Greg Allen, one of my favorite art bloggers, has a recent post up about Ian Wilson, whose art consists entirely of oral discussions (at least for a certain period of time it did; later he published books, among other things). Allen quotes from a catalogue describing Wilson’s “search for an art in which no evidence of physicality would intrude.” I thought this was an odd thing to say about oral communication. I don’t know if this is the kind of language Ian Wilson himself would use to describe his work*, but it reminds me of this passage from the introduction to a book on sociolinguistics I picked up recently (Asif Agha’s “Language and Social Relations“):
If human beings are artifact makers, the artifacts they most readily make are enacted representations, including utterances and discourses. As individuals, we do this countless times a day and think nothing of it; but those patterns of individual activity that we call institutions to it in a more complex, sometimes puzzling way, and often with far greater consequence. It is therefore all the more important to see that utterances and discourses are themselves material objects made through human activity — made, in a physical sense, out of vibrating columns of air, ink on paper, pixels in electronic media — which exercise real effects upon our senses, minds, and modes of social organization, and to learn to understand and analyze these effects. It is true that that utterances and discourses are artifacts of a more or less evanescent kind (speech more than writing). But these are questions of duration, not materiality, and certainly not of degree or kind of cultural consequence…. I reject the privileged status typically accorded in contemporary discussions of materiality to the narrow special case of durable objects. Such an emphasis, which fixates on the physical persistence of the durable object, obscures the processes through which its sign-values emerge or change. Last year’s hat doesn’t make the same fashion statement this year. It’s the same hat. Or is it? Everyone agrees that fleeting signs (such as spoken utterances and gestures) acquire contextual significance from their more durable physical setting. It remains to be seen that the semiotic values of durable objects (the kinds of things one can put on the mantle-piece, or trip over in the dark) are illuminated for their users by the discourses that appear evanescent even when their effects are not.
So, without knowing the intentions of Ian Wilson himself, one would wonder whether his work is an attempt to remove the physicality from art, or to make more apparent the physicality of spoken language. I think the latter interpretation has many more interesting implications than the former.
* UPDATE: After posting this, I found a panel conversation printed in Lucy Lippard’s “Six Years” in which Wilson describes his approach rather succinctly:
I certainly am not a poet. I’m a very bad writer; probably that’s why I’m talking about oral communication. I’m not a poet and I’m considering oral communication as a sculpture. Because, as I said, if you take a cube someone has said you imagine the other side because it’s so simple. And you can take the idea further by by saying you can imagine the whole thing without its physical presence. So now immediately you’ve transcended the idea of an object that was a cube into a word without a physical presence. And you still have the essential features of the object at your disposal.
Isn’t it incredibly strange, in a sense, that Wilson considers the oral communication as a sculpture, and yet still denies its physicality without blinking? But then if I hadn’t just been reading Agha, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought.