Oriental Silk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inscription, Issue 1: Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside spread of Inscription, which shows the text rotated nearly sideways. There are full color figures and any appearance of the word "inscription" is printed in red ink. There is a hole through the center of each page, like a record.

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

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

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

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

The Marathon Poet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fragmented Memory

Fragmented Memory
Majka Dokudowicz and Ioannis Anastasiou
2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

couplets and questions

Review by Eric Morris-Pusey

couplets and questions
Andrew Shaw
The Silent Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visible Climate

Visible Climate: Postcards from America’s Changing Landscapes
Lee Lines and Rachel Simmons
2020

10 × 8 in. closed
22 pages
Binding: Drum leaf with hard covers
HP Indigo
Open edition

Front cover of Visible Climate

Postcards are a peculiar medium, evoking presence and absence simultaneously. The writer of a postcard says, “I am here” to someone who isn’t. Or they say, “I was there” to a future self who may have forgotten. Postcards are, therefore, a medium of imagination and memory. They are also readymade representations. Unlike the snapshot a tourist takes, a postcard has been carefully chosen to represent a place with commercial and political goals, or at least considerations. This was the case for the National Parks Service postcards that inspired the imagery in Visible Climate, made to promote “America’s best idea” to a nascent public of domestic tourists.

The pages of Lines and Simmons’ collaborative book are not literal postcards, or even facsimiles, but rather draw on the formal and conceptual foundations of the medium. Each pair of text and image relates a memory from a national park, the writing intimate and the imagery iconic. The text is present tense, which departs from a typical postcard but lends a more literary sensibility. A representative passage reads, “I hike back to the spot in the photograph but so much has changed. Gone are the old weathered Juniper trees and dense stands of Pinyon Pine. Dry grassland stretches for miles in every direction as I walk through a mostly silent landscape.” The postcards do not form a single narrative but accumulate to paint a worrisome picture of how climate change is impacting the unique lands that comprise the United States. The themes that emerge are well suited to the medium – changes and time, presence and absence (visibility and invisibility), memory and imagination. After all, landscape itself is a work of imagination, a human representation imposed on the reality of land. Visible Climate grapples with the perils and potential of this very human way to perceive the environment.

Inside spread of Visible Climate, showing two arid scenes with warm color schemes.

The book’s structure and materials do embody a bit of what one might expect from a postcard. Printed on demand through Blurb, the “Layflat Imagewrap” book is essentially a drum leaf binding, resulting in thick pages that open flat with no gutter. The book’s dimensions (20 × 8 inches open) and rather large text encourage the reader to take the book in at arm’s length – perhaps flat on a table – a visual rather than tactile experience. The large pages also leave room to solve the challenging layouts, balancing one image and one block of text without trapping awkward negative spaces. In some spreads one page contains the image with the text across the fold, but most pages pair both elements within their ample margins. The text and image never touch, the gutter is never crossed, and nothing bleeds off the edge. The compositions would be static, stale even, were it not for the organic, unpredictable sensibility provided by the handwritten text and liquid borders of each image. Likewise, the choice to compose both single pages and two-page spreads livens the straightforward text-image format and introduces an element of pacing that makes the bound book function as more than a pile of postcards.

This pacing is suggested on the book’s cover, which is patterned with thumbnail reproductions of the images inside. Neither the spine nor cover display the title, leaving the grid of images to operate free of context. The resulting preview, not unlike the images on the back of a wall calendar, emphasize the book’s affective use of color. In hand coloring Lines’ photographic images, Simmons pushes the warm and cool palettes to an extreme. Blue skies and glacial ice contrast sharply with the arid reds of riverbeds and desert bluffs. This limited color scheme makes the few appearances of green seem artificial, imaginary even. In one such image, a phthalo green swamp gives rise to a ghostly mangrove whose black and white rendering seems to suggest that the plant is already dead.

Visible Climate, inside spread with text on verso and hand-colored illustration of a mangrove on the recto.

