Q & A with conceptual writer and professor, Simon Morris

The spring 2019 Hawn Gallery exhibition, Information/Object: Late 20th – Early 21st Century Artists’ Books, features a selection of artists’ books from the Hamon Arts’ and DeGolyer’s libraries collections as well as some personal loans from collectors. One of the books, The Royal Road to the Unconscious, is a work by the conceptual writer and professor, Simon Morris. This work documents Morris’ project of having each word in Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams cut from its page, collected in over 200,000 slips, and later scattered at 90 mph upon a road in Dorset, England, approximately 122 miles from Freud’s psychoanalytical couch. These instructions mimic that of Royal Road Test by Ed Ruscha with Mason Williams and Patrick Blackwell. The two works are on view and share a space in the first case.

I recently corresponded with Morris to ask for permission to have his work scanned and digitally displayed in its entirety in the exhibition. It is now available for viewing in the gallery until the exhibition’s close on March 8th. Not only did Morris grant permission, he also agreed to an interview for the Hamon blog. This opportunity creates a fuller understanding of this work and his art practice.

  • Could you please discuss your work, The Royal Road to the Unconscious (2003), and the relationship you see with Royal Road Test (1967) by Ed Ruscha with Mason Williams and Patrick Blackwell?

Surprisingly, the relationship isn’t as close as it may ostensibly appear. There’s an entire industry making iterations of Ed Ruscha’s book works, as you can see from exhibitions like Ed Ruscha: Books & Co. at the Gagosian in New York, LA and Paris and the Brandhorst Museum in Munich,organized by Gagosian director Bob Monk with over seventy examples. Or Follow-ed at Rennes University, curated by Michalis Pichler and Tom Sowden with over 400 examples. However, my motivation for The Royal Road to the Unconscious was in order to conduct an experiment on the writing of Sigmund Freud as I was working closely with a psychoanalyst at that time on creative projects for a period of around five years. I utilised Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test as a set of Readymade instructions in order to conduct an experiment on Sigmund Freud’s book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). I had observed a contradiction in Freud’s work that I wished to explore. Freud investigates the realm of the unconscious, the space of the irrational, but to do so he employs rational procedures such as syntax, grammar and punctuation.

The unconscious mind upsets the natural order of things. In dreams, objects can often appear the wrong size, words may be disconnected from their meanings and ideas can seem arbitrary and unrelated. Freud explores these phenomena, but in words that are, themselves, highly considered, in sentences that are carefully constructed and through arguments that are deliberately crafted. I wondered: what would happen if I were to subject his altogether consciously produced text to an aleatory moment, a seemingly random act of utter madness? What would happen if we were to re-encounter his text as if in a dream-like state? And how might I undertake such a purposeful misreading of Freud’s work?

The Royal Road to the Unconscious is the result of an extended dialogue and exchange of ideas with Dr Howard Britton, a psychoanalyst who was enthusiastic to find out more about contemporary art. In 2001, Dr Britton gave me a crash course in the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. One evening, in Spring 2002, I was reading Freud when I came across the following famous passage:

“In waking life the suppressed material in the mind is prevented from finding expression and is cut off from internal perception owing to the fact that the contradictions present in it are eliminated – one side being disposed of in favour of the other; but during the night, under the sway of an impetus towards the construction of compromises, this suppressed material finds methods and means of forcing its way into consciousness.

Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.

The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”[i]

Those particular words gave me an idea to utilise Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test as a readymade set of instructions. The way I make work is through reading the words of others. Sometimes I get stuck on a particular word, a sentence or a longer passage of text. I end up a bit like a stuck record, repeating the same phrase over and over again. When this happens I feel an obligation to do something about it: to make a work. In this instance, I was tripped over by the combination of the words ‘royal’ and ‘road’ in Freud’s sentence. Immediately, I thought of Ed Ruscha’s the Royal Road Test (1967).

