Tom Hibbard


This time of writing is nothing other than the very structure of that which we are now describing.
-- Derrida
What visual writing is is growing more complicated. It seems to be gaining, expanding. Long ago, I wrote a brief piece on visual writing, using Antonin Artaud's idea of "end to masterpieces," defining it as unconventional writing. I still often put visual writing with collage and believe collage is equally important for exploring reality. During the nineties, visual writing became specifically associated with language as an anthropological and ontological symbol. A recent call for submissions defined visual poetry as 'any form of artistic creation that uses language (words, letters, punctuation marks) as its raw material'. More recently, for me, visual writing has connected to what linguists call 'the scene of writing', writing as it appears and is viewed in society today.

It's in this sense that I find most interesting the new collection of works by Wendy Collin Sorin and Derek White, P.S. At Least We Died Trying (To Make You in the Backseat of a Taxidermist). "P.S." is most prominently displayed on the cover of the chapbook, carved from birchbark and superimposed again on (a xerox copy of) birchbark. P.S., of course, is the abbreviation for postscript, coming from the Latin word, postscriptum, meaning afterwriting or written after, according to, which indicates alternate forms. To me the mixing of carved with abbreviated suggests a mixing of permanent and temporary. I find, perhaps from the birchbark, the suggestion of American or perhaps merely an informal usage (at any rate not carved in stone) from which the connotation of a postscript might be more left out, dubiously and dangerously tacked on, an error, an excuse, an inexcusable omission or sleight, as opposed to an acceptable, standard position of writing, an addendum.

This I think introduces into the discussion certain ideas of Beat writing, which is American but not a closed brand of patriotism. Beat writing, especially Kerouac, is intently not an afterwriting but a during writing, a main element of it being time-of-writing (esp. fast) and predicated on times, participatory, improvisational, that is, ad hoc, even at the calculated cost of awareness of what is going on. Though Beat writing is not an afterwriting, emphatically hopes to avoid being an afterwriting, it is similar to a postscript in the sense that it is marginalized, marginalizes itself, starting as left out, to create not a postscript but a prescript, a time before, an avant-garde and blameless writing. Kerouac's writing is not labored, and he does sometimes use typographical borderwork. The Beatles in their musical title "P.S. I Love You" seem to agree that the most important content/subject is found in marginalized, unappreciated, sometimes forgotten places. There is also the idea that this content/subject is valid in no other form or place (i.e. only placed in time can it avoid being merely pretense and insincere). In this way, motive enters into the writing. Beat writing is both temporal and looking at itself from outside of time.

The scene of writing, then, for the White-Sorin booklet indicated by its title beginning P.S. is a justification or possibly a non-justification, a revolt against, from a tenuous (in one sense), seemingly mistaken, marginalized position (and temporality) not in the American mainstream but limited by it, still American, a remembering (a not-forgetting, a not-omitting) with a background (or foreground) of events of 2000-2005. By viewing the art here as visual writing, a text as yet unwritten, a distortion and distention, cautious and indirect expression, a reticence; we uncover the ideas of the artfulness of the work: writing presented in a way that is not readily recognized as writing. These exceptionally colorful, intricate, fanciful artworks, which have appeared in such publications as Generator, Diagram, Dunai, SleepingFish, do not seem to be visual writing, seem to have little to do with writing, but the title of the collection indicates that this is not the case. They are a rejection not of writing but of regular writing.

According to White, the collection began by sending his thesis "Phyllotaxis: A Mathematical Model of Plant Morphology" to artist Sorin (whose work also appeared with text by Michael Basinski in Strange Things Begin to Happen When a Meteor Crashes in the Arizona Desert) who "chopped up the text" and reassembled artworks on translucent paper. These artworks were sent back and forth, randomly increased, blended and built upon, during a time when Sorin was also working on her daughter's wedding. White calls the final product "a warped illustrated children's book about birds and bees and the trees they live in."


I propose visual writing, another facet of it, as not merely a destabilization of textual writing but an absence-of-text, a presentation of non-meaning or meaning that for some reason is not or cannot be articulated. A warped children's story is no children's story; more importantly, neither is a glut of children's stories. Before attempting to say what these visual works show, I would like to say that there are several false trails that they lead us down. The insertion of a narrative seems to me superfluous (though this introduces a complex interesting dimmed notion of the novel versus criticism). The mathematical equations as artwork titles, whimsical as they are, seem to be a substitute, a defaced system. The titles give a sense of repetition rather than narrative. The whimsy of the artwork itself leads away from seriousness. Some of the objects (exotic birds, faces, beans, etc.) seem to be diverting. To some degree, in a way, the biological and technological motif of phyllotaxis is mainly a scientific overtone, a surface touch, the promise of the new that holds in suspense the problems of the present (or past). Also the colors seem a cheery far-cry from the black-and-white of standard texts (though there is one mainly, but not entirely, black-and-white work).

Visual writing graphically represents the completed logos before any logos has occurred. It also can represent the impossibility of a completed or finished logos. One notion that is present in this collection of thirty artworks, including front and back cover, is cooperation. Rather than the predetermined growth of genetics or of cell replication, what these artworks really contain is growth based on the interaction of human beings, in Hegel's terminology, Aufheben, "surpassing while maintaining," not that the interaction of the artists is competitive, quite the contrary, although competition is probably present. But the growth of the artworks as White describes it, the exchange and improvement of one upon the other, is drawn primarily from the character and experience of the artists. It is therefore not predetermined or mechanical but is a more arbitrary product of circumstance and free choice (triumphing over "natural laws," i.e. natural limits) and more richly reflects rudiments, basics central to art such as values, human goals, abilities and intelligence. One could even suggest categories of interaction, such as professional, mundane, conjugal, exclusive (members of a group), erotic, fellowship, religious.

What these artworks portray, in my opinion, in the end, is the relevant and decorative diversion of human interaction by temporality. They portray the evolution of a text (and its meaning) through marginalization. Though there is negativity, the surface aspects of the works become positive, open-ended and recurring. They convey an unpolluted naturalness and an economy of honesty. Interaction possibly favors diffuseness. To be sure there are a lot of schematics in these works. The order is complicated, especially the language imagery, though this is bathed in pervasive color. (The relation of color to visual writing is analogous to the relation of time to textual writing.) The complication is diagrammatic, from the laboratory, the microscope rather than the telescope. However, the gentle, accommodating unities that are expressed, though not improbable, are in the context of magnification and stellar distances. The works express determinacy but at the same time infinity and endlessness. They emphasize not consciousness but activity. In the end, as demonstrated by the affable poetic captions beneath each artwork and by the vulgar reference in the title to the 'backseat of a taxidermist' (not taxi), without trying, they defy categorization and explanation. These works seem to represent a text that not only is not articulated but never can be articulated.

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