Some Words on the Unsayable

Launching Witness to Her Art On the inaugural day of the Hessel Museum of Art
Bard College November 12, 2006

Witness to Her Art: Art and writings by Adrian Piper, Mona Hatoum, Cady Noland, Jenny Holzer, Kara Walker, Daniela Rossell and Eau de Cologne. Edited by Rhea Anastas with Michael Brenson. c. 2006 Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

On November 12, 2006, I was one of the speakers at the book launch of Witness to Her Art: Art and Writings by Adrian Piper, Mona Hatoum, Cady Noland, Jenny Holzer, Kara Walker, Daniela Rossell and Eau de Cologne. The event took place at Bard College. It was part of a grander celebration that day: the inauguration of the Hessel Museum of Art. All the artists in the book are represented in the Marieluise Hessel Collection. The book was conceived by art historian and critic Rhea Anastas, an art historian and critic and a faculty member at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies, of which Hessel is the founding and most important patron. I helped edit the book, and have been affiliated with CCS for several years. The request to speak at the book launch, along with my feeling for the material in the book and for CCS and its students, led me to this meditation.

Here are some words on the unsayable. I offer them with eagerness and uncertainty. Eagerness because I believe the relationship between language and aesthetic experience has to be considered with even greater urgency now. This is an age of plane bombs, train bombs, truck bombs, bus bombs, bicycle bombs, people bombs, dirty bombs, bomb bombs, rockets and missiles. Of Guantanamo, of the murder of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, of Islamic protests against anti-Mohammed cartoons in a Danish newspaper, of the Berlin opera house’s cancellation of the Mozart opera Idomeneo because of fear of Islamic rage against a sculptural image of a decapitated head of Mohammed, alongside sculptures of the decapitated heads of Buddha, Poseidon and Jesus, and of confirmation, in the first spate of post-9/11 American history textbooks, that five years later it is still dangerous for teachers to ask public school students to consider why the United States was attacked. Individuals and cultures are always defined in part by how they use what is most deeply felt, by how they deny or take responsibility for inner experiences that are difficult to speak, by whether and how they enter belief systems whose authority their leaders may be determined to protect from the inquiring imagination. How those who care about art approach aesthetic experience always has broad implications. Amid the battle between circulation and interruption, shock and flow, it is particularly important to think about those implications now.

Witness to Her Art: Art and writings by Adrian Piper, Mona Hatoum, Cady Noland, Jenny Holzer, Kara Walker, Daniela Rossell and Eau de Cologne. Edited by Rhea Anastas with Michael Brenson. c. 2006 Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

My uncertainty reflects an awareness that the literature on the dramatic, unstable, and occasionally empire-shaking relationship between word and image is vast. There is so much about this relationship I don’t know. In addition, I am citing several references by a writer to a French thinker who I, unlike some CCS faculty and students, have not read. And I cannot begin to take on here what I have only begun to think about—the relationship between the restrictions on speech, throughout the world, and the billions of words pouring through cyberspace and telecommunication networks every day. In every city I’ve visited that is intoxicated by globalization, I feel bounded by a baffling proliferation of verbal production. I see thousands of people talking to someone I cannot see, whose reality is more important than mine or that of anyone else who shares that bus, restaurant or street. To me this cellular outpouring does not relieve the global insider-outsider, inclusion-exclusion structure of operations, but reinforces it. I also identify this outpouring with a medieval horror vacui—a horror of empty space—and with a sense of instant entitlement to convenience that terrifies me—as well, of course, with an amazing potential for contact, testimony and organization.

Most important, in a talk that is clearly provisional, clearly a way of trying to formulate pressing questions for myself, and, I hope, for some of you, I do not want to do one more injustice to the experience of the unsayable. The more familiar and mother term, “the unspeakable,” has been so overused since 9/11 that it has become just one more figure of speech, one more way of selling fear, selling books, selling authorship, selling something. The 24/7 circulation of images of atrocious violence, and the prime-time television as well as the Internet appetite for extreme emotional and physical behavior, have contributed to the hollowing out of a word that for decades had the ability to mobilize and commemorate memory and history. I don’t know if the six artists whose projects are considered in Witness to Her Art would agree with me that the crisis of words, which is a feature of modernity, is more acute now. All of them, however, make art that is alive within zones of experience about which it remains uncomfortable—_inconvenient_—and often risky, to speak; and all are determined to provoke speech not just through visual invention and provocation but also with words.

