This Land is My Land

This Land is My Land
Thad Higa
2021

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

Front cover of This Land is My Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Object Objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oriental Silk

Oriental Silk
Xiaowen Zhu
Design by Michael Mason, CHEVAL
2020
Hatje Cantz

7 × 9.5 in. closed
196 pages
Smyth-sewn, clothbound hardcover
Offset inside with screenprinted cover

Front cover of Oriental Silk with bilingual title text screenprinted white on gray bookcloth. Next to the book is a white bookmark printed with green text repeating the author and title in English and Chinese.

Oriental Silk is a Los Angeles import and retail company, a film, and an ever-evolving installation project by self-described “visual poet and aesthetic researcher” Xiaowen Zhu. The book Oriental Silk is a bit of each of these things and more besides: a memoir, a biography, a company history, and a visual elegy.

The bilingual text of Oriental Silk begins with Zhu’s account of stumbling onto the eponymous store in Beverly Hills and, after meeting owner Ken Wong, making a documentary about the store’s history. The story quickly evolves, delving deep into Mr. Wong’s family’s past and his own psyche, while Zhu’s imagery, layout, and commentary raise questions about capitalism, Orientalism, nostalgia, and the nature of art and artisanship.

Oriental Silk inside spread, pages 70-71. Chinese text on verso, English on recto. The white paper is cut shorter than other pages, revealing green, pink, black and yellow pages behind.

Covering such a wide variety of topics and jumping between time periods and perspectives as Oriental Silk does could easily leave the book feeling scrambled and scattershot, but both the design and the careful manner in which the images and text are crafted unify these disparate threads into a coherent and affecting whole.

The book’s organization is a major part of its aesthetic. Zhu separates sections of prose narrative with series of images rendered on colored paper, often in pastel tones: “bright but subtle too,” as a customer describes Mr. Wong’s selection of silk goods, and also reminiscent of the sort of carbonless copy paper found in business settings. Many of the images are printed in black and white, but the colored paper lends them a brighter feel and reflects the aesthetics of the hand-embroidered silk pieces mentioned throughout the text.

Oriental Silk inside spread, pages 88-89. Verso and recto each have a black and white photo printed on the green paper. Silk jackets on the verso and labeled boxes of velcro on the recto.

Images and text are also separated in a more tactile way: the white pages that make up the book’s narrative are cut shorter than the colored pages on which readers encounter most of the images.

Zhu uses the separation between text and image to guide the reader through the multiple perspectives present in the work. While we begin with Zhu relating her first encounter with Wong and his store, Wong’s voice actually makes up most of the text; the images often serve as Zhu’s documentation of and commentary on his story.

This division is not always so simple, though. While many of the book’s photographs are composed consciously and presented in a manner reminiscent of a gallery exhibition, we also get something much closer to Wong’s perspective in one section of images: a scrapbook-like collection of historic documents and family photographs. These pictures are more obviously intimate and almost solely focused on human subjects, providing an internal counterpoint to Zhu’s observation of the shop and the family from an artist’s perspective.

Oriental Silk inside spread, pages 100-101. Verso and recto each have two black and white Wong family photos printed on the green paper.

This push and pull between the book’s two primary characters, the artist and her subject, is what gives the book so much of its initial charm and its lasting emotional impact. We feel we get to know Wong and come to understand his store alongside Zhu: both as itself and as a reflection of its owner.

However, Oriental Silk is not solely a document of interpersonal relationships; it also raises political, economic, and philosophical questions. Wong’s accounts of family history often brush against the harshest and most well-known examples of anti-Asian legislation, action, and sentiment: his great-grandfather was one of the many Chinese laborers who risked life and limb building the Transcontinental Railroad and were immediately erased from that history; his father purchased another immigrant’s paperwork in order to make it to the U.S. in 1941 and subsequently witnessed the internment of people of Japanese descent during World War II.

Oriental Silk inside spread, pages 44-45. A single photo spans the gutter of the spread, printed black and white on yellow paper. The image is the shop's exterior sign: Oriental Silk Importers.

Zhu also concerns herself with more subtle, complicated examples of Orientalism with references to Anna May Wong, the “first Chinese-American star” who was still consistently shut out of the best roles in American cinema: a paradoxical victory for representation and demonstration of overt racism. Anna May Wong’s story serves as a parallel for the similar complexity of Zhu’s understanding of Ken Wong’s romanticized view of Chinese culture: influenced by Orientalist American notions, but also a deeply personal reverence for his family and their legacy. The Chinese title of the film, Xiang Chou, literally translates as “silks from town” but has the same pronunciation as the word for nostalgia.

Finally, the work is deeply concerned with the nature of art and craft, of what it means to consciously make physical objects of beauty. Descriptions and photographs of the silks and Ken Wong’s affectionate, methodical ways of handling and altering them make up a huge portion of the book, and readers can clearly see that the same conscious care went into the construction of the book itself. While Zhu’s film conveys Ken Wong’s story and everyday reality just as successfully and beautifully as the book, the book’s tactility adds another essential layer: the form reflects and enhances the content. In her artist’s statement, Zhu tells us she wrote the book because:

I feel films are more fluid, but the written word is more profound. As the creator, to be able to use … different media to convey the same story allows me to come at it from different angles, and to keep finding new aspects of the story that move me.

Zhu’s book serves as both an enlightening companion piece to her film and a fascinating work in its own right: an object of beauty to be looked at and touched like the eponymous silk goods, a thorough examination of the relationship between history and the individual, and an honest, mournful look at the passage of time in its grandeur and its mundanity.

Inscription, Issue 1: Beginnings

Inscription, Issue 1: Beginnings
Edited by Gill Partington, Adam Smyth, Simon Morris
Information as Material
2020

Inscription journal: 12 × 12 in. offset-printed perfect-bound codex, 134 pages
Sean Ashton, Living In A Land: 12 in. vinyl LP
Craig Dworkin, Clock: 6.625 × 6.625 in. offset-printed, saddle-stitched pamphlet in a slipcase, 12 pages
Jérémie Bennequin, An Erasure into the Maelström: 36 × 36 in. offset-printed, folded broadside
Craig Saper, Global Reading Supplement: Augmented reality app

Front cover of Inscription, a square journal with a hold drilled in the middle. The cover image shows the open fore-edge of a book, an partial, black and white photo of a woman and a spiral icon in the top right corner.

