Questioning the Telepathic Impulse Symposium

Barnard College, University of Columbia, New York, USA
October 21, 2016

Organizers: Peter Connor, Brian O'Keeffe, Maud Jacquin, Sébastien Pluot

Participants: Alexander Alberro, Columbia University, Emily Apter, NYU, David Joselit, CUNY, Simon Leung, University of California Irvine, Julia Robinson, NYU, Peter Tracey Connor, Barnard College, Trevor Starck, Columbia University, Sébastien Pluot, Art by Translation Ecole supérieure des Beaux Arts, Angers.

The Barnard Center for Translation Studies hosts a regular seminar on Translation and Theory, in which invited participants are each asked to offer a paper for discussion in a round-table format. The theme in this case, was “Art by Translation,” and this day-long event gathered together art historians, literary scholars and philosophers from France and the United States. This particular seminar took place in association with the research and exhibition program Art by Translation co-directed by Maud Jacquin and Sébastien Pluot at ESBA TALM, ENSA Paris-Cergy and CNEAI=, Paris-Pantin.

Translation has been a central topic in the history of 20th-century art. Translation theories have been implicated in numerous crucial issues, such as the relations between mediums, the question of the transmission of meaning, the interpretation of the work of art, its comprehension, its presentation, its relation to contexts, and its inclusion into art history.

Ever since the Babelic myth of a unique and global language—and all the way up to the correspondence theories that paved the way for the dream of a universal language popular amongst many historical avant-garde figures, or the positivist ideology of adequate translations allegedly offered by mathematical language, cybernetic systems, and the algorithm—the fantasy of transparent communication has sustained many aesthetic systems. On the other hand, as early as the beginning of the 19th century, the philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher asserted that where transmission was concerned, incomprehension must be considered to be the rule, and comprehension the exception.

Nonetheless, the majority of aesthetic theories are still based on a hermeneutics of signification and reception in such a way that artworks, like language, remain subject to the rules of understanding. Yet, since Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and later, Jacques Derrida, new conceptions of our relation to the work of art have acknowledged untranslatablility and, furthermore, a fundamental disjunction between what one ‘says’ and what one ‘means to say.’ The artwork could then exist beyond the assumption of comprehension or the unsayable. “Doesn't disjunction open up the very possibility of otherness?” Derrida suggested, thus establishing a relation between aesthetic and ethical issues. In various texts, Derrida uses the expression "double bind" to describe the fact that translation is at once necessary and impossible. This paradox extends to the translation of an idea into its expression, it affects the transmission involved when one being addresses another, and it also involves the shifts from one medium or historical period to another. Translation issues enable us to analyze and differentiate the aesthetic and ideological stances underlying the history of art. Some of the relevant questions, in this regard, are: how to define the ideological dimensions that lie behind the striving for transparent communication of meaning by form? What is at stake in the positivist history of translatability between art and technology? What does the idea of the autonomy of the artwork have to do with the sacred conception of the untouchable Adamic language ?

This attraction to a transparency of meaning – which could be described as a “telepathic impulse," and is profoundly inscribed into art and technological modernity – has been constantly contradicted and deconstructed by different aesthetic and ethical stances. These are based on the acknowledgment of an inadequacy and discordance in the process of translation, and on a conception of language that rejects the notions of sovereign truth and logos, considering language to be structurally subjected to the dissemination of signification.

Examination of this opposition would require tracing the evolution of the crucial aesthetic and political debates that have shaped art and linguistic theories since the historical avant-gardes. The culminating moments of these debates can be traced from the dada/constructivism oppositions concerning the use of technology and language, the 1957 symposium on communication involving the complexly antagonistic views of Duchamp, Bateson and Shapiro, through the 1960’s oppositions of abstract expressionism, Fluxus, Minimalism, and Conceptual art. Each time, the reconfigurations of these paradigms during the XXth century raised key political questions concerning the place of the other and the autonomy of the author, the act of delegating, the power of the artwork over its audience, the relations between art, science and technology.

These questions would lead us to define what could be a politics of translatability or a politics of untranslatability. We could therefore see in the activities of translation between the arts a veritable site of politics.

At the end of the 1960’s, Mel Bochner stated that “switching from the visual to the linguistic was a way for some conceptualists to create a direct link from the mind of the artist to the mind of the viewer.” To him, it was “as absurd as the Abstract Expressionist assumption that a drip or a brush stroke was a direct link from the emotions of the painter to the emotions of the viewer.” Together with other artists associated with Minimalism, Post-Minimalism or Fluxus, Bochner was proposing alternative models of translation that were variously questioning both the positivist and the empathic aesthetic systems that were prevalent in these various “movements.” Translation theories may illuminate the strategies of distancing and withdrawal from the ethos of abstract expressionism that were variously undertaken through the recourse to readymade objects, language games, chance operations and indeterminacy.

Focusing on emblematic works such as The House of Dust by Alison Knowles or Transduction by Mel Bochner, and exhibitions like that of Art by Telephone, or Language to be looked at/or and things to be read (produced from the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s) may allow us to identify certain ambiguous uses of new information theory, as well as an ambivalence in regard to the declining model of expressive painting.

This symposium provided the occasion, to consider how translation issues can help renew our approach to a series of questions concerning the way artists in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s were translating the inheritance of historical avant-garde positions concerning the opposition of transparency and opacity and the question of meaning. Ideally, it might revealed how the works of artists commonly associated with Minimalism, Post Minimalism, Fluxus, Pop Art, or Conceptual Art might became newly legible when reconsidered through the lenses of translation theories.