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.
Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy
11 × 8.5 in. closed
Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy is one of three books about William Hogarth by the independent scholar (and musician) Jeremy Bell. The three books, along with their online paratext, form a fluid ecosystem of interconnected and self-referential scholarship. Taken together, the reading experience reflects research in the age of hyperlinks and Wikipedia rabbit holes. As a guide through this material, Bell is impish yet erudite. Along with Bell’s writing style, the design of Hogarth’s Copycats captures this spirit in printed form.
From the outside, Hogarth’s Copycats could be mistaken for a children’s book. It is a slim, horizontal-format paperback with a glossy, full-color cover. The inside overflows with color illustrations on every page, illustrations which quickly reveal that the book is probably not for children. Nor does it fit comfortably in the genre of children’s books for adults, since its form also draws on and subverts other genres: art historical monographs, museum publications, online research, and even Hogarth’s own satirical art.
Bell’s compendium of artworks that reference, rip off, and appropriate Hogarth is organized by project (Marriage A-la-Mode, A Rake’s Progress, and so on). Headlines announce the project or theme, but there is no table of contents or index for the reader to navigate. Hogarth’s Copycats is an immersive tour led by Bell in first and third person. Bell jumps in without an introduction: “Let’s begin with some humorous face-swaps of Hogarth and his dog named ‘Trump.’” This tour guide tone continues throughout the book. On page forty-five Bell writes, “I hope you are enjoying this collation of artwork that has been inspired by William Hogarth.” Stops on the tour reflect the wide-ranging influence of Hogarth on centuries of art, illustration, and satire. Bell covers piracy by Hogarth’s contemporaries (which led to the Engraving Copyright Act of 1734), twentieth-century film adaptations, public service announcements, contemporary art, and more.
Even as Bell samples the breadth of Hogarth-inspired works, his own research interests emerge. Building on his first book, William Hogarth: A Freemason’s Harlot, Bell examines the role of Masonic imagery in Hogarth’s work. Likewise, Bell revels in Hogarth’s low-brow body humor, continuing lines of inquiry from his second book, The Fine Art of Dick Pics and Selfies. Since the references to Hogarth’s originals are explicit in the works Bell discusses, Hogarth’s Copycats is less speculative than A Freemason’s Harlot. It does, however, rely on the same methods — visual analysis and iconography.
Bell’s iconographic approach is almost paranoid, revealing secret Masonic symbols and faces hidden in shrubbery. While some assertions are more convincing than others, Hogarth’s work lends itself to such sleuthing. The artist certainly used symbolism and veiled references in his satire, and Masonic themes have been documented in his work. Hogarth’s visual puns and references to other works likely explain much of the appeal for other artists to riff on his work. Bell is hardly an objective observer himself. He celebrates Hogarth’s ability to hide things, from symbols to entire narratives, in plain sight.
Having abandoned neutrality for something more like fandom, Bell presents himself with a humorous, fitting mix of self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation. Bell credits himself with new discoveries hidden in Hogarth’s work, but also thanks his research assistants, “Miss Google” and “young Master Wiki.” He also thanks “The Trustees of the British Museum and other sites that allowed downloads of their artwork.” For Bell, original research requires only access to art and attention to detail. Whether this is read as satire of a certain type of connoisseurship, or a defense of close looking in an age of big data, “distant reading,” and digital distractions, art historians should take note.
A similar self-deprecating ambiguity results from the book’s mix of scholarship and crass commercialism. Throughout Hogarth’s Copycats, references to Bell’s other books are delivered like sales pitches as much as scholarly citations — an irreverence that matches that of the copycats he studies. The Chapman Brothers, for example, show a deep understanding of art history, but were criticized for painting directly on works by Goya for their series, Insult to Injury. Hogarth himself blended nuanced political commentary with misogynistic and homophobic tropes and produced grand history paintings alongside bawdy illustrations. He also pilfered from the likes of Albrecht Dürer. Ultimately, Bell’s enthusiasm for many of the contemporary copycats like Cold War Steve and Henry Hudson shows the same reverence for art that led Hogarth to write books about beauty even as he produced grotesque works like The Four Stages of Cruelty.
Bell seems to celebrate the creativity of the uncreative. He also demonstrates that Hogarth’s formulas are endlessly generative, even as politics and aesthetics change over centuries. Bell’s analysis is almost structuralist in its focus on the roles and relationships in Hogarth’s work. The phenomenon of copycats shows that corrupt politicians, sycophants, and hypocrites are a feature of every time and place. Bell highlights this meme-ready modularity but also shows what is lost when copycats (and art historians) miss the details that make Hogarth’s work anything but generic.
In showing that Hogarth still matters today, Bell also shows that the basic tools of art history remain effective. Hogarth’s Copycats has an internet aesthetic in many ways, but at its core it is simply an illustrated art history book full of side-by-side comparisons, details, and diagrams. Bell is well-versed in the life and times of Hogarth, but his own scholarship is primarily a matter of close looking. This method is especially fruitful given Hogarth’s penchant for hidden details and double entendres, but by no means limited to him.
Bell makes art history accessible and entertaining. He even provides intriguing avenues for future research. At the same time, he deploys structural, visual, textual, and paratextual devices to undermine his own methods and message. The book’s self-referentiality and the unreliability of its narration places Hogarth’s Copycats in dialogue with artists’ books as well as the art it discusses. The self-reflexivity of artists’ books often excludes general audiences, but Bell’s humorous handling of the medium will welcome new readers to artists’ books and art history alike.
To My Unborn Child
7 × 9 × 1 in. closed
Sewn hardcover with exposed spine
Edition of 5
As the title implies, To My Unborn Child is an epistolary work ostensibly addressed to Chen’s then-unborn child. It addresses concerns shared by many expecting parents as well as some particular to Chen’s own inheritance as a multi-ethnic Taiwanese (Kavalan and Sakilaya) and Han Chinese woman living in the United States. The stakes of these personal and political concerns are deeply felt, from the pangs of guilt and loss that come with the slow cultural erasure of assimilation to the threat of sudden political annihilation that characterizes Taiwan’s precarious existence as a democracy. To My Unborn Child corresponds with a 2018 exhibition of the same name, but the book is very much a cohesive artistic expression in itself. Indeed, Chen shows how well suited the book form is for exploring identity — fragmented, contradictory, always in flux.
To My Unborn Child is, in fact, a version of an existing genre: the Zupu, or genealogy book. It may also, following the exhibition, include elements of fiction as well as memoir. In Chen’s handling, this family book weaves together text, image, and material from a variety of sources. Family archives (photos, correspondence, family trees) are paired with a primer on the history of Taiwan and the text from a public monument commemorating the Kalyawan Battle, in which indigenous Taiwanese rose up against Han occupiers during the Qing Dynasty. In this regard, the epistolary framework is a clever conceit, allowing Chen to introduce readers to the history and geopolitics of Taiwan in a way that is didactic but not condescending. And addressing the reader in second person makes the more personal content especially powerful.
From these variegated sources, the book is organized into five sections: (Your) people, (Your) culture, (Your) family, (Your) name, (Your) future. While the content of each section differs, they follow a similar pattern. Each begins with a single word or phrase to set the tone or context; however, some words are transliterated not translated, leaving an English-speaking reader to research or go forth without guidance — either of which reflect the fragmented, discontinuous nature of memory, inheritance, and identity. Having studied foreign languages and literature, Chen understands the feelings of distance or belonging that come with language and uses these devices to modulate the book’s level of intimacy and emotional register.
Each section also features a pair of paragraphs in English and Chinese. The English texts are prose with a memoiristic, almost confessional tone, while the Chinese side is more poetic. The Chinese writing is untranslated and the relationship between the two is not always linear. (For the sake of reviewing the book, I relied on a friend, Kaixi Burns, to translate the poetry when it became clear that Google Lens wouldn’t do justice to the quality of Chen’s writing.) Family photographs, faded and distressed to anonymize their subjects and perhaps speak to memory and loss, and other family documents also appear in each section. Text, especially handwriting, also operates as an index of absent presence (and further demonstrates the feeling of connectedness that language can produce, even untranslated).
