The year 1972 marked a decisive turn in the life of Ulises Carrión. In January, he settled in Amsterdam in the attic that Michel Cardena left to him, and in the summer he finished his thesis in Leeds. In the fall he started working with Raúl Marroquín under the umbrella of In-Out Center Productions, and at the invitation of Cardena became one of the founders of the In-Out Center. In December, he created his first artists' book.
Though he started as a writer and literary scholar, he then became an artist. This personal move was facilitated by the In-Out Center. Ulises Carrión (born in 1941 in Tuxla, Mexico and died in 1989 in Amsterdam) knew Michel Cardena from earlier visits to Amsterdam. Carrión was an avid traveller who saw all the cities in the western world as possessing art historical meaning. As Cardena moved to his studio in a former school building at Zeeburgerdijk on the 1st of January in 1971, he left his place at Nicolaas Maasstraat to Carrión. The landlady Liesbeth Ransdorp was a generous person with a protective attitude towards homosexual men. When Aart van Barneveld came to Amsterdam to begin his studies in Dutch language and philology, he also moved in. Ulises and Aart created a welcoming home, and friends of the In-Out Center who did not live in Amsterdam always had a place to sleep. Van Barneveld used to teach Dutch and assist with the schoolwork of the Gudmundssons.
His thesis on English Literature at the University of Leeds, School of English made Carrión a master of English in 1972. The title of the thesis is Judas' Kiss and Shakespeare's "Henry VIII". Previously, Carrión learned German in Achenmühle, French in Paris, and quickly learned to speak fluently in Dutch. In total he spoke seven languages, but English – efficient and straight – became his voice in the domain of art. In the thesis, he presents himself as "a student of literature" – therefore, he claimed the right to analyse Henry VIII as a text instead of a scene play. But a couple of weeks later, he considered literature to be a discarded field of interest. He did not refer to his promising career as a writer in Mexico to most of his colleagues at the In-Out Center. Even Gerrit Jan de Rook, with whom he worked regularly, was always ignorant about it.
Amsterdam was a city of his choosing, and he felt at home in its tolerant, playful environment that had, during those times, limitless possibilities – a city where he met an international artist population and an affiliated, experimental mentality. Some called him a gentleman, others a busybody – but he was certainly a friendly person, and as an artist he was always driven to create perspectives in the realm of playfulness. Nobody was a better heir to Homo Ludens, the book that Johan Huizinga wrote in 1938 about the seriousness of play for mankind, than Carrión.
Under the heading of "In-Out Productions", Marroquín organised a programme of performances on September 30, 1972 called Simultaneous Actions, held in the theatre De Lantaren in Rotterdam, in which Carrión himself participated. Additionally, Cardena's warming up etc. etc. etc. Company contributed a performance to the evening (Heating Time). Carrión again worked with Marroquín on a performance at the In-Out Center for the occasion of its opening.
His first personal appearance in the field of art began during that same evening. Not many visitors grasped the full meaning of what he showed – a common occurrence with most of Ulises' works and projects – as the importance of his contribution predominantly surfaced in hindsight. Forty years later, his work is a popular subject for many researchers.
At this grand opening of the In-Out Center on the 24th of November in 1972, Ulises Carrión debuted six books, hung on the wall like works of art in three rows of two books each. He called it The Collected Plagiarisms. All six covers were altered – the names of the writers hidden under black plastic tape and replaced by the name “Ulises Carrión”. Another piece of the same plastic tape was imprinted with the typewritten indication The Collected Plagiarisms along with a number. This is how Carrión appropriated them. The notion of plagiarism in the domain of literature is an act of fraud – but in art? Playing with a work by Mondriaan was done by his friends Cardena and Mol, and complete repetitions of artworks were done in USA (Elaine Sturtevant, who imitated Andy Warhol in the sixties, was the first), so the appropriation of the book’s copyright was, within the domain of the arts, not viewed as an act of violence against a peer.
The explanation followed one year later in the first edition of Fandangos, the art newspaper that Marroquin launched with his friends by the end of 1973 at the Jan van Eijck Academie in Maastricht. Under the heading Why plagiarisms? figures a photograph of one of the books that was shown at the In-Out Center with the title The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The name of the author (William Shakespeare) is concealed and replaced by “Ulises Carrión”. It is number 5 in the series The Collected Plagiarisms. In response to Why plagiarisms? Carrión wrote "because", followed by some nonsensical arguments like "There are so many books", "They make reading unnecessary", and one argument regarding art and its meaning: "Art is not a private property".
As early as December in his first year in Amsterdam, Ulises Carrión published Sonnet(s), his very first artists' book. It was also the first artists' book published under the label In-Out Productions, although it was presented by the Agora Gallery. Sonnet(s) is dedicated without explication to Raúl Marroquín – possibly, as Marroquín supposes, because he was the first to call Carrión an artist (and not a writer), but also likely because Marroquín helped him produce it.
