Words, text, literature do have a long history as time-based, linear narrative against visual arts as spatial art, the latter considered as unable to convey a narrative. This dilemma was explored by Lessing in his book ‘Laocoon’, 1766; or ‘on the Limits of Painting and Poetry’), an old time fight between both art forms. Time to mix and merge.
Cut-up as technique
Consciousness is a cut-up; Life is a cut up – William S Burroughs (Kahler, 2014:12)
Ken Hollings described how cut-up has been applied (Hollings, 2015) as a DADA technique since the 1920s with Tristin Tzara (Ragged Lion Press, 2016): cut out words from a text and randomly re-arranged into a new poem. The same technique can be applied with all king of media, e.g. sounds and video. Quite hip-hop and fragmented. Disruption and disturbance as a key aspect of the work. Hollings explains that this initial experimental technique became a main stream part of popular culture and daily lives.
Text – Words – Speech – Sound – Motion – Chance
Home tape recorder became a trendy device with William S. Burroughs (William S. Burroughs – Topic, 2017), as an opposition against ‘bourgeois literature’: to record, to playback and stop randomly, and add a new sequence – resulting in a new juxtaposition, a start for a new writing. Burroughs also questioned how random is randomly. Nowadays, this technique is widely applied by DJs, called scratching or scrubbing of a turntable (DJ decks work that way even with digital files). In music, sampling relates to this, allocating pitches to various sampled sounds, that can be played with a keyboard normally.
Bottomline, mix, cut and re-assemble any ‘raw material’ in order to layer, to disrupt orders, to break narratives, and to seek new ways of experiencing similar things a-fresh. The human brain is wired to make meaning out of chaos, a question of survival. This doesn’t mean that those re-assembled things can make one dizzy and uncomfortable.
Example of this dizziness or even non-sense of stretching the words in its plasticity can be seen/read in Kurt Schwitters’ poem as (Morley, 2003:60)
lanke tr gl
pe pe pe pe pe
ooka ooka ooka ooka
lanke tr gl
pii pii pii pii ..
Words become visual, and logically cut-up as technique for collage was used by Cubist artists, e.g Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque. Fragmented text giving the impression of scale with a flattening effect.
Cut.up, collage, tape recorders and today online tools are democratic devices for everyone, like the idea of zines, simple, low-end, creative. David Bowie mentioned that he used a computer program doing the cut-up work for him, and taken the results to work from there (BBC News, 2016). One example of online randomizer: https://onlinerandomtools.com/shuffle-words
To use other materials, words, text could be considered the same way as using other’s images; collage, pastiche. appropriation; raising questions of copyright and ownership that nowadays became a blurred idea of difference.
The above quote from Burroughs can be related to today’s social media life, with a short attention span, swallowing huge amount of information (written, mostly visual, as who can read texts if not visually?). Today, cut-up techniques are called twitter etc.
Chop the painting
Cut-up as chopping and dicing brings me to the idea of chopping, dicing my own discarded paintings. The physical action of cutting, also reminds me of cutting through the skin. Scalpel as the scissor, paper as skin, pictures as words. Why to use words as pictures are similarly signs with deferred meaning?
