Oriental Silk

Oriental Silk
Xiaowen Zhu
Design by Michael Mason, CHEVAL
2020
Hatje Cantz

7 × 9.5 in. closed
196 pages
Smyth-sewn, clothbound hardcover
Offset inside with screenprinted cover

Front cover of Oriental Silk with bilingual title text screenprinted white on gray bookcloth. Next to the book is a white bookmark printed with green text repeating the author and title in English and Chinese.

Oriental Silk is a Los Angeles import and retail company, a film, and an ever-evolving installation project by self-described “visual poet and aesthetic researcher” Xiaowen Zhu. The book Oriental Silk is a bit of each of these things and more besides: a memoir, a biography, a company history, and a visual elegy.

The bilingual text of Oriental Silk begins with Zhu’s account of stumbling onto the eponymous store in Beverly Hills and, after meeting owner Ken Wong, making a documentary about the store’s history. The story quickly evolves, delving deep into Mr. Wong’s family’s past and his own psyche, while Zhu’s imagery, layout, and commentary raise questions about capitalism, Orientalism, nostalgia, and the nature of art and artisanship.

Oriental Silk inside spread, pages 70-71. Chinese text on verso, English on recto. The white paper is cut shorter than other pages, revealing green, pink, black and yellow pages behind.

Covering such a wide variety of topics and jumping between time periods and perspectives as Oriental Silk does could easily leave the book feeling scrambled and scattershot, but both the design and the careful manner in which the images and text are crafted unify these disparate threads into a coherent and affecting whole.

The book’s organization is a major part of its aesthetic. Zhu separates sections of prose narrative with series of images rendered on colored paper, often in pastel tones: “bright but subtle too,” as a customer describes Mr. Wong’s selection of silk goods, and also reminiscent of the sort of carbonless copy paper found in business settings. Many of the images are printed in black and white, but the colored paper lends them a brighter feel and reflects the aesthetics of the hand-embroidered silk pieces mentioned throughout the text.

Oriental Silk inside spread, pages 88-89. Verso and recto each have a black and white photo printed on the green paper. Silk jackets on the verso and labeled boxes of velcro on the recto.

Images and text are also separated in a more tactile way: the white pages that make up the book’s narrative are cut shorter than the colored pages on which readers encounter most of the images.

Zhu uses the separation between text and image to guide the reader through the multiple perspectives present in the work. While we begin with Zhu relating her first encounter with Wong and his store, Wong’s voice actually makes up most of the text; the images often serve as Zhu’s documentation of and commentary on his story.

This division is not always so simple, though. While many of the book’s photographs are composed consciously and presented in a manner reminiscent of a gallery exhibition, we also get something much closer to Wong’s perspective in one section of images: a scrapbook-like collection of historic documents and family photographs. These pictures are more obviously intimate and almost solely focused on human subjects, providing an internal counterpoint to Zhu’s observation of the shop and the family from an artist’s perspective.

Oriental Silk inside spread, pages 100-101. Verso and recto each have two black and white Wong family photos printed on the green paper.

This push and pull between the book’s two primary characters, the artist and her subject, is what gives the book so much of its initial charm and its lasting emotional impact. We feel we get to know Wong and come to understand his store alongside Zhu: both as itself and as a reflection of its owner.

However, Oriental Silk is not solely a document of interpersonal relationships; it also raises political, economic, and philosophical questions. Wong’s accounts of family history often brush against the harshest and most well-known examples of anti-Asian legislation, action, and sentiment: his great-grandfather was one of the many Chinese laborers who risked life and limb building the Transcontinental Railroad and were immediately erased from that history; his father purchased another immigrant’s paperwork in order to make it to the U.S. in 1941 and subsequently witnessed the internment of people of Japanese descent during World War II.

Oriental Silk inside spread, pages 44-45. A single photo spans the gutter of the spread, printed black and white on yellow paper. The image is the shop's exterior sign: Oriental Silk Importers.

