Patricia Briggs, “Words Give and Take: An Interview with Jan Estep,” Hot Air Sincerely, exhibition brochure (Milwaukee: Barrow and Juarez Contemporary Art, 2007). Art critic and curator Patricia Briggs visits Jan Estep in her studio to discuss art, language, and philosophy.
Patricia Briggs: You come to art making with a PhD in philosophy. Did art come first or philosophy for you as a way of exploring meaning and the world?
Jan Estep: Even though I drew a lot and painted a little before studying philosophy, it was inconsequential, completely conventional. It wasn’t until I started reading philosophy that I truly started confronting the world and grappled with problems of meaning. It seems increasingly this becomes more obvious in my work.
PB: Have words always been central to your practice?
JE: Yes and no. Philosophy is such a discursive field; things advance through dialogue, argument, reading, and writing. And I am particularly interested in the philosophy of language. But when I went to grad school in art (after finishing philosophy) I didn’t work with language at all. I was kind of sick of all that talk, talk, talk, and felt a need to deal exclusively with images and objects, that is, things that were not-text, not-writing. But after grad school [in 1997] I took a job as an editor of an art magazine and started to write about art, quite extensively. When I left that job [in 2002], and was no longer as intensely absorbed in art writing, I started to notice text creeping into my art, the image of text as well as scripted video dialogues. In 2005, while at an artist residency at Art in General in New York, I really took a linguistic turn regarding my visual work. Language is front and center now.
PB: This has extended to your recent artist books as well, your most recent being Hot Air Sincerely. How does this book relate to the stitched panels, which share the same title? Is the book a byproduct or was it always part of the plan?
JE: The book came about once I realized how large the installation of the panels was going to be; I wanted a format that could be read by many more people than would see an exhibition. I worked on these stitched panels all last year; there are 156 panels, each with a phrase embroidered on it. The book shows a photographic detail of each panel, one per page, assembled in order. For the stitched work I created a typeface based on the weave of the fabric. I count the weave of the thread to make the letters.
PB: When you say you created the type font, you mean you really designed it consciously, like typographers do?
JE: Yes, I did. I used a graph sheet and gridded the letters out. There are lots of embroidery sampler books readily available, but most of the patterns are much more elaborate than what I wanted. [laughs] I wanted the type to be legible, without a serif, and not embellished despite it being embroidery. Traditional samplers have all these flourishes and curly-cues, which aestheticize the language in a way that’s distracting, as if the words aren’t enough. I wanted the type to be straight up and communicative in a direct way but still stitched.
PB: I guess with stitching one would need to begin the process with the fabric itself. And then draw the words out of the fabric. That is pretty interesting.
JE: Well, I always know what I’m going to stitch before picking up the fabric, but you do have to work with idiosyncrasies of the weave to create the letters. You know, I wasn’t really thinking of painting when I started this. But of course it came up in the process.
PB: Yes, the way you have stretched these panels brings painting to mind. When I saw them I thought: these are canvases.
JE: Yes, they are. And depending on who is looking at them they will be more or less thought of in this light. For some people they might be primarily about that. Painters take it up right away but others don’t seem to go there. When I think about them as canvases I do think about the ground of painting. In most painting, the paint is on the surface. The image lies on the surface of the ground. With the stitching, the ground is worked on from both sides of the fabric; the text moves through the surface, above and below it. The ground is corrupted, broken, no longer stratified as something more prior or more pure; in fact, if anything, the underlying threads of the text become the substrate. This makes sense of my worldview and how important I think language is.
PB: And what does this say about or to painting?
JE: Compared to a traditional painting ground, these panels show that language is the Ur-ground. Conceptually, here we see what is coming prior to painting, prior to the image or what you see, and that is the text, the ground that is approached from both sides. I do have a long argument with painting. When I first thought of being an artist — and I should preface this by saying that I came to art late and didn’t know a whole lot — like so many other people I thought of painting as primary. It took a few years to shake off that bias and to figure out that I wasn’t a painter. I wish more people in a popular sense understood the breadth of art and didn’t primarily restrict it to painting. But, it is not a huge issue for me; it was not my entry point on this project.
PB: So this connection to painting was a byproduct that grew up in the making of the piece. What was your entry point? Considering your piece Because snow never melts in Antarctica that you showed last year at Franklin Art Works [in Minneapolis], which has motion graphics with letters of words falling like snow in slow motion, I was surprised to see you working with stitching and fabric. I thought of you as a new media artist who likes to work with cameras and computers.