The film director Gus Van Sant, described by Kahler as ‘a gay director of films’, is a creator of ‘surreal or dream imagery’ with a ‘painter’s aesthetic’(Kahler, 2014:1) and he appropriated Burroughs cut-up method for his films. Another reference for him was Eisenstein’s montage method, to juxtapose two unrelated scenes to create new meaning. Van Sant’s multiple cut-ups from other narrative do ‘move the linear narrative forward’. One of his visual cues are ‘time-lapse and shape shifting clouds as metaphors for change and the fleeting nature of life’ (ibid:6). An interesting a for me new Western film technique, informed by the Western normalised way of reading – left to right, is described by Kahler at the example of van Sant’s film ‘Promised Land’ (2012) where entering a screen from the left symbolises the good, the protagonist side, and entering the screen from the right symbolises the villain, a visual narrative of showing conflict. Van Sant applies this in controversy order, creating a twist in narrative. In the work ‘One Step Big Shot’, Van Sant applied cut-up technique to create new images from snippets of portrait photographs to create ‘new beings .. from elements of others’ (ibid:12)
Text and Visuals
I want to name our pains, I want to keep our names, … Words and images drink the same wine. There is no purity to protect. – Marlene Dumas (Morley, 2003:9)
Morley (2003) described in his book four kind of interactions between text and visuals:
- trans-media, e.g., surveys and art critics
- multi-media with coexist closely in same space, e.g shop signs, comic books, Fra Angelico ‘Annunciation’,1432-3 or Marlene Dumas ‘Sold against one’s will’, 1990-91
- mixed-media with less ‘intrinsic coherence’, e.g. Raymond Pettibon ‘no title (just what was), 2001
- inter-media as a hybrid form of visual-text, writing as visual language, e.g signature of Albrecht Duerer, the Book of Kells
Especially, the fourth kind resonates with text that one cannot read when not learned the language, e.g. Cyrillic or Arabic script. The portraits photographs of Shirin Neshat an example, text written over the printed photograph, a poem, a secret language with quite decorative appeal for those not able to read. A rhythm and aesthetic of visual text in itself. I learned to speak and write Ukrainian and Russian language while I stayed for roughly three years in Ukraine, the west and the East, Ukrainian to speak in the West, Russian to speak in the East. Language as mean for communication, to touch the people living there, to be present.
Vincent van Gogh did appropriate foreign text as visual compositional device, e.g. The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige), 1887, informed by Japanese wood cuts. Drawing and painting of letters or signs a question of coherence (ibid:26-27).
Sarah Impey (Impey, 2019), a textile artist, makes quilts, that could be considered somehow between mixed-media and inter-media. In some of her works, words are following a visual order, e.g. Iris Recognition. In other works, the words are dominantly laid over a backdrop, more independent and separate from it, e.g. Meeting Point. The work Interconnections, seem to take the linear syntax of text into the spatial realm of images, phrases as interconnection of words turning into chain-links interconnected visually.
There are wide and varied examples of artworks that use text, each has a particular intention behind it in terms of what the artist wants to communicate to, or elicit, in the viewer.
Annie Vought cuts away the negative space from enlarged handwriting text from found or written letters on paper, making the words a fragile experience. She said about her work ‘intricately dissecting the negative spaces with an Exact-o knife. The handwriting and the lines support the structure of the cut paper, keeping it very strong, despite its apparent fragility. The sculptural quality of the letter allows the viewer to examine the care it took to render each piece in relationship to what is actually being said…. I believe that I am just beginning to understand paper as a medium – its strength and fragility.’ (ArtistADay). Her cut-paper work series ‘Ideas are Objects’, informed by the book Metaphors we live by from Lakoff and Johnson, sounds like a critic against Kosuth’s ‘art as idea’ statement. Metaphors as communication of invisible images of the world.
At an earlier exhibition visit to Martha Roesler and Hito Steyerl ‘War Games’ , the first room was filled with suspended from the ceiling transparent banners with text imprinted from Hannah Arendt. The viewer is invited to walk through a text. However, I feel that this technique already became a trope, suspended text or words in the middle of a room (one just has to image search it). In a more recent exhibition at Serpentine Gallery, Hito Steyerl filled the rooms with vibrating and pulsing light, images and text in various outer turning the entire place into 4D book. And through a phone app, she applied AR layer of images and text onto a an external reality.
Joseph Kosuth His work Titled (Art as Idea as Idea (Idea)), 1967 can be seen similarly as Weiner’s work in context of conceptual art and as the visual counterpart to his writing ‘Art after Philosophy (1969) (Kosuth, 2003). An upscaled white on black copy from a dictionary, term ‘idea’. Another example for such conceptual use of ‘art as idea’ is the work Secret Painting (Ghost), 1968 that forces the viewer to look at a content that is not there. The artist’s words as proclamation and statement that can’t be rejected (Morley, 2003:146)
Lawrence Weiner: ‘Every artist’s work has a title. Titles are my work’ (Morley, 2003:143). His work Earth to Earth Ashes to Ashes Dust to Dust, 1970 embodies exactly this: the title is the work, written in capital letters on a gallery wall. That’s it. The title in itself is the idea to contemplate on. Interesting to read Weiner’s notion that his work exists even without the inscription on the wall, as if the title is the artist’s immaterial gesture.
