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.

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered

Marilyn R. Rosenberg
2019
Post-Asemic Press

6 × 9 in.
102 pages
Binding: Perfect
Digital offset
Open edition

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered front cover

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered is a work of asemic writing, meaning the text communicates through aesthetics rather than semantics. Asemic writing is to poetry as scat is to jazz. It’s up to the reader to make meaning from the marks, which is true of any text to some degree. As the title suggests, Rosenberg embraces this indeterminacy throughout the book’s content and structure, although she does include a helpful statement in the back matter. As an object, the book is unremarkable – a perfect-bound codex with decent quality printing. A nice drape in the pages keeps most of the content out of the gutter. Yet the reader can almost feel the texture in the original pages from which this book was scanned and printed. Perhaps surprisingly, this black and white paperback makes for a wonderful and democratic access point to an artist whose one-of-a-kind artists’ books and two-dimensional works revel in color and texture.

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inside spread with asemic writing and a fish on the recto

There is a visual similarity between Rosenberg’s asemic mark-making and abstract expressionism, but it is clear that the pages of this book are filled with writings, not drawings. Even the loosest compositions with wild, gestural marks are scaled to the hand, not the arm. Such pages are balanced by others sporting orderly grids of ideograms, which have the appearance of a real, but untranslated writing system. Perhaps these are the Apollonian and Dionysian poles that influenced abstract expressionism, but False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inhabits the entire spectrum between them. This impressive variety is unified by the book’s grayscale production as well as the written-ness of the marks, many of which are visibly the result of calligraphy pens and brushes.

The book format is a powerful vehicle for unifying disparate content, and False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered also incorporates found materials, collaged onto the pages. The edition is produced from scans of a single sketchbook, although it is more than a facsimile of an original. The digitization process is transformative. Everything is flattened – positive and negative, addition and subtraction. What look like hole-punched portals into the following page are actually onlays from some other hole-punched paper. The edges of the scanned original recede into a dark margin, an absence that signifies like presence on the page, mirroring Rosenberg’s dark marks on the light paper. Washers and key rings are no more dimensional than the fore-edge of the scanned original, whose pages form vertical margins on the outside of many spreads, marking the reader’s progress through a book they aren’t actually reading.

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inside spread with asemic writing on the verso, and stenciled text and hole punched paper on the recto

Of the three-dimensional objects included in the book, only the fish – a recurring motif – are mentioned in Rosenberg’s statement, which says they represent “groups, family or specific personalities.” Other objects seem to point to the material presence of language, like what appear to be bracelet charms stamped with letters and symbols. Likewise the stenciled word “yes” is a jarring injection of semantic content, although it remains open to interpretation. Rosenberg does contextualize the work as conversation, which helps ground the reader without foreclosing possibilities. She writes that the verso and recto are engaged in a cross-gutter dialogue, but the book offers a multiplicity of sequences and structural relationships.

In addition to the cross-spread dialogue, there is also the sequence of one page to the next. The hole-punched portals mentioned above are just one example of Rosenberg’s thoughtful engagement with the way a page reveals and conceals. These potent relationships are doubled since the book can be read from either direction, enabled by facsimile covers that separate the front and back matter from the core content of the book. Circular reading is a hallmark of Rosenberg’s books, and neither direction seems more or less important thanks to the non-representational content. Other, latent sequences are present, but not fully accessible to the reader: the sequence of the hard copy original, and the order in which Rosenberg filled it. Thus False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered is a book with four sequences, plus whatever order the reader chooses. The compositions are largely self-contained, making random access almost as rewarding as reading cover to cover.

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inside spread with asemic writing and bracelet charms on the verso

Indeed the book speaks more to the act of creation than plot or narrative. The occasional glimpses of the background behind the scanned book reinforce this, revealing the stray marks of an artist’s work area rather than the expected clean white backdrop. Rosenberg represents, or rather presents, myriad relations between the author and the blank page, from confident flow to crossed out self-doubt. This emphasis on creation doesn’t diminish the reader though, since reading asemic writing is itself a generative act, the making of meaning. Perhaps it is this decentering of the author that most distinguishes Rosenberg’s approach from abstract expressionism. She blurs the line between reception and production just as she does writing and drawing. Likewise the book complicates the signal-noise binary, extending authorship not only to the reader, but to the chance operations of the scanning process. A handful of bright white marks remind the reader that book’s pages are toned from its printing, not its paper, emphasizing the transformative role of the digitization and one-color printing.

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inside spread with asemic writing and a fish on the verso

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered certainly sounds like a title for the post-truth era, but asemic writing is not a total absence of meaning – the meaning is just located beyond the semantic order. This book asks the reader to consider other possibilities and perspectives. It demands sensitivity and empathy, but offers truths to the reader who is willing to work for them. This touches on a larger debate within asemic writing, where a complete absence of meaning (asemia) is neither possible nor desirable. Instead, Rosenberg posits multiple, perhaps infinite, meanings, and invites the reader to change those meanings from one reading to the next. Through its thoughtful consideration of the book form, False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered brings these debates into dialogue with artists’ book discourse. It is an impressive work in this exciting zone of intersection, but by no means does it exhaust the possibilities it points to.

ISOLATIONS

ISOLATIONS
Marianne Dages
2019
Huldra Press

4.125 × 9.625 in.
2 cards in a glassine envelope
Letterpress and rubber stamp
Edition of 50

ISOLATIONS broadside and colophon

ISOLATIONS possesses a monumentality that defies its dimensions. Perhaps it is best thought of as a miniature broadside, employing scale – which is a metaphor – rather than size. Following this interpretation, the thick, toothy handmade paper and heavy impression of the letterpress printing give the broadside a sense that its text is almost literally set in stone. Marianne Dages has visually enhanced the paper’s considerable tactile texture by printing a gritty, grey background. But the broadside doth protest too much. Its fixity is a foil for the fungibility of language, which is the key to this process-based project.

