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MoMA

ECSTATIC ALPHABETS/HEAPS OF LANGUAGE: A Q&A WITH DEXTER SINISTER, PART 4

August 10, 2012  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language: A Q&A with Dexter Sinister, Part 4

Here is the final installment of the four-part Q&A with Dexter Sinister, contributing artists to the exhibition Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language, on view in the Museum’s third-floor Special Exhibitions Gallery until August 27, 2012.

Installation view of Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language, The Museum of Modern Art, May 6–August 27, 2012. Photo by Thomas Grischkowsky. © The Museum of Modern Art, New York

In the fine print at the end of each issue of Bulletins of the Serving Library you outline the pedagogical aims of The Serving Library, which seem to be driven to a large extent by your questioning the relevancy of the Bauhaus foundation course as the still-default system for teaching art and design today. As an alternative and timelier framework you propose the Photoshop toolbox, that quintessential digital playground for today’s art-and-design-minded types. How do you see the Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language book (or third issue of the BoTSL) as contributing to your educational goals? I also wondered about the correlation between your pedagogical ideas and your larger practice of working as artists/designers, equipped as you are with a certain *artistic license,* with smaller or larger cultural institutions, at times rattling their infrastructures. Working with you on the book here on the curatorial end (and as a kind of go-between with other colleagues at the Museum i.e. Exhibitions, Legal, Registrar, Bookstore, etc.), I certainly sailed through the occasional moment that asked for some habitual departmental procedure to be adjusted a bit in order for the *catalog-of-sorts* to land on the bookshelves … any thoughts?

If there is any pedagogical agenda that spans our work, I’d have to say it has to do with thinking across existing categories, and encouraging others to do the same. We often talk about realizing this by doing it, or by modeling a particular approach to working, thinking, and writing that moves freely across assumed dividing lines. Others might recognize this way of working and retool it for themselves.

Concretely, I’ll start with your first question of how this issue of Bulletins of The Serving Library might further our educational goals, though I have to say we’re immediately wary of making too big a claim towards a set of explicit goals beyond, again, simply encouraging others to think outside the usual categories and conventions. I wouldn’t say that this MoMA issue of the Bulletins *directly* addresses pedagogy in any way, either, but as it turns out, the previous issue DID circle around pedagogy, just as the common denominator for this one was typography. As you might have guessed by now, some four questions in, that “circles around” is important.

Although issue #2 evolved from a summer course we taught at The Banff Centre last summer, very few of the texts that ended up in the issue were “about education” per se, but rather addressed the subject laterally, so to speak. For example, one of the bulletins comprises the rules for The Mafia Game. This is a simple group role-playing game that encourages players to be aware of their role, that role’s effect on the overall structure, and how these two aspects change in real time *while* the game is being played. In other words, you need to maintain a kind of two-tiered consciousness of what’s going on, and constantly reset your expectations of what will happen next. If anything, this might be a grand and somewhat dry metaphor for how we think around education—but it’s also *very* entertaining to play!

Anyway, we generally tilt toward scenarios where those involved (including ourselves) are both actively performing AND aware and critical of that performance. So when we invited somebody to write in Bulletins #3, we also made certain that they knew that our autonomous publication would also serve as the catalogue for the MoMA exhibition. It’s hard to say how or even if this in any way changed the writing, but anticipating how a collection of texts from the outskirts of typography simultaneously doubles as a catalogue at least leads to a heightened awareness of the situation, which may have useful knock-on effects. Anyway, the framework for all this to happen has to be carefully articulated in order for any of this to work. If there is any educational impulse, then, it must be in this scaffold.

I can expand outwards from the first part of your question into the second, in which you asked about how our educational agenda might apply to “rattling the infrastructure” of the institutions we’re working with. In this case, making a claim for education smacks of hubris, as if our project might get a solid institution to rethink its own, slowly drawn-out distinctions and departments. This is certainly not our starting point. Nonetheless, we certainly enjoy when what we propose has some institutional aftereffects.

Dexter Sinister (David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey). Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language. 2012. Detail of cover image for Jessica Winter’s contribution, “Brought To You By The Letter I.” Exhibition catalogue, 224 pages plus insert. Edited with Angie Keefer

For example, a couple years ago we participated in an exhibition at the Queens Museum of Art called The Curse of Bigness, organized by Larissa Harris. For this show, we also produced an exhibition catalogue as our contribution to the show as well as a new typeface, which was used to redo all of the museum’s permanent signage. This project was commissioned and produced as an artwork by Dexter Sinister, even though it was clearly much more easily recognized as a typical design project. And again, precisely *because* it was treated as an artwork, the signage met very little resistance within the Queens Museum, and was therefore completed relatively quickly, and for a relatively low budget. Previous attempts to achieve the same result with assorted design studios and committees had nosedived, crippled by too much input, but by refiling the same job under the auspices of an exhibition, the project was completed efficiently and the result was embraced by all departments in the museum. This was an education for us, certainly!

In the case of Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language, in an e-mail you mentioned what happened when we, as part of our “contribution to the show,” insisted that the publication would be sold as the catalogue in the bookshop for $5:

“When your hybrid project was shaping up, I found myself in interesting situations of explaining to other colleagues not familiar with your work what this book cum art contribution is; in particular our exhibitions and legal departments while drafting the contract, and later the bookstore staff. They had to jump through a couple of hoops to figure out the accounting of an artwork/book, how to route the five bucks back into and through the system, to offset operating expenses, etc.”

We love these situations, not for the sake of being a fly in the ointment or any other such counter-productive pose, but rather because it triggers actual thinking and rethinking. And precisely because the project won’t file neatly under any one institutional heading, it touches many different departments, and perhaps forms a temporary bridge between thinking one way and thinking another. Best of all (for us), these questions are set in motion by practical considerations, such as the completely reasonable response from the bookstore to you about how to reconcile this inexpensive book in their accounting systems. We’re typically shielded from such internal conversations, of course, but in any case, the specifics are rather less important than the idea that one thing (in this case a catalogue-artwork-journal) might suggest an active reconsideration of where one category ends and the next begins.

Perhaps our *overall* project for the show—the “Exhibition Catalogue” sold in the bookshop PLUS the “Trailer for the Exhibition Catalog” screened in the exhibition—might induce some similar thinking.

And to finish up the Q&A, of all the artists on the Ecstatic Alphabets checklist (both alive and deceased), who would you most like to greet as a guest in a future permanent home of The Serving Library?

Robert Smithson, with or without his Heap.

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