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I Like People, and I Like People to Like Me

Joe Brainard

Two things I heard last weekend have been stuck in my head like earworms. Make that three. Okay, four.

The context in which I heard them is worth noting: the symposium “Expanded Writing” at the Broad Art Museum at Michigan State, where Postscript: Writing After Conceptual Art is currently on display. The exhibition, curated by Andrea Andersson and Nora Burnett Abrams, features artists and poets dealing with text-based production and shuffles together art to be read and poetry to be looked at.

Here go the earworms:

1) This post’s title is taken from a journal entry of Joe Brainard’s that appears in the Library of America volume of his Collected Writings. Marcus Merrit, a graduate student at Wayne State, presented a paper on Brainard and cited a passage from an entry in the writer/artist’s journal dated May 11, 1969. After listing the comparatively trivial things that he did the day before, in Westhampton—he made brush-and-ink drawings of objects found on the beach; went to antique shop with Kenward Elmslie; made chili from a can (but added real meat and onions!); watched TV—Brainard writes: “For today I plan, as am I doing now, to write some. To walk some. And to read some. I want to talk about something more serious (personal). Like what I believe in. I don’t know. Every time I want to figure out what I believe in—it’s just too complicated. But I know what I like. I like people, and I like people to like me.” This last bit, perfectly encapsulating the mechanism driving Facebook, almost seems like an impossibly anachronistic riff on social media, if not a case of Oulipian anticipatory plagiarism. It dodges the thorny question of meaning by shifting to the social context instead, thereby emphasizing the role of community—or on a less sentimental note, interpretive circles—in artistic practice.

2) Next is a paraphrase of sorts, from a presentation on ekphrastic art that goes in the direction opposite to ekphrastic poetry; that is, on art concerning poetry, as opposed to poetry concerning art. It goes something like this: What distinguishes the projects by Jen Bervin and Eric Zboya is that, as opposed to a lot of conceptual art, which eliminates the traces of its sources, here they are made visible. This comment was made in passing by Elizabeth Floyd, a graduate student presenter from UC-San Diego. This arguable, yet provocative claim, got me thinking about the operations of erasure and inscription inherent in all revolutionary practices attempting to break with the mainstream and align themselves with the “traditions of rupture,” as Octavio Paz aptly defined the 20th-century avant-gardes, nailing the aporia at their teleological core. Which leads me to the next item on the list.

3) “On the brink of the end of paper, I was attracted to the idea of a book that can’t forget it has a body.” Jonathan Safran Foer has said this many times over apropos of his 2010 novel Tree of Codes, an erasure of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles mass-produced with die-cutting technology, but the quote here is taken from an online interview in the New York Times. At the symposium, Safran Foer’s work was the subject of a keynote presentation by digital poetics and media theorist Jessica Pressman, titled “Bookishness.” There was no mention of other artists books or projects dealing with the book as object, although a copy of Marcel Broodthaers's 1969 rendition of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés was on display in one of the museum’s galleries, with at least a dozen other instances of works focused on the materiality of the artifacts supporting them—Dan Graham’s “Schema,” from 1966–67, a variable poem comprised of a list of its linguistic and material qualities (number of adjectives, adverbs, percentage of the page occupied by type, stock, etc.) and Craig Dworkin’s Fact, an exhaustive reworking of a similar idea projected onto a screen (why stop at surfaces when their chemical materials can be broken down too?), for example.

Marcel Broodthaers's 1969 rendition of Stéphane Mallarmé's 1887  Un Coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance)

A cursory online search yielded interesting results. An interview on Vanity Fair’s website is billed as a talk with the author on the Tree of Codes “and conceptual art” but, lest someone performed an erasure on it, the commentary on conceptual art is missing. On Wikipedia, the book is designated as an “artwork, in the form of a book.” That’s the closest it comes to the realm of artists books.

The point is not to play security guard to a reified and delimited territory of “pure” conceptualist practice, but rather to highlight the ways in which the apparatuses bolstering different traditions operate. In the Times interview, Safran Foer actually acknowledges his idea’s lack of originality: “(I)t’s a technique that has, in different ways, been practiced for as long as there has been writing,” he argues, while also mentioning Tom Phillips’s A Humument as the procedure’s most brilliant manifestation. Yet Tree of Codes, as an artifact itself, with its paratext in the form of blurbs and promotional materials, along with its reception, enacts an erasure more obliterating than the one Safran Foer performs on Schulz’s book. So the author’s genius can be appreciated in all its retinal glory, and the gravitas of his operation can be illustrated with all the vividness it can possibly conjure, a counter-tradition already invisible to the mainstream is twice suppressed, if by omission only.

From Tom Phillips's A Humument

After writing the paragraph above, I looked up A Humument in Wikipedia. What I found couldn’t speak more eloquently to the issue I’m attempting to bring up here. At the end of the entry appears a chart listing the book’s precursors. It starts off with Cubist and Expressionist examples, covers Futurism, Vorticism, Dada, Constructivism, and Surrealism; goes to Lettrism, Situationism, Nouveau réalism, and Arte Povera; then continues with Pop art; and ends with Fluxus, Conceptual art, and artists books since 1980. There you have it, a perfectly concise summation of lineage, albeit one performing its own erasures of sorts, given its Eurocentric and North American focus.

4) And here’s another paraphrase, this time of a comment by Christian Bök during the symposium’s concluding roundtable discussion: If you want to be a poet of the 21st century, you’re going to have to learn to write code.

Ulises Carrión

Apropos of artists books, a genre whose “codes” he helped define, Mexican conceptual poet and artist Ulises Carrión wrote in the 1975 manifesto “The New Art of Making Books” that: “A book may be the accidental container of a text, the structure of which is irrelevant to the book: these are the books of bookshops and libraries. A book can also exist as an autonomous and self-sufficient form, including perhaps a text that emphasizes that form, a text that is an organic part of that form: here begins the new art of making books.” For Carrión, the book artist was not an author who writes a text that will be laid out by “the servants, the artisans, the workers, the others” in a lesser position within a hierarchy, but rather someone who makes books and “assumes the responsibility for the whole process.”

If it’s true that one of the elements consistently distinguishing mainstream versus avant-garde art practice has been that, in the latter, the artist or writer has the means of production—or collaborates with those who have them, I’d add—then Bök is right. But that’s so 20th century.

Fully installed in the information era, in the digital realm of the 21st, how to tell apart the means of production from the means of distribution? In moves anticipating the current moment, Carrión put a lot of effort into community creation through the distribution networks—mainly for artist books, and stamp and mail art—that he helped maintain through Other Books & So., his artist books store and archive in Amsterdam.

Distribution channels is where it’s at, and intervening them, seizing them, hacking them, and manipulating them is brimming with potential.

For the earworms, I thank James Hoff, the artist and publisher of Primary Information whose work is also in Postscript. A passage from a forthcoming interview with him in BOMB couldn’t put it better: “My interest is in trying to figure out ways in which various distribution systems or sites for distribution (such as the sonic space occupied by a cellphone ring) can become actors in the creative process. This is what brought me to the computer virus, the earworm, the syndrome, and a very long time ago, the artist book.” Hoff has a painting titled Social Fatigue Syndrome.

Write code... Think social media and its attendant behavioral codes. Trees of codes: linguistic, artistic, and programming codes.

Originally Published: July 24th, 2014

Poet, translator, and scholar Mónica de la Torre was born and raised in Mexico City. She earned a BA from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and, with the support of a Fulbright scholarship, relocated to New York in 1993 to pursue an MFA and a PhD in Spanish literature...