ISOLATIONS broadside

Before its ink was pressed into paper, ISOLATIONS began online under the name open > access > document. Open > access > document was a Google Doc, hosted and promoted by Leah Mackin’s Internet Art Book Fair. From January 19–21, 2019, contributors could write and edit the document as they pleased. Dages would then massage the text into its final form. Dages redacted, augmented and even translated the document into a short poem of seven stanzas, its dense language spread thin across the broadside’s spare surface.

Given this unusual approach to writing, the publication must be reviewed in terms of concept and process, and not merely a finished object. However, that is not to say that ISOLATIONS cannot be appreciated on its own. The broadside is exquisitely crafted, with great attention given to its materials and print processes. In fact, this careful consideration warrants approaching the work’s enclosure as part of the artistic argument, meaning there are three components: the broadside, the colophon and the envelope.

ISOLATIONS broadside, colophon and envelope

The broadside’s stony appearance is contrasted by the clean, minimal typography. The typeface is Futura and the open spacing of words and lines seem to reflect the erasures Dages made from the original text. The handmade paper and letterpress printing evoke a fine press quality that is complicated by the two other components. The colophon is letterpress printed on vintage card stock. It is cut to resemble a catalog card, and its orange color lends further support to its bureaucratic appearance. Of course, two points can’t make a pattern, so it is the third element that triangulates the piece’s aesthetic – the unassuming envelope.

The rubber-stamped, glassine envelope is a translucent membrane, bridging the aesthetics of the special collections with that of the circulating library. If the handmade paper exudes refined taste, the glassine envelope signals the attempt to bring this luxury to the masses. Tellingly, its alternate name, vellum, is a misnomer. It announces its shortcomings even as it distinguishes itself from a standard #10 window envelope. In the case of my review copy, the envelope was addressed and stamped directly, emphasizing its functional role.

ISOLATIONS broadside and colophon inside envelope

This simple assembly of anachronisms achieves remarkable complexity through its juxtaposition of high and low culture. The vintage cardstock is inside an envelope with a contemporary date stamped by the postal service. The handmade paper is carefully cut to a standard size to fit the mass market envelope, which is in turn marked “copy” by the artist with a readymade rubber stamp. The colophon, perhaps hand cut to look like a catalog card, nevertheless bears the hallmarks of a fine press edition; it is numbered and signed by hand below impeccable letterpress printing.

The digital presentation of the project is equally well considered. The original open > access > document Google Doc is embedded on a dedicated webpage on the Internet Art Book Fair. The Google Doc retains its functionality, allowing a visitor to request access to made edits. Presumably such a request would be denied, but the presentation retains the medium specificity of a collaborative cloud document. Also included are the first words added to the document, “This document is a test / TEST TEST TEST.” The phrase is repeated on the colophon, reinforcing the tie between the web and print versions, and affirming the importance of the poem’s paratext, including the writing process.

ISOLATIONS colophon

This treatment is indicative of Dages’ (and Mackin’s) nuanced understanding of the relationship between art and media. ISOLATIONS employs letterpress printing and vintage stock without resorting to nostalgia. Likewise it uses Google Docs without subscribing to technological determinism, rendering the poetics a result of the process and nothing else. Rather, ISOLATIONS connects to a long tradition of de-centered authorship and process-oriented poetry, showing how letterpress printing and Google Docs constrain and enable this inquiry as all media always have.

These ideas emerge in the poem itself. Themes of floating and detachment evoke the ephemeral, intangible digital writing process. There is an extension and compression of time that seems fitting for the anachronous enunciation of the work; narrative retelling gives way to a fragmented immediacy. The text evokes a sense of mystery, with references to puzzles, hiding and “looking for a key.” The visual treatment of the text, with its gaps and silences, contributes to this sensibility.

Reading these silences as redactions sharpens the sense of mystery and loss. The physicality of the printed text only underscores the ephemerality of the original writing. Even without knowing the details of Dages’ editing process, ISOLATIONS foregrounds intertextuality and emphasizes the labor of poetics. The poetics of labor are equally present, invoked through the language of office work, from rubber stamps to Google Docs. This medium-specific misuse of ambivalent commercial writing tools clearly resists technological determinism, yet ISOLATIONS is hardly a celebration of human genius. As with Dages and Mackin’s earlier collaboration, Ultrices, the use of chance operations and distributed authorship complicate the very notion of writing. ISOLATIONS embraces its own contingency, a poem that could have been otherwise.

Dages shows a way forward for a field that too often ties artistic possibilities to a particular medium. She demonstrates that language is material whether it is in a word processor or a press bed. ISOLATIONS refuses a reductive view of technology or tradition, and compromises neither craft nor concept. Dages makes visible the process of writing and reminds the reader that communication occurs also in the silences. ISOLATIONS is a collaboration not only with Mackin and the Internet Art Book Fair, but also the unnamed contributors to the open > access> document, a testament to trusting the process and the confidence that an artist can turn a crowdsourced Google Doc into an eloquent poem on a beautiful broadside.

Attenti al Cane: Twentysix Dogs Found on Street View

Attenti al Cane: Twentysix Dogs Found on Street View
Lele Buonerba and Laurel Hauge
2019

Have a Nice Day Press
8.5 × 5.5 in.
36 pages
Binding: Single-section pamphlet
Laser inside and cover

Attenti al Cane, Front cover. Cover image is a photo of a dog laying in a doorway beneath the text "Attenti Al Cane twentysix dogs found on street view"

Despite the Ruscha-inflected title, Attenti al Cane has more in common with works by Mishka Henner and Penelope Umbrico. The subtitular twenty-six dogs are indeed found on Google Street View, situating this book within the growing body of art using found images from the internet. Buonerba and Hauge put their own twist on the genre with their collaborative approach and thoughtful layout decisions. The artists, from their respective computers on different continents, virtually walked the streets of Italy and collected the dogs they discovered. If flânerie characterized urban wandering at the dawn of photography, then Attenti al Cane represents a different walking tradition: la passeggiata. Buonerba and Hauge are out for a stroll, to see and be seen – or read, in this case. The artists are absent, but the reader is able to vicariously join their walk.

The book begins with an introductory statement, reflecting on how Google Street View helped bridge the distance between Buonerba and Hauge as they maintained their relationship from Milan and Brooklyn. Emphasizing the collaborative, performative aspect of the book is especially important since the process of trawling Street View for dogs might otherwise seem quite isolating compared to other studio practices. The book is as much about documenting this collaborative performance as the final product. After the foreword, the distorted snippets of street names embedded in the images are the only text.

Attenti al Cane, Spread 3. Composite images of a dog on a cobblestone street with Google Street View text .

The layouts of each spread are varied. In some, single images cross the gutter and bleed off all four edges. Others compose panels like a comic book or simply present single photos with white borders. This flexibility sets the book apart from projects that aggregate found images more instrumentally for conceptual effect. For Buonerba and Hauge, the found images are a generative constraint, a visual challenge to be solved by cropping, arranging and sequencing. Often, the resulting compositions (if not the resolution or focus) are strong even by conventional photographic standards. Nevertheless, the weird artifacts and distortions familiar to any Street View user are a prominent aspect of the book’s aesthetic.

Attenti al Cane, Spread 13. Street View image of a child walking two leashed dogs and carrying a plastic bag. The child's face is blurred.

The subject matter exerts a subtle, but powerful influence on the photographs’ form and content. With dogs come chair legs and people legs, footwear and shopping bags. The point of view is low. There are hardly any horizons. The book is an incidental inventory of paving materials and vernacular architecture. The experience is surprisingly unlike actually using Street View, in large part because the images focus on what is beside the street rather than down the middle. Furthermore, the reader isn’t privy to virtual walking that invisibly connects the images that were chosen for the book.

Attenti al Cane cleverly uses narrative, whereas many books of this sort make meaning through mere accumulation. In one such sequence, the reader watches a dog chase the Google car as it takes the photographs. Elsewhere, characters from earlier in the book reappear, complicating the book’s already-complex chronology. In what order did Google photograph these streets? And when? Does the book’s sequence follow the artists’ virtual walk or was it pieced together later? In this sense, the book does relate to Ruscha’s gas stations, which follow neither chronology nor geography. The reader is left to puzzle out these sorts of conceptual parameters – whether, for example, there are twenty-six images of dogs or twenty-six different dogs in some other number of images (I won’t spoil this for the reader).

Attenti al Cane, Spread 6. Verso and recto show sequential images of a dog chasing after the Google car from which the image was taken. Both photos are partly obscured by Street View text. overlays

Thankfully, the reader is left with bigger questions as well. Buonerba and Hauge interrogate how technology mediates our relationships, simultaneously alienating us and bringing us closer together. Considered alongside the ancient relationship between dogs and people, the newness of these technological anxieties is thrown into sharp relief. Yet, even our oldest companion has been changed by the internet, from the viral popularity of Corgis to an entirely new, meme-ready vocabulary of “doggos” and “puppers.” Attenti al Cane seems to say that nothing is too sacred, too fundamental to be changed by the internet.

Older aspects of the human-dog relationship remain interesting as well. Of the twenty-six dogs, some are leashed, some are behind fences and still others are free. There are purebreds and scruffy mutts. What the dogs have in common is that they are the only subjects with faces. Google has blurred out the features of their owners and passersby to protect peoples’ privacy. Ironically, by excluding dogs as subjects worthy of protection, Street View preserves their agency. Though some are indifferent, the dogs that return the camera’s gaze leave the reader with no doubt about their status as beings.

Attenti al Cane, Spread 16. A composite image of a dog resting in front of a door, tied to the door handle. On the recto, the dog stares directly at the viewer.

In fact, the uncanny affect of the dogs’ gaze is one of many ways that Attenti al Cane demonstrates the power of found photography. Buonerba and Hauge deftly shape compelling compositions from Street View, and show that artists’ books are an important access point for artists engaging with the proliferation of online images. The book operates through narrative and accumulation, creating meaning within each spread and between them. The artists maximize the individual image without losing sight of the sequence. This complex synthesis of disconnected locations and timelines is a fitting expression of their transatlantic relationship.


If you’d like a hard copy of this review, download this PDF to print and fold your own little book.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon
Dennis J. Bernstein and Warren Lehrer
2019

Paper Crown Press
6.875 × 6.5 × 1 in.
300 pages
Smyth-sewn hardcover
Offset inside with foil-stamped cloth spine and paper cover

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon cover

The 1984 book French Fries by Dennis Bernstein and Warren Lehrer is a landmark work of visual literature. In the years since, Bernstein’s poetry has continued to win acclaim and Lehrer has set the bar for designers and book artists in visual literature. The duo’s new book, Five Oceans in a Teaspoon, is a masterful contribution to the genre they’ve helped shape. It is a multi-modal project, including animations, exhibitions and performances. This review will focus on the printed book, published by Paper Crown Press.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon is an autobiography in poems. There are eight movements, which are organized loosely by theme more than chronology. There are a total of 225 poems, which in no way exhaust the extraordinary life Bernstein has led. He has reported on wars, taught in prisons, hosted a radio show and survived open heart surgery. Yet, Bernstein’s work is about ordinary people. As he reflects on his life, he reminds the reader that the very struggles which leave us feeling confused and alienated are part of our shared human condition.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 274-275

This collaborative work benefits from a degree of fluidity in roles. The text is Bernstein’s and the visualizations are Lehrer’s, but the process is more complex than that. For Bernstein, the material qualities of text and the page as a physical space affect writing as well as reading. He touches on this in an interview with Lehrer: “I had decided that big notebooks were too intimidating. All that blank space. The wonderful thing was, I had started thinking about visuals with some of these short poems. I even did some drawings.” Likewise, Lehrer is able to interpret the text so successfully because he approaches the poems as a writer as well as a designer. His instinct for wordplay destabilizes and extends Bernstein’s concise writing, drawing out double meanings and alternative interpretations. Five Oceans in a Teaspoon exhibits an uncommon chemistry that must surely be the result of decades of friendship and collaboration.

The book’s design provides structure for, and access to, the unconventional reading experience. Each poem takes one page or one spread, setting a steady pace for the reader as they make their way through too many poems for one sitting. The ribbon bookmark gives the reader permission to pause, perhaps using the table of contents to rest strategically between movements. None of this would be remarkable in a standard book, but in this case the straightforward paratext contrasts markedly with the visual treatment of the text itself.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 44-45

The visuals range from the purposeful placement of text on the page to the addition of patterns and marks and letters without words. Some interpretations are abstract, others representational. Some illustrate ideas, and some represent concepts. At times the reader must see text as image to complete a picture. In other cases, visual elements complete the words. Like its other paratextual components, the physical presence of the book helps with the complex negotiation that is reading. The hefty codex is reassuring and familiar. Reading the poems is non-trivial, but not in an adversarial way. The book helps the reader learn how to approach the text. Its sheer length gives the reader ample time to improve.

The challenge then is how to keep the book from being about itself. One effective choice is the cover design, which is bright and busy with illustrative swirls of type. The lime green book cloth, shiny blue paper and iridescent foil title are so much louder than the black and white inside printing that Bernstein and Lehrer’s exceptional visual literature seems only natural. More importantly though, is the decision to begin the book with the section “Lake Childhood,” which chronicles how Bernstein navigated childhood and schooling with dyslexia. What better way to talk about the physical presence of language than visual literature? Not all the poems in this movement are about dyslexia, but one can see how Bernstein’s irreverence, introspection and penchant for observation develop in this context. With playful and imaginative visualizations, Lehrer shows the reader just how difficult reading can be, and how that very difficulty could have motivated Bernstein’s career(s) in writing.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 88-89

As a memoir, the quantity and brevity of the poems lend a remarkable sense of intimacy. We don’t usually imagine our friends and family along some grand linear narrative. We know people through anecdotes and vignettes that reveal their character. The 225 poems in Five Oceans in a Teaspoon function precisely this way, welcoming the reader into the kind of small moments that are usually reserved for our closest acquaintances.

Lehrer’s visualizations are so effortless that they seem inevitable, and yet leave the reader convinced that he could have presented the poem a dozen other ways. Turning the page is like listening to a perfect jazz solo, then staying for the second set and hearing the same song handled differently and just as well – inevitable, but unpredictable. The restrained visual vocabulary keep the renderings cohesive as Lehrer develops novel solutions. These constraints are important, but they are not the point. The book is not about process, it is about the poetry. The interpretation never overpowers Bernstein’s text.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 64-65

The book’s sequence is driven by the poetry. There is certainly variety among the visualizations throughout the book, but the introduction of a new visual device doesn’t signal a new section of the book. The introduction of display typefaces on page 46 or photography on page 64 provide a nice surprise, but don’t change the mode of interpretation or the course of the narrative. The visuals demonstrate experimentation and innovation, but within the unit of the page or spread. This frees the poetry, and the relationship among poems, to advance the story and succeed as a memoir. Five Oceans in a Teaspoon is a moving testament to Bernstein’s view of the world, and the experiences that have shaped it. Once again, Bernstein and Lehrer show the potential of visual literature as a mature field. Beyond self-reference and inter-art discourse, the interplay of text and image (and text-as-image) packs a powerful intellectual and emotional punch.

Understanding Molecular Typography

Understanding Molecular Typography
Woody Leslie
H.F. Henderson
2019
Ugly Duckling Presse
uglyducklingpresse.org

5 × 7 in.
128 pages
Binding: Smyth-sewn
Offset inside with foil-stamped wrap

Understanding Molecular Typography Cover

Editor’s note: this review contains spoilers.

I struggled over how to review this book, and made the determination to identify it as a work of fiction (satire, specifically) and review it as such. I hesitate to out the work as fictional because much of Understanding Molecular Typography’s impact comes from its convincing appearance as a work of nonfiction. Ultimately, I decided that the book’s subtlety and humor can withstand a review. Furthermore, I had already reviewed an earlier edition of the book for Abecedarian Gallery and spoiled the surprise. Portions of this post have been adapted from that review.

Understanding Molecular Typography looks like a work of popular science, authored by H.F. Henderson and published in 1992. This new edition from Ugly Duckling Presse purports to be a reprint with a new introduction by the artist Woody Leslie. In reality, Understanding Molecular Typography is an elaborate work of non-narrative fiction created by Leslie himself. The line between fiction and reality is blurry from the start, and Leslie’s new introduction playfully adds layers of misdirection. He describes coming across the book during his time as a graduate student, and discusses the work’s historical vicissitudes as well as its influence on his own practice.

Understanding Molecular Typography Inside Spread

Before addressing the work as an artists’ book, it is helpful to summarize the content of the ostensible textbook. Understanding Molecular Typography is an introduction to the chemical structures of type, which determine the formation of letters and words. The book focuses on scholarship from the 1950s to the 1990s and attempts to synthesize more academic writings for the average reader. It explains how positive and negative charges bind basic units into letterforms, and anomalies like serifs and variance from typeface to typeface are discussed. What follows is an extensive set of illustrations paired with written explanations of each letter’s chemical structure, using a notation system outlined earlier in the book. Henderson’s conclusion situates the field within a broader context, discussing the ecological, economic and many other implications of molecular typography.

Just as the book’s structure is a conventional codex, the structure of the text itself is that of a standard nonfiction book. There are a table of contents, preface, and introductory remarks followed by various charts and diagrams, a conclusion, glossary, and bibliography for further reading. In form and content, Understanding Molecular Typography subverts the authority of scientistic writing through absurdity and humor, which are related and reinforce one another, but operate differently throughout the book. Details in the bibliography, for example, lend a less dry humor that helps clue the reader into the work’s fictionality. In contrast, a straight-faced absurdity operates in the taxonomy of letter anatomy (‘typtoms’ like ‘itoms’ and ‘vtoms’) and the extraordinary profusion of cross referenced figures and phonetic pronunciation guides. The specialized jargon and seriousness of presentation will be comically familiar to readers from their own studies in typography, chemistry, or some other discipline.

