Tag Archives: art theory

#Frieze,#KatySiegel, materiality, representation, translation

Listening to Katy Siegel’s talk on ‘The Luxury of Incommensurability’ at Frieze ’11 caused me to ponder a little further on acts of translation (the ‘t’ element of a/r/tography to followers of this blog).

The mainspring of Katy’s fascinating and informed lecture was the relationship between material and representation. Katy argued for an analysis of art history that embraced the influence of politics and social cultures; such that defenders of a dichotomy between material and representation were themselves products of the dichotomous Cold War era (think good/bad, black/white, them/us, material/representation). She argued that the ‘Luxury of Incommensurability’ was the (post?) postmodern ability to hold “two thoughts in mind at the same time” (i.e. to listen to the materiality of paint, canvas et cetera, whilst at the same time comprehending the represented). She argued that contemporary greats such as Richter, Freud and Twombly were masters of this luxury, and that this demonstrated a separation between art and the political and social spheres.

I found myself disagreeing on a few points. To take the latter first, I think it rather more likely that contemporary artists are still reflecting political and social influences in their works (how could they not?). It’s just that the politics of our day is diverse, post-structural, multi-perspectival, eclectic and a tad more unmasked. This is what is reflected in Richter’s appropriation of the photographic and its disruption, and in Freud’s and Twombly’s communication of the qualities of the represented through materiality.

Secondly, I’m not convinced that there ever really was a dichotomy between material and representation in the eyes of anyone other than a few art critics and theorists. Confronted with a Michelangelo, despite his uncanny mimetic abilities, has anyone ever been duped into forgetting the material of what is represented? And there are many examples of more ‘unfinished’ or deliberately imperfect pre-Modernist artworks which would seem to be intended to draw the viewer’s attention to the ‘incommensurability’ of both material and representation, and deny the restriction of art to mimesis.

David in all his materiality

David in all his materiality

Surely the popularity of contemporary art is premised on an enjoyment of the suspension of disbelief (which the artist must persuade is worth the effort), and/or the marvel of the mechanics of the artist’s technical achievement, and/or play on contrary positions, as in Found Art. It is this latter move that demonstrates the more sophisticated, multi-perspectival position that is reflective of our socio-economic times.

'Rug',MadeIn Company, 2011, at Frieze 2011

'Rug',MadeIn Company, 2011, at Frieze 2011

Darren Lago 'Mickey de Balzac' (grand) 2009-11. Self-coloured cast glass, reinforced plastic, Frieze 2011

Darren Lago 'Mickey de Balzac' (grand) 2009-11. Self-coloured cast glass, reinforced plastic, Frieze 2011

Siegel is right to refer to this as a luxury, since I’m not sure this postmodern turn has been so wholeheartedly understood by other audiences. Take the case of languages/linguistics. Since the 1950’s linguists such as J.L. Austin, Searle and their followers have argued for an understanding of the gaps between material and representation (the signified and the signifier if you’re a fan of Saussure). These gaps are vital to an appreciation of what may be lost and gained in communication, and more so in translation. Yet not a decade ago I prompted a storm of protest by referencing these gaps in a paper presented to a conference of legal translators and interpreters at the United Nations. One woman screamed at me that there were of course direct equivalents between languages; that water was l’eau was agua et cetera, and that consequently the act of translation was as pure as a mountain stream. (And these are the professionals!)

Of course, at one level, water is eau, but at many others it is not. When I think of water, it is British water. It comes from a tap, is a certain chilly temperature, it is derived from the limestone hills around where I lived as a child and has a slightly chlorinated taste. This is my prototypical water. When I encounter the word, this is what I taste. My prototypical eau is salty, comes from a bottle that has been purchased and is quaffed in the dusty, yellow-infused heat of France. I’m sure both your water and your eau differ from mine.

Language, and therefore translation, simultaneously represent and can never account for all these personal understandings and nuances. Yet I think the vast majority of people expect them to, and naively believe that they do. They are unaware of the materiality of the representation. Even in our multi-lingual, multi-cultural (post) postmodern society. But an understanding and acknowledgement of the lacks, gaps and unintended gains inherent in communication and in processes of translation are necessary in order to move towards the luxurious position of embracing and understanding the incommensurability of language.

This is why I recently entered the InsideArts poetry translation competition, with a translation of a sign language poem into written English. My interest is in the huge discrepancy between material and re-presentation in this case. The materialities of source and target texts are so different that the gaps, cracks and additions inherent in the act of translation cannot be smoothed over (even by a UN translator), and we are forced to address incommensurability head on.

What emerges? More in the next blog……

Can someone please tell me how to write # art?

