In 1973 the New York-based members of the temporarily transatlantic collective Art & Language published a booklet entitled Blurting in A & L: An Index of Blurts and Their Concatenation.1 The booklet contained some four hundred annotated statements or ‘blurts’ on topics from ‘Alternatives’ to ‘Work, Pragmatics of’, which in 2002 were transformed into an online hypertext version called Blurting in A & L Online hosted by the Zentrum für Kunst und Medien in Karlsruhe.2 The statements were generated out of a conversational project that took place between January and July 1973 in which members of Art & Language living in New York would meet for weekly discussions, recording their ideas and responses to one another. Blurting in A & L was one of a number of attempts to record and present the group’s theoretical discussions across the Atlantic that began with the installation Index 01, exhibited at Documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972, which consisted of eight filing cabinets containing short statements, with an index guide printed on the surrounding walls. Blurting in A & L, the booklet’s introduction states, was an attempt to ‘catch or map the topography of eight people’.3 According to one participant in Index 01, the art historian and critic Charles Harrison, these index projects aimed ‘to map a form of conversational world, and to find a representation, however schematic, of a place where meanings could be made’.4 If the booklets and gallery installations were not that place, where was it – and why did it need to be mapped, rather than painted, sculpted, imagined, described or photographed?
Each entry in Blurting in A & L is accompanied by a list of other ‘blurts’ to which it is related by implication or conjunction, although the choice of the logical symbols → and & only undermines the pseudo-logical absurdity of all principles of classification. For example, blurt number 30, ‘Art’, states: ‘How do we come to say “I know this is a great work of art”? It seems that we are conditioned to see it as a great work of art?’5 This is related by implication to statements on ‘Context’ and ‘Language’, and by conjunction to statements on ‘Art’, ‘Autonomy’ and ‘Belief’. Mapping their conversational world in this open-ended way was ‘oriented toward predicting a kind of behaviour that might be conducive to a learning situation for the user’. Through replicating in the experience of the user the ‘proceedings/decisions’ that the group went through, a model of art would be offered where instead of a ‘beholder’ passively receiving the work from an author, a user would actively engage with the output of a producer.6 Adding to the sense of order ceding to absurdity, the assumption is that from what is essentially an art theory version of the Choose Your Own Adventure series of children’s books, revolution would shortly follow. Among the questions posed to the user is the booklet’s own status as a map: ‘What is the distinction between a “map” and a “relationship”?’ The user learns that ‘[t]he relationship between a map and a territory is a projective one’, and that mapping is how ‘the “searcher (user)” is guided through this system’.7 This raises the question of the relationship between ambiguity and learning, from whence we are guided to entry 54, ‘Art, Work of’, which ideally ‘forces labyrinthine ruminations about “art”, the “category” art, the boundaries of art, art’s “nature” etc’.
The presentation of such ruminations within a system that forces reflection upon the conditions which make their presentation possible is one definition of conceptual art. If the question of how to map the place in which conceptual reflections about art could be made was central to the early work of Art & Language, it has been no less central to more recent attempts towards a more geographically expansive understanding of the history of conceptual art.8 This requires at times not participating in the conversational world of the artists themselves, for as art historian and critic Benjamin H.D. Buchloh has observed, early conceptual art was populated with figures ‘demanding respect for the purity and orthodoxy of the movement’ whose ‘convictions were voiced with the (by now often hilarious) self-righteousness that is continuous within the tradition of hypertrophic claims made in avant-garde declarations of the twentieth century’.9 A useful critical distance from such claims has revealed that the responses of a narrow group of American and British artists to minimalist sculpture and its associated commentary was shared by a diverse range of artists across the globe. While such definitional expansion raises legitimate concerns about the loss of art historical specificity in a curatorial aspiration towards inclusion, analytical precision can be maintained, according to philosopher Peter Osborne, by arguing that what unites this expanded definition of conceptual art in the 1960s is a shared critique of late modernist notions of ‘material objectivity, medium specificity, visuality, and autonomy’.10 Rather than moving from a model of centre (New York) and periphery (everywhere else) to what the curators of the influential 1999 exhibition Global Conceptualism called multiple points of origin (which somehow spontaneously emerge),11 conceptual art might better be understood as arising from a number of intentionally transnational interactions between a modernism institutionalised in galleries, museums and educational practice, and a multiplicity of local situations. Thus while it is true that British conceptual art, as the survey Conceptual Art in Britain (Tate Britain, London, 2016) made clear, was part of ‘an international network that encompassed western Europe and America’, given that a work’s self-reflexive commentary on its conditions of production is a defining feature of a conceptual artwork even in this globally expanded definition, attention to the ways in which such international networks and transnational interactions are incorporated into conceptual works themselves suggests itself as a topic of scrutiny.12 Shorn of the demand to participate in conversations about historical priority and doctrinal purity, where might the mapmaking attempts of Art & Language belong within this differently conceived geography and history?
