THE LAST TEN YEARS have seen a return to the written word across visual, sculptural, and time-based media. In particular, Black artists and poets have investigated the unruliness of language, its slip-ups, evolutions, and equivocations. Though many Black conceptual artists, such as Adrian Piper and Carrie Mae Weems, turned to language during the 1970s through 1990s, those picking up the thread today are particularly attuned to vernacular or fractured forms. Dave McKenzie’s 2012 performative video work Wilfred and Me shows the artist in profile repeating the sentence “Magic Johnson has AIDS.” As the rhythmic pulse of the recited phrase wears on, the words register more as sounds and the artist’s richly textured voice grows increasingly hoarse and dry, eventually being reduced to an arid rasp. A. H. Jerriod Avant’s 2017 poem “Felonious States of Adjectival Excess Featuring Comparative and Superlative Forms” is an ode to Black idioms, which have historically been categorized as grammatically incorrect (“my mo’ favoriter and mo’ better is my most favoritest”). Steffani Jemison’s gestural ciphers—in drawings, paintings, and more recent sculptures involving physical erosion—lean away from signification entirely, in favor of opacity and friction.
During the 1960s, Conceptualism introduced text as an alternative medium to painting, sculpture, and photography, one tied equally to narrative, sound, image, and—per the name of the movement—idea. For some, the expanded role of the concept in art allowed for a new objectivity: art could be disentangled from emotional expression or the artist’s hand, and text offered an ideal container for these theoretical proposals. However, situating text at a remove from subjectivity ran the risk of further dampening the voices of people with marginalized identities, who were only just starting to claim social and political leverage. Some artists, including Piper and Lorraine O’Grady, emphasized that the “dematerialization” of art did not necessitate the erasure of the body, nor of the indexical trace. It could be an invitation to action or gesture that required rather than removed the artist’s body.
Returning to that tension between dematerialization and depersonalization, and effacing language’s veneer of universality, many contemporary practitioners use marginalized or “broken” types of speech. In recent years, exhibitions and books such as “Speech/Acts” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and Adam Pendleton’s Black Dada Reader (both 2017) have explored these reconsiderations of and disengagements from the written word. Many of these endeavors extend the critical, philosophical, or poetic writings of thinkers including Édouard Glissant, bell hooks, Fred Moten, and Hortense Spillers. A central concern for these artists, writers, and curators is the representation of Blackness, which sometimes entails eluding textual capture.
While many of these dissections of language have been realized in visual formats—focusing on the formal appearance of letters or words—more artists are turning to aural experiments, indicating how speech tends to be more legibly tied to class and race than writing. Characterizing language in the Caribbean in “Cross-Cultural Poetics,” Glissant wrote: “the word is first and foremost sound. Noise is essential to speech. Din is discourse.” More specifically, by reading text within the context of performance and sound art, artists reinsert the body into communication, showing how the specificity of a speaking body changes our understanding of meaning. Some of the many artists working with language in time-based media include Tony Cokes, James Allister Sprang, and Pamela Z. Of particular interest are those who translate from speech to text and back again. JJJJJerome Ellis and Will Rawls do so while also playing with silence and abstraction to contest the disembodiment of text and, at times, trouble legibility.
THE SONG OPENS with the pulse of piano notes: ascending triplets that create a sense of stasis, like an ellipsis, awaiting resolution. Ellis’s even voice enters this soundscape—titled “Dysfluent Waters,” from his 2021 album The Clearing—by prompting his listener with a question, even as the triplets fracture and are superseded by a meandering melodic line: “How can thinking about water help us think about … dysfluencies, blacknesses, and musics … together?” While delivering this query, Ellis pauses twice, as an orator might do for effect. These interludes extend longer than expected, Ellis’s thought put on hold for a moment before picking up expressively where it left off. The entire composition is punctuated by such gaps, breaks caused by Ellis’s stutter, a disability that has become central to his poetic and performative practice. While most people think of a stutter as streams of repeated sound, disfluency can also manifest as elongations or blocks, and Ellis’s own speech is interspersed with poignant silences.
