Monday, May 24, 2010

1 to 99 on the Number Line

The Fall Café, Smith Street, Brooklyn

I'll admit it. I've missed the numbers.

Over the weekend I found myself persuaded out of my blue-book-induced stupor to head down to Tribeca, break out the hammer and sickle nails, and hang a bunch of numbers on a wall. It's the first time I've done such a thing since my installation at The Fall Café in Brooklyn in September 2007 (see above), and accompanied by good friends and free-flowing wine, it was all very gratifying. A hit-and-run installation injected a bit of adventure into my otherwise work-plagued weekend, and after hours of uneventful eyestrain I was more than ready for the task of carrying heavy planks of wood down four flights of stairs in three-inch heels -- a skill perfected after many gigs with Balthrop, Alabama, where lugging white picket fences up and down narrow stairs is par for the course. (Speaking of the band, we had a nice pick-me-up last week when NPR named "Subway Horns" as its song of the day. Not to toot my own, er, subway horn, but those are some wonderful friends I play music with.)

The number line went up Saturday night, hung around for a few hours while friends played music and read from their duct-taped chapbooks of poetry and novels-in-progress, and the next thing I knew I was back in Brooklyn, shooting pool at B61 (the bar, not the bus), trading tales of childhood shoplifting.

As is often the case with any event where good friends and wine are present, I realized much later that the colorful evening had slipped away before I remembered to capture the night's installation for that old drudge of a companion, Posterity. But a bit of digging around unearthed this archeological specimen, a picture from the original installation in 2007, so I thought I'd post it. After all, the grid of planks hanging on that yellow wall, coated tip-to-toe in numbers, is where the harebrained idea of this blog had its genesis. (Peter Gabriel is singing "Supper's Ready" as I write, and I think it's affecting my syntax.)

Before &7, there was only Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. There was only #1-99. Oh yeah, and there was this sullen self-portrait I found stuffed into the beautiful Venetian notebook where I collected all the data for the photographs. (For reasons I don't entirely remember, Vienna turned me into a sour teenager one afternoon, until I got my bearings. Yes, that is a picture of a Prague tank on my black hoodie.)

Also in the pile of forgotten goodies was my slightly crinkled original artist statement, which explains some of the method to the madness -- the intricate art of number-hunting. I thought I'd post it here to appease the grumbling chap Posterity, and to share it with those of you who blinked and therefore never got to see the installation:
I can’t think about the numbers in this series without thinking about a certain West Virginia license plate. We travelled a lot as a family, mostly camping trips out West that involved endless hours on the open road, gazing out at passing cars and scenery through the grubby windows of a blue Econoline van. Like any kid on a long road trip, I invented ways of making the time on the long interstates pass more quickly. A favorite was the license plate game, which involved “collecting” all 50 states. Inevitably, the trip would run out before we got through even half the list. My only success with finding all 50 states finally came at the age of 21, when I was tearing up Route 90 in my brother’s red minivan on my post-college American road trip (TM). The West Virginia plate, with its blue-clawed state outline, was the last on my list (yes, I had Alaska; yes, I had Hawaii), and I was so overcome to finally see it fueling up at a gas station in Colorado that I startled the driver by shouting out, “There it IS! I GOT it!” and proudly catalogued the end of my search with a proudly written WEST VIRGINIA in a spiral notebook. Not only was it more exciting than Route 80 through Nebraska (it would be hard to think of anything that wasn’t), it was more exciting than the afternoon hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. In a way, finding the complete set was one of the highlights of the trip.

The task of intertwining the leisure of travel with the obsessive hunt has always held a certain appeal. Other people collect shot glasses to mark their journeys, I collect images. The license plate game sustained me while travelling on the roads of the U.S.A. It wasn’t until I started exploring the side streets and cobblestone alleys of European cities that I was awakened to the idea of collecting numbers.

The 99 numbers in this series, taken in 3 cities – Prague, Vienna, and Budapest – over the course of 2 weeks in the summer of 2006, show a wide variety of styles in architecture and typography: some are extraordinarily ornamental, others quite ordinary. The project was born as much out of an interest in methodology (i.e., giving my obsessive-compulsive mind something to fixate on and watching how it grappled with the task) as it was an art project. The two have never been far apart for me.

