Rustic and similar
What do I care about rustic anything? The root of this word is the same as the root of rural, and having grown up in a small town I have no romantic ideas about country places. But rustic usually means something else, it means rough-hewn or unpolished, which is why I thought that word to myself the other night at a Cinema Project event. Two different artists stood opposite a movie screen, mixing and matching strips of film, sometimes overlaying images and sometimes letting one linger on the screen for a while. The footage seemed mostly to come from found objects (the film itself), though I think one stretch of it was from The Planet of the Apes. The whole thing was impressive, and part of the appeal was that real film being fed into the slow-spinning wheels, film that felt random in its appearance and was full of the inevitable rough edges involved in working with such a messy medium.
Afterwards, I kept thinking about why I so liked this somewhat rustic performance-screening. I’m not even sure that rustic is the right word, but that’s not the point—I could sub in other ones: artisanal, imperfect, improvisational. The point, rather, is to try to understand where the appeal comes from.
The question matters to me in part because my recently published book grew out of an obsession with handmade books. The first half of the book traces an aesthetics of slow, artisanal, and intentionally imperfect aesthetics from Osvaldo Lamborghini through Eloísa Cartonera. This obsession isn’t limited to my academic work. I have a humble library at home of small books, some of them printed on letterpress, others of them handmade in some other way. I used to volunteer sometimes at a print collective here in Portland. I even make the occasional volume or notebook myself, usually as a gift for someone.
For example, I recently asked several of my friends to send me 200 words on something, anything, and they did. Some were in Spanish, some in English. They all got translated at some point. I copied the Spanish versions onto a notepad and took it to the Plaza Santo Domingo in Mexico City. There, I asked one of the typists who sit most days lined up on the west side of the plaza, a man named Jesús, if he would produce a typed version of it for me. He did, for a small price, working on a machine that, he estimates, is thirty or forty years old.
My interest wasn’t just to get a typed-up version of what my friends had sent me—most of these texts were typed out in the first place, sent to me via email—but to observe how these men worked, as well as to see what sorts of changes writing undergoes when it’s passed through a typewriter. The answer is: some, inevitably, through the arbitrariness of human perception and action. Jesús typed up all seven sheets; he was affable and relaxed in his work; we spoke about random things but not too much.
I scanned these typed pages and matched them with translations, printed them out, sewed them and trimmed their edges, making a small print run of these pamphlets. They’re gifts, nothing more, for those friends that sent me their minimal, luminous essays.
I don’t expect to discover much of a meaning in this sort of activity, any more than one might discover the meaning of sex or cooking or music. But it’s hard not to think in terms of meaning, much as I’d like to avoid it. And when I do, it’s clear to me that this sort of obsession is part of a general cultural turn, among enough people that it gathers notice, toward artisanal and classically mechanical—now often seen in the same light as the artisanal—ways. It’s a popular trend, visible in fields from the restaurant industry to publishing. And as with most popular things, most commercial things, it’s easy enough to dismiss it as just that: as commercial or cognate to it, a product of the stupid, loud monster whose shorthand name is the market.
But I’ve lately been trying not to be dismissive, even of things that, squinted at or viewed from a certain angle, seem pointless. And in this case, I’m talking about a personal obsession, so I’m pretty invested in not dismissing it. Instead, I think that this sort of thing feels aimless and that this feeling can be really lovely. I think that aimlessness draws other people in too. It’s a luxury, but it’s a luxury that anyone who wants it deserves to have. And it’s connected in some way to lots of other luxuries that we all deserve: the luxury of being slow, of acting dumb, of cultivating amateurism, of making and having pointless objects and experiences.