Tony Discenza’s text-based work is concise yet absurd: the tone is often matter-of-fact while the content is speculative and fanciful. The appropriated formats of a street sign or a book’s teaser page provide an internal logic that holds the tension of this paradox quite neatly. Obviously, I’m a fan, so I asked him to chat with me about his recent projects. Discenza’s solo and collaborative work has been shown at numerous national and international venues, including The New York Video Festival, the Museum of Modern Art (NY), the Whitney Biennial (2000), and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Discenza will be presenting a project on the Kadist Art Foundation‘s Twitter feed (@ Kadist_AF) on February 18, 2013.
Bean Gilsdorf: Your practice shifted from representational, image-based work to language-and-text based work, was there a particular catalyst for the change?
Tony Discenza: The change was gradual. The whole time I was doing all the video work, which started in the late 90s and continued for about ten years, I had a sort of shadow practice. I was working in law firms, an office environment where there is a lot of down time. I did a lot of art-thinking and art-working while sitting in front of a computer and being in a cubicle. A lot of that work took the form of writing—text, fragments, collecting bits of things—but I never really had a sense of what to do with it. It accumulated, but to a certain extent I had stuck myself with this narrative that I was a video artist. I did reach a point around 2007 or 2008 where I was feeling kind of burnt out on the work that I was doing in video. The things that had fueled it didn’t feel as relevant anymore because of huge shifts in the way that we watch things, and I was burnt on the logistical obstacles, I felt that I rarely got to present the work in the way that I wanted.
BG: How did you want to present it?
TD: Not in very complex ways; for example, in having a darken-able space in an exhibition or having reasonable soundproofing, having a good projector—just things to ensure that the work was presented well. I wasn’t at a point where I was able to say, “You either show it this way or don’t show it at all.” So I started looking at all this other stuff that I was doing, and some of the questions I was exploring overlapped between video and text. I was given the opportunity to do a solo show in my gallery in 2010 and I wanted to show divergent work, something that almost looked like a group show, a range of approaches and tones, to bring the humor out. I wanted more play.
BG: Out of curiosity, what were you doing in a law firm?
TD: I was a paralegal. It was a job I fell into after college.
BG: I find that very interesting, considering that the practice of law is to create definitions and strictures with language. Being around that environment for so many years, how could you not be influenced?
TD: Yeah, I worked in offices for eighteen years, and it’s had a huge impact on the way I work with things that are language based: iterative structures, making lists, reports, documents…they all seeped into my thinking.
BG: And how did it feel to present that first body of text-based work?
TD: Up to the point of the show it was very nerve wracking. I second-guess myself a lot, and part of me kept saying, “People are not going to be able to deal with this shift.” Once it was done I felt very satisfied because it looked more like the kind of show that I was interested in at that time. There was video in the show, but also print work, light boxes, an audio installation, a generative text piece, etc. The works were divergent but interconnected.
BG: Since we’re on the topic of exhibitions, I want to talk about the way that context frames the work. When I go into a gallery and see a text-based art object, the tendency is to first look at it as though I’m beholding any other visual object. I notice the color, scale, texture, and then only after—and I think that’s really due to the context of the gallery—do I allow myself to be a reader instead of a viewer. How do you feel about the difference in the way that the work is approached?
TD: I wrestle with the visual form and presentation of the text, partly because I know that I am influenced by existing text-based work and partly because there’s a broad but finite range of ways to present text. There are only so many things you can do with it that will hold people, yet you don’t want to tread too much on someone else’s aesthetic. I tend to look for ways in which the content of the text really remains the most important part. There are always design and aesthetic considerations, but you can try to signal that those considerations are of lesser importance. Using a lowest-common-denominator font, like Helvetica for example, as I’ve done with the wall pieces and light boxes. Every font is loaded with a set of associations and baggage, but because Helvetica is so widely used it’s a way of saying the font is not that important. I want the visual presentation to be stripped down, but I think there’s always a little bit of a surrender to the decorative with text-based work because you have to present it in some way, and you don’t want it to look terrible.
BG: How do you decide the format or delivery system for whatever text you’re using? How do you decide if it should be a book page or a street sign or wall vinyl?
TD: With the signage pieces, so much of that is about using a preexisting system for delivery. It became a way of taking fragments and bits of text that I collected—weird, playful, snarky, mysterious—and using an existing form…just inserting other kinds of utterances into a textual field situated outside in the world, because then you stumble on them by chance. The book pages started because I had a collection of pulp novel book pages, and originally the project was going to be re-presenting those. So often the delivery is an appropriation of a particular form.
BG: And some of the text is by you, some is appropriated, and some is a mix?
TD: Increasingly the text is not appropriated. The appropriative gesture is a first step, but the processing that the material undergoes really takes it far away from the source. Even when I start with appropriated texts, they undergo a process of rewriting and revision, so it’s not like the integrity of the source material is maintained. It’s the same with the book pages, they originally began with an excerpt of text from a pulp novel on its own, but I felt like that wasn’t quite enough. In the final pieces, the text is actually unique. It’s more that that the forms are appropriated, like the street signs or the form of the commercial light box. I use the initial [text] appropriation as a kind of prosthesis for myself, to allow myself a practice of writing that, if I came at it cold, would be too intimidating.
BG: And when you are doing the writing for these pieces, do you find that you have a particular voice or character?
TD: If there’s a place where my own voice comes through most directly it’s in some of the street sign pieces. I think the sensibility of those pieces, the kind of ebb and flow between sarcasm and a strange evocative space that’s both ominous and funny, is maybe closest to me speaking directly.