Monday, August 25, 2008

Anthology of Conceptual Writing, Craig Douglas Dworkin

Poetry expresses the emotional truth of the self. A craft honed by especially sensitive individuals, it puts metaphor and image in the service of song. Or at least that's the story we've inherited from Romanticism, handed down for over 200 years in a caricatured and mummified ethos - and as if it still made sense after two centuries of radical social change. It's a story we all know so well that the terms of its once avant-garde formulation by William Wordsworth are still familiar, even if its original manifesto tone has been lost: "I have said," he famously reiterated, "that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility."

But what would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of language itself, with "spontaneous overflow" supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the poet's ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive language of the poem itself? So that the test of poetry were no longer whether it could have been done better (the question of the workshop), but whether it could conceivably have been done otherwise.

The works presented here provide one set of answers to those questions. Moreover, from the modernist experiments of Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett to the neodadaism of Fluxus, they hint at the range of alternatives and challenges that have been presented to the Romantic lineage of expressive poetry. This collection intends to both recall those traditions and complicate their multiple and intersecting histories. In the social context of its publication, for instance, Alan Davies' a an av es is part of the published record of Language Poetry. At the same time, its mode of composition also gestures towards L'Ouvoir de littérature potentielle [The Workshop for Potential Literature], or OuLiPo for short. The work is a multiple lipogram known as the "prisoner's constraint," in which only letters without ascenders or descenders are permitted - perhaps to be able to write in closely spaced lines and conserve the prisoner's ration of paper, or, more fancifully, to be free of the bars even of letters. Similar crossings occur in Tomoko Minami's 38, which references both the constraint based collages of Walter Abish, in works such as Alphabetical Africa and (especially) 99: The New Meaning, as well as the syllabic rearticulations of Kenneth Goldsmith's No. 111. At the same time, the writerly pleasures of 38 are made legible by the radical abstractions of sound poetry and the reduced referentiality of the twentieth century's most extreme avant-garde writing. Likewise, Christian Bök's String Variables combines the permissions granted by post-Language Poetry lyricism with the constraints of the OuLiPo. It takes the form of a "charade," in which alphabetic characters are respaced but not reordered, effecting what the Russian Futurists called sdvig: the shift of verbal mass within a text.

One should not forget the OuLiPo's origins in the College de 'Pataphysique, and that lettristic shift in String Variables might equally be seen as the swerve of Alfred Jarry's clinamen: the chance swerve of one element of a system that results in a reengineering of the whole. That swerve, in short, bends the rules of the game but continues to play. Indeed, many of these works embody the misapplied rigor and alternative logics of Jarry's 'pataphysics: "the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments." Jarry's science investigates "the probabilities and necessities of a certain situation," to borrow from Aristotle's definition of poetry, and it accordingly studies particulars, singularities, and exceptions with an absurd necessity, projecting those moments through their logical extremes. 'Pataphysics combines incompatible systems as though they were natural extensions of one another; or it establishes structures and allows them to exhaust their own possibilities; or it puts pressure on closed systems until the logic of a particular form devours itself in an oroborian autophagy. In other words, 'pataphysics is the mental version of Yves Klein's sauté dane le vide [leap into the void], or Bas Jan Ader's second Fall (executed exactly a decade later, in 1970): the clinanematic swerve of his Jarryesque bicycle into the brack of an Amsterdam canal.

Like Ader, the majority of the writers here were participants in the set of contemporaneous practices that came to be known as "Conceptual Art." I want to stress, however, that this anthology is not meant to be a collection of writings by conceptual artists but a collection of distinctly conceptual writing. There are many works of conceptual music, for instance, but John Cage's Cheap Imitation - like the third movement of Todd Levin's Between My Mouth And Your Ear, which was derived by erasing the accidentals in one of Iannis Xenakis' scores - is an essentially written work (and not just because it has been scored). Accordingly, one might expand the sense of "writing" here to include a works like Ceal Floyer's Ink on Paper (2002) - a felt pen placed in the center of a piece of paper and allowed to bleed out - or Dávid Nez' 1970 piece "documenting vibrations of travel" during a trip: a felt pen placed in the center of a piece of paper and allowed to vibrate naturally across the surface in a seismographic waver and fit.

Such works manifest some of the tensions in this collection between materiality and concept. These works negotiate between the modernist emphasis on the material of art (in many cases here that means the materiality of language itself) and a post-modernist understanding of a theoretically based art that is independent of genre, so that a particular poem might have more in common with a particular musical score, or film, or sculpture than with another lyric. Similarly, these works remind us that the "dematerialization" of the art object in the late 1960s and early 70s was accompanied by a rematerialization of language: "language as a material entity, as something that wasn't involved in ideational values," as "printed matter - information which has a kind of physical presence," as Robert Smithson put it. "My sense of language," Smithson summed up, "is that it is matter and not ideas - i.e. 'printed matter'." In sum: A Heap of Language. Accordingly, the conceptual writing collected here is not so much writing in which the idea is more important than anything else as a writing in which the idea cannot be separated from the writing itself: in which the instance of writing is inextricably intertwined with the idea of Writing: the material practice of écriture.

Conceptualizing writing in that way returns us, perhaps surprisingly, to a poetry of form. But not to a form - to the received forms of sonnets and quatrains and the like, with their familiar schemes of stress and rhyme. Instead, the new forms and structures of conceptual writing recall the sense of artifice, constraint, and perversity that the sonnet too must once have embodied. Conceptual writing is the writing of the new new formalism, and far from being a relic of the period Lucy Lippard documented in her invaluable Six Years (1966 to 1972), it has characterized some of the most rigorous and exciting work from twenty-first century writers such as Dan Farrell and Mónica de la Torre.

For all of the ground suggested by this expanded field, the expected disclaimer: far from complete or archival, this collection is meant as a small preview gallery or first sampler of conceptual writing. From here, interested readers might move out in a number of directions: to Robert Morris' 1962 sculpture Card File [collection Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris]; to Frank Kuenstler's extraordinary book In Which; to György Ligeti's poème symphonique (for 100 metronomes); to Michael Snow's video Fridge; to the perl-scripted Apostrophe Engine of Bill Kennedy and Darren Wershler-Henry; to well beyond.

In the end, this collection is an attempt to remember the end of Wordsworth's sentence: poetry is that form which "does itself actually exist in the mind."

Or, to put this all another way: This is an essay about Robert Rauschenberg if I say so.

For a complete selection of conceptualist works and the above text see:

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