Artist as Archivist
By Bridget Penney.
A Public Intimacy: A Life Through Scrapbooks, Paul Buck, Book Works 2011
“Scrapbooks are there to remind us, I emphasise.” Scrapbooking, for Paul Buck, is a dynamic process and the ostensible purpose of the series of nineteen scrapbooks he has kept since 1964 has been to salvage articles, which might come in handy for future reference, from publications – primarily the TLS and Sunday broadsheets with the odd tabloid thrown in – which would not, unlike the little or specialised magazines much more closely engaged with his cultural interests, be kept and shelved entirely. Among the motives he admits to for collecting the various cuttings are curiosity, amusement, exasperation, the desire to show solidarity with the subject of the clippings, notes for possible research, a reminder to himself to buy something when funds became available and, simply, preservation of an article to be read at some future point. Or just recording a mention in the mainstream press of a name breaking the surface from the world of small press and underground arts in which Buck has largely sustained his practice. The reader might start to assume that the degree to which something has been assimilated into mainstream culture determines the frequency with which it appears in the scrapbooks – except Buck reveals he kept a separate scrapbook for Beckett and that clippings on artists would be tucked inside monographs about their work on his shelves, rendering them forgotten and invisible until the book was opened.
He is concerned to locate the contents of the scrapbooks within his everyday life; the TLSs passed on to him by Hebden Bridge library; the clippings about crime his mother used to save for his visits; speculating he might have picked up an abandoned copy of a paper he didn’t usually read on a train or bus. That these publications appear regularly and are in some sense part of an ongoing flow of information and ideas is important to Buck. Scrapbooking is part of the daily routine, like walking. Buck writes, “I walk therefore I am,” and throughout the book he uses a vocabulary of mostly low to medium intensity movement “quite a step into space to start a scrapbook” which is reflected and expanded by his inclusion of the title ‘A step on the moon’ (an essay by Philippe Sollers) and a review of Blanchot’s Le pas au-delà, both emphasising, in their different ways, quite how important a step in the right place can be.‘ Trip’, ‘walk’ ‘jog’ and ‘rolling forward’ also feature, a few ‘backflips’ and ‘pirouetting’ imply there might be tricksy business ahead. Buck acknowledges Pina Bausch’s dance practice as a major influence on his own work and she is frequently referred to in the latter part of the book, but, significantly, “what interests her is not ‘how people move, but what moves them’.” This seems to fit with another strand of clippings about athletes, illustrated by a striking picture of an unnamed East European gymnast. The idea of persistence in developing a practice, whether as an artist, writer, dancer or athlete, is very important to him. “It is about discipline. About practice. Daily effort.” Buck is at pains to point out, prompted by a poem card of his that features in an early scrapbook, that a sudden burst of creative activity is the result of a long period of preparation which may not seem like it is directly related to the work but is a form of training akin to how athletes prepare for competition. He quotes a jazz musician about the importance of practicing over and over until a point is reached where something new happens.
Buck has been deeply committed over a long period of time to a number of serious cultural projects in writing, art, music and translation. Through the editorship of his magazine Curtains (and intermittent stints at other magazines such as Spectacular Diseases) he has been generous to other writers and Curtains made some contemporary European work available in English for the first time. Buck records his frustration with the establishment’s lack of support for the kind of work he and his colleagues were involved in but also notes some interesting, unintended consequences: “financial support [of publishers by the Arts Council] was dependent on books that would fit the size of the bookshop shelf. When they used excuses not to fund the avant-garde, one found oneself exploring the nature of the book, knowing that the chance of it being sold via a shop was limited. The book became more of an object of itself outside the marketplace.” Not that the avant-garde was wholly excluded from the establishment at the time. Under the six years of Eric Mottram’s editorship – until he was ‘removed’ in the late 70s for perpetuating ‘a treacherous assault on British poetry’ in what was probably the nastiest incident in the Poetry Society’s turbulent history, recent shenanigans notwithstanding – Poetry Review published intensely innovative work by poets from many different countries. And Jeff Nuttall was writing a column on poetry in The Guardian which Buck was clipping and sticking into his scrapbooks: “Nuttall column and attempt to open up a range of poetries to the public, given the system’s continual prevention and control of what is admissible.” A more complex and crucial problem is outlined here – tip of the iceberg indeed, to hijack one of Buck’s favoured images – which is how exactly do artists and writers with a radical agenda get their work visible within some kind of flow of ideas where it could be picked up on without being “completely contained by consumer capitalism” (Nuttall). The frustration Buck expresses is not just of the ‘them versus us’ variety. “The battles and factional wars of the poetry worlds ultimately only served the establishment that was clamped in place. Energies on all levels were wasted by many, myself included.”
