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.

Students

Students
Tia Blassingame
2019

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

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

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

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

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

Back cover of "Students" featuring the colophon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

ERRATA

ERRATA
Nuno Moreira and David Soares
2020

5.5 × 8 in.
52 pages
Binding: Link-stitch with exposed spine
Laser inside and foil stamped slipcase.
Edition of 50

ERRATA slipcase with foil-stamped title

ERRATA is a cinematic, existentialist essay that explores mysticism and metaphysics through the metaphor of the book. Grainy, high-contrast images chronicle a cryptic encounter on the book’s rectos. The versos present a text, in both Portuguese and English, which questions humanity’s place in the universe, and whether we can ever come to know it through language. ERRATA is a collaboration between writer David Soares and artist Nuno Moreira, whose background in filmmaking informs the book’s style. The book grounds the arcane topic through jumps in scale, back and forth from the cosmological to the individual and embodied. The reader is further engaged, even implicated, by the book’s self-reflexive bibliographic content and the point-of-view photography. The artists remind the reader that language and books have long been fruitful yet frustrating tools with which to grapple with life’s big questions. ERRATA also demonstrates that artists’ books can be capable contributors to this age-old quest.

ERRATA inside spread; recto has a photo of a man handing a book to a woman, taken from her point of view

As readers of this review likely know, an erratum is a list of corrections accompanying a book with errors. So it is perhaps ironic that ERRATA is exquisitely crafted with great attention to detail. (The production value extends to all aspects of the project; my review copy arrived wrapped in black tissue paper, closed with a monogrammed seal.) The publication comprises a black paper slipcase and an uncovered, link-stitched text block with an exposed spine. The binding calls attention to the object’s book-ness, reinforcing the meta-commentary inside. Foil-stamped lettering on both sides of the slipcase spells out the title in circular configuration (perhaps recalling a mystical hexagram), removing any distinction between its front and back. The contrast of the white linen thread and paper with the black slipcase is a striking design feature that anticipates the visual style of the book’s content.

ERRATA back cover; photograph shows a chair at a table, with a small fire burning on the tabletop

Like the case, the book itself downplays the distinction of front and back. There are no covers per se, so the first and last pages stand in, and mirror each other’s compositions. A small, square, black and white photograph is centered on the page, depicting a table and chair in a room. One image shows the table empty, while the other shows a fire blazing on the tabletop. Both images have a surrealist quality, and their relationship hints at a chronological relationship. All of this supports a double reading – front to back and back to front. As Moreira hints in his project statement, “everything makes sense in reverse.” Indeed, the text is remarkably successful in either direction, and the photographic narrative fares almost as well. In one reading, a woman at an empty table is approached by a man who hands her a book, whose pages turn from blank to black as she reads. In the other, a book is burned but not consumed, as if by some Promethean fire, and then cleansed page by page by a woman who then gives the book to a man.

ERRATA inside spread; recto photo shows a woman seated at a table while a man walks away casting a shadow that does not move in sync with his body

Yet, to say it makes sense is an overstatement. The book is dense with symbolism and reference, requiring reflection as much as reading. Soares’ writing is elevated and sometimes overwrought (at least the translated English text), but suits the religious and mystical texts it references. It is the language of writing rather than speaking, further reinforcing the book’s focus on the constructed and incomplete nature of books and language. The bidirectional reading succeeds in large part due to the text’s use of parallelism. The repetition is more than another biblical reference; it helps anchor the reader and reinforce ideas that may be lost in the intricate, unfamiliar language. For example, the book’s final phrase – “We are all pages in a book: when we are turned, we die. All letters are mute to us.” – is mirrored by a passage earlier in the book, “All letters are mute to us. We are illiterate in the face of the proclitic and echoing speech of the cosmos.”

The aphoristic proclamations and questions add context and connotation to the image sequence, but neither text nor image directly illustrate one another. Nor do they interact visually. The text remains on the verso, and the square photographs land in the same position on each recto. This enables the reader to approach the visual narrative almost like a flip book, which further strengthens the its cinematic quality. More importantly, the moving image enhances the sense that the reader whose point of view ERRATA’s reader occupies is doing something other than reading. The photographs capture her hands turning the pages in such a way that she appears to be conjuring something magical. Palm down, her hand waves over the pages as they transition from light to dark (or dark to light). The noisy, chiaroscuro photographs sell the mystical mood, and add a surprising amount of interest to a sequence that largely depicts a pair of hands reading a book.

