5.5 × 8.5 in. closed 100 pages and two multi-page foldouts Coptic binding with uncovered boards Digital printing
Thad Higa describes This Land is My Land as “a fictional narrative from the imagined headspace of current day white supremacists.” Artists rarely approach such a project with the required radical empathy, attempting to deepen their understanding of someone with opposing views, no matter how repulsive. The resulting works fall short, with straw men for subjects; narratives with no protagonist with whom the reader can relate. This Land is My Land cleverly avoids this trap, though Higa’s representation of the white nationalist perspective is anything but subtle. The book’s writing, design and structure create an immersive, polyphonic experience more like a collective consciousness than the headspace of a single character. Higa knows he can’t dismantle white nationalism in an artists’ book, but as a poet and graphic designer, he can battle on linguistic and symbolic terrain – a field where white supremacy is active (and inherently visible).
It is in examining the language of white nationalism that Higa achieves the necessary depth and empathy. This Land is My Land is a showcase of the various and complex ways that words and symbols are used to promote white supremacy. The book weaves together all manner of rhetorical devices and strategies, creating an experience familiar to anyone who has read the comments on an online article or listened to attendees at a Trump rally. With this chaotic aesthetic, the book is less a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, and more like a classical symphony with separate movements. The movements address particular themes with distinct visual treatments and correspond to the book’s structure (six signatures and two elaborate foldouts). The exposed spine of the Coptic binding and raw book board covers emphasize the role of the book as more than a mere container.
This Land is My Land is designed and printed digitally, but Higa is clearly invested in the tactility of reading. I have never encountered foldouts quite like the ones in this book, but simple, strategic design elements like color and typeface were enough to guide me through the unfamiliar folds. Higa also plays with visual versus tactile texture, the most obvious example being actual torn pages and facsimile paper tears. Subtler contrasts, such as coated and uncoated papers, add further texture – literal and figurative – to the reading experience.
This tactility is one way Higa demonstrates how language inhabits and informs the physical world. He also manipulates symbols, letters and words in layouts that turn these bits of language into objects and agents interacting in space. In Higa’s hands, words inhabit the real world – cemeteries and supermarkets – and create their own environments from pure typography. They form dense walls of vitriol and elsewhere they dissolve into cyberspace, a ragged trickle of characters. The reality of language cannot be overstated in a book about land and borders, nations and countries. Such constructs are, after all, a matter of definition. And since much of the book’s appropriated imagery is from the Anti-Defamation League’s Hate Symbol Database, the physical impact of the language is easy to feel.
Yet the materiality of language is only one half of This Land is My Land’s examination of white nationalist rhetoric. Higa identifies a dangerous and seemingly contradictory attribute of words and symbols – they are flexible, fluid, fungible. Especially online, white nationalists have harnessed humor, irony and plausible deniability to great effect. The power of these distancing devices is on display in This Land is My Land, whose narrative is disrupted by stark white spreads with one word each: lol, lmao, rofl. These spreads are later echoed by a series of pages spelling out the phrase “I want to break free,” as if the subconscious desire has bubbled up beneath the crust of internet irony.
By playing with the gap between the explicit and implicit, conscious and subconscious, This Land is My Land can engage more deeply with the ways white nationalism appeals to individuals. This is not an attempt to empathize, but rather to deconstruct and disentangle intersectional issues. Higa shows how white supremacy corrodes institutions and ideas, from electoral politics and consumer capitalism to masculinity and parenthood. These intersections are easier inroads for the reader than the often-obscure hate symbols, but their familiarity breeds discomfort. Even progressive readers may find themselves reexamining what abstract concepts like ownership, inheritance, freedom and family mean, and how they ought to impact our daily lives.
This Land is My Land doesn’t answer those questions, but Higa does insert his own voice (or at least that of a narrator from beyond the white nationalist headspace) to offer clarity amid the cacophony of soundbites and insults. In fact, this more poetic, reflective voice poses even more questions — and offers a few insults of its own. These interventions reinforce the connections between land, body and language and give the reader a critical perspective to cling to as they navigate the noise. This is especially important for the book’s conclusion, which exits the white nationalist headspace and deconstructs its rhetoric from the outside.