The book’s five sections are separated by spreads of full-bleed black, but there are also elements that carry through and lend continuity to the reading experience. These throughlines are contemporary color photographs with oblique connections to the main text. For example, what appear to be stills from a video of a seagull flying along a beach repeat throughout the book in different configurations and orientations. These eventually coalesce in a grid on a single spread, radically collapsing their timeframe. Playing with timescale is a key feature of To My Unborn Child, which leaps from a history lesson beginning in 1632 to a line-by-line transcription of a mundane phone call. Never mind the sense of futurity, the unborn baby, which underpins the project.
This temporal play makes the book’s own timing critical, and here Chen displays impressive sensitivity to the formal devices that pace the reader. Some spreads feature perfectly balanced typography that invites the reader to sit with a text, while others propel the reader forward with dynamic fragments that require resolution. The result is a book where the turn of a page is never predictable, but nor is it random. Chen advances the narrative and introduces new ideas using variations on central themes, unifying the reading experience without tying a bow with each thread.
However, on the subject of timescale, I must confess I have buried the lede. What distinguishes To My Unborn Child is the overwhelming majority of the book’s 296 pages belong to an extended cinematic sequence, where Chen’s interest in film and photographic theory is on full display. Not quite a flipbook, the motion-blurred interlude shows a single family photo of three figures dancing, with the hand holding the photograph visible. It is not clear whether the hand or the camera is moving — perhaps both. At times the viewer relates more to the original image in the photograph, other times to the photograph as an object (a physical record in someone’s hand), or even to the hand holding the photograph.
This strategy of reanimating the photograph as more than a representation, with a keen sense of its experience in the book form, illustrates what Chen calls moving from, “medium into material and back into becoming another medium.” By harnessing this transformation, the artists’ book can integrate disparate materials and temporalities, like installation art but within a single object. This allows Chen to enact the transformation that is also inherent in photography itself. As her artist’s statement notes:
“The moment of taking a picture is also the evidence of its passing. Image making attempts to reengage the trace left in an image, the plasticity found in reorganizing memory and intention. However, no amount of altering can completely erase that initial sense of passing, death as a picture.”
In To My Unborn Child, heritage is always haunted by loss. Whether political, cultural, or personal, no inheritance is complete. Nor can one predict what gets handed down or how it might manifest in the future. Against this uncertainty, Chen embraces multiple modes of memorialization — monuments, names, family trees, photographs, letters, stories, and poems. The result is an intimate look at the artist’s complicated relationship to her language(s), culture(s), and family. No doubt this examination was sincerely motivated by her immanent motherhood, but it is ultimately the reader who plays the role of Chen’s unborn child. Thus, we can add art to the list above, another way to process and share one’s cultural heritage. At the same time, art carries forward a piece of its creator, not unlike a child.
The need to keep alive connections to family and culture is all the more important at a time of overlapping refugee crises and cultural erasures. Some of the most poignant moments in To My Unborn Child center on the profound disconnect that accompanies emigration, on trying to keep in touch with an aging grandparent, on worrying about visiting because of travel restrictions, on feeling guilty for leaving in the first place,. Chen uses the artists’ book to convey the ambivalence of her experience, its multiple timescales and layers of history. As stories like hers become even more common, the need for representations that embrace complexity and specificity will only grow. To My Unborn Child is a model for synthesizing personal and political histories, even as it acknowledges the inevitability of loss and change.
4.125 × 6.75 in. closed
Perfect bound softcover with French flaps
Emmanuelle Waeckerlé is an interdisciplinary artist who works in sound, performance, and publishing. For over two decades, she has been elaborating the concept of readwalking — the simultaneous practice of reading as walking and walking as reading. The shared essence of these seemingly disparate activities is the embodied, performative inscription and interpretation of space, on and off the page. Waeckerlé’s artists’ books document her performances but also serve as performance scores that encourage readers to become readwalkers. This redefinition of reading alone makes Waeckerlé’s work an important contribution to the field, though readers will also appreciate her ability to revivify literary works, like Thoreau’s essay “Walking” or the erotic novel Histoire d’O by Pauline Réage.
A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau exemplifies Waeckerlé’s two-pronged approach to process and product. The publication is primarily a performance score, but also includes a text transcription of one of her own readwalking performances. The reader witnesses her clever engagement with the text, but they are also empowered to try readwalking for themselves. The book also includes two essays that put the project in dialogue with broader currents in art and literature. For all of this, the A Direction Out There is simple and approachable. Its core is the complete text of Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking” with most of the words screened back to a light gray. By subtracting from, but not fully redacting, Thoreau’s writing, Waeckerlé creates a poetic text that can be enacted through her readwalking instructions. Four examples of such a performance are features on an accompanying CD, released by Edition Wandelweiser Records.
The book’s particular mode of redaction is critical — Thoreau’s text is deemphasized but remains visible; a tenuous tissue that connects but also haunts the sparse words Waeckerlé has selected for her new work. An epigraph by Thoreau speaks to the value of subtraction:
“I find it so difficult to dispose of the few facts which to me are significant, that I hesitate to burden my attention with those that are insignificant, which only a divine mind could illustrate.”
It seems Waeckerlé aims to help the reader focus on what is most essential in Thoreau’s essay — a mission the transcendentalist might approve of, though Waeckerlé is more concerned with the material, rather than symbolic, value of his language. The book’s straightforward, minimal presentation contributes to this goal, though the format is actually determined by the publisher, MA Bibliothèque, as part of their series, The Constellations. Waeckerlé encourages readers to follow their own path through the altered landscape of the text, singing, speaking, and “un-speaking” words according to specific parameters. Alternatively, readers with instruments or other noisemakers can respond to punctuation and walking-related words. The instructions are intentionally open-ended (and thus hard to imagine without an example), so the two-page transcription of a readwalking performance by Waeckerlé is a welcome addition to the book. Audio recordings are also available to stream online, which enhance the experience for a first-time readwalker.
Essays by Michael Hampton and Vicky Smith also help the reader without foreclosing other interpretations. Both writers address the persistence of Thoreau’s ghostly text, which exerts its will on the readwalker even as it relies on them for renewed life. (For example, can one really rescue the text’s anticapitalist environmentalism from its imperialist manifest destiny?) Hampton also speaks to the contemporary politics of mobility, of readwalking in a time of Covid-19 travel restrictions and refugee crises. Smith calls on media theorist Craig Dworkin to demonstrate the socially constructed nature of a text, and reads Waeckerlé’s work from a feminist perspective invested in the “speech of blanks and hiatus that Kristeva has identified as the language of the negated.”
Just as Waeckerlé enlivens Thoreau’s essay and shows how many possible interpretations are available, Hampton and Smith show that A Direction Out There should be seen as a method as much as a finished work. Reading the book is a dynamic process. Thoreau’s elegant writing pulls the reader back into the original essay and Waeckerlé’s own selection can divert the readwalker from their chosen instructions. This is not a failure, but rather the very essence of readwalking. The text is like a trail, something to follow but also to add to, stray from, or otherwise alter. Waeckerlé refers to the book as a “prepared text,” recalling John Cage’s “prepared pianos,” which guided but did not fully determine his performances.
This is ultimately what any artists’ book hopes to do — guide the reader but remain open to interpretation. In theorizing readwalking, Waeckerlé centers the embodied and performative aspects of reading. A Direction Out There reminds us that every book is a performance score, and that reading is always also writing, and that writing, like walking, is an intervention in space, with ethical as well as aesthetic dimensions.
5.125 × 8.25 in.
Long stitch softcover
Offset insides with letterpress covers
I’m a sucker for a character that breaks the fourth wall. The camera shifts, eyes meet through the screen, and we are brought in on real-time reactions and feelings. That slicing of time — cut! — interjected with an aside, a quick quip or snide remark shatters. It can also transform: morphing into a dreamy Vaseline-on-the-lens flashback … or better yet, a reimagined fantasy of what could have been. These tropes of teen-driven movies and sitcoms? We get them all in the memoir-as-artists’-book, a story, the truth, and a screenplay, by Ruby Figueroa.