ERRATA inside spread; recto photo shows a woman reading a blackened book, taken from her point of view

ERRATA is at its best when the text and image support one another, letting the reader make meaning from the parallels and juxtapositions. The single image with text in it – in which the book’s title is revealed – is heavy-handed compared to the rest of the work, which is open to alternate interpretations and even simultaneous contradictions. The title, “Structure of Consciousness,” is unlikely to tell the reader anything they didn’t already know. ERRATA is explicit in its references to consciousness and cosmology. Its sense of mystery comes not from withholding information from the reader, but from engaging with topics that are truly mysterious.

ERRATA is about the quest/ions more than answers. Through its self-reflexivity, the book connects art to this fundamental human pursuit of understanding. It also uses the human-scaled intimacy of the book as a medium to powerfully play with the reader’s sense of scale. Voice, heart, hands and eyes are at once human and otherworldly in Soares’ prose. They also reinforce the inescapable role of language in forming our understanding of the cosmos. Letters, words and pages – the book is a shapeshifting metaphor in ERRATA, giving the reader not a sense of closure, but connection to a timeless inquiry. For all its connotations of truth and authority, the book reminds the reader that all is not as it seems. The photography places the reader in multiple points of view, both immanent and transcendent, just as the structure encourages more than one sequence. The final image, a book ablaze, is a fitting conclusion to a work that challenges the authority of the book even as it harnesses that power as a metaphor for existence itself.

Moreira and Soares understand that the book is effective both as a metaphor and as a medium. The strength of ERRATA is that it trades on the book as a symbol – creation, religion, authority, the body – even as it eschews the formulaic familiarity that makes such references possible. It exudes book-ness, but operates cinematically. It establishes a power dynamic with the reader, only to change that relationship repeatedly throughout the reading experience. It promises an exploration of the universe, and delivers a treatise on the book itself. The artists approach the book almost like tactical media, critiquing the form while harnessing its strength. ERRATA shows why the artists’ book continues to be a generative mode for collaboration, interdisciplinarity and unanswered questions.

ISOLATIONS

ISOLATIONS
Marianne Dages
2019
Huldra Press

4.125 × 9.625 in.
2 cards in a glassine envelope
Letterpress and rubber stamp
Edition of 50

ISOLATIONS broadside and colophon

ISOLATIONS possesses a monumentality that defies its dimensions. Perhaps it is best thought of as a miniature broadside, employing scale – which is a metaphor – rather than size. Following this interpretation, the thick, toothy handmade paper and heavy impression of the letterpress printing give the broadside a sense that its text is almost literally set in stone. Marianne Dages has visually enhanced the paper’s considerable tactile texture by printing a gritty, grey background. But the broadside doth protest too much. Its fixity is a foil for the fungibility of language, which is the key to this process-based project.

ISOLATIONS broadside

Before its ink was pressed into paper, ISOLATIONS began online under the name open > access > document. Open > access > document was a Google Doc, hosted and promoted by Leah Mackin’s Internet Art Book Fair. From January 19–21, 2019, contributors could write and edit the document as they pleased. Dages would then massage the text into its final form. Dages redacted, augmented and even translated the document into a short poem of seven stanzas, its dense language spread thin across the broadside’s spare surface.

Given this unusual approach to writing, the publication must be reviewed in terms of concept and process, and not merely a finished object. However, that is not to say that ISOLATIONS cannot be appreciated on its own. The broadside is exquisitely crafted, with great attention given to its materials and print processes. In fact, this careful consideration warrants approaching the work’s enclosure as part of the artistic argument, meaning there are three components: the broadside, the colophon and the envelope.

ISOLATIONS broadside, colophon and envelope

The broadside’s stony appearance is contrasted by the clean, minimal typography. The typeface is Futura and the open spacing of words and lines seem to reflect the erasures Dages made from the original text. The handmade paper and letterpress printing evoke a fine press quality that is complicated by the two other components. The colophon is letterpress printed on vintage card stock. It is cut to resemble a catalog card, and its orange color lends further support to its bureaucratic appearance. Of course, two points can’t make a pattern, so it is the third element that triangulates the piece’s aesthetic – the unassuming envelope.

