Witness 001

Witness 001
Parker Bolin, Armando Diaz, Zachary Estes, Mmuso Matsapola
Witness Studios
2021

8.5 × 5.5 in. closed
40 pages
Perfect binding
Offset printing

Front cover of Witness 001

The inaugural issue of artists’ publication Witness invites readers to do just that: to not only look at Louisville’s racial justice movement in the summer of 2020, but to experience it more intimately. The photographs, from multiple artists and in a variety of styles, are presented in black and white with minimal commentary, the design around them unobtrusive; the aesthetic is most concerned with allowing the photos to speak for themselves.

Many readers will find the content familiar from newspapers and their own neighborhoods: most of the pieces depict racial justice protests, specifically Louisiville activists’ response to the murder of Breonna Taylor. In Witness, however, the composition and context of these pictures are quite different.

The perspectives tend to be more communal and personal than photographs of similar subject matter in news media: shots are taken from within the crowd of activists rather than an external point of view, or focus on individuals and moments of surprising quiet rather than the broad sweep of a protest or solely its most dramatic events.

Witness 001 inside spread 35-36 with photo by Joshua Jean-Marie

Witness shines in its presentation of the ordinary. The events depicted have national and international repercussions and reflect the response not only to one murder in one city but to the entire history of the United States, yet the focus of the photographs is often refreshingly small: the design on the back of a hoodie, a young person carrying a box of candy bars, the windblown hair of someone whose face is mostly obscured by a mask.

It is not only the contributors’ photographs that separate Witness from much coverage of racial justice protests, but also the aesthetic and informational context in which they are presented. Unlike the editorializing or reportage paired with such photographs in the news or on social media, the text here is simple and unobtrusive: only an attribution for each piece, giving the artist’s name and city. Instead of the crowded layout of newspapers and websites, desperate to capture viewers’ attention, the space around the photographs is left empty in Witness.

Conventional journalism remains important, but there is something to be said for allowing the photographs, and by extension their subjects and creators, to speak for themselves. In images focused on individuals, we see more nuance and detail in facial expression and body language than we’re used to, hinting at each subject’s inner life and their specific, personal reasons for being involved. The same is true of photographs of activists’ signs: while the slogans are familiar, extreme close-ups of handmade signs show the unique penmanship and tiny flaws that make each sign stand out as an individual artwork and tool, reflective of its creator-user.

Witness 001 Inside spread 7-8: Mmuso Matsapola’s poem verso, Zachary Estes photo recto

Beyond the simple captions, Witness sometimes presents poetry. Mmuso Matsapola, one of the publication’s curators, contributes a simultaneously snappy and brutal poem next to a stark portrait of an activist with a raised fist; the publication opens with the second stanza of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Knights of the White Camellia and Deacons of Defense” (itself a reference to a little-talked-about fascinating and inspiring bit of racial justice history).

These poems, though distinct in style and the specific events they depict and draw upon, work together toward the same goal as Witness’ unobtrusive design philosophy: not to provide situational context, but to contextualize and resonate with the emotional impact and deeper meanings of these photographs. They also speak to the journal’s mission and the idea of witness in general: an emphasis on personal, lived experience, serving as a counterpoint to the minimization or total erasure of the self in traditional journalism and academic writing. Rather than the typical outside-looking-in approach, the use of poetry in Witness provides readers a more internal, immediate perspective.

In attempting to convey the entire experience of a movement and a community, the curation oscillates between a variety of emotions and freely allows them to bleed into each other. Many of the pictures have the angry tenor one would expect from a protest: the frenetic energy of a powerful slogan handwritten across a cardboard sign, or a clenched fist raised high, or a leader chanting or singing or shouting, the casual brutality of a cop holding down a protestor while other officers stand by. Some are joyful and exuberant, while others center grief.

Witness 001, inside spread 15-16: with photo by Andrew Cenci

A series of three images toward the middle of the collection makes plain the pain, the tragedy of events leading up to and during the protests: the first a wide shot of Breonna Taylor’s memorial in Jefferson Square Park; the second a detail of a memorial for Tyler Gerth, a photographer killed during the protests; and the third an extreme detail of a balloon or sign emblazoned with the words “you are loved / you are missed / you are remembered.”

The sequence of these pictures feels deliberate: the first two to honor and remember specific people, and the third to acknowledge that this violence and the movement against it are ongoing, and that there are countless others named and unnamed who have died or suffered just as senselessly. Like the poems and many of the other photographs, this image ties Witness specifically to Louisville and simultaneously to the wider world.

Witness 001, inside spread 19-20: Portrait and poem, Brianna’s Black Love Blooms

From this complex, contradictory blend of emotions, a new feeling arose by the end of my encounter with Witness. To call it “positive” or “hopeful” feels insufficient — there is pain in this emotional state, and it certainly isn’t quietly or blandly inspirational. The feeling is perhaps best encapsulated by a series of several pages immediately after the three memorial pictures: contributor Amber Thieneman’s Dedication to Brianna Harlan’s “Black Loves Blooms,” inspired by the ongoing project of the same name.

The act of dedicating several pages to work inspired by and made for another artist in such a short and carefully curated publication emphasizes the interconnectedness of the artistic community and the parallel interconnectedness of the events in Louisville with events in the wider world. That dual connection, coupled with the message of unconditional love for Black people so central to Brianna Harlan’s project, is central to the experience of Witness. While the publication is so focused on Louisville’s deep racism, it is also a love letter to that city — not to its police or its history, but to the network of artists and activists there. In its intense focus on one place and one short span of time, Witness manages to impart something much larger: a blooming, a spreading-out of that complex, nameless sense of love.

