Below you’ll find the most recent artists’ book reviews and interviews. See the submissions page to find out how your book can be featured.
10 × 8 in. closed
Binding: Drum leaf with hard covers
Postcards are a peculiar medium, evoking presence and absence simultaneously. The writer of a postcard says, “I am here” to someone who isn’t. Or they say, “I was there” to a future self who may have forgotten. Postcards are, therefore, a medium of imagination and memory. They are also readymade representations. Unlike the snapshot a tourist takes, a postcard has been carefully chosen to represent a place with commercial and political goals, or at least considerations. This was the case for the National Parks Service postcards that inspired the imagery in Visible Climate, made to promote “America’s best idea” to a nascent public of domestic tourists.
The pages of Lines and Simmons’ collaborative book are not literal postcards, or even facsimiles, but rather draw on the formal and conceptual foundations of the medium. Each pair of text and image relates a memory from a national park, the writing intimate and the imagery iconic. The text is present tense, which departs from a typical postcard but lends a more literary sensibility. A representative passage reads, “I hike back to the spot in the photograph but so much has changed. Gone are the old weathered Juniper trees and dense stands of Pinyon Pine. Dry grassland stretches for miles in every direction as I walk through a mostly silent landscape.” The postcards do not form a single narrative but accumulate to paint a worrisome picture of how climate change is impacting the unique lands that comprise the United States. The themes that emerge are well suited to the medium – changes and time, presence and absence (visibility and invisibility), memory and imagination. After all, landscape itself is a work of imagination, a human representation imposed on the reality of land. Visible Climate grapples with the perils and potential of this very human way to perceive the environment.
The book’s structure and materials do embody a bit of what one might expect from a postcard. Printed on demand through Blurb, the “Layflat Imagewrap” book is essentially a drum leaf binding, resulting in thick pages that open flat with no gutter. The book’s dimensions (20 × 8 inches open) and rather large text encourage the reader to take the book in at arm’s length – perhaps flat on a table – a visual rather than tactile experience. The large pages also leave room to solve the challenging layouts, balancing one image and one block of text without trapping awkward negative spaces. In some spreads one page contains the image with the text across the fold, but most pages pair both elements within their ample margins. The text and image never touch, the gutter is never crossed, and nothing bleeds off the edge. The compositions would be static, stale even, were it not for the organic, unpredictable sensibility provided by the handwritten text and liquid borders of each image. Likewise, the choice to compose both single pages and two-page spreads livens the straightforward text-image format and introduces an element of pacing that makes the bound book function as more than a pile of postcards.
This pacing is suggested on the book’s cover, which is patterned with thumbnail reproductions of the images inside. Neither the spine nor cover display the title, leaving the grid of images to operate free of context. The resulting preview, not unlike the images on the back of a wall calendar, emphasize the book’s affective use of color. In hand coloring Lines’ photographic images, Simmons pushes the warm and cool palettes to an extreme. Blue skies and glacial ice contrast sharply with the arid reds of riverbeds and desert bluffs. This limited color scheme makes the few appearances of green seem artificial, imaginary even. In one such image, a phthalo green swamp gives rise to a ghostly mangrove whose black and white rendering seems to suggest that the plant is already dead.
Just as Simmons’ hand is present in the hand-tinted photographs, Lines’ can be seen in the handwritten text. His rounded hand complements the organic outlines of the imagery and lends an authenticity which contrasts with the artifice of the colorized photographs in an interesting way. The handwriting also references the idea of a postcard, of course, and helps the reader connect more intimately with the narrators than the relatively short texts might otherwise allow. And while the consistent handwriting unifies the collection of vignettes, it also raises complex questions about authorship. The book’s colophon explains that the captions “imagine the voices of park visitors,” meaning each vignette is that of a different fictional narrator. But rather than embody each imagined narrator with a different hand, Lines layers his own identity onto the texts by way of penmanship. Thus the handwriting and hand-coloring point to the process-oriented practice behind the book.
That process included nearly two hundred hours of field work in the national parks featured in the book. Lines and Simmons’ collaborations are grounded in intensive research, and the handwritten text seems to recall a scientist’s field journal, positioning the fictional accounts as the results of research. The importance of process is even clearer in Simmons’ treatment of Lines’ photographs, which begin as conventional digital images. Simmons converts the images to black and white, transfers them to paper and hand-colors them before digitizing them again. The retreat from digital to analog (and from color to black and white) lays the conceptual groundwork beneath the nostalgic, vintage look that hand-coloring ultimately gives the imagery. The point is, after all, not just to reference the historical but to enact a sense of loss over time. As Simmons works, the images lose more and more data until the subjective workings of the artist’s hand supplant the objectivity of the digital photograph.
For all this emphasis on process, the final product remains impeccably crafted; not only the text and imagery but sequence and pacing of the book as well. With the familiar intimacy of the writing, it is easy to read oneself into the imagined correspondence. An inherent sense of temporal and geographic distance makes the suspension of disbelief central to the postcard as a medium. Whether reading a postcard immediately at the mailbox or years after from a shoebox, one is always already later and elsewhere. It is a medium of imagination grounded by the fact of really having been somewhere, not unlike the strange authenticity of Lines’ handwritten fiction. The premise of multiple writers also accommodates more repetition than a straightforward narrative. Visible Climate has no introduction or conclusion; all of the storytelling is accomplished through the fictional missives. Their major themes and motifs are far from subtle, but the book’s quick pace and the sheer variety of landscapes depicted keep the repetition from growing tiresome. On the contrary, Lines’ ruminations on time and change unify the human experience of those disparate geographies and demonstrate how pervasive the effects of climate change really are.
This larger message about the environment emerges not just from each vignette but from the careful sequencing of their accumulation. For while the book may lack an introduction, it does have a beginning, middle and end. Much of Visible Climate’s power comes from subverting the linearity of the codex form. The first postcard ends, “…we’re struck by the near total absence of young trees.” In other words, the beginning of the book is the beginning of the end. The next postcard reflects on ancient cliff dwellings, introducing the human timescale that will remain in tension with the geological throughout the book. It is then all the more shocking when the two timescales reverse: “Decades have passed since I last visited Nisqually Glacier. Most of my fellow climbers are gone, and the glacier is now hundreds of yards upstream.” Changes to the Earth have accelerated to the human scale, and the narrator is left to “recall the sound of the ice, bending and snapping in the distance.”
In the second half of the book, a turning point is signaled by three smokestacks sticking out above the horizon, releasing steam that disappears into the clouds above. On the following page, the narrator writes, “Our hike back to the road feels like we are leaving the scene of a crime.” The final image is the book’s only nocturne, but the linear progress from day to night is complicated by a reprise of the first passage. “The young Joshua trees are mostly gone, while the few remaining mature trees are like oases, providing shelter for dozens of animals in an otherwise harsh landscape.” It is hard not to project one’s own condition onto these trees, survivors of the beginning of the end, caring for others in the face of an improbable future.
Such anthropomorphism is, of course, part of the problem. Our ability to relate to a tree (but less so a blob of algae) speaks to the power of imagination in constructing our views of the natural world, in making landscape out of land. As one postcard notes, “The carbon flowing through those towers can’t be seen and makes no sound.” The climate crisis is, in part, an aesthetic problem, a matter of what can and cannot be seen. Visible Climate is an intervention in the aesthetic realm, a reminder that something is lost in our mediated perspective of the environment. Lines and Simmons acknowledge that some problems of perception are natural, like the inconceivable gap between human time and geologic time, while others are human-made. Visible Climate shows that our inability to see the world as it really is can be catastrophic, and yet any remaining hope lies in the very ability to imagine a world different from our own.
Marnie Powers-Torrey holds an MFA in Photography from the University of Utah and a BA in English and Philosophy from the Boston College Honors Program. Marnie is an Associate Librarian at the J. Willard Marriott Library where she serves as head of the Book Arts Program. She is the faculty mentor for book arts designations and teaches letterpress, bookmaking, artists’ books, and other courses for the Book Arts Program and elsewhere. She is a founding member of the College Book Art Association and her work is held in collections nationally.
The following interview was conducted via email from April to October 2020. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Levi Sherman: You studied English and Philosophy before getting your MFA. How does that background inform your art?
Marnie Powers-Torrey: Like many who find their way to book arts, I’m an in-betweener, a generalist. I took 18–21 credits a semester as an undergrad because I was interested in everything, except the football. I loved physics, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and working with raw materials. Boston College was a great liberal arts school with limited visual art (no printmaking). I was fortunate to study Dostoevsky in St. Petersburg, Becket in Dublin, and the modernists and postmodernists in interdisciplinary, philosophy, fiction, and poetry courses. My honors thesis was a constructed space comprising drawings and ceramic pieces, in response to multiple translations of the Tao te Ching. In retrospect, I recognize that my formative years were towards the realization that words, marks, textures, colors, and composition all communicate equally well, and never as strongly as when united. When I took my first book class at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, I knew that I’d found the haptic, interactive experience that would keep me engaged for the rest of my life.
LS: You note that book arts seems to collect people from other disciplines. Why do you think we in-betweeners and generalists end up here?
MPT: New students frequently share that they’d felt as if they’d dwelled in the margins — until they found book arts. Terrible pun, but it seems that book artists often find we are on the same page. I’m a big fan of Dick Higgins’ concept of intermedia — a space between the knowns, in between ways of doing. When we venture down into these chasms, we are explorers mapping our own paths that tend to intersect with others’. The possibilities are endless.
LS: Since you mention ways of doing, can you talk about the relationship of process and product in your work? I’m especially curious about the differences between creating a single work and producing an edition.
MPT: I love to put ink on paper, but I’m also engaged with many other practices: collage, paper folding, papermaking, mark making, photography, sewing, knitting, etc. As production manager and master printer for the Red Butte Press, I really enjoy the required planning and attention to detail. I find that the repetition of printing and binding is both meditative and generative.