One place, this essay argues, is the transatlantic. Or rather, the transatlantic understood as a virtual place in which a cosmopolitan mode of artistic and discursive production and exchange can occur. This understanding of the transatlantic derived from a belief in the cosmopolitan nature of visual modernism, even if by the 1950s it had become heavily identified with New York-based artists and critics, and this aspiration to artistic cosmopolitanism is one important continuity between modernism and conceptual art. As Harrison wrote of When Attitudes Become Form, the seminal 1969 exhibition of conceptual art that he co-curated at the Kunsthalle Bern: ‘Brief though it was, there may never have been so potentially cosmopolitan a moment in the history of art’.13 However, as the revival of interest in theories of cosmopolitanism in the era of globalisation has shown, if cosmopolitanism is to be more than a mystification of material and economic advantage in service of a privileged subject’s desire for a view from nowhere (or at least, to travel and exhibit anywhere), it requires a rethinking of what it means, as literary theorist Bruce Robbins has written, to be causally connected to a place before cosmopolitanism’s ideals of placelessness can be realised. Investigations of the causal – or indexical – relationship to place were central to Art & Language’s early practice, taking the form of maps, projects made with air, and eventually indexing projects like Blurting in A & L. It is this self-reflexive investigation and problematising of an artwork’s relationship to place, pursued through the use and investigation of various techniques of mapping and indexing, that constitutes Art & Language’s contribution to a longer history of transatlantic art. As the art historians David Peters Corbett and Sarah Monks have written, a recurring feature of art produced from transatlantic exchange is the depiction of ‘transatlantic topographies (whether geographical, social or historical) in ways which emphasize radical difference and indecipherability, testing the viewer’s ability to feel their way across divides and hence confirm their membership of particular communities of sentiment’.14 When treated as the maps and indexes they are claimed to be, the notorious obscurity and hermeticism of Art & Language’s work (often a quite intentional collapse into failures of communication) can be seen to share this testing of their viewer’s feelings (and patience) as to their own location and place.
If this transatlanticism was somewhat implicit in the writings and projects of the group in its early years, it was made explicit in the subsequent critical writings of Harrison, the group’s ‘co-author and editor’ since 1971. Harrison’s retrospective explication of the group’s earlier concerns in writing is paralleled by similar attempts in the form of paintings by Mel Ramsden and Michael Baldwin, such as Index: Incident in a Museum XIX 1987 (Tate T13894), which reworked earlier projects and motifs as a means of reinterpreting the latent assumptions of that work.15 Harrison’s retrospective highlighting of the importance of a transatlantic imaginary to the group’s early work also serves to draw attention to the importance of investigations of place in this work: what it means to be determined by a place, what it means to represent one’s relationship to a place, and the potential of the index in signifying these relationships. A focus on what they called ‘the language-use of the art society’ as the determining context for artistic production has often been seen as what distinguishes and limits Art & Language’s work in comparison with that of other conceptual artists, who focused instead on institutions (Marcel Broodthaers), gendered labour (Mierle Laderman Ukeles), subject formation (Mary Kelly) or property law (Hans Haacke).16 Attention to the intertwined issues of transatlanticism and cosmopolitanism recovers an attention to place in their early work; or rather, a tension between acknowledging a connection to place through indexical representation, and the aspiration to produce a properly cosmopolitan art out of a transatlantic dialogue with American modernism.
