Art as Inheritance, part 2: Making New Art Appear as Old Text Disappears (as if by Magic!)

A friend recently alerted me to a post at Geek System (“Found Poetry in Magic: The Gathering Cards”): a fellow named Adam Parrish made some short poems by blacking out selected text on Magic cards:

Art by Adam Parrish (2011).

You can find more of Parrish’s poems here. He says of them, “[s]ome of these turned out well, some not so well,” but he’s being overly modest: most of the pieces are pretty witty, especially given the limited amounts of text he had to work with.

But what most caught my attention was the following claim in the Geek System post:

Adam Parrish, inspired by Austin Kleon’s famous newspaper blackout poems, partially blacked out Magic: The Gathering cards to create mini-poems.

Inspired by Austin Kleon? Who’s Austin Kleon? And don’t they mean, “inspired by Tom Phillips’s A Humument“?

Perhaps you thought the same thing that I did. Perhaps you’re now wondering what I’m talking about. But when I look at the artwork above, my immediate thought is: “Cute; it’s a pop-art adaptation of Tom Phillips‘s conceptual literature masterpiece, A Humument.”

Some background: Tom Phillips is a British artist, born in 1937. He trained as a visual artist and became a teacher at Ipswich School of Art. One of his students there was Brian Eno, with whom he later collaborated; he was also a colleague of Cornelius Cardew, and at least peripherally involved with that man’s Scratch Orchestra.

In 1965, inspired by a William Burroughs interview that he read in the Paris Review, Phillips began experimenting with the cut-up technique. After playing around with some issues of the New Statesman, he chose to advance the project by purchasing the first book he could find for sale for threepence (an arbitrary constraint), then use it as the basis for a more sophisticated text-based art project. He ended up buying a copy of W.H. Mallock’s A Human Document (1892), a book then unknown to Phillips:

[Mallock] does not seem a very agreeable person: withdrawn and humourless (as photographs of him seem to confirm) he emerges from his works as a snob and a racist (there are some extremely distasteful anti-semitic passages in A Human Document itself). He has however been the subject of some praise from A.J. Ayer for his philosophical dialogue The New Republic and A Human Document itself is flatteringly mentioned in a novel by Dorothy Richardson.

Phillips went on to make his artistic career by drawing and painting over the pages of A Humument:

The first page of the 1970 edition.

When I started work on the book late in 1966, I merely scored unwanted words with pen and ink; (it was not long though before the possibility became apparent of making a better unity of word and image, intertwined as in a mediaeval miniature. This more comprehensive approach called for a widening of the techniques to be used and of the range of visual imagery, Thus painting (in watercolour or gouache) became the basic technique with some pages still executed in pen and ink only, some involving typing and some using collaged fragments from other parts of the book (since a rule had grown up that no extraneous material should be imported into the work). In some recent pages I have incorporated elements of their printed predecessors.

[F]or what were to become my purposes, [Mallock's] book is a feast. I have never come across its equal in later and more conscious searchings. Its vocabulary is rich and lush and its range of reference and allusion large. I have so far extracted from it over one thousand texts, and have yet to find a situation, statement or thought which its words cannot be adapted to cover.

Phillips has displayed the pages themselves in various galleries and museums, and publishers have released numerous editions. (Click here for more information about the book, and click here for many more images from it.)

I first learned about A Humument in the mid-1990s, when one of my college professors lent me his copy of the first revised edition. (I don’t think I ever returned it—oops.) I remember the professor was surprised that, given my interests in visual texts (and Brian Eno), I didn’t already know about the project. After all, it’s a pretty famous work of book art, arguably one of the most famous.

So famous that I think that anyone who’s even passingly familiar with Tom Phillips’s work would assume that Adam Parrish had been directly inspired by it. However, Geek Systems, as we have seen, claims otherwise: Parrish was “inspired by Austin Kleon’s famous newspaper blackout poems.”

So let’s look at Austin Kleon. He is, according to his website, “a writer and artist living in Austin, Texas” who is:

[...] probably best known for my Newspaper Blackout Poems—poetry made by redacting words from newspaper articles with a permanent marker. I started making them in 2005 when I was right out of college and facing a nasty case of writer’s block. The poems spread around the internet, and in April 2010, Harper Perennial published a collection, Newspaper Blackout. New York Magazine called the book “brilliant” and The New Yorker said the poems “resurrect the newspaper when everyone else is declaring it dead.”

