12 Years of Babylon: An Interview with Myrtle Von Damitz, III

Not only is Myrtle Von Damitz, III a vastly talented painter, she’s also a bibliophilic dynamo. In 1999 she founded the New Orleans artist’s book exhibition, Babylon Lexicon, and has since continued to organize, curate, and serve as its chief muse in varying capacities. The twelfth annual Babylon Lexicon took place earlier this month, as usual in conjunction with the New Orleans Book Fair, and I was honored when it included a few of my broadsides. I know Myrtle from when I lived in New Orleans briefly during the early 2000s, before I even realized there was such a term as book arts, when I was making books because it seemed like the most urgent thing to do. That’s why it was exciting for me to touch base with her again recently and hear her share some insights into the exhibition’s birth, evolution, and future.

Matt Runkle: Can you start by talking about the history of Babylon Lexicon? What was its inspiration; who all was involved in its founding; what are some of the transformations it’s undergone over the years?

Myrtle Von Damitz, III: When I first moved to New Orleans, I was horrified by the newspapers and wanted to start a new one. I learned all about The Figaro and The Courier (The Vieux Carré Courier), and through my youthful cocky hubris met all kinds of wonderful jaded New Orleanians who dealt in books, information, history, and newspapers. The least I could do, after figuring out I could not yet start a newspaper like The Figaro, was to start a book show. So I put out a call for anyone in the city who dealt with books in one way or another to come together and put a stake in the heart of contemporary mass-market vampirism of letters. This was 1999.

Babylon Lexicon 2006

Barrister’s Gallery, still on Royal Street when I arrived in town, had become my gallery. I’d moved to New Orleans in order to become a painter. Andy Antippas, the proprietor of Barrister’s, was a good friend of Noel Rockmore‘s. I learned about Rockmore from him, and of Gypsy Lou and Jon Webb from John at Kaboom Books, and others around town. I was enamored—this was my idealism, which I guess looking back is just another fantasy of the way life could be in New Orleans, the way newcomers still see it today—bohemian, close knit, subversive, and cheap!  A totally wonderful lie that some people live to perpetuate.  Everyone, in every fantasy scheme overlayed on this city, has to struggle to get by, and half the reality of life is not part of the story—racial, cultural and economic struggles alike.

Gypsy Lou and Jon Webb produced Outsider Magazine, and first published Charles Bukowski. Noel Rockmore was a friend of theirs, and illustrated their books—the one by Bukowski, and one by Henry Miller. Their work, Loujon Press and Outsider Magazine, was the inspiration for Babylon Lexicon, and the driving force behind the original New Orleans Book Fair. I wanted a letterpress and to produce the same magic every month.

SO, a group of us started meeting every week, on an evening, to learn how to make books! We took field trips, drew in more bookmakers as time went on, and produced a show!  With a lot of people!  It was fun—I like a show where people can handle the goods. There were all kinds of books, refined and profane, and we had a blast. Participants and audience included clowns and PhD’s—and PhD clowns—and people who were part of the great irreverent literary spectrum of New Orleans. It was hard to convince local independent presses to come, but they started to at our next show, in early 2000. GK Darby of Garrett County Press informed us that there were book fairs held all over the country, where independent presses actually had an audience, and proceeded to found the New Orleans Book Fair. Babylon Lexicon has remained as its staid heart or batty great aunt ever since.

James Goedert, Log Book (2009)

Writing about Babylon Lexicon like this makes it seem like an obituary!  I believe it has run its course and is now no longer the show it started as.  Book arts and letterpress printing are nationally recognized, regimented crafts. It’s not just a recognition of the spontaneity of communication in book form and relating all of its ties to literary, journalistic and artistic histories. It’s actually a piece of history and more easily dealt with by those who are part of the craft, who have successfully revived and refined it. Handmade and artists’ books are as idiomatic as installation art and websites, as far as a modern Western art market audience goes.

MR: I know you’ve been looking for some new faces to help with organizing future Babylon Lexicons. Who would be an ideal organizer, and in what ways do you envision the exhibition evolving in future years?

MVD: I am torn about the future of Babylon Lexicon.  It has needed fresh blood for several years, but it’s my kid, and the people of the New Orleans Book Fair are my family.  If nobody else can do it, I am the placeholder.  This next year, I can’t do it— I’m running another show, Automata, which in a way is the 3D animation version of Babylon Lexicon. Here is how I see it:

Antenna Gallery, a partner of Press Street and long a friend of the New Orleans Book Fair, has been our host for the last three years. I see this as the best future scenario for Babylon Lexicon or any continuing book arts exhibition in New Orleans outside academia. What we need is a curator!  SO: either someone like how I was ten years ago comes along all gung ho and makes a punk-ass cybernetic apocalyptic extravaganza, or someone who has good connections to hardworking and long-suffering book artists will carry the torch and make sure that book arts are always part of the Book Fair and recognized as integral to the literary arena in New Orleans.

MR: Is there a philosophy behind Babylon Lexicon that separates it from artists’ book exhibitions in other cities?

MVD: Babylon Lexicon was kind of a stray boat bobbing alongside serious development of book arts centers and schools. I think present book arts has followed the revival of folk and roots music in the ’60s—now much of it is produced according to an accepted standard based on a nostalgic past, and most of what is produced in schools is a variation of it.  We always had trouble convincing more traditional book artists to be part of the show; now that is easily the mainstay.

