29/05/24 • Residency : Natasha Marie Llorens

The Function of Language: Notes on a Crisis

29/05/24 • Residency : Natasha Marie Llorens

The Function of Language: Notes on a Crisis

Natasha Marie Llorens is a Franco-American curator and writer, professor of art theory at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, and co-director of the Center for Art and the Political Imaginary. Llorens visited Stavanger in 2023 as a CAS Resident in Art Writing, bringing with her current research on philosophies of violence and de-colonial curatorial practices in contemporary art. In the below text, she grounds herself in these theories while grappling with the the necessity of language and its inherent violence. While recognizing the scientific language often applied to art as violent, she points out that to claim that art has ever existed outside of rhetorical structures is "an inexcusable depoliticization of art," and questions how we as writers can ethically continue our work.

On a clear day in Stavanger we go out to the shore by car. Astrid wants to show me Hå Gamle Prestegard, a cultural center set high on the cliffs overlooking the sea. Afterward we take a meandering walk in the brisk fall late morning. Low, sloping forms of ancient burial mounds are dispersed in the grass by the beach. We walk between these mute forms, which seem to list towards the sea. The discussion revolves around the generation of Norwegians who left for the United States after World War II only to return when oil money made a decent living for the working classes possible at home. We talked about how silent this generation was about the difficulty of immigration, how their stories are folded away inside of families like a long pause in otherwise rooted lives or English-language bubbles trapped in the depths of personal narrative. 


Around 600 graves have been identified along the stretch of beach that runs thirty-nine kilometers south of Stavanger, though Astrid and I don’t walk so far. They date to what is called the Migration period between 400 and 800 CE, which is the time before the Viking age of massive displacement within Europe following the end of the Roman Empire. Astrid and I are strolling among the first strangers to this shoreline. 


An association forms in my mind: a journalist wrote to me some months back in my capacity as the professor of theory at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm. She wanted a comment on the policy suggestion that a Swedish cultural canon be introduced as obligatory in all state education. I learned from colleagues that part of what was meant by the proposition is a revaluation of ancient aesthetic traditions, like those of the Vikings whose ancestors are buried beneath the mounds we pause between. Knowing little about the Vikings, I did some research and discovered that they were not Christian and had a deep mistrust of the idea of The Book – or the Bible, the Koran and the Torah – as foundational texts for the organization of society. They were particularly suspicious of the linear notion of time and the recorded history such books introduced. Vikings used writing, but not to produce narratives as we typically understand them today. Their notational systems were meant to mark symbolic phenomena and very concrete facts in the writer’s present.

Admittedly, mine is a novice’s understanding of the function of writing for the Vikings. But it returns to me on a beach south of Stavanger because I came here to think through a crisis in my own relation to language and writing. Progressive history could not account for the Vikings’ world-view, which resonates with a deep mistrust for the way language sutures people into time, explains the world to them through arcs of cause and effect that are rhetorically produced. I can see a shadow of this mistrust in what Astrid relates about the generational silence in those who returned from the US. I can see it in my students, sometimes, or I think I can.


Watching the shadows pass over the burial mounds, I feel intensely for a moment my own strangeness to this place. Language and by extension the way I use it as a writer is marked by many geographies—the almost sexual pleasure in rhetorical virtuosity taken by the French, the conflicted emotional depth words carry in the American South, the sharply analytical quality of language that characterizes Northeastern American academia, the elaborate way Arabic fold itself towards and then away from a central kernel of meaning without ever promising absolutism, to cite the foundational ones—but none of these prepare me for something on the order of indifference that I sense among these ancient dead. I am aware of the danger of generalization in all this, but the impression persists that there is a structural difference in the relationship to language in the North. Silence articulates something altogether different here than on the Mediterranean shores where I first learned to speak and draw in chalk. 


The crisis that prompted me to apply to Contemporary Art Stavanger’s writing residency was inaugurated by a confrontation with this geographic tendency to withhold language, but also not limited to it. I say “crisis” but maybe it is better to describe what has been happening to me as a slow defection from the intense academic training about which I always felt deeply ambivalent. Between 2011 and 2021, I was more or less a full-time PhD candidate in modern and contemporary art history. I spent the last five years of this period between Algiers, New York, Marseille and Paris doing field work and writing. My dissertation was focused on experimental film made in Algeria in the 1960s and 70s by people who were caught between their mother tongues and the French language in a moment of intense social transformation, just after the country was liberated from colonial rule. I wrote in the proper academic form required of the dissertation-as-exercise, but also with some awareness that I was engaged in something dangerous, maybe in some moments even unethical. I understood the work as the transcription of narratives and citation of texts to which I can not possess a claim, even if I am implicated in the history out of which they emerge like all beneficiaries of colonialism.

