Tim Simonds, Phatic Talk

Poupeh Missaghi

Tim Simonds. Margins, 2017. Detail. I said, “say they” at Rond-Point Projects, Marseille. Materials: dibond, inkjet print, binder clips.

Tim Simonds and I met through our teaching at the Architecture Writing/Language/Making program at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. The course we taught was Transdisciplinary Writing, designed to help architecture students find and practice the language they need to use alongside their designs.

The first time I saw images of Tim’s work was during one of our lunchtimes at Urban Vintage Café. We had both taught our classes for the day, worked with our students on language diagrams, and were to go see them present their work in their design studio pinups. In retrospect, both the timing (this moment dedicated to the interaction of text and design) and the set-up of the café with its old recycled furniture and decorations, seem to me to have been the perfect temporal-spatial conditions for the beginning of our conversations about language and margins.

Tim Simonds has worked with language in various contexts, from language found on reused wood and that of product packaging to the language used in students’ feedback. In these interactions, he welcomes imperfections of all kinds: spelling errors, grammar issues, or even the hair that finds its way onto the pages he is working with. In his engagements with text, it is often not the central text or the marginalia that arouse his curiosity, but rather what comes to life in the space in between. It is not the content or form of either text, but rather the environment of language, language’s relational dynamics, that are the focus of his gaze. What matters is the unwritten text and conversation engendered by the two texts and the contexts around them.

—Poupeh Missaghi

Where did your interest in working with language originate?

Verbal language or written language? I have always been drawn to written language because it has always troubled me. As if it was something against me, that teased me, or didn’t get along with me. I am a horrible speller, a slow reader, and that is admittedly a part of my relationship to language, which plays a big role in my feeling as a teacher. But, I’ll answer from a different place.

When I had returned to New York after school, Brooklyn felt choked by new small businesses with their loud claims to authenticity—“farm to table,” “brick-and-mortar,” “wood, brass, and stone”—and the strange performances of their history—“Est. 2013,” “cash only,” “vintage,” “Emersonian spirit.” I was interested in how a company could fictionalize its own past in a way that extended farther back aesthetically than it did chronologically. By “aesthetically,” I do not mean a kind of typeface or graphic. A phrase like “Est. 2017” holds that kind of power for me. There is something about “Est.” that overlooks “2017” and stares beyond, daydreaming at the horizon of the past.

Tim Simonds. And Learn to Make a Body of a Limb, 2013. Detail from performance as part of installation Gymnasia 4 AM at Cleopatra’s, 2013. Materials: Boar’s Head Maple-Glazed Honey Turkey, edible potato-wafer paper, edible ink, wood, Bondo, chalk. Photo: Matthew Schrader.

Around the same time, I learned from the graphic designer Martin Kace a common way of explaining the difference between a brand and a campaign. A brand might be thought of as an identity, a body, a skin, while a campaign might be the activity or action of that body. I didn’t take that difference as a metaphor but allowed myself to be thoroughly convinced by it. And it equally became my way of looking at the language that companies use to present themselves. Nouns are a body or core that act with gesturing limbs, a parade of adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and prepositions. I equally wanted to throw these ideas up in the air, opening themselves to sensorial reversals and ouroboric postures. Limbs grabbing limbs rather than the kind of archetypical body-figure that I think we associate with value: a “core” has meaning, and a limb is an extremity, something extra, a tangent, appendage.

I did a performance at Cleopatra’s in 2013 (And Learn to Make a Body of a Limb as a part of Rochelle Goldberg, Dmitri Hertz, Krista Peters, and Matthew Schrader’s Gymnasia, 4:00 AM) that brought some of this together with pages of text that I ate after reading or stuck into the skeuomorphic skin of a loaf of Boar’s Head deli-meat. To me, the text was a dedication to Martin Kace who was very close to me, had been paralyzed from the chest down, and had recently passed away. A part of the reading was taken from four different “Our Story,” “Family & Heritage,” or “About Us” web pages of food brands. As the text progressed, more and more nouns from those explanations were redacted, and I would skip over these while reading. All the same, the blacked-out marks of the redactions were visible as black hunks through the translucency of the wafer paper I read from. That was one of my first direct actions on written language.  

It is interesting that your use of language in your art practice was prompted by observing business and corporate uses of language, for example, in the signs in Brooklyn which also seem to have struck a personal chord; while your works based on your personal relationship with Martin Kace developed into impersonal layers as well. How do you see these dynamics informing your work?  

