JJJJJerome Ellis and Will Rawls – ARTnews.com


THE Previous Ten Several years have witnessed a return to the created word throughout visual, sculptural, and time-primarily based media. In individual, Black artists and poets have investigated the unruliness of language, its slip-ups, evolutions, and equivocations. Although several Black conceptual artists, these types of as Adrian Piper and Carrie Mae Weems, turned to language throughout the 1970s through 1990s, those people selecting up the thread today are especially attuned to vernacular or fractured forms. Dave McKenzie’s 2012 performative video work Wilfred and Me exhibits the artist in profile repeating the sentence “Magic Johnson has AIDS.” As the rhythmic pulse of the recited phrase wears on, the words and phrases register far more as seems and the artist’s richly textured voice grows progressively hoarse and dry, ultimately currently being lessened to an arid rasp. A. H. Jerriod Avant’s 2017 poem “Felonious States of Adjectival Excess That includes Comparative and Superlative Forms” is an ode to Black idioms, which have traditionally been classified as grammatically incorrect (“my mo’ favoriter and mo’ better is my most favoritest”). Steffani Jemison’s gestural ciphers—in drawings, paintings, and extra the latest sculptures involving physical erosion—lean away from signification completely, in favor of opacity and friction.

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

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

All through the 1960s, Conceptualism launched text as an substitute medium to painting, sculpture, and photography, a person tied equally to narrative, audio, impression, and—per the identify of the movement—idea. For some, the expanded role of the thought in art authorized for a new objectivity: artwork could be disentangled from emotional expression or the artist’s hand, and text provided an perfect container for these theoretical proposals. Nonetheless, situating text at a eliminate from subjectivity ran the risk of more dampening the voices of men and women with marginalized identities, who were being only just starting to assert social and political leverage. Some artists, including Piper and Lorraine O’Grady, emphasised that the “dematerialization” of art did not necessitate the erasure of the physique, nor of the indexical trace. It could be an invitation to action or gesture that necessary instead than eliminated the artist’s overall body.

Returning to that pressure among dematerialization and depersonalization, and effacing language’s veneer of universality, quite a few modern practitioners use marginalized or “broken” forms of speech. In recent yrs, exhibitions and guides this kind of as “Speech/Acts” at the Institute of Contemporary Artwork in Philadelphia and Adam Pendleton’s Black Dada Reader (both of those 2017) have explored these reconsiderations of and disengagements from the prepared phrase. Several of these endeavors lengthen the essential, philosophical, or poetic writings of thinkers such as Édouard Glissant, bell hooks, Fred Moten, and Hortense Spillers. A central worry for these artists, writers, and curators is the representation of Blackness, which in some cases entails 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.

See of “Speech/Functions,” 2017, at the Institute of Present-day Art, University of Pennsylvania, displaying Kameelah Janan Rasheed, A Supple Perimeter (activation ii), 2017.
Photo Constance Mensh

Whilst quite a few of these dissections of language have been recognized in visual formats—focusing on the official visual appeal of letters or words—more artists are turning to aural experiments, indicating how speech tends to be a lot more legibly tied to class and race than creating. Characterizing language in the Caribbean in “Cross-Cultural Poetics,” Glissant wrote: “the phrase is 1st and foremost audio. Noise is vital to speech. Din is discourse.” A lot more exclusively, by examining text in the context of performance and seem art, artists reinsert the entire body into interaction, demonstrating how the specificity of a talking entire body variations our knowing of this means. Some of the lots of artists operating with language in time-primarily based media incorporate Tony Cokes, James Allister Sprang, and Pamela Z. Of certain fascination are individuals who translate from speech to textual content and back again all over again. JJJJJerome Ellis and Will Rawls do so though also playing with silence and abstraction to contest the disembodiment of text and, at moments, trouble legibility.

THE Song OPENS with the pulse of piano notes: ascending triplets that develop a perception 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 dilemma, even as the triplets fracture and are outmoded by a meandering melodic line: “How can imagining about h2o enable us consider about … dysfluencies, blacknesses, and musics … alongside one another?” Whilst providing this query, Ellis pauses 2 times, as an orator could do for outcome. These interludes lengthen longer than anticipated, Ellis’s considered place on keep for a instant just before choosing up expressively where by it still left off. The total composition is punctuated by these types of gaps, breaks brought on by Ellis’s stutter, a disability that has come to be central to his poetic and performative follow. Although most people consider of a stutter as streams of recurring sound, disfluency can also manifest as elongations or blocks, and Ellis’s possess 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.