If we take, say, Edward Said seriously then we have to accept that academic epistemologies played a fundamental role in producing the Orient as an imaginary and as a geography to be dominated. His argument in Orientalism (1978) was that Western representations of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia produced territories and people as inferior and stereotypical for a European audience, which provided a latent justification for colonial rule. Yet to write a qualifying document, I was required to prove mastery of those epistemologies and apply them to my chosen field, in this case post-liberation Algerian aesthetics. Yes, this includes decolonial epistemologies, but as part of an array of tools from which to choose or discard on a case by case basis rather than a binding correction to violent frameworks. Yes, I was told, you can take them apart after you learn them. Yet my experience is that this subsequent deconstruction was not so simply done, and certainly not within academia or its corollaries in art publishing—both intellectual climates that put a premium on the recognizability of one’s “brand” and one’s possession of some corner of “the field.” The task is complicated not because the problem is new—Gyatri Spivak’s canonical “Can the Subaltern Speak?” traces all these contradictions long before I confronted them—but because the implications of Spivak’s and others’ work did not appear to have trickled down to the way I was taught to think about writing, or at least not on a structural level. This leaves me and others stuck between theory and practice. 

I risk adjacency because something about the terms of the discussion around writing that touches art—especially in the Nordic region—makes it impossible to escape the language of hypothesis, data analysis, and decisive conclusion. This is essentially scientific language applied to an artistic process and it can feel quite violent.

Despite recent widespread interest in decoloniality, I see this problem particularly in art writing that is addressed to projects articulated from outside the hegemony. For example, a 2022 article by Kim West, “Learning from Documenta 15”, presents a critique of Indonesian collective ruangrupa’s landmark curatorial departure from conventional global exhibition-making. Without digressing into a description of a project about which much has already been said, I take issue with West’s analysis of language. There is some slippage here that I must acknowledge: West isn’t writing about the function of language, he is writing about the perceived failure on ruangrupa’s part to make an exhibition capable of staging a meaningful encounter between complex aesthetic phenomena and a viewer, who is presumed to be outside the processes by through which those phenomena evolved. I am drawing conclusions diagonally, I am beside the point, or at least West’s point. I risk adjacency because something about the terms of the discussion around writing that touches art—especially in the Nordic region—makes it impossible to escape the language of hypothesis, data analysis, and decisive conclusion. This is essentially scientific language applied to an artistic process and it can feel quite violent. For example, in one passage, West describes his encounter with a notational form called a ‘harvest’ at Documenta 15, which is the graphic record of a meeting between collaborators invited to participate in the exhibition. Harvests, according to West, “should resolve the contradiction between the long-term continuity of the school,” by which he means the alternative temporality ruangrupa proposes for its iteration of Doumenta, “and the limited time of the exhibition.” He continues: 

After having seen very many “harvests” during my visit to Documenta 15, I can establish: it does not work. Concretely, they consist of more or less quickly improvised notes, sketches, flowcharts, mind maps, and diagrams. The more carefully executed ones, some of which are reproduced in the handbook and other publications, are sometimes illustrated with funny figures and motifs, sometimes set in more vivid colors. But most of the “harvests” I see resemble what remains on a whiteboard after a lecture, if the lecturer enjoyed drawing arrows and circles around things. As an intellectual form, they are in themselves insufficient: they do not allow us to understand something of the workshop we missed; we need a workshop to understand them. As an aesthetic form, they rarely attain a higher degree of complexity than a captioned pictogram or perhaps some quick comic book sketch.

West’s judgement is soundly argued, and it is understandable from the perspective of a viewer who attends an exhibition in search of ideas worked through an aesthetic form. The harvests display language in the form of idiosyncratic notation, but their notes do not travel across the distance between the viewer and the event. The words, circles, and other signs fall short. They get lost in the gap between the sociality of a workshop and the time and space of the stranger to that sociality. Like graffiti that is intended to communicate only to those who understand its public shorthand, the harvests do not actually include those who are absent from the moment in which people gathered and spoke to one another. The writing left behind in them is dysfunctional in a conventional sense; it is not entirely independent of presence.     


Notes made during an artistic process typically stay internal to that process. They are not evaluated alongside the eventual form that takes its place in an exhibition. But ruangrupa and their collaborators sought to upend the logic by which the viewer encountered a finished thing, a form that could stand independently of its process and the various interlocutors involved. They asked the art world to suspend the usual circus of proper names, which privileges the latest aesthetic insight of Artist X and Artist Y. They asked the viewer to attend to the sociality inherent in making instead. Their harvests represent the inacessibility of that gathering of people to those who come after and wish to see and know what took place. They are a notational system better understood as a form of refusal than as an effort to communicate. “You who were not here will not have the knowing” – that is what the harvests explain to me and West and the other art critics who traveled to Kassel to evaluate the exhibition. 