Zhu also concerns herself with more subtle, complicated examples of Orientalism with references to Anna May Wong, the “first Chinese-American star” who was still consistently shut out of the best roles in American cinema: a paradoxical victory for representation and demonstration of overt racism. Anna May Wong’s story serves as a parallel for the similar complexity of Zhu’s understanding of Ken Wong’s romanticized view of Chinese culture: influenced by Orientalist American notions, but also a deeply personal reverence for his family and their legacy. The Chinese title of the film, Xiang Chou, literally translates as “silks from town” but has the same pronunciation as the word for nostalgia.

Finally, the work is deeply concerned with the nature of art and craft, of what it means to consciously make physical objects of beauty. Descriptions and photographs of the silks and Ken Wong’s affectionate, methodical ways of handling and altering them make up a huge portion of the book, and readers can clearly see that the same conscious care went into the construction of the book itself. While Zhu’s film conveys Ken Wong’s story and everyday reality just as successfully and beautifully as the book, the book’s tactility adds another essential layer: the form reflects and enhances the content. In her artist’s statement, Zhu tells us she wrote the book because:

I feel films are more fluid, but the written word is more profound. As the creator, to be able to use … different media to convey the same story allows me to come at it from different angles, and to keep finding new aspects of the story that move me.

Zhu’s book serves as both an enlightening companion piece to her film and a fascinating work in its own right: an object of beauty to be looked at and touched like the eponymous silk goods, a thorough examination of the relationship between history and the individual, and an honest, mournful look at the passage of time in its grandeur and its mundanity.

Visible Climate

Visible Climate: Postcards from America’s Changing Landscapes
Lee Lines and Rachel Simmons
2020

10 × 8 in. closed
22 pages
Binding: Drum leaf with hard covers
HP Indigo
Open edition

Postcards are a peculiar medium, evoking presence and absence simultaneously. The writer of a postcard says, “I am here” to someone who isn’t. Or they say, “I was there” to a future self who may have forgotten. Postcards are, therefore, a medium of imagination and memory. They are also readymade representations. Unlike the snapshot a tourist takes, a postcard has been carefully chosen to represent a place with commercial and political goals, or at least considerations. This was the case for the National Parks Service postcards that inspired the imagery in Visible Climate, made to promote “America’s best idea” to a nascent public of domestic tourists.

The pages of Lines and Simmons’ collaborative book are not literal postcards, or even facsimiles, but rather draw on the formal and conceptual foundations of the medium. Each pair of text and image relates a memory from a national park, the writing intimate and the imagery iconic. The text is present tense, which departs from a typical postcard but lends a more literary sensibility. A representative passage reads, “I hike back to the spot in the photograph but so much has changed. Gone are the old weathered Juniper trees and dense stands of Pinyon Pine. Dry grassland stretches for miles in every direction as I walk through a mostly silent landscape.” The postcards do not form a single narrative but accumulate to paint a worrisome picture of how climate change is impacting the unique lands that comprise the United States. The themes that emerge are well suited to the medium – changes and time, presence and absence (visibility and invisibility), memory and imagination. After all, landscape itself is a work of imagination, a human representation imposed on the reality of land. Visible Climate grapples with the perils and potential of this very human way to perceive the environment.

The book’s structure and materials do embody a bit of what one might expect from a postcard. Printed on demand through Blurb, the “Layflat Imagewrap” book is essentially a drum leaf binding, resulting in thick pages that open flat with no gutter. The book’s dimensions (20 × 8 inches open) and rather large text encourage the reader to take the book in at arm’s length – perhaps flat on a table – a visual rather than tactile experience. The large pages also leave room to solve the challenging layouts, balancing one image and one block of text without trapping awkward negative spaces. In some spreads one page contains the image with the text across the fold, but most pages pair both elements within their ample margins. The text and image never touch, the gutter is never crossed, and nothing bleeds off the edge. The compositions would be static, stale even, were it not for the organic, unpredictable sensibility provided by the handwritten text and liquid borders of each image. Likewise, the choice to compose both single pages and two-page spreads livens the straightforward text-image format and introduces an element of pacing that makes the bound book function as more than a pile of postcards.