As “the journal of material text,” Inscription is necessarily self-aware, so its inaugural issue is appropriately titled “Beginnings.” Each contributor grapples in some way with beginnings, endings, and time more generally. The journal’s organizing principle — and a recurrent visual motif — is the spiral. As a concept of time, the spiral is neither linear nor cyclical, but rather allows for new variations on familiar themes, think Mark Twain’s (probably apocryphal) observation that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” However, in the case of Inscription, the spiral organization is as much spatial as it is temporal. That is, the diverse contributions — from book history and literature to poetics and pedagogy — are connected by the universal impulse to inscribe and the inescapable influence of time.

Jérémie Bennequin, "An Erasure into the Maelström" fully open to 36 × 36 in., showing a spiral form erased from the complete text of Poe's original short story.
Jérémie Bennequin, An Erasure into the Maelström: 36 × 36 in. offset-printed, folded broadside.

Inscription’s self-awareness is no surprise as a project of Information as Material, a publisher whose mission is to create new meaning through reframing. A journal is such a framing device, and one that Inscription’s editors examine, exploit, and expand. This expansion, also symbolized through the centrifugal movement of the spiral, manifests most visibly in the various components that accompany the primary codex and its relatively conventional scholarly contributions. (I say relatively because many of the essays tend toward lyricism and self-reflection, and because reading them requires rotating the over-sized, perfect-bound codex in a spiral fashion and reading from both directions since the journal has two beginnings with two prefaces.)

On the left, a 12-inch vinyl LP of Sean Ashton "Living in a land" which features a photo of the poet reading in front of a microphone. On the right, Craig Dworkin's "Clock" which looks like a 45 rpm in a square slipcase with a circle die cut from the middle.
Sean Ashton, Living In A Land: 12 in. vinyl LP; and
Craig Dworkin, Clock: 6.625 × 6.625 in. offset-printed, saddle-stitched pamphlet in a slipcase

These additional components comprise: an augmented reality poem by Craig Saper; an audio recording of poet Sean Ashton on a vinyl LP; what appears to be a 45 rpm record but is actually a printed poem-essay by Craig Dworkin; and a three-foot-square, two-sided erasure of Edgar Allen Poe’s A Descent into the Maelström by Jérémie Bennequin. The dimensions of the complete assembly are determined by the 12-inch record, and the journal’s editors plan to include a record with each issue. The square codex itself mirrors the record with a hole drilled through the middle. Indeed, the reader spins the codex like a record, but the hole is not the axis. Instead, it doubles upon opening, two eyes looking back at the reader.

For all of this eccentric and lavish production, the publishers do an admirable job of making the content available. A complete digital version is available open access, including the audio recordings and video documentation of Saper’s augmented reality piece. A downloadable PDF gives the reader some idea of the admittedly cumbersome reading experience of the printed codex, but thankfully the full text of the articles is also available in more conventional HTML. The journal strikes a similar balance between risk-taking and rigor in terms of process. The artist- and writer-in-residence roles may be somewhat unusual for a journal, but submissions are double-blind peer reviewed, and the editorial board is stacked with big names in artists’ books and related fields.

Although I cannot manage a review of individual articles and contributions here (many deserve such attention), together they show the promise of Inscription’s interdisciplinary approach. The wide-ranging perspectives and methods are effectively bound together by themes of materiality and mediation, and each contribution seemed of comparable quality. The articles that seemed furthest outside my areas of interest or expertise were unexpectedly engaging, and those that were closer found fresh approaches to familiar topics. Two standouts were “On Stone,” Serena Smith’s rhizomatic reflection on lithography stones, and “Writing the Birds: Barrawarn,” Australia-based Catherine Clover’s attempt to notate birdsong and imagine a decolonized, vernacular poetics. It is easy to imagine many of the articles in other journals, but in Inscription they resonate with one another in an exciting way and will reach readers who might otherwise stay within their disciplinary borders.

With submissions of this caliber, the success of the journal hinges on its ability to add value to its content. The exceptional production value alone does so, from the high quality of conventional figures and illustrations to the execution of the ancillary artworks. The editors must also continue to balance the strength and flexibility of each issue’s theme. “Beginnings” was a natural fit for the first issue, so “Issue 2: Holes” may ultimately prove whether Inscription can forge a community of contributors and readers from so many different disciplines. The innovative, interactive format of the journal certainly gives readers a reason to subscribe and may even convince writers that their work is better off with Inscription than a more conventional publication. 

Inside spread of Inscription, which shows the text rotated nearly sideways. The typesetting is unconventional, similar to concrete poetry.

The emphasis on material production does leave a nagging question about the practicality of the printed version and the authenticity of its online cousin. There is a case to be made about the materiality of digital inscription, one that might inspire an unconventional website or digital publication of some sort. However, for the sake of accessibility, I am glad that Inscription’s digital presence is thoughtful but conventional. There are real limits to the hard copy journal — I happen to own a record player, but I had to abandon reading on the couch when rotating the 24-inch-wide codex became impractical and ultimately finished the issue at a table in my studio. As a celebration of “material text,” Inscription pushes at the limits of a physical publication, but ultimately retains its thesis by documenting its materiality online rather than attempting to re-mediate it digitally. I truly hope the journal’s impressive production will attract more readers than it excludes, and if the popularity of artists’ books is any indication, I think it will.

The Marathon Poet

The Marathon Poet
Åke Hodell
Translated by Fia Backström
Edited by Kira Josefsson
2020

Ugly Duckling Presse
5.25 × 8.25 in. closed
150 pages
Perfect binding
Offset

The Marathon Poet front cover, with a black and white image of the author in a racing bib.

Åke Hodell (1919–2000) was many things: poet, pacifist, anarchist, visual artist, composer, razor-sharp satirist, and one-time fighter pilot. In The Marathon Poet (Maratonpoeten in the original Swedish), first published in 1981 and newly translated into English by Fia Backström, Hodell presents every side of himself in a heady blend of self-mythologizing and self-deprecation.

The Marathon Poet is a difficult book to describe or categorize because it steadfastly refuses to do only one thing. It could be called autofiction in verse or an artists’ book focused on photography and collage, but it also offers up various pseudo-historical accounts, a dinner menu, and an opera composed primarily of the names of cars. With this crush of ever-changing forms, Hodell presents us with both an unconventionally intimate self-portrait and a vicious dissection of cultural myths: this book is the overflowing stream of his funny, inventive, and righteously angry consciousness.

