top of page

Feature: Michael Hampton - THE ASSIGNMENT: riffing on/with my own words

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

Is there a role for writing on art that may appear elliptical, troubling and confusing?

David Dibosa

At about the same time an invitation came from Jared Pappas-Kelley, to submit a text to the website, under the rubric of writing something ‘in my own words’, I had just finished writing a long and highly demanding essay about Marcel Duchamp's little known work Unhappy Readymade, and its conceptual ramifications for today's practitioners. In 1919, Duchamp had cabled a set of instructions from Argentina, to his sister Suzanne on the occasion of her wedding, which required her to find a geometry text book, attach it with string, and leave the ensemble hanging loose on her Parisian balcony; a bookflag to be flayed by the sun, wind and rain. That it lasted for a year, and was subsequently lost, apart from a single black and white photograph as evidence, and Suzanne's rather drab mécanomorphic painting, means Unhappy Readymade has failed to be acknowledged as a landmark work, massively overshadowed by R. Mutt's Fountain, if it needs be said. So, I was still recovering from this research driven, deadlined project, when JP-K's offer turned up, and almost immediately started to take apart the assumption underpinning it, ie that I owned my own words, that they were unique belongings and could ever be identified and ascribed to me by something akin to a maker's mark or poncif. Without a shadow of a doubt then, Duchampian psychology had infiltrated my immediate response: a logical turn, to treat the entire field, hoard or chimerical body of language, both parole and discours, as prefabricated, prompting the question: did I really own my own words and what were they worth, or was I myself just a chimera, an actor offering assistance to a vast linguistic readymade?

Without doubt there are many, discernible written modes or registers, some being academic (ie governed by MHRA style guidelines), journalistic, poetic, epistolary, SMS/twitter, conceptual, etc. Within these modes there are yet further types of identifiable linguistic styles, as for instance in the domain of print journalism, where an op-ed column in a right leaning tabloid will be of a different hue to one in a left leaning broadsheet, or two reports which may construct different versions of the same event. In short human linguistic performance is pleiotropic in nature and bent in and out of shape by acquired and sometimes toxic beliefs. The specialised type of contemporary art writing, which over the years I've become adept in producing, is covered by the following descriptors: critical, discursive, theoretical, researched, and has historically generated the following formats: book review, catalogue essay, exhibition notes, blogpost, press release, puff. To me these formats were always treated as exercises, opportunities to hone my critical skillset, and try to develop a profile. Needless to say, the latter was and still is the most problematical part of this trajectory, as my take was often densely argued, full of references and contrarian. Maybe I do have a tale to tell in my own words, though working out which exercise within which mode to use for this assignment is not obvious. Still, projecting English Language as a found, yet dynamic heritage object, within which my own words are not much more than a tiny ripple of albeit fractilising blather, might open up ways of disruption and détournment; possibly even the terrain where my own truest words might be found too, speculative and the suave agents of this coup.

Challenging the proposition that I own words, or possess my own words is analogous to Lawrence Weiner's famous attack on the gallery wall, a work he prepared for the seminal exhibition 'When Attitudes Become Form':

Walking through the Museum of Modern Art in New York City a few weeks ago my eye caught a glimpse of an open hole in the plaster gallery wall and I honestly assumed there was a repair in progress. It seemed odd that it would be left exposed like that. Upon closer inspection I was entirely wrong. This was a "piece of art". A 1968 conceptual work by Lawrence Weiner titled "A 36" X 36" removal of lathing or support wall of plaster or wallboard from a wall". I was slightly stunned, but also caught in the trap of ambiguity that is the very intention of this work. Weiner's sculptures are about language and gesture as much as they are about materials. The work exists as soon as the artist expresses the intent of removing the section of plaster from the wall. Another well-known piece by Weiner from this time period is "Two minutes of spray paint directly on the floor...". These works are considered the building blocks of post-minimal conceptual art.

Similarly, I plan to expose the underlay or foundation of the self's linguistic structure (did I just say that? LOL), without falling back into the trap which is always present as a temptation to writers and artists on the margins, ie to take refuge in a user-unfriendly, private language game, even if this has been a strategy for figures such as William Blake (in his more obscure mythological passages), the escapist fantasy of the young, home bound Brontë sisters, and the graphomanic fantasy drawings, produced in staggering abundance by the likes of outsider luminaries Adolf Wölfli, Henry Darger and Yayoi Kusama. There is little doubt though that the private language phase leads nowhere much commercially speaking, and also denies that the nature of reality is an agreed upon quantity (resting admittedly upon an unknowable sub-atomic or superstring world), socially consensual rather than solipsistic and occasionally coercive (woke, politically correct jargon being guilty in this regard), within which artists often choose to masquerade and promote their work under the guise of tags such as ‘edgy’, 'difficult', 'ground-breaking', or even that old warhorse 'new'.

There, I have broken bread with you and shown myself to be a fan of the via negativa, stating what is not, in order to arrive at what is. For the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, this was a matter of lifelong contemplation, and rigorous analysis, ie examining the claim of what is not, in order to affirm what is, or being itself. Ok it's a hall of mirrors, but not impossible to navigate. However, the subject under scrutiny here is the question of whether or not it is intellectually possible to write in one's own words, or if that late romantic sounding brief is just another type of straitjacketing? So, can I identify words that aren't my own, alien goods as it were, in order to better grasp and grow an authentic means of expression? Let's just leave this one hanging for now.

Exhibition and book reviewing has an almost statutory cookie cutter quality, mainly involving the prolongation of a generic print formula, which includes a sketch of the work at hand or its highlights, a sprinkling of cultural precedents (or not if truly jolting), and a closing sentence, critical evaluation which will have either added lustre to the original or rubbed off its gilt (the whole package designed ultimately to address the paradox of the absence of the work under consideration, and how it shapes and directs art writing of one kind or another). Being fair and unjudgmental is perhaps the hallmark of an intern or inexperienced reviewer, but having reached a point at which I could more or less propose subject matter to be placed under review, to the associate editor at Art Monthly, with a high likelihood of successful placement, this became less and less of an issue. I could say what I like and so paradoxically therefore was even more careful to be sympathetic and extol the work (barring the odd dig), rather than condemn or be confrontational for the sake of it. Nevertheless, over the ten year period that I contributed articles to Art Monthly, book reviewing in particular became a chore, and one I badly wanted to revitalise, and so began to look at the whole business from different angles. Perhaps this was also due to being in a pressurised world where we are fast all becoming reviewers. It’s as if Lautréamont’s famous dictum that ‘poetry must be made by all’, so beloved of Tzara, Breton, Beuys et all, has been replaced by ‘reviews must be made by all’. Every online transaction comes with its own business survey to complete: ‘How did we do?’, be it hotel service, restaurant meals, a trip to the bank or library, deliveries by Ocado or Hermes and if a domestic cleaning product really does do what it claims, while you’ve probably seen the stickers on the back of white vans or fleet vehicles asking ‘How’s my driving?’ Such market driven reviewing obviously is part and parcel of consumer freedom to choose, and squarely part of big data mining and surveillance now, but I can’t help thinking that this glut of citizen reviewing has degraded the craft per se. Jane Allen, former editor of the esteemed, Chicago based journal New Art Examiner, observed in a short essay ‘The (Declining) Power of Review’, how the critic’s role had changed since the days of Clement Greenberg, (and it should be added, even more so in the age of Damien Hirst, and his canny commercial knack of consigning his work straight to auction), meaning critics now have been relieved of the necessity of selling contemporary art. It is being done more effectively elsewhere. They have time now to think, to observe, even to criticize, to look at the whole of society and the relationship of the visual arts to it and to reform their ideas. One might say that the critic/intellectual has landed right back down at the base of the art-world pyramid along with the artists. And perhaps that’s where the critic belongs.