There is an argument to be made about refusal as part of ruangrupa’s response to a neoliberal demand for transparency in communication, or to coloniality’s demand that those perceived to be from elsewhere explain themselves (preferably in English, French, or German) in clear and precise language so that their legitimacy in a given space can be firmly established by the authorities. I will not make either argument here, however. What I am really curious about is how this refusal echoes the many similar evasions I encounter in the art academy in which I teach when I try to convince my students to take writing—their own and others’—seriously.


In every writing class I have taught so far, an especially forthright student has made some variation of the statement, “But that would kill the work,” which translates, I think, to, “What is the point of explaining what the artwork means, or how it came to mean something, when the artwork is supposed to be able to convey an experience of that meaning?” What I have learned from my largely unsuccessful negotiations thus far is this: in their view, were my students to be successful in their articulation by West’s criteria, they would run too great a risk of exposing the artwork to unbending understanding. The problem with this position is that, in the worst cases, it allows students to wallow in formalism without having to justify their choices. Art has never actually spoken for itself; it has always been conditioned by institutional and rhetorical structures that authorize it and support both its value and its meaning, often tethering these together. To claim otherwise is, in my view, an inexcusable depoliticization of art. Yet there is an echo in reverse of West’s disgruntled dismissal of the harvests, as though each position assumed the importance of the artwork’s autonomy from language. 

Art has never actually spoken for itself; it has always been conditioned by institutional and rhetorical structures that authorize it and support both its value and its meaning, often tethering these together. To claim otherwise is, in my view, an inexcusable depoliticization of art.

On the one hand, West critiques ruangrupa’s methodology for its failure to communicate and its apparent lack of conventionally defined complexity. On the other hand, I perceive a generalized resistance to writing among art students (in Stockholm, at least) on the grounds that the medium explains too much about the process and therefore endangers complexity. The idea that if artists were better writers they could sustain the integrity of the artwork is mirrored by another about how artists should not be asked to write at all because that is what arts writers are for. Both claims assume that the function of language is to convey meaning to one who is absent. Neither position tackles the problem of language whose function is to withhold meaning or indicate sense beyond a hegemonic horizon. So where does this leave writing that attends art making, whether that art-making is object-oriented or socially constituted? How to write about an artistic process without capitulating to demands of empiricism but also without reducing the meaning of an artwork to its impact on individual viewers and their aesthetic experience—a move which renders art powerless to address anything collective, anything that transcends the individual?


I am reminded by my editor, Heather Jones, in the notes on a previous draft of this essay that what the Vikings objected to was not writing but “the strictures of finalized fact and truth that did not fit their expanded and dynamic worldview.” The boundaries between realms and points in time were more fluid for them than is generally accepted today. Those who reject the notion of final or objective truth—about art, about what was discussed in a gathering of people in preparation for Documenta 15, or about the shape of an artistic process—would find unlikely allies among them. I hope it would make a political party seeking to establish a mandatory “Swedish cultural canon” uncomfortable that the Vikings set a decidedly post-modernist (or non-modernist) precedent in what concerns the function of language. 


I am still in the crisis of finding a way of writing with the margins of the art world—or from some fracture between the art world and a post-structuralist academia, rhetorically wedged between Europe and North Africa with a light Southern lilt, and perpetually beside the point— but I sense some way forward in the mistrust emanating from the burial mounds. There is common ground between ruangrupa’s refusal to guarantee meaning for those who come after, the North’s investment in silence, and that other decade of work I just uneasily concluded for the doctorate; they share an understanding of the limitations of language while also continuing to engage in its forms. To abandon writing for some space hors-texte is not realistic, but neither is the fantasy that we who come after or from the outside a given set of practices can know. A renewed commitment to a space of impossibility in language, or to sitting in this crisis without resolution, is what I take from my time among the burial mounds with Astrid. 

Natasha Marie Llorens is a Franco-American independent curator and writer based in Stockholm, where she teaches art theory at the Royal Institute of Art and co-directs the Center for Art and the Political Imaginary. Llorens is a regular contributor to Artforum and e-flux Criticism. Her writing has also recently appeared in ArtPapers, Art Margins, and frieze, as well as in exhibition catalogs for Djamel Tatah and Ulrike Rosenbach, among others. In 2019, she edited the first English-language anthology on aesthetics in Algeria (Sternberg, Wallach Art Gallery) and, in 2022, she won the Andy Warhol Arts Writers grant. Llorens holds a Ph.D. in modern art history and comparative literature from Columbia University (2021) and an MA from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College (2011). She is currently at work on a book project about five experimental films from the 1960s and 1970s in Algeria, and a research project on the 1970s Algerian urban planning initiative called the 1000 Socialist Villages in collaboration with artist Massinissa Selmani.