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!