Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 6, 2018
Jennifer Liese, ed. Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015 Brooklyn: Paper Monument, 2016. 544 pp.; 8 b/w ills. Paper $28.00 (9780979757587)

In Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015, Jennifer Liese brings together seventy-five texts by contemporary artists working in diverse media, including such well-known practitioners as Mira Schor, Xu Bing, Coco Fusco, Ryan Trecartin, Adrian Piper, and Mike Kelley. As becomes clear in the introduction, Liese—the director of the Writing Center at Rhode Island School of Design—aims to show that artists in the twenty-first century are not only writing more but also expanding the category known as “artists’ writing.” On this count, I would say Liese has succeeded. With an emphasis on the activity of writing rather than on the final result, as the subtitle Artists Writing suggests, Liese convincingly establishes a broad notion of artists’ writing today that includes its unevenness. Social Medium is ultimately a sampler anthology of recent artists’ writing, trading primarily in variety—of content, style, and, quite frankly, quality.

Liese has no illusions as to the subjective nature of her editorial process. Rather than account for the influence or reach of each text (the test of time) and then fit the texts into traditional art-historical frameworks, she has let her own survey and experience with the texts guide her selections and their organization. This means that, despite the list of artists I provided above, Social Medium does not read as a who’s who nor does it attempt to canonize its selections. By offering up emerging artists (such as Juliana Huxtable) and more obscure writing (like Pope.L’s “**DeaR ‘Young’ Artist”) alongside mainstream texts and names, the collection insists on a wide field of practice. This is perhaps most evident in the organization of the works. Having deemed “descriptive” categories such as movement, medium, country, or theme either too narrow or simply no longer relevant, Liese divides the texts into six “functional” categories: Artists Writing on Artists Writing, Artists Writing on Art, Artists Writing on Their Own Art, Artists Writing on the Art World, Artists Writing on the Whole World, and Artists Writing as Art. However, I am not sure how functional these categories are for readers. While they implicitly extend the reach and relevance of the artist as an intellectual figure and demonstrate the breadth of artists’ writings, they do little to illuminate the character of the texts themselves, except superficially.

Although Liese chooses to exclude interviews, artists’ books, and text-based objects (except for the chapter frontispieces, which are not listed in the table of contents), she nevertheless positions recent artists’ writing as a challenge to the category—at least as it came to be conceived in the twentieth century. Thus, in addition to perhaps more conventionally experimental writing on or about art (e.g., Caroline Bergvall’s fragmented and impressionistic homage to Carolee Schneemann’s 1965 film Fuses (2005), and Adam Pendleton’s “temporary canon” and prose poem, “Black Dada” [2008/2015]), Social Medium also includes more accessible texts that “share qualities with academic, expository, or journalistic writing” (6), such as Ashley Hunt’s scholarly essay on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, “A Fortification of Race” (2006), and Qiu Zhijie’s autobiographical history, “Why I Do Ink Painting” (2014). This expansive embrace is perhaps the blessing and the curse of Social Medium. Unfortunately, the diversity of texts extends to the quality therein—or at least some texts, removed from their initial contexts, do not fare as well as others. (One also imagines Liese was plagued by permissions roadblocks, which inevitably attend such a project.) 

For me, however, the good moments outweighed those that were less than stellar. The biggest revelation was Greg Allen’s idiosyncratically obsessive and meticulously researched blog posts on Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (2011–13). Allen seems to answer Mike Kelley’s assertion to artists in “Artist/Critic?” (2001, another highlight) that “historical writing” can no longer be the project only of the art historian, if we wish to “escape the present limitations of critical discourse” (33). Allen’s blog offers an instructive example of the kind of art histories we might pursue instead. Mariam Ghani’s “The Islands of Evasion: Notes on International Art English” (2013) is as incisive as it is readable, as she summarizes and responds to the heated critical debate around Alix Rule and David Levine’s essay “International Art English.” I also enjoyed many of the selections in “Artists Writing as Art,” especially a bureaucratic love letter to the Liverpool CCTV from Jill Magid’s surveillance performance One Cycle of Memory in the City of L. (2004) and the script for Andrea Fraser’s biting institutional critique Official Welcome (2001).

Although the above texts certainly reflect the variety of approaches and topics in Social Medium, there is a way in which this plurality begins to break down, without much comment from Liese. In the introduction, she offers two main reasons for the recent expansion and “proliferation” of artists’ writings: the flexibility, openness, and new networks of the internet/digital revolution and the professionalization of the artist within master of fine arts programs. And indeed, the texts of Social Medium would, at least on the surface, fall into one of these two categories: the do-it-yourself and the institutional. But as I read Liese’s introductory blurbs for each entry, it quickly became apparent that the majority of these texts actually signal the inextricability of professional institutionalized spaces and the supposedly anti-institutional alternatives. Take, for example, Seth Price’s 2002 essay “Dispersion” and Mira Schor’s 2011 blog post “The Imperium of Analytics.” Price, in one of the more well-known texts in the anthology, wonders about creating art in and for a space not unlike the internet: “Suppose an artist were to release the work directly into a system that depends on reproduction and distribution for its sustenance, a model that encourages contamination, borrowing, stealing, and horizontal blur?” (131). Taking his own advice, Price published the essay himself, online, as a pdf. But “Dispersion” very much benefits from institutional framing; taking up the tone, syntax, and teleology of art history, Price’s essay is perhaps primarily legible in the institutional spaces of the academy, despite its grassroots distribution. Indeed, I cannot help but wonder whether this text has been so prominent in the art world because of its open-source digital format or because of its erudite approach to institutional critique. Schor’s “Imperium of Analytics” offers an interesting counterpoint. With a casual tone and an emphasis on the personal, Schor meditates on arts writing and publication in the internet age. One of three such posts featured on her blog, A Year of Positive Thinking, Schor’s text seems poised to eschew an institutional context. And yet, her blog project was made possible, in part, by a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. One could criticize Liese for relying so heavily on institutionally vetted texts, but with this emphasis Social Medium begins to suggest the degree to which “the institution,” in the broadest sense, has become a primary realm from which artists now write, no matter the platform or format.

To conclude, perhaps Social Medium will serve, on the whole, less as a source book of artists’ writings than as evidence for something more elusive. Liese’s “Further Reading” section—which includes comprehensive lists of other collections of artists’ writings and writing about artists’ writings, as well as presses and magazines known for publishing artists’ writing—is extremely useful for those wishing to get acquainted with a longer and broader view of artists’ writing and the discourse therein. But given the broad “functional” categories divorced from historical specificity and the unevenness of the selections, I cannot see Social Medium becoming a go-to reference for artists and art historians in the way that Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz’s Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996/2012) and Brian Wallis’s Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writings by Contemporary Artists (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1987) have. And yet, if we take to heart Liese’s emphasis on the act of writing, Social Medium could serve as a different kind of document. Again, as a sampling, the texts can help us trace the shape of something not yet fully recognizable: how artists are actively negotiating their worlds in the present. And, as Liese points out in her introduction, invoking the spirit of Raymond Williams’s “structures of feeling,” taken as a whole these writings might resonate, obliquely, with our own experiences; artists’ writings could be a medium for social experiences “still in process, often indeed not yet recognized as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating” (Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977, 132). 

Francesca Balboni
PhD, Department of Art + Art History, University of Texas at Austin