October 1, 2023


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JJJJJerome Ellis and Will Rawls – ARTnews.com


THE Very last Ten Many years have viewed a return to the prepared word across visual, sculptural, and time-based mostly media. In unique, Black artists and poets have investigated the unruliness of language, its slip-ups, evolutions, and equivocations. Although quite a few Black conceptual artists, this sort of as Adrian Piper and Carrie Mae Weems, turned to language in the course of the 1970s as a result of 1990s, those finding up the thread nowadays are specifically attuned to vernacular or fractured varieties. Dave McKenzie’s 2012 performative video clip operate Wilfred and Me reveals the artist in profile repeating the sentence “Magic Johnson has AIDS.” As the rhythmic pulse of the recited phrase wears on, the text sign up more as appears and the artist’s richly textured voice grows significantly hoarse and dry, inevitably getting diminished to an arid rasp. A. H. Jerriod Avant’s 2017 poem “Felonious States of Adjectival Extra Featuring Comparative and Superlative Forms” is an ode to Black idioms, which have historically been classified as grammatically incorrect (“my mo’ favoriter and mo’ greater is my most favoritest”). Steffani Jemison’s gestural ciphers—in drawings, paintings, and far more new sculptures involving actual physical erosion—lean absent from signification entirely, in favor of opacity and friction.

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A perseon in jeans and converse

A vertical work on a pink background shows abstracted letters drawn in black paint with purplish and bluish hues on top.

Steffani Jemison, Over OR BENEATH, 2020, acrylic and dye sublimation print on synthetic velvet, 244 by 43 inches.
Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

Through the 1960s, Conceptualism introduced textual content as an choice medium to portray, sculpture, and images, 1 tied similarly to narrative, audio, impression, and—per the identify of the movement—idea. For some, the expanded part of the notion in artwork authorized for a new objectivity: artwork could be disentangled from emotional expression or the artist’s hand, and textual content offered an great container for these theoretical proposals. On the other hand, situating text at a remove from subjectivity ran the risk of more dampening the voices of people today with marginalized identities, who have been only just starting up to declare social and political leverage. Some artists, like Piper and Lorraine O’Grady, emphasised that the “dematerialization” of art did not necessitate the erasure of the human body, nor of the indexical trace. It could be an invitation to action or gesture that required relatively than eradicated the artist’s overall body.

Returning to that tension concerning dematerialization and depersonalization, and effacing language’s veneer of universality, several up to date practitioners use marginalized or “broken” forms of speech. In current several years, exhibitions and textbooks this kind of as “Speech/Acts” at the Institute of Modern Artwork in Philadelphia and Adam Pendleton’s Black Dada Reader (each 2017) have explored these reconsiderations of and disengagements from the written term. A lot of of these endeavors increase the vital, philosophical, or poetic writings of thinkers which includes Édouard Glissant, bell hooks, Fred Moten, and Hortense Spillers. A central issue for these artists, writers, and curators is the illustration of Blackness, which at times involves eluding textual capture.

An installation view of a gallery depicts, along two adjacent walls, white fragments of text and outlines of pages against a black background.

Perspective of “Speech/Functions,” 2017, at the Institute of Modern Art, College of Pennsylvania, demonstrating Kameelah Janan Rasheed, A Supple Perimeter (activation ii), 2017.
Picture Constance Mensh

While several of these dissections of language have been realized in visual formats—focusing on the formal overall look of letters or words—more artists are turning to aural experiments, indicating how speech tends to be extra legibly tied to class and race than composing. Characterizing language in the Caribbean in “Cross-Cultural Poetics,” Glissant wrote: “the term is initial and foremost sound. Noise is necessary to speech. Din is discourse.” More specifically, by reading text within just the context of performance and audio artwork, artists reinsert the entire body into communication, displaying how the specificity of a speaking body variations our knowing of which means. Some of the many artists operating with language in time-based mostly media consist of Tony Cokes, James Allister Sprang, and Pamela Z. Of individual fascination are these who translate from speech to text and back again again. JJJJJerome Ellis and Will Rawls do so whilst also actively playing with silence and abstraction to contest the disembodiment of text and, at occasions, hassle legibility.

THE Song OPENS with the pulse of piano notes: ascending triplets that build a sense of stasis, like an ellipsis, awaiting resolution. Ellis’s even voice enters this soundscape—titled “Dysfluent Waters,” from his 2021 album The Clearing—by prompting his listener with a query, even as the triplets fracture and are outdated by a meandering melodic line: “How can contemplating about h2o help us feel about … dysfluencies, blacknesses, and musics … together?” Even though offering this question, Ellis pauses 2 times, as an orator may well do for outcome. These interludes increase for a longer time than expected, Ellis’s imagined place on keep for a moment prior to selecting up expressively where by it left off. The entire composition is punctuated by these types of gaps, breaks caused by Ellis’s stutter, a incapacity that has come to be central to his poetic and performative practice. When most persons imagine of a stutter as streams of repeated seem, disfluency can also manifest as elongations or blocks, and Ellis’s have speech is interspersed with poignant silences.

