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The Essex Collection of Art from Latin America is supported in its work by academic staff and students at the University of Essex, as well as external researchers. This community contributes texts and papers to our online catalogue and to other ESCALA publications.

Isobel Whitelegg

Writing Space

Writing Space

This essay was originally published in the catalogue Transit published by the University of Essex in 2002 to accompany the exhibition of the same name.


Across, beyond, through: the etymology of the prefix trans- forms a network of meanings within which works included in this exhibition can be discussed. English usage of another, related, prefix, the Greek dia- is more indicative of the duality of passage: a term of relation that also establishes distance, holding things together by placing them apart. In relation to linguistic convention it often refers to duration (diachronism), separation (diacriticism) and connection (diagrammatism).

The word diagram stems from dia- (through, between, across, by) and -graphein, to write. Diagrams, then, are to be written and read, rather than to be drawn and seen. The most ambitious of these types of writing serve to represent the earth diagrammatically: maps. Maps establish relations by separating the earth into discrete features: named, grouped, and distributed across the earth's surface.

The earth's surface is written diagrammatically, yet common English habit allows one to read, but not to write, a map. How then have we been convinced that the mapmakers of the Western world were drawing the earth (as if from observation), when really they were writing it? Perhaps when the world was written as a globe, it seemed that an accurate picture of the earth was finally drawn, rather than a diagram of distant relationships. Perhaps now we do tend to draw maps, reproducing an image without paying attention to the certain geometrical and geographical alphabets used to write our earth down in an easy to comprehend manner, and without proposing to rewrite the earth on different terms.

If to compose diagrammatically is to assemble an idea by writing, cartography (writing space) and chronography (writing time) may be thought of as literary formations or processes. And with this idea comes the possibility of dynamic, diagrammatic translations taking place alongside the usual one-dimensional linguistic ones. Such a process of imagination might be as simple as shifting atlas co-ordinates, looking at the earth at a different angle, level, or scale, but the result might turn the world on its head, reshape its contours or make it disintegrate completely. Such processes are precisely what the denial of a map's written-ness seeks to avoid.

It is possible to carry out something like a translation within the diagrammatic structures that hold language in place, the invisible devices that anchor words to a grid and keep both reader and writer moving in the correct direction. It is fair to say that we mostly pay little attention to these diagrammatic rules once we have learnt how to follow them, and that we are quite benign in our acceptance that the page is a map of the world with its own little grid and its own little gravity, sending us down right to left to the bottom of the page and forward to the next one.

Language, potentially, is a revelation rather than a set of rules. It is possible to discover within the dimensions of language all of the difficult questions - although no positive answers - that one spends most of one's life either progressively ignoring, or satisfying with the simplest of explanations. Language is potentially revealing because one can ask difficult questions of it. Just as humans are shadowed by their non-human selves (animal, divine, dead) language can be placed within questions of limit and origin.

The assumption that one's common structure of language is ultimate fails to account for the formation of this language. Therefore to make any singular structure the principal of production (or creation) is to confuse process with product: to overlay the product onto the process on the assumption that it is necessary for them to be strictly homologous. The result is that product and process appear to some degree only as versions of each other, copies. Production coincides with reproduction. Any potential the process may have had of leading to a significantly different product is lost in the overlay of what already is. A simple step that carries one away from this procedure is to concede that there is another potential form for one's own language; that the process of language-formation can lead to the significantly different: original products of the imagination. Allowing for the question what could be language is potentially a far more informative process than becoming super-efficient at staying within the limits of what already is.

Two artists within this exhibition, Eduardo Kac and Mira Schendel, have worked with and against the conventions of written language, to give us some clues about how best to generate such a process. The strategies that they use are as deceptively simple as those used by conventional language to keep our thinking on the right track: altering the visible and invisible, material and diagrammatic, structures that hold words in place.

Eduardo Kac
Eduardo Kac began writing through the process of holography in 1983. As well as assuming a critical standpoint in relation to linear text, Kac's holopoems, concerned with time and movement, border on the cinematic. A conventional movie is a series of recorded shots projected in quick succession onto a single screen in front of a seated audience. The different shots within each holopoem are not projected sequentially onto a screen but through a singular filmic surface, a surface that simultaneously records a series of different images (of words) from different points of view. Each holopoem thus compresses a substantial amount of recorded time in the form of different sequences of letters, a time which can be re-read only when one moves around it. As the reader moves in relation to the holopoem included in this exhibition, Ad Huc, different words appear and disappear: whenever, four years, or never, forever, evening (all of which refer to the measure of time).

Kac's research extends a project that begins with the theoretical formation of visual, or concrete, poetry in Sao Paulo. In 1975 Max Bense's Pequena Estetica translated elements of language into the basic concepts of Euclidean geometric space: letters as points (zero-dimensional), words and sentences as lines (one-dimensional) and visual poems as planes (two-dimensional). Kac's poems might be thought of as three-dimensional, because they project language into a virtual space, but, by adding a virtual dimension of time as well as space, they become four-dimensional.

Extending the material dimensions of writing, Kac proposes the possibility of extending the conceptual dimensions of reading. With the premise that language plays a fundamental role in the constitution of our experiential world, this aim is not only directed towards heightened awareness of the meanings of words (which the difficulty of reading outside of usual textual habits might engender) but is an attempt to extend the syntax of language to better be able to think in terms of instability and uncertainty, rather than in straight lines.

Mira Schendel
The surface of this page is not neutral. Even before I put any words on it, its co-ordinated grid, shot through with invisible instructions, is ahead of any apparently original thought I might have wanted to write. Original thought defers to clarity and order. With what sort of a page can one be on more creative terms? How can one both write on a page and through it, interfering with any pre-conceived geometry?

The pages of Mira Schendel's monotipias are transparent, they allow for the passage of things, including light, through them, into them. Transparency, in the case of the monotipias, is the result of both the process of the paper's production, and Mira's process of enscription. The surface of rice paper has a particularly chaotic texture: that of vegetal fibres teased from husks, swollen and pulped, squashed dry and matted. The result is a surface held together by twining, meshing, over-lapping attractions between fibres. To mark the paper Mira used a mono-printing technique: this involved spreading greasy ink on glass, laying paper on the glass, and applying pressure to it - writing by picking up ink from glass and squashing it into the pores of the page.

Mira's marks take place within the page. Absorbed by its fibres, occupying its microscopic holes, they call attention to the mesh of its texture; marking out the forces of attraction holding it together. Without such forces it seems, the form of the page, and the form of the inscription could disintegrate. The monotipias are a series of works that run into thousands, continually writing and rewriting the space of the page in terms of the variable geometry of these forces (or, geomancy). Although its shape is rectangular, its borders are porous. Its surface is not delimited by horizontality or verticality. It has no definitive top or bottom, front or back, it is space with n-dimensions and mobile co-ordinates - beyond the imagination of Euclidean geometry.

Mira's marks within the page are writings. They have a diagrammatic formation rather than a pictorial form. Mira described these marks not as symbolic but as 'real' relations. They are what seems to be a contradiction in terms: materially diagrammatic, real maps. If these marks are diagrammatic we can, potentially, read them. Their alphabet is a new one.

Reading a surface in terms of its geomancy is unfamiliar as a literary process, thus difficult to think in, let alone write through. But it may be possible to conceive of a syntax of movement, interfering and interacting within those of time and of space, rewriting histories and geographies in terms of constant change and exchange.

Rewriting the map of art and ideas is as good a place as any to start, rethinking its formation as a mesh of individual attractions and divergent events, imperceptible within the frame of any one world view. To write such a map is to exile ourselves from the habit of thinking art history as one development unfolding from a singular viewpoint, heading in the same direction, with the same aims. But neither can one approximate the viewpoint of others, pretend to stand outside or above other histories, and use their art to describe and delimit national histories and fix cultural identities. Instead one could try to maintain the momentum of transition, paying attention to constant transaction between where we are speaking from and what we attempt to discuss or describe. Margins of political power, money, language and distance make history easier and quicker to write, keeping things in their place. But the world is not a page, (although its history and geography are written as if it were) we do not have to stick to the margins, agreeing with what or who they expel.

Isobel Whitelegg, 2002

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