This interview forms an appendix to my doctoral thesis (Reiterative Drawing as Translation: Making, Resistance, and the Negotiated Encounter) and is reproduced here in full with Simon Morris’s permission.
Simon Morris was Reader in the School of Arts and Media at Teesside University and Programme Leader in Fine Art. Since being interviewed he has moved to Leeds Beckett University where he is Professor of Art. He is a conceptual writer whose practice is a response, as he explains in the conversation below, to reading. He has produced many publications and, as an editor with Information as Material, has been involved in the publication of many works of conceptual writing.
In the following conversation Morris refers to his own practice and works with that of others. Much of the conversation is relaxed and anecdotal. I have tried, wherever possible, to let his words explain all these works and the way they relate to one another.
A lot of your work that I’ve seen seems to revolve around an idea of reiteration. I was wondering where reiterating gets you as an artist? Where does it take you?
I’m thinking, having done quite a bit of work with Pavel Büchler – I made a film for him called Making Nothing Happen – and I listened to him talk quite a lot. He’s got particular things that resonate within his practice. I’m talking about Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Andy Warhol. These are major figures that feature in his work and he was saying in the film that actually knowing that the ideal audience for him is someone for whom those figures are also important, but he also says that he’s not really into theory as such. His practice isn’t a response to theory, he’s not reading Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault, but people like Kafka and Beckett and Warhol are central to his thinking. It’s a difficult question ‘where does reiteration get you as an artist?’ I never sit down and think ‘I’m working on a programme of reiteration’. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not a conscious programme of reiteration. The way I work as an artist … I was talking in Holland last week at the Royal Academy and I said to them that my book works are inspired a bit like a stuck record. I get a sentence and I get stuck with it and I feel I have to do something about it and that will generate an entire project. I can almost tell you the exact moment of all my book works exactly what you got stuck with.
I’ll give you some examples to make it more clear. Bibliomania (1998) was the first major project I did. On the night on 1st of September 1998 I’d got Sol LeWitt’s autobiography. In this book three’s no text in it whatsoever. LeWitt documents everything in his house (I think it was previously his father’s house because it’s got a Dr LeWitt nameplate and I think his father was a medical doctor). So it’s got all of Sol LeWitt’s electrical electrical sockets, plan chests, etc., etc., etc. Then I got to Sol LeWitt’s books and I thought ‘that’s really cool, we can see what Sol LeWitt reads’. So I turn the book sideways and I can read the spines to see what Sol LeWitt reads. That was the inspiration for Bibliomania. That moment of turning the book and wondering ‘what on earth does LeWitt read?’ made me think wouldn’t it be great to suck out the bookshelves of a series of really wonderful artists and put them in a gallery and see how their sources and references reflect their practices. So it’s a very conceptual model in that it’s generating an idea of something form the footies that from the actual thing.
The Royal Road to the Unconscious (2003) is another book work. I worked with a psychoanalyst on a creative practice for five years, and I was looking at Freud one night and I came across the famous phrase ‘dreams are royal roads, the unconscious knowledge of the workings of the mind’, or something like that (1). As soon as I hit the words ‘royal’ and ‘road’ it of course made me, of course, think of Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test and that was the moment of inspiration. It was like ‘okay, Ed threw a typewriter out of a car window. Why don’t we throw the words afterwards? Cut up the entire Interpretation of Dreams and throw it out of a car window’. And that’s it. And it becomes the whole project to do that, which takes quite a lot of work.
And having read some of your Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head and the chapter in Uncreative Writing which is dedicated to it seems like such a simple idea, ‘what if I blog the book?’, and you do it. And of course there’s a vast amount of labour between saying you’re going to do it and actually doing it, which is interesting. You have have to make it happen, it has to be concretised into the world. It can’t be conceptual in the sense of ‘what if we do this?’. Did you feel, because you called it Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head, not Typing On The Road or On The Blog, that you did (get inside Kerouac’s head) and at what point did you think that you were getting somewhere with it?
