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Reading David Foster Wallace for the Colors

Phase one of the 'Infinite Jest Project' by Corrie Baldauf (all images courtesy the artist)
Phase one of the ‘Infinite Jest Project’ by Corrie Baldauf (all photos by PD Rearick)

DETROIT — When a tweet from @CorrieBaldauf breaks into your Twitterstream, it is captivating and disorienting for a number of reasons. More often than not, she is live-tweeting her progress through her latest iteration of the Infinite Jest Project, an exercise in literature, obsession, and social media that Baldauf has been working on since 2013.

Baldauf initially began the process of flagging all the references to color in the text — more than 2,600 of them — as a sort of mechanism to help her concentrate on reading David Foster Wallace’s infamous masterwork, a notoriously difficult literary achievement that has divided readers on one side or the other, or in many cases, lost somewhere in the middle. Stymied by her early attempts to tackle the book, Baldauf “realized that the part I cared the most about was the color references, and that was going to be my impetus — it was going to be the familiar, intriguing thing that was going to help me focus, to commit,” she told Hyperallergic. Color figures strongly in much of Baldauf’s work, including her Optimism Filters — plexiglass filters that she uses to literally tint the perspective of Detroit, captured through a camera — and exquisitely meticulous visualized recordings of overheard conversations.

Page 800: David Foster Wallace averages four color references per page of 'Infinite Jest,' bringing life to a text that might otherwise be too dark (or heavy) to hold up.
Page 800: David Foster Wallace averages four color references per page of ‘Infinite Jest,’ bringing life to a text that might otherwise be too dark (or heavy) to hold up.

Over the course of the next three or four months, Baldauf was able to make her way through Infinite Jest, the color-flagging helping her to stay committed even as it slowed her down, requiring an average of four breaks a page. But the next dynamic of the project emerged around page 200, when, though fully committed to the reading at this point, Baldauf continued to flag colors. “It started as a tool, which is how someone would start drinking coffee or doing cocaine,” Baldauf says. “But once the tool resolved the problem of not reading it, that was when it became an obsession.”

Ironic, or maybe exactly fitting, that a novel whose major theme is obsession in all its forms, and which features an “entertainment” so powerful in its ability to take viewers out of themselves that it turns them basically into vegetables, has brought an obsessive quality to Baldauf’s project. So, after completing her first edition of Infinite Jest, she moved on to a second copy.

The color tabs that began as the mechanism to draw Baldauf away from herself (in her desire not to read the book) and into the world of Infinite Jest have now produced a unique art object that has its own aura of appeal. In the months since Baldauf has gone public with her project, it’s generated conversations with hundreds of people. “It’s the first project I’ve done where the conversation is as creational as the making,” she says.

In her second iteration, Baldauf has also added the dimension of what she calls “digital intimacy.” This is the live-tweeting of her reading of Infinite Jest, using a medium — social media — that has an addictive quality all its own. “Seeing a book in your Twitter feed is nostalgic. It’s a surrogate from a literary time,” she says. This quixotic collision marries Twitter, one of the shortest of short literary forms, with a titan of the long-form.

Baldauf refers to her habit of duplication as “Only Only,” which is drawn from a typo found in Zorn’s translation of “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” by Walter Benjamin, an occurrence that Baldauf feels adequately sums up the entire essay.
Baldauf refers to her habit of duplication as “Only Only,” which is drawn from a typo found in Harry Zorn’s translation of “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin, an occurrence that Baldauf feels adequately sums up the entire essay.

Now, as she has begun her third edition of Infinite Jest, with ever-increasing specifications to her process that require greater cost and care — like buying a new firsthand copy of the book and exercising greater stringency of color flags — Baldauf is forced to consider some tough questions about the ongoing nature of her project (much like other addictions).

“I’ve pictured in my mind a really tall stack,” she says, “but it’s up in the air. Usually I don’t think there needs to be more than two. Two is already many; why would you ever need more than two of something? It’s redundant.”

“I’m pretty sure I’m going to stop after this one,” Baldauf says. She pauses to reflect, then bursts into laughter. “But that’s just what an addict would say, isn’t it?”

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