That being said, the focus on language and the questioning of place are interrelated. Art historian Mark E. Cheetham has pointed out that ‘the group was actively international in its membership, publications, and exhibition record but frequently guided by a subterranean logic of Englishness’. According to Cheetham this manifested itself in a use of the ‘essentially British tradition of analytic philosophy’ and ‘common sense’ thinking, and a hostility to the ‘French disease’ of semiotic theory and ‘theory’ as it was institutionalised in art history in the 1980s more broadly.17 However, another subterranean logic of Englishness was its perceived bias in favour of the literary over the visual, and a desire to escape the ‘provinciality’ of an English culture defined by its bias in favour of the literary was one source of the aspiration to cosmopolitanism in the 1960s. The group’s investigation of the relationship between art and language was aligned with a tension between provinciality and cosmopolitanism, and both arose out of a transatlantic dialogue as the place in which such meanings were made.
The way in which Art & Language’s early work can be seen to be ‘about’ a transatlantic dialogue can be shown by Harrison’s discussion of a somewhat later series of paintings on the theme of the artist’s studio, a discussion arising from a series of lectures in 1982–3 which he defined as showing what the paintings were ‘made of – practically, intellectually, culturally and conceptually’.18 ‘Made of’ for Art & Language (whose members by this point consisted only of Harrison, Baldwin and Ramsden) signifies a specific approach to pictorial interpretation that believes ‘that both inquiries into what works of art are of, or what they represent and signify, and inquiries into what they express or mean, are properly inquiries into causes, and that the explanations of representation and expression are properly claims about how works of art have been or are caused and produced’.19 All works of art are indexes: signs which express their causes. Given that Art & Language’s own works present themselves as indexes, there is a circularity at play here: a theory of interpretation is proposed, and works that fit that interpretation are produced. However, in the same way that, say, artist Robert Smithson’s writings offer an unconvincing theory of museums but a revealing insight into his ‘non-sites’, this circular reasoning serves as a reminder that the critical writings of Art & Language members are most rewardingly interpreted as tendentious justifications of a particular artistic practice rather than theories or histories of modernist or conceptual art tout court.
It is with this sense of ‘made of’ that Harrison offered his account of the ‘transatlantic dialogue’ informing Art & Language’s work. This was positioned as the latest in a sequence of transatlantic exchanges informing post-war British art that their own work interrogated. The first began with the Independent Group, which ‘looked to America initially not as a source of authentic art, but as the point of distribution of an exciting culture and mythology’, an iconography of modernisation and mass consumer culture.20 The second transatlantic dialogue was that described in 1974 by the artist Patrick Heron, who claimed that there was mutual influence between English Middle Generation painters like Peter Lanyon and American abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning, rather than English painting simply belatedly imitating American style. For all that Harrison dismissed this as a superficially empirical understanding of style as appearance rather than an index of what a painting is ‘made of’, he unwittingly shared Heron’s claim that later American abstract expressionism had gradually become not less but ‘more susceptible to verbal description’ under the influence of the criticism of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried.21 This is the topic of Art & Language’s transatlantic dialogue: neither mass cultural iconography nor national schools; instead ‘[t]he issue was Modernism itself’, which ‘had now to be perceived and understood in terms of the dynamic of American painting and the rationalization of theory for which Greenberg was largely responsible’.22 While it might seem reductive in light of the vastly more complex understanding of visual modernism developed in recent decades to reduce the entirety of modernism to the criticism of Greenberg, such a reduction needs to be historicised as a documented impetus for many artists in Britain who were driven to conceptual forms of work. The frequent citing of John Latham’s Art and Culture 1966–9 (fig.1; also known as Still and Chew: Art and Culture 1966–1967) as a starting point for conceptual art in Britain – an action for which Latham withdrew a copy of Greenberg’s Art and Culture (1961) from the Central Saint Martin’s library in order to chew it up and return it in the form of bottled fluids – is effective because it points to the historically traceable narrowing of theories of modernism in Britain and to the crucial role of educational institutions in this process of reduction.