Just as Simmons’ hand is present in the hand-tinted photographs, Lines’ can be seen in the handwritten text. His rounded hand complements the organic outlines of the imagery and lends an authenticity which contrasts with the artifice of the colorized photographs in an interesting way. The handwriting also references the idea of a postcard, of course, and helps the reader connect more intimately with the narrators than the relatively short texts might otherwise allow. And while the consistent handwriting unifies the collection of vignettes, it also raises complex questions about authorship. The book’s colophon explains that the captions “imagine the voices of park visitors,” meaning each vignette is that of a different fictional narrator. But rather than embody each imagined narrator with a different hand, Lines layers his own identity onto the texts by way of penmanship. Thus the handwriting and hand-coloring point to the process-oriented practice behind the book.

That process included nearly two hundred hours of field work in the national parks featured in the book. Lines and Simmons’ collaborations are grounded in intensive research, and the handwritten text seems to recall a scientist’s field journal, positioning the fictional accounts as the results of research. The importance of process is even clearer in Simmons’ treatment of Lines’ photographs, which begin as conventional digital images. Simmons converts the images to black and white, transfers them to paper and hand-colors them before digitizing them again. The retreat from digital to analog (and from color to black and white) lays the conceptual groundwork beneath the nostalgic, vintage look that hand-coloring ultimately gives the imagery. The point is, after all, not just to reference the historical but to enact a sense of loss over time. As Simmons works, the images lose more and more data until the subjective workings of the artist’s hand supplant the objectivity of the digital photograph.

Visible Climate, inside spread with text and glacier scenes on verso and recto.

For all this emphasis on process, the final product remains impeccably crafted; not only the text and imagery but sequence and pacing of the book as well. With the familiar intimacy of the writing, it is easy to read oneself into the imagined correspondence. An inherent sense of temporal and geographic distance makes the suspension of disbelief central to the postcard as a medium. Whether reading a postcard immediately at the mailbox or years after from a shoebox, one is always already later and elsewhere. It is a medium of imagination grounded by the fact of really having been somewhere, not unlike the strange authenticity of Lines’ handwritten fiction. The premise of multiple writers also accommodates more repetition than a straightforward narrative. Visible Climate has no introduction or conclusion; all of the storytelling is accomplished through the fictional missives. Their major themes and motifs are far from subtle, but the book’s quick pace and the sheer variety of landscapes depicted keep the repetition from growing tiresome. On the contrary, Lines’ ruminations on time and change unify the human experience of those disparate geographies and demonstrate how pervasive the effects of climate change really are.

This larger message about the environment emerges not just from each vignette but from the careful sequencing of their accumulation. For while the book may lack an introduction, it does have a beginning, middle and end. Much of Visible Climate’s power comes from subverting the linearity of the codex form. The first postcard ends, “…we’re struck by the near total absence of young trees.” In other words, the beginning of the book is the beginning of the end. The next postcard reflects on ancient cliff dwellings, introducing the human timescale that will remain in tension with the geological throughout the book. It is then all the more shocking when the two timescales reverse: “Decades have passed since I last visited Nisqually Glacier. Most of my fellow climbers are gone, and the glacier is now hundreds of yards upstream.” Changes to the Earth have accelerated to the human scale, and the narrator is left to “recall the sound of the ice, bending and snapping in the distance.”

Final spread of Visible Climate, with text on verso and nighttime scene of Joshua Tree on the recto.

In the second half of the book, a turning point is signaled by three smokestacks sticking out above the horizon, releasing steam that disappears into the clouds above. On the following page, the narrator writes, “Our hike back to the road feels like we are leaving the scene of a crime.” The final image is the book’s only nocturne, but the linear progress from day to night is complicated by a reprise of the first passage. “The young Joshua trees are mostly gone, while the few remaining mature trees are like oases, providing shelter for dozens of animals in an otherwise harsh landscape.” It is hard not to project one’s own condition onto these trees, survivors of the beginning of the end, caring for others in the face of an improbable future.

