Oct. 22, 2016
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Sumner Carnahan and Sumner are out there burnin’ books.
Michael Sumner

Twice Burned

Burning Books sets its autobiography ablaze in new exhibition

August 24, 2016, 12:00 am

Michael Sumner and Melody Sumner Carnahan recently put their house on the market and moved into a walkup off Cordova. The glass front door bears a logo for Burning Books, their long-running publishing imprint, and two bikes lean at the bottom of a long staircase. A bright space on the second floor functions as their kitchen, bedroom and dining quarters. This place feels detached from Santa Fe, like a cube of San Francisco floating above the desert Southwest.

For their latest project, Michael combed through a vast trove of photographs that chronicles their lives in California and New Mexico. Melody examined the pictures as though they were found objects, assigning new names to recurring faces and weaving a fresh mythology from almost-forgotten moments. The project became a book called Twice Through the Maze and inspired a photography exhibition at Phil Space (1410 Second St., 983-7945) that opens Oct. 14 at 5 pm. One summer morning, Michael and Melody sip espressos and flip through a mountain of books on their dining table, reassembling the life story that they just dismantled.

“We both grew up in Colorado,” says Michael. “California was sort of the dreamland for many years.” After Sumner got his MFA from the University of Oregon and they traveled through Europe, they moved to Palo Alto in 1978. Life in the sleepy community provoked the duo to dream up a rebellious art project: They plastered wheat pastes of Édouard Manet’s “The Fifer” all over town. This assault on the mundane was their first artistic collaboration, and caused a satisfying stir. “Boredom is very important,” Michael notes. “Even Gertrude Stein said it’s important to get bored, and then you start coming up with stuff.”

Ennui incited their next collaboration as well: a mysterious letter sent to 100 people. It contained a form that listed the years 1970 to 1979, with a blank line next to each year. Nearly everyone filled it out and returned it, from family members to famous artists such as John Baldessari, Carl Andre and Vito Acconci. Their creative responses to the ambiguous challenge became The Form, the first Burning Books title, published in 1979.

"Every one of our books has another media extension, and every book is different."

Melody had been determined to study writing at Stanford University, but ended up in a masters program at Mills College in Oakland in ’79. “Mills has an internationally known book arts program, and we learned how to do letterpress printing and everything,” Melody says. She also studied media arts and creative writing, seeking ways to bring new interactivity to the written word. “The writing people weren’t that interested in what I did,” she says, “so the people at the Center of Contemporary Music were my friends.” For her thesis, Melody wrote a book called The Time is Now and asked a number of musicians to compose accompanying songs. Later, she and Michael would create a smaller version of the text that fits in a box with a CD of the songs. “Every one of our books has another media extension, and every book is different,” Melody explains.

The move to Oakland came at a serendipitous moment. “We were excited to be in the big city,” Michael tells SFR. “San Francisco was exploding into this punk scene, which was so energized and wonderful. There was theater and music and all of this interesting stuff, and we were just eating it up.” They forged connections with the museum world and continued collaborating with avant-garde musicians. Their 1986 book The Guests Go in To Supper featured interviews with John Cage, Yoko Ono and other composers.

Over the next few years, Michael grew tired of the crowded city and developed a hunger for new frontiers. “We sold our ’64 Ford because it was falling apart, and got a Vanagon,” Sumner says. “We started taking trips to the Southwest, and it was like, ‘Oh my god, there’s a horizon.’” Melody, however, wasn’t as eager as Michael to break away from California. “He had spiritual pornography syndrome. That’s what happened to him. I just went along,” she says.

They moved to New Mexico in 1989, and attempted to live the secluded desert lifestyle that Michael had imagined. “We lived everywhere in New Mexico,” Melody says. “Awful, terrible things happened to us. I’m writing a book about it.” There was a robbery, a hailstorm, a fire and a flood. Just as they started to believe that they were biblically plagued, the duo heard from video art pioneers Steina and Woody Vasulka in Santa Fe.

“They knew our other books. They thought we were real publishers,” Melody says. The Vasulkas had a fast-approaching exhibition in Austria, and needed someone to do the catalog. “So we came in and they had all these chaotic binders, and it was supposed to go into this catalog that was only 300 pages,” says Michael. “We figured out some kind of price, which came out to about $5 an hour, but it was really exciting to work with them.” Melody assisted with the editing process, and Michael flexed the digital design skills that he’d picked up during a stint at Macworld Magazine in California.

The Vasulkas connected Michael and Melody with a circle of Santa Fe artists. “The people we knew were in their 50s and 60s,” says Michael. At the time he and Melody were in their 30s. “We helped them make all sorts of things. We were like, ‘We can design and edit.’” In the meantime, their national reputation was growing: A catalog they made for the Guggenheim paid well enough that they were able to buy a house in Santa Fe. “We were always trying to make the books come alive to represent the person’s art,” says Melody.

Burning Books has produced just 33 books since it was established, but its founders have blazed across the art world firmament like a quirky comet. Twice Through the Maze was a chance to connect the dots into strange new constellations. The book reads like an opera synopsis blended with a surreal mystery novel—Melody crafted the former plot, and Michael the latter. Figures from their lives take on a mythological status: Manet’s “The Fifer” is a white rabbit of sorts, Woody Vasulka becomes The Minister or The Minotaur, and other friends and family take the roles of famous figures such as Aphrodite and Artemis.

“I had a closet full of 35 mm negatives and color slides which had never been printed in any form,” says Michael. “I took these pictures, but I don’t remember a lot of this stuff. I didn’t quite know what I had.” All the more reason to burn it down and start again.


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