After the End of the End of the World: a collaboration and exhibition

This temporary disruption, a conversation of vague intention. 2020. Spiral accordion book, glass jar, scrolled book pages.

After the End of the End of the World is a project that I conceived with artist-writer-friend-collaborator Derek Owens. We’ve worked together in the past but never in such a durational and intentional way.

Here’s the premise, which Derek and I wrote together:

Over the twelve months of 2020, we set for ourselves a project of long-distance collaboration. Each month, we sent each other a selection of words from texts we’d been reading. The rule was that we wouldn’t disclose where the language had come from, thereby decontextualizing the prose somewhat. This gave the words we sent each other a vaguely mysterious quality—a little like messages in a bottle, or fortunes in fortune cookies. As recipients, we gave ourselves the task of responding to any of these words in visual form. One set of words per month, one work of art per month, twenty-four works in total over the course of a strange pandemic year.

Keep still. Wait. This is the moment of no turning back. 2020. Hanging paper installation.

Throughout our collaboration, the sentences and often the words themselves seemed more and more like ingredients to be used in recipes. One phrase paired with another resulted in a hopeful feeling—but connect it to another and the mood became melancholy or ominous. That the meaning of words depends upon their neighbors is nothing new, of course. But to continually mix and match language over the span of a year—to treat all these sentences as if they were scraps of artist papers and ephemera, to literally be cut and pasted and glued together—brought us to a point where the words became more and more abstract, no less materials for art-making than pigment and oil. When we recognize that words and grammar can be materials to chop, mix, obliterate, erase, put back together, glue, burn, whatever—well, writing is no longer something that must sprout from the blank page of one’s head, but rather a readily available, unlimited body of supplies that can be added to one’s toolbox.

An exchange between listening and receiving, symptoms of this strange malaise, 2020, lotus-fold books

The overall project hints at a new form of criticism, analysis, and reader response. Instead of writing “about” the works of novelists, poets, critics, and philosophers, here their words become artist supplies, their unexpected coherences and surprising echoes just waiting to be fashioned into new forms. Perhaps the most exciting discovery is that, housed within everyone’s personal library lies a gallery of latent, invisible art objects simply waiting to be realized. Approaching the books on one’s shelves the way an artist opens up her flat files, or selects the necessary inks or pastels for the day’s activity, casts the activity of reading into a whole new light. Reading as mining, culling, sifting, scavenging. Reading as the act of making.

The sigils are drawn from the same trees, an experiment in magic, 2020, ink, collage, and encaustic on wood

Our exchange of words led us down meandering paths, toward found materials, collages, artist books, paper sculptures, and installations. We suspended unbound pages, repurposed antique scrap albums, grew word vines that crawled across the wall, inserted tiny bits of text into make-up compacts, folded handmade papers, tucked vintage photos into cigar boxes with captions.

This publication documents the fruits of our labors. In a pandemic year when so few people could visit the gallery, we thought it made sense to create a digital catalogue. Upon conclusion of our exchange, we revisited all of the words we’d sent each other over the course of the year and mined them a second time as source material for a new creative, call-and-response text. “Words Rewritten After the End of the End of the World, or, ‘I have long imagined a grand adventure made by badgers,'” is included in the catalogue, along with many more images of the artwork.

After the End of the End of the World was exhibited at the Regier Art Gallery, Bethel College, February 4 – March 5, 2021.

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