It may be the most interesting ongoing literary project in America, Shelley
Jackson’s “Skin.” The idea has a simple elegance: to take a short story and tattoo
it, one word at a time, on the bodies of 2,000-plus volunteers. Each potential
participant — or “word,” as Jackson calls them — must submit an application with
an essay explaining his or her desire. Tattoos have to be in a classic book font,
plainly readable, and authenticated with a photograph to document the project’s
passage through the world. Yet despite its fundamental physicality, “Skin”will,
when finished, operate with the inferential power of a rumor, offering a narrative
that’s both visible and invisible all at once. That’s because Jackson has no intention
of compiling any definitive re-creation of her efforts — no gathering of images
or essays, no artifact of any kind. Even the story’s contents will remain elusive,
since Jackson insists that “Skin”is never to be published elsewhere, although
she does plan to distribute copies to her “words,” if only to cement the notion
that they have now been written together — cells in the same narrative body, as
it were. (Full disclosure: The editor of this piece, though not its assigner,
is one of Jackson’s words.)

For Jackson, the idea of writing as a kind of entity, a three-dimensional gesture,
is a driving motivation for the work. “Most centrally,” she says by phone from
her apartment in Brooklyn, “I wanted to think of the story as a living text, an
embodied text. I wanted it to be a text that eventually died, that had a lifespan
like a living organism, a text that eventually erased itself from the world.”
Jackson is not just being figurative when she says that. “As words die, the story
will change, when the last word dies, the story will also have died,” she wrote
in the original call for participants, published in the Brooklyn-based art journal
Cabinet in the summer of 2003. “To tell the truth,” she recalls, “I wasn’t
sure I’d get any responses. It was like sending a probe into the universe. I would
have been very happy with it as a piece of conceptual art.” Almost immediately,
however, Newsweek picked up the story and ran a small mention, after which
the call began to circulate across the Internet like “a viral dissemination, spreading
like a skin disease around the world,” Jackson says. In the most literal sense,
then, this is an attempt to create living literature, a vivid representation of
the word made flesh.

Mortality, of course, is an inherent part of narrative; extend any story long enough, Hemingway once noted, and it ends in death. “Skin” is a study in impermanence, in “hiddenness and disappearance,” the way ephemerality and evanescence give us meaning, against all odds. For Jackson, it began to come together after she saw Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time, a documentary about the Scottish environmental artist whose sculptures, made of rock, sand, snow and ice, come with their own collapse encoded — designed, as they are, to break down or dissolve. “It seeded my brain,” she explains, “and I began to wonder: How could writing work like this? Writers have this great obsession, to create an immortal work. But how immortal is it, really? I worked in used bookstores for 10 years, and I saw how much gets lost and disappears.” The key, she continues, was to think in terms of process, to situate the story not as an endpoint, like in traditional literature, but rather as a kind of nucleus, “secretly crisscrossed by all these networks that you can’t quite see.” That’s an emblem of our own elusive sense of place, of identity, in which we never get the total picture, but must make sense of the fragments we perceive. “I’m keenly aware,” she says, “of each word in isolation. As a writer, I can tend to excess, but here, I’ve tightened things up considerably, to make every word count.”

Such issues have marked Jackson’s work throughout her career. Her 1995
debut Patchwork Girl is an early hypertext novel that reframes Frankenstein
from a feminist perspective; not only does it play with physicality and identity,
it breaks down the notion of text as fixed, static, something that exists only
on a page. Seven years later, Jackson published The Melancholy of Anatomy,
a volume of short fiction that takes its title from Robert Burton’s 1621 treatise,
The Anatomy of Melancholy, and features 13 stories with the body at their
center, albeit the body as refracted through a funhouse mirror, decontextualized
until even its most basic functions can’t be taken for granted anymore.

“Thematically,” Jackson notes, “all my writing is obsessed with the body — partly
because I have a sense of language as a physical force. On the one hand, it abstractly
conveys ideas, but it also leaves a residue in the form of shapes on the page,
sounds in the air, the movement of your tongue and mouth.”

In many ways, “Skin” is the ultimate manifestation of that aesthetic, existing
in the middle distance between body and idea. “I wanted the story to be a hidden
germ at the center of the project,” Jackson says, “that only the people involved
would know about. I like the notion of being permanently marked by language. Writing
should change you; we go to it to be changed. It’s a kind of damage, but a damage
that makes life more interesting by breaching the intactness of who we are.”

As for where “Skin” stands, or when it will be completed, that’s an open question;
it is a work about process, after all. Jackson, however, posts detailed updates
on her Web site, Ineradicable Stain (
Her most recent “status report,” dated May 22, offers the following:

Number of participants: holding steady at approximately 1,780 of 2,095
Number of releases received from those participants: 1,313
Words mailed out: 1,310
Words released but not yet mailed: 3
Words spoken for but not released: 467
New participants needed: 315
Number of new applicants: over 5,000
Total number of e-mails I have received related to this project: 13,007
Number of unanswered e-mails in my inbox to date: 6,788

Recently, Jackson has begun working through a new round of applications and essays,
parsing out the final roster of words. But that doesn’t signal the end. “By its
nature,” she says, “?‘Skin’ is in flux. It may never exist in full. Someone might
die before every word is born.” In the meantime, her participants are interacting
with the material and changing it — just as Jackson hoped they might. “They’ve
hijacked my story,” she enthuses. “They’re forming chat groups, e-mailing to tell
me what their words mean to them.” On the one hand, this is another example of
the viral nature of the project, the way that, once set loose, all these bits
of language break apart and recombine like errant DNA. It’s not hard to imagine
clusters of “words” coming together, forming sentences — indeed, entire narratives
— that Jackson never consciously composed. Even more, it’s a metaphor for serendipity,
for the ebb and flow of life. Or, as Jackson puts it in a recent e-mail: “No real
milestone has been reached yet, but I churn along.”

LA Weekly