The BMC conference in October 2010 at UNC-A offered a wide range of wonderful BMC nuggets, but having put off posting about it so long, I’m sticking with the Ray Johnson material which is always my main priority. A big highlight was John Held’s mail art show and talk about mail art and the early days of the NY Correspondance School.
Ray’s inscrutable, radical but disarming approach to art has clearly led to a rich but fairly specialized body of critical writing and thinking about his work, immeshed but not entangled in the large “fan” following evident online. The main points of the former relate to Black Mountain College influences, the main thrust of the latter is mail art and performance art. Ray did not appear to observe such distinctions, but one thing I gained in the last two years of learning from BMCM+AC venues for Ray J work is that Ray Johnson was a major artist in the tradition of DuChamp, Miro, and Klee. Slowly, a body of academic work is relating his truly astonishing accomplishments both in the mainstream tradition of painting and his unique and irresistible gift and mandate: “Steal beauty from the mundane.”
The conference presentations offered delicious details about Ray’s process. Sebastian Matthews provided the quote above as he compared Ray’s obsession with found images to the “image collage” of Frank O’Hara poem “A Step away From Them.” Sebastian also elucidated with great insight about Ray’s Moticos, the secret embeddings and abrupt juxtapositions that Ray created in response to his environment. For Sebastian, Ray is a zen master of art, always indirect though immediate, balancing inward and outward by being aware of the act of being aware. Like O’Hara, a New York School poet, Ray scoured the city for images that enabled him to subvert and reconnect meanings.
Louly Peacock described how Ray subverted Pop Art (and pre-dated Warhol with celebrity portraits), teasing the major figures as in labeling Pollock “Action Jackson,” a nomiker that stuck. Her survey of phallic imagery in Ray’s work made her yet again the most entertaining speaker at the conference. Julie Thomson helped frame Ray’s performance art in showing the relationship between Ray and George Brecht of Fluxus fame, who” began to imagine a more modest, slyly provocative kind of art that would focus attention on the perceptual and cognitive experience of the viewer.” Brecht created “instructions for a toward event,” and along with Alan Kaprow paved the way for the Happenings – not to speak of Ray’s Nothings. Johanna Gosse portrayed Ray as a renegade of the gallery art world, deliberately obfuscating the market process, living in the “osmotic fluid flow” of daily aesthetic experiences, where the experience is the end, the process is the product.
Kate Dempsey revealed more of her discoveries about Albers’ fascination with pre-Columbian culture and how the Mayan hieroglyphs – still mysteries at the time- helped develop Ray’s sensitivity to text as an image source. Ray retained a geometric precision even as he evolved out of painting, and his love of codes, puns and multiple meanings ties together his early and late work.
The best insights into Ray were to be found at the talk by John Held while sorrounded by his mail art show. He walks the walk with mail art to this day and had much to share. He confirmed something also mentioned in the panel discussions – Ray’s moticos were featured in the very first Village Voice in 1955. He also described the importance of the 1970 correspondence art exhibit at The Whitney. He made it convincingly clear that Ray’s correspondence art was “not about the postal system,” but about “how you communicate aesthetics over a long distance.” Held stated that “Ray was building a community,’ and used no judgment or selection with his mailing lists.
The mail art show he exhibited had 170 entries from over 40 countries. It was impressive, entertaining, and a great tribute to the ongoing spirit of the NY Correspondance School. Ray Johnson continues to generate not only interest and academic attention, but exciting participatory tributes and art directly tracable to his genius.
One fun event I should share about from last fall is the presentation of a new BMC Wall in downtown Asheville. A large mural and several interesting installations grace an alley just off Broadway.
Several of the writers mentioned above are featured with Ray Johnson articles in an upcoming issue of the
Sebastian Matthew’s Ray J show essay with lots of Ray J images!
Denis Wood is an old friend who played an important role in nurturing The Paper Plant into existence in the early 1980s. He was an engaging and innovative professor during that tenure of his life, and now has turned his intellectual charms to the theory or philosophy of cartography, writing numerous books and just completing a lecture tour in Germany. His most recent publication, Everything Sings, is a book of radically different maps, illustrating his unique take on what a map can be and how it effects us. It is also a wonderfully quirky portrait of Boylan Heights, and the book’s success shows how interesting and important Denis’ work is, as well as how hot Raleigh is, and how treasured is that neighborhood in its history. The book cover, seen above, displays the location and carving pattern of Boylan Heights pumpkins on a Halloween. Pecan tree locations, utility services, and lot sizes all became subjects of innovative maps created by graduate students under Wood’s tutelage.
Denis spoke and presented this fall at the Boylan Ave Brewery to celebrate the publication of the book. It was well attended and Denis entertained quite well with the amazing story of how his book came to be – an interview for background information with Ira Glass for an NPR story on maps, his casual mention of a long term project with NCSU design students, and the subsequent segment of This American Life which brought the project to the attention of book publishers. The actual production of Everything Sings involved many winding turns, but now that it’s finally out, it is not only selling well, but been nominated for the University of Iowa’s The Essay Prize.
