‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog

9/15/12 12:42 PM

‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument

If the un-canon exists—or the alternative canon; a trove of works treasured outside of the mainstream—then it indisputably includes Tom Phillips and A Humument, his capstone project. A painter by trade, Phillips’s work has been inducted into importance mostly by the literary avant-garde; it seems that every other book of erasures credits him as an influence. A Humument, which stages an encounter between the living and the dead through a form of posthumous collaboration, began with a chance operation that has become its own legend of sorts: in 1966, Phillips decided to walk into an English shop, purchase the first book he could find for threepence, and make that text the focus of his energies. His method would bring him to William Hurrell Mallock’s 1892 novel A Human Document, which would be abbreviated by modification to its current title. Nearly a half-century later, Phillips’s project is still ongoing, existing physically in five published editions and practically as a vocation. Phillips, who wanted a book “exhumed” from and not “born” out of another, continues to acquire new copies of A Human Document, and continues to alter these copies into dynamic paintings, collages, and cut-ups that both excavate Mallock’s volume and transform it into a wholly new—wholly “other”—collision of the visual with the typographical. What’s resulted from this process is an artwork that can’t be described straightforwardly as a book, though its source is one. A Humument communicates with Mallock, but also with the versions and permutations of itself; it enshrines revision not as a step toward the achievement of an ineffable “finished” work, but as a re-entry into the realm of possibility from which such finished works emerge. Nor does A Humument, despite its adoption by experimental writers as a model accomplishment, fit easily into the looser category of “text,” as its textual components are just as frequently valued for their aesthetic as well as semantic capacities. Nor is the project a strict erasure, as Phillips often incorporates Mallock’s words into his pieces in lieu of obliterating them. The project lives in fluctuation, makes its home in the no-man’s-land where categories are helpful as aids to interpretation but obstructive in their inability to grasp its totality. A Humument may be coherent through the lens of painting, just as it might be through the lens of poetry. But neither of these singular approaches can lay claim to all of the work’s refractive potentialities. Instead, the project prompts its viewers to move between them, an experience that results not in meaning-making but discovery. The microscopic becomes gargantuan; phrases distanced from each other by paragraphs are forced into confrontation; the canvas of the printed page moves into—and out of—focus, as a landscape might when seen through a camera’s viewfinder. There’s a liminal synesthesia present all the while; “listen to the / sound of / the colour of a flower / It is enough / listen,” some speaker urges, a few of the many words that, as William Gass has noted, “sing a painted music.” In a way, A Humument can be understood as an emulation of the experience of encountering an art-object for the first time: the unattainable logic of what snags the mind, what catches one’s eye, is refreshed. Taken didactically, it might be seen as a call to return to close reading. But before attention, there must be wonder, an entry into a space that disobeys convention’s demands to read linearly, left-to-right, up-to-down. Phillips offers his own signposts to this wonder by connecting highlighted words, more enactments of individual liberty—a liberty likewise available to all readers—than assertions of interpretive primacy. Phillips
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and The Beatles are just a few of the icons his project echoes. corresponds to the illusion-producing processes of contemporary civilization. polemic. Critic Jennifer A. harking back to Phillips’s threepence purchase so many years ago and instantiating another vindication of Mallarmé’s maxim that “tout. Stein. a direct antithesis to Sartre’s claim in “What is Writing?” that “it is one thing to work with colour [sic] and sound. nonetheless remarked “how ponderous it is sometimes to turn into its [A Humument’s] exegete rather than its maker…” Our email exchange plotted a course that ended up weaving between the systematic and the mystical—a dip into one led to a dip into the other until both were so comingled they appeared fused. they brought out not only poetry but social commentary. and another to express oneself by means of words. not on obfuscated dead ends. existe pour aboutir à un livre”— everything in the world exists to end up in a book. au monde.” A Humument would seem to both prove and disprove Roubaud: there might not be poetry in an unaltered novel. but he also rends the apparatus of formal analysis.‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog 9/15/12 12:42 PM reassembles a novel. used to play a game called “sound tennis.”) “There is no poetry in the novel. but the mystification that Phillips orchestrates is of a different sort: its portals open on the possible. like Mallock’s page beneath Phillips’s paint. Matthea Harvey began work on her popular work of erasure Of Lamb by choosing the first book she could find for three dollars on a New York street.” wrote critic Harold Rosenberg in his 1975 book Art on the Edge. Phillips’s play is not hostile. whose surname is an edit of “together. This partnership locates itself in an endless lineage of writerthinkers: Phillips traces his preoccupation with art-as-alteration back to a 1965 interview The Paris Review conducted with William Burroughs. “The mingling of object and image in collage. Phillips’s project is more akin to Foucault’s description of Gaston Bachelard. exposition. of image. and narrative. This is true.” Rosenberg was right to point out that “lumps of unassailable information” can be compiled to gain the appearance of credibility. Wagner-Lawlor has argued. but a quality between or beyond the two. human countenances do appear in A Humument. Phillips stands at a hinge between tradition and the epic’s creation of tradition.” Instead. who is perfectly capable of examining his work in such a way. Ovid. Like so many others. the project offers real insights into the state of the book—which isn’t decaying as much as it is evaporating. both in Phillips’s self-portraits and in Bill Toge—the work’s ostensible protagonist. Phillips’s responses http://www. And he has also worked with prominent modernday artists. aphorism. in which the American writer talked about the cut-up poems he’d been doing—a technique he himself borrowed from Brion Gysin. A Humument is itself an exercise in intuition alongside erudition. Joyce. like his former student Brian Eno—who noted in an interview with The Independent that the two.” a word which itself plays on the “togetherness” of Phillips’s de facto partnership with Mallock.kenyonreview. A Humument’s influence on alternative poetics is massive. which might have been more fitting for a critic of the work than for its creator. with his own culture”. Many of the questions I initially posed to Phillips (whose work will be on display at MASS MoCA in March 2013) were textoriented and analytic. His work. Phillips. and the resultant artwork is in turn both facetious and interrogative—of language. but a new pair of eyes—and hands—can bring it out.org/2012/09/tom-phillips-interview/# Page 2 of 15 .” that the work’s designation as postmodern ties it to parody. nor is it frivolous.” Eno wrote. Despite its resistance to Mallock’s characters and plotlines. of given fact and conscious artifice. Phillips is both descendant and editor to Mallock. but like all good parodies. in an essay titled “A Portrait of the (Postmodern) Artist: Intertextual Subjectivity in Tom Phillips’s A Humument. A Humument moves past the ontological divisions implicit in genre and engineered into form. It was a rather good game. sometimes as technical imitation. in choosing cultural activity over passivity. in addition to their artistic ventures. of form. bits of its legacy leap up here and there—sometimes as homage.” (“We went around Ipswich buying up old wrecked pianos and put them all round the room. “Collage is the primary formula of the aesthetics of mystification developed in our time. In Phillips’s case. plies apart the lines of another author to establish an alien but shared space and shared impulse. who he describes as “playing against his own culture.” Oulipo member Jacques Roubaud declared in his 1988 manifesto “A Brief Note. if similarly nebulous. “Then we played a kind of hand tennis and scored according to the quality of noise we made when hitting a stripped piano.

line-breaks. but only properly surfaced when it became electronically possible for the user to invoke chance himself and be doubly at its mercy with both a fixed and aleatoric page. He touched upon a cornucopia of topics: art’s commodification. and how is the aesthetic mood of a page determined? http://www. and then you found the copy of Mallock in Austin’s on Peckham Rye (where. “Blake saw his first angels”)—does that day seem any more or less fated to you know. and words buried within words. even of my artistic marriage to Mallock (perhaps I should call it a civil partnership these days) which arose from an invitation to chance at as near a random moment as I could devise. The idea of an oracular use of A Humument was early on at the back of my mind. thinking of the I Ching and the Sors Virgiliana. and I remember her often saying that money was coming to me soon from across the water… I’m still waiting. I voluntarily open my studio door to chance but of course cannot close it against fate. Given how the work came to be—you’d use the first book you could find for threepence. fate and luck. A second level of chance enters with the user’s interpretation of the message which perhaps only works in retrospect at the end of the day when they can say. and from the twentieth into the ageless field of the digital.‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog 9/15/12 12:42 PM are transcribed as prose. “So that’s what it meant… I see…” If fate exists and the Norns are knitting on behind my work then it is too strong a force to meddle with in such a fairground gipsy fashion. do you feel that the pages of A Humument have themselves “meant” different things for you as you’ve encountered them over the years? What’s your process like—what informs your decision to isolate certain clumps of words and not others. you’ve also published an iPhone app that includes an “oracle” feature offering readers the ability to juxtapose any two pages of the work at random.kenyonreview.org/2012/09/tom-phillips-interview/# Page 3 of 15 . Dante’s Inferno (which he translated and illustrated). It is one with the throw of dice and the falling of cards. hard rhyme is indicated by slashes. You mentioned to The Guardian that you yourself have used this feature. A comparison of Mallock and Phillips KR: On the subject of meaning and interpretation. I do not know whether chance and fate consult each other. As a child I had a Welsh aunt who regularly told the cards after supper with dark words about a club man and a diamond woman coming together. symbolism. that you have some interest in art-as-divination. you recall. especially dedicating more than half your lifetime to the project that came from it? Tom Phillips: I don’t think I use the word fate very much. incorporating stanzas. John Cage. et cetera. but occasionally he’d write them in a way not unlike poems. and even rhymes. The Kenyon Review: In addition to the five print editions of A Humument that have been released. I began by asking about A Humument’s recent incarnation as an iPhone app—attesting to the project’s ability to move from the nineteenth century into the twentieth.

suddenly become alive with possibilities—often because they yield a key word or phrase that has become relevant or newly resonant to me. “to work / my poor little book… till / very rich / for / eyes.‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog 9/15/12 12:42 PM TP: The quest for text is always the first thing. and some pages loiter for years without giving up the good or the goods.” as in arma virumque cano. reprinted below]. If you rearranged them. what would one lose—or gain? TP: Apart from page one indicating the traditional epic ambition—“I sing. is not relevant. The book perforce becomes a compendium of my pictorial dialects though it can. if the sequence of the pages is crucial to how you see the work. etc. what goes into choosing the cover? Did you have any intention to influence the reader’s experience of the whole work with the cover? TP: The cover picture serves to identify one edition from another. like the order of their making. seemingly reluctant. in a similar vein. But does it. this literary aesthetic is variable in kind. trans. For example—last week. [The first line of Virgil’s Aneid. despite this. Page 88 from the 4th edition of A Humument KR: I’m also wondering. given certain texts. But others. KR: A Humument seems. to critique the epic: it effaces that which presents itself as part of the canon. that separates it from that lineage? Is A http://www. I am an artist so the visual aesthetic follows the verbal one. having found ping pong the game I myself play. I sometimes imagine the whole book like that were there but world enough and time. nor Seneca too light. and now a sort of winding up at the end now enriched with the (penultimate) echo of Ulysses—the order of pages. They are as shufflable as a pack of cards. Not Plautus too heavy. “I sing of arms and of a man”]. attempt to join the lineage of epic literary works that have dotted the timeline of human history? Or is there something about it that distinguishes it from the epic. provoke new visual strategies. and thereby undermines canonicity. such as the rivers of type making up the drawing and confining it or dictating the whole composition.kenyonreview. As you can see. taking advantage of a changing image. The most recent echoes the first and says that I am still forging on. KR: The cover of the fifth edition excerpts a page whose text reads. a cluster of possibilities grew around it and these were unified by a representation of the table [on page 30. and I can more or less be sure to be able to provide it—or it even already exists in my work. and can be adapted. The cover as it appears on the iPhone/iPad app is the best.org/2012/09/tom-phillips-interview/# Page 4 of 15 .…” After five editions spanning several decades. almost.

which likewise—as John Cage taught me—forbids cheating. a sort of banishment of the very technique the project rests upon for its existence.” it can’t really be an epic. of what I had done in other media wherever relevant.org/2012/09/tom-phillips-interview/# Page 5 of 15 . composing and supporting. and all these mentors are identified by initials in early pages of A Humument. with whom I corresponded. whom he meets in hell again. But I was closest to Morton Feldman. which I read in 1964. Ser Brunetto. One of those rules was that no external materials could be incorporated into the modifications you made to Mallock’s novel.e.‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog 9/15/12 12:42 PM Humument an epic work? TP: Epic? Dante used the word commedia to describe his major work: the word divine was added by later fans like Boccaccio— comedy because its central figure was not a grandee. It wasn’t entirely unlike La Vie de Bohéme… Never such decadence.kenyonreview. never such decadence again. It was in the mid sixties that the American composers came to England where art schools had money to invite them. All this was via my friends Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury (John is playing Cage this week at the Albert Hall prom). How regular. I was very much in the thick of things musically in that period. Also. “I sing. Perhaps A Humument is more in the genre of a pillowbook. Thus A Humument came to be a compendium.” i. beyond the pale of fair play. http://www.” was and is your work with A Humument? TP: I like rules. also. though it has been an epic venture and an epic task. An outline of a page from A Humument KR: In the back of each edition. Il Tesoretto. was famous for a little book of thoughts. there is the aleatoric method. which may say more if you look it up. performing. KR: Can you tell me more about your relationship to Cage? TP: Cage was an influence long before I met him via his book Silence. in the sense of “regulated. Though it starts with the generic clarion call. I wrote The Guardian’s obituary for Cage. So that might be a good typology not to leave my book stranded in a category of one.” which provides information about the rules you made for the initial creation of the work. you include a section titled “Notes on A Humument. and the fundamental rule of what I do relates to a sort of unified field theory. Dante’s teacher. In England we have the wonderful concept of something being “just not cricket.

putting objects between the strings to alter tone and timbre). I mention this here to show that A Humument is a chronicle also of family and friends. as Wittgenstein says. except for some amazing looking girls. a moral exemplar for me—showing. It was my first job.‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog 9/15/12 12:42 PM Page 334 from the 4th edition of A Humument KR: You had an exchange with Brian Eno in The Independent in 1998 about how you two met. His was “It Felt Like Running Away. and you said that Cage “made you realise that there wasn’t a thing called noise. my story winds up here: / What passengers have seen me to the end?”] I haven’t got the book at hand. But that was almost fifty years ago.” Eno said. Both of you talk about Cage. it was just music you hadn’t appreciated. There is a portrait I did of him in the National Portrait Gallery. “In his case. and I was in the chorus. Brian was my best student—in fact almost the only one I can remember. I was a reluctant and largely ineffectual teacher. http://www. after all. and we both believe one should sing every day (and louder sing…). my last public singing gig… somewhere there is a recording. and gave it [teaching] up as soon as I could afford to. more than anything.kenyonreview. He has produced and performed in Irma. after you introduced him to age. with things and people coming in and out of focus over the years. and since I’ve carried these lines in my head for many years. and the lines of age converge in that now he is just a friend and colleague. Brian started as a student. composition was a way of living out your philosophy and calling it art. which seems like something Cage would do (he did make prepared pianos. As for Eno. In what ways do you think Cage most significantly influenced you? TP: Cage became. and I as a tutor. and he wrote a song for a concert I gave in Oxford of music by various composer friends based on A Humument texts.” You also talked about playing “sound tennis” with Eno—buying wrecked pianos and playing tennis around them to see who could make the better sound. it will feel like that poem by Patrice de La Tour du Pin: “Ici venue mon histoire s’acheve. and he was at my seventy-fifth birthday party: so it’s a long story.” which he performed.org/2012/09/tom-phillips-interview/# Page 6 of 15 . as I usually find when I look up bits of Shakespeare that I think I know. that ethics and aesthetics are one and the same thing (I would go farther to say that ethics is a subset of aesthetics). I may be in part misquoting them. / Quels passagers m’ont suivi jusqu’au bout?” [“I’ve come thus far. By the time I finish it. on the same day.

kenyonreview. which has its own visual energy and—because I almost always link by following the rivers in the type—is a kind of scaffolding. This seems to me to be in the service of breaking language down. KR: On a related note. what changes occur in the “collaborative” process when your co-creator is dead? TP: I am usually collaborating with the interesting dead—currently with Mallarme and Einstein to make a little film about quantum physics. For these are the living dead with whom we all work. and sometimes we have to knock quite loudly on the tomb to get http://www. Do you look for these patterns. I also wonder whether or not you see the project as a collaboration. You’ve collaborated with other artists before. My longest collaboration or most distant in time (whatever that is) is with the ancestor in the Blombos Cave whose engraving done seventy thousand years ago is the oldest purposive artmark we have. and I release them. Regan (U.‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog 9/15/12 12:42 PM The first page from the 4th edition of A Humument KR: In some parts of A Humument. you assemble words from a strong of single letters (“O / C / e / z / an / n / e”). so to speak. or doing an opera libretto for Tarik O. though sometimes I think it a pity that he cannot answer back. it seems. and sometimes even insert letters. like Eno and Heather McHugh. Of course I have done real-time collaborations. you leave whole phrases intact (“French and German ladies in vague conditions of life”). to any extent. yet under his immaculate if starchy prose such things as these things do sometimes throb. I think). or do they look for you? TP: One thing never quite explained is that the art element. but I wanted to know how you encounter the page—how your eye sees it—interacts with whatever intention you might have when taking your brush to it. But there is always a dead person present on the wing or in the wings—Rilke or Cicero or Shakespeare or Dante or Conrad or Verdi. And I’m sorting and writing about my collection of fifty thousand photos of dead people. codirecting with Peter Greenaway on A TV Dante (Have you seen it? It’s on DVD) or working with theatre people on stage designs. e. to me.S. And I know I mangle him or misrepresent his thought.org/2012/09/tom-phillips-interview/# Page 7 of 15 . of which my grasp is frail. is both provoked and conditioned by the words and what joins them.g. premiere next year. which I gave a talk on recently at the Institute for Advanced Study. Sometimes itself being the drawing. in others. So Mallock is modern enough for me. with Mallock.

Forster. making it unrecoverably sinister—as if the Christian cross were to be robbed overnight of all its redemptive association. only connect.g. visually as well as verbally. gets some kind of second chance (he only has to look on ghostly eBay to see that A Human Document now sells in its original form for hundreds of dollars and not the threepence I bought it for). to say. of course. And this mode of catalogue raisonné is true. http://www. with gathered magic it always has the potential to become). unlike science.org/2012/09/tom-phillips-interview/# Page 8 of 15 . e. that the swastika appears only partially as if in double shame since its recent use has destroyed forever that lovely emblem of good fortune. or unconsciously? TP: I see the name “Hiroshima” and know that. (Only connect. this refers not only to itself but to some prior work of mine—as if A Humument were some sly companion to my whole career. “The myth of apolitical art must be smashed to smithereens. as with Mallock who.) Page 335 from the 4th edition of A Humument KR: At one point in the fourth edition.” Can you tell me about these incorporations of political motifs into your work—did they emerge actively. We are not the latest thing. and the explosion of a nuclear bomb is illustrated. this time with E.He said it. But what a tedious machine this makes it all seem! Rather than the work of surprise and delight that I think myself engaged with. “Hiroshima” gets spelled out against a peace sign. to become the brand of evil (which.‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog 9/15/12 12:42 PM them to play a part in living art. And how ponderous it is sometimes to turn into its exegete rather than its maker.M. thus unshrouded. Mayakovsky said. Collaborating again? Yes. does not die with each disproving. whom I once met. as in this case it partly is… referring to a drawing on vellum that I made on my return from that city thirty odd years ago (it’s on the website somewhere). but only a part of the continuous thing—for art. the swastika rears its hideous head (perhaps an oblique reference to Mallock’s own anti-Semitism?).kenyonreview. as so often.

bicycles. So here’s a case of healthy professional envy. and am keen to see the rest one sleepless night. skulls. I suppose the French “oeuvres de longue haleine” might be translated “long haul works. objects (globes. and still do—liking the word treat somehow embedded in the title. The longer it goes on and the more variants it generates. There must by now be at least a thousand pages. or find it running on a long haul flight. the smaller it become in ratio of size to density. positive or negative.org/2012/09/tom-phillips-interview/# Page 9 of 15 . I originally called it a treated book. besides the fact that some of it—like A Humument—is unconventional in form? Do you see your work as categorically separate from. One idea I wish I had had—also leading to a lifetime’s work—is “An Anecdoted Topography of Chance” [by Daniel Spoerri. or fused to. more recent and brilliantly brought off. Another. like Dante’s feet in The Inferno. hats. originally “Topographie Anécdotée du Hasard”]. that have emerged from it. even in analogous fields. http://www. an endless project with a simple starting point with results almost as good as the idea. fragments. the work of your contemporaries in any way? How much of this influence. a theme properly pursued like the Art of Fugue or the Ring. As for a category for my own effort in this vein. as well as decorating my own. walls etc. though visually it could have been or still could be much richer. etc.” of which I have seen about eight hours’ worth. scores. is palpable? TP: Of course there are things by other artists I admire. And the covers of each of a series of postcard books I am making for the Bodleian Library (weddings.‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog 9/15/12 12:42 PM An outline for a page from A Humument. as in the sleeve of a King Crimson LP—or. is Christian Marclay’s “The Clock. And it figures on other peoples work. providing the cover for Yvonne Sherwood’s treatise on blasphemy [Biblical Blaspheming: Trials of the Sacred for a Secular Age].).) which now houses my archive—making me someone seeming to have one foot in the grave and the other poised shortly to follow it.kenyonreview.” Anyway I like that sort of thing: a work done thoroughly. this year. etc. using a ping-pong table as its model KR: What do you think sets your work apart from other artists.

If I look on from page 50. And yes— indeed the whole thing is packed with autobiography. The ping-pong table page. This is me scoring it.kenyonreview. i.org/2012/09/tom-phillips-interview/# Page 10 of 15 . I scored one run only. a hundred runs. executed http://www. 99 short. A century. the 50th page contains what appears to be a self-portrait along with text that reads “play / the shadow of / fifty years. Perhaps I am saying that my true self is this Walter Mitty sportsman.e. or even of biography? TP: There are two self portraits: one done in the seventies. is the platonic score of an inning. the next ten pages as a random group are all autobiographically recognizable to me.” and “At last—welcome! / my own / myself!” How much of the work has been a process of self-discovery.‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog 9/15/12 12:42 PM Phillips’s self-portrait from page 50 of A Humument KR: Punning on the number 50. and the other of myself batting in my fiftieth birthday match at The Oval cricket ground—the Yankee Stadium of the game. rather more emotional than circumstantial.