Every number here has a story. Some were captured quite deliberately: the stark, graphic image of the 54 on a wall in Prague was the number that started the idea for the project, followed swiftly by an ornamental 3 near the castle and a nearby bright red 9. Another number, astride the Praterstern ferris wheel in Vienna, came to me through sheer happenstance: I was in a moving tram and quickly snapped a shot through the window, hoping for some “good numbers”. I discovered only later that I had found my 28. The hunt for numbers 1-99 began with the same sense of ease that marks the start of any crossword puzzle, only to end in a frantic final 24-hour push in Budapest for the upper register numbers that rivalled the Louvre-in-45-minutes in Godard’s Band of Outsiders.

My original concept was to collect 99 numbers and eventually compile the images into either a handbound book or to display the collection on a single wall in its entirety. The literal throw-it-all-on-the-wall approach turned out to be the idea that seemed the most fitting. You can take in the whole sequence all at once, a task and pleasure that would be impossible otherwise. The eye is drawn as much to the exhaustiveness of the whole as it is to the sum of its parts. And as anyone who has seen my notebooks can attest, boxes and order have always been part of my way of structuring my world and art. For inspiration for this installation format, I owe a debt to the work of Zak Smith, whose excellent Pictures Showing What Happens on Every Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, blew my mind at the Whitney Biennial a few years back. Thanks, Zak. I may get around to making that book someday, too.

And so here they are, compiled at last, each one of the 99 numbers gathered from my two-week trip: snatched from architectural pieces, stolen from electrical boxes, from Russian submarine clock storefronts, road signs, modern art museum lockers, planetarium installations, memorials, and tram wires.

What was the last number compiled in this collection, my West Virginia license plate of the journey? I won’t forget that one, either. Number 42. Taken at a terminal of the Budapest airport. Nothing like coming in right under the wire.

Therese Cox
Brooklyn, 2007
That tome ought to keep Posterity quiet for awhile, and I can head now back to Blue Book Mountain, safe in the knowledge I've done my word count penance after a slow week. Mea culpa to those who come here not just for pictures but for all the chicken scratch that accompanies it. Thanks again for the inspiration, Zak Smith. And many thanks to the supremely talented, all-encouraging, über-organized Jackie for giving me the opportunity to dust off the numbers. It's good to be back.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Red vs. Read

Smithfield, Dublin

Apologies for the scant verbal offerings lately, but it's exam week and I've been laboring like the lumpenproletariat. I'll be back in fine form once I lay down the hammer, sickle, and stack of blue books and return to my usual wanton wordy ways. But till then, I'm afraid it's socialist realism hour at &7. Inspiring stuff for the underpaid part-time profs and brave workers among us. You know who you are.

Incidentally, I see from the stamp on the back of this university-issue exam booklet before me that they've been assembled at the Jefferson Rehabilitation Center in Watertown, NY. What does it say that I'd rather be assembling these flimsy exam books than grading them? Oh, never mind. Back to the pseudo-anarchist slogans and graffiti with me. It's all I'm good for.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Monday, May 17, 2010

Don't Tread On Me

Verona, Italy

"The city either destroyed a person or else it made him merciless." .... -- Paul Theroux, The Kingdom by the Sea

Thursday, May 13, 2010


The Liberties, Dublin

This line -- "Is it about a bicycle?" -- is culled (rather shamelessly) from one of my favorite books, The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien. Considering the novel's brilliance, it seems a travesty to quote from the back-of-the-book copy, but in the interests of midnight deadlines, and because it's a delicious thought to remember what drew me to the book in the first place, that's exactly what I'm going to do. Consider this an appetizer for the all-you-can-eat Flann O'Brien-a-thon that has been threatening to surface for some time now. The teaser reads as such:
A murder thriller, an hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic vision of eternity, the story of a tender, brief, unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle and a chilling fable of unending guilt.
How easily can one confuse love with bicycles? It's not just some fanciful notion -- it's written right there in the alphabet.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bad Route Road

I-94, Montana

Every few months or so, it seems the badly-named places of North America are dragged out from their various dark corners of the world and given a good airing in the papers. Car bombs, economic bailouts, and crooked politicians all make for a heavy slog through the newsprint, which may go a long way in explaining the presence of recurring fluffy features on Boring, Oregon or, as is the case with today's Guardian, plucky headlines that ask, "Anyone fancy a break in Asbestos, Canada?" (No, but thanks for asking.)

