Students

Students
Tia Blassingame
2019

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

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

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

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

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

Back cover of "Students" featuring the colophon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything Has a Language

Everything Has a Language
Marnie Powers-Torrey
2018
https://faculty.utah.edu/u0047935-Marnie_Powers-Torrey/hm/index.hml

2.875 × 6.5 in. closed
“Interlocking loops” accordion structure
Risograph

Everything Has a Language Cover

The paper engineering of Marnie Powers-Torrey’s Everything Has a Language is deceptively simple: it is a soft cover accordion with four panels. Both sides of the accordion are printed with bold, primary color imagery and coated in wax.* Riffing on Hedi Kyle’s “interlocking loops” structure, horizontal slits divide the accordion into a grid, organizing spaces for the mysterious geometric illustrations that comprise the book’s main content. The only written content is the title. This fact, and the title itself, suggest that the reader would do well to approach the layered, processual images as language.

I say the simplicity is deceptive because the combination of cuts and folds enable a number of configurations. The interlocking loops structure shifts between accordion, pop-up and flag book to great effect, sustaining the reader’s attention for far longer than its slim proportions might suggest. The accordion fold is doubled, allowing the reader to cut the width of each panel to half that of the cover. Folded this way, the horizontal slits can be popped out as a simple box pop up. Already the reader begins to see the combinatorial possibilities of the book, the relationships that can be drawn between the images by way of peaks and valleys. The reader can then pinch these pop ups together to form a flag book, which again reconfigures relationships among the imagery.

Whereas other accordion books and flag books can simply be closed when the reader is done, Everything Has a Language folds together in such a way that it requires the reader to press it back to its original state before the book can be closed and slipped back into its belly band. This creates a ritualistic, almost indulgent, experience in which the reader sets the book up before engaging with the content and then winds down afterwards. Anyone who has lived by themselves but nevertheless made their bed in the morning will understand the quiet pleasure of this book’s structure. The feeling of ritual is enhanced by the book’s sculptural quality. Everything Has a Language creates a physical space for the reader to contemplate the relationship between the title and the imagery, and between various pairs and groups of images as the folded grid is manipulated.

The book’s materials also help push the book beyond a typical reading experience. By waxing the paper, Powers-Torrey defamiliarizes the substrate’s appearance, weight, texture, smell and sound. The wax accentuates the creases of every fold, making visible the material impact of reading on the book. The tactile affect is even more pronounced. The book feels almost organic, somehow more alive than paper. This boosts the juicy, over-inked quality of the imagery, which doesn’t quite look dry enough to handle.

The images can, of course, be handled, but they are difficult to grasp. They complicate the reader’s sense of time and space; they are tightly resolved even as they reveal the step by step process by which they were created. Each image, framed on its own flag, is built from circles and squares. The reference to sacred geometry is offset by the squishy, imperfect line quality, which nudges them into the realm of something scientific, whether cosmic or microscopic. They are rendered in the primary colors and black, adding to the primordial, archetypal sensibility. Print-savvy readers may see the palette as CMYK and come away with the same feeling that there is some foundational process at work.

The great achievement of this book is that such lofty speculations arise from what is, in fact, documentation of various found objects. Powers-Torrey’s process of mono-printing and stamping directly from inked objects gives an interesting and complex ontological status to both the objects and the resulting images. The images are narrative, built layer by layer from different forms, yet each mark is an index, the physical trace of an object. Thus the objects are also subjects, the way that photography is always also about light.

Understood as documentation, Powers-Torrey’s work finds a provocative place in the tradition of artists’ books. Ed Ruscha’s twenty-six filling stations, which seem to be straightforward documents, fudge the road trip they purport to chronicle. Similarly the walking artist Hamish Fulton appears to document a walk in his book 10 Views of Brockman’s Mount, a naturally formed hill near Hythe, Kent, England, though a close read reveals the images to have been taken on different days. Ruscha and Fulton play with the way the codex form can assert chronology on its contents, but the complex structure Powers-Torrey uses in Everything Has a Language resists this effect and flattens the contents. Narrative possibilities remain open and the reader must do more of the work.

It is this work that is central to the book. Everything may have a language, but Powers-Torrey does not say whether the languages are mutually intelligible. A typical book contains text intended for the reader, but Everything Has a Language presents other possibilities. Perhaps the objects are communicating amongst themselves, and the reader is the catalyst that puts them in dialogue with one another by manipulating different sets of flags. The book’s structure facilitates this approach that is paradoxically more engaged in the haptic sense, but more passive, meditative in terms of interpreting meaning.

Everything Has a Language carries on the tradition of artists’ books as documentation and collection, but pushes the boundaries of intelligibility. It also seems to tap into newer currents in the broader art world, such as the influence of Object Oriented Ontology or other Post-humanisms.

Powers-Torrey lets objects speak for themselves, perhaps even among themselves. It is up to the human reader to make their own meaning, and both the artist and reader leave their mark on the book as they do this. The balance of this deeply personal, embodied meaning-making with the sense that the book’s images recede infinitely beyond translation is a productive and enjoyable tension.

*There are two editions of this book, one with wax-coated pages and the other without.

the THERE, THERE quarterly (Volume One, Issue One)

the THERE, THERE quarterly, Volume One, Issue One
Travis Shaffer
Featuring Zora J. Murff, Cian Oba-Smith, and Terrance Purdy
2019
theretherenow.
www.theretherenow.com

10 × 12.5 in.
18 sheets
Unbound, gathered in a belly band
Risograph

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Cover

the THERE, THERE quarterly is a new photo publication from Travis Shaffer’s imprint, theretherenow. Volume One, Issue One establishes the format: work by three photographers is Risograph printed and gathered in loose sheets by a belly band that practically qualifies as a slipcase. It is published in a limited edition of one hundred copies. Drawing on photobook and portfolio traditions, the THERE, THERE quarterly argues for a re-evaluation of the status of the photo print and limited edition. Mediation supplants mimesis, challenging alike the photomechanical facticity of a darkroom print and the endless pursuit of higher resolution in digital photography. Shaffer makes his case through the publication’s structure, layout, and print production. Print production is especially important to this exploration, with the Risograph serving as a sort of lodestar – commercial and artistic, analog and digital, unique and multiple, not yet pigeonholed into a single art practice or academic discipline. In this interdisciplinary territory, the THERE, THERE quarterly poses exciting questions for photography.

The issue consists of seventeen prints with photos on the front and numbers on the back. The layout is such that the numbers aren’t needed to keep the prints in order, but they do let the reader match the images with their creator. Issue One features Zora J. Murff, Cian Oba-Smith, and Terrance Purdy. A bio of each artist is included on an eighteenth sheet with the image list and, on the reverse, a colophon and editorial statement from Shaffer. The belly band containing all this is boldly printed with the title, artists and ink colors (this text is fluorescent pink).

Though the prints are numbered, the photographs are laid out across two sheets each, challenging the status of the photographic print as a unit. Like any good artists’ book, the content and structure guide the reader toward a suitable approach – in this case viewing two prints side by side, with a discard pile off to the side. The reading experience is fresh but familiar, somewhere between a portfolio, a book, and a horizontal scrolling portfolio website. The images are split across each sheet differently, creating a set of unique and asymmetrical compositions. The result propels the reader forward since the next sheet must always be viewed in order to complete the image.

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Inside spread 8

This amplifies both momentum and meaning, creating three relationships in each “spread” of two sheets. The central image, synthesized across the “gutter” of both sheets, relates to the image fragments on either side, which also relate to one another. This simple device provides a dynamism not available to a conventional portfolio with images viewed one at a time. It also requires that the sequence is considered temporally and spatially, like a bound book. The spread of sheets eight and nine illustrate the effect well: a man’s head, facing left, exits off the left while a horse’s head, looking the same direction, enters on the right. The interplay of these images frames the central scene: two figures in front of a brownstone seen from across a desolate intersection.

Like its structure, the publication’s print production exerts considerable influence on the meaning. Shaffer highlights the importance of Risography, placing the colors front and center on the belly band alongside the title and contributing artists’ names: “[R]isograph printed in metalic gold, black and fluorescent pink.” In the back matter, he writes: “The RISO is our campfire. Institutional by design but co-opted by artists. Absurdly analog method of digital printing. Subversively resisting the service to content inherent to the publishing paradigm.” Thus, the quarterly’s print production serves to further challenge and complexify the status of photography and the meaning of publishing.

