UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

We are a cell aren’t we? : art and language and the documenta index Wood, William


In 1972, "Documenta 5" was held in Kassel, West Germany, an exhibition of 160 artists under the theme "Questioning Reality: Today's Imagery." A section of this thematic exhibition presented conceptual art, including an installation called a Survey of the Art & Language Institute (1968-1972). This work comprised: eight filing cabinets containing writing by or published by the Art & Language group; photostats pinned to the walls listing relations of compatibility between each of the texts; posters with texts concerning the work and a lattice displaying the compatibility-relations between most of the texts. The texts in the files and on the poster discussed art practice using an obtuse language culled from analytic philosophy and information theory-the idiom associated with Art & Language. This is the first of several works by Art & Language which have come to be called indexes, this one now known as the Documenta Index. The group was formed as the Art & Language Press in 1968 by four art teachers and students in Coventry, England: Terry Atkinson, David Bainbridge, Michael Baldwin and Harold Hurrell. After 1969, they published Art-Language, a journal analyzing "the language-use of the art society," and quickly positioned themselves in the vanguard of conceptualism. Through recruiting new members and by extended associations with international artists, dealers, critics and curators, Art & Language became notables in the "art society" they critiqued, extenting their influence, expanding their numbers to 10, and re-naming themselves, for "Documenta 5", the Art & Language Institute. The Documenta Index represents a major shift in their programme, mixing the idea of textbased art theory with an attempt to out-maneuver an international exhibition by calling for extended audience participation. The Index also marked out external and internal problems with organizing and presenting group work-and attempted to negotiate an analytical standing for the association in the art market and social world of the early-seventies. It is the formation of the group, the formulation of its programme and its address to—and assumptions about-spectators which forms the major material for the study, with particular attention to the English art-college origins of the group and the aesthetic and social politics of the trans-Atlantic environment they came to operate within. By looking at the way in which the group constituted itself and was regarded by others, a picture emerges of how the Documenta Index came to exist, and why the type of openness in argument it presented—the dedication to pursue questions rather than resolve them in plastic form—both challenged and went unengaged in the atmosphere of the early-seventies. In conclusion, the contradictory aspects of the Index and the exhibition it was produced for are understood as representing both the possibilities of openness and the difficulties of presenting critical thought and a critical identity in the form of art.

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