The branding of a company that speaks about itself as a family lineage or piece of folklore is a strange tangle of the intimate and impersonal. I am interested in creating moments where those two coexist. The way the personal and the structured deal with each other. I let some kind of regulating device push itself into a social interaction or relation between things. That could be the censored blurring of a correspondence, the pace of a musical canon, bleach, an armature, or the critique of that red squiggle from the anonymous grammarian of Microsoft Word. Or it could be kind of the reverse, making an intimate gesture in a formalized thing like leaving a stray body hair on a document before scanning it. Describing my work in that way makes me think of a series of works I did called Thanks that I saw as thanking themselves for propping themselves up or hydrating themselves to keep some part of them from drying up. They propped themselves up high up on the wall, in a corner, or on the floor, and were often overlooked or got knocked over. Which seems to fit the way they related to themselves.

Tim Simonds. To do before washing hands, 2016. Installed as a part of Dump Camp organized and curated by Bethany Ides and Ari Ferdman, 2016. Materials: large format toner prints, gaffers tape.

But in And Learn to Make a Body of a Limb, that personal relationship to Martin wasn’t stated or explicit. And it is not important that he be directly acknowledged by that work; rather, the gesture of dedicating itself is important. I hesitate in using the word “portrait,” though, as much as I hesitate using the word “dedication.” In that performance, I misspell and mispronounce “dedication” as “de-dictation,” a sort of eating of one’s own words for one’s own sake, never reaching those to whom the words are addressed. The intimacy that interests me has this kind of remove. I think of two people reading a large museum didactic, one person wondering if they are reading as fast as the other and losing their focus on any meaning in the text beyond that interaction. In some way, fleeting moments, but also passive actions, shifts in attention that are trying to negotiate a relationship.

All the same, I can assign particular people, or an interaction with a particular person, to many objects I have made or the direction of a project. And sometimes that really is the initial drive: to replicate the difficulty of a personality. Entanglements of meekness and aggression, altruism and self-interest, criticality and insecurity, passivity and ostentation, are interesting personalities as much as they are materials and methods to me.

Could you speak a bit about the progression of your inquiry into language and its representation in your work?

After I wrote the text for And Learn to Make a Body of a Limb, I started to pay attention to how cut-off parts of language, margins of words, and crumbs of conversation spoke. On a wooden board that supports the irrigation system in Mark, a piece I showed at Cathouse Funeral a year later, there are a set of vinyl letters from the right edge of a paragraph that had been mounted on the reused panel. It reads

es of
ace will
a public
ims will
y to
for the
I fell in love with the fragment as something that set up a kind of environment of ambition and social responsibility without delivering a purpose. Irrigation for its own sake.

Tim Simonds. Mark, 2014. In Corners at Cathouse Funeral, 2015. Materials: cardboard, plaster, brick, Vaseline, various body washes and hair conditioners, fruits and vegetables. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Text is not always a part of my work, but when it does show up, I don’t assign much significance to what it actually says, but more to the kind of language it is, or to the relationship with which it is involved. That could be voices across roles in a professional relationship, a text to oneself like reminders written on one’s hand, or correspondences that are fragmented in their direction of address, like an email interview or the exchange between a student’s essayistic voice to a general reader and the personally addressed critical marginalia from a teacher. I think Roman Jakobson would call that the phatic or metalingual function of language which, for now, is the nearest to a satisfying way of describing my interest in communication. Words are not trying to deny their meaning to insist on their formal appearance nor free themselves from referring to some particular meaning, but rather in a phatic mode, create, sustain, or transform the contact between two ends of communication; or in the metalingual mode, like a sound check, checking in on what “code” a relationship is using to communicate and if it is working. In “Linguistics and Poetics,” Jakobson says that the phatic is “the first verbal function acquired by infants; they are prone to communicate before being able to send or receive informative communication.”

I believe strongly that language as phatic is overlooked, confused with the emotive, or washed over by other kinds of information. I would like to speak on the radio. I love the strangeness of address in a radio voice, when hosts are not hosting, not interviewing or speaking to a caller, just speaking, uncertain of who is listening and unable to know when a listener has tuned out. Expression unacknowledged by likes. Ken on WFMU. Some art does that well.

