Monthly Archives: January 2009


hotel st george image of correspondencesOne of the most attractive books I picked up last year was a copy of Ben Greenman’s Correspondences, a collection of short stories published by Hotel St. George Press. Strictly speaking, you could argue that Correspondences isn’t a book: a maroon band surrounds an ingeniously constructed box which, when unfolded, turns out to contain three pamphlets folded accordion-style and a postcard, to which I’ll return. Each pamphlet is encircled by two stories, all of which share a theme of letter-writing. The whole thing was printed letterpress; it’s a limited edition, and each copy is signed by the author. Although it’s a relatively pricey book, I can’t imagine that the publisher’s making much money on it: clearly it cost a lot to make.
As a print book, Correspondences is very much of the present moment, inauspicious as it might be for print publishers. Hotel St. George hasn’t bothered with distribution in bookstores; the primary mode of distribution is HSG’s website. Ben Greenman has enough of a following that they’ll probably do well this way. The extraordinary form of the book is a recognition that in an age when content has become almost infinitely cheap an object needs to stand out to be bought. (One might analogously consider the CDs of Raster-Noton or Touch.) Appealing to the collector’s market makes sense for print publishing: all of Hotel St. George’s books are beautifully produced, but Correspondences takes their work to another level.
What’s most interesting to me about Ben Greenman’s book, however, is the postcard. As the box is opened, a seventh story, titled “What He’s Poised to Do,” is disclosed, printed on the box itself. A note from the author describes it as

the tale of a man who walks out on his marriage and reconsiders it from a distance. The man is staying in a hotel. While he is there, he writes ad receives a number of postcards. Some carry messages of love, others messages of regret, others still are confessions or rationalizations. There are nine postcard messages in all, not a single one of which is actually reprinted in the text of the story.

At nine points in the story there are bracketed numbers, indicating the points in the story where a postcard is read or sent; the reader is invited to take the postcard include and to compose a message to be a part of the story, and possibly part of future editions of the book. There’s a lovely tension here between the intent of the author and the wishes of the collector: filling out the postcard and dropping it in the mail destroys the unity of the book. The Mail Room at Hotel St. George’s website might convince the wary book-owner: on display are some postcards that have already been sent back. (One does note that a few of the postcard writers seem to have shied away from using the postcard that came with the book.)
The copy of Correspondences that I own – postcard still tucked in its flap – is precisely situated in time: it’s a book that prefigures its own destruction and, in a way, its own obsolescence. While this book is very firmly an object, it’s also aware of itself as a process: while the writing and the printing of the book has already happened, the reader’s response may yet happen. It’s a book that wouldn’t have existed in this form if the web hadn’t changed our understanding of how books work.

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mencken small.jpgBen Greenman’s postcard project might be seen as a recapitulation of themes present in the mail art of Ray Johnson. Trained at Black Mountain College as a painter, Johnson began making collages, which he sent to friends through the mail in the early 1950s; his use of the postal service quickly became a major focus of his art. Others followed his example; the movement he started was termed “mail art,” and it continues to this day. Although Johnson was well known and admired in the New York art world, much of his work operated outside the normal channels of the art world and he’s still surprisingly unknown to the general public. How to Draw a Bunny, John Walter’s 2002 documentary, is perhaps the easiest way in to the artist’s work. Interviews with Johnson’s friends and associates focus on the nature of their interactions with him; these interactions, it becomes clear, were as much a part of Johnson’s work as the work itself.
The mail was a primary method of communication for Johnson, particularly after he left New York City for Long Island in 1968; his death in 1995 came just at the cusp of broad use of the Internet to communicate. Mail art, he told James Rosenquist, was an extension of Cubism: he put things in the mail and they got spread all over the place. It was also an attempt to take art out of the commercial sphere, setting up a gift-based economy in its stead. The critic Ina Blom describes it in The Name of the Game: Ray Johnson’s Postal Performance as being

one of several art movements that tried to create an alternative space for art – a space that would be radically social and interactive, intermedial and performative. Mail art seemed to focus explicitly on the communicational aspects of both art production and reception, creating a huge network of correspondent who could communicate and exchange objects and messages through the postal system

