Regaining Momentum: The Poetic Potential of The Artist Talk

by Anthony Romero, September 2012

Poetry is a highly contested medium. Over the last seventy years alone western art history has seen poetry described as personism and projective, howling and silent. It has, as Robert Creely says of Pound, been forms “cut in time as sculpture is a form cut in space.” Earlier in the century, poetry was heralded as a magnificent form whose value was necessitated by its ability to transmit the difficulties of life in such a way as to transform the reader’s experience. Like music, poetry was an alchemical form whose powers ushered in not just the birth of modern consciousness, but the critical engagement required to make sense of such new becomings. For a small, lingering second, before the birth of photographic mediums and the normalizing of the dawning mechanic age, poetry, above painting, above sculpture, carried us to the heights of ecstasy. But as modernity traveled on, painting overtook poetry, images overtook painting, conceptualism overtook images and the market overtook them all, at least for a time.

We are at a moment in which the art world has once again looked to the poetic and has begun to revalue what was, until very recently, thought of as a frivolous form. Programs, exhibitions and catalogues have become breeding grounds for the new poet. From Peter Schjeldahl’s poetic response in frieze magazine’s online questionnaire on criticism to Franco Berardi’s forthcoming book, The Uprising, there is currently a steady investment in the legitimizing of poetry and the poetic through its politicization. Berardi is the most significant player in this regard, as his project seems to describe the political potential of poetry to rescue the social imagination and, by proxy, repair some of the psychic damage caused by the global economic crisis. Poetry, in this sense, is as much a therapy as it is a linguistic weapon. Berardi aside, what exactly is meant by poetry and the poetic seems to remain, like anything else, a contested domain.

In the introduction to The Poetics of Space Gaston Bachelard writes that the philosopher interested in studying the problems posed by the poetic imagination must break with habitual modes of philosophical research. The poetic cannot be encountered in the way one encounters scientific data, for the poetic is not so concrete, its currency not so quick. Poetics, at least as far as Bachelard is concerned, requires one to be “receptive to the image at the moment it appears,” he goes on to write that “if there must be a philosophy of poetry, it must appear and re-appear through a significant verse, in total adherence to an isolated image; to be exact, in the very ecstasy of the newness of the image.” While I am swept away by what I take to be the perpetual unfolding of the poetic imagination as ignited by the verse, I am less concerned with a philosophy of poetry, that is in outlining an understanding of the kind of knowledge acquired by the poetic, than I am with the kind of movement and space suggested by this way of thinking.

In a world in which speed determines the capability of any given subject to interact with others and their surroundings, movement is inherently political, for movement determines the quality of that speed. Bachelard, with his insistence on the emergence and re-emergence of the verse in response to the ever-revealing newness of the image, seems to imply a kind of momentum that carries the unfolding poetic imagination ever deeper into the reader’s psyche. This is the seductive quality of the poetic, what Franco Berardi might refer to as the sensuous birth of meaning. Poetry is less a linguistic category then a set of brackets that contains the free flow of poetic ideas and their various manifestations, a process that encounters the immediacy of an impossible presence. Impossible because what is being described is a mode of being, a way of moving, what Charles Olson has suggested is the province of the body, that which is estranged from the willful subject by language. In Olson’s line of thinking, similar to Berardi, poetry has a political potential capable of constructing a space in which all those involved can be revived in the poetic imagination. We have in Olson and Bachelard both a call to openness or active reception of the poetic imagination and a proposition for the transformative potential of that space. This is how the contemporary moment has reinvigorated the poetic, by configuring it as a space in which the transcendent capacity of the poetic may lie dormant until embodied by an active reader.

Within the contemporary art world this kind of space manifests itself in performative encounters between artist and viewer, the kind of space that one encounters at an artist talk, for example, for what is this kind of time-based experience if not a call for active reception of the poetic imagination—an image generated of language enraptured by the ecstasy of its own newness and a proposition for the transformative potential of that space. At an artist talk given earlier this year, artist and writer Carl Bogner discussed and read two recent projects. The first was a series of responses to photographs by Peter Fischli and David Weiss titled Imbalance. The second was what he described as a kind of inventory of Joseph Cornell’s Celestial Navigation by Birds (c.1958). Bogner’s talk began without much fanfare. Interested parties sat in rows and across the floor as he introduced himself and his projects. As he settled into his speaking role he began to illicit the curiosity of the crowd, as his reading was somewhat unexpected in the context of an evening’s worth of artist talks. Not that there must be a distinction made between readings in the literary tradition and the capital “A” Artist talk, but in considering expectations, it is important to distinguish the two kinds of audiences. Bogner read from Imbalance and showed the accompanying images from Fischli and Weiss. Transitioning between works, Bogner described the process behind his second work, The Fact of a Thimble. He explained how he wanted to make an inventory of the Joseph Cornell box, now housed in the permanent collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum, in order to describe it to his mother whose sight is fading. As he spoke he flashed an image of the Cornell box and without taking a breath returned the projection screen to a place of rest. In this case it was not important that the audience have an actual image of the box projected before them. As Bogner began to read this final work, the lingering presence of the Cornell box seemed to remain illuminated on the black screen, leaving Bogner’s text to reveal the image repeatedly.

Bogner’s slight gestures and low reading voice, along with the inevitable confusion that comes from interrupting audience expectations, created a space in which image and text coalesced in a literal illustration of poetic potential. If the space of the poetic necessitates that we overcome our habitual mode of reception and actively participate in the emergence of the image within the imagination as it reveals itself continually through time and space, then the artist talk, of which Bogner’s is a good example, is the embodiment of that process. We have in the artist talk a moment in which the artist is able to actively mediate his work in real time, a moment in which text and image converge through the body of the maker and approximate the act of art-making live. A kind of performance of self, somewhere between the social and the personal, the artist talk not only requires a different kind of reception but a different kind of imagination altogether.