By Richard Marshall.
Bring The Dead Back To Life: Again A Time Machine: From Distribution to Archive, edited by Gavin Everall & Jane Rollo, Book Works 2012
Hari Kunzru put together a guide to what he called the ‘artistic underground’ for a Zadie Smith BBC radio programme in December 2008 which had Kunzru talking with Tom McCarthy and Stewart Home about the various ways an artistic underground might best be understood. Kunzru makes a distinction between avant-garde and underground. He thinks the avant-garde is an historically bounded, transgressive cultural movement of the early twentieth century that has become kitsch, commercialised, and merely the source for nostalgia. Kunzru denies that culture works in terms of these two poles of mainstream and transgression anymore. He says, ‘By definition, the underground is – underground. So there’s no overview, no definitive guide. This is a partial, ill-informed, cobbled together list of stuff, being made mostly in Britain, which is in some way difficult, experimental, marginal, odd, or otherwise unlikely to be available on your local high street.’ Stewart Home doesn’t really care about that: he’s interested in not being bored and in cultural production coming from living, vernacular community bases. But I guess it’s pretty obvious that New Yorker freelancer Kunzru is wannabee ‘underground’ even from his own perspective, whereas Home is hardcore.
Nevertheless, Kunzru’s list was a pretty good one for starters, including as it did the post-language poetry scene around Keston Sutherland, Stewart Home himself, Iain Sinclair, ‘the sad young literary men at 3:AM Magazine’, afrofuturism, avant-garde philosophy at Urbanomic, post-situ art politics at Savage Messiah, underground cultural commentary at Metamute, unpop of Difficult Fun and Adaadat, noise, free improvisation, turntabilism, laptop music, drone metal, environmental sound, time travel, dubstep such as Kode9, electro-acoustic, process-based anti-art such as Heath Bunting and Malinky and the post Viennese actionism of Franko B.
Book Works has an obvious place in such a list. Again, A Time Machine: from distribution to archive is produced in response to, and as an extension of, the touring exhibition in six parts, Again, A Time Machine (2011-12). Playing with time and words, and structured around the confluence of archive and distribution, this book presents an assemblage of material that extends Book Works’ touring exhibition.
The blurb is a good intro: ‘Specifically engaging with the circuits of practice that have materialised in the form of books, writing, magazines, language, spoken word, performative research and archival practice, contributors include: A Estante, An Endless Supply, AND, Banner Repeater, Claire Makhlouf Carter, Eastside Projects, Maria Fusco, Dora García, Melissa Gronlund, Sam Hasler, Stewart Home, Ian Hunt, Jonathan Monk, Apexa Patel, Mark Pawson, Bridget Penney, Pil & Galia Kollectiv, Plastique Fantastique, Sarah Pierce, Laure Prouvost and Rory Macbeth, Publish And Be Damned, John Russell, Slavs and Tatars, Spike Island, Barry Sykes, The Serving Library, The Showroom, Torpedo, Ubuweb, Marina Vischmidt, McKenzie Wark, White Columns and X Marks the Bökship – in the form of: artists’ pages, exploratory interviews, new writing, and a range of publisher and project space responses to the questions: Why Distribute? Why Archive?’ This volume is characteristic of that underground Kunzru begins to list. I found it odd, serious, gorgeous, disturbing, infuriating, funny, provocative, brilliant, stupid, high falutin’, down to earth, cultish and universalist all at once. Whatever it is, I didn’t find it boring. So all this review can do is haunt the margins of this stuff and try and find a way of saying why Book Works never bores me.
Ancient Greek medicine was preoccupied with asking questions about the causal powers of foods, drugs and drinks when introduced into bodies. Diocles of Carystus in the 4th century BCE and Galen of Pergamum two centuries or so later are two key writers about this question of what specialists call the ‘dunamis of substances.’ Galen, for example, thought that there were four powers – attraction, adhesion, alteration and excretion – that in different forms were the fundamental powers of bodies. The mind had such powers too, such as calculation and memory. According to the philosopher Jim Hankinson these powers were not construed as merely logical abstracts but they were basic activities of bodies. Harkinson says that ‘dunamis’ is at the very heart of Galen’s physiology and nosology; and it also plays a fundamental role in his pharmacology and theory of temperament’ (‘nosology’ is a branch of medicine that deals with the systematic classification of disease).
