Talking About Talking About Art

I believe that the writing of the future is here and it is largely present in the world of art writing. I say this in response to the many records of linguistic adventuring recorded in contemporary art writing. It seems to me that readers of art  have begun to apply their reading of images to a reading of language, without dropping the Height of the 19th Century language of popular culture. The result is a kind of century-wide gulf that art writers are filling with a cornucopia of undocumented approaches and techniques, while literary traditions are still largely back there before World War I. In one sense, this makes sense: the writers are supplying the background line, on which the art writers are scripting their texts. In another sense, though, it suggests that literary writing will soon be replaced by the new traditions being built up currently and almost out of sight. I think there’s a great opportunity in inserting some dialogue into this divided tradition. On the one side, literary craftspeople supply a pre-modern groundwork, vying to return 20th century literary experimentation to 19th century street ballad populism, such as this:


“Canada Reads” 19th Century Redux Populist Debunk-the-Book Event on CBC Radio Source

On the other side, artistic commentators riff off of them into texts that participate in the socializing and de-socializing effects of contemporary art practice. Since the future is being created in this maelstrom of divided roles, my suggestion is that some chat back and forth, in which everyone’s truths can be shared, will lead to a rich, literary future. If such dialogue does not take place, I foresee a future in which the knowledge of the literature of the last century, and all of its powerful engagements during the political throes of the end of the Age of the Book will be lost.  I have been reading these magazines for a few years, tracking this new literary genre. Today, an article in Toronto’s C Magazine struck my eye.


Jimmy Limit, Green Liquid with Yellow Bag of Mandarins on Green (…) 2012  Source

Well, to tell the truth, Limit’s image is not the image here. The real image is the magazine, the bar code, the paper it’s printed on, and everything. It is a sculpture.

The words of Stephen Horne’s article, “On the Doing (s) of Art Criticism, are a sculpture, too. He begins with a ritual nod to the current art world practice of preferring processes over objects, and observes…

I’ve been trying to think about what art criticism is, what criticality is — or could be.

Observes is a good word for this kind of thing. It is not that he is thinking. In fact, thinking eludes him, but observation stands in its place. That revelation is worth the price of the magazine alone. It only gets better. Two pages in, we get:

If one admits that there is no “outside,” the terrain becomes more interesting and, paradoxically, less familiar.

Did you observe what is happening there? No thinking, and no meaning at all. In fact, thinking, argument and meaning are not the strategies here. Those are literary strategies. What is important here is observation, and a dance with ritual amulets. Doubt me? Take a look at what happens when the text is gently pushed with some basic literary interventions …

If two admit that there is no “outside,” the terrain becomes more interesting and, paradoxically, less familiar.

If three admit that there is no “outside,” the terrain becomes more interesting and, paradoxically, less familiar.

If four admit that there is no “outside,” the terrain becomes more interesting and, paradoxically, less familiar.

One could, of course, go on. With each of these tiny manipulations, the text reveals the preference given to singular identity, held at the illusion of an objective distance, although there is no distance in a literary object that has not observed its workings beyond the most superficial level. Distance, in other words, is not the goal here, but closeness. The words are being painted, for their emotional resonances and their ability to constrain thought, rather than the literary goals of extending and developing it as part of a tradition. But that probably sounds like gobbledy-gook. Here, visually this is kind of what I mean:


“Pintura Habitada” (Inhabited Painting) ~ Helena Almeida, 1975. Source.

This is more or less what Horne is doing with his words: by laying down quick brush strokes, he defines a reader’s approach to the white page. Almeida was doing it with the white backdrop to a photograph. You could do it with a white canvas, or with something like this (although no blue is involved) …

P1080795Signed Building, Kelowna, British Columbia

Take a look at the previous signings that have been painted over by the building’s owners. They are important here.

