2.5 × 3.75 in. folded Single 8.5 × 11 in. sheet Binding: Parallel brochure fold Risograph Edition of 35
The phrase, “The 14 Negro Students of Noyes Academy / Canaan, New Hampshire” gives the diminutive cover of this single-sheet publication a punch that the official title, Students, holds back. The wording implies the existence of other students, and indeed the subject of Students is the tragic fate of a racially integrated school in 19th century New Hampshire, and the lasting impact it had on its alumni. Artist Tia Blassingame brings archival research alive with the students’ own poetry, presenting the richness of their experiences even as she highlights the gaps in the record.
The book most closely resembles a brochure, the toned paper parallel folded into horizontal quarters and then folded in half to create a vertical spine. It primarily operates as a flat sheet with two clearly separate sides. On one side, excerpts from two poems lay atop an American flag, all printed in blue. The other side is black and red, and weaves a short history among the names of students, which visually dominate the composition. The synthesis of primary texts and archival research into a narrative history is not in itself remarkable. However, Blassingame is exceptional in her use of the artists’ book as a medium to foreground certain details and leave others unsaid, overturning the usual politics of representation. Students centers the Black perspective, and offers a corrective to the way historical narratives about anti-Black violence are often presented. Blassingame lets the students themselves speak – before and after the destruction of their school – which is itself notably absent.
The relative simplicity of the book’s structure demands a careful look at each design decision. Of these, the reader will likely first see that the book seems to open backwards. If the “spine” is on the left, then the colophon is showing. Flipping the book over to read the cover moves the spine to the right, which makes opening the book feel somewhat awkward, but crucially allows the title and colophon to be oriented the same direction as the rest of the text on the same side of the sheet. This compromise indicates that the open sheet is the book’s primary visual unit, rather than the page or opening. Whether front or back, the colophon is a fitting cover, since it contextualizes the book’s text: “In 1835 the schoolhouse of Noyes Academy, an integrated school in Canaan New Hampshire, was physically removed by a mob…and its black students were run out of town.” If the book’s fold evokes a brochure, it does so with a bitter irony, advertising and mourning the promise of an education that was too enlightened for its time.
On the front (the side shared by the title and colophon), red images show a floor plan and elevation of the George Kimball House, where Blassingame explains some of the Noyes Academy students boarded. The house occupies only the top quarter of the sheet, behind the title and colophon. Its pitched roofs peek out above the fold, exuding a sort of quintessential domesticity that sits uneasily with the book’s events. Beneath the colophon and title, the six remaining folded panels organize the rest of the composition. This comprises three threads of text. A narrative account of Blassingame’s research and retelling, and the names of the students are printed in black. The remaining text is set in larger, uppercase letters and printed in red as if stamped across the page: BORN ENSLAVED or BORN FREE. Thus, the students appear to be organized into each of the six panels, three for those born free and three for those born enslaved. Blassingame’s account zigzags left to right and top to bottom, filling out the space between the students’ names (eight of which remain unknown).
The reverse side functions more like a broadside than a book, but the folded panels still guide the layout. A monochrome American flag fills the page, bleeding off all four edges. The absent red in the blue flag reads like the fugitive red in a faded shop window advertising – signaling its false facade in black and blue. The stars and stripes are further tarnished since Student’s toned paper removes any actual white from the palette. Obscured as it is by the text, a reader might first miss the flag’s four even rows of six stars – “Old Glory” as she was from 1822–1836. Atop the stars is printed a four-line poem titled “On Freedom,” written in 1828 by a twelve-year-old Thomas S. Sidney, who figures elsewhere in Blassingame’s text. Beneath it, and larger, is an eight-line excerpt from “Call to Rebellion” by another Noyes Academy alumnus, the prominent abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet. The transcendent optimism of Sidney’s verse is nowhere to be found in this latter work, written in 1843. Garnet documents the racist threats of violence he has endured in his poetic call for insurrection. Together the two poems bookend the hopeful era of integrated education and its antebellum aftermath.
Yet, between these bookends the “book” is nowhere to be found. The critical incident, the school’s untimely end in 1835, is mentioned only in the colophon. It haunts the book like a paratextual ghost. Blassingame makes the absence poignantly present, just as she does by repeating “Unknown” for each of the eight unidentified students on the front side of the book. This attention to the archival gaps and silences characterizes Blassingame’s approach. She begins her narrative by stating, “The names of eight of the fourteen students of African descent continue to evade this author.” This is not a disclaimer, but rather a key point; it speaks to the marginalization of Black students in 1835 and in all the intervening years. Blassingame’s own positionality as a Black researcher is central to Students, as is evident in the narrative’s self-reflection. She shares not just her findings, but also how she came upon them, and what she was unable to find.
The gap between the present and an unknowable past manifests also in the book’s imagery. The rendering of the George Kimball House is pixelated, an effect Blassingame accentuates with the Risograph’s halftone. This digital signifier foregrounds the layers of mediation between the reader and the events in question. The image is, at the very least, a print of a scan of a drawing of a building. Blassingame highlights the anachronism on the side with her own contemporary first person narrative, whereas the reverse is more cohesive. The typeface pre-dates digital design, and the screened-back imagery creates a worn, historical appearance. In fact, the faded flag shares a soft subtlety with the pressure-print letterpress technique that Blassingame employs expertly in other projects.
Blassingame’s self-conscious, historiographic approach to archival materials would be productive under any circumstances, but it is especially important when dealing with race. The artist must confront the historical record and ask who is seen, who is heard and for whom were the records kept? Blassingame amplifies stories of Black people pursuing love, justice and freedom in spite of adversity, instead of focusing on the destructive actions of Canaan’s white population. The only violence represented is that of the archives. Black pain is not up for consumption, only white complicity. Black lives are not reduced to a single event, even when that event is central to the story being told. Blassingame’s relegation of white violence to the colophon and her centering of Black voices is a strategy – an ethic – that more artists would be wise to adopt.
The following interview took place via email from May to July of 2020. It has been edited for clarity.
Sarah Nicholls is a visual artist who makes pictures with language, books with pictures, prints with type, and animations with words. She combines image, visual narrative, and time in prints, books, and ephemera that are often research-based. Sarah is interested in urbanization, local history, climate change, the history of science and technology, alternative economies, found language, and the history of publishing. She has written a collection of self-help aphorisms, published a series of informational pamphlets and printed a field guide to extinct birds. Her most recent book is Solastalgia, a book about islands, both real and imagined, that are in the process of disappearing. Sarah’s limited edition artist books are in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Stanford, UCLA, and the University of Pennsylvania, among others.
Levi Sherman:Artists should always consider their audience, but the fact that your publications are informational emphasizes that relationship. Who are you hoping to reach, and what change would you like to create by informing and entertaining them? I’m thinking especially of your Brainwashing From Phone Towers pamphlet series.
Sarah Nicholls: Audience should be the first thing you think about when planning a publication. It’s important to know both who you are trying to speak to and what you’d like to tell them. It helps to clarify things for myself. I have a list of people in mind when I write a pamphlet: people that I think will be interested in the content, people I’m excited to speak with, people I haven’t seen in a while but who I would like to keep in touch with. Also people who are interested in supporting the series in general, who have become part of my community. Some people I specifically send one issue to, because I think that person would be particularly interested in the subject matter. Some are close friends who get all of the pamphlets I make. Some of these people are people already interested in artist books or printmaking. Some of these people have nothing to do with the book world, some of them have nothing to do even with art in general. By coming up with this list of people, I try to expand the audience for an artist’s publication, and by focusing the work on subject matter outside the world of art I can bring in lots of different potential audiences.
Since I’m speaking to lots of different kinds of people, I make a point of writing in a very clear, explanatory kind of way; the audience shapes the writing style. I want people to understand what I’m trying to tell them, without having to jump through hoops, or wade through jargon, or know secret handshakes.
Most of the more recent ones that I have made have focused on different aspects of the particular urban environment that I live in, in New York City, including local history, the built environment, the natural environment, and how all three combine to form a particular kind of place, which is under threat due to climate change, among other things. But many of the people who receive these pamphlets do not live here, and many will never visit the particular parts of the city that I am interested in. What I would like them to do, really, is to take the same kind of approach to their own surroundings: to ask themselves, what kinds of plants and animals live here? How did they get here? What is in the process of changing around me, and why? Who are my neighbors and where have they come from? What is at risk of disappearing?
LS:That sounds like an excellent segue into the role of research in your practice. How do you go about answering those questions?
SN: Research is a large part of my process; I usually start with a general theme for the year so that the research process isn’t all over the place and so I can build knowledge around a subject over time. Last year was weeds; this year is mapmaking. Sometimes the theme is relatively loose, sometimes more specific, but I find it helpful to structure my time and plan in advance.
I start by spending time in the neighborhood I am interested in. I mostly travel by bike, so I ride around, walk around, over a period of time and take lots of photos. The images in the pamphlets are usually based on photos that I’ve taken. I read about the history of a place, and try to see how it fits into a larger picture of the city. There’s a good reference collection at the Brooklyn Public Library on Brooklyn history that I’ve used a lot. There’s also a good collection at the Brooklyn Historical Society. This year I’m spending a lot of time looking at the digitized collection of historical maps of the city that NYPL has in their map division. I read everything I can about the current problems in a specific community, and try to identify the people and organizations that are working on them. Last year when I was thinking about weeds and spontaneous urban plants a lot, I read about that: where weeds come from, how they spread, how they are used and defined. Then I try to synthesize it all.
LS: How much of that synthesis happens in the studio? Is everything planned out before you start setting type or carving linoleum?
SN: Yes, after research comes the design stage; I draw a bunch of pictures, usually based on photos I have taken, and come up with the visual elements I want to use. I write a series of drafts of the text, starting with an outline that covers all of the things I think I want to include, then filling out that outline, then editing it down, editing it again. I make a mock up, then another mock up; the format of the final piece can change depending on the content. I know what I want to do before I start carving lino or setting type. As I set the type the text usually goes through a final editing stage; I don’t really know how it sounds until I start setting it. So setting it in metal usually helps me finalize the text and I think of it as part of the writing process.
LS: The pamphlets employ a surprising variety of sizes and structures, which change the reading experience through revealing, concealing, turning and expanding. Is variety a goal in and of itself, or does the structure simply arise from the content?