In this case, the unusual color separation is particularly well-suited to the content. All three photographers deal with representations of blackness. Representing skin tones with metallic gold, black and fluorescent pink ink seems to speak to the constructedness of race through media, and the history of photographic processes erasing, or at least ignoring, marginal identities. Issue One strikes a good balance between the meta questions – the friction between Risography and photography – and the projects of each artist.

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Inside spread

The artist bios stand in for an editorial statement, presenting broad lines of inquiry and leaving plenty of room for interpretation. Each artist is concerned with race and representation, but their individual approaches contribute something different to the quarterly. Zora J. Murff contributed photographs from his series At No Point In Between. His work examines the interrelationship between people and their environment, and this project looks at the lasting impact of redlining. He takes on the challenge of representing a catastrophe so slow people barely notice, a stark example of the aesthetic dimensions of politics. The images are melancholy, the tired boredom of a hot summer afternoon. His portraits are more expressionistic, intimate and closer cropped than Oba-Smith’s full bodies and sharp lines.

Cian Oba-Smith does share an interest in the relationship between people and their environment. His series Concrete Horsemen examines a subculture of black horsemen in urban Philadelphia. By delving deep into this little-known community, he challenges dominant narratives about black men in the US. His jarring juxtapositions show just how shallow are the monolithic racial identities rehearsed in media and political rhetoric. His compositions riff on art-historical equestrian poses, but include dilapidated buildings and telephone poles. Many images have a substantial depth of field to allow these incongruous urban background elements into the portrait. He emphasizes the dreamlike quality of these strange combinations with soft natural light, muted colors, and light exposures.

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Inside spread

Oba-Smith takes a similar approach in Andover & Six Acres Estates, named for two housing complexes in London. In this case, he explicitly challenges a narrative of crime and poverty that has been constructed around a community. Yet, he does so with the same authentic curiosity, taking the time to immerse himself. Oba-Smith forges a connection with his subjects, and the images – candid, but never voyeuristic – benefit from this practice. The work presents an effective counter-narrative, but does so through open-minded observation.

Terrance Purdy takes a more active role in staging his subjects. He uses expressive lighting and a limited color range to construct moods and metaphors that distinguish the work from the more documentary modes of Murff and Oba-Smith. Skin and hair play a pivotal role in Purdy’s exploration of race and identity, and his visual style seems perfectly calculated to emphasize these elements. The influence of fashion photography is clear in his work, but he approaches fashion and consumption with a critical eye. While Murff and Oba-Smith seek to move beyond stereotypes, Purdy assaults them head on. One particularly arresting image shows the Christ-like figure of a young black man, crucified on a basketball hoop in a part. Purdy expertly draws the viewer’s eye to the point of highest contrast – the subject’s bright white shoes emblazoned with a black Nike swoosh. The image recalls Hank Willis Thomas’ works examining the commodification of black bodies in sport. However, Purdy rejects the stark, empty backgrounds of Thomas’ images and aligns his work with the rest of the quarterly by connecting the human subject to their environment.

THERE THERE Quarterly, Issue 1, Inside spread

This thematic through line is supported visually by the unifying effect of the Risography’s coarse halftone and limited color palette. The extent of this effect is easy to assess since the publication’s website features the same image sequence without the mediation of print production. The images are interwoven, with never more than two consecutive photos by the same artist. This integrates the various approaches taken by each photographer and contributes to the rhythm of the sequence. The combined work makes a powerful case for the role of the aesthetic in the politics of race and identity. Through their varying approaches to the broader context of social and economic factors, these three photographers show how artists can contribute meaningfully to conversations about race at this critical moment.

The tension between Shaffer’s vision and that of the photographers is productive and satisfying. There is enough content for the reader to encounter the images in their own right. The structure and print production eventually take a back seat, especially after the first reading. Nevertheless, the material object maintains a presence. Readers will likely look closely at the color separations, and reassembling the sheets with the belly band engages the reader in a way that stacking prints back into a portfolio or museum box doesn’t. As with any curatorial project, the success will be determined ultimately by the selection of photographers that benefit from a dialog with one another and with the material constraints of the print process. This first issue of the THERE, THERE quarterly sets a high bar.