Convalescence

Convalescence
Grant Evans
Adversary Editions
2020

6 × 9 in. closed
110 pages
Perfect-bound paperback
Digital offset

Front cover of Convalescence: torn title text over a background of torn and sewn Xerox transfer prints

Convalescence is the first book by musician and visual artist, Grant Evans. It is far from the only artists’ book about grief, yet it stands out as particularly dark and gritty. Not only because it grapples with addiction and murder, but because Evans metaphorizes the process of grief itself in such visceral, embodied ways that the book could easily be classified as horror. Death is more than simply gruesome, though. The book begins with two epigraphs, one from The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the other is the haiku, “Bashō’s Death Poem.” This Eastern perspective is baked into the structure of the book, which works through intermediate states and cycles of repetition rather than linear development. With this intentional approach to non-linear narrative and Evans’ commitment to analog processes and found materials, whether audio or visual, Convalescence engages more deeply with the book as a medium than its paperback production first suggests. The resulting insights extend beyond the book, illuminating media, memory and mourning.

The opening scene, which repeats throughout the book, places two characters – a narrator and their interlocutor – in a spare, concrete room that recalls the setting of Beckett’s Endgame. The narrator recedes after prompting their companion’s long, vivid reflections, until the reader nearly forgets that the unnamed man is not speaking directly to them. Even in this strange liminal space, where it is quite possible that both characters are dead, the primary narrator feels less embodied: a visitor rather than an inhabitant. The nested structure distances the narrator (and reader) from the horror of each story, but the line between characters blurs in the dream-like environment. After all, it was Scheherazade, not Aladdin, who was really in danger, suspended between life and death by nothing more than a story.

Convalescence inside spread. On the verso conventional paragraphs are interrupted by blank spaces. The recto includes a black and white photo of a decaying dock and text redacted by a black rectangle.

Indeed, each time the reader returns to this concrete room, it feels less able to contain the stories that are told there. The room continues to ground the reader between forays into dreams or drugs or memories or the supernatural, but the safe space slowly crumbles. The passage literally erodes through redaction, its meaning and emphasis shifting with each new cycle. The repetition begins to feel like a feature of the protagonists’ nightmares, instead of a respite from them. Haunted hospitals, unending roads, and uncanny humanoids recur more in the mundane manner of bad dreams – or grief – rather than the revolution of some karmic wheel. Nevertheless, a progression emerges from this cyclical, entropic structure. Convalescence, after all, implies healing. Returning to earlier incarnations of the repeated, redacted scenes is rewarding, though Evans avoids a neat resolution.

Instead, Evans revels in the physicality of his narrative. Redacted text leaves gaps in the space of the page, as do the silences transcribed from found audio. Elsewhere, the audio transcriptions are typeset to recall their origin on tape. A twisted loop of magnetic tape makes an appearance as well, further emphasizing the material qualities of memory and storytelling. Blank pages and black pages remind the reader that the whole book itself is a physical information technology, not unlike the tape it contains.

Convalescence inside spread. On the verso a photograph of a magnetic tape forms a twisted circle in the middle of an otherwise blank page. The recto contains a poetic text with large gaps where a longer text has been redacted.

Evans also takes the opportunity to play with the slippage between these modes of recording. Flies are a recurring motif, sometimes appearing in a transcribed, “[buzzing].” These interjections visually interrupt the reading just as the sound might on a tape. Sometimes, though, the flies appear as “[dead flies]” arranged in a tape-like band. Their incessant buzzing rises above the hiss and pop of the tape before one realizes that, of course, dead flies make no sound. Convalescence achieves a messy synesthesia that immerses the reader deeply in each nested story and pushes the limits of how ink on paper can activate senses beyond vision. Clearly, Evans is interested in the book as a medium, but Convalescence is concerned with the idea of a medium in nearly every sense.

Convalescence inside spread. On the verso a vertical band of bracketed text repeats the phrase "dead flies" over a background of fragmented typographic elements. The recto features a sparse poetic narrative spread over a mostly blank page.

Medium: The material or form used by an artist. A book, for example.

Medium: The middle quality or state between two extremes. As in the state between life and death, between sleep and wakefulness. As in a reader seamlessly drifting between dreams and reality, memory and hallucination. As in the flat feeling between a high and a low.

Medium: A person claiming to communicate between the dead and the living. As in a séance with a Ouija board. As in a narrator in conversation with a deceased interlocutor. As in the very book that brings a reader in contact with that narrator.

Medium: A form of storage for information, such as 35mm film or magnetic tape, found and transcribed and redacted and embellished in a book. The information – such as Muzak, the buzzing of a fly or a desperate voicemail – may be recorded in the medium by almost any sort of energy.

Medium: Agency; a means of doing something. As in grieving, apologizing, or driving endlessly without moving forward.

Medium: The substance in which an organism lives or is cultured. As in language. As in addiction. As in trauma.

Convalescence inside spread. Conventional book typography is heavily redacted beneath black rectangles. The recto is almost entirely blacked out.

