In April, Triple Canopy organized a forum called Critical Language, during which a group of artists, writers, curators, arts administrators, and other cultural workers discussed the “political implications and uses” of specialized language in the art world. We used the term “International Art English,” coined by Alix Rule and David Levine in their eponymous July 2012 Triple Canopy essay on “the rise and the space of the art-world press release,” to stand for this specialized language and also, to a certain extent, to stand in for a larger debate around “language, legibility and power in the art world,” which had been spurred by the essay. The forum itself was inspired by the specific thread of that debate tweaked by Mostafa Heddaya's March 2013 Hyperallergic article “When Artspeak Masks Oppression,” which analyzed the language deployed by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project and its representatives, and the subsequent response by Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong, also published by Hyperallergic.
While preparing to participate in the forum, I wrote a series of notes on the idea of International Art English, which represent my several perspectives on the topic. First, as a member of the GulfLabor Working Group, a coalition of artists and others working to ensure that workers’ rights are respected during the construction of new cultural institutions in Abu Dhabi. Second, as an artist who has produced work in countries where state censorship is prevalent. Third, as a former arts administrator who wrote grants and copy-edited press releases, those much-maligned bastions of International Art English (IAE), day in and day out for several years. Fourth, as a writer and archivist with a background in linguistics who has worked with several other specialized languages and enjoys the poetry of accidental ambiguity.
These notes are reproduced below more or less as I wrote them before the forum, with a few additions from notes made during or after the forum itself. I’ve also added notes in response to the essays published by Hito Steyerl and Martha Rosler on the same topic in e-flux journal #45.
The Poor Relation
One thread that runs through many of the responses to “International Art English” is a more or less subtle insistence on the separation of press releases from other forms of art writing. At the Triple Canopy forum, curators and critics disavowed press releases as distinctly different from their own writing for magazines or catalogues. Hito Steyerl simultaneously denounces and celebrates them as “the art world’s equivalent of digital spam.” Martha Rosler characterizes them as “art ad copy” and implicitly compares art copywriting to food copywriting. Logically, it would follow that if press releases are their own, separate, “debased” form of art writing, performed by “underpaid, unspecialized copywriters,” an analysis performed on press releases cannot apply to other forms of art writing.
On reflection, and based on my experience as an arts administrator, this separation seems somewhat suspect. Many small and mid-sized arts organizations in outposts both near and far have no separate PR department, designated copywriter or copy editor, or flack-for-hire to manufacture their press releases. The person writing the copy for the press release is most often the person who organized the exhibition (usually a curator) or the organizer’s assistant (usually a curator in training). In many other cases, especially in places where the copywriters are underpaid, unspecialized (i.e. undereducated), and overworked, large chunks of press releases are lifted verbatim from, or découpaged like the exquisite corpses of, curatorial texts, artist statements, reviews, or even critical theory, if it happens to be near to hand and seems apposite.
This is to say that I believe most forms of art writing are contiguous enough to contaminate each other. If there is a specialized language for art, it circulates among and is refined in the exchanges between these different forms, migrating from the press release to the critical review to the theoretical or historical text to the academic thesis to the artist statement to the grant application to the curatorial text and back to the press release again. The press release may be the poor relation in this family, the country cousin with the awkward haircut and clothes that don’t quite fit. But the family resemblance cannot be denied.
Because Alix and David’s essay touched a nerve, and brought back into the foreground that tricky but important conversation about language, legibility and power, IAE is now both a convenient name for the set of elements that make up art’s specialized language, and an equally efficient signal that we are entering into this larger debate. I will continue to use it throughout these notes, but I could equally well use Rosler’s term “Roman” or Steyerl’s proposed moniker “International Disco Latin” (about which more later) instead.
Like Mostafa, I feel that the most relevant political question asked by Alix and David with respect to politics is, “Without its special language, would art need to submit to the scrutiny of broader audiences and local ones? Would it hold up?”
The art world is an ethically murky place. One might even call it a quagmire. IAE—with its indeterminate spaces, its constantly unresolved processes, its simultaneously grandiose and empty assertions—helps to paper over the gaps between what we might like the art world to be and what it actually is; to elide all the compromises and concessions we make in order to get something made, shown, funded, bought, discussed, and so on.
Without IAE, what would we talk about when we talk about art? Would we actually have to talk about money, labor, the means and conditions and constraints of production?
Would we actually have to admit to our baser, darker, deeper (or more shallow) motives for making, selling, and buying the things we make, sell, and buy?
