Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy

Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy
Jeremy Bell
2021

11 × 8.5 in. closed
54 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Digital printing

Cover of Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy

Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy is one of three books about William Hogarth by the independent scholar (and musician) Jeremy Bell. The three books, along with their online paratext, form a fluid ecosystem of interconnected and self-referential scholarship. Taken together, the reading experience reflects research in the age of hyperlinks and Wikipedia rabbit holes. As a guide through this material, Bell is impish yet erudite. Along with Bell’s writing style, the design of Hogarth’s Copycats captures this spirit in printed form.

From the outside, Hogarth’s Copycats could be mistaken for a children’s book. It is a slim, horizontal-format paperback with a glossy, full-color cover. The inside overflows with color illustrations on every page, illustrations which quickly reveal that the book is probably not for children. Nor does it fit comfortably in the genre of children’s books for adults, since its form also draws on and subverts other genres: art historical monographs, museum publications, online research, and even Hogarth’s own satirical art.

Hogarth’s Copycats , pages 14-15, assortment of contemporary political satires based on “A Rake’s Progress”

Bell’s compendium of artworks that reference, rip off, and appropriate Hogarth is organized by project (Marriage A-la-Mode, A Rake’s Progress, and so on). Headlines announce the project or theme, but there is no table of contents or index for the reader to navigate. Hogarth’s Copycats is an immersive tour led by Bell in first and third person. Bell jumps in without an introduction: “Let’s begin with some humorous face-swaps of Hogarth and his dog named ‘Trump.’” This tour guide tone continues throughout the book. On page forty-five Bell writes, “I hope you are enjoying this collation of artwork that has been inspired by William Hogarth.” Stops on the tour reflect the wide-ranging influence of Hogarth on centuries of art, illustration, and satire. Bell covers piracy by Hogarth’s contemporaries (which led to the Engraving Copyright Act of 1734), twentieth-century film adaptations, public service announcements, contemporary art, and more.

Even as Bell samples the breadth of Hogarth-inspired works, his own research interests emerge. Building on his first book, William Hogarth: A Freemason’s Harlot, Bell examines the role of Masonic imagery in Hogarth’s work. Likewise, Bell revels in Hogarth’s low-brow body humor, continuing lines of inquiry from his second book, The Fine Art of Dick Pics and Selfies. Since the references to Hogarth’s originals are explicit in the works Bell discusses, Hogarth’s Copycats is less speculative than A Freemason’s Harlot. It does, however, rely on the same methods — visual analysis and iconography.

Hogarth’s Copycats , pages 44-45, visual analysis of a Hogarth painting and its pirated print

Bell’s iconographic approach is almost paranoid, revealing secret Masonic symbols and faces hidden in shrubbery. While some assertions are more convincing than others, Hogarth’s work lends itself to such sleuthing. The artist certainly used symbolism and veiled references in his satire, and Masonic themes have been documented in his work. Hogarth’s visual puns and references to other works likely explain much of the appeal for other artists to riff on his work. Bell is hardly an objective observer himself. He celebrates Hogarth’s ability to hide things, from symbols to entire narratives, in plain sight.

Having abandoned neutrality for something more like fandom, Bell presents himself with a humorous, fitting mix of self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation. Bell credits himself with new discoveries hidden in Hogarth’s work, but also thanks his research assistants, “Miss Google” and “young Master Wiki.” He also thanks “The Trustees of the British Museum and other sites that allowed downloads of their artwork.” For Bell, original research requires only access to art and attention to detail. Whether this is read as satire of a certain type of connoisseurship, or a defense of close looking in an age of big data, “distant reading,” and digital distractions, art historians should take note.

