Karen Shaw was born in the Bronx (1942), a borough of New York City. She is a visual artist who assigns numerical equivalents of one to twenty-six to the letters of the English alphabet according to their position in the alphabet. Shaw's neo-Dadaist method of «Summations» and «Summantics» is inspired in part by gematria -the homiletical rule which associates words or phrases with other words or phrases whose letters add up to the same numerical value. She uses an intriguing combination of numbers, photographs, words and messages. Shaw works with the translation of numbers found on the T-shirts of athletes, cash register receipts, super market advertising, lottery tickets, games of chance and a multitude of other mysterious calculations. She works as a curator at the Islip Art Museum in East Islip, New York, a suburb of New York City. She has exhibited in many art spaces in America and Europe such as Galerie d'Art Contemporain (Basel), Bertha Urdang Gallery (New York), Grita Insam Galerie (Vienna), Dany Keller Galerie (Munich), the Matrix Gallery of the Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, Connecticut) and ICC (Antwerpen). Her work is in several permanent collections such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. She has also had her work published in several books and periodicals. Shaw lives and works in New York.
Extract of a correspondence between Karen Shaw and Jean Sellem from winter 1998 to summer 1999.
JS: In the 70's you coined the words «Summations» and «Summantics» for your method of art making. What do these two terms mean?
KS: Summations were started in 1972 or 1973. The idea came after a job I had affixing two digit codes to a survey studying of the effects of TV violence on children that NBC, a large TV network, was conducting about itself. This was a time before PC's and Macs were on the horizon. Computers were large roomsized machines that still used punch cards. It was also the time when minimalist art was ascendant.
The idea of Summations was to reduce western masterpieces of literature, poetry and prose to a number and that number would signify the «essence» of the work. Of course it destroyed the work too. I did many summations: William Blake, Keats, Shelly, Mallarmč, Rilke and finally the Gospel According to St.Matthew, the King James version. It was from this massive work that Summantics was born.
The Gospel took months to do. I wrote the number equivalent of the letter under every letter of the Gospel in the Bible itself. Then I added the number/letter of each word to acheive the sum of the word, verse and chapter. I then entered the sums into a ledger book. This became the second version of the Gospel. Next I added up the whole thing onto miniature adding machine tapes, one tape for each chapter, which I measured to tell how long each chapter was. I then attached the labeled tapes to a rod at the edge of the bookstand that was made to hold the piece. This was the third version of the Gospel. Working with so many words I got to see that, obviously, many words equaled the same number. Since my name equaled 100, I began to collect the words that also equaled 100. After a time I realized I should collect all the words in my vocabulary and list them according to their number in a book. Thus I created a numerical dictionary which I called the Summantic Vocabulary Collection. Summantics being a play on the words semantics, semiotics and summation. Once I had this «dictionary» I was able to reverse the process and create language out of the numerical debris all around me: cash register receipts, sports figures, tickets etc.
JS: The method of «summations» and «summantics» is based on the principle that letters and words have a numerical equivalent. Where did you get the inspiration to work with such a technique?
KS: Aside from an interest in coding as a kid, I later worked as a coder for that study I spoke of. I saw how numbers got affixed to language to compile statistics. Also, computer language, the system to get computers to operate, is nothing more than a code of 1's and 0's. Affixing a number to the alphabet according to its place in the alphabet seemed basic and natural. I was told that in science this code is called a «Hash code». Since the word Summation implies simple math like addition it seemed the natural way for me to go.
JS: Were you inspired by the gematria in the Kabbalah?
KS: Not really. I only discovered gematria when I began to research coding, linguistics, semantics and semiotics. I was happy to know of it although it had no influence that I am aware of.
When I worked as a visiting artist in public schools I would have children devise codes using pictures, shapes and pictograms for each letter of the alphabet to create large murals. The result was a colorful pattern that could be decoded and read. I never used this for my own work because numbers just seemed to make more sense albeit drier, but much more essential.
JS: Thus, you discovered the method by which letters of words are converted into their numerical equivalent when you began to research coding, linguistics, semantics and semiotics. But why do you have a particular interest in gematria more than, for example, the numerical formulas of Pythagoras, I Ching or of other meta-mathematical and esoteric systems?