The media in Convalescence are finite, imperfect and unstable modes of recording and accessing information. From the slow decay of a cassette tape to the destructive process of toner transfer print, Evans complicates the line between inscription and erasure. Such considerations are perhaps inherent to the book form, but Convalescence address memory itself. Evans posits healing as a process of both remembering and forgetting. The two are linked inextricably in a cycle of return and redaction, progress and loss.

By combining highly specific, immersive details with chance operations from found materials and destructive processes, Convalescence shows that the universal dimensions of loss transcend the particularities of any one circumstance. The details change, but the structure – the process – remains. Of all the media Evans investigates, it is the book that is able to hold all of this together: content and structure, linear and non-linear progression, erasure and inscription. The book is a blueprint for processing grief, and the timing couldn’t be better.

Object Objects

Object Objects
Shana Kaplow
Designed by Matthew Rezac
Self-published with support from TITLE Collective
2019

10.625 × 8.375 in. closed
112 pages
Smyth-sewn softcover with French flaps
Offset printing

“I can’t unknow the impact of these massive systems,” interdisciplinary visual artist Shana Kaplow writes on the front flap of Object Objects, referring to the underpinnings of capital and exploitative labor that gird our consumerist economy. “How do we extricate from them?” Her final words, on the back flap, provide a possible answer: “It’s Sisyphean–it’s hopeless, but I don’t want to give up.”

Between the covers, Kaplow grapples with further questions posed by the consumerism and mass production associated with global retailers like IKEA: what is the end user’s responsibility for the way in which these everyday objects are produced (and its impact on human lives and the environment)? How and why do we attach meaning to individual mass-produced pieces? She poses and attempts to answer these questions in a variety of forms, often massive ink paintings that dominate entire walls of a gallery or sculptures utilizing a variety of found objects.

Despite its global scope, the experience of reading Object Objects is an intimate one. The book blends the artist’s creative process with her finished works. Rather than attempting to replicate the feeling of attending an exhibition, the book puts us in Kaplow’s studio and, to a certain extent, in her head. It achieves this by showcasing Kaplow’s finished installations alongside sketches, notes, and works in progress, along with an essay on her work by New Orleans writer Veronica Kavass entitled “Windows above a Luncheonette” and a conversation between the artist and Sarah Petersen.

"Object Objects" inside spread pages 10-11, showing sketches, notes and numbered installation diagrams

The notes, sketches, and contextual writings realize the conceptual side of the artist’s practice, while the photographs of works in process remind us of the physicality of that practice. Many of the notes are printed in Kaplow’s handwriting on transparent vellum pages so they overlay the work itself instead of appearing alongside it, inviting readers to experience her creative process beside her and enhancing the feeling of closeness to the work.

We witness the evolution of Kaplow’s piece Expansion of Influence in a series of pages near the beginning of the book: we first see a precarious pile of monobloc chairs in Kaplow’s studio, then an elaborate hand-sketched diagram, and finally the completed installation, in which the artist renders the negative spaces in this stack of chairs in 38 ink-on-paper cutouts spread across a 15 × 9 foot wall. A similar pattern is repeated for several other works throughout the text, giving us a sense of what each piece looked like as it changed from a loose idea to a model or diagram to a finished and exhibited piece.

The sense of being alongside Kaplow throughout her process not only makes the work more accessible and sheds light on one artist’s experience of the creative act, but also neatly intersects with the concerns of her work. Kaplow’s art asks audiences to engage with the mass-produced in much the same way that we engage with art objects: with greater curiosity regarding both the production and the possible meanings of the object in question. Her choice to share the process of creating her own work in such detail encourages us to consider the similar labor involved in the production of the everyday.

"Object Objects" inside spread pages 32-33: a vellum overlay with Kaplow's hand-written notes separates photographs of stacked chair installations

The transparent vellum pages throughout the book contribute to this feeling, providing alternate ways to look at finished pieces and demonstrating both Kaplow’s thought and labor processes more directly even than the images and main text. Overlaying an installation of images on white canvases (which are themselves mounted on a white gallery wall) with notes on “the unconscious habits of racial privilege” and poetic lines considering color and transformation in the artist’s own hand demonstrate how research and concepts become works of art, mirroring the ways in which economic theories and furniture designs become physical objects and transactional relations.

Each piece powerfully conveys weight and physical presence, reflecting both the body and domestic spaces, but reimagined in new and often unsettling configurations. One common motif, a seemingly-impossible arrangement of chairs precariously balanced atop one another, speaks to both the fragility and complexity of the systems the artist interrogates.

"Object Objects" inside spread pages 90-91: text on the verso and a black and white photo of a tangled stack of plastic chairs on the recto

The chairs’ chaotic arrangement suggests entropy and unsustainability, and also reveals some of Kaplow’s inspiration and personal history: as the child of a physicist, she is interested in revealing the potential energy of objects. She often arranges the chairs in a form that feels like a wave cresting, frozen in the moment just before it breaks. The fact they don’t immediately topple is remarkable, the understanding that they eventually will, ever-present.

In other works, the artist depicts these everyday objects from angles at which we’re not used to seeing them, providing a sharp counterpoint to their clean lines and seeming solidity. A detail from her archival print Other Things focuses on the dirty, damaged underside of a white IKEA chair. The rough texture of the unfinished wood beneath the seat, the visible glue holding the product together, and a missing screw rendering one of the chair’s brackets useless all draw the viewer’s attention. The small but prominent black and white label, “Made in Thailand,” invites audiences to imagine the life of the maker or makers and the systems of manufacture and transportation that led to the chair’s presence in a St. Paul studio or Minneapolis gallery; a meaningless-to-most collections of numbers and letters alongside the familiar IKEA logo hint at the intricacy, inhumanity, and ubiquity of those systems.

