To My Unborn Child

To My Unborn Child
Wen-Li Chen
2018

7 × 9 × 1 in. closed
296 pages
Sewn hardcover with exposed spine
Digital printing
Edition of 5

To My Unborn Child, front cover. Black bookcloth with not text.

As the title implies, To My Unborn Child is an epistolary work ostensibly addressed to Chen’s then-unborn child. It addresses concerns shared by many expecting parents as well as some particular to Chen’s own inheritance as a multi-ethnic Taiwanese (Kavalan and Sakilaya) and Han Chinese woman living in the United States. The stakes of these personal and political concerns are deeply felt, from the pangs of guilt and loss that come with the slow cultural erasure of assimilation to the threat of sudden political annihilation that characterizes Taiwan’s precarious existence as a democracy. To My Unborn Child corresponds with a 2018 exhibition of the same name, but the book is very much a cohesive artistic expression in itself. Indeed, Chen shows how well suited the book form is for exploring identity — fragmented, contradictory, always in flux.

To My Unborn Child is, in fact, a version of an existing genre: the Zupu, or genealogy book. It may also, following the exhibition, include elements of fiction as well as memoir. In Chen’s handling, this family book weaves together text, image, and material from a variety of sources. Family archives (photos, correspondence, family trees) are paired with a primer on the history of Taiwan and the text from a public monument commemorating the Kalyawan Battle, in which indigenous Taiwanese rose up against Han occupiers during the Qing Dynasty. In this regard, the epistolary framework is a clever conceit, allowing Chen to introduce readers to the history and geopolitics of Taiwan in a way that is didactic but not condescending. And addressing the reader in second person makes the more personal content especially powerful.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: timeline of Taiwan history. Recto: excerpt from a Kavalan song.

From these variegated sources, the book is organized into five sections: (Your) people, (Your) culture, (Your) family, (Your) name, (Your) future. While the content of each section differs, they follow a similar pattern. Each begins with a single word or phrase to set the tone or context; however, some words are transliterated not translated, leaving an English-speaking reader to research or go forth without guidance — either of which reflect the fragmented, discontinuous nature of memory, inheritance, and identity. Having studied foreign languages and literature, Chen understands the feelings of distance or belonging that come with language and uses these devices to modulate the book’s level of intimacy and emotional register.

Each section also features a pair of paragraphs in English and Chinese. The English texts are prose with a memoiristic, almost confessional tone, while the Chinese side is more poetic. The Chinese writing is untranslated and the relationship between the two is not always linear. (For the sake of reviewing the book, I relied on a friend, Kaixi Burns, to translate the poetry when it became clear that Google Lens wouldn’t do justice to the quality of Chen’s writing.) Family photographs, faded and distressed to anonymize their subjects and perhaps speak to memory and loss, and other family documents also appear in each section. Text, especially handwriting, also operates as an index of absent presence (and further demonstrates the feeling of connectedness that language can produce, even untranslated).

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: English memoir with Chinese poem, side by side. Recto: A flying seagull casts a shadow on the beach below, the image is rotated 90 degrees.

The book’s five sections are separated by spreads of full-bleed black, but there are also elements that carry through and lend continuity to the reading experience. These throughlines are contemporary color photographs with oblique connections to the main text. For example, what appear to be stills from a video of a seagull flying along a beach repeat throughout the book in different configurations and orientations. These eventually coalesce in a grid on a single spread, radically collapsing their timeframe. Playing with timescale is a key feature of To My Unborn Child, which leaps from a history lesson beginning in 1632 to a line-by-line transcription of a mundane phone call. Never mind the sense of futurity, the unborn baby, which underpins the project.

This temporal play makes the book’s own timing critical, and here Chen displays impressive sensitivity to the formal devices that pace the reader. Some spreads feature perfectly balanced typography that invites the reader to sit with a text, while others propel the reader forward with dynamic fragments that require resolution. The result is a book where the turn of a page is never predictable, but nor is it random. Chen advances the narrative and introduces new ideas using variations on central themes, unifying the reading experience without tying a bow with each thread.

However, on the subject of timescale, I must confess I have buried the lede. What distinguishes To My Unborn Child is the overwhelming majority of the book’s 296 pages belong to an extended cinematic sequence, where Chen’s interest in film and photographic theory is on full display. Not quite a flipbook, the motion-blurred interlude shows a single family photo of three figures dancing, with the hand holding the photograph visible. It is not clear whether the hand or the camera is moving — perhaps both. At times the viewer relates more to the original image in the photograph, other times to the photograph as an object (a physical record in someone’s hand), or even to the hand holding the photograph.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread: a full-bleed image of a hand holding a photograph. The photo shows three figures dancing.