With my own letterpress work, I typically have a rough plan for the print day, but I tend to be very responsive on press, doing no digital design. At SMFA, I was working very freely with few concerns for craft and controlled technique. I was far more committed to process than product. After twenty years of being involved with fine press, I find equal satisfaction in unfettered making. When I work individually or collaboratively on one-of-a-kinds, I can work entirely intuitively and authentically, without concern for next steps. In either modality — heavily planned or more spontaneous — I think a lot while in a flow state, developing concept in conjunction with doing.
LS: That spontaneity is so foreign to me! Do things ever just not work? Or are you not even thinking in terms of success or failure when you’re in that flow state?
MPT: Right, I don’t have a goal in mind with unique works. My focus is on each action/change feeling/looking right. Shaping a visual composition parallels the construction of a sentence. As I place marks/words/shapes/colors/textures in relation to one another, the entirety begins to make sense. Typically when I write, I don’t follow an outline, but let one sentence transition to the next. I place visual elements in the same way, creating a syntactical relationship that connotes meaning for me, and I hope, articulates significance to the viewer. As I commit more time to a one-off, my desire for things to work does heighten, but ultimately, I’m in it for the satisfaction that comes from making. I also find joy in planned production, working toward a defined end point. Either way, the next step is a matter of responding creatively to the previous step.
LS: Do you take a similarly intuitive approach to collecting found objects? Or do you have some idea how they might make their way into your art?
MPT: I guess I don’t necessarily see these methodologies — spontaneous or strategic — as mutually exclusive. Streetcombing is a practice of chance coupled with curation. When I walk with family and friends, they may pick up an object for assessment that ends up in the trash bag. My decision, as it were, is based on concerns that are both practical (can I accommodate this debris in my basement studio that also serves as the family’s laundry room, hockey locker, RC car garage, and tool room?) and aesthetic/functional (does this object have visual value as a rare/unique object and/or can it be printed?). The pinnacle of aesthetic, functional, and practical value is a small rubber object with an interesting pattern that sits on a single plane — a readymade stamp. Also, whether I love circles because they represent and are metaphors for so many things or because they are so commonly found, I can’t say. But I do love the circle, and its enduring relationship to the square.
LS: Books seem inherently related to collecting. Is there a connection between that kind of collecting and streetcombing?
MPT: Though I hadn’t thought of it this way before, yes I do see this connection: a book is a gathering of pages, an accumulation of ideas, a curated and crafted collection in and of itself. Books are a place to stick things that you find (out) — to share and archive. Books provide a means of documentation, sequencing, self-expression, communication, cataloging, indexing, etc. No wonder that humankind is so inextricably drawn to and engaged with these collectable objects.
LS: Since you mention both sharing and archiving, I wonder about the role of the reader in your work? Who is your audience, and how do they inspire, inform or activate the art?
MPT: This question circles back to process. Though concerned with (my) work’s ability to communicate, I don’t actively think about audience when working alone. I do consider how things might be interpreted, but rely on an internal barometer. At the Red Butte Press, we think a lot about whose hands the book will find and how form, content, and design will be received and impact the reading experience. Often, I work collaboratively, which similarly demands effective communication and an externalization of process, resulting in more circumspect evaluation. In the current publishing and economic climate, it’s difficult to forecast audience. We can hope that private collections will continue to acquire expensively-produced editions and one-offs, and recognize that the democratic (equitable) multiple is most effective for wide distribution.
By communicating authentically and thoughtfully, my intention is that we (the book and I) will connect with viewers and create a mutual understanding, though both author and readers maintain distinct perceptions. For example, as I work on individual boxes for the ongoing project Archive of Now, I am interested in preserving and elevating natural objects. I contemplate these relics and then preserve them in custom-built reliquaries which are embellished with prints from mass-produced objects. I (type)write what I see in the object that is absent in the man-made. At each venue where the boxes were shown, a broad range of people have engaged meaningfully with the work, and through this inquiry and response, the installation as a whole is activated. Viewers often comment on the remarkable yet inexplicable fit of the text with the objects and are interested in my writing process.
LS: On that note, tell me about your writing process, and whether it differs from installations to bookworks.
MPT: Typically, I respond to the visual with words, though at times I do begin with a particular text. I don’t know if I’m writing as much as finding words that aid visual communication. I think of writing as a focused practice, whereas what I’m doing is producing sequential imagery that sometimes needs textual support. It’s important that the viewer be able to do some of the work and draw independent conclusions. The gaps between image and text, where the reader engineers the connections, provide space for deep engagement. I see all my work as book work, so no, I don’t think my ideation and conceptualization are divided based on structure.
LS: I’m interested in that continuity; that you see it all as book work.
Where does that leave the relationship between, for example, Archive of Now and Roadside Attractions? The core ideas seem similar, so what advantages do you gain by approaching them through installation and book, respectively?
MPT: There are some advantages to hanging art on the wall — it becomes more visible and invites collective engagement. It’s easier to find spaces to exhibit wall pieces, and wall hangings built for display. I do regret sacrificing the haptic experience with wall work, but having multiple modes of distribution increases opportunities. Also, I inherently identify as a book artist, and my definition of book is very broad. I’ve never been interested in divisions between media, technologies, and text structures.
As we’ve already talked about, my process is responsive, and with these two series, I’m responding to objects — considering what I can do with them, how they can best tell their story, how I can use them as tools and materials. These questions lead me to decisions around technique and structure. Access to tools and technologies along with available time and space — really my daily routines — also factor heavily into my making. As a working mom who is also a maker, I need to be able to fit my practice into available time slots, and my “equipment” at home is very minimal. Thus, I prefer to have creative work in process both at the Book Arts Studio and at my home studio.
Lastly, I’d add that when I investigate an idea, it’s primarily experiential. My research is daily life, including the massive amounts of media I consume everyday — and the daily details inform my work directly. Frequently, I get into a groove with a certain tool and material set, and the possibilities are just too numerous to limit to one methodology. Work that is currently in process is another example of my working on parallel tracks. I was invited by Cindy Marsh to work on a project with a couple working titles (Tobacco Hands, Habits of Mutuality), and together we are constructing a large fiber installation that each of us will also likely publish as a one-of-a-kind book.
LS: Does that balance of family and work change the content or style of the art, or just the process? Do you have any advice for other artists struggling to juggle those demands?
MPT: Yes to changes in content, style, and process in response to domestic responsibilities, as my ideas and practice are formed directly from daily life. I don’t necessarily feel that my work is autobiographical, but even when working collaboratively, the marks I make derive from my present awareness. Motherhood is the single most riveting experience I’ve ever had/am constantly having. Everything I have experienced after conception — a maturation on steroids, perhaps, or maybe an internal earthquake — is seen through a different lens. When my kids were younger, I needed to express this directly in MAMASELF, a nine-year visual journey I documented in conjunction with subsequent births, feedings, arguments, formative nothings, and celebrations. Now that my kids are teenagers, I feel like it’s more about sharing this life with them, and I see my family, colleagues, and friends as collaborators in all that I do. For me, compartmentalizations just don’t stick. I function much better in the gray.
LS: Can I hold you to the second part of my question — do you have any advice for other artists struggling to balance it all?
MPT: Obliquely, that’s my advice. More to the point: make what you need to say with the tools at hand in the time that you find. Ensure that making fits into your regular practices.
LS: Thanks for humoring me. Can you speak particularly to the relationship of teaching and art-making? How does your approach to art inform your pedagogy? And vice versa?
MPT: Art is drawn from life, regardless of approach and intention. I find it more efficient to direct my resources toward adjacent if not overlapping activities — as a colleague of mine, Crane Giamo would say, “feeding two birds with one scone.” Living feeds making feeds teaching feeds making feeds living feeds teaching…I think of myself as more of a facilitator than teacher. Modeling practices, techniques, ideation, etc. allows me to be authentic. However, I rarely use my creative work as exemplar for students, aside from when talking about process/production. By introducing students to my methods and approaches, exposing them to diverse work, and at times making next to or with them, I hope to give them agency to apply skills and ideas in ways that best serve their vision.
LS: You mentioned an ongoing project with Cindy Marsh — what works-in-progress have you feeling the most excited right now?
MPT: During the beginning of the pandemic, I was finishing up the organization of a festschrift in honor of Bill Stewart, researching and making masks, teaching myself to knit, and working on binding past editions. I felt like I had been given the gift of space and time with the lack of a commute. Then life suddenly became too busy again, and I’ve been prioritizing making through correspondence works with others — the gentle tug of supportive expectation helps me justify to myself the import of creative work, I guess, when there is so much to do. I’m working on a hanging piece (a box) that responds to a discarded, editioned artist’s proof by Wayne Kimball which will be part of a collective exhibition of artists working with the same print.
I can’t wait to return to the Tobacco Hands project (another working title Habits of Mutuality). Cindy has recently finished building the first hand whose leaves I produced and has printed additional leaves for a second hand. For the third hand, I have pulled excerpts from oral histories collected by Cindy and me from a family rooted in Tennessee tobacco farming. I have loads of tobacco and cotton paper and reclaimed runners, doilies, and tablecloths from Tennessee thrift stores. I just need to find some time and space in my basement studio turned teaching recording studio.
LS: Do you think this pandemic and the challenges this year has brought will change the way you approach art in the future? Have your beliefs about the role(s) of art changed?
MPT: Yes, I think so, even over the course of our conversation here. More definitively than ever before, I see art as clearly essential. Yes, I find visual art useful in expressing and disseminating ideas, but it has also become an increasingly important survival tool. Making toward a mutual understanding builds meaning, is discursive, and opens a space in between positions. Visual language is often less explicit than text, and in many ways can afford to remain less decisive and open to interpretation. As a methodology of coping, of knowing, and of being, art is absolutely essential for both the individual and the community. We need it in our lives.
4.25 × 5 in. closed
Binding: Dos-à-dos sewn with a 3-hole pamphlet stitch
Letterpress cover and laser insides
Eulalia #3 is the third in a series of zines which center on the generative constraint of Amico’s practice – the content for each themed issue is completed in a single sitting. In reality, the series is less rigid than it sounds. Issue two came out twenty years after issue one, and this third issue is a double issue. The zine’s dos-à-dos structure accommodates two themes, a Before side dealing with grief and healing and an After side about new love and friendship. Although these two sections were produced in two different sittings, Eulalia #3 retains a key feature of the series – a stark yet complicated division between the initial content creation and the subsequent production of a publication to carry that content. This manner of production, in concert with the zine’s form and content, speaks to the importance of storytelling as a way to make sense of life.
