‘…But these langues that fragmented open up a multitude of lingwix can extend to a liquid form that is ever changing and not with surface, but open, closable, but with effort opennable again. Like with a loop of talking the words can sound like completely different words and once they do you can’t hear the original words until they jump out again and are all you can hear again … only hopefully less locked in the grove than that. Inbetween sounding like two things.’1 — Christopher L G Hill, Never werk all art is problematic
Through writing this, I have realised that words don’t come easy. Language, even to someone who likes writing, can seem like a closed, impenetrable system. Writing is like trying to crawl through a net of invisible laser beams without triggering the alarm system, in the attempt to reach the coveted prize: a good sentence. Artists, however, aren’t limited to words. They can opt out of language entirely, and reject its rules and regulations, its way of limiting meaning, and its ability to disempower and control. It is curious then, when artists choose to use text in their work, falling back on the standard mode of communication, and risking the implication that the work can’t speak for itself.
A close reading of the writing and text of at least three contemporary artists reveals a different story. Far from obedience to the dominant language, these artists seem to tear at the fabric of language itself, unpicking the seams of grammar and meaning, and creating new pathways from within the dominant language, a process that Gilles Deleuze described as causing language to ‘tremble in all of its limbs’,2 which creates a ‘minor’^3 language within the major, dominant one. For Christopher L G Hill, this is achieved through a rejection of grammatical rules and an acute awareness of the graphic qualities of text — exaggerating, teasing, and extending languages to the edge of decipherability.
Laura Delaney’s recent installation I’m Fine (2010) took place in a mental health facility, and speaks in the language of institutionalised illness, medication, and side-effects. It is another language, a ‘minor language’ within English, with different rules — some of them absurd and dehumanising — that Delaney reclaims for its subjects and recharges with meaning. A similar act of ‘re-empowerment’ plays out in the text works of Kirsty Hulm. Her practice violates the idea of subject-hood, through muddying her authorial voice with the words of others, or rejecting the symbolic significance of text and naming. I would suggest that these three practices and their very distinct ‘minor’ uses of language, although disparate, have a shared interest in confronting the notion of the fractured contemporary subject.
The quote that opens this article, taken from Hill’s self-governed thesis, Never werk all art is problematic,4 simultaneously describes and illustrates a mode of writing that is ‘liquid’ and unlocked from the metric constraints of grammar. This unfettered writing finds its own rhythms, perhaps bringing the reader closer to the voice of the artist, but also allowing him to frame his broader practice in his own textual structure. Hill’s ‘praxis’^5 involves opposition to standard ideas of property ownership, which he challenges in a number of ways — most notably by borrowing from and collaborating with other artists. This opposition extends through his writing to a rejection of a singular, ‘right’ way of spelling or writing. ‘Spelling is a creative expression this is seen in subversion (kvlture jamming) and/or cheesy t-shirts, as well as in punk, hip-hop, black metal and other cultural spaces’,6 he writes. ‘It frees words from literary and concrete meanings. It loosens time and drone of the read word and negates corrective TXT, and spell check two dictatorial factors of our every day life.’^7 This reclamation of the control over language is a rejection of an authoritative language that is owned by the dominant culture, and often functions as a tool of exclusion. Hill tries to build something more inclusive, shared, and to use his term, ‘liquid’.
This free-flowing language and Hill’s interest in a fluid ownership of ideas may be an embrace of what theorist Zygmunt Bauman has described as ‘liquid modernity’,8 which reflects the characteristic instability of all aspects of contemporary life. This sense of precariousness can infect the contemporary individual’s identity, which becomes a ‘fragile identity, an identity which is no longer, as was the case during modernity, the only solid foundation of individual and social life’.9 For Hill, this instability occurs at the level of language itself, as the ‘flux that may exist within any one thing’ stops as soon as a word is used in relation to it, and this imposed ‘stillness … [causes] conflict’.10 It is from this starting point that the contemporary artist must write, and Hill recommends that artists employ a mode of communication that is ‘untraceable and unaccountable’ in order to ‘counteract the problems of walking around covered in layers and frames and things-which-already-determine-our-understanding’.11 His text represents an open-armed move towards a more immediate communication with rules that can be edited by all. I have the sense, however, that a prerequisite of embracing this flux is a deep sense of one’s own identity and personhood. An example of this is present in Hill’s practice of ‘fluid’ ownership, which is achieved through gestures of community and inclusion of other artists and friends as influences and collaborators on his work.12 Paradoxically, the proliferation of names in Hill’s work does not counteract his authorship, but reinforces it. Acknowledgment of a network of tangential contributors to an individual’s praxis ultimately does not dilute or challenge the concept of authorial ownership, but really strengthens the idea of the existence of the distinct self as being the site of connection for others — a facilitator, host, or nerve centre in a network of associations.
