How to Read International Art English

London collective BANK corrected press release
London collective BANK corrected gallery press releases and faxed back the markups (click to enlarge, image via www.john-russell.org)

Have you ever read a press release — or even, say, the first line of a press release — for an art exhibition and promptly felt like you had no idea what just happened? Like a wave of vague descriptors and questionable nouns had washed over you, all of which were supposed to combine to create some sort of meaning, but you couldn’t, for the life of you, figure out what it was, and then you were ashamed? Have you ever read a press release and wanted to cry?

Yeah, me too.

So have Alix Rule and David Levine, apparently, but instead of hiding in a corner or rolling their eyes, they decided to do something about it. In the latest issue of the online magazine Triple Canopy, Rule and Levine analyze and attempt to understand art-world-speak, which they term International Art English (IAE).

“This language,” they write, “has everything to do with English, but it is emphatically not English.”

Rule and Levine say that they are “quite serious” in their task, and in fact, they do actually undertake real research: the duo understand the digital press release to be the primary purveyor of International Art English, and so they compiled every press release sent out by e-flux since it’s inception in 1999 and used Sketch Engine to examine trends within the digital archive (e.g. “Usage of the word speculative spiked unaccountably in 2009″).

They are also hilarious. Consider: “Spatial and nonspatial space are interchangeable in IAE.”

At best, their analysis of IAE is hilarious while being — in fact, because it is — so serious, and so spot-on:

Here we find some of IAE’s essential grammatical characteristics: the frequency of adverbial phrases such as “radically questioned” and double adverbial terms such as “playfully and subversively invert.” The pairing of like terms is also essential to IAE, whether in particular parts of speech (“internal psychology and external reality”) or entire phrases. Note also the reliance on on dependent clauses, one of the most distinctive features of art-related writing. IAE prescribes not only that you open with a dependent clause, but that you follow it up with as many more as possible, embedding the action deep within the sentence, effecting an uncanny stillness.

Dependent clauses — OMG yes! All the time. So many, everywhere. Like a vortex.

Amid all the insanity, Rule and Levine manage to make some really interesting points, including a reflection on the global reach of IAE, pointing out that before e-flux, museums in Oklahoma City and Munich had nothing to do with each other, whereas now they exist in the same sphere. They also speculate that this impenetrable language was probably started by critics but then adopted by the commercial and institutional art establishment, leading to a crisis of authority among critics.

The most brilliant part of the essay comes at the very end, when the duo suggests how to should appreciate and enjoy IAE while we can. It would be injustice to give it away, so I’ll let you click through for yourself. Just know that you will (hopefully) never read a press release the same way again.

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