The Marathon Poet pages 90-91, featuring a "poetic menu"

Fia Backström’s facsimile translation provides not only the text, but also the original imagery and layout of Hodell’s book, and gives some context for the English-language audience with a thoughtful introduction and a glossary explaining Hodell’s intertextual references. Her contextualization also makes apparent her reasons for translating an obscure avant-garde Swedish art-poetry volume from the early eighties today: the poet’s “lifelong militant commitment against white supremacy in all its forms, whether it be the Nazi[s] … or Nixon’s ‘law and order’ administration.” The resurgence of overtly fascist ideology creates an unfortunate parallel between the world Hodell lampooned in 1981 and the one we’re currently living in.

Publisher Ugly Duckling Presse’s Lost Literature Series, of which The Marathon Poet is the thirtieth publication, was created to bring the out-of-print, forgotten, and never-before-translated to a wider audience. Between Hodell’s status as a relative unknown in the English-speaking world, his frequent allusions to the Swedish experimental poetry scene and the country’s history and culture more generally, and his penchant for blending fact and fiction, Backström’s remarks are essential to making the work as accessible as it is. She does not overexplain or heavily annotate, which might go against the confrontational spirit of the work; she gives readers only what they need to experience The Marathon Poet for themselves.

The main narrative of The Marathon Poet centers on a fictional foot race between Swedish poets, in which Hodell finds himself the sole competitor after a sobriety test disqualifies all of his fellows. During the race, the poet forgets to breathe, undergoes several hallucinatory out-of-body experiences, visits a couple doctors and restaurants, and encounters figures from throughout history and myth: Virgil, Aphrodite, a stuffy politician named Napoleon, and several of Hodell’s friends and contemporaries.

The Marathon Poet, pages 34-35, with lines from “Episode Three” and a photograph of Hodell

This absurd story, presented in nine “episodes,” is intercut with brief, apocryphal creation myths for some of Hodell’s earlier works. In “From the Memoirs of Cerberus,” Hodell’s earlier poetry/“verbal brainwash” book presentarms is said to have been written while Hodell was in hell. He only returned to our world because his fellow sufferers “begged Cerberus to throw me out of hell and never again let me back in” (59). By the end, the eponymous mythological beast not only releases Hodell from damnation, but agrees to become his publisher.

While Hodell’s ideas and delivery are funny, heavily influenced by vaudeville theater and often possessing the same raucous energy as the best Monty Python sketches, he is interested in more than making the reader laugh. A major throughline of The Marathon Poet, and his body of work as a whole, is a radically anti-militarist and anti-nationalist stance. While the stories, poems, collages, and photographs that make up the book vary in content and composition, they almost all attack the military, imperialism, and conformity more generally.

This near-constant focus on war, violence, and the greed and social structures that cause them drives drastic tonal shifts throughout the work. “Carl Jonas Love Almqvist’s Military Hat,” the partially-true tale of another Swedish poet living briefly in the United States, begins with a fantastical and relatively cheerful letter from Almqvist to his wife back home and gradually devolves into a cruel, frenetic argument between Almqvist and the owner of the boarding house where he resides, interspersed with brutal depictions of the violence upon which America was built: 

Eighty bloodied heads
were displayed as a spectacle
on the streets of New Amsterdam
where the governor’s mother kicked them like footballs.
These events will recur. Go home, stranger.
There is no hope for this country.

Like much effective satire, Hodell’s pieces sometimes make for difficult reading: just behind or beside each witty observation is a more fundamentally disturbing truth. Even the comparatively lighter sections of verse on the fictional marathon confront existential dread, the limits of the human body, and the influence of militarism and violence in everyday culture. It is in the uncertain space between the joke and the tragedy that Hodell is most at home.

Just as he balances a variety of tones and uses them to create meaning in conjunction with and in opposition to each other, he juxtaposes and blends the visual and textual elements of each piece. Hodell regularly worked in collage both before and during The Marathon Poet, irreverently and effectively mashing up not only disparate images, but various art forms. In one section, a musical score calling for ever-increasing amounts of human snoring runs alongside a prose narrative which is itself frequently interrupted and incomplete.

The Marathon Poet, pages 106-107 with musical score above and narrative below

Hodell also uses the text itself as a sort of collage-space. He keeps the reader off-balance by deviating from the left margin in poems and standard paragraph structures in prose pieces, utilizing found text and pseudo-documentary, writing in a variety of languages and dialects, and constantly shifting his diction from formal to informal and back again.

This impulse toward collage allows him to directly comment on the ways in which a conformist, militaristic ideology has come to influence so many disparate areas of art and everyday life. Revealing the various building blocks and cast-off pieces of European and American culture, sometimes bluntly and sometimes hyperbolically, he forces us to think about the unconscious assumptions and desires underlying many social norms.

The Marathon Poet, pages 78-19: Spirit of Ecstasy Racing Car Opera. Photos on verso, text on recto.

On another level, his approach toward structure and genre simply reflect his personality and beliefs: why would an artist who so despises authority and convention confine himself to any traditional notion of what a book should be?

This wild creative impulse, along with Hodell’s ever-present humor, lend the volume an air of hopefulness despite its bleak subject matter: it is not only an account of the various destructive forces extant in the world, but a creative one in its own right.

When the fictional Hodell is taken to a doctor after the first few miles of his race nearly kill him, the diagnosis is bad: a pages-long list of the various maladies afflicting the poet’s body. When an observer offers to call an ambulance, the doctor responds:

“No, refrain from doing any such thing,”
says Dr. M.C. Retzius
with a quiet smile. “Humor is a state
where the four cardinal fluids of the body are well mixed.
In other words: The Poët is perfectly healthy.”

Fragmented Memory

Fragmented Memory
Majka Dokudowicz and Ioannis Anastasiou
2019

5 × 6 × 0.5 in. closed
48 pages
Binding: long stitch
Includes 11 unbound 2.25 × 2.875 in. prints on paper and one unbound 4 × 4.875 in. print on foil
Screen printing and hot foil printing
Open edition of 55 copies

Fragmented Memory front cover. Black paper stamped with the word "Memory" is torn diagonally to reveal white paper printed with the word "fragmented".

