Roving Eye: The Language of Resistance


Tom McDonough, a professor at Binghamton University, has a following. His publications on the Situationist International (Guy Debord and the Situationist International, 2004; Situationists and the City, 2010) have been pivotal and timely. They are crucial references for anyone exploring public space and mass media at a time when practices of resistance towards corporatization are more necessary than ever.

This explains why his most recent lecture, “Artist as Typographer-a play on Hal Foster’s 1995 seminal essay “Artist as Ethnographer”-brought out such a large crowd to the Guggenheim on Wednesday evening. The talk was part of the museum’s annual Hilla Rebay Lecture, a program initiated 24 years ago and bearing the name of Solomon R. Guggenheim’s personal art advisor and the founding director of his museum (at the time called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting).

To tell the truth, I expected McDonough’s lecture to address experiments in graphic design or the visual arts. In programs of this kind, the focus is usually the Russian avant-garde at the turn of the 20th century or the geometric abstraction and concrete poetry of the 1950s. Since McDonough’s writing focuses on contemporary art—production in and around the 1960s—I was hoping for a closer look at recent practices.

And he provided that in a way—but went even more recent, fast-forwarding to the present. McDonough looked at the peculiar use of language and typography in the work of artists emerging over the last 5–10 years: Shannon Ebner, Adam Pendleton, Matt Keegan and Dexter Sinister (Stuart Bailey and David Reinfurt).

McDonough  attributes the emphasis on typography in contemporary art to three main causes: the reassessment of  language use in Conceptual art; the attention given, since the 1980s, to graphic design; and the changes in reading modalities and practices that have emerged with digital technologies. Thus he indentifies links among the language-based works of artists like Lawrence Weiner, Ed Ruscha and Liam Gillick. His interpretation of typography in current art tentatively departs from the common linear narrative that connects artists across generations. His lecture was refreshing, inspiring-even if, I confess, I didn’t see the argument as akin to Foster’s “Artist as Ethnographer.”

As McDonough’s lecture progressed, the connections laid out between these practices seemed less about typography than about collaborations and ongoing dialogue, especially between the other artists and Dexter Sinister. This notion was, in fact, more interesting than the argument about the materiality endemic to typed language. In McDonough’s analysis of post-Fordism-where the flow of information between production, distribution and reception is particularly valued-the sheer gravitas of language as it’s produced in the visual arts runs counter to everyday commodified speech. Or, at least, critical practitioners in the field are aware and responsive to this situation.

Photo by Tanya Ahmed