Against Decorum

Against Decorum
Michael Hampton
2022
Information as material

6.25 × 9.25 in. closed
120 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Digital printing
Edition of 500

Front cover of Against Decorum. Cover image features a photo of Angus Fairhurst's 2005 sculptural altered magazine, "A magazine — 
removed except 1cm border"

Against Decorum is a work of uncreative writing, which forges poetry from the condition descriptions in rare book catalogues. These fragments of technical terms speak to age and injury and, ultimately, love and obsession. Hampton’s remix method epitomizes the publisher’s mission: information as material “publishes work by artists and writers who use extant material — selecting it and reframing it to generate new meanings — and who, in doing so, disrupt the existing order of things.” Against Decorum converses with conceptual poetry but also older practices, like commonplacing. The latter reveals an abundance of writing about reading, but Hampton’s contribution is the move from distant reading to close reading. So close, in fact, as to skip the text altogether and focus on the book as an object. When those interested in artists’ books think about the haptic exchange between a book and its reader, they mostly focus on how a book (and its creator) move the reader. Against Decorum shifts attention to how a book might be altered by its reader, and what that means for future readers. The author is dead, but the books survive — a little worse for wear.  

Against Decorum, inside spread. Register A, works 2 and 3. Each comprises a bibliographic entry above a poetic litany of rare book condition descriptions.

In an introduction by poet and critic Craig Dworkin, Hampton’s shuttling between close and distant reading is situated within ongoing debates in book history, literature, and digital humanities. Against Decorum poses thorny and necessary questions about what we value in the history of books and reading, and what is lost when we prioritize authors and texts over readers and books. Where literary scholars address a placeless, ahistorical text, Hampton examines the individual book — or rather, he reads and rearranges the descriptions of someone who has.  

A foreword by the scholar Adam Smyth notes the same trends in bibliography and book history, but also reading and writing practices. Smyth references practices as diverse as Walter Benjamin’s quotational methods and the infamous altered books of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. Where Dworkin is taken with Hampton’s movement between distant and close reading, Smyth notes the traffic between high and low culture, archives and kitchen tables. Books are commodities, scuffed and dusty objects that bear the traces of everyday activity.

Against Decorum comprises three sections: Register A, Register B, and Scrapbook. Register A collects twelve monthly pieces, created from December 2019 through November 2020. These pieces are derived from different book catalogues, and each has its own designation: fragments, off-cuts, granules, snippets, and so on. Hampton thus highlights the many ways books are used and not merely read. Each piece is an evocative litany of defects. Wrappers are stained, covers are scuffed, pages are creased. There is “foxing” and “browning,” “pencilling” and “worming.” Amid the scuffing and rubbing, Hampton accentuates the (often erotic) exchange of bodies. Books are “thumbed” by readers, and have their own heads, feet, spines, and joints. With “deletions” and “erasures,” books are “wanting” and “lacking.” This reciprocity is further explored in Register B, which is written in the same manner but is meant “for reading aloud by two performers.”

Against Decorum, inside spread. Register B. The verso is a remixed list of damage and condition descriptions of books from a Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers; the recto has an endnote about the influence of Jarndyce.

The Scrapbook section gathers passages about books, libraries, and reading from a variety of sources, from articles and Amazon listings. Mostly though, it reveals a preponderance of books about books. These seem to favor curiosities and cataclysms: Malicious Damage, Bizarre Books, Lost Libraries. Others are more surprising, though, and the Scrapbook offers an illuminating glimpse into Hampton’s research. Each quotation is far more tantalizing than a typical “further reading” list, and the outliers and oddities will no doubt inspire makers and readers of artists’ books. These excerpts are signposts that stake out a zone of activity where books are contingent, material objects that record their own interactions with the people who use them. 

Against Decorum, inside spread from the Scrapbook section. The verso has an excerpt of a Sotheby's catalogue featuring the "wicked bible"; the recto has a bibliographic entry for a sandpaper "record" with a bandage.

In recording these interactions, Against Decorum centers the longest phase in the life cycle of a book, which is too often overlooked. After books are conceived, created, published, distributed, read, and written about, they persist. They pass through many hands and fall slowly victim to the conditions so meticulously detailed in booksellers’ catalogues. In Against Decorum the authors who write these books are as anonymous as the readers who fold and stain and inscribe them. It is the catalogues that are named, and the cataloger who is exalted. Catalogues are inherently ephemeral, but thanks to Hampton, they outlast the books they list as well as their readers.

Hampton’s monthly writing process sharpens the contrast between the human time scale and the book’s duration. He celebrates the ephemeral catalogue and the traces of past readers’ fleeting gestures. There is a sense of the sublime in the push and pull between close and distant reading, between “thumbmarks in lower corners” and the experience of reading about them in a catalogue, which is, in turn, excerpted in a book. Against Decorum does not lament this mediated access to an authentic original or pit information against material. Hampton truly embraces information as material. The poetry, with its combination of absurd repetition and marvelous neologisms and technical terms, is every bit as moving as the embodied relationship with a book. It is because both strategies push and pull so powerfully that Against Decorum approaches the sublime.

Against Decorum, inside spread. Register A, works 10 and 11. Each comprises a bibliographic entry above a poetic litany of rare book condition descriptions.

Against Decorum offers a way to make sense — and make use — of the information with which we are inundated. Book history is only a microcosm of our postmodern Anthropocene, a world where data (the vast majority of which is no longer intended for humans) multiplies endlessly while physical space and material resources dwindle inexorably. As the creation and processing of data increasingly harms the environment, we desperately need to move from information to knowledge — and wisdom. Hampton shows that this is a job for artists, and Against Decorum provides a method and a sourcebook for future inquiry.

Ballroom Etiquette

Ballroom Etiquette
Maria Brito and Bruno Neiva
Designed with Lisa Lorenz
Team Trident Press
2020

4 × 5 in. closed
48 pages
Saddle-stitched pamphlet
Risograph inside with thermography-finished cover
Edition of 150

Front cover of "Ballroom Etiquette," softcover pamphlet on red paper. The images is an indeterminate, grainy close-up, printed in raised thermographic ink.

A collaboration between Maria Brito and Bruno Neiva, Ballroom Etiquette is a slim, pocket-sized pamphlet, but it distills two books — True Politeness: A Hand-book of Etiquette for Ladies (1867) and Kill or Get Killed (1976), published by the US Marine Corps. The text comes from the Victorian etiquette guide, while the images come from the hand-to-hand combat manual. Brito and Neiva use the book’s structure to heighten the humor of these juxtapositions, with images, printed black, on every verso and text, printed red, on every recto. Ballroom Etiquette exemplifies the one-and-a-half-liner (which I mean as a compliment) — what could be merely ironic pairs of text and illustration rise to the level of trenchant commentary on gender and violence in contemporary society.

Ballroom Etiquette, inside spread. On the verso, two men grapple in a grainy black-and-white image. On the recto, red text says: "When a gentleman who has been properly introduced requests the honour of dancing with you, you will not refuse unless you have a previous engagement."

A successful one-and-a-half-liner must exceed the reader’s initial expectations, and Ballroom Etiquette does this with its modest production. At forty-eight pages, there is more content than a mere one-liner would require, yet the book can still be enjoyed in one sitting. The book’s Risography and thermography conjure a subversive origin in a copy shop somewhere, belying its thoughtful design and materials. The inside paper is a smooth cream stock, and the red cover paper matches the text. The text, in turn, is carefully set to balance with the image across each gutter, each of which retain the grainy appearance of their source material. Brito and Neiva perfectly calibrate the book’s materials, production, and design with the scope and tone of its ideas.

Ballroom Etiquette, inside spread. On the verso, two men grapple, one lifting the other, in a grainy black-and-white image. On the recto, red text says: "Do not mistake affection for refinement: it would be no less an error than confounding vice with virtue."

Ballroom Etiquette also succeeds as a one-and-a-half-liner because the comical distance between its two elements — etiquette and combat — is only apparent. The juxtaposition reveals that the two are, in fact, related. The humor works on both levels, absurd contrast and poignant commentary. The wildly different stakes between the two accounts for a third aspect of the book’s humor, as in the warning, “If possible, do not enter a room alone.” The imperative mood makes no distinction between the risk of impropriety for a Victorian lady and the risk of bodily harm for a Marine. This strategy is especially fruitful because of the colorful language in the original etiquette guide. Metaphors like “wounding another’s heart” take on new meaning when paired with an image of a man taking a baton to the neck.

Ballroom Etiquette, inside spread. On the verso, grainy black-and-white image shows one man hitting another in the neck with a baton. On the recto, red text says: "Do not make a public room the arena for torturing any simple swain who perchance may admire you a little more than you deserve. Recollect that while you are wounding another's heart you may be trifling with your own peace."

Such wordplay also demonstrates how commonly figurative language uses space and movement. Even familiar phrases like “the circles in which you move” are made strange when the reader must sort through the literal meaning as it might pertain to dancing or fighting versus the intended reference to social circles. Brito and Neiva are equally clever in their visual jokes. For example, a line about wearing gloves is paired with a close-up of a hand delivering a knifehand strike to a throat. These careful pairings punctuate a slew of vaguer images in which two men grapple, their struggle eroticized by the corresponding text on courtship or dancing.  

Ballroom Etiquette, inside spread. On the verso, a black-and-white image shows an arm demonstrating a knifehand strike into a man's throat. On the recto, red text says: "Draw on your gloves in the dressing room, and do not take them off during the evening, except at supper-time, when it should be invariably done."

Brito and Neiva queer the hypermasculinity of the combat manual and the rigid heterosexual roles of the etiquette guide. The book reveals two realities: gender is fluid, but patriarchy is stubborn. Men may no longer sport snowy, perfumed handkerchiefs, but women are still told not to refuse a man who asks nicely. In addition to gender, Ballroom Etiquette examines how little attitudes about class have changed since the Victorian era. Propriety and private property are inextricably linked, and women are cautioned against public balls. Brito and Neiva use the term détournement for their strategy of turning proscriptive texts into a critique of the systems those texts once upheld. The book is also a détournement in a more general, but equally important, sense — what was once information is now art. The artists’ specific critique of patriarchal violence shows the potential of appropriation and juxtaposition for almost any issue.

The book’s strength as a model for future works may be its greatest contribution, but its strategies are not without risks. The fact that Ballroom Etiquette is genuinely funny is critical to its success. Brito and Neiva show keen comic instincts at every step of the project, from choosing source material to design and production. The artists also demonstrate a deep understanding of the book form.Even with the rigid separation of text and image and the repeated format of each spread, Ballroom Etiquette relies on the book form. The détournement of two other books is integral to the project, but perhaps more importantly, Brito and Neiva orchestrate their comic timing through the book’s structure and the amount of content they include. Ballroom Etiquette doesn’t ask too much of its reader or overstay its welcome — but it’s no one-liner.

How to Draw Tornadoes

How to Draw Tornadoes
Michael Darcy
2021

8.5 × 10.75 × 1 in. closed
116 pages
Case-bound, sewn on tapes
Laser printing

Front cover of How to Draw Tornadoes, with a school portrait inset into a full-bleed photo of a tree

“Tis education forms the common mind, Just as the twig is bent the tree’s inclined.”

Alexander Pope, Epistles to Several Persons

In How to Draw Tornadoes, Michael Darcy explores his early education through the longstanding analogy between the growth of a tree and the development of a child. All puns intended, the memoir is rooted in two incidents from elementary school and then branches out into a reflection on community, diversity, and epistemology. Education, it seems, has not evolved as much as tree science since the time of Alexander Pope. Darcy wonders what education might look like if it reflected how we now know trees flourish — by cooperating and communicating rather than competing. How to Draw Tornadoes adopts these values in form, content, and structure. It demonstrates how artists’ books can produce knowledge that challenges binaries and embraces diverse perspectives and modes of expression. Perhaps Darcy’s progressive vision is a return to an earlier time, before Alexander Pope and the Enlightenment, when John Heywood first warned us not to miss the forest for the trees.

Darcy begins How to Draw Tornadoes by recounting how an elementary school teacher objected to his scribbling and taught him the “correct” way to draw a tornado. This absurd intolerance for individual expression is, ironically, part of a hyper-competitive, individualistic education system where students compete against one another on daily multiplication quizzes. It is against this competitive, intolerant, shame-based pedagogy — in school but also in family and society more broadly — that Darcy poses his alternative. Now free from narrow-minded schoolteachers, Darcy transgresses all manner of boundaries in How to Draw Tornadoes. The case-bound book’s relatively strait-laced cover gives way to colored papers, fold-outs, hidden flaps, die-cuts, collaged elements, and sewn designs. Most notably, tornadoes are scribbled into pages with a sewing machine.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: sewn, scribbled tornadoes cover a photo of a tree (verso) and a collage of cut-out football players doing push-ups (recto)

Alongside his own stories, Darcy borrows from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and a Radiolab episode about the ways trees cooperate to benefit the forest. The imagery is also largely appropriated. Family photos accompany Darcy’s opening reflections on his childhood while a variety of found photos of trees illustrate the latter half of the book. Other found visuals, from family trees to diagrams of linear perspective, speak to the long entanglement of education, art, and rationalism. Darcy’s tissue of texts embraces multiple authorship, even as his sewn embellishments assert an expressive individuality. Acknowledging the forest does not mean neglecting the tree.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: botanical illustrations and text printed on goldenrod paper (verso) and violet paper (recto) with die-cuts revealing alternate colored paper below

Recognizing the community around the individual means more than crediting collaborators. Darcy paints a stark picture of the white, religious, masculine milieu in which he was raised. In family photos, men tote guns, wave flags, and play football. Perhaps the family trees, Catholic school ephemera, and handwriting guides call for an in-depth psychoanalytical interpretation, but it seems sufficient to note that Darcy’s chosen medium of the sewing machine is itself a rejection of heteropatriarchal gender norms. He also quotes Sabrina Imbler’s article on “botanical sexism,” which explains how USDA guidance to plant only male trees in cities backfired and worsened allergies since there were no females to absorb the excess pollen — literally toxic masculinity.

Darcy leverages the analogy between people and trees to erode boundaries between nature and culture more broadly: human perspective and bumblebee vision, classroom hierarchies versus rhizomatic root systems. Such connections are more than metaphors, they reveal deep structures that shape how we perceive and understand the world. The book itself is biomorphic. Spreads are composed to highlight its bilateral symmetry, and an image of hexagonal honeycombs echoes the book’s coarse halftone screens. Darcy’s wit emerges in these playful visual sequences and juxtapositions, though there is a hint of humor in his otherwise earnest writing. The point is not to correctly decode every reference but rather to see the interconnectedness of things and the value of multiple perspectives. The written narrative drives the reader forward in a linear manner, but the imagery prompts additional readings in no such order.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: almost life-size pair of hands play cats cradle with string that is sewn loosely through the book, pulled tight by the reader's hands

How to Draw Tornadoes doesn’t just tell the reader to embrace diversity and cooperation, it shows the benefits of doing so. The artists’ book is polyvocal, multi-modal, non-linear, and interactive. Its narrative is personal yet relatable, educational but entertaining. It appeals emotionally and intellectually and engages multiple senses and ways of knowing. This flexibility is not because the book is an empty vessel. It is because Darcy understands how the medium fits into the systems he studies. Books can create and communicate — but also limit — knowledge. Darcy harnesses the affordances of the book, but also works against its conventions to convey his message.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: a full-bleed black and white photo of a forest with sewn roots embellishing the surface

Fittingly, Darcy’s sewing proves especially challenging to the medium. The book’s sewn binding and expressive stitching erase the boundary between structure and content. So too does it abolish the page as a surface; sewing makes marks in and not on the page. The turn of the page no longer conjures a blank slate but highlights the continuity of the thread, integrating the verso and recto. This emphasis on the material presence of the page sharpens the irony of paper printed with photographs of trees. To celebrate the wisdom of forests, How to Draw Tornadoes has had to kill a few trees. Does this discredit the book? If we take Darcy seriously, it shows how deeply nature and culture are entangled, and how indebted we are to those other beings who make our work possible.

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 Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Asemic Walks: 50 Templates for Pataphysical Inspections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Artist’s Novel

The Artist’s Novel
David Maroto
Mousse Publishing
2019

Part I: A New Medium
8 × 6 in. closed
284 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Offset

Part II: The Fantasy of the Novel
8 × 6 in. closed
292 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Offset

"A New Medium" and "The Fantasy of the Novel" side by side.

Spanish artist/theorist David Maroto’s two-volume work of fictocriticism, The Artist’s Novel, is not an artist’s book in the traditional sense (if we can say there is any traditional sense of an artist’s book), but an examination and an example of a new medium he proposes: the artist’s novel.

His conception of the artist’s novel differs both from the artist’s book and the literary novel. Unlike most artist’s books we discuss here, the artist’s novel does not contain art or function as an artwork itself, and unlike most novels it does not serve primarily as a discrete piece of literature but rather as a facet of a larger project.

While it is easy to describe what an artist’s novel is not — Maroto gets that out of the way in the first few pages of Volume 1, A New Medium — it’s a bit more challenging to pin down what an artist’s novel is. Through four case studies, references to criticism and other works, and a generous selection of interviews with artists, Maroto invites readers to explore the new medium with him as he searches for the answer. He also includes a bibliography of all the artist’s novels he has discovered through his research, inviting further reading. He keeps the bibliography updated on his website and considers it an important part of his critical approach.

Volume 1 pp. 110-111: Aluminum Cities on A Lead Planet / Bake and Sale Theory

Benjamin Seror’s Mime Radio, Maroto’s first contemporary example, was written from a series of transcripts of Seror’s episodic interactive performance series (also entitled Mime Radio). While Seror had a rough idea of each performance’s plot in advance, his storytelling varied based on audience interaction with his content. The novel, put together after the performance series was completed, could be read and understood as an autonomous work, but it only exists because of the larger project. Its narrative style includes the repetitions and little hiccups of live performance, refusing to excise the flaws of improvisation to better represent the performance experience.

Another example, Mai-Thu Perret’s The Crystal Frontier, serves as a counterpoint to Mime Radio in some ways. Not extant as a complete published work, The Crystal Frontier exists instead as an extensive series of narrative fragments that have inspired Perret’s output and stood alongside it at exhibitions, replacing traditional curatorial text.

Maroto’s other examples exist on a spectrum between these two extremes, one a novel almost like any you might find in your local bookshop and the other not a novel as most would conceive it but still steeped in narrative/literary techniques and conventions. All the projects are fascinating and tell us something new about the form, but they vary in terms of success as novels. Maroto’s honest appraisal of the failure of certain projects to live up to their original vision and the difficulty of adapting a literary form to a non-literary context is refreshing and engaging.

Volume 1 pp. 46-47: Mime Radio cover & first page of corresponding chapter

By A New Medium’s final chapter, Maroto hasn’t settled on a single definition of the artist’s novel, positing the medium is still too new and varied to strictly define. He does, however, have a pretty good idea of what the artist’s novel does.

The artist’s novel as Maroto understands it is a collaborative and decelerated way of both making and experiencing art. This deceleration and collaboration go hand in hand, especially for the spectator: Maroto references critic Wolfgang Iser’s concept of the “wandering viewpoint,” the idea that the text cannot be experienced all at once, causing the reader/spectator’s point of view and understanding of the work to shift throughout the experience of reading a novel or navigating a narrative exhibition. This necessitates collaboration between artist and audience, since the spectator constantly interprets and reinterprets the work, which radically slows the process of engaging with art. Maroto further posits, and many of the artists he interviews and studies agree, that this is a conscious reaction against the acceleration of the art experience in many galleries, in which patrons are encouraged (and in some cases required) to move along quickly and make room for the next guest.

Maroto defines the artist’s novel not only by what it does, but what it fails to do. Drawing on Barthes’ concept of “the fantasy of the novel” and interviews with artists, Maroto finds the artist’s novel often arises from a fantasy of accessibility, of appreciation outside the art world. Many examples in A New Medium are indeed accessible in that they invite collaboration and empathy rather than relying on shock or inscrutability (something Benjamin Seror mentions throughout his interview and the chapter on Mime Radio), but are not widely accessible in the way of the bestsellers and literary sensations they so often overtly imitate. The artist’s novel is still almost exclusively consumed by art world insiders.

Volume 2 pp. 36-37: notebook diagram

This paradox and the gulf between the fantasy of the artist’s novel and its reality are the major focus of the second volume, The Fantasy of the Novel. While A New Medium is a relatively straightforward piece of criticism, here Maroto writes a novel — one in which he is the narrator and a significant driver of the plot. In many ways, The Fantasy of the Novel functions like any other novel. It draws on tropes from murder mysteries, its autofictional tendencies remind us of Ben Lerner or Ruth Ozeki or any number of other writers, and it consciously alludes to literary figures from Roberto Bolaño and Tom McCarthy to Rimbaud, Proust, and Omar Khayyám.

Volume 2 pp. 200-201: a conventional-looking novel

However, it is a work of criticism, if a sly one. The second volume does more than provide an example of an artist’s novel (really, two examples: the plot of The Fantasy of the Novel revolves around the writing of artist’s novel Tamum Shud, which Maroto commissioned with his partner and fellow critic Joanna Zielinska — in both The Fantasy of the Novel and real life). The feelings of confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety plaguing Maroto-the-character allow Maroto-the-artist to more deeply explore his conception of the failure of the artist’s novel to live up to the fantasy.

The two volumes, then, are distinct in more than form. While A New Medium discusses the idea of failure, it is primarily a generative work. It concerns itself with the possibilities of the artist’s novel and invites further criticism and new artist’s novel projects. The Fantasy of the Novel is, at least in its plot, a counterpoint: the failure of the fantasy, the breakdown between the artist’s idea and the actual project. This failure is not a bad thing, though; as Maroto tells us, “A failure can be an illuminating event that helps us visualize the limits of art practice within the institutionalized reality of the art world.” The artist’s novel’s paradoxical nature — belonging neither to art or literature — provides a unique position from which to engage its audience.

Together, the two volumes make an intriguing work for anyone interested in artist’s books, both as an introduction to a relatively new and uncommon medium — one that’s certainly related to the larger book art sphere, if not wholly a part of it — and as encouragement to think critically and seriously about the form and function of the works we consume and create. While the questions Maroto poses and the answers he works toward relate to artist’s novels in their particularities, their generalities apply to all art printed, folded, and bound into the form of a book.

The Circus

The Circus
Tara Homasi
Pinsapo Press / Publication Studio
2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Collectors Police Scanner

Public Collectors Police Scanner
Marc Fischer
Public Collectors
2021

8.5 × 11 in. closed
90 pages
Side stitch and fabric tape binding
Risograph and digital printing

Front cover of "Public Collectors Police Scanner" featuring blue title text on a black background. A reproduction of an inside page is printed in gray behind the title.

Proponents of the “thin blue line” assert that the police are the only thing preventing society from descending into violent chaos. A coyote in an alley, a bank robbery, missing children, and reckless driving: chaos abounds in Public Collectors Police Scanner. Chicago artist Marc Fischer comes to a different conclusion, however, about root causes and possible solutions. Fischer’s initiative, Public Collectors, is dedicated to making important but obscure(d) cultural artifacts public. To that end, Fischer listened to and transcribed the police scanner in Chicago for seventy-five days straight and compiled his hand-written notes into this often-overwhelming book.

The bulk of Police Scanner is scanned and Risograph printed directly from Fischer’s original, letter-sized notes. The format served as a creative constraint for each listening session: one page per day for an average of about forty-five minutes. Fischer details his methodology in the book’s introduction, including ethical decisions around excluding race, last names, VIN numbers and other identifying information. The end sheets, photographs of Fischer’s desk, document the chaos of the process itself. The side-stapled, taped binding further lends an air of low-fi urgency. Fischer’s handwriting powerfully attests to the challenge, speeding up and struggling to organize fragments of narrative as they are relayed among callers, dispatchers, and officers.

Police Scanner Inside spread. The verso is an endsheet with a photo of Fischer's desk during the project. The recto is plain text, the first page of the book's introduction.

Events unfold relentlessly with no regard for conventional storytelling, nearly numbing the reader with uniform intensity, whether funny or tragic. Nevertheless, certain moments do break through the noise. Some are chilling: “Female keeps whispering the address and hanging up.” Others are absurd. A personal favorite of mine: “When you finish with lunch can you head over to the Department of Finance on Pulaski? They’ve got a dispute with an employee over money.” Fischer himself mines the potential for poignant humor in a related publication, Chest Wound to the Chest, which arranges excerpts from Police Scanner into a single long poem. (As a separate pamphlet, this poetic intervention allows Fischer to explore the fascinating rhetorical aspects of the project without departing from his documentary approach in Police Scanner.)

Since the book’s content reflects the vagaries of reality, the only narrative development is the book’s own layout, which conveys Fischer’s growing facility at following and organizing events as they occur. Police Scanner straddles documentation and performance, a choreography of disconnected chance operations that accumulate to reveal structural societal problems. Fischer tries columns, rows, even numbering events as they unfold wherever there is room on the page. On September 15, text funneled into a narrow column chronicles a suicidal man on a ledge. The empty white margins perhaps also indicate the emotional toll those seventeen minutes took on Fischer. On November 2, he writes: “I refuse to listen to the police scanner on my birthday.”

Police Scanner Inside spread. The verso has a narrow column of text in the center of the page, describing a suicidal-then-agitated man. The recto is a busy page with boxes, lines and bubbles separating text.

Birthdays aside, Fischer reflects in his introduction that the situation on the streets changes very little from day to day, even with major events like the 2020 election. Ongoing catastrophes, however, like the opioid crisis and Covid-19 pandemic loom in the background of many pages. Teachers witness child abuse during online classes or call for wellness checks on missing students. Fischer reminds the reader that then-mayor Rahm Emanuel closed half of Chicago’s mental health clinics in 2012, the impact of which cannot be overstated.

Police Scanner Inside spread. The verso uses arrows and lines to divide and connect blocks of text. The recto stacks bubbles and boxes of more contained text.

From the relentless repetition, the reader gets the impression that these systemic problems actually reflect the system working as intended. On November 6, police are sent to Home Depot to “see Brian about the day laborers and ask them to move off the property.” The same day, police are told to disregard a call because “it’s just the usual alley drinkers.” Systems like health care and labor markets are ultimately managed by the police. Since calls often come from businesses, this whole process plays out on a strange verbal map of brand names and private property. The resulting juxtapositions are often striking: “Bucket boys in front of Tiffany’s on Michigan.” One realizes just how little public space there is, usually an alley or a street. The gulf between the city’s aspirational street names and the events that play out on them is equally wide: domestic violence on King, a robbery at Jefferson and Madison.

Police Scanner Inside spread. The verso and recto are both full but orderly arrangements of text divided into a loose grid.

Policing itself is, of course, one of the pervasive systems behind each individual event. Its rhetoric reveals its values and assumptions, and ultimately the inadequacy of policing to solve the problems it confronts. “Resources” refer to attack dogs, not to social programs. Victims are characterized as insensitively as perpetrators. Racialized and gendered descriptions are so habitual that a dispatcher alerts police to a “female pit bull” as if that would help identify the dog or explain its behavior. Amid the jargon and acronyms, a dispatcher might throw in a “bon appetit” or “okey dokey artichokee,” reminding the reader of the human subjectivity – for better or worse – behind each voice on the scanner.

In these unguarded moments lies the value of a project like Public Collectors Police Scanner. Fischer bears witness to the system of policing that is ostensibly for, and funded by, ordinary citizens like himself. Everyone shares this responsibility. Fischer is also quick to say that the police scanner doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, not every crisis leads (or should lead) to a 911 call, as police reformers and abolitionists are quick to point out. But it does paint a more complete picture of policing than most citizens receive from news and entertainment media. Fischer encourages his readers to listen to their local police scanner for themselves, and the insights gleaned from Police Scanner demonstrate the value of doing so.