I’ll go backwards a little bit and then answer the question. Talking about the stuck record moment, with that particular project it comes entirely from a Kenneth Goldsmith quote. I’d made a film on Goldsmith in 2007 called Sucking on Words. Inside the film we put a booklet that was a series of blogposts he did for the Harriet Foundation. With the Harriet Foundation he said that he’d given a lecture at Princeton University and after the lecture two students came up to chat to him and they were complaining about their regular, full-time tutor and it happened to be Joyce Carol Oates, an author of over eighty fictional works, and Kenny asked what was wrong with her teaching. They said ‘she gives us these really lame homework exercises’. Kenny asks ‘what like?’ And one of the students says ‘she says go home to your dorm room and pretend you’re a famous writer and write a piece in their style … which is probably okay when you’re at High School but we’re first year undergraduates at Princeton. It seems a little bit ridiculous.’ Kenny asked who they had tried to be and she said that she tried to be Jack Kerouac, but that it felt ridiculous sitting in her dorm room pretending I was Jack Kerouac. And Kenny said that without screaming across the States at high speed in an open top car, typing like a maniac, popping pills and drinking bourbon, she probably wasn’t even going to get close. And then his mind wanders… In the Met in New York every day artists pay money to go and copy the work of the masters with the idea in art being that if you copy the brush strokes of the master enough times, you eventually become the master. So he said, if it’s good enough for artists why is it not good enough for literature. What she should have done was copy out a month and if she was really ambitious, the entire book. Well that… It’s the stuck record moment. I’d worked on the project (the film), I’d proofed it, I’d read this series of posts quite a few times because I was making a film on him and it just hit me and I thought ‘I have to do something with it’. It’s good to experiment.
It is an autobiographical text, so in a way it’s ideal for getting inside the writer’s head than something more abstract. It is what he did and what he thought about what he was doing. In a way the door is open to getting inside his head whereas retyping someone else’s work might be trickier to get inside their head, I suppose. Something I’ve found from redrawing photographs of other people’s art works is you’re suddenly aware of things that work, that you wouldn’t be just by looking at it. By drawing it you spot rhythmic things, rhyming, construction. And it’s almost like you can’t know until you do it.
Yeah, Kenny quoted Walter Benjamin, a lovely quote: ‘it’s not the same flying over a country as it is walking along the country’s roads’ (2). The person flying across it can see the way the road unfolds through the landscape but only the person who actually commits themselves to walking the road on foot will feel every bend and travel round every corner. He says it’s the same with reading and copying. Reading is not the same as copying. If you really want to get into the soul of a writer you actually have to copy their text out and Gertrude Stein said the same thing. You have to polish things every day, or dust them down every day or in the case of reading… Reading wasn’t good enough on its own, you actually have to copy it.
This is interesting to me in relation to the idea of translation because one of the things that Kate Briggs has said is that translating Roland Barthes’ Preparation for the Novel (3) was like an ‘apprenticeship in writing’ because it broke her of her own habits (4). It’s a new way of writing because she’s trying to write like somebody else. Now, she’s obviously approaching the surface of the text but there’s also research into the background of it. How much research did you do when you were doing the Kerouac. Were you just doing the text or were you searching out more information about why he might have done things.
I get quite involved. The piece that followed the Kerouac was an experimental intervention in Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, and for both Kerouac and the Perec I would read as much as I could humanly find before or while I’m engaged in the project, just because that’s my particular interest at the moment. I try to get as much related material as possible and there’s fascinating stuff. I’d never read On The Road as a conventional novel, so I was reading it as I was copying it which was made it more entertaining. There’s certainly stuff I never noticed. He mentions ‘on the road’ thirty-four times in the first hundred and ten pages. In a film you’ll usually have the title of the film popping up at a seminal moment – at the crux of the film, they’ll say the actual title. In On the Road it’s like a mantra being chanted that drives you along: on the road, on the road, on the road, on the road. It’s continuous. There are other things you notice, like they’re always trying to get forward, they’re physically pushing themselves through the novel. They actually lean forward, all the characters in the car, because they want to get to a place faster and it’s actually driving you through the text. Things like the hyphens. There’s so many hyphens, they’re like the actual markers on the road if you’re driving down the highway. There’s different spellings of highway. There’s spelling of highway in English and there’s spelling of it in the American form (hiway). I’m wondering if Howard Cunnell who was chosen as editor who worked at Kingston University and who was British and who actually transcribed the scroll (so you could say he copied it out first, if he did copy it all himself, he might have had help or assistants doing it as well), but whether he threw some of these English … How good is a proper translation? To be honest about it, people have asked me ‘did you make any mistakes?’ And, yeah, there are loads of mistakes. Otherwise I might as well have scanned the damn thing. If I’d wanted a perfect copy I’d have scanned it, not copied it. I actually made a mistake on the first line.
The first line of Kerouac’s text is ‘I first met Neal not longer after my father died’ and I proofed every page before I put it on the blog and I probably saw the words ‘met met’ and thought that I’d put the word ‘met’ twice and deleted one. And Howard Cunnell in one of the four introductory essays to the original scroll says ‘I left the double ‘met’ in on the original scroll because it sounds like a car mis-firing at the start of a journey’, which is really beautiful. And some people who buy the book off me ask me to put the extra ‘met’ back in, so I have to write a little ‘met’ in.
Which is interesting how work generates work. You talk about the stuck record moment, but there’s also the idea that by doing work you generate other work. There may be a moment in the work that generates a new piece of work but it definitely comes from doing something rather than waiting.
It comes from reading?
For me. Yes. I’ve got a problem with books. Every piece of my work revolves around books. Which is the book-madness… I don’t like it to be honest because they cause me a huge headache. Every time I have an idea – luckily I don’t have too many, because I do find them really problematic because I feel compelled to do something about it…
And it’s quite time consuming…
Yeah, the complexities of The Royal Road to the Unconscious… I mean remapping… Once I decided that I was going to use Ed Ruscha’s Road Test as a ready-made set of instructions, a lot of people think I’m doing an Ed Ruscha’s project. It had nothing really to do with that. I was using Ed Ruscha literally as a ready-made set of instructions but the project is about doing an experiment on Sigmund Freud’s writing. I was working with a psychoanalyst, I was much more interested in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams and conducting this experiment and he just gave me a very exact set of instructions. I like the idea of what the Dada artists called ‘the yes and the no, they always belong together’. The tension between opposing things. So you’ve got very very tightly structured set of instructions and when you throw the words out of the car window, it’s about as random as you can get.
And this is something else that’s interesting. I went to a conference in London – Generative Constraints – and a lot of it, perhaps a significant minority would be fairer, was people using digital technology to generate infinite texts. One guy had got a novel he’d never finished and he put it into a generator that rearranged it and read out something that goes on forever. It seems to me that the advantage with translation as opposed to that generation is that there’s a boundary. You’re typing a book or using the Interpretation of Dreams. There’s a boundary, a finitude to it even if what you generate is absolutely huge, like Raymond Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems but it comes from a hundred and forty lines. This brings me to editing and I notice that Craig Dworkin edited some of your work.
Yeah, he edited Re-writing Freud which is like you say a generative text. My wife made me an algorithm and you can buy it as an app and you can rewrite Freud with your finger. Originally it was an interactive touch screen kiosk and you pressed play and it takes seventy-eight hours to rewrite Freud’s text, so all the same words but it spurts them out in a differ order. Of course, it could technically spurt them out in exactly the same order, but it’s highly unlikely. It generates endless, limitless possibilities and one instantiation of that I had turned back into a book of similar dimensions to…
So it resembled…
Yeah, exactly. We’re into this thing called undesigning or brand-jacking where you take a host source and you mimic it. It’s actually harder than you think. Peter McGrath, the designer who has designed most of my books, is amazingly precise and has the mantra that the devil is in the detail. He actually realised that on the Penguin copy of On The Road they’d mismatched the actual spine and so he did the same mismatch on our copy, so we actually copy the mistakes Penguin had made. And Penguin intentionally reversed the paper you’d normally use for the cover. It has a particular effect. That’s the level of details he goes to; it’s fantastic.
