Conceptual Artist Simon Morris interviewed by philosopher Darren Hudson Hick
Though he seems to spend most of his time playing with cats, Darren Hudson Hick is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Texas Tech University, where his research focuses on the ontology of art, philosophical problems in intellectual property law, and related issues. He is the author of Introducing Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (Continuum, 2012). For more on Darren, go to www.typetoken.com.
Simon Morris (b. 1968) is a conceptual writer and teacher. He is a Reader in Fine Art at the University of Teesside in the UK. His work appears in the form of exhibitions, publications, installations, films, actions and texts which all revolve around the form of the book and often involve collaborations with people from the fields of art, creative technology, literature and psychoanalysis. In 2002, he founded the publishing imprint information as material. He is the author of numerous experimental books, including; Bibliomania (1998); The Royal Road to the Unconscious (2003); Re-Writing Freud (2005); Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head (2010); and Pigeon Reader (2012). He is an occasional curator and a regular lecturer on contemporary art and also directed the documentary films sucking on words: Kenneth Goldsmith (2007) and making nothing happen: Pavel Büchler (2010). Further information can be found here: www.informationasmaterial.org
About a year ago, I published my article, “Ontology and the Challenge of Literary Appropriation” (JAAC 71(2), 155-165), focused on Simon Morris’s book, Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head. As I explain in the article, Morris is what’s called a “conceptual writer,” effectively a literary appropriation artist. When the article went to press, I sent a copy to Kenneth Goldsmith, another conceptual writer, who wrote the introduction for Morris’s book, and who I quote from in the article. Goldsmith in turn sent the article on to Morris. A few weeks later, a package arrived at my door from Morris containing a selection of his other recent “bookworks”. I’ve been chatting with Morris on and off for the past year about literary appropriation. Earlier this year, Christy Mag Uidhir suggested I interview Morris for Aesthetics for Birds, and Morris cheerfully agreed.
What is “conceptual writing”?
Conceptual writing is a fusion or a (con)fusion of art and literature. Conceptual writing’s significance is in establishing new modes of production for literary works and different ways of reading.
This type of activity is what my co-editor, Nick Thurston at Information as Material has referred to as a conceptualist reading performance.
I think Thurston’s collaging of these three distinct terms may be a useful way for understanding how artists are approaching literature.
The American artist Mark Dion has commented on how the artist has a different relation to theory from the academic or the scientist. The artist is not trying to establish some law or rule based on reason. Quite the opposite, he or she explores the potential of the irrational…he or she celebrates the nonsensical. Dion reflects:
Artists are not interested in illustrating theories as much as they may be in testing them. This is why artists may choose to ignore contradictions in a text or choose to explode those contradictions. The art work may be the lab experiment which attempts equally as hard to disprove as prove a point. (Mark Dion, ‘Field Work and the Natural History Museum’, The Optic of Walter Benjamin, ed. Alex Coles, Vol. 3 of de-, dis-, ex-[(London: Black Dog , 1999] 38-57: 39.)
In Thurston’s compound descriptor the first term conceptualist relates to our intention that the concept is privileged in the making of the work…as Sol Le Witt would maintain in his Paragraphs on Conceptual Art which appeared in 1967:
The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. But not just in the making of the work but in the engagement with the work as well…in its subsequent reading or thinking about.
The reading takes into account a sensitivity to the act of reading which can be read as an aesthetic experience in and of itself. Reading is usually a private act but these performed readings are always intended as public works…they are consciously made to be shared. It’s important to understand its reproducibility and its performativity are built in to its mode of production.
Making a reading act on the understanding that what you are going to present will be an artwork.
And the performance in the physicality of the engagement with extant material, the existing words of others. A violation occurs in relation to the source material that may involve a re-writing, a re-reading or a miss-reading of the source material.
Conceptual writing has seen the development of new forms of art through conceptualist reading performances. This method grafts the aesthetic legacy of Conceptual Art on to various notions of writing (from literary composition to data management) in order to produce materially-specific poems as artworks that have in some way re-read a found object. This is an art of reading things differently. It starts from a premise proved by the impossibility of making purely conceptual art: that art is always aesthetical and conceptual. To that it couples an obsession with language as both material signifier and social activity. In doing so it establishes a mode of making art that asks: What could we write if reading could be a materially productive act of making art? How might a certain kind of reading-as-making problematise the understandings of authorship, production and reproduction ensconced in our cultural industries? Works of conceptual writing celebrate reading differently as a praxis of exploring the elsewhere of what languages and their users can mean and do. Conceptual writers are committed to working collaboratively and against all-too-certain counter-productive divisions between contemporary art and contemporary literature.
What are “bookworks”?
“Bookworks” was a term first used by Clive Phillpot, one of the world’s leading authorities on artist’s books. I believe he used the term to separate traditional books (what I would call ‘information carriers’) from artworks that use the form of the book to convey an idea, in much the same way a more traditional artist might use paint on canvas or a block of marble and a hammer & chisel to express their ideas.