I first encountered Ruscha’s book back in 1996; by 2002 his playful capers were but a distant memory; my journey back to Ruscha’s work was taken through Freud. In 1966, Ed Ruscha (Driver), Mason Williams (Thrower) and Patrick Blackwell (Photographer) drove 122 miles Southwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in a 1963 Buick Le Sabre. The desolate area is known as the Devil’s Playground. The weather was perfect. They were travelling along U.S. Highway 91 at a speed of 90 mph. The time was 5:07 pm when the writer Mason Williams threw a Royal (Model ‘X’) typewriter out of the window. Patrick Blackwell, the photographer, documented the scene of strewn wreckage. His documentation of the action was subsequently bound into a book, Royal Road Test. The book has become something of a cult classic and Ruscha is widely acknowledged as one of the first artists to make artworks in the form of books. This was not a book being used for the purpose of documenting an existing artwork but the book being employed as a container for an idea – which is the work itself. Like much conceptual art of the period, the work contains a minimal set of previously agreed instructions that the protagonists followed as they completed the action.

The chance of the words ‘royal’ and ‘road’ appearing in both Freud and Ruscha suggested, to me, a way of subjecting Freud’s text to a similarly random act of madness. It should be understood that I was using Ed Ruscha’s project as a readymade set of instructions in order to carry out a new experiment on Freud’s writing. This was in no way an attempt to repeat the work made by Ruscha. On the contrary, I wanted to use Ruscha’s Royal Road Test as a means to read Freud differently. In the Royal Road Test, the writer Mason Williams threw a typewriter out of the window of the speeding car – for my reading experiment, it seemed perfectly illogical that words should follow. First, though Freud’s words would have to be disconnected from the logic of the ‘sentence’ he had imposed on them. As Pablo Picasso is so often quoted as saying: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction”.[ii] The cut-up technique of Tristan Tzara, Willliam S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin provided me with necessary methodology to destroy (in order to recreate) Freud’s seminal work. So, I am a big fan of Ed Ruscha’s work but it wasn’t my primary motivation for this particular work. Ruscha was one cog in the machine that makes the art. I utilised his work as a readymade set of instructions and I ‘undersigned’ or ‘brandjacked’ his aesthetic for the formal arrangement of the book.

  • Is there a connection between your work and literature? If so, could you describe it?

Yes, I am involved in the conceptual writing movement which blurs the boundaries between art and literature. A few of the leading protagonists and myself went to art school where as several conceptual writers were formally trained in literature, one in politics & philosophy and one was trained as an appellate law attorney. This is definitely a movement that embraces an interdisciplinary approach to making. I established ‘information as material’ in York in 2002 – the first small independent press dedicated to the genre of conceptual writing. The imprint has gone on to publish over fifty titles. You can find out more here: www.informationasmaterial.org 

I made the first film on the leading protagonist of conceptual writing, Kenneth Goldsmith, entitled ‘sucking on words’ which was screened at the British Library and at the Oslo Poetry Festival in 2007.

I then curated the first exhibition of conceptual writing, entitled ‘The Perverse Library’, 2010 at Shandy Hall, Coxwold, North Yorkshire the former home of Laurence Sterne, the progenitor of experimental literature. This was followed by ‘Sentences’ an exhibition at Bury Art Museum, curated by Tony Trehy in 2011 and then Postscript in the USA and Canada, curated by Andrea Anderson, 2013-14 which toured round several venues including Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, USA, the Power Plant Gallery, Toronto, Canada and the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, USA.

In terms of what is the connection between art and literature, one of the questions my work interrogates is how we position ourselves in relation to language. Emergent technologies are allowing us to glimpse new possibilities for our relationship to language. Charles Bernstein wrote an interesting text entitled ‘The Art of Immemorability’[iii] in which he detailed the development of language in the West and the impact of nascent technologies. In the following section, I have completed a close reading of Bernstein’s text in order to present the context from which my practice emerges.

