Friday, February 17, 2012

History of the Book.1

I first started making altered books during a cold, gray winter in Bellingham. The town of Bellingham is as northwest as you can get without stepping into Canada, so there you go: imagine the bleakness. My room was a sublet and filled with objects that weren’t my own. There was a shelf with some decorative bones, and one day I found a femur in my bed. Soon after, my pillow vanished for several days before reappearing. I thought maybe I had a poltergeist. Also, though, I was smoking a lot of weed.

I’d found a wallet in a grocery store parking lot and quickly spent the ten-dollar bill inside it. I then failed to return the wallet, and it sat in that room for way too long. I looked at it sometimes, peripherally, and wondered if it was cursed. It held pictures of its owner, who was ex-military, posing with muscles flexed. He looked scary, and grew more so the longer I waited. The wallet also held a membership card to the food co-op, which I later realized was my ticket out of showing up at his front door. When I handed it to the hippies at the co-op’s counter, they made some magical motions with their hands and wished me good karma.

Still, there was something sinister beyond that room: the whole house was decorated a bit like The Shining. The roommates were each on their own very different trip: The eerily silent hardcore dude. The good-natured Ren-fairer who made chain mail.  The aspiring 1950s hostess who had taken riot-grrrl irony way to seriously. Each of these people had an unreadable interior. Each of them deserves a much longer character study that would fast veer into fiction. Each could have easily been fucking with me.

Anyway, this was the setting where I first started taking books apart and putting them back together. It’s funny, now that I write it out like this, because it seems like such a reflection of my surroundings at that point. Things were showing up where they didn’t belong. Problems were being transmuted rather than solved. And on some level, the whole situation echoed what was going on in my head. I was still in the closet then, and I think some obscure agent of my brain must have been devising an escape plan. Experimenting with new narratives—pieced together from old ones—seems now like an apt area in which to be working.

On a more practical level, materials were abundant. There were bottomless free boxes outside the public library and Michael’s Books. Aladdin’s Antiques had old photographs for a nickel (this was back before such things became an art-student commodity). I couldn’t help but take these treasures home: well-worn paperback covers with scenes of interplanetary colonization; fortuitous doubles of women holding cats; dreamlike photos of laser projections on a canyon wall. Themes would arise in the midst of digging, then morph or develop as I spread my finds out on that weird little room’s shag carpet. One of the books I made, I named Recipes: Incubus, Succubus, Poltergeist.* 

I’m trying to remember now how I came to feel like I knew what I was doing. My bindings were simplistic and intuitive, mostly figured out from having learned to sew patches onto things. The collage elements I’d absorbed, I think, from album art, as well as from exchanging mail art and from reading and making zines. The biggest specific influence I can remember is my friend, Stephanie Pierce, who I’d spent the previous year palling around with in Asheville, North Carolina. When she’d showed me the books she made out of trash, something clicked.

That’s why it’s weird, now, when I look at the Wikipedia page for altered books: a disproportionate number of the artists listed there are from Washington state. So maybe the geist I was being haunted by wasn’t so much polter as zeit. This, I should remind you, was a time before the Internet, and I was oblivious. It’s hard not to feel nostalgic, though, as I sit here, a glassy-eyed Internet addict. Like I had access to something more unquantifiable then. Was this chance? I think it was. Chance is when one image just happens to lay on another. Thank god for those last oblivious days of chance.

Click here for Part 2!

*An unconsciously perfect title. The incubi, now that I think of it, were making themselves just as known as the poltergeist.  My friend, who I had an unacknowledged crush on, spent the night on the living room couch and complained of experiencing sleep paralysis—the ghost that sits on your chest. But in my memory now, I clearly had the same experience myself. I was sleeping on the couch (But why? Was I trying to escape the ghost in my room?), and awoke feeling terrified and unable to move. What makes this memory so vivid, though, is that it’s connected to another one: hearing the eerily silent hardcore dude come home drunk and talk more than I’d ever thought possible. He and his friend laughed as they took some meat out of the freezer and tried to cook it. I wonder now: is this something I really experienced? I’ve never had sleep paralysis anywhere else—although my friend, who was asthmatic, had. There is an image I used in Recipes: Incubus, Succubus, Poltergeist, that when I think of it now, was a signpost on my way out of the closet: a naked man asleep, his cock and balls on display. I don’t remember now where I found this picture, but there was power in it—a pre-Internet kind of power, right? I had barely missed the Mukilteo Fairies when I moved to Bellingham. 

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