Just as the building’s owners in the above image have missed the purpose of this art, to claim the public image of the building which inhabits the private space of the person not wishing to be erased by its occupation of space (and thus using indelible pen to leave a trace of his or her own public image, a name), literary readers might easily miss that Horne’s article is not a piece of criticism at all, but a painting, using as a palette a series of resonances. The way in which literature can speak to that is, thus, not in the realm of argument, but in the realm of physical manipulations of the space of the painting (which uses the medium of text and is called “On the Doing(s) of Art Criticism by Stephen Horne.” Again, gobbled-gook. Here, the following should be clearer. First, Horne’s image:

Making suggests a certain way of regarding time: it builds an object, moves from a plan (concept) towards completion and end-product, with the result being a material object that already ‘gives’ a market relation.

All the important social gestures of the art world are there.  But look what happens with even an initial treatment of it as text rather than as paint:

Timing suggests a certain way of regarding making: it deconstructs an object and moves to a plan (concept) from completion and end-product, with the result being a market object that already ‘materializes’ a given relation.

Same syntax. Same words, but now the capitalist underpinnings of the approach are revealed more strongly, although very little else of the apparent meaning of the sentence is changed. Meaning is, in other words, a ghost. You can do anything with it that you want, and are not limited to Horne’s approach. Now, in literary writing, this is all a kind of red flag: if the syntax is allowing any meaning to be plugged into the various slots of a sentence, then the writing is just coasting. You could take this to an extreme and get this (which can be completed any way you like, and arrive at more or less the same end, which is predetermined by the syntax):

—— ——– – — — ——— ——: — ———— — —— — —– — – —- (——-) —– ———- — ———-, —- —- ——- – ——- —— —– ——- ‘————‘ – —– ——–.


Some forms of poetry do just that. The thing is, though, that this is a century-old observation. More interesting is that cover to C Magazine. Here it is again:


An Art Object that Is Actually a Magazine Cover

Compare to a book cover. Here’s Lisa Moore’s February, which “won” the Canada Reads verbal boxing match for pop culture literary championship this last February:

hot-ticket-Lisa-Moore-CaughtWords Are Used to Lead to Image

The process of reading entangles word and image. 

It’s all designed to catch, rather than enlighten, a reader (although that’s not Moore’s intention, of course, but this is a book, not a manuscript, and it has several faces). Now, here’s another by Lisa Moore:


See how the text has been laid over the image in the same way as the USB code in Limit’s C Magazine Cover?

twoNow, one more manipulation should make this interesting indeed. I’ll add a text from the High Age of the Book, to show you how much has changed (and stayed the same)…

threeSee that? Both types of image represent their underlying syntax, or the technology that they were reproduced by. What’s more, we’re no longer in the age of text, but in an age in which text is image and image is text. Reading is now a visual experience, and the reading of Horne’s essay is also one. In fact, I suggest that his concept of “art criticism” is a form of painting. Rather than creating meaning, he is inhabiting the world that the poets of 1914 were working towards, as they tried to get beyond the limitations of argument. Well, it worked. It started with stuff like this:

The apparation of these faces in the crowd;

petals on a wet, black bough.

Ezra Pound

Now, that attempt to replace “meaning” by a sudden visual knot, looks like this, in the robotic, populist literary genre called Wikipedia, which represents an attempt to transfer the concept of meaning from the old textual world to the new visual one. Intriguingly, the use of robotic and electronic technology has a big effect, as the writer attempting to “define” Pound’s poem, winds up hectoring and saying banal and irrelevent things..

metroStill, the splicing work of turning it into a visual object, reveals more than the text did. In this new universe, it is Horne’s approach, and that of art criticism (remember, it is painting, not argument, in the sense of a painter laying down brushstrokes over brushstrokes over time to create an immediately perceivable illusion) in general, which is the most honest. Horne makes a comment which speaks well to this point. Here it is:

If ‘waiting’ is conventionally understood to be passive while ‘doing’ is active, the space that is art disrupts the binary in favour of a space that is in play.

Applying a literary manipulation (an active reading, in the sense of the Creative Writing school that Robin Skelton tried to start in Victoria in 1967, in which creative response was the communication, not intellectual analysis … a bit before his time, he was) to that text-image, we get:

If ‘writing’ is conventionally understood to be passive while ‘painting’ is active, the space that is art criticism disrupts the binary in favour of a space that is in play.

