Watch What You Do With Words

TO READ AN ART SCHOOL PRESS RELEASE, it helps to steady yourself with a good shot of Orwell. His essay, “Politics and the English Language” seems more pertinent now than ever. Why now? Because artists are increasingly encouraged to think of themselves as activists and savants. The link between art and craft—and the concomitant aspiration toward the creation of beauty—has been slowly discarded. In its place are vague stances that lend themselves to politicization, turning artists into self-appointed community organizers, agitators of the airy, expressive sort.
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But first, listen to Orwell:

Our civilization is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism . . . . Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument for our purposes.

He continues by noting that our prose consists less of words chosen for their meaning than of phrases tacked together like the sections of a pre-fabricated henhouse.” All the better to sway you, my dear. To give you the heady feeling of being on the edge of something outré, something deliciously anti-bourgeois. Humbug phraseology has become the norm for the majority of press releases that comes to me. Herewith, today’s specimen:

An Exhibition of Radical Speech Acts

NEW YORK, October 18, 2010—The Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons The New School for Design presents How To Do Things With Words, an exhibition of radical speech acts organized by Melanie Crean, an artist and assistant professor at Parsons, on view October 30 through November 9. The Center will host an opening reception on November 1 from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.

The exhibition presents the work of fifteen artists and collectives who explore the relationship between language and power, media, action, and socio-political context through gallery works, talks, workshops and performances. The exhibition takes its name from the title of a groundbreaking treatise by British philosopher J.L. Austin, who eloquently presented the concept of speech acts. He disavowed the notion of language as something passive that simply describes reality, but rather described it as a set of practices that can be used to affect and create realities. Austin’s premise is that speaking itself contains the power of doing.

Participating artists include Melanie Crean; Azin Feizabadi and Kaya Behkalam; Andrea Geyer and Sharon Hayes; Yael Kanarek; Carlos Motta; Martha Rosler; the Iraqi/U.S. Cross Wire Collective; Mark Tribe; and The Yes Men. Artists presenting talks and performances include Wafaa Bilal; Feizabadi; Kanarek; Huong Ngo and Hong-An Truong; Mark Tribe; and Mary Walling Blackburn.

Several pieces in the show deal with the concept of reenactments, questioning what occurs when speech is translocated across time, space and geopolitical context. Motta’s Six Acts: An Experiment in Narrative Justice (2010) reenacts a series of speeches concerning the concept of peace, originally delivered by six liberal and left-wing Colombian presidential candidates from the last century who were assassinated because of their ideology. Performed by actors in public squares in Bogota during a presidential campaign, the work emphasizes the transformative potential of fiction as a tool of reparative collective memory.

The gallery space itself is intended as a space for speech and action, designed by Jordan Parnass out of laser-cut plywood furniture as a contemporary interpretation of U.N. Security Council chamber.

A series of performances and presentations include Trigger Words by Yael Kanarek (November 2), which investigates the impact of words used to categorize, separate and wound; a screening and discussion by Azin Feizabadi of The Negotiation (November 4); AND, AND, AND: Stammering, An Interview by Huong Ngo and Hong-An Truong (November 5), which explores the process of becoming a citizen; Mary Walling Blackburn’s The Order of the Joke (also November 5th), which parses the raw materials of contemporary war jokes; Performance, Mediation and the Public Sphere, a lecture by Mark Tribe (November 8); and a lecture by Wafaa Bilal about artists’ responses during time of war (November 9). All events will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the galleries.

Reference to J.L. Austin (1911-1960) is typical overreaching by a department that cannot bear the thought that artmaking does not carry the prestige of science. Artists want to be known as honchos in the gray cell department, too. But the work of Austin, a British philosopher of language, a classicist and linguist, is well above the pay grade of Parson’s design students. To hear Parson’s tell it, the scholarly Austin was a fantasist who believed that saying makes it so.

