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Issue 138

“A way of talking about art”
Never the Same: what (else) can art writing do?
by Maeve Hanna

The art writing symposium Never the Same: what (else) can art writing do?, organized by Contemporary Calgary, posed a selection of provocative questions around an ever-changing and nuanced form of writing. The symposium brought together a diverse gathering of national and international writers and artists to ponder what (else) art writing can do, as well as how and why art writing exists in the art world. In silently conversing with myself, my surroundings, my notes, I realize that art writing is not always a discipline that can be learnt or taught but is often felt. Sensed. Experienced. It seems more of an experiential form of creation, a moving equilibrium of words. My theory was evoked unequivocally through each of the symposium’s panels, workshops and events.

The weekend opened with a launch of Chris Kraus’ new book After Kathy Acker. The biography, according to Kraus herself, is not just about Acker or even her artistic lineage. It’s as much a phenomenological artwork as it is a biography, one where art writing, fiction and non-fiction mingle through Kraus’ own perspective. Kraus’ keynote address set the stage for an investigation of the nuances of art writing, including its experiential and sensory aspects. In discussion with Jennifer Krasinski, Kraus stressed the importance of writing the other’s voice. “You can’t speak of others. To bridge this, quote the other, ventriloquize them.” Similarly, she asserted that an essay on art is a space that should be used to give the artist room to speak and tell their story, again foregrounding the subjective and experiential aspects of art writing.

As I write this compendium of reflections, I am deeply immersed in Kraus’ book I Love Dick. In her afterword, Joan Hawkins sums up the author’s commingling of art writing and non-fiction/fiction: “It seems as though reading the ‘real’ Dick Hebdige’s work enables Kraus to find a way of talking about art, a way that makes sense to her.” The book is a fictionalized romance as well as a novel of art criticism in which Kraus reveals her true prowess is writing about art. Hawkins continues that Kraus’ “Kike Art” in I Love Dick “is easily the best thing on Kitaj I’ve ever read. …She invokes theory, seems to feel comfortable in a theoretical skin, without using theoretical language.” Reflecting on the symposium, I remain submerged in I Love Dick, allowing it to act as a guideline, a bible on art writing.

In “Performing and Materialising Art Writing,” moderator Amy Fung framed the panel with the notion of “gastromancy,” asking “how does language hold up the body?” Queer artist, writer and art historian Mark Clintberg, presenting on this panel, expanded on this idea of “gastromancy” by speaking about his vision of writing as a membrane through which contact occurs. “I think of writing as a means for the erotic because it involves the thrill of unexpected touch,” he said. For him, writing is itself a bodily function as well as a means for creating friction and contact between bodies. Clintberg assembled the experiential and sensory elements of art writing and criticism that are arguably most salient to all acts of writing: the messy, the erotic, the frottage of writing, all of which are integrated into his practice.

Stó:lō writer and scholar Dylan Robinson spoke on several topics related to his research into sovereignty in “Making Space, Place and Time through Art Writing.” He opened his talk by speaking of “gathering, sovereignties of doing, [the] performativity of doing, [and] when saying something is also the action of doing it,” thereby framing writing as, again, an embodied and sense-based practice. A particularly powerful aspect of Robinson’s discussion was his suggestion of strategies for slowing down the processes of reading and consuming the written word. One such strategy is to ask the reader to stop reading in order for the author to assert textual sovereignty for Indigenous peoples. In “Welcoming Sovereignty,” he wrote: “If you are a non-indigenous, settler, arrivant or ally reader, I ask that you stop reading by the end of this paragraph.” Asserting oneself against or challenging this form of power in order to preserve textual sovereignty was a key element in Robinson’s talk. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that Indigenous knowledge is not being “…extracted or treated as content for an instrumentalized end.” Robinson’s writing conveys the sensory experience of a gentle kind of friction, rubbing or nudging readers (and other writers) towards consensus and conscientiousness.

In the concluding panel, “New Modes of Publishing and Distribution,” David Garneau presented his lecture “Talk Sweetly to Me: Critical Fear and Indigenous Art.” He ferociously leapt into the topic, outlining what is missing in art criticism today, in particular the lack of criticism on Indigenous art. When asked about this lack, Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore jokingly responded to Garneau: “who would dare?” Indeed, the audience seemed to agree, shown by their attentive acknowledgement as well as a subtle laugh that spread through the room. Garneau continued by acknowledging that there is plenty of “sweet talk” but very little deep, thoughtful criticism on this topic. Contradictory commentary from Chris Kraus at the opening of the symposium became an interesting counterpoint here. When asked why she doesn’t write about art she dislikes, Kraus answered that, first, she simply doesn’t care enough about the art world to write about such art, but second, that one should pick one’s battles. Here it seems key to ask: what is considered thoughtful and nuanced art criticism, as opposed to criticism of a patronizing tone? How do we differentiate between the two? What kind of language or form does each use? What sense does each convey?

Garneau concluded by raising a broader issue within the state of art criticism, and acknowledging that “…Indigenous artists and art are not best served by settler-style, adversarial, shame-based, modernist criticism, even if written by Native critics. What we now need to develop are non-colonial modes of extra-rational critical care.” Art writing is a subtle, developing form of writing that comes from the writer’s experience of art as much as from a desire to reflect on art itself. Bridges and roads reach from the end of each letter of art writing like trail heads – but with no predetermined destination – as writers attempt to carve out new paths for both art and its criticism. Its future course will be paved in varied directions as the field unravels before us.

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