"Object Objects" inside spread pages 40-41. A photo of balanced wooden chairs on the verso, with a vellum overlay of notes and a sketch for the same piece. On the recto is a detail shot of the worn underside of one of the chairs, with a manufacturer's label

In conversation with Petersen, Kaplow discusses a factory worker who inserted a note into the pocket of a pair of jeans in hope of reaching their future owner; the same incident is recounted again in an excerpt from “Windows above a Luncheonette.” This small moment is framed in two ways: as a single, poignant reminder of shared humanity and as a “wailing,” a cry for recognition and against the brutality underlying globalized consumer capitalism. Object Objects reckons with the same duality with its juxtapositions of beauty and discomfort, permanence and fragility, creativity and futility. This complexity, rendered completely and intimately in both text and image, haunts the reader. As Kavass writes of a “knockoff modernist chair” in “Windows above a Luncheonette,”

The object becomes a representation of mourning, heartbreak, opportunity, depression, communication, illness, success, revelation. One person asks if he can sit in the chair. Some eyes go wide. Is the chair alive in some way? Or sacred?

This book distills Kaplow’s thought and creative output into a single object in much the same way that Kaplow shows us seemingly mundane objects hold so much: the dreams and fears of both an individual and the larger world, arranged in complex layers that are deeply rewarding to explore.

Copy, Tweak, Paste: Methods of Appropriation in Re-enacted Artists’ Books

Copy, Tweak, Paste: Methods of Appropriation in Re-enacted Artists’ Books
Rob van Leijsen
2020

Éditions clinamen
5.5 × 7.875 in. closed
223 pages
Perfect-bound paperback
Offset printing

Front cover of Copy, Tweak, Paste: Methods of Appropriation in Re-enacted Artists' Books by Rob van Leijsen. Blue text and image on a white paper cover.

Plenty of artists’ book practitioners and scholars have a background in graphic design, but for Rob van Leijsen graphic design is not merely an entry point into artists’ books; it is a place to stay (and not the most comfortable place). That discomfort drives a compelling critique of artists’ book discourse and offers up a useful, transdisciplinary vocabulary for future scholarship and criticism. From a designer’s perspective, theories about authorship and the unity of form and content obscure the power relations at play in publishing and cover up the messy realities of production. Such questions cut to the core of the books Van Leijsen examines (those with origins in Conceptual Art), but they remain in the background of his main project – a study of bootlegs, facsimiles and appropriation in artists’ book publishing.

Inside spread of "Copy, Tweak, Paste." On the recto begins the chapter "Publishers who produce facsimile artists' books"

The book itself is bilingual, with a section of full-color figures dividing its English and French halves. The resulting codex doubles the heft of what is really a long essay, written in approachable prose free of frills and jargon. Van Leijsen explains his methodology in the introduction: compare two facsimile publishers (Éditions Zédélé and The Everyday Press) and two bootleggers (Michalis Pichler and Eric Doeringer). To make the most of these close readings, the introduction also does a large portion of the book’s theoretical work. Perhaps most importantly, Van Leijsen demonstrates what graphic designers bring to the topic: technical understanding of book design and production, and a nuanced understanding of how authorship is distributed among all the players who contribute to a book’s creation. Along with this perspective, Van Leijsen’s main innovation is importing a more refined vocabulary for appropriation. In a field fond of “self-reflexivity,” distinctions such as re-enactment, reproduction, bootleg, facsimile, transimile, homage, and so forth not only allow for greater precision but also point back to their fields of origin and bolster artists’ book discourse with interdisciplinary connections.

Inside spread of "Copy, Tweak, Paste," with full-color figures of the artists' book "Arcs from corners & sides, circles, & grids and all their combinations"

As time-based, interactive media, artists’ books are a challenge to document adequately, but the design of Copy, Tweak, Paste maximizes the specific arguments Van Leijsen puts forward. The figures that divide the English and French sections are arranged in before-and-after sets: first the original book, then the facsimile. The photographs themselves are shot and cropped almost identically to allow for a point-for-point comparison. A combination of single images, compound images, and detail shots highlight the salient features of each book under consideration. The books are presented at one of two scales: actual size or 30 percent of the original. Along with the hands that accompany many images, this gives the reader a good sense of the books’ size and allows for more meaningful comparisons among them. That said, it can be difficult to avoid mixing up the originals and the facsimiles (which are, of course, quite similar) since the figures are numbered but not captioned.

Inside spread of "Copy, Tweak, Paste," with a full-page detail from the artists' book "Arcs from corners & sides, circles, & grids and all their combinations"

Like the book’s structure, the writing itself aims to advance relatively narrow and novel arguments, and therefore assumes some familiarity with the topic. The case studies, however, engage with diverse approaches to publishing as an art practice, whether or not the reader has encountered the specific books before. Van Leijsen occasionally errs too far on the side of brevity, making subjective assertions or leaving claims unsupported. His main arguments are always rigorous, but terms like “well-made” or “well-designed” warrant greater examination since the whole point is that each mode of re-enactment has its own goals and criteria. Another challenge is maintaining the level of detail necessary to discuss the differences between two things as similar as a book and its facsimile. The reader must trust that Van Leijsen has focused on the important differences when, for example, he scrutinizes a book’s paper more closely than its binding or printing. Nevertheless, his method is sound, and his writing is accessible and enjoyable. Anyone with a background in graphic design will appreciate the chip on his shoulder and find ready parallels regarding authorship and labor throughout the art world.

