Justine Kurland’s SCUMB Manifesto is the photo book to end all photo books — literally. SCUMB, which stands for Society for Cutting Up Men’s Books, is Kurland’s homage to Valerie Solanas’s infamous, semi-satirical 1967 manifesto, which advocated for the destruction of the male sex. “I call for the end of the graphic representation of the male canon,” Kurland writes in bold-faced capitals on the book’s front cover: “Your time is over, officer historian…. I’m coming for you with a blade.”
As institutions, galleries, and art fairs work to correct art history’s lopsided canon with varying levels of sincerity, Kurland steps in and raises the stakes. SCUMB Manifesto reads like a dare: by speaking the taboo, embodying the fear in the back of every traditionalist’s mind, Kurland is daring you, the reader, to act — or react. Because the resistance to changing a predominantly white and male historical narrative often stems from one thing: the fear of replacement. The fear that that woman whose script you stole will come back with a gun, like Solanas did, and that history will forgive her the way it forgives men like William Burroughs. Kurland points the knife in the reader’s direction and asks: “Whose side are you on?”
SCUMB Manifesto is a direct, violent challenge to the status quo. It is also a nuanced, exquisitely crafted work of art: coming just a year after her groundbreaking exhibition at Higher Pictures Generation, the book (published by MACK) catalogues Kurland’s methodical dissection of her own male-dominated library of photo books following a provocative conversation with her gallerist and partner, Kim Bourus. After excising the innards of each book, Kurland uses its inside cover as the canvas for a new collage, slicing and recontextualizing the photographer’s original images to form her own critique. Sparing not even the rarest and most fetishized of books, Kurland has killed her metaphorical darlings. Every time she finishes a collage, she offers to sell it to the photographer whose book it came from; so far, she’s been met with mixed responses.
More than 100 books are included in SCUMB Manifesto, an impressive number considering the detailed process of making each collage. Sometimes her cuts are painstakingly delicate, as in “Cray at Chippewa Falls”(2021), in which clusters of faces sprout from wires like flowers growing from a hill of hair. Other times they are rougher, angrier, like in the chain of female arms gripping legs that form the name “JUSTINE” in “Nudes (Justine)” (2021). Often, Kurland hits comical notes too, like a nipple dotting the “I” in Justine, or a man whose face has been transfigured into a crude chalk drawing of a phallus.
Speaking of phalluses, Kurland’s work contains certain repetitions, fixations of the male gaze; in her reimagining of Lee Friedlander’s 1976 photography book The American Monument, for example, the pointed monument to Major General Winfield Scott Hancock has grown a pair of balls. Female bodies, too, are frequent subjects of attention. One of the book’s starkest collages — which is also included as a standalone poster — is the cover image, “Nudes (Second Chance)”(2021). In it, the severed limbs and torsos of female bodies form a vortex around an outstretched palm, like a nightmarish rendition of Gustave Doré’s engraving “The Empyrean.” It feels claustrophobic and dehumanized, the psychic result of countless walls plastered with cutouts from Playboy and Penthouse.
To make a book by destroying books is a rather curious contradiction. SCUMB Manifesto seems to take this into account, however, by forgoing the traditional hardcover format. Its spine features raw, exposed binding, evoking the cut-up nature of the works inside. The title is printed on the spine with a roughness that evokes sharpies being scribbled across a wall; the cover’s orange letters, stamped on bright red paper, have the in-your-face punk edge of a DIY zine. The object feels like a manifesto.
Virginia Woolf famously wrote that “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” Kurland uses SCUMB Manifesto to flip that script: although she is cutting up books by history’s most famous male photographers, she does not cite them by name. Instead, each piece is given the name of the book it originated from, many of which may ring a bell to fans of photo history, but whose authors might not be immediately recollected: The Americans, Paris by Night, Hustlers, and so on. This deliberate erasure helps to puncture the myth of the lone male artist. Kurland suggests that such “great men” of history were rather the beneficiaries of great networks and institutions of power that held them up for all to see. In response, the artist begins to construct her own society, assisted by the varied talents of Renee Gladman, Marina Chao, Catherine Lord, and Ariana Reines, whose essays contextualize the artist’s message in a literary, political, personal, and art historical framework. Ultimately, SCUMB Manifesto dreams of creating the same utopian world depicted in Kurland’s early Girl Pictures series, but with one provision added: by any means necessary.