273 Relics for John Cage

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Installing the book.

So how does one install a book?

This installation is only one instance of 273 Relics for John Cage. The book is present and the book is an object — to be touched and handled. To spend time with the book: so the special tables elevate it (39 inches from the floor), making it easy to view, giving it an honorary position.

30 images were extracted from the process as a slow 30-minute projection, and two audio recordings of the 52 texts (ordered randomly) are on the headphones. And Relic 241 is there, leaning back — kind of like a spectator to the whole thing.

These events form a particular instance of the project, as it was installed in North Carolina on October 7. But the project is alive, and I imagine other permutations are possible — I like to think that a future installation might produce different works, different configurations. What if all 160 photographs could be installed. Scattered on the floor, leaning against different walls. A giant, immersive video projection, in a darkened room. And the beautiful Untitled Pixels, which didn’t even make it into this installation (there wasn’t room).

Within a few hours, one of the books (#1) had been taken. It’s a small edition of 10, so this came as a surprise, but then I loved that its new owner, unknown by me, had chance determined something entirely new for the work. In an almost Cage-ian move, the disappearance is now part of the work. I gave book #2 to Beverly Plummer. Book #3 will be sent to the John Cage Trust, and #4 will be donated to the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center.

273 Relics for John Cage, the book, represents each part of the project, but it also is the project. The book is an index — it’s both a catalogue of the work, and the work itself. I hope to produce a second, larger edition soon.

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Ink and paper

I don’t want to handle the books or open them wide, for fear I’ll break the spines, etc. But I did open one long enough to take some photos, which I’ve added to the project page. The only thing missing now is the photographic print, and the tables. Both will be ready just before I leave for North Carolina on Wednesday.

I spent some time at the New York Art Book Fair at PS1@MoMA last night and I’ll go back for a closer look. An unbelievable amount of awe-inspiring work, a crazy-beautiful output of ink and paper on display. And my own mixed reaction — reassured to know there’s a potential audience for what I’m doing, but more than a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of finding it.

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Untitled pixel

Individual pixels of solid color from 273 Relics for John Cage. Each one was selected via chance operations out of 12 million, from the photograph of John Cage’s mushroom-collecting basket. Hand-mixed inks match the RGB values (as close as the printer could get), then printed on Mohawk 100 lb. cover (20″ x 26″). Six different editions of 10 each. This one is Untitled pixel (relic 243). Thinking about identifying each with an x-y coordinate.

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Moving pictures

273 Relics for John Cage (A Likeness Is an Aid to Memory) from Paul Soulellis on Vimeo.

It only took about 12 solid hours, but I somehow figured out how to produce a 30-minute HD digital video. In some ways Apple has made this process super easy with iMovie ’11, but the device/color/quality output options are completely bewildering and require a crash course in the history of digital audio-visual compression (plus lots of Apple hardware technical specs and a few visits to the Apple store).

Anyway, I couldn’t be happier. This is a slow-scale, full-screen, meditative work. It’s something to enter on your own terms. It’s a 30-minute presentation of the relics (30 of them), each one dissolving into the next. I’m absolutely in love with the dissolves — they add an entirely new dimension to the work, as the relics are juxtaposed (a bit like a slow page-turn in the book, but different). And within each dissolve is a secondary kind of animation — the pixels shimmer and quiver as they move from frame to frame.

There’s no audio, but this will be projected at a large scale in the gallery space while I’m performing the 52 texts. Audio from my visit to the John Cage Trust will also be playing, sometimes distracting from my spoken words, other times barely audible.

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A canvas is never empty

The book is out of my hands now and I’m beginning the process of producing some pieces for the installation. This is a photographic archival pigment print of Relic #241. I knew I wanted a large print of one of the pixel extractions, so I used chance operations to select 20 and then tell me what the long dimension should be for each, from 7″ (avoiding prints that would be smaller than the book) to 60″ (the width of the paper roll). Relic 241 was the largest, so this is what I’m printing for the installation.

It measures 21.5″ x 25.5″. It’s a half-size proof; the final print will be 43″ x 51″. It appears in the book as a 5″ x 7″ image in a spread paired with Relic 240 (see below), so the change in scale is dramatic.

When the printer called yesterday to tell me the proof was ready I could hear some doubt in her voice, so I ran over to West 52nd. We talked for awhile about what we were seeing (and not seeing), my intentions, the technology, things she could do to bring out more detail, etc. And I’ve been staring at and thinking about this print now for almost 24 hours. We’ll start the gigantic print on Monday.

While I love the book, it’s important for me to circle back to the photograph now. The essence of this project is photographic. I began with the photograph, and I find myself now, again at the photograph.

