Interview with Hope Amico — Part 1 of 2

Hope Amico is a collage artist, trained letterpress printer and former community bike shop volunteer, living and working in Portland, Oregon. She is the force behind Gutwrench Press — a letterpress shop, zine distro, and home of the Keep Writing Project, a postcard subscription she started in 2008.

Hope Amico sits smiling in front of a Heidelberg Windmill letterpress in a moving truck.
Hope Amico. Image courtesy of the artist.

I spoke with Hope via Zoom on October 19, 2020. The following interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Levi Sherman: What brought you to books and zines initially? And what has kept your interest?

Hope Amico: I did a lot of writing in high school. I knew a little about poetry chapbooks at that point, and then one of my high school friends brought me a zine. He started a zine, and I helped with it, and eventually I started my own.
I went to school for printmaking so that I could make letterpress printed covers for my zines. I wanted to learn different ways of bookbinding and ways of making more interesting and more elaborate zines.

LS: So you already had zines in mind by the time you chose a college major and delved into printmaking?

HA: Yeah, I didn’t even go to school until I was in my thirties. I went to school because I found out I could get in-state tuition, and they had large-format printing presses and large-format papermaking materials. I already had done some papermaking and some letterpress printing and some bookbinding, so I went as an undergrad with a small portfolio of these miniature books I had been making in my studio.

LS: How would you say that experience changed your practice? 

HA: I had the studio before I went to college, but not a lot of equipment. Then in school I met Kathryn Hunter of Blackbird Letterpress. She was an adjunct, teaching a Book Arts class that included just two weeks of letterpress. At that point, she was running her business alone and she was like, “you should come be my assistant.” I became her sort of intern for a couple months. I worked there throughout school and again when I returned to Louisiana a few years later. I was really lucky in that I had access to her print equipment and to her as a teacher. She was very encouraging. Also in school I became dependent on having access to some kind of printing press. I started my Keep Writing letterpress project in school, November of my freshman year. By the time I graduated the project was well established so I needed to find a way to print every month.

Keep Writing Number 130, February 2020. The card includes a poem titled "life will devastate us" and a prompt about taking chances for love.
Keep Writing Number 130, February 2020. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

LS: I guess it would be a good time to explain a little bit about that project — what inspired it initially, and how it exists now in a pandemic when more people are thinking about ways of connecting with one another remotely?

HA: It was 2008. I had a lot of pen pals and had just moved to Baton Rouge for school. I wasn’t on Facebook and I wanted to be able to keep in touch with my friends. I had this idea that maybe people would sign up for a sort of newsletter, and I wanted to have a project every month. I had all this equipment around me, and I wanted to challenge myself to make a new postcard every month.

I mailed the first card to a bunch of friends and went to the New Orleans book fair with a sign-up sheet. I was like, if you give me a dollar I’ll send you this thing for two months and then — I don’t know, I don’t know what I’ll do after that. And like sixty people signed up in the first couple months. People were surprisingly interested. I was really hesitant to ask for money from pen pals for doing something I kind of already did, but I wanted to consolidate my mailing list so that I could keep up while I was in school.

The first cards were photocopied or made with stamps before I could use the letterpress equipment at school. They were single cards, and some were collaborations. Around the third year I hit upon this idea of making it a folded postcard so that it tore in half, into two cards.   There was a postcard I designed that could stand alone, and there was a question that was related to it, and people would mail back the second half. And that’s how it still works.

It’s always been a challenging project to explain briefly, but suddenly people seem to get it. I don’t sell in person right now, but I have an online shop. I sell fewer subscriptions, but more strangers are signing up online. 

Close-up of Keep Writing Number 124 with overprinted wood type of various fonts.
Keep Writing Number 124, August 2019. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

LS: Do you mind me asking how many subscribers you’re up to?

HA: It pretty much hovers around 150 with some fluctuations. 

LS: I found out about your work when you sent me Eulalia #3. I alluded to it in my review, but I’m intrigued by this twenty-year gap between issues in the series. What does that say about how you think of seriality? 

HA: With all of my zines I have a really specific idea of what I’m doing. I’ve had five multiple-issue zines and I’ve done a couple of one-offs, but I have really specific ideas — usually it’s thematic. I was around twenty when I made the first Eulalia. Even then, I didn’t really draw very much. I wrote a bunch, but of course, I didn’t know I would become a printmaker. I didn’t know much about printmaking; one of my first prints ever was on the original cover of Eulalia #1. But I had this idea: what if I only give myself this tiny box to fill with words or pictures? It means I don’t have to draw a lot. It means I don’t have to write a lot. I’m terrible at self-editing; I want to go on forever. So it contained a really small idea, and the focus of that issue was about an interaction with a specific person. So when I thought of redoing it twenty years later, I found the first one. I really liked this concept of giving myself these parameters.

I work in series now, and they’re really quick. I think it’s just about giving myself parameters to work within and I create an idea to work on, like a prompt almost.

Eulalia #3, a two-sided zine using the dos-a-dos structure and pamphlet stitch binding
Eulalia #3, 2020. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

LS: Well, that’s a good segue to my next question. Is there a tension between working with the book as a medium — where the ultimate form is somewhat predetermined — and your process-based, conceptual approach, where the making of the art might matter more than the final product?

HA: Ooh, definitely. The postcards are also a good example because the past hundred of them have had the same structure.

With zines, I kind of go back and forth between wildly experimenting with form and then realizing that I also sell at zine fests and like to keep them somewhat coherent so people know what they’re looking at. So, a zine that’s all over the place in size, form and structure has to balance what I want to do with practicality for the reader. Is it something I need to display easily, or am I just interested in trying something out?

LS: So the book form provides a way to pursue whatever experimentation, whatever media you want to work in, and still know the outcome will be relatable for an audience.

HA: Exactly. It provides me with a recognizable structure that I can alter and add to and experiment with.  

LS: I’m wondering about how you approach collage as a medium, conceptually speaking.