I will be the first to admit that I welcome a good chuckle at the expense of Hell, Michigan and Intercourse, Pennsylvania as much as the next person. A few place names in these features are old saws (Truth or Consequences, New Mexico) while others (Purgatory, Maine) delight anew. But no matter how many silly lists of oddball place names I've perused over the years, nothing beats the thrill of unexpectedly spotting one of these rare beasts out in the wild.

Take Bad Route Road, Exit 192 off I-94 in Montana. This ominous sign came into view through the cracked windshield of the Balthrop, Alabama tour van last summer on our month-long tour of the U.S. We were hauling out to the west coast from Fargo, North Dakota, recovering from our show the night before opening for the wonderful Josh Ritter, lulled by long stretches of road in Big Sky Country and driving through a steady grim drizzle. The first road sign whipped past at 75 m.p.h. There was a pause, then an uncertain voice from the front seat: "Did that just say Bad Route Road?" "Yep. I think it did."

Among the well-documented entries in the Ministry of Silly Names, I have yet to come across a list as bizarre as those in Bill Bryson's amusing Made in America, but in the meantime, here's the regurgitated list from today's G2 magazine, which brought me a few much-needed grins on the downtown number 2 train. The list came with the following promising headline: Some more holiday ideas: Other North American towns that might struggle to attract the tourist pound. I don't know about the tourist pound, but you can bet there's a whole lot of nudge-nudge wink-wink going on at the city limits of these towns:
Intercourse Pennsylvania
Boring Oregon
Dull Ohio
Ordinary Virginia
Spunky Puddle Ohio
Mosquitoville Vermont
Hell Michigan
Slaughterville Oklahoma
Tightwad Missouri
Roaches Illinois
Dildo Newfoundland
Crotch Lake Ontario
Bummerville California
Gas Kansas
Purgatory Maine
But enough laughter at the expense of my fellow countrymen and continent-folk. I'm off to sigh over more fetching photographs of Nick Clegg read the serious news of the world, and when I'm done with that task, I think I just might kick back with a beer from Fucking Austria.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Friday, May 7, 2010

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Do Not Write To Me As

Rome, Italy

A beautiful feature of books is that they, unlike their fashionable electronic counterparts, are not only written, they can also be written in. Annotation is an act of intelligent vandalism that I -- unable to participate in such defacing myself, having spent too much time in book conservation -- can appreciate. When you read with a pen in hand, it's less monologue and more dialogue, and that's exactly the sort of thing that can make reading so enjoyable. That is, unless you're an OCD freak like myself, in which case your pen is firmly capped, your pint of Smithwick's placed at a safe distance, and you check all your rearview mirrors before turning to the next page.

Fortunately, technology is on my side. Thanks to the invention of the mighty Post-it, and because I'm always hunting for excuses to crack open a freshly minted 3-pack of Moleskines, I tend to keep track of the stuff I read in places well outside of the book's sacred margins. I'm calling to mind an essay I read in the New York Times Book Review some time ago on this very topic. I flip back in my own small notebook, dated December 2008, a cream-colored Fabriano journal with red spirals on the cover, and sure enough, there are my notes on the article by Henry Alford: You never know what you'll find in a book.

There is nothing quite like walking into a used book store, taking down a book from the shelf, and unwittingly stumbling onto clues of the lives of others, revealed to you by what they have left behind in the margins -- or sometimes in the leaves of the book itself.

You open a book in a university library and out falls a yellowed letter with this curious first line: "Do not write to me as Gail Edwards. They know me as Andrea Smith here." Torn-out drink menus. Grocery lists. Business cards. Who were these people? Why is there a full-page Rimmel ad in the leaves of Faust? Forget CSI -- I want to join the ranks of UBI: used book investigator.