In the mid-1960s, then, a critique of modernism in Britain – or ‘Modernism’ as institutionalised by American theorists and artists – required a transatlantic dialogue. The definition of modernism informing Art & Language’s work loads the art historical dice: modern art in England can thus only be ‘a history of delayed and mediated responses’: as Harrison stated, ‘The typical “advanced” English painting of the 1960s wears its “emphatic surface”, its “flatness”, its “creative emptiness”, like a provincial’s badge of allegiance to a specific discourse about the American paintings of Newman, Rothko, Still and Pollock’.23 This argument that the critique of modernism that motivated Art & Language’s turn towards conceptual forms of practice was a means to escape provincialism was repeated in Harrison’s Essays on Art & Language (1991), where its opposed ideal was identified: ‘Certainly, in the 1960s cosmopolitan Modernism still meant American art and American criticism … Those aspiring artists in Britain and on the Continent who failed to acknowledge this power and coherence condemned themselves to a kind of carping provincialism’. English artists seeking a ‘foothold in modern practice in the mid-1960s’ required ‘the acquisition of an adequate grasp of Modernism as a complex and cosmopolitan culture’.24
In these accounts, provincialism is not equated with Englishness per se, nor cosmopolitanism with the United States. Rather, provincialism is an unquestioning reliance upon critical discourse about visual works, rather than an engagement with the dynamic between critical discourse and visual form, so that for a provincial the ‘experience of works of art … seems to result in the perception of just those effects already picked out in the vocabulary of Modernist criticism: flatness, literalness, reductiveness, expressiveness, and so on … We are entitled to ask whether the dynamic is carried out through the art, or through the linguistic concepts of an attendant vocabulary.’25 This is the accusation levelled in a different way by a range of early Art & Language works: Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin’s 1967 Title Equals Text series, where text is exhibited on a gallery wall, or Mel Ramsden’s Secret Painting 1967–8 (fig.2), consisting of a painted black square beside a statement proclaiming: ‘The content of this painting is invisible’. As Ramsden later explained, ‘[i]t had seemed necessary, finally, that the “talk” went up on the wall’.26 This was not only the talk of critics, but also the talk of minimalist artists like Donald Judd and Robert Morris whose influential critical writings, received in Britain well before their work was exhibited, signalled a shift in the relationships between theory and production. However, as Harrison wrote in 1970, this shift took on a different meaning in England than in the United States, since it echoed the established tradition of the Picturesque, a theory and practice assuming the inextricability of aesthetic experience from verbal rhetoric, and since ‘English culture particularly has a heavy bias in favour of the literary/scenic … even today. How to defeat an Eng. Lit. education? How to be anyone but Wordsworth?’27 In this context, attention to the relationship between art and language could on the one hand reinvigorate an established national tradition; on the other, by locating this shift within an artistic category not defined by the nation, the concept of national artistic identity could be brought into question.
It follows that Art & Language’s self-historicisation of their investigation of the dynamic between the visual and the verbal within the history of modernism involves a repudiation of nation-based histories of aesthetic practice that, paradoxically, could only have arisen from one of those specific histories. This investigation involved an attempt to recover ‘the dialectical character of Modernism’ that had been suppressed in the criticism of Greenberg and Fried; that tension between the ‘ideal of spontaneity and immediacy and freedom of expression and effect … and the recourse to such technical means of realization as stress the obliqueness and indirectness and conventionalization of all forms of expression’.28 In the context of early Art & Language work, this is the tension between the ideal of an immediate visual perception of abstract painting and the recourse to a conventional critical language in the production and interpretation of such work. If the latter is embarrassingly provincial, the former is not proudly cosmopolitan, as is an international language of abstract forms. Rather in this peculiar yoking of questions of form to a moralising politics of place (since there is never any doubt as to what is a virtue and what is a vice), exploration of the role of language in art is mapped onto a cosmopolitan art untethered to national or local situations. If Art & Language’s early works initiated a transatlantic dialogue to investigate the relationship between art and language, to recover a cosmopolitanism inherent in a dialectical theory of modernism, and to produce indexes mapping the world from which such investigations were made, what would an index of such a cosmopolitan space be ‘made of’?
