The Artist’s Novel

The Artist’s Novel
David Maroto
Mousse Publishing
2019

Part I: A New Medium
8 × 6 in. closed
284 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Offset

Part II: The Fantasy of the Novel
8 × 6 in. closed
292 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Offset

"A New Medium" and "The Fantasy of the Novel" side by side.

Spanish artist/theorist David Maroto’s two-volume work of fictocriticism, The Artist’s Novel, is not an artist’s book in the traditional sense (if we can say there is any traditional sense of an artist’s book), but an examination and an example of a new medium he proposes: the artist’s novel.

His conception of the artist’s novel differs both from the artist’s book and the literary novel. Unlike most artist’s books we discuss here, the artist’s novel does not contain art or function as an artwork itself, and unlike most novels it does not serve primarily as a discrete piece of literature but rather as a facet of a larger project.

While it is easy to describe what an artist’s novel is not — Maroto gets that out of the way in the first few pages of Volume 1, A New Medium — it’s a bit more challenging to pin down what an artist’s novel is. Through four case studies, references to criticism and other works, and a generous selection of interviews with artists, Maroto invites readers to explore the new medium with him as he searches for the answer. He also includes a bibliography of all the artist’s novels he has discovered through his research, inviting further reading. He keeps the bibliography updated on his website and considers it an important part of his critical approach.

Volume 1 pp. 110-111: Aluminum Cities on A Lead Planet / Bake and Sale Theory

Benjamin Seror’s Mime Radio, Maroto’s first contemporary example, was written from a series of transcripts of Seror’s episodic interactive performance series (also entitled Mime Radio). While Seror had a rough idea of each performance’s plot in advance, his storytelling varied based on audience interaction with his content. The novel, put together after the performance series was completed, could be read and understood as an autonomous work, but it only exists because of the larger project. Its narrative style includes the repetitions and little hiccups of live performance, refusing to excise the flaws of improvisation to better represent the performance experience.

Another example, Mai-Thu Perret’s The Crystal Frontier, serves as a counterpoint to Mime Radio in some ways. Not extant as a complete published work, The Crystal Frontier exists instead as an extensive series of narrative fragments that have inspired Perret’s output and stood alongside it at exhibitions, replacing traditional curatorial text.

Maroto’s other examples exist on a spectrum between these two extremes, one a novel almost like any you might find in your local bookshop and the other not a novel as most would conceive it but still steeped in narrative/literary techniques and conventions. All the projects are fascinating and tell us something new about the form, but they vary in terms of success as novels. Maroto’s honest appraisal of the failure of certain projects to live up to their original vision and the difficulty of adapting a literary form to a non-literary context is refreshing and engaging.

Volume 1 pp. 46-47: Mime Radio cover & first page of corresponding chapter

By A New Medium’s final chapter, Maroto hasn’t settled on a single definition of the artist’s novel, positing the medium is still too new and varied to strictly define. He does, however, have a pretty good idea of what the artist’s novel does.

The artist’s novel as Maroto understands it is a collaborative and decelerated way of both making and experiencing art. This deceleration and collaboration go hand in hand, especially for the spectator: Maroto references critic Wolfgang Iser’s concept of the “wandering viewpoint,” the idea that the text cannot be experienced all at once, causing the reader/spectator’s point of view and understanding of the work to shift throughout the experience of reading a novel or navigating a narrative exhibition. This necessitates collaboration between artist and audience, since the spectator constantly interprets and reinterprets the work, which radically slows the process of engaging with art. Maroto further posits, and many of the artists he interviews and studies agree, that this is a conscious reaction against the acceleration of the art experience in many galleries, in which patrons are encouraged (and in some cases required) to move along quickly and make room for the next guest.

Maroto defines the artist’s novel not only by what it does, but what it fails to do. Drawing on Barthes’ concept of “the fantasy of the novel” and interviews with artists, Maroto finds the artist’s novel often arises from a fantasy of accessibility, of appreciation outside the art world. Many examples in A New Medium are indeed accessible in that they invite collaboration and empathy rather than relying on shock or inscrutability (something Benjamin Seror mentions throughout his interview and the chapter on Mime Radio), but are not widely accessible in the way of the bestsellers and literary sensations they so often overtly imitate. The artist’s novel is still almost exclusively consumed by art world insiders.

Volume 2 pp. 36-37: notebook diagram

This paradox and the gulf between the fantasy of the artist’s novel and its reality are the major focus of the second volume, The Fantasy of the Novel. While A New Medium is a relatively straightforward piece of criticism, here Maroto writes a novel — one in which he is the narrator and a significant driver of the plot. In many ways, The Fantasy of the Novel functions like any other novel. It draws on tropes from murder mysteries, its autofictional tendencies remind us of Ben Lerner or Ruth Ozeki or any number of other writers, and it consciously alludes to literary figures from Roberto Bolaño and Tom McCarthy to Rimbaud, Proust, and Omar Khayyám.