Figueroa delivers a poignant narrative in four sections, woven together by a keen aesthetic treatment of photographs and screenplay interjections. Overall, the book bears markers of a trade paperback in its production and scale: tidily bound and offset printed. Unique letterpress-printed covers usher the reader in with roller-washy, lakeshore lapping tidelines in hues of magenta, peach, teal, maybe even hints of Chicago common brick (at least on this reader’s copy) and pink, directed towards the use of color in the interior.
While most of the book is set in a black serif typeface with a traditional book page layout, the addition of fluorescent pink ink in the typewriter face Courier, formatted like a screenplay, and vivid full-bleed photographic images in duotones of that same fluorescent pink and a peachy-orange ink activate the jump-cut of flashback or fantasy. Memory and nostalgia are described bluntly by the author throughout, with a hazy honesty of knowing what was, remembering it another way, and wishing it to be. These interjected pages, both the photographic images and the pink screenplay texts, feel like they’ve been applied with a swipe of the finger — a uniform Instagram-style filter through which to process disparate information.
Figueroa breaks these aesthetic decisions down in what was, to me, the most self-aware and least compelling part of the project. In this last, most reflective and experimental section, there is a concerted effort to explain the reasoning for the duotone and the pink that feels like a heavy-handed artists’ statement. Up to this moment, the reader is generously left to connect with and follow the sentimental narrative of Figueroa’s coming-of-age story with those interjections as guiding signposts. The didactic explanation of intent is understandable considering the book, presented alongside a series of monoprints, was Figueroa’s thesis project as a Master of Fine Arts candidate in Interdisciplinary Book, Paper, and Print Arts from Columbia College Chicago.
With or without pointed direction from the artist, the day-glo filters over the screenplay skits and images are key to appreciating the book. These photographic images act as stages: cinematic in their dimensions, and I hold them in my vision with a Ken Burns effect, panning and zooming as I read the corresponding sections. This parallax view, the images as still-shots and visual echoes that resonate, joins the duotone images in a list of duos, pairs: Figueroa tells us this is a story about Ruby and their sister, about Ruby and their mother, about Ruby’s mother and father, the dichotomy of growing up in Humboldt Park and moving to a Chicago suburb, about Ruby as a first-generation Mexican-American person, but ultimately it is a story about Ruby-then and Ruby-now.
Am I brushing past the very meat of the story? Maybe so. The ways that Figueroa shares, divulges, confesses, dishes, and leads the reader through their evolving understanding of self (selves?) is so intimate and generous that to sum it up in any way feels reductive. We follow Ruby reflecting on childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood through the lenses of family, sexuality, relationships, home, and community. The screenplay snippets speak to the underlying presence of media geared toward teens and tweens from the late-1990s through mid-2000s, and the prescriptive ways that it set expectations for “coming of age,” gender norms, and sexuality. Comedy of this era was, at its worst, gag-driven with a gross-out vibe, but at its best delivered with the dead-pan, eye-rolling attitude that Figueroa carries throughout. When the diaristic qualities of Figueroa’s memoir narrative become too saccharine, mistily rose-tinted, or deeply shrouded in regret, Figueroa is the first to interrupt themself with a clarifying parenthetical, sometimes a direct apology to the reader or just a quick “(barf).”
It’s these moments of levity that bring me back to the on-screen character who breaks the fourth wall. Figueroa’s angle is less a coddling “Dear reader,” and more an elbow jab at your side, “Get a load of this, reader…” This gesture of familiarity allows the reader to become entangled in the project, yielding one as of yet overlooked duo: Ruby and the reader. From the onset in the book’s preface, we are led into the narrative with a tight grip from Figueroa delivering a warning that most of what we are about to read is true, but some stories are victim to “false memories and dramatization.” With this awareness, Figueroa actively cultivates a relationship between Ruby and the reader built upon trust. That trust is reflected in a genuine gratitude extended to the reader for participating in this project. Like a healthy relationship, there is a balanced exchange here between all parties: Figueroa, Ruby, and the reader.
8.25 × 6 in. closed
If the title of Asemic Walks: 50 Templates for Pataphysical Inspections seems somewhat opaque, the book itself is transparent – literally. Fifty sheets of translucent drafting vellum, each with a printed route, are bound between a few solid pages of front and back matter. In the front, an epigraph from Species of Spaces sets the tone, with Georges Perec urging the reader to practice attention and curiosity. In the back, Abendschein gathers interpretations and responses from various artists, writers and thinkers. Between these sets of quotes, the pages are devoid of verbal content. The book is cerebral, but still deeply engaged with the sensual experience of reading. It is through a deep understanding of the codex as a time-based, interactive medium that Asemic Walks surpasses its own clever conceptual conceit and shines as a physical object.
Each translucent sheet has the appearance of a map, complete with a frame and a compass rose. Dashed and dotted lines trace routes across the surface of the page. Geometric symbols seem to represent waypoints and destinations. Yet it is with these details that the appearance of a map breaks down. There is no legend. There is no scale. Indeed, there is no terrain. The book provides only the translucent route beneath which the reader must furnish their own map to complete a walk. Thus, Asemic Walks is a book that can be used and not merely read. Its translucent pages remain central to the fascinating tensions between these two activities.
Abendschein tempers his invitation to bring one’s own map with a curious dedication following the title page: “to my father, who read maps like books.” What then do the translucent pages do for the reader, rather than the user, of the book? The reader excavates a palimpsest of overlapping routes, forming new shapes on recto and verso as they page through the book. The intricate webs are visually compelling, but Abendschein steers clear of pure abstraction. Each page is numbered, and each compass rose has initials indicating the cardinal directions. This, absurdly, creates a right side and a wrong side of the page, though both are meaningless without a map. A map, however, renders the fifty templates moot since a single route can be laid atop any number of maps to generate infinite walks.
Like all asemic writing, the routes in Asemic Walks have no meaning because they have infinite meanings. It is up to the reader to determine their significance, in both senses of the word. This emphasis on the imagination may help explain what Abendschein means by “pataphysical inspection.” A full definition of pataphysics — were it possible — would be outside the scope of a book review, but one key concept is that art has the power to make reality from the imaginary. A telling distinction can be made between pataphysics and psychogeography, the latter which is more often associated with walking art.
While the Situationists practiced psychogeography by, for example, navigating Paris with a map of New York, a pataphysician might argue that there is no right or wrong map. The map itself can change the reality it represents. The inventor of pataphysics, Alfred Jarry, set his novel, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, aboard a ship on a sea that overlaid Paris. The plot plays out on a linguistic plane, untouched by the reality of the submerged city beneath it.
This level of remove is encapsulated in the pataphor, the pataphysical extension of the metaphor. While a metaphor juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated terms, the pataphor takes this figurative, metaphorical relationship as a starting point for yet another juxtaposition, this one entirely figurative with no grounding in the literal. The pataphor exists on imaginary, linguistic terrain that the reader can nevertheless traverse.
A map is already a metaphor. Its user must make an imaginative leap from paper to pavement. Asemic Walks takes that metaphor as its starting point and adds another layer. Abendschein is less interested in the gap between the map and reality; he is ready to move beyond the literal altogether. A reader may slip a map between the book’s pages and take whatever walk they conjure, but to use Asemic Walks is to transpose reading and walking alike onto a plane of pure imagination. If this can be achieved just as easily by leafing through the book’s translucent pages, why bother walking at all? I would argue that the pataphysical belief that the imagined can be lived as reality is best felt outside a book, where readers already take for granted the temporary suspension of reality.
Plenty of books help the reader escape reality for a while, but Asemic Walks asks the reader to go outside into the real world and see it transformed. It is not merely a means to an end, though. Asemic Walks offers a genuine reading experience for those who want to stay inside. The book’s pacing balances the complexity of each layout with the translucent pages beneath it. While reading a conventional book simply reveals and conceals its pages, Asemic Walks comes into being continuously. A reader sees each page transformed again and again, even before it is in hand. Reading, even indoors without a map, rewards the curiosity and attention that Perec advocates when walking.
