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Art After Art After Philosophy, or, Hostages to Misfortune Alistair Robinson A Sign: a bad sign, astrological error,

foreboding signal, errant result, offensive outburst, unwelcome message, a system that fails to function, one that leaks meaning, one eroded by frequent use, one distended by doubt. A sign too convoluted in its form to affect meaning. A sign thats unreadable, invisible, or mute. A sign that is un-exchangeable, of no value or invaluable. Fay Nicolson, Bad Signs, 2012 As Fay Nicolson knows, bad signs often have far greater value and a longer half-life than effective ones. An anecdote: I was once taught by a world-famous art historian: a man uent in all of the major European languages (naturally), as well as Latin and Greek a man who could and did spend four decades writing a single book, which drew upon texts in eight languages written over twenty-ve centuries. He was often referred to as a man of profound learning or exemplary scholarship clichs he himself would have of course avoided. Alas, as a lecturer, he could never complete a single sentence without a verbal calamity: his speech was interrupted, almost continuously, by stutters, pauses, and failures to complete any individual unit of speech without dislocation or disruption. For all his majestic learning, one unruly part of his brain steadfastly resisted ready communication, preventing listeners from sharing in his decades of reading. His near-continuous stammering meant that a simple turn of phrase often took two or three minutes to complete. Painfully, this was only true when he spoke in his mother tongue, English, rather than in French, Italian, German, or Spanish, or any other tongue. Dr Johnson allegedly suffered from a similar complaint as though exceptional uency in one sphere of communication writing had to be compensated for by conspicuous failures in another.

The art historians unconscious, it seemed, was compensating for his exquisite mastery of language by attempting to unlearn how to speak by preventing him from making the simplest speech utterance in his own language. Recent research suggests precisely that we construct our identities by inhabiting sets of semantic polarities values constructed by reference to their opposites. 1 Our language evaluates us, rather than vice versa, and in doing so creates social roles for us. As one commentator puts it: roles polarise; one form of behaviour [necessarily] invites its opposite, or competition [against it]. 2 We can only measure ourselves by reference to what is not I, as Beckett realised. Normally these measurements are made in reference to our peers, families or competitors. Occasionally the competition occurs inside our imaginations, as in the art historians Oliver-Sacks-like case. A Small Hiccup similarly suggests that language takes us hostage to its needs, offering disturbing conclusions about who we think we are, and how we function in the world. The absurd contrast between the art historians scholarly powers and his almost complete inability to talk freely in his own language was, inevitably, tragi-comic. His lectures would have been farcical had they not been so painful and humiliating to witness. They resembled William Burroughs famous cut-up technique for composition, albeit being applied in real time by his unconscious. The result that his ow of discourse was perpetually disrupted against his own will, with words broken, omitted, misaligned or mutilated. His listeners, placed in the situation of being amateur psychoanalysts, formed a set of speculative conclusions as to how his condition illuminated our immersion in language. Firstly, the conventional image of possessing a mother tongue seemed like a bitter, bare-faced lie. Here was proof that ones tongue, could act like a monstrous Old Testament gure being spiteful rather than maternal, obscene in its destructiveness rather than nurturing. Second, the essential ellipses created to avoid linguistic tripping hazards created new meanings and unexpected revelations. What sat on the edge of nonsense offered more meaning than conventional sense, just as the Futurists had known. If this was

1Ugazio 2Parks,

quoted by Parks, ibid.

T, How is your personality formed?, review of Valeria Ugazio, Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family, The Guardian, Saturday Review, 22.06.2013, p9