Prior to the Greek alphabet and its introduction of vowels, language was more visual as in the case of Egyptian hieroglyphs. He notes how the introduction of the Greek alphabet allowed writing to more accurately capture speech:

“The genius of the Greek alphabet was the invention of subsyllabic units that broke sound down into atomic elements that could be combined to represent any linguistic noise.”[iv]

At this time texts were mostly created as an aide-mémoire to an oral performance and there was not the sense of the fixed text that we have today. Punctuation, grammar and spelling were determined on a much more individual basis. In the West, the technological revolution of the printing press in 1451 created an exclusive stage for writing to perform on, in the form of the book. The development of the printing press saw the emergence of tighter rules around the presentation of language and led to a period of language stabilisation, known in linguistics as standardisation. We are now witnessing another massive shift in our relationship to the spoken and written word with the rapid development of photographic and electronic reproduction. In the information age of the internet, we are living in a culture where the oral, the alphabetic and the photo/electronic co-exist, a condition known in language as multimodal literacy.[v]  Walter Benjamin is often cited for his important essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), which posits the idea that everyone can now be a writer.[vi] From a time where there were few writers and many readers, the development of writing technologies and publishing opportunities in the late nineteenth century has allowed everyone to make his or her mark in language. Benjamin uses the letters pages of newspapers as an example of everyone’s authorship potential. The continued emergence of these technologies throughout the twentieth century means that everyone can now become a publisher. The end result of everyone’s being able to participate in language production and dissemination is vast quantities of text being shifted at speed through digital technologies. Mountains of text are continually in flux on the world wide web, travelling from one container to another. Bernstein claims that we are now entering a postliterate age. The development of radio and then television has seen new methods for the transmission and storage of information. Bernstein states:

“Postliteracy brings us back to preliteracy. In particular, the emergence of the world wide web in the 1990s has awakened a sharper appreciation for the medium of writing and the visual and acoustic elements of language.”

Prior to the introduction of vowels by the Greeks, language was more image-based, and we are now in our postliterate age seeing vowels once again being removed in text/online gaming/messaging and instant messaging, all to increase the speed of communication. Writing is essentially a storage medium and a medium cannot be anything in itself. A medium is essentially a means of conveying something from one place to another. It is determined by the way in which it is used. Language does not mean by itself, it is the context that shapes language and gives it meaning. Bernstein makes an important point that ‘sometimes one discovers the use of a medium by relying on the resistance of the materials that constitute it.’ He acknowledges the importance of Clement Greenberg’s formalist criticism which called for ‘the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself – not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.’[vii] Greenberg called for a self-reflexive approach which he saw as the defining feature of modernism:

“What had to be exhibited was not only that which was unique and irreducible in art in general, but also that which was unique and irreducible in each particular art. Each art had to determine, through its own operations and works, the effects exclusive to itself. By doing so it would, to be sure, narrow its area of competence, but at the same time it would make its possession of that area all the more certain.”[viii]

This, in my opinion, presents a justification for testing the boundaries of language in order to take possession, more certainly, of language itself. Alphabetic writing freed poetry from its epic function and prose was now able to take care of history and tradition. Poetry, released from its obligation to memorise history, now focused more on the individual voice, the lyric function of poetry. In the current information age, the digital postliterate age, the function of poetry is no longer one of collective memory or the projection of the individual voice (the emphasis now is on ‘shareware’), but can now, instead, focus on the malleability of language: its temporality; its ephemeral nature; its physicality; its dynamism; its fluidity; and its structures. In the digital age, poetry’s function is to examine the means of transmission, exposing the frame of language, the container that creates meaning – how language is stored, viewed and moved from one context to another. In considering this, the digital age sees a renewed engagement between speech and writing.  

Gertrude Stein’s investigations in language in the early part of the twentieth century are an important example of practice that draws our attention to how the language was being made to resonate and its dependence on the structures that fix it to the page. An example of this can be seen in her piece entitled ‘Gertrude Stein on Punctuation’:

“There are some punctuations that are interesting and there are some punctuations that are not. Let us begin with the punctuations that are not. Of these the one but the first and the most the completely most uninteresting is the question mark. The question mark is alright when it is all alone when it is used as a brand on cattle or when it could be used in decoration but connected with writing it is completely entirely completely uninteresting. It is evident that is you ask a question you ask a question but anybody who can read at all knows when a question is a question as it is written in writing.”[ix]

