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“Why don’t I understand?” by Vincent Bonin

This text by VINCENT BONIN was published alongside MARIE-MICHELLE DESCHAMP + BRYAN-K. LAMONDE‘S Exhibition, BETTER TIMES.

“Why don’t I understand?”
by Vincent Bonin

In his untranslated book written in French, Le Schizo et les langues ​​(1971), Louis Wolfson, who suffered from schizophrenia, adopted the analyst’s posture rather than that of the analysand, by attempting to write the autobiography of his own “split mind.”[1] From childhood, he has put in place procedures to quickly translate fragments of his mother tongue, English, in other idioms. Since 2012, some works by Marie-Michelle Deschamps are distilling the content of Wolfson’s texts. She has repurposed his techniques of linguistic condensation to integrate them in her own praxis as methodological triggers. The temporal passage from one set of words to the other became for her a corollary of the giving of form to particular materials. These references to Wolfson as character are less present in the show at YYZ, but Deschamps is still exploring here the play between the fragmentation of language and the contingent manifestations of sculptural processes, this time in dialogue with her longtime collaborator Bryan K. Lamonde.

It is useful to describe from the outset her way of working. After a period of conceptualizing often involving complex topological design, Deschamps initially makes models of her works with paper. A bit like superimposing a fabric on a pattern, she then manipulates copper and steel sheets, finely chiseling an outline and folding the surface at specific locations. The metal leaves are coated with an enamel powder and placed in an oven. For this glaze to amalgamate with the copper and maintain its uniformity, without turning to green-gray, the cooking time must remain very short. Once in the open air, metals take their final appearance like a revealed photographic image. Some works are partly covered with cracks and asperities caused by chemical reactions during the cooking. Deschamps sometimes quickly draws graphemes with a stylet on the burning half-liquid enamel and these marks, like scars or automatic writing, seem to underline the rapidity of the transformation. Other objects remain smooth, with the exception of the shaped folds. When these assemblages do not lie on the floor they support themselves on the walls, hung most of the time without adjoined frames.

Although the conceptual ramifications of temperature transition remain only latent in Deschamps’s complicity with her chosen materials, I wish nevertheless to examine here how the understanding of some contemporary thermodynamic phenomena can be added to the discourse on split subjectivity that the artist has been investigating through Louis Wolfson’s case study, and other references to psychoanalytic literature. Temperature balance defines the reception and retention of information in the human body and brain. By the early 1960s, Marshall McLuhan had already proposed a schematization of “hot” media, giving the illusion of immersion, and “cold” media, which demand that the receiver fill the gaps in communication[2]. To move from technological to organic reception of data, McLuhan then largely updated Sigmund Freud’s theories of trauma with cybernetic science. More recently, the thermodynamics of electronic discretization had made it impossible to conceive of the protocols of the deregulated economy (new currencies, among others) as separated from an incompressible materiality and toxicity. In order to remain stable, the internal mechanism of the hardware of any communication systems now depends on the regulation of the shift from hot towards cold and cold towards hot. Just like the precise control of the internal temperature in the chips of our devices, the continuous transmission and storage of data in ubiquitous clouds necessitates to remove the excess of heat out of the server farms dispersed around the globe, which are rolling 24/7. Furthermore, neurobiological study of affects now expands the postulates of psychoanalysis by also using thermodynamic models. For example, people who are victims of severe head injuries or Alzheimer’s disease often don’t feel their own suffering, having a “cold brain” according to scientific imaging, while conversely, other neurological pathologies like Multiple Sclerosis can produce excessive phantom burning[3].

In analyzing Walter Benjamin’s essay, The Artwork in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Susan Buck Morss points out that the modern discipline of aesthetics, which first attempted to describe the perception of the senses before proposing templates of judgments of taste, is linked to technologies of anesthetics and analgesics[4]. However, we must be careful not to conflate too easily the phenomena of physical cooling and psychic frigidity to a work of art associated from the outset with a withdrawal of human qualities, or to the artist’s detachment. Deschamps’s reappraisal of a vocabulary of abstraction indicates that a decrease in affects, even when reaching the zero degree, preserves a specter of the subject.

