Blurting in A&L Online

By Chris Gilbert, 28 November 2002


It is sometimes maintained that one art medium anticipates another, looking forward to its incarnation with a new technological or cultural base. That, for example, surrealism's cuts and juxtapositions were normalised in cinematic montage (and in the transition slipped from vanguard to mainstream), or realist painting looked forward to its consummation in photography. However, in art the child is not always father to the man. This is worth keeping in mind when considering Thomas Dreher’s website where, with a gesture that is surely haunted by such teleological thinking, the Munich-based art historian has taken an Art & Language project conceived before the days of the PC and translated it into the medium of online hypertext.

True, Art & Language’s elaborate Blurting project works a lot better in hypertext. It began as a collaboration among Art & Language members in New York City (there were more than a dozen associated with this Coventry-founded group who worked in the Big Apple in the mid ’70s). In weekly meetings from January to July 1973, eight participants produced written statements called ‘annotations’ or ‘blurts’ on topics ranging from the ordinary to the abstruse (art, learning, ambiguity, heuristics, stimulus-meaning). In each subsequent meeting the group would return with new statements that ‘went on’ from the last week’s annotations. In the end, through the Herculean efforts of Michael Corris and Mel Ramsden – and I'm always surprised that a project like this ever went beyond the ‘Oh, what a good idea’ stage – the comments were compiled in a handbook. In all, some 400 odd entries were edited and grouped according to subheadings with vague quasi-logical connectors linking them to one another.

Since the connections among the entries were many-to-many, readers could choose their own course through the material, which blurred the boundary between passive reader and active participant. This was a key ideology of Art & Language – the idea that membership was permeable or, as one participant put it, ‘a function of participation’. The principle was the cornerstone of their belief, held until about 1976, that the rather esoteric machinations of a group of artistintellectuals might result in significant change in the world. It was a great promise – too great in fact to be effected. And therein lies the rub, at least insofar as the online project is concerned. As with many translations of conceptual practices into the present, the wonderful posturing of conceptual artists, their hubris in appropriating the sound and fury of another discipline, is key to the work's power. The work was a fantastic promise, a rubber check written against a never-to-happen future, that taken into the level of banal working reality (and nothing could be more banal than the internet) loses much of its efficacy.

Certainly, Dreher has done a great service in posting the contents of Blurting online. He has also provided a valuable resource for the student of Art & Language. However, the act of translating and updating, even as it takes some of the group’s claims at face value, is an act of significant misprision insofar as it casts them too fully as proto-systematisers. The Art & Language group is better seen as threatening the bastions of late modernism and doing so through an appeal to extra-artistic authorities (linguistic philosophy, information theory, and political dogma were instruments of choice) that could unsettle modernism’s complacency and insularity. For comparison, one might think of the way that pop artists appealed for much the same purpose to the authority and power of advertising imagery. The act of revamping the Blurting project with the tools of contemporary information technology has some of the same logic as taking pop art to task with the real tools and context of the advertising business. The work’s oppositional stance is lost. One is left with a positive project – advertising in the one case and a functioning information retrieval system in the other – that is at best only secondarily art.


Chris Gilbert  <pascqil AT> is associate curator at the Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa