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

Andrew David King
September 7, 2012
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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 reassembles a novel, but he also rends the apparatus of formal analysis. “The mingling of object and image in collage, of given fact and conscious artifice, corresponds to the illusion-producing processes of contemporary civilization,” wrote critic Harold Rosenberg in his 1975 book Art on the Edge. “Collage is the primary formula of the aesthetics of mystification developed in our time.” Rosenberg was right to point out that “lumps of unassailable information” can be compiled to gain the appearance of credibility, but the mystification that Phillips orchestrates is of a different sort: its portals open on the possible, not on obfuscated dead ends.

Despite its resistance to Mallock’s characters and plotlines, human countenances do appear in A Humument, both in Phillips’s self-portraits and in Bill Toge—the work’s ostensible protagonist, whose surname is an edit of “together,” a word which itself plays on the “togetherness” of Phillips’s de facto partnership with Mallock. This partnership locates itself in an endless lineage of writer-thinkers: Phillips traces his preoccupation with art-as-alteration back to a 1965 interview The Paris Review conducted with William Burroughs, in which the American writer talked about the cut-up poems he’d been doing—a technique he himself borrowed from Brion Gysin. Like so many others, Phillips stands at a hinge between tradition and the epic’s creation of tradition; Ovid, Joyce, Stein, and The Beatles are just a few of the icons his project echoes. And he has also worked with prominent modern-day artists, like his former student Brian Eno—who noted in an interview with The Independent that the two, in addition to their artistic ventures, used to play a game called “sound tennis.” (“We went around Ipswich buying up old wrecked pianos and put them all round the room,” Eno wrote. “Then we played a kind of hand tennis and scored according to the quality of noise we made when hitting a stripped piano. It was a rather good game.”)

“There is no poetry in the novel,” Oulipo member Jacques Roubaud declared in his 1988 manifesto “A Brief Note.” A Humument would seem to both prove and disprove Roubaud: there might not be poetry in an unaltered novel, but a new pair of eyes—and hands—can bring it out. In Phillips’s case, they brought out not only poetry but social commentary, polemic, aphorism, exposition, and narrative. Critic Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor has argued, in an essay titled “A Portrait of the (Postmodern) Artist: Intertextual Subjectivity in Tom Phillips’s A Humument,” that the work’s designation as postmodern ties it to parody. This is true, but like all good parodies, the project offers real insights into the state of the book—which isn’t decaying as much as it is evaporating. A Humument’s influence on alternative poetics is massive, if similarly nebulous; like Mallock’s page beneath Phillips’s paint, bits of its legacy leap up here and there—sometimes as homage, sometimes as technical imitation. 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, harking back to Phillips’s threepence purchase so many years ago and instantiating another vindication of Mallarmé’s maxim that “tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre”— everything in the world exists to end up in a book.

A Humument moves past the ontological divisions implicit in genre and engineered into form, a direct antithesis to Sartre’s claim in “What is Writing?” that “it is one thing to work with colour [sic] and sound, and another to express oneself by means of words.” Instead, Phillips’s project is more akin to Foucault’s description of Gaston Bachelard, who he describes as “playing against his own culture, with his own culture”; Phillips’s play is not hostile, nor is it frivolous, but a quality between or beyond the two. His work, in choosing cultural activity over passivity, plies apart the lines of another author to establish an alien but shared space and shared impulse. A Humument is itself an exercise in intuition alongside erudition; Phillips is both descendant and editor to Mallock, and the resultant artwork is in turn both facetious and interrogative—of language, of image, of form.

Many of the questions I initially posed to Phillips (whose work will be on display at MASS MoCA in March 2013) were text-oriented and analytic, which might have been more fitting for a critic of the work than for its creator. Phillips, who is perfectly capable of examining his work in such a way, 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. Phillips’s responses are transcribed as prose, but occasionally he’d write them in a way not unlike poems, incorporating stanzas, line-breaks, and even rhymes; hard rhyme is indicated by slashes. He touched upon a cornucopia of topics: art’s commodification, fate and luck, John Cage, symbolism, Dante’s Inferno (which he translated and illustrated), and words buried within words. 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, and from the twentieth into the ageless field of the digital.

