It's been a few months since I finished Objects of Unknown Use. If you are wondering where I disappeared to, I've been posting more studio and process documentation on Instagram @huldrapress. But it's not the same as a blog. This is where I write about process. If you're reading this, you're reading this at my website, which I redesigned in the winter and where I moved the archives of the Huldra Press blog. Please remember to update your RSS feeds if you are using a reader!
I'm writing now because I've had time to think through the process of making this book. This book developed slowly and organically through a combination of sources and desires. Reflecting on the process, what stands out now is how much I've come to rely on chance and found sources as my collaborators. How necessary they've become.
When I started writing this book, I was thinking about death and the soul and I was reading three things. One, a translation of The Egyptian Book of the Dead, a guide to the afterlife, radiant in its cataloged precision of material detail. Two, a blog of UFO encounter accounts, a text I was drawn to for its earnest tone and repetitive imagery, images like I looked up into the sky and saw a white light. Finally, an inventory of all the objects in The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Reading the endless litany of objects felt like a meditation of silent still images.
155, 156 - Two kohl containers
158 - 160 - Amulets: three serpents heads two of wood and one of carnelian
172 - Object of unknown use - a vase between two towers*
*A note, I am fascinated how much this text resembles the text to my book, Instruction, which was written at least a year before I read this inventory. Coincidences like these seem routinewhen using chance operations.
These three seemingly disparate sources felt in fact like parallel paths, all leading towards to same destination. A desire for immortality through instruction, recitation, and ritual.
The writing began with a piece of text from my notes and a stack of images. The text was a question, a few mis-remembered and cut-up words:
What are these limbs, magician
These objects of unknown use?
As if a voice had just entered a body and didn’t know what it was.
The images, a stack of nothingness. They were monoprints I had made from inked blank plates of aluminum, the resulting images reminiscent of sky, glaciers, and ruined film. I took the sky images, scanned and printed them on a Risograph at The Common Press of The University of Pennsylvania, along with cut up photographs of birds in flight. (see also top image)
I spent a few hours every day writing, for me a process of translating, sifting, and then gleaning the most interesting pieces and shaping them into a new text. Characters and settings emerged. A genderless traveler and their ka, a sentient physical software named Pre 3 - SC, making their way through a post-apocalyptic landscape menaced by a spreading presence called the 7039 Yamagata gray. The ka is an Egyptian concept of the soul, the spark or anima that makes us alive. In hieroglyphics, it is represented as two raises arms or as a second representation of the deceased, and therefore in early works of translation it was referred to as the double.
As I wrote, a voice emerged. A question and answer rhythm presented itself, a voice much like the commanding voice of the book of the dead, giving directions and asking for the words that would open the path to immortality.
"Say the words..."
One day deep in the editing process, I was stuck in traffic listening to NPR and I heard a Radiolab segment on Bina 48, a robot created by Martine Rothblatt. She a a humanoid artificial intelligence modelled after Martine’s wife, Bina. Bina 48 was programmed with the “real” Bina’s memories, beliefs and feelings and can talk and hold conversations. It is supposed to be a clone of the mind, the soul. I felt it encompassed the themes of this book so perfectly. Bina 48 is a cut-up of a real person's thoughts. In the program, a journalist interviewed Bina48 and this exchange happened
What does electricity taste like?
Like a planet around a star
And this became the opening line of the book, a dedication of sorts, a text written using Google Translate and cut-up writing as a chance operations to build a science fiction poetic narrative about the soul; gleaned from UFO encounter accounts, museum inventories, and The Egyptian Book of the Dead.
I'm still making new work building off of the ideas started in the book, I hope to exhibit them in the winter. Thank you for reading.