Denis is such a creative thinker and enthusiastic cultural worker. His talk presented small samples of the ideas in his major books – that maps represent not just a set of places but a representation of the way we think about places, if at all. Maps can take many forms, and the formats of our maps shape the way we think about the world. Maps can enhance, shift or corrupt our view of the world. We can also enlarge our sense of the world through creative use and creation of maps, and that is at the core of Denis Wood’s work.
The book that helped promote and elucidate these concepts on the national scene is The Power of Maps, his 1992 book, co-authored with John Fels, that helped literally turn everyone’s concpetions of maps upside down. Last year, they published the title pictured above, which updates and enlarges their approach.
Denis is continually sharing his ideas. His recent presentation at a conference called Mapping Maps: What’s New About Neocartography, in Seigen Germany, was part of a media studies program, and involved people working at what seems to this layman to be right at the edge of cartography: Geo-annotation, The Rise of Aerial Photogrammetry, Performative Cartography, Playful Cartography, and explorations of web resources such as OpenStreetMap. Denis was the main evening speaker and presented his critique entitled The Challenge to Neocartography Posed by Guy Debord and Kevin Lynch. His workshops in Frankfort shared his ideas on the nature of maps with graduate students, and in Liepzig he presented to traditional geographers about “A Place Off the Map: The Case for a Non-Map-based Place Title.”
All this was and is very interesting but I must confess my favorite stories from Germany were about the European flavors and customs, along with some delicious gossip about European academic politics. Denis provokes you to consider new ideas, but he doesn’t press them – mainly because he’s quickly on to some other new ideas – plus the ones you’ve made him think of during the conversation! He is a treasure, he is doing great stuff, and I hope you keep an eye out for him.
Siglio Press on Everything Sings:
Denis Wood has created an atlas unlike any other. Surveying Boylan Heights, his small neighborhood in North Carolina, he subverts the traditional notions of mapmaking to discover new ways of seeing both this place in particular and the nature of place itself. Each map attunes the eye to the invisible, the overlooked, and the seemingly insignificant. From radio waves permeating the air to the location of Halloween pumpkins on porches, Wood searches for the revelatory details in what has never been mapped or may not even be mappable. In his pursuit of a “poetics of cartography,” the experience of place is primary, useless knowledge is exalted, and representation strives toward resonance. Our perception of maps and how to read them changes as we regard their beauty, marvel at their poetry, and begin to see the neighborhoods we live in anew. Everything Sings weaves a multi-layered story about one neighborhood as well as about the endeavor of truly knowing the places which we call home.
That a cartographer could set out on a mission that’s so emotional, so personal, so idiosyncratic, was news to me. IRA GLASS, host of This American Life, from his introduction to Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas
Ira Glass interview with Denis Wood about Everything Sings:
Denis Wood website:
This book is featured on Places, the online journal of architecture, landscape and urbanism
Jeffery Beam’s rich and varied literary contributions have been recognized here before, but his recent reading at the UNC Botanical garden was a found treasure. He was surrounded by friends and presented not only botanical poems from his latest book, Gospel Earth , but sang, remininsced, and read favorite passages from the poets who have influenced him. Jeffery’s wonderful voice, his energy, and his exuberant love for natural beauty made his reading a meditation and a spiritual sharing.
Gospel Earth is described on the Regulator Bookstore site as a “a collection of monostitches, micropoems, American sentences, small stones, small poem sequences, & minimalist poetry.” It begins with a plentitude of short quotes, almost all gemstones of thought from many different sources. Just as he shared his influences in the reading, his book says up front: here I stand, the earth my image, love my fuel, all the beauty I have been given is part of me. Those are my words and show Jeffery’s effect on one: spiritual and mindful.
Gospel Earth moves from the quotes to extremely short responses to images, many one line or even two or three words. The literary devices are almost invisible behind the strong zen and monastic distillations of pure meaning. The natural images shine for themselves in Jeffery’s deft and delicate frames. The Botanical Garden says Gospel Earth is
“a big book of little poems, [it] has already received acclaim for its transcendent, lush beauty; its minimal sacrament; and its simplicity and physicality. Described by the poet as a work intended to “invigorate the startling propulsion of haiku’s accessible simplicity and minimalism, while creating a more active canvas.”
The book does contain larger pieces, including a prose meditation on birding dedicated to Jonathan Williams (more about him below). One of my favorite pieces is a poem with notes that constitute an essay called “The Green Man’s Man.” The poem finds Jeffery immersed in Nature but always open to the philosophical notes in her song: ” I open Nature’s book/finding:/The more I know/The less I know.” The notes were written specifically for a different Botanical Garden event, and delve into the mythological image of the Green man. Jeffery tells us
The Green Man is not separate from us, he is our source, emphasizing & celebrating the positive creative laws of Nature, the native intelligence that shepherds and protects this world, and the ecological rightness that guides us.
