Prolix: Fiona Banner's Word Works
Nancy Princenthal

Art on Paper, June 2000

The text in Fiona Banner’s 1999 Don’t Look Back runs in uninterrupted lines of boldface Helvetica type screened across three silvery wallpaper panels 15 ft. wide.(1) Its subject is D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary of the same name about Bob Dylan’s 1965 trip to England. Banner narrates the movie like an equable kind of sportscaster, and while her blow-by-blow is thorough, it is not overly punctilious about detail. Just as well, since (as with much of Banner’s text based work) it’s nearly impossible to read, not only because it lacks paragraph breaks but also - mainly - because the lines are so long and there is so little space between one and the next. As in night vision, the areas of text at the periphery of the visual field - the ends of the lines - are easier to keep in focus. Towards the center, acuity flags and meaning falters. Don’t Look Back is one of the many "still films" (the artist’s term) that Banner has executed in a variety of graphic media over the last half-dozen years; another, called Desert in 1994 was based on Lawrence of Arabia, a movie that Banner called "a great moment in the history of wideness".(2) The description suits those of her own drawings that, like Don’t Look Back, require (physically) close reading, the proximity sinking the viewer into a perceptual field as broad and daunting as the Sahara and as conducive to wavery, even hallucinatory, stretches at dead center.

The question of what happens when words pile on so thick that they become too dense to read, more or less literally, has been a subject of investigation in modern literature at least since Finnegan’s Wake (a reference Banner invites). And the consequence of causing words to jump tracks from time (the dimension of semantic meaning) to space (with language that registers first as imagery) has concerned poets from Mallarmé to Emmett Williams. Visual artists, too, have shown interest in crossing these lines, but fitfully and generally in a way that is understood to fall within the realm of typographic innovation. Marinetti’s Parole in Libertà; Dada and Constructivist experimentation with variable and randomly disposed type in leaflets and broadsides. More recently, artists as different as the painter Christopher Wool and the sculptor/printmaker Lesley Dill have used run in torrents of words - prose in the first case, borrowed poetry in the second - as a kind of semi permeable screen from which meaning emerges slowly and only with difficulty.

The shift between linguistic and visual perception entails a neurological change of gears (developmentally, it is a regression; in adults, it involves moving from one brain system to another) that is irresistibly suggestive, at least as metaphor, in accounting for the destabilizing effects of such visual/verbal hybrids. It is a subject covered in Alberto Manguel’s fascinating A History of Reading, as in the even more provocative (in considering Banner’s work) correlation between the introduction of punctuation and the advent of silent reading. Long into the history of written language, Manguel reports, the great majority of reading was done aloud, and learning was almost exclusively sustained through memorization and speech (Socrates, for example, disparaged written texts as crutches for those with weak memories and lazy minds).(3) In fact, it was not until the tenth century that reading voicelessly ("to oneself") became the norm; such was not the case earlier, even in monastic scriptoria where written language was preserved. But by the ninth century, silent reading

was probably common enough in the scriptorium for scribes to start separating each word from its encroaching neighbors to simplify the perusal of a text - but perhaps also for aesthetic reasons. At about the same time, the Irish scribes, celebrated through the Christian world for their skill, began isolating not only parts of speech but also the grammatical constituents within a sentence, and introduced many of the punctuation marks we use today.(4)

Banner doesn’t generally dispense with punctuation altogether, but the headlong flow of language in her work, paced like spoken rather than written language and printed without paragraph breaks, is more easily made sense of by being read aloud. This is as true of relatively short, single-sheet works like the 1999 This is it (a hand-scripted summary, written from memory, of the movie The Deer Hunter) as it is of The Nam (London, Frith Street Books with funding from the Arts Council of England, 1997), a mammoth book in which Banner narrates six unidentified commercial movies about the Vietnam War (for the record, they are Apocalypse Now, Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Born on the Fourth of July). At once harrowing and numbing, and agonizingly long (all, arguably, true of war itself, and of at least some of these films), the book makes its first (and perhaps biggest) impact as an object. Partly this results from the daunting prospect of jumping into a 1,000-page volume unmarked by chapter headings, page numbers or paragraph breaks ("The Nam: It’s Unreadable!" Banner herself proclaimed in posters advertising her book; also, in an interview, she has laughingly said, "It’s a Joycean thing").(5) But The Nam’s primary status as a visual object also suggests positive intention, reflected in design choices ranging from its size and weight (heavy, as they said in the 60s) to the blaring cover, in violently clashing red type on warm blue (wild!). On the scale of a single page, it is meant to have a graphic life capable of surviving its literary existence ("It’s more like a drawing than a photo because it’s got that linear trace of what’s seen rather what’s there",(6) Banner said in an interview). And as both sculpture and graphic form, The Nam has been featured in three installations that combined stacked books with wallpapered posters in which the title’s letters were cut up and reassembled in the most amusing ways ("The What," "The Anal Nation", "The Hey").(7)