This is part two of a two-part interview. Read part one here.
Levi Sherman: On the subject of teaching, I wonder if you can tell me about your artists’ book class at Davidson College. I’m wondering about the balance of studio work and time looking in special collections, but also subject matter: your course is not only concerned with diverse representation but also active anti-racism.
Tyler Starr: My focus at Davidson College is teaching printmaking, drawing, and the capstone courses for studio art majors. One of my courses introduces Japanese woodblock printing and looks at hybrid examples of using image and text. In the book arts class I offer, we work our way through simple structures like pamphlets and accordions culminating in an ambitious final project that is developed around a campus-wide initiative: “Stories Yet to be Told: Race, Racism, and Accountability on Campus.” Students create complex book structures based on their individual insights into the prompt. Britt Stadig has been a helpful guest for these classes giving students the collaborative experience of developing their individualized structures for their final projects with a professional bookmaker.
Throughout this course, we study examples of artists using the book format to engage with social justice issues. Tia Blassingame led an inspiring discussion with us about her work last fall semester. The collection of artist’s books at our library is a helpful resource. Kikuji Kawada’s book, Chizu, is a powerful example in our collection that looks at the legacy of Hiroshima, militarism, and the U.S. occupation in postwar Japan (https://www.sfmoma.org/artist/Kikuji_Kawada/). It is a challenging class, and I learn much from the students as they explore their individual concerns and experiences. This process inevitably causes us to enter vulnerable states. But great works have been created by the students that strive towards making the world a more just place.
LS: That vulnerability seems similar to what your books ask of the reader. Are there parallels between art and teaching in terms of opening a space for vulnerability and then making the most of that exchange?
TS: That is an interesting idea I haven’t thought about. In a classroom space, we learn directly from our exchanges. The personal exposure leads to insights, for example hearing of the existential threats some students face, having a blind spot revealed, or realizing complicity in racist structures and the need to act against them. My time alone in the studio digesting information of violent racist incidents similarly includes introspection and contextualization. Hopefully, my books effectively package some of the lessons like primers that can be utilized to promote social justice.
LS: Primer is an interesting word — your books are certainly educational, but they don’t feel didactic. How do you achieve that? Sometimes you focus on dramatic incidents, but you don’t just rely on sensational stories to keep the reader interested.
TS: My family happened to have some 19th century children’s primers that I perused when young, and while I glossed over the overtly moralizing aspects, I was interested in the short synopses of historic events accompanied by dramatic illustrations. The images often dominated and were supplemented with limited text in order to entice the reader — tactics I use in my books. This reliance on visualizations can also relate to the broader definition of primers that includes basic guidebooks on narrow subjects, for example illustrated booklets that efficiently summarize a specific historical battle with condensed information such as maps, uniforms, and statistics.
I think my latest books can be didactic in that the chosen subjects highlight lesser known examples of white supremacist violence: 22 bank robberies committed to raise funding for rebellion against the U.S. government to establish a white nation, or motorcades of racists that went on to commit murder. Within the context of a group exhibit offering varied perspectives on injustices in the U.S. such as Breathe at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (https://www.biartmuseum.org/exhibitions/breathe/), my book Identification of Cars Participating in Klan Rally at Montgomery Alabama, March 21, 1965 can be useful evidence for exposing the intentions and continuing deadly threat of white supremacist organizations (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lj3fAGOqKAk). This can especially be helpful for people who have not directly been attacked by these organizations and have had a more abstract relationship with their dangers. The visual reconstructions in my newest book, Bank Tellers of America versus the Aryan Republican Army 1992–96, reveals details such as the white supremacist canon of texts captured by the FBI along with the members of this terrorist organization. That was before the dominance of digital reading formats, so they still carted cardboard boxes full of their book collection from storage units to hideouts, but today’s online version has not changed much. At the core of white supremacist literature is the yearning to commit violence and murder, and they look for historical precedents that inform their tactics.
LS: Thinking about the context of a group exhibition highlights the way you focus on a narrow manifestation of a systemic issue and resist the temptation to, for example, try to explain the entire ideology of white supremacy in a single book. Is it easier to resist that impulse since you sustain lines of inquiry through multiple projects, which flesh out the context over time? I guess I’m asking about the relationship of any one project to your practice as a whole.
TS: I think your question effectively explains my approach. Collectively, I see my works as a survey of human endeavors including the tragic results. The Mnemosyne Atlas developed by the pioneer of visual studies, Aby Warburg, has been an inspiration for this way of considering strains of connectivity through disparate images in proximity to each other. Warburg’s Atlas consists of groupings of images he sourced from all kinds of places such as advertisements, newspaper articles, and art historical reproductions. He tacked these curated images onto boards covered with black cloth for easy repositioning. The irregular black spaces that result between the images has nicely been described as a conduit for the connections between the groupings. Warburg offered lectures to expound on the panels in ways that would shift as his ideas developed, allowing for a fluid reconsideration of the images’ relationships.
Panel 79 particularly interests me with its arrangement that includes a 9th-century schematic showing a wooden chair for the Pope next to a photograph of a Japanese hara-kiri ceremony, two reproductions of medieval woodcuts, and a newspaper photo of the Locarno Treaties signing (https://warburg.library.cornell.edu/panel/79). Warburg used this panel to evidence traces of the paganistic origins of Christian ceremonies, the looming threat of fascism, and historical examples of anti-Semitic mob violence. An arrangement of my recent artist’s books on a table similarly has implied connections between the various subjects that add up to contextualization of contemporary racist violence. The gaps between the projects hopefully offer interpretive room that allow the works to be more expansive.
LS: I love this idea of gaps articulating connections between projects and opening spaces for interpretation. At the same time, sometimes a gap is just an oversight. Is it useful for artists to reflect on what their art isn’t about?
TS: I think some oversight due to issues like positionality are inevitable and that surely there is much to learn by considering what something isn’t supposed to be. Teaching drawing entails encouraging awareness of negative space and its essential relationship with the tangible aspects of an object being drawn. There is also the old notion that the materiality of a vessel and the empty space it contains are equally important. I became especially aware of the space between things while studying Japanese art with its long tradition of emphasizing empty areas of a composition. The book I mentioned earlier, Honzō Zufu, has great examples of this approach. There are some pages where the mushroom specimen is tiny compared to the paper it is printed on, and this empty space is printed with mica so that sparks of color are revealed as the book is moved. Another method used in this book is to print the background with a darker gradient that reveals the white fungus structures in the foreground.
LS: That also brings to mind the way you pace your book Redress Papers with empty, colored pages as pauses. Can you talk about your approach to temporality, to the amount of time your reader spends with a book and how much you hope to influence that as the creator?
TS: The pace of flipping through a book can be very different than skipping through a room of works hanging on walls. I love spending hours with a book in the special collection rooms of libraries, and I need several days when visiting one of my favorite places in Tokyo: the vintage book district of Jimbocho. Assuming the viewer has the opportunity to handle the book rather than observing it through a plexiglass vitrine, there can be a cinematic presentation of information with drama and surprises determined by the reader’s movements. I am sympathetic to readers wrestling with a structure of a book to reveal its contents since I am not particularly patient when trying to figure out how to open up more complex structures without damaging the book. My structures tend to be streamlined and with just a little sleight of hand (such as fold outs) to offer rewards for making the effort to engage with the book.
When I studied in Japan, one area of focus was contemporary use of the traditional Japanese woodblock printing process. This research highlighted the ways inherent physical properties of materials (such as paper or pigment) in the artwork can function as important design elements and conveyors of content. Lately, I have been learning a lot from the book designs of Settai Komura (1887–1940, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7f5NIn3RblA). Nuances of the texture and color of materials can help encourage a contemplative atmosphere with the feel and sound of flipping pages propelling the content. The cheaper paper of my pamphlets might encourage stuffing them into a pocket on a busy day, while my book covers with linen book cloth might lead to a more delicate and considered interaction. Either way it is an honor that anyone took the time to consider my work and the hope is that it can be a productive experience. My book Redress Papers is an example where I tried to apply this greater awareness of materials by using the slightly translucent quality of the interleaving to weave together the different subjects of the book’s images. The pausing and revealing in the book offer still spaces for the visual memorials.
