Tim Youd is represented by the L.A.-based gallery Coagula Curatorial, and he’s currently in the midst of an art project—sort of. I qualify that statement because Youd is not creating his own art. Instead, he’s literally retyping 100 famous novels, one by one, using the same typewriter as the original author. He also chooses meaningful locations for each installment; he typed out The Sound and the Fury at William Faulkner’s Mississippi home, Bukowski’s Post Office outside the actual post office where Bukowski worked, and now he’s in the library at the University of Leicester in England typing out Kingsley Amis’ Lord Jim.
From The Guardian, here is Youd’s rationale for what he refers to as his “performance”:
“I’ve read everything before I retype it, so the suspense is gone. The appreciation happens on a deeper level. I get to examine the structure, the style in the course of the most active form of reading … I get really deep into it, I can’t type as fast as I read, so I have to go slowly. At its heart, the performance is a devotional exercise. It is an extreme, perhaps slightly absurd dedication to the author’s words.”
The idea was inspired by Hunter S. Thompson, who claimed to have copied The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby word for word in his formative years. Youd is on his 32nd novel, and will knock out a few more while he’s in England, including A Clockwork Orange and two Virginia Woolf books.
So, the question remains: Is this truly performance art? Obviously there is no subjective measure of art, which is more or less in the eye of the beholder. It would be interesting to compare Youd’s project to ‘recreations’ in other artistic fields. With painting, for instance, there are many who copy famous paintings, but it’s so commonplace as to be unremarkable. Scripted theater is one big recreation from an original text, and nobody disputes that this is art. Ditto for film—the text comes first. In both cases, though, the original art is being translated into a new medium. A more accurate analogy might be a remake of a film that adheres closely to the original direction, though shot-by-shot duplicates are rare. When we recreate music, it’s called a cover, and there are whole bands dedicated to that particular art.
Retyping a novel, though, is the most absurd cloning act of all the genres. That being said, absurdity has a long and proud tradition in art. It may feel pointless, but by applying the logic of other artistic recreations to the written word—and performing in locations that hold special meaning with the author—I would argue that Youd has achieved a sort of art, even if, in practical terms, it’s a puzzling and meaningless form.