Glomming, Cottoning

Nick Currie

Anne Bourse, Adorables Cochons d’Inde, pink reedition (an epileptic seizure in the Guinea Pig version of Brain, a journal of neurology), 2018. Ballpoint pen and felt pen on printed coated paper, 32 x 45 cm. Image courtesy of Anne Bourse.

December 9, 2021

Meta is a collaboration between art-agenda and TextWork, editorial platform of the Fondation Pernod Ricard, which reflects on the relationship between artists and writers. Here, Nick Currie discusses annotation, marginality, and piles of unread books in relation to his essay on Anne Bourse.

1. “I like to annotate,” Isaac Asimov told David Letterman in 1980.1 “The Bible, Shakespeare, various things. You simply copy down all the verses in The Bible and you make little footnotes and say whatever you please about each one. If you do it right the annotations are longer than the thing you’re annotating.” Nine years later Tim Berners-Lee invented the web, and soon annotation became something we all do pretty much all the time.

2. The annotation Asimov described resembles what generations of rabbis did with the Torah, calling the result the Talmud. Whereas the Torah is a fixed document of around 80,000 words, the Talmud is a massive accretion of debates, decisions, and commentaries—a huge nacreous encrustation built up around the original text over the course of many centuries. In his book Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism (2003), Douglas Rushkoff suggests that early Judaism was comparable to open source software, but that the tradition had become sclerotic and paranoid as what could be written in the present (research and debate) gave way to what had been written in the past (the authority of tradition).

3. I’m not sure when I started making my essays sequences of numbered annotations. I like how this format gives them an organized look, like a legal contract or a bulleted PowerPoint presentation, even when they’re actually fairly chaotic, like footnotes to a missing text. The thoughts stand in relation to one another like the phrases on either side of a semi-colon; not necessarily hierarchical, or sequential, or even consequential. Like snow landing on lying snow these ideas accumulate in a vague, peaceful, scattered way. They have the messy purity of an early draft. Occlusions and ambiguities remain. Instead of a firm editorial line, interesting relationships emerge.

4. Writing about art is a process of paying attention to art, of course. Published writing about artists’ work also helps them to develop their careers—a monograph lends a body of visual material a certain amount of gravitas and authority. There’s an interesting tension here: visual communication has a certain freedom, a right to ambiguity, precisely because it doesn’t restrict itself to words, which are the common coin of communication in our culture, tokens dirtied by the daily exchanges of politics, law, and commerce. Visual art is allowed to operate outside the limits of language, but risks becoming marginal and powerless without words to anchor it in the comprehensible and the familiar, to make claims and connections, to tell stories.

5. If art is dragged, in a monograph, by the accompanying text into a slightly compromised position within the dirty, exhausted culture of words, there’s a reciprocal effect for the writer, a freshening: writing in an art monograph can be some of the most free writing there is, partly because there’s a feeling that almost nobody will be reading it. In the context of art publishing, text often acts as a sort of black-and-white ballast around the images—a sign that someone, presumably an expert of some kind, takes them seriously. Art writing is, in this sense, a form of “underwriting”: an expanded caption, but also a guarantee of worth, a sort of insurance policy reassuring potential buyers that the work will not lose its value.

6. This sense that the text in an art monograph doesn’t actually have to be read to fulfil its main function can give the writer a giddy sense of freedom: if no-one is reading, perhaps we can say anything? Of course, that could be a cue for some terrible writing, like the assertion in a recent kunsthalle press release that the artists on show “tirelessly investigate racist regimes of looking and practices of Othering and deploy aesthetic strategies of resistance.” Of course they do! The artist—in this sort of guilt-mongering, theory-moldy account—is a cross between Che Guevara and Hercule Poirot, worn out (or not) by endless investigations leading to endless acts of resistance to the very “othering” that supposedly lends them power in the first place.

7. Since I believe that the new glass ceiling is having to talk—endlessly and exclusively—about the glass ceiling one has supposedly broken through, I was careful, writing a monograph about Anne Bourse, never to ask the artist whether her work is about being a woman, white, or French, or Jewish, or other identitarian concerns. I wanted to focus on something much more interesting (to me, at least): my own diminishing incomprehension as I gradually “glommed on” to what Anne Bourse might be fascinated by, and rotating around, in her work.