LS: You obviously pay attention to details and the consequences of your artistic decisions, in both your research and execution, but as a student of unintended consequences you must feel that some aspects of your art practice (and life in general) are out of your control. How do you apply the lessons you’ve learned about unintended consequences to your practice?
TS: I approach much of what I do in the studio out of a desire to learn. When things go awry, the benefits can be the learning opportunities that arise. Unfortunately perhaps, my discoveries and developments often come from when I screw things up. Repetition and predictable outcomes tend to be the opposite of what excites me about making art in the studio, and this has given me a problematic relationship with the conventions of editioning in printmaking. I suppose integral to my practice is a focus on the investigative process. This approach is complementary to being a professor and conducting courses in conversation with students engaged in their own inquiries.
LS: Before we wrap up, I wonder if you can tell me what you’ll be working on next? I know you’ve just completed a major project, Bank Tellers of America versus The Aryan Republican Army.
TS: I have two artist’s book projects in the works now. One will be based on figures extracted from video of the January 6th attack on the capitol. The participation of white supremacist organizations brings full circle the work I initiated in 2013 with Auto Record: Greenkill. Unfortunately the insurrection attempt verifies the enduring strain of white extremist violence in American culture, and its continuous threat. With these kinds of projects, I end up sitting way too long in front of computers, so the second project I am working on will be composed of drawings on paper.
My earliest zines were reportage of witnessed events and recounted stories I heard from people I worked with in various temp factory jobs. I was inspired by Goya’s Disasters of War etchings (I Saw It), and I also have a love of the comic book/graphic novel format. This second project is my first foray into sequential narrative, reflecting things I’ve witnessed over the years that seemingly have some elusive lessons. Halftone color will be an important area of investigation for this project. I’m starting with short stories to figure out what format it will end up being. Stories include seeing the Minnesota Iceman in a Mansfield, Ohio mall, witnessing TS Wisła soccer hooligans in action in the 90s, and a clandestine tour of a temple in Ueno, Tokyo with sad secretive rooms that were the last Shogun’s refuge.
LS: I look forward to seeing those projects come together! If it’s not too glib, can I conclude by asking what advice you might give an aspiring or fellow artist?
TS: I think the critical and constant struggles are figuring out how to have time working in the studio and getting the work out the door into the public. So my advice, coming from a practical perspective, is to decide on career priorities to help form strategies for accomplishing your goals. One goal I had early on was to study art internationally, but I was frustrated by the private art school I initially went to for undergraduate studies because of the way counselors kept pushing me towards a program they had set up in Italy that I considered too expensive and predictable. I ended up withdrawing from the school, taking a gap year, getting EMT certified, and then finishing up my undergraduate degree at the University of Connecticut where the faculty helped me get a Fulbright to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland. That experience was transformative and opened up the world to me. If someone plans to study art in higher education, it is important to make sure the educational institution offers what you need to make the most of available resources.
LS: Great advice! Thanks for your time.
TS: Thank you!
Tyler Starr received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. In 1998, Starr was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Academy of Fine Arts, Krakow, Poland. In 2011, he graduated with a PhD in Studio Arts from the Tokyo University of Fine Arts where he was a recipient of the Japanese Ministry of Education Scholarship. Starr was a 2011 Grant Wood Fellow at the University of Iowa, a 2013 Christiania Researcher in Residence, a 2014 OMI International Arts Center Resident and a 2018 Fellowship Artist at the Kala Art Institute. His work has been featured in exhibitions at Yale University’s Haas Arts Library, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Liège, Belgium, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Japan. He is currently an Associate Professor of Studio Art at Davidson College.
I was eager to talk to Tyler Starr because he is a consummate educator — he doesn’t mystify his practice, even as he makes poetic leaps and experiments with surprising studio processes. Starr thinks deeply about how and why he makes what he makes, and yet the work isn’t about itself; he investigates history and human nature through rigorous archival research, broad reading and introspection.
The following interview took place via email beginning September 19, 2021.
Levi Sherman: Like many of the artists I’ve spoken to, artists’ books are not your only studio practice. Can we start by discussing the relationship between your books and your other works? What makes something an ideal book project?
Tyler Starr: Much of my studio work results in one of a kind works on paper made from a painting/drawing perspective but incorporating techniques extracted from my studies of printmaking. My academic research included a focused study of intaglio with the help of a Fulbright scholarship at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland, and I eventually received a PhD in studio art from the Tokyo University of the Arts where I researched contemporary applications of the Japanese woodblock printing process. The physical and optical effects of ink on paper, and the marks that come about via collaboration with the various printmaking techniques have always intrigued me. I incorporate pouncing (using an old sign-painter tool called the electro-pounce), chine-collé, and solvent transfer techniques along with standard drawing and painting techniques. One series of paintings on paper is a survey of Lover’s Leaps I visited. These works were influenced by engravings in the 2 volumes of Picturesque America (https://archive.org/details/picturesqueameri03brya/page/n9/mode/2up). Of course, print media is especially exciting for the ways it has historically worked to disseminate information to a wide audience, and I try to tap into this legacy with my editioned books and pamphlets.
My individual works on paper tend to be poetically ambiguous with free associations. The subjects are inspired by consideration of how my daily experiences might relate to more macro contexts like economics, geography, history, and societal constructs of race. To try to get a better grasp of these complex subjects I find excuses to spend lots of time reading or visiting archives to explore printed ephemera of a subject. I end up accumulating a constellation of material on a specific topic, such as the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, that I then edit and distill along the lines of information visualization. The book format offers a way to organize images and text to create accessible entry points into a narrative constructed from the research. My first artist’s books were three issues of a zine I made in the 1990s entitled A Buck in the Field that collected stories and dialogues from various factory temp jobs I worked. I bound those with a sewing machine. Lately I use a panoramic-like way of visualizing tragic incidents to acknowledge overlooked aspects of our history that are precedents for current events.
LS: These poetic associations would seem to require a different mindset than the laborious archival research. How do you cultivate and balance both approaches?
TS: Literature is always a helpful reference for me. I started to work with these two mindsets while living in Japan, which ended up being for about 7 years as the fortunate recipient of a Japanese Ministry of Education Fellowship. On one hand I was simply fascinated by daily strolls around the old downtown district in Tokyo where I lived with my wife between Ueno and Asakusa with sights of shrines, red light districts, street festivals, and great hole in the wall restaurants, while on the other hand there were traces of complex events around us, from the fire-bombing of Tokyo in WWII with the many casualties that occurred in the nearby Sumida River, current public protests of the U.S. military bases in Japan, and new construction of the Tokyo Skytree that we saw swaying during the aftershocks from the Tohoko Earthquake.
I needed to read deeper about Japan to better contextualize things and encountered discussions of how narratives about history are constructed. Writers inevitably have agendas and make creative decisions about how events are presented. Within the classic books on Japan there is The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict which is written in a very accessible form that originates from her research initiated during WWII by the US Commission of War Information to create a guide for occupation forces on how to govern the Japanese after military defeat. Then there is The Mirror in the Shrine by the historian Robert A. Rosenstone in which he self-consciously inserts himself into the narrative wondering how he has personally been changed by his writing about the impact of Japan on Americans who lived there in the Meiji era. These are engrossing nonfiction works that evidence the artifice of animating scraps of information into a story. Purely poetic expressions can use artifice more blatantly in reaction to research and similarly offer insights into complex subjects, so I see both mindsets as comparable tools for gaining more thorough understanding of the world around us.
