Authorship and the Reproduction of Language
by Kari Cwynar
For a couple of years, I’ve felt the impulse to attempt a reading of the work of Will Holder – a person with whom I’ve had intermittent but at times extended conversations and opportunities to observe. This text is borne of these encounters, though Holder may be the MacGuffin in an essay querying how words and voices are reproduced in art. What patterns of citation are established and to which groups are they addressed? What is our responsibility? At a time when images flow freely without words, and when biographies, press texts and artist statements are copied and pasted, condensed into consumable formats that almost always further market oriented ends, it feels more prescient than ever to consider a practice like Holder’s. Though his work primarily appears in and responds to situations of art, Holder is a typographer – a role that holds, at its core, the organization and reproduction of language.
What does it mean to work respectfully and generatively alongside other voices? And what about the language and material of one’s forebears? What happens when the original author is gone and only the document remains, with its coded meaning to be gleaned? Over the past few years, I’ve been asking these questions in relation to the writing of art history and its narrow lineages. At times, I’ve been thinking alongside and through Holder’s work. Holder “produces oral and printed publications, seeing conversation as model and tool for a mutual and improvised set of publishing conditions – whereby the usual roles of commissioner, author, subject, editor, printer and typographer are improvised and shared, as opposed to assigned and pre-determined.” While Holder works through the structures and methods of typography, and at times music, both of our avenues lead to inquiry around co-production, the language around art and the re-presentation of existing or past material.
Recently, Holder and his frequent collaborator composer and artist Alex Waterman scored and type set part of experimental composer Robert Ashley’s oeuvre, proposing that “musicians and non-musicians might produce new versions of his operas, by way of typographical scores.” The resulting book of scores, titled Yes, But Is It Edible?, was something like seven years in the making. It presents two of Ashley’s many operas to be read aloud – collectively, since it’s scored for two or more voices. As well as being a tribute to and biography of Ashley, Yes, But Is It Edible? is the fourth in a series of publications by Holder and Waterman exploring “a musicological perspective on scoring speech, and the role of printed matter in collective forms of reading and writing.” The latter statement – the role of printed matter in collective forms of reading and writing – prompts consideration of how one might apply the principles of the score and the liveness of reading to other forms of printed matter; to consider that the reader of a score must think through all of the document’s information and then use it as a prompt for a new situation in the future. A score offers instructions, or a structure, but cannot prescribe the outcome. No two readers will ever perform the same piece, nor will the same reader perform a piece the same way twice. A score is thus generous towards future and multiple enactments and voices. It does not demand sole authorship.
Holder’s work is rarely single-authored – perhaps this this stems from the habitual role as a typographer, used to producing another person’s work. He has many collaborators – appearing, for example, as Will Stuart together with Stuart Bailey for a number of projects, including their experimental art magazine Tourette’s in the early 2000s. One issue of Tourette’s took shape as a week-long series of events and it was here that Holder began “speaking through” others – later to include Robert Ashley, Silvia Federici, Bernadette Mayer and Alice Notley – thus acting as their proxies in an attempt to circulate their voices but without denying his implicit role. Holder is also editor of F.R.DAVID, a journal concerned with writing alongside production (of all kinds), co-founded with Ann Demeester and Dieter Roelstraete and formerly published out of de Appel arts centre in Amsterdam. With F.R.DAVID, Holder compiles, commissions, edits and annotates existing and new texts; it is published in paperback format, more a poly-vocal and associative anthology than an art magazine.
When I first met Will Holder, in May 2012 – he was performing an issue of F.R.DAVID at The Banff Centre. I remember the rhythm and the feeling in the room, his impeccably timed reading voice set against a backdrop of John Baldessari’s 1972 film T eaching a Plant the Alphabet, in which he repeats each letter of the alphabet to a houseplant, Baldessari’s A-a-a-a-a-a-a-a a…. B-b-b-b-b-bb-b… acting as Holder’s metronome.
The second time I met Holder – in Amsterdam, January 2013 – he was launching a new issue of F.R.DAVID, titled …for single mothers, after one of his ongoing projects. He read Alice Notley’s 1980 lecture “Doctor Williams’ Heiresses” while pacing at the front of a cramped room. The lecture is Notley’s wicked re-calibration of the genealogy of her literary forebears, re imagining a gendered sphere of influence. With …for single mothers Holder proposes an oral re-publishing the work of women writers. A line in his biography reads: “Since 2007 this heterosexual, white, European male has produced a predominantly oral series of publications …for single mothers, preferring to reproduce descriptions of relations typically formulated by women and queers.” Which is to say, for nearly ten years, Holder has dedicated a portion of his work to live (and sometimes print) readings and re-publishings of work by women and queer thinkers; a proposition – I think – that tries to acknowledge the position into which he was born, while reconciling his desire to bring the lives of others to the fore.
