The difference between a concept & a constraint, part 1: What is a concept?

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Sol LeWitt: “Wall Drawing #1111: A Circle with Broken Bands of Color” (2003, detail). Photo by Jason Stec.

[Update: Part 2 is here.]

I wrote about this to some extent here, but I wanted to expound on the issue in what I hope is a more coherent form. Because I frequently see concepts confused with constraints, and the Oulipo lumped in with conceptual writing. For instance, this entry at Poets.org, “A Brief Guide to Conceptual Poetry,” states:

One direct predecessor of contemporary conceptual writing is Oulipo (l’Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), a writers’ group interested in experimenting with different forms of literary constraint, represented by writers like Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Raymound Queneau. One example of an Oulipean constraint is the N + 7 procedure, in which each word in an original text is replaced with the word which appears seven entries below it in a dictionary. Other key influences cited include John Cage’s and Jackson Mac Low’s chance operations, as well as the Brazilian concrete poetry movement.

I would argue that the Oulipo, historically speaking, are not conceptual writers/artists—although it’s easy to see how that confusion has come about, because the Oulipians have proposed some conceptual techniques, such as N+7 (which I’d argue is not a constraint). (Also, it’s each noun that gets replaced, not each word.)

What, then, distinguishes concepts from constraints? And why does that distinction matter? In this series of posts, I’ll try answering those questions, starting with what we mean when we call art conceptual.

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Interview of an Intoxicated Runner

Last week I had a slight buzz and attempted to randomly email 10 random athletes who intoxicated themselves on various substances WHILE COMPETING in their chosen athletic event. Dock Ellis has no email; he is dead. (“The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes, sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn’t.”) Ron Artest, of Hennessey fame, would not answer his Laker’s fan site email address. (“I kept it in my locker. I’d just walk to the liquor store and get it.”) Jeremy Mayfield (“What are you calling illegal?”) drove a race car while on meth, but who here gives a fuck about NASCAR? So. But human being and conceptual artist (in my opinion, as I feel artistic perception presupposes its own dimensionality, beyond involvement or signification or even the substitution of stimulus for sensation, etc.) Joe Kukura answered the mail. Thank you, Joe.

Last July, Joe ran the San Francisco Half Marathon (13.1) miles while drinking 13.1 beers, or one beer every mile along the way. I decided to interview the man.

It seems you have removed the form and movements of running and drinking from their normal contexts, selected their material and spiritual natures and combined them, thus creating art. And any art that becomes physical I consider to be the sublime. Do you consider yourself a conceptual artist?

No, but I’m flattered by the analogy! I consider myself a humor blogger. That medium, though, holds outsize importance in contemporary culture. Any old nobody with a DSL connection, if they’re funny enough, can have a driving role in how vast numbers of people are amused — if for an hour, a day, a week, or more. (Ever forward an LOLcat jpeg? It was produced by an un-famous random person, yet it may have ultimately amused thousands.) It’s a great blessing to be writing during this era.

I suppose there is a train-wreck “self-abuse as art” strain in this project, a la Lux Interior from the Cramps or on that old “Jackass” TV program. And I will admit to bringing a philosophical or intellectual tone to discussions drinking booze while exercising — but that is meant only as a humor device. My main creative motivation is that I just want to be someone who has a good blog.

How many times have you vomited during a run?

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