While seeing the photographic documentation of It suits you well (2015), I abandoned myself to free associations. I projected on the work’s entangled vitrified surfaces looking much like fabric hiding a body, the remembered image of the vests of Mary Kelly’s son, which she carefully folded and placed under Plexiglas in the introductory plates of her cycle Post-Partum document (1973-197). Kelly’s distancing from her subject, also carried out by covering these vests with Jacques Lacan’s schemas on intersubjectivity, has often been mistakenly described as waning of affect. While Kelly demonstrated the Lacanian principle that the symbolic already ascribes subject positions in language, even before a baby is born, she recognized an unknown dimension – her own emotions as a mother – in this over-determination of social reproduction. For Deschamps who, unlike Kelly, doesn’t use indexical figuration, passages from hot towards cold, rather than provoking only painful dispersals of energy, can also resolve in the forgetting of the burn and its healing/cicatrizing, leaving no trace. Perhaps that is why always arriving at its destination in an acclimatization chamber (which the gallery replays as an aftermath “scene”), Deschamps’s transformed objects also allow us to remain calm. Although the topological signs distributed on her substrates are offered to the gaze in arrested form, they also make us think about the way folding can expand in an infinite movement.

Recently, Deschamps showed as it were the reverse of the copper and enamel process by creating a work that gives us this time the opportunity to fold and unfold surfaces instead of just contemplating them. During her pregnancy, she painted a series of watercolors by establishing a gestural vocabulary close to the units of a chromatic scale. She then digitized each of the sheets covered with these graphemes, and placed them in a template of blank pages of a printed newspaper the size and “salmon” color of the Financial Time[5]. Since this publication Untitled was produced in a large print-run, it can be distributed for free on the premise of the exhibition. Handling our own copy, we realize that in the absence of information, our habits of reading become perceptible. By way of an automatism, we remove a sheet out of the set, and then we insert it again where it is missing. Unlike the Financial Time which is paginated, we can read it in every direction. We turn the object on itself like a pivot and explore all of the possibility of juxtaposing the graphemes, until they are repeated and their familiarity is imposed on the perception of difference, thus closing up the loop. Although the newspaper is the reference here, the gestures Deschamps asks us to perform could also allude to the manipulation of money.

The graphic envelope of this work has been created by Bryan K. Lamonde. In 2013, he designed the template for Deschamps’s book The Twofold Room in which she has explored the allegory of the hotel to address language as a temporary dwelling, once again linking the register of psychic symbolization to architecture and an anonymous materiality. On page 43, she printed the logo of the institution, described as follows in the text:


“Two I in bed together, two I which form an H.”


Just like she had reversed here the “I” to give birth to another opaque but recognizable letter, later on, with a sculpture entitled Entre Singulier et Pluriel (2015), she had used once more this “coupled” form by matching identically shaped copper and enamel surfaces, putting the white one upside down and covering the other in a skin toned color. For the YYZ exhibition, Deschamps and Lamonde examined again the plasticity of fonts, which we often use according to a principle of transparency, as if they have no effect on reading. Conversely, when we see their occurrences in different contexts, it is possible to recognize singularity by accumulation. In his book Discourse, Figure, Jean-François Lyotard discussed the rebuses, which are a travesty of language requiring the parallel reading of the text and its graphic supplement[6]. Although an alphabet belongs to no one, it is possible to transform the whole into an idiosyncratic seemingly autonomous object, when its parts are treated as discrete elements. In L *, a group exhibition at the Darling Foundry in 2016 dedicated to Louis Wolfson’s aforementioned techniques of translation, Lamonde had made magnet fonts attached to structures like those used by Deschamps to hang enamel coated copper or steel substrates. At YYZ, he continues this research on the alphabet with a video showing a series of letters permuting as nodal points, enabling a system of unknown origin to spin its way out of the void.

