Wednesday 7 January 2015

Tom Phillip's A Humument - The Book As Archive

One thing that intrigues me about books is that such a simple form can carry very diverse contents – the book acts as archive for information and images. One artist whose work plays on this is Tom Phillips and his artwork A Humument.

Pages 20 and 21 of the first revised edition (1980) of 'A Humument'
A Humument is an ongoing project which started in 1966 in response to William S. Burroughs’ use of the cut-up technique.  It started with Phillips’ arbitrarily picking up a book (a novel entitled A Human Document by W. H. Mallock) and crossing out unwanted text on various pages to create new writings.  The project developed quickly as Phillips began to paint, draw and collage, using each page as a starting point for a work of art.

The publication of A Humument began in 1970 with the gradual release (over three years) of ten volumes of assorted, worked pages. This was followed by a self-contained book entitled Trailer in 1971 by edition hansjörg mayer made of black and white vignettes (created from remnants of worked pages salvaged from the cutting room floor). In 1973 A Humument was released as a complete book and revised four times until 2012 - each edition featuring amended or reworked pages, making each edition unique. In 2011 a version for the iPad was released.

Pages 20 and 21 of the 4th edition of 'A Humument' (2005)
Between the first revised edition (1980) and the 5th edition (2012) around 200 of the  367 pages are modified.  To those familiar with the book, this difference is clear and surprising.  Without a side-by-side comparison one might wonder which pages have changed and why, questioning how the loose narrative may have developed through omissions and inclusions.  Visual changes in style (simple early treatments, such as drawing or over-writing by typewriter, now sit next to collages and intricate paintings) also give us a subtle, inexplicit sense of history.  Both of these imply a sense of archive, without being direct.

Speaking of A Humument Phillips suggested that his original intention was to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, an art work that embraces and includes many different styles and forms.  Phillips stated that the book contains ‘poems, music scores, parodies, notes on aesthetics, autobiography, concrete texts, romance, mild erotica, as well as well as the underlying text of [the original] …’.  Although these distinctions may be difficult to single out for the general reader, the fact that these categories are present in the document implies that A Humument also acts as a physical kind of archive.

Aside from a feature called The Oracle (which casts two pages against each other – like a form of divination), the iPad version of A Humument is in many ways like the print editions. Perhaps a future version may play on the implied archival qualities of the book, using the new techniques that technology allows.

'pages' 20 and 21 of the iPad version of 'A Humument'

I look forward to seeing the project develop as in some ways A Humument has reflected many changes – developments in artistic production, the growth of an artist’s practice and advancements in technology.

Reference: Phillips, T. (1975) Works, texts: To 1974 Germany: edition hansjörg mayer


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