I have absolutely no idea what would have possessed me to take Generation X ; Tales for an Accelerated Culture out of Cosham Library aged sixteen. I think it was because it was in the Art section/shelf which struck me as odd because it loked out of place nestled between faded catalogues, books on old masters and How to Draw. I quite regularly borrowed CD’s completely based on the cover artwork, and books just on the design on the cover, so I was probably just attracted by the neon pink and navy cover graphics. Maybe not so much has changed. (If you can’t be pretentious/completely clueless in your library book lendings at sixteen when can you be? Id encourage any sixteen year old wandering into a public library, which must occasionally still happen, to be as pretentious and over ambitious as possible.) I was probably also hooked by the blurb on the back which sounded edgy, grown up and exciting, a bit like the plot of an american indie film I’d rent from Blockbuster video based on the VHS sleve. I thought it might flesh out the glamorous world of apathetic creative grown ups that crossed over into my mainstream awareness of Brit Pop and Cool Britannia as TV presenters or commentators, I was already aware Id missed out on – and I guess in a way it did.
Ten years later, working as a bookseller, Coupland’s 2013 Shopping in Jail published by Sternberg was a continuous top seller for a year. It helped that it looked great, designed by Bezzarri Rodriguez, so loads of designers were buying it simply to geek out over and copy its formal properties. It featured a prominent barcode on the cover in the same way Generation X had. During this period I also read Girlfriend in a Coma, not his best but some of the images have stayed with me. It surprises me that nobody tried to make it into a film, it would have made a great b-movie. Actually I think it aspired to the TV film or serial format. Everyone in the book works in the special effects department of the X-files and the subsequent falling asleep virus apocalypse is written for the screen, its proto Black Mirror. Coupland currently has a solo show at Bit Rot at Witte de With in Rotterdam. It’s a difficult show, and not one I enjoyed, mainly because Im a fan and the visual art doesn’t stand up to the interior world and logic of his writing; maybe thats the price for such fluency in one field.
When once asked the question ‘what is the biggest problem facing sculpture today?’ Louise Bourgeous contentiously replied ‘Storage.’ This came to mind when encountering 50 Books I Have Read More Than Once, a Jenga like construction made from painted wood, in the stretched plank-like forms of books. Prints of the covers and back covers of the books are attached to each plank and the length between painted in the color of the pages, to appear as a grossly stretched book form. At first glance and having read the title I thought, god, what a narcissistic object. My experience selling books drew me in, this sculpture is basically everyones fantasy when browsing a bookshop, that your book collection tells a story about you, that you can perform and edit through selection and display. That you collect books as a mounting physicalisation of your knowledge and an extension of your experience and creation of self, its a huge great useless bibliography framed as a formal piece of art art art. Personally, however much I love reading, I’m turned off by art that requires a reading list.
The alphabet is a storage system, a technology for outsourcing information. Its a code we put into codex form, which has now logically been usurped, in technological terms, by code. Literacy is a colonising influence because it has cultural primacy, the transmission of knowledge through publishing has been the prime form, with TV and now the internet being to two major sea changes in recent memory. There is alot of anxiety around storage and memory. Can we remember everything we read? In fact do we even know how to read anymore, Does it help to read something more than once? Is Coupland implying that reading something more than once is becoming less usual/more difficult? Most of the books in the sculpture were not published in the last ten years, for example. Maybe the work is a memorial to a lost form of reading. Punk picked a battle with TV in the 70’s, but who is taking public issue with the mind altering, neurological effects of living our lives online? The screenplay of the recent End of the Tour set in 1996 has Jason Segal as David Foster Wallace confide his TV addiction, he gives a short monologue describes an imagined future where information is so easy to access and so abundant that for him it would be so addictive, that he would rather not live.
‘Reading is an activity that fosters a strong sense of individualism and it created the 20th century’ confidently states Coupland’s book Age of Earthquakes published this year with Shumon Baser and Hans Ulrich Obrist. The project is supposedly the millennial update to Macluhans Medium is the Massage and I – I guess cynically – think its the project that Obrist’s 89plus was gleaning information from young ‘digital native’ artists for, unpaid. (This book also, quite possibly, WAS the ‘Matrix Bible’, that Kanye reference in his impromptu speech at Oxford university earlier this year. Just saying.)
I jotted down all the titles from the sculpture, which created a reading list, and then of course started to cross off which ones I had already read, or ones that surprised me. for example I was quite surprised at first, that there would be three books by Joan Didion. Im not sure why that surprised me, maybe because she is the kind of writer that makes you feel their writing is just between you and them. The three Didion titles are presented here simultaneously with – To mention some – Morrisey, John Wyndham, Margret Drabble, Nancy Mitford, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Pynchon and the Andy Warhol Diaries. Joan Didion deals so well with ideas of acceleration, memory and who and why gets the space to record events. Its the difference between reportage and documentary in editing, but somehow at once and on the page.
Things take time to build meaning, we take time, as individuals and on a collective level to build meaning into our experience, certain people take it upon themselves more than others to mediate that. We live in a moment when everyone has the means to instantly publish on an immediate public platform, like I am right now. Coupland reflects in Shopping in Jail that art movements in the 20th century are would now be memes swallowed up online in a day. There is alot more to sift through, it seems almost quaint to think of the Gen-xers seeing the 90’s as a time of marked acceleration.
In his 2014 Transmediale Marshall McLuhan Lecture Douglas Coupland states that books and writing operate in time, same as film. And that art, operates in space. What does that mean for a sculpture like 50 Books I Have Read More Than Once? Possibly that there is always an urge for our experience (time) to take up space, to solidify the ephemeral; even if that poses a problem for storage.
N.b (After writing this I heard Bit Rot, made up of his personal collection, presented without the artists credited, contained work by only one woman. This led me to think about how such show could be put together, why the artists work wasn’t credited… more importantly it also made me think twice about why I should be spending my unpaid time and energy assessing and reflecting on work in this show. Why would I not write about my own work, the work of my contemporaries, my direct experience or use my writing as a space to understand the communities I am part of, or would like to cultivate and strengthen instead of looking out to the bigger institutions and the work of established artists.)