Interview with Tyler Starr — Part 1 of 2

Tyler Starr received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. In 1998, Starr was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Academy of Fine Arts, Krakow, Poland. In 2011, he graduated with a PhD in Studio Arts from the Tokyo University of Fine Arts where he was a recipient of the Japanese Ministry of Education Scholarship. Starr was a 2011 Grant Wood Fellow at the University of Iowa, a 2013 Christiania Researcher in Residence, a 2014 OMI International Arts Center Resident and a 2018 Fellowship Artist at the Kala Art Institute. His work has been featured in exhibitions at Yale University’s Haas Arts Library, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Liège, Belgium, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Japan. He is currently an Associate Professor of Studio Art at Davidson College.

Tyler Starr at a printing press in the Davidson College print shop.
Tyler Starr in the Davidson College print shop. Image courtesy of the artist.

I was eager to talk to Tyler Starr because he is a consummate educator — he doesn’t mystify his practice, even as he makes poetic leaps and experiments with surprising studio processes. Starr thinks deeply about how and why he makes what he makes, and yet the work isn’t about itself; he investigates history and human nature through rigorous archival research, broad reading and introspection.

The following interview took place via email beginning September 19, 2021.

Levi Sherman: Like many of the artists I’ve spoken to, artists’ books are not your only studio practice. Can we start by discussing the relationship between your books and your other works? What makes something an ideal book project?

Tyler Starr: Much of my studio work results in one of a kind works on paper made from a painting/drawing perspective but incorporating techniques extracted from my studies of printmaking. My academic research included a focused study of intaglio with the help of a Fulbright scholarship at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland, and I eventually received a PhD in studio art from the Tokyo University of the Arts where I researched contemporary applications of the Japanese woodblock printing process. The physical and optical effects of ink on paper, and the marks that come about via collaboration with the various printmaking techniques have always intrigued me. I incorporate pouncing (using an old sign-painter tool called the electro-pounce), chine-collé, and solvent transfer techniques along with standard drawing and painting techniques. One series of paintings on paper is a survey of Lover’s Leaps I visited. These works were influenced by engravings in the 2 volumes of Picturesque America (https://archive.org/details/picturesqueameri03brya/page/n9/mode/2up). Of course, print media is especially exciting for the ways it has historically worked to disseminate information to a wide audience, and I try to tap into this legacy with my editioned books and pamphlets.

Tyler Starr’s studio: works in progress on the walls, tables and floor.
Tyler Starr’s studio in North Carolina. Image courtesy of the artist.

My individual works on paper tend to be poetically ambiguous with free associations. The subjects are inspired by consideration of how my daily experiences might relate to more macro contexts like economics, geography, history, and societal constructs of race. To try to get a better grasp of these complex subjects I find excuses to spend lots of time reading or visiting archives to explore printed ephemera of a subject. I end up accumulating a constellation of material on a specific topic, such as the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, that I then edit and distill along the lines of information visualization. The book format offers a way to organize images and text to create accessible entry points into a narrative constructed from the research. My first artist’s books were three issues of a zine I made in the 1990s entitled A Buck in the Field that collected stories and dialogues from various factory temp jobs I worked. I bound those with a sewing machine. Lately I use a panoramic-like way of visualizing tragic incidents to acknowledge overlooked aspects of our history that are precedents for current events. 

LS: These poetic associations would seem to require a different mindset than the laborious archival research. How do you cultivate and balance both approaches? 

TS: Literature is always a helpful reference for me. I started to work with these two mindsets while living in Japan, which ended up being for about 7 years as the fortunate recipient of a Japanese Ministry of Education Fellowship. On one hand I was simply fascinated by daily strolls around the old downtown district in Tokyo where I lived with my wife between Ueno and Asakusa with sights of shrines, red light districts, street festivals, and great hole in the wall restaurants, while on the other hand there were traces of complex events around us, from the fire-bombing of Tokyo in WWII with the many casualties that occurred in the nearby Sumida River, current public protests of the U.S. military bases in Japan, and new construction of the Tokyo Skytree that we saw swaying during the aftershocks from the Tohoko Earthquake. 

I needed to read deeper about Japan to better contextualize things and encountered discussions of how narratives about history are constructed. Writers inevitably have agendas and make creative decisions about how events are presented. Within the classic books on Japan there is The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict which is written in a very accessible form that originates from her research initiated during WWII by the US Commission of War Information to create a guide for occupation forces on how to govern the Japanese after military defeat. Then there is The Mirror in the Shrine by the historian Robert A. Rosenstone in which he self-consciously inserts himself into the narrative wondering how he has personally been changed by his writing about the impact of Japan on Americans who lived there in the Meiji era. These are engrossing nonfiction works that evidence the artifice of animating scraps of information into a story. Purely poetic expressions can use artifice more blatantly in reaction to research and similarly offer insights into complex subjects, so I see both mindsets as comparable tools for gaining more thorough understanding of the world around us. 

From the art perspective, Kenzaburo Oe has been an important example for me as an author. His work includes self-reflective books based on reportage such as Hiroshima Notes using interviews he had with survivors of the bomb, as well as haunting fiction like Prize Stock that is a fantastical response to WWII. Both of his approaches helpfully acknowledge the continuous impact of traumatic histories on today’s events.

LS: How has witnessing the impact of U.S. violence abroad shaped the way you see it operating at home, historically and in the present?

TS: There are many victims, activists, and scholars that can teach us about violence caused by U.S. international and domestic policies. Positionality is one of the important lessons I gained from my time in Japan helping me to more clearly understand the limits of my perspective and my inherent blind spots. My awareness of controversies surrounding the U.S. military bases in Japan were heightened when I stumbled across a student protest in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. In this case student organizations (that clearly included alumni based on some of the elderly participants) employed hard hats and long formations of interlocked arms that snaked through the park. This technique of protest was used in opposition to the US-Japan Security Treaty from 1959-1960 and the choreography was refined during the anti-base protests and anti-Vietnam war protests of the late 1960s. The Research Center for Cooperative Civil Societies at Rikkyo University, Tokyo was an insightful archive I visited that has a collection of scrap books created by student activists in the 1960s.

"Attempted Fix: Dams, Bases and the Resulting Wobbles" open to an inside spread with collaged news images.
Tyler Starr, Attempted Fix: Dams, Bases and the Resulting Wobbles, 2010. Image courtesy of the artist.

As I started to read more about the anti-U.S. base movement in Japan, I learned about some of the large protests sparked by the Girard Case in 1957 in which a white U.S. soldier stationed in Japan shot in the back and killed Naka Sakai, a 46-year-old Japanese mother of 6 who was one of many local villagers gathering spent brass bullet casings on a military training field. Facets of the case show the complexities of post-WWII relationships between the U.S. and Japan, but at the core it reveals the violence that results from racist othering and dehumanization.

Two scholars that dig into these specific subjects are Chalmers Johnson and John Dower (with Dower being of particular interest because of his interest in using visual studies to punctuate his analyses). They show how othering and dehumanization are key for justifying military violence (for example resulting in the willingness to utilize two atomic bombs on Japanese civilian centers). This dehumanization of the Japanese by Americans continues to result in violence especially towards Japanese women around U.S. bases. 

Shortly after I moved to North Carolina to teach at Davidson College, I had the opportunity to participate in an ART in Odd Places exhibit in Greensboro. In preparation I began to learn about the city and came across the first use of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the U.S. set up in response to the Greensboro Massacre. In this 1979 incident, 5 members associated with the Communist Workers Party were killed during an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally they had organized. The killers were members of Neo-Nazi and KKK organizations, and despite much of the tragedy being captured on film, no one was convicted. Local government authorities wanted to simply forget about it rather than address the conflicts revealed by the murders and an open wound remained in the community.

Accordion book, "Auto Record: Green Kill" open to show a vintage car on each panel.
Tyler Starr, Auto Record: Green Kill, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

The commission was organized in 2004 and in their final report, their number one recommendation for moving forward with healing was to clearly acknowledge the incident. I made a pamphlet that was distributed during the exhibit visualizing the two opposing motorcades involved in the incident based on the details in FBI documents. Through this project I began to learn more about violent white supremacist organizations in the U.S. and the Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, is an important resource (https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map). In this research, I encountered writings by white supremacists displaying their brutal dehumanization of people of color, Jewish people, and anyone who allies with them. 

This dehumanization aligns with white supremacist fantasies of the world descending into horrific violence that they use to justify their homicidal urges. We see this again and again in current white supremacist terrorist actions. This thread of racist othering and dehumanization is exemplified throughout domestic and international American policies.

LS: Books seem to share a mission with Art in Odd Places, extending art into the public sphere in sometimes unexpected ways. Brad Freeman calls his books “traveling exhibitions,” and your use of accordion structures especially seems calibrated to maximize the book’s potential for display without losing portability or intimacy. Is that why artists’ books appeal to you?

TS: I am fascinated by the panoramic effect of accordion books. They can be very immersive even when pocket sized. But rather than thinking of books as a portable exhibit, I admire Monique Wittig’s idea of a book being like a trojan horse. Fragments assembled together into a machine (of sorts) that heads off into the world to function in surprising ways. When I’m making a book, it is an assembling of information into hopefully engaging choreography. This collage-like approach to making art is beautifully expressed by William Carlos Williams:

A poem is tough by no quality it borrows from a logical recital of events nor from the events themselves but solely from that attenuated power which draws perhaps many broken things into a dance giving them thus a full being.

W. C. Williams, Kora in Hell

LS: Assembling fragments could also describe historical research. Is that aspect part of your interest in past events?

TS: My interest in past events is based on trying to better understand current events. When reading about the legacy of white supremacist organizations in the Southeast, I came across primary documents such as FBI case files. The evidence described in them was often poignant, but one must peruse hundreds of pages of roughly scanned pdf documents to find it. I extracted textual descriptions of evidence that reveal critical aspects of a case, and then I found photographs that offer accurate visualizations. For example, in my new book Bank Tellers of America versus The Aryan Republican Army (1992–1996), I scoured online auto classifieds in search for a matching brown 1980 4-door Chevy Citation the Aryan Republican Army purchased with cash for use in a bank robbery and left behind with a hand booby trapped hand grenade in the glove box. I find that visualization of information can offer engaging entry points into some of these now overlooked incidents that have direct correlation to events happening today. This imagery also helps me understand things, partly because I don’t have a great memory. The book format organizes these snippets of info and associated images eventually creating a narrative.  Additional meaning is generated through the proximity of images to each other.  Even the space between and around the assembled elements has a suggestive presence.  

"Bank Tellers of America versus The Aryan Republican Army (1992-1996)" open to an inside spread. A surveillance image of a bank on the recto and on the verso, the robbers' weapons, masks and car.
Tyler Starr, Bank Tellers of America versus The Aryan Republican Army (1992-1996), 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

LS: This idea of an engaging entry point seems especially important if you want readers to confront a history that has been hidden for a reason. At the same time, there is the risk of fetishizing or reinscribing violence. How do you find that balance? 

TS: Acknowledging traumatic aspects of our history is definitely fraught with potential problems, and my positionality is part of the complexity. With the works about white supremacist violence I use a hybrid text and image approach akin to brochures found at national historic sites with digestible nuggets of information. The hope is that providing overlooked information distilled from primary documents will offer an audience different opportunities to initiate their own investigations. 

I take a measured approach with respect and care towards victims, and I do fear causing additional harm to them. I use various approaches such as decentering the perpetrators to focus on victims, or looking slightly askew at the subject with a focus on objects like a sociological study rather than using the spectacle of violent figurative imagery. A useful aspect of the book format is that it tends to be non-confrontational and allows viewers to engage with it on their own terms. The visuals I provide try to move beyond headlines and provide insight into the tools (such as cars, weapons, and masks) used to project racist violence.  

A source of inspiration has been the Louisiana State University Cold Case Project that is part of their journalism program looking into unsolved civil rights era murders. They had a comprehensive website with links to primary documents from the various cases that they gathered through Freedom of Information requests (https://web.archive.org/web/20160331222458/http://lsucoldcaseproject.com/about/). We are of course now well aware that while the voice of journalists and historians are conventionally presented as neutral, they are actually imbued with agendas and biases.

Once my work leaves the studio I am sensitive to responses and modify my approach in efforts to increase positive impact and avoid contributing to the racist violence the work is meant to oppose. But my shortcomings are sometimes evidenced in my works, and I humbly learn from less successful attempts. For example, ambiguity is something I wrestle with. How much comprehensive context needs to be provided within the book itself, and how much nuance can be provided via the venue in which the book is shown? I am someone that will occasionally skip an introduction in order to get to the core of a book, but a detailed introduction can help frame a subject in ways to dispel misunderstandings. The intro to my most recent artist’s book is longer than my previous ones.

LS: This is a great transition to the question of reception — and readers. Can you talk about the different audiences you reach by creating both democratic multiples and lavish limited editions? And perhaps the role of institutions for each?

TS: The legacy of printed matter as a means of disseminating information is still powerful in the digital era. For example, printing presses and their ink-on-paper products are still being destroyed and confiscated around the world to limit communication of ideas. Recent examples include presses in Kashmir, Palestine, Belorussia, and Hong Kong. I often think about how the etching presses we used at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts had been wrapped in oily rags and buried in the ground to prevent the Nazi’s from taking them during occupation. 

With the outsourcing of printing, the cost and time of fabrication go way down, and the quantity increases. There is then financially less at stake with the individual publications, and they can be freely distributed or offered for pocket change to help cover shipping costs to anyone even slightly interested. I have placed stacks of publications in the free newspaper bins in cities to offer happenstance discoveries. Then the publications can find their way into the flow of daily life, and there is potential for them to arrive at surprising locations and hopefully germinate in productive ways. But I also appreciate the tactile nature of the materials being used — pigment, paper fibers, and binding agents. Physical properties of a book convey additional meaning. The tactile nature of washi papers can encourage different associations than a thick rag paper or red linen. When I do the printing, I take advantage of textures and ink properties, but then the variety of materials and additional time needed for fabrication results in more expensive books. I also work with my friend, the master bookmaker Britt Stadig (http://brittstadigstudio.com/), to create innovative book structures that a commercial printer would not handle. These fine art books function well with the help of librarians and curators in institutional special collections that offer space to engage with books in relation to other books. In this environment there are opportunities for cross-fertilization between publications and the ability to engage with the subtleties of a book’s construction.

Britt Stadig works on "Identification of Cars Participating in Klan Rally at Montgomery, Alabama, March 21, 1965" in the Davidson College print shop. The unfolded book runs the length of the room.
Britt Stadig in the Davidson College print shop at work on the edition of Identification of Cars Participating in Klan Rally at Montgomery, Alabama, March 21, 1965. Image courtesy of Tyler Starr.

In my classes, I refer to volume 56 from Kanen Iwasaki’s encyclopedic study of botany (Honzō Zufu, 1921) that I acquired for Davidson College’s special collections. Close inspection of the pages allows light to play off the forms created from embossment or white pigment made from shells, and negative spaces are activated with thin layers of woodblock printed mica. The modest subject of mushrooms becomes monumental and dramatic. Digital reproductions of these pages are drastic simplifications (http://umdb.um.u-tokyo.ac.jp/DShokubu/Honzo/honzo06.htm), and a precursory look at a book like this while waiting at a bus stop would likely result in missing much of its significance.

The Artist’s Novel

The Artist’s Novel
David Maroto
Mousse Publishing
2019

Part I: A New Medium
8 × 6 in. closed
284 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Offset

Part II: The Fantasy of the Novel
8 × 6 in. closed
292 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Offset

"A New Medium" and "The Fantasy of the Novel" side by side.

Spanish artist/theorist David Maroto’s two-volume work of fictocriticism, The Artist’s Novel, is not an artist’s book in the traditional sense (if we can say there is any traditional sense of an artist’s book), but an examination and an example of a new medium he proposes: the artist’s novel.

His conception of the artist’s novel differs both from the artist’s book and the literary novel. Unlike most artist’s books we discuss here, the artist’s novel does not contain art or function as an artwork itself, and unlike most novels it does not serve primarily as a discrete piece of literature but rather as a facet of a larger project.

While it is easy to describe what an artist’s novel is not — Maroto gets that out of the way in the first few pages of Volume 1, A New Medium — it’s a bit more challenging to pin down what an artist’s novel is. Through four case studies, references to criticism and other works, and a generous selection of interviews with artists, Maroto invites readers to explore the new medium with him as he searches for the answer. He also includes a bibliography of all the artist’s novels he has discovered through his research, inviting further reading. He keeps the bibliography updated on his website and considers it an important part of his critical approach.

Volume 1 pp. 110-111: Aluminum Cities on A Lead Planet / Bake and Sale Theory

Benjamin Seror’s Mime Radio, Maroto’s first contemporary example, was written from a series of transcripts of Seror’s episodic interactive performance series (also entitled Mime Radio). While Seror had a rough idea of each performance’s plot in advance, his storytelling varied based on audience interaction with his content. The novel, put together after the performance series was completed, could be read and understood as an autonomous work, but it only exists because of the larger project. Its narrative style includes the repetitions and little hiccups of live performance, refusing to excise the flaws of improvisation to better represent the performance experience.

Another example, Mai-Thu Perret’s The Crystal Frontier, serves as a counterpoint to Mime Radio in some ways. Not extant as a complete published work, The Crystal Frontier exists instead as an extensive series of narrative fragments that have inspired Perret’s output and stood alongside it at exhibitions, replacing traditional curatorial text.

Maroto’s other examples exist on a spectrum between these two extremes, one a novel almost like any you might find in your local bookshop and the other not a novel as most would conceive it but still steeped in narrative/literary techniques and conventions. All the projects are fascinating and tell us something new about the form, but they vary in terms of success as novels. Maroto’s honest appraisal of the failure of certain projects to live up to their original vision and the difficulty of adapting a literary form to a non-literary context is refreshing and engaging.

Volume 1 pp. 46-47: Mime Radio cover & first page of corresponding chapter

By A New Medium’s final chapter, Maroto hasn’t settled on a single definition of the artist’s novel, positing the medium is still too new and varied to strictly define. He does, however, have a pretty good idea of what the artist’s novel does.

The artist’s novel as Maroto understands it is a collaborative and decelerated way of both making and experiencing art. This deceleration and collaboration go hand in hand, especially for the spectator: Maroto references critic Wolfgang Iser’s concept of the “wandering viewpoint,” the idea that the text cannot be experienced all at once, causing the reader/spectator’s point of view and understanding of the work to shift throughout the experience of reading a novel or navigating a narrative exhibition. This necessitates collaboration between artist and audience, since the spectator constantly interprets and reinterprets the work, which radically slows the process of engaging with art. Maroto further posits, and many of the artists he interviews and studies agree, that this is a conscious reaction against the acceleration of the art experience in many galleries, in which patrons are encouraged (and in some cases required) to move along quickly and make room for the next guest.

Maroto defines the artist’s novel not only by what it does, but what it fails to do. Drawing on Barthes’ concept of “the fantasy of the novel” and interviews with artists, Maroto finds the artist’s novel often arises from a fantasy of accessibility, of appreciation outside the art world. Many examples in A New Medium are indeed accessible in that they invite collaboration and empathy rather than relying on shock or inscrutability (something Benjamin Seror mentions throughout his interview and the chapter on Mime Radio), but are not widely accessible in the way of the bestsellers and literary sensations they so often overtly imitate. The artist’s novel is still almost exclusively consumed by art world insiders.

Volume 2 pp. 36-37: notebook diagram

This paradox and the gulf between the fantasy of the artist’s novel and its reality are the major focus of the second volume, The Fantasy of the Novel. While A New Medium is a relatively straightforward piece of criticism, here Maroto writes a novel — one in which he is the narrator and a significant driver of the plot. In many ways, The Fantasy of the Novel functions like any other novel. It draws on tropes from murder mysteries, its autofictional tendencies remind us of Ben Lerner or Ruth Ozeki or any number of other writers, and it consciously alludes to literary figures from Roberto Bolaño and Tom McCarthy to Rimbaud, Proust, and Omar Khayyám.

Volume 2 pp. 200-201: a conventional-looking novel

However, it is a work of criticism, if a sly one. The second volume does more than provide an example of an artist’s novel (really, two examples: the plot of The Fantasy of the Novel revolves around the writing of artist’s novel Tamum Shud, which Maroto commissioned with his partner and fellow critic Joanna Zielinska — in both The Fantasy of the Novel and real life). The feelings of confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety plaguing Maroto-the-character allow Maroto-the-artist to more deeply explore his conception of the failure of the artist’s novel to live up to the fantasy.

The two volumes, then, are distinct in more than form. While A New Medium discusses the idea of failure, it is primarily a generative work. It concerns itself with the possibilities of the artist’s novel and invites further criticism and new artist’s novel projects. The Fantasy of the Novel is, at least in its plot, a counterpoint: the failure of the fantasy, the breakdown between the artist’s idea and the actual project. This failure is not a bad thing, though; as Maroto tells us, “A failure can be an illuminating event that helps us visualize the limits of art practice within the institutionalized reality of the art world.” The artist’s novel’s paradoxical nature — belonging neither to art or literature — provides a unique position from which to engage its audience.

Together, the two volumes make an intriguing work for anyone interested in artist’s books, both as an introduction to a relatively new and uncommon medium — one that’s certainly related to the larger book art sphere, if not wholly a part of it — and as encouragement to think critically and seriously about the form and function of the works we consume and create. While the questions Maroto poses and the answers he works toward relate to artist’s novels in their particularities, their generalities apply to all art printed, folded, and bound into the form of a book.

The Circus

The Circus
Tara Homasi
Pinsapo Press / Publication Studio
2019

9 × 12.25 × 0.7 in.
190 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Digital printing

Front cover of The Circus; a line drawing of an archer below the title text

Tara Homasi coaxed The Circus out of an existing book, The Circle of Life: Rituals from the Human Family Album. If Tom Phillips’ seminal redacted book, A Humument, is impressive because the original book is mediocre, obscure and visually bland, The Circus takes on the opposite challenge. The Circle of Life is a large-format, color photobook of rituals from around the world. The text that accompanies these emotionally charged images is peppered with quotes from the likes of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, the introduction is by Gabriel García Márquez and the afterword is by Peter Matthiessen. Homasi’s challenge is not making something of nothing, but rather making something new and deeply personal from this wellspring of universal themes.

The Circus, inside spread; text and image of a circumcision on verso, text and image of baptism on recto

She takes on this enormous task (scratching her work into existence with hundreds of blades) during a period of isolation and malaise. In the book’s introduction, she describes witnessing the world without being able to act in it as “the aquarium,” and turns to redaction as a way of removing layers of mediation and reconnecting outside the glass. The book chronicles this process with handwritten date stamps and occasional commentary that mix the artist’s real life into the narrative she creates. By documenting its own creation, The Circus draws a parallel not only between Homasi’s practice and the reader’s experience but also many of the rituals in the original book.

The Circus, inside spread; finger paint obscures the full-bleed spread

By retaining a close relationship with the original book, The Circus is able to examine its own book-ness. Homasi is especially playful with the book’s peritextual elements. She manipulates the original page numbers while preserving their actual order, declares in the front matter that “no part of this book may be used whatsoever,” and awards herself “the National Boo.” She also cleverly brings peritext into the main text. For example, she can use the repeated word “photograph” to address themes of mediation and memory, since it appears in image credits on almost every page of the original book. Even her mode of redaction, a combination of scraping ink off the page and adding her own media to the surface, demonstrates an interest in the material book. The three-dimensionality of each page is as important as their combined sequence.

Of course, working by redaction results in one major difference between The Circus and its source text: The Circus has less text. This shifts the balance between text and image and results in a number of possible reading experiences. As a continuous narrative, the text carries the reader from page to page quite quickly. The images flash into the reader’s subconscious like the dreams and memories they pair with. Focus on the images though, and the text fragments into cryptic captions. The book merits both approaches; each of its complex images would hold their own on a gallery wall, and the text is varied but cohesive.

The Circus, inside spread; partly-redacted quote from C.G. Jung with image

Their individual strengths aside, Homasi seems most interested in using the book form to orchestrate the interplay of text and image. She disrupts edges and margins from the original book, sometimes fusing photographs across the gutter or covering an entire spread with full-bleed imagery. Elsewhere, she relies on the minimalist impact of redaction: a stark white page where only “the removal of the clitoris” remains. Homasi also plays with spoken versus written language. She extends a “woohoo” across two pages of the letter O, with a result decidedly more haunted than celebratory. Later, she encourages the reader to “read this out loud in front of two adults” and promises “things will happen.”

The Circus, inside spread; altered image on verso and recto plus redacted text and handwritten note on verso

Deconstructing visual and verbal communication is key to overcoming the existential isolation that motivated the book. Homasi writes: “Language is my second language, imagery is my first. When I combine the two, I connect to the world.” If Homasi’s problem is disconnection, language is both cause and cure. The Circus grapples with whether we can overcome cultural and individual difference and whether what we have in common is something to be celebrated or feared. This plays out on personal and political terrain. Homasi alludes to her own divorce throughout the text and refers to specific family members. Yet the date stamps on every page remind the reader that the then-US-based, Iranian artist’s time in “the aquarium” coincides with Trump’s presidency and Middle East travel bans.

Reading today, it is hard to believe The Circus wasn’t created in response to Covid-19, but Homasi isn’t prophetic so much as strategic. The Circus retains enough of the universality celebrated in The Circle of Life to assure a connection with readers (Jung and Campbell weren’t wrong about everything, after all). Perhaps most telling are the parallels between Homasi’s own practice and the rituals she redacts. From photographs of people around the world painting bodies, shaving hair, cutting skin, and telling stories, Homasi paints and scrapes and cuts her own new narrative. Homasi shows how individuals cope, through redacting and amending, with the scripted lives they inherit.

Public Collectors Police Scanner

Public Collectors Police Scanner
Marc Fischer
Public Collectors
2021

8.5 × 11 in. closed
90 pages
Side stitch and fabric tape binding
Risograph and digital printing

Front cover of "Public Collectors Police Scanner" featuring blue title text on a black background. A reproduction of an inside page is printed in gray behind the title.

Proponents of the “thin blue line” assert that the police are the only thing preventing society from descending into violent chaos. A coyote in an alley, a bank robbery, missing children, and reckless driving: chaos abounds in Public Collectors Police Scanner. Chicago artist Marc Fischer comes to a different conclusion, however, about root causes and possible solutions. Fischer’s initiative, Public Collectors, is dedicated to making important but obscure(d) cultural artifacts public. To that end, Fischer listened to and transcribed the police scanner in Chicago for seventy-five days straight and compiled his hand-written notes into this often-overwhelming book.

The bulk of Police Scanner is scanned and Risograph printed directly from Fischer’s original, letter-sized notes. The format served as a creative constraint for each listening session: one page per day for an average of about forty-five minutes. Fischer details his methodology in the book’s introduction, including ethical decisions around excluding race, last names, VIN numbers and other identifying information. The end sheets, photographs of Fischer’s desk, document the chaos of the process itself. The side-stapled, taped binding further lends an air of low-fi urgency. Fischer’s handwriting powerfully attests to the challenge, speeding up and struggling to organize fragments of narrative as they are relayed among callers, dispatchers, and officers.

Police Scanner Inside spread. The verso is an endsheet with a photo of Fischer's desk during the project. The recto is plain text, the first page of the book's introduction.

Events unfold relentlessly with no regard for conventional storytelling, nearly numbing the reader with uniform intensity, whether funny or tragic. Nevertheless, certain moments do break through the noise. Some are chilling: “Female keeps whispering the address and hanging up.” Others are absurd. A personal favorite of mine: “When you finish with lunch can you head over to the Department of Finance on Pulaski? They’ve got a dispute with an employee over money.” Fischer himself mines the potential for poignant humor in a related publication, Chest Wound to the Chest, which arranges excerpts from Police Scanner into a single long poem. (As a separate pamphlet, this poetic intervention allows Fischer to explore the fascinating rhetorical aspects of the project without departing from his documentary approach in Police Scanner.)

Since the book’s content reflects the vagaries of reality, the only narrative development is the book’s own layout, which conveys Fischer’s growing facility at following and organizing events as they occur. Police Scanner straddles documentation and performance, a choreography of disconnected chance operations that accumulate to reveal structural societal problems. Fischer tries columns, rows, even numbering events as they unfold wherever there is room on the page. On September 15, text funneled into a narrow column chronicles a suicidal man on a ledge. The empty white margins perhaps also indicate the emotional toll those seventeen minutes took on Fischer. On November 2, he writes: “I refuse to listen to the police scanner on my birthday.”

Police Scanner Inside spread. The verso has a narrow column of text in the center of the page, describing a suicidal-then-agitated man. The recto is a busy page with boxes, lines and bubbles separating text.

Birthdays aside, Fischer reflects in his introduction that the situation on the streets changes very little from day to day, even with major events like the 2020 election. Ongoing catastrophes, however, like the opioid crisis and Covid-19 pandemic loom in the background of many pages. Teachers witness child abuse during online classes or call for wellness checks on missing students. Fischer reminds the reader that then-mayor Rahm Emanuel closed half of Chicago’s mental health clinics in 2012, the impact of which cannot be overstated.

Police Scanner Inside spread. The verso uses arrows and lines to divide and connect blocks of text. The recto stacks bubbles and boxes of more contained text.

From the relentless repetition, the reader gets the impression that these systemic problems actually reflect the system working as intended. On November 6, police are sent to Home Depot to “see Brian about the day laborers and ask them to move off the property.” The same day, police are told to disregard a call because “it’s just the usual alley drinkers.” Systems like health care and labor markets are ultimately managed by the police. Since calls often come from businesses, this whole process plays out on a strange verbal map of brand names and private property. The resulting juxtapositions are often striking: “Bucket boys in front of Tiffany’s on Michigan.” One realizes just how little public space there is, usually an alley or a street. The gulf between the city’s aspirational street names and the events that play out on them is equally wide: domestic violence on King, a robbery at Jefferson and Madison.

Police Scanner Inside spread. The verso and recto are both full but orderly arrangements of text divided into a loose grid.

Policing itself is, of course, one of the pervasive systems behind each individual event. Its rhetoric reveals its values and assumptions, and ultimately the inadequacy of policing to solve the problems it confronts. “Resources” refer to attack dogs, not to social programs. Victims are characterized as insensitively as perpetrators. Racialized and gendered descriptions are so habitual that a dispatcher alerts police to a “female pit bull” as if that would help identify the dog or explain its behavior. Amid the jargon and acronyms, a dispatcher might throw in a “bon appetit” or “okey dokey artichokee,” reminding the reader of the human subjectivity – for better or worse – behind each voice on the scanner.

In these unguarded moments lies the value of a project like Public Collectors Police Scanner. Fischer bears witness to the system of policing that is ostensibly for, and funded by, ordinary citizens like himself. Everyone shares this responsibility. Fischer is also quick to say that the police scanner doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, not every crisis leads (or should lead) to a 911 call, as police reformers and abolitionists are quick to point out. But it does paint a more complete picture of policing than most citizens receive from news and entertainment media. Fischer encourages his readers to listen to their local police scanner for themselves, and the insights gleaned from Police Scanner demonstrate the value of doing so.

Witness 001

Witness 001
Parker Bolin, Armando Diaz, Zachary Estes, Mmuso Matsapola
Witness Studios
2021

8.5 × 5.5 in. closed
40 pages
Perfect binding
Offset printing

Front cover of Witness 001

The inaugural issue of artists’ publication Witness invites readers to do just that: to not only look at Louisville’s racial justice movement in the summer of 2020, but to experience it more intimately. The photographs, from multiple artists and in a variety of styles, are presented in black and white with minimal commentary, the design around them unobtrusive; the aesthetic is most concerned with allowing the photos to speak for themselves.

Many readers will find the content familiar from newspapers and their own neighborhoods: most of the pieces depict racial justice protests, specifically Louisiville activists’ response to the murder of Breonna Taylor. In Witness, however, the composition and context of these pictures are quite different.

The perspectives tend to be more communal and personal than photographs of similar subject matter in news media: shots are taken from within the crowd of activists rather than an external point of view, or focus on individuals and moments of surprising quiet rather than the broad sweep of a protest or solely its most dramatic events.