In Daoist texts the dialectics of health and sickness and strength and weakness are familiar. Images from Daodejing (Laozi) and allegories in the Zhuangzi illustrate often paradoxical reversals of the qualities, according to Hans-Georg Moeller. The hard/soft distinction takes the immediate image of the sea grinding rocks as an illustration of the soft defeating the hard, and Moeller then goes on to suggest the sexual imagery, whereby the softness of the female genitalia absorbs the hardness of the male. The paradoxical nature of this suggests that nothing need advertise its powers in a transparent way. Powers are often hidden and are only realised in certain circumstances. That there are hidden powers that have yet to be discovered and activated is an enduring idea that has captured the imagination of sundries. The Panpygoptotic Manichees of the fourth century who may have entertained Jerome on his way to Rome from Calchis to Bethlehem and who may yet look forward to having thighs celestial, mentioned by Beckett as a joke and Miss Dew in full earnest, is in part the hope of powers gone all spiritual and nuts but nevertheless promisingly lurking in wait.
Strindberg in the Hopital de St Louis in January 1895 wrote about his psoriasis in terms of Swedenborgian alchemical powers: ‘Alchemists are attacked by leprosy which produced itching scabs like fish-scales – my incurable disease in fact.’ A year later he was setting himself up to write as the Zola of the occult, regretting that Mallarme, Bauldelaire, Moreau and Madame Blavatsky had failed to produce the great occult novel. He considered Balzac’s Seraphita too dry and ended up merely explaining Swedenbourgian theory. Huysmens he admired but La-Bas and Poe’s tales of mystery were compromised by being overtly fantasised. Strindberg considered it imperative that to write about the powers he needed to surrender to them. He begun his Occult Diary in the Hotel Orfila in the rue d’Assas. The diary records strange dreams, coincidences, correspondences and inexplicable events. He visited Papus the renowned occultist of his day. The next day the Shah of Persia had died and in Paris a Swedish nobleman. On May 14th he writes: ‘I had a dream last night. An amputated head had been stuck onto a man’s trunk, making him look like a drunken actor. The head began to talk. I was terrified and knocked over my folding screen, trying to push a Russian in front of me to protect me against the furious creature’s onslaught. This same night I was bitten by a mosquito and killed it. In the morning the palm of my right hand was covered in blood. ‘ On May 17th he writes: ‘Absinthe at six o’clock outside the Brasserie des lilas, just behind the statue of Marachel Ney, is now like my only vice and my last remaining pleasure.’ Here the image of an amputated head stuck onto a man’s trunk works as the x-rayed image of the modernist trope. The writer as Frankenstein’s creature, the drunken actor of furious onslaughts shapes the levers of the tired heart, the wild whirl, the yachting cap clinging to the skull, the throttled noises that are a fraction of what we are… Swedenborg and Strindberg and Beckett freight our words on a wavelength blasting our mansards and garrets. They are our piercing frostlight.
Swedenborg’s influence on the artistic response to powers is enormous. Blake, Balzac and Maeterlinck as well as Strindberg were directly influenced. He had been a leading physicist and anatomist of his day. He invented the mercurial air-pump and researched the brain and spinal cord. He replaced his scientific work with occult work on reaching his fifties. Hell and heaven were not other places but were states of minds. London shimmers into ghost powers Iain Sinclair has understood as Swendenborgian revenants. Sue Prideaux has Strindberg find an objective correlative of the Swedenborgian inferno in the landscape on the banks of the River Danube leading up to the castle of Clam. Prideaux writes: ‘It is the gorge in To Damascus and Inferno (he allots little Kerstin the role of Beatrice) and it is a path we can take today, finding it virtually unchanged since his time. Starting at the bottom, the hidden entrance to the gorge is difficult to discover. Then a scramble up a steep hill, the climber bent to forty-five degrees. A change of direction along the slippery rim of a hurtling watercourse that opens into a crashing, boulder-strewn stream. Stepping stones. … a rocky vulva reminiscent of Peer Gynt’s entrance to the underworld … a stye which became the doors to Dante’s red-hot sarcophagi … a wayside shrine, easily missed … a modest Madonna with downcast eyes and a few wild flowers at her feet … From here he could look down on the Danube’s wide plain as Christ looked down on the world when tempted by the devil.’ With Strindberg we have a clear case of the powers-artist entering our modern setting. The luminous eeriness of the psychogeographic mysticism of Bridget Penney becomes clear in this context. The vimmy porn/mystic/black antlantic antics of Stewart Home too.
