Elementary Tools and Linguistic Interpretation: The Inquisitive Works of Joel Swanson

Elementary Tools and Linguistic Interpretation: The Inquisitive Works of Joel Swanson

Joel Swanson in his home studio. Photo by Trevor Bron.

Joel Swanson is a linguist. Wait, no…, a philosopher..., eh, nope that isn’t it either. Let’s start over. Ahem. Joel Swanson is a Denver-based artist who uses the tools we typically identify with the written language in order to explore linguistic systems and our relationship to them. From ordinary objects like highlighted letter-size paper and pink erasers to steel renditions of flattened crayon or cereal boxes and lead-covered cereal bits, Swanson subverts our expectations and forces us to confront our relationship to our most used faculty: language. His most recent exhibition, Eight-And-A-Half-By-Eleven, was entirely devoid of text while still totally devoted to its elementary instruments, most notably, a Sharpie rendition of the composition notebook pattern of which we are all familiar. Swanson is also an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, teaching “at the intersection of language and technology.” Swanson’s work has been exhibited internationally at the David B. Smith Gallery, The 57th Venice Biennale, Art Basel, and many others.

Emily Owens: Your works tend to examine language, literacy, and the technologies provided for them. In your recent exhibition at the David B. Smith Gallery, Eight-And-A-Half-By-Eleven, the work is made from the tools we use to transmit language, but there is an absence of words. Tell us a little bit about this absence.

Joel Swanson: Absence can be more profound than presence. I think of Rachel Whiteread’s work where she creates positive sculptural forms of negative spaces from the lived environment: the underside of chairs, stairwells, houses, etc. The lack of words in this exhibition is pronounced because the materials I used directly relate to text and language. A problem with text-based work is we get so tied up reading everything. The suspicious absence of text in this show invites viewers into a more active form of engagement and contemplation.

Joel Swanson, How Many Pink Pearl Erasers would it Take to Create a Perfect Cube?, 2019

Deterritorialization, defamiliarization, decontextualization: all of these concepts can allow the viewer a sense of bewilderment by absence. Almost like vertigo for our natural sense of knowledge and space. I personally felt the opposite. I felt an incredible familiarity, and most of all, with my own feelings towards language. With the piece, Various Highlighted Pages That Made Me Cry, I found myself filling in the blanks with pages that made me cry in the past. How Many Pink Pearl Erasers Would It Take to Make a Perfect Cube?, reminded me of the boredom of grade school, and the Composition Notebook Pattern, well, it’s one of the most familiar “signs” of basic elementary learning. So, there’s a bit of nostalgia there, for me. Is this something you intended for the viewer to feel?

I wanted to invoke the sense of the familiar, maybe even the mundane. The materials I used, carry a sense of blankness and raw potential. Composition Notebooks, highlighter pens, and erasers present themselves as simple tools. The works are intended as a critical inquiry into the normalized practices surrounding the pedagogy of language. I am suggesting that these tools and the ways that we are taught to use them carry a subtle but potent ideological power. This is true of language itself.

These tools and technologies speak to a specific historical, national, and socioeconomic experience, namely my early education. And yes, I have significant, sometimes nostalgic memories that connect me to these tools, but I don’t consider my experiences as intrinsic to the works.

In this particular exhibition, you use almost entirely “analog” tools of writing. We’re obviously living in an age now where a lot of our language comes to us or is created by us on digital platforms. Can you speak to this?

My background is in computing and the arts, so it does feel strange to produce a highly analog body of work, but again the digital is invoked by its absence. For example, an eraser is a tool for correcting mistakes. In digital writing, the eraser has been supplanted by the delete key, but also other technologies like grammar and spell-check algorithms that insulate us from making mistakes in the first place. So while erasers might feel quaint, they’re directly connected to contemporary digital technologies. A simple eraser makes me question our larger relationship with language, error, and technology.

Joel Swanson, Trix and Unrecognizable Letterforms (Alphabits), 2019

As I examined your works, I noticed that you use a LOT of different materials to create these pieces, which all pertain to language and its technologies. In your recent exhibition at the David B. Smith Gallery, Eight-And-A-Half-By-Eleven, you use some of the following materials: cereal bits, lead, vinyl lettering, correctional fluid, sharpies, crayon boxes, and powder-coated steel. Some of these are rather accessible and “ordinary” while some, like steel, require more machinic processes to produce. In the case of Crayon Boxes, for instance, how was the work produced?

I’ve enjoyed working with a diverse range of materials and technologies. For Crayon Boxes, I traced the patterns of various unfolded crayon boxes and water-jet cut them out of aluminum. Each one is named after the number of crayons the box held.

Boxes are complicated, specifically the way that three-dimensional boxes are derived from a two-dimensional pattern; this interplay or translation between two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms is a theme within my work. It is someone’s job to design these patterns to optimize strength and use material efficiently, but the forms themselves are striking and highly varied. We are getting so many things delivered in boxes, and this makes me think about the labor, economies, and industries that are intertwined in a seemingly banal cardboard box.

