Saturday, July 8, 2017

Simon Johnston | Fiction Fiction

Simon Johnston
Fiction Fiction
Los Angeles, USA: Verb Editions, 2016
256 pp., 5 x 7.75", clothbound
Edition of 128 numbered copies

The enormous influence of the Gysin/Burroughs/Tzara "Cut Up Poetry Method" (see below post) extended beyond poets, to include several authors (Julio Cortázar, Kathy Acker, etc.) and countless songwriters. David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Genesis P-Orridge, Michael Stipe, John Cale, Thurston Moore, and Kurt Cobain have all explored the technique in their writing. Thom Yorke of Radiohead is said to have written the bulk of the lyrics to the Kid A album using the approach. Bowie explains his process in a brief clip here, with what appears to be lines of coke on the table beside him.

Simon Johnston's Fiction Fiction makes the Cut-Up process literal and methodical. Johnston has produced a-hundred-and-twenty-eight new books, from a-hundred-and-twenty-eight old books. The originals - all sharing a similar size - were trimmed at their spines, shuffled and resequenced. Each new book contains a page from each of the different novels, maintaining consecutive page numbering. Only a colophon page, endpapers and a cover were added by the artist.

In the above spread, Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses flows into W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, from seventy-seven years earlier. "You didn't have to kill him" is answered with "Your attempts at sarcasm are not very happy".

Other source titles include Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show,  For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, and Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums (when asked about the Cut-Up technique of his friend and collaborator, Kerouac remarked "It's just an old Dada trick, and a kind of literary collage").

The relationship between the visual collage and the cut-up is often highlighted, and with it the blurring of the author and the artist. The method was popularized with the novels of William S Burroughs, but Burroughs cites Gysin as introducing him to the technique, and Gysin cites Dadaist Tristan Tzara, from thirty years prior. Gysin, who died in 1986, is better known as an artist (for the Dream Machine, primarily) than as an author.

Variations on the technique are often used in artists' books, many of which are hybridized titles of poetry or literature. With its jumbled narrative, Fiction Fiction may be digestible only to the most adventurous of readers, already familiar with, say, the writings of Walter Abish, the 'uncreative writing' of Kenneth Goldsmith, Doug Houston's Vast: An Unoriginal Novel, Fiona Banner's 'unreadable' epic The Nam, or Joseph Kosuth's Purloined.

Fiction Fiction is without the continuous narrative of Joseph Kosuth's Purloined (which formed a semi-coherent story, or at least continuous sentences) but its tactile quality more than compensates. The title becomes more about the various page stocks and typefaces than it does the appropriated text.

I'm reminded of Brian Eno's recent smart phone apps, which allow his 1970's experiments in generative music to be heard as they were intended, rather than the 20-minute excerpt that a vinyl record would allow at the time, or the 80 minute excerpt a CD could accommodate in the decades that followed. Each copy of Fiction Fiction is unique, with each of the pages appropriated, not just their content. In this way the book shares a history with Sally Alatalo's A Rearranged Affair, which reconfigured dime store romance novels in 1996.

The tactility of Fiction Fiction continues onto the cover. The clothbound book is available in two different colours of camouflage - forest or desert. That the title is a beautiful object is no surprise, given Johnston's day job as a designer for such titles as John Baldessari's recent multi-volume Catalogue Raisonné (see below).

Fiction Fiction is available for $50 from the publisher, here and here.

"I had the idea for Fiction Fiction over 20 years ago, but only recently made the books.[...] I am interested in setting up frameworks or systems, and then pouring material content into the frame to see what new chemistry happens. In this case the frame is works of fiction made from works of fiction. Messy nonsense narratives abound. I am also intrigued by time as a material and a medium. [...] I suppose you could say the interest in language relates to my design practice in the sense that I don’t think you can be a good typographer unless you care about language."

- Simon Johnston, interviewed by Ben Schwartz for the Walker Art Centre blog

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