KATY DIAMOND HAMER: You recently curated a summer group exhibition at Lisa Cooley Gallery in the Lower East Side titled Itself Not So. There are a variety of artists included and artworks range from being made in the 1980s to today. Can you talk a bit about your Selection process?
RACHEL VALINSKY: Taking aphasia as a metaphoric and metonymic starting point, I wanted to show works that enacted a kind of disconnect or dislocation (be it physical or more abstract) at the level of speech-production or comprehension. The artists included in the show have very diverse practices, but all connected by an acute attention to language. Some have, historically, been more closely associated with poetry (Aram Saroyan, Susan Howe, Christopher Knowles) while others have also have careers as musicians (James Hoff, Ben Vida, Sue Tompkins). Itself Not So grew centrifugally outward from the exhibition’s main conceptual nexus, but also out of several strands of research I’ve been working on over the past year dealing with text-based artists.
KDH: The exhibition visually explores the condition known as aphasia, the inability to produce speech or understand what is being spoken. Art is a language itself, during your curating process, did you find yourself attempting to explore cognitive or didactic qualities in the work or was it the opposite, the removal of a particular legible reference that you were after?
RV: I wanted to explore instances of aphasic communication on several levels, but never with the purpose of diagnosing the works as aphasic. I was reading Roman Jakobson “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances,” in which he makes a distinction between “similarity disorder” and “contiguity disorder.” Very roughly, these correspond to, on the one hand, an inability to select and substitute words, and on the other, a breakdown of the syntax, grammar, and structure of the sentence itself. I don’t think the works in the show enact this binary — which of course, is much more fluid and gradated than this brief skeletal outline describes — but I think they propose different ways of thinking about an impediment to communication: linguistically, formally, cognitively, etc.. Some pieces like Susan Howe’s letterpress prints are certainly enacting the disruption of language on a formal level, with collaged text from different sources being crossed out, overlaid, and interrupted on the page, and since she performs these pieces, those disruptions are not just visual but also very acoustically embedded in the text. She doesn’t attempt to hide the textual sources of her collages, so it is not so much about the removal of a legible reference as it is about what happens to disrupt the reference that is built into the piece in the first place. Julien Bismuth’s Train of thought (2010) and a few other works in the show are rather about the looseness of associative processes – the ways in which a train of thought might not cohere but instead be digressive. Each wooden stick is rotated daily, so there is no fixed, stable, articulation per se. And then Michael Dean’s Analogue Series (Tongue), On the pronunciation of the letter L (2014) fully stunts enunciation. A severed tongue cannot speak, there is no possible articulation.
KDH: Installed in the backroom of the gallery, Imogen Stidworthy’s single-channel video titled I Hate (2007), seems to most literally deal with the complexities of the spoken language. Can you speak on your relationship to this particular audio and the element of sound as it is manifested in this work?
RV: Imogen’s I Hate is part of larger installation which was commissioned for Documenta in 2007 – and I think that this is important, because a large part of Imogen’s practice, specifically in her work with Edward Woodman who suffers from aphasia, is to attempt to create a space for the physical dimension of sound and language, that the viewer engages with physically, locating him or herself within an acoustic structure. This video is indeed most directly related to the disorder the exhibition circulates around. In it, the British photographer Edward Woodman, is recorded attempting to pronounce the phrase “I hate” in a speech therapy session with Judith Langley, whom he has worked with for many years. Woodward’s practice before the accident that left him aphasic in 2001 involved photographing architecture and art installations, both of which have a rather contained gestalt or an identity that is not so elusive or shifting. After his accident, his photographs became much more about situating himself in the world, grasping at his surroundings. There is so much of this in the video, a repeated attempt (and of course this is what the speech therapy has trained him and countless others to do) to vocalize a meaningful phrase. The impact of trying to say “I hate,” the concerted effort at producing each sound in a way that cohere (placing the palm of his hand in front of his mouth to feel the air produced by the “h” sound) – these trials are disquieting yet in their breaking down of the sounds and structures of speech and attempts at a reconstitution of language and meaning, offer up a productive model for speech rehabilitation.
KDH: You’ve included a work by Ryan Gander, Associative Template #23 – (And all that chatter around your career), 2009, a framed photograph that has been deconstructed, several square and rectangular shapes removed and placed in a leaning stack on the floor nearby. The extraction of these shapes have left a hole (literally) and interrupts the information we are given and able to read. A particular level of what could be determined to be frustration or anxiety (something I find very successful in contemporary art) is induced through an avid need one might feel to visually complete the image in the frame. Gander often uses an abstract form of subtraction to communicate. Can you say more about this particular work and how, for you, it illustrates the concept of the exhibition?