This strategy of reanimating the photograph as more than a representation, with a keen sense of its experience in the book form, illustrates what Chen calls moving from, “medium into material and back into becoming another medium.” By harnessing this transformation, the artists’ book can integrate disparate materials and temporalities, like installation art but within a single object. This allows Chen to enact the transformation that is also inherent in photography itself. As her artist’s statement notes:

“The moment of taking a picture is also the evidence of its passing. Image making attempts to reengage the trace left in an image, the plasticity found in reorganizing memory and intention. However, no amount of altering can completely erase that initial sense of passing, death as a picture.”

In To My Unborn Child, heritage is always haunted by loss. Whether political, cultural, or personal, no inheritance is complete. Nor can one predict what gets handed down or how it might manifest in the future. Against this uncertainty, Chen embraces multiple modes of memorialization — monuments, names, family trees, photographs, letters, stories, and poems. The result is an intimate look at the artist’s complicated relationship to her language(s), culture(s), and family. No doubt this examination was sincerely motivated by her immanent motherhood, but it is ultimately the reader who plays the role of Chen’s unborn child. Thus, we can add art to the list above, another way to process and share one’s cultural heritage. At the same time, art carries forward a piece of its creator, not unlike a child.

To My Unborn Child, inside spread. Verso: a distressed black and white photo shows two children. Recto: English memoir and Chinese poem, side by side.

The need to keep alive connections to family and culture is all the more important at a time of overlapping refugee crises and cultural erasures. Some of the most poignant moments in To My Unborn Child center on the profound disconnect that accompanies emigration, on trying to keep in touch with an aging grandparent, on worrying about visiting because of travel restrictions, on feeling guilty for leaving in the first place,. Chen uses the artists’ book to convey the ambivalence of her experience, its multiple timescales and layers of history. As stories like hers become even more common, the need for representations that embrace complexity and specificity will only grow. To My Unborn Child is a model for synthesizing personal and political histories, even as it acknowledges the inevitability of loss and change.

a story, the truth, and a screenplay

a story, the truth, and a screenplay
Ruby Figueroa
2017

5.125 × 8.25 in.
96 pages
Long stitch softcover
Offset insides with letterpress covers

Cover of "a story, the truth, and a screenplay". Metallic title text on a colorful abstract background.

I’m a sucker for a character that breaks the fourth wall. The camera shifts, eyes meet through the screen, and we are brought in on real-time reactions and feelings. That slicing of time — cut! — interjected with an aside, a quick quip or snide remark shatters. It can also transform: morphing into a dreamy Vaseline-on-the-lens flashback … or better yet, a reimagined fantasy of what could have been. These tropes of teen-driven movies and sitcoms? We get them all in the memoir-as-artists’-book, a story, the truth, and a screenplay, by Ruby Figueroa.

Inside spread of "a story, the truth, and a screenplay" with conventional typography in black ink.

Figueroa delivers a poignant narrative in four sections, woven together by a keen aesthetic treatment of photographs and screenplay interjections. Overall, the book bears markers of a trade paperback in its production and scale: tidily bound and offset printed. Unique letterpress-printed covers usher the reader in with roller-washy, lakeshore lapping tidelines in hues of magenta, peach, teal, maybe even hints of Chicago common brick (at least on this reader’s copy) and pink, directed towards the use of color in the interior.

"a story, the truth, and a screenplay," inside spread. On the verso a conventional layout; on the recto a typewriter-style screenplay in magenta.

While most of the book is set in a black serif typeface with a traditional book page layout, the addition of fluorescent pink ink in the typewriter face Courier, formatted like a screenplay, and vivid full-bleed photographic images in duotones of that same fluorescent pink and a peachy-orange ink activate the jump-cut of flashback or fantasy. Memory and nostalgia are described bluntly by the author throughout, with a hazy honesty of knowing what was, remembering it another way, and wishing it to be. These interjected pages, both the photographic images and the pink screenplay texts, feel like they’ve been applied with a swipe of the finger — a uniform Instagram-style filter through which to process disparate information.

"a story, the truth, and a screenplay," inside spread. On the verso a pink and peach duotone photo of the artist and sister as children. The recto reads, "part one: la embajada"

Figueroa breaks these aesthetic decisions down in what was, to me, the most self-aware and least compelling part of the project. In this last, most reflective and experimental section, there is a concerted effort to explain the reasoning for the duotone and the pink that feels like a heavy-handed artists’ statement. Up to this moment, the reader is generously left to connect with and follow the sentimental narrative of Figueroa’s coming-of-age story with those interjections as guiding signposts. The didactic explanation of intent is understandable considering the book, presented alongside a series of monoprints, was Figueroa’s thesis project as a Master of Fine Arts candidate in Interdisciplinary Book, Paper, and Print Arts from Columbia College Chicago.

