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Hannah Weiner (1928–1997). Code Poems, Street Works / Poetry Events, 0 to 9 - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Hannah Weiner (1928–1997). Code Poems, Street Works / Poetry Events, 0 to 9

Post 1 of 3 by curator Franziska Glozer


In the 1960s many artists felt the call to appropriate the world, draft new visions for the future and engage directly with a society that was saddled by crises. Existing structures were antiquated and the art scene sought renewal through such movements as Minimal Art, Concept Art, Land Art and Performance Art. These new genres were largely related between two poles: Imagination (the abstract idea) and experience (the interaction with a public foreign to art). Still in their conceptual beginnings, p erformances of new electronic music (by the likes of Terry Riley or John Cage) or the playful experiments with industrially manufactured “art” objects by young minimal artists demonstrated the relevance of societies new production processes for individual as well as social expression and experience. In a world suddenly flooded by information, the slogan “The medium is the message,” coined by Marshall McLuhan in 1967, became a marker for a young generation of artists in search of new modes for artistic expression.

Hannah Weiner, struggling to find a new approach to poetry in the early 1960s, stated after a brief period of time – from which only the Magritte Poems (0) from 1963 remain – that she was incapable of writing poetry using her own words, and that she wanted to focus on phenomena such as disclosure and the collective consciousness. Before the backdrop of a new era, in which social change seemed palpable and participatory, Weiner started to challenge the strange impassivity of normative/traditional linguistic mechanisms, such as the peculiar capacities of the “word.”

sign language + language signs

The exhibition at Kunsthalle Zürich opens with an atypical work by Hannah Weiner. Titled Sign Language of the American Indian, the four sheets were published in the first issue of the mimeographic (self-published) magazine Assembling (1970). Here, four pictograms are combined with an explanatory text fragments that serve as a translation of the images as well as an instruction for physically imitating the gestures, to which Hannah Weiner adds her own comments: “Love, Hannah.”

Code Poems or: How to integrate into my generation?

In an essay published in 1969 for the magazine 0 to 9, Weiner words the poetic intentions underlying her Code Poems, a work complex as well as a unique challenge for the tradition of poetic language in her times: i am interested in exploring methods of communication that will be understood face to face or at any distance, regardless of language, country or planet or origin, by all sending and receiving.

In the Mid-1960s Hannah Weiner discovered the nautical alphabet called the International Code of Signals (INTERCO) for her poetry and developed numerous poems that materialized the same time as performances, happenings or multiple interactions. The INTERCO established itself in the 18th century as a coded translation system to facilitate a wordless language and the communication of information across far distances. This communication works by waving specific flags in choreography or using Morse and light signals that can then be decoded into various alphabetical languages. In this essay Weiner paired the instruments of this international communication system with the sensual modes language and the resulting abstracted interaction with and perception through the human being:

• Light Signals (through Morse): Abstract optical

• Acoustic Signals (through Morse): Abstract acoustic

• Live semaphore message: Movement

• Fixed semaphore message: Movement

• Flagpoles: Concrete optical

• Radio: Electronic

• Words (inclusive corresponding translations in seven different languages)

Weiner’s poetic adaption of this historic multimedia communication offers more and new dimensions of language. As one and not least, the new (electronic) linguistic devices radically contrast the traditional linearity of the western alphabet and suggest a schizophrenic thinking, or “Knight’s Move Thinking,” a language that happens simultaneously and might exist as equivalent.

from Code Poems, Barrytown Open Studio, 1982, p. 36.

Street Works and Poetry Events

In May 1969 Hannah Weiner staked out half a street block with printed fabric tape showing the flags of the International Code of Signals. She used this “coded” tape to spell out one message in various situations in the public space: “MIKE ZULU WHISKEY TANGO” (translated “Do not pass ahead of me”). Already in 1968 at the Central Park Poetry Event she engaged Coast Guards to stage some of her code poems. Various performances followed in different contexts, not least in the Street Works, which were co-founded by Weiner.

With the intention of having poetry take place “off the page” and “on the streets,” Hannah Weiner became co-initiator for a series of events in public space, in which poetry was practiced as performative, ephemeral and detached from the restrictions of print media. In collaboration with the Village Voice critic John Perreault and pop artist Marjorie Strider, Vito Acconci, and further John Giorno and Bernadette Mayer, Hannah Weiner initiated the so called Street Works and World Works.

Installation view Kunsthalle Zürich, 2015

Vito Acconci will stand in one spot by the traffic light at 65th Street and Madison Avenue on October 2 from 5-7 p.m. Hannah Weiner will have a hot dog cart with Weiner’s Wieners. Arakawa plans to remove the Empire State building and place it in front of the Architectural League. Poet John Perreault will put 26 people into tee shirts, each with one letter on it from one of his alphabetical poems. In the front room of the Architectural League Scott Burton will put himself to sleep; on October 25 he’ll enact his dream. What else could all this be but “Street Works,” performed by a group of writers and artists determined to reach a broader audience than the usual gallery crowd and to produce “art” in unexpected places and unexpected ways. (Thus the summary of one of countless short reviews to the Street Works.)

For the exhibition In Plain Sight – Streetworks 1968-1970 at the Laboratory of Art and Ideas in Belmar Lakewood, CO, curated by John Perreault and Adam Lerner, 2007, all documentation of these open and interactive Happenings were assembled for a plain-leaf catalog. This was a complex undertaking as at the time of Street Works the issue of documentation of performances was just about to come up.

0 to 9

Towards the end of the 1960s, parallel to the Street Works and other performative Poetry Events, new affordable duplication methods (such as the new Xerox-Copier) brought about a new genre of print publication: the Mimeographics. In these self-published booklets the contributions of poets, artists, theorists and interested networkers combined and fused text and writing beyond their traditional literary form like verse, manifest, essay, short story etc.

The Mimeographic 0 to 9, published by Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer, was closely connected to the Street Work artists, one of them being Vito Acconci. This magazine later became an important receptacle for the Language Poets, who wanted their poetic use of language and writing rather understood in phenomenological terms, than as an exegesis of self, as promoted by the poets around Frank O’Hara, called the New York School Poets (in analogy to abstract expressionism). In the preface to the anthology of 0 to 9 published in 2006, Acconci states: I wanted words to be material, the way (Jasper) Johns let numbers and letters be material (…)

Exhibition Context

The “bookshelf” displays changing constellations of Mimeographics, poetry magazines and anthologies or poetry newsletters. These printed matters can be considered as the exhibition context for Hannah Weiner’s text works. In these various publications extracts of her manuscripts were published before their official release as book publications. She also developed special poems and other text works as singular contributions to magazines. All printed matters are meant to look at, to read and to spend time with in the exhibition at Kunsthalle Zürich.

All works of Hannah Weiner were generously entrusted for exhibition purposes by © Charles Bernstein for Hannah Weiner in Trust.