Buck cites other scrapbookers throughout a public intimacy, sometimes employing language, “the first official scrapbooks date back to the early 1800s as a way to gather together data…but one of the first famous American scrapbookers was Thomas Jefferson,” designed to lull the reader into thinking he or she is ingesting some kind of potted history but the scrapbookers invoked here, including the founder of a shop called Keeping Memories Alive, are a diverse bunch and, in their way, all to Buck’s purpose. The list includes Burroughs (“The scrapbooks and time travel are exercises to expand consciousness, to teach me to think in association blocks rather than words”), Muybridge, Cartier-Bresson, Cecil Beaton (“a work of art, with overtones not only of the fan at work, but the art student (particularly the fashion student), and the collagist”) and Mark Twain, who apparently made a fortune from “inventing and patenting a self-adhesive scrapbook.” The struggles Buck records with the results of unsatisfactory glues over the years make me think he might not have minded getting his hands on a few of these: the fact that Twain made a fortune from them again underlines the popularity of scrapbooking, its everyday quality.
The nearest Buck approaches to a comment on the process which has led to the creation of a public intimacy is in relation to an artwork which features his desktop. “How like a portrait, without actually being seen in it directly. / This work brought home to me that the nature of much of my work has been to be visible without actually being visible.” The scrapbooks, like the desktop, are part of a working environment. Elsewhere, he takes pains to stress that his scrapbooks are in no sense artists’ books. “Looking through Annette Messager‘s work, there is a lot based on collections, indeed some that approach the term scrapbooks. But at the end of the day they are art works, they certainly come across as such.” At one point Buck calls A Public Intimacy “a scrapbook of a scrapbook” but this lurch of convenience towards some unspecified vanishing point doesn’t really hide the fact that this purposeful and public drift through a stratum of his private working environment has actually become an artist’s book. This raises the question of how the clippings which are included as illustrations function for the reader; whether their grainy, dated look makes them objects of nostalgia and whether, if that’s the case, it actually matters? But a curious feature of the public intimacy exemplified by the mass media is the shared access points to individual memories of events the clippings provide and the playful selection of the images, which often seem to be pulling away from Buck’s text, manages to retain some kind of dynamic element. As the text does too – at moments like that in which Buck records his own desire to censor a paragraph, having just read something about its subject which makes him profoundly uncomfortable. Since resistance to censorship in its various guises is one of the major strands of the scrapbooks, it’s refreshing to be allowed to witness this problematic reaction.
In another place he calls A Public Intimacy an essay to justify his extensive use of quoted material – though admittedly in an essay quotes tend to be used to back-up points made and here the quotes are the points. The extensive quotation from the anonymous review of Blanchot’s Le pas au-delà stands out, “the danger of the fragment, he [Blanchot] writes, is that it will propose to the reader the task of creating a unified meaning, whereas in fact “écrire selon le fragmentaire” is a way of destroying the dualism of surface and depth and of making all moments of discourse equal in their impenetrability and their freedom from the differential focus of larger structures.” Probably the most effective way to “écrire selon le fragmentaire” is to intersperse blocks of text written by other people, as Buck does here, because even when the ideas expressed are similar enough to warrant a reader trying to create a unified meaning, the differences in the underlying prose rhythms will act as a deterrent. The disruptive potential of rhythm also features in an elusive clipping about the rehearsals of a Stockhausen piece in which some members of the orchestra became ill.
As well as the blocks of quoted material which mirror, overlap and sometimes contradict each other, there are the recurring names; Bataille, Bacon, Duras, Giacometti, Pinter, Robbe-Grillet are just a sample. “The persistence of ideas and people is important for understanding the nature of what I was doing and the nature of the scrapbook.” More subtly, Buck sets up a network of potential resonances across the project by embedding a series of visual and verbal near echoes and associations which will sometimes appear obvious to the reader but more often may only half-register. The text creates a space for these echoes to be caught. But why work in this way? Unless writing within a context (like some forms of Chinese poetry) highly attuned to the practice, it probably won’t even be noticed if it’s done well. In some ways it’s quite a high risk strategy as it can result in the reader being irritated without even knowing why. Not that I think Buck would necessarily rule out irritation as an effective tool, he includes quotes from Captain Beefheart which stress its positive qualities.
