The Everyday Use of the Word (1989)

This was a text intended for a publication to follow the commissioned installation Gordon Lebredt: The Everyday Use of the Word, Art Gallery of Ontario, April 15 – July 30, 1989. I'm not sure why it did not proceed.

The Everyday Use of the Word

One wants to say that an order is a picture of the action which was carried out on the order; but also that it is a picture of the action which is to be carried out on the order.
                                     Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §519 [1]


In early 1988, I approached the Toronto artist Gordon Lebredt with the proposal to create a work that would address the nature or notion of a permanent collection of contemporary art in an institution and that would be installed temporarily within the Art Gallery of Ontario's collection. The artist's subsequent proposal was accepted and The Everyday Use of the Word took the form of an oblique commentary—a verbal statement—as it inserted itself architecturally within the gallery space. It was "announced" at the main entrance and "took place" in the Signy Eaton Gallery. Rather than an exhibition within this gallery, which is devoted to rotating installations of works from the Contemporary Canadian Collection from 1960 on, this commissioned work was a project that took the permanent collection as its subject. In other words, it was a work in the collection but not of the collection. [2] 


The Everyday Use of the Word situates itself in the line of museological critiques performed by artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke and Michael Asher in the late 1960s and 1970s. This art arose from the direction of conceptual art which highlighted the institutional framing of works of art and which took the museum system as the subject of its discourse and presentation. In part made visible through minimalism's foregrounding of its presentation's architectural situation as well as by conceptual art's assertion of the linguistic structuring of the art object or context, one of the features of this critical practice was that it inhabited the structure or system it was criticizing and disseminated itself through all aspects of the museum apparatus. In thus embedding itself architecturally and demonstrating its linguistic orientation, The Everyday Use of the Word gives itself the look and function of the art of this past period.  Nowhere is this clearer than in the Wittgenstein citation.  Here the name "Wittgenstein" stands in as a signifier for "historical" conceptual art and its philosophical conceits.  (This name is so much material to use, in the same sense that Lebredt's installation composed of words is to be taken as a material thing.)

The Everyday Use of the Word also refers to specific work in the collection of the AGO: Lawrence Weiner's Many Things Brought from one Climate to Another to Make a Grouping of Things Not Related to the Climate at Hand, 1981. Its installation on the dominating concrete beams of the gallery also intentionally recalls Weiner's contribution to the 1982 documenta 7 in Kassel, West Germany.  His text, "Many colored objects placed side by side to form a row of many colored objects," was placed in German translation on the entablature of the façade of the classically disposed Museum Fridericianum.  Written here in my text, the meanings of both these descriptive phrases remain general; their use or reference makes each specific: the work only means (or refers to) something in use. For instance, Weiner's Many Things... in the AGO works with the material at hand: the other art on display; it describes its institutional surroundings: the perhaps arbitrary conditions of works of art being together. Weiner's documenta piece, on the one hand, can be taken generally as a verbal directive to be carried out to make a work of art at a certain moment, but, on the other hand, it specifically describes the contents (and curatorial practice) of documenta 7.  Its particular placement makes the description critical. [3]

Lebredt's Everyday Use of the Word, coming in 1989 and of a younger generation of artist, is separate from this past discourse of the museological critique, marked as it is by thepassage of modernism into postmodernism and by the intervention, for instance, of Jacques Derrida's writing in critical theory, a writing that has inscribed itself as well in Lebredt's discourse, in both its written and material signifiers. Intentionally or not, The Everyday Use of the Word rehearses the present rapprochement of analytic philosophy and deconstruction in the figures of Wittgenstein and Derrida.4Curiously, this rapprochement focuses in part on the performative, an order of language to which the command, as referred to in the Wittgenstein quotation above, belongs.

Philosophy and/or Conceptual Art?

The use of the Wittgenstein citation, in that it is a reworked quotation from Wittgenstein, is not at issue here. Nowhere is his name attached to the work, on a lower line for example where Gordon Lebredt's name appears to usurp the literary credit (Part I; fig.    ). Only in what could be taken as an extended label to Part II (fig.  ) do we find reference to the source of Lebredt's text. Wittgenstein's text itself, however, is not glossed there. (Whether the label is part of the work questions where a work begins—as well as does the division of the work into two parts, one outside the gallery proper—and what frames its ending. If the label is functional to the work, is it internal to it, or can it traditionally appear outside it at its edge? But where is the edge or border of such a work?) What is at issue here is not Wittgenstein (see Appendix 2), philosophy nor conceptual art (see Appendix 1). The context of this particular placement in the AGO gives The Everyday Use of the Word its meaning. The Everyday Use of the Word addresses the conditions of this collection which in turn partly defines its status as a work of art. As in Weiner's work, The Everyday Use of the Word bases itself at a certain moment in time, while, at the same time, being generally applicable: its future installations necessarily will confront different installation configurations.

