If someone dives headfirst into a canal, won’t the body one day come to the surface, won’t children play with a hand and find a whole shoulder attached to it? Or can you vanish into the air like a word? What force is capable of making us invisible? What thing fills the empty space we leave, what is it made of? And where do the eyes, the hair, the ears go?
—Ulises Carrión, De Alemania
The word is a soluble entity. A substance that exists in various states. Solid when written on a sheet of paper—the ink crystalizes its forms, the sentence its limits, and punctuation its intervals. Conversation, by contrast, is liquid: dialogue is a spring fed by sound, it flows forward and back in time and space from the speaker to the listener. The word is gaseous when it murmurs, when it dissolves into the expectations of others, when it reconstructs itself from mouth to mouth, when it disassembles and changes meaning. Rumor and gossip are gaseous, volatile. Just as it needs a particular level of decibels to start an avalanche, it’s important to choose the correct person to begin a chain reaction; the rest is mere waiting and contagion.
ULISES IN AMSTERDAM TO SYLVIE IN PARIS:
Not even a single word.
How else then?
By 1972, Ulises had finished his postgraduate degree in English language and literature at the University of Leeds and had decided to settle in Amsterdam. Sylvie was unsurprised that he didn’t want to return to Mexico, but she was disconcerted when he told her that he not only wanted to stay in Amsterdam indefinitely but was considering giving up writing and reading. She thought of Ulises’s published books, La muerte de Miss O (1966) and De Alemania (1970); so many years forging a career in literature, and now he was simply giving it up.
SYLVIE IN PARIS TO ALISON IN BOSTON:
Maybe it’s just a hoax.
And if it isn’t?
Ulises was born in 1941 in a large old house in San Andrés Tuxtla, Veracruz. In that house, his mother collected all the newspaper clippings that mentioned him. Thomas remembered a beautiful leather folder with a copy of the Estela Cultural supplement in which his story “La prueba” was published when Ulises won the Veracruz Student Federation’s literary competition. He was only nineteen, but his future career was clear. After the publication of his second book, an extensive article in a Mexican newspaper had included him among the generation of young authors following on from Sergio Pitol, Fernando del Paso, Salvador Elizondo, and Juan García Ponce. His decision to stop writing was a surprise to everyone.
ALISON IN BOSTON TO THOMAS IN BOSTON
That’s what Sylvie said.
I can’t do anything about it.
Talk to Alfred.
For his first literary exercises, Ulises selected random pages from books he had once read and reread. His aim was not to set a boundary between himself and the written page but to rethink it. Using a fountain pen with a fine nib, he drew straight lines in black ink between phrases, united a series of letters from above with others below in a sort of resonant orthography of the page (Print & Pen, 1970).
Alphabets are limited; it’s the arrangement of letters that produces meaning. Writing a word involves assembling a web of ambiguous graphic symbols. Ulises was looking for the subterranean orderings of what is written; he knew that there are structures beneath texts, just as there are beneath a conversation, a joke, a script, or an architectural plan. In order to uncover them, he focused on composing a parodic schemata of classic Spanish poetry: a graphic system of visual versions, of plagiarisms, where the word de/constructs itself into sign, into punctuation, into question, into box: rectangles surrounding verse, squares and pyramids without text to signal meaningful orderings—each paragraph draws a different form, some are repeated as identical geometric figures, forms within another form. The poem exists solely in its outlines, in its spatial configuration (Gráficas de poesía, 1970).
THOMAS IN BOSTON TO ALFRED IN LEEDS
Do you get it?
So what? So nothing.
He dived to the very bottom of his texts because he wanted to return from them to invent new mechanisms. To show the warp and weft connecting the world in a single composition, transform the isolation of literature, critique the practice that rules and limits the message. Alfred was possibly his best and only interlocutor since, without being a poet, he understood the deformation his ideas were undergoing. Unlike everyone else, Alfred understood how Ulises was gradually distancing himself from writing, and this despite the fact that he was moving into a largely unclear space, a space seldom visited.
