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PROFILE: ART & LANGUAGE
CARLES GUERRA

TO say that Art & Language was never concerned with text would be too
shocking, especially for those who know about its long career. There has
been Art-Language, a journal published since 1969, numerous artworks
consisting of text on various surfaces, and an ongoing conversation that has
so far lasted for 40 years. To argue that text equals some kind of rational and
scientifi c attitude towards art is a simplifi cation the group resisted. The aim
was always to defeat text’s alleged transparency. Michael Baldwin, whose
early writing was connected with analytical philosophy, claimed opacity as a
positive value. This work, which came out of the late 1960s and early 70s,
is now regarded as a degraded form of philosophy. Soon afterwards, Art
& Language abandoned theory in favour of miscegenation, and philosophy
ended up hand-in-hand with song lyrics. The very last statement of Art &
Language has been released under the title of Sighs Trapped by Liars, a CD
produced in association with The Red Krayola.

During the early 70s, text was not something to work with but a work
place, and soon after conversation replaced studio practice, which had
been abused by modernism as a source of myth and belief. It was the time
of the Index and its sequels, a massive collective enterprise dealing with a
huge quantity of language, before IBM started providing word processors.
Certainly, given that its task was mainly organisational, the Index would have
profi ted from advances in computer technology, helping it to deal with large
amounts of text in a more elegant and effi cient way. But this was not the case,
they were young and had time to waste. However, by 1976 the Index, which
had already been home to all kinds of theories, assertions, opinions and quasitexts, allowed images to enter into the relational space of Art & Language.
Somehow, the conversation was abandoned without reaching a climax. To
quote Michael Baldwin again, it was ‘radically inconclusive and radically
incomplete’.





Last year I saw the Index 002 (1972) at MACBA (Museu d’Art
Contemporani de Barcelona) as part of the Herbert Collection. It made me
wonder how an old Cubist painting might look now, almost a hundred years
after it was made, particularly the newspaper fragments. The fi les of the Index,
fi lled with essays from early Art-Language issues, were sealed off and protected
under Plexiglas, and you knew there were texts in drawers you could neither see
nor read. But such a mistranslation goes well with the Art & Language ethos.
The paintings produced in the following decades, and especially those from
the last years, by Baldwin and Mel Ramsden, exploited the topsy-turvy logic
of Mrs Malaprop. Instead of protecting and fi xing their work they deliberately
surrendered to a wide range of viewers, from the most informed to the most
confused. The reason painting was foregrounded in Art & Language practice,
one that was always related to the origins of conceptual art, had to do with an
understanding of text as performative. On the surface of Hostage XIX (1989) it
says: ‘We shall make a painting in 1995…’ The beauty is that what has been
promised is not fulfi lled, so the text remains a text.





This is not to say that nowadays the actual members of Art & Language
regard themselves as disempowered descendants of the old good days.
Michael Baldwin, Mel Ramsden and Charles Harrison have put a lot of effort
into trying not to efface the actual perspective on their own history. On the
contrary, they have realised the advantages of pragmatism. They often refer
to themselves as puppets. What they say or write is not what they think, but
what they are pushed to express. Hence, Art & Language no longer exists as a
unifi ed voice. It is more of an echo chamber: any message entering their fi eld
of practice risks serious distortion. And if they do write, it is not for the benefi t
of clarifi cation, as you would normally assume. Take, for example, the recent
publication of a volume containing their writings, Art & Language Writings
(2006), and you will understand what I mean. Essays and theory mingle with
rock-and-roll songs, exhibitions and book reviews, a libretto for an opera and
interviews with the artists. To keep it all bound together is like living with a high
level of noise. No text can help.

CARLES GUERRA IS AN ARTIST, CURATOR AND CRITIC BASED IN BARCELONA.

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