What Is A Book If It Will Not Be A Book?
This post comprises following the script used for my short paper presented at Impact8 International Conference of Print hosted by The University of Dundee 23rd of August 1st September 2013, together with the live audio recording of the presentation. The accompanying slide presentation, (sometimes cropped and edited to the better appear in the post), are inserted into the text as illustrations. The live audio recording of the presentation can be listened to in parallel with the reading of the written text by clicking on the Soundcloud icon below. The gaps in the delivery are the pauses that were allowed for the audience to view / read the slides as part of the narrative. A special thank you to Brian Lewis for both recording and technically assisting the presentation, and for editorial and creative input into the text.
The Unfortunates, a novel by B.S. Johnson famously known as ‘the book in the box’ first published in 1969 by Panther in association with Secker and Warburg, comes with the following note:
‘This novel has twenty-seven sections, temporarily held together by a removable wrapper. Apart from the first and last sections (which are marked as such), the other twenty-five sections are intended to be read in random order. If readers prefer not to accept the random order in which they receive the novel, then they may re-arrange the sections into any other random order before reading.’
This, then, was book liberated; narrative unbound, content and control handed over to the other. True, we are instructed to read the first and last chapters as such, but without glue and pagination to keep us on the straight and narrow, who’s to know?
Prior to the Picador reprint of 1999, The Unfortunates had been out of print for thirty years. Copies of the first edition change hands for hundreds of times its original selling price, the highest prices being paid for those copies that have not been disordered by a capricious reader – where the temporary and removable binding has become immovable, and fixed. I have owned a copy of the second edition for some months now. It is beautiful, sleek, and substantial. It is also one of the most forbidding objects I have ever held in my hands.
Viewed from the side, it resembles nothing so much as a coffin snapping its jaws at a recalcitrant corpse. I am, I confess, yet to read it.
In the bitter winter of 2011, I sat with curator Judit Bodor and the authors David Peace and Jake Arnott in The Queen Vic on Great George Street in Leeds. Earlier that evening, David, Jake and I had delivered ‘And from the west a pale horse…’, an event curated by Judit as part of my exhibition ‘Nightwood’, in which David and I discussed the themes and sensibilities that were shared by our respective practices. We were preoccupied by narratives of violence and of the body physical and politic: disrupted, dismembered and corrupt – but also with spectacular and specular exposition of text: the writer’s page made visual, the artist’s surface made page. Jake had been the arch and erudite and ever so spiky host, entertaining, glamorous, and very slightly drunk. The bar was crowded, noisy, our company spread across several tables, the energy of the evening contained within the closed and looping circuits of fifty or so knees and elbows. The four of us had formed a conclave amidst the mob; discrete, a precious clique. The stage had been ours, and lingering adrenalin made us temporarily wary of those who had accompanied us from the gallery to the pub. Judit leans forward… ‘I’m thinking, we should do a publication, images, words, something…?’ ‘Yes!’ we say, ‘Yes!’. The event, unlike so many of my ‘artist’s talks’, had been full to capacity, busy, bustling. ‘Faces’ from the regional arts aristocracy were in the audience, drawn by the near celebrity of ‘real’ authors. During the event I had been confident, engaged, enriched, and charged. I felt like a woman of substance.
I had been seated with Jake to my left and David to my right. My words, my work, were framed by theirs. I was part of something. I was held secure between their weight and reputation; a psychic dust jacket, privileging and protecting my practice, defending and displaying my fragile body of work. I was covered. ‘Yes!’ I said, ‘Yes! A publication, definitely!’. My ego was intoxicated with the rush of the evening, with performance, presentation, and pride.
The dust settled, time moved on. Judit was working elsewhere, David had moved to Tokyo, and nothing had been done. That summer I was melancholy, fragmented, drifting around my studio with no projects and no deadlines, my ego and my sense of self battered by unrequited desires. For no purpose other than distraction, I picked up my copy of David’s novel 1980, and began to read it again.
The book is a fictional re-imagining of the hunt for Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who, in the years leading up to the book’s title, murdered at least thirteen women, many of them in the city of Leeds. The book contains poetic, disrupted descriptions of places that I know well, and the fragmented prose began to rearrange itself on the drawing board in my mind.
My thoughts turned to the forgotten publication, and I emailed Judit. Deftly, insightfully, she worked her curatorial magic on the amorphous desires conjured by my emptiness. Joined by Tom Rodgers, we became the collaborative project that is MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall and set out to wander the city, our reference points the multiple lenses of David’s text.
I had only one objective, overarching, imperative, and unequivocal: to create a book.
The physical book is a haptic seduction, a visual delight. In its material presence, its ability to be physically held, it offers a fragile promise of both a literal and psychic binding; ordering a narrative of a secure creative self.
It is, for me, the object that performs the act of what Lacan described in relation to the mirror phase as ‘imaginary capture’, and in this sense perhaps all books are ‘the book in the box’. The image I wish to capture is the image outside of myself: the image of an artist / author as an object-fetish validated by an internalized external gaze: the image that I see in the mirror of fulfillment, not that which is reflected by the mirror of lack. Inside of myself there is an un-writable absence, but if I can look at a book and see that I have created it, then I will know that I can create it, and that the words I cannot write can be, and have been, and therefore will be written. I can attribute to the object – ‘Le petit objet d’autre’ – those qualities, which I desire but fear to attribute to myself. The book is the fetish-commodity through which, by proxy, I relate my value as an artist to myself and to the world.