Understanding Molecular Typography Bibliography

Beyond the text itself, Leslie has a keen sense of that para-textual apparatuses that lend books authority. Though librarians will be pleased to see this new edition has a legitimate ISBN, the collaboration with Ugly Duckling Presse provided other opportunities to play with para-text. The back cover features a blurb from none other than Johanna Drucker. In character as a scholar, she praises the astonishing achievements of H.F. Henderson. Her comparison to Zdanevich is part of the fiction, but nevertheless situates Leslie’s work within a history of artistic explorations of language.

Understanding Molecular Typography inside spread

Leslie does directly discuss his interest in letterforms and language in the introduction, but even here one must read between the lines. In the book’s first edition, little details about the artist tethered the book to reality. Now, the dynamic has flipped and Understanding Molecular Typography fictionalizes its creator. Leslie’s autofictional account of discovering Henderson and dedicating himself to the study of molecular typography deftly satirizes academia and the professionalization of art. The esotericism is an absurd addition to the tradition of mythologized artist personae. Joseph Beuys has his plane crash, and Leslie his library.

In freeing Leslie from necessary truths like colophons and contact information, Ugly Duckling Presse plays the perfect co-conspirator. Reprinting an obscure or underappreciated work is certainly in their wheelhouse. Furthermore, they list the book under “art, nonfiction” in their catalog and provide a deadpan description of Henderson’s book. The smyth-sewn paperback with a foil-stamped cover retains the general appearance of the first edition, and does a good job of selling the deception. The book is slightly larger, and the layout is roomier and more readable than the original. Underneath the paper cover, the book is covered in a lovely pattern of molecular typographic diagrams. Understanding Molecular Typography is a well-designed book. Most importantly, it looks perfectly ordinary.

Understanding Molecular Typography inside spread

It would be enough if Understanding Molecular Typography simply co-opted the trappings of academic publishing and warned us not to uncritically accept authority, but by focusing on typography, the book also engages some of the most interesting problems of language. Nevertheless, the book is humorous and unpretentious throughout. Even when the fictional Henderson raises such quandaries directly, they are always one step removed from the real questions that Leslie poses for the reader. The great irony of the book, which so irreverently lampoons science, art, academia, and publishing, is that it is such an excellent example of art as a form of interdisciplinary scholarship.

Plant Out of Place

Plant Out of Place
Sarah Nicholls
2019
Brain Washing From Phone Towers
brainwashingfromphonetowers.com

4.75 × 8.75 in.
12 pages
Binding: French fold accordion, stitched into a cover
Letterpress and linocut
Edition of 250

Plant Out of Place front cover

Despite its unusual format, Sarah Nicholls is emphatic that her work Plant Out of Place is a pamphlet. In fact, Plant Out of Place is one of a three-part pamphlet series about weeds. In this case, weeds provide an access point for Nicholls to share the history of Red Hook, Brooklyn through the lens of contemporary issues like climate, migration and racial inequality. The pamphlet’s inside pages are constructed from a single sheet of manilla-toned paper, which is sewn into a green paper cover with a simple three-hole stitch. The structure is a French fold accordion. It has four panels with a horizontal fold creating a flap across the top half, like an awning. One must open this fold to read all the text, and doing so playfully reveals the top of a large linocut illustration that takes up about half of the front side of the inside sheet. The back side of the sheet is similarly divided between text and image.

Plant Out of Place inside French fold

The text guides the reader through pamphlet’s structure. The content begins on the inside cover, continues onto the recto and then traverses the flap left to right across all four panels of the accordion. Then the reader lifts the flap and the text continues on the far left and proceeds across the four columns of the now-single page. Nicholls’ prose is informal, but informational. Her point of view as a Brooklyn resident appears throughout the text, with references to “here” rather than “there,” and detours into first person. The reading experience is something like stumbling across a brand new wikipedia article that was passionately written by a single contributor and retains its idiosyncratic charm. Nicholls progresses from an investigation of ballast weeds as a trace of colonization and slavery (inspired by the artist Maria Thereza Alves) into a look at food, housing and education in Red Hook, all through its plant life. The pamphlet covers centuries of history and looks forward toward an uncertain future.

The type is set in a legible sans-serif face and letterpress printed with a kiss impression. It is not precious or ironic; Nicholls is interested in letterpress as a viable production method with various advantages that, for her project, outweigh its limitations. The text is printed in a deep magenta that pops against the green illustration.

Plant Out of Place open inside

One illustration is a tightly cropped rendering of a plant, printed in bright green behind the text on the recto of the first opening. The remaining three, including the cover illustration, are an interesting mix of positive and negative mark-making. They are not quite white line prints, and the push and pull flattens the picture plane and emphasizes repeating textures like the leaves of vines and the chain link fence that supports them. The two inside images are reduction prints, but in one case the lighter color renders the foreground while in the other image it fills the background. This reversal further emphasizes the vibrating quality of the images, which recede and rush forward in turn as the eye moves. There is a sense of urgency in the imagery that seems appropriate for the text – not only the rapid-fire style of the historical content, but also the alarm raised about the threat of future climate catastrophe.

Plant Out of Place first opening

This sense of urgency pervades the entire work. The content begins immediately on the inside cover, as if the conventions of book design (end paper, title pages, and so on) would simply get in the way of an important message. This design decision supports Nicholls’ contention that Plant Out of Place is a pamphlet, and demonstrates her ability to harness structure and composition to serve the content. The text inside and underneath the folded flap adds to the feeling that the text is simply too important to be contained. Its spread seems suitably weed-like. As each new surface is revealed, the reader finds that the text has preceded them. The reading experience is a game of catch-up, discovering the history and learning how it resonates in the present.

Another factor that contributes to the pamphlet’s intensity is that it is self-contained. There are no footnotes or sources, no hyperlinks to divert the reader’s attention down any number of related rabbit hole. Plant Out of Place is letterpress-printed from handset metal type and exists only in printed form. Reading is an act of trust, a suspension of cynicism. Sure, the imprint is named “Brain Washing From Phone Towers,” but Nicholls’ name and contact information are printed on the back cover. The pamphlet is an exercise in personal accountability in an information landscape curated by crowdsourcing.

