Conceptual writing and alt lit
By Steven Hitchins
An exclusive essay from Poetry Wales Autumn 2014 issue
In Uncreative Writing Kenneth Goldsmith considers the impact of the internet on writing, suggesting that writing in the twenty-first century will be about managing the vast amount of text online, simply cutting and pasting text from one source to another, curating links – a conceptual writing where the idea is more important than the actual text.
Conceptual writing is characterised, in the work of Goldsmith, Simon Morris, Vanessa Place and Tan Lin, amongst others, by the techniques of copying, transcription and cataloguing.
Another literary movement that has emerged in the first decades of the twenty-first century might offer an alternative to conceptual writing in considering how the internet affects writing: the writers grouped under the term ‘alt lit’ show how a social grassroots beat- or punk-esque movement can take shape through social media. Some writers often described as alt lit include Noah Cicero, Tao Lin (not to be confused with Tan Lin), Megan Boyle, Brandon Scott Gorrell and Steve Roggenbuck. Alt lit has a less academic feel to conceptual writing, emerging through communities of writers promoting and publishing their work on social media networks. In its obsessive documenting of online life, alt lit is similar to conceptual writing, but while conceptual writing favours appropriation of found texts, alt lit is mostly devoted to autobiographical narratives.
Goldsmith’s proposal of conceptual writing seems to go along with what Brion Gysin once said about writing being fifty years behind art: ‘In 1959, Brion Gysin said that writing was 50 years behind painting. And it still is. So if conceptual art happened 50 years ago, we’re just beginning to get around to it now. These are ideas that have never been explored in poetry.’
I would disagree with this, however, because poetry was engaging with and questioning conceptual art in the 1970s, as can be seen in the work of poets like Allen Fisher, Bernadette Mayer and David Antin to mention just a few. Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing opens up interesting links between poetry and conceptual art, but I feel they can be developed further by looking at what has been going on in the world of art more recently.
In the late-nineties, Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term ‘relational aesthetics’ to describe the ways in which he felt artists were reacting to the internet’s commodification of social and relational channels with works that were interactive and participatory.
Interactivity might entail actual activity on the part of the audience, such as in Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (Free) where the artist cooked curry and rice in the exhibition space and served it to visitors free of charge; or the activity may be more ambiguous, inviting thought from the audience, as in the corporate stage-sets that suggest platforms for discussion in Liam Gillick’s Discussion Island/Big Conference Center.
While Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics is flawed, such as in the way it lumped together artists with very different concerns, it is an attempt to understand the contemporary situation while ‘ceasing to take shelter behind sixties art theory’ (Bourriaud, p. 7). I find it useful as a model with which to consider conceptual writing because Bourriaud identified differences between the relational art of the 1990s and the conceptual art of the 1960s: how relational art took up many of the issues of conceptual art but ‘relieved of the matter of the definition of art, so pivotal in the 1960s and 1970s’ (Bourriaud, p. 30). Rather than critiquing relations inside the art world (the question of what is art and what is not art), relational art drew attention to external relations, relationships between people and the world.
Bourriaud saw this relational aesthetic as continuing the utopian aims of modernity to ‘emancipate individuals and people’ (Bourriaud, p. 11), ‘to free humankind and usher in a better society’ (p. 12), but without the aim for totality: ‘Social utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias’(p. 31). The micro-utopias of relational art were utopian in their aim of ‘learning to inhabit the world in a better way’, though the aim of the art work was ‘no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real’ (p. 13). Whereas postmodern art had become disillusioned with modernist utopias, Bourriaud saw in relational art a return to ethical social aims but without the belief in totalising change.
I want to suggest that relational aesthetics could be used to consider how conceptual writing and alt lit, two web-derived genres at the start of the twenty-first century, are trying to find ways to move beyond the irony and relativism of the postmodernist endgame. It could offer ideas for how conceptual writing and alt lit might meet in a kind of social conceptual writing.
In Getting Inside Kerouac’s Head, Simon Morris retypes Kerouac’s On The Road, one page a day. In Day, Kenneth Goldsmith copies out the entire New York Times for a single day. In Statement of Facts, Vanessa Place lifts court transcripts from child abuse cases.
Appropriation has been a common device throughout twentieth-century poetry – from cubism to language poetry, writers have been stealing from other texts – but the dominant tendency has been for transformation of the appropriated text through fragmentation and collage.
In conceptual writing there is not so much transformation, or if there is, it is usually just one layer of transformation, often a simple act of lifting something out of context, keeping it otherwise intact. For conceptual writers ‘the act of writing is literally moving language from one place to another’ (Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing, p. 3). It involves lightness of touch from the writer.
For readers of twentieth-century avant-garde poetry this lack of fragmentation might make the texts seem boring, but for conceptual writing that is part of the point. Conceptual writing steals boring texts. It favours the neutral tone of news reports, legal documents, bibliographical entries. Copying something that’s exciting might not work because we would end up reading the text for its content. The content is meant to repell the reader, to make us think about the concept.