Notwithstanding this generation of text, does this editing or controlling or limiting bring back a kind of authorship? There’s a questioning of authorship with you moving between being and not being the author, like a post-authorship agent. You’re re-authoring something. That runs throughout the Goldsmith book, the idea of managing text not making it. The agency that an editor imposes on it by choosing this bit, or doing that, does that place you as an author in the work. That’s a long-winded way of asking does that allow you to claim some ownership of the thing?
Yes, even in the vaguest sense. You do something but then you choose what goes out. For example, you proofed the Keroauc pages rather than just typing them and posting them. There’s an element of control. Is that where authorship is at least partially reclaimed?
I’m trying to think of an answer.
If the answer is ‘I don’t know’, feel free to say so.
Obviously when you make any project you think very carefully about what you want to have in or leave our of the book. Have you seen Pigeon Reader?
Morris tries to find a copy on his office shelves.
I’ll describe it for you as I can’t find one right now. Basically it’s Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, which we originally commissioned by an architect, so if you look at the table of contents it goes something like ‘the bed, the bedroom, the apartment, the apartment building, the street, the city, the town, the countryside, the country, the earth, and then space, and then the universe’. He writes a short text about each and whoever put the edition together put some other short pieces of writing together – which are the ‘other pieces’ – by Georges Perec in it and they’re really wonderful. One of them is called ‘Reading a Socio-Physiological Outline’. I love that, because it talks about the activity of reading, how you read and how your eyes move across the surface of the page. At one point he says ‘you read lie a pigeon, picking at the ground in search of breadcrumbs’. You don’t read straight, in a linear manner but, he uses the word ‘aleatory’, that poetic form. Going back to my Royal Road project, it was called ‘the aleatory moment’, chucking the words out of the car window. Anyway, that was my stuck point: you read like a pigeon pecking at the ground in search of breadcrumbs. Even though the sentence he says immediately afterward is ‘this is image is, of course, rather suspect’. I was stuck with that, and there was a piece by Rodney Graham, he’d done an intervention with [Ian Fleming’s] Dr. No and Yann Sérandour’s done one with sentences by Lawrence Wiener. Rodney Graham’s one was a page insert. There’s a bit where Dr. No is being tortured by a poisonous centipede, if such a weird thing exists, and it’s going up and down his body. It ends at the bottom of a page and began at the top of the next, and with this inset it just rolls over for another entire page of torture and he just popped this insert in. Yann Sérandour’s is a nice piece called ‘the needle in the haystack’ – I’ve got it here – and he’s used the form of Lawrence Weiner’s Specific and General Works (5).
Morris now tries to find the piece in the book.
And this is going to be the tricky bit because it is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
Here it is. Same paper, same layout and he just drops an extra page in. Now the question I was trying to work with with the Perec was these inserts by Graham and Sérandour are brilliant, but they’re relatively easy to do though you have to put some effort into the typography and paper management, but who would be mad enough to reproduce an entire book just to change one chapter? It’s also playing with British copyright law in the sense that in academia you can photocopy five per cent of the text, but not ninety-five per cent of it. I’m doing exactly the opposite: I’m copying ninety-five per cent of Perec’s book and just changing five per cent. So this book was a facsimile reproduction of Perec’s and you read through it in the normal conventional way, but when you get to the chapter on reading it’s being read by pigeons. I went to the Georges Perec Association in Paris, […] and I asked for any photographs they had that Georges Perec had taken of pigeons. Of the 2500 photographs Perec had taken I found about eleven of pigeons. He used to work in a park and write notes on everything that happened in the park and he’d taken a picture of a guy feeding pigeons on the park bench, and he’d actually chopped the pigeons out of the photograph. Then again, reproducing the book there was this thought of putting some of Perec’s pictures of pigeons, but then it becomes an art historical work. In terms of editing, there’s decisions you have to make. It is actually a bookwork, and restrict it to that. There are games to be played. On the back cover … there’s a blurb of course on the back of Species of Space, and on the back of Pigeon Reader we had a blurb by Craig Dworkin and then I gave the blurb to the Canadian poet Christian Bök and asked him to write another blurb, something sensible, using the same words. It’s a very Perecian twist for the back cover. So that’s lots of decisions like that that get made, which I guess do reflect our thinking and interests and what we’re aiming for. So in terms of editing, yeah I think even when talk about ‘uncreative writing’, being uncreative is a creative act in and of itself. If someone stood absolutely still – let’s take Kimsooja and Needle Woman – it has a profound effect because everyone, when she’s done the piece, she’s doing nothing and it’s incredibly profound.