SN: Both. Surprise is part of the goal; I like sending something out as a surprise, that takes a surprising form, and I think that the variety helps with that. I also try to match structure and content. I’ve been doing these publications for years now and it also helps keep it interesting for me.
LS: On the topic of serendipity, how did you come up with your subscription model where a friend receives a surprise copy? Do you have any anecdotes or feedback that speak to the sort of relationship that creates?
SN: When I first started making pamphlets in 2010 I just gave them to friends; I liked the surprise element of it, that I could send something to people as a gift. When you pull a print, you don’t really know what it will look like in advance, and that surprise is exciting. For the reader, when they receive a pamphlet in the mail, it mirrors that surprise.
When I started using the subscription model, I was worried I would lose some of the elements of the project that I loved: the surprise, the gift. But I also wanted to be able to circulate them more widely than I had been, and make the project more self-sustaining. So I gave subscribers the option to add a friend to the list for a year, in addition to themselves, which not only kept the surprise gift aspect but also meant that they circulated outside the group of people I already know. This means I get to be surprised, by who reads them, by where they end up, by having people come up to me at events and say, “My friend signed me up for this!”, by getting letters and zines in the mail from people who’ve gotten pamphlets and enjoyed them. I’ve especially enjoyed being at book fairs and having people come up and introduce themselves as readers who have gotten them through a friend. It’s one of the best aspects of it. This year, before everything blew up, I have been planning a series of events in conjunction with the series, and one of them was going to be a bird walk in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with a NYC naturalist I met through the series, Bradley Klein, who became a subscriber himself after he was added to the list by a friend. There are people who subscribe every year, and have been receiving them for several years now, who I maintain a correspondence with. One of my goals was to build a community and I think it’s been successful at that beyond what I imagined.
LS:Tell me more about the community you want to build. What does it look like? Who participates? How does it differ from other communities within and beyond the art world?
SN: It’s a community that can shift and grow, that includes people who might not be interested in the art world, people who don’t feel comfortable in art institutions, people who would not come to an art event or talk or a gallery exhibition, though it also includes art audiences. I like to meet these audiences where they are at.
Since the pamphlets are nonfiction, information based publications, and since they are about specific places and the communities that live there, part of what I also want to do is build a community that thinks critically about the policies that build their environment. Who can afford to live in their neighborhood and who can’t? Is there pollution in their neighborhood and why was it allowed to be left there? Who is safe in their community? Who has access to green space and who doesn’t? By sharing information I would like to help people build more equitable communities, and ones that are more resilient to the challenges to come. This is particularly important in a time of climate crisis, because the communities who are most at risk are the ones with the fewest resources.
I would like it to be wide and diverse, but also engaged; I think it’s important for me that people read these things and think about them, and that a shift happens in how they think about the place where they live. Engagement isn’t always something that happens with artist books made in larger editions, even if they are intended to be widely distributed. There’s this point at the end of the New York Art Book Fair every year when people try to get rid of their copies of publications so they don’t have to cart them home, where it just seems like way too much paper that no one will bother to look at in a day or two. Sometimes books made in a large edition are purchased by someone, they take a photo for Instagram or whatever of their book fair haul, and then maybe the book never gets read, it just sits on a shelf. Ideally I want to have a relationship with my readers, where I can tell them a story one-on-one, in that reading voice inside their head, and they enjoy it enough that they send me something in response.
That happens often enough that I feel like the project is generally doing what I want it to do.
LS:One reason I started Artists’ Book Reviews is to get the books out of the tote bag and off the Instagram feed and actually read them. What kind of reception and support have you found in the art world? How important is institutional funding for a long-term, research-based project like this?
SN: I’m glad that artist books are finding readers outside the tote bag!
I think that I developed a way of working specifically so that I wouldn’t have to rely on institutional support. I can publish these pamphlets and distribute them without much in the way of infrastructure and the subscriptions cover the direct costs of production, so it’s a self-sustaining project. However, as time goes on, I’ve been surprised by the extent to which I’ve been given support and an audience within a larger art world. This is partly because I’ve expanded the project to include events and neighborhood walks, which are open to the general public, and partly because I think that nonprofits and local grantmakers are particularly excited to support projects that can reach audiences outside the context of a traditional gallery art world. Institutional support is important in widening the reach of these projects; though the pamphlets can be made without support, I think that it’s important that the people they circulate among changes over time, and that the subject matter changes, to keep it fresh. One other thing about institutional funding is that I have less pressure to make the pamphlets a commodity, which means I have more freedom to distribute them at will to any audience I choose, and still have the project be self-sustaining. Engaging with different versions of the art world are important both in terms of developing an audience, as well as helping me to grow and develop in my own work.
It also tends to snowball a bit I think? I think opportunities lead to more opportunities, and I think that I’ve been doing them for some time now, and it’s built up some momentum at this point. I have received new funding this year from the Brooklyn Arts Council. And I have been given an exciting studio residency this year through BRIC, a Brooklyn arts and media institution that should start, fingers crossed, sometime this summer, depending on how the timeline goes for opening up. So I’m very lucky. And both are directly tied to the pamphlet series, and I am very grateful for the support I’ve gotten this year especially.
I also think that times change, and tastemakers change. I remember very clearly that when I started working with books that there was a definite stigma attached to craft techniques like letterpress, and that the artists working at the Center for Book Arts operated in a completely separate, somehow lesser, version of the art world from the rest of the visual arts. I remember having arguments with my supervisor at the Center for Book Arts over the use of the word craft — he would insist on talking around the word on all official materials, we had to say “traditional artistic practices” instead of craft, because he didn’t want people to think we had craft cooties. There’s a significant gendered aspect to that. I don’t know how long this moment will go on, but being able to use serious craft techniques within a contemporary art context, and be welcomed, is something I am overjoyed to be able to do.
LS: For better or worse, I think we’re also at a particular moment in terms of expertise and authority. I consider your pamphlets as a positive result of that trend, along with citizen science, guerilla botany, oral history, etc. I can’t help but think of the very first photobook, Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Are we in another era of the amateur?
SN: This is an enormous subject.
When I teach letterpress, one of the things I try to communicate to students is the way this technology created a new kind of authority. I think I started printing as a way of being able to hijack that voice of authority, to use it for my own ends. It also brought knowledge and information and an audience to all kinds of new people, which made it possible for new kinds of writing, of political thought, of the development of science, in terrible ways and amazing ways. I think that pamphlets have been used to both create new fields of expertise, and to destabilize authority since the 17th century. I think that all science began as citizen science, as groups of amateurs experimenting on their own as a hobby. Citizen science was the only kind of science there was, and only later on became a profession. All expertise begins as an experiment.
I think that the new technology of print brought in an era of the amateur, just as the internet and social media has ushered in our current era of the amateur. There are enormous liabilities to this, as well as opportunities. I think that the overwhelming nature of current events is hard to process, and so when I print pamphlets now, I try to slow things down into something that is digestible, which is possible in this older technology. I communicate through pamphlets because I came of age in the 90’s (what my students might call the late nineteen hundreds) and have nostalgic feelings about DIY zine culture, about one person writing about their personal experience that they can share with a sympathetic community through the mail, but I am old now and have all these printing and binding skills. My 90’s experiments in zines have become expertise. I still think that people should make their own culture, outside of institutions.
One of the things that leaps out at me about 17th century European pamphlets is how many of them are about the end of the world. This wasn’t just superstition; people lived through plague and the Thirty Years War and all these new forms of thought and technology and religion and then the sudden realization that the world was much larger than they had imagined. The world that they knew did actually end, and apocalypse was a useful metaphor to describe this. We’re not only living through a new era of the amateur, we’re living through a new era of apocalyptic imaginings. Our movies and stories are full of zombies, CGI skyscrapers sinking under the ocean, and dystopia. I find this comforting, both because everything eventually comes to an end, but also because after that comes a new beginning.
LS: That’s a fascinating history! I hadn’t made the connection between those early printed pamphlets and your engagement with our own apocalyptic climate crisis.
This raises the question of timing and duration. Are your pamphlets a warning? A record? A blueprint? Where do you envision them in thirty years, or 300?
SN: I think they do serve as both a warning and a record; I hope that I am able to raise awareness of the immediate need for systemic change, but I don’t think I am even close to being expert enough to draw a blueprint of exactly what that means. I hope to point people in a direction, and to raise enough concern to motivate action.
I also want to document the particular version of the city that exists today. Things here in NYC change drastically in a matter of years; the city that existed when I was in high school is long gone. The version that was here when I moved to Brooklyn in 1998 is also gone, when I visit that neighborhood now it’s almost unrecognizable. If you lived here even ten years ago, and then left, the city that you knew is no longer here. So I know that the version I live in now will be gone soon too, and I want to document what is here now while I can.
This is how the city functions even before you take climate change into consideration. Neighborhoods will start to shrink in the coming decades, losing physical space to the water, and the city will become smaller for the first time in hundreds of years. The infrastructure we will build to try to shore things up will be a huge change to our coastlines; hard infrastructure like seawalls and barriers will change how waterways look and act. I can’t even imagine what the city will look like in thirty years.
And of course right now drastic shifts are happening, faster than I can even write about them, in how we are using our public space: in the streets, in our ways of relating to each other in public, in our transportation system. Overnight subway service is gone and might not come back, which means that city that never sleeps trope is no longer a thing. We’re using public streets to do all kinds of new things, at the same time that tons of traffic is coming back because people are afraid of the subway. I strongly believe that we’re at a turning point, and I look forward to finding out what the new version of the city that emerges from this moment of crisis will be like. I think we have badly needed a reset, so we’ll see what comes next.
I have no idea how many copies of these things will be around in thirty years. They will probably circulate in ways I can’t foresee, which is interesting to think about. I treat them as ephemeral, sending them out widely, but I want them to be a record. So hopefully some of them survive, and I hope in surprising places. 300 years is more dicey. Will we have libraries? Mail service? Will we have cities? Will we be on this planet? Who knows. Have you read New York 2140, the Kim Stanley Robinson book? It’s glorious; it’s a recognizable version of the New York City of the future, half drowned and transformed but still familiar. I found it comforting. I wouldn’t mind living there.