I find …for single mothers to be a challenging proposal, but I keep returning to it. There was a disorienting uncanniness for me in hearing – later, at another …for single mothers event – Holder read Silvia Federici’s “Development in Witch- Hunting” as if a proxy for her words; because, while there is authority in the solidity of the written word (Federici’s), there is also undeniable power in the reading voice (Holder’s). My gut told me that Holder, still, held the authorship and privilege in the situation of the reading, yet he chose to turn his invitation to read over to Federici’s text. Perhaps, as has been suggested to me, part of my reaction comes from being unused to seeing “unselfish” (to the extent that this is possible) reproductions of women’s work. Holder suggests it to be a simple choice: to put one life in front of another. My reaction comes in questioning the balance in outcomes for both reader and writer, a relationship that is re calibrated in an “oral publication.” That said, I am ultimately glad to have occasion for these thoughts, because so often it is not a conversation. It is also important to note that Holder does often invite women to read alongside him.
In writing this text, and in thinking about the shifting of past and present language and information, and the permissions of authorship, my mind kept returning to Métis anthropologist Zoe Todd’s questioning of Eurocentric, patriarchal ontology and citationism, where she asks why it is so challenging to give credit, to find thinkers who engage with Indigenous thought directly and respectfully, who work in conversation with Indigenous thinkers, rather than to cite those who have cited Indigenous work already. What is it to work in conversation with someone? To be an author and agent who turns over the microphone?
…for single mothers is unquestionably a different situation than the one Todd is addressing. But I want to think about the perhaps imperfect possibility of reading the entirety of a Notley poem or a Federici essay as an act of displacing one’s position or one’s voice in service of another’s, of acknowledging that someone has said something important but they have not been asked to speak in this particular instance. It is an act of crediting, of acknowledging the implication of others in the words you circulate.
Regarding one’s implication in circulated words, in Banff, shortly before the Federici reading, Holder was invited by the Centre’s art department to give an artist talk. This talk extended over two hours-long reading sessions – one during a walk through the woods and the other around the campfire – during which Holder read the entirety of Franco Berardi’s book The Uprising (2012). It was for him, a way of “short-circuiting the ‘ease’ of reproduction and distribution.” As is now the standard, talks at Banff are recorded and posted online. The duration of Holder’s talk interrupted, however subtly, a cycle of distribution that can so often – in exhibitions, criticism, public programs – become formulaic and unspecific. There is little more pleasurable than being read to in the forest, but the Berardi reading felt endless, as our attention spans now expect a one-hour artist talk. Nor was the audio-visual team prepared to record a two-day off-site talk for the website. The reading was a simple strategy in “ensuring that – actually – a lot of language is needed before such a thing [the online posting and eventual consumption] can or should happen.”
I like Will Holder’s work because he never claims to stand alone; his thinking and production is derived from the inevitable involvement of other ideas and bodies that are so often veiled in the service of individual authorship. I like the ongoing desire to re-present existing language as is, to put it into circulation anew. To decide not to place a premium on “newness” or “originality,” but instead to look at what is already there and to create new points of engagement with it. I once listened as Holder – off the cuff, and perhaps off the record – questioned the art world’s recent reliance on fictive, lyrical language – our fear of description and “information as such” – suggesting this reliance was a misguided reaction against the commodification of the art object. Why not speak directly? If someone has already said it better, why produce more language?
Around the time of the Notley reading, I took a seminar led by Holder. And
from my notes, three statements have stayed with me:
_1. “We are constantly co-producing each others’ work.”
2. “How to make it clear that the language around the work is the work.”
3. “The permanent re-writing of both past and future: where does this stop?”_
I began this text with the intention of thinking through Holder’s work as a way to nuance my consideration of how we currently produce and distribute information in relation to art. I wanted to think about the permissions we allow ourselves in re-publishing existing material, and in speaking with others, and how we might think about strategies for language that resist homogenization by the market. I wondered also if we could think about all existing documents as scores, with mutable, dialogical lives, much in the way Holder and Alex Waterman took interest in the notation of Robert Ashley’s operas, opening them up for future collective readings. A thread throughout this line of inquiry has to do with the face-to-face encounter with another, with the experience of live reading and listening, rather than the distanced consumption of “content” or talking points.
In the end, it is near impossible for me – maybe for anyone? – to write of Holder’s work with the precision with which he himself describes it. This text contains many moments of reproduction, in which I quote Holder’s biographies, snippets of project statements or bits of our exchanges. It thus bears the resulting slippages that come with putting one’s work – one’s language – into circulation. But I know Will Holder follows John Cage when he says: “I think conversation works best when the second thing that is said is not in the mind of the person who said the first thing.” Which is, to enter into the risk of conversation.
Note: Holder writes: “In the series …for single mothers my speaking body IS a publication. With the best form of ‘typesetting’ I can produce (orally), to document the work of another (gendered labour). As such there is NO DOCUMENTATION of …for single mothers, since this would deflect from that overlooked idea: that every one of us is a document.”