This examination of labor and authorship is one of the book’s key contributions, and Van Leijsen is especially sensitive to the particularities of artists’ book publishing. In analyzing the role of artists as publishers versus institutions with experts (such as historians) as editors, he grounds an abstract conversation about values and motivations with concrete examples. This approach is not only effective but replicable. The field needs more scholars who pay attention to the hidden design and production labor that goes into publishing, not to mention the financial and institutional pressures that shape the final products. Dealing with the details of disparate case studies adds much-needed texture to the usual discussions of self-reflexivity. Ironically, it is by delving into the specifics of bootlegs and facsimiles that artists’ books can speak to other contemporary art forms that use appropriation. Happily, those who take up this cause will have an easier time thanks to Copy, Tweak, Paste’s bibliography.

Inside spread of "Copy, Tweak, Paste," with a full-size reproduction of a spread from the artists' book "Territory/Sculpture 1969"

There are certainly questions left unanswered, especially regarding the role of digital facsimiles. Digitization may seem beyond the book’s scope given its emphasis on the specific materials and processes, but it represents a missed opportunity to examine the type of uncreative, unacknowledged labor that motivates Van Leijsen’s critique. Such debates have been essential in other fields, especially the digital humanities, which could serve as a useful model for artists’ books. Another missing perspective is that of the reader. Van Leijsen decenters the author but remains focused on production rather than reception. It will take an examination of libraries, collections, readers and critics to fully realize what he has begun.

Copy, Tweak, Paste is half history and half manifesto, and the field would do well to pursue both directions. A comprehensive bibliography or literature review of bootlegged artists’ books would serve future scholarship, just as a full-throated manifesto for appropriation and re-enactment would catalyze artistic production (and maybe even make artists’ books accessible to more readers). Copy, Tweak, Paste lays the groundwork with a solid methodology and a new vocabulary.

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.

Inscription, Issue 1: Beginnings

Inscription, Issue 1: Beginnings
Edited by Gill Partington, Adam Smyth, Simon Morris
Information as Material
2020

Inscription journal: 12 × 12 in. offset-printed perfect-bound codex, 134 pages
Sean Ashton, Living In A Land: 12 in. vinyl LP
Craig Dworkin, Clock: 6.625 × 6.625 in. offset-printed, saddle-stitched pamphlet in a slipcase, 12 pages
Jérémie Bennequin, An Erasure into the Maelström: 36 × 36 in. offset-printed, folded broadside
Craig Saper, Global Reading Supplement: Augmented reality app

Front cover of Inscription, a square journal with a hold drilled in the middle. The cover image shows the open fore-edge of a book, an partial, black and white photo of a woman and a spiral icon in the top right corner.

As “the journal of material text,” Inscription is necessarily self-aware, so its inaugural issue is appropriately titled “Beginnings.” Each contributor grapples in some way with beginnings, endings, and time more generally. The journal’s organizing principle — and a recurrent visual motif — is the spiral. As a concept of time, the spiral is neither linear nor cyclical, but rather allows for new variations on familiar themes, think Mark Twain’s (probably apocryphal) observation that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” However, in the case of Inscription, the spiral organization is as much spatial as it is temporal. That is, the diverse contributions — from book history and literature to poetics and pedagogy — are connected by the universal impulse to inscribe and the inescapable influence of time.

Jérémie Bennequin, "An Erasure into the Maelström" fully open to 36 × 36 in., showing a spiral form erased from the complete text of Poe's original short story.
Jérémie Bennequin, An Erasure into the Maelström: 36 × 36 in. offset-printed, folded broadside.

Inscription’s self-awareness is no surprise as a project of Information as Material, a publisher whose mission is to create new meaning through reframing. A journal is such a framing device, and one that Inscription’s editors examine, exploit, and expand. This expansion, also symbolized through the centrifugal movement of the spiral, manifests most visibly in the various components that accompany the primary codex and its relatively conventional scholarly contributions. (I say relatively because many of the essays tend toward lyricism and self-reflection, and because reading them requires rotating the over-sized, perfect-bound codex in a spiral fashion and reading from both directions since the journal has two beginnings with two prefaces.)

On the left, a 12-inch vinyl LP of Sean Ashton "Living in a land" which features a photo of the poet reading in front of a microphone. On the right, Craig Dworkin's "Clock" which looks like a 45 rpm in a square slipcase with a circle die cut from the middle.
Sean Ashton, Living In A Land: 12 in. vinyl LP; and
Craig Dworkin, Clock: 6.625 × 6.625 in. offset-printed, saddle-stitched pamphlet in a slipcase

These additional components comprise: an augmented reality poem by Craig Saper; an audio recording of poet Sean Ashton on a vinyl LP; what appears to be a 45 rpm record but is actually a printed poem-essay by Craig Dworkin; and a three-foot-square, two-sided erasure of Edgar Allen Poe’s A Descent into the Maelström by Jérémie Bennequin. The dimensions of the complete assembly are determined by the 12-inch record, and the journal’s editors plan to include a record with each issue. The square codex itself mirrors the record with a hole drilled through the middle. Indeed, the reader spins the codex like a record, but the hole is not the axis. Instead, it doubles upon opening, two eyes looking back at the reader.

