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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Mutilation of Books for Artistic Ends

When Logan asked me if I might have any books he could have, that would ultimately be mutilated for the cause of art, my response was: "Of course not." Nonetheless, he went on to find material for his piece “For I too shall receive my letter," currently installed in the art building stairway.

Serendipitously, someone provided me a link to work from another artist who mutilates books, Brian Dettmer -- though the mutilation takes the form of a kind of x-ray excavation. If books had minds of their own (not the minds lent them by their authors), they might cough up images like those produced by Dettmer, when caught up in scrambled indexical fever dreams.


  1. Thanks for the mention Chris! I've seen some of the works of Dettmer and other "book carvers" before and they are simply amazing. I would enjoy doing some more cleanly executed book modifications because this project was plenty fun, but conceptually lent it self to a more ragged approach.

  2. Sure thing, Logan. I got to see some Maya Lin book excavations when I was down in San Diego, earlier this year -- don't know if you've seen any of those. She uses atlases, and borrows her way down into them in shrinking concentric shapes: a map that eats its way through the maps. Really pleasing stuff.

  3. The playwright Joe Orton did some beautiful work defacing library books. (He used to steal them, "remake" them, then surreptiously return them to the library shelves and look forward to the moment when somebody would check them out.) It was a key development in his artistic development, too: according to his biographer, John Lahr, Orton found his voice as a writer while he was serving his prison sentence.

  4. Phil, thanks for the link, those are hilarious images. Funny to see all the defaced books are now held as a "collection" by the local History Centre.

    I wonder if Orton ever really witnessed someone unwittingly pull a modified book from the shelves, as he claims. Were there enough aficionados of Bentz Plagemann novels that you could profitably hang out in the Ps, and have someone come along in an hour?

    When I was considerably younger, I went through a period where I would write cryptic messages on rolls of toilet paper in public restrooms, so that the stall's next occupant would, unspooling the roll, be confronted with a vaguely accusatory question or a piece of off-kilter sub-fortune-cookie wisdom.

  5. In the service of sharing past tactics attempting to strike a blow... During my time at SFAI I explored a kind of note-speak with small objects.
    I was invited to a potluck gathering of writers in Santa Cruz. My dish was an antique silver platter holding sucked on pieces of apple core (with seeds intact) and folded notes pierced with an acupuncture-like needles. All of these were gently resting in a pool of wine.
    I think this comment is probably intruding on the chain of comments-

  6. J. -- how dare you intrude on a discussion of book vandalism with comments on cryptic culino-literary practices. The sheer gall!

  7. I accept the intrusion on the basis that presumably, someone, somewhere vandalizes cookbooks to look like food, thus bridging the gap between the conversations.


    On pages 10-12 of the PDF of this catalogue you'll see some of the work of John Eric Broaddus, who was a big book-tearer-upper.