Notes on the Marking Language Seminar

Notes on the Marking Language Seminar at the Drawing Room in London, October 10, 2013

In the past four years, we have seen a renewed interest in text as visual art form as evidenced in a surge of exhibitions that survey contemporary art and its relationship to written language. One of the most recent was a twinned exhibition examining written communication and drawing, held concurrently at London’s Drawing Room and The Drawing Center in New York. The London half, titled Marking Language, focused on an international survey of contemporary artworks using written language as image. On October 10, 2013, the Drawing Room held a conference in the pedagogical mode of a seminar, to tease out some of the questions underlying the drawings within the exhibition, explore their relationship to written language as communication, and discuss the conceptual thread with the parallel exhibition Drawing Time, Reading Time in New York.
The exhibition featured artwork with a tendency toward using typewritten and handwritten language. Accordingly, as the artists drew with words, they emphasized obsolete or nostalgic material technologies in the visual form of the text. The Marking Language seminar featured two hour-long panels, centred on two themes, as well as a poetry reading by artist, poet, and publisher Karl Holmqvist. The first panel featured Colombian artist Bernardo Ortiz, Manchester-based Czech artist Pavel Buchler, and New York-based Lebanese artist Annabel Daou, and was chaired by writer and critic David Markus. With the title: The small movements of language, the power of the ordinary and the pursuit of almost nothing, the first panel began discussions focusing not on written communication, but on drawing. Bernardo Ortiz suggested drawing as something that exists between painting and poetry. This idea was championed by Frank O’Hara, whose poem, Why I Am Not A Painter (1956) served as the impetus behind Ortiz’s artwork in the show. A series of drawings with words, Ortiz constructs a visual translation of the poem using text, graphic lines, and abstract splodges, making an installation of landscape paper to be read/seen in a linear narrative way of viewing. The first drawing will pick up the first lines of O’Hara’s poem, the next a few more words repeated, and so on. Ortiz prints the lines from O’Hara’s poem repeatedly in a small, neat black typeface, and then overlays them with black bars recalling Marcel Broodthaer’s re-working of Mallarme’s famous symbolist poem, Un Coup de Dés. When text creates an image, does its linguistic meaning matter? Pavel Buchler, in response to Ortiz, suggested that drawing exists in the middle of the page, whilst painting reaches its edges.

But what is the relevance of considering language in these ways? What does it offer in thinking about text in art as written communication? The discussants advanced the idea of drawing as “propositional.” We draw to suggest what we might do—a plan, a sketch, a diagram. Drawings draft the future possibility. To Buchler, art is not about any particular medium, but about where it can take the viewer and how it can provoke him or her. Markus linked this to the Kantian idea of “purposiveness without a purpose” and it recalls too J. L. Austin’s idea of “speech acts” and performative utterances, where saying is doing. Considering the translation of language into visual text as art, the exhibition teased out possibilities for the relationship of drawing to writing. Are both propositional?

If we understand “written communication” (curator Kate MacFarlane used this term, and not “text,” “language,” or another descriptor in her introduction) in relation to drawing, this encourages a reflection not on the materiality of language, but on drawing’s communicative potential. All of the words in the exhibition show us letters written or brushed by hand, with the exception of Johanna Calle’s, whose artwork is typewritten, and Ortiz’s. And only Ortiz shows us text rendered with processes of recent technology such as digital text, using the Donald Knuth typesetting system TeX (1978) to layout his texts. TeX is unique because the user programs his or her typesetting digitally, rather than the digital program replicating the manual actions of laying out text (such as cutting, pasting, and dropping in an image). Otherwise, screen-based type, facsimile, Xerox, and other pre-digital and digital processes are visibly absent in the work grouped here.

The panel then turned to question the impact that a written letter has in the present, digital age. (Markus suggested we are already post-digital, but Buchler quickly challenged this point).  A written letter evokes an idea of authenticity, as well as nostalgia—something that many of the participating artists were investigating. Buchler reminded us that with traditional correspondence, you are holding in your hand the same piece of paper that the correspondent held—there is a material connection to the letter-writer through the support, the material, on which the text is inscribed. (The “hand” in handwriting suggests tactility, and is synonymous with penmanship, i.e. “it was written in her own hand.”) Buchler, in a nostalgic reference to his own upbringing in Czechoslovakia, recalled his grandmother’s efforts to teach him proper etiquette in letter-writing, during which he was instructed that though one must always reply to a letter, never to do so in under three weeks, in order not to place the other correspondent under undue pressure to reply. Now, Buchler joked, if one receives an email and does not reply within three-quarters of an hour, another will soon follow inquiring about receipt of the first.

Annabel Daou’s artwork was installed on the wall behind the panel, a blackboard painted square with the sentence “I am doing research” written repeatedly in her own hand in white chalk, inscribed over nine hours on the exhibition’s opening day. It is intended as a textual reference/remake of John Baldessari’s 1971 I Am Making Art. Considering the materiality of the support and its relationship to the text, Ortiz suggested “the page” as a useful concept, and an alternative to the material concept of paper, on which drawing has traditionally been inscribed. The page, he suggested, is not tied to the material, although it has material connotations. Indeed, this recalls Mel Bochner’s suggestion that No Thought Exists Without a Sustaining Support (1970), wherein white chalk letters scrawled on blackboard paint on a wall suggest that the support is both language and the material which manifests written language’s physical presence.

