In July 2010, San Francisco poet and bookseller Beau Beausoleil put out a call for book artists to join with him and his collaborator Sarah Bodman (Senior Research Fellow for Artists’ Books at the Centre for Fine Print Research) in their project An Inventory Of Al-Mutanabbi Street. The idea behind project was for artists of all nations to “re-assemble” some of the “inventory” of the reading material of al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, which was lost when a car bomb was exploded there on March 5, 2007. More than 30 people were killed in the explosion, and over 100 wounded. Al-Mutanabbi Street is located in a mixed Shia-Sunni area, and is the historic center of Baghdad bookselling. The lively area has long been the heart and soul of the Baghdad literary and intellectual community, filled with bookstores, outdoor bookstalls, cafes, stationery shops, and even tea and tobacco shops, most of which are constantly humming with activity.
The coalition asked each book artist who joined the project to complete three books (or other paper material) over the course of a year that would reflect both the strength and fragility of books, but also show the endurance of the ideas within them. The coalition asked for work that reflected both the targeted attack on this “street of the booksellers,” as well as the ultimate futility of actions perpetrated by those who try to erase thought. With this unusual project, the organizers were hoping to stimulate the creation of work that capable of holding both “memory and future—” what they feel is exactly what was lost that day.
InterArts faculty member Miriam Schaer’s work Witness is part of this new traveling exhibition. She developed Witness from a New York Times article that described the bombing of Baghdad’s historic street of booksellers during the American occupation of Iraq in 2007. “I started by running the text of the original article through every language available on Google Translate, then printed out the new and transformed pages. Albanian, Esperanto, Georgian, Malay, and Serbian descriptions of the massacre now lived side by side with pages in French, Italian, and Thai,” says Schaer. Next, she hand-cut each page into the shape of her own hand, sewed on hand-twisted book cords, and in the final stage of creating the piece, she charred, dirtied, and dyed the pages to emulate the books that survived the bombing. “In our age of constant, instant news and global distribution, we are all witnesses,” continues the artist. “It’s time to acknowledge and accept the maxim that there are no innocent witnesses. We are all morally complicit to the extent we choose to look away or fail to act. ”
A complete set of all the books will be donated to the Iraq National Library in Baghdad. The other two sets are touring for the next few years in conjunction with shows of the broadsides, as well as in shows of their own. for more information on the exhibition and the project, click here.