Is artspeak really the only, or even the worst, of specialized languages infected by overcomplication and doublespeak, whose simultaneous complexity and mutability make it “especially ripe for capture by political interests”? Legal language is the first such language that springs to mind, because it is both more mutable and more contested than many think. A new term like “eminent domain” or “battlefield exemption” can be introduced into the legal field through legislation or (less commonly) Department of Justice memos, become almost immediately enforceable in fact, but then spend a decade or more being redefined and refined in court cases unless and until the Supreme Court weighs in. Evgeny Morozov’s “The Meme Hustler,” in the current issue of the Baffler, traces the history of a certain strand of Silicon Valley technobabble and its creep into politics, focusing on the illustrious career and far-reaching influence of entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly. Morozov tells the story of how the concept of “open government” was rendered problematic by a decade-long fight to redefine the “open” in the open-source movement as open to the market—free as in beer, rather than free as in freedom.
Similarly, Democracy Journal recently ran an opinion piece by Jack Meserve analyzing the overcomplication (or deliberate obfuscation) of national security jargon like “disposition matrix” Meserve quotes the same Orwell essay, “Politics and the English Language,” referenced by Mostafa in his Hyperallergic article. (Meserve’s Orwell extract: “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”) Meserve also discussed the misnomered “fiscal cliff,” warning that “problems described incorrectly will be solved incorrectly” because sometimes “the metaphor starts to trump the reality you were originally attempting to describe.” Frank Luntz, the Republican operative who wrote the political manual Words That Work, lists in an appendix to his book the “twenty-one political words and phrases” that should be eliminated and replaced; he recommends that “undocumented worker” be substituted by “illegal immigrant,” noting that the label we apply to such people "determines the attitudes [other] people have toward them.” After a decades-long, concerted activist campaign against the use of “illegal immigrant,” the AP Stylebook finally recognized that the label is not “neutral and accurate” and, in April, decided that no human being can be called illegal, at least in print. Perhaps the critical distinction between artspeak and other specialized languages lies in the intentionality with which certain players in the legal, technocratic, and political scenes work to introduce or deprecate certain terms. Do we in the art world have an equivalent to the lawyers of the Center for Constitutional Rights, political wordsmiths like Frank Luntz, or meme producers like Tim O'Reilly?
The Island of Happiness
In the specific case of the transformation of Saadiyat Island, or the Island of Happiness (the literal translation of its Arabic name), into an international cultural hub, there is a widely acknowledged gap between the rhetoric of the project and its reality. It is difficult, however, to hold the rulers of Abu Dhabi, or their proxies at the Tourism and Culture Authority, or their international partners at the Louvre, the Guggenheim, New York University, and the British Museum, to “their word” on labor rights or freedom of expression, when their words are largely “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” It is also difficult to advocate for people whose rights, possibilities, and freedoms have been all been delimited from the moment they accepted their contracts and were redefined as “migrant workers” or “guest laborers.” This linguistic shift, as Luntz would recognize, has real-world consequences. And one logical response is the activist attempt to ground the unmoored abstractions of political debates over citizenship, subcontracting, and corporate or state responsibility in the specific realities of individual lives and human costs—another shift in the terms of the debate.
Devil’s Advocacy, Part Two
Alix and David's essay ends with what some have read as a joke: a press release “reformatted as meter” and a suggestion that we read IAE texts not for their content, but for their lyricism. (This, in some ways, is like what Chitra Ganesh and I do with Index of the Disappeared, a project partly dedicated to finding moments of accidental poetry in declassified official documents—though we are looking to the accidents as moments of human error within inhuman and inhumane systems.) William Empson argues in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) for the importance within poetry of ambiguous language: “verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.” The seven types of ambiguity identified by Empson include “multiplication,” where individual details could apply in several different ways (literally and metaphorically) to the context in which they are used; “complication,” where those alternative and often interrelated meanings are used to indicate the author’s complicated position or state; “fortunate confusion,” where the idea behind a phrase is still being discovered in the act of writing; and “full contradiction,” which reflects a division in the author’s own mind, either an ability to hold two seemingly opposed ideas at once or an inability to decide between them. IAE as presently written and read appears full of complication, contradiction, and confusion, fortunate or not, all stemming—if we accept Alix and David’s analysis—from multiplication, an overflow of ambiguous and apparently extraneous language. Is that ambiguity in fact at the heart of IAE’s utility, not only for use by “interns in the Chinese Ministry of Culture,” advocates for art in Abu Dhabi, and others invested in seemingly contradictory ideas, but also for artists? After all, what would critics do if there were no ambiguities for them to decipher and interpret?