HA: I started teaching a class two or three years ago called “I Can’t Draw,” thinking a lot about how I went to school for art but I’m not great at life drawing. 

In my final semester of school I had the option of taking what they called Drawing Workshop. My teacher believed you that something was a drawing if you said it was a drawing. So I just loved that idea that whatever I presented in class was a drawing if I could defend it as a drawing, and that was fine with him. So it was in my last semester of school, and I was doing these huge handmade paper hot air balloons and working on my letterpress project, so I had all these scraps of handmade paper and I just started sewing them onto paper, essentially building 3D collages and trying paper cutting. I just decided for that class to keep trying lots of different things because my final project was nearly complete. I started experimenting with making large work because I didn’t make large work, and making drawings, and essentially making large collages — and it was great, I learned a lot. I don’t remember what anyone else in class said about my work; I just remember just being really excited.

I came back to that idea later when I wanted to start teaching. It’s so freeing to make work like that. Not worrying about making something that looks like a bird, just trying to assemble all these ideas and not getting caught up on the idea that I can’t draw bird, but finding an image of a bird or finding other ways to represent a bird or an emotion or an idea or a place through snippets of other people’s imagery.

Beauty's Price was Sudden Death. Collage on paper, 2018. Surrealist image including baby birds stacked like nesting dolls in an auditorium.
Beauty’s Price was Sudden Death. Collage on paper, 2018. Image courtesy of Hope Amico.

LS: What’s the relationship to the materials that you’re working from? Do you keep a big stack of papers and scraps? 

HA: I just finished moving my studio two weeks ago. I went back to New Orleans and got the rest of it, and there’s more than one box labeled “favorite collage materials,” which is funny because I don’t use a lot of images from books or magazines. I like patterns and textures, and I have lots of different ways of layering them. I also have bins of handmade paper from when I was making paper. I keep materials with the excuse that they are for my classes — images, alcohol markers, inks. My friend Thomas Little is an ink maker in North Carolina (he’s on Instagram as a.rural.pen). He sent me materials to make my own ink, and I did a lot of drawings with that. So I have a lot of materials that I want to work with, and start experimenting with them and then realize that I like some of the work that comes out of it.

LS: So where does that leave the original pieces that end up in the zine? As somebody who could otherwise make collages that stand alone, what becomes of the pieces that go into the books?

HA: The drawings and collages that have been used in zines were made, more or less, knowing what they were for. I keep those pieces as they are. I don’t do anything else with them. I think I’ve actually lost some of the originals from the last Eulalia in the move. I remember seeing some of them on the floor. I feel like they’re done. I don’t need them to be something else.

LS: It’s fascinating to me that the original can be a precious, auratic object that the zine merely reproduces, or just some scraps of preparatory material that are thrown away. I’m interested in how different artists approach that.

HA: I have the original drawings for Keep Loving Keep Fighting #9 somewhere, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve used them in other collages. Or I might make copies of them or just add them to the ever growing scrap pile of things I give my students to work with. I have so much stuff, I can’t hold on to everything.

LS: Another medium-specific question I have is about sewing. What does it mean that you use sewing as a structural, functional thing in your bookbinding but also as a mark-making device within the drawings and collages on the pages?
With Eulalia #3, I noticed that the thread is similar in the binding and in the collages, so there’s an interesting reading experience — it feels very integrated, but it also makes you aware that one is the real material in your hand and this other is a flat facsimile.

HA: I’ve used sewing in my work structurally but also as another way of drawing, as a different texture, as another way of making lines. 

Eulalia #3 is my first collage zine, and I was so excited that, even though they’re digital color copies, you can still recognize the sewing. The stitches flatten somewhat, but they still look fairly close to the original collages.

Eulalia #3 inside spread from After side. Verso and rectos are collages. Text reads: The space inside of us is so much larger than we know.
Eulalia #3, 2020.

I haven’t thought about it, but I’m glad that you pointed out that there’s sewing both in the collages and in the book structure. I used to sew all my zines because they got too thick to use the Kinko’s long-arm stapler. I sewed them because it was easier in some ways. Then I saw a copy of Dream Whip, and he just uses a rubber band. I was like, man, that’s so much easier. Most of mine are rubber band bound at this point.But with that structure, in particular for Eulalia, I like to match the thread to the rest of the concept. Not just filling the squares on each page, but also that each cover uses a lightly patterned paper, some kind of pale color, with printed text in that color, and using that color of thread so it’s all cohesive.

LS: I like that you use a simple three-hole pamphlet stitch, but by adopting the same material and technique in the functional part as the content, you’re asking the viewer to acknowledge that it’s handmade. It could have been a rubber band or a staple, but a different kind of labor went into it.

HA: That’s funny, because — well, I didn’t know what a pamphlet stitch was until school, or maybe right before I went to school. So I probably had ten years of bookbinding making up all sorts of three-hole stitch things that were not as efficient, and showing other people who were trying to help me bind books and doing all sorts of wild things that were so much harder. And then teaching the pamphlet stitch afterwards, it sort of blows people’s mind how simple it is and how effective. So coming from a place, not from Book Arts, but from people learning the basics, people are really impressed by that. So for me it seems really fancy even though it’s just a pamphlet stitch. It’s a little more effort, but it’s really nice. The bindings used to be so much messier, but they hold together now.

LS: Right, it was an opportunity for me to remind myself that what I assume is a default binding is actually a thoughtful, elegant solution. I enjoyed having to think about sewing as an integral part of the picture plane as well as the structure.
You also work in sculptural handmade paper, so I’m wondering if you approach the book as a sculpture. Certainly the dos-a-dos structure, which can physically stand up, has more of a sculptural presence, but it seems like your focus is more on writing and image-making, sequence and pacing.

HA: I tried in the past to make my zines a little more uniform for the sake of coherence. Because the writing and the themes and the way I approach the writing in all the issues of Where You From have changed, the letterpress-printed covers are all really similar. 