The Kenyon Review: In addition to the five print editions of A Humument that have been released, 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. You mentioned to The Guardian that you yourself have used this feature, that you have some interest in art-as-divination. Given how the work came to be—you’d use the first book you could find for threepence, and then you found the copy of Mallock in Austin’s on Peckham Rye (where, you recall, “Blake saw his first angels”)—does that day seem any more or less fated to you know, 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, 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. I voluntarily open my studio door to chance but of course cannot close it against fate. I do not know whether chance and fate consult each other. 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, 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. It is one with the throw of dice and the falling of cards. 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, “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. 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, et cetera, and I remember her often saying that money was coming to me soon from across the water… I’m still waiting.

A comparison of Mallock and Phillips

KR: On the subject of meaning and interpretation, 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, and how is the aesthetic mood of a page determined?

TP: The quest for text is always the first thing, and some pages loiter for years without giving up the good or the goods. But others, seemingly reluctant, suddenly become alive with possibilities—often because they yield a key word or phrase that has become relevant or newly resonant to me. As you can see, this literary aesthetic is variable in kind. Not Plautus too heavy, nor Seneca too light. For example—last week, having found ping pong the game I myself play, a cluster of possibilities grew around it and these were unified by a representation of the table [on page 30, reprinted below]. I am an artist so the visual aesthetic follows the verbal one, 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 book perforce becomes a compendium of my pictorial dialects though it can, given certain texts, provoke new visual strategies, such as the rivers of type making up the drawing and confining it or dictating the whole composition.

KR: The cover of the fifth edition excerpts a page whose text reads, “to work / my poor little book… till / very rich / for / eyes,…” After five editions spanning several decades, 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. The most recent echoes the first and says that I am still forging on. The cover as it appears on the iPhone/iPad app is the best, taking advantage of a changing image. I sometimes imagine the whole book like that were there but world enough and time.

Page 88 from the 4th edition of A Humument

KR: I’m also wondering, in a similar vein, if the sequence of the pages is crucial to how you see the work. If you rearranged them, what would one lose—or gain?

TP: Apart from page one indicating the traditional epic ambition—“I sing,” as in arma virumque cano, etc. [The first line of Virgil’s Aneid, trans. “I sing of arms and of a man”], and now a sort of winding up at the end now enriched with the (penultimate) echo of Ulysses—the order of pages, like the order of their making, is not relevant. They are as shufflable as a pack of cards.

KR: A Humument seems, almost, to critique the epic: it effaces that which presents itself as part of the canon, and thereby undermines canonicity. But does it, despite this, 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, that separates it from that lineage? Is A 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. Perhaps A Humument is more in the genre of a pillowbook. Though it starts with the generic clarion call, “I sing,” it can’t really be an epic, though it has been an epic venture and an epic task. Dante’s teacher, Ser Brunetto, whom he meets in hell again, was famous for a little book of thoughts, Il Tesoretto. So that might be a good typology not to leave my book stranded in a category of one.

An outline of a page from A Humument

KR: In the back of each edition, you include a section titled “Notes on Humument,” which provides information about the rules you made for the initial creation of the work. One of those rules was that no external materials could be incorporated into the modifications you made to Mallock’s novel, a sort of banishment of the very technique the project rests upon for its existence. How regular, in the sense of “regulated,” was and is your work with A Humument?

TP: I like rules, and the fundamental rule of what I do relates to a sort of unified field theory. Thus A Humument came to be a compendium, also, of what I had done in other media wherever relevant. In England we have the wonderful concept of something being “just not cricket,” i.e. beyond the pale of fair play. Also, there is the aleatoric method, which likewise—as John Cage taught me—forbids cheating.

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, which I read in 1964. It was in the mid sixties that the American composers came to England where art schools had money to invite them. I wrote The Guardian’s obituary for Cage, which may say more if you look it up. But I was closest to Morton Feldman, with whom I corresponded. All this was via my friends Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury (John is playing Cage this week at the Albert Hall prom), and all these mentors are identified by initials in early pages of A Humument. I was very much in the thick of things musically in that period, performing, composing and supporting. It wasn’t entirely unlike La Vie de Bohéme… Never such decadence, never such decadence again.