This reminds me how more and more exhibitions are nowadays juxtaposed with writing on the wall, either artist quotes, titles, reference – anything goes.
Jenny Holzer used text as statement, as utterances, as expression of feelings on urban bill boards. Neon light texts with the aesthetic of advertisement to make people stop and ponder about deeper meaning. Words as more punchy that images, a disruption of imagery. Her short phrases built on semiotics and syntax, the linguistic structure of expression. At times the phrases seem content-wise paradox, e.g. IF THE PROCESS STARTS I WILL KILL THIS BABY A GOOD WAY.. Her works reminds me of the neon work Tracey Emin installed last year at St Pankreas train station in London: ‘I WANT MY TIME WITH YOU’ , a more personal and intimate expression relevant to the site of traveling and train station, arriving and welcoming, sharing between two people what matters.
Fiona Banner: I was fascinated to read about her work ‘Full Stops’, enlarged full stop letters from various type fonts that also gave each one its title. Virginia Button (1998) described this work of the full stop as representing ‘an ending but also signifies a beginning, an in between or a gap. Like the polystyrene, which is used as a packing material or ‘space-filler’, the full stop is transient. The names of the fonts are displayed on accompanying packing boxes, providing a possible titling system for the sculptures. The boxes also reinforce the idea that the full stops are transportable and multilingual.’ Building on the notion of a letter as metaphor. It is the syntax, less the semantics of text that can give another meaning.
Jaqueline Humphries: Perhaps not the artist who applied written words in her paintings, but she appropriates emoijs, kind of contemporary verbal-visual language. For those, where social media is part of our life, and how to text without emoijs? She uses laser-cut stencils to rub the paint through those opening, leaving the emojis traces onto the surface. She also transformed ASCII codes of her earlier paintings, printed onto a support to laser-cut and do the same thing. Own or cultural memories embedded into new work , creating new meaning kind of digital cut-up meeting painting (Schaffeld, 2019).
Christian Bonnefoi (2019) explored through cut-up collage as a dispositif, the disruption of temporal and at times paradoxical ideas. He uses mylar as in-between layer to partly conceal underlying text and images. Signs from the background became compositional elements of above layers. I find the layered approach and interplay of opaque and transparent intriguing, e.g Babel I, De la sphère 90°, 1978 or Babel 24 R, 2016-2017 or Janapa I, 1978 (Campoli Presti, 2018). The rather abstract cut-up shapes are placed in order to create a new work.
During my visit at the Drawing Room, London ‘From the Inside Out.’ I found other examples of how text, words, letter could be embedded into the fabric of a work. The title reminded me of Elisabeth Grosz association of the Moebius strip with the self and the body. Athena Papadopoulos. In her work Even Deader than Dead Grapevine she embedded words, letter interwoven with materials traditionally connotated with ‘female’ activities.
William Kentridge, knowns for his animated drawings, installed as large scale performances through screening alongside installed sculptures, used words in various ways. I find the exhibition books NO IT IS ! (Kentridge 2016) an good examples of a book design and layout with merged texts, words, and images, as a fluid interrogation of his work. I felt intrigued by his work series Breathe, Dissolve, Return (2008) for its fluidity of visual and text and the aspect of time, fragmentation, and dissolving boundaries. All three are short films of around 4-5 minutes, initially intended to be projected on the fire curtain in the opera house in Venice; at the time when the orchestra is tuning the instruments and the audience is coming in. All three works are about disintegration, of material structures. Dissolve is visual only, Return includes the title as visual word, and Breathe consists of collaged texts with the title written on a piece of paper stuck to the background wall and a dominant ‘da capo’ placed as words at the bottom of the work.