Volume 2 pp. 200-201: a conventional-looking novel

However, it is a work of criticism, if a sly one. The second volume does more than provide an example of an artist’s novel (really, two examples: the plot of The Fantasy of the Novel revolves around the writing of artist’s novel Tamum Shud, which Maroto commissioned with his partner and fellow critic Joanna Zielinska — in both The Fantasy of the Novel and real life). The feelings of confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety plaguing Maroto-the-character allow Maroto-the-artist to more deeply explore his conception of the failure of the artist’s novel to live up to the fantasy.

The two volumes, then, are distinct in more than form. While A New Medium discusses the idea of failure, it is primarily a generative work. It concerns itself with the possibilities of the artist’s novel and invites further criticism and new artist’s novel projects. The Fantasy of the Novel is, at least in its plot, a counterpoint: the failure of the fantasy, the breakdown between the artist’s idea and the actual project. This failure is not a bad thing, though; as Maroto tells us, “A failure can be an illuminating event that helps us visualize the limits of art practice within the institutionalized reality of the art world.” The artist’s novel’s paradoxical nature — belonging neither to art or literature — provides a unique position from which to engage its audience.

Together, the two volumes make an intriguing work for anyone interested in artist’s books, both as an introduction to a relatively new and uncommon medium — one that’s certainly related to the larger book art sphere, if not wholly a part of it — and as encouragement to think critically and seriously about the form and function of the works we consume and create. While the questions Maroto poses and the answers he works toward relate to artist’s novels in their particularities, their generalities apply to all art printed, folded, and bound into the form of a book.

Tools for Extinction

Tools for Extinction
Denise Rose Hansen, editor
Studio Ard, design
2020
Lolli Editions

5.25 × 7.875 in.
120 pages
Soft cover perfect binding with French folds
Offset

Tools for Extinction, front cover

Tools for Extinction is an anthology of writing, not an artists’ book, which perhaps makes it an ideal project to examine the distinction between a book and a publication. I have written about this difference elsewhere, but Tools for Extinction so fully mobilizes the possibilities of publishing as a critical and artistic practice that it cannot be understood only as a material synthesis of form and content. This is not to say there are no meaningful relationships between pictures and words, text and paratext, content and layout; there are, and they will figure into the review that follows. The point is, rather, that the social, political and cultural dimensions of Tools for Extinction’s production and distribution are treated with the same self-reflexivity that an artists’ book brings to The Book as a concept. Specifically, Tools for Extinction is not simply a book about Covid-19. It is a publication made of, for, against, within and in spite of this pandemic, an achievement that will become more significant – necessary, even – as unsustainable climate change and inequality continue to catalyze global crises. It is an invitation to reflect on whether and how to create, to make meaning, in the face of extinction.

Tools for Extinction comprises eighteen works by writers from across Europe and beyond. Whether new or newly translated, each piece makes its first English-language appearance in this collection. Half the pieces are translated, highlighting the creative editorial labor behind the book as well as its global perspective. The writing is as diverse as the geography, including poetry, fiction, non-fiction, a speech, and a transcribed audio work. The selections are relatively short, and the collection overall has an engaging texture and sequence. The early pieces pull the reader in, establish the stakes, and introduce many of the common themes and through lines. Some of the longer and more explicitly political pieces follow, and Hansen has varied and balanced the collection to mitigate the hesitation or exhaustion that the subject matter may inspire in readers still surviving the very pandemic at the book’s core.

Tools for Extinction, back cover

The book’s design further emphasizes its novelty and geographic range – two features through which the broader themes of space and time emerge. Space, time, and space-time are most visible in the book’s cover imagery: a skewed image of planet Earth (daytime on the front cover and nighttime on the back). The book’s designers, Studio Ard, identify the cover image as being taken March 25, 2020. With the foreword’s date of April 20, 2020, a picture of the book careening toward completion comes into focus (my own review copy shipped in early May). One’s fingers can feel the overprinted metallic silver ink on the back cover, lending a not-yet-dry quality to the whole production. The globe from the front cover is stretched further to an absurd degree on the book’s spine, which, as a physical index of the book’s duration, would seem to reference time. And if the spine signifies time, then space is present in the surface of the page. The table of contents operates according to this logic, arranged as a grid rather than a list. The pieces are presented as roughly square text-image modules across the geography of a two-page spread.

