Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn whereby the referent in the poem is the cutting, or sprig.  The fact that the meaning of the sprig is never revealed is where Wittgenstein find’s the essence of philosophical truth.  Rather than some mystical, ineffable essence, absence is, linguistically, that which has the most power in being shown rather than said.

 

Count Eberhard Rustle-Beard,

From Württemberg’s fair land,

On holy errand steer’d

To Palestina’s strand.

 

The while he slowly rode

Along a woodland way;

He cut from the hawthorn bush

A little fresh green spray.

 

Then in his iron helm

The little sprig he plac’d;

And bore it in the wars,

And over the ocean waste.

 

And when he reach’d his home;

He plac’d it in the earth;

Where little leaves and buds

The gentle Spring call’d forth.

 

He went each year to it,

The Count so brave and true;

And overjoy’d was he

To witness how it grew.

 

The Count was worn with age

The sprig became a tree;

‘Neath which the old man oft

Would sit in reverie.

 

The branching arch so high,

Whose whisper is so bland,

Reminds him of the past

And Palestina’s strand.

 

In Abstract Expressionism this thinking is key to an understanding of the Modernist urge to achieve the inexpressible, and we also see it in Conceptual Art as it directs our attention away from formal qualities and focuses instead on that which is absent from the work.

 

The question is not lost on me why I do not practice more of what I preach, and the answers range from the self-deprecating to the absurd.  In the first instance, it must be said that absence is perhaps the single most fragile artistic material, and must be used only by skilled hands.  My hands are not as skilled as I would prefer.  Secondly, absence is also absolute faith in the unspoken, and here matters become slightly unstuck.  Absolute faith and truth are in no way the same thing, although both are subject to interpretation – particularly in an age which distorts the fundamentals of both physical and abstract fact.  That which remains unsaid naturally resists Propositional Logic, and as such is often misunderstood for a negation whereas the thing (again abstract or actual) in actuality stands for something which must be preserved from contemporaneity.  The grief of a fallen soldier’s mother during the First World War cannot be equated with the grief of a teenage heartbreak.  I resist utilisation of the absence because my work is not subjective, nor does it focus on my (or anyone else’s) inner feelings.

No Job for a Grown Man (part seven) – The Compatibility of Simple and Complex Machines

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…when one writes, the only question is which other machine the literary machine can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work.” These words, written by Deleuze and Guattari in the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, are key to an understanding of how many contemporary artists – myself included – manipulate the abstract fabric of their works into a cohesion. Artists are haecceities (again using the term as described in A Thousand Plateaus), just as every human being is a haecceity, or a sum of all the events and forces involved in an organism, object or event. Certainly, artists tend to be focal haecceities, but individual haeccaeities all the same, and therefore subject to every singular element and event which led to the individual making x or y decision concerning z art piece. How have I incorporated influences such as The Fall, Alfred Jarry, Louis Althusser or European cinema into my work in the past?  I negotiated a method of plugging these separate machines into the art machine, to varying degrees of success (which in itself was subject to the laws of the haecceity). The side of the machine that faces the strata is where all of the external machines are plugged into, and its obverse side – the side which is observed by the audience – is smooth (or as smooth as the artist is able to make the machine). Deleuze and Guattari discuss Kafka and his incredible bureaucratic machine. Kafka himself was a haecceity governed by the strict laws of bureaucracy, now inexorably and miserably linked to its dehumanising values and de-humanised social necessity. The bleak world of Kafka has ever been – and continues to be – a rich source of inspiration for the artist. Fitting, that in a contemporary age subject to fears not only of our employability and stability, but of our very survival, that we still see the relevance in that bureaucratic machine of a century ago begin to erode away at the humanity of its subjects. As such, Kafka has remained relevant throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, because that bureaucratic coding has never altered: on the contrary, it has mutated and made itself more sophisticated; it has mimicked our human behaviour; it has presented itself to us in our own image. It can be argued that some species of symbiosis has taken place, whereby we have become bureaucratic beings (linguistically, at least) and bureaucracy has become more humanised (obviously, this latter is far from the case, yet the maintainers of the bureaucratic machine have understood that, for the machine to survive, it was necessary to make the machine more human-like). Certain machines – like Kafka’s bureaucratic machine – have long-lasting compatibility with the art machine, as has been illustrated. There are however an infinity of machines, varying in size and form, which are ever-present in orbit around our plane of existence. Some of these machines are more difficult to plug into the art machine, and have only a limited time in which they are compatible. Political art tends to suffer from this limitation of compatibility because not all political matters persist longer than a decade-or-two. The trick is always in ratiocinating what larger machine governs the smaller machines, or what greater social factors must be in place for the smaller political machines to function. It has long been an ambition of mine to find a way of re-formatting (particularly resistant to re-formatting) literature and presenting it as art. I have had my eye of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman for a number of years now, and I think that this initially came about because of the parallels one can draw between the protagonist struggling financially to complete his critical work on the fictional scholar de Selby. Any art student can certainly appreciate the protagonist’s frustration at being unable to complete a work of subjective importance due to a factor as fleeting and arbitrary as money. It is not just for this reason, though, that The Third Policeman is ripe for re-presentation: the book is full of that rich absurdist humour which also draws me to Alfred Jarry, Steve Aylett and Sergio Caballero. This absurdist literary machine, to work in this context, must be compatible with the particulars of my current art machine, and that is where the real work lies.

Assembling a Rhizome

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It is often the case that what one initially thinks of as a heterogeneous collection of works in fact, when assembled, turns out to be anything but. There are three distinct lines of thought at play here: the linguistic, the machinic and the Body without Organs. If my original plan was to take the spirit of A Thousand Plateaus as my starting point for this work, then said work is turning out to be quite literal in its influences.