The Carrier Bag Theory of Art History: experimental writing in, on and alongside feminist and queer art

Bridget Crone, Goldsmiths, University of London,

Catherine Grant, Goldsmiths, University of London,

This panel explores the political possibilities and affective textures connecting the form and content of writing, with a particular focus on feminist and queer art practices, strategies and histories. During the last couple of decades there has been a rise in writing as art, as well as experimental approaches to writing about art. This has mostly taken place outside of art history, with much genre-crossing work being done between fiction, criticism, poetry, memoir, history, theory and curation. Writers such as Chris Kraus and Alexis Pauline Gumbs have popularised the ways in which politics and writing might intersect, drawing on longer traditions of feminist, queer, trans, non-binary, anti-racist and postcolonial writing that re-imagines form as well as content.

This panel will consider how these experiments stretch back across writing about art, and how feminist and queer writers have played with scholarly convention to create speculative, playful, personal and political histories of art. From these histories the panel will encourage collective discussion on the possibilities offered for artists, writers and curators.

Papers will either perform experimental approaches to writing on feminist, queer, trans and non-binary art histories, or reflect on modes of writing in and about art. Topics include the uses of historical speculation; the emergence of ‘autofiction’ and ‘autotheory’, with connections to longer histories of weaving together the personal and the critical; the crossing of literary forms and other performative modes of writing alongside art.

Speakers & Abstracts

Significant Others: The Writing of Maud Sulter

Susannah Thompson (Glasgow School of Art)

The work of the Scots-Ghanaian artist, writer and curator Maud Sulter (1960–2008) embodied many of the characteristics of what is now often referred to as ‘art writing’ or experimental writing within the fields of visual art and art history. Sulter’s practice, spanning photography, collage, installation, poetry, activism, publishing, curating and teaching, frequently challenged the boundaries between these areas of enquiry. Her writing performed her politic and consistently sought to, in Sulter’s words, ‘put black women back in the centre of the frame’.

In 1988’s Call and Response she subverted the conventions of academic writing, adopting a highly personal, manifesto-like register in her demand for the visibility and acknowledgement of ‘Blackwomen's representation and position in a white heterosexist male-dominated world’. In 1989’s Zabat Narratives, she created object biographies for her black foremothers, allowing reimagined archetypes to speak for themselves while returning agency to the silent, passive figure of the Muse. Her 1991’s multi-media installation Hysteria, loosely based on the life ofAfrican-American sculptor Edmonia Lewis, prefigured the use of historical speculation in contemporary art, while her 2002 play Service to Empire represented an innovative recasting of her own biography through a fictionalised account of the life of Ghanaian leader Jerry J Rawlings.

In spite of her award-winning early work as a poet, and her prolific work as a writer and publisher across form and medium for over two decades, Sulter’s legacy is often discussed only in relation to her work as a visual artist. This paper seeks to examine the mode and style of Sulter’s poetic, dramatic and narrative writing as key examples of cross-genre and auto-theoretical feminist, queer and postcolonial practices which prefigure the emergence of these approaches in contemporary art and art history today.

Seeing and Meaning: Fiction writing at the intersection of art practice in the 1970s

Karen Di Franco (Glasgow School of Art/Chelsea College of Arts, UAL)

Critically appraised in an article in the magazine Art Rite in 1976; a group of artists’ books, made by Adrian Piper, Jacki Apple, Jennifer Bartlett, Constance DeJong, Kathy Acker, Carolee Schneemann and others, were described by the writer John Howell, as “a collective phenomena, a kind of writing which looks like a style inside language but outside literature.” Despite this perception, Howell’s appraisal was largely critical, misreading his own privilege in the strategies many of these women artists employed to embed aspects of autobiographical detail and other personal fragments within their writing. Reflecting on Howell’s comments, Lucy Lippard, writing in her own article in 1977 for Chrysalis magazine remarked ‘what Howell doesn’t seem to like about a certain kind of woman’s book is just what I like best about it.’ What Lippard didn’t disclose was her own writing project — a novel titled I See/You Mean — completed around 1971, excerpted in various magazines throughout the decade, and eventually published in 1979 by Chrysalis, just before the press close. 