Was Kleon himself, perchance, inspired by Tom Phillips? He claims not to have been:

Last January [2009], after seeing a couple of my newspaper blackout poems, Winston Smith e-mailed and recommended to me a book called “A Humument” by an artist named Tom Phillips. In the mid-sixties, Phillips took an old Victorian novel by W.H. Mallock called “A Human Document” and started blacking out the pages to make a new book, ” A Humument.” [sic] Well, I thought this sounded pretty interesting, but was too lazy to look it up, or even Google it, and pretty soon I’d forgotten all about it. [10 January 2007]

I believe Austin Kleon; why not? He smiles a lot in photographs, and has the appearance of a pleasant, honest person. Furthermore, while A Humument is quite famous in certain circles, it’s not that famous. I managed to spend the first twenty years of my life untroubled by knowledge of its existence, even though it predated mine by six. It’s hardly surprising that Kleon (who was born in 1983) should do much the same.

So the artistic lineage here is clear: from Austin Kleon (2005–10) to Adam Parrish (2011). Before that, nothing; we are witnessing creatio ex nihilo. Tom Phillips had nothing to do with it.

Still, the similarities between the works invites comparison. And I do have to say that Parrish’s and Kleon’s respective pieces strike me as pretty—ah—hasty, especially when viewed against Phillips’s much lusher—and much more complex—and simply prettier artworks. (And just wait until we get to some of the other artists I’ll mention below.) I haven’t read Newspaper Blackout yet, but the many sample images I’ve looked through, while fun and sometimes witty ( like Parrish’s poems), don’t strike me, overall, as that beguiling, or suggestive of anything larger than themselves. There is the idea, and then there is the demonstration of the idea—

—and that’s just about it. Not to mention that most of the pieces—like the one above—are rather trite. Speaking personally, I prefer my conceptual art a little deeper, a little richer.

Also, why are Adam Parrish’s Magic poems in black and white, and at such a low resolution? Perhaps he blacked out the text on scans, and not actual cards? (Wouldn’t want to devalue that precious that precious Plummet.) But if so, why not do the blacking out in Photoshop, and keep the images in color?

A D Jameson, after Adam Parrish, and about five minute's work (2011).

Perhaps he felt the black and white more fitting, more in keeping with Kleon’s precedent?

I want to clarify and emphasize, however, that my intention here isn’t to criticize Kleon and Parrish. To paraphrase Donald Sutherland’s open-minded/mind-altering priest in Little Murders: “I will not put them down! I am not putting Austin Kleon or Adam Parrish down!” On the contrary, I think their artworks are nice.

It’s one thing when an artist isn’t aware of another artist. As I’ve written elsewhere, we tend to know best what’s most popular, and most recent. History’s history. Twenty years from now, some yet-to-born author will cross out or paint over some piece of writing, and someone will tell her, “
That looks a lot like an Austin Kleon.” And she will reply—“Who?”

But it’s quite another thing when cultural institutions don’t know their history. I will gladly put down most of the media coverage that Newspaper Blackout has received:

NPR Morning Edition:

Good morning. I’m Renee Montagne.

A poet in Texas is blacking out words in order to write. Instead of starting with a blank page, Austin Kleon grabs the New York Times and a permanent marker and then eliminates the words he doesn’t need. He recently transformed an article about a piano concert into a poem that begins: Forget about trying to speak, the image is the travelogue. The newspaper ends up more black than white and shows another way to read between the lines.

Yes, that’s the full report.

The New Yorker:

“The poems in this book exist thanks to petty crime, writer’s block, and the Internet.” Or so says Austin Kleon at the beginning of his inventive new book of poems, “Newspaper Blackout.” In fact, Kleon found a way around all three problems. He borrows, but doesn’t steal. He’ll never have to face the terror of a blank page again. And his poems, created by blacking out pages of the newspaper with permanent marker, leaving only running puddles of text still visible, resurrect the newspaper when everyone else is declaring it dead. The poems themselves are like a cross between magnetic refrigerator poetry and enigmatic ransom notes, funny and zen-like, collages of found art (to find their verse alter-ego, the white-out poem, look back at Thessaly’s post on Wave Books). In his introduction, Kleon nods toward a distinguished history of re-purposed newspapers, describing the word games of a bored eighteenth-century wine merchant and the experiments of the Dadaists. But his latest newspaper blackout poems, which can be found on his Web site, actually look more toward the future: they’re made on the iPad. Below, some of my favorites from the book. [six slides]

Kleon’s done more homework than Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn, that article’s author!