… I neither want to nor am capable of imposing content because I don’t know exactly what words are trying to say (And how can you know if the reader knows?). I’m not absolutely sure of anything. What I definitely know is that the structures are there, that I understand them as the reader does, that they move if you touch them, and that then they do “emit”… That is all I ask of readers, who must surely have many other, equally respectable things to do besides reading. I can’t demand they spend hours and days reading my text, noting while they do how appropriate my use of adjectives is, or how subtly the grounding for the incident on page 125 is laid on page 8…
In the other literature the message is falsely plural. The author transmits a message, and each reader receives a different message, which is each time, in every case, a message. By contrast, structures (but I repeat, made clear, set in motion, and in contact with each other) don’t transmit a single message, but any message. Many messages. All messages. And none at the same time. They contain their own negation…
October 22, 1972
… Literary or otherwise, all texts possess a structure… Without it there is no text, but a text can’t be reduced to its structure. Each text is different, while structures are the same: they don’t change, or only very little… You convert what you call “structures in motion” into texts, or rather poetic anti-texts. Texts destined for a single task: the destruction of the text and of literature. Your aim is to make another literature. We have all wanted to do that, but you introduce a variant: your other literature does not belong to you, but to others. I recognize in this declaration the successive avant-gardes of our times, Mallarmé over there: write a text that would be all texts, or write a text that would be the destruction of all texts. The two faces of the same passion for the absolute.
April 3, 1973
Neither Sylvie, Alison, nor Thomas knew that Ulises had sent his Gráficas to Octavio Paz, that they had been corresponding for several months, and that a part of his new collection of experimental poems would be published in Plural (No. 16, January 1973). A false paradox: on the one hand, Ulises was leaving literature behind, or appeared to be deserting it; on the other, he was about to publish in an important literary magazine. He needed to push the limits of the literary event toward other disciplines, he thought all the arts could be explained through a single general scheme, from the same structure: the communicative event. And this, of course, created an uproar among traditional writers.
MARTHA IN BERLIN TO ALFRED IN LEEDS
Is he moving in some direction?
In the same year that his circle of friends received the news of his renunciation, he began writing a manifesto, in the manner of former avant-garde groups. He laid out the key points of his other literature: “The New Art of Making Books” (1975) was later republished in Second Thoughts (1980):
A book is a sequence of spaces.
… a book is also a sequence of moments.
A writer, contrary to popular opinion, does not write books.
A writer writes texts.
A book may be the accidental container of a text, the structure of which is irrelevant to the book: these are the books of bookshops and libraries.
In the old art, the writer writes texts.
In the new art, the writer makes books.
To make a book is to actualize its ideal space-time sequence by means of the creation of a parallel sequence of signs, be it verbal or other.
In an old book all the pages are the same.
In the new art every page is different; every page is an individualized element of a structure (the book) that has a particular function to fulfill.
A writer of the new art writes very little or does not write at all.
In the old art all books are read in the same way.
In the new art every book requires a different reading.
The most beautiful and perfect book in the world is a book with only blank pages, in the same way that the most complete language is that which lies beyond all that the words of a man can say.
Based on this declaration of principles, he founded Other Books and So, a huge bookstore and gallery containing his own and others’ works: rows of shelves crammed with erased or painted-over editions, poetry without poems, mind maps, networks, paradoxes, perambulations. Books in which the physical expression of the object is coherent with its content, whether a text or image: a play of configurations biting their own tails.
In a way, Ulises became an editor of conceptual literature. A literature that, whether it occurs in words, on pages, or in books, no longer speaks to us in the same way. Conceptual literature is a short, concise model, a molecule of meaning. It develops not only in the signifieds and meanings of words, but also in the spatial organization linked to the semantic field. Foundation and structure: form and fundament come together in the idea, the concept. The idea happens in another way in the totality of the book, exactly where the beginning and end touch. Where the word meets itself, where its meaning is at the point of evaporating. Ulises carried the practices of conceptual art to the subsoil of writing, a literature in which the title has the power to complete the work, and metaphor gels outside insinuation because it happens; where narrative occurs in the progression of the object, and not only in the words, in a precise, closed object. Perhaps that is why, for him and so many others, the void and silence are unachievable perfections: in the spirit of synthesis and reduction, of saying most with least, anyone would aspire to the blank page.
