Studio Language
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12 weeks, 7 people

Written and taught with Nora Schultz in Fall 2020 in the Department of Art, Film, and Visual Studies at Harvard University. Guests: Adrian Williams, Charwei Tsai, David Joselit, Gabriel Kuri, Scott Cameron Weaver, Sohin Hwang.

Language is no less an artist’s material than clay or stone or wood, paint, metal, charcoal, film, or ink. Studio Language complicates the common distinction between the literary and visual, considering the intersections of visual art and language, as well as the relationship between an artwork and its conceptualization, contextualization, critique, exhibition, and dissemination.

Through twelve units, we will think about: semiotics, the visual word, the spoken word, the performative voice, body language, voice and identity, the manifesto, the portfolio, the artist statement, the proposal, the artist talk, the studio visit, the instruction, the critique, the title, the inner voice, the public speech, political language, poetry, translations, invented languages, notes, art criticism, the review, institutional language, illegibility, linguistic relativism, the artist’s book, art magazines, the monograph, the catalogue, the press release, the wall text, didactics, the voice as an instrument, sound, and silence.

1: The Instruction“Instruction,” writes David Graeber in The Utopia of Rules, “is the language of bureaucracy.” Throughout the twentieth-century, artists embraced rules to guide their practices, to allow others to realize their work, and even to make art without “work.” Why did the instructional artwork emerge when it did? Is the instruction relevant to contemporary practice? What kind of instructions make sense for an art classroom?

2: The StudioThis semester we will not have access to studio space. So, what is the “studio” in Studio Language? Is a studio a place, or some other environment entirely? We are not alone in these questions. As once-industrial neighborhoods have gentrified and practice has embraced the post-studio, artists have made the studio itself a subject.

3: The Visual WordSince Pope Gregory declared religious painting a “Bible for the illiterate,” looking at visual art has been termed “reading.” But words have themselves only become a subject of artwork in the last century. How does “reading” visual art change when we actually have to read it? How is language be transformed when it becomes part of a visual image? How might its meaning shift with time and context? Who is speaking?

4: The Spoken WordUrban Dictionary, “it speaks to me”: “When you find yourself at one of those conceptual art exhibitions but you’re not sure what to make of said art, and you don’t want to look like and idiot in front of the artist, you just say, ‘mmm, it speaks to me.’” Sometimes we say that art speaks to us. What if we took this metaphor literally? What happens when art is spoken?

5: The ConversationWhat if artworks were actually in conversation or born of it—with us, with history, or with one another?

6: The CritiqueIn the catalogue for her 1939 Exhibition of Oils and Pastels, Georgia O'Keeffe issued gallery-goers a warning: “I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.” Is it possible to see another’s flowers, or is the best we can do hang our own? What does it mean to critique an artwork? How does critique transform a piece? What its ethics? What is the relationship of the critic to the critiqued?

7: The ManifestoInspired by Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto of 1848, the twentieth-century avant-garde set out their visions for aesthetic revolution in manifesto after manifesto. Are these declarations still useful? What does it mean to write a manifesto today? What are the poetics of the manifesto?

8: The Lecture-PerformanceArtsy issues six tips for “How to Talk About Your Art”: one, know your target audience; two, do some prep work; three, be honest; four, steer clear of description; five, don’t oversell; six, practice. Indeed, artists are expected—required occasionally—to deliver talks about their work. Some have, in turn, folded the artist’s talk into their practice. What distinguishes a talk from a performance? Can artist talks be considered artworks? How might lecture-performances subvert the institutions that host them?

9: The InstructionIn 1929, developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky proposed that when children learn to talk to other humans, they also learn how to talk to themselves, first out loud, and eventu- ally, in their heads. Researchers have since calculated that such “inner speech” occurs at an average of four thousand words per minute. Auctioneers, by contrast, chant at up to 637 words per minute. How have artists channeled this mind noise? What happens when these private meditations are collected and made public? How might our notes and musings inform our work?

10: The Artist's BookThere are art books and artists’ books. Art books are about art. Artists’ books are art—“projects for the page,” as Johanna Drucker calls them. Why might artists choose the book as a medium? How do artists’ books challenge standards of art publication, perception, and distribution? Is writing by artists “artist’s writing” or writing?

11: The TitleGirl with a Pearl Earring. Guernica. The Kiss. Composition 8. Broadway Boogie-Woogie. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Untitled (Painting). Every artwork has a title, no less “Untitled” works. How do titles inform our perception? What different modes of expression can titles use? What are its limits? What does Untitled mean anyway, and how does it relate to the oft-appended subtitle? How might we title our own work?

12: The Para-ExhibitionBefore we experience an exhibition, we are confronted by lots of information. We may receive an announcement from the institution, a press release perhaps, see an advert on the subway, read a review in our quarterly of choice or receive a friend’s unsolicited riposte. When we arrive, starved of the thing itself, we must first wade past wall text. And before the object alas, a placard beckons. How have artists used and refused the para-exhibition? Is the para-exhibition actually “beside,” as the prefix suggests? What are the tactics of exhibition and documentation available to us? How might these deci- sions affect the object proper?