Such anthropomorphism is, of course, part of the problem. Our ability to relate to a tree (but less so a blob of algae) speaks to the power of imagination in constructing our views of the natural world, in making landscape out of land. As one postcard notes, “The carbon flowing through those towers can’t be seen and makes no sound.” The climate crisis is, in part, an aesthetic problem, a matter of what can and cannot be seen. Visible Climate is an intervention in the aesthetic realm, a reminder that something is lost in our mediated perspective of the environment. Lines and Simmons acknowledge that some problems of perception are natural, like the inconceivable gap between human time and geologic time, while others are human-made. Visible Climate shows that our inability to see the world as it really is can be catastrophic, and yet any remaining hope lies in the very ability to imagine a world different from our own.

Eulalia #3

Eulalia #3
Hope Amico
Gutwrench Press
2020

4.25 × 5 in. closed
32 pages
Binding: Dos-à-dos sewn with a 3-hole pamphlet stitch
Letterpress cover and laser insides

Eulalia #3 front cover of Before side; title reads: if i could tell my then self something now...

Eulalia #3 is the third in a series of zines which center on the generative constraint of Amico’s practice – the content for each themed issue is completed in a single sitting. In reality, the series is less rigid than it sounds. Issue two came out twenty years after issue one, and this third issue is a double issue. The zine’s dos-à-dos structure accommodates two themes, a Before side dealing with grief and healing and an After side about new love and friendship. Although these two sections were produced in two different sittings, Eulalia #3 retains a key feature of the series – a stark yet complicated division between the initial content creation and the subsequent production of a publication to carry that content. This manner of production, in concert with the zine’s form and content, speaks to the importance of storytelling as a way to make sense of life.

Amico works to emphasize the division and juxtaposition inherent in the dos-à-dos structure. Though each section has its own title, the colophon refers to them as Before and After, which clarifies the sequence for the reader and connects the spacial and temporal functions of the book form. Both sides feature a framed 2.5 × 3-inch composition of text and image on each page, but they are visually opposite. Before is printed in black and white, After is printed in color. Compositions in Before are framed by white borders, while the pages in After are black. Both sections use hand-written text, but the image-making varies from mainly drawing in Before to collage in After. The decision to gather these two sequences in a single publication only to then play up the contrasts between them calls attention to the role of the author, to the way Amico’s reflections on themes and events construct the narrative that is ultimately available to the reader.

Eulalia #3 inside spread from Before side. Verso is a collage, recto is a drawing. Text reads: are the patterns really new? Am I a monster?

The straightforward chronology of before and after is challenged by the letterpress-printed titles on each cover. The title on the front cover (Before) is if i could tell my then self something now…, and thus reverses time as well as the roles of author and reader. The zine’s actual reader is left to eavesdrop on the cryptic confessions and consolations of Amico’s past and present selves. Yet the intimate pull of the second person address is powerful, and the reader can almost forget over the course of sixteen pages that they are not the you to whom Amico is speaking. This voyeuristic tension is heightened by the recurring theme of public displays of emotion in regard to grief, heartbreak and healing. One spread reads, “in the silence, all I had drowned resurfaced. / IF YOU’RE NOT CRYING AT WORK IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY YOU MIGHT BE A MONSTER / it’s all too much.”

Eulalia #3 inside spread from After side. Verso and rectos are collages. Text reads: Obvious in its numerology / 7 7 7 25 14 42 here we go

Of course, we don’t give advice to our past selves to change anything; we do so to reflect on the trajectory of our lives, to find patterns, identify critical moments and learn for the future. We use narrative because there is a difference between story and plot, and meaning lies in the latter. The second section of Eulalia #3 references another way of doing this – Tarot. The social media sign-off of writer and Tarot card reader, Michelle Embree, serves as the title: BIG LOVE. BE BLESSED. Equally intimate, the After side is far more hopeful than Before with themes of new love and friendship. Still Amico focuses on the gap between the story (what is) and the narrative (what we notice): “Something dormant awakened. / A SURPRISE / LAID BARE IN HINDSIGHT.” Elsewhere references to numerology and life’s great questions place Amico’s personal experiences in dialogue with more universal manifestations of the same challenge, to make meaning out of events we cannot control.