” the text reads. Do you see each edition of A Humument as a renewed interrogation of A Human Document. gauche. We don’t know (and shudder to think of the circumstance of their use) what the last words uttered on earth will be. but “dersta ot ansfig” is not a bad guess. And occasionally one finds a sound poem which combines such derivatives with actual words to conjure up some particular mood.g.” “ogniz. One wouldn’t find ansfig. in a football account.kenyonreview. of course. there are so many nonce and not yet used words lurking in the language—not. omple. or ink don’t add up to words or “comprehensible” meanings. and don’t really think of editions. or as an individual installment in a longer undertaking? Does each edition interact with its antecedent and subsequent in purposeful ways. “wagger wang… wagger wang…the wind”.org/2012/09/tom-phillips-interview/# Page 11 of 15 . and that in a cycle of six editions you will have achieved http://www. “[Bill] toge / trying / to receive / the / last words / on earth. What was the logic behind your disassembling of language? How did you go about this? TP: Regarding language itself breaking down. or breaking up rather. Mallock’s habit of repetition helps these little bits of concrete poetry along. One of these pages (46) features a human figure wearing what appear to be headphones attached to a cluster of radio dials. Also it’s nice to find words you love within words you don’t… “omple. just stages of getting on with the job with the help of a little chart that tells me what pages have yet to receive their second working.” Page 340 from the 4th edition of A Humument KR: I’ve written some about the vocational aspect of your continual modification of Mallock’s novel. where the letters left visible by your watercolor. e. as the Anglo-Saxons called it. though his rich vocabulary opens good opportunities for metatext. confined to Mallock. and ten or so exist that are not in the current edition. a beautiful word with Norse-seeming roots. surrounded with blips of linguistic data like “tibilit. KR: You’ve written that the goal of the work is to replace itself completely. So it’s all simultaneously schematic and chaotic. I’ve yet to see even the cricket correspondent use the word transfiguration. of quality (fail better[Beckett]) or new possibility or relevance (only connect [Forster]) or just randomly (a throw of dice [Mallarmé]).” and “plete”—bits obviously pilfered from whole words.‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog 9/15/12 12:42 PM KR: There is a handful of pages in the fourth edition where language itself seems to break down. or do you find those ways as you go? TP: I just do the revisions in order of imperatives. There are about eighty pages to go before I cross the tape (and the Styx). He is acting as a wordhoard.

in which we experience a copy of a modification of a reproduction of Mallock. More recently the making of limited edition fine prints of some pages has provided another safety belt to keep the thing afloat. and I guess that will be the penultimate edition to be followed only by some posthumous roundup. where all will be gathered together). modernity and modernization. etc. Did you have any of these motifs in mind when you began work on the project in 1966? Can http://www.org/2012/09/tom-phillips-interview/# Page 12 of 15 . psychological ambience. such as I have done here and do every day. So there’s this third-level removal from Mallock. criticism. how the mass-market paperback and hardcover editions of the work distance us from the “aura” of each original piece (“original” here meaning each actual artwork you produce when modifying the novel’s text). There are other significant intersections. only assisted by the Sackner Archive whose acquisition of the originals has provided a vital subvention of the project since 1974. too. pages online) change it? TP: I don’t think having app versions. It now is a more or less innocent example—in that I earn nothing from it—of a not for profit instance of arts commodification. there are new distances inserted between the art object itself and its reproduction. From the various editions up to the present one I have received no royalties in order to keep the price down. Thus it’s a dreamcase for Walter Benjamin. economic concerns. so in effect have subsidized their production. but it has enormously increased the potential audience and facilitated sending bits and pieces of new material. or even a variorum version as currently being prepared on the net (and which will be the main feature of my exhibition next spring at MASS MoCA.‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog 9/15/12 12:42 PM this.kenyonreview. KR: I see several plotlines in the work. since the electronic versions of pages lose nothing and often gain something in terms of visual excitement. sexuality. / structure / The rain / un-Europe / me”). Page 212 from the 4th edition of A Humument KR: I’ve also been thinking a lot about A Humument in terms of Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”—about. Do you think there are any significant implications for the project in its current form— as commoditized book—versus thinking about it in a different sense? How do electronic versions of the project (iPhone app. with A Humument. more specifically. opera. art’s relation to modernization (“modernize England. has changed my way of working. and the “protagonist” Bill Toge. Is this still the plan? What’s the sixth edition looking like? TP: The next edition will appear when there are fifty or sixty new pages to incorporate. or recurring motifs: art.

