1976 in the San Francisco Bay Area was a successful year for me in terms of artist’s books and performance art. My creative output that year was small but compelling; even with limited resources I found ways to be innovative, infusing those few books and performances with much thought and feeling. A short list of the most salient works realized in 1976 includes: “Something Without Time Reflecting The Motions Of,” a video/installation piece that involved my interacting with a little circular pool of inky water; “Swallowing Sunlight,” a photo-documented private performance with a beam of sunlight; “Experiments (Orphic descent),” a onetime performance for a small audience in a vacant darkened storefront; “Asylum,” a 12 page stapled booklet printed by offset lithography in an edition of 50; and “TSMNFIWH,” an eight page booklet also printed by offset in an edition of 50.
Such works were part of the ephemera of the period, obscure harbingers of that great flux that would overtake and forever change the arts by the end of the 70’s: the advent of pluralism. And yet, at the time these works, among others by other artists, served more than simply to herald a new era. Looking back now, these few books and performance pieces seem to have shared an overarching concern: to reveal the existence of an inner life or world through visual metaphors and symbolic actions. Of course, artists have long embraced the notion of art as a vehicle or bridge to an inner life. What a lot of the pioneering art in the 1970’s contributed to this idea was the integration of the commonplace as the primary means toward this end. For many of us the aim was to transform the commonplace into something extraordinary, thus revealing connections between the everyday world and something hidden or otherworldly. The influential movements of Fluxus and Arte Povera also employed ordinary artifacts and familiar situations in new ways. Yet, some of the art of the 1970’s, particularly work being done in the Bay Area around the middle of the decade, could not be understood entirely in light of these earlier movements. The Bay Area art scene was a veritable hothouse in those days where one was likely to see just about anything. There was a lot of art around then that refused institutional nailing, work that imbued ordinary artifacts and familiar surroundings with magic and wonder.
The artist’s book in the 1970’s, an art form that had come into its own in the previous decade, was often a repository for the sort of experimentation that pervaded all the arts. Produced as one of a kind works or in small editions, artist’s books were, among other things, an ideal way to explore the interplay of word and image. The artist’s book was also, by way of photography, potentially a virtual performance site, and as such something that could be closely related to my activities as a performance artist. In this regard, “TSMNFIWH” is exemplary. Before I offer a few remarks about this intriguing little work, it is first necessary to briefly describe the piece and then disclose the acronym forming its title. The eight-page booklet is 3x11 inches and contains eight photographic images, one per page, of my face with my right hand covering the mouth. In each image the back of the hand has a different word stamped on it in ink. Together, the hand-stamped words form a sentence: “The secret must never fall into wrong hands.” The facial expressions that accompany each unspoken word exhibit a range of emotions: surprise, suspicion, apprehension, and so forth. What appears to be self-admonishment is emphatic, so forceful in fact that the secret, if indeed there is one, must be important, even vital. One way of interpreting this work without indulging in a cat and mouse game over whether there is or isn’t a secret behind it is to regard the booklet itself as an artistic secret that should not be allowed to fall into wrong hands. Viewed in this way the work takes on an interesting metaphorical quality, becoming a clandestine “document” from an earlier time that may still have something to impart. My interpretation is meant to suggest that “TSMNFIWH” essentially expresses an act of resistance and that guarding an (one’s) inner life had (and still has) political implications. If nothing else, in form and content “TSMNFIWH” is a quiet celebration of non-conformity, which is always necessary and vital behavior in a democratic society, especially in times of political repression.