The materiality or concreteness of language is exposed when the focus shifts away from its informational content.  Kenneth Goldsmith’s current work is an important example of writing that has addressed the malleability of digitised text in the age of the internet. Practising ‘uncreativity as a creative practice’ in the thirty-ninth year of his life, Kenneth Goldsmith retyped an entire edition of the New York Times. The resulting text, Day,[x] an 836-page book, reproduced the entire text from the paper in one standardised font and point size. This art work makes us acutely aware of the vast quantities of text we are asked to negotiate on a daily basis. By pouring the text from one context into another and stripping it of its formal presentation, Goldsmith makes us aware of the dogmatic way in which text is presented to us on a daily basis. The headlines, the ‘shouters’, the combination of image and text, the graphic design, the range of type are all removed but it is only in their absence that we are made fully aware of their presence. As a trained sculptor, Goldsmith describes the physicality of language and the malleability of digitised text in relation to Day:

“Far from being boring, it was the most fascinating writing process I’ve ever experienced. It was surprisingly sensual. I was trained as a sculptor and moving the text from one place to another became as physical, and as sexy as, say, carving stone. It became this wild sort of obsession to peel the text off the page of the newspaper and force it into the fluid medium of the digital. I felt like I was taking the newspaper, giving it a good shake, and watching as the letters tumbled off the page into a big pile, transforming the static language that was glued to the page into moveable type.”[xi]

In Bernstein’s opinion, the opportunity for poetry now is exactly that – to investigate the material properties of language: its malleability; its fluidity; and its structures. I would widen this to include anyone from any discipline who is investigating language. This debate is not exclusive to the poetry community, as language is the one technology that is common to us all. The potential exists to discover completely new relationships to language. This type of practice takes place in a broader field which is coming to be defined as ‘conceptual writing’.[xii] As well as Gertrude Stein and Kenneth Goldsmith, other proponents of this type of work include: Vito Acconci, John Baldessari, Derek Beaulieu, Samuel Beckett, Ulises Carrión, Hanne Darboven, Douglas Huebler, Luce Irigaray, Joseph Kosuth, Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner and Darren Werschler-Henry.[xiii] Conceptual writing involves both writers and artists that are investigating the material properties of language, writing that is characteristically defined by its non-expressive qualities and writing that adopts an equivalent structure: the idea is the writing and the writing is the idea.

Jacques Derrida has commented on how the university as an institution could not bear anyone interfering on the edge of language, on the rim of meaning:

“What this institution cannot bear, is for anyone to tamper with language…It can bear more readily the most apparently revolutionary ideological sorts of ‘content,’ if only that content does not touch the borders of language and all the juridico-political contracts that it guarantees.”[xiv]

This is exactly the territory my work investigates. Jacques Lacan in his construction of the three registers, the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real makes it clear that we are alienated from ourselves and from language. Language is Other and one of Lacan’s key points is that we all need to find our own particular relation to it. We are born into a world filled with language, a textual maelstrom, and the speed at which we negotiate our relation to it, and acquire language, is truly incredible. The speed of language acquisition was detailed on an information board at the Millennium dome:

“Our brains all contain the same language circuits at birth. Although new born babies quickly tune their hearing to the speech around them, their own speech, their babble, is the same whatever language.

It takes a year before babble begins to sound like their mother tongue. From the age of one, children learn ten new words every day, and by two they can put words together to form sentences. At this age, it’s already Babel: English and Chinese children are talking quite different languages. By six, children have a full command of grammar, and at ten years they are likely to have a vocabulary of 30,000 words. From our common genetic heritage, a myriad languages grew.”[xv]

That short text effectively details the rate of language acquisition and how we all start at the same point. But how we negotiate our own particular relation to language is the central theme of my enquiry. As Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger says in her text ‘Matrix and Metramorphosis’:

“Even if we believe that language is really only phallic, we still have a lot of room for shaping different relationships towards it, ‘different’ discourses. We might try to change it from within, to destroy it here and there, to damage its signifiers, to discover and explore empty spaces, holes in the discourse. We might discover a language of margins, or a marginal language – is that not what poetry and art are about?”[xvi]

