Joel Swanson’s “The Distance Between Words” is a complicated body of conceptual art expressed though a daunting variety of media, from drawings and prints to video, sound pieces and monumental installations.
But it started out simply. One year ago, exhibition curators Amber Cobb and Mario Zoots handed him a hardcover book, a 1,000-page dictionary published in 1929. Their mandate: let it inspire you.
Swanson, who has built a career using text to explore the way we communicate, accepted the prompt and turned it inside out, investigating every single page and the way the entries — basically, the code for how English-speaking humans transmit ideas and information — related to each other. Through extensive collaboration with Cobb and Zoots, the result was 50 separate objects, many of which are now on display in the swank, private gallery commonly known as The Vault in North Denver.
The show is intriguing on its visual merits, though even more so for how it came to exist. That is because Zoots and Cobb had a prompt of their own, local art patron Nicholas Pardon, who employs them to lead the operation known as New Collection.
Through New Collection, the curators commission artists across disciplines to make bodies of work based on challenging concepts. Those batches of work then become part of the collection, which belongs to Pardon.
That creative process is different than any other art-making method that I’ve encountered, at least in Denver.
For sure, collectors, governments and corporations commission plenty of works, though the pieces are usually one-offs — single art objects, decided in advance, that are added to existing collections.
Pardon, as activist a collector as they come, takes it a step farther, enabling artists to explore and create what they will. He gives them time and space to complete deep, multi-faceted interrogations of ideas. In a sense, each project adds up to a collection in itself, making Pardon’s holdings a collection of collections.
New Collection might seem like the vanity project of a patron who can obviously afford to play in this arena. But it is a formidable effort. Swanson, Cobb and Zoots are all top-tier artists in the region who show their work internationally, and their involvement lends the endeavor credibility. “The Distance Between Words” operates at the sort of serious intellectual level exhibited art rarely achieves in this city.
That is thanks to Swanson’s diligence, and his uniquely 21st century skill set. He puts in the work and has the high-tech talents to manifest it in creative ways.
And that makes “The Distance Between Words” a combination of hand-made objects — some of them deliberately low-tech, like neon signs and old-school slide projectors — and hard-to-believe digital pieces, like the custom-programmed sound installation that is the highlight the show.
Swanson explained that he started by contemplating the book in his hands, and the structures it imposed on language and meaning and how they limited the way words can be used and understood. Then he began to tear them apart.
The show has three sections, starting with the “physical distance” between words, and through his efforts Swanson aimed to collapse it, removing the hierarchy of alphabetization and prioritization that dictionaries mandate. For one printed piece, he scanned every page of the dictionary and layered the scans on top of one another, creating something of an indecipherable black mass. The piece creates chaos, removing the expected way we use words and allowing us the radical possibility of recreating language on our own terms.
The show moves on to consider the“durational distance” between words, or how the blank spaces between words on a page, or the time that exists between them when we speak, impacts their function and capabilities.
For this, he used a computer to read aloud the entire dictionary, creating a recording that was more than 100 hours long. Then he developed a program that erased all of the dialogue — except for the very, tiny micro-second of sound at the beginning and end of each word. All you can hear are the wisps and clicks of the edges of the words. The result is a sound piece, still 30 hours long, that is essentially the silence that exists between words when we speak. The work invites us to think about the rhythms and patterns of speech and how we use those to enhance or finesse meaning.
Finally, there is the “semantic distance” between words, or the differences in their meanings.
Swanson selected two words with opposite meanings — “always” and “never” and gave them numerical value. “Always” was ranked at 100 and “never” at zero.
Then he added nine words in between, ranging from “frequently” to “occasionally” and gave each of them a value. Then he had each word made into a neon sign that is installed on a gallery wall. They flash on and off depending on their value. For example, “always” is lit continuously while “never” is always dark. The others flash with frequencies that correspond with their value.
The piece illustrates how a careful choice of words is necessary to convey the precision of our thoughts, and both the dangers and opportunities of assuming the meaning of specific words.
It’s clear from my descriptions of these pieces, that “The Distance Between Words” can be challenging. Many of the works cannot be read formally; you need to know something about them to fully appreciate their intent. Swanson is known for creating puzzles that are not easily solved.
But he is also known for a light touch and a keen sense of humor. His work often delves into literary theory and it can be rich, thought here is playing, irreverently, with a book we all know intimately and can go deep with. There’s much to relate to and that is a head start for us all.
Experiencing The Vault adds to the exhibition’s pleasures. The multi-level space, tucked into a warehouse in a gentrifying part of the city, is all high-design and modern finishes and there is a lot of other art from the New Collection on display. Visitors need to make an appointment to enter the space, but it’s a small hurdle.
Everything about it feels like the new Denver, as does the collection and the overall venture. A decade ago, we did not have adventurous, private places like this to see art, or well-financed structures for making sure artists here can work steadily, at a fair wage, with creative freedom. Swanson calls the opportunity to make things, without the pressure to sell them, one of the best opportunities of his career.
For the rest of us “The Distance Between Words” is a gauge for how far Denver’s art scene has progressed, and a promising start for where it can go next.
IF YOU GO
“The Distance Between Words” continues through Feb. 28 at The Vault, 3758 Osage St. It is free but appointments are required. Email [email protected] to make one.
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