LS:Alas New York 2140 is languishing unread on my bookshelf, but I think we can all use a comforting view of the future right now.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your work during this moment of crisis.
8.5 × 11 × .375 in. 64 pages Binding: Screw post with cover wrap Offset lithography Edition of 200
Referencing the writings of Mao Tse-tung, One Hundred Excellent Flowers pairs a text of acerbic aphorisms with photographs of supermarket shelves, vending machines – and, yes, flowers – to critique contemporary consumer capitalism. Beneath the deceptively austere cover, the reader is confronted by a cacophony of color separations, made all the more powerful by the book’s relatively large format. The creative and metaphorical use of pre-press and print processes are a signature of Meador’s work, and One Hundred Excellent Flowers uses fluorescent ink instead of true CMYK. His expressive use of offset as a medium enables a key aesthetic argument – a pop art sensibility that recalls the 1950s and ‘60s, at a time when global powers seem intent on rekindling the Cold War.
The book’s minimal cover is noteworthy given the visual excess inside. It is a dark blue paper wrapper with a cut circle to reveal the printed title on the first bound page. Three smaller circles along the spine reveal a screw post binding reminiscent of Kevin Osborn’s Real Lush. Although the books share bold colors and richly overprinted imagery, perhaps One Hundred Excellent Flowers is better compared to Fortunato Depero’s “bolted book,” Depero Futurista, with its combination of art, advertising and manifestos. The photographs inside show flowers, but also junk food and candy with visible brand names and price tags.
But Italian Futurism (and Fascism) are not the politics at play. Rather, the colophon refers to a particular episode in the history of Chinese communism, when Chairman Mao encouraged dissenting opinions only to later crush the dissenters. He is quoted, “Let a hundred flowers bloom / Let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Meador’s own writing throughout the book adopts this style, editorializing in a sardonic combination of elevated and prosaic language. The narrative voice prevents the pointed commentary from seeming didactic.
The text begins with the original quotation above, and the first half of the book reflects on the role of dissent in a society. The text sticks to the original Maoist metaphors of flowers and snakes – ideas and dissidents – but the imagery opens other interpretations. After a few pages, junk food intersperses the Warhol-esque flowers, juxtaposing consumer capitalism with the communist system with which the text began. Then a reprise signals a new section: “Let a hundred brands blossom. / Let a hundred corporations contend.” In the second half of the book, the text addresses the system that the images have hinted at.
The imagery produces meaning through form as much as content. The compositions of the photographs disorient the reader with extreme close-ups and dizzying, diagonal points of view. However, the images barely operate as photographs thanks to Meador’s pre-press interventions. Ben-Day dots the size of dimes collide with checkerboards and crosshatching – an inexhaustible variety of half-tone patterns, part Lichtenstein, part glitch art. One Hundred Excellent Flowers intensifies the visual strategies of pop art to make them relevant in today’s manifestation of the consumer capitalist media environment that informed Lichtenstein and Warhol. The compositions are also calibrated for the sequential medium of the book, different even than the serial approach of Warhol’s offset-printed Flowers. The half-tones defy their design; they fail to coalesce into smooth images. Instead they call attention to fabrication, artifice. The misaligned patterns render the four process colors hyper-visible, but elsewhere create muddy fields of richly overprinted blacks. These images unravel at the fore-edge margin on the recto, leaving white space for the text to occupy.
The text, placed in the small field of negative space, feels precarious. The images dominate visually, but the stark contrast of black text on white paper (plus the consistent positioning) ensure the reader’s attention returns to the text with each turn of the page. The even pacing of the text gives the book a steady rhythm and brings out the abstract potential of the imagery. The ragged fore-edge contrasts with the orderly margins that run along the top and bottom of each page and even gutter crosses, which facilitate full-spread images remarkably well considering the screw post binding. The margins are no afterthought; the fore-edge is the center of the folded sheet, and thus could have been printed on. Meador plays with this by fore-edge printing a flower, but doesn’t take the idea further. Nevertheless the folded sheet adds to the book’s heft and, more importantly, prevents the copious overprinting from showing through from one page to the next. The feel of the folded sheet, draw attention to the act of reading, already heightened by the text’s position in the fore-edge margin where the reader’s thumbs reside.
Just as the binding and composition engage and implicate the reader, the book’s content is scaffolded to hook the reader and then pull them into deeper waters. “How could sugary breakfast cereals ever be bad?” gives way to “Feed the people disgusting swill and call it a feast / until no one can tell the difference between poison and antidote.” From media to politicians, it’s not hard to see how Meador’s critique extends beyond food. In fact, it is not Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung that One Hundred Excellent Flowers channels, but another book of aphorisms – The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord. The two books, published within a few years of one another, form a dialectic that unlocks Meador’s project.
The central question is what (as noted in the colophon) Chairman Mao called “the correct handling of contradictions among the people.” For Debord, the spectacle is a means of deferring contradictions without resolving them, always offering something new as an alternative and distraction. Hence the ceaseless proliferation of “fragrant falsehoods” as Meador calls them. He renders the paralyzing freedom of endless choice in the grocery aisles and vending machines, hawking their wares with cheap prices and lurid colors. The various spectacles push and pull, intersect and overlap, but like the book’s half-tone patterns, never resolve into a seamless image. Following Debord, One Hundred Excellent Flowers suggests that freedom can be found no more in the poisonous decadence of US capitalism than the brutal repression of Chinese communism.
One Hundred Excellent Flowers is a model for thoughtful, historically-grounded political discourse at a time when hyperbolic soundbites are more fashionable. Meador elucidates contemporary social and economic problems by drawing on the visual and textual aesthetics of the 1960s – another era of conflict between China and the United States – at a time when counterculture movements once again push for structural change and challenge capitalist ideology around the world. Even with its pop art colors and strident writing, the book seems contemplative in the context of cable news commentary and social media. The medium lends itself to an individual experience without posturing, defensive or performative. Meador seizes that opportunity to weave together geopolitics and art history with familiar access points that help the reader place themselves in a system that is once again facing global resistance.
5.5 × 8 in. 52 pages Binding: Link-stitch with exposed spine Laser inside and foil stamped slipcase. Edition of 50
ERRATA is a cinematic, existentialist essay that explores mysticism and metaphysics through the metaphor of the book. Grainy, high-contrast images chronicle a cryptic encounter on the book’s rectos. The versos present a text, in both Portuguese and English, which questions humanity’s place in the universe, and whether we can ever come to know it through language. ERRATA is a collaboration between writer David Soares and artist Nuno Moreira, whose background in filmmaking informs the book’s style. The book grounds the arcane topic through jumps in scale, back and forth from the cosmological to the individual and embodied. The reader is further engaged, even implicated, by the book’s self-reflexive bibliographic content and the point-of-view photography. The artists remind the reader that language and books have long been fruitful yet frustrating tools with which to grapple with life’s big questions. ERRATA also demonstrates that artists’ books can be capable contributors to this age-old quest.
As readers of this review likely know, an erratum is a list of corrections accompanying a book with errors. So it is perhaps ironic that ERRATA is exquisitely crafted with great attention to detail. (The production value extends to all aspects of the project; my review copy arrived wrapped in black tissue paper, closed with a monogrammed seal.) The publication comprises a black paper slipcase and an uncovered, link-stitched text block with an exposed spine. The binding calls attention to the object’s book-ness, reinforcing the meta-commentary inside. Foil-stamped lettering on both sides of the slipcase spells out the title in circular configuration (perhaps recalling a mystical hexagram), removing any distinction between its front and back. The contrast of the white linen thread and paper with the black slipcase is a striking design feature that anticipates the visual style of the book’s content.
Like the case, the book itself downplays the distinction of front and back. There are no covers per se, so the first and last pages stand in, and mirror each other’s compositions. A small, square, black and white photograph is centered on the page, depicting a table and chair in a room. One image shows the table empty, while the other shows a fire blazing on the tabletop. Both images have a surrealist quality, and their relationship hints at a chronological relationship. All of this supports a double reading – front to back and back to front. As Moreira hints in his project statement, “everything makes sense in reverse.” Indeed, the text is remarkably successful in either direction, and the photographic narrative fares almost as well. In one reading, a woman at an empty table is approached by a man who hands her a book, whose pages turn from blank to black as she reads. In the other, a book is burned but not consumed, as if by some Promethean fire, and then cleansed page by page by a woman who then gives the book to a man.
Yet, to say it makes sense is an overstatement. The book is dense with symbolism and reference, requiring reflection as much as reading. Soares’ writing is elevated and sometimes overwrought (at least the translated English text), but suits the religious and mystical texts it references. It is the language of writing rather than speaking, further reinforcing the book’s focus on the constructed and incomplete nature of books and language. The bidirectional reading succeeds in large part due to the text’s use of parallelism. The repetition is more than another biblical reference; it helps anchor the reader and reinforce ideas that may be lost in the intricate, unfamiliar language. For example, the book’s final phrase – “We are all pages in a book: when we are turned, we die. All letters are mute to us.” – is mirrored by a passage earlier in the book, “All letters are mute to us. We are illiterate in the face of the proclitic and echoing speech of the cosmos.”
The aphoristic proclamations and questions add context and connotation to the image sequence, but neither text nor image directly illustrate one another. Nor do they interact visually. The text remains on the verso, and the square photographs land in the same position on each recto. This enables the reader to approach the visual narrative almost like a flip book, which further strengthens the its cinematic quality. More importantly, the moving image enhances the sense that the reader whose point of view ERRATA’s reader occupies is doing something other than reading. The photographs capture her hands turning the pages in such a way that she appears to be conjuring something magical. Palm down, her hand waves over the pages as they transition from light to dark (or dark to light). The noisy, chiaroscuro photographs sell the mystical mood, and add a surprising amount of interest to a sequence that largely depicts a pair of hands reading a book.
ERRATA is at its best when the text and image support one another, letting the reader make meaning from the parallels and juxtapositions. The single image with text in it – in which the book’s title is revealed – is heavy-handed compared to the rest of the work, which is open to alternate interpretations and even simultaneous contradictions. The title, “Structure of Consciousness,” is unlikely to tell the reader anything they didn’t already know. ERRATA is explicit in its references to consciousness and cosmology. Its sense of mystery comes not from withholding information from the reader, but from engaging with topics that are truly mysterious.
