Ann Hamilton's "(signal)" (2015)


Communication is a series of intelligible exchanged gestures — movements, sounds, tactile and visible textures. In distilling our urge to transmit meaning to its most elemental parts, Ann Hamilton’s (signal) (2010-2015) isolates words and gestures as as our most basic means of getting a point across. Composed of [six] offset printed newsprint pads — [two] featuring images of different moments within a single wave of a hand and the other [eight] being segments of a concordance that combines excerpts from John Keats’ 1819 poem-fragment "This living hand, now warm and capable“ and Charles Darwin’s 1872 book "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” — (signal) seeks that point at which familiar and unfamiliar expression converges. As the work is constructed to be freely engaged — each page of text and image may be torn away and taken at will — the notion of direct contact between the artist and viewer/interlocutor is rendered fully tangible. Whether the viewer’s desire to possess a part of the piece comes from their wish to read and comprehend it more specifically, or from a more unutterable appeal to simply touch it and live more intimately with its material presence, a communicative connection has been made.

Unlike an index, which itemizes a text by significant subject matter, the earlier form of the concordance is an alphabetical log of a work’s principal words along with the sentences in which they appear. In Hamilton’s concordances, the system of alphabetization is replaced by select words running like spines down the center of the page; in addition to charting the frequency and context of their usage, Hamilton claims these spines as yet another space for signification. In (signal) the central column quotes the last line and phrase of Keats’ single-sentence poem, “I hold it toward you,” which then serves to catalogue instances in Darwin’s book where these words are used. By overlapping these two works — disparate in form but kindred in their conceptual meditations — a network of intersections occur: between the poetic and the pragmatic, the lyric and the prosaic, the knowable and the unknowable. 

While Darwin was seeking a meaningful explanation for our elusive emotional life, Keats was capturing the emotional aspect of our quest for meaning. The figure of the hand serves both writers as anchors to the physicality of human experience, and as a symbol of our simplest sense-making tool. Similarly, Hamilton uses the waving hand — a gesture that spans a greater distance than the reach of our voice — to summon the viewer and literally signal to them that her work is to be grasped. Styled as a newspaper — another form of data collection and broad information transmission that’s commonly still delivered by hand — (signal) nonetheless draws on myriad connotations at once, making it much more like poetry than news. Regardless of whether one traces the work to the more scholarly concordance or popular news source, Hamilton holds out a signal in want of taking.

This piece was commissioned by Island Press to accompany Ann Hamilton's limited-edition print.