Friday, September 23, 2011

Who Are We Writing For? recap*

Maybe it’s ironic that a writing symposium has left me hardly able to write a word, to literally render my writing invisible, as I attempt to make myself as the writer visible.  What I mean is that this inability to profusely write has been the best thing to happen to me in my nine year span as a freelance writer.  Endlessly producing words and tailored copy for everyone and anyone, my value as a writer varied drastically depending on whom my labour was for. I can churn out words as if my words fell off of some assembly line, with little thought or control to where they would end up and how this mass manufacturing of words has become detrimental to the craft of my writing as practice.

Image: Roman Signer (left) and symposium guests, Vera Tollmann, Claire Barliant, Matthew Stock, Ross Sinclair, Moira Jeffrey, Charlotte Young, Jennifer Melville

Who Are We Writing For? is a symposium I conceived and then co-produced during my time as Deveron Art’s inaugural arts writer in residence, a residency that began as a very murky writing and curating fellowship. Bringing together twenty writers, artists, curators, educators, and consultants from across the UK , Western Europe, and North America into the town of Huntly for a 24 hour programme of viewings, discussions, presentations, and writing, WAWWF approaches the practice and process of writing from an understanding that this will be a perpetual question.

The aim of designing a symposium by invite only, that was not open to the public, and not recorded, was done so with the intention to not perform, posture, or proliferate a certain style of discourse. All too often conferences and symposiums bring together an electric group of minds with shared values, but performative lectures and show boating are exchanged rather than any genuine expressions. The primary aim of this invite-only format was to engage in directed writing exercises and peer-led group discussions about the state of contemporary art discourse, and I am still shocked and overwhelmed by the generosity of each participant in sharing their vulnerabilities.

What I learned from the writing exercises was that the joy of writing has been constrained by formulas and word count, and I am not alone in enabling this downward spiral of writing as supplementary descriptions, because I haven’t been able to stop treading in this precarious position as a hustler.

But if we look at writing as a creative practice, have I not completely sold out already? And at the same time, be completely disrespected and misunderstood? Writing copy for ads and editing funding proposals for me is on par with asking an artist to paint your house, and of course artists do paint houses, but there is less of a differentiation between their paid labour and their creative practice.  Writing, and I am referring to really good writing, exists in and of itself as a creative form, loaded with historical and social significance in meaning and in its very production, but it is also the singular voice of the writer that carries forward the essence and construction of writing, a voice that is often expected to be as invisible as the labour of writing itself.

And if we really can never get out of language, then we will need to reposition ourselves to not be at the mercy of it. Rather than perpetuate a closed circuit of references that has become the dominant discourse of any specialized topic, including contemporary art, not to mention engineering and molecular biology, where writing is little more than technical writing, my work as a writer is to write with and through language, rather than always bend to its will for professionalized purposes and other forms of systematized frameworks of understanding.

.   .   .

Last week’s by invite symposium brought the obvious question to the forefront, and for me, personally, this question of who are we writing for is stronger than ever intertwined with WHO is paying me to write?
WHO pays me is no less simple than whom I write for, as those who issue me a payment for my precarity are doing so on behalf of an even more amorphous shade than the mythical broad public audience. In this nexus of shape shifters in the form of funders, publishers, and readers, I have had to discover who I am again as the writer: the labourer who remains an integral link in this chain of supply and demand. In terms of arts writing, the writer is always in the supporting role, with the catalogue to be the first on the chopping block if funds are low while reviews are solicited, with little care of the actual words expressed, as it is only preferable that an image accompanies. The idea of a primary text to accompany art exhibitions is neither new nor outrageous, but when stuck on how such a change can ever come about in the state of contemporary art discourse, my response is: set some standards!

And this is why I am paralyzed, as without hustling, I am left to write only for myself, who remains my biggest fan and critic. Disgusted and tired from the regurgitation of language that satisfies box checking and professional affirmations, I will no longer write what people expect me to write, which namely, is name dropping with adjectives. These are the people who pay me, and by a process of negation, I will sort out who I am no longer writing for.

*First published on The Huntly Review

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