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.

Lost Houses of Lyndale

Lost Houses of Lyndale
Matt Bergstrom
Design by Mary Clare Butler
2018
Fata Morgana Press
www.fatamorganapress.com/

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. 

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.