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Our first Tortured Language Alert: Redactions to protect the implicated.


Activating alternative readings of X’s work, Y engages the exhibition space… a participatory performance concerned with reconfiguring how one reads and writes both the text accompanying an exhibition, and the experience of work within a particular setting. The performance investigates forms of knowledge that could be regarded as tangential or superseded, to co-create a new fictional force at play. Following this will be Z’s site-located audio response… Z’s contribution emerges as an improvised score, which includes a sonic over-layering of Y’s performance with previous recordings taken in the premises….”

This is a fairly random example of web-writing about a forthcoming performance. It’s trying to do four things. First, it appears in a place and genre that suggests it wants to publicise the performance and entice an audience to witness it. Second, it wants to communicate the critical framework of the work, in the hope of giving it solidity, status and credibility. Third, it wants to publicise the very specific practice of the artist. Fourth, the curators who wrote this passage want to promote their work and advertise their aesthetic and critical credentials.

The interesting questions for me are:  How many of these objectives are they succeeding in achieving? And are the writers aware of wanting to do all these things with this one short piece of writing? How effective is it in achieving what it wants to?

Quite possibly, this is a very sophisticated text art event worth attending. But what do I, or you, understand from this passage? It seems to me that objectives two, three and four are the most important aspects. It is clearly written for a very specific insider audience, one that is educated enough within the discipline of fine art to understand it. It isn’t writing that is intended to communicate and connect with anyone else. It isn’t looking for even a slightly wider audience. In fact, the writing is such that it is more likely to alienate a wider audience than bring one in.

It can be argued that this in itself isn’t a problem. Like music, different types of art appeal to different people, and some genres are more niche than others. Some art practices, and different stages of practice, are explorations, not intended for wide appeal.

Or it could be argued that this is a missed opportunity. That in prioritising art-world career mechanics, the opportunity to entice more people to experience the work is lost. Those people who might have attended had the piece been written more engagingly miss out on a possibly enriching or provoking experience. And the artist may perform in a near empty space which must be a disheartening experience. Artists, do after all want audiences. They want their work to be seen and engaged with, want energy, recognition and feedback – performance artists more than most.

To be fair, this event is supported by a charitable foundation that exists for public benefit but prioritises a total commitment to artists. There is a role and place for this kind of writing – I am not advocating dumbing down or denying the considerable academic discipline that underpins much of contemporary fine art. It’s not taking place in a publicly funded gallery, with its obligations to a general public. It’s also very unlikely that any publicly funded gallery would publish writing of this nature as publicity or interpretative material.

But it does illustrate the not-so-hidden agendas behind some types of artspeak, and the ongoing unevenness in writing about art within the exhibition context.