Acoustic Books At The Beginning And End Of The World
by Karl Young


. . .

For me, as I assume for many others, performance art had roots in the political activism of the 1960s. Although I made no acoustic books in the 60s, I had quite a bit of experience with them when I returned to poetry at the end of the 80s. In some respects, activist books may form a better counterpart to contemplative books such as MAKE A JOYFUL NOISE than books meant solely for use in a strictly aesthetic context.

The first of these was something of a joke on me, perhaps. I constructed OIL WAR EXORCISM with metal letters that could make a racket when clapped hard and also make a sound something like an insect being crushed when the letters were more slowly rolled over each other. I made this book for use in anti-war activities that didn't happen. Instead of serving a utilitarian function, it became no more than a show piece.

But in the late 80s-early 90s, I set up and propagated anti-nuclear events as part of the International Shadows Project. This included ever-changing exhibitions of anti-nuclear mail art in galleries, theaters, concert halls, stores and other sites, sometimes including performance art and demonstrations. I made IT'S YOUR WORLD for these events.

The sonic base for this book was the wooden tocsin, a loud but dead sound used by many cultures with different instruments (bells to mallets to drums) to send out a warning signal - most often to call people together against a common enemy when they were too occupied with other things to notice the danger in any other way. The similarity of the name to the word "toxin" had additional significance for me.

The visual dimensions of the book used familiar icons. I made a facsimile of the familiar NASA image of the earth seen from space, the bright blue and white disk alone in the darkness, across the outer edges of the pages. At the bottom I painted the simple text "IT'S YOUR WORLD . . ." The icons in each opening of pages were painted from photos of nuclear detonations, red mushroom clouds, making other kinds of circles in another kind of darkness. In its phanopoeic mode, opening the book literally showed the earth being torn apart. closing the pages not only produces the basic sound, but acts as a visual negation or rejection of nuclear atrocities. When seen closed, the book showed the luminous disk, but kept latent within it the image of the destruction of the friendly, shining surface of the earth, the malignancy that could deaden the surface of the sphere. A tocsin's dead sound functioned as an omen as well as a warning.


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