Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski
Simon Morris, editor. York: Information as Material, 2016.
In my own ongoing research investigations of reading publishing as arts practice, I came across this title last winter. In typical fashion for me, I didn’t find the time last semester to write about it. My own interests in investigating publishing as artistic practice, linking together business and marketing strategies, book history studies, and both literary and design criticism. Morris’ exhibition catalog contributes to yet another thread worth exploring . . . the history, process, and performance of reading.
A starting point in the this sort of research might begin with book history and works that examine reading as material practice via Robert Darnton and Roger Chartier. Two additional titles with the same title, A History of Reading, by Alberto Manguel (1997) and Steven Fischer (2004) are also worth a read. Although there are some glaring problems with Fischer’s work, it remains the most usable single book on this topic. This work looks at the development of literacy and printing globally briefly addresses its evolution in the digital age with the emergence of the ebook and text messaging. To follow this thread, scholars like Jerome McGann, Joanna Drucker, and Franco Moretti are equally crucial reads in this vein, developing ideas of close and distant reading, reading as performance, and changing practices via the Digital Humanities. Following this train one stop further, Kenny Goldsmith’s concept and practice of Uncreative Writing and conceptual writing further extends ideas on active reading.
Reading as Art is a catalog for Morris’ exhibition at Bury Art Museum & Sculpture Centre in England (Aug.-Nov. 2016). The show collected works from poets, writers, and visual artists on the notion of reading as a form of artwork. It included video projects by Kenneth Goldsmith and Morris and an audio recording from Rob Fitterman (No, Wait. Yep Definitely Still Hate Myself.), as well as framed text works by Craig Dworkin, Kate Briggs, Nick Thurston, and Jérémie Bennequin, among others. The book and exhibition are organized into two categories: “The obscenity of language” and “The Infrathin,” a term coined by Marcel Duchamp. The former examines the overwhelming abundance of information and language in the digital age, while the latter reconsiders the idea of material, namely paper. Both attempt to make visible the invisible by framing process as product.
For example, Briggs, who also contributes an essay in the catalog, offers an elegy to defunct paper sizes in ‘Paper Size Poems’ and Dworkin’s contribution, Twelve Erroneous Displacements and a Fact, compiles lists of materials onto which poetry is embedded, including everything from dyed wool from tapestries and a xeroxed sheet of paper to compact discs and a smartphone touchscreen. I’m also drawn to Jérémie Bennequin‘s work in the collection, especially his rubbings and erasure of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The catalogue also includes commissioned essays by Thomas Campbell, Kaja Marczewska, Simon Morris, and Nick Thurston. The show and the essays both remind readers of the place for humor in their techniques of collage and appropriation and in scholarly interpretations. In Artificial Mythologies (1997), Craig Saper discusses how humor and fun are an essential part of the invention process, and, in turn, “serious scholarship.” He proposes, “If humor and fun play a role in invention, then teaching students to make fun of, and have fun with, existing cultural and scholarly mythologies may prove advantageous” (5). In short, humor is a strategy to invent, illuminate, and interrogate.
The catalog does not–and cannot–adequately re-create the sound, sight and visceral experience of walking through the exhibition. (Black-and-white frames of a film depicting Morris reading appears at the bottom right-hand corner of nearly every page of Reading as Art.) And perhaps this is part of the point. The text of the book cannot be read. And readers, as they read the text, are simultaneously aware of, reminded that, for this project the text isn’t the art. The art lies in the act of reading itself. The message to the reader is simple: Perform or Else.