Lecture
Johanna Drucker: The Next Word

 

 

I am going to talk to you mainly about the exhibition, The Next Word, that I curated a year ago. I'm going to talk about it as a way to address a lot of the things I've been interested in over the last several decades. I'd also like to use it as an exercise in talking about the business of curating and what it means to put a show together, especially a really complicated show, which this was. That's partly because I was an amateur, and when you ask an amateur, they often don't know the basics. No one took me aside and said, Do you want to do a show? Find a living artist, whom you know, who wants a show, who loves you, who you love, and do an exhibition of them! Then it's gratitude on all sides and is relatively easy to work with. Instead, I put together this extremely complicated show that included over eighty artists and 120 pieces of work. I said I was an amateur because I hadn't done much curating before. I'd done a lot of other things, a lot of writing, publishing, book work and teaching, but not much curating. My curating was limited to a few experiences at Columbia University, when I was working with the Walloch Art Gallery. Two weeks into getting my first appointment at Columbia as an assistant professor, my senior colleagues thought it would be a great idea if they told me I had to put an exhibition together by February. Being a new assistant professor, I thought, Oh, sure, right. I had to put together a show with Florine Stetteimer. I didn't know who she was at the time. She's a very interesting early 20th century American painter, but I didn't know. I had to pretend that I did, because of course you don't want to reveal that you don't know the sort of topic you've just been assigned.

So, anyway, these are lessons in survival techniques. I put that exhibition together with three smart, terrific grad students at Columbia. It was a very pleasant experience, but that was pretty much the limit of my curating experience. Then, the Neuberger Museum, which is at the SUNY-Purchase College in Westchester and has a beautiful collection of American and African art, had an opening in their schedule. I had just taken a job at SUNY-Purchase to be their art historian in 20th century and critical theory. The museum said to me, Wouldn't you like to do an exhibition? Something perhaps on 'text as image.’ With that, let me start the slides here.

Why ‘text as image?’ Why did they come to me with that? Well, my background is as a writer, a book artist, and as a critic and historian of visual and concrete poetry. I've been very interested for the last twenty years of my critical academic life in demonstrating that the visual, material properties of language play a part in how language produces meaning. This may not sound like such a radical idea, but it really is within certain communities of what I call ‘language dependent thinkers.’ There are quite a few of those, particularly in academic and critical areas. They resist the idea that visuality has its own life and autonomy, and that the visual properties of written text have an impact on how meaning is produced. My favorite example, on a sort of Beavis and Butthead level, to prove this is that if you take a white crayon and a red piece of construction paper, write the word ‘stop’ on it, and pin it up with a pushpin at the end of your street, the effect on traffic is going to be radically different than if you have one of those official, octagonal signs with the glittery letters. The difference between the handwritten sign and the official sign is materiality. That's all. There's nothing in the words or the language. So, materiality produces meaning.

This is a work by Ardengo Soficci, a Futurist poet/typographer in the early 20th century, and the focus of some of my early work. Why did the Neuberger come to me? Because I've written about this kind of work. I've examined the work of Futurists and Dadaists, and I've also done a lot of work on the history of the alphabet as a visual design. Here, you can see a page from an 18th century book by a man named Moussaud, in which he demonstrates the origin of the letter ‘B’ in the act of pronunciation. This works really great with ‘B,’ but I dare you to try it with the rest of the alphabet. You'll enter into some interesting sort of fictions.

The history of alphabet symbolism–the history of the alphabet as a sign that has been freighted with all kinds of interpretive meaning–is a fascinating one. Again, it's one of the things I've written about. I did a book called The Alphabetic Labyrinth, which deals with the history of this kind of esoteric, eccentric, imaginative thinking about the visual forms of language.

But the other reason, I think, that the Neuberger was interested in having me do this project is because of my own work as a book artist and printer. I've mainly worked in letterpress, a completely archaic form that has the advantage of being low capital-intensive and high labor-intensive. For those of you who are beginning to work as artists, you know what that means! My work has a lot of typographic experimentation in it. I've been intent on demonstrating the possibilities of non-linear textuality within the printed page format. This is the final page of a work called Through Light of the Alphabet, that I did around 1986. In addition to working exclusively with text, typography and materiality, I've been interested in text and image relations in my own work. This is a page from a book called Narratology that was printed letterpress from polymer plates, that were developed from Quark files and produced as film. I made the plates, did the printing and finished off the book by hand with watercolor, in seventy copies.

Again, I'm interested in text-image relations. This is a book that is about the clichés of narrative fiction and the way in which those clichés provide scenarios that women imagine they might live their lives in relation to. Trophy wife to a cannibal, for instance, is the caption under this particular image on the right.

This is a page from another book I did, called Stimulant Portrait, again using photography and offset. I brought this in here because at the end of my remarks about The Next Word, I want to show you two sheets from a work in progress, with my collaborator and husband Brad Freeman. It's photographic in nature but has a typographic textuality in it, as well.

The reason to bring all this in at the outset is simply to say that my interest in all of this spans a lot of different areas. I'm interested as a critic, historian and an artist. My interests as a historian and critic span the world of literature and, in particular, visual and concrete poetry, as a tradition that has flourished in the 20th century, but is largely unknown. How many of you, if I asked you to name a concrete poet, could do it? It's interesting. Concrete poetry has a long tradition in the 20th century, but it's a little esoteric, kind of like experimental music. It has its audience and its cult following, a developed theoretical base and many points of intersection with other avant-garde activities and critical formation, but it isn't well known.

I'm really interested in concrete poetry; I'm interested in contemporary art, and textuality and visuality. I'm interested in graphic design, and its history, as well as new media and artist's books. That gets me to The Next Word.

This is a slide of two rather large works by Archie Rand. I'll come back to them in a moment; they're large oil paintings on canvas, and the text in these images is the names of groups and artists who are musical performers. They were a tribute that Archie did to groups and performers whose music he loved. They have this kind of exuberance and playfulness, and a moment-to-moment inventiveness.

The point is that here are these paintings: I saw them on a poster, when I was visiting a friend at Columbia. I thought they were great, and decided I wanted to have them in an exhibition, if I did an exhibition of word as image. Now, look at a page like this. It's a page of type design from Emigre magazine. This is a typeface called Gnarly, that was designed by Zuzana Licko in 1993. It's an interestingly conceived face. Like much of what Zuzana Licko does, it's produced within the vocabulary of digital media. She really understands both screen display properties and the output specificity of digital forms. She plays a lot in a typeface like this. You can do things in digital media which you could never do in metal type, or even photo type, in terms of breaking up a shape, but having it still describe accurately a letter form.