Cosmopolitanism and capitalism
One answer to the question regarding the nature of Art & Language’s cosmopolitanism would be: the market. Although art theorist and historian Lucy Lippard’s 1968 claim that ‘dematerialization’ was a common quality shared by many early conceptual artworks was quickly recognised to be misleading – not least by Lippard herself when admitting in the preface to her influential 1973 compendium Six Years that ‘a piece of paper or photograph is as much an object, or as “material” as a ton of lead’ – her choice to highlight a ‘de-emphasis on material aspects’ also aimed to draw attention to changes in the geography of artistic production, circulation and consumption.29 In 1969 she stated that
One of the important things about the new dematerialized art is that it provides a way of getting the power structure out of New York and spreading it around to wherever an artist feels like being at the time. Much art now is transported by the artist, or in the artist himself, rather than by watered down, belated circulating exhibitions or by existing information networks such as mail, books, telex, radio, etc. The artist is travelling a lot more, not to sightsee, but to get his work out … The artists who are trying to do non-object art are introducing a drastic solution to the problem of artists being bought and sold so easily, along with their art.30
In this vision dematerialised art would enable the urban metropolis of aesthetic modernism to be replaced by the cosmopolis of conceptual art, a space extending to any location incorporated within networks of travel or media communication. Art would not be produced in and by a place, but by a new artistic subject at home anywhere within a network of circulation that would make place, in its traditional sense, irrelevant, and this mobility would escape the logic of commodification. By 1975 Lippard would admit that ‘[h]opes that “conceptual art” would be able to avoid the general commercialization, the destructively “progressive” approach of modernism were for the most part unfounded’; conceptual artists were not freed from ‘the tyranny of a commodity status and market orientation’.31
Yet this did not mean that conceptual art had failed in its cosmopolitan impulse. Quite the contrary: conceptual art circulated throughout the world’s major galleries, and the acceptance of magazines and catalogues as artworks was, as Lippard stated in 1973, a ‘minor revolution in communication’ that enabled the emergence of art as a discursive practice that ‘sets up new critical criteria by which to view and vitalize itself (the function of the Art-Language group and its growing number of adherents)’.32 It has taken the later work of art historians such as Alexander Alberro and Sophie Richard to show that rather than a narrative of resistance followed by incorporation, the commercial networks of curators and gallerists like Seth Sieglaub and Konrad Fisher and the publicity strategies they shared with multinational corporations enabled from its inception the waning importance of place very correctly sensed by Lippard.33 Indeed, it is this break from the rhythm of negation and incorporation that art historian Thomas Crow sees as defining and ultimately limiting modernism’s relationship to mass culture, and its succession by a new dynamic where critique is a motor of innovation for what sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have called the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ based on the management of information and affect, that signals the difference between modernist and conceptualist art in their responses to modernity.34 Lippard’s sense as early as 1972 that works like Index 01 or Blurting in A & L were ‘vitalizing’ in the formation of new artistic markets is an important check on the self-proclaimed criticality of these works, and it shows that this is one aspect of their conceptual cosmopolitanism.
