Shelley Jackson’s Skin Project 2.0


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Shelley Jackson’s story ‘Skin’ exists only in the flesh -- the flesh of about 2,000 volunteers. In 2003, when she wrote the story, she called for participants to each be tattooed with a single word (some also get a bit of punctuation, like ‘ankles,’ with the comma included). The story has never been published in any other form.

If someone wanted to try to piece the story together, it could never be fully assembled. One of Jackson’s participants fell ill and died a few years ago -- making ‘Skin’ both physical and ephemeral, something that is simultaneously more tangible and less real than a story printed on paper.


But maybe there could be another version built from the project. Now, there is.

In a project scheduled to launch Tuesday at the Berkeley Art Museum, Jackson has cut together video footage from a small set of participants to tell a new sub-’Skin’ story. Recently Jackson e-mailed them to ask that they record a video of their word tattoo, and to say the word. From those words recorded by participants, she’s edited and assembled a new story.

To be clear, Jackson doesn’t call them participants -- with great affection and admiration, she calls the tattoo volunteers ‘words.’ In an e-mail to The Times, she explains:

I usually call them words, or my words, as in, ‘I got an angry email from one of my words,’ or ‘Two of my words just got married!’ I really like the ripple of surreality this induces in listeners who haven’t yet become inured to the usage. It comes from my original call for participants: I specify that once they are tattooed, ‘participants will be known as ‘words’. They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as their embodiments. As a result, injuries to the tattooed text, such as dermabrasion, laser surgery, cover work or the loss of body parts, will not be considered to alter the work. Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died.’ I am a word myself: the title, Skin.

Close to 200 of Jackson’s words uploaded their videos onto YouTube for the new iteration of the project. She edited and crafted a story that’s 895 words long (she reuses several).

‘Skin is ceaselessly remixing itself as its words wander around the world, and in a sense my original story is only one of countless stories that it tells,’ Jackson wrote to Jacket Copy. She added, ‘The video I’ve put together is one way of gesturing toward that, but it would also be interesting to open up a space for other people to assemble their own stories out of the same material.’

Indeed. See ours after the jump.

Here is our short sentence, built from some of the YouTube videos of Shelley Jackson’s words.

Translation: The vivacious words are on skin not dead paper.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Videos: The words of Shelley Jackson’s Skin Project.