And that’s pretty much what Horne is doing. One can go further:

If ‘writing’ is passively understood to be conventional while ‘painting’ is active, the space that is art criticism disrupts play in favour of a binary that is in space.

It means the same thing. In other words, meaning is not the issue. Criticism like this could be presented in a gallery setting, as a kind of variation on a theme, so popular back in the days in which painting and art were mostly synonymous, before art moved into reading. It could, however, also be presented in a book, and what is a book but a gallery space, or a theatrical space unfolding in time. And what’s that, but a sculpture? Here’s one:

P1080762Alley, Kelowna, British Columbia
Note the painted-over graffiti on the right. No, you an’t see it, but the grey paint reveals that somewhere, deep down, it is there. Keep that grey paint in mind as you read on.

Do you see? This photograph is a sculpture of time and space. It has been selected by the eye (mine), which has recognized a conjunction forces, in the syntax laid down by a machine meant to mimic the human eye: a camera. A camera is a creator of human spaces. The human who operates that machine is sculpting them, out of a flow. As long as it flows, it’s not time or space, not in the new visual understanding that Horne lives so well within. Now, there’s a lot more to be said about this intriguing photographic space, but I think one more image will do for this introduction to the future.

P1080763Alley, Kelowna, British Columbia

The many layers of concrete, plaster, signage, brick, windows, and so on, on this wall are no different than the work of a sculpture or of a painter on canvas, or of Horne, who uses words in their place. Even the building owner who tried to assert ownership over the public image of his back wall by painting it with grey paint, was living within this visual universe. Only the art critical writers, like Horne, have found the language that speaks to this new world, of a new century. That’s where the literary spark has gone now. Fortunately, for those skilled in words, in a textual sense, there is much that literature can add to this new genre. There is much good work that we can do together. I, for one, am working on it by creating books that work as photographic-textual sculptures that unfold in space and time.  They’re not written; they’re sculpted, as are blogs, such as this.


Walking the Path of the World

The poet Daniela Elza has generously invited me to continue a conversation about books, called “The Next Big Thing.” Her opener is here. As this book is a collection of long poems, I hope it can join the conversation. The conversation takes the form of an interview by a text of a human talking about a text as if the human wrote it.

What is the working title of your next book?

Northwest. Here’s one of my co-writers …


A Buck Swims the Hanford Reach…

towards the reactors.

 Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was at the League of Canadian Poets convention in the Canadian city of Vancouver in 2008. The Canadian poet Nancy Holmes admonished all present to learn what she called “your history.” She went on to quote a long list of important, historical Canadian poets. I realized that I was in the wrong room, as “my history” and my land (the Okanagan, Okanogan, Sinlahekin and other valleys and deserts that make up the Northern half of the Columbia Plateau) is part of the Northwest. It belongs more to Oregon and Washington and Idaho than to Vancouver or Canada. I also realized that my poetic traditions predate the arrival of Canlit in British Columbia in the late 1970s. Even seminal “Canadian” events like the War of 1812 entered my country through the U.S.A., rather than from Ontario or Quebec, through the filter of refugees from such battles as the Cayuse War, the Yakima War, and the Nez Perce War. I left the conference, drove down to Astoria, Oregon, and followed my river, the Columbia, home from the sea, like a salmon. The book came quickly after that.


Almost Home …

The Similkameen, near Nighthawk, Washington. The sacred peaks, Hurley Peak and Chopaka, are in the background.

 What genre does your book fall under?

I dried to drop it, but it flew. It’s the kind of book built out of words. The words are poetry. The lines are long. The language is oral, in both Chinook trade jargon and English. The book sings. It chants. It howls. It speaks the real names of this place. It praises, above all. It is about the salmon coming home. It is about living in one country without borders. If it has a genre, it’s a Northwest book of Shanties, to use the Chinook word for songs.


 What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Yellow Wolf and Joseph of the Nez Perce, even if they have to show up only in spirit. Ian McKellen. Adam Beach. Evan Adams. Irene Bedard. The sound track would be Tsinuk drumming tracks, worked into a score by Michael Nyman.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

After thirty-five years, a poet and his friend Coyote follow the salmon home to write the book that Pound might have written had he gone to the Northwest and done the real work.