As an artist myself, I can say that sometimes the use of IAE in an artist statement, interview or other text wherein an artist describes her own work—particularly that impenetrable brand of IAE where a number of words add up to very little—signals that the artist is trying, consciously or not, to escape from the demand to explain her work. She is wriggling away, word by ambiguous word, from the frame she is meant to be holding up around herself. As Alix and David point out, the artist is presenting a “practice” that is always unfinished, not a product, and refusing a fixed position. Fittingly, this refusal both distances her from specific politics and is a politicized act in itself. Refusing your designated position or label, or opting to shuffle through labels and positions as you like, is also to some extent a refusal of the rules of the art market.
Which Brings Us to: Kabul in Kassel, Kassel in Kabul
Anyone present in Kassel during the press preview of Documenta 13 in June 2012, when the Documenta Kabul-Bamiyan seminars had their first airing outside of Afghanistan, was treated to a tiny masterpiece of IAE. In this case, IAE was used for its ability to simultaneously display and conceal, to quickly create and just as quickly circumscribe a specific discursive space. It was not used because the Documenta seminars in Kabul and Bamiyan had actually been particularly colonialist or exploitative or even unsuccessful, but because the organizers anticipated that those criticisms would be made and preferred to foreclose any substantive discussion of the project (even among those participants in the seminars who were invited to join the organizers on stage) rather than admit the possibility of the colonialist critique entering into this high-visibility event. This strategy led, predictably enough, to a rather ugly finish; but the preceding hour and a half had been so boring that almost all the press had already left the room by the time the explosion occurred, so you could be forgiven for thinking that the strategy actually worked.
The lack of real reflection on the Documenta-in-Kabul project in Kassel was unfortunate, because the project in itself, while flawed, points to some of the ways in which the opacity and ambiguities of IAE (and the ambiguity employed in certain art practices) can be used to circumvent both explicit and implicit restrictions on freedom of expression in places like Afghanistan. For example: if William Kentridge’s Shadow Procession were described to the Afghan Ministry of Culture as a political artwork about South African history with a clear analogue in the Afghan civil war, would the Ministry have permitted it to be shown in a park where 27,000 people could see it? No. But described as it was in the wall text and catalogue of the Kabul exhibition, as “a dreamlike procession of black puppets, made from cardboard paper cutouts, slowly mak[ing] a collective exodus, a ghostly reminder of the violence of a land plagued by oppositions but exorcized by a need for reconciliation and change”? Sure, why not? Nonetheless, the parallel to the grim processions of refugees fleeing Kabul between 1993 and 1996 was clear to everyone who saw the work in the Bagh-e-Babur pavilion.
Some of the art history seminars may have themselves been tripped up by the teachers’ over-reliance on Western art-theory jargon. (I was not there; I am going by the accounts of some of the Afghan students, who described some seminars as “mostly irrelevant,” and “halfghan” observers, who mostly expressed admiration for the stamina and invention of the translators.) Some of the seminars took translation, omission, and censorship as their subjects. Students in Ashkan Sepahvand and Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s Seeing Studies workshop used paintings that had been removed from the National Gallery for a range of reasons, including shifts in censorship laws, as the starting point for new works—two of which were confiscated by the Ministry of Culture before the final exhibition, but ultimately returned. They discussed translations of Walter Benjamin into Farsi, and the ways in which terms acquire new meanings and ideas new currency through translation and recontextualization.
One of the explicit rules of art censorship in Afghanistan since 2001 is that no scenes of war may be depicted. The word “depicted” is important here, because it is the foundation of an argument that film, video, sound, and performance—ephemeral, unfixed media—are not subject to this law. So far that argument has proved successful. So one may watch a film about the civil war, but not look at a painting of the nineteenth-century battle of Maiwand, around which so many Afghan legends have been spun. And an artist like myself may get away with any number of things—like talking about people, events, and periods of Afghan history that normally go unremembered—if I describe my work as a “speculative” history that mixes fact and fiction, and use the tone of a dark fairy tale to talk about past horrors. So some value is added in the Afghan context by IAE’s capacity for evasive maneuvering. But would I want to use the same tactics in a place where defying censorship doesn't carry with it the threat of prison time? Then again, while art is not habitually censored in the West, other kinds of censorship are increasingly prevalent even here.
According to Jacques Rancière, politics perceives art as powerless, which is why art has the freedom to do politics. This principle does not hold true in places like Afghanistan, where art is actually perceived as dangerous, and therefore has very little freedom to do politics. It is possible that the space for politics within art in Afghanistan may only be carved out, in this earliest stage of the recovery of the country’s destroyed artistic traditions, through the evasions and opacities of IAE or something like it.