ERRATA is about the quest/ions more than answers. Through its self-reflexivity, the book connects art to this fundamental human pursuit of understanding. It also uses the human-scaled intimacy of the book as a medium to powerfully play with the reader’s sense of scale. Voice, heart, hands and eyes are at once human and otherworldly in Soares’ prose. They also reinforce the inescapable role of language in forming our understanding of the cosmos. Letters, words and pages – the book is a shapeshifting metaphor in ERRATA, giving the reader not a sense of closure, but connection to a timeless inquiry. For all its connotations of truth and authority, the book reminds the reader that all is not as it seems. The photography places the reader in multiple points of view, both immanent and transcendent, just as the structure encourages more than one sequence. The final image, a book ablaze, is a fitting conclusion to a work that challenges the authority of the book even as it harnesses that power as a metaphor for existence itself.
Moreira and Soares understand that the book is effective both as a metaphor and as a medium. The strength of ERRATA is that it trades on the book as a symbol – creation, religion, authority, the body – even as it eschews the formulaic familiarity that makes such references possible. It exudes book-ness, but operates cinematically. It establishes a power dynamic with the reader, only to change that relationship repeatedly throughout the reading experience. It promises an exploration of the universe, and delivers a treatise on the book itself. The artists approach the book almost like tactical media, critiquing the form while harnessing its strength. ERRATA shows why the artists’ book continues to be a generative mode for collaboration, interdisciplinarity and unanswered questions.
LS: Even as you’re dealing with words or letters—text as material or as an object—it does seem like the core is about how language is used by people, or misused. Can you speak to the divide between the material of the language as an object with its own ontological status versus language being this totally contingent, slippery, rules-based thing that people use.
WL: Yeah. I love language, and I love how messy English is.
If English were a very ordered, precise language in any degree—whether it was grammatically or in spelling or whatever—it would be so much less fun to play with. It’s because it’s so messy and it’s because English spelling is so inconsistent, and because it borrows so many words and roots from so many different languages, it’s just a lot of fun to mess around with.
LS: It sounds as though calling attention to the contingency of language is important—the idea that a word could have meant something else or, in fact, means something else to other people or in another context. I think of what Aaron Cohick has called seamfulness, as opposed to seamlessness. What do we risk if we view language as seamless?
WL: I don’t know if we risk anything, really. But words and language exist in the world, so why not pay attention to it? You can get by in the world without paying attention to the way that words are written, or the existence of words. But in large part what artists do — and maybe that’s the kind of art that I’m interested in making — is forcing you to pay attention to these things that are part of everyday life that you might otherwise overlook.
For better or worse, I am always hooked on words and language. So the work that I’m making is just making apparent my own interest in these words, how words work and what words are. Hopefully there are other people out there that also find it interesting, and that it appeals to them in some way.
LS: One of the classic answers to the question of what art is, is the idea of representing the unrepresentable. It seems like the unrepresentable that you’re pursuing is language itself, or the fact that language exists as both a physical, material thing but also as a relationship among people.
WL: Right. I’ve always thought about how words have this duality. They can be written, visual things and they can also be spoken, heard things, and I like trying to insist upon both.
LS:The flip side of art as play is that it’s also a lot of work, and it takes time to develop the necessary skills. Can you talk about the role of discipline and craftsmanship in your practice?
WL: I’ve become more and more interested in the idea of digital craft, which I think is something that is ignored a lot, particularly in the book arts world, where there are a lot of papermakers or letterpress printers or offset printers or binders, or what have you. The physicality of the book becomes the forefront of what the work is. I think being really skilled in InDesign or Photoshop or Illustrator is a tantamount skill to being a really good letterpress printer or papermaker, but for whatever reason those skills are glossed over.
At this point I design pretty much all of my work digitally, primarily in InDesign or Illustrator. I am largely self-taught in these programs, which means that I’m sure anybody who’s gone through a graphic design program or knows how to use these programs really well would find things that I do kind of funny, but that feels akin to anybody who’s learned any craft on their own. They might have whatever quirks, but that leads to their own unique way of creating the work they do.
I don’t draw and I don’t take photos and nevertheless I’m a visual artist. That’s probably why I’ve gravitated towards writing as a large part of my practice, and beyond that to writing with a hyperconsciousness towards typography. I think if I had been aware of graphic design as a discipline when I was an undergrad, I probably would have studied that and maybe stuck with it. I get immense satisfaction out of minute details, like laying out pages, moving this thing a tiny bit this way or tiny bit that way, aligning things. A lot of my craftsmanship happens in this digital space.
And it also has to do with what I have access to. I’ve trained in offset printing and letterpress printing and certainly a lot of binding. Bookbinding I can still do very easily, but I don’t have access to printing presses anymore.
I also think a lot about how offset printing drastically changed the work that I was doing. I think if in grad school I hadn’t learned offset printing, I would be doing a lot more letterpress stuff. There’s certainly plenty you can do playing around with words, especially thinking about them as physical objects when you’re literally physically putting these letters together, but the process of offset printing allowed me to jump completely into this digital realm and I think I’m thankful for the direction that sent me in.
LS: What’s your approach to learning a new skill? Do you come across a problem and see that you’ll have to learn something, or do you learn these things out of interest and then incorporate them into your art practice?
WL: It’s a little bit of both. I love learning new things, but it’s a double edged sword. I get really frustrated with myself when I don’t know everything about something already. A couple weeks ago, I was putting the roof on this chicken coop I’ve been building. I’ve never done any kind of roofing, but I was getting really mad at myself that it wasn’t going very well. When I finally took a breath the thought came to me, “Why are you mad at yourself? You’ve never done this before. Ever.” But the frustration propels me to learn more I think.
In certain cases it’s a project that I wanted to make happen so I have to learn the skills to do it. This chicken coop is a prime example; I wanted chickens but we needed the coop, so I’m going to have to learn how to do all these things to build it.
Learning new skills for me sometimes comes out of necessity—there’s no other way to get the task done if I don’t learn how to do this. Sometimes it comes out of affordability—if I can’t pay somebody else to, I will do it. Sometimes it comes out of shyness, because I’m afraid to ask somebody else how to do something. A lot of it just comes out of excitement to learn new things. And it’s not just tools and hand skills. Several years ago I taught myself how to identify all the trees in my neighborhood, and then wildflowers, and foraging for edible plants.
I guess I think about the brain as a muscle that needs to be exercised like anything else, and I think that learning things satisfies that for me.
LS: There is the satisfaction of making something, and the satisfaction of learning something, but those can be opportunity costs. If you only learn, you’ll never get the satisfaction of producing something. Where do you find that balance?
WL: I think I am impatient in a lot of ways, and that’s tied into the frustration of feeling like, “how come you don’t know how to do this thing yet?” I’m impatient getting good at it.
It’s breadth versus depth. I know a little bit about a lot of things rather than a whole lot about just a couple of things. I’m often envious of friends who are really good at something that perhaps they started doing when they were in their early twenties and they’ve been doing it for fifteen, twenty, thirty years. I’ve never really had that degree of focus on any one thing that might have evolved into a more cohesive or linear career.
This is a constant battle for me: my stubbornness about learning things versus whether my time would be better spent doing something else that I am slightly better at.
LS: As an example, you’ve been working on some animations. How do you approach learning animation, in terms of technique and aesthetics? Where is that balance for you, learning how it’s done and learning how it should look?
WL: The animation has been fun because I’ve been playing around with the characters from my book, Characters. They’re already vector files, so it’s pretty easy to put them into other programs to animate them. I’m really good at the automatic parts, when you can just turn something or move something, but when you have to redraw something—which is a large part of animation—I really get frustrated with that part.
I’ve had this idea for a while to turn the characters into some kind of graphic novel that takes place in some kind of Wordland—the words are the characters and they also speak in words and the environment they live in is words. But I’ve been stuck with what the story is because I don’t often write fiction.
What I have enjoyed about the animation is the total newness, and how it’s gotten me re-excited about the characters, and caused me to spend more time with them. It has felt like another approach to realizing the Wordland in my head. The animation at this point has just felt like play, which I think is good for me because I don’t always play enough before I start taking things too seriously. So it’s play that maybe is leading to some ideas for a project that may be an animation or might be in book form.
LS: What’s the relationship between the existing book Characters and the animation? As an abecedarian is the book just the stable of characters that you’re working from?
WL: Last year I had been doing these drawings with letters, and when it came time for the next issue of Tiny Ideas, it felt like an opportunity to present them. An abecedarian was just a good structuring device for deciding which characters to put in, and what else needed to be created. Characters is essentially a specimen book. These characters exist in there, but they could have other lives elsewhere, and there are other characters beyond the book too.
LS: Are there other skills or new projects that you’re excited about right now?
WL: It’s the middle of springtime right now, and for me that’s garden season. Michelle and I always have a huge garden. Last year we had a pretty pretty big one. This year we were planning on having an even bigger one. We’ve both been working from home for the last two months, so the size of the garden is just getting bigger and bigger because we have more time to pay careful attention to what the seedlings are doing. So that’s a big project.
I’ve been enjoying giving myself permission to not feel like I have to be producing some kind of creative work, especially as I recognize that actually all these things I do are part of my practice in some way and that I will probably come back to creating something at some point or another in some fashion. That’s helped a lot with the pressure that I put on myself to make work.
LS: Is that pressure off because of the coronavirus? Is it being stuck at home and having all of that external pressure grind to a halt?
WL: No, I haven’t really been actively working on a creative project in quite a long time, certainly not since 2020 began. I’ve been doing little things here and there, and I keep notes for ideas. But it’s been a lot more homesteading projects, and I started a new job which has taken up a lot of time and energy—in good ways.
I’m kind of amazed that a lot of artist friends are talking about how the only way for them to get through this Coronavirus pandemic is to make make make. I don’t feel that at all. I feel very little desire to be creative right now. So I’m thankful that I have the garden and the chickens to pay attention to, because that’s something that helps my day go by, that I can put my attention into without feeling like I should be writing or making a book or whatever it is.
