Our Literal Speed: Doing Things With Words in the Vicinity of Art

The pedagogical concept albums of Our Literal Speed are collectively staged by a group of critics, artists, and scholars. The diverse roster of venues hosting their projects attests to the disciplinary ambiguity of their practice: the Prelude Festival, the Whitney Biennial, MoMA, and academic conferences across the University of Chicago, Getty Research Institute, and ZKM Karlsruhe. On April 19th, they presented the latest installment in their ongoing series of media pop operas at Princeton’s East Pyne auditorium.

The collective’s activity considers how “discourse and interpretation are already acting like art,” a position Culturebot’s own focus on criticism as creative practice explores. This was also among the central concerns of the performance Danny Snelson and I co-curated at IRT, Semiospectacle No. 2, conceived of as “a verbal varieté strategizing the aesthetics of discourse.” Our traveling companion and sometime collaborator Avi Alpert, a founding member of Machete Group, is similarly invested in orchestrating “performative symposia” and staging “motley interventions in the art world” across sites like Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art and Slought Foundation. As artists/archivists/scholars/critics interested in the categorical blurring of these identifications, we may have been among the ideal addressees of this program. In that respect, Our Literal Speed’s audience is, by design, narrower than that of a GagaKoh! stage revue. Wooed by the irresistible allure of “theory installations” and “super-live appearances,” we made the excursion to Princeton across highways littered with Adventure Aquarium billboards inviting motorists to discover the unexpected and come face to face with mysterious and fascinating sharks.

We arrived to find East Pyne auditorium arranged with the requisite scenery and ritual stage dressings of the ten-a-penny academic or critical symposium: a projection screen, two podiums, and a table between them stocked with beverages. (I will pause here to note that the text below does not recount A Series of Scholarly Lectures delivered at Princeton.) Instead, what followed was a five-act feat of conceptual theater that explored what might happen when the scholar finds the stage — or, alternatively, realizes she has always already occupied it. Our Literal Speed offered up the promised series of performances “in the vicinity of art and art history,” echoing the title of Robert Smithson’s 1968 essay “A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art.”

Abbey Dubin and John Spelman, positioned at either podium, delivered a pre-scripted discussion between art world glitterati, punctuated by a long musical interlude courtesy of The Size Queens. The dialogue was so effectively comedic and outrageously hyperbolic it seemed it could only have been excerpted from an actual exchange overheard between two individuals unaware they were providing the stuff of parodic citation. To wit: “As an important communicator, I am communicating this important information to you.”

Critic and curator Claire Bishop’s paper “Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity” was scheduled to follow. She rose to turn on her PowerPoint slide show and promptly returned to her seat once she’d finished the task. A blonde proxy attired in a white business suit — of sorts — took the stage. On closer inspection, the costume suggested she’d completed the first half of a schoolmistress-themed burlesque routine then thought better of it: a see-through white slip, a pair of pumps, and a blazer with a plunging neckline. Also, a single button clasped perilously beneath her bust.

A virtuosic comedienne, Bishop’s surrogate shimmied through acts of embodied pedagogical sabotage that brought to mind Meow Meow’s kamikaze cabaret. This unfolded as she delivered the text of Bishop’s essay on delegated performance as a potentially “grotesque, exploitative spectacle.” Simultaneously operating as compelling art criticism, performative scholarship, and titillating exploitation, the piece generated a spectatorial experience mixing pleasure with extreme discomfort. The Thrill of It All is reflected in my notes from the event, which are reminiscent of my excited documentation of the variety shows I attended as a teenaged enthusiast of neo-vaudeville. The performer gingerly sips a glass of white wine. She transitions to drinking straight from the bottle and swaggers into the audience. She announces, “We must therefore ask, what is the relationship of outsourced performance to the market?” She removes her pumps and absentmindedly spreads her legs. She assaults a politely obliging Princeton professor with her décolletage. She requests assistance pronouncing ‘fetishistic.’

Theaster Gates remixed institutional critique in the form of a self-reflexive spiritual, chanting: “I want the value of my labor, artistic labor.” This was delivered to the rhythm of his fist metronomically and meta-ironically pounding the table.  He alternated between song and intensely witty impersonations of art world monologues, including a German curator proposing to franchise his Dorchester project in cities across Europe.  After satirizing how value is assigned to immaterial labor, he concluded, “my temporary staff has created a union against me…they want healthcare benefits…they want their family members to fly free to Documenta…they made me rich…what do I do?”

Jackson Pollock Bar’s theory installations typically present unnamed actors lipsynching to pre-recorded reenactments of fictional conversations. This particular iteration revised a lecture at Duke University entitled “Re-imagining the Academy.” It featured avatars of Laura Noone and Michael Taussig, who have never participated in a panel discussion entitled “Re-imagining the Academy” at Duke University. The script was compiled from various actual statements made by the interlocutors independently of each other. Noone, the former president of the for-profit University of Phoenix, advanced her hard-line stance on corporatizing education. Taussig, a Columbia professor with an influential body of work spanning ethnography and commodity fetishism, replied: “I would ask, what is higher education? What is lower education for that matter?” The caricaturized forces of corporatism and critical theory do battle. It ends in restrained verbal fisticuffs.

In the way that an installation amplifies a viewer’s perception of her physical environment, Jackson Pollock Bar’s theory installations call our attention to the artifice always inherent to discourse.  The brilliance of their brand of Brechtian estrangement is in how deftly it suggests that an actor’s lipsynched statements, culled from a fictional dialogue, are no less or more ‘authentic’ than any other utterance. Put differently, this is an exercise in abandoning the illusion of unmediated exchange and, I’d like to imagine, a provocation to stage your discourse accordingly.

Following on so many instances of aestheticized speech, the evening concluded in a quasi-Cagean moment of silence. Zachary Cahill, who’d been installing his banners throughout the evening, ended by circling the audience without a word. Possible readings: an invitation to generate our own content; a literal bypassing of the model of participation furthered in relational ‘platforms of discussion’; an admission that there is more to say, though we don’t yet know what that might be.

The basic premises of Our Literal Speed are familiar. Every speech act is performative. “To talk about art is to make art.” A conference paper is also a script. A lecture is at once a performance. The demarcation between art and criticism is exactly as useful and relevant as a chocolate teapot. Discourse is always already staged. Thoughtlessness breeds sabotage. It’s a wonder, then, that Our Literal Speed remains among the comparatively few practitioners productively exploring the aesthetic forms these maxims demand. I’ll leave you in the company of Howard Hawks’s 1941 ivory tower lexicographers, considering the possibilities of talking a living language where so many embalm dead phrases (2:19—3:45).

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