This modernist powers-art gets complicit wildness in the vernacular ruff of Shagspeare, and Ted Hughes is a superior guide to how this works. Hughes writes about Shakespeare as working to release the powers of potentialities held in what he called ‘skeleton-key’ fables. The idea is that potentialities can lie dormant and need precise circumstances and combinations before the potentiality becomes real. As Stephen Mumford, a leading contemporary metaphysician of powers asks, who could have guessed that the black sticky stuff in the earth would have the powers it had? For the potential power of oil to be released technology was required to cause the powers to run. Technology becomes something that is explained by a powers ontology. Mumford talks about this relationship as ‘mutual manifestation.’ Powers don’t just happen, they require powers to cause them to happen. This is the mutuality that Mumford identifies as crucial. And Mumford shows that this model is required to show how putting mutual parts together results in more than the mere composition of parts into a different whole. The crucial part of the explanation Mumford offers is that mutual manifestation has to explain how mutual manifestation produces more than the sum of its parts. A simple picture he gives is sugar dissolving into tea. Causation causes genuine transformation, of one thing emerging out of itself by dint of its enacted powers.
Shakespeare’s powers were at first obscure to Shakespeare, just as oil’s was before technologies identified and released its power. Hughes writes about Shakespeare as identifying his own power in a ‘particular knot of obsessions.’ Such have these powers been that ever since they forge our writing, thinking, our dreams and nightmares. Hughes discovers the potential skeleton fable in Shakespearean poetry that has ‘its taproot in a sexual dilemma of a particular black and ugly sort.’ And he goes on later to write: ‘His single fundamental idea, then, is the symbolic fable which nearly all his greatest passages combine to tell, and which each of his plays in some form or other tells over again. This was the way his imagination presented the mystery of himself to himself. It was his great recurrent dream. And it so happened that his nature was such and the time was such and the place was such that this symbolic form of his nature – his deeply divided nature – appeared to him, when he exploited it for drama, as a problem – the posing of a chronic sexual dilemma, a highly dramatic and interesting collision of forces.’ So what I’m suggesting is that in this fable Shakespeare has identified potential powers and each time he writes he’s working out how to make the power manifest itself. The powers ontology, and Mumford’s notion of mutual manifestation, is here being applied to Shakespeare.
Hughes thinks that Shakespeare found the skeleton fable in Titus Andronicus but couldn’t fit the parts together to ignite them. Then in 1592 and 1593 Shakespeare wrote two long poems – Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece – and by avoiding the need to dramatise was able to release the potential powers of the skeleton fable. So Shakespeare found that by placing it with a certain purely poetic element he was able to produce the powers of the fable. Shakespeare’s complete works are the equivalent of the engineer working to discover ways of extracting the power of oil. They are the false starts and experiments that don’t all come off, a constant redrafting of the fable as the various parts and units of power are exposed and mined.
So according to Hughes the Comedies took fragments of it, ‘fragments which gradually become too awful to toy with’, as Hughes ominously puts it. By this he means that there are ways of combining its elements that release powers that are contrary to the desired shape. If Alls Well is a close-on perfect release of the potentialities for Comedy in the fable, Measure for Measure releases an infernal and twisted version that seems too far to relish the image of sex as rape in a venal puritanical, Protestant relish. But in The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida Hughes writes of Shakespeare trying to shape these dramas but finding his writerly technology unable to control unwanted side effects. Like early technology in any sphere, what we have are powers that resist control, that are obscure in how their potential might be exploited, and in crude, jim-crack designs there are the potentialities of literary Chernobyls and Fukushima Daiichi.
That this fable is not purely subjective and private is what matters here. Shakespeare wrote out of the struggles of radical Calvinism with the Reformed church. For the Calvinist Puritan, Elizabeth was merely a replacement of the Pope. Hughes identifies further depths to the situation by identifying the Queen of England with an older Goddess of medieval England, a celtic pre-Christian goddess, naturalised in to Catholicism and Mother Mary and Satan and Isis and Mother Earth. For Hughes, Mary Tudor had inherited this double signature first. The old Goddess inherited ancient Egyptian powers, those of Isis who is supposed to be the single goddess lying behind the image of the Virgin Mary, an Egyptian Mediterranean serpent Goddess fused into the medieval Celtic English goddess.
Mary Tudor was identified by the Calvinist reformers with the occult, satanic side of this old goddess, the serpent goddess, the Anathema of the old testament. From the 1560s onwards the reformation in England had consequences for Shakespearean poetry in terms, as Hughes writes, of the ‘way the Queen of heaven, who was the Goddess of Catholicism, who was the goddess of medieval and pre-Christian England, who was the divinity of the throne, who was the goddess of natural law and of love, who was the goddess of all sensation and organic life – this overwhelmingly powerful, multiple, primeval being was dragged into court by the young puritan Jehovah. It was a gigantic all-inclusive trial: the theology of it was merely the most visible face of the social revolution included behind it.’