LS: You’ve named your chickens after classic typefaces (and I think you did a nice job pairing their appearances, and I would imagine personalities, if that’s the right word). So beyond the obvious do you see other direct connections between animal rearing and art or design. Problem solving? We’ve been circling around this topic throughout the conversation, but how directly do you fold these skills or interests into your art practice or vice versa?
WL: It’s more that I’m working on trying to build a life that I want to have, and for years I’ve known that I wanted a place with a large garden. I love cooking food, and I love growing food and the two go hand in hand quite nicely. I’m super fortunate that I have the opportunity to have a place with a large enough backyard that I can do that.
Mostly it’s about building a life that I want, and because I’m interested in these different things, it’s about figuring out how to put them together. For sure, they’re all related in terms of how they feed into each other. A lot of my work is about food, whether it’s growing food or eating food or cooking food. That’s just because I’m often writing about my life experience, and that’s what a lot of my life experience is about. It’s like I’m building this world around myself in the same way that I build a book around an idea. Sometimes a skill set from one becomes directly useful in another.
LS: It sounds like you’re very intentional about constructing your life, and that seems correlated or enabled by self-reflection, processing feelings and memories through your art. Is all of the thought that goes into your books about the past directly related to this future oriented, intentional approach to your lifestyle?
WL: I guess it’s all coming from me, so probably. I think this intentional lifestyle, (which sometimes doesn’t feel very intentional), came out of finishing grad school and struggling with what I felt like I should be doing. I asked myself what I really wanted, and realized what I wanted more than anything was just to have a garden (and then made a piece about it called Future Farm Manifesto).
The garden in my mind was a place to grow food and satisfy those urges, but also a metaphor for a place to anchor myself. I have moved around a lot in my life. I grew up in Vermont and lived there until I was eighteen, and then after that I moved pretty much every year for a decade and a half. The most I’ve lived in any one place was three years. I was ready to plant asparagus, which takes at least three years before you can start eating it.
I’m interested in the idea of subsistence farming, which I feel like is something we learn about in high school with a negative connotation from our capitalist mindset, like “well, if you’re only growing enough for yourself then what are you doing? How come you’re not making any money?” I’m also really frustrated with the concept of a “job”—what is a job, why we’re so obsessed with them, what we value enough to pay for, etc. So on the one hand it’s very simple: all I want is like a home and a garden and to grow my own vegetables, and to put them up for winter. On the other hand it’s this complete dismantling of the capitalist system that we’re part of.
LS: “Where am I going, what do I want out of life” is a typical response to finishing grad school, so it’s interesting to me that you had fifteen years of tiny books to look back at. There were these diaristic micro-memoir records of what you’re interested in. It seems like you gave your future self a gift, a record of your values and interests.
WL: I write letters to myself periodically, which are not art projects; they’re purely for myself. As a kid my dad would have us do this thing in the fall, usually around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, where we would write a letter to ourselves and then we’d stack it in the wood pile. Then in the spring when we got down to that point in the wood pile, you’d find your letter and it might be chewed on by a mouse a little bit, but there is a letter you’d written yourself six months earlier. I started doing this in college—write myself a letter and open it maybe six months later or a year later. As I’ve gotten older I’ve increased the amount of time. When I was twenty, I couldn’t conceive of what a whole year was. Now I write letters to be opened after five years. And I could see increasing that to ten years in another decade.
It’s less about setting goals for myself and more about putting a pin in the map: this is what I am thinking about and interested in now. I realize what I was interested in when I was twenty is really different than what I was interested in when I was thirty, and I’m not necessarily disappointed about how things have gone, it’s just they change. You don’t really know your own future, so I like that exercise as a way of helping me return to the thoughts that I was having at that time.
LS: I like your idea of putting the pin in the map and locating yourself for your future self as opposed to trying to predict or preordain the future.
WL: I do sometimes write some predictions just because that’s also a way of pinpointing how you were thinking back then.
LS: My final question is on the subject of predictions for the future, your annual project, States I Haven’t Been to in the Order I think I will. This year you’ve got Kansas at the top of your list. Do you have any travel plans yet?
WL: I don’t have any plans to go to Kansas. That project has changed a lot. When I first started doing it, it was just a fun thing to do, and a tongue in cheek response to another ongoing project, States I Have… The second year, it was easier because I knew I had some traveling plans coming up, so I was able to put those states close to the order that I was going into. And then in the following two, three years after that, I went to a lot of the states. I think I only have ten left that I haven’t been to, and it’s been a couple years since I’ve been to a new one. It’s turned into a different thing now that there are fewer states to go to and states that have less reason for me to go to. I might continue doing this project for twenty years, and North Dakota just stays on that list.
But increasingly, then that becomes more reason to go to them. It would surprise no one who knows me that I would make a trip to North Dakota specifically to go to North Dakota.
LS: What percent of visitors to North Dakota do you think are there because it is the last state that they’ve not been to?
WL: That’s a good question.
LS: I would wager some significant percent of people are there for the express purpose of crossing off the fiftieth item on a list.
WL: Yeah, maybe—that’s interesting.
LS: Alright, I’ve taken more of your time than I said I would. Thank you.
I spoke with Woody Leslie via Skype on April 24. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Levi Sherman: I’d like to start by talking about subject matter. Much of your work deals with the everyday, and a lot of people are suddenly stuck at home confronting that. Do you have any advice about finding meaning in these small quotidian moments?
Woody Leslie: I like to call it the significance of personal insignificance. There are all these very unimportant uninteresting moments that make up the entirety of our lives.
But I don’t think I have any advice for others on how to capture them. I’m not sure that I necessarily pay attention to these things as they’re happening. Often when I have a memory of some completely unimportant event, I’ll write it down. I collect snippets of memories and sometimes come back to them to turn them into a larger thing later. But I’m not sure I’m that good about actively paying attention to these as they happen. I think that’s why I’m interested in them, because why do I remember these things? They’re completely unimportant and yet they have stuck in my memory.
LS: You’ve raised the issue of timescale—these little moments that accumulate and become what life is about. So is it about time as much as the specific anecdote or memory?
WL: For me it’s mostly about memory. But time is of course part of memory.
LS: Some of your reflections on social interactions resonate with me deeply in part because they’re private—you’re never sure if other people have the same thought or if you’re the only one. So, what’s the balance between what’s relatable for your audience versus what’s unique to you?
WL: I think it depends on what I’m doing. I think in earlier works, for instance going way back to the Tiny Stories series from One Page Productions—which are just these very tiny true stories. Those are all about just capturing the moment, and how can you encapsulate this small memory in a tiny space?
But with more recent work, it’s almost as if the story doesn’t matter, because as I have started doing these things with visual typography and playing around with the way letters look on the page, they become almost as much visual things as they are written things. Oftentimes I find myself knowing “this is the process that I want to do,” but not knowing what the story is that I want to treat that way.
Parsely is a good example where I had a very clear idea of exactly what I wanted to do concept-wise with that book, but it took me a long time to figure out what the story was going to be. What was a story that I could parse out like that and then explode?
That’s a common problem for me, where I have this vocabulary of technique that I want to apply to the words, but I don’t know what the story is that I’m going to do it to. That’s part of the reason why I’m always just jotting down little memories and things, because then I can return to them and think, “Will this story work to explode it or treat it in this way?”
For the visual things I’m doing now, I can’t be too attached to the writing because the writing gets destroyed to some degree in the visual treatment. As I become more and more interested in them as visual pieces and less interested in whether or not the audience can discern what is written in them, it means that the stories have to be something that I’m less attached to conveying what the information is. If it’s too good of a story that I want to use somewhere else where the story is actually conveyed, it won’t work for those visual pieces.
That’s why I think sometimes these minuscule, unimportant stories work really well for this, because it’s the excuse to build this visual piece around, but it doesn’t matter if the reader doesn’t get to story— they just missed out on some ten second dumb story that I would tell them over a beer, you know, it doesn’t matter.
LS: You raise an interesting point about the stories being just interesting enough, but not wanting to use up a story that might become something bigger.
WL: Let’s say the work you were doing is taking a painting that you make and then you cut it up and then you stitch it back together to make a new piece of art, but if you get too attached to the painting then you can’t cut it up. With some stories I get really attached to my writing, and I can’t I can’t explode the typography.
LS: Do you always write out the text? Do you have a written draft even for these shorter stories, or if you’re composing them in Illustrator or InDesign is the layout part of the writing process?
WL: It depends on the piece. Parsely I wrote and laid out at the same time, with the exception of the main throughline text; that was the only thing that was pre-composed. But the rest of it all came in during the composition process. With some of the newer pieces that I’ve been doing, like Grocery Store Conversations, which is one of the Tiny Ideas—or these new pieces that are large format, single page, broadsides of a single tiny story—those ones, I have been working with pre composed text because it works better for the process that I’ve been engaging with. That’s not to say that the story doesn’t sometimes change to make it fit better with my typographic designs—when I’m so immersed in a story, spending that much time with the text, sometimes it changes. But for the most part recently I’ve been working with pre-composed text.
LS: You talk about these stories being a 10-second anecdote you would just tell to a friend—do you still tell these stories once you’ve put them in print?
WL: Yeah, and I feel really self-conscious about it. This has been happening to me since Tiny Ideas,which came out over a decade ago now. These stories exist in print and are out in the world and some people have read these stories. Sometimes a moment comes up where it feels like an appropriate story to tell, but I’m always self-conscious that someone hearing the story has already read it. It feels like telling a joke you’ve already told before. But I also don’t want to be so egotistical to assume everyone has read all my books…
I do find that once I’ve written the story that kind of becomes the de facto way to tell a story and so if I’m telling one of these stories, one of these anecdotes, it’s like I’m kind of performing or reading that story, even if the person doesn’t know that this has been been written, and I just feel very self-conscious about it because I’m aware that I’m doing that even if nobody else is aware that I’m reading this story from memory. Maybe it’s like hearing a band play a live version of a song that you’re familiar with the recorded version.
LS: There’s something profound about the move from oral to written culture and the reification of storytelling, but it’s funny that it’s happening on the level of an individual with these very small anecdotes.
WL: Writing them down often feels like a confession. I carry these memories in my head, and by writing them down I don’t have to carry them anymore. They feel like little jewels, like these are things that I own and, by giving words to them I give them a physical existence in the world.