The book presents a rigorous play in the field of plagiarism (a word in which the first syllable is “play”). He used an existing sonnet as raw material for alterations. In fact, he invented 44 different types of changes in the same sonnet, repeated 44 times. So, the title is justified: there is one sonnet and there is also a plural. Of course, neither the title nor the name of the author are mentioned (Heart's Compass by Dante Gabriel Rossetti).
In Carrión’s sonnets, the titles indicate the adaptation. The first one reads: BORROWED SONNET. Borrowing might sound more friendly than plagiarism (which means stealing ones words and pass them off as your own), but for the following sonnets he changed the context slightly. RELIGIOUS SONNET ends with "Amen", PACKED SONNET begins with "this side up" and ends with "This side down" and in ANNOTATED SONNET *, the word "clouds" is clarified through the text: "- visible condensed watery vapour floating high above general level of ground". The book is unpaginated and was mimeographed in an edition of 200.
That Rossetti was both a painter and a poet made his sonnet, without a doubt, exceptionally attractive to Carrión. Additionally, its content regarding love was also appealing given the two books that he published the next year: Amor, la palabra and Conjugations. Love Stories. It is telling that his entrance into the In-Out Center – his first step into the domain of visual arts – kept up with his decision to comment on the literary codes. "Plagiarism is the starting point for the creative activity in the new art", he wrote in his famous text The New Art of Making Books, first published in 1975 in the Mexican magazine PLURAL and later in Second Thoughts. The notion of "new art" relates to the conceptual approach to books by artists. He needed to adopt a firm position as, shortly before in 1970, his second novel De Alemania was published in his home country of Mexico. His writings fuelled the expectations of literary circles, who were not understanding about the fact that their promising young colleague preferred a departure from literature. In the vast literature that exists on the work of Ulises Carrión, the letters from the famous writer and Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz to Carrión are never disregarded – Paz tried to keep him on board.
Carrión’s first solo show at the In-Out Center (May 28 to June 9, 1973) was titled Texts and Other Texts. No documents were said to have survived (until now) from the show, but the invitation itself is telling. Printed in the usual format, it was sent out torn into four parts. Did Carrión want to precede the act of throwing paper away in the wastebasket, or did he want to point to a semantical deconstruction by dividing up the text into incongruous words? Perhaps he predicted the following line of The New Art of Making Books: "The new art appeals to the ability every man possesses for understanding and creating signs and system of signs."
The notion of "other" in Other Texts is also found in the name of his later book gallery, Other books and so. It is a nice reference to all that is alternative, and is not barred behind fixed categories. It is non-hieratic, similar to the pages of Sonnet(s), which disclose incredible new possibilities.
That same year, Ulises Carrión participated in the group show Eén jaar mijn galerietje at the In-Out Center from June 11 to 22, 1974. The show contained a summation of the solo shows that Sylvia van Berkel organised in the house in Breda where she lived with her partner at the time, Pieter Laurens Mol. Her "gallery" was small – just a shelf of very modest dimensions. Among the artists who made a small piece for Mijn Galerietje were artists from Breda like Teun Hocks, Sef Peeters, and artists from the In-Out Center.
Carrión's contribution consisted of two framed letter combinations. He used the imperative mood for silence "st " in a single and in a double version: st ! and sstt ! Both were framed like small photos standing on a mantel piece – the first two letters in a small frame and the second four letters in a bigger frame. The artist made a small edition of the tiny installation (maybe 3 or 4). This claim for silence in two formats was called "the small and big silence" by Hetty Huisman, referring to Ingmar Bergmans film The Silence (1963, translated in Dutch as De grote stilte). She bought the piece right from Sylvia's shelf, not only because it moved her due to Bergman and to Wittgensteins famous quote ("Wovon mann nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen") but, as she wrote in an email: "to help Sylvia, Ulises and myself". Considered in the light of Carrión's departure form literature, this couple of letters might also hint at a suppression of words.
Related to the idea of silence is a book of which at least two copies exist: Silence is Gold. A story by U. Carrión Amsterdam 1973. The copy that belongs to Hetty Huisman possesses this dedication: "to Hatti, best wishes. Salut! U. Carrión". The pages are a pinkish-yellow colour, and consist of prefabricated love letters embodied by a woman and a man, apparently in love and accompanied by empty balloons in which an enamoured person could write some text. Of course, Carrión did not fill the balloons with words, but with stripes, exclamation signs and question marks. "These balloons", said Hetty, "indicate the structure of a conversation, accentuated here and there by a line around an eye, a mouth, a pair of hands. On page ten they say simultaneously the same thing, like a Pythagorean completeness". The book is stapled and covered with a piece of acetate. It has a title page and 11 subsequent pages, numbered with a conspicuous stamp.