Unfold from JJJJJerome Ellis’s publication The Clearing, 2021, revealed by Wendy’s Subway.
Image Justin Lubliner

Ellis’s album normally takes its organization from his existing writing. The tracks on The Clearing originated as an essay titled “The clearing: Audio, disfluency, Blackness, and time” that Ellis wrote for the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Scientific tests in 2020. Discussing documents of slave owners’ brutal enforcement of doing work hours by means of bells, horns, and—if neither were obeyed—whips, Ellis’s essay maps out historic associations between Blackness, songs, disfluency, and temporal regulation, and envisions methods that could “open time,” or interrupt the rhythm of clock time. Abridged and read through aloud, the textual content defines the temporal and rhythmic parameters of the new music that adorns Ellis’s narratives. The recording was launched as both a ebook (posted by Wendy’s Subway) and a double set of LPs (co-generated by the Poetry Challenge and Northern Spy/NNA Tapes). The publication transforms Ellis’s silent blocks into fragments of language that shower the web page, disrupting its typical linear order like concrete poetry, and drawing consideration to the approaches in which Ellis’s voice alters the temporality of recording and textual content 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 Issue Job Space and the Poetry Challenge at St. Mark’s Church, New York.
Courtesy Issue Venture Place

In the audio recording, Ellis’s stops enter the circulation of his speech as an alternate and unpredictable rhythm of lone phonemes, stray letters or appears, that bubble into enunciation. Nearly inaudible, these “clearings,” as Ellis phrases them, insist on our patience and invite a further type of listening. In her 2017 ebook Listening to Images, cultural theorist Tina Campt writes about sorts of nonverbal articulation, this sort of as buzzing, describing a “sublimely expressive unsayability that exceeds both equally text, as effectively as what we associate with seem and utterance.” We can find some of that expressivity in the nonverbal in quite a few renditions of Ellis’s piece—the publication or the overall performance online video produced by NNA Tapes—that expose his vocal pauses to be not silent at all, but teeming with activity, the identical letters or phonemes studiously repeated as Ellis moves by means of his block: “dddddddddddddddddddddd” or “glglglglglglglglglgl.” Reflecting on his stutter in “Dysfluent Waters,” Ellis tells the listener that his blocks are like vibrating moments of expectation, trembles ahead of the completion of the believed: “I noticed the word’s journey, its not owning arrived.” Also, the listener encounters these interludes not as absence but as anticipation. We change temporalities from the dynamic pace established by Ellis’s talking voice to the suspended imminence of his block. In a different song, “Loops of Retreat,” Ellis draws a parallel between the recurring syllables of his have verbal breaks and the iterative loops of Black music, a sound of “endless restlessness.” Ellis characterizes his stutter as a “temporal escape,” an expansive insertion that, as his essay indicates, fractures the orderliness and linearity of clock time, textual content, and music alike. Ellis’s speech refuses performance, rebuts definition, and even resists his personal management.

WHEN ELLIS’S ALBUM was unveiled in November 2021, it introduced to intellect choreographer Will Rawls’s “Cursor” venture, produced for the duration of his 2018 residency at Situation Undertaking Home in Brooklyn. For the initial of a few showings, Rawls carried out from a console positioned at the rear of the viewers, creating in a sparsely populated textual content doc that was projected at the front of the house for viewers to see. Words and phrases, typos, a garbled vocabulary, and totally free-floating syllables filled the web site as the audio of typing echoed as a result of ISSUE’s efficiency 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: Term Lists, 2018, at Difficulty Venture Room, New York.
Photograph Jason Isolini/Courtesy Concern Task Place

This document—in some sections vacant and awaiting activation, in other people currently populated with phrases to be edited or rearranged—operated concurrently as a rating and a landscape. From his position at the again of the room, Rawls navigated the doc with his cursor, which moved as a result of the text as a black determine set against a white floor. In his introduction in the application notes, the artist launched his viewers to the cursor as a blinking silhouette that could stand in for the experience of Black embodiment. “[Cursors] are bodies inspired by language, by consumers, by other folks. They shift as a result of space. They blink in tempo and race the hours. They talk in a lot of tongues. They pause and backtrack. They lookup and demolish. They are black. They are fugitive. They dance.”

However the cursor was the only figure that moved via house all through Rawls’s functionality, the choreographer asserted his presence in the act of translation from visualized text to vocalized seem. Studying these jumbled phrases and figures aloud, Rawls repeated strains, sounding out distinct pronunciations and emphases, reworking an clear collage of appears into humorous and even earnest expressions: “UYHRIERJE RSSDDDSP PO” gets to be “WHO ERASED THE POPE.” Excavating language from summary accumulations of sound via the procedure of articulation, Rawls’s effectiveness emphasized that the overall body, as much as the mind, is the lens that encounters, constructs, and interprets this means. Conversely, Rawls also evacuated that means from text currently inscribed on the electronic website page, turning the acquainted absurd with alternative pronunciations, repeating “I do not bother with” until it blurred into a rhythmic defeat. Producing about the piece in the October 2018 problem of Artforum, Rawls commented, “My body is the two chief and follower,” and mirrored on how his bodily existence shaped sound—through articulation and the typed words—and, conversely, on the inner thoughts that all those seems manufactured 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: Word Lists, 2018, at Challenge Challenge Place, New York.
Image Jason Isolini/Courtesy Situation Undertaking Area

In his progressions from sound to text 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 faster be interpreted as reflecting a mood than a sound—picture the frustrated slam of fingers towards 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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