Tools for Extinction, table of contents

Each image in the table of contents is what Hansen refers to as an “anamorphic ‘tool’: things and beings we might suddenly perceive from new vantage points.” Some of these thumbnail images illustrate the accompanying text directly, while other associations are more oblique. The images depict no environment, the objects cast no shadows. Instead, they present almost typographically, emoji-like in a way that encourages a semiotic reading. These little images also serve as the key to their anamorphic counterparts, which appear as chapter ornaments under the title of each piece. In some cases, these distorted images can be deciphered without recourse to the table of contents, but the reference point certainly helps the reader appreciate the unfamiliar perspective from which they are viewing the otherwise unremarkable object. Instead of framing today’s pandemic and politics as a break or rupture, these illustrations demonstrate just how strange the world can be made through continuous changes – stretching, twisting, and compressing – a topology of the social fabric. Tools for Extinction posits a world that was already at the brink, comprehensible only through inertia and made visible now through crisis.

Many of the writers delve into this uncomfortable continuity between things that ought to be opposites: consciousness and sleep, distance and intimacy, private and public, sameness and difference, past and future. This blurring of boundaries spans genre and style. Ashan by Vi Khi Nao does so with a magical realist approach, probing the social distance(s) of Covid-19 and the alienated, mediated lives people lived even before the virus. Mental health is equally central to Tuesday by Patrícia Portela, albeit in a subtler, less speculative manner. Portela’s neurotic narrator attempts to plan a much-needed vacation, manifesting in an exhausting stream of consciousness that forecloses every future it opens without progressing beyond the present. As with Ashan, Tuesday is a sort of everyday tragedy; the pandemic didn’t cause it but rather provided the perspective from which to finally see it clearly. Tools for Extinction grapples with the grief, trauma and anxiety of Covid-19 without presenting these phenomena as something entirely new.

Nor are these experiences exceptional. Even as the authors relate the circumstances of a particular place and time, patterns emerge. The essay A Penny is a Penny is a Penny by Jakuta Alikavazovic epitomizes this sense of a shared global experience. Alikavazovic writes, “The demonstrations across the country; the various groups of blue-collar and white-collar workers throwing their literal and symbolic tools in protest; people resigning – all rising up against this morbid logic that rest on the idea that a penny is a penny.” The United States? Lebanon? Belarus? The reader must turn to the author’s bio in the back to confirm that the country in question is, in fact, France.

Tools for Extinction, french flap

Spring Report from Denmark, the book’s opening poem by Naja Marie Aidt, speaks to the anxiety that such a global threat produces. The title, of course, cannot limit the pandemic to either spring or Denmark, and the piece proceeds with a worried litany of relatives and acquaintances around the world. The poem is a Covid-era beatitude, with the repeated phrases “I think about…” and “I fear for those who…” introducing individuals and groups of people whose circumstances seem worse than those in Denmark, with “free medical help for everyone / the same rights for everyone.” Aidt uses formal devices like repetition and enjambment to evoke the twisting of time, and both the writing and typesetting contribute to a strong rhythm that further emphasizes temporality.

This strange temporality, a mix of boredom and survival mode, confronts writers and artists with particular poignancy. In The Dispossessed, Joanna Walsh reflects eloquently on storytelling in the Covid era:

“Narratives used to be about how you got where you are now. The future was open. From now on they work backwards from how you died, with death not an addendum but a defining factor. Every tale has a teller. Now only death will tell what sort of life you had, and it will define you at the point you were triaged for death, at the point you were deemed too old, too subject to an ‘underlying condition’, too insignificant, too not-a-subject to be ‘a priority.’”

But Enrique Vila-Matas reminds us that this tragic state is not as different as it seems in his existentialist essay, Empty Streets:

“Why do we waste so much time? Because we live as if we were going to live forever and don’t, for a second, pause to remember that we all have to die, a reality that underlies the surprised tone in which people say they never thought to experience a tragedy like this, ‘so far-reaching and affecting so many people.’”

Tools for Extinction maintains the tension between both perspectives, that things are not normal or okay, and that this was true even before Covid. It is a productive tension that writers – and artists of all sorts – will need to contend with for the foreseeable future. This is perhaps the key organizing principle behind the book. It is not a time capsule or a pandemic diary. It is not meant to be a record of an aberration to be read in libraries and schools in 2021 that look just like those of 2019. Tools for Extinction is meant to show that artists will have to adapt. The fact that the book came together in a few short months during a lockdown shows it can be done. And the resonance that the writing has for a reader still in lockdown shows that art still matters.

Seed Vault

Seed Vault
Tim Robertson
2017

Material Print Shop
8.5 × 5.5 in.
36 pages
Binding: Saddle stitch
Inkjet inside and blind-embossed cover
Edition of 49

Seed Vault, front cover. "Seed Vault" is blind embossed into green-gray paper. Below is smaller text reading "by Tim Robertson."