MARTHA IN BERLIN TO ALISON IN BOSTON
I spoke to him just a while ago.
What’s it all about?
I don’t know. Does it matter?
I don’t know… Yes, I guess so.
The books he fabricated in this new form of literature are a mixture of rhetoric and minimalism: a notebook of half letter kraft paper divided horizontally into two fields. The lower part is a series of parallel lines that suggest the image of the words floating in the upper part: líneas/lines, alambres/wires, látigos/whips, fideos/noodles, poesía/poetry. The lines are a path to the words, and the words a path to the lines (Looking for Poetry, 1973). A few concrete microfictions: conjugations of the verb love. “I loved, I don’t love, I’ll love” printed on fine-quality white paper, 4 inches by 5, three conjugations per page. Anyone’s story can be told by conjugating the verb love in the present, past, and future (Conjugation. Love Stories, 1973). Or a long conversation: starting from the conjunction “&,” Alfred, Thomas, Alison, and Sylvie come together and eliminate each other in paragraphs constructed from their own names, just as the characters do in the script of a discussion with no content, only names: Sylvie & Alison; Sylvie & Alison & Thomas; Thomas & Alfred; Alfred & Martha. Martha & Alison (Arguments, 1973).
During the following years, Ulises continued to experiment, approaching the world of literature through the back door. Books in which boxers spar through the transparency of pages made of interfacing (Mirror Box, 1979), absurd citations taken from personal letters (Anonymous Quotations, 1979), the ragged vertical borders of a book (Margins, 1975). His last books were increasingly inward looking and pure: sets of letters, alone on the page: aa ab ac (Exclusive Groups, 1971) or textual constructions alluding to deduction: If A isn’t true / and AB is true / then B’s truth lies in C (Syllogisms, 1971).
In 1977, he invented the Erratic Art Mail International System, an office for sending and receiving messages in any medium and format. He wanted to strengthen the international community of artists and urge them to design their own unpublished books, based on one of Hans Werner’s ideas. He sent each of his friends a postcard carrying the phrase “ART IS,” and received 358 replies in both images and text (Definitions of Art, 1977).
But the book and the mail were not enough. In photograms, Ulises found the pages of what would be his last books. A video is a space-time sequence, just as he had proposed a book was. After 1978, he worked with media increasingly distanced from the written word, although always retaining a glimmer of narrative. He began filming the destruction of a book: at one end of a table, two hands tear out the pages of a novel and, opposite, another two unfold and smooth out the pages to reassemble a new copy (A Book, 1978).
ALFRED IN LEEDS TO ULISES IN AMSTERDAM
The domino effect.
It was almost perfect.
That’s what I think.
Ulises knew that Sylvie would convert a conversation into an event: gossip. What started as a piece of news, ended as generalized telephonic concern: he was maybe going mad, he was perhaps pulling their legs, they might just be exercises commenting on his work as a writer, it needed no talent at all to do what he was doing, he was wasting all the time he’d invested. In the meanwhile, without the knowledge of the others, Ulises identified a distribution network.
The project consisted of launching a piece of gossip with the help of a group of friends, keeping so accurate track as possible of the evolution of the gossip in the city and, as a final step, giving a lecture on the whole process. The lecture was to have a formal character […] to counterbalance the informality with which gossip is commonly associated. I decided to take myself as the subject matter of gossip in order to avoid misunderstandings as far as my intentions were concerned (Gossip, Scandal & Good Manners, 1981).
A single quest. To understand disciplines as media for ideas rather than distant, differentiated universes of knowledge. An image can resonate in words, just as words construct images. For Ulises, and for many artists of the ’70s, it was a matter of choosing the most appropriate receptacle—whatever that might be—to express what he was trying to say. A risk that very often failed to come off.
It’s said that Ulises died of AIDS on October 2, 1989.
Ulises’s poetry is not a poem. His writings are a vertex, an intersection, the small station one gets off at during a very long journey in order to map out the next route. His works are an extensive landscape, a poem that, while never ceasing to be the written sign, is already something else.