December 2006

Elliott David

art slut

Finally, Buzz Spector

Preface: This isn’t going to be good enough

You’re all book fuckers. Me too. And the lot of us deviants, reading-off in public: on a train, in a café, on a park bench, next to a non-consenting sleeper begging you to turn off your bedside lamp.

Erect spines and spread leg pages, the gentle pinch and pull at page’s nipple tip -- not too hard; just enough to get it excited and moving on its own, rolling over so you can have a go from the backside. Open a book wide, slide your thumb in the crease and hold it up to your face; or leave it sprawled open on its back, posing, insides exposed, while you masturbate your insatiable desires for legible narratives, letting the words massage deep your rhetoric gland: hands-free climax at the sentence level. Let’s not even get into Braille.

As much as I’d love to claim the reading :: fucking analogy as my own, it’s entirely piggybacked from sculptor, archivist, book artist, curator, educator and essayist Buzz Spector:

The topography of an open book is explicit in its erotic associations: sumptuous twin paper curves that meet in a recessed seam. Page turning is a series of gentle, sweeping gestures, like the brush of fingers on a naked back. Indeed, the behavior of readers has more in common with the play of intimacy than with the public decorum of art viewing or music listening. Most of us read lying down or seated and most of us read at least partially unclothed. We dress up to go out and look at art; undressed, in bed, we read. We seek greater comfort while reading than the furnishings of museum or concert halls will ever grant us. When we read -- the conventional distance between eye and page is around fourteen inches -- we often become the lectern that receives the book: chest, arms, lap, or thighs. This proximity is the territory of embrace, of possession; not to be entered without permission. (“The Fetishism of the Book Object,” The Book Maker’s Desire)

It’s seriously one of my favorite things: when a writer (artist/speaker/whoever) alters forever an everyday, in-your-face anything with an unforeseen connotation; specifically when it’s done with the right combination of eloquence, precision, wit, and veracious tone that makes you feel like you’ve known it all along. Then you’re all, No Shit and Holy Shit at the same time. I like to call it A New Obviousness, but that’s probably too generous.

And that’s Spector’s speciality: taking existing things and contorting, destroying, cutting, cropping, cascading -- or whatever gerund he needs to create most efficient recontextualization of internal and/or external content re: his intended aesthetic concept.
And, for the most part, the things are books. (You love books.)

They’re books in the No Shit sense: pages bound by a cover. That’s a book. Easy.

And Spector’s treatment of the book ranges from the straightforward presentation of books as information carriers to a Duchampian objectification of one of humankinds most prevailing inventions, closely followed by the toilet (already covered by El Champ).

Many if not most of his exhibitions and art instillations involve books -- his own or an archive made accessible to him/his tastes. In 1987, in an exhibition titled Double Meanings installed at the Randolph St. Gallery in Chicago, Spector lined the gallery walls with bookshelves filled from his personal collection; on the floor, he stacked 4,500 randomly gathered used books in the form of a sixteen-foot long staircase. With their spines hidden, the books essentially became building blocks or bricks, reminiscent of the work of Carl Andre.

At San Diego State University, he created the Walter Benjamin inspired instillation “Unpacking My Library” where he lined up all the books in his library, from tallest to shortest, along a single bookshelf in “a room large enough to hold them.”

His photographic work includes the self-explanatory “All The Books In My Library. By Or About Dieter Roth,” “My Poetry,” "(All the Books in my Library) by or About Ann Hamilton." In many of these large-scale Polaroids, the spines are hidden and you have to take his word for it. But it’s not about Spector’s possessions; it’s about denying the book its structure, putting to focus the information (once) within, now gone (?), absorbed by someone’s mind (!).

Then there are instillations like “Malevitch: with 8 red rectangles” where books are treated more like how Rachel Whiteread treats concrete.

But these are all conceptual sculptures, individual art works long disassembled, returned to the shelves in Spector’s home or some gallery basement.

We want what we can have, and we can have books.

And so books you shall fuck.

The following are books published by or on the behalf of Spector, and, if price is not an issue, you might be able to get yourself a copy to take home and rape:

A Passage, 1994, Granary Books

Spector is a book manipulator, and of his body of book alterations, A Passage is perhaps the greatest. I’ve said it many times to many people, so I’ll say it again: this is my favorite book in existence. It the most gorgeous book I’ve ever had the privilege to pet. Unlike some of his other altered works, where the books were not his own (see: his mutation of Ed Ruscha’s They Call Her Styrene) A Passage is a book Spector had printed explicitly to transform. Spector collaborated with archivist and ambassador of the avant, Steve Clay at Granary Books to print a deep blue Victorian bound book of 362 pages, each with the same passage: p. 181: a meta- or non-fiction about an author who creates altered books, and a visitor who tells him a story of a Rabbi and the true meaning of visual comprehension.

Spector then meticulously tore each page out -- thought not the page in its entirety: the first page he tore near the spine, then each subsequent page he tore at a gradual increment nearing the far edge of the page, leaving the last couple pages of text in tact. The result is a five-sided object: the top cover meets the bottom at a right-triangled point. Both book and text resemble cuneiform: a volume in wedge, a text in code. Spector did an edition of 48 books. Which means he hand-tore approximately 17,000 pages, each with its own delicate intent.

To read A Passage, to open its front cover and look at the sloped square of text-space -- it’s like looking directly into the middle of the book, or looking right through the thing, like reading hundreds of pages at once. Since all the pages contained the same text, and were therefore once visually identical, there is a resultant phenomena of a suggestive language. But you don’t want to read it. All you want to do is touch. So smooth. You can almost feel Spector’s calculated fingers: the terrain of the soft edges, fingerprints of a tireless artist.