The fact that the mobility and ability to feel at home anywhere in the world central to cosmopolitanism has been enabled by capitalism has long been a factor in its critique from the political left. As Karl Marx and Frederick Engels famously wrote: ‘the bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country’.35 Cultural theorist Timothy Brennan has pointed to a rhetoric of cosmopolitanism in what he calls ‘the culture of the transnational corporation’.36 The revival of cosmopolitan theory that has taken place since the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989, in the work of thinkers as diverse as Jürgen Habermas, James Clifford, Bruce Robbins, Pheng Cheah, K. Anthony Appiah and Seyla Benhabib, has been marked by attempts to disentangle cosmopolitanism’s promise of subjectivity beyond nationality from its dependence upon capitalist exchange – or in Lippard’s terms, to disentangle the promise of the artist being able to create and distribute work across national borders from the tyranny of ‘market orientation’. As Robbins writes in an introduction to the new cosmopolitanism: ‘Capital may be cosmopolitan, but that does not make cosmopolitanism into an apology for capitalism’.37
A common strategy to avoid such apologies among new cosmopolitan thought has been to replace the normative power of cosmopolitanism as the ‘view from nowhere’ – the ideal argued by philosophers Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill – with a cosmopolitanism that distinguishes its claims to universality with a self-reflexive attention to the ways in geographical and historical conditions of place effect such aspirations. As Robbins has written:
We are connected to all sorts of places, causally if not always consciously, including many we have never travelled to, that we have seen on television – including the place where the television itself was manufactured. It is frightening to think how little progress has been made in turning invisibly determining and often exploitative connections into conscious and self-critical ones and how far we remain from mastering the sort of allegiances, ethics and actions that might go with our complex and multiple belonging.38
Anthropologist Paul Rabinow has defined a ‘critical cosmopolitanism’ as ‘an acute consciousness (often forced upon people) of the inescapabilities and particularities of places, characters, historical trajectories, and fates’.39 The contents of Rabinow’s parenthesis – the traditions and scope for cosmopolitan thinking arising from conditions of colonisation – have been necessarily more central to the new cosmopolitan political thought than the kinds of anxieties expressed by Lippard. That being said, the renewed attention to the question of place effected by this thinking can provide fresh readings of the investigations of place in the primarily Anglo-American art surveyed by Lippard, and can help to connect Art & Language’s attempt to the recover a cosmopolitan version of modernism out of a transatlantic dialogue with its attempts to map and index the kind of place where such cosmopolitan work might be made.
Place and context
A 1970 essay by Terry Atkinson in the Art-Language journal gave the ‘Art & Language Point of View’ on Lippard’s 1968 thesis about dematerialisation. According to Atkinson, while works like Robert Morris’s steam jets expand the notion of sculptural matter, even in the case of projective works like Robert Barry’s printed statements (such as Untitled (Something Which Can Never Be Any Specific Thing) 1969, Museum of Modern Art, New York), ‘[m]ost of the works of conceptual art are works very much bounded by concepts of matter’. By contrast, the work of Art & Language was claimed to be concerned with the frameworks in which essays about matter can count as ‘conceptual art’: ‘There is an attempt in Art and Language Press work to go for the contextual questions not the object questions’.40 That there is ‘workable context’ in which art can be questioned is ‘the crucial condition of Conceptual art’.41 One lacuna in this claiming of ‘context’ as the terrain of Art & Language inquiry is their dismissal of Marcel Duchamp, whose readymades are reduced to the act of asserting that a non-art object is art through its placement in an art ‘ambience’. This reductive understanding of the readymade vitiates Atkinson’s claims for originality: in failing to recognise the ways in which the readymade pointed to how the artist’s act of assertion was precisely not enough for something to be recognised as art by revealing the institutional logics that made that assertion possible, this shows the limitations of the linguistic model of conceptual art.42 Atkinson lists a number of works that engaged the question of context as well as matter: David Bainbridge’s Crane 1966, and Atkinson and Baldwin’s The Temperature Show 1966, Air-Conditioning Show / Air Show / Frameworks 1966–7 and Oxfordshire Show 1966 (all three in the collection of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Barcelona). For all the essay’s misunderstandings of Duchamp and undigested use of analytical philosophy, the claim is that what unites and distinguishes early Art & Language’s work is an investigation of place and context.