Any way you slice it, The Nam is overwhelming - it swamps clear thought as thoroughly and, in stretches, as engagingly as a dream. Though not based on verbal free association, it shares some of linguistic conventions (for such they are) of automatic writing, and it raises a few useful questions in that regard. Does consciousness really stream? How about the unconscious? What exactly happens to language when mental function is compromised? Psychiatrist Louis Sass, writing against the grain of common understanding, has described "madness" (schizophrenia, mostly) not as an abdication to libidinal urges, but as the result of consciousness in overdrive a problem as much to do with unregulated thought as disordered affect. "What burgeons out of control here is the process of awareness itself and…not some lower, instinctual element", Sass says.(8) *As a symptom, such uncontrolled awareness can be seen in the compulsive draftsmanship of famous schizophrenic artists like Adolf Wölfli, who filled every available inch of paper with linear detail; more to the point, it is reflected in the pathologically inert, and prolific, writing of patients like Daniel Paul Schreber, whose acclaimed 1903 text documents his self-described submission to "compulsive thinking". "In Schreber’s experience, language is progressively stripped of significance: words stand forth with a quasi-materiality nearly devoid of all emotional or semantic charge", writes Sass.(9) The connection is made not to imply that Banner and her colleagues in prolixity intend their work to be read as a species of verbal automatism (it isn’t), or even that they mean it to flirt with a kind of willfully flipped-out, 60s-ish wigginess (though sometimes it does). But Sass’s observations suggest that even the most well-fortified barricade against meaning is vulnerable to understandings both psychological and stylistic.

Of course, the other way of looking at such excesses of language - of words experienced as noise, senseless with a vengeance - is an altogether deliberate form of aggression, madness as pure and simple. Banner’s Don’t Look Back is a portrait of a portrait of the young Dylan as an angry young man just finding a public voice and a mass audience. In You’ve Got A Lot of Nerve (1998), she incised the lyrics of Dylan’s notorious "Positively 4th Street" right through four big canvas panels (they are 7 x 11 ft. each). Her gesture honors Dylan as a king of rage ("I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes/you’d know what a drag it is to see you", the song famously concludes), a performer so full of loathing it’s hard not to laugh. Banner accepts the interpretation of Dylanologists that the song addresses his fans; she calls it "an indictment of viewership"(10) and, but extension, her appropriation conveys what might charitably be called ambivalence toward her own audience. But condemnation of viewers doesn’t seem to be a goal for Banner as much as a subject, one she looks at from both sides. Wearing Dylan’s shoes more or less guarantees she won’t like what she sees (e.g. us). But the fame that paid for them was provided by a big audience that can also claim ownership; that’s why we can all sing along at the punch line.

And that’s why Dylan, a smart performer, made his lyrics as funny as they are mean. Sometimes it’s hard to separate aggression from humor; it can be even tougher, though to distinguish verbal thrift and profligacy (is Dylan coy, or does he give himself away?). Concision is a cardinal virtue of composition (editing is, after all, synonymous with deleting). But even writers renowned for confronting the void with language stripped to the bone are perfectly capable of downright verbosity (Beckett and Robbe-Grillet come to mind, but the same can be true of the artists who pioneered written art: Joseph Kossuth, say, or, in a different mode Hanne Darboven). It is the spoken word, however, that is most likely to trip up even the most parsimonious writers. Unyielding verbal restraint is among the principles most esteemed by William Strunk in his still-peerless writing guide The Elements of Style. But in an affectionate and hilarious introduction, E. B. White revealed that, when lecturing, Strunk was often so succinct that he ran out of things to say.