The book Arguments was made with the help of Beau Geste Press. The founders of BGP were Mexican artists Felipe Ehrenberg and Martha Hellion. They ran a printing community of artists’ publications with their children and like-minded people in the countryside of Devon. Ulises, Felipe and Marta knew each other from a circle of pioneering artists, writers and actors – regular visitors of a cultural center in Mexico City in which Ulises steered the library for some time. While studying in England for his Master’s degree, Carrión contacted the Mexicans after he saw some of their publications. The proposal for Arguments, however, was conceived in Amsterdam. Ehrenberg responded by saying that Ulises had to come over and create the book in collaboration with them. Money was scarce at first, but Felipe's idea of a luxury edition on coloured paper, meant to be a flirtation with collectors, was thought to solve the financial issues. It soon appeared in an edition of 400 (200 in colour and 200 in white) – a great book among Carrión’s impressive list of books, released in 1973.
Arguments looks like a mix of concrete poetry and a theatre play, minimised to only include the names of the actors. But it can also be viewed as the result of Carrión's thesis – a brilliant analysis of the structure of Shakespeare's historic play. The funny thing is that he turned the notes – an academic obligation for a thesis – into a disagreement with Dr. Uphaus, who makes remarks that any teacher looking for inconsistences would make. Carrión's counter-arguments always win.
Among the playful, nonsensical lists of mostly English first names, the name Aart appears at the end. Then, unexpectedly, Ulises addresses his readers personally, saying: "My name is Ulises, what 's yours?"
A second befriended publisher was Carrión’s fellow In-Out Center artist G.J, de Rook, who had a certain reputation surrounding his visual and concrete poetry. Since his launching of the magazine Bloknoot in 1968, he built up his experience as publisher, and established Exp/Press in Utrecht. De Rook took care of publishing Carrión’s book Conjugations. Love Stories and hired a commercial printer to fulfil the technical aspects of the project. The grammatical "conjugations" go together with verbs, but not with love stories. Or do they? This funny combination can be viewed as an incentive for lovers to chew on conjugations such as: "I didn't love, I don't love, I won't love".
The Spanish book amor, la palabra contains the dedication: "para Aart, que estudia filologia". Apparently, Van Barneveld also studied Spanish. In the eighties, he translated El Arco y la Lira by Octavio Paz into Dutch. Aart and Ulises had a lot in common – a sense of hospitality, friendship, love for reading, opera, theatre, travelling, and a stern dedication to all they did for a plethora of artistic activities. From Cliostraat, they moved to Ten Katestraat 53, the final address of Other Books and So Archive. They did not conceal their homosexual relationship, but they were also reserved and most people did not know that Ulises was gay. Aart was rarely seen at the In-Out Center.
On one particular day, Carrión was very happy to find the fashion books of a wallpaper company on the street in front of Rath & Doodeheefver, well-known for their outstanding quality (now in the collection of the Amsterdam Museum). He cut them to become the pages of his book Tell me what sort of wallpaper your room has and I will tell you who you are. He used the different designs for the identification of the rooms, such as: my sister's room, my guestroom, my psychiatrists' room. Some booklets were sold and others were given away, and soon a second edition of 50 copies was required, made with handwritten designations as opposed to the first series’ typewritten designations. A copy of this wallpaper book is in the collection of Stedelijk Museum.
In many cases, Carrión avoided numbering the pages. He dismissed hierarchies and loved the beauty of lists. By using lists and sequences, he could refrain from explications when it came to scrutinising the basic structure of language and books. His interest in grammar, semiotics and structuralism is summarized in extremely simple and playful word repetitions. They nevertheless offer wide perspectives to linguists and philosophers while also addressing a non-academic audience with a sense of humour and wordplay.
It is remarkable that as early as 1973, stamps were used in some publications like Speeds. This forecasts Carrión’s later stamp activities – partly in Stempelplaats, the non-profit center that Aart van Barneveld ran from 1977 to 1982.
It was agreed that each In-Out Center member was responsible for a certain month, serving as its custodian. Visitors were pleasantly surprised by how welcoming Carrión was, springing to his feet. It was important for him to engage in direct contact. In a letter to Pieter L. Mol, he talks about enhancing this connection with the visitors. Did he have his job as a librarian in Mexico in mind? Perhaps the time he worked at a bookshop in Paris? Anyhow, a couple of weeks after the In-out Center stopped, Carrión was on his way to take the lead in a new initiative. Actually, he was searching for a printer who was willing to print his artists’ books. The Amsterdam Drukhuis was an idealistic institute managed by passionate and skilful printers. They not only reacted positively to Carrión's inquiry about printing, but also offered their own space for exhibitions. This became the first address of Other Books and So, the gallery/bookshop that Carrión – assisted by Van Barneveld – made into the pioneering center of book and mail art that has been widely reputed since, located first at Herengracht 227. In hindsight, the In-Out Center was Carrión's unique springboard.
© Tineke Reijnders, 2017