Call it what you like. Art as words, spoken and heard

Leo Hermitt, layered spoken word piece, 2019. Photo: Jules Lister.

Artists’ use of language in or as art is manifold. It’s hard to pin down. Terms such as ‘art writing’ and ‘interdisciplinary writing’ characterise a recent profusion of works that (to quote the New Writing with New Contemporaries press release) draw upon ‘literature, performance writing and spoken word’, but there is scant consensus on the methods or effects of so-designated works. Writers including Maria Fusco, John Douglas Millar and Gilda Williams have variously delineated the field.[1] In her recent article for Corridor8, Holly Grange offered some answers to the question: ‘why art writing now?’, while Millar asked in 2011: why call the ‘splurge of words’ emanating from the art-world ‘art writing’ at all, why isn’t it simply ‘writing?’.[2]

One answer to Millar is context – if it happens in a gallery or is done by artists, we might as well call it ‘art’. But it is a line of argument that probably doesn’t get us very far, and in any case I am not really that interested in definitions. Instead, what I propose to is to road-test a few ideas about what typifies (or at least occupies or concerns) artists who write. My case study is the performance event held at Leeds Art Gallery on 9 November as part of the New Writing with New Contemporaries programme. I will share my interpretations and digressions, as prompted by the programme. Included works were varied and each differently absorbing, but I’m also interested in their shared attributes as indicators of current directions in writing in/as art.

Secondarily, I ponder some longer-standing elaborations of the interrelationship between writing and art (historically constituted as word-image relations). It is my contention that this distinction (sometimes set up as a binary) is the progenitor of the current situation wherein New Contemporaries feels compelled to run a programme of writing in parallel with its main exhibition. Is the word-image distinction still helpful, or is it woefully out of date for contemporary artists for whom all media is up for grabs?

The material and evocative qualities of words

Words are both intelligible verbal signs (conveying meaning) and visible marks (if written) or sounds (if spoken aloud). Often we attend primarily to the former; as you likely are reading now.  But we can always shift our focus. This is what poetic or rhetorical uses of language encourage us to do. In contrast to prior adoptions of words into art (think Ed Ruscha, Kay Rosen or Lorna Simpson) where word is presented as or within an image, each of the artists at this event used the voice – spoken, sung or pre-recorded – as their primary medium. Still, given that they are all Fine Art or Graphic Design graduates, a persistent tendency towards visual allusion was unsurprising.

Ruby Lewis, ‘The View’, 2019. Photo: Jules Lister.

An interrelationship between language and looking was most obvious in Ruby Lewis’ readings. Lewis had previously invited gallery visitors to sit with her and share their thoughts on surrounding artworks. For the performance we are invited to listen to melded responses, such as

Think ink stripe of legs the boozing bowed pelvis cast

Away to hot orange

This is beetroot cast on skin

I notice, first, the pleasurable sound; rhythms, repetitions and unexpected rhymes. Second I start to associate the words with paintings by Sherman Mern Tat Sam that are in my line of sight. At other times I close my eyes and the sound enfolds me. It passes too fast to make sense – in the sense of sense as meaning – but the experience is sensate. Words as sound becoming almost tactile; rolling around in the mouth, directing the eye and the mind. Vocal techniques including pauses, sighs, stutters and coughs pepper the event’s performances. Even in instances of more expository prose, we are repeatedly reminded of the materiality and the bodily origins of words.

Akin in its use of poetic language, Lucy Rose Cunningham’s ‘This Room Hums’ took the audience on a tour of the galleries housing the Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition. A processional reading, led by three female performers who alternated lilting speech with a gentle, three-note hum. As I listened the acoustic resonances prompted a new awareness of the gallery space – its loftiness, the hardness of its surfaces – whilst textual content obliquely referenced nearby artworks; used as prompts for memory digressions and fragmentary narratives. Language shifts between a summoned elsewhere and the physical here and now.

Lucy Rose Cunningham, ‘This Room Hums’, 2019. Photo: Jules Lister.

A second comparison can be drawn between the structural composition of performed works and an arrangement of visual or sculptural objects. Seemingly disconnected paragraphs are frequently juxtaposed; more like a sequence of pictures than a typical verbal composition. Leo Hermitt and Malachy Harvey use recurrent shifts in narrative address – talking direct to the audience, then in self-reflection or more fragmentary ‘inner speech’, then to an imagined third person. Unlike a typical novel where such shifts would be signposted or explained within the narrative, the listener is left to infer relationships between these adjacent modes.

