Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Telephone: Artists Connect to Artists


The visual artist speaks in a visual vocabulary. Often, it is the art critic, gallery owner, curator or educator who introduces verbal and written interpretations of an artist’s visual vocabulary. Some actively engage with a verbal explanation of their work. Others are amused, even inspired, by explanations conjured by critics and curators. Still others resent the assumed need to translate visual communication into verbal explanations and perceive such translations as an intrusion into the visual vocabulary.

Telephone: Artists Connect to Artists (February 24 – April 5, 2003) investigated some of these notions by turning the linguistic game of “Telephone” or “Chinese Whispers” into a game of visual whispers. Curator Candy Kuhl began the chain, contributing a piece entitled Currents, which was then passed to the next artist, who had one month to create a visual response to the work received, before passing their work onto the following artist. All the participating artists were sworn to secrecy while the project was in process. Overwhelmed by the positive responses received from the artists invited to contribute, it was decided that the group would be split into two strands. Time was a consideration for the curator who felt that two years from the start of the chain to the end may have left participants feeling less engaged with the project as a whole than if it could be completed in a single year.

The nature of the project illustrated the multitude of vocabularies available to visual artists. Differences rose to the surface in the two strands which quickly moved in different directions from the initial work. The formal qualities of shape, line, color and texture made a stronger and more consistent appearance in one line, while the other addressed themes of a more conceptual nature; an unplanned but powerful example of the numerous approaches at work within visual communication. With a few exceptions, the artists – who covered the gamut of textile-related techniques from weaving and quilting to basketry – were not tempted into new mediums or drawn too far from their established styles when responding to the work before them. Perhaps this reaction was in part driven by a desire to ensure a personal response to the project and ward off the possibility of unintentional mimicry.

As is true of all artists, working processes were incredibly varied, with some artists observing the previous work throughout the process of making their own, while others chose to segment time into strict observation sessions, followed by a time to respond without returning to the earlier object. While some wrote lists that outlined all the elements they wanted to make sure were included, others accumulated material and objects and allowed the work to dictate which themes were incorporated and which edited out.

Most interesting is the manner in which elements seemingly skipped generations only to reappear in works by two or three people down the chain, as though the whisper had a self-correcting function that somehow instinctively returned to the core concepts even though they may not have been taken up by every individual. This may also have been a virtue of the concept behind the game itself. Kuhl explains that her piece “became an exploration of the connections between words, knowledge, freedom and adventure,” themes arguably inherent in the nature of the game. Along with the “whisper” each artist received, all participants must surely have also mused on the concept of secrets, distorted communication, and the ability of time and space to muffle clear intent. It is difficult to separate which of these themes were established by the initial work and which were possibly assisted by the concept of the communication chain.

A limited edition catalogue accompanied the exhibition. The innovative design is a version of dos-a-dos book, with one book covering one strand of artists and, flipped over, the second strand starts a new book on what would usually have been the back cover. The book allows one page for each work, moving from front to back. Photographs of each work are accompanied by an artist’s statement in which initial reactions to the received piece are printed with an explanation of the artist’s intended response. A thumbnail image of the proceeding piece is printed in the corner of each page so that the chain of visual reference can be studied. Like each work, the written explanations vary from great physical detail to sweeping emotive responses. The catalogue is a work of art itself, and a celebration of the purposeful contribution written communication can make to a visual dialogue. Ultimately, both are necessary. Ironically, the silencing of oral and written communication observed by the artist’s participating in the project, leaves us much to write and talk about.

Surface Design Journal, winter 2004: 50-51.


Chinese Whispers

The exhibition “Telephone: Artists Connect to Artists”, was shown from February 24th to April 5th, 2003 at La Jolla Fiber Arts Gallery in La Jolla, California/USA. The game of “Telephone” or “Chinese Whispers” starts with a phrase that is whispered from one person to the next until reaching the final recipient who declares what they believe they have heard, typically at great amusement to the originator of the phrase as it often resembles little of the original. With the pattern in mind, San Diego based artist Candy Kuhl conceived of an exhibition based on a visual version of the “Telephone” game. As curator, Kuhl elected to lead off the project with a piece of her own making which was then passed to another artist who, through visual interpretation alone, made a work which was in turn passed to another. Twenty-five southern California artists were involved with the project over the past year, working in a variety of media from woven and printed textiles, to basketry, beadwork, and book arts.

The concept of the exhibition was welcomed with such enthusiasm that two strands of volunteer artists were established, each having one month to complete a work in response to the visual whisper they received. This practical demand for two strands – the project would otherwise have taken over two years from conception to completion – was a fortuitous one, for one of the most engaging aspects of the exhibition are the comparisons that can be made between the two strands and how differently they developed from one common inspiration. While one strand largely engaged with the formal elements appearing in the works, the second seemed taken with the conceptual, growing more and more abstract as the chain evolved. Several motifs appeared consistently throughout the exhibition, undoubtedly influenced by the themes present in the original work but possibly also at the forefront of the artists’ minds for they embody the nature of the “Telephone” exchange. Space and travel as well as concealed or disrupted communication while established in the first work are also vital concepts of the game.

The exhibition is a study in visual language and the varying importance artists grant the visual over the written. While each piece remained untitled when delivered to the next artist, some script did sneak into the bodies of the works. While examples where limited, the influence the snippets of written text had on the next artist receiving the piece was dominant. No text went unnoticed or ignored, despite the premise of the “game” being a chain of visual communication. But ultimately, this is far from a story of the written triumphing over the visual. For, unlike the spoken version of the game, each final work in this visual study made an almost uncanny loop of reference back to the initial work. I, for one, think it is time to start another chain and watch again.

TextileForum 3/2003: 6