Note that line: “transformative potential of fiction as a tool for reparative collective memory.” In other words, the past can, and should, be rewritten to conform to what the speaker/writer thinks the audience needs to know. We can make up a fiction about ourselves to make ourselves feel good. Or to affect policy-making in the present. There is nothing new here. Soviet textbook writers have been repairing collective memory for decades. And current Chinese textbooks are doing the same: downplaying Mao and cleaning up the atrocities of his Great Leap Forward. The torture, starvation and slaughter of some 45 million people in four years is not the sort of thing that uplifts collective memory.

What, precisely is ” a set of practices that can be used to affect and create realities”? In the context of doing things with words—it sounds like a windy way to describe lying.

What can possibly constitute a radical speech act on an American campus in politically correct times? The Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education (FIRE) estimates the number of campuses that enforce speech codes at about 71%. The free market place of ideas is a lovely concept. But where do we find it? Certainly not on campus. Yale, for example, forbade T-shirts, created for the Harvard-Yale  game, that bore a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “I think of all Harvard men as sissies.” Some sissy complained and sissydom won.

So, what’s left for radical speech acts by daring artists? You can Google your own homework on the names here. Let me introduce just one: Yael Kanarek. Her recent exhibition at bitforms gallery [in lower case] promised a “marriage of language and space.” As the gallery phrased it, her work “enters spaces of meaning determined by a global network and the negotiation of identity that occurs when confronted with multiple systems.” As evidence of her negotiation with identity, she scribbled onto one wall “Love Letter 565” which went like this:

Beloved/ I found the key to extreme/ Beauty but not the keyhole / I tried in all the holes of/ my body but none seemed/ to fit. /Yours forever/ your forever sunset, sunrise/ Forever yours / Yours forever yours.

The words were cut into the drywall with a jig saw. The cutout scraps were left on the floor where they fell.
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[That is what happens, I guess, when you can’t find the right hole to put things in.] The demolition is intended to be interpreted as “an area of negotiation,” marked by the artist in “a primal manipulation of territory and relationship.” Outside the fumey, hookah precincts of the art world, Ms. Kanarek’s territorial manipulation would be greeted as vandalism.

This bleak, self-regarding sensibility, oblivious to its own banality, was frightening. At work in Ms. Kanarek’s “practice” is a mind impervious to meaning. Words signify whatever she says they do; no correspondence to reality is needed. All that matters is the appearance of meaning, the sound of it.

As a talisman against sounds of significance minus the substance of it, we should keep Orwell’s warning in our pockets: “The worst thing you can do with words is to surrender to them.”

© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey


  1. Spot on. However, is there anything to be frightened of?

    All this trite PR babble is clearly nonsense to anyone literate in the academic fields these hacks are mining. Yet it’s so parasitic and substance-free I don’t see how it could, in the end, influence anyone’s thinking about anything. These writings don’t constitute thoughts and have no real world application. It’s like trying to buy something with Monopoly money.

  2. Sam caught it: Monopoly money. But Parsons is a big name with a real reputation. That’s kinda scary in itself.

  3. True, this probably doesn’t change what anyone thinks. Problem is, there are enough people out there—in academia—who already think this way. And are willing to fund the stuff. It is the kind of thing that gets grant money.

  4. Monopoly money buys things. It shouldn’t but it does. At least in art circles. Grant givers love anything called “radical speech.” It lets art bureaucrats pretend they are on the barricades.

  5. All good points.

    When I say this empty language has no influence, I am noting how it trails and feeds off “real” academic disciplines, usually a half-generation too late. If anyone at Parsons associated with this show has waded through John Searle’s work on speech act theory I’ll eat my shorts.

    When I say “in the real world” I mean “outside the art world.” Art departments and museums will host performance and installation art because those “disciplines” are inherently dependent on a host. It’s a self-serving arrangement between the artist and institution. Art that can be commodified need not apply. It will be in people’s homes where it will last much longer than ephemeral stunts at Parson’s no one will remember except the vain curator and artists.

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