For Eulalia #3 I definitely wanted to make a dos-a-dos binding, but that was only part of the motivation for this. I had already made Part One, the Before side, and I hadn’t printed it. It was just sitting there and sitting there and then some other things happened, so I wanted to deal with the things that were going on and make a new set of work that related to the first, as a sort of foil, and I realized that that the dos-a-dos was the perfect form. I had wanted to try it, and then realized I had these experiences that would make that form work.

I’ve done really sculptural books, but I like making zines with more subtle artist book aspirations.

Interview with Marnie Powers-Torrey

Marnie Powers-Torrey holds an MFA in Photography from the University of Utah and a BA in English and Philosophy from the Boston College Honors Program. Marnie is an Associate Librarian at the J. Willard Marriott Library where she serves as head of the Book Arts Program. She is the faculty mentor for book arts designations and teaches letterpress, bookmaking, artists’ books, and other courses for the Book Arts Program and elsewhere. She is a founding member of the College Book Art Association and her work is held in collections nationally.

The following interview was conducted via email from April to October 2020. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Levi Sherman: You studied English and Philosophy before getting your MFA. How does that background inform your art?

Marnie Powers-Torrey: Like many who find their way to book arts, I’m an in-betweener, a generalist. I took 18–21 credits a semester as an undergrad because I was interested in everything, except the football. I loved physics, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and working with raw materials. Boston College was a great liberal arts school with limited visual art (no printmaking). I was fortunate to study Dostoevsky in St. Petersburg, Becket in Dublin, and the modernists and postmodernists in interdisciplinary, philosophy, fiction, and poetry courses. My honors thesis was a constructed space comprising drawings and ceramic pieces, in response to multiple translations of the Tao te Ching. In retrospect, I recognize that my formative years were towards the realization that words, marks, textures, colors, and composition all communicate equally well, and never as strongly as when united. When I took my first book class at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, I knew that I’d found the haptic, interactive experience that would keep me engaged for the rest of my life.

LS: You note that book arts seems to collect people from other disciplines. Why do you think we in-betweeners and generalists end up here?

MPT: New students frequently share that they’d felt as if they’d dwelled in the margins — until they found book arts. Terrible pun, but it seems that book artists often find we are on the same page. I’m a big fan of Dick Higgins’ concept of intermedia — a space between the knowns, in between ways of doing. When we venture down into these chasms, we are explorers mapping our own paths that tend to intersect with others’. The possibilities are endless.

LS: Since you mention ways of doing, can you talk about the relationship of process and product in your work? I’m especially curious about the differences between creating a single work and producing an edition.

MPT: I love to put ink on paper, but I’m also engaged with many other practices: collage, paper folding, papermaking, mark making, photography, sewing, knitting, etc. As production manager and master printer for the Red Butte Press, I really enjoy the required planning and attention to detail. I find that the repetition of printing and binding is both meditative and generative. 

Chapter XXIV open to the title page with the book's enclosure open in the background.
Chapter XXIV. 2013. Craig Dworkin; David Wolske, Designer; Marnie Powers-Torrey, Production Manager and Master Printer. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey

With my own letterpress work, I typically have a rough plan for the print day, but I tend to be very responsive on press, doing no digital design. At SMFA, I was working very freely with few concerns for craft and controlled technique. I was far more committed to process than product. After twenty years of being involved with fine press, I find equal satisfaction in unfettered making. When I work individually or collaboratively on one-of-a-kinds, I can work entirely intuitively and authentically, without concern for next steps. In either modality — heavily planned or more spontaneous — I think a lot while in a flow state, developing concept in conjunction with doing.

LS: That spontaneity is so foreign to me! Do things ever just not work? Or are you not even thinking in terms of success or failure when you’re in that flow state?

MPT: Right, I don’t have a goal in mind with unique works. My focus is on each action/change feeling/looking right. Shaping a visual composition parallels the construction of a sentence. As I place marks/words/shapes/colors/textures in relation to one another, the entirety begins to make sense. Typically when I write, I don’t follow an outline, but let one sentence transition to the next. I place visual elements in the same way, creating a syntactical relationship that connotes meaning for me, and I hope, articulates significance to the viewer. As I commit more time to a one-off, my desire for things to work does heighten, but ultimately, I’m in it for the satisfaction that comes from making. I also find joy in planned production, working toward a defined end point. Either way, the next step is a matter of responding creatively to the previous step.

Front and back cover of "Cities & Justice" displayed standing up with the spine facing the viewer.
Cities & Justice: A Visual Translation with Subtitles of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. 2016. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

LS: Do you take a similarly intuitive approach to collecting found objects? Or do you have some idea how they might make their way into your art?

MPT: I guess I don’t necessarily see these methodologies — spontaneous or strategic — as mutually exclusive. Streetcombing is a practice of chance coupled with curation. When I walk with family and friends, they may pick up an object for assessment that ends up in the trash bag. My decision, as it were, is based on concerns that are both practical (can I accommodate this debris in my basement studio that also serves as the family’s laundry room, hockey locker, RC car garage, and tool room?) and aesthetic/functional (does this object have visual value as a rare/unique object and/or can it be printed?). The pinnacle of aesthetic, functional, and practical value is a small rubber object with an interesting pattern that sits on a single plane — a readymade stamp. Also, whether I love circles because they represent and are metaphors for so many things or because they are so commonly found, I can’t say. But I do love the circle, and its enduring relationship to the square.

LS: Books seem inherently related to collecting. Is there a connection between that kind of collecting and streetcombing?

MPT: Though I hadn’t thought of it this way before, yes I do see this connection: a book is a gathering of pages, an accumulation of ideas, a curated and crafted collection in and of itself. Books are a place to stick things that you find (out) — to share and archive. Books provide a means of documentation, sequencing, self-expression, communication, cataloging, indexing, etc. No wonder that humankind is so inextricably drawn to and engaged with these collectable objects. 

Open view of the accordion book "META-FOUR" which contains found natural objects in box-like sections.
META-FOUR. 2016. Beth Krensky and Marnie Powers-Torrey. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

LS: Since you mention both sharing and archiving, I wonder about the role of the reader in your work? Who is your audience, and how do they inspire, inform or activate the art?