For all of this eccentric and lavish production, the publishers do an admirable job of making the content available. A complete digital version is available open access, including the audio recordings and video documentation of Saper’s augmented reality piece. A downloadable PDF gives the reader some idea of the admittedly cumbersome reading experience of the printed codex, but thankfully the full text of the articles is also available in more conventional HTML. The journal strikes a similar balance between risk-taking and rigor in terms of process. The artist- and writer-in-residence roles may be somewhat unusual for a journal, but submissions are double-blind peer reviewed, and the editorial board is stacked with big names in artists’ books and related fields.

Although I cannot manage a review of individual articles and contributions here (many deserve such attention), together they show the promise of Inscription’s interdisciplinary approach. The wide-ranging perspectives and methods are effectively bound together by themes of materiality and mediation, and each contribution seemed of comparable quality. The articles that seemed furthest outside my areas of interest or expertise were unexpectedly engaging, and those that were closer found fresh approaches to familiar topics. Two standouts were “On Stone,” Serena Smith’s rhizomatic reflection on lithography stones, and “Writing the Birds: Barrawarn,” Australia-based Catherine Clover’s attempt to notate birdsong and imagine a decolonized, vernacular poetics. It is easy to imagine many of the articles in other journals, but in Inscription they resonate with one another in an exciting way and will reach readers who might otherwise stay within their disciplinary borders.

With submissions of this caliber, the success of the journal hinges on its ability to add value to its content. The exceptional production value alone does so, from the high quality of conventional figures and illustrations to the execution of the ancillary artworks. The editors must also continue to balance the strength and flexibility of each issue’s theme. “Beginnings” was a natural fit for the first issue, so “Issue 2: Holes” may ultimately prove whether Inscription can forge a community of contributors and readers from so many different disciplines. The innovative, interactive format of the journal certainly gives readers a reason to subscribe and may even convince writers that their work is better off with Inscription than a more conventional publication. 

Inside spread of Inscription, which shows the text rotated nearly sideways. The typesetting is unconventional, similar to concrete poetry.

The emphasis on material production does leave a nagging question about the practicality of the printed version and the authenticity of its online cousin. There is a case to be made about the materiality of digital inscription, one that might inspire an unconventional website or digital publication of some sort. However, for the sake of accessibility, I am glad that Inscription’s digital presence is thoughtful but conventional. There are real limits to the hard copy journal — I happen to own a record player, but I had to abandon reading on the couch when rotating the 24-inch-wide codex became impractical and ultimately finished the issue at a table in my studio. As a celebration of “material text,” Inscription pushes at the limits of a physical publication, but ultimately retains its thesis by documenting its materiality online rather than attempting to re-mediate it digitally. I truly hope the journal’s impressive production will attract more readers than it excludes, and if the popularity of artists’ books is any indication, I think it will.

The Marathon Poet

The Marathon Poet
Åke Hodell
Translated by Fia Backström
Edited by Kira Josefsson
2020

Ugly Duckling Presse
5.25 × 8.25 in. closed
150 pages
Perfect binding
Offset

The Marathon Poet front cover, with a black and white image of the author in a racing bib.

Åke Hodell (1919–2000) was many things: poet, pacifist, anarchist, visual artist, composer, razor-sharp satirist, and one-time fighter pilot. In The Marathon Poet (Maratonpoeten in the original Swedish), first published in 1981 and newly translated into English by Fia Backström, Hodell presents every side of himself in a heady blend of self-mythologizing and self-deprecation.

The Marathon Poet is a difficult book to describe or categorize because it steadfastly refuses to do only one thing. It could be called autofiction in verse or an artists’ book focused on photography and collage, but it also offers up various pseudo-historical accounts, a dinner menu, and an opera composed primarily of the names of cars. With this crush of ever-changing forms, Hodell presents us with both an unconventionally intimate self-portrait and a vicious dissection of cultural myths: this book is the overflowing stream of his funny, inventive, and righteously angry consciousness.

The Marathon Poet pages 90-91, featuring a "poetic menu"

Fia Backström’s facsimile translation provides not only the text, but also the original imagery and layout of Hodell’s book, and gives some context for the English-language audience with a thoughtful introduction and a glossary explaining Hodell’s intertextual references. Her contextualization also makes apparent her reasons for translating an obscure avant-garde Swedish art-poetry volume from the early eighties today: the poet’s “lifelong militant commitment against white supremacy in all its forms, whether it be the Nazi[s] … or Nixon’s ‘law and order’ administration.” The resurgence of overtly fascist ideology creates an unfortunate parallel between the world Hodell lampooned in 1981 and the one we’re currently living in.

Publisher Ugly Duckling Presse’s Lost Literature Series, of which The Marathon Poet is the thirtieth publication, was created to bring the out-of-print, forgotten, and never-before-translated to a wider audience. Between Hodell’s status as a relative unknown in the English-speaking world, his frequent allusions to the Swedish experimental poetry scene and the country’s history and culture more generally, and his penchant for blending fact and fiction, Backström’s remarks are essential to making the work as accessible as it is. She does not overexplain or heavily annotate, which might go against the confrontational spirit of the work; she gives readers only what they need to experience The Marathon Poet for themselves.

