The Haunted Word
We come into this world needy and wordless, making our wants known by crying and thrashing about in vain until we are able to learn the point-and-grunt skills required to describe our multiplying states of helplessness. With no means of sustaining ourselves, any care we receive from others during this period of great insecurity serves as a soothing narcotic, which calms our flailing arms and legs until we learn the words by which ideas and feelings can be identified.
Long after the proverbial cryptogrammic marks on cave walls became words, our direct ancestors communicated by speaking and writing. One can envision how the symbols used by each community of ancient people to convey and share its ideas eventually developed into the letters functioning within words, and, subsequently, how those words (initially representing sounds for ideas) were used to formulate new languages. The groans and scratches of a cave dweller longing for his loved ones, the petroglyph inscribed by a prehistoric nomad as he struggled through the physical world, the celebratory vocal clatter of Australian Bushmen, and the description of a pharaoh’s moment in time as written by an Egyptian scribe may well be absorbed somewhere in world languages.
The words we use also rely on those our parents spoke and wrote, even when daily life in this day and age is supposedly different from theirs. Additionally, our vocabulary is loaded with psychological and emotional undertones imparted through books, movies, TV, and the Internet. Every time we speak or write, a mixture of inherited influences and shared conditioning piggybacks onto each syllable. More importantly, this process becomes one of deciphering meaning as we listen to our own stream of inner dialog floating within a culture of words that was in place long before our arrival.
The Haunted Word provides a sketch of how speaking, writing, and public dialog can function in art. More so, it is intended to attract attention to some of the ways artists’ observations and analyses broaden the meanings of words suspended in language. In the past, many artists like John Heartfield or collectives such as The Independent Group and General Idea have used written or verbal messages in their work, and those active during recent decades, like Jenny Holzer, Joseph Kosuth, Barbara Kruger, Kay Rosen, and Lawrence Weiner, to name a few, have followed closely. Their influences are squirreled away somewhere in the cargo of words we each carry alone within and without society.
Philosophers, such as the sagacious linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), have made their contributions to language and meaning. Wittgenstein once asked his students to participate in what was essentially a word game to illustrate the inadequacy and ambiguity of the terms we use. He invited each of his students to go outside the classroom to find a sample of the color gray. Everyday, the word gray is used in a variety of ways. We speak of a cloudy gray overcast sky, an aging woman’s graying hair, our gray brain matter, or someone’s dreary gray disposition. Unsurprisingly, for Wittgenstein, each student in his class returned from their search with a sample of gray color that was different in hue, value, or intensity than every other student’s gray color. If applied to language even further, these nuances of differentiation begin to tell us just how complicated it is to understand what anyone is truly thinking or saying when they try to communicate something about feelings, ideas, objects or events.
York Chang plays with this notion of ambiguity. He speaks in a fictive voice through literature, creative writing, and immersive installations, which often take the form of an investigation into the visceral realists, a radical Latin American conceptual art group from the late 1990s. The visceral realists explored the relationship between catastrophe, violence and art to carry a singular critique of how social control was being imposed through institutional violence. Chang articulates their message using a form similar to one Norman Klein, in his book The History of Forgetting, dubs the Docufable. Language may serve as an entryway to the brain, but you choose what is fact or fiction.
Kip Fulbeck’s Hapa Project examines race relations through thoughtful commentaries that clash with common discriminatory labels and catchphrases designed to keep one group separate from another. His text panels with companion photographs give voice to the embedded identities and social conditions of multiracial people and previously ignored ethnic groups. Similarly, his Permanence project surveys the instincts and reactions that motivate marking the human body with ink. He hunts the male and female psyches through tattoos, which are surface expressions illustrating the complexities and fleeting insecurities core to being human in a screwed up society. Anyone who has been tattooed maintains his or her private reasons for sporting body ink, and Fulbeck encourages his subjects to enter the conversation on their own terms through the written word.