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. Both of you talk about Cage. “In his case, composition was a way of living out your philosophy and calling it art,” Eno said, after you introduced him to age; and you said that Cage “made you realise that there wasn’t a thing called noise, it was just music you hadn’t appreciated.” 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, which seems like something Cage would do (he did make prepared pianos, after all, putting objects between the strings to alter tone and timbre). In what ways do you think Cage most significantly influenced you?

TP: Cage became, more than anything, a moral exemplar for me—showing, as Wittgenstein says, that ethics and aesthetics are one and the same thing (I would go farther to say that ethics is a subset of aesthetics). As for Eno, I was a reluctant and largely ineffectual teacher, and gave it [teaching] up as soon as I could afford to. Brian started as a student, and I as a tutor, on the same day. It was my first job. Brian was my best student—in fact almost the only one I can remember, except for some amazing looking girls. But that was almost fifty years ago, and the lines of age converge in that now he is just a friend and colleague, and we both believe one should sing every day (and louder sing…). He has produced and performed in Irma, and he wrote a song for a concert I gave in Oxford of music by various composer friends based on A Humument texts. His was “It Felt Like Running Away,” which he performed, and I was in the chorus, my last public singing gig… somewhere there is a recording. There is a portrait I did of him in the National Portrait Gallery, and he was at my seventy-fifth birthday party: so it’s a long story. I mention this here to show that A Humument is a chronicle also of family and friends, with things and people coming in and out of focus over the years. By the time I finish it, it will feel like that poem by Patrice de La Tour du Pin: “Ici venue mon histoire s’acheve. / Quels passagers m’ont suivi jusqu’au bout?” [“I’ve come thus far, my story winds up here: /  What passengers have seen me to the end?”] I haven’t got the book at hand, and since I’ve carried these lines in my head for many years, I may be in part misquoting them, as I usually find when I look up bits of Shakespeare that I think I know.

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”); in others, you leave whole phrases intact (“French and German ladies in vague conditions of life”), and sometimes even insert letters. This seems to me to be in the service of breaking language down, 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. Do you look for these patterns, or do they look for you?

TP: One thing never quite explained is that the art element, so to speak, is both provoked and conditioned by the words and what joins them, which has its own visual energy and—because I almost always link by following the rivers in the type—is a kind of scaffolding. Sometimes itself being the drawing.

KR: On a related note, I also wonder whether or not you see the project as a collaboration, to any extent, with Mallock. You’ve collaborated with other artists before, like Eno and Heather McHugh; 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, of which my grasp is frail. And I’m sorting and writing about my collection of fifty thousand photos of dead people. 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, which I gave a talk on recently at the Institute for Advanced Study. So Mallock is modern enough for me, though sometimes I think it a pity that he cannot answer back. And I know I mangle him or misrepresent his thought, yet under his immaculate if starchy prose such things as these things do sometimes throb, it seems, to me, and I release them.

Of course I have done real-time collaborations, e.g. codirecting with Peter Greenaway on A TV Dante (Have you seen it? It’s on DVD) or working with theatre people on stage designs, or doing an opera libretto for Tarik O. Regan (U.S. premiere next year, I think). 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. For these are the living dead with whom we all work, and sometimes we have to knock quite loudly on the tomb to get them to play a part in living art, as with Mallock who, thus unshrouded, 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). We are not the latest thing, but only a part of the continuous thing—for art, unlike science, does not die with each disproving. Collaborating again? Yes; this time with E.M. Forster, whom I once met. (Only connect.He said it; only connect.)

Page 335 from the 4th edition of A Humument

KR: At one point in the fourth edition, “Hiroshima” gets spelled out against a peace sign, the swastika rears its hideous head (perhaps an oblique reference to Mallock’s own anti-Semitism?), and the explosion of a nuclear bomb is illustrated. Mayakovsky said, “The myth of apolitical art must be smashed to smithereens.” Can you tell me about these incorporations of political motifs into your work—did they emerge actively, or unconsciously?

TP: I see the name “Hiroshima” and know that, as so often, 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, 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). And this mode of catalogue raisonné is true, visually as well as verbally. But what a tedious machine this makes it all seem! Rather than the work of surprise and delight that I think myself engaged with. And how ponderous it is sometimes to turn into its exegete rather than its maker, to say, e.g. that the swastika appears only partially as if in double shame since its recent use has destroyed forever that lovely emblem of good fortune, making it unrecoverably sinister—as if the Christian cross were to be robbed overnight of all its redemptive association, to become the brand of evil (which, of course, with gathered magic it always has the potential to become).