the case, then thirdly, a degree of distance between thought and its expression might be seen as a prerequisite for imaginative or creative communication. The art historian gave the impression that any natural or normal sentence had been vetoed by his unconscious, with all known routes to knowledge made impassable. Fourth: if this is true, then our experience of language is both unfathomable and unruly, rather than determined by wellestablished grammatical precepts. Fifth: only when language is interrupted can it become productive, provocative, or powerful in its own right. The artists and writers in A Small Hiccup have highly diverse practices, but all share in several of these tentative conclusions. In examining or actively creating disarticulations, disruptions in language, or deviations from accepted forms of speech or text, they place problems about the nature of meaning, and by association the nature of mind, at the heart of their work. The genesis of such practices requires some brief remarks. The artists here are naturally indebted to the rst generation of conceptual artists who employed language or took language as their primary object of study gures such as Joseph Kosuth, Art & Language, and Lawrence Weiner. Of all of these gures, Kosuths seminal Art After Philosophy of 1969 provides, to my mind, the most important point of orientation. Art After Philosophy also allows us to measure the conceptual distance between the then of high conceptual art and the now of a networked world. Kosuth famously argued that, A work of art is a kind of proposition presented within the context of art as comments on art. 3 The artists here wish to continue Kosuths belief that artworks are, at best, propositional in nature. But: there is a large but to be added to such a sentiment. One of the

most immediate differences between Kosuths position and those starting work in the Twenty-First Century is the sheer range of media or rather of mediated spaces in which we expect to encounter language. A Small Hiccup includes online projects as well as gallery-based ones though again, one could readily argue that these artists license to operate in what was called the expanded sphere illustrates their debt to the older generation. The more taxing issues are conceptual ones, as Kosuths position is that in order to function as conjectures, speculations, postulates, art has to make sense and observe the ordinary functions of language. A Small Hiccup reveals how tenuous this position has become: the artists here contest and contradict it. Art After Philosophy begins with a quote about Kosuths then hero-gure, Wittgenstein: Once one has understood the Tractatus there will be no temptation to concern oneself any more with philosophy4 David Freedberg has remarked bluntly that the early phase [of Kosuths work] was the philosophy of Wittgenstein5 as though his pieces merely make manifest Wittgensteins ideas as diagrammatic 2D / 3D illustrations. What disrupted or diseased language now embodies, contrary to Kosuths suppositions, is communication which is renewed or revitalised through our deviance from its workings. The artists here demonstrate that only what is wrong for ms of mistranslation, interrupted speech, miscommunication, disarticulation, slippages, interruptions to sense is right. In some sense, this makes them metaphysical optimists: they believe in our ability to individually affect our chains of signication or even radically reorient them. They are, in one sense, modernists after post-modernism, in Lyotards senses of those terms. Whether put in laymans or Lyotards terms, they try to say the

Kosuth, J., Art After Philosophy, reprinted in Art in Theory 1900-1990 (Harrison and Wood, eds, Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p 845.

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Kosuth, J., Art after Philosophy in Art after Philosophy and after: collected writings 1966-1990, (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1991) p13 Freedberg, D., Joseph Kosuth and the Play of the Unmentionable in The Play of the Unmentionable, ( PUBLISHER) p 40

unsayable. Kosuths argument is worth quoting at length as it so eloquently exposes by contrast what artists such as Holly Pester are attempting to achieve if that is the word in intervening in news broadcasts: Traditional philosophy almost by denition has concerned itself with the unsaid. The nearly exclusive focus on the said by twentieth century analytical philosophy is the shared contention that the unsaid is unsaid as it is unsayable.6 To take existing discourse to pieces, to unravel its meaning all but completely is, in effect, to argue that we not only can but must attend to the unsaid. In Art After Philosophy Kosuth quotes Segerstedt and Wittgenstein selectively respectively that meaning is always a presupposition of function, and the meaning is in the use.7 But meaning and function here are seen to work better when misaligned than when mutually identied, or when readily identiable. Their dissonance is where meaning truly begins. The small hiccups here are not in the forms but the functions of language. If we believe that language has been fully co-opted by larger forces beyond our control, of capital and of the dominant culture, then such interventions have a moral, as much as an aesthetic or philosophical imperative. Put in other words: the participants here believe that the language is at its best when it is in ruins, is broken, is left in fragments, or cannot be reconciled with what we think we know about the world. To experiment in the truest sense to not accept or abide by others pre-existing codes is to either fail or be seen as freakish, exactly as early modernists were perceived. To be

