Bodies of Work


a project by Seth Ellis

First body

I'd been trying to decide what kind of art to make this year. I had been putting off getting a tattoo, because I couldn't think of anything I wanted to say that much, that often, that permanently. I liked the build-up of scars showing where I had been, a roadmap to everything I once had thought was a good idea, but when it came down to it, I couldn't tell which ideas were the ones I thought were that good. How can you choose in advance which scars will be the important ones?

So I decided to get a tattoo of every passing conversation I happened to overhear. The only decision I could make was not to make any decision at all. For a while I considered inventing a machine that would transcribe the words onto my skin as they were spoken, but I didn't know how to do that, and anyway I thought that a needle-filled exoskeleton might alienate passersby, and prevent them from having any kind of conversation at all. So I bought a little recorder. It took me a while to find one that could hear exactly what I could hear, that was neither more nor less sensitive than my own ears. I didn't want things I couldn't hear tattooed on my body. Every night I transcribed the recordings—more often, if I'd been somewhere crowded—and once a week I went to the tattoo parlor.

I started on the shoulders. The very first conversation was about having lunch; the girl didn't care where they went, and the boy didn't know her well enough to know what to suggest. There was a pause, and then they settled on Mexican. The pause made a small bare patch on my shoulder, I the middle of a small dense blot of language. I told the inker to write small, because I had a lot of listening to go, but I thought I should include the pause, because the real conversation had all been in there.

This was the most dedicated listening I had ever done, and I was surprised how lonely it made me. When you're really lingering over the things people have to say, you realize how little of it as anything to do with you. People talk a lot, and very little of it really means anything. But incorporating it into my body made it mean something; it was marking the boundary between myself and the world. The thing was, the whole thing hurt a lot, especially as my body started to fill up and I moved on to the more sensitive parts of my anatomy. Without realizing it, I started to avoid hearing conversations: I would lag behind groups I saw on the street, I took the back stairs, I found reasons not to go to department stores. One of my friends noticed this eventually, around June. Most of my friends had been supportive, in the vague, distant way you're supportive of friends who are doing something stupid. But this one friend, it turned out, was infuriated by the whole project, and she started following me around town, trying to get close enough to force me to overhear what she was saying. I'm not sure why she chose that particular strategy to express her displeasure, but most of the back of my legs is a roadmap of the conversations we had, like a history of invasions, me fleeing from her pointedly meaningless daily round of gossip and her pursuing me like a remorseless angel with nothing much on her mind.

I saved the face for last, because that always struck me as a bad and painful place to get tattoos, but finally there was nowhere left. Even the gaps between the letters had been filled up by new conversations overlaid on the old. A year is a long time, and by the tenth month the first conversation was invisible under a layer of other dialogue forming a solid flat plane of tattoo black. Even the first pause between the two of them was now hidden under two promises of calling tomorrow and an irrelevant argument about action movies. I myself had lost track of everything that was said, especially since it had seemed important when I began to erase my recorder every time I had the tattoos done, so that the only record was on my body. I just had to have faith that the individual letters were still there, differently formed by the needle pricks under the indivisible color. The needle pricks were still very much on my mind; unlike what my friend thought of me, I don't like pain very much.

When I did finally move onto the face, my friend developed hesitation. She still followed me around, but when she saw me looking she would pause, as though wondering if she could really commit this much to being complicit in my bad idea. It's a strange strategy, explaining the weakness of somebody's art by forcing them to follow through with it; maybe she thought it would be good for me. Whatever she was thinking, after the hesitation she would still open her mouth, and explain to passersby what she thought of the Christmas decorations, and the fact that they went up earlier each year. She was making a lot of friends as I withdrew from contact, although none of those friendships lasted very long, since they needed to be standing where I could hear them. In the end, her pauses didn't matter very much, since I always had them tattooed on parts of my body that were already inked, so that they were invisible. I could feel them, though, as the increasingly rare parts of my body that didn't hurt at the moment, and I was grateful for them. One day in early December she walked up to my car, just as I was getting out; when she saw me she opened her mouth, and then turned around and walked away. That week I had the entire conversation we hadn't had not tattooed on my back, so that I could lie down in peace.

