My first experience with a hand-mechanical piece/process occurred during the first semester of the last year of my undergraduate education. It was at the beginning of that school year, and I hadn’t figured out quite what to do book-wise, so I was experimenting with approaches to writing that could be thought of as visual art (I was at an art school, majoring in Painting, though I had given up actually painting after I made my first book at the end of my sophomore year. But painting returns, slowly, changed by the book, in the hand-mechanical).
I had a typewriter, my mother’s from college. I’m not sure what brand it was, but it was manual, with an almost completely dead ribbon that I was not interested in changing. The typewriter had become, in a weird way, the symbol of the kind of work that I was interested in at that time, partly maybe because of the nostalgia for writing, but mostly because the machine stood between writing and printing. It was like the letterpress, but portable, easy, informal. The letters left definite impressions on the page, which I tried to utilize in some pieces. I drew with it mostly, doing my “real” writing on a computer. The typewriter became, for me, at that time, less about the product of writing (text) and more about the process of writing (typing).
And so a piece developed that at the time seemed isolated, removed from the bookwork/publishing I was doing, but now I see that in it were latent ideas about the conventions of art and writing, of printing particularly, and how those conventions could be manipulated to draw the viewer’s attention to them. I didn’t really understand it that way at that time—I simply had an idea that on an intuitive level, “worked.”
The piece was this: I sat at the typewriter and typed the phrase “I am a good man.” over and over again, once per line, in a single column down the page. This was repeated for 100 pages. I don’t remember now if I allowed typos to remain or if I retyped the pages with mistakes. The paper was plain, white computer paper, probably from some large office supply store. The type itself, because of the old ribbon in the machine, was light and uneven, and the impression was visible, so the sheets were obviously written with a typewriter. I numbered and signed them, 1/100, 2/100, 3/100… just like an artist would sign and number a print. And it ended with an “alternative” distribution model—I stood in the senior painting studio hallway (during an open studio tour) holding the stack and gave one to each person who walked by, and said to them, as seriously as I could, “I am a good man.” I remained in that spot until I had given every sheet away.
Thinking back, it’s the first piece I made where the process of making was the driver of the overall concept (not content) of the piece. And process was connected to that content (the obsessive, devotional act), to the form (the machine composition, the aesthetics of the letters), and to the reception/distribution (the act of distribution turns the private devotion to a public insistence, the thing done becomes a thing real-ized, author-ized). A book of dispersed pages, all insisting the same thing, all exactly the same, each one totally unique. Not painting, not drawing, not printmaking, not writing, not performance, not completely.
Once Buzz Spector and I were talking about concrete poetry, and he put forth the idea that concrete poetry had ended, not because it was conceptually played out or over, but because it became, over time and as technology advanced, too easy to do, to make. The streamlining of the process of visual composition pulled it away from the writing, and made it design after the fact, and the after-the-fact-ness of the visual identity and arrangement of the text is exactly what concrete poetry denied. If we accept that visual manipulation of text is now a cultural norm, that both the process of doing it and the results aren’t particularly productive (in a subversive, discourse cracking kind of way), then one question we could ask is: Can we write a new, contemporary concrete poetry that functions not on visuality alone (form) but on production and reception as well? Can we begin processes of writing that will tear at the very discourse that produces those processes? What can we do, tied to these machines?