Language to be Looked At

April 23, 2024

Professor Irene Small's HUM 328/ENG 270/ART 396 "Language to Be Looked At" profoundly impacted the way participants look at words and art.

Zoha Khan ‘26 had stratospheric expectations when she enrolled in her first art history course “Language to be Looked At” at a friend’s recommendation. “He raved about how it had completely shaped his entire perspective and became a new framework lens of his life,” said Khan.  And as this semester’s iteration of the course comes to a close, Khan confirms, “It fundamentally altered my life, too.” 

The course grows from a dynamic web of intersections. Taught by A&A Professor Irene Small, born from a seed grant from the Humanities Council, and cross-listed with English as well, the class delves into the disciplines of linguistics, history, philosophy, music, and sociology, to name a few.  Hovering at the junction of language and visual art, the course examines concrete and visual poetry as well as language-based art forms that grew out of the 20th-century modernist and avant-garde movements. Here students encounter poetry that leans so heavily into visual art that there’s no way to communicate a poem’s intended meaning simply by reading it aloud. Untethered from standard conventions or mediums, meanwhile, works of art examined in the class can be viewed, touched, or even read as a musical score. Through close looking and reading, students in Small’s course considered works of art and poetry by means of such themes as representation, abstraction, ideogram, instruction, and networks. 

"Looking at language fundamentally changes what we imagine it can say"—Professor Irene Small

“My first love was modernist poetry,” says Small, “but now, as an art historian, I am far more attentive to the materiality of language at a visual and pictorial level. I’m even more fascinated by the way language penetrates into the structure of works of art. When we approach language in a concrete fashion—considering just the four words that make up Glenn Ligon’s 1988 painting I am a Man, for example, we start to unpack the myriad ways in which looking at language fundamentally changes what we imagine it can say. I wanted to teach a class that would make space to linger in these possibilities."

A group sits around a long table in discussion

Adam Sliwinski and Jason Treuting of Sō Percussion visit the class (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

 

Small’s investment in this complex network of material came through in her teaching. “Professor Small is I think one of the most knowledgeable professors on campus,” said Luke Shannon ‘24, who is majoring in computer science major with a minor in visual arts, “and crucially she is able to communicate that knowledge even to students approaching the topic for the first time.” Shannon especially appreciated Small’s thought-provoking and expansive writing assignments. “I always wanted to be a writer,” he said, “but in the last few years that desire has dwindled because I felt my writing had become formulaic and unexciting with assignments. This class has allowed me to have fun writing and analyzing again.” “I love how we've been able to exercise our own creativity in the course,” architecture major Anlin Kopf ’25 agreed. 

Two people huddle over a glass case containing manuscripts with a large, colorful mural behind them shwoing Ulises Carrion

Irene Small and John Tain, chief curator of the Lahore Biennial, examine works in the exhibition Ulises Carrión: Bookworks and Beyond (Photo/Brandon Johnson, Princeton University Library)

“I was surprised by how much the class influenced my day-to-day viewing of art.”—Cassadie Royalty ‘25

Collaboration also plays an important role in the course experience. Cassadie Royalty ‘25, majoring in English with minors in creative writing and music composition said, “I was surprised by how much the class influenced my day-to-day viewing of art.”  “A key takeaway from this class is that viewing art as a group is just as important as viewing art alone,” said Royalty. “My thoughts on a piece often change just through class discussion and my peers have expanded my understanding countless times.”

Experiencing the works

Central to the course are the actual works that Small exposed the class to week after week. Royalty pointed to the frequent visits to Princeton University Library’s special collections as a highlight of the course. “So much of the art we study is tactile and having the ability to actually flip through books and study assemblings close up really does add a level of understanding that often cannot be achieved through a screen,” she said. 

“The artwork we’ve seen in this course has been fantastic. In fact, it inspired me to make several works in response—and opened new perspectives and conversations for me to communicate with in my work.”—Luke Shannon ‘24

Sal Hamerman and Javier Rivero Ramos stand side by side in front of a yellow and orange background

Co-curators Sal Hamerman and Javier Rivero Ramos at exhibition opening (Photo/Brandon Johnson, Princeton University Library)

Princeton’s robust collection of concrete poetry was what inspired Small to create the course in the first place in collaboration with English professor Joshua Kotin, in fall 2020. Among other aspects, that iteration, which was forced onto screens by COVID-19, invited students to help propose items that might be acquired by Firestone Rare Books Collection. At least one of these proposals, by the student Minjae Kim, for a series of texts published by the Korean avant-garde poet, architect, and artist Yi Sang, was successfully incorporated into the library’s collection.

Teaching the course via Zoom during the lockdown would have severely restricted students’ experience of the works, had PUL’s library staff been less resourceful.  Sal Hamermann, Metadata Librarian for Collections at the Princeton University Library helped bring the experience as close to students as Zoom could allow.  They used a hovercam to emulate investigating a work, from opening the collection box to discovering and handling its contents.

This semester, happily, students were able to interact with works of art in both the university’s library and museum collections in person. “But, the class is not just an art viewing,” Royalty pointed out. “Professor Small encourages us to be in the position of the artist and engage with the process of creating these different styles of art, often learning directly from professionals.”