The debasement of language is not a partisan problem. President Clinton’s splitting of hairs before the Starr commission in 1998—“I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” “it depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is”—underlined the pressure on politicians in a “gotcha” culture to become compulsive dissemblers. In one of the 2004 presidential debates, John Kerry proudly identified himself and his campaign with the phrase “speak truth to power,” thereby draining into a platitude a phrase that Edward Said made a chapter heading of his 1994 book, Representations of the Intellectual. “Everyone today professes a liberal language of equality and harmony for all,” Said wrote in that chapter. “The problem of the intellectual is to bring these notions to bear on actual situations, where the gap between the profession of equality and justice, on the one hand, and the rather less edifying reality, on the other, is very great.”

President Bush’s abuse of language is a misfortune. Complaining last month about the difficulty of dealing with the North Koreans after their nuclear test, he said that there was “not enough transparency” in the North Korean government and bemoaned that government’s “problem with secrecy.” His insistence on the word “transparent” has not only hollowed out that word but sucked the life from “accountability,” another word with which he has consistently aligned himself. His administration’s legalistic wrangling over the word “torture” has been undertaken with such bureaucratic coldness that this potent word has lost some or most of its ability to enable Americans to feel the abuses of prisoners at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and, just as regrettably, the monstrous cruelty of Iraqi insurgents and militias. When Bush uses “freedom” some two dozen times and “liberty” more than a dozen times in his 2004 inauguration speech, while locking away without trial hundreds of people who turned out to be innocent, sometimes for years, and remaining intent on trying enemy combatants without giving them the right to see or hear the evidence against them, words that have inspired longing and hope like “freedom” and “liberty” become instruments of blockage as well. The exploitation and twisting of words essential to the ethos of this country is a recipe for dissociation and psychosis.

Discussing “Medecins sans Frontieres,” “Doctors Without Borders,” in his 1999 Nobel prize acceptance speech, James Orbinski asserted a link between his NGO’s on-the-ground humanitarianism and respect for language. “Ours is an ethic of refusal,” he said. “It will not allow any moral or political failure or injustice to be sanitized or cleansed of meaning. The 1992 crimes against humanity in Bosnia-Herzogovina. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The 1997 massacres in Zaire. The 1999 attacks on civilians in Chechyna. These cannot be masked by terms like “Complex Humanitarian Emergency,” or “Internal Security Crisis.” Or by any other such euphemism—as though they are some random, politically undetermined event. Language is determinant. It frames the problem and defines response, rights and therefore responsibilities. It defines whether a medical or humanitarian response is adequate. And it defines whether a political response is inadequate. No one calls a rape a complex gynecologic emergency. A rape is a rape, just as a genocide is a genocide. And both are a crime. For MSF, this is the humanitarian act: to seek to relieve suffering, to seek to restore autonomy, to witness to the truth of injustice, and to insist on political responsibility.”

Near the end of her book, The Unsayable: The Hidden Language of Trauma, the psychologist Annie P. Rogers makes this assertion:

If we don’t understand how we are predators to one another through language_—how our _speaking sounds and resounds through the unconscious and determines our actions—we will certainly destroy one another and our fragile little planet.

The real unsayable of trauma is the trauma of language itself. Our use of language makes us human, and in our humanity we create the worlds we’re bent on destroying. If you do not believe words create destruction and trauma, listen to the language of war, how we use the name of God, justice, goodness, peace and reparation, all to justify endless violence. Think of the harm we do one another all the time, how we use words to cover it, as if we are not responsible. At this time in human history I think it’s crucial to speak into the terrible puzzle of human torment and destruction that we perpetrate on one another with words, with the very way we name things—because our words precede and justify our actions.

I wrote the following paragraph for a lecture at the Yale Art Gallery two years ago, called “Unfinished Business: Revisiting the Culture Wars of 1989-1995.” Since it still communicates my feelings about the impact of the central metaphor of the Bush years, one many others have also taken issue with, including George Soros, who believes it must be repudiated, I’m going to recall the passage here:

“If I had to single out one term that suggests why now, as much as ever, we need the courage and vision of artists and those who believe in them, it would be ‘war on terror.’ While many people have been uncomfortable with this term, and some have spoken out against it, it has been so widely embraced by politicians and the media that when a visible exception, like Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, insists on the term “war on terrorism,” the sheepishness of his colleagues becomes even more apparent. I’m wary of the word “universal,” but terror may be an experience to which everyone can relate. It can be a response to being beaten, raped or tortured, to an approaching car or train, or storm, tidal wave, surgery or bomb, or to sounds of low-flying planes and crumbling buildings. It can be a response to unreachable bureaucratic or family authority, or to the freaks and mutants that visit our sleep. We’re all wary of situations that cause terror. We understand their debilitating and even deathly potential. But, as many psychologists and artists know, terror can also be a source of indispensable insight and knowledge. Creative access to its conditions and possibilities has been a gift from one great modern novelist and poet after another, including Kafka and Beckett, and from one 20th century artist after another, from Giacometti and Klee, to Pollock and David Smith, to Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman, to Marina Abramovic, Gillian Jagger, Ann Hamilton, Alfredo Jaar, William Kentridge and Doris Salcedo. All these writers and artists knew or know that when terror is entered and poetically inhabited, previously unimagined connections seem to call for language and lost or forgotten voices and histories for narration. The term “war on terror” does more than promise Americans protection from terrorist attack. While acknowledging the ubiquity of the experience of terror, the term also functions to deny the possibilities of that experience. The term says to Americans, it’s there, you know it’s there, it’s unavoidable, but it’s bad for you, and with President Bush in charge you won’t have to deal with vulnerability and fear, which can only get in the way of happiness and success. The columnist Maggie Gallagher, a family expert who has supported the Bush administration’s initiative to encourage marriage, has praised Bush for playing “Daddy” to the nation. “Mommies feel your pain,” she wrote in 2002. “Daddies give you confidence that you can ignore the pain and get on with life.” The term “war on terror” is designed to assure people that if they put themselves in this government’s hands, it will protect them not just from Al Qaeda and other jihadists but also from their inner demons. What makes the situation so twisted is that, as the poet Ann Lauterbach has pointed out, war is itself a terror-producing word. The term “war on terror” activates and perpetuates the experience of terror from which this administration has assured us it will pull out all stops and take any measure to keep us from having to endure. It stokes trauma while keeping Americans from entering the processes that would enable us to explore and take ownership of the memories and histories to which the experiences of terror are attached. America’s embrace of this term is, to me, a symptom not just of our trauma but also of our distraction and infantilization.”

Thirteen years ago today, in a statement announcing the appearance of Jenny Holzer’s Lustmord in the following Sunday’s edition of Suddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, a statement, like Holzer’s project, included in Witness to Her Art, the designer Tibor Kalman wrote:

We are at the end of the Word Age. Like the dinosaurs back then, now the words are dying. They are being wiped out. Or at least they are becoming superfluous. A kind of cultural appendix.

The images are coming. Soon we will be in an image world that creates yet unheard of artificial realities and synthetic experiences. It is highly questionable whether we will still be able to control our emotions there. They will probably be sold at a loss.

As stated, we are still at the start of this development. And, as always, there are two possibilities. One can already admit defeat and fall over unconscious or one can revolt against it and strike back.

The only hope is: to invent words anew. To charge them with new energy for the fight against the images. Thus words develop that have a future.

Witness to her Art was conceived by Rhea Anastas in the aftermath of 9/11. The book documents and studies projects by Adrian Piper, Mona Hatoum, Cady Noland, Holzer, Kara Walker and Daniela Rossell, all of whom are represented in the Marieluise Hessel Collection. It also explores an innovative publication, Monica Spruth’s Eau de Cologne which was conceived to give important artists more of a voice and to help bring into being a new public, to be part of a process of “world-making” that Ann Reynolds writes, in her essay in the book, was an aspiration of feminist thinking almost from the start. The six artists have different backgrounds, different concerns, different ways of thinking about history and change, different responses to fantasy and, with them, to the value and trustworthiness of subjectivity, which emerges in this book, as it has throughout the history of Conceptual Art, as a defining artistic, curatorial and critical concern. The work of these artists is informed by an awareness of systemic abuse—corporate, gender, linguistic, media, military, racial, sexual. And, along with this, a heightened sensitivity to the rhetoric of power. Spruth began her 1987 interview with Barbara Kruger with the question: “Do you think women have a different way of dealing with power?” Kruger concludes her answer with: “I would hope that women would indulge in a mechanism that had a critical relationship to the conventional ways that power had been used. That they will try to understand some of the conventional relationships and question what the dispensations of power are.” So even when the art in this book elicits a visceral response—and much of it does, including Walker’s signature black silhouettes of pastoral and scatological master-slave narratives and Rossell’s glossy photographs of the wildly theatrical sexual posturings of rich and famous Mexican women—the art all but demands an extended unfolding in words. All the artists except Rossell are writers. All work in several mediums and circulate across multiple sites. Their words join with their images to help expose and sometimes force a connection between the repressed and the spoken, as well as the written, word.