So, anyway, I'd look at a page like this. Here’s Zuzana Licko’s beautiful, gnarly typeface, and here are these wonderful, large-scale paintings by Archie Rand. These things are in entirely different universes, and they serve very different cultural functions. They're conceived very differently, aesthetically. But I wanted to do an exhibition, and that's where I came to The Next Word, that would pose a few questions. One of the questions is very basic: How is it that we encounter so much language as image on a daily basis, and we are never confused when we see that language about whether or not it is advertising language, poetic language, or artistic expression? How can that be? How is it that we manage to cognitively pick up whatever those clues are that allow us to read that text according to the cultural place in which it's produced?

That was really interesting to me, because, visually, I am as interested in the Licko typeface as I am in the Rand paintings. I love them both. They're both visually fascinating to me. I have a portrait of the letter ‘G’ from a Donald Knuth Metafont book, on my toilet in a frame, where most people have a wedding picture. We're trying to sell our house right now, so I put it away, because it looks a little too eccentric. Basically, I love letter forms, and I love their visuality. I'm fascinated by the fact that we do understand the difference, that we read things differently. A lot of it has to do with institutional sites of encounter, obviously. You see it at a museum, you see it on the street, and you see it in a book. You read it according to what you've cognitively already framed as its site of meaning production.

But I'm also interested in another question. At this point in time, artists, commercial artists, poets, book artists, publishers, people working in a variety of ways of application, are all using the same tools. The question is how do we, again, differentiate those activities and practices? Concrete poetry has really benefited tremendously from the personal computer. People are doing all kind of things now, visually, that twenty years ago, you had to be a member of the profession to do. I worked as a professional typesetter, so that I'd have access to the equipment and the means of manipulation. Twenty years ago, people did not know what a font was. It wasn't part of the common vocabulary. Now, every three-year-old who's spent two minutes with a pull-down menu knows what a font is. It's no longer esoteric knowledge. Concrete and visual poetry are becoming more and more a part of the vernacular. I think there's a great potential there, now, for people to begin to explore the expressive qualities of typography, in all kinds of documents that they produce.

So I was interested in this crossover of tools. But I was also interested in the range of tools that are being used. As I sat down to curate this exhibition, I had one large exhibition hall to work with, and a couple of L-shaped walls within it. It was huge, around seventy feet square. I wanted to include all these different kinds of media. I wanted Archie Rand, and yes, I wanted Licko, but now here come the curatorial dilemmas. Do we mix the stuff up? Do I say that graphic design is the same thing as fine art? I don't think it is. I think they're very different things. Client-driven work and artist-initiated work are two different things, and need to be understood and respected as that. At the same time, dialogues between commercial and fine art are more energetic and charged than at any point in the history of modernism. One of my standard jokes is that you can always tell artwork because it has low production values. There's a way in which the shift of capital investment into the commercial and entertainment sector means that artists are always behind, in terms of how effective their use of certain kinds of tools is. They get the leftovers, the three-year-old computers. I wanted to look at the range of tools, to see how they're being used, and to respect the differences among the disciplines.

I wanted to bring in four areas of work: fine art, graphic design, concrete poetry, and artist's books. Why did I want to bring all these things together? Each of these things has a different institutional history in relationship to exhibition practices. Each of them poses different kinds of problems in terms of how you look at them and what your expectations are. One of my campaigns is to bring concrete poetry and artist's books to an art-viewing public. I think that both of these are art forms that are fully developed and very visual, that would find a broader audience if that work were integrated into an art context, and not always shown separately. I compare this to the history of video. Many of you have watched the history of video, as it has moved from the darkened room and special programming into installations. It's become integrated so that now people think of video as part of mainstream art. They don't think of it as something ‘else.’ I think of the tradition of artists’ books as suffering from the same stigma. It is marginalized in many ways. The same goes for concrete poetry, which does and doesn't belong in an exhibition space. It requires reading time, as do books. These are the curatorial problems that we'll talk about.

To start, then, I wanted these four areas --graphic design, artist's books, fine art and concrete poetry-- and I wanted the cross between traditional media and new media. There had to be some limitations, now that I'd decided to include the entire world. The limits were going to be ‘American art’ and ‘art of the 90s.’ Art of the 90s makes some sense, conceptually; it compresses the time frame. American art really had to do with the Neuberger's constraints on shipping. They simply said to me, We can't afford to ship anything across international lines. Again, that's part of the curatorial process that you learn. They also said to me, No sculpture–it's too expensive. So okay, no sculpture. No performances, no live artists–they give you a number of constraints as you go along. They were very helpful to me in every way. They did all the loan forms and the official work. All I had to do was, between the end of November and the beginning of January, come up with a checklist. In case you don't know, that's an extremely short time span in which to do such a project, especially since I had cast my net so widely.

In those four areas of activity, how many really interesting practitioners can you think of, right off the top of your head, who are doing text as image stuff in fine art? It's enough to fill the Guggenheim. There's so much interesting work, so how do you begin to make a selection? Who do you pull in?

I started to think about this, and as a centerpiece piece, I wanted to include this particular work, that is a video and book installation. It's by two artists, Marshall Reese and Nora Ligorano. The piece is called Corona Palimpsest. I've written about it in a number of different contexts, because I think it poses a lot of interesting issues around the current anxieties that people have about the future of the book and reading. The work is a book, two books actually. One is suspended on meat hooks and chains, and contains a little surveillance eye. It's not a camera; it's actually an eye that looks as though it's watching you. On the floor is mounted this pattern of remaindered books that are black, white and red, so you have to walk on the books in order to get to the installation. If you care about books, of course, this is painful. If you don't care about books, you probably don't notice. When you get to the desk, there's a beautifully handmade book, with airbrushed, silk-screened and patterned images, a lot of which are appropriated out of mass media. Already the imagery is in dialogue with the artifact. You have the imagery of mass media versus the artifact of the traditional book form.

Inside that book, there's a cut space for a monitor. The pages turn and it's beautifully bound, but the monitor has a poem on it that scrolls across the screen in dynamic typography. The temporal motion of that is, of course, dictated to you, unlike the time-space of a book, in which you can set your own relationship to it, temporally speaking. There are all kinds of tensions that are set up here. It seems to me that the issue here is that the new media don't displace the book. The book responds to new media, as much as new media respond to conventions in history of literacy and textual practices. It's about a dialogue, and an increasing specialization and mutation of both of these forms, that will be ongoing. Each will find its own specificity.

I wanted to start with this piece. It worked very well as the centerpiece of the exhibition. One of the things that troubled me in putting together this show was how would it read to the public? Westchester County is an area that has a lot of dedicated art audience people; they come to the Neuberger; they're interested in and love art. But this stuff is pretty foreign territory to them. So I wanted work that would provoke discussion. This work did actually read pretty well to the audience.