MPT: This question circles back to process. Though concerned with (my) work’s ability to communicate, I don’t actively think about audience when working alone. I do consider how things might be interpreted, but rely on an internal barometer. At the Red Butte Press, we think a lot about whose hands the book will find and how form, content, and design will be received and impact the reading experience. Often, I work collaboratively, which similarly demands effective communication and an externalization of process, resulting in more circumspect evaluation. In the current publishing and economic climate, it’s difficult to forecast audience. We can hope that private collections will continue to acquire expensively-produced editions and one-offs, and recognize that the democratic (equitable) multiple is most effective for wide distribution.

Installation view of "Archive of Now" with an array of printed boxes containing driftwood and other found natural objects.
Archive of Now. 2018. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

By communicating authentically and thoughtfully, my intention is that we (the book and I) will connect with viewers and create a mutual understanding, though both author and readers maintain distinct perceptions. For example, as I work on individual boxes for the ongoing project Archive of Now, I am interested in preserving and elevating natural objects. I contemplate these relics and then preserve them in custom-built reliquaries which are embellished with prints from mass-produced objects. I (type)write what I see in the object that is absent in the man-made. At each venue where the boxes were shown, a broad range of people have engaged meaningfully with the work, and through this inquiry and response, the installation as a whole is activated. Viewers often comment on the remarkable yet inexplicable fit of the text with the objects and are interested in my writing process.

LS: On that note, tell me about your writing process, and whether it differs from installations to bookworks.

MPT: Typically, I respond to the visual with words, though at times I do begin with a particular text. I don’t know if I’m writing as much as finding words that aid visual communication. I think of writing as a focused practice, whereas what I’m doing is producing sequential imagery that sometimes needs textual support. It’s important that the viewer be able to do some of the work and draw independent conclusions. The gaps between image and text, where the reader engineers the connections, provide space for deep engagement. I see all my work as book work, so no, I don’t think my ideation and conceptualization are divided based on structure.

LS: I’m interested in that continuity; that you see it all as book work.
Where does that leave the relationship between, for example,
Archive of Now and Roadside Attractions? The core ideas seem similar, so what advantages do you gain by approaching them through installation and book, respectively?

MPT: There are some advantages to hanging art on the wall — it becomes more visible and invites collective engagement. It’s easier to find spaces to exhibit wall pieces, and wall hangings built for display. I do regret sacrificing the haptic experience with wall work, but having multiple modes of distribution increases opportunities. Also, I inherently identify as a book artist, and my definition of book is very broad. I’ve never been interested in divisions between media, technologies, and text structures.

Array of the 4 books in "Roadside Attractions" open to display various inside spreads with geometric imagery printed from found objects.
Roadside Attractions vol. 1–4. 2018. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

As we’ve already talked about, my process is responsive, and with these two series, I’m responding to objects — considering what I can do with them, how they can best tell their story, how I can use them as tools and materials. These questions lead me to decisions around technique and structure. Access to tools and technologies along with available time and space — really my daily routines — also factor heavily into my making. As a working mom who is also a maker, I need to be able to fit my practice into available time slots, and my “equipment” at home is very minimal. Thus, I prefer to have creative work in process both at the Book Arts Studio and at my home studio.

Lastly, I’d add that when I investigate an idea, it’s primarily experiential. My research is daily life, including the massive amounts of media I consume everyday — and the daily details inform my work directly. Frequently, I get into a groove with a certain tool and material set, and the possibilities are just too numerous to limit to one methodology. Work that is currently in process is another example of my working on parallel tracks. I was invited by Cindy Marsh to work on a project with a couple working titles (Tobacco Hands, Habits of Mutuality), and together we are constructing a large fiber installation that each of us will also likely publish as a one-of-a-kind book.

Close-up of a sewing machine stitching pieces of letterpress-printed paper.
Tobacco leaves in process: walnut-stained cotton and tobacco paper with letterpress printed narrative being stitched to form an eight-foot leaf. 2020. Cindy Marsh and Marnie Powers-Torrey. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

LS: Does that balance of family and work change the content or style of the art, or just the process? Do you have any advice for other artists struggling to juggle those demands?

MPT: Yes to changes in content, style, and process in response to domestic responsibilities, as my ideas and practice are formed directly from daily life. I don’t necessarily feel that my work is autobiographical, but even when working collaboratively, the marks I make derive from my present awareness. Motherhood is the single most riveting experience I’ve ever had/am constantly having. Everything I have experienced after conception — a maturation on steroids, perhaps, or maybe an internal earthquake — is seen through a different lens. When my kids were younger, I needed to express this directly in MAMASELF, a nine-year visual journey I documented in conjunction with subsequent births, feedings, arguments, formative nothings, and celebrations. Now that my kids are teenagers, I feel like it’s more about sharing this life with them, and I see my family, colleagues, and friends as collaborators in all that I do. For me, compartmentalizations just don’t stick. I function much better in the gray.

Inside spread of the book MAMA-SELF, standing up and open. Rough red shapes overlap below text that reads "ours / MAMA / MOTHER"
MAMASELF. 2016. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

LS: Can I hold you to the second part of my question — do you have any advice for other artists struggling to balance it all?

MPT: Obliquely, that’s my advice. More to the point: make what you need to say with the tools at hand in the time that you find. Ensure that making fits into your regular practices.

LS: Thanks for humoring me. Can you speak particularly to the relationship of teaching and art-making? How does your approach to art inform your pedagogy? And vice versa?

MPT: Art is drawn from life, regardless of approach and intention. I find it more efficient to direct my resources toward adjacent if not overlapping activities — as a colleague of mine, Crane Giamo would say, “feeding two birds with one scone.” Living feeds making feeds teaching feeds making feeds living feeds teaching…I think of myself as more of a facilitator than teacher. Modeling practices, techniques, ideation, etc. allows me to be authentic. However, I rarely use my creative work as exemplar for students, aside from when talking about process/production. By introducing students to my methods and approaches, exposing them to diverse work, and at times making next to or with them, I hope to give them agency to apply skills and ideas in ways that best serve their vision.