These sculptures are also about desire. Growing up I thought that the biggest birthday present (i.e. box) was the best, but then at some point, we are taught that “the best gifts come in small packages.” Boxes are meant to obscure and protect their contents, but they are also suggestive of their contents. Boxes have a curious relationship to desire, presence, and absence.

In grade school, I was jealous of my classmates with the jumbo crayon box compared to my meager “twenty-four-count” box. Even at that young age boxes played a role in shaping my relationship to desire, commodity, even class. This series re-commodifies the crayon box by making it unusable (recreating its flattened two-dimensional form in unfoldable metal) but then offering it as a new commodity as an art object.

The way that you represent ordinary tools of language is fascinating. Exhibited the way they are, these “ordinary” tools trigger a deep familiarity in Composition Notebook Pattern, or, through their deconstruction, as in Crayon Boxes change shape entirely into something unexpected and unrecognizable.

I like that these works straddle the familiar and unfamiliar, like when you see someone you recognize, but you can’t remember their name. There is something powerful in these familiar/unfamiliar experiences. They ask us to recontextualize the decontextualized, to search our memories for the context of that familiar face. My work operates on a similar logic: a decontextualized Composition Notebook cover or crayon box pattern offers an opportunity to locate and place these materials within our experiences. I want people to re-examine their relationship with these objects—and ultimately language—in new and unique ways.

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965

In your press release for the exhibition, the idea of “default truth” is mentioned. “Swanson delves into the psychology of language and learning, incorporating autobiographical elements into what amounts to a critique of default truth as it pertains to language.” I couldn’t help but think of Joseph Kosuth’s, One And Three Chairs, 1965, which toys with the concept of representation. There is an “actual” chair, a picture of the same chair, and a dictionary definition of the word chair. But they’re all real, and they are all the same chair. None are less “real” than the other.

Can you explain what you mean by “default truth” or rather, what you think can be accomplished in subverting it? Are we blindly being asked to accept things without criticism of their actuality? Does this go beyond language too?

I’m glad you mentioned Kosuth’s work because it significantly influenced my practice. I think the “default truth” that is being referenced in the press release is the way that language quickly becomes second nature or autonomic. The structural filmmaker Hollis Frampton once said “Once we learn how to read, we can’t not read.” We are unquestioningly taught to use the word “chair” to refer to and represent those objects (a seat typically having four legs and a back for one person) but we fail to recognize that language isn’t “natural.” Language always was—and will always be—a constructed system of representation that is infused with biases, norms, and structural inequities that continuously need to be exposed.

You also mentioned this idea of “queering the technologies” as historically, much of the work involving typing, secretarial work, etc. have often been “women’s work.” Do you feel like this is changing in our rapidly expanding digital age of code as language? Does language have a particularly gendered aspect to it? I’m curious because while women and celibate scribes may have been the ones to write the words on the page, the dictation was typically coming from men, and typically those of more elite status (historically). History wasn’t written by women, nor these scribes. The words were dictated by men. So let’s talk about that a little bit. Does that in any way pertain to this idea of “default truth” as well?

Historically, inscription (writing of language) has been performed by specialized—and often marginalized—groups (scribes, eunuchs, priestly casts, women typists, etc). Speech is typically viewed as the predecessor of writing and is therefore the privileged term of the speech/writing pairing. This power structure of speech/writing maps onto the mind/body and male/female dualisms. This intersection of gender, sexuality, speech, and writing is a place I am exploring now.

Regarding “queering,” I recently read this book called Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity by José Esteban Muñoz. In it, the author posits that to “queer” something is to use it contrary to its intended purpose.

“Queer cultural production is both an acknowledgment of the lack that is endemic to any heteronormative rendering of the world and a building, a ‘world-making,’ in the face of that lack.” —José Esteban Muñoz

He frames queering within materiality, as a form or agenda of making. So queering technology not only questions and exposes this endemic lack within heteronormative societal norms, but also leads to new potentials of a utopian existence. I admit this seems high and lofty when applied to a stacked cube of erasers, but there is a sense of queerness in my exhibition that I can’t fully articulate. Maybe it is just my own memories and experiences around these materials, but the understanding and expression of gender, sexuality, and identity were highly intertwined with my learning of language. In a way, I feel like the works in this exhibition reclaim these materials from the heteronormative linguistic system.

Work in progress of Composition Notebook Pattern.
Joel Swanson, Composition Notebook Pattern, 2019

When I was first viewing your work, I was considering the socioeconomic disparities that come with education. I suppose this occurred, also, due to the use of more analog tools. So I was really interested in reading about this queer perspective instead. But does your work also pertain to this idea of who literacy belongs to? Our educational system is no doubt fraught with inadequacies for particular groups in our society, namely, those of lower classes.