Ellis’s album takes its organization from his existing writing. The tracks on The Clearing originated as an essay titled “The clearing: Music, disfluency, Blackness, and time” that Ellis wrote for the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies in 2020. Discussing records of slave owners’ brutal enforcement of working hours through bells, horns, and—if neither were obeyed—whips, Ellis’s essay maps out historical relationships among Blackness, music, disfluency, and temporal regulation, and envisions practices that could “open time,” or interrupt the rhythm of clock time. Abridged and read aloud, the text defines the temporal and rhythmic parameters of the music that embellishes Ellis’s narratives. The recording was released as both a book (published by Wendy’s Subway) and a double set of LPs (co-produced by the Poetry Project and Northern Spy/NNA Tapes). The publication transforms Ellis’s silent blocks into fragments of language that shower the page, disrupting its usual linear order like concrete poetry, and drawing attention to the ways in which Ellis’s voice alters the temporality of recording and text alike.
In the audio recording, Ellis’s stops enter the flow of his speech as an alternate and unpredictable rhythm of lone phonemes, stray letters or sounds, that bubble into enunciation. Almost inaudible, these “clearings,” as Ellis terms them, insist on our patience and invite a deeper form of listening. In her 2017 book Listening to Images, cultural theorist Tina Campt writes about forms of nonverbal articulation, such as humming, describing a “sublimely expressive unsayability that exceeds both words, as well as what we associate with sound and utterance.” We can locate some of that expressivity within the nonverbal in several renditions of Ellis’s piece—the publication or the performance video released by NNA Tapes—that reveal his vocal pauses to be not silent at all, but teeming with activity, the same letters or phonemes studiously repeated as Ellis moves through his block: “dddddddddddddddddddddd” or “glglglglglglglglglgl.” Reflecting on his stutter in “Dysfluent Waters,” Ellis tells the listener that his blocks are like vibrating moments of expectation, trembles before the completion of the thought: “I saw the word’s journey, its not having arrived.” Likewise, the listener experiences these interludes not as absence but as anticipation. We shift temporalities from the dynamic pace set by Ellis’s speaking voice to the suspended imminence of his block. In another song, “Loops of Retreat,” Ellis draws a parallel between the repeated syllables of his own verbal breaks and the iterative loops of Black music, a sound of “endless restlessness.” Ellis characterizes his stutter as a “temporal escape,” an expansive insertion that, as his essay indicates, fractures the orderliness and linearity of clock time, text, and music alike. Ellis’s speech refuses efficiency, rebuts definition, and even resists his own control.
WHEN ELLIS’S ALBUM was released in November 2021, it brought to mind choreographer Will Rawls’s “Cursor” project, developed during his 2018 residency at ISSUE Project Room in Brooklyn. For the first of three showings, Rawls performed from a console located behind the audience, writing in a sparsely populated text document that was projected at the front of the space for viewers to see. Words, typos, a garbled vocabulary, and free-floating syllables filled the page as the sound of typing echoed through ISSUE’s performance hall. The clatter of fingers on the keyboard was paralleled by Rawls’s amplified articulation of the fragmented expressions.
This document—in some sections vacant and awaiting activation, in others already populated with phrases to be edited or rearranged—operated simultaneously as a score and a landscape. From his position at the back of the room, Rawls navigated the document with his cursor, which moved through the text as a black figure set against a white ground. In his introduction in the program notes, the artist introduced his audience to the cursor as a blinking silhouette that could stand in for the experience of Black embodiment. “[Cursors] are bodies motivated by language, by users, by others. They move through space. They blink in tempo and race the hours. They speak in many tongues. They pause and backtrack. They search and destroy. They are black. They are fugitive. They dance.”
