Stuttering and Stammering: A Proposal to Understanding Disfluency within Contemporary Art Practice
Stammering, or stuttering in American parts, is naturally thought of as something which affects the human being, both physically and mentally, usually associated with ‘a tense struggle to get words out’, and ‘different from the normal non-fluency we all experience which includes hesitations and repetitions.’ (British Stammering Association, 2010) I’d like to consider the idea of the ‘stammer’ or ‘stutter’ in a different context, by no means diminishing the fact that stammering is a problem which affects the quality of life of people who experience it daily or altering the meaning of what a stammer essentially means. This process of writing aims to inspire an alternative way of seeing the stammer and a methodology so that it can exist within the artistic realm.
In the past year, my interest in making the ‘condition’ I have been subjected to for as long as I can remember and have no experience of what it is to be a fluent speaker, has become an increased interest in my artistic practice, and as its nature is unexplainable just through the medium of language. The visual has become even more important in beginning to expand the challenges it brings upon a person. As well as doing this, the word ‘stammer’ in a broader context, can stand in for the glitches, ruptures, imperfections within art and more specifically photographic practice, and as an extension, in life. In terms of understanding the word ‘disfluency’ in this text, primarily, this term does represent stammering in most literal sense, but also looking at this word as a metaphor for the imperfections within art and photography. I’ll be focusing on the glitches, as referenced in From Stuttering and Stammering to the Diagram (2012) by Simon O’Sullivan, ’It is these moments of noise - or glitches as we might call them - that free language from itself, at least, from its signifying self, by putting it into contact with other forces.’ (O’Sullivan, 2012, p.g 249) As well as glitches, delving into potential notions of where the stammer is within the photographic, particularly the common actions and emotions which can be associated with photography and stammering such as: loss of control, the freezing of a moment, the unpredictable nature of capturing an image and entropy. Like the strategies we implement to create fluency when someone is a person who stammers, I am looking for similar strategies to make art practice more accessible in its nature and perhaps also an acceptance of the imperfections and glitches which grace our world, allow us to embrace these blemishes and see them as an interesting aspect of contemporary life instead of something to disregard, undermine, mimic or not consider.
The stammer is a breaking down of language, disruption of the norm, and opens up a gap within an all too familiar world of fluency within knowledge, information and dialogue. The stammers’ unpredictability is what makes it so unique in its nature. Unpredictability, loss of control, chance and the freezing of a time, place or a moment is fundamental to what a stammer is. All of these sensations can also be felt in an artistic and photographic sense. In thinking about these characteristics of photography, the notion of the glitch in connecting the stammer to the artistic medium is a seamless one. The meaning of the term glitch has been somewhat changeable over the course of many years, in the 90s for example describing a genre of experimental music. Following this, the glitch was embraced as an aesthetic of the digital age, referring to whole new set of visual art and communication. How we link the notion of the glitch to our human use of digital technology is intriguing. In our 21st Century world, digital technology enables the creation of a somewhat ‘perfect’ and predictable outcome, the outcome we desire and expect. Seemingly, this is also what we strive for in everyday life and such imperfections are seen as alarming, problematic or something which needs to be solved. Although, as we become accustomed to digital glitching which is unforeseen, we often tune these glitches out. In this acceptance of the glitch in an artistic sense as an imperfection and as something which we are unable to escape (this is also refers to a person who stammers, there is no cure for stammering), we are accepting of the glitch. A stopping in your tracks, as it were, makes the viewer of an artwork for example, engage with what is being articulated, being open to the possibility of something else occurring. This loss of the expectation of whatever it might be to be perfect, or the norm (within contemporary art, for instance), will naturally shake up the contemporary art world we inhabit. One example of an artist who utilises the glitch in their practice is Chantal Faust.
Faust’s use of the flatbed scanner as the being the focus of her artistic practice allows her ideas to stem from a pre-existing language of photography, subverting the ‘photographic vernacular the occurs through scanning which makes the viewing experience so strange’. (Faust, 2007) She is also interested in the scanner visibly impacting the surface of which it scans, thus causing the glitch in images such as Plantlife 6 above. The scanner is a subjective viewpoint of the image, making something 3D, 2D, losing all sense of its materiality. The images often appear in a ‘hyper-real’ state as Faust describes it, the scanner disobeys the rules of a lens-based photography which we can associate with perspective, aperture and depth of field and instead offers up an alternative process of image making.
