On Orton and Halliwell and library books
Last week I visited Rock, Paper, Scissors, a new exhibition by Alex Margo Arden installed at the Royal Academy, London. The show includes the artist’s own reworking of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell’s famous vandalised — or detourned, if you rather — library book covers. These original books were withdrawn by the two writers and lovers, Orton and Halliwell, from Islington Library in the early 1960s, reimagined with wit through collage, and reintroduced into the library system to circulate. Arden reproduces the vandalised books again, and her attention to detail is amazing; to remake the covers she spent six years meticulously researching not just the book covers they reworked, but the exact editions they sourced their collaged images from. It’s a strange, beautiful and almost uncanny show, not least because Islington Library loaned the artist the original works by Orton and Halliwell, which Arden has installed with her reproductions. The show runs until January 7th and is well worth a visit, both as an artistic intervention and as a historical archive, and, as in Orton and Halliwell’s original works, as a place where the two concepts meet. Arden asked me to write a short text to accompany the show, and has kindly allowed me to reproduce my essay here, for you.
Orton and Halliwell getting a moment in the London sun
It’s strange to think about what is left of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. The moment their lives were cut brutally short - Orton’s by Halliwell’s hand, Halliwell’s by his own - they ceased to be writers, artists, collaborators, lovers. Instead they became something lost: chances, opportunities, tragedies, their work as playwrights forever defaced by their murder-suicide. Perhaps that sense of missed opportunities, felt by us, their posthumous audience, is all the more palpable and affecting because it seems to mirror a sensation in their own life and work. Orton’s plays were early manifestations of a liberal and more caustic nation, freer and less hypocritical but crueller and less polite: a Britain he foreshadowed and even midwifed, but never lived to see. Living in the damp and stuffy old Britain, their lives were marked by frustration. Kenneth was frustrated by the lack of recognition he received as a writer in his own right, especially as Joe’s career took off. Joe, in turn, was frustrated by Kenneth, by the hypocrisy and repression of Britain, and by a repressive sexual and social regime. There must be more to life than this.
Their dramatic deaths in 1967, right on the crest of a liberalising social change, seems to have fixed them in history as martyrs of that transforming society, and like all good martyrs, they have left us with a bewitching set of relics. Starting in 1959, the two men began a campaign of vandalism against the stock of the Islington Library system. The couple, who had been lovers and flatmates for almost 8 years, started to withdraw books from the library, then carefully rework their dust jackets, collaging new images and rewriting texts, before putting the books back into the library system. Over the following three years, the pair reworked upwards of seventy covers. For their pains, the two men were convicted of theft and malicious damage, fined, and jailed for the summer of 1962. For Kenneth, the sentence further broke him. For Orton, it released him, unshackling him of the demands of both society and Kenneth.
In Rock, Paper, Scissors the artist Alex Margo Arden has returned to the original covers defaced by the pair in order to look at them with fresh eyes, as books, as artworks, and as a performance. Through a process of meticulous research she has rematerialised them, both as a set of reimagined collages and in their original form, as a shelf of library books. As such, we see them in both states, and the act of making them — of Orton and Halliwell hunched over them in their poky Islington flat, scissors and glue in hand, giggling to themselves — comes back into focus. Their handiwork was an artwork, a provocation, and a performance: in its reproduction, Arden allows us to see them again not as criminal exhibits in a court case, evidence of a crime, but as a creative intervention into a boring and repressive social order.
Ironically, Arden has approached the task with a detective’s attention to process and procedure. In reproducing the collages, she has investigated archives and library collections attempting to piece together exactly which colour plates from which books were used in the collages, and then sourced withdrawn library editions of the correct titles from across the world. Comparing catalogues and editions, the new works use genuine contemporary editions to re-present the old. Yet the new works are not, and cannot be, exact replicas of Orton and Halliwell’s originals.
The protocols of publishing exist to ensure cataloguing, referencing and tracking of editions is possible. It’s not just the ISBN — the international serial numbers listed on the back of the book — or library cataloguing systems that allow titles of different books to be distinguished from each other. It’s also the printer's key - that indecipherable list of numbers before the title page of the book - that allow editions of the same book to be told apart, allowing errors to be corrected, just as editions and page numbers allow specific ideas and phrases to be referenced in footnotes. The carefully evolved protocols of publishing are based upon seriality, just as publishing itself is based on reproducibility. Unlike artworks, whose value and aura lies in its scarcity, the value of books lies in their abundance and reproduction. In Orton and Halliwell’s criminal act, they shifted the book from one register to another. In Arden’s artwork, she starts to shift the meaning back.
In Arden’s collages, her hand is visible in them, in each cut; like in the originals, the performance of making and recirculating the books is what activates them. While their work was removed from circulation, first as evidence and then as artefact, Arden’s remained true to their function and continued to circulate in the world’s library system, gaining the wear and damage that books receive through proper use. Despite the best efforts of publishers, printers, booksellers and buyers, librarians and collectors, books never remain identical, exchangeable things. The moment their spine is cracked, their leaves opened, they begin to retain their own unique histories. Dog-ears and pencilled notes, coffee marks and biscuit crumbs, the sun’s fading touch: you can never step into the same book twice. Arden’s books bear a history that Orton and Halliwell’s were denied.
So if all books retain their histories in their pages, why are Orton’s and Halliwell’s observed like relics, untouched and archived? Well, in no small part because they died. The meanings of their lives — lost potentials, frustrations, rebellions — became fixed. When society changed in their absence, those frustrations became all the more poignant. They came to represent that change, and the criminal trial and their imprisonment seemed to mark the moment where their collaboration split and they realised those two worlds. Kenneth represented the old type of homosexual: neurotic, self-loathing, pathetic; while Joe represented the new type of gay: attractive, horny, liberated. Perhaps with Arden’s performance as a prompt, we can reappraise those fixed meanings in their lives, and see them as they were when they were in the act of making. Between the two of them they inhabited so much of what it means to be human and to be gay; rebellious, hilarious, traumatised and defiant, mischievous, cutting, unlovable and yet loved. Arden’s work highlights the act of creation, and in the act of creation, not in the remnants and relics, they are alive again.
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