This pacing is suggested on the book’s cover, which is patterned with thumbnail reproductions of the images inside. Neither the spine nor cover display the title, leaving the grid of images to operate free of context. The resulting preview, not unlike the images on the back of a wall calendar, emphasize the book’s affective use of color. In hand coloring Lines’ photographic images, Simmons pushes the warm and cool palettes to an extreme. Blue skies and glacial ice contrast sharply with the arid reds of riverbeds and desert bluffs. This limited color scheme makes the few appearances of green seem artificial, imaginary even. In one such image, a phthalo green swamp gives rise to a ghostly mangrove whose black and white rendering seems to suggest that the plant is already dead.

Just as Simmons’ hand is present in the hand-tinted photographs, Lines’ can be seen in the handwritten text. His rounded hand complements the organic outlines of the imagery and lends an authenticity which contrasts with the artifice of the colorized photographs in an interesting way. The handwriting also references the idea of a postcard, of course, and helps the reader connect more intimately with the narrators than the relatively short texts might otherwise allow. And while the consistent handwriting unifies the collection of vignettes, it also raises complex questions about authorship. The book’s colophon explains that the captions “imagine the voices of park visitors,” meaning each vignette is that of a different fictional narrator. But rather than embody each imagined narrator with a different hand, Lines layers his own identity onto the texts by way of penmanship. Thus the handwriting and hand-coloring point to the process-oriented practice behind the book.

That process included nearly two hundred hours of field work in the national parks featured in the book. Lines and Simmons’ collaborations are grounded in intensive research, and the handwritten text seems to recall a scientist’s field journal, positioning the fictional accounts as the results of research. The importance of process is even clearer in Simmons’ treatment of Lines’ photographs, which begin as conventional digital images. Simmons converts the images to black and white, transfers them to paper and hand-colors them before digitizing them again. The retreat from digital to analog (and from color to black and white) lays the conceptual groundwork beneath the nostalgic, vintage look that hand-coloring ultimately gives the imagery. The point is, after all, not just to reference the historical but to enact a sense of loss over time. As Simmons works, the images lose more and more data until the subjective workings of the artist’s hand supplant the objectivity of the digital photograph.

For all this emphasis on process, the final product remains impeccably crafted; not only the text and imagery but sequence and pacing of the book as well. With the familiar intimacy of the writing, it is easy to read oneself into the imagined correspondence. An inherent sense of temporal and geographic distance makes the suspension of disbelief central to the postcard as a medium. Whether reading a postcard immediately at the mailbox or years after from a shoebox, one is always already later and elsewhere. It is a medium of imagination grounded by the fact of really having been somewhere, not unlike the strange authenticity of Lines’ handwritten fiction. The premise of multiple writers also accommodates more repetition than a straightforward narrative. Visible Climate has no introduction or conclusion; all of the storytelling is accomplished through the fictional missives. Their major themes and motifs are far from subtle, but the book’s quick pace and the sheer variety of landscapes depicted keep the repetition from growing tiresome. On the contrary, Lines’ ruminations on time and change unify the human experience of those disparate geographies and demonstrate how pervasive the effects of climate change really are.

This larger message about the environment emerges not just from each vignette but from the careful sequencing of their accumulation. For while the book may lack an introduction, it does have a beginning, middle and end. Much of Visible Climate’s power comes from subverting the linearity of the codex form. The first postcard ends, “…we’re struck by the near total absence of young trees.” In other words, the beginning of the book is the beginning of the end. The next postcard reflects on ancient cliff dwellings, introducing the human timescale that will remain in tension with the geological throughout the book. It is then all the more shocking when the two timescales reverse: “Decades have passed since I last visited Nisqually Glacier. Most of my fellow climbers are gone, and the glacier is now hundreds of yards upstream.” Changes to the Earth have accelerated to the human scale, and the narrator is left to “recall the sound of the ice, bending and snapping in the distance.”

