7.5 × 10.25 in. closed
Binding: Plastic strip fastener
I try not to talk about William Blake. I love his work, but I find his outsized role in the genealogy of artists’ books to be of little use for contemporary criticism. So, when I opened Terra Nullius by Christopher Kardambikis, I shuddered. Its cosmological motifs and inky, atmospheric pages are positively Blake-esque. Flipping through, I came to a spread with a pair of dividers on the verso; perhaps just this once there is a good reason to invoke the dubious originator of artists’ books. Sure enough, the recto opposite folded out to reveal a hidden image – Blake’s Newton – rendered as a mural on the side of a building. But what does Isaac Newton, or William Blake for that matter, have to do with the decline of rust belt Pennsylvania?
In Terra Nullius, Kardambikis returns to his hometown of New Castle, PA. He weaves together family and local histories in short sections of prose, interspersed with two modes of image-making. In the first, spreads of noisy black ink recapitulate Blake’s innovative printmaking in Risograph. Against this grainy night sky, line drawings of mysterious symbols pop with overprinted colors, not unlike the watercolor on Blake’s print. These drawings seem elemental, invoking ice, water, fire, and electricity, but without an indication of scale that would pin them down as specific objects. Other drawings in this mode seem like sketches and leftovers, not the building blocks of the universe, but of Kardambikis’ own process.
The second sort of images are photographic, and, together with the book’s structure, unlock the connection between Terra Nullius and Newton. Kardambikis’ photographs are presented as straight documentary shots of New Castle. Each black and white image is printed with a black border and centered on a recto. Yet these conventional, almost banal images, conceal a wondrous explosion of speculative weirdness. The book is bound with folded fore-edges, and only the rectos with photographs are cut short to unfold further. Each of these hidden scenes is grounded with a repetition of the photograph above, but distorted, printed in wild colors, and augmented with a collage of more mystical elements. Once the reader has the pattern down, the drawings opposite the photograph offer a hint of what might lie beneath. And so, we return to the dividers, the building, and Newton.
For Blake, Newton stood for the myopic rationality of science. The motif of the dividers repeats in Blake’s character, Urizen – the bearded, old man who stands for reason and law. Urizen is a Satanic figure who abstracts and constrains humankind through law and convention, disconnecting us from spirit and imagination. It is this dissatisfaction with the reality that has been imposed, and a belief that art can overcome it, that Kardambikis shares with Blake. He writes:
“The town of New Castle, Pennsylvania circumscribes several spaces simultaneously … The space of the small town, worn thin but cut with well worn grooves by daily rituals. Grooves that carry a flow of memory and people that, in turn, carry a weight.
The second space is speculative. A site in which one can rearrange and examine the component parts to conjure, if however briefly, possibilities.”
The phrase “daily ritual” shows the ambivalence of the grooves Kardambikis sees. Ritual can rekindle the spiritual, but it can also lapse into convention. He returns to New Castle with fresh eyes, seeing a story beyond – or beneath – the dominant narrative of rust belt decline. This alternate reality manifests literally in the drawings and distortions unfolded beneath the book’s conventional photographs. Such a reimagining is not reserved for artists, though. Kardambikis recalls cruising the town square, “the diamond,” as a teenager, driving around with the hope that something new might happen. Nothing ever did, but cruising as a ritual is a powerful shared exercise in imagining another reality.
In fact, Kardambikis seems ambivalent about the role of art in such an endeavor. The dividers that symbolize conformity are also the tool of a bookbinder. And it is in a book of brass that Urizen inscribes his laws for humankind. Even today, when we “throw the book” at someone, we invoke the full force of our legal system. Terra Nullius itself is a legal principle, although the book does little to explore the term’s colonial connotations. Like the grooves of daily ritual, a book is a site of freedom and restraint.
Terra Nullius keeps these aspects in tension and demonstrates that neither is absolute. The documentary images that serve as a foil for the speculative scenes they conceal are themselves highly mediated. Their grainy Riso printing is emphasized by the noisy halftone patterns that encroach on the fore-edge of each page. It is only by convention that the black and white images seem somehow more realistic than the bright colors beneath them. Thus, the binary built into the book’s structure is blurred by its print production.
Rather than critiquing the book form, these complications remind the reader what we are capable of. If we can read – and enjoy – a complex book like Terra Nullius, then we already know how to rearrange and conjure new possibilities. The New Castles Kardambikis imagines are his own, and so too will each reader bring their own interpretations to his narrative. Reading isn’t so different than driving through a small town. There are rules to follow, and structures to guide us, but we can choose to cruise the diamond and see if something else is possible.