My final post takes a very local turn. Like Prigov’s Little Coffins, New Zealand artist Campbell Walker’s 2012 work The Crime LINKS in the Smoke is an undead work that plays on the print book as both fetishized object and repeatable copy. The Crime comprises cut-up pages from detective novels that were burnt in the fire that destroyed Raven Books, a secondhand bookshop on Princes St in Dunedin, New Zealand. Walker’s book is a memorial both to a particular shop and to the town where it was located. Dunedin, the small city near the southern end of New Zealand where I live, is known for its penguins and sea lions but also for its crumbling Victorian grandeur. Now mainly a university town, Dunedin was once New Zealand’s largest and most prosperous city, and the energetic local cultural scene today springs partly from the spaces opened up by the slow urban decay of a city that never grew. Walker’s work links the fate of Raven Books and Dunedin to the fate of the print codex at a time when bookstores everywhere are closing their doors and e-book sales are increasing exponentially.
When Dmitri Prigov explores the relationship between the book as material object and endlessly repeating copy, he anticipates a similar interest in the relationship between copy and singular material instantiation in Anglophone conceptual writing. One of the leading figures in conceptual writing, Kenneth Goldsmith, began his artistic career, like Prigov, as a sculptor. Among his early work, Goldsmith’s iterations of Steal This Book illustrate his interest in the book as both copy and unique material object. His two versions or copies of the book are both monumental copies of Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 counter-culture classic. One was made of lead and weighed 150 kg, the other was seven feet tall — both were too big to be stolen.
Goldsmith has since then produced a number of works that explore the iterations of the book through conceptual writing. For example, in retyping the New York Times and publishing the result in book form, Goldsmith transforms the disposable newspaper into a monumental brick-sized book on a par with the largest of the modernist long-poem masterworks, such as Pound’s Cantos or Olson’s Maximus Poems.
The tension between the book as individual copy and as mass reproduced object is reframed and even collapsed in samizdat literature, the illegally copied and circulated typescripts that created an entire world of literary and intellectual life in the late-Soviet period. Samizdat texts were reproduced, four or five copies at a time through the act of retyping and the use of carbon copy. In these works, the acts of writing, copying, and publishing effectively fuse.
Beginning in the 1970s, conceptual writer and artist Dmitri Prigov sought to investigate the relationship between text and copy in laboriously reproduced samizdat texts, which in spite — in fact because — of their poor quality became fetishized objects for members of the Soviet samizdat community. Prigov exploited the nature of the samizdat text to produce singular works in which the materiality of the book plays a key role. At the same time, he stressed the relationship between the writer and copyist, between unique work and reproduction in samizdat book culture.
Today I present a guest post from Gerald Janecek, who has contributed so much to our understanding of the visual, verbal, and sonic breadth of Russian avant-garde poetry from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day. Jerry’s and my shared interests include the work of the conceptual artist and writer Dmitri Prigov, whose iterative practice spanned a vast range of genres and media from sculpture to performance, poetry to theatre. Some time ago, Jerry shared with me an extraordinary video of Prigov performing with the musician Vladimir Tarasov in the apartment studio of Ilya Kabakov in Moscow in 1986. Below, I present part of this video: Prigov and Tarasov’s performance of the 49-aya azbuka or 49th Alphabet from Prigov’s Alphabet series (you can read the Russian text here). Jerry’s commentary on the work and its performance follows. Together I hope they will serve as an introduction to a writer and artist who deserves to be far better known in the English-speaking world.