And Also: Writing

And Also: Writing

Towards the end of the symposium the panelists fielded a range of thought-provoking questions from students and faculty members.

Most artists and designers aren’t generally thought of as writers—largely because they tend to focus on and revel in visual forms of communication. But visual communicators also value the written word and rely on it to further articulate concepts, discuss issues and critique work. Many also choose to incorporate writing and words into their art and design work, enriching meaning and playing with language in new and interesting ways.

Students and faculty who attended And Also: Artists & Designers Writing, a half-day symposium on October 16, delved deeper into the current connections between art, design and writing through a series of presentations by six speakers.RISD Writing Center Director Jen Liese and Dean of Graduate Studies Patricia Phillips organized the conversation in conjunction with Public(ation)s, a yearlong graduate course they’re co-teaching to help artists and designers develop the skills they need to pursue dual practices and contribute to a broader cultural discourse through writing.

Writing in context
In the first of two panel discussions, Amanda Reeser Lawrence, editor of the print architectural journal PRAXIS; photo historian Brian Wallis, whose 1987 collection Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writings by Contemporary Artists (MIT Press) is considered by Liese to be the “bible of contemporary artists’ writings”; and Marisa Mazria Katz, editor of the cutting-edge online publication Creative Time Reports, shared their thoughts on the unique perspectives artists and designers offer readers.

Lawrence noted that since its inception in 1999, PRAXIS has focused on raising questions rather than offering answers and that the way it pairs architects’ writings with images of their work helps “translate theoretical concepts into constructs.” She cofounded the journal with Ashley Schafer to provide a middle ground between commercial and theoretical publications about architecture.

Wallis, who has been working as an editor and curator for even longer than Lawrence has, pointed out that whenBlasted Allegories was published—in the era of Ronald Reagan, the AIDS epidemic and the war in Guatemala—art and writing practices were completely separate and the politics and ideology of Modernism were under attack. “Today’s writing takes a wholly different approach to textual construction on many levels,” he explained—“in terms of authorship, subjectivity, identity and appropriation. All of these notions have been reshaped by the web.”

The web-only Creative Time Reports seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas, Katz explained, and also partners with well-respected publications like The Guardian to bring artists’ perspectives to mainstream news. She works with a cadre of international artists whose writing “deepens public discourse and introduces an element of candor that can be missing from typical news reporting.”

Combining practices
The second group of speakers—artists and designers who are also writers—addressed the relationship between the written word and their visual practices. Artist and critic John Miller 77 FAV, new media artist, critic and former Rhizome editor Marisa Olson and Google Design NY Creative Lead Rob Giampietro each spoke about various aspects of written communication in an era of 24/7 access, split-second googling and unconstrained outpourings via social media.

Miller mentioned that his first piece of published writing was a review of work by then-unknown artist Jenny Holzer MFA 77 PT, who was in the grad Painting program when he was at RISD. She has since gone on to build a phenomenal practice largely based on her visual presentation of especially well-chosen words—and in a recent series, redacted ones. Miller has published two volumes of his collected writings and just completed a book about artist Mike Kelley’s work.

Giampetro, a RISD Graphic Design faculty member and winner of the 2015 National Design Award in Communication Design, noted that he values “the practice of writing as a place to withdraw and reflect.” He then read two engaging excerpts from his own writing, including a beautiful piece on walking the city when he was a Rome Prize Fellow living in Italy in 2013. “When we walk we often dream—at least I do,” he observed.

Once the panelists opened the conversation to questions, all three offered their own insights into contemporary communications phenomena ranging from blogging to reality TV and Twitter. In response to a question about how best to incorporate the craft of writing into studio practice at RISD, Olson advocated for “close” critical reading as the best way to teach writing.

And despite several attempts from the audience to broach the subject of online information overload, all three speakers dismissed the notion as “a new term for an old problem,” as Giampetro put it. “I find myself less overwhelmed knowing that it’s my choice to only look at what interests me,” he said. Olson and Miller agree, welcoming the fact that the web not only makes research much more “facile,” it allows for new avenues for sharing critical inquiry and commentary about art.

photo by Jillian Suzanne MA 16

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