Collaboration, by chance

Title page of the unique copy of stitching speechless created by the audience at the University of Richmond.










Artists' books lend themselves extremely well to collaboration.  My opinion is that it's because so many different skills are involved in creating one -- writing, image-making, graphic design, bookbinding, etc. -- that it provides fertile ground for people with different strengths to work together.  Regardless of why it's true, it's one of the things I love most about the genre.

So when I was planning a talk in conjunction with an exhibition of John Cage's art at the University of Richmond -- and especially considering Cage's own open, experimental spirit -- it seemed appropriate that it should include an element of collaboration with the audience.  After all, it was due to another collaboration that I had been invited to give the talk in the first place:  stitching speechless.

One page created by an audience member.
Stitching speechless is an artist's book in two editions that was a joint effort with Stephen Addiss, and in some respects, with Cage himself.  In Richmond my presentation would be about the decision-making process behind creating the editions -- from how the poems were composed, to selecting the most meaningful materials, to partially burning each page according to a sheet of randomized numbers created years before by Cage.

While doing research for the presentation I read about an instance when Cage involved his audience in the creation of a concert, and it clicked -- the most meaningful way to learn about creating a book would be to create a book.  (More after the photo...)

One of the stranger haiku in stitching speechless gets a delightfully strange treatment.
I decided to print and prepare beforehand all the pages necessary to create a new copy of stitching speechless.  Audience members would then be invited to make contributions by altering each page before I bound them together.  How they altered the pages would be determined by chance, using the same sheet of randomized numbers that Steve and I had used in creating the original edition.

When we made the original edition I altered the pages by burning parts of them with a match or with an incense stick.  We were quickly told that fire would not be an option in the gallery.  So I devised 3 new ways that people could contribute to the pages, each inspired by my teacher (Steve), his teacher (John Cage), or his teacher (Marcel Duchamp). 

Steve is a scholar of Zen art, so the method inspired by his work was for audience members to create an enso on the page.  Ensos are simple circular brushworks created by Zen monks and artists.  To avoid the mess of having people use calligraphy brushes to create their ensos, I gathered a number of different-sized objects with round rims which folks could ink up on an inkpad and then press onto the page. 

One page showing an enso and the effect of paper tearing.
One of John Cage's techniques for creating visual art was to take natural objects from local surroundings, place them on the page, and then paint or draw around them (see his New River Watercolors series).  For our second method of altering pages I followed his lead.  I gathered objects from outside my home in North Carolina as well as on the UR campus to mingle the two locales of the project.  Audience members would either trace those objects or draw something inspired by them using watercolor pencils.

This one is especially effective as you turn the page.
And finally, I have always loved the story of Marcel Duchamp's Three Standard Stoppages, in which he created new units of measurement by dropping three meter-long threads onto canvases and then cutting the canvas according to how the thread fell.  So for the third kind of alterations to stitching speechless, audience members would drop threads onto pages of the book, and we would tear the paper according to how the thread fell.

This was the most disturbing method of alteration.  But once we got over the initial shock of tearing the pages of a "precious" book, the mulberry paper's soft, feathering torn edges made up for it.  And once the pages were bound together at the end of the evening it appeared that no permanent harm was done -- just interesting effects as pages turned in new ways.

Despite the threat of chaos, we managed to alter all of the pages in a short amount of time.  I sewed the book up with a standard 4-hole stab binding while answering questions from the audience and in the end, together we had created a unique artist's book with multiple layers of inspiration from that particular time, place, and the people involved.