A central tenet to emerge from Conceptual art in the 1960s was the perception of language as an object: a visual form of signification that requires us to negotiate its materiality in order to locate its meaning. In this process of negotiation, language was no different than any other artistic medium. The tactile quality of a page and typographical arrangement of text were recognized to be as active in creating meaning as the words printed on them. If reading was a set of physical gestures that unfolds linearly—left to right, top to bottom, from one page to the next—the interruption or reordering of any of these gestures led to a reconsideration and new consciousness of the act. In other words, language was set in motion, built, excavated, or incanted instead of written, and to read these texts was to experience them spatially.1 The inheritance we’ve received from these investigations into language as object is an inherent understanding of the performative nature of reading and, concurrently, of a reader’s role as co-conspirator in creating meaning.
As art historian Gwen Allen notes in the introduction to her book Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art, beginning in the 1960s, art magazines went beyond their documentary purpose to become alternative sites that presented works of art. They placed the materiality of art and the materiality of language into congruous relationships and transformed those relationships into performative experiences. For example, 0 to 9, a mimeographed poetry magazine published by poet and performance artist Vito Acconci and poet Bernadette Mayer between 1967 and 1969, aspired to explore language as a visual, phonetic, and kinetic form and featured contributions from both poets and conceptual artists. The magazine’s issues featured pages densely covered in text or left nearly blank, typesetting that suggested motion across the page, and even, for the cover of Issue 5, a sheet of paper crumpled and then flattened again. Preceding his transition from poet to performer, Acconci made experiments with typography and layout, motivated by what he described as a restlessness with the page that compelled him into a state of action. (“I couldn’t be on the page any more. Language took me out onto the street. I was moving on the page, now I wanted to move on the sidewalk, on the street. I was more thinking of the street as a field of activity rather than the page.”2)