And in a few days I go back to the Isle of Portland to present Portlander during the b-side arts festival (September 5–14).
We printed 3,000 copies with Newspaper Club and we’re distributing them at libraries and all of the festival venues. It’s 64 pages and contains countless photographs, artist submissions, text fragments, oral histories and links and connections to everyone I met on Portland in June.
I’m anxious. The last time I saw everyone there, the project was a mystery. It was still open, with all of the potential that anyone could imagine and hope for. Now, the attention will be directed away from me, away from them, onto the printed piece. I’ll be putting my work in their hands (an unplanned side-effect: Portlander is full of images of hands!). That materiality is powerful. We can all point to it and talk about it. It becomes the thing that’s seen, given, received, carried, admired, saved, remembered, forgotten, thrown away. It’s a container for emotion and thought and conversation.
So of course I worry about reactions and thoughts and conversations. How will it be received. A printed publication freezes time and space. There’s something inscrutable there in its ability to show us some things, to present subjective experience and culture, but to deny us others. There’s no way to really capture anything, and yet these projects attempt to do just that. The publication exists somewhere right there in the space between a yearning to understand and the disappointment of never getting there.
And that’s a lesson for me. I was aware of it from the moment I got to Portland. I’ve done a few of these projects. I try to get closer to a place by creating a thing that embodies personal experiences, relationships and community. I embed my self in another territory — in public — and to do it well, I have to sort of give up my own identity (I push it aside to absorb the lives of others). It’s exhausting work, but it works for me. Built into each of these projects is my leaving. I always leave.
But does it work for anyone else? Is it worth the effort to share? This is what I’ll be asking myself in England.
A free, public publication.
Artist Paul Soulellis will be in residence at Portland Tophill Library for the month of June to produce Portland Bill, a print-on-demand, community newsprint publication. Paul will gather material from Portland communities and design a multi-layered, diverse expression of local life and history. Portland Bill is a participatory publication—all material included will be contributed from residents of Portland and freely distributed back to our communities in September 2014.
Creative writing, essays, folklore, photography, drawings, maps, digital art, found material, poetry and recipes are all welcomed, but anything may be contributed to Portland Bill. Every effort will be made to include all submissions. Any resident of Portland may contribute—regardless of age, education or artistic experience.
Your contribution may be submitted in a few different ways —
— by sending digital material directly to firstname.lastname@example.org;
— by attending one of the artist’s meet-ups during the month of June;
— by leaving your submission at Tophill Public Library;
— by leaving your submission in one of the local Portland Bill dropboxes.
Submissions are due by 27 June.
Please consider lending words, pictures, memories and impressions to create a diverse, community-based publication. Each voice included will deepen Portland Bill’s personality and add to this unique portrait of Portland.
Portland Bill will be freely distributed during the b-side multi media arts festival in September 2014.
Sunday 5 August / Day 7
140 books given away in seven days.
Since buskers are allowed in front of Jubilee Clock I tried this location for Sunday’s public book encounters. Still too windy for the book blanket but the base acts like a shelf and it faces the sea so this spot is kind of ideal. I set up 20 copies of Weymouths Volume 7: Preservation / The Canoe Room at 10:40 a.m. and by 11:15 no one had approached me and none of the books had been given out, even though a constant flow of people walked by. So I decided to try an experiment—I erased my little blackboard sign (it said Weymouths Vol #7) and changed it to say FREE BOOKS. People flocked over and in 15 minutes all of the books were distributed.
Friday and Saturday 3–4 August / Days 5 and 6
120 books given away in six days.
Twice I’ve been asked to leave the esplanade by beach control, the result of local bureaucracy and a break-down in communication. After several discussions about where I’m allowed to be, I was finally told that I can be considered a busker and set up only in specially designated areas for street performers—Jubilee Clock, Hope Square, the train station and St. Mary’s Church. The irony is that this project about giving and free exchange can only be accepted into the community by mapping it back onto the familiar structure of performing for money.
I won’t pretend that this trip is easy. The performative aspect is exhausting in many ways (emotionally, physically, socially). Each time I give a book to someone there’s some kind of exchange of energy—an explanation, an acknowledgement, a conversation. In the case of beach control—confrontation.
Some of the encounters are turning into relationships—casual, public bonds, but still.
And I find myself monitoring everyone in the bakery, even if they’re not interacting with the Weymouths box. When someone does engage, they tell me stories, frequently triggered by things they see in the books. Sally said I’m sort of acting like a therapist for the town—listening to stories, associations, ideas. It’s endlessly satisfying, but draining.
Sally mentioned the phrase “live art” today. This resonates with me, as does the idea that the work is site-specific and depends on my presence and direct engagement with an audience—in this case, an entire town. Of course I think of The Artist Is Present, and while I don’t dare compare Weymouths to Marina Abramovic’s super-human feats at MoMA, both works are durational and I find myself thinking about her a lot here. What she had to give to pull that off. What she endured, how she survived (and what I’m doing here, without any training). At least once a day I think: I’m crazy. No one cares about this. Why am I bothering? Those feelings are drowned out by others (and by lots of positive feedback) so I keep going, but doubt lingers everywhere in the acting out of this work.
I’ve never done anything like this before.
Dynamical instability is as fundamental a physical process as simple harmonic motion.
I’ve had a few encounters with Geoffrey Bath, the town astrophysicist, whose reaction to the work has been immense. Something happened yesterday. I found him sitting with his morning pint and a cigarette in Hope Square, and gave him two copies of volume five. After thanking me profusely and telling me how he would give the second one as a gift to someone at dinner tonight, we somehow got into a conversation about Geoffrey’s theory of dynamical instability (published by the Royal Astronomical Society in 2004).
