I began my first teaching position this semester, and one of the things I was most excited about (and made sure to take advantage of no matter what) was that I was allowed to take a class for free. By some stroke of luck—perhaps even divine intervention—there was a spot open in Joseph Grigely’s class titled Exhibition Prosthetics. This series of writings will be reflections from the week prior on talks I have gone too, virtual exhibitions I see (since I am taking this class during a pandemic I cannot in good conscience visit in person ones), as well as the readings assigned to me by Joseph, and any conversations we have together in the interim through email or instagram. We’ll see how it goes.
Big thanks this week to Joel Gitskin whose willingness to discuss the importance of the Talmud, its structures, and to provide me with a greater scope of the importance of Jewish thought. To him I am indebted as only a friend can ever be.
In the Editor’s Note that James Meyer wrote for Gregg Bordowitz’s The Aids Crisis is Ridiculous and Other Writings 1986-2003 he remarks upon the importance of writing to Bordowitz’s practice, and how the publication of this book could perhaps mark the return of the artist-writer after their hibernation since their “heyday” of the 1960s. Yet more importantly it is in a kind of Talmudic practice of questioning that follows from the writing work of Bordowitz, which Meyer notes when he writes, “Much like the finest AIDS writing, Bordowitz’s texts in this vein ask questions they cannot answer, questions without answers.”1 And this is perhaps the greatest outcome. The question that cannot be answered. Whether we are talking of faith or art, the answer solidifies something which itself necessarily metaphysical, beyond the simplified grasp of rationality in the service of progress. When the focus is not on progress, but growth, learning, and conversation we start to have a much richer life. It’s beautifully put by Rabbi Benay Lappe in her talk An Unrecognizable Jewish Future: A Queer Talmudic Take where she describes the story of Rava a 4th century Rabbi that is contained within the Talmud, I recommend watching it as I can only paraphrase here, but what it came down to was that when he saw the Torah affecting a woman’s life negatively he intervened. Using his svara—his moral intuition—he sees what needs to be fixed and overturns the Torah, because of his love for the Torah, for this woman. When the narrator in the Talmud asks him “do you mean to tell me that simply on account of these women, you’re going to abrogate Torah?” to which he answers with a single Aramaic word een which has at times been translated as simply “yes”, and at other’s as “yes, indeed.”2
I mention this because in the lectures and lecture performances I’ve been able to attend in person or view after the fact of Bordowitz’s this is something that he teaches over and over again. He had an entire series called Answers with Questions for Triple Canopy. And this structure of the work of the artist-writer as something that incorporates unanswerable questions, that does not foreclose meaning, but allows it to flow, it is what produces greater conversation. It places writings besides and in conversation with the other parts of an artist’s practice, not as a sieve on top of it to filter out what you can’t immediately process or would rather ignore.
It is this very figure of the artist-writer that allows to consider possible an art that can be considered informed by the Talmud. And beyond that it brings into the domain of art most properly language of all kinds, and most importantly and especially the jargon of various non-art professions. While most often the scrutiny of jargon is placed upon the art world writ large and it’s artists—especially those which participate in International Art English3—I think it is perhaps a symptom of the kind of scrutiny that is placed upon language within this field. We can begin this strain of criticality perhaps with Joseph Kosuth’s tautologies the most famous being One and Three Chairs, but we could also consider Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images or the rampant typographical experimentation that occurred within the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century. Wherever it is that we start we can find the belief in the treachery not so much of images, but the language that is placed around it by the artists and art facilitators. Although this itself is not inherently bad, as long as—like a question with seemingly no answer—we do not simply foreclose on the possibility of gleaning anything from it, and instead press on with vigorous inquiry.