Majka Dokudowicz makes work about fragments. Ioannis Anastasiou makes work about memory.  Their 2019 collaboration, Fragmented Memory, effortlessly explores the overlapping territory of these two interests, and simultaneously examines the relationship of both to the book. The book form is critical to the project, with the artists using a two-sided codex to enact the tension between individual and collective memory. The reader must flip the book upside down to read both halves, one of which is titled “Fragmented Memory” and the other “Memory Fragmented.” The artists further inscribe the workings of history and memory into the book by incorporating fold-outs that recombine and reveal new images, concealing a facsimile photograph among the book’s pages, and including a collection of small, unbound prints. In the transition from memory to history, most books smooth out the wrinkles and fix the results in place for posterity, but Fragmented Memory flips that role, bearing witness not to particular events so much as the mechanisms of memory itself.

Anastasiou and Dokudowicz accomplish this through image and structure alone; the titles are the only text. The full-bleed, black and white images easily compensate. They are screen printed with a bold, coarse halftone, which at first masks the fact that they are collaged together from a variety of sources. Hot foil embellishments guide the eye through the busy compositions, sometimes obscuring details and other times emphasizing them. These embellishments signal the intervention of the artists, hinting at their perspective on the collages’ content, which draw heavily from wartime imagery. Some of the foil elements are clearly derived from other pages within the book, just as the unbound images are fragmented echoes of the primary book. The artists’ playful approach is most evident in these additions, although much of the imagery shares a surrealist sense of humor, with juxtapositions guided by dream logic or subconscious instincts.

Fragmented Memory, inside fold-out: a 3-panel spread with a marching band collaged into marching soldiers.

The resulting compositions are wild combinations of charged symbols and references. One side of the book deals with collective memory through often-recognizable images of historical events. The other side addresses individual memory with an even more surrealist, psychoanalytical approach. Though binary oppositions (most obviously the book’s two sides) are a major device throughout Fragmented Memory, the inside openings largely ignore the gutter between pages. In fact, the surreptitious fold-outs are barely visible because the collages work seamlessly across both the two-page spread and the three-panel spread that is unfolded. Naturally, the book’s middle spread, which cues the reader to flip the book upside down, is less seamless. The artists solve the challenge with dark, humorous absurdity: with Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International emerging from a fiery background, a group of soldiers wield an object, which – upon crossing the spread’s gutter – becomes a massive toothbrush scratching the back of a rather large dog.

Fragmented Memory, center spread. With Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International emerging from a fiery background, a group of soldiers wield an object, which – upon crossing the spread’s gutter – becomes a massive toothbrush scratching the back of a dog.

The way this bizarre image elegantly guides the reader through their 180-degree turn of the book is just one example of how the interplay of image and structure strengthens the book’s argument. For instance, it is essential that the coarse halftone of the printing flattens and distorts the picture plane and obscures the details of the images along with any sign of the artists’ hands. Yet this strategy is only effective because the reader is limited to arm’s length. If the book opened flat or stood on its own, the reader could retreat to a distance where the images coalesced more clearly. The reader can appreciate the importance of this manipulation of scale and structure through the ready contrast with the smaller, unbound images, which lay flat and feature a more legible, scaled down halftone. The fragments are easy to see, but fail to cohere into a meaningful narrative, while the bound book’s narrative is orderly, but its images are obscured.

An array of 11 small, unbound black and white photocollages.

This issue of continuity versus discontinuity is indeed as central to the form of the book as it is to memory and history, and Anastasiou and Dokudowicz take the opportunity to address both. For example, the way the fold-outs create two equally plausible images challenges the notion that there is one correct interpretation. Reading creates as much uncertainty as it resolves, and it cannot be accomplished in a continuous, linear manner. The inserted facsimile photograph likewise physically interrupts the act of reading (I discovered it accidentally when it slipped out while I flipped the book midway through reading) and raises further doubts about the category of truth. Screen printed on iridescent foil, the print feels more like an object than the smaller unbound prints, which are on regular paper. Further, the tactile contrast with the book’s soft, toothy paper is unmistakable, positioning the object as a primary source, archival evidence unlike the mediated construct of the book. But the glossy, metallic print is a photocollage like all the rest, an image that could never exist without the artists’ intervention.

Fragmented Memory inside spread with an unbound screen print on iridescent foil. A splash of champagne covers a tumbling man while a group of uniformed soldiers look on.

Fragmented Memory’s discontinuities demand a curious, engaged reader. The balance of signal and noise, familiarity and obscurity, is finely calibrated to assure the reader that there is a story to be discovered, even if it is a different one for each reader. More importantly, one gets the sense that the story cannot be told without the reader taking an active role. Active reading is practically the raison d’être of artists’ books, but what distinguishes Fragmented Memory is that the book so readily and completely facilitates an interpretive, interactive experience. The book contains its own reference points and counter points, constructions and deconstructions. The marriage of form and content is something of a cliché, but this successful union is truly how Fragmented Memory becomes more than the sum of its printing, binding, substrate and source images.

Fragmented Memory invites the reader to bear witness, to actively engage in the reciprocal process whereby individuals and societies make meaning from memory. At a time when people are keenly aware of their role in history, that their actions have existential consequences, Anastasiou and Dokudowicz refuse to smooth over difference for the sake of continuity. By retaining subjectivity and agency, tensions and contradictions, their work empowers the reader to engage the world beyond the book with the same contemplative curiosity.

Interview with Tia Blassingame — Part 2 of 2

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

Portrait of Tia Blassingame setting metal type from a job case, working on the book, "I AM".
Typesetting for the artists’ book, I AM. Image courtesy of the artist.

Levi Sherman: It’s so empowering to have an instructor that holds themselves to the values they profess in the studio. Can you talk about a recent experiment or a time when you’ve broken through your own expectations as an artist or teacher?

Tia Blassingame: I typically build into my artists’ book project an aspect that pushes me to work with a technique in which I need to build mastery or for some reason I’ve avoided. It’s baked into each project, and not something that is necessary for the reader/viewer to know.

Close-up of a page from "Harvest: Holding & Trading" depicts a screen-printed leaf and text in white on a brown page.
Harvest: Holding & Trading. Photo courtesy of the artist.

For example, in Harvest: Holding & Trading I used screen printing mainly because it had been a technique that I found underwhelming. The colors seemed too garish, the whole process messy. It just did not appeal to me. So with that project I pushed myself to gain control of the colors. In that project all colors have some amount of brown and largely represent the skin tones of captive Africans that were brought to Rhode Island over the course of the 18th century. 