JE: I work quite a bit with other media, depending on the project. In fact, I spend most of my time with the computer. All of my writing — though not the embroidered writing — is done on computer; my email, photography, and all of my other images are stored and processed on computer. My video is done on computer. The handwork is a nice antidote to that. I am comfortable working digitally but the stitching is a very different experience. It is much slower and the process is more tangible.
The entry point here came with my thinking about working with language in a way that is more physical and intimate, and in a way that was more about time and contemplation. Even though I spend hours on the computer and can take days making minute adjustments to a single image, there is still a facility and speed to that environment that I wanted to counter.
PB: Is your interest in the process, a slowing down, or a kind of Zen concerned with the idea of presence?
JE: Yes, at least, time and thought marked in a tactile way. The stitching started with the embroidered dictionary definitions, which grew out of the skeptic/optimist dialogue in Ad Infinitum (2005) [which takes the form of both a book and a video]. Ad Infinitum features a skeptic and an optimist arguing the pros and cons of their fundamentally different beliefs about human nature. In writing the script for their dialogue, I began focusing on the question of where did these words — “skeptic” and “optimist” — come from. Why are they so entrenched in contemporary consciousness? At what point did we collectively take a cynical or skeptical turn? In thinking about this, I went to the Oxford English Dictionary [OED], which traces that history; each definition includes the earliest insertion of the word into the English language, and subsequent insertions as they occur in print. So, the definition pieces started here. Initially I just grabbed the definitions and printing them large as digital prints. But it took only a few minutes to do this. It was much too quick. I thought: no, this is not what I am after.
PB: You wanted something that communicated the idea of words and meanings carved in stone or built in time or history?
JE: Yes, I was thinking about illuminated manuscripts where there is real laboring over representing a word. And there’s a devotion and commitment to that. So even if I can’t get you to read this, you will at least think about the time spent with this language or time spent with these ideas and this history. And then maybe you will read them.
PB: But why embroidery? How did you get to that?
JE: It surprised me, as I’m not particularly domestic or crafty. But I have worked with fabric before, designing outfits and constructing sculptures. A few of these pieces used embroidered text, which I farmed out to be machined by someone else. I’ve always been drawn to that raised lettering, the way it takes real physical shape. I also thought of the ordinary context of embroidery, cross-stitched proverbs you might see hanging in someone’s kitchen, or religious sayings. There’s a kind of piety in that work that intrigues me. And the Victorian tradition of women embroidering to pass the time, learning and practicing their letters. I love that this work connects up to these other things, but that the content is not at all what you would expect.
PB: I see a real difference in the way the words in the definitions sit on or in the canvas and the way the phrases in Hot Air Sincerely do. When I look at the definitions, Joseph Kosuth comes to mind initially while the smaller panels bring Jenny Holzer to mind. The definitions look somehow fragile as the words are disintegrating. The typeface is exactly the same in both series, but the definitions seem harder to read. The text is dense. The words seem to get swallowed up by the grain of the canvas, in the weft of the fabric. The small panels of Hot Air Sincerely are different. Each and every one of them is so poetic. Each entices the viewer to want to read the next. It is the same with the book where they are reproduced. One can enter the book at any point and read the page, and go forward or backward. Either way it works. Each page and each panel is a lovely little, oddly familiar Haiku.
JE: They feel different in the making or stitching as well.
PB: How did the text itself come about for each of the series?
JE: Well, I appropriated the text of the definitions verbatim from the OED, so they are less written by me than performed in the stitching. But I actively wrote the text for the panels. Though they are installed in three rows, there is a linear through line and if you read the piece or the book in order you will experience that line of thought.
PB: These short phrases feel like found or appropriated texts, but you say you wrote the piece and the panels have an order? Each phrase seems so perfect and self-contained.
JE: Writing it came about through a long process of culling, listening, reading, editing, arranging, and thinking up new stuff. A lot of the text in Hot Air Sincerely is found. There are song lyrics and common cliches, phrases taken from books or things I overheard. And some of it I made up as connective tissue between these other elements. Once I figured out what the argument was I started seeing the world through the project and everything I came across suddenly had potential. I started finding phrases and ideas as I read-bits of text and words that worked.
PB: And what is that argument?
JE: If you look at it, it is all about the relationship between language and image, or perception and conception and how these two things conflate. The feel of language, the touch of language, the sound of language. What language gives us. But also the other side of language which language can’t get to. The limits of language. This piece smashes all these things together. There’s this classic debate in philosophy: Which comes first, the word or the world? Basically Hot Air Sincerely problematizes that.