While this is fine within the realm of art jargon, it is perhaps more interesting and fruitful when this tendency is refocused out into the language and practices of other fields. What I’m considering here is art works which branch out into other fields incorporating that which is not strictly artistic. Or another way to put it is the consideration of what constitutes these other fields discourses while incorporating aspects which could be considered specialized and/or complex. And what is at stake here in the condition of the artist-writer becoming the artist-writer-television producer or the artist-writer-lawyer or the artist-writer-doctor or the artist-writer-spy4 is the content of the language of the field and its conventions. In other words, through the cooptation and appropriation of the languages and images of other fields artists can better engage with and critique the knowledge models built into those systems. And importantly the artist here does become knowledgeable, either through the engagement with these other fields, or like in some of my examples because their lives continue outside of art and are impacted severely by these other fields necessitating an engagement with those knowledges. Like other forms of making (painting, drawing, sculpture, performance, installation, etc.) these forms become the medium through which the work is communicated whether it is incorporated with more “traditional” media or not.
In Bordowitz’s essay Boat Trip which is parallel to his video work of the same name there is a footnote which takes the form of a medical explainer for Didanosine or ddI a type of antiretroviral drug used to treat HIV. In this piece which takes the form of autobiographical travelogue the fluidity of the work is interrupted by placing us within the context of someone who has to consider not only the drug, but also its side effects, which for Bordowitz is still autobiographical. This moment reinforces a later moment when another person on the vacation accidentally pours a glass of water that the ddI was dissolving in down the sink. The incorporation of this information interrupts at one moment while highlighting the stakes later. Or his video works Fast Trip, Long Drop and Habit which mine the tropes of televisual media and allow the viewer to oscillate between the autobiographical and the largely political, creating a situation in which neither stand on their own as realities, but are always intertwined. For Bordowitz it is necessary to craft these narratives through the medium of video, and perhaps more importantly, for the medium of the television, in order to inject these concerns into what are mainstream modes.
In the work of Carolyn Lazard we find more concerted engagement with what could be called the semiotics of the hospital. Their piece Extended Stay, which has video on a loop playing on a hospital monitor attached to an articulating wall mount, engages some of the more monotonous and mundane aspects of living with a chronic illness that necessitates long hospital stays. Their work Crip Time much like some aspects of Bordowitz’s Habit reproduces the act of filling weekly pill organizers which implies certain knowledges and labors of medicine that are not simply the purview of doctors, but more often the patients themselves. Certain layers of different time arise and fluctuate here as well. That time which occurs in the hospital, in front of the pill organizers, sitting with illness. As Lazard puts it themselves, “In my work, I explore Black, queer, and crip temporal frameworks in which time is recursive. It stutters and stops, slows down, and speeds up. The mundane experiences of the everyday can feel like a space of reprieve from the compulsive indoctrination of the master clock.”5
Perhaps most directly engaged with the jargon and imagery of medicine and its processes and experiments is their 2019 work Pre-Existing Condition which “delves into the history of Dr. Kligman's testing and the University of Pennsylvania's complicity in the Holmesburg experiments through two archives: The University of Pennsylvania Archives and the Philadelphia City Archives. Over the course of the video, Lazard moves us through a series of documents and a conversation with the Holmesburg experimentation survivor and advocate Edward Yusuf Anthony, locating the tension between personal history and official records.”6 It crafts an aesthetic engagement with horrifying material extracted from the archive and recontextualized through the video format. It also makes a point to point to the relationship between medical experimentation and the disenfranchised.