Because of my previously mentioned, er, tendencies (did I mention I go into tremors at the sight of a dog-eared page?), an inspection of my own bookshelves would yield little in the way of my own marginalia except for a three-month binge where I read everything by Nabokov I could get my hands on and was so blindsided by my enthusiasm for the stuff I just had to underline. I've left behind some loose-leaf evidence: crosswords from the Irish Times (I don't do them -- I just enjoy reading the out-of-context cryptic clues). BookCourt bookmarks. A few wayward Post-its. But more interesting are the strange confetti that fall from the pages of a used book unexpectedly. These offer far more cryptic clues, and they act as reminders that the book's journey started before me and will continue after I pass it on to another.

Which brings us to inscriptions. I tend to be, frankly, a little creeped out when I find these in the front cover of a book, most of all because I can see only two reasons for giving away a book with a personalized inscription: 1) the sentiment, heartfelt when it was written, has since been discarded, scorned, or forgotten or 2) someone died. Owning one of these marked books can be even worse. That heartfelt inscription is a constant reminder that the book will never be truly mine. It was intended for Marjorie, Merry Christmas 1962, and always will be. If it says on the ornate sticker Ex Libris Bradford J. Sebsad, then Bradford, as far as I'm concerned, that book is yours and always will be.

The Book Inscriptions Project is a great online collection of these mysterious hand-written dedications. But I find these a little easier to look at, maybe because they have already creeped somebody else out, and I'm just getting the morbid fascination secondhand.

I have to half-retract my scorn of reading things on a screen, though, because first of all, I write a blog, and secondly, I've spent enough time scrolling through the scanned marginalia of writers I love to understand the pleasure of seeing things written in a writer's own hand. If you want to know how to get me to waste a good half hour of precious time when I could be reading my Twitter feed, you'll give me the link that answers the question, "What words did David Foster Wallace circle in the dictionary?" Simply put, I love seeing the notes writers make in their books and manuscripts. Think of it as a literary version of the breathless Us Weekly feature about how stars are just like us. Famous Writers: They Scribble Notes, Too! I'm still waiting for the windfall that will allow me the extra pocket change to get Nabokov's The Original of Laura, which has been published, quite awesomely, and among much hullaballoo, as a series of scanned index cards with Nabokov's carefully pencilled script. Not quite the real thing, but deliciously close.

In the meantime, if you've come across a curiosity in a book -- whether it be a note scribbled in the margins, an odd underlined passage, or a sliver of ephemera that slid out when you first opened it -- I'd love to hear what you've found.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Monday, May 3, 2010

The "A" in A-Team Stands For Aristotle

Red Hook, Brooklyn

Most everyone of a certain age who grew up around Chicago has an apocryphal Mr. T story. He not only played the meanest mutha ever seen on nightly NBC television, he was also our most famous neighbor. While I never ran into the fella myself, a friend from college liked to tell the story of the time she and Mr. T got into an elevator in a high-rise building and were thwarted by some kids who pressed all the buttons between 2 and 14 before dashing off. "Oooh, you kids," Mr. T was rumored to have said before shaking his fist good-naturedly at the brats. Even though I wasn't there, I find myself cadging that line every time I'm in an elevator that's making a whole bunch of unplanned stops.

Draped in gold chains with a mohawk clipped clean as a Bonsai, Mr. T was the icon of my youth. I can recall a year when not a day on the playground went by without someone pityin' some other fool. I suppose he fell off the radar for me once I moved on to junior high, but imagine my delight when, through the magic of the internet, his pro-momma song, "Treat Your Mother Right" came out. ("When you put down one mother, you put down mothers all over the world.")

After seeing the Banksy movie last week, "Exit Through the Gift Shop", I've had my antennae out for the aerosol-ed faces I see on the streets around me. Shepard Fairey -- the street artist also responsible for the iconic red-white-and-blue Obama "Hope" poster -- has spray-painted so many Andre the Giant OBEY faces in cities from coast to coast that it seems there's hardly a billboard, street lamp, or wall that hasn't seen Andre's stern command from on high. But given the choice between the two, I like to think that this shabby Mr. T on a shorted-out electrical box in Red Hook is the one I'm going to listen to.