Two sets of these early projects show the trace of the transatlantic in these investigations of place that aimed, on the one hand, to recover the cosmopolitanism latent in previous theories of modernism, and on the other to investigate the contexts in which conceptual art could pose questions about materiality. Air-Conditioning Show began as a text sent to Robert Smithson, who published an early excerpt written by Baldwin in Art News in 1967 under the title ‘Remarks on Air-Conditioning: An Extravaganza of Blandness’.43 Alluding to both Smithson’s theory of the non-site and Robert Morris’s ‘Notes on Sculpture’, the text situates itself in a magazine-based culture where texts respond to descriptions of projects rather than to the projects themselves. Air-Conditioning Show (fig.3) proposed an exhibition of a room of air-conditioned air, the control of the air temperature aimed at ensuring there would be no extreme variations in heat that would cause a viewer to focus on their tactile experience, as opposed to the questions raised by the ‘enigmatic’ entity on display: air-conditioned air. As an expanded version of the text published later in 1967 emphasised, these were not only questions about the withdrawal of the visibility of the artwork, but more importantly about different concepts of measurement that could be applied to air – volume, temperature or kinetic activity. The ability for artists to undertake ‘exegesis’ about entities in the form of statements like ‘is over there, in that place’ thus depends upon ‘jerrymanded’ scientific concepts of measurement. This was not the response of an actual spectator, for the ‘spectator’s’ role in the Air-Conditioning Show gets its ‘meanings from the part they play in their theory: and this is to suggest that there are theoretical reasons why it is pointless to hope for an entry into the perusal – “even observational” – situation’.44 However, even as a speculation, in order to prompt a focus on concepts of measurement, the room had to be as socially neutral as possible to avoid the ‘feeling that what was occurring was technologically miraculous (such feelings are engendered by air conditioning in, say, London, whereas people are used to it in New York.)’. If the project aimed at drawing attention to the scientific conceptual frameworks through which we define where something is placed – even something as evanescent as air – its conditions were dependent upon transatlantic distance and difference. The opportunities offered by air conditioning only become visible because of their foreignness in England, but given that the project relies upon air conditioning being experienced as ‘socially neutral’ as opposed to ‘technologically miraculous’, it can only be realised in New York. It is a conceptual work which could (and has) been installed anywhere within the globalised system of contemporary art, yet it indexes its origins from a specifically transatlantic exchange.
A second set of projects indexing a transatlantic dimension to Art & Language’s explorations of place is indicated in the conclusion to ‘Remarks on Air Conditioning’, which states that Air-Conditioning Show does not depend upon ‘old-fashioned logical postulates’, a claim mysteriously elucidated by a footnote describing the ‘Bellman’s map’ in Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ (1876), in which a sea captain presents a map that is ‘A perfect and absolute blank!’.45 The logical postulate that this blank map illustrates is explained in Baldwin and Atkinson’s Title Equals Text No. 22 1967, part of a series of texts printed to be exhibited on a gallery wall. As Title Equals Text No. 22 explains, the Bellman’s map was used by philosopher Gertrude Anscombe to explain the ‘old fashioned postulate of the law of non-contradiction’ in terms of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s picture theory of logic.46 In Anscombe’s explanation, a picture is the form of a proposition because the same picture has two senses: it shows one state of affairs that does exist, or one state of affairs that does not, if we are able to project the picture onto the world, and it possesses these logical senses independent of whether or not it is true. However, an all-white or blank map, as a projection, shows p and not p in this system; that is, it shows a tautology. The point of this logical allusion, one which shares Carroll’s humorous mocking of logical perfection, is that Air-Conditioning Show is not about exhibiting a tautology; that it is not, in other words, a conceptual work of art in the form advocated by Joseph Kosuth, where a work of art only describes itself. The room really does exhibit something (air), and it really does derive from a social and historical context (transatlantic technological difference). Reflecting upon how these might be measured and represented is what the piece is about.
If we take the blank map as the picture of a tautology, and the tautology as one definition of a conceptual artwork circulating in 1967, we can interpret the proliferation of blank maps produced by Atkinson and Baldwin as similarly mocking substitutions of a tautological model of a work of art with an indexical one. After proposing the Air-Conditioning Show, in 1967 Atkinson and Baldwin produced a series of un-exhibited drawings consisting of blank squares, entitled Map of the Sahara Desert After Lewis Carroll; Map of a Floor Whose Average Temperature is 62F…; A Map of an Area of the Sahara Desert Where the Temperature is 62F; Map of Thirty-Six Square Mile Surface Area of Pacific Ocean West of Oahu (Tate P01356); and Map of an Area of Dimensions 12” x 12” Indicating 2,304 1/4 Inches. (Map of Itself) (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Barcelona). The very proliferation of these drawings shows what is wrong with the idea that a blank map is a picture of a tautology (a point granted by Anscombe), and by implication, what is wrong with the idea that a conceptual artwork can be a tautology: self-defining and neither referring to the world nor being determined by it. That a blank map shows the logical form of the world might be seen as the ultimate reduction and exaltation of the modernist appeal to eyesight alone (and an earlier series of copies made by Michael Baldwin in 1965 of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square 1915 (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow) situates these maps within a wider critique of visual modernism’s medium specificity). However, we can only grasp that a white square can be a map showing a tautological state of affairs if we know the different states of affairs it can stand for – temperature, the Sahara, the Pacific itself; in short, and very obviously, we get there by way of language.