In Freya Dooley’s ‘The Understudy’, the artist performs a memorised monologue about the experience and anxieties of being an understudy. Commencing with an apology that the intended speaker could not be here (due to acquiring a parasite) Dooley leads us on an engrossing succession of reminiscence, self-diagnosis and anecdote: from being an over-sharer, to the mating behaviour of locusts, to the pop band ABBA and the treatment of actress Shelley Duvall behind the scenes of The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). Vignettes are not explicitly linked, but associations accrue. The piece enacts  identity as contingent, and always in doubt. Self is performed via pop cultural references and refracted via the perception of others. There is no coherent narrative, but rather a montage of fragments.

Freya Dooley, ‘The Understudy’, 2019. Photo: Jules Lister.

Word and Image – what’s the problem?

Artists enjoy blurring distinctions between visual and verbal techniques. In contrast, philosophers and critics have long been concerned with defining their differences. Some argue that words address the ear and images the eye, or that words are symbolic and images iconic. Perhaps relevant to New Contemporaries is a distinction proposed by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in 1766, that images exist in space and words unfold in time.[3] Though none of the above pairings is philosophically water-tight (if you poke the proposed differences too much they fail) this space-time version has practical purpose with regard to the exhibition format. Works in the main New Contemporaries exhibition occupy space. They hang on the wall (or from the ceiling) and rest on the floor. Time-based moving image works are treated like pictures, shown on a series of flat screen monitors. The longest is twenty-one minutes in duration but most are much shorter. The open submission format and judging process likely favours pieces that are quick to grasp.

Nonetheless, works including language (as text) have made the final selection. Eliot Lord and Liam Ashley Clark produce cartoon-esque painted words, Ismay Bright shows a text mosaic and Klara Vith, three letterpress renderings of speeches by Donald Trump. As such, New Contemporaries’ explicit focus on writing in the New Writing programme is more than a simply an act of practical or logistical redress. It singles out language, in particular, as worthy of special attention.

In his article ‘Image Boink Text: The Erotic Relationship of Language and Art’, artist Bill Beckley suggests that the ‘coupling of word and image’ that occurred in conceptual art in the 60s and 70s ‘came out of the necessity to regain content in art at the end of modernism’s story’.[4] The privileging of ocular experience that characterised twentieth-century Modernism (or at least its Greenbergian version) still dominates exhibitions, even whilst some artworks elicit divergent modes of encounter. But what compels and characterises the current language resurgence? Beckley ends his article on a speculative note, reflecting on how for his sons – brought up surrounded by computer and TV screens – ‘the combination of text and image is a given’. Perhaps, then, a more interesting question than ‘what’s the difference between image and word?’ is ‘what purposes do contemporary artists’ use of language serve?’.

Embodied propositions and polyvocal selves

All of the works discussed thus far can be described as dialogic or polyvocal: from Lewis’ blended contributions to Cunningham’s vocal trio, to Dooley’s understudy (whose job involves learning many roles). Each contains a multiplicity of perspectives and voices. Another predominant characteristic is the use of live, speaking bodies. Here some of the artists use bodily actions to trouble authority narratives. Consider ­Jude Browning, who read aloud script-extracts from David Cronenberg’s film Dead Ringers (1988) whilst repeatedly and dramatically falling to the floor. She describes this ‘flop’ as undermining the ‘power dynamics performed in public speaking’, with the work forming part of her ongoing doctoral research into the performance of authoritative masculinity. Does the fall represent Beverly, the film’s co-protagonist, failing to live up to a manly ideal? Or does it represent abused women from this creepy-sounding story about gynaecologist twins, one of whom creates his own sinister versions of medical instruments? Either way, the body here is a locus for multiple narratives, not a bearer of an essentialised identity.

Jude Browning, performance lecture, 2019. Photo: Jules Lister.

Several artworks in the New Contemporaries exhibition similarly re-work appropriated words to highlight gender bias or expectations of gender roles. Paul Jex’s ‘She’ (2017) presents annotated newspaper obituaries of the artist-couple Sheila Girling and Anthony Caro. Girling’s is replete with references to her husband whilst in his she bears little mention. Cyrus Hung’s ‘Sean Scully “Uninsideout” Press Release MV’ (2018) combines promotional video footage of Scully with a soundtrack rap version of an exhibition press release promoting his work. Two masculine ideals (alpha male abstract painter and urban rap artist) humorously collide.