In my practice I consciously work in the margins, on the borders of language, erasing text and subjecting texts to aleatory procedures. This is entirely deliberate, as what I intend is to create structures that allow people to encounter the ineffable. A structure is created that others are invited to contribute to and make their own. I place myself both inside and outside of the work and erase myself through the process of collaborative making. My work examines new relations to language: readers select books that reflect their practice (Bibliomania); two writers imaginatively interpret one another’s references (Interpretation); a conversation is broken in half, leaving a space for the reader to suture him- or herself into the missing text (Extreme Reading); two academic texts collide and their delivery is ruptured by the oral overlay of randomly extracted words (A Text That Destroys Itself in the Process of Its Own Reading); the instructions from one work are used as a readymade structure to interpolate another work (The Royal Road to the Unconscious); the text of one conversant is erased, leaving a physical space on the page for the reader to place him- or herself in the missing dialogue (Sucking on Words); a text is continually re-written by a machine programmed to reconfigure the text at random (Re-Writing Freud); and, finally, an intervention into a precise facsimile edition of Georges Perec’s book, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (trans. John Sturrock, London: Penguin books, 1997) in which pigeons are set to work reading a single chapter (Pigeon Reader).

Language is constantly shifting and we need to renegotiate our relation to it. How can we position ourselves in relation to language and what new models of reading can be developed? can we read bibliographies as if they were conventional texts? can we imagine a person’s work through his or her references? can we create additional spaces for the reader through erasure? can we purposefully disrupt academic papers in order to make more space for the reader in the construction of meaning? can we read one book through another? and can we read a book by examining the materiality of its words as opposed to their meaning-content? I hope my practice can be seen as a site for the investigation of these questions.

  • In discussing your work, you talk about reading as art. What is this activity or performance?

I’m fascinated by the idea of reading as a form of art, in and of itself.

In 2004 I presented Reading as Art for the first time in a group exhibition in London. When invited by the curator Andrew Hunt to respond to W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995), I simply filmed myself reading the book, from beginning to end. In 2005 I was selected by Gustav Metzger to participate in East International. For the fifty days of the exhibition, I read from books selected for me by the other exhibiting artists, and digital documentation of my reading was uploaded to a website on a daily basis, which was displayed in the gallery.

In Reading as Art, the spectator is given nothing. Apart from the image of a person reading, and the cover of the book, which tells you what they are reading, no further information is transmitted. In my case, I was reading Jacques Derrida’s The Paper Machine. For me, silent reading contains all the essential principles of a traditional artwork. The spectator or reader is given nothing and from this ambiguous space he or she is left with a space to construct his or her own meaning. There is a shift between illusion and reality as at times the reader is clearly conscious of being filmed, while at others they have lost themselves[xvii] in the text. As critics of reader-response theory would say, the reader has succumbed to the trance or the fascination of reading. The art takes place in these moments of slippage, when the artist moves from one register to another, oscillating between the inside and the outside of the text. For me, these moments of slippage are like entering a piece of music by Yves Klein or La Monte Young. The work can be entered at any moment; there is no beginning and no end, just one continuous stretched-out sound. As Yves Klein said:

“During this period of condensation, around 47–48, I created a ‘monotone’ symphony whose ‘theme’ is what I wished my life to be. This symphony, lasting forty minutes (but that’s quite unimportant, we shall see why) is constituted of one single continuous ‘sound’, stretched out, deprived of its attack and end, which creates a sensation of dizziness, of sensibility whirled outside time. Thus the symphony does not exist even while being there, leaving behind the phenomenology of time, for it has neither been born nor ever died, after existing, however, in the world of our possibilities of conscious perception: it is audible silence-presence.” [xviii]

It makes no difference in the reading, at what point the documentation of the activity took place, what was read before or after. What the digital film allows us to do is to engage with the activity of reading itself. Shifting in my seat, eyes moving from left to right, blinking, hand playing with the page, book placed down flat on the table, breathing, a finger stroking the page back and forth, the blur of movement as a page is turned.