And while everything about this process has been digital, I’m interested now in the non-virtual artifacts that are being generated. Actual books, real prints, live readings.

What we’re looking at here is an extremely close crop of the single 12-megapixel photograph of the mushroom basket I took at the John Cage Trust at exactly 10:15 am on August 22, 2011. The crop is an extraction of 1,548 pixels (a grid of 36 x 43), generated by chance operations on September 1, 2011. But beyond these facts, the technical reality, the print asks more perplexing questions.

is it a photograph?
is it photographic?
does it depict?
does it refer?
does it demand?
is it empty?
what is the space of this image?
what is its narrative?
what does it carry?

I fear these questions and the gigantic print that’s coming my way (in a good way). They’re forcing me to confront some basic questions about how I’ve designed in the past, how I create art today, and the relevance of creating this story.

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Obtain photographic records which no longer look like photographs of something

I picked up John Cage’s “X: Writings ’79–’82″ today at Spoonbill. A gorgeous book for a lot of reasons, and a few specific surprises. First of all, the book is

“illustrated fortuitously by twelve photographs made at my request by Paul Barton of twelve weathered images on the Siegel Cooper Building, first balcony level (eight images on the Avenue of the Americas, two on 18th Street, two on 19th Street, New York City). I call them Weather-ed I-XII. I did nothing to make them the way they are. I merely noticed them. They are changing, as are the sounds of the traffic I also enjoy as each day I look out the window.”

The images appear to be degraded photocopies, or to have gone through some kind of process to take away any representational quality. They’re beautiful, and I wonder what kind of life, if any, they had outside of this book.

But most astonishing was my discovery of a passage on page 92, within the work “James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet,” describing a book project — a kind of dictionary based on photography. Cage has lifted Duchamp’s writing here, I think, from Á l’infinitif (The White Box), 1967:

“Dictionary — With films, taken close up, of parts of very large objects, obtain photographic records which no longer look like photographs of something. With these semi-microscopics constitute a dictionary of which each film would be the representation of a group of words in a sentence or separated so that this film would assume a new significance or rather after the concentration on this film of the sentences or words chosen would give a form of meaning to this film and that, once learned, this relation between film and meaning translated into words would be “striking” and would serve as a basis for a kind of writing which no longer has an alphabet or words but signs (films) already freed from the “baby talk” of all ordinary languages. — Find a means of filing all these films in such order that one could refer to them as in a dictionary.”

As though Duchamp is speaking to me, through Cage, and proposing a project for me to do — as I’m doing it.

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Two different ways to mock-up

Installation studies. On the screen, at the fabricator.

And by the way, what a fabricator. Tim Spelios is a furniture/fixture/cabinet-maker with Donald Judd-like craftsmanship.

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Book object

A name change. I liked “JC273″ but the longer name feels better as a title for the project. And this morning I realized why — “273 Relics for John Cage” is precise and accurate. I like the explicitness. The book is just a reliquary to hold all 273 relics (texts, photo extractions, and yes, blank pages), and the name reflects this simplicity.

Now, after uploading the book files to the printer, I’m starting to think about which relics to realize at a larger scale. And as they’re selected and produced (a single gigantic digital print, a series of screen prints), each one will take on the “JC + number” structure. Following this logic, JC273 would be the last relic, which in fact is a blank page.

And I really love this logic. It’s a system that’s revealing itself to me as the process unfolds (“a series of actions”).

“A likeness is an aid to memory” is one of my favorite phrases from Aristotle’s On Memory and Recollection, and makes several appearances within the texts of “273 Relics for John Cage.” Aristotle’s full passage refers to the exact process of remembering, as an act of imagination. Memory as the internal production of an image, which is both an object of contemplation in itself and a mental picture of something else. Aristotle asks:

“What does one actually remember?

Is what one remembers the present affection, or the original from which it arose? If the former, then we could not remember anything in its absence; if the latter, how can we, by perceiving the affection, remember the absent fact which we do not perceive? If there is in us something like an impression or a picture, why should the perception of just this be memory of something else and not of itself? For when one exercises his memory this affection is what he considers and perceives. How, then, does he remember what is not present? This would imply that one can also see and hear what is not present. But surely in a sense this can and does occur. Just as the picture painted on the panel is at once a picture and a portrait, and though one and the same, is both, yet the essence of the two is not the same, and it is possible to think of it both as a picture and as a portrait, so in the same way we must regard the mental picture within us both as an object of contemplation in itself and as a mental picture of something else. In so far as we consider it in itself, it is an object of contemplation or a mental picture, but in so far as we consider it in relation to something else, e.g., as a likeness, it is also an aid to memory.”