The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, has embarked on a program of deliberate acceleration of its art scene, leap-frogging accepted stages of development with the reckless abandon of the truly rich. It has arrived at a different moment in its negotiation of the relationship between the state and the art world, a moment when direct confrontation becomes appropriate. The situation in Saadiyat is particularly ripe because Abu Dhabi, the richest of the Emirates, is infusing so much of every kind of capital into the project, and yet refuses to ensure basic standards of human rights for the workers constructing this fever-dream in the desert, for fear of setting a precedent.
Conclusions, or Questions
I keep circling back to labels, without necessarily meaning to. Perhaps there is a third point of origin for IAE, somewhere between the emergence of identity-based art in the 1980s and the culture of “political correctness” developed in the 1990s? Perhaps IAE developed, in part, as a circumlocution of the troubling terms that surfaced through the works of Adrian Piper, Kara Walker, Jimmie Durham, Coco Fusco, Shirin Neshat, Mona Hatoum, David Wojnarowicz, et al? Not a whitewashing per se, but a way to cloak the confrontation of these works in a more polite, less direct form of address.
Most of my work as an arts administrator was performed for the alternative space Exit Art, recently disbanded after the death of cofounder Jeanette Ingberman. Almost all the artists I mentioned above showed at Exit in the 1980s or early 1990s, and I first came to know their work through Exit's archives, which preserved everything from early drafts of wall and catalogue text to correspondence with exhibiting artists to receipts for screws to install their work. I can attest that in those early years, when Jeanette and cofounder Papo Colo wrote all the press releases themselves, they were always idiosyncratic, sometimes poetic, frequently bizarre, but rarely possessing those traits identified by Alix and David as the marks of International Art English. At the time, Exit Art was still located in SoHo and known as Exit Art/The First World, and its posters played with notions of center and periphery, running slogans like “the inside is the outside” around their margins or borders. With mischief in their eyes, Jeanette and Colo were staking out a peripheral position, even while occupying the very center of the art world.
We return, then, to that larger debate about “language, legibility, and power” that troubles the original conception of IAE. If someone is unable or unwilling to explain an artwork in IAE, does that make the work illegible to the power structures of the art world (by which I mean, primarily, those people with the power to put an artwork into circulation), and therefore render it invisible to greater or lesser degree? Does the same condition apply if the artwork can be explained through the specialized vocabulary of art in the artist's native tongue, and then translated? Or is the real condition of legibility that the artwork must be explained in English, no matter what kind of English it is?
If fluency in IAE for native English speakers, or in English for non-native speakers, facilitates entry into the flows of people, information and capital that constitute the art world, does a lack of fluency prevent an artist from being assimilated into the center? Is the barrier to entry still higher if an artist is physically located in the “periphery” rather than the “center,” or does physical location now matter only inasmuch as it determines access to infrastructure (education, technology, financial support)? I suspect that location matters less these days than the ability to access, understand and manipulate those flows of people, information, and capital. But then again, depending on your physical location, your information-gathering and exchange may be subject to surveillance, censorship, and sudden suspensions.
I love Steyerl’s call for a joyously deviant, queered “International Disco Latin,” a “digital lingua franca” that revels in and remakes itself from its glitches and hitches, its glissandos and excesses, its “digital dispersion, its composition and artifice.” But it is still impossible for images, texts, videos and other files to travel and be traded equally promiscuously through all the ramifications of online networks. File-sharing sites, YouTube, and other key nodes of exchange are all blocked in a whole slew of countries where artspeak is used both to mask and elude oppression, including Afghanistan and the UAE. If International Disco Latin is premised on digital dispersion, is indeed formed from the glitch aesthetics and gleeful mash-ups of “accelerated data sets” crashing into “fantastic circulation orbits,” it would inevitably be formed elsewhere, in the more networked world, and trickle into those other spheres the same way IAE did – through the migratory patterns of privileged diasporas, those perpetual vectors of infection. (I say this with full consciousness that I migrate with intent every other month.)
In China, one of the ways that Internet users talk about politics without being censored is by exploiting linguistic loopholes: ambiguities in ideograms or pronunciation that allow innocuous terms to stand in for subversive ones, separated by only a hair’s breadth of emphasis. These slippages have their own loopy poetics, producing odd artifacts like that new animated hero, the grass-mud horse. Like the Chinese activists and their coded language, the more deliberate users of IAE may, in fact, be exploiting its ambiguities to conceal something, or to conceal some lack, for good reasons or bad. Or they may simply be flashing their credentials: I know the passwords, I speak your language, now will you please open the door?