LS: You mentioned an ongoing project with Cindy Marsh — what works-in-progress have you feeling the most excited right now?

MPT: During the beginning of the pandemic, I was finishing up the organization of a festschrift in honor of Bill Stewart, researching and making masks, teaching myself to knit, and working on binding past editions. I felt like I had been given the gift of space and time with the lack of a commute. Then life suddenly became too busy again, and I’ve been prioritizing making through correspondence works with others — the gentle tug of supportive expectation helps me justify to myself the import of creative work, I guess, when there is so much to do. I’m working on a hanging piece (a box) that responds to a discarded, editioned artist’s proof by Wayne Kimball which will be part of a collective exhibition of artists working with the same print.

"Exercises in Symbolism after Wayne Kimball & Bob Kleinschmidt" - boxed assemblage with print, animal skull, driftwood and bird nest.
Process image of Exercises in Symbolism after Wayne Kimball & Bob Kleinschmidt. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

I can’t wait to return to the Tobacco Hands project (another working title Habits of Mutuality). Cindy has recently finished building the first hand whose leaves I produced and has printed additional leaves for a second hand. For the third hand, I have pulled excerpts from oral histories collected by Cindy and me from a family rooted in Tennessee tobacco farming. I have loads of tobacco and cotton paper and reclaimed runners, doilies, and tablecloths from Tennessee thrift stores. I just need to find some time and space in my basement studio turned teaching recording studio.

Two sheets of cotton and tobacco paper drying.
Cotton and tobacco paper in production (dry down). 2020. Cindy Marsh and Marnie Powers-Torrey. Image courtesy of Marnie Powers-Torrey.

LS: Do you think this pandemic and the challenges this year has brought will change the way you approach art in the future? Have your beliefs about the role(s) of art changed?

MPT: Yes, I think so, even over the course of our conversation here. More definitively than ever before, I see art as clearly essential. Yes, I find visual art useful in expressing and disseminating ideas, but it has also become an increasingly important survival tool. Making toward a mutual understanding builds meaning, is discursive, and opens a space in between positions. Visual language is often less explicit than text, and in many ways can afford to remain less decisive and open to interpretation. As a methodology of coping, of knowing, and of being, art is absolutely essential for both the individual and the community. We need it in our lives.

Interview with the Quarantine Public Library — Part 1 of 2

The following interview took place via Zoom on July 20. It has been edited for clarity.

The Quarantine Public Library homepage. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

The Quarantine Public Library is a collection of artist-made books, which can be downloaded, printed and assembled for free. The project launched in July 2020 under the stewardship of co-founders Katie Garth and Tracy Honn. Though not explicitly about the pandemic, the Quarantine Public Library is very much a product of this time, so I was eager to speak with Katie and Tracy during these early days of the project.

Tracy Honn (left) and Katie Garth (right) with QPL artist Kathleen O’Connell at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum’s 2018 Wayzgoose. Courtesy of Jim Moran.

Katie Garth is an artist in Philadelphia. She holds an MFA in Printmaking from the Tyler School of Art and a BFA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Katie has a background in graphic design and book arts, and enjoys teaching, writing, and presenting on topics related to contemporary print practice.

Tracy Honn is a printing history educator, curator, and printer living in Madison Wisconsin. She is senior artist emerita from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directed the Silver Buckle Press, a working museum of letterpress printing. She serves on Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum’s executive board of directors.


Levi Sherman: How did the idea for the Quarantine Public Library come to you? Was there a kernel of it before the pandemic?

Tracy Honn: There was a kernel. I had told Katie I’d always thought it would be cool to have an exhibit of artists’ books using that format, and that they should be downloadable, but just in casual conversation. 

Katie Garth: I heard Tracy’s idea and thought, “why not?” We could do it now—we had the time. 

TH: It would never have happened if Katie hadn’t said, “let’s do it.” Although I had the spark, Katie really has the abilities to do this. We shared sensibilities in terms of the library — the way the ideas got developed and the things we care about — but I feel like Katie had a better sense, much earlier than I did, of how it could function and really be a library. Once we decided on a name, a lot of the work came from gut. Don’t you think?

KG: I think it was gut. And there was a sense of urgency, even if, after a certain point, it was relatively self-sustained.

TH: We wanted to do it as quickly as possible, so the artists had a very quick turnaround.

KG: Many told us that having one specific thing to focus on, and a deadline by which to be held accountable, was helpful because of how much feels really vague and abstract right now. They said, “I haven’t been able to make anything lately, but I can do a one-page book.”

Detail of 20/20 by Phyllis McGibbon. Courtesy of the artist.

TH: Many of us were feeling like we couldn’t really make art—what’s the point? With so many large questions, it’s hard just trying to focus. This was a very precise goal that had a certain positive “whoo!” feeling about it.

KG: I also got that feeling from working on the project itself; it gave me a sense of purpose. The point of the website was for an audience to enjoy it, but by the time it launched, that felt like dessert, because the work had already been meaningful.

LS: Can you talk about the process of working on a collaborative project in the middle of a lockdown?

TH: So often, you’re side-by-side at the press, or working things out in person. But we both like to email and text, and actually, I think it worked brilliantly. From home, you can be more responsive.

KG: The lockdown was not much of a limiting factor, because we’ve maintained our friendship over a distance for a long time. I can’t think of how we might have approached the process differently.

Double page spread of Letting Off Steam by Olivia Fredricks. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: How have your backgrounds in art and design prepared you for this project?

TH: I’ve done a lot of collaboration, and earlier in my career I was really interested in it as a subject. I’m always fascinated by collaboration, especially in Book Arts. I just worked on a book art show that’s at the Chazen Museum of Art at UW–Madison right now, and one section is all about collaboration. 

KG: It was incredible to have to articulate my thoughts to someone else. There were several moments where I certainly would have made a mistake if I were working alone, but because I was talking things out with Tracy, I only fell on my face in front of her.