The rubber-stamped, glassine envelope is a translucent membrane, bridging the aesthetics of the special collections with that of the circulating library. If the handmade paper exudes refined taste, the glassine envelope signals the attempt to bring this luxury to the masses. Tellingly, its alternate name, vellum, is a misnomer. It announces its shortcomings even as it distinguishes itself from a standard #10 window envelope. In the case of my review copy, the envelope was addressed and stamped directly, emphasizing its functional role.

ISOLATIONS broadside and colophon inside envelope

This simple assembly of anachronisms achieves remarkable complexity through its juxtaposition of high and low culture. The vintage cardstock is inside an envelope with a contemporary date stamped by the postal service. The handmade paper is carefully cut to a standard size to fit the mass market envelope, which is in turn marked “copy” by the artist with a readymade rubber stamp. The colophon, perhaps hand cut to look like a catalog card, nevertheless bears the hallmarks of a fine press edition; it is numbered and signed by hand below impeccable letterpress printing.

The digital presentation of the project is equally well considered. The original open > access > document Google Doc is embedded on a dedicated webpage on the Internet Art Book Fair. The Google Doc retains its functionality, allowing a visitor to request access to made edits. Presumably such a request would be denied, but the presentation retains the medium specificity of a collaborative cloud document. Also included are the first words added to the document, “This document is a test / TEST TEST TEST.” The phrase is repeated on the colophon, reinforcing the tie between the web and print versions, and affirming the importance of the poem’s paratext, including the writing process.

ISOLATIONS colophon

This treatment is indicative of Dages’ (and Mackin’s) nuanced understanding of the relationship between art and media. ISOLATIONS employs letterpress printing and vintage stock without resorting to nostalgia. Likewise it uses Google Docs without subscribing to technological determinism, rendering the poetics a result of the process and nothing else. Rather, ISOLATIONS connects to a long tradition of de-centered authorship and process-oriented poetry, showing how letterpress printing and Google Docs constrain and enable this inquiry as all media always have.

These ideas emerge in the poem itself. Themes of floating and detachment evoke the ephemeral, intangible digital writing process. There is an extension and compression of time that seems fitting for the anachronous enunciation of the work; narrative retelling gives way to a fragmented immediacy. The text evokes a sense of mystery, with references to puzzles, hiding and “looking for a key.” The visual treatment of the text, with its gaps and silences, contributes to this sensibility.

Reading these silences as redactions sharpens the sense of mystery and loss. The physicality of the printed text only underscores the ephemerality of the original writing. Even without knowing the details of Dages’ editing process, ISOLATIONS foregrounds intertextuality and emphasizes the labor of poetics. The poetics of labor are equally present, invoked through the language of office work, from rubber stamps to Google Docs. This medium-specific misuse of ambivalent commercial writing tools clearly resists technological determinism, yet ISOLATIONS is hardly a celebration of human genius. As with Dages and Mackin’s earlier collaboration, Ultrices, the use of chance operations and distributed authorship complicate the very notion of writing. ISOLATIONS embraces its own contingency, a poem that could have been otherwise.

Dages shows a way forward for a field that too often ties artistic possibilities to a particular medium. She demonstrates that language is material whether it is in a word processor or a press bed. ISOLATIONS refuses a reductive view of technology or tradition, and compromises neither craft nor concept. Dages makes visible the process of writing and reminds the reader that communication occurs also in the silences. ISOLATIONS is a collaboration not only with Mackin and the Internet Art Book Fair, but also the unnamed contributors to the open > access> document, a testament to trusting the process and the confidence that an artist can turn a crowdsourced Google Doc into an eloquent poem on a beautiful broadside.

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.