Returning to the New Writing performances, Malachy Harvey was the only artist who chose not to perform live. He exhibited a scaled-down model lectern, suggestive of authoritative academic, religious or judicial oration. However the female-voiced recording emanating from its midst did not sound like a voice of authority. At turns exultant, emphatic or hectoring, her run-together sentences evade definitive interpretation. An example extract announces: ‘I am gathered here to inform you that speeches, collections and concluding remarks have been delayed to a later date’. Certainty of meaning is constantly deferred. One recurrent theme is the telling of lies. The protagonist asks: ‘Do you remember, how old were you when you first told a lie?’. Each time the question comes around the same voice answers but the answer is different.

Malachy Harvey (performed by Kirsty Clark), ‘Afterthought’. Photo: Jules Lister.

Language can be used to issue commands and language can be used to lie, yet it also enables dialogue and facilitates intimacy. As I listened to Harvey’s work I was reminded of literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin who saw the deadened ‘monological’ voice of authoritative language (including religious, political and legal codes) as corrupting the dialogue inherent to human social interactions.[5] Extending his literary analysis to theories of consciousness and social-being, Bakhtin views humanity as fundamentally indeterminate and always in process. This is a view that chimes with several of the New Writing performances, but particularly with Leo Hermitt’s piece.

Hermitt’s work commenced with a recorded voice, as they silently approached the microphone placed centre-stage. They stretched and flexed their body, as if limbering up, looking confidently at the audience but not engaging us verbally just yet. They moved away from the mic, then returned and spoke in a conversational but enigmatic tone. The live speech began: ‘Hello, in the detail it seemed too frighteningly true…’ and continued by way of poetic snippets and hopeful exhortations. Sections that stuck with me describe Timberland boots and women’s hips, light-sensitive crystals and a living room. Hermitt describes their work as exploring ‘Acrobatics of Whiteness, New Language and Black Queer Transgender experiences of Time’. Non-linear language (and errant capitals) standing for non-linear identity. Hermitt interrupted their oration with movement for a second time, but with gestures (almost poses) that are somehow less self-absorbed. Is this performances for the self or for another? In dialogue (Bakhtin would say) we struggle against external definitions as our thoughts and actions are constantly reappraised and re-actualised through the responses of others.

A driving motivation for the use of language by artists in the New Writing programme is its ability to interrogate and complicate dominant narratives. Embodied or materially redolent words are mobilised as an alternative to alienating voices of authority. Polyvocal performances – whether literal or poetic – present multiple viewpoints, propose a route out of fixed identifications and promote what Cunningham calls ‘mutuality’. Such uses of performed language do not respond to an art historical impasse but arise from attention to the wider world. Most artists who write probably care minimally about defining or maintaining image-language distinctions. Words (like everything else) are simply stuff that’s available to use. Personally, I don’t think it matters much if we designate these projects as ‘art-writing’, but it is heartening to see what verbal tools have enabled a new generation of visual artists to express.

Amelia Crouch is an artist and writer based in Yorkshire.

The New Writing with New Contemporaries performance took place at Leeds Art Gallery on 9 November 2019, coinciding with the BNC2019 exhibition (14 September – 17 November 2019). It formed part of a two-phase mentoring programme developed in collaboration with Yorkshire-based artist Nick Thurston and Corridor8, with the artists to perform further iterations at South London Gallery on 25 January 2020.

This feature is kindly supported by Leeds Inspired.


[1] Maria Fusco, ‘Report: Contemporary Art Writing and its environs’ in MAP no.15 [online] <https://mapmagazine.co.uk/report-contemporary-art-writi>, September 2008 [Accessed 14 November 2019]; Gilda Williams ‘Write On’ in Art Monthly no.384, March 2015, pp. 11-14.

[2] John Douglas Millar, ‘Art/Writing’ in Art Monthly no. 349, September 2011, p. 14.

[3] For a succinct summary of word-image relations (including Lessing) see: W.J.T. Mitchell ‘Word and Image’ in Nelson, R.S. and Shiff, R. (eds.) Critical Terms for Art History. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 2003. pp.51-61. For a longer treatment see: W.J.T. Mitchell Iconology; Image, Text, Ideology. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1986.

[4] Bill Beckley ‘Image Boink Text: The Erotic Relationship of Language and Art’ in Liese, J. (ed.) Social medium: artists writing, 2000-2015. Paper Monument, New York: 2016. p. 14.

[5] Mikhail Bakhtin ‘Discourse in the Novel’ in Rivkin, J. and Ryan, M. (eds.) Literary Theory: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford and Massachusetts: 1998. pp. 32-44.

Published 21.11.2019 by Lara Eggleton in Features

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