Amico works to emphasize the division and juxtaposition inherent in the dos-à-dos structure. Though each section has its own title, the colophon refers to them as Before and After, which clarifies the sequence for the reader and connects the spacial and temporal functions of the book form. Both sides feature a framed 2.5 × 3-inch composition of text and image on each page, but they are visually opposite. Before is printed in black and white, After is printed in color. Compositions in Before are framed by white borders, while the pages in After are black. Both sections use hand-written text, but the image-making varies from mainly drawing in Before to collage in After. The decision to gather these two sequences in a single publication only to then play up the contrasts between them calls attention to the role of the author, to the way Amico’s reflections on themes and events construct the narrative that is ultimately available to the reader.
The straightforward chronology of before and after is challenged by the letterpress-printed titles on each cover. The title on the front cover (Before) is if i could tell my then self something now…, and thus reverses time as well as the roles of author and reader. The zine’s actual reader is left to eavesdrop on the cryptic confessions and consolations of Amico’s past and present selves. Yet the intimate pull of the second person address is powerful, and the reader can almost forget over the course of sixteen pages that they are not the you to whom Amico is speaking. This voyeuristic tension is heightened by the recurring theme of public displays of emotion in regard to grief, heartbreak and healing. One spread reads, “in the silence, all I had drowned resurfaced. / IF YOU’RE NOT CRYING AT WORK IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY YOU MIGHT BE A MONSTER / it’s all too much.”
Of course, we don’t give advice to our past selves to change anything; we do so to reflect on the trajectory of our lives, to find patterns, identify critical moments and learn for the future. We use narrative because there is a difference between story and plot, and meaning lies in the latter. The second section of Eulalia #3 references another way of doing this – Tarot. The social media sign-off of writer and Tarot card reader, Michelle Embree, serves as the title: BIG LOVE. BE BLESSED. Equally intimate, the After side is far more hopeful than Before with themes of new love and friendship. Still Amico focuses on the gap between the story (what is) and the narrative (what we notice): “Something dormant awakened. / A SURPRISE / LAID BARE IN HINDSIGHT.” Elsewhere references to numerology and life’s great questions place Amico’s personal experiences in dialogue with more universal manifestations of the same challenge, to make meaning out of events we cannot control.
The sense that the narrative is pieced together from separate moments is furthered by the consistent and self-contained compositions. The margins around each page and the undisturbed gutters between them nevertheless permit a sophisticated approach to sequence and rhythm. The visual content remains firmly on one page or another, but ideas can play out within a page, across a spread, or through the turn of a page. There is always a relationship between the verso and recto, but it is never the same. Amico achieves as much variety as the relatively short sequences can unify into a cohesive expression through simple formal devices. Among these, the timing of the writing and the sense of depth in the drawn and collaged imagery are especially effective. Together text and image create a relatable experience for the reader within the psychic space of the artist’s interiority.
The zine’s materiality however testifies to the constructedness of this experience. The juxtaposition of black and white and color printing reminds the reader that Eulalia #3 resulted from two distinct art-making events, and that its pages offer only mediated access to the original thirty-two compositions. In the After section, the dimensionality of Amico’s collages is visible but absent to the touch. Nowhere is this more apparent than the inclusion of pink thread sewn into the collages, echoing the book’s pink pamphlet stitch. This detail quite literally ties together the book even as it widens the gap between its creator and its reader, between reality and facsimile. The covers play with the same tension by placing paper and print production at odds with one another. The letterpress-printed titles imply an edition of multiples, while the pink patterned paper evokes a scrapbook, a private object rather than a publication intended for distribution. These material contradictions ultimately raise questions about what constitutes the work and who it is for. Is the finished zine the primary work or merely documentation of the durational performance in which Amico generated the content of its pages?
In either case, the clarifying power of narrative is central to Eulalia #3, for the reader and the artist alike. Just as the zine synthesizes a cohesive reading experience from two separate art-making sessions, so too do those sessions bring thematic and chronological order to the artist’s disparate memories and emotions. That Amico returned to Eulalia for a second issue after twenty years shows the value of structuring one’s thoughts through a publication. The dos-à-dos structure of this third issue elegantly inhabits the messy space between life and narrative, embodying both linear and cyclical time. Eulalia #3 fully engages the ways that grief and friendship and romance color one another despite the bargains we strike with our past and future selves.
Zines are ideal for exploring such deeply personal themes because they bridge the public and private, magazine and diary. Amico seems comfortable breaking down those barriers, whether crying at work or publishing Eulalia. Readers will no doubt be grateful for a place to turn to when it’s all too much.
5.25 × 7.875 in.
Soft cover perfect binding with French folds
Tools for Extinction is an anthology of writing, not an artists’ book, which perhaps makes it an ideal project to examine the distinction between a book and a publication. I have written about this difference elsewhere, but Tools for Extinction so fully mobilizes the possibilities of publishing as a critical and artistic practice that it cannot be understood only as a material synthesis of form and content. This is not to say there are no meaningful relationships between pictures and words, text and paratext, content and layout; there are, and they will figure into the review that follows. The point is, rather, that the social, political and cultural dimensions of Tools for Extinction’s production and distribution are treated with the same self-reflexivity that an artists’ book brings to The Book as a concept. Specifically, Tools for Extinction is not simply a book about Covid-19. It is a publication made of, for, against, within and in spite of this pandemic, an achievement that will become more significant – necessary, even – as unsustainable climate change and inequality continue to catalyze global crises. It is an invitation to reflect on whether and how to create, to make meaning, in the face of extinction.
Tools for Extinction comprises eighteen works by writers from across Europe and beyond. Whether new or newly translated, each piece makes its first English-language appearance in this collection. Half the pieces are translated, highlighting the creative editorial labor behind the book as well as its global perspective. The writing is as diverse as the geography, including poetry, fiction, non-fiction, a speech, and a transcribed audio work. The selections are relatively short, and the collection overall has an engaging texture and sequence. The early pieces pull the reader in, establish the stakes, and introduce many of the common themes and through lines. Some of the longer and more explicitly political pieces follow, and Hansen has varied and balanced the collection to mitigate the hesitation or exhaustion that the subject matter may inspire in readers still surviving the very pandemic at the book’s core.
The book’s design further emphasizes its novelty and geographic range – two features through which the broader themes of space and time emerge. Space, time, and space-time are most visible in the book’s cover imagery: a skewed image of planet Earth (daytime on the front cover and nighttime on the back). The book’s designers, Studio Ard, identify the cover image as being taken March 25, 2020. With the foreword’s date of April 20, 2020, a picture of the book careening toward completion comes into focus (my own review copy shipped in early May). One’s fingers can feel the overprinted metallic silver ink on the back cover, lending a not-yet-dry quality to the whole production. The globe from the front cover is stretched further to an absurd degree on the book’s spine, which, as a physical index of the book’s duration, would seem to reference time. And if the spine signifies time, then space is present in the surface of the page. The table of contents operates according to this logic, arranged as a grid rather than a list. The pieces are presented as roughly square text-image modules across the geography of a two-page spread.
Each image in the table of contents is what Hansen refers to as an “anamorphic ‘tool’: things and beings we might suddenly perceive from new vantage points.” Some of these thumbnail images illustrate the accompanying text directly, while other associations are more oblique. The images depict no environment, the objects cast no shadows. Instead, they present almost typographically, emoji-like in a way that encourages a semiotic reading. These little images also serve as the key to their anamorphic counterparts, which appear as chapter ornaments under the title of each piece. In some cases, these distorted images can be deciphered without recourse to the table of contents, but the reference point certainly helps the reader appreciate the unfamiliar perspective from which they are viewing the otherwise unremarkable object. Instead of framing today’s pandemic and politics as a break or rupture, these illustrations demonstrate just how strange the world can be made through continuous changes – stretching, twisting, and compressing – a topology of the social fabric. Tools for Extinction posits a world that was already at the brink, comprehensible only through inertia and made visible now through crisis.
Many of the writers delve into this uncomfortable continuity between things that ought to be opposites: consciousness and sleep, distance and intimacy, private and public, sameness and difference, past and future. This blurring of boundaries spans genre and style. Ashan by Vi Khi Nao does so with a magical realist approach, probing the social distance(s) of Covid-19 and the alienated, mediated lives people lived even before the virus. Mental health is equally central to Tuesday by Patrícia Portela, albeit in a subtler, less speculative manner. Portela’s neurotic narrator attempts to plan a much-needed vacation, manifesting in an exhausting stream of consciousness that forecloses every future it opens without progressing beyond the present. As with Ashan, Tuesday is a sort of everyday tragedy; the pandemic didn’t cause it but rather provided the perspective from which to finally see it clearly. Tools for Extinction grapples with the grief, trauma and anxiety of Covid-19 without presenting these phenomena as something entirely new.
Nor are these experiences exceptional. Even as the authors relate the circumstances of a particular place and time, patterns emerge. The essay A Penny is a Penny is a Penny by Jakuta Alikavazovic epitomizes this sense of a shared global experience. Alikavazovic writes, “The demonstrations across the country; the various groups of blue-collar and white-collar workers throwing their literal and symbolic tools in protest; people resigning – all rising up against this morbid logic that rest on the idea that a penny is a penny.” The United States? Lebanon? Belarus? The reader must turn to the author’s bio in the back to confirm that the country in question is, in fact, France.
Spring Report from Denmark, the book’s opening poem by Naja Marie Aidt, speaks to the anxiety that such a global threat produces. The title, of course, cannot limit the pandemic to either spring or Denmark, and the piece proceeds with a worried litany of relatives and acquaintances around the world. The poem is a Covid-era beatitude, with the repeated phrases “I think about…” and “I fear for those who…” introducing individuals and groups of people whose circumstances seem worse than those in Denmark, with “free medical help for everyone / the same rights for everyone.” Aidt uses formal devices like repetition and enjambment to evoke the twisting of time, and both the writing and typesetting contribute to a strong rhythm that further emphasizes temporality.
