The Null Device
An article looking at International Art English, the language used in art-world press releases, which, whilst sharing vocabulary and grammar with English, works differently and serves a highly specific purpose: namely demonstrating the speaker's membership of an initiated elite. As such, while it is dense with technical words, as is jargon, it differs from jargon in that the terms are deliberately nebulous and vague, serving as much to confound outsiders as to communicate to insiders:
IAE has a distinctive lexicon: aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopolitical, tension, transversal, autonomy. An artist’s work inevitably interrogates, questions, encodes, transforms, subverts, imbricates, displaces—though often it doesn’t do these things so much as it serves to, functions to, or seems to (or might seem to) do these things. IAE rebukes English for its lack of nouns: Visual becomes visuality, global becomes globality, potential becomes potentiality, experience becomes … experiencability.
Space is an especially important word in IAE and can refer to a raft of entities not traditionally thought of as spatial (the space of humanity) as well as ones that are in most circumstances quite obviously spatial (the space of the gallery). ... Spatial and nonspatial space are interchangeable in IAE. The critic John Kelsey, for instance, writes that artist Rachel Harrison “causes an immediate confusion between the space of retail and the space of subjective construction.” The rules for space in this regard also apply to field, as in “the field of the real”—which is where, according to art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “the parafictional has one foot.” (Prefixes like para-, proto-, post-, and hyper- expand the lexicon exponentially and Germanly, which is to say without adding any new words.) It’s not just that IAE is rife with spacey terms like intersection, parallel, parallelism, void, enfold, involution, and platform.Space isn't singled out for special treatment by International Art English; another obsession is “reality” (both in singular and plural forms). Many things are “investigated“, “subverted” or “radically questioned”. The word dialectic, meanwhile, is particularly favoured, occurring in IAE text as often as “sunlight” occurs in everyday British English, and whilst it may have originated as a technical term from 19th-century German philosophy, IAE uses it more impressionistically, as a broad note of approval or endorsement.
The imprecise and impressionistic use of language is a recurring theme in IAE, where the composition of a press release seems to be as much an exercise in (a certain highly stylised and specific form of) aesthetic composition as the conveyance of ideas; there are a number of stylistic devices used to achieve this:
IAE always recommends using more rather than fewer words. Hence a press release for a show called “Investigations” notes that one of the artists “reveals something else about the real, different information.” And when Olafur Eliasson’s Yellow Fog “is shown at dusk—the transition period between day and night—it represents and comments on the subtle changes in the day’s rhythm.” If such redundancies follow from this rule, so too do groupings of ostensibly unrelated items. Catriona Jeffries Gallery writes of Jin-me Yoon: “Like an insect, or the wounded, or even a fugitive, Yoon moves forward with her signature combination of skill and awkwardness.” The principle of antieconomy also accounts for the dependence on lists in IAE.
Reading the "Animalia" release may lead to a kind of metaphysical seasickness. It is hard to find a footing in this "space" where Kim "contemplates" and "reveals" an odd "tension," but where in the end nothing ever seems to do anything. And yet to those of us who write about art, these contortions seem to be irresistible, even natural. When we sense ourselves to be in proximity to something serious and art related, we reflexively reach for subordinate clauses. The question is why. How did we end up writing in a way that sounds like inexpertly translated French?The article looks at the origins of IAE, mainly its roots in the necessarily stilted translations of French poststructuralist writing, though also its connection to German philosophical writing (particularly of the Frankfurt School, and the numerous writings that followed those of Freud and Marx, the two titans on whose shoulders many postmodernists have stood), and comments on the varieties of IAE emanating from different countries (the French, unsurprisingly, excel in it, their releases sounding as if written “by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics”, while the Scandinavians are hobbled by a fatal clarity):
Many of IAE’s particular lexical tics come from French, most obviously the suffixes -ion, -ity, -ality, and -ization, so frequently employed over homier alternatives like -ness. The mysterious proliferation of definite and indefinite articles—“the political," “the space of absence,” “the recognizable and the repulsive”—are also French imports... French is probably also responsible for the common in IAE: simultaneously, while also, and, of course, always already. Many tendencies that IAE has inherited are not just specific to French but to the highbrow written French that the poststructuralists appropriated, or in some cases parodied (the distinction was mostly lost in translation). This kind of French features sentences that go on and on and make ample use of adjectival verb forms and past and present participles. These have become art writing’s stylistic signatures.The article concludes by suggesting that IAE may be in existential peril, as a global readership no longer guaranteed to be familiar with conventional English may not necessarily experience the estrangement of meaning a native speaker would when hit over the head with dense postmodernist verbiage, and proposing that, until it disappears, we should appreciate IAE by reading it not as press releases but as verse.