Finally even my face was filled up, almost, and it was time to exhibit. I got a solo show after all that, and for about a month I would show up at the gallery and stand still in a room. It was a tattoo-colored room, so that if I closed my eyes I was invisible. But my eyelids were where my art failed. It turns out to be incredibly painful to get your eyelids tattooed, and after the first word went on, I thought, the hell with it, I'm not doing that any more. So when I'm in my exhibition, all you can see are the crescents of my closed eyes, and across my left eye, sloping in from the corner, the letters YOM. I've forgotten what word they're part of. My friend came to the exhibition, and saw me. I wondered for the first time if she could tell, over the course of the past year, where her particular conversations were going, if she remembered what part of my body had issued from her. Maybe she was the one who said YOM, and maybe she still knew what it meant. But I didn't open my eyes, since I was deep in the art, and after a while she went away.

Second body

I'm not trained as a painter, but I have occasional inchoate needs to express myself just like anyone else, and art supplies just sort of accrete around me after a while. I had some white paint, some blue, and a brush, just sitting there, and so I decided to paint something. Just in case this turned out to be a stupid thing to do, though, I painted it in a box—that is, on the inside of the box—so that nobody had to see.

It was the box my wallet had come in, fake leather with a hinged lid. As I went along, I started to like the idea of my secret expression; I was glad I was painting inside a box. I also started to find shades of blue pretty limiting, but I had already decided not to spend any money on this project. I saw it as re-using all those things that build up in your life, finding purpose in what you've got rather than attracting new useless toys that will then be free to sit around aging into meaninglessness. I only have so much to say in blue, though, especially since I don't know how to paint. Luckily, it was the beginning of the new year, and so we cut the locks off all the students' lockers and liberated their leftover supplies. The result was a thirty-gallon garbage bin full of art supplies, some unused, and while we knew we should leave it all for the students to claim themselves, one particular student, the previous owner of a tube of orange, got punished for carelessness and lack of devotion to their materials. So, blue and orange, plus, white, and after a while I let a friend of mine lend me some black. She's been making mostly black paintings lately, so he probably needs it more, but she thought it was cute of me to be making art that exists in the physical world, and she wanted to push it along. Personally, I found black to be very comforting. It blended into the shadows in the corners of the box, and hid the more embarrassing parts of the image from view.

After a while the interior of the box was covered, and more than covered; the paint had built up so much that the space inside the box was noticeably shrinking. I couldn't stop, though, I was just getting the hang of mixing paints. Since I couldn't buy anything, I was mixing paint on the interior of the lid, and then using them on the box itself. The lid was getting heavy with paint buildup, since I didn't have anything to clean it with, and in any case I liked seeing my previous efforts. I especially liked seeing them disappear under layers of new attempts, although the new attempts themselves were nothing to write home about. By about mid-February a soggy mountain of oils, like a mutant volcano, rose in lumps off the lid.

By this time the box was about half-full of layers upon layers of image; I was invested now, I was thinking too much about what kind of image should go in a box, and I couldn't decide what direction to go in. In fact, it was worse: I had already gone in some direction, but I couldn't tell what direction it was, or where to go from there, or whether I should have gone there in the first place. Indecision loomed; among the things I don't know about painting is how to stop. At the height of uncertainty, to pass the time and because I didn't know what else to do, I idly shut the box, to see if it could still close with all that paint in it. It did close, and the paint in the box and the paint on the lid met as it closed, somewhere in the middle; and then it stuck.

I couldn't open it. I didn't try very hard, because I could tell the image was irrevocably stuck to the paint on the lid; in fact, there wasn't really any point in differentiating between them any more. The box was just a container of paint now, in an undifferentiated mass. There was no way to get at it any more.

I couldn't just write it off, though. I'd been working on it for months. I tried to think of the whole thing as a failed experiment, a learning experience, it wasn't clear what I was supposed to learn from this particular failure, if I couldn't even see the results. I kept the box around; I even moved it from my house to my studio, and back again, so that it could sit there while I decided what to do about it. From the outside, you couldn't see any paint on it at all. It just sat there, being a box. But I couldn't open the box without destroying whatever image was in there, buried in itself. The only answer was to paint the same thing over again, in another box.

I didn't really need another wallet, but at this point I figured it was time to spend my own money; I didn't really want to convince my friend to buy wallets for me, just so that I could keep my project pure. I bought my own paint, too, but I hadn't noticed what kind of paint the first stuff had been, and I'm not sure I bought the same thing. But I decided to assume that everything was the same, and I started once again to paint.