More than to an arbitrary collection of what is at hand, as the evidence of a particular institution, however, this work also directs itself, more specifically and necessarily, to the practice of a certain curator, in this case the present writer. After my initial approach to Gordon Lebredt, he in turn questioned me as to the strategies of installations of the contemporary Canadian collection. [5] In a sense, The Everyday Use of the Word is a commentary on that practice in particular and a collection in general.  My remarks in return are not merely a description of The Everyday Use of the Word (Lebredt himself has situated the work's intended effects in the notes displayed as part of the work and in a letter to me; Appendices 1, 2).  I choose, with the aid of these phrases, to speculate (perhaps against Lebredt's intentions) on the performative or prescriptive rather than representational nature of a collection.  This is not to imply that a semantic content can be derived from the seeming linguistic nature of Lebredt's installation and analyzed for its meaning separate from the context of the collection in which it finds itself, or that Lebredt merely sites Wittgenstein's words.  I look to the future infinitive of Lebredt's and Wittgenstein's texts as licence for my speculation.

If one takes this project to be a conversation, it is my turn to reply to the phrases sent to me in the form of this work by Lebredt.  

In Situ

A conversation takes time, as much as it takes place. Temporality is written into Lebredt's work itself as indicated in the notes that served as an extended label in the installation of Part II: "This 'work' above you has been installed as if it were part of the permanent collection, but will remain—for now—external to it in that it approaches the designated event—a particular arrangement of artworks—as a provisional framing element, rather than as simply one object among others belonging to the event proper."  That "for now" has been cancelled by acquisition; but while the work's status has changed it will always function as a framing device and can never simply be "one object among others belonging to the event proper." The "event proper" of The Everyday Use of the Word itself, if that can be said, the instant of its now, moreover, is divided between the two moments of announcement and placement, between the time one is presented to the work in the lobby and the time one begins to assemble it in situ in the gallery. But even that latter moment itself, as Lebredt suggests in note 4 to his text, is bifurcated, repeated in the break of the text of Part II as the work unfolds itself on the two beams. [6] That folding of the text in on itself is not exact, however, in its near repetition marked as it is by a change in verb tense from the south wall to that of the west wall, from the past tense of the former to the future infinitive of the latter.

The Everyday Use of the Word moves from the general to the specific in its two "moments." Outside the display space of the work "proper," Part I speaks generally of a situation, while the descriptions in Part II enact themselves in the situation in which they find themselves.  The Everyday Use of the Word is more complex temporally than the conditions of the general and specific it shares with the works of Lawrence Weiner.  The description in Part I is introduced by a conditional phrase ("one could say") and those in Part II shift from the past to the future tense.  In Part II, the text on the south wall reiterates Part I but in the specific instance of what is on view: this, the "designated event."  It refers to a past action that put something in place, the curatorial decisions that determined this particular display or arrangement of works.  The text on the west wall of Part II expresses conditions of enactment for the future.

"The 'work' has been divided into two parts in order to underline the point that the work cannot be experienced or understood, in an instantaneous mental occurence," writes Lebredt.  "This point is repeated in the break or fold (the L-angle) in Part II in order to stress the before (the activity which precedes and is part of the presentation) and after (the reconstitution: the re-reading or re-writing that will accompany/follow the presentation) aspects of what is 'pictured'" (Appendix 1, Note 2). This "before" is not just our temporal state of approach, as a passage from Part I to Part II, it is the full panoply of institutional support that has prepared the work for meaning. This "before" prepares reception in the present. But what of the "after"?  What are the conditions of enactment in the future, what is the picture of the action to be carried out?

We are getting ahead of ourselves. Let's compare Lebredt reworking to the original citation:  

One wants to say that an order is a picture of the action which was carried out on the order; but also that it is a picture of the action which is to be carried out on the order.  Wittgenstein

Part I: One could say: A certain order of objects is a picture of the action which was carried out on the order.
Part II: This order of objects is a picture of the action which was carried out on the order;—But also it is a picture of the action which is to be carried out on the order.
[4] Lebredt

In nearly repeating §519 of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Lebredt has significantly altered the meaning and reference of the text. Lebredt substitutes "order of objects" for Wittgenstein's "order," that is, he substitutes an arrangement for a verbal(?) command (i.e., Ordnung for Befehl). The shift in sense of the English signifier that can accommodate both concepts, however, appropriates what is on display from the domain of prescriptives (Wittgenstein's phrase, the conditions of the prescriptive) to that of representation (the conditions of Lebredt's "designated event"). More on this below.  In making this shift, the concentration on ordering as arrangement retains the emphasis on the representational nature of picturing. Thus, the meaning of The Everyday Use of the Word ("the meaning of a word is its use in the language," Philosophical Investigations, §43) is to draw attention to the way these objects are arranged, to the fact that they have been put together and that any putting together (etymology of "collecting": a gathering together) is not a simple placement.[7] Every presentation is already a representation. From the point of view of an artist, whether Lebredt or Weiner, placing is critical, and the mere situation of the placing of a work becomes a critique of the ideological, that is, representational, practices of the museum.

Lebredt has chosen the beams to place his text.  Although the architecture of the Signy Eaton Gallery is an example of functional modernism, the beams in the space can still convey the association of a classical entablature especially when socially inscribed with a text. Somewhat overbearing, the beams seem to reinforce the institutional structuring of the space, and, as such, they act to enframe what takes place below. "That which is written above is to be read in relation to what has been laid out for display below: the 'pictured' event." Representation occupies the space of the "between," a discursive space between the enframing and the enframed that the extended label also inhabits.8


Lebredt's notes imply that Part II is a "modified double citation of the inscription" that appeared in Part I.  This is true, but it is, as well, a reworking of the whole of §519 of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Lebredt suggests in the letter reproduced as Appendix 2 that knowledge of the citation's original context is not necessary in order to understand the meaning or use (we should say the meaning in use) of The Everyday Use of the Word in the context in which it is situated. Resituating Wittgenstein's statements in §519 in Philosophical Investigations, however, shows that two notions of a picture are in operation in Lebredt's work which are separated and contested in Wittgenstein. What follows §519 shows these statements to be examined in light of Wittgenstein's earlier picture theory of representation which was the basis of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In that early book, propositions were analyzed on the analogy of a picture, in that a picture was supposed to correspond, point by point, on a representational basis, to reality. [9] Language and the world obeyed the same logical structure and could be laid up against each other to show the correctness or incorrectness, the truth or falsity of the picture/representation. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein satirizes this view: e.g., "If we compare a proposition to a picture, we must think whether we are comparing it to a portrait (a historical representation) or to a genre-picture. And both comparisons have point" §522. In §519 he presents another type of picture, a picture of an action, that cannot obey the same logical or cognitive model of representation: the order—the picture of the action—is not a proposition, but a prescriptive.

Now, we have seen that Lebredt conflates two English senses of "order" (corresponding to Ordnung and Befehl), so that "picture" seems to follow a representational model with the sense of action—really a hidden activity on the part of the institution—limited to "the 'pictured' event," that is, the ordering of a representation, the disposition of objects on view framed by his work. Lebredt's framing is not revealed, however, solely by the semantic content of the phrases that run along the concrete beams above the works on display.  In the slippage implied by its framing and designating, the work's "fit," rather, points to the institution's own enframing"What is in question, as Wittgenstein would have it, is the 'work's' fit, how it accomodates itself to, inserts itself into an institutional framework. PI 141" (Appendix 2). The Everyday Use of the Word participates in but does not belong to the institutional "language-game."10Nonetheless, in pointing out that representational structure11 (in the language of the '60s and '70s it would have been identified as an ideological formation), his work implies that the institutional framework is a model, if not the only model of presentation, and that other presentations, or effects, cannot be conceived except by means of critique his work, among others, proposes). 

What Lebredt identifies is an institutional language-game that operates through an unidentified or unacknowledged representational framework.  (His own work can no more be singularized simply linguistically as a propositional statement; it is part of a language-game but not necessarily entirely that of the museum.)  Would the therapeutic effect of this revelation be to shift our knowledge of institutional structuring from a model of representation to one of language-games?  The representational model would only be one species of language-game and its character would not necessarily change.  To abandon that representational model altogether would entail conceiving a collection not in terms of pictures and propositions but by means of prescriptives.