I learned a lot from Tracy about taking communication seriously, and about the benefits of writing a really good prompt for your group. She showed me a lot about the ethics of situating yourself clearly and being responsive to the artists in organizing a project like this.

Double page spread of (NOT) OK by Sage Perrott. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

TH: Because I don’t have the technical skills that Katie has, I felt like she was having to do more work, but it really worked out very well. It’s very blended. There is a lot you can point to and know that it’s Katie’s work, and I think it’s important to know that—but I’ve always liked that when people work together, it’s not so important who did what, but that you share a sense of ownership. That doubles your success.

Because Katie has a background working with clients in a design setting, there is a good way in which she’s not too attached to something. She cares about it— we both feel really passionate about the project—but it didn’t feel like, “Oh, you don’t like the thing I did here.”

It makes it more fun, really. The stakes weren’t really ever high, except for us, because we cared about it. That’s a cool thing; nobody was telling us what to do. 

KG: It’s funny to hear you say you felt like I was doing the work. This just didn’t feel like work at all for me. There was real joy in the fact that we were only accountable to each other, even though—or maybe because—that is the most important kind of accountability to me. It was both motivating and freeing.

LS: What’s something that you’ve learned so far? 

KG: I was surprised by how many happy returns there were. My web design background taught me the difficulty of influencing user behavior. The idea that we could design a website where people would not only click the button, but then print out a design and fold it into a book, and then read it, and then take a picture of it and share it with us—that was a tall order. But when it started happening, it felt so rewarding. I had never experienced that level of interaction within a digital project before. 

When we were discussing technical underpinnings of our prompt, Tracy asked, “what if someone is printing this on a press?” I asked, “do you really think people are going to be hand-setting type for this?” And sure enough, Walter Tisdale sent us a photo of his book, To Thine Own Self Be True, alongside the wood type he used to make it.

Walter Tisdale’s work-in-progress for his book To Thine Own Self Be True. Courtesy of the artist.

TH: One of the things that I really got from this was being introduced to artists I didn’t know. Also, I don’t work digitally—I like the tools a lot, but since I retired from the university, I have access to fewer of them—so it was kind of fun to get back into that just a tiny bit.

It did make me aware that some artists (my peers probably) were less technically inclined. It’s fun to have those groups together. Someday we’ll have a party. I’m looking forward to having all those people meet each other.

KG: Yes, and as someone who is more comfortable with digital interfaces, I really enjoyed working with the artists who weren’t as familiar with those tools. It was important that everybody could be brought along. 

LS: If someone could see behind the scenes of the project, what would they be surprised by?

TH: Our secret power might be that I worked in libraries for most of my career, so I know a lot of librarians. Katie knows librarians. We’re both printmakers, and we know printmakers. Katie said—how did you put it?

KG: Librarians love to share, and printmakers love to distribute.

TH: There is a power in calling it a library. It could have been framed as an online exhibit of artists’ books, but affiliating with an institution that’s powerful in a democratic way felt really beautiful. 

Cover and double page spread of Q: Quarintimacy by Keli Rylance. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

LS: Yes, I’m interested in that choice to make it a library, especially during this pandemic. The library remains a trusted community institution at a time when art institutions are coming under fire for racial inequity and massive layoffs. What is special about libraries, and how does that relate to the art world?

KG: I think about libraries as ideally bringing things that might otherwise be out of reach into a more inviting space. One reason why this project felt important now was because there has been a collective loss of public space. We wanted to make one small but welcoming place that gave our audience permission to explore, and to have access to our community. 

TH: It really did come out of that experience of feeling a loss. We tried to make it transparent for users that it was for people. It is a gift. The thing about libraries is that circulation is a really powerful idea. These books don’t exist in any editions; they’re not for sale.

I just learned from a colleague, Amelia Hugill-Fontanel, who works at the Cary Collection at the Rochester Institute of Technology that she is going to print out every one of the books and catalog them. I’m interested in how that will work—they will be in a library as well as being part of this idea of a library.

KG: There’s something potent about these editions as endless. Among its many duplicates, your book won’t have a unique number—but it’s special because it’s the one that you made.

TH: Yes. And that also invites the possibility of the audience becoming inspired to make a book of their own design.

LS: How can artists get involved? Are you still looking for contributions? 

TH: We curated by selecting the artists up front, and trusted that people would know what to do if they stayed within the format that we described. We didn’t edit content and we didn’t solicit specific content, although we did add content ourselves.

KG: We will continue to add books by invitation, but we are interested in seeing work we aren’t yet familiar with. If an artist wants to make sure that we have seen their work and will take it into consideration, they can email us at quarantinepubliclibrary@gmail.com. Another way to get involved is to make your own book using the pagination template on our tutorial page. Whether or not it is part of the collection, we want to see it.

TH: I have this fantasy of someone sending us a picture showing that they made all the books—the whole library! That’s what I’m waiting to see.

An assortment of QPL books. Courtesy of Quarantine Public Library.

ERRATA

ERRATA
Nuno Moreira and David Soares
2020

5.5 × 8 in.
52 pages
Binding: Link-stitch with exposed spine
Laser inside and foil stamped slipcase.
Edition of 50

ERRATA slipcase with foil-stamped title

ERRATA is a cinematic, existentialist essay that explores mysticism and metaphysics through the metaphor of the book. Grainy, high-contrast images chronicle a cryptic encounter on the book’s rectos. The versos present a text, in both Portuguese and English, which questions humanity’s place in the universe, and whether we can ever come to know it through language. ERRATA is a collaboration between writer David Soares and artist Nuno Moreira, whose background in filmmaking informs the book’s style. The book grounds the arcane topic through jumps in scale, back and forth from the cosmological to the individual and embodied. The reader is further engaged, even implicated, by the book’s self-reflexive bibliographic content and the point-of-view photography. The artists remind the reader that language and books have long been fruitful yet frustrating tools with which to grapple with life’s big questions. ERRATA also demonstrates that artists’ books can be capable contributors to this age-old quest.

