Ajay RS Hothi on a Nascent Form: Art Writing

Maria Fusco is the editor of The Happy Hypocrite. She is a writer working across fiction, critical and theoretical writing, contributor to a broad range of international publications, Director of Art Writing at Goldsmiths (University of London), and the inaugural writer-in-residence at the Whitechapel Gallery, London — or so states her biography.

What she has neglected to mention is her role as critic-in-residence at the Kadist Foundation, Paris, that the MA in Art Writing is only in its second year and that she is building what seems to be a lasting infrastructure to develop not just artists but, specifically, the art writer. Since the publication of the first issue of The Happy Hypocrite in Spring/Summer 2008 (titled Linguistic Hardcore), the bi-annual journal ignited the touch-paper for artists to look at the words with which they rationalise and contextualise their work in order to create new meaning and circumstance. (I do not mean to gloss over a century of artist’s writings, not at all. It is a short hop, skip and a jump between Wyndham Lewis’s Blast to Eduardo Palozzi’s Jet Age Compendium to F.R. Daviddotdotdot and Fillip.) Art writing has always existed, though perhaps not specifically under that name, and what Maria Fusco has done has given it a name. Like a literary Fight Club, it has been on the fringes of every artist, gallery and curator’s work, but she has provided a framework for art writing to be taken seriously as a form in its own right. Belfast-born, she tells a story of how as a child she was reaching for a book slightly out of reach on the bookshelf in her home. Losing balance, the bookshelf collapsed on her, burying her with the family library. Imbibing through osmosis the weight of the million words on her, she has never been able to rid herself of the desire to move words until they are fluid, bringing new meaning to the individual letters that we know so well.

The Happy Hypocrite commissions new texts and has an open-application submission process. Issue three (Volatile Dispersal: Speed and Reading) contained none of these but was instead a complete reprint of a 1955 publication by The Great Books Foundation — a non-profit educational corporation established in Chicago in 1947 –,A Great Books Foundation Primer: Readings for Discussion. Containing texts exploring liberal education and the uses of discussion, the aims of The Happy Hypocrite are fluid, but at this point in the journal’s exponential growth, issue three invites the reader to stop and re-engage with the simple pleasure and joy of reading, or rather the even more universal pleasure and joy that can be derived from words alone.

Words lend themselves to articulation, but what a shame if every sentence ever uttered or recorded had to have a Wildean cadence and interlocution. It is a cliché, but words are weapons (see issues 2 and 4: Hunting and Gathering and A Rather Large Weapon, respectively) and equally as useful can be dull, rounded and blunt aphorisms. It would be uplifting to think that everyone has an innate love of words, that in the right context words can jump off any page, be it Aristotle’s Poetics or the key to the Tokyo subway map. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Not everyone will engage with words in the same manner and this is apparent in the way that Ms. Fusco approaches the form of art writing. Deep in her understanding of how people will engage with words there is the recognition that the visual media are leveled at a far-more democratic playing field, and engaging with words requires — and this is key — a reconfiguration of every methodology that one employs as artist, writer and reader.

On Saturday 21st November, 2009, London’s Whitechapel Gallery played host to an event organised and curated by Ms. Fusco and leading artist’s book publisher Book Works, taking as its starting point issue three of The Happy Hypocrite. Titled, eponymously, Volatile Dispersal: Festival of Art Writing, this was an ambitious attempt to physically strip and re-edit the words from the journal and adapt them for the physical space of a contemporary art gallery, celebrating every nuance of the written and spoken word. The event featured writers and artists (artist-writers) Adam Chodzko, Babak Ghazi, Ruth Ewan, Nathaniel Mellors, Gail Pickering, Beatrice Gibson, Jeremy Akerman, antepress, Anna Barham, Ruth Beale, Neil Chapman, Clare Gasson, Ruth Höflich, Stewart Home, Hilary Koob-Sassen, Brighid Lowe, Matt&Ross, Sally O’Reilly, Katrina Palmer, Laure Prouvost, Reto Pulfer, Daniel Rourke, Jamie Shovlin, NaoKo TakaHashi, Nick Thurston and Ms. Fusco herself, to indicate the scale of the affair.