In Reading as Art, the reader and the reading are the subjects of the work. Reading is art when the act of reading, the moments of slippage, nothingness, inbetweenness, undecidability are presented for our reception. Do I succeed? Whether I complete a transcendent reading or am able to make a non-transcendental reading (Foucault), whether any slippages occur at all is of no importance. To create a work of art is to make a raid on the impossible, to attempt to capture that which cannot be captured in words, in text, in language. Whether I succeed in putting the activity of reading in the frame is of no importance – the value of the work is in the attempt and desire of the artist to capture the impossible.

The significance of reading as art is that artists are questioning the very idea of what or how we read. Should we read the words in the book or the image of the person reading the words? Both activities are rich in potential for the reader. Can you imagine a library of books of different people reading, where you can reach up to the shelf and pick off a book of images of a person reading?

  • Artists’ books in print continue to persist. By way of example, several of the works in this exhibition are from the 21st century, and some even as recently as 2017. Why do you think this genre persists and lends itself so handily to conceptual art? 

I think the persistence is directly related to the advent of the internet which has encouraged us to re-examine two distinct characteristics of writing, the quantity of information that is being moved about digitally and the surface of writing – the materiality of paper, ink and binding glue. In December 2018, I went to see a talk by the artist Christian Marclay and he was speaking about his piece ‘the Clock’. The Clock is an art installation, a looped 24-hour video supercut that feature clocks or timepieces from thousands of films. The artwork itself functions as a clock: its presentation is synchronized with the real time, resulting in the time shown in a scene being the actual time. He said that he had the idea for making the work and then sat on it for five years. He said when he thought about it first, computers did not have the processing power or speed necessary to make the work. Then, at the time he made the work, people were ditching thousands of magnetic tape video cassettes and switching to digital which gave him the material he needed to work from. Now, he said, he wouldn’t be able to make this work at all as a lot of the VHS films were never transferred to digital and so a lot of the material is no longer available or has been completely lost. So, he was talking about a really short window of time over a few years where it was actually possible to create this work because of the technology available and the material available for him to work from. That really fascinates me and I reckon that’s probably true, works of art are more intrinsically linked to the particular moment of their inception than we may at first realise. In fact, they couldn’t be made at any other point in history. The sources that particularly inform this moment of book art production I think have been very clearly articulated by Dr Kaja Marczewska in her excellent Bloomsbury book, This is Not a Copy (2018) where she comes up with her notion of the iterative turn. In This Is Not a Copy, Kaja Marczewska demarcates with great intelligence and careful scholarship the history of an aesthetic shift, the iterative turn that affords us an understanding of an expanded form of writing demanding an alternative skill set and including copying as an act of writing in, and of itself. Marczewska breaks down for us three experimental approaches to writing that dominate the contemporary avant-garde poetic scene: erasure, transcription and coding. She links these to earlier avant-garde moments and suggests that the iteration is not just defined at the level of material reproduction but in terms of repeating existing artistic procedures as well. Both are made in direct response to a technologically driven society of postproduction (Nicolas Bourriaud’s attempt to describe the contemporary cultural condition) where information is constantly being selected and reframed to generate new meanings in order to disrupt the existing order of things. Iterative writing is presented as a complex system of creative practice and critical thought.

  • Just as offset printing, a change in technology, enabled a shift in the production of books from the livre d’artiste to the artist’s book, what interesting trends do you see for this genre and emerging technology?  

I’ve seen the advent of the internet lead to two parallel forms of conceptual writing. For my exhibition of Reading as Art at Bury Art Museum, I investigated these two distinct bodies of work. The first set of works explored the proliferation of language in the digital age. The cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard referred to an excess of information as the ‘obscenity of language’.[xix] He also used the term ‘an ecstasy of communication’ for instances where information overload degenerates into incomprehensibility. Confronted by an excess of information, language falters, stumbles, repeats and challenges us to learn to read differently.

While the volume of words may at first appear overwhelming, these works also exploit the malleability of digitised text, and show how its signification can change when rapidly shifted from one context to another. This body of work is exemplified by the work of the artist Carol Sommer.

