Katy Macleod writing image  

Katy Macleod



What is writing?

hidden from view btn

molecular laboratory btn

waste zones btn


Short stories

What is writing?

(Unpublished paper delivered at Tate Britain, 'Writing in the Context of Art' seminar led by Kate Love, 2003)

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 Writing?


'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 distributed.

            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 formation

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.

Such information 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 sphere itself...


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 articulation because,


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


Unvoiced nuances, associations of meaning and cultural practices from which our full utterances gain their full resonance, within the

Ontological framework of concerns which guides our choice of theme.


He adds that

            Although we might be clear about what we mean, the meaningfulness of our

            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 articulate.


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 subject-matter.


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.

If  I 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 our control...


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?


An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the 28th annual conference of the association of Art Historians, 'Culture Capital Colony', 2002 Liverpool


thinking through art

Curation & Catalogue

PhD Examining

Routledge Companion to research in the arts

JAVC journal


    © Katy Macleod 2020