This strange temporality, a mix of boredom and survival mode, confronts writers and artists with particular poignancy. In The Dispossessed, Joanna Walsh reflects eloquently on storytelling in the Covid era:
“Narratives used to be about how you got where you are now. The future was open. From now on they work backwards from how you died, with death not an addendum but a defining factor. Every tale has a teller. Now only death will tell what sort of life you had, and it will define you at the point you were triaged for death, at the point you were deemed too old, too subject to an ‘underlying condition’, too insignificant, too not-a-subject to be ‘a priority.’”
But Enrique Vila-Matas reminds us that this tragic state is not as different as it seems in his existentialist essay, Empty Streets:
“Why do we waste so much time? Because we live as if we were going to live forever and don’t, for a second, pause to remember that we all have to die, a reality that underlies the surprised tone in which people say they never thought to experience a tragedy like this, ‘so far-reaching and affecting so many people.’”
Tools for Extinction maintains the tension between both perspectives, that things are not normal or okay, and that this was true even before Covid. It is a productive tension that writers – and artists of all sorts – will need to contend with for the foreseeable future. This is perhaps the key organizing principle behind the book. It is not a time capsule or a pandemic diary. It is not meant to be a record of an aberration to be read in libraries and schools in 2021 that look just like those of 2019. Tools for Extinction is meant to show that artists will have to adapt. The fact that the book came together in a few short months during a lockdown shows it can be done. And the resonance that the writing has for a reader still in lockdown shows that art still matters.
This is part two of a two-part interview. Read part one here.
LS: Given the ongoing reckoning around equity and representation in the arts, how are you approaching representation in the collection?
KG: We know network-based approaches often reinforce existing disparities, so it’s important to me to take that into personal account when I consider our curatorial impulses, and to continually question my own frame of reference. By encouraging artists who are unknown to us to show us their work, we want to challenge the ways in which our own privileged worldviews might leave us removed from the concerns of underrepresented artists.
TH: We have thought about it and continue to. Part of the reason that we had such a great breadth of response is that we didn’t ask specifically for work from particular genres or media. Our artists aren’t all printmakers or all young; there are poets and writers in there, which also strengthens our approach. I also like the idea of artists coming to our attention that we don’t know, and wouldn’t have otherwise, through the project.
KG: Yes, the breadth of genres that function within this form gives us more latitude to practice curatorial discretion. We want to prioritize a balanced collection across disciplines that currently overrepresent white artists.
LS: Did you pre-plan the genres that organize the website, or did you come up with categories once you began receiving the books?
TH: We had an idea of standard categories for both genre and media that artists could choose from when submitting their works. We did do some editorial work in making suggestions to artists about assignments we felt were more appropriate.
One thing I like about the project is that it’s stealthy. The format is simple and self-contained, and it still gives me a thrill, even though I’ve been making books for a long time.
That’s all we needed to do this work. It wasn’t about artists’ books. It’s about the power of the medium, not about the medium itself. That’s why I’m less affiliated with writing that discusses what artists’ books are; whatever you’re feeling when you’re doing it is more interesting to me than some of the discussions about it. But I think it is really stealthy that QPL is introducing a bunch of people to book arts.
KG: There’s a double-edged sword for a book artist, where in order to make a living from your work, you often have to sell that work at a price that undermines the ethos of producing an artists’ book. I think most artists working this way have reservations about the fact that their books are sold to institutions for three and four figures. It seems like they would really ideally like their work to circulate, but the economic circumstances are limiting. One thing I like about our project is that it promotes a consideration of artists’ books from a perspective that prioritizes distribution.
Looking forward, I love the idea of inviting artists whose work is usually inaccessible and coveted, as a way of creating an opportunity to collect among those who don’t usually get to own art. When you print something out from this collection, you have ownership of that work. You’re really getting to handle somebody’s work, and it requires you to be complete.
LS: As you move forward and add new books, are there any gaps in the collection that you have identified and hope to fill? Or are you still exploring and seeing where it goes?
TH: I would love to invite someone who does children’s books. If someone who already does them was interested in the format, it would be really quite a sweet gift.
KG: I’d love to see research enter the collection—non-fiction that is well-sourced and considered, but available in a way that’s more easily understood. And I think we can use more poetry.
TH: I agree. I love the example of David shields’ book, Measuring the manufacturer’s stamps produced by Hamilton Mfg Co c1910 – c1950, which is this kind of oddball little thing, but will be darn useful as a reference tool for a bunch of people. I have had the pleasure of working with David. The form can hold a lot. We certainly haven’t exhausted it.
KG: H.R. Buechler’s book, Granular Luminosity, is one that responds to the form foremost as an image field, although it can also be understood as a codex.
TH: Pati Scobey considered that with her book, o. It’s beautiful as an image, and she’s inviting people to color it, but she put a lot of work into making sure the drawing would resolve itself in a pagination format. More of that would be cool.
LS: It’s very difficult to succinctly evoke the spirit of an artists’ book — are you two writing the descriptions on your site or are they provided by the artists?
TH: We asked the artists for a blurb and gave an example to help, because we needed something succinct. In a few cases, we edited or wrote them.
KG: We built the site as artists were working on their books, and shared its password so contributors could see it evolving in real time. As part of this, we had dummy content in place, like books with invented names by famous artists. One placeholder was reportedly by van Gogh, so the blurb said something like, “A tortured artist and his easel in France.” That was another way of demonstrating the spirit we wanted to capture.
I tend to give dry, straightforward answers in those instances. I loved that some artists used the opportunity to say something that was true, but maybe in a way that was more oblique or emotionally resonant.
LS: Tell me about EveryoneOn and why you decided to have a philanthropic angle to the project.
KG: We knew it was a privilege to work on this project. In making the effort to attract an audience, there was an opportunity to use that attention to underscore more urgent needs. QPL depends on access to digital communication, which highlighted how important it felt to advocate for digital equity—especially because so many students are without internet access right now, and require it to use tools that are crucial to their education and sense of well-being. EveryoneOn brought all of those pieces together.
LS: If you want to brag about how much money you raised so far, feel free to report on the fundraising.
KG: The project launched four days ago, and we have raised $535.* Moving forward, as we potentially see users returning to the site over time, we hope our audience will be suggestible to making donations they may not have yet.
[*QPL had raised $1,000 for EveryoneOn by August 5th.]
LS: That’s incredible! Especially for a new project. Congratulations.
KG: We were both surprised by the metrics. We had visitors from 22 different countries on the first day of the project. It was fun to see the Forbes article get picked up by Latest Nigerian News and Samachar in India. It’s so exciting to imagine people in different countries all making the same book at the same time.
LS: Opportunities to have a book in an exhibition or collection on another continent would normally be rare. This is a great way for physical copies of books to proliferate further than they could otherwise.
KG: Yes, and that would certainly be another gap in the collection: international works and works that aren’t in English.
TH: That’s one reason I regret that not every artist put their name on their book. I wish that it wasn’t quite so anonymous—It’s something to think about as we go on.
KG: The possibility that you could come upon a book and not know how to find out more about it is disappointing. When the first works started to roll in, Tracy also mentioned that we might have put an imprint on the books.
TH: That’s partly why I’m interested in this cataloging question from the Cary Graphic Arts Collection. Those standard questions in cataloging are hard to deviate from, which makes it challenging when certain things don’t fit. Will Amelia put down QPL as the publisher? That’s a question. The city of origin is another standard notation in a catalog record. Another approach was shared by Lyn Korenic, the director of the Kohler Art Library, who told me she would catalog the URL for their artists book collection.
LS: I’m interested in whether the Quarantine Public Library is a meta project, a publication in and of itself. Born-digital artists’ books are overlooked, and haven’t always fared well in an institutional setting. I wonder if it will be collected digitally in addition to the hard copies.
KG: There are so many projects that are born physically and then cataloged digitally—it’s odd to think about this project working in the opposite direction. It’s a point of frustration for me, and a sort of an inescapable problem for web designers in general, that this thing that you make will eventually no longer be supported. (There have been times that I wanted to see a digital artist’s book, but could only see thumbnail images of it in Johanna Drucker’s book.) We are coming up against that same question now as we think about how to future-proof the website. What type of developmental considerations have to be taken into account?
TH: It’s interesting as a preservation question because the project is ephemeral, in the sense that it came out of this really specific time and the response to it. That underscores it so much. But in the long term, the idea of a digital place that supports books that can be downloaded and assembled—that is a preservation question. I have training in preservation, so I’m always interested in that.
LS: Especially with a website. For example, you were describing the fictional placeholder books you had added to the website, which maybe affected the outcome of the contributions — will that be documented? Are you preserving what goes on behind the scenes?
TH: We do have some screenshots because, as I said, I want to see this again. There were some really beautiful mockups of early pages, but I don’t know if we have them all.
KG: There are some. The challenge of digital preservation is that it has so far relied upon static media to capture these forms, but building a website is much more fluid than what that can account for. It’s difficult to document in a way that is at once comprehensive and comprehensible.
LS: Do you want the Quarantine Public Library to persist for as long as possible? How far into the future do you plan to add to it or support it?
TH: It depends on our time and abilities to keep doing the project the way we have, and figuring out at each stage how to do the next steps. We are committed to growing through the end of the year. I’ve been thinking about listservs that have been really important to me, on book arts and letterpress history; sometimes they have to shop around for an institutional home. They seem so old fashioned, but they’re hella permanent compared to other things. I really don’t know the answer to the question, but I would be interested in thinking about an institutional home. Whether that’s possible, I don’t know.
KG: I’d say it depends not just on how we feel, but on what the response is and continues to be.
LS: Is there anything that you want to ask one another while we’re all on Zoom together?