LS: Actually, my next question was going to be whether this is part of how you process these feelings, because it seems like a lot of your most intimate content is from childhood or adolescent memories. So, what type of processing is that—giving them concrete words and putting them out into the world?
WL: Yeah, it feels like releasing them. I don’t have to worry about remembering them anymore because now it’s written down. For a long time I was really hung up on the idea of truth being the driving force behind them; that it didn’t matter if they’re inconsequential stories because they were true. True inconsequentiality was enough.
In Tiny Stories, I wrote a story about the first six-pack of beer that I ever bought, and several months after printing I realized I had written the wrong beer. I found it really upsetting—I had broken my rule of truth as the guiding force. So in a reprint a few months later—because I used to print these books every time they ran out—I corrected it. If you have a very early edition of Tiny Stories, it’s got a different beer than the later copies of it.
I’m less concerned about truth as the core principle driving the work now. Not that I make up facts, but I have a better understanding that memory doesn’t work the way that I would like it to. As I get interested in these visual typographic pieces, these memories are just the starting point, and the facts of the story don’t matter as much.
LS: What’s the processing time for one of these anecdotes? How much time passes between a social interaction or something that you want to reflect on and actually producing the book?
WL: Grocery Store Conversations was actually a pretty quick turn-around, where this event happened at a grocery store and I think I went home and wrote about it and that made me write about a couple of other incidents that happened in grocery stores. But then that sat on my computer for a couple of years before it turned into anything.
So not everything is a memory that just crosses my mind and I write it down; some of them are events that happened to me recently, or little musings, or maybe even what you would call a poem. But it usually takes a little while before they turn into anything.
LS:Artists’ books are interesting as a discipline because no one comes to it directly, so you can see traces of a photographer or printmaker in somebody’s practice. Is it fair to say that you approach artist books as a storyteller?
WL: Yes, I got into bookbinding through a very roundabout route.
I studied music in undergrad, and if you had asked me when I was 20 what I wanted to be when I grew up, it was a sitar player. I started playing sitar when I was 13, and went to Wesleyan University thinking I was going to study ethnomusicology. At Wesleyan I also got really interested in avant garde, and experimental music—which is basically the other half of their music department alongside ethnomusicology—and took a deep dive into sound art. That’s when I started getting interested in the idea of storytelling, recording stories and piecing the audio bits together to create these narrative things.
Eventually that led to me writing my own little stories. Tiny Stories was heavily influenced by John Cage’s Indeterminacy (a series of one-minute stories Cage recorded). One of my earliest book projects, One Page Productions, started as a conceptual fictional publishing company, but to fill the books I had to create content, and it turns out I liked that part too. That’s how I got hooked on books as objects and started teaching myself a lot about book binding and learning about artist books.
So yes, it was storytelling that eventually that led me into books, but I was five or so years into bookmaking before I realized that I was a writer—which was obvious to everybody else—and that I had always been writing stories and creating narrative content in some way or another throughout all the work that I had been making, and that the books were a way of structuring the writing.
LS: You’ve talked about structure and authorial control, but what is it about artist books that makes them so good for storytelling that they have been a primary focus for your storytelling practice?
WL: I think it comes down to control; I am able to have my fingers in all parts of the process and make these things happen. And also when I was twenty-two or twenty-three first playing around with these things with One Page Productions, I didn’t know any other way to do this.
I think one of the reasons that I started writing is because I didn’t think of myself as a writer. With music, I had studied it, and so there was a lot of pressure that I felt like I was “supposed to be good at it,” whereas writing and and making books was very freeing because I hadn’t ever studied that.
It’s not like I knew anything about how to get my writing out in the world, or even really how to write. I was interested in these book objects because they were fun little things to make, and one thing led to another and that was the only way that I knew how to put my writing into the world. I think for me it’s just worked as a vessel to be able to create my work, put it into something and get it out into the world.
I just did my first book with a publisher—Understanding Molecular Typography, with Ugly Duckling Presse. It was a totally different experience to work with a publisher, and some things about it I really enjoyed. That makes me feel like well, the next big project that comes along, would I want to self-publish it, or would I want to try to find a publisher to do it? There are pluses and minuses to both.
LS: Ugly Duckling Presse reaches a larger audience, and mostly publish poetry. Who do you think your audience is and how does that affect what you make?
WL: It depends on the project. For instance, the Tiny Ideas series that I did in 2019, that was a very specific audience in that I put out a call for subscriptions and people subscribed, and that determined how big of an edition size I was going to make. Then I knew very specifically who my audience was. I made the edition size a little bit larger because I knew the subscriptions would grow over time, but by the end of the year pretty much all of the edition size was subscribed to. Being aware of your audience and knowing the people that’s gonna read this book does, for better or worse, change what it is that you’re producing.
In the case of Molecular Typography and the audience, that book has such a different range of people that might be interested in it. It could be graphic designers or chemists or anybody that works with writing, or librarians or type designers—anything relating to writing and words. Poets fit into that category.
Poets that are aware of books as objects and the production of books, I think that falls very nicely into Ugly Duckling Presse’s world, and that’s a good place for a lot of my work.
LS: For the subscription series, Tiny Ideas, did it add pressure literally knowing who your audience was? People always say to write for your audience, and that’s a very literal thing when you have a list of their names and addresses.
WL: Definitely. The whole idea behind Tiny Ideas to begin with was that they were supposed to be tiny ideas. As a way to get myself creating some new work, I made this subscription series where I would have to put out a new little work every two months without fussing over them too much. But that didn’t really work [laughs] because I still obsessed over them, and was worried that they’re not good enough—especially being aware “oh this person’s reading my book? I should do a better job with this!”
At the end of 2019, I was on the fence about whether or not I wanted to continue Tiny Ideas into 2020. There were a couple of deciding factors there, one of which was that it was really difficult for me to try to put a book out every two months, and that I wasn’t good about the tiny idea thing—just making something quickly and putting it out there. I didn’t like the stress and pressure feeling that I need to create something.
I also found myself getting really frustrated by the means of production. I designed all the books in InDesign or Illustrator on my computer and then they were all printed at Office Depot, and anybody who’s ever tried to use a photocopier to make art knows how frustrating that is in terms of getting things to line up, or how much it costs. Having had access to an offset press in the past, I had these desires for a higher production value than I was able to produce.
I also started to wonder if I stopped putting out all these tiny ideas, maybe I could spend some more time working on a larger idea and make a larger project. I’m not sure how well that’s worked yet, but I don’t regret not doing Tiny Ideas again in 2020.
LS: The edition was fully subscribed, so by all accounts, that’s a success. Did the fact that it was a successful project make that decision harder?
WL: Some of the same people who gave me the feeling of, “oh this person’s gonna read this book, I should do a better job,” expressed dismay that I wasn’t going to continue in 2020. That pushed me to consider continuing the series, but then I realized, am I making these for myself or am I making it for other people?
For a long time I think I’ve made art as a form of self-entertainment. It was a way to occupy myself and it satisfied my brain and my body in different ways. There’s also a certain amount of external validation that comes from making a book and putting it out in the world.
I’m also very interested in a very wide range of different things in the creative art world and outside of it. And I’ve long been aware of the fact that some of those things, for instance cooking—I’ve worked as a cook on and off throughout my life and I also cook a lot at home—satisfies many of the same urges that, say, making a book does in that there’s a certain amount of planning and research and prep and then production and action, and then consumption. It’s obviously very different, but it scratches some of the same itches.
And that has been the case for a lot of other things that I do. I cook a lot. I grow a lot of food. The last three or four months, I’ve been working on this chicken coop and building bookshelves and other things around the house—homesteading projects basically. It’s the same sense of satisfaction for me, creating these things, without the pressure of the external validation.
I also can’t help but keep thinking, does my art matter in the world that we live in right now? I am a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, middle class, able-bodied male. With all these layers of privilege, does the world really need to hear another story from the likes of me?
I’m getting more satisfaction from drawing inward and doing these things around the house and these projects that feel kind of more important to my well-being. Less so from creating these books that go out in the world. So that came up in part of the decision of not doing Tiny Ideas in 2020. I make it seem like I thought long and hard about it and had these debates with myself, and really it was more simple. I decided not to continue the series, and later I realized all these things are kind of connected to it.
I think I just want on a long tangent and I don’t know if I answered your question.
LS: Not only did you answer my question, you answered my next three questions—remarkably in the order that I’ve written them down. Your work gives the impression that you would make it even if you didn’t have an audience, but not in a self-involved way; it seems joyful. What do you think of art as a form of play?
WL: I think it’s great. My wife, Michelle, brought up the idea of problem solving the other day. I was expressing some of these thoughts, and she broached this idea that it’s all problem-solving, which I think is a very good way to describe it. Having a story in my head and figuring out how I am going to turn it into a book and print it and bind it—all these series of problems that one has to figure out. I really enjoy that.
Building a chicken coop is the same thing, it’s just a different set of problems to solve. I’m feeling more and more like maybe I don’t have to create books and art to get the same sense of satisfaction. I’m enjoying the process of slowing down and doing all these other things. Maybe a book will come again at some point in the future.
But yeah, art as a game. I don’t think I’m that great with aesthetics. I don’t draw or take photos and so the idea of something that’s just kind of truly aesthetically pleasing is a little alien to me. Which is part of me realizing I was always a writer. All my projects are so idea-based. That’s why I call my imprint Large Home Tiny Idea, because I feel like I have this tiny idea and then I build this large home around it. It’s usually that tiny idea kernel that starts and then is either evolved through a game or through some kind of structuring element around it.
6 × 9 in. 102 pages Binding: Perfect Digital offset Open edition
False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered is a work of asemic writing, meaning the text communicates through aesthetics rather than semantics. Asemic writing is to poetry as scat is to jazz. It’s up to the reader to make meaning from the marks, which is true of any text to some degree. As the title suggests, Rosenberg embraces this indeterminacy throughout the book’s content and structure, although she does include a helpful statement in the back matter. As an object, the book is unremarkable – a perfect-bound codex with decent quality printing. A nice drape in the pages keeps most of the content out of the gutter. Yet the reader can almost feel the texture in the original pages from which this book was scanned and printed. Perhaps surprisingly, this black and white paperback makes for a wonderful and democratic access point to an artist whose one-of-a-kind artists’ books and two-dimensional works revel in color and texture.