Witness 001 inside spread 35-36 with photo by Joshua Jean-Marie

Witness shines in its presentation of the ordinary. The events depicted have national and international repercussions and reflect the response not only to one murder in one city but to the entire history of the United States, yet the focus of the photographs is often refreshingly small: the design on the back of a hoodie, a young person carrying a box of candy bars, the windblown hair of someone whose face is mostly obscured by a mask.

It is not only the contributors’ photographs that separate Witness from much coverage of racial justice protests, but also the aesthetic and informational context in which they are presented. Unlike the editorializing or reportage paired with such photographs in the news or on social media, the text here is simple and unobtrusive: only an attribution for each piece, giving the artist’s name and city. Instead of the crowded layout of newspapers and websites, desperate to capture viewers’ attention, the space around the photographs is left empty in Witness.

Conventional journalism remains important, but there is something to be said for allowing the photographs, and by extension their subjects and creators, to speak for themselves. In images focused on individuals, we see more nuance and detail in facial expression and body language than we’re used to, hinting at each subject’s inner life and their specific, personal reasons for being involved. The same is true of photographs of activists’ signs: while the slogans are familiar, extreme close-ups of handmade signs show the unique penmanship and tiny flaws that make each sign stand out as an individual artwork and tool, reflective of its creator-user.

Witness 001 Inside spread 7-8: Mmuso Matsapola’s poem verso, Zachary Estes photo recto

Beyond the simple captions, Witness sometimes presents poetry. Mmuso Matsapola, one of the publication’s curators, contributes a simultaneously snappy and brutal poem next to a stark portrait of an activist with a raised fist; the publication opens with the second stanza of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Knights of the White Camellia and Deacons of Defense” (itself a reference to a little-talked-about fascinating and inspiring bit of racial justice history).

These poems, though distinct in style and the specific events they depict and draw upon, work together toward the same goal as Witness’ unobtrusive design philosophy: not to provide situational context, but to contextualize and resonate with the emotional impact and deeper meanings of these photographs. They also speak to the journal’s mission and the idea of witness in general: an emphasis on personal, lived experience, serving as a counterpoint to the minimization or total erasure of the self in traditional journalism and academic writing. Rather than the typical outside-looking-in approach, the use of poetry in Witness provides readers a more internal, immediate perspective.

In attempting to convey the entire experience of a movement and a community, the curation oscillates between a variety of emotions and freely allows them to bleed into each other. Many of the pictures have the angry tenor one would expect from a protest: the frenetic energy of a powerful slogan handwritten across a cardboard sign, or a clenched fist raised high, or a leader chanting or singing or shouting, the casual brutality of a cop holding down a protestor while other officers stand by. Some are joyful and exuberant, while others center grief.

Witness 001, inside spread 15-16: with photo by Andrew Cenci

A series of three images toward the middle of the collection makes plain the pain, the tragedy of events leading up to and during the protests: the first a wide shot of Breonna Taylor’s memorial in Jefferson Square Park; the second a detail of a memorial for Tyler Gerth, a photographer killed during the protests; and the third an extreme detail of a balloon or sign emblazoned with the words “you are loved / you are missed / you are remembered.”

The sequence of these pictures feels deliberate: the first two to honor and remember specific people, and the third to acknowledge that this violence and the movement against it are ongoing, and that there are countless others named and unnamed who have died or suffered just as senselessly. Like the poems and many of the other photographs, this image ties Witness specifically to Louisville and simultaneously to the wider world.

Witness 001, inside spread 19-20: Portrait and poem, Brianna’s Black Love Blooms

From this complex, contradictory blend of emotions, a new feeling arose by the end of my encounter with Witness. To call it “positive” or “hopeful” feels insufficient — there is pain in this emotional state, and it certainly isn’t quietly or blandly inspirational. The feeling is perhaps best encapsulated by a series of several pages immediately after the three memorial pictures: contributor Amber Thieneman’s Dedication to Brianna Harlan’s “Black Loves Blooms,” inspired by the ongoing project of the same name.

The act of dedicating several pages to work inspired by and made for another artist in such a short and carefully curated publication emphasizes the interconnectedness of the artistic community and the parallel interconnectedness of the events in Louisville with events in the wider world. That dual connection, coupled with the message of unconditional love for Black people so central to Brianna Harlan’s project, is central to the experience of Witness. While the publication is so focused on Louisville’s deep racism, it is also a love letter to that city — not to its police or its history, but to the network of artists and activists there. In its intense focus on one place and one short span of time, Witness manages to impart something much larger: a blooming, a spreading-out of that complex, nameless sense of love.

Terra Nullius

Terra Nullius
Christopher Kardambikis
2020

7.5 × 10.25 in. closed
50 pages
Binding: Plastic strip fastener
Risograph

Terra Nullius front cover. The title and artist are centered in a black and gold geometric abstraction.

I try not to talk about William Blake. I love his work, but I find his outsized role in the genealogy of artists’ books to be of little use for contemporary criticism. So, when I opened Terra Nullius by Christopher Kardambikis, I shuddered. Its cosmological motifs and inky, atmospheric pages are positively Blake-esque. Flipping through, I came to a spread with a pair of dividers on the verso; perhaps just this once there is a good reason to invoke the dubious originator of artists’ books. Sure enough, the recto opposite folded out to reveal a hidden image – Blake’s Newton – rendered as a mural on the side of a building. But what does Isaac Newton, or William Blake for that matter, have to do with the decline of rust belt Pennsylvania?

In Terra Nullius, Kardambikis returns to his hometown of New Castle, PA. He weaves together family and local histories in short sections of prose, interspersed with two modes of image-making. In the first, spreads of noisy black ink recapitulate Blake’s innovative printmaking in Risograph. Against this grainy night sky, line drawings of mysterious symbols pop with overprinted colors, not unlike the watercolor on Blake’s print. These drawings seem elemental, invoking ice, water, fire, and electricity, but without an indication of scale that would pin them down as specific objects. Other drawings in this mode seem like sketches and leftovers, not the building blocks of the universe, but of Kardambikis’ own process.

Terra Nullius inside spread, depicting a glowing filament/firework symbol against a grainy black background.

The second sort of images are photographic, and, together with the book’s structure, unlock the connection between Terra Nullius and Newton. Kardambikis’ photographs are presented as straight documentary shots of New Castle. Each black and white image is printed with a black border and centered on a recto. Yet these conventional, almost banal images, conceal a wondrous explosion of speculative weirdness. The book is bound with folded fore-edges, and only the rectos with photographs are cut short to unfold further. Each of these hidden scenes is grounded with a repetition of the photograph above, but distorted, printed in wild colors, and augmented with a collage of more mystical elements. Once the reader has the pattern down, the drawings opposite the photograph offer a hint of what might lie beneath. And so, we return to the dividers, the building, and Newton.

Terra Nullius inside spread. On the verso a drawing of dividers, on the recto a photo of a building.

For Blake, Newton stood for the myopic rationality of science. The motif of the dividers repeats in Blake’s character, Urizen – the bearded, old man who stands for reason and law. Urizen is a Satanic figure who abstracts and constrains humankind through law and convention, disconnecting us from spirit and imagination. It is this dissatisfaction with the reality that has been imposed, and a belief that art can overcome it, that Kardambikis shares with Blake. He writes:

“The town of New Castle, Pennsylvania circumscribes several spaces simultaneously … The space of the small town, worn thin but cut with well worn grooves by daily rituals. Grooves that carry a flow of memory and people that, in turn, carry a weight.

The second space is speculative. A site in which one can rearrange and examine the component parts to conjure, if however briefly, possibilities.”

Terra Nullius, three-page spread with dividers on the left and Blake's "Newton" in a mural on the right.

The phrase “daily ritual” shows the ambivalence of the grooves Kardambikis sees. Ritual can rekindle the spiritual, but it can also lapse into convention. He returns to New Castle with fresh eyes, seeing a story beyond – or beneath – the dominant narrative of rust belt decline. This alternate reality manifests literally in the drawings and distortions unfolded beneath the book’s conventional photographs. Such a reimagining is not reserved for artists, though. Kardambikis recalls cruising the town square, “the diamond,” as a teenager, driving around with the hope that something new might happen. Nothing ever did, but cruising as a ritual is a powerful shared exercise in imagining another reality.

In fact, Kardambikis seems ambivalent about the role of art in such an endeavor. The dividers that symbolize conformity are also the tool of a bookbinder. And it is in a book of brass that Urizen inscribes his laws for humankind. Even today, when we “throw the book” at someone, we invoke the full force of our legal system. Terra Nullius itself is a legal principle, although the book does little to explore the term’s colonial connotations. Like the grooves of daily ritual, a book is a site of freedom and restraint.

Terra Nullius three-page spread, with a fireball on the left and a distorted traffic circle on the right.

Terra Nullius keeps these aspects in tension and demonstrates that neither is absolute. The documentary images that serve as a foil for the speculative scenes they conceal are themselves highly mediated. Their grainy Riso printing is emphasized by the noisy halftone patterns that encroach on the fore-edge of each page. It is only by convention that the black and white images seem somehow more realistic than the bright colors beneath them. Thus, the binary built into the book’s structure is blurred by its print production.

Rather than critiquing the book form, these complications remind the reader what we are capable of. If we can read – and enjoy – a complex book like Terra Nullius, then we already know how to rearrange and conjure new possibilities. The New Castles Kardambikis imagines are his own, and so too will each reader bring their own interpretations to his narrative. Reading isn’t so different than driving through a small town. There are rules to follow, and structures to guide us, but we can choose to cruise the diamond and see if something else is possible.

Convalescence

Convalescence
Grant Evans
Adversary Editions
2020

6 × 9 in. closed
110 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Digital offset

Front cover of Convalescence: torn title text over a background of torn and sewn Xerox transfer prints

Convalescence is the first book by musician and visual artist, Grant Evans. It is far from the only artists’ book about grief, yet it stands out as particularly dark and gritty. Not only because it grapples with addiction and murder, but because Evans metaphorizes the process of grief itself in such visceral, embodied ways that the book could easily be classified as horror. Death is more than simply gruesome, though. The book begins with two epigraphs, one from The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the other is the haiku, “Bashō’s Death Poem.” This Eastern perspective is baked into the structure of the book, which works through intermediate states and cycles of repetition rather than linear development. With this intentional approach to non-linear narrative and Evans’ commitment to analog processes and found materials, whether audio or visual, Convalescence engages more deeply with the book as a medium than its paperback production first suggests. The resulting insights extend beyond the book, illuminating media, memory and mourning.

The opening scene, which repeats throughout the book, places two characters – a narrator and their interlocutor – in a spare, concrete room that recalls the setting of Beckett’s Endgame. The narrator recedes after prompting their companion’s long, vivid reflections, until the reader nearly forgets that the unnamed man is not speaking directly to them. Even in this strange liminal space, where it is quite possible that both characters are dead, the primary narrator feels less embodied: a visitor rather than an inhabitant. The nested structure distances the narrator (and reader) from the horror of each story, but the line between characters blurs in the dream-like environment. After all, it was Scheherazade, not Aladdin, who was really in danger, suspended between life and death by nothing more than a story.

Convalescence inside spread. On the verso conventional paragraphs are interrupted by blank spaces. The recto includes a black and white photo of a decaying dock and text redacted by a black rectangle.

Indeed, each time the reader returns to this concrete room, it feels less able to contain the stories that are told there. The room continues to ground the reader between forays into dreams or drugs or memories or the supernatural, but the safe space slowly crumbles. The passage literally erodes through redaction, its meaning and emphasis shifting with each new cycle. The repetition begins to feel like a feature of the protagonists’ nightmares, instead of a respite from them. Haunted hospitals, unending roads, and uncanny humanoids recur more in the mundane manner of bad dreams – or grief – rather than the revolution of some karmic wheel. Nevertheless, a progression emerges from this cyclical, entropic structure. Convalescence, after all, implies healing. Returning to earlier incarnations of the repeated, redacted scenes is rewarding, though Evans avoids a neat resolution.

Instead, Evans revels in the physicality of his narrative. Redacted text leaves gaps in the space of the page, as do the silences transcribed from found audio. Elsewhere, the audio transcriptions are typeset to recall their origin on tape. A twisted loop of magnetic tape makes an appearance as well, further emphasizing the material qualities of memory and storytelling. Blank pages and black pages remind the reader that the whole book itself is a physical information technology, not unlike the tape it contains.

Convalescence inside spread. On the verso a photograph of a magnetic tape forms a twisted circle in the middle of an otherwise blank page. The recto contains a poetic text with large gaps where a longer text has been redacted.

Evans also takes the opportunity to play with the slippage between these modes of recording. Flies are a recurring motif, sometimes appearing in a transcribed, “[buzzing].” These interjections visually interrupt the reading just as the sound might on a tape. Sometimes, though, the flies appear as “[dead flies]” arranged in a tape-like band. Their incessant buzzing rises above the hiss and pop of the tape before one realizes that, of course, dead flies make no sound. Convalescence achieves a messy synesthesia that immerses the reader deeply in each nested story and pushes the limits of how ink on paper can activate senses beyond vision. Clearly, Evans is interested in the book as a medium, but Convalescence is concerned with the idea of a medium in nearly every sense.

Convalescence inside spread. On the verso a vertical band of bracketed text repeats the phrase "dead flies" over a background of fragmented typographic elements. The recto features a sparse poetic narrative spread over a mostly blank page.

Medium: The material or form used by an artist. A book, for example.

Medium: The middle quality or state between two extremes. As in the state between life and death, between sleep and wakefulness. As in a reader seamlessly drifting between dreams and reality, memory and hallucination. As in the flat feeling between a high and a low.

Medium: A person claiming to communicate between the dead and the living. As in a séance with a Ouija board. As in a narrator in conversation with a deceased interlocutor. As in the very book that brings a reader in contact with that narrator.

Medium: A form of storage for information, such as 35mm film or magnetic tape, found and transcribed and redacted and embellished in a book. The information – such as Muzak, the buzzing of a fly or a desperate voicemail – may be recorded in the medium by almost any sort of energy.

Medium: Agency; a means of doing something. As in grieving, apologizing, or driving endlessly without moving forward.

Medium: The substance in which an organism lives or is cultured. As in language. As in addiction. As in trauma.

Convalescence inside spread. Conventional book typography is heavily redacted beneath black rectangles. The recto is almost entirely blacked out.

The media in Convalescence are finite, imperfect and unstable modes of recording and accessing information. From the slow decay of a cassette tape to the destructive process of toner transfer print, Evans complicates the line between inscription and erasure. Such considerations are perhaps inherent to the book form, but Convalescence address memory itself. Evans posits healing as a process of both remembering and forgetting. The two are linked inextricably in a cycle of return and redaction, progress and loss.

By combining highly specific, immersive details with chance operations from found materials and destructive processes, Convalescence shows that the universal dimensions of loss transcend the particularities of any one circumstance. The details change, but the structure – the process – remains. Of all the media Evans investigates, it is the book that is able to hold all of this together: content and structure, linear and non-linear progression, erasure and inscription. The book is a blueprint for processing grief, and the timing couldn’t be better.

This Land is My Land

This Land is My Land
Thad Higa
2021

5.5 × 8.5 in. closed
100 pages and two multi-page foldouts
Coptic binding with uncovered boards
Digital printing

Front cover of This Land is My Land

Thad Higa describes This Land is My Land as “a fictional narrative from the imagined headspace of current day white supremacists.” Artists rarely approach such a project with the required radical empathy, attempting to deepen their understanding of someone with opposing views, no matter how repulsive. The resulting works fall short, with straw men for subjects; narratives with no protagonist with whom the reader can relate. This Land is My Land cleverly avoids this trap, though Higa’s representation of the white nationalist perspective is anything but subtle. The book’s writing, design and structure create an immersive, polyphonic experience more like a collective consciousness than the headspace of a single character. Higa knows he can’t dismantle white nationalism in an artists’ book, but as a poet and graphic designer, he can battle on linguistic and symbolic terrain – a field where white supremacy is active (and inherently visible).