The Wall Street Journal:

Austin Kleon takes a kind of Rorschach approach to reading newspapers: he sees interesting words within the larger ink-on-paper dispatches about health care reform or the war on terrorism, and creates poems by using a magic marker to isolate them. Kleon’s so-called “Blackout Poems” have been featured on NPR, and are now in a new book, “Newspaper Blackout” (Harper Perennial). Speakeasy asked the Austin-based writer and cartoonist to work his magic with a few articles that appeared in the Wall Street Journal [there is no link to these articles]. You can check out the results in a slideshow.

Another slideshow. What was it Marshall McLuhan said about the medium?

PBS NewsHour:

The Guardians of Our Culture!

Besides being agonizingly brief, these respective articles and reports do nothing to present Kleon’s work in any historical context—nor do they say much of anything about his book. They are not illuminating. They are not critical. They are not investigative. They are not all that edifying. They are all just ads.

Well, that’s contemporary journalism for you (“repost the press release”). Kleon’s correct to scribble it all out.

Returning to my central point: It’s a curious property of the human brain that once we learn something, we expect everyone else to know it, too. So, after having heard about A Humument, it’s easy to assume—mistakenly—that everyone else on the planet’s familiar with it. What’s more, it’s easy to assume that we’ve always known about it, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said something like, “I’ve always felt that Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackout is a cute book”—even when my eternal thought concerns a think I learned about yesterday. And this erroneous line of thinking can be taken further still: covering over found texts to make new ones is “Tom Phillips’s idea,” and anyone who’s done anything like it since 1970  “has been influenced by” A Humument. Well, that’s simply, demonstrably untrue.

There’s nothing so unique about using reduction to make new texts that it couldn’t be independently invented numerous times by numerous people. Indeed, there are other recent, famous reductive works that could themselves have inspired Kleon—for instance, Jen Bervin’s Nets (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004), which are reductions of Shakespeare’s sonnets:

I stripped Shakespeare’s sonnets bare to the ‘nets’ to make the space of the poems open, porous, possible—a divergent elsewhere. When we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, pre-inscribed in the white of the page; when we read or write poems, we do it with or against this palimpsest.

And Raymond Queneau, co-founder of the Oulipo, proposed and demonstrated decades ago a technique known as “haikuization.” Here’s one teacher’s explanation of it:

  1. Select a piece of writing.
  2. For each line, replace it with only one, two, or three words, either from the end or the beginning of the line. Decide on the number depending on how long the piece of writing’s lines are, and stick to that number.
  3. For example, if a line of a piece of writing is:
    I called up my sister and she started to chew me out.
    Replace it with the following:
    Chew me out.
  4. Repeat until end of piece of writing.

(I’ve found differing accounts of precisely when Queneau proposed haikuization, but he seems to have done so no later than 1965. And there’s a better [much more poetic] description of the method in Warren F. Motte’s indispensable Oulipo Primer (1998) but I, stupidly, seem to have dispensed with my copy.)

Furthermore, as we’ve already seen, Tom Phillips himself was inspired by William Burroughs—and Burroughs learned the cut-up technique from Brion Gysin. Gysin supposedly invented the technique on his own:

While cutting a mount for a drawing in room No. 15 [of the Beat Hotel], I sliced through a pile of newspapers with my Stanley blade and thought of what I had said to Burroughs some six months earlier about the necessity for turning painters’ techniques directly into writing. I picked up the raw words and began to piece together texts that later appeared as “First Cut-Ups” in Minutes to Go. At the time I thought them hilariously funny and hysterically meaningful. I laughed so hard my neighbors thought I’d flipped. I hope you may discover this unusual pleasure for yourselves—this short-lived but unique intoxication. Cut up this page you are reading and see what happens. See what I say as well as hear it. (Gysin and Weiss 126)

I believe Gysin, too (even though there’s clear precedent for it in various works made by the Dadaists).

Well, lots of folks were using chance-based collage techniques in the 1950s and 60s, and lots of folks applied those techniques to visual texts. For instance, there are the well-known décollages of the Fluxus artist Wolf Vostell, about which art critic John A. Walker writes:

For Wolf Vostell “décollage” meant more than merely tearing, overpainting and burning posters: it signified the destruction associated with human behaviour (e.g. car crashes) and the dissolution inherent in life itself. In response to this insight, he devised a series of mixed-media, chaotic destructive events which he called “Décoll/age-Happenings”. He also edited a magazine entitled Décoll/age which featured his own work and that of his Fluxus colleagues.