Now what I'm going to do is to show you a few of the works that I selected to go into the various areas. I don't have an extensive slide collection; I don't have every work in the exhibition. Again, what happened was it ended up being about 120 pieces of work from eighty artists. One of the things that were involved, which I found extremely taxing, was to contact every single artist myself. Eighty conversations are a lot of conversations! In many cases, that also meant studio visits. I couldn't just call them and say, I really like your work. Can you send me something? It doesn't make sense; you have to go, look at the work, and pick things out. Also, if you ask the artist just to send you something, the tendency is to say, I have a suite of eighteen pieces that will look really great on this wall! There are all these things that you have to negotiate constantly. I found it exhausting. I'm not meant for curating. I found it so socially taxing, even though the people were wonderful and very nice.

Also, what was interesting to me was the difference in these different populations. Dealing with fine artists was a dream. You call them up, ask if they want to exhibit, they send you slides, and it's easy. Dealing with book artists was no problem; they were fine. For concrete poetry, I mainly worked out of a wonderful archive in Florida, the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry. I know the Sackners and have for a long time; they're very generous and love to have their collection exhibited. That was an easy thing to do. Dealing with graphic designers was very difficult, oddly enough. They were enthusiastic, but getting anything out of them was impossible. They have endless numbers of assistants. Any time you called, you would get a hold of one of these assistants, who would promise to pass on your message, but three weeks later you'd be back on the phone with them. It was just a different dynamic with them. It was an instructive experience, to recognize that for them, this had very little value in terms of their career goals and their professional needs and ideas. With the artists, this was it, this was what you need and want. Again, it's just a kind of cautionary tale. If you’re interested in expanding beyond the conventional parameters of exhibition practices, you often encounter problems you would never have predicted. I mean, people who make surfboards just don't care that much about having them exhibited.

Let me show you some of these works in order to give you a sense of the range. What I did in the end, in terms of curating, was divide the gallery into four spaces. There was a space for fine art, one for concrete poetry, which segued into the graphic design area. In the center, between the two L-shaped walls, I made the space for artist's books, because it was a little more intimate. Some of the books were able to be handled and were out, linked by chains or fishing wire. Most of the books had to be in cases, and this is a disaster. The exhibition of books is a real problem: what is the right way to do it? How can it be done so that the viewer/audience can have the opportunity to experience the book fully, and at the same time keep the book in the exhibition center, and it doesn't leave with the second viewer who loves it? This is a huge problem. They're so complicated. The viewing expectations that people bring with them to the museum are another thing that you always have to think about when you're curating. People are not there to read; they're there to look. Looking generally has this kind of quick-time frame to it. People will move through a gallery of old masters, just like that. Seen it. Seen it. Seen it. That's the way they take in visual information. Sometimes you can capture them and they'll spend some time with an image, but to introduce into a gallery things that really take time to unfold–that isn't just books, but new media pieces–introduces a whole new conflict for the viewer to grapple with. Do they want to spend the time?

I did want to include some new media pieces, so I did. There were a couple of CD-ROM pieces and a couple of computer works, as well. We'll see what the problems were with those.

This is a piece called Rosetta Speaks, by a man named Austin Strauss. It's a collage, not huge, but a rich, beautiful piece. I just happened to come across it when I met him at a conference in St. Louis. He gave me a Xerox of this particular piece, and I had a really interesting conversation with him and with his wife. At the time, I wasn't thinking about curating, but as the exhibition came along, I thought about this work. He's a poet and a writer, and I thought the piece would be perfect for the visual and concrete poetry section, due to its visual-textual qualities. I wanted to make a mix of people who were really well-known and those who weren't so well-known, of people who would benefit significantly from the exhibition opportunity and people who had enough of a name to bring viewers into the gallery. It was another sort of curatorial juggling act. If you start adding up all these things that you're juggling, pretty soon it's like putting together a very elaborate jigsaw puzzle.

Anyway, this is Austin's piece. You can see the Rosetta Stone in the center of it. The issue of Rosetta Speaks raises questions about the traditions of Egyptian culture within mainstream Western culture and the notion of African roots of Western culture.

Another piece in this area was by Jackson MacLow and Anne Tardos. Jackson is into his seventies, and he's been an experimental poet for his entire professional career. This is a piece that he did with Anne Tardos that was an homage to John Cage. It was part of the Fluxus movement. To me, MacLow is somebody whom I have a terrific respect for as a dedicated avant-garde poet. This man has spent his life doing experimental work that will reap few rewards in his lifetime, yet it's fascinating and culturally and aesthetically rich work. There are these skews in contemporary culture, like why that isn't rewarded at all. There's no cultural capital in poetry. You can be the most interesting poet that there is and still barely be able to scrape by on that. It seems, somehow, wrong. Anyway, this is a large-scale work, made out of chance operations, which is one of the things the MacLow is dedicated to. Now, if you put a work like this up in an exhibition setting, it needs a lot of framing around it. It needs a lot of discussion for people to understand what it is they're looking at. The notion of concretism, of visual language, is something that isn't that familiar.

I did a lot of programming around this exhibition, as well. We did programs for school kids, for adults; I did lots of talks; we had a reading and dance performance with Sally Silvers and Bruce Andrews. We did a panel discussion on new media and academic pursuits and research. But the one thing I enjoyed the most of all the programming I did was to put together a package on how to teach concrete and visual poetry to children. It included teaching to really little ones, not so little ones, and bigger ones, to the point where they're almost not children any more. Children respond really well to this work. You take them into the gallery and you say, Okay, find some letters you would like to write your name in. And they do. They respond visually; they see the letters. You ask them, What's the mood of that letter? What's the character of that letter? What's the mood of that word? Find me an angry word and they will. It was really interesting and fun to deal with them. The adults had some difficulty, because they feel inadequate about not knowing the traditions of concrete poetry.

As I said, the concrete and visual poetry area segued into the graphic design area. Part of the reason for that is that so much of the history of typography and typographic design has a kind of found, concrete poetry aspect to it. If you look at type samples from the late 19th century, you can see a point when vernacular language starts being used in type samples. Before that, there were mainly classical quotations or fairly standard exhibitions of letter form. But locksmith gate bolted shut, call for service, skeleton repair man arrives after four hours. Diagnosis. Careful and lengthy examination. Conclusion: it was the wrong house. Frantic and rapid apology sought. Location of correct house. That kind of play was something the typographer had permission to do at his or her type case, in making an effective display of whatever the shop had at its disposal.