As readers of this review likely know, an erratum is a list of corrections accompanying a book with errors. So it is perhaps ironic that ERRATA is exquisitely crafted with great attention to detail. (The production value extends to all aspects of the project; my review copy arrived wrapped in black tissue paper, closed with a monogrammed seal.) The publication comprises a black paper slipcase and an uncovered, link-stitched text block with an exposed spine. The binding calls attention to the object’s book-ness, reinforcing the meta-commentary inside. Foil-stamped lettering on both sides of the slipcase spells out the title in circular configuration (perhaps recalling a mystical hexagram), removing any distinction between its front and back. The contrast of the white linen thread and paper with the black slipcase is a striking design feature that anticipates the visual style of the book’s content.

Like the case, the book itself downplays the distinction of front and back. There are no covers per se, so the first and last pages stand in, and mirror each other’s compositions. A small, square, black and white photograph is centered on the page, depicting a table and chair in a room. One image shows the table empty, while the other shows a fire blazing on the tabletop. Both images have a surrealist quality, and their relationship hints at a chronological relationship. All of this supports a double reading – front to back and back to front. As Moreira hints in his project statement, “everything makes sense in reverse.” Indeed, the text is remarkably successful in either direction, and the photographic narrative fares almost as well. In one reading, a woman at an empty table is approached by a man who hands her a book, whose pages turn from blank to black as she reads. In the other, a book is burned but not consumed, as if by some Promethean fire, and then cleansed page by page by a woman who then gives the book to a man.

Yet, to say it makes sense is an overstatement. The book is dense with symbolism and reference, requiring reflection as much as reading. Soares’ writing is elevated and sometimes overwrought (at least the translated English text), but suits the religious and mystical texts it references. It is the language of writing rather than speaking, further reinforcing the book’s focus on the constructed and incomplete nature of books and language. The bidirectional reading succeeds in large part due to the text’s use of parallelism. The repetition is more than another biblical reference; it helps anchor the reader and reinforce ideas that may be lost in the intricate, unfamiliar language. For example, the book’s final phrase – “We are all pages in a book: when we are turned, we die. All letters are mute to us.” – is mirrored by a passage earlier in the book, “All letters are mute to us. We are illiterate in the face of the proclitic and echoing speech of the cosmos.”

The aphoristic proclamations and questions add context and connotation to the image sequence, but neither text nor image directly illustrate one another. Nor do they interact visually. The text remains on the verso, and the square photographs land in the same position on each recto. This enables the reader to approach the visual narrative almost like a flip book, which further strengthens the its cinematic quality. More importantly, the moving image enhances the sense that the reader whose point of view ERRATA’s reader occupies is doing something other than reading. The photographs capture her hands turning the pages in such a way that she appears to be conjuring something magical. Palm down, her hand waves over the pages as they transition from light to dark (or dark to light). The noisy, chiaroscuro photographs sell the mystical mood, and add a surprising amount of interest to a sequence that largely depicts a pair of hands reading a book.

ERRATA is at its best when the text and image support one another, letting the reader make meaning from the parallels and juxtapositions. The single image with text in it – in which the book’s title is revealed – is heavy-handed compared to the rest of the work, which is open to alternate interpretations and even simultaneous contradictions. The title, “Structure of Consciousness,” is unlikely to tell the reader anything they didn’t already know. ERRATA is explicit in its references to consciousness and cosmology. Its sense of mystery comes not from withholding information from the reader, but from engaging with topics that are truly mysterious.

ERRATA is about the quest/ions more than answers. Through its self-reflexivity, the book connects art to this fundamental human pursuit of understanding. It also uses the human-scaled intimacy of the book as a medium to powerfully play with the reader’s sense of scale. Voice, heart, hands and eyes are at once human and otherworldly in Soares’ prose. They also reinforce the inescapable role of language in forming our understanding of the cosmos. Letters, words and pages – the book is a shapeshifting metaphor in ERRATA, giving the reader not a sense of closure, but connection to a timeless inquiry. For all its connotations of truth and authority, the book reminds the reader that all is not as it seems. The photography places the reader in multiple points of view, both immanent and transcendent, just as the structure encourages more than one sequence. The final image, a book ablaze, is a fitting conclusion to a work that challenges the authority of the book even as it harnesses that power as a metaphor for existence itself.

Moreira and Soares understand that the book is effective both as a metaphor and as a medium. The strength of ERRATA is that it trades on the book as a symbol – creation, religion, authority, the body – even as it eschews the formulaic familiarity that makes such references possible. It exudes book-ness, but operates cinematically. It establishes a power dynamic with the reader, only to change that relationship repeatedly throughout the reading experience. It promises an exploration of the universe, and delivers a treatise on the book itself. The artists approach the book almost like tactical media, critiquing the form while harnessing its strength. ERRATA shows why the artists’ book continues to be a generative mode for collaboration, interdisciplinarity and unanswered questions.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Voragem

Voragem
Isabel Baraona and Catarina Domingues
2016

7.625 × 10.25 in.
32 pages
Binding: Dos-a-dos; saddle-stitched pamphlets tied into the cover, with an unbound pamphlet inserted
Digital and offset printing
Edition of 100

Voragem; front cover with belly band. The author's names are printed: Isabel Baraona and Catarina Domingues

As a medium, books are noteworthy for their finitude. This seems increasingly significant in an era of infinite internet and endlessly reconfigurable data. So it is perhaps surprising that the artists’ books of Isabel Baraona often resist closure. Voragem, a collaboration with Catarina Domingues, is one such book. Its dos-a-dos binding makes each ending a beginning, and the content is well suited to this cycle. The lyrical, fragmentary text operates through invocation more than syntax, and suspends narrative resolution. The passage of time is an important theme, and yet there is an emphasis on presence and present-ness. Voragem physically embodies a combination of linear and circular time through the inclusion of a third (finite) pamphlet within one half of the larger dos-a-dos. The artists shrewdly use a removable belly band to print the title information, further equalizing the front and back covers. This is just one of many subtle decisions that show a sophisticated understanding of how the book’s structure works in concert with its content.