Lamonde’s greased fonts combined with Deschamps’ substrates could trigger the speech of an analyst. While writing this text, I have been going back to a little-known episode of the story of Jacques Lacan’s Borromean dots and mathemes used as speaking prompts during his seminars. These diagrams were extrapolated mainly through scribblings and at this early stage, could have been made partly in a state of floating attention while listening to analysands. In the introduction to Lacan’s catalogue raisonné of drawings and graphic manuscripts, a very strange object in itself, Jacques Roubaud describes the transition from the sketches to the rigidity of a series of copyrighted elements (including fonts):

“A loss results from the perfect normalization of the drawings compared to the ‘draft’. The drawings are perfect in The Sinthome, but petrified, frozen, ‘frozen words.’ The general draft was more than a negligible piece of writing. It introduced a rich interference, imbued with meaning, due to the hand guided by the effort of thinking.”[7]

Contemporaneous with Lyotard’s investment of the visual against the dominance of language, and Lacan’s topology, Louis Wolfson’s intra-linguistic translation protocols represent an exemplary manifestation of the desire to create an idiom with existing structures before thought processes freezes in the logic of communication. The figural, as it increases the discursive, must not, however, be confused with a possessive individuation of speech (a solipsism). The recognition of the exteriority of language in relation to the subject (“it speaks”) indicates the place one must occupy, against our will, after a flight into the imaginary. The return of the symbolic order during enunciation could also be manifested in a completely other register, by the stratification of a social history of materials, which has to be recognized in an artistic practice beyond the limits of the artwork’s instantiation (even more so when it is conceived a readymade).

Another of Deschamps’s series entitled Company (2017), presented at YYZ, conjures up multiple meanings, referring both to corporate legal persons and to the act of being present to someone, at his or her side (for instance, beside their beds when they are sick). It would be reductive to see this play with words as a hint to the process of collaboration, although Deschamps explicitly recognizes the division of labor and the importance of dialogue in all of her projects. This “whatever singularity” of residual subjectivity rather evoke for me another linguistic subversion, more ordinary though than the grammatical misuses to which Deschamps referred to through quoting Wolfson’s techniques of translation. I think here of the claiming of the preferred pronoun “they,” singular plural, by transgender persons hoping to leave the “I” and the unifying power of the “us” behind them. There, one decides to impose a non-choice to others, and this distance no longer rests on dissociation from the social. While Deschamps and Lamonde don’t explicitly refer to a queer phenomenology, in their objects meant to “accompany” without a predicate, they may offer a second series of metabolic metaphors alongside that of the temperature transition. In line with another debate about a use value of indifference, they point towards the way in which some abstractions dissolve a human frame already deemed improper by subjects who got casted out of the symbolic order[8]. In the time being, this is the way I identify with their work and put myself in the empty places it has carved.

Vincent Bonin, January 2018.





[1] Louis Wolfson, Le Schizo et les langues (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1970).

[2] Marshall McLuhan, “Media Hot and Cold,” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001). Initially published in 1964.


[3] Dysesthesia is a condition that produces these phantom sensations. The affected brain roots send deceptive signals to the nervous system, interpreted as burns on the skin. On the subject of irreversible brain dissociation, see Catherine Malabou, The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).

[4] Susan Buck Morss, “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered,” October, vol. 62 (Fall 1992), p. 3-41.

[5] In another ongoing series, Deschamps isolates the grapheme as the smallest unit of meaning. She makes shapes looking like a hybrid of brushstrokes, clouds, and algae, by applying a smoothing compound and a marble powder directly on the walls of the gallery. Some of these works are entitled Coquilles, alluding to the French word for typos, which also means shells.


[6] Jean-François Lyotard, Discourse, Figure (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2010). Initially published in 1971.


[7] Jacques Roubaud, “Brouillons Là quand,” in Jacques Lacan, Œuvres graphiques et manuscrits (Paris: Artcurial – Briest – Le Fur – Poulain – F. Tajan, 2006), p. 8.

[8] On abstraction in art and queer discourse, see Pink Labor on Golden Streets, Queer Art Practices, edited by Christiane Erharter, Hans Scheirl, Dietmar Schwärzler, Ruby Sircar (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015).