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)
His expectation, along with those of many artists, poets, performers, and writers, was that readers would meet him there on the street. If language was kinetic, so too was the media that carried it out into the world. As Allen notes, magazines—and by extension zines, chapbooks, broadsides, and other cheaply printed objects—ceased to be “a static two-dimensional thing [and became] a vehicle and locus for action—something to be moved through and beyond.”3 Publications that functioned as sites for the presentation of works of art underscored the medium’s power of circulation. Distribution substituted for architecture and created an audience based upon exchange rather than location. The publication could be used “as the start of an event that keeps going, off the page” or “to fix the boundaries of an event,” as Acconci wrote in 1972 in Avalanche.4 Language was not just dependent on its printed form but also on where in the world that form resided and whom it resided with. Readers were not simply recipients of the meaning that a writer or artist conferred but also agents translating “the concrete existence” of the page into the dimensional realm of events where language becomes experience.5
This concept is familiar to contemporary audiences of art, to the point that we assume this experience to be one of the functions of print as a medium. But a further evolution is currently underway as we reconsider printed media in relation to the expansive and undifferentiated forms of digital communication. Magazines have lost none of their seriality or their capacity for circulation, but the limitations of their distribution channels and their discreteness become increasingly evident in comparison to online publishing. If the Internet is now the street, the place where everything happens, what compels one to return to the page?
One answer is the opportunity for the printed object, already understood as a work of art and a site of encounter for a work of art, to make that encounter simultaneously permanent and endlessly renewable. We can repeatedly, perpetually return to the object with the expectation that our experiences will be at once familiar and reliable (as an object to be read) but each time also suggests a new relationship and a new meaning. This renewal is particularly disruptive to the temporal specificity and historicizing functions of those printed forms, the magazine and the catalogue, that usually accompany an exhibition.6 But it also reaffirms the agency that the reader has as the audience for art-as-language-as-object. The remainder of this article will explore three projects produced in the Bay Area—THE THING Quarterly, [2nd floor projects], and Glass, house—that engage with the negotiation between materiality and meaning inherent to both language and art and actively transform it into objects that can be at once read and performed.
THE THING Quarterly
Bay Area–based artists Will Rogan and Jonn Herschend inaugurated the THE THING Quarterly in 2007 as a subscription-based “periodical in the form of an object,” a definition that stems in part from their approach to production and distribution. Each issue is a manufactured object commissioned from an artist, writer, designer, filmmaker, or musician and distributed through the United States Postal Service. The packaging in which the issue is sent is integral to it, identifying the publication, volume number, and creator on the exterior of an oddly shaped brown cardboard box. As the object varies from one issue to the next, subscribers learn who the contributors are but know little else of what they can expect to receive, and they frequently remain unaware until the package arrives in the mail. But by marrying the reproducibility and distributive strategies of traditional periodicals with the materiality of an object, THE THING Quarterly alters the relationship between the author or artist and the audience—emphasizing a move away from the author’s articulation of an idea to the recipient’s subsequent deployment of it.
The objects are, with very few exceptions, utilitarian, and bear some text that instructs or encourages their use. Issue 1: Miranda July was a mass-produced vinyl window shade silkscreened with one of two messages, both starting with the phrase “If this shade is down…” In the version that states “If this shade is down, I am not who you think I am,” one cannot display the shade unrolled without tacitly calling into question one’s identity. Chris Johanson’s handmade ceramic wine cups—Issue 11—encourage imbibing with friends, as a toast inscribed on the bottom, “I wish you well,” only becomes visible with the cup tipped back. Others are less overt but no less effective in their messaging; Issue 2: Anne Walsh is a rubber doorstop etched with the text from a childhood letter written to Billie Jean King after she won her match against Bobby Riggs. Put into service, it enacts any number of metaphors about social progress.
Rogan notes that the intervention into the form is integral to the issue, so that how it might be put to use—the instructions given implicitly or explicitly by the text—make it an object that happens in the space where it resides.7 We don’t just use the objects; we carry out their intentions. For example, Issue 15, by the graphic design team MacFadden and Thorpe, is a flag printed with instructions for folding it. The description for the issue notes, “It is a flag that stands for folding a flag.”8 In order to make proper sense of that objective, we need to perform it. We read the text by making an event of the object.
[2nd floor projects]
Margaret Tedesco is the founder and director of [2nd floor projects], a gallery and limited edition publication in operation since 2007. She commissions writers to produce a text to accompany each exhibition and then designs and prints a limited edition of one hundred broadsheets or chapbooks on archival paper for each. The editions are signed and numbered; there is no uniformity to their size, shape, or typography. The texts vary widely in genre, from fiction and poetry to personal narratives and critical essays. They do not document the exhibition; instead, they are works that the exhibitions create.