A similar self-deprecating ambiguity results from the book’s mix of scholarship and crass commercialism. Throughout Hogarth’s Copycats, references to Bell’s other books are delivered like sales pitches as much as scholarly citations — an irreverence that matches that of the copycats he studies. The Chapman Brothers, for example, show a deep understanding of art history, but were criticized for painting directly on works by Goya for their series, Insult to Injury. Hogarth himself blended nuanced political commentary with misogynistic and homophobic tropes and produced grand history paintings alongside bawdy illustrations. He also pilfered from the likes of Albrecht Dürer. Ultimately, Bell’s enthusiasm for many of the contemporary copycats like Cold War Steve and Henry Hudson shows the same reverence for art that led Hogarth to write books about beauty even as he produced grotesque works like The Four Stages of Cruelty.

Hogarth’s Copycats , pages 18-19, “Many forms of ‘the baby drop’”

Bell seems to celebrate the creativity of the uncreative. He also demonstrates that Hogarth’s formulas are endlessly generative, even as politics and aesthetics change over centuries. Bell’s analysis is almost structuralist in its focus on the roles and relationships in Hogarth’s work. The phenomenon of copycats shows that corrupt politicians, sycophants, and hypocrites are a feature of every time and place. Bell highlights this meme-ready modularity but also shows what is lost when copycats (and art historians) miss the details that make Hogarth’s work anything but generic.

In showing that Hogarth still matters today, Bell also shows that the basic tools of art history remain effective. Hogarth’s Copycats has an internet aesthetic in many ways, but at its core it is simply an illustrated art history book full of side-by-side comparisons, details, and diagrams. Bell is well-versed in the life and times of Hogarth, but his own scholarship is primarily a matter of close looking. This method is especially fruitful given Hogarth’s penchant for hidden details and double entendres, but by no means limited to him.

Bell makes art history accessible and entertaining. He even provides intriguing avenues for future research. At the same time, he deploys structural, visual, textual, and paratextual devices to undermine his own methods and message. The book’s self-referentiality and the unreliability of its narration places Hogarth’s Copycats in dialogue with artists’ books as well as the art it discusses. The self-reflexivity of artists’ books often excludes general audiences, but Bell’s humorous handling of the medium will welcome new readers to artists’ books and art history alike.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau
Emmanuelle Waeckerlé
Contributions by Vicky Smith and Michael Hampton
MA Bibliothèque
2021

4.125 × 6.75 in. closed
92 pages
Perfect bound softcover with French flaps
Digital printing

Front cover of A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau; below the title is a close-up photo of a handwritten performance transcript

Emmanuelle Waeckerlé is an interdisciplinary artist who works in sound, performance, and publishing. For over two decades, she has been elaborating the concept of readwalking — the simultaneous practice of reading as walking and walking as reading. The shared essence of these seemingly disparate activities is the embodied, performative inscription and interpretation of space, on and off the page. Waeckerlé’s artists’ books document her performances but also serve as performance scores that encourage readers to become readwalkers. This redefinition of reading alone makes Waeckerlé’s work an important contribution to the field, though readers will also appreciate her ability to revivify literary works, like Thoreau’s essay “Walking” or the erotic novel Histoire d’O by Pauline Réage.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: sparse black words are selected from the grey text of Thoreau's essay, "Walking"

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau exemplifies Waeckerlé’s two-pronged approach to process and product. The publication is primarily a performance score, but also includes a text transcription of one of her own readwalking performances. The reader witnesses her clever engagement with the text, but they are also empowered to try readwalking for themselves. The book also includes two essays that put the project in dialogue with broader currents in art and literature. For all of this, the A Direction Out There is simple and approachable. Its core is the complete text of Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking” with most of the words screened back to a light gray. By subtracting from, but not fully redacting, Thoreau’s writing, Waeckerlé creates a poetic text that can be enacted through her readwalking instructions. Four examples of such a performance are features on an accompanying CD, released by Edition Wandelweiser Records.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: performance instructions for readwalkers

The book’s particular mode of redaction is critical — Thoreau’s text is deemphasized but remains visible; a tenuous tissue that connects but also haunts the sparse words Waeckerlé has selected for her new work. An epigraph by Thoreau speaks to the value of subtraction:

“I find it so difficult to dispose of the few facts which to me are significant, that I hesitate to burden my attention with those that are insignificant, which only a divine mind could illustrate.”

