Dada, Found-Object Art, and Altered Books

I wanted to make a sculpture out of a urinal so art students could write papers about me ninety-five years from now, but Marcel Duchamp beat me to it. As an undergrad I thought he was brilliant. Now I feel, by turns, duped and in on the joke. The Dada art movement was NOT an art movement, nor were its members artists, nor the work they produced art. Typical artists’ rantings, these declarations. Sorry, guys. You, your ideals and your work have been classified into the historical record as all three. I think it’s safe to say that the Dadaists in post-WWI Europe were making a statement about the senselessness of war by highlighting the uselessness of art. They were engaging in soft-core, mischievous destruction of existing fine art, coupled with a slick bit of production of what is now considered fine art by destruction, or by featuring objects borne of deconstruction. Either way, nihilism dominates. A century later, I’m perfectly comfortable saying that they were thumbing their noses at the establishment. (Don’t they all?)

Found-object art has a broader definition, but it intersects book alteration in its propensity for re-purposed media. I find most of today’s found-object work to lean in the direction of folk-art, an opinion at which most of the artists would likely take umbrage. That said, it’s possible that I’ve spent too much time in the Mississippi and Alberta Arts Districts. Yes, that’s very likely. Or maybe hindsight is the defining factor. A research session into the (very hazy) definition of “found-object” is liberally peppered with references to that damn urinal. If the products of the Dada movement were once considered found-object, and if f-o overlaps folk-art, where does book alteration fit in?

I began an altered book project a few years ago. I found a sturdy hardcover in the “free” bin at Powell’s, and I wondered what constituted a book with zero value. I still wonder that. My find was titled The Universe (stamped in lovely gold leaf on the spine) and was a collection of short science fiction, complete with a number of glossy, full color illustrations. I assumed the writing all stunk, and I never bothered to read but a few pages of it before attacking it with an X-acto. I treated it like any other medium, and in hindsight, I can say that the process began with what the marketing professionals call perception of value. A respected book store had deemed it valueless. I saw a cover, spine and binding in excellent shape, and I entertained no feelings of remorse, to be honest. It was a rather bland affair, not a dramatic act of deconstruction for the sake of the uselessness that is art. Anyway, as the story goes, a few months later, I downsized my studio and the altered book project landed on the scuttle pile.

But once again, I found myself with the urge to cut into a book. I found a nice piece of popular fan fiction at a thrift store, took it home, and set about honoring its lovely cover, trim size, and binding. The result of this much simpler project may not qualify as art, but the destruction and repurposing processes seem to keep me in touch with my peers over a century and across media.

Excellent directions for hollowing a book can be found here:

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