When readers picked up the Sunday supplement of the November 19, 1993 Suddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, they found, in David Levi Strauss’s words, that:

The usual colorful image on the cover was gone, leaving a funereal black field, with a plain folded white card, like an invitation or an announcement (or offering). Printed on the face of this card, in handwritten red block letters, were the words “DA WO FRAUEN STERBEN BIN ICH HELLWACH” (I am awake in the place where women die). When the folded card was opened, two more statements were revealed, each written in black block letters, one above the other, in two different hands: “SIE FIEL AUF DEN BODEN MEINES ZIMERS SIE WOLLTE BEIM STERBEN SAUBER SEIN ABER SIE WAR ES NICHT” (She fell on the floor in my room. She tried to be clean when she died but she was not. I see her trail), and, “DIE FARBE IHRER OFFENEN INNENSEITE REIZT MICH SIE ZU TOTEN” (The color of her where she is inside out is enough to make me kill her).”

Inside the magazine was a text that, Levi Strauss wrote, “went on to explain that the artist intended with this symbolic act to call attention to the political violence being perpetrated against women in the former Yugoslavia.”

Holzer’s Lustmord is brazenly direct yet blurs many boundaries. Some of the publicly unmentionable phrases were in German, others in English. The cover and pages could have the look of paintings and feel of skin but they were photographs in a magazine. The ink included the blood of eight German and Yugoslav women. The title underlined a nearly taboo relationship between sex and death and, with it, the sustained and widely accepted cultural relationship in modern Germany between sex and the murder of women. Taken together, the phrases, spread over 28 pages, running together the voices of perpetrator, victim and observer, are at once accusation, insult, intimacy and scream. Levi Strauss notes that many readers reacted with anger and fear of contagion. Instead of backing away, the German tabloids maintained a weeklong written discussion of the issues the work raised. In Lustmord the words are images in which words cannot be consumed.

In his book on the intellectual, Said quotes Walter Benjamin’s statement: “to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it was’…It means to seize hold of a memory [or a presence] as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”

When Norton Batkin [director of the graduate program at the Center for Curatorial Studies] asked me to put together some reflections on the current relevance of Witness to Her Art, I was reading two books. I had just come across a review of Rogers’ The Unsayable in The New York Times Book Review and bought the book immediately. It is structured around case histories of young women, all of whom as girls, like the author, had been sexually abused. The book is very good at establishing the importance of sympathetic listening, of an atmosphere of trust in which hard-to-speak experiences—of which the people inhabited by them are usually not conscious—can reveal themselves within a thoroughly elaborated, but also necessarily intuitive, interpersonal framework.

&ldquo;I had just begun to read and study the work of Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst,&rdquo; Rogers writes, &ldquo;to explore how the unsayable appears <em>in words,</em> in language. Lacan wrote about two levels of speaking, one in which we know what we are saying (even when struggling with something difficult or contradictory) and another in which we have no idea of what we are saying. In this second level of speaking there are repeating words, phrases, and even sounds that function as magnets of unconscious meaning, condensing multiple scenes, times, and ideas. He called such markers in speech &ldquo;signifiers.&rdquo; I began, gradually, to hear them in unexpected ways.&rdquo;

Rogers is aware of the limits of language. “Listening for the unsayable directly required another shift in my thinking. I was used to thinking of silences as long pauses or refusals to speak about something particular. However, to hear the unsayable I had to consider words as revealing both a conscious narrative about experience and an unconscious one.

“I began to hear in a new way. Every sentence we speak is continually surrounded by what is not said and may in fact be unsayable. Ironically you can only hear the unsayable through what is said. I then began to underline negations, evasions, erasures, and omissions in transcripts, making notes in the margins, listening for another melody within the spoken story.”

Writing about one of the girls, Rogers observed: “Tasha wanted to speak and to avoid speaking (and remembering) simultaneously. I began to hear the “unsayable” as something that moves toward speech and away from speech at the same time.”