Now, in the realm of graphic design, as a lot of you probably know, there are a number of people doing work that posits itself as commercial, in the way that it looks, and is actually quite subversive. This is Critical Art Ensemble and a piece that they did on useless technology. This is technology so pure that its only function is to exist. Many items previously thought to be apocalyptic or utopian are now totally useless. The images are actually taken from real things. Down at the bottom, is written, Hi, I'm Ron. Call me any time, 1-800-USELESS. It's these kinds of parodies of commercial form. Critical Art Ensemble is dedicated to putting this stuff out in the world. They distribute it anonymously; they don't want their names associated with it. It's a way to have a subversive effect using print media for strategic political activity.

This is a piece that was done by the Reverb Studio, another group of people I wanted to include, partly because their practice is so varied. Reverb does identity campaigns for Nike, in which they do, believe it or not, sort of archeological research on the ‘swoosh,’ trying to figure out its origins. They also do ‘pro bono’ work like this. Can you work on $4.25 an hour? They do a whole wide range of work. This is very interesting, in terms of contemporary graphic design, the way that work interpenetrates all kinds of worlds and universes because of its communicative effectiveness.

Class Action is another group of designers who have done a lot of politically oriented work. They did this billboard campaign that was also a stamp. I don't know if it actually got produced as a stamp or not, but I know it was a proposal for a stamp. Some of you may have actually seen it. This was an interesting project because I wanted to put this into the gallery. This particular billboard is enormous and it's hand-painted. We got the actual billboard and were able to unscroll a part of it and install it in the gallery. I was interested in these dramatic changes of scale. How often do people see a billboard close up? How big is a billboard, really? In the same way, people often don't understand that graphic design is authored. It seemed really important to me that an art-viewing public comes to understand that all the stuff they see around them isn't just noise; it's actually produced by people, most of whom are individuals with a style and a particular point of view and attitude. Again, I wanted to pick work by well-known designers, people who had had a major impact on the look of contemporary language and the landscape. This stuff is produced; these are authors and artists who have shaped the visual world in which we live. They tend to be anonymous except to other designers, who make them into cult figures, which is another problem.

This set of slides, here, addresses a little bit of the logistics of showing work effectively, when you have such a variety of things. In the center of the gallery, I had the cases, in which I put the artist's books. I had that terrible job of showing one page out of the book. That's like showing one clip out of a film. What do you see, or know? You can't know a book from one page, especially not an artist's book, since they usually explore the medium in an interesting way. So that was problem number one, but they still mostly got locked in cases. The book on the far left wall is huge, by a man named Murray Zimiles, and it's about the burning of synagogues in Poland in the 1930s. It has huge woodcuts and text, and he designed it to be exhibited in this dramatic way. It can stretch to be almost 75 feet long, or it can be compressed in these folds. That created a different kind of viewing experience. Whatever my feelings about that book are, I thought it was an important book to put into contrast with the works in the cases, for the kind of experience that it provided. You walk up to that book and you are really inside those pages.

With the graphic design work, when it was posters or display pieces, it was easy to put them up on the wall, framed or displayed appropriately so that people could appreciate them. But, in many cases, for example, in the work of David Carson, what you're dealing with is work in book form, again. You don't really get it; seeing the cover doesn't tell you much. These are people who think about sequence, timing, repetition, and the internal structure of the print form, the way that a musician thinks about a symphonic piece. These works are elaborately orchestrated. That was very frustrating.

This is to show you what happens when you try to curate new media. Are you getting a lot out of this image? (Slide is of a blank monitor.) Well, the viewers in the gallery got about as much out of it. It's extremely frustrating, still, to deal with new media. You really need a technical support staff. This is actually a really interesting piece by Christopher N. It was elaborately programmed with very interesting typographical displays, spacialized language; I think if it worked maybe twenty minutes out of the three months the exhibition was up, I was lucky. I had a really good tech support team, but they couldn't come all the time and be on site. I know this is going to change, but as interesting and exciting work is being done in new media, and as we all, as artists, invest in new media, we have to also be aware of the limitations of exhibition and curating. It's just so expensive and difficult to make the stuff run properly. You can have the best intentions in the world. So, if you're a new media artist, you almost have to baby-sit your piece. You almost have to be employed to come every day and make sure that it's fed properly, that the paper is changed in the bottom of its cage, and that it gets little stories read to it every night before it goes to sleep. It really needs a lot of attention.

We're basically moving around the gallery, showing you a little tip of each iceberg. As we move into the area of fine art, again, what's the range of things? How do you pick out of everything that's there in the world? In some cases, I was almost didactic in what I picked. I thought about this as a museum that's in the context of a college campus. I thought, What will it be like to bring my students in here? How will it work as a teaching exhibition, as well as an exhibition for the public? This particular piece is by Lisa Bloomfield. She didn't take the photograph; it was given to her as part of a project in which she was included in Los Angeles. The project involved taking another person's photograph and doing something to it or with it. All the manipulated photographs were then exhibited. She took this one photograph, which is an image of a number of Latino guys, involved in what looks like a scuffle with the photographer. That's what the image is; she wrote underneath it thirty different texts, so that as you look at the image in relationship to the text, it becomes an exercise in that kind of transformation of meaning. Now, this is utterly banal, on one level; how many times did we do this in the sixth grade? But as a work that is in the context of an exhibition that deals with text and image, and image and meaning, relations, it seems very useful as a kind of statement about that particular set of concerns.

In choosing the artists for the fine art area, I let myself be guided by a number of things. Choosing work that I love is always the most important thing, I think. I didn't put anything in the exhibition that I didn't really love, excepting one or two pieces that had other reasons to be there. Part of that had something to do with the role that I found myself playing in the context of Purchase College and the SUNY campus. I wanted to draw people in from different departments, so I did put in work by people that I wasn't necessarily crazy about, but that I thought would be useful in forging those relationships and trying to create a sense of community. I say this because I don't think that's hypocritical at all. I think it's interesting that when you start going through an exhibition and telling the anecdotes for each particular piece, you find they're all there for different reason. Some are there because I loved them; some are there because these are people who have been friends of mine for a really long time–I think that's fine! In other cases, it's because they're people whose work I think should have more recognition than it does, even though it's difficult; and in some cases, it was for what we call political purposes, or social networking purposes. I think that those are all things that factored into this exhibition. I'm not sure I would always factor these in, but I did in this particular case.

This is work by Julia Jacquette. Probably a number of you know her work; she's a painter who uses language. They're very funny, erotic and playful works. Again, she did this piece for the exhibition. When I asked her if she wanted to be in it, she was very enthusiastic and said she would do a new piece for me, and she did. That was really gratifying.