The point at which Buck engages most directly with what the phrase ‘a public intimacy’ could mean is in his paragraph concerning Pierre Bonnard: “There are many aspects that have drawn me at different times, but I chose to pursue an idea in his work when he captured his wife, Marthe, moving. I related this to my wife, Catherine, to capturing moments of being unprepared, when you walk into a room and catch someone who doesn’t know you are there, when you see a fleeting glimpse in the mirror as the cupboard door closes. The intimacy that is private, but public too, that fine line that Bonnard succeeded in finding. The problem was that ordinary sentence structure did not convey the image/moment, and thus there is no acceptable grammar to convince a publisher that I’ve not lost the plot….Or what Barthes refers to in The Pleasure of the Text (Hill & Wang, 1975, p.10): “this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance.”” Possibly also in pursuit of what he might be aiming for in his own work, Buck translates from Genet’s essay ‘L’Atelier d’Alberto Giacometti’: “They give me this curious feeling again: they are familiar, they walk in the street. Yet now they are in the depths of time, at the source of all being, they keep approaching and retreating…Where are they going? Though their image remains visible, where are they?”
Buck writes more than once that the most interesting thing about the scrapbooks is what they don’t include. Sometimes that could be because the material has been shelved elsewhere in his library but “how many of my key influences are not represented, or barely, in my scrapbooks because of that lack of major public exposure?” The complex functioning of the clippings as aide-memoires, often in ways that are unexpected, is explored: “One gets used to seeing text/images of the flipside rather than the piece itself, thus forgetting what the piece itself was about.” Or discovering, on the back of another clipping, a obituary of Philip K. Dick he wasn’t interested in at the time but is now. On the trail of the Stockhausen clipping mentioned above: “Another point of scrapbooks, the things you can’t find but feel sure are there.” Other clippings remind him of subjects or writers he thought at the time might become potential interests, but didn’t. “Only looking back today do I see what lines were pursued, what lines slipped away.” A flier announcing the raid on the offices of International Times in March 1967 and ’14 Hour Technicolor Dream Leaflets’ were removed from the scrapbook and sold once a narrative was in place which gave them monetary value as memorabilia. Whether they’re now represented by photocopies or blank spaces in the scrapbook, they still function as aide-memoires, but of what precisely?
When Buck responds to Craig Dworkin’s book The Perverse Library it is to engage with the ideas of accumulations of reading material (whether libraries or scrapbooks) on three points: firstly that such an accumulation is defined more by what is excluded than by what it contains; secondly, how such an accumulation defines the physical space it occupies “[the] house becomes its own scrapbook, an idea endorsed by slotting articles….into the relevant bookshelves”; but thirdly (and as far as Buck is concerned I think this is by far the most important) that the true significance of a library or scrapbook is as a working environment, a set of tools, an arsenal, providing access to possibilities, alive and dynamic. Borges‘ entrancing, melancholy and fundamentally conservative vision of “the Library of Babel, the recipient of every book, past, present and future’ which effectually paralyses and prevents its inhabitants from taking that step which to Buck is so important seems at odds with this, yet remains another touchstone. “Borges. We all construct our own worlds, but he more than most. His work an encyclopedia, or scrapbook? Where do they meet, or overlap?”
Buck’s insistence on the value of a personal library may appear alien, even a little quaint, to people grown used to feeling that they have instant access through the internet to more information on the most recondite topics than they could ever possibly need. He acknowledges that bookmarks on a browser now perform the function for many his scrapbooks once did for him, but with cautions about computer crashes and dead links, at the end of the day he puts his faith in hard copy. “That is the benefit of a personal library, it is also a political act, something to stand against censorship. A library, like this scrapbook collection, contains information or works that have been forbidden, or censored by lack of support, the means by which bodies or states or systems maintain their position and attempt to annul others. These are the real reasons for a library at home. Control your own path.”
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 1st, 2012.