Voragem

Voragem
Isabel Baraona and Catarina Domingues
2016

7.625 × 10.25 in.
32 pages
Binding: Dos-a-dos; saddle-stitched pamphlets tied into the cover, with an unbound pamphlet inserted
Digital and offset printing
Edition of 100

Voragem; front cover with belly band. The author's names are printed: Isabel Baraona and Catarina Domingues

As a medium, books are noteworthy for their finitude. This seems increasingly significant in an era of infinite internet and endlessly reconfigurable data. So it is perhaps surprising that the artists’ books of Isabel Baraona often resist closure. Voragem, a collaboration with Catarina Domingues, is one such book. Its dos-a-dos binding makes each ending a beginning, and the content is well suited to this cycle. The lyrical, fragmentary text operates through invocation more than syntax, and suspends narrative resolution. The passage of time is an important theme, and yet there is an emphasis on presence and present-ness. Voragem physically embodies a combination of linear and circular time through the inclusion of a third (finite) pamphlet within one half of the larger dos-a-dos. The artists shrewdly use a removable belly band to print the title information, further equalizing the front and back covers. This is just one of many subtle decisions that show a sophisticated understanding of how the book’s structure works in concert with its content.

Voragem means “maelstrom” in Portuguese, and there is certainly turmoil in Baraona’s signature figures and Domingues’ distinctive mark-making. (I should note here that all of the book’s text is in Portuguese, and that I am very grateful to Vera Romiti Stecca Diani for sensitively translating the poetic writing.) The text proceeds in single words and short phrases. It is visceral and erotic, though the book points to an intersubjectivity more complex than mere sex. It is written in second person, addressing the reader directly and also inviting them to inhabit the absent I. This, along with the faceless, silhouetted figures make it easy for the reader to project themselves into the narrative.

Two visual modes dominate – dense, frantic line work and unpredictable, organic blotches of wet media. The contrast between is more than visual. The chance operations of the wet media are inscrutable, whereas the artists’ hands are visible in the drawn marks. Time has passed. A body has labored. If mark-making is a primal act, the delineation of the sacred from the profane, then Voragem brings something fundamentally human into dialogue with nature, the vicissitudes of physics acting on the liquid pigment. Voragem seems to celebrate the creative act, anguished though it may be.

Voragem; inside spread shows wet media blending into a line drawing

Both methods are combined and the images are worked into multiple times, creating tangled, tempestuous compositions from which figures are subtracted as stark silhouettes. This play of positive and negative, presence and absence, helps establish the setting as mental or metaphorical. The visual integration of hand-drawn text within the imagery furthers the sense of a mental place. The words seem to emanate from a knot of neurons, thought rather than spoken. The figures cast no shadows as they tumble and writhe, falling through the space of the page. Or perhaps the setting is outside the mind, physical but primordial. Baraona’s narratives often have an archetypal, mythological quality. The book’s primary color scheme adds to this foundational sense, though there is relatively little yellow. Blue and red predominate, evoking veins and arteries in the dense tangle of tendrils.

The subject matter is decidedly anatomical, but Baraona and Domingues abstract the visuals enough to include more than the vascular system. One drawing is clearly a heart, but specific organs are mostly left to the text (head; mouth; the tip of the nipple). Neurons can be seen in the fractal diffusion of wet media. Hair and guts are present in the varied line work. Still other marks appear to be something less physical, though surely of the body. By combining blood and nerves with neurons, the artists transcend any opposition of thinking and feeling. Braids and tangles erupt from, connect, and consume figures in this collapse of mind and body.

Interestingly, the anatomy challenges the human-nature binary set up by the contrasting mark making. If the deliberate line work speaks to something especially human, then the actual rendering of those humans reminds the reader that humans are just animals. The figures are contorted and asymmetrical. All the parts are present, but they assume unfamiliar shapes. The boundary between flesh and meat seems to waver. Just as body and mind are joined, so too are human and nature, but in the hands of Baraona and Domingues this is not a peaceful unity. Rather they speak to the difficulty of being in the world with no hope of transcending the embodied, natural order.

Voragem; first opening (inside cover and page 1) shows a tangle of lines and a silhouette of a woman

The book’s sequence shifts between figuration and abstraction, employing both to maximum effect. The first opening is a relatively straightforward representation – the negative silhouette of a one-shoed woman with a positive rendering of her missing shoe. More human figures follow until a blank page interrupts the sequence and an abstract, cosmic scene unfurls. The next spreads pair text with highly abstract compositions. The letterforms emerge from organic shapes that could be something very small – perhaps in a brain – or very large, like the universe. When the turn of a page reveals a figure, it is a startling return. She is bisected by a patch of hairlike lines, which leave a gaping absence where her abdomen should be. Her mouth is open, one hand is clenched and her toes curl in what could be either agony or ecstasy. The contemplative mood of the preceding pages is shattered, and this first half of the dos-a-dos concludes in an explosive, figurative manner.