RV: All of Gander’s Associative Template present partial images of research assembled around a specific topic, in this case, the materials he has photographed and then laser-cut out in Associative Template #23 deal with themes of “censorship, precedence, copying, other associative works, authorship, ownership, and appropriation.” More generally, the piece deals with the production and accumulation, by an “author,” of texts and images related to a specific field of inquiry by and their circulation (in other words: comprehension, understanding, re-iteration) by another “author.” In this way the work is about the way in which the articles, images, etc.. one gathers flow through communication channels, are appropriated, and redistributed through more or less authorial voices, but before this redistribution can occur, the act of gather or collecting information — which he foregrounds in the layout of the piece, the way the materials are assembled like a “mood board” for research – stands as a sign of having approached the material, digested it in some way that involves comprehension. The cut outs form a drastic interruption in the thought process. Subtracting elements of the content that might allow a cohesive overview of a research topic leaves gaps and holes in the train of thought itself. As such, it disturbs further associative processes: if we can’t see how Gander has brought all these elements into conversation, it becomes difficult to form new associations based on the piece (ie: other associative works). But unlike several other works in the show, Gander offers several (partial) recuperative mechanisms: on the one hand, he sets up another representational system, which is text-based (a legend, placed to the right of the frame, that describes the different sources he has photographed) and on the other, he has conserved the cut-outs, and placed them in a stack below the frame, where they remain somewhat legible. The piece invites an imaginative reconstruction of its contents, which is akin to the effort one might exert if faced with disruptive internal associative mechanism.
KDH: Several performances have been scheduled to occur during the duration of the show, two by Fia Backström (Aphasia as a Visual Shape of Speaking, 2014) and Ben Vida (Slipping Control LC Edition, 2014) happened on the 21st of August while the next performances by the collective Research Service will take place on Thursday, August 28th. How do you feel performance and the human body in space, this particular space with artwork meant to vaguely inform, can further activate interior dialogue or comprehension?
RV: The performances scheduled during the exhibition were integral elements of or elaborations on works included in the exhibition. Fia’s performance, Aphasia as a Visual Shape of Speaking: a-production and other language syndromes, had been performed once before, in January of this year at the Poetry Project in New York, and traced a trajectory of research for me, which informed the exhibition tremendously, so having the performance presented in the context of the show was very special. In the same way that her sculpture in the exhibition, An-alpha/pet:isms… (2014) sketches an a-linear sequence of articulations, her performance ambulates around a variety of texts that she has written on different media (computers, iPhones) re-materializing the text through the movement of her body in the space. Ben Vida’s Slipping Control (LC Edition) was the first presentation of this solo performance, which approximates different vocalizations using the synthesizer. In it, Ben reads from a text, which is essentially a score, that is composed entirely of morphemes and phonemes: it is a language broken down to its barest structural elements. The piece never coheres in the sense of “making sense.” Rather in its radically stripped-down syntax, it generates an acoustic architecture that points to underlying speech patterns by dislocating them from their meaning-generating context. Finally, Research Service’s lecture-performance forms the culmination of the research they’ve conducted over the course of the exhibition. We have gathered the phone numbers of willing participants, whom the collective has called daily and surveyed about aphasia and other questions related to communication, loss of speech, etc… using a robotic avatar. Their performance presented the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of aphasia, while also enacting several of the kinds of speech and language disruptions symptomatic of the condition.
KDH: Lastly, can you talk briefly on the other upcoming projects you have, including UN, DEUX, TROIS, a performance and series of film screenings at Home Alone 2?
RV: Un, Deux, Trois is a performance and screening series I’ve organized at Home Alone 2, Nate Lowman and Leo Ftizpatrick’s space on Forsyth Street. I’ve asked four participants (Lanny Jordan Jackson, Cecilia Corrigan and Cammisa Buerhaus, and Corina Copp), who each have very diverse practices that bring together performance, filmmaking, poetry, and theatre, to present new works over the course of three weeks. You can see the full program here. I’m also working on upcoming programming at Wendy’s Subway, a non-profit organization I co-founded earlier this year, which houses a large library that I’m currently building up, and presents a diverse program of poetry readings, film screenings, performances, courses and workshops, and exhibitions.
Itself Not So was on view at Lisa Cooley Gallery until August 29th, 2014.