In Sommer’s book, Cartography for Girls (2016) she identifies, collates and maps, without hierarchy, all of the experiences of female consciousness depicted in all of author Iris Murdoch’s 26 novels, which were originally published between 1954 and 1995. While there are many ways of thinking about what might constitute female experience, Sommer borrows and reflects on Murdoch’s own philosophical thinking and the latter’s warnings about the dangers of classification. Using the indexical, abecedarian logic of the Geographer’s A–Z Street Atlas – a British mapmaking institution – Cartography for Girls charts the strong connections between truth and love through direct quotation. In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), Murdoch describes loving as “an orientation, a direction of energy, not just a state of mind.” Individual consciousness, she tells us, is ultimately truth seeking, therefore “what we attend to, how we attend and whether we attend” is an integral part of moral activity. While Murdoch clarifies that not all states of consciousness are evaluating (or can be evaluated), it is the thoughts of her fictional female characters that Sommer has collated as ‘orientations’ in Cartography for Girls. For example, from the section that gathers together all the sentences beginning with the letter ‘S’:

“She looked brave. She looked down at it as from an eminence. She looked down at the sunny street through sudden tears. She looked forward to her company. She looked in the mirror and the sight of her terrible face brought on more tears. She looked into her dressing-table mirror, at her beautiful hair and her distorted face, and for a moment opened her eyes wide and resumed her old insistent animated look which said ‘like me, like me’. She looked into his face, and whereas before she had seemed to see only the luminous eyes and the tender mouth, she now saw his expression which was quizzical, almost humorous.”[xx]  

The second set of works all revolve around paper, the surface of writing, the materiality of the ground and its physical size while playfully and purposefully removing language. I’m fascinated by works that seem to ask only that they’re not read. I like to think about what Marcel Duchamp terms ‘the infrathin,’ the point at which one can just barely begin to perceive a threshold between two states. As Craig Dworkin refers to in his book No Medium (MIT Press, 2013):

“The concept, Duchamp insisted, could not be directly defined but could be elaborated through examples: the moment between the report of a gun and the appearance of a bullet hole; the temperature change in a seat that has just been vacated; the volumetric difference between the air displaced by a clean shirt and the same shirt after it has been worn; the noise made by corduroy pants rubbing together when one moves; the impression formed between two sides of a thin sheet of paper…something to be studied!”[xxi] 

Something to be studied indeed and I’ve found a great many works that address this liminal state, using erasure and redaction as methodologies. But when almost all language has been removed or erased, the works seem to speak more clearly than ever. As Dworkin notes: ‘Erasures obliterate, but they also reveal; omissions within a system permit other elements to appear all the more clearly.’[xxii]

In Jérémie Bennequin’s ommage À la recherche du temps perdu(2005–15) the artist erases the work of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, 1913) for a period of ten years, from 2005 to 2015. As a self-imposed constraint Bennequin erased a page a day with an ink rubber. He slowly and methodically worked through the 3000 page novel, the white edition of this work, which was published by Gallimard in a series of seven volumes. Once erased, the fragments of the deleted text were scanned and then republished. The re-printed ruined text includes scattered letters, solitary syllables, fragments of sometimes entirely legible words, glimpses of sentences and even scraps of thoughts. His work includes the erased pages, the shavings left over from the exhausted ink rubber and a manual of instructions, carefully detailing the correct approach to making a work like this. The title of his work ‘ommage’ is a pun that combines the word homage and the word gommage which means ‘rubber’ in French.

There were plenty more works in the exhibition representing both extremes of communication, too much information (leading to obfuscation) or too little information (leading to a clarity of expression), but for the purpose of this blog, these two works, Sommer’s Cartography for Girls and Bennequin’s ommage À la recherche du temps perdu serve as exemplars of the respective poles. All of the work in Reading as Art exhibition considered reading as a purposeful and powerful creative act in its own right. The artist as reader, recording the work of reading and asking us to read it anew. The artist as reader, inviting us to wonder what we are actually doing when we read, to attend to its material conditions – paper, print, the space of the page or the screen – and to rethink what counts as matter worth reading. The viewer as reader, too, complicit in activating and reactivating this work, as she considers the relationship between reading and looking. Together, the two orientations of the exhibition conceive of reading as a practice, an intervention, an event, a question. What can reading (or not reading) make happen? To texts, to minds, to bodies, in the world? How to make the everyday, often private and undocumented action of reading – with its circumstances and protocols, its materials and affects, and its very real consequences – appear?

