In art schools near and far, it is still a tradition for young artists to copy the masterworks of art history in oils on canvas. The comparable tradition has, for the most part, died out in the training grounds of literature, a trend that the ICI would advocate against given its rich potential to inspire knowledge production.
In 2004, we were planning our Interpretive Field Project to East Anglia to begin work on our mammoth Sebald project by re-walking W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. Since space was limited, we hunted for a small version of the Rings to bring on our trip, learning quickly that although the fiction had been translated into many languages, it had not been reworked into a multitude of forms or editions like so many other great works of literature. To remedy this shortage, we decided to type the entire Rings of Saturn into a word processing program and then print and sew small pages of the book into 20 screenfold segments. Throughout a long, hot summer we typed out Sebald’s journey, stumbling on certain turns of phrases that were not part of our own body memory and so, we also kept summoning up the phrases we did favor – we might always say ‘curiously strong’ where Sebald might say ‘curiously elongated.’ Us – blue ocean, Sebald – jelly-green sea. The trail of our RE-Rings, as we came to call it, was drawn by a string of misspellings that, in haste, were left in the text as exquisite trap doors to later understandings. How often the great leaps in art are brought on by poverty, laziness or mere haste. And to better view the stops on our ‘triptik,’ we also liberated the images from our Rings using them to create handmade postcards, thinking that the cards could be sent home via the post after they had showed us the way thereby freeing up space in our crowded suitcases.
The benefit of this preliminary research was not fully realized until after we returned. With Sebald’s words now at our fingertips, we could draw on well-worn computer tools to further our investigation; we could search for dates but also for nuance, find patterns in thought and in language and even create poetry from the author’s own words. Soon we were using the Re-Rings as a springboard for other ICI methods born during the Sebald year, like Interviewing the Dead.
Copying is now the first step we consider in any ICI project that includes a critique of a written work. It is a visual research activity that falls in the category of data collection but it is an activity that is always punctuated by the activity of discovery where, fueled by slips of language (and fingers), we are able to say what might have been left unsaid.