Though the cursor was the only figure that moved through space during Rawls’s performance, the choreographer asserted his presence in the act of translation from visualized text to vocalized sound. Reading these jumbled phrases and characters aloud, Rawls repeated lines, sounding out different pronunciations and emphases, transforming an apparent collage of sounds into humorous and even earnest expressions: “UYHRIERJE RSSDDDSP PO” becomes “WHO ERASED THE POPE.” Excavating language from abstract accumulations of noise through the process of articulation, Rawls’s performance emphasized that the body, as much as the mind, is the lens that encounters, constructs, and interprets meaning. Conversely, Rawls also evacuated meaning from words already inscribed on the digital page, turning the familiar absurd with alternative pronunciations, repeating “I don’t bother with” until it blurred into a rhythmic beat. Writing about the piece in the October 2018 issue of Artforum, Rawls commented, “My body is both leader and follower,” and reflected on how his physical presence shaped sound—through articulation and the typed words—and, conversely, on the feelings that those sounds produced in him as he gave them voice.
In his progressions from noise to words and vice versa, Rawls’s fragmentation and reconstruction of written and spoken language highlighted the tension between representation and abstraction. Enunciating jumbles of letters that would sooner be interpreted as reflecting a mood than a sound—picture the frustrated slam of fingers against a keyboard in “FPISANF A[FPN”—Rawls exaggerated the communicative ability of the alphabet while de-emphasizing the meaningfulness of words. But his experiments also drew attention to the formal qualities of letters, to their shapes and arbitrary relationships to phonetic sound.
These flights into abstraction also stemmed from Rawls’s scrutiny of representation, especially its failures and its tendency to perpetuate historical forms of violence. Cursor recalls another work by Rawls, Uncle Rebus (2018), in which performers constructed sentences from Brer Rabbit folktales, trickster narratives that enslaved peoples brought from Africa to the Americas as oral stories. He supplied performers with two sets of the standard English alphabet, in addition to symbols such as an asterisk and an exclamation mark. As the performers attempted to spell out words with these inadequate means, they resorted to symbols to function as letters, and began willfully to choose unconventional orthography: “WE R*ORGAN!SE.” In his Artforum piece, Rawls described the performers in Uncle Rebus as “spelling out something that has been historically categorized as a dialectical, minor English. The public also sees three black people laboring in the sun. To try to control that perspective, you have to race against a long history of the risks of representation.” In Caribbean Discourse, Glissant describes Haitian Creole as an intentional mockery of the simplified and command-based language imposed by colonizers upon indigenous or diasporic populations. By choosing to use such fractured forms of language, Rawls and his performers engage with this longer history of linguistic rebellion. However, Rawls is also wary of turning away entirely from representation. As he noted in the same interview, “The risk of a staging without words is that if the cursor functions as an incarnation of blackness, and if narrative falls away entirely, then the fully abstracted body could feel ahistorical.” In Cursor, Rawls expressed this ambivalence about language—with its seemingly antithetical capacities for capture and political manifestation—by moving back and forth between representational and nonrepresentational modes.
In 1971, poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “this is the oppressor’s language / yet I need it to talk to you.” Later, theorist bell hooks, in her 1994 book Teaching to Transgress, recalled her initial rejection of Rich’s characterization of the English language, holding on to this mode of expression for “those of us… who are just learning to claim language as a place where we make ourselves subject.” Simultaneously, hooks understood that English “is the language of conquest and domination; in the United States, it is the mask which hides the loss of so many tongues.”
Ellis’s and Rawls’s uses of language suggest a twinned desire to escape from and into words. Rawls’s willful typos and variable pronunciations mine meaning from abstract text. Ellis’s work inscribes his disfluency into the conventions of textual and aural space, while prompting us to listen for the potency of the pause. What appear to be glitches in Ellis’s and Rawls’s mode of interacting with text in fact expose the body’s enunciations as sites of linguistic evolution: Ellis asks how text can make room for the particularities of his voice, and Rawls tests how his voice can create or destroy meaning. In the fracture between written and spoken language, the body enters and finds novel ways of expressing itself, whether in grammatical subversions or the evasion of language altogether.