Everything Has a Language

Everything Has a Language
Marnie Powers-Torrey

2.875 × 6.5 in. closed
“Interlocking loops” accordion structure

Everything Has a Language Cover

The paper engineering of Marnie Powers-Torrey’s Everything Has a Language is deceptively simple: it is a soft cover accordion with four panels. Both sides of the accordion are printed with bold, primary color imagery and coated in wax.* Riffing on Hedi Kyle’s “interlocking loops” structure, horizontal slits divide the accordion into a grid, organizing spaces for the mysterious geometric illustrations that comprise the book’s main content. The only written content is the title. This fact, and the title itself, suggest that the reader would do well to approach the layered, processual images as language.

I say the simplicity is deceptive because the combination of cuts and folds enable a number of configurations. The interlocking loops structure shifts between accordion, pop-up and flag book to great effect, sustaining the reader’s attention for far longer than its slim proportions might suggest. The accordion fold is doubled, allowing the reader to cut the width of each panel to half that of the cover. Folded this way, the horizontal slits can be popped out as a simple box pop up. Already the reader begins to see the combinatorial possibilities of the book, the relationships that can be drawn between the images by way of peaks and valleys. The reader can then pinch these pop ups together to form a flag book, which again reconfigures relationships among the imagery.

Whereas other accordion books and flag books can simply be closed when the reader is done, Everything Has a Language folds together in such a way that it requires the reader to press it back to its original state before the book can be closed and slipped back into its belly band. This creates a ritualistic, almost indulgent, experience in which the reader sets the book up before engaging with the content and then winds down afterwards. Anyone who has lived by themselves but nevertheless made their bed in the morning will understand the quiet pleasure of this book’s structure. The feeling of ritual is enhanced by the book’s sculptural quality. Everything Has a Language creates a physical space for the reader to contemplate the relationship between the title and the imagery, and between various pairs and groups of images as the folded grid is manipulated.

The book’s materials also help push the book beyond a typical reading experience. By waxing the paper, Powers-Torrey defamiliarizes the substrate’s appearance, weight, texture, smell and sound. The wax accentuates the creases of every fold, making visible the material impact of reading on the book. The tactile affect is even more pronounced. The book feels almost organic, somehow more alive than paper. This boosts the juicy, over-inked quality of the imagery, which doesn’t quite look dry enough to handle.

The images can, of course, be handled, but they are difficult to grasp. They complicate the reader’s sense of time and space; they are tightly resolved even as they reveal the step by step process by which they were created. Each image, framed on its own flag, is built from circles and squares. The reference to sacred geometry is offset by the squishy, imperfect line quality, which nudges them into the realm of something scientific, whether cosmic or microscopic. They are rendered in the primary colors and black, adding to the primordial, archetypal sensibility. Print-savvy readers may see the palette as CMYK and come away with the same feeling that there is some foundational process at work.

The great achievement of this book is that such lofty speculations arise from what is, in fact, documentation of various found objects. Powers-Torrey’s process of mono-printing and stamping directly from inked objects gives an interesting and complex ontological status to both the objects and the resulting images. The images are narrative, built layer by layer from different forms, yet each mark is an index, the physical trace of an object. Thus the objects are also subjects, the way that photography is always also about light.

Understood as documentation, Powers-Torrey’s work finds a provocative place in the tradition of artists’ books. Ed Ruscha’s twenty-six filling stations, which seem to be straightforward documents, fudge the road trip they purport to chronicle. Similarly the walking artist Hamish Fulton appears to document a walk in his book 10 Views of Brockman’s Mount, a naturally formed hill near Hythe, Kent, England, though a close read reveals the images to have been taken on different days. Ruscha and Fulton play with the way the codex form can assert chronology on its contents, but the complex structure Powers-Torrey uses in Everything Has a Language resists this effect and flattens the contents. Narrative possibilities remain open and the reader must do more of the work.

It is this work that is central to the book. Everything may have a language, but Powers-Torrey does not say whether the languages are mutually intelligible. A typical book contains text intended for the reader, but Everything Has a Language presents other possibilities. Perhaps the objects are communicating amongst themselves, and the reader is the catalyst that puts them in dialogue with one another by manipulating different sets of flags. The book’s structure facilitates this approach that is paradoxically more engaged in the haptic sense, but more passive, meditative in terms of interpreting meaning.

Everything Has a Language carries on the tradition of artists’ books as documentation and collection, but pushes the boundaries of intelligibility. It also seems to tap into newer currents in the broader art world, such as the influence of Object Oriented Ontology or other Post-humanisms.

Powers-Torrey lets objects speak for themselves, perhaps even among themselves. It is up to the human reader to make their own meaning, and both the artist and reader leave their mark on the book as they do this. The balance of this deeply personal, embodied meaning-making with the sense that the book’s images recede infinitely beyond translation is a productive and enjoyable tension.

*There are two editions of this book, one with wax-coated pages and the other without.

Lost Houses of Lyndale

Lost Houses of Lyndale
Matt Bergstrom
Design by Mary Clare Butler
Fata Morgana Press

8 × 5 in.
40 pages
Binding: Single-section pamphlet
Letterpress cover and offset inside

Lost Houses of Lyndale, front outside cover

In Lost Houses of Lyndale, Matt Bergstrom presents a history of all the recently-demolished homes along a two-block stretch in the rapidly-gentrifying Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. After a brief introduction, the book proceeds with a consistent format: a drawing of each house is paired with a short written history. The entries trace the homes’ various owners, builders, renovations and the like, and occasionally offer charming vignettes of the occupants. Grounded primarily in archival research, these stories are brought alive through Bergstrom’s brisk writing and lively drawing.

Even beyond the content, Lost Houses of Lyndale is a thoroughly Chicago book. It is a collaboration between two Chicago-based designers (Bergstrom created the content and Mary Clare Butler of Fata Morgana Press designed the book). It is printed offset and letterpress on AB Dick and Vandercook presses, respectively – both Chicago companies. Naturally, the type is set in two faces by Chicago’s own Frederick Goudy. Given Bergstrom’s penchant for history and Butler’s deep engagement with Chicago in her own art practice, it seems unlikely that these details are mere coincidence. 

Lost Houses of Lyndale, front inside cover

The book’s design contributes greatly to its success. Each entry comprises the same elements – a drawing with a handwritten address and typed caption and a brief typeset history – yet no two spreads are alike. The drawings vary considerably in proportion, but are masterfully accommodated in each layout. The result is cool, relaxed and balanced. Likewise, the monochrome design and ample negative space help manage the imperfect printing of the AB Dick duplicator. The white space and comfortable margins make the book feel larger than it is. The horizontal, almost panoramic proportions are appropriate for the content and let the single-section pamphlet open easily and lay flat. The inside covers take full advantage of the dimensions, sporting a map of the street with the demolished houses marked. Even the paper choice adds to the message (French “Construction Insulation Pink” and “Construction Steel Blue”). Coincidence? Perhaps, but the subtle tone of the inside pages certainly enhances the reading experience. 

The book’s sense of balance carries into the writing as well. Bergstrom modulates the extent to which he filters his research for the reader, at time editorializing and riffing. Though Lost Houses of Lyndale is a unified artistic expression, Bergstrom’s presence never obscures the people and houses whose story he tells. The hand-drawn imagery calls attention to the role of author in a way that is especially interesting for an artists’ book that is a work of history. The reader confronts the various forms and degrees of mediation in text and image differently as the book progresses.

Lost Houses of Lyndale, inside spread 1

In the linear format of a book, the drawings form a virtual street. The reader strolls down the sidewalk as they turn the page, and can imagine the artist sketching the houses in much the same manner. Before long, this coherent, linear picture is disrupted. The dates reveal that the images must have been drawn from photographs. Slight differences in point of view lend an uncanny feel to the patchwork panorama, which, of course, also excludes all the not-yet-demolished houses in between. It isn’t as though the artist is trying to fool the reader. The street numbers are listed above each drawing, and the map is right there on the cover. Rather, the immersive fiction of the street of demolished homes demonstrates the power of the codex as a technology for selecting and sequencing content.

Lost Houses of Lyndale, inside spread 2

The authority of the codex also benefits from the unifying effect of the drawings. A book of archival photographs with their disparate focal lengths and exposures would have an entirely different impact. By drawing, Bergstrom is able to selectively showcase the demolished houses, isolating them entirely or suggesting neighboring houses with a sketchy outline. This erasure interestingly and ironically inverts the true absence that is the very heart of the book. It is easy to minimize how these decisions mediate the subject; the drawings share the “realistic” quality of urban sketching or architectural renderings.

Where the images present a consistent, timeless unity, the writing emphasizes change. The historical descriptions document the many generations and families that pass through a single century-old home. The houses themselves evolve, too. Bergstrom notes renovations and additions, comparing archival photos and descriptions to recent documentation. There is a clear passion for Chicago’s unique architectural history in these profiles of workers cottages and two-flats, but the book isn’t a simplistic screed against contemporary architecture or luxury condos. As the old truism goes, change is the only constant. Bergstrom even points out that Lyndale Street was originally called Johnston Avenue. The inability of his drawings to seamlessly recreate a view of the street shows the futility of nostalgia.

Lost Houses of Lyndale, inside spread 3

Instead, the book explores the richer territory of the lives lived inside these lost houses. In one anecdote, the last surviving member of a family had left the house and moved to California to get married at the age of seventy-two. Another building had housed a neighborhood grocery that operated continuously for over one hundred years. In some ways, the lifespan of the lost houses is more remarkable than the rapacious development replacing them. The historical content throws into sharp relief the societal changes these houses survived. One occupant was a carriagemaker (a word so anachronistic that spellcheck flags it). Another was a cigar maker. One house was so old that the street was not yet numbered – an 1882 city directory describes it “near California Ave.”

Bergstrom’s interest is, ultimately, the social fabric of the neighborhood. Even in his criticism of the new construction, he points out that these luxury units are put up by developers. It’s hard to imagine a situation further from the house at 2941 Lyndale, built by carpenter John Limond in 1886. Just as workers cottages and corner groceries reflected the era of carriagemakers, Lyndale’s new condos are the product of today’s speculative real estate capitalism.

The implicit social commentary remains in the background. Bergstrom is never preachy and Lost Houses of Lyndale is more reparative than critical. It is a timely book that offers a constructive way for artists and readers to navigate turbulent times.