In contrast to alt lit’s predominantly autobiographical, confessional mode, Goldsmith suggests that in foregoing a personal narrative and simply transposing a found text conceptual writers let the words speak for themselves.
Like conceptual writing, alt lit is characterised by a neutral tone, perhaps derived from the flattened affect experienced when communicating through instant messenger services like Gmail chat. Noah Cicero uses short single-sentence paragraphs to make it easier to read on screen, aspiring to the clarity of instruction manuals.
This is similar to the coherence in conceptual writing: ‘Start making sense. Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building.’
For conceptual writing, wholeness is to make the content uninteresting; for alt lit writers like Cicero and Tao Lin, it’s to make it readable. Both are shocking due to the lack of that fragmentation that has become so dominant in avant-garde poetry over the course of the twentieth-century.
For Tao Lin, this involves meticulously detailed accounts of his experiences that try to avoid generalisations, assumptions and clichés. He writes ‘from an existential point of view, meaning it tries not to block out any information… In order to have morals one must block out information and make assumptions…’
He says he views everyone’s experience as unique, so tries not to simplify the complexity of experience: ‘I try not to think of anyone (in books, or in concrete reality) in terms of single words or terms. If I do use language that categorizes and simplifies I try to use it in a way that shows I’m aware – and I’d like the reader or listener to be aware – that, for whatever reason, I’m compromising the complexity and actualness of a thing.’
While conceptual writing seems to remain within the cool, ironic stance of postmodernism, alt lit seems to signal a move towards the micro-utopian positions of relational aesthetics. Whereas Goldsmith advocates unoriginality, falseness, inauthenticity, alt lit puts emphasis on sincerity, though not without some sense of irony. Alt lit poet Steve Roggenbuck says, ‘I use the outward trappings of irony … and try to express something sincere through it.’
Like relational art, alt lit does not propose to return to any totalising utopian project, but to develop out of postmodernism’s critique of the possibility of any singular, generalised universal truth towards a way of being truthful.
For Tao Lin this involves constant vigilance, as he strives to avoid generalisations while documenting his every thought and action in the hope of perhaps learning about himself and changing his behaviour. For Steve Roggenbuck, it’s a matter of donning an ironic cloak of mock-naivety in order to make startlingly direct statements with the aim of promoting more consciously aware ways of living.
Such moment-to-moment models for living are reminiscent of the micro-utopian approach in relational art; for example, when Rirkrit Tiravanija, in Untitled 1999 (Tomorrow Can Shut Up and Go Away), turns the gallery exhibition space into a replica of his apartment, which visitors are allowed to use. In doing so, he is not necessarily simply bringing non-art elements into the art space to make a Duchampian comment on art. He is asking how we can use the expanded art space opened up by conceptual art. Alt lit might be in a position to do something similar with the space opened up by conceptual writing, to turn it into a social space that can be used.
In Fidget, Kenneth Goldsmith transcribes self-made audio recordings detailing his every movement over the course of a day. In Soliloquy, he transcribes self-made audio recordings of everything he says over the course of a week. In the ‘American Trilogy’ of Weather, Traffic and Sports, he turns from self-made recordings to transcribing found recordings of weather reports over the course of a year, traffic reports over twenty-four hours and the commentary of an entire baseball game.
In Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith describes how his transcriptions draw on the methods of Andy Warhol, who used a tape-recorder to record friends talking, then got someone else to type it up for his novel a, and made films such as Sleep, a five-hour film of a man sleeping, and Empire, an eight-hour static shot of Empire State Building. ‘The prevalent trend was the quick edit and jump cut,’ he says, ‘but Warhol did the opposite: he plunked the camera on a tripod and let it run… and run… and run…’ (Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing, p. 145). Goldsmith’s transcriptions of audio recordings are like long static camera shots: though repetitive, static, going nowhere, they emphasise the passage of time. In contrast to the paratactic collage prevalent in twentieth-century avant-garde, Goldsmith just sets up the recorder and lets it run.
Like Goldsmith, Tao Lin uses a period of time as a narrative structure. His novels too are about the passage of time: ‘with all the focus on surface details, with no sentences devoted to thoughts or feelings, and I think that results in a kind of themelessness, that, in its lack of focus on anything else, the theme becomes, to me, the passage of time’.
Alt lit shows how social media impacts on our experience of time: mundane activities become more intensely experienced due to the hyperreal memory of archiving your life online as tweets and posts. In alt lit, this close attention to living in the present is accompanied by a melancholic sense that the present will soon become nostalgically poignant as it recedes into the past.
Social media also provides alt lit with a sense of detachment from experience – like a running commentary on your own thoughts and actions (similar to watching the world through a laptop camera as Tao Lin and Megan Boyle do in their MDMA films). As in Goldsmith’s transcriptions, we experience things at a remove. We read Traffic not as traffic reports but a transcription of traffic reports. This doubling is even more apparent when listening to the recording of Goldsmith reading the text, as he performs the reporter’s hesitations.