This point is brought home in the 1967 print Map Not To Indicate (fig.4). In a 1999 volume commenting on their earlier work, Art & Language (by now Harrison, Ramsden and Baldwin) explained that the map area shows where ‘indication is indicated’, the list area where ‘non-indication is indicated’. Both areas use ‘naming’, or language, to make their point, but the list only derives its significance through its relationship to the map – since, as they write, ‘[w]here there is no road in a certain place we do not conventionally indicate this fact upon the relevant map by labeling it “There is no road at this point”’.47 Yet that is exactly how maps work – not showing a road shows there is no road. By breaking this convention, the list raises all kinds of questions. Why these names? Why not others? What else is not indicated the map – and what is the significance of this being a map both of and not of the United States by two English artists?
In the catalogue to a 2014 survey exhibition of their work Art & Language wrote that ‘it is essential to our sense of “map” (or for that matter “index”) that it is genetically linked to something, even if the modality of that link is no more than a possibility’.48 What is this map from 1967 possibly genetically linked to? A number of forms of signification are being put under pressure here: what blank space depicts, the independence of visual and linguistic codes, the indexicality of a map itself. Doing so produces a potential or virtual United States to which the map could possibly be genetically related, comparable to Adrian Piper’s maps of Manhattan, or Manhattan transposed onto Utah (see Utah-Manhattan Transfer 1968, Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation Berlin, Berlin). But just as knowledge of the genetic origins of Piper’s work is necessary to grasp the significance of the creation of this virtual place as an investigation of the racialisation of urban planning, so too is recognising the transatlantic genesis of Map Not To Indicate essential to registering the import of transforming the United States into a virtual impossibility.49 Literary historian Paul Giles has written that ‘to virtualize America is not only to denaturalize it, but also to suggest how its own indigenous representations of the “natural” tend to revolve tautologously, reinforcing themselves without reference to anything outside their charmed circle’.50 This definition is useful for connecting the notion of tautology as form, which is scrambled in Air-Conditioning Show and the blank map series, to the process of provincial national self-definition, with the map turning that most seemingly natural of representation of the nation – the map itself – into a logical absurdity. Rather than treating the United States as a space of virtual possibility for self-fashioning, as for example in David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings (such as Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool 1966, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), this map turns it into a virtual impossibility.
It is through this alignment of the tautological nature of national representation with the tautology of the autonomous artwork, and the negation of both by turning them into indexes of virtual spaces, that these works generate a potential cosmopolitanism out of the strategies of conceptual art. Art & Language’s maps are indexes of impossible virtual places; the group’s indexing projects map a virtual place in which meanings can be made, a virtual space identified with the promise of cosmopolitanism as a conceptual practice rather than – or at least not only – a mode of subjectivity produced by capitalist exchange. Similarly, the production of works where the literary and the visual are mutually intertwined, and the claim that these works belong to a cosmopolitan history of modernism, undercuts the self-reinforcing associations between art and nationality, whether of the literary bias of English culture or the uniquely English intertwining of art and language. Transatlantic exchange, as a material historical condition and as the self-reflexive themes of works themselves, enabled this attempt at a conceptual cosmopolitanism. Like the rise and fall of conceptual art’s wider cosmopolitan impulses traced by Lippard, or the unsolved problematic of place in recent cosmopolitan theory, the limitations of this attempt are as revealing as the desire that produced it. Still, at a time when the desire for the nation is at once unexpectedly resurgent and profoundly destabilising to whatever form of polity ‘British’ designates, any attempt from the art historical past to grapple with what it might mean to be both national and cosmopolitan speaks with a renewed claim on our attention.