An outline for a page from A Humument, using a ping-pong table as its model

KR: What do you think sets your work apart from other artists, besides the fact that some of it—like A Humument—is unconventional in form? Do you see your work as categorically separate from, or fused to, the work of your contemporaries in any way? How much of this influence, positive or negative, is palpable?

TP: Of course there are things by other artists I admire, even in analogous fields. One idea I wish I had had—also leading to a lifetime’s work—is “An Anecdoted Topography of Chance” [by Daniel Spoerri; originally “Topographie Anécdotée du Hasard”], an endless project with a simple starting point with results almost as good as the idea, though visually it could have been or still could be much richer. So here’s a case of healthy professional envy. Another, more recent and brilliantly brought off, is Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,” of which I have seen about eight hours’ worth, and am keen to see the rest one sleepless night, or find it running on a long haul flight. I suppose the French “oeuvres de longue haleine” might be translated “long haul works.” Anyway I like that sort of thing: a work done thoroughly, a theme properly pursued like the Art of Fugue or the Ring.

As for a category for my own effort in this vein, I originally called it a treated book, and still do—liking the word treat somehow embedded in the title. The longer it goes on and the more variants it generates, the smaller it become in ratio of size to density. There must by now be at least a thousand pages, fragments, objects (globes, skulls, scores, etc.), that have emerged from it. And it figures on other peoples work, as in the sleeve of a King Crimson LP—or, this year, providing the cover for Yvonne Sherwood’s treatise on blasphemy [Biblical Blaspheming: Trials of the Sacred for a Secular Age], as well as decorating my own. And the covers of each of a series of postcard books I am making for the Bodleian Library (weddings, bicycles, hats, walls etc. etc.) which now houses my archive—making me someone seeming to have one foot in the grave and the other poised shortly to follow it, like Dante’s feet in The Inferno.

Phillips’s self-portrait from page 50 of A Humument

KR: Punning on the number 50, the 50th page contains what appears to be a self-portrait along with text that reads “play / the shadow of / fifty years.” and “At last—welcome! / my own / myself!” How much of the work has been a process of self-discovery, or even of biography?

TP: There are two self portraits: one done in the seventies, and the other of myself batting in my fiftieth birthday match at The Oval cricket ground—the Yankee Stadium of the game. A century, i.e. a hundred runs, is the platonic score of an inning. I scored one run only, 99 short. This is me scoring it. Perhaps I am saying that my true self is this Walter Mitty sportsman. And yes—indeed the whole thing is packed with autobiography, rather more emotional than circumstantial. If I look on from page 50, the next ten pages as a random group are all autobiographically recognizable to me.

The ping-pong table page, executed

KR: There is a handful of pages in the fourth edition where language itself seems to break down, where the letters left visible by your watercolor, gauche, or ink don’t add up to words or “comprehensible” meanings. One of these pages (46) features a human figure wearing what appear to be headphones attached to a cluster of radio dials. “[Bill] toge / trying / to receive / the / last words / on earth,” the text reads, surrounded with blips of linguistic data like “tibilit,” “ogniz,” and “plete”—bits obviously pilfered from whole words. 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, there are so many nonce and not yet used words lurking in the language—not, of course, confined to Mallock, though his rich vocabulary opens good opportunities for metatext. One wouldn’t find ansfig, a beautiful word with Norse-seeming roots, in a football account. I’ve yet to see even the cricket correspondent use the word transfiguration. And occasionally one finds a sound poem which combines such derivatives with actual words to conjure up some particular mood, e.g. “wagger wang… wagger wang…the wind”. Mallock’s habit of repetition helps these little bits of concrete poetry along. He is acting as a wordhoard, as the Anglo-Saxons called it. 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. Also it’s nice to find words you love within words you don’t… “omple, omple.”

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. Do you see each edition of A Humument as a renewed interrogation of A Human Document, or as an individual installment in a longer undertaking? Does each edition interact with its antecedent and subsequent in purposeful ways, or do you find those ways as you go?

TP: I just do the revisions in order of imperatives, of quality (fail better[Beckett]) or new possibility or relevance (only connect [Forster]) or just randomly (a throw of dice [Mallarmé]), and don’t really think of editions, 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. So it’s all simultaneously schematic and chaotic. There are about eighty pages to go before I cross the tape (and the Styx), and ten or so exist that are not in the current edition.

