In 1996 you wrote Legendary, Lexical, Loquacious Love under the pen name of Eve Rhymer. You appropriated a commercially published romance novel by rearranging all the words alphabetically. Where did the idea come from?
The romance novel came about through a show I curated with with Laura Letinsky at Randolph Street Gallery a long time ago. We were interested in the representation of romance in popular culture and were looking for artwork around that. We asked Sally Alatalo, who was working with pulp fiction, to do a piece using romance novels for our show, and she did a lovely piece, building a wall stuffed full of romance novels, titled Keep Me Warm. In the past, people apparently used books that didn’t sell as insulation material. And after that exhibition, Sally asked me to do this romance novel for a series she was editing for her publishing company, Sara Ranchouse Publishing, of artist books based on genre fictions—she already had a Western and a mystery and I think maybe a science fiction. So she asked me to make the romance novel for that series. I got the idea of doing an alphabetized romance novel because I’d been doing a lot of studying about the romance narrative because of the exhibition—romance is all about narrative—and I was thinking about what it would take to undo that really strong and familiar romance narrative. I thought that the alphabet was an equally strong and familiar ordering system, so maybe it would be strong enough to fight with the narrative. Its kind of the opposite of the romance narrative: alphabetization is objective and cold; the romance narrative is subjective and warm.
The cover features an unconscious romantic heroine who is rescued from the sea after a fateful shipwreck. Was this based on a specific romance novel, for instance, a bestseller at the time?
Oh no, it was literally chosen by weight almost. Romance novels all tell the same basic story, but they range in length from the super-formulaic Harlequin romances of 100 pages or so, to 500 page sagas. So, I just chose one that was middle-sized. I was wondering whether if you alphabetize the words, would it still seem to have a narrative because of the kind of language used. I kept all the punctuation marks with whatever word they were closest to, and any capitalizations, and each chapter corresponds to a letter. By the way, the swooning woman on the cover is Sally Alatalo herself. She designed the cover and dressed up and posed with a mutual male friend of ours for this picture.
In your embroideries series you often talk about value, for instance, the value of the copy. Alphabetizing the words seems to also talk about the different values these words assume by sheer repetition.
Right. This was a thought, too. That I would find out which words were used to talk about romance—is there a romance lexicon?— and, you know, of course, it doesn’t really work that way. Of course there’s more “she’s” and “her’s” and “I’s” than there are “his” or “him’s,” very much based on these books being written for women. But we can’t just pick out words. One of the things I found interesting is that there is a certain amount of really graphic sex in these books but it disappears when you alphabetize. The words aren’t graphic in themselves, so something like “thrusting manhood,” if you break that up into two words, it has no…,what should we call it, …impact? (laughs).
Although you made this piece in 1996, it is very contemporary. It takes us to conceptual poetry, and writers, such as Kenneth Goldsmith and his Uncreative Writing project, or even Sophie Calle’s project “Take Care of Yourself,” in which she deconstructs the language of a break-up letter into syntax and grammar. You also talk about the romance novel as a text pattern. Would you consider making another piece like that? A textual sculpture? Or, having Legendary, Lexical, Loquacious Love performed from beginning to end?
Well, the idea of having the book read aloud cover to cover sounds pretty great! There have been readings. A couple of times, Sally and I dressed up as romance novelists—she has made some romance novels of her own, too—and had book signings at which people read excerpts.
I love the idea of “Uncreative Writing” and a lot of the work that’s been made around that now—it really resonates with me—but this book was made in 1996 and at that time I wasn’t thinking in terms of Uncreative Writing, that idea and that terminology wasn’t around then, or at least I didn’t know about it if it was, and it doesn’t seem quite right to project ideas onto the work retroactively. I did spend a lot of time with Perec; that probably influenced me. But what I was thinking about at the time I made the book had to do with a postmodern critique of structuralism, including things like narrative and dualities. I actually still work and think in these terms a lot—we’re all products of our generation. I work a lot with ideas or meanings or categories or what-have-you, that are considered opposites, or inherently contradictory, and I try to push them together in such a way that they can’t be pulled apart, but they are still undeniably themselves. The example I use all the time to explain this is the duck/rabbit—you know, the optical illusion? If you look one way, it’s a duck, and if you look another way, it’s a rabbit, but when you are seeing the rabbit, you can’t forget that you just saw the duck. So the pushing together in the book of alphabetical order and the romance narrative, which as I said earlier, seem to be inherently at odds with one another, is an example of that. And in my current exhibition, I try to push together the material and the immaterial, the 2-D and 3-D, experience and representation. I believe that all these things are not really separable. And if you try to keep them separate, you make the world way less interesting.