TH: I look forward to talking with Katie in the coming weeks about some of the things that came up here, especially the preservation questions. We’ve had a pretty close view for a while. We aren’t exhausted by it by any means; it’s still very stimulating and exciting, but I don’t feel right now that I have had enough time to zoom out. I am excited to consider what will emerge from that. I think of the project and the work we’ve done as being for us, with benefits for other people. And I feel perfectly happy about that. If it is a model for people to think, Things are all fucked up, and I don’t know what to do, and I feel despair, and they see QPL and think, That’s really cool. I could do something like that — that would make me very happy.
The following interview took place via Zoom on July 20. It has been edited for clarity.
The Quarantine Public Library is a collection of artist-made books, which can be downloaded, printed and assembled for free. The project launched in July 2020 under the stewardship of co-founders Katie Garth and Tracy Honn. Though not explicitly about the pandemic, the Quarantine Public Library is very much a product of this time, so I was eager to speak with Katie and Tracy during these early days of the project.
Katie Garth is an artist in Philadelphia. She holds an MFA in Printmaking from the Tyler School of Art and a BFA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Katie has a background in graphic design and book arts, and enjoys teaching, writing, and presenting on topics related to contemporary print practice.
Tracy Honn is a printing history educator, curator, and printer living in Madison Wisconsin. She is senior artist emerita from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directed the Silver Buckle Press, a working museum of letterpress printing. She serves on Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum’s executive board of directors.
Levi Sherman: How did the idea for the Quarantine Public Library come to you? Was there a kernel of it before the pandemic?
Tracy Honn: There was a kernel. I had told Katie I’d always thought it would be cool to have an exhibit of artists’ books using that format, and that they should be downloadable, but just in casual conversation.
Katie Garth: I heard Tracy’s idea and thought, “why not?” We could do it now—we had the time.
TH: It would never have happened if Katie hadn’t said, “let’s do it.” Although I had the spark, Katie really has the abilities to do this. We shared sensibilities in terms of the library — the way the ideas got developed and the things we care about — but I feel like Katie had a better sense, much earlier than I did, of how it could function and really be a library. Once we decided on a name, a lot of the work came from gut. Don’t you think?
KG: I think it was gut. And there was a sense of urgency, even if, after a certain point, it was relatively self-sustained.
TH: We wanted to do it as quickly as possible, so the artists had a very quick turnaround.
KG: Many told us that having one specific thing to focus on, and a deadline by which to be held accountable, was helpful because of how much feels really vague and abstract right now. They said, “I haven’t been able to make anything lately, but I can do a one-page book.”
TH: Many of us were feeling like we couldn’t really make art—what’s the point? With so many large questions, it’s hard just trying to focus. This was a very precise goal that had a certain positive “whoo!” feeling about it.
KG: I also got that feeling from working on the project itself; it gave me a sense of purpose. The point of the website was for an audience to enjoy it, but by the time it launched, that felt like dessert, because the work had already been meaningful.
LS: Can you talk about the process of working on a collaborative project in the middle of a lockdown?
TH: So often, you’re side-by-side at the press, or working things out in person. But we both like to email and text, and actually, I think it worked brilliantly. From home, you can be more responsive.
KG: The lockdown was not much of a limiting factor, because we’ve maintained our friendship over a distance for a long time. I can’t think of how we might have approached the process differently.
LS: How have your backgrounds in art and design prepared you for this project?
TH: I’ve done a lot of collaboration, and earlier in my career I was really interested in it as a subject. I’m always fascinated by collaboration, especially in Book Arts. I just worked on a book art show that’s at the Chazen Museum of Art at UW–Madison right now, and one section is all about collaboration.
KG: It was incredible to have to articulate my thoughts to someone else. There were several moments where I certainly would have made a mistake if I were working alone, but because I was talking things out with Tracy, I only fell on my face in front of her.
I learned a lot from Tracy about taking communication seriously, and about the benefits of writing a really good prompt for your group. She showed me a lot about the ethics of situating yourself clearly and being responsive to the artists in organizing a project like this.
TH: Because I don’t have the technical skills that Katie has, I felt like she was having to do more work, but it really worked out very well. It’s very blended. There is a lot you can point to and know that it’s Katie’s work, and I think it’s important to know that—but I’ve always liked that when people work together, it’s not so important who did what, but that you share a sense of ownership. That doubles your success.
Because Katie has a background working with clients in a design setting, there is a good way in which she’s not too attached to something. She cares about it— we both feel really passionate about the project—but it didn’t feel like, “Oh, you don’t like the thing I did here.”
It makes it more fun, really. The stakes weren’t really ever high, except for us, because we cared about it. That’s a cool thing; nobody was telling us what to do.
KG: It’s funny to hear you say you felt like I was doing the work. This just didn’t feel like work at all for me. There was real joy in the fact that we were only accountable to each other, even though—or maybe because—that is the most important kind of accountability to me. It was both motivating and freeing.
LS: What’s something that you’ve learned so far?
KG: I was surprised by how many happy returns there were. My web design background taught me the difficulty of influencing user behavior. The idea that we could design a website where people would not only click the button, but then print out a design and fold it into a book, and then read it, and then take a picture of it and share it with us—that was a tall order. But when it started happening, it felt so rewarding. I had never experienced that level of interaction within a digital project before.
When we were discussing technical underpinnings of our prompt, Tracy asked, “what if someone is printing this on a press?” I asked, “do you really think people are going to be hand-setting type for this?” And sure enough, Walter Tisdale sent us a photo of his book, To Thine Own Self Be True, alongside the wood type he used to make it.
TH: One of the things that I really got from this was being introduced to artists I didn’t know. Also, I don’t work digitally—I like the tools a lot, but since I retired from the university, I have access to fewer of them—so it was kind of fun to get back into that just a tiny bit.
It did make me aware that some artists (my peers probably) were less technically inclined. It’s fun to have those groups together. Someday we’ll have a party. I’m looking forward to having all those people meet each other.
KG: Yes, and as someone who is more comfortable with digital interfaces, I really enjoyed working with the artists who weren’t as familiar with those tools. It was important that everybody could be brought along.
LS: If someone could see behind the scenes of the project, what would they be surprised by?
TH: Our secret power might be that I worked in libraries for most of my career, so I know a lot of librarians. Katie knows librarians. We’re both printmakers, and we know printmakers. Katie said—how did you put it?
KG: Librarians love to share, and printmakers love to distribute.
TH: There is a power in calling it a library. It could have been framed as an online exhibit of artists’ books, but affiliating with an institution that’s powerful in a democratic way felt really beautiful.
LS: Yes, I’m interested in that choice to make it a library, especially during this pandemic. The library remains a trusted community institution at a time when art institutions are coming under fire for racial inequity and massive layoffs. What is special about libraries, and how does that relate to the art world?
KG: I think about libraries as ideally bringing things that might otherwise be out of reach into a more inviting space. One reason why this project felt important now was because there has been a collective loss of public space. We wanted to make one small but welcoming place that gave our audience permission to explore, and to have access to our community.
TH: It really did come out of that experience of feeling a loss. We tried to make it transparent for users that it was for people. It is a gift. The thing about libraries is that circulation is a really powerful idea. These books don’t exist in any editions; they’re not for sale.
I just learned from a colleague, Amelia Hugill-Fontanel, who works at the Cary Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology that she is going to print out every one of the books and catalog them. I’m interested in how that will work—they will be in a library as well as being part of this idea of a library.
KG: There’s something potent about these editions as endless. Among its many duplicates, your book won’t have a unique number—but it’s special because it’s the one that you made.
TH: Yes. And that also invites the possibility of the audience becoming inspired to make a book of their own design.
LS: How can artists get involved? Are you still looking for contributions?
TH: We curated by selecting the artists up front, and trusted that people would know what to do if they stayed within the format that we described. We didn’t edit content and we didn’t solicit specific content, although we did add content ourselves.
KG: We will continue to add books by invitation, but we are interested in seeing work we aren’t yet familiar with. If an artist wants to make sure that we have seen their work and will take it into consideration, they can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Another way to get involved is to make your own book using the pagination template on our tutorial page. Whether or not it is part of the collection, we want to see it.
TH: I have this fantasy of someone sending us a picture showing that they made all the books—the whole library! That’s what I’m waiting to see.
2.5 × 3.75 in. folded
Single 8.5 × 11 in. sheet
Binding: Parallel brochure fold
Edition of 35
The phrase, “The 14 Negro Students of Noyes Academy / Canaan, New Hampshire” gives the diminutive cover of this single-sheet publication a punch that the official title, Students, holds back. The wording implies the existence of other students, and indeed the subject of Students is the tragic fate of a racially integrated school in 19th century New Hampshire, and the lasting impact it had on its alumni. Artist Tia Blassingame brings archival research alive with the students’ own poetry, presenting the richness of their experiences even as she highlights the gaps in the record.
The book most closely resembles a brochure, the toned paper parallel folded into horizontal quarters and then folded in half to create a vertical spine. It primarily operates as a flat sheet with two clearly separate sides. On one side, excerpts from two poems lay atop an American flag, all printed in blue. The other side is black and red, and weaves a short history among the names of students, which visually dominate the composition. The synthesis of primary texts and archival research into a narrative history is not in itself remarkable. However, Blassingame is exceptional in her use of the artists’ book as a medium to foreground certain details and leave others unsaid, overturning the usual politics of representation. Students centers the Black perspective, and offers a corrective to the way historical narratives about anti-Black violence are often presented. Blassingame lets the students themselves speak – before and after the destruction of their school – which is itself notably absent.
The relative simplicity of the book’s structure demands a careful look at each design decision. Of these, the reader will likely first see that the book seems to open backwards. If the “spine” is on the left, then the colophon is showing. Flipping the book over to read the cover moves the spine to the right, which makes opening the book feel somewhat awkward, but crucially allows the title and colophon to be oriented the same direction as the rest of the text on the same side of the sheet. This compromise indicates that the open sheet is the book’s primary visual unit, rather than the page or opening. Whether front or back, the colophon is a fitting cover, since it contextualizes the book’s text: “In 1835 the schoolhouse of Noyes Academy, an integrated school in Canaan New Hampshire, was physically removed by a mob…and its black students were run out of town.” If the book’s fold evokes a brochure, it does so with a bitter irony, advertising and mourning the promise of an education that was too enlightened for its time.
On the front (the side shared by the title and colophon), red images show a floor plan and elevation of the George Kimball House, where Blassingame explains some of the Noyes Academy students boarded. The house occupies only the top quarter of the sheet, behind the title and colophon. Its pitched roofs peek out above the fold, exuding a sort of quintessential domesticity that sits uneasily with the book’s events. Beneath the colophon and title, the six remaining folded panels organize the rest of the composition. This comprises three threads of text. A narrative account of Blassingame’s research and retelling, and the names of the students are printed in black. The remaining text is set in larger, uppercase letters and printed in red as if stamped across the page: BORN ENSLAVED or BORN FREE. Thus, the students appear to be organized into each of the six panels, three for those born free and three for those born enslaved. Blassingame’s account zigzags left to right and top to bottom, filling out the space between the students’ names (eight of which remain unknown).
The reverse side functions more like a broadside than a book, but the folded panels still guide the layout. A monochrome American flag fills the page, bleeding off all four edges. The absent red in the blue flag reads like the fugitive red in a faded shop window advertising – signaling its false facade in black and blue. The stars and stripes are further tarnished since Student’s toned paper removes any actual white from the palette. Obscured as it is by the text, a reader might first miss the flag’s four even rows of six stars – “Old Glory” as she was from 1822–1836. Atop the stars is printed a four-line poem titled “On Freedom,” written in 1828 by a twelve-year-old Thomas S. Sidney, who figures elsewhere in Blassingame’s text. Beneath it, and larger, is an eight-line excerpt from “Call to Rebellion” by another Noyes Academy alumnus, the prominent abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet. The transcendent optimism of Sidney’s verse is nowhere to be found in this latter work, written in 1843. Garnet documents the racist threats of violence he has endured in his poetic call for insurrection. Together the two poems bookend the hopeful era of integrated education and its antebellum aftermath.
Yet, between these bookends the “book” is nowhere to be found. The critical incident, the school’s untimely end in 1835, is mentioned only in the colophon. It haunts the book like a paratextual ghost. Blassingame makes the absence poignantly present, just as she does by repeating “Unknown” for each of the eight unidentified students on the front side of the book. This attention to the archival gaps and silences characterizes Blassingame’s approach. She begins her narrative by stating, “The names of eight of the fourteen students of African descent continue to evade this author.” This is not a disclaimer, but rather a key point; it speaks to the marginalization of Black students in 1835 and in all the intervening years. Blassingame’s own positionality as a Black researcher is central to Students, as is evident in the narrative’s self-reflection. She shares not just her findings, but also how she came upon them, and what she was unable to find.
The gap between the present and an unknowable past manifests also in the book’s imagery. The rendering of the George Kimball House is pixelated, an effect Blassingame accentuates with the Risograph’s halftone. This digital signifier foregrounds the layers of mediation between the reader and the events in question. The image is, at the very least, a print of a scan of a drawing of a building. Blassingame highlights the anachronism on the side with her own contemporary first person narrative, whereas the reverse is more cohesive. The typeface pre-dates digital design, and the screened-back imagery creates a worn, historical appearance. In fact, the faded flag shares a soft subtlety with the pressure-print letterpress technique that Blassingame employs expertly in other projects.
Blassingame’s self-conscious, historiographic approach to archival materials would be productive under any circumstances, but it is especially important when dealing with race. The artist must confront the historical record and ask who is seen, who is heard and for whom were the records kept? Blassingame amplifies stories of Black people pursuing love, justice and freedom in spite of adversity, instead of focusing on the destructive actions of Canaan’s white population. The only violence represented is that of the archives. Black pain is not up for consumption, only white complicity. Black lives are not reduced to a single event, even when that event is central to the story being told. Blassingame’s relegation of white violence to the colophon and her centering of Black voices is a strategy – an ethic – that more artists would be wise to adopt.
The following interview took place via email from May to July of 2020. It has been edited for clarity.
Sarah Nicholls is a visual artist who makes pictures with language, books with pictures, prints with type, and animations with words. She combines image, visual narrative, and time in prints, books, and ephemera that are often research-based. Sarah is interested in urbanization, local history, climate change, the history of science and technology, alternative economies, found language, and the history of publishing. She has written a collection of self-help aphorisms, published a series of informational pamphlets and printed a field guide to extinct birds. Her most recent book is Solastalgia, a book about islands, both real and imagined, that are in the process of disappearing. Sarah’s limited edition artist books are in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Stanford, UCLA, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others.
Levi Sherman: Artists should always consider their audience, but the fact that your publications are informational emphasizes that relationship. Who are you hoping to reach, and what change would you like to create by informing and entertaining them? I’m thinking especially of your Brainwashing From Phone Towers pamphlet series.
Sarah Nicholls: Audience should be the first thing you think about when planning a publication. It’s important to know both who you are trying to speak to and what you’d like to tell them. It helps to clarify things for myself. I have a list of people in mind when I write a pamphlet: people that I think will be interested in the content, people I’m excited to speak with, people I haven’t seen in a while but who I would like to keep in touch with. Also people who are interested in supporting the series in general, who have become part of my community. Some people I specifically send one issue to, because I think that person would be particularly interested in the subject matter. Some are close friends who get all of the pamphlets I make. Some of these people are people already interested in artist books or printmaking. Some of these people have nothing to do with the book world, some of them have nothing to do even with art in general. By coming up with this list of people, I try to expand the audience for an artist’s publication, and by focusing the work on subject matter outside the world of art I can bring in lots of different potential audiences.
Since I’m speaking to lots of different kinds of people, I make a point of writing in a very clear, explanatory kind of way; the audience shapes the writing style. I want people to understand what I’m trying to tell them, without having to jump through hoops, or wade through jargon, or know secret handshakes.
Most of the more recent ones that I have made have focused on different aspects of the particular urban environment that I live in, in New York City, including local history, the built environment, the natural environment, and how all three combine to form a particular kind of place, which is under threat due to climate change, among other things. But many of the people who receive these pamphlets do not live here, and many will never visit the particular parts of the city that I am interested in. What I would like them to do, really, is to take the same kind of approach to their own surroundings: to ask themselves, what kinds of plants and animals live here? How did they get here? What is in the process of changing around me, and why? Who are my neighbors and where have they come from? What is at risk of disappearing?
LS: That sounds like an excellent segue into the role of research in your practice. How do you go about answering those questions?
SN: Research is a large part of my process; I usually start with a general theme for the year so that the research process isn’t all over the place and so I can build knowledge around a subject over time. Last year was weeds; this year is mapmaking. Sometimes the theme is relatively loose, sometimes more specific, but I find it helpful to structure my time and plan in advance.
I start by spending time in the neighborhood I am interested in. I mostly travel by bike, so I ride around, walk around, over a period of time and take lots of photos. The images in the pamphlets are usually based on photos that I’ve taken. I read about the history of a place, and try to see how it fits into a larger picture of the city. There’s a good reference collection at the Brooklyn Public Library on Brooklyn history that I’ve used a lot. There’s also a good collection at the Brooklyn Historical Society. This year I’m spending a lot of time looking at the digitized collection of historical maps of the city that NYPL has in their map division. I read everything I can about the current problems in a specific community, and try to identify the people and organizations that are working on them. Last year when I was thinking about weeds and spontaneous urban plants a lot, I read about that: where weeds come from, how they spread, how they are used and defined. Then I try to synthesize it all.
LS: How much of that synthesis happens in the studio? Is everything planned out before you start setting type or carving linoleum?
SN: Yes, after research comes the design stage; I draw a bunch of pictures, usually based on photos I have taken, and come up with the visual elements I want to use. I write a series of drafts of the text, starting with an outline that covers all of the things I think I want to include, then filling out that outline, then editing it down, editing it again. I make a mock up, then another mock up; the format of the final piece can change depending on the content. I know what I want to do before I start carving lino or setting type. As I set the type the text usually goes through a final editing stage; I don’t really know how it sounds until I start setting it. So setting it in metal usually helps me finalize the text and I think of it as part of the writing process.
LS: The pamphlets employ a surprising variety of sizes and structures, which change the reading experience through revealing, concealing, turning and expanding. Is variety a goal in and of itself, or does the structure simply arise from the content?
SN: Both. Surprise is part of the goal; I like sending something out as a surprise, that takes a surprising form, and I think that the variety helps with that. I also try to match structure and content. I’ve been doing these publications for years now and it also helps keep it interesting for me.
LS: On the topic of serendipity, how did you come up with your subscription model where a friend receives a surprise copy? Do you have any anecdotes or feedback that speak to the sort of relationship that creates?
SN: When I first started making pamphlets in 2010 I just gave them to friends; I liked the surprise element of it, that I could send something to people as a gift. When you pull a print, you don’t really know what it will look like in advance, and that surprise is exciting. For the reader, when they receive a pamphlet in the mail, it mirrors that surprise.
When I started using the subscription model, I was worried I would lose some of the elements of the project that I loved: the surprise, the gift. But I also wanted to be able to circulate them more widely than I had been, and make the project more self-sustaining. So I gave subscribers the option to add a friend to the list for a year, in addition to themselves, which not only kept the surprise gift aspect but also meant that they circulated outside the group of people I already know. This means I get to be surprised, by who reads them, by where they end up, by having people come up to me at events and say, “My friend signed me up for this!”, by getting letters and zines in the mail from people who’ve gotten pamphlets and enjoyed them. I’ve especially enjoyed being at book fairs and having people come up and introduce themselves as readers who have gotten them through a friend. It’s one of the best aspects of it. This year, before everything blew up, I have been planning a series of events in conjunction with the series, and one of them was going to be a bird walk in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with a NYC naturalist I met through the series, Bradley Klein, who became a subscriber himself after he was added to the list by a friend. There are people who subscribe every year, and have been receiving them for several years now, who I maintain a correspondence with. One of my goals was to build a community and I think it’s been successful at that beyond what I imagined.
LS: Tell me more about the community you want to build. What does it look like? Who participates? How does it differ from other communities within and beyond the art world?