Voragem; first opening of the book's second side

The second half opens with abstract, almost surreal compositions. These demonstrate the strength of Baraona and Domingues as collaborators. Both artists use line masterfully. Thickets of short black strokes seem almost stitched onto the longer striated forms beneath, which are visually distinct and rendered in color. A relatively limited visual vocabulary is extended with a surprising repertoire of optical effects and compositional choices. The design feels unified even as each artist’s contributions remain distinct.

Voragem; Inside spread with a smaller pamphlet inserted inside the main book

The inserted pamphlet achieves a similar balance. It is unbound, attached to the larger book by a thread through the gutter. (There is, in fact, a green thread looped around the gutter of each side of the dos-a-dos. The staples that bind each signature do not attach the cover, which is good and bad. The threads are somewhat distracting, especially their color, but they also avoid unsightly staples in the cover and the inevitable tearing that would result in the coated cover stock.) The drawing style in this smaller pamphlet is related, but only its cover has a white background. The rest of the negative space is filled with color washes. It makes the rest of the book feel stark by comparison. Baraona and Domingues are clearly aware of the power of this contrast. After the book-within-a-book concludes, the next page turn reveals another completely blank verso with a recto that is visually distinct from the book’s other imagery. Simple devices, like the dos-a-dos structure, let Baraona and Domingues synthesize a variety of visual approaches in a single work. Both artists thoughtfully engage the book form, and it is hard to picture Voragem’s collaborative content succeeding similarly in another medium.

The book within a book does draw attention to the book-ness of Voragem, but I would argue its meta-commentary is about the creative act more broadly. It speaks to our drive as storytelling animals, through image-making and written language alike. As the text and image explore one kind of relationship, the project itself posits another – collaboration. Perhaps the two share the same elements: vulnerability, compromise, history and hope. Baraona and Domingues forge a unified artistic statement from their distinct contributions. Fortunately for the reader, they achieved this through the democratic medium of the artists’ book. By thoughtfully engaging the book as medium, with elements like blank pages and short sheets, the artists are able to bring their time-intensive studio processes into an object that is more than a series of reproductions. The complex verbo-visual narrative demands much of the reader, but rewards them accordingly.

Seed Vault

Seed Vault
Tim Robertson
2017

Material Print Shop
8.5 × 5.5 in.
36 pages
Binding: Saddle stitch
Inkjet inside and blind-embossed cover
Edition of 49

Seed Vault, front cover. "Seed Vault" is blind embossed into green-gray paper. Below is smaller text reading "by Tim Robertson."

Seed Vault is inspired by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which exists to safeguard the genetic diversity of crops against natural and man-made disaster. Rather than food, artist Tim Robertson has imagined a vault of memories to “regenerate life in present and future times of trouble and loss.” The book itself could be the vault, but more likely each of its thirty-four images is a door into an infinitely larger, more complex collection. The photographs are accompanied by a single quote from a member of Crop Trust, the organization behind the Svalbard vault: “This vault is built for humanity to survive. It is like a holy place. Every time I come here I feel like I’m in a cathedral. This is a place to pause and to think.” Guided by this reverential tone, Robertson successfully weaves together the global and the intimate, seeds and memory.

Seed Vault, inside spread. Verso has a photo of a lamp above the word "HERE"; recto has a long-exposure photo a car's tail lights above the word "I."

The quote runs the entire length of the book, progressing essentially one word per page. This creates a powerful one-to-one relationship between the word and image on each page. Since the full quote is not readily apparent, the reader focuses on the text-image pair on each page and on the verso-recto relationship in each spread. Indeed, Robertson plays more with the possibilities of the spread as a space than as a sequence. Each page has the same composition – a vertical image inside white margins – which enhances the stability of the spread as a unit. Robertson deftly uses the formal elements of design in this arena. He contrasts warm and cool colors across the gutter. He compares textures, as in a spread with a tree bark verso and footprint recto. Illuminated by Robertson’s flash, the gold of a dead fern mirrors that of a faux-Corinthian capital. A shirt picks up on the pyramidal form of a bonfire.

The stability of each image pair would threaten the momentum of the book, but the unresolved text propels the reader forward. By setting the text entirely uppercase, Robertson further disconnects each word from its place within the sentence. The occasional period reminds the reader that they are reading a linear text and not just a cryptic caption below each image. The text and image have entirely different paces, creating an interesting temporal tension. As one reads, it is difficult to retain the unfolding meaning of the quote against the richness and sheer variety of the photographs.

Seed Vault, inside spread. Verso has a photo of an old car in a carport above the word "THIS"; recto has a photo of an open metal door in a graffitied brick building above the word "VAULT."

The images are Robertson’s personal photographs and outtakes from previous projects. They read convincingly like snapshots and memories without trying too hard to be gritty or authentic. They capture a broad albeit idiosyncratic slice of life. The effect is reminiscent of a B-roll montage in some documentary film meant to celebrate the endless variety of humankind – but not saccharine or preachy. In contrast to these busy, colorful images, the austere, blind-embossed cover centers the themes of memory and loss.

The images no doubt hold particular significance for the artist, but they have a relatable quality that allows the reader to join Robertson in his thought experiment. How might a photograph be regenerative? What moments would you keep in your vault? Is the photograph precious, or is it merely a way to enter a memory? And if so, how secure can we make our memories? The photographs are relatable not because they are generic, but because they are so specific. They exude the sense that they are important to someone, even if that person is not the reader. They seem to stand in for all the snapshots and memories that people turn to in times of turmoil.

Seed Vault, inside spread. Verso has a photo of a bright green palm frond against a red background above the word "LIKE"; recto has a close-up photo of water above the word "A."

Robertson plays up this emotional effect with a variety of approaches to the text-image pairs on each page. The first device is emphasizing key words: nouns laden with symbolic potential and active verbs like “think,” “feel” and “survive.” “Time” is paired with a kaleidoscopic self-portrait in a fractured reflection. “Place” accompanies an eerie scene with two empty chairs at a table, reflecting the red glow of a window. Other juxtapositions are more ironic: “survive” captions an image of a billboard advertising fireworks. A third category, perhaps the most interesting, takes a poetic, indirect approach – a candid portrait, the blown-out reflection of the moon on water, or brake lights from an invisible car trailing through a long exposure. These contemplative images are an elegant solution to the challenge of common, little words like “like” and “and.”

Seed Vault shows the power and possibilities of text in the book form. Text pulls the reader through the book, overcoming the static unity of each spread. It connects the personal with the existential, making the book as consequential as it is relatable. The quote creates stirring word-image relationships on each page and interesting pairs across the gutter in addition to the straightforward meaning it expresses. The text-image pairs work with and against the quote they belong to. In this way, a relatively simple book structure extends the four short sentences with an abundance of multiple meanings.

Seed Vault, inside spread. Verso has a close, candid photo of a woman above the word "FOR"; recto has a photo of blue glass fragments on concrete above the word "HUMANITY".

Of all the alternate readings and interpretations, a simple homonym may be the most important: Humanity. If the Svalbard Vault exists to preserve humanity in one sense of the word, then Seed Vault seeks to preserve the other. Robertson’s photographs remind us that empathy and understanding are never more important than in times like the present.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon
Dennis J. Bernstein and Warren Lehrer
2019

Paper Crown Press
6.875 × 6.5 × 1 in.
300 pages
Smyth-sewn hardcover
Offset inside with foil-stamped cloth spine and paper cover

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon cover

The 1984 book French Fries by Dennis Bernstein and Warren Lehrer is a landmark work of visual literature. In the years since, Bernstein’s poetry has continued to win acclaim and Lehrer has set the bar for designers and book artists in visual literature. The duo’s new book, Five Oceans in a Teaspoon, is a masterful contribution to the genre they’ve helped shape. It is a multi-modal project, including animations, exhibitions and performances. This review will focus on the printed book, published by Paper Crown Press.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon is an autobiography in poems. There are eight movements, which are organized loosely by theme more than chronology. There are a total of 225 poems, which in no way exhaust the extraordinary life Bernstein has led. He has reported on wars, taught in prisons, hosted a radio show and survived open heart surgery. Yet, Bernstein’s work is about ordinary people. As he reflects on his life, he reminds the reader that the very struggles which leave us feeling confused and alienated are part of our shared human condition.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 274-275