8. To “glom” once meant to steal, but now means (especially in the phrase “glomming on”) to observe or comprehend. It comes from the Scottish word glaum, which in turn comes from the Gaelic glam, which means “to handle awkwardly, grab voraciously, devour.” I like the suggestions of appeal, appetite, glamor, theft, and gradual incorporation which come with the word: if I encounter a good idea, one of my first impulses is to steal it, pass its glitter off as my own. Alternatively, I might want to buy into and identify myself with it while praising the rightful originator.

9. I’d seen Anne Bourse’s work at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, but knew almost nothing about her when the Fondation Pernod Ricard invited me to write a monograph about her. The commission appealed to me partly because of the way I was formed, as a student in the 1980s. For my coursework I’d had to study writers in a relatively fixed canon: the imposing glyptotheque of mostly dead authors explored in a typical university English Literature syllabus. For pleasure, though, I read the music press, which saw critics like Paul Morley and Ian Penman dealing with a swarming ferment of new artists, all of whom were living, some of whom would last while others melted away. Now that rock music itself has become a canon of the dead and the undead it’s difficult to remember how exciting—and how liberating—it was not yet to know who was “important” and who merely interesting, to see how artists developed their themes as they aged, or travelled, or experienced fame or obscurity.

10. Around about the turn of the century—with rock culture dominated by sterile dialogues between boomers and epigones—I remember noticing that the sense of excitement I used to get from indie record shops like Rough Trade was now much more palpable in art bookshops like Printed Matter, and the fulgurant sense of non-canonical contemporaneity that once seemed to rise from the pages of the New Musical Express was now much more likely to be found in the Taschen series “Art Now.”

11. As a result, I began writing less about music and more about art. It’s interesting that Anne’s surname, Bourse, summons images of a stock exchange, because part of my excitement about the contemporary—and about the not-quite-understanding-yet which I call “glomming on”—is inseparable from the thrill of seeing reputations made and unmade in real time: the chaotic rollercoaster of reputation which artists so often feign to disdain, but cannot ignore.2

12. Which artists get noticed, which get ignored, which get revived, which get ennobled, which get rich, which stay poor? And why? How do their ostensible themes relate to these outcomes, if at all? Is it all just fashion? How much does the art system require the kind of pure waste and destruction described by Georges Bataille in The Accursed Share (1949)? (A waste of resources which is one of humanity’s greatest achievements according to Bataille, a proof of our limitless wealth and constant inventiveness—beautiful because doomed.)

13. The Japanese have a word, tsundoku, meaning to pile up books one plans, presumably, one day, to read. They aren’t necessarily books one has bought oneself; some of the most impressive tsundoku piles I’ve seen have been in the homes of journalists who get free review copies and will probably offload these tottering towers periodically to secondhand shops. A tsundoku pile is a horn of plenty, a cornucopia of pure contemporaneity, probably 90 percent rubbish, but reassuring as a symbol that out there culture crashes on in its fruitful, wasteful way, as profligate and cruel, accidental and Darwinian, as nature itself.

14. And so we return to the encrustations—the layer upon layer of commentary, and commentary on commentary—that Isaac Asimov was describing to Letterman. It seemed Talmudic at the time, but it was also a sort of science fiction, a prediction of a future in which we would all one day be reviewing on the web for Trustpilot and TripAdvisor, and people would be writing commentary about our reviews, and the written chatter would go on forever, building up like a bulge of barnacles on culture’s plunging prow. I’m fine with the surplus, the waste. I too like to annotate, and I like to annotate my annotations, especially when they’re unsure, glomming, cottoning… taking their first clumsy baby steps in the direction of a comprehension which will never really be reached.

Notes
1

Isaac Asimov on The David Letterman Show, October 21, 1980: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=365kJOsFd3w.

2

Anne Bourse’s work in “Future, Former, Fugitive: A French Scene” at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2019: https://www.crfashionbook.com/culture/a29477598/palais-de-tokyo-future-former-fugitive-a-french-scene/.

Nick Currie has been making records, books and art performances since the 1980s under the name of Momus. He lives in Berlin.

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