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Cutis Ex Libra, 2019: Installation

Written, Directed and Designed by Niki Tulk

Lighting Design by Reed Otto

Sound Design by Mark Tulk

The New Media Center

University of Colorado Boulder

Boulder, Colorado

And so I arrived in the Special Collections room at Harvard. In the lobby I was instructed to leave my things in a locker, to carry in only a pencil and notebook. I obliged. Once inside, the room was very quiet. Everywhere was polished wood: tables, panelling, desks. On two walls, enormous windows framed the still-bare trees on the square—it was very early Spring, and cold. Librarians floated here and there, Plath-like, “they pass and pass, they are no trouble,” with their tweed and knee-length skirts, their voices soft like dust. George Washington bore down on me from his gilt frame, his guilt frame—his eyes told me that he knew very well his teeth were not his own. He too was a plunderer of bodies.


I lowered my voice, I stroked my pencil, the librarians brought me the book, no white gloves needed, they affirmed and handed me instead a small velvet slug with which I was to prop the pages open on a wooden frame. Surely I would need gloves. It felt wrong—I was about to handle a body and gloves were a must—weren’t they? The book was in my hand, nonchalant, ordinary, and I found a table. From here George was behind and above me, and his austere and white-wigged comrades filled the other walls. I would not be left alone.


I placed the book in the wooden stand, and lay my palm on the cover. Could I feel anything? An electric charge? The skin of the book was dry. I stroked the cover, I stroked her back. At the next table a middle-aged professor, complete with accidental tonsure and elbow pads, snored loudly. The sound forged through frequencies and scope, and as it did he slowly sagged off the table towards the floor. The library ladies twittered silently with consternation and someone was dispatched to politely wake him up. He puffed upwards for a moment, righted his laptop but was soon falling asleep again.


    Des destinées de l’ậme: the gift of Mrs John B. Stetson Jnr. 

    I read the inscription again. Mrs John B. Stetson Jnr. Such an American name, I think.

    Mrs John. The wife of John. The wife of a John. The John’s wife. 

    Was the book John’s? Or Mrs John’s? Why did Mrs John give it away? 


It was ferreted with little grooves, like sand when the wind has scuttled it. Little craters of the moon. Moonskin. The edges were rounded and smoothed. There was no knife, they say. All was folded quietly, glued without revolution. Bound without protest. All was quiet, there was no sound. I am allowed to video the book; only if there is silence.


My fingers were not totally quiet, however. The softest hush, a hiss blurred, the sound of a moon sliding above the bristle of trees. My fingertips rode in miniature jolts over the tiny surface craters. Let me use the correct word. Over the pores. Where once there was hair, once, small trees. Treelike. Hairline. The book has a spine, ridged in horizontal steps; like vertebrae. A royal blue ribbon inside. Yellow brown, urine. Human segments in formaldehyde in a medical library. Which part of the skin did he use? That’s right, the back. The thigh. I remember. On the back of the book, some darker patches. Discoloration.


My hands have touched her skin—her skin has touched my hands. Our skins, touched. Bare skin. Bared skin. There’s a difference between those two phrases. It throws the whole library into sinister relief. The men in their guilt frames stare down and the woman has been bound, and the woman binds. She holds words. Words are her new body that she has been given. A forced legacy. Her body is made up of French words. She is buried in the archives now. Embodied, violently forced into being archive, not repertoire.


There was comfort in the quiet. My hands hummed. I needed to cleanse them, not of her, but of what she had been made. Or is that a new agency that she now has? Strange midwifery this; to be thus begotten. 

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