incomprehensible, nonsensical, or outside of what is permissible is once again known to be the artists necessary means to other ends. As a leading Wittgenstein scholar puts it, conceptual confusions never entirely disappear, but reappear in new places and guises.8 To dissent from received wisdom in the forms that ones speech acts or artistic utterances take is by proxy to distance oneself from the existing order of things. Creating imaginative disorder, puzzlement, even bewilderment, is called for when the imagination is subordinate to commercial exchange and is a commodity to be repackaged. As authors such as David Brooks have observed, the language of the counterculture has been rendered redundant by being fully co-opted by the corporate world: in the resolution between the culture and the counterculture [of the avant-garde] it is impossible to tell who co-opted whom such that any attempt to reignite the revolutionary can only lead to pseudo-transgressions and socially approved deviances.9 A Small Hiccup reignites the idea of an avant-garde at a time when both the language of conventional dissent itself has been rendered inauthentic, impossible to re-use, and when social media allow our full co-option as playthings of corporate interests. Let us make unnatural and inauthentic the language we use. As Wittgensteins sometime adversary Karl Popper phrased it, the artist and the scientist have one thing in common: the thesis that we can learn from our mistakes. 10 Let us make more mistakes.

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Kosuth, ibid. Kosuth, ibid. Ground, ibid. Brooks, D. BOBOs in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (London: Simon & Schuster, 2000), pp.43, 117 Popper, K., preface, Conjectures and Refutations, (London: Routledge, 2010), p.xi


Several of Jeremy Hutchisons and Fay Nicolsons works embody the sense that achieving a state of heightened wrongness is the highest value that art can aspire to at least at this moment in time. As Ian Ground has noted, Wittgensteins remark that Philosophical problems have the form: I dont know my way about, [which] amounts to the claim that the idea of a single, repeatable method in philosophy is misguided.11 Accordingly, many of the artists work in different media, forms and with different methods for each project unlike Kosuth and Weiners generation, never repeating themselves or adopting signature motifs, styles, or aesthetic options. They dissent from Wittgensteins other view, though, that an imaginative endeavour is travelling in a landscape with a view to constructing a map. 12 Rather, it is extending the territory available adding to it in order we might walk on fresh ground. The landscape does not yet exist, or is a ruined one ready to be reclaimed. Jeremy Hutchisons use of found words as objects or found errors is relevant here. His gigantic painted text piece denitely spelt in six-foot capitals as denately tests what is by denition wrong, and what remains adaptable, malleable or transferrable across contexts. The error is celebrated, made monumental and magnicent. How can we not approve? Elsewhere Hutchison creates his own new territory by commissioning new objects which could or would not exist without his interventions. Hutchisons Spolier, as the title suggests, observes how commercial transactions are unked, disrupted or spoiled by accident or unintentional errors: only the wrongness can be salvaged, rendered artistic, known to be true. His 2012 work Erratum involved commissioning factory workers to insert errors into individual examples of industrial products. Their dysfunction is what renders them unique artworks. Their dysmorphia allows the objects to act as commodity traitors, to paraphrase Walter Benjamins description of
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the revolutionary elite as class traitors. It is their sole means of being preserved rather than subject to the cycle of consumption and destruction. The added value an intentional error makes echoes the ideas of Michael Thompsons seminal Rubbish Theory. 13 Hutchisons process transforms ordinary things from trash to treasure, from stuff to sculpture. It requires us to view objects only in terms of its exchange value rather than their use value, in Marxian terms. The alarming video work Fabrications reveals both a supermarket shopper repeating his daily routine but reverses the sequence so that the consumer rescinds his purchases to the teller. The short sequence repeats ad innitum, like a monstrous cross-breed of the lms Groundhog Day and Twin Peaks, scripted by a manic commodity fetishist. The work presents a capitalists dream come true: consumers who endlessly and only consume, without interruption or the need for life outside consumption. The horror of daily life is revealed through the most elegant of means a glitch, aw, or momentary lapse of reason that makes the work a kind of waking hallucination. Hutchison describes his own practice as designing situations that interrupt the circulation of industrially produced objects or consumer ideology, provoking inversions of expected logic. Through stealthy inversions (repeated inversions too close together, another word) and sly repetitions, he presents us with an alternative kind of consumer sublime to (say) Andreas Gursky. In Hutchisons world our own compulsions are made clear, and our complicity, rather than safe critical distance made manifest. Elsewhere, another of Hutchisons works describes our era as an age of digital reason a statement that seems to test Michael Sandels recent argument that in the Twenty-First Century, anything and everything can be bought or sold, commissioned or destroyed. 14 Hutchisons moral and aesthetic provocations challenge our position not only as consumers, but as co-owners of a language that has ritualised and sanctied - consumption.