I usually have very little patience for things I've already done once, but I found that I'd forgotten almost everything I'd done, at least in the early stages, and it was like an revelation to reconstruct the mistakes I'd made the first time. It was strange, realizing I knew better than them now. It felt like hearing from old friends you'd almost forgotten, and realizing they didn't look like their photographs any more. The painting went faster this time, but as it went on, I started to worry that I was departing from the original. I getting caught up in it, working faster without really thinking, and how can you get caught up in something that isn't brand new, like an unexpected insight? I thought I must be making up new things, going in new directions, even though I was using all the same colors. I was still using the same brush too, the only one I owned, but even that made a difference; it had been brand new the first time, and now it was old and stiff with the original paint. I took to staring at the image in the box, or rather the paint in the box, wondering if it even made an image at all, let alone the same image. This took up more of my time than the painting. Finally I got sick of all this indecision—I couldn't even tell how far I'd gotten with the reconstruction—and I tried closing the lid of the box, to see how close I was to the thickness of the original painting. The box stuck shut again.

By the end of the year I had seven new wallets, and seven closed, featureless boxes full of paint. They looked identical from the outside; they might have been identical on the inside, but of course it was impossible to tell. By the seventh box I had completely forgotten everything I had worked out about painting. I was just making marks in the box, white and orange and blue and black, and trusting them to add up to the same painting because, apparently, I was incapable of making anything else. We really just say the same thing over and over again, anyway.

I put them in a show, of course. You have to. My friend came to the show, to see all her black paint. She peered at my boxes politely. Most people were saying that they liked the idea very much, and she said so too, but she also said also that she would have preferred it if there had been only one painting. It was the kind, encouraging tone in her voice that hurt the most. I tried saying that there was only one painting, spread out from box to box, continuous and impenetrable. I didn't believe it while I was saying it, and from the polite look on her face, neither did she; but later on I did.

Third body

The physical world is sadly static, and its interface is clumsy and laborious. When I hold a book against a shelf, does it click into place? Is the kitchen searchable by mechanical spider? Can I choose how much of the living room to show, based on my needs of the moment? No. None of these things are true. As my expectations are raised higher and higher by digital life, it seems increasingly that something ought to be done about the real world.

So I decided to spend the year making bounding boxes for everything in my house. A bounding box is the outline that surrounds the total area of an object in image manipulation software. You can grab onto the bounding box to scale the object, or rotate it, or even, in some applications, skew it. Maybe your expectations haven't been raised that high yet, but believe me, they will be. Anyway, it's nice sometimes to see where objects really end. Sometimes there's white space around them you weren't aware of, as though their influence extends for some way around them, bumping into other objects and shoving them out of place. Certainly my standing lamp kept getting crowded awkwardly into the corner; the big stuffed chair was pushing it in there, even though they never touched. I wanted to see that happening, to see their bounding boxes rubbing up against each other. I wanted to scale the chair down to about ninety percent, to teach it to behave itself.

Immediately some problems presented themselves. Materials were an issue, and so was engineering. On the computer, of course, you're looking at a flat screen, and so a bounding box is describing the area of the object from a single angle, which means it never has to change size. You can walk around real objects, and so their outline changes shape with every new perspective; so real-life bounding boxes would have to be adjustable. I was thinking in terms of hollow extendable rods, like telescopes, or the legs of tripods. That technical touch also seemed to give the whole enterprise a connection to the history of measurement and surveying, which somehow made it seem like a better idea.

That was how I explained it to a friend of mine, who was better at mechanical stuff than I am. She wasn't to sure what to make of the whole project, but she likes problem-solving, and I had made sure to leave some graph paper and pencils lying around when I asked her over. Pretty soon she was sketching, and I was looking over her shoulder and telling her I disagreed with her ideas. She always claims to be annoyed by that, but she always listens.

She suggested just making three-dimensional bounding boxes, like cages, out of lathe and string, but I thought that would be too obvious, too static. I didn't want just to document how much space my objects took up, I wanted to make visual perception tangible. I wanted to be able to feel the way things looked. My friend thought, as she often does, that I was just making things difficult to prevent myself from doing them, and of course that was true too, but that's why I asked her over. Finally, at about three in the morning, there was no way to keep arguing but to get out a tape measure and start making things.

The first bounding box, out of sawed-off adjustable shower curtain rods and corner connectors, looked like it had been built by drunken monkeys, but it was perfect. Even my friend admitted it, after breakfast and a lot of coffee. It was interactive; in fact you had to interact with it in order for it to mean anything at all. We both spent a lot of time peering through it, pacing around the couch, pulling and squeezing the bounding box to get it to match what we were seeing. This is how big it is from here, we would say, holding up the frame as though we were really discovering something new about the world.