The catholic/Protestant, Monarchical/Republican equation that runs from the Virgin Queen to the revolution of 1640 and then onwards forever is part of the reachy power of Stewart Home, for example, whose awkward interventions detonate and spark precisely inthis territory. So the fable was one that was not just, nor even primarily, a private matter, nor a literary one, was neither merely some Shakespearean psycho-sexual force nor literary freak-out – though it undoubtedly was both also. It was the world itself. The ferocity of Elizabethan powers were not immediately realised. The potential explosion of such forces were checked by the Elizabeth of Gloriana until her death in 1603. Shakespeare was 39 by then. James backed the Calvinists in their war against the old goddess.
In this moment a crisis of opportunities and choices emerge. Which side was one to choose? Shakespeare’s doubleness was one Hughes deeply identified himself with. It is impossible to read his Crow poems, for instance, without seeing the poem sequence as a way he hanged onto the fragments of the throned and dethroned deities that ‘tore each other to pieces behind his face.’ For Hughes, everything is personified perfectly once we have Hamlet: ‘Mother-wet, weak-legged, horrified at the task, boggling – Hamlet’ is how he puts it. Crow is the complete works and the Bible of Christianity exploded from a deep power mine.
And how do the two Shakespearean poems shape this into a fable that works as a template for his writing, and in my terms, requires mutual manifestation of powers to cause each explosive effect? In ‘Venus and Adonis’ of 1592, Venus, the Goddess of love (Isis, mother of all Gods, of all living things, Mother nature, Mary Queen of heaven, Queen of hell, the wild boar – Mars, Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, the moon, underworld, darkness, hounds, the old celtic goddess, Bloody Mary) tries to rape the puritan youth Adonis. In ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ the following year Tarquin (Divine King, but regicide, he killed the rightful king, his father-in-law, so close to a patricide too – Mars, the Boar – so Venus denied) rapes the puritan young wife Lucrece, who commits suicide. Lucrece’s role in the plays is that of the king, the angelic maiden of pure love and truth. In raping her he kills her and ‘in destroying her, he effectively destroys the divine kingship within himself.’ In the first, the divine female is so overwhelmingly loving that the mere human doesn’t know how to respond and is overwhelmed. He dies and becomes vegetable, a flower. In the second this situation is transformed into male rage at rejection and results in the monstrous violation.
The loving female and the violent male become transformations that Shakespeare’s plays swings back and forth towards and from, creating a psychic and political madness. The poems can’t just be added up resulting in a mereological sum. Rather, hidden powers emerge from their being placed together. Hughes rather confusedly talks about there being a gap which allowed the transformation to happen, for a greater whole than mere mereological addition to be produced. Hughes was just groping for a way of understanding the process of mutual manifestation, just as Strindberg was when he talks about alchemy and the occult. But Hughes is mistaking the need for causal change to require temporal linearity: Mumfords’ model allows for powers to require no gap.
The two poems are a case of mutual manifestation. Each are powerful but together they combine to cause meanings that surpass the meanings of either, and that results in more than merely a sum of their parts. A transformation takes place. The causality is of a non-linear process of compositionality. The powers released were not necessarily understood by Shakespeare even as he created Hamlet. Perhaps it was only when Measure for Measure brought the powers to the surface that he finally understood what he had discovered. In that play the Puritan Antonio (Adonis) is assaulted by Isabella (Venus). Angelo resists, Isabella persists. Then the transformation occurs whereby Angelo is destroyed. Adonis is destroyed by an infernal Venus, Queen of Hell and is replaced by a daemonic Tarquin, ‘inflamed by Venus.’ Angelo now finds he wants Isabella sexually, is willing to rape and kill her, looks to act in the darkness, in secret.
The repressed Tarquin will become a stranger to himself once he has gained his terrible satisfaction. Adonis becomes a sex maniac, the repressed sexual desires of the Calvinist burst out looking to violate everything he was and adored before. So Venus confronts Adonis, Adonis dies as a miracle of flowers (or tree – or cross…) and resurrects as Tarquin who destroys Lucrece as a result of which chaos comes, the destruction of everyone and everything.