My proposal is, whilst artwork is made for the satisfaction and pleasure of its creator, we should also consciously consider that art should not just be created for the sake and enjoyment of the making process. Of course, I should not diminish the fact that for some, maybe novice artists who enjoy creating artistic for simply the process, is absolutely valid. But, art which is publicly exhibited in whatever space it may be, its impact and whether it plays up to stereotypical characteristics of ‘contemporary art’ should be consciously considered. Simon O’Sullivan speaks of ‘A rupturing of representation’ and also the need for participation, which crucially some contemporary artworks of the 21st Century simply back themselves into a corner (of the white cube gallery space) of being misunderstood. O’Sullivan says ‘The artwork - or the work that art demands of us - involves an active engagement, a participation as it were.’ The nature of our 21st Century art world whereby contemporary art talks to itself as it were, or between those who have the pleasure of understanding it, is unacceptable in a modern age where most of what we create attempts to make visual the unexplainable or challenges we face within our contemporary society. Thus, Keti Chukhrov’s proposal in On the False Democracy of Contemporary Art is correct ‘If the artist makes a political claim to social change, but artistic production is not able to accomplish it, then the decision to find groups more efficient with social work and let them occupy the institution’. (Chukhrov, 2014 p.g 3) This will allow for art to be a more socially democratic and representative tool for change within institutions where art will naturally be the most widely received, by an accepting, mouldable audience.
The photograph, in contrast with stammering within the realm of art, we could say that this is a fairly unexplored connection. However, I believe there are multiple crossovers with how the medium functions and operates, plus how the basic fundamental component parts of photography link so closely to the stammer. There are particular parallels between the component parts of analog traditional photographic production and the stammer. For instance, photography relies on time for its ability to function and produce: the length of time the shutter holds focus on the subject, in the darkroom developing a print or a roll of film, the anticipation of a result, and finally the unpredictability which predates all of the above. This unpredictability is nonexistent in our ever so now digital world. Furthermore, photography has always been connected with chance, both practically and conceptually. For example, the chance encounter or the decisive moment as coined by Cartier-Bresson in relation to street photography. As well as the component parts of photography being similar, looking at specifically at photography in less of practical way, in extended reading about Lewis Carroll in Stammering, Photography and the Voice of Infancy, Carroll speaks of his experiences of being a person who stammers and photographing children. Most interestingly, both stammering and photography are linked whereby they both rely on time. Disfluency allows for a delay in speech and photography relies on the concept of time. Carroll speaks about photography as being ‘distinct from all other forms of mechanical reproduction because of a photograph’s unique assault on temporality, that disarmingly simple yet irrefutable quality of the medium that enables a subject to occupy simultaneously more than one temporal moment’ (Smith, 2004, p.g 98) Interestingly also, Carroll speaks of ‘the act of stammering, like that of photography, is then to anticipate in the present, future hesitation as having always already occurred’. (Smith, 2004, p.g 98) It is evident that there is strong connection with time here, whereby the photography is a pause in time, a block, with no soundtrack. A silent moment. Photography, in this moment, of the click of the shutter, can never ever show the full complexities of the situation it is confronting through the lens.
A crucial philosophical link which makes reference to stammering is Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of a minor literature. In thinking about the stammer in an alternative way, it has three components, condensed from Deleuze & Guattari’s Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature (1986), but this first component is what I find most intriguing to applying to stammering: ‘The foregrounding of the affective and intensive quality of language or its operation on an asignfiying register. A minor literature stutters and stammers the major. It breaks with the operation of ‘order-words’. It ‘stops making sense’.’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1968, p.g 16-18) Essentially, the interplay between major and minor literature is most important here, whereby the minor breaks down dominant uses of language, highlighting the actual qualities of language, bringing language to the limit of its ability to represent, for example towards music or politics. In relation to the what is major and minor, it could be said this essay is a breaking of the ‘major’. We almost need a minor approach to contemporary art, experimenting and shaking up the norm. A deterrorialisation of the dominant code of representation, whereby contemporary art operates within society rather than just merely slightly representing it.
When originally setting out this personal essay, I wanted to set myself the task to create my own methodology for how we should approach contemporary art in the 21st Century. This is no easy task. Using something which I am so familiar with, stammering, as a means to break down contemporary art and challenge its superiority is something which interests me and using stammering as a metaphor this change and a break in fluency as it were, for things to continue as they are.
In our fast-paced, technology focused world, contemporary art has an certain accessibility problem associated with it. With our population on this great Earth being so vast, it may seem somewhat challenging for us to make our impact on the world in a significant, meaningful way. Art and design aids us in realising the problems that we may struggle to acknowledge or explain. Art has the potential to do this, but once it loses its status as its existing as something where only a few can access it, it is as a consequence, less effective. Art often assumes a certain amount of knowledge and education, whether it be from philosophy, culture, science, politics, so on. This assumption means the average person on the street immediately finds themselves in a predicament and struggles to engage with such public art. Claire Doherty speaks of public art being ‘cast in the collective imagination as either the unwanted guest or the mass entertainer’. (Doherty, 2015, p.g 12) This non-acceptance of the importance of public subsequently means that art struggles to gather support from public and be a positive contribution to making an immediate widespread impact on our modern world. Public art, perhaps stereotypically, but in reality is actually predominantly commissioned for a site specific location, supported by community arts based groups and local/national funding organisations, often taking a sculptural form. This is perfectly fine, however, the art which sits in the local gallery space can exist within a public space, where its audience is not limited to an admission fee. Bring the white walls outside. Public art should not be limited to sculptural pieces, often sitting the middle of a roundabout, being driven or walked past.
