Introduction to Lichen Books: On The Road

In the sixteenth issue of The Present Group, artist Rebecca Blakley sneaks a contemporary coming-of-age tale into “the novel that defined a generation”. “On the Road” is an edition of 70 copies of the classic novel by Jack Kerouac containing a parallel story told by Blakley via Post It notes hand drawn in Times New Roman.

Rebecca Blakley is a native of Santa Barbara, California, who has recently moved to Oakland, after an east coast stint involving Baltimore, Maryland and Brooklyn, New York.  She double majored in art and English literature at University of California, Los Angeles, graduating in 2003.  Although she has exhibited paintings in such venues as Maryland Art Place and the Baltimore Creative Alliance, her recent work has focused on producing art that the viewer encounters in unexpected places.

Interview with Rebecca Blakley

We sat down with TPG16 artist Rebecca Blakley in our home in Oakland, CA on November 12th, 2010.

icon for podpress  Interview with Rebecca Blakley [27:44m]: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

How To Really Listen Is Sometimes To Talk

A Review of Lichen Books: On The Road by Rebecca Blakley

“And the landscape will do/ us some strange favor when/ we look back at each other/ anxiously” –Frank O’Hara

How do we listen to each other? Is listening an act of knowing another? Is real, true listening even possible? These are the questions I kept coming back to while reading Lichen Books: On The Road. It’s the story of a girl looking for answers written on post it notes and inserted into Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road. The novel tracks Sal Paradise, a narrator in search of something unnameable, while weaving through a multiplicity of characters constantly traveling and talking to each other. Staying up all night, even, just to talk, in hopes of arriving together at some new understanding of each other that will solve their problems. Rebecca Blakley’s narrator also roams the country in search of another, or a self, or a job, or a decision she can feel certain of. Even when she’s talking to people, it seems as if the landscape or indecision prevents her presence. These characters keep looking for responses from each other that provide any sense of connectedness. The distance of Blakley’s narrator from others in her story indicates, ironically, Blakley’s remarkable ability to listen.

We finish this novel and story feeling like we still don’t know if anyone really hears each other—and there’s a desolate sadness—as large as the dark endless highways that populate this story—in the realization that we might not ever. And yet, Blakley demonstrates considerable trust in our ability to engage with the text, in our ability to listen, by making visible the temporality of our responses through her chosen form—they are just sticky notes, after all, and one could effortlessly discard them, or rearrange them. She’s highlighting the impulse to respond (the desire to conflate one’s story with another’s, to tell one’s own story as an indication of listening), as perhaps the only form of true listening, however flawed. There’s beauty in the humility and faith required to tell a story on slips of paper that we often throw away everyday.

Often in Blakley’s text, I found myself surprised at the quotidian nature of her intrusions—recounting rather plain details of travel that don’t feel especially essential. Retrospectively, those details revealed themselves as an important interaction with, or mirroring of Kerouac’s style—he spends a lot of time getting people from one point to another and in any one moment of the book one could think: is this really necessary to this novel? But that’s the whole point—it’s an accretion process, not a linear building of narrative, any moment is every moment, full of every possible emotion. Any one detail is not important, but instead the heavy and total imprint of their bodily enactment of life. In this way, the novel becomes a kinesthetic experience—I so often felt it bodily, alongside the characters—and it’s an astute and important choice that Blakley interacts with this text in the way she does. It’s as if she’s saying, in our responses to each other, no matter how absurd, there is hope.

While reading her responses, I felt my own presence in a way that was uncomfortable—I wasn’t sure I wanted to be reminded of my self-as-reader in the present moment. Isn’t that partly why we read novels—to escape our bodily experience? Blakley is complicating this convention with the materiality of her chosen form—you must lift her notes off to read the text underneath or interrupt the novel to read her story. And yet I grew to look forward to the notes, because they activated the text in unexpected ways. In a particularly bright moment in the middle of the book, the narrator of Blakley’s story lies down in the salt flats on the same route that Paradise was on a few chapters back, confused as to what to do with her life: “I felt like I had turned into a pile of salt. But it wasn’t a punishment, it was natural. It was where I was supposed to be. It was settled—I would lie in the salt until I knew what to do with my life.” The intrusion serves to build out Kerouac’s work, to emphasize its timelessness, and also contextualize and layer hers. Blakley’s scene recalls the circular nature of Paradise’s journey through the novel, finding himself repeatedly in altered and peripheral experience. Meanwhile underneath her text, Kerouac lyrically comments on the nature of the western landscape: “for the house was in that part of the West where the mountains roll down foothilling to the plain and where in primeval times soft waves must have washed from sea-like Mississippi to make such round and perfect stools for the island-peaks like Evans and Pike and Longs.” Blakley keeps her prose exceptionally flat; she lets Kerouac do the work of lyricism that sets a backdrop of expansive, aerated time, while her story’s similarity to Paradise’s compounds for us the commonality and collective nature of our angst.