Plant Out of Place open outside

Plant Out of Place shares this ethos with the larger Brain Washing From Phone Towers publishing project. The pamphlets are intended to interrupt the flow of daily life, to find readers through serendipity. Copies are sent randomly among members of a mailing list, a loose network of friends, friends of friends and strangers. Even the subscription model operates within the gift economy; the subscriber nominates a second person to receive free pamphlets. In place of metrics, feedback, likes and tags, the relationship between author and reader is mediated through the publication itself. Plant Out of Place shows the potential for the artist as publisher to leverage direct, focused, anonymous offline communication to address important issues and grapple with uncomfortable histories.

the THERE, THERE quarterly (Volume One, Issue One)

the THERE, THERE quarterly, Volume One, Issue One
Travis Shaffer
Featuring Zora J. Murff, Cian Oba-Smith, and Terrance Purdy
2019
theretherenow.
www.theretherenow.com

10 × 12.5 in.
18 sheets
Unbound, gathered in a belly band
Risograph

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Cover

the THERE, THERE quarterly is a new photo publication from Travis Shaffer’s imprint, theretherenow. Volume One, Issue One establishes the format: work by three photographers is Risograph printed and gathered in loose sheets by a belly band that practically qualifies as a slipcase. It is published in a limited edition of one hundred copies. Drawing on photobook and portfolio traditions, the THERE, THERE quarterly argues for a re-evaluation of the status of the photo print and limited edition. Mediation supplants mimesis, challenging alike the photomechanical facticity of a darkroom print and the endless pursuit of higher resolution in digital photography. Shaffer makes his case through the publication’s structure, layout, and print production. Print production is especially important to this exploration, with the Risograph serving as a sort of lodestar – commercial and artistic, analog and digital, unique and multiple, not yet pigeonholed into a single art practice or academic discipline. In this interdisciplinary territory, the THERE, THERE quarterly poses exciting questions for photography.

The issue consists of seventeen prints with photos on the front and numbers on the back. The layout is such that the numbers aren’t needed to keep the prints in order, but they do let the reader match the images with their creator. Issue One features Zora J. Murff, Cian Oba-Smith, and Terrance Purdy. A bio of each artist is included on an eighteenth sheet with the image list and, on the reverse, a colophon and editorial statement from Shaffer. The belly band containing all this is boldly printed with the title, artists and ink colors (this text is fluorescent pink).

Though the prints are numbered, the photographs are laid out across two sheets each, challenging the status of the photographic print as a unit. Like any good artists’ book, the content and structure guide the reader toward a suitable approach – in this case viewing two prints side by side, with a discard pile off to the side. The reading experience is fresh but familiar, somewhere between a portfolio, a book, and a horizontal scrolling portfolio website. The images are split across each sheet differently, creating a set of unique and asymmetrical compositions. The result propels the reader forward since the next sheet must always be viewed in order to complete the image.

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Inside spread 8

This amplifies both momentum and meaning, creating three relationships in each “spread” of two sheets. The central image, synthesized across the “gutter” of both sheets, relates to the image fragments on either side, which also relate to one another. This simple device provides a dynamism not available to a conventional portfolio with images viewed one at a time. It also requires that the sequence is considered temporally and spatially, like a bound book. The spread of sheets eight and nine illustrate the effect well: a man’s head, facing left, exits off the left while a horse’s head, looking the same direction, enters on the right. The interplay of these images frames the central scene: two figures in front of a brownstone seen from across a desolate intersection.

Like its structure, the publication’s print production exerts considerable influence on the meaning. Shaffer highlights the importance of Risography, placing the colors front and center on the belly band alongside the title and contributing artists’ names: “[R]isograph printed in metalic gold, black and fluorescent pink.” In the back matter, he writes: “The RISO is our campfire. Institutional by design but co-opted by artists. Absurdly analog method of digital printing. Subversively resisting the service to content inherent to the publishing paradigm.” Thus, the quarterly’s print production serves to further challenge and complexify the status of photography and the meaning of publishing.

In this case, the unusual color separation is particularly well-suited to the content. All three photographers deal with representations of blackness. Representing skin tones with metallic gold, black and fluorescent pink ink seems to speak to the constructedness of race through media, and the history of photographic processes erasing, or at least ignoring, marginal identities. Issue One strikes a good balance between the meta questions – the friction between Risography and photography – and the projects of each artist.

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Inside spread

The artist bios stand in for an editorial statement, presenting broad lines of inquiry and leaving plenty of room for interpretation. Each artist is concerned with race and representation, but their individual approaches contribute something different to the quarterly. Zora J. Murff contributed photographs from his series At No Point In Between. His work examines the interrelationship between people and their environment, and this project looks at the lasting impact of redlining. He takes on the challenge of representing a catastrophe so slow people barely notice, a stark example of the aesthetic dimensions of politics. The images are melancholy, the tired boredom of a hot summer afternoon. His portraits are more expressionistic, intimate and closer cropped than Oba-Smith’s full bodies and sharp lines.

Cian Oba-Smith does share an interest in the relationship between people and their environment. His series Concrete Horsemen examines a subculture of black horsemen in urban Philadelphia. By delving deep into this little-known community, he challenges dominant narratives about black men in the US. His jarring juxtapositions show just how shallow are the monolithic racial identities rehearsed in media and political rhetoric. His compositions riff on art-historical equestrian poses, but include dilapidated buildings and telephone poles. Many images have a substantial depth of field to allow these incongruous urban background elements into the portrait. He emphasizes the dreamlike quality of these strange combinations with soft natural light, muted colors, and light exposures.

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Inside spread

Oba-Smith takes a similar approach in Andover & Six Acres Estates, named for two housing complexes in London. In this case, he explicitly challenges a narrative of crime and poverty that has been constructed around a community. Yet, he does so with the same authentic curiosity, taking the time to immerse himself. Oba-Smith forges a connection with his subjects, and the images – candid, but never voyeuristic – benefit from this practice. The work presents an effective counter-narrative, but does so through open-minded observation.