There’s an idea of dissemination embedded in the idea of translation in that Kafka, written in German but if translated into English it’s implied that you’re opening it up to a different audience at least potentially. The last thing the translator does is step aside. I’m interested in not standing aside and this is my dilemma. If I hold onto the idea of translation, there’s a paradox there. Because I’m standing in the way. You never say that you’re entirely original, there’s a very clean admission of the process.
It’s not plagiarism. A lot of people got upset about plagiarism saying ‘this is a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road’ and there’s no pretence that it’s anything but that.
What I find amazing is that you can say ‘if it’s good enough for visual art, why don’t writers do it?’, because it’s also good enough for music. Bands start out as cover bands or do cover versions. How were the Beatles that good? Well, they played seven hours a night in Hamburg doing Little Richard songs. By doing them and doing them and doing them you learn.
Through the brushstrokes of the master, you become the master.
Yeah. I read somewhere and it may not be true that Kurt Cobain, as a kid, was in a Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute band. And it makes perfect sense because there’s a classic structure to what he did (6). That honesty, and I think translation does hold onto an idea of honesty in its ‘I’m not it, this isn’t thing, this is a different thing’ whereas replication seems like a lie (the ‘authentic copy’), or at least speaks out of two sides of the mouth.
I am fascinated by the whole question. Kenny Goldsmith often points out that none of these strategies are particularly new. There’s nothing original about the strategies we’re employing because they’ve been done in art a million times before, but it is new in terms of literature: actually applying some these methods across to literary works. I was obviously fascinated by Sherrie Levine and I think there’s something really amazing about taking a photo that is, to all intents and purposes, to anyone looking at it with a naked eye, exactly the same [as its source]. But they couldn’t be more different. I remember Douglas Crimp, a university professor had two pictures in his office, one by [Edward] Weston and one by Sherrie Levine. And students who came in to his office for a crit would say, ‘Hey Doug, why have you got two of the same image’ and Doug used to tell them, but it took half and hour to explain and after while he started saying, ‘you know, I liked it so much, I bought two’.
This is the Richard Prince problem with re-photographing the advert of the couple. It’s not the same as the thing.
It’s a philosophical problem, this. I don’t know if you know this piece but in 2011 Richard Prince did a facsimile copy of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Penguin recently brought out a facsimile of the 1950s edition of the book for thirty-one dollars. Richard Prince makes a totally perfect version of that edition, the only difference being is that it doesn’t say ‘J. D. Salinger’, it says ‘Richard Prince’. Penguin are selling their facsimile retro copy for thirty-one dollars, Prince sells his for sixty-two dollars. He puts a blanket out in Central Park, sits down on the blanket surrounded by copies of the book and sells it for sixty-two dollars saying that art is worth twice as much as literature. He says if you want a signed copy of my Catcher in the Rye it’ll cost you $59,500 which is what it would cost for a first edition signed by J. D. Salinger. The only other difference is that inside instead of their being a list of J. D. Salinger’s publications, it’s got a list of Richard Prince’s publications and on the colophon page, right at the end, it says ‘this is an art work by Richard Prince’ and then ‘copyright Richard Prince’. It’s a complete provocation on the idea that art and literature are not the same thing.
I was in Holland last week and I said to people ‘if you want to read Keroauc’s book, for God’s sake, by his book. I’m making art works; this is an art work. You don’t read an art work from left to right, top to bottom, in a linear manner. You might walk down the street thinking about it. You might chat to your mates about it at the weekend, you might have a chat in a bar about it. You might think think about it, but an art work is completely different in the way you engage with it.’