To sum up then, a critic mustn’t merely decode (which has been the historical job description), but also recode, which is the task of the ‘nu-critic’, a recreational brief, and Baudelairean parlour game, for as Andrew Hunt and Michael Bracewell have lamented in ‘The Critic as Artist Manifesto’ (2017):

It has been evident for quite some time that contemporary art is being high-jacked by those wishing to promote it as urgently ‘useful’, by worthy careerists, bureaucrats, mediocre narcissists, dullards and the doctrinaire, those who move towards the reductio ad absurdum.

Looking out and upwards from this base, became the point and position that I developed an interest in the possibilities of ekphrasis, though it has long interested me as classical interdisciplinarity well before the concept gained much modern purchase, and so it seemed like one possible method or affordance, when faced with a vitrine, gallery or newly launched artists' book. My first essai, entitled 'Not a Review [Surely?]; March 2017' took place after a drop in on Laura Oldfield Ford's show 'Alpha, Isis, Eden' at The Showroom, an intriguing space just off the Edgware Road in London NW8. The results (ie mine), were hard to fathom -for myself that is- a mixed bag of prose musing, jingle, cropped quotation, psycho-geographical diary entry, and suchlike, laid out on the page as if a section cut away from a hallucinatory postmodern poem. For instance:

Free-standing stud wall/partition as neo-Proustian palimpsest; perforated steel Sitex© anti-squat boards as leper’s ‘squint holes’ etc.

In other words the job of evoking visual material by means of verbal counterpoint ie ekphrasis, had actually taken off, left behind the original material and become an autonomous if dilated work, with very little resemblance in terms of typography and lay-out to a classical magazine review (a possible correlate to this approach are the experiments made by Michael Gorra, Caroline Levine et al, in which critical arguments are reconfigured as stories, in order to escape the somewhat moribund business of literary and film criticism, and more importantly make it comprehensible to more than a specialist readership). ‘NOT’ was eventually submitted as a piece of alternative writing, to a Glasgow based journal called 2HB, but gained no traction there. Here's an extract from the accompanying email to its co-editor, Ainslie Roddick:

NOT A REVIEW [SURELY?]; MARCH 2017 Two key concepts emerge here: reagency, ie as in a chemical filter paper (which is suggestive of Rorschach blotting), and ekphrasis or the act of rewriting/re-rendering an artform in a different medium. It's a classical exercise but still full of possibility, and Oldfield Ford's work does seem to cry out for such treatment. This I suppose is a type of 'art writing' too (and so hopefully fits the 2HB brief), though it's not a term I've ever been over keen on. In the end it's all about manipulating the graphic trace. (Email 16 March 2017)

The experiment had bombed, but at least these were my own samples, not ones especially filtered and constructed to please an editor. The piece remains unpublished and fragmentary for now.

Laura Oldfield Ford or Laura Grace Ford as she is now called, can lapse into a kind of rhapsodic punk pastoral mode from time to time, which is ironic given that her content is generally dystopian and concerned with the ravages and loss wrought by neo-liberalism on urban housing and precarious lifestyles. Portrait and landscape drawing blend nicely in her monochrome zine strips which invariably have a sharp political edge, relying on humble tools such as a ball point pen, acrylic and Xerox.

Accounted for in Sinclairesque sentences, a melancolic commentary spoken in the unresolved tonal flatness of a Liverpool poet manque, Oldfield Ford seeks her Blakean portal '...another London, it’s hard to believe how close we are to Marylebone, Marble Arch and Park Lane. We walked through tenements, the old rookeries of Bell Street.' A blather of neighbourhood voices: boudoir colours, middle eastern scents. Sold in her fanzine Savage Messiah as a transcript, made of textual scraps laid down on top of crudely photocopied b&w images of interiors, alleyways and temporary gardens, she stakes out the postcode always sensitive to the mood music and passing of time. ‘NOT A REVIEW’

In 'The Irresistibility of Revolutionary Signifiers’ an article by Alex Michon in the excellent magazine Garageland #8, (Summer 2009), the writer examined Ford's response to the whole Olympic bandwagon as it rolled into and over the Lea Valley, seeing her as emblematic of:

Bourriaud's image of the artist as homo viator, travelling not only through the east end landcape but through time too, with many of her drawings including deliberate echoes of 1970s and 80s anarcho-punk para art.

