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Language as Medium

An Interview with Joel Swanson

Language as Medium

Stephanie Edwards: Congratulations on being a part of the upcoming ‘Personal Structures’ exhibition! Can you start off by telling me a bit about your studio practice in terms of materials, concepts, and inspiration?

Joel Swanson: My work explores the everyday technologies, interfaces, and materials of language. Handwriting, typewriters, fonts, keyboards, and Twitter are all sources of inspiration for my work. I decontextualize and recontextualize these technologies to allow people the space to approach language from new perspectives. For example, language primarily exists within two-dimensional media, and creating language in three-dimensional sculptural forms can expose the subtle, but significant relationship, between language and dimensionality. My goal in this process is to make work that challenges people to rethink how they use language and how language uses them. If you think about the conflicts in our world, most start from binaries that are structured within language. Us vs. them, yours vs. ours, he vs. she: language has this way of structuring and dividing our concepts of being into binaries that are reductive, inarticulate, and harmful. I want my work to highlight the role that language plays in shaping our identities and categories of being. I want my work to introduce complexity in the way we think about identity.

SE: How is language incorporated in your artwork?

JS: My work questions how structures of language shape the way we think of ourselves, of others, and the world in which we live. Words are fundamental to our existence, and their functions need to be explored and interrogated. I like to think of myself as some sort of experimental linguist that explores the materials and technologies of language. Language is often absent in my work, for example when I made sentence diagrams out of Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art, or made sculptures by revolving the non-alphabetic typeface Zapf Dingbats. These works are explorations of the structures and systems of language, but are devoid of literal words. I am also interested in the para-textual practices of language. Processes like highlighting, photocopying, bookmarking, and erasing relate to how we navigate written language across a broad range of technologies and materials.

Have you ever been writing a word and for a brief moment it looks strange? It seems to almost lose its meaning? This happens to me when I write the word “what.” I stare at the word, sound it out, but it just seems foreign. Technically, this phenomenon is known as aphasia, the condition when someone loses the ability to understand language, typically due to some type of brain trauma. There is something so vulnerable and terrifying about losing our primary mode of communication, but it also allows us to see and experience the world without this wrapper of words and language. This is what Paul Valery means when he says, “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.” Perhaps my work might induce a brief (and non-violent) moment of aphasia in its viewers; that it might offer a fleeting but significant experience where we see through, or perhaps beyond language, and help us experience the world in a different way.

SE: I understand that you chose to fabricate artworks for the Personal Structures exhibition in Venice, Italy. Can you talk about the process of working with fabricators that are on another continent and speak a different language than you?

JS: Shipping neon internationally is expensive, and I didn’t want to take the risk of neon breaking in transit. In order to eliminate these variables, I am having neon works fabricated a short distance outside of Venice for the show. The process has been a learning experience. Negotiating the entire fabrication process via e-mail, and not being able to physically check on its progress has been new—and at times stressful. I learned to prepare all of my questions at once as I would hear back within a week, which seems to be the standard. This changed my expectations for the timeline so I began to build in extra time for correspondence. I also did my best to use precise but simple language to avoid any issues in translation. So much of language is idiomatic, even in short business related e-mails. As someone interested in language, this experience was interesting to me. Nailing down the details of fabrication, scheduling, delivery, and payment has been more work than dealing with a local fabricator, but I’m happy to report that everything seems to be on schedule.

SE: The curator, Cortney Stell, selected to pair you and Laura Shill. I understand that the two of you have exhibited together more than once in the past. As you prepare to show together again, can you reflect on how your installations in Personal Structures support one another?

JS: It makes things easier when you like and admire the people that you work with. I’m thrilled to be able to show work with Laura, not only because I greatly respect her as an artist, but appreciate her friendship as well. Even though we both have a studio at TANK Studios, and work at the University of Colorado Boulder, we don’t often get the time to sit down and chat, so I’m looking forward to catching up in Venice. Conceptually, our work speaks to the complexities of binaries. Laura’s work is formal and mine is linguistic, but I think those conceptual approaches balance each other nicely.

SE: Tell me about a moment that stands out to you in the process of preparing for this exhibition.

JS: Cortney Stell, Laura Shill, and I had a meeting a few weeks ago, which was the first time that I heard Laura discuss the ideas and motivations behind her work. I saw the potent and multiple connection points in our artistic practices. We are both exploring—and attempting to subvert—binaries that relate to identity. Laura’s work does this formally and mine linguistically, but we are both invested in the interplay between form and material. Laura’s work critiques hierarchical structures that relate to the body through the use of vertical movement. My work moves horizontally as language is read left-to-right, and I think that this vertical vs. horizontal Cartesian movement is interesting physically and conceptually. Aesthetically, I love the way cold white neon light reflects off the folds of Laura’s gold fabric. The installation has this unnatural manufactured feeling, which is compelling.

SE: I would like to wrap up by asking what are you looking forward to the most during your upcoming trip to Italy?

JS: I am very excited about having the opportunity to show work in an international context. This will be the first time for me to exhibit work as part of a significant international exhibition, so I’ve had to think through how my work could be understood as speaking from the American perspective. For example, my work is in English, which can be read as a commentary on language as a colonial technology. I’m hopeful that my playful disruptiveness with English will be read as critical, and not merely complicit. It is such a strange and charged time to make art given our political, ecological, and social climate, so I look forward to seeing how other artists are responding.