I was in the National Gallery and you can absorb a visual thing, all of it, in a moment. Which is why people go round very quickly. You can’t read great works of literature by just looking at them. There’s something different, a temporal unfolding.
But with Conceptual Writing you can. What Kenny calls ‘the wrapper’. You can get all of his books in one sentence flat. So, Soliloquy: ‘every word I spoke for an entire week’. Fidget: ‘every movement my body made during a day’. Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head: ‘a facsimile reproduction of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, copied word for word, one page a day for an entire year’. In one sentence, and you don’t have to read it. I don’t want people to read it. If you want to read Kerouac, I suggest people buy the Kerouac. Mine’s a little bit annoying in the sense that it’s back to front, because blog posts by nature get pushed down. I brought it back into the analogue from the digital form and of course it’s back to front, but There’s a guy called Joe Hale who has copied mine which is called Getting Inside Simon Morris’ Head which is kind of nice because it’s going to put Kerouac back into the original [order]. There’s another guy online I could show you who has done a marathon retyping of Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, which he typed up in twenty-three hours and fifty-eight minutes, non-stop. It’s beautiful to watch.
I asked Juan Cruz about this kind of durational work, though of course with a typing work there’s the production of a thing and it moves in one direction, but with his Translating Don Quijote there’s lots of back and forth, ers and ums, half-steps and revisions that reveal quite a lot about the text. It shows up this contingent quality of any translation. We have an idea that a text is fixed. Kerouac’s an ideal one as it was ‘typed’ and not really sculpted in a literary way…
Well, I don’t know, there are four essays at the beginning that talk about that particular piece. The scroll is the one he typed on a hundred and twenty foot piece of paper in very fast typing, but the last twenty pages were eaten by a dog called Patchkee. So the scroll, which was left with a friend, had the last twenty pages eaten by a dog. That version doesn’t exist. Earlier versions are in diaries that he was recording while he was actually on the road. Later versions, it goes through massive editorial changes to 1957, when Kerouac himself says they’ve ruined it and Allen Ginsberg says the original version of the scroll won’t come out until we’re all dead. And they were all dead – Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac – by 2007 when it was printed, but they can’t print the last twenty pages. The point they make at the beginning in the essays is that there probably is no original version. There’s no definitive version of On The Road.
I didn’t know that, but when I was reading about Kafka, of course we shouldn’t have any Kafka because it should have all been destroyed by Max Brod, and there’s an argument that there was ‘destroy it’ and a wink. But Amerika was unfinished and we don’t know – and I’m no Kafka scholar – what the structure of these things was going to be. They were heavily edited, like The Wasteland, which is as much Ezra Pound’s as It is T. S. Eliot’s. This idea that there’s an original text is poppycock anyway. It seems to be literature, and maybe this is the interesting thing, that perhaps there’s a preciousness in the literary arts, something purer and maybe visual artists are happier to ride roughshod over things.
I think people are admitting this in literature too. James Joyce some seventeen different language, write the most amazing book – Ulysses – which has 30,000 different words in (a feat in itself and is the average vocabulary people have in their heads), and he said that he’d be happy to go down in history as a cut-and-paste man. It’s a little bit unkind, but it would be true. I’ve got a fantastic quote from Mark Twain, and he’s talking about the book he’s written and the epigraph he’s used, and he says to his friend ‘did you like the epigraph I used?’ and his friends answers ‘yes, I liked it the first time I read it.’ Mark Twain then says ‘what do you mean ‘the first time you saw it’?’. He said, well it’s the same epigraph as in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ book The Song in Many Keys’, so Mark Twain writes to Oliver Wendell Holmes: ‘Dear Mr Holmes, I’m so apologetic but in my first act of literary theft, I appear to have rewritten, completely without knowledge, a copy of your epigraph.’ Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote back: ‘Dear boy, do not worry about it. We all repeat things we’ve heard in conversation or have read before in other stories’. We’re all continuously recycling language. This idea of the original is a nonsensical one on almost every level.