Collaboration might be another way to get round or even cancel the idea of having one's own idiolect, after all who can say exactly where Gilbert's input starts and George's ends, and vice versa, who can say who's the dominant partner in the painstaking pencil drawings of Dave Smith & Thom Winterburn, collectively known as 'Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock', likewise the paintings of 'Harry Adams', an amalgam of the two artists Adam Wood and Steve Lowe? Wood and Lowe have been plugging away as 'Harry Adams' since meeting at art school in 1988, and latterly founded the L-13 Light Industrial Workshop in Clerkenwell, which is their studio and exhibition space. Writing in the catalogue for 'The Lay of the Land', a 2013 show in Munich, Neal Brown commented:

Within Harry Adams paintings there is belief and disbelief, beauty and ugliness, order and disorder, dirt and cleanliness, and ecstasy and dysphoria.

This is a list of visual antinomies, and although it would be too obvious to suggest these are simply due to the dual nature of their authorship, that will be nevertheless be a suspicion. One Saturday afternoon in the spring of 2020, just before the onset of the Corona virus lockdown, I went to a fire sale of prints, books and cards at L-13, and bought a wintry sub-Munchian Billy Childish print and another pull by Harry Adams, Black Clouds over Will Meadow and Pasture (2015), which had itself been overwritten, stamped by messages such as DAMAGED UNWANTED DISCONTINUED OR INADEQUATE, L-13 REJECT and NULLIFIED CANCELLED REVOKED RESCINDED INOPERATIVE & VOID in true punk style!

My words have been around, and are dirtied (‘Hygiene: Writers and Artists Come Clean and Talk Dirty’ was the title of the catalogue for the 1994 exhibition ‘Clean and Dirty’ at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, in which tidying up through language was discouraged by curator Angela Kingston, keen to create ‘a parallel disruption’). Ripped and decimated by usage and abusage, individually words don't add up to much, but it is the contrast between normative verbal combinance and the joyous re-combinance of words (or eigentűmlichkeit as the German romantics termed it), which allows me to refer to them as mine; or rather identify the source of their style and stature. By means of this Darwinian recombinance, new worlds are invented. From this perspective words are akin to medical equipment: syringes, birth forceps, bloodied towels; but I digress as my old English teacher used to say on cue, and much to every student’s amusement.

Having lived through an era radically affected by the tenets and techniques of post-structuralism, it is not so much the case that the ownership of words is a dubious notion, rather that their meaning's indeterminacy has become a given, less a slippery weapon taken up by users' of Critical Theory (demonstrating the nature of text per se, and the way power lays embedded inside it), more a lurid symptom of news and social media; particularly their unreliability, for the post truth era is a free-for-all when it comes to candied disinformation, Orwellian doublespeak, political spin, street activism and agenda driven politics.

When the rubber hits the road, all of my critical texts, ideally, are based on a logical structure, either a narrative or an argument, sometimes a composite of the two, but discernible as a structure, nevertheless. Once this has been sketched out or delineated, then I’m in the habit of agglomerating new material on top of this foundation, extra blobs in the plain text and hors-de-texte meanderings corralled in footnotes (if appropriate). This double of base and agglomeration cites Claude Levi-Strauss’s famous dichotomy, postulated in his essay from the Savage Mind, 1962, between the engineer and bricoleur, with its critique of the view that the scientific methods of the European engineer were ethically and logically superior to his native counterpart, cobbling together a temporary sculpture such as a plaquette or bender from driftwood, flotsam and seashells by hand. Both methods get inscribed in my altermodern writing style: rational and instinctive, rigorous and improvisational, referential and performative (although the referential itself can sometimes be performative). Then, bonding or fusing it all together within a proscribed wordcount and page design coldly overrides these creative considerations, until a final draft emerges for proofing.