From the art perspective, Kenzaburo Oe has been an important example for me as an author. His work includes self-reflective books based on reportage such as Hiroshima Notes using interviews he had with survivors of the bomb, as well as haunting fiction like Prize Stock that is a fantastical response to WWII. Both of his approaches helpfully acknowledge the continuous impact of traumatic histories on today’s events.
LS: How has witnessing the impact of U.S. violence abroad shaped the way you see it operating at home, historically and in the present?
TS: There are many victims, activists, and scholars that can teach us about violence caused by U.S. international and domestic policies. Positionality is one of the important lessons I gained from my time in Japan helping me to more clearly understand the limits of my perspective and my inherent blind spots. My awareness of controversies surrounding the U.S. military bases in Japan were heightened when I stumbled across a student protest in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. In this case student organizations (that clearly included alumni based on some of the elderly participants) employed hard hats and long formations of interlocked arms that snaked through the park. This technique of protest was used in opposition to the US-Japan Security Treaty from 1959-1960 and the choreography was refined during the anti-base protests and anti-Vietnam war protests of the late 1960s. The Research Center for Cooperative Civil Societies at Rikkyo University, Tokyo was an insightful archive I visited that has a collection of scrap books created by student activists in the 1960s.
As I started to read more about the anti-U.S. base movement in Japan, I learned about some of the large protests sparked by the Girard Case in 1957 in which a white U.S. soldier stationed in Japan shot in the back and killed Naka Sakai, a 46-year-old Japanese mother of 6 who was one of many local villagers gathering spent brass bullet casings on a military training field. Facets of the case show the complexities of post-WWII relationships between the U.S. and Japan, but at the core it reveals the violence that results from racist othering and dehumanization.
Two scholars that dig into these specific subjects are Chalmers Johnson and John Dower (with Dower being of particular interest because of his interest in using visual studies to punctuate his analyses). They show how othering and dehumanization are key for justifying military violence (for example resulting in the willingness to utilize two atomic bombs on Japanese civilian centers). This dehumanization of the Japanese by Americans continues to result in violence especially towards Japanese women around U.S. bases.
Shortly after I moved to North Carolina to teach at Davidson College, I had the opportunity to participate in an ART in Odd Places exhibit in Greensboro. In preparation I began to learn about the city and came across the first use of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the U.S. set up in response to the Greensboro Massacre. In this 1979 incident, 5 members associated with the Communist Workers Party were killed during an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally they had organized. The killers were members of Neo-Nazi and KKK organizations, and despite much of the tragedy being captured on film, no one was convicted. Local government authorities wanted to simply forget about it rather than address the conflicts revealed by the murders and an open wound remained in the community.
The commission was organized in 2004 and in their final report, their number one recommendation for moving forward with healing was to clearly acknowledge the incident. I made a pamphlet that was distributed during the exhibit visualizing the two opposing motorcades involved in the incident based on the details in FBI documents. Through this project I began to learn more about violent white supremacist organizations in the U.S. and the Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, is an important resource (https://www.splcenter.org/hate-map). In this research, I encountered writings by white supremacists displaying their brutal dehumanization of people of color, Jewish people, and anyone who allies with them.
This dehumanization aligns with white supremacist fantasies of the world descending into horrific violence that they use to justify their homicidal urges. We see this again and again in current white supremacist terrorist actions. This thread of racist othering and dehumanization is exemplified throughout domestic and international American policies.
LS: Books seem to share a mission with Art in Odd Places, extending art into the public sphere in sometimes unexpected ways. Brad Freeman calls his books “traveling exhibitions,” and your use of accordion structures especially seems calibrated to maximize the book’s potential for display without losing portability or intimacy. Is that why artists’ books appeal to you?
TS: I am fascinated by the panoramic effect of accordion books. They can be very immersive even when pocket sized. But rather than thinking of books as a portable exhibit, I admire Monique Wittig’s idea of a book being like a trojan horse. Fragments assembled together into a machine (of sorts) that heads off into the world to function in surprising ways. When I’m making a book, it is an assembling of information into hopefully engaging choreography. This collage-like approach to making art is beautifully expressed by William Carlos Williams:
A poem is tough by no quality it borrows from a logical recital of events nor from the events themselves but solely from that attenuated power which draws perhaps many broken things into a dance giving them thus a full being.W. C. Williams, Kora in Hell
LS: Assembling fragments could also describe historical research. Is that aspect part of your interest in past events?
TS: My interest in past events is based on trying to better understand current events. When reading about the legacy of white supremacist organizations in the Southeast, I came across primary documents such as FBI case files. The evidence described in them was often poignant, but one must peruse hundreds of pages of roughly scanned pdf documents to find it. I extracted textual descriptions of evidence that reveal critical aspects of a case, and then I found photographs that offer accurate visualizations. For example, in my new book Bank Tellers of America versus The Aryan Republican Army (1992–1996), I scoured online auto classifieds in search for a matching brown 1980 4-door Chevy Citation the Aryan Republican Army purchased with cash for use in a bank robbery and left behind with a hand booby trapped hand grenade in the glove box. I find that visualization of information can offer engaging entry points into some of these now overlooked incidents that have direct correlation to events happening today. This imagery also helps me understand things, partly because I don’t have a great memory. The book format organizes these snippets of info and associated images eventually creating a narrative. Additional meaning is generated through the proximity of images to each other. Even the space between and around the assembled elements has a suggestive presence.
LS: This idea of an engaging entry point seems especially important if you want readers to confront a history that has been hidden for a reason. At the same time, there is the risk of fetishizing or reinscribing violence. How do you find that balance?
TS: Acknowledging traumatic aspects of our history is definitely fraught with potential problems, and my positionality is part of the complexity. With the works about white supremacist violence I use a hybrid text and image approach akin to brochures found at national historic sites with digestible nuggets of information. The hope is that providing overlooked information distilled from primary documents will offer an audience different opportunities to initiate their own investigations.
I take a measured approach with respect and care towards victims, and I do fear causing additional harm to them. I use various approaches such as decentering the perpetrators to focus on victims, or looking slightly askew at the subject with a focus on objects like a sociological study rather than using the spectacle of violent figurative imagery. A useful aspect of the book format is that it tends to be non-confrontational and allows viewers to engage with it on their own terms. The visuals I provide try to move beyond headlines and provide insight into the tools (such as cars, weapons, and masks) used to project racist violence.
A source of inspiration has been the Louisiana State University Cold Case Project that is part of their journalism program looking into unsolved civil rights era murders. They had a comprehensive website with links to primary documents from the various cases that they gathered through Freedom of Information requests (https://web.archive.org/web/20160331222458/http://lsucoldcaseproject.com/about/). We are of course now well aware that while the voice of journalists and historians are conventionally presented as neutral, they are actually imbued with agendas and biases.
Once my work leaves the studio I am sensitive to responses and modify my approach in efforts to increase positive impact and avoid contributing to the racist violence the work is meant to oppose. But my shortcomings are sometimes evidenced in my works, and I humbly learn from less successful attempts. For example, ambiguity is something I wrestle with. How much comprehensive context needs to be provided within the book itself, and how much nuance can be provided via the venue in which the book is shown? I am someone that will occasionally skip an introduction in order to get to the core of a book, but a detailed introduction can help frame a subject in ways to dispel misunderstandings. The intro to my most recent artist’s book is longer than my previous ones.
LS: This is a great transition to the question of reception — and readers. Can you talk about the different audiences you reach by creating both democratic multiples and lavish limited editions? And perhaps the role of institutions for each?
TS: The legacy of printed matter as a means of disseminating information is still powerful in the digital era. For example, printing presses and their ink-on-paper products are still being destroyed and confiscated around the world to limit communication of ideas. Recent examples include presses in Kashmir, Palestine, Belorussia, and Hong Kong. I often think about how the etching presses we used at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts had been wrapped in oily rags and buried in the ground to prevent the Nazi’s from taking them during occupation.