Laura Delaney’s I’m Fine (2010) is an extended response to the question ‘How are you?’13 Although this question is used so often with no expectation of receiving an honest response, it is a phrase that can nevertheless trigger great anxiety for many people. Within the mental health system, this question is generally avoided, or at least asked in a soft tone whilst trying to meet the person’s eyes. For those who speak the language fluently, ‘How are you?’ can elicit a frank discussion about the side effects of psychotropic medications, the comparison of doses, and opinions on their efficacy. To the uninitiated, these conversations could sound too candid for over-coffee chatter, if they make sense at all. That is why many people measure their answers carefully for ‘outsiders’.^14 It’s safer just to say that you are fine.
It is at this moment of communication breakdown that Delaney intervenes. Providing a series of coffee mugs bearing short phrases such as ‘Impossible to feel happy’, ‘Incomplete movements’ and ‘Suicidal’, Delaney relieves the mug-user of the burden of having to explain. The mugs are for staff and visitors as well, and diffuse the stigma attached to such disclosure. Printing these words on ceramic suddenly makes their clinical, endless repetition in psychiatric treatment seem absurd, almost comical. It is a rejection of being an object of this language, of being labeled by doctors with constellations of words that seem inadequate to describe one’s experience. In this way, I’m Fine (2010) reclaims this sub-language for those in treatment, whilst allowing those outside the system to share it, and perhaps gain a greater understanding of the experience. Delaney’s hope is to ‘draw together’^15 the different experiences of those inside and outside of the mental health system ‘so that their relationship could become somewhat synonymous’.^16 These interactions — over endless coffees in the smokers’ courtyard, in the centre of the dining room, in front of Delaney’s ‘barricade’ sculpture made of pin-boards and venetian blinds bearing informative pamphlets, treatment suggestions, and floating text phrases from the artist’s diaries — will allow people to collaborate on new ways of negotiating the discussion of mental health. The idea of communication becomes less overwhelming, and the words start to mean what they should, whether you are ‘fine’ or not.
While Delaney’s work literally speaks the language of fractured identity, Kirsty Hulm’s recent work, Mark Hearts Keran (2010), involves the artist compromising the sovereignty of her physical being. The work involved Hulm ebay-auctioning the opportunity to have ‘[your] name tattooed on [her] butt’.17 The highest bidder, ‘Mark’, decided to have his love for ‘Keran’ immortalised on Hulm’s skin. In her blog, Hulm writes that her body ‘now exists in time as a dedication of love between two unknown lovers, like an ancient tree with names deeply carved, at once a universally acknowledged act of love, and simultaneously, a desecration of the pure being of Nature from which love springs’.^18 By rejecting her personhood and disconnecting herself from the sentiments tattooed into her skin, Hulm challenges the idea of a ‘self’ made up of skin, face and, above all, name. ‘This is my body. I am split. I function other than as myself’,^19 she writes, indicating a disobedience to the principle of the sovereign self. The implications of this act are complex — the artist rejects the idea of her sacredness, but is also freed from the burden of named personhood.
Being outside the dominant language provides the artist with a unique perspective. It enables them to locate the holes in the language itself, and to create new paths through it, or to unpick its seams. Each of the artists discussed here suggest new languages in the shadow of a dominant, exclusive mode of communication that often seems to hinder interaction more than facilitate it. This had to be done against a background of constant flux, and in a time when most people have an intermittent sense of their own personhood. In the words of Deleuze, the resultant journey is indivisible from that of ‘becoming’, such that these artists can metaphorically ‘write [themselves] into existence’.20