I began by alluding to my long experimental essay on Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade. It remains unpublished, the oftentimes fate suffered by writing that isn’t quite what the doctor ordered, having failed to meet the brief, or been viewed as too maverick; a storage nightmare. The condition will be familiar to writers who don’t easily job reviews or features to editors. Having come late on to this trade in Grub Street art writing, I have had some success, and learnt how to adapt to market conditions, but still not found myself totally comfortable with this role. How better to end this riff than by quoting from the as yet sequestered text, in fact by concluding with its conclusion?

When Marcel Duchamp, ably playing the part of subversive elder brother, cabled a set of arch instructions to his sister from Buenos Aires in 1919, instructions which she followed impeccably, and led to the creation of Unhappy Readymade, little did he realise that this mischievous gesture would become the UR (yes the pun on the initials is intended) work for a whole subsequent school of artists taking liberties with the book as material object, rather than just a carrier of text. Doubtless this ragged bookflag would have elicited a few quizzical even derogatory comments from Parisians as they passed by in the street, a plein air mystery to behold, and one which sat inside no known paradigm. Student rag week art they might have thought, the handiwork of a disgruntled librarian, or something salvaged from the refuse bin and sold on by a cunning biffon. In fact, the full significance and striking alterity of UR has barely been recognised, an overlooked, minor act in the Duchamp canon; but collaterally the point in time when an entire school of radical art practice was jumpstarted, a transgressive LICENCE issued for other book artists to use, although remarkably it would be another forty years before John Latham started using that creative licence with abandon. Fittingly (and finally), of all the diverse contemporary book artists employing a wide range of techniques aimed at altering not just the text, but the book’s DNA, Antonio Riello’s installation Diabolus in Vitro (2010), offers a bleak elegy to learning, and thus civilisation. Having burnt copies of some of his own favourite books, Riello commissioned Venetian glassmakers to make decorative reliquaries for the ashes: strange sublimations engraved with their late titles; transparent, post-Alexandrian funerary urns.

Michael Hampton Summer 2020


MICHAEL HAMPTON: By the mid1990s I was recovering from a prolonged and damaging nervous illness, which had left me badly alienated from 9-5 society, living on its fringes in a Hackney sink estate: the classic failed poet syndrome. I’d written out a bug without disturbing the UK’s literary gatekeepers too much, but slowly drifted over into the London contemporary art scene with its private views and slew of art publications, which offered a better chance both of networking and placing copy. Around this time art writing was emerging as a new category, and visual art starting to become inflected by literary theory too, under the influence of curator Matthew Higgs, the yBa Fiona Banner and journals such as Inventory. In 1999 after an encounter with Gustav Metzger at MOMA Oxford, I turned my attention to Auto-Destructive art, and subsequently the artists’ book. Traction at last. Between 2009 and 2019 I was a regular contributor to Art Monthly, with a niche interest in artists’ lit, while also producing many catalogue essays. In 2015 my interdisciplinary study and toolkit for practitioners Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the artists’ book was published by Uniformbooks to critical acclaim. My work has appeared in zines such as Schizm, Geschichte, The Penguin Collector; online platforms: this is tomorrow, /Seconds, 3a.m., and the Fortnightly Review. In 2018, I contributed to The Lost Diagrams of Walter Benjamin, published by Ma Bibliothèque, and most recently to The Denizen, an anthology of urban horror stories edited by the anti-novelist Stewart Home.

In Our Own Words is an ongoing feature where artists and writers are asked to speak about their new work, ideas or projects in their own words. It is also part of invert/extant Transmissions for the Artist Writings series. If you would like to be kept up to date on this or other projects, please sign up for our newsletter.


bottom of page