The images of the files themselves are inverted with white text on a black background which brings to mind the work of American Artist around the Graphical User Interface and the tensions between black and white GUI’s that he uses as bases to discuss larger structures of anti-blackness. Artist writes in Black Gooey Universe,
Racial Slavery—which generated Blackness as a site of permanent extraction, gratuitous physical violence, and social death—provided the material and ideological basis for the United States. Unsurprisingly, Silicon Valley advances this constitutive anti-blackness through its technological products and processes. Whiteness in the space of high technology requires: market driven products that are anti-black, an echo chamber of white ideals (i.e. an ivory tower), and the creation of public-facing devices and platforms where white space is posited as neutral. The transition of the computer interface from a black screen, to the white screen of the 70s, is an apt metaphor for the theft and erasure of blackness, as well as a literal instance of a white ideological mechanism created with the intent of universal application.7
There are two pieces by the artist Joseph Grigely which engage the legal field and its language systems quite directly. The first is an ADA lawsuit against the Gramercy Hotel which resolved in a Consent Decree on the part of the hotel allowing them to deny responsibility while legally committing to making the changes required by their denied responsibility. In Grigely’s contextualization of this lawsuit (of which he was the original defendant) as an artwork the legal field is brought into the purview of artistic questioning. Foregoing any kind of mediation which could muddy the waters of this engagement, the direct copy and paste action of contextualization here allows us to properly consider the legal ramifications of this situation outside of the legal system’s justifications of its inner workings. In another more recent work Grigely confronts the constant flippancy of arts institutions relationships to access by creating an “artwork in the form of legal language.” The work Paragraph X is a tool any artist can use to append their artist contracts through literal copying and pasting of the paragraph into their contracts in order to make access a consistent concern. Grigely recognizes the pervasiveness of the legal context within the larger schema of governance systems as understood not only in the context of countries, but in the institutions (both in and out of the arts) which mimic their power structures. In this recontextualization of legal concerns we find opportunities for an understanding of the law as something which is malleable and has direct affects on the people it operates on and for. Perhaps most directly tied to the Talmudic practice of which I discussed earlier, the legal questions become spaces for reconsideration through svara. Like the story of Rava, we find here an interest not in what has been stated as the facts of the original document dictating the law but in the people involved.
An artist who more explicitly uses traditional aesthetic practices to properly intervene upon the system which they are critiquing is Sadie Barnette. Specifically, her works My Father’s FBI Files, Project 1 and Untitled (Dad’s Mug Shot). In My Father’s FBI Files, Project 1 she utilizes the documents obtained by her family in regard to the surveillance of her father through the Freedom of Information Act as a wallpaper taking up the space of the gallery wall. Throughout these documents there is a vast amount of redaction which obscures certain understandings of the exact situations that occurred. Barnette doubles down on this through her use of pink, purple, and black spray paint drawing attention to the illegibility inherent in these documents which comes from Freedom. In Untitled (Dad’s Mug Shot) she creates a portrait of her father from the photocopied image which was reproduced within the documents. In her own words to her father discussing the work she remarks, “I also did a drawing of your mug shot. It’s the only image in the FBI file and had been photocopied so many times that it had this poster-like quality to it. I wanted to draw it in pencil to really spend time and love laboring over it. Instead of the FBI investigating you, now I am creating a portrait of you using this material.”8 Material engagement which allows for time to be spent with this material creates a different view of the material itself. It refocuses us on not only the redaction as an act which challenges the supposed freedom that comes from the obtaining of this information, but also reemphasizes the people involved in the acts that are described in the documents.
Through the investment here by artists in the materials found outside of the purview of historical art practices we are allowed greater and nuanced questions about the realities we are situated in. Aspects obscured, or supposedly already solidified and answered are reopened as these renewed artistic inquiries. Inquiries which allows us as viewers of the art access into realities beyond the purview of our supposedly self-contained world. It’s in the recognition of linguistic structures that act as the scaffolding—which is built in such a way as to attempt to obscure its materials—to what and how we understand something. It is to look at this position of the artist-writer now expanded beyond (perhaps we could call it the artist-linguist although that is to miss the point) the binary embedded in that turn of phrase masquerading as label. It is to reorient our understanding of what it is that Meyer pointed out when commenting on the work of Bordowitz to recognize something a bit different. That is that language is always there in our engagement of art, and the question is who is it that is structuring the language. Language as a system of difference, and what that system of difference can tell us if we perhaps move to the margins of the page.