Your bookwork, Getting Inside Jack Kerouac’s Head is essentially a page-reversed but otherwise word-for-word retyping of the Original Scroll Edition of Kerouac’s On the Road. As the title suggests, your impetus for writing GIJKH was to get a sense of what it was like to be Kerouac typing those words. Now, because I’m a completist, I bought a copy of your book. But if GIJKH isn’t an “information carrier,” is there any point in my reading it?
No, I wouldn’t recommend that you read GIJKH in the traditional manner. If you want to read On the Road I would recommend you go out and buy Jack Kerouac’s book. But, on the other hand if you want to engage with an artwork that considers issues of identity, authorship and ownership then I would recommend mine. But I still see no reason for you to read my edition. My works necessitate a different form of engagement, you need to learn to read differently. Information as material turns readers into thinkers. These works are meant to be thought about which, as the New York poet Rob Fitterman has commented, means they require a ‘thinkership’ rather than a ‘readership’.
One is a work of literature and the other one is a work of art. The text found in the two works may be virtually indistinguishable, but the meaning is totally different. I like that—that two works can look virtually identical but have completely different meanings. Richard Prince’s appropriation of JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in 2011 also made the distinction between art and literature very clearly. Penguin books brought out a deluxe facsimile edition of JD Salinger’s first edition of Catcher in the Rye and were selling it for $32 a-pop. Richard Prince appropriates this version, making an identical facsimile edition, save for swapping his name for that of Salinger’s and charging $64 a copy on the basis that art is worth twice as much as literature. He also offers a signed edition of his work for around $59,000 which is what a signed first edition of Salinger’s work would cost you in auction. Prince’s appropriation in 2011 of the hardback first edition of JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was referred to as a sculptural edition and in the disclaimer in the front, it clearly states that this is art rather than literature. It was a dead-ringer through and through for Salinger’s text—not a word was changed—with the exception that the following disclaimer was added to the colophon page: “This is an artwork by Richard Prince. Any similarity to a book is coincidental and not intended by the artist.” The colophon concluded with: © Richard Prince.
In his introduction to GIJKH, Kenneth Goldsmith suggests, “Morris has only had a handful of commenters/passengers, curiously, none of them have been Kerouac’s estate or his business representatives calling foul play for freely republishing a very lucrative artwork. Morris’ work, then, is an anomaly—not a pirated edition worth legally pursuing—and as such, becoming functionless and aestheticized, it can only be a work of art.” Goldsmith seems to put the issue aside, but do you have any worries about the Kerouac estate coming after you for copyright infringement?
I guess it comes down to two basic questions:
1. Financially, is it worth suing me? Do I have any assets? Richard Prince made this quite clear in his recent court case testimony for the Patrick Cariou vs Richard Prince case (from which a selection of papers from the court case were wittily appropriated by Greg Allen and produced print-on-demand. It includes the longest known interview with Richard Prince). In his affidavit, Prince states: “When I started out, no one was paying any attention to me. Who would have been concerned by a guy who appropriated an image from an ad? What purpose would it serve to sue me? [my italics] I was living in an apartment – in the East Village, where the rent was $75 a month. My job earned me $100. I had enough left to eat, drink, and buy supplies to paint. But if, unfortunately, I were to be sued today, I would call upon a law firm.”
2. Is it possible to sue me? Because it would probably come down to a very tricky philosophical argument over the distinction between art and literature (one where you might be called as an expert witness, Darren). If it functions completely differently to Kerouac’s literary work and isn’t even meant to be read, does it actually represent any kind of economic threat to his estate?
More generally, what role do you see copyright having in the arts?
Because life is short and transitory and because I believe in sharing and collaborating to push things forward, I think all music, art, literature, scientific and academic papers should be as free as possible from copyright restrictions (shareware). For this reason, I think Creative Commons offers a much more intelligent solution to copyright for the arts. As their Licence states: “You are free to share or remix this work but should always attribute the work in the manner specified by the author.”
We all learn from what already exists in the world so to put restrictions on how things can be remixed seems very counter-productive. For example, as the celebrated American author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain recounts:
“Oliver Wendell Holmes…was…the first great literary man I ever stole any thing from—and that is how I came to write to him and he to me. When my first book was new, a friend of mine said to me, “The dedication is very neat.” Yes, I said, I thought it was. My friend said, “I always admired it, even before I saw it in The Innocents Abroad.”
I naturally said, “What do you mean? Where did you ever see it before?”
“Well, I saw it first some years ago as Doctor Holmes’s dedication to his Songs in Many Keys.”
…Well, of course, I wrote to Dr. Holmes and told him I hadn’t meant to steal, and he wrote back and said in the kindest way that it was all right and no harm done; and added that he believed we all unconsciously worked over ideas gathered in reading and hearing, imagining they were original with ourselves.”
(Anecdote taken from a footnote in Oliver Sachs’ essay, ‘Speak, Memory’, which can be found online here)