NYCS Report January 19 1970 THUMBNAIL.jpg(p. 6.) Johnson ran what he called the New York Correspondence School; he used the word correspondence not simply for its reference to communication but for the way he made associations with words and graphic elements in his collages. Mailings were sent out, like this New York Correspondence School Report from January 19, 1970. William S. Wilson, in an essay entitled With Ray: The Art of Friendship, gives a sample of his working method:

Walking on the Lower East Side Ray frequently saw a Ukrainian sign advertising a dance in letters which looked to him like “3-A-BABY”. He then equated “dance” with “three”, so that when three babies were involved with his life, he put the dance of three into the word “correspondence”, thereafter usually writing New York Correspondance School. Because Ray wanted to respond to accidents with spontaneities, he needed accidents to produce something more and other than he had planned to produce. In that spirit I showed him how he had happened to construct the French word, correspondance, and gave him a copy of Baudelaire’s poem “Les Correspondances”. Later he improvised “corraspongence” and other permutations.

(p. 34) Membership was seemingly capricious and full of contradictions: members included institutions and the dead; the school committed suicide publicly at least once; and it was at best the most constant member of a baffling parade of clubs and organizations that Johnson ran, including, at random, Buddha University, the Deadpan Club, the Odilon Redon Fan Club, the Nancy Sinatra Fan Club. The Whitney Museum organized a show of the Correspondence School’s work, entitled Ray Johnson: New York Correspondance School in 1970; the museum exhibited everything Johnson’s network of collaborators mailed to it.
two pieces featuring the whitney museum
letter to the new york times and subsequent refutation of death
“The whole idea of the Correspondence School,” Johnson told Richard Bernstein in an interview with Andy Warhol’s Interview in August, 1972 “is to receive and dispense with these bits of information, because they all refer to something else. It’s just a way of having a conversation or exchange, a kind of social intercourse.” Emblematic of Johnson’s work might be his Book about Death, begun in 1963, which consisted of thirteen printed pages of collaged images and text, which were mailed individually to Clive Phillpot, chief librarian at the Museum of Modern Art, and others. (A few pages are reproduced below.) The Book about Death was discorporate, as befits a book about death; more than being unbound, Johnson made sure that none of his readers received a complete set of the pages of the book. The book could only be assembled and read in toto by the correspondents working in concert: it was a book that demanded active participation in its reading. The content as well as the form of the Book about Death request active participation: the names of his correspondents feature prominently in it, but understanding of what Johnson was doing with those names requires some knowledge of the people who had those names.
a few pages from a book about death
Much of Johnson’s work is interesting because it’s so dependent upon its audience. It’s not something that can exist under glass: rather, it’s a work that’s based upon personal relationships. Henry Martin writes about Ray Johnson’s work in a way that makes it sound like he’s talking about a social networking platform:

To me, Ray Johnson’s Correspondence School seems simply an attempt to establish as many significantly human relationships with as many individual people as possible. All of the relationships of which the School is made are personal relationship: relationships with a tendency towards intimacy: relationships where true experiences are truly shared and where what makes an experience true is its real participation in a secret libidinal charge. And the relationships that the artist values so highly are something he attempts to pass on to others. The classical exhortation in a Ray Johnson is “please send to . . . .” Person A will receive an object or an image and be asked to pass it on to person B, and the image will probably be appropriate to these two different people in two entirely different ways, or in terms of two entirely different chains of association. It thus becomes a kind of totem that can connect them, and whatever latent relationship may possibly exist between person A and person B becomes a little less latent and a little more real. It’s a beginning of an uncommon sense of community, and this sense of community grows as persons A and B send something back through Ray to each other, or through each other back to Ray.

