The Art of Subtraction: Artist Rachel Colwell on the meaning of erasure

A book is a book and it can’t be anything else, right? If it’s one of those musty copies that smell like the local library, then you keep it on your bookshelf and crack it open over a cup of coffee. There’s something deeply rebellious about taking a felt-tip marker to that book and carefully obliterating words, allowing ink to seep through the page. This may feel difficult to many, but this rebelliousness is part of a unique type of art: the use of erasure to create a new story from an old one.

“Erasure is a very simple technique,” Colwell explains. “Using pens, [you] choose 5-6 words out of a page to make a sentence with.” Like her poetic inspiration, Brion Gysin, she finds that crossing out words isn’t just cathartic, it’s also a way to examine how we declare something more “true” or “real.” This is the basis of Colwell’s project, “The Art of Subtraction,” which uses cast-off books and poems to practice the technique of erasure.


To Colwell, the idea that there could be a new message to discover within someone else’s text felt like an exciting discovery, or even a prophecy. “A big part of it was reading the news and feeling like, ‘this is absurd, it can’t be real,” she reflects. “There are political ends for sure, but there’s also just art for its own sake.” As a PhD student in the music department at UC Berkeley, Colwell regularly interacts with the often political nature of music and culture.

People often seek creative ways to express themselves and make themselves understood. “The Art of Subtraction” challenges what people think of creativity-- for instance, why shouldn’t recycling be creative, political, and meaningful? “For me, having the creative constraints of a text is great for sparking creativity,” Colwell says. More than just a medium for creative inspiration, “The Art of Subtraction” also questions ownership: how much belongs to any artist, anyway? Creativity seems to extend far beyond the reaches of copyright, breathing new life into our favorite old books.

As an artist, Colwell considers these questions through her work. It’s part of what she loves about erasure as a technique for making art: it pushes people to use discarded objects in new and inventive ways.


For FIGMENT, Colwell received a large donation of "neglected or abandoned” books...the type of books that are easily forgotten and lost to time. “People of all ages enjoyed [the project],” said Colwell. By using her signature method to “subtract the parts you don’t like,” participants are encouraged to play with words in a way that’s both political and artistic, cultural and creative, playful and absurd. Trying something out-of-the-box can feel serious, strange, and almost risqué--but giving it a shot can feel like opening the window to let in the fresh air.

Not all of Colwell’s erasure projects are quite so serious. “It can be really funny, and a lot of my work is,” Colwell says. Meaningful entertainment doesn’t always have to be serious: sometimes, things that are deeply playful—like subtracting words on a page, or listening to impromptu comedy—can be powerful and moving. “The Art of Subtraction” is a project all about “empowering people to find something to be creative with, or be political with.”

Simple resources may seem limiting, but in this case, those resources can encourage people to listen: to listen to one another, to the plot in a story, to what we might otherwise take for granted. “Listening is very active, political, and powerful,” Colwell said.

For Colwell, FIGMENT’s flexibility allowed her to seize the platform and run with it. “I see FIGMENT filling important needs for public art-making,” Colwell says. “Any opportunities for that to be so accessible to the wider public are extremely important.”

As a medium for individual expression, FIGMENT seeks to inspire people to grab their passion projects—whether that be activism, cinema, face-painting, robotics, or theater—and turn them into the types of fun, active, and engaging things we remember for years after the event is over.

Bring your inspiration to FIGMENT this June! Submit a project today.

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