This dialectic from inside and outside the white nationalist perspective is calibrated to keep the reader from simply setting the book down in disgust or skimming through tired old stereotypes. (The engaging foldouts and tactile elements help with this as well.) The result is a fairly long artists’ book that can nevertheless be read in a single sitting – an immersive, cohesive experience in the book form. The work’s duration weighs on the reader, raising the stakes and hinting at life inside a right-wing echo chamber. One doesn’t feel particularly rosy after reading This Land is My Land, but it is empowering to witness an accomplished artist fight white supremacy with their linguistic and symbolic weapons.
I spoke with Woody Leslie via Skype on April 24. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Levi Sherman: I’d like to start by talking about subject matter. Much of your work deals with the everyday, and a lot of people are suddenly stuck at home confronting that. Do you have any advice about finding meaning in these small quotidian moments?
Woody Leslie: I like to call it the significance of personal insignificance. There are all these very unimportant uninteresting moments that make up the entirety of our lives.
But I don’t think I have any advice for others on how to capture them. I’m not sure that I necessarily pay attention to these things as they’re happening. Often when I have a memory of some completely unimportant event, I’ll write it down. I collect snippets of memories and sometimes come back to them to turn them into a larger thing later. But I’m not sure I’m that good about actively paying attention to these as they happen. I think that’s why I’m interested in them, because why do I remember these things? They’re completely unimportant and yet they have stuck in my memory.
LS: You’ve raised the issue of timescale—these little moments that accumulate and become what life is about. So is it about time as much as the specific anecdote or memory?
WL: For me it’s mostly about memory. But time is of course part of memory.
LS: Some of your reflections on social interactions resonate with me deeply in part because they’re private—you’re never sure if other people have the same thought or if you’re the only one. So, what’s the balance between what’s relatable for your audience versus what’s unique to you?
WL: I think it depends on what I’m doing. I think in earlier works, for instance going way back to the Tiny Stories series from One Page Productions—which are just these very tiny true stories. Those are all about just capturing the moment, and how can you encapsulate this small memory in a tiny space?
But with more recent work, it’s almost as if the story doesn’t matter, because as I have started doing these things with visual typography and playing around with the way letters look on the page, they become almost as much visual things as they are written things. Oftentimes I find myself knowing “this is the process that I want to do,” but not knowing what the story is that I want to treat that way.
Parsely is a good example where I had a very clear idea of exactly what I wanted to do concept-wise with that book, but it took me a long time to figure out what the story was going to be. What was a story that I could parse out like that and then explode?
That’s a common problem for me, where I have this vocabulary of technique that I want to apply to the words, but I don’t know what the story is that I’m going to do it to. That’s part of the reason why I’m always just jotting down little memories and things, because then I can return to them and think, “Will this story work to explode it or treat it in this way?”
For the visual things I’m doing now, I can’t be too attached to the writing because the writing gets destroyed to some degree in the visual treatment. As I become more and more interested in them as visual pieces and less interested in whether or not the audience can discern what is written in them, it means that the stories have to be something that I’m less attached to conveying what the information is. If it’s too good of a story that I want to use somewhere else where the story is actually conveyed, it won’t work for those visual pieces.
That’s why I think sometimes these minuscule, unimportant stories work really well for this, because it’s the excuse to build this visual piece around, but it doesn’t matter if the reader doesn’t get to story— they just missed out on some ten second dumb story that I would tell them over a beer, you know, it doesn’t matter.
LS: You raise an interesting point about the stories being just interesting enough, but not wanting to use up a story that might become something bigger.
WL: Let’s say the work you were doing is taking a painting that you make and then you cut it up and then you stitch it back together to make a new piece of art, but if you get too attached to the painting then you can’t cut it up. With some stories I get really attached to my writing, and I can’t I can’t explode the typography.