The experience of the unsayable is then something like a sense of pressure toward speech, of an inner rush, pushing toward or at the inside surface of the body, propelling itself toward verbal expression but at the same time retreating and holding back. Whether from fear, or incapacity, or from the immensity or transgressiveness of the emotional swell, it seems as if what is acting and moving toward communication cannot be spoken. As if any language other than the bodily experience in which that emotion makes itself felt is either hopelessly incommensurate with it, and therefore futile, and/or that the psychic cost of putting it into words is intolerable.

In her discussion of one of the girls she worked with, Rogers wrote: “This is how it was with Jamie. She carried a story she could not relate as a narrative. Instead she cut her arms with a paper clip, with the tab from a soda can, with a shard of glass.” Rogers then writes:

The poet Audre Lorde tells us that ‘poetry is the way we give name to the nameless so that it can be thought.’ Were the marks on Jamie’s arms a kind of poetry of the nameless written on her body? She hurt herself in my presence to see, I think, if she mattered. Would I stop her, and in stopping her, help her know that she was alive?

From the Lorde statement, it is an easy jump to aesthetic responses that I suspect most people who feel close to art can relate to. We are in the presence of an artwork that moves us, enables us to feel more connected to our selves, lets us know that we are personally invested in this work and that something is at stake for us in our encounter with it. Often that feeling emerges suddenly, and is so intense that it is hard, perhaps, it seems, impossible, to find words for it. To give it words can take months or years and even then can seem to defuse, deflect or betray that experience by translating it into another language, not its own, or by exposing it to others who will inevitably trivialize it because hearing it in translation they will be unable to appreciate its revelation of a naked self.

Writing about her own breakdown and hospitalization, Rogers says: “It was there, as a sixteen-year-old girl, that I stopped speaking for five months, from October to February. I realized that whatever I might say could be misconstrued and used to create a version of ‘reality’ that would be unrecognizable, a kind of voice-over of my truths I could not bear. I embraced silence as though it were both protest and protection. As though, because in the end it was neither.”

Later Rogers writes: “Speech is premised on giving up the promise of complete satisfaction, facing into the irrevocable loss involved in having to use language, which can never be entirely understood.”

At the end of the book, she writes:

In America we’ve watered down and neutralized Freud’s concept of the unconscious to such a degree that we no longer know how to listen as he listened. What’s taken its place is a practice that in fact closes down the unconscious and its great gifts to us. We diagnose, medicate, remove symptoms, change cognitions, change behavior, and understand relationships, and yet we ignore the unconscious—its otherness—because we’re frightened of it and have no access to it in the way we practice. I hope my efforts here awaken an interest in Freud, the original, daring Freud, and his idea of the unconscious.

The other book I was reading was Icon and Idea: The Function of Art in the Development of Human Consciousness, a collection of Herbert Read’s 1954 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University, published a year later. Read, for more than two decades a highly visible English critic and thinker, has been largely forgotten, if not dismissed, and not just in the United States. As a graduate art history student, I read his Concise History of Modern Sculpture and Philosophy of Modern Art. I was led back to him last year while preparing a lecture called “David Smith: Primitivism, Magic and Myth.” Between 1947 and 1954, Smith made many statements about art and culture, artistic identity, the nature and functioning of images, and the primacy of visual over verbal experience. He believed that images preceded words, and that visual perception was faster, as well as more penetrating and embracing, than any verbal reckoning with it. For him and for Read, as for Clement Greenberg, Smith’s most influential supporter, what could be taken in intuitively, in a glance, was miraculously full and beyond mapping. Within the broken fragments of modernity, this intuition was an intimation, perhaps even a promise, of wholeness. For Smith, its authority was an assertion of the continuing presence and power of subjectivity, and with it of the individual’s capacity for individuality and freedom. With his radical political formation and his anxiety about survival, like many others of his World War I, Depression and World War II generation, Smith believed images could hold their own in the modern present in a way words couldn’t. For him, more than 40 years before Tibor Kalman’s statement, words were the problem, not images. Like many other artists of that immediately-postwar moment, he was astonished by prehistoric cave painting—the bisons and animal processionals of Lascaux had recently been discovered in 1940—and its ability to produce after-images, or memory images, that persisted in the body and mind. “The after-image, is more important than the object,” he wrote in 1952. I found close connections between Smith statements and some of Read’s writings. To my knowledge Read is not mentioned once in the entire Smith literature, except by Smith himself.