PB: Problematizing what exactly, the relationship between the body/the senses and language?
JE: Not exactly, problematizing language and the body but more broadly language and what you see. Perception, phenomenon, and empirical data, how you conceptualize that or understand that or give consciousness to that.
PB: Is this similar to Derrida’s ideas about language, about how it proceeds the subject and shapes meaning, making the subject in some sense provisional.
JE: Perhaps, but more simply, I think there is a general way that we take in what we see very naively. I think we are naive realists in our day-to-day living. And there are strong pragmatic reasons for this. For example, I see you, and we are here in this space. I understand what I am taking in and I trust that we’re communicating okay. But the seeming transparency of our vision and the seeming immediacy of our language are deceptive. If I think about how I am even conscious that we are here in this space and we look like we look, it is all mediated through concept for me, it’s all mediated through language. I don’t have an experience of you and then my epiphenomenal understanding of you. They really come together. My language gives me you. This is just my basic understanding of the world. Not everyone believes that.
PB: But are you simply saying that all experience is mediated?
JE: Yeah, and so what, right? What’s the big deal? For me language is so much richer, more complex and invasive than we give it credit for. I want to foreground that complexity. Admittedly I’m using the word in an extremely broad sense; I’m deliberately not letting it be reduced to what we consciously think or say, that overt running commentary which narrates our experience. It’s much deeper than that. For me my linguistic self is my sensing self. I think Derrida is arguing something similar. You can’t get outside of language to understand the whole of language. You can’t get outside of the subject to understand what the subject is experiencing. There’s no transcendent or objective vantage point. I often go back to Lacan and his description of the mirror-stage. Once we are conscious of ourselves within language or within a symbolic realm, there’s no going back. There’s no reverting to a pre-symbolic state.
PB: I think you are saying that we don’t have any pure access to the world without language or conceptual frames; these frames might be psychological, theoretical, or linguistic. I see.
JE: All of that is the conceptual background of this work, things I like to think about that help explain my fascination with language. The work itself is not so overtly theory-driven. What’s here in Hot Air Sincerely is more light, and funny. It deals with how we actually use language in the world. The way, for example, we use the metaphor of a book to refer to another person: “I wish I had a talking book.” “You can read me like a book.” “You’re like a dirty French novel.”
PB: Yes, here is one that reads, “What’s your story?” Our perceptions and language are linked. But this piece pushes this notion away from the deep internal territory of the mind, and looks at how we deploy the linguistic ideas in the world. Deploy them out from our bodies into a world that is physical and embodied.
JE: Yes, on one of the panels is the phrase, “Seeing things eye to eye.” The phrase refers to the idea of understanding someone, being sympathetic to someone. But can you imagine if we actually acted that out? It reminds me of Janine Antoni’s Mortar and Pestle photograph which pictures one person’s tongue touching the eyeball of another person. This is somehow like “Seeing eye to eye.” It’s just something we say, but if you look at it literally the language is so physical. A lot of this piece is just responding to ordinary things that we say that are philosophically strange and absurd, but we say them all the time. Here is a quote from Borges, “The universe is an infinite library.”
PB: These types of phrases reveal how we read and write the world.
JE: Yes, here is another one, “Stumbling on my words,” as if you can physically trip yourself up. It is experiential, body and language coming together.
PB: Hot Air Sincerely seems to mark a development in your thinking about language and experience. Earlier work focused on conceptual frameworks and belief systems. I’m thinking about the skeptic/optimist pieces where the internal frames shape the perceptions. In a sense this is concerned with the unknowable guts of understanding. In the new work it seems you are more projected outward and looking at how language is itself bouncing off of the body. Looking at these panels we recognize the knowable and familiar. The truth that we know from our experience. We recognize that this is how we think and these are the stories we live through. Our body and language and the Other are all tied up and entwined. Phrases like these are the evidence, the familiar evidence.
JE: Here is a Patty Larkin song lyric, “You aim your mouth like you’re aiming a gun.” Words are so powerful. “Speech act,” followed by “Hate speech.”
PB: “Words fail me.” “I can’t hear you.” “Words can’t describe it.” …
JE: And then all this nonsense stuff is my doing. “Blah, blah, blah.” “Yip, yap, yuk, yelp, yawl.” “Twiddle, twaddle, twitter, tweeter, twang.” [laughs]