LS: Do you always write out the text? Do you have a written draft even for these shorter stories, or if you’re composing them in Illustrator or InDesign is the layout part of the writing process?
WL: It depends on the piece. Parsely I wrote and laid out at the same time, with the exception of the main throughline text; that was the only thing that was pre-composed. But the rest of it all came in during the composition process. With some of the newer pieces that I’ve been doing, like Grocery Store Conversations, which is one of the Tiny Ideas—or these new pieces that are large format, single page, broadsides of a single tiny story—those ones, I have been working with pre composed text because it works better for the process that I’ve been engaging with. That’s not to say that the story doesn’t sometimes change to make it fit better with my typographic designs—when I’m so immersed in a story, spending that much time with the text, sometimes it changes. But for the most part recently I’ve been working with pre-composed text.
LS: You talk about these stories being a 10-second anecdote you would just tell to a friend—do you still tell these stories once you’ve put them in print?
WL: Yeah, and I feel really self-conscious about it. This has been happening to me since Tiny Ideas,which came out over a decade ago now. These stories exist in print and are out in the world and some people have read these stories. Sometimes a moment comes up where it feels like an appropriate story to tell, but I’m always self-conscious that someone hearing the story has already read it. It feels like telling a joke you’ve already told before. But I also don’t want to be so egotistical to assume everyone has read all my books…
I do find that once I’ve written the story that kind of becomes the de facto way to tell a story and so if I’m telling one of these stories, one of these anecdotes, it’s like I’m kind of performing or reading that story, even if the person doesn’t know that this has been been written, and I just feel very self-conscious about it because I’m aware that I’m doing that even if nobody else is aware that I’m reading this story from memory. Maybe it’s like hearing a band play a live version of a song that you’re familiar with the recorded version.
LS: There’s something profound about the move from oral to written culture and the reification of storytelling, but it’s funny that it’s happening on the level of an individual with these very small anecdotes.
WL: Writing them down often feels like a confession. I carry these memories in my head, and by writing them down I don’t have to carry them anymore. They feel like little jewels, like these are things that I own and, by giving words to them I give them a physical existence in the world.
LS: Actually, my next question was going to be whether this is part of how you process these feelings, because it seems like a lot of your most intimate content is from childhood or adolescent memories. So, what type of processing is that—giving them concrete words and putting them out into the world?
WL: Yeah, it feels like releasing them. I don’t have to worry about remembering them anymore because now it’s written down. For a long time I was really hung up on the idea of truth being the driving force behind them; that it didn’t matter if they’re inconsequential stories because they were true. True inconsequentiality was enough.
In Tiny Stories, I wrote a story about the first six-pack of beer that I ever bought, and several months after printing I realized I had written the wrong beer. I found it really upsetting—I had broken my rule of truth as the guiding force. So in a reprint a few months later—because I used to print these books every time they ran out—I corrected it. If you have a very early edition of Tiny Stories, it’s got a different beer than the later copies of it.
I’m less concerned about truth as the core principle driving the work now. Not that I make up facts, but I have a better understanding that memory doesn’t work the way that I would like it to. As I get interested in these visual typographic pieces, these memories are just the starting point, and the facts of the story don’t matter as much.
LS: What’s the processing time for one of these anecdotes? How much time passes between a social interaction or something that you want to reflect on and actually producing the book?
WL: Grocery Store Conversations was actually a pretty quick turn-around, where this event happened at a grocery store and I think I went home and wrote about it and that made me write about a couple of other incidents that happened in grocery stores. But then that sat on my computer for a couple of years before it turned into anything.
So not everything is a memory that just crosses my mind and I write it down; some of them are events that happened to me recently, or little musings, or maybe even what you would call a poem. But it usually takes a little while before they turn into anything.
LS:Artists’ books are interesting as a discipline because no one comes to it directly, so you can see traces of a photographer or printmaker in somebody’s practice. Is it fair to say that you approach artist books as a storyteller?
WL: Yes, I got into bookbinding through a very roundabout route.
