The Text Festivals: Language Art and Material Poetry, edited by Tony Lopez, (University of Plymouth Press 2013) is a fascinating collection of essays by artists, poets and curators about The Text Festivals, which challenges preconceptions of the possibilities of language art. The Text Festivals has seen a convergence of Language Art and Material Poetry and continual development since its beginning on 19 March 2005 with Tony Trehy’s The Text Exhibition and a retrospective exhibition of Bob Cobbing’s experimental work in sound, poetry and art. Tony Lopez’s introductory essay notes that Tony Trehy’s approach, as Festival curator, has been that ‘art can be read as poetry and poetry can be viewed as art’. This allows different approaches to language use to work together on each other and work against specialist separation and categorization. The ICA’s June 2009 exhibition Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. added more impetus to the growth of interest in Text / Visual Art. Named after Ian Hamilton Finlay’s magazine of the Sixties and Seventies it showed ‘art that verges on poetry’ and featured Finlay, Dom Sylvester Houédard, Henri Chopin, Robert Smithson, Alisdair Gray, Philip Guston and David Hockney. Lopez’s historical overview, light on definition, notes that visual poetry, as opposed to Concrete Poetry, has continued since the Seventies and that Concrete Poetry, as a more discrete development within art, as opposed to poetry, ended in the Seventies. The ‘shape poem’ has become a standard teaching aid to help children play with language since the Seventies. There are certainly a great many practitioners from different backgrounds, with variant approaches, that make current developments more than interesting.
Tony Trehy offers an insight into his strategies in curating the Text Festivals. Canadian poet, Christian Bök writes about The Xenotext, a literary experiment with biologists that explores the aesthetic potential of genetics, following on from William Burroughs’ famous remark that ‘the word is now a virus’. Liz Collini provides insights into her Language Drawings in her Versions essay. Philip Davenport recalls an inspiring meeting with Bob Cobbing and how it led his curating the Cobbing retrospective. [Bob Cobbing incidentally was the first poet that I ever booked for a reading in 1973.] James Davies, publisher of if p then q magazine and press, encourages thinking about ‘text art’ and explores the value of poem poster art. Poet, Robert Grenier describes his serial drawn poems being exhibited, and Alan Halsey explains how his text-graphic work, Memory Screen (2005) was exhibited and performed, at Bury. Carol Watts’ artist’s book, alphabetise (2005), which consists of 26 chronicles, derived from overheard stories and anecdotes, organised into alphabetical structures in handwritten and digital form on one page, was shown at Bury as an object in a glass case. Watts takes a dictionary word as its arbitrary focus for each entry and cuts it together with an event story as part of an exploration into the arbitrariness of words and alphabetic systems. The alpha part stemming from the first part of the Greek alphabet and as a sequence of status, as in alpha male, and betise meaning something that is foolish, a joke, or nonsense. American visual poet, derek beaulieu accounts for sending The Bury Museum and Archives an empty box in an exploration of the value of nothing and bureaucracy across borders. His piece ends with a John Cage quotation, ‘Nothing more than nothing may be said’. Holly Pester writes about her engagement with the Bury Gallery, Museum and Archives producing an installation that gathered objects, recording and ideas on transmission and the nature of speech apparatuses in order to investigate how archives operate around poetry. In her notes on incorporating text within artwork, Hester Reeve (HRH. the) follows mid-period Marina Abramovic in seeing performance art as a radical philosophical questioning linked to the body and claims her body is protesting against the predictive mind to produce an art text that is not a vehicle for explanation but ‘is the explanation’. Visual artist, Carolyn Thompson details her Festival installations, predominantly cut up’s that are exhibited on walls, and writing an audio guide for Bury buildings that were designed but never built.
These absorbing essays are well written, candid and accompanied by photos, colour plates and catalogue of exhibitions, commissions and events. There are few books on this area of poetic enquiry and experience. This well produced book is trail blazing and essential reading.