The other thing I let myself be guided by was my students. I always asked them, What do you like? What are you interested in? What do you see that's really exciting to you? They have things that they respond to that I don't respond to. This is Glen Ligon's work; I like his work a lot and didn't need my students to convince me to put it in here. Likewise, the work of Mira Schor, which were small oil paintings. They were part of a larger work called Chiaroscuro that deals with text as image in a very painterly way, where there's a certain amount of tension between what the word says and the painterly tradition. It contradicts some of the mental attitudes of conceptualism, in which language is stripped of its materiality. Here, it has dense materiality.

This is the work of Karen Kilimnick, and this is work I did put in because of my students. I've known her work for a long time, and I couldn't get my head around it at all. I kept saying, I just don't think so. But my students were saying, We love this work. We don't know why, but it really does something for us. So I thought that was fair enough. In other words, I wanted to stretch my own limits and say, for whatever reason, that work has a particular appeal to people in their early 20s. It's another dialogue that exists between fine art and mass media, between the look of fine art and the language of commercialism, and that seemed central to the exhibition, so I put it in. I don't hate this work; it's just not my particular thing.

This is a slide of the work of Janet Zweig, called Her Recursive Apology. This is a new media piece that needs no electricity when it's installed, fortunately. It's actually a digital printout from a dot matrix printer on that kind of paper with the holes along the sides. What Zweig did was to program the computer with a set of apologetic remarks that continually transform and permutate. As the apology begins, it apologizes to itself, and again and again, each one building on the last. It has this horrible, neurotic, obsessive quality, as an apology can. Once you've done something wrong, you can spiral so deeply into that reserve in your psyche, filled with remorse, that it feeds endlessly. The spiral quality of this particular piece implies that it could go on forever.

There was one area of the gallery that had windows, so that's where I put the fine art work, since I thought that would benefit the most and suffer the least from the daylight. The works on paper, concrete poetry, books, and graphic design needed to be protected as much as possible from direct daylight.

I'm going to show you a couple of quick images of artist's books, and then I'm going to wrap up my remarks so I can answer some questions. This is a work by Bill Burke, called Minefield. In picking the work to go into the artist's book section, I wanted to pick people whose work is so developed, and so good, and deserve so much recognition. There are people who have been working in artist's books for twenty or thirty years who, if they were working as painters, would be household names, because their work is so good and so sophisticated. Bill Burke is one of them. This is a book that was produced by Nexxus Press. Burke is a photographer and a journalist, but a kind of gonzo journalist. This book weaves a story that moves between his dissolving marriage and a trip that he takes into southeast Asia, where he goes into the mountains of Cambodia and meets people who are part of the Khmer Rouge. He is documenting the effects of land mines on the soldiers and people in the area; he ends up injured and back in the hospital at Bangkok. It has an epic sweep to it, but it's completely non-heroic. It's macho, but it's not heroic. There's a sincere engagement with adventure without being falsely heroic. It's a fascinating book. As an artist's book, it's incredibly developed.

Another person who's been working for a long time with text-image relations in the artist's book mode is a man named Gary Richman. This is from one of his works. The force of her gesture exceeded the demands of polite, after-dinner conversation. She never realized the consequences of her error. Her guests were pragmatists, who believed that when a single visible factor is... and then it goes on. Richman works with found materials and collage materials in these interestingly almost related text-image books that he does himself. They're very developed and, again, it's not accidental. There's a lot of tension between the found texts and the found images.

This is a work by Phil Zimmerman, called High Tension. It was done through Visual Studies Workshop Press in 1993. The pages of this book are cut at the edge in that triangular shape. It's about anxiety, and it pricks your fingers as you turn the pages. Zimmerman's a wonderful pattern maker, as well as an interesting book designer and writer.

Here you see the books installed around the Corona Palimpsest. A work by a woman named Joan Goswell couldn't be more different from Bill Burke's and Phil Zimmerman's. Goswell makes these books out of stamps that she makes herself. She stamps every single letter in the book, as well as the images. This is called, The George Book. It's a major sort of ranting diatribe against George Bush. It just goes on and on. It reminds me of the kind of stuff that you see in the Lyndon B. Johnson visitor reception center, when you go to the Lyndon B. Johnson ranch. It's amazing, the stuff you'll see there. There are quilts made out of bottle caps. Goswell's doing, self-consciously, this kind of Americana sensibility in her work.

Very different in tone is the work of Emily McVarish. She's a more emerging book artist who's not so established. This is a kind of book-like artifact. Those are little buildings that are tabs on the book that can unfold, with its rather delicate, spacious text.

The last two slides are of works that people had the most difficulty with in the show. This is a lightbox piece by Heather Schatz and Eric Chand. They just had a show down at the Basilico of their work. I've known them for over twenty years and watched their work develop. They have this project about a genealogy of form that developed from one original form. It's a family of forms, and they keep multiplying and making more forms. The forms get used to make things like purses, shoes, sunglasses, patterns and textiles, but they also keep giving rise to other forms. As they have progressed in their work, they've gotten more and more corporate sponsorship. Now they're making these very elaborate textile pieces with embroidery machines that are digitally programmed. They got all this stuff by writing to the companies, explaining who they were and what they wanted to do with this stuff. The chart here is completely obsessive; every single one of their forms and every variation on the forms are numbered. They all have a place in the system, and it's kind of an insane, genetic code for a self-sufficient universe of forms that has nothing to do with anything but itself. But that's sort of fascinating, because it also becomes a way of dealing with form as information. Now that you've mapped these into digital files by redrawing them as ductal drawings, they have a sort of digital life, they're not just scanned. So this chart covers all this: the history of the forms, the history of their applications and the history of their sponsorship. What is it? Is it art work? Is it design? Is it product? Is it product development? Is it commerce? People can't deal with it. That ‘what is it-ness’ of it, I just love. It doesn't sit comfortably in any established categories, and therefore it raises a lot of questions about what those categories are. That piece, people had a lot of trouble with.

The other piece, on the opposite end of the production spectrum, that people couldn't deal with was Edgar Heap-of-Birds' work. This is a piece called Monetish. It was a huge drawing, in which he had hand-drawn these letters in a kind of Impressionistic, Monet pattern. Yet, the substance of the text is questioning the traditions of Western form and aesthetics. Time after time, in going through the exhibition, I would get to this work and people would say, I just don't get it. I can't see it. It has so much to do with people's production value expectations. The under-production values in this piece challenged people's production expectations as much as the Chan-Schatz piece's over-production values challenged those expectations. I find that really interesting, that at these two extremes, people had a lot of difficulty with the work.