An open book with a blue cover shows two pages where letters are loosely arranged across the page in something resembling concrete poetry.

Spread from JJJJJerome Ellis’s publication The Clearing, 2021, printed by Wendy’s Subway.
Photograph Justin Lubliner

Ellis’s album requires its corporation from his present producing. The tracks on The Clearing originated as an essay titled “The clearing: New music, disfluency, Blackness, and time” that Ellis wrote for the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Scientific studies in 2020. Discussing records of slave owners’ brutal enforcement of functioning hours as a result of bells, horns, and—if neither had been obeyed—whips, Ellis’s essay maps out historical relationships among Blackness, tunes, disfluency, and temporal regulation, and envisions techniques that could “open time,” or interrupt the rhythm of clock time. Abridged and browse aloud, the text defines the temporal and rhythmic parameters of the music that ornaments Ellis’s narratives. The recording was released as both of those a e book (published by Wendy’s Subway) and a double set of LPs (co-developed by the Poetry Undertaking and Northern Spy/NNA Tapes). The publication transforms Ellis’s silent blocks into fragments of language that shower the web page, disrupting its common linear purchase like concrete poetry, and drawing consideration to the methods in which Ellis’s voice alters the temporality of recording and text alike.

A Black man stands in front of a microphone holding a printed page and a saxophone, with his right hand held up in an orator's gesture.

JJJJJerome Ellis, The Clearing, 2021, at Difficulty Undertaking Room and the Poetry Job at St. Mark’s Church, New York.
Courtesy Problem Project Place

In the audio recording, Ellis’s stops enter the flow of his speech as an alternate and unpredictable rhythm of lone phonemes, stray letters or appears, that bubble into enunciation. Just about inaudible, these “clearings,” as Ellis phrases them, insist on our tolerance and invite a deeper variety of listening. In her 2017 reserve Listening to Pictures, cultural theorist Tina Campt writes about kinds of nonverbal articulation, such as humming, describing a “sublimely expressive unsayability that exceeds both equally terms, as properly as what we associate with seem and utterance.” We can track down some of that expressivity in just the nonverbal in numerous renditions of Ellis’s piece—the publication or the performance video clip launched by NNA Tapes—that expose his vocal pauses to be not silent at all, but teeming with activity, the very same letters or phonemes studiously recurring as Ellis moves through his block: “dddddddddddddddddddddd” or “glglglglglglglglglgl.” Reflecting on his stutter in “Dysfluent Waters,” Ellis tells the listener that his blocks are like vibrating times of expectation, trembles ahead of the completion of the believed: “I saw the word’s journey, its not possessing arrived.” Also, the listener ordeals these interludes not as absence but as anticipation. We shift temporalities from the dynamic pace set by Ellis’s talking voice to the suspended imminence of his block. In yet another track, “Loops of Retreat,” Ellis draws a parallel between the recurring syllables of his very own verbal breaks and the iterative loops of Black songs, a seem of “endless restlessness.” Ellis characterizes his stutter as a “temporal escape,” an expansive insertion that, as his essay signifies, fractures the orderliness and linearity of clock time, textual content, and new music alike. Ellis’s speech refuses performance, rebuts definition, and even resists his own control.

WHEN ELLIS’S ALBUM was produced in November 2021, it brought to mind choreographer Will Rawls’s “Cursor” task, produced through his 2018 residency at Problem Project Area in Brooklyn. For the initially of 3 showings, Rawls done from a console situated at the rear of the viewers, producing in a sparsely populated text doc that was projected at the entrance of the room for viewers to see. Words, typos, a garbled vocabulary, and totally free-floating syllables stuffed the page as the seem of typing echoed by means of ISSUE’s performance corridor. The clatter of fingers on the keyboard was paralleled by Rawls’s amplified articulation of the fragmented expressions.

In a darkened room, a person sits in front of a computer screen in the foreground. In the background, a projected screen shows garbled text on a white page.

Will Rawls, Cursor 1: Word Lists, 2018, at Difficulty Undertaking Area, New York.
Photo Jason Isolini/Courtesy Difficulty Project Area

This document—in some sections vacant and awaiting activation, in some others already populated with phrases to be edited or rearranged—operated simultaneously as a rating and a landscape. From his place at the back again of the space, Rawls navigated the document with his cursor, which moved through the text as a black figure set towards a white floor. In his introduction in the application notes, the artist released his audience to the cursor as a blinking silhouette that could stand in for the experience of Black embodiment. “[Cursors] are bodies motivated by language, by consumers, by other people. They shift by house. They blink in tempo and race the several hours. They communicate in several tongues. They pause and backtrack. They search and damage. They are black. They are fugitive. They dance.”