I studied music in undergrad, and if you had asked me when I was 20 what I wanted to be when I grew up, it was a sitar player. I started playing sitar when I was 13, and went to Wesleyan University thinking I was going to study ethnomusicology. At Wesleyan I also got really interested in avant garde, and experimental music—which is basically the other half of their music department alongside ethnomusicology—and took a deep dive into sound art. That’s when I started getting interested in the idea of storytelling, recording stories and piecing the audio bits together to create these narrative things.
Eventually that led to me writing my own little stories. Tiny Stories was heavily influenced by John Cage’s Indeterminacy (a series of one-minute stories Cage recorded). One of my earliest book projects, One Page Productions, started as a conceptual fictional publishing company, but to fill the books I had to create content, and it turns out I liked that part too. That’s how I got hooked on books as objects and started teaching myself a lot about book binding and learning about artist books.
So yes, it was storytelling that eventually that led me into books, but I was five or so years into bookmaking before I realized that I was a writer—which was obvious to everybody else—and that I had always been writing stories and creating narrative content in some way or another throughout all the work that I had been making, and that the books were a way of structuring the writing.
LS: You’ve talked about structure and authorial control, but what is it about artist books that makes them so good for storytelling that they have been a primary focus for your storytelling practice?
WL: I think it comes down to control; I am able to have my fingers in all parts of the process and make these things happen. And also when I was twenty-two or twenty-three first playing around with these things with One Page Productions, I didn’t know any other way to do this.
I think one of the reasons that I started writing is because I didn’t think of myself as a writer. With music, I had studied it, and so there was a lot of pressure that I felt like I was “supposed to be good at it,” whereas writing and and making books was very freeing because I hadn’t ever studied that.
It’s not like I knew anything about how to get my writing out in the world, or even really how to write. I was interested in these book objects because they were fun little things to make, and one thing led to another and that was the only way that I knew how to put my writing into the world. I think for me it’s just worked as a vessel to be able to create my work, put it into something and get it out into the world.
I just did my first book with a publisher—Understanding Molecular Typography, with Ugly Duckling Presse. It was a totally different experience to work with a publisher, and some things about it I really enjoyed. That makes me feel like well, the next big project that comes along, would I want to self-publish it, or would I want to try to find a publisher to do it? There are pluses and minuses to both.
LS: Ugly Duckling Presse reaches a larger audience, and mostly publish poetry. Who do you think your audience is and how does that affect what you make?
WL: It depends on the project. For instance, the Tiny Ideas series that I did in 2019, that was a very specific audience in that I put out a call for subscriptions and people subscribed, and that determined how big of an edition size I was going to make. Then I knew very specifically who my audience was. I made the edition size a little bit larger because I knew the subscriptions would grow over time, but by the end of the year pretty much all of the edition size was subscribed to. Being aware of your audience and knowing the people that’s gonna read this book does, for better or worse, change what it is that you’re producing.
In the case of Molecular Typography and the audience, that book has such a different range of people that might be interested in it. It could be graphic designers or chemists or anybody that works with writing, or librarians or type designers—anything relating to writing and words. Poets fit into that category.
Poets that are aware of books as objects and the production of books, I think that falls very nicely into Ugly Duckling Presse’s world, and that’s a good place for a lot of my work.
LS: For the subscription series, Tiny Ideas, did it add pressure literally knowing who your audience was? People always say to write for your audience, and that’s a very literal thing when you have a list of their names and addresses.
WL: Definitely. The whole idea behind Tiny Ideas to begin with was that they were supposed to be tiny ideas. As a way to get myself creating some new work, I made this subscription series where I would have to put out a new little work every two months without fussing over them too much. But that didn’t really work [laughs] because I still obsessed over them, and was worried that they’re not good enough—especially being aware “oh this person’s reading my book? I should do a better job with this!”
At the end of 2019, I was on the fence about whether or not I wanted to continue Tiny Ideas into 2020. There were a couple of deciding factors there, one of which was that it was really difficult for me to try to put a book out every two months, and that I wasn’t good about the tiny idea thing—just making something quickly and putting it out there. I didn’t like the stress and pressure feeling that I need to create something.