The last thing I wanted to do is bring a work in progress that I'm really excited about. These are two sheets from the book I'm currently working on with Brad Freeman. It's a book called Nova Reperta, and it's a contemporary response to a book published in 1638 of prints based on drawings by the Dutch artist, Johannes Stradanus. Nova Reperta, New Inventions or Discoveries, was his assessment of the inventions and discoveries that had shaped modern life at that point in time. We were invited to do a response to that book five years ago, as part of a Smithsonian-initiated exhibition that was Contemporary Artist's Books: Responses to Works in the Burn Dibner Collection of Books on the History of Science. We couldn't follow through with the book at that time, so we are finishing it now. This is one of the finished offset sheets. It gets trimmed down so the white margins disappear. As a collaborative work, it's allowed us both to push his photography and my typography to a place that neither of us would have gone independently. I'm really trying to use the typography to draw in relation to the images, without ever violating the images or breaking them up, or making the type look like Arizona Highways magazine, which is the other big problem of using type in relation to photographic work. They are offset printed, and we are some of the only people aside from Phil Zimmermann or Clifton Meador who are using offset as a creative printmaking medium. It is, again, a much-maligned and misunderstood medium; people think of it as a medium of reproduction, but it is, in fact, a creative printmaking medium, if you have the tools to work with it.

So, that leaves us plenty of time for questions.

Audience: I had a question about people's response to the exhibition as a whole. You were talking about how people are accustomed to a certain pace when they walk through a museum; did you find that they changed their pace in order to read?

Drucker: More than I had expected. The docents gave me a lot of feedback. I spent a lot of time with them; I gave a lot of talks before the exhibit and when the exhibit was up, to try to give them a critical and historical framework for a lot of the material. Before the exhibit went up, they were really worried that it would all just look like text. They thought it was going to be the most visually boring exhibition; of course, they only told me this after the fact. But part of what I was doing in selecting the works–you can see it in Rosetta Speaks or the MacLow piece–was to pick work that was sufficiently visually engaging, so if you didn't read it, you could still have an eye/aesthetic/massage/pleasure from going through the exhibition. Maybe that's not right; maybe I should have insisted on work that has to be read, but I wanted to seduce people into being interested. I didn't want to make them swallow beans that hadn't been soaked in water. People did, I think, come back several times and read the pieces. I was surprised to find that my students at Purchase were more interested in the visual and concrete poetry than they were in the graphic design. I thought they would mainly respond to the graphic design and the fine art, but they really liked the visual poetry. It was very heartening to me. I guess in curating, like in anything else, you should follow your enthusiasms. If you believe in work and you have a passion for it, then I think people will respond to that. It's not for everyone, but that was fine, too. People did change, and I think I got people to see work they'd never seen before, and made an argument for it. Now, when I want to do The History of Visual and Concrete Poetry as an exhibition on a major museum scale, hopefully I can find someone who is willing to do it. It needs to be done; it's such an amazing history in the 20th century. It's this whole hidden tradition that's really rich. In the current climate, when people are able to use electronic tools to produce visually manipulated texts, it makes sense for us to pull the tradition back into visibility. Then people can see there is a history of thinking that way about language.

Audience: I was really taken with your presentation, because for the last twenty years, I've been a designer and an art director, as well as a photographer and an artist. One of the things I was interested in that you talked about was text not violating the image. I think that with the advent of digital capabilities, such as working with PhotoShop, people completely disseminate the image. How do you work with text? How do you feel about working with text in a way so that the text doesn't overpower the piece? That's something I'm trying to deal with in my own work. How do you bring text into image, without it becoming page layout, in a fine art context?

Drucker: That's not a question I can answer in an easy way. One of the things I find in teaching, watching younger people come into this world of electronic tools, is that the lack of resistance in electronic media makes it so easy to forget the specificity, the meaning value, and the whole sort of effect of working with text and image. My students, time after time, say, Oh, I'll just scan something. I'm saying, Wait a minute. Where'd that image come from? What's the history, and meaning, of that image? Often you'll find this stuff recycling through that they don't even know the origin of. To me, it's the same thing as listening to those orchestrated versions of Bob Dylan songs that show up at the supermarket. What has scanning done for us? How can it be the Yves Klein jumping out the window to demonstrate the void, as a spiritual and physical exercise, shows up on O Foto as their little flyer that they send out? Somebody thought it was really great but didn't care that it had a history to it. I don't think it's an evil, but in terms of teaching, I try to make my students aware that just contributing to the noise factor in the environment is not that interesting. Increasingly, what we’re going to have to do if we want to create meaning is to make a space for it. There is no space for it, because we're so overwhelmed. I always say, I like to go to the art museum because it's a sensory deprivation experience. There's simply less there than in the rest of the world.

Audience: In the book art that you were including, did you do Danny Eldon?

Drucker: I don't know Danny Eldon's work. You have to work from what you know. I know a lot, but I don't know everything, that's for sure.

Audience: Along the lines of what you were saying about the computer, one of the things that attracted me to visual books is that I always felt like they were sculpture. I was thinking of a video I saw, by William Wegman, when he was at CCAC, of floating words down the river. It seemed like this show kind of culminated in a description of a natural progression: words to books to words to books and video. Subversively, you were putting sculpture in there. I guess you answered the question I was going to ask, which was about artists and tools. I've found that, since I've been working with computers in laying out books, I forgot my original thought that books are sculpture. I started seeing text as flat, and now I'm real disturbed about it. I was wondering if you intended the words as their own form, their own shape and identity, in a sculptural kind of way.

Drucker: I guess there's all kinds of ways into the experience of the materiality of language. One of the things that a poet friend used to say is, If you stutter, that's good, because you're tripping over the fact of the words. It reminds you that language is not transparent and that it's not simply some kind of vehicle for communicating. It has specificity. My own experience with letterpress was so dramatically physical that it's like holding words in your hand. What a thing to do! You hold a word in your hand and suddenly everything is heavier. What does it mean? It doesn't mean anything, yet it has an impact on you. The computer is a tool; it's not a tool like any other. I watch my students doing things in the electronic medium, because they have an aesthetic that developed out of that, that I can't do. I don't think that way. I think in letterpress terms; I have a phototype and letterpress aesthetic. I'm tremendously intrigued by their aesthetic, and by the fact that they have a fluidity of relation between text and image that I don't have. They merge them in these interesting ways. If I do it, it looks hideous and clumsy. I guess I'm not so interested in privileging one experience over another, as much as allowing these experiences to feed each other, so that people can appreciate how shape and form influence meaning, no matter what domain you're working in. It would have been fun in this exhibit to put sculptural pieces in that deal with language, because there are some wonderful ones. I like the clunkiness and funniness of taking a word and making it this big.

Audience: This is sort of a follow-up to that question. I wanted to hear you talk a little more about how the materiality of the word affects your meaning and also about the distinction between commercial and fine art. I've tended to notice a lot of those distinctions blurring, especially with the use of digital technologies. Artists are working in a look that can have that high-gloss, commercial finish. This is in addition to photographers like Wolfgang Tillmans, who we mentioned yesterday, showing their commercial work right alongside their fine art work. How do you think that affects all this?