Ground, I., Shift for Ourselves, in Times Literary Supplement, June 7 2013, p22 Wittgenstein quoted in Ground, op. cit. Thompson, M., Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value (Oxford: OUP, 1979) Sandel, M., What Money Cant Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, (London: Penguin, 2013)

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Fay Nicolson here presents her collaborative work with Oliver Smith. Their works span the ways in which spoken language and text are transmitted or received, taking the form of publications, prints, online works, radio broadcasts, and proposals deliberately unrealised or otherwise. Her newly commissioned installation of posters, The / biggest / single / illusion / with / communication / is / the / problem, /that / it / has / taken / place (breakdown 1) created over tabloid newspapers, utilises a custom font: Punkt Pro. The typeface creates messages that can only be read as being heavily encoded or encrypted leaving their deciphering ultimately impossible. The work recalls Peter Savilles wily encoding of the title of New Orders album Power, Corruption and Lies into abstract blocks of colour: a code that only the designer himself could ever decrypt or know the logic of. A language made for one: another counterblast against Wittgensteinian functionalism. As the artists title implies, the arbitrariness of the signier / signied relationship and the possibility of inventing other languages are their concerns. Deferring the gratication of felt communication is the aim, a delightful frustration the ends to this means. Nicolson and Smiths previous works include Perpetual Proposal: a perhaps oxymoronic or impossible ideal, where the slipperiness of meaning is insisted upon. We take the artists to be joyfully unreliable narrators of their own ideas and commitments. Perpetual Proposal allows them to circulate carefully curated books: the exhibition form is that of a library or reading room rather than a space of aesthetic deliberation. Whilst there have been numerous artists and collaborators pursuing such strategies, from the UK artists Information as Material to Zurich-based Barnaby Drabble and Dorothee Richter, Nicolson and Smith go one further, inviting us not to an act of reading, but one of creative misreading. When free association is required on the viewers part begging the central question: how free is free? With some irony, Nicolson and Smiths modus operandi nds an improbable parallel in the economic theories expounded by
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free-market advocate Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter is associated with the phrase creative destruction as a description of how modern capitalism functions. Simplifying, he believed that innovation was achieved through annihilation of existing labour patterns redundancy, to you and me. Nicolson and Smith ask us to take the same view of (linguistic) meaning: we destroy to create. The wager that the artists establish is that new meanings and ideas require our existing nexus of concepts to be overturned, even crushed. A problem emerges: can new misreadings be predicted or predictable? Must the destruction itself be destroyed, in turn? As with Wittgensteins attempt to create meta-philosophy, Nicolson and Smith create a system by which we examine signication - and ourselves. Their works function as prophylactics against ready understanding, or well-mannered discourse. They ask what price we pay for understanding. The / biggest / single / illusion recalls the late playwright Dennis Potters best joke: The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouths theyve been in. Potter knew that All good art is subversive by denition [because] everything else is conspiring to sell you something or telling you how to think.15 Nicholson and Smith agree so far. But a generational distance emerges. As a self-described wordsmith what Potter could never admit is that it is precisely language that is the least free domain of all the one in which we are least ourselves, not most. The central problem underpinning A Small Hiccup, then, is precisely if or how far failure and fallibility can weave a way around the truth encapsulated in Derridas famous phrase: Il ny a pas de hors-texte.16 Can creating dysfunction or transmitting dysfunction as if it were a virus nd new space outside the (con)text?

Commissioned for A Small Hiccup at The NewBridge Project, Newcastle. 12 July - 30 August 2013 Derrida, J.Of Grammatology(Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1967), pp. 15859, 163