In addition, the art world talks to itself, as it doesn't need to function within the public for it to exist. Terry Smith writes in What is Contemporary Art? (2009) (the fact we need such a book to understand the contemporary artistic condition we find ourselves in today says something about the lack of clarity and need to break down contemporary art) ‘Contemporary art is the institutionalised network through which the art of today presents itself to itself and to its interested audiences all over the world’ (Smith, 2009, p.g 241). Relating more selfishly to just the artist themselves, as Grayson Perry points out in Playing to the Gallery ‘the closed circle of the artist, the dealer and the collector does the job. You don’t necessarily need the approval of a wider audience’. (Perry, 2014) In essence, the artist does not need the public, as their financial backing comes from elsewhere. The artist does not need the public to accept their art for their practice to function, so as long as a single dealer or collector can relate to the work, the work has sold itself. I am being highly cynical here, all art has arguably has a purpose, meaning and value to the public sphere, but this is worth bringing back into question, to allow us to consider a world for which art just exists to impact the world instead of how it currently exists in the present day. It’s only if the artist’s social conscience is elevated enough that he or she will endeavour to create art which breaks the norm, radicalises and changes opinion. The occasional ‘stammer’ within the artistic realm shakes things up, questions normality, allows time to breathe and creates a ‘blip’ in a somewhat fluent art world.
Following on from thinking about ‘blips’, art naturally does pause us in within a moment in and amongst the bizarre world in which we live, and is a completely different level of representation from just speaking verbally. It is different form of communication, without blocks. These sentiments link seemingly back to the notion of the glitch, particularly in how O’Sullivan describes it as ‘a “sound” of something else, this something different trying to get through’. In relating this more specifically to artistic practice, a ‘minor’ method of photographic representation for instance, could be utilising the medium in an experimental form, breaking down how the photograph often portrays and represents. Instead, it becomes a more dominant force in attempting to exist within society rather than just being a passive photographic documentary tool. This use of the photographic could be described as a ‘glitch’ where the ‘business as usual’ approach is dropped. This new photographic language will become more representative of contemporary issues, allowing everyone, whether artistically interested or cultured, or not, to access this universal language. A visual form of communication, language even, where words can simply can not on their own justify what we wish to represent. In turn, this allows for the audience to increasingly participate further in viewing the photograph, coming to terms with a new experience, event or element of potential. The photograph is then scrutinised by this audience, which is less common now except for those with an engaged interest in photography, as our world is constantly swimming in imagery which we cannot escape. We need the time, we used to have, to pause and reflect on these images. This will allow photography to no longer be a passive, dismissive form of representation which is passable and uninteresting or ‘inoperative’ relating back to what O’Sullivan writes in From Stuttering and Stammering to the Diagram, regarding the importance of active engagement and participation. For the audience to engage, the photographic will still need to document our world in basic terms but as well as this, show something which we otherwise could not. Wolfgang Tillmans is a good example of a contemporary photographer who utilities the photographic effectively to show the banal, unexplained aspects of life, in a thought provoking, unique, engaging way. This is a glitch within the photographic realm which I would like to see.
This only just scratches the surface of my, I guess, methodology for my view on the contemporary art of the present. I have many more ideas, but would simply need much more deeper analysis and evaluation.
In simple terms, I would like contemporary art practice to be both more physically and mentally accessible. Physically speaking, art does not need to exist just within the gallery space, with art in the street being a means of initially engaging with the art world, to command a larger audience, who then can re-engage with what interested them in the public place, into the gallery space. Sir Ken Robinson in his landmark report for the UK Government, more specifically for Education, All our Futures said ‘Creativity is possible in all areas of human life’. We need to harness this creativity which we all possess in various ways and allow a path for which all can be creative and work together to create art which impacts and changes for the future. This means more community led art based practices being encouraged and allowing this to fit into an already crowded artistic sphere. We would be naive to continue in this way, where art is disfluent, inaccessible to the many and just appeasing the powers that be. A glitch needs to happen. We must appreciate the disfluency which art provides us, as it interrupts knowledge, breaks down our understanding and becomes the third point of attention, opening up new ways of seeing and expressing in a different light.
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