Because it is in those margins something new can be born in the difference.9 “The margins are a space for research and development of new ideas and methods of production not necessarily permitted within established fields. Dominant culture changes and grows, incorporating novel approaches developed on the margins.”10 Because otherwise something which seems so constant is that concepts of difference in the margin are ignored. We have to hear, see, know someone who is dealing with x, y, or z before we can possibly care about a concern. It’s the limits of our imagination. What comes after is the smoothing out of difference—the sterility of a margin unremarked upon—which in many ways is just as dangerous. Categories solidify, stereotypes sprout out around them like dandelions that are wished upon by others. The wishes are variant. But the wishes always come down to things like hearing less complaints, talking less about the categories, critiquing them less. Wishes for the blending in of those who point out the inadequacies of the world. What it seems that art can do is allow us to pick those dandelions before the bigots and the moderates and the apathetic and allows us to make our own wishes about what positions others will take in regard to difference. Our wishes are considered far less by G*d, government, and man than perhaps others are, but they still must be made. Perhaps we could call them demands? It’s a matter of life and death.
This work is the answer to the Tower of Babel. Or rather the answer to the punishment for the Tower of Babel. It is in the recognition that the base order of language is a certain chaotic mismanagement of meaning and that through an acceptance and our wholehearted embrace of it we take back the dividing lines, we break the borders, and we can begin again to try to move fluidly among and with our siblings. With our siblings we find our own svara, for Rabbi Lappe it is a queerness in her and other’s Judaism that generates it. It is in the margins of our narratives that we find the questions that come with more questions that can guide us in the work that we do. Art is no different. And the artist and their commitment to the question, the commitment to the overthrow of what we are told is necessary and steadfast is what allows us to say in response to others who would make those wishes against us, and who would ask do we truly wish to overthrow what is now, een. Yes, indeed.
Bordowitz, Gregg, and Douglas Crimp. The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous: And Other Writings, 1986-2003. Edited by James Meyer. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press, 2004. p xxiv
Rabbi Benay Lappe, “Rabbi Benay Lappe - An Unrecognizable Jewish Future: A Queer Talmudic Take,” YouTube video, 17:13, May 29, 2014,
An amazing essay engaging the problematics of certain critiques of International Art English—or rather the problematics of critiquing it on the basis of proper English—can be found in Hito Steyerl’s essay International Disco Latin. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/45/60100/international-disco-latin/
It is necessary to note here that my play upon the hyphenation of the artist-writer category with the addition of other professions is not to imply that the artists I am about to discuss properly move into these other realms with the same level of knowledge and/or respect as those whose professional lives are dedicated to whichever profession. It often comes with far more criticality (and in the case of the spy, disdain). And while the artist can and should become a writer and incorporate it, I also think the artist-writer label is itself inadequate for the kind of integration and interdisciplinarity I am calling for. It is a properly transversal engagement that occurs here through the use of languages to critique and expand our understanding of the larger world of which art is a part.
Lazard, Carolyn, and Madeleine Seidel. "Carolyn Lazard: Living Here and Together." Art Papers. November 24, 2020. Accessed February 23, 2021. https://www.artpapers.org/carolyn-lazard-living-here-and-together/.
This quote is taken directly from their description on their website which can be found here http://www.carolynlazard.com/new-page-3
Artist, American. "Black Gooey Universe." Unbag. Winter 2018. Accessed February 23, 2021. https://unbag.net/end/black-gooey-universe.
Rodney and Sadie Barnette, “A Panther’s Story Becomes Art: A conversation between artist Sadie Barnette and her father and former Black Panther Rodney Barnette,” Oakland Museum of California blog, November 4, 2016 http://museumca.org/blog/pan thers-story-becomes-art. Found in Sampada Aranke’s Material Matters: Black Radical Aesthetics and the Limits of Visibility https://www.e-flux.com/journal/79/94433/material-matters-black-radical-aesthetics-and-the-limits-of-visibility/
“I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.” Vuong, Ocean. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous: A Novel. New York: Penguin Press, 2019. p 4
Bordowitz, Gregg, and Douglas Crimp. The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous: And Other Writings, 1986-2003. Edited by James Meyer. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press, 2004. p 77