Terrance Purdy takes a more active role in staging his subjects. He uses expressive lighting and a limited color range to construct moods and metaphors that distinguish the work from the more documentary modes of Murff and Oba-Smith. Skin and hair play a pivotal role in Purdy’s exploration of race and identity, and his visual style seems perfectly calculated to emphasize these elements. The influence of fashion photography is clear in his work, but he approaches fashion and consumption with a critical eye. While Murff and Oba-Smith seek to move beyond stereotypes, Purdy assaults them head on. One particularly arresting image shows the Christ-like figure of a young black man, crucified on a basketball hoop in a part. Purdy expertly draws the viewer’s eye to the point of highest contrast – the subject’s bright white shoes emblazoned with a black Nike swoosh. The image recalls Hank Willis Thomas’ works examining the commodification of black bodies in sport. However, Purdy rejects the stark, empty backgrounds of Thomas’ images and aligns his work with the rest of the quarterly by connecting the human subject to their environment.

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Inside spread

This thematic through line is supported visually by the unifying effect of the Risography’s coarse halftone and limited color palette. The extent of this effect is easy to assess since the publication’s website features the same image sequence without the mediation of print production. The images are interwoven, with never more than two consecutive photos by the same artist. This integrates the various approaches taken by each photographer and contributes to the rhythm of the sequence. The combined work makes a powerful case for the role of the aesthetic in the politics of race and identity. Through their varying approaches to the broader context of social and economic factors, these three photographers show how artists can contribute meaningfully to conversations about race at this critical moment.

The tension between Shaffer’s vision and that of the photographers is productive and satisfying. There is enough content for the reader to encounter the images in their own right. The structure and print production eventually take a back seat, especially after the first reading. Nevertheless, the material object maintains a presence. Readers will likely look closely at the color separations, and reassembling the sheets with the belly band engages the reader in a way that stacking prints back into a portfolio or museum box doesn’t. As with any curatorial project, the success will be determined ultimately by the selection of photographers that benefit from a dialog with one another and with the material constraints of the print process. This first issue of the THERE, THERE quarterly sets a high bar.

Notes from Byzantium

Notes from Byzantium
Shelly Taylor and Eben Goff, ed. AB Gorham
2019
Black Rock Press
www.unr.edu/art/black-rock-press

7 × 9 × .25 in.
60 pages
Binding: Softcover codex with sewn signatures
Foil cover and HP Indigo inside

Notes from Byzantium, cover

The combination of poetry by Shelly Taylor and art by Eben Goff is not an obvious choice, but then, the best books are often surprising. Both text and image benefit from this unlikely marriage in Notes from Byzantium, edited by AB Gorham of Black Rock Press. The two remain on their respective pages, integrated through juxtaposition and rhythm. Depending on the spread, text or image occupy either recto or verso or both. The unpredictable pattern influences the reader’s pace, though the effect only gradually becomes apparent. This dynamic reading experience, combined with the book’s size and materiality, make artists’ books a good framework for approaching the hybrid publication. Though the text is divided into discrete, titled poems, Notes from Byzantium is neither a typical poetry chapbook nor a fine press edition.

Notes from Byzantium, inside spread 1

The book, as a physical object, is unusual. It feels simultaneously modest and luxurious in the reader’s hands. It is covered in a coral pink book cloth, which is folded over paper rather than board to create a pillowy, flexible codex. The text block is sewn in five slim signatures of three sheets each, so it lays flat with little resistance. Even the full-page images lose nothing in the gutter. The mechanics of the book afford it a sensuality that would be lacking had it been perfect bound or pamphlet-stitched. The relatively thick paper still drapes nicely as the page turns, thanks to the book’s nearly square proportion. Even the texture and opacity of the paper contribute to a deluxe feeling that is especially well suited to Goff’s photography.

The series of photos depict the artist’s own oil engravings in wax panels. However, they are not mere documentation or facsimile. As the book advances, the photographs progress from decontextualized close-ups of stratigraphic imagery to compositions that hint at the objects’ scale and materiality. The pieces appear as though thread was somehow embedded in marble. The restrained color palette and limited mark-making vocabulary heighten the impact of subtle changes. When the horizontal rows of filament give way to vertical columns, the relationship between text and image is radically reconfigured. Likewise, the switch back and forth between full-page photos-as-image and cropped photos-of-image repositions the reader in relation to the book’s themes of memory, time and place.

Notes from Byzantium, inside spread 2

There is no literal, illustrative connection between the text and image. With their geological appearance, Goff’s images seem to speak to memory and environment. The oil engravings exude temporality and process – the slow deposit of sedimentary layers, or perhaps their erosion. This makes them ideal for reflecting on Taylor’s words, which are very much about place. Though her lexicon evokes the American South, and she references the desert southwest, each poem seems to transcend one region. They convey what it feels like to have a sense of place, where ever it may be rooted. Taylor establishes setting with only a few details, the way one might recall their childhood home. The reading experience is not unlike memory; what begin as grounded narratives accelerate into fragments of language. One gets the impression of Taylor’s hometown, but it’s glimpsed through the passenger window of a too-fast truck.

This momentum makes the pairing of text and image especially welcome. Once the poem begins, there is no place to pause. One must simply keep up with Taylor as she jumps between ideas until the theme emerges. “Every hinge gap apple please you,” for example, is a seventeen-line poem with a single period. The beautiful, intricate images provide an ideal place to reflect on the preceding poem. They are endlessly interpretable, receptive to the reader’s projections and associations. Both Goff and Taylor forge a pleasing gestalt from elements that are, upon closer examination, surprisingly rough. The tension between these fragments and the pieces they constitute remains compelling throughout the book.

Women are another important through line in the book – women and girls and the distance traveled between (in both directions, growing up and reminiscing). Taylor’s poems touch on the unspoken things women pass down, for better or worse, through the generations. It’s not that men, or more often boys, are absent. Rather, what is striking is how they are mediated through an intimate, intersubjective narration, a secret or a memory shared between sisters. Contributing to the momentum of Taylor’s writing, the women of Notes from Byzantium seem restless, in transition even as they shape the sense of place.