Drucker: So, on one hand, there's the materiality of language issue, and on the other, there's this interesting hybridization of practices and blurring of boundaries between what were traditionally very distinct domains. I'm sure you'll hear more about the materiality of language later on this afternoon, when you'll have the pleasure of listening to William Gass speak. He's somebody who's been acutely and keenly aware of the materiality of language on the level of textual production that most people don't attend to. His work, like the work of a number of critics, has shown us that even the most ordinary looking text is materially specific. It has material properties to it, and we factor that into the way that we read. To disturb that in the least bit makes you aware of it. Suddenly, you notice, because you didn't expect to sit down with the Nancy Drew book and expect it to look like the yellow pages. But it could have, and why not? What would that have done to Nancy and her adventures? The issue of materiality I like to push to the extreme and say that any text is material. A lot of text is claimed to be unmarked and neutral, but there is no neutrality in text. I think every material forms codes in the way that we receive the text. And this is true with spoken language as well as written language. You have only to think of inflection as a property of speech. We know this; that's materiality. You look at that word on the page, and it's the same word, apparently.

Okay, so there's that. The other issue that you raised, that of the relationship between fine art and commercial practices, is one of the most urgent and compelling issues for contemporary art, in terms, especially, of the critical paradigm. One of the things I've been continually frustrated by within the academy and within art history as a profession is the resistance to engage with that particular set of questions. What I notice is that the history of criticism that comes out of dealing with modernism takes as its premise that avant-garde culture must be bought at the expense of and in critical response to commercialism. That has been the tradition that we've inherited within modern criticism. It no longer operates and it no longer works, because contemporary artists are feeding so much off of commercial culture, and not only in opposition to it. It is often an enthusiastic and joyful embrace of it and a dialogue with it. What is the critical paradigm that we need to address this? It's not that I want to give up on fine art, which is why, in setting up the exhibit, I separated fine art from graphic art. I still think that there must be a place for independent, individual expression, that is not part of the mega-discourses of the culture industries. But that relationship need not be one of critical opposition. I think it's a really important issue.

Audience: This is sort of switching gears. You were talking about new media, and how difficult and costly it is to maintain them. Particularly in the past year, I've been to so many exhibits that include these computerized installations, and they never work, or if they do work, it's not in the way they're supposed to. You end up having this dialogue about how it should work and how it is working. I've begun to wonder why we can't just discuss the fact that it's not working. That, to me, is so interesting, and it seems to get glossed over a lot.

Drucker: I couldn't agree more. I think that's a great remark. I've talked about this recently at a couple of conferences I've been at that have a lot of new media as part of the presentation. I use slides; I'm a dinosaur. It's so easy. But the new media don't work. You're at this conference with all these tech-heads, who spend their whole life plugging into the base of their skull, and you get there and it doesn't work. They spend the whole time apologizing. I keep thinking how great this is. We're going to lose this experience. We're at this moment in time, where what we're having is this social experience of things not working. That is, in fact, what we're going through. It will pass completely; there will be a point when this stuff is so seamless, and its seamlessness will make us forget its materiality, specificity, and all those qualities. I think it is a historical moment and we should be aware of it. It also feeds into what I call the folklore aspect of digital culture. Think about it: how do you know what you know about computers? It's from talking to people, or emailing your friends. It's this unofficial network of communication that's outside the official industry. It's this kind of oral culture, this folklore, this vernacular community that gets you the information that you need. I guess that's another interesting aspect of this, that there's a social experience that's produced. I agree; let's appreciate it while it lasts.

Audience: I have a question about the sequencing within the four groups. What do you put next to a David Carson? How do you organize the space so that you have flow-through without having striking contrasts between the works, because it's all so different?

Drucker: I tried to do it visually, based on how things read against each other. One of the problems I've noticed with group exhibitions is that it can look like a jumble sale. Everything looks like less when it's put together with a lot of miscellany. I tried really hard to make things read effectively against each other, so that the work really benefited from its context. I also did it by not making it too crowded. In spite of the fact that there was a lot of work in the exhibition, the space itself was not that crowded. It wasn't hung wall to ceiling, salon-style, which is also why I decided to err on the side of being selective and representative, rather than exhaustive. It just seemed like I was going to run into this obliteration. Everything was going to lose value. In the end, I just had to trust my eye, truthfully, having already decided on certain content things. Like that Chan-Schatz piece, I did put it right in between visual poetry and graphic design. It didn't belong in either zone. There was a Paula Scher piece that I also put right there. It was her Opinionated Map, which is a handmade map that deals with racist and ethnic misconceptions about the world. It's hand-lettered. I put that there right in between visual poetry and graphic design, because she's a graphic designer but she's made this work of art that wasn't part of her design practice. It's a hard one, but I think in the end it's about visual choices. I mean, it's formalism. It's good old-fashioned ‘Look at it!’ I'm not averse to that, either.

Audience: I'm wondering how you think mail art fits into the work that you showed us, and if you included any in the exhibition. If you didn't, I would like to know some of the reasons why.

Drucker: Good question. I put zines in. What I did was I had a grad student that I'd worked with at Purchase, Matt Ferranto, and asked him to curate the zine portion, because he has done a lot of mail art, and curating, and zine work. I figured I could benefit from his expertise, so he curated a Zine Vitrine. That's as close as we got to mail art, was the zines. There was no reason not to put mail art in, except that I don't have access to a collection and I don't know that work as well as I know the visual and concrete poetry history. In a sense, it would have added in, for me, the onus of having to learn thoroughly another area, or rely on someone with real expertise in this area, like Robert Morgan.

Audience: I just thought of it as something that's been as marginalized as visual poetry.

Drucker: If you saw the Ray Johnson exhibition, which was really wonderful, at the Whitney, it was an interesting exercise in showing work that was designed to be ephemeral and communicative. I thought it was a wonderful exhibition, and very engaging, but it came under quite a bit of criticism from people who felt that the ephemeral should remain the ephemeral.

Audience: I have a question regarding the book work. After having done this show and when you were in the process of doing it, have you come up with any other ideas of how to display the work so that people can actually get into the books and work with them? There always seems to be this sort of standstill with artist's books, even going to a library and trying to view them in a special collections area. I find it really frustrating.

