Itself Not So
In Imogen Stidworthy’s video I hate, the photographer Edward Woodman stumbles and stutters as he works his way through speech therapy exercises. The labored mechanics, framed with close images of his mouth and hand, are uncomfortable to watch. Woodman seems to have a form of aphasia, a disorder affecting the production of speech. It’s a frustrating video: Woodman’s disability is recorded as is, as a non-narrative. The video is a tense document of the delicacy of expression, in which Woodman chokes on his own words, unable to orchestrate his own body’s performance of speech.
The hesitation and pain are reminiscent of patients with severe rabies, who, given water to drink, experience hydrophobia. The virus disrupts the regular functioning of these patients’ muscles, specifically those required for swallowing and breathing. When these muscles are no longer synchronized, the disordered swallowing cycle causes a painful, choking sensation which, after repeated incidents, conditions the patient to respond fearfully to the presence of water. In the worst cases, the sight of water can be enough to send the patient into a fit of spasms.
I hate is the most literal work in curator Rachel Valinsky’s Itself Not So, this year’s summer show at Lisa Cooley. Featuring fourteen artists’ work, the show centers on aphasia as an interpretive tool. In the same way that one could map the brain regions and corresponding speech disturbances of aphasia, Valinsky uses aphasia as a charting field — a way of connecting diverse works that fail to express or to communicate, or that more simply, just don’t. As an emotional and direct piece isolated in the rear viewing room, I hate is an outlier, but also the origin around which the rest of the show is organized. “Origin” in that it establishes the show’s center, framing linguistic failure within an interpersonal field, where the participants in language, not only the structure itself, matter.
The benefit of this approach is that it acknowledges the personal and emotional aspects of linguistic struggle. The social function of language is essential — that’s one of the ways aphasia is distinct from the academic and self-involved linguistic games of post-structuralism. This context is particularly transformative for the works by Ben Vida, Susan Howe, Christopher Knowles, and Sue Tompkins. These graphically-oriented text compositions are dry and indulgent on their own. Within Itself Not So, the mannered language of these works feels particularly isolating: a compulsive performance that is lonely, deprived. It’s a form of intellectualization, a defense mechanism in which thought is used to create distance from emotions and conflict. The overly formal interest in language is a shield: the more you say, the further you become from what you mean, from connecting with the people you care about. With rabies we become afraid of water, with speech we become afraid of our feelings, of each other.
Overtly about expression, Itself Not So is really more about connection, where incidentally language and speech are sometimes barriers against it. Interesting then is the presence of technology. In Research Service’s project If Your Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me, the collective holds automated teleconferences in which robotic avatars perform interviews and collect data. James Hoff’s virus works, in their aesthetic of digital disruption, are proximal to the tumblr glitchnews. Sophia Le Fraga’s videos perform a brilliant translation of literary texts into the vernacular of the web, with material drawn from reddit, memes, gchat, and other sources. Technology, especially among these works, is just another language, one in which the anxieties are all the same. (Research Service’s title embodies rejection in a way that makes me want to apologize to all my exes, and then call my mother.)
The constellation of works is beautiful and delicate, a tiny bit sad and a tiny bit humorous. Language itself, slipping away like the end of summer.
Originally published on nypac.tumblr.com. Image: Sophia Le Fraga.