Will Strunk got out of this predicament by a simple trick. He uttered every sentence three times. When he delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and, in a husky, conspiratorial voice, said, "Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"(11)

Even in academia, parole trumps langue in determining the way meaning is made; in Banner’s distinctive hybrid of the two, the boundary between them is hypnotically mobile, as it is between semantic overabundance and conclusive nullity.

It may have been inevitable, then, that her interest would have lately shifted to the "full stop", that terminal point known in American English as a period. Banner’s most recent work has featured greatly enlarged full stops, rendered in a variety of graphic mediums and also sculpturally, in painted Styrofoam and cast concrete. Shown at 1,800 point size, the full stops, taken from a variety of fonts, reveal unexpected complexities, varying greatly in size and, in shape, ranging from lop-sided ovals to squares, circles, splattered ellipses, and three-dimensional Greek crosses. Literally unspeakable, the full stop is also in some ways invisible; in a recent review of Banner’s work, David Humphrey called it a "blind spot", since its purpose is to momentarily suspend attention.(12) Verbally, Banner says, the full stop is a breath;(13) she recalls her interest in it arriving at a difficult point in a friendship, when a series of phone calls were made in which few words were exchanged. The silence, however, was voluble - the calls had, Banner says, "all the architecture of a conversation, but none of the words."(14) Similarly, in writing, the full stop "has no subject and yet is not abstract".(15) Of course, one definition of pure abstraction in visual art is that it resists - halts - language; the formal connections between the "full stop" drawings and the big, disembodied black circles rendered by artists ranging from Malevich to Adolf Gottlieb to Richard Serra raise the possibility that a sympathetic critique of modernism is part of Banner’s program.

The possibility is supported by Banner’s half-serious use of the term "all over drawings" for her works on paper. For her purposes, the phrase implies not only "everywhere" (as when the mark-making covers the entire surface of the page) but also "final, done" (the full stops); it is a double meaning not usually associated with the Abstract Expressionist gestural painting for which the \term was coined, though it could be. One observer has found something sublime in the massive scale, the "ungraspability" and the obsessive focus on death in Banner’s The Nam.(16) The words are similar to those often applied to describe Pollock (for instance); they work equally well for Banner. But Banner’s work could as easily be seen as the reverse, whatever the reverse of sublimity is (uncompromisingly present? unrelentingly material? impenetrably dense?). Glenn Ligon has recently reprised a body of stenciled word works with deep-textured, stenciled drawings whose texts fade from shadowed to illegibly black. His subject is how language is used to erase people (particularly those who are not white) and at the same time to describe that erasure. Though its reach is more speculative and less politically focused than Ligon’s, Banner’s work does the same. Filling in the cavities between speech and text, vision and language, vocalization and silence, she finds ticklish spots we didn’t know existed and probes them with a touch both careful and sharp.


1) Don’t Look Back also exists as a boxed print portfolio.
2) "Profile: Close Up/David Barrett on Fiona Banner," Art Monthly (March 1996), p.193
3) Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (New York, 1996), p.60
4) Ibid., pp. 49-50
5) Charles Darwent, "These Little Dots Have Lives of Their Own," The Independent on Sunday (August 23, 1998), Features, p.3
6) With Alan Woods, "The Present Sure is Tense," Transcript 3/3, p.11
7) The Nam is also available in audio as Trance, an unabridged 20-hour reading recorded on 22 tapes by Banner herself. One effect of Banner’s very British reading (or of any reader imagining her texts as scripts for recitation) is an exacerbation of the tension between British and American culture that seems to be among its subtexts.
8) Louis Sass, Madness and Modernism (New York, 1992), p. 69
9) Ibid., p.258
10) "Making It Real: Fiona Banner in conversation with Matthew Higgs," Afterall (pilot issue, n.d.), p.81
11) William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 3d edition (New York, 1979) p. xiii
12) David Humphrey, "New York e-mail," Art Issues 58 (Summer 1999), p. 43
13) "Making it Real," p.78
14) Ibid., p. 77
15) "Fiona Banner Talks to Polly Staple," Untitled Contemporary Art 17 (Autumn 1998), p. 4
16) Alan Woods, "Expecting Rain: Reading The Nam.," Afterall (pilot issue, n.d.), p. 1