KS: I don't have more interest in gematria than with other meta-mathematical systems. Playing with coincidences of word equivalents just happens to parallel Kabbalistic interpretation. There is a letter/ number equivalency in gematria that does not exist in I Ching or Pythagorean mathe-matics as far as I know.
JS: It seems to me that your interest in gematria hasn't so much to do with the interpretation of the Torah. I don't mean that you are rejecting the Jewish religious law (halakhah), but I think that what first intellectua-lly, mystically and creatively stimulates you in the gematric system is the projection of its logical paradoxicality and humorous absurdism.
KS: I can't read Hebrew. I have almost no knowledge of the Torah. I grew up in a secular, assimilated home where only my brothers were given any religious training for Bar Mitzvah. I wasn't even offered it so it's hard to say whether I would have been interested or not. As an adolescent I remember being drawn to Catholicism because of the kitschy and mysterious iconography at the Italian church near my school. I consider my work to be related to secular, John Cagean sensibilities more than anything else.
JS: Cage was a composer, graphic artist, poet, writer and critic, active for several decades. Which epoque or aspects in his work and system of thought do you find particularly relevant?
KS: What I like about Cage's work is the sheer fun of it. His wide reach into all areas is breathtaking. I like the fact that he could work in so many different areas and not be limited to music or dance or poetry or visual arts. I like to try to rise to all challenges when the opportunity comes my way. I don't want to be pigeon holed into one thing. Also the elements of chance in my work certainly echo Cage's work.
JS: In his book The Music of John Cage, from 1993, James Pritchett writes Schoenberg was a model for Cage. Cage admitted that he was in awe of Schoenberg -he worshipped him, and at the same time, was terrified of him. In his essay, The Outlook for Young Composers, from 1962, Charles Wuorinen says that Schoenberg was a model for Cage -almost a hero. According to the Swedish poet, jazz musician and art philosopher Ulf Linde, nothing of what Cage was supposed to write after the time he studied with Schoenberg could mean anything new to the latter. In other words, despite the fact that certain critics are convinced that the innovative and revolutionary musical conception of Schoenberg had no influence on the modernistic development of Cage, one is permitted to think the contrary.
KS: Perhaps. I don't know about this. You are a scholar. I am not.
JS: What first drew you towards Cage seems to be his idea of fusion of the arts and the humorous, light-hearted spirit of his work. Schoenberg had a vital interest in the Bible, in number-mysticism, and in spiritualism. His spiritual and cultural background is familiar to the central, East-European tradition of Jewish mysticism based, among other things, on the principle of fusion, spiritual virtues in the sefirotic tree and in gematric logical paradoxicality.
When you say that what you like about Cage's work is the sheer fun of it, I immediately associate your method of ăsummationső and ăsummanticső with the non-Kabbalistic/ Kabbalistic Schoenbergian manner of thinking.
KS: Perhaps. I don't know about Schoenberg's mystical side. However, Cage was not an influence, but a reference for me. He was an artist that gave me the confidence to continue to play. That play was OK in art. My work came directly out of that work experience that I had. At first I did the summations just to amuse myself. To play with literal reductionism like the minimalists.When I started to take the idea more seriously I started to delve into linguistics and read whatever might pertain to what I was thinking about. One reading led to another, and eventually I learned about gematria. But I was already well into my work. As far as music is concerned, I know about it primarily as a listener. My mother was a concert pianist before I was born and became a piano teacher when I was 8 years old. Perhaps music is in my genes but, alas, I am not musical. I cannot play an instrument. I grew up with music, but not 20th century music. My mother was not experimental in her musical tastes. I like the idea that musical notation is a limited one and yet has vast combinations and permutations. It is encoded and open for infinite interpretation.
JS: On the one hand you consider your work to be related to John Cageian sensibilities more than anything else, and on the other hand you say that Cage was not an influence. What do you mean by that ?
KS: As I said I think Cage's work is related but after the fact of my making it. Therefore I think it is related but since it was after the fact it wasn't a direct influence.That is all I meant.
JS: But, Cage sometimes used aligned letters in poems to form intertexts or so-called «mesostics». Has this neo-Kabbalistic poetical approach sympathetic with Schoenberg's and the Modernist spirit of the Ashkenazim, to some extent stimulated your method of «summations» and «summantics» based on letters' and numbers mysticism and esotericism?