I also found myself getting really frustrated by the means of production. I designed all the books in InDesign or Illustrator on my computer and then they were all printed at Office Depot, and anybody who’s ever tried to use a photocopier to make art knows how frustrating that is in terms of getting things to line up, or how much it costs. Having had access to an offset press in the past, I had these desires for a higher production value than I was able to produce.
I also started to wonder if I stopped putting out all these tiny ideas, maybe I could spend some more time working on a larger idea and make a larger project. I’m not sure how well that’s worked yet, but I don’t regret not doing Tiny Ideas again in 2020.
LS: The edition was fully subscribed, so by all accounts, that’s a success. Did the fact that it was a successful project make that decision harder?
WL: Some of the same people who gave me the feeling of, “oh this person’s gonna read this book, I should do a better job,” expressed dismay that I wasn’t going to continue in 2020. That pushed me to consider continuing the series, but then I realized, am I making these for myself or am I making it for other people?
For a long time I think I’ve made art as a form of self-entertainment. It was a way to occupy myself and it satisfied my brain and my body in different ways. There’s also a certain amount of external validation that comes from making a book and putting it out in the world.
I’m also very interested in a very wide range of different things in the creative art world and outside of it. And I’ve long been aware of the fact that some of those things, for instance cooking—I’ve worked as a cook on and off throughout my life and I also cook a lot at home—satisfies many of the same urges that, say, making a book does in that there’s a certain amount of planning and research and prep and then production and action, and then consumption. It’s obviously very different, but it scratches some of the same itches.
And that has been the case for a lot of other things that I do. I cook a lot. I grow a lot of food. The last three or four months, I’ve been working on this chicken coop and building bookshelves and other things around the house—homesteading projects basically. It’s the same sense of satisfaction for me, creating these things, without the pressure of the external validation.
I also can’t help but keep thinking, does my art matter in the world that we live in right now? I am a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, middle class, able-bodied male. With all these layers of privilege, does the world really need to hear another story from the likes of me?
I’m getting more satisfaction from drawing inward and doing these things around the house and these projects that feel kind of more important to my well-being. Less so from creating these books that go out in the world. So that came up in part of the decision of not doing Tiny Ideas in 2020. I make it seem like I thought long and hard about it and had these debates with myself, and really it was more simple. I decided not to continue the series, and later I realized all these things are kind of connected to it.
I think I just want on a long tangent and I don’t know if I answered your question.
LS: Not only did you answer my question, you answered my next three questions—remarkably in the order that I’ve written them down. Your work gives the impression that you would make it even if you didn’t have an audience, but not in a self-involved way; it seems joyful. What do you think of art as a form of play?
WL: I think it’s great. My wife, Michelle, brought up the idea of problem solving the other day. I was expressing some of these thoughts, and she broached this idea that it’s all problem-solving, which I think is a very good way to describe it. Having a story in my head and figuring out how I am going to turn it into a book and print it and bind it—all these series of problems that one has to figure out. I really enjoy that.
Building a chicken coop is the same thing, it’s just a different set of problems to solve. I’m feeling more and more like maybe I don’t have to create books and art to get the same sense of satisfaction. I’m enjoying the process of slowing down and doing all these other things. Maybe a book will come again at some point in the future.
But yeah, art as a game. I don’t think I’m that great with aesthetics. I don’t draw or take photos and so the idea of something that’s just kind of truly aesthetically pleasing is a little alien to me. Which is part of me realizing I was always a writer. All my projects are so idea-based. That’s why I call my imprint Large Home Tiny Idea, because I feel like I have this tiny idea and then I build this large home around it. It’s usually that tiny idea kernel that starts and then is either evolved through a game or through some kind of structuring element around it.
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
1984 book French
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
5 × 7 in. 128 pages Binding: Smyth-sewn Offset inside with foil-stamped wrap
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.