Tedesco’s process of selecting writers is intuitive and visceral; she looks for dissonance instead of correspondence between the artist and the potential writer. She makes introductions between the two but withholds from directing their communication or guiding the text’s evolution. As she notes, the pairings “perhaps address an interstitial space of engagement with the artists’ works from the writer’s point of departure. A distal approach rather than the traditional essay model.”9
The results are wide-ranging in form and content. For the exhibition North American Wildlife: New Works by Brynda Glazier, Johnny Ray Huston, Anne McGuire, artist Colter Jacobsen contributed a set of disjointed fictional vignettes about furries printed as a long, narrow chapbook collaged with cancelled stamps. Masha Tupitsyn’s essay “liquefaction” mixes personal narrative and critical observation in the chapbook for Math Bass| Elisheva Biernoff: Almost Outlines. Tedesco printed a large broadsheet for the exhibition George and Mike Kuchar: paintingsdrawingspainting that included an essay by the poet Eileen Myles in which Myles seems to speak to the entire project’s purpose: the work “subtly calibrated to respond to the push and pull of the self.”10
As a multidisciplinary artist who has worked extensively in performance, video, and installation, Tedesco frequently describes [2nd floor projects] and her artistic practice in spatial terms. She notes her investment in “trespassing” disciplines and in “watching the space perform” each time she installs a new exhibition.11 This conceptual framing significantly extends to the writing, which she describes as architecture that embodies and holds parts of what is occurring in the exhibition. The limited editions become conduits or points of departure for the exhibitions instead of documents of them. Rather than bring the reader into the exhibition space, as traditional exhibition catalogues might, they bring the work out into the world.
If the exhibition is finite, constricted to a particular period of time and location, the editions, available during the run of a show, create the potential for one to experience the work of art as renewable and recurring. Each time the text is encountered, it conjures a new relationship to the work of art included in the exhibition, a relationship not dependent upon memory or documentation. And for those who don’t see the work firsthand in the gallery and experience the edition separate from the exhibition, it conjures an experience that replaces the exhibition entirely.12 The editions don’t describe what the exhibition is about; instead they suggest ways one may encounter the work apart from it.
Endless Column is a collection of reprinted photographs of minimalist sculptures that are columns presented in book form. The book’s subject is not the sculptures but the photographs of the sculptures, which are “practices that mimic the simple geometries most native to the camera; the line, the rectangle, and the plane.”13 The photographs present the columns flat or slightly angled to emphasize their near flatness. In several cases, as in one unattributed image and in two others by photographer Bill Jacobson, all references to figure-ground relationships have been removed—the sculpture is suspended in a white plane, emphasizing its object-ness. In others, such as John Gossage’s photograph of Anne Truitt’s 1962 sculpture Hardcastle, the sculpture is photographed head on, so flat as to lose all the space around it, even though the room is visible behind it. In his essay accompanying the images, Jordan Stein, founder of Glass, house, notes, “The columnar form utilized so often in that sparse and conceptual era worked as something of a spiritual aperture, a portal from the material to the immaterial. But perhaps the photograph was always, too, quietly considering equivalent questions: lying flat, it begins to hover, glow, mirror, and fold us into its passage.”14
It is the folding of us, as conspirators and willing passengers, that introduces us to the line of equivalent questioning—what, if anything, can these photographs tell us of the phenomenological aspirations of these sculptures, or what equivalent experience do they offer instead? The photographs were not taken with the intention for display; they were documents that were most frequently seen reproduced in books, magazines, or catalogues. As such, they were always images and never objects themselves. Stein originally considered the idea of presenting the photographs in an exhibition, but he found greater fidelity to the work in creating Endless Column as a book. This was not because of the flatness of the page; rather it was for the way the book requires us to take the same leap from image to encounter as the photographs require us to do with the sculptures. In reading Endless Column, we flip the pages from bottom to top, instead of side to side; the spiral binding carries the page over the edge, extending the book into space, elongating our reach out from our bodies instead of across it.
Glass, house’s first two projects, Endless Column and Daren Wilson: After Morandi, have been books, though future projects will take on other forms such as a film and a record album. An ongoing project involves an investigation into and an archive for the artist Joanne Rruff, who seemingly disappeared from public view in 1985. Uniting the various projects is Stein’s desire to present the subjects in a state of equivalence to their purpose and with the same earnestness. In some way they each speak to the impossibility of representation and are therefore invested in creating a state of being. His intentions for Glass, house are reflected in the project’s name; it follows from his hearing an anecdote about the creation of Robert Rauschenberg’s Glass Tire and his desire to be both every element of that story and to pull each component apart.
That desire underscores our role as reader and performer in each of these projects; they depend upon how we act on the object. When Stein suggests that Endless Column “was about time, place, movement, story-telling, and privacy in a way that objects in a physical space have a harder time with,” he is not denying the book’s materiality but pointing to the alternative space that language creates, one where we can readily reside, pulling out and inserting meaning.15 As Tupitsyn notes in “liquefaction,” “I don’t leave the house. I am the house. The world comes to me. I wreck it and it wrecks me.”16 To perceive our encounters with these projects as performed is to remake their meaning over and over again. Nowhere does this happen more succinctly and poetically than Issue 10 of THE THING Quarterly, by Starlee Kine. It is a cutting board for chopping onions. Etched slightly into the surface is the story of a one-way conversation with an onion substituting for a former lover: “Has there been one night when you have gotten very drunk and kicked over a potted plant, sick with the realization that you lost me?” the narrator asks. The onion does not respond, but we do, if we use the board according to its purpose. The act of chopping can bring tears to the eyes but also, eventually, can erase her words, allowing her memory to fade as the story does, as we replace her words with our experience.