Final spread of Visible Climate, with text on verso and nighttime scene of Joshua Tree on the recto.

In the second half of the book, a turning point is signaled by three smokestacks sticking out above the horizon, releasing steam that disappears into the clouds above. On the following page, the narrator writes, “Our hike back to the road feels like we are leaving the scene of a crime.” The final image is the book’s only nocturne, but the linear progress from day to night is complicated by a reprise of the first passage. “The young Joshua trees are mostly gone, while the few remaining mature trees are like oases, providing shelter for dozens of animals in an otherwise harsh landscape.” It is hard not to project one’s own condition onto these trees, survivors of the beginning of the end, caring for others in the face of an improbable future.

Such anthropomorphism is, of course, part of the problem. Our ability to relate to a tree (but less so a blob of algae) speaks to the power of imagination in constructing our views of the natural world, in making landscape out of land. As one postcard notes, “The carbon flowing through those towers can’t be seen and makes no sound.” The climate crisis is, in part, an aesthetic problem, a matter of what can and cannot be seen. Visible Climate is an intervention in the aesthetic realm, a reminder that something is lost in our mediated perspective of the environment. Lines and Simmons acknowledge that some problems of perception are natural, like the inconceivable gap between human time and geologic time, while others are human-made. Visible Climate shows that our inability to see the world as it really is can be catastrophic, and yet any remaining hope lies in the very ability to imagine a world different from our own.

Students

Students
Tia Blassingame
2019

2.5 × 3.75 in. folded
Single 8.5 × 11 in. sheet
Binding: Parallel brochure fold
Risograph
Edition of 35

Front cover of "Students"
Text reads: "the 14 NEGRO STUDENTS of Noyes Academy / Canaan, New Hampshire"

The phrase, “The 14 Negro Students of Noyes Academy / Canaan, New Hampshire” gives the diminutive cover of this single-sheet publication a punch that the official title, Students, holds back. The wording implies the existence of other students, and indeed the subject of Students is the tragic fate of a racially integrated school in 19th century New Hampshire, and the lasting impact it had on its alumni. Artist Tia Blassingame brings archival research alive with the students’ own poetry, presenting the richness of their experiences even as she highlights the gaps in the record.

First opening of "Students."
6 names are organized into 2 categories, "born enslaved" and "born free"

The book most closely resembles a brochure, the toned paper parallel folded into horizontal quarters and then folded in half to create a vertical spine. It primarily operates as a flat sheet with two clearly separate sides. On one side, excerpts from two poems lay atop an American flag, all printed in blue. The other side is black and red, and weaves a short history among the names of students, which visually dominate the composition. The synthesis of primary texts and archival research into a narrative history is not in itself remarkable. However, Blassingame is exceptional in her use of the artists’ book as a medium to foreground certain details and leave others unsaid, overturning the usual politics of representation. Students centers the Black perspective, and offers a corrective to the way historical narratives about anti-Black violence are often presented. Blassingame lets the students themselves speak – before and after the destruction of their school – which is itself notably absent.

Back cover of "Students" featuring the colophon.

The relative simplicity of the book’s structure demands a careful look at each design decision. Of these, the reader will likely first see that the book seems to open backwards. If the “spine” is on the left, then the colophon is showing. Flipping the book over to read the cover moves the spine to the right, which makes opening the book feel somewhat awkward, but crucially allows the title and colophon to be oriented the same direction as the rest of the text on the same side of the sheet. This compromise indicates that the open sheet is the book’s primary visual unit, rather than the page or opening. Whether front or back, the colophon is a fitting cover, since it contextualizes the book’s text: “In 1835 the schoolhouse of Noyes Academy, an integrated school in Canaan New Hampshire, was physically removed by a mob…and its black students were run out of town.” If the book’s fold evokes a brochure, it does so with a bitter irony, advertising and mourning the promise of an education that was too enlightened for its time.