KR: You’ve written that the goal of the work is to replace itself completely, and that in a cycle of six editions you will have achieved this. 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, and I guess that will be the penultimate edition to be followed only by some posthumous roundup, 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, where all will be gathered together).

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, more specifically, 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, too; with A Humument, there are new distances inserted between the art object itself and its reproduction. So there’s this third-level removal from Mallock, in which we experience a copy of a modification of a reproduction of Mallock. 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, pages online) change it?

TP: I don’t think having app versions, etc. has changed my way of working, but it has enormously increased the potential audience and facilitated sending bits and pieces of new material, such as I have done here and do every day. Thus it’s a dreamcase for Walter Benjamin, since the electronic versions of pages lose nothing and often gain something in terms of visual excitement. 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. From the various editions up to the present one I have received no royalties in order to keep the price down, so in effect have subsidized their production, only assisted by the Sackner Archive whose acquisition of the originals has provided a vital subvention of the project since 1974. More recently the making of limited edition fine prints of some pages has provided another safety belt to keep the thing afloat.

KR: I see several plotlines in the work, or recurring motifs: art, modernity and modernization, art’s relation to modernization (“modernize England, / structure / The rain / un-Europe / me”), sexuality, criticism, economic concerns, psychological ambience, opera, and the “protagonist” Bill Toge. Did you have any of these motifs in mind when you began work on the project in 1966? Can you tell me what the process of mapping these trajectories was like? Especially because, in the notes to A Humument, you write that you “have yet to find a situation, statement or thought which its words cannot be adapted to cover”—making me think that each of these vectors must be highly intentional.

TP: The book, once found, acted at first as a lucky dip—still does, of course, to a great extent. There is no plot or narrative order. Thus it becomes a lucky dip for the reader, which is what makes it a good oracle, as proved by the app which is just as obscure as an oracle should be. Only the future can reveal its truth. There are episodes like fragments of a torn-up story, and there are themes which recur, none of them surprising in a life lived and thought about a little. Art, love, life, music, the state of the world, and a few sought particulars (viz. ping pong [a new page which Phillips stylized after a ping pong table]), and the literature of the past that I lean on, and the echoed prosodies I borrow from the dead. And not enough science and sport. There is the word itself, relished or invented, and sometimes predicted (viz. bling). 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. Toge came as described elsewhere and decided to stick around and be my everyman—a nuisance, sometimes, like the wrong person at the party.

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…”; “what / of the price / of art”; “‘Just look at / Julian / rise to fame.’ / said / the Muses / at / the opening.” And then the most damning of them all: “leave / English /art / in / closed / bag, stamped / art.” 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, 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.

KR: Have there been any projects by other people to modify your work with Humument—and would support this? Does the act of modification “end” with the work, or does it extend to others who might take up your project once you’ve passed, or set it aside? It seems to me like maybe the vast possibilities of the work, which you acknowledge, might be taken up as a mantle be other artists in future years or decades.

TP: As for others carrying on, anyone is welcome to have a go—and hundreds of schoolchildren and students have done so with mixed results. Usually they fall at the first fence, i.e. the drawing aspect of isolating and joining words, which isn’t as simple as it looks. But no one has entered at a collaborative or combative level. Some things I have done invite help, as in 20 Sites n Years where there are designated successors to carry on with the task, but in that case they only have to be as incompetent at photography as I am.

Page 177 of the 4th edition of A Humument

KR: In a comment on your Curriculum Vitae series, 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.” Moving beyond the palimpsest, William S. Burroughs—in the Paris Review interview you said sparked your work with collage and effacement—said that words “will be laid aside eventually, probably sooner than we think,” and that cut-ups “establish new connections between images, and one’s range of vision consequently expands.” Has this conceptualization of text-as-image infused your work? Do you think Burroughs was moving in the right direction then—and have you carried it on, now, or will you?

TP: I can’t think of any work where art and text have been so elaborately imbricated, which of course does not say anything of its quality, which I leave lovers of pictures and texts to judge. All I know is that its had me doing my nut for fifty years, hoping to make a new and special and worthwhile thing.

All images courtesy of the artist.

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