The Unstable Word

Language is what settles in and goes to work 

at fundamental points of ambiguity 

between symbolic control and material resource. 

Between command and flow.

J. Aranda, B. Kuan Wood, A.Vidokle, Editorial, E-Flux 52, February 2014

The condition of conflict and rivalry between written text and figuration, dictated for centuries by political, religious and philosophical reasons, is destined to be overcome, at the start of the 20th century, with the historical avant-gardes, when movements like Futurism, Dada and Surrealism insert words in the world of art, with different processes and desecrating intent. These first experiments, closely tied to artists’ interest in the field of poetry, open the way for an undifferentiated use of different languages and media.

The process of creation of the poetic-visual ambit is pursued with renewed vigor in the period after World War II, when the interest in sign and language seen as a “system of signs” are seen at the center of the research of movements that set out to break down the word to its minimum units (like Lettrism) or move towards a subversion of textual and figurative material in a political direction (like the Situationist International) or a reinvented realism (Pop Art, Nouveau Réalisme). The word as “object” is at the center of Concrete Poetry, a constellation of researches with wide international range, that addresses the “expressive role of the word as a set of letters and not just as an element belonging to a lingual code.” The insistence on the word as object, a concrete thing, corresponds to the need for greater adhesion to reality on the part of the artists. The Fluxus movement inserts itself in this process: the word becomes a means of creating an ironic, playful, irreverent interaction between artist and viewer, in the direction of a progressive union of expressive media, as of art and life. The artist’s awareness of his role as a social agent and the advent of mass communication inform a series of processes of reworking of communicative materials in the 1960s. 

In Italy, especially among groups active in Florence, Genoa and Naples, a phenomenon emerges under the name Poesia visiva, grouping experiences that share the practice of lifting fragments of images and texts, recombining them in a single verbal-visual surface. In this context, on the wave of interest in the linguistic theories of Wittgenstein and through contact with the poet Ezra Pound, the proposal of Martino and Anna Oberto takes form in the direction of an analogical operation between word and sign. The research, developed through intense theoretical production, is documented by the magazine Ana Eccetera, published in Genoa from 1959 to 1971. The “ana” approach, aimed at methodological breakdown in an analytical and anarchic sense, focuses on fragmentation of thought and a series of experimental operations in the linguisitic and visual fields:between anapoietics and analytical painting, anaphilosophia and a meta-cultural stance of opposition. The magazine, organized in “bulletins” held in a cardboard cover, marks one of the fundamental episodes of verbal-visual research in Italy, gathering philosophical and linguistic contributions in an extremely refined typographical setting. This experience was followed by other researchers, such as that of Tool, the magazine published in Genoa and later in Milan by Ugo Carrega, oriented towards exploration of the graphic, phonetic, and visual dimension of words, towards a form of experimental poetry, a “symbiotic writing” or “Nuova Scrittura.”

If the engagement with the socio-cultural context in the postwar period leads to the development of paths based on practices of plunder and reworking of verbal elements in the visual field, it is with research in the field of the Conceptual that the awareness arises of art as language. The Conceptual artists, according to Boris Groys, “shifted the emphasis of artmaking away from static, individual objects toward the presentation of new relationships in space and time.” Nicolas Bourriaud sees this relational dimension as the precise counterpart of the rise of the information age: “the fragment, the work, the film, the book are points on a moving line, elements of a chain of signs whose meaning depends on their position (…) so the contemporary artwork is no longer defined as the outcome of a creative process, but as an interface, a generator of activity.”

In 1987 the V2_Institute for the Unstable Media based in the Netherlands publishes the “Manifesto for Unstable Media,” pointing to a close connection between media that use waves and electronic frequencies and “instability and chaos (…) [that] reflect our pluriform world.” Complexity increasingly asserts itself as a characteristic of the contemporary: electronic media technologies, based on the “modification of a signal through the application of filters,” definitively offer an unlimited possibility of variations. The advent of new technologies, achieving the goal of erasing the traditional divisions between media, raises new problems, however. The horizontal dimension of the WorldWideWeb presumes that everything can be connected and, in this perspective, that all objects have the same importance, without spatial or temporal distinctions. Even Groys asserts that “through the Internet, conceptual art today has become a mass cultural practice,” because “the visual grammar of a website is not too different from the grammar of an installation space.” The problem of the transformation of the viewer into an “active subject” nevertheless raises a series of substantial questions on the relationship between language and power, on the elasticity of the linguistic medium that “reflects – and perhaps simplifies – the uncertainty of our social landscape.” 

In The Language of New Media Lev Manovich asserts the conviction that media are the direct expression of a given system: ” in cultural communication, a code (…) provide(s) its own model of the world, its own logical system, or ideology; subsequent cultural messages or whole languages created with this code will be limited by its accompanying model, system or ideology.” On the other hand, the problem of language today directly involves the textual tool that plays “a privileged role in computer culture. On the one hand, it is one media type among others. But, on the other hand, it is a meta-language of digital media, a code in which all other media are represented.” The theory of the “non-transparency of the code” is at the center of the cultural debate, the capacity of language to “inform and confuse” is – without a doubt – part of the continuing appeal of the theme in relation to artists.” The practice of “cut and paste” derived from collage is joined today by more uncontrollable dimensions, like that of the digital treatment of images (layering), which make it impossible to distinguish the original material from the successive elaborations. The passage towards an “aesthetic of continuity” belonging to the present world finds its counterpart in the theories of complexity, by now seen as the third great revolution of the physical sciences of the last century, together with relativity and quantum mechanics. While many believe that chaos is “a science of process rather than state, of becoming rather than being,” perhaps we can say, with Felix Guattari, that “art is not chaos, but a composition of chaos: chaosmos.”

If by-now historic exhibitions like “Poésure et Peintrie” explored the importance of the influence of poetry in the development of the visual arts, in the direction of a “poetic sign” as a new tool of creation of the world, the role of the word and of language as central elements in the path of 20th-century art was reiterated in the extensive historical research conducted for the exhibition “La parola nell’arte” at the MART in Rovereto. More recent occasions like “Words Fail Me,” held in 2009 at MOCA Detroit, have explored the persistence of the importance of language in the research of contemporary artists, especially the elastic nature of language, its taste for “questions, subtexts and double meanings.” Presenting a “radical update” on the possibilities of relation between art and language, the exhibition at MoMA NY “Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language” in 2012 investigated the theme through the juxtaposition of historical research and the works of contemporary artists in which it is possible to detect, as in the early verbal-visual experiments, an “abiding connection to poetry (…) adding the ecstatic element to each works’ alphabetic plainness.” The reasons behind this interest in a poetic word that marked the start of the path of approach between word and image from the 19th to the 20th century have deep roots. Poetic words have been a central interest of visual artists for the capacity to modify linguistic schemes in the direction of an arbitrary and individual dimension: we might say that “no poetic word has an object,” i.e. that the poetic word is a “pure” fact. In this sense, the word can free itself, according to Franco “Bifo” Berardi, from the mechanisms of “homogenization of exchange and value” that set today’s semio-capitalistic system apart. Poetry is “what cannot be reduced to information in language, what gives life to a new common ground of understanding, of shared meaning.” And if it is true that “language has an infinite power” and, paraphrasing Wittgenstein, “the limits of language are the limits of the world,” the problem of the relationship between power and language, in a system in which digital media make uncontrolled alteration of contents possible, while making it impossible to pull out of an interface, the expression of a precise system of power, only a poetic act of “surpassing of the established meaning of words” can contribute to the creation of a new world.

Hilda Ricaldone

Text for the Exhibition Chaotic Passion, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Villa Croce, 2015-16