Anti-War Punctuation

The word comma comes from the Greek komma which means, literally, “piece which is cut off.”

My sister-in-law Kate Steinmann is not only a crack editor who knows her way around commas, she is also the director of publications at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago) and an artist who collaborated on an interesting project titled Komma. Vancouver-based artist Antonia Hirsch conceived of a film and book based on Hollywood scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo’s anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun. Trumbo’s 300 hundred page novel was written using no commas. It won a National Book Award for “the Most Original Book of 1939.”

Set in World War I, the story is told within the mind of Johnny, a soldier left legless, armless and faceless from battle. The book was made into a film in 1971 and directed by Trumble after a long period of censure when he was blacklisted for refusing to answer House Committee on Un-American Activities questions about his alleged involvement with the Communist Party. While he was blacklisted he wrote under a pseudonym, winning two Academy Awards and working on notable films such as Exodus, Spartacus and Roman Holiday.

Komma examines the omission of commas in Johnny Got His Gun and explores the meaning of their absence. Komma, the art book, is made up of 300 pages, entirely black except for small white commas, placed by Kate into the places where commas would normally appear. The book touches on issues of textual wholeness and loss–a metaphor for a human body torn by battle; the disturbing nonsense of war; and the author’s own experience of being cut off from his work by politics and censorship.

Kate’s credit for her part in the project is simple but powerful:
“Commas: Kate Steinmann”

Kate is also an editor at Fillip, a contemporary art magazine published in Vancouver
Komma is published by Fillip and is available by contacting office@fillip.ca.

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