At the Sound Art Theories Symposium held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall of 2011, Allen Weiss began his presentation stating that he believed sound art was becoming a calcified field. He announced that after this symposium, he was moving on to food art.
Weiss was not an ungrateful guest—he did not mean that the symposium should not have happened and he was not suggesting that people stop making sound art. It was time to locate a new mystery, a new desire, something un-bolstered by factories of the expository. The premise of the symposium was to open doors, to expand the field of practice and discourse, and Weiss saw a large exit sign leading to a new threshold.
Remembering Weiss’ presentation reminds me that I love finding such instances of the opposite effect of a stated purpose because it usually signals the beginning of something new. I find many of these opposites in the examples of and discourse around “conceptual writing.” This review will be structured around those instances because I think there is energy there—something to learn.
I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women deserves a close read because I believe it has things to teach us about the anthology as concept, race and gender, authorship, the book as form, and conceptual writing’s response to what Rosemarie Waldrop, one contributor, calls the overvaluing of “emotion and perception” in poetry. Yet emotion and perception was something, ironically, this anthology made me crave.
First, some praise: this volume may be a teaching tool along with other volumes on “conceptual writing”—the anthology Against Expression edited by Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin and Notes on Conceptualisms by Robert Fitterman and Vanessa Place. It is likely that many new writers will adopt the compositional tactics this volume displays. Additionally, asking fans of visual art to become fans of poetry is a tough sell, but this book, perhaps on museum bookshop shelves, may lead to new readerships and to more collaborations, or at least conversations, between writers and visual artists.
Anthology as Concept
In the anthology’s first editorial introduction—there are two introductions and a postscript and I take this as a sign of anthology anxiety—Laynie Browne states that this is not a definitive anthology; she calls it an “assemblage” meant to provoke more discourse.
In his essay “The Smooth and the Striated,” Gilles Deleuze describes differentiated, striated spaces of warp and weft, of logos, of longitude and latitude, of maps; versus the nomadic space of the smooth, of felt (the process of making this particular textile by “fulling” unbound fibers until they cohere), the vector, the up-close and haptic.
I read I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women as an invitation to some women writers who operate in an at-times literary nomadic space called “experimental” to enter into striation, to overtly weave themselves into the warp of art history by aligning themselves with the term “conceptual.”
And here is how the smooth—the vectoring out versus the definitional arrival—lurks in this anthology:
There are categories in the book so wide they are barely categories. For example, section one of the book is called “Process” and includes the subheadings “Constraint, Mimicry, Mediation, Translative, Versioning.” These words could be taken to describe many writing processes—from poetry to journalism.
The many statements of poetics from the contributors include doubt about the nomenclature, such as Rachel Zolf’s “normally I’d never want to be a part of a group that would have me as member,” Rosemarie Waldrop’s “Some Ambivalence About the Term ‘Conceptual Poetry’” and Monica de la Torre’s “wink to the bleachers.” I count so many of these “winks” in the writers’ statements that it is hard to believe that these writers wholeheartedly want to play on this striated field.
Perhaps because gender-based discrimination in literary life still lingers it is natural to say “yes” to an opportunity for exposure when it presents itself. In fact, Browne begins her introduction by stating this purpose: “The term ‘conceptual’ is being coined anew by writers and it is unthinkable that women should be written out of the project.” But it is troubling to me when a group so conscious of exclusion sets up a structure that does the same.
Reading, I began to make a list of the missing. Browne warns that absences are inevitable, and the editorial intention was not “to split and separate,” but I began to wonder: was there an “open call”—a smooth space of gangly, time-consuming literary editing? How many ways are there to make an anthology? What about a structure with unlimited length? Virtual space comes to mind: why not an infinitely scrolling web-based anthology to which new names and projects can be added? Because the anthologizing process was not transparent, we will always wonder about the range and definition of “conceptualism” and “writing” and even “woman” in this volume.
Race, Authorship, and Conceptual Writing
In the book’s second introduction, Caroline Bergvall asserts that the conceptual writer is aware that “(o)ne is not one self” and that “the authorial voice . . . imagines the one-to-one as a friction, not an equation.” In one paragraph, she cites Kathy Acker, Escher, and Kara Walker as examples of artists working with this concept.
But what if the racialized aspect of this “redoubling” were unpacked and made visible? How do Acker’s and Escher’s projects differ from Walker’s in terms of literary and art history, where “thieving”—something Bergvall discusses in regard to Acker’s work—begins with stealing writing and reading itself, so that when Frederick Douglass or Phillis Wheatley’s literary selves become visible, the first question is “how is this possible?” This is modernity’s pre-conceptual art, pre-avantgardist “friction.” It is something that white people, even of poor and indentured classes, did not have to face as they moved into citizenship, literacy, and authorship. Kara Walker’s works come from that particular raced problem of the “I” who claims an existence, through writing and mark making, in a sphere beyond scientific racism and beyond victim as primary identity.
“Conceptualism” in writing originates with a modern subjectivity forged along the color line: from Middle Passage and colonialism. This is the birth of modern poly-vocality, the primacy of context, thieving, mimicry, critiques of inscription and identity essentialism. But as such, it was never the case that writing or art was the only thing at stake; the generative problem was never only literary or art historical. The entire conceptual project is, from the start of modernity, contextual: it is political and about survival and not just freedom of artistic expression or literary innovation. And so, aesthetic tactics imbricate literature and living itself.