There is a visual similarity between Rosenberg’s asemic mark-making and abstract expressionism, but it is clear that the pages of this book are filled with writings, not drawings. Even the loosest compositions with wild, gestural marks are scaled to the hand, not the arm. Such pages are balanced by others sporting orderly grids of ideograms, which have the appearance of a real, but untranslated writing system. Perhaps these are the Apollonian and Dionysian poles that influenced abstract expressionism, but False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inhabits the entire spectrum between them. This impressive variety is unified by the book’s grayscale production as well as the written-ness of the marks, many of which are visibly the result of calligraphy pens and brushes.
The book format is a powerful vehicle for unifying disparate content, and False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered also incorporates found materials, collaged onto the pages. The edition is produced from scans of a single sketchbook, although it is more than a facsimile of an original. The digitization process is transformative. Everything is flattened – positive and negative, addition and subtraction. What look like hole-punched portals into the following page are actually onlays from some other hole-punched paper. The edges of the scanned original recede into a dark margin, an absence that signifies like presence on the page, mirroring Rosenberg’s dark marks on the light paper. Washers and key rings are no more dimensional than the fore-edge of the scanned original, whose pages form vertical margins on the outside of many spreads, marking the reader’s progress through a book they aren’t actually reading.
Of the three-dimensional objects included in the book, only the fish – a recurring motif – are mentioned in Rosenberg’s statement, which says they represent “groups, family or specific personalities.” Other objects seem to point to the material presence of language, like what appear to be bracelet charms stamped with letters and symbols. Likewise the stenciled word “yes” is a jarring injection of semantic content, although it remains open to interpretation. Rosenberg does contextualize the work as conversation, which helps ground the reader without foreclosing possibilities. She writes that the verso and recto are engaged in a cross-gutter dialogue, but the book offers a multiplicity of sequences and structural relationships.
In addition to the cross-spread dialogue, there is also the sequence of one page to the next. The hole-punched portals mentioned above are just one example of Rosenberg’s thoughtful engagement with the way a page reveals and conceals. These potent relationships are doubled since the book can be read from either direction, enabled by facsimile covers that separate the front and back matter from the core content of the book. Circular reading is a hallmark of Rosenberg’s books, and neither direction seems more or less important thanks to the non-representational content. Other, latent sequences are present, but not fully accessible to the reader: the sequence of the hard copy original, and the order in which Rosenberg filled it. Thus False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered is a book with four sequences, plus whatever order the reader chooses. The compositions are largely self-contained, making random access almost as rewarding as reading cover to cover.
Indeed the book speaks more to the act of creation than plot or narrative. The occasional glimpses of the background behind the scanned book reinforce this, revealing the stray marks of an artist’s work area rather than the expected clean white backdrop. Rosenberg represents, or rather presents, myriad relations between the author and the blank page, from confident flow to crossed out self-doubt. This emphasis on creation doesn’t diminish the reader though, since reading asemic writing is itself a generative act, the making of meaning. Perhaps it is this decentering of the author that most distinguishes Rosenberg’s approach from abstract expressionism. She blurs the line between reception and production just as she does writing and drawing. Likewise the book complicates the signal-noise binary, extending authorship not only to the reader, but to the chance operations of the scanning process. A handful of bright white marks remind the reader that book’s pages are toned from its printing, not its paper, emphasizing the transformative role of the digitization and one-color printing.
False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered certainly sounds like a title for the post-truth era, but asemic writing is not a total absence of meaning – the meaning is just located beyond the semantic order. This book asks the reader to consider other possibilities and perspectives. It demands sensitivity and empathy, but offers truths to the reader who is willing to work for them. This touches on a larger debate within asemic writing, where a complete absence of meaning (asemia) is neither possible nor desirable. Instead, Rosenberg posits multiple, perhaps infinite, meanings, and invites the reader to change those meanings from one reading to the next. Through its thoughtful consideration of the book form, False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered brings these debates into dialogue with artists’ book discourse. It is an impressive work in this exciting zone of intersection, but by no means does it exhaust the possibilities it points to.
4.125 × 9.625 in. 2 cards in a glassine envelope Letterpress and rubber stamp Edition of 50
ISOLATIONS possesses a monumentality that defies its dimensions. Perhaps it is best thought of as a miniature broadside, employing scale – which is a metaphor – rather than size. Following this interpretation, the thick, toothy handmade paper and heavy impression of the letterpress printing give the broadside a sense that its text is almost literally set in stone. Marianne Dages has visually enhanced the paper’s considerable tactile texture by printing a gritty, grey background. But the broadside doth protest too much. Its fixity is a foil for the fungibility of language, which is the key to this process-based project.
Before its ink was pressed into paper, ISOLATIONS began online under the name open > access > document. Open > access > document was a Google Doc, hosted and promoted by Leah Mackin’s Internet Art Book Fair. From January 19–21, 2019, contributors could write and edit the document as they pleased. Dages would then massage the text into its final form. Dages redacted, augmented and even translated the document into a short poem of seven stanzas, its dense language spread thin across the broadside’s spare surface.
Given this unusual approach to writing, the publication must be reviewed in terms of concept and process, and not merely a finished object. However, that is not to say that ISOLATIONS cannot be appreciated on its own. The broadside is exquisitely crafted, with great attention given to its materials and print processes. In fact, this careful consideration warrants approaching the work’s enclosure as part of the artistic argument, meaning there are three components: the broadside, the colophon and the envelope.
The broadside’s stony appearance is contrasted by the clean, minimal typography. The typeface is Futura and the open spacing of words and lines seem to reflect the erasures Dages made from the original text. The handmade paper and letterpress printing evoke a fine press quality that is complicated by the two other components. The colophon is letterpress printed on vintage card stock. It is cut to resemble a catalog card, and its orange color lends further support to its bureaucratic appearance. Of course, two points can’t make a pattern, so it is the third element that triangulates the piece’s aesthetic – the unassuming envelope.
The rubber-stamped, glassine envelope is a translucent membrane, bridging the aesthetics of the special collections with that of the circulating library. If the handmade paper exudes refined taste, the glassine envelope signals the attempt to bring this luxury to the masses. Tellingly, its alternate name, vellum, is a misnomer. It announces its shortcomings even as it distinguishes itself from a standard #10 window envelope. In the case of my review copy, the envelope was addressed and stamped directly, emphasizing its functional role.
This simple assembly of anachronisms achieves remarkable complexity through its juxtaposition of high and low culture. The vintage cardstock is inside an envelope with a contemporary date stamped by the postal service. The handmade paper is carefully cut to a standard size to fit the mass market envelope, which is in turn marked “copy” by the artist with a readymade rubber stamp. The colophon, perhaps hand cut to look like a catalog card, nevertheless bears the hallmarks of a fine press edition; it is numbered and signed by hand below impeccable letterpress printing.
The digital presentation of the project is equally well considered. The original open > access > document Google Doc is embedded on a dedicated webpage on the Internet Art Book Fair. The Google Doc retains its functionality, allowing a visitor to request access to made edits. Presumably such a request would be denied, but the presentation retains the medium specificity of a collaborative cloud document. Also included are the first words added to the document, “This document is a test / TEST TEST TEST.” The phrase is repeated on the colophon, reinforcing the tie between the web and print versions, and affirming the importance of the poem’s paratext, including the writing process.
This treatment is indicative of Dages’ (and Mackin’s) nuanced understanding of the relationship between art and media. ISOLATIONS employs letterpress printing and vintage stock without resorting to nostalgia. Likewise it uses Google Docs without subscribing to technological determinism, rendering the poetics a result of the process and nothing else. Rather, ISOLATIONS connects to a long tradition of de-centered authorship and process-oriented poetry, showing how letterpress printing and Google Docs constrain and enable this inquiry as all media always have.
These ideas emerge in the poem itself. Themes of floating and detachment evoke the ephemeral, intangible digital writing process. There is an extension and compression of time that seems fitting for the anachronous enunciation of the work; narrative retelling gives way to a fragmented immediacy. The text evokes a sense of mystery, with references to puzzles, hiding and “looking for a key.” The visual treatment of the text, with its gaps and silences, contributes to this sensibility.
Reading these silences as redactions sharpens the sense of mystery and loss. The physicality of the printed text only underscores the ephemerality of the original writing. Even without knowing the details of Dages’ editing process, ISOLATIONS foregrounds intertextuality and emphasizes the labor of poetics. The poetics of labor are equally present, invoked through the language of office work, from rubber stamps to Google Docs. This medium-specific misuse of ambivalent commercial writing tools clearly resists technological determinism, yet ISOLATIONS is hardly a celebration of human genius. As with Dages and Mackin’s earlier collaboration, Ultrices, the use of chance operations and distributed authorship complicate the very notion of writing. ISOLATIONS embraces its own contingency, a poem that could have been otherwise.
Dages shows a way forward for a field that too often ties artistic possibilities to a particular medium. She demonstrates that language is material whether it is in a word processor or a press bed. ISOLATIONS refuses a reductive view of technology or tradition, and compromises neither craft nor concept. Dages makes visible the process of writing and reminds the reader that communication occurs also in the silences. ISOLATIONS is a collaboration not only with Mackin and the Internet Art Book Fair, but also the unnamed contributors to the open > access> document, a testament to trusting the process and the confidence that an artist can turn a crowdsourced Google Doc into an eloquent poem on a beautiful broadside.
8 × 8 in. 20 pages Binding: Perfect Digital offset Open edition
In the interest of full disclosure I should begin this review with the disclaimer that Carley Gomez is my partner, in art and in life. Nevertheless I assure you that this review is every bit as biased as all my others.
Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure appears at first glance to be a children’s book. If one were the type to judge a book by its cover, it might appear to be a self-published children’s book. The first few spreads seem to confirm this assessment. Large, friendly type narrates the travels of a small toy dinosaur in Chicago’s famed Field Museum of Natural History. The images are snapshot-like photographs of the bright red tyrannosaurus throughout the museum – on ledges, banisters, furniture and floors. Tiny Dino Bruce views fossils and dioramas and marvels at the architecture. Just as the reader begins to wonder if the book is, as it appears, a somewhat mediocre children’s book, the tone takes a turn.