And this kind of work, like Kate Briggs’ Exercise in Pathetic Criticism, exposes the idea that even if we agree on a text that we’ve all read, what we remember is flawed and broken and how, when returning twenty years later to read something that you love, you realise that it’s not very good or that you didn’t get it, and now you do. The ‘re’ thing changes everything and I think that the work that you’re doing, and that Yann Sérandour’s doing with art (and it was interesting when I interviewed him because he’s moving away from Conceptual Art and published pieces and starting to work with statuary and so on). […] when we look at a reiteration, it’s not the thing but we’re so used to seeing reiteration (Sherrie Levine, and so on) … Most people when they see them, see them in reproduction anyway, so they look like the original would look in a book, which reinscribes the importance of being present with the work.
I don’t think it’s about reproduction so much as a philosophical argument between a work of art and a work of literature. Rob Fitterman has talked about not requiring a readership but requiring a ‘thinkership’ and Goldsmith says the same thing in that he doesn’t expect anyone to read his books but he’s always amazed that people do. For example, Re-writing Freud is a scrambled version of Freud’s text, so why anyone would want to read that would be beyond me, but I’m taken with the idea that someone has shaken Freud and made the words come out differently.
Are you aware of the piece of work that Robert Good made that’s a facsimile of Bourriaud’s Post-production and he’s replaced every single word in the text with the word ‘word’. All the punctuation and paragraphing is correct, it’s about the same length and he sells it for the same price. You see it next to the Bourriaud and you think they’ve got lots of copies of Bourriaud. It’s painstaking and dumb and fantastic, but you wouldn’t read it. It’s a thing, an object…
It’s an art work, something to think about. It’s nice that people do these ideas. And the thing is, a guy from the Penguin Collectors Society wrote to me last summer. He was absolutely perplexed. He’d been on holiday somewhere in Britain and he’d picked up a copy of a Penguin edition of Freud in a bookshop, because he collects Penguin editions. He got home and was completely shocked when he opened it because it was Re-writing Freud, and not Freud. He was completely bemused. He wrote to me to say that he wanted to write about it for the Penguin Collectors, and I said absolutely. I love that someone picked it up by mistake.
So that closeness is working.
Yes, and thinking it was the original. I thought it was hilarious.
Is he okay with it?
Yeah. I sent him the Kerouac one as well to show him the sort of games that were being played. Recently there was one online that was very fascinating. The Mummy, Peter and Jane series…
Is this the art gallery one?
Yes. It’s almost got to the point the where Penguin UK were going to sue Penguin America, because Penguin America want to publish it and Penguin UK were saying ‘no way’. In the end they agreed that they’re both going to say ‘no way’ and give her lots of trouble. The idea of Penguin suing itself is just great (7).
This rearranging text is not a way of uncovering – because with Re-writing Freud it becomes a kind of automatic or automated writing – some kind of ‘hidden in plain sight’ meaning that’s sitting in the text by rearranging it. You’re more interested in the repurposing of the text than what that text ends up saying. Is that fair?
A friend made me an algorithm to take out all the words from a paper written about Gustav Metzger that we were doing called A Text That Destroys Itself In The Process Of Its Own Reading. Afterwards I asked if I could use the algorithm he’d made for that piece on the Freud. He was saying that he was thinking of doing it on Moby Dick, but I can’t see any reason for doing it on Moby Dick. The point about doing it on Freud is that he’s writing about dreams and dreams are upside down, back to front. I think that the sites that map these ideas onto are incredibly important.
It’s not arbitrary.
Right. Pavel Büchler has done a series of books based on Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. He got Sharon Kivland and other colleagues around the UK to go to their local library to get a copy of Illuminations. I went to my local library in York to borrow the book and Pavel asked me a to photocopy a particular text like ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and then he would transcribe the marginalia that had been written by students into the equivalent typographical form, delete the main text and produce them as books themselves. They were very lo-fi. Nick Thurston does the same thing with Reading the Remove of Literature, but it’s the level of intent and the book that Thurston picked on to do it on that matters so much. It’s the perfect book to do it on: Blanchot’s The Space of Literature because he’s talking about the reader becoming the writer.