KS: No. I don't know about this work of Cage or of Schoenberg although it is very interesting. I only know some of their music and some of Cage's performances. Once, many years ago at the Neuberger Museum in NY there was a room with hundreds of records and four or five record players and the pu-blic was invited to put on any records of their choice to play all together. One could adjust the sound and choose any musical style to mix and match. It was a very funny cacophony of one's own making. I was in this room with a Swiss friend and we had a lot of fun. John Cage gave many younger artists «permission» to play and experiment, as did Marcel Duchamp certainly.
JS: The procedure to use the numerical value of letters in your work is sometimes very funny. For example, the piece where you demonstrate, in various languages that LESS = (12+5+19+19 = 55) is MORE = (13+15+18+5= 51) or that WENIGER = (23+5+14+9+7+5+18 = 81) ist MEHR = (13+5+8+18= 44 ) is extremely amusing. It seems, that like Tristan Tzara and his Dada-colleagues, you love to visualize paradoxical situations or things, in order to ridicule the boring and totalitarian one-dimensional and static way of thinking. As aforementioned, what you just like about Cage's work is the sheer fun of it.
That you enjoyed participating in his cacophonous performance reveals the nature of your admiration towards the Cagean mystical and esoteric framework. Is it co-rrect to say that the neo-Dada-ist aspect in Cage's system of thought and work charms you a little bit ? How do you, for instance, relate your method of «summations» and «summantics» to Dada or neo-Dada?
KS: I relate my work very directly to Dada and neo-Dada. Dada is playful and I like to play in my work. Perhaps I should explain what I mean by play? I approach strings of numbers, whether they appear on cash register receipts, pictures of sports figures, lottery tickets or Bingo cards as an athropologist would. I imagine these numbers to be heiroglyphics waiting to be deciphered. I enjoy the coincidences of words and puns that appear in the lists of words that are in my «Summantic Vocabulary Collection». I view this book as my Rosetta Stone. I like to create highly serious or religious sounding sentences juxtaposed against beefy sports figures as sports is a form of religion here in America.
Art making is lonely and often frustrating so I like to amuse myself and and get as much pleasure out of the experience as possible. I once read that Nam June Paik was afraid of boring people and therefore made his work entertaining. I appreciate that very much. I don't enjoy artists who can't edit themselves and go on and on and on boring everyone in sight but themselves. I hope never to be guilty of that. Part of the fun of making my work is that it often makes me laugh. The notion of making poetry out of cash register receipts or lotto tickets is amusing to me. It is also a mysterious process. I never know what they will say until I begin composing them.
JS: In other words, like some artists belonging to the Fluxus movement the design and spirituality of your summatical works are based on the permutation of letters, letters mysticism, symbolic equivalencies, and randomness.
KS: Yes, as well as sound, rhythm, syntax and funny coincidences.
JS: Living in New York as you do, naturally you would meet Fluxists. This is not especially surprising. The relationship you have and have had with the Fluxus members seems more than only occasional and peripheral. Since the design and spirituality of your summatic works are based on numerical permutations of letters, mysticism, symbolical equivalencies, sound, rhythm, syntax and funny coincidences it is hard to imagine your work being more at odds with Fluxus. Do you see aspects in your work inspired by the Kabbalah conflicting with the fundamental principles of Fluxus?
KS: You often state that my work is inspired by the Kabbalah. This isn't so. Nor are the Fluxus artists an inspiration. While I don't believe that my work was made in a vacuum, you must keep in mind that when I began my work I was a young woman stuck at home in the suburbs with two little children. I was not part of a movement or even knew any artists until later. I don't know what the fundamental principals of Fluxus are. In fact my knowing Fluxus people and meeting them really is peripheral and casual.
What I know about Fluxus came primarily from viewing the exhibition at the Whitney Museum. That wasn't too many years ago. But my take on it rightly or wrongly is that it is a branch from the Dada tree as is Arte Povera. I may be very wrong about this. You can enlighten me on the subject if you wish.
I also met Alison Knowles in Munich in 1983 or so when our exhibitions at the same gallery overlapped and we had to share a bedroom for one night. We also went out for dinner and she talked about her bean works. But I didn't really know what she was getting at since I hadn't seen it.
