Talks/Body of Thought

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A talk given at the Local Contexts / International Networks: Avant-Garde Magazines in Central Europe (1910-1935) conference at the Kassák Museum, Budapest, on 18 September 2015.

Body of Thought – Artists' Texts and Their Contribution to Theory

My contribution offers some observations and thoughts on the challenges that artists' texts pose to the art historical scholarship today. I am not a historian, although through my work, and particularly one of my projects in which I've came to work as a digital librarian, I became fascinated with the ways historical material is being intertwined with the most recent, and indeed, immediate records of the day. On the web, writings from the rarest of the artists' magazines from a hundred years ago are juxtaposed with the most recent art criticism as well as myriads of other writing.

google: telescopic recordings of stars art
google: hieroglyph book international
google: artist book mechanical form reproduction lissitzky

There are several threads that can be unfolded from these results. Firstly, with the digitisation of cultural heritage on the rise more than ever before, even the most ephemeral material earlier confined to dusty archives appears online, treated by search engines in the same rank with everything else. This points to a fact that historical material earlier limited to the highly specialised researcher now pops up in search results of, possibly, everyone. The reading of interwar artists' magazines was in the previous decades confined to the historical analysis and interpretation by art historians, now it is available to the masses, including artists working today. The context in which these texts are now read by many is given by their positioning within online networks. A text from an issue of A Tett magazine of 1915 is turned into a page in "the book" of the internet whose cover is a search engine.

Secondly, what on the first place appears as a list of random results, or even mere noise and chaos, is in fact a setting with which we are all too familiar. Not only as researchers but from the everyday. We have developed a sensibility to recognise what is relevant for our momentuous interests amongst messy results. Not only to synthesize "on the fly" discourses of which each given result is part of but also to identify modes of writing. Is it an academic study, journalism, diary, advertisement? It takes a couple of seconds, or less, to identify that the given result is possibly an artist's text. Not that we had to be looking for it. It has just matched our query. Paradoxically, an excerpt, a snippet from this text can be displayed just next to a snippet from a scholarly essay discussing it. Written by you.

This is not to say that full-text search has now replaced library and archival research scholars have been used to. Not at all. It rather shows that the setting in which rare publications relate to the work of historical scholarship and its rather specialised audience has changed. By digitising magazines for online archives and by uploading your research on the websites like, this setting enters a rather different discursivity. Artists' writings from the interwar period now stand next to texts by postwar artists, next to texts by contemporary artists, and next to texts of art-historical analysis. They might have been and most of them were produced within specialised discourses conditioned foremostly by institutional and professional norms but even if this might not be admitted, their sudden presence in digital networks augments their performativity. A "rare" magazine stops being so rare the moment it is digitised and put online. And texts are "scholarly" only when they are accessed in scholarly manner.

This multiplicity of discursive perspectives produced by digital networks is "complicated" even further by their dehistoricizing tendency, which is my third point. Linear chronology is one among many modes of ordering. Date of original publication is one of many indicators in determining its relevance for a given query. Digital networks unfold multiple temporalities at once. A text from 1922 can be relevant, inspiring and productive for an artist in 2015 without much awareness of its historical context. It does not necessarily be viewed as a text that "talked" about something, but easily as a text that "talks" about something. Examples of such a dehistoricizing tendency in printed form can be found in reviews of books and in annotated bibliographies in which annotations are narrated in present tense.

This is not a call for a history in present tense but rather a loose attempt to examine a scale of writerly forms between the very personal artist's text working with a vague terminology on the one end and the scholarly art-historical study bound to a single linear chronology on the other.

On the one end, artists write and publish more than ever. A growing number of academies run PhD programs for artistic research. It is not obvious to evalute dissertations as self-standing works, separate from "practical" work. In addition, there exist many large publishing houses and established journals that release recent artists' writings along with works by art critics and art historians. Berlin's Sternberg Press, Les presses du réel in Paris, Onomatopee in Eindhoven, and the e-flux journal are some examples. There is hardly any consensus on what makes a good artist's text. Very rarely are they subjects of reviews in peer-reviewed journals and if they are, then what is usually evaluated is the work and decisions of editors and the place of texts in the artist's oeuvre and art history, rather than what they talk about, and even less what they contribute to the scholarship. They are considered too ephemeral, poetic, subjective and indeed--situated (bound to the work of a given artist)--lacking standards of scholarship normally acquired in specialised institutions. Being admitted only an indirect relevance for science, they are looked upon as constituting part of the body of work of artists, using printed matter as material, or merely an appendix to their art works, offering some hints for their interpretation by scholars. Something familiar from the previous century as well. Still, many terms and concepts that have been widely adopted by art historians have originated with artists. Also texts that contain a movement from one's own practice towards articulating more generally the condition of making art as such are not so rare.

The assumed objectivity of the other end is a claim that not always holds. Recent decades saw an emergence of multiple novel approaches to historiography challenging the then more established ones such as those giving the primacy to the artist's biography, those to the artist's oeuvre, and those to artistic styles. We have seen the import of methods of structuralist literary theory, Marxism, psychoanalysis, feminism, postcolonial theory and other frameworks into the historiography of art. The emphasis on the genius of male artist and his original work has been given alternatives in analysing interests, forces and mechanisms that are at work here. So for example, around the 1970s, art historians began to talk about ideologies, machines and apparatuses, almost as if in echo of what had avant-garde artists discussed back in the 1910s and 1920s on pages of their journals. But today, rather than treating interwar avant-gardes as those merely celebrating the objectivity and efficacy of the machinic, and structuralist art historians as assessing art in order to lay bare the machinery of control, one may look for what they have in common. One perspective would be to view both as attempting to identify technical conditions that define and regulate rules for cultural production, including the production of art. After Michel Foucault's historical-archaeological method and its Friedrich Kittler's extension we might consider that condition the media-technological condition in the broadest sense of both media and technology. In this regard the figures of machine and technique, but also those of synthesis, network, system, program, circulation, connection, information, recursion, virality, software, and so on, are helpful in moving attention to the condition both artists and art historians are embedded and operating in.

The setting in which internationalism, networks, and printed little magazines are in the centre gives us place to rethink art from perspectives that problematise the usual anthropocentric positioning, even more if we acknowledge the presence, protocols and properties of digital networks that ever more condition the historical gaze today.

Dušan Barok

Written 15-18 September 2015 in Prague, Bratislava and Budapest. This, slightly edited, version posted online on 20 September.