This presentation will explore how fiction writing intersected with other text processes associated with conceptualism, and its extension into performance and video forms, where the dialogical and dialectical meet the perceptual. At stake is perhaps a consideration of where artwork is re/produced and located both within and as writing itself — where text moves between the states of being and representation. 

V.L. – Gallery Diary(s): A proposal for a trans-fictional criticism

Frances Whorrall-Campbell (Ruskin, University of Oxford)

This paper proposes a new methodology for writing art history from and for a trans perspective. Drawing on what the novelist Shola von Reinhold calls the ‘transfixions’ of trans/queer history, this pun combines that fixation upon a forgotten figure from the past with the suggestion of disrupted/ive written form. In its refusal to settle, this method is in relation to trans life as an attempt to escape what Paul B. Preciado calls the ‘cage’ of convention. Refusing the norms of genre becomes a way to move towards a larger refusal of the constriction of societal norms, and as such this method is explicitly liberatory. Fictionalisation emerges as a critical tool, asking the reader to imagine encounters with art that escapes the cis-heterosexist genealogy of art history.

Fragmented, disjointed, and hybrid practices of writing have long been associated with the ‘monstrous’ trans body (see Preciado and Susan Stryker). However, rather than the obvious Frankenstein metaphor, this paper proposes ‘ghost-writing’ as a helpful methodology for producing trans art criticism. This method is therefore embodied in the text in a different way. Rather than describing, the text enacts its method, as a creative-critical work attempting to bring the Edwardian genderqueer and lesbian art critic Vernon Lee back from the dead to possess a contemporary narrator (V. L.) and elucidate a trans theory of aesthetics. Lee comes to be a cipher for both the new possibilities afforded by this way of writing, and their genealogy within the affective textures of previous queer art writing.

Scenes from a Marriage: Art Writing in Dialogue

Christie Costello (University of Cambridge) and Lola Olufemi (University of Westminster),

Lola Olufemi and Christie Costello are PhD students writing on art and visual culture, as well as members of the queer anti-work art collective Bare Minimum. Together we will read from our correspondence experimenting with the politics and possibilities of collaborative art writing, of attending to the visual art and culture we work with as part of an ongoing dialogue. We submit an excerpt from the first letter in our correspondence as a sample:

Dear Lola,

Ok, so: I’m interested in bringing the politics of care we’re grasping at together outside the university into our academic writing. That bit in the Bare Minimum manifesto that says ‘we love and carry each other and that is what has brought us here’: that. As in, you know everything that’s been going on with me and writing alone feels… difficult. But writing to you, thinking with you, playing with you? This I can always do! Feels like pleasure even when the ideas are challenging. Not to be a Marxist bro about it but let’s talk work vs labour in relation to the academy, art writing, etc.! Dialogue as care, dialogue as accessible form > the singular, linear piece of art writing, or something??

Hamad Butt: Sublimission, or Death

Dominic Johnson (Queen Mary University of London)

‘The nearness of danger & the hypnotic power of death yet offered as choice with the orders of safety (extractor fans fume cupboards) (and then seduction/repulsion)’. So writes artist Hamad Butt in his unpublished notebooks of the ideal relation between his work, a viewer, and a given space of encounter. Between 1990 and his AIDS-related death in 1994 (aged 32), Butt made a series of performative sculptures: glass books that burn the viewer’s retina if looked at unshaded, and a case of maggots (his graduation show at Goldsmiths in 1990; a student prize is still awarded in his name there); a cradle of handblown glass capsules filled with chlorine gas; tubes of volatile bromine bowed to resemble a triffid’s claw; a ladder of vials release sublimated iodine if climbed. Butt was British South Asian, HIV-positive and queer. Both his art and life were truncated. His work is now rarely shown or discussed (in a recent article in Art History, Alice Correia calls Butt ‘oft forgotten’). I write to recover Butt’s difficulty, his personal remoteness (his work is impersonal, yet riven with sadness, fear, desire, and finitude) and his difference (sexual, racial, aesthetic) through his self-reflexive writings. I study his finessing of known terms like ‘sublimation’ (the passage from solid matter to gas, or body to spirit, sublimity), ‘familiars’ (intimate/supernatural), and ‘apprehension’ (holding/being held, understanding/being understood); and his neologisms like ‘sublimission’ (sublimation/submission), or ‘metachemics’ (a chemical metaphysics). Drawing from close study of Butt’s artist writings (uncatalogued in Tate Archives), I write towards an encounter with Butt’s art and life, and his core themes of entropy, contamination, containment, and death.

