SPELLS
(a fragmentary novel with photos)

To Begin Is to Start (image: Peter McCollough)

The Earth Will Know (image: Colleen Plumb)

Hello (images: Sara Lafleur-Vetter)

Friendship (image: Sophia Borazanian)

Reassurance (image: Shaena Mallett)

Twenty years ago, I worked as a security guard in an art museum. This museum had five floors and a basement, a guard on every floor. The way the schedule worked was that we shifted down one floor every half hour. I started on the fifth floor, in Asian Art, then the guard who was on break in the basement came up and I moved down a floor. It was a relatively easy job, in that on a perfect day nothing changed, nothing was supposed to happen. However, boredom and loneliness kept turnover among the guards surprisingly high.

I entertained myself by trying to make up a story for each photograph, painting and object in the museum; however, we guards weren't allowed to write, on the job. Bending this rule, I carried a scrap of paper and a little pencil and then, in the minute or so when I was going down the stairway to the next floor, I'd furtively scribble a few words, to remind me of the stories I'd made up in my head. And then when I got to the break room in the basement, I'd write down as much as I could, in the half hour, then begin again. Later, I'd go home and work some more on it all.

A few years ago, I found myself in conversation with a photographer. Some of the difficult artistic questions he asked caused me to reflect on where I was with my work, and where I'd been, and reminded me of some of the pleasures and play that I was in danger of forgetting. In telling him about my museum guard writing, I began to envision a similar project.

First, I found photographers whose work I was drawn to, and contacted them with a very hypothetical and tentative description of what I was doing.  Somewhat arbitrarily, I decided that five photographers would be a good number; I was gratified that the first five* I contacted were excited to join me. Next, I let these photographers know why I was drawn to their work, noted some images I really admired, and shared some of my previous writing with them. I asked them to send me 20-30 images; of these, I chose five at a time, and proceeded incrementally, generating the specific stories as I went.

The images are not merely illustrations for a pre-existent story, then, but the conditions and possibilities and limitations of how they proceeded. The images came first. One way to think of it is that the stories herein, and the larger story they become, were already embedded in the photographs. My attention and intuition acted as a kind of excavation that brought them to the surface, into words.

I've recently been named a 2014 Guggenheim fellow to pursue this project, which will hopefully be a book, but may also be a gallery show, and may take the shape of a long film, its words recorded, each piece scored by different musicians. The short films above are only a very rough approximation.

*Sophia Borazanian, Sara Lafleur-Vetter, Peter McCollough, Shaena Mallett, Colleen Plumb