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Bernar Venet and the History of Conceptual Poetry

weatherIn writing about Language to Cover a Page: The Early Writings of Vito Acconci (2006), edited by Craig Dworkin, Marjorie Perloff remarks on how much Acconci’s writing practice foreshadowed the so-called “uncreative writing” of Kenneth Goldsmith and other contemporary conceptualists:

How uncanny [. . .] that thirty-five years before Goldsmith produced his book The Weather (Los Angeles: Make Now Press, 2005), a transcription of a year’s worth (December 21, 2002-December 20, 2003) of hourly weather bulletins on WINS (1010), New York’s all-news radio station, Acconci should have produced a numbered text called “Act 3, Scene 4,” that begins like this:

1. The sun rises today, Thursday, December 26, 1968.
2. At 7:18 A.M., sets at 4:34 P.M., and will rise
3. tomorrow at 7:18 A.M. The moon sets today at 11:49
4. rises at 12:10 P.M. tomorrow and will set tomorrow
5. at 12:38 A.M. Warmer weather and clear to cloudy skies
6. will cover most of the eastern portion of the nation
7. today while snow is expected to fall on the western
8. lake region, the Northern Plains States, and from
9. the upper Mississippi Valley to the plateau region.

And it goes on in this vein for another ten pages…

Perloff goes on to say that Language to Cover a Page “provides the missing link between the first forays into a non-representational, non-expressivist poetics and its current incarnations.”

Yet Acconci wasn’t the only conceptual writer in the 1960s who appropriated weather reports. Bernar Venet, who is most well-known and celebrated as a sculptor, has done similar works. This clipping, which documents one of Venet’s appropriations of found text, is from the March 20, 1969 issue of the Village Voice:

Village Voice - Mar 20 1969















Furthermore, Venet has been writing “against expression” since 1967. His conceptual poems were collected and published in 1999 by Mamco (Musée d’art moderne et contemporain) in Geneva in Apoétiques: 1967-1998. According to the back cover copy, Venet employs “la copie mécanique comme antidote au bégaiement des vieilleries poétiques [mechanical copying as an antidote to stammering poetic relics]” and pursues “une poésie déshabillée de tout lyrisme superflu [a poetry stripped of all superfluous lyricism.]” Surely Apoétiques can provide what Perloff is calling another “missing link between the first forays into a non-representational, non-expressivist poetics and its current incarnations.”

My review-essay on Apoétiques was published today in this weekend edition of Hyperallergic. These are the last few paragraphs:

If conceptual writing is now so strongly associated with twenty-first century practice, in general, and recent controversial provocations such as Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown” and Place’s Gone with the Wind, in particular, the little-known Apoétiques reminds us that textual appropriation and anti-expressivist poetry have a longer history despite rhetoric that suggests conceptual poetry is new. In a 2011 interview with the Academy of American Poets, Goldsmith has (somewhat misleadingly) said,

[I]f conceptual art happened fifty years ago, we’re just beginning to get around to it now. These are ideas that have never been explored in poetry. We’ve had a little bit of pastiche, a little bit of — you know, a line from here, a line from there. But we’ve never had the concept of lifting something that you didn’t write and moving it over five inches, saying that it’s yours, and claiming that it’s a newly authored text.

In Issue 6 of 0 To 9 (1969), Venet, in fact, appropriated something he didn’t write and repackaged it as a newly authored text; he took F. Occhionero’s paper “On Differential Rotation” (which was published in a 1968 issue of Annales d’Astrophysique) and called it “Proposition for a Play” (with the appended stage direction “On the stage one blackboard and a P.H.D. Astronomy.”) And nearly all of the poems in Apoétiques are “lifted”: Venet’s “Bat,” a reproduction of tennis box scores or “Weather Report (I)” and “Weather Report (II),” transcriptions of local and international weather reports, constitute forms of “uncreative writing” avant la lettre. In fact, Venet’s weather reports presage Goldsmith’s The Weather (2005).

More importantly, Apoétiques can help us widen our understanding of what conceptual writing can achieve at a time when Ken Chen, reacting to the racial politics of Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown” and Place’s Gone with the Wind, is declaring their brand of conceptualism over: “[Conceptual Poetry] is a movement [Goldsmith and Place] have relentlessly marketed and one that, in the past few months, they have destroyed. While the techniques of Conceptual Poetry will continue to be deployed after Spring 2015 [. . .] the brand is perhaps dead.” To quote Venet, perhaps conceptual poetry, as it is practiced in the United States, needs to “change its constitution.”

6 thoughts on “Bernar Venet and the History of Conceptual Poetry

  1. I confess I really need someone help me widen my understanding of what conceptual writing can achieve for I, no doubt due to my petit-bourgeois prejudices and a fear of novelty that leaves me marred in a puddle of kitsch, can’t see what’s so extraordinary about turning the weather report into a poem.

  2. Well, to begin, drawing on a weather report is deliberately anti-monumental. So if Pound says that literature is news that stays news, a weather report is the most ephemeral of news. It’s an aesthetic of the “extraordinarily unextraordinary,” perhaps close to what Georges Perec called “the infra-ordinary.” By that same token, such work can get us thinking about the everyday, about diurnality in interesting ways… conceptual writing is certainly not for everyone! Thanks for the comment, Miguel.

    1. That’s a good question, Wayne. “Must” is a strong word and “all” is a very strong word–which is why I put in the qualifier “perhaps.” To me, the recent KG & VP controversies have shed some light on some of conpo’s limitations–or at least the limitations of so-called “pure conceptualism” as it relates to racial politics. So this seems like an apt time for this type of writing practice to evolve when so many are saying it’s dead.

      Brief answer: I’m all for a multiplicity of conceptualisms so no.

  3. Venet was part of the wave of conceptual artists from the late 1960s which greatly influenced this recent conceptual turn. Robert Barry, Dan Graham, Douglas Huebler, Sol LeWitt, and Jackson Mac Low.

    1. Yup–they all were published in Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer’s 0 To 9. It would be great to have more work on that.

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