Words on WORDS

New book chronicles the evolution of Clark Lunberry’s transformative poetry installations


Of the many themes explored throughout Dr. Clark Lunberry’s Writing on Water and Writing on Air poetry installations, temporality — the fluidity with which we engage language and the ephemeral way in which words are presented to us today — is, often explicitly, a central thrust. With each installation, letters of words plastered to transparent surfaces or floating on top of water were constantly rearranged, sometimes with entire words disappearing. These were subtle, silent changes with disruptive and noisy implications.

Even so, the University of North Florida’s Thomas G. Carpenter Library — which, while providing the best vantage for viewing the installations, became something of an adopted home for Lunberry’s increasingly ambitious projects — has brought all of the UNF English professor’s installations together in a new book, Writing on Air Writing on Water: Poetry Installations by Clark Lunberry,  creating a static moment for art that is transitory by design.

“These installations were intended to self-destruct,” Lunberry tells Folio Weekly. “So this book is a recollection or a memory of this thing that occurred … It consolidates. It unifies events, or gives the illusion of unification. So, in some ways, yes, the book is incongruous with what has always motivated my projects.”

Lunberry teaches English in UNF’s College of Arts & Sciences, where aside from instruction in modern and contemporary poetry, his courses often delve into dramatic literature, performance studies, and the interrelations of the arts in literature with a sharp focus on the history of the avant-garde. The connection between the literary and visual arts is inherent for Lunberry, who did his undergraduate work in art history and worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York before earning his PhD from the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.

It was in 2007, during a class discussion on visual and concrete poetry, that Lunberry crystallized the idea for the first installation, Water on Water, chronicled in the book.
“One day, speaking of alternative sites and surfaces for a poem, I asked the students, hypothetically and half-jokingly, ‘What if a poem were written on water?’” Lunberry writes in the introduction to the book. “Pausing, my students and I then began to wonder, ‘Yes, what if … What if a poem were written in that way? What difference would it make if a poem’s words were floating on a pond (instead of being printed on paper)? How would that poem’s language — its actual material, its fluid message — be read and seen, thought about differently? And, importantly, how would such a writing on water even be done?’”

It was with these questions in mind that Lunberry paddled a kayak to the center of a nearly-football-field-sized pond in front of the heavily trafficked library at UNF, leaving a grouping of large white letters (each one seven-by-seven-feet, spelling out the phrase “Water on Water”) to float atop the water.

“For these three words (or two, since one word — WATER — is repeated) somehow fulfilled the Futurist directive for ‘words-in-freedom,’ and for that desired “[Node] of thought,” for “Compressed analog[y] …, plung[ing] … the essential word [OF WATER] into the WATER of sensibility …” Lunberry explains in the book. “After all, the words of this poem stated concisely and precisely what it was at the very moment that it was stating it: a saying of what was being seen (WATER), a seeing of what was being said (WATER), conjoined by its own literal, prepositional placement on water.”

In the windows of the library’s stairwell, which offer stadium-like views of the pond, Lunberry arranged still more words, creating multiple opportunities for viewers to interact and interpret the words in different ways. In subsequent installations, the phrasing or words themselves would be changed without forewarning — like when “Murmur of Words,” written again on top of the pond in front of the library, was changed to  “Murmur of Wounds,” prompting sometimes outward confusion or revulsion among viewers (as witnessed by Lunberry himself, who would often discreetly stand in the stairwell to watch students react to the changes).

“Each particular arrangement of language gave way to another, and then to another, in temporary and contingent alignment to the readers’ own floating movements through the stairway,” Lunberry says. “Constituted and dissolved — in space, by time — the installations and their various readings were thus arranged and rearranged by the self-directed movements of those passing through them, with the where of the poems converging with the when, their time and place entangling.”

In the nearly 10 years since Water on Water, Lunberry’s installations have grown in scope to include sculptural and auditory components. He’s also been invited to undertake similar projects internationally in Japan, the United Kingdom and France, among other places.

In a conversation with Folio Weekly just a few days after the release of the book — which was commissioned by the library’s Dean Elizabeth Curry and designed by Michael Boyles — Lunberry admitted that the installations have been a transformative experience for him.

“This whole thing emerged out of this accidental development,” he says. “It’s funny to look back and think how none of this could have happened. It took on a life of its own. It’s changed what I do, what I write, and even where I go.”

In a far-reaching conversation, Lunberry discussed his influences, the growth and development of his work, and the book that has now canonized a decade of poetry installations.
What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Folio Weekly Magazine: After the initial inspiration for the first installation [Water on Water], did you have to present a long-term plan for the project? Were there bureaucratic hoops that you had to jump through?

Clark Lunberry: I just did it. [Laughs.] I have a real love for guerilla art and I often tell my students that in asking permission there is a real risk that you’ll be told No. Or that you’ll be given a pile of forms that have to be filled out. So for the first installation, we had the idea and we just did it, unannounced. There was a strong sense, though, when we went out to put those letters in the water, that this wasn’t going to work, anyway, so who cares. Then we put a few out and it was like ‘whoa. OK. This looks pretty cool.’ Moving forward, the library at UNF has just been fantastic to work with. They didn’t know about the first one, but they immediately liked it. They were very supportive and encouraging. In the future I did let them know.

The Writing on Water Writing on Air installations share some of the disruptive qualities, as it relates to language, with Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain especially, in the way they play with assumptions of how naming something makes it what it is. Also Tristan Tzara’s To Make a Dadaist Poem. How do you see your work carrying on the traditions of some of your biggest influences?