A wall display reads, “Did you know, an onion, apple and potato all have the same taste? The differences in flavor are caused by their smell.” The deadpan narration continues below: “Bruce calls bullshit during our break in the cafeteria.” So Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure is not what it appears to be, but the children’s book for adults is by now a familiar genre. Yet Gomez has created something different, something weirder. It is weird even for an artists’ book, although it does what artists’ books do best. It is a self-contained experience that would fail in another medium. Text and image are more than the sum of their parts. Structural elements work in concert with the content (for example, the pagination is crucial to the comic timing). The book subverts a familiar genre even as it appropriates the genre’s powers, such as the easy suspension of disbelief. In fact, the very familiarity of a square, perfect-bound book makes this otherwise unusual work of art seem approachable and unpretentious.
The frank tone of the writing operates similarly, albeit under the guise of short, kid-friendly sentences. There is a clear story arc with a beginning, middle and end. Conflict brews, romance blossoms and an existential crisis looms. The book’s narrator is the unseen, presumably human, companion of Tiny Dino Bruce. The dialogue is all Bruce’s, but the interiority is that of the narrator. The tension between reality and make-believe never fully resolves. Each image implies the agency of the human actor, but the written narrative is too absorbing to focus on the reality behind the book’s production – at least on the first read through the book. In this way, Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure perhaps shares the literary tradition of Calvin and Hobbes or The Indian in the Cupboard.
Subsequent readings, however, raise many questions about the book’s production, and these are where Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure really shines. (That a reader will indeed peruse the book more than once is all but guaranteed; it is short and quirky, and the photographs preserve a visual richness that is missing in more controlled, conventional illustrations.) This visual noise clues the reader into various productive interpretative frameworks, including institutional critique and performance documentation.
Like many conceptual artists, Gomez examines the cultural significance of the museum. The book’s postmodern mash-up of high and low culture is a fitting reflection of the institution. The dinosaur was purchased, indeed created, by the artist using the museum’s own Mold-A-Rama machine – those “automatic miniature plastic factories” that so epitomize mid-century American kitsch. Once created, the touristic dinosaur visits everything from live animals and ancient fossils to anthropological artifacts and other, more contemporary, tchotchkes. The gift shop and cafe figure as heavily into the plot as any of the more educational spaces.
The museum is also the stage, if one considers Gomez’s piece to be a performance. What does it mean for an adult visitor to roam the museum, photographing tableaus and dining with a dinosaur? Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure reveals the discomfort of creativity and imagination, even in spaces that exist to inspire it. I would also argue that it exemplifies my concept of “book thinking.” Just as an artist would experience the Field Museum differently with a sketchbook in hand than they would with a camera or audio recorder, so too does the mission of creating a book structure the encounter.
This leads to an inherent tension since a museum is really quite similar to a book. The Field Museum has its own agenda, and it uses audio, visual and tactile means to construct a specific spacial and temporal experience for its viewers. In today’s postmodern neoliberal culture, many museums blur the lines between production and consumption, author and audience. However, Gomez’s act of authorship goes beyond the prescribed bounds of even the most interactive museums. Having paid her admission and patronized the Mold-A-Rama, her act of subversion is complicated, but thought-provoking nonetheless.
Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure shows that artists’ books can be simultaneously silly and serious. Artists’ books can be improvisational and exploratory, especially with smartphone photography and on-demand printing. They need not require months of planning and production. Books of this sort represent an access point to the field for a broader contingent of artists and writers, those who consider the interrelation of content, form and structure without recourse to the typical studio equipment. Of course the aesthetics of commercial on-demand printing lend themselves to some books better than others, but any good artist will choose the process that is right for the project. Gomez has done that with Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure.
7.625 × 10.25 in. 32 pages Binding: Dos-a-dos; saddle-stitched pamphlets tied into the cover, with an unbound pamphlet inserted Digital and offset printing Edition of 100
As a medium, books are noteworthy for their finitude. This seems increasingly significant in an era of infinite internet and endlessly reconfigurable data. So it is perhaps surprising that the artists’ books of Isabel Baraona often resist closure. Voragem, a collaboration with Catarina Domingues, is one such book. Its dos-a-dos binding makes each ending a beginning, and the content is well suited to this cycle. The lyrical, fragmentary text operates through invocation more than syntax, and suspends narrative resolution. The passage of time is an important theme, and yet there is an emphasis on presence and present-ness. Voragem physically embodies a combination of linear and circular time through the inclusion of a third (finite) pamphlet within one half of the larger dos-a-dos. The artists shrewdly use a removable belly band to print the title information, further equalizing the front and back covers. This is just one of many subtle decisions that show a sophisticated understanding of how the book’s structure works in concert with its content.
Voragem means “maelstrom” in Portuguese, and there is certainly turmoil in Baraona’s signature figures and Domingues’ distinctive mark-making. (I should note here that all of the book’s text is in Portuguese, and that I am very grateful to Vera Romiti Stecca Diani for sensitively translating the poetic writing.) The text proceeds in single words and short phrases. It is visceral and erotic, though the book points to an intersubjectivity more complex than mere sex. It is written in second person, addressing the reader directly and also inviting them to inhabit the absent I. This, along with the faceless, silhouetted figures make it easy for the reader to project themselves into the narrative.
Two visual modes dominate – dense, frantic line work and unpredictable, organic blotches of wet media. The contrast between is more than visual. The chance operations of the wet media are inscrutable, whereas the artists’ hands are visible in the drawn marks. Time has passed. A body has labored. If mark-making is a primal act, the delineation of the sacred from the profane, then Voragem brings something fundamentally human into dialogue with nature, the vicissitudes of physics acting on the liquid pigment. Voragem seems to celebrate the creative act, anguished though it may be.
Both methods are combined and the images are worked into multiple times, creating tangled, tempestuous compositions from which figures are subtracted as stark silhouettes. This play of positive and negative, presence and absence, helps establish the setting as mental or metaphorical. The visual integration of hand-drawn text within the imagery furthers the sense of a mental place. The words seem to emanate from a knot of neurons, thought rather than spoken. The figures cast no shadows as they tumble and writhe, falling through the space of the page. Or perhaps the setting is outside the mind, physical but primordial. Baraona’s narratives often have an archetypal, mythological quality. The book’s primary color scheme adds to this foundational sense, though there is relatively little yellow. Blue and red predominate, evoking veins and arteries in the dense tangle of tendrils.
The subject matter is decidedly anatomical, but Baraona and Domingues abstract the visuals enough to include more than the vascular system. One drawing is clearly a heart, but specific organs are mostly left to the text (head; mouth; the tip of the nipple). Neurons can be seen in the fractal diffusion of wet media. Hair and guts are present in the varied line work. Still other marks appear to be something less physical, though surely of the body. By combining blood and nerves with neurons, the artists transcend any opposition of thinking and feeling. Braids and tangles erupt from, connect, and consume figures in this collapse of mind and body.
Interestingly, the anatomy challenges the human-nature binary set up by the contrasting mark making. If the deliberate line work speaks to something especially human, then the actual rendering of those humans reminds the reader that humans are just animals. The figures are contorted and asymmetrical. All the parts are present, but they assume unfamiliar shapes. The boundary between flesh and meat seems to waver. Just as body and mind are joined, so too are human and nature, but in the hands of Baraona and Domingues this is not a peaceful unity. Rather they speak to the difficulty of being in the world with no hope of transcending the embodied, natural order.
The book’s sequence shifts between figuration and abstraction, employing both to maximum effect. The first opening is a relatively straightforward representation – the negative silhouette of a one-shoed woman with a positive rendering of her missing shoe. More human figures follow until a blank page interrupts the sequence and an abstract, cosmic scene unfurls. The next spreads pair text with highly abstract compositions. The letterforms emerge from organic shapes that could be something very small – perhaps in a brain – or very large, like the universe. When the turn of a page reveals a figure, it is a startling return. She is bisected by a patch of hairlike lines, which leave a gaping absence where her abdomen should be. Her mouth is open, one hand is clenched and her toes curl in what could be either agony or ecstasy. The contemplative mood of the preceding pages is shattered, and this first half of the dos-a-dos concludes in an explosive, figurative manner.
The second half opens with abstract, almost surreal compositions. These demonstrate the strength of Baraona and Domingues as collaborators. Both artists use line masterfully. Thickets of short black strokes seem almost stitched onto the longer striated forms beneath, which are visually distinct and rendered in color. A relatively limited visual vocabulary is extended with a surprising repertoire of optical effects and compositional choices. The design feels unified even as each artist’s contributions remain distinct.
The inserted pamphlet achieves a similar balance. It is unbound, attached to the larger book by a thread through the gutter. (There is, in fact, a green thread looped around the gutter of each side of the dos-a-dos. The staples that bind each signature do not attach the cover, which is good and bad. The threads are somewhat distracting, especially their color, but they also avoid unsightly staples in the cover and the inevitable tearing that would result in the coated cover stock.) The drawing style in this smaller pamphlet is related, but only its cover has a white background. The rest of the negative space is filled with color washes. It makes the rest of the book feel stark by comparison. Baraona and Domingues are clearly aware of the power of this contrast. After the book-within-a-book concludes, the next page turn reveals another completely blank verso with a recto that is visually distinct from the book’s other imagery. Simple devices, like the dos-a-dos structure, let Baraona and Domingues synthesize a variety of visual approaches in a single work. Both artists thoughtfully engage the book form, and it is hard to picture Voragem’s collaborative content succeeding similarly in another medium.
The book within a book does draw attention to the book-ness of Voragem, but I would argue its meta-commentary is about the creative act more broadly. It speaks to our drive as storytelling animals, through image-making and written language alike. As the text and image explore one kind of relationship, the project itself posits another – collaboration. Perhaps the two share the same elements: vulnerability, compromise, history and hope. Baraona and Domingues forge a unified artistic statement from their distinct contributions. Fortunately for the reader, they achieved this through the democratic medium of the artists’ book. By thoughtfully engaging the book as medium, with elements like blank pages and short sheets, the artists are able to bring their time-intensive studio processes into an object that is more than a series of reproductions. The complex verbo-visual narrative demands much of the reader, but rewards them accordingly.