Even though the cursor was the only determine that moved via area in the course of Rawls’s functionality, the choreographer asserted his presence in the act of translation from visualized textual content to vocalized sound. Reading these jumbled phrases and people aloud, Rawls repeated lines, sounding out distinctive pronunciations and emphases, transforming an evident collage of appears into humorous and even earnest expressions: “UYHRIERJE RSSDDDSP PO” becomes “WHO ERASED THE POPE.” Excavating language from summary accumulations of sound by the method of articulation, Rawls’s efficiency emphasized that the human body, as significantly as the head, is the lens that encounters, constructs, and interprets this means. Conversely, Rawls also evacuated this means from words and phrases previously inscribed on the digital web page, turning the acquainted absurd with choice pronunciations, repeating “I never hassle with” till it blurred into a rhythmic beat. Composing about the piece in the October 2018 concern of Artforum, Rawls commented, “My body is both equally leader and follower,” and mirrored on how his bodily existence formed sound—through articulation and the typed words—and, conversely, on the feelings that those sounds made in him as he gave them voice.

A Black man sits at a table speaking into a microphone while typing on a laptop.

Will Rawls, Cursor 1: Term Lists, 2018, at Challenge Task Home, New York.
Picture Jason Isolini/Courtesy Challenge Project Home

In his progressions from sounds to phrases and vice versa, Rawls’s fragmentation and reconstruction of created and spoken language highlighted the pressure amongst representation and abstraction. Enunciating jumbles of letters that would sooner be interpreted as reflecting a temper than a sound—picture the pissed off slam of fingers versus a keyboard in “FPISANF A[FPN”—Rawls exaggerated the communicative ability of the alphabet while de-emphasizing the meaningfulness of words. But his experiments also drew attention to the formal qualities of letters, to their shapes and arbitrary relationships to phonetic sound.

These flights into abstraction also stemmed from Rawls’s scrutiny of representation, especially its failures and its tendency to perpetuate historical forms of violence. Cursor recalls another work by Rawls, Uncle Rebus (2018), in which performers constructed sentences from Brer Rabbit folktales, trickster narratives that enslaved peoples brought from Africa to the Americas as oral stories. He supplied performers with two sets of the standard English alphabet, in addition to symbols such as an asterisk and an exclamation mark. As the performers attempted to spell out words with these inadequate means, they resorted to symbols to function as letters, and began willfully to choose unconventional orthography: “WE R*ORGAN!SE.” In his Artforum piece, Rawls described the performers in Uncle Rebus as “spelling out something that has been historically categorized as a dialectical, minor English. The public also sees three black people laboring in the sun. To try to control that perspective, you have to race against a long history of the risks of representation.” In Caribbean Discourse, Glissant describes Haitian Creole as an intentional mockery of the simplified and command-based language imposed by colonizers upon indigenous or diasporic populations. By choosing to use such fractured forms of language, Rawls and his performers engage with this longer history of linguistic rebellion. However, Rawls is also wary of turning away entirely from representation. As he noted in the same interview, “The risk of a staging without words is that if the cursor functions as an incarnation of blackness, and if narrative falls away entirely, then the fully abstracted body could feel ahistorical.” In Cursor, Rawls expressed this ambivalence about language—with its seemingly antithetical capacities for capture and political manifestation—by moving back and forth between representational and nonrepresentational modes.

In 1971, poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “this is the oppressor’s language / yet I need it to talk to you.” Later, theorist bell hooks, in her 1994 book Teaching to Transgress, recalled her initial rejection of Rich’s characterization of the English language, holding on to this mode of expression for “those of us… who are just learning to claim language as a place where we make ourselves subject.” Simultaneously, hooks understood that English “is the language of conquest and domination; in the United States, it is the mask which hides the loss of so many tongues.”

Ellis’s and Rawls’s uses of language suggest a twinned desire to escape from and into words. Rawls’s willful typos and variable pronunciations mine meaning from abstract text. Ellis’s work inscribes his disfluency into the conventions of textual and aural space, while prompting us to listen for the potency of the pause. What appear to be glitches in Ellis’s and Rawls’s mode of interacting with text in fact expose the body’s enunciations as sites of linguistic evolution: Ellis asks how text can make room for the particularities of his voice, and Rawls tests how his voice can create or destroy meaning. In the fracture between written and spoken language, the body enters and finds novel ways of expressing itself, whether in grammatical subversions or the evasion of language altogether.



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