The project began with the red couch, although it wasn't until it was put in the swimming pool that the idea really took hold.

"A couch is a place where you sit back and dream, eat, watch TV, make love -- a place from which people project dreams and receive the dreams of others," says artist Kevin Clarke.

Not that this particular couch -- ensconced originally in a painter friend's Manhattan studio -- was anything special in itself. Clarke at first considered it no more than a "piece of suburban schlock . . . sort of a mid-'60s, Mediterranean taste in furniture. It had cheap red velvet, was rather large and sensuous -- but still unrefined in its character as an object."

The intriguing thing was the possibilities the couch represented for refinement, and its "personality as an object -- with its wheels, it floats a few inches above the ground. It has a lightness." Out of these ideas, Clarke came up with the plan of first taking the couch to an art project in an empty Long Island swimming pool and then to 250 different locations around the country.

"When you sit in a couch, you feel pretty secure -- at home, and at ease. In some of our pictures, the people are in very precarious situations, but they're still at ease. The hunter with a dead bear, the man in Atlanta outside the 70th floor of the building, the alligator farmer with his alligators -- that deliberate incongruity sparks something in people looking at the pictures.

"It was an absurd, ideal wish," says Clarke, 31. "In transporting a couch throughout the land, we were transporting people's dreams and notions about what society is."

They were also, however, transporting an 8-foot-long, 200-pound couch. During the five years it took Clarke and his partner Horst Wackerbarth to complete what came to be known as the "Red Couch Project," the couch was moved across 26 states and D.C. -- a total of 100,000 miles -- by hand, on the roof of a car, in a van, wrapped for por- tage, loaded onto a ski lift, floated on a canoe, hoisted by he- licopters and drawn by dogsled.

In between and during the photo set- ups, the couch held chimpanzees, a lion and a dead bear, had its buttons chewed -- separately -- by wild ponies and hogs, and was splattered by gulls. It was searched for bombs by the Secret Service (before allow- ing a photo of Jesse Jackson and the couch), sus- pended above Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta, perched on a canoe in the middle of an Alaskan lake, plunked in a Long Island dump (it was here that the gulls showed up), and perched on top of the Merry-go-round Pinnacle in Sedona Canyon, Ariz. The couch seated such celebrities, would-be celebrities and non-celebrities as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Larry Hagman, Ohio stripminers, an evicted Georgia family, Hell's Angels, Daughters of the American Revolution, a mermaid at Weeki Wachee, Fla., and Tina L'Hotsky, a "part-time actress, model, secretary" in New York.

Convincing people to sit for their portrait was sometimes a major effort. "Two-thirds of this photography had nothing to do with making exposures. One-third of the time I was a furniture mover, and another third I was a psychologist -- how to persuade somebody to sit on such a crazy piece in an absurd location," says Wackerbarth in the book.

"We had to prove we were serious," he added in an interview. "We were always fighting against the perception that it was a media gimmick."

Each of the 100 photographs in The Red Couch (Alfred van der Marck, $29.95; text and interviews by William Least Heat Moon) cost at least $500 in on-location costs, says Clarke, a New York sculptor who has spent the past several years working on conceptual photographic projects. Money was a continual problem. "I slept on the couch, and I slept with it," notes Wackerbarth, 34, a German photographer. "Always the project was there. Where was the next dollar to come from? In the mornings I woke up with a headache."

Clarke estimates that he and Wackerbarth spent -- beyond ongoing studios costs and jobs missed -- $180,000 on the project.

Among those costs were the cameras. Wackerbarth and Clarke each had a Sinar view camera, which produces enormous transparencies: 5 by 7 inches. Costing about $4,000 each -- with an additional $1,000 for each of the several Fujinon lenses the duo used -- the cameras require "very careful study," says Clarke. "You really have to have everything under control to make these shots. They leave as little to chance as possible."

The redness of the couch was also an essential part of the project. "I don't think the project would have happened with a blue couch," Clarke says. "I wouldn't even have started it. I was reacting to an object that was just sitting there. If it had been a different object, it wouldn't have entered into use."

There are easier, cleaner, simpler ways to produce a documentary portrait of America, but that didn't bother the photographers. Because of creative tensions, however, they had a duplicate couch made and each started traveling alone. "You get mediocre results if you only compromise," explains Wackerbarth. "One person has to do the photograph, and that's it." What was more important, however, was what the couch could do: It could unite all their disparate subjects.

"I don't think the couch is too important in itself," he says. "In time, after carrying this monster around, creatively you wanted to hide the couch. After a while it restricted me. We had to fight the couch esthetically. Otherwise, it would take over."

"The same photographs could have been made of the people -- the DAR women, the Hell's Angels, the Nazis -- just standing there," says Clarke, "and it would have seemed like everyday reality. But with the couch there, acting as a common denominator, it warns that this is an edited reality. It gives a systematic point of view to all these photos, and it vicariously unites -- but does not make equivalent -- hundreds of people."

One of the ways the couch unites its occupants is in the way they sit. Clarke points out that the stock trader and the investment banker sit in almost identical poses, and that their controlled, conscious way of sitting is different from the happy sprawl of the elevator operator.

"How you sit is a function of your cultural awareness -- your good manners. You're aware that you're sitting for a portrait that others are going to see and they're going to judge you by how you present yourself. These are people who are told to sit up straight at the table and hold their fork properly when they're growing up."

The original couch -- a bit the worse for the wear -- now is in Clarke's New York apartment, although this week it was flown out to Los Angeles for a publication party last night at Hugh Hefner's mansion. (There is a photo of Hefner in the book, surrounded by Bunnies.)

"I relate to the couch very much as I do to sculpture," Clarke says. "It's an inert material one has acted one's will on, and the object is transformed through that act of will. The couch itself is now a work of art."

Wackerbarth is less attached to his. "As time goes by, it is becoming a piece of furniture again. There's no relationship anymore. When we were on the road, we were closer."

And what now, as an encore?

"There are other equally outrageous projects I want to do," says Clarke. "I don't expect big rewards. The money doesn't matter. It's a way of life."

Wackerbarth is not quite as enthusiastic. "It was a big challenge, but it was a piece you do one time . . . I would never move another piece of furniture around.