Friday, 3 October 2008


Essaying Essays: Alternative Forms of Exposition is an almost completely unavailable text, edited by Richard Kostelanetz and first (and only) published in 1973 by Out of London Press. In 2008, amid much talk of new forms of art writing, it remains the only book which, when opened, immediately conveys an astonishing sense of the diversity of possible forms of essaying, combining image texts, conceptual art, performance scores, graphic notations, diagrams, and maps. 

Some of the contributions and contributors have become staples of art history. But others remain testimony, both to Kostelanetz engagement with interconnecting realms of poetry, music, performance, and fiction in New York in the 1970's, and to broader historical currents where writing met drawing met score met composition. Indeed, Essaying Essays remains one of a trilogy of remarkable anthologies by Kostelanetz, including the equally unavailable Scenarios - a collection of performance scores - and Sound Texts, which was published by a major publishing house, and should be more easily available from online booksellers. 

How to awaken the legacy of this remarkable and almost invisible book? Of course, the Ubuweb strategy of just scanning it and putting it up on the web suggested itself. But, actually, much as I love the work contained in this anthology - and much as I love the anarchic attitude of UBUWEB - it's actually about the possibilities it suggests, rather than the specifics.  This is not an act of historical research. The best way of untapping Essaying Essays tools for thought may not be to make the book itself more available.

So I decided to take some images of the book. I thought I might document some of its most striking pieces - the drawings of Ad Reinhardt, the Learning Machine charts of George Macunias, Moholy-Nagy's remarkable diagrammatic translation of Finnegan's Wake. But, reader, a curious thing happened. In documenting this book I stayed away from the famous pieces, or from images that recorded whole pieces. I was drawn to small marks, dots, lines, the mould of my cherished but rather crumbling copy. There were nods to canons of art history - a Bruce Nauman piece, an Adrian Piper text work, a signature by John Cage. But I encountered such works at the point where they lost their sense of historical document, of famous authorship, and became again an act of the discovery of the relations of thought, typography and space. John Cage might not have even been John Cage and who is John Cage anyway? 

It's a tricky history, this kind of experimental essaying. The excitement at reading Mel Bochner's Solar System and Rest Rooms: Writings and Interviews 1965-2007 is tempered by the sense that all the experimental image-text works were written in a few years between 1968 and 1972. Looking for such abundance in the present I recommend the Dutch journal F.R.David and the typographical inventiveness of the recent anthology Rehearsing Realities by the London based FormContent, comprised of A3 sheets of imaginary exhibitions. For Bochner, after that intense period, it was artists lectures, comments for catalogues, and interviews. Where did all that possibility go? More broadly, how can we go diving in the riches of Essaying Essays and bring these texts through the void into a textually active present? 

This, then, is The Boat University homage to Essaying Essays, particles of a tiny selection of its images, that nonetheless finds it at its most generative, not as a constellation of historical engagements but as a series of prompts and suggestions. It only remains to scream very loudly: 


THE BOAT UNIVERSITY is often found floating on the round pond in Kensington Gardens, London. Since August 1st 2008 it has been the basis for a series of lectures, seminars and birthday parties exploring the connections of contemporary art, culture, poetry, radical pedagogy, architecture, and storytelling. Its physical proximity to the Serpentine Gallery, the Royal College of Art and the former home of Princess Diana, are entirely coincidental. Projects of The Boat University are published as A3 project sheets, and also hosted at More Milk Yvette: A Journal of the Broken Screen. The Boat University can be contacted at