It is in examining the language of white nationalism that Higa achieves the necessary depth and empathy. This Land is My Land is a showcase of the various and complex ways that words and symbols are used to promote white supremacy. The book weaves together all manner of rhetorical devices and strategies, creating an experience familiar to anyone who has read the comments on an online article or listened to attendees at a Trump rally. With this chaotic aesthetic, the book is less a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, and more like a classical symphony with separate movements. The movements address particular themes with distinct visual treatments and correspond to the book’s structure (six signatures and two elaborate foldouts). The exposed spine of the Coptic binding and raw book board covers emphasize the role of the book as more than a mere container.

Animated GIF of all 4 openings of the second interior foldout in "This Land is My Land" - on the theme of freedom

This Land is My Land is designed and printed digitally, but Higa is clearly invested in the tactility of reading.  I have never encountered foldouts quite like the ones in this book, but simple, strategic design elements like color and typeface were enough to guide me through the unfamiliar folds. Higa also plays with visual versus tactile texture, the most obvious example being actual torn pages and facsimile paper tears. Subtler contrasts, such as coated and uncoated papers, add further texture – literal and figurative – to the reading experience.

This tactility is one way Higa demonstrates how language inhabits and informs the physical world. He also manipulates symbols, letters and words in layouts that turn these bits of language into objects and agents interacting in space. In Higa’s hands, words inhabit the real world – cemeteries and supermarkets – and create their own environments from pure typography. They form dense walls of vitriol and elsewhere they dissolve into cyberspace, a ragged trickle of characters. The reality of language cannot be overstated in a book about land and borders, nations and countries. Such constructs are, after all, a matter of definition. And since much of the book’s appropriated imagery is from the Anti-Defamation League’s Hate Symbol Database, the physical impact of the language is easy to feel.

This Land is My Land, inside opening from early in the book. A black and white photo of a neglected cemetery spans the full spread. Red, abstract symbols based on the "othala rune" are centered in the composition, with black and white stars at the top and bottom left

Yet the materiality of language is only one half of This Land is My Land’s examination of white nationalist rhetoric. Higa identifies a dangerous and seemingly contradictory attribute of words and symbols – they are flexible, fluid, fungible. Especially online, white nationalists have harnessed humor, irony and plausible deniability to great effect. The power of these distancing devices is on display in This Land is My Land, whose narrative is disrupted by stark white spreads with one word each: lol, lmao, rofl. These spreads are later echoed by a series of pages spelling out the phrase “I want to break free,” as if the subconscious desire has bubbled up beneath the crust of internet irony.

This Land is My Land, inside opening with torn pages on the verso - the images are full color photos of pavement or gravestones. The recto is a white page with the word "lol" centered, and a right margin edge with a facsimile torn edge, mirroring the verso.

By playing with the gap between the explicit and implicit, conscious and subconscious, This Land is My Land can engage more deeply with the ways white nationalism appeals to individuals. This is not an attempt to empathize, but rather to deconstruct and disentangle intersectional issues. Higa shows how white supremacy corrodes institutions and ideas, from electoral politics and consumer capitalism to masculinity and parenthood. These intersections are easier inroads for the reader than the often-obscure hate symbols, but their familiarity breeds discomfort. Even progressive readers may find themselves reexamining what abstract concepts like ownership, inheritance, freedom and family mean, and how they ought to impact our daily lives.

This Land is My Land, inside opening with a full bleed image of a mass of stacked shopping carts. The photo is tinted red. The top half of the composition is a block of white text on a read background, around the theme of fear.

This Land is My Land doesn’t answer those questions, but Higa does insert his own voice (or at least that of a narrator from beyond the white nationalist headspace) to offer clarity amid the cacophony of soundbites and insults. In fact, this more poetic, reflective voice poses even more questions — and offers a few insults of its own. These interventions reinforce the connections between land, body and language and give the reader a critical perspective to cling to as they navigate the noise. This is especially important for the book’s conclusion, which exits the white nationalist headspace and deconstructs its rhetoric from the outside.

This dialectic from inside and outside the white nationalist perspective is calibrated to keep the reader from simply setting the book down in disgust or skimming through tired old stereotypes. (The engaging foldouts and tactile elements help with this as well.) The result is a fairly long artists’ book that can nevertheless be read in a single sitting – an immersive, cohesive experience in the book form. The work’s duration weighs on the reader, raising the stakes and hinting at life inside a right-wing echo chamber. One doesn’t feel particularly rosy after reading This Land is My Land, but it is empowering to witness an accomplished artist fight white supremacy with their linguistic and symbolic weapons.  

Object Objects

Object Objects
Shana Kaplow
Designed by Matthew Rezac
Self-published with support from TITLE Collective
2019

10.625 × 8.375 in. closed
112 pages
Smyth-sewn softcover with French flaps
Offset printing

“I can’t unknow the impact of these massive systems,” interdisciplinary visual artist Shana Kaplow writes on the front flap of Object Objects, referring to the underpinnings of capital and exploitative labor that gird our consumerist economy. “How do we extricate from them?” Her final words, on the back flap, provide a possible answer: “It’s Sisyphean–it’s hopeless, but I don’t want to give up.”

Between the covers, Kaplow grapples with further questions posed by the consumerism and mass production associated with global retailers like IKEA: what is the end user’s responsibility for the way in which these everyday objects are produced (and its impact on human lives and the environment)? How and why do we attach meaning to individual mass-produced pieces? She poses and attempts to answer these questions in a variety of forms, often massive ink paintings that dominate entire walls of a gallery or sculptures utilizing a variety of found objects.

Despite its global scope, the experience of reading Object Objects is an intimate one. The book blends the artist’s creative process with her finished works. Rather than attempting to replicate the feeling of attending an exhibition, the book puts us in Kaplow’s studio and, to a certain extent, in her head. It achieves this by showcasing Kaplow’s finished installations alongside sketches, notes, and works in progress, along with an essay on her work by New Orleans writer Veronica Kavass entitled “Windows above a Luncheonette” and a conversation between the artist and Sarah Petersen.

"Object Objects" inside spread pages 10-11, showing sketches, notes and numbered installation diagrams

The notes, sketches, and contextual writings realize the conceptual side of the artist’s practice, while the photographs of works in process remind us of the physicality of that practice. Many of the notes are printed in Kaplow’s handwriting on transparent vellum pages so they overlay the work itself instead of appearing alongside it, inviting readers to experience her creative process beside her and enhancing the feeling of closeness to the work.

We witness the evolution of Kaplow’s piece Expansion of Influence in a series of pages near the beginning of the book: we first see a precarious pile of monobloc chairs in Kaplow’s studio, then an elaborate hand-sketched diagram, and finally the completed installation, in which the artist renders the negative spaces in this stack of chairs in 38 ink-on-paper cutouts spread across a 15 × 9 foot wall. A similar pattern is repeated for several other works throughout the text, giving us a sense of what each piece looked like as it changed from a loose idea to a model or diagram to a finished and exhibited piece.

The sense of being alongside Kaplow throughout her process not only makes the work more accessible and sheds light on one artist’s experience of the creative act, but also neatly intersects with the concerns of her work. Kaplow’s art asks audiences to engage with the mass-produced in much the same way that we engage with art objects: with greater curiosity regarding both the production and the possible meanings of the object in question. Her choice to share the process of creating her own work in such detail encourages us to consider the similar labor involved in the production of the everyday.

"Object Objects" inside spread pages 32-33: a vellum overlay with Kaplow's hand-written notes separates photographs of stacked chair installations

The transparent vellum pages throughout the book contribute to this feeling, providing alternate ways to look at finished pieces and demonstrating both Kaplow’s thought and labor processes more directly even than the images and main text. Overlaying an installation of images on white canvases (which are themselves mounted on a white gallery wall) with notes on “the unconscious habits of racial privilege” and poetic lines considering color and transformation in the artist’s own hand demonstrate how research and concepts become works of art, mirroring the ways in which economic theories and furniture designs become physical objects and transactional relations.

Each piece powerfully conveys weight and physical presence, reflecting both the body and domestic spaces, but reimagined in new and often unsettling configurations. One common motif, a seemingly-impossible arrangement of chairs precariously balanced atop one another, speaks to both the fragility and complexity of the systems the artist interrogates.