or does it extend to others who might take up your project once you’ve passed. might be taken up as a mantle be other artists http://www. Only the future can reveal its truth. statement or thought which its words cannot be adapted to cover”—making me think that each of these vectors must be highly intentional. which is what makes it a good oracle. and there are themes which recur. as proved by the app which is just as obscure as an oracle should be. love. sometimes.kenyonreview. There is the word itself. There is no plot or narrative order. KR: Have there been any projects by other people to modify your work with A Humument—and would support this? Does the act of modification “end” with the work.‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog 9/15/12 12:42 PM you tell me what the process of mapping these trajectories was like? Especially because. stamped / art. I’d like to be Rilke / instead of a milker / of other mens’ thoughts and ideas / but as I get older / I find I’m the shoulder / I stand on to reach my own self. There are episodes like fragments of a torn-up story. in the notes to A Humument. Thus it becomes a lucky dip for the reader. And not enough science and sport. music. relished or invented. and the echoed prosodies I borrow from the dead.” What motivated these thoughts? Were you the speaker behind “I am remaining in London for / the death of my ambition”? How do you feel about the commodification of art today? TP: The art world now is behaving as a branch of the fashion business. Art.” And then the most damning of them all: “leave / English /art / in / closed / bag. TP: The book. life. and the literature of the past that I lean on.’ / said / the Muses / at / the opening. and sometimes predicted (viz. of course. acted at first as a lucky dip—still does. and I am pleased always to have it now almost received as a primarily literary work by people with a fitter attention span than the those who flit from novelty to novelty like the puppet collectors of the art world’s ever falser reality. Page 109 from the 4th edition of A Humument KR: A few of these “plotlines” deal with art and art’s status in society: “The lame one’s a / critic… I shall go to him for a bottle of art…”. to a great extent.org/2012/09/tom-phillips-interview/# Page 13 of 15 . the state of the world. bling). ping pong [a new page which Phillips stylized after a ping pong table]). none of them surprising in a life lived and thought about a little. like the wrong person at the party. and a few sought particulars (viz. Toge came as described elsewhere and decided to stick around and be my everyman—a nuisance. “what / of the price / of art”. “‘Just look at / Julian / rise to fame. once found. you write that you “have yet to find a situation. or set it aside? It seems to me like maybe the vast possibilities of the work. which you acknowledge.

anyone is welcome to have a go—and hundreds of schoolchildren and students have done so with mixed results. Some things I have done invite help. which of course does not say anything of its quality. But no one has entered at a collaborative or combative level. probably sooner than we think. All images courtesy of the artist. you said. “Once more I emphasize the fact that I regard texts as images in their own right: treated as they are here with words ghosted behind words to form a (literal) sub-text they are all the more image for being doubly text. All I know is that its had me doing my nut for fifty years.org/2012/09/tom-phillips-interview/# Page 14 of 15 . which I leave lovers of pictures and texts to judge. as in 20 Sites n Years where there are designated successors to carry on with the task. which isn’t as simple as it looks. William S.” Moving beyond the palimpsest. Usually they fall at the first fence. Burroughs—in the Paris Review interview you said sparked your work with collage and effacement—said that words “will be laid aside eventually. but in that case they only have to be as incompetent at photography as I am. the drawing aspect of isolating and joining words. now. Required fields are marked * Name * http://www. Page 177 of the 4th edition of A Humument KR: In a comment on your Curriculum Vitae series. and one’s range of vision consequently expands.kenyonreview. hoping to make a new and special and worthwhile thing. or will you? TP: I can’t think of any work where art and text have been so elaborately imbricated. i. TP: As for others carrying on.” Has this conceptualization of textas-image infused your work? Do you think Burroughs was moving in the right direction then—and have you carried it on. Leave a Reply Your email address will not be published.” and that cut-ups “establish new connections between images.e.‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog 9/15/12 12:42 PM in future years or decades.

Wiggin St Kenyon College Gambier.org/2012/09/tom-phillips-interview/# Page 15 of 15 .‘Were there but world enough and time’: Tom Phillips on A Humument « Kenyon Review Blog 9/15/12 12:42 PM Email * Website Comment You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> Post Comment Back to top ↑ Finn House 102 W.edu © The Kenyon Review All Rights Reserved Privacy Policy Contact Us The Kenyon Review is supported in part by The National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council Return to top ↑ http://www.kenyonreview. OH 43022-9623 Phone: (740) 427-5208 Fax: (740) 427-5417 kenyonreview@kenyon.

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