Tools for Extinction

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

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

Tools for Extinction, front cover

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

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

Tools for Extinction, back cover

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

Tools for Extinction, table of contents

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

Tools for Extinction, open to Tuesday by Patricia Portela

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

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

Tools for Extinction, french flap

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Hundred Excellent Flowers

One Hundred Excellent Flowers
Clifton Meador
2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside spread with close-up of flowers. Text reads: "What do a few flowers matter?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered

Marilyn R. Rosenberg
2019
Post-Asemic Press

6 × 9 in.
102 pages
Binding: Perfect
Digital offset
Open edition

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered front cover

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered is a work of asemic writing, meaning the text communicates through aesthetics rather than semantics. Asemic writing is to poetry as scat is to jazz. It’s up to the reader to make meaning from the marks, which is true of any text to some degree. As the title suggests, Rosenberg embraces this indeterminacy throughout the book’s content and structure, although she does include a helpful statement in the back matter. As an object, the book is unremarkable – a perfect-bound codex with decent quality printing. A nice drape in the pages keeps most of the content out of the gutter. Yet the reader can almost feel the texture in the original pages from which this book was scanned and printed. Perhaps surprisingly, this black and white paperback makes for a wonderful and democratic access point to an artist whose one-of-a-kind artists’ books and two-dimensional works revel in color and texture.

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inside spread with asemic writing and a fish on the recto

There is a visual similarity between Rosenberg’s asemic mark-making and abstract expressionism, but it is clear that the pages of this book are filled with writings, not drawings. Even the loosest compositions with wild, gestural marks are scaled to the hand, not the arm. Such pages are balanced by others sporting orderly grids of ideograms, which have the appearance of a real, but untranslated writing system. Perhaps these are the Apollonian and Dionysian poles that influenced abstract expressionism, but False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inhabits the entire spectrum between them. This impressive variety is unified by the book’s grayscale production as well as the written-ness of the marks, many of which are visibly the result of calligraphy pens and brushes.

The book format is a powerful vehicle for unifying disparate content, and False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered also incorporates found materials, collaged onto the pages. The edition is produced from scans of a single sketchbook, although it is more than a facsimile of an original. The digitization process is transformative. Everything is flattened – positive and negative, addition and subtraction. What look like hole-punched portals into the following page are actually onlays from some other hole-punched paper. The edges of the scanned original recede into a dark margin, an absence that signifies like presence on the page, mirroring Rosenberg’s dark marks on the light paper. Washers and key rings are no more dimensional than the fore-edge of the scanned original, whose pages form vertical margins on the outside of many spreads, marking the reader’s progress through a book they aren’t actually reading.

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inside spread with asemic writing on the verso, and stenciled text and hole punched paper on the recto

Of the three-dimensional objects included in the book, only the fish – a recurring motif – are mentioned in Rosenberg’s statement, which says they represent “groups, family or specific personalities.” Other objects seem to point to the material presence of language, like what appear to be bracelet charms stamped with letters and symbols. Likewise the stenciled word “yes” is a jarring injection of semantic content, although it remains open to interpretation. Rosenberg does contextualize the work as conversation, which helps ground the reader without foreclosing possibilities. She writes that the verso and recto are engaged in a cross-gutter dialogue, but the book offers a multiplicity of sequences and structural relationships.

In addition to the cross-spread dialogue, there is also the sequence of one page to the next. The hole-punched portals mentioned above are just one example of Rosenberg’s thoughtful engagement with the way a page reveals and conceals. These potent relationships are doubled since the book can be read from either direction, enabled by facsimile covers that separate the front and back matter from the core content of the book. Circular reading is a hallmark of Rosenberg’s books, and neither direction seems more or less important thanks to the non-representational content. Other, latent sequences are present, but not fully accessible to the reader: the sequence of the hard copy original, and the order in which Rosenberg filled it. Thus False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered is a book with four sequences, plus whatever order the reader chooses. The compositions are largely self-contained, making random access almost as rewarding as reading cover to cover.

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inside spread with asemic writing and bracelet charms on the verso

Indeed the book speaks more to the act of creation than plot or narrative. The occasional glimpses of the background behind the scanned book reinforce this, revealing the stray marks of an artist’s work area rather than the expected clean white backdrop. Rosenberg represents, or rather presents, myriad relations between the author and the blank page, from confident flow to crossed out self-doubt. This emphasis on creation doesn’t diminish the reader though, since reading asemic writing is itself a generative act, the making of meaning. Perhaps it is this decentering of the author that most distinguishes Rosenberg’s approach from abstract expressionism. She blurs the line between reception and production just as she does writing and drawing. Likewise the book complicates the signal-noise binary, extending authorship not only to the reader, but to the chance operations of the scanning process. A handful of bright white marks remind the reader that book’s pages are toned from its printing, not its paper, emphasizing the transformative role of the digitization and one-color printing.

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered inside spread with asemic writing and a fish on the verso

False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered certainly sounds like a title for the post-truth era, but asemic writing is not a total absence of meaning – the meaning is just located beyond the semantic order. This book asks the reader to consider other possibilities and perspectives. It demands sensitivity and empathy, but offers truths to the reader who is willing to work for them. This touches on a larger debate within asemic writing, where a complete absence of meaning (asemia) is neither possible nor desirable. Instead, Rosenberg posits multiple, perhaps infinite, meanings, and invites the reader to change those meanings from one reading to the next. Through its thoughtful consideration of the book form, False Fiction Fractured Fact Altered brings these debates into dialogue with artists’ book discourse. It is an impressive work in this exciting zone of intersection, but by no means does it exhaust the possibilities it points to.

Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure

Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure
Carley Gomez
2020

8 × 8 in.
20 pages
Binding: Perfect
Digital offset
Open edition

Tiny Dino's Grand Field Museum Adventure cover; plastic dinosaur overlooking the museum atrium with fossil skeletons

In the interest of full disclosure I should begin this review with the disclaimer that Carley Gomez is my partner, in art and in life. Nevertheless I assure you that this review is every bit as biased as all my others.

Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure appears at first glance to be a children’s book. If one were the type to judge a book by its cover, it might appear to be a self-published children’s book. The first few spreads seem to confirm this assessment. Large, friendly type narrates the travels of a small toy dinosaur in Chicago’s famed Field Museum of Natural History. The images are snapshot-like photographs of the bright red tyrannosaurus throughout the museum – on ledges, banisters, furniture and floors. Tiny Dino Bruce views fossils and dioramas and marvels at the architecture. Just as the reader begins to wonder if the book is, as it appears, a somewhat mediocre children’s book, the tone takes a turn.

Inside spread; toy dinosaur climbs the banister of a staircase and views an interactive diorama.

A wall display reads, “Did you know, an onion, apple and potato all have the same taste? The differences in flavor are caused by their smell.” The deadpan narration continues below: “Bruce calls bullshit during our break in the cafeteria.” So Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure is not what it appears to be, but the children’s book for adults is by now a familiar genre. Yet Gomez has created something different, something weirder. It is weird even for an artists’ book, although it does what artists’ books do best. It is a self-contained experience that would fail in another medium. Text and image are more than the sum of their parts. Structural elements work in concert with the content (for example, the pagination is crucial to the comic timing). The book subverts a familiar genre even as it appropriates the genre’s powers, such as the easy suspension of disbelief. In fact, the very familiarity of a square, perfect-bound book makes this otherwise unusual work of art seem approachable and unpretentious.

Inside spread; toy dinosaur in front of a live fish, and a questionable sign in the cafeteria

The frank tone of the writing operates similarly, albeit under the guise of short, kid-friendly sentences. There is a clear story arc with a beginning, middle and end. Conflict brews, romance blossoms and an existential crisis looms. The book’s narrator is the unseen, presumably human, companion of Tiny Dino Bruce. The dialogue is all Bruce’s, but the interiority is that of the narrator. The tension between reality and make-believe never fully resolves. Each image implies the agency of the human actor, but the written narrative is too absorbing to focus on the reality behind the book’s production – at least on the first read through the book. In this way, Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure perhaps shares the literary tradition of Calvin and Hobbes or The Indian in the Cupboard.

Inside spread; Tiny Dino Bruce meets another toy dinosaur

Subsequent readings, however, raise many questions about the book’s production, and these are where Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure really shines. (That a reader will indeed peruse the book more than once is all but guaranteed; it is short and quirky, and the photographs preserve a visual richness that is missing in more controlled, conventional illustrations.) This visual noise clues the reader into various productive interpretative frameworks, including institutional critique and performance documentation.

Like many conceptual artists, Gomez examines the cultural significance of the museum. The book’s postmodern mash-up of high and low culture is a fitting reflection of the institution. The dinosaur was purchased, indeed created, by the artist using the museum’s own Mold-A-Rama machine – those “automatic miniature plastic factories” that so epitomize mid-century American kitsch. Once created, the touristic dinosaur visits everything from live animals and ancient fossils to anthropological artifacts and other, more contemporary, tchotchkes. The gift shop and cafe figure as heavily into the plot as any of the more educational spaces.

Inside spread; toy dinosaur in the museum gift shop

The museum is also the stage, if one considers Gomez’s piece to be a performance. What does it mean for an adult visitor to roam the museum, photographing tableaus and dining with a dinosaur? Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure reveals the discomfort of creativity and imagination, even in spaces that exist to inspire it. I would also argue that it exemplifies my concept of “book thinking.” Just as an artist would experience the Field Museum differently with a sketchbook in hand than they would with a camera or audio recorder, so too does the mission of creating a book structure the encounter.

This leads to an inherent tension since a museum is really quite similar to a book. The Field Museum has its own agenda, and it uses audio, visual and tactile means to construct a specific spacial and temporal experience for its viewers. In today’s postmodern neoliberal culture, many museums blur the lines between production and consumption, author and audience. However, Gomez’s act of authorship goes beyond the prescribed bounds of even the most interactive museums. Having paid her admission and patronized the Mold-A-Rama, her act of subversion is complicated, but thought-provoking nonetheless.

Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure shows that artists’ books can be simultaneously silly and serious. Artists’ books can be improvisational and exploratory, especially with smartphone photography and on-demand printing. They need not require months of planning and production. Books of this sort represent an access point to the field for a broader contingent of artists and writers, those who consider the interrelation of content, form and structure without recourse to the typical studio equipment. Of course the aesthetics of commercial on-demand printing lend themselves to some books better than others, but any good artist will choose the process that is right for the project. Gomez has done that with Tiny Dino’s Grand Field Museum Adventure.

Understanding Molecular Typography

Understanding Molecular Typography
Woody Leslie
H.F. Henderson
2019
Ugly Duckling Presse
uglyducklingpresse.org

5 × 7 in.
128 pages
Binding: Smyth-sewn
Offset inside with foil-stamped wrap

Understanding Molecular Typography Cover

Editor’s note: this review contains spoilers.

I struggled over how to review this book, and made the determination to identify it as a work of fiction (satire, specifically) and review it as such. I hesitate to out the work as fictional because much of Understanding Molecular Typography’s impact comes from its convincing appearance as a work of nonfiction. Ultimately, I decided that the book’s subtlety and humor can withstand a review. Furthermore, I had already reviewed an earlier edition of the book for Abecedarian Gallery and spoiled the surprise. Portions of this post have been adapted from that review.

Understanding Molecular Typography looks like a work of popular science, authored by H.F. Henderson and published in 1992. This new edition from Ugly Duckling Presse purports to be a reprint with a new introduction by the artist Woody Leslie. In reality, Understanding Molecular Typography is an elaborate work of non-narrative fiction created by Leslie himself. The line between fiction and reality is blurry from the start, and Leslie’s new introduction playfully adds layers of misdirection. He describes coming across the book during his time as a graduate student, and discusses the work’s historical vicissitudes as well as its influence on his own practice.

Understanding Molecular Typography Inside Spread

Before addressing the work as an artists’ book, it is helpful to summarize the content of the ostensible textbook. Understanding Molecular Typography is an introduction to the chemical structures of type, which determine the formation of letters and words. The book focuses on scholarship from the 1950s to the 1990s and attempts to synthesize more academic writings for the average reader. It explains how positive and negative charges bind basic units into letterforms, and anomalies like serifs and variance from typeface to typeface are discussed. What follows is an extensive set of illustrations paired with written explanations of each letter’s chemical structure, using a notation system outlined earlier in the book. Henderson’s conclusion situates the field within a broader context, discussing the ecological, economic and many other implications of molecular typography.

Just as the book’s structure is a conventional codex, the structure of the text itself is that of a standard nonfiction book. There are a table of contents, preface, and introductory remarks followed by various charts and diagrams, a conclusion, glossary, and bibliography for further reading. In form and content, Understanding Molecular Typography subverts the authority of scientistic writing through absurdity and humor, which are related and reinforce one another, but operate differently throughout the book. Details in the bibliography, for example, lend a less dry humor that helps clue the reader into the work’s fictionality. In contrast, a straight-faced absurdity operates in the taxonomy of letter anatomy (‘typtoms’ like ‘itoms’ and ‘vtoms’) and the extraordinary profusion of cross referenced figures and phonetic pronunciation guides. The specialized jargon and seriousness of presentation will be comically familiar to readers from their own studies in typography, chemistry, or some other discipline.

Understanding Molecular Typography Bibliography

Beyond the text itself, Leslie has a keen sense of that para-textual apparatuses that lend books authority. Though librarians will be pleased to see this new edition has a legitimate ISBN, the collaboration with Ugly Duckling Presse provided other opportunities to play with para-text. The back cover features a blurb from none other than Johanna Drucker. In character as a scholar, she praises the astonishing achievements of H.F. Henderson. Her comparison to Zdanevich is part of the fiction, but nevertheless situates Leslie’s work within a history of artistic explorations of language.

Understanding Molecular Typography inside spread

Leslie does directly discuss his interest in letterforms and language in the introduction, but even here one must read between the lines. In the book’s first edition, little details about the artist tethered the book to reality. Now, the dynamic has flipped and Understanding Molecular Typography fictionalizes its creator. Leslie’s autofictional account of discovering Henderson and dedicating himself to the study of molecular typography deftly satirizes academia and the professionalization of art. The esotericism is an absurd addition to the tradition of mythologized artist personae. Joseph Beuys has his plane crash, and Leslie his library.

In freeing Leslie from necessary truths like colophons and contact information, Ugly Duckling Presse plays the perfect co-conspirator. Reprinting an obscure or underappreciated work is certainly in their wheelhouse. Furthermore, they list the book under “art, nonfiction” in their catalog and provide a deadpan description of Henderson’s book. The smyth-sewn paperback with a foil-stamped cover retains the general appearance of the first edition, and does a good job of selling the deception. The book is slightly larger, and the layout is roomier and more readable than the original. Underneath the paper cover, the book is covered in a lovely pattern of molecular typographic diagrams. Understanding Molecular Typography is a well-designed book. Most importantly, it looks perfectly ordinary.

Understanding Molecular Typography inside spread

It would be enough if Understanding Molecular Typography simply co-opted the trappings of academic publishing and warned us not to uncritically accept authority, but by focusing on typography, the book also engages some of the most interesting problems of language. Nevertheless, the book is humorous and unpretentious throughout. Even when the fictional Henderson raises such quandaries directly, they are always one step removed from the real questions that Leslie poses for the reader. The great irony of the book, which so irreverently lampoons science, art, academia, and publishing, is that it is such an excellent example of art as a form of interdisciplinary scholarship.

Notes from Byzantium

Notes from Byzantium
Shelly Taylor and Eben Goff, ed. AB Gorham
2019
Black Rock Press
www.unr.edu/art/black-rock-press

7 × 9 × .25 in.
60 pages
Binding: Softcover codex with sewn signatures
Foil cover and HP Indigo inside

Notes from Byzantium, cover

The combination of poetry by Shelly Taylor and art by Eben Goff is not an obvious choice, but then, the best books are often surprising. Both text and image benefit from this unlikely marriage in Notes from Byzantium, edited by AB Gorham of Black Rock Press. The two remain on their respective pages, integrated through juxtaposition and rhythm. Depending on the spread, text or image occupy either recto or verso or both. The unpredictable pattern influences the reader’s pace, though the effect only gradually becomes apparent. This dynamic reading experience, combined with the book’s size and materiality, make artists’ books a good framework for approaching the hybrid publication. Though the text is divided into discrete, titled poems, Notes from Byzantium is neither a typical poetry chapbook nor a fine press edition.

Notes from Byzantium, inside spread 1

The book, as a physical object, is unusual. It feels simultaneously modest and luxurious in the reader’s hands. It is covered in a coral pink book cloth, which is folded over paper rather than board to create a pillowy, flexible codex. The text block is sewn in five slim signatures of three sheets each, so it lays flat with little resistance. Even the full-page images lose nothing in the gutter. The mechanics of the book afford it a sensuality that would be lacking had it been perfect bound or pamphlet-stitched. The relatively thick paper still drapes nicely as the page turns, thanks to the book’s nearly square proportion. Even the texture and opacity of the paper contribute to a deluxe feeling that is especially well suited to Goff’s photography.

The series of photos depict the artist’s own oil engravings in wax panels. However, they are not mere documentation or facsimile. As the book advances, the photographs progress from decontextualized close-ups of stratigraphic imagery to compositions that hint at the objects’ scale and materiality. The pieces appear as though thread was somehow embedded in marble. The restrained color palette and limited mark-making vocabulary heighten the impact of subtle changes. When the horizontal rows of filament give way to vertical columns, the relationship between text and image is radically reconfigured. Likewise, the switch back and forth between full-page photos-as-image and cropped photos-of-image repositions the reader in relation to the book’s themes of memory, time and place.

Notes from Byzantium, inside spread 2

There is no literal, illustrative connection between the text and image. With their geological appearance, Goff’s images seem to speak to memory and environment. The oil engravings exude temporality and process – the slow deposit of sedimentary layers, or perhaps their erosion. This makes them ideal for reflecting on Taylor’s words, which are very much about place. Though her lexicon evokes the American South, and she references the desert southwest, each poem seems to transcend one region. They convey what it feels like to have a sense of place, where ever it may be rooted. Taylor establishes setting with only a few details, the way one might recall their childhood home. The reading experience is not unlike memory; what begin as grounded narratives accelerate into fragments of language. One gets the impression of Taylor’s hometown, but it’s glimpsed through the passenger window of a too-fast truck.

This momentum makes the pairing of text and image especially welcome. Once the poem begins, there is no place to pause. One must simply keep up with Taylor as she jumps between ideas until the theme emerges. “Every hinge gap apple please you,” for example, is a seventeen-line poem with a single period. The beautiful, intricate images provide an ideal place to reflect on the preceding poem. They are endlessly interpretable, receptive to the reader’s projections and associations. Both Goff and Taylor forge a pleasing gestalt from elements that are, upon closer examination, surprisingly rough. The tension between these fragments and the pieces they constitute remains compelling throughout the book.

Women are another important through line in the book – women and girls and the distance traveled between (in both directions, growing up and reminiscing). Taylor’s poems touch on the unspoken things women pass down, for better or worse, through the generations. It’s not that men, or more often boys, are absent. Rather, what is striking is how they are mediated through an intimate, intersubjective narration, a secret or a memory shared between sisters. Contributing to the momentum of Taylor’s writing, the women of Notes from Byzantium seem restless, in transition even as they shape the sense of place.

You moved all your stuff across town for love
hands in lap passenger seat shy shoulders
soot for later when the fires came through
we found new homes.

The speed, instability and fragmentation of the text all benefit from the book’s type treatment. With incredible economy, small changes in justification and word-spacing effectively alter the expression of each poem. A number of poems successfully use an unusual technique: the text is fully justified, with the word spacing selectively (not evenly) distributed throughout each line. Neither fully random, as with prose, nor predetermined as with verse, the line breaks and word spacing in poems like “Straight to the jawline bloody Igor” are the combined result of chance and choice. There is a resourcefulness, an ambivalence, in this approach that seems appropriate for the text. The impact of this design decision is demonstrated in contrast to poems that similarly use selective word spacing, but with a ragged right edge that leaves the line break to the poet’s discretion. Further variations, all with the same typeface, point size, and leading, show the power of typography. Even the titles benefit from the subtle handling.

Notes from Byzantium, inside spread 3
Notes from Byzantium, inside spread 4

Notes from Byzantium offers a nuanced presentation of challenging, rewarding text and imagery. In a digital world, it is fair to question whether a book warrants a printed existence. Notes from Byzantium will invite readers back again and again. The book’s engaging materiality and excellent print quality create the right reading experience for such potent content. That it achieves this elegance while celebrating the grounded, unfussy quality of Taylor and Goff’s work is an impressive achievement.