‘These are questions that I ask,

and I think there is some point

in an writer artist asking them.’

– Georges Perec, ‘Reading: A Socio-physiological Outline’, 1976[xxiii]

[i] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams [1900], ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Penguin Books, 1985) 768-769.

[ii] http://www.quotedb.com/categories/art.

[iii] Charles Bernstein, ‘The Art of Immemorability’ in A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections About the Book and Writing, ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Steven Clay (New York: Granary Books, 2000) 504-517.

[iv] Ibid. 504.

[v] Gunther Kress, Communication Now and in the Future, English 21 < http://www.qca.org.uk/downloads/12292_commun_now_and_in_the_future.pdf >.

[vi] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana P, 1992) 211-244.

[vii] Quoted in Thierry de Duve, ‘Echoes of the Readymade: Critique of Pure Modernism’, October 70 (Fall 1994) 61-97.

[viii] Quoted in Jeff Wall, ‘Marks of Indifference; Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art’, Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975, ed. Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer (Cambridge MA: MIT P, 1995), 247-267.

[ix] Gertrude Stein, Lectures In America [1935] (Boston: Beacon P, 1985) 214-222.

[x] Kenneth Goldsmith, Day (Great Barrington: The Figures, 2003).

[xi] Kenneth Goldsmith, ‘Being Boring’ http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/goldsmith/goldsmith_boring.html.

[xii] For an introduction to conceptual writing, see:  Craig Dworkin, ‘The Fate of Echo’ in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (eds. Craig Dworkin & Kenneth Goldsmith), Northwestern University Press, 2011.

[xiii] For a fuller list of artists and writers working in this field, see: Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (eds. Craig Dworkin & Kenneth Goldsmith), Northwestern University Press, 2011 and I’ll Drown this Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (eds. Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, Teresa Carmody & Vanessa Place), Les Figues Press, 2012

[xiv] Quoted in Craig Dworkin, ‘Notes to the Introduction’, Reading the Illegible (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2003) 157-158: 157.

[xv] Unaccredited source, information board at the Millennium Dome, 2000. For a fuller discussion of language acquisition, see Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (New York: Harper Perennial Modern, 2000).

[xvi] Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger, ‘Matrix and Metramorphosis’ in Trouble in the Archives, ed. Griselda Pollock, special issue of Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 4.3 (1992) 176-208: 194.

[xviii] Yves Klein, ‘Overcoming the Problematic of Art’, Long Live the Immaterial, (New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 2000) p.71.

[xix] Obscenity begins for Jean Baudrillard ‘when all becomes transparence and immediate visibility, when everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication.” in Craig Dworkin, ‘The Logic of Substrate’ in No Medium (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2013) p.8.

[xx] Carol Sommer, Cartography for Girls, An A–Z of Orientations (York: information as material, 2016).

[xxi] Craig Dworkin, ‘The Logic of Substrate’ in No Medium (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2013) pp.17–18.

[xxii] Ibid, p.9.

[xxiii] Georges Perec, ‘Reading: A Socio-physiological Outline’ in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, John Sturrock (ed.) (London: Penguin Books, 1999) p.185.

Simon Morris is a conceptual writer, and Director of Research and Professor, School of Art, Architecture, and Design at Leeds Beckett University, UK
Interview questions: Beverly Mitchell; Curator, Hawn Gallery, and Assistant Director, Hamon Arts Library, SMU Libraries
Featured image: “The aleatory moment (exterior)” from The Royal Road to the Unconscious, 2003.
Image: Cutting of words from Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams from The Royal Road to the Unconscious, 2003.
Information/Object: Late 20th – Early 21st Century Artists’ Books continues to March 8, 2019.

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