The Calvinist divide between abstract good and physical evil is the cause of this metamorphosis. Attempts to recombine the abstract and the physical become the battleground between Nature and Puritanism. Hughes is vivid on this: ‘the puritan determination that she shall not recombine under any circumstances, are the power-house and torture-chamber of the Complete Works.’ The cross-over forces run through everything. Hughes’ analysis is sharp and relentless: Hamlet looks at the loving Ophelia and sees his mum fucking his uncle and goes mad; Othello looks at his loving wife sees her fucking with Cassio and goes mad; Macbeth looks at the throne of Scotland and listens to his wife, the witches, the three faces of Hecate and hell, and goes mad; Lear looks at Cordelia, sees her sisters, and goes mad; Anthony looks at Cleopatra and sees her as Isis, Quenn of hell, and goes mad; Timon sees his friends as wolves and whores and goes mad; Coriolanus sees his mum and wife as wolves wanting to tear him to shreds, and goes mad… and on it goes. The image of Tarquin the boar, the queen of hell transformed as the raging rebuffed sex maniac is explicitly used in the tremendous Ian McKellan film version of Richard III but is not just Richard but all these ‘men of chaos’ – Tarquin, Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Angelo, Othello, Caliban. And these are the new invented creations of the mutual manifestation of powers of the skeleton fables of the Venus and Rape poems. It is in the poetry of these characters that the chaos of these new types are fully realised. If you want to understand why Stewart Home stands on his head whilst reading, why he does sex as porn and book-shreddings of Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton and links up to a Black Atlantic London sway then put away all thoughts of Shagspeare as heritage lit and listen in instead to the gigantic terror, lusty, killer supernatural Swedenborgian ultra-ventriloquisms coming in from the wild airwaves.
The suppression of truth, love and innocence – of Venus – of Queen of Heaven – results in the transformation of these natural forces into the Tarquin boar of chaos, the regicidal rapist of hell. The weird conjunction of the erotic with the political is what creates our own bizarre modern template. The four powers – Lucrece, Venus, Tarquin, Adonis – are trapped in an eternal cycle of destruction. Venus rebuffed becomes Adonis, destroyed (a flower death, think Ophelia, think Cordelia, think the God nailed on the tree) reborn as Tarquin who will rape and destroy Lucrece, the reborn flowering of Adonis and so a world-of chaos. Shakespeare, having understood his fable, quivers and shakes, fearfully tries to reverse the process, to contain the powers released by his mutually manifested causal formulation, Oppenheimer-like in coming too late to see the enormity of inventing his nuclear bomb. Shakespeare seeks to save Adonis and Lucrece. According to Hughes Coriolanus is the first boar who refuses to go through to the end of it and rape/kill his mother and wife. The tragic hero is one who refuses himself the Tarquin/Venus dimension fully, in order to restore Adonis and Lucrece – and in this refusal ends up torn to pieces. Hamlet is seen by Hughes as ‘the death of Adonis in very slow motion.’ When we read Home’s Slow Death his cracking, joking, anti-lit antidote knows all this. When Frank Miller made explicit the Poe/Dostoevsky doubleness of DCs Batman/Joker he too guessed all this. (As an aside, both the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger versions of the Joker recognised this too. It was veering away from the Shakespearean template that made the final part of the last Batman trilogy so lamentable, suggesting that its second part was more intelligent, in that it knew more, than its writer/director. All very Henry James.)
And so a slow death becomes more like bringing back the dead to life, a kind of Shakespearean power brinkmanship. The modern Swedenborgian, Strindbergian, Beckettian sigal: a corpse head on a thick torso of writing, the uncanny, drunk appearance of its art, art of signs and resonance artlessly conjured up, like the dead girl in the TV rising out of the well and jerking out of the screen in the seminal film The Ring, an astonishing, eerie and appalling image of Belmer doll beauty.
Which is all by way of an intro but also an interrogation below the hood, so to speak, a poking around in the machinery so we get a grip on how this engine ignites. The technology of this weird and uncanny volume is driven by this vestibule of power sketched out above. Like survivors of a catastrophe – in this case the gleam of commodification and bureaucratisation and standardisation, the invention of ‘Literature’, the snob-affectations against genre, the startling and abysmal disengagement of mainstream writers from the avant-garde, the underground, the experimental, the political – the sensational project of Bookworks has been to find powers to survive, to slow down the death and perhaps even – as the title suggests – to bring the dead back to life. Fusing writing with art has been the mutual manifestation technology driving it.