Seed Vault is inspired by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which exists to safeguard the genetic diversity of crops against natural and man-made disaster. Rather than food, artist Tim Robertson has imagined a vault of memories to “regenerate life in present and future times of trouble and loss.” The book itself could be the vault, but more likely each of its thirty-four images is a door into an infinitely larger, more complex collection. The photographs are accompanied by a single quote from a member of Crop Trust, the organization behind the Svalbard vault: “This vault is built for humanity to survive. It is like a holy place. Every time I come here I feel like I’m in a cathedral. This is a place to pause and to think.” Guided by this reverential tone, Robertson successfully weaves together the global and the intimate, seeds and memory.

Seed Vault, inside spread. Verso has a photo of a lamp above the word "HERE"; recto has a long-exposure photo a car's tail lights above the word "I."

The quote runs the entire length of the book, progressing essentially one word per page. This creates a powerful one-to-one relationship between the word and image on each page. Since the full quote is not readily apparent, the reader focuses on the text-image pair on each page and on the verso-recto relationship in each spread. Indeed, Robertson plays more with the possibilities of the spread as a space than as a sequence. Each page has the same composition – a vertical image inside white margins – which enhances the stability of the spread as a unit. Robertson deftly uses the formal elements of design in this arena. He contrasts warm and cool colors across the gutter. He compares textures, as in a spread with a tree bark verso and footprint recto. Illuminated by Robertson’s flash, the gold of a dead fern mirrors that of a faux-Corinthian capital. A shirt picks up on the pyramidal form of a bonfire.

The stability of each image pair would threaten the momentum of the book, but the unresolved text propels the reader forward. By setting the text entirely uppercase, Robertson further disconnects each word from its place within the sentence. The occasional period reminds the reader that they are reading a linear text and not just a cryptic caption below each image. The text and image have entirely different paces, creating an interesting temporal tension. As one reads, it is difficult to retain the unfolding meaning of the quote against the richness and sheer variety of the photographs.

The images are Robertson’s personal photographs and outtakes from previous projects. They read convincingly like snapshots and memories without trying too hard to be gritty or authentic. They capture a broad albeit idiosyncratic slice of life. The effect is reminiscent of a B-roll montage in some documentary film meant to celebrate the endless variety of humankind – but not saccharine or preachy. In contrast to these busy, colorful images, the austere, blind-embossed cover centers the themes of memory and loss.

The images no doubt hold particular significance for the artist, but they have a relatable quality that allows the reader to join Robertson in his thought experiment. How might a photograph be regenerative? What moments would you keep in your vault? Is the photograph precious, or is it merely a way to enter a memory? And if so, how secure can we make our memories? The photographs are relatable not because they are generic, but because they are so specific. They exude the sense that they are important to someone, even if that person is not the reader. They seem to stand in for all the snapshots and memories that people turn to in times of turmoil.

Seed Vault, inside spread. Verso has a photo of a bright green palm frond against a red background above the word "LIKE"; recto has a close-up photo of water above the word "A."

Robertson plays up this emotional effect with a variety of approaches to the text-image pairs on each page. The first device is emphasizing key words: nouns laden with symbolic potential and active verbs like “think,” “feel” and “survive.” “Time” is paired with a kaleidoscopic self-portrait in a fractured reflection. “Place” accompanies an eerie scene with two empty chairs at a table, reflecting the red glow of a window. Other juxtapositions are more ironic: “survive” captions an image of a billboard advertising fireworks. A third category, perhaps the most interesting, takes a poetic, indirect approach – a candid portrait, the blown-out reflection of the moon on water, or brake lights from an invisible car trailing through a long exposure. These contemplative images are an elegant solution to the challenge of common, little words like “like” and “and.”

Seed Vault shows the power and possibilities of text in the book form. Text pulls the reader through the book, overcoming the static unity of each spread. It connects the personal with the existential, making the book as consequential as it is relatable. The quote creates stirring word-image relationships on each page and interesting pairs across the gutter in addition to the straightforward meaning it expresses. The text-image pairs work with and against the quote they belong to. In this way, a relatively simple book structure extends the four short sentences with an abundance of multiple meanings.

Seed Vault, inside spread. Verso has a close, candid photo of a woman above the word "FOR"; recto has a photo of blue glass fragments on concrete above the word "HUMANITY".

Of all the alternate readings and interpretations, a simple homonym may be the most important: Humanity. If the Svalbard Vault exists to preserve humanity in one sense of the word, then Seed Vault seeks to preserve the other. Robertson’s photographs remind us that empathy and understanding are never more important than in times like the present.