With or without pointed direction from the artist, the day-glo filters over the screenplay skits and images are key to appreciating the book. These photographic images act as stages: cinematic in their dimensions, and I hold them in my vision with a Ken Burns effect, panning and zooming as I read the corresponding sections. This parallax view, the images as still-shots and visual echoes that resonate, joins the duotone images in a list of duos, pairs: Figueroa tells us this is a story about Ruby and their sister, about Ruby and their mother, about Ruby’s mother and father, the dichotomy of growing up in Humboldt Park and moving to a Chicago suburb, about Ruby as a first-generation Mexican-American person, but ultimately it is a story about Ruby-then and Ruby-now. 

"a story, the truth, and a screenplay," inside spread. On the verso a pink and peach duotone photo of a rainbow over a Chicago intersection. The recto reads, "part 4: summer 2016"

Am I brushing past the very meat of the story? Maybe so. The ways that Figueroa shares, divulges, confesses, dishes, and leads the reader through their evolving understanding of self (selves?) is so intimate and generous that to sum it up in any way feels reductive. We follow Ruby reflecting on childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood through the lenses of family, sexuality, relationships, home, and community. The screenplay snippets speak to the underlying presence of media geared toward teens and tweens from the late-1990s through mid-2000s, and the prescriptive ways that it set expectations for “coming of age,” gender norms, and sexuality. Comedy of this era was, at its worst, gag-driven with a gross-out vibe, but at its best delivered with the dead-pan, eye-rolling attitude that Figueroa carries throughout. When the diaristic qualities of Figueroa’s memoir narrative become too saccharine, mistily rose-tinted, or deeply shrouded in regret, Figueroa is the first to interrupt themself with a clarifying parenthetical, sometimes a direct apology to the reader or just a quick “(barf).” 

It’s these moments of levity that bring me back to the on-screen character who breaks the fourth wall. Figueroa’s angle is less a coddling “Dear reader,” and more an elbow jab at your side, “Get a load of this, reader…” This gesture of familiarity allows the reader to become entangled in the project, yielding one as of yet overlooked duo: Ruby and the reader. From the onset in the book’s preface, we are led into the narrative with a tight grip from Figueroa delivering a warning that most of what we are about to read is true, but some stories are victim to “false memories and dramatization. With this awareness, Figueroa actively cultivates a relationship between Ruby and the reader built upon trust. That trust is reflected in a genuine gratitude extended to the reader for participating in this project. Like a healthy relationship, there is a balanced exchange here between all parties: Figueroa, Ruby, and the reader.

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.

Terra Nullius

Terra Nullius
Christopher Kardambikis
2020

7.5 × 10.25 in. closed
50 pages
Binding: Plastic strip fastener
Risograph

Terra Nullius front cover. The title and artist are centered in a black and gold geometric abstraction.

I try not to talk about William Blake. I love his work, but I find his outsized role in the genealogy of artists’ books to be of little use for contemporary criticism. So, when I opened Terra Nullius by Christopher Kardambikis, I shuddered. Its cosmological motifs and inky, atmospheric pages are positively Blake-esque. Flipping through, I came to a spread with a pair of dividers on the verso; perhaps just this once there is a good reason to invoke the dubious originator of artists’ books. Sure enough, the recto opposite folded out to reveal a hidden image – Blake’s Newton – rendered as a mural on the side of a building. But what does Isaac Newton, or William Blake for that matter, have to do with the decline of rust belt Pennsylvania?

In Terra Nullius, Kardambikis returns to his hometown of New Castle, PA. He weaves together family and local histories in short sections of prose, interspersed with two modes of image-making. In the first, spreads of noisy black ink recapitulate Blake’s innovative printmaking in Risograph. Against this grainy night sky, line drawings of mysterious symbols pop with overprinted colors, not unlike the watercolor on Blake’s print. These drawings seem elemental, invoking ice, water, fire, and electricity, but without an indication of scale that would pin them down as specific objects. Other drawings in this mode seem like sketches and leftovers, not the building blocks of the universe, but of Kardambikis’ own process.

Terra Nullius inside spread, depicting a glowing filament/firework symbol against a grainy black background.

