Art Writing & the Diagram

A talk by Niamh McDonnell followed by a conversation with Francis Halsall on critical theory toolkits for art writing
Hosted by the MA Programme, Art in the Contemporary World, NCAD, Dublin

Harry Clarke Lecture Theatre
Friday 20th November 2 – 4pm

All welcome

Diagram comes from the Greek diagraphein, ‘to mark out in lines’: dia ‘through’ and graphein ‘write’. A diagram shows the appearance, structure or workings of something and can range from a 2D drawing to a 3D multimedia work.

This talk looks at how the diagram can be used in art writing to experiment with ways of showing the process of the material inscription of the text in a process of writing ‘through’ rather than ‘about’ the artwork. The diagram presents a framework for generating different possible structures for displaying the text on the basis on applying different logical principles to describe its elements. In the diagram the description of the abstract, visual typographic quality of the sign sits next to the description of the sign that functions as part of a semantic text. This play with the logic of description that proposes different forms of receptivity to the sign can be found in the approach to structural composition in the Constructivist graphic art of the early 20th century. The composition juxtaposes text with image on different scales and angles and addresses the viewer as a reader who participates in making connections between elements that are described in terms of different registers. It simulates how the moving image scripts the viewer’s process of reading that constructs narrative sequences.

This example of the diagram in Constructivist graphic art provides the starting point for the talk to explore how other applications of the diagram in design history can inform art writing experiments that respond to the artwork by speculating about its potential engagement of the viewer as a reader. The talk will focus on a particular project that used the diagram to think about ways of structuring the display of a series of blog posts that responded to diagram artworks while they were being produced for exhibition ( This art writing online addressed the reader in terms of how they would determine the structure of the text and the space of engagement with it by choosing the combination of texts to read and the order of reading them. The talk will also consider how this principle of address was applied in the curatorial approach to displaying the diagram artworks, demonstrating how the diagrammatic approach makes it possible for the activities of art writing and curating to compliment one another in terms of exploring ways of producing responses to the artwork that involve the viewer/reader as a participant.

Niamh McDonnell is an art writer/curator based in Belfast. She is Associate Researcher at Belfast Exposed where she is working on developing its photographic archive. She is also working on projects that use the diagram to structure the process of collaborating with artists to produce diagram artworks in response to archives. Niamh completed a PhD in philosophy based on the diagram in the work of Gilles Deleuze at Goldsmiths University, London.