‘Why distribute? Why archive?’ are the twin questions starting up this beautiful volume. To answer involves ‘artists’ pages, exploratory interviews, new writing and a range of publisher and project space responses.’ Archive is first considered as a haphazard notion contrasting with the fluidity of distribution. Ringmaster of the Book Works troupe, the gravid Gavin Everall in his interview opening the book says that he isn’t clear which comes first; ‘distribution or archive, in the sense that one publishes and distributes in order to reclaim, recoup and archive. You put it out before looking for it again.’ Book Work’s liontamer with the whip-hand, luminescent Jane Rollo, worries that answers distort: ‘I’m very against trying to pin things down, either with meaning or with time, because I think the moment you fix it, something dislodges it. And I’ve also been quite reluctant to define what an artists’ book is for similar reasons, because I think the minute you define it, you immediately want to do something outside the scope of what an artist’s book is.’
Book Works was 25 in 2009. Its artists don’t always want to be called artists. Brain Catling wanted to be called a poet in the Swedenborgian book Several Clouds Colliding they were doing with him and Iain Sinclair. The book is one that in ‘[m]oving between visions and taverns, voyages and wickerbaskets, the annotations of Coleridge and a group photo of Society members dated 1910, the author-performers reveal a secret history of Swedenborg, of London and near forgotten ideas, through the Society’s library, archive and the dimming stillness of its vast collection of glass lantern slides.’ Catling and Sinclair wrote the words, Stephen McNeilly and James Brook did the artwork and design, and the book is as strange and uncanny an object as the smashed broken instamatic camera, the crystal ball used as a hammer and the eaten roll of 35mm film that remain missing from the contents recorded within.
Book Works is about books as carriers of ghosts, phantoms, the energies of both Venus and Tarquin. Swedenborg and Blake train the craft. Everything is vixen cunning. Their exhibitions and performances are the integral snakesoil to its spoils and revealations. Book binding craft hovers around as something basic to Book Works but only in the same sense as Madame Sosostris is a requirement for the sceance. This is publishing as Badalamenti’s ‘Llorando’ in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, an extreme subterfuge which asks, ‘So what if our tears are painted, do we not weep?’ Bob Dylan recognised Shakespeare as faker, entertainer, ‘with his pointed shoes and his bells’ and yet, even in a painted corner we still shudder when in his 2001 song ‘Mississippi’ he sings ‘give me your hand and say you’ll be mine’, directly quoting Vincento in Measure For Measure.
The back and forth talk between Everett and Rollo gives a great intro to the sort of thing Book Works does. The story of not being able to distinguish between artists and winos brings back the Strindbergian dream-image of the artist/poet as a dead head on a torso appearing like a drunkard. Michael Bracewell and the ‘New Writing Series’ was an early open submission they worked with, on the back of a conversation where he was saying that the art world was doing avant-garde stuff and the literary world wasn’t. Bracewell’s insight has been very important to how they have managed to keep their shimmering, oddly authoritative projects on the go, living like twilight in-between acts stealing the show. The guest curators and editors they’ve worked with have kept this thing happening; Rollo cites ‘for example Matthew Higgs, Maria Fusco, or, more recently, Stewart Home or Nina Power.’ Michael Bracewell and Linder’s I Know Where I’m Going: A Guide To Morcambe & Heysham of 2003 is an example of those peculiarly resonant little books with photos and a smuggled text that works like a haunted metaphor of the idea of the no-man’s land that has continued with more recent examples such as The Master Plan by Stephen Hodge, Fiona Tan’s Vox Populi series, Paul Buck’s A Public Intimacy and Teignmouth Electron by Tacita Dean.
Rollo and Everett don’t want to pin themselves and their projects down, but inevitably there’s the problem of avoiding doing that just through selection and interview, and a further problem of wondering whether that worry is actually worth bothering about. To take the second point first: what’s the problem if a definition drives some people to want to go outside it? That doesn’t seem like it’s an intrinsic problem at all. There’s a paradox lurking in the bushes, isn’t there? Rollo pins herself down as someone not wanting to pin herself down. If she’s not pinned down then she’s pinned down as not pinned down. And if she’s pinned down then she’s not not pinned down. The problem is that she presupposes the existence of a position that is impossible. But if it’s impossible, then it isn’t a position. So she might chill and accept the inevitable. She’s gonna get pinned!
But this then takes us to the first complaint. So what? If the pinning is fluid, murky, daft, elusive, ambiguous and so on, or rich, clever, flexible, agile and so on, then again, what’s the problem? And it allows for positions to be taken and then dismantled, changed, looked at from a new angle, dismissed, placed in dialectical relations with contraries, competing views – instead of being pinned the definition becomes part of a dialogue, a conversation, an argument even. That should appeal: a communitarian and social space for ideas to thrive.