William Kentridge – NO IT IS ! (2016) Dissolve -Return – Breathe // process as work
- Words: statements, feeling, visual matter, physical matter, in-between spaces, paradox juxtapositions, appropriating other medium specific appearance: as sculpture, as advertisement, as fabric, as collage, as wall writing etc.
- I was surprised that I applied apparently many of cut-up technique ideas already in my parallel project, Through my collaboration with music student Vicki, I not only applied a mixed cut-up of sound and images. But also the sequence, often disruptive, with apparent no connection to each other, could be considered as cut-up.
- During my collaboration, i was already intrigued by speech, something I learned now can be done as cut-up as well (Hollings, 2015). Who says that words need to be visual? I like to push conventional ideas (since Gutenberg ed al) that words are speech, quite resonating with ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1) No surprise that Morley referred to this back to a time when the spoken word was conceived with the ‘highest status'(Morley, 2003:14).
- I would like to explore more the in-between space of text, words, speech and visuals. The work ‘full stop’ of Fiona Banner might be one direction of space and absence.
- Words can disrupt in a more punchy visual imagery, especially when overwhelming like in urban centers as Jenny Holzer’s works show. Another image would have had less impact.
- Overall, I am less impressed to use words as text as statements, I am more intrigued by appropriating text-words-conventions, e.g. deferred meaning, paradox, spaces in-between. And I do wonder whether words and text in that sense can not be expanded to notations, to music scores. Reading as way to create work and meaning, like a score as iconic imprint of music created in a different space.
- I felt inspired by Kentridge’s process based animated images with one words dissolving and merging with the overall composition.
- ArtistADay (s.D.) Annie Vought, At. https://www.artistaday.com/?p=3968 (Accessed on 24 July 2019).
- BBC News (2016) How David Bowie used ‘cut ups’ to create lyrics – BBC News, [online video],At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nlW4EbxTD8 (Accessed on 24 July 2019).
- Bonnefoi, C. (2019) ‘Visual Essay’, In: Journal of Contemporary Painting, 5 (1) pp. 65-76.
- Button, Virginia (1998) Art Now. Fiona Banner, At: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/art-now-fiona-banner (Accessed on 24 July 2019).
- Campoli Presti (2018) ‘CHRISTIAN BONNEFOI’, At: https://www.campolipresti.com/artists/christian-bonnefoi/bio (Accessed on 24 July 2019).
- Hollings, K. (2015) Cutting Up the Cut-Up, [radio broadcast], At: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05zl52m (Accessed on 24 July 2019).
- Impey, S. (2019) Sarah Impey – Textile Artist, At: http://www.saraimpey.com/exhibitions-collections/ (Accessed 24 July 2019).
- Kahler, D. (2014) ‘Gus Van Sant – GLA605 Motion Picture Theory & Style / Mid-Term Research Paper- Spring 2014’, in: Academia.edu. [online]. At: https://www.academia.edu/8742971/Gus_Van_Sant_Cut-Up_Cinema (Accessed on 24 July 2019).
- Kentridge, W. (2016) NO IT IS ! William Kentridge. Exhibitions / Performances / Lectures – Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin. Koeln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Koenig.
- Morley, S. (2003) Writing on the Wall : Word an Image in Modern Art. London: Thames & Hudson.
- Ragged Lion Press (2016) CUT-UP OF TRISTAN TZARA’S INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE CUT-UP TECHNIQUE DADA, [online video], At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bb0HnaYNUx4 (Accessed on 15 July 2019).
- Schaffeld, SJ (2019) Jacqueline Humphries: Layers – a painterly narrative [blog post], At: https://ocasp.stefanvisualart.com/?p=4250 (accessed on 24 July 2019).
- William S. Burroughs – Topic (2017) Origin And Theory Of The Tape Cut-Ups, [online video], At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40dA7PZyy3o (Accessed on 24 July 2019).