The main narrative of The Marathon Poet centers on a fictional foot race between Swedish poets, in which Hodell finds himself the sole competitor after a sobriety test disqualifies all of his fellows. During the race, the poet forgets to breathe, undergoes several hallucinatory out-of-body experiences, visits a couple doctors and restaurants, and encounters figures from throughout history and myth: Virgil, Aphrodite, a stuffy politician named Napoleon, and several of Hodell’s friends and contemporaries.

The Marathon Poet, pages 34-35, with lines from “Episode Three” and a photograph of Hodell

This absurd story, presented in nine “episodes,” is intercut with brief, apocryphal creation myths for some of Hodell’s earlier works. In “From the Memoirs of Cerberus,” Hodell’s earlier poetry/“verbal brainwash” book presentarms is said to have been written while Hodell was in hell. He only returned to our world because his fellow sufferers “begged Cerberus to throw me out of hell and never again let me back in” (59). By the end, the eponymous mythological beast not only releases Hodell from damnation, but agrees to become his publisher.

While Hodell’s ideas and delivery are funny, heavily influenced by vaudeville theater and often possessing the same raucous energy as the best Monty Python sketches, he is interested in more than making the reader laugh. A major throughline of The Marathon Poet, and his body of work as a whole, is a radically anti-militarist and anti-nationalist stance. While the stories, poems, collages, and photographs that make up the book vary in content and composition, they almost all attack the military, imperialism, and conformity more generally.

This near-constant focus on war, violence, and the greed and social structures that cause them drives drastic tonal shifts throughout the work. “Carl Jonas Love Almqvist’s Military Hat,” the partially-true tale of another Swedish poet living briefly in the United States, begins with a fantastical and relatively cheerful letter from Almqvist to his wife back home and gradually devolves into a cruel, frenetic argument between Almqvist and the owner of the boarding house where he resides, interspersed with brutal depictions of the violence upon which America was built: 

Eighty bloodied heads
were displayed as a spectacle
on the streets of New Amsterdam
where the governor’s mother kicked them like footballs.
These events will recur. Go home, stranger.
There is no hope for this country.

Like much effective satire, Hodell’s pieces sometimes make for difficult reading: just behind or beside each witty observation is a more fundamentally disturbing truth. Even the comparatively lighter sections of verse on the fictional marathon confront existential dread, the limits of the human body, and the influence of militarism and violence in everyday culture. It is in the uncertain space between the joke and the tragedy that Hodell is most at home.

Just as he balances a variety of tones and uses them to create meaning in conjunction with and in opposition to each other, he juxtaposes and blends the visual and textual elements of each piece. Hodell regularly worked in collage both before and during The Marathon Poet, irreverently and effectively mashing up not only disparate images, but various art forms. In one section, a musical score calling for ever-increasing amounts of human snoring runs alongside a prose narrative which is itself frequently interrupted and incomplete.

The Marathon Poet, pages 106-107 with musical score above and narrative below

Hodell also uses the text itself as a sort of collage-space. He keeps the reader off-balance by deviating from the left margin in poems and standard paragraph structures in prose pieces, utilizing found text and pseudo-documentary, writing in a variety of languages and dialects, and constantly shifting his diction from formal to informal and back again.

This impulse toward collage allows him to directly comment on the ways in which a conformist, militaristic ideology has come to influence so many disparate areas of art and everyday life. Revealing the various building blocks and cast-off pieces of European and American culture, sometimes bluntly and sometimes hyperbolically, he forces us to think about the unconscious assumptions and desires underlying many social norms.

The Marathon Poet, pages 78-19: Spirit of Ecstasy Racing Car Opera. Photos on verso, text on recto.

On another level, his approach toward structure and genre simply reflect his personality and beliefs: why would an artist who so despises authority and convention confine himself to any traditional notion of what a book should be?

This wild creative impulse, along with Hodell’s ever-present humor, lend the volume an air of hopefulness despite its bleak subject matter: it is not only an account of the various destructive forces extant in the world, but a creative one in its own right.

When the fictional Hodell is taken to a doctor after the first few miles of his race nearly kill him, the diagnosis is bad: a pages-long list of the various maladies afflicting the poet’s body. When an observer offers to call an ambulance, the doctor responds:

“No, refrain from doing any such thing,”
says Dr. M.C. Retzius
with a quiet smile. “Humor is a state
where the four cardinal fluids of the body are well mixed.
In other words: The Poët is perfectly healthy.”

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.

One Hundred Excellent Flowers

One Hundred Excellent Flowers
Clifton Meador
2019

8.5 × 11 × .375 in.
64 pages
Binding: Screw post with cover wrap
Offset lithography
Edition of 200

Front cover of "One Hundred Excellent Flowers" shows screw post binding and blue paper wrap

Referencing the writings of Mao Tse-tung, One Hundred Excellent Flowers pairs a text of acerbic aphorisms with photographs of supermarket shelves, vending machines – and, yes, flowers – to critique contemporary consumer capitalism. Beneath the deceptively austere cover, the reader is confronted by a cacophony of color separations, made all the more powerful by the book’s relatively large format. The creative and metaphorical use of pre-press and print processes are a signature of Meador’s work, and One Hundred Excellent Flowers uses fluorescent ink instead of true CMYK. His expressive use of offset as a medium enables a key aesthetic argument – a pop art sensibility that recalls the 1950s and ‘60s, at a time when global powers seem intent on rekindling the Cold War.

