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The Provisional Texture of Reality – Selected Talks and Texts (1977-2007)
Susan Hiller [tous les titres]
Les presses du réel – domaine Écrits d'artistes [tous les titres] – collection Positions [tous les titres]
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Alexandra M. Kokoli
(excerpt, p. 9-13)
© JRP|Ringier, Les presses du réel, Alexandra M. Kokoli

THE PREMISE OF THE ‘POSITIONS’ SERIES ‘TO QUESTION ARTISTIC AND CURATORIAL PRACTICES FROM THE SINGULAR POSITION OF AN ARTIST WHO WRITES [AND, I WOULD ADD, TALKS] BOTH ON HIS/HER OWN WORK AS WELL AS THAT OF OTHER ARTISTS’(1) IS FULFILLED IN AN EXEMPLARY FASHION IN THE CAREER OF SUSAN HILLER TO DATE. Not only has she produced a multitude of texts, mostly in the form of improvised talks on art, artists, and – simultaneously – culture, politics, science, the unconscious, but she has often engaged with words, writing, voices and languages in her art practice. Her automatic writing projects, such as Sisters of Menon (1972, Notes added 1979), broach the permeable boundary between writing and drawing through automatism, while weaving an anti-Oedipal non-narrative tale that places the subject in intimate networks of kinship rather than casting her/him as the outcome of separation. Lucid Dreams (1982), part of a series of blown up and re-photographed Photomat pictures of her own body in poses breaching the conventions of ID or indeed portrait photography, subsequently covered in layers of paint and automatic mark-making, question the soundness of pinning down identity in visual representation while subverting the modernist associations of gesturalism. One of her latest video works, The Last Silent Movie (2007) is an auditory collage of oral enunciations in extinct and seriously endangered languages, often spoken by their last known speaker. Certainly not silent but evoking and perhaps also redressing silencing, this video is no ordinary ‘movie’ as it rejects visual representation (the screen remains black throughout), creating instead a space for reflection and potentially meditation.(2) It is, simultaneously, a collection of archives in which the recordings were sourced – the product of ‘research’, sublating, as Hiller’s work so often does, hierarchical divisions between knowledge and intuition.
Voices, words and language are important, both as building blocks and subject matter. Yet, at first glance it might seem like an oxymoron that, in her texts, Hiller often defends the self-sufficiency of the artwork, her own and that of other artists. The value and role of words about art is far from taken for granted, and much of what’s included here has only been produced in response to requests to Hiller by editors and conference organisers to address specific issues, the work of other artists or talk about her own, from an artist’s perspective. While impressively articulate and informed, Hiller is one of the few to repeatedly note that the artist’s views aren’t and shouldn’t be taken as the final word on anything, including their own work.(3) Nor are they explanatory, but a differently framed, perhaps less central, aspect of their output. In doing this, Hiller isn’t merely being egalitarian, let alone humble, but is instead pinpointing a persistent problem in art writing – art criticism and often art history too – that uses artists’ words as explanations, proving that although the author may be dead, the authority of the artist when (s)he speaks is still strangely unquestioned. She shows caution and occasionally an outright unwillingness to speak in too much detail about her own work, to say ‘too much’, lest she misleads by leading too firmly. ‘If talking and thinking were sufficient, and working with ideas was enough, why make art?’(4)
This rhetorical question should probably be reversed: what is the point of talking and writing about art at all? This collection bravely poses the question and, to a degree, provides clusters of equivocal and complex answers. The internal, perhaps paradoxical tension in this book – texts and talks by a confident, articulate and passionate, but also cautious and often recalcitrant speaker and writer, who takes speaking and writing very seriously but also considers them as somehow lacking – is typical of Hiller’s whole production and worldview. Hiller finds herself both inside and outside/beyond, within and against (conceptualism; gesturalism; in some ways, feminism) and embraces these contradictions wholeheartedly, as she considers them an inherent part of art practice.(5) She has often spoken about her precarious, yet (or, thus) privileged position as a woman and a foreigner, an American long settled in London(6): an outsider who is within, but who retains the sharpness of observation that, for most, is worn out through familiarity, dulled by the ambiguous privilege of being ‘at home’: ‘I never heard a woman called a cow until I came to England’, reads the text of item 008: Cowgirl from the installation From the Freud Museum (1992–1994); the boxed item has more recently been expanded into an independent series of five works, Outlaw Cowgirl (2004–2005).(7)
This is the work of the artist, not an anthropologist. Hiller’s past as an anthropologist, and one registered for a PhD for that matter, is often brought up, to her annoyance. On the one hand, her academic training might be used to convey credibility and depth to her output, which is superfluous: such attitudes, moreover, reveal a fundamental, if unacknowledged, contempt for art practice in general, for what it can do, grossly underestimating its particular subtlety and power. On the other hand, it misrepresents Hiller’s views of anthropology and obfuscates the reasons for its rejection by her:
A long time ago, when I was doing postgraduate work in anthropology, I was so intensely moved by the images I saw during a slide lecture on African art that I decided to become an artist. My previously inchoate thoughts and feelings about anthropology as a practice and about art as a practice seemed to fall into place in one complex moment of admiration, empathy, longing and selfawareness. I promised myself to happily abandon the writing of a doctoral thesis whose objectification of the contrariness of lived events was destined to become another complicit thread woven into the fabric of ‘evidence’ that would help anthropology become a ‘science’. In contrast, I felt art was, above all, irrational, mysterious, numinous: the images of African sculpture I was looking at stood as a sign for all this, a sign whose meaning, strangely, was already in place awaiting my long-overdue recognition. I decided I would become not an anthropologist but an artist: I would relinquish factuality for fantasy. The final pleasure for me that afternoon in the African art lecture was making a quick drawing of each slide image as it flashed on the screen. Sketchy and vigorous, those little pictures inserted me neatly into a modernist tradition dating back to the turn of the century, when European artists had begun to make a practice of drawing from ethnographic models, using these exotic objects as a kind of charter of possibilities […] And the pleasures of drawing bypassed words, which was wonderful, too. Words ‘about’ the peoples represented by the marvellous sculpture seemed redundant; the more facts, analyses and theories I had learned, the further away I felt from any real connection with them, and what I wanted was connection, empathy, identification. And yet … What I was not then able to see is that repudiating an objectifying discourse (anthropology) in favour of a subjectifying discourse (art) does not even begin to resolve the extraordinary lived contradictions of merely being a subject in a culture that […] does not allow ‘a synthesis between ideology and poetry’.(8)
This is no evangelical narrative: the advent to art is immediately qualified and problematised; there is no resolution, just the beginning of another journey, full of obstacles and perils. However, I see this event, different versions of which are often repeated, as Hiller herself acknowledges above, as the equivalent of a primal scene – the birth of the artist at the expense of the death of the anthropologist and emerging scholar – simultaneously obscured and signposted through a series of screen memories, compromise-formations by critics seduced by convenient couplings or hyphenated formulations like ‘art and anthropology’, or ‘science-art’.(9) Abandoning studious note taking in favour of excited sketching marks a threshold that is deliberately and irrevocably crossed. Yet, while rejecting a way of knowing and producing knowledge that is indivisible from forms of violence and domination,(10) Hiller also establishes, in action, a kind of translatability between disparate discourses, between art and anthropology.(11) This does not mean that art and anthropology are alike, or that scholarship and art practice have much in common. But it does carve out a platform for potential engagement and suggests an equivalence in the partiality and specificity of each party, casting them both as ways of knowing. Art, therefore, doesn’t need anthropology to probe culture. As a matter of fact, in Hiller’s case at least, art can be an anti-anthropological alternative.
Talking about art is perhaps an apt and still necessary strategy for making exactly this point: that art is its own system of signification, a self-sufficient way of knowing and making knowledge that converses with, draws on, influences and critiques others. The fact that this act of translation is required has to do with discrepancies in public literacy in different languages – it is not indicative of hierarchies among the languages themselves.

1. Lionel Bovier and Fabrice Stroun, ‘Introduction’, David Robins, The Velvet Grind: Selected Essays, Interviews, Satires (1983–2005), JRP|Ringier, Zurich / Les presses du réel, Dijon 2006, p. 9.
2. See also Mark Godfrey, The Last Silent Movie, Matt’s Gallery, London 2008.
3. See, for example, Hiller, ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Photomat’, Thinking About Art: Conversations with Susan Hiller, ed. Barbara Einzig, Manchester University Press, Manchester 1996, p. 63.
4. ‘The Performance of the Self: Hidden Histories (Jackson Pollock)’, in this volume, Section I.
5. ‘I am determined to insert my work with automatism within and against the tradition of the gestural in modern art […]’ Hiller, ‘Looking at new work: An interview with Rozsika Parker’, Thinking About Art, p. 54. On her ‘within and against’ position in relation to conceptualism, see ‘3,512 words: Susan Hiller with Jörg Heiser and Jan Verwoert’; in relation to feminism, see ‘Women, Language and Truth’, both in Section II.
6. Hiller, ‘Susan Hiller in Conversation with Andrew Renton’, Adrian Searle (ed.), Talking Art I, ICA, London 1993, p. 99.
7. Outlaw Cowgirl was recently shown at the BAWAG Foundation. See Rachel Withers,‘On the Trail of the Outlaw Cowgirl’, Outlaw Cowgirl and Other Works, BAWAG Foundation, Vienna 2008, p. 30–58.
8. ‘Editor’s foreword’, Susan Hiller (ed.), The Myth of Primitivism: Perspectives on Art, Routledge, London 1991, p. 1–2. The quote ‘a synthesis between ideology and poetry’ is a paraphrase from Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, Vintage, London 1973, p. 158–159.
9. Hiller expresses her misgivings about such hybrids in ‘The Provisional Texture of Reality (On Andrei Tarkovsky)’ (Section I).
10. On the rejection and critique of anthropology, see particularly ‘Sacred Circles’ and ‘An Artist Looks at Ethnographic Exhibitions’, both in Section II.
11. This view of translatability is indebted to Benjamin’s observation that ‘the kinship of languages manifests itself in translations’ and, crucially, in the possibility of translation. Benjamin notes, nevertheless, that ‘kinship does not necessarily involve likeness’, and that the only common ground required is, on the one hand, ‘the intention underlying each language as a whole’ to strive towards ‘pure language’ and, on the other, their mutually complimentary failure to do so. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, Pimlico, London 1999, p. 74.
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