A couple of Dutch sound artists that I know often speak of George Maciunas in connection with their work and his influence on them but as I said I am, unfortunately, ignorant of the principles. I once went to a «Happening» at Jean Dupuis' loft in New York in the 70's because an artist acquaintance participated in it.
As I told you early on my work came out of my work experience and I would have to say that the green light to continue to pursue it came from Dada and the work of Eva Hesse and many of the artists from the 70's in the conceptual Art movement: On Kawara, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth etc. that showed me that everyday experiences were OK subjects for art making. That language and process were subjects in and of themselves. That everyday materials were as good or more authentic than «art» materials. That humor was more than just OK , it was desirable. Works that make me laugh have great appeal to me, especially in the making of it. I enjoy making my work. It strikes me as very funny to find a poem in a lottery ticket or in the lineup of football figures. My work is about coding and decoding, finding the unexpected in mundane materials. That my work alludes to gematria and Kabbalitic theories is very nice, but it wasn't a known influence. As I mentioned several times, I didn't know about these theories when I began my work in the early 70's.
JS: There is a constant discussion among Fluxus people about the genesis of Fluxus and what Fluxus is, could and should be. In a funny way, new Fluxus ideas and creativeness often emerge from this introspective intellectual and creative technique. In principle it is similar to the talmudic pilpul (dialectical reasoning): a casuistic method of Rabbinic interpretation in which diverse subject matters are brought together -and compared and new formulations are achieved by analogy.
When I asked you if you saw aspects of your work inspired by the Kabbalah conflicting with Fluxus' fundamental principles, I first associated it to the «Fluxus talmudic» way of thinking, but also to another idea intimately related with gematria. George Maciunas discovered the name flux (fluxus in Latin) in a dictionary in the same manner that the Jewish, Romanian Dada-ist Tristan Tzara found the term Dada on February 8, 1916 at six o'clock in the evening.
As I see it both the Dada-ists and the Fluxists use a dialectical methodology familiar to that of the Talmud. The Fluxus phenomenon and «group» derive from an amalgam of letters comparable to the tetragrammaton (shem ha meforash) in the Kabbalah, that is, like the four-letter name of God. When speaking about Dada or neo-Dada and making allusions to gematria, let me regard your lovely numerical dictionary Summantic Vocabulary Collection.
I find it interesting that you didn't know about gematria when you began your work in the early 70's, and that your method of «Summations» and «Summantics» is the result of your personal artistic and mystical experience. This means to me that your educational background and the cultural atmosphere around you reflect sentiments that guide you toward the higher spiritual Kabbalistic spheres. Even if orthodox Kabbalist scholars, perhaps, will not appreciate the value of your work, they will no doubt recognize that your artistic endeavor is influenced by Kabbalistic ideas.
I have been intrigued for several years by the influence of the Kabbalah in Modern Art, and among other things about its effect on American contemporary art. I used to joke with friends saying that without Moses and the Kabbalah, American Art could have been a big formless chewing-gum. That your work was not intentionally Kabbalistic but yet expresses ideas and feelings explicitly to do with the Kabbalah is clear. That you have not been particularly concerned by Fluxus as a group and historical art movement is also apparent.
What surprises me is that a strong current of Jewish mysticism appears in the American and New York art world, but that nothing is written about this important subject except in the impressive anthology A Big Jewish Book edited in 1978 by Jerome Rothenberg, Harris Lenowitz and Charles Dorria, in which, among many other things, is your work «Additional Meaning 46 = Chaos». I suppose that there may be other publications similar to A Big Jewish Book that have been printed about the theme of Jewish mysticism in American Modern Art but, if so it takes great persistence to find them in a library.
Even if I understand the reason why American Jewish visual artists often don't want to identify themselves as Jewish creators, to me their works and ideas represent a well-articulated tradition of modernism. I believe that your artistic and poetic approach as well the real criteria of Fluxus emanate from such a modernistic axiom rooted in eastern Europe. «As a fish surely has great difficuty in estimating the humidity in the water», I was wondering if you could estimate how the cultural life of New York relates to your creative activities.