With the outsourcing of printing, the cost and time of fabrication go way down, and the quantity increases. There is then financially less at stake with the individual publications, and they can be freely distributed or offered for pocket change to help cover shipping costs to anyone even slightly interested. I have placed stacks of publications in the free newspaper bins in cities to offer happenstance discoveries. Then the publications can find their way into the flow of daily life, and there is potential for them to arrive at surprising locations and hopefully germinate in productive ways. But I also appreciate the tactile nature of the materials being used — pigment, paper fibers, and binding agents. Physical properties of a book convey additional meaning. The tactile nature of washi papers can encourage different associations than a thick rag paper or red linen. When I do the printing, I take advantage of textures and ink properties, but then the variety of materials and additional time needed for fabrication results in more expensive books. I also work with my friend, the master bookmaker Britt Stadig (http://brittstadigstudio.com/), to create innovative book structures that a commercial printer would not handle. These fine art books function well with the help of librarians and curators in institutional special collections that offer space to engage with books in relation to other books. In this environment there are opportunities for cross-fertilization between publications and the ability to engage with the subtleties of a book’s construction.
In my classes, I refer to volume 56 from Kanen Iwasaki’s encyclopedic study of botany (Honzō Zufu, 1921) that I acquired for Davidson College’s special collections. Close inspection of the pages allows light to play off the forms created from embossment or white pigment made from shells, and negative spaces are activated with thin layers of woodblock printed mica. The modest subject of mushrooms becomes monumental and dramatic. Digital reproductions of these pages are drastic simplifications (http://umdb.um.u-tokyo.ac.jp/DShokubu/Honzo/honzo06.htm), and a precursory look at a book like this while waiting at a bus stop would likely result in missing much of its significance.
Part I: A New Medium
8 × 6 in. closed
Part II: The Fantasy of the Novel
8 × 6 in. closed
Spanish artist/theorist David Maroto’s two-volume work of fictocriticism, The Artist’s Novel, is not an artist’s book in the traditional sense (if we can say there is any traditional sense of an artist’s book), but an examination and an example of a new medium he proposes: the artist’s novel.
His conception of the artist’s novel differs both from the artist’s book and the literary novel. Unlike most artist’s books we discuss here, the artist’s novel does not contain art or function as an artwork itself, and unlike most novels it does not serve primarily as a discrete piece of literature but rather as a facet of a larger project.
While it is easy to describe what an artist’s novel is not — Maroto gets that out of the way in the first few pages of Volume 1, A New Medium — it’s a bit more challenging to pin down what an artist’s novel is. Through four case studies, references to criticism and other works, and a generous selection of interviews with artists, Maroto invites readers to explore the new medium with him as he searches for the answer. He also includes a bibliography of all the artist’s novels he has discovered through his research, inviting further reading. He keeps the bibliography updated on his website and considers it an important part of his critical approach.
Benjamin Seror’s Mime Radio, Maroto’s first contemporary example, was written from a series of transcripts of Seror’s episodic interactive performance series (also entitled Mime Radio). While Seror had a rough idea of each performance’s plot in advance, his storytelling varied based on audience interaction with his content. The novel, put together after the performance series was completed, could be read and understood as an autonomous work, but it only exists because of the larger project. Its narrative style includes the repetitions and little hiccups of live performance, refusing to excise the flaws of improvisation to better represent the performance experience.
Another example, Mai-Thu Perret’s The Crystal Frontier, serves as a counterpoint to Mime Radio in some ways. Not extant as a complete published work, The Crystal Frontier exists instead as an extensive series of narrative fragments that have inspired Perret’s output and stood alongside it at exhibitions, replacing traditional curatorial text.
Maroto’s other examples exist on a spectrum between these two extremes, one a novel almost like any you might find in your local bookshop and the other not a novel as most would conceive it but still steeped in narrative/literary techniques and conventions. All the projects are fascinating and tell us something new about the form, but they vary in terms of success as novels. Maroto’s honest appraisal of the failure of certain projects to live up to their original vision and the difficulty of adapting a literary form to a non-literary context is refreshing and engaging.
By A New Medium’s final chapter, Maroto hasn’t settled on a single definition of the artist’s novel, positing the medium is still too new and varied to strictly define. He does, however, have a pretty good idea of what the artist’s novel does.
The artist’s novel as Maroto understands it is a collaborative and decelerated way of both making and experiencing art. This deceleration and collaboration go hand in hand, especially for the spectator: Maroto references critic Wolfgang Iser’s concept of the “wandering viewpoint,” the idea that the text cannot be experienced all at once, causing the reader/spectator’s point of view and understanding of the work to shift throughout the experience of reading a novel or navigating a narrative exhibition. This necessitates collaboration between artist and audience, since the spectator constantly interprets and reinterprets the work, which radically slows the process of engaging with art. Maroto further posits, and many of the artists he interviews and studies agree, that this is a conscious reaction against the acceleration of the art experience in many galleries, in which patrons are encouraged (and in some cases required) to move along quickly and make room for the next guest.
Maroto defines the artist’s novel not only by what it does, but what it fails to do. Drawing on Barthes’ concept of “the fantasy of the novel” and interviews with artists, Maroto finds the artist’s novel often arises from a fantasy of accessibility, of appreciation outside the art world. Many examples in A New Medium are indeed accessible in that they invite collaboration and empathy rather than relying on shock or inscrutability (something Benjamin Seror mentions throughout his interview and the chapter on Mime Radio), but are not widely accessible in the way of the bestsellers and literary sensations they so often overtly imitate. The artist’s novel is still almost exclusively consumed by art world insiders.
This paradox and the gulf between the fantasy of the artist’s novel and its reality are the major focus of the second volume, The Fantasy of the Novel. While A New Medium is a relatively straightforward piece of criticism, here Maroto writes a novel — one in which he is the narrator and a significant driver of the plot. In many ways, The Fantasy of the Novel functions like any other novel. It draws on tropes from murder mysteries, its autofictional tendencies remind us of Ben Lerner or Ruth Ozeki or any number of other writers, and it consciously alludes to literary figures from Roberto Bolaño and Tom McCarthy to Rimbaud, Proust, and Omar Khayyám.
However, it is a work of criticism, if a sly one. The second volume does more than provide an example of an artist’s novel (really, two examples: the plot of The Fantasy of the Novel revolves around the writing of artist’s novel Tamum Shud, which Maroto commissioned with his partner and fellow critic Joanna Zielinska — in both The Fantasy of the Novel and real life). The feelings of confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety plaguing Maroto-the-character allow Maroto-the-artist to more deeply explore his conception of the failure of the artist’s novel to live up to the fantasy.
The two volumes, then, are distinct in more than form. While A New Medium discusses the idea of failure, it is primarily a generative work. It concerns itself with the possibilities of the artist’s novel and invites further criticism and new artist’s novel projects. The Fantasy of the Novel is, at least in its plot, a counterpoint: the failure of the fantasy, the breakdown between the artist’s idea and the actual project. This failure is not a bad thing, though; as Maroto tells us, “A failure can be an illuminating event that helps us visualize the limits of art practice within the institutionalized reality of the art world.” The artist’s novel’s paradoxical nature — belonging neither to art or literature — provides a unique position from which to engage its audience.
Together, the two volumes make an intriguing work for anyone interested in artist’s books, both as an introduction to a relatively new and uncommon medium — one that’s certainly related to the larger book art sphere, if not wholly a part of it — and as encouragement to think critically and seriously about the form and function of the works we consume and create. While the questions Maroto poses and the answers he works toward relate to artist’s novels in their particularities, their generalities apply to all art printed, folded, and bound into the form of a book.
9 × 12.25 × 0.7 in.
Tara Homasi coaxed The Circus out of an existing book, The Circle of Life: Rituals from the Human Family Album. If Tom Phillips’ seminal redacted book, A Humument, is impressive because the original book is mediocre, obscure and visually bland, The Circus takes on the opposite challenge. The Circle of Life is a large-format, color photobook of rituals from around the world. The text that accompanies these emotionally charged images is peppered with quotes from the likes of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, the introduction is by Gabriel García Márquez and the afterword is by Peter Matthiessen. Homasi’s challenge is not making something of nothing, but rather making something new and deeply personal from this wellspring of universal themes.