Adaptation of the methodologies of writing is fundamental to the core aims and objectives of art writing and it by no means begins and ends with The Happy Hypocrite. Book Works, along with publishing organisations such as the New York-based Printed Matter, have to grow their audiences beyond the reading public. Fronting public events and readings supported by live performance, film screenings and sonic artwork, for example, has been a staple of the Book Works expansion strategy, especially since the profusion of artist-writers. In 2008, they launched a series of books under the imprint ‘Semina.’ The tag line to the series — ‘Where the novel has a breakdown’ — is entirely apt. Jana Leo’s Rape New York is one title from the series and documents, via a fictional narrative, Leo’s own rape and hostage shortly after having moved to New York in 2001. Bubble Entendre by Mark Waugh is 21st century beat fiction. Here are only two examples from this particular series that represent one way that art writing can move fluidly between the gallery and the library. Both, in addition to the first issue of The Happy Hypocrite, have been denied by US Customs for publication in the States. Rape New York and HH1: Linguistic Hardcore for sexual content, and Bubble Entendre for a narrative passage which is believed to be a blueprint for a terrorist attack on 2012 Olympic Games; all of them exaggerations on innocent transgressions. At a book fair in the US, representatives from Book Works flew from London to Los Angeles only to man an empty table.

Printed Matter’s major annual public event is a highlight even for anyone remotely interested in book works, but it is the NY Art Book Fair that is the art writer’s Mecca. The fair hosts over two hundred international presses and is incomparable to any other showcase of book works anywhere in the world. Additionally, the NY Art Book Fair offers an independent publisher’s curated zone, launches, signings, screening, music performances, exhibitions and one-off artist-made editions. The 2009 fair, held at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, was the event’s fourth anniversary. Eager audiences and nascent demand in the initial years of the fair has given way to exuberant proliferation.

Whitechapel Gallery is mimicking Printed Matter’s conglomerate approach in the US. In addition to the Art Writing Festival, a two-day symposium was held this summer, followed by a mini-festival in preparation for the main event in November. In 2009, Whitechapel Gallery held the inaugural London Art Book Fair and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Also in 2009, after four years in construction and at a cost of approximately £13 million, the Whitechapel Gallery debuted its expanded facilities. Its exhibition space has doubled and education studios have been inaugurated as well as — more pressingly for the art writing cause — a library and reading room. This is a marked and deliberate departure from the current state of renovation in the British modern art world. Tate Modern’s £215 million expansion plans include nothing along the lines of a reading room. When it first opened in 2000, visitor figures were expected at 1.8 million a year. Currently, the figure is closer to 5 million. Lack of funds is not the reason. Art writing holds a democracy for writers and artists insofar as there is little to distinguish between the methodologies in placing words on paper and speaking them out loud. The brush strokes are far more diverse.

Catering to the emerging and independent, national and international sphere of artist’s book works is the London-based Publish & Be Damned. Now in its sixth year, its growth span has been rigorously tested and remains under an unstable cloud for projections past a year-by-year analysis. It does, however, provide a lifeblood for independent publishers — particularly UK-based publishers — who are able to create work on a small-scale and distribute to a market that, though well-catered for, is far from the point of saturation.

The archive of art writing has grown to an exciting level in the past two years, and how best to utilise it remains a challenge. Libraries, reading rooms and online resources will inevitably become the hubs of this activity. The abiding memory of Volatile Dispersal: Festival of Art Writing is one of its partial successes. How well can art writing translate into a space that has been designed and built specifically for visual contemporary art? Let it be known that the quality of works created and exhibited was exemplary, though in the context of a spoken word event, education symposium or the printed word, the onus of every syllable would have been entirely different. The scale of ambition is duly noted, but art writing is perhaps better suited to a multi-disciplinary arts venue where each discipline can exist in its own context, at least for now. That remains to be seen when The Happy Hypocrite hosts The Cosey Comple, an evening of art writing festivities to be held at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in March 2010. Also projected for 2010 is a work-in-progress exhibition by Book Works that will travel to major contemporary art museums and galleries in the UK. This definition cannot come soon enough, if art writing is to sustain itself past the initial burn of the flame.

[Originally published in Artwrit, Volume 1, December 2009.]

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