Jeffery continues to enact and support the spirit of Black Mountain College in many ways and I hope to learn more of his scholarship regarding Jonathan Williams. He has presented numerous times about him, and is working on a bibliography. He has also shared manuscripts and links that make it clear he is a leading authority on the man’s life and significance.
Parts of this book also existed in online and pamphlet versions:
Peter Eichenberger died Thanksgiving morning and proved well his enduring unique qualities with the breadth and nature of his mourning. Just one of those qualities was: if you were ready for it, Peter was down with it, and so he made many many friends. They have mourned the loss of his excellent company and all he might have said, but celebrated a life lived full speed and damn the torpedoes, smelling the roses and leaving no stone unturned along the way. Teasing and sarcasm was our way, as with many, and he would hate those cliches, but he was a man worthy hyberbole, since his life consisted of it.
I feel very lucky to have explored Cameron Park’s myriad of alleyways on bike with him this summer, and glad that I shared so many drinks at Sad’s with him, and I hate like the dickens I never got him together with my dad, whose stories of Depression downtown Raleigh and Southern Railroad energized him any time I touched on them. He could ably discurse on innumerable subjects, and he taught me much. He reminded me that Willie York had ditched and piped Pigeon House Branch to build the first shopping center in the Southeast when I was writing about that troubled creek, and he explained to me that the “geodesic” dome I liked so much at the Fairgrounds was actually made of hexagons (instead of pentagrams like Bucky’s). He could write in the Downtowner of dog history and at Metro of Raleigh history and in the Indy of technological history, but I loved to hear him talk of cultural history and the local media history he had lived with all these years. He was a writer, Raleigh’s own Gonzo, but he was rooted in the Earth by what he could do with his hands, which was just about anything if he wanted to.
What he wanted was for the world to be right and what he knew was that the world is very very screwed up. He was right, and when those dark spectres bothered him he would share about the Mayan prophecies or the bombed levees or some other conspiratorial tale that bothered some but seemed clearly to be metaphors: the world is very very screwed up.
Peter also gathered the best kind of vibes and lived in the harmony of many positive energies. Thus was he beloved and is honored by so many in the words that have flowed since his passing. He leaves behind many words of his own, but scattered over the town of Raleigh (and the world wide web) like raucous crows, singing a noisy chant of art, art for life, art against the controlling state and the corporate fascists, art for love. Peter love Peter.
Here are some of the many links for the outpouring online for Peter and links for his own writing:
illustration by Christine Noad
Passejada Menerbesa / Wild Roman Byways
Hearing Miquèl Decòr read his poetry in Occitan, the ancient French language of the troubadours, was an amazing experience. Listening to him introduce each poem in French, than having his translator Jeannette Rogers say all of it in English, made it an amazing language experience. I went overboard at his performance in Chapel Hill and sight read my copy of Wild Roman Byways, his book, as he read his work. I continually glanced over at the French and English (a wonderful chapbook for a linguist) and nearly made myself sick. It was worth it, but when I heard him read at Meredith College I simply listened and it was just as wonderful. What an energy this man has, this retired schoolteacher from the countryside of southern France who has become a voice in his nation for the language of Oc. Wild Roman Byways describes the physical mileu of ancient Roman sites within a day’s journey of the author’s home. As he evokes the grass-bearded stone ruins and the rough bridges and grottos, he finds the imagist and musical gems in these landscapes and molds them into song. Miquèl does sing, and play, in fact has performed literally for the crown heads of Europe, and his presentation of poetry was a true performance.
Jeannette was so brave and effective as she matched up to her author with her English translations. She read them aloud beautifully and her translations read strongly – having no French, I can’t judge the actual translating, but the English poems are lovely, with such a grip on the natural world.
Below is a sample of this three language experience – Oc, French ,English.
Ma votz se vòl tamborn e resson de dalhaires,
E se pèrd dins los aires…
Ma voix se veut tambour et ècho de faucheurs,
et elle se perd, dans les airs…
My voice seems to throb and to echo with the sound
of reapers, then, becomes lost in the wind…
When the reading shifted away from Roman Byways to the lyrical love poetry more typical of Decòr’s work, the tone changed. Here he was even more demonstrative, and the intriguing qualities of the Occitan were more prominent. The poems were very masculine (think imagist Robert Bly) and the linguistic tones were somewhat Germanic, sometimes almost guttural. This was amazing to hear from the mouth of a Frenchman, and was one of many things about the whole experience that enlarged my perspective on the French character. Miguèl is immersed in the southern French countryside, and spoke passionately at the Chapel Hill reading about the history of Occitan in France and his own relationship to Paris and traditional French national culture. His parents forbade him to speak Oc but he learned it anyway from his godfather and has become one of its champions. There are Oc immersion schools in southern France, and Miguèl makes media appearances and participates on a national level with the preservation of the language.
Kudos to Jeannette for bringing this fascinating man to Raleigh and facilitating his poetry presentations – as well as translating and reading the poems! We will be hearing more of Jeannette as she continues her literary journey through the France of the troubadours.
To order a copy of Miguèl’s book, contact her: