Type Writer: With Help From the Public, Susan Silton Retypes ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

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While it’s been said that a million monkeys on a million typewriters could eventually write Shakespeare, artist Susan Silton takes the theory to a personal level. For the past few months, Silton has been enacting a participatory art piece at USC’s Fischer Gallery, as part of the Drawn To Language group show, where volunteers post up at a circle of typewriters and retype John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath. The exhibition ends Saturday, which is when Silton’s In everything there is the trace project culminates with a “performative gesture” at 4 p.m. (Reception to follow.) For those who want to partake in the final public typing sessions, there are two capstone events this Saturday at from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. and again from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m.

Silton’s project is more about the act of performing the piece and less about the finished product. The paper itself reveals little of the actual words, the typewriters have no ribbons and only leave indentations of the letters; instead, the production creates a social space where scores of writers sit and work next to each other, unified by a desire to be a part of a larger experience. It’s also a personal moment where individuals can re-read the words of Steinbeck and reprocess the work through their own fingers. Grapes of Wrath seems a fitting text. The story of the Joads, poor tenant farmers from Oklahoma who migrate to California in the 1930s, takes on new meaning in 2013, an era when the United States is barely rebounding from one of the worst economic slumps of the last 50 years.

The title of Silton’s show, In everything there is the trace, comes from the late French intellectual Jacques Derrida: “In everything there is the trace, the experience of a return to something else of being returned to another past, present, future, a different type of temporality that’s even older than the past and that is beyond the future.” Words are at the core of Derrida’s work. Silton’s too, though she overlays them with themes of community, sourced labor, and collaboration.

In an earlier piece, Silton protested the Iraq war by re-typing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. For her Who’s in a Name? project, she interrupted a 2011 art piece by John Baldessari in which the public submitted names to be displayed for 15 seconds on a LED marquee outside of a museum. It was a play on Warhol’s adage that we’d all eventually be famous for 15 minutes. Silton organized a digital intervention by 59 artists who instead submitted the names of artists who had committed suicide. Like the artist themselves, the flashes of the deceased existed only for a brief amount of time. When In everything there is the trace concludes, the ambitious project will leave behind little tangible evidence of its existence, just faintly marked pages and experiences engraved on the memories of its participants. 

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