The second sort of images are photographic, and, together with the book’s structure, unlock the connection between Terra Nullius and Newton. Kardambikis’ photographs are presented as straight documentary shots of New Castle. Each black and white image is printed with a black border and centered on a recto. Yet these conventional, almost banal images, conceal a wondrous explosion of speculative weirdness. The book is bound with folded fore-edges, and only the rectos with photographs are cut short to unfold further. Each of these hidden scenes is grounded with a repetition of the photograph above, but distorted, printed in wild colors, and augmented with a collage of more mystical elements. Once the reader has the pattern down, the drawings opposite the photograph offer a hint of what might lie beneath. And so, we return to the dividers, the building, and Newton.

Terra Nullius inside spread. On the verso a drawing of dividers, on the recto a photo of a building.

For Blake, Newton stood for the myopic rationality of science. The motif of the dividers repeats in Blake’s character, Urizen – the bearded, old man who stands for reason and law. Urizen is a Satanic figure who abstracts and constrains humankind through law and convention, disconnecting us from spirit and imagination. It is this dissatisfaction with the reality that has been imposed, and a belief that art can overcome it, that Kardambikis shares with Blake. He writes:

“The town of New Castle, Pennsylvania circumscribes several spaces simultaneously … The space of the small town, worn thin but cut with well worn grooves by daily rituals. Grooves that carry a flow of memory and people that, in turn, carry a weight.

The second space is speculative. A site in which one can rearrange and examine the component parts to conjure, if however briefly, possibilities.”

Terra Nullius, three-page spread with dividers on the left and Blake's "Newton" in a mural on the right.

The phrase “daily ritual” shows the ambivalence of the grooves Kardambikis sees. Ritual can rekindle the spiritual, but it can also lapse into convention. He returns to New Castle with fresh eyes, seeing a story beyond – or beneath – the dominant narrative of rust belt decline. This alternate reality manifests literally in the drawings and distortions unfolded beneath the book’s conventional photographs. Such a reimagining is not reserved for artists, though. Kardambikis recalls cruising the town square, “the diamond,” as a teenager, driving around with the hope that something new might happen. Nothing ever did, but cruising as a ritual is a powerful shared exercise in imagining another reality.

In fact, Kardambikis seems ambivalent about the role of art in such an endeavor. The dividers that symbolize conformity are also the tool of a bookbinder. And it is in a book of brass that Urizen inscribes his laws for humankind. Even today, when we “throw the book” at someone, we invoke the full force of our legal system. Terra Nullius itself is a legal principle, although the book does little to explore the term’s colonial connotations. Like the grooves of daily ritual, a book is a site of freedom and restraint.

Terra Nullius three-page spread, with a fireball on the left and a distorted traffic circle on the right.

Terra Nullius keeps these aspects in tension and demonstrates that neither is absolute. The documentary images that serve as a foil for the speculative scenes they conceal are themselves highly mediated. Their grainy Riso printing is emphasized by the noisy halftone patterns that encroach on the fore-edge of each page. It is only by convention that the black and white images seem somehow more realistic than the bright colors beneath them. Thus, the binary built into the book’s structure is blurred by its print production.

Rather than critiquing the book form, these complications remind the reader what we are capable of. If we can read – and enjoy – a complex book like Terra Nullius, then we already know how to rearrange and conjure new possibilities. The New Castles Kardambikis imagines are his own, and so too will each reader bring their own interpretations to his narrative. Reading isn’t so different than driving through a small town. There are rules to follow, and structures to guide us, but we can choose to cruise the diamond and see if something else is possible.

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.

This Land is My Land

This Land is My Land
Thad Higa
2021

5.5 × 8.5 in. closed
100 pages and two multi-page foldouts
Coptic binding with uncovered boards
Digital printing

Front cover of This Land is My Land

Thad Higa describes This Land is My Land as “a fictional narrative from the imagined headspace of current day white supremacists.” Artists rarely approach such a project with the required radical empathy, attempting to deepen their understanding of someone with opposing views, no matter how repulsive. The resulting works fall short, with straw men for subjects; narratives with no protagonist with whom the reader can relate. This Land is My Land cleverly avoids this trap, though Higa’s representation of the white nationalist perspective is anything but subtle. The book’s writing, design and structure create an immersive, polyphonic experience more like a collective consciousness than the headspace of a single character. Higa knows he can’t dismantle white nationalism in an artists’ book, but as a poet and graphic designer, he can battle on linguistic and symbolic terrain – a field where white supremacy is active (and inherently visible).