He started to explain it, and then I asked him to draw it. He sketched a simple experiment involving a glass of water, an elastic band and a tube. All that’s needed is a light touch to set the glass of water in motion. Geoffrey says that this particular dynamic doesn’t happen naturally anywhere on earth. But then he pointed up and smiled, and laughed. It happens all the time up there, he says—cataclysmic cosmic events. His theory explains the explosions of white dwarfs.
I love Geoffrey’s theory of dynamical instability, even though I don’t understand it. I love that these fifteen minutes he shared with me feel like they’re at the heart of the work. I’ve thought about why for a full day now. It has something to do with the banality of the everyday (the morning pint, the cigarette, the tourists in Hope Square) juxtaposed with larger things. An older man’s need to be heard. Deeper structures that are revealed at a picnic table, on cobble stones, at a pub. Someone opens a hole in the skin of a small town to reveal matter, time and light. Something about what we’re all made of, and the smallness I feel while contemplating an exploding star.
Exchange of energy.
It’s something I tried to do in Weymouths. It’s why there’s a narrative in the work, from banality to poetry, from present to past to time itself.
Daphne thanked me for creating a social networking project.
Weymouths Volume Six: Burial / Extinguished by purchase.
Too windy for the book blanket.
Pete found two women from Weymouth, MA!
A visit from Stephen Banks of Bridport.
This was one of those days that I’ll remember for a long while. I woke up at the Dead House feeling nervous, thinking about today’s public book encounters. I’m comfortable as a quiet observer, especially in public. Knowing that most of today would be spent gathering attention and making a spectacle of myself (however benign) made me anxious, for sure. I knew this would be difficult. At various times I thought about how I could just drop the entire thing, throw out all the books, etc.
I was due at Bev’s house to pick up her bicycle at 9 a.m. On the esplanade along the way I was spotted by Julie, an artist I’d met in London at BookLive. She’d told me that she might drive to Weymouth to get one of the books on the first day, as research for her Ph.D. dissertation on archives (“Archive as Activity”). Julie, who had slept in her car on her trip down from Sheffield, was sitting on a bench and called out to me, and we exchanged a few serendipitous screams and laughs. Was wonderful to sit with her and talk about our journeys and the excitement of being in this fantastic place, and the circumstances that brought us there. Hers was exactly the beautiful burst of energy I needed to get me going this morning.
A bit later at Bev’s house I listened to her talk about her life in Weymouth while she made us coffee. Bev is a friend of Jane’s, who features prominently in volume 1, and through this connection I was generously offered Bev’s bicycle — absolutely perfect in an old-fashioned, big-wicker-basket kind of way.
Back at the bakery, I loaded up with today’s edition (Volume 1: River / The Interviews) and made my way to the northern end of the promenade (the “prom”). I set up in front of Aunty Vi’s snack shack, right on the sea, at exactly 10:45 a.m. By 11 a.m. all of the books were gone. It happened so fast but I spoke to everyone — Olympic ambassadors, students and their teacher from Peru (several copies of volume 1 are on their way there now). A family who vowed to take one to give to a friend who would appreciate it. Someone who said they would be back every morning to collect the entire set, making me promise I would be in the same spot every day. Somehow, 20 copies were suddenly gone, just like that.
Everyone seemed genuinely interested. Enthusiastic, even. The spontaneity of each encounter fed the energy for other people who came by, and each moment rolled into the next. Was such a great feeling.
Peter, the owner of Aunty Vi’s, was the most enthusiastic. He was the first to approach me, within 30 seconds of setting up, offering me free tea and coffee and calling out to everyone passing by to go get a book because “they’re rare and you’ll be one of the twenty!” Our temporarily shared territory created a bond and I was reminded of Lewis Hyde’s “territorial gifts” (exchanging a mint with someone sitting next to you on an airplane, for example).
Later, at Phoenix Bakery, I set up the reading room for the afternoon and had visits from an Italian language club. I gave them an extra copy of volume 1 that I found, and they vowed to pass it around and share it. Fellow b-side artists Frances Scott and Niels Post and friends came by, and an Irish family who had traveled to Weymouth, MA to visit relatives there. And Joff Winterhart drew me and the books and the visitors for a good part of the afternoon.
Jane and I shared a marvelous conversation about generosity and the giving/gift part of the project. She reminded me that the connections coming out of and into this project are human. That this exchange keeps us alive.
Meanwhile, Aidan the master baker was busy making delicious things downstairs.
Artist’s talk / 8 August 2012
Later today I fly east, landing at Heathrow and making my way to south west England. By tomorrow afternoon I’ll be in Weymouth, Dorset—site of the London2012 Olympic sailing games, just in time for the live broadcast of the opening ceremony on the beach.
And on Monday I start the performance (installation, publishing?) of Weymouths, my b-side Arts Festival commission. I’ve been exploring and producing Weymouths for more than eight months, so needless to say I’m excited to see what happens with these public book encounters. This is a kind of culmination for the project, but it also starts something new and unknown for me.
I’ll be giving away Weymouths in 12 installments, beginning Monday 30 July, with “Volume 1: River / The Interviews.” The last day will be Friday 10 August, with “Volume 12: Light / 1,485 colors.” If you happen to be in Weymouth look for me on the esplanade each morning, and at Phoenix Bakery in the afternoons, where I’m setting up a reading room installation upstairs.
I’ll try to post daily updates here, so follow along. If I can find wifi I’ll tweet my location each morning.
Daily book set-up. Sketch for bicycle blanket on Weymouth esplanade; exact location varies.