by Terri Witek
Training about sexual harassment happens yearly where I work; there’s probably something similar where you work, too. I’m always interested in the name of this piece of US. educational law, “Title IX,” when it appears in my feed—especially the Roman numeral. It’s hard not to see it as someone standing alone and then 2 people crossed over each other. Splayed like swords? Poisoned?
What is it about titles? Fortunately, there’s a built-in space between “title” and “work” that invites us to think about them from a little ways off. And this space is a real third thing, not a lack. Need more space? “Untitled” of course works as a title, and it’s enjoyable when “Untitled” is followed by a number that doesn’t quite name content but indicates a series. When great textual works are title-less, though, what follows sometimes moves into the space. Think of Emily Dickinson’s amazing first lines:
“Because I could not stop for Death”
“I’m Nobody! Who are You?”
“I felt a Funeral in my Brain”
These are how we now know their wonderful poems, rather than by later ascribed (and suspect) numbers. But if an ED poem occurs on an envelope, as Susan Howe has so wonderfully demo’d in The Gorgeous Nothings, the urge to title it recedes. Maybe this shows us something about how material pairings themselves can magnetize, complicate, and unexpectedly include more. Even when they tease out a previous premise or promise, differences between work and title lean toward discovery. At the first scene break in that film, the title appears like a briefly foregrounded mountain range. We knew it was coming + yet feel surprise.
Maybe the way so many things move/stream now has changed the relationship between works and their titles. Certainly the limited arc series I watch tend to deploy quite forgettable ones (at least in English): The Case; Trapped; The Dark. Are titles less “important” now: that is, have they become, in certain contexts, less “entitled”? These series also include extended drone shots of vehicles moving along highways through forests or snow. Could titles ———swerves in a thought———be the part of a work that’s more still?
But for all the differing matters of media, pace, and purpose, so many titles offer brief perfections. Zong, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, Citizen….the list of titles that seem irreplaceable goes on forever, hopefully. Could titles exist alone? Recently I asked student writers and artists to compose titles without a corresponding work. Read in sequence from the zoom chat, they seemed a poem themselves…..wait, what? Do titles want to become works (and works become titles, maybe of other works? ) Asked next to propose titles that didn’t use words, most students chose graphic marks available on the keyboard &&&###. But as they warmed up, a few dropped in other things. Finally, a screenshot of someone running toward us on a blurry street.
I have been at the edges of writing this for awhile—and of course titles too find themselves situated at edges. “I” is a title of the nominative sort, and self-important, but it’s also on edge. As the distance between title and work invites ++, here add in pronoun choices, nicknames, subtitles, different wardrobes, family dinners. The distance between titles and their works can make for painful installations, though. Witness museums, where visitors lean into a tiny placard and ignore a huge sculpture in the middle of the room. Sometimes this title card is close to a corner or door, which further confounds.
If I stay at a distance here to discuss titles’ peculiarities and how these seem both under and over-valued, it’s partly to avoid an iconic risk in thinking about two things together: that they become oppositional. Standard titles of graphs, for example, find themselves grouped around VS:
y-axis variable vs. x-axis variable
Ah, western civ and its illusory binaries—double-edged swords, sides of a coin, your belly button identified as either in-y or out-y. Always the weight slightly tipping to a particular “content” or, even less interestingly, to some worry. Resistance by not casting doubles as oppositions seems so fresh and wise when enacted. Editor/visual poet Amanda Earl has described how many women feel uncomfortable categorizing themselves as either artists or poets: hence in subtitling her recent anthology for Timglaset, she chooses “women making visual poetry.” Earl promptly assembled a list of 1400 + “women making visual poetry”–and some didn’t join the list bc of the word “women.” Then, pointedly, she names her anthology after one: Judith. This is Canadian visual poet Judith Copithorne, to whom we are all indeed indebted. And more: we are all, Earl adroitly implies, both iconically a Judith and a tiny blink on an unscrolling list.
Maybe the dilemma of what to call/summon/ rub against by titling is simple but just hard to get around. The materialities of work and title may have different minds. Luca Molnar, who identifies as a painter, said that she learned by a summer’s making that “ceramics mind” is “different” bc you just assume you will break and throw away much—it’s an art of remainders. Painting is more additive and conserving: if every fifth Molnar painting self-combusted “I’d lose my mind.”
So I can’t remember the title but it filled a wall. Cornered with another painting of a garden. At the National Gallery? It was cold and we were tired. “Text eats image” says Cyriaco Lopes, talking about how describing a work of art from memory like this surely kills it. But we also know that standing next to each other in the same direction is another thing. Maybe work + title = two friends standing next to each other. They are looking at us and past us. They are looking at something with their different minds.
I suspect I’m thinking about this lately bc because as a text poet who is also a woman making visual poetry, my social media drops sometimes invite doubt about whether they belong in particular places. One moderator, seeming anguished, asked me to understand the work’s exclusion and to please stay in the group. Someone elsewhere direct- addressed me: Idiot. Other strangers leaped in. Was it because the works didn’t seem to be “writing”? I didn’t ask if a title-text isn’t considered fully part of the work. Or say that zooming into these particular images might reveal more text. But why all this anxiety? So many mark-making sites after all. What’s the sky writing now?
Roni Horn is calming in context—she leans lines of Dickinson in clear acrylic against museum walls and tiles Clarice Lispector quotes into the floor. Their positioning makes us wander. A 2014 Roni Horn exhibition arrives as a book. The show includes 5 green glass round sculptures gallery-goers in Seoul peer into, variously spaced. Aveek Sen says Horn’s fragmentary signage (not visible in the photos of the show; did I miss them?) seems “off” rather than “of” the works—to him they are “not nominative, but associative.” Sen is the smart ghost in the exhibition whose text/thoughts sway around; they’re moonstruck in a palpable way. I lose the wording of his points so flag them but their savor remains even with the book closed. The sculptures are so wonderful. It’s not clear what we’d exactly see if we peered into them. Plus where are Horn’s texts in the show again? Glimmer, glimmer. Translated onto an unnumbered page, this one lies across from a printed photo of a cylindrical sculpture and people in shorts gazing down:
Untitled (“Changes in daylight that frighten dogs”), 2014
Solid cast glass with as-cast surfaces (with oculus). 36 x 36 in | 91.4 x 91.4 cm
And, across from a photo of a girl looking into a green-yellow cylinder and clutching both her phone and a sheet of paper near her mouth:
Untitled (“An otherwise unexplained fire in a dwelling inhabited only by women.”), 2014
Solid cast glass with as-cast surfaces (with taper). 36 x 37.5 in | 91.4 x 95.25 cm
Even now, as I brush against titles and their inviting strangeness, when it’s just us staring down at this small surmise I don’t want to be drawn all the way in. For one thing, my name has changed more than once and it still wavers between legalities (even Title IX, though popularly called this, is now the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act). And a warming hour finds me wandering the great instructional lab of the world again, predictably lost. At the door of the high school lunchroom I stand near a girl who hasn’t considered any of this yet. Hungry but not wanting to choose a table, she takes a tray and we retreat to the history classroom to eat. Mr. Carver is still bending over his transistor radio to catch the noon news. “The Buzzards Have Returned to Hinkley,” he’ll announce soon.
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems
Judith: Women Making Visual Poetry, a 21st Century Anthology ed, Amanda Earl
Roni Horn Aveek Sen