Tim Simonds. I said, “say they” installation at Rond-Point Projects, Marseille. Materials: celery, water, under-bed storage bins, bleach, dibond, inkjet print, binder clips. Photo: Emilie Segnarbieux, Rond-Point Projects.

The points you emphasize are really interesting. It seems to me that we usually either pay attention to the purpose and meaning of language, to the form and to our relationship with visuals of the language, or to interrelations of the two. I understand you to be saying that there is another aspect to our experience with language, not language per se, neither content nor form nor their mutual relationship, not even when this language appears in the margins, but more importantly what breathes in the margins of language. Would you agree?

Yes! Well, almost. That’s a nice way of putting it. It does have something to do with language as inseparable from activity. While language goes on, someone is breathing. Although this is just one version, I have this image of two middle-school students passing a crinkled note to each other about mutual crushes during class. The swing of their arms under the desk is not just a part of some other language (like gestural/body language) but is itself a part of written language.

Tim Simonds. Solips, 2016/17. I said, “say they” at Rond-Point Projects, Marseille. Materials: celery, water, under-bed storage bins, bleach. Photo: Emilie Segnarbieux, Rond-Point Projects.

It is more specific and equally perplexing to me than “what breathes in the margins of language.” Manners, etiquette, using tu/vous in French, pseudonyms, passive aggression—those themselves are communication and not just ways of delivering something. An extreme example is to imagine that everyone communicates to each other like opera singers with no off time between arias. But once I think of opera, my mind drifts away from the voice, lower than any centre of balance or concentration of air. The kind of language I think about is more about the footwork, something less practiced and meaningful. Yet all the same, cupped in leather or bare-toed, the feet might more quickly show one’s internal convictions or petitions to being in a “role.”

In what contexts and formations have you engaged with this environment of language? For example, in your first performance you worked with language in conjunction with Boar’s Head deli-meat; or in the next work you mentioned you used found writing on a wooden board. In what other contexts have you found the texts you engage with and turn into art?   

That to me gives a sense of something very possessive—seeing something in the world, wanting to hold onto it or “make it mine.” Of course, I find myself doing that. There is usually something more complicated than a desire for property that goes into wanting to “capture” something. I have used a lot of text from teaching, critical notes written down in the margins of a student’s paper, and the pace of a teacher’s voice when they are instructing an exercise—which isn’t limited to my own teaching nor the teaching of textual material, it could be instruction for movement or meditation for example.

In many of your works, you use material from your work as a teacher. How does your teaching inform the artworks? How are the two in conversation?

I won’t go too deep into that because I haven’t shown much work from that project. At the moment I wouldn’t call it a conversation. Of course, there are things that link back from my work and inform my teaching but that seems less direct and for now not a part of the project where material from my work as a teacher shows up.

Tim Simonds.          , 2017 edition. Materials: offset print on trace paper. Photo: Bella Janssens.

For instance, I do teach a course to architecture students that dips into certain philosophies of language (sort of dancing through J. L. Austin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Roman Jakobson, Gaston Bachelard, and Luce Irigaray) and I have created class exercises to compose texts or read a text as a movement by building an understanding in the class of the bodily composition of language—what its limbs are, how texts act on their own, and what they leave undetermined (phrases like “appealingly without” or “acrid toward”). But, that kind of “teaching material” is not a part of the project, and I don’t think it will be. The way I use material from teaching feels like reaping corn that’s growing in the wrong plot. I habitually scan the papers that I have graded and marked up by hand. So I have this massive archive of correspondences—bits of writing, banal critical remarks, traces of thought, aphoristic marginalia—in handwriting swarming around standard of twelve-point, double-spaced serif type. The first thing I did with that material was overlay a set of the scanned images so that the repetitions in the typed text (the student’s writing) redacted itself and the mess of handwriting came forward. I then became interested in teaching errors, and instances of vulnerability, shame, or weakness that get mixed in with teaching. The book is a collection of corrections and marginalia on students’ work from one assignment. The images are moments in handwriting enlarged to uncover hesitations, indecisions, or masked spelling mistakes—like where a d has been covered up by a t, an s has been added to “accesible,” or the erring a in “differance” has been gently transformed into an e. The book is printed on trace paper, a kind of transparency that encourages things to get in the way of each other—transparency that doesn’t clarify. These are all primarily image-based works, but the gesture of masking errors in teaching and over-correcting was also what drove me to work with other gestures of correcting and making something transparent, like bleaching fruits and vegetables.