A décollage by Wolf Vostell (year unknown).

Another Vostell décollage (1971).

But although Vostell did a lot to popularize the form, he didn’t “invent” décollage. (In the spirit of the form, let’s keep tearing away until we find what’s underneath.) Again, from Walker’s article:

Raymond Hains, a French photographer, began collecting torn posters in Paris in 1949; later he was joined by Jacques de la Villeglé.

Jacques de la Villeglé and Raymond Hains, "Ach Alma Manétro" (1949). (They named the piece after the only words that remained fully visible in it.)

Their work intrigued “another Frenchman, Francois Dufrêne”; in 1959, he began exploring “the reverse sides of posters.” And “Two Italians—Mimmo Rotella and Alberti Moretti—also became affichistes independently of the French during the 1950s, as did the German Wolf Vostell (he was in Paris in the mid ’50s).”

And well before any of that:

Léo Malet, a surrealist, claims to have originated the idea of décollage in 1934.

But even here, we might argue that this idea is not particularly new. After all, décollage is a variation of collage, and collage has been around since at least the start of the 20th Century. (It is, according to some arguments, the dominant idea in 20th Century art.) And no less a source than the MoCA (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) reports that:

It has been said that Picasso’s and Braque’s inspiration for Cubist collage came from the layers of advertising posters that first blanketed Paris during the early twentieth century.

What’s more:

Décollage [...] occurs spontaneously in cities when layers of posters are defaced or weathered.

In other words—it just happens! Interestingly, these observations point out the technique’s mimetic aspect; in  this view, collage becomes a means of realistically rendering the urban landscape. (Take that, James Wood!) In much the same spirit, John A. Walker notes that:

The peeling, torn or lacerated posters found on walls and hoardings in major cities have fascinated a number of European artists in the twentieth century. These damaged surfaces exposing several layers of fragmented, jumbled images and words were removed and collected by certain artists and included in exhibitions of the Nouveau Réalisme movement during the early ’60s at which time they were praised by the critic Pierre Restany.

So perhaps Austin Kleon, wandering the boulevards of Austin, observed some peeling concert flyers. Perhaps he glimpsed some newspapers that had been colored on by children. Or perhaps he was inspired by the Bush Administration’s fondness for heavily redacting government documents. … Actually, he claims in the above NewsHour video that he got the idea while staring at some papers in the trash. Which might be the best place to read them: certainly his poems can be seen as comments on the lack of substance in most newspapers these days.

Update: A Coda

Humans must have an innate urge to deface. To bring us back round to Magic: The Gathering: several players and artists involved with that game have been modifying its cards for decades (yes, decades: Magic is nearly eighteen years old):

Excuse me now while I go vandalize some of Davis Schneiderman’s posts. Ciao!

Update 11 May 2011:

For more on altered Magic art, see the second half of this video (starting around 12:45):

(Thanks, Elf, for that link!)

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15 thoughts on “Art as Inheritance, part 2: Making New Art Appear as Old Text Disappears (as if by Magic!)

  1. Pingback: A Guide to My Writing Here at Big Other « BIG OTHER

  2. I’ll say, as a bookstore clerk, that both Kleon’s book and Safran-Foer’s recent book came in being marketed as innovative new works.

    I found this infuriating because the technique is standard-issue creative writing (at least for poets) technique, really one of the first silly “alt” practices taught (I don’t mean to deride it by saying that). A dude in Colorado did one for the 9/11 Commission Report, unfortunately I can’t recall his name.

    These Magic cards look pretty cool, much more interesting than either Kleon or S-F. None ever really compare to The Humument, though; they generally feel weak, lacking in inspiration, or just a fun little side-project.

    • Hi Alex,

      I find it infuriating, too, although I expect advertising to be deceptive. They’re just trying to sell the product; there’s no reason why anyone should trust marketers.

      What bothers me more is when reporters and news agencies don’t do their homework, and just parrot the promoters. They should know better. Somewhere along the line, posting a press release at a blog became acceptable journalism. I don’t know how that happened, but it’s an unfortunate turn of events, and should be stopped (and criticized whenever it happens). (Conversely, good, critical, investigative journalism should be praised to the sky.)