Eurydice in Cyberspace: Kathy Acker and Linda Dement’s Imagined and Unfinished Collaborations

Jen Kennedy (Queen’s University)

Before her death in 1997, writer Kathy Acker had begun a collaboration with cyberfeminist artist Linda Dement based on what would become Acker’s final work of fiction, “Eurydice in the Underworld,” an early example of auto theory in which Acker hijacked the myth of Eurydice to tell a story of the end of her own life. Their plan had been to create an interactive digital artwork that would transport Acker’s Eurydice––a link between the worlds of the living and the dead––into the monstrous virtual worlds of Dement’s CD-ROM works, Typhoid Mary (1991) and Cyberflesh Girl Monster (1995), which similarly question the boundaries of the corporal and of the self. Although Acker died before they were able to finish the piece, Dement completed an adapted version on her own, comprised of a series of digital murals representing each of the virtual environments that had been planned for the interactive work. This paper considers the “possibilities and affective textures” connecting Acker’s and Dement’s respective appropriative and auto-theoretical practices of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as their unfinished collaboration at the end of Acker’s life and the beginning of the internet age.

I Need To Tell You: Speaking lived queerness to Queer Theory

Adam Benmakhlouf (Dundee Contemporary Arts / Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design)

Using feminist methodologies that politicise personal experience, my paper proposes anecdotes and a gently sensitive ear to lived experience as a way of continually counteracting the academicization of queer theory. In constructing this framework, I refer to the writer-theorists Jack Halberstam, Sara Ahmed, Ann Cvetkovich and Maggie Nelson. A method emerges of speaking queerness that refuses the swish of grand theory, and the confidently cool drama of argument.

In contrast, putting Carrier Bag methods to good use, I collect instances of artworks, memoir, poetry and story that generously and evocatively provide insights into queer lived experience. In provisionally arranging them, I host them like friends whom I think might gain from meeting one another, keeping a keen ear for synchronicity, and rapport. This practice of intertextuality is also at heart a metaphor for, and method from my own lived experience of identity construction as a member of the queer Arabic diaspora, an underclass fully funded doctoral researcher and a neurodivergent nonbinary artist.

Practicing friendship as a methodology, I offer a careful and critical analysis of the work of my queer besto Andy Black. In this way, I set myself apart from the self-effacing art writer that trades on objectivity and a cool aesthetic judgment. Instead, I follow art writer Jane Gallop in discussing artwork in which I feature as a subject. As theorist, fragmentary memoirist, poet or critic, my voice and writing identity are at all times hybrid, and performatively constructed.

Each Repetition is Not a Repetition: Writing with Affect Towards Agnes Martin’s Late Works and Writing

Kim Dhillon (University of Victoria)

In 2020, I began to regularly visit a botanical garden local to me in British Columbia.

Agnes Martin had travelled there decades before to shoot the final scene of her second film,

Captivity, in the Japanese Gardens. Martin grew up in Vancouver, BC, but left in her early 20s for the US, later stating the appeal was in the “American atmosphere” built on “liberty… self-reliance and self-expression.” Yet, Martin returned to Canada on several trips including after leaving New York City in 1967, and during her later years when living in Taos, NM. The film she was making at the time of her trip to the botanical gardens involved Kabuki dancers for the final scene, a pair of whom she brought from California via Taos. Martin perhaps knew the gardens as a child, from trips when she would visit her grandfather in Victoria. But, unhappy with the result, Martin destroyed the film when she returned to Taos; only she ever saw it.

I began to write a series of poems about Martin, researching her life, relationships, travels, and work. But how can one write about a well-known artist, when that artist has sought their entire life to be unknowable? Writing about Martin through poetry enabled me to explore the ideas in her work not just in theory, but in form. If the horizontal lines of her paintings evoke emotional states of transcendence, can those states be suggested in the lines of a poem? In this presentation, I’ll speak about the process of writing poetry as art theory, reading several works from this project in progress, “Captive”. These poems ask: what does it mean to search? To spend your life trying to make a transcendental experience through art? And, is it possible to write in a way that continues that searching?



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