Inside spread with close-up of flowers. Text reads: "Often, correct and good things were first regarded"

The book’s minimal cover is noteworthy given the visual excess inside. It is a dark blue paper wrapper with a cut circle to reveal the printed title on the first bound page. Three smaller circles along the spine reveal a screw post binding reminiscent of Kevin Osborn’s Real Lush. Although the books share bold colors and richly overprinted imagery, perhaps One Hundred Excellent Flowers is better compared to Fortunato Depero’s “bolted book,” Depero Futurista, with its combination of art, advertising and manifestos. The photographs inside show flowers, but also junk food and candy with visible brand names and price tags.

But Italian Futurism (and Fascism) are not the politics at play. Rather, the colophon refers to a particular episode in the history of Chinese communism, when Chairman Mao encouraged dissenting opinions only to later crush the dissenters. He is quoted, “Let a hundred flowers bloom / Let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Meador’s own writing throughout the book adopts this style, editorializing in a sardonic combination of elevated and prosaic language. The narrative voice prevents the pointed commentary from seeming didactic.

The text begins with the original quotation above, and the first half of the book reflects on the role of dissent in a society. The text sticks to the original Maoist metaphors of flowers and snakes – ideas and dissidents – but the imagery opens other interpretations. After a few pages, junk food intersperses the Warhol-esque flowers, juxtaposing consumer capitalism with the communist system with which the text began. Then a reprise signals a new section: “Let a hundred brands blossom. / Let a hundred corporations contend.” In the second half of the book, the text addresses the system that the images have hinted at.

Inside spread with image of supermarket shelves. Text reads: "Let them bloom for people to look at"

The imagery produces meaning through form as much as content. The compositions of the photographs disorient the reader with extreme close-ups and dizzying, diagonal points of view. However, the images barely operate as photographs thanks to Meador’s pre-press interventions. Ben-Day dots the size of dimes collide with checkerboards and crosshatching – an inexhaustible variety of half-tone patterns, part Lichtenstein, part glitch art. One Hundred Excellent Flowers intensifies the visual strategies of pop art to make them relevant in today’s manifestation of the consumer capitalist media environment that informed Lichtenstein and Warhol. The compositions are also calibrated for the sequential medium of the book, different even than the serial approach of Warhol’s offset-printed Flowers. The half-tones defy their design; they fail to coalesce into smooth images. Instead they call attention to fabrication, artifice. The misaligned patterns render the four process colors hyper-visible, but elsewhere create muddy fields of richly overprinted blacks. These images unravel at the fore-edge margin on the recto, leaving white space for the text to occupy.

The text, placed in the small field of negative space, feels precarious. The images dominate visually, but the stark contrast of black text on white paper (plus the consistent positioning) ensure the reader’s attention returns to the text with each turn of the page. The even pacing of the text gives the book a steady rhythm and brings out the abstract potential of the imagery. The ragged fore-edge contrasts with the orderly margins that run along the top and bottom of each page and even gutter crosses, which facilitate full-spread images remarkably well considering the screw post binding. The margins are no afterthought; the fore-edge is the center of the folded sheet, and thus could have been printed on. Meador plays with this by fore-edge printing a flower, but doesn’t take the idea further. Nevertheless the folded sheet adds to the book’s heft and, more importantly, prevents the copious overprinting from showing through from one page to the next. The feel of the folded sheet, draw attention to the act of reading, already heightened by the text’s position in the fore-edge margin where the reader’s thumbs reside.

Inside spread with close-up of junk food on shelves. Text reads: "Fill the aisles with bags of pernicious slop"

Just as the binding and composition engage and implicate the reader, the book’s content is scaffolded to hook the reader and then pull them into deeper waters. “How could sugary breakfast cereals ever be bad?” gives way to “Feed the people disgusting swill and call it a feast / until no one can tell the difference between poison and antidote.” From media to politicians, it’s not hard to see how Meador’s critique extends beyond food. In fact, it is not Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung that One Hundred Excellent Flowers channels, but another book of aphorisms – The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord. The two books, published within a few years of one another, form a dialectic that unlocks Meador’s project.

The central question is what (as noted in the colophon) Chairman Mao called “the correct handling of contradictions among the people.” For Debord, the spectacle is a means of deferring contradictions without resolving them, always offering something new as an alternative and distraction. Hence the ceaseless proliferation of “fragrant falsehoods” as Meador calls them. He renders the paralyzing freedom of endless choice in the grocery aisles and vending machines, hawking their wares with cheap prices and lurid colors. The various spectacles push and pull, intersect and overlap, but like the book’s half-tone patterns, never resolve into a seamless image. Following Debord, One Hundred Excellent Flowers suggests that freedom can be found no more in the poisonous decadence of US capitalism than the brutal repression of Chinese communism.

One Hundred Excellent Flowers is a model for thoughtful, historically-grounded political discourse at a time when hyperbolic soundbites are more fashionable. Meador elucidates contemporary social and economic problems by drawing on the visual and textual aesthetics of the 1960s – another era of conflict between China and the United States – at a time when counterculture movements once again push for structural change and challenge capitalist ideology around the world. Even with its pop art colors and strident writing, the book seems contemplative in the context of cable news commentary and social media. The medium lends itself to an individual experience without posturing, defensive or performative. Meador seizes that opportunity to weave together geopolitics and art history with familiar access points that help the reader place themselves in a system that is once again facing global resistance.

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.