      What makes me despair the most, though, is when literature professors make this mistake. I once had a conversation with an English professor who thought Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves the most innovative new book she’d seen. It quickly became apparent that she had never read Borges or any concrete poetry. (Indeed, she hadn’t read much of anything, as far as I could tell—besides ads for House of Leaves.) Makes one wonder…

      Cheers,
      Adam

      • Thanks for your reply, Adam

        I also expect that sort of thing from marketers, to an extent, but a great book marketer could also place a book in a lineage and show they know their stuff. I guess in certain cases, though, the book doesn’t really offer much to a reader and so the marketer has to prime an audience with some snake oil.

        There’s so much great, little-known work out in the world that it’s impossible to be familiar with all of it. All the same, the internet made it easier to find this stuff and just as easy to ask others who may be in the know. So I completely agree with you re: lazy journos.

      • I hope that professor is not a 20th-centuryist… well, I guess the journalists do what they do… but you’re right when you see it go on in the academy. That really shouldn’t fly.

        The Magic and newspaper erasures seem like great examples of a “populist” conceptualism — like doing a you-tube mash-up. The appropriative impulse is alive and well these days.

        Speaking of advertising — I like how Quirk Classics claims to be “the home of the original literary mash-up”:

        http://www.quirkclassics.com/index.php?q=node/1

        Do you think they’ve ever read Burroughs? Or Oulipo?

        • On some level, I don’t think it really matters whether someone has heard of Burroughs of the Oulipo. That’s what it means for the principle or technique to be alive in the culture: it becomes detached from its origin (which may be only one popular instance of its expression).

          “Dude, there’s this guy who wrote a novel without using the letter e.”
          “Oh, wow; I’m going to adapt that idea to my own ends.”

          And neither one of these persons has ever read Gadsby, or knows who Ernest Vincent Wright is!

          • Sure, sure.

            But to adapt an idea which has travelled for your own ends is one thing, and to have the chutzpah to say you are “the home of the original ________” is another.

            At least do it in a clever way — like Oulipo’s concept of “anticipatory plagiarism.” Hey, did they ever claim Ernest Vincent Wright as an anticipatory plagiarist?

            • Oh, I agree!

              Most people who claim to be the origin of anything are usually wrong.

              I have never seen the Oulipo say anything about EVW, but I’ve also never really looked. No doubt it’s been pointed out to them. In their defense, they’ve always acknowledged that the lipogram (and many of their techniques) are old, if not ancient, ideas. Which they are.

              Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History is simply loaded with dozens of examples of conceptual literature stretching back to antiquity.

  3. Hi there,

    I’m Adam, and I made the M:tG blackout poems in question. Thanks for the kind words! I wanted to clarify a few things…

    Yeah, I used scans of the cards, rather than the cards themselves. I don’t have that many cards to begin with, and I wanted to be able to have a second chance if I accidentally blacked out the wrong words.

    I thought about using photoshop to draw over color scans of the cards (or, you know, images of cards I found on the internet), but ultimately decided against it. For me, at least, using a brush marker on paper ended up being faster and more precise (especially since I don’t have a tablet).

    There was, for sure, an aesthetic element to my decision to use black and white—who can resist the weirdo dithering patterns that come out of an inkjet?—but mostly I just didn’t want to use up all my expensive color ink.

    If the M:tG pieces struck you as “hasty,” then, well, you’re right. I made them in the context of a “poem-a-day” challenge (documented here: http://filthyditty.posterous.com/)—it was late in the day and I still hadn’t come up with an idea, so I took my cards and threw them in the scanner. The whole thing took about an hour from initial scan to blog post. I’m glad the pieces found an audience, but I would never make a claim that they’re anything more than exercises.

    I wrote that I was “inspired” by Kleon’s work because it had been in the blogosphere lately, and it had grabbed the imagination of a few of my students. I’m surprised to learn that Kleon didn’t know about (or had disregarded) “A Humument”—though I’m not surprised that the connection between Kleon’s work and the precedents you mention went unnoticed by the mainstream press.

    -a

    • Thanks for the comments, Adam, and for clarifying some points! I hope it was clear above that I rather like your poems. The one you made from the card Join the Ranks, for instance, is particularly brilliant: “white houses are notorious in the wilderness.” That’s a wonderful short poem, and it actually took me a few reads before I realized the multiple meanings lurking in “white houses” (due to the plural, I think).

      You made me want to pull out my own Magic cards, plus a magic marker.

      Cheers,
      Adam

  4. Pingback: Magic & Writing & Me | HTMLGIANT

  5. Pingback: A Guide to My Writing Here at Big Other (reposted) « BIG OTHER

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