Contemporary art curator. Student. Book addict. Art lover. Geek. Dreamer. Curious about everything. Check out my website http://thecuriouscurator.com/
If you follow me on Twitter, it should come as no surprise that I am a huge fan of Cory Arcangel’s work. A couple of months ago he gave a talk at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art, where I work, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of recognition in the way he talked about internet and pop culture - with a mix of love, enchantment, tiredness, and sometimes plain horror. He is best known as an artist who combines various new media (including music, videogames, film, performance, and internet art) to create an oeuvre that is firmly based on technology. But for me, the best thing about his work is the humour in his pieces, his obsession with technology and finding its limitations, and his fascination with people and the emotional possibilities contained within the things they create.
In December 2011, Arcangel created the Twitter account WrknOnMyNovel, and began to retweet every person who included the words “working on my novel” in their tweets. This book is a printed selection of those tweets (with the permission of the original authors), arranged so that they imply a sampled, loosely connected narrative. The effect is disconcerting, but often humorous: after a splurge of one-liner tweets with many punctuation variations accompanying “working on my novel”, someone tweets an expression of relief that they are not working on their novel, only to be followed by someone who started "working on my novel again".
After only ten tweets, the phrase “working on my novel” assumes a kind of mystical power, as if we were following a rosary and repeating a prayer instead of reading a book.
It makes you wonder why people would stop working on their novels because they felt the need to share with the world that they were doing it. Perhaps this should come as no surprise in this day and age, in which telling others about our lives is as important as living them. Still, it's interesting to see the various contexts in which people choose to write: the musical accompaniment they prefer, the beverages they sip on, the time of day, the place they are sitting on, and, of course, the many distractions that plague them.
The book chronicles the process of writing a novel: the joys, the pains, the hopes, the ideas, the writer’s block, the frustrations, the time constraints, the distractions, the need for motivation, and the ever-present procrastination. The minutia of the act of writing is mentioned: word counts, structure, romance, plot, pace, titles...
They are also, simply, slices of life from unknown contributors. Who are all these people? What kinds of lives do they live? And, perhaps more importantly, did they ever finish working on their novels?
The limitation brought about by the 140 characters is visible in the abbreviations all these writers use (which look very much out of place in a book) and on several broken tweets, which end mid-sentence, presumably because their authors would continue their thought on the following tweet (which, since it doesn’t include “working on my novel”, is not in the book).
It makes you think of the fickleness of Twitter, especially compared to the weight of the novel in a writer’s mind. It also makes you consider the entirely human act of writing, of wanting to leave something behind that’s permanent, of producing something from our minds that will survive when the mind does not. After all, writing a book is something that is on most people’s bucket lists.
So how did Cory Arcangel, someone who (to my knowledge) has not written a novel, get so attuned to this phenomenon? As mentioned above, he is known for his interest in technology, and for (sometimes obsessively) collecting internet artefacts; tweets, a fleeting and ultimately superficial way of communication, fit nicely into those ideas. There’s also something poetic about taking such a fleeting medium and committing it to a stable, semi-permanent medium as is paper books.
If you’re not familiar with Arcangel’s works, you might wonder why he would take what is essentially a born-digital artwork and translate it into a format that, in truth, does not suit it perfectly. Thinking back to the talk I mentioned at the beginning, I remember him discussing the looming threat of death and how, as a digital artist, he felt that everything he did could be gone overnight, not just in case of technological failures, but also because of the very nature of digital media. The internet is a place of ephemerality, of fast communication and rapid consumption; in other words, it is not the ideal place for an artist who wants his or her work to survive his or her lifetime. And that’s why he had begun to commit his works into physical media, even if they weren’t originally intended for them, and even if they are freely available online (at least right now, since we don’t know if, in the future, they will be lost or hard to access, like, for example, Andy Warhol’s recently recovered digital works - Cory Arcangel himself played a big part in the technological process of recovery).
On the downside, I will say this: The book is divided into chapters by doodles of tea kettles. I admit I cannot make sense of this. Is the process of waiting for tea meant to be an analogy to the act of writing a novel? Is each kettle meant to be a symbolic and literal break while you’re reading the book? It seems like an afterthought, and it was the one part of the book that left me puzzled.
In short, this is more of a "born digital and then printed on physical paper” artwork than an actual book. If you buy this thinking you will get a regular book, you will be disappointed (although it will hardly be your fault, since it is purposely made to look and feel like a regular Penguin book). If, however, you look at it as what it really is, a clever, simple but poignant project by an artist well known for doing those, you’re in for a treat.
Note: I got this book for review purposes through NetGalley. This review has been cross-posted to my Curious Curator blog.