Upon entering Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery to see Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art, the viewer is immediately confronted by a raucous wash of sonorous elements. Over fifty artists and conceptual writers occupy the gallery space; canonical works from Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt, Marcel Broodthaers, Carl Andre, and Dan Graham are nestled among pieces by contemporary practitioners, contributing to the sense of saturation. Originally curated by Nora Burnett Abrams and Andrea Andersson for the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, the exhibition is divided into five sections—appropriation, transcription, translation, redaction, and constraint—modestly readapted to suit the gallery’s layout.
Falling under the subtext of translation, Pavel Büchler’s Studio Schwitters (2010) is one of the raucous audio elements first encountered in the exhibition: a captivating visual and auditory anchor spanning one of the gallery’s main walls. A response to dadaist Kurt Schwitters’s nonsensical sound poem, The Ursonate (1922–32), a “sonata” predicated on the absence of language, Büchler’s sound installation uses a single laptop and seventy-five horn speakers to distort Schwitters’s poem. Using German text-to-speech software, the poem is translated from text to soundscape. The effect creates further distortion as the sounds are continually fed through the series of speakers; the resultant cacophony emulates a muddy symphony removed from a humanist dialogue through the insertion of the machine, yet it remains oddly warm and melodic.
Another large-scale installation, located adjacent to Büchler’s piece, is the transfixing 1066 (2010/12) by Fiona Banner. Banner’s piece is a converse to Büchler’s; it translates the visual narration of the Battle of Hastings depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry into text. Handwritten in India ink and spanning two main walls in the gallery space, the piece is a captivating visual representation of a textual narrative. Viewed aesthetically, the composition of the piece—the weight of the letters fluctuating with each line, the spacing between the lines methodically decreasing as the text progresses, the winding italics creating rhythmic markers on a background of “ghost text” from the same selection peering through a thin overcoat of white paint—encourage appreciation of the textural qualities of the written word. The content of the text points to the propagandistic nature of medieval tapestries, especially when compared to the reality of the gruesome violence of the Battle of Hastings. However, the sheer scale of the work likely prevents all but the most committed viewers from reading the entire piece.
Both Büchler’s and Banner’s works connect with Sol LeWitt’s The Location of Lines (1974), one of the canonical works used to illustrate the concept of translation (one of the curatorial subcategories). LeWitt’s artist’s book playfully highlights the difficulty, perhaps absurdity, of translating between verbal and visual fields. Jonathan Monk is the most playful with this concept in his piece What is Seen is Described, What is Described is Seen, Version IX (2010). Monk asked the collective Art & Language to translate a painting into text, which he then translated back into a “painting.” The final work—a sculptural sandwich made up of paint, pillows and scraps of material—is accompanied by Art & Language’s translation.
One section of the exhibition features works done in response to Marcel Broodthaers’s use of redaction in Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard (1969). In this work the artist blacked out the lines of Stéphane Mallarmé’s eponymous poem to create a purely aesthetic form of concrete poetry. While a number of artists in the exhibition engage directly with Broodthaers’s piece, Eric Zboya’s The Depths of a Shipwreck (2012) was one of the most captivating. Zboya’s piece translates Mallarmé’s poem using algorithmic graphic imaging software that converts text to pure image. The result is quite different from Broodthaers’s work; hauntingly beautiful crystalline forms fan out across a piece of glass suspended from the ceiling of the crowded room. The piece could be read as a reference to the pervasive influence of digital technologies in our contemporary society, providing an eloquent contrast to Jen Bervin’s The Composite Marks of Fascicle (28 & 40) (2006). In this large-scale hand-embroidered fiber installation, Bervin has redacted all of the words from Emily Dickinson’s original manuscripts, leaving only the author’s “field markings.” Renderings of Dickinson’s personal editing syntax and punctuation marks are all that remain among the negative spaces.
Dan Graham’s Poem Schema, a piece published in a variety of magazines between 1966 and 1972, presents a formulaic, almost scientific approach to conceptual writing, enabling the author to code and decode the publications in which the piece appeared by tracking statistics such as the number of verbs, adjectives, and nouns; typefaces; font size; and even the stock of the paper. This work is included in the “constraint” section, which the curators have broadly defined to include implications of coercion and compulsion as well as the more common definition of confined action. These associations highlight the creative potential inherent in Graham’s methodical approach. Despite the banality of the data that he gathers, the compulsive nature of his work renders it captivating.
Christian Bök engages with the notion of constraint through a similarly obsessive approach to manipulating and transcribing data. Protein 13 (2012) consists of a large sculpture of a protein juxtaposed with a poem descending down the wall. To create the work, Bök first wrote a poem (not the poem on the wall), which he translated into a DNA sequence. He then implanted the DNA sequence into a microbe that effectively “read” the DNA, leading to the production of the protein the sculpture is modeled after. The result, Protein 13, was similarly read by the software to produce a new poem that has been transcribed on the wall behind the sculpture. I am not a scientifically inclined person, but the concept is quite fascinating, particularly the notion that this process could be repeated infinitely.
In the space’s main two-story hallway, respectively under the subheadings of transcription and translation, were two other stand-out pieces: Stuxnet (2012), by James Hoff, and Soliloquy (1996), by Kenneth Goldsmith. Hoff’s audio piece is influenced by the concept of distribution and the artist’s immersive understanding of the history of conceptual writing on a number of platforms (I encourage you to view the artist talk he gave to accompany the exhibition at MCA Denver). Like other artists in the show, Hoff uses this piece to highlight the limited ability of translation to accurately represent an original text. Hoff coded the now infamous computer virus used to target an Iranian nuclear facility in 2010 to correspond with piano keys assigned to his computer keyboard. The result was run through a simple synthesizer, and the end product is a melodic, droning soundscape that fails to communicate the destruction and political fallout associated with the virus.
Hoff’s piece provides a mellow backdrop to one of the exhibition’s other large-scale installations, Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy. Goldsmith’s piece responds to Andy Warhol’s a, A Novel (1968), on view in the next room. In both works, the artists transcribe their day-to-day actions and conversations, down to the most mind-numbing minutiae. Goldsmith’s piece, a book laid out page for page, is installed from floor to ceiling. An artist, writer, and curator, Goldsmith is possibly best known for the emphasis on appropriation and plagiarism in his conceptual writing practice. As an advocate for “uncreative writing,” Goldsmith has published book-length transcriptions of weather reports, a volume of the New York Times, and traffic reports.
What makes Soliloquy so interesting aside from its sheer presence is the piece’s ever-changing conceptual spin since its initial release in 1996. Soliloquy can be found in paperback, but it also resides online, where it was originally published, to account for the way that we consume and interact with writing after the emergence of the internet as a ubiquitous source of information. Just as painters had to adapt to the advent of photography, Goldsmith posits that writers must adapt to the rise of the internet as a locus for the consumption and distribution of literature.
I leave off on Goldsmith’s piece because his ruminations on conceptual writing provide a useful framework for analyzing the exhibition’s curation. As the title’s phrasing suggests, Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art addresses the intersection of conceptual art and writing from a unique perspective. The use of the term after in the title does not necessarily reference a chronological narrative in which conceptual writing emerged from post-conceptual art. Instead, it may signify the relationship between the two practices as responses to modernist ideologies and, from a contemporary standpoint, the need to remain relevant while still pushing boundaries in the interest of creating new and exciting work. The early text-based conceptual works featured in the exhibition operate in tandem with the emergence and continual exploration of conceptual writing, blurring the lines between the visual and the textual.
Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art continues at the Power Plant until September 2, 2013.