Thanks to the gorgeous Howard Hardiman (http://www.cutebutsad.co.uk/ and http://www.thelengths.com/), I cycled to the Post Office depot this morning to collect my pristine copy of John Berger’s ‘Bento’s Sketchbook’. (http://www.versobooks.com/books/982-bentos-sketchbook)

To my mind anything by John Berger is at least worth a sampling, but this time I’m particularly looking forward to lapping up crumbs from the master’s table because the premise of his book is Berger musing on Spinoza’s philosophical writings by re-imagining and re-drawing his lost sketchbook; an undertaking akin to a/r/tography, in short.

Just to briefly recap (for those who missed my last blog), a/r/tography (or at least my version of it) stands for art/research/translation and the writing thereof, with the ‘/’s representing the folds and pleats created when these usually separate disciplines are brought together.

My a/r/tographic practice- and current doctoral study- is (to paraphrase Jim Cohn) translating the pictorialism inherent in the visual language of British Sign Language poetry into objects and artworks in the plastic arts, in order that the art and image of BSL poetry can be more widely understood, and differently appreciated.

So I’m working to produce art, but as Rita Irwin argues, in a/r/tography:-

“The processes and products are aesthetic experiences unto themselves because they integrate three (or possibly more) forms of thought.”

In Bento’s Sketchbook, I’m hoping to find Berger not only engaging in ‘illustrative’ drawing practices (i.e. giving visual form to existing ideas), but also using drawing as a process to investigate, extend, reflect on and respond to Spinoza’s original thought (what I call ‘contributive’ practice).

But what I’m really salivating about is the prospect of examining Berger’s writing and picking up tips on just how to describe these multiple yet conjoined forms of thought, the spaces his drawing practices uncover. This is not a case of constructing an exegesis (detailing inspiration, intention, ideation, creation, processes and materials, et cetera) or writing a description or critique of a finished artwork.

Irwin, in a line that conjures the darkest vampire flick, suggests

“There are spaces between and spaces between the in-between”

I can see them….but just how do I capture them in the written word? On second thoughts forget the crumbs; Mr. Berger, I offer you my jugular…….

Irwin, Rita (2004) A/r/tography: A Metonymic Métissage, in Irwin, Rita L. and Alex de Cosson, eds., (2004) a/r/tography: Rendering Self Through Arts-Based Living Inquiry (Vancouver, Canada: Pacific Educational Press) pp.30-31

Cohn, Jim (1999)-discussing Ronsard’s contribution to poetics in- Sign Mind: Studies in American Sign Language Poetics (Boulder, Colorado: Museum of American Poetics Publications), p. 69

# A/r/tography? What’s that when it’s at home?

Lately I have had the strangest looks (to misquote Stevie W) whenever I’m asked what I do. This is not altogether surprising, since the answer is that I’m currently practising a/r/tography.

Well, quite.

So let’s swing from the songsheet to chapter and verse.

It’s widely accepted that there are different kinds of learning, and chances are at some stage in your life you’ve probably been in some dodgy business training seminar that has analysed ‘your style of learning’ and assigned you to a category (a bit like a multiple choice pop psychoanalysis in a women’s magazine).  A/r/tography emerged not from Cosmopolitan, but from the (slightly less entertaining) field of Education Studies, where people began to expand on the idea of different types of learning by investigating different ways of teaching, ultimately linking this back to different types of knowing. It’s written that way because the ‘/’ are meant to indicate folds or pleats where the disciplines of art, research and teaching overlap, and the ‘graphy’ the writing of same. See what they did there?

Of course, Nana wouldn’t be Nana if she toed the line, so I’ve adapted this handy little nomenclature to reflect my own mingling of disciplines; art/ research/translation.

So what is it that I actually do? My version of a/r/tography is a means of investigation, a research perspective, a tool if you like. It emerges from a (phenomenological) school of thought that suggests the way we approach things partly defines our understanding of them. If you try to write a poem about a sunny day, let’s say, the activity of writing will begin to shape your thoughts, feelings and memories of whatever sunny day(s) you have in mind. What you eventually capture on paper is as much about the properties of words and paper and mark-making as it is about the properties of your notional sunny day.

In the same way, if you were to take a photograph of a cat, you would be re-presenting some of the qualities of the cat and a lot of the qualities of photography and photographs.

So for me a/r/tography is using art and translation to understand things differently, particularly things that are normally investigated and represented using ‘traditional’ academic techniques (you know, the old qualitative data collection>analysis>representation of findings type of thing). I’m still looking at ‘data’, but because I’m doing it through art and translation what emerges should be a different spin on the same ball; a different, but no less valid (and no less particular) way of looking at and understanding, a way of uncovering overlooked aspects of ‘known’ things.

Not one to paddle when I could be jumping off a cliff blindfold without knowing the depth of the water, I thought I’d experiment with a/r/tographic methods in a PhD- applying them to the study of British Sign Language poetry.

But I dream of a future as an a/r/tographer for hire, shedding new light on ever more challenging topics. I did think it would be fun to market myself as some sort of a/r/tographic private detective, until I realised that would make me a ‘dick’……..

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