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.


Conan Drumm said...

Have played many variations on the number plate journey over the years, so this account makes perfect sense, creatively and every other way.
As it happens I thought of &7 this morning on the way back from an unsuccessful trip to the harware shop.
Passing along the path I crossed over a manhole cover stamped with the old official mark of our former state telephone service. You may know all this so please forgive me if it's old hat. The phone system here was developed as a direct service of the former Department of Posts & Telegraphs. The official stamp was rendered as a short form of the department's name in Irish - An Roinn Poist agus Telegrafa - which is P7T.
That '7' is not in fact a seven but an Irish 'ampersand' for 'agus'. It's positioned so that the top of the 7 is in line with the mid-point of the P and the T.
Anyway, you probably know all this (and the shorter Irish alphabet), and perhaps it's where your blog title comes from? If not it's a great coincidence.

ps I see it's called the 'Tironian sign (for) et'

Therese Cox said...

Conan - An Irish ampersand - the mind boggles! Thanks so much for explaining that. I never, ever knew the origin of that stamp no matter how many post boxes I've seen it on. Honestly, I just thought it said "PIT". As in, "Just pop your post in the pit". So yeah, we've wandered into true strange coincidence territory.

I lifted &7 straight from the typewriter key (liking all that it implies: numbers & writing & a kitchen sink mind that keeps adding an and, and, and to everything... not to mention I think the ampersand is a beautiful ligature). But considering the fact that I can't seem to stop writing about Ireland despite my Brooklyn address, this adds a whole new layer of meaning.

Pity about the hardware store. If it helps any, you have just COMPLETELY BLOWN MY MIND.

Conan Drumm said...

When I thought to search for a proper typographical representation of 'agus' I came across this guy.

You may lose a bit of time there if you're into typefaces, fonts and other abstruse alphbetica

Conan Drumm said...

ps I meant to add that I agree that ampersand is an attractive character or, as you say, a beautiful ligature. It always remnids me of the treble clef.

Therese Cox said...

Another innocent link leads me further down the path to ruin.

Jackie said...

didn't blink, didn't miss it-- but STILL loved reading your artist's statement here.

And: "trading tales of childhood shoplifting." AHAHHAHAHA. YES. 'Twas an inspired evening on many accounts.

And: Thanks for the shout out. Right back at ya, GF.

And: @Conan: TOTALLY a treble clef.

VioletSky said...

Have totally forgotten how I stumbled on your blog, but I remember being instantly smitten. It has been in my reader ever since and I always looked forward to your updated numbers.
I must admit to being a teensy bit jealous that you actually did what I longed to do but was too lazy or inert to get around to it (plus not living or travelling in any exciting locales like Budapest or Prague or even NYC).

So, now, I really enjoyed reading this bit of background and it all makes so much more sense to me.

And yes, the ampersand and treble clef!! I swoon.

Therese Cox said...

Jackie - It was indeed inspired.

VioletSky - Thanks for visiting and welcome! It was my hope that an artist statement might give a little insight into the obsession. If I hadn't done the original 99 numbers, 3 cities, 2 weeks, I doubt I would ever have started collecting. Now it's like a scavenger hunt that never ends.

And yeah, it was a beautiful mind that came up with that treble clef. But the other one? Next to the elegant treble clef, the bass clef looks like the Quasimodo.

Unknown said...

Great to finally see the collection, Therese. I'm kicking myself for not taking a pic of you in front of it. Someday. Enjoyed the readings, too.

Funny, the word verification that came up to post this comment was "terses"... almost like yer name.

Therese Cox said...

Cheers Bernie. Thanks again for coming to check it out. Next time we'll definitely remember to get a shot. xoTerses