Drucker: Yes, it's a huge problem. I don't know how to answer the problem. I've seen various solutions, and I can describe them to you, and discuss a little bit the limitations of each one. The solutions have been the following: one is that you actually put the books on display with white gloves, which I think is really weird. I always have display copies of my books so that they can be handled. I say, Okay–that's going to be the display copy. I say something is valuable but not precious; it should be able to be handled. So display copies are one way to deal with it; you sacrifice a couple copies, and they're there and able to be viewed. I think that's the best solution. The next best solution is what the Whitney did in the New York Dada show, with some very rare ephemera: early 20th century Dada publications that are very difficult to find and really delicate. They made color reproduction copies, mounted and laminated them, like a menu, and then had them out, to be handled. That was not bad; it wasn't great, but it wasn't bad. You could actually stand there, handle it, and read it. The other solution I've seen done is to use a monitor and video tape the book as the author goes through it and talks about it, page by page. That's also not bad. I would say, perhaps, that if you put all those experiences together, you might get the richest experience in an exhibition. There's something nice about the pace, which I'm not patient enough to do in my own presentations, of somebody going through a book really slowly, and talking about it, page by page. I've seen people do it really well, with books that are not that interesting. You end up loving the book just because of the way they talk to you about it. I think it works really well; but I have problems with time-based media. Should I have a two-minute or a one hour video? How long am I going to stand here? So I think that the video thing, the laminated version and then the viewing experience are the best solutions. Books are private and intimate, and time-intensive; that's their value. It makes it really hard for them to find their place. The books that have found the most place in exhibition spaces in the last five to ten years are books that are acting like sculpture. They exhibit themselves to be seen in a glance, as objects. They're not books any more. They're not evil objects, but, to me, they're not books any more.

Audience: I have a question about the title of your show. The Next Word almost has a Biblical tone to it. Or it could just be ‘something that comes right after.’ Since I didn't read the catalogue, could you explain it briefly?

Drucker: I wanted it to suggest the future as well as the past. The subtitle of the show was Text and as Image and as Design and as Meaning and as Media.... In my own writing, I've always been really interested in the when and which. The legacy of the word is bound up with religious and spiritual meaning, and vernacular meaning, as well. I'm interested in the way in which language invokes all of these frames of reference. It wasn't without self-consciousness that I let it invoke all of those various kinds of traditions. I think you can't say the word ‘word’ in Western culture without it resonating with that kind of theological and Biblical history. The same with ‘the book:’ the book is the Book, it's the Law, it's the Word. It's in the tabernacle and it's also put into plain brown wrappers, sold under the table and read in the toilet. The book is a complex cultural object and icon. I think that every time we encounter ‘the word’ and ‘the book,’ we're dealing, in some sense, with all of those references as part of the legacy. Again, that's part of the way in which invoking the materiality of those histories enriches the reading and textual experience.

Audience: It seemed to be important to you to have the installation piece with the video monitors that were part of the books. Who was that by?

Drucker: Marshall Reese and Nora Ligorano.

Audience: It seemed like that was a transitional piece in the chronology in the history of the word. Where do you think that's going? Where do you think that relationship between the printed word and electronic, time-based media is heading, and are you happy about it?

Drucker: My being happy or unhappy isn't going to change anything, so I think I'll leave that aside. I think apocalyptic pronouncements sell really well, but I'm actually kind of a moderate. What I actually see happening is that each of these media will acquire its own specificity, as documents, manuscripts and handwriting did after the invention of print and movable type. Media influence each other, and I don't see things as a direct, chronological displacement. We still speak; we still make our shopping lists with little scraps of paper, at least some of us do. I think I see increasing specialization. The major transformation right now is in the publishing industry, and watching print on demand from electronic files is trying to be developed as a viable industry product. The capital that is tied up in the materials of paper and binding is no longer going to be tied up that way. The issues of intellectual property rights and how artists get paid are things that will have to be increasingly resolved. I don't think the book, as an artifact, will go away, because it's too useful, and it's too cheap, when it works well. I think the book will be the high-end item and it will be the low-end item, as well. All the people I talk to in academic research in this area, and in publishing, say that what's going to go out is the middle range. In other words, a lot of university presses are not going to produce works on paper; they will produce works more in electronic format, because that work has a limited print run and it's highly expensive to produce. The trade paperback is viable, and the very expensive, limited edition is viable, but that middle range is where the cost-effectiveness is going to factor in. I think it's going to be very much economically determined but that will also play out in terms of cultural value and how things get specified and acquire specialization. My favorite story about this is going to Montage '93, an exhibition up in Rochester of new media and technology and a trade fair. At that point virtual reality was very new, so there was a ride you could go on for thirty seconds and have the experience of really killing people. There were all of these seven and eight-year-olds demanding of their parents that they have this experience. They were standing in line for two or three hours to get their thirty seconds of thrill. And what were they doing while they were standing in line? They were reading books, not computer manuals, but fiction. That movie in your head will still play itself out. I always think that's very interesting. So I see specialization, but I don't see total replacement.

 

 

Analysis by Julia Clinker

 

 

Johanna Drucker, director of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, presented work from an exhibition she developed addressing issues of text and image. Drucker began by presenting work from The Next Word, an exhibition for the Neuberger Gallery designed to raise audience awareness of words' materiality. Drucker selected an incredibly diverse range of artists who work in concrete poetry, video, drawing, graphic design, and the computer and asked the artists to create work that reflects on how meaning is deciphered in the physicality of the word.

The centerpiece of the show was a video installation by Marshall Reese and Nora Ligorano. On the floor of the installation lay countless number of bound books. One had to trample this pile of sprawling literature in order to approach the beautifully hand carved box in the center that displayed a video image of turning pages. The piece is addressing our past and presenting our future as technology replaces our need for bound information. It is also addressing the materiality of language in that what is lost, according to Drucker, as we advance into a technological era, is the physicality of language. As words are ‘flattened’ by computers, we lose our tactile relationship with language that came from turning pages and digesting information in out own time.

It is clear that Drucker was motivated to present an exhibition intended to challenge our concepts of the power of words and to question the authority we have given to technology to mediate communication.

By comparing the work of many artists across different mediums, Drucker made us aware of the human need to communicate and generate understanding. She wanted the audience to learn to appreciate words as more than flat symbols of expression and directed the audience's attention to the meaning of the word by judging its physicality, its shape, color, size, form, and texture.

Drucker’s exhibition challenges the audience to take an active role in looking at words, as they appeared in the show, larger than life, rough textured, slick, small, foreign, old, new, or moving. Through their physical appearance could it be determined from whose mouth it came or for whose ears it was meant? Is it possible to literally choke on a word?

All of this Drucker believes is gotten from physical contact with language. Artists who consider the use of language as a primary tool of expression must also consider the tactile relationship the audience will have with language. Drucker fears that global homogeny of language via the Internet and complete fonts threaten our individual use of language. Our personal stories and experiences, or our individual or cultural ways of expressing ourselves lose some uniqueness when they are all expressed in the same font style.