You moved all your stuff across town for love
hands in lap passenger seat shy shoulders
soot for later when the fires came through
we found new homes.

The speed, instability and fragmentation of the text all benefit from the book’s type treatment. With incredible economy, small changes in justification and word-spacing effectively alter the expression of each poem. A number of poems successfully use an unusual technique: the text is fully justified, with the word spacing selectively (not evenly) distributed throughout each line. Neither fully random, as with prose, nor predetermined as with verse, the line breaks and word spacing in poems like “Straight to the jawline bloody Igor” are the combined result of chance and choice. There is a resourcefulness, an ambivalence, in this approach that seems appropriate for the text. The impact of this design decision is demonstrated in contrast to poems that similarly use selective word spacing, but with a ragged right edge that leaves the line break to the poet’s discretion. Further variations, all with the same typeface, point size, and leading, show the power of typography. Even the titles benefit from the subtle handling.

Notes from Byzantium, inside spread 3
Notes from Byzantium, inside spread 4

Notes from Byzantium offers a nuanced presentation of challenging, rewarding text and imagery. In a digital world, it is fair to question whether a book warrants a printed existence. Notes from Byzantium will invite readers back again and again. The book’s engaging materiality and excellent print quality create the right reading experience for such potent content. That it achieves this elegance while celebrating the grounded, unfussy quality of Taylor and Goff’s work is an impressive achievement.

The Job

The Job
Woody Leslie
2019
Large Home Tiny Idea
woodyleslie.com

4 × 5 in.
32 pages
Binding: 5-hole pamphlet stitch
Ink jet cover and laser inside

The Job, cover

The Job is the second book in Woody Leslie’s “Tiny Ideas” chapbook series. Through his imprint, Large Home Tiny Idea, Leslie harnesses the authority of the book form in order to examine everyday phenomena, often through the lens of language. The Job achieves this by reflecting on Leslie’s experience working in restaurants, and the familiar struggle to balance work with one’s outside interests. Tellingly, that tension never resolves. The workplace that inspires the book is, in Leslie’s words, “no place for creative writing.”

The Job, inside spread 1

Though it touches on political issues, The Job remains resolutely personal. The writing expresses a common sense solidarity with fellow food service workers (and a visceral resentment of those who profit off their work) that is more sympathetic than an ideological label. Even when Leslie uses insider slang, the specificity is relatable rather than exclusive. Many readers will have shared the experience of starting a new job and finding something funny or confusing, only to accept it and forget how weird it is until they quit or another new employee joins. In fact, the similarities among jobs – whether the author’s or the reader’s – is another powerful political point made implicitly through the observations in The Job.

Fans of Leslie’s work will find plenty of continuity with previous pieces. Considered alongside his 2011 comic, The Adventures of Super Cafe Douche Bag Man, The Job shows the evolution of Leslie’s work-inspired art. Words and Vegetables (2017) shares its highly detailed introspective style. The organization of ideas, not quite stream of consciousness, is similar to Some Definitions of Vegetables (2019) and Parsely (2016), with which it also shares an emphasis on the visual arrangement of text on the page.

The Job, inside spread 2

The visual treatment of text in The Job is subtle, but it is enough to put this work of nonfiction into dialogue with visual poetry. In some passages, the text is treated as prose. Elsewhere, enjambment gives a more poetic feel to the few lines on a page. The conversation with visual poetry begins in earnest on the fourth spread, where a map of Leslie’s workplace is rendered on the recto. Interestingly, it’s not clear if the representation is spacial or temporal, or some psychogeographic mixture. This uncertainty is later complexified when the same layout is used to visualize Leslie’s body, mapping the aches and pains of restaurant work.

The Job, inside spread 3

As a text in the book form, The Job does more than visual poetry alone. On a basic level, layout on a page or a spread within a codex is different than, say, a broadside. For example, a recto that says only, “Waste.” has a different meaning than the same word with the same amount of white space around it on a broadside. The page is a unit, and the word uses (or perhaps wastes) the entire unit. A similarly sparse page bearing the phrase “I quit.” highlights other features of the codex. Has the author quit writing; are the subsequent pages blank? The way the turn of a page conceals and reveals adds to the impact of The Job – it would be a different piece outside the book form.

The Job, inside spread 4

Leslie also engages the codex as a mnemonic device. In the first half of the book, he writes:

So much of The Job is about short term memory.
Remember for five seconds to ten minutes,
and then forget.
Too many things are the same,
or slightly different, repeated over and over.
You must forget each to remember the next.

The same text, with identical formatting, repeats in the second half of the book. The self-reflexive relationship between form and content tempts the reader to flip back to the first instance. Is the phrase the same or slightly different? The codex is ideal for this sort of non-linear access.

Even with this short text, Leslie takes full advantage of these affordances to play with linear and cyclical progression throughout the book. The page as a temporal unit is disrupted to convey a quintessential experience of an unsatisfying job: the days are long, but the years are short. The opening page features the repeated phrase, “We set up the blocks, they knock them over.” Time crawls by, and the page ends with “Day after day.” Later in the book, Leslie ruminates on mopping:

Leaves.
Slush and salt.
Mud.
Grass.

A whole year flies by, just like that. The stakes are raised as the pamphlet’s bulk shifts from the reader’s right hand to the left hand. Will the author escape The Job and focus on his creative work? Or will an earlier phrase repeat and place the reader back into the cyclical existence of wage labor? The suspense of each progressive revelation is heightened in the user-determined, time-based medium of the book.

In fact, The Job’s successful marriage of form and content points to the historical role of the chapbook as a democratic form. Leslie is subverting the authority of the book to assert the importance of the personal and quotidian, but he is doing so within a long tradition. The Job is noteworthy for the ease with which book art, visual poetry and non-fiction meet and make meaning in a humble pamphlet. Perhaps it is a large idea in a tiny home.