Blakley’s experiment provides the sensation of a story being told in rounds—both narrators exploring the same isolation and feeling of irrelevancy in a vast and indifferent landscape—but hitting different notes at different moments, which exposes the vibrant and mysterious urge for storytelling (response) itself. This, in turn exposes the stakes of the first person narration of both—we may always feel confused about our purposes and roam the roads feeling lost, but the urge to make sense of this experience through telling our stories, responding to life, has the capacity to provide a momentary sense of order.

That’s the ultimate success of this intervention—it exposes a natural conflation of those impulses—to know the self and other, and to know a text. The manifestation of those impulses is our responses to each other. Blakley pays Kerouac the high compliment of being his fan and critic; at times she seems to be poking fun at Kerouac’s frenetic lyricism and Paradise’s unconscious privilege through her flat and minimalist prose, at other times she reverently concurs with his insistent portrayal of life as a restless quest after unfulfilled desires.

I think the most we can hope for is, in listening, that we are called to respond. Maybe here, response is the act of love Blakley is exposing. That we’re not in a void, that our words matter to each other. The position of the reader is made more active, because we’re being asked to examine our own stakes in these stories, in a direct physical interaction with sticky papers in a book—we’re asked to find these stories familiar, as something we recognize, as something worth responding to.



Sarah Fontaine lives in the Outer Sunset of San Francisco, California. She co-directs the studios and project space at the Carville Annex, a site for investigating people and place. She seeks higher stakes. Her writing and other experiments can be found in Plaid Review, Reading Conventions and factorycompany.

Annotated Links: Rebecca Blakley

Rebecca’s Links

On The Bro’d “Every sentence of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road,  retold for bros.” – A humorous update of On The Road that is surprisingly true to the spirit of the original.

My day-job at this interdisciplinary design studio greatly influenced the way that I thought about architecture, art and creating experiences for an audience/viewer.

McSweeney’s publishes a variety of things that use text in interesting and innovative ways, and have certainly added to the ways that I think about narrative.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and Superworse – The Novel: A Remix of Superbad: Stories and Pieces by Ben Greenman – Two books that play with text and storytelling in ways that I found particularly compelling.

Rebecca Campbell’s work helped to mold the way that I think about beauty in art.

Marina Abromovic’s work made an indelible impression on me as the first performance/interactive art that captivated my imagination.

Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life – A friend loaned me this book and urged me to read it.  Although I am very wary of self help books generally, and particularly skeptical of ones published in the seventies, this book undeniably influenced my thinking while writing the text to intertwine with On The Road.

Book Interventions and Responses:

Relationships with Library Books by Ingrid Burrington and Brendan Sullivan: “We attempted to explore our physical relationships to library books. We then documented that experience and returned the books, with documentation, to the library.”

After Nature Catalogue for the New Museum: Conceived as an homage to W.G. Sebald, the catalogue re-purposes existing copies of his literary work After Nature by wrapping the original book with the “After Nature” exhibition catalogue, which acts as a book jacket. Twenty-five full-color images of the exhibit are also hand placed throughout the original text. The catalogue features an essay by Massimiliano Gioni and a checklist of works in the exhibition, along with the image plates throughout the book.

Jean Lowe creates sculptural (re)creations of books with subversive titles and imagery

Each of Anton Ginzberg‘s bronze cast post it note sets respond to a different book in the Saint Germaine series.  Seen at NADA at Moscow’s GMG gallery.


Please use the comments to contribute to the discussion of this work.  Here’s a bit about what we’ve been thinking about while working on Lichen Books: On the Road.

Rebecca Blakley’s work lives under the radar.  A checked-out library book, or just-purchased pair of jeans is revealed to be a work or art. We were attracted to this project in part because it was the chance to support an artist that not only makes work without a saleable product, but makes work for an unknown audience and without acknowledgment.    I had a college professor who used to talk a lot about the idea of art as a gift.  That the act of creating something and showing it to others was a generous one.  But when an artist works anonymously, never knowing how their work is received, that idea takes on a fuller dimension.

This element of the anonymous and unexpected also posed a concern for us.  Because her work is normally stumbled upon we wondered how the meaning would change when distributed through TPG.  When you see the Present Group stamp on the box the contents are predefined as art.  In the interview, Rebecca’s response to this observation was that in some ways the effect is similar yet reversed.  When one finds a “Lichen Book” in a library, in seeking out a book, they find art.  When you receive this work in the mail expecting art, you find a book.

Rebecca’s work is about the unexpected, about surprise and delight, but it is also a reflection on how we use books to escape. As Sarah Fontaine observes in her essay, “Blakley is complicating this convention with the materiality of her chosen form.”  The physical interaction with the post it notes draws you into the present.  Blakley furthers this effect with her the first person narrative;  the reader and the narrator are in the same present, responding to the same text
It was a joy to come back to “On The Road” after so many years.  And in some ways Rebecca’s story gives enough contrast to the original to make us evaluate our own journeys, years of indecision, and how our culture has changed and not changed at all over the years.

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