Los Angeles-based artist Tim Youd is bringing his Typewriter Series back to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library as part of our Banned Books Week celebration (September 21-26). Youd’s series of diptychs are an artistic representation of the most basic shape and visual experience of looking at a book.
He has used literature as inspiration for his artwork for decades, and as he told us in a recent KVML interview, “At a certain point I realized that what I’ve been looking at this whole time was basically two rectangles side by side holding two smaller rectangles (the blocks of print), and thought it would be interesting to heighten that quality in some way.”
Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, September 2013
He types entire novels on the same two pieces of paper, one layered on top of the other, recycling them through the rolling feeder of a typewriter over and over. The bottom page becomes indented with the keystrokes while the top page becomes awash in black ink. After endless strikes, the paper begins to shred and ink leaks onto the paper beneath. He performs many of these works in public view, laboriously copying text in a location evocative of the author or their work: Bukowski in a Post Office, Wolfe adjacent to Edwards Air Force Base, Hemingway in his former writing studio, etc.
Youd views this series as a commentary on what he calls “The fetishization of the author and divorcing that author’s literary work from their marketing persona. It doesn’t matter that Hemmingway had cats, it matters that the guy wrote some very interesting work and we should spend time reading them.”
By recreating works from revered authors on the same model typewriter they typed on and in fitting venues, Youd is “fetishizing the fetishization,” and, as sort of a artistic double negative, flipping the view back on what really matters – the work they produced and not the consumer-driven ideas of where and on what device. Youd becomes both artist and media critic while memorializing the canonical works of great authors.
Youd’s Banned Books Week visit is not his first trip to KVML. In 2013, he created and displayed artworks with the texts of Breakfast of Champions (his favorite Vonnegut novel), Jailbird and Slapstick using the same make and model Smith Corona 2200 typewriter Vonnegut used to write those books – Vonnegut’s 2200 is on display at the KVML.
Youd is 26 novels into this project with 74 works left to complete. Next on his journey will be the KVML where Youd will live at the library night and day surrounded by banned books while he types the perhaps the most distinguished of forbidden texts, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – a diptych which, upon completion, will summarily be set on fire and destroyed.
“[Fahrenheit 451] is not just for its time and place, it can speak across generations and time periods,” says Youd. “The idea that we can lose access to knowledge, even in a world with the proliferation of ideas available on the Internet, it’s very real today. We’re in a world where half the population lives in the Middle Ages in regards to free access of information.”
The banning, censoring or outright burning of books has a long history, from the libraries at Antioch and later Alexandria to the Nazi burning campaigns of the 1930s and 40s. Even our enlightened 21st century is not immune to such medieval responses as seen though the numerous burnings of Harry Potter novels.
While we didn’t discuss the virtue of English boy-wizards and J.K. Rowling’s prose with Youd, he did say “Banned books are usually the good ones.” While there is something to be said in regards to age appropriateness in all media (the written word included), Youd, who is father to a thirteen-year-old son, sees the importance in quality works of literature as a jumping off point for complex discussions with young minds yearning to understand their world.
Reflecting on a recent camping trip with his son where they listened to an audio version of another oft-censored book, To Kill a Mockingbird,” Youd used the occasion as “… a chance to understand why. There may be a legitimate concern [behind banning books], but the reaction is wrong. Instead we should ask what is the political issue that is at stake? What is being said? Why are we confronting this and why now? It’s a wonderful chance for dialogue.”
“Beyond literary appreciation, it’s a chance to have a discussion about society and our politics. I’m an artist, so I think I’m most true to the aesthetics of something. But I’m also a person, and that part of me wants to understand the issues from a political and social view point as well.”
Banning books outright, instead of answering the questions of why, is dismissing their ability to provoke thought on ideas of power, violence, exploitation and authority, let alone exploring the complexity of these issues. It’s a non-verbal statement that the conversations are too hard, the mind too fragile or the person too small to be able to handle it.
So it’s fitting that surrounded by banned literature in a library dedicated to a man who has created banned books of his own, transcribing a text that has been banned on numerous occasions for its’ questioning of authority and book burning, Youd will once again be playing the role of both artist and critic, a balance every good artist performs.
Though his “prison of banned books” does offer perks for any literary lover. When asked if he is nervous about living and sleeping in the library for the duration of this performance, Youd replied, “I’ll get a lot of reading done.”