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Susan Silton and the Collective Act of Retyping Steinbeck

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Ensconced in a cozy room painted a dark, pensive blue, ten people worked, little frowns of concentration apparent on their faces as they pound away on refurbished manual typewriters. It is just about five minutes into Susan Silton's latest art project-slash-live performance and the chorus of type bars hitting typewriter ribbons was interminable.

They are tasked to re-type as much of the John Steinbeck classic, "Grapes of Wrath" in an hour, but there's a catch. They're in stencil mode. No pigment appears on the paper, only a faint, ghost of their efforts are transferred on the clean sheet. It is tedious work, with little no reward -- Why type something that could hardly be read afterwards? -- unless the finished product isn't the point.

Silton is conducting communal typing sessions at USC's Fisher Museum, as part of her exhibition, "In everything there is the trace," a component of a text-based group exhibition, "Drawn to Language" on view at the museum through December 7.

"The mark is secondary," explains Silton, a polymath of an artist that draws on whatever medium or method best fit her purposes, "What's important is the individual's relationship to the text and to translate what's the book says to what's running through the typists' minds."

For those who can remember, working on a manual typewriter takes effort. Unlike the responsive keys that today's laptops take for granted, each key stroke requires additional oomph of the fingers, as it sinks down inches down into the typewriter's belly. Repeat a thousand times; one stroke per letter of Steinbeck's tome, and one gets a mean muscular burn in the arms after an hour.

But Silton's method has its benefits apart from an upper arm workout. In an age when we hardly ever slow down, manual typewriting is an enforced obstacle that allow our minds the time to really savor a message, turn in over in our imagination and examine its place in our personal narratives.

"I couldn't see what I was typing at all," says volunteer Katie Herzog, "so it became just about my internal experience of the text." Another volunteer, Jim McAninch, had a grandfather from Oklahama, a pivotal setting in Steinbeck's Joad family saga. "It was like discovering a re-invented family biography."

In the space of an hour, Silton had delivered on her exhibition's subtle promise, which she alludes to in her title borrowed from French philosopher Jacques Derrida, "In everything there is the trace, the experience of a return to something else of being returned to another past, present, future, a different type of temporality that's even older than the past and that is beyond the future." As fingers type, the mind transports to destinations unknown and extremely personal.

Group work

Silton's volunteer typists do not work alone. In preparation for the exhibit, the artist commissioned local studio Knowhow Shop to build a special installation, ten interlocking typing desks that cannot stand without its neighbors. Each desk has three legs and borrows one from its neighbor, to stabilize the structure.

"We felt that making ten tables that were unable to stand individually but stable when arranged so that they supported each other had resonance with the collaborative effort of transcribing the book, as well as the themes of Labor and Community within the text itself," writes designers Kagan Taylor and Justin Rice of Knowhow Shop in an email.

The communal table made possible a new dynamic unseen in Silton's previous piece, where she alone re-typed Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" in response to the Iraq War. "I love typing with other people," says Silton of the new experience, "I sort of lose myself in them, aware that they exist without talking to them. It really suits me."

It is present-day co-working brought to life in an art piece. Viewed this way, "In everything there is a trace" asks participants to map the psychological lines we draw between personal and communal. How much do we long for companionship? Or seek places to be alone? Is labor always better with others?

Work in progress

Silton's exhibit isn't just a philosophical exercise, it also touches on what is still a sensitive topic 75 years after Steinbeck published his novel: labor. "I was really interested in the notion of labor and class and how that resonates today," said the artist.

Surrounding the volunteer typists is "Appraisals," framed pages of Phillips de Pury auction catalogs showing art works valued at more than $1 million. Silton left only the text with artist's name, the artwork's title, estimated value and provenance on display, separating it from its illustration. Then, she typed working class poems over the pages, once again in stencil mode, barely visible to the naked eye.

Ghost marks of poet Barbara Presnell's "The Unwearing: A Benediction" appear beside small text proclaiming Willem de Kooning's "Untitled VI" valued between $10 to $15 million.

"Then, at last, when machines shut down, the crank and clatter of their work, quiet at this long shift's end, when the bobbins are empty," reads the barely discernable text on the right, while on the left Kooning's work of art could possibly fetch an exorbitant price. On one hand, it is absurd to think that while Presnell's North Carolina textile workers labor ceaselessly, someone could afford to lay down millions on one piece of art. But, on the other, it is a reality that happens every day. A recent study has revealed, the gap between the country's richest 1 percent and the rest of America is even wider than during the 1920s, a period that inspired Steinbeck.

In the background, the incessant clatter of typewriters echoes in the room, a discordant reminder of just how much effort goes into the simplest of tasks.

As the hour draws to a close, eyes once bright droop; legs cross and uncross; shoulders roll to work off creeping tension. The clatter of keys, once energetic and cacophonous, now trudge and plod. Until, finally sweet words ring out in the room intoned by Silton's assistant, "It has now been an hour. You can finish your sentence or your page."

Susan Silton's works can be seen in the Drawn to Language exhibition, showcasing artists including Alexandra Grant, Holly Downing with poet David St. John, Kate Ingold, and Demian Flore. For more information visit the Fisher gallery's website.

To schedule a time to partake in the typing of Grapes of Wrath, please sign up here.

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