It seems Waeckerlé aims to help the reader focus on what is most essential in Thoreau’s essay — a mission the transcendentalist might approve of, though Waeckerlé is more concerned with the material, rather than symbolic, value of his language. The book’s straightforward, minimal presentation contributes to this goal, though the format is actually determined by the publisher, MA Bibliothèque, as part of their series, The Constellations. Waeckerlé encourages readers to follow their own path through the altered landscape of the text, singing, speaking, and “un-speaking” words according to specific parameters. Alternatively, readers with instruments or other noisemakers can respond to punctuation and walking-related words. The instructions are intentionally open-ended (and thus hard to imagine without an example), so the two-page transcription of a readwalking performance by Waeckerlé is a welcome addition to the book. Audio recordings are also available to stream online, which enhance the experience for a first-time readwalker.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: a typeset transcription of a readwalking performance of Thoreau's essay, "Walking"

Essays by Michael Hampton and Vicky Smith also help the reader without foreclosing other interpretations. Both writers address the persistence of Thoreau’s ghostly text, which exerts its will on the readwalker even as it relies on them for renewed life. (For example, can one really rescue the text’s anticapitalist environmentalism from its imperialist manifest destiny?) Hampton also speaks to the contemporary politics of mobility, of readwalking in a time of Covid-19 travel restrictions and refugee crises. Smith calls on media theorist Craig Dworkin to demonstrate the socially constructed nature of a text, and reads Waeckerlé’s work from a feminist perspective invested in the “speech of blanks and hiatus that Kristeva has identified as the language of the negated.”

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: Michael Hampton's essay is typeset unconventionally to posit ideas simultaneously

Just as Waeckerlé enlivens Thoreau’s essay and shows how many possible interpretations are available, Hampton and Smith show that A Direction Out There should be seen as a method as much as a finished work. Reading the book is a dynamic process. Thoreau’s elegant writing pulls the reader back into the original essay and Waeckerlé’s own selection can divert the readwalker from their chosen instructions. This is not a failure, but rather the very essence of readwalking. The text is like a trail, something to follow but also to add to, stray from, or otherwise alter. Waeckerlé refers to the book as a “prepared text,” recalling John Cage’s “prepared pianos,” which guided but did not fully determine his performances.

This is ultimately what any artists’ book hopes to do — guide the reader but remain open to interpretation. In theorizing readwalking, Waeckerlé centers the embodied and performative aspects of reading. A Direction Out There reminds us that every book is a performance score, and that reading is always also writing, and that writing, like walking, is an intervention in space, with ethical as well as aesthetic dimensions.

Asemic Walks: 50 Templates for Pataphysical Inspections

Asemic Walks: 50 Templates for Pataphysical Inspections
Hartmut Abendschein
Timglaset Editions
2020

8.25 × 6 in. closed
108 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Laser printing

Front cover of Asemic Walks, which is landscape format. The title and author are white on a red background. A black path cuts diagonally across the cover.

If the title of Asemic Walks: 50 Templates for Pataphysical Inspections seems somewhat opaque, the book itself is transparent – literally. Fifty sheets of translucent drafting vellum, each with a printed route, are bound between a few solid pages of front and back matter. In the front, an epigraph from Species of Spaces sets the tone, with Georges Perec urging the reader to practice attention and curiosity. In the back, Abendschein gathers interpretations and responses from various artists, writers and thinkers. Between these sets of quotes, the pages are devoid of verbal content. The book is cerebral, but still deeply engaged with the sensual experience of reading. It is through a deep understanding of the codex as a time-based, interactive medium that Asemic Walks surpasses its own clever conceptual conceit and shines as a physical object.

Asemic Walks inside spread, map 3. The epigraph is still visible beneath the translucent verso.