And it’s also in the little decisions about the paper selection, font, the colophon page, the cover. This is where this kind of work is different from the arbitrary works that just comes out with text forever. Because there’s an attention to detail, a yardstick against which it has to be measured, and the new product has to carry the day somehow, by being able to sit next it. Yann Sérandour said that when he did his first piece (Twentysix Fire Stations) it had to sit between the two Ed Ruscha books that he was quoting. He first did it in Canada and just photocopied it because he didn’t have any money. Then he got some money to do it properly. He said that it was important to get that craft element by talking to printers and so on. Like someone could buy it by accident, thinking they’re getting a Ruscha. But in a way it’s apparent almost immediately that you’ve not got the thing.
People said to me about the Kerouac ‘why don’t you shave off your goatee and do your hair a bit more like Kerouac’s?’ I said ‘but that wasn’t the point. I wanted almost everything on the cover to look exactly… the typography, the type of clothes, the shadow, where the shadow was, the position of the two figures… And then for people to say ‘who the hell is this little fat man?’ It’s not trying to actually be Jack Kerouac, it’s to have fun as well with what they call the paratextual information, the cover and so on. It’s an interpolation of two books in fact: the Penguin Edition and the scroll. The scroll has no paragraph breaks, that’s the content that’s inside but all the paratextual information is form the 2001 version of the 1957 version of On The Road, because I wanted to play with that amazingly ridiculous cover.
There is always a shortfall. Antonine Berman talks about the deforming tendencies; there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t help but clarify or tidy up. Even the things that you’re really careful about: being fair and honest with a straight translation of, for example, a novel, there are things you can’t get right. For example, if an English writer wrote about their childhood and wrote about Blue Peter and John Noakes. If it gets translated into Spanish, what does the translator do? Mention Blue Peter and John Noakes, or find an equivalent and insert someone else so that the reader can get it straight away, or do you put a footnote that explains it? And this is how translation creates a surplus. It always ends up making more. However you remake something, stuff will always pop out. I love the idea of the surplus. In Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder the protagonist restates events and there’s often a stain left behind. He ends up with stuff on him. There’s always more. In fact you gain from translation. You end up with prefaces and footnotes. Even the paratext, it explodes outside the object when someone writes to you to ask you what you’re doing…
A curator friend of mine, years ago, was trying to debunk the idea of originality and said ‘just set your students the task of trying to copy someone else’s art work. They’ll soon find that it’s absolutely impossible, however hard you try and however diligent you are.’ I love the idea that a book can be almost identical, with exactly the same words in it but it can be completely different. In the same manner as Sherrie Levine… the two pictures of Edward Weston’s son ostensibly to the naked eye look the same, but they couldn’t be more different in what they’re talking about and what they mean and I think that’s a fascinating place to be.
1 The actual quote is ‘dreams are the royal road to the unconscious’, and can be found in The Interpretation of Dreams.
2 Goldsmith quotes this in Uncreative Writing when writing about Morris’s work. p. 151. ‘The power of a country road when one is walking along it is different from the power it has when one is flying over it by airplane. In the same way, the power of a text when it is read is different from the power it has when it is copied out. The airplane passenger sees only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it. Only he who walks the road on foot learns the power it commands, and of how, from the very scenery that for the flier is only the unfurled plain, it calls forth distances, belvederes, clearings, prospects at each of its turns like a commander deploying soldiers at a front. Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of daydreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command.’ Walter Benjamin, Reflections, New York: Schocken, 1978, p. 66.
3 Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France (1978-1979 and 1979-1980) trans. by Kate Briggs, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
4 Kate Briggs ‘On Table-making and Translation’ Columbia University Press Blog.
5 Although the text on the insert is indeed ‘a needle in a haystack’ the piece is actually called Supplement (2004).
6 According to Nirvanapedia Cobain and Krist Novoseliv (Nirvana’s bass player) did indeed form a Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute band but it was ‘not successful’.
7 The artist – Miriam Elia – has a website here.