The prescriptive is an order of language that induces its addressee to bring about a particular state of affairs.  Commands are prescriptives.  We have seen that the Wittgenstein-Lebredt citation gives two "definitions" of an order: a picture of the action which was carried out on the order and a picture of the action which is to be carried out on the order.  The first order (a picture of the action which was carried out) we could interpret as the conception of history that the curator is imposing carried out as the installation.  This command begs the question of authority.  The second order (a picture of the action which is to be carried out) is this interpretation of history which henceforth will be carried out by others, whether it finds expression in other installations, history writing or in one's own knowledge as a viewer.  The viewer assumes the obligation of this prescription in carrying out the order in accepting this view, in reconceptualizing his or her own version of history; the viewer may, as well, reject it.  More important than a representation of the past is this orientation to a future that the infinitive offers.  Through prescription, history is thought in terms of the future.  The action of the installation brings this referent (history) into view.  To think of history as a matter of prescriptions for the future is to oppose any notion of history as a representation of the past where history is thought in terms of a picture corresponding to (a past) reality.  Following the representational model, a collection would be judged by this same criteria of correspondence; pursuing the effects of prescriptives, it would not. [12]

In note 4 Lebredt offers his work in the context and the provoking of a "re-reading or re-writing that will accompany/follow the presentation"—the "after" of what is "pictured." An orientation to the future, however, would contradict Lebredt's notion expressed in his letter "that a certain institutional programme offers a place, a slot 'already prepared' for the object. Such a placement is meant to be taken as a form of 'normalization'." From my point of view, there can be neither normalization nor norms when it comes to building and displaying a collection. Consensus comes only after the fact (and act of prescription): a collection is a command to be.

    1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.  E. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963).  The German text reads: "Mann will sagen: ein Befehl sei ein Bild der Handlung, die nach ihm ausgeführt wurde? aber auch, ein Bild der Handlung, die nach ihm ausgeführt werden soll."  
    2. The installation took place May 2-July 30, 1989.  Since then the work has been purchased for thecollection (Acc. no. 89/120). Unfortunately, the installation The Everyday Use of the Word addressed was somewhat atypical, serving various ends.  A more typical installation immediately preceded it; its illustration (figs.   ) shows the unobstructed beams. For another use of the contemporary Canadian collection to make a work see Garry Neill Kennedy, Canadian Collection Average Size-Average Colour, 1978, reproduced in Roald Nasgaard, Garry Neill Kennedy: Recent Work (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1978).
    3. See Benjamin Buchloh, "Documenta 7: A Dictionary of Received Ideas," October 22 (Fall 1982), pp. 105-125, especially pp. 120-21.
    4. See the annotated bibliography in Reed Way Dasenbrook, ed., Redrawing the Lines: Analytic Philosophy, Deconstruction and Literary Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).
    5. My published views on collections which were available before Lebredt's project are: "In Retrospect: Presenting Events," Parachute 46 (March-May 1987), pp. 11-13;  "Presentations," Artviews, 13:4 (Fall 1987), pp. 20-26.
    6, One of the works in the installation , Jeff Wall's Double Self-portrait, 1979, fortuitously plays on that temporal before and after of the two self-portraits split by the corner of the photographic set.
    7. "These captions suspended over the 'pictured' event are to be viewed as pieces of prepared material (they are objects as much as they are just so many words) that have been introduced into this scene in order to call attention to how elements of the assembly—its syntaxis (mine included)—function.  The meaning of my 'work' is to be determined, then, primarily on how it will be used in this particular set of circumstances and with this particular set of objects rather than, say, what it might mean solely in relation to a priori discursive formulas or abstractions, i.e., prior examples of what have constituted similar situations or applications." (Appendix 1, Note 3)
    8. On representation and the "between," see my "Reinhard Mucha: The Silence of Presentation," Parachute 51 (June, July, August 1988), pp. 22-28.
    9. Tratatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1961).  See Sections 2.12, 2.131, 2.15, 2.151, 2.16, 2.161, 2.173, 2.21.
    10. "I shall also call the whole, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the 'language-game'." Philosophical Investigations, §7.
    11. "A picture cannot, however, depict its pictorial form: it displays it."  Tractatus 2.172
    12. These issues can only be argued elsewhere.  See my essay "Thinking Through Curating," M5V ... I am indebted, of course, to Jean-François Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thébaud Just Gaming, trans. George Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985) and Lyotard, The Differend, trans. Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1988).