And so we began to build boxes. We started big, because it seemed easier to get a hang, conceptually, of the couch and the coffee table. Then I started in on the books, while my friend started on my music collection. This was a little nerve-wracking, since it meant she was actually going through my music, judging my tastes of five years ago, ten years ago, my childhood; she was very thorough. This was exactly the kind of examination I didn't want. I wanted my belongings to be neutral shapes in space, empty of story, devoid of meaning. So I argued that, if were just measuring volumes in space, she should be building a bounding box for the entire collection, or at least one row of CDs at a time. She disagreed, but I have a lot of music, and the thought of building all those boxes got on her nerves after a while. By February she agreed to let the first CD bounding box stand in for the rest, and things started to go faster.

In March I thought about making all the bounding boxes react to my body as I moved around, adjusting to my perspective by means of lots of string. This was the beginning of the interface, making my apartment more malleable. But it didn't really work, mostly because by then my apartment had a tremendous amount of stuff in it, between the finished boxes, the materials for the boxes to come, and finally, under all the rest of it, the objects themselves. There really wasn't room for a lot of lines snaking through the air. After I nearly throttled myself a couple of times I gave it up, and at that moment I realized that to go any further, I was going to have to simplify the environment. So I started moving my belongings, the ones for which I'd already made boxes, out of the apartment.

This was a tremendous relief, and as the apartment emptied out, something started to be revealed. The empty bounding boxes hinted at their objects in a mysterious, expressive way that the objects themselves couldn't hope to compete with. By June I had picked up the pace of box manufacture, eager to get as much of my cluttered life as possible out of the way as fast as I could. At first I rented a storage space, but as the summer wore on I couldn't really live in my apartment any more, since the bed had been replaced by the outline of its space, and an increasing number of my clothes and kitchen utensils were demarcated by volume. So I rented another apartment, and began moving my things in there as I was finished with them. But I found myself getting rid of a lot of things altogether. I remembered my friend laughing over my more embarrassing pieces of personal history, and I didn't want that to be repeated. I wanted the story of my life to be contained in invisible packages, borders filled with nothing but the pure empty potential of the best possible life. I was careful not to say this to my friend, whose interest in the project was purely technical; as I ran out of problems to solve, she started to look more and more disapproving. I tried to talk her round, and as we headed into autumn I think I started to convince her that my apartment, empty of furnishings, had in fact become a more tactile, more informative experience than ever before. The pipes and joins of the boxes were as familiar to us now as our clothes, or books; we could see in them all our arguments and our solutions, and in the empty space within them we saw me. Or I did; I don't know what she saw. And it turned out that what I saw wasn't a hidden me, or an illusion of me, or the potential of other versions of me; it was me, the only me, complete and entire, on display in the history of absent objects in a way that made the objects themselves only a distraction.

By the time of the exhibition I had moved into my friend's apartment. My own second apartment was a mess, just a set of fragmented leftovers that neither of us really wanted to deal with any more. I don't recognize any of the objects in her place, or not in the same way; there's no depth to them, they're just surface. I don't mind, though; I like it, it's like exploring a new world. And so is my apartment, demarcated and measured, with stranger walking through manipulating the boxes. I'm resizing the couch! one of them cries, though in fact he's got hold of the rocking chair. But I know, and so does my practical-minded friend, and we can see my life changing and blossoming around us as we stand in the middle of the room, smiling, refusing to answer questions, touching nothing.

Fourth body

Social practice is big in art these days. We all need to look outside ourselves, and make art with other people. But I became an artist because I don't like dealing with other people. What am I supposed to do? How can I be solitary, and still engage with others in the way they deserve to be engaged with? the psychology of the individual is not an adequate excuse any more.

I talked it over with my friend, who likes people more than I do. She was very enthusiastic about social art; she kept using words like "performance" and "social networks," which are just two of the things for which I have no talent. I said that if she were so interested, she should do it herself; she said that she wasn't an artist, and we were talking about me. but I hate talking about me.

So this is what I decided to do: my art would be to make my friend a social artist. I would convince everyone that she was the magical presence, she was the one who heightened other people's perceptions of the world just by the way she moved through space. My reactions to everything she did would make her actions more than they really were.

My initial test was to make people believe that everything she did with her left hand was undeniable. absent-mindedly she picked up someone else's cigarette; she did it with her right hand, and I pointed out what she was doing. a little while later she did it again, but she picked it up with her left hand, and I said nothing. and, strangely, neither did anyone else.