She takes on this enormous task (scratching her work into existence with hundreds of blades) during a period of isolation and malaise. In the book’s introduction, she describes witnessing the world without being able to act in it as “the aquarium,” and turns to redaction as a way of removing layers of mediation and reconnecting outside the glass. The book chronicles this process with handwritten date stamps and occasional commentary that mix the artist’s real life into the narrative she creates. By documenting its own creation, The Circus draws a parallel not only between Homasi’s practice and the reader’s experience but also many of the rituals in the original book.
By retaining a close relationship with the original book, The Circus is able to examine its own book-ness. Homasi is especially playful with the book’s peritextual elements. She manipulates the original page numbers while preserving their actual order, declares in the front matter that “no part of this book may be used whatsoever,” and awards herself “the National Boo.” She also cleverly brings peritext into the main text. For example, she can use the repeated word “photograph” to address themes of mediation and memory, since it appears in image credits on almost every page of the original book. Even her mode of redaction, a combination of scraping ink off the page and adding her own media to the surface, demonstrates an interest in the material book. The three-dimensionality of each page is as important as their combined sequence.
Of course, working by redaction results in one major difference between The Circus and its source text: The Circus has less text. This shifts the balance between text and image and results in a number of possible reading experiences. As a continuous narrative, the text carries the reader from page to page quite quickly. The images flash into the reader’s subconscious like the dreams and memories they pair with. Focus on the images though, and the text fragments into cryptic captions. The book merits both approaches; each of its complex images would hold their own on a gallery wall, and the text is varied but cohesive.
Their individual strengths aside, Homasi seems most interested in using the book form to orchestrate the interplay of text and image. She disrupts edges and margins from the original book, sometimes fusing photographs across the gutter or covering an entire spread with full-bleed imagery. Elsewhere, she relies on the minimalist impact of redaction: a stark white page where only “the removal of the clitoris” remains. Homasi also plays with spoken versus written language. She extends a “woohoo” across two pages of the letter O, with a result decidedly more haunted than celebratory. Later, she encourages the reader to “read this out loud in front of two adults” and promises “things will happen.”
Deconstructing visual and verbal communication is key to overcoming the existential isolation that motivated the book. Homasi writes: “Language is my second language, imagery is my first. When I combine the two, I connect to the world.” If Homasi’s problem is disconnection, language is both cause and cure. The Circus grapples with whether we can overcome cultural and individual difference and whether what we have in common is something to be celebrated or feared. This plays out on personal and political terrain. Homasi alludes to her own divorce throughout the text and refers to specific family members. Yet the date stamps on every page remind the reader that the then-US-based, Iranian artist’s time in “the aquarium” coincides with Trump’s presidency and Middle East travel bans.
Reading today, it is hard to believe The Circus wasn’t created in response to Covid-19, but Homasi isn’t prophetic so much as strategic. The Circus retains enough of the universality celebrated in The Circle of Life to assure a connection with readers (Jung and Campbell weren’t wrong about everything, after all). Perhaps most telling are the parallels between Homasi’s own practice and the rituals she redacts. From photographs of people around the world painting bodies, shaving hair, cutting skin, and telling stories, Homasi paints and scrapes and cuts her own new narrative. Homasi shows how individuals cope, through redacting and amending, with the scripted lives they inherit.
8.5 × 11 in. closed
Side stitch and fabric tape binding
Risograph and digital printing
Proponents of the “thin blue line” assert that the police are the only thing preventing society from descending into violent chaos. A coyote in an alley, a bank robbery, missing children, and reckless driving: chaos abounds in Public Collectors Police Scanner. Chicago artist Marc Fischer comes to a different conclusion, however, about root causes and possible solutions. Fischer’s initiative, Public Collectors, is dedicated to making important but obscure(d) cultural artifacts public. To that end, Fischer listened to and transcribed the police scanner in Chicago for seventy-five days straight and compiled his hand-written notes into this often-overwhelming book.
The bulk of Police Scanner is scanned and Risograph printed directly from Fischer’s original, letter-sized notes. The format served as a creative constraint for each listening session: one page per day for an average of about forty-five minutes. Fischer details his methodology in the book’s introduction, including ethical decisions around excluding race, last names, VIN numbers and other identifying information. The end sheets, photographs of Fischer’s desk, document the chaos of the process itself. The side-stapled, taped binding further lends an air of low-fi urgency. Fischer’s handwriting powerfully attests to the challenge, speeding up and struggling to organize fragments of narrative as they are relayed among callers, dispatchers, and officers.
Events unfold relentlessly with no regard for conventional storytelling, nearly numbing the reader with uniform intensity, whether funny or tragic. Nevertheless, certain moments do break through the noise. Some are chilling: “Female keeps whispering the address and hanging up.” Others are absurd. A personal favorite of mine: “When you finish with lunch can you head over to the Department of Finance on Pulaski? They’ve got a dispute with an employee over money.” Fischer himself mines the potential for poignant humor in a related publication, Chest Wound to the Chest, which arranges excerpts from Police Scanner into a single long poem. (As a separate pamphlet, this poetic intervention allows Fischer to explore the fascinating rhetorical aspects of the project without departing from his documentary approach in Police Scanner.)
Since the book’s content reflects the vagaries of reality, the only narrative development is the book’s own layout, which conveys Fischer’s growing facility at following and organizing events as they occur. Police Scanner straddles documentation and performance, a choreography of disconnected chance operations that accumulate to reveal structural societal problems. Fischer tries columns, rows, even numbering events as they unfold wherever there is room on the page. On September 15, text funneled into a narrow column chronicles a suicidal man on a ledge. The empty white margins perhaps also indicate the emotional toll those seventeen minutes took on Fischer. On November 2, he writes: “I refuse to listen to the police scanner on my birthday.”
Birthdays aside, Fischer reflects in his introduction that the situation on the streets changes very little from day to day, even with major events like the 2020 election. Ongoing catastrophes, however, like the opioid crisis and Covid-19 pandemic loom in the background of many pages. Teachers witness child abuse during online classes or call for wellness checks on missing students. Fischer reminds the reader that then-mayor Rahm Emanuel closed half of Chicago’s mental health clinics in 2012, the impact of which cannot be overstated.
From the relentless repetition, the reader gets the impression that these systemic problems actually reflect the system working as intended. On November 6, police are sent to Home Depot to “see Brian about the day laborers and ask them to move off the property.” The same day, police are told to disregard a call because “it’s just the usual alley drinkers.” Systems like health care and labor markets are ultimately managed by the police. Since calls often come from businesses, this whole process plays out on a strange verbal map of brand names and private property. The resulting juxtapositions are often striking: “Bucket boys in front of Tiffany’s on Michigan.” One realizes just how little public space there is, usually an alley or a street. The gulf between the city’s aspirational street names and the events that play out on them is equally wide: domestic violence on King, a robbery at Jefferson and Madison.
Policing itself is, of course, one of the pervasive systems behind each individual event. Its rhetoric reveals its values and assumptions, and ultimately the inadequacy of policing to solve the problems it confronts. “Resources” refer to attack dogs, not to social programs. Victims are characterized as insensitively as perpetrators. Racialized and gendered descriptions are so habitual that a dispatcher alerts police to a “female pit bull” as if that would help identify the dog or explain its behavior. Amid the jargon and acronyms, a dispatcher might throw in a “bon appetit” or “okey dokey artichokee,” reminding the reader of the human subjectivity – for better or worse – behind each voice on the scanner.
In these unguarded moments lies the value of a project like Public Collectors Police Scanner. Fischer bears witness to the system of policing that is ostensibly for, and funded by, ordinary citizens like himself. Everyone shares this responsibility. Fischer is also quick to say that the police scanner doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, not every crisis leads (or should lead) to a 911 call, as police reformers and abolitionists are quick to point out. But it does paint a more complete picture of policing than most citizens receive from news and entertainment media. Fischer encourages his readers to listen to their local police scanner for themselves, and the insights gleaned from Police Scanner demonstrate the value of doing so.