I’m definitely aware of the influences of visual arts in my work. Everything you just said about uses of language that Dada inspired no doubt influenced me. Beyond that, there was an emphasis in Dada on moving outside of the gallery — or moving outside of the traditional art spaces. So Dada emerged out of a bar in Zurich [Cabaret Voltaire]. That idea became almost second nature in modern contemporary art. But in 1916 that was just bizarre. So moving out into the world — out of the gallery — is central to my work. Certainly water is not a traditional space for art. A more obvious influence in my opinion is the Earthworks and Land Art of the 1960s and ’70s. Robert Smithson — he was the land artist who did the spiral rock jetty into the Great Salt Lake in Utah — is somebody who has really interested me for a long time. His work with water I think is more than a subtle influence on my work. So, those movements and then also works in conceptual art where language was really central. Artists like Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, whose artwork was explicitly using language.

In what significant ways did your approach to the project change over the years? Were you emboldened by people’s reaction or lack of reaction? Did you ever feel an urge to become more dramatic/literal?

I was pleased because there was a lot of really positive feedback and virtually no resistance to me doing them. These installations, when they’re up, they’re pretty hard to ignore. It’s not the kind of artwork that just fades into the background. There was real enthusiasm and interest. People would ask me after the first and second one, “When are you going to do another one?”

Did you consider the ways in which students or faculty might be engaging with the environment (in passing, or in deep thought, in conversation) when you are choosing the words, or the way in which they are displayed?

Yes, very much so. The stairway in the library is really central to this developing because of the view that you have going up the stairs and looking out across the water and because you have so many people going up and down the stairs between the first and second floor. Even standing on the fourth floor looking down, you are almost on top of the water. The stairway is very heavily used and if you put something up there, you know it’s going to be responded to. After these things have gone up, I’ve made it a point to stand in the stairway and listen to people as they moved up the stairs. I’ve heard students reading the words aloud. My second piece, at first it said, “Murmur of Words.” I went out on the pond and changed the word “words” to “wounds.” I still remember a time where I followed some students up the stairs and one of them was saying, “What does that say?” And the other responded, “Oh, it says ‘murmur of words.’” Like she’d already seen it. As they got up higher he said, “No, it doesn’t. It says ‘murmur of wounds.’” And the other person just went, “Ew!” [Laughs.] It was just wonderful that she had this moment of shock and I’m sure she had to wonder, “Well, has it always said that? Was I misreading it all along?” And then the last one I did, I used a line from an Emily Dickinson poem and it read, “I am nobody. Who are you?” I heard one woman, when she finally read it, say, “God, that’s depressing.” [Laughs.]

That line from Dickinson seems like an especially powerful sentiment, given that college is supposed to be a fairly introspective time for young people.

You would hope so. UNF’s official motto is “No place like this. No one like you.” It’s a typical PR campaign, trying to make you feel special or empowered. Of course, this piece turns that on its head and says “I’m nobody.”

And how did the UNF administration or department heads react to your messing with the school motto?

The dean at the library knew about it. She saw the irony in it and she thought it was fine. The fact of the matter is, the other administrators at the university probably didn’t even see it. They are busy in their offices, doing paperwork.

I read that you talk about the places we encounter written words have transformed. Whereas books are still popular, in the grand scheme of things, they are blips on the radar. Did the fact that the UNF library was so central to the projects influence you?

Because the installations at UNF were so closely linked to the library, I was often asking myself, “Well, what is a library?” Libraries are becoming more media-oriented and far less book-oriented. Books have essentially been removed from the first floor of the library at UNF. It’s harder and harder to even get students to go up and look through the stacks of books up there. If it’s not available online there is a huge resistance to it. I’m well aware of that. I’m guilty of it myself. The fact that this project has emerged adjacent to and within a library is not an accident. A library is an archive of language, of writing. You’re right. [The library] is in a process of amazing rethinking. In one of the installations, we basically submerged books in water and over a period of three or four weeks, those books disintegrated into a puddle of rotten mush. But they also became little Dada collages. Certain bits of paper would detach and float off. You can see in the book where just the word enlighten was floating by itself in the water — a wonderful little accident. There’s another one I did where I essentially drilled a stack of books together and affixed them to the wall. All these books are encased in, like, 10 coats of shellac. It’s almost like the mosquito trapped in amber — the book as a dying artifact. I’ve joked that eventually the only books left in that library will be the ones in my sculpture.

An overarching theme of the Writing on Water Writing on Air project is temporality and fluidity. With a book now, canonizing the different installations, is this a static moment for the project?

At the heart at all of the installations — and this goes back to my early studies in land art — is the intention that it be site specific and ephemeral. Also, the idea of resisting traditional spaces for art was a core value, whether that be an art gallery or even a book, which is more an environmental phenomenon. And so to have now a book, it’s interesting to have it in this enduring form. Certainly it’s exciting. I guess it sort of functions the way books would traditionally function. It consolidates. It unifies events, or gives the illusion of unification. So, in some ways, yes, the book is incongruous with what has always motivated my projects. This was something that the library, who has been very supportive of these installations, approached me about doing. And, of course, I was happy they did.

You may have to submerge a copy in water to complete the cycle.

That’s right! That would probably be the appropriate gesture. That could happen. [Laughs.]

 An online version of Writing on Air Writing on Water: Poetry Installations by Clark Lunberry can be seen here.

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