Everett has interesting things to say about the way bookshops have changed their relationship with audiences and readers. ‘When I started working in Waterstones, the people who worked there were buyers in charge of sections, and that gave you the opportunity to buy what you liked, but also to develop an audience, and a freedom to expect a completely different sort of audience to come in. Whereas now, centralisation means buying is aimed at a majority market and it anticipates that all readers are exactly the same.’ When I wrote that last sentence down I misspelled reader as radar and for a moment it made a better sense.
Ian Hunt writes a roaring piece on the destruction of the built environment. He worries that ordinary experiences of our built environment are continually being flattened whilst at the same time the media keeps overloading us with a comprehensive archival deposit. Lives structured by the political economy just get memories and common experiences smashed up whilst at the same time culture is stocked with a hyper-real communal memory. The Olympic Games is a great example of this: the collective memory organized by the continual repeating of images stocks up memories that are only of those media images (most people weren’t there, not even once) and the old buildings and houses that have been swept away are harder than ever to remember. Borges disliked photographs because they destroyed memories. He complained that we remember the photos, not the events pictured. Hunt’s piece is an update of this complaint.
Bridget Penney’s strange, brilliant and haunting ‘Red fish, blue fish’ scumbles into view without warning. It detonates a weird halo of astonishment, even though here it exists as just a fragment, a page, some luminous narrative involving the discovery of the Coelacanth at the mouth of the Chalumna river on Christmas Eve 1938. It is just a page but its narrative form and gripping mystery is overwhelming and utterly spellbinding. I turned the page wanting more and felt disappointed when it became immediately clear that the single page was all I was going to get. But something uncanny is created in this brief piece that continues to linger, like a frightening hinge between times. I picked up her Index novel and began a shivering reread.
Each page is like that. Pictures, photographs and extraordinary prose bubble up and burst. Each fragmentary element burns into the retina and cortex, and codify and record adaptations in the face of the catastrophe of the Shakespearean template. Shakespeare sank deep wells of power into our consciousness and self awareness. The resultant complexity, rapid change and growing size of the technical systems available to the writer/artist/publisher/distributor/archivist means that the identification of error as a separate class of performance is increasingly difficult in this modern environment. Rather than identifying isolated links or conditions in a linear causal chain of events all the integrated properties of the whole system need to be pin-pointed. The book is therefore like a 65 hour experiment involving cognitive tests, mood scales, and physiological assessments. There’s a narrowing of focus, that then leads to an improved performance, followed by irrelevance or escapism, sleep of various types (several short periods or longer uninterrupted ones shuttered by pictures then text, or reversed), pocket guides to Duchampian management, simulation facilities of both refined and rough and ready standard, hints of a sustained operation organized in sequences that don’t collapse into archetypal scenarios that might, somehow, be predicted with sufficient confidence – plus a wealth of background material. The series of multidisciplinary trials augments information from its many sources. The book is a disquisition about the very project that is Book Works.
Under the influence of the technological developments and market pressures the writings and art take on more and more temporal characteristics that are more and more difficult to control. Traditional strategies of installment and publication, distribution and archive are transferred and transformed and, in a manner far from counterbalancing these phenomena, everything here is designed not to obliterate the temporal dimension but rather to highlight what traditionally is understood as a mismatch between the characteristics of the situation and the artist/writer/publisher/distributer/archivist/curator resources.
The whole book seems to work in terms of what De Keyser and Decortis in the 1980s described as an attempt to structure events, processes, actions and products in terms of a ‘continual process operator’. There are several processes that have been brought to light as important to this sort of project. A key one is anticipation. Anticipation permits readers and all those involved to get ahead of any event with deftness and precision. Anticipation can be probabilistic where we scan parameters before everything goes out of order, selecting internalised statistical structures for this purpose, as if someone had prior knowledge of the probability of things breaking down. Reading and scanning every other page at speed and relying on previous times, previous documents, gives you enough to go on to anticipate how long, how far, how deep we’re going, according to this model. Illuminated by, say, one’s recollection of Carl Einstein and Georges Batailles and their Documents project, as well as the Wallace Berman Semina project, for example, we get a sense of this book’s purpose.
Functional anticipation, alternatively, predicts how far things will go before going out of order based on variations on other projects functionally linked to it. So, for example, we have the history of other experimental projects that can be used here. Scan Book Works projects with, say, Tony White’s Piece of Paper Press project and anticipation orientation can be manifest and brings to light the nest of indicators that helps orientation. The myriad of exhibitions, events, projects and performances alongside the books insists that Book Works is functioning at the heady and essential pitch of a movement as robust and historically poised as any of the great experimental units of modern times.