Silence: A Synopsis, 1992

A volume of a couple hundred pages, spread and left open: this book is wide, its wingspan some three and a half feet. Always open, the pages arch up and out from the spine, curved. To sit and stare at it is like watching a seabird coast in an air-current, some silent wind keeping it afloat and pristine white. Pristine: every page is blank. And along the spine, balanced between open, white pages: a glass cast of Spector’s tongue.

It’s a simple concept communicated simply, enjoyable and admirable in its simplicity. It’s a modest, eloquent use of the printed page: left alone, empty. The beauty of the blank pages alone will forever change the way you look -- now yearningly -- at margins.

Details: Closed to Open, 2001 / Beautiful Scenes: Selections from the Cranbrook Archives, 1998

Not all of Spector’s book art involves the book as object.  Keep in mind that Spector is a sculptor, a collector, a culture collagist. He’s been invited to many archives, given carte blanche to assemble an exhibition of whatever he pleases. Kind of like how post-scratch DJ Madlib was invited to the Blue Note’s vaults, dudes with their hands thrown up all do-whatever-you-want, and he created the phenomenal cut-up after-jazz album Shades of Blue that would make Burroughs tie off and tap his arm in rhythm, looking for a horse to saddle.

Beautiful Scenes directly accompanies its exhibition slash occasion. There are pictures from the instillation, an introduction, a fantastic essay by Jonathan Fineberg, and a series of Spector collages. The collages read like a David Lynch survey of the 1920s. But, if anything, the book induces a regret: a nostalgia for a show never seen.

Whereas Details is its own entity. It is a book that resulted from an exhibition Spector created from the Swarthmore College Peace Collection’s 25,000 photos of protests, vigils, demonstrations, etc. But the book is not an extension of the exhibition. It is a series of close-up images of hands, cropped by Spector from the massive database of pictures: from fist to palm, as you go through the book, the hands gradually bloom open, like in preparation for a handshake, or the dropping of a gun. It’s not only a powerful statement on Anti-militarization and pacifism, but a collection of visually compelling black-and-whites.

Unpacking My Library, 1995

We went over this already, but I didn’t mention that there was a book version of it. To reiterate (just in case you forgot and don’t feel like up-scrolling): For an exhibition at San Diego State University, Spector lined up every book in his library, from tallest to shortest, along a single bookshelf  “in a room large enough to hold them.” The accompanying book is a single, accordion’ing fold-out. It folds out and out and out. His is a big library. The book is fun and impressive in many ways. It’s also obtainable.

These are just a couple: maybe the best, definitely the most accessible (with exception Passage and Silence). The Spector quote above (now it’s time to scroll) -- the one about book fucking -- is taken from The Book Maker’s Desire, a collection of essays by Spector -- that’s a great book, and a book as we know it. And like all respectable conceptual artists, Spector can effectively and compellingly defend and define his work. But it’s not easy to find. None of this is.

There is a sad and astonishing encyclopedic absence of Spector’s ouvre. He is (easily) arguably the most significant artist -- and still alive -- and working -- with the least accessible information (outside of the brains of emeritus professors and art historians over the age of 45). It’s a piss poor ratio all his own. Try to look him up. Check glossaries and Google. At best you’ll find an image or two with a couple blurbs and quotes, all gathered by the galleries who have exhibited his work, and self-representation doesn’t count as (due) respectful proclamation of talent.

The man is responsible for some of the most significant rhetoric and aesthetic demonstrations that define book ecology, and there isn’t even a fucking Wikipedia entry on him.

But Spector’s no Lee Bontecou: he didn’t intentionally remove himself from the art world. If anything, he solidified his deserved stature when he accepted his current position of Chair of the Art Department at Cornell University (their website has a whopping 500 word profile).

(Speaking of word count, let me just take a second to note that the word "book" appears in this article 58 times, not counting the one inside this parenthetical.)

Spector is the co-founder (’78) of the magazine WhiteWalls, for which he served as editor until 1987. In his own words, WhiteWalls “is an experiment in synthesizing word-related interests of artists and poets, focusing on that interface where poetic metaphor merges with the more iconographic structure used in written conceptual art texts” (Introduction to Vol. 1, Issue 1). That issue contains a fantastic essay by Richard Kostelanetz “subjectively” (it’s pretty right on) defining visual poetry; also: writings from Dick Higgins, Ron Padgett, Barbara Guest, Ken Friedman, Lewis Warsh (!), etc. It’s very much the tits. Subsequent issues also positively rad.

Spector is the recipient of three National Endowments for the Arts fellowship awards that span nearly a decade (’82, ’85 and ’91) and in 2005 he received a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. But even still, Homey’s off the map. Despite his numerous accolades, professional stature, and international exhibitions: off the fucking map. I mean, this thing you’re reading, this simple adulation on my part -- it’s the most exhaustive profile on Spector that exists online. In terms of not online: it’s probably second to the Fineberg’s essay “Buzz Spector’s Lists,” which kicks the shit out of mine (Whatever. Different venues, tones, intentions -- plus: dude’s, like, a genius or something). Hence the preface.

And the answer, if it is one, is a result of the fact that the map’s gone digital. Spector works in books. Are you reading a book now? No, you’re reading your computer screen. You’re probably petting your keyboard or holding the mouse like a sleeping lover’s hipbone. Or your palms are rubbed together, shoved between your tight thighs, while you lean in closer to the glow.

I’ve got an idea: why don’t you push print, take this page into bed with you, get under the covers, and go to town. I won’t mind. Because once you’re finished, it won’t be a page at all. It will be something of your own, something endearing or embarrassing, something contextualized with your own experience. It won’t just be that thing it is, it’ll be that thing you turned it into. And that’s the best you’re going get out of life: taking what’s already there and staining it with some evidence that you were too.