For my most recent project, Colored: A Handbook, I had taught paste paper making, which is always one of those techniques that half the class loves. Meaning half the class hates it. In the end, they have way too many sheets that simply end up in the trash. Rarely are they incorporated into their work aside from as endsheets or the cover of an odd blank book or two.

Close-up of a spread from "Colored: A Handbook" with prose poetry on the recto. The pages are washed brown using paste paper techniques.
“Chapter Eight: He can’t talk about it with me,” from Colored: A Handbook. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I know I had not brought the technique into my own artist’s book projects. So for this book I wanted to challenge myself to use it in a way that made sense for the writing and subject matter. I had previously encountered Madeleine Durham’s paste paper and used them in blank books. Last year I had an opportunity to take a workshop with her. This gave me a chance to experiment and see the many ways that I might be able to create patterns and texture that supported a book that looks at the centuries of Black presence — joy and pain — in the United States. Also I found the process surprisingly meditative. In the end, I expanded my incorporation of paste paper to another related artist’s book including African American: A Handbook. Furthermore I expanded this experimentation to combining paste paper and natural dyes. I’m looking forward to where that takes me beyond this set of artist’s books.

And now I have an example and different method of teaching paste paper — as in intimate collaboration with your content — to my students. In this case my art and teaching practice have been expanded.

LS: You manage to achieve the same soft, layered look of pressure printing with your paste paper and even screen printing. I think of it as something of a signature style, a way to identify your work at a glance. What is it in your process or content that draws you to that aesthetic? 

TB: Yes, initially in the paste paper workshop I think my inclination toward a more muted realization was misunderstood, or confused with not understanding how to correctly perform the technique. Eventually that tendency and desire to achieve a more muted palette was recognized.

I typically prefer a more muted or subtle color scheme. Colors, their combinations have meaning. I do not use any colors arbitrarily in my artists’ book projects. At times I may explicitly call out their meaning in the colophon. Other times I feel like it is clear or that, if not, the colors still have the intended effect upon the reader/viewer.

Close-up of a page from "Harvest: Holding & Trading" which shows text knocked out of a brown leaf printed on tan paper. The text is a 1758 listing for a slave.
Harvest: Holding & Trading. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Since I was a kid, I’ve been struck by how art teachers, my classmates, artists would refer to the color brown as ugly or unattractive, undesirable. I couldn’t help but look at my own hands and arms, and know they were wrong. In grad school, art school, those same flippant comments, dismissal of brown continued. I want to say it was without self-awareness, but I doubt it.

For me the stark whiteness of a page or sheet of paper is artificial and jarring. The color white, pure white, in the natural world is an anomaly. I know students often start and get stuck on using stark white paper. Even when there are alternatives of varied hues. In their case, they are using what they know, what is comfortable. Copier paper, notebook paper, textbook paper is typically stark white. So I have to push them out of their comfort zone to explore, and experience how colored, cream, natural papers print, take and shift ink colors.

For the muted colors that I use and the shades of brown ink that I may present, I prefer how muted papers draw them down…to a place that is comfortable for the eyes of the reader/viewer. And might make them linger for a bit on a page, an image, a word, concept. This is just another Book Arts technique that I employ to engage the reader/viewer in a relationship with the book, a conversation on race.

Digital mock-up of a spread from "Mourning/Warning: An Abecedarian".  Each page pairs text and semaphore. "Oscar Grant" on the verso and "Abner Louima" on the recto.
G and L pages from Mourning/Warning: An Abecedarian. Images courtesy of the artist.

There are very few examples of my use of white paper. In a book like Mourning/Warning: An Abecedarian (2015) or Mourning/Warning: Numbers & Repeaters (2018), the paper is slightly nicer than regular copier paper, but as bright a white. Making the browns that have been added to the nautical flags feel like they belong. The white gives some indication of a primer with only the essential information included. In Hers: A Primer of Sorts (2013), I used white rice paper only because I was broke and was committed to complete this artists’ book for Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. I had already written the text, settled on the book layout, and planned the execution. When it came time to start the edition, I did not have the funds to complete it as I originally envisioned. So I reconsidered how to complete the edition. I happened to have a pad or two of rice paper. I had a decent printer, and it turned out the paper went through the printer. It printed beautifully. To tamp down the starkness of the white paper, I covered the pages with a veil of images of letterforms and lace fabrics. This was also helpful because I was using upcycled almanac covers that were slightly yellowed and age worn. The text is printed on the reverse of each page and becomes apparent when the text block is pulled away from the covers in this flutter book.

LS: Since you’ve spoken so eloquently about how color operates in your work, I wonder if you might do the same for book structure. The complexity, scale and interactivity of the binding seems carefully calibrated for each project.

TB: I am engaging the viewer/reader in a conversation about historical and contemporary racism by using printmaking and book arts techniques to seduce the reader through materials, color, tactility, pacing in order to slow the reader’s initial impulse to flee or avoid a discussion of race.

Each artist’s book project has different perimeters from how I push myself as I mentioned, but primarily the relationship that I am looking for the reader/viewer to have is with the book, how I want the reader/viewer to physically engage with that specific artist’s book. I consider how I can utilize typography, materiality, tactility, and so on to facilitate that relationship, control the reader/viewer.

Harvest: Holding & Trading (2013) employs color and sound and translucency to build an interaction with the reader/viewer that ebbs and flows. Influenced by the size and placement of text and image, the viewer will move close to the page. The rhythm and rustling of non-color field pages and relatively silent ones act as a metronome that can both guide the reader’s pace and create a haunting soundtrack as captive Africans are brought into view. Harvest is intended to be emotional and disorienting.

Black in Dictionary is meant to seduce through tactility, color, pattern, scale. It feels good in your hands, but also you want to hold it and not put it down or share it. The paper has bits of glitter embedded in it, but it is also buttery and appealing to touch. The imagery on the flags — photos of my skin and jewelry — is muted, misty — almost enjoyable to view despite the jarring text from a slang dictionary. What is it to hold close and almost covetously an artist’s book that highlights derogatory terms to describe African Americans? What is it to maintain this conversation on race because the decisions that I make in creating the work have stalled your impulse to flee or avoid the topic?

Image of "Black in Dictionary" showing the flag book open with text on one side and imagery on the other.
Black in Dictionary. Photo courtesy of the artist.