And as a movement, the whole issue is that of dynamism. These are dynamic environments. Postal Art, posters, installations and so forth cause effects, and so the effects of these can be totally different depending on whether they occur at the right time or else are too early or too late. Right time is not clock-time. The process evolves and so the correct time to measure ‘rightness’ here is that of the process-evolution time. One thing that makes this type of work undertaken by Book Works is the existence of organisational planning and a distribution of roles that is minimalised in ordinary, mainstream publishing and writing. New forms of management here invest time in ‘corrections’ that work as nitty gritty to the processes of production. Inversions of the sequence order of actions and productions, contractions and dilations of duration, these are often ways of accounting in advance for the possible and required (hoped for at the very least) incidents of the system. Choosing the right moment to act, adjusting all fixed plans to the dynamics of the situation requires deep knowledge of the context including knowing the causal links between events and actions. So, for example, knowledge of experimental art movements as provided by the likes of Greil Marcus and Stewart Home offer operational intelligence but nothing absolute in terms of when precisely to act. There’s no attempt to demonstrate the superiority of one kind of knowing over others, of the superiority of the theoretical knowledge of the artist over the practical knowledge of the curators or anything like that.
So the whole book is a lattice providing a formalism for the knowledge-base. The lattice affords us a mental model with which to operate the complex system, one which might be a sigil of Shakespearean, Swedenborgian, Blakean, Strindbergian, Beckettian occult dead head-on-torso drunkardness. Each fragment and event can be thought of in different ways. They will have different purposes, different mechanics, different physical and non-physical forms and each in turn gives rise to a separate lattice. They are all related to each other, however, and objective descriptions in terms of purpose, mechanics, forms etc can be given. And the whole mapping is what Rollo and Everall kick off at the start and everyone else joins in with afterwards. This is literally a book that is assembling itself before our very eyes, in the very process of existing in side the covers. It’s like that ad which shows engineers building the plane whilst it’s already flying, but this time its real. Errors occur when connecting nodes are scrambled, so that connections between, say, the mental and the physical lattices are not connected in the same way. The possibility of an accurate map is impossible in such a situation – even as a homomorphism ie a structure-preserving map; nor is it possible if inverse one-to-many mappings give rise to ambiguities either. Given the powers involved, this is all a tad dangerous, as Tarantino might say.
Gavin Everall and Jane Rollo have placed in this lattice Ian Hunt ‘If there is a way to build it, there’ll be a way to destroy it’, Slavs and Tartars ‘what has been once is for eternity, Apexa Patel ‘Graded at number six’, Melissa Gronlund ‘The Gariboldisham Road: sports commentary, scores and scripts’, Jonathan Monk ‘Sent with the wink of an eye,’ Plastique Fantastique ‘(Real) Plastic Fantastique’, McKenzie Wark ‘The redplague’, Dora Garcia ‘Why publish? For instance…’, Bridget Penney ‘Red Fish, Blue Fish’, Laure Prouvost and Rory Macbeth ‘The Wanderer (some documents)’, Mario Fusco ‘Notes on three happy hypocrites’, Barry Sykes ‘A pro bono practice’, John Russell ‘Autonomy is not worth the paper it is not written on: Writing, Written. Art-writing. Art. Writing.’ Sam Hasler “Lust’, Stewart Home ‘Fuck ’68, I’d rather ‘69’, Claire Makhlouf Carter ‘Demo Penfold Street: an artist’s presentation’, Sarah Pierce ‘The artist talks: script for a performance’, Marina Vischmidt ‘Risky analogies: the order of disruption in feminist art and feminist politics’, A Estante, An Endless Supply, AND, Banner Repeater, Book Works, Eastside Projects, Mark Pawson, Pil and Galicia Kolectiv, Publish And Be Damned, Spike Island, The Serving Library, The Showroom, Torpedo, Ubuweb, White Columns, and X Marks the Bookshop, in a dynamic stretching to 224 pages.
This is why the design of the displays and the decision-aids governing inclusion and critique are the very torso of everything here. Because it is an object resembling a book, the term ‘book’ is attached to it. An amputated head resembles a head. That particular claim is complicated by the question as to whether anything can ever resemble itself. Nevertheless, we have enough to reify the Strindbergian image of a corpse head being attached to a torso he dreamed on May 14th 1895.
Home’s essay on some Alytus Afghan war veterans is a highlight, ending with the declaration fitting the whole volume: ‘Those who continue to turn over received history uncritically – with one eye on academic advancement and the other on their own navels – are not just digging their own graves, they’re zombies who are already dead.’ Boss.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, January 30th, 2013.