Was Phillis Wheatley among our first conceptualists, puzzling and critiquing every institution—from slavery, to patriarchies white and black, and to the literary establishment—by not only her writing but also her being? I say “yes.” In a presentation about this anthology at Kelly Writers House, Craig Dworkin warns about the tendency of a movement to start to claim everything under its name—as in “all writing is conceptual.” Keeping this warning in mind, I still think there are important aspects of conceptualism that will come to light if we unpack the hegemony of western art history and literary canons. Here is one possibility:
I think it might be characteristic of whiteness and class privilege to place too much emphasis on the “I” and this leads, for some, to the pressing need to trouble this pronoun. It may be the inheritance of a class-based Victorian child development notion of individuality and agency that leads some writers to search for collectivity and suppress the “I.” From their perspective, collectivity and suppressing individuality counts as experimental in itself. For others, the “I” may begin with the composite, the collective, and might often be bluffing when seemingly speaking for or inscribing itself.
Making whiteness explicit may be a kind a frontier in literature and literary criticism. I worry that calling out for this kind of work will result in some kind of over-doing and flattening out of complexity. Still, I crave some kind of motion into this space and I believe that in moving forward, views of literary precedents or the ground from which we come cannot be whitewashed.
Laynie Browne articulates the need for I’ll Drown My Book based on the gender imbalance portrayed in “Numbers Trouble” by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, as well as the statistics collected by the VIDA project. In the same way as when I read “Numbers Trouble,” I wondered: is “woman” the most pressing category? In light of identity intersectionality and increasing social stratifications along class lines, I question the prioritization of gender-specific feminist projects.
The editors of Aufgabe issue #7 problematize “Numbers Trouble” on how gender is counted: by detecting gender traces within names. They also ask what happens when either/or is the only way to count gender. I wish for an anthology to interrogate “woman” as fixed category. That said, I think it will largely be up to women to take on this task without erasing women.
My experience working alongside visual artists is that it is not particularly common to call oneself a “conceptual artist.” It is more likely that a visual artist might borrow from conceptual art, make a conceptual project, but not pledge affiliation or claim group status. I am curious, then, about this moment in writing: why pull the idea of “conceptual writing” out of the weave of many ways of making text?
It seems that if conceptual writers critique “mainstream poetry” as an institution, they may do this while flocking toward the museum as institution. For example, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver is currently exhibiting “Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art.” Perhaps we can read “after” in the exhibit’s title as “seeking a similar institutional space”? How much institutional critique is there when the discourse moves from “poetry” to “visual art world”?
The Book as Form
A look at contributors’ bios indicates the book is the privileged form. Nearly all those who “perform” or “install” also have book titles to their names.
Therefore, in this anthology (as in discussions of “documentary poetry” which borrows nomenclature from film but usually fails to acknowledge its crucial difference in delivery mechanism) I would like to have seen “the book” discussed as a foundational—even if problematic—characteristic allegiance of “conceptual writers.”
Books are portable, often read privately, and are distributed through networks that separate the author from audience. If an individual reader is not able to purchase a book, the library or reading room exists. The book is also a unique unit of time. Unlike viewing a painting, or sitting in front of a video in gallery or museum space, the book is not a time-based art. The technology of the book invites re-reading, skipping, pausing, and skimming, all in multiple contexts that are not within the control of the author.
If this delivery mechanism were acknowledged, and these institutional differences based on form addressed, then it would be more clear why the anthologizers did not include graffiti writers or visual artists who use text or the writing gesture overtly. Such an acknowledgement would accurately identify a community not necessarily of writers—because as an activity, writing is vast and spread over many mediums, contexts (thinking of Cy Twombly’s paintings as writings)—but a community of the book.
Acknowledging the book as form would also problematize adopting conceptual art’s institutional critique. When a writer works for ten years on a book that is published in 1,000 copies, and they are maybe paid a $500 honorarium and may receive tiny royalties (this is the world of small-press poetry, the world from which the majority of these anthologized writers come from), what, then, is there to critique? The book does not appreciate in value in the same way a work of art does; it is not an investment or a vehicle by which you can launder money or hide assets. There is no physical spectacle or marketplace overvaluing when the object in question is the mass-printed small-press book written by a poet.
Reskilling Writing: “Emotion and Perception” as a Corrective?
Perhaps surprisingly, I read some works of “conceptual writing” collected here as confessional; they are primarily about the author and they pivot on the ethics and erotics of the personal. I also think there is something quite romantic about certain transcription or anti-lyricism projects—they often figure, boldly, a body laboring, exhausted and depleted, collecting and arranging. This, to me, is only a problem insofar as it disturbs some of the rhetoric around “conceptual writing” and its supposed goals, one of which is to subvert the special category of “the poet seer.” Yet I have come to see that some conceptualisms simply refigure that writing body with a new task, but grant this body a special status nonetheless, even if the work is deemed “uncreative.”
As I read, I began to ask, surprisingly, what is good writing? Then, when I read Rosemarie Waldrop’s statement, “(w)hen I think how often the matter of poetry is narrowly defined as emotion and perception only, the term ‘conceptual poetry’ begins to look very attractive, at least as a corrective,” I realized something: I began to crave the adoption, or re-adoption, of “emotion and perception” as writing and revision and tools. I began to wish for a corrective to conceptual writing—perhaps the reskilling (instead of conceptual art’s deskilling) of writing.
I believe that emotion and perception help artists and writers ask the following: Around what ethics and erotics does the work turn? Who is speaking for whom? Who is looking at whom? What is the subject? How is it treated? Conceptualism applied to writing may not help us read what is made; rather, it may serve us best as an engine to generate texts to be worked on, considered, revised.