This collaborative work benefits from a degree of fluidity in roles. The text is Bernstein’s and the visualizations are Lehrer’s, but the process is more complex than that. For Bernstein, the material qualities of text and the page as a physical space affect writing as well as reading. He touches on this in an interview with Lehrer: “I had decided that big notebooks were too intimidating. All that blank space. The wonderful thing was, I had started thinking about visuals with some of these short poems. I even did some drawings.” Likewise, Lehrer is able to interpret the text so successfully because he approaches the poems as a writer as well as a designer. His instinct for wordplay destabilizes and extends Bernstein’s concise writing, drawing out double meanings and alternative interpretations. Five Oceans in a Teaspoon exhibits an uncommon chemistry that must surely be the result of decades of friendship and collaboration.

The book’s design provides structure for, and access to, the unconventional reading experience. Each poem takes one page or one spread, setting a steady pace for the reader as they make their way through too many poems for one sitting. The ribbon bookmark gives the reader permission to pause, perhaps using the table of contents to rest strategically between movements. None of this would be remarkable in a standard book, but in this case the straightforward paratext contrasts markedly with the visual treatment of the text itself.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 44-45

The visuals range from the purposeful placement of text on the page to the addition of patterns and marks and letters without words. Some interpretations are abstract, others representational. Some illustrate ideas, and some represent concepts. At times the reader must see text as image to complete a picture. In other cases, visual elements complete the words. Like its other paratextual components, the physical presence of the book helps with the complex negotiation that is reading. The hefty codex is reassuring and familiar. Reading the poems is non-trivial, but not in an adversarial way. The book helps the reader learn how to approach the text. Its sheer length gives the reader ample time to improve.

The challenge then is how to keep the book from being about itself. One effective choice is the cover design, which is bright and busy with illustrative swirls of type. The lime green book cloth, shiny blue paper and iridescent foil title are so much louder than the black and white inside printing that Bernstein and Lehrer’s exceptional visual literature seems only natural. More importantly though, is the decision to begin the book with the section “Lake Childhood,” which chronicles how Bernstein navigated childhood and schooling with dyslexia. What better way to talk about the physical presence of language than visual literature? Not all the poems in this movement are about dyslexia, but one can see how Bernstein’s irreverence, introspection and penchant for observation develop in this context. With playful and imaginative visualizations, Lehrer shows the reader just how difficult reading can be, and how that very difficulty could have motivated Bernstein’s career(s) in writing.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 88-89

As a memoir, the quantity and brevity of the poems lend a remarkable sense of intimacy. We don’t usually imagine our friends and family along some grand linear narrative. We know people through anecdotes and vignettes that reveal their character. The 225 poems in Five Oceans in a Teaspoon function precisely this way, welcoming the reader into the kind of small moments that are usually reserved for our closest acquaintances.

Lehrer’s visualizations are so effortless that they seem inevitable, and yet leave the reader convinced that he could have presented the poem a dozen other ways. Turning the page is like listening to a perfect jazz solo, then staying for the second set and hearing the same song handled differently and just as well – inevitable, but unpredictable. The restrained visual vocabulary keep the renderings cohesive as Lehrer develops novel solutions. These constraints are important, but they are not the point. The book is not about process, it is about the poetry. The interpretation never overpowers Bernstein’s text.

Five Oceans in a Teaspoon spread 64-65

The book’s sequence is driven by the poetry. There is certainly variety among the visualizations throughout the book, but the introduction of a new visual device doesn’t signal a new section of the book. The introduction of display typefaces on page 46 or photography on page 64 provide a nice surprise, but don’t change the mode of interpretation or the course of the narrative. The visuals demonstrate experimentation and innovation, but within the unit of the page or spread. This frees the poetry, and the relationship among poems, to advance the story and succeed as a memoir. Five Oceans in a Teaspoon is a moving testament to Bernstein’s view of the world, and the experiences that have shaped it. Once again, Bernstein and Lehrer show the potential of visual literature as a mature field. Beyond self-reference and inter-art discourse, the interplay of text and image (and text-as-image) packs a powerful intellectual and emotional punch.

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.