"Object Objects" inside spread pages 90-91: text on the verso and a black and white photo of a tangled stack of plastic chairs on the recto

The chairs’ chaotic arrangement suggests entropy and unsustainability, and also reveals some of Kaplow’s inspiration and personal history: as the child of a physicist, she is interested in revealing the potential energy of objects. She often arranges the chairs in a form that feels like a wave cresting, frozen in the moment just before it breaks. The fact they don’t immediately topple is remarkable, the understanding that they eventually will, ever-present.

In other works, the artist depicts these everyday objects from angles at which we’re not used to seeing them, providing a sharp counterpoint to their clean lines and seeming solidity. A detail from her archival print Other Things focuses on the dirty, damaged underside of a white IKEA chair. The rough texture of the unfinished wood beneath the seat, the visible glue holding the product together, and a missing screw rendering one of the chair’s brackets useless all draw the viewer’s attention. The small but prominent black and white label, “Made in Thailand,” invites audiences to imagine the life of the maker or makers and the systems of manufacture and transportation that led to the chair’s presence in a St. Paul studio or Minneapolis gallery; a meaningless-to-most collections of numbers and letters alongside the familiar IKEA logo hint at the intricacy, inhumanity, and ubiquity of those systems.

"Object Objects" inside spread pages 40-41. A photo of balanced wooden chairs on the verso, with a vellum overlay of notes and a sketch for the same piece. On the recto is a detail shot of the worn underside of one of the chairs, with a manufacturer's label

In conversation with Petersen, Kaplow discusses a factory worker who inserted a note into the pocket of a pair of jeans in hope of reaching their future owner; the same incident is recounted again in an excerpt from “Windows above a Luncheonette.” This small moment is framed in two ways: as a single, poignant reminder of shared humanity and as a “wailing,” a cry for recognition and against the brutality underlying globalized consumer capitalism. Object Objects reckons with the same duality with its juxtapositions of beauty and discomfort, permanence and fragility, creativity and futility. This complexity, rendered completely and intimately in both text and image, haunts the reader. As Kavass writes of a “knockoff modernist chair” in “Windows above a Luncheonette,”

The object becomes a representation of mourning, heartbreak, opportunity, depression, communication, illness, success, revelation. One person asks if he can sit in the chair. Some eyes go wide. Is the chair alive in some way? Or sacred?

This book distills Kaplow’s thought and creative output into a single object in much the same way that Kaplow shows us seemingly mundane objects hold so much: the dreams and fears of both an individual and the larger world, arranged in complex layers that are deeply rewarding to explore.

Copy, Tweak, Paste: Methods of Appropriation in Re-enacted Artists’ Books

Copy, Tweak, Paste: Methods of Appropriation in Re-enacted Artists’ Books
Rob van Leijsen
2020

Éditions clinamen
5.5 × 7.875 in. closed
223 pages
Perfect-bound paperback
Offset printing

Front cover of Copy, Tweak, Paste: Methods of Appropriation in Re-enacted Artists' Books by Rob van Leijsen. Blue text and image on a white paper cover.

Plenty of artists’ book practitioners and scholars have a background in graphic design, but for Rob van Leijsen graphic design is not merely an entry point into artists’ books; it is a place to stay (and not the most comfortable place). That discomfort drives a compelling critique of artists’ book discourse and offers up a useful, transdisciplinary vocabulary for future scholarship and criticism. From a designer’s perspective, theories about authorship and the unity of form and content obscure the power relations at play in publishing and cover up the messy realities of production. Such questions cut to the core of the books Van Leijsen examines (those with origins in Conceptual Art), but they remain in the background of his main project – a study of bootlegs, facsimiles and appropriation in artists’ book publishing.

Inside spread of "Copy, Tweak, Paste." On the recto begins the chapter "Publishers who produce facsimile artists' books"

The book itself is bilingual, with a section of full-color figures dividing its English and French halves. The resulting codex doubles the heft of what is really a long essay, written in approachable prose free of frills and jargon. Van Leijsen explains his methodology in the introduction: compare two facsimile publishers (Éditions Zédélé and The Everyday Press) and two bootleggers (Michalis Pichler and Eric Doeringer). To make the most of these close readings, the introduction also does a large portion of the book’s theoretical work. Perhaps most importantly, Van Leijsen demonstrates what graphic designers bring to the topic: technical understanding of book design and production, and a nuanced understanding of how authorship is distributed among all the players who contribute to a book’s creation. Along with this perspective, Van Leijsen’s main innovation is importing a more refined vocabulary for appropriation. In a field fond of “self-reflexivity,” distinctions such as re-enactment, reproduction, bootleg, facsimile, transimile, homage, and so forth not only allow for greater precision but also point back to their fields of origin and bolster artists’ book discourse with interdisciplinary connections.

Inside spread of "Copy, Tweak, Paste," with full-color figures of the artists' book "Arcs from corners & sides, circles, & grids and all their combinations"

As time-based, interactive media, artists’ books are a challenge to document adequately, but the design of Copy, Tweak, Paste maximizes the specific arguments Van Leijsen puts forward. The figures that divide the English and French sections are arranged in before-and-after sets: first the original book, then the facsimile. The photographs themselves are shot and cropped almost identically to allow for a point-for-point comparison. A combination of single images, compound images, and detail shots highlight the salient features of each book under consideration. The books are presented at one of two scales: actual size or 30 percent of the original. Along with the hands that accompany many images, this gives the reader a good sense of the books’ size and allows for more meaningful comparisons among them. That said, it can be difficult to avoid mixing up the originals and the facsimiles (which are, of course, quite similar) since the figures are numbered but not captioned.

Inside spread of "Copy, Tweak, Paste," with a full-page detail from the artists' book "Arcs from corners & sides, circles, & grids and all their combinations"

Like the book’s structure, the writing itself aims to advance relatively narrow and novel arguments, and therefore assumes some familiarity with the topic. The case studies, however, engage with diverse approaches to publishing as an art practice, whether or not the reader has encountered the specific books before. Van Leijsen occasionally errs too far on the side of brevity, making subjective assertions or leaving claims unsupported. His main arguments are always rigorous, but terms like “well-made” or “well-designed” warrant greater examination since the whole point is that each mode of re-enactment has its own goals and criteria. Another challenge is maintaining the level of detail necessary to discuss the differences between two things as similar as a book and its facsimile. The reader must trust that Van Leijsen has focused on the important differences when, for example, he scrutinizes a book’s paper more closely than its binding or printing. Nevertheless, his method is sound, and his writing is accessible and enjoyable. Anyone with a background in graphic design will appreciate the chip on his shoulder and find ready parallels regarding authorship and labor throughout the art world.

This examination of labor and authorship is one of the book’s key contributions, and Van Leijsen is especially sensitive to the particularities of artists’ book publishing. In analyzing the role of artists as publishers versus institutions with experts (such as historians) as editors, he grounds an abstract conversation about values and motivations with concrete examples. This approach is not only effective but replicable. The field needs more scholars who pay attention to the hidden design and production labor that goes into publishing, not to mention the financial and institutional pressures that shape the final products. Dealing with the details of disparate case studies adds much-needed texture to the usual discussions of self-reflexivity. Ironically, it is by delving into the specifics of bootlegs and facsimiles that artists’ books can speak to other contemporary art forms that use appropriation. Happily, those who take up this cause will have an easier time thanks to Copy, Tweak, Paste’s bibliography.

Inside spread of "Copy, Tweak, Paste," with a full-size reproduction of a spread from the artists' book "Territory/Sculpture 1969"

There are certainly questions left unanswered, especially regarding the role of digital facsimiles. Digitization may seem beyond the book’s scope given its emphasis on the specific materials and processes, but it represents a missed opportunity to examine the type of uncreative, unacknowledged labor that motivates Van Leijsen’s critique. Such debates have been essential in other fields, especially the digital humanities, which could serve as a useful model for artists’ books. Another missing perspective is that of the reader. Van Leijsen decenters the author but remains focused on production rather than reception. It will take an examination of libraries, collections, readers and critics to fully realize what he has begun.

Copy, Tweak, Paste is half history and half manifesto, and the field would do well to pursue both directions. A comprehensive bibliography or literature review of bootlegged artists’ books would serve future scholarship, just as a full-throated manifesto for appropriation and re-enactment would catalyze artistic production (and maybe even make artists’ books accessible to more readers). Copy, Tweak, Paste lays the groundwork with a solid methodology and a new vocabulary.