Re-use of Language: The exhibition Postscript brings together experimental literature and contemporary art

Erica Baum: Examined (2009): Archival pigment print from the “Dog Ear” series, 9 x 9 inches. Courtesy the artist and Bureau, New York.Erica Baum: Examined (2009): Archival pigment print from the “Dog Ear” series, 9 x 9 inches. Courtesy the artist and Bureau, New York.

By Saelan Twerdy

This fall, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA Denver) presents a major exhibition that surveys the artistic use of language as material and subject from the 1960s to the present. Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art is more than just a retrospective of text-based conceptual art, however: it is the first serious effort to present the emerging literary field of “conceptual writing” in a museum context in order to highlight its relationship with contemporary art practices. Through paintings, sculpture, installation, video, works on paper, and a set of web-based artists’ projects in collaboration with the groundbreaking online journal Triple Canopy, co-curators Nora Burnett Abrams and Andrea Andersson are raising questions about how and where we look at, hear, read, and understand language today.

More than ever, experimental practices in contemporary art and literature are in dialogue with each other, and Postscript is likely to stand as a watershed document in the history of both conceptual art practice and 21st Century poetics. Bolstering the seriousness of this endeavour, the exhibition will also be accompanied by a major publication, including scholarly essays by leading writers and critics of Conceptual Literature, as well as contributions by select writers and artists featured in the exhibition, due from University of Chicago Press in 2013.

Montreal-based writer Saelan Twerdy contacted co-curator Nora Burnett Abrams via the eminently textual method of email to discuss the show.

Saelan Twerdy (ST): Postscript is the first exhibition to present conceptual literature in a museum context and in dialogue with contemporary art. How did you become interested in this literary field, and what led to your decision to arrange a show around it?

Nora Burnett Abrams (NA): My co-curator, Andrea Andersson, and I have been discussing the subject of Conceptual Writing for several years now. Her PhD dissertation dealt with relationships between experimental poetry and visual art of the 1960s and 70s, and we slowly conceived this exhibition as a kind of update on − really, a postscript to − that body of work.

João Onofre: Catriona Shaw Sings “Baldessari sings LeWitt” re-edit, “Like a Virgin” extended version (2003): Video on DVD, 14 minutes, 23 seconds. Courtesy the artist, I-20 Gallery, New York and Marlborough Contemporary, London.João Onofre: Catriona Shaw Sings “Baldessari sings LeWitt” re-edit, “Like a Virgin” extended version (2003): Video on DVD, 14 minutes, 23 seconds. Courtesy the artist, I-20 Gallery, New York and Marlborough Contemporary, London.ST: Are there any factors that make MCA Denver a particularly good fit for this kind of a show?

NA: Central to MCA Denver's vision is to demonstrate how pervasive contemporary art is in our daily lives. And, with an exhibition exploring the myriad ways in which found text − the reuse of language − is deployed, we're really demonstrating how something so basic and elemental becomes the material "stuff" of art, and that this is accomplished in wildly imaginative ways. Many works in the exhibition explore how inundated we are by our different forms of communication, from texting to Powerpoint to computer code, so we certainly hope that our presentation encourages further reflection on this subject.

ST: Conceptual art has often had something of a fraught relationship with museum display, and I can only imagine that looking at conceptual art through the lens of literature amplifies the challenge of presenting it in an exhibition. What kind of strategies are you using to show work that is so heavily text-based? How do the works in other media − paintings, sculpture, installation, video − relate to the textual material?

NA: All of the works on view incorporate appropriated text in some way − sometimes it does this via direct quotation, as with Glenn Ligon's Mirror Drawing #9, and with others, such found text is the generative source for the work, as with James Hoff's Stuxnet Score, in which he translated the code from the stuxnet computer virus into a musical score. As a way of organizing the exhibition, we identified five different strategies by which artists and writers are realizing their work: appropriation, redaction, transcription, translation and constraint. Each of these sections begins with a "historical" work − always a publication written by an artist − by first generation conceptual artists like Carl Andre, Marcel Broodthaers, Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt and Dan Graham. And, each of these publications − an artist's book, magazine, etc. − foregrounds the strategy for that grouping of contemporary works. Of course, one thing that we're keen to demonstrate is that while a work like Luis Camnitzer's Memorial exemplifies how artists are working within systems of constraint, it also utilizes appropriated text. So, ultimately, we're pointing out these different tools that artists and writers are deploying today, and also demonstrating that they're using multiple strategies simultaneously − really emphasizing how much these works overlap and intersect with one another and with their historical precedents.

Luis Camnitzer: Memorial (detail, 2009): Pigment prints, 195 parts, 11¾ x 9½ inches each. Courtesy the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York.Luis Camnitzer: Memorial (detail, 2009): Pigment prints, 195 parts, 11¾ x 9½ inches each. Courtesy the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York.ST: Can you tell me a bit about your co-curator, Andrea Andersson? Aside from this show, I haven’t been able to find much information about her. How did she come on board?

NA: Andrea is a superstar! She received her PhD from Columbia University in comparative literature. It is primarily her expertise on this material that led to our doing this exhibition together. She is an independent curator based in New York City.

ST: Given that a number of participants in conceptual literature have made the Internet an important part of their work will Postscript have an online component?

NA: We actually partnered with the online magazine Triple Canopy to produce three artist's projects that will comprise a special issue of the magazine. We collectively selected three participants in Postscript − Erica Baum, Caroline Bergvall and Gareth Long − who have each created a new work that will exist as part of a Triple Canopy publication, and which also extends the scope of the exhibition from the museum to the web. We wanted to highlight the ways in which Conceptual Writers are exploring/employing digital technologies and the language of the Internet in their work, and felt like we needed to do something beyond the galleries' walls that could address this aspect of Conceptual Writing more fully and appropriately.

ST: At what point was it arranged for the exhibition to travel to the Power Plant in Toronto? Do you know if it will be presented the same way there?

NA: We confirmed that the exhibition would travel to the Power Plant about a year ago. And yes, it will be presented in a similar manner, alhough Andrea and I will adapt certain works to the specifics of that site.

ST: The catalogue is going to include essays from some of the most influential writers and theorists of conceptual literature and 21st Century poetics, like Kenneth Goldsmith, Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin. Given that the focus of the show is on language, writing and text, I imagine the catalogue will be an integral part of the show, and will likely be of interest to many people who won't see Postscript in person. Is it going to mirror the format of the show in any way, or do you intend for it to stand as more of a scholarly volume in the traditional sense? Incidentally, when will it be available?

NA: The book won't be available until next year, unfortunately. It will advance many ideas introduced by the exhibition, but will also do much more. Rather than functioning as an appendage to the exhibition, the book, in many ways, will stand as a more comprehensive, definitive text on the subject of Conceptual Writing. Similar to the exhibition, the book demonstrates how Conceptual Writing is a field of both artists and writers; that they share a similar history, and that, though the work of these two disciplines of art and literature might look similar, the works do in fact signify differently. What the book does is to offer even more evidence to these essential points, bringing additional perspectives to bear on the work and presenting several critical voices on this subject. It is definitely more of an academic publication −  it’s being  published by a university press − and we hope that it will become a key text that will be used in future discussions on this subject.

Postscript runs at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver until February 3, 2013, and opens at the Power Plant in Toronto in June 2013.

Saelan TwerdySaelan Twerdy is a freelance writer and doctoral student at McGill University in Montreal. His writings on contemporary art, music and literature have appeared in Border Crossings, C magazine, canadianart.ca, Bad Day, Blackflash, Color and The New Inquiry. He has a tumblr at towerofsleep.tumblr.com.