Each translucent sheet has the appearance of a map, complete with a frame and a compass rose. Dashed and dotted lines trace routes across the surface of the page. Geometric symbols seem to represent waypoints and destinations. Yet it is with these details that the appearance of a map breaks down. There is no legend. There is no scale. Indeed, there is no terrain. The book provides only the translucent route beneath which the reader must furnish their own map to complete a walk. Thus, Asemic Walks is a book that can be used and not merely read. Its translucent pages remain central to the fascinating tensions between these two activities.

Abendschein tempers his invitation to bring one’s own map with a curious dedication following the title page: “to my father, who read maps like books.” What then do the translucent pages do for the reader, rather than the user, of the book? The reader excavates a palimpsest of overlapping routes, forming new shapes on recto and verso as they page through the book. The intricate webs are visually compelling, but Abendschein steers clear of pure abstraction. Each page is numbered, and each compass rose has initials indicating the cardinal directions. This, absurdly, creates a right side and a wrong side of the page, though both are meaningless without a map. A map, however, renders the fifty templates moot since a single route can be laid atop any number of maps to generate infinite walks.

Asemic Walks, inside spread. Colophon and publication information on the verso, dedication on the recto: to my father, who read maps like books.

Like all asemic writing, the routes in Asemic Walks have no meaning because they have infinite meanings. It is up to the reader to determine their significance, in both senses of the word. This emphasis on the imagination may help explain what Abendschein means by “pataphysical inspection.” A full definition of pataphysics — were it possible — would be outside the scope of a book review, but one key concept is that art has the power to make reality from the imaginary. A telling distinction can be made between pataphysics and psychogeography, the latter which is more often associated with walking art.

While the Situationists practiced psychogeography by, for example, navigating Paris with a map of New York, a pataphysician might argue that there is no right or wrong map. The map itself can change the reality it represents. The inventor of pataphysics, Alfred Jarry, set his novel, Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician, aboard a ship on a sea that overlaid Paris. The plot plays out on a linguistic plane, untouched by the reality of the submerged city beneath it.

Asemic Walks, inside spread, map 36. Verso and recto are both busy palimpsests of translucent maps.

This level of remove is encapsulated in the pataphor, the pataphysical extension of the metaphor. While a metaphor juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated terms, the pataphor takes this figurative, metaphorical relationship as a starting point for yet another juxtaposition, this one entirely figurative with no grounding in the literal. The pataphor exists on imaginary, linguistic terrain that the reader can nevertheless traverse.

A map is already a metaphor. Its user must make an imaginative leap from paper to pavement. Asemic Walks takes that metaphor as its starting point and adds another layer. Abendschein is less interested in the gap between the map and reality; he is ready to move beyond the literal altogether. A reader may slip a map between the book’s pages and take whatever walk they conjure, but to use Asemic Walks is to transpose reading and walking alike onto a plane of pure imagination. If this can be achieved just as easily by leafing through the book’s translucent pages, why bother walking at all? I would argue that the pataphysical belief that the imagined can be lived as reality is best felt outside a book, where readers already take for granted the temporary suspension of reality.

Asemic Walks, inside spread, map 29. Verso and recto are both busy palimpsests of translucent maps.

Plenty of books help the reader escape reality for a while, but Asemic Walks asks the reader to go outside into the real world and see it transformed. It is not merely a means to an end, though. Asemic Walks offers a genuine reading experience for those who want to stay inside. The book’s pacing balances the complexity of each layout with the translucent pages beneath it. While reading a conventional book simply reveals and conceals its pages, Asemic Walks comes into being continuously. A reader sees each page transformed again and again, even before it is in hand. Reading, even indoors without a map, rewards the curiosity and attention that Perec advocates when walking.

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.

The Circus

The Circus
Tara Homasi
Pinsapo Press / Publication Studio
2019

9 × 12.25 × 0.7 in.
190 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Digital printing

Front cover of The Circus; a line drawing of an archer below the title text

Tara Homasi coaxed The Circus out of an existing book, The Circle of Life: Rituals from the Human Family Album. If Tom Phillips’ seminal redacted book, A Humument, is impressive because the original book is mediocre, obscure and visually bland, The Circus takes on the opposite challenge. The Circle of Life is a large-format, color photobook of rituals from around the world. The text that accompanies these emotionally charged images is peppered with quotes from the likes of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, the introduction is by Gabriel García Márquez and the afterword is by Peter Matthiessen. Homasi’s challenge is not making something of nothing, but rather making something new and deeply personal from this wellspring of universal themes.

