This issue of the Demotic Archive of Art Writing is a celebratory act of critical reflection and literary piracy alongside The Richard Kostelanetz Bookshop at the Kunstverein, Amsterdam, which offers both exhibition, bookshop, and retrospective of Kostelanetz work as writer, publisher, and editor/ASSEMBLER.
This multiple format of exhibition and bookshop both positions Kostelanetz within contemporary interests in writing as art practice/ reading room as a gallery format, as well as recognising the uncertain economics and distribution of a practice negotiating between experimental poetics, fiction, essays, music and performance.
Highlighting some of the tensions and possibilities of this, the Press Release for The Richard Kostelanetz Bookshop (a text by Kostelanetz) features RK’s Encyclopedia Britannica entry along with his own comment upon the entry. See that as a PDF here.
As a response to the RK bookshop, this blog post is notes thinking through a series of anthologies edited by Kostelanetz between 1973-1980. Thinking about such books not just for the work that they contain, but because they offer new ways of thinking through the limits, forms, and self-definitions of an “experimental” writing practice, and how we might approach the legacy and historical moment of former generations of such work.
The text below is the introduction to Essaying Essays: Alternative Forms Of Exposition (1975), which served as a basis for an online reading group curated by VerySmallKitchen in 2009. Given the non-availability of the book itself (except as highly price second hand copies), the introduction functioned to open a space of possibility, a framework for thinking about our own contemporary essaying and editorial practices. Kostelanetz’s ASSEMBLING publication also offered a model for how the results of our discussions might be collated and distributed further.
This space of possibility is confirmed, if you can get hold of a copy, by a look through the anthology, where a range of image text, scores, notations, critical writings and diagrams, are linked through the theme of essaying. Such immediately apparent formal eclecticism was the case of all of the anthologies – including Breakthrough Fictioneers: An Anthology (1973), Scenarios: Scripts to Perform (1980), and Text -Sound Texts (1980).
As with Essaying Essays, the introductions to such texts seek specificity in the diversity. What keeps something as an essay? How does something remain fiction? What are the boundaries of script and non-script? What is Text-Sound as opposed to,say, Sound-Text? When is it useful to contain experiment in such defined containers?
In the introduction to Breakthrough Fictioneers, for example, Kostelanetz puts it as follows:
“As freedoms are asserted, so much restrictions be acknowledged. All of the following selections emulate at least one of the components of classic fiction – expository language, characters (which need not be human), evocative artifice, narrative, etc., as even the totally visual contributions reflect typically fictional concerns; and most of them express significances that would surely be familiar to open-minded connoisseurs of imaginative literature. The most obvious formal limitation stems from the practical publishing convention of printed rectangular pages of uniform size, bound in a fixed sequence and limited in color to blacks, whites and occasional greys – limitations which regrettably forced the exclusion of several “fictions” I should otherwise have wanted to include.” (xix)
Here, then, is a methodology, let us call it EDITORIAL PROCESS AS SITE-SPECIFIC, with “site” a concept functioning across genres and publishing conventions, but also operative in the stuff of the writing itself, BOTH form and content:
“These innovative works suggest that “fiction” can be most generally defined as a frame filled with a circumscribed world of cohesively self-relating activity. This fictional material may be primarily human, naturalistic, or stylistic, which is to say that fiction may predominantly deal with people, or things, or merely a certain linguistic style and/or formal device; but within fictional art is usually some kind of movement from one point to another. In these respects of diversity and change within an acknowledged frame does fiction particularly differ from poetry, which emphasizes concise, static, generally formalized statement. Fictions tends toward fullness, while poetry is spare, fictions encompass, while poetry concentrates: fictions go, while poetry stops.” (xv-xvi)
2. SIX NOTES FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION
(a)In 2011 the anthologies are valuable for their mix of texts/ artists which have attained canonical status and those who were part of the small press scene at the time but have now disappeared from our representations of these periods of activity.
I appreciate the anthologies for this expansive notion of a literary/ artistic “scene” at a particular time, constructing histories beyond a set of canonical names or categories – “conceptual” or “Fluxus” – instead bringing the complex abundance of an historical period into the present.
(b)Note the publication history of these texts. The Anthologies offer a useful case study of the (lack of) (abundant) possibilities for distribution that have characterised Kostelanetz career. If Text-Sound Texts attained a major publisher (William Morrow & Company), Scenarios was self-published by K’s own Assembling Press, Breakthrough Fictioneers appeared from Dick Higgins Something Else Press, and Essaying Essays from Out of London Press.
(c)The work explored on VerySmallKitchen often posits and requires a distinct space involving art, fiction, poetry/ poetics and criticism, and a related shifting between authorial positions and functions.