Eulalia #3 inside spread from Before side. Verso and rectos are ink drawings. Text reads: I thought I was okay

The sense that the narrative is pieced together from separate moments is furthered by the consistent and self-contained compositions. The margins around each page and the undisturbed gutters between them nevertheless permit a sophisticated approach to sequence and rhythm. The visual content remains firmly on one page or another, but ideas can play out within a page, across a spread, or through the turn of a page. There is always a relationship between the verso and recto, but it is never the same. Amico achieves as much variety as the relatively short sequences can unify into a cohesive expression through simple formal devices. Among these, the timing of the writing and the sense of depth in the drawn and collaged imagery are especially effective. Together text and image create a relatable experience for the reader within the psychic space of the artist’s interiority.

Eulalia #3 inside spread from After side. Verso and rectos are collages. Text reads: The space inside of us is so much larger than we know.

The zine’s materiality however testifies to the constructedness of this experience. The juxtaposition of black and white and color printing reminds the reader that Eulalia #3 resulted from two distinct art-making events, and that its pages offer only mediated access to the original thirty-two compositions. In the After section, the dimensionality of Amico’s collages is visible but absent to the touch. Nowhere is this more apparent than the inclusion of pink thread sewn into the collages, echoing the book’s pink pamphlet stitch. This detail quite literally ties together the book even as it widens the gap between its creator and its reader, between reality and facsimile. The covers play with the same tension by placing paper and print production at odds with one another. The letterpress-printed titles imply an edition of multiples, while the pink patterned paper evokes a scrapbook, a private object rather than a publication intended for distribution. These material contradictions ultimately raise questions about what constitutes the work and who it is for. Is the finished zine the primary work or merely documentation of the durational performance in which Amico generated the content of its pages?

In either case, the clarifying power of narrative is central to Eulalia #3, for the reader and the artist alike. Just as the zine synthesizes a cohesive reading experience from two separate art-making sessions, so too do those sessions bring thematic and chronological order to the artist’s disparate memories and emotions. That Amico returned to Eulalia for a second issue after twenty years shows the value of structuring one’s thoughts through a publication. The dos-à-dos structure of this third issue elegantly inhabits the messy space between life and narrative, embodying both linear and cyclical time. Eulalia #3 fully engages the ways that grief and friendship and romance color one another despite the bargains we strike with our past and future selves.

Zines are ideal for exploring such deeply personal themes because they bridge the public and private, magazine and diary. Amico seems comfortable breaking down those barriers, whether crying at work or publishing Eulalia. Readers will no doubt be grateful for a place to turn to when it’s all too much.

Tools for Extinction

Tools for Extinction
Denise Rose Hansen, editor
Studio Ard, design
2020
Lolli Editions

5.25 × 7.875 in.
120 pages
Soft cover perfect binding with French folds
Offset

Tools for Extinction, front cover

Tools for Extinction is an anthology of writing, not an artists’ book, which perhaps makes it an ideal project to examine the distinction between a book and a publication. I have written about this difference elsewhere, but Tools for Extinction so fully mobilizes the possibilities of publishing as a critical and artistic practice that it cannot be understood only as a material synthesis of form and content. This is not to say there are no meaningful relationships between pictures and words, text and paratext, content and layout; there are, and they will figure into the review that follows. The point is, rather, that the social, political and cultural dimensions of Tools for Extinction’s production and distribution are treated with the same self-reflexivity that an artists’ book brings to The Book as a concept. Specifically, Tools for Extinction is not simply a book about Covid-19. It is a publication made of, for, against, within and in spite of this pandemic, an achievement that will become more significant – necessary, even – as unsustainable climate change and inequality continue to catalyze global crises. It is an invitation to reflect on whether and how to create, to make meaning, in the face of extinction.

Tools for Extinction comprises eighteen works by writers from across Europe and beyond. Whether new or newly translated, each piece makes its first English-language appearance in this collection. Half the pieces are translated, highlighting the creative editorial labor behind the book as well as its global perspective. The writing is as diverse as the geography, including poetry, fiction, non-fiction, a speech, and a transcribed audio work. The selections are relatively short, and the collection overall has an engaging texture and sequence. The early pieces pull the reader in, establish the stakes, and introduce many of the common themes and through lines. Some of the longer and more explicitly political pieces follow, and Hansen has varied and balanced the collection to mitigate the hesitation or exhaustion that the subject matter may inspire in readers still surviving the very pandemic at the book’s core.

Tools for Extinction, back cover

The book’s design further emphasizes its novelty and geographic range – two features through which the broader themes of space and time emerge. Space, time, and space-time are most visible in the book’s cover imagery: a skewed image of planet Earth (daytime on the front cover and nighttime on the back). The book’s designers, Studio Ard, identify the cover image as being taken March 25, 2020. With the foreword’s date of April 20, 2020, a picture of the book careening toward completion comes into focus (my own review copy shipped in early May). One’s fingers can feel the overprinted metallic silver ink on the back cover, lending a not-yet-dry quality to the whole production. The globe from the front cover is stretched further to an absurd degree on the book’s spine, which, as a physical index of the book’s duration, would seem to reference time. And if the spine signifies time, then space is present in the surface of the page. The table of contents operates according to this logic, arranged as a grid rather than a list. The pieces are presented as roughly square text-image modules across the geography of a two-page spread.

Tools for Extinction, table of contents

Each image in the table of contents is what Hansen refers to as an “anamorphic ‘tool’: things and beings we might suddenly perceive from new vantage points.” Some of these thumbnail images illustrate the accompanying text directly, while other associations are more oblique. The images depict no environment, the objects cast no shadows. Instead, they present almost typographically, emoji-like in a way that encourages a semiotic reading. These little images also serve as the key to their anamorphic counterparts, which appear as chapter ornaments under the title of each piece. In some cases, these distorted images can be deciphered without recourse to the table of contents, but the reference point certainly helps the reader appreciate the unfamiliar perspective from which they are viewing the otherwise unremarkable object. Instead of framing today’s pandemic and politics as a break or rupture, these illustrations demonstrate just how strange the world can be made through continuous changes – stretching, twisting, and compressing – a topology of the social fabric. Tools for Extinction posits a world that was already at the brink, comprehensible only through inertia and made visible now through crisis.

Tools for Extinction, open to Tuesday by Patricia Portela

Many of the writers delve into this uncomfortable continuity between things that ought to be opposites: consciousness and sleep, distance and intimacy, private and public, sameness and difference, past and future. This blurring of boundaries spans genre and style. Ashan by Vi Khi Nao does so with a magical realist approach, probing the social distance(s) of Covid-19 and the alienated, mediated lives people lived even before the virus. Mental health is equally central to Tuesday by Patrícia Portela, albeit in a subtler, less speculative manner. Portela’s neurotic narrator attempts to plan a much-needed vacation, manifesting in an exhausting stream of consciousness that forecloses every future it opens without progressing beyond the present. As with Ashan, Tuesday is a sort of everyday tragedy; the pandemic didn’t cause it but rather provided the perspective from which to finally see it clearly. Tools for Extinction grapples with the grief, trauma and anxiety of Covid-19 without presenting these phenomena as something entirely new.