My work doesn’t have an easily identifiable signature look because each project demands several different things: some invisible that are for me and the process, others to ensure a specific physical engagement and building a relationship with the artist’s book. The signature is there for those willing to look below the surface and obvious.

LS: Do you find that artists’ books as a medium are particularly capable of that seduction and intimacy that allows you to challenge readers with a conversation about race

TB: Absolutely. We all have some relationship with, feelings about, memories of books and reading. Good or bad. So there is a different response, emotions that a work using the book format can elicit. A different attention, connection that the viewer makes. Intellectual, emotional, physical response that you can draw from the viewer. That can be quite intense. Books or their absence, being read to or not growing up, being voracious reader or struggling, have an effect on everyone, but it also gives us strong memories and responses to the physical representation of a book…and can make us responsive to bookishness — those book characteristics: pacing, pages, covers, text and/or image, narrative, propelled by the reader, some space for their imagination to fill in the story, presence, intimate experience between the reader and the book or story or characters or author/artist.

LS: Are you currently working on any projects that have you excited? 

I’m excited about a collective that I started last year: the Book/Print Artist/Scholar of Color Collective. The collective brings Book History and Print Culture scholars into conversation and collaboration with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) book artists, papermakers, curators, letterpress printers, papercutters, printmakers and more to build community and support systems. We are over thirty individuals connected and grounded by our shared passion for book arts and the unique potential of artists’ books as vehicles for social change and racial unity. Our current and future collaborations across media and disciplines will continue to morph as our group grows and our connections shift and deepen. This year we had events such as a conversation on Antiracist Bookworks through University of Maryland at College Park and BookLab, a series of panels hosted by the Bibliographical Society of America with the final one in January 2021. I’m already planning more collaborations for 2021 and beyond.

Interview with Tia Blassingame — Part 1 of 2

Tia Blassingame is an Assistant Professor of Book Arts at Scripps College and serves as the Director of Scripps College Press. A book artist and printmaker exploring the intersection of race, history, and perception, Blassingame often incorporates archival research and her own poetry in her artist’s book projects for nuanced discussions of racism in the United States. Her artist’s books are held in library and museum collections including Library of Congress, Stanford University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, and State Library of Queensland. In 2019, she founded the Book/Print Artist/Scholar of Color Collective to bring Book History and Print Culture scholars into collaboration with Book Arts artists of color.

Black and white portrait of Tia Blassingame examining prints in the studio, wearing a "Ladies of Letterpress" apron.
Tia Blassingame. Image courtesy of the artist.

I was especially excited to talk to Tia Blassingame because of her holistic, critical approach to the artists’ book field. She decenters the book object and focuses on the interconnected roles of artists, curators, collectors, librarians, teachers, students, and the institutions they move in. I believe this perspective is necessary for the field to mature and, importantly, to do so with racial and social equity. 

The following interview took place via email beginning July 24, 2020. It has been edited for clarity.

Levi Sherman: How did you find your way to book arts? What was the first artists’ book you made?

Tia Blassingame: I come from a fairly bookish family, a family of educators. My mom taught elementary school. My dad was a historian and Yale professor of African American Studies and History; my brother an educator in Mathematics and LSAT testing. Libraries, overflowing bookshelves, stacks of books, the presence of Black writers, scholars, and artists were a constant part of my foundation years. Looking back it seems that Book Arts in some form was always around me whether as rare books, historical documents, the scholarship of Black art historians, children’s books, manuscripts.

I properly came to artist’s books after developing an interest in learning letterpress printing. I was located in New Haven and had searched for opportunities to learn or at least check out a letterpress print shop locally. I reached out to New Haven Arts Workshop, but they had just sold off their letterpress equipment. When I contacted Yale University about simply visiting the letterpress studios in their residential colleges, they told me that I was not considered “affiliated with Yale”, so I started looking farther afield. I ended up taking a weeklong letterpress workshop at the Center for Book Arts. I was working full-time at the time, so I think I used my leave to take the week off. From that class, I simply went down the rabbit hole.

The first artist’s book that I created? Well, even now friends of the family mention illustrated books that I created and gifted them as a kid. That involved illustration and storytelling. So self publishing at least seems to have been a lifelong interest.

The first proper artist’s book that I attempted was months prior to starting a Master’s degree in the Art of the Book at Corcoran College of Art & Design in Washington, DC. I had been conducting research for several years about an early integrated school in New England. While I was an artist in residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute and immediately after at MacDowell, I was letterpress printing and creating what I did not realize was an artist’s book, or even a book, as I didn’t have the vocabulary or bookmaking skills, but I was laying out the pages and considering the reader/viewer’s relationship with the piece, its pacing. But I was frustrated because I wasn’t able to bring it together. It is really just now that I am coming back to that work to edition it. I still have the letterpress prints and have since incorporated them into bound forms, but in some cases I have re-considered the forms or layouts.The Negro Students of Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire (2019) is the culmination of those letterpress pieces that were started at SFAI and MacDowell almost ten years before. In this case, the resulting Students book was Risograph printed at Endless Editions at Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in New York City. My ideas around the reader/viewer’s relationship with the book changed from when I was considering it in my lovely studio at MacDowell, but I’m excited about how the reader/viewer and this version of Students will develop a relationship and discuss race in terms of early New England integrated education.

Two copies of the single-sheet artists' book "Students" side by side; front view and back view.
The Negro Students of Noyes Academy, Canaan, New Hampshire. Photo courtesy of International Print Center New York (IPCNY).

LS: Has art always been the outlet for your historical and archival research? Or did your interest in history precede its emergence in your art practice?

TB: No, well at least not visual art. I always wrote verse or poetry tied to my research but it was more for me to roll over an aspect of the process or a fact or connection that energized me. Prior to shifting to visual art, I was writing essays and manuscripts on architectural history, architecture and perception that never quite captured the essence or energy that interested me. The last two times that I was an artist-in-residence at MacDowell, for example, I was conducting the field research upon which Students is partly based. The final time, I was writing a traditional essay and then turning it into pages, an outgrowth of experimentation that I had started in the preceding months as an artist-in-residence at Santa Fe Art Institute, where I had been making clumsy letterpress prints about Noyes Academy.

The love of research, libraries and looking to history and historical documents to make sense of, and seeing connections to the present, were instilled by my dad. The rare books and documents that littered our home, his study and his offices were a constant. The conversations in our home — I expect partly because everyone including my brother and mom, in addition to being voracious readers, could draw so easily from history, memory, personal experiences — were always tangled and enlivened, in part, by history, oral history, and books.

