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Reversing Vandalism

A renegade employee slashed hundreds of gay-themed books in San Francisco's main library. Now those books are art.

Odd are the historical twists of fate. When the new main San Francisco Public Library first opened, it drew the ire of booklovers for discarding 150,000 perfectly readable books because it "had no room." Eight years later, the library is not only keeping hundreds of mangled books but has transformed them into works of art.

In 2001, library staff began to find mutilated books hidden under the stacks. It dawned on them that the books were all related to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender matters. Or nearly all: the perpetrator, who turned out to be a library security guard, showed both the depth and stupidity of his hate by slashing books by journalist Gay Talese, historian Peter Gay, and a book of poetry entitled <i>Enola Gay (about the plane that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan).

The ruined books were slated for removal when Jim Van Buskirk, who runs the library's James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, got the idea to turn them into art. "The more I looked at them the creepier it became," he said. "I knew I couldn't throw them away, because it would just reinforce the goal of the perpetrator."

A call went out to Bay Area artists: anyone could request books for transformation into art. The project soon snowballed and suddenly the Hormel Center was deluged with artwork from as far away as Japan. Artists from around the world responded with over 200 original works, ranging from collages, to various items made wholly from books (such as miniature human figures, apples, birdcages, and pillows), to installation pieces, where pieces of the books were integrated into other items such as gel-cap tablets and even other books. The show outgrew the Hormel Center and is now on display in other parts of the library.

The ethic of not letting the vandal have the last word pervades the entire show. In addition to turning a negative to a positive, the exhibit counters the vandal's censorship by creating a new form of free speech out of the very items the vandal was attempting to censor.

The Reversing Vandalism exhibition also has roots that reach back into the early 20th century, when the Dadaists experimented with "artists' books" and made art from quotidian objects. Collagists such as the Fluxus artists of the 1960s helped bring about the idea that these found objects could be manipulated to form entirely new works.

Artists such as Buzz Spector and Tom Phillips used books as their found objects, and helped bring about the concept of altered books. In the 1980s Spector's publication <i>Whitewalls explored the relationship between the physical and conceptual identities of books. Phillips made the art form a decades-long pursuit with his continually altered book, <i>A Humument, in which words from the Victorian text of the same name are highlighted to create strange poetry and visual effects.

Kathy Walkup's Library of Discards is the Bay Area's local antecedent to Reversing Vandalism. Walkup's program, which began in the late 1990s, distributes library discards to local artists who then send back a piece of art. Library of Discards has been shown throughout the Bay Area for several years.

According to Steve Woodall, artistic director of the San Francisco Center for the Book, Reversing Vandalism is "the most important showcase we've seen of Altered Books with political content."

Van Buskirk emphasizes that the exhibit, with many works by heterosexual artists, is also about reducing the barrier between LGBT and non-LGBT people. After its run in San Francisco, parts of the exhibit will travel to Santa Fe for that city's "Damaged Book Project," both extending the exhibit's message and moving it into less openly queer-friendly territory. Reversing Vandalism is on display at the San Francisco Main Library until May 2.

Sat., April 10

Reversing Vandalism: the Art of Altered Books
A panel discussion with Steve Woodall, artistic director of the San Francisco Center for the Book and Reversing Vandalism artists Mary Marsh and Sandra Ortiz Taylor discussing the history and the art of Altered Books.

Main Library, Lower Level, Koret Auditorium, 1 pm-2:30 pm.
100 Larkin Street (at Grove), SF.

Thurs., May 6

"Artists from Kathy Walkup's Library
of Discards will be speaking - 6 pm at the San Francisco Center for the
Book, 300 De Haro St., SF."