The Stranger vs. Bumbershoot
Shelley JacksonSat Sept 3, Starbucks Literary Stage, 5:30–6:00 pm.
When authors speak of a body of work, they are generally referring to a host of drafts, manuscripts, and published writings, unified by a governing aesthetic or, at least, a common byline. But the art of former Seattle resident Shelley Jackson brings new meanings to the term.
Jackson's writings to date have revealed a preoccupation with the human body. She first found acclaim with her award-winning hypertext novel The Patchwork Girl, a re-imagining of the Frankenstein myth. Her forthcoming ink-and-paper novel, Half Life, deals with conjoined twins.
Then there is her 2002 short-story anthology, The Melancholy of Anatomy. Here, Jackson isolates components, states, and products of the human biological system—fat, hair, sleep, milk—and assigns them fantastic new roles. They don't necessarily have minds of their own, but they certainly display personalities. "Sperm" stars squiggly-tailed chromosome carriers as huge as rhinoceroses, saddled and ridden for sport. The surprised protagonist of "Nerve" becomes romantically entangled with a renegade ganglion that teaches him new ways to feel.
Yet her current project, Skin, begun in the summer of 2003, might better be described as bodies of work. Wise authors know that their creations take on new lives once disseminated in the minds of readers, but Jackson adds a new twist to this progression: Skin is a text that is being tattooed, one word at a time, onto 2,095 volunteers.
During Bumbershoot, literary buffs and curiosity seekers can visit the Ink Spot to watch Super Genius Tattoo artists indoctrinate a number of pre-approved volunteers into Jackson's tale. Just don't expect to catch the gist of her narrative by hanging around and taking inventory. "The text will be published nowhere else, and the author will not permit it to be summarized, quoted, described, set to music, or adapted for film, theater, television, or any other medium," announced Jackson in the work's call. Besides the author, only the participants of Skin will ever know the contents in their entirety.
Lest prospective hopefuls daydream of crafting breathtaking body art displays as vehicles for Jackson's text, be advised that the writer has issued very specific criteria, to ensure uniformity: Skin tattoos must be done in black ink only, and rendered in a classic book font, i.e. Carlson, Garamond, Times Roman, or a simple sans serif à la Futura—a typeface one might expect to see in any contemporary novel; no exceptions. "Words in fanciful fonts will be expunged from the work," she insists.
Upon completion of tattoos, participants must submit two photos to Jackson: One a signed and dated close-up of the tattoo, for her files, as well as a portrait of the host individual, in which their new adornment is not clearly visible. In exchange, they receive a certificate of documentation from Jackson. This is an investment in literary history, a one-of-a-kind work: No transcriptions, synopses, or subsequent editions will ever appear to devalue the original.
Approximately 7,000 volunteers had come forward to be part of Skin as of September 2004. According to a recent update on Jackson's website, www.ineradicablestain.com, 1,780 participants have been selected and notified thus far, with a little over 300 left to assign. Work has progressed slowly, as Jackson is assigning and dispatching each individual word herself. The author is also the title; "Skin" was tattooed on her inner right wrist in Baskerville on September 8, 2003, by Tabare Grazioso of New York's Bowery Tattoo.
More so than an ordinary tattoo, becoming part of Skin is a lifetime commitment: "From this time on, participants will be known as 'words,'" Jackson made clear to volunteers. "They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as its embodiments." Lose a limb? Decide to laser off your ink? No matter. You're still a "word"... till the bitter end. Only in death will a "word" be considered no longer part of the story.
Before the cranky among you dismiss Skin as a conceptual art folly, rather than a literary achievement, consider its merits. This story will never be adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster, or auctioned off to a frivolous tycoon by Christie's. And when the last "word" dies, says Jackson, Skin ceases to exist. Seem unsentimental for an artist? Hardly. Jackson feels a powerful attachment to her work: She plans to attend the funerals of as many "words" as possible.