(p. 186 in Ray Johnson: Correspondences.) Johnson’s work was about connection, the “art of friendship” as the title of Wilson’s essay has it. Work about personal connection has a necessarily uneasy relationship with the idea of art as a commodity; a great deal of Johnson’s work (including some of the pages of the Book about Death above) references money and remuneration in some way. Looked at through the lens of 2009, Johnson’s work seems remarkably prescient in its recognition of the importance of the network and the problems still inherent in it.

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Who, if I cried out, would hear me? asks Rainer Maria Rilke at the start of the first Duino Elegy. It’s a rhetorical question that might be worth consideration: who does Rilke – or his speaker – think will hear him? Completing the line provides a superficial answer: “who” becomes someone “among the angels’ hierarchies”. But if the cry of Rilke’s speaker is directed at the angels, it’s heard by us, the readers of the poem: as a published work, the Duino Elegies function as a cry from a poet who desires to be heard. Rilke dedicated his poems to the Princess Marie von Thurn and Taxis-Hohenlohe, who brought him to Duino; she is perhaps the most proximate reader that Rilke expected. We are not the audience that Rilke envisioned; by now, everyone that Rilke might have reasonably expected to read his poem is dead.
Such authorial intent, if it existed, can’t stand in the way of the reader’s response. While reading is often a solitary act, a sense of connection can be engendered: a grieving reader might read Rilke’s poem and feel a sense of empathy, a commonality of experience. This is anticipated by Rilke’s poem (here in Stephen Mitchell’s translation):

                              Ah, whom can we ever turn to
in our need? Not angels, not humans,
and already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in
our interpreted world.

Rilke isn’t presumptuous enough to propose his own work as the answer to his question, though plenty of his readers would be happy to do just that. This empathy between the author and the reader is not empathy as empathy is generally understood to exist between two people: Rilke is of course dead and does not know the reader or the suffering that the reader might be undergoing. The reader may not even speak the same language as the author. Rilke is not your friend and almost certainly would not cheer you up if he were. But this is immaterial, the feeling still exists: the reader knows Rilke even if Rilke does not know the reader. To move from the specific to the overly general, this sort of response is perhaps why people describe themselves as having a visceral connection with books: our terror of print being dead isn’t so much for the books themselves but for the associations inherent in those physical objects, the sense of connection with the author even if that connection is unreciprocated.
The question of the audience of a book, and the connection of the audience to the author, is one that’s currently in a state of flux. Historically authors were something like mother sea turtles; publishing a book was something like laying eggs on a beach to hatch as they might: a reader might find a book, or a reader might not. An author could conceivably write a book for a single reader, but this doesn’t happen very often. A reader could, in the days before the Internet, find the author’s contract information from the publisher and write a letter to the author, but that happened comparatively rarely. The relationship between readers and authors is different now: after reading Greenman’s book I emailed him wondering if he’d been influenced by Ray Johnson’s work – no, he said – a behavior I find myself indulging in more and more lately. Greenman’s work, like that of Johnson’s before him, anticipates a new kind of relation between the author and the reader. The reworking of this relationship in increasingly varied ways will be the most significant aspect of the way our reading changes as it moves from the printed page to the networked screen.

Can Books and the Web Play Well Together?

The Internet, coupled with the bad economic times, has the media industry in a flurry; Institutional newspaper papers are failing regularly, magazines are reconsidering everything, and reports showing that people are just not reading – or at least not the way we are used to – has book publishers particularly concerned. So as technological advances make it easier to share online, it is publishers who are being squeezed. Especially given that no matter how things shake out, writers will still write and readers will still read.

But as the industry flails, I see hope in an emerging model. A model that I think re-embraces the traditional role of a publisher – that of connecting quality writers with interested readers – with the technology at hand.

I got this impression while reading the New York Times essay “See the Web Site, Buy the Book“,  which suggests that authors are realizing the importance of a unique web presence:

[…] do book sites really help sell books? As in so much of publishing, no one quite knows. “People now latch on to a Web presence the way they once did with the book tour,” said Sloane Crosley, a publicist at Vintage/Anchor whose own book, “I Was Told There’d Be Cake,” was accompanied by a Web site featuring photographs of intricate dioramas, video and enough new material to fill a second book. “I don’t know how well the success of book Web sites can be tracked, but they do get thrown into that priceless bucket of buzz.”