Also I can’t overstate my brother’s influence as a reader of science fiction, mystery by white and Black authors HG Wells and Ray Bradbury to Octavia Butler, comic books, Agatha Christie to Chester Himes, and beyond. Whose library growing up had been the Library of Congress as my family had lived in DC-Maryland before I was born and my brother had accompanied my dad to the LOC while he conducted research. Who as a young kid had read his entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica and moved on. A set that endlessly entranced me with its images framed by text. My brother’s seamless movement between comics and literary works, and his serious regard of comics with his verbatim, but lively, retelling of a page or entire comic, or excited describing of a comic character — their powers, backstory, and incidents from various volumes — with the same seriousness and thoroughness that he would give to a Stephen King novel or Beckett definitely helped develop my interest in text and image, books as art, but also open to all types of content and treatment. 

In many ways I see no disconnect between the arts and historical research. A well-turned sentence or a well-timed and intonated joke or story can be art and personal or oral history. Book Arts gives me a way to integrate the two.

LS: Elsewhere you talk about using period typefaces to evoke specific histories in your work. Is it fair to say that other artists perhaps ignore historical connotations of letterpress printing, or trade on a sense of nostalgia rather than contending with unpleasant aspects of the past? Can design and technology be separated from its context?

TB: With each project, in some way I am building a relationship between  the book and the reader/viewer and orchestrating how they physically engage with that book. I look to the tools that I have at my disposal of which typography is just one. I am interested in that space where a typeface like Caslon is in popular use while bondsmen and bondswomen are doing the back-breaking work of building the foundations of our nation, providing the wealth and leisure time for a Thomas Jefferson or a George Washington.

When you think of printmaking or architecture, for example, they hold and carry forward certain traditions while embracing and exploiting technological advances. But for me I look at the context in terms of race and racism. As such, nothing — at least in the United States — can be divorced from them. That contextualization adds depth and it is in the tangles of those layers that we can reach a more nuanced and, to me, interesting discussion.

At times I break my aims of using typefaces tied to the era that I am presenting, but I do this with specific intentions in mind. For example, in Past Present: DC (2015) I span several decades and employ various typefaces in metal and wood type, from the Government Printing Office, as well as polymer. I included Archer typeface in Past PRESENT: DC because it has a certain persuasive and almost charming nature to it. In that case I use it to boldly and increasingly populate the pages of that book with bumper stickers and commentary from the news cycle that employed racial tropes present during the earlier periods covered in PAST Present: DC. Plus in the making there is some twisted enjoyment in using the same typeface of Martha Stewart’s Living Magazine to aid the reader in making connections between how candidate and later President Obama was depicted with how ordinary Black citizens have been portrayed in popular culture for centuries: as apes, animals, dangerous, lazy, stupid, etc.

Center spread of "Past PRESENT: DC". Historical maps are overlaid with racial slurs, stereotypes and political insults.
Detail of Past PRESENT: DC. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In I AM and YOU ARE, there is minimal text. Mainly captions with an introduction in the former, or with extended colophon, the latter. Both are set in Scripps College Old Style and were printed at Scripps College Press. SC Old Style is a bit fussy, and there was definitely a feeling of claiming it to make space for and acknowledge the pain and experiences of Black women and girls in a way that those drawers of type had not. I expect in some way it was also for me to make space for myself and the work I am trying to do as an educator within that studio. Typesetting those succinct captions that call out, acknowledge and play with stereotypes, but also pain as well as expressing joy and pride. At the end of the day I am typesetting and using the power and the history of Goudy, Scripps  Press, Scripps librarian Dorothy Drake, the typeface to say subtly and completely these Black girls and women matter as we know the Scripps students since the school’s inception matter.

Final page of "I AM", which includes a portrait of the artist and a text caption: "Not credible."
I AM. Photo courtesy of the artist.

LS: If race and racism inflect design, technology and aesthetics, what are we to make of art that doesn’t grapple with those dimensions of, say, typography or printing?
And on a related note, how do you bring those questions into your teaching?

TB: I think the silence speaks for itself. If you have no interest in addressing race or racism, then you avoid the conversation, and happily remain in your bubble. Which I’ve found Book Arts folks to be very good at doing.

With all the white letterpress printers and Book Arts folks making prints and work about anti-racism or for Black Lives Matter protests this summer, I just wonder how much is performative, because none of their work ever addressed such before May 25th, 2020. And I wonder how many Black artists they are drowning out of the discussion. How many will still be interested in these issues on May 25, 2021 or 2025 or 2035? How many simply used their privilege to center themselves in the discussion and assuage some guilt instead of amplifying the work and voices of Black artists?

I expect in many ways my presence, my body, my Blackness, within the field, the studio, the classroom brings those questions forth. Course development is an exciting and at times imperfect space to explore issues, topics that the field typically does not. I’m honest with students in my seminar classes like Race & Identity in Book Arts that there is little to no relevant discourse or scholarship within the field, so we may have to make it ourselves. Or in my studio courses like this semester’s The Artist’s Book: Representing Blackness we are making our own path with the help of Black artists working in printmaking and the book form to study their work and strategies. We forge our own path, because these artists have been ignored and not received the scholarly analysis they deserve. There is no wealth of articles or books to form a foundation for the class. Instead we hear directly from the artists in studio visits, artist talks, a variation on students interviewing them (see scba.omeka.net), and ideally over the course of the semester the students simultaneously become researchers and artists in the conversation. Basically we’ve cut out the middleman for now until scholarship in the field catches up.

LS: I love this approach — what Book Arts lacks in history it makes up for with living artists. Can you talk about how your art and teaching practices inform one another?

TB: From teaching, I have a better appreciation of printmaking and book techniques as well as from students a greater flexibility and desire to experiment. It is interesting to me that the things that I try to instill in my students — flexibility, willingness to experiment and break through your own expectations to see and maybe shift what you are capable of doing — are all things that they help to reinforce in me and my teaching and studio practice. Through the teaching, I also get to explore the spaces and people ignored by the field, and then work to write them in. 

Whenever I am conducting DIY investigations or independent research, attending talks/panels/conferences or taking workshops, I am always looking with an eye to expanding what I teach and how I teach. I am always looking through a pedagogical lens and from the view of a student. Attending even a poorly organized and taught class should make me a better teacher and stretch my knowledge base, skill set. 

