Copying exhibition cover


01.04.17 - 30.06.17

Kaja Marczewska, Simon Morris & Valérie Steunou

Start copying what you love. Copy, copy, copy. And at the end of the copy, you will find yourself.

Yohji Yamamoto

Copying is often denigrated as an activity. However, several important thinkers have recognised the value of copying the words of others. Walter Benjamin extolled the virtues of copying:

“The power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane. In the same way, the power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out. The airplane passenger see only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it. Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands [...] Only the copied text commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of day-dreaming, whereas the copier submits to its command.”[ii]

Gertrude Stein suggested that the only real way to know a book is to copy it: “I always say that you cannot tell what a picture really is or what an object really is until you dust it every day and you cannot tell what a book is until you type it or proof-read it. It then does something to you that only reading never can do.”[iii]

The celebrated author W. G. Sebald allegedly gave the following advice to his creative writing students: “I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt."[iv]

James Joyce, billed as the Shakespeare of modernism, wasn’t immune to borrowing from others either: “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man,” Joyce told the American composer George Antheil, “for that seems to me a harsh but not unjust description.”[v]

And even writing what is typically considered ‘original’ material might, in fact, involve ventriloquizing someone else’s words, as in this humorous case described by the author Mark Twain:

“Oliver Wendell Holmes […] was […] the first great literary man I ever stole anything from – and that is how I came to write to him and he to me. When my first book was new, a friend of mine said to me, ‘The dedication is very neat.’ Yes, I said, I thought it was. My friend said, ‘I always admired it, even before I saw it in The Innocents Abroad.’ I naturally said: ‘What do you mean? Where did you ever see it before?’ ‘Well, I saw it first some years ago as Doctor Holmes’s dedication to his Songs in Many Keys.’ […] Well, of course, I wrote to Dr. Holmes and told him I hadn’t meant to steal, and he wrote back and said in the kindest way that it was all right and no harm done; and added that he believed we all unconsciously worked over ideas gathered in reading and hearing, imagining they were original with ourselves.”[vi]

The precedents are undoubtedly there, throughout history. What makes copying today distinct, however, are the digital tools and the networks of the internet, which make possible shifting large chunks of language from one place to another in an instant. In the digital age heaps of language – to borrow from Robert Smithson – are reorganised, remediated and reconstructed all the time. In the process, the distinction between the writer and machine is becoming increasingly blurred.

At one extreme, there is Andy Warhol, who ‘want[ed] to be a machine’,”[vii] his idea developed further by Christian Bök as ‘robopoetics’. Bök’s concept refers to a condition where “the involvement of an author in the production of literature has […] become discretionary.”[viii] He asks: “why hire a poet to write a poem when the poem can in fact write itself?”[ix] Bök’s bleak prediction for our literary future is that:

“we are probably the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write literature for a machinic audience of artificially intellectual peers. Is it not already evident by our presence at conferences on digital poetics that the poets of tomorrow are likely to resemble programmers, exalted, not because they can write great poems, but because they can build a small drone out of words to write great poems for us? If poetry already lacks any meaningful readership among our own anthropoid population, what have we to lose by writing poetry for a robotic culture that must inevitably succeed our own? If we want to commit an act of poetic innovation in an era of formal exhaustion, we may have to consider this heretofore unimagined, but nevertheless prohibited, option: writing poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it”.[x]

Or as Bök puts it, referencing Calvino in an earlier section of the same essay, perhaps we can use algorithms to extend the lives of dead poets and create an ever-extending series of posthumous works:

“Calvino (a member of Oulipo) remarks that every author is already a ‘writing machine,’ producing literature according to a set of involuntary constraints that, under rational analysis, might be codified into a set of adjustable algorithms. Oulipo implies that, when computers begin to reveal the stylistic constants of an author, we might begin to emulate these idiosyncrasies of diction and grammar, thereby manufacturing an automatic, but convincing, facsimile that might conceivably extend the career of a writer into the afterlife of postmortem creativity.”[xi]

As if anticipating this robotpoetic future, in the 1950s the notorious journalist Hunter S. Thompson used to retype Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s novels: “He chose, rather than writing original copy to re-type books like The Great Gatsby and a lot of Norman Mailer, than Naked and the Dead, a lot of Hemingway. He would sit down there on an old type-writer and type every word of those books and he said, ‘I just want to know what it feels like to write these words.’”[xii] Thompson’s literary work-outs explored a complex relationship between typing and writing as it is determined by the ways in which we engage with the machine. Central to Thompson’s project is the desire to embody the experience of pressing the metallic keys of the typewriter, as if staging a peculiar re-performance of the acts of Fitzgerald’s or Hemmingway’s writing, hammering the words onto the space of the page until mechanical typing assumes the quality of creative writing. Here. copying what one loves – to return to Yamamoto – results in eventually finding oneself in the writing.

The machines might be changing the way we engage with or think about writing, but the writer continues to be present in our new media age, navigating the complex landscape of writing as re-writing at the contemporary Iterative Turn;[xiii] a turn towards writing as re-writing in a culture of ubiquitous “’re’-gestures – such as re-blogging and re-tweeting.”[xiv]

This small curated collection – the first Research Field Station at Leeds Beckett University – brings together a number of key works that examine the rich variety of copying activities in both art and literature.

  1. Walter Benjamin, ‘One-Way Street’, in One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London: NLB, 1979), p. 50.
  2. Gertrude Stein, (1990) The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (New York: Vintage), p.113.
  3. Richard Skinner, “Max Sebald’s Writing Tips.” Richard Skinner (blog). 14 January 2013, http://richardskinner.weebly.com/2/post/2013/01/max-sebalds-writing-tips.html.
  4. James Joyce, cited in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford: OUP, 1982), p. 626.
  5. Mark Twain, ‘Unconscious Plagiarism’, in Mark Twain’s Speeches, Project Gutenberg, 19 August 2006, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3188/3188-h/3188-h.htm#link2H_4_0011
  6. Andy Warhol, ‘What is Pop Art? Interviews with eight Painters (Part 1)’, interview by Gene Swenson, Art News, 62, no.7, November 1963, p.26.
  7. Christian Bök,‘The Piecemeal Bard Is Deconstructed: Notes Toward a Potential Robopoetics.’ in Object 10: Cyberpoetics, ed. Kenneth Goldsmith, 2002, http://www.ubu.com/papers/object.html.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Porter Bibb, cited in ‘Hunter S. Thompson – Typing out the work of the best writers’, The New Irishman, 5 June 2014, http://brianjohnspencer.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/hunter-s-thompson-typing-out-work-of.html
  12. Unlike copying traditionally understood iteration “recognises the creative potential of copying. Iteration […] represents a tendency to repeat available material as a creative gesture; as an extension rather than a synonym of copying and appropriating. […] Thinking about creative practice as iteratve necessitates a completely new set of questions, which […] define contemporary attitudes to creativity and the cultural moment that breeds them […] the moment [described here] as the Iterative Turn.” see Kaja Marczewska, ‘The Iterative Turn”, PARSE, Issue 3, 2016, p. 19.
  13. Kenneth Goldsmith, ‘Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?’, in Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith (eds.), Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (Evanson, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2011), p. xix

past exhibitions