Material Print Shop
8.5 × 5.5 in.
Binding: Saddle stitch
Inkjet inside and blind-embossed cover
Edition of 49
Seed Vault is inspired by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which exists to safeguard the genetic diversity of crops against natural and man-made disaster. Rather than food, artist Tim Robertson has imagined a vault of memories to “regenerate life in present and future times of trouble and loss.” The book itself could be the vault, but more likely each of its thirty-four images is a door into an infinitely larger, more complex collection. The photographs are accompanied by a single quote from a member of Crop Trust, the organization behind the Svalbard vault: “This vault is built for humanity to survive. It is like a holy place. Every time I come here I feel like I’m in a cathedral. This is a place to pause and to think.” Guided by this reverential tone, Robertson successfully weaves together the global and the intimate, seeds and memory.
The quote runs the entire length of the book, progressing essentially one word per page. This creates a powerful one-to-one relationship between the word and image on each page. Since the full quote is not readily apparent, the reader focuses on the text-image pair on each page and on the verso-recto relationship in each spread. Indeed, Robertson plays more with the possibilities of the spread as a space than as a sequence. Each page has the same composition – a vertical image inside white margins – which enhances the stability of the spread as a unit. Robertson deftly uses the formal elements of design in this arena. He contrasts warm and cool colors across the gutter. He compares textures, as in a spread with a tree bark verso and footprint recto. Illuminated by Robertson’s flash, the gold of a dead fern mirrors that of a faux-Corinthian capital. A shirt picks up on the pyramidal form of a bonfire.
The stability of each image pair would threaten the momentum of the book, but the unresolved text propels the reader forward. By setting the text entirely uppercase, Robertson further disconnects each word from its place within the sentence. The occasional period reminds the reader that they are reading a linear text and not just a cryptic caption below each image. The text and image have entirely different paces, creating an interesting temporal tension. As one reads, it is difficult to retain the unfolding meaning of the quote against the richness and sheer variety of the photographs.
The images are Robertson’s personal photographs and outtakes from previous projects. They read convincingly like snapshots and memories without trying too hard to be gritty or authentic. They capture a broad albeit idiosyncratic slice of life. The effect is reminiscent of a B-roll montage in some documentary film meant to celebrate the endless variety of humankind – but not saccharine or preachy. In contrast to these busy, colorful images, the austere, blind-embossed cover centers the themes of memory and loss.
The images no doubt hold particular significance for the artist, but they have a relatable quality that allows the reader to join Robertson in his thought experiment. How might a photograph be regenerative? What moments would you keep in your vault? Is the photograph precious, or is it merely a way to enter a memory? And if so, how secure can we make our memories? The photographs are relatable not because they are generic, but because they are so specific. They exude the sense that they are important to someone, even if that person is not the reader. They seem to stand in for all the snapshots and memories that people turn to in times of turmoil.
Robertson plays up this emotional effect with a variety of approaches to the text-image pairs on each page. The first device is emphasizing key words: nouns laden with symbolic potential and active verbs like “think,” “feel” and “survive.” “Time” is paired with a kaleidoscopic self-portrait in a fractured reflection. “Place” accompanies an eerie scene with two empty chairs at a table, reflecting the red glow of a window. Other juxtapositions are more ironic: “survive” captions an image of a billboard advertising fireworks. A third category, perhaps the most interesting, takes a poetic, indirect approach – a candid portrait, the blown-out reflection of the moon on water, or brake lights from an invisible car trailing through a long exposure. These contemplative images are an elegant solution to the challenge of common, little words like “like” and “and.”
Seed Vault shows the power and possibilities of text in the book form. Text pulls the reader through the book, overcoming the static unity of each spread. It connects the personal with the existential, making the book as consequential as it is relatable. The quote creates stirring word-image relationships on each page and interesting pairs across the gutter in addition to the straightforward meaning it expresses. The text-image pairs work with and against the quote they belong to. In this way, a relatively simple book structure extends the four short sentences with an abundance of multiple meanings.
Of all the alternate readings and interpretations, a simple homonym may be the most important: Humanity. If the Svalbard Vault exists to preserve humanity in one sense of the word, then Seed Vault seeks to preserve the other. Robertson’s photographs remind us that empathy and understanding are never more important than in times like the present.