"Students" fully open to the front side of the sheet, printed in black and red ink.

On the front (the side shared by the title and colophon), red images show a floor plan and elevation of the George Kimball House, where Blassingame explains some of the Noyes Academy students boarded. The house occupies only the top quarter of the sheet, behind the title and colophon. Its pitched roofs peek out above the fold, exuding a sort of quintessential domesticity that sits uneasily with the book’s events. Beneath the colophon and title, the six remaining folded panels organize the rest of the composition. This comprises three threads of text. A narrative account of Blassingame’s research and retelling, and the names of the students are printed in black. The remaining text is set in larger, uppercase letters and printed in red as if stamped across the page: BORN ENSLAVED or BORN FREE. Thus, the students appear to be organized into each of the six panels, three for those born free and three for those born enslaved. Blassingame’s account zigzags left to right and top to bottom, filling out the space between the students’ names (eight of which remain unknown).

"Students" fully open to the back side of the sheet, printed in blue ink.

The reverse side functions more like a broadside than a book, but the folded panels still guide the layout. A monochrome American flag fills the page, bleeding off all four edges. The absent red in the blue flag reads like the fugitive red in a faded shop window advertising – signaling its false facade in black and blue. The stars and stripes are further tarnished since Student’s toned paper removes any actual white from the palette. Obscured as it is by the text, a reader might first miss the flag’s four even rows of six stars – “Old Glory” as she was from 1822–1836. Atop the stars is printed a four-line poem titled “On Freedom,” written in 1828 by a twelve-year-old Thomas S. Sidney, who figures elsewhere in Blassingame’s text. Beneath it, and larger, is an eight-line excerpt from “Call to Rebellion” by another Noyes Academy alumnus, the prominent abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet. The transcendent optimism of Sidney’s verse is nowhere to be found in this latter work, written in 1843. Garnet documents the racist threats of violence he has endured in his poetic call for insurrection. Together the two poems bookend the hopeful era of integrated education and its antebellum aftermath.

Yet, between these bookends the “book” is nowhere to be found. The critical incident, the school’s untimely end in 1835, is mentioned only in the colophon. It haunts the book like a paratextual ghost. Blassingame makes the absence poignantly present, just as she does by repeating “Unknown” for each of the eight unidentified students on the front side of the book. This attention to the archival gaps and silences characterizes Blassingame’s approach. She begins her narrative by stating, “The names of eight of the fourteen students of African descent continue to evade this author.” This is not a disclaimer, but rather a key point; it speaks to the marginalization of Black students in 1835 and in all the intervening years. Blassingame’s own positionality as a Black researcher is central to Students, as is evident in the narrative’s self-reflection. She shares not just her findings, but also how she came upon them, and what she was unable to find.

The gap between the present and an unknowable past manifests also in the book’s imagery. The rendering of the George Kimball House is pixelated, an effect Blassingame accentuates with the Risograph’s halftone. This digital signifier foregrounds the layers of mediation between the reader and the events in question. The image is, at the very least, a print of a scan of a drawing of a building. Blassingame highlights the anachronism on the side with her own contemporary first person narrative, whereas the reverse is more cohesive. The typeface pre-dates digital design, and the screened-back imagery creates a worn, historical appearance. In fact, the faded flag shares a soft subtlety with the pressure-print letterpress technique that Blassingame employs expertly in other projects.

Blassingame’s self-conscious, historiographic approach to archival materials would be productive under any circumstances, but it is especially important when dealing with race. The artist must confront the historical record and ask who is seen, who is heard and for whom were the records kept? Blassingame amplifies stories of Black people pursuing love, justice and freedom in spite of adversity, instead of focusing on the destructive actions of Canaan’s white population. The only violence represented is that of the archives. Black pain is not up for consumption, only white complicity. Black lives are not reduced to a single event, even when that event is central to the story being told. Blassingame’s relegation of white violence to the colophon and her centering of Black voices is a strategy – an ethic – that more artists would be wise to adopt.

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.

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.