First, I like that they do not know whether having a web presence will sell books,  as experimentation is always a good thing. But embracing the web, I think, suggests a certain level of confidence in the book – at least for the time being. I think this also acknowledges the web as a distinct medium that doesn’t have to threaten books directly – and can maybe even work together with traditional publishing – reminiscent of the relationship between film and book industry.

Whether or not this model is adopted and developed by the current publishing industry is hard to say.  It is telling that, according to the article, it is the authors taking the leadership role; paying the web agencies, out of pocket, 85% of the time.

a step forward for creative commons

Peter Brantley points out what’s now at

Pursuant to federal law, government-produced materials appearing on this site are not copyright protected. The United States Government may receive and hold copyrights transferred to it by assignment, bequest, or otherwise.

Except where otherwise noted, third-party content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. Visitors to this website agree to grant a non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free license to the rest of the world for their submissions to under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Congratulations to Creative Commons: change may yet come for copyright.


Embarrassingly belated report on bookcamp (I’ve taken this long just to follow up on conversations). It was a delightfully un-stuffy unconference exploring bookish and net-ish tech-ish things, last Saturday, at the new Hub space in Kings Cross. I listened to Kate Hyde and Mark Johnson from HarperCollins discussing HC’s new online communities (I particularly enjoyed being able to quiz them about the community dynamics of Authonomy). Later, I heard James Bridle explain how he’d hacked together existing web-based services to set up Bookkake, a book publishing imprint in his bedroom, heard literary agents, publishers, writers, assorted digerati and mischief-makers debating whether or not writers’ salaries were doomed, and gave a talk on the tradition of the book in which I invented a word (printy) and apparently got away with it. Slideshare version of the talk to follow.
All in all it was a splendid day. Many thanks to James Bridle, Jeremy Ettinghausen, and Russell Davies for organising it, along with the mysterious PaperCamp happening upstairs, from which I heard roars of applause around every half hour.
I’ll post more thoughts arising from the day when it’s had a chance to settle a bit.

social networking in reverse

A quick note to point out LittleSis, an “involuntary Facebook of powerful Americans,” a project of the Public Accountability Initiative funded by the Sunlight Foundation. It’s something like a networked telephone book of the rich and powerful: LittleSis aggregates publicly available information about America’s officials, both public and private. If you go to, for example, John McCain’s page, you can see information about the positions he’s served in, political fundraising committees that have raised money for him, and individuals who have given him money. Clicking on the names of any of those organizations will go to the LittleSis page about them, so one can see, for example, with whom McCain sits on the Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee. All of this information has been automatically gathered, but links to sources are given on all pages – the McCain information, for example, comes from,, Project Vote Smart, the Congressional Biographical Directory, and FEC Disclosure Reports. Nor is it limited to politicians: one can learn that Steve Jobs was a Friend of Rahm Emanuel in 2004.
LittleSis is reminiscent of They Rule, a website from a couple of years ago that mapped out relationships between the members of corporate boards – maybe They Rule is Friendster to LittleSis’s Facebook, having taken as a lesson what’s happened on the web in the past few years with the rise of social networking. LittleSis is much more open-ended: one can spend a lot of time browsing LittleSis. There’s also a wiki component: as the information is automatically gathered, not all of it makes sense yet – Bob Packwood, for example, turns up as both “Bob Packwood” (lobbyist) and “Robert William Packwood” (former Senator). More data sources are still being added; it’s important that the sources of the data can be accounted for. It’s an interesting project, and worth tracking.
One of the developers of LittleSis is Institute alum Eddie Tejeda; though he’s moved to San Francisco, he’s currently working with us to develop and new and improved version of CommentPress, which should be coming soon.