Histories and curatorial/ editorial practices often serve to remove writing from these multiple possibilities, reducing, for example, response to narrow definitions of criticism. K’s anthologies recognise the need for strategic and opportunistic containers, but towards the clarification and operation in that broader field.
(d)I view Kostelanetz’s monikers in a similar way, less as terms fixing work – “ conceptual art” – than as attempts to introduce a lexicon that both gives form to a particular body of practices, convinces publishers to invest in a project, and also (hopefully/ potentially) is a working term/ artists coinage/ critical formulation to be utilized as generative or abandoned. One of the questions in our reading group was how notions of “essaying essays” could be a useful working trope for practices more involved in performance than page or screen based writings…
Take, for example, “Text-Sound Art”: which, in this formulation, works out this similarity and distinctiveness:
“The art is text-sound, as distinct from text-print and text-seen, which is to say that texts must be sounded and thus heard to be “read,” in contrast to those that must be printed and thus be seen. The art is text-sound, rather than sound-text, to acknowledge the initial presence of a text, which is subject to aural enhancements more typical of music. To be precise, it is by non-melodic auditory structures that language or verbal sounds are poetically charged with meanings or resonances they would not otherwise have. The most appropriate generic term for the initial materials would be “vocables,” which my dictionary defines as “a word regarded as a unit of sounds or letters rather than as a unit of meaning.” As text-sound is an intermedium located between language arts and musical arts, its creators include artists who initially established themselves as “writers,” poets,” “composers,” and “painters”; in their text-sound works, they are, of course, functioning as text-sound artists. Many do word-image art (or “visual poetry”) as well, out of a commitment to exploring possibilities in literary intermedia.
The term “text-sound” characterizes language whose principal means of coherence is sound, rather than syntax or semantics – where the sounds made by comprehensible words create their own coherence apart from denotative meanings…” (14)
(e)This eclecticism of distribution is a point of connection between RK’s work and contemporary practices. Compare with, say, Dexter Sinister, who, in the recent Bulletins of The Serving Library #1 describe how their A NOTE ON THE TYPE essay/ project/ font has been “recomposed and rechanneled through” various publication and exhibition contexts.
(f)In an essay on Bernadette Corporation, Chris Kraus talks about both their writing of poetry and the “gestural poetry” of BC’s work as a whole. Their recent project The Complete Poem seems to work through acts of dislocation within and between the different communities, many of whom are contained within K’s anthologies.
For example, a text deeply dependent on histories of experimental poetry is exhibited in a gallery context to an audience and in a format that in some way removes it from that history. This suggests a reading of all four Kostelanetz anthologies that considers their considerable accumulated mass as serial acts of undoing…
If K’s anthologies resonate for their multiple locations of practice and distribution, in other ways I wonder if they are somewhat alien to contemporary practice. I wonder, for example, if the expansiveness of its materials would seem a necessity of any anthologist working today, and if artists and poets across different areas of art writing would appreciate and find generative an 800 page anthology cross-cutting between poetry, fiction, essay, and script…
I suspect not. I spent some time on Saturday looking through the material at x marks the bökship in Bethnal Green, and if a model of/ hope for social formation emerges from such work as a whole it is definitely one of small distinct groups and cliques, low scale social formations, often deliberately finding spaces and communities away from the need for overtly relational/ participatory practices. Connections between art/ performance/ poetry seem only to take place in particular, defined situations. This, too, into the matter of writing, creates a particular form and style of sentence, paragraph, text-space…
Thinking about how the anthologies read as a mix of survey and manifesto (it’s the later that emerges more clearly the older the anthologies get). Thinking through what contemporary equivalents do exist, I link here to the PDF of the introduction for Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin’s Against Expression anthology (thinking, too, of the Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris Poems for the Millenium anthologies). If differing in focus, these books (all over 500 pages) nonetheless share with Kostelanetz’s anthologies a commitment to SERIOUS BOOK MASS AS WRITER TACTIC.
So onto the (essaying) essay itself. The act of piracy here reflects the presence of Essaying Essays in the VerySmallKitchen (see The Piracy Project of AND Publications for another thinking through of this). I have repeatedly talked about this book, showed it, lent it to be photocopied, worked with it. Its ideas, editorial principles, and contents can be traced quite concretely through projects and collaborations on this site.
The introduction to Essaying Essays is available as a PDF here. If much unfolds from considering these books as gestures, I hope to get to Amsterdam and unfold what follows from the books themselves and the Kunstverein’s act of putting them back into circulation. The Bookshop is open until 1st October. RK’s own extensive 1999 essay On Anthologies is here.