The Circus, inside spread; text and image of a circumcision on verso, text and image of baptism on recto

She takes on this enormous task (scratching her work into existence with hundreds of blades) during a period of isolation and malaise. In the book’s introduction, she describes witnessing the world without being able to act in it as “the aquarium,” and turns to redaction as a way of removing layers of mediation and reconnecting outside the glass. The book chronicles this process with handwritten date stamps and occasional commentary that mix the artist’s real life into the narrative she creates. By documenting its own creation, The Circus draws a parallel not only between Homasi’s practice and the reader’s experience but also many of the rituals in the original book.

The Circus, inside spread; finger paint obscures the full-bleed spread

By retaining a close relationship with the original book, The Circus is able to examine its own book-ness. Homasi is especially playful with the book’s peritextual elements. She manipulates the original page numbers while preserving their actual order, declares in the front matter that “no part of this book may be used whatsoever,” and awards herself “the National Boo.” She also cleverly brings peritext into the main text. For example, she can use the repeated word “photograph” to address themes of mediation and memory, since it appears in image credits on almost every page of the original book. Even her mode of redaction, a combination of scraping ink off the page and adding her own media to the surface, demonstrates an interest in the material book. The three-dimensionality of each page is as important as their combined sequence.

Of course, working by redaction results in one major difference between The Circus and its source text: The Circus has less text. This shifts the balance between text and image and results in a number of possible reading experiences. As a continuous narrative, the text carries the reader from page to page quite quickly. The images flash into the reader’s subconscious like the dreams and memories they pair with. Focus on the images though, and the text fragments into cryptic captions. The book merits both approaches; each of its complex images would hold their own on a gallery wall, and the text is varied but cohesive.

The Circus, inside spread; partly-redacted quote from C.G. Jung with image

Their individual strengths aside, Homasi seems most interested in using the book form to orchestrate the interplay of text and image. She disrupts edges and margins from the original book, sometimes fusing photographs across the gutter or covering an entire spread with full-bleed imagery. Elsewhere, she relies on the minimalist impact of redaction: a stark white page where only “the removal of the clitoris” remains. Homasi also plays with spoken versus written language. She extends a “woohoo” across two pages of the letter O, with a result decidedly more haunted than celebratory. Later, she encourages the reader to “read this out loud in front of two adults” and promises “things will happen.”

The Circus, inside spread; altered image on verso and recto plus redacted text and handwritten note on verso

Deconstructing visual and verbal communication is key to overcoming the existential isolation that motivated the book. Homasi writes: “Language is my second language, imagery is my first. When I combine the two, I connect to the world.” If Homasi’s problem is disconnection, language is both cause and cure. The Circus grapples with whether we can overcome cultural and individual difference and whether what we have in common is something to be celebrated or feared. This plays out on personal and political terrain. Homasi alludes to her own divorce throughout the text and refers to specific family members. Yet the date stamps on every page remind the reader that the then-US-based, Iranian artist’s time in “the aquarium” coincides with Trump’s presidency and Middle East travel bans.

Reading today, it is hard to believe The Circus wasn’t created in response to Covid-19, but Homasi isn’t prophetic so much as strategic. The Circus retains enough of the universality celebrated in The Circle of Life to assure a connection with readers (Jung and Campbell weren’t wrong about everything, after all). Perhaps most telling are the parallels between Homasi’s own practice and the rituals she redacts. From photographs of people around the world painting bodies, shaving hair, cutting skin, and telling stories, Homasi paints and scrapes and cuts her own new narrative. Homasi shows how individuals cope, through redacting and amending, with the scripted lives they inherit.

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 softcover
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.

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.

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.”