When we think of a writer at work, we think of a solitary engagement with pen, or typewriter, or computer keyboard, conducted in a private place, devoid, if possible, of ambient noise and external distractions. But starting on Wednesday morning, October 10, Maureen Cummins will be engaged in writing a work of nonfiction in full public view, seated in the window of Pig Bar & Grill on Partition Street in Saugerties.
Some manner of privacy will prevail, however, as you will be able to see her, but she will not see you. Cummins will be sitting with her back, and her long silver ponytail, to the street, engrossed in her writing, and unless you are exceptionally rude, she will take no notice of you. She will face the interior of the restaurant, with a magnificent old writing desk and a window frame in front of her, as she clacks away at an IBM Selectric or a vintage Smith-Corona, pausing every now and then to reel in research notes that have been fastened to a web of fishing lines and weave them into her text.
Cummins’ live-body installation will be part of Shout Out Saugerties, an ambitious four-week festival of the arts at 15 locations throughout the village (see below). She will be ensconced in the window of the Pig, at 110 Partition Street, every day from 9 to 3 through October 28. (Of course, she’ll have time-outs to eat or pee or stretch her legs; at the end of each day’s shift she’s considering putting a sign in the window reading BACK IN 18 HOURS.)
The paradox of a private discipline put on public display is only one aspect of Cummins’ installation. The book she’ll be working on has to do with the unearthing and exposing of family secrets; hence, her tenure in the window, in which she herself is exposed, “sort of parallels the book — it’s a simulacrum of the book,” she says.
And ultimately, the installation “is not about the book, but about the process of writing,” says Cummins. That process can exact a physical and psychological toll — in the words of the immortal sportswriter Red Smith, what writing demands is that you “sit down at the typewriter, open your veins and bleed.” One trusts that Cummins’ residency will not prove too sanguinary, concluding with defenestration into Partition Street. But the transparent nature of the installation will allow passersby to share in the aches and pains and, yes, the not inconsiderable joys and rewards of writing.
For Cummins, one of those joys is to sit and work at that aforementioned magnificent writing desk. Battleship gray, with a handsome splashboard, it has the initials of previous owners carved into it, with lots of markings and scratches. “It’s just an incredible desk,” she says. “It’s got a lot of life, a lot of character.”
One final component of the installation is an invitation for people to come in and tell her stories, although she is not interested in the stories per se, but in stories about stories — “about stories as stories, not reality.” This is a noble tradition — think of Scheherazade, or Cervantes, or Calvino, where the story is equally about the telling of the story, about the process of its transmission.
Cummins is no stranger to installation art; she created many site-specific pieces in her late 20s and early 30s, but “the work was problematic,” she says, in that “you can’t really sell installations.” She has fared much better with her limited edition artists books, which incorporate found texts and found images and are included in collections the world over, including the Getty Museum in LA, the Brooklyn Museum and the Library of Congress, among many other holdings.
Cummins lives with her son, Quinn, a budding rap artist, near the Zen monastery in Mount Tremper, where the two of them have been doing sitting meditation — the perfect discipline, one imagines, to guide and govern her sitting in the window.
For a complete list of Shout Out Saugerties events with times, dates and places, visit shoutoutsaugerties.org.