The Saddest Thing Is that I have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, out this week from Siglio Press, comprises a selection of poems and experimental prose that Gins (1941–2014) wrote between the 1960s and the mid-1990s, much of which was previously unpublished. Gins, an American artist, architect, and writer, is best known for the long-term project Reversible Destiny, a collaboration with her husband, Shūsaku Arakwa. Believing that they could create environments to stave off death, Gins and Arakawa designed structures featuring obstacles intended to keep users agile. Several of their proposals were realized, including a series of lofts in Tokyo; a park in Yoro, Japan; and a house in East Hampton. This volume, edited by A.i.A. contributor Lucy Ives, highlights Gins’s lesser known written work. In the introduction, Ives compares Gins’s poetry to the work of artists like Dan Graham and Adrian Piper, exploring how each approached semantics. The excerpt focuses on Gins’s book WORD RAIN (or A Discursive Introduction to the Intimate Philosophical Investigations of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says), which was published in 1969, and Gins’s list-like poems from her “Transformatory Power” series of the 1960s and ’70s. —The Editors
A theme of interruption of the human organism by literature and philosophy, perhaps by Western culture writ large, perhaps by language itself, is present in the work of Madeline Gins, as well as two other artists who participated in the 1969 “Street Works” happenings with her in Manhattan, Adrian Piper and Hannah Weiner. Weiner was a friend of Gins’s, the author of clairvoyant poetry produced through the transcription of words she claimed appeared to her on various surfaces, including other people’s faces, as well as poems appropriating maritime code. Weiner was concerned with communication across vast distances, how, as she wrote in an essay published in summer of 1969 in 0 TO 9, people would “deal with” the overwhelming quantities of information postwar society was generating.1 She explored the effects of the new ubiquity of communication technologies, recording devices, and data on physical gesture and interpersonal space in her writing and performances. Piper, meanwhile, was just embarking on a career as an analytic philosopher in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in 1971 created a series of photographs titled “Food for the Spirit”, which documents her experience reading Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781), while fasting and practicing yoga in isolation in her downtown loft. Kant’s view of cognition’s relationship to categories, deeply and even performatively apprehended through Piper’s practice during this time, threatened to displace Piper’s sense of self and being. The photographs, made in various states of undress before a mirror, brought the artist back to the immediate presence of her body and, thus, her self, in the midst of her engagement with the magnum opus of one of Western modernity’s most influential authors.
Gins, like Piper and Weiner, was exploring states of extreme influence, even possession, by literary language. Her way of “deal[ing] with” the displacement of her self by an influx of words was to write in the very space of delay and estrangement that reading and writing produce, to continue this delay, this interruption. She seemed truly not to aspire to any sort of fixed meaning—or, rather, to aspire to unfixing meaning—even as she was quite insistent that she wrote in the novel form. Marshall McLuhan’s catch phrase (Understanding Media had appeared in 1964) might be inverted to useful effect where WORD RAIN is concerned. The message is the medium; in other words, the message is not purely or even actually semantic, “It comes with a room, light, a country, sky and weather,” as Gins writes of sentences encountered by WORD RAIN’s protagonist-reader. Given the ubiquity of computing in our own time, in the time in which I am writing this introduction, I think it is easier for a contemporary reader to grasp Gins’s relationship to writing, to script, as process. I see Gins’s composition in WORD RAIN as fundamentally cybernetic. As scholar Orit Halpern writes, “In cybernetic understandings, descriptions of processes always become sites for further production of new techniques of production rather than static descriptions; materiality, action, and concept are inseparable.”2 Whereas modernist poetries tend to understand words as having thing-like qualities, Gins is engaged in imagining a message/word that behaves like a platform, receiver, or trampoline (all terms hers), a message that is in fact a medium, a conduit unstilled. Although it is, in some sense, sad to have to use words at all (and, in so doing, to delay the careening fluidity of sense), the act of reconfiguring the messaging capacity of words via “intimate philosophical investigations,” as WORD RAIN’s subtitle goes, offers more to the reader by way of agency than it ultimately disables, confines, or withholds. “The saddest thing is that I have had to use words,” Gins writes, as the titular “G,R,E,T,A,G,A,R,B,O.” The strange spelling of this pseudonym (a reference to the infamously melancholic star of Hollywood’s Golden Age) also indicates an acrostic set of “platforms,” as Gins notes in the novel’s third chapter. “G” is not merely a letter but, in Gins’s eccentric formulation, also indicates “grate or gas,” much as “E” is “energy,” and so on. These letters lead us not into meaning but into unstable materiality and process. Gins’s cybernetics is not instrumental, nor is her sadness lyrical. Rather, the melancholy of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O is “substantially insubstantial”; it is a description of a process, giving rise to further processes; a leave-taking and a gift—a sort of visionary cybernetics.
