Against Decorum

Against Decorum
Michael Hampton
2022
Information as material

6.25 × 9.25 in. closed
120 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Digital printing
Edition of 500

Front cover of Against Decorum. Cover image features a photo of Angus Fairhurst's 2005 sculptural altered magazine, "A magazine — 
removed except 1cm border"

Against Decorum is a work of uncreative writing, which forges poetry from the condition descriptions in rare book catalogues. These fragments of technical terms speak to age and injury and, ultimately, love and obsession. Hampton’s remix method epitomizes the publisher’s mission: information as material “publishes work by artists and writers who use extant material — selecting it and reframing it to generate new meanings — and who, in doing so, disrupt the existing order of things.” Against Decorum converses with conceptual poetry but also older practices, like commonplacing. The latter reveals an abundance of writing about reading, but Hampton’s contribution is the move from distant reading to close reading. So close, in fact, as to skip the text altogether and focus on the book as an object. When those interested in artists’ books think about the haptic exchange between a book and its reader, they mostly focus on how a book (and its creator) move the reader. Against Decorum shifts attention to how a book might be altered by its reader, and what that means for future readers. The author is dead, but the books survive — a little worse for wear.  

Against Decorum, inside spread. Register A, works 2 and 3. Each comprises a bibliographic entry above a poetic litany of rare book condition descriptions.

In an introduction by poet and critic Craig Dworkin, Hampton’s shuttling between close and distant reading is situated within ongoing debates in book history, literature, and digital humanities. Against Decorum poses thorny and necessary questions about what we value in the history of books and reading, and what is lost when we prioritize authors and texts over readers and books. Where literary scholars address a placeless, ahistorical text, Hampton examines the individual book — or rather, he reads and rearranges the descriptions of someone who has.  

A foreword by the scholar Adam Smyth notes the same trends in bibliography and book history, but also reading and writing practices. Smyth references practices as diverse as Walter Benjamin’s quotational methods and the infamous altered books of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. Where Dworkin is taken with Hampton’s movement between distant and close reading, Smyth notes the traffic between high and low culture, archives and kitchen tables. Books are commodities, scuffed and dusty objects that bear the traces of everyday activity.

Against Decorum comprises three sections: Register A, Register B, and Scrapbook. Register A collects twelve monthly pieces, created from December 2019 through November 2020. These pieces are derived from different book catalogues, and each has its own designation: fragments, off-cuts, granules, snippets, and so on. Hampton thus highlights the many ways books are used and not merely read. Each piece is an evocative litany of defects. Wrappers are stained, covers are scuffed, pages are creased. There is “foxing” and “browning,” “pencilling” and “worming.” Amid the scuffing and rubbing, Hampton accentuates the (often erotic) exchange of bodies. Books are “thumbed” by readers, and have their own heads, feet, spines, and joints. With “deletions” and “erasures,” books are “wanting” and “lacking.” This reciprocity is further explored in Register B, which is written in the same manner but is meant “for reading aloud by two performers.”

Against Decorum, inside spread. Register B. The verso is a remixed list of damage and condition descriptions of books from a Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers; the recto has an endnote about the influence of Jarndyce.

The Scrapbook section gathers passages about books, libraries, and reading from a variety of sources, from articles and Amazon listings. Mostly though, it reveals a preponderance of books about books. These seem to favor curiosities and cataclysms: Malicious Damage, Bizarre Books, Lost Libraries. Others are more surprising, though, and the Scrapbook offers an illuminating glimpse into Hampton’s research. Each quotation is far more tantalizing than a typical “further reading” list, and the outliers and oddities will no doubt inspire makers and readers of artists’ books. These excerpts are signposts that stake out a zone of activity where books are contingent, material objects that record their own interactions with the people who use them. 

Against Decorum, inside spread from the Scrapbook section. The verso has an excerpt of a Sotheby's catalogue featuring the "wicked bible"; the recto has a bibliographic entry for a sandpaper "record" with a bandage.

In recording these interactions, Against Decorum centers the longest phase in the life cycle of a book, which is too often overlooked. After books are conceived, created, published, distributed, read, and written about, they persist. They pass through many hands and fall slowly victim to the conditions so meticulously detailed in booksellers’ catalogues. In Against Decorum the authors who write these books are as anonymous as the readers who fold and stain and inscribe them. It is the catalogues that are named, and the cataloger who is exalted. Catalogues are inherently ephemeral, but thanks to Hampton, they outlast the books they list as well as their readers.

Hampton’s monthly writing process sharpens the contrast between the human time scale and the book’s duration. He celebrates the ephemeral catalogue and the traces of past readers’ fleeting gestures. There is a sense of the sublime in the push and pull between close and distant reading, between “thumbmarks in lower corners” and the experience of reading about them in a catalogue, which is, in turn, excerpted in a book. Against Decorum does not lament this mediated access to an authentic original or pit information against material. Hampton truly embraces information as material. The poetry, with its combination of absurd repetition and marvelous neologisms and technical terms, is every bit as moving as the embodied relationship with a book. It is because both strategies push and pull so powerfully that Against Decorum approaches the sublime.

Against Decorum, inside spread. Register A, works 10 and 11. Each comprises a bibliographic entry above a poetic litany of rare book condition descriptions.

Against Decorum offers a way to make sense — and make use — of the information with which we are inundated. Book history is only a microcosm of our postmodern Anthropocene, a world where data (the vast majority of which is no longer intended for humans) multiplies endlessly while physical space and material resources dwindle inexorably. As the creation and processing of data increasingly harms the environment, we desperately need to move from information to knowledge — and wisdom. Hampton shows that this is a job for artists, and Against Decorum provides a method and a sourcebook for future inquiry.

Escape Book

Escape Book
Stefania Patrikiou
2021

8.25 × 11.5 in. closed
32 pages
Pamphlet stitch
Screen print
Edition of 20

Front cover of Escape Book. The title is printed in the bottom right corner over an inky abstract background in cool colors.

Completed in 2021, Escape Book is a direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The colophon makes a statement to that effect, but the book is otherwise wordless, which allows Patrikiou to reflect on escapism more broadly. The screen-printed book combines photographic images on thick, toned paper with silhouettes of plants on drafting vellum overlays. Patrikiou describes the book as part childhood photo album and part herbarium. The translucent overlays extend the possibilities of the book’s thirty-two pages; the reader can reveal and conceal elements and play with composition and color as they thumb through the book. This active and immersive reading is the propulsion system on this escape vehicle — but the book is more than a distraction. Escape Book, like the pandemic itself, turns our attention to our relationship with nature, our isolation from one another, the importance of travel and migration, and the power of memory and imagination.

Escape Book, inside spread. Verso: silhouette of plant specimen printed in a bright-green-to-blue gradient on translucent drafting vellum. Recto: a square-cropped photograph of a beach screen-printed black with a coarse halftone.

Patrikiou gives the sense that she is thinking through these issues alongside the reader — and thinking in her preferred medium of screen print. The cover includes expressive drops and smears of ink, and many of the pages retain a registration mark (though the photographic images are printed only in black). Meanwhile the silhouettes of plants luxuriate in electric colors, often more than one in a smooth gradient. Patrikiou is not just re-presenting photos from her collection, but consciously manipulating them through screen patterns, contrast, and scale. The reading experience recapitulates the artist’s process, experimenting with composition and free associating among juxtaposed images. It is also multisensorial; the rattle of the drafting vellum, the softness of the paper, and the smell of ink all help transport the reader.

Escape Book, inside spread. Verso: a small photograph of swaying palm trees, screen-printed black, set in the lower right corner of an otherwise blank page. Recto: a silhouette of plant specimen printed in a bright-green-to-blue gradient on translucent drafting vellum.

The material and sensorial presence of the book heightens the contrast between the photo album and the herbarium. Where photographs rely on visual representation, the plant specimens in an herbarium are physically present on the pages. In a sort of compromise, the silhouetted plant forms in Escape Book appear to be printed from plants exposed directly on the screen, like a photogram. This tension runs throughout the book. If the photographs are distant, the plants are close. The photographs are past, the plants present. The photographs are representations, the plants reality. As the reader manipulates the vellum overlay, the past is quite literally viewed through the perspective of the present.

Escape Book, inside spread. Verso and recto each have a screen-printed black and white snapshot-style photo. Verso: a traffic circle with signs in Arabic and Roman alphabets. Recto: a deadpan image of a nondescript building. Both pages have registration marks in the outside corners.

This effect is especially striking in the absence of people in most of the images. What were likely attempts to preserve the “natural” beauty of a landscape by excluding fellow tourists from the frame now read as eerily depopulated landscapes, reminiscent of early COVID-19 lockdowns. And it is not only the past that we witness through this fog. Patrikiou works out possible futures as she remixes her collection of photos and flora. Vacation snapshots are as much about imagination as memory, about the construction of an idealized escape. Images of palm trees swaying in the breeze evoke a different sort of nature than the plants printed atop them. The urge to travel somewhere exotic and reconnect with nature is, after all, a projection of the alienation that characterizes culture.

Projection also enables the empathy that Escape Book instills, and Patrikiou cultivates it with various visual strategies. Many of the photographs are presented as snapshots, relatively small objects surrounded by white space on the page. In these, the small size and coarse screen pattern obscure details and allow the reader to imagine their own scene — a beach or street or horizon from their own travels. Presented as objects, these images grant an evidentiary (or perhaps souvenir) quality to whatever remembered or imagined scene the reader projects. The silhouetted plants work similarly. The reader knows that a real plant was there but must imagine its color and scent. At the same time, the vibrant colors no doubt influence the reader’s ruminations. Escape Book is far from a blank slate, and Patrikiou’s own feelings of isolation and disorientation come through clearly.

Escape Book, inside spread. Verso: a point-of-view shot where the photographer walks a dog on a leash. Recto: A railroad track receding into the distance. A vellum overlay obscures the verso. The overlay has a plan silhouette printed in a gold-to-pink gradient.

An entirely different form of projection operates in images that occupy the full page (or in one case, the full spread). These place the reader into the role of the photographer, using one-point linear perspective to exaggerate the effect. In this vein, a sequence of three photographs seems to explore themes of mobility and agency. In each image, the reader (in the place of the photographer) is on a path. The first follows a hiker down a wooded slope. The second places the viewer behind a dog, holding its leash. The third shows a train track underfoot, receding into the distance. Patrikiou offers three ways of moving through the world, with more or less freedom to stray from the path and connect with one’s surroundings.

Thus, escape is never entirely possible. Our attitudes toward nature — whether the fantasy of unspoiled nature projected in travel photography, or the myth of mastery through classification behind the herbarium — have already shaped the world into which we might escape. Notably, the enlightenment (and colonial) ideologies that accompany the herbarium and photo album also drive habitat destruction and globalized trade, which make pandemics like COVID-19 more likely. Escape Book enacts this collision between fantasy and reality, between distant, abstract concepts and individual plants and people. Which is not to say that it offers no escape. It is a truly beautiful book that creates a sense of connection between the reader and the artist. Escapism is not delusion or abdication. We can escape from immediate danger to a place where we can see these, and other connections, more clearly.

Ballroom Etiquette

Ballroom Etiquette
Maria Brito and Bruno Neiva
Designed with Lisa Lorenz
Team Trident Press
2020

4 × 5 in. closed
48 pages
Saddle-stitched pamphlet
Risograph inside with thermography-finished cover
Edition of 150

Front cover of "Ballroom Etiquette," softcover pamphlet on red paper. The images is an indeterminate, grainy close-up, printed in raised thermographic ink.

A collaboration between Maria Brito and Bruno Neiva, Ballroom Etiquette is a slim, pocket-sized pamphlet, but it distills two books — True Politeness: A Hand-book of Etiquette for Ladies (1867) and Kill or Get Killed (1976), published by the US Marine Corps. The text comes from the Victorian etiquette guide, while the images come from the hand-to-hand combat manual. Brito and Neiva use the book’s structure to heighten the humor of these juxtapositions, with images, printed black, on every verso and text, printed red, on every recto. Ballroom Etiquette exemplifies the one-and-a-half-liner (which I mean as a compliment) — what could be merely ironic pairs of text and illustration rise to the level of trenchant commentary on gender and violence in contemporary society.

Ballroom Etiquette, inside spread. On the verso, two men grapple in a grainy black-and-white image. On the recto, red text says: "When a gentleman who has been properly introduced requests the honour of dancing with you, you will not refuse unless you have a previous engagement."

A successful one-and-a-half-liner must exceed the reader’s initial expectations, and Ballroom Etiquette does this with its modest production. At forty-eight pages, there is more content than a mere one-liner would require, yet the book can still be enjoyed in one sitting. The book’s Risography and thermography conjure a subversive origin in a copy shop somewhere, belying its thoughtful design and materials. The inside paper is a smooth cream stock, and the red cover paper matches the text. The text, in turn, is carefully set to balance with the image across each gutter, each of which retain the grainy appearance of their source material. Brito and Neiva perfectly calibrate the book’s materials, production, and design with the scope and tone of its ideas.

Ballroom Etiquette, inside spread. On the verso, two men grapple, one lifting the other, in a grainy black-and-white image. On the recto, red text says: "Do not mistake affection for refinement: it would be no less an error than confounding vice with virtue."

Ballroom Etiquette also succeeds as a one-and-a-half-liner because the comical distance between its two elements — etiquette and combat — is only apparent. The juxtaposition reveals that the two are, in fact, related. The humor works on both levels, absurd contrast and poignant commentary. The wildly different stakes between the two accounts for a third aspect of the book’s humor, as in the warning, “If possible, do not enter a room alone.” The imperative mood makes no distinction between the risk of impropriety for a Victorian lady and the risk of bodily harm for a Marine. This strategy is especially fruitful because of the colorful language in the original etiquette guide. Metaphors like “wounding another’s heart” take on new meaning when paired with an image of a man taking a baton to the neck.

Ballroom Etiquette, inside spread. On the verso, grainy black-and-white image shows one man hitting another in the neck with a baton. On the recto, red text says: "Do not make a public room the arena for torturing any simple swain who perchance may admire you a little more than you deserve. Recollect that while you are wounding another's heart you may be trifling with your own peace."

Such wordplay also demonstrates how commonly figurative language uses space and movement. Even familiar phrases like “the circles in which you move” are made strange when the reader must sort through the literal meaning as it might pertain to dancing or fighting versus the intended reference to social circles. Brito and Neiva are equally clever in their visual jokes. For example, a line about wearing gloves is paired with a close-up of a hand delivering a knifehand strike to a throat. These careful pairings punctuate a slew of vaguer images in which two men grapple, their struggle eroticized by the corresponding text on courtship or dancing.  

Ballroom Etiquette, inside spread. On the verso, a black-and-white image shows an arm demonstrating a knifehand strike into a man's throat. On the recto, red text says: "Draw on your gloves in the dressing room, and do not take them off during the evening, except at supper-time, when it should be invariably done."

Brito and Neiva queer the hypermasculinity of the combat manual and the rigid heterosexual roles of the etiquette guide. The book reveals two realities: gender is fluid, but patriarchy is stubborn. Men may no longer sport snowy, perfumed handkerchiefs, but women are still told not to refuse a man who asks nicely. In addition to gender, Ballroom Etiquette examines how little attitudes about class have changed since the Victorian era. Propriety and private property are inextricably linked, and women are cautioned against public balls. Brito and Neiva use the term détournement for their strategy of turning proscriptive texts into a critique of the systems those texts once upheld. The book is also a détournement in a more general, but equally important, sense — what was once information is now art. The artists’ specific critique of patriarchal violence shows the potential of appropriation and juxtaposition for almost any issue.

The book’s strength as a model for future works may be its greatest contribution, but its strategies are not without risks. The fact that Ballroom Etiquette is genuinely funny is critical to its success. Brito and Neiva show keen comic instincts at every step of the project, from choosing source material to design and production. The artists also demonstrate a deep understanding of the book form.Even with the rigid separation of text and image and the repeated format of each spread, Ballroom Etiquette relies on the book form. The détournement of two other books is integral to the project, but perhaps more importantly, Brito and Neiva orchestrate their comic timing through the book’s structure and the amount of content they include. Ballroom Etiquette doesn’t ask too much of its reader or overstay its welcome — but it’s no one-liner.

How to Draw Tornadoes

How to Draw Tornadoes
Michael Darcy
2021

8.5 × 10.75 × 1 in. closed
116 pages
Case-bound, sewn on tapes
Laser printing

Front cover of How to Draw Tornadoes, with a school portrait inset into a full-bleed photo of a tree

“Tis education forms the common mind, Just as the twig is bent the tree’s inclined.”

Alexander Pope, Epistles to Several Persons

In How to Draw Tornadoes, Michael Darcy explores his early education through the longstanding analogy between the growth of a tree and the development of a child. All puns intended, the memoir is rooted in two incidents from elementary school and then branches out into a reflection on community, diversity, and epistemology. Education, it seems, has not evolved as much as tree science since the time of Alexander Pope. Darcy wonders what education might look like if it reflected how we now know trees flourish — by cooperating and communicating rather than competing. How to Draw Tornadoes adopts these values in form, content, and structure. It demonstrates how artists’ books can produce knowledge that challenges binaries and embraces diverse perspectives and modes of expression. Perhaps Darcy’s progressive vision is a return to an earlier time, before Alexander Pope and the Enlightenment, when John Heywood first warned us not to miss the forest for the trees.

Darcy begins How to Draw Tornadoes by recounting how an elementary school teacher objected to his scribbling and taught him the “correct” way to draw a tornado. This absurd intolerance for individual expression is, ironically, part of a hyper-competitive, individualistic education system where students compete against one another on daily multiplication quizzes. It is against this competitive, intolerant, shame-based pedagogy — in school but also in family and society more broadly — that Darcy poses his alternative. Now free from narrow-minded schoolteachers, Darcy transgresses all manner of boundaries in How to Draw Tornadoes. The case-bound book’s relatively strait-laced cover gives way to colored papers, fold-outs, hidden flaps, die-cuts, collaged elements, and sewn designs. Most notably, tornadoes are scribbled into pages with a sewing machine.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: sewn, scribbled tornadoes cover a photo of a tree (verso) and a collage of cut-out football players doing push-ups (recto)

Alongside his own stories, Darcy borrows from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and a Radiolab episode about the ways trees cooperate to benefit the forest. The imagery is also largely appropriated. Family photos accompany Darcy’s opening reflections on his childhood while a variety of found photos of trees illustrate the latter half of the book. Other found visuals, from family trees to diagrams of linear perspective, speak to the long entanglement of education, art, and rationalism. Darcy’s tissue of texts embraces multiple authorship, even as his sewn embellishments assert an expressive individuality. Acknowledging the forest does not mean neglecting the tree.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: botanical illustrations and text printed on goldenrod paper (verso) and violet paper (recto) with die-cuts revealing alternate colored paper below

Recognizing the community around the individual means more than crediting collaborators. Darcy paints a stark picture of the white, religious, masculine milieu in which he was raised. In family photos, men tote guns, wave flags, and play football. Perhaps the family trees, Catholic school ephemera, and handwriting guides call for an in-depth psychoanalytical interpretation, but it seems sufficient to note that Darcy’s chosen medium of the sewing machine is itself a rejection of heteropatriarchal gender norms. He also quotes Sabrina Imbler’s article on “botanical sexism,” which explains how USDA guidance to plant only male trees in cities backfired and worsened allergies since there were no females to absorb the excess pollen — literally toxic masculinity.

Darcy leverages the analogy between people and trees to erode boundaries between nature and culture more broadly: human perspective and bumblebee vision, classroom hierarchies versus rhizomatic root systems. Such connections are more than metaphors, they reveal deep structures that shape how we perceive and understand the world. The book itself is biomorphic. Spreads are composed to highlight its bilateral symmetry, and an image of hexagonal honeycombs echoes the book’s coarse halftone screens. Darcy’s wit emerges in these playful visual sequences and juxtapositions, though there is a hint of humor in his otherwise earnest writing. The point is not to correctly decode every reference but rather to see the interconnectedness of things and the value of multiple perspectives. The written narrative drives the reader forward in a linear manner, but the imagery prompts additional readings in no such order.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: almost life-size pair of hands play cats cradle with string that is sewn loosely through the book, pulled tight by the reader's hands

How to Draw Tornadoes doesn’t just tell the reader to embrace diversity and cooperation, it shows the benefits of doing so. The artists’ book is polyvocal, multi-modal, non-linear, and interactive. Its narrative is personal yet relatable, educational but entertaining. It appeals emotionally and intellectually and engages multiple senses and ways of knowing. This flexibility is not because the book is an empty vessel. It is because Darcy understands how the medium fits into the systems he studies. Books can create and communicate — but also limit — knowledge. Darcy harnesses the affordances of the book, but also works against its conventions to convey his message.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: a full-bleed black and white photo of a forest with sewn roots embellishing the surface

Fittingly, Darcy’s sewing proves especially challenging to the medium. The book’s sewn binding and expressive stitching erase the boundary between structure and content. So too does it abolish the page as a surface; sewing makes marks in and not on the page. The turn of the page no longer conjures a blank slate but highlights the continuity of the thread, integrating the verso and recto. This emphasis on the material presence of the page sharpens the irony of paper printed with photographs of trees. To celebrate the wisdom of forests, How to Draw Tornadoes has had to kill a few trees. Does this discredit the book? If we take Darcy seriously, it shows how deeply nature and culture are entangled, and how indebted we are to those other beings who make our work possible.

Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy

Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy
Jeremy Bell
2021

11 × 8.5 in. closed
54 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Digital printing

Cover of Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy

Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy is one of three books about William Hogarth by the independent scholar (and musician) Jeremy Bell. The three books, along with their online paratext, form a fluid ecosystem of interconnected and self-referential scholarship. Taken together, the reading experience reflects research in the age of hyperlinks and Wikipedia rabbit holes. As a guide through this material, Bell is impish yet erudite. Along with Bell’s writing style, the design of Hogarth’s Copycats captures this spirit in printed form.

From the outside, Hogarth’s Copycats could be mistaken for a children’s book. It is a slim, horizontal-format paperback with a glossy, full-color cover. The inside overflows with color illustrations on every page, illustrations which quickly reveal that the book is probably not for children. Nor does it fit comfortably in the genre of children’s books for adults, since its form also draws on and subverts other genres: art historical monographs, museum publications, online research, and even Hogarth’s own satirical art.

Hogarth’s Copycats , pages 14-15, assortment of contemporary political satires based on “A Rake’s Progress”

Bell’s compendium of artworks that reference, rip off, and appropriate Hogarth is organized by project (Marriage A-la-Mode, A Rake’s Progress, and so on). Headlines announce the project or theme, but there is no table of contents or index for the reader to navigate. Hogarth’s Copycats is an immersive tour led by Bell in first and third person. Bell jumps in without an introduction: “Let’s begin with some humorous face-swaps of Hogarth and his dog named ‘Trump.’” This tour guide tone continues throughout the book. On page forty-five Bell writes, “I hope you are enjoying this collation of artwork that has been inspired by William Hogarth.” Stops on the tour reflect the wide-ranging influence of Hogarth on centuries of art, illustration, and satire. Bell covers piracy by Hogarth’s contemporaries (which led to the Engraving Copyright Act of 1734), twentieth-century film adaptations, public service announcements, contemporary art, and more.

Even as Bell samples the breadth of Hogarth-inspired works, his own research interests emerge. Building on his first book, William Hogarth: A Freemason’s Harlot, Bell examines the role of Masonic imagery in Hogarth’s work. Likewise, Bell revels in Hogarth’s low-brow body humor, continuing lines of inquiry from his second book, The Fine Art of Dick Pics and Selfies. Since the references to Hogarth’s originals are explicit in the works Bell discusses, Hogarth’s Copycats is less speculative than A Freemason’s Harlot. It does, however, rely on the same methods — visual analysis and iconography.

Hogarth’s Copycats , pages 44-45, visual analysis of a Hogarth painting and its pirated print

Bell’s iconographic approach is almost paranoid, revealing secret Masonic symbols and faces hidden in shrubbery. While some assertions are more convincing than others, Hogarth’s work lends itself to such sleuthing. The artist certainly used symbolism and veiled references in his satire, and Masonic themes have been documented in his work. Hogarth’s visual puns and references to other works likely explain much of the appeal for other artists to riff on his work. Bell is hardly an objective observer himself. He celebrates Hogarth’s ability to hide things, from symbols to entire narratives, in plain sight.

Having abandoned neutrality for something more like fandom, Bell presents himself with a humorous, fitting mix of self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation. Bell credits himself with new discoveries hidden in Hogarth’s work, but also thanks his research assistants, “Miss Google” and “young Master Wiki.” He also thanks “The Trustees of the British Museum and other sites that allowed downloads of their artwork.” For Bell, original research requires only access to art and attention to detail. Whether this is read as satire of a certain type of connoisseurship, or a defense of close looking in an age of big data, “distant reading,” and digital distractions, art historians should take note.

A similar self-deprecating ambiguity results from the book’s mix of scholarship and crass commercialism. Throughout Hogarth’s Copycats, references to Bell’s other books are delivered like sales pitches as much as scholarly citations — an irreverence that matches that of the copycats he studies. The Chapman Brothers, for example, show a deep understanding of art history, but were criticized for painting directly on works by Goya for their series, Insult to Injury. Hogarth himself blended nuanced political commentary with misogynistic and homophobic tropes and produced grand history paintings alongside bawdy illustrations. He also pilfered from the likes of Albrecht Dürer. Ultimately, Bell’s enthusiasm for many of the contemporary copycats like Cold War Steve and Henry Hudson shows the same reverence for art that led Hogarth to write books about beauty even as he produced grotesque works like The Four Stages of Cruelty.

Hogarth’s Copycats , pages 18-19, “Many forms of ‘the baby drop’”

Bell seems to celebrate the creativity of the uncreative. He also demonstrates that Hogarth’s formulas are endlessly generative, even as politics and aesthetics change over centuries. Bell’s analysis is almost structuralist in its focus on the roles and relationships in Hogarth’s work. The phenomenon of copycats shows that corrupt politicians, sycophants, and hypocrites are a feature of every time and place. Bell highlights this meme-ready modularity but also shows what is lost when copycats (and art historians) miss the details that make Hogarth’s work anything but generic.

In showing that Hogarth still matters today, Bell also shows that the basic tools of art history remain effective. Hogarth’s Copycats has an internet aesthetic in many ways, but at its core it is simply an illustrated art history book full of side-by-side comparisons, details, and diagrams. Bell is well-versed in the life and times of Hogarth, but his own scholarship is primarily a matter of close looking. This method is especially fruitful given Hogarth’s penchant for hidden details and double entendres, but by no means limited to him.

Bell makes art history accessible and entertaining. He even provides intriguing avenues for future research. At the same time, he deploys structural, visual, textual, and paratextual devices to undermine his own methods and message. The book’s self-referentiality and the unreliability of its narration places Hogarth’s Copycats in dialogue with artists’ books as well as the art it discusses. The self-reflexivity of artists’ books often excludes general audiences, but Bell’s humorous handling of the medium will welcome new readers to artists’ books and art history alike.

To My Unborn Child

To My Unborn Child
Wen-Li Chen
2018

7 × 9 × 1 in. closed
296 pages
Sewn hardcover with exposed spine
Digital printing
Edition of 5

To My Unborn Child, front cover. Black bookcloth with not text.

As the title implies, To My Unborn Child is an epistolary work ostensibly addressed to Chen’s then-unborn child. It addresses concerns shared by many expecting parents as well as some particular to Chen’s own inheritance as a multi-ethnic Taiwanese (Kavalan and Sakilaya) and Han Chinese woman living in the United States. The stakes of these personal and political concerns are deeply felt, from the pangs of guilt and loss that come with the slow cultural erasure of assimilation to the threat of sudden political annihilation that characterizes Taiwan’s precarious existence as a democracy. To My Unborn Child corresponds with a 2018 exhibition of the same name, but the book is very much a cohesive artistic expression in itself. Indeed, Chen shows how well suited the book form is for exploring identity — fragmented, contradictory, always in flux.

To My Unborn Child is, in fact, a version of an existing genre: the Zupu, or genealogy book. It may also, following the exhibition, include elements of fiction as well as memoir. In Chen’s handling, this family book weaves together text, image, and material from a variety of sources. Family archives (photos, correspondence, family trees) are paired with a primer on the history of Taiwan and the text from a public monument commemorating the Kalyawan Battle, in which indigenous Taiwanese rose up against Han occupiers during the Qing Dynasty. In this regard, the epistolary framework is a clever conceit, allowing Chen to introduce readers to the history and geopolitics of Taiwan in a way that is didactic but not condescending. And addressing the reader in second person makes the more personal content especially powerful.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: timeline of Taiwan history. Recto: excerpt from a Kavalan song.

From these variegated sources, the book is organized into five sections: (Your) people, (Your) culture, (Your) family, (Your) name, (Your) future. While the content of each section differs, they follow a similar pattern. Each begins with a single word or phrase to set the tone or context; however, some words are transliterated not translated, leaving an English-speaking reader to research or go forth without guidance — either of which reflect the fragmented, discontinuous nature of memory, inheritance, and identity. Having studied foreign languages and literature, Chen understands the feelings of distance or belonging that come with language and uses these devices to modulate the book’s level of intimacy and emotional register.

Each section also features a pair of paragraphs in English and Chinese. The English texts are prose with a memoiristic, almost confessional tone, while the Chinese side is more poetic. The Chinese writing is untranslated and the relationship between the two is not always linear. (For the sake of reviewing the book, I relied on a friend, Kaixi Burns, to translate the poetry when it became clear that Google Lens wouldn’t do justice to the quality of Chen’s writing.) Family photographs, faded and distressed to anonymize their subjects and perhaps speak to memory and loss, and other family documents also appear in each section. Text, especially handwriting, also operates as an index of absent presence (and further demonstrates the feeling of connectedness that language can produce, even untranslated).

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: English memoir with Chinese poem, side by side. Recto: A flying seagull casts a shadow on the beach below, the image is rotated 90 degrees.

The book’s five sections are separated by spreads of full-bleed black, but there are also elements that carry through and lend continuity to the reading experience. These throughlines are contemporary color photographs with oblique connections to the main text. For example, what appear to be stills from a video of a seagull flying along a beach repeat throughout the book in different configurations and orientations. These eventually coalesce in a grid on a single spread, radically collapsing their timeframe. Playing with timescale is a key feature of To My Unborn Child, which leaps from a history lesson beginning in 1632 to a line-by-line transcription of a mundane phone call. Never mind the sense of futurity, the unborn baby, which underpins the project.

This temporal play makes the book’s own timing critical, and here Chen displays impressive sensitivity to the formal devices that pace the reader. Some spreads feature perfectly balanced typography that invites the reader to sit with a text, while others propel the reader forward with dynamic fragments that require resolution. The result is a book where the turn of a page is never predictable, but nor is it random. Chen advances the narrative and introduces new ideas using variations on central themes, unifying the reading experience without tying a bow with each thread.

However, on the subject of timescale, I must confess I have buried the lede. What distinguishes To My Unborn Child is the overwhelming majority of the book’s 296 pages belong to an extended cinematic sequence, where Chen’s interest in film and photographic theory is on full display. Not quite a flipbook, the motion-blurred interlude shows a single family photo of three figures dancing, with the hand holding the photograph visible. It is not clear whether the hand or the camera is moving — perhaps both. At times the viewer relates more to the original image in the photograph, other times to the photograph as an object (a physical record in someone’s hand), or even to the hand holding the photograph.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread: a full-bleed image of a hand holding a photograph. The photo shows three figures dancing.

This strategy of reanimating the photograph as more than a representation, with a keen sense of its experience in the book form, illustrates what Chen calls moving from, “medium into material and back into becoming another medium.” By harnessing this transformation, the artists’ book can integrate disparate materials and temporalities, like installation art but within a single object. This allows Chen to enact the transformation that is also inherent in photography itself. As her artist’s statement notes:

“The moment of taking a picture is also the evidence of its passing. Image making attempts to reengage the trace left in an image, the plasticity found in reorganizing memory and intention. However, no amount of altering can completely erase that initial sense of passing, death as a picture.”

In To My Unborn Child, heritage is always haunted by loss. Whether political, cultural, or personal, no inheritance is complete. Nor can one predict what gets handed down or how it might manifest in the future. Against this uncertainty, Chen embraces multiple modes of memorialization — monuments, names, family trees, photographs, letters, stories, and poems. The result is an intimate look at the artist’s complicated relationship to her language(s), culture(s), and family. No doubt this examination was sincerely motivated by her immanent motherhood, but it is ultimately the reader who plays the role of Chen’s unborn child. Thus, we can add art to the list above, another way to process and share one’s cultural heritage. At the same time, art carries forward a piece of its creator, not unlike a child.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: a distressed black and white photo shows two children. Recto: English memoir and Chinese poem, side by side.

The need to keep alive connections to family and culture is all the more important at a time of overlapping refugee crises and cultural erasures. Some of the most poignant moments in To My Unborn Child center on the profound disconnect that accompanies emigration, on trying to keep in touch with an aging grandparent, on worrying about visiting because of travel restrictions, on feeling guilty for leaving in the first place,. Chen uses the artists’ book to convey the ambivalence of her experience, its multiple timescales and layers of history. As stories like hers become even more common, the need for representations that embrace complexity and specificity will only grow. To My Unborn Child is a model for synthesizing personal and political histories, even as it acknowledges the inevitability of loss and change.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau
Emmanuelle Waeckerlé
Contributions by Vicky Smith and Michael Hampton
MA Bibliothèque
2021

4.125 × 6.75 in. closed
92 pages
Perfect bound softcover with French flaps
Digital printing

Front cover of A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau; below the title is a close-up photo of a handwritten performance transcript

Emmanuelle Waeckerlé is an interdisciplinary artist who works in sound, performance, and publishing. For over two decades, she has been elaborating the concept of readwalking — the simultaneous practice of reading as walking and walking as reading. The shared essence of these seemingly disparate activities is the embodied, performative inscription and interpretation of space, on and off the page. Waeckerlé’s artists’ books document her performances but also serve as performance scores that encourage readers to become readwalkers. This redefinition of reading alone makes Waeckerlé’s work an important contribution to the field, though readers will also appreciate her ability to revivify literary works, like Thoreau’s essay “Walking” or the erotic novel Histoire d’O by Pauline Réage.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: sparse black words are selected from the grey text of Thoreau's essay, "Walking"

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau exemplifies Waeckerlé’s two-pronged approach to process and product. The publication is primarily a performance score, but also includes a text transcription of one of her own readwalking performances. The reader witnesses her clever engagement with the text, but they are also empowered to try readwalking for themselves. The book also includes two essays that put the project in dialogue with broader currents in art and literature. For all of this, the A Direction Out There is simple and approachable. Its core is the complete text of Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking” with most of the words screened back to a light gray. By subtracting from, but not fully redacting, Thoreau’s writing, Waeckerlé creates a poetic text that can be enacted through her readwalking instructions. Four examples of such a performance are features on an accompanying CD, released by Edition Wandelweiser Records.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: performance instructions for readwalkers

The book’s particular mode of redaction is critical — Thoreau’s text is deemphasized but remains visible; a tenuous tissue that connects but also haunts the sparse words Waeckerlé has selected for her new work. An epigraph by Thoreau speaks to the value of subtraction:

“I find it so difficult to dispose of the few facts which to me are significant, that I hesitate to burden my attention with those that are insignificant, which only a divine mind could illustrate.”

It seems Waeckerlé aims to help the reader focus on what is most essential in Thoreau’s essay — a mission the transcendentalist might approve of, though Waeckerlé is more concerned with the material, rather than symbolic, value of his language. The book’s straightforward, minimal presentation contributes to this goal, though the format is actually determined by the publisher, MA Bibliothèque, as part of their series, The Constellations. Waeckerlé encourages readers to follow their own path through the altered landscape of the text, singing, speaking, and “un-speaking” words according to specific parameters. Alternatively, readers with instruments or other noisemakers can respond to punctuation and walking-related words. The instructions are intentionally open-ended (and thus hard to imagine without an example), so the two-page transcription of a readwalking performance by Waeckerlé is a welcome addition to the book. Audio recordings are also available to stream online, which enhance the experience for a first-time readwalker.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: a typeset transcription of a readwalking performance of Thoreau's essay, "Walking"

Essays by Michael Hampton and Vicky Smith also help the reader without foreclosing other interpretations. Both writers address the persistence of Thoreau’s ghostly text, which exerts its will on the readwalker even as it relies on them for renewed life. (For example, can one really rescue the text’s anticapitalist environmentalism from its imperialist manifest destiny?) Hampton also speaks to the contemporary politics of mobility, of readwalking in a time of Covid-19 travel restrictions and refugee crises. Smith calls on media theorist Craig Dworkin to demonstrate the socially constructed nature of a text, and reads Waeckerlé’s work from a feminist perspective invested in the “speech of blanks and hiatus that Kristeva has identified as the language of the negated.”

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: Michael Hampton's essay is typeset unconventionally to posit ideas simultaneously

Just as Waeckerlé enlivens Thoreau’s essay and shows how many possible interpretations are available, Hampton and Smith show that A Direction Out There should be seen as a method as much as a finished work. Reading the book is a dynamic process. Thoreau’s elegant writing pulls the reader back into the original essay and Waeckerlé’s own selection can divert the readwalker from their chosen instructions. This is not a failure, but rather the very essence of readwalking. The text is like a trail, something to follow but also to add to, stray from, or otherwise alter. Waeckerlé refers to the book as a “prepared text,” recalling John Cage’s “prepared pianos,” which guided but did not fully determine his performances.

This is ultimately what any artists’ book hopes to do — guide the reader but remain open to interpretation. In theorizing readwalking, Waeckerlé centers the embodied and performative aspects of reading. A Direction Out There reminds us that every book is a performance score, and that reading is always also writing, and that writing, like walking, is an intervention in space, with ethical as well as aesthetic dimensions.

a story, the truth, and a screenplay

a story, the truth, and a screenplay
Ruby Figueroa
2017

5.125 × 8.25 in.
96 pages
Long stitch softcover
Offset insides with letterpress covers

Cover of "a story, the truth, and a screenplay". Metallic title text on a colorful abstract background.

I’m a sucker for a character that breaks the fourth wall. The camera shifts, eyes meet through the screen, and we are brought in on real-time reactions and feelings. That slicing of time — cut! — interjected with an aside, a quick quip or snide remark shatters. It can also transform: morphing into a dreamy Vaseline-on-the-lens flashback … or better yet, a reimagined fantasy of what could have been. These tropes of teen-driven movies and sitcoms? We get them all in the memoir-as-artists’-book, a story, the truth, and a screenplay, by Ruby Figueroa.

Inside spread of "a story, the truth, and a screenplay" with conventional typography in black ink.

Figueroa delivers a poignant narrative in four sections, woven together by a keen aesthetic treatment of photographs and screenplay interjections. Overall, the book bears markers of a trade paperback in its production and scale: tidily bound and offset printed. Unique letterpress-printed covers usher the reader in with roller-washy, lakeshore lapping tidelines in hues of magenta, peach, teal, maybe even hints of Chicago common brick (at least on this reader’s copy) and pink, directed towards the use of color in the interior.

"a story, the truth, and a screenplay," inside spread. On the verso a conventional layout; on the recto a typewriter-style screenplay in magenta.

While most of the book is set in a black serif typeface with a traditional book page layout, the addition of fluorescent pink ink in the typewriter face Courier, formatted like a screenplay, and vivid full-bleed photographic images in duotones of that same fluorescent pink and a peachy-orange ink activate the jump-cut of flashback or fantasy. Memory and nostalgia are described bluntly by the author throughout, with a hazy honesty of knowing what was, remembering it another way, and wishing it to be. These interjected pages, both the photographic images and the pink screenplay texts, feel like they’ve been applied with a swipe of the finger — a uniform Instagram-style filter through which to process disparate information.

"a story, the truth, and a screenplay," inside spread. On the verso a pink and peach duotone photo of the artist and sister as children. The recto reads, "part one: la embajada"

Figueroa breaks these aesthetic decisions down in what was, to me, the most self-aware and least compelling part of the project. In this last, most reflective and experimental section, there is a concerted effort to explain the reasoning for the duotone and the pink that feels like a heavy-handed artists’ statement. Up to this moment, the reader is generously left to connect with and follow the sentimental narrative of Figueroa’s coming-of-age story with those interjections as guiding signposts. The didactic explanation of intent is understandable considering the book, presented alongside a series of monoprints, was Figueroa’s thesis project as a Master of Fine Arts candidate in Interdisciplinary Book, Paper, and Print Arts from Columbia College Chicago.

With or without pointed direction from the artist, the day-glo filters over the screenplay skits and images are key to appreciating the book. These photographic images act as stages: cinematic in their dimensions, and I hold them in my vision with a Ken Burns effect, panning and zooming as I read the corresponding sections. This parallax view, the images as still-shots and visual echoes that resonate, joins the duotone images in a list of duos, pairs: Figueroa tells us this is a story about Ruby and their sister, about Ruby and their mother, about Ruby’s mother and father, the dichotomy of growing up in Humboldt Park and moving to a Chicago suburb, about Ruby as a first-generation Mexican-American person, but ultimately it is a story about Ruby-then and Ruby-now. 

"a story, the truth, and a screenplay," inside spread. On the verso a pink and peach duotone photo of a rainbow over a Chicago intersection. The recto reads, "part 4: summer 2016"

Am I brushing past the very meat of the story? Maybe so. The ways that Figueroa shares, divulges, confesses, dishes, and leads the reader through their evolving understanding of self (selves?) is so intimate and generous that to sum it up in any way feels reductive. We follow Ruby reflecting on childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood through the lenses of family, sexuality, relationships, home, and community. The screenplay snippets speak to the underlying presence of media geared toward teens and tweens from the late-1990s through mid-2000s, and the prescriptive ways that it set expectations for “coming of age,” gender norms, and sexuality. Comedy of this era was, at its worst, gag-driven with a gross-out vibe, but at its best delivered with the dead-pan, eye-rolling attitude that Figueroa carries throughout. When the diaristic qualities of Figueroa’s memoir narrative become too saccharine, mistily rose-tinted, or deeply shrouded in regret, Figueroa is the first to interrupt themself with a clarifying parenthetical, sometimes a direct apology to the reader or just a quick “(barf).” 

It’s these moments of levity that bring me back to the on-screen character who breaks the fourth wall. Figueroa’s angle is less a coddling “Dear reader,” and more an elbow jab at your side, “Get a load of this, reader…” This gesture of familiarity allows the reader to become entangled in the project, yielding one as of yet overlooked duo: Ruby and the reader. From the onset in the book’s preface, we are led into the narrative with a tight grip from Figueroa delivering a warning that most of what we are about to read is true, but some stories are victim to “false memories and dramatization. With this awareness, Figueroa actively cultivates a relationship between Ruby and the reader built upon trust. That trust is reflected in a genuine gratitude extended to the reader for participating in this project. Like a healthy relationship, there is a balanced exchange here between all parties: Figueroa, Ruby, and the reader.

Asemic Walks: 50 Templates for Pataphysical Inspections

Asemic Walks: 50 Templates for Pataphysical Inspections
Hartmut Abendschein
Timglaset Editions
2020

8.25 × 6 in. closed
108 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Laser printing

Front cover of Asemic Walks, which is landscape format. The title and author are white on a red background. A black path cuts diagonally across the cover.

If the title of Asemic Walks: 50 Templates for Pataphysical Inspections seems somewhat opaque, the book itself is transparent – literally. Fifty sheets of translucent drafting vellum, each with a printed route, are bound between a few solid pages of front and back matter. In the front, an epigraph from Species of Spaces sets the tone, with Georges Perec urging the reader to practice attention and curiosity. In the back, Abendschein gathers interpretations and responses from various artists, writers and thinkers. Between these sets of quotes, the pages are devoid of verbal content. The book is cerebral, but still deeply engaged with the sensual experience of reading. It is through a deep understanding of the codex as a time-based, interactive medium that Asemic Walks surpasses its own clever conceptual conceit and shines as a physical object.

Asemic Walks inside spread, map 3. The epigraph is still visible beneath the translucent verso.

Each translucent sheet has the appearance of a map, complete with a frame and a compass rose. Dashed and dotted lines trace routes across the surface of the page. Geometric symbols seem to represent waypoints and destinations. Yet it is with these details that the appearance of a map breaks down. There is no legend. There is no scale. Indeed, there is no terrain. The book provides only the translucent route beneath which the reader must furnish their own map to complete a walk. Thus, Asemic Walks is a book that can be used and not merely read. Its translucent pages remain central to the fascinating tensions between these two activities.

Abendschein tempers his invitation to bring one’s own map with a curious dedication following the title page: “to my father, who read maps like books.” What then do the translucent pages do for the reader, rather than the user, of the book? The reader excavates a palimpsest of overlapping routes, forming new shapes on recto and verso as they page through the book. The intricate webs are visually compelling, but Abendschein steers clear of pure abstraction. Each page is numbered, and each compass rose has initials indicating the cardinal directions. This, absurdly, creates a right side and a wrong side of the page, though both are meaningless without a map. A map, however, renders the fifty templates moot since a single route can be laid atop any number of maps to generate infinite walks.

Asemic Walks, inside spread. Colophon and publication information on the verso, dedication on the recto: to my father, who read maps like books.

Like all asemic writing, the routes in Asemic Walks have no meaning because they have infinite meanings. It is up to the reader to determine their significance, in both senses of the word. This emphasis on the imagination may help explain what Abendschein means by “pataphysical inspection.” A full definition of pataphysics — were it possible — would be outside the scope of a book review, but one key concept is that art has the power to make reality from the imaginary. A telling distinction can be made between pataphysics and psychogeography, the latter which is more often associated with walking art.

While the Situationists practiced psychogeography by, for example, navigating Paris with a map of New York, a pataphysician might argue that there is no right or wrong map. The map itself can change the reality it represents. The inventor of pataphysics, Alfred Jarry, set his novel, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, aboard a ship on a sea that overlaid Paris. The plot plays out on a linguistic plane, untouched by the reality of the submerged city beneath it.

Asemic Walks, inside spread, map 36. Verso and recto are both busy palimpsests of translucent maps.

This level of remove is encapsulated in the pataphor, the pataphysical extension of the metaphor. While a metaphor juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated terms, the pataphor takes this figurative, metaphorical relationship as a starting point for yet another juxtaposition, this one entirely figurative with no grounding in the literal. The pataphor exists on imaginary, linguistic terrain that the reader can nevertheless traverse.

A map is already a metaphor. Its user must make an imaginative leap from paper to pavement. Asemic Walks takes that metaphor as its starting point and adds another layer. Abendschein is less interested in the gap between the map and reality; he is ready to move beyond the literal altogether. A reader may slip a map between the book’s pages and take whatever walk they conjure, but to use Asemic Walks is to transpose reading and walking alike onto a plane of pure imagination. If this can be achieved just as easily by leafing through the book’s translucent pages, why bother walking at all? I would argue that the pataphysical belief that the imagined can be lived as reality is best felt outside a book, where readers already take for granted the temporary suspension of reality.

Asemic Walks, inside spread, map 29. Verso and recto are both busy palimpsests of translucent maps.

Plenty of books help the reader escape reality for a while, but Asemic Walks asks the reader to go outside into the real world and see it transformed. It is not merely a means to an end, though. Asemic Walks offers a genuine reading experience for those who want to stay inside. The book’s pacing balances the complexity of each layout with the translucent pages beneath it. While reading a conventional book simply reveals and conceals its pages, Asemic Walks comes into being continuously. A reader sees each page transformed again and again, even before it is in hand. Reading, even indoors without a map, rewards the curiosity and attention that Perec advocates when walking.

Interview with Tyler Starr — Part 2 of 2

This is part two of a two-part interview. Read part one here.

Portrait of Tyler Starr through a film camera viewfinder.
Tyler Starr learning to use the viewfinder of the Mamiya C330. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Levi Sherman: On the subject of teaching, I wonder if you can tell me about your artists’ book class at Davidson College. I’m wondering about the balance of studio work and time looking in special collections, but also subject matter: your course is not only concerned with diverse representation but also active anti-racism.

Tyler Starr: My focus at Davidson College is teaching printmaking, drawing, and the capstone courses for studio art majors. One of my courses introduces Japanese woodblock printing and looks at hybrid examples of using image and text. In the book arts class I offer, we work our way through simple structures like pamphlets and accordions culminating in an ambitious final project that is developed around a campus-wide initiative: “Stories Yet to be Told: Race, Racism, and Accountability on Campus.” Students create complex book structures based on their individual insights into the prompt. Britt Stadig has been a helpful guest for these classes giving students the collaborative experience of developing their individualized structures for their final projects with a professional bookmaker.

Throughout this course, we study examples of artists using the book format to engage with social justice issues. Tia Blassingame led an inspiring discussion with us about her work last fall semester. The collection of artist’s books at our library is a helpful resource. Kikuji Kawada’s book, Chizu, is a powerful example in our collection that looks at the legacy of Hiroshima, militarism, and the U.S. occupation in postwar Japan (https://www.sfmoma.org/artist/Kikuji_Kawada/). It is a challenging class, and I learn much from the students as they explore their individual concerns and experiences. This process inevitably causes us to enter vulnerable states. But great works have been created by the students that strive towards making the world a more just place.

LS: That vulnerability seems similar to what your books ask of the reader. Are there parallels between art and teaching in terms of opening a space for vulnerability and then making the most of that exchange? 

TS: That is an interesting idea I haven’t thought about. In a classroom space, we learn directly from our exchanges. The personal exposure leads to insights, for example hearing of the existential threats some students face, having a blind spot revealed, or realizing complicity in racist structures and the need to act against them. My time alone in the studio digesting information of violent racist incidents similarly includes introspection and contextualization. Hopefully, my books effectively package some of the lessons like primers that can be utilized to promote social justice.

LS: Primer is an interesting word — your books are certainly educational, but they don’t feel didactic. How do you achieve that? Sometimes you focus on dramatic incidents, but you don’t just rely on sensational stories to keep the reader interested.

TS: My family happened to have some 19th century children’s primers that I perused when young, and while I glossed over the overtly moralizing aspects, I was interested in the short synopses of historic events accompanied by dramatic illustrations. The images often dominated and were supplemented with limited text in order to entice the reader — tactics I use in my books. This reliance on visualizations can also relate to the broader definition of primers that includes basic guidebooks on narrow subjects, for example illustrated booklets that efficiently summarize a specific historical battle with condensed information such as maps, uniforms, and statistics. 

Accordion book, "Identification of Cars Participating in Klan Rally at Montgomery Alabama, March 21, 1965" standing and open to a center spread.
Tyler Starr, Identification of Cars Participating in Klan Rally at Montgomery Alabama, March 21, 1965, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

I think my latest books can be didactic in that the chosen subjects highlight lesser known examples of white supremacist violence: 22 bank robberies committed to raise funding for rebellion against the U.S. government to establish a white nation, or motorcades of racists that went on to commit murder. Within the context of a group exhibit offering varied perspectives on injustices in the U.S. such as Breathe at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (https://www.biartmuseum.org/exhibitions/breathe/), my book Identification of Cars Participating in Klan Rally at Montgomery Alabama, March 21, 1965 can be useful evidence for exposing the intentions and continuing deadly threat of white supremacist organizations (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj3fAGOqKAk). This can especially be helpful for people who have not directly been attacked by these organizations and have had a more abstract relationship with their dangers. The visual reconstructions in my newest book, Bank Tellers of America versus the Aryan Republican Army 1992–96, reveals details such as the white supremacist canon of texts captured by the FBI along with the members of this terrorist organization. That was before the dominance of digital reading formats, so they still carted cardboard boxes full of their book collection from storage units to hideouts, but today’s online version has not changed much. At the core of white supremacist literature is the yearning to commit violence and murder, and they look for historical precedents that inform their tactics. 

Unfolded hinged covers on a codex book, "Bank Tellers of America versus The Aryan Republican Army (1992–1996)."
The hinged foldout front and back covers of Bank Tellers of America versus The Aryan Republican Army (1992–1996), 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

LS: Thinking about the context of a group exhibition highlights the way you focus on a narrow manifestation of a systemic issue and resist the temptation to, for example, try to explain the entire ideology of white supremacy in a single book. Is it easier to resist that impulse since you sustain lines of inquiry through multiple projects, which flesh out the context over time? I guess I’m asking about the relationship of any one project to your practice as a whole.

TS: I think your question effectively explains my approach. Collectively, I see my works as a survey of human endeavors including the tragic results. The Mnemosyne Atlas developed by the pioneer of visual studies, Aby Warburg, has been an inspiration for this way of considering strains of connectivity through disparate images in proximity to each other. Warburg’s Atlas consists of groupings of images he sourced from all kinds of places such as advertisements, newspaper articles, and art historical reproductions. He tacked these curated images onto boards covered with black cloth for easy repositioning. The irregular black spaces that result between the images has nicely been described as a conduit for the connections between the groupings. Warburg offered lectures to expound on the panels in ways that would shift as his ideas developed, allowing for a fluid reconsideration of the images’ relationships.

Panel 79 particularly interests me with its arrangement that includes a 9th-century schematic showing a wooden chair for the Pope next to a photograph of a Japanese hara-kiri ceremony, two reproductions of medieval woodcuts, and a newspaper photo of the Locarno Treaties signing (https://warburg.library.cornell.edu/panel/79). Warburg used this panel to evidence traces of the paganistic origins of Christian ceremonies, the looming threat of fascism, and historical examples of anti-Semitic mob violence. An arrangement of my recent artist’s books on a table similarly has implied connections between the various subjects that add up to contextualization of contemporary racist violence. The gaps between the projects hopefully offer interpretive room that allow the works to be more expansive.

LS: I love this idea of gaps articulating connections between projects and opening spaces for interpretation. At the same time, sometimes a gap is just an oversight. Is it useful for artists to reflect on what their art isn’t about?

TS: I think some oversight due to issues like positionality are inevitable and that surely there is much to learn by considering what something isn’t supposed to be. Teaching drawing entails encouraging awareness of negative space and its essential relationship with the tangible aspects of an object being drawn. There is also the old notion that the materiality of a vessel and the empty space it contains are equally important. I became especially aware of the space between things while studying Japanese art with its long tradition of emphasizing empty areas of a composition. The book I mentioned earlier, Honzō Zufu, has great examples of this approach. There are some pages where the mushroom specimen is tiny compared to the paper it is printed on, and this empty space is printed with mica so that sparks of color are revealed as the book is moved. Another method used in this book is to print the background with a darker gradient that reveals the white fungus structures in the foreground. 

LS: That also brings to mind the way you pace your book Redress Papers with empty, colored pages as pauses. Can you talk about your approach to temporality, to the amount of time your reader spends with a book and how much you hope to influence that as the creator?

TS: The pace of flipping through a book can be very different than skipping through a room of works hanging on walls. I love spending hours with a book in the special collection rooms of libraries, and I need several days when visiting one of my favorite places in Tokyo: the vintage book district of Jimbocho. Assuming the viewer has the opportunity to handle the book rather than observing it through a plexiglass vitrine, there can be a cinematic presentation of information with drama and surprises determined by the reader’s movements. I am sympathetic to readers wrestling with a structure of a book to reveal its contents since I am not particularly patient when trying to figure out how to open up more complex structures without damaging the book. My structures tend to be streamlined and with just a little sleight of hand (such as fold outs) to offer rewards for making the effort to engage with the book.

Photo of a Jimbocho bookstore with books stacked floor to ceiling.
Photo of a Jimbocho bookstore. Image courtesy of Tyler Starr.

When I studied in Japan, one area of focus was contemporary use of the traditional Japanese woodblock printing process. This research highlighted the ways inherent physical properties of materials (such as paper or pigment) in the artwork can function as important design elements and conveyors of content. Lately, I have been learning a lot from the book designs of Settai Komura (1887–1940, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7f5NIn3RblA). Nuances of the texture and color of materials can help encourage a contemplative atmosphere with the feel and sound of flipping pages propelling the content.  The cheaper paper of my pamphlets might encourage stuffing them into a pocket on a busy day, while my book covers with linen book cloth might lead to a more delicate and considered interaction. Either way it is an honor that anyone took the time to consider my work and the hope is that it can be a productive experience. My book Redress Papers is an example where I tried to apply this greater awareness of materials by using the slightly translucent quality of the interleaving to weave together the different subjects of the book’s images. The pausing and revealing in the book offer still spaces for the visual memorials. 

"Redress Papers" open to a spread with a blank verso and a vintage car on the recto.
Tyler Starr, Redress Papers, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

LS: You obviously pay attention to details and the consequences of your artistic decisions, in both your research and execution, but as a student of unintended consequences you must feel that some aspects of your art practice (and life in general) are out of your control. How do you apply the lessons you’ve learned about unintended consequences to your practice?

TS: I approach much of what I do in the studio out of a desire to learn. When things go awry, the benefits can be the learning opportunities that arise. Unfortunately perhaps, my discoveries and developments often come from when I screw things up. Repetition and predictable outcomes tend to be the opposite of what excites me about making art in the studio, and this has given me a problematic relationship with the conventions of editioning in printmaking. I suppose integral to my practice is a focus on the investigative process. This approach is complementary to being a professor and conducting courses in conversation with students engaged in their own inquiries. 

A scanned sketchbook spread with notes, diagrams and sketches for "Bank Tellers of America versus the Aryan Republican Army"
Starr’s preparatory sketches for Bank Tellers of America versus the Aryan Republican Army, 2021. Image courtesy of the artist.

LS: Before we wrap up, I wonder if you can tell me what you’ll be working on next? I know you’ve just completed a major project, Bank Tellers of America versus The Aryan Republican Army.

TS: I have two artist’s book projects in the works now. One will be based on figures extracted from video of the January 6th attack on the capitol. The participation of white supremacist organizations brings full circle the work I initiated in 2013 with Auto Record: Greenkill. Unfortunately the insurrection attempt verifies the enduring strain of white extremist violence in American culture, and its continuous threat. With these kinds of projects, I end up sitting way too long in front of computers, so the second project I am working on will be composed of drawings on paper. 

My earliest zines were reportage of witnessed events and recounted stories I heard from people I worked with in various temp factory jobs. I was inspired by Goya’s Disasters of War etchings (I Saw It), and I also have a love of the comic book/graphic novel format. This second project is my first foray into sequential narrative, reflecting things I’ve witnessed over the years that seemingly have some elusive lessons. Halftone color will be an important area of investigation for this project. I’m starting with short stories to figure out what format it will end up being. Stories include seeing the Minnesota Iceman in a Mansfield, Ohio mall, witnessing TS Wisła soccer hooligans in action in the 90s, and a clandestine tour of a temple in Ueno, Tokyo with sad secretive rooms that were the last Shogun’s refuge.

LS: I look forward to seeing those projects come together! If it’s not too glib, can I conclude by asking what advice you might give an aspiring or fellow artist?

TS: I think the critical and constant struggles are figuring out how to have time working in the studio and getting the work out the door into the public. So my advice, coming from a practical perspective, is to decide on career priorities to help form strategies for accomplishing your goals. One goal I had early on was to study art internationally, but I was frustrated by the private art school I initially went to for undergraduate studies because of the way counselors kept pushing me towards a program they had set up in Italy that I considered too expensive and predictable. I ended up withdrawing from the school, taking a gap year, getting EMT certified, and then finishing up my undergraduate degree at the University of Connecticut where the faculty helped me get a Fulbright to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland. That experience was transformative and opened up the world to me. If someone plans to study art in higher education, it is important to make sure the educational institution offers what you need to make the most of available resources.

LS: Great advice! Thanks for your time.

TS: Thank you!