Sometimes when one is roaming around trying to take in a little contemporary art, it can be a challenge to make head or tail of what you are seeing. You might have to reach for the nearest press release in search of a little enlightenment, though admittedly these texts seldom provide much clarity. In fact, it can sometimes feel as if the art world is conspiring to deliberately confuse you.
Never fear, here is a casual, biased and shortsighted glossary of everyday ‘art speak’ to help you in your translation endeavors – you’re welcome.
CORPOREAL Of or relating to the body. Almost anything can be corporeal; a pile of concrete, some rods of iron, shit in a can. Plus it’s easy to remember because it sounds like corpse.
ONTOLOGY Another term that has crossed disciplines from philosophy into art (see: metaphysics), logically this would be art looking at life/living/the human condition etc. Whilst the investigation of being and existence may sound simple enough, you will normally find this word used in conjunction with other words, such as « ontological boundaries », « digital ontologies » or « the ontology of late-capitalist hierarchies ». Could pretty much be implied by putting a « -ness » onto the end of the word, to indicate the being-ness of whatever the subject is.
POST A handy little prefix that indicates you are so over something. Can be combined with almost anything, you may already know post-modern or even post-internet, so how about making your very own post- combination?
SEMBLANCE When something is like something else or is trying to be like something else, but actually isn’t the something else.
NORMATIVE Like normal, but more embarrassing.
SPECTATOR That’s you (or me). We manage to be both who the work is aimed at and the butt of the joke. Artists may spend a long time pondering how to break the passive viewing patterns of the spectator, to transform the humble audience from a bystander into an active contributor to the work. Thankfully you’ll find the spectator (or audience, or viewer) mentioned a lot, press releases often spend a long time detailing how and why you are supposed to react to and experience the work in question, which is thoughtful of them.
RESEARCH Not only a fun way to avoid making actual work, but a good way to avoid having opinions by answering questions with more questions. Within a research-based practice, one may read books and watch films for actual learning purposes. I am forever hoping that all the time I spend consuming television will stay festering somewhere in my brain later to emerge as a cutting cultural critique as demonstrated by my highly relevant works.
META Resisting the urge to make an « it’s all Greek to me » dad joke, meta originally meant « beyond » and was placed in front of other words to indicate a new concept that comes from a preexisting idea. Now typically used to describe self-referential work and art that makes you conscious of the medium. Also apparently « meta-fog » is a thing, that feeling when too many layers of meta make the work descend into overly confusing nonsense. Most commonly used in relation to cinema with like, loads of trippy layers (see: Inception, Fight Club, etc). If you already know this word through your friends who say things like « That’s soo meta » you need to reassess who you spend your time with.
PRAXIS A more serious word for « practice » which is another way of saying « What I do with my time » (or at least « What I say I do with my time ») e.g: « My praxis explores the notion of semblance in the post-corporeal world, the spectator is asked to situate themself within a meta-ontology that exists beyond the normative experience of exhibition discourses; in order to create and sustain a research-based practice grounded in a collaborative symbiosis ». Bingo, we have a full house.
Words by IONA ROISIN