The artists that interest me are varied, but in my own research my focus is primarily on Black artists, who are typically not part of the conversation in the field. In my research I search for them with the goal of writing them back into the Book Arts field. I do something similar in my courses and in my role as Director of Scripps College Press.

The list of artists that I share with students in assignments, host as visiting artists is diverse. The push that many instructors experienced this year to decolonize their syllabi, I did not experience in the same way. Though I did re-interrogate my syllabi. With a course like Representing Blackness, it is more important to substantially foreground Black artists like multimedia artist and printmaker Daniel Minter of Indigo Arts Alliance or papercut artist Janelle Washington or printmaker and founding member of Black Women of Print Delita Martin, but also to allow students to look at how they present themselves and their communities versus how their white counterparts represent Blackness. If we are discussing my Harvest: Holding & Trading (2013), then we should also examine artists’ books on slavery by book artists such as Maureen CumminsThe Business is Suffering or Fred Hagstrom’s Little Book of Slavery (2012). If we are examining, Clarissa Sligh’s It Wasn’t Little Rock (2004), then we should be interrogating work by white artists about the civil rights era such as Clifton Meador’s Long Slow March (1996) or Jessica Peterson’s Unbound (2014) or Cause and Effect (2009). While I am more interested in what a Black artist says about their experience, culture, history, I think it is valuable to see how their approach or connection to the subject matter contributes or does not contribute to the artwork. Is there a care and respect that they bring to the work that a white artist cannot? Why are they making this work? I think it is an important conversation to have within my classes and with my research.


couplets and questions

Review by Eric Morris-Pusey

couplets and questions
Andrew Shaw
The Silent Academy

couplets
2019
5 × 5 in. closed
78 pages
Soft-cover perfect binding
HP Indigo

questions
5 × 5 in. closed
2020
58 pages
Soft-cover perfect binding
HP Indigo

Front covers of two gray, square books: "couplets" and "questions" by Andrew Shaw side by side.

“Imagination,” author John Higgs begins his foreword to Andrew Shaw’s couplets, “isn’t what it used to be.” The statement was true enough when he first put it to paper in February 2019, the world just as full of the mass-produced, the oft-repeated, and the strictly-enforced as it is today. A little over a year later, that sentence is all the more accurate, with many of us confined to or only feeling safe in smaller and smaller spaces — and often finding our imaginative worlds shrinking just as much as our physical ones. Shaw’s couplets and its spiritual sequel questions  are an adrenaline shot for imagination, an inoculation against the lack of it, an invitation to create. They are also, as Higgs notes in his introduction to couplets, a game.

"Couplets" open to a page from John Higgs' introduction, giving whimsical instructions to the reader.

To emphasize these books’ playfulness is not to minimize their impact or imply that their object is (solely) to create fun; like all new experiences, encounters with the poems in Shaw’s books are as likely to be disorienting or upsetting as they are purely delightful. Rather, the books invite us to a sort of Kantian free play of imagination: a boundless, or at least less-bounded, experience of the world in all its surprise and complexity.

Each of the tiny poems in these two volumes had its first incarnation on a small white luggage tag, which Shaw would hang in a public place for an unsuspecting reader to later find — bringing art and poetry from the gallery or bookshop into the “ordinary” world outside and disrupting that ordinariness in the process.

The presentation of Shaw’s books ensures the poems function as well printed and bound as they did on the street. Behind unassuming gray covers, the pages of couplets and questions consist of much more white space than lettering, and forego page numbers or standard capitalization and punctuation — as Shaw says, “Accurate navigation isn’t always as useful as we think.” Each couplet or question is centered, surrounded by the void of the empty page.

questions pp. 18-19. Verso: "what holds the emptiness behind your moon" Recto: "how do you hold the shapeless"

To call the great blank space around each of Shaw’s poems a canvas on which the reader can paint their own meaning might be a touch maudlin or oversimplified, but in a way it’s true, too. While any text is necessarily a collaboration between the writer and reader, couplets and questions foster this collaboration more consciously than most.

The juxtaposition between the text and its surroundings, whether the inert whiteness of the page or the gently swaying branches of the tree supporting a tag, serves as a way of simultaneously demanding attention for the text and demonstrating how small that text is when weighed against everything else. This sense of paradox, as in a Zen kōan, invites meaning-making rather than stifling it.

The poems themselves utilize the same hyperfocus and sense of impossibility or contradiction to encourage artist-audience collaboration. In the minimalist tradition of haiku (but without the syllabic and linguistic strictures which Shaw worries lose something in translation) they rely on only a few words to communicate their concepts and images with the reader. Shaw uses specific language but often foregoes broad description, inviting the reader to experience the surreal and sublime in a radically accessible way.

questions pp. 36–37.  Verso: “how does the center of a stone / become the indefinite echo” Recto: “how deep in your eye / is the suspending fluid of the sky”

When Shaw writes of “a detailed map / of the loneliest street” in couplets, he knows that the map I picture will differ in almost every way from the one he had in mind when writing the poem. These books succeed in both their profundity and their accessibility precisely because Shaw is not trying to communicate a specific idea or experience of his own, but inviting readers to more imaginatively and playfully encounter theirs. Even the process of reading can be re-framed: the lack of pagination means that there is no correct way to approach Shaw’s works, that opening to a random page and spending ten minutes or an hour with whatever you find or don’t find there is perfectly true to his process and intention.

The game of couplets and questions, in other words, is consciously designed for two or more players. Shaw goes first, writing a small poem that describes or asks us to consider something that we can’t experience in a strictly literal way — but we have a role as well: not to answer the question correctly, solve the paradox, or provide a rational explanation, but to be changed by the encounter. As he says in his introduction to questions, “It’s in the not-knowing that authentic self unfolds; habitual thinking is disrupted, and truly new events can take place.”

couplets pp. 38–39.
Verso: “an orphanage of words / beneath your tongue” 
Recto: “the flowers of your lungs / pressed into history”

The sense of collaboration and openness central to both the creation and consumption of these two books does feel truly new, or at the very least incredibly rare — a thoughtful and necessary challenge to the idea that creativity is in some way exclusive. Shaw’s writing and visual presentation encourage us to step outside the world for a moment and view it from a different angle: wonderfully askew.