Selections from the Story Gathering Boxes, 1972 - ongoing
Mary Beth Edelson
Malmö Museum of Modern Art, Sweden
The box itself is a made from thick pine board; simple, homemade, built to last. It’s divided into four sections, each one holding a couple hundred or so plain paper tablets. Rubber-stamped at the top of each tablet is a question or statement - one to a section - that broaches a central theme. For example the “Gender Parity” box, exhibited four times since 1985, asks the questions - what did your mother tell you about men?, what did your mother tell you about women?, what did your father tell you about women?, what did your father tell you about men?. There is a pen with a long string attached to the box, and a card nearby inviting you to look through the stories already gathered and to feel free to add your own. The box usually sits on a sturdy table large enough to accommodate a chair or two. Edelson started making the story-gathering boxes in 1972, at the same time as her early body-art and public performances. The impetus behind making them was frustration with the way art was being presented in gallery exhibitions. In her own words the story-gathering boxes were in part her “…rebellion against the implied message of art galleries that you are to look but not touch. You are welcome to breeze through the exhibition but not linger. You are to stand but not to sit. And that the exhibiting artist is the know-it-all, and that you are the know-nothing.” So the boxes are an invitation, as it were, to touch, to linger, to sit down and be counted. And more than this, they allow participants to actively broaden the focus of the exhibition by adding something of their own, something the story-gathering boxes are consistently successful in eliciting; raw personal material. ‘Raw personal material’ refers to all the component parts of human expressiveness that usually get edited out of public exchange. Think of all the forms and occasions of communicated meaning that sense can’t really hang on to, and, like noise, never form a repeatable pattern, but even so reveal more of the moment’s complexity than pattern could ever convey. That’s raw personal material. In documentary surveys of contemporary feminist art history, Edelson is often represented by two different bodies of work. The first is the 1970 -72 series of goddess incarnations. These were based on black-and-white photographs of herself naked, facing the camera in private ritual postures, which she then drew and collaged over, recasting her image in different incarnations of female divinity - from an ancient cat-headed Bubastis to a thoroughly modern Wonder Woman. The second is the series of feminist agitprop posters produced intermittently over a span of fifteen years, in particular her 1972 Some Living American Women Artist, which re-staged ‘The Last Supper’ with an all-women cast of seventy-eight. The first - the early body-art - was a personal, largely introspective form of visual practice based on Edelson’s conviction that “women’s lives, psyches and sexuality were positively multiple, and that the release of this multiplicity was a political act”. The second - the poster series - was part of a political, community -based process of public out-reach that intended to “undermine invested authority and replace it with an ecology of connections.” The first originates in the realm of private subjectivity, the second in the realm of public agency. Two different ways of knowing-in-practice, as well as two different practices - art and activism - running in parallel course. And then there’s a third, running somewhere in between; the story-gathering boxes. The presentation of the box, table, and seating is always designed with an eye toward comfort and private focus within the restrictions of a public space. The size of the paper tablets and their random-file organization in the boxes allow for anonymity. The story topics themselves are neutral in tone and straightforward even when they are clearly provocative. It’s a simple combination of elements, but start delving through a box of tablets and it’s immediately clear just how much expressive energy is liberated. Permission is granted to speak one’s mind, and that’s exactly what happens in tablet after tablet. Vignettes, memories, tall tales, confessions, wisecracks, innuendo, exaltations, laments, obscenities, obituaries, prayers, hieroglyphics, -- the list of story-forms is probably as endless as the tablets. But even describing them as story-forms is misleading; they’re too immediate, extemporaneous, and often too hastily scrawled to be decipherable. For instance, one response from the 1974 What is the responsibility of an artist? box is printed in a careful hand: “Daniel Putnam, 110 Mulberry Street New York 10013, 343 - 2477”. And another, in a loopy style that telescopes precipitously downward: “the RESponsibility of an ARtist is the IRREsponsibilty of all auks or UND...” then spirals into scribble. There’s no formal beauty to them, no art. But in tablet after tablet, the authors reveal themselves - whether intentionally or not - so candidly, remorselessly, and in such unexpected variation that the cumulative effect is to compress all the tablets into a single, unruly congregation of experience, an ‘ecology of connections’, with all the noise left in. Edelson has made over thirty story-gathering boxes since the first was exhibited in 1972. There are many thousands of story-tablets gathered thus far. She still deploys them with the original promise in mind; to make room in an art exhibition for some give and take; to offer a way for the viewer to reciprocate by taking part in a kind of informal participatory research that never intends to draw conclusions or even comparisons, just more descriptions; - more story-tablets. She’s never made a claim to the story-gathering boxes’ status - whether they’re art-objects, time-capsules, research projects, some kind of exhibition-activism, or none of the above. She told me she never thought about it, felt that she never had a reason to.