SN: It’s a community that can shift and grow, that includes people who might not be interested in the art world, people who don’t feel comfortable in art institutions, people who would not come to an art event or talk or a gallery exhibition, though it also includes art audiences. I like to meet these audiences where they are at.
Since the pamphlets are nonfiction, information based publications, and since they are about specific places and the communities that live there, part of what I also want to do is build a community that thinks critically about the policies that build their environment. Who can afford to live in their neighborhood and who can’t? Is there pollution in their neighborhood and why was it allowed to be left there? Who is safe in their community? Who has access to green space and who doesn’t? By sharing information I would like to help people build more equitable communities, and ones that are more resilient to the challenges to come. This is particularly important in a time of climate crisis, because the communities who are most at risk are the ones with the fewest resources.
I would like it to be wide and diverse, but also engaged; I think it’s important for me that people read these things and think about them, and that a shift happens in how they think about the place where they live. Engagement isn’t always something that happens with artist books made in larger editions, even if they are intended to be widely distributed. There’s this point at the end of the New York Art Book Fair every year when people try to get rid of their copies of publications so they don’t have to cart them home, where it just seems like way too much paper that no one will bother to look at in a day or two. Sometimes books made in a large edition are purchased by someone, they take a photo for Instagram or whatever of their book fair haul, and then maybe the book never gets read, it just sits on a shelf. Ideally I want to have a relationship with my readers, where I can tell them a story one-on-one, in that reading voice inside their head, and they enjoy it enough that they send me something in response.
That happens often enough that I feel like the project is generally doing what I want it to do.
LS: One reason I started Artists’ Book Reviews is to get the books out of the tote bag and off the Instagram feed and actually read them. What kind of reception and support have you found in the art world? How important is institutional funding for a long-term, research-based project like this?
SN: I’m glad that artist books are finding readers outside the tote bag!
I think that I developed a way of working specifically so that I wouldn’t have to rely on institutional support. I can publish these pamphlets and distribute them without much in the way of infrastructure and the subscriptions cover the direct costs of production, so it’s a self-sustaining project. However, as time goes on, I’ve been surprised by the extent to which I’ve been given support and an audience within a larger art world. This is partly because I’ve expanded the project to include events and neighborhood walks, which are open to the general public, and partly because I think that nonprofits and local grantmakers are particularly excited to support projects that can reach audiences outside the context of a traditional gallery art world. Institutional support is important in widening the reach of these projects; though the pamphlets can be made without support, I think that it’s important that the people they circulate among changes over time, and that the subject matter changes, to keep it fresh. One other thing about institutional funding is that I have less pressure to make the pamphlets a commodity, which means I have more freedom to distribute them at will to any audience I choose, and still have the project be self-sustaining. Engaging with different versions of the art world are important both in terms of developing an audience, as well as helping me to grow and develop in my own work.
It also tends to snowball a bit I think? I think opportunities lead to more opportunities, and I think that I’ve been doing them for some time now, and it’s built up some momentum at this point. I have received new funding this year from the Brooklyn Arts Council. And I have been given an exciting studio residency this year through BRIC, a Brooklyn arts and media institution that should start, fingers crossed, sometime this summer, depending on how the timeline goes for opening up. So I’m very lucky. And both are directly tied to the pamphlet series, and I am very grateful for the support I’ve gotten this year especially.
I also think that times change, and tastemakers change. I remember very clearly that when I started working with books that there was a definite stigma attached to craft techniques like letterpress, and that the artists working at the Center for Book Arts operated in a completely separate, somehow lesser, version of the art world from the rest of the visual arts. I remember having arguments with my supervisor at the Center for Book Arts over the use of the word craft — he would insist on talking around the word on all official materials, we had to say “traditional artistic practices” instead of craft, because he didn’t want people to think we had craft cooties. There’s a significant gendered aspect to that. I don’t know how long this moment will go on, but being able to use serious craft techniques within a contemporary art context, and be welcomed, is something I am overjoyed to be able to do.
LS: For better or worse, I think we’re also at a particular moment in terms of expertise and authority. I consider your pamphlets as a positive result of that trend, along with citizen science, guerilla botany, oral history, etc. I can’t help but think of the very first photobook, Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Are we in another era of the amateur?
SN: This is an enormous subject.
When I teach letterpress, one of the things I try to communicate to students is the way this technology created a new kind of authority. I think I started printing as a way of being able to hijack that voice of authority, to use it for my own ends. It also brought knowledge and information and an audience to all kinds of new people, which made it possible for new kinds of writing, of political thought, of the development of science, in terrible ways and amazing ways. I think that pamphlets have been used to both create new fields of expertise, and to destabilize authority since the 17th century. I think that all science began as citizen science, as groups of amateurs experimenting on their own as a hobby. Citizen science was the only kind of science there was, and only later on became a profession. All expertise begins as an experiment.
I think that the new technology of print brought in an era of the amateur, just as the internet and social media has ushered in our current era of the amateur. There are enormous liabilities to this, as well as opportunities. I think that the overwhelming nature of current events is hard to process, and so when I print pamphlets now, I try to slow things down into something that is digestible, which is possible in this older technology. I communicate through pamphlets because I came of age in the 90’s (what my students might call the late nineteen hundreds) and have nostalgic feelings about DIY zine culture, about one person writing about their personal experience that they can share with a sympathetic community through the mail, but I am old now and have all these printing and binding skills. My 90’s experiments in zines have become expertise. I still think that people should make their own culture, outside of institutions.
One of the things that leaps out at me about 17th century European pamphlets is how many of them are about the end of the world. This wasn’t just superstition; people lived through plague and the Thirty Years War and all these new forms of thought and technology and religion and then the sudden realization that the world was much larger than they had imagined. The world that they knew did actually end, and apocalypse was a useful metaphor to describe this. We’re not only living through a new era of the amateur, we’re living through a new era of apocalyptic imaginings. Our movies and stories are full of zombies, CGI skyscrapers sinking under the ocean, and dystopia. I find this comforting, both because everything eventually comes to an end, but also because after that comes a new beginning.
LS: That’s a fascinating history! I hadn’t made the connection between those early printed pamphlets and your engagement with our own apocalyptic climate crisis.
This raises the question of timing and duration. Are your pamphlets a warning? A record? A blueprint? Where do you envision them in thirty years, or 300?
SN: I think they do serve as both a warning and a record; I hope that I am able to raise awareness of the immediate need for systemic change, but I don’t think I am even close to being expert enough to draw a blueprint of exactly what that means. I hope to point people in a direction, and to raise enough concern to motivate action.
I also want to document the particular version of the city that exists today. Things here in NYC change drastically in a matter of years; the city that existed when I was in high school is long gone. The version that was here when I moved to Brooklyn in 1998 is also gone, when I visit that neighborhood now it’s almost unrecognizable. If you lived here even ten years ago, and then left, the city that you knew is no longer here. So I know that the version I live in now will be gone soon too, and I want to document what is here now while I can.
This is how the city functions even before you take climate change into consideration. Neighborhoods will start to shrink in the coming decades, losing physical space to the water, and the city will become smaller for the first time in hundreds of years. The infrastructure we will build to try to shore things up will be a huge change to our coastlines; hard infrastructure like seawalls and barriers will change how waterways look and act. I can’t even imagine what the city will look like in thirty years.
And of course right now drastic shifts are happening, faster than I can even write about them, in how we are using our public space: in the streets, in our ways of relating to each other in public, in our transportation system. Overnight subway service is gone and might not come back, which means that city that never sleeps trope is no longer a thing. We’re using public streets to do all kinds of new things, at the same time that tons of traffic is coming back because people are afraid of the subway. I strongly believe that we’re at a turning point, and I look forward to finding out what the new version of the city that emerges from this moment of crisis will be like. I think we have badly needed a reset, so we’ll see what comes next.
I have no idea how many copies of these things will be around in thirty years. They will probably circulate in ways I can’t foresee, which is interesting to think about. I treat them as ephemeral, sending them out widely, but I want them to be a record. So hopefully some of them survive, and I hope in surprising places. 300 years is more dicey. Will we have libraries? Mail service? Will we have cities? Will we be on this planet? Who knows. Have you read New York 2140, the Kim Stanley Robinson book? It’s glorious; it’s a recognizable version of the New York City of the future, half drowned and transformed but still familiar. I found it comforting. I wouldn’t mind living there.
LS: Alas New York 2140 is languishing unread on my bookshelf, but I think we can all use a comforting view of the future right now.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your work during this moment of crisis.
One Hundred Excellent Flowers
8.5 × 11 × .375 in.
Binding: Screw post with cover wrap
Edition of 200
Referencing the writings of Mao Tse-tung, One Hundred Excellent Flowers pairs a text of acerbic aphorisms with photographs of supermarket shelves, vending machines – and, yes, flowers – to critique contemporary consumer capitalism. Beneath the deceptively austere cover, the reader is confronted by a cacophony of color separations, made all the more powerful by the book’s relatively large format. The creative and metaphorical use of pre-press and print processes are a signature of Meador’s work, and One Hundred Excellent Flowers uses fluorescent ink instead of true CMYK. His expressive use of offset as a medium enables a key aesthetic argument – a pop art sensibility that recalls the 1950s and ‘60s, at a time when global powers seem intent on rekindling the Cold War.
The book’s minimal cover is noteworthy given the visual excess inside. It is a dark blue paper wrapper with a cut circle to reveal the printed title on the first bound page. Three smaller circles along the spine reveal a screw post binding reminiscent of Kevin Osborn’s Real Lush. Although the books share bold colors and richly overprinted imagery, perhaps One Hundred Excellent Flowers is better compared to Fortunato Depero’s “bolted book,” Depero Futurista, with its combination of art, advertising and manifestos. The photographs inside show flowers, but also junk food and candy with visible brand names and price tags.
But Italian Futurism (and Fascism) are not the politics at play. Rather, the colophon refers to a particular episode in the history of Chinese communism, when Chairman Mao encouraged dissenting opinions only to later crush the dissenters. He is quoted, “Let a hundred flowers bloom / Let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Meador’s own writing throughout the book adopts this style, editorializing in a sardonic combination of elevated and prosaic language. The narrative voice prevents the pointed commentary from seeming didactic.
The text begins with the original quotation above, and the first half of the book reflects on the role of dissent in a society. The text sticks to the original Maoist metaphors of flowers and snakes – ideas and dissidents – but the imagery opens other interpretations. After a few pages, junk food intersperses the Warhol-esque flowers, juxtaposing consumer capitalism with the communist system with which the text began. Then a reprise signals a new section: “Let a hundred brands blossom. / Let a hundred corporations contend.” In the second half of the book, the text addresses the system that the images have hinted at.
The imagery produces meaning through form as much as content. The compositions of the photographs disorient the reader with extreme close-ups and dizzying, diagonal points of view. However, the images barely operate as photographs thanks to Meador’s pre-press interventions. Ben-Day dots the size of dimes collide with checkerboards and crosshatching – an inexhaustible variety of half-tone patterns, part Lichtenstein, part glitch art. One Hundred Excellent Flowers intensifies the visual strategies of pop art to make them relevant in today’s manifestation of the consumer capitalist media environment that informed Lichtenstein and Warhol. The compositions are also calibrated for the sequential medium of the book, different even than the serial approach of Warhol’s offset-printed Flowers. The half-tones defy their design; they fail to coalesce into smooth images. Instead they call attention to fabrication, artifice. The misaligned patterns render the four process colors hyper-visible, but elsewhere create muddy fields of richly overprinted blacks. These images unravel at the fore-edge margin on the recto, leaving white space for the text to occupy.
The text, placed in the small field of negative space, feels precarious. The images dominate visually, but the stark contrast of black text on white paper (plus the consistent positioning) ensure the reader’s attention returns to the text with each turn of the page. The even pacing of the text gives the book a steady rhythm and brings out the abstract potential of the imagery. The ragged fore-edge contrasts with the orderly margins that run along the top and bottom of each page and even gutter crosses, which facilitate full-spread images remarkably well considering the screw post binding. The margins are no afterthought; the fore-edge is the center of the folded sheet, and thus could have been printed on. Meador plays with this by fore-edge printing a flower, but doesn’t take the idea further. Nevertheless the folded sheet adds to the book’s heft and, more importantly, prevents the copious overprinting from showing through from one page to the next. The feel of the folded sheet, draw attention to the act of reading, already heightened by the text’s position in the fore-edge margin where the reader’s thumbs reside.
Just as the binding and composition engage and implicate the reader, the book’s content is scaffolded to hook the reader and then pull them into deeper waters. “How could sugary breakfast cereals ever be bad?” gives way to “Feed the people disgusting swill and call it a feast / until no one can tell the difference between poison and antidote.” From media to politicians, it’s not hard to see how Meador’s critique extends beyond food. In fact, it is not Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung that One Hundred Excellent Flowers channels, but another book of aphorisms – The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord. The two books, published within a few years of one another, form a dialectic that unlocks Meador’s project.
The central question is what (as noted in the colophon) Chairman Mao called “the correct handling of contradictions among the people.” For Debord, the spectacle is a means of deferring contradictions without resolving them, always offering something new as an alternative and distraction. Hence the ceaseless proliferation of “fragrant falsehoods” as Meador calls them. He renders the paralyzing freedom of endless choice in the grocery aisles and vending machines, hawking their wares with cheap prices and lurid colors. The various spectacles push and pull, intersect and overlap, but like the book’s half-tone patterns, never resolve into a seamless image. Following Debord, One Hundred Excellent Flowers suggests that freedom can be found no more in the poisonous decadence of US capitalism than the brutal repression of Chinese communism.
One Hundred Excellent Flowers is a model for thoughtful, historically-grounded political discourse at a time when hyperbolic soundbites are more fashionable. Meador elucidates contemporary social and economic problems by drawing on the visual and textual aesthetics of the 1960s – another era of conflict between China and the United States – at a time when counterculture movements once again push for structural change and challenge capitalist ideology around the world. Even with its pop art colors and strident writing, the book seems contemplative in the context of cable news commentary and social media. The medium lends itself to an individual experience without posturing, defensive or performative. Meador seizes that opportunity to weave together geopolitics and art history with familiar access points that help the reader place themselves in a system that is once again facing global resistance.
Nuno Moreira and David Soares
5.5 × 8 in.
Binding: Link-stitch with exposed spine
Laser inside and foil stamped slipcase.
Edition of 50
ERRATA is a cinematic, existentialist essay that explores mysticism and metaphysics through the metaphor of the book. Grainy, high-contrast images chronicle a cryptic encounter on the book’s rectos. The versos present a text, in both Portuguese and English, which questions humanity’s place in the universe, and whether we can ever come to know it through language. ERRATA is a collaboration between writer David Soares and artist Nuno Moreira, whose background in filmmaking informs the book’s style. The book grounds the arcane topic through jumps in scale, back and forth from the cosmological to the individual and embodied. The reader is further engaged, even implicated, by the book’s self-reflexive bibliographic content and the point-of-view photography. The artists remind the reader that language and books have long been fruitful yet frustrating tools with which to grapple with life’s big questions. ERRATA also demonstrates that artists’ books can be capable contributors to this age-old quest.
As readers of this review likely know, an erratum is a list of corrections accompanying a book with errors. So it is perhaps ironic that ERRATA is exquisitely crafted with great attention to detail. (The production value extends to all aspects of the project; my review copy arrived wrapped in black tissue paper, closed with a monogrammed seal.) The publication comprises a black paper slipcase and an uncovered, link-stitched text block with an exposed spine. The binding calls attention to the object’s book-ness, reinforcing the meta-commentary inside. Foil-stamped lettering on both sides of the slipcase spells out the title in circular configuration (perhaps recalling a mystical hexagram), removing any distinction between its front and back. The contrast of the white linen thread and paper with the black slipcase is a striking design feature that anticipates the visual style of the book’s content.
Like the case, the book itself downplays the distinction of front and back. There are no covers per se, so the first and last pages stand in, and mirror each other’s compositions. A small, square, black and white photograph is centered on the page, depicting a table and chair in a room. One image shows the table empty, while the other shows a fire blazing on the tabletop. Both images have a surrealist quality, and their relationship hints at a chronological relationship. All of this supports a double reading – front to back and back to front. As Moreira hints in his project statement, “everything makes sense in reverse.” Indeed, the text is remarkably successful in either direction, and the photographic narrative fares almost as well. In one reading, a woman at an empty table is approached by a man who hands her a book, whose pages turn from blank to black as she reads. In the other, a book is burned but not consumed, as if by some Promethean fire, and then cleansed page by page by a woman who then gives the book to a man.
Yet, to say it makes sense is an overstatement. The book is dense with symbolism and reference, requiring reflection as much as reading. Soares’ writing is elevated and sometimes overwrought (at least the translated English text), but suits the religious and mystical texts it references. It is the language of writing rather than speaking, further reinforcing the book’s focus on the constructed and incomplete nature of books and language. The bidirectional reading succeeds in large part due to the text’s use of parallelism. The repetition is more than another biblical reference; it helps anchor the reader and reinforce ideas that may be lost in the intricate, unfamiliar language. For example, the book’s final phrase – “We are all pages in a book: when we are turned, we die. All letters are mute to us.” – is mirrored by a passage earlier in the book, “All letters are mute to us. We are illiterate in the face of the proclitic and echoing speech of the cosmos.”
The aphoristic proclamations and questions add context and connotation to the image sequence, but neither text nor image directly illustrate one another. Nor do they interact visually. The text remains on the verso, and the square photographs land in the same position on each recto. This enables the reader to approach the visual narrative almost like a flip book, which further strengthens the its cinematic quality. More importantly, the moving image enhances the sense that the reader whose point of view ERRATA’s reader occupies is doing something other than reading. The photographs capture her hands turning the pages in such a way that she appears to be conjuring something magical. Palm down, her hand waves over the pages as they transition from light to dark (or dark to light). The noisy, chiaroscuro photographs sell the mystical mood, and add a surprising amount of interest to a sequence that largely depicts a pair of hands reading a book.
ERRATA is at its best when the text and image support one another, letting the reader make meaning from the parallels and juxtapositions. The single image with text in it – in which the book’s title is revealed – is heavy-handed compared to the rest of the work, which is open to alternate interpretations and even simultaneous contradictions. The title, “Structure of Consciousness,” is unlikely to tell the reader anything they didn’t already know. ERRATA is explicit in its references to consciousness and cosmology. Its sense of mystery comes not from withholding information from the reader, but from engaging with topics that are truly mysterious.
ERRATA is about the quest/ions more than answers. Through its self-reflexivity, the book connects art to this fundamental human pursuit of understanding. It also uses the human-scaled intimacy of the book as a medium to powerfully play with the reader’s sense of scale. Voice, heart, hands and eyes are at once human and otherworldly in Soares’ prose. They also reinforce the inescapable role of language in forming our understanding of the cosmos. Letters, words and pages – the book is a shapeshifting metaphor in ERRATA, giving the reader not a sense of closure, but connection to a timeless inquiry. For all its connotations of truth and authority, the book reminds the reader that all is not as it seems. The photography places the reader in multiple points of view, both immanent and transcendent, just as the structure encourages more than one sequence. The final image, a book ablaze, is a fitting conclusion to a work that challenges the authority of the book even as it harnesses that power as a metaphor for existence itself.
Moreira and Soares understand that the book is effective both as a metaphor and as a medium. The strength of ERRATA is that it trades on the book as a symbol – creation, religion, authority, the body – even as it eschews the formulaic familiarity that makes such references possible. It exudes book-ness, but operates cinematically. It establishes a power dynamic with the reader, only to change that relationship repeatedly throughout the reading experience. It promises an exploration of the universe, and delivers a treatise on the book itself. The artists approach the book almost like tactical media, critiquing the form while harnessing its strength. ERRATA shows why the artists’ book continues to be a generative mode for collaboration, interdisciplinarity and unanswered questions.