Ancestor, Okanagan Falls

The Okanagan Salmon are barred from the valley at the dam at the bottom of Dog Lake, just a kilometre south of this point.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It will be published by Ronsdale Press. 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Thirty-five years. 16,000 years. A lifetime. Every poet tries and tries to write one poem. This is my poem.


Early Draft of Northwest

Then it found its words.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The ancient stories of the Northwest. The Cantos, by Ezra Pound. Zone Journals, by Charles Wright. Voice, My Shaman, by Charles Lillard. Deathwatch on Skidegate Narrows, by Sean Virgo. Axion Esti, by Odysseus Elytis. The stories of Harry Robinson.


Who or what inspired you to write this book?

That’s a better question. Sherman Alexie’s The Pow-Wow at the End of the World. The writing of Motherstone: British Columbia’s Volcanic Plateau, in which I found the bones of this land. My old walking buddy, Coyote. The Sugarcane Father’s Day Pow-Wow of 2007, which brought me a second place prize in the CBC Literary competition (which is in this book). On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, by Iamblichus, a revised translation of which won the Malahat Long Poem Prize (large sections of it are in this book as well), before I was barred from entering the contest for winning twice. With no more outlet for long poetry, I wrote this book of long pieces instead. The University of British Columbia, for presenting a view of poetry as a personal, lyrical, global project, drawing exclusively on North American English speaking traditions, that drove me to write instead what I knew: a land and its people across time and space. Janice Frank, for welcoming me into her Secwepemc language class (for two years) in 100 Mile House and showing me the true meaning of respect. Ultimately, Charles Lillard, who showed us the way but died too young, before he finished, and Robin Skelton who worked with him on the Northwest Renaissance project. This is a part of that project, a few decades after Canadian Literature took over the helm in this place. Pound, always. The Columbia Plateau. St. Mary’s Mission in Colville, Washington, and the Kettle Falls that are no more. The ecologist Ordell Steen, for taking me out to the Junction Sheep Range and showing me the story I already knew, about the grass, and finding words for it, together, in Spirit in the Grass. Long talks with Van Egan, Roderick Haig-Brown’s friend in Campbell River, about becoming the river, which became the text of the first Roderick Haig-Brown Memorial Lecture. The Last Great Sea, by Terry Glavin. The Earth. All the ancestors.


What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Raven sings.

raven Raven, Columbia Gorge


The discussion is set up as a game of tag, in which each human gets to tag another human to be interviewed by the text. I’m going to use the opportunity to tag five other books. Rather than having them interview humans, I will interview them instead. These are:

The Art of Haying, about the world past the age of the book. Meditations. and An Expedition to Iceland, about Old Norse and English. Poems.

The Book and the Goat, platonic dialogues between a book and its critic. Philosophy.

White Noise, a pilgrimage on the Camino through East Germany. The third volume in the Faust trilogy. The other two were written by Goethe. At the middle lies Buchenwald, which was built to imprison Goethe. Really.

Atomic Okanagan, or Back to the Interior, a memoir built around the effects of the Manhattan Project of the Central Columbia on the Okanagan Valley (in territory claimed by Canada).

Planet of the Sun, a book of environmental science and writing, built around the explorations here, and its companion, The Terroir of Riesling, part of a project of transforming literature into agro-ecological writing.

I know that to follow the rules of this game I should be tagging poets from my country and my culture, who are going to be the Next Big Thing. I would love to meet such poets. As for the Next Big Thing, I lost my identity in East Germany and have spent four years now building a new one. It doesn’t include the ability to turn myself into an article of commerce anymore. My trip became a pilgrimage, not through identity but through the world, deeply immersed in the communist-post-communist-and-capitalist nuances of the fall of East Germany. I found my way home in No Man’s Land between them, but it was touch and go. Each of the books above has been written by a different person. I am none of them. So it is in my country. I hope it will do, Daniela. Blessings.