PhD Research

Fine Art Ph.D Research – 
Drawing out Language: Disrupting Narrative Sense through Conceptual Writing

Disrupting narrative sense
If, as Professor Petran Kockelkoren writes, ‘The basic metaphor for understanding the world is a coherent text’ then I ask what may be understood of the world by a text that does not deliver immediate coherence. In his essay ‘The disruption of the understanding of meaning’, Kockelkoren explores the need for sense, and the tendency of seeing patterns and meaning in random information. This habit is, as Sandra Hubscher contends, is part of the apophenic tendency. I scrutinise the sense making process and how it may be both disrupted and re-constructed to materialise less visible actions around meaning making. Statistician Nassim Taleb writes that ‘our minds are wonderful explanation machines capable of making sense of almost anything […] and generally incapable of accepting the idea of unpredictability.’ I suggest that the inability to endure ambiguity is part of what drives the production of meaning. 

Narrative strategies which include linear progression, causality, figurative language, and the position or viewpoint of the author/speaker, according to H. Porter Abbott and others, are employed to produce patterns of meaning from information we experience, in a way that produces a satisfying sense. Narrative is, as literary critic Robert Scholes asserts, ‘a place where sequence and language, among other things, intersect to form a discursive code.’ It consists of a variety of interconnected elements, including language and logical progression, which produces a system of representation. Language used to construct such narratives is, according to Roland Barthes, 'the comforting area of an ordered space’. I propose that this comfort is connected to establishing sense, the experiences under narrative construction seem ordered and complete, the language employed appears less fragmentary. Gaps or inconsistencies are glossed over, and the clear presentation of sequence brings with it the associated comfort of order, and a feeling of closure. Yet narratives are pervasive, as Barthes recognises, writing: ‘The narratives of the world are numberless. […] present in every age, in every place, in every society […] there nowhere is nor has been a people without narrative’. H. Porter Abbott also refers to this ubiquity: ‘We make narratives many times a day, every day of our lives. […] As soon as we follow a subject with a verb, there is a good chance we are engaged in narrative discourse’. He continues: ‘we engage in narrative so often and with such unconscious ease that the gift for it would seem to be everyone’s birthright’. Given the apparent inevitability of narrative I propose there is a habitual affect to its use which points to a problem – as with many habits it is automatically used without consideration. By habitually employing these strategies I suggest there is a danger of producing a shorthand of lived experience. In applying existing and familiar narrative frames the incidental details and unusual occurrences that shape individual experience may be ignored, particularly where there is a discrepancy with the expected, convenient structures of retelling or writing. For instance, English lecturer Sarah Wood explores, narrative argument intends ‘to make thought a proper, finite space or process’ which she feels is in opposition to the way thinking works. I explore the minutiae, the ignored, and the complexities that are glossed over or left out in the process of narrativising, and how they might contribute to or disrupt our meaning making systems.

Drawing Out Language
My work addresses the fragmentary nature of writing, reading, and listening in the act of communication. In my practice gaps, deletions, and process are as important as language itself. ‘Drawing out language’ suggests the extraction or teasing out of something, a lengthening in time, and a literal process of drawing in relation to language. Through examining the processes involved in creating narrative I challenge the wholeness of meaning implied and the need for coherent sense. The art works in my current production use existing language, mainly appropriated from a variety of sources in relation to my own writing, reading, and listening habits. Fragmentation is an important tool here, used to truncate transmission and disrupt original sense. Using the processes of drawing, writing, and photography consideration is given to the material nature and physicality of language. Prosody, duration, and the physicality of the object – whether word, screen, page, pencil, or body all play a part in the materialisation process. In actively foregrounding their importance, attention is drawn to the performative nature of writing, reading, listening, and thinking. 

Through Conceptual Writing
Conceptual writing is more concerned with the concept than the form of the writing and avoids expressive literary forms by using appropriation in order to escape any articulation of the author’s individuality. It requires as much thinking about as it does reading, often due to the vast quantities of data that are collected and presented as work. As Robert Fitterman writes, ‘Conceptual Writing, in fact, might best be defined not by the strategies used but by the expectations of the readership or thinkership. It is often closely allied to conceptual art, shown by conceptual writers such as Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, and Robert Fitterman using Sol LeWitt’s statements on conceptual art for demonstrating what conceptual writing is and does. Instructional methods are developed in advance of production which enable the making processes to become a ‘perfunctory affair’. Equally conceptual writing has roots in the work of the Oulipo, concrete poetry, the Fluxus movement, language poetry, writers Gertrude Stein and James Joyce and artist John Cage. In my research I am working through conceptual writing, this signifies an intention of action; shifting and moving beyond the existing frame and methods of this genre, rather than placing the work I produce firmly in one category.

An exploration of the methods of both pure and impure conceptual writing, and the Oulipo, workshop for potential literature form a foundation for my practice which embraces the premise that there is freedom in constraint. However, I combine the rule-based approach with more spontaneous methods that exploit the tension between the procedural and the ad-hoc. These more improvised approaches used in conjunction with the procedural have become an integral part of my working methods and enable me to question the position of the author in conceptually-led work and avoid the hierarchical position of binary oppositions between mind and body, language and materiality, speech and writing. 

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