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.

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.