“I was most surprised by how relevant the Ulisses Carrión exhibition felt to me right now, and how mail art brought new perspectives to our networked condition today.”—Luke Shannon ‘24

Hamermann’s curatorial involvement in this semester’s iteration of the course is a case in point.  They co-curated the exhibition Ulises Carrión: Bookworks and Beyond with recent Ph.D. graduate Javier Rivero Ramos *23, for whom Small served as dissertation adviser. Small’s students enjoyed special access to the exhibition, which left an indelible impression on Royalty and Shannon. “After we went to the Ulises Carrión exhibit in class, I found myself going back the following week because I couldn’t stop thinking about the art,” said Royalty. Shannon said he felt a pronounced connection to the objects in the exhibition. “I was most surprised by how relevant the Ulisses Carrión exhibition felt to me right now,” he said, “and how mail art brought new perspectives to our networked condition today.” 

Students sit at tables formed into a square with a typewriter in front of each

Artist Alex Turgeon (left), leads a concrete poetry demonstration for the class (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

“Professor Small encourages us to be in the position of the artist and engage with the process of creating these different styles of art, often learning directly from professionals.”—Cassadie Royalty ‘25

Hamermann also initiated the concrete poetry workshop that artist Alex Turgeon presented to the class. “It was an incredible experience to read about his work and then actually hear him discuss his pieces in class,” said Royalty. 

Khan called this her favorite class. “As a recently declared English major, I was excited to formalize my words on paper - a different form of labor than of handwriting,” she said. “I quickly realized how difficult it was, that the typewriter confronted my ideals of perfection in writing. I could not easily rewrite or remove pieces, and thus had to learn how to keep on writing despite the various ‘imperfections’ that came about. It became an exercise of trusting myself, of valuing labor and effort, and developing a new form of vulnerability through the inherent process of using a typewriter.”

A woman is focused on a typewriter, feeding in paper

Zoha Khan experiments with a typewriter as part of the concrete poetry class (Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

"It became an exercise of trusting myself, of valuing labor and effort, and developing a new form of vulnerability through the inherent process of using a typewriter.”—Zoha Khan ’26

On the week dedicated to score-based instructional works and experimental music composition like the works of John Cage, among others, Small invited two members of the percussion quartet Sō Percussion for a participatory demonstration. “I absolutely loved the music session,” said Royalty, minoring in music composition. “I liked hearing everyone’s interpretations of the conceptual scores and felt like the variety of levels of experience in the room led to unexpected discussions.”

Lasting impressions

The course culminates in a collectively-produced magazine, called an assembling, for which each student creates a contribution in multiple. Small will assemble all of these contributions and send a complete set to each participant at their summer address. In essence, each student will end up with a collective gift of sorts, each element individually produced by their classmates as an experiment with language to be looked at inspired by the class. As in the inaugural class of 2020, one edition of this “assembled” final project will be deposited at Mudd Library as part of the university archives. 

Kopf, who was among the first to complete her contribution, created individual origami sculptures with the folding instructions written in each crease. “It was a super interesting exercise,” she said, “and I'm excited to see what my classmates come up with!”

The course has had a profound impact on its participants.  Said Khan, “Between trips to the library and being visited by various artists and performers, the class has provided me with an immense depth of knowledge of what language is. It has taught me to find beauty in everyday conversation - in the immense care and precision in each word used daily. It has transformed the way I use language, provoking a greater intentionality and specificity in the way each word comes together. Moreover, it has challenged the utilitarian way I had previously viewed language and art - it need not have a purpose and a goal for it to be of value,” said Khan. “But most of all, it has led me to appreciate the words that everyone shares with me more, each a unique form of art I have been blessed to experience.”

Green origami crane with handwritten notes all over it

Anlin Kopf created origami crane sculptures with folding instructions written along all of the creases (Photo/Anlin Kopf)

“I’ve been stopping by the Lewis Center for the Arts each week to see what’s going on in the CoLab and Hurley Gallery. I have come to really appreciate the work that goes into exhibitions and the artists behind the work.”—Cassadie Royalty ‘25

Royalty has started incorporating art into her life as a result of the course. “I’ve been stopping by the Lewis Center for the Arts each week to see what’s going on in the CoLab and Hurley Gallery. I have come to really appreciate the work that goes into exhibitions and the artists behind the work,” she said.

And for Shannon, himself an artist, the course has found its way into his creative process. “The artwork we’ve seen in this course has been fantastic,” he said. “In fact, it inspired me to make several works in response—and opened new perspectives and conversations for me to communicate with in my work.”

“It has been an absolute joy to teach a new iteration of the class in person,” Small says. “I loved the first version of the class as well; it was a way of creating a collective space at great distance from one another. But physical presence has its own alchemy, and I think after the pandemic, we are ever more grateful for it. Nothing beats looking at language in the flesh.”

Ulises Carrión: Bookworks and Beyond is on view in the Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery at Firestone Library through June 13, 2024

"The class has transformed the way I use language, provoking a greater intentionality and specificity in the way each word comes together... most of all, it has led me to appreciate the words that everyone shares with me more, each a unique form of art I have been blessed to experience.”—Zoha Khan ’26

People stand and sit around a large table strewn with colorful paper

Adam Sliwinski and Jason Treuting of Sō Percussion perform compositions with the class (Photo/Irene Small)