“You may look at everything. You will see only what I see. Look at this sentence. There is nothing on it. Now look at this sentence. I see a plate of desert ribbed with dunes held in place with drops of slime just above a layer of petrified tentacles. There is nothing in this sentence. I say I see a book in this sentence. Without me, it words the page; yet says nothing.
THE LIST-LIKE POETIC texts I have selected from the archive seem to have existed as part of a longer work Gins titled “Transformatory Power,” or “Trans-P,” for short. In one of the most intriguing poems of the “Trans-P” series, “GHOSTING,” a narrative emerges by way of discrete parts (being “ON THE SUBWAY,” an “IMBROGLIO,” “TEA,” various actions and noises, concluding with a reflection on “LYING”). Yet this narrative, which seems to me to be at home in a sort of New Wave aesthetic, is inextricable from the work of arranging its items into a scenario, complete with actors. Note, too, that questions arise around the numbering system itself: The list begins not at “1.” but at “-1.,” and there are two numbers “17.,” the first of which has been left blank. Item “10.,” meanwhile, has been crossed out, and in item “21.,” the writer appears to attempt, halfheartedly, to bracket together a set of words typed out with a good deal of space between them. The very undertaking of establishing items within the form of the list is uncertain if not fraught, and the reader has a sense of the list-maker as an important character or narrator within the disjointed story of the poem/list. Nothing could be more Ginsian: for the act of writing is folded in to the ostensible content of the written work (i.e., the narrative “action”) in such a way that the two are hardly extricable.
Indeed, there are parallels between the poems of “Trans-P” and the schematic, recursive poems the artist Dan Graham was making around the same time, in the late 1960s, with the significant difference that while Graham was engaged in a sort of war of attrition with respect to meaning and context, Gins’s list poems invite infinite additions of meaning and context. Her writing here is schematic, yet requires that the reader not merely look at but also question the meanings of words; unlike Graham, Gins does not reduce words to their grammatical functions but rather encourages the reader to discover along with her what words will do, once they have been stripped bare of grammar. This is, after all, the affordance of a list: it provides structure and a kind of time, without resorting to the hierarchies of grammar-based sense. Lists are associative and sometimes freeing, playful. They also cannot help but evoke the deductive logic of a philosophical syllogism, an effect exploited by Gins to produce a sense of possibility and entailment in the poems of “Trans-P,” something along the lines of, if “-1. ON THE SUBWAY,” then, “1. IMBROGLIO.” In other words, the plot thickens and thickens, line by line, item by item.
Gins’s refusal of strategies of linguistic evacuation employed by artists like Graham harkens back to the early rebus-based conceptualism of the poet Raymond Roussel (1877–1933), whose work had a profound influence on the Surrealists as well as Marcel Duchamp, particularly where Duchamp’s relationship to titles was concerned. As for Roussel, whose engagement with homophonic coincidences led him into lushly psychedelic fictional landscapes, Gins’s reaction to the arbitrary nature of the signifier is one of fascination, followed by a determination to explore this fascinating and slightly terrifying quality of words to its very limits.4 Gins’s interest in synesthetic effects and visions related to linguistic material is, thus, something she shares with Roussel. I believe this also has something to do with what I earlier termed her “visionary cybernetics,” an ardent desire to have signification carry on unfixed, via various media and means, in spite of words’ (sad) tendency to delay if not halt it. Gins seemed to experience language in an ecstatic way, as a series of energetic sites or platforms, but at the same time was a dedicated student, reader, and researcher. Although she followed paths of her own devising, she was largely systematic, after her own fashion, and understood her art as a process of learning, with roots in empiricist approaches.
1 Hannah Weiner, “Trans-Space Communication,” 0 TO 9, vol. 6 (July 1969): 100. See also Patrick Durgin’s excellent Hannah Weiner’s Open House (Berkeley, CA: Kenning Editions, 2007).
2 Orit Halpern, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason Since 1945 (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2015), 57.
3 See Raymond Roussel, How I Wrote Certain of My books and Other Writings, ed. Trevor Winkfield (Boston: Exact Change, 1995); John Tresch, “In a Solitary Place: Raymond Roussel’s Brain and the French Cult of Un-reason,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Biological & Biomedical Sciences, 35(2) 2004: 307-32.
Adapted from The Saddest Thing Is that I have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, by Lucy Ives.