John Smith

Reviewed by Julian Hou
Recently an order from the State Administration for Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television in China sought to ban puns and wordplay from broadcasting. One specific implication is that puns are a creative way around censorship. More generally, however, it suggests that a lack of language control could threaten state interests, with language expanding away and slipping into a state of “cultural and linguistic chaos”.
But how can puns be so effective in 2015? The bursting revolutionary energy that Marshall Mcluhan described in the late 1960s from reading the pun-filled Finnegan’s Wake seems unimaginable to me. Puns are most frequently interpreted now as a cheap advertising strategy, a tactic of a brand trying to seep into consumer awareness – a way for a logo to pop. They seem a far cry from causing a radical momentary alienation – of making the user aware of the sounds that form language and causing critical awareness of the effective performance of language. Lingering as an outdated form of humor, puns do not come across as radical but perhaps still belong to the realm of skeptics. However, the reason why advertising can still integrate puns today is that the freedom to be skeptical is built into the identity and role of the consumer.
In John Smith’s clever minute long film Gargantuan (1992), “my newt” and “minute” (as in small) and “minute” (as in the period of time) punctuates the end of the film with the ringing of an alarm clock. This three way pun functions as a bow that wraps around the film, a conceptual moebius strip. It is a pun that Ethan de Seife nominates as being “one of the very best in the English language” in John Smith and His Gargantuan Newt, one of four short essays that circulate around the filmmaker in a book simply titled “John Smith” published by Mousse Publishing and Sternberg Press in 2013.
When you type “Conceptual art and puns” into google – you get: 05 Thematic Residency: Why are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think it is a Good Idea. This residency was run by Jan Verwoert at the Banff Centre in 2009. Verwoert asks in the program description: Likewise, it seems that still we cannot quite convincingly describe to ourselves what Conceptual Art can be. Is it an art of pure ideas? As if that were ever possible let alone desirable! Or is it an art of smart strategic moves and puns? Here we can assume Verwoert isn’t dumping on puns but that he is suggesting that they are part of a system of trickery or manipulation that is possibly inherent in Conceptualism.
This pun trickery is perhaps best exemplified by the name John Smith itself. John Smith is the placeholder name for a male in the United Kingdom, a name that either conceals an identity or represents a “man” in the abstract. But John Smith the filmmaker is exactly not these things, he is the signature auteur of John Smith. But then again, his bare means of filmmaking gives the feeling, as is common to Conceptualism, that the work could have been made by anyone or by a person in the abstract. This is a third turn in the pun which you could say keeps it from sticking to the single shock of momentary alienation. It seems to rotate signification in a way that ties concepts to narrative time.
Unstuck from being the simple one-way pun, John Smith’s films are often in a state of unfolding their own mechanisms, constantly revealing more but never to enclose the viewer inside the film. The representational tropes of films become the propulsion of narrative, and the film medium itself acts as the structure. His reinvention of pun is one way among many that keep a questioning distance, freeing us from the heavy burden of being swept up in typical narrative structures. This form of necessary unlearning upends the idea that puns form a reactionary response like the one that China’s state policy is threatened by. The motions of unfolding that John Smith enacts integrates the threat as a function of interpretation – always slipping into but never simply becoming chaos.
John Smith. Edited by Tanya Leighton and Kathrin Meyer. With texts by Ian Christie, Martin Herbert, Kathrin Meyer, and Ethan de Seife. Mousse/Sternberg Press, 2013.