“How close can I get to someone? Will we become each other?” wrote Kathy Acker, in an exposing letter to the artist Alan Sondheim, after an ephemeral, erotic encounter in New York. She was tempting him to collaborate on an epistolary art project that would manifest in more love letters, diaries, tapes, and videos, as they sought to explore the mutual desires and sexual, intellectual obsessions they shared for one another. This workshop also takes Acker’s inquiry, which blurred the spaces of private and public in artworks and writings sculpted close to her own life, as an invitation to rethink the experimental and risky intimacies of letter writing as an art historical practice.
How can we, as feminist art historians of American art and writing, learn from the epistolary strategies of Acker—or the durational, pre-partum experiments of her friend Bernadette Mayer—or the kinship-in-correspondence of Hettie Jones and Helene Dorn—or even the envelope poems of Emily Dickinson a century before them—and rethink our work through an epistolary lens? What can the form, voice, and materiality of the love letter, in all its multitude of uses and locations, across exhibited artworks and unpublished archives and all the messy spaces in-between, offer us in methodological terms? How can the affective, erotic, desiring, relational, speculative energies of the letter provide us with an alternative position from which to write and critically engage with the lives and works of our subjects, in dialogue with socio-political histories and theoretical frameworks? Could it represent a different type of knowledge production that also welcomes practice into art history?
In this participatory workshop involving writing experiments and collective discussions, we will revisit, handle again, the letters we have discovered in the archives of the artists and subjects we study, considering our roles as interlocutors across time. We will look closely (too closely?) at letters, ephemera, texts, and artworks. Finally, we will explore the proximate spaces supposed by Acker, experimenting with the closeness of love letter writing and the second-person address. The workshop welcomes participation from researchers, scholars, artists, and writers from across disciplines, but it is particularly suited to those with research interests in feminist art and writing practices, archives, intersectional feminist ideas and concerns, creative/critical writing, experimental methods, and practice-as-research. No writing will need to be produced in advance of the session; this will happen ‘live’.
Dr Alice Butler is the 2021/2022 Terra Foundation Centre for American Art Postdoctoral Fellow. She also teaches in Critical and Historical Studies at the Royal College of Art. An interdisciplinary scholar and art writer, she specialises in the intersections of feminist art and writing to explore questions of sickness, sexuality, and gender, via feminist and queer perspectives and experimental approaches to archive and autotheory. She has previously held fellowships with the Paul Mellon Centre, the Freud Museum London, and the AHRC. Recent publications include the article “‘Have you tried it with three? Have you?’ Ann Quin, Love Triangles, and the Affects of Art/Writing,” in Capacious: A Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry (2021) and the essay “Fan Letters of Love,” in Fandom as Methodology: A Sourcebook for Artists and Writers (2019). She has also recently published essays in the art writing anthologies ON CARE (2020) and ON FIGURE/S (2021). She is currently finalising work on a number of book projects, including a monograph on the sick desires and pleasures of Kathy Acker and Cookie Mueller’s interdisciplinary art writing, and a collection of essays, articles, and dialogues on gesture in feminist art and writing, within which she will be publishing new research on Francesca Woodman’s photography and autoeroticism. This intersects with a new project on the interrelation of textiles, sickness, and perversion, as represented and performed in feminist art practices, that she is researching during her Fellowship at the Centre for American Art.