In my mind, or at least in that part of the mind that possesses the level of confused clarity that can exist only outside of thought and language, I knew what our, (my), book would be.
Everything would make sense…
And all our actions would be the size of pages…
The project inhabits real and fictional narratives of the physical and metaphorical, ruptured body; the body shredded, dismembered, and scattered. At their worst, Sutcliffe’s mutilation of his victims involved the most degrading of displays: limbs splayed, genitals exposed, breasts slashed, entrails sprawling from a gutted torso: the body as post-traumatic landscape. It seems no coincidence that the favoured locations for these acts, were the flat and open spaces of municipal parks and playing fields, the spectacles of atrocity laid out as if as on a canvas, where they would very quickly be discovered and seen. Much of our research process has involved visiting these sites, and mediating our experiences through disconnected fragments of the novel’s text, collecting the flotsam and jetsam of discarded, disregarded and decaying objects, and the uncultivated edgelands flora that we find there, whilst developing and enacting a series of performative rituals and interventions. At all levels the project is dealing with, and acting out, the fragmentary, the disrupted, the traumatic and unruly, and it is therefore hardly surprising that it soon became clear that the material would not obey, and was resisting linear narratives, insisting instead on an aberrant and scattered codex. Both in the studio and in galleries, scraps and scrawls and fragments intrude upon the considered aesthetic of drawings and photographs, in a re-enactment of the unpredictable process of research.
This rebellious and mutable body scratched at my not so latent creative anxieties. The work that had started with a book, that was to become a book, would not be a book, and so I began to problematize what this publication might be, in relation to an orthodox and constrained concept of a bound and integral narrative of image and text.
An obvious solution to the problem of MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall as publication, would be to adopt the strategy of the boxed codex as used by B S Johnson for the Unfortunates, which, in theory, would seem to offer a freedom and fluidity of content that the project’s material requires, and a level of agency which the viewer / reader might require to experience it. And yet, as an object, I find it forbiddingly fixed, its impenetrability increasing with each physical encounter. Despite its intention of openness, when I hold it, I feel only a sense that it is locked
I am talking here, as stated previously, of the second edition, the only one I own, whose lavish production values reflect the veneration in which its author is now held. Johnson committed suicide aged 40 in 1973, a tragedy that together with the avante-garde & experimental nature of his work ensured that he achieved cult status. The box is rigid and robust to the point of machismo, the cover design a modishly minimal pale green and red, with a curious use of Dymo punch tape for the title lettering. The interior paper band, (originally a broad soft lilac), is a narrow, overly tight blood red. The overarching impression is of a vicious reliquary, preserving and protecting its sanctified remains from prying eyes and dirty fingers.
The first edition, both because of its rarity, and of the Romanticised mythologizing of B S Johnson after his death, commands breathtaking prices that guarantee that those copies with binding still intact, will never now be read.
The irony is that in comparison to the second edition, it is a rather beautifully fragile proposition, much more accurately representing the subtleties of Johnson’s talent. The box is shallow, almost flimsy, with a prettily fluid cover design, using an elegant and unassuming typeface. The palette a subtle range of almost browns and almost mauves – the colours of a fading bruise. I want to stroke it, and yet, I am still not sure that I want to read it.
The solution of the boxed codex was one proposed, by myself, quite early in the project, but it has taken the process of writing this text to understand the nature of my underlying ambivalence. My antipathy towards The Unfortunates, and my inability to feel comfortable with any as yet imagined form for the physical publication of our material is that I cannot bear the thought of completion. The box or indeed any material constraint is too much a symbol of putting a lid on things, of putting them away. The thing I most desire is the thing I most fear.
Perhaps this is still a project that will be a book, or perhaps this is now a project about becoming a book. Although not planned, it is no coincidence that most of the project’s physically public manifestations have taken place within the context of spaces or events that are and were concerned with text as much as image.
The first was The Wild Pansy Press Project Space, curated by Chris Taylor and Simon Lewandowski at the University of Leeds, a venue for experimental works, which use the practices of reading, writing and publication as their medium and/or content. There, although complimented by a small number of very large visual works, the textual and detrital ephemera of our research was foregrounded. The second was at Redrawing The Maps, a week of events held at Somerset House as part of the John Berger retrospective Art and Property Now, an exhibition focusing as much on his written work as on his visual work. Other installations have been and will be staged as interventions into textual events and symposiums. Our response, when confronted with an orthodox gallery – has been to imagine the space as a book, turning walls into indices, appendices and covers.
All that I have written here, and that you are hearing or reading now, has to do with my own anxieties and relationships about and with the idea of book, and about my solipsistic and contradictory fears and fetishisation regarding a completed, or closed body of work. But there are three people in MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall, and the joy that is the moving towards completion is because of the collaboration, because there is no single vision, no one fixed form. We still want to make a book, but what will our book be? For now, we do not know, and perhaps that is a good thing. Perhaps one cannot bind process, bind questioning, bind ways of trying to see.