It is in examining the language of white nationalism that Higa achieves the necessary depth and empathy. This Land is My Land is a showcase of the various and complex ways that words and symbols are used to promote white supremacy. The book weaves together all manner of rhetorical devices and strategies, creating an experience familiar to anyone who has read the comments on an online article or listened to attendees at a Trump rally. With this chaotic aesthetic, the book is less a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, and more like a classical symphony with separate movements. The movements address particular themes with distinct visual treatments and correspond to the book’s structure (six signatures and two elaborate foldouts). The exposed spine of the Coptic binding and raw book board covers emphasize the role of the book as more than a mere container.

Animated GIF of all 4 openings of the second interior foldout in "This Land is My Land" - on the theme of freedom

This Land is My Land is designed and printed digitally, but Higa is clearly invested in the tactility of reading.  I have never encountered foldouts quite like the ones in this book, but simple, strategic design elements like color and typeface were enough to guide me through the unfamiliar folds. Higa also plays with visual versus tactile texture, the most obvious example being actual torn pages and facsimile paper tears. Subtler contrasts, such as coated and uncoated papers, add further texture – literal and figurative – to the reading experience.

This tactility is one way Higa demonstrates how language inhabits and informs the physical world. He also manipulates symbols, letters and words in layouts that turn these bits of language into objects and agents interacting in space. In Higa’s hands, words inhabit the real world – cemeteries and supermarkets – and create their own environments from pure typography. They form dense walls of vitriol and elsewhere they dissolve into cyberspace, a ragged trickle of characters. The reality of language cannot be overstated in a book about land and borders, nations and countries. Such constructs are, after all, a matter of definition. And since much of the book’s appropriated imagery is from the Anti-Defamation League’s Hate Symbol Database, the physical impact of the language is easy to feel.

This Land is My Land, inside opening from early in the book. A black and white photo of a neglected cemetery spans the full spread. Red, abstract symbols based on the "othala rune" are centered in the composition, with black and white stars at the top and bottom left

Yet the materiality of language is only one half of This Land is My Land’s examination of white nationalist rhetoric. Higa identifies a dangerous and seemingly contradictory attribute of words and symbols – they are flexible, fluid, fungible. Especially online, white nationalists have harnessed humor, irony and plausible deniability to great effect. The power of these distancing devices is on display in This Land is My Land, whose narrative is disrupted by stark white spreads with one word each: lol, lmao, rofl. These spreads are later echoed by a series of pages spelling out the phrase “I want to break free,” as if the subconscious desire has bubbled up beneath the crust of internet irony.

This Land is My Land, inside opening with torn pages on the verso - the images are full color photos of pavement or gravestones. The recto is a white page with the word "lol" centered, and a right margin edge with a facsimile torn edge, mirroring the verso.

By playing with the gap between the explicit and implicit, conscious and subconscious, This Land is My Land can engage more deeply with the ways white nationalism appeals to individuals. This is not an attempt to empathize, but rather to deconstruct and disentangle intersectional issues. Higa shows how white supremacy corrodes institutions and ideas, from electoral politics and consumer capitalism to masculinity and parenthood. These intersections are easier inroads for the reader than the often-obscure hate symbols, but their familiarity breeds discomfort. Even progressive readers may find themselves reexamining what abstract concepts like ownership, inheritance, freedom and family mean, and how they ought to impact our daily lives.

This Land is My Land, inside opening with a full bleed image of a mass of stacked shopping carts. The photo is tinted red. The top half of the composition is a block of white text on a read background, around the theme of fear.

This Land is My Land doesn’t answer those questions, but Higa does insert his own voice (or at least that of a narrator from beyond the white nationalist headspace) to offer clarity amid the cacophony of soundbites and insults. In fact, this more poetic, reflective voice poses even more questions — and offers a few insults of its own. These interventions reinforce the connections between land, body and language and give the reader a critical perspective to cling to as they navigate the noise. This is especially important for the book’s conclusion, which exits the white nationalist headspace and deconstructs its rhetoric from the outside.

This dialectic from inside and outside the white nationalist perspective is calibrated to keep the reader from simply setting the book down in disgust or skimming through tired old stereotypes. (The engaging foldouts and tactile elements help with this as well.) The result is a fairly long artists’ book that can nevertheless be read in a single sitting – an immersive, cohesive experience in the book form. The work’s duration weighs on the reader, raising the stakes and hinting at life inside a right-wing echo chamber. One doesn’t feel particularly rosy after reading This Land is My Land, but it is empowering to witness an accomplished artist fight white supremacy with their linguistic and symbolic weapons.  

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.

Oriental Silk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visible Climate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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