If conceptual writing says, ‘The world is full of texts; I do not wish to add any more’, then alt lit says, ‘The world is full of texts; I want to add more’. While conceptual writers tend to work with found texts, modelling themselves on readers negotiating the vast amount of text online, alt lit writers emulate the bloggers, tweeters, facebookers relentlessly adding to the online fabric by documenting their own every thought and action. Goldsmith: ‘social networking updates… fast and ephemeral… their value is in rapid succession… like so many shards they accumulate into a grand narrative of life’ (Uncreative Writing, p. 176). Alt lit is literature of accumulation. Text is churned out at speed.
Recording people speaking, whether on tape recorder or on internet chat, highlights the performativity of everyday conversation. Poetry is all around and as we move through a space we activate it, or catch its imprints, like Robert Rauschenberg’s Automobile Tire Print captures the paint-smeared tyre-print of John Cage’s car as it’s driven over twenty sheets of paper.
One of the main characteristics of relational art is that the art moment is difficult to locate. Liam Gillick says it is about ‘trying to find those aspects in a culture that are hard to grasp … the feeling you get of the light in a nightclub the morning after [or] standing outside a bar’.
The objects, texts, installations feel strangely incomplete, requiring the audience to activate them – perhaps simply by moving through the space. Gillick describes his work as ‘like the light in the fridge … it only works when there are people there to open the fridge door. Without people, it’s not art—it’s something else—stuff in a room.’
In Via, Caroline Bergvall catalogues all the English translations of the first stanza of Dante. In Bibliographic Sound Track and The PhD Sound, Tan Lin compiles bibliographic lists of his reading materials.
Conceptual artists love things in series, alphabetical or chronological orders. John Baldessari photographed the backs of all the trucks he passed while driving. Ed Ruscha photographed many examples of the same thing: twenty-six gasoline stations, nine swimming pools. This archiving of the same plays on the variation found in repetition. Serial cataloguing shows a concern with time perhaps derived from the increased ability brought about by advances in photography and film to quickly document passing activity. It could also be seen to have developed from the geometric permutations of minimal art, such as the early modular structures of Sol Lewitt.
Tan Lin’s ambient bibliographies are plain and cold like some conceptual art. They are meant to be used like wallpaper, he says: a poetry of boredom; slow-motion PowerPoint poems that play in the background. They play on how we read and manage information; we don’t read bibliographic matter closely – just skim it. It could also give the reader something to do as you might decide to go off and read the works cited in his bibliographies.
Alt lit has a similarly obsessive, processual and repetitive character to conceptual writing, though with a focus on autobiographical material. Megan Boyle’s ‘Everyone I’ve Had Sex With’ and Brandon Scott Gorrell’s ‘All The Drugs I’ve Taken’ each describe lots of examples of the same theme catalogued in chronological order. The repeated phrases and patterns throughout the texts are reminiscent of the recurring forms in Ruscha’s photographs (‘we didn’t use a condom’, ‘I first took [drug] around the age of [age] or [age]’). This is akin to the archiving of the same in Tan Lin and Caroline Bergvall, but while conceptual writing generally draws on found text, alt lit uses personal online diary material (email, chat, posts). Tan Lin says his bibliographies are autobiographical but he records his life through his reading material rather than by writing about it. His alt lit almost-namesake, Tao Lin, isn’t as selective, stating that he doesn’t want to leave anything out, so records everything.
The cataloguing methods of conceptual writing and alt lit show that a book can be documentation of an event. In conceptual writing, the event documented is a writing event and the books are products or traces of those events. The event for alt lit writers is living their lives and this can be documented in tweets or posts. Tao Lin and Megan Boyle’s Muumuu House website publishes transcripts of Gmail chats and selections of Twitter feeds; Steve Roggenbuck publishes poems via Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter then collates them in his books.
Relational artists have also used cataloguing techniques; for example, the texts, photographs and videos that Rirkrit Tiravanija uses to document a shared car journey to the exhibition in On the road with Jiew, Jeaw, Jieb, Sri and Moo. Like relational art, alt lit is not just about the art object (e.g. the book), but everything that goes on around it. The catalogued documention is part of wider social and community events.
Conceptual artists come up with recipes/scores/machines for someone else to carry out (e.g. someone draws Sol Lewitt’s lines on wall), but relational art shows that designing and carrying out instructions can be a social act. For example, in Streamside Day, Pierre Huyghe provided instructions and all materials needed for a festival to celebrate the opening of a new suburban town, which the community could then carry out each year.
Huyghe3 by Video_Blog_REWF
Like relational art, alt lit is about friendship and ethics . Like relational artists, Tao Lin and Steve Roggenbuck are ‘learning to inhabit the world in a better way’ (Bourriaud, p. 13). For example, Tao Lin says, ‘Art is like friendship. If you like someone you want to be their friend, and you want to introduce them to your other friends… If I like someone’s art I want to show it to people and I want to be their friend.’
While Steve Roggenbuck adds, ‘“success” to me is making people’s lives better.’
Conceptual writing’s obsessive cataloguing shows that the book can be a space to curate, while alt lit shows how that can be a social space. Relational art might suggest ways in which these can be brought together to provide a participatory, interactive poetry that explores and critiques the social spaces of the twenty-first century.