Literacy has always been tied to class whether that was the religious sects during the Middle Ages or today where access to quality education is tied to wealth, location, and race. Phonetic Flashcards translated into NATO Alphabet addresses this directly. It takes the imagery from phonetic flashcards (“A” in “Apple,” “B” in “Ball,” “C” in “Cat”, etc.) and pairs it with a computerized voice speaking the analogous NATO Alphabet term (“Alpha,” “Bravo,” “Charlie,” etc.). Both the phonetic imagery and the NATO alphabet are filled with cultural and socioeconomic norms, but they present themselves as default. These quiet forms of power that present themselves as conventional are often the most potent, and these systems are deeply embedded within our educational systems. These structures stick with us and subconsciously shape us. In a way all the works in this exhibition attempt to unearth and expose the dynamics of power— personally and collectively—that are at play in the acquisition of language.

There’s something so aesthetically pleasing about the minimalism of these works. Particularly because I feel like a body of text can be a little daunting to some. Some of these works are very quiet, like Untitled which made me feel like I was melting into an Agnes Martin piece. Counters and Periods felt a bit sublime as well. Your recent Redacted Calendar, had the same kind of quietude. You mentioned “wasting time,” and how our society is hell-bent on productivity. Can you talk about this idea of wasting time a bit?

I was interested in “wasting time” as a conceptual activity well before this pandemic hit, but it certainly seems more relevant now. Last summer I was reading Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, where she talks about the deeply ingrained belief that our value as humans, particularly within the United States, comes from our productivity. “Wasting-time” is a quiet form of protest to this dominant paradigm, so I started making work that was intentionally time-intensive, repetitive, and tedious. These works, such as the Composition Notebook Pattern and or the work where I redact the lines on graph paper with correctional fluid turned into a meditative form of time-wasting self-care, like a sand mandala or even a puzzle.

Joel Swanson, Page (Series), 2019

You don’t need me to tell you, but we’re in the middle of a pandemic! The whole world is stuck at home. Has this had any effect on your feelings about living in a society where we are told to be constantly productive? And I guess, additionally, do you think that on a national scale, as Americans (taught to be constantly productive) that there’s a lesson to be learned here? You delved into this a bit with your video on the word “Stay,” but for our readers, perhaps you could extrapolate.

This pandemic is forcing everyone to reevaluate our relationship with time and space. Under the various stay-at-home and quarantine orders, our traditional spatial and temporal divisions between work and leisure have been collapsed into one space/time which we call “home” (if we are fortunate enough to have one). This pandemic is tragic in so many ways, but I am also hopeful that as a society, and as individuals, we will use it as an opportunity to rethink the ways we exist in the world. As an artist, I’ve been working out of my garage and on my kitchen table. It has been interesting to think about how my environment (studio, home, nature, etc.) influences my practice.

Your ten-second video clip on the coronavirus being without metaphor was well, terribly anxiety-inducing. Just like the news. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you mean by the “death of the metaphor?”

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, declared, “I think it’s the end of the age of irony.” I was thinking about this statement and any correlation that might exist during this pandemic. I was watching the 24-hour news cycle and noticed the imagery associated with this pandemic: lots of bar charts, line charts, and microscopic imagery. (Not to mention the quickly deployed commercial template).

For one, the virus is invisible to the naked eye. We can only see its effects, and even then we default to bar charts of infections and mortality rates. We can’t see the faces of our friends due to masks or stay-at-home orders. Our social, educational, and professional fields of vision are now mediated by gridded Zoom calls of floating digitized heads*. We can’t even see our loved ones who are hospitalized due to COVID-19 due to quarantine. This pandemic is drastically reshaping our field of vision.

As a result, we are struggling with how to represent this pandemic visually; we can’t even find metaphors, visual or otherwise, to adequately represent this thing. This is one of the intangible reasons why this pandemic is so terrifying, like the shark in Jaws, things we can’t see—or even imagine—are always scarier than the known, visible threat. We can’t find a meaningful metaphor for this pandemic which adds to our sense of anxiety.

It is like Kant’s definition of the sublime. The sublime doesn’t exist in nature but is a mental/internal reaction to something that we can’t fully perceive or comprehend. The sublime is both terrifying and exhilarating, truly awesome, which is the best way I describe this pandemic.

*One of the most unnerving things for me about Zoom, or any video call is that people never directly look at each other. The camera on my computer or phone is always displaced from the face I am looking at on the screen; we never look at each other eye to eye. Similar to a sporting event when someone sees themselves on the “Big Screen,” they automatically look towards and wave at the big screen, while the camera that is shooting them is elsewhere. I think we subconsciously internalize this adding to our sense of displacement and isolation.

Lastly, how has “staying” been for you? Are you doing alright? I’m sure this time has been really, well, productive, for you, seeing as a lot of your work has to do with language, and it’s something we’re being inundated with and also trained with during this crisis.

To be honest, it hasn’t been a super-productive time for me. I’ve found it difficult to focus and while I’m reading and thinking a lot, my creative energies feel stuck. I think a lot of artists are struggling with the relevance of our work given the current status of the world. We are all physically, mentally, and emotionally adjusting to these shifting new normals and I want to give myself space and time to be unproductive and adapt.

That being said, I’ve been enjoying some tedious drawings and paintings on my kitchen table. I’ve also been working on this new series of line paintings in my garage that is about dialog and conversation.

Thank you, Joel!

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