Nor are these experiences exceptional. Even as the authors relate the circumstances of a particular place and time, patterns emerge. The essay A Penny is a Penny is a Penny by Jakuta Alikavazovic epitomizes this sense of a shared global experience. Alikavazovic writes, “The demonstrations across the country; the various groups of blue-collar and white-collar workers throwing their literal and symbolic tools in protest; people resigning – all rising up against this morbid logic that rest on the idea that a penny is a penny.” The United States? Lebanon? Belarus? The reader must turn to the author’s bio in the back to confirm that the country in question is, in fact, France.

Tools for Extinction, french flap

Spring Report from Denmark, the book’s opening poem by Naja Marie Aidt, speaks to the anxiety that such a global threat produces. The title, of course, cannot limit the pandemic to either spring or Denmark, and the piece proceeds with a worried litany of relatives and acquaintances around the world. The poem is a Covid-era beatitude, with the repeated phrases “I think about…” and “I fear for those who…” introducing individuals and groups of people whose circumstances seem worse than those in Denmark, with “free medical help for everyone / the same rights for everyone.” Aidt uses formal devices like repetition and enjambment to evoke the twisting of time, and both the writing and typesetting contribute to a strong rhythm that further emphasizes temporality.

This strange temporality, a mix of boredom and survival mode, confronts writers and artists with particular poignancy. In The Dispossessed, Joanna Walsh reflects eloquently on storytelling in the Covid era:

“Narratives used to be about how you got where you are now. The future was open. From now on they work backwards from how you died, with death not an addendum but a defining factor. Every tale has a teller. Now only death will tell what sort of life you had, and it will define you at the point you were triaged for death, at the point you were deemed too old, too subject to an ‘underlying condition’, too insignificant, too not-a-subject to be ‘a priority.’”

But Enrique Vila-Matas reminds us that this tragic state is not as different as it seems in his existentialist essay, Empty Streets:

“Why do we waste so much time? Because we live as if we were going to live forever and don’t, for a second, pause to remember that we all have to die, a reality that underlies the surprised tone in which people say they never thought to experience a tragedy like this, ‘so far-reaching and affecting so many people.’”

Tools for Extinction maintains the tension between both perspectives, that things are not normal or okay, and that this was true even before Covid. It is a productive tension that writers – and artists of all sorts – will need to contend with for the foreseeable future. This is perhaps the key organizing principle behind the book. It is not a time capsule or a pandemic diary. It is not meant to be a record of an aberration to be read in libraries and schools in 2021 that look just like those of 2019. Tools for Extinction is meant to show that artists will have to adapt. The fact that the book came together in a few short months during a lockdown shows it can be done. And the resonance that the writing has for a reader still in lockdown shows that art still matters.

Students

Students
Tia Blassingame
2019

2.5 × 3.75 in. folded
Single 8.5 × 11 in. sheet
Binding: Parallel brochure fold
Risograph
Edition of 35

Front cover of "Students"
Text reads: "the 14 NEGRO STUDENTS of Noyes Academy / Canaan, New Hampshire"

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.

First opening of "Students."
6 names are organized into 2 categories, "born enslaved" and "born free"

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.

Back cover of "Students" featuring the colophon.

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.

"Students" fully open to the front side of the sheet, printed in black and red ink.

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).

"Students" fully open to the back side of the sheet, printed in blue ink.

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.

One Hundred Excellent Flowers

One Hundred Excellent Flowers
Clifton Meador
2019

8.5 × 11 × .375 in.
64 pages
Binding: Screw post with cover wrap
Offset lithography
Edition of 200

Front cover of "One Hundred Excellent Flowers" shows screw post binding and blue paper wrap

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.

Inside spread with close-up of flowers. Text reads: "Often, correct and good things were first regarded"

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.

Inside spread with close-up of flowers. Text reads: "What do a few flowers matter?"

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.

Inside spread with image of supermarket shelves. Text reads: "Let them bloom for people to look 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.

Inside spread with close-up of junk food on shelves. Text reads: "Fill the aisles with bags of pernicious slop"

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.