Read believed that art does not evolve but humans do, and that art is essential to human evolution. In his 1954 preface he cites Ernst Cassirer, another largely forgotten figure: “Cassirer claimed that every authentic function of the human spirit embodies an original, formative power.” In his preface to the book’s second edition in 1965, Read quotes from Freud’s Ego and the Id: “Thinking in pictures is, therefore, only a very incomplete form of becoming conscious. In some ways too, it approximates more closely to unconscious processes than does thinking in words, and it is unquestionably older than the latter both ontogenetically and phylogenetically.” Read argued that images, particularly “intuitive” and what he calls “vitalistic” images, like cave paintings, preceded concepts. “In the beginning was the image,” he wrote. “What has not been first created by the artist, is unthinkable by the philosopher.” As an example, he asserted that artists called attention to the unconscious—which he characterizes as an “inexhaustible mine of images”—long before scientists began to study it. For Read, the iconic image provoked a depth and fullness of response that so impressed itself on the individual and its culture that its implications had to be developed. The experience of it was therefore an essential step on the path to greater knowledge. Read does not address the processes of movement from visual experience to knowledge—from a response to art that can be sensual, somatic, even, in Read’s words, a form of “mystical participation,” to an articulation of that experience and the effect of the resulting thought on an individual life. He is so wary of intellectualizations of the ways in which art brings “inarticulate perceptions to consciousness,” of what he calls “formal communication” and “false consciousness,” that he does not engage this process from icon to idea, from aesthetic intuition to knowledge. He believed that the most appropriate response to an artist’s image was other artists’ images. “The artist elaborates images which are the images of reality,” he writes. “They are reality.” Images by artists, poets, musicians (he considers a musical phrase an image) and architects produce styles and with them environments. He believed, I think, that by living in and responding to this environment, a living that is first of all sensual and intuitive, meaningful existence and human transformation become possible.

Read cites the philosopher R.G. Collingwood in his 1939 Principles of Art. “If a given feeling is thus recognized, it is converted from impression into idea, and thus dominated or domesticated by consciousness. If it is not recognized, it is simply relegated to the other side of the dividing line: left unattended to, or ignored. But there is a third alternative. The recognition may take place abortively. It may be attempted, but prove a failure. It is as if we should bring a wild animal indoors, hoping to domesticate it, and then, when it bites, lose our nerve and let it go. Instead of becoming a friend, what we have brought into the house has become an enemy.” However peculiar this rhetoric of domination, domestication and abortion now seems, emphasizing the consequence of the decisions people are faced with as to how to relate to aesthetic experience remains useful, as does Collingwood’s perhaps startling but, I think, still widely assumed belief that it is not the feeling, the aesthetic experience, that is frightening, but the idea, or language, into which it is, in his word, “converted.” His acknowledgement of risk in this engagement is useful, as well.

For Read, the Surrealist poet, thinker, and the writer, the depths of aesthetic experience are a call but also a boundary.

For Rogers, who works primarily with the spoken word, the sense of the unsayable, or unnamable, is a call that offers stories and projections beyond boundaries. For her the unsayable is not a treasure to protect from language, or an enemy from which one needs protection, but an immense challenge, demanding perseverance and courage, one that holds within it the promise of a more liberated creativity, of a more responsive and open energy, of entry onto other entries, passages without end.

Is it worth considering Kalman’s challenge—what does it mean to give words a future?

Perhaps those billions of words passing every day through computers and cell phones function to keep pumping and expanding the veins and arteries of an immeasurable and, to me, increasingly astral verbal body.

In contrast, for all the artists in Witness to Her Art, silence has an identity and with it a texture and weight. For most of them, the otherness of this silence has an allure and an intimacy as well as a peril. To me, languages that have a present, not to speak of a future, do not approach words as vehicles of occupation and are capable of proposing scriptural energies that do not collaborate with disappearance and forgetting.

I cannot imagine this country without the laboratories of exchange that universities make available, spaces in which students and faculty across generations and countries can be together, in the same room, speaking to and with one another, everyone to some degree at risk, as words are being formed and re-formed according to the requirements of the situation. Or without obsessively felt and thought private spaces that periodically require social interaction, like the studio; and without more public settings, like the galleries and auditoriums of many arts organizations and museums, which encourage solitary thinking, collective discussion and walking exchanges. In the passages between classroom and exhibition, studio and gallery, writing and publication, something happens. Doubts and possibilities do not so much emerge as erupt. Internalized conversations with others that were part of the project all along become manifest. In these unofficial spaces between private and public—in which the private remains the first place, embodied—persisting and necessary words continue to be spoken and heard.

Contributor

Michael Brenson

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