Norm Laich makes precisely delineated paintings that reflect his expertise in the art of sign painting. The commercial sign is part of culture’s present-day information network, usually in place for the benefit and promotion of capitalists’ interests that are motivated by the desire to get more hard cash (the beaucoup bucks, bread, cheddar, Ds, dough). Using signage tools and techniques, he has created an uncountable number of artworks for other artists. In his own work, Laich incorporates the use of images with words that are flatly painted and presented in a way that challenges many Post-Grunt marks.
Joseph Lee uses snippets of paper graphics, glossy photographs, illustrations, and other printed material he finds in popular fashion magazines and an arsenal of other publications to create new collages that comment on past and current trends in or culture. Utilizing mostly black and white bits and pieces of words and images with sparse areas of color, Lee transforms the ways in which we view ourselves inside the politicized leanings of societies that tend to separate, isolate, and prejudice individuals or groups by class status for the purpose of promoting the trends and crazes of commerce.
Suzanne Oshinsky’s videos bring her audience into the center of a narrative that reworks content through the use of homonyms. Letter and pictorial graphics flash disjunctively across the display screen in a rapid-fire sequence of attacks searching for a core storyline, while a corresponding voiceover remains steady. In her video Exorcise Won, for example, a jumble of suggested ideas is assigned to the sound of each spoken word. By using one of two or more words that have the same sonic quality, a multiplicity of meaning emerges to underscore the uncertainty existing in language. Portrayed as the site for a plot straddled between stories, Oshinsky’s words are surely doomed to create confusion as to who is speaking and what exactly is being said.
English has a noticeable diversity of idioms that are, in spite of their intricacy, still decipherable by interconnected generations. Many slang words are conduits to certain locales, career fields, or subcultures. Indie music, science, and cyber-business have their own influences on language. There is a culture of words related to the computer- driven lingo of text messaging, and others that typically pass through foundation stages signifying some sort of separation from mass culture before they are either rejected or absorbed into common usage. Still, some jargon remains personal as if it is hardwired to the user’s adrenal glands in such a way that survival mechanisms ignite whenever it is heard.
Carter Potter works with film fragments that are layered in a perpendicular manner and stapled onto a stretcher bar just as one might stretch and staple a canvas. If you look closely at one of his filmstrips, you might see the name of a manufacturing company like Kodak written in small letters along its edge. The name (or even the film itself) rushes advertising slogans to mind like “The Moments of Our Lives,” or “Kodak Moments” that have been harvested by the general public. We also think about movie history—dialog, stories, actors, directors, et cetera—when we see motion picture- related items. One piece, titled Pop On Top, is a fourteen-inch square color-and-space study made by weaving together perforated and non-perforated film leader. On closer inspection we see the word stop written backwards as though the viewer is inside somewhere looking out. In fact, Potter references this notion of seeing from within and its relationship to surface. Stop might be a cue for the film projectionist, but here, stop means go with respect to the artist’s private reasons for making the work.
Evelyn Serrano assembles photographs, written material, and artifacts into manageable systems that typically document the chronological history of group efforts. In her Spinteraction series, Serrano uses sign spinning as a platform for the reconsideration of urban storytelling and corporate discourse. During the Spinteraction Tour five double-sided vinyl signs were used by a group of talented sign spinners to perform a 10-verse poem for drivers and passerbys in several locations throughout California. This multi-locational performance project inspired a public arts workshop in the Valle del Oro neighborhood in Newhall, Santa Clarita. The aim of this collaboration was to create an opportunity for the youth to “talk back” and reshape the negative narratives surrounding their troubled neighborhood. The young artists and their families designed original texts and signs that shared their message by using a family of words that represented the reclamation of their home locations and offered hope for the future of all people that leave one place for the purpose of creating a new life in another. Sometimes, words function like that in art—they have diminished meanings in one setting, but the value of those meanings can swell to help us communicate in another.