Jamie Chiarello, Anti-Novelty - Cigarette Box Books (2009)

I’m sorry to see printmaking and book arts separated from other disciplines; part of my interest in Babylon Lexicon was to bind different disciplines together in the same arena. This is why I’ve been searching for a new curator—someone who understands this, who has the energy and time for it, and who is not just not a snob, but who gets that books are as much a vehicle for expression as any other media—car making, television, duck decoy carving, newspaper printing, website hacking, shag carpet cutting!  (I mention shag carpets because one of the books in the first show was a giant pornographic history of the Clown House [a fixture of New Orleans’ circus subculture] bound in shag carpet—really disgusting and slightly opportunistic. Contrast that to this year’s ode to the demise of the warehouse of artists and radicals known as 511 Marigny, in yearbook form, albeit with some good photos, which is on its way to an interested publisher, far from its source—wonderfully productive but acceptably NPR.)

MR: Books are really interesting to me because they kind of exist in this territory between sturdiness and fragility. So much work goes into the sound construction of a handmade book, yet it’s an object that remains very vulnerable to the elements. Can you talk about any book-related water damage that resulted from Katrina, both on a physical and emotional level?

MVD: I can’t, but can perhaps speak of friends who lost their entire libraries in the flood—it was devastating. They’d say, “I lost my house, my photographs, my mementos—but all of my books!!!”

Losing your books isn’t merely about losing your possessions.  It’s an Alexandrian library.  I don’t know how you feel about the destruction of the library at Alexandria by the Romans, but I personally feel a keen ache—I think we are taught through the ages this ache. There is no replacement for a library, or for your collection of books.

We speak of a new age of sorts, of putting everything on the Internet, making it digitally accessible. Yay, Google Books, I can read Darwin’s Power of Movement in Plants uninhibited!

The Internet can go at any time! Like us all. Books are an aspect of human evolution made to defy and mark the passages of time and our follies.

MR: Do you want to talk a little about your own work as a painter? There is a very narrative element to your paintings. In what ways do they intersect with the world of book art, and in what ways might they resist it?

MVD: When I was a kid, I wanted to be an English teacher or a kids’ book illustrator or a medieval monk illuminator or an astronomer/archaeologist.  Of all science and math, I enjoyed geometry and biology the most. All of these disciplines are about connecting one page to another. I think my paintings are just acquiescing to hopes of ideas without understanding them; so I can say they are story fragments or a remark on a thing I read or a spiritual desire or a brainless imitation of the methods of atomic physics. I don’t know what to say about it anymore!  I don’t buy that what a person does in life ought to serve some practical, named function. But I do feel like a machine. If I were past this point of grave dislike of what I do, I’d be able to say with a genuinely cheerful positivity that I tell stories with my pictures! That was my intent in the beginning!  I don’t believe in abstraction, unless it’s poetry, and I hate poetry.

Myrtle Von Damitz, Bumper Carts For Sale (2011)

In early Babylon Lexicon days, I did make contributions to the show—I whitewashed a box full of nails and wrote a line from T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland” on each nail. I made a collage book of steel flashing about Gertrude Stein’s masturbatory admiration of Hitler’s charisma (researching that lead me into some weird little universes); I made a repository of Emily Dickinson from little glass jam jars I collected from a short-lived doilied breakfast shift at the St. Louis Hotel. I wish that I would get my shit together to have the luxury of surrounding myself with useless crap to make things with, which is what has changed in my world since 2005.

MR: Do you want to highlight any work that was included in past Babylon Lexicons?

MVD: I’ll give you the highlight of all time: Dana Sherwood’s cake book.

Dana Sherwood, Confektion (2005)

I always loved Miss Sebastian’s pill books, which came of her stints at medical experiments. She’d walk around the fair like a cigarette girl. One time I convinced her to please make it formal with a table, which she didn’t like.

So … this year we had Jamie Chiarello with actual cigarette-box books, which carry the spirit.

The best uber-book, i.e., most iconic of the year, is James Goedert‘s sliced log. He cut a log into the slightly ruffled pages of a book, with a very elegant system of hinges. It’s called Log Book.

I think another reason Babylon Lexicon isn’t as full of diverse and perverse artists as it has in the past is also due to the changes in the New Orleans arts arena since the biennial (Prospect New Orleans 1, 1.5, and 2). There is definitely a concentration on career and the wider network of arts, artists, and patrons now. It’s taken me a while to adjust to this new method of perception and participation in art that is meant for everyone but has gone from public to ecclesiastical. As a city, we’ve been introduced to and accepted a new language of art. Whoever continues Babylon Lexicon, I hope, gets over this facade of purity and genericism of the world creative markets, and is able to revive its tired soul.

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Matt Runkle
Matt Runkle
Matt Runkle's writing has appeared in The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, on BOMBlog, and is forthcoming in Wigleaf. A former Cartoon Art Museum resident, his comics are anthologized in Sparkplug Comic Books' Gay Genius and Rob Kirby's THREE. The third issue of his zine, RUNX TALES, will be released in 2012. Brooklyn Arts Press will publish a collection of his short fiction in 2013. You can visit his personal blog here.

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