Shelley Jackson's 'Skin' makes its mark

Photo: Shelley Jackson, the author of 'Skin.'
Shelley Jackson, the author of 'Skin.'

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Photo: Shelley Jackson's short story experiment is printed on unusual material - the author enlists volunteers that have her words tattooed on their skin.   

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Most art is not built to die. Climate control and painstaking restoration keep classical art forms from aging, and while paint or clay may degrade slowly, they can never die in a traditional sense because they were never alive. But when human beings are the materials of the artist's project, the piece becomes a living body, dependent on the organic vivacity of its material. "Skin," an ongoing project by artist Shelley Jackson posted in part on the Berkeley Art Museum's NetArt website, takes the concept of mortal art literally by using humans as a medium, in her attempt to "write a living story."

In 2003, Jackson wrote a 2,095-word short story to be published on the skin of volunteers. The text's sole print edition is in her possession, and Jackson disseminates individual words to volunteers who agree to have a word tattooed on their body. The guidelines are simple: The word must be in a classic book font, inked in black and large enough to read with the naked eye.

This specific typography not only provides a consistent style for the thousands of volunteers who choose to have Jackson's words branded on their flesh, but also aligns the project with the printed book. After sending Jackson documentation of their tattoo, the volunteers will receive the full text of the story, and have the opportunity to become self-aware of their embodied fragment in a narrative community of words.

According to the latest update on the "Skin" website from April 2010, approximately 553 words have been inked, and the number of volunteers worldwide hovers over 10,000. With origins in both print media and the Internet, "Skin" is the enactment of a new communicative order in the relationship between artist and audience. Bearing the project's title on her right wrist, Jackson is not only the author but also a participant, subject to the same indelible pain that brings the project into existence.

While conceptually "Skin" is as much an Internet art form as a corporeal one, it is never formally exhibited, either digitally or physically. This mutes Jackson's authorship in a way, as the piece "exhibits itself, piecemeal, every time one of my participants lifts a cuff or lowers a collar and exposes the word tattooed," Jackson said. She intends for the piece to retain some mystery, relying on the participants' existences rather than a strict narrative sequence.

As her words mill about the world, they are placed in its flux and draw new lines of inquiry, developing a co-dependency of authorship akin to open-source software. The original text may be entirely Jackson's, but the "publication" is communal, taking place in fragments across the world. The death of the solitary author is replaced by the living organism of the text, dependent on the willing physical contribution of these subjects.

The complete story may be never formally exhibited, but Jackson was given an outlet for an alternate expression of "Skin" with the BAM's online-only exhibition space, NetArt. Jackson splices together a digital Frankenstein-monster of tattoos to create a new narrative, told by volunteers speaking their words while showing their tattoo to the camera. "I had long wondered whether there was some way to stage a reading of the 'Skin' project that would reflect the multiplicity of 'voices' that are flowing into it," said Jackson. Online until May 31, the video is one possible incarnation of "Skin," created by the lives and personalities of the volunteers. Suddenly, the individual participants coalesce into a community, encouraging interaction online and offline by message boards or dinner parties.

The definitive mark of the project is, however, not virtual but corporeal: Jackson's work has long been fascinated with the mind-body duality and her own "insensate lump," as she refers to her body without a mind. "It is this tension between the mind's wanting-feeling-knowing and the meat's lumphood that is what is most wonderful and strange to me about the body," said Jackson. Previous works such as "The Anatomy of Melancholy" and "The Doll Games" deftly investigates the mind's fascination with the human physicality it inhabits and navigates, as "bodily texts and textual bodies (come) apart and start forging strange new alliances." The symbiotic relationship between text and body characterizes Jackson's work, and "Skin" does so in the most direct way.

The activation of the "Skin" project is in itself a birth of a (multi) self-conscious "lump," guided by elemental, genetic instructions - here, the text. Once aware of its own existence, the textual community establishes a non-present physical intimacy between itself and the author, between art and artist. Both parties have bled for each other, an empathetic relationship difficult to achieve in a static gallery. When a volunteer dies, his or her embodied word is erased from the story, subtracting from the overall text but merging previously separate words by its erasure.

Eventually time will degrade the entire embodied text, and "Skin" will no longer roam about the world. But far from slipping quietly out of existence, "Skin" flaunts its mortality as clearly as volunteers display their tattoos, hearts and words worn on their sleeves for all to see.

Amelia Taylor-Hochberg is the lead visual art critic.

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