It took weeks, but my friend started using her left hand more, without noticing. She leaned over and touched my shoulder, commenting the image I was working on; I followed her advice, but only if the hand she touched me with was the left one. She argued with people at a party, gesturing angrily with the hand not holding a drink, and I agreed with her or didn't, depending on the gesture. She offered me another beer, and I took it, if it was a left-handed offer. Did other people notice? Were pedestrians more likely to get out of her way, if she led with her left shoulder? I couldn't tell. by March the reaction felt so natural to me that perhaps I couldn't help but see it in other people too.

At this point I started the real project, or what I told my friend was the real project. I told her that we were going to make up a story together; we would convince everyone that she had a superpower, that at any time she could reach into her bag and pull out an object that was exactly what she needed for the situation at hand. She had forgotten all about our conversation about social practice, months earlier, but she was immediately interested. She was glad, even, that i'd decided to experiment with other people. She likes psychological games like that. I didn't mention the left-hand thing. it felt too private, in a way.

We decided that the only way our performance would work was to keep the objects mysterious. My friend's magic bag would always have the perfect object for the situation, and my friend would never understand what made the object so perfect. She would pull out a butter knife at a football game, nail clippers at a bar, fake tattoos at a political speech. How was she supposed to use these things? it would always be a mystery, and that, we suspected, was how to get other people interested. no one would believe us, but they'd be entertained, and if we kept on entertaining them, some people might start to believe us in spite of themselves.

My job was to seed her purse with unusual objects; she did the rest. at first I tried to match the objects to wherever we found ourselves, but that never really worked very well. I ended up just dumping whatever I could find in there, wind-up robots, cheap necklaces, even pebbles. Sometimes she didn't even find them until days later than I intended; she didn't keep a very organized purse. but she would take it out, whatever it was, and examine it very seriously-not too seriously, she's a good actress-and ask whoever we were with what they thought. I listened, wondered aloud with her, and agreed with her theories. and I noticed that on these occasions, she only reached into her purse with her left hand.

By the end of the summer, my friend and I were pretty sure that no one believed in her magic purse. in fact, they were getting tired of the joke. I was ready to quit, because all this social stuff is exhausting, and I just wanted to rest for a while. but my friend convinced me to continue with it. it wasn't hard. She lectured me about commitment to one's art, and everything she said was true, but she was pointing at me, of course, with her left index finger, and I was already on board. and so it went on, the endless parade of obscure, precise objects, pieces of agate, pieces of tin foil, miniature forks and cheap ribbons. through my hands they went, into her purse, and out into the world, transformed or not transformed by our intent, self-conscious gaze.

Why did we go for months without asking each other what we were doing, or telling each other the reasons behind the codes our behavior had turned into? by autumn I had forgotten the code, if I had ever had a clear idea what it was. What was my friend doing? More and more she took things out of her purse when no one else was around. the objects she found were more and more bizarre, and sometimes I hadn't put them there. She never mentioned putting them in her bag. once it was a fishhook, and she stuck it into her finger, her left forefinger, but it slid through the skin in just the right way not to draw blood. She held her hand out to me; I had to break the skin to get it out, and she flinched a little and said, maybe this was the perfect tool make it okay for you to hurt me. Was she arranging these silly, obvious metaphors to punish me for being silly and obscure? I was desperate to know, but I couldn't ask; I was committed to the act, which had been going on for so long now that it had to have become a magic ritual, or it had no meaning at all.

That December we went to a gallery opening together. neither of us had work in the show, except, of course, that there we were in the gallery, still embarked on our long, pointless, almost forgotten art. Many of the people there had seen my friend's magic purse before; they were used to it, no one even remarked on its presence any more. late in the evening, when most people were already gone, there was a crash behind us, and we all turned to see bottles on the floor, a sopping wet tablecloth, a pool of cheap white wine slowly advancing across the floor; and an artist cried out that all the napkins were gone. What could we do?

It's a funny thing; everyone looked at my friend's purse. Did they believe in it after all? Did we? She caught my eye, and smiled as she reached into her purse, and then as she pulled out her hand she laughed out loud at the expression on my face. She held out the magic to me in her outstretched hand, her outstretched right hand.

About all this

Once I spent an entire year laying fallow, undecided about what art to make; in fact I wasn't undecided so much as completely unmoved to make anything at all. At the end of the year I decided I need to have something to show for the year, if only a visible trace of the agonising I'd done. So I wrote four different fictional accounts of the art I hadn't made that year. Not only did they remain unmade, except in my imagination; for the most part they're unmakeable. Nonetheless I think about some of these bodies of work more often that some things that have physically existed.

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