Buchler’s Conversational Drawings stand out because they are the only artworks in the exhibition lacking a linguistic signifier, which leads one to ask, “what language are they marking?” The artworks are a series of simple line drawings on tractor-feed carbonless paper (similar to the paper that would feed Dot Matrix printers). The impressions on the paper—outlines of hands making gestures for shadow puppetry—will one day become invisible as the carbonless paper loses its trace. (It is the type of paper used for credit card purchases before chip and swiping technology became prevalent). The hands’ gestures initially seem to be examples for sign language from a manual, and Buchler indeed did make drawings of sign language gestures in the early 1980s when he moved to England from Czechoslovakia and knew little English. But we cannot see the shadow puppet that these hands could depict, only the instruction for the gesture.

Opened to audience questions, the panel was asked about reception and the point of view of their audience. Are these artworks linguistic communication? Are we reading them or seeing them? Buchler rephrased the question from the artist’s point of view: What is it we present when we present a piece of text as visual image? He argued that text is something he decodes, whereas in the process of viewing images, he forgets and does not necessarily account for the text as something he is seeing. Thus, he suggests that images are allowed instead to wash over us, whereas text requires a subjective cognitive action. These questions access ideas dealt with in the foundational Conceptual artworks addressing written language and the subjective decisions an audience makes in the encounter of text as art, namely Smithson’s Heap of Language (1966) and his accompanying text LANGUAGE to be LOOKED at and/or THINGS to be READ (1967)As the South African-born Conceptual artist Ian Wilson wrote in retrospect on Conceptual art in 1994, “The difference between conceptual art and poetry, literature, and philosophy is that conceptual art takes the principles of visual abstraction, founded in the visual arts, and applies them to language.”[1] That is, however visually abstracted a word may be, Wilson argues we always see art first, and we read poetry. Though we may alternate between the two cognitive acts at almost imperceptible speed, when we encounter text as art, we encounter visual art, and we are viewers first.

The second panel, with the theme The look of words, the pictures they conjure and the memories they evoke, was greater in potential but quieter in discussion, despite thoughtful chairing by writer and Afterall editor Melissa Gronlund. The title suggests a text as a midpoint in the experience of an idea-as-art, igniting memories of the past, while conjuring ideas in our mind’s eye in the present moment. Even more so than in the preceding panel, the artworks of Colombian artist Johanna Calle and Swedish artist and poet Karl Holmqvist, recall Concrete poetry. Calle works on ledger paper and typewriter to create intricately detailed textual montages of words in the dying languages of the indigenous people of Colombia to describe rain and extreme weather. The words are depicted in a jagged font and letters are filled with smaller typewritten letters.  Focusing on ideas of narrative, Gronlund questioned the personal affect of Holmqvist’s writing, and suggested: “We use words to tell a story and that story is about us.” Holmqvist, however, said he was more interested in the ethereal and constant chatter of language in the air—such as the lyrics from popular musicians such as Rihanna and Beyoncé—than he was in his own story. He publishes his poetry in books, performs it, and installs it as wall text—as visual art—in galleries. Gronlund asked if his texts (which are visually laid out in a way that strongly evokes Concrete Poetry in his books) are “performance scores,” an idea art historian Liz Kotz put forward in her 2007 analysis of language in art of the 1960s.[2] Holmqvist clarified that his poems and installations are more fluid, existing in different manifestations, but that neither informs the other in a hierarchical way.

Only Buchler’s artworks straddle the New York and the London exhibitions.Drawing Time, Reading Time, which opened in New York on November 15, 2013, focused on the communicative transparency and opacity of text in art that emerged in the nineteen-sixties, as a suggestion of an alternate path to what the curator described as the Conceptual preoccupation with materiality of language.[3] In the New York exhibition, an additional gallery space showed the manuscripts of Emily Dickinson as a parallel exhibition. In The Shape of the Signifier, American literary theorist Walter Benn Michaels begins his discussion on the importance of individuality to textuality and the construction of meaning by discussing Dickinson’s manuscripts, in which she often insisted her notations and comments remain.[4] Michaels suggests that Dickinson’s blots and dashes are an integral part of the text for the physical immediacy they call up to the author and the reader. These artworks suggest the artists’ desire to communicate, yet a failure to ever do so fully. The attempt itself seems to be what brings artists back to written language as form and subject, again and again.

Kim Dhillon, ‘Notes on the Marking Language Seminar at the Drawing Room in London’, West 86th, BARD and The University of Chicago, New York and Chicago: October 10, 2013.

Related Exhibitions:

Marking Language, Drawing Room, London

October 10–December 14, 2013

Drawing Time, Reading Time, The Drawing Center, New York City

November 15–January 13, 2013

[1] Ian Wilson, “Conceptual Art,” Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, eds. (MIT Press: 1999): 414. First printed in Artforum, 22:6 (February 1994): 60-61.

[2] See Liz Kotz, Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art (MIT Press, 2007).

[3] Drawing Time, Reading Time, The Drawing Centre, press release, October 2013

[4] Walter Benn Michaels, The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History (Princeton University Press, 2004), 2-4.

How to Cite:

Dhillon, K. ‘Notes on the Marking Language Seminar’ (review), West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History and Material CultureBARD and the University of Chicago Press, New York and Chicago, (28 February, 2014).