New York is the city with the greatest Jewish community outside Israel. You say that you grew up in a secular, assimilated home where only your brothers were given any religious training for Bar Mitzvah. As aforementioned, you explain also that when you began your work in the early 70's you were not conscious of the Kabbalistic way of thinking.
Do you think that despite the pluralistic cultural atmosphere in New York, the Jewish part of it has been crucial to the development of your «midrashic and Kabbalistic imagination»?
KS: Possibly. Probably. Both sets of my grandpa-rents emigrated from Eastern Europe. My grandmothers both spoke English with a decidedly Yiddish accent and often spoke to my parents in Yiddish. I never learned the language except for a few words here and there. However, many Yiddish words are assimilated into English. Many Americans aren't even aware of the fact that many words that they use are not English like chutzpah, mishugah and kibbitz but are Yiddish words. The syntax and rhythm of Yiddish speakers strongly influences New York speech as well as the writing of many of the New York literati. Questioning is also a part of the New York manner of interaction which may be why New Yorkers are considered rude and brash by the rest of the United States. Like the fish, it is hard for me to judge the water, but I am sure I am infused with the New York Jewish atmosphere in which I grew up and continue to live. However you have to realize that New York has many, many other influences which I have, no doubt, assimilated. I grew up in a neighborhood that was Southern Italian, so I have to credit some of that sensibility too.
JS: Why are you concerned with the procedure of randomness, chance and probability?
KS: Chance and randomness seems to be the way of he world. You never know what will happen next or how the day will end. In some ways my work attempts to create a kind of order out of chaos and randomness even though the choices I make are partly by chance, but only partly. To create a sentence out of random numbers I am governed by the rules of grammar and syntax as well as what words are equivalent to said number.
JS: Which of your work do you consider is the most representative for the articulation of your art?
KS: This is a difficult question. It is hard for a mother to select a favorite from among her babies, but if I must say which is the most representative I might name the early cash register receipt poems since they combine the concept of my work with my domestic life in its purest form. They were among the first pieces that I made when my enthusiasm was high and my knowledge of the art world was non-existent. I did it mostly for my own interest and amusement.
JS: You work with installations?
KS: Yes, when the opportunity presents itself and it is appropriate. There have been times when I have been asked to do an installation. The exhibition that I just had was an installation partly because the space just asked for it. It was the only way to make my work coherent in that situation.
JS: Installation is a way to mystify reality by the disposition of objects. If we imagine having an umbrella (U), a corkscrew (C) and the Bible of Mao (BM) as objects in an installation, to place the Bible of Mao between the umbrella and the corkscrew can have a crucial signification. This method has a resemblence to the gematric technique in the Kabbalah. Do you see here a certain relationship with your method of «Summations» and «Summantics»?
KS: No. My use of installation was not to mystify but to clarify. To create a space conducive to understanding and thought.
JS: Do you see a direct relationship with what you are doing and performance art?
KS: Yes, in some ways. My first piece in 1972 or '73 was performed. I read a poem by Keats that was reduced to numbers, and read the numbers with as much emotion and feeling as I was able to express. But I am not a trained or unselfconscious performer and it was hard for me to keep from laughing. I have done readings and given many talks which is a form of performance. I also see teaching, which I do from time to time, as performance, but perhaps that is not what you mean.
JS: Why do you combine the concept of Entomology with that of Etymology?
KS: In the past I always used to get those two words confused. I knew the definition of each word but could not remember which definition belonged to which. Finally I taught myself a mnemonic method to remember which word was which. «Ent» resembles ant, therefore entomology is the study of insects and so etymology has to be the study of words. When I was looking for a format for my ideas , the use of entomological pins just seemed the perfect way to pin the words to the numbers. The closeness of the spellings and the conflation of the two words amused me and made sense to me. The pins themselves are beautiful, long and slim. It just seemed like a perfect solution.
JS: What is the reception to your work in the US art world?
KS: The reception to my work has been quite gratifying in the past year. In the 70's when I began the work the response was more mixed. But I had many exhibitions and there was always a solid core of people who loved what I was doing and found it interesting, of course there were also some viewers who were lazy and didn't like to have to read art in a gallery or try to figure out what was going on in the work. My earlier work had longer lines and more words then they do now. The reception to my work in Europe was very enthusiastic in the 70's, especially in Germany and Switzerland much more so than in America.
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