Ulises Carrión is a hero of seventies Latin American writing. He says something important in his essay “The New Art of Making Books:” “In a book of the old art words transmit the author's intention. That's why he chooses them carefully. In a book of the new art words don't transmit any intention; they're used to form a text which is an element of a book, and it is this book, as a totality, that transmits the author's intention.”
Recently, I picked up a notebook of sorts from Les Figues Press in Los Angeles that deals with experiences of the author, Danielle Adair, during a “twelve day embed during the month of November 2008 with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division of Task Force Duke in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.” The book, From JBAD: Lessons Learned is printed as a notebook on a translucent onionskin paper that gives the book a feeling of impermanence and disposability. The text is constructed solely out of comments and statements made by the individuals she spoke with during her time as an embedded “journalist” in that camp. The book is also a webpage called First Assignment and comes with a photocard of people drinking tea and a tea bag that Danielle made as a kind of gift that comes along with the book. The title of her book seems to be tongue in cheek, i.e. in a loosely collected structure of quotations gathered from different speakers at the Infantry camp in Afghanistan there will be no report on what lessons she learned. The title is a provocation. It says, look here for the lessons I learned and then you look for the lessons and there is nothing actually there.
It is interesting to apply Carrión idea of the role of words in “new art” to the JBAD project. The words in Adair’s book do not have any intention (or if there was an intention of the speaker, it is recontextualized and altered by appearing in the book); in fact, the words are not even Adair’s. The project as whole—the book, the teabag, the photo card, the website—indicates an intention on Adair’s part to participate, to embed herself literally in something not-her-own, something foreign, a military intervention on the other side of a very large world.
Adair’s book seems to be a perfect example of what Carrión is talking about. A book that does not need to be read word for word, a book that can be skimmed, whose conceptual project is more important that the actual words on the page. As Carrión said, “Old art's authors have the gift for language, the talent for language, the ease for language. For new art's authors language is an enigma, a problem; the book hints at ways to solve it.” The quotes from the people around Adair in the camp attest to this fact; there words are enigmatic, fragmented, often deeply problematic. There is a hint of a solution in Adair attention to detail, to the voices around her, to deep listening. In another part of his essay, Carrión says that the new author has no intention; the sole intention is to “test the language’s ability to mean something.” Can these words, these dangerous imperial words about conquest and military intervention actually be made to mean something outside of their original context? Adair doesn't give us an answer, but she is definitely testing, experimenting and trying to find out.