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Essay by Ingrid Jenkner
He could not read the book I showed to him, but he said that you could read more than books, that there was more than one way to read. – Nelson Henricks, Longueur d’ondes
The art in Beyond Words encourages its viewers to think of written language as something more than a transparent medium of communication. Each work in the exhibition presents print or handwriting in a way that defeats a simple reading response; letterforms, cursive script, and printed pages are transformed into tactile, auditory, enigmatic, even illicit, material. To make sense of these works, the viewer must let go of verbal cues and attend to form and materials.
Kelly Mark invites prospective readers to doff their reading glasses and step back from the page. Although composed of letterforms, her Letraset drawings forego writing in the conventional sense to engage in practices more typical of sound recording, sampling and re-composition. By using manual techniques to arrange typographic characters into mostly non-verbal patterns, Mark foreshortens the technical evolution of writing from handwriting, through letterpress, to computer-generated text. Her compositions assume the shape of glyphs caught in the stylized movements of jazz and modern dance, playfully defining typography as medium and message—a song without words.
Artistic practices that draw attention to the phenomenal qualities of language at the expense of its referential function began to proliferate with the twentieth-century modernists. This history, through which there emerged a visual poetics of language (the interaction between visual and verbal arts the Jo Anna Isaak has called the ruin of representation), is condensed in Kelly Mark’s abstract Letraset drawings. On the other hand, the practices of Nadia Myre (Indian Act) and Elizabeth MacKenzie and Ruth Cuthand (Word for Word) are aimed at reconstructing a politics of representation centred on language; they show how suppressed language can communicate through its condition, in protest. If the work of the latter reconstructive type is historically contingent upon the deconstructive groundwork of the former, which reduces the parts of language to artefacts, then the dissected books of Paul de Guzman offers a suitably vexed instance of apparently mixed motives. Does de Guzman wreck texts, or does he renovate them?
Graphic design and layout are also the principal survivors of Sylvia Ptak’s interpretation of handwritten notebooks and manuscripts. In the Commentary series, she ingeniously replicates the original pages, removing nothing. Instead, she simulates the text by pulling pigmented threads through gauze, a treatment that retains the visual indices of the historical era of the original, but which substitutes a cryptic counter-text for the scholarly words of the original. This writing cannot be read. The text’s loss of functionality marks the difference between handwriting and its representation. The indecipherable script brings into focus those features of a historical manuscript that guarantee its authority and authenticity, such as handcrafted-ness, design, and ornamentation. As with de Guzman’s books. Ptak’s suppression of linguistic content renders explicit the non-linguistic signifiers that link writings with their material context.
On the flyleaf of Ptak’s Journal of Dissimulation No. 1 appears the jotted warning: Impt. Destroy if found. Do not read. Ptak has honoured the diarist’s plea for privacy by inserting an encrypted centre spread, and obligingly scoring through, blotting- and whiting-out, and sewing together the remaining leaves. Thus censored for public display, the journal’s secrets rest safely with its final reader.
Whereas the revisions introduced into found texts by Ptak and de Guzman mark those writings as though they have been read by a hypercritical editor, they also foreground the recondite status of much scholarly, legal, and private writing. By rendering or transposing the texts as formal patterns, the artists challenge prospective readers to reach beyond words to grasp a different register of signification. The privileged information lodged in the legible original is de-privileged as so much esotercia, designated for consumption by the initiated. By highlighting the spatial design of books, the Proposal Layouts and the Commentary works imply that the closed circle of narrowly authorized meanings can be breached by an alternative form of literacy: visual literacy.
A purely visual interpretation of the essay you are currently reading will not necessarily lead you, the reader, to ideas I am attempting to convey. You cannot look at words and read them at the same time, although you can profitably study the selected reproductions and the visual syntax imposed by the book’s designers, April Britski and Robert Tombs, as you formulate your thoughts independently of mine. In case you don’t read English fluently, this book offers you the choice of reading the texts in French translation. However, if neither French nor English meets your needs, then your impressions of the book will be all the more difficult to share with the linguistic communities acknowledged in its pages.
Talking back to texts in symbolic systems other than those they themselves use, or physically dismantling a book, are tactics that question the illusion of containment. To those who are intent on engaging on a symbolic level with the rhetoric of authority and the language of domination, the boundaries of language receptacles such as books and documents are there to be exceeded. The works in Beyond Words
Like many politicized artists, the Algonkin-Quebecoise Nadia Myre has had to resist the pressure to become the sort of cultural broker who explains, negotiates, and finally negates difference. Thus Indian Act (whose title connotes the title of legislation, The Indian Act, and the counter-action of an Indian upon it) succeeds because of its refusal to communicate in shared cultural terms: it strikes back at the ethnocentrism of the legislation. To make Indian Act, Myre downloaded and printed out the text of The Indian Act and invited friends, strangers and relatives to replace each word on the page with a string of white beads. The remainder of each page was to be filled with red beads. Unfinished panels in the 56-page work, which is double-hung in Two-Row formation, disclose a mass of white documentation disappearing under a wave of red. As a whole, Indian Act resonates with implications. Unintelligibility may by one of Myre’s most powerful tactics, for the experience of communal incomprehension and estrangement available in the encounter with Indian Act transcends language communities to affect viewers of all backgrounds.
A further issue raised by the verbal void of Indian Act is that of language loss. When languages disappear, history, songs and stories go with them. Soon only non-language-based cultural artifacts, like ethnic food and dance, remain to define cultural identities. Marusya Bociurkiw has called this situation, the meat and potatoes of official multiculturalism. To dramatize this predicament, Elizabeth MacKenzie and Ruth Cuthand made the collaborative video Word for Word, which concerns their attempts to reclaim their ancestral languages. MacKenzie, the daughter of a French-Canadian mother, voices phrases in halting French: Cuthand, whose father is Plains Cree, attempts the same in that language. Crawling titles provide an English translation of their efforts, complete with grammatical errors. The futility of the exercise is no less apparent than its urgency. As a side effect of these struggles, the translations from English and back again show this language in a new light to its native speakers, as an alien, clay-footed tongue.
An advantage of retaining one’s minority language is that its unintelligibility to the majority protects private conversation, even where they are likely to be overheard. The immersive, polyglot environment of the city street affords many private occasions to immigrant speakers of Italian, Russian, and Yiddish. Gilbert Boyer, who is bilingual in French and English, collects everyday speech and texts as others collect butterflies. When he displays these assorted linguistic specimens, he transposes them to a new category of sign, one that indicates the multiple diasporic currents in Canadian life. Because they are so difficult to read, the phrases preserved in Boyer’s glass Tefellins have a quality of being fully exposed while at the same time hiding in the light. A similarly dual motivation to communicate while flying beneath the radar characterized the Word Find street interventions of Nadia Myre.
Myre was an art student living on the east side of Vancouver when, in 1997, she spray-painted her Word Find texts on the wall of a neighbourhood building. At the time, prostitutes—First Nations women among them—and their clientele frequented the area. Myre’s graffiti-like texts take the form of the word find game, in which letters are scrambled in a block and must be rearranged to compose the hidden message. The stencilled texts read, respectively, why won’t you make love to me asshole and your true love is a lie. In their original form, each block measured 61 x 91 centimetres; they were enlarged for exhibition in Beyond Words. In them, scrambled language raises questions about who is speaking, who is addressed, at what risk, and in which public contexts the message retains its currency.
The video Word for Word represents the only instance, in this group of works, of vocalized language heard in proximity to its written counterpart. You may, of course, make your own soundtrack by sounding out the encrypted words in the works that contain them. The sounds of spoken words, however, remain distinct from the sounds made in writing them. This is the point of Time passes and the Signatures sonores: to link the visible and auditory characteristics of writing (conceived of as a time-based practice), while bypassing the limitations of any particular tongue. As the written object occupies space and time in a particular way, so writing as production and process inscribes its solitary agent into a space and time that are constituted in the act itself. Time-based media are necessary to represent this intensely subjective perceptual state to an audience.
The paper greets the pen amicably, hungrily, ceaselessly... Whereas Ptak’s encryptions and de Guzman’s cutting may provoke regret at what has been lost, Nelson Henrick’s portrayal of writing as a self-consuming process implies that the words flowing from the writing hand hold mysteries less compelling than those of that intensely private activity—writing itself. This is a considerable task. To transfer oneself onto paper. In the video Time Passes, these sentences appear in succession, as titles. The titles alternate with time-lapse colour photography of the view outside the writer’s window, black and white shots of an apartment interior, and close-ups of a hand, writing with a pen. Over these sequences is heard the pen’s rhythmic scratching. From dawn to sunset, the days flash by in moments. The scratching continues independently of the images, generating a bi-sensory effect of time un-spooling at different rates of speed. With its extraordinary compression of duration, Henrick’s video opens a window on writing as a state of consciousness, and on transience and the artist’s drive to preserve experience.
The visible side of writing, writes Rober Racine, conceals its invisible side: sound. The haunting sounds of scratching spread like whispers from the hidden speakers of the Signatures sonores. They are intimate, purposeful sounds with distinct timbres and cadences—hard and soft, slow, rapid and syncopated. The aural images they suggest differ remarkably from their visual counterparts: the repeatedly over-written autographs of a group of artists whose signatures Racine recorded in Banff in 1992. In the source drawings, the Dessins des signatures sonores, it is possible to decipher the names of artists such as Jocelyn Robert, Kate Craig, and Muntadas. But in the sound recording, the characteristic gesture that creates the signature—which identifies the signatory as surely as a fingerprint would—loses its indexical force. We do not yet possess the skill (or habit) of recognizing names by the sound of their inscription. Racine describes the Signatures as a music not composed but written, and as a gesture traced by the body in time—sound-writing.
We who speak, read and write immerse ourselves in language like fish in water. Under pressure of everyday use, language becomes transparent to us, and it begins to disappear. The artists of Beyond Words reverse this tendency by means of extraordinary displacements that include self-reflexive transcriptions, translations, removals, simulations and even obliteration. Once returned to our gaze as the polysemic, sensuous, political thing that it is, language ceases, temporarily, to work through us. As we work on language, incomprehension becomes revelation.
If you don’t believe me, try cutting up this book. Paste down the pieces in a way that pleases you, then make a drawing of your collage...