Art as Languaging – Prospectively, a PhD


In my Masters degree I made a questionnaire about the word ‘all’. At the time I had seen that project as a good way of investigating the word. I’d been interested in linguistics and what was happening in people’s heads when they formed sentences. While I was interested at the time in participatory art I now realise I was only at the beginning of thinking through some of its possibilities. On reflection, there is a lot there that we have only just begun to come to terms with in art theory.


Historically, art has consisted of a static object created by someone who has a particular view or understanding of the world we live in. They want to communicate that. The work that comes out of that communication is static though. As Marcel Duchamp said in his 1957 lecture ‘The Creative Act’ the viewer has to bring something to the appreciation of that work. Here’s an extract from that lecture:

‘The creative act takes another aspect when the spectator experiences the phenomenon of transportation through the change from inert matter in to a work of art. An extra trans-substantiation has taken place. The role of the spectator is to determine the weight of the work on the aesthetic scale. All in all the creative act is not performed by the artist alone. The spectator brings the work in to contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification.’


So while the viewer in this situation must make some contribution the object itself remains unchanged.  Looking at art in this way we can say that there are two different views of where the art itself is. One is to say that the art is the painting on the wall. The other is to say the important part of the experience is in the growth of the viewer’s world view. If an artist can propose that growth then something good is happening. 


The above is all somewhat obvious to an art educated observer but my reason for attempting to develop this point is that this decoupling is ongoing in art. It has further to go. The furious rate of change in culture specifically over the past ten years but more generally the past forty years is incredible. Naturally, it is difficult for theory to keep abreast of developments.


Participatory art has moved on a lot since that lecture. Nicholas Bourriaud’s book Relational Aesthetics did a good job of documenting much of this, albeit in 1998. The work he described in that book was often very good but still inhabited the static frame I described above. I could sleep in Rirkrit Tiravanija’s bed or drink his chicken soup and be a physical part of the work but my contribution to it would still not be so much greater than when I look at The Nightingale by Max Ernst or one of Howard Hodgkin’s paintings where the paint spreads out on to the picture frame. 

Meta-textuality in art has become increasingly prevalent. There is a sense that the locus of art has moved from the painting on the wall toward an idea at which an object in a gallery is pointing. The spectator’s primary contribution to the work, however, is still centred on what Duchamp calls ‘deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification’. Increasingly though, with that shift in the locus of the artwork from object to experience and intellectual growth, there is an increase in the potential for work that depends on the viewer to act on the increased agency implied in this shift.


In her 2018 conference speech ‘Public Participation and Agency in Art Museums’ Emilie Sitzia makes the observation that “a specific definition of agency that is operationalisable in terms of empirical research and evaluation – two key aspects of participatory practices research – is still missing from the art museum studies field”. She goes on to develop this definition using Mateas and Stern’s essay about gaming, ‘Interaction and Narrative’. Nonetheless, her making this comment in 2018 serves to highlight the fact that there is work to be done exploring agency in museums and galleries.


In the process of doing my Masters I had to write the older posts of this blog. I enjoyed that a great deal. I think I enjoyed it so much because prior to that point I had never had to organise or document my thoughts. Obviously I’d written essays in my Bachelor’s degree but I never had the sense that I was investigating something in them. I was writing those essays out of obligation really. On reflection, that’s disappointing but there it is. Writing essays and blog posts during my Masters helped me to see the benefits of shaping my thoughts in to articulate form. Then in the questionnaire itself there seemed to be a similar process for some people. The directness of the questions led them in to a thought process that had a different kind of engagement to one they might normally encounter in a gallery.


There is a  linguistic theory called Languaging. 

The linguist Merrill Swain uses the term to describe the cognitive process undergone in second language learning in which ‘language serves as a vehicle through which thinking is articulated and transformed into an artifactual form’. Language is a key part of the process of knowledge creation as well as describing our experience of the world to other people.


In his paper ‘Translanguaging as a Practical Theory of Language’ Li Wei describes the process of participating in therapy as being similar. Cognition of one’s emotional history and state develops as one talks an issue through. In writing my blog I was also trying to realise the ‘descriptive adequacy’.  regarding my ideas about the work I was making. Initially they had been inchoate and ill defined. I had to write my thoughts down to begin to understand what they were. Language itself is the means by which we know ourselves and cannot be separated from the rest of our identities. Li Wei furthers this point: “I would go as far as saying that making a distinction between language and the rest of the mind is meaningless. Making such a distinction implies that language and mind are two ensembles that can be delimited, as if one could draw a line between the two, or indeed trace a line around language within the mind. This is misleading both from an anatomical and functional viewpoint”. 


I’m choosing to keep the questionnaires focused on language because I think the proposal is formally about language. There is a common idea that we are somehow prisoners of language, that language is a clumsy tool to articulate the complexities of human experience and consciousness. And yet, language is what we have. That is no coincidence. As Li Wei says above, language is inseparable from the rest of the mind. The more realised our understanding of it is the better equipped we will be   The project hopes to provide a framework in which viewers might further realise their own ideas about how they think and speak. In completing one such questionnaire a viewer will be participating in a Languaging process. It feels more conceptually balanced to me to keep the content of the questionnaire mirroring its theoretical basis.

I do believe I need to undertake the PhD in a place where I will have to undergo an intensive languaging process myself on a day to day basis. I will not have the insight required to do this without breaking out of my own complacency as a native English speaker. In this sense I will also be looking to investigate translanguage and thus transnational avenues in the questionnaires, though my own interest in language is more in asking people about their sense of a sentence’s journey from its primal stages to becoming articulate. What do we believe is happening in our heads when we talk? How might this understanding evolve with a little focusing?


The possibilities for participatory art have been growing over the past twenty years, especially in Asia, but I still feel like much of that needs to be explored more rigorously. For me, it opens up so many questions not just about how we look at art but also art’s place in society as a whole. Beyond that, digital technology is not only changing the boundaries of what is technically possible but also reshaping much of how we relate to one another and subsequently how we think. This is a double edged sword offering benefits and difficulties. While I am not I do think participatory art is well equipped to address many of the challenges we face in the world today, which represent an incredible leap on from the challenges of even ten years ago.

There is also the question of the storage of the answers to the questionnaires after people have written them. Some of those have the potential to be as or more interesting if presented well. This would place the work in a double state, with my one contribution amounting to an attempt to trigger the outcome in the gallery.


The proposal can be summarised thus then:

  • Participation in art has changed and is changing yet further
  • Art can be a form of languaging, inciting a more developed world view in its spectator
  • If the spectator is explicitly required to engage with the work on that basis then so much the better
  • Digital technology facilitates this

It is in many respects a ridiculously ambitious proposal. It will require a lot of reading in to both linguistics and art theory to even get started. And there are likely to be many pathways beyond those. While it will result in a range of pieces of artwork It will be a largely theory and research focused PhD.  Nonetheless the technical challenges will be hard work as well. I am aware that I have a lot of work to do to back up much of what I’ve written above but I do feel like it would need a PhD to do that adequately. 

My PhD question then is: Participatory art as languaging by the means of questionnaires about language.

I will leave with this quote from Jaques Ranciere in the Emancipated Spectator 

‘The ignorant schoolmaster… does not teach his pupils his knowledge, but orders them to venture in to the forest of things and signs, to say what they have seen and what they think of what they have seen, to verify it and have it verified.’ I want these questionnaires to act as an ignorant schoolmaster.

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