Voragem means “maelstrom” in Portuguese, and there is certainly turmoil in Baraona’s signature figures and Domingues’ distinctive mark-making. (I should note here that all of the book’s text is in Portuguese, and that I am very grateful to Vera Romiti Stecca Diani for sensitively translating the poetic writing.) The text proceeds in single words and short phrases. It is visceral and erotic, though the book points to an intersubjectivity more complex than mere sex. It is written in second person, addressing the reader directly and also inviting them to inhabit the absent I. This, along with the faceless, silhouetted figures make it easy for the reader to project themselves into the narrative.

Two visual modes dominate – dense, frantic line work and unpredictable, organic blotches of wet media. The contrast between is more than visual. The chance operations of the wet media are inscrutable, whereas the artists’ hands are visible in the drawn marks. Time has passed. A body has labored. If mark-making is a primal act, the delineation of the sacred from the profane, then Voragem brings something fundamentally human into dialogue with nature, the vicissitudes of physics acting on the liquid pigment. Voragem seems to celebrate the creative act, anguished though it may be.

Voragem; inside spread shows wet media blending into a line drawing

Both methods are combined and the images are worked into multiple times, creating tangled, tempestuous compositions from which figures are subtracted as stark silhouettes. This play of positive and negative, presence and absence, helps establish the setting as mental or metaphorical. The visual integration of hand-drawn text within the imagery furthers the sense of a mental place. The words seem to emanate from a knot of neurons, thought rather than spoken. The figures cast no shadows as they tumble and writhe, falling through the space of the page. Or perhaps the setting is outside the mind, physical but primordial. Baraona’s narratives often have an archetypal, mythological quality. The book’s primary color scheme adds to this foundational sense, though there is relatively little yellow. Blue and red predominate, evoking veins and arteries in the dense tangle of tendrils.

The subject matter is decidedly anatomical, but Baraona and Domingues abstract the visuals enough to include more than the vascular system. One drawing is clearly a heart, but specific organs are mostly left to the text (head; mouth; the tip of the nipple). Neurons can be seen in the fractal diffusion of wet media. Hair and guts are present in the varied line work. Still other marks appear to be something less physical, though surely of the body. By combining blood and nerves with neurons, the artists transcend any opposition of thinking and feeling. Braids and tangles erupt from, connect, and consume figures in this collapse of mind and body.

Interestingly, the anatomy challenges the human-nature binary set up by the contrasting mark making. If the deliberate line work speaks to something especially human, then the actual rendering of those humans reminds the reader that humans are just animals. The figures are contorted and asymmetrical. All the parts are present, but they assume unfamiliar shapes. The boundary between flesh and meat seems to waver. Just as body and mind are joined, so too are human and nature, but in the hands of Baraona and Domingues this is not a peaceful unity. Rather they speak to the difficulty of being in the world with no hope of transcending the embodied, natural order.

Voragem; first opening (inside cover and page 1) shows a tangle of lines and a silhouette of a woman

The book’s sequence shifts between figuration and abstraction, employing both to maximum effect. The first opening is a relatively straightforward representation – the negative silhouette of a one-shoed woman with a positive rendering of her missing shoe. More human figures follow until a blank page interrupts the sequence and an abstract, cosmic scene unfurls. The next spreads pair text with highly abstract compositions. The letterforms emerge from organic shapes that could be something very small – perhaps in a brain – or very large, like the universe. When the turn of a page reveals a figure, it is a startling return. She is bisected by a patch of hairlike lines, which leave a gaping absence where her abdomen should be. Her mouth is open, one hand is clenched and her toes curl in what could be either agony or ecstasy. The contemplative mood of the preceding pages is shattered, and this first half of the dos-a-dos concludes in an explosive, figurative manner.

Voragem; first opening of the book's second side

The second half opens with abstract, almost surreal compositions. These demonstrate the strength of Baraona and Domingues as collaborators. Both artists use line masterfully. Thickets of short black strokes seem almost stitched onto the longer striated forms beneath, which are visually distinct and rendered in color. A relatively limited visual vocabulary is extended with a surprising repertoire of optical effects and compositional choices. The design feels unified even as each artist’s contributions remain distinct.

Voragem; Inside spread with a smaller pamphlet inserted inside the main book

The inserted pamphlet achieves a similar balance. It is unbound, attached to the larger book by a thread through the gutter. (There is, in fact, a green thread looped around the gutter of each side of the dos-a-dos. The staples that bind each signature do not attach the cover, which is good and bad. The threads are somewhat distracting, especially their color, but they also avoid unsightly staples in the cover and the inevitable tearing that would result in the coated cover stock.) The drawing style in this smaller pamphlet is related, but only its cover has a white background. The rest of the negative space is filled with color washes. It makes the rest of the book feel stark by comparison. Baraona and Domingues are clearly aware of the power of this contrast. After the book-within-a-book concludes, the next page turn reveals another completely blank verso with a recto that is visually distinct from the book’s other imagery. Simple devices, like the dos-a-dos structure, let Baraona and Domingues synthesize a variety of visual approaches in a single work. Both artists thoughtfully engage the book form, and it is hard to picture Voragem’s collaborative content succeeding similarly in another medium.

The book within a book does draw attention to the book-ness of Voragem, but I would argue its meta-commentary is about the creative act more broadly. It speaks to our drive as storytelling animals, through image-making and written language alike. As the text and image explore one kind of relationship, the project itself posits another – collaboration. Perhaps the two share the same elements: vulnerability, compromise, history and hope. Baraona and Domingues forge a unified artistic statement from their distinct contributions. Fortunately for the reader, they achieved this through the democratic medium of the artists’ book. By thoughtfully engaging the book as medium, with elements like blank pages and short sheets, the artists are able to bring their time-intensive studio processes into an object that is more than a series of reproductions. The complex verbo-visual narrative demands much of the reader, but rewards them accordingly.

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.