I know that the internet — or the “electronic cat database”, as John Oliver memorably called it — has lionised kittens to an alarming degree, but what do you say to a chap who has just written an 800-page novel about a girl and her kitten? Apparently, the correct answer is: “Thank you, we’re looking forward to the next 26 kitten novels.” Because that’s just what Mark Danielewski is planning: a 27-part novel series called The Familiar, the first two instalments of which were released recently. The catch is that Danielewski’s books are exercises in text-based art, postmodern arrangements of text that challenge the reader to look beyond a linear, left-to-right reading experience. This is also why the first part of The Familiar, although around 800 pages, has a word count normally associated with a 250-300 page novel. In his debut work, House of Leaves (2000), readers found themselves confronted with footnotes within footnotes, links and citations to works that did not exist, as well as several pages that featured only a few words, arranged either very tightly together or in a disjointed manner, depending upon the emotional temperature of the narrative at that point.

Text-based art is not a new phenomenon: mainstream artists like Willem DeKooning were using newspapers and other textual material in the ’60s, around the same time that the pop art movement, under the stewardship of Lichtenstein and Warhol, was taking flight. Both these phenomena, to an extent, capitalised on a growing dissatisfaction with abstraction, which wasn’t cutting it any more for a restless, disillusioned generation (Photograph to icon to alphabet; that’s the direction in which abstraction increases anyway). Consider the fact that someone like a Bob Dylan was sending shockwaves into the music world by basically singing the headlines. As the world warmed up to the idea of conceptual art, artists who liked to incorporate text into their work started to be noticed.

One of the best-known American exponents of text-based art is Jenny Holzer, who has created installations at some of New York’s most prominent places, like Central Park and the World Trade Centre memorial site. Last month, the city of New York commissioned her to create an Aids memorial; Holzer has decided to use the Walt Whitman poem Song Of Myself for the same.

Holzer’s work is deeply rooted in linguistics and the cul-de-sacs of language, something that’s amplified by the internet era. Consider, for instance, a statement from her series Truisms, where she says, “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE” (this was displayed in gigantic LED letters over Times Square). In our era of easy irony and armchair activism, this can be taken as another droll bit of anti-establishment commentary. But scratch the surface and you’ll realise the devilish cleverness of the second half of the sentence: abuse of power doesn’t sneak up on you. In most cases, it is anticipated, encouraged and finally, cheered on by an apathetic populace. Holzer wheat-pasted these truisms across Manhattan, to houses, buildings, fences; some fans even posted a couple of the more political ones on the subway; stuff like “WHAT COUNTRY SHOULD YOU ADOPT IF YOU HATE POOR PEOPLE?” or “THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR WILL BE SECRET” or “IF YOU HAD BEHAVED NICELY THE COMMUNISTS WOULDN’T EXIST”. 

Danielewski’s books are exercises in text-based art, postmodern arrangements of text that challenge the reader to look beyond a linear, left-to-right reading experience. 

Holzer’s displays were, in a way, taking off from where Rene Magritte had left. When Magritte set the ball rolling with his “This is not a pipe” message (written below a painting of a pipe), it was seen as the beginning of something special. But even before Magritte, there were artists like Kurt Schwitters who were exploring the uneasy relationship between object and nomenclature. Schwitters was firmly ahead of his time; he made what can now be called installation pieces, like Merzbau, the reconstruction of a Hanover house. But what we remember him for the most are his imaginative collages that used photographs, newspaper clippings, postcards, slogans, manifestos and so on. Schwitters wanted to make an alphabet that corresponded closely to the way that human speech sounded. In his honour, a typeface called Architype Schwitters was created in 1997. 

Today, the average urban person consumes a staggering amount of text every day, many times more than the previous generation. The roles of signifier and signified is also on thin ground, prompting media theorist Marshall McLuhan to quip, “The medium is the message”. Also, most political epochs are marked by one speech, one slogan, sometimes just one word; think Obama’s “Hope” speech, which catapulted him into instant political superstardom.

For those who live and die with public perception, manipulating text is of paramount importance. The time, therefore, is ripe for text-based art to step it up a gear and increase its visibility even further.

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