What is writing is a question which will always be posed in the
context of art. It was posed in a useful way by Jean Paul Sartre
in an essay of the same title in 1947 in which outlines a critical
distinction between prose and poetry as forms of writing and affords
to each a very different function: for prose the function is to
make clear the purpose of writing while for poetry the function
is to offer the experience of what has been perceived, its thingness. In order to illustrate what he means, Sartre provides
the visual exemplar of the slash of yellow, the 'rift' in the sky
above Golgotha in Tintoretto's painting of 1565 in the Scuola di
San Rocco in Venice, which does not according to Sartre signify
anguish, it is anguish; it is the thing itself. What drives this writing,
(my writing), is a yearning for the thing itself, for that which
may not easily be spoken.
Words, images, touch are all cruel. I am not
writing what I thought I was thinking.
The marvellous paint-brush of the rushes only succeeds
imperfectly in tracing an outline on the sheet of water. (This is from Andre Breton's writing
on painting, 'Surrealism and Painting').
Words and images are cruel and resist the direct transmission of unruly thought, experience, the
thing in itself. So what might writing be in the context of art?
That which offers another cruel space? Or, is writing in the context of art, simply that which is not
art, that which is other? And who declares which is other, Art or
'There's glory for you' said Humpty Dumpty.
'I don't know what you mean', Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously.
'Of course you don't 'til I tell you. I mean there's a nice knock
down argument for you.' 'But glory doesn't mean a nice knock down
argument' Alice objected. 'When I use a word', Humpty Dumpty said,
in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean-neither
more nor less.' 'The question is' said Alice 'whether you can make
words mean so many different things. 'The question is' said Humpty
Dumpty, 'which is to be master – that's all.' ('Alice Through The Looking Glass', Lewis Carroll)
Might it not be true that whenever we ask a question
of one mode of communication in relation to another that we seek
to know the value of each? And perhaps the value of each is simply
determined by who is speaking. If I seek to determine what writing
is in the context of art my valuing of art will establish a valuing
for writing but my valuing will only be effectively propositional
if I am listened to, or if I am read. I/you; he/she; them/us we
adhere to hierarchies of meaning. If I want to make sense do I do
this through art or writing? No matter if I am seen
to make sense. As long as my sense is understood. But what if I
do not choose to make sense? What if I construe the purposes of
writing in the context of art to resist sense? What if I intend
to understand art as an important means of conceptual reasoning
which refuses what might be taken to be sense? Does writing then become doubly removed from
sense construction? I might claim that art's refusal to make sense
in the sensing that might be ascribed to it by art critical or cultural
theorists, beauticians or myself is because art seeks the
singular encounter with that which it is.
It is the same for poetry and the performatives arts; that which
is the experience of experience itself, consciousness which attempts
an irreducibility at the flashpoint (to quote Walter Benjamin) of
the materiality of the idea.
What does this mean? Let's begin to imagine..Imagine
a person called artist very meticulously and carefully unwinding
packing tape, nice shiney packing tape from its manufactured roll
onto itself, and as she does this she intones:
I unwind packing tape from the roll upon which it is commercially
As I unwind it from the roll, I rewind it again, but not
onto a roll, only onto itself.
I wind the entire
roll in this way without interruption. At the conclusion of one
roll I continue with another, and so on, adding each to the same
mass. Gradually the mass grows larger. I maintain this process without
any fundamental changes.
This is writing about the making of art, a process
the artist chooses to call a terse economy of labour. As doctoral study, which is what this soliloquy is, does it make sense?
It is certainly written as a serious communication:
The terse economy
of these equations is productive. It does reveal but the same pointed
focus which distils common and exchangeable values is not sensitive
enough to register certain crucial contingencies. For example the
such a calculation
produced would be the same for a mass assembled in any
way. The mass of
tape of which the sphere is made, infers particular things
because of the fact
it is wound. It is inflected with the conditions of its pro-
duction, and the
implications of time, labour, action..At some point the
increase in scale
has rendered progress provisionally quicker, and then slower
again, even slower
than before; so this development is not even. Also, the changes
in the nature of the sphere since its inception mean that the character
of the labour has similarly evolved. Now it requires quite different
kinds of manoeuvres, actions, levels of force, strength and energy
than it did at the start.
would require a fairly complicated mathematical sliding scale
to estimate and represent
it. Obviously this is still possible, although it might prove less
articulate, as an illustration of time, labour and stuff than the
Could the sphere itself be more articulate? It
has been presented as possibly a hoax.Could
this hoax be more articulate than writing? Which is to be master,
I say, that's all!
If we should see critical thought as
A caryatid which
with apparent effortlessness props, reinforces and underpins the
mute weight of the edifice of practice,
would this suit our purposes? Jim Mooney writes that this is a 'drearily unproductive way'
of representing what he calls theory in relation to art practice
in his study, 'Praxis-Ethics-Erotics'. His doctoral work took him
to Kristeva's semanalyse and her shaping of the semiotic, where
within the frame of the chora the subject has an extremely provisional
The semiotic is that
which destroys the stability of the subject and renders it provisional;
it places it in the space of that which is always becoming.
And there is a certain violence in this; it is,
in Kristeva's eyes the semiotic which seeks to destroy the symbolic
and indeed the possibility for sense construction. It is also this
which she sees as central to art's project, that paradoxical space
of becoming. Who will be master here?
In Mimesis in Practice
Trish Lyons has documented a doctoral research process which could
be seen as a visual enactment of the semiotic chora through the
symbolic representation of art.
In this process the silent materiality of the art becomes
an active theoretical principle which richly signifies mimesis at work. It is an enacted
and quite violent use of Plato's theory of mimesis; it is also a
process of becoming
which gives visual voice to theory.
The silence of theory is also visually explored
by Gavin Renwick through his research with the Dogrib and Inuit
peoples of Northern Canada. To these peoples the theory of space
determines the pattern of their lives; their land is not landscape
it is space which determines who they are and how they live. To
trace their experiencing of this, he had to unlearn, to be mute
in the presence of the elders whose knowledge he sought. In the
end his art served to trace out what space means in a context of
enforced re-habilitation by successive governments. Gavin's drawings
become symbolic of resistance to the current geopolitic and the
architectural incursions on indigenous peoples' habitats and lands.
Many of the drawings are overlaid to indicate the passing
of time which is seen by these cultures as materially present.
Time...I like time
as a material. To watch a line form on your forehead takes a long
time, that's incremental. It's incremental things that excite (Cornelia Parker).
The material realising of ideas through the slow
accretions of time ...is it time we seek to enlist in the spaces
between art and writing?
In Writing and the in between (1999), Nicholas Davey, a hermeneutic philosopher sets out a case for
the mutually inflexive activities of making and writing. He addresses
the arguments proposed by Plato and Nietzsche which frame, in his
view, a sceptical resistance to claims for writing as revealing
truth. In Plato's case, writing is cited as a poor substitute for
memory and the capacity to reflect on how it is;
in the case of Nietzsche, writing fails to capture the intensities
of aesthetic immediacy in the fluid and open and unresolved nature
of experiencing. Davey answers these criticisms through a series
of assertions about what writing can do; it allows for the unspoken
or unuttered, those
associations of meaning and cultural practices from which our full
utterances gain their full resonance,
of concerns which guides our choice of theme.
He adds that
Although we might be clear about what we mean, the meaningfulness
Intended meaning (insofar as it comes from a historically
received subject matter)
Extends far beyond what we might intentionally mean.
It is this which gives rise to writing's potential
for speculative accuracy, a
process which can result in new alliances of meaning.
The hermeneutic project of writing sees the possibility
for an undiscovered re-structuring of meaning. In this text, writing
Does not enclose
the truths of subject matter but reveals the extent to which we
are (sometimes unknowingly) saturated by them.
The purposes of writing are also identified as
reflecting on aesthetic feeling:
To track down and render articulate what could
otherwise remain dimly felt.
Thus, writing renders being in the world more
At the root of this hermeneutics is a profound
sense of the ontological resonance between writing and making artworks.
Writing is seeing anew; it
aids the process of critical reflection and the discarding of old
presumptions. In writing of the relation between reflective writing
and material expression both are seen as articulating the same subject
matter in different ways,
Writing and making
together can bring work to realisation beyond the scope of what
just one practice might achieve. The artist who writes to, who writes
of and who finds herself written into subject matter of her material
work has an incalculably larger work space than the artist who does
not. Word and image together can effect a double epiphany of a single
Thus in an elegant and seemingly incontrovertible
disquisition on the mutual and ontological efficacy of writing and
making art, we find the in-between,
A being between or
amongst the sensible and intelligible realms of art and existence.
But is this being between a productive space? For
Cixous, it represents that which is crucial to making sense, that
is, sense of existence. Cixous is a writer. Davey writes to confirm
his profession as a philosopher. Why do artists write?
Words and images are cruel... they do not make
the sense we want them to make.
Whether they make sense at all is always a question
of who is the master of the discourse.
unwind tape on to itself, if I draw the sense of a Dogbrib settlement,
if I show the replication of my head in process am I more or less
master of my discourse? If I write are my meanings more intelligible?
Does the writing render the sensible and intelligible realms
of art and existence? Does the answer lie with the power of the speaker?
It is meaningful if I
say it is.
I was interested
in ideas, not in visual results... I wanted to put painting in the
service of the mind.
When Duchamp talks or writes about his work
he is in
retreat from authoritarian making
to a position of intellectual economy where intellectual intention comes freely into play. Language in his
view disguises thought. What then is the terse economy of labour?
It is thought. The works are critical or philosophical gestures
of thought. In the making and writing, what transpires is simply
related objects of thinking. Whether one mode is more or less important is subject
to the quality of thought – and of course other factors beyond
It would be so joyous to declare that whether writing
by artists matters will be determined by the quality of thinking
being laid bare. But the quality of thought will only be recognised
if the prevailing conditions are sympathetic. Words and images are
cruel. They do not say what I/we/you wish them to say but whether
they act in the world is yet to be determined.
The marvellous paintbrush
of the rushes only succeeds in tracing imperfectly
An outline on the sheet of paper.
We search for meanings; both art and writing are
gestures of thought. For thought to be the thing itself, the yellow
rift in the sky it must trace itself as near to its own formatio
as we dare. In this space, the in-between, sense as we receive it
to be lies dormant. Sense as it is yet to become gains ascendancy.
But can we pull it off? How do we best materially realise an idea
which at its best will be in-formation, a philosophical gesture
which is provisional?